Sermon for 3/31/19 Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

If you were to open your bible to this passage, you would see, like all chapters and stories in the bible, this one has a title. Most of you know that this story is often referred to as the story of the prodigal son. Did you know, however, that the bible wasn’t originally constructed with those story titles. When Jesus told parables it’s not like he said “let me tell you the one about the prodigal son” and then proceeded with this story. The titles were added hundreds of years later. That made me wonder, then, what you might call this story. Because the titles can taint our interpretation of scripture. What if this story, instead, was called “the parable of the jealous brother” or “the lament of the responsible older child”? What if this story was called “a father’s embrace” or “a dad throws an undeserved party”? But really, what might be the most challenging is what if this story was called “God’s abundant obnoxious undeserved grace is showered on all people”? How might these titles color the ways in which we read this story?

I have no doubt that all of us could be any one of the three main characters in this story. We have all been the responsible older son or sibling. We have all been the father welcoming a lost child home with open arms. We have all been the son that squandered everything and filled with fear returned home with his hat in his hand. And who knows? Maybe depending on the day, you have been all three. Of course, we could also be the grumbling scribes and pharisees heard towards the very beginning of our reading. Grumbling about the way Jesus does things and how we may not really be on board with his ideas and his ministry.

If we were to read all of chapter 15, we would see that this story isn’t unique in the idea of the lost being found. In verses 4-7 we hear of a shepherd going out to find his one lost sheep. Looking for one sheep out of 100 doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, until you are the lost sheep. Then, we hear about a woman who finds her lost silver coin and is so elated that she calls her friends and neighbors to rejoice. There is amazing healing that can be had in repentance and in the power of being found. I think that there is healing power in being found because what that means is that you have been recognized. You have been seen. You have been deemed to have value and worth. You are worthy of celebrating. And if we’re really honest with ourselves, sometimes we need to be reminded of that.

At my last check up with my bariatric team at Iowa City, I was prepared for the worst. The scale hasn’t been moving as much as I would like. I’ve had a lot of victories that don’t show on the scale. But, I knew that my weight loss since my last appointment wasn’t great. I prepared myself mentally for the shame, lecture, and questioning that would come with my appointment. I had my defenses up. And I should have known better. What I got instead was support, suggestions, a follow up appointment, and most importantly, grace. Sometimes I forget that while I talk about grace a lot, I need to bask in the moments that I receive it. That was one of those moments and I am so grateful. That was a healing moment for me.

This is more than just a nice story or a parable that should give us reason to pause and think. What is happening here is that God, through Jesus Christ is talking about what the crux of Jesus’ ministry is, has been, and will continue to be. Jesus will find the lost, redeemed the forgotten, and celebrate the redeemed. This means all of us, my beloved. After all, Jesus didn’t care that there was a celebration for a lost sheep, a lost coin, or a lost human. All called for a celebration of unbridled joy. And when it’s us on the receiving end of this celebration, this unbridled joy, this abundance of grace, it feels amazing. It feels redemptive. It feels like we’ve been found. Because we have.

But, if we’re going to be honest, it can also feel incredibly unfair. I think it’s important that we speak to that fact. God’s love and grace and mercy are amazingly healing and redemptive but they are also incredibly unfair because God’s love and grace and mercy are given to those that, honestly, don’t deserve them. The other 99 sheep didn’t wander away. The other 9 coins stayed put. The older son stayed behind and worked his back end off. And now there’s a celebration? It feels like a slap in the face. In fact, it feels worse than that. Because it feels like I’m not valued. I’m not important. I’m not worthy and let’s be honest, that’s a pretty crappy place to be. The idea of God’s grace for all sounds amazing in theory. But, when we watch how it plays out in day to day life it can feel unfair.

The brother doesn’t want to go to the big “welcome home celebration.” After all, the other brother gets to wear the good clothes, the expensive jewelry, and eat a calf the older brother probably worked really hard to fatten up. So excuse him if a party of redemption doesn’t sound like a good time. This is all too often our thinking whether we realize it or not. We want a party, for sure. We want to be celebrated. We want to be lavished with extravagant gifts. But, we also want to be in charge of the guest list. Once again, we find ourselves in the sinful position of wanting to control God’s grace: who gets it, how much they get, and whether or not they are worthy.

God’s grace isn’t fair. People we don’t like are going to receive grace and amounts we think are a little too much. There are going to be redemption parties thrown that we want to ignore and protest. But, the redemption of one means the redemption of all. If God is not going to let one sheep stay lost, one coin stay lost, or one human stay lost, you can rest assured that God is not going to allow you to stay lost. As I said earlier, there is healing power in being found because that means you have been recognized. And I don’t know about you, my beloved, but I wouldn’t mind being recognized.

Like all of you, I am so many things to so many people that sometimes I lose my identity. I am grateful for those moments when God reminds me who I am. I am grateful for those moments when God reminds me that I have value and worth. I am grateful for those moments when God reminds me that I am worth finding! And maybe you need that reminder too. So hear me now, my dearests. You have value and worth. You are worth the biggest party, with the best clothes and the best food! Your value is greater than all the diamonds and rubies in the world. You have value because of who you are, which is child of God. You are worth finding. And no matter how lost you may feel sometimes, maybe even today, you will be found. God will find you and come running towards you with great abandon ready to embrace what once was lost.

