Sermon for 10/8/17 Matthew 21:33-46

I’ve thought a lot about fences this week. Weird, I know. I keep thinking about the Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall.” In it, he wrote “good fences make good neighbors.” I’ve also been thinking about borders and walls, all types of barriers we construct or that are constructed for us. This week has brought us some horrific violence once again. Much like the news reporters, I get so tired of addressing issues like this from the pulpit. And sure, it’d be easy to say “then don’t do it, Pastor.” Well, the fact is, the kingdom of God has been disrupted and hurt. I cannot simply ignore real, tangible pain in the world. For me, that would be like ignoring Christ himself. And it is during times like this that we may be tempted to build fences, either real or metaphorical, to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. We build fences out of fear, love, knowledge, anger, distrust, and reality among many other things.

So why all this talk about fences? Well, our gospel of course. Among many other things, the gospel story mentions a fence. And here’s the thing. When Jesus tells parables, he’s very specific and the details are for a reason, a purpose. Why did it matter that the vineyard had a fence around it? Why did Jesus include this really important detail? Maybe those hearing this parable wouldn’t have thought anything of it at the time. Maybe to have a fence during Jesus’ time was code for something else. But, as always, there was a method to Jesus’ madness. So let’s talk a little more about this, shall we?

I know many of you have fences on your property. Please hear me from the beginning here, I am not saying that actual fences are a bad thing. Many of you have fences for practical purposes: they keep your livestock where they belong. Without fences there might be more car versus cow accidents. Or maybe you have a fence to keep the critters out of your garden. Perhaps you have a fence to keep the dogs or kids in the yard where you can see them. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to have a pool and you need to have a fence for safety reasons. With the cost of a fence these days, the decision to put one up isn’t one that is willy-nilly. People usually think hard about it and do research before just putting up a fence. I know that a fence is also rarely maintenance free.

But, we also put up metaphorical fences and walls in our lives. We may not realize that is what we are doing because it often gets done in the name of safety and protection. These types of fences are more to keep people out than to keep things in. Maybe this looks like avoiding a certain area of town after dark. Maybe this looks like crossing the street when you see someone on the same sidewalk in the distance that you don’t like the looks of. Maybe this looks like double checking to make sure you still have your wallet or purse when you’re in the company of certain people. These are all metaphorical fences and when we do things like this in the name of safety and protection, the message that we send to other children of God is “I’m safe and okay… you however, need to be judged and vetted before I let you in.”

And the vineyard owner in today’s parable had a fence for whatever reason. But, in the end, the vineyard owner lost some of his slaves because they were murdered. He lost his own son to murder. In addition to that, he lost profit. He originally sent the slaves to collect some of the produce. This was very customary for that time. But the tenants weren’t having any of it. The vineyard owner had lost everything that was possible to lose. A fence didn’t make the difference. All the time and money to keep his investment safe did no good. Much like previous parables, we may want to see ourselves in the role of the landowner, or the slaves, maybe even the landowner’s son. We certainly don’t see ourselves like the tenants.

If we dive a little deeper into this parable, we may discover that this is more allegorical than a parable. The landowner is God. The slaves are the prophets. The landowner’s son is Jesus. The tenants is the established government. The vineyard is the kingdom of God. God trusts us to tend to the kingdom of God. And with the best intentions in our hearts, we build fences. We build fences by just flat out not being church. We build fences when we question someone’s ability to serve God based on gender alone (I get this a lot because I’m female). We build fences when we deny the validity of relationships because they are between two people of the same gender. We build fences when we give each other the “up and down” observing what one another is wearing. We build fences when we turn people away from this table for whatever reason. We build fences in the name of kingdom-keeping when really building fences destroys the kingdom of God.

