Sermon for 12/17/17 John 1:6-8, 19-28; Advent 3

One of the ways that I choose to engage my brain cells is by listening to a variety of podcasts. It also helps to pass the time driving. One of my favorite podcasts is called “The Hilarious World of Depression.” It’s hosted by John Moe and he interviews comedians as they talk about their issues with brain health. I am going to pause right here and say that if I use the phrase “brain health” I mean it the same way I would use “mental health.” Anyway, week after week there is a different comedian and they talk about meds, in hospital stays, and on and on. All the cheery stuff that those of us with brain health issues deal with. This week’s topic was on how to handle the holidays when you have brain health issues. For many in this boat with me, the holidays aren’t always so cheery and bright.

And, as usual, the podcast got me to thinking about this week’s gospel reading. If you were here last week, it may sound very similar. And, quite honestly, you may hear some of the same themes that you heard last week. But, it’s still a good message, so don’t tune out. Anyway, as I listened to the podcast this week, I realized that so much of what we do in the name of “holiday celebrations” does anything but “make straight the way of the Lord” (1:23b). There is a lot of crying out that we need to “keep Christ in Christmas” but perhaps we should start by keeping Christ in Christian.

John, the character in our Gospel, self identifies as the “voice of the one crying out in the wilderness” (1:23a). He is not, unlike last week, identified as John the Baptist. But, we can assume by the way he is described and by his actions, that he indeed is John the Baptist. It’s just that in the Gospel of John, he is not identified that way. Are you confused yet? Don’t be. Same dude as last week, J-Bap, the ultimate hype man; different name. What is so interesting to me in his testimony, so early on in the Gospel, nonetheless, is that he confesses, makes proclamation, declares, who he is NOT. He says that he is not the Messiah. He says that he is not Elijah. He says that he is not the prophet. And the priests and Levites have the next logical question (which isn’t directly asked, by the way) of “so then….who are you?” And I started to wonder what it might look like for us to say “I am not” and how that might actually give us life, bring us life, and help us to make straight the way of the Lord.

I don’t know about all of you, but I am nowhere near ready for Christmas. The parsonage is a mess. I haven’t wrapped a single gift. I have no idea if we’re going some place on Christmas day or if we’re going to stay home. And, for many reasons, I am just having trouble getting into the spirit of it all. And maybe you’re like me. Maybe we need to declare some “I am not” statements that is going to actually end up freeing us from societal expectations. I am not going to go overboard decorating. You are not going to see us on television winning Christmas light competitions any time soon. 1-2 Christmas trees is enough! I am not going to go into debt. There is no reason for me to attempt to buy someone’s happiness. If someone isn’t happy now, me going into debt to buy them what I think is the perfect gift isn’t going to fix that. Those of you that have young children know the value is in the cardboard box, not the box the toy came in.

I am not going to go to parties where the temptation exists to self abuse with food and/or alcohol. If you struggle with food or alcohol, why put yourself in a situation where you’re going to be miserable. Additionally, if you’re a text book classic introvert, why go to a party where small talk is just going to drain you? I am not going to go to “celebrations” to have a meal with people I either (1) don’t like, (2) I only go to the celebration because I’m related to them, or (3) I’m not going to the celebration to be with people who may be abusive to me. Lastly, I am not going to make a ton of food. And before you let your family guilt you into doing something you don’t want to do (“but grandma, it’s not Christmas without your 19 step, 5 day process lasagna”) just hand over the recipe and say “then you do it!”

On the same note, if Christmas brings you life, energizes you, and makes you happier than any other time of year, perhaps your “I am not” statements can be something like this. I am not going to be “holiday shamed.” You want to go all out? You want to bake until you are blue in the face? You want your house to be seen from space? Do it. And don’t let anyone tell you that you are wrong. I am not going to let the grinches get me down. Additionally, and maybe most importantly, your last statement can be I am not going to get sucked into the Christmas wars. If you really love Christmas because it brings you life, then it shouldn’t matter if someone bought a better present than you, if someone’s cookies are cuter than yours, of if someone’s light display is better than yours. What freedom comes from these I am not statements! And I suggest all of these because no matter what, there is a lot (especially this time of year) that distracts us from making straight the way of the Lord.

But the most powerful thing we can remember is that we are not because Jesus is. Ya hear me? Let me say that again: we are not because Jesus is. Furthermore, here’s the good news, my beloveds, because Jesus is, then we don’t have to be! Because Jesus is who he is, then that means we don’t have to be Jesus. Sure, we can strive to be like Jesus. We can love like Jesus, serve like Jesus, heal like Jesus, visit the imprisoned like Jesus, protest like Jesus, and on and on. But because Jesus is Jesus then that means we don’t have to be Jesus, nor do we need to be Jesus.

