Sermon for 4/22/18 John 10:11-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon for 12/20/15 Luke 1:39-55

an I have a moment of honesty with all of you? I am asking for permission to be honest and show you some of my scars; is that okay? I’ve had a difficult fall. The fall is always hard for our family. Chris is gone a lot for work; of course I support him 100%. But, this also means that many nights it’s just me and Ellen. And I love being a parent, I really do. She’s a complete and total joy. But, she’s also 2. The fall has been difficult. And as we’ve transitioned into winter, some of those difficulties have followed. As we get closer and closer to Christmas day, I can feel my anxiety starting to go higher and higher. It’s not fun. Just the other night I told Chris “I’m not right.” I will be right. I’m not sharing this with all of you so that you worry about me. I share these things with you because if you feel even just a little bit like I do, you’ll know you’re not alone. It has been hard for me to get into the Christmas spirit. Even as I was writing this sermon, the fact that my shopping isn’t done was still hanging over my head. The irony that in the season of Advent when we talk so much about waiting and anticipation that I seem to rush around more than normal is not lost on me. In a time that is touted as being “merry and bright” sometimes it is less than merry and bright for some people. My anxiety finally manifested itself the other night in the form of a nightmare where my sister got kidnapped. It was one of those dreams where I woke up exhausted because I had spent the entire time looking for her. Mercy!

While most of you have been busy shopping, purchasing, wrapping, preparing, checking and re-checking, cleaning, cooking, baking, and all the other activities that go into the holiday that you might have forgotten about yourselves. I know I have. Maybe you’ve come to church thinking that this is the one place you can escape all of that stuff. But, even that is exhausting for some of us. There’s the dressing up. There’s the pressure to appear perfect even though we’re anything but. We may hold hands with our spouse despite the fact that the last words we spoke to each other were filled with anything but love. We drag our children along and tell them “going to church is good for you” when many of us struggle with our own faith. And we settle into our pews (our own pews) slap on a fake smile, go through the motions, and hope no one notices the stress we’re carrying. Then we hear the story of Mary. Great, one more happy person I get to hear about during this holiday season. Of course Mary is happy, she’s pregnant with Jesus! She’s so damn happy she’s singing. When’s the last time I was so over-the-moon happy that I sang with joy?? Mercy!

But what if, seriously, what IF Mary’s song could also be our song too? (No, I’m not going to make you sing.) What if we look past the joy of her song and look at reality? It’s easy to first think that Mary is singing for joy, and she is. But, it’s not just joy that she is with child. Her joy comes from something deeper: change. I can’t believe that I’m talking to Lutherans about singing for joy over change. This seems contradictory and almost like an oxymoron. Mary is singing because by being chosen as the bearer of the redeemer of the world, her status has changed too. God has looked with favor on her even though she is a woman, even though she is a teenager, even though (in the eyes of her society) she didn’t matter before this moment. And it’s not just Mary that is being changed. The world around her is being changed by this too. Mercy!

The powerful are being humbled. The hungry are being fed. Those who are low are brought high. The rich who always cry “more more more” are sent away with empty hands and pockets. And this isn’t in a future time. Mary is singing in the present tense: God has already made these things happen. On top of all of this, God has shown to Mary and to us one very important and crucial thing: mercy. When is the last time you experienced mercy? Let us not confuse mercy with being blessed or a blessing. We use the idea of “blessed or blessing” almost judgmentally or as a statement of status. Many of the Christmas letters we get this time of year talk about being blessed with vacations, retirement, a visit from old friends, or even the blessing of new vehicles. This isn’t how God works! A blessing is forgiving sorry sinners like us over and over and over. Being blessed is being loved despite the amount of times we screw up on a daily basis. I digress…

When is the last time you experienced mercy? Would you know it if it happened to you? I don’t know about all of you, but the present I need the most this year is mercy. I guess moreover I need to remember that God’s mercy has already been given to me in the cross. I once heard this phrase “you’re forgiven. Start acting like it.” Maybe you will experience mercy when you screw up your mother in law’s cookie recipe and she later shares with you the story of screwing up the recipe of her own mother in law. Maybe you will experience mercy at work when instead of being chastised for something gone wrong, your boss takes the time to sit down and make sure you know how to do the job correctly next time. There are so many times in our lives that we experience mercy and we just need to recognize it.

