Sermon for 3/29/20 John 11:1-45

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary’s lament seems a little too familiar these days, doesn’t it? In these times, we may look at what is happening in our state, in our country, and in our world and be filled with grief. We may be weary, I know I certainly am. We may even, dare I say, be lacking hope. That can be a scary place to be. As we hear news stories, read articles, hear from family members or friends in other places, or even as the reality that our first case of Coronavirus in Clinton County was confirmed earlier this week, it may feel like we are looking out over a valley of dry bones. “Mortal, can these bones live?” I don’t know, Lord. These bones are kind of tired, how about yours? 

The story of the raising of Lazarus is a good one for the time we find ourselves in. Combined with the reading from Ezekiel, and, well, we’ve got ourselves a doozy today. I am not going to beat around the bush here, my beloved. This illness is serious. I think we all know this. It is responsible for grinding a lot of things to a halt and requiring of us to really think about every movement we make. That door handle, do we know who last touched it? Chris sanitized our groceries after I brought them home the other day, which was a new experience. At the funeral for Anna Paarmann I couldn’t pass the peace or comfort the family with anything but words. But the starkest and harshest reality is this: people are dying from this. People will continue to die from this. One of my greatest fears is that I will have to bury one of you because of this dreadful virus. “Lord if you had been here….” 

I think it’s good for us to listen and feel the lament of Mary and Martha. After all, I know so many of you are faithful in your prayer life. I have no doubt that many of you have beeseached God to stop this virus, to heal people, to cure this illness, to turn this all around. And every day the numbers go up. And every day more people die. And every day the market is a roller coaster. As the psalmist says “out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” This isn’t just a passing prayer, but a guttural lament. This comes from our souls. This is a prayer of desperation. This is the prayer of weary, dry bones. This is the prayer of Mary and Martha. This is the prayer of all of us who don’t know when or if we will go back to work or school. This is the prayer for all who stand outside nursing home windows waving at loved ones. This is the prayer of those waiting to hear test results. This is the prayer of tired, overworked health care personnel on the front line. How long, O Lord? If you had been here! 

Mary and Martha are not like so many of you: faithful. They knew what Jesus was capable of. This is why they lamented that he had not been there to save Lazarus from his death. And, as we’re told, by the time Jesus does show up to express his own grief, Lazarus has already been dead for 4 days. Martha and Mary expected healing. They didn’t immediately get one. Yet, they remain faithful. It is perfectly acceptable to be faithful and disappointed at the same time. The two do not negate one another. Did you hear? Almost immediately after Mary’s lament of “if you had been here” she says “but even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” She remains faithful despite her lament and disappointment. 

Is it possible then, my beloved, that God is calling us to such discipleship at this time? It is perfectly acceptable to lament. It is perfectly acceptable to be angry. It is very normal to be overwhelmed. In the midst of that, however, is God’s faithfulness in the midst of death and destruction. Where are the signs of God’s faithfulness that will restore life in the midst of death? Where can we point to the dry bones that have life in them once again? Remember, Jesus came so that we may have life and have it abundantly. Even in times of agony and death, illness and destruction, God wants for us abundant life. 

And just like Lazarus, in the middle of uncertainty, Jesus calls our name. Jesus knows us by name. Every single one of us. Jesus knows you whether you know it or not. Jesus calls you by name. And when the call comes, we are all brought back into community, back into healing, back into wholeness. Lazarus had air in his lungs and his bones were no longer dry. These times may last for a while, my beloved. It’s important that we name that reality and the fear that accompanies it. This may last for a while. We don’t know when we will see one another again. But one day, the rock covering our tombs will be rolled away and Jesus will call our names. We need not fear death. Because in Jesus there is life. Life abundant and life eternal. In this time of confusion, death, destruction, hypocrisy, and too many questions to name, don’t be afraid to roll all those stones away and listen to the only thing that can give life and defeat death. Jesus. He calls your name. He calls my name. He calls and claims each one of us. 

Sermon for 3/22/20 Psalm 23

Everyone take a deep breath with me. It is so good to see you and to be together in this virtual community of Christ. Please know I miss gathering in person but I am thankful to all of you that set aside the time to join us this morning. I saw a joke going around Facebook earlier this week that said “my 90 day subscription to 2020 is almost up, how do I cancel?” I don’t know about you beloved, but I have alternated between fits of laughter and fits of tears this past week. Decisions have been made and then changed within a matter of hours. Sleep has eluded me quite a bit; it’s a heck of a time to try and heal an ulcer, I’ll tell you that. So, while that John reading is beautiful and has some lessons for us even for today, I cannot help myself but to preach on Psalm 23. Last week if you were in church or watched you may recall that I talked about the different wells we may drink from over the upcoming weeks. Psalm 23 is a deep deep well for so many of us full of life giving waters. It’s exactly what we need in a time such as this. 

