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The Grace of God: A Sermon on Luke 7:36-8:3
June 13, 2016, 4:25 pm
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Read the Gospel Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

In 2007, I served a congregation in the urban center of Rockford, Il. The congregation I served was a historically Swedish congregation, but in the recent years had embraced the diversity of its neighborhood, reaching out, being transformed by new members of many races, and beginning new ministries in partnership with Latino and Laotian communities. They had made a commitment to get to know their neighbors. It wasn’t always easy or very pretty. Some of the people I got to know that year were in the midst of struggles: drug addiction, abuse, incarceration. I was pushed into conversations with people whose lives I couldn’t comprehend, and together we were blessed to find God.

Through our work of engaging our neighbors, I had joined a group visiting a local mosque. Next door, there little ethnic market, selling Middle Eastern foods.

One day I stopped in to the store. I don’t remember all of what I bought, but when it came time to pay, I realized I was short a few dollars. I was so embarrassed. Where were my math skills? Couldn’t I figure out how much was in my basket and how much I could afford? I could feel my face flushing as I dug deeper into my purse, hoping to find a loose $5 bill.

I was about to ask the cashier to take off some of the items to bring down my total when he looked at me and said, “it’s ok. You can have these.”

I was shocked- what kind of business model were they using?! I was embarrassed, I was receiving a stipend each month; it wasn’t a lot, but I could certainly afford to buy rice! I was humbled, here was a stranger, maybe someone who worshipped at the local mosque, maybe an immigrant, someone who fit all the categories my white Christian culture labeled other, dangerous, potential terrorist, and he was showing me grace. I didn’t want to need it, but he gave it anyway.

Grace. A gift unearned and given freely. Without prerequisite and without obligation. In my case, being shown grace by that stranger made me see him differently, see myself more clearly, and led me to reconsider my own prejudices, thoughts, and actions.

Our reading from Luke’s Gospel is all about grace. In Simon the Pharisee, we meet someone who thinks he doesn’t need grace, whose self-righteousness has prevented him from being transformed by God, whose quick judgment keeps him from recognizing another servant of God.

In the woman kneeling at Jesus’ feet, we meet someone transformed by grace, led into loving worship and service by the audacious forgiveness she’s received from Jesus. In Jesus, we meet grace personified, the God who sets aside all glory and honor in order to place his own holiness over all the undeserving.

In the inner thoughts of the Pharisee, we hear him thinking Jesus isn’t very perceptive. Jesus ought to have figured out this woman wasn’t any good: she wasn’t invited, she doesn’t have a place at the table, she is a sinner.

Jesus hears his unspoken repulsion and tells a parable. In this parable, a creditor is owed money by two people. Ones owes a little, the other a lot. Neither of them can pay. Instead of throwing them in jail or enslaving them until they’ve worked off their debt, the creditor cancels their debts. In the Greek, this word cancel could also be translated as “gave freely”- the one who held in his hand power over these two, payment stubs unfulfilled and overdue, let it go, gave it back, restored the debtors to freedom from owing him.

Pastor Karen of Stone Bank told this story: she and her husband, when they were first married were quite poor. They had just finished school and not yet started their real jobs, but they needed a place to live. Her parents offered to loan them the money for a down payment on a house. Once they got the house, they diligently repaid their loan. Karen’s husband made out little payment stubs, and every month, on time, they would write out another check. The gas bill might be late, the refrigerator might be empty, but they always made a payment to her parents. Years passed, and then one day, her dad telephoned. “You don’t need to pay us anymore,” he said. Karen was flabbergasted, “What do you mean? Of course we have to pay you. We’ve only paid 40% of what we owe. We have all the rest of the payment coupons written out.” Her father said, “you’ve done enough. We want to give you this. We love you.”

Grace is such a terrifying thing for us Christians, and yet it’s at the center of our faith. It’s so threatening because it means that our salvation is out of our control. We are totally dependent on God. We want to know for sure that we’ve been saved, we want to know for sure that God loves us, we want to know for sure that we’ve been forgiven. So often we think that the only way we can be sure is if we contribute something to our faith. If God knows we tried to be good people, if we ask for forgiveness, if we hold true to the teachings, then maybe God will keep from punishing us.

We may say that everyone is a sinner, we may confess every Sunday that we have sinned, but we may also think to ourselves, “but at least I tried… I came to church… I didn’t do this… I did do that… I’m not as bad as that person…”

As long as there’s a part of us saying, “but at least I…” then we haven’t grasped the joy of God’s grace. We haven’t reached the transforming, healing power of the grace of God as long as we’re still believing we don’t need it.

When the Pharisee looked at the woman at Jesus’ feet, he said to himself, “At least I am not like her.” Jesus speaks the convicting law to Simon, “the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (7:47b). Simon believes he doesn’t need forgiveness, he’s been able to follow the law, and so he has closed himself off to the joy of the grace Jesus gives, and isn’t transformed into a life of love.

Today, Jesus’ words come to you, have you been forgiven a little- or a lot? Are you moved to love a little- or love a lot?

If you’re living with the delusion that God has forgiven or loved or saved you because you’ve done something worthy of God’s notice, then it’s time to give it up. God doesn’t need whatever good works you think you’ve achieved.

But that doesn’t mean God hasn’t done all those things. God has chosen to act in grace towards you. Jesus has come to be a gift of grace. So that you know without a doubt, even when you’ve failed at trying, when you’ve missed church, when you did what you meant not to and when you’ve not done what you should have— Jesus has come with grace for you- to declare you forgiven, loved, and saved.

