Sermon for 6/10/18 Mark 3:20-35

Content warning: this sermon speaks of brain health (or mental health) along with self harm and suicide. Proceed with caution as needed.

 

I know that I talk a lot about brain health, or mental health, as some of you may call it. And it may get old for some of you. Maybe you get tired of hearing me talk about it. Maybe you’d rather talk about something a little more uplifting. I understand that. But there are a few reasons I talk about brain health so much. I think I’ve probably said this before. My hope in being open and honest about my own brain health issues is that if you or a loved one struggle with these brain health issues that you will feel less alone. I also talk about brain health issues because they are not something to be ashamed of. Stigma may tell us that we should be quiet, but I don’t listen very well. I call it brain health because it is a health issue: something that should be addressed just like any other issues in the body. And, I think another reason why I don’t shy away from talking about brain health issues is because Christ calls us to be a light in the darkness. Maybe I hope that I can be even just a small light. In case you didn’t know, I suffer from depression and anxiety as well as adult ADHD. I take zoloft, adderall, and engage in weekly therapy. I am one of thousands who have stories like mine.

Two celebrities died this week. Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Maybe you don’t know those names. Maybe you didn’t know them before this week and hearing them on the news. Kate Spade was a Kansas City girl, just like me. She started a handbag empire. Having a Kate Spade bag was a status symbol for a while. She branched out from bags to wallets, glasses cases, then to actual glasses, perfume, and on and on. Like I said, she had an empire. Anthony Bourdain was a well known chef. He had a great show called “Parts Unknown.” He could be gruff but he was honest. He also showed his viewers that there was something very holy about sitting down with someone, even in a very modest hut, and sharing a meal. Both of these very talented members of God’s creation completed suicide this week. Them and thousands of others we didn’t hear about. And in the days following, there was the expected outcry, shock, and sharing of hotline help numbers. There was also a lot of really really bad theology and really horrible hurtful theology.

And it hurts my heart and my spirit when things are said of people with brain health issues that tie these issues to their faith. “Well, if only your faith was stronger” some people say. Or “maybe if you just prayed more.” The worst is when people declare that those who complete suicide are automatically in hell. To that I say, Romans 8:38-39 “for I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The Bible speaks nothing of suicide and hell. The blaspheming of the Holy Spirit isn’t suicide. Some of you may have been taught that growing up. Scripture today says “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” But blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is this: doubting the divinity of God or Jesus Christ. Doubting that God is God. When we deny that Jesus’ work of healing and “releasing of captivity” is of God and from God  that is the unforgivable sin (Saliers 118). So hear me loud and clear right now, my beloved: if you have a friend or family member that has completed suicide, the promise of a place in God’s kingdom is just as real for them as it is for you or me. The hope that we will see them again is just as real as seeing those we lost to cancer or old age. The resurrection promise is real for them. Being face to face with Jesus or even learning at his feet is a very real possibility.

The scribes claim that Jesus is of Satan; that he himself is Satan. They are doubting Jesus’ actions in the world and during his ministry thus far. Jesus answers as only he can: in parables. This probably did nothing but confuse and anger the scribes. Jesus riddles them with this “no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” But Jesus was talking about truly doing battle with Satan himself. Jesus had already done that. He had already spent 40 days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan and it didn’t work. Jesus called Satan on his bluff. Because here’s what happened: Satan found out he had no power over Jesus. Jesus tied up the so-called “strong man” when rebuking and denying Satan. And in that, freed us. Jesus was stronger and greater than John the Baptist (remember, John just pointed to the one greater than him, which was Jesus). Jesus is stronger than Satan as well. And the good news in this, my beloved, is that Jesus is stronger than any demon you are fighting.

At the core of this story is Jesus’ win for the kingdom of God. When Jesus is stronger than Satan, and he always is, captives are freed. And we, my beloved, we are those captives. It doesn’t matter if you are captive to brain health issues, your body betraying you, broken relationships, or an old friend of self doubt, Jesus is stronger than all of those. And what may feel like binding will be loosed by Jesus himself. Jesus’ love is stronger than evil. Jesus’ love is stronger than the evil that may attempt to keep us hostage, yes. But, Jesus’ love is also stronger than the evil we may attempt to project onto others. Because when God made humankind, when God made man and woman, they were made in God’s image. Any attempt we may make to demonize another human being will be rejected by Jesus and has no place in God’s kingdom.

