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What’s the Point: A Sermon for Lent on Ecclesiastes 1 and 2
April 19, 2018, 12:08 pm
Filed under: Sermons

12I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. 14I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. 15What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted. 16I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.

2I said to myself, “Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But again, this also was vanity.

12So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly… 15Then I said to myself, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?” And I said to myself that this also is vanity.

17So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

20So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?

5:18This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot.

9: 7Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; …9Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.

Word of God, Word of Life. Thanks be to God.




Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.

It is my joy to join you in worship this evening. Thank you for your welcome. I bring you greetings from your siblings at Our Savior’s in West Duluth.

Us preachers have been tasked with picking out one text that brings hope for today. I’ve stepped away from all the beautiful verses worthy of inspirational posters to read from a book I appreciate for its unrelenting honesty.

“Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Not something you’d hang in the front of a classroom to inspire students to work harder.

“All is vanity… utterly meaningless… a chasing after the wind.”  These written words are the cry of someone searching for meaning in a world that doesn’t make sense. It’s a voice looking for purpose in a world that isn’t fair.

This voice belongs to someone called the Teacher. The Teacher notices and questions. Some people might hear this voice as too depressing, but I’ve always liked it. In a way, it reminds me of the voice of a teenager or young adult, someone who is noticing things are not as good in the world as she had assumed during her childhood. She hasn’t learned that you’re supposed to be content with the way things are, and questions everything. Maybe she’s angry things aren’t as nice as she thought they were, but behind the anger you can hear a desire for hope. The Teacher is like this teenager, daring us readers, daring God, to answer for the state of the world in a real and meaningful way so that she can go on living.

Although I hear in the Teacher’s voice the voice of youth, the Teacher describes himself as old, having lived enough to see the world for what it is. As we hear him noticing things about the world, we also hear the question he’s longing for God to answer:

The Teacher laments the futility of all our work. One might plant but another enjoys the fruit of his labor. One might work three jobs and never get ahead of the bills. What’s the point?

The Teacher calls evil the way of the world that leads to injustice. People get rich by oppressing others. One might organize and march, write letters and make phone calls, and still not see those in power work for justice. One might bike to work, install led lighting, and compost, but all that work to care for creation is offset by another’s overuse of resources. Why try?

The Teacher points our impermanence, writing, “All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again” (3:20), a precursor to our Ash Wednesday refrain, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Death is the end we will all meet. Often the Teacher calls this meaninglessness, because those who do good die just the same as those who do evil. Does life matter?

These questions embedded in his observations push the Teacher into deeper exploration of the human condition and our relationship with God. They are the questions we might all bring into our prayer life- “What’s the point? Why try? Does my life matter?” That these questions are included in the Bible gives us permission to pray them. My challenge to you this Lent is to not hold back from asking God the questions that really matter to you. It’s not necessary to have quick and pious answers. The Teacher is traditionally identified as King Solomon, to whom God gave great wisdom. If this giant in the faith can ask these questions, so can you.

The Teacher’s clear-sighted honesty leads not to despair, but to a determined enjoyment of whatever good life brings. Have food and drink? Enjoy every taste. Have a spouse you love or a friend you connect with? Celebrate being with that person. Have a job? Take pride in your work and sleep well at night. Live in the moment. Hug your children. Look for the little joys and give thanks for them. Life is not all unicorns and rainbows, but if there are any moments of happiness, they are meant to be sought for and treasured.

From my own faith journey, I hear God answering the Teacher’s desperate questioning.

Is it evil that we plant and another enjoys? No. We do not live for ourselves alone. If we see that in God we are all connected, then we can be happy when our work benefits another member of our human community.

Is it useless to work for justice? No. Doing what we can is our way of living into our prayer, “your kingdom come.” We work for justice trusting that God is building a new kingdom in which all creation is valued and peace will be complete.

Is life pointless because it ends? No. Living on this side of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can look past death with hope for a new life to come.

The voice of the Teacher joins my own in noticing and questioning. I notice that tragedies, disasters, accidents, disease, any one of us can be affected at any time, in any place. I question- how do we go about living?

An example that I think hits many of our hearts at this time:

A few months ago my three year old came home to describe her day at daycare. She told me that they had practiced shutting the door and hiding in the corner and being really quiet. They were learning to be safe if a bad person came into the school, she explained. Lock down drills. At three years old. How can I bear to let my child out of my sight? The Teacher writes, “…time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster” (9:11b-12). There is no assurance of safety anywhere. In light of the horrific shooting in Florida, how can we live in times of danger and uncertainty?

I struggle. But I think it’s ok to struggle in faith. Holy platitudes don’t ring true to me, and they don’t help much. So don’t tell me an angel is watching over her, or that God won’t give me more than I can handle, or that if my faith is strong enough, everything will be ok. And never tell me that a child dies so God can have an angel in heaven.

But tell me a gospel that speaks to my life. The voice of the Teacher prepares the way for the gospel by not pretending about the struggles in life. If the Bible can speak truth about the pain in life, then I can believe when through the Bible, God speaks promise for healing in the future.

The gospel is that God stands with us in the midst of struggle and creates meaning in our lives by sharing life with us.

God entered creation to share our human life. That Jesus Christ is God with Us, God as one of us, is a sign of God’s valuing this messy, complicated, beautiful life we live. Life is not perfect, but it is precious. God’s valuing of human life gives it meaning. Yes, the laundry pile is never completed, and as soon as the dishwasher is empty, another stack of dishes appear- but our God in the flesh- Jesus- may have stood at the sink just like us, embracing the ordinary rhythm of human life, and making it holy.

