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Messengers: A Sermon for Advent 2
December 11, 2017, 9:46 am
Filed under: Sermons

Mark 1:1-8

1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ ” 4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.

Today we read of John the Baptist crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” The Gospel interprets John as fulfilling the promise written in Isaiah, that God would send a messenger to prepare the way for God’s coming into the world. Get ready! God is coming!

In this season of Advent, we are busy preparing for Christmas, when we will celebrate that God enters human creation in Jesus’ birth. We also look for Jesus to come into our lives and our world. We look forward to Jesus transforming the way things are today into the way God intends for them to be. Advent is a time to prepare for and celebrate God’s arrival, remember those times we’ve known God’s presence, and look forward to becoming more fully aware of God with us always.

John the Baptist is called a messenger of God. His message is that someone powerful is coming, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. His message is meant to encourage people to get ready for this new one who is coming. They get ready by repenting- by turning away from their old way of life and starting on a new path, a path that will more closely align with the way of this new one to come. This inward intention to live a new way starts with an outward ritual. John is washing the people in the river, a baptism for forgiveness. It’s a baptism of preparation, to open the people up for a new message, God’s word, embodied in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one for whom the people are being prepared.

The gospel describes John as something of a spectacle, with a strange uniform and diet. That might be part of the draw- his different way of life. He appears out in the wilderness, away from the confines of society, in the wild lands where people have traditionally met and been guided by God. Any of you who go hunting or hiking may have experienced the openness to greater spiritual awareness that can come out in the wild. He was something different to see, and some of those who came out to hear him were affected and changed by his message. His persona made him an effective messenger of God.

When I think of my own life, however, it’s not the flashy people who have been the most effective messengers of God, but most often, those who simply shared their lives and their love- and in the context of those relationships, have shared their faith.

I always think first of my Grams. For much of my childhood, we lived just a few blocks away from my grandmother. It’s her church present in my earliest memories: the stained glass praying Jesus, embossed ceiling tiles, friendly Pastor June, and basement poles to swing around. I can still picture letters on her kitchen table. She was the sunshine person at her church, sending birthday cards and God’s love through the mail. She sang hymns with me next to her on the piano bench and brought me with to deliver meals on wheels. In her 80s, she’d accompany the nursing home on outings and push the old people around in their wheelchairs. Hers was a lifelong relationship of influence, showing me the way of God’s love through her own living and loving.

There have also been almost angelic visits from strangers, chance encounters where grace was spoken to me. We were in the cities last fall, as my husband interviewed at a church. I had the girls at a neighborhood playground, checking out the community and trying to wear them out. Grandparents were there with a whole gaggle of little ones. The grandmother sat down next to me with the youngest, a little baby, and began to chat. In the midst of my own uncertainty about my future, and sharing very little about it, this woman simply reflected on the variety of vocations to which God calls us. She didn’t pry into my life or tell me what to do, but offered her perspective. She reflected that too often we feel like we have to do all the things- be everything- right now, at the same time, but perhaps it’s ok to have seasons in life, with a time for everything. She helped me lay aside the pressure I had been feeling in order to be more open to discovering God’s new way forward in my life.

As pastor, it’s been more often the case that people look to me to hear a message of good news than they’ve been eager to share God’s message for me. There was a time when my little church in North Dakota was struggling with simply being really nasty to each other. They were afraid, a lot of change had happened in their community, and they were taking it out on each other- and on me. One morning after I had served everyone communion, I was left standing at the table alone. Then Tom got up. He wasn’t he most steady on his feet anymore, but he took the body of Christ into his callused farmer hands, and he fed me God’s love and promise. He gave me the joy of knowing that God was there for me, too.

These three were messengers of grace- of God’s unending love for me.

Who are God’s messengers in your lives?

If there’s someone you’ve been picturing, who’s been a messenger to you, I hope you take time this season to tell them. Give them the joy of knowing that they’ve been able to do something for you- and for God. Some of our messengers are no longer with us, some have gone into death to be held in God’s promise of resurrection. Have you noticed that we pray in thanksgiving for them every Sunday? We give thanks for the saints who have inspired us and we ask for courage to wait to be reunited again with them. We remember that they have mattered in our lives.

You are God’s messengers today. As a congregation, we’re wondering what evangelism means for us and how we go about doing evangelism. Behind that sometimes scary word is the action of sharing the message- being God’s messengers of good news- within the relationships we already have and the new ones we are growing. It’s living our lives in a way that allows others to come alongside us and see what difference faith makes.

I wonder if you messengers have had the joy of knowing how your message was received? Have you been able to hear how your maybe powerful, maybe clumsy sharing of God’s good news mattered to someone else? Has anyone ever told you what you’ve meant to them, even when you weren’t trying to do anything different? I hope you have heard from those people you’ve affected. From my perspective, I see you making a difference. It’s not up to us to save people, Jesus has already done that, but I know that you are effective in strengthening people in their faith and being an encouraging example of living in the joy of faith. We spread the seeds of faith and trust in God to bring faith to flower.

The goods news we are sharing is that God has arrived and is arriving. God has come into the wilderness areas of our lives, where we have been lost, afraid, and uncertain of the path forward. God has come into the love and feast times of our lives, reveling in our joy. God is here, with a promised future of good for all peoples and all creation.

If calling yourself evangelist or even messenger seems a bit too daunting, you might consider yourself a mentor or a fellow sojourner. We walk the path together, sometimes able to help another along, and at others, needing the guidance of another. We’re not building the way, but we’re following it and helping each other live into it. It’s Jesus’ way, Jesus’ path that we are following.

