Sermon for 4/22/18 John 10:11-18

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! My best friend and I have been friends since second grade. So, about since we were 7 or so. That would be about 32 years. I’ve talked about her before. I call her one of my 3am gals. Meaning I could call her at 3am and she’d pick up the phone, no questions asked. Most everyone calls her Kristin except for me and a few others. I get to call her Krissi. One of the things that I appreciate the most about Kristin is that she knows me. She knows my deepest darkest secrets and loves me anyway. Kristin has the ability to see me as I truly am. She doesn’t see me as a Pastor, or a sister, or a daughter, or a wife. She sees me as me. And, I think at the core of all of us we all desire that: to truly be known. To truly be seen.

Sometimes I feel like I say the same thing to you multiple times. But there’s a reason for that. I need to hear it multiple times. Therefore, you get to hear it multiple times. We were created to be in relationship; to be in relationship with one another and to be in relationship with Christ. There is no part of you that Christ does not love. Maybe you haven’t heard me say that before. But, Jesus and thus God, loves every single part of you: mind, body, and soul. If Jesus is the good shepherd, which he says he is, and he wants to care for the sheep, which we are, then Jesus desires to and actually does care for us. It is a nurturing and intimate relationship. The shepherd and the sheep know one another.

We trust in the shepherd, and in a weird way, we trust in the other sheep. Think about this from the standpoint of actual sheep. Sheep prefer to be led from the front. You cannot lead sheep from the back as you do with cattle. So, the sheep follow the shepherd. If a sheep cannot see the shepherd, the follow the sheep in front of them. A community is built. The sheep trust one another and we trust one another as well. Sometimes I think that trust is what makes it hard to enter into a worshipping community like this one. We have built trust with one another and we know one another’s stories. We have that intimacy. When someone new comes into the flock we can be guarded. After all, not everyone knows our history. That has been one of the biggest challenges as your pastor. There are a lot of assumptions. People say “well the reason why we haven’t seen the so and so family at church was because of that fight they had. Remember?” No. That fight happened in 1986 when I was still in the third grade. It takes time to build up trust, I understand that. In seminary, we were taught that it takes almost 7 years before a congregation fully trusts the pastor.

Jesus is the good shepherd. He knows his own and his own know him. And the thing is this: being disciples together is really hard work. I’m not one to pretend it isn’t. If being the church was easy, everyone would do it. But we all know people that, for whatever reason, stay home Sunday after Sunday. We are anything but perfect. So, when you try and put a bunch of imperfect people together, it can get messy. But what makes us different than any other social or civic organization is Jesus. We gather around the one thing that makes us equal and that is Christ. It is difficult work. But, the work is worth it. If you have gone through a time of personal crisis and you have seen the way the church gathers around a fellow sheep, you understand why the work to be disciples together is hard and yet so rewarding.

At the root of the desire to be known as only Christ knows us is a longing for comfort and security. When we are truly known, we can let our guard down, put away our masks, and settle into who God really created us to be. When we are truly known, life feels easy. There isn’t the pressure to perform or the exhaustion that comes with being someone we aren’t. I think too often we assume that we must present Christ with a masked version of ourselves. We think that our true, genuine selves isn’t good enough for Christ. Instead, we have to pretend to be someone or something we most definitely aren’t. Of course, this makes no sense at all. If there is any place we can truly be ourselves, it should be and is at the foot of the cross. If there is any time we can truly be ourselves, it should be and is when we are in the presence of the risen Lord. In the waters of baptism, we are claimed as God’s own, just as we are. In the breaking of the bread, we are fed with the body and blood of Christ, just as we are. Christ offers us security that nothing else in this world can match. But with that comes great expectations.

