Sermon for 3/22/20 Psalm 23

Everyone take a deep breath with me. It is so good to see you and to be together in this virtual community of Christ. Please know I miss gathering in person but I am thankful to all of you that set aside the time to join us this morning. I saw a joke going around Facebook earlier this week that said “my 90 day subscription to 2020 is almost up, how do I cancel?” I don’t know about you beloved, but I have alternated between fits of laughter and fits of tears this past week. Decisions have been made and then changed within a matter of hours. Sleep has eluded me quite a bit; it’s a heck of a time to try and heal an ulcer, I’ll tell you that. So, while that John reading is beautiful and has some lessons for us even for today, I cannot help myself but to preach on Psalm 23. Last week if you were in church or watched you may recall that I talked about the different wells we may drink from over the upcoming weeks. Psalm 23 is a deep deep well for so many of us full of life giving waters. It’s exactly what we need in a time such as this. 

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. What a bold statement! Not just now when we are facing uncertainties, but for everyday life. Now, as I’m sure all of you know, there is a very big difference between wants and needs. God supplies us with all we could ever need. But with the Lord as our shepherd, we shall not want. That seems to be taking on a different tone these days, doesn’t it? Do we want to see one another or do we need to see one another? Do we want to spend time apart or do we need to spend time apart? Do we want 96 rolls of toilet paper or do we need 96 rolls of toilet paper? It’s interesting how something like this pandemic suddenly brings a lot of things into focus, isn’t it? The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 

I thought about that phrase a lot this past week and how we also balance it with our proclamation of “give us this day our daily bread.” God provides us with all we may need, daily. It’s been so tempting to give into the idea of worrying about next week, next month, or even 6 months from now. Believe me, I’ve given into this thinking more once. Then I wondered if God is calling us to really live into the promise of daily bread. God may be calling us to just live in today. After all, after that first phrase, after declaring that God is our shepherd and we shall not want, what does the Lord provide for us? Rest. And God not only provides us rest, but a rest that will restore our soul. 

I wondered what a soul restoring rest looked like. I don’t think this is a nap on a Sunday afternoon while NASCAR is on (sorry, Leon). This is the kind of rest that really fills you in body, mind, and soul. So for me, it is actual rest, time with family, and time to engage in activities I normally don’t have time for: reading, knitting, and catching up on correspondence. As I said, rest has been eluding me this week, but I have had a lot of time with family and I have been spending more time reading. Perhaps God is providing us with opportunities to recharge and rest our souls. 

Now, do I think that this catastrophe was created by God? Absolutely not. I think God is in the midst of all of this suffering. There are people who are dying. There are loved ones who are separated. There are people wondering how they will pay bills. There are people who are putting their lives on the line every single day just to earn money or provide for their families. And the psalmist reminds us “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff–they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4) This is most definitely a dark valley kind of time. And God is with me. God is with you. God is with all of us. 

In the dark valley we shall fear no evil. Uncertainty brings a lot of fear, doesn’t it? We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I don’t even know what this afternoon will bring. Fear itself can be evil. If we let it, fear can control our lives. Fear can quickly become our god (with a lowercase g). I think we can all think of examples that we may have seen of fear ruling lives this past week. And I’ll admit, I’m quick to say “faith over fear.” I think that faith is important in these times. We should be praying for one another and for the world God made. But I wondered if instead of faith our response to fear should be love. The way that God loves us is the way we can attempt to love the world. The world certainly needs it now, don’t you think, my beloved? After all, we serve a God who overfills our cups. Goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives. All the days. We will never run out of goodness and mercy. It seems in short supply right now. Our response to fear maybe isn’t faith as much as it’s love. 

In these anxious times, God our shepherd is calling you to rest. And if all you do is rest, that is enough. God will restore you. God will fill your cup so that it is overflowing. God will anoint you. God is with you. God the shepherd is with you. God the provider is with you. God our keeper is with you. God our protector is with you. Repeat after me: God is with me. God is with me. God is with me. Indeed, God is with you. May God our shepherd who calls you to rest keep you safe and healthy. Amen. 

Sermon for 2/2/20 Matthew 5:1-12

The challenge of preaching on something like the beatitudes, also known as the Sermon on the Mount is that for many, it is a very familiar text. What can Pastor possibly say about something so familiar? Second, how does a preacher preach on a sermon? I mean think about it. I am given the task of giving a sermon on a sermon; so that’s weird. It’s like giving a book report on a book report. So, every Gospel has a central focus. If you had to boil it down to one or two main points that each Gospel story goes back to you might be able to do it. In Matthew, Jesus is a teacher. Maybe it’s no surprise then that one of the first things he does with his newly called disciples isn’t perform miracles or heal people, but instead he starts to teach them. And for Jesus, these weren’t just words. These were identifiers, so to speak. Jesus had to teach the disciples about what blessings meant in order for them to understand what it meant to be a disciple. 

