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 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 2/9/20 Matthew 5:13-20

Did anyone else experience this week to last around 47 days instead of the normal 7? Am I the only one who is feeling time a bit differently lately? It was a strange week. Sunday my beloved football team won the Super Bowl. And somehow, some way, I got a new title. I wasn’t aware this would happen. Those of you who have been here before failed to warn me that this happen so I blame you. But people asked me “how does it feel to win a Super Bowl championship?” This was asked of me as if quarterback Pat Mahomes himself connected to me on a long ball pass for the winning touchdown. He didn’t. But for some reason, by affiliation, I now am a Super Bowl champion. So it goes. I am also salt and light. 

Then Monday came around, another Super Bowl of sorts. A Super Bowl for us political nerds: the caucuses. And if you missed the news, well… we kind of messed things up. For the record, our room of 14 didn’t mess up (because it’s hard to mess up and miscount 14 people). But the news seems to believe that everyone, all of us living in Iowa have no idea what we are doing. It doesn’t matter if you are democrat or republican or even if you caucused, we are now completely incapable of handling the first in the nation event that is a vote but not really a vote that no one outside of Iowa seems to understand. We were branded irresponsible and blamed for building doubt among voters. So it goes. We are also salt and light. 

Remember, we’ve only covered 2 days. Tuesday was the State of the Union address. On social media the name calling that followed the address was sad to see. The divide that has long plagued our nation continued. People praised and cursed our president and people praised and cursed Nancy Pelosi. All the newscasters had their say and for a brief moment, all of us in Iowa got a brief respite from ruining the country. But, at the end of the night, as I tucked myself into bed, I reminded myself that every single person in the chamber listening to the President speak and the President himself is salt and light. And so are you. 

Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday all ran together with coverage of the impeachment trial, the acquittal, the National Prayer breakfast, the corona virus, more caucus results (or not) and more name calling and finger pointing. People love to give one another titles and names simply because we don’t agree. The internet is a cesspool of colorful insults ranging from moron and idiot to things that cannot be repeated in church. I fear, my beloved, that the time of civil discourse is quickly slipping away from us and we would rather listen to argue versus listening to learn and engage. Please understand I am not saying any of you do this, but this is simply my observation on the world. Take it from me, I am a Super Bowl champion. 

All of this may make you wonder if your Christian heart and Christian values have a place in this world anymore. I’ll be honest, it’s hard for me to love my neighbor when my neighbor calls me an idiot. The labels we place on others and have placed on us are not just flippant remarks, they can leave marks and only our hearts bear the scars. It’s easy to wonder if we even can make a difference in the world. And Jesus just knows what kind of balm our weary soul needs, doesn’t he? I have to imagine the disciples wondered if they could make a difference too. I mean, it’s not like these were a group of celebrities or know it alls. They had a tremendous task in front of them, following Jesus, and I have to imagine that at least one of the disciples was scared. But Jesus assured them, you are salt and light. Not you will be salt…some day. And you will be light…eventually. But already. Right now. Today. You are salt. You are light. You are already making things better just by being who you are. This is a message we aren’t hearing much these days, is it?

I don’t know if you’ve been there, but I know I have: that sinking feeling of wondering if what you’re doing even makes a difference. I wonder if what I do or say makes a difference. I wonder if God is still calling me to this amazing and crazy vocation and yet God assures me I am salt and light. I know you’ve had doubts. I can say this with confidence because if you have a pulse, you have doubts. You may have doubts about your work life, your parenting skills, your relationships, your abilities, whatever the case may be, you have doubts. If you’re lucky and like me, you may have multiple doubts. Then Jesus, man that guy has a lot of nerve, comes along and says, you are salt and light. It’s as if Jesus is saying to us, “my beloved disciples, you make things better and brighter just by being who I created you to be.” 

See, no matter what names we may call each other (or ourselves for that matter) and no matter what labels get placed on us (positive or negative) it’s easy to forget that Jesus tells the disciples and us that we are salt and light. Just by the way we live our lives we are salt and light. And the way we live our lives, hopefully, is by showing Christ and being Christ to one another. We have been named and claimed by Christ. We can choose to sit out life, hoping that others will be Christ to the world, but our salt will lose its taste and our light will dim. No one ever said that being salt and light was easy. But we are the ones that God is counting on to make this world a little less corrupt, a little less ugly, and a little more loved. We are the ones that God has tapped to be kind. As I said, Jesus didn’t say it would be easy. But we are already what we need to be. We are salt. We are light. That’s even better than winning the Super Bowl. 