I mean, if there is any place that should be without barriers, it would be the kingdom of God. We know, or at least I hope we know, that we serve a God who is all about breaking down barriers. And we build them up anyway. What do we think we’re protecting when we build walls in the kingdom of God? Who do we think we’re protecting? Do we really think that we know the kingdom better than God and so we build walls? How self centered are we? Our sin causes us to build walls and barriers in the name of safety, trust, and protection. But here’s the thing. The kingdom of God is open to all. Who are we protecting? God doesn’t need protecting. Which leads me to believe that the only people we’re protecting is ourselves. And when we start to build walls and barriers in the name of religion, we can quickly diminish from religion into cult.

I understand that the world is a scary place. 59 souls are no longer with us after that was confirmed once again this past week in Vegas. It’s tempting, and almost too easy to hold your loved ones close, lock the doors, build walls, keep to yourselves, all in the name of safety, protection, and privacy. But what ultimately keeps us safe is God. Sometimes the people we need protection from is ourselves; only God can do that. When we need the walls around our hearts broken so that we are able to fully experience the love and joy of this world, only God can do that. When we need the courage to break down the barriers that stop us from loving our neighbors and serving the world around us, only God can do that. And when we get weary from breaking down the barriers in this world that God has called us to break down and we need rest, only God can provide that.

Do “good fences make good neighbors?” Maybe. But, I’ve never been able to call on a fence for a cup of sugar or to watch my dog or water my flowers. God designed us to live and be in community. The more we fence ourselves in, the more we rob ourselves of those opportunities. There is a lot of evil in the world. That evil tempts us daily to block out everyone else, even those who wish to love us and help us. And yes, it’s smart to be on guard and be aware. But don’t do it at the cost of making yourself an island. We are called to be keepers of the kingdom, not build a fence around it. What I am proposing this day is what God has called us to do all along: take the risk of opening yourself up to love. Take the risk of loving someone else. Get to know other children of God. Break down walls of suspicion and build bridges of hope instead. Destroy walls of injustice, and help build systems of equality instead. Defeat fences made out of the “isms” of life and build life lines of love instead. This isn’t necessarily hard work, we just keep putting up walls. God will tear those down and show us our next steps.

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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.

Sermon for 9/17/17 John 10:22-30

**nb: This was the 125th anniversary of the congregation I pastor**

A lot of you have noticed that I like to keep my fingernails long. I have had long nails for as long as I can remember. One of the things I do to spoil and treat myself is regular manicures. I recently changed the method of manicure and that has caused a lot of my nails to break. Meh. They’ll grow back. But, it wasn’t until I broke one all the way down to the quick did I realize how much I use my hands on a daily basis. I type, hold Ellen’s hand, pet Sasha, unload the dishwasher, open the mail, hold Chris’ hand…the list could go on and on. Then I thought about what some of you might do with your hands on a daily basis: rock babies, help an elderly parent take their medication, feed your animals, drive a load to ADM, quilt, bake, comfort others, and that list could go on and on as well.

And then I thought about what hands have done in this place through God’s people over the last 125 years. There was the literal moving of this church from over by the cemetery to where we sit now. Then the digging to build the narthex was done by so many of your ancestors. Renovations were done by people with the last names of Petersen and Mommsen to name a few. Many of you have brought your babies to this font to be baptized and held in the hands of pastors who now are part of our communion of saints. So many of you have shaken hands as you greet people gathered for your family confirmation, wedding, or funeral. And of course, so many of your hands helped to renovate the house I am proud to call our home. It’s really amazing to think about how the people of God, acting as God’s hands and feet in this world, have made a difference just in this place.

This passage from John is often used on what is known as “good shepherd” Sunday. This comes from the quote from Jesus in 10:27 “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” I love that idea. It’s comforting to me, and to you, I hope, to think of Jesus as a shepherd. Jesus, the one who guides us, shelters us, and takes care of us. But, what really inspired my thinking this week was the sentence that followed. “I will give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” Part of me wants to say “do you hear the good news in this? Okay great. Sermon over. Amen…” But I won’t.