We cannot and will not be called siblings of Christ if we are not doing the will of God. Jesus himself says “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” So, what is the will of God? For me, it basically goes back to the greatest commandment. We shall love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind and we should love our neighbors as ourselves. This means we love our neighbors when they are perfect and when they are imperfect. We love our neighbors when they are happy and laughing and we love our neighbors when they are barely keeping it altogether. We love our neighbors when they lead the cries of social justice and when they can’t even find their way out of a paper bag. And most importantly, when love our neighbors when they find the courage to say “I’m not okay.” Jesus came so that we may have life and have it abundantly. Jesus came so that any demons and captors, internally or externally, may be removed.

It would be a mistake for me to end this sermon without saying this: if you have struggled with suicidal ideation, and you have been scared to even speak of it at church for fear of judgement, let me assure you that you are loved. You are loved by me, and you are loved by God. We need you on this side of the ground. I don’t have all the answers, but I am always here to listen and tell you that your demons are liars and Christ is stronger than them. You’re not alone.

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Sermon for 6/3/18; Mark 2:23-3:6

In Luther’s Small Catechism (which I know some of you had to memorize), we are told of the third commandment says that we “shalt sanctify the holy day.” And (as Luther would ask) “what does this mean?” It means that we are to “fear and love God that we may not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it.” Great! What in the world does that mean? I think that the Pharisees in our story today are as confused about the third commandment as we may be after hearing Luther’s explanation. Well, bless their hearts, as we used to say in the south. Let’s get a little reoriented here first. We find ourselves back in the Gospel of Mark, which is where we will be for some time. It may also be good for us to remember that no matter what the Gospel message is, Jesus is always looking to stir things up, challenge the authorities, and challenge us in what we may think it means to be disciples.

I think the way we have marked the Sabbath has changed over the years. Technology has made it too easy for us to ignore the Sabbath. Devout Jews would literally not work on the Sabbath. There are some that are so religious that they may even tear toilet paper off the roll the day before so that they don’t have any work to do on the Sabbath. But, we now live in a world (at least in our western culture) that has us believing that unless you’re working 60, 70, 80 hours a week, you’re not really working. Unless you’re putting in as much time as the boss, you’re not really working. And for so many of you, taking Sabbath isn’t always an option. If it’s not raining, or if we’ve finally got a sunny day, or if the tractor is finally fixed…you work. Somewhere around 9 million of us take prescription sleep aids and 50-70 million of us struggle with sleep disorders. So to say that we struggle with rest is an understatement.

But why do we need a Sabbath in the first place? It’s not a reward for our hard work. I know sometimes it may feel like that, especially if you’re taking Sabbath on the beach. At the base of Sabbath is one central concept: “a reminder that we belong to God and not to our labor, or to the money generated by our labor, or to the money spent from our labor in consuming products that make us feel so much better” (Stroupe, 97). Sabbath is a reminder that we belong to God. It is a reminder that we all belong to God. Sabbath isn’t just for us Americans. Or us Lutherans. Or even us that have jobs or are retired. Sabbath is a reminder that we all belong to God despite any status in life.

And if we are going to observe the Sabbath (which we should) and we are going to take it seriously (again…which we should) then we should remember that all people are in need of Sabbath and deserving of Sabbath. This is completely contradictory to everything that has been ingrained in us. Even our language around Sabbath is completely contradictory to what Christ teaches. “I deserve a day off.” Or “this is a hard earned day off.” Or even “only 3 more days until a day off.” That language is what drives home the idea that Jesus was trying to teach. The Sabbath was made for us, not us for the Sabbath. Don’t you see? It’s a gift. When God was creating everything, Sabbath was the only thing that God created and called Holy. Everything else was called “good.” But no, God called the Sabbath “Holy.” And Sabbath is more than a break. Sabbath is rest. Rest, not for the sake of reward, but genuine rest. Rest that allows life to continue. We rest because the work must continue. God rested and continued to work. So must we.