God’s way is being established. This is the Kingdom of God- the new way of living that welcomes all people, ends violence, brings healing, and ensures that all have what they need to live in dignity and worth. I hear a vision of God’s way in Psalm 85, “Steadfast love and faithfulness have met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Faithfulness shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.” This is where the path we are following leads: love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace.

Pastor Michelle, who serves over in Superior at Concordia, shared the perfect image for this contemplation of following in God’s way as it’s being made straight and level. She grew up in North Dakota, where the winters are harsher. With no trees or hills to block the wind, it doesn’t take much snow to whip up a blizzard. She remembered walking to church one Christmas Eve, her parents in front, blocking the wind from pushing down the little ones. They followed behind, literally stepping into their parents footsteps. Little feet finding the way forward more easily because mom and dad had pressed down the snow in front of them.

That’s what we are all about. We’re called to make that path a little more easy to find, a little more easy to travel. We follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before us. We keep our eyes raised to see the destination ahead. God will bring us to that promised land, where we will be welcomed as sheep into the fold, to live in peace and joy forever.

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Waiting: A Sermon for Advent 1
December 4, 2017, 4:33 pm
Filed under: Sermons

Isaiah 64:1-9

1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence– 2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. 6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. 8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.

 

The holiday season means a lot of driving for my family. Being up north this year makes things a little easier, but in past years we spent the week of Christmas criss-crossing our way throughout Wisconsin- south to north, east to west, north again, and back on south.

 

With two little kids in the back seat we hear quite often, “are we there yet?” “How much longer?” interspersed with “I’m hungry” and “Can we listen to princess music?” Then back to “I’m bored, when are we going to get there?”

 

Surely no one can sympathize?

 

Every time we get near my in-laws Jeff says to the girls, “Well, we’re still going to be driving for a while, you probably should try to go to sleep.” Then he pulls into the driveway and turns off the car and the girls giggle and shout- we’re here!

 

This season of Advent puts scripture to the sense of “are we there yet?!” we feel as we look around the world and look at our lives. We proclaim faith in a God who conquered death- and yet we see people suffering grief. We celebrate Jesus as Prince of peace- and yet we hear news of war and missile tests.

 

We’re almost there and yet feel so far away.

 

During this season, we express our longing for a change. We need God to do something! It’s a longing we share with generations of the faithful. Isaiah voices the peoples’ prayer, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence-“

 

God, do something! Come here, come now.

 

Isaiah uses this beautiful imagery-

 

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—”

 

(30 sec fire video) I want God to be that quick spark that blazes into a hot fire, transforming the state of the water in an instant. From lighting to steam- like that *snap.

 

But that’s not really the way things happen. Unless you’re making a video for youTube or trying to impress your friends and maybe burn down your home in the process, you don’t douse a tree with gasoline and light it up.

 

A spark lights the kindling and then fire catches on the bigger sticks and then the logs and then when the fire is going decently, you put the pot on and wait for it to boil. It’s a delicate process that takes time and attention.

 

God has answered Isaiah’s prayer. God has come down. For these next four weeks, we move towards a celebration of God’s arrival in the birth of a son. God is still arriving into our world.

 

In this season, we remind each other to stay awake, so we don’t miss the signs of God’s arrival. Sometimes God’s presence might be as obvious as that tree lighting up, and at others, it’s as if God is a spark smoldering underground, eager to pop up at any place, any time.

 

God will get this fire of justice and renewal burning. God will bring peace- healing- meaning. The transformation of the world not something God needs us for. But, it’s something God invites us in to.

 

I think of our role in bringing God’s kingdom like the holiday cooking in my kitchen.

 

I like to cook and I like things a certain way, so it’s usually better for everyone if they just give me a wide berth and let me do my thing. Then I can do it all and present the finished product to oohs and ahhs. Everyone can admire the finished product.

 

Things are changing in my kitchen. Little ones want to be involved. Friends and family want to be helpful. I’m becoming more open to sharing the work. Then all of us get to see the transformation first hand. We enjoy the completed masterpiece that much more for having been a part of moving from raw meat, bottles of spices, dirty vegetables, and cupboards of dishes to a set table with steaming dishes. With Lydia on the step stool next to me, our measurements aren’t always completely accurate, but it’s a joy for her to be a part of it and for me to share this work together.

 

I think it’s God’s joy to share with us space in the kitchen as God cooks up the Kingdom among us. God’s not The Little Red Hen, who asks her friends to help her bake a loaf of bread, and after they all deny her, she bakes it herself and shares with no one. God is willing to open to the new kingdom to all, not requiring them to gather the wheat or crack the kernels or knead the dough or keep the fire burning. God doesn’t need anything from us. Yet we have been created in God’s image with the impulse to create- to cook up God’s vision of a world in which all are loved and valued and sustained in life forever.

As novice chefs, we can make things a little more messy, but we get the joy of being awake to the Kingdom emerging around us. We’re not to the banquet yet, but we can smell the aromas and we are invited into the kitchen to learn the recipe.

 

We’ve come here because we want to be active participants in God’s kingdom cooking, God’s sparking into being a new world. We gather gifts and warm clothes because we hear God’s intention that all the world be clothed and cared for. We share communion and cookies at tables in sanctuary and fellowship hall because we know Jesus welcomes all people into one community. We name those places of brokenness and hurt with trust that Jesus, the God who came to be with us was crucified, remains with those who suffer, and will bring them into a resurrected way of life.