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. What a bold statement! Not just now when we are facing uncertainties, but for everyday life. Now, as I’m sure all of you know, there is a very big difference between wants and needs. God supplies us with all we could ever need. But with the Lord as our shepherd, we shall not want. That seems to be taking on a different tone these days, doesn’t it? Do we want to see one another or do we need to see one another? Do we want to spend time apart or do we need to spend time apart? Do we want 96 rolls of toilet paper or do we need 96 rolls of toilet paper? It’s interesting how something like this pandemic suddenly brings a lot of things into focus, isn’t it? The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 

I thought about that phrase a lot this past week and how we also balance it with our proclamation of “give us this day our daily bread.” God provides us with all we may need, daily. It’s been so tempting to give into the idea of worrying about next week, next month, or even 6 months from now. Believe me, I’ve given into this thinking more once. Then I wondered if God is calling us to really live into the promise of daily bread. God may be calling us to just live in today. After all, after that first phrase, after declaring that God is our shepherd and we shall not want, what does the Lord provide for us? Rest. And God not only provides us rest, but a rest that will restore our soul. 

I wondered what a soul restoring rest looked like. I don’t think this is a nap on a Sunday afternoon while NASCAR is on (sorry, Leon). This is the kind of rest that really fills you in body, mind, and soul. So for me, it is actual rest, time with family, and time to engage in activities I normally don’t have time for: reading, knitting, and catching up on correspondence. As I said, rest has been eluding me this week, but I have had a lot of time with family and I have been spending more time reading. Perhaps God is providing us with opportunities to recharge and rest our souls. 

Now, do I think that this catastrophe was created by God? Absolutely not. I think God is in the midst of all of this suffering. There are people who are dying. There are loved ones who are separated. There are people wondering how they will pay bills. There are people who are putting their lives on the line every single day just to earn money or provide for their families. And the psalmist reminds us “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff–they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4) This is most definitely a dark valley kind of time. And God is with me. God is with you. God is with all of us. 

In the dark valley we shall fear no evil. Uncertainty brings a lot of fear, doesn’t it? We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I don’t even know what this afternoon will bring. Fear itself can be evil. If we let it, fear can control our lives. Fear can quickly become our god (with a lowercase g). I think we can all think of examples that we may have seen of fear ruling lives this past week. And I’ll admit, I’m quick to say “faith over fear.” I think that faith is important in these times. We should be praying for one another and for the world God made. But I wondered if instead of faith our response to fear should be love. The way that God loves us is the way we can attempt to love the world. The world certainly needs it now, don’t you think, my beloved? After all, we serve a God who overfills our cups. Goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives. All the days. We will never run out of goodness and mercy. It seems in short supply right now. Our response to fear maybe isn’t faith as much as it’s love. 

In these anxious times, God our shepherd is calling you to rest. And if all you do is rest, that is enough. God will restore you. God will fill your cup so that it is overflowing. God will anoint you. God is with you. God the shepherd is with you. God the provider is with you. God our keeper is with you. God our protector is with you. Repeat after me: God is with me. God is with me. God is with me. Indeed, God is with you. May God our shepherd who calls you to rest keep you safe and healthy. Amen. 

Sermon for 3/15/20 John 4:5-42

What a strange week it’s been, hasn’t it? I feel like January was 7 years ago already. It feels like 57 days have passed since we last gathered for worship. I made no less than what feels like 26 different decisions regarding worship in the span of 72 hours. And, as the Holy Spirit does, I found myself relating a lot to our reading this week. I sat for long hours at the wells of television, radio, and internet longing for information. I sat at the well of the grocery store and Wal-Mart, longing for goods. I sat at the well of my family and friends, longing for relationship and love. So, like the Samaritan woman, I came to the well. Over the next few weeks, my beloved, I think we will all come to our metaphorical wells a lot. 