Over the last 125 years one thing has remained the same: we have always been in God’s grip. God has a hold of us so very tightly and nothing has ever or will ever change that. It has been God’s hand all along hold us, nudging us, maybe even pushing us towards God’s will for us. God’s hands have been in and among us all along. Through times of great joy and in times of great sorrow, God has had us in the palm of God’s hand. Nothing has ever gotten in the way of that. And if you’ve been around these parts long enough, or have had family members that have been here for a while, you might be able to recall a time when you can say clearly and without a doubt “God’s hands were all over that!” And maybe, yes, there are times when you can recall wondering if God had a clue what was happening in this place.

Perhaps part of the good news for us is that feeling God and being held by God is never on us. What I mean is that God holds on to us, not the other way around. It is never us holding onto God. So, often I picture God holding my hand like a tender parent would but other times, I picture God picking me up by the back of my neck like a disobedient kitten. Even in the times of our disbelief, God still has a hold of us. During the times when we wonder if God is even listening, I think that is when God tightens the grip. And when Jesus says that no one will snatch us out of God’s hand what that really means is that not one person and not one thing can ever take us away from God.

Evil forces have a way of finding us, don’t they. Sometimes we call these evil forces “good intentions” and sometimes they are more appropriately called “sin.” We may not trust that God has a hold of us. We intervene in our human ways that ultimately lead to human error. We may think that we know better than God so even though God is pointing us one way, we look and say “this way seems easier, better, or way more fun!” And we stray. God offers us life and protection and love but instead we turn to power, money, and self interests to comfort us. All of those things ultimately let us down. But no matter what, nothing removes us from God’s hand, not even death. Not an actual death or a metaphorical death can remove us from God’s hand. And remember, from death comes a resurrection and new life and whose hand do you think is doing all of that?

There was a time when every Sunday School room in this church was filled with children and there were months when keeping the lights on was in question. God has been with us every single step of the way. It is only by the grace of God that we have been a cornerstone of this community for 125 years and only by the grace of God that we will continue to do ministry in this area for another 125. What has been the same since the doors of this church opened will continue to be the same until Christ comes again: we gather as the people of God, to hear the Word of God, to feast on the body and blood of God, and then we are sent out to be and show Christ to other people in a hurting world. Nothing has changed that and nothing will. What is comforting about church is that some things never change. What is maddening about church is that some things never change. But through it all, God’s hands have been in, among, and around all of us. What gives me hope and joy this day, my beloved, is that God will continue to move in this place. Long after you and I are gone. Long after stories of us are gone. God’s hands will be guiding this place and God’s people to usher in God’s kingdom to this world.

Sermon for 8/27/17 Matthew 16:13-20

I believe I have spoken of my time as a hospital chaplain during the summer of 2008 quite often. I spent the summer at Heartland Hospital in Saint Joseph, Missouri. I was born in St. Joe and the site, while far from Dubuque, was close to my parents. Serving a stint of clinical pastoral education, or CPE is a requirement of the ELCA. The summer is spent more focusing on the chaplain and leader to be than the actual patient. And paperwork. Lots and lots of paperwork. When the paperwork is done, then you verbally process in the group and usually, at least once, someone will say “and how do you feel about that?” Part of our assignment was to record ourselves preaching in a local context. I was blessed to have the opportunity to do some pulpit supply at a cute Presbyterian church in Oregon, Missouri.

The day came to watch my video and be critiqued by my colleagues. I spent the summer serving with another ELCA Lutheran, Rich; a Methodist woman, Denise; and the craziest Mennonite I’d ever met, Bob. Sitting in that day wasn’t my supervisor, Jackie, but instead the head of the spiritual care department, Sally. Sally was a straight shooter and didn’t mince words. My sermon was finished, everyone had their say. And then Sally looked me straight in the eyes and said “Jealaine? What is your theology? What do you believe about God? Who is God for you?” Now forgive me if you’ve heard me tell this story before. So, with one whole year of theological training under my belt I said “I believe that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God gives God’s love and grace to all people.” And Sally looked me once again and without a single tone of apology said “I think you’re full of crap” (except her word wasn’t ‘crap’). “I’m sorry?!” I replied. She said “I don’t believe you.” Just who does this woman think she is? She doesn’t know anything about me. She continued “I don’t believe you because you don’t believe it. If you don’t believe that God’s love and grace is for you, no one is going to believe it is for them.” That was a Holy Spirit 2×4 moment for me. God hit me over the head hard with that 2×4!