If Christ offers us security, protection, and comfort but with that is the knowledge that nothing else in this world can do that the same way Christ can. Being a disciple isn’t a one way street. Christ has prepared us to be his hands and feet in the world. The expectation of discipleship is that we feel so filled and grateful for God’s love and protection that we can’t but help ourselves, we must serve our neighbors. Christ doesn’t love us and protect us because he expects anything in return. But, the love of God through Jesus is so powerful that we do it anyway. So this means that the security and comfort we receive from God through Jesus also doesn’t look like anything else that this world can offer.

We are a people who have been ushered from an empty grave into the world declaring that Alleluia! Christ is risen! For us, this means that because our security is found in Christ, we are free to serve others that the world has forgotten about. Because our identity is in Christ, we need not fear the judgement of others. Because the good shepherd keeps us secure, we can enter into the places in the world that others have forgotten and shine the light of Christ. The security we receive from Christ isn’t locked doors and shuddered windows, but instead is open hearts, minds, and ears and we anxiously look to encounter the risen Christ through others in the world. You are known. You are loved. You are genuinely cherished by the risen Christ. There is no part of you that Christ does not love. In that love comes the security and knowledge that the love of Christ has no expiration date. You are safe and secure in the risen Christ. The powers of evil in this world may fight for you, but they will not win. Have no fear, little flock. You are genuinely known and genuinely loved by a God who would and did die for you.

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Sermon for 4/15/18 Luke 24:36b-48

Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!) Growing up, we, for a while, had a scare-off happening in the house. There were four of us involved in this. We would hide behind doors, in closets, and on and on and try our best to scare one another. Jon, Jayna (my brother and sister), myself, and my dad all tried to scare one another. My mom sat back and probably just rolled her eyes. This hit a peak one night after we had all sat and watched the movie Cape Fear with Robert DeNiro. My sister hid under my parents bed. And she waited. My dad came home, took off his tie, emptied his pockets, and then sat down to take off his socks and shoes. He took off one shoe and one sock. Then the other. And just when his feet were on the floor, my sister reached out from underneath the bed and grabbed his ankles. I don’t want to make my dad sound weak, but he screamed like a little girl.

In today’s reading, the disciples, we are told, were startled and terrified. They looked as if they had seen a ghost. Then Jesus asks them “why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” This is the first time Jesus had showed himself to all of the disciples since his resurrection. So perhaps the disciples had a right to be afraid. They had not experienced the resurrected Christ for themselves. I think it’s only natural for them to have been afraid. As I said at Easter, I think fear and being startled is a predicted reaction to seeing the deceased now raised. It may be easy for us to shake our heads in disbelief, but we are at an advantage. We know more about Jesus now than the disciples did at that time.

The way that I think about this is that the disciples could have experienced one of two kinds of Jesus in this situation. They could have experienced the “flipping tables” Jesus. The one who gets angry and starts to flip tables. As if he was gonna say “I told you I would be raised on the third day! And you don’t believe me!?!” (flip tables) Or, they could have experienced the Jesus they actually did encounter: the loving, understanding Jesus. The Jesus who understood that despite telling them that he would be raised, that showing them his hands and feet is what it was going to take for them to believe. Jesus was willing to do whatever it was he needed to do so that the disciples would not be afraid.

Fear is such a powerful motivator in our current culture. It keeps us behind locked doors, much like the disciples. Or, it keeps figurative locks on our doors. Fear keeps a lock on our thoughts so that we do not have open minds. Fear keeps a lock on our hearts so that love is not allowed out or in. Fear keeps a lock on our arms so that we are not freed to serve. Fear keeps a lock on our feet so that we are not free to follow Christ. Fear keeps us from living fully into the disciples that God created us to be. Fear keeps us from accepting grace. Fear is the voice inside our heads that constantly teases us with the refrain of “you’re not good enough.” Fear keeps us from full faith.

Because here’s the thing, when we resist the actions that Christ calls us to because of fear then we aren’t worshipping God, we are worshipping fear. We are a people who declare that Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed!) And when we declare that, we are declaring that not even death can stop Christ. Christ has defeated death. Christ can defeat our fears. Jesus sees what the disciples need and he meets them where they are. He offers them his hands and feet, and then, after eating, encourages them to keep going. There is nothing to fear. Jesus reminds us of his promises by using scripture. Jesus frees them from their fear and Jesus frees us from our fears.