Perhaps part of our discussion should be “just what difference the Sabbath makes in your life– and not just your personal, individual, and autonomous life, but how Sabbath-keeping creates a Sabbath perspective. A Sabbath perspective sees that observing the Sabbath is not optional. We keep the Sabbath so as to look around and ask who needs rest? Who is in need of life when no one else seems to notice? We keep the Sabbath to be reminded that without it, it becomes too easy to give up on fighting for those for whom life has been taken away. We keep the Sabbath for the sake of resilience and ongoing resistance, to fight the righteous fight” (K Lewis).

See, keeping Sabbath is what helps us to remain steadfast in our call as disciples. So, when Jesus lectured the Pharisees about eating on the Sabbath it is because that eating was literally saving a life. And he cured the man with a withered hand. Something he should not have done on the Sabbath, according to the law, but by healing the man, he gave him life. Keeping Sabbath helps us to reorient our lives to the lives of those around us. Sabbath allows us to have fresh eyes to see those who need help. Sabbath allows us to have fresh ears to hear the cries of the needy. Sabbath allows us to have fresh hands and feet so that we may work and move as the body of Christ in the world.

When we keep Sabbath, we keep it not just for the betterment of ourselves, but so that all of humanity may be better. If we are truly and genuinely going to keep the Sabbath, then we should not and cannot overlook those whose lives are threatened daily. We cannot and should not overlook those whose mere skin color or gender is a threat to their lives. If we are truly and genuinely going to keep the Sabbath, we cannot and should not limit who does or does not deserve abundant life. Because honestly, none of us deserve it. Abundant life and Sabbath both a gift from God. Keeping Sabbath is Holy work. But we cannot and should not keep the Sabbath at the risk of denigrating any of the rest of God’s creation. Sabbath is what allows us to continue doing the work of being a disciple. We cannot remain tireless in the work for the Gospel if we are just remaining tired. We cannot allow the call to discipleship to make us restless without rest. We cannot advocate for all of God’s creation to get Sabbath if we ourselves do not receive this gift. So you see, my beloved. Sabbath keeping isn’t just for us. It is for the good of the whole creation God calls us to abundant life. God calls us all to abundant life.

Sermon for 5/27/18 John 3:1-17; Holy Trinity Sunday

As you know, I spent the last week in Washington DC on continuing education. It was a wonderful time that did a lot to feed my soul. One of the things I enjoy most about the conference is the little nuggets of wisdom I pick up here and there. New ways of thinking about scripture; new ways of singing an old familiar hymn; new words to traditional prayers. It helps me to not only be a better Pastor, but it strengthens my faith as well. But, what I really benefit from is the activities that don’t take place during the conference time. I met new friends walking from church to church. I got reconnected with old friends I only see at this conference. I got to have lunch with other young clergy women. I got to show off pictures of Ellen to my fellow pastor moms. I met 2 lovely Canadian women who told me they would adopt me. I told them they would have to take that up with you. But all of these encounters just affirmed what I feel is one of God’s greatest gifts: relationships.

I want to share a few quotes from the week with you as we start to think about scripture today, and the fact that we have yet another baptism, AND the fact that today we mark Holy Trinity Sunday. First, from Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, he said “we are not called to be religious, we are called to be faithful.” And then, we heard from Senator Cory Booker. He came to offer some brief remarks. Senator Booker is from New Jersey. He was speaking of his relationship with his former Governor, Chris Christie. He said that he and the Governor could be no further away in regards to politics and that they disagree on almost everything. But, said Senator Booker “I don’t look first at our disagreements. I look first at his divinity. I look at the divine in him to remind me that we are all made in the image of God.” And I wondered how our relationships might change if we were to look at the divine first instead of looking at our disagreements.

