Sermon for 5/28 John 17:1-11

I’m not usually one for eavesdropping. In fact, if I find myself doing it, I immediately internally scold myself and move along. But, have you ever eavesdropped and heard something wonderful? What about eavesdropping and hearing something wonderful about yourself? Who doesn’t like a little ego boost now and again? It can feel really good to hear positive things about yourself. Maybe you’ve overheard your spouse singing your praises to someone over the phone. Or perhaps you’ve heard your kids telling other kids about their awesome parents. Maybe you’ve overheard your boss or coworker. Whatever the case may be, there is something lovely about hearing someone speak positively about you.

In today’s Gospel text, we get the chance to eavesdrop on Jesus. And honestly, we’re not even eavesdropping. We’re not even up to anything sneaky. Jesus is praying. And unlike other Gospels where he goes off somewhere by himself and prays, he instead prays at the dinner table right in front of the disciples. He prays out loud so that the disciples, and us, can hear him. By the way, don’t ever ask Jesus to pray at your dinner party. This prayer actually goes on for around 26 verses or so.  This prayer is part of the farewell discourse in John. We’ve spent almost 3 chapters listening to Jesus say goodbye to his disciples and prepare for his death. Maybe it’s appropriate for Jesus to end his time with them in prayer.

How do you feel when someone prays for you? Not when they say they are going to pray for you, but actually prays for you right then and there on the spot? It can be awkward, can’t it? I mean, I pray for people all the time, it’s part of my job description. But to have someone pray for me is not a feeling I am used to. I trust that you all pray for me on your own time. But to pray for me with me, and with me present is a totally different thing. When someone has prayed for me in my presence, the first thing I feel is guilt. I feel like I don’t deserve such a grand gesture. And I have a hard time being in the moment. My mind starts racing and I have a hard time listening to what the other person is saying. Instead, I’m busy thinking “will they want me to pray for them? What will I say? I feel like this is really personal. Should I be letting this person in like this?” Then, before I know it, the person praying says “amen” and I have no clue what has happened.

And maybe the disciples don’t fully understand what is happening either. After all, the son of God, the savior of the world, the one who would die on a cross to take away all of their sins and ours, is praying for the disciples and us….out loud! On the scale of “big deals” this is huge! Jesus could have prayed for a lot of things, himself included, but instead, he lifts up those whom God gave him: the disciples. Jesus prays for the things that concern him the most. The ideas and concepts that take up the most room in his heart, soul, and mind. He lifts up, verbally, that which is most important to him. And so, as he prays, he prays that we all come to know God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because for Jesus, this isn’t about him. Jesus doesn’t want the focus to be on him, what he has done, or what he is about to endure. Jesus desires for his life to be a light of sorts that shines on God, God’s love and God’s saving and redeeming actions.

Take a moment and think about that. What difference does it make for you personally that Jesus prayed for you? Be selfish for a moment. Don’t think about what difference it made for your family, your co-workers, or even for me. But think about yourself for a moment. Jesus prayed for you. And the amazing thing is (at least for me) is that Jesus didn’t pray for me to repent or leave my sinning ways behind. No, Jesus prayed that I would know God and God’s love through him. For me, that is mind blowing. Next week we will mark Pentecost, a celebration of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church. The church the disciples started and the church we continue to work hard to grow. Because the empty tomb isn’t the end of the story, it’s just the beginning. We have seen and experienced all that God can do through Jesus Christ now it’s our turn to go out into the world sharing these stories, spreading the good news, and reminding people that they are loved. And if we’re going to share that word, perhaps it is best that we are reminded of it ourselves first and foremost.

As Jesus prays for us, he prays for something very interesting. He says “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” And while we may not realize it, this is where this discipleship stuff gets tricky. The first part is pretty humbling: Jesus is praying that God’s protection will be on and over us. Again, pretty amazing. But, the second part of that statement is difficult. Jesus prays that as he and God are of one being, one person, one purpose, that we, their followers, also be one. That means no matter what we call ourselves, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, even just “seeker” that we set those distinctions aside and embrace the only title that matters: beloved children of God. In theory, it sounds easy enough. It’s easy enough until you realize specific denominations got started because those who were supposed to be one couldn’t agree to the point of splintering. You all know that there aren’t denominational sections of heaven, right?