God’s grace isn’t fair. But this is good news for us. This is good news because we certainly don’t deserve it. But, we get a lavish, redemptive, grace-filled party anyway. No matter what our sins make us think or believe, we will never EVER be lost from God or God’s love. I need you to hear that again because there are so many powerful forces in this world that don’t want you or me or anyone else to receiving healing redemption. There will never EVER be a time that we are lost from God or God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

 

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Sermon for 3/24/19 Luke 13:1-9

Why do bad things happen to good people? This is a question that has been asked probably since that darned apple was consumed in the garden. It’s asked in various ways, but it all boils down to that same question of bad things happening to good people. There’s a fancy word for this kind of questioning and thinking. It’s called theodicy. And, I’ll be honest friends, it’s kind of a wormhole question that sucks ya down and won’t let go very easily. The other thing is, questions like these cannot be answered in this lifetime. That doesn’t mean we should (or will) stop asking them. But knowing that they have no answers may actually come as a relief. Or, perhaps, it is just a source of frustration. Add it to the list of things you’d like to discuss with God when we all get to where we’re (hopefully) going.

Much of our text for today deals with these theodicy questions. Those poor Galileans. It’s like Pilate didn’t even care about their sacrifices. Why did this happen to the Galileans? What did they do to deserve that? And those poor people in the tower of Siloam. 18 people died! How does that happen? What did they do? It sounds silly when we talk about it in relation to the text. But, even just this last week I’ve heard theodicy voiced in other ways. One of the worst, most vile was in relation to the floods in Nebraska. Now, mind you, I’m heartbroken about these floods. Nebraska is a place I consider one of my homes. I know and love people who live there. Someone somewhere suggested that the floods are happening because Nebraska, as a state, voted for President Trump. That is terrible theology. I heard several forms of theodicy wrestled with after the tragedy at ADM. As I said, we’re going to ask these questions knowing full well we’re not going to get any answers.

Honestly, quite often, we use questions that we wrestle with in times of theodicy to avoid what Jesus is really calling us to: repentance. Of course, that may lead to even more confusion. What in the world do repentance and theodicy have to do with one another. If the classic question is “why do bad things happen to good people” and I (personally) had nothing to do with that bad thing, then why would I need to repent of anything? Good question. I want to start with the idea of repentance and focus on two aspects: individual repentance and corporate repentance. Now, I may use the word corporate off and on and I am using it to talk about a group of people, not an actual corporation. If we were to repent of something as an entire church, that would be a corporate repentance.

Repentance is a church word. We pastor-types use it a lot with the assumption that you all know what we’re talking about. But it can also be one of those things that is said a lot but you’re really not exactly sure what it is. We especially talk a lot about repentance during Lent. Repentance is part of what we’re called to do to prepare ourselves for the trial, execution, and ultimately, the resurrection of Jesus. So, repentance literally means to turn around. It means that you’re going to do a 180 in your life. You will be letting go of old thinking. It’s more than saying that you will do better, it’s actually doing better. Repentance means you’re actually going to change. We often talk about confession and forgiveness. But our confession and forgiveness is actually three-fold: (1) confession, (2) forgiveness, and (3) repentance. Whole-hearted repentance means that we gain or establish a new perception of what is real and true. And yes, we’re going to even screw up repentance. We may fall back into our old ways. But, if we’re actually trying to repent then God will be there with mercy and grace and forgiveness.

As I said, we have individual repentance and corporate repentance. Individual repentance is a bit easier to understand and talk about, so I am going to start there. This is repentance that is done usually only by you and you alone (with the help of God). I think about this in our relationships: marital, friendship, work, or otherwise. You did or said something wrong, you’ve been forgiven, and then you make it a point to NOT do or say that thing again. And yes, sometimes that’s easier said than done. I get it. After all, it seems we sometimes hurt the ones we love the most.

Corporate repentance is a bit more tricky and I think this is where we tend to get tripped up. I also think it’s a place where God is trying desperately to move and we keep fighting God at every turn. Corporate repentance is when a group of people make the decision to change their thinking and being in the world. Here’s a mundane example: let’s say you as a family are very distressed about destruction of the earth and the effects of global warming. It is impossible for you as a family to stop global warming. That would take the involvement of a lot more people. But, what you see as repentance for your involvement in the direct effects of global warming may be to start recycling.

Corporate repentance can also be done as a church. Did you know that our denomination, the ELCA, has started to acknowledge the hurts caused in the name of “progress and civilization?” When the church has met for large churchwide meetings and gatherings, there has been a moment when we acknowledge the Native American tribes that the land we’re now on used to belong to as well as lamenting the ways the land was taken from those tribes. We can’t rewind time. But, like I said last week, when we know better, we do better. Repentance is necessary to avoid theodicy type questions. Instead of blaming individuals for when bad things happen, repentance encourages us to look inward and question how we might have contributed to the problem.

