Sermon for 12/9/18 Luke 3:1-6; Advent 2

Imagine.

For just a moment.

That you are John the Baptist.

You’ve been traveling all around. Spreading the news:

“Prepare the way of the Lord!” You’re traveling all around the

Jordan river area. This is the gateway of commerce, of government,

Of power. But you’re the one proclaiming a new way.

A new government. A new power. A new ruler.

And now you’ve found yourself in the wilderness. It figures.

People have always questioned you. It’s not strange for you to hear whispers

When you come and go. It is what you wear?

What else would you wear besides camel’s hair?

You’re a prophet, after all, not some rich emperor with access to the

World’s coffers. Maybe they whisper because of what you eat?

And you wonder if any of them have ever tried

Locusts and wild honey. It’s delicious. And really,

In the wilderness there aren’t a lot of other options.

You have been encouraging people to “prepare the way of the Lord”

For some time. But this world is a noisy place.

People more powerful than you. People more notable than you.

People maybe even considered more

Human than you fill the space with words that mean nothing.

You, John the Baptist, are surrounded by people that others listen to,

For some reason.

Yet.

Yet.

Yet. The word of God came to you.

But you are not John the Baptist.

You are you.

Yet.

Yet.

Yet. The word of God comes to you.

And what do you do with it? What do we do with it?

Proclaim the way of the Lord in the wilderness or ignore it?

Sorry. Wrong number. Or

Yes Lord, send me!

Decisions like these are never easy, clear cut, or without troubles.

What shall we do with a proclamation that makes no sense?

“Prepare the way of the Lord.” And how do we do that?

“Make his paths straight.” Lord! I don’t even know what path I’m on!

How can I make yours straight?

Valleys filled, hills made low, crooked made straight, and rough ways made smooth.

What does this all mean, Lord?

If you, God, come to me; and you always do, and I’m to deliver this message,

What does it mean? And why me? Why the wilderness?

God you are doing something surprising. You are always doing something

Surprising.

We are no different from John. We are surrounded by “somebodies” in this world.

But the word of God comes to us. Comes to me. Comes to you.

And this word proclaims that everything we know to be true will be

Flipped upside down.

Paths are supposed to wander. Valleys should be, well, valleys.

Hills should be high. Mountains should stand in grandeur.

Crooked and rough ways are that way for a reason.

But when we prepare the way of the Lord,

What we know to be true is no longer. And in the wilderness,

We may wonder, what else is no longer true?

None of this makes sense. And, perhaps Lord, that is the good news.

You, Lord, are making all things new. You continue to make all things new.

Including me. Including those I love. Including this hurting world.

If you make all things new, that means I may be granted another day,

Another hour, another minute, another moment to try and follow you.

The time between “Prepare the way of the Lord” and preparing your way with palm leaves

Shouting “hosanna in the highest” and escorting you to a cross seems to go

So quickly.

You are making all things new. But maybe I don’t want new.

I am comfortable where I am, with what I am, with how I am, and with who I am.

You make all things new.

This includes those who wish to do me harm. And those I wish harm upon.

Maybe I don’t want repentance, forgiveness, mercy, love, and grace to come into this world.

Newness is unfamiliar. Strange. A wilderness. But.

But.

But!

“All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” In a world where power matters,

Status matters, prestige matters, skin color matters, gender identity matters,

Bank accounts matter, education levels matter, legal status matters; you, Lord!

You make all things new in the promise of all flesh. ALL FLESH. Shall see the salvation of God.

A promise of redemption. A promise of saving. Saving us from this world. Saving us from death.

Saving us from ourselves.

We are the ones hollowing out valleys, building up hills and mountains, and

Making paths crooked and rough.

Even our best intentions are put to death in your birth and your death.

The word of God may soon come to us. To you. To me.

In a world that wants to label you a “nobody” God finds you to be a

Somebody. And the word comes to you. What will we do with it?

Prepare the way of the Lord!

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Sermon for 11/25/18 John 18:33-37 Christ the King

One thing I have noticed in the last few years is a decline and almost loss of civility. And maybe it is not the loss of civility that I am noticing, but perhaps just the polarization of society around us. The areas of black and white thinking our growing on the areas of gray keep shrinking day after day. Which is unfortunate, because so much of Christianity is a gray area. We must be citizens of the law while living by grace. We wrestle with the call of social justice while at the same time continuing to come face-to-face with dwindling resources. We hear Jesus  call us to move in the world as disciples, but at times, if we are honest, that task alone feel very overwhelming. And so, here we are on Christ the King Sunday. In years past, I’ve preached on what it means to confess that Jesus is King. I wrestle with that confession because if Jesus is king then that means so many other things in my life are not. But let’s take all of this one step further. If we believe that Jesus is King, and we do, then that means we are also confessing to kingdom living. This, my beloved, is where I really struggle.

