Sermon for 3/8/20 Psalm 121

There’s a quote I have hanging in my office on a post-it that says “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” (Vitor Westhelle The Scandalous God). I thought of that quote as I read Psalm 121 this week. “I lift my eyes to the hills–from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth” (v1-2). It’s a humbling thing to admit you need help, but I think we’ve all been there a time or two. I mean, I’ve been there probably half a dozen times already this morning. So the psalmist asks a logical question that isn’t unique to Biblical times: where can I get some help? Maybe it’s better worded “where can I look for help?” We then are encouraged to look up. Not to the hills, which can be large and intimidating, depending on the hill. But instead, we look to the Lord who made heaven and earth. 

That should seem a simple enough answer right there, shouldn’t it? Where does my help come from? It comes from the Lord. Great. End of sermon. Sounds good to me. But when do we ever make it that simple? There must be a catch, right? Why must we humans complicate things so much? There’s a word that gets repeated 6 times in these 8 verses. For me, that’s enough to pay attention. Some form of the word keep or keeper is sprinkled throughout. God is our keeper. God keeps us. What does this mean? Well, there is a difference between having something and keeping something. I have a sweater. I keep my dogs. If the sweater gets a hole in it, I’m not going to be too upset about it. If something happens to one of the dogs, that’s another story. I watch over the dogs. I try and protect them. When they hurt, I hurt. When they do funny things, I laugh. It’s relational. 

“Likewise, God does not merely have us. God keeps us. We are God’s beloved, and immeasurably dear to God. We are not merely possessions in the eyes of the Lord, because if we suffer, it hurts God too. Psalm 121 celebrates the fact that the Lord is our keeper” (Fisher, Feasting on the Word, 60). It is relational. God abides in us and we in God. Our help, then, comes from the one who made heaven and earth. Our help comes from the same immortal being that spun the cosmos into creation. Our help comes from the same God that breathed life into every single living thing, that created every living plant, and saw dry lands and made them oceans. Our help comes from the same God that saw this earth and knew it wasn’t complete without one of you and so here you are. Isn’t that just amazing and mind blowing to think about? 

Just in case that’s not enough, the psalmist gives some more examples of how the Lord keeps us. Maybe, for whatever reason, your heart or mind doesn’t want to believe that God can or will help you. After all, we’ve all heard that old adage “God helps those who help themselves.” I’m begging you to forget that. We are told that God who keeps us will not slumber. God doesn’t sleep on the job. God cares for us and for our well being so much that God never takes an eye off of us. I think about when my brother, sister, and I were teenagers and were out on the weekend. We all had a light in the house we were responsible for turning off when we got home. I was responsible for the little lamp in the hallway. It never failed that as soon as I tip-toed in (a few minutes before curfew, of course) and turned out the lamp, I would hear my mom whisper from her bedroom “good night, baby.” See, she may have been laying in her bed, but she wasn’t asleep. 

The Lord will keep us from all evil. Phew. That is a full time job, isn’t it? Like, no wonder God doesn’t slumber or sleep. Now understand, beloved, sin and evil can be two different things. Sin is a direct result of something we ourselves have done. If you forget that, the easiest way to remember is to think about the middle letter of sin and that will tell you who is to blame. But evil is an outside source. When we gather at the font to baptize, we promise to deny the devil and all the forces that defy God. These are forces of evil. God protects us from all evil. “There may be some pain in this journey–and even death–but it will not be meaningless pain or meaningless death, and you will not experience it alone. There will be resistance and there will be danger, but the Lord will be with you” (Feasting of the Word, Burns 61). 

It is so important to remember that, my beloved. Just because God keeps us, protects us, and doesn’t slumber doesn’t mean that our lives will be without pain, suffering, and hardship. We know this isn’t true. I can look out and so many of you and see faithful Christians who have had to suffer in one way or another. God’s claim on us in baptism doesn’t guarantee us an easy life. What we are promised is that we are not alone. Our suffering is made easier because of God and because of the community we have built around the cross through the help of the Holy Spirit. 

The Lord as our keeper may be hard to accept because what it ultimately means is that the Lord loves us. The Lord loves you therefore the Lord keeps you. The Lord keeps you therefore the Lord loves you. These two thoughts are intertwined. God’s love does not, will not, and cannot change, no matter what. Our love for God may wax and wane but God’s love is solid, trustworthy, and abundant. It never changes. It never runs out. God’s love never fails. God’s love is what keeps us. Even as we face the reality of what happens to Jesus on the cross, which is the evilest of all evils, God is and will always be our keeper. 

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 2/2/20 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. 

