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Wastelands becoming Gardens: A Sermon for Advent 3, Isaiah 35:1-10
December 12, 2016, 5:16 pm
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Bible Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.

 

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

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

What was once familiar becomes a strange wasteland.

(Something that looks like this…)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

How could they hope for a change for the better?

 

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

“the desert shall rejoice and blossom”

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 



Blooming Out of Season Sermon: Advent 2 Isaiah 11:1-10
December 5, 2016, 12:33 pm
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bibleGrace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

(Monty Python- “I’m not dead yet.” )

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 



Good News?! A Sermon on Luke 3:7-18
December 14, 2015, 11:52 am
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Texts this week

Well, people of God, I’m a little confused by our text, because it calls itself something I’m not so sure it is. So I want to know if you’re with me…

Tell me- What’s good news to you?

Maybe a friend getting new job? Or a baby being born? Or a positive review or good grade?

Good news, to my ears, doesn’t sound much like John the Baptist’s tirade.

Yet that’s what the gospel calls it. The closing of our gospel reads, “So, with many other exhortations, (John) proclaimed the good news to the people.”

But all those exhortations- everything that comes before this closing verse – sounds a lot more like bad news- than good! At the minimum, it’s hard news to hear.

“You brood of vipers!” John shouts. “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” He continues on and on- and all I can imagine is a crazy guy shouting and pointing fingers.

It might be like me standing up here, saying, “You nest of hornets! What got you up this morning? Are you here to make yourself look good? Wanting to be sure you’re on God’s good side, just in case this God stuff really is true? Since when did you care about anything besides yourselves?  Thought you’d be good because you’re baptized? Still living any which way that feels good, thinking you’re safe because you call yourself a Christian? Buzzing around like you’re busy with God’s work? You’re not fooling anyone- God knows who you really are. God’s made plenty more faithful than you. What does God need you and all your good intentions for- I don’t think you’re going to make the cut.”

Um… is that good news?

Is that the good news that God sent a messenger to proclaim?

My mother grew up in a church that preached more hellfire and brimstone that she’s heard since in an ELCA congregation. She left that church because of the focus on judgment and fear and punishment. That’s not the good news of God through Jesus. It’s not something any of us would choose to hear.

But maybe, sometimes, judgment is the prelude that brings us into the song of life. We can need the shock of cold water to wake us up.

There’s this inertia to life. We start living a certain way and it becomes a habit and then it’s hard to question it and hard to stop.

Think about the way you eat. I always grew up with a focus on sitting down together as a family, and always thought that would be the way I live life. But then came the kids, and I’m running to feed them before they cry, or to grab the baby’s plate the minute she’s done, before she throws it on the floor… and I end up not eating, or eating later, and certainly not often enough eating the healthy food I intend to eat. Or there’s one meeting or another between the two of us adults and we end up having more conversation over toothpaste than dinner. So, little by little your intentions for a good life are eroded by an unintended way of life.  But it’s not a way of living that’s any different from anyone else’s struggle, so it becomes normal. Then one day you come to a point where nothing feels right-  about your priorities and your relationships – any more.

Think of the way Thanksgiving has developed, with Black Friday sales creeping in to Thursday. You wonder if we’ve really messed up when a day of gratitude is transformed into a day of discontented greed.

We all can name that life doesn’t seem right, but it can be difficult to name what it is that has to change, and even more difficult to change that habit.

John the Baptist calls the people names and tells them they’re in trouble. This isn’t really bad news, because it’s something they know. It’s the reason they’ve travelled out to see him. They know life isn’t right. It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t look right. But it’s the way everyone else is living and the way everyone else is expecting them to live, and they just can’t get their minds around how to change it.

They’re not the only ones who are realizing that their lifestyle isn’t sustainable. Today, we can come to see our way of life isn’t working. What’s it for you? Where are you stuck in a rut? When have you been looking for fulfillment and not getting filled?

The good news is that there’s a way out. There is life. It comes only after God confronts you and shows you that the only life-giving option goes through the ultimate life-giver. Jesus is so ready and willing to give you the life you need.

But first comes the hard news: It’s not about you. The path to true life opens in front of those who stop seeking themselves.

John’s life changing message is the preparation for the fulfillment of the good news. There’s more to come, but it’s going to be Jesus who brings that in. John’s got his role to play. Jesus is going to be even better for us.

A wake up call has a purpose. It gets you ready to go in to the rest of your day, but it’s not like you have an alarm buzzing every five minutes! No one could function like that.

In my day, there’s only certain times I set multiple alarms- when something really important is coming up.  There’s been a couple days when I’ve gotten the “World’s worst Mom” award, arriving so late to pick up Laila from school that I have to go in and find her waiting, head down, abandoned, in the office. Feeling that guilt has led me to try to change my actions, so I’ve now set at least three alarms over the course of 15 minutes to remind me that nothing else in that moment is as important as my little girl. These alarms are a signal to prepare myself for the action I need to take for the sake of another. Because without those warnings, I’m too caught up in myself- and it sometimes takes me ten minutes to tear myself away from the object of my focus.