I think of that often when I read this scripture. I think about who I say God is and who Jesus is. And today I want you to be challenged and think about that question for yourself. If and when Jesus were to ask you “who do you say I am” how are you going to respond? Our first inclination may be to respond with “well, as a Lutheran… “ or “I read in the Bible” or even (and maybe even worse yet “Pastor has taught us….” No. No. No. I want to know who you say God is. I don’t want a repeated theology that you have memorized that you only kind of believe or only kind of understand. What do you believe?

Maybe you feel like you don’t have the “right words” to express your faith. You heard what I believe. I still believe that. I spent four years and a lot of money in seminary and that is still the foundation of my faith and who I say Jesus Christ, son of God is for me. I want to emphasize the for me part. Just because that’s my faith statement, doesn’t mean it has to be yours. As I was preparing to go to seminary, my home pastor, Pastor Ernie Barr of Faith Lutheran in Wichita Falls, Texas said to me “if you ever feel overwhelmed or lost, just remember ‘Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.’” Who do you say Jesus is?

See, now is the time, my dearests. Now is the time for us to be bold and daring. Now is the time for us to have a bit of Peter in us. See, there were lots of people surrounding Jesus that day. Anyone could have stepped forward to answer Jesus’ question. But it was Peter who was brave and bold enough to step forward and share his answer. And Peter doesn’t give a five minute explanation of the Trinity. He doesn’t recount what he read in some scholarly journal somewhere. He doesn’t say “well, so and so said…” No. He said simply “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And for Peter, that changes everything. He was bold and daring but also personal. Peter spoke of how he knew Jesus through his encounters with him. Not as some far off, distant, unreachable God. But as Jesus, the very Messiah walking with him day after day.

Who do you say God is? Maybe the ugly truth is this: we don’t want to answer. If we answer that question truthfully with what we believe, it could alter how we see everything else in our lives. See, who we say Jesus is for us individually should and does color the way we see the entire world. And maybe, maybe we don’t want to change our opinions about certain people, places, institutions, or ideas. Once you figure out who Jesus is for you and you’re bold and declare that, then it just may affect the way you operate within your world.

My example of God loving all people through Jesus Christ doesn’t allow me to look at my neighbor, no matter who my neighbor is, and hate them. I may not agree with my neighbor, but I don’t hate them. Because God loves them. Here’s where my faith challenges me: if I believe that God really does love everyone, how does that affect the way I look at white supremacy groups, or Westboro Baptist Church members, or even those on death row? Does God love them too? But Fox News, or CNN, or Time Magazine, or Twitter or whoever tells me so many ways to feel about “those people.” At the end of the day, my faith calls me to look at the world through the lens of the cross and my own faith statement.

Who do you say Jesus is? Are we waiting for the right time to answer that question? Are we waiting to be asked? Are we waiting until our faith is challenged? Are we waiting for a situation that affects us directly? We are in perilous times, my beloved. We cannot wait to declare who Jesus is for us. People’s lives are at stake. The church cannot afford to be silent. Quite honestly, we’ve been silent for too long. We’ve wanted to keep calm, collect all the facts, weigh all of our options, and not rock the boat too much. We worship a man who could calm the waters. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to rock the boat. It’s time to stop being “Lutheran/Minnesota nice” and start being bold.