I believe there is a difference between confessing that Jesus is king and kingdom living. We do one with our lips, however we do the other with her whole being. If we’re going to be honest, it is difficult living in a black and white society while also trying to be kingdom dwellers. There is something to be said about black and white living. Opinions are cut and dry, you know where everyone stands, and it is very easy to tell who your friends and enemies are. In this time of great divide and tumult, the attitude seems to be “if you are not with me, you are against me.” We have all but lost the ability to be in disagreement with one another and still live together.

The challenge of kingdom living is this: it is kingdom living. And Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. Which also means that if our eyes, hearts, and minds are focused on God’s kingdom and living as if we are serious about bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth then we will constantly bump up against the ways of this world. While we can live in two worlds: this one and God’s, it is ultimately the the grace, mercy, and love of God’s kingdom that will dominate. This may all sound fine and good, but it really is a challenge, this kingdom living stuff. On the surface, it may not seem like it. After all, we’re Christians. If our hearts are pure and true and we put Jesus as first in our lives, how hard can kingdom living be? I propose, my beloveds, that kingdom living is risky, challenging, and can lead to great loneliness. Because once again, Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, and so kingdom living isn’t of this world either.

What makes it so challenging? Let me give you some examples of living in this world versus living in God’s kingdom. Living in this world, the message is protect at all costs. Build a wall. Kingdom living says all are welcome, no exceptions. This worlds message is that we should fear the unknown no matter if the unknown is circumstances or people. Kingdom living encourages us to welcomes the unknown because we know the Holy Spirit specializes in the unknown. This world says that you must take care of yourself, be concerned about what is best for you, and if you’re having a difficult time, well then, pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Kingdom living expectations state that when my neighbor is well, I am well. Kingdom living says that if my neighbor struggles, I struggle. And if our neighbor(s) are struggling or having a difficult time, kingdom living encourages accompaniment and tending for those around us with less.

Perhaps you can see, my beloved, how kingdom living would be challenging. Honestly it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It is opposite of everything we usually know. Kingdom living is difficult. Kingdom living should be a comfort. Instead, most times, it convicts us. Kingdom living is full of grace. However, we often interpret it as nothing but the law. Kingdom living is full of promise. However, we often interpret it as constraining and inhibiting. Because kingdom living may lose us relationships; people may not understand why we do what we do when we’re trying to bring God’s kingdom here on earth. And instead of attempting to comprehend what we’re doing, it’s easier to just leave us behind and live by the rules of this world. What are we willing to lose in order to be kingdom dwellers?

Maybe the question shouldn’t be what are we willing to lose, but are we willing to lose in order to be citizens of the kingdom? That question should cause us to pause and really evaluate if we actually want to be citizens of the kingdom. We quickly forget that Jesus was a citizen of the kingdom and he was crucified for it. Are we willing to usher in the kingdom even when that means following Jesus all the way to the cross? Remember, Jesus came so that everyone who believes in him may never perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). Part of kingdom living is that promise of eternal life. It would seem almost foolish to not be kingdom dwellers. But our old friend, sin, gets the best of us every single time. Are we willing to let go of what we think makes and builds a kingdom and instead focus on the truth of what builds a kingdom: Christ and Christ alone. And despite our best intentions, we end up desiring to live in God’s kingdom while fully living in this kingdom. We may think we’re being successful, claiming to be kingdom dwellers while all the while, living by the rules, laws, and expectations of this world. But Christ knows.

Christ knows and grants us citizenship in God’s kingdom anyway. Our place in God’s kingdom is secure despite ourselves. This has nothing to do with us and everything to do with God and the love of God given to us through Jesus Christ. God is loving. God is merciful. God is full of grace. God is everything this world is not. Our bodies, our minds, maybe even our actions may belong to this world. But, God laid claim on our hearts and souls before we were even born. God granted us kingdom citizenship while we were still in the womb. The promise of God’s kingdom is this: it is not of this world. That, my beloved, is certainly good news. To be freed from the troubles of this world is most certainly a gift from God and of God. Kingdom living is freedom living. And one day, by God’s grace alone, we will all be freed.