Our job, once again, like John’s, is to point to Jesus. And if that means you need to incorporate some “I am not” statements into your daily life, but especially into your holiday celebrations, then please do it. I am giving you full permission to set your boundaries and tell people I am not. When the holidays get to be just too much, you can focus on just doing one thing: pointing to Christ. I joked earlier about keeping Christ in Christmas. But, how selfish are we that we think we can actually keep Christ out of anything? And in a season of fancy banquets and country club gatherings, the church needs to be the damn church, and not a social club. This needs to be the place where the broken and bruised can come and say “I am not, but Jesus is, and that’s enough for me.” Because Jesus is, this means we don’t have to be, we can’t be, and we won’t ever be Christ. But everything we do in life should instead point to the one who is greater than we, the one who is coming after us, Jesus. He is coming and we aren’t even worthy to sit at his feet, let alone untie his shoes. The most amazing thing is though that because he is Jesus, and we aren’t, we get to sit there anyway, at the foot of the master. We get to stand in the doorway of a barn, as he suckles on Mary’s breast, the savior of the world, still a baby. We get to stand in the shadow of the cross, as he forgives sins. And we get to do all this because we are not, but Jesus is, and that’s enough for us.

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Sermon for 11/26/17 Matthew 25:31-46 Christ the King

I am sure most of you have heard this story, but it deserves to be told again. “An old man was walking on the beach one morning after a storm. In the distance, he could see someone moving like a dancer. As he came closer, he saw that it was a young woman picking up starfish and gently throwing them into the ocean. ‘Young lady, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?’ ‘The sun is up, and the tide is going out and if I do not throw them in they will die,’ she said. ‘But young lady, do you not realize that there are many miles of beach and thousands of starfish? You cannot possibly make a difference.’ The young woman listened politely, then picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea. ‘It made a difference for that one.’” (adapted from the original by Loren Eiseley)  The temptation of this scripture is to either read it and be quick to pat ourselves on the back or read it and be shamed for all we haven’t done. I am hoping to help us all orient ourselves to an uncomfortable yet soft place somewhere in the middle.

          I feel it’s important to look at this scripture today as part of the whole of Matthew’s gospel. There are bookend verses that I believe we need to remember as we read much, if not all, of Matthew. Matthew 1:21-23 “’She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’” And Matthew 28:18-20 “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” Those two verses frame everything else in Matthew. We are reminded of who Jesus is (Emmanuel, God with us) and what our call is (to make disciples).

          We are living in a time of great divide, my beloved. Am I wrong about this? The gap between left and right, black and white, male and female, gentile and Jew, seems to be getting wider and wider every single day. News pundits make lots of money reporting on stories that has only one simple goal: vilify the other. It doesn’t matter who “the other” is, the most important thing we can do, according to the media, is to prove them wrong, even if they’re right. So, our call as Christians to make disciples and serve all in need is complicated. And I fear that being right has won out over being loved and loving others. I don’t doubt our desire to serve is genuine. But, somewhere along the way, we decided that in order to be worthy of our love and help, those in need had to look a certain way, act a certain way, live a certain way, or even speak a certain language.

          “How can that person be poor? They have an iPhone.” Or “if things are really tight at her house, maybe she should sell that Michael Koors bag she carries.” Maybe you’ve heard “All” (fill in the blank here) are just free-loaders. All welfare babies. All blacks. All Mexicans. All section 8 moms. All whatever… I can’t ever remember reading anything in the Bible that God calls us to serve others, as long as they look poor. Or act poor. Or act sick. Our call is to serve others, end of story. No stipulations. No catches. So for us to dare ask Christ “when was it that we saw you…” means that we just aren’t paying attention. Plain and simple. Because if we believe that Jesus Christ, God incarnate, really is God with us, then that means God is in every face of every human being, no matter their label. We may be too busy looking to serve a king, that the real king is in the face of the peasant.

          And the reason I shared that starfish story is because when Christ calls us to serve the world, it can seem overwhelming. The need is so great. We may look around and not even know how or where to get started. But, we shouldn’t forget that while yes, the world needs saving, we are not the ones to do it. We are not the saviors of the world. We already have one of those in Jesus Christ. But, we can make a difference to one or two in the world. And if you weren’t here on Thanksgiving Eve, I talked about this a bit too. But, to be part of a community, to be seen as human, is the first step in assuring all have a small amount of dignity. The human and the divine in me desires to see the human and the divine in you. And the human and divine in me desires to be seen as well. We have all been in a place where we’ve been the ones providing care. But, we’ve also been the ones in need of care.

