Sermon for 12/24/17 Luke 1:26-38; Advent 4

This is one of my secrets but is also not a secret: I love Broadway showtunes. I can be found often rocking out to Rogers and Hammerstein, Andrew Lloyd Weber, and most recently: Lin Manuel Miranda. So, there’s a popular little musical on Broadway right now, you may have heard of it. It’s called “Hamilton.” And yes, it’s the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of this country’s founding fathers and the guy on the $10. And of course, as I was listening to the soundtrack this week for the 1000th time, I heard something that made me think of today’s text. So, I want to share this with you. The song is called “History Has Its Eyes on You.” George Washington needs some help, finally after some convincing, he callson Alexander Hamilton. What follows is this song. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dDeWJ0SiFCA)

I thought about Mary. Did she know? Did she know that history would have its eyes on her? Did she know that we would discuss her for years to come? She had no control, as the song said, of who would tell her story. And so, here we are, telling her story. Thousands of years later, we tell Mary’s story. And history still has its eyes on her. Did she have any idea? From the first time the angel greeted her with “greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” her life changed. Because really, up until then, she probably wasn’t considered a favored one. She was female. She was young. She wasn’t rich. She wasn’t extraordinary. She was ordinary. But in her ordinariness, she was found to be favored. She was like us: sinner and saint at the same time. And yet somehow, she was part of the work of God. And so are we.

While Mary is the mother of Jesus, our Lord and Savior, she was also a nobody. I don’t say that to be disrespectful. But until the angel Gabriel came to her, she was a nobody. And believe it or not, this is good news for us. Because if God can look upon Mary, who society would have looked at as a nobody, then God can look upon us. God chose Mary because she had nothing. God is going to become the incarnate Lord; Jesus will be fully human and fully divine. And out of all the people in the world, God chose Mary. Mary was, in her own words, poor and lowly. God’s coming reign which will consist of justice and mercy is embodied in Mary. The salvation of the whole world will be born by a nobody. And despite her confusion and a little bit of fear, Mary says “here I am….let it be.”

If we think that God is not going to find us, call us, come for us, or have expectations of us just because we try to keep a quiet lifestyle, we live in a quiet place, and try and live boring, unassuming lives, then we are terribly wrong. History has its eyes on us too. It’s exactly in the unexpected that God shows up. God shows up in the unexpected places. God shows up to unexpected people. God shows up at unexpected times. God shows up with unexpected reason. And every time God shows up, it takes us by surprise and we can’t but not respond. We may go through the same emotions as Mary: perplexed, confused, thoughtful, and/or afraid. But how amazing will our lives be after all those feelings, we finally settle into the incarnation promise and respond to God with “here I am….let it be.” We can try and fight God’s call on our lives, but remember, we have no control who tells our story.

We have every right to question God. Mary did. But there’s a difference in questioning God and doubting God. We have all had those but “how can this be” moments. But nothing is impossible with God. And yes, we try to get in God’s way and our own way time after time. We  put up our own blocks. We fight the call on our lives that God has for each and every single one of us. “Not me, God…you must mean someone else.” But no! Greatness lies in you. God is calling on each and every one of us for a purpose, for a time, and for a place. We can either remain scared and afraid, or listen and respond to God. But, what kind of a life do we end up living if we walk through life completely scared and afraid? God’s way is to call on a nobody and make their life a something and make them a somebody. We may have no control over who tells our stories, but God does. God already has our story written. God had Mary’s story written. When Gabriel came calling, Mary’s story took an unexpected turn and she rose to greatness. History still has their eyes on her.