Sermon for 1/26/20 Psalm 27:1-9

At Wartburg Theological Seminary, each graduating class is asked to pick a class verse from the Bible. The same task fell to my class and we hemmed and hawed over several verses before finally deciding on psalm 27:1 “the Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” We joked that chose a verse about not fearing and not being afraid during a time in our lives when many of us did have a lot of fears and many of us were afraid. After all, many of us were waiting on calls, waiting to be sent out into the world to do ministry, having no idea where God would send us. There was a lot to fear. What I appreciate about this psalm since that time in my life is that it has grounded me — brought me back to my true identity as a called and claimed child of God. And while picking my favorite scripture is probably akin to picking a favorite child, this psalm ranks high in my personal favorites. 

I really wanted to preach on that scripture from Matthew 4 today, really I did. But this Psalm just wouldn’t let me go this week. So, like always, I am going to preach to myself this week and you all just get to listen in. Now feel free to pass judgement on me if you wish, but believe it or not, there are very few verses of scripture I have committed to memory. There are a lot of things in my brain already. This verse, however, is one I have memorized. The promise is just too amazing and the grace is just too much for me to want to forget this verse. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” There is a long list of things we could fear, maybe even should fear (have you watched the news lately). But fear can quickly become our god (little g). We can quickly stop truly living our lives thanks to fear. But God is our light and our salvation. We have nothing to fear, my beloved. 

The psalm continues by saying “The Lord is the stronghold of my life.” This language of “stronghold” would not have sounded strange to the people of Israel. In fact, God is referred to as a “stronghold” several times throughout the Psalms. “The metaphor derives from military situations in which a well-positioned fortress with strong walls provided safety from enemy assaults” (Creach, Working Preacher). Therefore, picturing God as a stronghold and calling God a stronghold is akin to admitting that whatever may be troubling us, God’s protection is enough for us. In times of trouble, the temptation may exist to flee. What better place to flee than to God and God’s protection? This psalm reminds us once again that God is a safe place for us. 

Now I don’t know about you, my beloved, but I am bombarded by messages from the world that go against this. Apparently, according to the commercials I see on television, I need the expensive face cream or botox, the newest diet trend or botox, a different job with a huge paycheck, well behaved children (notice I said “children” plural), a well manicured lawn to go with my well kept house, and did I mention botox? But did you notice that the psalm didn’t say that the Lord is our stronghold once we get our lives together? This is the good news that the Lord welcomes us just as we are; not after we are our own version of perfect, but when are forgiven and loved, which we already are in God’s love and by Christ’s actions on the cross. 

Then the psalmist asks of the Lord something I think we all desire. Verse 4 says “One thing I ask of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” And isn’t that it? I mean, more than riches, more than land, more than a supermodel body, what I really desire is just to live with the Lord, to sit at his feet, to ask him all the questions of my heart. Sometimes I wonder if we dare ask the Lord for such things because we wonder if we are actually deserving of such things. We may not ask because fear there’s a catch. We may not ask because we fear our list of sins and shortcomings will be listed before we are able to dwell in such a glorious place. Maybe we may not ask for fear of who else might be dwelling there. 

But here’s my thought, beloved, and I’m willing to be wrong about this: when (not if) we are in the glorious, light filled presence of the Lord, does any of that matter? I want to believe that when we are in the Lord’s light, in the Lord’s stronghold, in the Lord’s house, his shelter, his tent, God’s love will just simple drown out any questions and doubts we may have. We will, I believe, know without any doubt, that we truly have nothing to fear and nothing of which to be afraid. I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s a powerful statement. Because whether I want to admit it or not, I have a lot to fear. I mean, some of what I fear is valid: what kind of world will exist when Ellen is an adult? Will another war be waged in my lifetime? And then there are the fears that I dare not even speak out loud. These are the fears that many of us have that are usually coated in shame or the inability to forgive ourselves. But, but(!) the Lord is our light and our salvation, who shall we fear? Nothing. And while I don’t want any of you to be in any hurry, we don’t even need to fear death. 