          Christ calls us to care for what is known as “the least of these.” We are called to care for those who live on the margins of society, who are forgotten, who have lost all hope. And we are called to do it because if we are all made in the image of the divine, which we are, then we are caring for God when we care for the other. We should start to see one another not as problems to be solved, but as opportunities to serve the divine. This is Christ the King Sunday after all. What might the world look like if we started to ignore the labels and instead paid attention to the person. We’re so busy wondering “when was it that we saw you…” because we’re busy looking for a king. A king wouldn’t have died a gruesome death for all of humanity. Instead of looking for a King, let us look for the divine in everyone. Look past the labels. Look past left, right, black, white, documented, undocumented, married, single, gay, straight, educated, undereducated, whatever…and instead look into the eyes of a fellow human to see the divine. And allow yourself to be vulnerable enough for others to see the divine in you.

          This isn’t easy work. As I said, society is working really hard to pit us against one another. If we all suddenly started getting along, what in the world would the news have to talk about? But remember, we are promised from the very beginning that Jesus will be Emmanuel: God with us. In those moments that we are scared to see the divine in the other or to have the divine in us seen, God is there, with us. And if we’re serious about making disciples, which is what Christ calls us to do, then it starts by seeing everyone as an equal. This scripture evens the playing field. We are all sheep. We are all goats. We all need cared for. We all have done the caring. We all are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and a prisoner. And all of us need a savior. We cannot save ourselves. And we may not be able to serve everyone. But, we certainly can start by serving our neighbors without any expectations of being served in return. And what a relief as well, to be served knowing we don’t owe anyone anything. The price has already been paid by Christ.

          In this meal, we meet the one who is with us, Christ the King. The thing he looks nothing like a king. He looks nothing like royalty. Instead, he looks like the man on the corner with a cardboard sign. He looks like the woman in the WIC office for the third time this week trying to get her benefits figured out. He looks like the undocumented migrant worker, sending 98% of his money back home so his family can have a better life. Christ looks like those falsely accused sitting behind bars waiting on a break. But, he also looks like those sitting behind bars waiting for death. Christ looks like those that have been shamed. Christ looks like those who have been told time and time again “you don’t matter.” All it takes is one person to say “you matter to me. You matter to God, and you matter to me.” In this meal, we are reminded that we all matter. No matter our status here on earth, in God’s kingdom, we matter. In God’s kingdom, we are all royalty.

 

Sermon for Thanksgiving 2017 Luke 17:11-19

A few years ago, my brother Jon was living in Burlington, Vermont. He was new to the area and new to his position at work. As such, he didn’t have any place to go for Thanksgiving nor did he have the time or funds to come home for the holiday. So, Jon found himself out and about just strolling through the quiet streets of Burlington when he stumbled upon an open restaurant. He walked in and was immediately welcomed and shown to a seat. He made friends with his fellow diners and had a fantastic meal complete with all of the fixings. When he was done, he found the woman that he originally met at the door. “how much do I owe you?” He said. “Oh! No one told you” she said? This is a free meal. Jon was immediately taken aback. He said “but I can pay.” He was starting to feel a little guilty. The woman said, “it’s free. This meal is for anyone who doesn’t have any place else to go. Some are homeless, yes. But some are business travelers going from point A to point B.” The dinner was run by volunteers. “This is our family this day. Our community” she said. Jon left full and thankful. What he needed that day, he received. He didn’t want a meal. He didn’t want pity. Whether he knew it or not, he desired to be part of a community. In a way, I think we all desire that. We all want to be part of something.

As Jesus was in his travels, we are told that he goes into the region between Samaria and Galilee. To go between these two regions wasn’t really necessary for the average Joe traveler. It was desolate, mostly forgotten, and not well traveled. I say it wasn’t necessary for the average traveler, but it was necessary for Jesus. In the region, he came across ten lepers. We don’t use the word “leper” any more. But, these are the forgotten of society. These are the people that have been abandoned, forgotten, even disavowed from their families. They didn’t chose to become lepers, that’s for sure. No one would purposefully choose to be shunned. No one purposefully chooses to be shamed, forgotten, abandoned, or have their humanity outright denied. In our current day context to be a leper can look like a variety of things depending on the community.

For our immediate area, to be a leper means to be homeless, maybe have to stay long stretches of time at the Victory Center. It means that you’re hustling to get money for your next hit of meth or cocaine. To be a leper means that you’re doing things to your body you never said you’d do just to make ends meet. To be a leper means that you may have HIV. To be a leper means you hang out under the bridge, waiting for the ladies from the Canticle to bring you a sack lunch. Maybe it means being a transgender teenager on the verge of suicide daily thanks to teasing. To be a leper could just mean you’re an African American male who gets pulled over all too often for “DWB” (that’s driving while black, in case you didn’t know). What a leper desires is the same thing all of us desire: we want to be seen.