The idea of being one is difficult. It gets even harder when we realize that Jesus is praying for everyone to be one. This means that Jesus is praying for us to be one with those we disagree with, with those who have done us wrong, even for us to be one with those we consider the “other.” Now this idea and this prayer just gets uncomfortable. But remember, Jesus’ main goal with this prayer is that we would all come to know God and the love of God through Jesus. It is impossible for us to know love when we don’t have the ability to look at a sibling in Christ as an ally and not an enemy. So, what do we do? We pray.

We humble ourselves and lay our troubles at the foot of the cross. We admit that what Christ is asking of us is almost impossible if we attempt it by ourselves. So we call on God. We rely on the Holy Spirit. We trust that there is enough of God’s love to go around. We pray for ourselves, our friends, our families, and yes, even our enemies. A strange thing happens when you start to pray for your enemies: the heart starts to soften. It may not happen overnight, but it happens. It is almost impossible to be in a stance of anger and hate when you are on your knees praying. I don’t pretend that this is easy. Jesus knew it wouldn’t be easy. This is why this prayer didn’t have a date, time, or expiration. This is probably a prayer that will continue for quite some time. This kingdom work stuff isn’t for the weak, friends. The work is hard, the pay is terrible, the feedback is usually negative. But, the reward is amazing glory.

I am going to give you a challenge this week. I want you to pray for someone. I want you to pray for someone, out loud, in front of them. Pray that they are reminded of God’s love. Pray that the discord in their lives disappears. Pray that their life in the Lord is strengthened. Pray without expecting prayer in return. Pray like God is listening because God does. Pray like the cross mattered, because it did. Pray like the tomb is just the start of our stories. And then when you are done, come and eat, and pray again.

Sermon for 4/30/17 Luke 24:13-35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for 4/2/17 John 11:1-45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for 3/26/17 John 9:1-41

Much like last week, I could preach on this text for a month straight and still not say everything I’d like to. It’s a great story that often gets misinterpreted. People have said this story is about spiritual blindness. People have used this as proof that our children are punished for their parents sins. But here’s the thing: this man didn’t ask to be healed. He didn’t cry out to Jesus in the hopes of regaining his sight. And the other thing is, he was born blind. And he wasn’t born blind just so God could make a point later and have Jesus give the man sight. This text is a great example of “why do bad things happen to good people.” That question is often called a “theodicy” question. Friends, we’ve been trying to answer questions like these since humanity first started walking the earth. And it’s not always “why do bad things happen to good people” it’s questions like “if God was really present in that school then why did that school shooting happen?” Or “if that person is such a faithful Christian, then why did they get cancer?” And as frustrating as it may make us, we just may not know the answer to some questions on this side of heaven.

But, what I do know for sure is that God continues to act and move in the midst of all of these bad things. And we, lucky and blessed as we are, continue to experience grace upon grace. There’s a lot of dialogue in this reading today so you may have missed a crucial sentence and statement. The blind man (whose name we never get) is being spoken about around verses 18-23 or so. We do this often, don’t we? We speak of and about those who are differently abled than us instead of directly to them. The Jews are speaking to his parents and asking them how their son can now see. And I love the parents answer “Ask him; he is of age.” And the Jews press on, calling to the man. First they give glory to God and say “we know that this man is a sinner.”

They said this because they believed that being blind was some kind of punishment for sin; either your own or your parents. And again, I love how this man answers. “I do not know whether he is a sinner” (and that wording is a bit strange since he is speaking of himself). “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” And in that moment, this man, the man born blind from birth, gives those around him, most of whom were disbelieving that anything like this could even ever happen, a working definition of grace upon grace. For us, sometimes the way that God works has no explanation. And that is so frustrating, isn’t it? We are such black and white people. We want to know how things work. We want to know how the world operates. We want to know that up is up and down is down and that yes means yes and no means no. God laughs at our desires and instead gives us grace. And when we try and explain grace to someone else we often sound like the blind man. “Look. I dunno what happened. I was this but now I’m this.” I suffered for years and now I’m cured. I was hopeless and now I’m starting to see the world in color. I had just given up and then the phone rang. Whatever it may be. What happens between the “then” and “now” is grace upon grace and sometimes we just can’t explain it.