God enters the powerlessness of our lives. Jesus died, sharing in the end of human life. Jesus died in the ultimate place of vanity, on the cross where rebels with all their plans for a different way of life were snuffed out. Even though all Jesus did seemed meaningless in that moment of despair, that was not the end. God raised Jesus from the dead. By resurrecting Jesus, God breathed into the finality of death a new life. God changed our future path from certain death to certain life.

God has united you with Jesus. Jesus’ resurrection belongs to you. All that we want to hold on to- life and loved ones- is already in God’s care. I can let my daughter go into her day because I know God is holding on to her, and no matter what happens, she will never be truly lost. God will carry all of us through this life into the new life God is preparing for all creation.

Jesus’ proclamation of a new life, a new way of being human that is not drenched in injustice, suffering, or violence, is made certain in his resurrection. In this life, we may not see our work for a better life for all brought to completion. But in God’s time, holistic peace will come to be.

The honest voice of the Teacher encourages us to lean into our humanity. To accept our frailty, our lack of power. When we’re not trying to be more than we are, we can be who we were created to be.  Claiming our humanity allows for us to look outside of ourselves for God. We are freed to be human because there is a God. God is present with us today and is preparing a future in which all evil will be destroyed, all injustice made right, and life will never end.

The voice of Teacher, after all its noticing and questioning, speaks an urgency to live life to the fullest, work hard for what is good, and trust in God to create meaning. This moment is what you have. This life is a gift. Enjoy whatever is worthy of joy. Point out and work against that which is evil. Trust in God, who is making all things new for you. We do not live in vain because we live our lives under the care of God, who gives meaning to all things, and answers our questioning with love.

Remembering God: Jeremiah 31:31-34 Lent Covenant Series “Standing on the Promises of God”
April 19, 2018, 12:05 pm
Filed under: Sermons

Jeremiah 31:31-34 

Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.


I have this necklace from when I was a girl. The charm on it is a piece of a heart. It fits together with another heart, like a puzzle. Engraved on its face is “Best Friends Forever.” I wore one half. My best friend wore the other. Our necklaces reminded us that we belonged together- they were a sign to the world that we were connected.


A few years later I had another necklace. This one had a heart in three pieces, to be split with my new two best friends. Best Friends Forever was an expression of the depth of relationship in that moment, which is worthy of being treasured. We couldn’t know at that time everything that would happen in the months and years to come. At age 8 or 10, it was hard to imagine forever in time.


Our relationships change. People move. Interests change. There doesn’t have to be betrayal or bad feelings. It’s just what happens.


Our faith lives can be the same way. One person might be raised in faith, supported into daily prayer, family devotions, and attend the full course of Christian Education. Another might have a mountaintop experience or a tragedy during which God becomes incredibly real and important. But then other things happen. Life gets busy. Faith practices like church participation don’t seem to give the high they once did. Situations change. Commitment fades.


We’ve been reading through the Old Testament stories of God making promises to God’s people. These promises have been God’s ways of entering into a relationship with people. By the time we get to the book we’ve read today, Jeremiah, the people have had times of great trust in their relationship with God. They’ve also had times during which their faith has grown cold and faltered. They’ve thought their neighbors’ gods might be more helpful. They’ve forgotten God.


Jeremiah tells us what God does to people who lose faith. Jeremiah says what God will do with those whose commitment fades and those who ignore God.


God remembers them. God’s remembering is a re-membering, a re-putting together, putting together again us and God, even when we thought we left God behind.


God comes to those whose faith has faltered. God comes to those who have become too busy to go to church. God comes to those who have forgotten they have a God. God comes to those who feel afraid that they aren’t worthy, that what they’ve done has made them too bad or what they’ve become isn’t good enough.


The way God comes to you is by becoming a part of you, entering your life, taking up residence in the center of who you are. God promises, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” God puts that promise relationship of God for us inside of us, so that it can never be removed.


God has put God’s presence within God’s people. We sometimes talk about Jesus in our heart. When Laila was little, she would talk about Jesus in her tummy. That’s actually a little closer to what this text says- God in our tummy and our heart. Whatever you imagine as the center of your identity, the place that directs your emotions and your actions, that’s where God has come to be. From within you, God inspires you towards faith, draws you back into relationship with God, and will bring you into life with God.


Through the prophet Isaiah, God asks, “Can a nursing mother forget her child?”

As a once nursing mother, I can tell you there is no way to forget that child and her needs- even if your head or heart were to choose to ignore her cries, your body could not. We may forget God, but God will not forget us.


If anyone has a good memory, it’s God. Yet here in Jeremiah, we read that for the sake of relationship, God has a selective memory. God promises, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” God promises not to remember the violence of humanity that led to the flood. Not to remember the unfaithfulness of Abraham and Sarah as they laughed at God’s promise of a child in their old age. Not to remember all the broken commandments. Not to remember the complaints of the freed slaves who wanted to return to slavery in Egypt rather than walk God’s path to a new life.


God chooses not to remember every thing you’ve ever done against God, every choice you’ve made that diminished life, every action you’ve taken that’s hurt creation. God chooses not to remember all the times you’ve chosen yourself over someone else. God chooses not to remember that you haven’t always wanted God to be your God.