 

Last week, as we drove to Jeff’s folks for Thanksgiving, Lydia piped up from the back seat, “Daddy, do that thing you do when we go to Granny and Papa’s.” We were confused at first. “When we pretend to go to sleep,” she prompted. Ah. She’s learned a rhythm to how we prepare to arrive. She can’t quite understand how many miles, how many minutes remaining in the journey, but she understands the ritual that tells us we are close.

 

It helps us to wait, when we have something to encourage us that we are almost there. That’s the gift of the tradition in this season. Whether you light an Advent wreath, turn on the Christmas music, or wrap presents, may these rituals serve to strengthen you in your waiting. They point us towards the celebration of Christmas and the unfolding of what God is doing through Jesus’ birth. God is continuing to come down, to be found among us, and to pull us forward into a new kingdom of peace and joy and good will.

 

 

 

 



Who will be saved? A Sermon on Romans 10:5-15
August 28, 2017, 12:21 pm
Filed under: Sermons

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Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.

 

Are you worried about the future of the church? Or maybe its current state? It’s great if you’re not. But if you are, you’re not alone.

 

If you browse through listings of church conferences or skim some of the latest church leadership books, you’ll get the idea that plenty of people are afraid about the decline of the Church.  Attendance is down! Offering is down! The Church is down! There’s lots of fear and lots of blame. There are plenty of people trying to sell solutions and strategies. Fear sells books.

 

At one of my first call events, where the synod office gets together the newest pastors, we were told that us younger new pastors probably wouldn’t spend our ministries in full time calls. There wouldn’t be enough churches with resources to pay salaries, so we’d better think now about what additional job we might be able to have. After eight years of school and the debt to prove it, that certainly gave me reason to fear about the future of the church.

 

So, fear’s out there. But I don’t think that’s what I hear most expressed from people in my congregations. I hear sadness. Maybe that’s mixed with fear, and it certainly can be expressed in many destructive ways, but I think that sadness is more personal. People are sad because they see others missing out on the faith.

 

I’ve sat with grandparents angry about the way Sunday School is being taught and after listening to them, we’ve discovered that they’re really just sad that their own children aren’t involved in church and certainly aren’t passing on the faith to their children in the way that they had once tried to do for them.

 

If there’s failure there, who’s is it? Did the grandparents do something wrong in their raising of their children? Are their children failing at teaching faith to the grandchildren? Has the church failed to reach out? Is it all the pastor’s fault?

 

Or is it that one behind it all, the One we’re hesitant to blame aloud… Is it God’s fault that our churches are getting smaller, the younger generations- and frankly, even the older- aren’t coming to worship, and so many people say they aren’t religious?

 

At it’s root, this isn’t a new question. The old question is “why are some people faithful – some believers- and others not?”

 

 

 

The Apostle Paul tackles this question in the book of Romans. There’s some debate over whether Paul is writing to the community of Christ followers in Rome who are Jewish, or the community of Christ followers in Rome who are non-Jewish, Gentiles. Paul is Jewish, and after an experience of the risen Jesus became a passionate follower of Jesus. He pushes the boundaries and goes outside of the Jewish community to witness to God’s work through Jesus to the Gentiles. Paul goes to those who had never worshipped God in the first place. Paul believes that in Jesus, God is reaching out to a wider group of people. God is doing a new thing in welcoming in those who were outside the promise.

 

We’ve been reading from Romans for a while now. Paul is confusing to follow, especially when his argument os all broken up like it is for our worship readings. Lately, we’ve heard Paul say “nothing can separate us from the love of Christ” and -I’d cut myself off from Christ if it meant I could get my own people to be a part of what God is doing in Christ.

 

Last week, we heard Paul cry out his sadness. Paul is writing that his own people are missing out on the joy and freedom found in Jesus Christ. They are trying to make themselves right with God by following the law God gave. Paul points his audience towards Christ. Jesus brings God’s word into believers in a way that changes what is inside hearts and what comes out of mouths.

 

Jesus has come for all people. Paul wants both his Jewish people and more people to come to see the gifts God gives through Jesus so they are not satisfied until they all rejoice in God’s love shown to us through Jesus.

 

Paul writes that he is having a hard time figuring out why people aren’t believers. He’s especially struggling with the question of why people who were raised in the faith- why his fellow Jews who studied the Torah (the first Bible) aren’t recognizing that their God has acted in Jesus Christ. How can they be missing out?

 

As Paul tries to figure this out, he explores the concept of election. Election means that God chooses. As Paul describes it, God chooses some people to have faith; God hardens the hearts of others. It has nothing to do with anything that person does or doesn’t do. It’s just because God is powerful and God gets to choose and so God does.

 

Election’s a concept religious people have argued about for centuries- millennia. Is it how God works? How do we know if someone is elected for salvation? How can that possibly be fair or merciful? Is the hardened heart a temporary state that God will change into faith? In the end, we simply don’t know.

 

I think Paul’s trying to work things out for himself as he writes. He tries out ideas he may not settle on. By the end, he comes to express what I find most compelling – a sense that God chooses to be gracious. God chooses to be expansive in welcoming people, in saving people.

 

As Lutherans, we confess with Luther’s Small Catechism that it’s the work of the Holy Spirit to create faith. We can’t come to God on our own. We can’t choose God. We’re always only going to choose ourselves. It’s God working within us that draws us to God.

 

I know that’s not really satisfactory when you’re worried about your children who tell you they no longer believe. It’s not really enough when you’re feeling like God’s not here and wonder why you are.