God has handled us with mercy. God has handled us with great mercy. If I think of the number of times and number of ways I have messed up and strayed so far from God that I don’t think I’ll ever make it back to God it can get overwhelming. And then I remember mercy. God’s mercy is like a kiss from a parent on our boo-boos. That scar may still be there, but it no longer bleeds. God’s mercy is what allows us to sit in these pews week after week and finally get up the courage to turn to our friends, our family, and one another, and say “I’m not okay” and still know that we are loved. God’s mercy is what pushes us forward to this table and be fed even if we don’t believe we deserve it. God’s mercy is what encourages us to sing “alleluia” even at the grave.

Maybe you aren’t feeling it either this holiday season. Maybe the holiday spirit hasn’t found you yet. Maybe you’re even dreading all the celebrations and festivities. My brothers and sisters, be gentle on yourselves. God has found mercy with you. God has found mercy with you. Above everything else, thanks be to God, God has found mercy with you. With us. With all of us. In a world and a time where not a lot of other things make sense, God has found mercy with you. Wait for the Lord whose day is near. Wait for the Lord, be strong, take heart!

Sermon for 2/22/15 Psalm 25:1-10

Normally I preach on the Gospel, but this week I want to reference the psalm because the Spirit really stirred some things up with this psalm. I think the psalms often get overlooked in scripture and I haven’t quite figured out why that is. Perhaps it’s the structure of the psalm; it looks like poetry and that can be offputting. Maybe its just that the psalms, for similar reasons to other stories in the Bible can be confusing and overwhelming. I personally, however, love the psalms. The psalms have given me words when I want to express my love for God and my limited vocabulary just won’t do it justice. The psalms have given me words when I want to express my anger to God and I feel that my colorful language is disrespectful. The psalms have given me words when I am in deep grief and I can’t even think straight to form a coherent prayer. I would tell anyone who desires to memorize Bible verses to start with the psalms. They are quite multi-purpose.

The psalms are also in our hymnal. They are meant to be sung. This is why (in case you were wondering) the page numbers for the psalms are not printed. The psalms are considered the first 150 hymns. I commend them to you for further reading or perhaps reading them again.

Lent is a fantastic time to be reminded of this psalm. We should talk about repentance all the time, but it seems that we talk about it in Lent just a bit more. To repent means to “turn around.” The idea of repentance means that we should turn from our sin and turn towards God. Of course, repentance is always easier than it sounds. I am only speaking for myself here, of course, but I find that as soon as I repent I find myself doing something else that separates me from God. This is what sin is, friends. Anything that gets in the way of our relationship with God. Remember, we are the ones that put up these barriers. God never causes us to sin, it’s all on us. God is not the one tempting you with another piece of chocolate, with another beverage, with behavior that is less than stellar, or with relationships that are not life giving. It’s all on us. It’s on us, then to turn and confess our failings to God and receive forgiveness and grace upon grace.

I think, then, that the first two(ish) verses of this psalm are great to think about when it comes to repentance. “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust…” Right there. That’s where I want to stop (yes already). I think if this were our only confession to God, our only proclamation to God, our only plea to God, it might be enough. But, it also might be a challenge. The challenge comes in that when we are baptized in Christ Jesus, when the Holy Spirit comes down to us, when God says “yes, this one here–the one that’s all wet?? This one’s mine too!” never in the baptism to we hear the words “you are completely God’s except for this one small part here–you’re responsible for that part.”

When we are brought to the waters of baptism, we are brought with an understanding either by our parents, our godparents, or us, that our lives are not our own. If we live, we live to the Lord and if we die, we die to the Lord. But still, it is tempting, ever so tempting, to say “to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul…..”except for this part here. And that part there. And just ignore this part here. It’s like inviting someone over to your home and you really really want them to be there and then you say “but ignore the mess.”

God wants our mess. God wants every single part of our mess. And here’s the thing, whether we’re willing to give God our mess or not, God is already quite aware of the messes in our lives. God is already quite aware of the messes we’ve been drug into and the messes in which we’ve drug ourselves. God already knows so there’s no sense in trying to only give parts of us up to God. We cannot close the door on portions of our soul (like we can with our homes) and say “don’t worry about what’s behind that door, God, nothing you need to see there!” If we cannot trust God with our souls, who can we trust? We do ourselves no good trying to hold on to any part of us. I have seen what happens when we try and fix us ourselves and we end up making bigger messes. It ain’t pretty. So often we want to say “to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul but please be gentle.” The Lord is gentle. Again, I think the temptation is to approach God with trepidation and trembling as if we’re going to say something that is either going to surprise or shock God.