God’s choice not to remember means God’s not keeping score of wrongs. God’s not marking tallies for every wrong, weighing your bad against your good, preparing for a final judgement at the pearly gates of heaven. God is choosing to forget.


We know what it is to remember the sin of others. Holding on to grudges, remembering how you’ve been wronged, is what sours a relationship and keeps it from ever being healed.


I knew a family* out in farm country. Three generations all lived within a couple miles of each other. The mother in the middle generation was dying. Her husband was angry. Not only to lose his wife, but it was anger also towards his parents and his brother. The inheritance had been split years before, and he felt he had been wronged. When the parents moved into town, the brother had received the farm. He had been given some cash, but seeing the corn prices rise and the fields produce fed his calculations that his brother had been given much, much more than he had. As he looked at his kids, he imagined all he could have given them if only he had had the farm. He began to feel that his brother had stolen not only from him, but from his children. As he looked at his wife, he wondered if she might not be dying if only his fortunes had been different. This man’s choice to remember the wrong he felt had been done against him robbed him of relationships. His grudge robbed him of his brother, his parents; robbed his children of their grandparents and uncle; robbed his wife of another family of support.


Keeping score of who got more, who did what to hurt you, who said what however many years ago- all that stuff just destroys relationship. That’s why God forgives. None of that junk gets in the way of God loving you. We can respond to others in our lives with that same forgiveness and live in the freedom of being in relationships that don’t track tick for tat, but simply love.


There are times when it would be wise not to forget. Times when it makes sense not to restore a relationship with another person. In a situation of abuse, when someone keeps hurting you or taking from you, when they might find healing apart from you, then don’t forget. You don’t need to be like Jesus in putting yourself in dangerous situations just to prove your ability to forgive and to love. God’s choice to forgive and forget is a gift for you, not a burden to bear in your relationships with others.


God remembers and God forgets, all so that God can be in relationship with you. God washes away all that would break down relationship in the waters and promise of baptism. Your body takes in Jesus in the bread, wine, and promise of communion. In Jesus, we are re-membered into One Body. We are each made members of the Body of Christ. Jesus has become an inseparable part of who you are and you have become an inseparable part of who Jesus is.


*Like any of my stories, this is not an actual story of a real family, but a compilation of many issues faced by real families and a seasoning of imagination*

Signs, Signs… 10 Commandments – Signs for Life Sermon for Lent Exodus 20:1-17
March 5, 2018, 3:11 pm
Filed under: Sermons

“Signs, signs, everywhere a sign… do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?” As I prepared for this Sunday, I couldn’t get this song from the 5 Man Electrical Band out of my head! “Signs, signs, everywhere a sign… do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”

When I visited my last parish during the interview process, one of the first things I noticed were the signs. All along the fellowship hall, on each Sunday School door were big posters in the shape of road signs with quotes, “Obey the Lord!” “Stop- sinning!” “Yield to God!”

Once you got past the door, inside the classrooms were lists of the 10 Commandments, described as rules for life.

Signs, signs- rules, rules. A quick glance around told me that was what was important in this community. It was a German church and with it’s focus on telling kids the rules and expecting them to follow them, it fit my stereotype of my own German immigrants grandparents. I immediately had flashbacks to my grandfather telling me never to touch the white walls with my dirty fingers, or learning from my grandmother to vacuum in a straight line so that the vacuum marks lined up just so. Order and rules.

That church isn’t alone in elevating the Ten Commandments to a central place. Groups try to get monuments of the commandments next to the courthouse as a way of saying, “here is God’s law” and it had better be upheld by civil law. Rules are how we order our society. At my church and many others, it was convenient and holy to teach kids to behave by saying these are God’s rules and you’d better be good. Treating the Ten Commandments as rules serves to try to keep people in line, but I don’t think it serves the central purpose of the Church.

More rules, even holy ones, don’t give life. They don’t create faith. Posted as a list of ten thou shalt and thou shalt nots- dos and don’ts- they are nothing more than a scolding finger wag, fodder for rebellious songs.

When we focus on the Ten Commandments as rules, we lose sight of the promise. God’s promise gives life. God’s promise creates faith. Proclaiming the promise is the work to which the Church is called.

These commands begin with and have their foundation in God’s promise, “I am the Lord your God.” They begin with God’s faithful action. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” God is affirming, continuing the promise made to Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants, “I will be your God.” God describes how God has already been faithful to them by hearing their cries during their enslavement and freeing them.

The Commandments are all about relationship and gift. The commands, “you shall have no other gods” and “you shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God” both center on the value and gift of God’s establishing relationship with us. God has come to us to be god to us, giving us access to be able to call on God. We can claim God God as OUR God because God has decided to make that relationship with us.

The command to “remember the Sabbath day” recalls the promise that we are made in God’s image. Just as God worked for six days and rested on the seventh, those created in God’s image are to reflect God’s day of rest in their own weekly rhythm.

The long list of “you shall nots” lifts up the gifts of God that include life, commitment, relationship, and property. God has given us all we have, from life to donkey, this is all a gift of God’s love for us.

Martin Luther wrote his small catechism to help parents teach the faith in their homes. As he explains the Ten Commandments, he begins each explanation, “We are to fear and love God, so that…” Luther wanted people to understand that we follow these commands in response to a relationship with God. One does not honor and love someone unknown. It is the relationship God has created with us that drives our desire and ability to live into these commands.