Sermon for 11/18/18 Mark 13:1-8

As many of you know, my mother was a teacher as I was growing up. So, she had her summers free, or as free as teachers normally have (I know you all work hard during the summer). When she wasn’t planning, writing, testing, and on and on, she would prepare to do her favorite thing with us kids: camping. We tent camped all around Missouri. We spent the days fishing, swimming, or doing local touristy stuff and spent the evenings sitting around a fire. We even once learned how to call owls. One thing we knew we could always count on was a comfy and safe place to lay our heads at the end of the night. One summer evening the air was just right for some adventure. The park ranger came around and over his loud speaker was announcing that we were under a “tornado watch/warning.” To this day we still talk about how confused we were. So, we decided to get out of the tent and head to safer shelter. When you’re from the Midwest, you can just feel a storm in your bones and we felt it! Mom was out of the tent, followed by Jon, then it was Jayna’s turn. Now, Jayna has a great fear of storms. As she was trying to get out of the tent, a huge clap of thunder and lightning struck. She practically jumped out of her skin and tried to fall back into the tent. Except she couldn’t. Her hair, a huge chunk of it, was stuck in the tent zipper. Another huge clap of thunder and lightning struck and she practically pulled her hair out herself. We joked that we found hair in the zipper for many camping trips to follow. We made it to the shelter (which was just a bathroom) in time for the tornado to touchdown. Our Chevy Astro van rocked in the wind. When it was all over, the rain guard on our tent was gone along with other odds and ends, but the tent was okay. So much for feeling safe and secure.

However, I find that we humans do this a lot. We put a lot of hope in structures that, with the right forces, can be destroyed. After all, most of us have lived in the Midwest for a good portion of our lives. We know how quickly tornadoes or flood waters can take over what we might have thought was untouchable. Our siblings in California are seeing all too well the destructive power of fire. Those in the paths of hurricanes know the force of water and wind. We don’t necessarily need these reminders of the power of Mother Nature and the realization that nothing is permanent, but it is humbling when we get these reminders. We don’t have to be betrayed by Mother Nature to realize this. So many are betrayed by their bodies. It could be a new cancer diagnosis, a life-long battle with an illness, or maybe the darkness of dementia; our bodies have a way of reminding us that nothing is permanent.

This isn’t a new struggle. We hear the disciples today marveling at the temple structure. What large stones and what large buildings. It’s almost as if you can hear the disciples say “nothing could ever happen to this!” The disciples were putting their faith, giving too much credit to a man-made structure. Jesus quickly let them in on a little secret. Not only will the temple fall, but the world is going to experience apocalyptic like occurrences. I mean, I don’t know that there is a different (or better) way to talk about wars, nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes, and famines. Then, Jesus said, this is but the beginning! The beginning! Rough stuff, Jesus. But we’re not all that different from the disciples, you and I. There is something to be said about the power that lies behind bigger, stronger, larger. And when the things around us fail, we turn to confrontational language to describe it. Have you ever noticed that?

When your body starts to betray you, you fight cancer. When an illness has wracked your body for years, you’re in a battle. We go to war against those weeds. When we’ve been hit, we talk about rebuilding bigger and stronger than before. Even when other people betray us, we may be tempted to say they don’t exist to me anymore or the darker they’re dead to me. There is one underlying tie that all of these ideas have in common: power. We want to be more powerful than the forces and situations that surround us. And when we’re reminded that we aren’t (thanks to a storm, illness, or broken relationship) we retaliate and use language of power and domination. This cycle goes on and on.

But the powerful will fall. This goes for buildings, structures, governmental systems, and people. The question is, will we notice? We have a lot of forces of nature and forces of power competing for our attention. Perhaps we’ll be too worried about large bodies of power failing to notice small moments of might: the widow giving her last few coins or a Jewish teacher being crucified. But how in the world can these small acts measure up to the rest of the world’s greatness? We’re so busy admiring false power and fearing false power that we may miss true power. We’re so busy and preoccupied with trying to be better and stronger and bigger that we may miss small acts of love, mercy, and kindness. We should know by now that anything we give power to and any of the powerful structures and forces we admire will fail us. Every time.

Despite our temptation to give space and time to power, Jesus comes for us and to us anyway. Jesus was surrounded by power in all shapes, sizes, and forms, and yet he still offered up his humble body as a sacrifice for me and for you. And the world may not have noticed this powerful testament of love, but we have. That alone should and does make a difference for all of us. There is nothing that God will not do to make sure we are not out of reach of the love that God has for each and every one of us. God is relentless. This love, this is what will be the thing that is stronger, bigger, bolder, better. This is the force that is stronger than nature. This is the antidote to so many of the world’s hurts. The love of God is more powerful than any storm, earthquake, fire, diagnosis, illness, or human relationship. This love is powerful, unforgiving, and comforting. God has not given up on us. Even in the times it may feel like it thanks to whatever powers may be, God will not abandon us. Even in the moments where our admiration may get the best of us and we say “look…what large stones” God, through Jesus Christ, still comes to us, always, in love to free us from ourselves.