God’s love is our light and salvation. God’s mercy is our light and our salvation. God’s forgiveness is our light and our salvation. The cross is our light and our salvation. We need not fear anything. This is why I have this verse memorized, because I need this reminder daily. No matter what I fear, no matter how often the darkness may tempt me or call my name, the Lord is my light and my salvation. I have nothing to fear. You have nothing to fear. Thanks be to God. 

Tristan Toppert–funeral

Kevin, Lisa and family; my beloved people of Elvira Zion, Steamer Nation, friends, I have a confession: I don’t want to be here today. It is only by God’s grace and your prayers that most of us who love Tristan have been sustained this past week. I keep waiting to be woken up. I keep waiting to be told there’s been some mistake. I keep waiting for my tears to stop. And it’s only by God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness that I know we will all be able to walk out of this gym, away from a grave, and know that this is not the end of Tristan’s story. See, this is our Good Friday moment. Death is final. But the three days are coming. The empty tomb is coming. The resurrection is coming. And Jesus, our Lord and Savior, defeated death. Death doesn’t get the final word. Not now, not here. The final word around here, around those who know the truth, is this: love. Love gets the final word. 

This death also isn’t Tristan’s story. We will not let one moment define his life. We refuse to do that. What we will do is share his story. We will share his story and we will share his contagious love for life in the hopes that just one person will know that love and forgiveness can go a long way. Even in death, Tristan was covered in God’s love and forgiveness, just as he was in life. He was claimed in the waters of baptism as a beloved child of God and was claimed once again last Monday. Tristan’s faith was central to who he was. Did you know that? He loved so fiercely because God loved him. For confirmation, I make all the students write a faith statement. This is a challenging task for adults, let alone, an 8th grade student. In his faith statement Tristan wrote this “Matthew 19:26- Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’ This is my all-time favorite verse from the bible.  What I believe this quote is saying is that there are actions in life that seem as if ‘it is over,’ but with God ‘it is never over.’ The biggest asset in life is God. He is my father; I am his son.”

Tristan also loved his family. He was the “funcle” the fun uncle. His nephews worshiped him. He adored his brothers. He would do anything to help his grandparents. He would climb flagpoles to hide Easter eggs. Or make Carson do it. This past Christmas was filled with gifts handmade by Tristan and orders placed by many more family members for his future work. His talent was obnoxious. I was always so jealous of that. He would look at what I would normally call a pile of junk and see nothing but potential. Maybe there is something to learn there. When one too many concussions knocked him (literally) out of football, his first love, he found his passion in the building trades program. If it involved wood, welding, or doing anything with his hands, Tristan was in. Or if it involved eating, you could always find Tristan near. 

Tristan was a walking treasure chest of useless knowledge which he was more than happy to share with you at a moments notice whether you liked it or not. He loved a good debate. Not necessarily an argument, but a good debate. Despite any efforts by me or anyone else, he loved the 49ers. He loved football, period. For a while, he thought playing past high school might be his destiny. He enjoyed track and tried cheerleading for a short stint as well. Tristan wanted to give of himself in any way possible. He learned by watching his family give of themselves. He was a disciple in every sense of the word. Tristan had one of the most generous hearts of anyone I knew. He loved deep and he loved hard. He so desired to be loved in return. Tristan really did live his life according to the golden rule. He treated others how he desired to be treated. If you experienced Tristan’s kindness, which I’m sure most of you did, please know you were experiencing was pure, genuine, love. This is the love that God poured into him (obviously, in abundance) and then Tristan chose (CHOSE) not to keep to himself but to make the world a better place. The kindness that you experienced was nothing short of a gift from God. 

That Romans reading we heard says “what then are we to say about these things?” Yes indeed. Because God has heard me say a lot this past week. Some of it hasn’t been suitable for church. See, our God is big enough to handle all of these emotions. What then are we to say about these things? The truth. This sucks. But the reading continues. “If God is for us, who is against us?” And if we’re honest, again, in life it can feel like a lot of things are against us. It can feel like a lot of people are against us. I fear that is what our beloved Tristan felt on Monday. But, God tells us another story. God is for us. God is for you. God is for me. And God was most certainly for Tristan. God is for us. God’s love is the most powerful force imaginable. Scripture says that nothing comes between us and the love that God has for us. 