Relationship with God means a changed relationship with all that God has created. Drawn into relationship with God, we are not alone, we do not live to ourselves. We are joined to all of creation. We live, as Jesus does, for the sake of others. Embedded within these commands is a radical care for the other, especially those who are the most vulnerable and easiest to exploit.

We can miss this protection for those at risk when we read that the commandments include an assumption that the faithful would own slaves, or that a man’s wife is understood to be his property. There is a historical context in which these commandments were received that thankfully is not our context today. But given that some lives were valued more than others in that time period, the commandment’s encouragement to care for these lives is all the more powerful.

To see how God built into the commandments special care for those who are most vulnerable, let’s look back again at that commandment to remember and keep the Sabbath day holy. We read, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.” The Sabbath is not a day of rest only for the rich landowner whose wife or servant is cooking supper. It is a rest for all – children, slaves, immigrants, even the animals!

The relationship God brings us into is a relationship marked by care for all God has made. It’s never just a me and my God thing. It’s always about me within a whole community that God makes beloved and chooses to care for. So the commandments are not rules that tell me if I’ve gotten in good with God, but are guides to shape how we live out the relationship God has gifted us with- a relationship with God and all of God’s creation. God doesn’t need our faithfulness to these commands, but our neighbors do.

This perspective expands the Ten Commandments from a negative checklist of things I can’t do into a reorientation of my life that is guided by a desire to reflect God’s love by asking, “What does my neighbor need? How can my living make a positive impact on my neighbor?” Luther’s explanation to “You shall not murder” is, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.” Instead of a minimal threshold of the Commandments as providing us protection from each other, they are expansive in guiding us to care for each other.

The 10 Commandments are not meant to be posted on signs in order to add to guilt and judgement. Understanding them as rising out of God’s relationship to us and God’s gifts for us guides us into an alternative use. The 10 Commandments are meant to be signs. They are not meant to be signs that push people away, but signs that point to God.

They are signs that identify those who follow them as people set apart. God’s people, the Israelites, were conquered by a neighboring empire and many people were taken away to be held in a distant land. While they were there, and even back at home, there was pressure to forget God and live like everyone else. These commandments, especially the remembrance of the Sabbath, are signs of identity that help the community hold together and hold on to their faith. They live differently from others because they have a different relationship, they know God.

Today, our living into the Ten Commandments can serve to point others to God. Instead of using these commands as rules to shout at those who don’t recognize God, they can be ways of life that show the compassion, care, and love of God. They can start curiosity and questioning.

If our congregation and us as individuals are known for working for the well-being of our neighbors, we can explain that as our way of living out the commandment, “you shall not murder.” If we are known for advocating for family leave or sick time, we can explain that as our way of living out the commandment, “honor the Sabbath.” If we stand up to predatory lending or work for fair living wages, that can be our way of living out the commandments, “you shall not steal and you shall not covet.”

We might surprise the world into a curiosity about faith if we don’t use these commandments as something to post on walls with an attitude of judgment, but rather use them as guides into God’s new creation in which there is justice, peace, and well-being.


Gospel Fishing: Mark 1:14-20
January 22, 2018, 3:09 pm
Filed under: Sermons


Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.


At the very beginning of my ministry with you, I had the privilege of being in the Unbinding the Gospel class Dave Thornton led. The purpose of Unbinding the Gospel is to loosen Christians from whatever is holding us back from sharing the gospel with the world. In one of the first chapters, the author talked about our fear of the e-word- Evangelism. There’s a lot of baggage around that word, but we were encouraged to get past that and realize that we’re called to simply be aware of and share our reasons for faith, our joy in Christ, our experience of grace.  Pastor Joyce brought you this study because she saw in you a readiness to share with your neighbors what you’ve discovered through this congregation: the good news of God, meant for the whole world.


We open the Gospel of Mark and hear a new beginning in the story. What has come before has set the stage, and now Jesus steps forward as the central actor. Jesus is beginning his work, proclaiming the good news of God.


What is this good news?


The Gospel of Mark doesn’t begin with Jesus makes a speech detailing the good news of God. Mark shows us the good news embodied in Jesus’ life through these next — chapters. Jesus does say, “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near…” Jesus is the good news of God in the flesh. It’s good news that God has chosen to be among us, good news that God loves us, shows us mercy, and is bringing into being a new way of life that is marked by the end of death, disparity, and suffering. Throughout the gospel, we’ll learn more about what this good news is as Jesus lives good news for the world.


How does this good news described in the Bible matter to us today?


That’s the question each of us need to be able to answer if we’re going to be able to move forward in our momentum as a congregation. We want this congregation to grow, but the only way we’re doing anything that matters is if we want growth because it’s a sign that we’re living the good news in a meaningful way that inspires others to want to join us.


In a previous congregation, we were closing a Bible study and someone brought up their disappointment that there weren’t more people at church. I’m sure you’ve heard it before- I wish there were more people here. Why don’t people come anymore? That was a great Bible study, why doesn’t anyone come?


They were upset that even their adult children, who had been raised in the church, brought every Sunday to Sunday School and worship, confirmed, and maybe even married in the church had simply walked away. So, I thought we’d start with what we do have. I asked why they were there. Something had led to their choosing to set aside time to participate in worship and Bible study, maybe that would help us connect with others who weren’t.