What we don’t hear in the first few verses of chapter 4 is that Jesus left Judea and headed back to Galilee. And in verse 4 it says “But he had to go through Samaria.” No he didn’t. Geographically going to Samaria didn’t make any sense. It would be like going to Iowa City through Cedar Rapids. It doesn’t make sense geographically. But Jesus needed to go to Samaria to have this encounter with this woman. 

Jesus didn’t meet this woman just anywhere. He met her at a well. For us, the reaction may be “so what??” A well was a crucial meeting place in the Old Testament. Listeners would have known this. It’s where Isaac first met Rebekah; Moses’ daughter, Zipporah met her husband at a well. The well was what we now know as match.com. The well equaled relationship. The Gospel of John is all about relationships and abiding! But a relationship for this woman? First things first, she was a Samaritan. At the time, that was the worst kind of person. Samaritans were undesirable in every way. And this was a woman, so she was automatically less than. And to top off her level of undesiring, she had been married 5 times. This means she was either widowed or divorced. And if she was divorced it was because she was barren. This woman at the well (we never get her name, by the way) is a Samaritan, a woman, and someone who has been cast aside more than once. 

Then along comes Jesus. And Jesus sees her. This is really important. She was hoping she wouldn’t be seen. She went to the well at noon, the heat of the day. The water collecting had already been done for the day. The well wouldn’t be busy. The woman could go, collect her water, and leave without being harassed or without being reminded that she was, for all purposes, broken and damaged goods. Not only does Jesus see her, he sees her. He asks for a drink of water. This may seem strange to us. Didn’t Jesus bring his own cup? He’s Jesus, couldn’t he get his own water? But instead, he asks this woman for a drink. He is starting to establish a relationship. He is also giving her power. Jesus, a man is giving a woman, a Samaritan woman married 5 times at that, he is giving her power. He is starting to see her as the human being that she is. 

What is interesting is that she doesn’t give him a drink and then leave. She continues the conversation. She continues with questions and a bit of a theological discussion. And so the relationship grows. See, conversations are built on relationships. You enter into conversation with the expectation that you will listen and be listened to. There is an unstated trust and at times, even an unspoken vulnerability. And the more the woman and Jesus talk, the more we find out about the both of them. The woman quickly starts to pick up on the fact that this man isn’t any normal wanderer. And Jesus lets on that he knows her on a very intimate level. He knows that she has been married 5 times. For her, that has to be one of the most painful truths of her life. And so the relationship deepens. 

Then, then, THEN! Despite the fact that this is a woman, despite the fact that this is a Samaritan woman, despite the fact that this is a Samaritan woman who has been married 5 times (by no fault of her own, by the way), Jesus offers her what she really needs and wants: she wants to be in relationship and she wants to belong. And Jesus offers her a relationship with him and with God and offers to bring her into this community of believers. Jesus knows the ugly truth of her life and still gives her what she needs and desires: to be seen, to belong, and to be loved. And really, isn’t that what all of us want?

As I said, I anticipate we’ll all go to the well several times over the next few weeks. If we are not able to physically gather for worship, what well will you draw from? If you are not able to work (and that’s your main source of social interaction), what well will you draw from? If your kids are forced to stay home from school, what well will they draw from? Faith over fear is important, my beloved. It will be tempting in the weeks ahead to draw from wells that are full of fear, misinformation, hoarding, xenophobia, and anxiety. Satan alone fills those wells. It is important to stay informed, yes, but it’s also important to stay faithful. Know that Jesus is the living water. Jesus will always provide us with what we need. Notice I said that Jesus will give us what we need, not what we want. No matter what happens to you, Jesus sees you. Jesus sees your value, after all, Jesus named you and claimed you as his own. So, as you thirst in the coming weeks ahead, practice caution when gathering around the well. Not all wells offer the the water of life that Jesus does. Jesus is the life giving water. May we drink and splash often and be fed, refreshed, and reminded. 

Sermon for 3/8/20 Psalm 121

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for 3/1/20 Matthew 4:1-11; Lent 1

It is the first Sunday of Lent and the scripture readings are NOT MESSING AROUND. I mean, we are talking about temptation right away. This is the heart of the matter, right? It’s as if the committee that chooses these readings sat back and said “nah, let’s not go easy on them. Let’s start right in on temptation.” Sure, I mean, why not? I’m also a fan of holding Weight Watchers meetings at Golden Corral. So, let’s clear up a real quick misconception about this piece of scripture. The temptation (pun intended) is to read this scripture and think “I am tempted sometimes by things, maybe even by people, certainly by Satan. Jesus was tempted by Satan with bread and power and his identity was challenged. Jesus persevered and overcame his temptations. Therefore, I should be able to overcome and persevere my temptations. End of story.” 

