Sermon for 2/23/20 Matthew 17:1-9; Transfiguration

I enjoy transfiguration Sunday as this is often called because we can all relate to mountain top experiences, I believe. Maybe it’s that wonderful vacation, an awesome conference, even a long awaited lunch out with friends, mountaintop experiences are those things that allow us to get re-energized and re-centered. Leaving the mountaintop is never fun. As I got to thinking about it, I realized why: once we leave the mountain, we have to face the truth. Vacation is over! That conference is over and our new friends are going back home! That long awaited lunch is over and (worse yet) the bill has come. The truth is always there, waiting for us, sometimes with great cruelty. So, maybe if we can stay on the mountain, we can avoid the truth. And sometimes, I wonder if we purposefully try and stay on the mountain or even create mountaintop experiences to avoid the truth. 

Today’s Gospel lesson takes place (of course) on top of a mountain. Peter, James, John, and Jesus had made a nice hike up a high mountain. The disciples couldn’t have known what was to happen next. It must have felt like a dream or some kind of out of body experience. Jesus’ face started to glow, practically blinding them. Then his clothes, we are told, turn a dazzling white. And if that’s not enough, Moses and Elijah appeared there with him. Then(!) it gets even better! We hear from God. Another bright cloud, and from that bright cloud comes a voice “This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The story could end right there and be pretty awesome. I don’t blame the disciples for wanting to stay on that mountaintop. Up there, they have the Jesus they want: pure, blameless, in the company of prophets, and affirmed as God’s beloved son. This is the Jesus we want. If we leave the mountain, we’ll be faced with the Jesus we get: the Good Friday Jesus, bloody, beaten, bruised, eventually crucified and dead. So, rather than face the truth, the disciples try to convince Jesus to stay on the mountaintop. 

Upon hearing the voice of God, the disciples are shaken to their core, fell to the ground in fear, and cower. I don’t blame them, I probably would have done the same thing. Then, as only Jesus could, he brings the disciples comfort. He touches them and encourages them. “Get up” he says and then, “do not be afraid.” I needed to hear this from Jesus. Maybe you do too. Here’s the truth, my beloved. 2020 has been the hardest year of my ministry with you thus far and it’s only February. As I have been preparing for Lent, which for me brings with it its own hosts of emotions, it’s tempting to me to want to stay on the mountaintop. I guess I fear the truth of difficulty, challenges, and just life at the bottom of the mountain. I worry about how much harder the truth is going to get. 

I am still wrestling with all of the emotions that accompany burying someone so young like Tristan. And I would be lying to you if I didn’t admit that the financial challenges we discussed at the annual meeting and that still loom keep me up too many nights a week. Of course I have my own personal challenges, nothing that is new: mothering, supporting a PhD student, living in limbo of what comes next, maybe we’ll move, maybe we won’t, being a daughter and sister, maintaining friendships, all of that. If I stay on the mountaintop (oh, by the way, you’re staying up here with me) then nothing can get worse, right? We don’t have to face the truth of what happens tomorrow, or next week, or next month. We can stay on this mountain and bask in the glory of Jesus, God’s beloved Son. Sounds great to me. Beloved, this is called avoidance. 

Then Jesus, doing what he does best, says do not be afraid. And that’s not all. See, we serve a God who is with us literally every single step of the way. When God says that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, it’s true. In our lesson today, the disciples don’t go back down the mountain alone, Jesus goes with them. And it’s the same for us. I sometimes remind you (and me) that we are resurrection people. That is still true. We are resurrection people. We are Easter Sunday people. We are Christ is risen indeed people. However, we are none of that without being Good Friday people. And in order to be Good Friday people, sometimes we have to come down from the mountain. We have to tell hard truths. We have to be brave together. We have to be vulnerable together. And in the midst of all of it, we trust, more than anything, that God is with us because Jesus is who he always has been and always will be. 

I don’t know, maybe you’re not like me. Maybe your 2020 has been phenomenal fireworks and celebration after celebration thus far. I rejoice with you, really I do. But, if you’ve been camped out on the top of a metaphorical mountain, unable to move much thanks to fear of the unknown, fear of the “what’s next,” fear of darkness, fear of the not-good-enoughs swallowing you up whole, maybe it’s time we leave this mountain. Maybe it’s time that we start living as we proclaim: people of God who trust in God that will provide in God’s time. We could stay on the mountain, but I don’t know that we would be living in the fullness of life that God provides. Even if coming down the mountain feels like going through hell, we proclaim that God descended into hell ahead of us. There is no where we can go that God has not already gone. I am done living in fear. I am headed down the mountain. I don’t know what I am going to find, but God will go with me, with us. “Get up and do not be afraid.” 

Sermon for 2/16/20 Matthew 5:21-37

And to think, you could have skipped church today. But no. You’re here. With that scripture. Just sitting out there now. And how in the world will I deal with all of that in 10-12 minutes? Let’s talk about the most obvious piece of the elephant first: divorce. Yeah, we’re just going to dive right in and not waste time. I understand that no one gets married with the intention of getting divorced. But, it happens. I know some of you are divorced. Maybe your parents are divorced. Or, maybe, like me, you have siblings that are divorced. In Jesus’ time, the law was such that marriage was forever and there was no room for things like abuse, neglect, or violence. In Jesus’ time, if a spouse was being beaten on a regular basis, well, that was just too bad. Things have changed, thanks be to God. We read scripture with a different lens. We know that divorce, in some cases, can actually be a healthy and really life giving thing. While it’s painful, I can think of examples where people are actually better friends and parents when they were divorced than when they were married. But I also know that in some circles, scripture can be used to harm and hurt and I doubt that was ever Jesus’ intention. All this to say, if you are divorced or you love someone who is divorced and you or they have been harmed by the church or scripture, I am so sorry. I believe in the freedom that Christ brings and the love that Christ proclaims. 

But what I really want to focus on today is the overarching theme of today’s reading which I believe is reconciliation. Reconciliation is the difficult work that comes after confession and forgiveness. It’s relationship building and rebuilding. It’s community rebuilding, re-identification, and it can be a very slow process. But, in my experience, it’s also worth it. We don’t necessarily talk a lot about reconciliation a lot around here, but that’s not because it’s not important. So I stopped and asked myself that hard question. “Pastor, why don’t you talk about reconciliation more?” After some self reflection (which I didn’t like) and some ignoring of the obvious answer (which I preferred) I confess to you, my beloved, the truth: I don’t talk about it because I’m not all that good at it. 

See, confession I can do. I can lay out my sins like clay pigeons lining up to be shot. I don’t have a problem with that. Years of being raised Catholic, maybe. But, I also try to be self aware. I am still a fan of our confession that proclaims “forgive us our sins known and unknown” because that about covers it all. We know the places where we have messed up and so does God. Now, I will admit that confession isn’t always comfortable. At the same time, it shouldn’t be. When we aren’t living a full life in Christ, it’s not comfortable. Confession to one another isn’t always comfortable. But we are imperfect people serving a perfect God. 

