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.  

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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.

Sermon for 6/25/17 Matthew 10:24-39

So, what would it take? What would be your bottom line, non-negotiable, end of the line situation that would cause you to just walk away from a friend or family member. What would it take for you to cut ties completely? Some of you, unfortunately, have answered that question already in your lifetime. It’s an uncomfortable question to think about. And maybe you may not be able to answer it until you’re in the thick of a situation. And maybe the answer is different depending on the person you’re dealing with. Is it easier to walk away from a friend than from a child? Probably. What would it take? What if your child was stealing from you to support a drug habit? What if your child was an abusive marriage but refused to leave? What if your spouse was involved in nefarious activities? What would it take? Or maybe it doesn’t have to be that dramatic. Maybe when you finally get the courage to speak truth to a situation it makes it easier to walk away.

See, I think part of what Jesus calls us to do as disciples is to speak the truth. We are called to shine the light of Christ into the dark places of the world. We are called to fight for justice, peace, and mercy. We are the ones that need to point to the cross and say “Jesus didn’t die for this” or “this is exactly what Jesus died for!” But here’s the dangerous part about speaking the truth: it’s not always popular. It’s not always easy. It’s not always fun. It, in fact, could get you killed. We are truth tellers, though, my beloved, this is what Christ has called us to do. But telling the truth isn’t appealing. It’s not something we’re good at, church. It’s not sexy. And, ultimately, telling the truth requires change and, in fact, might bring chaos or crisis.

Jesus is warning his disciples (and us) that as we go out into the world to share his news, to share his message, we aren’t always going to be received well. We’re not going to always be given the hero’s welcome. Because if we’re serious about ushering in God’s kingdom here on earth, we’re going to ruffle some feathers (at the least) and lose friends and family members (at the most). We’re not the gatekeepers of the kingdom of heaven, we’re simply the signs that point the way. At the same time, we are to call attention to those who are yielding power and terror instead of peace. And as difficult as this may be, perhaps we need to start by telling the truth to ourselves.

We have been called by Christ in our baptism. This discipleship stuff isn’t easy. If we’re going to share the good news of Christ, if we’re going to point to God and God’s kingdom, we may need to confess either to one another, to God, even if only to ourselves how we block that from happening. Because, it’s too easy to look at other people and say “they need to be better Christians” without realizing that that the same could be said of us. What might it look like, then, to speak the truth to ourselves. What might our confession to God and one another sound like?

Perhaps we might speak of the way we’ve turned from injustices in the world with the excuse of “I can’t do anything” or “the problem seems so big.” Or, worse yet, maybe we’ve seen what others call “injustice” and instead victim blame. When we see hunger in the world do we point out the injustice of food distribution and cost or do we look at the hungry and say “maybe you shouldn’t have a cell phone then.” When we hear of a gay or lesbian sibling being turned away from the communion table do we welcome them at ours or say “well…if you hadn’t flaunted it…” Or if we’re going to really truth tell then instead of offering prayers and conversation, we take a look at the systematic racism that’s in place that would cause a member of this denomination to walk into a historically black church and kill 9 African American brothers and sisters.

Speaking for what Jesus stood for and what Jesus believed and then admitting you do the same is risky. But the cross has made us truth tellers, my beloveds. And sometimes people don’t like to hear the truth. If you start to truth tell enough, people might distance themselves from you. People may stop calling, texting, unfriend you on Facebook, or even “forget” to invite you to the next family gathering. Truth telling means that you may be seen as a wet blanket and that’s a risk you have to be willing to take. Because following Jesus means taking things like systematic racism, classism, injustice, hunger, poverty, and abuse seriously. And yes, Jesus came to bring peace, but peace doesn’t come out of nowhere. Peace usually comes after conflict.

