Sermon for 3/1/20 Matthew 4:1-11; Lent 1

It is the first Sunday of Lent and the scripture readings are NOT MESSING AROUND. I mean, we are talking about temptation right away. This is the heart of the matter, right? It’s as if the committee that chooses these readings sat back and said “nah, let’s not go easy on them. Let’s start right in on temptation.” Sure, I mean, why not? I’m also a fan of holding Weight Watchers meetings at Golden Corral. So, let’s clear up a real quick misconception about this piece of scripture. The temptation (pun intended) is to read this scripture and think “I am tempted sometimes by things, maybe even by people, certainly by Satan. Jesus was tempted by Satan with bread and power and his identity was challenged. Jesus persevered and overcame his temptations. Therefore, I should be able to overcome and persevere my temptations. End of story.” 

Wrong. That’s not how it works. Beloved, any time we may try and compare ourselves to Christ we’re going to come out looking not so great because we aren’t Christ. Jesus was, is, and will always be better at resisting and overcoming temptation than us. That’s because he is the son of God, literally. I also think sometimes we may not always know what to do with this scripture because we don’t know what to do with Satan. He’s not the most popular sermon topic. But, I assure you he is very real. The temptations he offers are very real. The sooner we start to put a name on evil and all the forces that defy God, the sooner we can renounce them and call him the liar he is. Get behind me Satan. Lastly, these temptations aren’t just about sneaking chocolate. This isn’t about minor indiscretions. I think Satan only comes for us when our souls are hungry for what we think can satisfy us and we go looking other places than God. We’re craving, we’re hungry, we get in desert moments, we start traveling with our eyes or hearts and don’t you know who’s going to show up every single time dangling shiny carrots in front of us but Satan? Here’s what scripture may not say today: if we take what Satan is offering, it’ll never be enough. Hear that again: if we take what Satan is offering, IT’LL NEVER BE ENOUGH. 

We cave to temptation as individuals but how about as a church? You don’t think Satan would love to put a notch in his win column by recruiting an entire church? Now, if you don’t think that’s possible, I wish you could eavesdrop on conversations I hear or am a part of. It’s an interesting cycle of fear, abundance and/or scarcity, mixed with tradition and modernity. And at the center of the cycle, in charge of the three ring circus (it should come as no surprise) is Satan himself. So the conversations usually sound something like this “we need more of ‘these’ type of people in our church.” Now, “these” types of people can vary, depending on your situation. Sometimes it’s young people, families, people of color, LGBTQ people or whatever you’d like to fill in the blank with. This desire usually arises out of the abundance of something needing to be done (people to take over those jobs that have been done by the same people for the last 65 years) or scarcity (if we don’t get them in the doors, we’re going to have to close). In order to get these people in the doors of the church, we might have to change a bit (thanks, modernity) to accommodate like with a new worship time, some flexible seating, ooh! A band! But then what about the organ, our liturgy, and our traditions. And at the center of these conversations is Satan, spinning the rings of temptation, flashing the ways we can be just like the newest, biggest, most awesomest church down the street instead of staying steadfast in who we are and who God called us to be. That shiny carrot looks awfully tempting. 

  At the root of temptation is the question of identity. Are you, are we, willing to put aside our core identity for whatever Satan is offering? It’s not just with the church example I gave, it’s with every temptation. Satan dangles something, someone, we could be right in front of us. We could be that. We could make more money, but at what cost to our personal health? We could have a different job but at what cost to our relationships? We could have a relationship, but at what cost to our morals? Jesus knew his identity; we were just told it last week: beloved son. We are that too: beloved children of God. Do we trust in that identity enough to turn away from the temptations and rest assured in who God created us to be? And look, I get it. Giving into certain temptations can feel good…temporarily. Because remember, whatever Satan is offering will never be enough. We will never and can never be satisfied with whatever Satan is offering. 

Maybe what Jesus is trying to communicate with us and the disciples today is this: you are enough. We are enough. Just as we are, we are enough. You are created in God’s image. We were all created in God’s image. And it’s enough. Sure, it’s totally fine and very normal to want to shine brighter, be better, bolder, whatever. And there are ways to do that with the help of God. But remember, the “brighter” that Satan offers fades, and quickly. The “faster” that Satan offers eventually slows down. The “bigger” that Satan offers isn’t always better. What you are is enough. What we have is enough. We come from God and we will return to God. Maybe this Lent if you are tempted, it will be by this: to allow yourself to be loved, just as you are; to claim your identity as a child of God without apology; to receive grace without flinching; to rest knowing you don’t have to do it all (and really, you can’t); to come to the table with a hunger for justice and righteousness; and to remember your baptismal promises that you have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit, forever. Remember that if you are tempted, you will not be alone. Christ is with you. The company of angels surround you. The Holy Spirit will guide you. Satan hasn’t won yet. You are enough. We are enough. Get behind me, Satan. 

Sermon for Ash Wednesday; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

In the fall of 2008, my beloved seminary entered into a time of financial retrenchment. It was hard. It meant the cut of programs, staff, faculty, and hours to certain services. But, it also was in the best interest of theological education. I remembered gathering in the chapel on campus to hear the news and you could have heard a pin drop as our seminary president laid out the plans step by painful step. We looked around at the faces of the professors that no longer were just positions to be cut on paper, but real flesh and blood. So, on Ash Wednesday, my church history professor, Beth Leeper, made the ascent into the high pulpit and wondered aloud how we live into Lent when we had already been living in a proverbial Lent for the last few months. She voiced what many of us already felt: we weren’t ready to let go of the alleluias. We weren’t ready for sackcloth and ashes. We weren’t ready for the reminder of death because it had surrounded us already for months. 