Sermon for 10/28/18 John 8:31-36 Reformation

Last year, the Lutheran church celebrated the 500th anniversary of the reformation. 500 years since Martin Luther, after an intense study of scripture, was brave and bold enough to question and challenge the Roman Catholic Church. Since then, we’ve had many incarnations of the reformation but nothing, in my opinion, as brave and bold as Martin Luther’s original reformation. At the same time, we are a church of reformers. We are a church that claims reformation as part of our core. Despite that proclamation, we are also a church with punchlines that revolve around not liking change. So where does that leave us? Perhaps reformers who fight reform at every corner? I don’t know. But what I do know is that it is more important than ever that we are a reforming church and I really believe that society needs a reforming church right now.

Often when people speak of a reformation, they quickly slip into nostalgia. This can be a dangerous habit. Many think reformation is more people in the pews, full Sunday school rooms, a healthy bottom line, hundreds of students in seminary, lots of students at our church colleges and on and on. You know…like we used to have. But reformation and nostalgia are not the same thing. And it’s good to remember where we’ve been. That helps us to figure out where we’re going. But we cannot be a reforming church if we’re constantly looking backwards. A reforming church is bold, unapologetic, centered on Christ, and takes seriously the ministry of hospitality. These 4 reasons are why I think society is hungry for a reforming church.

The reforming church is bold. So, what do I mean by that? Well to be bold means proclaiming and believing that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. We confess this to be truth. But, did you hear the difficult part of being a reforming church that is bold? It’s one thing to proclaim that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, but it’s another thing to believe it. To be a reforming church we must believe what we confess for ourselves. If not, no one is going to believe us or the confessions, evangelism, or gospel that comes out of our mouths. Scripture for today says “if you continue in my word…” Another way of translating that could be “if you abide in my word.” To abide means that we are in relationship with Christ. As a reforming church, and specifically as Lutherans, we believe that this relationship has nothing to do with us. We cannot earn God’s love. We do nothing to get closer to God. God draws near to us despite our sins and shortcomings. If you don’t think that this is a bold proclamation, then perhaps I need to say it more often. To many in this world believe that something, anything must be done in order for Christ to love us. After all, it can’t be as simple as Jesus loving us just because. But, it is that simple. And that, my beloved, is bold.

The reforming church is unapologetic. I think this needs to be discussed a little bit other than me just saying that and leaving it there. Please understand, I think it is important for the church to apologize in the ways and places it has fallen short, and there are many. I think it is even more crucial for the church to apologize to the people she has wronged, and there are many. When I propose that a reforming church is unapologetic, I mean that we do not make excuses or shy away from being who we are. I will never apologize for the rituals that center us in Christ: communion and baptism. So, no. I’m not sorry that we only have one baptism. It’s what we confess. And no. I’m not sorry that I will give communion to anyone who will hold out their hands. I believe these two sacraments are the most intimate ways we feel the love of Christ. Who am I to deny these to anyone? Here’s the other thing about a reforming church: we’re not going to be all things to all people. And, as the kids say these days, #sorrynotsorry. I’m sorry that not everyone will find a home in this particular reforming church. At the same time, we cannot change ourselves to accommodate everyone because we will end up being nothing. We are Lutheran. Our identities are shaped by that.

The reforming church is centered in and on Christ. I think this is kind of a given, but how quickly we forget that. There is too much temptation to make church be about anything but Christ that we can forget why we gather week after week anyway. How are the lights? Is the band playing up to date songs? Is the Pastor preaching practical sermons that make me feel good about myself (because that is his only job)? Do they have a hip coffee shop in the gathering area? What isn’t asked is where is Christ? I have been in too many churches where it isn’t obvious who or what they are worshiping. There is no cross, there’s no picture of Jesus, there’s no mention of Christ or God in the preaching. In a time where the church has turned into a consumer’s product, the reforming church remains centered on Christ and him crucified. When the reforming church stays centered in and on Christ the temptation to worship anyone or anything else disappears.

Lastly, the reforming church takes seriously the ministry of hospitality. Believe it or not, I actually think this is the most controversial and challenging thing we as a reforming church could do. Why? Because there are getting to be fewer and fewer places in society where all really are welcome. And if we’re going to continue to grow into a reforming church and be challenged by Christ’s message, the ministry of hospitality must be one of the cornerstone missions of the church. And I understand that for some, this ministry of hospitality may not be comfortable. It’s one thing to welcome those who look, act, and dress like us. But how far does our hospitality go when it’s one of our LGBTQ siblings? How far does our hospitality go when it’s a person of color whose primary language isn’t English? How far does our hospitality go when a new member joins and they like to speak in tongues? I think that’s also why it’s important to be reformers together in community. We become like this amazing, beautiful rock tumbler. We actually bump up against one another and polish one another’s edges.