Truth telling means that we are willing to risk it all, but our reward is great. Our place in Jesus’ family is secure. It doesn’t matter who denies us on this earth, Jesus claims us. But, let’s not get too cocky. We aren’t the Gospel authority. Let’s not get too pious and demand that it’s our way or the highway. As cheesy as it may sound, those bracelets that everyone used to wear back in the day “what would Jesus do” actually is a good question to ask ourselves. Sometimes doing what Jesus would do is really unpopular, really controversial, and maybe, even a little political.

What would Jesus do at the heinous death of our neighbors, the Glasz family? Prayers and lament are good, yes. But perhaps we get angry and contact our elected officials because it’s easier to buy fireworks in this state than it is to find an open bed in a mental health care unit. We could shake our heads at a growing methamphetamine and cocaine issue or advocate for actual drug rehabilitation instead of relying on the prison system to do it. The prison system, which by the way, is a for-profit institution: the more people behind bars, the more money these private companies make. You could be angry that Planned Parenthood and abortions are even an option, or we could have real discussions around rape culture and affordable health care in this country. Because what Jesus would do would ensure that the hungry never go hungry, no matter the cost. And Jesus would make sure that the prisoners know they are valued, even behind bars. And Jesus would flip tables in temples if that meant that we start taking mental health care seriously in this country. And Jesus would work to create communities and cultures where people feel safe and secure and not like they need guns to defend themselves; we’ve got to stop shooting each other, y’all. But Jesus can’t do this alone and that is why we must speak the truth.

We must be the ones that speak the truth to systems of oppression. We must be the ones to speak the truth to historically accepted segregation. We must be the ones to speak truth to sexism. We must be the ones to speak truth even if our voice shakes. Because here’s the thing: if the Gospel we tell isn’t good news to and for the poor, the sick, the old, the disabled, women, people of color, the undocumented, the underemployed, the underinsured, the underfed, the unnoticed, the unpopular, the most forgotten, and anyone who isn’t heterosexual, then it isn’t good news and it’s not the gospel!

What are you willing to risk, my brothers and sisters? What are you willing to lose so that those who need to hear the good news will hear it? What are you willing to sacrifice so that whatever Jesus would have done actually gets done? Are you willing to lose friends? Are you willing to lose family? Are you willing to cross enemy lines and make someone you call an enemy an ally? Are you willing to walk through dark valleys? Are you willing to look death in the face and declare “not today, Satan. Death doesn’t have the last word.” Discipleship isn’t for the faint of heart. Discipleship isn’t easy. Discipleship requires truth telling. I invite you to start that truth telling with yourself: Christ I’m not worthy to be your disciple. Wash me clean, forgive my sins, then equip me to do your work. Remind me that when people abandon me that you never will. Death lives in the darkness. Truth shines a light on the darkness. Be truth tellers, brothers and sisters. Even if your voice shakes, be truth tellers.

Sermon for 6/18/17 Matthew 9:35-10:8

I absolutely love what I do. There is no doubt in my mind that I am supposed to be a pastor. God created me to do this. I love you, I love this church, I love the people of God. But, at the same time, this is a job. Yes, it’s a calling, but it’s also a job. Like any other job, I have those days where I wonder if I am making any difference. I wonder if I should be going about ministry in another way. I wonder if this thing (my mic) is even on. On those days, when I’m having a not so great day, I go back and read my letter of call. Every person that serves in a called capacity within our church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America receives a letter of call. It is specific to the place that they are serving. So, my letter of call right now, has our church name on it. When and if I ever take a new call, I will get a new letter.

Here is what my letter of call says: “We call you to exercise among us the ministry of Word and Sacrament which God has established and which the Holy Spirit empowers: To preach and teach the Word of God in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions; to administer Holy Baptism and Holy Communion; to lead us in worship; to proclaim the forgiveness of sins; to provide pastoral care; to speak for justice in behalf of the poor and oppressed; to encourage persons to prepare for the ministry of the Gospel; to impart knowledge of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and its wider ministry; to endeavor to increase support given by our congregation to the work of our whole church; to equip us for witness and service; and guide us in proclaiming God’s love through word and deed.”