That all sound fine and good in theory. However, do we know what Jesus was talking about? After all, the word “blessing” seems to be thrown around a lot without much meaning behind it. How different might these beatitudes sound if instead you heard them as this “God’s favor and protection is with those who are poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It sounds a little different to my ears,  maybe yours too. It makes me think about those who are poor in spirit a little differently as well. Maybe we shouldn’t forget that the disciples weren’t just the ones gathered on the mountain plateau. We are all called to be disciples. So, Jesus’ words are just as relevant to us now as they were to the disciples then. What are we to call a blessing, then my beloveds? 

So, first of all, this should never be heard as a to-do list or a guilt list. It is all too easy to hear this reading and think that we’re not holy enough or that we’re not measuring up to some kind of standard that God has for us. This is not the case at all. So forget that kind of thinking right away. After all, no one would actually choose to be poor in spirit; it’s a terrible place to be, I imagine. I think that Jesus is trying to retrain the disciple’s eyes (and ours) to see God at work on earth; to start seeing “on earth as it is in heaven.” I have said this before and I stand by this belief: if the good news (the “gospel”) of Jesus Christ is not good news for the poor and marginalized then it is not good news. (say that again) 

I think it’s also important for Jesus, our teacher, to do more than just tell us that we are blessed. What does it mean to actually feel blessed; to feel favored, remembered, and protected by God? And unlike people who use the word “blessed” when they really mean lucky or (I’m sorry) rich, to be blessed means to move and operate in this world knowing that you are loved and forgiven by God. And while that may not sound radical, it really is. Do I believe that I am blessed? On my good days, yes. But I have a lot of not so good days. I know I am not alone. But here’s the crazy thing. There are people in this world who would dare argue that I am not blessed. I am not loved or forgiven by God. And why? Because I, a female, dare preach in front of you. I, some would say, am going against the word of God. I didn’t realize that being blessed was a decision that anyone else besides God could make. 

But here’s the thing, from the moment God names us and claims us, we are blessed. We have all we need in our identities in God. God does love you and God forgives you. God wraps a blanket of mercy around you and bathes you in grace. When was the last time you really allowed yourself to accept that? When was the last time you allowed yourself to feel that without a fight? When was the last time you allowed yourself to sit long enough for the Holy Spirit to hug you in holy love and not fight it? When was the last time you allowed yourself to be loved without expectation? 

The last time I was asked that question, I cried. I cried out of anger. I cried out of sadness. I cried out of pity. I cried. I cried because I couldn’t remember when I had stopped long enough to allow myself to feel God’s love. I cried because I allowed myself to get too busy. I got angry with myself because I allowed my words to go out to you hollow: full of so much promise but with no intent of fulfilment. Because if I don’t believe it for myself how will you believe it’s true for you. I cried out of pity because I felt sorry for me. I knew I had missed out on something good. But I cried because I knew with God there is always another chance. And another. And another. And another. Because that’s how God works. That’s a blessing. 

So as I prayed about what you, my beloved people might need this day, God reminded me, guided me to teach just as Jesus did. The best thing I think I can do for you this day is to remind you that you are blessed. Just as you are. Because of whose you are. You have been blessed from the moment God knit you together. God claimed you in the waters of baptism and God continues to claim you day after day. God probably has a picture of you on the eternal fridge. We are going to be reminded of our blessings today by affirming our baptisms. I ask you, when was the last time you allowed yourself to be loved? Do it with me today as we turn to page 237 in the hymnal. 

Sermon for 1/26/20 Psalm 27:1-9

At Wartburg Theological Seminary, each graduating class is asked to pick a class verse from the Bible. The same task fell to my class and we hemmed and hawed over several verses before finally deciding on psalm 27:1 “the Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” We joked that chose a verse about not fearing and not being afraid during a time in our lives when many of us did have a lot of fears and many of us were afraid. After all, many of us were waiting on calls, waiting to be sent out into the world to do ministry, having no idea where God would send us. There was a lot to fear. What I appreciate about this psalm since that time in my life is that it has grounded me — brought me back to my true identity as a called and claimed child of God. And while picking my favorite scripture is probably akin to picking a favorite child, this psalm ranks high in my personal favorites. 

I really wanted to preach on that scripture from Matthew 4 today, really I did. But this Psalm just wouldn’t let me go this week. So, like always, I am going to preach to myself this week and you all just get to listen in. Now feel free to pass judgement on me if you wish, but believe it or not, there are very few verses of scripture I have committed to memory. There are a lot of things in my brain already. This verse, however, is one I have memorized. The promise is just too amazing and the grace is just too much for me to want to forget this verse. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” There is a long list of things we could fear, maybe even should fear (have you watched the news lately). But fear can quickly become our god (little g). We can quickly stop truly living our lives thanks to fear. But God is our light and our salvation. We have nothing to fear, my beloved. 