It’s so hard to trust that there would be a free gift for us. Distrust and misplaced trust is the root of sin. It is the sickness that infects us all.

I am so sad when I see this sickness infecting congregations. My home church was so infected with sin that its fevered delirium intensified into symptoms that broke apart the community. A group of people started secret petitions for their cause, bypassing their elected leadership. My family was caught in the middle of it all, trying to remain neutral to maintain friendships even as they tried to avoid the pressure to sign up for one side or the other. When everything finally became public, and outside consultants came in to help unravel the conflict, the whole system was so anxious they couldn’t follow through with the good advice they received. One group thought they had won, but in the year that followed, as leadership changed, so did the congregation. Five years later, the congregation is a third of its size, and has few of the same people I used to know. I pray that now God is working healing, and that they have learned strategies for well-being, so that they never again allow the festering that turned their cold to turn into pneumonia.

Their story is a lesson for us as we start to show symptoms of our own spiritual sickness.

There is one thing that will break this fever. There is only one cure that will restore the body and not simply leave us hobbling along, alive, but amputated.

Our salvation- our healing- is the grace of God: Jesus Christ.

Only when we are finally open to the gift of grace that Jesus so abundantly lavishes on each one of us, grace that is not limited or tarnished by its being shared with those who appear holy and those who do not, then we can be transformed to see each other through the undeserved love of Jesus. When you know that you have absolutely nothing to persuade God to love you, and yet that Jesus has done absolutely everything to love you and make you loveable, then Jesus can coax love out of your heart. Jesus can transform our little love into big love, love that heals even the deepest divisions, the most heart-rending betrayals.

Grace frees us to see the other, even to see the enemy, as one who is loved and saved. Because Jesus alone has achieved our salvation, it’s not our job to categorize people as righteous or sinner. Jesus makes it possible for you to remain in community with someone who has hurt you, because you recognize in that person the same brokenness you have, and the same status as a forgiven, beloved child of God Jesus has given you.

This identity, this love, this life, this faith- it’s all gift. You don’t have to be afraid that God will reject you. It was God’s free choice to commit to loving you to life. Encountering this grace changes our assumed label of God as punishing judge. The statement of your debt has been shredded. Jesus alone has made your salvation secure, so you can follow in foolish, free abandon, loving God and loving all God’s people, without counting the cost.


An unbroken ring, its beginning and ending in Christ: A Sermon for Easter 7 John 17

BibleGrace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.


Almost ten years ago, Jeff and I left our wedding guests and headed up north to enjoy our honeymoon. Our car was well decorated with love notes in shoe polish from family and friends. We were so much in love, too exhausted, and excited for our new life together that we were oblivious to the world.


Jeff went into a gas station and the guy at the counter greeted him by name. Jeff stopped, trying to recognize him, not being too far from his hometown, until the guy laughed and said he read our car’s “Liz + Jeff = married” decorations.


There was something so fresh in those days, that even people who didn’t see our car knew we were on our honeymoon. As grad students, a tropical beach vacation was beyond our means, so we went with the next best thing: the beautiful coast and mountains of the UP.


One morning, we walked into a gift shop near the Lake of the Clouds to pick out the beginnings of our vacation magnet collection. An older man stood at the counter, smiling at us, asking if we had just gotten married. We had parked our “just married” poster on wheels pretty far away, so I asked how he had guessed.


He pointed down to Jeff’s hands, where Jeff was still fidgeting with this unfamiliar piece of jewelry. “Your ring is so bright and shiny. It hasn’t been dulled or nicked, it’s perfectly smooth, brand new.”


That’s what the beginning of a relationship is like. Or maybe it’s what any relationship is like that hasn’t seen much interaction, much depth, much conflict or growth.


Looking down at my own ring today, I notice that its shine has dulled. It’s come into contact with many surfaces and probably more harsh chemical than it was meant to. Jeff’s is bent, no longer a perfect symbol. It slips off his finger, as his body has changed.


I know we could go into a jewelry shop and have our rings resized and renewed, scratches polished away. But I don’t know that a new ring would fit our relationship anymore. We are still so much in love, and we’ve been able to grow in love because we haven’t tried to keep a perfect veneer over our relationship. Sometimes relationships are gritty and rough, with friction and tears. Love is about commitment to unity through all the strains and struggles of life.

As Jesus prepares to die, he prays for his disciples, that they would experience the love and unity that the Father and the Son share. Jesus longs for them to be drawn up into the relationship that exists within God.


Jesus prays, “I ask not only on behalf of these, (the disciples right there with him) but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”


We get to listen in to Jesus’ prayer, just as those first disciples did, and we realize that Jesus is praying for us. Jesus prays for us- and not just us here at Cross, but the people worshipping down the street and around the world and across the ages. God’s prayer is for all of us to be one undivided whole in Christ.


If this is God’s prayer, then surely God will make it happen, in God’s time.


The painful reality for me is that we have not reached the fulfillment of this prayer.

We believers are not all one. Our disunity dilutes our ability to share the love that God has placed within us. In an age when it’s more socially acceptable to be skeptical of religion, when so many claim to be spiritual but not religious because to be religious means to be overly dogmatic, close-minded, and hypocritical, we Christians cannot afford to have our witness derailed by division.