God already knows what we have done (or not done) so anything you tell God isn’t going to be a shock. Seriously, if we had an actual back and forth conversation with God it would probably sound like this:

Me “Ummmmm God, I did this thing that I’m not too proud of. So, to you I lift up my soul. Please, have mercy.”

God “What did you do, my child.” And then we would confess to what we did that separated ourselves from God. And God would respond “Oh that?? Yeah, I knew that already.”

The same goes for trusting in God. It’s easy for us to say that we trust in God but how often do our actions show that is not the truth. We don’t need “insurance” with God. I once heard this comedian say that insurance is “just in case stuff happens” stuff. There is no need to have insurance just in case God doesn’t come through for us. There’s no need for insurance just in case God doesn’t forgive us. There’s no need for insurance just in case God’s plan doesn’t pan out. Because the thing is that God always will come through for us. God will always forgive us. God’s plan will always pan out. Now, does that mean it’s the same as our plans, our dreams, our futures we had in mind? Nope. But it most likely better than anything we could have ever imagined.

Trusting in God means doing it with 100% of our bodies 100% of the time. I know this isn’t easy. Trusting in God means letting go of the idea that we are in charge. Trusting in God means letting go of the idea that we think we know better for ourselves than God does. Trusting in God means just letting go. And that is scary. But we’re talking about a God who loves us, brothers and sisters. We are talking about a God who loves us without abandon. Whose love can’t even be measured or comprehended because it’s just that amazing! When will we figure out that God isn’t out to punish us or make us suffer? When will we figure out that God already knows our secrets and our fears so there’s no need to hide anything from God? When will we figure out that when we try and rule our lives ourselves that we end up with a mess that Satan helped us to create?

Lifting our souls, our entire souls to God takes work. Trusting God completely takes work. But, it’s all on us. We have to get over our fear that God is somehow going to let us down. We have to get over our fear that we are going to somehow disappoint God. As we travel towards the cross, brothers and sisters, as we reflect on God and God’s saving and redeeming action in Jesus Christ, we remember that Jesus gave himself completely in death so that we may have life completely.

If you’re up for a challenge, friends, perhaps the prayer you can pray over the next 40 days or so is this psalm. But pray it like this: “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. My entire soul. I trust you God, completely. Yes, I’m serious. Yes, I need your help doing this. Help me to repent from anything else.” Amen.

Sermon for 2/8/15 Mark 1:29-39

I was pretty excited about my sermon last week and then Mother Nature decided to make a very loud entrance into our neck of the woods. I don’t want to repeat much of what I had written for last week, but I do want to reiterate some points.

The Gospel of Mark tends to move very quickly in its actions. Many things in Mark happen “immediately.” Mark is also what I like to call the “Readers Digest” version of the Gospels. We don’t get a lot of details. It’s not super frilly. So the details that we do have and the stories that we do have are even that more important. Last weeks reading (that you would have heard) told a story of a man possessed by demons. This week we get another story of healing. I think it is crucial that we notice that some of the first things that Jesus is doing in his ministry is healing people. The healing that happens in this week’s reading is a bit more controversial because Jesus heals a woman.

At the time of Jesus, women were second class citizens and seen as property. Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. In our current day context, a fever may not seem like that big of a deal. Most of us would take some tylenol or ibuprofen, try and stay hydrated, and maybe crawl back into bed. A fever doesn’t have the same death sentence it used to. In fact my own mother used to tell me (when I was sick) “it’s good you have a fever dear, that means your illness is leaving your body.” I don’t know if there is any scientific proof of this, but it made me feel better and maybe it made my mom feel better too.

Already in this first chapter of Mark, we’re learning about this Jesus character that will die on the cross for us. He heals a woman from a fever. Again, while that may not seem a big deal to us anymore, by doing this, Jesus enters into 2 taboos: he actually touches someone who is sick (what if she was contagious?!?) and he actually touches a woman! It’s clear we’re encountering the rebel Jesus! I’m a fan of rebel Jesus.

What I want to talk about and what I want to invite you to think about today is healing. Could Jesus had offered Simon’s mother-in-law some kind of elixir and said “here, drink this and you will be better?” Of course he could have, this was the same Jesus that turned water into wine. If he wanted to heal people with potions and elixirs he could! But what he did instead was touch her. He healed her with touch. He didn’t just throw something at her and hoped that it would work. No, Jesus gave her what she needed and most likely what she wanted.