Forgiveness can be easy, at times, because sometimes, it’s not on us, it’s on God. Of course, we must believe, and live, and act like we’ve been forgiven. That’s a whole other sermon for a whole other time. Forgiveness can be tricky when it’s human to human. What I have learned in my brief time here on earth is that forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Now, that’s not the same as holding a grudge. But once you touch a hot stove, you learn not to stand so close when it’s on. Forgiveness is an amazing gift we can give one another and that God gives to us. And it’s free. Forgiveness, however, is also something that keeps us from living in right relationship with one another and with God. It’s that grudge holding that the scripture spoke about.  

Once we’ve done the work of confession and accepted or given forgiveness, then comes the reconciliation. Like I said, this can be slow going work. But, in my opinion, it’s what makes being in relationship as members of the body of Christ worth it. Now, I’ll be honest, sometimes reconciliation isn’t really that hard. Sometimes it’s as simple as “we’re good, right?” And the other person agreeing. And then you move on. But reconciliation usually takes time and trust, and if we’re honest, those are two commodities we as humans don’t always like to just give away. Reconciliation also requires vulnerability which usually isn’t an emotion that most people enjoy dealing with. Over and over in today’s reading we hear Jesus say “you have heard it said…but I say to you.” In that quick turn of phrase is grace.

Please understand, that’s not permission to forget this passage, or the difficulties that come with it. But, what Jesus says only Jesus can say because only Jesus is perfect and we would all do well to remember that every once in a while. There is a difference in being right and being righteous. Reconciliation works to put some space between these two. Following every single letter of the law doesn’t make you a perfect Christian; you may be right, but you may be far from righteous. Righteous is really living into who God created us to be. Reconciliation is the effort, the time, the trust, the love it takes from many people to move from being determined and set in being right to gracefully setting up camp in being righteous. Reconciliation is filled with grace. It is filled with life. It is filled with love. Reconciliation is worth it. 

But, my beloved, it’s not enough for me to stand up here and just talk about all of this with no action. If I desire to continue to be your faith leader, it is to me to set the example. So, I humbly confess to you all the ways I have disappointed you, let you down, betrayed your trust, failed your expectations, or just otherwise failed. I may have done this knowingly or unknowingly. I ask your forgiveness the same way I already have asked for forgiveness from God. And when you’re ready, if I have hurt you, I hope you can forgive me and we can be an example of what reconciliation looks like. And if this doesn’t apply to any of you, then we should consider ourselves blessed. But if it does, then please, follow my example. Start your reconciliation journey today. Remove your armor and be brave with me. This is what being disciples looks like. 

Sermon for 9/29/19 Luke 16:19-31

With all of the other news going on in the world, you might have missed that there has also been a college admissions scandal happening. And maybe this wouldn’t be such big news if it didn’t involve Hollywood celebrities, big dollar amounts, recognizable college names, and acts that to me are honestly so ridiculous that I just shake my head. For example, there was a family that bought a swimsuit with their high school logo on it, had him put it on, and staged him in their backyard pool just so they could Photoshop him into water polo pictures to justify him getting a water polo scholarship.Now, he didn’t even play water polo, but he got a scholarship! Then there were the celebrities that paid bribes between $250,000 and $500,000 to get their kids into USC. Or paying $15,000 to have someone cheat on the SAT for their child. Of course, all of this is coming to light now and people are starting to pay fines and serve jail time. They are getting what is coming to them! It has been very hard to find anyone that feels sorry for these folks. 

I mean,if we’re honest, it’s hard to find a better feeling than schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is a nice German word that means taking pleasure in other people’s pain. In other words, celebrating when people finally get what is coming to them. These hoity toity rich people tried to circumvent the system and now they’re going to pay. The rich man in our story today flaunted his wealth in life and now in death he is begging for relief and it just isn’t happening. It’s hard not to have a schadenfreude moment. Now, it is not a sin to be rich. The man isn’t in Hades being tormented because he was rich. It was what he did with his riches and how he treated those with less that sealed his fate. We don’t know why he flaunted his wealth. Maybe it was a lack of confidence in who God created him to be. We never really find out. 

Now Jesus is talking to the Pharisees… oh good, “them” again. No, we are the Pharisees. They had that opinion that if you did what needed to be done then you would get the goodies. The rich man was rich so obviously he was doing what God wanted. The rich man ate and Lazarus picked up the crumbs. Only the dogs ministered to him. (Side note, this just goes to show what amazing creatures dogs really are. Do you think a cat would have done that?) Did you notice something unique about this text? Whose name do we know?  We know Lazarus’ name. He has an identity. The rich man doesn’t have a name. He’s anonymous. One might think that it would be the other way around. After all, in previous stories, and with other people that Christ deals with, the forgotten are hardly named. The woman at the well, the lepper, the Syrophoenician woman, and on and on. But this poor beggar named Lazarus. His is not to be confused with Jesus’ dear friend to be raised later, also named Lazarus. 

Now, the rich man has a theology that says if “I do what God wants me to do my investments will do well, I’ll do good and everyone will know how good I am.” While we may not admit it, many of us dare think the same way. The Pharisees, in many ways, are American popular religion. If we just get our act together, God will love us, country, people, individuals,  we just have to do what’s right, God will check it off so we can get what’s coming to us and if we don’t get what’s coming to us we can just complain to God that God’s not playing fair. We should know by now that these conversations rarely go well. This is often sold as the “American Dream.” If you work hard and trust the system, you should be able to live at (or maybe even a little above) your means and provide for your family. When the system fails us we look for people and places to blame and sometimes that means blaming God. After all, we think we’re following the rules, whatever they may be.  

But Lazarus lives by trusting God. Eating what falls into his lap. Receiving the gift from those others would call the dogs, the unclean. That’s really a challenge for us. More and more we are ignoring those on the side of the road. We are interested in being right, successful, powerful, like no one else. We are becoming anonymous because we’re just like everyone else. But Jesus speaks of Lazarus. But right now he’s an identified poor man. Someone who trusts in Jesus has an identity. A name. A name that Jesus can speak. A name that you can I can speak. Don’t you realize that when you and I were baptized that we were given a name? We were introduced to God. I baptize “the name.” That name is important. That name contains the promise that we have been given. That name says that we have what we need to be the people of God. And that’s far more important than this other stuff. If you’re unsure of what God thinks of you, dip your hands in the waters. If you’re unsure of what God thinks of you, come to the table and be fed.

