Sermon for 10/1/17 Matthew 21:23-32

I have found that when times are difficult either globally or nationally, there seems to be an uptick in evangelism. It’s not always the most healthy evangelism, but evangelism nonetheless. This usually presents itself in the form of well meaning pictures of flags waving, bald eagles flying, kids with their hands over their hearts, and other types of photo stock images with the words “bring Jesus back into our schools” or “make Christ the cornerstone of your lives.” It can also be presented by well meaning (or maybe not so well meaning) well known evangelical pastors being interviewed on television (they never interview pastors like me) saying things like “now is the time for people to let Jesus into their hearts” and other such things. Part of me agrees. I wonder how this country and world would look if we actually took to heart the things that Jesus spoke about, taught about, and preached about. But, part of me disagrees. We humans are so full of ourselves to think we even have the slightest bit of power that would be able to keep Jesus out of any place.

Today’s reading in Matthew asks some questions directly of Jesus. The authorities are, as usual, trying to set up Jesus to fail. They are already trying to catch him in the act, so to speak, so that they can start to build the case against him. These questions they are asking is what ultimately leads to his crucifixion. And this little game of cat and mouse goes on and on for chapters upon chapters in all of our gospel stories. Jesus always gives the authority just enough to confuse them and just enough to encourage them to come back and ask more questions. So the questions asked of Jesus in today’s readings are “by what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority?” And really what the chief priests and elders are asking is “Jesus, who are you?” and “by what authority do you preach, teach, and lead?” I want to argue that when the elders and chief priests ask these questions, what they are also asking (its implied) is “so what does that mean for me?”

As Christians, we often claim Jesus when Jesus looks, thinks, speaks, or acts like us. We are comfortable when the messiah does things or says things that can benefit us and/or the people we love. Yet too often we mess this up and get this wrong. We like to decide who is in and who is out and when we start to draw lines in the sand, we often place ourselves on the side of the persecuted instead of the one doing the persecution. Author Anne Lamott says “you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” The questions of “who are you” and “by what authority” weren’t just questions that the chief priests and elders asked, they are questions we still should be asking of Jesus and ourselves today.

And as we ask those questions, it naturally leads to another question (or, at least it does in my opinion) of “why does that matter?” When we speak of who Jesus is for us and why we believe what we believe, the question that seems to get us stuck is that “why does it matter?” When we proclaim that Jesus is Lord, what does that mean for us and our lives? For me, to proclaim that Jesus is Lord means trusting in God completely and totally and if I am going to be honest, that is really frightening. If we are going to proclaim that Jesus is Lord then that means nothing else, absolutely nothing else, can serve in that capacity. This means that power, money, time, status, nothing else is Lord. But, oh how often do we make those things our lord. How often do we bow to the pressures of money, power, time, status, and what not? How often are we pledging our allegiance to the things that during Jesus’ time would be considered the empire?

When was the last time you thought about what Jesus means for you? And I don’t mean that in a hypothetical, passing thought kind of way. I mean when you think about the role that Jesus plays in your life, how does that shape every single thing in your life? And are you projecting your own expectations onto Jesus, or are you gladly taking on Jesus’ expectations of you? Those are two very different questions, my beloved. Why or how is your life different because of Jesus? Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace. That grace is a gift and it changes our lives. Yet we do everything in our power to deny that because we don’t think we’re worthy of God’s grace or love. Maybe we are scared to think about who we are and what it means for us to declare that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace.

So maybe what you need to hear today is this, my beloved. To declare that Jesus is Lord and that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace means that nothing and no one has ever or will ever be forgotten. This includes you. If you feel abandoned, forgotten, lonely, forsaken, that is simply evil trying its best to whisper unworthiness in your ear. Because God’s grace doesn’t forget anyone. To declare that Jesus is Lord and that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace means that love is a lavish commodity that never runs out. This means that you can be, will be, and are a recipient of God’s obnoxious love. It doesn’t matter how you feel about yourself, or what society tells you that you should feel about yourself, God loves you, all of you, more than you can ever know. Jesus showed us that love by emptying himself on the cross. When the empire wanted Jesus to prove who he was, he did exactly that by loving the world with no exceptions.

Maybe what you need to hear today, my friends, is that declaring Jesus is Lord and that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace means that your suffering has not gone unnoticed. Your times of hardship have not been spent alone. Your darkness has not been without a small amount of light from Christ. Your tears have been counted. Your sleepless nights have been tallied. When it feels like the world has given up on you, Jesus is still there, right by your side, because there is no place that is too dark or too desolate for God.