I love technology. I love technology almost to a fault. My love of technology is almost sinful in that it can take over and interfere with my relationship with God. But, technology has done nothing for us in regards to our relationships. When my grandmother died, my father lamented that not as many cards or phone calls came. Instead, people expressed condolences on Facebook. The same goes for birthdays. Social media and the internet allows us to be a part of one another’s lives without actually having to have face to face interactions. What kind of relationship is that? We are building relationships that keep one another at arm’s length. We keep others far enough to remain guarded and protected, and close enough to give the illusion of relationship and community. It is usually only when we experience a genuine crisis that we finally realize the gift of reciprocal relationships.

Today, the church marks Holy Trinity Sunday. And often, well meaning Pastors (like myself) try to explain the Holy Trinity and end up making nothing but a mess. It happens when trying to explain how God the Father is also God the Son is also God the Holy Spirit. Instead, what I want you to help me ponder today is how the Holy Trinity, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a fantastic example of what it means to be in relationship with one another. God cannot be the Father without the Son and Holy Spirit. God cannot be Son without the Father and Holy Spirit. God cannot be the Holy Spirit without the Father and the Son. And rest assured, my beloved, it’s okay if you don’t understand this Holy Trinity thing. Because remember, we are not called to be religious, we are called to be faithful. You don’t need to understand the Holy Trinity in order to be faithful. All that matters is that you know the three persons of the Trinity and that they are in relationship with one another.

The thing about the Holy Trinity is that it is a constant and ever changing relationship. Not one of the persons is always in charge. Sometimes it’s the Father, other times the Son, sometimes the Holy Spirit. The Holy Trinity cannot be without one another. And leaving is not an option. Part of being in relationship with one another is seeing the Divine in one another. Any more, it is far too easy to walk away from relationships without a second thought. You post something on Facebook I don’t like? Unfriend. You tweet something I don’t agree with? Unfollow. Being in relationship with one another isn’t easy work, my beloved. And I feel that instead of putting in the time and effort to do the difficult work, we just walk away. We view fellow creations of God, fellow children of God, our fellow siblings of Christ and say “you’re not worth it” and walk away. Sometimes without even a second thought. We forget that we are bound together. We forget that the Kingdom of Heaven is for ALL believers, whether we like it or not. We forget that we need one another. I cannot be me without you and, sorry to say, you cannot be you without me.

And yes, being in relationship with one another can cause tension. It can cause heartache. It can also cause joy and great amounts of peace. Just like you cannot be you without me and I cannot be me without you, so we, the body of Christ, cannot be one without each other. It is to us, the body of Christ, to follow the example of the Holy Trinity, and continue the difficult, challenging, but rewarding work of being in relationship with one another. It is easy, ooooh too easy, to vilify the other when we have not taken the time to know the other. And when we don’t take time to know the other, we cannot and will not ever be able to see the Divine in the other. If we cannot see the Divine in one another, then people will not be able to see the Divine in us. And that, my beloved, should make us worry.

In baptism, we are tied to one another. Hunter joins us today as another member of this community. In the waters of baptism God will claim him as God’s own. And we, we as the community of Christ, will make a promise to never give up on him. There are plenty of other places in society quick to give up on one another. The church should not, cannot, and if possible, will not be one of these places. Re Engage. Get to know your neighbor. Learn people’s story. Look past the labels we place on one another and that society places on us and instead, look at the Divine. God doesn’t need another gatekeeper. God doesn’t need another person using the Bible as a weapon. God doesn’t need people who want to limit God’s love. God wants beloved children of God who believe in the redemptive, life-giving power of community and relationship. God wants workers in the vineyard who see everyone’s value instead of complaining. God wants those who will look to the margins and say “I see you. I value you. You are part of God’s creation.” God desires a relationship with us. In your heart, it doesn’t matter if you understand the 3 in 1 and 1 in 3. Do you have room in your heart, instead, for me? And her? And him? And the homeless? And the undocumented? And the deported?? And the advocate? And the black? And the blue? And the trans? Because if we’re going to pray thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven, we best be prepared usher in that kingdom arm in arm. We better practice loving one another now because in God’s kingdom there are no classes or velvet ropes. And we must start being in relationship with one another because the work of discipleship gets very lonely.  