And here’s the thing: we cannot escape fear. We can, on a basic level, understand that fear has no power over us. We can understand that Christ can triumph over fear. But that doesn’t mean that fear will no longer exist. It’s like when we were trying to one up each other in our scaring, we kept looking behind doors for one another. Our fears can be personal: “Will I keep my job? Will they find a cure? Will the markets go up? Will our yield be what it needs to be?” Our fears can also be communal: “How safe are those nuclear weapons? What will the President tweet today? Will our school be next?” Fear is a joy killer. Part of our job as disciples is that we are witnesses of the resurrection. We are witnesses to the fact that Christ has triumphed over death. We are witnesses that cry out “Alleluia! Christ is risen.” But as long as fear lingers, even behind closed doors, even in the nooks and crannies in our minds, we are not completely secure. Only Christ can save us. Our fears certainly can’t do that.

Jesus did not come to bring us security. He did not come to bring the disciples security. He came to issue the disciples, and us a call. He came to remind us that our call is to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations. All nations, all people, all genders, all races, all places. And there is no way that anyone is going to believe us when we tell them that Christ defeats all enemies, including death, when we ourselves are worshipping fear. Jesus has conquered the ultimate foe: death. Our fears have no basis. Our job now is to challenge our idea of what it means to be secure. For so many of us, being secure means that we need to be in fear. We need to fear the what ifs, the unknown, and sadly, we need to fear our neighbor. But Christ shows us that hope is stronger than fear. Christ shows us that an empty tomb is stronger than a cross. Christ shows us that locked doors cannot keep him out.

Christ has called us to be a witness to his presence among us: in our words, in our deeds, and in our presence in the world. Our faith is stronger than our fear. Fear keeps us at the empty tomb. Faith moves us on, into the world, proclaiming Christ’s love and forgiveness to all people. Fear will keep us in this place, in the protection and security of these four walls. But, faith will allow us to leave this place, fed by Christ, forgiven by Christ, and declaring to all that Alleluia! Christ is Risen! (Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!)

Sermon for 3/11/18 John 3:14-21; Lent 4

We all have those tasks that allow us to go through the motions. These are the things we do every single day without thinking about them. Sometimes it’s as mundane as making toast. Other times, it’s something where we should be paying attention, but we’re not, like driving. Whatever it is, routine can be a comfort. Going through the motions isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And then, something happens. Something throws our world into chaos. Something disrupts this routine and it’s as if we must even be deliberate about telling ourselves to breathe in and breathe out.

           Chaos came into my world on Monday morning. I got news that a dear friend and fellow pastor had died. I met Ben Ahles-Iverson when we were both at seminary although he was a few years ahead of me. We became good friends. I set him up with his wife Mara and I preached at their wedding. He was a fraternity brother to Chris. And, until I knew otherwise, he was fighting cancer. That is, until Sunday night when it all got to be too much and Ben died. The cancer was too much for his body to handle. I forgot to breathe. I thought of his wife. And his daughter. And his family. When I finally gasped, my first emotions were not pretty. I’ve spent most of the week either ignoring God, avoiding God, or being angry with God.

           We all compartmentalize. I’d like to think I’m pretty good at it. It’s what allows me to do what I do. But, I can’t keep my friendship part of my brain and my pastor side of my brain compartmentalized this time. Chaos will do that to you. And the last thing that I want to do is stand up here and be fake and pretend to be some thing or someone I’m not. I am grieving deeply, my beloved. I miss my friend already and I want to cry out to God about how unfair this is. And there are few things comforting right now. One of the things that has comforted me over this past week is knowing that most of you have been here before. You’ve been in the midst of a chaos storm. And in the midst of a chaos storm when you literally have to remind yourself to breathe, I know the last thing we really want is to hear that God loves us.