The psalm continues by saying “The Lord is the stronghold of my life.” This language of “stronghold” would not have sounded strange to the people of Israel. In fact, God is referred to as a “stronghold” several times throughout the Psalms. “The metaphor derives from military situations in which a well-positioned fortress with strong walls provided safety from enemy assaults” (Creach, Working Preacher). Therefore, picturing God as a stronghold and calling God a stronghold is akin to admitting that whatever may be troubling us, God’s protection is enough for us. In times of trouble, the temptation may exist to flee. What better place to flee than to God and God’s protection? This psalm reminds us once again that God is a safe place for us. 

Now I don’t know about you, my beloved, but I am bombarded by messages from the world that go against this. Apparently, according to the commercials I see on television, I need the expensive face cream or botox, the newest diet trend or botox, a different job with a huge paycheck, well behaved children (notice I said “children” plural), a well manicured lawn to go with my well kept house, and did I mention botox? But did you notice that the psalm didn’t say that the Lord is our stronghold once we get our lives together? This is the good news that the Lord welcomes us just as we are; not after we are our own version of perfect, but when are forgiven and loved, which we already are in God’s love and by Christ’s actions on the cross. 

Then the psalmist asks of the Lord something I think we all desire. Verse 4 says “One thing I ask of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” And isn’t that it? I mean, more than riches, more than land, more than a supermodel body, what I really desire is just to live with the Lord, to sit at his feet, to ask him all the questions of my heart. Sometimes I wonder if we dare ask the Lord for such things because we wonder if we are actually deserving of such things. We may not ask because fear there’s a catch. We may not ask because we fear our list of sins and shortcomings will be listed before we are able to dwell in such a glorious place. Maybe we may not ask for fear of who else might be dwelling there. 

But here’s my thought, beloved, and I’m willing to be wrong about this: when (not if) we are in the glorious, light filled presence of the Lord, does any of that matter? I want to believe that when we are in the Lord’s light, in the Lord’s stronghold, in the Lord’s house, his shelter, his tent, God’s love will just simple drown out any questions and doubts we may have. We will, I believe, know without any doubt, that we truly have nothing to fear and nothing of which to be afraid. I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s a powerful statement. Because whether I want to admit it or not, I have a lot to fear. I mean, some of what I fear is valid: what kind of world will exist when Ellen is an adult? Will another war be waged in my lifetime? And then there are the fears that I dare not even speak out loud. These are the fears that many of us have that are usually coated in shame or the inability to forgive ourselves. But, but(!) the Lord is our light and our salvation, who shall we fear? Nothing. And while I don’t want any of you to be in any hurry, we don’t even need to fear death. 

God’s love is our light and salvation. God’s mercy is our light and our salvation. God’s forgiveness is our light and our salvation. The cross is our light and our salvation. We need not fear anything. This is why I have this verse memorized, because I need this reminder daily. No matter what I fear, no matter how often the darkness may tempt me or call my name, the Lord is my light and my salvation. I have nothing to fear. You have nothing to fear. Thanks be to God. 

Tristan Toppert–funeral

Kevin, Lisa and family; my beloved people of Elvira Zion, Steamer Nation, friends, I have a confession: I don’t want to be here today. It is only by God’s grace and your prayers that most of us who love Tristan have been sustained this past week. I keep waiting to be woken up. I keep waiting to be told there’s been some mistake. I keep waiting for my tears to stop. And it’s only by God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness that I know we will all be able to walk out of this gym, away from a grave, and know that this is not the end of Tristan’s story. See, this is our Good Friday moment. Death is final. But the three days are coming. The empty tomb is coming. The resurrection is coming. And Jesus, our Lord and Savior, defeated death. Death doesn’t get the final word. Not now, not here. The final word around here, around those who know the truth, is this: love. Love gets the final word. 

This death also isn’t Tristan’s story. We will not let one moment define his life. We refuse to do that. What we will do is share his story. We will share his story and we will share his contagious love for life in the hopes that just one person will know that love and forgiveness can go a long way. Even in death, Tristan was covered in God’s love and forgiveness, just as he was in life. He was claimed in the waters of baptism as a beloved child of God and was claimed once again last Monday. Tristan’s faith was central to who he was. Did you know that? He loved so fiercely because God loved him. For confirmation, I make all the students write a faith statement. This is a challenging task for adults, let alone, an 8th grade student. In his faith statement Tristan wrote this “Matthew 19:26- Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’ This is my all-time favorite verse from the bible.  What I believe this quote is saying is that there are actions in life that seem as if ‘it is over,’ but with God ‘it is never over.’ The biggest asset in life is God. He is my father; I am his son.”

Tristan also loved his family. He was the “funcle” the fun uncle. His nephews worshiped him. He adored his brothers. He would do anything to help his grandparents. He would climb flagpoles to hide Easter eggs. Or make Carson do it. This past Christmas was filled with gifts handmade by Tristan and orders placed by many more family members for his future work. His talent was obnoxious. I was always so jealous of that. He would look at what I would normally call a pile of junk and see nothing but potential. Maybe there is something to learn there. When one too many concussions knocked him (literally) out of football, his first love, he found his passion in the building trades program. If it involved wood, welding, or doing anything with his hands, Tristan was in. Or if it involved eating, you could always find Tristan near. 

