Sermon for 5/28 John 17:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for 5/14/17 John 14:1-14

This is a strange place to find ourselves in the Bible. After all, we are still in the Easter season for a few more weeks. This means that yes, you can continue to consume Starburst jelly beans by the handful. This particular reading today actually takes place before Jesus’ execution. It is part of what is called the “farewell discourse” in John. There has been a final dinner, some feet washing, an announcement of betrayal and denial, and finally, what we heard today. Jesus has practically given the disciples (and us) a play by play description of what will happen on the journey to the cross. Then, almost amusingly, he says “do not let your hearts be troubled.” The disciples must have sat up from their lounging position, bellies full, feet clean, and gawked at Jesus as he continued “believe in God, believe also in me.”

Why might their hearts be troubled? Were the disciples disturbed because they knew their friend Jesus would soon be tortured, humiliated, and executed? That’s enough for someone to have their heart be troubled. Were the disciples being told to not have trouble in their heart because the task set before them was great. After all, Jesus has told them more than once that they should love one another, that they should serve one another, and that they will be doing even greater works than Jesus. In short, they would soon be in the world telling the story of Jesus to any and all who would listen. The responsibility that comes with being a disciple wasn’t lost on the original 12 and it certainly shouldn’t be lost on us. Maybe the disciples were troubled because they have heard that one among them would betray Jesus and additionally, they have been told that Peter would deny Jesus not once but three times.

Perhaps their hearts were troubled after having experienced the most extravagant love. Jesus had humbled himself and kneeled at the feet of his friends, even the one who would betray him, and washed their feet. This was an act usually meant for slaves or servants.   The disciples had watched as Jesus fed around 5000 with only 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish and there was even enough for leftovers. The disciples were gathered when Jesus gave a man sight even though he had been blind since birth. Their hearts certainly had to be troubled when Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave after 4 days of death. Maybe, just maybe the disciples hearts were troubled because they weren’t used to such extravagant love. I don’t know that any of us are used to extravagant love.

When you think about it, the disciples hearts were troubled for the same reason ours would be troubled: we’re used to getting the love we deserve and not an ounce more. And the love that Jesus gave was undeserved, extravagant love. That kind of love can feel like love with a catch. The kind of love that makes you say “ok. Ok. What do you want?” We are used to getting love with strings attached. We most certainly are not used to receiving love we don’t deserve and love that we didn’t earn. But that is what Jesus has given the disciples and us over and over and over. Jesus’ love is unconventional. It certainly doesn’t follow any rules. Everyone gets the same amount of love all the time? That hardly seems fair. Anything that is that unconventional is enough to make a person suspicious. It’s enough to trouble a heart, that’s for sure.

On the other hand, we currently have a lot of reasons for our hearts to be troubled. We live in a state of constant change that starts at the government level and spills down to our local PTA. If we ourselves don’t have health problems, we may have loved ones that do. There are financial burdens that weigh on us. As so many of you start to plant, the anticipation and hope may have your hearts troubled. There is enough bad news in the world to last us a lifetime. Additionally, today we are celebrating our graduates and if you’re a parent of one of these graduates your heart may be troubled just thinking about what comes next for your baby. And, I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention today’s holiday: Mother’s Day. It’s a day that can hold a lot of spiritual, emotional, and maybe even physical weight. And so our hearts are troubled. And when we hear Jesus say “do not let your hearts be troubled” it can sound a little like Jesus being a jerk.

Jesus, after all, should know our pain. Of all people, Jesus should know the pain of our heart. Jesus should know the worries of our minds. Jesus especially should know the creaks and groans of our bodies. We have a lot to worry about. We have a lot that troubles our heart. And it’s okay if you hear Jesus say “do not let your hearts be troubled” and you have a response of “that’s not helpful AT ALL, Jesus!” And in those moments of pain, distress, frustration, confusion, and even anger, it’s okay to cry out to Jesus. It’s okay, even, to be mad at Jesus. It is perfectly fine and even understandable for your hearts to be troubled.

But, even in the darkest of hours, on the darkest of days, in the darkest of circumstances, we are all still victims of extravagant love. And when Jesus tells us “do not let your hearts be troubled” what he is saying is “do not let your hearts be troubled for anything.” Maybe a better way of saying it is “you don’t have to worry.” This isn’t Jesus poo-poo-ing our concerns. It is a reminder to us that, as always, Christ provides for everything we may need. It’s hard to remember that in those moments of darkness. But remember, Christ is the light that no darkness can overcome. The problem with this statement that Jesus gives us of “you don’t have to worry” is that we must trust that Jesus’ love, his extravagant love, will provide. And if we’re going to be honest, trust isn’t always the easiest trait for we humans to come by.