Do you hear me, my beloved? Nothing comes between you and the love God has for you, not even death. There are no words, no actions, no shortcomings, no sin that will ever get in the way of God loving you. There is nothing you can do or that Tristan ever did that will ever make God say “well….I’m done loving that one.” Because God’s love is patient, and kind, and never ever ends, not even in death. As I said earlier, this death isn’t the final word. How can we possibly live in a world where death has the final word? No. Not today Satan. We’re resurrection people. We’re empty tomb people. We’re third day people. We’re love conquers death people. Because the alternative is too damn dark. We don’t want to live in darkness. We don’t want to live in a world where death and darkness wins. God’s love tells us, promises us, all of us, including Tristan, that we don’t have to. God promises us a kingdom that God prepares for us where forgiveness and mercy reigns. And if we take seriously that prayer that we all know so well, “on earth as it is in heaven” then may it be so, beloved. May we live and act like we are forgiven and are surrounded by mercy and treat one another the same. That is God’s kingdom on earth. 

We will see Tristan again. We will see that mischievous smile, those amazing eyes (full of knowledge), and we will once again be in the presence of his soul so full of love it’s almost overwhelming. I believe this because I believe in a God of the resurrection, and my God has not led me astray yet. I also refuse to believe the lies that the demons in my head tell me and so I want to believe that Tristan has been assured by God that whatever was chasing him was nothing but a lie and he was only running to God’s love and not running from anything. My beloved siblings in Christ, I hope you know this: Tristan so deeply loved God. And God loved Tristan. And God loves you. No matter what you have done or not done, no matter what you may call God, no matter if you set foot in church or not, God created you and thinks you are wonderfully and beautifully made because God doesn’t make junk. I look out and can see the image of God in all of you. Wear it proudly. But if you struggle to believe that. If you battle demons that are too dark to mention or you think you are alone, let me assure you, you are not. There is a number on the back of your bulletin if you want help. 

Finally, Steamer Nation, I want to leave you with this. And I am talking specifically to Steamer Nation. If it is in your power, and it is within your power, never ever allow this gym to be turned into a sanctuary for this purpose again. Do not allow another family to weep and mourn the way I have witnessed this past week. Choose kindness. Choose love. Choose forgiveness. Choose mercy. Choose grace. It’s what Tristan wanted. It’s what God calls us to do.

Sermon for 1/5/20 Matthew 2:1-12; Epiphany

I will not often admit this, but I am not the best with directions. I find that I am better now that I live in a river town. As long as I know which way the river is, I know where I am. I have never been one of those people who uses directional directions, you know, where you use silly words like “north and east.” I also find it amusing when people give me directions using landmarks that no longer exist. These directions sound like this “go down to where the Johnson outbuilding used to be before they tore in down back in ‘68…” So believe it or not, I rely on GPS a lot. We also have this handy dandy feature in our car (I’m sure a lot of you have it too) called OnStar. With a press of a button I can talk with a real live human, tell them where I’m going, and they send directions to my car. Then through the magic of satellites, a computer voice comes over my car speakers and tells me where to go. It’s great. And I love that it’s called OnStar. 

The wisemen had their own version of OnStar. It was an actual star. Now, another true story about me: long before I knew anything about the Bible or astronomy for that matter, I thought that the star that the wisemen followed was the north star and so that star only appeared on Christmas Eve. I am admitting that I was wrong about this (obviously) just in case any of you think this as well. While the infant Jesus is the main feature of our Gospel for today, we cannot forget a supporting cast member: the star. Scholarly journals offer numerous interpretations on whether this was a star, a supernova, a comet, or what. We’re not told. I’m sticking with what scripture tells me and my very basic eighth grade understanding of astronomy here, it was your average every day kind of star, maybe just a little bit brighter. But the star is the GPS for this story; it sends and directs everyone to the main star, the infant Jesus. 

