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 3/10/19 Luke 4:1-13

Did you know that we get this story every first Sunday in Lent? The story of the temptation of Jesus. So, it might be easy, maybe even tempting for us, to hear this reading and immediately think of our own temptations. After all, don’t some people give things up for Lent so that they can learn the power of temptations? At the risk of sounding cruel, this reading is not about us. We should not hear this and immediately apply it to our own lives. After all, the temptations that Jesus faces, are nowhere near or like the temptations we face. Now, I know what you might be wondering. If this is not a text about temptation, then what is this story about? Our reading today as a story about identity. It is a story about Christ and his identity to and in God. It has a story about Christ and his identity to us. And, it is a story about our identity to and in Christ. The story is all about how Jesus is going to live into his identity as the son of God, and how we might follow as children of God and followers of Christ.

We are told that this encounter is spirit driven literally the text says that Jesus was driven by the Holy Spirit. He is full of the Holy Spirit. So, he is not alone while being tempted. As a side note, this makes me wonder how much of this is Jesus trusting in the Holy Spirit and how much of this encounter is him trusting in his identity. How strong might we be if we put more faith in our identity and the Holy Spirit? But I digress. The temptations from Satan all start out the same “if you are…” Believe it or not, this is actually better translated as “since you are.” “Since you are the son of God” and then the temptations follow. This is not a question of Jesus’ identity but more of a challenge of how he will live into that identity. Satan is not questioning whether or not he is the son of God. But because he is the son of God how will he move about in this world? Perhaps we could post the same question to ourselves. Because we are called, claimed, and beloved children of God, how will we move about and encounter and interact with this world?

Before this encounter, in scripture we actually heard about the baptism of Jesus. Therefore, we heard about his identity in God. After Jesus is baptized, a voice comes from the clouds declaring “you are my Son, the Beloved” (Lk 3:22b).  So, perhaps, for Satan this is less about temptation and more of a challenge. You are the son of God, you are the Messiah, you are surrounded, filled, driven by the Holy Spirit. So Jesus, what will that look like? Once again my beloved I wonder what happens when we ask the same of ourselves. We are children of God we are the beloved of the Messiah, we are surrounded by the Holy Spirit. What does the world look like when we take on that identity?

The first temptation that Satan gives Jesus is to turn rocks into loaves of bread. We know that Jesus is hungry. After all, he has been fasting for 40 days. You can imagine then, the hunger is real. I mean, I know how I feel when I have gone for hours without eating. Let alone, 40 days. Once again however, this is not about Jesus necessarily. This temptation is about how Jesus will interact with the world and claim his identity. Let us not forget that so much of Jesus’s ministry is feeding people literally. Jesus feed hungry people. Can you imagine how easy that might be if Jesus was able to turn any and all stones into bread with a snap of his fingers? But Jesus refuses this temptation. He tells the devil that one does not live by bread alone. And, if you think of the many feeding stories that we hear about Jesus, it is more than just feeding that Jesus gives people. When Jesus feeds people, he affirms their humanity. It is about community. It is about recognizing who they are and where they are in that moment. Being able to snap his fingers and turn stones into bread may not be able to deliver that same message.

The second temptation that Satan presents to Jesus is about power. Satan offers Jesus all the powers in the world if only Jesus would worship Satan. Once again, think about all the injustices that Jesus could make right if he were all powerful as Satan seems to promise. Think about all the prisoners he could free if he were the one in charge of all the kingdoms of the world. Think of all the people he would be able to help if only he were the one in charge instead of governments or rulers. Satan is speaking directly to the heart of Jesus’ ministry. What he is offering is an easy way out. But once again, Jesus remembers who he is and who he belongs to. He reminds Satan that he will worship God and God alone. Jesus, once again, is resting secure in his identity. This is not an easy thing to do for us humans. They easy way out is always tempting us.