However, when we take time to step back and observe our lives, we can clearly see the times when we trusted in our own capabilities and resources versus the times when we trusted in Christ and all he could provide. And time after time after time, life, and life abundant comes only when we trust in Christ and all he provides. We are fed by Christ, not by fear. We are washed by water, not by works. We are forgiven by a cross, not by our courage or lack thereof. We are given life by a shepherd, a servant, a teacher, and a rebel, not by our class, status, righteousness, or by anything we buy or anything that’s sold to us as a quick fix.

Friends in Christ, I am not going to tell you to not worry. I worry and my heart is troubled often. What I will do, however, is invite you into the possibility that when your heart is troubled, it is simply God shaking things up to make room for Christ’s extravagant love. The love that provides. The love that protects. The love that gives life. Trouble your hearts, if you must. But do not worry. We are children of a heavenly father, children of a nurturing mother, and victims of obnoxious, extravagant, ludicrous, ridiculous, and mostly extremely costly love.

Sermon for 4/2/17 John 11:1-45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for 3/19/17 John 4:5-42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for 3/5/17 Matthew 4:1-11, Lent 1

One thing you may not hear me preach about very often is Satan. I’ve thought about this off and on all week and I am not sure why this is. Satan, for me, is known by many names. The devil, evil, temptation, sin, and darkness, among others. I don’t know if I am the only Lutheran to struggle with this or not. I firmly believe that Satan is a very real presence. I firmly believe in the concept of hell. It’s just not something you hear me speak of a lot. I think the reason for this is that I know that Satan longs to have me on his team. I have told you more than once that the person I preach to (first and foremost) is myself. Perhaps I just don’t want the reminder that Satan longs for me.

Today, Jesus comes face to face devil. Jesus is faced with three temptations: bread for his hunger, saving himself from danger, and lastly, all the power in the world. Jesus says no each time, of course. This is predictable Jesus. We know how Jesus is, we know how Jesus interacts with the world, so we know he is going to say no to these temptations. In fact, it would be surprising if he had any other answer besides “no.” It’d be like going to see Titanic and the boat doesn’t sink at the end.

What Satan is offering Jesus is basic: power. Jesus would have the power to turn stones into bread. Jesus would have the power to be protected (by angels, nonetheless). Jesus would have power to rule over all the nations. Power is a very intoxicating feeling. Power is what we all long for. Power is the thing we seem to all chase in one way or another. Now, it doesn’t always Satan coming to us and greeting us face to face. We don’t always get these one on one conversations with the devil and him laying out these offers of temptation. The temptation to give into the hunger for power comes in small and sneaky ways. Temptation usually comes to us in the moments we are least expecting it. Then the devil, dressed in sheep’s clothing, saunters in and dangles a carrot of power in front of our face.

See, power and temptation comes and goes. When we look at our friends and neighbors around us and desire what they have, that’s evil wanting to wiggle into our lives. We want to give into the temptation of power when we quickly engage in judgement of the other. We judge fellow parents for parenting decisions. We judge job choices, clothing choices, car choices, even food choices (you ever sneak a look in someone else’s cart?). This desire to have more power controls our lives whether we know it or not. Often we just want the power to control things in our own lives, fix things in our own lives, and make our own lives better. That hunger for power turns us blind to the world around us. The desire for power and the temptation that constantly surrounds it causes us to navel gaze.

When we are so focused on gaining power for ourselves, we lose sight of those around us that completely lack power and need us to use the power we already have to help them. The hungry need us to use our power to feed. People of color would be more than happy to see us leverage some of our white privilege. Our LGBT brothers and sisters would probably rather have us care about why the suicide rate is so high in their community versus what bathroom they use. We need to use our power to make sure healthcare is something everyone can access. No one should ever have to make the decision between eating and life-sustaining medication. But, advocating for healthcare can even come with the temptation to yield power in discriminatory efforts. We want to fundraise for the healthy mom with 4 kids who got breast cancer; but the life-long heroin user that now has AIDS? Forget it.