Neither can we settle for false unity. Unity that is only a patina on surface relationships is not true unity. My wedding band may have a few scuffs and scrapes, but it’s solid all the way through. We’re going to have to stretch this analogy because of course, my band isn’t pure gold, and pure gold is softer anyway. But imagine if my ring was plated gold, and instead of something less expensive, but stronger beneath the shine, it was something even softer, like lead.


It would be like a funny trick my brother liked to play, where you hand someone what looks like a wrapped Starburst candy, only to have them discover it’s an empty wrapper, neatly refolded.


You might try to wear the gold plated lead ring, and for a little while it would look shiny and beautiful, but soon it would show signs that its core was inferior and structurally unsound. With enough pressure, it would collapse and the thinness of the gold would be exposed.


Christian unity, Church unity, isn’t accomplished by pretending we’re all on the same page, that we believe the same things, or practice the same ways. We live into unity when our core is strong: when our core is Jesus. When we come together to hear each other’s witness to how God is at work in our lives, when we recognize that God has gifted others, and we are not afraid to speak the truth of God’s revelations within our traditions and our lives, then we step towards celebrating the unity that God creates from our diversity.


In First Corinthians, we read about the Church as Christ’s body, with many members that look and function differently, but are all interconnected. Their diversity is so needed that the hand cannot say to the foot, I have no need of you, nor the foot to the hand, I have no need of you.


It’s a natural fear, to think that the more we know about each other, the more we’ll be divided. But that’s only if you’re living according to a world whose truth declares that you’re only safe when your group is all the same. When our safety, our justification, our salvation, is something God has already accomplished, so that we don’t rely on anyone else’s opinion of us to determine our self-worth, then we are free to be ourselves, to speak from our lives, and to really listen to the other. We have nothing to fear from real relationship that grows out of God’s love.


I experienced this during my formation for the ministry of spiritual direction. For two years, twice a month, I prayed with and listened for God’s work in the lives of six other Christians. While we talked about church, we didn’t dwell on denominations. We listened to how the other talked about God, experienced God, and lived out of his or her faith. I was surprised at how real God’s presence was for us, how strangers could become pillars of faith, supports for my own faith, wise eyes that saw God with me in places I had been blind to God’s work. After two years, when we finally met in person and could measure our heights against each other, when more open conversation about our own denominations and practices happened, I was surprised that these might not have been people I would have chosen as spiritual companions. If we had started with the reasons we were different instead of the source of grace at our center, it wouldn’t have worked. It worked because we lived out of our unity in Christ. In our conversations about theology and practice, we asked questions like, “where did that understanding of God come from?” or “how is that practice life-giving for you today?” rather than closed statements of “that’s not what the Bible says” and “my church says that’s wrong.” We came with the intention of living into unity, trusting that God really is present in the other’s experience of faith.


Our ELCA is a part of fascinating conversations with other Christian denominations as part of our living in to Jesus’ vision for the Church. We start at our common center: Jesus Christ, and then tackle the harder stuff, not to win in a debate, but to discover how God has been present in each other’s faithful living. You’ll find some of the recent work with the Lutheran-Catholic dialog includes hearing again words we’ve always assumed we’ve understood. When we have 500 years of division behind us, it’s easy to think we’re too far to ever come together again. But the fascinating thing about the documents out of this dialog is that it’s about really listening to understand each other and finding that we’re not always so different. Or at least coming to respect how God has been working in both our traditions. I’ve linked in our website some of these documents, so that you can glimpse a way that we are refocusing on unity in the whole Christian Church.


Jesus may have prayed for our unity, and we may be joining in God’s work to reconcile all people, but we are not there yet.


I experienced that in a startling way this week, when I was informed the leader of a Reformation History study tour I was signed up for didn’t want any pastors or people from the ELCA in his Lutheran tour group. I was surprised and angry and sad… and perhaps now I am hopeful.


Because I’ll find another option for my own study… and our unity isn’t up to this pastor, but is in God’s hands.


Maybe there’s a bit of irony in that- when God’s plan is finally complete, those who once rejected me will find out I’m their neighbor in the city of God.


I think by then, it will be ok. My resentment will be gone and their judgment will be gone, and all we will know is God’s love. Because one day, we will be filled with the love that the Son and the Father share- and we will be certain that that love is for us. All of us.

A Match Made in Heaven: A Sermon on Genesis 2 and Mark 10
October 5, 2015, 9:17 am
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Read the Bible passages.
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

One of the growing ways to find a romantic partner is to use an online dating service. The point of these services is to help you connect with someone you’d have a good chance of being compatible with. One of the big ones, describes itself with this ad, Looking for someone who loves sushi, the Mets, or runs marathons? We provide a variety of powerful search tools to help you find people based on their interests, background, age, location, and more—and it’s free…
An easy way towards love, right? Sounds like an obvious way to weed out all the options that won’t match. But in the days before computers, it was a little harder. And in the days before dating was ever invented… well, even God wasn’t so great at the matchmaking business.

When we open Genesis 2, we find God trying to make a match for the human God has created.

If Genesis 1 is perfectly measured by the refrain, “it was good,” then Genesis 2 is a cacophony of discord that moves out from, “it was not good.”

This second creation story describes a God who gets down and dirty in the mud, fashioning and forming like a child on the lakeshore. God’s created, but as God pauses to look at creation, God cannot say, “it is good.”

This earthling is alone within creation, and God sees this aloneness is not good. The earthling needs a partner.