But then we get to the story of the bosom of Abraham and Hades. Don’t try and figure it out. We’re so interested in trying to figure out the “what is to come” that we miss the here and now. The challenge is trying to live as God’s people–now. Eternal life has already begun–now. Let’s live that way rather than wring hands. Will we (the church) exist in 30, 40, 70 years? Who cares? The challenge for us is to be the people of God in 30, 40, 70 years not the institution.

If we get it right, we get the goodies. We get it wrong. We’re not always sure the baptismal promises are for us. We don’t hear our names which is all we need. God is alive and active. 

The church is God’s church for God’s people for God’s world. Somewhere along the way we got it wrong in thinking it belongs to us. This isn’t a comfortable text. It names our lack of faith because we really desire credit for what we put into the account. But it’s already ours. We are called to trust. And in trusting we shall live. Whether it is crumbs from the table or the feast at the table, we shall live in our identity as the people of God. Trust in who God created you to be. Trust in who God has called you to be. Trust that when God calls you, it is not because you are wealthy, but because you are already rich.

Sermon for 8/12/18 John 6:35, 41-51

I am continuing our series today that focuses on being fed to feed using these bread of life discourses throughout John 6. I’ve been calling it “carb loading” since Jesus seems to be talking a lot about bread. No worries, this will continue for a few more weeks. As an extension of what we’ve been talking about I am going to focus a bit more on relationships today. My friend Steffen and I have been friends since we were in 7th grade, so 12 or 13 or so. We have been through a lot together. He was in our wedding. He was one of the first people I told I was going to seminary. We share a wonderful sense of humor and both value not only this friendship, but friendships in general. He also likes to torture me by sending me screen shots of my sermon from Facebook with me making weird looking faces almost every single Sunday. And I do believe that God brings people in our lives for a moment, a season, or a lifetime. Steffen and I are lifetime friends.

I hope you all have lifetime friends in your life. These are the folks you know you can count on no matter what. These are the people who have seen you at your best and at your worst. These are people who (as I jokingly tell Steffen) aren’t getting rid of you now because they know too much. We cover a variety of topics in church but one thing we may not talk about a lot is relationships. We talk about the bible, communion, baptisms, even bathrooms (at least around here) but we don’t talk a lot about relationships. I think this comes from the relationships we have being easy and not that we don’t have any relationships. In fact, maybe you don’t even think of the relationships you have at church as relationships and perhaps that’s because there are so many of you that are related. We’ve got the Petersen’s, the Petersen’s, and the Petersen’s, unless, that is, you’re a Peterson. Don’t ask me “Howe” they’re all related, Mommsen’s the word.

But,I think because we have so many families in the congregation, that is what makes our congregation so unique. The friendships made are real, and people are friends because of biological connections and maybe in spite of biological connections. People have often referred to these relationships as church family. If you have a wonderful, life-giving, biological family, seeing church as a family can be comforting. If your biological family or family of origin wasn’t that great, church as a family can be troubling. One of the biggest components of being a Christian and being a disciple is being willing to be in relationship with one another. We are fed by our relationships that are grounded in Christ and then, in joy, we feed others (and are fed by others) so that our relationships grow and the kingdom of God grows.

Three times in this text, Jesus refers to himself as bread. He says “I am the bread of life” twice (6:35, 48) and the “living bread that came down from heaven” (6:51). The people that would have heard Jesus speaking of himself like this at this time would have had a bit of historical context. When Jesus spoke of himself as manna, that should have set off little light bulbs for those gathered. Manna isn’t just a meal. Manna wasn’t a snack that got the Israelites through a tough time in the desert. Manna was literally a life saving meal. Had the Israelites not gotten manna in the form of food or drink directly from God, they would have died. But, God offered the Israelites manna in the wilderness despite the fact that the Israelites did not trust God to provide for them. God provided anyway. In the same way, Jesus provided for 5000 people with plenty to eat with leftovers. And why? Because God so loved the world (see John 3:16-17).

Both the Israelites who received manna from heaven and the Jews who received bread and fish for days were saved by God, literal salvation from God, but neither group has learned to trust in God. Well thank goodness we’re not like the Israelites or the Jews! Oh wait…. When Jesus says that those who believe will have eternal life what he could be saying (or what it could be translated as) is those who trust will have eternal life. God, through the actions, words, and movements of Jesus Christ keeps showing us over and over and over again that we should trust that God is who God says and that Jesus is who he says he is. In short, God desires a relationship with us. And the kind of relationship desires with us is a lifetime one, not a relationship for a moment or a season. Jesus is the living bread. Those that believe in Jesus are promised an eternal life. Again, in short, those who believe are promised a relationship.

If we are going to take seriously what Jesus says (and we should) then we believe that he really is the bread of life that is sent from God. Because God so loved the world. God didn’t send us Jesus, the bread of life, the living bread, so that we simply can get by and be okay. God sent us Jesus so that we may thrive and truly live. Because “God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God loved Jesus and sent us Jesus. And then Jesus loved us, all the way to the cross and beyond. This means that God loves us as well. This is a relationship.

Unlike our human relationships, the one that God has with us never ends. It may have its moments where it is reciprocal. But often, it is God that has a hold of us and not the other way around. Many Christian denominations will encourage (almost borderline demand) that you have a personal relationship with Jesus or with God. Here’s the problem with that: many times it sounds like we are doing all the work. “I’m reading my bible to get closer to God” or “praying makes me feel like I’m one with Jesus” even “serving others makes my faith grow and my relationship with God becomes stronger.” While all of these are fine in theory, the relationship is mainly on us when we use that kind of language. Then, when life goes wrong, as it can, will, and does, we blame ourselves and our lack of faith. God does not look for opportunities to punish us. For God so loved the world includes us.

Rather, the relationship God has with us is all about God. God will always be holding us, reaching out to us, comforting us, loving us, providing for us, no matter what we do. This bread of life, this bread that came down from heaven is for us, and it is given to us, and the only thing we have to do is believe. And if we struggle with belief, God will find another way to help us understand. Why in the world do you think we’re spending 5 weeks hearing all the different ways that Jesus talked about himself being bread. He was going to keep doing it until the disciples, the Jews, and all gathered believed it. Jesus is going to keep telling and showing us who he is until we believe it. It is a relationship of a lifetime that feeding us so that we can feed other people. This bread of life stuff isn’t just literal life saving bread and drink in the middle of a desert journey. It isn’t just wheat, water, and a little of this and that to get us through the day.

Jesus, the true bread of life sustains our souls. It is the thing that reminds us at the end of the day that we still belong to someone even if we think we have no one. When Jesus declares that he is the bread of life he is speaking of more than food that feeds our bellies, he is speaking of more than food that feeds our souls, he is also speaking about food that feeds our hearts with the gift of relationship. And this relationship of God to Jesus and then Jesus to us has the ability to keep us fed for life so that we can feed others. Because again, God so loved the world. We are in relationship with the Triune God and we are in relationship with one another; bread for the world and bread for one another.