Wrong. That’s not how it works. Beloved, any time we may try and compare ourselves to Christ we’re going to come out looking not so great because we aren’t Christ. Jesus was, is, and will always be better at resisting and overcoming temptation than us. That’s because he is the son of God, literally. I also think sometimes we may not always know what to do with this scripture because we don’t know what to do with Satan. He’s not the most popular sermon topic. But, I assure you he is very real. The temptations he offers are very real. The sooner we start to put a name on evil and all the forces that defy God, the sooner we can renounce them and call him the liar he is. Get behind me Satan. Lastly, these temptations aren’t just about sneaking chocolate. This isn’t about minor indiscretions. I think Satan only comes for us when our souls are hungry for what we think can satisfy us and we go looking other places than God. We’re craving, we’re hungry, we get in desert moments, we start traveling with our eyes or hearts and don’t you know who’s going to show up every single time dangling shiny carrots in front of us but Satan? Here’s what scripture may not say today: if we take what Satan is offering, it’ll never be enough. Hear that again: if we take what Satan is offering, IT’LL NEVER BE ENOUGH. 

We cave to temptation as individuals but how about as a church? You don’t think Satan would love to put a notch in his win column by recruiting an entire church? Now, if you don’t think that’s possible, I wish you could eavesdrop on conversations I hear or am a part of. It’s an interesting cycle of fear, abundance and/or scarcity, mixed with tradition and modernity. And at the center of the cycle, in charge of the three ring circus (it should come as no surprise) is Satan himself. So the conversations usually sound something like this “we need more of ‘these’ type of people in our church.” Now, “these” types of people can vary, depending on your situation. Sometimes it’s young people, families, people of color, LGBTQ people or whatever you’d like to fill in the blank with. This desire usually arises out of the abundance of something needing to be done (people to take over those jobs that have been done by the same people for the last 65 years) or scarcity (if we don’t get them in the doors, we’re going to have to close). In order to get these people in the doors of the church, we might have to change a bit (thanks, modernity) to accommodate like with a new worship time, some flexible seating, ooh! A band! But then what about the organ, our liturgy, and our traditions. And at the center of these conversations is Satan, spinning the rings of temptation, flashing the ways we can be just like the newest, biggest, most awesomest church down the street instead of staying steadfast in who we are and who God called us to be. That shiny carrot looks awfully tempting. 

  At the root of temptation is the question of identity. Are you, are we, willing to put aside our core identity for whatever Satan is offering? It’s not just with the church example I gave, it’s with every temptation. Satan dangles something, someone, we could be right in front of us. We could be that. We could make more money, but at what cost to our personal health? We could have a different job but at what cost to our relationships? We could have a relationship, but at what cost to our morals? Jesus knew his identity; we were just told it last week: beloved son. We are that too: beloved children of God. Do we trust in that identity enough to turn away from the temptations and rest assured in who God created us to be? And look, I get it. Giving into certain temptations can feel good…temporarily. Because remember, whatever Satan is offering will never be enough. We will never and can never be satisfied with whatever Satan is offering. 

Maybe what Jesus is trying to communicate with us and the disciples today is this: you are enough. We are enough. Just as we are, we are enough. You are created in God’s image. We were all created in God’s image. And it’s enough. Sure, it’s totally fine and very normal to want to shine brighter, be better, bolder, whatever. And there are ways to do that with the help of God. But remember, the “brighter” that Satan offers fades, and quickly. The “faster” that Satan offers eventually slows down. The “bigger” that Satan offers isn’t always better. What you are is enough. What we have is enough. We come from God and we will return to God. Maybe this Lent if you are tempted, it will be by this: to allow yourself to be loved, just as you are; to claim your identity as a child of God without apology; to receive grace without flinching; to rest knowing you don’t have to do it all (and really, you can’t); to come to the table with a hunger for justice and righteousness; and to remember your baptismal promises that you have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit, forever. Remember that if you are tempted, you will not be alone. Christ is with you. The company of angels surround you. The Holy Spirit will guide you. Satan hasn’t won yet. You are enough. We are enough. Get behind me, Satan. 