But there haven’t been compatibility studies, there aren’t personality tests, and no time to decide favorite pastimes, so God doesn’t really have a whole lot to go on. The way the story’s told, God pokes around in the dirt some more, thinking a good partner might be strong, with a trunk to help clear and pull as the earthling worked the garden. But, while the elephant might be really helpful, it just doesn’t work out between the two of them. God tries again. This time, God fashions a partner with a better emotional intelligence, loyal, and cuddly. What emerges may become man’s best friend, but the dog still isn’t everything the earthling is looking for.

So, God does something new. God pulls out from the human another person. Now there are two, and the first recognizes in the other the connection that’s been missing.
After this division, the one is not alone, is in relationship.

Genesis is an origin story, meant to answer the question of why we live in relationship, in community. There are days when I might wish Adam would have called it good when God showed up with the cat or the dog. Human relationships can get so messy!
They are not all that the Match.coms of the world would have us believe, with a kiss and a ring and a happily ever after.
Living in relationship, living in community with other people, is not easy work.

As we move forward into Mark, we’re met with the reality that human community hasn’t lived up to the “it was good” standard. The glaringly obvious example in this passage is divorce, but there’s more to the text than that.

This scene is introduced, “Now the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus.” Their entrance is a sign of discord in community. Already we see that community is pulled apart by those who want to use their power against others.

They’ve come up with a question they hope will stump teacher Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

For those of us who think things have all gone bad in the last generation, this text reminds us that divorce was just as much a given back in Jesus’ day, and even in Moses’ day, that it is today.

The answer to the Pharisees questions is, yes, it is lawful- because as Jesus says, Moses, the teacher of the law, said it was lawful. But Jesus doesn’t start describing when it’s ok, or what conditions must be met. Jesus pushes back against the law. He says that allowing divorce was a result of their hardness of heart, their inability to live in relationship. Divorce is a symptom of the greater problem: brokenness and selfishness at the heart of all people, which is carried into all relationships and strains them.

Now, just as much as we might be surprised to learn that divorce was a thing way back then, it’s also important to keep in mind that marriage and divorce were also very different in Jesus’ time than they are today. Marriage was primarily an economic arrangement, one in which the woman was completely dependent on the man. If a man chose to divorce, he could cast his wife off, and thereby would cut her off from any economic security she might have had. She would be impoverished. It wasn’t an opportunity for people to go their own ways and lead full lives after the end of their marriage, but would destroy the wellbeing of the one most vulnerable in the relationship- the wife. So when Jesus speaks against divorce so strongly, it’s important to remember that he’s speaking against something that would severely injure one party more than the other.

I can’t imagine there are any of us who have not been affected by divorce. It’s not an end anyone plans when they enter a marriage. It’s not something any of us hopes for as we send our congratulations in a wedding card. I wonder if we, as a community, might not do more to prevent divorces from happening. As a church, we need to do more to walk with each other to support the promises and commitment of marriage,
especially in a world that tells us we should always be fulfilled, always get what we want. But we cannot fall into the trap of the Pharisees, and be so concerned with judgment that we lose sight of the real needs of people. Sometimes, divorce is the right, if painful, choice. Today, those who are being hurt by their partners are more free to leave, more able to be ok on their own. We are called to walk with those whose marriages are dissolved, so that they can work towards healing by being grounded in God’s unconditional and unending love for them. We can look out for those most affected by divorce, especially the children who cannot know all of what is going on around them.

When Jesus responds to the Pharisee’s question, Jesus is most concerned for the vulnerable. For Jesus, relationship is about community- and in God’s community, the least powerful, the most vulnerable, are the ones who must be cared for first. Remember, this whole section of Mark opened with Jesus talking about his death for others contrasted with the disciples’ arguing for greatness as they jostled for status. Jesus closed that conversation by putting a child in their midst. Now he turns from questions about divorce to another scene with children. He has to yell at the disciples because they are still pushing children away. They are still looking at community as a stratified hierarchy in which some are valued more than others. In Jesus’ community, even the snot nosed kids throwing a fit on the floor have a valued place next to Jesus.

Relationship in community is about more than marriage, much more than one man and one woman facing the world alone together. We are not whole unless we are all together- arranged in a matrix of many different types of relationships, with the most vulnerable embedded within as valued members. We’re created to be in relationship with each other- and not just spousal relationships, but as children, friend, neighbor, prayer partner, fellow resident of this beautiful earth.

Jesus is the base for that kind of relational community. Here at church we practice the kingdom of God, living into the community Jesus founds. This is why it is so necessary for us to be a place where all people are welcomed and valued, old and young, rich and poor, differently abled, and differently gifted. Whenever we push someone out, for whatever reason, we destroy our purpose as the community of Christ. This community is not whole without you. Here at Cross, we can never be completely whole, except when we recognize ourselves as members in the greater community of God, with brothers and sisters worshipping down the street and around the world, through the ages past and future.

We are humans because we were created out of the humus, the dirt, but we are persons because we are beings in relationship. Being in relationship is our birthright, as those created in the image of the Triune God. God comes to us, drawing us into relationship, pouring love on us, so that we can be in relationship with all the others God loves.

Gifted to be a Gift: A Sermon for Rally Sunday
September 14, 2015, 9:10 am
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Readings: Exodus 3:7-11, 4:10-13 1 Corinthians 12:4-27 Mark 2:13-17
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

Every December in North Dakota, while streetlights shine off the snow and ice, three people sit down at a table in an empty church with phone books open. They are the nominating committee, tasked with finding a group of people willing to serve on council for the coming year.