Sermon for 6/24/18 Mark 4:35-41

So I will admit that I struggled and have continued to struggle with scripture this week. Did you know that Pastors do that? Knowing what to say to you week after week isn’t always easy. I pray a lot and listen to the Holy Spirit. But, sometimes like Job, I wrestle with God and with scripture. Many times, it is personal. I know what I need to say, but I don’t want to say it (mainly because I don’t want to hear it). Or I have a lot of people telling me what I should say, but they don’t know you like I know you. Sometimes I even know what I want to say but I just can’t find the right words to say it. Often, it is a combination of all of those things. This week, I wrestled a lot with faith versus fear. I didn’t like that they seemed to be pitted up against one another. Why can I not be faithful and have fear? Just because I am afraid doesn’t mean I’m don’t have faith. Does it?

I was always taught that a healthy amount of fear was good. It’s good to fear a lake you can’t see the bottom of. It’s good to fear going to a new country, new place, or when meeting new friends. I think fear keeps us aware of who we are and whose we are. But, lately, I think that fear is causing us to build walls and keep people away. Thanks to the news, social media, and pretty much everything that surrounds us, we have been drowning in messages of the “other” being dangerous. We are sinking in messages that we need to fear not being loved, not being enough, not measuring up, and being left out or left behind. It doesn’t have to be anything major, either. There’s the fear that our teeth aren’t white enough, our hair thick enough, that we don’t drive the right car, and that we don’t smell the right way. If we let it, fear can control our lives.

The disciples were in a group of boats sailing across the sea of Galilee when a storm blew up out of nowhere. The sea does that on occasion. It is nothing if not unpredictable. It’s easy to forget that this wouldn’t have been strange for the disciples. After all, most of them were fishermen, remember? They knew the power of the sea. But let’s talk about the setting for a moment. It was night. Their boats were more like fishing boats than luxurious cruise liners. A great storm had blown up. The winds were fierce. There would have been tremendous waves that ebbed and flowed. The sailors must have known that they might have to literally abandon ship in order to be saved. This was a serious storm. So when the disciples woke Jesus, it wasn’t a timid, reserved, or even polite “teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” It was probably more of a “TEACHER!! DO YOU NOT CARE THAT WE ARE PERISHING?!?” And, as Jesus has done thus far in the stories that we have heard from Mark’s gospel, he doesn’t follow the rules.

Jesus doesn’t start throwing buckets of water out of the boat. He doesn’t console the disciples. He doesn’t prepare to abandon ship. Instead, he rebuked the wind and demanded peace of the sea. And it happened. The disciples went from “holy mackerel we’re gonna die” to “holy mackerel who is this guy?” in a matter of moments. Jesus didn’t calm the storm as much as he showed dominion over it. This leaves the disciples, and us, perhaps, to struggle not so much with the question of what Jesus is or what he can do to who Jesus is (and what does that mean for us). I also have to wonder if part of the disciples awe was a disbelief that someone with Jesus’ powers would be associated with such a ragtag group of guys. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” And if he is capable of such things, what in the world is he doing with us?

Perhaps Jesus says what he says to the disciples because they had seen proof of his identity several times before. They had seen what he was capable of. This wasn’t his first miracle with the disciples as witnesses. After all, this group of 12 was to be his “insiders.” Perhaps they even thought they fully understood Jesus and who he was. But, fear won over and they forgot everything that they had learned up to this point. The disciples have been front-row witnesses to everything that Jesus had done up to now. If they can’t figure out who Jesus is, what hope do we have?I wonder, then, if the lesson that Jesus is trying to teach us, and the disciples, is to never get too comfortable.

We should never rest to assured on our “Christian” laurels. We may assume we know and/or understand how Jesus would react to a certain situation, but we would most likely find ourselves in the wrong. I think the real fear in our lives should be any confidence we have in answering with vigor “I know what Jesus would do.” Because often our idea of what Jesus would do is colored by our own biases and misconceptions. I also wrestle with this idea: do we fear Jesus because we don’t know what he will do or do we fear Jesus because we think he would do the same as we would do? I don’t know that I have a clear cut answer to that one. As soon as Jesus exercises dominion over the storm, the disciples realized that he wasn’t as much of a what as he was a who. And once again, Jesus reminds us that he is all about relationships.

I’ve come to realize I fear the most when I don’t trust. It’s not as much of a faith issue as it is a trust issue. And the only way we learn to trust is in relationship. And this includes relationships even with things we may not think we can have a relationship with. You might have seen we got a new camper. I am going to learn to trust that camper by spending time with it, learning its noises (and what they mean), finding out all the ins and outs of it. We do the same with one another. We learn to trust one another as we spend time with one another. Trust and faith then slowly go hand in hand. We often say “I have faith in you” when really what we mean is “I trust you.” So I have to wonder if when Jesus asked about the disciples faith if he was really asking them “don’t you trust me?”

Jesus is the model for accompaniment. He has shown the disciples (and us) more than once already that he is going to be by their side and by our side no matter what. Here’s the thing, faith moves us from “what if” to “even if.” Perhaps the good news in all of this is that even if we do have fear, even if our trust is wavering, even if our faith isn’t as strong as perhaps we’d like it to be, Jesus will never leave us. Jesus always has a hold of us. In the greatest storms and in times of dead calm, Jesus will not only be with us, but will also provide for us and care for us. This is the Jesus that is relentless in caring for all of creation, and that includes us. This is the Jesus that may question our faith, but still goes to the cross willingingly. When we gather here every Sunday, we are reminded and remind others that we are loved. When we gather around the table, we are reminded that Jesus loves us. When we gather around the font and are splashed in grace, we are reminded of a relationship that lasts a lifetime and even through death. Jesus, who has the powers to calm even the stormiest of seas, will provide for us always and never leave us abandoned. Christ calls on us to have even the slightest bit of faith to believe it. Let us worship love and life, not fear and mistrust.

Sermon for 5/20/18 John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15 Pentecost

Trying to explain what the Holy Spirit is can be like trying to explain how the color pink sounds. Or maybe it would be like trying to explain how lightning tastes. Explaining to someone what the Holy Spirit is can be like describing what a hummingbird looks like when it is sleeping. I think just when we have the Holy Spirit figured out, or think we have her figured out, she surprises us. Instead of trying to explain what the Holy Spirit does, or how the Holy Spirit operates with God the Father and God the Son, I want you to think about how the Holy Spirit feels. Maybe some of you would rather go back and try to describe the taste of the color pink. I’ve been thinking about this off and on and I doubt my definition is any better than yours. But here is what I got. I don’t know what the Holy Spirit is, or how she does what she does. But I do know that once the Holy Spirit enters any facet of my life, I am changed. And some may ask “changed how? Changed good? Changed bad?” And I say “neither. Just changed.”