Tristan was a walking treasure chest of useless knowledge which he was more than happy to share with you at a moments notice whether you liked it or not. He loved a good debate. Not necessarily an argument, but a good debate. Despite any efforts by me or anyone else, he loved the 49ers. He loved football, period. For a while, he thought playing past high school might be his destiny. He enjoyed track and tried cheerleading for a short stint as well. Tristan wanted to give of himself in any way possible. He learned by watching his family give of themselves. He was a disciple in every sense of the word. Tristan had one of the most generous hearts of anyone I knew. He loved deep and he loved hard. He so desired to be loved in return. Tristan really did live his life according to the golden rule. He treated others how he desired to be treated. If you experienced Tristan’s kindness, which I’m sure most of you did, please know you were experiencing was pure, genuine, love. This is the love that God poured into him (obviously, in abundance) and then Tristan chose (CHOSE) not to keep to himself but to make the world a better place. The kindness that you experienced was nothing short of a gift from God. 

That Romans reading we heard says “what then are we to say about these things?” Yes indeed. Because God has heard me say a lot this past week. Some of it hasn’t been suitable for church. See, our God is big enough to handle all of these emotions. What then are we to say about these things? The truth. This sucks. But the reading continues. “If God is for us, who is against us?” And if we’re honest, again, in life it can feel like a lot of things are against us. It can feel like a lot of people are against us. I fear that is what our beloved Tristan felt on Monday. But, God tells us another story. God is for us. God is for you. God is for me. And God was most certainly for Tristan. God is for us. God’s love is the most powerful force imaginable. Scripture says that nothing comes between us and the love that God has for us. 

Do you hear me, my beloved? Nothing comes between you and the love God has for you, not even death. There are no words, no actions, no shortcomings, no sin that will ever get in the way of God loving you. There is nothing you can do or that Tristan ever did that will ever make God say “well….I’m done loving that one.” Because God’s love is patient, and kind, and never ever ends, not even in death. As I said earlier, this death isn’t the final word. How can we possibly live in a world where death has the final word? No. Not today Satan. We’re resurrection people. We’re empty tomb people. We’re third day people. We’re love conquers death people. Because the alternative is too damn dark. We don’t want to live in darkness. We don’t want to live in a world where death and darkness wins. God’s love tells us, promises us, all of us, including Tristan, that we don’t have to. God promises us a kingdom that God prepares for us where forgiveness and mercy reigns. And if we take seriously that prayer that we all know so well, “on earth as it is in heaven” then may it be so, beloved. May we live and act like we are forgiven and are surrounded by mercy and treat one another the same. That is God’s kingdom on earth. 

We will see Tristan again. We will see that mischievous smile, those amazing eyes (full of knowledge), and we will once again be in the presence of his soul so full of love it’s almost overwhelming. I believe this because I believe in a God of the resurrection, and my God has not led me astray yet. I also refuse to believe the lies that the demons in my head tell me and so I want to believe that Tristan has been assured by God that whatever was chasing him was nothing but a lie and he was only running to God’s love and not running from anything. My beloved siblings in Christ, I hope you know this: Tristan so deeply loved God. And God loved Tristan. And God loves you. No matter what you have done or not done, no matter what you may call God, no matter if you set foot in church or not, God created you and thinks you are wonderfully and beautifully made because God doesn’t make junk. I look out and can see the image of God in all of you. Wear it proudly. But if you struggle to believe that. If you battle demons that are too dark to mention or you think you are alone, let me assure you, you are not. There is a number on the back of your bulletin if you want help. 

Finally, Steamer Nation, I want to leave you with this. And I am talking specifically to Steamer Nation. If it is in your power, and it is within your power, never ever allow this gym to be turned into a sanctuary for this purpose again. Do not allow another family to weep and mourn the way I have witnessed this past week. Choose kindness. Choose love. Choose forgiveness. Choose mercy. Choose grace. It’s what Tristan wanted. It’s what God calls us to do.

Sermon for 1/12/20 Matthew 3:13-17

It probably won’t surprise many of you, but we’re big Disney fans in the Marple household. We got our subscription to Disney Plus as soon as it came out. We’ve been on a Disney Cruise as many of you know. As soon as the opportunity arose during Thanksgiving, we ventured out to see Frozen 2. If you have not seen it, I highly recommend it. Even if you don’t have kids, go and see it. It’s a great movie (I even liked it better than the first one). One idea that runs through the movie (and don’t worry, this won’t ruin it for you) is that water has memory. Water remembers. And it makes sense. Water is a living creature. It is made up of oxygen and particles just like you and me. So water remembers being frozen, or disturbed, or dammed up, or polluted, or whatever the case may be. Considering that water has been around since the literal creation of the earth, water must have a very long memory. In a lot of ways, water helps us to remember too. 