Professor Leeper’s words came to me again as I was preparing for this day because I, once again, am not ready to bury the alleluia. I am not ready to talk about our mortality. I don’t want to mark the cross on your foreheads knowing there is a real possibility that this time next year I won’t be able to do it again either because I won’t be here or you won’t. I have lived in a perpetual Good Friday for approximately 55 days. Trust me, I did the math. So forgive me if I am ready for a resurrection story already. I’ve done the 40 days and then some already, Jesus. But time is fickle. And so here we are again. And Jesus keeps calling to me. Jesus keeps calling for me to follow him, keeps calling me to serve him and his people. Jesus keeps showing up. There are days when that is really annoying, honestly. I know this valley narrative I keep sharing with you may be getting old. (It’s getting old to me.) But I keep sharing it because you need to know that even those that God has called into a life of service have doubts. So it’s okay for you to have doubts too. 

I wondered then, what is our response to Lent this year, church? You may have friends that practice giving something up or even making more time for something during Lent. I choose not to, but that’s just me. Scripture tells us we should show up. Lent isn’t a time for us to make us better, it’s a time for God and the Holy Spirit to move in us and move us just that much closer to God because it’s not about us. So, we should show up. What if our response to all of the noise, chaos, and fear in the world was that we showed up? For the next 6 weeks we made a promise to ourselves, one another, and to God that we would show up. We can’t control anything, at all. But we can show up here and let the Holy Spirit stir. What’s the worst that can happen? 

When we show up, we give alms, we pray, and we fast. Now, all of that may look different depending on who you are. Maybe you increase your giving. Maybe you pray more often. Maybe you fast from gossip. I don’t know. But we just keep showing up. We keep showing up because at the end of the day, we are alleluia people, we are resurrection people, and we don’t let death have the final word. And we do this all together because God created us to be in community. Do you want to know how I have survived the last 55 days? Because I know and have felt your prayers. When I wasn’t strong enough to pray for myself, I knew you were praying for me. And I pray for you too. Daily. I keep showing up because I know that God will keep surprising me. 

These actions we take tonight: confessing our sins, the imposition of ashes, communion, they’re not about proving how holy we are. It’s not even about feeling holy (I don’t even know what that feeling is). But it’s about the lifelong commitment that God has made with us and that we make to one another in baptismal promises that help us to cling to the “things that will sustain us” (Feasting on the Word, Anschutz 22). It might also be easy for the outside world, those who aren’t religious, to see the crosses on our foreheads and call us hypocrites. After all, aren’t we supposed to be doing all of this in private? Well, we’re all hypocrites sooner or later. And the cross on our foreheads doesn’t show or prove we’re better than anyone. It’s not an international bat signal for virtuosity. 

The ashen cross on our foreheads is a reminder of our mortality, of our sins, of our own shortcomings. It’s an outward sign that we are aware that death is very real. We don’t need that reminder around here. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I don’t. “Ashes on our forehead are not displaying our piety before others; it is telling the truth to all that we are dying” (twitter “@jeffwfisher”). It is something we all have in common. And our response to this is Jesus. The one who names us, claims us, and saves us from ourselves, is Jesus. We are God’s and to God we shall return. We are made of God “stuff” and we will return to God. 

So maybe this Lent we just show up; we deny Satan the pleasure of tempting us into the valley and into the desert. We continue to carry the alleluia, even if it is just in our hearts. We show up because the world needs good news and maybe we are the ones to bring it. And maybe death doesn’t sound like good news, but our story never ends at death. We keep showing up because we know God is already here, doing amazing things and we’d hate to miss out on that. We keep showing up because the women at the empty tomb were right. We keep showing up because we need one another. This Lent I’m not giving up anything (which is usual) but I’m just going to keep showing up. It’s an act of resistance. I wondered what would really make Satan mad, and I think that’s it. I’m going to keep showing up. Maybe you’ll join me. 

Sermon for 2/23/20 Matthew 17:1-9; Transfiguration

I enjoy transfiguration Sunday as this is often called because we can all relate to mountain top experiences, I believe. Maybe it’s that wonderful vacation, an awesome conference, even a long awaited lunch out with friends, mountaintop experiences are those things that allow us to get re-energized and re-centered. Leaving the mountaintop is never fun. As I got to thinking about it, I realized why: once we leave the mountain, we have to face the truth. Vacation is over! That conference is over and our new friends are going back home! That long awaited lunch is over and (worse yet) the bill has come. The truth is always there, waiting for us, sometimes with great cruelty. So, maybe if we can stay on the mountain, we can avoid the truth. And sometimes, I wonder if we purposefully try and stay on the mountain or even create mountaintop experiences to avoid the truth. 

Today’s Gospel lesson takes place (of course) on top of a mountain. Peter, James, John, and Jesus had made a nice hike up a high mountain. The disciples couldn’t have known what was to happen next. It must have felt like a dream or some kind of out of body experience. Jesus’ face started to glow, practically blinding them. Then his clothes, we are told, turn a dazzling white. And if that’s not enough, Moses and Elijah appeared there with him. Then(!) it gets even better! We hear from God. Another bright cloud, and from that bright cloud comes a voice “This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The story could end right there and be pretty awesome. I don’t blame the disciples for wanting to stay on that mountaintop. Up there, they have the Jesus they want: pure, blameless, in the company of prophets, and affirmed as God’s beloved son. This is the Jesus we want. If we leave the mountain, we’ll be faced with the Jesus we get: the Good Friday Jesus, bloody, beaten, bruised, eventually crucified and dead. So, rather than face the truth, the disciples try to convince Jesus to stay on the mountaintop. 

Upon hearing the voice of God, the disciples are shaken to their core, fell to the ground in fear, and cower. I don’t blame them, I probably would have done the same thing. Then, as only Jesus could, he brings the disciples comfort. He touches them and encourages them. “Get up” he says and then, “do not be afraid.” I needed to hear this from Jesus. Maybe you do too. Here’s the truth, my beloved. 2020 has been the hardest year of my ministry with you thus far and it’s only February. As I have been preparing for Lent, which for me brings with it its own hosts of emotions, it’s tempting to me to want to stay on the mountaintop. I guess I fear the truth of difficulty, challenges, and just life at the bottom of the mountain. I worry about how much harder the truth is going to get. 