Don’t you desire to be seen? And I mean to be seen in a genuine God-like fashion. When was the last time you felt like you were seen? Not “hey! It’s good to see you, I’ve been meaning to ask something of you.” But, a genuine “hey! I see how you’re struggling and I know you’re doing the best you can.” When was the last time the Holy Spirit, God-filled person in you saw the Holy Spirit, God-filled person in me. Or anyone for that matter? When you see those people begging with their cardboard signs on the corners, do you think “those free-loaders need to get a job.” Or do you wonder “what circumstances lead them to that?” And maybe you might give them a buck or two. But, what if, instead of giving them money, or maybe in addition to giving them money, you said “hey. I don’t know what lead you to having to be out here on this corner, holding this sign, and begging for money. But, I know it can’t be easy for you. I appreciate that you’re willing to do whatever it takes for your family. I have a family too and I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t provide for them. Just wanted to let you know that I see you.”

When you’re a leper and society has told you over and over and over again that you mean nothing, that you’re worth nothing, that you contribute nothing, and that you basically are nothing, you may start to wonder why you bother living. All we need is for someone to see us. In the midst of the darkness, in the midst of that void between Samaria and Galilee, in the midst of the nothing that is existing but not totally living, God meets us there. God meets us there through Jesus Christ and says “I see you.” By curing the lepers, Jesus healed them, yes. But more importantly, Jesus made it such that they could be brought back into community. They could be part of something again. He cured them so that they finally could be seen. Before they were cured, they were part of a small community of lepers. But once they were cured, they were able to be reunited with the ones who had the power to love them. The shame and stigma of being a leper had been removed. To be brought back into community means a literal and metaphorical place at the table.

The leper turns back and thanks Jesus for the healing. And while I am sure he’s grateful for the physical healing, he throws himself at Jesus’ feet for more than just that. He has been made whole physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. He has been brought back into community. His dignity has been returned. I am wondering what it would look like for us to recognize and thank Jesus for seeing us just as we are. How can we possibly thank God enough for seeing us as both broken and beautiful? How do we respond to Jesus who continues to make us part of a community. We are part of the community of saints. We are part of those whom Jesus never forgets. But you know what, so is everyone else. The people we wish to forget are first and foremost remembered by Jesus and part of this Holy Spirit community that makes no sense.

A community of believers makes no sense because the only thing we all have in common is Jesus. And maybe, just maybe that’s enough. Maybe we can thank God for bringing us all together despite the differences. No matter what we do, what we look like, who we voted for, how old we are, no matter what, we are first and foremost children of God and part of God’s community. That is worth thanking God. God meets us in the midst of our Samaria/Galilee desert, no matter what that looks like, and brings us back into community. God meets us in the desolate and promises us “you have not been forgotten.” God meets us in the darkness to remind us that God is the light that no darkness can overcome. God meets us where we are and says “eat. Drink. This is my body. This is my blood. And you, you my child are forgiven and set free.” In those holy moments, we are part of a community. Thanks be to God.

Sermon for 11/5/17 Revelation 7:9-17

My alarm went off on the cold morning of January 12, 2010 and I rolled over, turned it off, and started to read through the notifications that had come on my phone. I was living in Sumner at the time and doing my internship. Thanks to Facebook and twitter, I immediately learned the news of the devastating 7.0 earthquake that shook Haiti that day. One of my classmates was in Haiti with her internship congregation. Three other students were there doing a January term class, or J-term. The following day, I read the emails from our seminary president. Renee, Ben, and Jon were okay. They were figuratively shaken but they were okay. And then another email followed. It stated that Renee and Jon were well, but Ben’s status was unknown. Then a final email came confirming that Ben was one of hundreds of thousands killed in the earthquake. Ben was killed after being trapped in the building that the three were staying in. In his final minutes of life, as he was being crushed by concrete, rebar, and debris, Ben was heard singing the tune of “Where Charity and Love Prevail.” The last words he sang were “Lord Jesus you bear all the sins a world away. God’s peace to us we pray.” With the help of the Haitian people, mourning their own losses, and volunteers from the Lutheran World Federation, Ben was one of the first people actually recovered from the rubble. By then, of course, he was long gone.

I had known Ben Splichal Larson since before seminary. When Chris and I were touring seminaries, it was Ben and his cousin and best friend, Jon, that took us out for drinks at the Busted Lift in Dubuque. I think I knew then that I was in the presence of people who were special. Not just Ben, but Jon is pretty awesome as well. I thought of Ben as I read that Revelation reading. Ben was quoted as saying that when he dies he wants to go out singing. And that he did. It is a beautiful picture, at least to me, to picture all of our Saints singing the praises of God together.