Sermon for Ash Wednesday; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

In the fall of 2008, my beloved seminary entered into a time of financial retrenchment. It was hard. It meant the cut of programs, staff, faculty, and hours to certain services. But, it also was in the best interest of theological education. I remembered gathering in the chapel on campus to hear the news and you could have heard a pin drop as our seminary president laid out the plans step by painful step. We looked around at the faces of the professors that no longer were just positions to be cut on paper, but real flesh and blood. So, on Ash Wednesday, my church history professor, Beth Leeper, made the ascent into the high pulpit and wondered aloud how we live into Lent when we had already been living in a proverbial Lent for the last few months. She voiced what many of us already felt: we weren’t ready to let go of the alleluias. We weren’t ready for sackcloth and ashes. We weren’t ready for the reminder of death because it had surrounded us already for months. 

Professor Leeper’s words came to me again as I was preparing for this day because I, once again, am not ready to bury the alleluia. I am not ready to talk about our mortality. I don’t want to mark the cross on your foreheads knowing there is a real possibility that this time next year I won’t be able to do it again either because I won’t be here or you won’t. I have lived in a perpetual Good Friday for approximately 55 days. Trust me, I did the math. So forgive me if I am ready for a resurrection story already. I’ve done the 40 days and then some already, Jesus. But time is fickle. And so here we are again. And Jesus keeps calling to me. Jesus keeps calling for me to follow him, keeps calling me to serve him and his people. Jesus keeps showing up. There are days when that is really annoying, honestly. I know this valley narrative I keep sharing with you may be getting old. (It’s getting old to me.) But I keep sharing it because you need to know that even those that God has called into a life of service have doubts. So it’s okay for you to have doubts too. 

I wondered then, what is our response to Lent this year, church? You may have friends that practice giving something up or even making more time for something during Lent. I choose not to, but that’s just me. Scripture tells us we should show up. Lent isn’t a time for us to make us better, it’s a time for God and the Holy Spirit to move in us and move us just that much closer to God because it’s not about us. So, we should show up. What if our response to all of the noise, chaos, and fear in the world was that we showed up? For the next 6 weeks we made a promise to ourselves, one another, and to God that we would show up. We can’t control anything, at all. But we can show up here and let the Holy Spirit stir. What’s the worst that can happen? 

When we show up, we give alms, we pray, and we fast. Now, all of that may look different depending on who you are. Maybe you increase your giving. Maybe you pray more often. Maybe you fast from gossip. I don’t know. But we just keep showing up. We keep showing up because at the end of the day, we are alleluia people, we are resurrection people, and we don’t let death have the final word. And we do this all together because God created us to be in community. Do you want to know how I have survived the last 55 days? Because I know and have felt your prayers. When I wasn’t strong enough to pray for myself, I knew you were praying for me. And I pray for you too. Daily. I keep showing up because I know that God will keep surprising me. 

These actions we take tonight: confessing our sins, the imposition of ashes, communion, they’re not about proving how holy we are. It’s not even about feeling holy (I don’t even know what that feeling is). But it’s about the lifelong commitment that God has made with us and that we make to one another in baptismal promises that help us to cling to the “things that will sustain us” (Feasting on the Word, Anschutz 22). It might also be easy for the outside world, those who aren’t religious, to see the crosses on our foreheads and call us hypocrites. After all, aren’t we supposed to be doing all of this in private? Well, we’re all hypocrites sooner or later. And the cross on our foreheads doesn’t show or prove we’re better than anyone. It’s not an international bat signal for virtuosity. 

The ashen cross on our foreheads is a reminder of our mortality, of our sins, of our own shortcomings. It’s an outward sign that we are aware that death is very real. We don’t need that reminder around here. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I don’t. “Ashes on our forehead are not displaying our piety before others; it is telling the truth to all that we are dying” (twitter “@jeffwfisher”). It is something we all have in common. And our response to this is Jesus. The one who names us, claims us, and saves us from ourselves, is Jesus. We are God’s and to God we shall return. We are made of God “stuff” and we will return to God. 

So maybe this Lent we just show up; we deny Satan the pleasure of tempting us into the valley and into the desert. We continue to carry the alleluia, even if it is just in our hearts. We show up because the world needs good news and maybe we are the ones to bring it. And maybe death doesn’t sound like good news, but our story never ends at death. We keep showing up because we know God is already here, doing amazing things and we’d hate to miss out on that. We keep showing up because the women at the empty tomb were right. We keep showing up because we need one another. This Lent I’m not giving up anything (which is usual) but I’m just going to keep showing up. It’s an act of resistance. I wondered what would really make Satan mad, and I think that’s it. I’m going to keep showing up. Maybe you’ll join me. 