We don’t hear from Jesus in this reading from verse 7 all the way to verse 35. All the verses in between, everyone around this man was trying to figure out how he was able to see. They were trying to figure out how grace works. So, see! We’ve been doing this for centuries. Trying to figure out how grace works. We also try and figure out how grace affects us and those around us as a way of sizing one another up. “Did he or she get more grace than I did?” Or we get mad at grace. I’ve done that. More than once. I’m not proud. “I can’t believe that person was given grace! Doesn’t God know what kind of person that is??” Yes. And God knows what kind of person you are as well.

But see, grace isn’t measured. Grace isn’t based on anything we’ve done or not done. Grace isn’t earned. Grace certainly cannot be bought. Grace cannot be hoarded. Grace cannot be rejected (although we may try). We cannot stand in the way of grace. And we often cannot explain it. Grace is simply the presence of Jesus. And grace, in the most complicated way, is the presence of Jesus. Grace comes to us in ways that the world probably think are pretty normal: in water and in bread and wine. Grace doesn’t come to us with fireworks, big banners, or much to-do. But instead, it sneaks in and infiltrates our lives to the point that we know we’ve been changed, but we have no idea how. “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” And maybe that’s all the testimony we need for God’s grace.

Maybe the only thing we need to testify to as disciples is that we were blind but now we see. We were lonely but now we belong. We were lost but now we are found. Grace relieved our fears. Grace protects us. It serves as a compass, always pointing us to our true north: Jesus Christ. The only thing in this world that can give us life. Jesus and him crucified are the only thing that can save us. Our money can’t save us. Our looks can’t save us. Our business can’t save us. Even any good reputation that we’ve built for ourselves can’t save us. We certainly can’t save ourselves. Only God through Jesus Christ can save us. Grace is wakes us up yelling “sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph 5:14b). Because even though you may have a heartbeat. Even though you have a pulse. Even though you have blood flowing through your veins, can you really live without grace?

As hard as this is, part of being a Christian means being okay with saying “I don’t know how it happened, but I know it happened and I know it happened to me.” People will push you for answers. People will question you until they are blue in the face. But that’s okay. Some people don’t understand grace. I don’t understand grace. All I know is that I can’t live without it and that I would be blind without it.   

Sermon for 3/19/17 John 4:5-42

Here’s the problem with this reading today: I could probably preach on this text for the next month and still not be able to say everything that I want to say. This reading today is so rich and full of important details, telling dialogue, and colorful visions of what is going on. Last week we talked about John 3:16, God so loved the world. This week, we get a feeling of what that is going to look like. Jesus is starting to give us a taste of what it means when he says “the world.” What better way to challenge people than by defining the “world” as including a Samaritan woman?

Now, the thing is, this story would have been told orally, not read. And those listening would have known some Bible history and some of the implications of what was going on here. There is enough drama in this story that during the times when this was first heard, there would have been gasps and looks of people stunned in the crowd. This is where our lack of Biblical knowledge is a disadvantage. What we don’t hear in the first few verses of chapter 4 is that Jesus left Judea and headed back to Galilee. And in verse 4 it says “But he had to go through Samaria.” No he didn’t. Geographically going to Samaria didn’t make any sense. It would be like going to Iowa City through Cedar Rapids. It doesn’t make sense geographically. But Jesus needed to go to Samaria to have this encounter with this woman.

Jesus didn’t meet this woman just anywhere. He met her at a well. For us, the reaction may be “so what??” A well was a crucial meeting place in the Old Testament. Listeners would have known this. It’s where Isaac first met Rebekah; Moses’ daughter, Zipporah met her husband at a well. The well was what we now know as match.com. The well equaled relationship. Where have we heard that the Gospel of John is about relationships and abiding? But a relationship for this woman? First things first, she was a Samaritan. At the time, that was the worst kind of person. Samaritans were undesirable in every way. And this was a woman, so she was automatically less than. And to top off her level of undesiring, she had been married 5 times. This means she was either widowed or divorced. And if she was divorced it was because she was barren. This woman at the well (we never get her name, by the way) is a Samaritan, a woman, and someone who has been cast aside more than once.

Then along comes Jesus. And Jesus sees her. This is really important. She was hoping she wouldn’t be seen. She went to the well at noon, the heat of the day. The water collecting had already been done for the day. The well wouldn’t be busy. The woman could go, collect her water, and leave without being harassed or without being reminded that she was, for all purposes, broken and damaged goods. Not only does Jesus see her, he sees her. He asks for a drink of water. This may seem strange to us. Didn’t Jesus bring his own cup? He’s Jesus, couldn’t he get his own water? But instead, he asks this woman for a drink. He is starting to establish a relationship. He is also giving her power. Jesus, a man is giving a woman, a Samaritan woman married 5 times at that, he is giving her power. He is starting to see her as the human being that she is.