“The star is a symbol of our need for divine revelation to see the Messiah and King. Without divine revelation, we would miss the Messiah” (Feasting on the Word, Thomas 212). Just think about that for a moment. Had the wisemen not seen the star, they would not have known about the birth of Jesus. They would not have made a trip to pay him homage and worship him. They would not have brought him gifts fit for a king. They would not have been for us and for many, another affirmation that this was not your average birth, this was not your average infant, this was not your average star. The star is crucial in this story because it leads average humans like the wisemen and you and me to the divine. We should always follow this star. 

So you may remember that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The star appeared in the east. We know that’s a very generic direction. We don’t know if the star appeared over the Dead Sea, over the Jordan River, or some where over what is now Jordan or Syria. We just know it appeared to the east and it was stunning enough to beckon these three wisemen to follow. Here’s the strange thing that may be easy to miss. The wisemen were not Jews. They didn’t have scripture. But, they saw something that lead them to search for this new king. And when they arrived they knew enough to ask “where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” (Mt 2:2)

After asking around, the wisemen get no where. No one seems to have an exact address or location for this birth of the Messiah. What shall they do? OnStar to the rescue. They follow the star. The star went ahead of the wisemen, leading and literally illuminating the way to the Christ child. When the wisemen finally reached their destination the star stopped. And the wisemen were overjoyed. Can you imagine? They had followed this star and their journey had reached a fevered pitch and I am sure they were full of joy, excitement, awe, wonder, majesty,and maybe just a little intimidation. They would finally see the king. And the first thing the wisemen do is fall to their knees and worship Jesus. They humbled themselves in body and spirit and bowed before the infant king. 

The presents they had weren’t ordinary. They were purposeful and when the star beckoned, I am sure the wisemen knew they had to bring gifts worthy of a king. The gold was a precious element, it still is, and worthy of a king; “frankincense was incense worth of a divinity; and myrrh was a spice used in burials. So the gifts were appropriate for one who was a king, a God, and a suffering redeemer” (Feasting on the Word, Culpepper 215). After the worship and the gift giving, the magi no longer needed the star. The love of God was enough to direct their lives. 

What are we to do? Where is our star? We have a lot of things that beg for our attention. We have a lot of things in our lives that pose as stars. We have many well intentioned things that want to direct us in this way or that. But it is Christ, our true star, that we should follow. When I think about the night sky it can be overwhelming. If you live out here where there is no light pollution, you know how beautiful a starlit sky can be. The wisemen had it easy (almost). Their star was bright and it moved. It was as if their star was saying “over here guys, look at me!!” But just like a night sky, our lives can get beautifully clustered. So we know we should follow the star to Christ but how?

Most of us already come equipped with a GPS: God Provided Spirit. It is the mark of Christ given to you in baptism. You have been sealed with the Holy Spirit. This is your GPS. This is what you should follow when the world around you gets noisy. This is your star. Our baptismal identities is what makes us who we are. We are first and foremost children of God. We are loved and protected by an infant who welcomed wisemen and a refugee who fled from Herod. We are challenged by a messiah who fed thousands and cured many. Our baptismal calling is like that of following a star. The journey may not be easy, but at the end, we have the opportunity to worship and praise the one who really does give life. I pray that in times of trouble you remember that your star, your calling, your identity, is your God Provided Spirit marked on your foreheads for all the world to see.  

Sermon for 12/22/19 Matthew 1:18-25; Advent 4

Take a deep breath. Stay with me. Resist the urge to move forward two days to Christmas Eve or even three days to Christmas day. Stay with me right here and right now still in Advent, still in the season of waiting and anticipation. We don’t have that many days left. Take another deep breath. And now mentally assure yourself that it will all get done. All of the worries that you have that will take up residence in your heart and brain over the next few days, it will all get done. Even if it doesn’t, Christ still comes. But for now, we wait. For the next few moments you can’t do anything and perhaps that’s a gift. Because despite what you heard in the reading, this isn’t actually a birth story, this is an identity story. While we wait, what does it mean to know we wait for, we wait with, and we are surrounded by Emmanuel? Emmanuel, which as we’re told today means “God is with us.”

I want this to be my main focus today. And I’m keeping things short and sweet because the kids are doing such a great job. But when I tell you that God is with us, what does that mean to you personally? I polled the residents of my home and got a few different answers, as you can imagine. But I want you to think about what it means for you personally. What difference does it make in your life. If this is the one for whom we wait, do we still need Emmanuel? Do we still need a God that is with us. Let’s break this down word by word. 