Tristan Toppert–funeral

Kevin, Lisa and family; my beloved people of Elvira Zion, Steamer Nation, friends, I have a confession: I don’t want to be here today. It is only by God’s grace and your prayers that most of us who love Tristan have been sustained this past week. I keep waiting to be woken up. I keep waiting to be told there’s been some mistake. I keep waiting for my tears to stop. And it’s only by God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness that I know we will all be able to walk out of this gym, away from a grave, and know that this is not the end of Tristan’s story. See, this is our Good Friday moment. Death is final. But the three days are coming. The empty tomb is coming. The resurrection is coming. And Jesus, our Lord and Savior, defeated death. Death doesn’t get the final word. Not now, not here. The final word around here, around those who know the truth, is this: love. Love gets the final word. 

This death also isn’t Tristan’s story. We will not let one moment define his life. We refuse to do that. What we will do is share his story. We will share his story and we will share his contagious love for life in the hopes that just one person will know that love and forgiveness can go a long way. Even in death, Tristan was covered in God’s love and forgiveness, just as he was in life. He was claimed in the waters of baptism as a beloved child of God and was claimed once again last Monday. Tristan’s faith was central to who he was. Did you know that? He loved so fiercely because God loved him. For confirmation, I make all the students write a faith statement. This is a challenging task for adults, let alone, an 8th grade student. In his faith statement Tristan wrote this “Matthew 19:26- Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’ This is my all-time favorite verse from the bible.  What I believe this quote is saying is that there are actions in life that seem as if ‘it is over,’ but with God ‘it is never over.’ The biggest asset in life is God. He is my father; I am his son.”

Tristan also loved his family. He was the “funcle” the fun uncle. His nephews worshiped him. He adored his brothers. He would do anything to help his grandparents. He would climb flagpoles to hide Easter eggs. Or make Carson do it. This past Christmas was filled with gifts handmade by Tristan and orders placed by many more family members for his future work. His talent was obnoxious. I was always so jealous of that. He would look at what I would normally call a pile of junk and see nothing but potential. Maybe there is something to learn there. When one too many concussions knocked him (literally) out of football, his first love, he found his passion in the building trades program. If it involved wood, welding, or doing anything with his hands, Tristan was in. Or if it involved eating, you could always find Tristan near. 

Tristan was a walking treasure chest of useless knowledge which he was more than happy to share with you at a moments notice whether you liked it or not. He loved a good debate. Not necessarily an argument, but a good debate. Despite any efforts by me or anyone else, he loved the 49ers. He loved football, period. For a while, he thought playing past high school might be his destiny. He enjoyed track and tried cheerleading for a short stint as well. Tristan wanted to give of himself in any way possible. He learned by watching his family give of themselves. He was a disciple in every sense of the word. Tristan had one of the most generous hearts of anyone I knew. He loved deep and he loved hard. He so desired to be loved in return. Tristan really did live his life according to the golden rule. He treated others how he desired to be treated. If you experienced Tristan’s kindness, which I’m sure most of you did, please know you were experiencing was pure, genuine, love. This is the love that God poured into him (obviously, in abundance) and then Tristan chose (CHOSE) not to keep to himself but to make the world a better place. The kindness that you experienced was nothing short of a gift from God. 

That Romans reading we heard says “what then are we to say about these things?” Yes indeed. Because God has heard me say a lot this past week. Some of it hasn’t been suitable for church. See, our God is big enough to handle all of these emotions. What then are we to say about these things? The truth. This sucks. But the reading continues. “If God is for us, who is against us?” And if we’re honest, again, in life it can feel like a lot of things are against us. It can feel like a lot of people are against us. I fear that is what our beloved Tristan felt on Monday. But, God tells us another story. God is for us. God is for you. God is for me. And God was most certainly for Tristan. God is for us. God’s love is the most powerful force imaginable. Scripture says that nothing comes between us and the love that God has for us. 

Do you hear me, my beloved? Nothing comes between you and the love God has for you, not even death. There are no words, no actions, no shortcomings, no sin that will ever get in the way of God loving you. There is nothing you can do or that Tristan ever did that will ever make God say “well….I’m done loving that one.” Because God’s love is patient, and kind, and never ever ends, not even in death. As I said earlier, this death isn’t the final word. How can we possibly live in a world where death has the final word? No. Not today Satan. We’re resurrection people. We’re empty tomb people. We’re third day people. We’re love conquers death people. Because the alternative is too damn dark. We don’t want to live in darkness. We don’t want to live in a world where death and darkness wins. God’s love tells us, promises us, all of us, including Tristan, that we don’t have to. God promises us a kingdom that God prepares for us where forgiveness and mercy reigns. And if we take seriously that prayer that we all know so well, “on earth as it is in heaven” then may it be so, beloved. May we live and act like we are forgiven and are surrounded by mercy and treat one another the same. That is God’s kingdom on earth. 