I am still wrestling with all of the emotions that accompany burying someone so young like Tristan. And I would be lying to you if I didn’t admit that the financial challenges we discussed at the annual meeting and that still loom keep me up too many nights a week. Of course I have my own personal challenges, nothing that is new: mothering, supporting a PhD student, living in limbo of what comes next, maybe we’ll move, maybe we won’t, being a daughter and sister, maintaining friendships, all of that. If I stay on the mountaintop (oh, by the way, you’re staying up here with me) then nothing can get worse, right? We don’t have to face the truth of what happens tomorrow, or next week, or next month. We can stay on this mountain and bask in the glory of Jesus, God’s beloved Son. Sounds great to me. Beloved, this is called avoidance. 

Then Jesus, doing what he does best, says do not be afraid. And that’s not all. See, we serve a God who is with us literally every single step of the way. When God says that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, it’s true. In our lesson today, the disciples don’t go back down the mountain alone, Jesus goes with them. And it’s the same for us. I sometimes remind you (and me) that we are resurrection people. That is still true. We are resurrection people. We are Easter Sunday people. We are Christ is risen indeed people. However, we are none of that without being Good Friday people. And in order to be Good Friday people, sometimes we have to come down from the mountain. We have to tell hard truths. We have to be brave together. We have to be vulnerable together. And in the midst of all of it, we trust, more than anything, that God is with us because Jesus is who he always has been and always will be. 

I don’t know, maybe you’re not like me. Maybe your 2020 has been phenomenal fireworks and celebration after celebration thus far. I rejoice with you, really I do. But, if you’ve been camped out on the top of a metaphorical mountain, unable to move much thanks to fear of the unknown, fear of the “what’s next,” fear of darkness, fear of the not-good-enoughs swallowing you up whole, maybe it’s time we leave this mountain. Maybe it’s time that we start living as we proclaim: people of God who trust in God that will provide in God’s time. We could stay on the mountain, but I don’t know that we would be living in the fullness of life that God provides. Even if coming down the mountain feels like going through hell, we proclaim that God descended into hell ahead of us. There is no where we can go that God has not already gone. I am done living in fear. I am headed down the mountain. I don’t know what I am going to find, but God will go with me, with us. “Get up and do not be afraid.” 

Sermon for 2/16/20 Matthew 5:21-37

And to think, you could have skipped church today. But no. You’re here. With that scripture. Just sitting out there now. And how in the world will I deal with all of that in 10-12 minutes? Let’s talk about the most obvious piece of the elephant first: divorce. Yeah, we’re just going to dive right in and not waste time. I understand that no one gets married with the intention of getting divorced. But, it happens. I know some of you are divorced. Maybe your parents are divorced. Or, maybe, like me, you have siblings that are divorced. In Jesus’ time, the law was such that marriage was forever and there was no room for things like abuse, neglect, or violence. In Jesus’ time, if a spouse was being beaten on a regular basis, well, that was just too bad. Things have changed, thanks be to God. We read scripture with a different lens. We know that divorce, in some cases, can actually be a healthy and really life giving thing. While it’s painful, I can think of examples where people are actually better friends and parents when they were divorced than when they were married. But I also know that in some circles, scripture can be used to harm and hurt and I doubt that was ever Jesus’ intention. All this to say, if you are divorced or you love someone who is divorced and you or they have been harmed by the church or scripture, I am so sorry. I believe in the freedom that Christ brings and the love that Christ proclaims. 

But what I really want to focus on today is the overarching theme of today’s reading which I believe is reconciliation. Reconciliation is the difficult work that comes after confession and forgiveness. It’s relationship building and rebuilding. It’s community rebuilding, re-identification, and it can be a very slow process. But, in my experience, it’s also worth it. We don’t necessarily talk a lot about reconciliation a lot around here, but that’s not because it’s not important. So I stopped and asked myself that hard question. “Pastor, why don’t you talk about reconciliation more?” After some self reflection (which I didn’t like) and some ignoring of the obvious answer (which I preferred) I confess to you, my beloved, the truth: I don’t talk about it because I’m not all that good at it. 

See, confession I can do. I can lay out my sins like clay pigeons lining up to be shot. I don’t have a problem with that. Years of being raised Catholic, maybe. But, I also try to be self aware. I am still a fan of our confession that proclaims “forgive us our sins known and unknown” because that about covers it all. We know the places where we have messed up and so does God. Now, I will admit that confession isn’t always comfortable. At the same time, it shouldn’t be. When we aren’t living a full life in Christ, it’s not comfortable. Confession to one another isn’t always comfortable. But we are imperfect people serving a perfect God. 

Forgiveness can be easy, at times, because sometimes, it’s not on us, it’s on God. Of course, we must believe, and live, and act like we’ve been forgiven. That’s a whole other sermon for a whole other time. Forgiveness can be tricky when it’s human to human. What I have learned in my brief time here on earth is that forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Now, that’s not the same as holding a grudge. But once you touch a hot stove, you learn not to stand so close when it’s on. Forgiveness is an amazing gift we can give one another and that God gives to us. And it’s free. Forgiveness, however, is also something that keeps us from living in right relationship with one another and with God. It’s that grudge holding that the scripture spoke about.  