God had a very large job and expectation of Mary. For her, it might have seemed unachievable. But, we’ve all been there. God might have called on us to do something, walk with someone, serve God’s people in some form and we may have said “ain’t no way.” But we are reminded, just as Mary was, that the Holy Spirit, who later is scripture is called “the advocate” is with us. God’s power will overshadow us. This should be a comfort to Mary and to us that when we encounter overwhelming expectations, God is already there to encourage us. And yes, you have no control who lives, who dies, or who tells your story. But, you do have control over you. You have the ability to say yes to God. You have the ability to respond to God’s call that may seem impossible to anyone else, but with God nothing is impossible. You have the power of the Holy Spirit behind you. You have Jesus Christ, God incarnate born into this world and crucified on the cross as proof of God’s love. Maybe the miracle we all need this Christmas, this fourth Sunday of Advent, my beloveds, is to be brave enough, bold enough, and courageous enough to say “here I am … let it be” and watch the Holy Spirit attain miracles through us. History has its eyes on us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sermon for Thanksgiving 2017 Luke 17:11-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for 11/19/17 Matthew 25:14-30

From the book of Marvel, the Spider-man chapter: “with great power comes great responsibility.” That’s right. I just quoted Spider-man. Also, from the book of Vinnie (my dad) “there’s nothing I hate more than to see good talent wasted.” (This is usually said while watching sports or listening to a sports report.) Let’s jump right in because there is a lot to cover with today’s text. It’s probably best if we start by talking about what a talent is at least in the context of Matthew’s gospel today. A talent, in this context, isn’t about things we’re good at. It’s not talking about your ability to play ball, quilt, cook, or a sense of humor. A talent is a coin. But this isn’t about our skills or money. The talents are about our callings. It’s about being put into positions where we can use our power to be influential. Fear often keeps us from using our talent. This parable aims to help us, even empower us, to use our resources for the sake of the gospel. At the same time, we can’t afford (pardon the pun) to waste any time. We don’t know when Jesus will be returning. We cannot wait another minute before sharing the good news.

Talents are usually something we have from birth or because of birth. It could be another word for vocation. What are the things God created  you to do or be? Once you figure that out, then comes the difficult task of figuring out how to use that talent to share the gospel, further the kingdom of God, and general praise of God. Here’s the other thing: some of your talents may be something you have no control over. We may call this privilege. Men, you didn’t ask to be born male. But, here you are. And you have privilege. None of us asked to be born white. But, here we are. And that comes with privilege. Sometimes we may have power because of someone else or because of someone else’s perception of us. What I mean is this: if you have a good reputation to your family name, it is most likely thanks to years of hard work. You may use that to your advantage every once in awhile. As far as perceptions, the best way I can think about how I use this is with my title. When I feel like I may not be listened to or taken seriously, I often introduce myself as Pastor Jealaine Marple. Emphasis on the “Pastor.” Yep…I call up the powers of the office.

But, the point is we all have talents, privilege, and resources that have been given to us by God for the glory of God. God gives us these talents, just like the slave owner gives actual talents to his slaves. Just one actual talent (coin) was worth 20 years of work. So to receive 5 talents was the equivalent of receiving payment for 100  years worth of work. The servants who received 5 and 2 talents grew their talents. They grew their investments. Meanwhile, God gave the last servant 1 talent and he buried it. He had his reasons, sure, but the point is, he didn’t grow it at all. The book of Esther, which I’m sure so many of you are familiar with has this great verse that I call on often. “Who knows? Perhaps you have been born for such a time as this.”

Have you ever thought about God’s purpose for your life? I think we all struggle with that from time to time. Sometimes it’s a midlife crisis. Sometimes it’s just deciding where to go to college. God does have a mission for your life. You identity, your calling starts at baptism. From that moment on, your task it to make sure people come to know God not through anything you do, but for the ways that God moves through you. Let’s think about this in more practical purposes.

From our very first moments, God creates us to be creatures who love and who are loved in return. Part of our task while we are on this earth for no matter how long we’re on this earth is to love. So, picture God giving you, literally handing you a big heaping cup full of love. Most of you know what a measuring cup looks like. You can go out and share this love and maybe even double it, triple it, or let it multiply numerous times. Or, you can keep that love to yourself…just in case. Because, what if God runs out of love. What if God decides to hand out more love, at least you’ve got a little bit to add to it. Are you mentally picturing this now? Maybe you can start to understand then, why the slave owner, or in this case, God, was upset with the slave for burying the talent. The slaves had the opportunity to further the kingdom of God and one chose not to. What has God called you to do but you have either denied the opportunity or ignored it?