The final temptation that Satan poses to Jesus is to jump off the highest point trusting that angels will catch him. Once again, our reading says “if you are the son of God,” but it is more accurately translated as “since you are the son of God.” Since you are the son of God, prove that an identity. Show me and the world that God will claim you and catch you when you fall. And Jesus, knowing the devil’s intent, states that you shall not put your God to the test. Jesus does not need to prove that God loves him and will protect him. He already knows this to be true in his identity. He knows that he is the son of God, the Messiah. It is not to him to prove this to anyone else.

So, my beloved, what can we learn from this today? I think are most important takeaway from these readings today is to be secure in our identity. No matter what else the world may call us, good or bad, our primary identity is that as child of God. There is no shortage of people either challenging us to prove who we are, or people challenging who we are. God created us in God’s image. We are beautifully and wonderfully made. However, there are many that will challenge the way we act, the way we look, even the way we move about in this world. That’s why it is so important to remember who we are and whose we are. We are reminded of this identity every time we gather at the baptismal waters and every time we gather around the table. We are fed and bathed in the promise of redemption and loving adoption from God. This is not to say that we will not cave to temptation. We know we will. We know we have. It is sin infiltrating our lives on an almost daily basis.

It is good for us to remember then, when we do fall to temptation and sin, we serve a God that is relentless in loving us. You saw that the devil gave up challenging Jesus after three tries. Good for him for trying. It was a no-win situation for the devil. But for Jesus, he never gives up on us. We do not live by a three strikes and you’re out rule. Of course, Jesus does not desire for us to succumb to temptation and sin, but when we do, God through Jesus Christ is there to remind us that we are loved and forgiven. The freedom of the cross promises us this on a daily basis. We will not be defined by our temptations or our sins. The love that God has for us is stronger and greater than either of those.

Satan may also tempt us with something else: the idea that we actually do not deserve God‘s love. We may be quick to reject it. We may think that our sins are too great or are unforgivable. I am here to tell you my beloved that simply is not true. So, perhaps, over the next 40 days, you give into the temptation to be loved. Give into the idea that God is going to love you even when you feel you are unlovable. Give into the idea that you are forgiven even if you cannot forgive yourself. Give into the fact that you are claimed by God as a child of God and nothing can come between that relationship. What a wonderful 40 days this might be if we gave into those kind of temptations. Give into the temptation to love your neighbor. Give into the temptation to see the best in one another. Give into the temptation to see Christ moving in the world towards making this world a better place. Give into the temptation of allowing yourself to be loved so wholly/holy and so fully that you can’t help but love one another and the world that God created. Temptation exists. Evil exists. Sin exists. And I am very confident that the devil exists. But none of that is stronger than the grip that God has on us as claimed children of God. Our identity in God is secure. The love that God has for us is the strongest weapon against any temptation. Rest secure in your identities my beloved. God has a strong hold on you!

 

Sermon for 3/18/18 John 12:20-33; Lent 5

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Oh amen. Am I the only one feeling the same way as the Greeks in our Gospel reading today? We have heard about this Jesus. The one who heals people, even raising people from the dead. We have heard about Jesus, the one who fed thousands. We have heard about Jesus, the one who walked on water. That’s all fine and good. We want to see Jesus. We’ve sung about Jesus. “Christ the life of all the living” and then “glory be to Christ forever, Lamb of God and Lord of love” sounds great! We want to see Jesus. It’s about this time in the Lenten season that I am reminded how long Lent is and how long Lent can feel. And for some, Lent is more than the time between Transfiguration and Easter; Lent can feel more like a lifestyle.

Allow me to explain. Lent is that time in the church that we anticipate God’s saving action on the cross and the empty tomb three days later. But, sometimes, we can get stuck in Good Friday, or even Holy Saturday. Does it feel like the world is working against you? Maybe you want to see Jesus. Perhaps the market reports (yes, I listen) don’t give you a lot of hope. That’s Lenten kind of feeling. Maybe keeping tabs on your loved one’s health has been more than exhausting and you’re ready for a break. Not death, but a break. That’s Lent. Maybe you’ve just had too much sorrow in your life lately. That can be the feeling of Lent. So to say “we wish to see Jesus” is more than wanting proof that this man, this messiah exists. To say “we wish to see Jesus” is about the desire for something more than the everyday.