Once we’ve done the work of confession and accepted or given forgiveness, then comes the reconciliation. Like I said, this can be slow going work. But, in my opinion, it’s what makes being in relationship as members of the body of Christ worth it. Now, I’ll be honest, sometimes reconciliation isn’t really that hard. Sometimes it’s as simple as “we’re good, right?” And the other person agreeing. And then you move on. But reconciliation usually takes time and trust, and if we’re honest, those are two commodities we as humans don’t always like to just give away. Reconciliation also requires vulnerability which usually isn’t an emotion that most people enjoy dealing with. Over and over in today’s reading we hear Jesus say “you have heard it said…but I say to you.” In that quick turn of phrase is grace.

Please understand, that’s not permission to forget this passage, or the difficulties that come with it. But, what Jesus says only Jesus can say because only Jesus is perfect and we would all do well to remember that every once in a while. There is a difference in being right and being righteous. Reconciliation works to put some space between these two. Following every single letter of the law doesn’t make you a perfect Christian; you may be right, but you may be far from righteous. Righteous is really living into who God created us to be. Reconciliation is the effort, the time, the trust, the love it takes from many people to move from being determined and set in being right to gracefully setting up camp in being righteous. Reconciliation is filled with grace. It is filled with life. It is filled with love. Reconciliation is worth it. 

But, my beloved, it’s not enough for me to stand up here and just talk about all of this with no action. If I desire to continue to be your faith leader, it is to me to set the example. So, I humbly confess to you all the ways I have disappointed you, let you down, betrayed your trust, failed your expectations, or just otherwise failed. I may have done this knowingly or unknowingly. I ask your forgiveness the same way I already have asked for forgiveness from God. And when you’re ready, if I have hurt you, I hope you can forgive me and we can be an example of what reconciliation looks like. And if this doesn’t apply to any of you, then we should consider ourselves blessed. But if it does, then please, follow my example. Start your reconciliation journey today. Remove your armor and be brave with me. This is what being disciples looks like. 

Sermon for 2/9/20 Matthew 5:13-20

Did anyone else experience this week to last around 47 days instead of the normal 7? Am I the only one who is feeling time a bit differently lately? It was a strange week. Sunday my beloved football team won the Super Bowl. And somehow, some way, I got a new title. I wasn’t aware this would happen. Those of you who have been here before failed to warn me that this happen so I blame you. But people asked me “how does it feel to win a Super Bowl championship?” This was asked of me as if quarterback Pat Mahomes himself connected to me on a long ball pass for the winning touchdown. He didn’t. But for some reason, by affiliation, I now am a Super Bowl champion. So it goes. I am also salt and light. 

Then Monday came around, another Super Bowl of sorts. A Super Bowl for us political nerds: the caucuses. And if you missed the news, well… we kind of messed things up. For the record, our room of 14 didn’t mess up (because it’s hard to mess up and miscount 14 people). But the news seems to believe that everyone, all of us living in Iowa have no idea what we are doing. It doesn’t matter if you are democrat or republican or even if you caucused, we are now completely incapable of handling the first in the nation event that is a vote but not really a vote that no one outside of Iowa seems to understand. We were branded irresponsible and blamed for building doubt among voters. So it goes. We are also salt and light. 

Remember, we’ve only covered 2 days. Tuesday was the State of the Union address. On social media the name calling that followed the address was sad to see. The divide that has long plagued our nation continued. People praised and cursed our president and people praised and cursed Nancy Pelosi. All the newscasters had their say and for a brief moment, all of us in Iowa got a brief respite from ruining the country. But, at the end of the night, as I tucked myself into bed, I reminded myself that every single person in the chamber listening to the President speak and the President himself is salt and light. And so are you. 

Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday all ran together with coverage of the impeachment trial, the acquittal, the National Prayer breakfast, the corona virus, more caucus results (or not) and more name calling and finger pointing. People love to give one another titles and names simply because we don’t agree. The internet is a cesspool of colorful insults ranging from moron and idiot to things that cannot be repeated in church. I fear, my beloved, that the time of civil discourse is quickly slipping away from us and we would rather listen to argue versus listening to learn and engage. Please understand I am not saying any of you do this, but this is simply my observation on the world. Take it from me, I am a Super Bowl champion. 

All of this may make you wonder if your Christian heart and Christian values have a place in this world anymore. I’ll be honest, it’s hard for me to love my neighbor when my neighbor calls me an idiot. The labels we place on others and have placed on us are not just flippant remarks, they can leave marks and only our hearts bear the scars. It’s easy to wonder if we even can make a difference in the world. And Jesus just knows what kind of balm our weary soul needs, doesn’t he? I have to imagine the disciples wondered if they could make a difference too. I mean, it’s not like these were a group of celebrities or know it alls. They had a tremendous task in front of them, following Jesus, and I have to imagine that at least one of the disciples was scared. But Jesus assured them, you are salt and light. Not you will be salt…some day. And you will be light…eventually. But already. Right now. Today. You are salt. You are light. You are already making things better just by being who you are. This is a message we aren’t hearing much these days, is it?

I don’t know if you’ve been there, but I know I have: that sinking feeling of wondering if what you’re doing even makes a difference. I wonder if what I do or say makes a difference. I wonder if God is still calling me to this amazing and crazy vocation and yet God assures me I am salt and light. I know you’ve had doubts. I can say this with confidence because if you have a pulse, you have doubts. You may have doubts about your work life, your parenting skills, your relationships, your abilities, whatever the case may be, you have doubts. If you’re lucky and like me, you may have multiple doubts. Then Jesus, man that guy has a lot of nerve, comes along and says, you are salt and light. It’s as if Jesus is saying to us, “my beloved disciples, you make things better and brighter just by being who I created you to be.” 

See, no matter what names we may call each other (or ourselves for that matter) and no matter what labels get placed on us (positive or negative) it’s easy to forget that Jesus tells the disciples and us that we are salt and light. Just by the way we live our lives we are salt and light. And the way we live our lives, hopefully, is by showing Christ and being Christ to one another. We have been named and claimed by Christ. We can choose to sit out life, hoping that others will be Christ to the world, but our salt will lose its taste and our light will dim. No one ever said that being salt and light was easy. But we are the ones that God is counting on to make this world a little less corrupt, a little less ugly, and a little more loved. We are the ones that God has tapped to be kind. As I said, Jesus didn’t say it would be easy. But we are already what we need to be. We are salt. We are light. That’s even better than winning the Super Bowl. 