When we are clear about who Jesus is for us, we can also be clear about who Jesus is for the world. Because if we declare that Jesus is Lord of all, we must mean all. If we declare that Jesus is love, we must mean that all are loved. If we declare that Jesus is forgiveness incarnate, then that forgiveness is for all people. And that kind of love and forgiveness is messy and it isn’t easy and thank God, it’s not up to us. In a time when governments show authority with money, military power, and, God forbid, nuclear power, it is strange and even counter-cultural to proclaim that we love and serve a God whose power comes in the form of a cross. We love and serve a God who instead of stockpiling love and forgiveness, passes it out like candy at a parade. We love and serve a God whose power comes from death and resurrection. So sure, we always need more Jesus in this world. But we need Jesus that denied the empire, not bowed down to it. We need the Jesus that shows preferential treatment to the poor, not the Jesus we’ve created in our minds that favors the rich. We need the Jesus who opens the doors of heaven to tax collectors and prostitutes first before any of us self-proclaimed self-righteous are allowed to enter. Most importantly, we need the Jesus with love for everyone; a love that is wholly unfair and yet, a holy relief.

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Sermon for 6/18/17 Matthew 9:35-10:8

I absolutely love what I do. There is no doubt in my mind that I am supposed to be a pastor. God created me to do this. I love you, I love this church, I love the people of God. But, at the same time, this is a job. Yes, it’s a calling, but it’s also a job. Like any other job, I have those days where I wonder if I am making any difference. I wonder if I should be going about ministry in another way. I wonder if this thing (my mic) is even on. On those days, when I’m having a not so great day, I go back and read my letter of call. Every person that serves in a called capacity within our church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America receives a letter of call. It is specific to the place that they are serving. So, my letter of call right now, has our church name on it. When and if I ever take a new call, I will get a new letter.

Here is what my letter of call says: “We call you to exercise among us the ministry of Word and Sacrament which God has established and which the Holy Spirit empowers: To preach and teach the Word of God in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions; to administer Holy Baptism and Holy Communion; to lead us in worship; to proclaim the forgiveness of sins; to provide pastoral care; to speak for justice in behalf of the poor and oppressed; to encourage persons to prepare for the ministry of the Gospel; to impart knowledge of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and its wider ministry; to endeavor to increase support given by our congregation to the work of our whole church; to equip us for witness and service; and guide us in proclaiming God’s love through word and deed.”

Phew! That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? There was one short phrase in today’s Gospel that got me thinking about this letter of call. In verse 7, Jesus says to the disciples “as you go, proclaim the good news…” Did you notice some pretty specific verbs in that command? “As you go…” Matthew’s Gospel speaks a lot about evangelism. This is one of those moments. For Jesus, evangelism was an ongoing activity, not a passive hope. Let me repeat that again, our greatest teacher, our Lord and Savior, the man who came to earth and died on a cross for sinners like me and you believed that evangelism was an ongoing activity, not a passive hope. So much of what I am called to do can be traced back to evangelism. This made me wonder what it might look like for all of us, each and every one of us to have a letter of call.

Maybe upon baptism and/or even upon confirmation, you’d be handed a letter similar to mine that laid out what was expected of you as a follower of Jesus Christ. Would your letter lay out what you’ve been doing all along in regards to evangelism or do you think it might push you outside of your boundaries just a little bit? That is what God does, you know? Challenge us. “As you go” into the field, into the grocery store, to the doctor, into the classroom, to the gym, from this place, into the world… “proclaim the good news.” See my beloved brothers and sisters, no matter what we may think, we’re not peddling a unique product here. It’s not like we know something and have something the rest of the world doesn’t. People aren’t going to come out of the woodwork just to come here, to us, to find out about Jesus Christ. We need to spread the good news with our words, our actions, and our feet. Evangelism doesn’t happen when we refuse to move off our duffs.  

I often think that evangelism has a bad name. We think about those people on street corners yelling about the end times coming or yelling terribly jugemental things. Or we might think about those door to door evangelists that want to know if we’ve found Jesus (once again…had no idea he was missing). Of course, there’s also the television evangelists. So I completely understand why when I mention the word “evangelism” people want to coil up in a ball and stay right in their comfy pews. Sometimes people say “evangelism” with about as much enthusiasm as when they say “root canal!” So, if you had a letter of call what might that entail? The wonderful thing about evangelism is that you can tailor it to fit what you do. Here’s a simple example of what that might look like: when someone says “hey! I know you’re a church going person and a believer, my grandma could really use some prayers.” You could respond “of course, let’s pray right now” instead of just saying “sure, I’ll pray for her.”