They start with a list of suggestions. But by the end of the night, their enthusiastic invitation to serve has dropped into a desperate plea, “We need two more people to be on council and everyone else has said no.”

Maybe some of you have been on one or the other side of the phone in a conversation like that. It’s no fun either way. The callers feel discouraged that no one will care enough about their church to take on leadership. The ones who answer later in the night feel undervalued, wishing the church would see them as more than a live body to fill a slot.
It doesn’t have to be this way! I was at a conference in Moorhead when someone finally let me in on the secret: people in every congregation have gifts! When they lead from their gifts, everyone wins.

Duh, right?! When you do things that match your passions, when you serve by doing something you’re good at— that feels right. You bring energy and joy- you do good work. We don’t have to do work or have committees that no one wants to be a part of. Things can be dormant for a season.

Today is about you discovering your gifts, celebrating and claiming them, and committing to putting them to use in specific ways here at Cross and wherever your daily life takes you. If you haven’t already, take some time now, during the offering, or after worship to respond to the statements on the pink Spiritual Gifts bulletin insert to discover your gifts and ways to use them through our shared ministries.
Not all of us find it easy to say we’re good at something. If you’ve ever filled out an application for a job, college, or scholarship, you know it can be hard to tease out those skills you’ve developed. We might look at an opportunity and think, “I don’t have what it takes to do that.”

You might get a big red stamp of rejection from employers, admissions, or other organizations, but you won’t from God. God is all about calling those who would never have thought they were eligible to apply. God doesn’t wait until you’ve mastered a skill, God calls you into a mission and gives you what you need along the way.
The Bible is full of stories in which God calls the unsuspecting, the outcast, the unskilled, and the sinner into big jobs of carrying out God’s mission. We read two examples this morning.

The first is Moses. More typically, he’s pictured as the great hero and patriarch- a strong faith leader who leads the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, delivers God’s commandments, and guides the freed slaves through the wilderness to the Promised Land.
We might think of Moses as larger than life, but today we see him true to size. God’s heard the cries of the suffering slaves in Egypt and has decided to do something about it. God wants to send someone to carry God’s message of freedom. God speaks to Moses. God says, “I will send you” and Moses questions, “Who am I?” and ends, “O my Lord, please send someone else.”

“Please send someone else.” I can feel that phrase sinking to the pit of my stomach- that moment when someone needs to step up and lead, but instead I just look down and try not to make eye contact. So often we tell ourselves we’re not good enough, we wouldn’t do it as well as someone else… but here is God, calling someone who doesn’t think he can do it, and with God’s help he will- not perfectly- but in the end God will free the Israelites and settle them in a new land.

In the Gospel of Mark, we witness Jesus calling Levi to be his disciple. Levi is a tax collector, a person most people would avoid. Jesus hangs out with Levi and his friends, the other tax collectors and sinners, inviting them into a relationship of transformation and ministry with him. Certainly the people who thought they had it all together, the religious people, didn’t think any of those sinners had what it takes to serve God. But Jesus did.

Jesus does. Today, God is still pulling us who aren’t quite ready, don’t think we’re good enough, and maybe aren’t even willing – God is pushing us into the big work God’s already doing: restoring creation, bringing healing, embodying forgiveness, and sustaining life. God is at work for the sake of all creation and is calling you to join in.
God is creating a team, a body to work together for the sake of the world. Not one of us has everything the world needs. To us in a culture valuing self-reliance, Paul casts a vision of a community as a single body. Each person is a member of the whole. Every member is in relationship with the other, needs the other in order for the body to function. We are each members of the body of Christ, and together we carry out God’s purposes in the world.

God calls, God equips, and God places you within a community. God invites you into the joy of witnessing God’s life-giving work firsthand, coming into being through the work of your hands, your words, your gifts at work.

Discover your Spiritual Gifts here!

What’s within: A Sermon on Mark 7 and James 1 Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 2, 2015, 1:53 pm
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Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

Every summer in Eagle River, just about the 4th of July, there’s a festival called Watermelon Days. In addition to vendors, there’s a big pavilion, under which there are troughs of freshly cut, cool and dripping watermelon. One year, after walking through the seemingly endless maze of hand knit caps, decorated sweatshirts, and fine pottery, holding her mother’s hand under the beating sun, a little girl finally made it to the watermelon stand. She ran up and got the biggest, juiciest piece of watermelon. She shoved it in her mouth, and as the juice ran down her chin, a gray-haired lady walked by and said, “you’d better be careful, or you’ll swallow a watermelon seed and then a watermelon will grow in your belly.” The girl froze, dropped her watermelon, and spit everything from her mouth onto the lady’s shoe.

Sometimes, we take the proverb, “you are what you eat” a little too far.

I made stir fry the other day, with broccoli from our garden. I thought I had washed it well, but as it cooked, I saw that I hadn’t quite picked off all the caterpillars, and there was a little extra protein frying in my dinner. Is this how I get butterflies in my stomach?

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and the Pharisees are debating about the religious practices surrounding ritual cleanliness. The Pharisees wouldn’t have touched my insufficiently washed broccoli, contaminated by the unclean worms.

Today, we can be confused by all this talk of ritual cleanliness and defilement and purity because it’s not our practice or way of thinking. For the Pharisees, ritual cleanliness was what determined your place in the community and the household, as well as your closeness to God. Your personal cleanliness was determined by your ability to keep your diet free of certain foods, washing food, cooking utensils, and yourself, as well as avoiding various bodily fluids. Your personal cleanliness affected the community’s cleanliness. The community’s cleanliness was necessary for God’s presence.