Sermon for 2/2/20 Matthew 5:1-12

The challenge of preaching on something like the beatitudes, also known as the Sermon on the Mount is that for many, it is a very familiar text. What can Pastor possibly say about something so familiar? Second, how does a preacher preach on a sermon? I mean think about it. I am given the task of giving a sermon on a sermon; so that’s weird. It’s like giving a book report on a book report. So, every Gospel has a central focus. If you had to boil it down to one or two main points that each Gospel story goes back to you might be able to do it. In Matthew, Jesus is a teacher. Maybe it’s no surprise then that one of the first things he does with his newly called disciples isn’t perform miracles or heal people, but instead he starts to teach them. And for Jesus, these weren’t just words. These were identifiers, so to speak. Jesus had to teach the disciples about what blessings meant in order for them to understand what it meant to be a disciple. 

That all sound fine and good in theory. However, do we know what Jesus was talking about? After all, the word “blessing” seems to be thrown around a lot without much meaning behind it. How different might these beatitudes sound if instead you heard them as this “God’s favor and protection is with those who are poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It sounds a little different to my ears,  maybe yours too. It makes me think about those who are poor in spirit a little differently as well. Maybe we shouldn’t forget that the disciples weren’t just the ones gathered on the mountain plateau. We are all called to be disciples. So, Jesus’ words are just as relevant to us now as they were to the disciples then. What are we to call a blessing, then my beloveds? 

So, first of all, this should never be heard as a to-do list or a guilt list. It is all too easy to hear this reading and think that we’re not holy enough or that we’re not measuring up to some kind of standard that God has for us. This is not the case at all. So forget that kind of thinking right away. After all, no one would actually choose to be poor in spirit; it’s a terrible place to be, I imagine. I think that Jesus is trying to retrain the disciple’s eyes (and ours) to see God at work on earth; to start seeing “on earth as it is in heaven.” I have said this before and I stand by this belief: if the good news (the “gospel”) of Jesus Christ is not good news for the poor and marginalized then it is not good news. (say that again) 

I think it’s also important for Jesus, our teacher, to do more than just tell us that we are blessed. What does it mean to actually feel blessed; to feel favored, remembered, and protected by God? And unlike people who use the word “blessed” when they really mean lucky or (I’m sorry) rich, to be blessed means to move and operate in this world knowing that you are loved and forgiven by God. And while that may not sound radical, it really is. Do I believe that I am blessed? On my good days, yes. But I have a lot of not so good days. I know I am not alone. But here’s the crazy thing. There are people in this world who would dare argue that I am not blessed. I am not loved or forgiven by God. And why? Because I, a female, dare preach in front of you. I, some would say, am going against the word of God. I didn’t realize that being blessed was a decision that anyone else besides God could make. 

But here’s the thing, from the moment God names us and claims us, we are blessed. We have all we need in our identities in God. God does love you and God forgives you. God wraps a blanket of mercy around you and bathes you in grace. When was the last time you really allowed yourself to accept that? When was the last time you allowed yourself to feel that without a fight? When was the last time you allowed yourself to sit long enough for the Holy Spirit to hug you in holy love and not fight it? When was the last time you allowed yourself to be loved without expectation? 

The last time I was asked that question, I cried. I cried out of anger. I cried out of sadness. I cried out of pity. I cried. I cried because I couldn’t remember when I had stopped long enough to allow myself to feel God’s love. I cried because I allowed myself to get too busy. I got angry with myself because I allowed my words to go out to you hollow: full of so much promise but with no intent of fulfilment. Because if I don’t believe it for myself how will you believe it’s true for you. I cried out of pity because I felt sorry for me. I knew I had missed out on something good. But I cried because I knew with God there is always another chance. And another. And another. And another. Because that’s how God works. That’s a blessing. 

So as I prayed about what you, my beloved people might need this day, God reminded me, guided me to teach just as Jesus did. The best thing I think I can do for you this day is to remind you that you are blessed. Just as you are. Because of whose you are. You have been blessed from the moment God knit you together. God claimed you in the waters of baptism and God continues to claim you day after day. God probably has a picture of you on the eternal fridge. We are going to be reminded of our blessings today by affirming our baptisms. I ask you, when was the last time you allowed yourself to be loved? Do it with me today as we turn to page 237 in the hymnal. 

Sermon for 1/12/20 Matthew 3:13-17

It probably won’t surprise many of you, but we’re big Disney fans in the Marple household. We got our subscription to Disney Plus as soon as it came out. We’ve been on a Disney Cruise as many of you know. As soon as the opportunity arose during Thanksgiving, we ventured out to see Frozen 2. If you have not seen it, I highly recommend it. Even if you don’t have kids, go and see it. It’s a great movie (I even liked it better than the first one). One idea that runs through the movie (and don’t worry, this won’t ruin it for you) is that water has memory. Water remembers. And it makes sense. Water is a living creature. It is made up of oxygen and particles just like you and me. So water remembers being frozen, or disturbed, or dammed up, or polluted, or whatever the case may be. Considering that water has been around since the literal creation of the earth, water must have a very long memory. In a lot of ways, water helps us to remember too. 

