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.

 

Sermon for 5/14/17 John 14:1-14

This is a strange place to find ourselves in the Bible. After all, we are still in the Easter season for a few more weeks. This means that yes, you can continue to consume Starburst jelly beans by the handful. This particular reading today actually takes place before Jesus’ execution. It is part of what is called the “farewell discourse” in John. There has been a final dinner, some feet washing, an announcement of betrayal and denial, and finally, what we heard today. Jesus has practically given the disciples (and us) a play by play description of what will happen on the journey to the cross. Then, almost amusingly, he says “do not let your hearts be troubled.” The disciples must have sat up from their lounging position, bellies full, feet clean, and gawked at Jesus as he continued “believe in God, believe also in me.”

Why might their hearts be troubled? Were the disciples disturbed because they knew their friend Jesus would soon be tortured, humiliated, and executed? That’s enough for someone to have their heart be troubled. Were the disciples being told to not have trouble in their heart because the task set before them was great. After all, Jesus has told them more than once that they should love one another, that they should serve one another, and that they will be doing even greater works than Jesus. In short, they would soon be in the world telling the story of Jesus to any and all who would listen. The responsibility that comes with being a disciple wasn’t lost on the original 12 and it certainly shouldn’t be lost on us. Maybe the disciples were troubled because they have heard that one among them would betray Jesus and additionally, they have been told that Peter would deny Jesus not once but three times.

Perhaps their hearts were troubled after having experienced the most extravagant love. Jesus had humbled himself and kneeled at the feet of his friends, even the one who would betray him, and washed their feet. This was an act usually meant for slaves or servants.   The disciples had watched as Jesus fed around 5000 with only 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish and there was even enough for leftovers. The disciples were gathered when Jesus gave a man sight even though he had been blind since birth. Their hearts certainly had to be troubled when Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave after 4 days of death. Maybe, just maybe the disciples hearts were troubled because they weren’t used to such extravagant love. I don’t know that any of us are used to extravagant love.

When you think about it, the disciples hearts were troubled for the same reason ours would be troubled: we’re used to getting the love we deserve and not an ounce more. And the love that Jesus gave was undeserved, extravagant love. That kind of love can feel like love with a catch. The kind of love that makes you say “ok. Ok. What do you want?” We are used to getting love with strings attached. We most certainly are not used to receiving love we don’t deserve and love that we didn’t earn. But that is what Jesus has given the disciples and us over and over and over. Jesus’ love is unconventional. It certainly doesn’t follow any rules. Everyone gets the same amount of love all the time? That hardly seems fair. Anything that is that unconventional is enough to make a person suspicious. It’s enough to trouble a heart, that’s for sure.

On the other hand, we currently have a lot of reasons for our hearts to be troubled. We live in a state of constant change that starts at the government level and spills down to our local PTA. If we ourselves don’t have health problems, we may have loved ones that do. There are financial burdens that weigh on us. As so many of you start to plant, the anticipation and hope may have your hearts troubled. There is enough bad news in the world to last us a lifetime. Additionally, today we are celebrating our graduates and if you’re a parent of one of these graduates your heart may be troubled just thinking about what comes next for your baby. And, I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention today’s holiday: Mother’s Day. It’s a day that can hold a lot of spiritual, emotional, and maybe even physical weight. And so our hearts are troubled. And when we hear Jesus say “do not let your hearts be troubled” it can sound a little like Jesus being a jerk.

Jesus, after all, should know our pain. Of all people, Jesus should know the pain of our heart. Jesus should know the worries of our minds. Jesus especially should know the creaks and groans of our bodies. We have a lot to worry about. We have a lot that troubles our heart. And it’s okay if you hear Jesus say “do not let your hearts be troubled” and you have a response of “that’s not helpful AT ALL, Jesus!” And in those moments of pain, distress, frustration, confusion, and even anger, it’s okay to cry out to Jesus. It’s okay, even, to be mad at Jesus. It is perfectly fine and even understandable for your hearts to be troubled.

But, even in the darkest of hours, on the darkest of days, in the darkest of circumstances, we are all still victims of extravagant love. And when Jesus tells us “do not let your hearts be troubled” what he is saying is “do not let your hearts be troubled for anything.” Maybe a better way of saying it is “you don’t have to worry.” This isn’t Jesus poo-poo-ing our concerns. It is a reminder to us that, as always, Christ provides for everything we may need. It’s hard to remember that in those moments of darkness. But remember, Christ is the light that no darkness can overcome. The problem with this statement that Jesus gives us of “you don’t have to worry” is that we must trust that Jesus’ love, his extravagant love, will provide. And if we’re going to be honest, trust isn’t always the easiest trait for we humans to come by.

However, when we take time to step back and observe our lives, we can clearly see the times when we trusted in our own capabilities and resources versus the times when we trusted in Christ and all he could provide. And time after time after time, life, and life abundant comes only when we trust in Christ and all he provides. We are fed by Christ, not by fear. We are washed by water, not by works. We are forgiven by a cross, not by our courage or lack thereof. We are given life by a shepherd, a servant, a teacher, and a rebel, not by our class, status, righteousness, or by anything we buy or anything that’s sold to us as a quick fix.

Friends in Christ, I am not going to tell you to not worry. I worry and my heart is troubled often. What I will do, however, is invite you into the possibility that when your heart is troubled, it is simply God shaking things up to make room for Christ’s extravagant love. The love that provides. The love that protects. The love that gives life. Trouble your hearts, if you must. But do not worry. We are children of a heavenly father, children of a nurturing mother, and victims of obnoxious, extravagant, ludicrous, ridiculous, and mostly extremely costly love.