I heard that they had been taught that going to church is what you do- you’re supposed to go to church on Sunday. They were there out of an ingrained pattern, an obligation. I can honor that, but if you’re wondering how to encourage people who don’t have a rhythm of coming to church, that’s not going to mean much for them.


So, I turned it back to them again. If you have a habit of coming to church, that’s great, but can you identify another compelling reason that might also be a compelling reason for someone else to want to be a part of the community?


We built on their initial answer. If church attendance is an obligation, is there anything deeper about your obligation that could make sense to someone else? We don’t feel an obligation to someone we don’t care about, so behind that initial answer of “we come to church because we’re supposed to” might be a life-changing relationship.


They were there because of a relationship with God and with the people of the congregation. The compelling reason for church isn’t just because I have to, but that I come because I have a sense that God is here. God has cared for me in many ways and I want to both meet God and honor God with my thanks. I come because these other believers give me hope, they care for me, and I do the same for them.


That relationship based reason opens up the opportunity to tell stories of a life of experiencing the good news. In telling that story, my church member might be able to connect with someone who doesn’t go to church. Sharing the real effect of church helps that other people see the value church has had and consider how it might make a difference in their own life.


When I talk about a compelling reason, I mean something that effects change. Some fact, belief, statement, or experience that matters enough to you it informs the choices you make. What is God’s good news for you? How does that good news matter enough in your life to make you want to live in response to it?


On your tables or near your seats you’ll find pens, sticky notes, and a good news sheet. Now, throughout worship, and into this next week, you’re invited to write two notes. One is for you to briefly describe what the gospel is for you. What is the good news God speaks to you? The other note is for your compelling reason. Why are you here this morning? Why church? Why participate in the community that is Our Savior’s?


While you think about your own experiences of God’s good news for you, I’ll share my own. God’s unconditional, faithful, unending love for me and for all is at the heart of my sense of what the gospel is. My compelling reason for church is that I want to be in a community that proclaims God’s love and lives God’s radical love for others. I need worship so that I can experience God’s love for me, especially through communion. When I physically eat bread and wine and hear the promise that this gift of Jesus is for me, I can’t possibly think that somehow I’m not included in God’s good news of love for all. I’m smelling and tasting God’s love in my own body. I need the church community so that I can work with others as we encourage each other to live in love, practice loving each other, and love the world through action that supports, heals, and works for justice.


I first claimed the importance of this gospel of God’s full and faithful love when I was in junior high, transitioning from childhood into adolescence. I had always assumed love was forever, but I was seeing it was more fragile than I thought. When I heard more about God’s love and God’s showing love through Jesus, I was captivated. God shows a love that continues through rejection and is shown through loving service.


God’s constant love is good news for me, and I continue to be a participant in church because this is the community attempting to proclaim and reflect God’s love for the world.



After declaring the good news, Jesus begins to call his disciples. He starts with some fishermen. He calls them to use what they know as they join him in living the gospel.


When you go fishing, you go where the people are. If you’re somewhere you’ve never been, you talk to the local people, hire a guide, or simply observe so that you can see where others are fishing, where others are catching, so that you know where the fish are gathering and biting.


For a long time, the American church hasn’t had to be a missionary church. We were fed by waves of immigration, ethnic loyalties, and a Christian empire that equated good citizenship with church attendance. We’ve coasted on that through the last century. Our mindset has been that if we just open the doors, put out a sign, have an internet presence, then people will come. People will come to us.


That’s no longer the world we live in. Although it’s hard on church budgets, I think it might be for the best for the sake of the gospel. It forces us to have greater clarity on our identity and purpose. It pushes us towards lives of active discipleship.


It’s time to go out of this place, to figure out where people are, to listen to what good news they are hungry for. Where does the gospel intersect with the lives people are leading?


The type of fishing the soon to be disciples were doing was with nets. I’ve never tried that, but I have done a bit with a hook and a bobber. Lately, though, I’ve been doing more child-friendly pretend fishing. This is the best illustration of the kind of fishing we’re called to do. In pretend fishing, we have a fish with a metal piece and a fishing pole with a magnet. That fish is created with a ready attraction to the magnet. The properties of fish and magnet mean there is a force of attraction pulling them together. When we think about the call to fish for people, the fish are people, the magnet is Jesus, and the force pulling people and Jesus together is the Holy Spirit. God uses our sharing of our compelling reasons, our witness to the good news, as the carrier of the Holy Spirit, so that God can work to bring people into the connected relationship with God they were created for.


Jesus call us to live into the good news kingdom God is creating by following Jesus today. God has come into the world. God invites us to be a part of making the kingdom of God real today.

Flee Immorality: Build the Kindom Lectionary 2
January 17, 2018, 3:49 pm
Filed under: Sermons

1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20] 

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 

John 1:43-51 


Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.

As I read through the texts for this week, I knew pretty quickly which one I wanted to avoid. First Corinthians. What an odd and random little piece of writing! I thought about skipping reading it altogether. When there’s a tricky text, I think it’s hard to have it read and then just leave it hanging without any commentary. But preaching on it means we’d be going from a sermon talking about happy face stickers one week to prostitutes the next.

It seems like God sometimes pushes us toward thinking about things we’d rather avoid, and so I find myself, with the help of the Tuesday morning Bible study group, focusing on that confusing text from Paul to the church at Corinth. When we try to figure out the relevance of the Bible for our lives today, the early church is a great place to start. The church at Corinth is no exception.