There are a few things I know for sure about the Holy Spirit (other than it has the ability to turn my world upside down). The Greek word in the Bible for Holy Spirit is “paraclete.” Now, that can be translated a number of ways. And perhaps the way we interact with the Holy Spirit will color the way we translate this. But, some options are: to walk alongside, appeal to, urge, exhort, encourage, request, implore, entreat, cheer up, comfort, mediator, intercessor, or helper. Did you have any idea that the Holy Spirit could do all that? And what I’ve been thinking about this week is the idea that I can’t tell you what the Holy Spirit does in your life. I can only tell you what the Holy Spirit does in mine. I can’t tell you the way the Holy Spirit feels to you. I can’t describe the way the Holy Spirit sounds to you. I can only tell you the way I interact with the Holy Spirit. I think the Holy Spirit acts, sounds, and feels the way that we personally need it to act, sound, and feel. Because when God wants our attention, God will do it in ways that will make us pay attention.

So here is the Holy Spirit to me: God’s most aggravating component. I say this lovingly of course. I just know that when the Holy Spirit gets a hold of me, nothing in my life stays the same. And this is aggravating. Doesn’t God know I have plans? Doesn’t God know that I’ve got things to do? Doesn’t God know I’m stubborn? Oh. Perhaps that is why the Holy Spirit has to shake me up every once in a while. What I know about the Holy Spirit in my life is this: as soon as I make some sort of bold proclamation in regards to my life, it’s as if the Holy Spirit steps in, lets me finish, and then says “that’s cute. You’re going to be doing this instead.”  

There are so many times in my life that I can look back and know that the Holy Spirit was at work in my life and for the better. I had sworn off dating altogether. Chris walked into my life. I had plans to go to graduate school for higher education. The Holy Spirit sent me to seminary (which, to this day has been her trickiest plan accomplished). I had just about given up hope that I would actually be called to a church as a Pastor. The Holy Spirit told me about an awesome congregation in the country that was a perfect fit. So yes, the Holy Spirit for me has been aggravating, soothing, exciting, encouraging, a cheerleader, a helper, and, much to my chagrin, 100% right every single time she pushed me. For me, the biggest problem with even acknowledging the Holy Spirit in my life comes down to one issue: trust.

The idea of trusting the Holy Spirit is one I don’t like. That is difficult for me (personally) because what happens is a shame spiral. I realize I’m not trusting the Holy Spirit or that I don’t trust her. Then I wonder what that means for my own faith if I’m not trusting the Holy Spirit. Then I shame spiral because I think that I, of all people, a woman of faith, should trust in God and all the persons of God (including the Holy Spirit) but yet I don’t. And that’s not a reflection of God or God’s love for me, but it’s a reflection of my own humanity. And once I realize that my faith isn’t as strong as I want it to be then I fear that people are going to realize that I am not perfect. (Shocker) Then once people realize I’m not perfect, are they even going to believe a single word I say from the pulpit? And if they don’t believe what I say from the pulpit then am I even doing what God has called me to do? Shame spiral. Maybe something like that happens to you.

Yet, at the same time, I think that our all knowing-all loving God knows exactly how we were created. So our all knowing, all loving God knows that when the Holy Spirit stirs that we may resist. Perhaps that is why the Holy Spirit is often described as fire or a mighty wind. God knows we need something that is going to get our attention. And it is totally and completely possible that the Holy Spirit may need to shove us, stir us, shake us, whatever it may take a few times to get us to pay attention. A few things happen when the Holy Spirit starts to take hold (or at least in my experience). The first step is doubting. “That wasn’t God, was it?” Or “certainly God doesn’t want me.” Then comes bargaining with God (which never goes well). Usually that sounds something like “fine God! I’ll go! But, if you do then X, Y, and Z!” Or we make deals with God. “Hey Holy Spirit! I’ll do that thing you’ve been encouraging me to do but only if you do this for me first.” Again, this usually never goes in our favor. Lastly, we succumb to the will of the Holy Spirit and our lives are much better for it.

The Holy Spirit is always and will always be part of our lives. Illa and Lars are about to experience the Holy Spirit for the first time. An all powerful, all knowing, all loving God will inhabit these waters, claim them both as beloved children of God, and then proceed to turn their world upside down in the best possible way. The Holy Spirit is the most uncertain and unpredictable person of God. That may make it seem scary. But the Holy Spirit is nothing to fear. Let us let the Spirit be the Spirit. Let us wait in anxiousness. Let us wait in our fear. Let us wait in our joy. Let us wait in our grief. Let us wait on a Sunday in May or a Tuesday in November. The Holy Spirit will show up and in her own time. In her own time. Not ours. Not always in the way we may want her to show up. But she will make herself known in our lives. And the only thing we know for sure is that our lives will never be the same.

Sermon for 1996 class reunion (based on John 11)

(Just a note that this sermon was written for the context of my 20 year high school reunion. It was part church service, part memorial service. Out of my graduating class of 339, we have already lost around 20 or so classmates).

 

“When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’  Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’  Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’  She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’” (John 11:17-27, NRSV)

 

My apologies to those of you for whom this may be a strange and disturbing look. Often when I tell people that I am a pastor and they knew me in college or high school, they usually back up. “But JV I knew you back when!” Yes, I’m well aware of that. And we’re not gonna tell anyone about those times.

 

We come together this morning to praise the one who has sustained us for 20 years since the last time we all gathered. We also come to remember and celebrate the lives of those who are not with us. And I am not afraid to speak the truth as you all know, we are all too incredibly young to have lost as many classmates as we have. As we say the names and recall the faces, the reasons are as varied as the people. Some taken too soon because of accidents, some by their own hand and demons, and some by the horrible “C word” cancer.

 

And for every name, there was at least one person in this world for whom that person was their world. It is important for us to remember, while all of the names may not be familiar to us, they were familiar to someone. At holiday or family gatherings there is a hole. At children’s activities or important events, there is a missed absence. In times like this when we think back to fun memories and maybe even the troubles, we notice who among us is missing.

 

It is also natural to feel a bit of guilt. We can easily fall into the should’ve, could’ve, would’ve categories. We also may wonder if there’s something we have the power to control to prevent death. My brothers and sisters, take heart and know that none of the deaths we marked today were your fault. We might wonder had we invited Amy to come with us which she have been in a car accident? Maybe we should have been more purposeful in reaching out to Shawn or Andrea to help them walk as they battled their demons. Or we may lament the fact that cancer took Holly or Shelly and there still is no cure in a country that has the resources to find them. And so, while I will not tell you how to feel, if you are feeling that guilt, that’s fine. But do not stay there. We call to mind the good times, the times filled with joy and light, the times that may get you through your own dark days. Unfortunately, “death” is too familiar a word for so many of us. It has snuck its way into our vernacular more times than we care to admit. Maybe you do not just mourn our classmates, perhaps you have had the unfortunate task of burying a spouse or partner or child. The pain endured is difficult on your best days, crippling on the worst. The good news is however, my brothers and sisters, death is not the final story.  The ending for us is not death. It never has been and it never will be.