           The age old argument is “if God really loves us then why does death happen? Why does cancer happen? Why do people have to suffer?” I have been with too many of you as you mourn your loved ones. Maybe you didn’t ask these questions out loud. Maybe you kept them to yourself. Maybe you were scared to ask them out loud because what would that say about your faith? Are we doubting God and God’s plans? Does our questioning mean we don’t believe in God? If we question God will God stop loving us? These are all very common questions with which we wrestle when we are thrown into chaos. Fear and shame keep us from voicing them out loud. Instead of lamenting out loud, we keep these doubts to ourselves and instead withdraw further from community and further from God.

           We don’t want to hear the promise of “God so loved the world” because in the midst of chaos, God’s love feels far away. We don’t want to hear “God so loved the world” when our world is taken from us. We don’t want to hear “God so loved the world” when the world is full of hurt, sorrow, and pain. And maybe it’s not that we don’t want to hear it, but we can’t hear it. We can’t hear it because we can’t feel it. This is why it is so important, my beloveds, to continue being disciples together as I’ve talked about so much lately.

           I’m not ready to deal with God. But, I got to feel God’s love through a hug from a friend. I am not ready to be on talking terms with God, but I got to feel God’s love through a phone call from another friend. I can’t hear about God’s love quite yet, but I was able to see God’s love in action as I watched my fellow pastors and classmates console one another on social media. When God feels far away, we need one another to be, as Luther called it “little Christ’s” to one another. Sometimes God’s love looks like a casserole. Sometimes God’s love looks like delivering some coffee and paper goods to someone who is mourning. Sometimes God’s love just looks like two friends sitting with one another, not saying a word but just being there. That is enough of God’s love when God’s love feels far away.

           Scripture makes us the promise of “God so loved the world” and I suppose the good news for all of us is that it doesn’t depend on us. God is going to continue loving you and me no matter what. I doubt God cares much that I’m not real happy with God right now. It’s not because God is uncaring but because nothing can ever stop God from loving me or you. God loved the world into being. God breathed life into every living creature. God wove together every mountain and valley and did so with love. God has guided us for generations with love. Nothing has been able to stop God’s love now and nothing will. I believe in the resurrection promise. I believe that the tomb will be empty on the third day. I believe that what God says is true. I believe it in my head. But, until I can feel it in my heart, I take solace in knowing that nothing can stop God from loving me.

           “God so loved the world” isn’t just a saying. It’s a way of life. It’s a way that we operate. Because if we truly believe that “God so loved the world” then we comfort one another in our grief. We celebrate with one another. We speak promises of accompaniment to one another. “God so loved the world” is why we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, and care for the sick. “God so loved the world” is why we get so excited when we baptize because we see proof of that love. “God so loved the world” is why we come to this table with hands outstretched because we get to taste proof of this love and we can’t wait another minute to taste that it’s true. “God so loved the world” is why we wish one another peace. “God so loved the world” doesn’t promise us a life without chaos. “God so loved the world” promises us that chaos, death, and evil never have the final word.

               

 

Sermon for 2/18/18 Mark 1:9-15 Lent 1

Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness isn’t exactly an unfamiliar story to many. You may have heard variations of it over the years. But it is in Mark’s telling of the Gospel that we get today that has the least amount of details. Here’s what we know: Jesus had been baptized and immediately driven out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Here’s what you need to know about the wilderness. This isn’t wilderness like Denali National Park or someplace in the Colorado Rockies. This is wilderness like a desert. Like the area between Lincoln, Nebraska and the Colorado border (if you’ve made that drive). The wilderness in this story is stark, barren, full of uncertainty, and temptations. We don’t get a lot of details in this story. We know Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days, he was tempted by Satan, he was with wild beasts, and angels waited on him. That’s it. That’s all we know. We don’t know the ways that Jesus handled Satan. We can assume he did handle Satan because we hear more of the Gospel story.