To go back to what I talked about earlier, the flooding in Nebraska isn’t the fault of anyone here or anyone that lives in Nebraska. But, maybe it will encourage us to take a closer look at how we steward our waterways and land. Maybe we repent from disbelieving in things like climate change and start to have real conversations about how we respond to climate change. While we don’t know what happened at ADM, we repent from blaming Lt. Hosette or FF Cain of course. But maybe we also have more conversations about workplace safety, or why people feel the need to work long hours. I don’t know. Repentance is hard. God is with us when we do it, for sure, but it is hard.

The result of repentance is this: fruitfulness. When we are fruitful (like the fig tree in our story) then we are better equipped and prepared to respond to the brokenness in the world. Repentance starts with seeing people. We see their humanity instead of their shortcomings. After all, that is what we desire for ourselves, right? We want people to see us for us, not for the ways in which we have failed. It’s almost as if (gasp) we want others to see us the way God sees us. We can pray that we view others the same way. I have said this time and time before, we don’t have broken people, we have broken systems. Repentance is the tool that helps us to repair broken systems. It is hard work, like I said. And yes, this work may not bear fruit in our lifetime. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t engage in it. God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, empowers us in this work. You have been forgiven. You have been redeemed. Now, the work of repentance starts. It is time for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. We can’t just say that we repent, we must actually do it and model it for others. So next time, instead of asking “why do bad things happen to good people” maybe we repent of that thinking and ask why is there a broken system happening to anyone and what can I do about it?

Sermon for 3/17/19 Luke 13:31-35

I want to share a brief story with you that I have actually written about before. So, if it sounds familiar, that’s why. A few years ago I was in Atlanta for continuing education. I had stayed way past my bedtime at a local watering hole catching up with friends. By the time I made it to the MARTA (the mass transit of Atlanta) it was late. I could immediately tell that the population that rode the MARTA at that time of night was quite different from those I had ridden with earlier in the day. It was clear these were blue-collar employees. They were dressed in chefs coats, hospital uniforms, hotel staff garb and the like. I also was keenly aware of something else: I was one of the only people at my MARTA stop that was not a person of color. It was as if my pasty white skin suddenly had the ability to glow. I looked around for anyone else that was white and had no luck. And maybe there were others, but with my tunnel vision, I saw nothing. I put my headphones on but didn’t turn on my music. I wanted the perception that I was listening to something and not bothered by the world around me. At the same time, I wanted to hear if something was going on around me (hence, no music). I moved the backpack I was carrying a little closer to me. I sat as far back against a wall as I could on the train. And then, I finally realized everything I had done to “protect” myself in the name of fear.

I had never really come face to face with my own racism until that point. I stupidly thought that having a heart for social justice and being a tad bit liberal that I wasn’t racist. I was wrong. To some extent, I still am racist. I am not blatantly racist, of course. But, I am blind to the ways that I am allowed to move about in this world because of my skin color. In fact, most of the time, if I am aware of ways that the world seems against me, it is because of my gender. I hardly ever think about the ways that I benefit from being white. Please understand, my beloved, this is not going to be a message where I expect you to apologize for something you had no control over: your skin color. But, what I may do is challenge the ways we all (and that includes me) benefit from that. If you’ve never thought about the ways that you benefit from skin color that alone is privilege.

Jesus says “how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” It’s a risk, as a Pastor, to make sweeping broad statements and take a stand on an issue. We run the risk of losing members, or even worse, losing a job. So we weigh things carefully. But, I didn’t have to think very long or very hard before deciding to make this profession: white supremacy is a sin and it is responsible for killing entirely too many of God’s people. It wasn’t just the tragedy that occurred in New Zealand that sparked my stance. This is something I have believed for some time. That phrase that Jesus utters to the people of Jerusalem is one of lament and sadness.

Can you hear it in his voice? “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Jesus desires to protect us. It’s a beautiful sentiment. Jesus desires to offer us a safe place, shelter, and love. And yet, the people of Jerusalem resist. We resist. And it’s more than resistance, it’s the idea that we were not willing. Meaning, there was no room for negotiation. Why would the people of Jerusalem, or us, or anyone for that matter refuse to be sheltered, loved, and protected by Jesus? I fear it’s the same reason we want to skip right past Good Friday. It’s the same reason we don’t want to gather around the foot of the cross.

Under Jesus’ care, at the foot of the cross, in those dark moments of Good Friday, if we’re honest, we’ll come to discover one amazing, wonderful, and yet disturbing truth: we are all one and we are all equal. And again, if we’re being honest, there are times when we may observe the world around us and desire to be anything but equal. In some ways, that’s good, right? I mean, do we desire to be equal with those from history that have done the most damage? Do we desire to be equal to those even from our own personal history that have caused us the most damage and heartache? But, there are those, who like us, are just trying their best to get by. They’re just trying to work their daily job, provide for themselves or their families, and make time for a little worship and fun.