Sermon for 2/23/20 Matthew 17:1-9; Transfiguration

I enjoy transfiguration Sunday as this is often called because we can all relate to mountain top experiences, I believe. Maybe it’s that wonderful vacation, an awesome conference, even a long awaited lunch out with friends, mountaintop experiences are those things that allow us to get re-energized and re-centered. Leaving the mountaintop is never fun. As I got to thinking about it, I realized why: once we leave the mountain, we have to face the truth. Vacation is over! That conference is over and our new friends are going back home! That long awaited lunch is over and (worse yet) the bill has come. The truth is always there, waiting for us, sometimes with great cruelty. So, maybe if we can stay on the mountain, we can avoid the truth. And sometimes, I wonder if we purposefully try and stay on the mountain or even create mountaintop experiences to avoid the truth. 

Today’s Gospel lesson takes place (of course) on top of a mountain. Peter, James, John, and Jesus had made a nice hike up a high mountain. The disciples couldn’t have known what was to happen next. It must have felt like a dream or some kind of out of body experience. Jesus’ face started to glow, practically blinding them. Then his clothes, we are told, turn a dazzling white. And if that’s not enough, Moses and Elijah appeared there with him. Then(!) it gets even better! We hear from God. Another bright cloud, and from that bright cloud comes a voice “This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The story could end right there and be pretty awesome. I don’t blame the disciples for wanting to stay on that mountaintop. Up there, they have the Jesus they want: pure, blameless, in the company of prophets, and affirmed as God’s beloved son. This is the Jesus we want. If we leave the mountain, we’ll be faced with the Jesus we get: the Good Friday Jesus, bloody, beaten, bruised, eventually crucified and dead. So, rather than face the truth, the disciples try to convince Jesus to stay on the mountaintop. 

Upon hearing the voice of God, the disciples are shaken to their core, fell to the ground in fear, and cower. I don’t blame them, I probably would have done the same thing. Then, as only Jesus could, he brings the disciples comfort. He touches them and encourages them. “Get up” he says and then, “do not be afraid.” I needed to hear this from Jesus. Maybe you do too. Here’s the truth, my beloved. 2020 has been the hardest year of my ministry with you thus far and it’s only February. As I have been preparing for Lent, which for me brings with it its own hosts of emotions, it’s tempting to me to want to stay on the mountaintop. I guess I fear the truth of difficulty, challenges, and just life at the bottom of the mountain. I worry about how much harder the truth is going to get. 

I am still wrestling with all of the emotions that accompany burying someone so young like Tristan. And I would be lying to you if I didn’t admit that the financial challenges we discussed at the annual meeting and that still loom keep me up too many nights a week. Of course I have my own personal challenges, nothing that is new: mothering, supporting a PhD student, living in limbo of what comes next, maybe we’ll move, maybe we won’t, being a daughter and sister, maintaining friendships, all of that. If I stay on the mountaintop (oh, by the way, you’re staying up here with me) then nothing can get worse, right? We don’t have to face the truth of what happens tomorrow, or next week, or next month. We can stay on this mountain and bask in the glory of Jesus, God’s beloved Son. Sounds great to me. Beloved, this is called avoidance. 

Then Jesus, doing what he does best, says do not be afraid. And that’s not all. See, we serve a God who is with us literally every single step of the way. When God says that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, it’s true. In our lesson today, the disciples don’t go back down the mountain alone, Jesus goes with them. And it’s the same for us. I sometimes remind you (and me) that we are resurrection people. That is still true. We are resurrection people. We are Easter Sunday people. We are Christ is risen indeed people. However, we are none of that without being Good Friday people. And in order to be Good Friday people, sometimes we have to come down from the mountain. We have to tell hard truths. We have to be brave together. We have to be vulnerable together. And in the midst of all of it, we trust, more than anything, that God is with us because Jesus is who he always has been and always will be. 

I don’t know, maybe you’re not like me. Maybe your 2020 has been phenomenal fireworks and celebration after celebration thus far. I rejoice with you, really I do. But, if you’ve been camped out on the top of a metaphorical mountain, unable to move much thanks to fear of the unknown, fear of the “what’s next,” fear of darkness, fear of the not-good-enoughs swallowing you up whole, maybe it’s time we leave this mountain. Maybe it’s time that we start living as we proclaim: people of God who trust in God that will provide in God’s time. We could stay on the mountain, but I don’t know that we would be living in the fullness of life that God provides. Even if coming down the mountain feels like going through hell, we proclaim that God descended into hell ahead of us. There is no where we can go that God has not already gone. I am done living in fear. I am headed down the mountain. I don’t know what I am going to find, but God will go with me, with us. “Get up and do not be afraid.” 