The Revelation reading says there was a great multitude, so large that no one could actually count how large the crowd was. The multitude was from every nation, and spoke every language, and they were all colors, and abilities, and statuses. It continues saying “and all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.’” They are everybody. These saints that sing the praises of God look like us and at the same time, look nothing like us. And the most astounding thing is this: they sing.

My Chris has too many stories of students he has worked with that have been told somewhere along the way that they cannot sing. It usually happens when a person is young. A likely well-meaning choir teacher pulled the student aside and, for whatever reason, told them that they cannot or should not sing. It breaks his heart when he hears these stories and it breaks mine when he relays them to me. In fact, a lot of his doctoral research is going to focus on why people don’t sing…especially why men in church don’t sing. But in the midst of everything else, believers should and do sing. This isn’t a case of just knowing about salvation and God’s goodness, but knowing it so well and being filled with such joy that you simply must sing. “Revelation overcomes such trickery with the  music of the heavenly choir reminding the saints–living and dead–that the good news is heard, even overheard. The saints’ cry may not always come in four-part harmony, but it is always a joyful noise. So the saints listen while they join in the song.” (Tom Tate, Feasting on the Word p220)

This reminds me of that hymn “how can I keep from singing?” In the midst of good and evil, war and peace, feast and famine, wealth and poverty, in the midst of life, no matter what comes across the path of the saints, they just cannot help but to sing. And at the same time, the saints, living and deceased cannot help but listen. And so why do we listen? We listen because by listening we hear the good news. We can experience the good news. We can experience the empty tomb. We can see it with our eyes. We can smell the slight hint of death but we don’t see the body. We can taste the confusion of knowing a man was crucified and laid in a tomb, but now he is no longer there. We can feel the radiance of joy starting to creep into our bodies and shine on our faces through the light that is Christ. But, but! Not until we hear the triumphant cry of “Alleluia! He is risen!” (He is risen indeed, alleluia!) Do we actually dare to believe it.

We gather here, week in and week out, despite what is going on, because we need to hear the good news. It’s one thing to show up. It’s another to show up and hear “you are forgiven. You are loved. You are freed from your sins.” And as if that isn’t good news enough, we sing this good news. We sing it so we ourselves can hear that good news and we sing it so those around us can hear it. Sometimes we may not believe it for ourselves, so we need to hear it from someone else. So we sing. And we show up here, on the first day of the week, just like the women at the tomb, to show ourselves, to show others, to show the world that death, no matter what it may look like, never has the final word. To show up to worship is an act of courage. So much goes on in our weeks that can easily crush us. Life is hard, friends, I get that. Many of us experience highs and lows in our 6 days that follow Sunday. We show up on Sunday as a sign of defiance. We renounce the devil and all the forces that attempt to defy God. We renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God. We renounce the ways of sin that draw us from God. All of that defiance is tiring and can make us weary and weak spiritually speaking. So we show up in the hopes that even the smallest glimpse of hope will encourage us for the week ahead.

And we sing. We sing with our saints. We sing because of our saints. We sing in the hope of joining the saints. The Lamb is already on the throne, in charge of everything we are and everything we need. That Lamb, Jesus Christ, is our shepherd and we shall want for nothing. And our troubles won’t disappear. Evil will do everything it can to attempt to sway us away from God. But our tears, when they come, are wiped away by God. What a powerful image. In our suffering and joy, God is there. Our song is one of salvation. Our song is one of hope. Our song is one of love. Our song is one of peace. And our song has the power to transform us and the people around us. Our song is sung, with joy, in the face of death, knowing that death never has and never will have the final word. We sing, my beloveds. We sing with the saints, for the saints, and surrounded by the saints.

Sermon for 10/29/17 John 8:31-36 Confirmation

Today is a day that is 500 years in the making. Now, I say that not because Ciera, Emma, and Tristan feel like they participated in confirmation for what probably felt like 500 years. I say that because we finally are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. A then Catholic monk by the name of Martin Luther had diligently studied scripture and observed that what he read and how the church acted seemed to be in contradiction with one another. During Luther’s time, to go against the church was looked at like going against God directly. The church was more than the church. It served as local government, tax collector, sometimes a clothing or food source, and even a place to receive health care. To argue with the church was like arguing with the president, every member of congress, and your doctor all at the same time. And I’ve said this before, but Luther didn’t set out to start the reformation. He was trying to be true to who and what God called him to be. Through his prolific readings of the Bible he thought that what the word of God said was true, no questions asked. “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

As the students prepared to write their faith statements, what was essentially asked of them was for them to answer the question “what do you know to be truth about God?” So I ask you, my beloveds, what do you know to be the truth about God? I feel like I say this all the time, but what these three confirmands did by writing these statements of faith isn’t something that is remotely easy. It’s not something many of us could do. To sit down and literally write about what you know to be true about God is hard. But once you know what you believe to be true, that truth can set you free. Once you know your truth of God you are freed from expectations, freed from disappointment, and freed from the temptation to chase false gods.