Being this bold isn’t easy. When you make a declaration of who Jesus is for you, you might receive some push back. Stand firm. This is your theology. That means it doesn’t have to be everyone’s theology. At the same time, if someone says “this is who I say Jesus is” then believe them. Just because their statement may not sound like yours doesn’t mean it is wrong. But, stating who Jesus is for you isn’t enough. You must then start to see the world through that statement and point out injustice or when the world disagrees with your statement. If your statement of faith is one of God’s love for the world, then you can’t be in favor of people protesting with torches and signs while thinking that Colin Kapernick kneeling for the National Anthem is disrespectful. If you say that Jesus is God loving the world, then you can’t be okay with our black brothers and sisters dying in the streets. If your statement of faith is that God loves the world, then you shouldn’t blink an eye when someone identifies themselves as trans, queer, blue, purple, left handed, or depressed or whatever. Because God loves the world is your faith statement, so that’s what that looks like in action. Are you starting to see how this isn’t always easy?

We’re gonna mess it up. Yes, it’s our own faith statement, but we’re still going to mess it up. We may not always see the world through the lenses of what we believe. We may not even believe it for ourselves some day. I still struggle. There are days when my depression demons are loud, really loud, and I don’t believe for one minute that God’s love and grace are for me. And then I remember that we serve a God of second, third, fourth…chances. So, I confess to God for those I have hurt (including myself) and beg another chance. And wouldn’t you know, God has always presented me with another chance to see the world as my faith grows. But while our words are important, our actions and the ways we live our lives is also crucial in pointing to who we believe Jesus is for us. If we love God, and say that we believe God loves us, then our actions will show it. We will show that God loves through our care for the homeless, the hungry, the ignored, the uninsured, the undocumented, the forgotten, the dying, the smelly, sinful, addicted, and the hurting. But none of this can happen until you know what you are going to say when Jesus calls on you and asks “but, who do you say I am” and you answer with boldness and without too much thought because it’s written on your heart. And then your response are your actions in God’s world. Be bold, my beloved. Who do you say Jesus is?

Sermon for 7/16/17 “Great is thy Faithfulness”

I’ve decided I need to stop doing this sermon series. Granted, that is a joke, but studying these hymn writers have done nothing for my ego. Last week we heard about Fanny Crosby who was blind and wrote 8000 hymns. This week, we will learn about Thomas Chisholm. His story sounds like something out of a book. He was born in a log cabin in Kentucky in 1866. While he did attend school, it wasn’t a great education (as compared to current day). And by age 16, he was himself a teacher. At age 21, he became the associate editor of his hometown newspaper. But, it was in 1893, at the age of 27, that he experienced his first revival meeting. This was most likely a traditional tent revival as you imagine it. He heard and experienced the preaching of Methodist evangelist (yes there is such a thing), Henry Clay Morrison. And Thomas immediately wanted to start into ministry. So yes, Lutherans, one of your favorite hymns was written by a Methodist.

But, sadly enough, due to health issues, Thomas only got to serve a short amount of time in one call before he had to retire from the ministry. His heart for ministry was very much still present, but his health would not allow the rigors required to be a pastor. So he did the next logical thing, moved his family to Indiana and then New Jersey where he started selling insurance. And yes, it was during that time when Thomas wrote our hymn for today. He wrote around 1200 poems and hymns total. Several of them were published in Christian weekly or monthly magazines like “Sunday School Times,” and “Moody Monthly.”

Thomas was quoted once as saying “my income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years which has followed me on until now. Although I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that He has given me many wonderful displays of His providing care, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness.” Later, he explained his hymn lyric writing in this manner “I have sought to be true to the Word, and to avoid flippant and catchy titles and treatments. I have greatly desired that each hymn or poem might have some definite message to the hearts for whom it was written.” When “Great is Thy Faithfulness” was introduced by Billy Graham crusades in England in 1954, it took off.

The refrain is possibly inspired by Lamentations 3:22-23. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” And oh my goodness, is this ever a promise I need to hear. This promise of God’s faithfulness to me, despite my unfaithfulness to God, is what allows me to inhale and exhale day after day. It is only because of God’s faithfulness that I am who I am. It is only because of God’s faithfulness that I am not mired down by sin and suffering. It is only because of God’s faithfulness to me day after day, morning after morning, that I am fed, forgiven, and set free. And it is only by God’s faithfulness and God’s faithfulness alone that any of us have come this far! (Amen? Amen!)