But, often when we are in the wilderness, we may not know how to handle it. We may not know what to do or say. When Satan tempts us in the wilderness, we may cave to those temptations. And the wilderness looks like a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And when you’re in the midst of your own wilderness, directions seem few and far between. Christ has called me this moment and this time to speak truth. I am called to speak truth even if it isn’t popular and even if my voice shakes. My beloved, we are in a time of wilderness. And Satan has taken on the form of the powers in this country refusing to do anything about gun control.

Before you turn off your ears, I am begging you to hear me. I am not anti-gun. I know many of you in these pews own guns. I fully support your right to do that. I have made the decision that I will never own one. But, that doesn’t mean I think you shouldn’t. I am not anti-gun. However, it is time for us to get serious about how someone can own a gun and who can own a gun. How many of our children must die before we get serious about this? We will be in a wilderness until we repent. We will be in the wilderness until we can turn our hearts from worshipping guns to worshipping God.

We don’t know how Jesus handled the wilderness in Mark’s Gospel. But we know that Satan was nothing to be messed with. After all, when Peter attempted to rebuke Jesus when Jesus spoke of his own death, Jesus looked at his disciple and said “get behind me Satan!” (Mk 8:33) The trouble with not knowing the details of how Jesus handled the wilderness is that we are left to our own devices to fill in the blanks. And the temptation may be to give ourselves more credit and abilities when it comes to fighting Satan or the wilderness. We now find ourselves in the wilderness. We’ve been in this wilderness since April 20, 1999 when we first heard of a place called “Columbine High School.” And it seems no matter what we do, nothing changes and we stay in the wilderness.

We certainly aren’t Jesus, we know that. But, and I don’t know about you, I know I don’t want to stay in the wilderness for the rest of my life. Jesus didn’t even stay in the wilderness. The wilderness is not a life-giving place. Part of what can help us start to escape the wilderness is what we talk about a lot during Lent: repentance. But, repentance cannot happen without confession. We can’t hurry this process. Sometimes confession is less about us speaking of the ways we failed and more about listening to the ways we failed through the words from other people. Confession is about being honest. Confession is about exposing our failures not only to other people but to God as well.

Too often when tragedies like this happen, we talk around one another. We talk over one another. But we rarely engage in conversation with one another. Instead of having difficult conversations, we just hop online and try to one up one another with articles, statistics, and engage in “I’m right, let me tell you why you’re wrong” conversations. And instead of throwing our hands up in the air, what might it look like for us, for the church to model hard conversations? We can model these conversations because Jesus in the midst of these conversations promising that relationship built on accompaniment. What would it look like to have a cup of coffee with one another and talk about those difficult topics and find the places where we can agree. Talking together and trying to find a solution has to be much more productive than “thoughts and prayers.”

What might change if we engaged in these conversations looking to learn from one another rather than prove one another wrong? I want to hear your story, what you’re passionate about, and why you believe what you believe. And, in exchange, I want you to hear my story, what I’m passionate about, and why I believe what I believe. And then, together, we can confess the ways we have failed to see one another as full and amazing creations of God. And together we can repent from our previous ways and work towards finding common ground centered in Christ. We don’t have to stay in the wilderness. Christ is our key out of the wilderness. Worship centered on Christ, living surrounded and centered on Christ, and conversations centered on Christ are our keys. Thoughts and prayers will not help us escape the wilderness. Looking Satan and all of his lies right in the eyes and repenting, turning to Christ is the only thing that can help us escape.

We may think we can’t change anything. The government seems so big and we are just but one person. But we have something that seems to be forgotten about at times: we’ve got Jesus. Jesus’ baptism shows us things can change. Jesus’ temptation shows us things can change. Jesus’ ministry shows us things can change. And most importantly, the resurrection shows us that things can and do change. If we truly believe that God’s kingdom is also God’s kin-dom, then yes, things can change. Thoughts and prayers are fantastic. Prayer and action is what we’re called to as disciples. Yes, these acts of violence are terrible and seem almost too big to take on. Let’s show that big problem our big God. Satan will tempt us not to leave the wilderness. Well, get behind me, Satan. I’m ready to answer the call God has on my life, the call God has had on all our lives since baptism. Let’s start these hard conversations here and now. Conversations are much easier to have than prayer vigils. It starts today.