And much like what we mark today, it is okay for your truth to be reformed. After all, we are creatures that benefit from experience, education, and our contexts. What you believed about God as a young child may not be what you believe now. God constantly reforms us. What you believe to be true about God doesn’t have to be complex. It doesn’t have to be a novel. It doesn’t even have to be 95 things you believe to be true about God. All it needs to be is the truth. The thing about your truth is it is just that: your truth. So, if I say “I believe that God is a sassy African-American female with rainbow colored hair” can you really point me to a verse in the Bible that would prove me wrong?

Here are some of the truths our students shared with us in their faith statements. “Without God nothing is possible…God’s love is always with me no matter what. … God must have a plan for me.” Another said [God] “will always love me, forgive me, and always be with me … God also helps me remember what is important in life … [God] is good and [God] has the power to help me. … God gives me hope to believe in myself.” This is good stuff, right? Our final faith statement shared what they believe to be true about God by saying “every day God’s love is with me. … I always have God’s love and forgiveness to look forward to. … I feel God’s love … God’s has a different plan than I may have expected … I know God will light the way … The biggest asset in life is God.” These truths for our three confirmands have done something amazing. It has set them free.

I find that many people want to deal in certainty. We enjoy knowing that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. We know that come April, the Cubs will start playing baseball again. We know for sure that on Christmas eve we will sing “Silent Night.” There is something comforting about certainty. So to know for certain what you believe is the truth about God can be comforting and it can set you free. As I said before, this truth doesn’t have to be rocket science. I often call it my “elevator speech” or my “tweet speech.” What I believe about God to be true can be said in an elevator ride or 1-2 tweets. I believe that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God promises God’s love to all people. End of story. That is what I believe to be true. And oh my goodness, what I believe to be true about God has reformed over the years. For the longest time, I didn’t believe that God did or could love me. I didn’t know about grace. I thought that God was angry and vengeful and that I would somehow pay dearly for every single sin, no matter how large or small.

But the truth, my truth about God, has led to freedom that only comes from God and comes from believing God to be loving and full of mercy. What will your truth about God do for you? What kind of truths will reform your thinking? What kind of truth might even reform your relationship with God? What kinds of truth will set you free? And even after we come to know the truth about God will we still mess it up? Absolutely! We will continue to put our trust in things and people that are not life giving. We will invest in time that will be wasted. We may even attempt to accomplish our goals and aspirations all by ourselves. And we will fail. Sin is tricky like that.

These young people today are making an affirmation of their faith and their baptismal promises. Their faith may be reformed over the next few years, but they are bold enough to stand in front of all of us today and declare what they know to be the truth about God. And their lives are changed for it. Ciera, Emma, and Tristan, I want to thank you. Thank you for trusting me with your questions and curiosities. Thank you for your amusing snap chat sermon notes. Thank you for being willing to try new things. Thank you for loving yourselves and God enough to go through this process. I pray that the truth you now know and believe about God has set you free.

Sermon for 10/8/17 Matthew 21:33-46

I’ve thought a lot about fences this week. Weird, I know. I keep thinking about the Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall.” In it, he wrote “good fences make good neighbors.” I’ve also been thinking about borders and walls, all types of barriers we construct or that are constructed for us. This week has brought us some horrific violence once again. Much like the news reporters, I get so tired of addressing issues like this from the pulpit. And sure, it’d be easy to say “then don’t do it, Pastor.” Well, the fact is, the kingdom of God has been disrupted and hurt. I cannot simply ignore real, tangible pain in the world. For me, that would be like ignoring Christ himself. And it is during times like this that we may be tempted to build fences, either real or metaphorical, to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. We build fences out of fear, love, knowledge, anger, distrust, and reality among many other things.

So why all this talk about fences? Well, our gospel of course. Among many other things, the gospel story mentions a fence. And here’s the thing. When Jesus tells parables, he’s very specific and the details are for a reason, a purpose. Why did it matter that the vineyard had a fence around it? Why did Jesus include this really important detail? Maybe those hearing this parable wouldn’t have thought anything of it at the time. Maybe to have a fence during Jesus’ time was code for something else. But, as always, there was a method to Jesus’ madness. So let’s talk a little more about this, shall we?

I know many of you have fences on your property. Please hear me from the beginning here, I am not saying that actual fences are a bad thing. Many of you have fences for practical purposes: they keep your livestock where they belong. Without fences there might be more car versus cow accidents. Or maybe you have a fence to keep the critters out of your garden. Perhaps you have a fence to keep the dogs or kids in the yard where you can see them. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to have a pool and you need to have a fence for safety reasons. With the cost of a fence these days, the decision to put one up isn’t one that is willy-nilly. People usually think hard about it and do research before just putting up a fence. I know that a fence is also rarely maintenance free.