We will see Tristan again. We will see that mischievous smile, those amazing eyes (full of knowledge), and we will once again be in the presence of his soul so full of love it’s almost overwhelming. I believe this because I believe in a God of the resurrection, and my God has not led me astray yet. I also refuse to believe the lies that the demons in my head tell me and so I want to believe that Tristan has been assured by God that whatever was chasing him was nothing but a lie and he was only running to God’s love and not running from anything. My beloved siblings in Christ, I hope you know this: Tristan so deeply loved God. And God loved Tristan. And God loves you. No matter what you have done or not done, no matter what you may call God, no matter if you set foot in church or not, God created you and thinks you are wonderfully and beautifully made because God doesn’t make junk. I look out and can see the image of God in all of you. Wear it proudly. But if you struggle to believe that. If you battle demons that are too dark to mention or you think you are alone, let me assure you, you are not. There is a number on the back of your bulletin if you want help. 

Finally, Steamer Nation, I want to leave you with this. And I am talking specifically to Steamer Nation. If it is in your power, and it is within your power, never ever allow this gym to be turned into a sanctuary for this purpose again. Do not allow another family to weep and mourn the way I have witnessed this past week. Choose kindness. Choose love. Choose forgiveness. Choose mercy. Choose grace. It’s what Tristan wanted. It’s what God calls us to do.

Sermon for 12/29/19 Matthew 2:13-23

There’s a phrase (or saying) that’s become popular the last few years that I think fits with this reading quite well. The phrase is “well, that escalated quickly.” Sometimes it’s used sarcastically. Sometimes it’s used when the situation didn’t really escalate at all. Sometimes it’s just used when someone is being dramatic. However, with this reading, well, this is a situation that escalated quickly. We were just gathered less than a week ago singing by candlelight about a holy infant so tender and mild. Well, Herod has received news of this boy, this Messiah, the Lord. See, we don’t hear that part of the story today. Herod heard the wise men refer to Jesus as the king of the Jews. His first reaction? He was frightened. And out of his fear he reacted. No one was to be king but him. No one was to rule but him. He wanted to know where Jesus was and it was up to the wise men to tell him. But, when the wise men realized that Herod’s intentions weren’t what they seemed, they did not return to Bethlehem. Herod was furious. To make sure that no one would be king but him, he demanded that every baby boy under the age of 2 be killed. Well, that escalated quickly. 

You don’t hear this story in your kids picture books in the telling of the Christmas story. There is only one Christmas carol I know of that speaks of this passage. You probably won’t find a depiction of this passage on the walls of a nursery anytime soon. It’s violent, it’s disturbing, and it’s another reminder of what happens when any of us fall to the power of sin: we become what we hate, the worst versions of ourselves. There’s a lot of uncertainty in this passage; a lot of relying on dreams. And of course, so much travel. Jesus was born into uncertainty and quickly became a refugee seeking only to be safe from a mad man who wished him dead. Scholars wonder if the slaughter of the innocents (as this passage is often called) actually happened. It is only spoken of in the book of Matthew. Even if Herod didn’t actually demand this horrible atrocity to take place, he had the ability to command and carry out such things. This was a man who “maintained a private security force and built fortresses [in many locations] so that he would never be far from a defensible refuge. He killed descendants of the Hasmoneans so he would have no rival. When he suspected intrigue in his own family, he killed his wife Mariamne and one of his own sons. Before he died he commanded that at his death political prisoners should be killed so that there would be mourning throughout the land” (Feasting on the Word, Culpepper 167). So did he do it? We don’t know. But we do know he was capable of escalating things quickly. 

Herod was good at creating chaos and uncertainty. He wanted his people to question everything and follow only him. This world ruler was not about to stand very long for something new. Herod was invested in keeping the status quo because the status quo benefitted him quite well. And for Herod, the status quo didn’t involve a baby Messiah. In the midst of chaos and confusion, God provided a lot of protection. “God demonstrates God’s providential care in uncertain times” (Feasting on the Word, Thomas 166). Think about it: God sent an angel to Joseph in a dream; the Holy family took a very dangerous trip through the desert (as they fled to Egypt) traveling a lot by night (which was very dangerous) and weren’t hurt or harassed; we don’t hear this today, but the wise men were warned by an angel in a dream not to return to Herod; another angel appeared to Joseph after Herod died letting them know it was safe to return to Israel; finally in one final dream, God redirects the Holy family to Galilee. God provides protection in uncertain times. 