 

If this question of why some are faithful and others not has ever kept you up at night, especially as you pray over loved ones, rest in God’s steadfast love and mercy. Part of the reason we’ve spent so much time reading through Genesis this summer is so that we can hear again those first promises God made to God’s people. Over and over, God repeats the promise of blessing, land, descendants, and relationship to people who are both faithful and not trusting. We’ve read psalms of God’s steadfast love that doesn’t fail us even when we have failed. We hear of Jesus’ compassion, giving abundantly to crowds who have disturbed his time away, immediately saving those who have such little faith. When we are not faithful, God is. God acts with grace, welcoming in those we would think unacceptable.

 

This election stuff is hard to wrap our minds around, and I’m not sure that Paul himself was convinced that’s really how God works anyway. But it does remind us that God’s action is beyond our control. We can’t really change what God is choosing to do in giving or withholding salvation. That doesn’t mean we should just give up and figure there’s nothing we can do to affect the faith lives of those around us. God has called us to a mission. We’re called to be disciples who share the good news of God’s love through Jesus with all the world.

 

We’re workers, but not saviors. It’s up to God to create faith. We can have a part in giving that faith a foothold. We can help create spaces in which faith is wanted and nourished.

Paul gets in to our role in verse 12 and following:

12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” 14But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?

 

Paul wants all people to want more of God. But, before they can want more, they have to know there is something more to want.

 

Our pantry door is in the process of being fixed. It’s been a month since I took it off its hinges so I could replace the track. For that month, every time I walk through the kitchen I can see what’s on the shelf. On the top shelf, supposedly a little more difficult to reach, is a box of brownies. With the door closed, it’s out of sight, out of mind. With no door, they’re in my line of sight… I want them and I want them now!

 

Paul wants us to be people who take off the door and show what’s there to want from God. Paul calls us to be the people who show such joy in our Christian lives that others wonder what it is we have- and they want it for themselves.

 

We have a job to do so that we can have the joy of being a part of what is ultimately God’s job alone.

 

We can look the church in America and feel sad that it doesn’t look like it did in the 1950s. We can feel like we’ve failed or God’s failed because the Sunday School isn’t full and money isn’t more.

 

When we read Paul’s letter to the Romans, we find hope. Paul’s own struggle is with his perception that his own people have failed in their faithfulness. But then Paul realizes that God’s not finished yet. As Paul continues in Romans, he claims salvation for more and more people. He’s paying attention to God’s long game, not the momentary losses. At the moment in which he lives, his own people might be missing out, but God is not done with them yet. God’s taking God’s time in order to expand the community.

 

Listen to his progression, from chapter 10

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” 10:13

 

Then in chapter 11, he considers the Jewish people, named Israel, who aren’t worshipping Jesus:

“So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” 11:11-12

 

Paul says God’s doing more than expected in order to be more gracious to all people. At Paul’s time, God is bringing in those who were outside. When those outside are brought in, then those who were inside and then walked away will be met as they walk away with God’s lovingkindness- God’s grace.

 

By 11:26, he writes “and so all Israel will be saved.” There is a past, present, and future in God’s plan of salvation. God’s coming back around for everyone.

 

At the end of his long, exploring argument, Paul places this matter back into God’s hands. That’s where we also find an end to our fears. God is lovingkindness and God’s the one who holds all people.

 

Romans 11:36 “For from God and through God and to God are all things. To God be glory forever. Amen.



Scripture’s Silencing: A Sermon for Lectionary 17 Genesis 29:15-28
August 2, 2017, 9:33 am
Filed under: Sermons

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Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.

When I started at St. Olaf College, I was an uncertain religion major with a complicated view of Christianity. I’d had the joy of a loving, active congregation and also stood on the frontline of church division and saw the ranks defecting their post and their pastor. I’d found comfort and hope in the pages of the Bible, and also felt the pain of those holy words turned against me. So there I was, at one of our ELCA colleges, trying to work out my faith in the pages of my first assignments.

I titled it, “Between Eve and Mary,” (or something like that) spending my word count fumbling into my first feminist criticism. I asked what was there for me as I tried to sort out my identity and purpose in a Bible that boiled down two possibilities for women- either the cause of men’s fall as the temptress or the bearer of men’s salvation as the impossible virgin mother.

My philosophy professor had once considered a call into ministry himself, so it was with a pastor’s heart that he steered me back into grace. Where I had angrily written Genesis 1: “In the image of God, he created them, male and female he created them,” my professor emphasized “and female,” calling me to reclaim my sex’s place as part of the original blessing. That helped me move forward into discovering new voices and other ways of being Christian than what I had felt trapped into.

When we open up to Genesis today, and read the next chapter of life for the chosen family, I find myself sinking down again.

Jacob has come to find a wife and falls for Rachel. He strikes a deal with her father Laban, buying her in exchange for seven years of labor. When Laban switches daughters in the marriage bed, Jacob is stuck with older sister Leah as he wife. Leah’s like a prom dress you can’t return because you took off the tags and wore it.

We may have started this story out with a romantic scene at the local watering hole, as Jacob first sets eyes on Rachel, but it quickly spirals into women being sold for profit. The literal exchange is, Laban- “I don’t want you to work for free. Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Jacob, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”

We don’t hear the women’s voices. Unlike other women in scripture, they do have the honor of being named. Keeping them straight will be important as they become the mothers of the 12 tribes of Israel.