“We wish to see Jesus” because we need assurance that there is more than this world. We wish to see Jesus because the world is in desperate need of love. We wish to see Jesus because people are still dying of hunger. Humans are being classified as “illegal,” babies are dying of curable diseases, people don’t have access to clean drinking water, the elderly have to make choices between keeping the lights on and life saving medication; yes please! We wish to see Jesus. Because if we see Jesus, if it finally happens, that means his kingdom has come on earth as it is in heaven. Praise God! The troubles of this world are no longer. Our long Lenten season is done. Not only is the tomb empty, but we’d be face to face with the messiah. We wish to see Jesus!

We wish to see Jesus because so many of us have our own struggles and issues. Seeing Jesus would mean that those struggles and issues are over. We wish to see Jesus just to prove the doubters wrong. Is that terrible? Those people who think there is no God or that this Jesus was just a man in history would come face to face and know the truth. We wish to see Jesus because while it’s great to hear about Jesus, it’s great to experience Jesus, it’s great to taste Jesus, nothing can compare with seeing Jesus. We wish to see Jesus because we’re just tired and ready for the next thing. And would it be so terrible if the next thing was Jesus? But, what would it mean for us to see Jesus?

As I’ve said before, being a disciple isn’t a noun, it’s a verb. When we proclaim that we are Christians, we best well act like it. Coming face to face with Jesus would mean that we would need to account for the times when we either didn’t act like Christians or we tried to hide our Christian identity. We can quickly become like the disciples that asked Jesus “when was it that we saw you hungry?” (see Matthew 25). Jesus will remind us of the way we treated the least of these around us. We wish to see Jesus, but does that really mean that we wish to see Jesus as the way we’ve pictured him? Do we only wish to see the happy Jesus full of love and not the Jesus that upsets societal norms by flipping tables? We wish to see Jesus, but does that mean that we only want to see the Easter Sunday resurrected Jesus, and not the Good Friday, hung on a cross for our sins, Jesus?

When we say that we wish to see Jesus we’re expressing a desire to see all of Jesus. And all of humanity is encompassed in Jesus. This means that when we see Jesus, we may see people we don’t expect to see. We may see people we don’t think deserve to be seen. Heck, we may even see ourselves. But, when we see Jesus, we are forced to come face to face with the us that only Christ knows. The us that has tried and failed, the us that has sinned and not repented, the us that has hurled insults and judgements the way the wind takes a feather. When we see Jesus, we’re forced to face our ugly. And that, my beloved, can be quite scary and also very humbling.

Do you know what we will see when our self-imposed guilt finally washes away? Love. When we see Jesus, we will see nothing but love. Our own self doubt, our own guilt, and our own sin may get in the way of that, but Jesus will have nothing but love for us. And with that love will come relief, and peace, and mercy, and grace upon grace upon grace. Yes, we wish to see Jesus. But, we don’t deserve to, that’s for sure. We will get to, thanks be to God. We wish to see Jesus and are willing to wrestle with all of the emotions and feelings that go along with that. We wish to see Jesus and stand before him admitting that we aren’t who we were created to be, that we have fallen short, that we have sinned before him and the whole company of saints. We wish to see Jesus and the cross that took away the sins of the world as well as the empty tomb. Because if we want Jesus to see the whole of us, then we have to be willing to see the whole of him. So God, we’re ready for our long season of suffering, heartache, and Lent to be over. We wish to see Jesus.

Ash Wednesday 2018; Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21

We come fully prepared, or so we think

Privately prepared for this public outing

Fasting on our mind, alms prepared, personal piety on lockdown

Oil is on our heads, our faces are washed. We are ready.

And then you meet us here, Lord

All of the preparations in the world can’t

Measure up to that face to face moment.

You see us. You see the real us, the real me.

The me you’ve loved from first splash to now.