This is where I find the good news in this terrible text. Let’s be honest, it’s hard to find any piece of good news in a reading like this. But, the fact that God provides protection and guidance in uncertain times is good news for me. I don’t know if that sounds like good news for you, my beloved, but it is good news for me. I dare to hope, to dream, to even believe that if God can protect our Lord and Messiah from hurt, harm, danger, evil, and the most horrid people then maybe, just maybe, God can protect me. Just to be clear: faith in God does not, cannot, and will not preclude us from uncertain times, I think we all know that. But hope, for me, comes in knowing that God will protect and provide. God may not protect and provide in the ways we want (or even the ways we expect) but God will provide and protect always in the ways that we need. 

God came into this world through a baby; an inbreaking of love that often sends us out to places that look like “Egypt.” These are places that may seem foreign to us, but will offer us the most protection and the places where God will meet us. Herod desire to slaughter innocent children should make us angry. We cannot become complicit in systems that would allow this to happen again and again. Where might God be sending us to share the news of this baby born to change the world? And if we’re being sent, don’t you know that God will protect us? If we’re being sent, don’t you know that God will provide? Herod honestly wasn’t the most evil person around. He built roads and infrastructure. But Herod was never held accountable. The public, people like you and me, never questioned him. When power goes unquestioned and unchecked, it can quickly turn into sin and evil. But, God provides. God always provides. 

We know sin and evil have no place in this world and they will be defeated. It may not look like we imagine or envision, but they will be defeated; the cross taught us that. The cradle, and this fleeing to Egypt should show us that God’s reign shows up first to the most mundane ordinary places. Not to fortresses and halls of power, but to stalls full of animals and caravans of wise men bringing gifts. God also shows up to the most mundane people: shepherds, wise men, an unwed teenager, Joseph (through his dreams), and maybe, if we’re lucky, people like you and me. Evil does not have to remain a force of power in this world. We trust what God will do through Jesus Christ to defeat evil. We also continue to trust that God will provide for us through mundane means: bread, wine, and water. For now, that’s enough. 

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. 

 

Sermon for 11/24/19 Luke 22:33-43; Christ the King

This text feels a bit jarring on a day like today. After all, a reading like this, at least for me, sends my mind and heart right back into Holy Week. I know that we have had the trial of Jesus, he has carried his own execution tool to the place of The Skull, and now here we are. We know this story because we’ve heard versions of it time and time again during Holy Week as we prepare our hearts on Palm Sunday or Good Friday. And hearing even the smallest portions of the same readings we hear during Holy Week take me back there time and time again and the feelings and emotions are all the same. There is lament, grief, sadness, anger, and just blah… so to have all of this on a day we call Christ the King feels weird. The only comparison I came up with for my feelings was this: it feels like having a birthday cake (complete with candles) and balloons at a funeral. A king isn’t regarded this way. 

At the same time, perhaps this reading is the perfect thing to prepare our hearts and minds for what is about to happen: Advent. In case you didn’t know, Advent starts next Sunday. As we anticipate the birth of the newborn king, it might be good to know what kind of King we actually are anticipating. Are we anticipating the kind of king that rules with an iron fist? Are we anticipating the kind of king that employs nepotism and lies? Are we anticipating the kind of king that stays in power until forced out or until he dies? Are we anticipating the kind of king that dares not be challenged? We all know the answers to those questions. And the answers to those questions is what got Jesus a state sanctioned execution. 

Instead the kind of king that hung on the cross was one that notices the marginalized. We start the beginning of Luke with Mary declaring that the hungry will be fed and the rich will be sent away empty. So, of course we end Luke with Jesus, the one Mary sang about paying attention to the marginalized: his fellow so-called criminals hanging with him. One was deriding him and the other was rebuking him. It would have been easy to ignore both criminals. But even in his final moments of life, Jesus notices, assures, and loves those that society would rather punish and forget. In that, Christ invites us to be more like him, to be more like a king should be and notice those forgotten or at least aim to see the image of Christ in the most vulnerable. 

What makes Christ the King Sunday so challenging is that is is counter-intuitive to how we live and function in this world. To claim kingship means that we are claiming power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor, even the power of intimidation. I mean, there’s something to be said about all of that. In all honesty, that sounds like part of what might even be called the American dream. Throw in money, property, and health, and you’ve got it made! We would really be living like kings (and queens). Yet we know that the same king we confess was Christ the Lord wasn’t like that at all. What a strange dichotomy. 