What is interesting is that she doesn’t give him a drink and then leave. She continues the conversation. She continues with questions and a bit of a theological discussion. And so the relationship grows. See, conversations are built on relationships. You enter into conversation with the expectation that you will listen and be listened to. There is an unstated trust and at times, even an unspoken vulnerability. And the more the woman and Jesus talk, the more we find out about the both of them. The woman quickly starts to pick up on the fact that this man isn’t any normal wanderer. And Jesus lets on that he knows her on a very intimate level. He knows that she has been married 5 times. For her, that has to be one of the most painful truths of her life. And so the relationship deepens.

Then, then, THEN! Despite the fact that this is a woman, despite the fact that this is a Samaritan woman, despite the fact that this is a Samaritan woman who has been married 5 times (by no fault of her own, by the way), Jesus offers her what she really needs and wants: she wants to be in relationship and she wants to belong. And Jesus offers her a relationship with him and with God and offers to bring her into this community of believers. Jesus knows the ugly truth of her life and still gives her what she needs and desires: to be seen, to belong, and to be loved. And really, isn’t that what all of us want?

We want to be seen for who God created us to be and we also want to be seen as more than our sins, right? We want to show our true selves, without a mask, without pretending, without the charades. We desire to go out into the world, totally vulnerable, naked, exposed, maybe a little scarred up, and say “here I am” and we so desire and long for someone else to say “I’ve been waiting for you!” And for them to say it without hesitation. We want to belong without asterisks. Do you know what I mean? We want to belong without having to pretty ourselves up. We want to belong with our scars. We want to belong even if we’ve been to hell and back and we’ve got the stories to prove it. But instead, we present this photoshopped version of ourselves to one another and continue to present the facade that we’ve got our stuff together.

When the Bible said “God so loved the world” the world looks like a Samaritan woman at the well. The world looks like a tattooed pastor just trying her best (and still screwing it up). The world looks like a mom who is sleep deprived thanks to a teething baby. The world looks like a widowed man who visits his wife’s grave daily. The world looks like the undocumented, the forgotten, the abused, the mistreated, the hungry, the lonely, the poor, the sick, the misfits, and the everyday John and Jane’s. After this encounter, the woman now has a new title, a new job: that of witness. She goes back into the city and tells everyone about Jesus. Her past doesn’t hamper her from being a witness. Her past doesn’t stop Jesus from telling her first who he is. The woman at the well is the first person to hear Jesus claim himself as the “I am.” And the woman at the well doesn’t let her past stop her either.

God desires a relationship with us. God wants to dwell within each and every one of us. We couldn’t keep God away if we tried, and boy how we try. We can stop veiling ourselves any day now. We don’t need to hide who we are from God. Because God already knows who we are. God knows every single part of our lives and loves us the same. God knows how many breaths we have taken and how many we have yet to take and we are still loved and then sent out into the world on a mission to spread God’s love. God loves you, brothers and sisters. God loves you and claims you. May the waters of the well remind you that you have been washed, loved, and claimed. The I AM sees you, knows you, loves you, redeems you, protects you, feeds you, and ultimately, saves you. Even if it’s from yourself.

Sermon for 1/1/17 Matthew 2:13-23

I don’t know if it was the moon, the tides, or just life, but this past week was challenging. Not good, not bad, just challenging. The week between Christmas and New Year’s I had planned to relax, visit our shut-ins, spend an extra afternoon or so with Chris. But then life happened, as it does. I had one funeral lined up before Jeanne Rogis died. So this past week brought me 2 funerals. One of those funerals was for a baby from Camanche. If I ever have to do that again it will be too soon. Then Jeanne’s funeral. Then a wedding rehearsal on Friday with the wedding last night (which was awesome, by the way) and service this morning. God and I have spent more time together this week than usual. On top of this, I wanted to prepare to leave for vacation, the house is chaotic with the siding and windows work, and I am worried about a dear family member dealing with some heart issues. And if I am going to be honest with all of you, which I totally believe in doing, I am exhausted. I have poured more out of myself than I have put in. I joked earlier that I felt like God was making me earn my vacation.  