At this point in Jacob’s story, we see a fascinating shift as Jacob moves from his upbringing in his mother’s tent to “being a man.” I’ve been reading a book on Genesis by Dr. Miguel De La Torre in which he has a discussion of Jacob being raised outside the world of men. When he meets Rachel, he serves her, uncovering the well, watering her sheep. He speaks to her and listens. But then when he comes to Laban’s house, he steps into another realm and slips into the power given to him. He becomes a willing participant in a system that uses women as currency and incubators of the sons of the promise.

So what do we do with a text like this when we find something distasteful in its sanctified treatment of the characters? Do we chalk it up to a different culture with a foreign way of entering marriages? Focus on the romance and ignore the other parts? Use it as another reason religion has no relevance today?

I could get on my soapbox and rage against the patriarchy, maybe I’ve already done that, or I could press on to feel a bit more of the power of this text. Noticing how much I identify with the women who have been forced to be voiceless and powerless, I could wonder when I have silenced others. When have I been as Jacob and Laban, authors and readers of scripture, who simply didn’t notice or care that they were undermining half of humanity. I could roll my eyes at this text, or I could turn my sight inward.

Looking through this text into our lives, we see our own complicity in systems of power that benefit us at the expense of seeing others as less than fully human. We have sinned, by what we have done and what we have left undone. A text like this calls for repentance.

It’s time to confess that we have lived benefiting from having some named group of outsiders to blame or exclude. We’ve called ourselves holy and in the right while pointing at other who are doing it wrong, and that’s helped us feel better about ourselves and be drawn closer together as a community.

We’ve done ministry in a way that requires passive recipients of our good news and good works without first listening to people identify needs and strengths and giving them the agency to decide how- if at all- we might be invited to minister alongside them.

We’ve mouthed Biblical platitudes thoughtlessly, without bringing the whole witness to bear on a situation. This happens when an abused spouse is told staying in the marriage with its hurt is a cross to bear. Not helpful, and not true to God’s intention for us.

We repent from our silence, our ducked heads, our going with the flow so as to not create any waves, when something didn’t threaten us directly enough to merit action. We’ve done nothing so as not to offend, to keep the peace, and keep ourselves safe.

We need God’s forgiveness for those times when we judge others as less than human. For when we keeps costs down by devaluing the well-being of others. When we’ve gambled with other’s safety and spent the resources our children will need.

Church, we’re a community whose worship begins with confession. That may be one of the greatest gifts we offer our culture. We practice saying we’ve been in the wrong, and that we don’t have the power within ourselves to do it right. We need help to live with love and justice. God forgives us and empowers us to continue to work towards God’s kingdom.

We’re not only the ones stepping on others to get ahead, we’re also the ones being ground down. We need God’s assurance that God sees us as people with worth and value, especially when the world tells us we are not enough- because of our bank accounts, or the way we look, our education, or our jobs, our skin color, abilities, struggles, nationality, language, culture, gender identity, or the family we love.

God makes that assurance to you through Jesus. Jesus proves the depth of God’s love for you, the great worth in which God values you. Our Romans text declares “neither death nor life, nor rulers, nor powers… nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus”- there is no cost that would outweigh your value, nothing that would be too great to pay, in God’s loving work of claiming you as God’s own beloved, good, valued creation.

Jesus’ actions make us reevaluate the value of other persons and of all creation. Jesus was challenged and changed by his encounters with people outside his community. He moved from preaching exclusively to the people of Israel to healing foreign women and sending his disciples to the ends of the earth. He welcomed little children, who were seen as prehuman, and named them models of faith. He willingly choose the experience of the blamed outsider and carried the rage and guilt of the community. The good news of his resurrection was first entrusted to the women among his disciples. Jesus’ life and death resets the scales of value, replacing our miserliness with his abundance. The kingdom Jesus is ushering in has room for all to be especially precious to God, and no one less so than another.

God’s resurrecting Jesus is God’s affirmation of his work. The one whose radical welcome led to his being killed is the one who is raised from the dead. Jesus’ way of being is validated in the resurrection. Our “no” is met with God’s “yes.”

Jesus’ coming to us, dying and rising, changes how we know God, how we read the Bible, and how we seek to live in response. Scripture is not a once and done event, but the unfolding witness of a creation encountering God and being inspired as they compile, edit, and record that witness. We are not a once and done church, but a community that is continually in the process of being reborn as we sin, are forgiven, reformed, and sent out into the world to witness to our encounter with God and join God at work.

God is using us, works in progress, to reclaim the value of each person God has so lovingly made. We’re going to mess it up sometimes, but we can’t let that scare us away from trying. At the end of the day, God’s going to restore this whole creation. In the new day God is bringing, we will be one community of beloved people, finally able to look at ourselves and each other as beings of worth.



Exposed and Covered by Grace: A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
January 22, 2017, 4:36 pm
Filed under: Sermons

Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.

When we were living in North Dakota, we had a very long laundry line that basically took up our entire backyard. About 15 feet on the other side of the line was our neighbor’s house. So if our neighbor was in his kitchen, doing dishes, and looked out, he could read the logos on our t-shirts hanging in the breeze.

I never hung any underwear on our line.

From childhood taunts, “I see London, I see France, I see Suzy’s underpants” to high school dress codes to admonitions in seminary preaching classes – “don’t show your exegetical undergarments”— I’ve been formed to know you don’t go showing what you’re supposed to be covering up.