God is with us. This means that within every single one of us there is something divine. We may not always recognize it, thanks to sin. But every one of us holds the image of the divine creator inside each of us. You cannot look into the eyes of someone else and not see God. But what this also means is that those we would rather ignore have some God in them as well. At the same time, we might do well to recognize that we ourselves have a bit of the divine in us. Let us not be so quick to judge ourselves and be so harsh to ourselves. The fact that God is with us means that any power attempting to be with us or walk with us will be defeated. Scripture tells us that nothing comes between us and the love of God (see Romans 8:38-39). Because God is with us we have the ultimate force for defeating the evils of sin and the devil on our side. God is with us. 

God is with us. Notice something about this verb. Now if you didn’t know, I have a degree in English. I use it a lot to stand up here and talk with you week after week. So, words mean a lot to me. The word “is” is an ongoing verb. Meaning that this “is” has no ending. This isn’t God was with us or God will be with us. God is with us. God’s presence has no beginning and no ending. God’s presence is an always thing. There is never a time when we will not be in God’s presence. That, my beloved, is good news. God is with us. 

God is with us. This might be my favorite word of the whole phrase. Maybe. I keep changing my mind. This is the word that talks about relationships. God is dwelling next to us. God is cozied up on the couch, snuggled in for that Netflix marathon. God is in relationship with us. God is our partner. God offers us protection, assurance, and comfort. This relationship can help with loneliness and grief, though God knows it does not disappear forever. God is with us means that we have a perpetual cheerleader. God is with us does not negate the troubles of the world, but it does seem to make them a little easier to handle. God knows we may forget about this relationship. The beauty of the relationship is that God is always there, with a firm grip on us. God is with us. 

God is with us. Notice something here. Scripture doesn’t say that God is with me. God is with I. God is with him. Or God is with her. No, God is with us. See, God created us to be, live, flourish in community. So it makes perfect sense that God would choose to dwell in and among us. God is the thread that ties us all together. Unlike other things we may have in common, this is our strongest bond. We are all bound together in Christ, by Christ, because of Christ because God is with us. Once again, God is with us, all of us. We may not always recognize it. Sin is tricky like that. But we all come to the table. We are all fed. We are all forgiven. And at the foot of the cross we stand on equal ground. God is with us. 

The baby is coming. But we know now that he will be Emmanuel, God is with us. We know the end of the story. We know all the parts in between. Through all of it he will remain God with us, always. We still need to hear this word. We still need to hear this promise. Nothing else in this world can offer us what Emmanuel can: an ongoing, indwelling, relational God that did and will continue to change the world, and us. God is with us.  

Sermon for 12/15/19 Matthew 11:2-11; Advent 3

When I was at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s churchwide assembly (our annual business meeting) in August, I got a wonderful gift. It is “Hear My Voice: A Prison Prayer Book.” I have found it full of resources for many situations, not just for those in prison or jail. When I found this prayer I wondered if John the Baptist might have related to it. It says “O God, you promised that you are with us wherever we go and that there is no place where we can flee from your presence. I claim that promise right here and now. Help me to feel you with me here in solitary. Help me to know that as long as I am yours, there is no place where I am beyond your reach. Remind me that you will never leave me or forsake me. Give me the strength and courage to face this time and to use the quiet to calm my spirit and focus my attention on your grace and care. I pray this in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.” (107)

I really like that last part of the prayer. “Give me the strength and courage to face this time and to use the quiet to calm my spirit and focus my attention on your grace and care.” We meet our friend, John the Baptist once again this week. But his story is much different this time. He is, as you might have assumed or heard, in prison. Placed there by a very overzealous Herod. I hate to ruin the end of the story for you, but John the Baptist will end up with his head on a platter, literally. He was a threat to the empire, much like Jesus and it cost him. And he wants to know, was it all worth it. He asks a very simple question “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” The thing about John’s question is that it’s not one of curiosity, it’s one of desperation. 