 

Sermon for 5/20/18 John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15 Pentecost

Trying to explain what the Holy Spirit is can be like trying to explain how the color pink sounds. Or maybe it would be like trying to explain how lightning tastes. Explaining to someone what the Holy Spirit is can be like describing what a hummingbird looks like when it is sleeping. I think just when we have the Holy Spirit figured out, or think we have her figured out, she surprises us. Instead of trying to explain what the Holy Spirit does, or how the Holy Spirit operates with God the Father and God the Son, I want you to think about how the Holy Spirit feels. Maybe some of you would rather go back and try to describe the taste of the color pink. I’ve been thinking about this off and on and I doubt my definition is any better than yours. But here is what I got. I don’t know what the Holy Spirit is, or how she does what she does. But I do know that once the Holy Spirit enters any facet of my life, I am changed. And some may ask “changed how? Changed good? Changed bad?” And I say “neither. Just changed.”

There are a few things I know for sure about the Holy Spirit (other than it has the ability to turn my world upside down). The Greek word in the Bible for Holy Spirit is “paraclete.” Now, that can be translated a number of ways. And perhaps the way we interact with the Holy Spirit will color the way we translate this. But, some options are: to walk alongside, appeal to, urge, exhort, encourage, request, implore, entreat, cheer up, comfort, mediator, intercessor, or helper. Did you have any idea that the Holy Spirit could do all that? And what I’ve been thinking about this week is the idea that I can’t tell you what the Holy Spirit does in your life. I can only tell you what the Holy Spirit does in mine. I can’t tell you the way the Holy Spirit feels to you. I can’t describe the way the Holy Spirit sounds to you. I can only tell you the way I interact with the Holy Spirit. I think the Holy Spirit acts, sounds, and feels the way that we personally need it to act, sound, and feel. Because when God wants our attention, God will do it in ways that will make us pay attention.

So here is the Holy Spirit to me: God’s most aggravating component. I say this lovingly of course. I just know that when the Holy Spirit gets a hold of me, nothing in my life stays the same. And this is aggravating. Doesn’t God know I have plans? Doesn’t God know that I’ve got things to do? Doesn’t God know I’m stubborn? Oh. Perhaps that is why the Holy Spirit has to shake me up every once in a while. What I know about the Holy Spirit in my life is this: as soon as I make some sort of bold proclamation in regards to my life, it’s as if the Holy Spirit steps in, lets me finish, and then says “that’s cute. You’re going to be doing this instead.”  

There are so many times in my life that I can look back and know that the Holy Spirit was at work in my life and for the better. I had sworn off dating altogether. Chris walked into my life. I had plans to go to graduate school for higher education. The Holy Spirit sent me to seminary (which, to this day has been her trickiest plan accomplished). I had just about given up hope that I would actually be called to a church as a Pastor. The Holy Spirit told me about an awesome congregation in the country that was a perfect fit. So yes, the Holy Spirit for me has been aggravating, soothing, exciting, encouraging, a cheerleader, a helper, and, much to my chagrin, 100% right every single time she pushed me. For me, the biggest problem with even acknowledging the Holy Spirit in my life comes down to one issue: trust.

The idea of trusting the Holy Spirit is one I don’t like. That is difficult for me (personally) because what happens is a shame spiral. I realize I’m not trusting the Holy Spirit or that I don’t trust her. Then I wonder what that means for my own faith if I’m not trusting the Holy Spirit. Then I shame spiral because I think that I, of all people, a woman of faith, should trust in God and all the persons of God (including the Holy Spirit) but yet I don’t. And that’s not a reflection of God or God’s love for me, but it’s a reflection of my own humanity. And once I realize that my faith isn’t as strong as I want it to be then I fear that people are going to realize that I am not perfect. (Shocker) Then once people realize I’m not perfect, are they even going to believe a single word I say from the pulpit? And if they don’t believe what I say from the pulpit then am I even doing what God has called me to do? Shame spiral. Maybe something like that happens to you.