There might come a day when I become more used to this schedule, when only one alarm will be enough to remind me of the time.

But until I’m trained into that schedule, I need all the wake up calls I can get.

John functions as the wake up call to all of us who are too caught up in ourselves. His teaching trains us toward a new focus. John calls us to examine the way we live in relationship with other people. Then he tells us to take action.

Do things that retrain you away from selfishness. Look at your stuff, you have too much, give half of it away. That’s John’s generic message, but then he names groups of hated people- tax collectors, soldiers- and he has a message of change for them. Unspoken is the message to those who have been oppressed by these groups, but John has a point for them as well: maybe you’ve never had enough, you’ve hated those who have power over you and have taken what little you have. It’s understandable that you’d have no love for those who have made you suffer.  Well, now they’re going to be a part of your community, and it’s up to you to love them into a new way of living.

Hard news. Good news.

God confronts us as we coast contentedly through mediocre lives. Wake up. Get ready. Jesus is coming. Jesus is going to pull you from self-centeredness and stick you in community with people you don’t like. Jesus is going to work like fire, consuming ways of life that aren’t life giving, making room for new habits and relationships. The Christian message, the good news, isn’t the same as a self-help book. This is radical and difficult and driven by God. Through the discomfort of confronting the real news about yourself, God will bring you to the good news.

We need to be mindful of the differences between a discontent that grows out of looking for the meaning and life that only God can offer, and other feelings of unease. One closely related feeling is what is sometimes called the dark night of the soul, when we hunger spiritually and feel that there is no longer nourishment for us in the spiritual practices through which we once strongly felt God’s presence. It can feel like God has suddenly gone silent. During such a time, we need to continue to search for God, trusting that God is with us, engaging in both our regular ways of connecting with God and in new ways, pressing on in trust that God will see us through this time of testing and growth.

Feelings of depression and meaninglessness, while they can have a spiritual side, also need to be explored and healed with the support of those God has called into the medical and psychological fields. No matter how much we want to wake up and live in a way freed from depression and anxiety, this can’t be done alone, we need God, and the professionals God has blessed us with, in order to live into our best selves. Any one of us can find ourselves trapped by forces that close our ears to God’s love, to the community’s love, and to hope for life. But nothing, not even death, takes us away from Jesus.

Jesus is transforming us, in this life, and in the life to come. Jesus is moving us into a life that is centered on his love, turned towards God in praise and neighbor in service. Jesus is bringing us from death into life, and the life Jesus places us into will never be taken away. John’s harsh words prepare us to welcome the good news of new life in Jesus.

Jesus has come to bring you into new life, a life that is focused on God, is lived with love for all, and answers the needs of others. This is a life of meaning and purpose, within the great purpose of God, who is working to renew all things. You are being called into something greater than yourself. This is the good news. And the hard news.



Steadfast Love: A Sermon in the Covenant Series for Lent 4: 2 Samuel 7, Psalm 107, John 3
March 16, 2015, 11:20 am
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Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

Does anyone use the psalms frequently in their prayer lives? It might be a more common practice among those who pray the hours, using these texts over and over again throughout life to shape your prayer. Maybe some of you have memorized a psalm or two? Perhaps Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd…”

The Psalms were written as songs for worship, words that would be sung on everyone’s lips and form their picture of who God is and what God has done, is doing, and will do for them. If you were a person who prayed these songs regularly, you’d find that they become a part of your heart’s song. When something big happened in your life, you’d find a ready response from God in this prayer language.

As we continue to explore covenant this Lent, one line from our psalm expresses what we’re discovering: “God’s mercy endures forever.” (Psalm 107:1b ELW). Or, put another way, “God’s steadfast love endures forever.” (NRSV).

The whole point of using these six weeks of Lent to explore covenant is to discover how God starts and keeps covenant. God makes promises to specific groups of people. These promises form a relationship between promise giver and promise receiver, and they give an identity to the people so that they become God’s people. We’re spending these weeks trying to figure out if God’s steadfast love really does last forever, and how that steadfastness is expressed to us.

In the covenant to Noah and all creation, God promises to remember creation, and never again destroy it. In the covenant to Abraham, God promises to make a nation out of Abraham’s descendants, giving them a land and a new relationship as God’s people. In the Sinai Covenant, given to Moses and the Israelites freed from slavery in Egypt, God affirms the promise to be their God, giving them God’s vision of a freed, life-affirming society through the law.

Today we read from Second Samuel the Davidic Covenant. God promises David, in verse 16, “your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” God says that King David’s descendants will continue to be the kings and their kingdom will always be.

I’ve been using the word promise a lot as I describe God’s work in these covenants. I’m not sure if promise quite captures it. Remember, God’s speech has declarative power- what God says, is. Genesis 1 is God creating through speech. So when God speaks these covenants, it’s not a weak promise of “I’ll do my best to do this or that for you… if I can… if you’re really good.” What God promises, is.

As we’ve looked through the covenants, we’ve discovered that the person receiving God’s promises doesn’t always get to see them fully in place. Abraham had to trust God’s promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars and would be a great nation. He waited a long time before he experienced the beginning of God’s work on the promise through the birth of Isaac.