So yes, I do think God is calling us into a new reformation, my beloved. Our voices are important and we have something life-saving to say. What doesn’t change in the reformation is that we continue to stay abiding in Christ’s love. Because when we are supported by Christ’s love we have the strength to boldly proclaim the message the world needs to hear. And that message is this: you are loved. You are forgiven. You are adored by a God who loves you so much that God went all the way to the cross for you. There is nothing you have to do to earn this love. You are forever freed from your sin. That, my beloved, is some bold announcements for a new reformation. The freedom given to us in Christ, the love given to us in and through Christ, and our abiding in Christ will always be stronger than our sin. In a world that is constantly tempting us with bigger, better, and stronger, how novel an idea to reform and proclaim that we believe in Christ alone, through Word alone, by faith alone.

 

Sermon for 10/21/18 Mark 10:35-45

Sometimes I wonder if we fully grasp what it means to be a Christian in today’s society. Because, in all honesty, we’ve got it pretty easy. In this country, at least, we are not a minority. Our lives are not in danger because we’re Christian. We don’t have to gather in secret to worship. We do not run the risk of physical harm just because we’re Christian. Many of us wear symbols of our faith either through jewelry or tattoos and don’t think twice about it. But, I think that if we lived a life that Jesus lived and the life that he was asking the disciples to live, we wouldn’t or couldn’t do it. For so many of us, our faith is our lifestyle, but it is not our core identity. There’s not very many of us who have given up much, or anything, to follow Christ. But, that is exactly what Jesus is challenging the disciples and us to this week. A life of service and a life of humility.

This story is a complicated one. A part of the story that we don’t hear is that preceding this, Jesus tells about his death for the third time. Jesus doesn’t hold back. He tells them that he will be spat on, mocked, flogged, and killed. Immediately following that, James and John make their request to sit at his side, one on his right, one on his left. James and John are asking for seats of power. It’s as if (as one of my colleagues put it) they’re asking to be vice president and secretary of state. Soon, James and John will see one person on Jesus’ left, and one on his right, but they will be the criminals sentenced to hang with him. James and John showed unadulterated enthusiasm for following Jesus and being able to drink the cup and be baptized like Jesus. They don’t realize that they’re agreeing to being crucified. I have to admire their confidence.

We are probably just as confident. We enthusiastically claim the label of “Christian.” We quote Bible verses. We hang them in our homes. We teach the commandments to our children and grandchildren. We reach out into the world in the name of Christ. Absolutely none of this is a bad thing. We may not be as blunt as to outright ask Jesus for a position of power, like a seat on his left or right, but perhaps we think that doing all the right things will garner us favor with Christ. Maybe worse yet, perhaps we assume that our faithfulness to Christ will bring us riches. Not money necessarily, but health, friends, more members, and on and on.

I also wonder if James and John asked what they did because they were operating under an umbrella of fear. They asked Jesus for seats of power before any of the rest of the disciples could. What if there wasn’t enough to go around? How quickly they would forget their requests as soon as they saw what Jesus’ version of power looked like. We operate out of fear quite a bit as well. We hold on to so many things for a time period that has yet to come; it’s called “just in case.” What I find interesting about James and John’s request is that they asked on behalf of themselves. In that brief moment their fellow disciples moved from companions to competition. And despite pledging allegiance to Jesus, confessing our faith in him, and singing his praises, when push comes to shove, we choose fear over trust. We choose to put our confidence in our own abilities rather than in Christ. And we look out for ourselves rather than being concerned for our neighbors.

Jesus knows all of this. After all, Jesus knows the depths of our hearts; our deepest wishes and darkest fears. Knowing all this, he points the disciples and us to a life of service and to a life where we will be last on this earth, but first in God’s kingdom. And as a reminder and an example of how we are supposed to live this life, Jesus shows us how to live this life of service and humility. He shows us, James, John, and the rest of the disciples what this life will look like all the way to the cross. Do we want what Jesus has now? Do we want this power? Do we want to claim that we can handle it?

Here’s what’s frustrating for me in this reading. I know so many of you who have sacrificed a lot. I see it week after week. I see it as you rush in during the first hymn and sigh as you slump down into the pew frustrated that you didn’t make it on time after promising yourself you would…even with all the kids. I see the sacrifices made as I look in your eyes and listen to your voice. I ask how you are and you say “fine” but your eyes and voice tell me that you’re anything but. The worry of crop prices and a harvest challenged by mother nature is so very present. I see the sacrifices you make for yourselves, for your families, and for this church. And so when Jesus tells us once again to make more sacrifices, perhaps there is a small part of me that wants to yell at Jesus “how much more do you want?”