Yet, at the same time, I think that our all knowing-all loving God knows exactly how we were created. So our all knowing, all loving God knows that when the Holy Spirit stirs that we may resist. Perhaps that is why the Holy Spirit is often described as fire or a mighty wind. God knows we need something that is going to get our attention. And it is totally and completely possible that the Holy Spirit may need to shove us, stir us, shake us, whatever it may take a few times to get us to pay attention. A few things happen when the Holy Spirit starts to take hold (or at least in my experience). The first step is doubting. “That wasn’t God, was it?” Or “certainly God doesn’t want me.” Then comes bargaining with God (which never goes well). Usually that sounds something like “fine God! I’ll go! But, if you do then X, Y, and Z!” Or we make deals with God. “Hey Holy Spirit! I’ll do that thing you’ve been encouraging me to do but only if you do this for me first.” Again, this usually never goes in our favor. Lastly, we succumb to the will of the Holy Spirit and our lives are much better for it.

The Holy Spirit is always and will always be part of our lives. Illa and Lars are about to experience the Holy Spirit for the first time. An all powerful, all knowing, all loving God will inhabit these waters, claim them both as beloved children of God, and then proceed to turn their world upside down in the best possible way. The Holy Spirit is the most uncertain and unpredictable person of God. That may make it seem scary. But the Holy Spirit is nothing to fear. Let us let the Spirit be the Spirit. Let us wait in anxiousness. Let us wait in our fear. Let us wait in our joy. Let us wait in our grief. Let us wait on a Sunday in May or a Tuesday in November. The Holy Spirit will show up and in her own time. In her own time. Not ours. Not always in the way we may want her to show up. But she will make herself known in our lives. And the only thing we know for sure is that our lives will never be the same.

Sermon for 5/13/18 John 17:6-19

Alleulia! Christ is risen! Not too long ago, I was visiting with Arlene Thompson. We were just about to wrap up our visit when I offered to pray for her. This is a very normal part of our visits. In fact, I usually offer to pray with everyone I visit. So, we joined hands and I prayed for her. Almost as soon as I said the word “amen,” something happened: Arlene started praying for me. And I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to do. I am not used to people praying for me. I pray for people all the time. But, when someone does it for me, I don’t know what to do. I kind of got mad at myself in that moment. Because instead of appreciating this prayer that someone was saying for me, I immediately felt full of guilt and didn’t know how to respond. Prayer is such an intimate thing that when it is done for you, your vulnerability is on display.

In the Gospel for today, Jesus is praying. This, of course, isn’t strange. It’s what Jesus does. But, he is praying for the disciples and the disciples can hear him. And the prayer is intimate and personal. I often wonder how the disciples felt upon hearing this prayer. The way this story is placed, right after Jesus finished this prayer, he and the disciples head towards the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested. Despite all of that, Jesus prays for the disciples anyway. He knows that he will be betrayed and abandoned by those closest to him and yet prays for them anyway.

And when Jesus prays for the disciples he uses language of belonging, protection, joy, holiness, and truth. This is not a relationship that is surface only. Jesus truly know his disciples and, I believe, they truly know him. As Jesus prepares to become powerless, he does the most powerful thing possible: he uses the platform of prayer to show his love, concern, and devotion. And on top of that, the disciples get to hear Jesus pray for them. It’s one thing for Jesus to pray for the disciples, it’s another for him to do it out loud. I think to pray for someone already insinuates that there is a level of intimacy happening. But, to do it vocally with the other person listening could be a risk. The risk is two fold: the person doing the praying is vulnerable to judgment and thus shame. The person receiving the prayer is vulnerable to judgment and thus shame.

When we ask someone to pray for us, we are putting ourselves out there. We are admitting to the places we have fallen short. To do that requires us to be vulnerable and admit that we are not perfect. In a world that demands perfection, to admit to imperfection is a risk. When the person doing the praying actually prays, they may not be “in the moment” and instead focusing too much on the words. Are we saying the right thing? Is this what the person needs or wants? Instead, we should just say what is in our hearts and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. There are times that I have prayed “God, I don’t even have the words or know how to begin…” and then pray.