Are you the one, Jesus, or are we waiting on someone else? Was what I’ve been through for the sake of spreading your word worth it and for you or is someone else still yet to come and it was all for nothing? In this season of tidings of comfort and joy, I believe that John was looking a little less for joy and more for comfort. He was in prison, after all. John wants to know if Jesus is the real deal. He wants to know if Jesus is the messiah. And, as Jesus is ought to do, he doesn’t give him a straight answer. Because it’s never yes or no with Jesus. Jesus instead tells John that “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Mt 11:5). If I were John, I’d be a little frustrated. Because even though these amazing things are happening John is still in prison. He still waits. 

I know that sometimes the holidays can be challenging. They may not always be merry and bright. “Give me the strength and courage to face this time and to use the quiet to calm my spirit and to focus my attention on your grace and care.” We talk a lot about waiting during Advent. And some of that waiting and anticipation can be good; like Christmas morning kind of good. Like grandma’s special cinnamon rolls kind of good. But then there’s the waiting that turns our focus and attention to God’s grace and care. This is the kind of waiting that requires more comfort than joy.What if you’re waiting to see how Christmas feels without a loved one that has passed on in the last year?  What if you’re waiting for a cure for whatever ails you. What if you’re waiting for the return of a deployed family member? What if you’re waiting for someone who is whole in body to become fuller in mind or spirit? What if you’re waiting for someone to die only because you know it will bring peace? Waiting is not always jolly or full of gleeful anticipation. Sometimes our waiting can leave us in metaphorical prisons. 

We know that Jesus was the one that John was waiting for. Jesus, instead of giving him a straight yes or no answer instead sent proof that he was indeed the one. Part of my call, my beloved, is to help you and me, all of us, remember why we show up here week after week. Part of my call is to be like John the Baptist and point to Christ. This is work we do together. When I am weak, you serve as John the Baptist for me, reminding me of my own baptism, pointing out the ways Christ is moving in my life. We do this together because this is discipleship work. I can’t do this alone. So I ask you this week, when can you remember seeing or feeling, knowing deep in your heart, that sinking down into your bones feeling that you encountered the risen Christ? 

When was it that you were brought comfort? Maybe you were also brought joy, but for sure comfort. When did you know the answer to the question John keeps asking “are you the one?” We need those moments, my beloved. And we need to share them with one another. Because I’ll be honest, it’s hard out there. So many of us are stuck in metaphorical prisons and we need someone from the outside that will come and tell us the good news that it is worth it. That Jesus is the real thing. You are all called to be disciples and that means telling your story of when you encountered Jesus and you had no doubts it was him. Maybe it was a still small moment or maybe it was a bright shining star kind of moment. Maybe you’ve had more than one moment. I encourage you to share this with someone, maybe over coffee or the car ride home. 

It’s been a rough few weeks for me. The details of which I’ll spare you. But the challenges of my mental illness get especially tricky this time of year. What you may not know is that people with brain health issues aren’t sad when we’re depressed, we mainly feel nothing. And who showed up to my prison but my beloved Christopher. He whispered the words of my baptismal promise to me that I am loved and that God loves me and that I am worthy. The abyss seemed less looming in that moment. I knew that Jesus is real because Jesus showed up through Chris. What story will you tell to help free someone from their prison? 

Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, has come into the world and crushed the prison walls around us with his love, grace, and saving actions on the cross.  He didn’t save us with sword or stone but with love unending. This is why Jesus matters: because we cannot save ourselves. Why does Jesus matter? Because without him, we would be incapable of loving ourselves, let alone anyone else.  Why does Jesus matter? Because without him, really, nothing else matters.  

Your prison can no longer keep you.  The one for whom we wait is here in bread and wine.  Taste and see for yourself. Taste and see why Jesus matters. Taste and see that Jesus is the one for whom we wait.   

 

Sermon for 12/8/19 Matthew 3:1-12; Advent 2

I have an idea for a fundraiser for church and I think with just the right amount of help we can pull this thing off in time for Christmas. You know how it is popular this time of year to take your kids to the mall and other places to see Santa? Well, we do the same thing but with a few small changes. So, instead of seeing Santa, the kids, all of us really, get to see John the Baptist. Now, if you want to sit on his lap, that’s up to you. And instead of asking “have you been a good girl or boy” like Santa does, John the Baptist will instead ask everyone “have you been bearing fruit worthy of repentance?” And we’ll set up a little coffee shop in the narthex or downstairs or someplace (I haven’t worked all these details out yet) so people have something to do while they wait to talk with John the Baptist. And the coffee shop will be called (wait for it….) “BREWED of vipers!!” Get it? I think this is a no fail idea and people will be flocking from all around Clinton county to see this. 