I have a theory about us, friends, myself included. When we are in need of healing, we are so very hesitant to ask for it because asking for healing means making ourselves vulnerable. Asking for healing means asking for help. Asking for healing means bearing our scars to one another and to ourselves. And asking for healing means risking the shame that we think will come with others knowing our secrets.

I’m not talking about “basic” healing needs: the common cold, a flu, a broken arm, etc… The normal things we see a doctor about. The kind of healing that I am talking about takes time, takes work, takes energy, and most importantly, it takes vulnerability. And if there’s one thing I am quite certain about, it’s that we are quite stubborn when it comes to vulnerability. The kind of healing I’m talking about starts at the foot of the cross and can only be accomplished when it is Jesus in complete control of the lives we finally choose to surrender. It’s healing that is (honestly) really scary but totally worth it.

We live in what I call a “get rich quick” society. I use that term a lot even when it has nothing to do with money. When people get sick, they often want a “get rich quick” idea: pills, a liquid, a perscription, whatever will get me better in 5-7 days so I can function again. Want to see better? Get lasik! Want to be thinner? Drink this magic shake, take these pills, do this exercise for only 30 days and lose 50 pounds! Want to look younger? Use this cream, get these injections, use this make-up, get this procedure done! Are you understanding what I’m getting at?

So much of what is ailing us cannot be fixed with pills, or procedures, or diets, or creams, or even with the right pair of jeans. So much of what needs to be healed cannot be seen (and often we don’t let it be seen). We spend so much time trying to fix our outside to hide what needs to be healed on the inside. Loneliness, isolation, confusion, anger, distrust, and unbelief cannot be fixed with a pill. Can you imagine if you went to your doctor and said “doctor, I’m quite mad at my sibling/spouse/friend/etc… and I’m not ready or able to forgive them, but I also need to move on. What can you give me?” Seriously, if you do this, invite me along to your appointment because I want to see the look on the doctor’s face. This type of healing, friends, can only be done by Christ and it is going to take time and vulnerability.

When our sins are forgiven (every single moment of every single day, by the way) Christ is freeing us from the power of our sin. We are freed from the sin that has control over our lives. In turn, we are then freed for service to Christ and to one another in Christ’s name. You cannot begin to heal and you cannot begin to be freed from your sin until you actually believe that you are forgiven. Grace is not wasted on you. I want to make sure you hear that message loud and clear because it is powerful. Grace is not wasted on you.

But it’s not enough to be healed. We can’t keep this grace to ourselves. You’ve probably heard of the concept of “pay it forward.” The concept is someone does something nice for you so you in turn do something nice for someone else. Except the thing is with God’s grace, we don’t deserve it, we don’t earn it, but we most certainly need it. Once we have received that grace, its to us to go and be Christ’s hands and feet in the world. That means when someone is hurting, someone is in pain, let’s not be so quick to spring to action with a band-aid when what people really need is Christ.

And we should do the same thing with ourselves. We want to be healed and we want to be healed quickly. But sometimes what we really need is to turn to Christ. No pill, no cream, no diet will fix some of the things that really ail you. I am having my helpers pass out a little something for all of you to take home today. Place this in your wallet, or your car, or somewhere where you may see it. It’s a band-aid with a cross on it. I am giving you this because I want you to remember where healing comes from. When your soul hurts, when your heart feels broken, when your spirit is being challenged, when darkness is too much, when the demons are speaking too loudly, don’t reach for a band aid, don’t reach for a pill or elixir, travel to the foot of the cross and start with Christ.

With Christ, we can be healed. Yes, there are times when medication is great–even life saving! But for other ills, we need to have the saving touch of Christ. This means we must be willing to make ourselves vulnerable. This means we must be willing to show others our scars. This means we have to admit where we have fallen short and sinned. And it means we must believe with every fiber of our being that we are forgiven. And that, yes, grace is for us. Grace is for you. And, it is never ever wasted on you.

Sermon for 2/1/15 Mark 1:21-28

** a brief note: due to weather, this sermon was not actually delivered. We cancelled church thanks to a blizzard**

You may not have realized it, but the majority of this year we will be hearing from the Gospel of Mark. I like this Gospel for several reasons: it’s short, it gets right to the point, and it’s concise. This Gospel also moves quickly (figuratively and literally). You’ll notice that everything in Mark happens “immediately.” And so while other Gospels may give us more details to the story, maybe more build up to the story, or maybe even more dialogue, Mark cuts right to the chase. It’s the “reader’s digest version” if you will.