Temptation sneaks in sometimes when we least expect it. Small lies that don’t mean anything pepper our days. We excuse sexist and racist jokes. We allow our friends to complain about their children or spouse when they’re not around. Temptation lures us in various ways. Temptation and power are always there, calling our name, offering a “better life” (whatever that may look like for you). It is a very real temptation. Satan is a very real force in our lives. If you’ve ever done battle with Satan, you know that evil is very real. Maybe Satan has tempted you with infidelity. Maybe Satan has tempted you with stealing or cheating. Maybe Satan has even tempted you with death. Satan doesn’t always lurk in dark corners waiting until you have your guard down to strike. Satan is right next to us every single day just encouraging us to give into the temptation of power.

But, Satan screwed up when talking with Jesus. Now, of course Jesus didn’t give into temptation, he’s Jesus. But, one of the first things that Satan did was remind Jesus who he is and whose he is. The devil says to Jesus “if you are the Son of God….” (vv3). Just as a reminder/refresher, this time that Jesus spent in the wilderness comes right after he was baptized by John in the Jordan. And what happened? Upon his baptism, a voice from heaven came saying “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17). Jesus has been called and claimed as God’s beloved son. Along comes the devil and says “if you are the son of God…” And ding ding ding! Jesus remembers who he is.

Friends, we are not Jesus. We all know that denying Satan isn’t as easy as it sounds. But, our identity as beloved children of God has already given us the power the devil tries to offer. And when we do cave (which we will) the freedom we have in and through the love of God will encourage us to face that darkness, name it, claim it, understand it, and then seek forgiveness for thinking anything or anyone but God can offer us life. This isn’t about guilt. We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. This is about acknowledging that the hunger for power and temptation is all around us. This is about acknowledging that Satan, the devil, and the power of evil is very real. But, this is also about naming and claiming who we are: beloved children of God. This is about using God’s love to deny Satan. This is about using our identity to deny Satan. This is about calling something what it is. That means when Satan offers us power through temptation, we call it evil. And when God showers us with grace and mercy, we call it life. Brothers and sisters, Satan comes for us every single day. And the good news is, so does God.

Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2017; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Today starts our journey to the cross. Today we start the life-giving, slow and methodical, scripture-filled centering traverse towards what ultimately saves us. But, as I’ve thought about it, I wondered why we think about Lenten practices only during the time of Lent. If we take scripture seriously, which we should, then perhaps it might be good to ponder what it would look like to give alms, pray, and fast all year around. I love that this scripture comes today because this actually is the end of the sermon on the mount. This is the same scripture we’ve heard over the last few weeks. Jesus is educating the disciples before they go out into the world serving in his name. Clearly, Jesus didn’t tell the disciples that they only need to engage in alms giving, praying, and fasting for 40 days or so. Jesus never mentioned “do this only until I am raised.” But, that is often what we chose to do.

And why? Why focus on these practices for only 40 days? It’s not like they aren’t life giving. Jesus wants to provide us with life. He provides us with the tools to do that. Give alms, engage in prayer, and fast. However, most of us do this for only the season of Lent, if we do it at all. Once Easter rolls around, we congratulate ourselves on keeping the discipline, engage and overindulge in the things from which we fasted, and go back to our “regular” lives. Instead of these becoming sacred practices, they become something to cross off our to-do list. Even more interesting, Jesus suggests, maybe even commands us, to do all of these things in private.

Doing any of this in private doesn’t seem to be the American way. If we’re going to be honest, we like to be recognized. Any of you that receive any kind of mailings from organizations that thrive from donations know that at least one mailing is dedicated to givers. Sometimes the givers are even noted by really fancy names “gold level giving” or “president’s society” and the like. It is a nice way to say thank you and perhaps guilt/shame others into giving more in the following year. Many times, our giving is rewarded with actual gifts of thanks. “Thank you for your donation! Can we send you a coffee mug you don’t need and will never actually use?”

I’m just as guilty about praying in public as anyone else. If we’re friends on Facebook, you know that I make it a habit to publicly pray for anyone who requests it every single Thursday. Now, I don’t do this to earn praise or even to make myself appear holier than thou. I do it out of love for my neighbor. But, I can understand how from the outside, I could appear to be lifting myself up as better than someone else because I am praying for other people and you aren’t.