Upon first glance, we may desire to be equal to people like that. But, there is evil in society. It’s the same evil that caused me to be so paranoid that evening in Atlanta. It’s the evil that says “no matter what, if it doesn’t look like you, dress like you, worship like you, love like you, or operate in this world as you do then it is evil and should be destroyed.” And I understand that you may not think that way. Heck, I pray you don’t think that way. I pray the majority of the human race doesn’t think that way. But there are those in our society that are a cancer. They are evil. Luther insisted a thing be called what it is. Human beings who desire to destroy others simply for skin color, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identity, or physical abilities are evil and will not, cannot be tolerated. Hate is not a Christian value and most certainly should not be a human value.

We fight being gathered under the care of Jesus because then we are admitting that we are all equal, that we are all in need of love, and that we all are in need of care. But hate gets in the way. Jesus wouldn’t stand for it and neither will I. I hope you won’t either. I hope when you leave here and watch the news or observe the world your heart will be open and broken. Our hearts should be broken because the world God made is broken. Hate is not the desire of God. God does not desire for anyone to be stuck in the sin of supremacy. God does not desire for anyone to be stuck in sin period.

What makes God so astounding and so amazing is that, through Jesus Christ, we have a God that continuously seeks us out. We have a God that desires to pull us out of our sin to redeem us. And God will keep trying until we either give into that love or we come face to face with God to answer for our words and actions. But the cross is not a “get out of jail free” card. The cross demands more of us. The promises made in the waters of baptism demand more of us. The love of God demands more of us. The command (and demand) is that we cannot stay settled in our own personal peace if there is lack of peace anywhere in the world God created. Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. When our neighbors are in pain, whether it is 5 miles or 5000 miles away, we should hurt too. The first step is confessing our own sins. And again. And again. And learning. When we know better, we do better. And making changes that benefit the kingdom of God. You are allowed to change your mind,  you know. You no longer have to hold fast to the same beliefs you had 50 years ago or even 5 minutes ago.

Jesus desires for us all to be gathered under his loving, watchful, caring eye. This can only happen when we start to move and interact with the world as one. It starts at the foot of the cross and ends at the empty tomb. The days between is where we’re stuck. Don’t let the cross be in vain.

Sermon for 3/10/19 Luke 4:1-13

Did you know that we get this story every first Sunday in Lent? The story of the temptation of Jesus. So, it might be easy, maybe even tempting for us, to hear this reading and immediately think of our own temptations. After all, don’t some people give things up for Lent so that they can learn the power of temptations? At the risk of sounding cruel, this reading is not about us. We should not hear this and immediately apply it to our own lives. After all, the temptations that Jesus faces, are nowhere near or like the temptations we face. Now, I know what you might be wondering. If this is not a text about temptation, then what is this story about? Our reading today as a story about identity. It is a story about Christ and his identity to and in God. It has a story about Christ and his identity to us. And, it is a story about our identity to and in Christ. The story is all about how Jesus is going to live into his identity as the son of God, and how we might follow as children of God and followers of Christ.

We are told that this encounter is spirit driven literally the text says that Jesus was driven by the Holy Spirit. He is full of the Holy Spirit. So, he is not alone while being tempted. As a side note, this makes me wonder how much of this is Jesus trusting in the Holy Spirit and how much of this encounter is him trusting in his identity. How strong might we be if we put more faith in our identity and the Holy Spirit? But I digress. The temptations from Satan all start out the same “if you are…” Believe it or not, this is actually better translated as “since you are.” “Since you are the son of God” and then the temptations follow. This is not a question of Jesus’ identity but more of a challenge of how he will live into that identity. Satan is not questioning whether or not he is the son of God. But because he is the son of God how will he move about in this world? Perhaps we could post the same question to ourselves. Because we are called, claimed, and beloved children of God, how will we move about and encounter and interact with this world?

Before this encounter, in scripture we actually heard about the baptism of Jesus. Therefore, we heard about his identity in God. After Jesus is baptized, a voice comes from the clouds declaring “you are my Son, the Beloved” (Lk 3:22b).  So, perhaps, for Satan this is less about temptation and more of a challenge. You are the son of God, you are the Messiah, you are surrounded, filled, driven by the Holy Spirit. So Jesus, what will that look like? Once again my beloved I wonder what happens when we ask the same of ourselves. We are children of God we are the beloved of the Messiah, we are surrounded by the Holy Spirit. What does the world look like when we take on that identity?

The first temptation that Satan gives Jesus is to turn rocks into loaves of bread. We know that Jesus is hungry. After all, he has been fasting for 40 days. You can imagine then, the hunger is real. I mean, I know how I feel when I have gone for hours without eating. Let alone, 40 days. Once again however, this is not about Jesus necessarily. This temptation is about how Jesus will interact with the world and claim his identity. Let us not forget that so much of Jesus’s ministry is feeding people literally. Jesus feed hungry people. Can you imagine how easy that might be if Jesus was able to turn any and all stones into bread with a snap of his fingers? But Jesus refuses this temptation. He tells the devil that one does not live by bread alone. And, if you think of the many feeding stories that we hear about Jesus, it is more than just feeding that Jesus gives people. When Jesus feeds people, he affirms their humanity. It is about community. It is about recognizing who they are and where they are in that moment. Being able to snap his fingers and turn stones into bread may not be able to deliver that same message.