In today’s story, we hear about Jesus’ baptism. The temptation, of course, is to think of our own baptisms. This is only natural. Perhaps we think of Casey’s baptism still to come. Also only natural. But the focus for scripture today is Jesus’ baptism. The baptism isn’t the end of his ministry but the beginning. In the waters he was named and claimed, just like we all are, and those waters helped to form his ministry. And as corny as this sounds, the fact that water has memory isn’t just a Disney idea. I really truly believe this. We also know that water is crucial to creation. It is part of life and necessary for life. At the same time, water is necessary for new life in Christ. In the waters of his baptism, Jesus gets an identity: Son of God, beloved, one with whom God is well pleased. That is Jesus’ identity in that moment. That will also shape his ministry that will begin at those waters and finish not at the cross, but with an empty tomb and resurrection. 

Like many of you, I’m sure, I followed the news closely this past week. I watched, I listened, I carefully followed tweets. And I worried. See, seminary didn’t teach me how to lead a congregation during wartime should such a time arise. This past week was full of disruption to what should have normally been a fairly mundane week of news as normal and most of us giving up on resolutions. When rituals get disrupted it can leave us feeling in a lurch and wondering what is next. When routines get disrupted it feels like everything gets thrown off. I don’t know about you, my beloved, but this past week felt like it lasted about a month. My mind, my body, and my spirit are not meant to live in crisis mode as much as it did this past week. 

I think that is why I am so grateful that this is part of our routine. That we gather here, week after week as the body of Christ, in community, to recenter ourselves in Christ. We gather around bread and wine to be fed by a humble feast and be reminded of what love really tastes like. And we are reminded of this while being told that this bread and wine is given for all for the forgiveness of sins. Even though we gather here at this physical location, this is being done all over the world in places of worship and this routine binds us together. 

Then we gather at the waters. The waters that remember. They remember Jesus and they certainly remember you. Baptism isn’t just water. This baptism was just water until the Holy Spirit showed up. The Holy Spirit, I like to think of her as the trouble making person of the Trinity, shows up and descends upon Jesus. And it is that Holy Spirit that sends Jesus out into the world and accompanies him as he starts doing ministry. But left behind are the waters that washed the son of God. The man who was fully human and yet fully divine. He entered into the waters as normal as you or I but rose transformed. I’d like to think the Holy Spirit does the same to us. In Jesus’ baptism, he was fully claimed. He was washed (although sinless) and the waters remembered. I wonder though, and scripture never tells us, do you think that Jesus ever forgot who he was?

Like did Jesus ever have a dark moment when he forgot that he was the Messiah? Or did he have moments where he doubted his divinity? Did he have moments where he forgot what was professed to him in those waters? I’d like to know if Jesus had those very human moments. I know I do. There are moments when the waters have to remind me of who I am. I don’t remember, but the waters of baptism remind me of who I am. But here’s what makes me super mad about the waters of baptism: they remind me of who my enemies are too. And my enemies, or the people I perceive to be my enemies, the people I don’t like, or the people I wish ill upon, they have been named and claimed too. The waters of baptism remember them too. God loves them too. 

See, there would be times (like this past week) when it would just flat out be easier to not be a baptized Christian. It would be easier to not be a pastor. It would be easier to forget about the waters and let the waters forget about me. But I can’t. Grace messed me up. And now I can’t get over the fact that the same God that named and claimed Jesus as beloved does the same to the guy I don’t even know but argue with in the comment section on the internet. The waters washed my eyes cleaned and I wished they hadn’t. Because I can’t view this world without it breaking my heart. I can’t view this world and not see it begging for justice and peace. Not only do the waters of baptism remember me, but they remind me of who I am and whose I am. And these waters aren’t exclusive to me. Jesus wasn’t the only person baptized in the Jordan. Jesus’ baptism was the start of his ministry. And our baptism is the start of ours. 

These waters remember you. There is nothing to prevent you from being baptized. In fact, just because we’re baptizing Casey today doesn’t mean we can’t baptize someone else too. When you forget who you are, allow the waters to remind you. You are claimed. You are beloved. These waters will transform you. That’s a fair warning. Like I said, grace messes me up all the time. There’s been a lot to fear this past week. Perfect love casts out fear. In these waters, we collide with perfect love: the love of God. You are God’s beloved and the waters remember. So should you. 

Sermon for 1/5/20 Matthew 2:1-12; Epiphany

I will not often admit this, but I am not the best with directions. I find that I am better now that I live in a river town. As long as I know which way the river is, I know where I am. I have never been one of those people who uses directional directions, you know, where you use silly words like “north and east.” I also find it amusing when people give me directions using landmarks that no longer exist. These directions sound like this “go down to where the Johnson outbuilding used to be before they tore in down back in ‘68…” So believe it or not, I rely on GPS a lot. We also have this handy dandy feature in our car (I’m sure a lot of you have it too) called OnStar. With a press of a button I can talk with a real live human, tell them where I’m going, and they send directions to my car. Then through the magic of satellites, a computer voice comes over my car speakers and tells me where to go. It’s great. And I love that it’s called OnStar. 

The wisemen had their own version of OnStar. It was an actual star. Now, another true story about me: long before I knew anything about the Bible or astronomy for that matter, I thought that the star that the wisemen followed was the north star and so that star only appeared on Christmas Eve. I am admitting that I was wrong about this (obviously) just in case any of you think this as well. While the infant Jesus is the main feature of our Gospel for today, we cannot forget a supporting cast member: the star. Scholarly journals offer numerous interpretations on whether this was a star, a supernova, a comet, or what. We’re not told. I’m sticking with what scripture tells me and my very basic eighth grade understanding of astronomy here, it was your average every day kind of star, maybe just a little bit brighter. But the star is the GPS for this story; it sends and directs everyone to the main star, the infant Jesus. 

“The star is a symbol of our need for divine revelation to see the Messiah and King. Without divine revelation, we would miss the Messiah” (Feasting on the Word, Thomas 212). Just think about that for a moment. Had the wisemen not seen the star, they would not have known about the birth of Jesus. They would not have made a trip to pay him homage and worship him. They would not have brought him gifts fit for a king. They would not have been for us and for many, another affirmation that this was not your average birth, this was not your average infant, this was not your average star. The star is crucial in this story because it leads average humans like the wisemen and you and me to the divine. We should always follow this star. 