I mean, from the sounds of it, Jesus is asking (maybe challenging us) to follow him all the way to the cross. Jesus asks us through his actions and leadership if we’re willing to give up everything we know of comfort to follow him. Are we willing to lose our homes, jobs, friends, family, privilege, maybe even our good names, just to follow him? Again, Jesus! How much more do you want? Don’t you know what I’m going through already?

But Jesus was sent into this world to free us from our sin. Jesus came into this world to free us from ourselves. We may think we want power, prestige, and fame, but what will that cost? What will be the cost to our relationships? What will be the cost to our ethics and morals? Jesus came to challenge our ideas of what it looks like to have abundant life. Jesus came to challenge our ideas of what it looks like to have power. I think Jesus knows what we have sacrificed. All of us have had to sacrifice something in life. And maybe you feel like no one noticed. Like all of your hard work, your worries, your late hours, your pacing,  your whatever has gone unnoticed. But Jesus saw you.

The good news, my beloved, is that following Christ actually frees us from what we think we want and instead frees us to receive what we need. Let that sink in for just a moment. We ask Jesus for places of power. He asks if we’re willing to follow him all the way to a cross. The cross is where our best intentions go to die. The cross is where the feeling of not being enough goes to die. The cross is where all the sacrifices you have made are recognized and Jesus says “but wait! I have something better for you.” When we are a servant to all and last on the list, we have nothing but room to be filled up with Christ’s love. Christ frees us from the expectations of this world and prepares us for kingdom living. I don’t know about you, but that’s good news to me. God doesn’t expect me to be the world’s best Pastor, or the world’s best mom, wife, daughter, or friend or whatever. What God expects me to be is the best receptacle of love that I can be. All God desires for us is to open ourselves up to the love of God through Jesus. We don’t need seats of power, we don’t need to be rulers or titans for God to love us. Serve others. Serve God. God will love us. The sacrifices of this world are taken up in the cross. God will keep coming to us and for us in love. Even in the moments that we’d rather shoo him away; even in the moments we’d rather run from that love; even in the moments that we’d rather deny that love. God will come in love over and over again. Thanks be to God!

Sermon for 9/30/18 Mark 9:38-50

This reading from Mark makes me nervous. I don’t think that Jesus speaks in hyperbole lightly. When he spoke about cutting off limbs, it was to speak to the severity, the seriousness of what it means to follow him. Jesus wasn’t joking. This reading also makes me nervous because I feel like I recently followed Jesus’ command to cut things off by limiting my stomach. After all, it did cause me to stumble many times. Might Jesus expect me to follow suit with the rest of my limbs? This wasn’t a hyperbole. Jesus was speaking truth. It is harsh. It is difficult to hear. It is even more difficult to follow. Perhaps the truth is so important that Jesus felt it necessary to speak the way he did, as in cutting off limbs, gouging out eyes, and he did so in order to get our attention. Can you imagine the reaction of the crowd? “Whoa Jesus. That’s a little harsh don’t you think? You certainly don’t mean all of that. Cut it out.”

So it is not hyperbole. It is a consequence of truth telling. Jesus says that if we are the ones to get in the way of others discipleship, we must face consequences. And that, my beloved, is difficult medicine to swallow. We don’t want to think of ourselves as stumbling blocks. It is much easier to point to the people in our own lives that are stumbling blocks instead of the other way around. But we cause others to stumble. And if you stumble and fall enough, you may just give up. A stumble can quickly turn into a fall that someone cannot recover from. The disciples were stumbling blocks.

The disciples were upset that other people were casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Now, the disciples tell Jesus that they tried to stop this man because “he was not following us.” Jesus, we tried to stop him because he wasn’t one of us. Jesus, we tried to stop him because he wasn’t part of our group. Jesus, we tried to stop him because he’s an outsider. Jesus, we tried to stop him because he’s not part of the establishment. Jesus, we tried to stop him because he’s not part of the ol’ boys (or ol’ gals) club. Jesus, we tried to stop him because we’re the best at this casting out demon business. Because discipleship is a competition or something.

And Jesus loses it. If someone is casting out demons, why not let them? So what if he’s not an official disciple? So what if he hasn’t been following Jesus. So what if he isn’t familiar with Jesus’ teachings? By casting out demons he has been more of a disciple than the actual disciples. But no! The disciples weren’t going to have any of that. And like that, they became stumbling blocks. But we would never do that, would we? We would never get in the way of someone trying to follow Jesus, would we? Oh but my beloved, we do.