In today’s story, we hear about Jesus’ baptism. The temptation, of course, is to think of our own baptisms. This is only natural. Perhaps we think of Casey’s baptism still to come. Also only natural. But the focus for scripture today is Jesus’ baptism. The baptism isn’t the end of his ministry but the beginning. In the waters he was named and claimed, just like we all are, and those waters helped to form his ministry. And as corny as this sounds, the fact that water has memory isn’t just a Disney idea. I really truly believe this. We also know that water is crucial to creation. It is part of life and necessary for life. At the same time, water is necessary for new life in Christ. In the waters of his baptism, Jesus gets an identity: Son of God, beloved, one with whom God is well pleased. That is Jesus’ identity in that moment. That will also shape his ministry that will begin at those waters and finish not at the cross, but with an empty tomb and resurrection. 

Like many of you, I’m sure, I followed the news closely this past week. I watched, I listened, I carefully followed tweets. And I worried. See, seminary didn’t teach me how to lead a congregation during wartime should such a time arise. This past week was full of disruption to what should have normally been a fairly mundane week of news as normal and most of us giving up on resolutions. When rituals get disrupted it can leave us feeling in a lurch and wondering what is next. When routines get disrupted it feels like everything gets thrown off. I don’t know about you, my beloved, but this past week felt like it lasted about a month. My mind, my body, and my spirit are not meant to live in crisis mode as much as it did this past week. 

I think that is why I am so grateful that this is part of our routine. That we gather here, week after week as the body of Christ, in community, to recenter ourselves in Christ. We gather around bread and wine to be fed by a humble feast and be reminded of what love really tastes like. And we are reminded of this while being told that this bread and wine is given for all for the forgiveness of sins. Even though we gather here at this physical location, this is being done all over the world in places of worship and this routine binds us together. 

Then we gather at the waters. The waters that remember. They remember Jesus and they certainly remember you. Baptism isn’t just water. This baptism was just water until the Holy Spirit showed up. The Holy Spirit, I like to think of her as the trouble making person of the Trinity, shows up and descends upon Jesus. And it is that Holy Spirit that sends Jesus out into the world and accompanies him as he starts doing ministry. But left behind are the waters that washed the son of God. The man who was fully human and yet fully divine. He entered into the waters as normal as you or I but rose transformed. I’d like to think the Holy Spirit does the same to us. In Jesus’ baptism, he was fully claimed. He was washed (although sinless) and the waters remembered. I wonder though, and scripture never tells us, do you think that Jesus ever forgot who he was?

Like did Jesus ever have a dark moment when he forgot that he was the Messiah? Or did he have moments where he doubted his divinity? Did he have moments where he forgot what was professed to him in those waters? I’d like to know if Jesus had those very human moments. I know I do. There are moments when the waters have to remind me of who I am. I don’t remember, but the waters of baptism remind me of who I am. But here’s what makes me super mad about the waters of baptism: they remind me of who my enemies are too. And my enemies, or the people I perceive to be my enemies, the people I don’t like, or the people I wish ill upon, they have been named and claimed too. The waters of baptism remember them too. God loves them too. 

See, there would be times (like this past week) when it would just flat out be easier to not be a baptized Christian. It would be easier to not be a pastor. It would be easier to forget about the waters and let the waters forget about me. But I can’t. Grace messed me up. And now I can’t get over the fact that the same God that named and claimed Jesus as beloved does the same to the guy I don’t even know but argue with in the comment section on the internet. The waters washed my eyes cleaned and I wished they hadn’t. Because I can’t view this world without it breaking my heart. I can’t view this world and not see it begging for justice and peace. Not only do the waters of baptism remember me, but they remind me of who I am and whose I am. And these waters aren’t exclusive to me. Jesus wasn’t the only person baptized in the Jordan. Jesus’ baptism was the start of his ministry. And our baptism is the start of ours. 

These waters remember you. There is nothing to prevent you from being baptized. In fact, just because we’re baptizing Casey today doesn’t mean we can’t baptize someone else too. When you forget who you are, allow the waters to remind you. You are claimed. You are beloved. These waters will transform you. That’s a fair warning. Like I said, grace messes me up all the time. There’s been a lot to fear this past week. Perfect love casts out fear. In these waters, we collide with perfect love: the love of God. You are God’s beloved and the waters remember. So should you. 

Sermon for 12/1/19 Matthew 24:36-44; Advent 1

Alright my beloved, I have a confession. This confession is well timed since a good portion of my family is with us today and they can verify that my confession is true. So, here goes. Contrary to what you may believe, I actually don’t know everything. Wait a minute, was there anyone who really did believe this (other than me)?? No, I don’t know everything. In so many ways this is a relief and a burden lifted. It’s also an opportunity, believe it or not, to grow in my faith. After all, if I knew everything, I would have no use for God or faith. I most definitely need God and faith, so it’s a blessing that I don’t know everything. Plus, can you imagine how insufferable I would be if I actually did know everything? How annoying. 