Maybe you can understand, then, why the last thing I really wanted to do was to preach on the slaughter of the innocents (at this text from Matthew is often called). I read it over like 27 times trying to make it magically turn into rainbows and unicorns. No such luck. I should know by now that God doesn’t work like that. The more I tried not to think about this reading, the more I thought about it. I didn’t want to talk about the bloodshed, violence, and graphic nature of today’s reading. I especially didn’t want to talk about it because it is still Christmas, after all. Yes, despite what the retail stores are trying to sell you in regards to Valentine’s Day, it is still Christmas. I want to hear more about the infant Jesus. I want to hear about the manger, the animals, Joseph still in disbelief, and Mary a little unsure of her place now after giving birth to a savior. I want to hear about that.

But instead we get this terrible story about Herod killing innocent children. Herod, who was a supposed King of the Jews acted like anything but. For some reason he felt like his legacy, his work, maybe even his title and thrown, were at risk or under attack by an infant Jesus. I’m not an expert in infants, but I’ve never seen one overthrow a kingdom yet. Nonetheless, Herod was frightened. Of course, being a king he wasn’t going to admit that, but he was outright scared. This should start to give us a picture of the power of Jesus. If Herod wanted him dead even as an infant, Jesus’ powers and what he might accomplish in his lifetime we already putting fear into people.

In an act of what can only be called tyrannical rage, Herod demanded that all children under the age of 2 be killed. One has to wonder if our world leaders could be or would be set off so easily. Just let that set in for a moment. Herod felt so threatened by the infant Jesus that he demanded that all children be killed. That’s like setting your entire house on fire in order to cook a casserole. And in a great time of uncertainty, God protected Jesus. While the loss of the innocent lives was overwhelmingly cruel, God provided for and protected the messiah. Maybe then it’s not too much for us to believe that in uncertain circumstances God protects us too.

With the arrival of a new year, many of you might make resolutions or promises for a better 2017. Unfortunately, with the turning of the calendar, the dropping of the ball, and the start of a new day and month, our problems do not automatically disappear. Wouldn’t that be just wonderful if it worked that way? Some of you still struggle with health. Some of you still struggle financially. Some of you still struggle with your family or friends. All of us, in one way or another, struggle. That didn’t go away from 2016 to 2017. For some, the arrival of a new year may actually cue the anxiety to increase. With the election of Mr. Trump what happens to the affordable care act? How will the markets react with his presidency? What laws will a republican congress and senate pass that will affect me?

Maybe the arrival of 2017 causes your anxiety to increase for good reason. Maybe you’re expecting the addition of a little one to your family. Maybe you’re sending your “baby” off to college. Maybe you yourself are thinking about a job switch or even retirement. The life of the church and our future ahead is even a little uncertain (but in good way). We added 30 new members in 2016. What will this year bring? What and who will we need to make room for in our pews, hearts, and Sunday School rooms this next year? Through all these changes, God moves and acts to protect us.

And I understand that in some situations it can feel like God has just outright forgotten you. If you were to be told that God is acting for you and protecting you during a time of great struggle and stress, you have every right to doubt that. It usually isn’t until a time of great peril is over that we realize how and where God was acting and protecting us. And the beauty of this protection and love offered to us from God isn’t something we need to or even have to acknowledge in order to receive it. In the midst of crisis, it’s perfectly okay to doubt that God even knows you’re still alive. God’s faithfulness to us does not depend on our faithfulness to God. (say this again)

God created you. God created me. God created all of us. We are made in God’s image. God loves us and would never let us walk through the fire and abandon us. God protects us and would never go through waters and drown. Even in the times of great struggle, God protects us and is with us. In the times of great triumph, God protects us and is with us. In our every day lives, God protects us and is with us. I’m not advocating that you be happy 100% of the time no matter what. Brothers and sisters, what I am advocating is that you trust God’s presence in your life is very real, even if you can’t feel it. I am asking you to trust that God is protecting you, even if it feels like you are in the middle of a storm. God has not abandoned you yet and God certainly isn’t going to start now.

Sermon for 11/27/16 Matthew 24:36-44 Advent 1

As it is so often, the end of Thanksgiving seems to signal the start of the Christmas season. I am sure that we’re not unique in our marking of this long holiday weekend by taking down all the fall decor and putting up all of the Christmas items. We turn on the classic cartoon movies that Chris loves so much (like Frosty, Rudolph, and Charlie Brown) as well as engage in an after hours viewing of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. To say that my beloved loves Christmas is a bit of an understatement. I just let him indulge and watch his eyes light up as he plots and plans the best place for lights, trees, decorations, and on and on. And like any family, our conversation as we decorate the tree naturally turns to the rapture.