See my beloved, instead of looking at the world and the way it is wondering “what can I do” we can look at the world and boldly declare “why not me?” But all too often, we do nothing. We do nothing to save face. We do nothing to save friends. We do nothing to save money. We do nothing out of fear. We have been given great power, whether we realize it or not, and yet, we bury our powers, our talents and hope that no one will notice that we’re not doing what God has called us to do. The power of sin is so strong that we would rather be liked, be loved and adored even, over furthering the kingdom of God. In our baptismal promises, we enter into a covenant to “proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.” But, we like to pick and choose who we share our Jesus with, who we serve, and who we think deserves justice and peace. We cannot afford to be on the wrong side of this my brothers and sisters, because the wrong side of this is literal hell.

The good news is that we aren’t in this alone. We can help one another. Furthering God’s kingdom here on earth isn’t something we must do all by ourselves. This is why we come to church. We need the reminder that this difficult work isn’t something we do solo. And even though our temptation may be to stay quiet, God reminds us that he indeed is “Immanuel: God with us.” God is God with us from the waters of baptism to our very last breath. God is God with us when we are striving to bring in the reality of “on earth as it is in heaven” and in the times when we are tempted to bury our talents. You have been created for such a time as this. And with great power comes great responsibility.

Sermon for 10/15/17 Matthew 22:1-14

**nb: this is the Sunday when the congregation I serve celebrates its ongoing relationship with the Foods Resource Bank (FRB) **

Foods Resource Bank, or FRB, has a mission statement that reads: “As a Christian response to hunger, FRB links the grassroots energy and commitment of agricultural communities around the world with the capability and desire of smallholder farmers in developing countries to grow lasting solutions to hunger.” I want to focus a bit on the first part of that mission statement: “as a Christian response.” Yes, what FRB does is a humanitarian response. It’s an empathetic response. It’s a caring response. But, what makes FRB different from other hunger programs is that it is couched in Christ. “As a Christian response” should be what we do with so many issues in the world. We respond as Christians first and foremost. The current Bishop of our church, the ELCA, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton often asks what makes us different than the Red Cross. And it’s not that the Red Cross isn’t a great organization, it is. But the church isn’t the Red Cross. And the Red Cross isn’t the church. Bishop Eaton often says that her four emphasis for the ELCA are: “we are church; We are Lutheran; We are church together; We are church for the sake of the world.”

I wonder if we think much about our Christian response to whatever. What is our Christian response to the North Korean nuclear issue? What is our Christian response to the US’ involvement in relations between Israel and Palestine? What is our Christian response to gun control, the death penalty, or kneeling during the National Anthem? What is our Christian response to health care, the working poor, and slum lords? What is our Christian response to systemic racism? Notice that with each of those issues, I asked “what is our Christian response?” I didn’t ask “what is our Republican response?” or “what is our Democratic response?” What is our feminine response, masculine response, white response, generation X response, and on and on and on. Because no matter what else we are, we are first and foremost, God’s.

Our primary identity is a called, claimed, and forgiven child of God. This is our core identity. It’s as if our identity as a Christian is the “basement” or foundation of the rest of our lives. It is our primary identity. But, we often allow it to become our secondary identity or we move that identity to a status that can almost be called “if we get to it.” It isn’t enough to call ourselves “Christian.” See, “Christian” is a verb. It’s awesome that you come to church. I am glad that you are here. But, being a Christian is more than just coming to church. Let me put it to you like this. I belong to the YWCA here in town. I wouldn’t call myself an athlete. I make dinner for my family on a regular basis. I wouldn’t call myself a chef. I can hem up a fallen pant cuff. I wouldn’t call myself a seamstress. I think you can understand where I am going with this. But I am, or at least try to be, a Christian in every aspect of my life.