Sermon for 2/4/18 Mark 1:29-39

Many of you may recall that in my first year or so here, I had a few hospital stays. I was quite sick. Thanks to a super-bug that will not die, I caught something called “clostridium difficile” also known as c-diff. It is basically an overabundance of bad bacteria in your gut and colon. I will spare you all the symptoms, but if someone who is older or who already has a weakened immune system catches c-diff, they could die. It is very common after antibiotic use and among those who have been hospitalized or in a long term care facility. My best guess is that I caught it by doing nursing home and hospital visits. It can live on elevator buttons, bed rails, door knobs, and on and on. And the awesome (sarcastic) news is that plain old hand sanitizer does not kill it. So, I got c-diff not once, not twice, but three times within an 18 month period. And it was awful.

I had an appointment with a specialist in Iowa City (a GI) to see about an operation that could maybe get rid of it. It’s a transplant of sorts. Although again, I will spare you the details. The doctor looked at me, looked at my chart and said “you’re not a good candidate for this.” And I immediately broke down crying. If I wasn’t a good candidate, who was? The other awful thing about c-diff is that immediately I was made to feel like a leper. People coming to visit me had to wear a gown, gloves, and a mask. The nurse had a disposable stethoscope that was kept in my room for only use on me; same with a blood pressure cuff. I was also made to feel incredibly dirty. I got asked multiple times if I washed my hands after using the restroom and on and on. I desperately wanted healing.

When I finally did get better, all I wanted to do was make sure no one else would have to go through what I went through. In many ways, I became a c-diff evangelist. Maybe you can relate to this, but with healing comes power. If you have been healed from anything: the flu, a broken bone, no signs of cancer, and on and on, you know the power that can come from healing. You know the power that can come with feeling like you have your life back. And if you have experienced this kind of healing, you also know that you may see life a little differently.

I think that is what happened with Simon’s mother-in-law. There are so many jokes that a  reader might be tempted to make with this. There are mother-in-law or father-in-law jokes and/or horror stories. On top of that, we are told that upon being healed, Simon’s mother-in-law began to serve Jesus and all of the disciples that were present. Ha-ha. How funny, a woman started serving all the men. Ha-ha. Yeah…nope. Her serving them had nothing to do with her status in life or her gender. Although we are not told so explicitly, it is very likely that Simon’s mother-in-law was widowed. So she is a single woman who, up until now, had been very sick. She had been, according to Jewish law and customs, most likely unclean. Simon’s mother-in-law serving those around her is not the present day equivalent of “get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich, woman.”  Simon’s mother-in-law does not serve because she has to. She serves because the love of God that she has experienced through her healing is too much to keep to herself. She serves because this is what it looks like to be a disciple. Simon’s mother-in-law is a beautiful example of what it looks like to follow Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t heal people just to heal them. It’s not like he’s a traveling magician going from town to town leaving healed people in his midst with no reaction. No. The Gospel of Mark starts with this phrase “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And it ends with Jesus sending out all of his disciples to share the good news. And the good news is that the Kingdom of God is here. It’s not some far off idea. It’s not some concept that will happen “someday.” The Kingdom of God is in the here and now. And we, my beloved, we all have a roll in the Kingdom of God. Simon’s mother-in-law didn’t get up and serve as a way of thanking Jesus. We know better than that. Jesus heals people that have no way of paying him. Jesus walks with people who will only go so far. Jesus paid the price without any expectation of being paid back. Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law as yet more proof that the Kingdom of God is in the here and now and. And her response looks a lot like what Jesus himself does: she serves just as he did.