The thing is, we all have bodies, we all have variously shaped underclothes to hold our variously shaped bodies, and there’s nothing new or surprising about that. I was surprised then, one day while watching one of my favorite shows- “Call the Midwife”- set in 1950s urban England- to see a scene of laundry hanging between the flats. I noticed that there were all manner of undergarments and I was surprised that I had reaction of embarrassment that was simply not shared by the people in that culture. People have clothes, clothes get dirty, they get wet when washed, and they need to dry, and the way you dry clothes is to hang them out, which has the side effect of being visible to your neighbors.

Those are the facts. There’s nothing really to be embarrassed about. It’s pretty pointless to try to hide what we all know about each other.

When we read Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, it feels a bit like we’re noticing their undies on the line. We’re hearing about those cracks in their community we think we’re expected to hide. But what if the invitation is not to hide from our humanity, but to acknowledge each other’s? And in recognizing that we all have things under the polished image we’d like the show the world, might we learn how to deal with those not so pretty bits- and even more importantly, might we discover grace and live in grace towards each other?

Let’s enter the text with humility and compassion- for the Corinthians and for ourselves.

Paul has just greeted the Corinthians with a typical opening, and reminded them of a vision of who they are called to be, as he writes:

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5 for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift 

Within that thanksgiving are veiled references to the struggles Paul will address in this letter. It doesn’t take him much longer to become more direct.

We’ve only read 10 verses when we come to the first uncovering of the trouble in the community. Paul writes,

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 

Divisions? Disagreements? What’s this all about? He continues,

11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 

Ah. Factions have formed within the one community. The problem is that people within the community are claiming adherence to one teacher or another. In Paul’s culture, in which you might be a disciple of one rabbi or another, this is understandable. You might follow one teacher and interpret the scripture through that teacher’s lens. The problem is that they are using their affiliation as a source of justification and division. It’s like they’re going up to each other and saying, “I”m following the right teacher and yours is wrong.” Or- “You’re believing lies.” Or- maybe they’re trying to keep away from those who are interpreting from a different point of view.

Was there a pros and cons list followers were carrying around for Paul, and Apollos, and Cephas, and those “always have the right answer group” claiming Christ?

Paul calls them on it. He’s not interested in having his name used in their game, writing “thank God that I baptized none of you… except Cripus and Gaius…” (1:14). Paul knows it’s not about him. He may have been the one called to spread the word, but it’s been the word about Jesus, not about Paul himself. It’s been the word about the cross, not something wise or glorious, flashy or entertaining. Paul knows he’s human and has plenty of failings, and he’s ok pointing those out just to help the Corinthians break away from their focus on having the right group.

Your teacher, your pastor, your church affiliation, in the end, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is Christ. If Paul’s clear on saying he doesn’t want his name dragged into this argument, I can only imagine how clearly Christ would shout his disapproval.

I think we all can picture pretty clearly what it looks like to have a church broken up into factions. Many of us have ears ringing with memories of heated discussion and accusations. We also know what it is to weigh different schools of thought- different interpretations of the scriptures. Maybe some have not, but I think many of us have had plenty of time in prayer and study, discerning what teachings we want to live out of. We have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in the Corinthian community. It can be pretty uncomfortable for this kind of division to be named and brought out in the open.

Frankly, I think many of us have found it embarrassing for this church to have its name spoken out in public along with phrases like, “they’re having problems” or “they’re leaving the ELCA.” But, I don’t think it has to be. There’s nothing new with having divisions within the church. There’s nothing new to being emotional or having a temper or turning away instead of working it out. We don’t have to be ashamed of having a problem that is pretty typical. We’re not called to hide away our struggle. But we are called to be open to God’s word to us:

We’re in the same boat as the Corinthians, and so, more than ever, from the page of the Bible to our ears, Paul’s speaking to us: “Has Christ been divided?” (1:13)

Is Christ a measurable quantity that exists to a greater degree in one church over another? Can one group claim Jesus and be right in saying the other does not have him? No, of course not. In Colossians we read that in Jesus “all things hold together”  (1:17) and “there is no longer Greek or Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all” (3:11)— all the groups into which we divide ourselves mean nothing to Christ, he transcends our boundaries. Further on in First Corinthians, Paul will talk of the Body of Christ, holding all the very different members of the body into one being. There might be differences among people, but there is one Jesus Christ who holds them all together- only one Jesus Christ who decides that each of them has a part in him.

The problem is that we tend to be afraid that Jesus will decide we don’t have a part in him. This makes us do crazy things. Our fear grows a festering sense of shame that divides community and pulls us away from Christ.

We don’t have to play the shame game when we realize there are divisions among us. We don’t have to let shame drive us to cover up by exposing other’s faults. So much of our lives is caught up in trying to look better than we are, to pretend we have fewer faults than our neighbors, to claim righteousness and holiness. Paul calls all that what it is: foolishness.

Because we who claim Jesus see things upside down to the way the world sees things. We claim something the world sees as foolish: the cross as the highest wisdom. We name the cross as the throne of our God. Looking through the cross, we see what seems wise is really foolish.

We’re so used to thinking according to the ways of this world that what God’s doing in the cross really doesn’t make sense. Why would God choose to be exposed in shame?

God goes to the cross to upend all our expectations about needing to hide the truth about who we are. On the cross, God declares:

I’m here for you.

You’ve gotten it all totally, horrible wrong, all my teachings, all my intentions, and yet, I’m still going to love you. 

You can’t do anything nasty enough to make me budge, I’m not going to turn away from you, 

I’m not going to turn on you. 