So you may remember that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The star appeared in the east. We know that’s a very generic direction. We don’t know if the star appeared over the Dead Sea, over the Jordan River, or some where over what is now Jordan or Syria. We just know it appeared to the east and it was stunning enough to beckon these three wisemen to follow. Here’s the strange thing that may be easy to miss. The wisemen were not Jews. They didn’t have scripture. But, they saw something that lead them to search for this new king. And when they arrived they knew enough to ask “where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” (Mt 2:2)

After asking around, the wisemen get no where. No one seems to have an exact address or location for this birth of the Messiah. What shall they do? OnStar to the rescue. They follow the star. The star went ahead of the wisemen, leading and literally illuminating the way to the Christ child. When the wisemen finally reached their destination the star stopped. And the wisemen were overjoyed. Can you imagine? They had followed this star and their journey had reached a fevered pitch and I am sure they were full of joy, excitement, awe, wonder, majesty,and maybe just a little intimidation. They would finally see the king. And the first thing the wisemen do is fall to their knees and worship Jesus. They humbled themselves in body and spirit and bowed before the infant king. 

The presents they had weren’t ordinary. They were purposeful and when the star beckoned, I am sure the wisemen knew they had to bring gifts worthy of a king. The gold was a precious element, it still is, and worthy of a king; “frankincense was incense worth of a divinity; and myrrh was a spice used in burials. So the gifts were appropriate for one who was a king, a God, and a suffering redeemer” (Feasting on the Word, Culpepper 215). After the worship and the gift giving, the magi no longer needed the star. The love of God was enough to direct their lives. 

What are we to do? Where is our star? We have a lot of things that beg for our attention. We have a lot of things in our lives that pose as stars. We have many well intentioned things that want to direct us in this way or that. But it is Christ, our true star, that we should follow. When I think about the night sky it can be overwhelming. If you live out here where there is no light pollution, you know how beautiful a starlit sky can be. The wisemen had it easy (almost). Their star was bright and it moved. It was as if their star was saying “over here guys, look at me!!” But just like a night sky, our lives can get beautifully clustered. So we know we should follow the star to Christ but how?

Most of us already come equipped with a GPS: God Provided Spirit. It is the mark of Christ given to you in baptism. You have been sealed with the Holy Spirit. This is your GPS. This is what you should follow when the world around you gets noisy. This is your star. Our baptismal identities is what makes us who we are. We are first and foremost children of God. We are loved and protected by an infant who welcomed wisemen and a refugee who fled from Herod. We are challenged by a messiah who fed thousands and cured many. Our baptismal calling is like that of following a star. The journey may not be easy, but at the end, we have the opportunity to worship and praise the one who really does give life. I pray that in times of trouble you remember that your star, your calling, your identity, is your God Provided Spirit marked on your foreheads for all the world to see.  

Sermon for 12/22/19 Matthew 1:18-25; Advent 4

Take a deep breath. Stay with me. Resist the urge to move forward two days to Christmas Eve or even three days to Christmas day. Stay with me right here and right now still in Advent, still in the season of waiting and anticipation. We don’t have that many days left. Take another deep breath. And now mentally assure yourself that it will all get done. All of the worries that you have that will take up residence in your heart and brain over the next few days, it will all get done. Even if it doesn’t, Christ still comes. But for now, we wait. For the next few moments you can’t do anything and perhaps that’s a gift. Because despite what you heard in the reading, this isn’t actually a birth story, this is an identity story. While we wait, what does it mean to know we wait for, we wait with, and we are surrounded by Emmanuel? Emmanuel, which as we’re told today means “God is with us.”

I want this to be my main focus today. And I’m keeping things short and sweet because the kids are doing such a great job. But when I tell you that God is with us, what does that mean to you personally? I polled the residents of my home and got a few different answers, as you can imagine. But I want you to think about what it means for you personally. What difference does it make in your life. If this is the one for whom we wait, do we still need Emmanuel? Do we still need a God that is with us. Let’s break this down word by word. 

God is with us. This means that within every single one of us there is something divine. We may not always recognize it, thanks to sin. But every one of us holds the image of the divine creator inside each of us. You cannot look into the eyes of someone else and not see God. But what this also means is that those we would rather ignore have some God in them as well. At the same time, we might do well to recognize that we ourselves have a bit of the divine in us. Let us not be so quick to judge ourselves and be so harsh to ourselves. The fact that God is with us means that any power attempting to be with us or walk with us will be defeated. Scripture tells us that nothing comes between us and the love of God (see Romans 8:38-39). Because God is with us we have the ultimate force for defeating the evils of sin and the devil on our side. God is with us. 

God is with us. Notice something about this verb. Now if you didn’t know, I have a degree in English. I use it a lot to stand up here and talk with you week after week. So, words mean a lot to me. The word “is” is an ongoing verb. Meaning that this “is” has no ending. This isn’t God was with us or God will be with us. God is with us. God’s presence has no beginning and no ending. God’s presence is an always thing. There is never a time when we will not be in God’s presence. That, my beloved, is good news. God is with us. 

God is with us. This might be my favorite word of the whole phrase. Maybe. I keep changing my mind. This is the word that talks about relationships. God is dwelling next to us. God is cozied up on the couch, snuggled in for that Netflix marathon. God is in relationship with us. God is our partner. God offers us protection, assurance, and comfort. This relationship can help with loneliness and grief, though God knows it does not disappear forever. God is with us means that we have a perpetual cheerleader. God is with us does not negate the troubles of the world, but it does seem to make them a little easier to handle. God knows we may forget about this relationship. The beauty of the relationship is that God is always there, with a firm grip on us. God is with us. 