Phew! That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? There was one short phrase in today’s Gospel that got me thinking about this letter of call. In verse 7, Jesus says to the disciples “as you go, proclaim the good news…” Did you notice some pretty specific verbs in that command? “As you go…” Matthew’s Gospel speaks a lot about evangelism. This is one of those moments. For Jesus, evangelism was an ongoing activity, not a passive hope. Let me repeat that again, our greatest teacher, our Lord and Savior, the man who came to earth and died on a cross for sinners like me and you believed that evangelism was an ongoing activity, not a passive hope. So much of what I am called to do can be traced back to evangelism. This made me wonder what it might look like for all of us, each and every one of us to have a letter of call.

Maybe upon baptism and/or even upon confirmation, you’d be handed a letter similar to mine that laid out what was expected of you as a follower of Jesus Christ. Would your letter lay out what you’ve been doing all along in regards to evangelism or do you think it might push you outside of your boundaries just a little bit? That is what God does, you know? Challenge us. “As you go” into the field, into the grocery store, to the doctor, into the classroom, to the gym, from this place, into the world… “proclaim the good news.” See my beloved brothers and sisters, no matter what we may think, we’re not peddling a unique product here. It’s not like we know something and have something the rest of the world doesn’t. People aren’t going to come out of the woodwork just to come here, to us, to find out about Jesus Christ. We need to spread the good news with our words, our actions, and our feet. Evangelism doesn’t happen when we refuse to move off our duffs.  

I often think that evangelism has a bad name. We think about those people on street corners yelling about the end times coming or yelling terribly jugemental things. Or we might think about those door to door evangelists that want to know if we’ve found Jesus (once again…had no idea he was missing). Of course, there’s also the television evangelists. So I completely understand why when I mention the word “evangelism” people want to coil up in a ball and stay right in their comfy pews. Sometimes people say “evangelism” with about as much enthusiasm as when they say “root canal!” So, if you had a letter of call what might that entail? The wonderful thing about evangelism is that you can tailor it to fit what you do. Here’s a simple example of what that might look like: when someone says “hey! I know you’re a church going person and a believer, my grandma could really use some prayers.” You could respond “of course, let’s pray right now” instead of just saying “sure, I’ll pray for her.”

People don’t learn about Christ by mistake. Your faith was formed and continues to grow from others sharing their faith (this is called “evangelism”). You can share your faith and help others to grow in theirs. Evangelism doesn’t have to be standing on street corners yelling, going door to door, or even on tv; but, it does require movement, it requires action. And I understand that it is difficult, and I understand that it may be uncomfortable, and I understand that you might be labeled one of those “crazy Christians” but friends, this isn’t optional. Evangelism means growth; and if we’re not growing we’re dying.

So…if you had a letter of call…oh wait! You do! All of us have a letter of call. In our baptism we are given a letter of call of sorts. Today, as we baptize Hudson, he will receive his letter of call and believe it or not, his sponsors, Matt and Melissa, will make sure that he continues to remind himself of his letter of call. All of us make promises at baptism for our children or on behalf of ourselves. We promise to live among God’s faithful people, come to the word of God and the holy supper, teach or learn the Lord’s Prayer, the Creeds, and the Ten Commandments, read and study the Bible, nurture our faith life and prayer life, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace. That sounds very similar to my actual letter of call. And again, at the basis of all of those promises is evangelism. The promises made for you or by you in baptism is your letter of call.

Notice as well that your letter of call mentions nothing about being still and waiting for others to come to you so that you may share your faith. In fact, many of the verbs in those promises indicate movement: “live, bring, teach, place, nurture, learn, proclaim and work” are all action words. So, “as you go” live out your faith in your words, actions, and deeds. Remember that no matter where you go, God will go with you and ahead of you to prepare your way. God will give you the words you need. God will prepare those that need to hear. And long after you share your faith story, long after you continue on moving, God will be working through the Holy Spirit so that others will be empowered to go and grow the kingdom. Your path, brothers and sisters, goes from the font, to the table, and out the door. God bless you as you go!

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.