 

By the time Jesus had arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had already been dead for four days. And Lazarus was dead dead. He was all the way dead. Not “oh isn’t that cute he sleeping.” But dead. All of the friends and relatives had already come to visit, the casseroles had already been eaten, flowers would’ve already started to die, and people had most likely already started to go on with their lives. But Martha, in the midst of all of her grief, was not prepared to welcome Jesus into her home without saying something. Martha as well as her sister Mary knew what Jesus was capable of. And sol Martha, in the midst of her grief, most likely through ugly tears, yelled at Jesus. This was not a sweet demure womanly thing to do. But, by this point in time, Martha really did not care. Martha was grieving and, quite frankly, pissed off. She needed to take that anger out on someone. So she did what most of us probably would’ve done. She yelled at Jesus.“Lord, had you been here, my brother would not have died”. Now we must understand that Jesus was not a casual visitor to the home. Jesus loved Lazarus. Although we are not told in this reading, Jesus was most likely quite upset that his friend Lazarus had died. After all, like us, Jesus was fully human. This means he had a full range of fully human emotions. That includes all of the emotions that normally a company death. Grief, anger, confusion, denial, everything that Mary and Martha had been experiencing already for four days, was very real to Jesus.

 

As Jesus approaches the home, Martha does not even wait for him to arrive at the door. She runs out to meet him. Most likely already yelling at him as she goes. “Lord, had you been here, my brother would not have died!” I wonder how many of us find ourselves questioning ourselves in similar situations. Had I been where ever my friend may not have died. Had I invited them over, faught for more treatments, called them when I was thinking about them, they may not have died. I’m sorry to tell you my friends, but none of us are powerful enough to stop death. None of us had the power or ability to stop death when it came for our classmates.

 

But just like graduation was not the end of our stories, death also is not the end of our stories. The hope of the resurrection is for all of us, friends. I want to make sure you heard me loud and clear, the hope and promise of the resurrection is for all of us. And here is something you may not hear very often especially from people in my profession. It is completely OK if you doubt what I just told you. Make sure you hear me again. As far as your faith life goes, it is appropriate, natural, maybe even a little expected, to have doubt. What is comforting to me even in the times of my own doubt and yes there are some, is that the God I serve keeps promises. And God’s faithfulness to me is stronger than my doubt of His existence.

 

Here is something else I want you to know. God loves you. God loves you more than you ever will know and more than you ever can imagine. It does not matter if you are in church every single Sunday, or the last time you’re in church was 20 years ago. God loves you. And God loves you despite anything you may have done that you continue to beat yourself up over it. God loves you despite the ways you may have fallen short. God loves you even in moments of darkness and uncertainty. And why? Why can this be true? How is this even possible?

 

I know that God loves me because of Jesus. I know God loves me because He saw me and considered me worth dying for. I know God loves me because even in the times of my own darkness and doubt I have come out on the other side, strengthened. I know God loves me because even on the days I cannot even love myself, God looks at me and says “you are amazing!” And God looks at you the same way my brothers and sisters.

 

And do I know any of this for sure? Nope. I don’t know anything for sure when it comes to faith and God. But what I do know is that a life without God, at least for me, is too dark to imagine. In a world where the rhetoric of hate is quite strong dare I say even popular, I need to believe that something is better than this. God has a plan for you and for me. I hope you are able to trust in that, even if you are a type-A personality like me. Trusting God can be so maddening and so rewarding all at the same time. And even if you’re not at that place in your life yet, know that God loves you anyway and still protects you and has plans for you.

 

My brothers and sisters, my friend, my classmates, all of you are part of my story. You are part of one another’s stories. I am honored to have been here with you today to share a small part of our life’s journey together. I will keep all of you in my heart and in my prayers. May God protect you, watch over you, guide you, and love you, until our paths cross again. Which, for the record, cannot be soon enough. May God continue to bless you and may you continue to remember how much not only I love you but God loves you as well. Amen.

Sermon for 9/18/16 Luke 16:1-13

If you thought to yourself “well….that sounds like a confusing story, I don’t quite understand it all, thank goodness Pastor is here to explain it to me” have I got some good news for you! I don’t understand it either. I thought about the various things I could say to you off and on all week long. I knew I didn’t want to talk about money. It’s not because I’m afraid to talk about money. And it certainly isn’t because this text doesn’t talk about money, it does obviously. I didn’t necessarily want to focus solely on money this week because it’s not as easy as saying “worship God, don’t worship your money.” Money is a complex issue and means something different for everyone. Instead what I want to talk about today is self care. Stick with me, I promise it’ll all come together. I also want to talk about self care because I’m horrible with self care.

There are endless magazine articles, books, webinars, etc…on how to have the perfect balance in your life. Maybe it’s the work-home balance, the friends and family balance, whatever 2 forces you want to pit against one another, it’s always about balance. There is a misnomer that indeed, we can have it all! While at the same time we look at others around us, look at how they live their lives, and wonder “how do they do it all?” Really, can we all just agree to give up on the idea that we all have balance in our lives? Can we just give up the facade that we all have our shit together and just be honest with one another? Because the truth is this: the idea of balance exists to make us feel horrible.

There is no way that balance can exist in our lives because the focus of our attention changes day to day, maybe even minute by minute. Think about it like this: if you have 3 buckets that you are trying to fill with water and one springs a leak, are you going to keep trying to fill the other 2 up or are you going to stop and fix the leak? So let’s just stop pretending we have it all together or that balance is a good thing. There are people, tasks, and events in our lives that are just going to get more attention to others, that’s as simple as it is. Can we all just agree that we are going to stop trying to attain the unattainable goal of balance in our lives?

Now, please understand, I’m not advocating for chaos in our lives, but be willing to be flexible to have a little give and take. See, in today’s Gospel, Jesus isn’t chastizing the wealthy, although I can understand how it sounds like that. Instead, Jesus is calling our attentions to our loyalities. Jesus is calling attention, yes, to God, but also to whatever loyalties we have that draw us away from God and turn our attention elsewhere. Jesus is calling our attention to the ways that we spend our time, efforts, energy, and yes, money being creatures that God did NOT create us to be. When we’re not fully living into who God created us to be, we’re not being good to ourselves. And when we’re not being good to ourselves, we’re not being good to God. Let me be clear, being good to yourself, engaging in self care, is not a sacrifice or self serving; it does not make you a martyr. As strange as it sounds, being good to yourself points to the saving work of God and it may even give others hope of salvation.