But, when we engage in any of these practices in private, something happens. According to scripture, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” When we give alms, pray, and fast without boasting, without a thought of self, and without the desire to earn anything God sees us and will reward us. I don’t know about you all, but a reward from God is better than any coffee mug. Do we have a relationship with God so we can brag to other people? Do we come to church so that others can see that we’re here? Do we pray in the hopes that others will see us doing it and desire to be us? Do we fast because we want others to be jealous of our discipline? I hope you answered “no” to all of these questions. Anything we do we do because we desire to have a private communion with God.

Please don’t misunderstand me, brothers and sisters. There is a time and place to be a disciple. But, being an evangelist is different than giving alms, praying, and fasting. Being an evangelist is a response to God’s love and grace showered upon us. God has been so good to us that we can’t not but tell other people. But we don’t tell other people about God’s love and grace as a way of bragging, right? We don’t do it so we can boast like “you won’t believe what I have and you don’t!” No. We share about how good God is to us because we so badly want everyone to experience this love and grace.

What might it look like, then, to engage in the practices of alms giving, praying, and fasting all year around? Theologian Douglas John Hall says “the very purpose of almsgiving, prayer, and religious observance is to deliver us from the debilitating and exorbitant self-consciousness that dogs our lives. ‘Salvation’ for self-absorbed creatures like us means finally–or at least intermittently!–to lose our precious selves in the other: the other who is the recipient of our alms, the Other who hears our prayers, the others who wonder what our religion really comes to if not just more public promotion and self-display! In most of the days and hours of our lives, we are burdened with the thought of how we are being perceived: What will they think? When faith is true, Jesus affirms, we find ourselves–at least here and there, now and then–graciously liberated from the burden of self, liberated for the other. That is faith’s essence!”

The truest definition of sin is whatever comes between you and God. For me, brothers and sisters, the thing that comes between me and God the most is myself. The idea of being liberated from that is intoxicating, enticing, and incredibly appealing. And God tells me this freedom comes from giving alms, praying, and fasting in private? I’m in. If you need a reminder of our mortality, brothers and sisters, it will soon be smudged on your forehead. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done or not done. It doesn’t matter if we leave millions to charity, pray in the public sphere, or fast from indulgences, we will return to dust. All of us.

In the cross, we are freed from our sin and freed for service to one another. We have been liberated for the other. So, my challenge to you, my dusty friends, is to see Lent as the start of something. Not the start and end 40 days later; but the actual start of something: a deepening of your own faith life. Our relationship with God is very private. The fruits of that relationship are very public. God knows you, sees you, and loves you. God loves “the you you hide.” God knows every single one of the hairs on your head and knows every single one of your flaws. And God loves you still the same. You don’t need to prove that to anyone. In the cross, Jesus died for your sins, yes, but also died so that you wouldn’t need to carry your burden of self anymore. The only person you ever have to worry about impressing already thought you were worth dying for.

Sermon for 1/29/17 Matthew 5:1-12

The trouble with preaching on the beatitudes (as they are called) is that scripture like this is so well known. Sometimes too well known. You may hear scripture like this and wonder “what is new? What is Pastor going to tell me that I haven’t already heard about this scripture before?” Well, I think that if Jesus were running for President and he made a stop at the Iowa State Fair (as they all do) and then read the beatitudes as his stump speech that he would be booed, run out of town, or worse…all before he could pick up a corn-dog or one of those buckets of fresh, hot, chocolate-chip cookies. Unfortunately, our definition of blessed is quite different from what Jesus says it means.

Jesus gathers his disciples for a time of teaching on the mountain top. If this were a class, it might be called “discipleship 101.” Remember, one of the names that Jesus is often called is “Rabbi” or teacher. He gathers his students, his pupils, his anxious evangelists to teach them one of the most important lessons: how to recognize those that are blessed. That is so important to remember. This is not a how-to list. This is not a to-do list. Jesus is teaching the disciples how to recognize those who are already blessed. And I have to wonder if the disciples were as confused as I am. Do you think that the disciples sat there, listening and processing, all while thinking “that doesn’t sound like being blessed at all”?

I got curious this week of what our definition of “blessed” would look like. I went to my favorite place, the internet. Actually, I went to Instagram to start. If you don’t know much about Instagram, I’m not going to go too much into it. But, it’s a social media site where people share pictures. With those pictures, you can add captions and hashtags (also known as the pound or number sign). This is handy to find other pictures with common themes. For example #ELCA or #dogsofinstagram. So, I looked up #blessed. And here is a small amount of the pictures I found.