Like I said, praying is an intimate act. I think that alone can make it feel uncomfortable. Not uncomfortable in a bad way, but uncomfortable like fidgety. That intimacy is humbling. For people to share holy moments with one another is humbling and also awe inspiring. You might think it is easy for someone like me, who practically prays for a living, to pray out loud. And, you’d be wrong. Well, kind of. There are times when it’s very easy for me to pray out loud. Before a meal? Sure! Every Sunday up here? Yep! But, when it’s a personal relationship, it can be difficult. As you all know, Chris has been having a lot of back pain and will now have surgery on Tuesday. Earlier last week he was in a lot of pain, couldn’t get comfortable, and was just generally miserable. We laid in bed, quiet. I heard him breathing and also holding his breath. I grabbed his hand and said “I’m going to pray for you.” I took a big breath and remained silent. I was nervous. I didn’t know what to say. There was a lot riding on this prayer. I wanted my words to mean something. I wanted my words to bring relief. I wanted my words to deliver a message of love. When I finally relaxed after about 30 seconds (which actually felt more like 5 minutes) I remembered that it’s not about me. A prayer is simply a conversation with our best friend, our loving parent, our most trusted confidant. Words don’t matter in this case. What matters is that we trust in God enough to speak our most personal thoughts.

Jesus prayed. Just saying that is amazing. Jesus prayed. Even Jesus himself called on God in hope, in joy, in pain, in suffering, in confusion, in all circumstances of life. Jesus prayed. And so often when Jesus prayed, he did so out loud. Jesus gives us an example of what it looks like to be vulnerable, to be exposed, to be needy (so to speak). And yes, we aren’t Jesus. But, in following Jesus’ ways, we may be bold enough and brave enough to not only pray, but to pray out loud. Praying for someone is a gift. Being prayed for is a gift. Prayer is one of the ways that we can be in communion with God. How is your life different in knowing that God prays for you, God is protecting you, God is guiding you? When someone else prays for us, it is almost like a love letter from God.

The thing about praying out loud is that we’ll never have the “right” words (whatever the right words are). It may always feel vulnerable. We may have problems getting out of our own head. But all that matters to God is that we do it. We are made and created to be the community of God together. Part of being in community with one another is speaking when others don’t have the words. To pray for one another not only is a gift, but sometimes it is a requirement. If you have ever been in a situation where your emotions or the situation is just too much that you don’t have the words to express your status, to have someone pray for you is a gift. Prayer is powerful. Prayer can change lives. Prayer can bring peace and comfort. Prayer is a gift. I would encourage you to give the gift of prayer to others. And if that idea is still to overwhelming, give the gift of prayer to yourself. Pray out loud for yourself. God is always listening.

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.

Sermon for 4/29/18 Acts 8:26-40

Alleluia! Christ is risen! One of my favorite theologians is the Rev. Dr. Yvette Flunder. She is currently a pastor in the United Church of Christ, but was raised in the Southern Baptist and Pentecostal traditions. She’s a fiery woman with a heart and soul for social justice. On top of all of that, she’s an amazing preacher. She has taught me a lot about radical hospitality and inclusivity. She says that the goal of “radical inclusivity is to help the church become church.” It requires of us a new way of seeing and/or being. When I last heard her preach (almost a year ago) she encouraged us to exhibit radical hospitality as well. We, as the church, should know each other in flesh and in spirit. If we do not know each other in flesh and in spirit then how can we provide sanctuary for one another’s flesh and spirit. I love she said “you can never know me if I never bring me–if I have ‘church me’ and ‘me me’ then you don’t get the entire me.”

I find sometimes in the church that we categorize people in the “usta been” and “coulda been” categories. As in “he usta be a ….” or “she coulda been a ….” Last week I talked about knowing and being known. The peace that comes from being really known. That is peace that God can give us. Rarely are we just who we are. Instead, we are often “usta be’s” and “coulda been’s.” If you’ve ever reconnected with someone who knew you from “back in the day” then they might have known your “usta been” and may end up surprised with who you are on this day. Unfortunately, we tend to only think of those around us as “usta been’s” and “coulda been’s” and as ourselves as the real deal.