In today’s Gospel reading (which, yes, is pretty violent…again), an invited guest showed up to a wedding banquet and wasn’t wearing the proper clothing. And because of that, he was thrown out of the party. And it wasn’t a nice, quiet, keep his dignity kind of occasion. The man was bound by his hands and feet and then thrown into the darkness where there was “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Sounds lovely. This isn’t a story about “what not to wear.” My guess is that many of us have had situations where we were not wearing the right thing. We might have been over dressed or under dressed. Ask me sometime about the first time I met Chris’ parents! Anyway, this reading (much like our previous weeks) is a parable. And the banquet that is being spoken of in today’s reading is an analogy for the banquet that is waiting for us in the kingdom of heaven. It is what we talk about during communion when we speak of a “foretaste of the feast to come.” And the thing is this: it requires more of us than just showing up.

We have been chosen by God. As Lutherans, we do not believe that we can work or earn our way into heaven. We do not believe in works righteousness. It might be understandable for some to be confused by this concept. People may say “if we can’t work or earn our way into heaven, then why do we feed the hungry, or clothe the naked, or visit the imprisoned” or whatever. Our response to the issues in the world is a Christian response. And that response is our response to God’s mercy, grace, and love. When we are filled with God’s mercy, grace, and love, we are filled to the point of almost overwhelmingly overfilled. And our response to that is to then go out into the world to share some of that mercy, grace, and love with others. God’s grace isn’t cheap. The cost was the death of Jesus on a cross. It is time for us to realize that calling ourselves “Christian” isn’t good enough. It’s time for us to act like it as well. It’s time to take our call to serve God and serve others seriously.

And the time to bring about the kingdom of Heaven, is now. We, the people of God, and society in general, cannot afford to wait any longer for “other people” to bring about the kingdom of Heaven. I think this is why the host at the wedding banquet was so upset. The ill-dressed guess didn’t understand, or maybe underestimated, that the call to the banquet is immediate and requires action. We shouldn’t be like the wedding guest: complacent, blase, or merely showing up. Instead, let us take our call as Christians seriously. Our Christian response should be so second nature that eventually we stop calling it a “Christian response” and instead we just call it a response. Friends, God is calling us. God has been calling us. We need to be brave and do more than just wear the title “Christian” like it’s a comfortable sweater. We need to proclaim that to be Christian means that we truly believe that God is Immanuel, God with us. And even more importantly, we need to proclaim that God is Immanuel, God with all of us. That, is our Christian response.  

Sermon for 9/17/17 John 10:22-30

**nb: This was the 125th anniversary of the congregation I pastor**

A lot of you have noticed that I like to keep my fingernails long. I have had long nails for as long as I can remember. One of the things I do to spoil and treat myself is regular manicures. I recently changed the method of manicure and that has caused a lot of my nails to break. Meh. They’ll grow back. But, it wasn’t until I broke one all the way down to the quick did I realize how much I use my hands on a daily basis. I type, hold Ellen’s hand, pet Sasha, unload the dishwasher, open the mail, hold Chris’ hand…the list could go on and on. Then I thought about what some of you might do with your hands on a daily basis: rock babies, help an elderly parent take their medication, feed your animals, drive a load to ADM, quilt, bake, comfort others, and that list could go on and on as well.

And then I thought about what hands have done in this place through God’s people over the last 125 years. There was the literal moving of this church from over by the cemetery to where we sit now. Then the digging to build the narthex was done by so many of your ancestors. Renovations were done by people with the last names of Petersen and Mommsen to name a few. Many of you have brought your babies to this font to be baptized and held in the hands of pastors who now are part of our communion of saints. So many of you have shaken hands as you greet people gathered for your family confirmation, wedding, or funeral. And of course, so many of your hands helped to renovate the house I am proud to call our home. It’s really amazing to think about how the people of God, acting as God’s hands and feet in this world, have made a difference just in this place.