I tried to select a nice mix. As you can see, I found this couple kissing on the subway or train, a man with a monkey on his shoulder, in the middle is a picture of a journal and a blender bottle, a Houston jersey and shoes, and then on the right hand side is a picture of a couple announcing that they are pregnant with a boy and finally, the last picture is (of course) Indian food. I wondered what made the picture takers (or picture posters) use the word blessed. Maybe the pregnant couple suffered through years of infertility like we did and they mourned for years. And now, surprise! It’s a boy. Maybe the kissing couple had just gotten over a huge argument and this is a kiss of peace? Maybe the person journaling is trying to discern what God wants from his or her life and striving for peace of heart. I can’t figure out the Indian food or monkey picture.

But, sadly, most of these pictures and many more like them on social media and other places isn’t the kind of blessed that Jesus talked about. You don’t usually hear people say “well, I  just lost my job, my house burned down, my spouse left me, and I haven’t eaten in 4 days, but at least I’m blessed.” It’s usually “just bought my new car. I’m so blessed.” Or “I’m headed to the caribbean for vacation. #blessed.” Because the truth is that when we think of someone who is blessed, it is usually equated to wealth, status, power, fame, success, and even beauty.  

At the same time, God is not in the shaming business; we usually do fine enough shaming ourselves. It’s not like these beatitudes are meant to make us feel bad. It isn’t as if Jesus wants us to be poor in spirit, or in a state of mourning, or even meek. What I don’t want for any of you is to hear these beatitudes and get down on yourself. I don’t want you to hear these and think that God has forgotten you. The challenge of the beatitudes is that God blesses the things in us that no one else (including us) can see as a blessing. Remember that Jesus was teaching the disciples how to recognize that someone was blessed. I wonder if they were being taught so that they could remind those that seemed downtrodden that they are blessed and therefore, loved? Or perhaps they needed to be taught what being blessed looks like so that those who claimed to be blessed would be invited to see the things they hide as a blessing instead?

Blessed are you who fight mental demons, who curse the darkness by lighting a candle. Blessed are you who wake up daily and keep fighting. Blessed are you who doubt God’s existence, who question, who struggle, but keep showing up. Blessed are you whose every breath is a battle. Blessed are you whose biggest battles are internal. For God sees you (all of you), holds you, and loves you.

Blessed are you who sit at empty tables. Blessed are you who still reach for hands that are no longer present. Blessed are you who loved hard and now hurt much. Blessed are you for who tears could fill an ocean. Blessed are you who “shouldda, couldda, wouldda,” and “if only” for God sees you (all of you), holds you, and loves you.

Blessed are you who are overworked and underpaid. Blessed are you who are underappreciated. Blessed are you who have to make difficult business decisions. Blessed are you who want to feed the world but just can’t. Blessed are you who get frustrated by regulations, rules, and the weather. Blessed are you who keep others working even if you may not need them; for God see you (all of you), holds you, and loves you.

Blessed are you who draw blood and clean up disgusting things. Blessed are you who study until your brain leaks out your ears. Blessed are you who work while others sleep. Blessed are you who teach. Blessed are you who parent or grandparent. Blessed are you who share your crayons, playdoh or class notes. Blessed are you who feel invisible, for God sees you (all of you), holds you, and loves you.

Blessed are you who love without boundaries. Blessed are you who love someone others don’t approve of. Blessed are you who stay only for the children. Blessed are you who keep fighting because you know it’s worth it. Blessed are you who feel like you sleep next to strangers. Blessed are you who sleep alone. Blessed are you who struggle just to love yourself, for God sees you (all of you), holds you, and loves you.

Blessed are you who love and support our President. Blessed are you who are scared and engaged in resistance. Blessed are you who can have a civil disagreement on Facebook. Blessed are you who want to register as a Muslim. Blessed are you who are patriotic. Blessed are you who stopped paying attention because it’s all just too much, for God sees you (all of you), holds you, and loves you.

Blessed are you who hunger for something different. Blessed are you who are comforted by routine. Blessed are you who want all the answers and blessed are you who know all the answers. Blessed are you who hunger for something more than food. Blessed are you who are full and overflowing, for God sees you (all of you), holds you, and loves you.

The darkest parts of you? The parts you try and hide or cover up? Those are the things that God sees and blesses. Blessings are not of human doing, they are of God’s doing; and that means they rarely look like we think they will. What a blessing.