But, when the Holy Spirit nudges (as she often does) it is best for us to forget all about those “usta been’s” and “coulda beens” and follow Spirit. Now, I know this sounds a little crazy, but the chances might be pretty good that the Holy Spirit actually knows more than we do and knows better than we do. So, when the Holy Spirit nudged Philip to speak to the Ethiopian eunuch, Philip went. After all, this reading is from the book of Acts, not the book of Sits. When the Spirit leads, it may lead us to places we never thought of going and to interact with people we may have otherwise ignored. It may be easy to think that the eunuch is an outcast. He is dark skinned, from another land, and on top of that, he is a eunuch. Which means he is a castrated male. But, we aren’t told any of that. Instead, the eunuch is rich enough to ride in a chariot, he’s well educated (because he can read the Greek that the text was written), he’s very devout (reading Isaiah) and also humble enough to appreciate (and take) Philip’s help.

The Holy Spirit is the counter of our mental “usta been” and “coulda beens.” When the Holy Spirit leads us in a direction, our first instinct might be to fight it. We conjure up excuses. “Isn’t that the man who usta be…” or “what if these people are mighta beens” even worse “is this the kind of ministry we ought to be doing.” The oughtta been. Beloved, if the Holy Spirit is the one leading us, who are we to question. Because if the ministry we do in the name of Christ doesn’t reach those on the margins then we must ask ourselves if our ministry really is of Christ. When God calls us to do something, go somewhere, talk to someone, whatever the case may be, then we go. Excuses are the secrets that Satan himself has whispered to us and now we make verbal. Because evil doesn’t want to see Christ moving in the world. Evil doesn’t want us evangelizing. Evil doesn’t want us to point to even the smallest bit of water and proclaim that “nothing is to stop you from being baptized.” Instead, evil wants us to point out the usta been’s, shouldda beens, coulda beens, to make people feel less than, to make people feel like outcasts, to make people feel like they have been forgotten.

And instead of being forgotten, we are called to serve a God who sides with, who walks with, who dwells with the marginalized. We are called to learn from and with those whom society deems not worthy. We are the ones who have been called to say “I don’t care about your usta been, your shouldda been, your coulda been. Let me tell you about a guy you usta be a kid from Nazareth. He coulda been a carpenter. He shouldda minded his own business. But here we are.” Philip could have found out more about the Ethiopian eunuch and said “nah. Forget about it.” But instead, he sat with him, learned with him, learned from him, and then … just when things were getting really interesting, Philip told him the story of Jesus. This encounter wasn’t an accident. These two men didn’t just happen to run into one another. This conversation and this encounter has the Holy Spirit written all over it. There actually were a lot of things preventing the man from being baptized. But, in that moment, in that instant, when he asked “what is to prevent me from being baptized” the Holy Spirit responded “nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

How awesome is it that the man heard the story about Jesus and wanted to be part of that community as soon as possible. He didn’t wait until the next Sunday. He didn’t wait until this was done or that was done. He didn’t even wait for his momma. He saw a pool of water, commanded the chariot to stop, and demanded he be baptized right on the spot. He is no longer a usta been he’s now a gonna-be. So is Neela. She’s gonna-be a child of God. She’s gonna-be our newest evangelist. She’s gonna-be claimed by God. No matter what else happens in her life, she will always belong to God. And as we make promises to Neela and one another today, we are reminded that the same goes for us. It doesn’t matter who we usta-be, shouldda-been, or couldda-been. We’re all gonna-be’s. Which means we’re gonna-be open to moving when the Spirit tells us to move. We’re gonna be brave when the Spirit tells us to speak. We’re gonna be bold when the Spirit tells us to act. We’re going to shut down the negative voices and denounce the powers of the devil and all of the forces that defy God. Should the day come when someone, anyone asks us, followers of Christ, “what is to prevent me from being baptized?” how great will it be to respond “nothing. Absolutely nothing”?

Salvation is there for us all. Spirit sends us to teach and preach. Spirit sends us to wash away the usta-beens and declare the gonna-be in all people. We are not the keepers of the waters. We are not the landlords of heaven. The good news is this: alleluia! Christ is risen! We are not to keep that to ourselves. The Spirit is calling. She leads, we follow. Let’s go.

 

Nb: part of this sermon was inspired by a sermon and lecture given by Bishop Flunder at the Festival of Homiletics held in San Antonio in May 2017.