This text takes everything we know about what it means to say “Christ is king!” and turns it on its head. Because we know the end of the story: Christ will die, descend into hell, ascend into heaven, and take his place at God’s right hand, but first he must suffer terribly. Not very king-like. Kings don’t suffer. Kings don’t even let themselves been seen with the sniffles. Yet, at the same time, kings don’t associate with the poor. Kings don’t associate with the hungry, the hurting, the forgotten. Kings don’t associate with widows, prostitutes, or even children. But we have a king that not only associates with those people but gives them preferential treatment! 

It is one thing for us to say that Christ is King. But for us to confess it and believe it is completely different than saying it. Because if we’re honest, we say a lot of things we don’t believe. We practice half-truths a lot, sometimes without even thinking about it. “How do I look?” Answer “great.” Always. Not to say that isn’t the truth. But we know if we were honest, and I mean brutally honest, we might end up on the couch. Weekly, whether we know it or not, we confess and profess our faith in the creeds and in the confession that Christ is king. We confess that our faith is in the one that saw the marginalized and is in the marginalized. We confess that the powers of this world are nothing compared to the powers and principalities of God’s kingdom. We confess and believe that the greatest weapon anywhere isn’t water, it isn’t nuclear, it isn’t even money, it’s God’s love and we are told that nothing comes between us and that love. We confess that in a world that wants to constantly divide groups into us and them the kingdom is a place of “we.” When we’re really honest, we’re not playing it safe because Jesus didn’t play it safe. 

Jesus didn’t play it safe and it got him executed, hung. And we confess that this same “criminal” is our king, our Lord and savior. It’s not what this world expects. But it’s exactly what this world needs. Because the world needs someone that will rescue and save us from ourselves. We confess that Christ is king “not because we are weak, but because God is strong, and God is love. We have a confessional faith because the grace of God is sufficient for all. There is grace for us and for the people we do not like. We have a confessional faith because God is our refuge and our strength” (Feasting on the Word, Westfield 336). We confess that Christ is king because we are not. 

As we start to prepare for the anticipated arrival of the Christ child, let us remember that when we sing “what child is this” the answer is the same king that would flip tables and heal lepers. When we sing about “the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head” that same sweet head bore a crown of thorns for being a threat to the government. And yes, Mary knew from the beginning the difference this king would make to the forgotten, the lowly, the outcast, and the troubled. She knew that he was then and would always be Emmanuel, God with us.  

Sermon for 11/10/19 Luke 20:27-38

Earlier this week, I was interviewed by a friend, former classmate, and fellow pastor about the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He asked me if my gender ever posed an issue in my ministry. And my beloved, I so badly wanted to tell him “no it doesn’t” but it does. At least once a week I deal with an issue in ministry that I wonder might be a little easier if I were male. I have been at events where I tell people I’m a pastor and they ask “oh, do you help your husband?” Sometimes I answer the phone here at church using my standard greeting (“Elvira Zion Lutheran Church, this is Pastor…”) and the caller on the other end of the phone after niceties asks to speak to the senior pastor. Because obviously, it can’t be a female. God is the God of the living, thanks be to God. 

The Sadducees in today’s story come to Jesus and propose to him this asinine story because that’s exactly what it is. Just think about what they’re saying. A man dies, leaving his childless wife, so she marries brother two, and the same thing happens. Then brother three takes her on, and on and on. The poor woman ends up married to all seven brothers all childless. She eventually dies. The Sadducees want to know whose wife the woman will be. Who will own this piece of property, Jesus? Who will lay claim to this nameless, barren piece of property in the resurrection? That seems to be the important make or break question here for the Sadducees. Why would a woman be seen as anything but a piece of property?

For the record, the Jewish law that provided for the widow is a good one. It made sure that those that society would have normally abandoned would be taken care of. But remember, these marriages were not always ones built on love but on mutual agreement and convenience. We also should not be so naive to think that the idea of women as property is one that has disappeared. I am guessing that many of you at your own weddings had your fathers asked “who gives this woman?” This is actually a piece of the liturgy that has disappeared over time. Now, I still offer to include it if it is important to the bride and her father or whomever is walking her down the aisle. But the idea of property, at least in heterosexual marriage, is still very prevalent. 