These believers lived in a pluralistic world, with many forces pulling for their attention and allegiance. Corinth was a city of commerce, diverse and eager for wealth. There were people with lots of money who enjoyed all that money could buy. There were people in poverty who couldn’t get by. People came from all around the world, bringing their customs and their gods. Paul himself was one of those outsiders who came with a new religion.

Paul pointed the people towards Jesus. With the good news of God’s unconditional love came an expectation. Paul expected that people’s lives would change. He expected that their relationships with each other and the way they interacted in society would change. Within his letters, we read Paul’s disappointment and frustration when they don’t.

For Paul, being baptized, being claimed by Christ, being filled with the Holy Spirit changes who you are and to whom you belong. Your life isn’t yours any longer. That’s why we get this jarring reference to prostitutes- every thing we do matters, not in some tally of right and wrong that’ll prove us worthy of God, but because we’re God’s people who have work to do.

When you’re claimed by Christ, the way your live your life, the company you keep matters.

I don’t mean this in an holier than thou mindset. I’m not encouraging you keep away from people who will taint you. I know plenty of Christians who think distancing themselves from others is a holy choice:

I had a boyfriend who would quote, “do not be yoked with an unbeliever” to tell me he was going against his faith and better judgement to date someone who didn’t belong to his sect of Christianity.

I had parishioners who declared their need to leave the ELCA after we voted to allow congregations to call gay clergy as their pastors, because even if their congregation never had a gay person in it, they felt they would be stained by another’s inclusion in the community.

When I say the company you keep matters, that’s not what I mean. It’s not about who you stay away from, but who you seek out and embrace. God’s image is reflected on each face. God’s spirit dwells within each body. If we cut others out, we miss the reflection of God they shine onto the world.

Paul writes to the Corinthians because they aren’t living in to their identity as a community in Christ. The way they’re keeping company with each other isn’t reflective of the kingdom community God is creating. Within their church community, those who are rich are trying to keep themselves separate and above those who are poor. There are some who claim they are special disciples of certain teachers, as if being baptized by one pastor makes you better than being baptized by another. In the church and in the wider community, they are choosing to continue to live with the divisions the society upholds rather than the unity Jesus creates.

The problem for the Corinthians is that they aren’t recognizing God’s choosing to make others worthy, beloved masterpieces of the creator God. They don’t see that each person has the status of temple of the Holy Spirit. They’ve treated each other as less than human, less than those formed out of the humus, the fertile soil God formed and breathed into, and more like something that soils, dirt.

Paul writes, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” If God has determined that you are a worthy carrier of both God’s image and God’s spirit, then that is what you are. No other indicator of your importance matters. God’s gracious choice is the foundation for our honoring of all other people. Other bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. Other faces mirror God’s own.

Paul often writes about the body, sometimes meaning the body of Christ, and sometimes meaning the body of Christ as the community of God’s people. One person alone does not wholly reflect God, nor one body carry all of God’s Spirit. We are each diverse members of one body, necessary, different, and beloved.

That’s a counter cultural claim for the Corinthians and for us. Our culture rewards division. Too often we follow the culture. We simply do not live up to Jesus’ call to love our neighbors and form our communities in a way that reflects God’s valuing of all people. There’s a play on words that I’ve found helpful in thinking about God’s vision for community. Instead of KINGdom, it’s KINdom (K-I-N)dom. We are kin, family, siblings. The culture tells us to live according to a kingdom mentality with people divided into levels of importance. God calls us to live according to God’s kindom with people honoring each other as siblings.

Christians are called to a new way of life, marked by a commitment to living into the new KINdom God is creating. It’s in describing this new life that Paul speaks of being united with a prostitute as being incompatible with being united with Christ.

Prostitution is a pretty graphic image of using someone completely for your own pleasure. It’s completely denying their own personhood and deciding that the other person is a commodity, some thing to be bought.

Engaging in a system in which people are treated as commodities is to live in an way completely opposed to God’s kingdom vision. Paul is calling the Corinthians to flee this way of life that is all too prevalent.

It’s a way of life that has stained our history and our present. We have turned people into things. Things to be bought. Things less than human. Things in need of being civilized. Things meant to produce for others. Things to be thrown away, locked up, turned back.

We’re called to stop living the way the systems of this world would encourage us to live. Flee the immorality of this present age, with its seductive promise that you are better than others, more deserving of comfort, safety, citizenship, and wealth. Paul writes, “…you are not your own. You were bought with a price…” God has plucked us out of the systems of value, expectation, and debt that pressure our actions today.

Tomorrow we celebrate The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and remember the ongoing struggle for equity and dignity. God called The Rev. Dr. King to be a prophet like Samuel, speaking judgement for the ways we have dishonored what God has declared holy. We have not honored the holiness of all God has created, nor have we treated other people as the bearers of God’s image.

We need prophets willing to speak the uncomfortable truth in a way that guides us towards God’s intention. I know that I live trapped in this system of immorality, of willfully ignoring the holiness of others, choosing to profit from whatever is cheapest and forming a community of people who don’t challenge me and my lifestyle. It’s easy to point to the exaggerated immorality of others so I feel better about myself, but I know… I know I’m not where I need to be.

We need people like Philip, who invited Nathaniel into a new relationship with someone he was quick to write off. “What good can come from Nazareth?” Nathaniel doesn’t think highly of Jesus’ hometown, and yet, when he meets him, he will become his devoted disciple and will witness the power of God coming through this one he would have cast aside.