I understand that once again, having a reading like this during Advent can seem a little strange. You may be ready for the shepherds, angels, nativity, all of the “classic” Christmas story elements. These apocalyptic end-time stories are getting to be a little too much and are cramping our festive nature, Jesus. But darn it if I don’t love a good John the Baptist story. I love John the Baptist. He loves Jesus. He’s often misunderstood. He’s got great fashion sense. The first thing we hear John the Baptist say is “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” To repent means to turn outward; to turn away from ourselves and out to the world. To repent means that we turn from our selfish sinful ways and turn towards God’s life-giving grace. I like the fact that the first thing John tells us to do is repent. Because once we repent the rest of his message, honestly, doesn’t sound that scary. 

Repentance isn’t easy. I speak from experience. For me, it’s an ongoing practice. When I say that repentance is turning away from my old sinful self, that sounds easy. But I know from my daily living and my daily dying that repentance is difficult. Sinning isn’t always something I knowingly do, just like many of you. It happens without even thinking about it. That’s part of what makes repentance so difficult. But what also makes repentance difficult is that I must expose myself as the liar and fraud that I am. Oh sure, I put on a good show up here every single Sunday but I struggle with so many of the same things that you do. I fall to sin daily. To admit it means exposing myself. I’m not perfect. I can’t keep it altogether. I struggle. I don’t always trust that God has got my best interest in mind. If I truly live into what repentance means then you would probably hear me confess these things to you week after week and I’m guessing that would get old after a while. But rest assured, my beloved, the office of pastor does not and will never abstain me from the intoxicating allure of falling into sin. Daily. Thanks be to God for grace and forgiveness. 

But John tells us that Jesus is coming. That alone should compel us to confess our sins. As much as I may have joked about being bad or good, repentance isn’t about our moral worthiness. It certainly isn’t about other people’s opinions of us either. Rather, repentance is about “God’s desire to realign us to accord with Christ’s life. Repentance is not so much about our guilt feelings as about God’s power to transform us into Christ’s image” (Feasting on the Word, Burgess 46). Now here’s the thing about repentance: once we start to actively engage in repentance, that is, make it our daily practice, God does this amazing thing. “We will remember and affirm that Christ has brought each of us out of bondage and has fundamentally reoriented our life” (ibid). Repentance frees us. 

Repentance frees us because when we are able to turn from ourselves, when we’re able to turn from being inward, to being outward to the world, we are in a position of vulnerability. We are in a position to no longer make ourselves our only focus, but we start to see God in the world and in others. Repentance is what reminds us that our sins ultimately don’t hold power over us. In our repentance, God will remind us that Christ has “brought each of us out of our bondage and … reoriented our life. Our own wanderings in … life will not be without wilderness hesitancy and resistance, yet God promises to keep pointing the way ahead” (ibid). When we start with repentance, John the Baptist’s message sounds more like a promise than a threat. 

All of these end times don’t have to be scary. Repentance isn’t punishment. Rather, it should be a way of life. In the waters of baptism, Christ claims you. You belong to God. Maybe bearing fruits worthy of repentance just looks like remembering that. On my worst days, I am doing really good to remember that I am called and claimed. On my better days, I repent, look for God in my neighbor, listen for how Christ is calling me to serve others, enter into the wilderness, knowing that I will not be alone, and pray that today I can be a little more like John the Baptist, pointing to Christ and the amazing things he is doing in my life and in the world. We may not always get it right. In fact, we won’t. That’s why we need grace. That’s why we need the meal of Christ’s body and blood as a reminder that nothing comes between us and the love of God. Let us not forget that the time between “joy to the world” and “crucify him” escalates very quickly. It would do us good to remember that repentance and remembering our baptismal promises can help the wilderness feel a little less uncharted and dangerous and more like a place where we’ll meet John the Baptist. Someone we can hope to be like: pointing the way to Christ and furthering God’s kingdom here on earth.