Now, when the Sadducees asked their questions, they weren’t interested in actual answers. They didn’t want dialogue or debate. They wanted to show up Jesus, maybe confuse him or embarrass him. After all, it would have been “difficult for him to find a passage in written Torah that indicates to which brother the woman had ‘really’ been married” (Feasting on the Word, Robbins 287). If this conversation had been taking place on the internet, the Sadducees might be referred to as “internet trolls;” not looking for real dialogue, only to rial up and cause trouble. But Jesus doesn’t take the bait. Instead, he uses the opportunity to teach about the reach of God’s love and mercy. 

“Things do not work in heaven the way they work on earth–thank God! Jesus answers the question by saying that in heaven even the lowliest of the society would be considered ‘like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.’ This radical statement of the gospel, that in heaven there are no sociopolitical strata, is good news even today. The mystery of the resurrection revealed by Jesus is that heaven is a place where those who have been dehumanized [like women] will be restored; those who have been oppressed [like indigenious peoples] will be set free; and those who have been treated as inferior [like people of color] will be raised up and called beloved. Women will no longer be the property of men, treated as chattel–passed from man to man at will and whim. Women will be children of God, able to give love and receive love as they see fit. In heaven, those who are children of the resurrection will know the joy and peace that was kept from them on earth” (Feasting on the Word, Westfield 286). 

But this text is deeper than the way we treat women, although it should give us pause to think about that as well. This text should invite us to think about how we treat every marginalized group. This isn’t about being politically correct. This is about seeing the full humanity of God in every single person. Because if God is God of the living then we encounter the fully embodied Christ in every living person. This means that there isn’t a place on this earth for sexism, racism, classism, or xenophobia. It means knowing that this church sits on land that originally belonged to the people of the Peoria, Sauk and Meskwaki, and Oceti Sakowin tribes. It means finding out if this church was built by people who were free or who were owned and then wrestling with the answers. God is the God of the living and the embodiment of God is seen in every living person. This means that every living person we encounter is an opportunity to see God. How we treat others is how we treat God. That’s why there isn’t room for anything but God’s love, grace, and mercy. 

We all know though that we mess it up. That jerk is gonna cut you off in traffic. You might still laugh at a joke that has racist undertones. You might not say anything when that table next to you keeps commenting on the waitresses looks and calling her “sweet cheeks” (by the way, this isn’t okay). Depending on the situation, depending on the company around you, it’s hard to be brave. I know. I had to do it not too long ago. I overheard someone going on and on about how talented their pastor was. He finished up by saying “and on top of that, she’s smokin’ hot!” Nope. I couldn’t stay quiet. So, I introduced myself and then politely asked him not to do that again. It diminishes the body of Christ when we do that to one another. People are not property. 

Our faith commands us to love one another. Is it easy? No. This is why we need God’s grace. This is why we need the meal at the table. This is why we need to be in community with one another. We need to be forgiven, fed, reminded we’re not in this alone, and then sent back into the community to encounter the embodied Christ in all whom we meet. There was no asterisk on the cross. Jesus death wasn’t for all, but…. No. Jesus died for all. No exception. All of humanity is saved through him. We may not like the idea, but the reverse may be there may be some that don’t like the idea that you or I have been saved either. But we have been. We serve a God of the living. We are all the embodied God. We are the embodied Christ. How we love one another should be, we can hope it is, how Christ loves us. 

 

Sermon for 10/20/19 Luke 18:1-8

My beloved, I am starting today’s message by asking for some feedback from you. What does persistence mean to you? Do you find persistence enduring, annoying, or both? From my experience, I have found that persistence and the pure act of just being persistent can be both. It just kind of depends on your perspective. It also kind of depends on who is on the other end of the persistence, right? I mean, when I am being persistent, I feel like I am working (maybe even fighting) for what I want. It can feel like an underdog moment. When my beloved child is being persistent (depending on the time, day, and topic) it can be a test to mommy’s nerves.

Scripture can be persistent too. Did you know that? The Bible isn’t meant to sit on your shelf and collect dust. It’s also not meant to be read and just taken at face value. The Bible is a living, breathing document that should challenge and change us. We should wrestle with scripture often. Scripture is persistent and it was persistent with me this week. See, I kept thinking of the text this way: we Christians are the persistent widow. We should be persistent in prayer. Persistent in asking for justice. Persistent in going to God. But then, what does that make God in this story? Does that mean that God is the judge in this story? Well, that makes no sense at all. Because the judge says that he neither feared God nor had respect for people. I also refuse to believe in a God that would make us, God’s own people, practically beg God for justice. The story, to me, just doesn’t make sense when it’s read that way. So, scripture and I wrestled. A lot. 