Texts like this one for today can cause a preacher to grimace and run towards the nearest alternative readings. After all, the end times isn’t always the easiest thing to preach about. It has become especially difficult thanks to the ever popular “Left Behind” book series. Combine that with the timing of this text, the first Sunday of Advent and it might leave our brains and hearts wanting for a little more. But much like last week with Christ the King, perhaps this is the perfect text to center ourselves for the arrival of the Christ child. I often let you in on my struggles with the preaching texts because I want you to know that it’s okay to struggle with texts. It’s okay to struggle with the Bible. It’s okay to struggle with God. These struggles are not, I repeat, are NOT a sign of your lack of faith. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that people who have “real faith” or “strong faith” (whatever those two things are) don’t question but instead are very clear on their beliefs and convictions. My beloved, many of my seminary classmates and I joke that we may all have Masters of Divinity degree but we hardly feel like we’ve mastered anything. In fact, seminary may be one of the few educational institutions where it’s good to graduate with more questions than answers. 

Our guilt and shame gets the best of us though, doesn’t it? Troubles arise and we shame ourselves. “I shouldn’t feel this way, I’m a Christian” one might say. Or “I’ve prayed daily, why is this happening to me” someone else might say. And suddenly, just like that, our black and white faith is gray and muddled. But I promise you, uncertainty is a condition of even the best biblical faith. Look at the first verse of our reading today. “But about that day and hour no one knows” (Mt 24:36). No one knows when Christ will return. So all of those Chicken Little, doomsday prepper, end times scary people on television may think they know, but scripture tells us, NO ONE KNOWS. It isn’t a relief to know that Christ doesn’t expect us to know everything?

At the same time, while we are not expected to know everything, we are expected to do something. “The Jesus of the verses before us calls persons to a life of work in a spirit of wakefulness. Work in this sense means activity here and now. Biblical faith as Jesus envisions it is not so concerned with otherworldly matters that it neglects this world’s affairs. Matthew’s Jesus has an eye on what is to come and believes something decisive is going to happen in the future, but he keeps attention focused on the present day and the needs of the hour” (Feasting on the Word, Yurs 25). 

What the writer of the gospel wants the community in Matthew as well as our present community to understand is that watching and waiting for the Lord is important. Yes, we should be prepared. Yes, we should be ready. Yes, we should understand that it can happen at any minute. However, this watching and waiting should not come at the expense of debilitating the rest of our lives or our work. In the examples given, people were carrying on with their normal lives, their normal activities, even their normal celebrations when signs of God’s return happened. 

Matthew’s Gospel is all about the community that has heard the story of Jesus and encouraging them to continue the work of Jesus, all while still being aware and prepared. This is why, at the end of Matthew, we get one of my favorite verses to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Continue the work of Jesus. Make sure people know the stories. Make sure everyone knows about this savior of the world who was born in a manger, stood with those on the margins, taught, fed, and hung on a cross so that we may all be saved. Friends, there are still those in this world that don’t know this story in its entirety. For some, we may be the only Gospel, the only Jesus they encounter. What story do our lives tell? 

Our time on this earth is limited; I don’t have to tell you that. It is valuable. The best way for us to prepare for the Lord, to watch and wait is to live our lives in a way that points to Christ. When we have more food than we need, we build bigger tables. When our siblings in Christ are hurting, we find ways of helping them, yes, but also fixing the broken systems they may be a part of. I understand that we may not be literally able to heal people like Jesus or feed 5000 people like Jesus. But seeing people’s humanity like Jesus did goes a long way. Looking another human being in the eye and just acknowledging the divine in them is a small way of preparing for the Lord. Because when the Lord comes, it is our hope that you and I will be seated at a banquet table that has no end. And at that banquet table may be a stranger that looks familiar because you’ve seen their divinity. 

Our time on earth is limited but God’s love is not, God’s mercy is not, and thanks be to God, God’s grace is not. We can continue to prepare the way of the Lord by showing others, even just one other person a small glimpse of God’s kingdom here on earth by pointing to Christ. And at the end of the day, we rest assured that we need not know everything. Our works cannot and will not accomplish everything. Hope will come. In the stillness of a silent night the cries of a newborn baby will shatter everything we know about perfection. Hope will come and in the midst of the messy, we find grace. 

 

Sermon for 9/22/19 Luke 16:1-13

This is one of the most difficult parables of Jesus’ to understand. If you are hoping that I will make sense of it for you today, I am sorry to say that I will disappoint you terribly. There’s a lot going on in this passage today. There is a dishonest manager who is commended by his master for acting shrewdly. Honestly, if you’ve been listening to Jesus for a while, that seems to be a strange turn of events. But then we are told that “whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much” and the same with dishonesty. But, what most people know and remember from this scripture is that last verse. “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13). While I dare not try to improve on scripture nor suggest revisions to anything that Jesus says, I’d like to propose that we cannot serve God and anything else that isn’t god, but we darn sure do try. 