Being Christian is not a competition. But we do try and out-Christian one another. Sometimes we even try and out-Lutheran one another. It’s as if Jesus were giving away trophies or ribbons and we aren’t going to settle for anything but first place. A disciple is a disciple and it doesn’t matter how you go about it. But we put stumbling blocks in the way of others. I’ve heard the phrase “stay in your own lane” used quite a bit. I think it’s a nice way of saying mind your own business as well as speak only to your knowledge. Like if I told someone how to perform brain surgery, I would most definitely not be staying in my own lane. Anyway, we often just need to stay in our own lane.

We, or maybe it’s just me, throw stumbling blocks by discouraging or bad mouthing other denominations, churches, or even church leaders. “They have a praise band that just sing the same three songs over and over…that’s not worship.” Or “I went to a funeral there once and the pastor said this one thing and I swore to myself I’d never step foot in that church again.” Maybe “I just don’t understand their fascination with Mary. I just can’t get behind that.” It’s as if we believe that our version of Christianity is the best and everyone should worship, sing, and do liturgy just like we do. But instead of doing whatever we may think we’re doing with these words, people get discouraged and don’t return to church at all. When we put stumbling blocks out, we are not building the kingdom of God.

Perhaps we, maybe it’s just me, even throw stumbling blocks when we are within these four walls. When a new disciple enters our midst, do we look for opportunities to learn, grow, and travel with this disciple, or do we throw stumbling blocks? Did you see what they wore? They didn’t even know how communion works! Those kids were so misbehaved. I knew her mom and she was a mess! Stumbling block after stumbling block after stumbling block. We are not perfect Lutherans and we are not perfect Christians. It’s amazing we all have any limbs or eyes left.

Discipleship is a team effort. God did not design us to do this alone. We cannot build the kingdom of God all by ourselves. We aren’t expected to. This is why it is so important to be church together. It is important that we are the people of Elvira Zion, that we are the people of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and that we are people of the cross: Christians. Washed, claimed, loved, forgiven, and set free to serve others. Will every disciple do things the way we do? Nope. And how great is that! Can you imagine! The kingdom is going to be full of the most amazing and wonderful people because we are all so different! How glorious!

Once again, my beloved, Christianity is not a competition. When a disciple comes along, trying to further the kingdom and they don’t do things like you would, watch and learn. You don’t have to like how they’re doing it, or even what they’re doing. But as long as all disciples, including us, reach out and attempt to do Christ’s work in this world, then what does it matter? Under the shadow of the cross, we are all equal. At the table, we are all equal. At the font, we are all equal. God doesn’t hand out ribbons and trophies for best Christian. However, God does shower us with love. And when God showers us with love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness, it is done evenly.

None of us are forgotten. None of us are forsaken. There are no stumbling blocks between us and God’s love. Perhaps this is where the good news lies, my beloved. The stumbling blocks thrown in our path and even the stumbling blocks we throw in the paths of others will never be a stopping point for God. Perhaps Jesus isn’t asking us to cut off our limbs or take out our eyes. Maybe we’d be better off in exposing our hearts: opening our hearts to love that knows no limits. Maybe we’d be better off removing our fear and exposing our courage.Perhaps Jesus is challenging us to remove our pride and expose our humility. Christianity isn’t a competition, my beloved. In God’s kingdom, we are all God’s favorite.  

Sermon for 9/9/18 Mark 7:24-37

It seems to never fail that when religious nerds get together (these are my kind of people) and the group is made up of various denominations, the question eventually comes around. The question is “what kind are you?” This always makes me chuckle a bit. What kind of Baptist are you? What kind of Presbyterian are you? What kind of Lutheran are you? Sometimes you can tell how people feel about the denomination by the way they react to your answer. And honestly, I don’t know why it matters in the long run. Sure, we may not always agree with other denominations on things like baptism, communion, and even women clergy. But, I think we can agree on big worldly issues: feeding the hungry, working for justice, and caring for the environment. And I’ve said this before, but I really believe this: I doubt, or maybe more appropriately, I hope that God’s kingdom isn’t divided into denominations. There is no Lutheran heaven, no Methodist heaven, no Roman Catholic heaven. Today, I want to expand the question and idea of “what kind are you” from specific individual denominations and instead focus on just the general umbrella label of “Christian.” So, my beloved, what kind of Christian are you?