All your lists of right and wrong, holy and sinful, are upside down and twisted around, 

it’s time to realize I’m not a God about lists of naughty and nice, 

I’m a God who keeps no score, who washes away sin, 

who declares you beloved even while you are covered in the muck of sin, and who makes you new 

I’m bringing you along on the path towards a more whole creation. 

I’m here for you, because I know how very much you need me, and I’m willing to do everything to love you into life.

The foolishness of claiming affiliation to the one right teacher is exposed by the Jesus Christ who comes from God and hangs despised on a tree. Because that Jesus doesn’t do the “right” thing at all. He doesn’t follow the rules. He follows God’s love.

God’s love is a dangerous and wild force that rips out of our hands any tallies of in or out, right or wrong, welcome or not. God’s love carries us up out of ourselves and our preoccupations with self-righteousness and centers us in the wonder of grace.

The cross unravels our need for division. We align ourselves with the right group so that we can feel justified that we’re believing the right things and doing the right things, and so that we have an opposing group to point to as our foil. It helps us avoid looking at the things we don’t like in ourselves and keeps others from discovering how we are broken.

But if the cross is about Jesus choosing to stand with us in our brokenness, if Jesus already knows about everything we’re trying to hide, and if that hasn’t made him run from us, but is actually what is making him run towards us, then maybe we don’t have to be afraid or ashamed anymore. This is grace: that God loved us when we were most unloveable. Living in that grace, we can say with bold confidence, I am broken, but I am also beloved. We can look out- at those we’ve once pushed away- and know that about them: you are broken, but you are also beloved.

Living in grace, shame and judgement have no place. Without shame and judgement, division cannot be fueled. There will still be differences. The twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians is all about how differences are necessary. Different lens for interpretation, different ways of living out the gospel, different organizing structures, different styles, different gifts and different failings- but grace gives room for difference because it is centered in unexpectedly wide love.

We no longer have to hide what is a given about us- that in this life, we struggle. We can be outrageously open with the good news- that our struggle gives us occasion to learn even more deeply God’s love for us, and opportunity to live in to the experience of forgiveness, reconciliation, and freedom that Jesus’ cross opens for us.

Display for your neighbors to see: you’re a work in progress, and the master craftsman is forming you into people who rely on God’s grace and who show that grace to others.



Wastelands becoming Gardens: A Sermon for Advent 3, Isaiah 35:1-10
December 12, 2016, 5:16 pm
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , , ,

Bible Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.

 

Have you ever gone into a place after a disaster? A fire, flood, or tornado?

Maybe you were there to help, or to visit friends, or maybe it was home- before.

What was once familiar becomes a strange wasteland.

(Something that looks like this…)

I’ve been lucky to not have my own home destroyed. I’ve seen pictures on the news, driven through areas after the storm. When I see a neighborhood filled with flood waters, I have a hard time imagining toddlers on their trikes and kids zooming on their bikes, up and down streets that are now a lake. When I see a house demolished- exploded- by a tornado, I can’t imagine sitting down at the dinner table.

 

But for the families who called those places home, what might be hardest to imagine is how the memory and the present reality could be one and the same place. How could it be that sacred, safe home is no more?

Once the shock wears off, and the fact that this is what it is hits, then how can one go forward?

 

You can look back into your memories and remember what once was- you can stand in the midst of the present destruction and see that it is so horribly different- but can you possibly believe there could be something good again?

 

That’s the place the people of God were at, when they heard these words of God through Isaiah, and when they came back in later generations to listen to them again. These texts give a vision forward. For the people of God who have been conquered by the Babylonian Empire, who lived in exile, everything they knew had been destroyed. Their homes, their government, even God’s temple– all destroyed.

 

How could they hope for a change for the better?

 

God gives them hope. God gives them an image to hold on to – and a promise that this image is a sign of their future:

“the desert shall rejoice and blossom”

“the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water”

Isaiah’s images are of a creation restored, brought to greater life.

 

These images challenge the resignation of “it is what it is,” they don’t leave room for, “nothing’s going to change.” They promise, “God’s going to change it all!”

 

 

The defining feature of a desert is that it doesn’t rain much, and so it doesn’t blossom often. The energy is only put forth when there’s enough water, when it’s safe. A blossoming desert is a land trusting God will continue to provide in abundance what was once scarce, life.

 

Imagine – if we have a God who can turn the desert into a lake- what else might God be able to do? What could possibly be too big for our God?

 

Our God makes the lame to leap, the blind to see, the deaf to hear. Those who are resigned to life as it is will be surprised in joy. That’s the promise God has for us.

 

The question is- are we ready to be open to hope? Will we look to God, trusting that God will fulfill our longing for healing and life? Have we found the one worthy of our trust?

 

That’s the question John the Baptist had of Jesus. “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for, or should we look for another?” Jesus’ answer is to direct his attention to the signs around- just as promised through Isaiah, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

 

In their time, people living with different abilities weren’t completely allowed in to society, so these “healings” really meant being brought to greater life when it certainly seemed impossible that their lives could change.

Jesus himself is the final sign – the final proof- that we can trust in God. There’s nothing our God can’t do. God raises the dead. Jesus is alive.

 

Since God can make the desolate places become gardens, the pushed aside brought back into community, the dead man come to life, we have hope that the brokenness in and around us can be restored to life.

 

We can look back and remember the way things were, look now and see it isn’t as we need it to be, and look ahead through God’s promise to the good future that will be.

 

We live in the middle times. Where are you in the midst of desolation? Where do you look back and remember the way things were- and feel pain at the way things are today? Maybe you can’t even remember a time when things were good.