It’s easier to skip over God’s call to expand our circle of community. It’s tricky to know how to start, how to unravel the stereotypes and prejudice, how to make choices that benefit more than myself, who to listen to, and how to be welcomed. For now, I pray for courage, for people to invite me to learn from them, and for God’s kin-dom to come. Our call to new life rises out of God’s loving action and sure promise: you are a beloved child of God, claimed in Christ forever, a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Sticking a Sign of God’s Love: A Sermon for baptism of our Lord John 1:43-51
January 11, 2018, 12:50 pm
Filed under: Sermons

Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.

I’ve always been a poor speller. Spelling tests weren’t much fun as a child. I must have had some prescient knowledge that there’d be spell-check by the time I had to write any serious papers.

There was one good thing about spelling tests. It’s what kept me writing out those words every night after school.


Big shiny stickers. Smiley faces. Scratch and sniff. “Good job!” “Way to go!” “You’re the best!”


Those little affirmations kept me encouraged.

Eventually, I grew too old for stickers, or at least, my teachers thought so. Grades were good enough, signs of work well done. But then, graduation after graduation after graduation, there weren’t any more.

Who will tell us those words of affirmation we need to hear?


The Gospel of Mark briefly tells us of Jesus’ baptism. John the baptizer is out, doing his thing, preparing people with a baptism of repentance and a proclamation that a greater person is coming. Jesus came and was baptized, and then he “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus saw and heard the ultimate in affirmations.

The Gospel of Mark is so brief, so concise, it only says the most important of things. There’s no baby in a manger or wise men following a star for Mark, it’s just John preparing the way, and then Jesus, baptized and affirmed. We begin this book knowing that whatever unfolds for Jesus, Jesus is the one God has claimed as God’s own beloved son.

The Gospel writer doesn’t seem to think anything else is as important for Jesus as this blessing. Jesus will move forward into ministry with God’s promise ringing in his ears. Will he feel God’s blessing as he teaches and heals? Will he hold on to God’s claiming him when all others reject him?

We don’t know. But I think the Gospel includes this scene because the writer knows how vital it is to be claimed, loved, and validated. Jesus’ ministry rises out of his knowing who he is: a beloved child of God, sent on a mission.


As adults, we may be told we’re too old for stickers. We’re not supposed to need to depend on anyone else to assure us of our worth. But I think we’re still looking for that validation. We’re still needing to be told, “Good job!” “Way to go” and “You’re the best!”

Maybe some of us have had bad experiences with stickers- or not getting them. Maybe grades weren’t so good, or people weren’t so nice. Maybe we’ve never been recognized for what we’ve done well. Or we just can’t seem to do what others are ready to reward. Maybe you don’t think you need anyone telling you good things about yourself. Maybe not. But I do think we need a sense of who we are so that we can live out of that sense. And that person you are is worth being honored. You’re meant to live as a person of value, you are a person the world needs.

So here’s the thing. In the church, we’re here to give each other the validation- the yes- each of us needs. But it’s not like all the other times we’re judged or evaluated or measured up to the standard people have set. In the church, we’re just amplifying another’s message- another’s judgement. We’re proclaiming God’s grading- and it’s so much different from anything else we’ve ever experienced.

See, God’s not grading you based on you. That sounds a bit like cheating, doesn’t it? And maybe it is. God’s evaluating each one of us based on Jesus. We’ve just read what God thinks of Jesus- Jesus is God’s beloved son, the one with whom God is pleased.

In our own baptisms, God unites us with Jesus. We are wrapped in Jesus’ righteousness, Jesus’ standing as perfect in God’s sight. It’s not that weve swapped our papers, taken our tests and erased Jesus’ name and put in our own. It’s that Jesus has done the swapping for us. And God’s the teacher watching it all happen and smiling because that’s the way we were always meant to be graded.

Instead of focusing on judging us, God focuses on loving us. Jesus has put his holiness onto us so that our sin- our failures, betrayals, and mistakes- won’t separate us from God. But I don’t think we’re invisible to God. It’s not as if who we are as individuals doesn’t matter to God. God still knows us. Wants to know us. Rejoices in our living into our particular way of being who we were created to be.

When we baptize, we amplify God’s voice so that we can all hear God proclaim: You are a child of God, marked with the cross of Christ forever.

We don’t get stickers, but we do have signs. Water, flame, and oil become signs for us, means through which God’s grace is felt and seen and known. There is something about us that needs to be assured through more than words, and God gives these signs as assurance for us. They are physical means through which we experience God’s promise.

The water in the baptismal font points to God’s cleansing us, to God’s drowning and raising us to new life, to God’s birthing us into a new family.  In many churches, the font is always open and filled, so that everyone can splash in its water,  retrace the cross on their foreheads, and be reminded of the promises of love and life God spoke at baptism and continues to speak each day.

The flame of the Paschal candle points us to Jesus’ resurrection, into which we are baptized. It’s a sign of the Holy Spirit, the God who enters our lives and creates faith within us. The flame of the Paschal candle lights a smaller taper that is given to the baptized. It’s meant to be relit as we remember that God’s active love is continually rekindled in us.

Oil is used to mark the sign of the cross onto the baptized, recalling the anointing of prophets and kings, as we are each called by God to live in response to God’s love.