But, we also put up metaphorical fences and walls in our lives. We may not realize that is what we are doing because it often gets done in the name of safety and protection. These types of fences are more to keep people out than to keep things in. Maybe this looks like avoiding a certain area of town after dark. Maybe this looks like crossing the street when you see someone on the same sidewalk in the distance that you don’t like the looks of. Maybe this looks like double checking to make sure you still have your wallet or purse when you’re in the company of certain people. These are all metaphorical fences and when we do things like this in the name of safety and protection, the message that we send to other children of God is “I’m safe and okay… you however, need to be judged and vetted before I let you in.”

And the vineyard owner in today’s parable had a fence for whatever reason. But, in the end, the vineyard owner lost some of his slaves because they were murdered. He lost his own son to murder. In addition to that, he lost profit. He originally sent the slaves to collect some of the produce. This was very customary for that time. But the tenants weren’t having any of it. The vineyard owner had lost everything that was possible to lose. A fence didn’t make the difference. All the time and money to keep his investment safe did no good. Much like previous parables, we may want to see ourselves in the role of the landowner, or the slaves, maybe even the landowner’s son. We certainly don’t see ourselves like the tenants.

If we dive a little deeper into this parable, we may discover that this is more allegorical than a parable. The landowner is God. The slaves are the prophets. The landowner’s son is Jesus. The tenants is the established government. The vineyard is the kingdom of God. God trusts us to tend to the kingdom of God. And with the best intentions in our hearts, we build fences. We build fences by just flat out not being church. We build fences when we question someone’s ability to serve God based on gender alone (I get this a lot because I’m female). We build fences when we deny the validity of relationships because they are between two people of the same gender. We build fences when we give each other the “up and down” observing what one another is wearing. We build fences when we turn people away from this table for whatever reason. We build fences in the name of kingdom-keeping when really building fences destroys the kingdom of God.

I mean, if there is any place that should be without barriers, it would be the kingdom of God. We know, or at least I hope we know, that we serve a God who is all about breaking down barriers. And we build them up anyway. What do we think we’re protecting when we build walls in the kingdom of God? Who do we think we’re protecting? Do we really think that we know the kingdom better than God and so we build walls? How self centered are we? Our sin causes us to build walls and barriers in the name of safety, trust, and protection. But here’s the thing. The kingdom of God is open to all. Who are we protecting? God doesn’t need protecting. Which leads me to believe that the only people we’re protecting is ourselves. And when we start to build walls and barriers in the name of religion, we can quickly diminish from religion into cult.

I understand that the world is a scary place. 59 souls are no longer with us after that was confirmed once again this past week in Vegas. It’s tempting, and almost too easy to hold your loved ones close, lock the doors, build walls, keep to yourselves, all in the name of safety, protection, and privacy. But what ultimately keeps us safe is God. Sometimes the people we need protection from is ourselves; only God can do that. When we need the walls around our hearts broken so that we are able to fully experience the love and joy of this world, only God can do that. When we need the courage to break down the barriers that stop us from loving our neighbors and serving the world around us, only God can do that. And when we get weary from breaking down the barriers in this world that God has called us to break down and we need rest, only God can provide that.

Do “good fences make good neighbors?” Maybe. But, I’ve never been able to call on a fence for a cup of sugar or to watch my dog or water my flowers. God designed us to live and be in community. The more we fence ourselves in, the more we rob ourselves of those opportunities. There is a lot of evil in the world. That evil tempts us daily to block out everyone else, even those who wish to love us and help us. And yes, it’s smart to be on guard and be aware. But don’t do it at the cost of making yourself an island. We are called to be keepers of the kingdom, not build a fence around it. What I am proposing this day is what God has called us to do all along: take the risk of opening yourself up to love. Take the risk of loving someone else. Get to know other children of God. Break down walls of suspicion and build bridges of hope instead. Destroy walls of injustice, and help build systems of equality instead. Defeat fences made out of the “isms” of life and build life lines of love instead. This isn’t necessarily hard work, we just keep putting up walls. God will tear those down and show us our next steps.