People don’t learn about Christ by mistake. Your faith was formed and continues to grow from others sharing their faith (this is called “evangelism”). You can share your faith and help others to grow in theirs. Evangelism doesn’t have to be standing on street corners yelling, going door to door, or even on tv; but, it does require movement, it requires action. And I understand that it is difficult, and I understand that it may be uncomfortable, and I understand that you might be labeled one of those “crazy Christians” but friends, this isn’t optional. Evangelism means growth; and if we’re not growing we’re dying.

So…if you had a letter of call…oh wait! You do! All of us have a letter of call. In our baptism we are given a letter of call of sorts. Today, as we baptize Hudson, he will receive his letter of call and believe it or not, his sponsors, Matt and Melissa, will make sure that he continues to remind himself of his letter of call. All of us make promises at baptism for our children or on behalf of ourselves. We promise to live among God’s faithful people, come to the word of God and the holy supper, teach or learn the Lord’s Prayer, the Creeds, and the Ten Commandments, read and study the Bible, nurture our faith life and prayer life, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace. That sounds very similar to my actual letter of call. And again, at the basis of all of those promises is evangelism. The promises made for you or by you in baptism is your letter of call.

Notice as well that your letter of call mentions nothing about being still and waiting for others to come to you so that you may share your faith. In fact, many of the verbs in those promises indicate movement: “live, bring, teach, place, nurture, learn, proclaim and work” are all action words. So, “as you go” live out your faith in your words, actions, and deeds. Remember that no matter where you go, God will go with you and ahead of you to prepare your way. God will give you the words you need. God will prepare those that need to hear. And long after you share your faith story, long after you continue on moving, God will be working through the Holy Spirit so that others will be empowered to go and grow the kingdom. Your path, brothers and sisters, goes from the font, to the table, and out the door. God bless you as you go!

Sermon for 6/4/17 John 20:19-23 Pentecost

And so it came to be, that on the fourth day of the six month in the year of our Lord, twenty seventeen; when Donald Trump was president, when we were represented by Joni Ernst and Charles Grassley, along with David Loebsack; when the town of Clinton of Iowa (founded in 1857, only ten short years after the founding of Iowa) was mayored by Mark Vulich, the Holy Spirit entered into the most unlikely of places: the people of Elvira Zion. The nerve of the Holy Spirit. How dare she with her flittering and fluttering about like a wild butterfly with no cares in the world?

She came at first like an itch. Some tired to scratch but that proved futile. The more she was ignored, the more she moved. The Holy Spirit, they found out, does not like to be ignored. So she moved even more. She became energized and tried to once again stir among the people. She was swatted away like a pesky fly. She was greeted with negative blocks of “not right now” and “you certainly don’t want me, Lord.” The Holy Spirit is persistent, they would learn. She continued to swirl and now some started to feel her presence. Some called it “the winds of change” others called it “something new.” She blew into the littlest in the place, knowing they would welcome her as a friend. The Holy Spirit had long ago learned that the younger the disciple, the more willing they were to listen and believe. The Holy Spirit was seen in the youngest through their eyes, how they sparkled; through their voices singing even if off key; even through their dancing in the pews despite parents attempts to make them sit and behave. The Holy Spirit knew, the only way to behave was to respond to her. So the littlest among them danced, sang, twinkled, twirled, and dared to ask hard questions, sometimes the kinds of hard questions with no answers. The littlest among them held out their hands, hungry for bread and wine, knowing it had the power to change their lives, the Holy Spirit had told them so. They longed to splash in the baptismal waters, gobble up every last crumb of bread like it was their last, and then hold hands with other disciples singing joyfully while departing this place. And as hard as she tried, Holy Spirit could not stop the discouraging looks from parents or even those who thought children should be seen and not heard.