So already this week in chapter 1, we get the story of Jesus teaching and casting out demons. And I love that both of these things happen so early on in the Gospel of Mark because what this states early on is that this guy, this Jesus, is someone different and things are going to be different when he is around. As I used to hear a lot in the south, it’s as if someone is saying “put your boots on, parter, because it’s going to be a heck of a ride.”

I think it can be difficult for us to sometimes wrap our minds around the concept of demons. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about demons in the American culture. The only experience most of us have had with demons is in watching either Poltergeist or Exorcist. But Native American religious beliefs as well as Voodoo both address the concept of demons. When we speak of demons, I think many times that we think of either the devil, of evil, or perhaps of a spirit that is just not right (maybe mean). But today, I want to think more about what it means to be possessed by a demon; I want to broaden our definition of “demon.”

I have demons inside of me. I am going to bet that you have demons inside of you too. Sometimes we realize it, sometimes we don’t. Now, I am not talking about some kind of cartoon-like character that possesses my mind, body, or soul. I’m talking about demons that are a little harder to name. I’m talking about demons that are a little harder to grasp. I am talking about demons that often are accompanied by their very good friend, shame. What it boils down to is this: demons are what keep us from a fuller, more complete relationship with God.

Let’s name it, shall we? Let’s just get it out in the open. I feel like Mark today–let’s just cut right to the chase. Let’s name some of the demons we either battle with ourselves, our family members battle or our friends battle. Stress, mental illness, depression, eating disorders, alcohol, abuse of all kinds, disease, drugs, any kind of addiction, infidelity, and we could go on and on with this list. Do you fight one of these demons? Do you fight maybe more than one of these demons? What is your demon? What is your secret that you keep so guarded that not even your closest friend, not even your spouse may know? What keeps you from having a fuller relationship with Christ? Do you know what it is?

Now can you imagine if I said, “alright now, friends, we’re all going to take turns standing up and sharing our demons. There will be no more secrets here. The demons have no power in this place.” How quickly would you head for the door (maybe never to come back)? I have shared some of my demons with you in the past. I do this not because I want or need your pity. I share some of my own struggles with you because I want you to know that you are not alone and that my struggles, my demons, have no power over me. None. I can say that easily today. Will I be able to say that tomorrow? I don’t know. But, for today, my demons have no power over me. I am not defined by demons.

Here’s what I love about this text for today. Jesus was quick to banish the demons. He could have easily said “hey….it’s too bad that you’re possessed by demons. Wish I could do something about that.” How often do we do that? We may see those around us struggling. Maybe we wish we could do something. Maybe we’d like to do something but don’t know where to start. Or maybe, (and perhaps too often) we look the other way our of our own embarrassment or shame. Think about the demons you have; think about the demons that your friends or family members have; are you quick to be their advocate or are you quick to be their adversary? What about your own demons? Do you embrace them as part of your life instead of the definition of your life? Yes, I have depression. And yes, I have anxiety. But I am not depression and anxiety. And yes, I eat probably entirely too much. But I am not the number that I see on the scale.

Do you understand what I am saying? You may have your demons, but they are not you. And even better, this isn’t what Christ wants for you. It should tell us something that one of the first things that Christ accomplishes in his ministry is casting out demons. Christ meets this man with an unclean spirit and instead of leaving him like that, he brings him into fuller life. Christ meets a man who is burdened, who is suffering, who isn’t whole. That’s not the kind of life Christ wants for him. That’s not the kind of life Christ wants for us. And so, Christ does what he does—he heals the man.

And I get it. It’s easy for me to say “Christ doesn’t want you to battle your demons. Christ wants more for you” and at the same time give you no solutions. Let me start by reassuring you that whatever demons you are fighting is not Christ testing your loyalty. It’s Satan fighting for your alliance. Whatever demons you battle is not and cannot ever be your “cross to bear.” Because there is only one messiah who died on the cross and last time I checked, none of us are Jesus. God didn’t screw up when you were being made. It’s not like wires got crossed and oops! you have depression. God didn’t and doesn’t screw up.