 

Look out ahead. Listen to God’s promise. Can you see the new future God intends?

 

We’re here to help each other see. When we feel like the path forward is a wall of fog, we gather here to hear God fill in the details of that path forward. We gather together to rely on each other’s strength. We can be like John’s disciples, bringing news of the signs that God is at work to restore all things.

 

The wasteland will become a garden, the devastation a welcome home, the broken whole. May God grant you hope in the meantime.

 



Blooming Out of Season Sermon: Advent 2 Isaiah 11:1-10
December 5, 2016, 12:33 pm
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , ,

bibleGrace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.

 

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking around the church. Sometimes, when the weather is nice, I walk around this place in which we gather, and I pray. I found my way out to the prayer garden and sat down on the swing.

 

I was praying for this community, for the hurt that’s been a part of recent conversations, and for each of you, for the joys and struggles I know about and those that I do not.

There are times in my prayers when I am really sad. I hurt in the love I have for you and this community, I hurt as I know your hurt. So I give it to the only one who can do anything about it. I place you, and me, and the world, into God’s hands.

 

That’s not as easy as it sounds. I’m not a person who likes to give up or give over things I think I should be able to fix. It’s easy to say slogans like, “let go and let God,” but a lot harder to do.

 

After all, what do we really imagine God’s going to do with all the pain of the world?

 

I sat out there, challenging God to answer all that I had thrown over for God to catch. Gazing around the garden, I noticed all the flower and plants that had died back for the winter. All that was once green was brown, drooped. The perennials pull back their life, their energy and let go of all that isn’t necessary, waiting for the warmth to return, for it to be safe to bloom again.

 

The whole garden looked dead. Except for one plant. An Easter lily was in full bloom. Its delicate trumpets stood ready to proclaim: “life will come again!”

 

(Monty Python- “I’m not dead yet.” )

 

I’m not really a God sent me a sign type of person, but that lily was a reminder to me of God’s power for life. On Easter, we celebrate that God transforms a situation of grief into a cause for joy. Where there was death, there is life. New life comes out of suffering and death. This present moment isn’t all there is, but a new and better future is coming. Alleluia, Christ is Risen… and we shall arise.

 

But wow, it’s hard to trust that there will be new life when it feels like death. Or to look forward to healing when you’re sick. Or to think of planting a garden in peace when your land is trampled by armies.

 

 

 

Isaiah speaks of a shoot coming up out of the stump of Jesse. A tree cut down, and yet, somehow, coming back to life. This little twig of life holds the promise of a strong trunk supporting thick limbs. In due time.

 

The people of God have had plenty of times in which everything looked hopeless. They were a tiny nation, constantly conquered by neighboring nations who were stronger than them: Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia… there were even wars between factions within the community. Through Isaiah, God promises that there will be life springing out of what was once cut down. The remnant will not be wiped out, but will grow.

 

This shoot from a stump, like my blooming lily, is a sign that life is not done yet. There’s reason to hope. God is here.

 

The lily’s blooming was out of season. Its trumpet didn’t wake all the other slumbering plants. It was a herald of things to come. There will be a full bloom in the garden this spring.

 

Jesus’ resurrection is a sign of what is to come. God will restore all things. God will bring all creation to life. This new life will be like Isaiah’s vision of the holy mountain, where even the natural need of predators to kill will be fulfilled with peace, and all creatures will be safe.

 

This season of Advent isn’t just about counting down to Christmas. We’re preparing not only for the baby in the manger, but for the Savior who will come again. We’re waiting and expecting Jesus to come and finalize his work.

 

What do we imagine God is going to do with all the pain of the world?

 

First, God feels it. God doesn’t just look down on us from some heavenly realm and feel bad for us. God comes into creation to share all of human life, including its pain. More than that, as Jesus dies on the cross, Jesus pulls onto himself all the pain of the world. Betrayed, rejected, cursed, banished, and tortured, Jesus- God in the flesh- feels all the worst. No matter what we experience, we are not alone, Jesus is there, not afraid to come near to our suffering, because he’s been there, too.

 

Today, God continues to carry our pain. Jesus walks with us, through whatever comes in life. We experience God’s support for us through prayer, worship, the sacraments, and our community. God puts people in our lives who embody God’s love and support for us. That’s part of the work we do here in this congregation for each other. As we care for each other, being there in both difficult and joyful times, Jesus loves through us.

 

 

One day, God will wipe all pain away. The world will be transformed. We will be transformed. There will be wholeness of life that will never end. The bloom of Jesus’ resurrection will spread over all of us, and we will know the joy of Jesus’ conquering of death, sin, and evil.

 

God’s promise to Isaiah’s listeners was spoken through images that translated their present pain into future joy. Where in your life do you need new life? This week, pray for God to give you a vision of what it would look like for God to heal struggle and widen joy in your life. Pray also for the eyes to see signs of that good future coming. May you have time to notice glimpses of life, even when you see life drawing back, and faith to trust that God will bring you into a fully bloomed creation again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is paired with a Gospel telling of John shouting at the crowds. While it might be fun to play the part of John the Baptist, it certainly isn’t fun to be yelled at.

 

But I know I yell when I’m afraid someone’s not paying attention and they might miss something that is life or death.

 

Of my children, the little one is a runner and the big one is a dreamer. Lydia would just as soon run away from me in the parking lot because she thinks it’s funny and she loves to be chased. Laila would be dancing around assuming everyone in the world is watching out for her.