In this space, as this community, we proclaim the affirmation of God. God says yes to you! We proclaim this at baptism, at the open table of communion, and we proclaim it in every time and way we gather. Each person is a beloved child of God, wrapped in Jesus’ love and righteousness, called to live a life reflecting God’s love for all creation. The very fact that we gather as one community, united in our diversity, is a sign to the world of God’s yes to all of us. We are a community that welcomes all people, celebrating our different histories, our different life experiences, our different families, our different struggles, our different joys. We are made one community, free of judgement and full of welcome because we all rely on Jesus’ grace alone as the reason for our acceptance.

When Jesus is baptized, he sees the heavens ripped apart. That’s a sign for him and for us, of God’s way of loving. God’s love dissolves the barriers that separate us. The dome separating the earth and the heavens, the home of people and the home of God, is shattered. There is no more distance. In the heaven’s tearing, and in his being sent, Jesus is shown that God so values creation that God chooses to be in and among creation, to know and love all that God has made. Jesus is sent from his baptism knowing he is loved, and that all creation is loved. His mission is to live out of the love he knows by sharing that love and dissolving divisions.

We are meant to begin each day, move forward in our lives, confident that whatever else happens, we are beloved children of God.


Do not be afraid: A Sermon for Christmas Eve: Luke 2
January 2, 2018, 1:32 pm
Filed under: Sermons

Do not be afraid!


These are the words spoken by an angel startling shepherds as they watched over their sheep.


Do not be afraid.


Confronted with an image of God’s glory and a messenger from God, who would not have been afraid? It was unlike anything they had ever heard or seen- the very air crackling with the energy of God’s presence.


The angel repeated, “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord…”


As if this news wasn’t awesome enough, suddenly the angel is joined by a multitude of the heavenly host. These aren’t holiday card chubby baby angels with tambourines. A host is an army. They are the power of God envisioned with armor and flaming swords. Columns and rows as far as the eye can see- and with one voice, this force praises God and declares peace on earth.


Power speaks peace. So unexpected.


Those with the potential for such strength direct the shepherds to their leader. The head of this army is unlike any other. The Savior, the Messiah, the Lord- he has arrived, but not in glory and power. He is fragile and dependent and small. The broker of this peace is a baby boy, being laid to sleep in a manger.


This force is doing battle like no other. It’s victory hinges on vulnerability and compassion. It’s choosing to set aside power and to be present and patient for peace to be won.


Perhaps the shepherds heard something of new and different way of peace in the angels’ proclamation. Maybe that’s what kept them listening rather than running. Despite the host’s insistence, “do not be afraid,” they must have been an awesome and unsettling sight.


Any encounter with raw force unsettles me. It’s never made me feel any safer to enter an airport and see heavily armed security, or to travel abroad and see armed guards stationed every couple blocks. I wonder about the strength of the threat they seek to counteract, and the force they are prepared to show.

The peace those shepherds lived under was the peace of the empire, an imposing power that achieved order through violence and rigid social structure. Surely they must have wondered what sort of peace this legion of winged warriors was bringing.


The peace the angel army announces is a peace that begins with the birth of a child. Within this child is concentrated all of God’s power and hope. As he grows and matures and claims his place as the Messiah, he will show a different way. He will grow peace through love, inclusion, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice.


God’s answer to fear is not greater force, but a diffusion of violence. This army and the warrior-infant it follows will break apart the myth that threat and fear sustain peace. This Messiah will march towards the cross, and in choosing to suffer and die will expose the human tendency to choose violence as an answer to fear. Jesus will choose to receive that violence and in doing so, will dismantle its lure. Jesus will destroy the power of violence and death as he is raised from the dead. Then life and love will be shown to be the greatest power.


Do not fear. A new path to peace is being opened. It’s heralded by the angel army and sustained by the Messiah who enters vulnerability in both infancy and death.


In a moment, we’ll sing the hymn “Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” One verse especially describes the scene in Luke:

Rank on rank the host of heaven

Spreads its vanguard on the way

As the Light of light, descending

From the realms of endless day

Comes, the pow’r of hell to vanquish

As the darkness clears away


This hymn’s militaristic language has always made me slightly uncomfortable and confused. Today, I see a new truth in it. The ranks of angels open up to reveal the Light of light, descending not in anger or force, but in love and gentleness. It is a wonderful surprise. Our God upends expectations of violence and anger. Instead, God shows us peace and love.



The angels have come to announce God’s peace. It will be won through Jesus’ victory over death. In our time, we do not see the angel hosts appearing above us, but we hear their chorus echoed in word, song, and action. We come here to church to listen to their message.  For us, they proclaim God’s invitation, “Do not fear!” The answer to fear will be found in love and hope and maybe even fumbling and failure as we try out this strange path that turns away from strength in force and centers on a different strength in compassion.

We may not always be able to live into the peace to which God calls us. We may let fear drive us to division, push us towards the familiar safety of force. But little by little, God is transforming us. God is creating faith within us. God will teach us to trust in God’s promise of peace, and to trust that God has the power to fulfill that promise and make peace. Trusting and hopeful, we will number ourselves among God’s peacekeepers, working for the well being of all creation.


On this night, we gather to join the angels in proclaiming an end to fear. God is unraveling all that would cause us to be afraid. We light a candle against the night as a sign of hope. Each flickering light is a glimpse of the light that is to come, as we wait for the dawning of God’s peace, a day of joy that will never end.