The only thing that can and should define you is this: God’s love for you. If that’s not enough, if the demons are particularly strong, remember your other defining “labels”: called, claimed, washed, forgiven, fed, and grace-filled. There is medical help, if you need it. And there’s no shame in asking for help, getting help, or receiving help. Christ doesn’t want you to fight these demons. And if you are fighting demons, know this: you’re not fighting them alone. For as many people as are gathered here today, there are just as many, if not more, demons among us. Some are known and some are so secret, so sheltered, maybe we don’t even know them. But again, know this: this isn’t the desire that Christ has for you. This isn’t the life Christ wants for you.

Christ is calling you into something better. Christ walks with you in your darkest hours. Christ is with you when the demons start to get overpowering. Christ is with you when you feel like you’re drowning. Christ is with you when it seems like all you get is dead end after dead end. Christ is with you when enough is enough and rock bottom is hit. I am not giving you the advice to “pick yourself up by your bootstraps and dust yourself off” but what I am telling you is that you are not alone. You are meant for so much more. You, my friends, are beloved. You, my friends, are valued. And you, my friends, belong to Christ. No demon will ever be able to overcome the claim that Christ has on you.

You need not surrender yourself to your demons. The only thing you need to surrender to is the healing and redeeming power of Christ.

Sermon for 1/25/15 Mark 1:14-20

I know this probably doesn’t surprise you, but I’m not much into fishing. It requires two things of me that I just don’t have: the ability to be patient and the ability to be quiet. But, that didn’t stop me from attempting to fish many times. My grandpa, Lyle, was an avid fisherman. He owned a boat and would spend many hours on Lake Texoma fishing away. He took several trips to Canada to fish as well. One of my favorite pictures of Grandpa is of him in a “bucket style” fishing hat, pipe in mouth, reel in hand. So often when I watch “On Golden Pond” the character played by Henry Fonda reminds me of my grandfather. My nannie, Barb, also liked to fish. She fished much more later in her life when she retired and would spend time in Florida with her male friend, Mr. Smith; he fished too.

Mom, in the hopes of passing along some sort of fishing genes or something, would often pack fishing poles when we went camping in the summertime. I desired to always catch “the big one” despite having only my little pathetic Snoopy fishing pole. I am sure all the minnows I threw back are now long dead. My mom still enjoys fishing and she often goes with my brother in law. I enjoy eating fish but that’s about as close as I get anymore to fishing. That doesn’t mean that I’m not willing to give it another try.

Despite my hesitation towards fishing, I’m not sure that I would instantly leave what I was doing to follow some random guy who walked up to my fishing hole and asked me to follow him. As I thought about it, I couldn’t think of many things that I’ve done instantly in my life. I don’t know a lot of people that are instantaneous. And maybe that’s the thing. Out of all of the things we decide to do in our lives, out of all the decisions we make, shouldn’t hanging out with Christ be at least one of the decisions we make in an instant? Shouldn’t be a no-brainer?

I want to be cautious with the language I use, friends. Many times, in many denominations, we hear the word about “choosing” or “finding” Jesus. You may have a friend or family member that says “I know the moment I chose to make Jesus Christ my personal Lord and Savior.” Or, you may get that knock on the door with a very well intentioned evangelist standing on your doorstep with the great question of “have you found Jesus?” My answer to that, by the way, is always “I didn’t know he was lost.”

See, the thing is, we don’t choose Christ. He chooses and has already chosen us. We are claimed in the waters of baptism. We are fed with his body and blood. Our sins were taken away in his death. The only one who had a choice in any of this was Christ. And he chose it freely and with love. And should we ever choose to walk away from Christ, to throw our hands up and say “I’m going at this life thing alone without you!” Christ will still be with us whether we acknowledge it or not. I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s a really hopeful promise.

When Jesus called out to Simon and Andrew and then James and John to follow him, they not only chose to, but they chose to do it instantly. And Jesus probably would have gone about his business should they had chosen not to follow him. And really, there were a lot of reasons to not follow Jesus. Simon, Andrew James, and John were fishing. But they weren’t doing it in a leisurely manner, this was their job. Nonetheless, they followed Jesus. And I have to wonder: did they know? Did they know that he was the messiah? Did they know that he would change the world? Did they know that he would love the unloveable? Did they know that he would cure people? Did they know that he would feed the hungry? Did they know that he would be betrayed not only by his friend but theirs as well. Did they know that he would hang on a cross suffering for them and for all of us?