The second temptation that Satan presents to Jesus is about power. Satan offers Jesus all the powers in the world if only Jesus would worship Satan. Once again, think about all the injustices that Jesus could make right if he were all powerful as Satan seems to promise. Think about all the prisoners he could free if he were the one in charge of all the kingdoms of the world. Think of all the people he would be able to help if only he were the one in charge instead of governments or rulers. Satan is speaking directly to the heart of Jesus’ ministry. What he is offering is an easy way out. But once again, Jesus remembers who he is and who he belongs to. He reminds Satan that he will worship God and God alone. Jesus, once again, is resting secure in his identity. This is not an easy thing to do for us humans. They easy way out is always tempting us.

The final temptation that Satan poses to Jesus is to jump off the highest point trusting that angels will catch him. Once again, our reading says “if you are the son of God,” but it is more accurately translated as “since you are the son of God.” Since you are the son of God, prove that an identity. Show me and the world that God will claim you and catch you when you fall. And Jesus, knowing the devil’s intent, states that you shall not put your God to the test. Jesus does not need to prove that God loves him and will protect him. He already knows this to be true in his identity. He knows that he is the son of God, the Messiah. It is not to him to prove this to anyone else.

So, my beloved, what can we learn from this today? I think are most important takeaway from these readings today is to be secure in our identity. No matter what else the world may call us, good or bad, our primary identity is that as child of God. There is no shortage of people either challenging us to prove who we are, or people challenging who we are. God created us in God’s image. We are beautifully and wonderfully made. However, there are many that will challenge the way we act, the way we look, even the way we move about in this world. That’s why it is so important to remember who we are and whose we are. We are reminded of this identity every time we gather at the baptismal waters and every time we gather around the table. We are fed and bathed in the promise of redemption and loving adoption from God. This is not to say that we will not cave to temptation. We know we will. We know we have. It is sin infiltrating our lives on an almost daily basis.

It is good for us to remember then, when we do fall to temptation and sin, we serve a God that is relentless in loving us. You saw that the devil gave up challenging Jesus after three tries. Good for him for trying. It was a no-win situation for the devil. But for Jesus, he never gives up on us. We do not live by a three strikes and you’re out rule. Of course, Jesus does not desire for us to succumb to temptation and sin, but when we do, God through Jesus Christ is there to remind us that we are loved and forgiven. The freedom of the cross promises us this on a daily basis. We will not be defined by our temptations or our sins. The love that God has for us is stronger and greater than either of those.

Satan may also tempt us with something else: the idea that we actually do not deserve God‘s love. We may be quick to reject it. We may think that our sins are too great or are unforgivable. I am here to tell you my beloved that simply is not true. So, perhaps, over the next 40 days, you give into the temptation to be loved. Give into the idea that God is going to love you even when you feel you are unlovable. Give into the idea that you are forgiven even if you cannot forgive yourself. Give into the fact that you are claimed by God as a child of God and nothing can come between that relationship. What a wonderful 40 days this might be if we gave into those kind of temptations. Give into the temptation to love your neighbor. Give into the temptation to see the best in one another. Give into the temptation to see Christ moving in the world towards making this world a better place. Give into the temptation of allowing yourself to be loved so wholly/holy and so fully that you can’t help but love one another and the world that God created. Temptation exists. Evil exists. Sin exists. And I am very confident that the devil exists. But none of that is stronger than the grip that God has on us as claimed children of God. Our identity in God is secure. The love that God has for us is the strongest weapon against any temptation. Rest secure in your identities my beloved. God has a strong hold on you!

 

Sermon for 3/3/19 Luke 9:28-36 (37-43) Transfiguration

Let’s be honest. There are just some scriptures that we as preachers don’t know what to do with. I think I mentioned something similar last week. And when it comes to our own faith and the scriptures that sustain us, I highly doubt that most of us would reflect back and say that it is this reading today, often referred to as the transfiguration, that sustains and supports our life as Christians. When people ask us “why do you believe in Jesus?” I don’t think we quote this scripture from Luke. (Side note though: if you haven’t thought about why you believe in Jesus, perhaps that might be a good Lenten discipline for you to take on. Think about and pray for 40 days about why you believe in Jesus). Just in case you think you’re alone with not quoting this scripture, or heck, even understanding it, rest assured you’re not alone! After all, even Peter, who was often recognized as Jesus’ most loyal disciple, didn’t understand what was going on. It even says in verse 33 that Peter suggests they stay on the mountaintop “not knowing what he (Jesus) said.”