Sermon for 4/30/17 Luke 24:13-35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maundy Thursday 4/13/17 John 13:1-17, 31b-35

It seems our political discourse of late has caused a fraction in God’s kingdom here on Earth. Voters are now being identified more and more by their religious affiliations. The news often speaks of “evangelicals” versus just “Christians.” And while there are some churches that are wondering where to build their next 10,000 seat capacity sanctuary, or what to call their Saturday night “contemporary-yet also traditional-yet also family centered while being friend towards singles-yet also the spiritual but not religious” service, other churches struggle to keep the doors open. And so often as self-proclaimed Christians allow divisions to become deeper, problems to become impossible obstacles, and continue to gaze inward, I wonder if Christ doesn’t think “y’all, I didn’t die for this!”

In this familiar scene that we hear every Maundy Thursday, Christ lays out for his disciples, and for us, what it means to call ourselves “disciples,” or what it means to call ourselves Christians. It means appreciating (maybe even celebrating) the extraordinary purpose in ordinary things and service to one another. That’s it.

We aren’t told where this dinner gathering happened. I think many of us like to picture it in a church of some kind. But, the truth it, this gathering could have happened in the middle of a field, in the middle of a town square, even in the middle of a bar! Do you know why the location isn’t mentioned? Because it doesn’t matter. Jesus has not yet once allowed location to dictate his ministry–why would he start now? Whenever Jesus saw the opportunity to engage in ministry, he took it. And let us not forget that Christ ministered to the disciples. They needed love and care, too. Just because they were part of Christ’s “inner circle” didn’t make them immune from needing love and forgiveness. Heck, Jesus didn’t even wait for dinner to be over before jumping into service. Verses 2-3 say “and during supper…” Jesus doesn’t wait for a “so-called right time” because the “right time” is right now!

Then, Jesus takes ordinary objects and uses them for extraordinary purposes. The towel he tied around himself wasn’t the nice, plush, high-thread-count, Martha Stewart style towel. This was probably a worn and tattered piece of cloth, well hew, ragged edges, previously used towel. In so many pictures and artwork, we see it as this nice, neat, white towel. When, in reality, it probably looked more like that ratty old college t-shirt you couldn’t bear to throw away and now it’s a dust rag. We are told that he then poured water into a basin. We aren’t told how. Does he go to a well to draw water? Does he take a pitcher off the table? Is it a fancy porcelain pitcher and basin? Who knows, really. But the chances are good that it most likely was a plain clay pitcher and a plain clay bowl. Nothing special. But again, Jesus takes ordinary things and does extraordinary ministry with them.

Of course, he pours water into the bowl. This isn’t the first time that Jesus is going to do amazing things with water. We have the ability to hear that Jesus poured water and conjure up images of baptism. We have the ability to know previous scripture stories that speak of ritual cleansing. And, really, when Jesus is involved, nothing is ordinary. And all the while, the question that gets asked of the disciples, and the question that should stay with us until Easter morning is “do you know what I have done to you?” Why gather, brothers and sisters, why gather to mark these three days if we can’t answer this question. What has Jesus done to us? He has taught us how to love one another. And it looks nothing like we thought. It looks ordinary and extraordinary at the same time.

All of Jesus’ actions up to this point were done out of love. Jesus’ actions after this dinner were done in love. All of Jesus’ ministry was about one thing: love. And all along the way, Jesus took ordinary people, ordinary situations, ordinary objects, and used them all for extraordinary purposes: to show his love. We hear in the Corinthians reading, Jesus takes simple items: bread and wine, and turns them into extraordinary love. Jesus takes water and turns it into extraordinary love. Jesus took old tree branches and turned them into extraordinary love in the form of a cross. Jesus took on 3 ordinary nails, piercing his skin all the way through, into extraordinary love. And, on the third day, Jesus turned an ordinary tomb into further proof of extraordinary love. The commandment that he gives to his disciples and us this evening is to love one another as he loved us.

But, hearing of all of Jesus’ extraordinary actions can leave us feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or even a little put out. Loving one another as Jesus loved us? It almost seems impossible. Jesus seemed to go the extra mile all the time. There are days we may not even be willing to go the extra foot. Jesus’ love was amazing. Jesus loved through humble service towards those around him. God was glorified through his actions. What might humble service look like for us? A friendly phone call? A visit to someone no longer able to make it to church? Maybe allowing someone to go ahead of you in the grocery store line. How might the world react if we took ordinary moments and used them for extraordinary ministry? See, Jesus doesn’t care about the size of your wallet, the size of your house, the size of your garage, the size of your behind, even the size of this congregation. Jesus only cares about the size of your heart. Jesus doesn’t care if you call yourself a “Christian” or an “evangelical” or even a Lutheran. What Jesus does care about is if you love other people.

We can’t say we love Jesus while watching Syrian refugees gasp for air. We can’t say we love Jesus while our black brothers and sisters get treated as if their lives mean less. We can’t say we love Jesus while building walls. We can’t say we love Jesus while limiting the health care that the world so desperately needs. We can’t say we love Jesus while advocating for the death penalty. We can’t say we love Jesus while wanting to limit what love looks like and while wanting to limit who does and does not deserve it. Because the truth is, brothers and sisters, no one deserves the love that God has to give us through Jesus Christ. But, the audacious truth is, somehow, someway, a world full of sinners receives it daily.

Don’t get overwhelmed, friends. In a world hungry for love, it can be overwhelming to think about trying to love the entire world. But see, through the power of the Holy Spirit, fed by bread and wine, you are able to take your ordinary love and turn it into extraordinary things. This world is hurting. Even the smallest bit of ordinary love can seem like an extraordinary thing. Soon, we too will gather around this table, hearing the words once again that are so so ordinary, but do you understand what he did for you? The body of Christ given for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you. Extraordinary love from an extraordinary Savior.

Sermon for 4/2/17 John 11:1-45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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