When you have been a recipient of God’s healing or God’s grace, it’s hard not to want to serve others, or at least tell others what you have experienced. And before you tell me “oh Pastor, I don’t know. I haven’t had that kind of healing or that kind of grace” I am going to tell you to stop right there. Because you have experienced it. Maybe you didn’t know you experienced it, but you did. You experience it all the time when you come to this table, arms outstretched, hands hungering to be filled. You experience it when you either are baptized or remember your own baptism. We get to see God’s grace in action when water and the Holy Spirit come together. And how can we not leave this place and serve others and tell them the good news.

“Disciple” isn’t just a term for 12 guys who served Jesus. We are all disciples. Part of being part of the body of Christ is being a disciple. Our call is to look for stories of the resurrection in everyday living. I don’t mean actual resurrection from the dead, but stories of people getting another chance at life. And then, THEN, when we do hear those stories or experience those stories, we tell others about it as proof of the continuation of the Kingdom of God in the here and now. Is it easy? Not always. We don’t like people’s judgement that comes with proclaiming our discipleship title with pride. We may get nervous we don’t have the right words. We may wonder if what we really saw was a resurrection story or just dumb luck. But none of that mattered to Simon’s mother-in-law and it shouldn’t matter to us. She was healed and she started serving.

We have been healed. And so we start serving. We serve by caring for one another, by caring for the least of these around us, by caring for our world, and what is going on around us. And there are some, I know, who long for healing. Who have been begging God to be healed and nothing comes of it. Christ still heals in death, y’all. And then the promise of the resurrection becomes real for those who have died. In our baptisms and in this meal, we have been healed, if only a little bit. The Kingdom of God is in the here and now and God needs disciples. We have been healed and now it’s our turn to start serving or continue serving. The good news isn’t spread by itself, my beloved. God is calling us and has created us to serve. We live in a hurting and broken world. Now that we have been healed, it is on us to serve as Christ did. It is on us to declare hope for all. It is on us to start serving our neighbor, our friends, and everyone in need. The Kingdom of God is here and now and God’s grace is flowing through us and out of us. We’ve got plenty to share, so let’s get started.

Sermon for 1/28/18 Mark 1:21-28

I have not shied away in sharing with all of you my struggles with mental health or “brain health” as I like to call it. I don’t do this because I am hoping you will care for me, although I always welcome your prayers. I share my struggles with brain health in the hopes that if you struggle with your brain health, you will feel a little less alone. Whenever any of us battle anything, whether it’s the common cold, cancer, brain health issues, loneliness, or even financial troubles, there is something wonderful in knowing we are not alone. The wilderness is a lonely, scary place to be. To know that we are not there alone can help to keep us going. I have no doubt that we all have some kind of struggle. Some of you have shared your struggles with me or even the majority of the congregation. You know the power of prayer and the power of community. But, I also have no doubt that some of you in the pews this morning are struggling and you pray no one finds out. Maybe you are having marital issues. Maybe you justify that one more drink you take every night. Maybe you too are struggling with brain health issues. Whatever it may be, you’ve kept quiet.

Usually we have a lot of excuses for keeping quiet. We don’t want to bother people; we don’t want to be a burden on anyone. We don’t like the idea of people worrying about us. Maybe we’re just private people and prefer to keep struggles to ourselves. But, often, way too often in fact, we keep quiet because of one major issue: shame. Even though common sense will tell us otherwise, when you are the one in the middle of a struggle storm, the brain has the power to lie to you. You will hear lies like “no one will understand.” Or “you’re gonna lose friends over this one.” My brain through my depression and anxiety lies to me all the time. It tells me things like “you’re a terrible mother” or “that’s a dumb idea.” Let us not kid ourselves, friends. These voices are real for many of us and they are nothing but Satan trying to win us over.