Sermon for 9/24/17 Matthew 20:1-16

I was born in 1978. Now, before some of you roll your eyes and call me a kid, I am very well aware of how old or young I am, depending on how you look at it. I am 39. I grew up before there were 200 channels. I knew life before the internet. I still know how to use a card catalogue. I loved Scholastic Book Order day. I spent way too many hours playing a game called “Oregon Trail” where I almost always died of dysentery. But, I am still trying to figure out if it was my generation that ruined trophies for everyone. Is it my generation that demanded trophies for everyone or is it the generation after mine? Trust me, I am sure my generation has been blamed for this at least once. I hear it often after the phrase “you know what’s wrong with people your age…”

But I argue that this idea of giving everyone a trophy started long before my generation. Our Gospel today is a version of the idea that everyone gets a trophy. Maybe you never thought of it like that. And here’s what’s really maddening about this reading today. It’s the way it starts out “…the kingdom of heaven is like…” Wait! What? The kingdom of heaven is like everyone getting a trophy?!? That hardly seems fair. The kingdom of heaven is like everyone getting paid the same amount even though some worked for 12 hours and some worked for 30 minutes. Everyone gets the same reward. Well….that should be enough to make ya mad.

We don’t work like that, right? Even the idea of the “American dream” runs counter-intuitive to that idea. We work hard, we earn money, we are able to achieve all of our dreams. It would be maddening to spend a lifetime working hard, paying taxes, saving, and working our way up the corporate ladder in order to buy the house of our dreams just to move in next door to someone who said “oh my house? It was just given to me.” That kind of thing could lead to anger. Human justice is certainly not the same as God’s justice. And human definition of fairness certainly isn’t the same as God’s definition of fairness.

As much as we want to talk about other generations being or feeling entitled, if we’re really honest, we all can be a little entitled every once in awhile. We prefer justice that benefits us, our families, or our friends. We only claim that things are unfair when we are the victims of the unfair actions or words. We desire to be the beneficiaries of fairness and justice, but everyone else is just out of luck. It is possible that we even, at times, believe that fairness and justice is our right. We deserve justice and fairness. We demand justice and fairness. It’s as if we, at times, believe that justice and fairness are the same as oxygen or water. It’s just given to us, on demand, at all times. But while we’re busy drinking and breathing, people around us are dying of thirst and can’t breathe. Do we notice?

The workers that the landowner hired all wanted to work. They all showed up to work. They all had the ability to work. It’s not like the workers who showed up at the end of the day had spent the majority of the day in bed or avoiding work. It is very likely that the people left to be hired at the end of the day were the people who needed it the most: the disabled, the poor, women, those who wouldn’t be as strong, the blind, and the lame. And the landowner paid them the same as he paid those whom he hired first thing in the morning. His excuse? It’s my money. I’ll do with it as I will. I’ll be honest, if I were one of those workers that had been laboring in the vineyard since before sunrise, I would be angry. I would be whatever it is when someone is more than angry. And then, the landowner has the audacity to ask the workers if they are envious because he is so generous. Envy wasn’t quite the word we were looking for there, Chief.

The kingdom of heaven is like getting what you don’t deserve. The kingdom of heaven is also like watching those you know don’t deserve anything get the same reward as you. My beloved, this is so maddening, isn’t it? Human justice makes sense to us. It is a construct that we have invented. God’s justice makes no sense to us. In a weird way, this is good news. Yes, justice and living in a just world or just kingdom can lead to anger. But anger isn’t the same as mistrust. Just because we may be angry with God does not mean that we don’t trust God. At the same time, justice and living in a just world or just kingdom can also be a relief.

If it is God’s justice and justification that makes us right, then it is not on us to be perfect. It is not on us to attempt to even clean up the mess we made from our own sins. God justifies us. What this means is that it is God who makes us right and whole. Nothing we can do will ever be able to achieve that. God’s justice saves us. When the owner hired the laborers, he agreed to pay them “the usual daily wage.” In that time, a daily wage was enough for one person to buy some bread. It was enough to literally buy daily bread. And isn’t this what we pray every time we pray the Lord’s prayer? God’s justice provides us with daily bread, and nothing more and nothing less. God’s justice also guarantees that we will be equal in God’s kingdom.

Today, we will get a small glimpse of what God’s kingdom is like. There are few places on this earth where we are all equal. But, when we come to the waters of baptism, whether we come as a baby, like Hawk, or we come as adults, we are surrendering to the idea that we will be at the mercy of God’s justice and grace. We are washed clean and reminded that there is nothing we can do to earn our way out of this world. And in death, the other time we are all equal, God’s mercy comes full circle. God’s kingdom is like being claimed by God in the waters of baptism: no matter what your name is, no matter who your parents are, no matter what your bank account says, no matter your skin color, no matter your gender, all get the same name in those waters: justified child of God. God’s kingdom is like a communion table: no matter who you are, when you hold your hands out, you are fed a feast of forgiveness and love. God’s kingdom is like the foot of the cross where everyone is humbled and equal because all are on their knees.

The unfortunate and maddening news today, beloved, is that we don’t get a say in God’s mercy and justice, we just get to be active participants. And the good news and redemptive news today, beloved, is that we don’t get a say in God’s mercy and justice, we just get to be active participants.