Sermon for 2/16/20 Matthew 5:21-37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February newsletter

I sat down to write this article, it feels like the 74th day of January. In reality, it’s the end of the month. What is it about January that it seems to drag on forrrrreeeevvvvveeeerrrr?? And I don’t know if it’s January or the cold or what, but I really struggled with what to write to you this month. After a very challenging month, I’m feeling a bit dry, honestly. So I turned to my trusted confidant, our secretary Lynn, and asked her “what should I write about this month?” And in her infinite wisdom, she said “well, February is the month of love. Why don’t you write about love?” But here’s the thing, beloved, I’m in the mindspace that I’m more wanting to talk about grief. 

I don’t want to assume that all of you reading this know, but a young man in our congregation, Tristan Toppert, died on January 13. I confirmed Tristan. I took him to the Lutheran Youth Gathering in Houston (along with Kristi Lueders, Katelyn Howe, Paige Bauer, and Sam Lueders). Chris, Ellen and I have had the honor of spending many of the major holidays at the Stuedemann house. This means that I have spent many Thanksgivings, Christmases, and Easters with Tristan. The story of his death, while not private, is one familiar to too many families in this congregation. It comes with a different kind of grief. 

I have walked with many of you through grief. And if I have had the honor of doing that (and yes, for me it is an honor to be invited into such a sacred place) you have heard me say something like this. Grief never happens at a convenient time. It never happens when you’re home alone, with the lights turned down, and a kleenex box nearby. Grief happens at really dumb times, like when you’re at the grocery store and you pass by a woman who wears the same perfume as your grandmother and now you’re crying in the potato chip aisle. And yes, this really happened to me. And it happened to me more than once. I ran into someone at the meat counter at Hy-Vee less than 24 hours after Allen Petersen died. They asked me “how’s Allen doing?” and there I was, crying in front of the sirloins. Grief is terrible and awful and confusing. But, grief is the price we pay for loving one another so fiercely. Grief is the price we pay for having loved. 

And yes, sometimes love looks like chocolate, roses, even folding the laundry. Sometimes love looks like holding hands to steady one another. Love looks like rides to chemo, sitting in the silence waiting, rocking babies, and being comfortable with one another’s wrinkles and rolls. And sometimes love looks like picking out the perfect casket for a 17 year old who should still be here if it weren’t for bullies. I don’t think we often think about that grief and love are partners that go hand in hand. What love and grief have in common is that God is present in them both. 

I think about the first time I laid eyes on Ellen and my heart just about exploded out of love and I know God was in that moment. After years of infertility and our struggle to bring this little girl into the world, I knew without a doubt, God was there as we fell in love with this amazing creation of God who bears the image of her redeemer. At the same time we know and must lean into the idea that God is most certainly present in our grief. I don’t dare imagine how unbearable grief would be without God or without faith. If I need proof of God’s presence in grief, I think about the story of Lazarus. When Jesus arrived and heard his friend Lazarus had already died, his first reaction was one of tears. Sorrow. Pure grief. This was the very human Jesus having very human emotions. 

The only way we can avoid grief is to not love. Grief physically hurts (like that gut-wrenching hurt) because something or someone we love has been removed from our lives. I believe that loving is worth the hurt. At the same time, I also believe that life is too short and nothing is guaranteed. I am writing this just a few days after basketball great Kobe Bryant died in a tragic helicopter accident. So if you’ve been waiting for the perfect moment, the perfect words, the right opportunity or whatever to act on love, stop waiting. Stop waiting because I don’t want you left with grief and “what if’s.” Love and grief are both gifts from God. Yes, gifts. Love we can understand as a gift. Grief is a gift because it reminds us that we are capable of loving and being loved. When we read “for God so loved the world” (see John 3:16) that includes you, me, and everyone you love and everyone you may not even know. Love is not a precious commodity. Grief isn’t a precious commodity either. So don’t wait for Valentine’s day. Don’t wait another moment to love. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my short time thus far on this spinning ball of madness it’s that there’s always room for more love. 

Sermon for 2/2/20 Matthew 5:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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