What if, instead, God was the widow in this story? To view God as persistent makes me think about God in a new way. (And, honestly, I like thinking about God in new ways.) What might it mean for you, for us, even for this world that God is persistent? What difference does it make? For me, that’s a word of hope. That’s a promise that God doesn’t give up easily and isn’t easily persuaded either. I mean, I think logically we know these things already. But, sometimes my heart and soul need to be reminded that God is going to be persistent in all of the best ways possible. 

When we tell ourselves “I can’t do this” God will be persistent in whispering “yes you can. I created you. I know you can do this.” When you look in the mirror and only see the flaws, wrinkles, gray hairs, extra pounds, or surprise zit, God will be persistent in reminding you how beautifully and wonderfully made you are. And God will keep telling you until you believe it. When evil lurks in all of its forms, no matter what they may be, God will be persistent in reminding you how much you are loved, how much you are cared for, and that yes, grace really is for you too. I don’t know about you, but for me, this is a refreshing take on God. 

Think about it for a moment. Think about God as the widow in this story and put yourself in the place of the judge. Now, I know that may be a bit uncomfortable because the judge isn’t the greatest person in this story, but stick with me here. The widow shows up, day after day after day after day just simply asking for what she wants. She wasn’t forcefull; she wasn’t a bully; she just was consistently persistent. And finally the judge gave her what she wanted. Picture God the same way. God shows up in our lives daily. Maybe we notice,  maybe we don’t. But Jesus promised us that we would have in him, Emmanuel, God with us. So there is no doubt that God shows up persistently every single day in our lives. God is always trying to show us something or tell us something or point us in the right direction. Some days, we/I listen! 

God has to be persistent because sin usually, okay, always gets in the way of us listening to and seeing God. We don’t want to believe that God loves us because of all the horrible things we’ve done (at least, we’ve built them up to be horrible things in our minds). So God must be persistent in telling us we’re loved. But God will do that because that is what God does. God will tell us 1,000 times a day every single day that we are loved if that’s what it will take for us to believe it. God has to be persistent because sin makes us believe that we’re not forgiven. Sure, we can say we are, and we can believe it in our heads, but until we actually live like we’re forgiven, God will persist in reminding us over and over and over again that we are forgiven. Would you like to see the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet as proof? 

God has to be persistent because sin would have us believe that grace is abundant and amazing and yet somehow misses us. Sure, we Christians can talk a big game about this grace stuff to our neighbors and friends, but do we believe it for ourselves? Do we really understand that we do nothing to earn God’s love and that, my beloved, is grace? Do we really understand that we do nothing to earn God’s forgiveness and that, my beloved, is also grace? And do we really understand, fully comprehend, the life-changing, world turning power grace can be? Grace messed me up. Grace has pulled me out of so many self induced holes and places of darkness that if I even think about grace too much I get choked up. But I get choked up because God had to be persistent with me until I believed it. I’m a bit stubborn you see. 

God is going to keep showing up in your life, day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute to persist in your life, whatever that looks like for you. But God will also persist in sending all of us out into the world. See, as Christians, we can’t just sit here and soak in all of this love and grace and mercy and keep it to ourselves. This isn’t a secret. It’s also not a commodity to be rationed. When we know that God is persistent, that God never gives up on us, then we are freed to love and serve the neighbor with great persistence and Christian love. Because God never gives up on us and never lets go of us, we are freed to take a risk, try new things, and ask big questions. Because God persists in loving us, we are then called to seek justice for our neighbors. We are sent to right wrongs and advocate for those whose voices aren’t being heard. We are empowered to use the power we have to make room for the forgotten and trampled on. In God’s kingdom, we will never run out of food or room at the table. God is persistent like that. May it be on earth as it is in heaven. 

Sermon for 8/4/19 Luke 12:13-31

Look, I’m gonna be honest with you this morning. You’ve come to expect nothing less, right? I wasn’t initially real excited to preach on this text from Luke today. I looked at the other texts for inspiration. I thought about a nice, good old-fashioned hymn sing. But this darn text kept calling me back. But it didn’t excite me. The last thing I want to do is stand up here and talk about the rich farmer; especially with the year so many of you are having. I don’t know all the details. But, I’ve heard the whispers. I’ve seen the worry lines on your faces. I know it isn’t a great year. And then the farmer in the text has such a huge yield of crops that he has nowhere to put them. Oh darn (sarcasm). He has so much corn and beans or wheat or whatever else that he has no choice but to tear down his barns (barns plural) and build newer larger ones. Oh goodness. That poor poor farmer. What a burden a large harvest and yield must be. 