I wonder what is your first reaction to that question. What kind of Christian are you? As I was thinking about that this week, I thought of a few responses. What kind of Christian are you? What do you mean? What kind of Christian are you? Ummm…..Lutheran? What kind of Christian are you? Why do you want to know? And of course, doing the thing that our teachers always told us not to do: use a word to define a word. What kind of Christian are you? Well….I’m the Christian kind…you know. I want to pause and give you a moment to answer that question for yourselves. What kind of Christian are you? Now, tuck that answer away in a safe-keeping pocket in your brain.

We have two stories of healing this week. On the surface, that’s probably not surprising. After all, Jesus healed a lot of people. This was kind of his thing. If we just looked at these stories as stories of healing, we’d probably miss a lot. While the healing is important, the conversations and actions that lead up to the healings are almost more important. Everything we need to know about the first healing is told to us in some simple words. Verse 26 “now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” Those gathered listening to this story would immediately hear and know that this woman had three strikes against her. First, she was a woman, which meant she was less than. Additionally, she approaches Jesus without a husband or other male relative, which was a no-no. Second, she was a Gentile, which meant she’s not Jewish. She would have been viewed as impure. Lastly, she was Syrophoenician. She lives outside Israel, not under Jewish law. Then, there’s the reason why she’s approaching Jesus in the first place: her daughter has a demon. This fact also further drives a wedge between her and those gathered around Jesus. This woman was a Christian with nothing else to lose.

Because she has nothing else to lose, the woman does something that was quite rare: she went toe-to-toe with Jesus. She challenged Jesus. But why wouldn’t she? If Jesus had turned her away, denied her request for the healing of her daughter, she probably would have been no worse off. When is the last time you went toe-to-toe with Jesus? When was the last time you wondered and questioned God’s mission in this world? The Syrophoenician woman knew that there would be enough on that table that it would spill over and even those seated underneath the table, even the beggars would get crumbs. Do we truly believe that God’s grace is so great that even those that don’t deserve it receive God’s grace? Do we truly believe that God’s grace is so great that even we receive God’s grace?

I wonder if we would be brave enough to be this kind of Christian. It’s scary to think about challenging God, isn’t it? Our brains and hearts may immediately jump to consequences. Usually these consequences are self-centered. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s actually pretty natural. When I think about challenging God, I think “if I do that, God won’t love me anymore.” Or I think “if I challenge God, I may not get to heaven.” Sometimes I think “if I challenge God, God will punish me or someone I love for my disobedience.” And I wonder if our faith isn’t actually weakened when we don’t question God. After all, when you start to chalk up every bad thing as “God’s plan” eventually you might snap.

I mean, let’s say you had a relative die of cancer and said “it was God’s plan.” And then your dog died and “it was God’s plan.” Perhaps then your car got stolen and “it was God’s plan.” You went bankrupt, your house burned down, and your spouse left you and it was all “God’s plan.” Wouldn’t you be the slightest bit angry with God? Our God is big enough for us to be angry with God. Our God is loving enough for us to question God. What would happen if we were the kind of Christians this Syrophoenician woman is? What if instead of rolling over and accepting life the way it is, we challenged God? When was the last time you yelled at God? When was the last time you complained to God? Our fear of not being loved is so strong that we often keep our anger to ourselves and it effects our faith. That’s not a relationship with God. God loves us no matter what. God will love us even in the times we are angry with God or challenging God.

I wonder if this world actually needs us to be the kind of Christians that challenge God. I think this world is hungry for Christians who will question Jesus and say “but isn’t there enough for even those under the table?” Prayer changes the world, friends. I really believe that. What if we were the kind of Christians who, in love for our neighbors, cried in anger to God over hunger, war, and poverty? What if we were the kind of Christians, who, in love for our neighbors, yelled at God for injustice, racism, sexism, and classism? What if, we just were the kind of Christians, out of our love for our neighbors and our belief that our God is a God of love, that we were just to frustratingly say “nope. This isn’t fair, God.” But I must caution you. When we challenge God, which we should, God may then turn around and challenge us. There is a reason Jesus had the disciples. And there is a reason God created us. If we challenge God, God will, by grace alone, give us the resources and tools we need to answer the challenge. And even if we don’t, even if we fail in doing God’s work in the world, God still moves and acts. Jesus, despite being challenged, still cured the Syophoenican woman’s daughter. Nothing stops the love of God through Christ Jesus. We aren’t that important or that powerful to stop God’s love. Believe it or not, that is good news. So, my beloved, the next time you are asked “what kind of Christian are you?” will you be brave enough and bold enough to answer “the kind that will dare to go toe-to-toe with God. The kind that will yell at God, get angry with God, and beg of God. The kind that refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer. The kind that questions God’s will. The kind whose faith is stronger because of all those things.” What kind of Christian are you?