The story that we hear in today’s Gospel reading is the first act of public ministry performed by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. Yes, he called the disciples (we heard that last week). But this is Jesus actually doing the things Jesus is known for while in the company of other people. This act is basically an exorcism. Jesus’ first act of public ministry is to engage with an unclean man. Jesus’ first act of public ministry is to go someplace where no one else will. I don’t know if you have ever thought about this, but our society, Americans especially, spend a lot of time and money trying to keep up the perception that we are clean. We have entire aisles filled with various kinds of soap. We have soap for our hair, bodies, clothes, dishes, floors, pets, furniture, cars, and on and on. To be called “dirty” is still considered an insult. We are obsessed with being clean. Many in our society still don’t want to engage with those that are “dirty.”

We may look at the homeless, the drug addicted, the prostitutes, the undocumented, or the working poor and only see their dirtiness. As if touching these people would cause us to catch homelessness or being poor or whatever. They are dirty and we’d rather ignore or brush them off. But Jesus saw the man who was in a synagogue with unclean spirits and instead of brushing him off, Jesus rebuked those spirits to leave the man. Let me review really quickly here: the man was in a synagogue, a church, and we hear of no one before Jesus attempting to help him. This wasn’t just an issue in Jesus’ time. People who we might classify as “dirty” often come to church and we as the church turn them away. We may not actually turn them away, but we turn them away with our actions (or inactions), unkind words, or judgemental looks. We don’t want “them” in our pews.

But, in his first act of public ministry, Jesus crosses boundaries. Jesus starts his ministry by showing us exactly who he is and exactly what he is willing to do. Christ goes to the places where no one else wants to go. In his ministry, Christ is going to encounter many battlefields. He is going to be challenged on the road, in synagogues, in Rome, in front of crowds, in front of Pharisees, and on and on. It is interesting to me that the first battlefield Christ engages in is the human body. Because no place is off limits to Christ. Before Christ takes on various kingdoms, God, through Jesus Christ, enters the body to go to battle for us. I don’t know about you, my beloved, but this is good news for me.

I need that word of hope desperately. I need that promise that Christ will save me from myself. I need to hear that Christ thinks I am worthy of going to battle for. Our salvation is nothing but a relationship with God. And it’s nothing we can do. It’s an ongoing relationship where we trust that God is already active in our lives and trust that God is working in our favor. It’s acknowledging that there are parts of us that are unclean, but that those parts have no hope against Jesus Christ. I need to hear that I am not alone, and maybe you do too. And by knowing that Christ will go to the ends of the earth for me and for you, that promise of accompaniment is real. Because, as far as Christ is concerned, there is no one that is unclean. There is no one that is lost that can’t be found. There is no one that is fighting something alone.

God starts fighting for you from the moment you are splashed. In her baptism today, Zara will receive a promise that no matter what she goes through, Jesus is going to fight for her. We all have received that promise in our own baptisms, but maybe we just need to hear it again. Maybe we need to hear that promise again for ourselves. So hear this, my beloved. You are not alone. There is nothing that you are enduring that you are enduring alone. No matter what terrible lies and evil thoughts Satan tries to whisper in your ear, you are not alone. You are never alone. Your battles are being fought by more than just you. And if you fight the evils of this world and it brings death, Christ still has won. I know that there are some whose demons make this earth feel more like hell. In death, Christ wins. In death, we are freed from anything anything that may have held us hostage on earth. The demons in this story today are the same many of us still fight today. And here’s the thing: the demons recognize Jesus. They know who he is, but they don’t worship him, trust him, obey him, or love him like we do. And our love for Christ has no bearing on whether or not he will go to battle for us because he always will.

Christ will cross any barrier, any border, any obstacle that comes between us and the ability to love Christ fully. And Christ does this because you’re worth fighting for. Do you hear me, my beloved? You are worth fighting for. No matter what demons you are fighting today, no matter what demons you may fight tomorrow, Christ is with you. Christ is with you through water and the Holy Spirit. Christ is with you through bread and wine. And Christ is with you no matter how strong the demons may try to be. Christ is with you because you are worth fighting for. If you were worth dying for, which you are, then you’re most definitely worth fighting for.

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.