Today, this might be analogous to a group’s sense of welcome. What kind of person are you willing to move over to make room for at your table, and who do you pretend to ignore? What attributes determine if a person is actively welcomed or shunned?

Or, another way to think of the effect of the cleanliness worldview might be with the proverb, “choose your friends wisely.” My parents always reminded me before the school year of the importance of a student’s peer group- with its power to influence either good or bad behaviors. The people you associate with have the power to taint you: being around “dirty” or “bad” people makes you dirty or bad, too.

Ritual cleanliness either made you a part of the community, or set you outside the community for a time, so that the whole community could maintain its purity and its connection to the most holy God.

Jesus counters the Pharisee’s focus on ritual cleanliness by declaring, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile… For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come…” (15, 21a).

Jesus is less concerned with the practices of purity. Regarding my opening examples, I think Jesus would have laughed with that little girl and grabbed another piece of watermelon. I’m not so sure I can picture him crunching up those fried caterpillars… but you never know. These foods won’t create something bad within us. Jesus relocates the source of our uncleanliness, from external washing rituals to internal motivations.

But that leaves us with the difficult reality. What’s bad is already within us. The human heart- or whatever we conceive of as our center of being- is a place where evil and sin are harbored. That badness is expressed out of us in our actions and our words.

Alone, we are trapped in sin. All we do, even our best work, is marred by the root evil that resides within us. We might describe this sin as our base self-centeredness, in which we are turned in to ourselves, see only our needs and wants, and attempt to take God’s place in control, power, and judgment.

We are not left alone, trapped in sin. Through baptism, we are united with Jesus and given his righteousness, his sinlessness, and are thus freed from sin. But that freedom from sin is something that is not totally ours yet. We can still be stuck. Even when we try to make ourselves look good, there is something bad deep within.

Jesus says it’s from within that defilement comes. The epistle of James helps clarify how that community-destroying evil is expressed. For the community to whom James writes, sin has found its way into their speech. In James 1: 26, we read “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” A bit past our reading for today, in chapter three, we read, “6 … the tongue is a fire…9 “with (our tongue) we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 from the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”

Talking is the central communication tool we have, and we do it all the time. Yet it is one of the greatest dangers to any community, and perhaps one that we here at Cross find we often struggle with.

We are a tight community, sometimes calling ourselves a family. But that can mean that we don’t guard our speech as we might among strangers. We can lose sight of what kinds of speech builds up community and what tears it down. A fun conversation can turn to gossip. Questioning concern can turn to judgment. Familiarity can find us speaking for others because we think we know well enough how they would answer. Talking is necessary for building relationships, and yet it can also so easily break them apart.

It’s helpful for all of us to always bear in mind Luther’s explanation of the 8th Commandment. In explaining what it means to not bear false witness against your neighbor, Luther writes, “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”

As you go about your day, people can’t see your thoughts. They don’t know what is in your heart. But they can – and do- hear what you say, even when you think they aren’t listening. Think of all the ways you communicate throughout the day, all you spoke about yesterday. That is what shows the world what is inside you. That is what people will hear coming from one who is called to be Christ’s light for the world. That is how people will know Jesus- and may determine whether or not they want to know him more.

Will they hear you sticking up for someone everyone else is talking bad about? Will they hear you working towards an end to the rumor, pointing questions back to the source? Will they hear you encouraging others to try to see how another’s words or actions might be interpreted in a better way? Or will they hear you joining in to relationship fraying conversations? Will they note your silence?

As students return to school this week, we are reminded of how important speech is in developing a healthy learning environment. My heart breaks as we learn about the constant hurt of bullying among our youth. We must work to end this evil and heal those who are hurting.

Taming the tongue is not just a task for the youth. It is a struggle for all of us, and one that doesn’t seem to be valued in our culture.

God works within us, in the midst of our struggling, to bring us more closely into alignment with God’s vision for us. James describes our encounter with the Word of God as looking into a mirror. We see ourselves more clearly, and can turn from the mirror into a life that is continually transformed by that clarity of vision. Sin and struggle are a part of this life, but God also calls us to grow into a newness of life, freed from sin.

We are all on the path towards healing, towards better speech, towards loving action, towards following Christ more closely. Today we gather around Jesus’ table, first for healing and anointing, remembering that wherever we are on the journey, God is beside us, wiping away tears from hurtful words, restoring relationships, and forgiving where we misspoke. Later we gather to be fed by Jesus, who took all the world’s hate onto himself, experiencing the pain of rejection, so that we might be forgiven and made one community in him.

From ourselves, only sin can come. Thanks be to God, you have not been left alone. God has chosen to place God’s own holiness within you. The most holy one has entered our world, has entered your heart, and has not been pushed back by the brokenness that also resides there. Your heart might be a kitchen full of dirty dishes or half-washed vegetables, but the Spirit of God is at work, tidying up and making you holy.