Things might get confusing today, because I will be talking about worshipping God with a capital “G.” I hope you know that means I speak of the trinitarian God we confess. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. This is the God that is present in baptism and at Holy Communion. This is the God that I pray to and that I pray you pray to. I am also going to speak about god with a lower case “g.” This is the god of sin. This is the god that we pretend is our God. This is the thing (or even people) that we put before God (capital G). This is whatever we attempt to serve in addition to serving our Lord and savior. Sadly, too many times, a lowercase g god is where our loyalties lay. 

Now, I am going to call on some confirmation learning. Does anyone recall what the first commandment is? It is “You shall have no other gods.” (Pastor Hoppenworth, Pastor Sondrol and the others would be proud of you!) Now, as Martin Luther would ask, “what does this mean?” It means “we are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.” It sounds easy enough until we put it into practice. Because as I said, we often attempt to serve God and other things. And we can’t. And the truth is, that is so frustrating. And so often, our frustrations lay with God. That can feel like an uncomfortable place to be. 

See, many of the other gods (lowercase g) we attempt to serve are good things that enhance our lives. But when put in context, it seems cruel. Rather, God seems cruel. See, we cannot serve God and family. We cannot serve God and our jobs. We cannot serve God and country. We cannot serve God and church. We cannot serve God and our friends. We cannot serve God and our communities. We cannot serve God and our hobbies. We cannot serve God and ourselves. When you lay it out like that, it does seem cruel, doesn’t it? After all, God gives us most of, if not all of those things. God gave me my family. Doesn’t God expect me to care for them, take care of them, nurture them? After all,we prayed for a baby for years and thought we would experience nothing but heartbreak and then we had Ellen. God called me to a life of ministry. This is my job. This is my calling.Why can’t I serve God and this calling equally? To say that we cannot serve God and country seems to disrespect every active duty personnel and veteran in this country. Would we dare say such a thing standing in Arlington National Cemetery or even at the 9/11 memorial? When we seem to pit these things against each other, it almost makes God sound like a jealous lover. 

But we are told over and over that we cannot nor should we serve other gods. And why is this? I mean, I hate to ask what may sound like an elementary question here, but “why not!?” Why can’t I serve my family and God? Why can’t I serve God and my calling? Why can’t I serve God and my friends? I want to. No, I’m not sorry that I sound like a toddler right now. God made me. God knows this is how I can be sometimes. I want to stomp my feet, shake my fists, and cry until I get my way. I want to do both. Except I know that I am dealing with God and God doesn’t work like that. So, when I calm down long enough for my little tantrum to be over, I am in a better place to realize the answer I’ve known all along. I cannot serve two masters because whatever master isn’t God will ultimately let me down. Let me say that again. We cannot serve two masters, God and whatever, because whatever is not God will ultimately let us down. This is because whatever isn’t God is of human nature. And whatever is of human nature, no matter how good it may seem, will at some time, become tainted with sin. 

The other reason we cannot serve God and anything else is because nothing else, no matter how much we may love it or how much it may love us can save us. And that can be maddening. Because there are so many things and people we surround ourselves with that are amazing and loving and full of life, but at the end of the day, those things and people cannot save us. Now, please understand, I am not telling you to go live life as a hermit. Bury yourself under a rock, cancel your social media accounts, and keep all your money under your mattress. No. This is more of an invitation to inventory. Perhaps this is an invitation for self  confession. What do try to serve along with God? For me, I try to serve God and money, family, my calling, my friends, and self care, just to name a few. I fail every time. 

And I know that there will be times when, whether we like it or not, there will be things that come before God. I am especially reminded of that as we get closer to harvest. I know there will be Sundays that I don’t see many of you, and that’s just the way it is. But please, whatever it is, don’t dwell in guilt too long. Jesus did not sacrifice himself so that we could make martyrs of ourselves. You have been forgiven, so start acting like it. What gods (lowercase g) are you attempting to serve? How has that been serving you? Jesus tells us that we cannot serve God and wealth. And this is true. But maybe it is possible to serve God (capital G) and be rich. This is the currency that means nothing in the here and now, but will in the kingdom that it is to come. This is also the richness that comes when our debts are forgiven the way that only the cross is able to forgive. Being rich and being forgiven, truly forgiven, isn’t something that serving a god (little g) will ever be able to accomplish. As tempted as we may be to serve more than one God, only one God leads to eternal life. 

Sermon for 9/15/19 Luke 15:1-10

Going after one lost sheep out of the 99 you already have or one lost coin out of the 9 you already have doesn’t make a lot of sense; that is, until you are the one lost sheep or one lost coin. I want to let that sit for just a moment. Looking for a lost anything may not make much sense until you are the thing that is lost and would love nothing more than to be found. The desperation that comes with the desire to be found is great. I’m not necessarily talking about being physically lost. These days with the advancements in technology and the fact that practically everyone carries a GPS in their pockets, being physically lost isn’t as common as it once was. No, I’m talking about a metaphorical sense of lost. This is the kind of loss that usually accompanies spiritual, emotional, and mental health struggles. This is the kind of loss that dares to ask spiritually draining questions like “doesn’t God know I’m suffering” and “doesn’t anyone care.” Deep stuff for today and we’re only a paragraph in! 