This passage from John is often used on what is known as “good shepherd” Sunday. This comes from the quote from Jesus in 10:27 “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” I love that idea. It’s comforting to me, and to you, I hope, to think of Jesus as a shepherd. Jesus, the one who guides us, shelters us, and takes care of us. But, what really inspired my thinking this week was the sentence that followed. “I will give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” Part of me wants to say “do you hear the good news in this? Okay great. Sermon over. Amen…” But I won’t.

Over the last 125 years one thing has remained the same: we have always been in God’s grip. God has a hold of us so very tightly and nothing has ever or will ever change that. It has been God’s hand all along hold us, nudging us, maybe even pushing us towards God’s will for us. God’s hands have been in and among us all along. Through times of great joy and in times of great sorrow, God has had us in the palm of God’s hand. Nothing has ever gotten in the way of that. And if you’ve been around these parts long enough, or have had family members that have been here for a while, you might be able to recall a time when you can say clearly and without a doubt “God’s hands were all over that!” And maybe, yes, there are times when you can recall wondering if God had a clue what was happening in this place.

Perhaps part of the good news for us is that feeling God and being held by God is never on us. What I mean is that God holds on to us, not the other way around. It is never us holding onto God. So, often I picture God holding my hand like a tender parent would but other times, I picture God picking me up by the back of my neck like a disobedient kitten. Even in the times of our disbelief, God still has a hold of us. During the times when we wonder if God is even listening, I think that is when God tightens the grip. And when Jesus says that no one will snatch us out of God’s hand what that really means is that not one person and not one thing can ever take us away from God.

Evil forces have a way of finding us, don’t they. Sometimes we call these evil forces “good intentions” and sometimes they are more appropriately called “sin.” We may not trust that God has a hold of us. We intervene in our human ways that ultimately lead to human error. We may think that we know better than God so even though God is pointing us one way, we look and say “this way seems easier, better, or way more fun!” And we stray. God offers us life and protection and love but instead we turn to power, money, and self interests to comfort us. All of those things ultimately let us down. But no matter what, nothing removes us from God’s hand, not even death. Not an actual death or a metaphorical death can remove us from God’s hand. And remember, from death comes a resurrection and new life and whose hand do you think is doing all of that?

There was a time when every Sunday School room in this church was filled with children and there were months when keeping the lights on was in question. God has been with us every single step of the way. It is only by the grace of God that we have been a cornerstone of this community for 125 years and only by the grace of God that we will continue to do ministry in this area for another 125. What has been the same since the doors of this church opened will continue to be the same until Christ comes again: we gather as the people of God, to hear the Word of God, to feast on the body and blood of God, and then we are sent out to be and show Christ to other people in a hurting world. Nothing has changed that and nothing will. What is comforting about church is that some things never change. What is maddening about church is that some things never change. But through it all, God’s hands have been in, among, and around all of us. What gives me hope and joy this day, my beloved, is that God will continue to move in this place. Long after you and I are gone. Long after stories of us are gone. God’s hands will be guiding this place and God’s people to usher in God’s kingdom to this world.

Sermon for 7/9/17 “Blessed Assurance”

Should you ever start to feel really good about the amount of work you have accomplished in your life thus far, you can perhaps, take a moment to reflect on Fanny Crosby. Ms. Crosby wrote the lyrics to “Blessed Assurance.” That alone is pretty impressive. However, she also wrote around 8,000 other gospel hymns. Additionally she also wrote around 1000 or so non-religious songs, 4 books of poetry and 2 autobiographies. She also was blind for almost her entire 95 years of life. I don’t know about you, but I now feel like I’ve done nothing with my life! The other hymn that many of you love that was written by Crosby? “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross.”

Fanny was born in 1820 just north of New York City. At only six months old, she caught a cold (as newborns do) that traveled to her eyes. At that time, medicine wasn’t as advanced as it is now, obviously. The antidote that doctors chose was a mustard plaster. Fanny claimed that it was the mustard plaster that caused her blindness but doctors that studied her medical history after she died think it might have been a genetic condition. Early in her life she attended a Presbyterian church. It was there that her faith started to develop. She started to memorize five chapters of the Bible per week. She enrolled in the New York Institute for the Blind where she learned how to play the piano, the organ, harp, and guitar in addition to becoming a very good soprano singer.  