Polling Place: a Sermon on Ephesians 2:11-22 for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost
August 3, 2015, 2:33 pm
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Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
Have you ever heard a news report that cites some poll or another and wondered who on earth these people are who are supposedly representative of the nation?
I know I have. But this week, I got to be one of those people! It took the polling company at least six times to actually get in touch with me, but then I patiently answered their questions while trying to get the baby dressed for bed. Or maybe the caller was the one who was really being patient, as I asked for the question again, or tried to remember if 5 or 1 was supposed to be mean strongly agree.
I came away from the experience with a clearer sense of what I actually felt. There’s a commitment that comes with saying aloud what you’re thinking that brought me some clarity.
We could use that clarity as we enter our exploration of Ephesians this morning. So, I have a little poll for you. You’re welcome to write down your answers, or just think of them in your head.
On a scale of 1 to 5, in which 1 is strongly disagree and 5 is strongly agree, what is your reaction to these statements:
-I am comfortable in this congregation.
-I belong in this community.
-I am a good person who tries to do what is right.
-My life experience and expectations about the world are similar to those of others in this congregation.
-The way I live my life has an impact on my place in this congregation.
-If people knew everything about me, I might not be welcome here anymore.

Our reading from Ephesians calls listeners to remember who they are and how they got into the community. What are you discovering about your place in this community? On what is your security here founded?
When we read the Bible it’s really important to remember the context of what we’re reading. The context is like the backdrop, the stuff everyone who’s writing assumes we know and experience- stuff about the way the world works, how people interact, and the struggles we face. Context is everything taken for granted as the way things are. The context of all of the New Testament is the struggle within the community of God’s people. There is tension between Jewish people and the Jewish people who worship Jesus as the messiah. There is tension between the Jewish people who worship Jesus as the messiah and the Gentile, or non-Jewish people who worship Jesus as the messiah. There is tension between the first disciples of Jesus, and their followers, who are Jewish and think people who worship Jesus should also be Jewish, and the later disciples of Jesus, like Paul and his followers, some of whom, like Paul, are Jewish, and others of whom are not Jewish, and think people who worship Jesus don’t have to be Jewish.
The code word for Jewishness in the New Testament letters is circumcision. Talking about circumcision gets a few giggles from confirmation youth and confused eyebrow raising from adults. When you read or hear about circumcision in the New Testament, treat it as a code, or symbol, for all the laws and rituals that are part of Jewish people being Jewish. For the Jewish people of this time, and for generations upon generations before, Jewish identity- being the chosen people of God- was lived out by following God’s laws, rituals, and regulations. Circumcision, rituals of cleanliness, and even things like the Ten Commandments, are all part of what makes a Jewish person a Jewish person, part of God’s chosen community.
Jesus comes into the world, fulfilling the Jewish hope of a messiah from God. For the people who recognize Jesus as savior, especially as more and more people who were never a part of the Jewish group, the chosen people of God, come to recognize Jesus as being sent from God, the big debate becomes who belongs in Jesus’ community. For whom did Jesus come to save? Just the Jewish people who had been waiting for him? Or for everyone? Or for everyone who decided to join the Jewish community so they could be a part of Jesus’ community?
Ephesians is written by Paul’s followers, to these people who are trying to figure out what it means to follow Christ. Paul’s on the side of Jesus being for everyone. Paul’s Jewish, he’s part of the in-group of God’s chosen people, but he doesn’t think that’s important anymore. Paul’s a Pharisee, he’s been really good at following God’s law, but he doesn’t think that’s important anymore.
Now that Jesus has come, the only thing that matters, your only entrance into the community is Jesus himself. Now, everyone is welcome.
It doesn’t matter who you are, what group you’re a part of, or what you’ve done, nothing about the individual matters, it is Jesus alone who makes you a part of the community.
Ephesians opens by talking to the new Christians- remember who you are and how you got into the community. It was Jesus! Not you!
You had no claim on God, no right to a place in the kingdom of God- but Jesus came and found you and brought you in and found you a home.
The image we get in Ephesians is that of a building. You might imagine a school, a big building that is divided into littler rooms, keeping groups separated. In the past, one group was loved and favored and known, and the other was not. But now, Jesus has come in. He’s carrying a big sledge hammer and he goes after those walls. Plaster is flying, walls are crumbling, and finally, there is no more division. All are together, everyone is united.
Those walls are the law. Jesus destroys God’s law. Circumcision, ritual, ten commandments- all of it is destroyed, ended, abolished. The law was put in place so that people would know who they were. The Jewish people lived a different kind of life so that they would remember they belonged to God, and so that their neighbors would know the Jewish people were the chosen ones of God. The law was about showing you were a part of the right group.
Jesus makes you a part of his group, whether or not there’s anything right about you at all.
In Jesus, no one can say, “I belong more than you because I live in this right way” or “you don’t have a place because you haven’t followed this rule.” Where the law leads to pride and self-righteousness, Jesus leads us to humility.
“Remember.” Ephesians calls us to remember our place. Remember your place. Jesus has given you a place among the beloved and claimed saints. Jesus has made you his for life. It’s not something you did. You didn’t earn it, and you can’t lose it. Only Jesus’ faithfulness to you matters, and he has already proven that in his death on the cross and resurrection to life.
Remember that your place is secure. You don’t have to live in fear.
Remember that your place is dependent on Jesus. Live in humility rather than self-righteousness.
Jesus breaks down the dividing walls. Think of all the barriers and divisions in our world today. From crossing the aisle to crossing the tracks, bridging the gap- how is Jesus calling you to be a part of pulling those walls down?
Jesus is at work here at Cross, to build us together spiritually, so that we might be part of the great household of God. Jesus is breaking down walls in order to fit more people. Jesus is the reason there is room here for you. It’s not what you’ve done or haven’t done, it’s not whether or not you have the right opinion or stand on the right side of an issue, it’s not your family history or your current status.
As Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross, he pushed away any power you have in making yourself welcome or unwelcome in God’s community. Jesus went down into hell to destroy death’s power to separate us. Jesus rose so that our identity as the people of God would last from now through eternity.
This is a place of welcome for all of God’s people?
Strongly agree.