God is with us. Notice something here. Scripture doesn’t say that God is with me. God is with I. God is with him. Or God is with her. No, God is with us. See, God created us to be, live, flourish in community. So it makes perfect sense that God would choose to dwell in and among us. God is the thread that ties us all together. Unlike other things we may have in common, this is our strongest bond. We are all bound together in Christ, by Christ, because of Christ because God is with us. Once again, God is with us, all of us. We may not always recognize it. Sin is tricky like that. But we all come to the table. We are all fed. We are all forgiven. And at the foot of the cross we stand on equal ground. God is with us. 

The baby is coming. But we know now that he will be Emmanuel, God is with us. We know the end of the story. We know all the parts in between. Through all of it he will remain God with us, always. We still need to hear this word. We still need to hear this promise. Nothing else in this world can offer us what Emmanuel can: an ongoing, indwelling, relational God that did and will continue to change the world, and us. God is with us.  

Sermon for 12/1/19 Matthew 24:36-44; Advent 1

Alright my beloved, I have a confession. This confession is well timed since a good portion of my family is with us today and they can verify that my confession is true. So, here goes. Contrary to what you may believe, I actually don’t know everything. Wait a minute, was there anyone who really did believe this (other than me)?? No, I don’t know everything. In so many ways this is a relief and a burden lifted. It’s also an opportunity, believe it or not, to grow in my faith. After all, if I knew everything, I would have no use for God or faith. I most definitely need God and faith, so it’s a blessing that I don’t know everything. Plus, can you imagine how insufferable I would be if I actually did know everything? How annoying. 

Texts like this one for today can cause a preacher to grimace and run towards the nearest alternative readings. After all, the end times isn’t always the easiest thing to preach about. It has become especially difficult thanks to the ever popular “Left Behind” book series. Combine that with the timing of this text, the first Sunday of Advent and it might leave our brains and hearts wanting for a little more. But much like last week with Christ the King, perhaps this is the perfect text to center ourselves for the arrival of the Christ child. I often let you in on my struggles with the preaching texts because I want you to know that it’s okay to struggle with texts. It’s okay to struggle with the Bible. It’s okay to struggle with God. These struggles are not, I repeat, are NOT a sign of your lack of faith. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that people who have “real faith” or “strong faith” (whatever those two things are) don’t question but instead are very clear on their beliefs and convictions. My beloved, many of my seminary classmates and I joke that we may all have Masters of Divinity degree but we hardly feel like we’ve mastered anything. In fact, seminary may be one of the few educational institutions where it’s good to graduate with more questions than answers. 

Our guilt and shame gets the best of us though, doesn’t it? Troubles arise and we shame ourselves. “I shouldn’t feel this way, I’m a Christian” one might say. Or “I’ve prayed daily, why is this happening to me” someone else might say. And suddenly, just like that, our black and white faith is gray and muddled. But I promise you, uncertainty is a condition of even the best biblical faith. Look at the first verse of our reading today. “But about that day and hour no one knows” (Mt 24:36). No one knows when Christ will return. So all of those Chicken Little, doomsday prepper, end times scary people on television may think they know, but scripture tells us, NO ONE KNOWS. It isn’t a relief to know that Christ doesn’t expect us to know everything?

At the same time, while we are not expected to know everything, we are expected to do something. “The Jesus of the verses before us calls persons to a life of work in a spirit of wakefulness. Work in this sense means activity here and now. Biblical faith as Jesus envisions it is not so concerned with otherworldly matters that it neglects this world’s affairs. Matthew’s Jesus has an eye on what is to come and believes something decisive is going to happen in the future, but he keeps attention focused on the present day and the needs of the hour” (Feasting on the Word, Yurs 25). 

What the writer of the gospel wants the community in Matthew as well as our present community to understand is that watching and waiting for the Lord is important. Yes, we should be prepared. Yes, we should be ready. Yes, we should understand that it can happen at any minute. However, this watching and waiting should not come at the expense of debilitating the rest of our lives or our work. In the examples given, people were carrying on with their normal lives, their normal activities, even their normal celebrations when signs of God’s return happened. 

Matthew’s Gospel is all about the community that has heard the story of Jesus and encouraging them to continue the work of Jesus, all while still being aware and prepared. This is why, at the end of Matthew, we get one of my favorite verses to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Continue the work of Jesus. Make sure people know the stories. Make sure everyone knows about this savior of the world who was born in a manger, stood with those on the margins, taught, fed, and hung on a cross so that we may all be saved. Friends, there are still those in this world that don’t know this story in its entirety. For some, we may be the only Gospel, the only Jesus they encounter. What story do our lives tell? 

Our time on this earth is limited; I don’t have to tell you that. It is valuable. The best way for us to prepare for the Lord, to watch and wait is to live our lives in a way that points to Christ. When we have more food than we need, we build bigger tables. When our siblings in Christ are hurting, we find ways of helping them, yes, but also fixing the broken systems they may be a part of. I understand that we may not be literally able to heal people like Jesus or feed 5000 people like Jesus. But seeing people’s humanity like Jesus did goes a long way. Looking another human being in the eye and just acknowledging the divine in them is a small way of preparing for the Lord. Because when the Lord comes, it is our hope that you and I will be seated at a banquet table that has no end. And at that banquet table may be a stranger that looks familiar because you’ve seen their divinity. 

Our time on earth is limited but God’s love is not, God’s mercy is not, and thanks be to God, God’s grace is not. We can continue to prepare the way of the Lord by showing others, even just one other person a small glimpse of God’s kingdom here on earth by pointing to Christ. And at the end of the day, we rest assured that we need not know everything. Our works cannot and will not accomplish everything. Hope will come. In the stillness of a silent night the cries of a newborn baby will shatter everything we know about perfection. Hope will come and in the midst of the messy, we find grace.