Going after one lost sheep out of the 99 you already have or one lost coin out of the 9 you already have doesn’t make that much sense; that is, until you are the lost sheep or lost coin. What might be lost that you would stop at nothing to find? I posed this question to council this past week at our monthly meeting. Universally, the answer was the same: people. The answers varied, but it was always people: a spouse, a child, or even just family overall. No one could think of a material item that would be worth searching to the ends of the earth to find. I loved the answers. We would stop at nothing to find those most precious to us. But, what if you were the one that was lost. Would you want people to put up a fight, search the very last corners of the earth, turn over ever last shadow to find you, or would you rather just not cause any trouble?

Going after one lost sheep out of the 99 you already have or one lost coin out of the 9 you already have doesn’t make that much sense; that is, until you are the lost sheep or lost coin. Let’s talk about these lost sheep and lost coin, shall we? My colleague, Rev. Emmy Kegler has written a book called “One Coin Found” which, of course, references this scripture a lot. She says “You know what’s funny about sheep? They wander. That’s what they do. That’s why, when humans domesticated animals, there arose a new role: the shepherd. Someone’s got to keep the herd together. It isn’t some rebellion against intrinsic sheep-ness’ it’s not malicious or sinful or particularly stubborn, really. Sheep wander. It’s what they do. They wander because they’re hungry. The shepherd didn’t bring them to a fertile enough field. Or they are sick, or injured, or old. And sometimes sheep run. A hundred sheep are a hundred potential meals for the wolves that wander the same wilderness. If you don’t have a shepherd watching for the wolves, the sheep can end up missing– or a meal. We’ve all known shepherds like that. Shepherds unable to see that we’re hungry or hurting or hounded by wolves that seek to tear us apart. Leaders and friends who, through passive or active indifference, see our hunger and our hurts and write them off as inconsequential. And so, we go wandering. We try to find fields that will feed us, a place safe to rest, protection from a world that wants to devour us. Calling wanderers from the faith ‘lost sheep’ fundamentally misses what a sheep is: a herd animal, gently wandering hillsides with its family in search of food and shelter. They don’t just run off. There would need to be a a cause: a rockslide, a wolf, bad grass, no water. If someone is a ‘lost sheep’ drawn away from the ‘fold’ of the church, perhaps Christians should wonder what they aren’t tending to in that sheep. Did you notice they were hungry? Did you see when the other sheep shut them out? Did you let them fall behind when they got hurt? This is additionally highlighted for me in the story of the lost coin, because coins can’t lose themselves. They are inanimate. Someone else had to be careless with a coin, if it is lost. Seeing Jesus’ parables as only about repentant sinners neglects how ⅔ of the ‘lost’ things aren’t intentionally sinning against their owners. Sheep get hungry if untended and coins stay where they’re put until someone else loses them. 

Is it possible that [this scripture] is as much about the failure of those in leadership and authority? Is God’s rejoicing just as much for the ‘lost’ who find their way despite institutional neglect?” It can be a dangerous thing to sit in this place week after week. You may leave feeling angry at God (why must Jesus challenge us so). You may leave mad at me (doesn’t she know I’m going through a difficult time. Why didn’t she call?). Or you may just leave and not come back. The church is a difficult place to be when your unbelief is greater than your belief. We don’t always leave place for doubt. We don’t leave place for anger, grief, or disappointment. This is because the church universal seems to be built on a model that encourages the church to be a place only for people that have it all together. The church is built on a model that celebrates the nuclear heterosexual family with 2.5 children, working father, stay at home mom, and Spot the dog. 

The church isn’t necessarily built for lost coins and lost sheep. Well, as Christians we may not be built for that. We can’t celebrate the grace given for all because we don’t believe that God gives grace to sinners like us. We can’t celebrate the love given by God through Jesus to all because we don’t believe that God loves sinners like us. We don’t want to come to the table every single day given the opportunity because then it wouldn’t be special. But for hungry sinners, I promise you that the body and blood of Jesus is special and a life line we so desperately desire. Instead of admitting that we are the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost disciple, we put on our church clothes, slap on a smile, and sit with empty platitudes and hungry souls. 

Going after the one lost sheep when you already have 99 or one lost coin when you already have 9 doesn’t make a lot of sense, that is, unless you are the lost sheep or lost coin. Hear me now, my beloved, God will stop at nothing to find you. Nothing. There is nothing that separates us from the love of God, not even death. Let’s stop pretending. If you have felt abandoned by the church, I’m sorry. If you’ve felt abandoned by me, I’m sorry. Neither the church nor I am perfect. But thanks be to God, we serve a shepherd that is. We serve a servant that will stop at nothing to find us. God stops at nothing to find us because we are worth finding. No matter how lost you might feel, you are worth finding. You are worth finding and you are worth celebrating. Going after the one lost sheep when you already have 99 or one lost coin when you already have 9 doesn’t make a lot of sense, that is, until you are the lost sheep or lost coin.