But, the Holy Spirit was determined. So she continued to swirl, stir, and breathe into the most unlikely of people, these country people, these farmers, these rural people, these people of big hearts and steady minds. The Holy Spirit continued to breathe into their leader: a strange one of sorts. She was quite unlikely. Not a country girl at all. Troubled with mental health, busy with a family, balancing motherhood, marriage, and a pastorate, the Holy Spirit dare not pass her over. What did it mean that the Holy Spirit stuck around this place? This place of all places? It breathed into one who normally remained quiet, sitting in the back pew, minding his or her own business, and inspired them to speak up and say “what if…” She breathed into a new one, desiring to be more involved so the Holy Spirit gave her an itch that just wouldn’t go away. The Spirit breathed into the one, normally shy and recluse, and opened his mouth to sing the praises of the one who makes us one. She breathed into the one that always blocked out God. “No time” they would say or “I can’t do that” they would cry. And yet…yet, the Holy Spirit chose her to be council president, or run a food pantry, or sit on a committee, or volunteer.

The Holy Spirit saw what was happening in this place and God was quite pleased. So, the Holy Spirit thought “perhaps I should stir and blow some more?” And the Holy Spirit started stirring more. And the Holy Spirit starting blowing more. And people started feeling that itch of change. People started feeling the need to answer God but had no idea how. People started to question this change. And instead of setting up their sails to go wherever the wind of the Spirit might blow, the people set up firm foundations, and boarded up their hearts, like those preparing for a hurricane might do to windows.

The Holy Spirit blew with one idea and encountered a boarded up heart and painted on that board were the words “no time.” And so she moved on and blew into someone else. But their heart was boarded up with words scribbled hastily that said “no money.” She picked up force, blew and stirred even more and encountered another heart, once again boarded up with denial and the words “not me.” The Holy Spirit knew she was in the right place. After all, it was God that sent her. God had a purpose and a reason for this place. Spirit just had to find the right person that would welcome her and engage in a playful, life-giving dance. Spirit was eager. So, the community offered up one of the typical people. That person who always volunteers. That reliable person. The person who wasn’t necessarily excited about the opportunity to dance, but was willing to do so anyway.

As the Holy Spirit started her waltz, it was unfamiliar to the reliable person. The steps seemed faster, or Spirit seemed to be a stronger leader. Either way, Spirit swirled like a tornado and the reliable person held on for dear life. “Maybe” thought Mr or Mrs Reliable, “the Spirit didn’t want me. Maybe it is time for someone else to listen to the Spirit.” In prayer, love, and understanding, reliable gratefully got their dance card stamped and moved aside for someone else.

The community listened and prayed, prayed and listened. They wanted Spirit to stay, desperately. They wanted Spirit to move, change, and mold them. They kept offering up reliable person after reliable person only for Spirit to swirl, twist, and turn them out. She was waiting for anything but the status quo. Finally, a voice spoke up. It was an unfamilar voice to some. It didn’t have the same cadence as all the others. The voice was from someone unlike the rest of them. The language they spoke was the same, but somehow different. Those who had already danced with the Spirit said “maybe this one, the unfamiliar one, the strange one, the new one, the one whose voice we haven’t heard, is the one Spirit is waiting for.” Spirit whirled and smiled because the unfamiliar one had been speaking all along, but the community had chosen not to listen.

And with confidence that came only from God, the unfamiliar one stepped forward, took Spirit’s hand and entered into a careful dance. After a few twists, turns, and twirls, the Spirit finally calmed and settled into the place. The Spirit settled into this place because that is what she does. And she calmed and settled when the community stopped and listened. It wasn’t what they were expecting, but it was something better. It wasn’t what they wanted, but it most certainly is what they needed. The Holy Spirit stayed, calm and settled, because that is what the Holy Spirit does when people start to listen and follow her lead. It is in that calm that we, all of us, can start the hard work of loving one another and being one in community.

 

Sermon for 4/30/17 Luke 24:13-35

It never fails that when the weather is nice, I will get a text sometime between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. It comes from Heather, my therapist, and it usually only says two words “we walking?” Sometimes I beat her to it and let her know if we are walking or not. Heather’s office isn’t that far from the dike, and so, we take the opportunity to walk and talk. This was originally her idea, which didn’t surprise me. She’s really into fitness and is the kind of person that runs for fun. She gave me a warning “there are people who will see us together. They might know what you do. They might know what I do.” She was basically giving me a heads up that our therapy session would be outside, open to the world, and whomever we might run into. She never tells anyone she is my therapist (out of respect for me) but I don’t keep secrets. There are times when our walk is a nice brisk pace and we can manage to get 2-2 ½ miles in during the session. There have been a few times when my own self revelation has made it necessary for us to stop walking. But we always start off the same way: in front of her office, laces tied, and her saying “so…what’s up?” And away we go.