Stick with me here, and follow closely, okay. When you take time to care for yourself, to feed yourself mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically, you are, in an essence, stating that you actually cannot do it all. When you rest or care for yourself, you allow others to see that they don’t need you. People are able to accomplish things without you because they are relying on God (instead of you). I once was asked a very simple question: “why Jesus?” The question basically was “why do you need/want Jesus in your life?” And the best answer I could come up with at the time (and I still believe it) is “because I cannot save myself.” When you take the time to care for yourself, you are a living, breathing example of God’s salvation. If we could save ourselves, we wouldn’t need Jesus, that’s for sure.

Jesus tells us that we cannot serve two masters. So, we cannot serve God and money. We cannot serve our job and our family. We cannot serve our boss and our hobbies. We cannot serve the desire to sleep and technology. Balance is a fallacy of human desires. When you try to serve anything but God, you will feel empty. And so God calls us to rest; to partipate in self-care. God calls us to sabbath. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with taking a break. Perhaps when we start to feel “off kilter” (so to speak) it’s because we’ve been working so hard to balance everything and that’s impossible. Brothers and sisters, there is only one savior and we are not him. There is only one who gives life, and we’re not him. There is only way to salvation, and it’s not through us.

And here’s the amazing thing, when we finally give in to God’s call to rest, the thing that God does is hospitality and comfort. God feeds us, washes us, clothes us (with mercy), allows us to rest, and ultimately, loves us. Don’t be afraid to say “no” every once in a while. And if someone says “why can’t you….” do whatever it is. Speak about God. Speak to God. Tell others “I’m going to rest. God is calling me to do that and that is what I am going to do because my salvation, and yours, is not up to me.” Will this be easy? Nope. Being busy and trying to balance everything is the American way. Will it be worth it? Totally. Think about the 23rd psalm: “he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.” It’s not “he leads me beside chaos and ball-juggling, he challenges me to keep going….” No. God invites us to a life of calm and rest. Let’s do away with the myth of balance and just serve the one who found that balance meant two arms outstretched and feed crudely balanced and nailed. We can’t save ourselves, friends. Let the scales tip in favor of God.

Sermon for 8/21/16 Luke 13:10-17

“I don’t know that I want to go to the ER,” I said, “there are a lot of people out there worse off than I am.” That is exactly what I said and an email to my doctor earlier this week. I was going on my 72nd hour of having a migraine. I could no longer function like a normal human being functions. I had already been to the emergency room once, but the migraine still persisted. This was the worst migraine I had experienced since giving birth to Ellen. And that also (at the time) put me back in the hospital. I was at a loss and had no idea what to do. The truth is, I was willing to try anything. But I did not like the idea of going back to the ER. I had gone just the day before and had to share a room with someone. That itself was not terrible. The fact that she had to bring her for-year-old daughter who knew only one volume for her speaking (which by the way, was obnoxiously loud) was what I was afraid of happening the second time around. In addition, this migraine caused me to be sensitive to light, sound, and smell. Going for a car ride was actually torture. If you have never had a migraine, I do not actually recommend it. But the doctor called me into her office. The nurse said we can give you something called Toradol for pain and something for the nausea. So, being willing to try anything at that point in time, I let the nurse stick two big needles in each arm. I had only been in pain for about four days. But the relief I received was almost instantaneous. I was never so glad to feel normal again, whatever that means.

The woman in our story today had been bent over and hurting for 18 years. 18 years. Can you imagine? Can you imagine being in pain for 18 years? For some of you, I know that this is not something you have to imagine. Some of you have been in pain for 18 years or longer. Some of you have been fighting one element after another, after another, after another. You seem to have one issue resolved, just to have another one pop right back up. If someone offered you relief, wouldn’t you take it? It wouldn’t matter what the circumstances would be, would you jump at the opportunity to be pain-free?

Maybe you have not been in physical pain for 18 years, but mental pain. Maybe you fight the demons of depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues that have you running to dark spaces. Maybe you fear to name your demons because then they become all too real. Maybe you keep to yourself because the shame and stigma associated with people like you is just too much to bear. Maybe you can name off all of your meds on one hand like they were the name of candy. Perhaps you thought about ending your life before God has called you home. Maybe you’ve thought about it more than once. Maybe you thought about it this morning. Maybe those demons are so dark that you dare not tell anyone else for fear of being chastised.

Maybe you are not in physical, or mental pain, but emotional pain. Maybe you are suffering from broken relationships that go longer than 18 years. Maybe you haven’t spoken with someone who you call “family” in over a generation. Maybe you know you have a brother, sister, mom or dad, or other relations that live close by, but never darken your doorstep. Maybe you have broken Friendships that are just too painful to speak of. Maybe you recall having a good friend who did something to betray your trust and that friendship is no longer. 18 years can seem like a short time when you think about denial or betrayal.

Or maybe, dare I say, you are not spiritually well. Maybe you have not been spiritually well in a long time. Perhaps the church made a decision you did not agree with, or a pastor did something that greatly disappointed you, and you have not been the same since. Maybe you decided that one Sunday you would just not come to church. And one Sunday turned into two Sundays, turned into three Sundays, turned into 18 years. And for some reason, God called you to this place this morning.

No matter what our ailments might be, my friends, I daresay, we all are battling something. And I think we may all be able to name something in our lives, that given the chance, we would jump at the opportunity to be healed. So for this woman who has been suffering for 18 years, and for us, it does not matter that Jesus comes to us on the Sabbath day. The leaders of the synagogue want him to obey the law to keep the Sabbath holy. But see Jesus sees the opportunity to do exactly what Jesus does: care for others. He cares not that this opportunity comes on the Sabbath. What if this woman had been suffering for 18 years and one more day would have literally killed her? Our call is the same as Jesus’: when the opportunity comes to heal or be healed, take it. And what does the woman do when she is healed? She immediately rises and begins to praise God. Now, I know it doesn’t say this in English, but in the original Greek text, the praising is in the form of ongoing praise. So this woman didn’t praise God once and walk away, but she praised God and praised God and praised God and praised God and continued on and on.

Those in the synagogue wanted to remind Jesus of the Jewish law. But, Jesus calls them out, asking them if they wouldn’t help one of their animals if it needed it. So we should do with humans. Then Jesus calls this woman a “daughter of Abraham” further shaping and molding the relationship at hand. God, through Jesus Christ, has freed her. In an unlikely place (a synagogue–not a hospital), on an unlikely day (the sabbath), and with an unlikely person (a woman), God makes God’s-self known. So often we want to place limits on what God can do, or the time in which God can do it, or even the people God can act through. What happens when we finally get to that point where we’re willing to do anything?? So is God. What do you need to be freed from today?