Even if they did know all of that, they followed him anyway. But it’s not like they saw Jesus, and said “he looks like an interesting guy to follow…let’s do it!” No. Jesus called them. I have this theory and I’m willing to entertain the thought that I’m wrong about this. I believe Jesus called Simon, Andrew, James, John (and all of the other disciples) because he knew he needed friends. He knew he needed help. He knew he needed a posse. Jesus knew that he shouldn’t go about ministry alone. Jesus doesn’t want to go it alone. And here’s the thing, we shouldn’t go it alone.

There’s something to be said for friendship. There’s something wonderful about being part of a team. Life seems easier when you’re not alone. I believe that Jesus doesn’t expect us to be alone. We may have times when we feel alone or we are physically alone, but that doesn’t mean that we are actually alone. We, of course, always have Christ. But we have those people in our lives that have us always in mind or always in their hearts. If you know or have loved someone that has taken their own life, you probably heard or thought “if only they knew how many people cared for or loved him/her.” We are not meant to do things alone. Even when God created Adam, God saw that Adam shouldn’t be alone. Genesis 2:18 says “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’” And along came Eve.

God created us to be in relationship. I think that bears repeating. God created us to be in relationship; not only in relationship with one another, but also in relationship with Christ and with God. Now, I’m not telling you “never be alone.” In fact, there are several stories where Christ goes away from his friends to pray and to rest. I believe that Christ was probably an introvert. There are times when it is good to be alone, to rest, to recharge, to regroup. But, we are ultimately created to be in relationship with one another. Christ started his ministry to the world around him by doing one simple thing: calling to his friends and basically saying “hey, do you want to come on an adventure with me?”

Christ calls to us. Sometimes we recognize it, sometimes we don’t, sometimes we run from it. But, Christ will always and does always call to us. Maybe Christ is calling us into new relationships. Maybe Christ is calling us into new ministries. Maybe Christ is calling us into something unknown but the promise of “I’m already there, waiting for you” lingers in the air. The question is, friends, when Christ calls, how will we respond? Christ’s ministry was not just a one time thing. Christ’s ministry continues. It continues in this place and all throughout the world. When Christ calls to us, how shall we respond?

When Christ called to Simon, Andrew, James, and John to follow him, did they say “we’re going to have a committee meeting to decide whether or not to do that and then we have to vote. But first, we have to vote to vote.” Nope. They just went–immediately. Now I agree that we have processes and procedures in place for a reason. But, at the same time, we shouldn’t get in the way of Christ. Often when Christ calls, we make a lot of excuses: time, money, resources, our other family, friends, our jobs, even our faith. What it comes down to, though, is the only thing stopping us from answering when Christ calls is us.

I’m not asking you to abandon your jobs, or your family, or your friends, or your boats and nets. What I am asking you to do is to be open to Christ calling you into something better. Be open to Christ calling you into something different. Be open to Christ calling you into something amazing. Christ said yes to you immediately. The least we can do when called is listen.

Sermon for 1/18/15 John 1:43-51 2nd Sunday after Epiphany

Sometimes when you get thrust into a new situation, you’re often given 2 choices: operate by what you do know or operate by what you don’t know. As I finished up my first year of ministry with you all, I realized one thing: I don’t know what I don’t know. What I did know for sure is that I didn’t know a lot about the past in this place, but what I did know made me queasy, at best. So I want to start by being honest. I know that you’ve been hurt in the past. I also know that when I make broad statements like that that not everyone will feel the same way. I know that there are people in this place who love and miss previous leadership. But, I also know that there are people in this place who were hurt by previous leadership.

After I left my initial interview to be your pastor, I called Chris and talked it through with him. And after going on and on and on about the interview, I said, “they just so badly want the chance to be loved and I so badly want the chance to be the one to love them.” In our last year together, several of you have told me that you thought you were the problem; you thought you were unlovable; you thought you were dysfunctional. Maybe you even thought “can anything good come out of Elvira Zion?” If you weren’t at last week’s annual meeting, or if you haven’t gotten a chance to read my annual report letter, I want us to spend this next year together thinking about one central question: “why Elvira Zion?”

I want us to ponder what makes us different; what makes us unique; why people would want to make the drive to come out here. As I said last week, we’re more than just a cute, quiet, little country church. Do we have the band, lights, contemporary music, and some hipster-like pastor? Nope, but that may not be our call. Do we have the hand waving, dancing, 3 hour long service? Nope, but that also may not be our call. As I’ve thought about this text, the two phrases that keep coming back to me over and over are found in verse 46 “‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’” and “Come and see.”