You see what we’re trying to hide with all of these

Preparations

You see our secrets

You see our shame

We knew we couldn’t hide. But we tried.

You find us. You seek us out

Have mercy on us

We tremble in fear and are knocked to our knees

Humbled, but not humiliated

Thankful. Prayerful. Remorseful.

We thought we were prepared.

But in prayer, you find us.

In the meal, you find us.

In the darkness, you find us.

You always find us, Lord.

Sin is a disruption to our daily lives.

We can’t escape it by ourselves.

You are the only thing to set us free with your cross shaped key

We have failed in the ways you have called us.

We were silent in the face of injustice.

We were complacent in times of persecution

We were frozen when the moment needed movement.

We weren’t who you created us to be.

We desire to do good and fail.

We desire to love and instead judge.

We desire to serve and instead become self serving.

Forgive us. We beg of you, forgive us Lord.

We follow you from death to life

And our life now has meaning.

The only bags we need are the ones you fill with mercy

Grace

And love

The next 40 days we will hear of your travels,

Of your healing

Of your teaching, preaching, and learning.

And we will hear of your entry into Jerusalem

Shouts of “Hosanna in the highest!”

Will quickly escalate into

“Crucify him”

Our voices carry, but we’ll deny like Peter

We’ll say it wasn’t us but then the cock will crow

And yet

Yet

You meet us here.

In all of our brokenness

In all of our lost promises

In all of our failed attempts at love.

You meet us here.

And somehow. Some way

We are reminded

That we are yours.

That we’ve always been yours

That we will always be yours

You rescue us from ourselves

You save us from our sin

You remind us that we belong to you

You have marked us with the cross

And sealed us with the Holy Spirit

We are dust

And to dust we shall return

 

Sermon for 4/2/17 John 11:1-45

One of the reasons I love you all so much is that you have allowed me to be very open and honest about my own struggles with mental health. You continue to love me through good times and bad times. You have been understanding during my valley times and celebratory during my peak times. My battle with depression and anxiety will be one I will fight for the rest of my life. I am always learning more about my friends, depression and anxiety. I feel like the more I learn, the less they have control over me. And the other thing is, I know I’m not alone. Thanks to your bravery, some of you have shared your own struggles with me. We’ve compared meds together (prozac? No thank you!); we’ve lamented over treatments that didn’t work; and, sometimes,we’ve just cried together. But, for everyone who has shared their own struggle with me, and for me myself, the best message I could give to all of you who either love or know someone with a mental illness is that it does not bind us. We refuse to be defined by these diseases.

I got to thinking about this as I read through this Lazarus story and I heard Jesus say so clearly to those waiting for Lazarus outside his tomb (and, so to me as well) was “unbind him, and let him go.” And, for some reason, for the first time I wondered if Jesus was speaking of more than just a physical unbounding. Those surrounding Lazarus’ tomb now have proof, actual living, stinky, risen proof, that death doesn’t have the final word. Can you imagine? I think Mary and Martha had some idea of what Jesus was capable of, but anyone else standing around that open tomb must have been amazed. Who was this Jesus person that even 4 days of death had no power? So picture it: this was a tomb, a grave, and Lazarus had been laid there 4 days prior. The tomb had been covered by a stone. The community gathered worked together to remove that stone at the request of Jesus. (By the way, if this sounds a little bit like Jesus’ own resurrection, then good, it should. This is a foreshadowing.)

Jesus commands Lazarus, “Lazarus, come out!” And without much fanfare, without trumpets blaring, without angels singing, Lazarus came out of his tomb, very much alive. Lazarus was physically bound. This was common in this community. He had been prepared for death. So, his hands and feet were bound, handicapped, by bands of cloth. His face was also bound. Lazarus was unable to use his feet and hands the way God intended and his was most likely unable to see, speak, and perhaps his hearing was impaired as well. And Jesus says “unbind him.” Death no longer has power over him. Anything that had Lazarus bound is no longer in existence. What is it then, friends, that has you bound?