I thought about our walks as I read this walk to Emmaus story this week. And I have come to realize that it’s not the distance of the walk, it’s not the terrain that matters, it’s not necessarily even the conversation, but sometimes your walking companion makes all the difference. The disciples had been walking along the road; it was around a 7 mile journey. I am sure that in many ways, it felt longer. These two had become friends. And now, they lamented the death of their friend Jesus as they walked along the way. I doubt this was a record-breaking pace they were setting. And sure, while they might have been walking a normal pace (whatever that is) they were most likely weighed down by grief, disbelief, and maybe even disappointment.

These are two people who (literally) sat at Jesus’ feet and now, when he comes walking along the road with them, they don’t even recognize him. Usually if someone joins your conversation, you know them. The conversation that follows is fascinating. “What are you talking about” nosy Jesus wants to know. And Cleopas says (paraphrasing) “Have you been living under a rock? Don’t you know the things that have happened?” And Jesus’ response is so loving, so tender, and so amazing that we just might miss it. “What things” he asks? This is Jesus’ version of “so…what’s up?” Jesus is creating space for mourning, for anger, for grief, for misbelief, for all of the emotions that go along with death. More importantly, Jesus is listening.

It’s important for us to remember that Easter Sunday does not erase, undo, or reverse Good Friday. That needs to be repeated: Easter Sunday does not erase, undo, or reverse Good Friday. Jesus died a very real death. It was a very real, very painful death, filled with suffering and agony. Death happened. Jesus wasn’t playing dead, he wasn’t faking it, he wasn’t just “asleep,” he was all the way dead. His friends and followers witnessed this. They witnessed him carrying his own torture device. They witnessed as his executors drove nails into his hands. They witnessed it all. I cannot even begin to imagine that kind of pain. When Jesus asks “what things” he gives room for the disciples to express all of the pain that accompanied them and continues to dwell in them as they mourn their friend.

If you have a friend that offers you space, you know what a gift this is. We so often want to fix, not listen. We want to offer solutions without fully understanding the problem. And sometimes, we are tempted to join our friend in their situation. What I mean is that when a friend is complaining, even about something mundane (like bills or laundry) we tend to agree. We support our friends, right? But is it always for their good? We join in the lamentations “I totally understand, I also have 9 loads of laundry waiting for me.” Or maybe “I know! Visa called me like 4 times last week. I sent them straight to voicemail.” And maybe what our friends need, maybe what we need every once in awhile is not to be fixed, not to be offered solutions, not even to be given solidarity. What we need is the space to voice our heart, no matter how wonderful or how painful that will be.

And yes, while Jesus does offer this space, he follows the space with a bit of a lecture. However, at the end of the lecture, he gathers his friends for a meal. He takes bread, breaks it, blesses it, and feeds his friends. It is in that feeding that the disciples recognize their fellow traveler for who he really is: the risen Christ. And if you go back and read the passage again, did Jesus say anything while he was doing this? No. He was leaving space for silence, for contemplation, for pain, for suffering, for mourning, and for discovery. Jesus feeds the disciples, just like before his death, and by doing so, he brings them back into community.

In this feeding, they are reminded of his love, his care, and his mercy. They are also reminded of their new identities as disciples (instead of fishermen). They are also reminded that Jesus has always and will always provide for them. And this is all done without Jesus saying a word. How comfortable are you in the silence?  How often do you leave room for silence? Are you quick to fill silence with noise because it makes you nervous? Maybe you don’t like silence because it makes you uncomfortable. But friends, as I have said before, if we are talking, we miss listening to God. Because it is in our silence that God moves, acts, and speaks.

Brothers and sisters, we are surrounded by a lot of noise. Some of it is helpful noise, but a lot of it really is just noise. What happens when we start to rid our world of noise? Turn off the radio, mute the commercials, resist the urge to interrupt; something happens. We really start to listen. We start to enter into deeper relationships with one another. We start to see one another as a fellow travelers on the road: fed by Christ. Offer one another space. It will feel a little weird at first, maybe even a bit unnatural. But it will become easier the more you practice. Offer space. And in that space, make room for the Holy. Make room for all possible emotions. Make room for God.  We don’t intentionally NOT listen to one another, it’s just habit. But maybe we don’t listen to one another as a protection for our emotions. We are surrounded by people we have the ability to love and who have the ability to love us. And that happens in the silence.