Together Again: A Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20
September 20, 2014, 8:47 am
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Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

When I saw the text for this morning, I admit I let out a little sigh of disappointment. It’s not a text I would have chosen for a day that is full of celebration, of welcoming people back after a summer of travel, a day of service and fellowship. Today’s a day I’ve been hoping will be a wonderful, happy day, full of good feelings and energy that will launch us all into an active and engaged program year here at church.

So, when I turned to today in my liturgical calendar and read Matthew 18, with its sobering reminder that churches have conflict, it put a damper on my mood. Who wants to be reminded of that tiff you’ve had with the person sitting across the aisle? Or acknowledge that even before there were parking lots, people knew how to tell others about how they’d been wronged and build an angry faction against the wrongdoer.

Matthew doesn’t tell us what’s going on in his early Christian community, but we know some conflict has come up and he’s seen unhealthy ways of dealing with it. Your own life experience can help you fill in the blank. You can guess what kinds of sins members of Matthew’s community feel have been committed against them based on the things you’ve seen in your community, or still feel the sting of in your memory.

This may not have been the text I would have picked for today, but its strong message is important for us at this new beginning. God has a vision for our coming together. In this world, misunderstandings and conflict occur. How we deal with these transgressions echos through this world and reverberates in heaven.

The steps Jesus teaches are straightforward enough, but they are not easy to follow. When most of us feel wronged, we don’t even make it to the first step. Jesus says, “When someone sins against you, go and point out the fault…” Right away, when you feel that sting or your stomach knotting up, don’t go to anyone else, just go straight to the person you feel has wronged you, and say why you feel hurt.

It’s so much easier to avoid confrontation! You aren’t alone if your first response is to call a friend or gather together a group to tell your story to, so that they can support you, tell you you did everything right, and can take your side against the sinner.

If you go to another and explain the experience from your perspective, you have to be willing to hear the perspective of the other. You have to be willing to hear the role you may be playing in the negative situation. It doesn’t sound like much fun.

The outcome Jesus is looking for doesn’t match what we’re typically looking for. Jesus says, “if the member listens to you, then you have regained that one.” When someone wrongs us, are we looking to be brought back into relationship with her? So often we want to put that person in her place. We want to get her back. We want to shame her, or only let her back into the community after she’s been appropriately humiliated or done enough penance to make us feel better.

If things went the way Jesus suggests, the next time another brother in Christ does something to hurt you, even if he really did mean to make you feel horrible, no one else would ever know. Only you and that person. You would have told that person your experience of his act, and that person would have listened, but no one else would ever know.

Think about what it does when we share our grievances with someone other than the one who has hurt us. We create a picture of our fellow member that paints his sin front and center, so that the hurt we feel colors the way others interact with that person. Bringing others into the situation is meant as a last option, when listening isn’t occurring. Only as a very last step does the person’s sin become known to the whole community, and then together they agree that it is necessary for the health of the community for that one to be known and set outside the community.

There are times when the sin is such that it would be too damaging to have the violated one confront the perpetrator. The process of reconciliation should never re-victimize. This process isn’t the way to solve all problems and have a perfect community. Rather, this scripture reminds us that there will be conflict, even in Christian community, and calls us to take action towards healing rather than retaliation.

Through this scripture, Jesus reminds us that our community matters. Jesus enters community. Jesus promises to be present where two or three are gathered. When you address the hurt that is breaking down relationship or threatening community, Jesus is there to bring reconciliation.

In this past week, someone said to me that they love the ELCA, our Lutheran expression of the church, because we have been clear that our members don’t believe the same way about everything, don’t live the same way as each other, and don’t always agree, but we have chosen to be members of each other, living together with our differences open and acknowledged.

Jesus Christ is the center of our community. It is Jesus, through the work of the Holy Spirit, who gathers us diverse people into one community. That we gather today matters. Our commitment to be present for each other is important because Jesus comes to us as a gathered people. Jesus comes to us primarily as we gather around word and sacrament. We meet Jesus through the read and interpreted Bible, the promise and the water, the bread and the wine. As much as it might sound easier to reach God all by yourself, without having to deal with the personalities and needs of other people, we simply cannot. Jesus doesn’t want an individualistic relationship with just you, Jesus comes for the whole, gathered community.

Keegan is entering into this community of the baptized today. He’ll probably be more familiar with the faces of his particular community at Crosspoint, but even while he’s worshipping down the street, we give thanks that we are united with him, and with all who gather in other buildings, into one community through Jesus.

Everything we do this morning reminds us that the way we live together matters. The way we are community together matters. It matters for each of us. It matters in the way those outside of us see us. It matters to God and to the kingdom God is building.

In this text, Jesus tells us that our community is reflected in heaven. What we allow in our relationships with each other affects the kingdom of God. As people who may be quick to think that in heaven God will make everything right, and God will heal all our misunderstandings, this text challenges us. If how we live together, how we talk about each other, how we seek to experience Jesus together, is reflected in heaven, we might want to work harder at growing in love.

God is at work to form us into members of each other in Christ. We are drawn to the Table, where Jesus serves each of us with his very life. There, elbow to elbow, be waiting on by Jesus, we hear the promise that binds us into one community: “This is the body of Christ, given for you.” Jesus died to reconcile you to God and to each other. May you know the joy of community forged in Jesus’ sacrifice of love.