Are you bound by a mental health condition? I know I talked about my own struggles earlier and how I do my best to not let those define me. But, I’d also be lying if I didn’t tell you that there are days when my depression and anxiety make me feel like I can’t move, can’t talk, can’t see, can’t hear, can’t even breathe. Maybe you are bound by fear. You desire to do something new, something adventurous, something maybe even completely and totally out of the norm for you, but every time you think about getting started, fear steps in. And maybe if fear isn’t stopping you, shame does. What if you fail? What if you’re a huge disappointment to your family, your friends, your colleagues? Perhaps it’s death that has you bound. If you read my newsletter article for April, you know that I talked about death as being a good thing. Yes, it can be painful and scary, but it can also be good. Because, in order for new life to bloom, death needs to happen. But, death is scary. Yet not even death can stop Jesus.  

Once again, the Gospel of John is all about relationships, God’s desire to dwell and abide with us, and for all of us to have life, and have it abundantly. What stands in the way of us declaring, similar to Mary and Martha, about what Jesus can do? In what ways do we need to be unbound so that God, through Jesus Christ, is seen at work in our own lives. Everyone in this story is bound somehow. Lazarus was physically bound. But, he may have been emotionally bound as well. He might have been confused. The disciples were bound by confusion. They might have been bound by loyalty as well as bound by power. Mary and Martha, as much as they spoke to who Jesus was, are also bound. Did you notice that Martha mentioned the number of days her brother had been dead? That is her disbelief, her binding, sneaking in. Lazarus had been dead for 4 days. He was dead dead. All the way dead. He’s most sincerely dead. Would Jesus even be able to do anything after 4 days?? And upon raising Lazarus the first thing he says is “unbind him.”

What are the ways we are bound? Do we even realize it? Do we understand that it is Christ alone who has the power to unbind us? Are we bound by grief? Are we bound by power? Are we bound by self-loathing? Are we bound by jobs we hate? Maybe you are physically bound. Your body has started to betray you. Or maybe you’re bound by your mind as age sets in. Christ alone has the power to unbind us. Whatever is keeping us from living a full life, Christ has the power to undo those chains. Now, here’s the thing: sometimes that freedom doesn’t come on this side of life. What I mean is that if you start to pray for physical ailments to go away and they don’t, it’s not a reflection of your faith or God’s love for you. Sometimes freedom does come in death. But, at the same time, sometimes it’s our own sin that has us bound. Christ can  and does free us from that.

Chris is the only thing that can give us life. Christ moves obstacles (like heavy stones from caves). Christ is the light that we are encouraged to walk in. At the same time, Christ is very human. He cries at the death of his friend. Christ calls us into relationships. Christ longs to be in a relationship with us. He longs to abide and dwell in us. And yes, that even means in the midst of messiness. Because even in the midst of death, and stinch, and obstacles, and anger, and frustration, Christ is there. In those moments, the moments that are messy, Christ is there. In the moments that have us bound, Christ is there. In the moments of darkness, he is the light no darkness can overcome. Jesus has power of life over death and that is the ultimate power. It is that power that gets him arrested.

But, we will see soon enough, that nothing keeps Christ bound. Not grief, not a cross, not nails, not disbelief, not even a sealed tomb will keep Jesus from abiding with those whom he came to save. Do you hear this good news, brothers and sisters? No matter what is binding you, no matter what is stopping you from living the life God has intended for you, no matter what you keep putting between yourself and God, that is no match for the saving action of Christ. Do you understand that if Christ loved Lazarus enough to raise him after 4 days of being dead, Christ will raise you too on the last day? This is a man who descended into hell for you. Not even the depths and fires of hell were enough to stop Christ from loving you. Christ was crucified, died, and was risen for you. So, come out of your tomb! Shake off whatever has you bound. Don’t be afraid to stink up this place with the smell of the death of sin. Nothing. Absolutely nothing in this world will ever stop Christ from loving you. Don’t live your life like death has the final word. It never has and it never will.

Sermon for 3/26/17 John 9:1-41

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

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

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

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

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

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

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