Do you need to be freed from frustration? Do you need to be freed from toxic relationships? Do you need to be freed from shame? How about doubt, do you need to be free of that? Do you need to be freed from unrealistic expectations or criticism? Maybe you need to be freed from yourself. Are you the thing that’s holding you back from God? Whatever it is you need freed from, God is here, in this place, at this time, and nothing can stop God. Lay what has you bent over at the foot of the cross and be free. Raise up your hands and eat. Open your mouth and drink. Splash in the waters and be reminded that no one, no thing, no illness, no powers on this earth have any claim to you. The one who claims you and calls you by name, who calls you “my daughter” or “my son” and who calls you “beloved” is waiting for you. God is waiting for you to free you. Freedom, for you. Given, for you. Your expectations, broken, for you. Your wholeness, for you.

 

Sermon for 8/7/16 Luke 12:32-40

“Do not be afraid,” and I stopped right there. Sure, Jesus. Whatever. Maybe you haven’t watched the news lately, God, but there’s plenty to be afraid of. Where do we even start? If you’re voting one way, you’re afraid of Hillary, if you’re voting another, you’re afraid of Donald. Maybe you’re afraid of both. There’s wars, black unarmed Americans dying at a staggering rate, police officers being killed in the line of duty, the zika virus, dirty drinking water in Flint, terrorism in general, hate, xenophobia, and not to mention stories on the news every single night over what I should and should not be eating. There is plenty to fear.

In the time of fear, there is a tendency to hold on to what we know is true, to what we know is pure, to what we know is maybe even permanent. When someone is having an anxiety attack, there is a practice called grounding to help that person feel in control again. Remember that sometimes anxiety is just fear rearing its ugly head. So the practice is that you have the person look around and name 5 things they can see, 4 things they can touch, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell, and 1 thing they can taste. The idea is that this might help someone feel in more control. When fear sets in, we want things that seem steadfast. And if we’re going to be honest, there is a lot of fear in our rhetoric these days.

I don’t know how many of you have seen this bumper sticker (“Jesus is coming. Look busy!”) but it always makes me laugh. The idea is that we should be prepared for Jesus’ return by not slacking off, by looking busy, by being busy. As if we aren’t busy we’re going to be doomed to a lifetime of eternal damnation. What if, instead of talking about Jesus’ return as dreadful and a time of judgement, we spoke of it as a time of anticipation, joy, and spoke of readiness in terms of being ready for blessings? And so, as we prepare to be ready, we are told “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Many preachers may use this text to guilt you into opening up your wallet. That’s not me. I want to take a different look at this verse today. What is it that you hold close to your heart? Most of us, if push came to shove, wouldn’t name the obvious material things. These are the things, that on the outside, look like nothing to someone else. But to us, they mean the world. For me, it’s my Grandmother’s bible, my grandfather’s bible (that he got at his own confirmation and carried through Korea), and a birthday card from my nannie that she signed in her own hand long after she could no longer see. And what you hold close to your heart says a lot about how you describe those possessions. My grandmother’s bible means so much to me because her notes are in it, she took it to Bible study every Sunday. It was the passages she underlined that got her through the death of my grandfather. When I see that Bible, I think of her strength. My grandfather’s Bible means so much to me because he hung onto it from confirmation, through a war, through adulthood. When you open it, you get the smell of must and mold, and I love it. When I see that Bible, I think of my grandfather’s gentleness and commitment to everything he did. That birthday card from my nannie means so much to me because she was at an age when she was having aids and family members do all of her writing for her: checks, letters, other correspondence, etc… She did this because at this time and until her death, she had lost the majority of her sight. But this birthday card she signed herself. I can picture her tracing the outline of the card and placing the pen carefully as she wrote “love, nannie.” This card reminds me of her perseverance in the face of challenges.

These possessions remind me more of my grandparents than anything else, it is a snapshot of all three of them. What is it then, Jesus asks us, that might be your treasure? What might it be that is a snapshot of the kingdom of God for you? What material possession could you point to that would be an outward sign of your faith? Something you received for your confirmation? That picture of Jesus that hung in Grandma’s house until she passed? The Bible that belonged to a trusted neighbor that taught you about faith and Jesus? “What is the one thing that if someone asked you about it, you would be able to give witness to your faith in God, your belief in the work of Jesus, your confidence in the presence of the Spirit?” (Karoline Lewis)

This thing, whatever it is, is a reminder of our own personal interpretation of the kingdom of God. It shapes the way we speak about God, about Jesus, the work of the Spirit, and the coming kingdom. And when it comes down to it, would you be able to put into words what your own personal spiritual vocabulary is? Because here’s the thing, when Jesus comes again (and he will come again) nothing else matters. It doesn’t matter how “good” you were, how many “holy” acts you think you’ve done, how much money you’ve put in the offering plate, not even how many cute little old ladies you helped to cross the street. What matters is this: what do you believe about God and can you articulate that?

The fear, of course, may not be that we can’t do it, but that we’ll get it wrong. We don’t want to articulate our faith because then that opens us up for criticism and critique. What if what I believe about Jesus and God isn’t the same as what my friends, spouse, family, or even pastor believes? What does that say about my faith? What if what I say is wrong? What if what I say isn’t really “Lutheran”? What if what I say is heretical? This is not a test over whether you know your catechism, whether you have memorized the ten commandments, or even if you know books of the bible. But what is it, what are the words that are on your heart, that express your faith? When I was getting ready to head to seminary, my home pastor, Pastor Ernie, said “if all else fails, remember this ‘Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.’” That carried me through many rough times in seminary.

In seminary we had to articulate our faith many many times. We had to state, out loud, what it is we believe about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. And then, more than once, we were questioned about that faith. We were questioned, not because we were wrong, but because this is our faith, and the words we use are important. I don’t know about you, brothers and sisters, but I am finding that we are living in an age where words are getting to be more and more important. Every single word we say is weighed with great importance. So when Jesus comes again, the treasure of your faith is all you will have. So, what do you have?

Here is my current working statement of faith. I say current and working because I realize that as I grow older, gain more experiences, and interact with more people, all of those things shape my faith and the way I see God acting in the world. My statement of faith is simple, I think. I believe that God loves all of God’s people with no exception. I believe that God’s grace is for everyone (whether you want it or not) and that the promise and hope of the resurrection is for all people who believe. That’s it. We are called to be disciples; to be witnesses to God’s redeeming work in this world for all people. The way we talk about that matters. God doesn’t expect us to have all the answers. God expects us to be a witness. That’s it (again).

Our faith is a treasure in and of itself. Our heart is in that treasure. We normally talk about Christ coming during Advent, but the truth is we should be prepared at any time. We should be prepared to welcome the King who will expect not to be waited on, but expect, maybe even demand, to wait on us. The master is coming to serve the servants. The way you think about your faith and the way you articulate your faith will directly affect the way you speak of Christ’s return. It will either be (fear) “CHRIST IS COMING!!!” or (joy) “Christ is coming!!”