It’s easiest to understand the Transfiguration (as if that’s possible) by remembering a few things that shape this reading. Jesus, up to this point, has been showing the disciples and us who he is, how his ministry will be, and what he expects of us as disciples if we choose to follow him. That is what epiphany is/was all about. A few weeks back even, Jesus asked Peter “but who do you say that I am?” And it is Peter (of all people) who responds that Jesus is the Messiah. But, what that means isn’t always clear to Peter (or us for that matter). Jesus knows what it means to be the messiah. It means that he will have to undergo suffering, torture, and death, only to conquer that death and rise on the third day.

So often when we think of the cross, our go to answer is that Jesus died on the cross to forgive us from our sins. While this isn’t wrong, this also isn’t the whole story. What Jesus gives us is healing, our own resurrections, and ultimately, freedom. Jesus is God’s love letter to the world. Jesus is the only one who comes again and again, without limitations, without exceptions, and without expectations, to rescue God’s people (and that includes us). Peter has said, outright, what and who Jesus is. Yet it is Peter who wants to keep him from doing it. And Jesus continues to show who he is and what he does (despite Peter, despite all of us) by once again showing his healing powers in this strange story from versus 37-43.

Here is what is so wonderful about God (as if you needed more convincing): God, through a transfigured Jesus Christ, comes to us, is present with us here and now, in ways we may understand (or not), despite the fact that we, like the disciples, may not be fully awake to the promises of God. So many of the ways we experience Jesus would never happen if Jesus would have stayed on that mountain top like Peter suggested. In the transfiguration, Jesus literally transforms. He was glowing (literally) and was surrounded by Moses and Elijah. He also transforms from the Jesus we’ve gotten to know to the Jesus who will turn his face towards Jerusalem and ultimately, towards his death.

But the disciples weren’t fully awake. It’s easy for us to miss the ways that Jesus transforms in front of us as well as transforms us. It’s easy for us to miss the ways that God, through Jesus Christ is present and continues to be present in transforming, transfiguring ways to us and for us. Here are some examples (even some we may take for granted). When we gather each and every week, Jesus is here and transforming this community. When we gather around the table and the font, Jesus is transforming us. When we gather after worship for coffee and sit around tables, yes, Jesus is transforming us there too. Just because it doesn’t take place within our worship space doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t still there, working and transforming us. When we pray for one another, that’s transforming. When the ladies gather to make blankets and assemble kits, that’s transforming. When Diane gathers supplies, packs up the backpacks, and Teri picks them up, that’s transforming. The time, patience, and (sometimes) literal man hours that went into the basement project, the new bathroom, and soon the new carpet in the narthex is transforming. I hope I don’t have to tell you how transforming the second Tuesday of the month is around here. That’s when Rich and Nancy open their hearts and the food pantry and literally change lives through Jesus Christ.

Even in our weariness, God is transforming us and this place. Maybe despite our weariness, even. And yes, my beloveds, even when our sin gets the best of us, Jesus is transforming us and transforming the entire body of Christ. For generations, God, through Jesus Christ has come over and over to heal us, rescue us, feed us, teach us, and love us. That love is what constantly ushers us through our own transfiguration, our own transformation from death by sin to a life fully lived in the mercy, love, and forgiveness in and of Christ. Perhaps this message isn’t sinking in quite the way I want it to.

We serve a God that is a God of new life. Alleluia? Alleluia! We serve a God that is a God of second chances. Alleluia? Alleluia! We serve a God that has the power to overcome and defeat death. Alleluia? Alleluia! And that new life, those second chances, that power that overcomes death, it all happens right here. In this place. At little Elvira Zion Lutheran Church at 2207 380th Avenue in Clinton, Iowa. It happens here. Alleluia? Alleluia! Every church in the nation, heck, even in the world, should be called Transfiguration Lutheran Church (or whatever denomination). Because if we don’t believe that God is transforming us every single Sunday and every single day, how will we ever believe that God has the power to transform the entire world and does it? I hope you leave this place today different than when you arrived. You have been transformed. You have been fed by fellowship, singing, readings, hopefully this preaching, soon the meal, and on and on. You are a transfigured person. You are loved by a God that cannot be restrained, even by death. You are showered, coated, bathed in mercy and grace by a God that will consistently seek you out, even in, and especially in, those moments when you are weary. Soon enough, we will look to the cross, and there will hang the messiah. Hanging and killed for the sins of the world and to guarantee our freedom. But, we know that’s not the end of the story. Even God has the ability to transform death in a tomb to emptiness and good news. If that’s not good news, I don’t know what is. Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!)

Sermon for 2/24/19 Luke 6:27-38

Do you mean it? I mean seriously, do you mean it? Did you really just hear everything I read, everything that Jesus had to say and then respond “thanks be to God?” Really? Thanks be to God? If you really meant it, then, by all means, please come up here and preach for me. Because my first reaction to a reading like that is “the Gospel of the Lord” and me responding “nah. I don’t like it.” Now before you clutch your pearls and think “Pastor! You can’t talk like that! That’s the bible.” Yes I can. God invites us to wrestle with scripture. Scripture should make us joyous, and should make us think, and should make us uncomfortable. There are stories in our bibles that might make your skin crawl. If you don’t believe me, go home, open your bible to Judges, and read the story of Jael driving a tent stake through a man’s head, killing him instantly. There’s a story we don’t hear on an average Sunday. Thanks be to God?? Let’s be honest with ourselves friends, sometimes scripture is hard. Sometimes scripture is uncomfortable. And sometimes, we just may not like it.