Now look, there is no sin in being rich and having wealth. I am not calling us all to take vows of poverty. There is no sin in being successful. And I am not going to be the one to define success for you nor will I tell you how to define rich. It looks different for everyone. But it is how we treat those riches and success that can create problems. Our riches and success can create idols and turn us in ourselves. Listen once again to what Jesus said in the parable. The rich man thought to himself “what should I do, for I have no pace to store my crops…I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” If you didn’t get the emphasis, the focus is on the rich land owner. “Those who have possessions in abundance risk the sin of greed: ‘enough’ is never enough, ‘more’ is only to be hoarded, and ‘I, me, and mine’ matter more than anybody else” (West, 310 Feasting on the Word). I, I, I, the man has done nothing but turned himself into an idol. That is sin. 

Is the rich man wise and responsible? Sure. He’s smart to store up what may be needed in a year of drought. He has a thriving farming business. I know enough farmers to know that farming isn’t a sport for idiots and dummies. He is trying to do what most of us do: set aside a little bit for the future. I am guessing most of us do this in one way or another. IRA’s, stocks, bonds, land, whatever; it’s smart and prudent to prepare for the future. It’s not what he is doing that is wrong. But he is only living for himself. He also seems to believe that he can secure his future with his barns full of abundance. But his life is now. We all know too well that tomorrow isn’t promised. There are very few guarantees in life. You have your body and you have time. Sadly, when one of those things runs out or runs down, your invitation to the kingdom is delivered. This is exactly verse 20 says “you fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 

Being rich isn’t a sin. Being smart with your investments isn’t a sin. Having an amazing year with a bumper crop isn’t a sin. But, oh my goodness, my beloved, none of this has anything to do with us. We are so quick to forget that. When things are going terribly, we love to blame God. Another diagnosis? What did I/we do to anger God? A new mother taken too soon?  Why does God seem to hate me/us? But when things are going well and we are successful. Well! Look at what I’ve done! I am amazing! I made the right decisions! I bought the right seed! I used the right version of roundup. I made the best investments. I am so smart and so amazing! I should be giving you advice. Um…who? We should not be so confident, so cocky, so sure of ourselves that we forget that what we have is not ours, including our lives. Our lives, our possessions, everything we have and everything we are is Gods. And this is troubling and yet, also a relief: God can demand any and all of it back at any time. Think about that for just a moment. Everything we have and everything we are is Gods and God can demand any and all of it back at any time. 

Being rich is not a sin. I want to repeat that several times so you hear me. Being successful is not a sin. However, it is when we think our successes and riches secure us a position with God or a place in God’s kingdom is when our thinking goes wrong. Again, it’s not that God doesn’t desire for us to do well. Yes, we should save for retirement. And yes, we need to plan for our future needs. But, it is about our priorities. Our priorities tell us very clearly if we worship god with a lowercase “g” or if we worship God with a capital “G.” Because if our priorities are only saving, hoarding even, and self then we worship god, lowercase g. But if our priorities are saving, future planning, and doing that with our neighbors and God’s mission in mind, then we worship God with a capital g. Our “capacity to trust in God can deepen only as other matters lessen their grip in our lives” (Lull, 312, Feasting on the Word). 

Our text today is challenging and we shouldn’t shy away from it. I can’t promise that I’ve made any sense of it or made you feel any better about it. But, if we lean in together and start to read this as the challenge it is, perhaps our lives may take a different shape. This parable “calls on all, rich and poor alike, to reflect carefully about what we want and why we want it” (West, 314, ibid). It is possible that if our hearts are hungering for what only God can give, and that is unconditional grace, mercy, and love, then there are no purchases, no amount of wealth, no amount of stuff that will ever fill that desire. The economy will fluctuate (I don’t have to tell you all that). The price of corn, beans, hogs, and cattle will be a roller coaster. Again, I don’t have to tell you that. But what never changes, what is constant and reliable is God. And as hard as all of this has been to hear and comprehend about riches and storehouses and self focused thinking, the constant and reliable love, grace, and mercy of God is the good news that we need to hear. When we can’t count on anything else, not even our own bodies or time, God’s love, grace, and mercy are reliable. Every. Single. Time. 

Soon, you will be invited to the table. You will receive the body of Christ given for you and you will receive the blood of Christ shed for you. You did nothing to earn it. You receive it if you have $2 or $2 million in your bank account. You are fed the same meal as dignitaries and outcasts. You are fed the same meal given to revolutionaries and the status quo. We dine on the same meal given to the disciples and to dictators. Now if that’s not enough for you to believe in God’s offensive and abundant love, I don’t know what is. What is ours is not ours alone. It has been given to us by God. God’s love, mercy, and grace are the only for sure thing in life that we can bank on.