Come and see. These seem like really simple instructions. In fact, we use this phrase so much that it almost has lost its effectiveness. “Come and see” the new cars, our new garden, the pool, this great movie, and on and on. Come and see. When we say “come and see” we put the owness on the person we are talking to. We say “come and see” as the invitation, but we really leave it up to the other person to take us up on that offer. And I know many of you have said “Pastor, we’ve been talking to people, we’ve been inviting them, we’ve been telling them about what’s going on here.” You’ve probably even said “come and see.”

If you have been a member of this church since you came out of the womb, you probably think someone being scared or apprehensive to come to church may seem a bit strange. But trust me when I tell you that there are people in this world, in this country, even in this county that so badly long for a relationship not only with Christ, but for a relationship with other people that are Christian and they are intimidated. Somewhere along the way these people have been told that they are not worthy to set foot in a church. I’ve got news for them, and for all of us, friends. None of us are worthy to set foot in this church or any other church for that matter.

“Come and see” isn’t just an invitation, it’s how we share the story of Christ. It’s how the story of Christ was shared with us. Our faith is a faith of an oral tradition. We hear the Gospel being read, we hear the story of Christ being sung in songs and then we share these stories with others. “Come and see” should also be followed by “come and hear” and “come and taste” and of course, “come and be changed.” But that invitation isn’t just for those who have never been to church, that invitation is for us every single week after week.

If you’re not coming here expecting to hear the Gospel, expecting to be fed, expecting to be forgiven, expecting to be changed, then we need to do two things: we need to address your expectations and I need to do a better job of making sure that you are getting those things week after week. Can anything good come out of Elvira Zion? Yes. Can anything good come out of Faith in Andover, or Immanuel in Camanche, or St. Pauls, Zion, Chauncy, or St. John’s in Clinton? Yes. Can anything good come out of First Baptist or out of St. Luke’s Methodist, or Prince of Peace Catholic church? Yes. Do you want to know why? It has nothing to do with the people in the building. It has everything to do with God and what God is doing in those places. God is just as much at work in those places as God is at work here.

And by no means is this place perfect. I am the first to admit that I am a sinner, in need of God’s redeeming. You all fill these pews and you sometimes bring the weight of the world with you. Perhaps you worry that people are judging you “what are they doing here?” Perhaps you are worried that people will find out that you work really hard to put on a good show on Sunday, but the other 6 days of the week you barely function. The Christ we come here to worship hung out with prostitutes, lepers, the diseased, adulterers, the outcast, and as he hung on the cross, he hung next to robbers. What makes us think that we need to be perfect in order to present ourselves to Christ?

Christ knows the “real” us. Christ knows the woman whose perfectionist tendencies just about drive her mad on a daily basis. Christ knows the man who feels like he is failing as a dad, despite everything he tries to do. Christ knows the married couple that barely speak to one another at home, yet come here and share a pew. Christ knows the widow who still hasn’t slept on the “other” side of the bed but tells everyone he or she is doing “quite well, thank you.” Christ knows the teen who is bullied and criticized yet goes back for more because they just want to be accepted and have friends.

There is this great hymn called “The Summons” and there is a line in there that I just love. It says “will you love the you you hide if I but call your name?” And I think that is all Christ is asking of us: love the you you hide. So while we ask “can anything good come out of Elvira Zion” perhaps the better question is “can anything good come out of me?” Maybe you’ve had your share of cracks and weaknesses, but you are not shattered and you certainly aren’t broken.  I’ve said this before, this is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.

If you would, please allow me a moment to speak to your heart. Allow me a moment to speak to you as someone who loves you. You there, you that are hurting. Come and see. You there, you that mourns so much that there are days you can barely breathe. Come and taste. You there, you who is ashamed of your past, by what you have done to yourself, to your spouse, or to your family; come and drink. You there, you who try so hard to make everything perfect and right but then chastise yourself; you, come and be healed. You there, you who abuse yourself with your words, your self harm, your constant critique of yourself; you, come and be welcomed–just as you are: perfect in God’s eyes. You there, you who sits near someone who you love but really just don’t like; come and see and experience what life giving love feels like at the foot of the cross.

We are all broken. Can anything good come out of us? God created us. God filled us with good things. God filled us with good things! Can anything good come out of us? Yes. Can anything good come out of Elvira Zion? Yes. Come and see.