What Jesus is proposing in this continued sermon on the plain is almost impossible. He once again is preaching. This is a continuation of last week’s readings when we heard the beatitudes. If there’s anything that Jesus does well, it’s not sugar coating things. We never hear Jesus say “well, if it’s okay with you” or “if you aren’t too busy” or even “if it will make you feel good.” Jesus is a pretty black and white kind of guy. The first sentence alone is enough to make me want to check out. “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Nope. I’m out. If this what it means to be a Christian, I’m not sure I want to participate any more. I want to pause here really quick to make sure that while the bible talks about abuse, it is never okay. If you or someone you love is in an abusive relationship, either mental, emotional, spiritual, physical, or otherwise, God does not desire for you to stay in that relationship. Additionally, if you need resources for yourself or someone you love, I am here to help.  

I think what makes this reading so incredibly difficult is that the idea of forgiveness is incredibly powerful and, at the same time, runs contradictory to everything we may feel or desire. Forgiveness, especially for those who wish to do us harm, curse us, abuse us, or takes from us (maybe, or especially) without asking, can feel impossible. Remember that we are still in the season of epiphany. God is still revealing to us, to the disciples, to all people who God is and will continue to be through Jesus Christ. This is a God who has come to turn the world upside down. This God, who became flesh, has come into our lives, and has changed the way we respond to other people. Or, at least it should.

The challenge, of course, comes from what our natural inclinations may be to what God is calling us to. I mean, if we’re honest, our natural instinct is to go blow for blow and cutting words to cutting words. But, how do we live our lives responding with grace and kindness instead of reacting with words or actions that may answer hurt with more hurt. And again, if we’re being honest, we may not always want to respond with grace and kindness. I mean, if you can think of (or picture) the person in your life that has caused you the most heartache and pain, do you really desire to respond to him or her with grace and kindness? Yet that is what God challenges us to do. I’ve read and heard more than once that hurt people hurt people, or that hurting people hurt people. Sometimes those hurts can only be healed by grace.

I know I talk about grace a lot. But when you have experienced the life changing power of grace, you can’t help yourself. God’s grace literally changed my life. Once I learned about God’s grace, my entire relationship with God changed. Here’s a strange thing about grace: I hate that you may have needed to experience it, but at the same time, I am so grateful if you have experienced the life-changing power of God’s grace. Grace is just unmerited love, forgiveness, and mercy. And maybe you have felt it from God. But, more likely, you have experienced grace in relationship with someone else. Even though that grace may have come from another human being, let us not kid ourselves, my beloved. Grace can only be accomplished with and through God. We can’t experience grace without God and really, isn’t that a great place to be?

When I say that grace has the power to change lives, I’m not over exaggerating. It really does. Grace transformed me and my life in such a way that my heart was healed and I felt redeemed. Grace is what called me into ministry. How have you experienced grace? Once you are able to recognize grace in your own life, you are then able to recognize the ways it changes your life and leaves you completely vulnerable. Believe it or not, this vulnerability is a good thing. You may not hear that idea very often. Society wants us to believe that being vulnerable is bad. Vulnerability and shame all too often go hand in hand. But, what if being vulnerable just meant leaving our hearts and minds open to what God can and will do?

When grace leaves us vulnerable, which it often does, then the Holy Spirit is allowed into our lives in such a way that we see and feel a new way of living and loving through Jesus Christ. What Jesus demands of us as disciples is a complete and total change; a repentance and leaving behind of our old selves and instead invites us into holy and wholly living. This holy/wholly living isn’t always neat and tidy. There will be times when we feel rejected. There will be times when we might wonder if this discipleship is all it is cracked up to be. And those times, my beloved, are when we must rely on God. The great reward that Jesus speaks of isn’t material items. We will not gain cars, wealth, or fame from following Christ. But what we will gain and what our reward will be is a better version of ourselves.

None of this happens by chance. We may do our best to live a Christian life daily but we will always fall short because of sin. The temptations of this life are far too great for us to resist. When Jesus commands us to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, and give to everyone who asks of you, there may be times that sin seems almost appealing. The life that Christ calls us to isn’t easy. But the life we are reformed into through that journey of discipleship and following Jesus has a great reward of a better self and a better, greater, deeper love for the world God made. None of this is possible, of course, without grace. Grace is stronger than our sin. Grace is stronger than even our best intentions. Grace is stronger than our hard work. Grace is stronger than our resistance. Which means, even in the moments when we resist God’s grace, it is changing and transforming us for the better. The path is difficult. Let’s not kid ourselves. It can feel lonely, and at times, insurmountable. But, the path is lit by grace. And it is a path that rewards us in ways that are almost unimaginable. Thanks be to God!  