I love the second verse as much as the first. I think part of what I love about this verse is the personification of the seasons and stars. Isaiah 55 says “the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” I love the idea of nature singing and even clapping the praises of God. Perhaps that is part of what Thomas was trying to capture in verse 2. All of the seasons: summer, winter, springtime, and harvest (did you catch that farmers? Not fall…but harvest), and all celestial beings: sun, moon and stars will join together with everything in nature to provide abundant witness to God’s faithfulness, mercy, and love. As if it’s not enough for us to praise God; but everything that God has created and continues to create also praises God. And why not? It’s not like humans are God’s only creation. God created everything that is around us. We were designed to live in harmony and have dominion over creation. So why shouldn’t the seasons, and the stars, and even the tiniest little caterpillar sing of God’s faithfulness?

Many times in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, the word that is used for faithfulness is similar or related to the word for truth. So think about the hymn this way “great is God’s truthfulness” or even “great is God’s truth.” And what is God’s truth? I think we are often afraid to ask that question. I have spoken with many people or been witness to several conversations where people genuinely worry about their salvation. There are often expressions of doubt and regret. We humans are so very good at forgiving one another and believing that God really does forgive. But we struggle with believing that the same forgiveness that God gives others is really for us too. We struggle to even forgive ourselves.

I think the truth I long to hear, maybe the truth that we all long to hear is that we are forgiven. We are loved. And yes, even that thing that we’re struggling to forgive ourselves for,God already forgave us for that. “Pardon for sin and a peace that” endures. Pardon: the act of forgiving. Not only are we loved, it’s like we have our own little cheering section in our corner. God is that force that encourages us, that enables us to go out into a world that is hurting and declare “you! You there that thinks that they are living in darkness? That darkness is no match for God.” Maybe you need to hear that too, my beloveds. The darkness you experience, whatever that darkness may look like, is no match for God.

We know all too well that sin is a very real force in this world. Sin disguises itself in many different ways. But we remember that it is God that is faithful. It isn’t money that is faithful. It isn’t power that is faithful. It isn’t the price of corn or beans that is faithful. It isn’t our jobs that are faithful. Sadly, it isn’t even our friends or family that are faithful. It is God and God alone that is faithful. No matter how many times we may be faithful to something else, and we do it over and over and over again, brothers and sisters, we are faithful to so many other things other than God. No matter how many times we try and move our faith elsewhere, God’s faithfulness to us remains.

Do you want a certainty in this world? Do you want something that you can count on? Do you want something you know to be 100% true 100% of the time? God and God alone is faithful. Always. To the end of time, end of story. And not only does God have blessings for you today, there are 10,000 more blessings waiting where those came from. God’s faithfulness is so good. We may have worries (and I know we do), we all may have troubles (and that could be a bit of an understatement) but the one constant, the one thing that remains so true no matter what is God. God is the only thing that never changes. Great is thy faithfulness. Thanks be to God, great is thy faithfulness.  

Sermon for 7/9/17 “Blessed Assurance”

Should you ever start to feel really good about the amount of work you have accomplished in your life thus far, you can perhaps, take a moment to reflect on Fanny Crosby. Ms. Crosby wrote the lyrics to “Blessed Assurance.” That alone is pretty impressive. However, she also wrote around 8,000 other gospel hymns. Additionally she also wrote around 1000 or so non-religious songs, 4 books of poetry and 2 autobiographies. She also was blind for almost her entire 95 years of life. I don’t know about you, but I now feel like I’ve done nothing with my life! The other hymn that many of you love that was written by Crosby? “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross.”

Fanny was born in 1820 just north of New York City. At only six months old, she caught a cold (as newborns do) that traveled to her eyes. At that time, medicine wasn’t as advanced as it is now, obviously. The antidote that doctors chose was a mustard plaster. Fanny claimed that it was the mustard plaster that caused her blindness but doctors that studied her medical history after she died think it might have been a genetic condition. Early in her life she attended a Presbyterian church. It was there that her faith started to develop. She started to memorize five chapters of the Bible per week. She enrolled in the New York Institute for the Blind where she learned how to play the piano, the organ, harp, and guitar in addition to becoming a very good soprano singer.  