What? That’s not the way it is for you? You and your family don’t dive into Thanksgiving leftovers, test strings of lights, pour over the black Friday ads, all while living in fear that Jesus will return at any minute? I am sure most of your holiday to-do lists look like this: wrap gifts, mix sugar cookies for baking later, donate to charity, stay on guard, watch and wait for Jesus’ return. It does seem a little strange then, that as our thoughts, hearts, minds, and actions turn towards merriment, celebration, and some (hopefully) happy memories, that our gospel would speak of the rapture. We want the cute little baby in a manger story, we want the Wise Men, we want “the hopes and fears of all the years…” but instead we get “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (24:44)

Advent comes from a Latin word that means arrival. Yes, we mark these four weeks in advent as the preparation of our hearts and spirits for the arrival of the birth of a child. The baby born into this world to save this world. However, this story in Matthew isn’t the only time that Jesus prepares us, warns us, cautions us, (however you want to word it) that he will return again. Advent isn’t just a season leading up to Christmas. Advent, that is, the arrival, and the way of life surrounding the pending arrival and return of Christ is something we should mark and prepare for every day.

Please understand, my goal isn’t to scare you. I don’t want you to leave here and immediately contact your life insurance agent to up your policy. I don’t want you to sell all of your possessions. I don’t want you to call up our friends at Snell-Zornig (or wherever) tomorrow and make an appointment to talk about your funeral. Now, all of these things are lovely to do. Make sure your life insurance is up to date, get rid of the stuff you don’t need, and yes, as a gift to me and your family, please pre-plan your funeral. But don’t live your life on pins and needles. And please, please, please, don’t become one of those “doomsday preppers” that is more prepared for a zombie apocalypse than the return of Christ.

We are told from the very first sentence of this reading today that “no one knows” except for God when Jesus will return again. And then we hear some interesting examples of what has gone on before God has sent us signs in the past. We hear about the time of Noah and how people were doing normal, everyday things like eating, drinking, and getting married all up until the point where a flood came and destroyed everyone and everything. Then we hear about how farmers will be in a field and women will be grinding meal, also everyday things, and one of the pair will get snatched up; raptured, if you will.

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.

There is this common assumption (at least in the United States) that everyone knows about Jesus. It is also the goal of many churches to reach out to the “un-churched.” And I’m all for that. However, I don’t believe we have a lot of un-churched still living around us. I think we have a lot of “under-churched” people living around us. If you were to take the time to go door to door and ask people if they know about Jesus, they would probably answer yes. But, what he did, what he stood for, some of his miracles, etc…might get you a blank face. One of the best ways that we can be prepared for the return of Christ is to live a life that points to this preparedness and second coming.

The people in the examples given in our gospel lesson today weren’t anxiously awaiting behind locked doors for Christ to return. They were living their lives. They were going about their business. They were living! For us to speak of Christ’s return is to live our everyday lives as an example of what is looks like to be prepared for that. “Okay, great” you may be thinking “but what does that look like for me, right here, right now?” This means that you aren’t afraid to offer prayer to those around you, even if they are your enemy. This means you don’t hesitate to offer forgiveness, even to those who have disappointed you. Waiting for Christ means you not only tell others that Christ is the bread of life, but you bring them to the table with you. Being prepared for Christ’s return means that when there’s not enough room at the table we don’t turn people away, we build a longer, bigger table. It means we side with protection, not persecution; feasting, not famines; justice, not judgement; safety, not self-interests; and interactions, not avoidance.

The easiest way for us to prepare, watch, and wait is to do what Christ has been calling Christian disciples to do for thousands of years: make more disciples. Feed people. Heal people. Care for people. Love people. Help others be prepared for Christ’s return by telling your story. Tell others what difference Christ has made for you. Tell others why God is a priority for you. Bring others to church with you. Tell people about grace (trust me, not everyone knows). We don’t know the time, we don’t know the day, we don’t even know if it will be in this century, but we do know that Christ will return. “Let us walk in the light of the Lord” (Is 2:5) and like moths to a flame, others will flock to the light of Christ that shines through us. Watch and wait, brothers and sisters. Watch and let your light so shine!