Considering the time and her gender, Fanny was a bit of a trailblazer. In 1843 she was the first woman to ever address the United States Senate. She was advocating for the support of education for the blind. It was 30 years later, in 1873 that Fanny wrote “Blessed Assurance.” She had already written the words and when visiting her friend and frequent collaborator, Phoebe Knapp, played a melody that she had just composed. “What do you think the tune says” Phoebe asked Fanny? And without hesitation, Fanny said “blessed assurance; Jesus is mine.” Remember that Fanny had practically memorized the bible. For her, the words to “Blessed Assurance” were a reflection of her own faith life as it was expressed by Paul in Philippians 1:21 “for to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”

Let’s take a look at these most awesome lyrics. “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!” That could be a statement of faith or of relief when you think about it. Hear from Hebrews 10 “and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscious and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” It’s good for us to remember that last part: “he who has promised is faithful.” Meaning that God is faithful. Our faithfulness has nothing to do with this. And as much as I enjoy this hymn, it can prove to be troublesome at times. It’s not the “blessed assurance” part that bothers me, but the “Jesus is mine” part. Jesus is mine mine mine…as if I alone can lay claim to the Savior of the world.

But there are some who desire to do this, right? There are some Christians who want to know if you have a close and personal relationship with Jesus. Have you professed Jesus as your Lord and Savior? This decision theology puts the power in our hands which is always troublesome. We know that there is nothing we can do to “get closer” to God through Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter how much we profess or how many “conversion” experiences we have, God is already as close to us as God possibly can be on this side of heaven. There’s nothing we can do or not do to change this.

Additionally, we don’t and can’t “own” Jesus. Jesus can be all things to all people and thankfully (or maybe unfortunately) we don’t have a say over any of that. It can be wonderful to sing this. It can be a comfort. When we’re having not so great days or when we’re going through rough times, it can be really comforting to sing “blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!” But what may be troubling is that anyone can sing these words. Those for whom we’d rather limit God’s love through Jesus Christ also sing these words.

When we sing “o what a foretaste of glory divine” we sing of our afterlife, yes. But we can also experience a foretaste before death. We even sing about that as well. We sing about a “foretaste of the feast to come.” This is what we celebrate in communion. When we receive communion, it is but a small taste of the feast that we will have with Christ in our death. When we splash Piper today, we will be reminded that God is with us daily, another foretaste of the feast to come. In our baptism, all of us have been purchased by God; all of us belong to God.

Then, think about the chorus. “This is my story, this is my song, praising my savior all the day long…” It doesn’t matter what you think your story is, this is your story. Your story isn’t one of failure, or “shouldda couldda wouldda.” Your story isn’t even what other people wish it were. Your story is that you have been purchased by God. You are God’s. To God you belong and there’s nothing you or anyone else can do about that. When that is your story, why wouldn’t you want to sing it for as long as you possibly can? We are filled with God’s goodness and lost in God’s love. How comforting is that thought? For me, personally, that is a very blessed assurance. Echoes of mercy; meaning there’s enough mercy that God has given us that it actually can echo.

When you have those moments of doubt, when you have those moments of darkness, when you have those moments of uncertainty, or even when you have those moments when you wonder if God has forgotten about you perhaps these words will bring you some comfort. You are an heir of salvation, a beneficiary, a inheritor of salvation. God has purchased you with the blood of Jesus. When the rapture happens, angels will come down in love that sounds like whispers. You are filled with God’s goodness. And God’s love is so amazing and so wonderful that you are able to get lost in it. Blessed assurance, Jesus is yours; and more importantly, you belong to Jesus. There’s no way to change that. There’s no way to undo that. There’s nothing that will come between you and that love. In a world that’s hungry for certainties, in a time where people long for definite answers, in a climate where people are so quickly divided, what a gift it is to proclaim and declare some most definite assurance. Blessed assurance.