Sermon for 2/17/19 Luke 6:17-26

In many ways, this text and I danced with one another this week. However, much like when I actually dance, I didn’t realize what I was doing or what was going on. Last Sunday, I took a nice long drive up to camp EWALU in Strawberry Point for a brief but life-giving retreat. As I flipped through the radio stations, I caught the announcement of Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota proclaiming she is now running for president. Along with like 76 other people. I kept the radio where it was because I’m a news and political junkie. I wasn’t paying a lot of attention until she started talking about things that other people call “obstacles” and that maybe these aren’t obstacles but our path. Sounds like something a politician would say. And then at the retreat we talked a lot about the book “A Wrinkle in Time.” As the main character, Meg, prepares to go out on an adventure, one of the witch/all knowing beings type characters says that the gift she is giving Meg is “the gift of” her “faults.” Meg seems to turn up her nose at the idea because what kind of gift is the gift of her faults?

And I thought about this as I read this passage from Luke. This version of what we know as the beatitudes can seem like a cruel joke. Honestly, depending on the mood and your situation, the beatitudes in general can seem like a cruel joke. What kind of God do we have that says those who are poor, hungry, sad, and hated are actually blessed? While there was a crowd gathered around Jesus (as always) these words were more directed towards the disciples. We don’t get to hear how the disciples reacted. But how would you react? It’s hard not to project our own feelings onto the disciples. For me personally, I’d feel angry, frustrated, and, honestly, sad. I mean, here’s Jesus talking about the blessings of what I consider anything but. If I were a disciple, having left everything behind to follow him, I’d be sad. Doesn’t Jesus appreciate me? Doesn’t Jesus understand what I’ve done? Doesn’t Jesus know everything and everyone I’ve left behind? Jesus seems a bit out of touch.

I wonder if you’ve thought the same thing. I wonder if you’ve come to church ever, sat in your pew, and listened to me go on and on about God’s grace and God’s love and think to yourself “boy…she doesn’t get it.” Please understand, I am not comparing myself to Jesus. I would never think to be that brave. But, I’m sure I’ve sounded out of touch and maybe even uncaring more than once. All of you come week after week with your own troubles. Some are just the challenges of life, things like bills, work stress, family stress, the things most of us deal with on a weekly basis. But then, there are challenges that can make us feel like we’re carrying the weight of the world: a new diagnosis, a troubled relationship, a loss. I’m not a mind reader. I don’t know all of the things you carry. I’m privy to know some, but not all. So maybe you can relate to the disciples in hearing these blessings as anything but.

It is difficult, at best, to view our crappy things in life as a blessing. Even the most optimistic person might struggle. For some, it’s in the times of these dark valleys that God may actually feel farther away than usual. Darkness doesn’t normally feel like a blessing. Abandonment doesn’t normally feel like a blessing. Being lost doesn’t normally feel like a blessing. Having anger as your go-to emotion doesn’t feel like a blessing. Feeling nothing doesn’t feel like a blessing. So, what’s up, Jesus? Because for many of us, we may not speak it out loud, but the circumstances of life feel like anything but a blessing. How are we supposed to have faith when you, honestly, seem so out of touch?

Maybe these are just my emotions. But, I really struggle to believe that I am the only one who feels this way. And maybe no one knows. Maybe no one knows your struggles but you and God. But I have to believe that I’m not alone here. Or maybe I just want to believe that I’m not alone here because I don’t want to be alone here. So, just in case you think that, I, as a person of faith, just blindly believe without any doubts, you’d be wrong. I guess our challenge for today, or maybe every day, is how can we live into the reality that life is going to happen but that the realities of life can be a blessing? How can we view the darkness as a blessing? How can we view anger as a blessing? How can we view being lost as a blessing?

I think it starts by being honest, right? We don’t automatically jump to those feelings. We don’t flip from “I’m lost” to “what a blessing” instantly. I think when we acknowledge our darkness, we may be more likely to acknowledge when we see light. When we acknowledge our faults, we may be more likely to acknowledge our gifts. When we acknowledge our obstacles, we may be more likely to acknowledge our paths. “God saves us when we are at a stage of humbleness, brokenness, and depravity because that is when God reaches us; and not because we have made our way down there, but rather because we are no longer in denial over our condition” (V. Westhelle).

A blessing from God means that we have nothing but God. When it feels like you have nothing, it suddenly becomes abundantly clear that what we have is God. And really, that’s all we need. Because we serve a God who is a God of the forgotten, a God of the lost, a God of the abandoned, a God of the forsaken, a God of the poor, hungry, bereaved, and defiled, then we most certainly serve a God who is a God for us. Life will not be without troubles. Life will not be without struggles. But life will never ever be without God. Even in the moments when it feels like God doesn’t “get it” or when we struggle with God, God will never abandon us or leave us. In the moments where it may feel like God’s love is especially far away, those are the moments when we need to remember our own baptisms, come to the table, and remind ourselves of the empty tomb. Because if we have a God that can defeat even death, then we most certainly have a God that will defeat whatever we’re carrying. My beloveds, if you have some blessings that feel more like a curse, please know I see you. But more importantly, God sees you and loves you. You are not forgotten and you are not alone.