Considering the time and her gender, Fanny was a bit of a trailblazer. In 1843 she was the first woman to ever address the United States Senate. She was advocating for the support of education for the blind. It was 30 years later, in 1873 that Fanny wrote “Blessed Assurance.” She had already written the words and when visiting her friend and frequent collaborator, Phoebe Knapp, played a melody that she had just composed. “What do you think the tune says” Phoebe asked Fanny? And without hesitation, Fanny said “blessed assurance; Jesus is mine.” Remember that Fanny had practically memorized the bible. For her, the words to “Blessed Assurance” were a reflection of her own faith life as it was expressed by Paul in Philippians 1:21 “for to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”

Let’s take a look at these most awesome lyrics. “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!” That could be a statement of faith or of relief when you think about it. Hear from Hebrews 10 “and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscious and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” It’s good for us to remember that last part: “he who has promised is faithful.” Meaning that God is faithful. Our faithfulness has nothing to do with this. And as much as I enjoy this hymn, it can prove to be troublesome at times. It’s not the “blessed assurance” part that bothers me, but the “Jesus is mine” part. Jesus is mine mine mine…as if I alone can lay claim to the Savior of the world.

But there are some who desire to do this, right? There are some Christians who want to know if you have a close and personal relationship with Jesus. Have you professed Jesus as your Lord and Savior? This decision theology puts the power in our hands which is always troublesome. We know that there is nothing we can do to “get closer” to God through Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter how much we profess or how many “conversion” experiences we have, God is already as close to us as God possibly can be on this side of heaven. There’s nothing we can do or not do to change this.

Additionally, we don’t and can’t “own” Jesus. Jesus can be all things to all people and thankfully (or maybe unfortunately) we don’t have a say over any of that. It can be wonderful to sing this. It can be a comfort. When we’re having not so great days or when we’re going through rough times, it can be really comforting to sing “blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!” But what may be troubling is that anyone can sing these words. Those for whom we’d rather limit God’s love through Jesus Christ also sing these words.

When we sing “o what a foretaste of glory divine” we sing of our afterlife, yes. But we can also experience a foretaste before death. We even sing about that as well. We sing about a “foretaste of the feast to come.” This is what we celebrate in communion. When we receive communion, it is but a small taste of the feast that we will have with Christ in our death. When we splash Piper today, we will be reminded that God is with us daily, another foretaste of the feast to come. In our baptism, all of us have been purchased by God; all of us belong to God.

Then, think about the chorus. “This is my story, this is my song, praising my savior all the day long…” It doesn’t matter what you think your story is, this is your story. Your story isn’t one of failure, or “shouldda couldda wouldda.” Your story isn’t even what other people wish it were. Your story is that you have been purchased by God. You are God’s. To God you belong and there’s nothing you or anyone else can do about that. When that is your story, why wouldn’t you want to sing it for as long as you possibly can? We are filled with God’s goodness and lost in God’s love. How comforting is that thought? For me, personally, that is a very blessed assurance. Echoes of mercy; meaning there’s enough mercy that God has given us that it actually can echo.

When you have those moments of doubt, when you have those moments of darkness, when you have those moments of uncertainty, or even when you have those moments when you wonder if God has forgotten about you perhaps these words will bring you some comfort. You are an heir of salvation, a beneficiary, a inheritor of salvation. God has purchased you with the blood of Jesus. When the rapture happens, angels will come down in love that sounds like whispers. You are filled with God’s goodness. And God’s love is so amazing and so wonderful that you are able to get lost in it. Blessed assurance, Jesus is yours; and more importantly, you belong to Jesus. There’s no way to change that. There’s no way to undo that. There’s nothing that will come between you and that love. In a world that’s hungry for certainties, in a time where people long for definite answers, in a climate where people are so quickly divided, what a gift it is to proclaim and declare some most definite assurance. Blessed assurance.

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.