The Davidic Covenant is so specific- one family- one kingship- forever- that its failure becomes glaringly obvious. There’s a big problem with God’s following through on this promise. The problem for the people of God in the generations after King David is that the kingdom is conquered. There is no unending line of kings ruling God’s people in peace, in their land. Rather, the people of God are conquered, some are taken into exile, later to return. Even then, they are still a conquered nation, without an independent king of their own. They remain under the authority of one or another foreign nation even through the time of Jesus and the early Christian church.

Imagine how it would be, if you were one of God’s people, living in exile, or living back in Jerusalem but with Roman forces in your streets. What would it mean to you to remember this covenant with David and also sing the psalm, “God’s steadfast love endures forever.” Would that prayer catch in your throat as you wondered what it means for God to be steadfast and faithful in God’s promises?

It’s one thing to wake up to a beautiful sunrise and have your heart sing, “God’s love endures forever.”

It’s a similar feeling when you hear from a good friend and your spirit is raised, “God’s love endures forever.”

Even at the close of a funeral of a beloved elder, after acknowledging all the ways God provided for and through her, setting her in the eternal embrace of God, “God’s love endures forever.”

But when everything is falling apart- from the news on TV to your job to the kids to the house and the bills and your heath, and maybe even the church— “God’s love endures forever?”

If this was a refrain to your life, some days it might be comforting, others joyous, and at others might be the cause for anger- where is God’s power and love for me right now, in the midst of my life?

What does it mean for God’s promises to be steadfast when it sure looks like God’s long forgotten that promise?

We have a unique vantage point in the Bible. We get to hear the stories of people who ask the hard questions of faith. Over the course of scripture, God remembers, God is faithful.

God’s fulfills the Davidic Covenant in Jesus. Jesus is the king in David’s line, but his kingdom is different than expected. Jesus is not the victorious king, returning from war or convening councils in great rooms. Jesus is the king who suffers with and dies for his people.

God’s faithfulness looks like Jesus: God enfleshed, God in the midst of our real junk, mocked as king, crowned with thorns, clothed in a royally colored rag, reigning from above the crowd, his throne a cross.

The encouraging witness of the exiles, of the conquered, is the sustained hope that keeps “God’s steadfast love endures forever” on their lips, even when God’s answer to this promise is so far away.

Maybe you’re in a place in which it’s easy to rejoice in God’s faithfulness. But if you’re not- if you’re having a difficult time seeing God’s faithfulness for you- you’re not alone. Other faithful people have been there and are there today. Jesus knows what it is to be left questioning God’s faithfulness, to find yourself deep in shame, grief, and abandonment. Jesus experienced all despair so that he could be with you in compassionate, steadfast love.

We gather together in this place because we need to know that God’s love and faithfulness is for us. God’s steadfast love is for us, individually and corporately.  It is for you- for those who gather alongside you at this church- and as John reminds us- for the whole world. Today you are not left to wonder if God has made real the promise of relationship, forgiveness, and life for you.

Be assured. Come and touch and taste and smell the elements that carry God’s promise and Jesus’ presence to you. In water, God washes the baptized and claims you in relationship for life forever.

In bread and wine, Jesus gives himself to you. God’s mercy and love are yours forever.

Jesus’ crowning on the cross is the antithesis of all we might image as God’s blessed king. Yet it is through the cross that Jesus opens the kingdom to all nations and breaks the power of all other rulers to oppress us. Jesus is raised from the dead so that we might glimpse the way in which God will fulfill all promises. God’s faithfulness gives us reason to hope for the future.



From Exhausted to Inspired: A Sermon For Pentecost

            It’s been one of those weeks for me. When all the swirling forces of life combine to make a perfect storm. It’s the preschool germs that keep coming home. It’s the laundry that never ends and only gets half-folded before the baby is crying or the toddler is hungry or the dog needs to go out. The calendar that keeps getting filled up. The bills that arrive each month. The extended family members in various degrees of illness and health. Another bowl dropped and shattered on the floor. The days that never have enough hours and the weeks that never have enough days. My junk is what it is, and the mess of my life won’t look like yours. But one week or another, I’d bet you’ve been here, too. With a messy life leaving you feeling worn out, overwhelmed, and exhausted.

 

            Exhausted. That’s a good word for me today. At its roots, there is “ex” meaning from, and “haust” coming from a word meaning to draw or even to take. Draw from. Take out of. Like each little bump in an otherwise smooth road of life has come along and taken a straw to siphon off a little bit more of my energy, a little bit more of my patience, a little bit more of my spirit. Until I am drained. I am dry.

 

            Have you been there before? Have you felt like you have nothing left to give? Not even enough strength to make it through the day? Maybe you’ve been so bad that you’ve known you can’t handle one more thing… and then the phone rings again, something else has happened. It can be too much. And those well-meaning pious phrases like, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” leave you angry and certain that God didn’t give you any of this.

 

            If you’re there, or if someday, you find yourself there, know that you’re not alone. People here have been there. People you look up to have been there. People in the Bible have been there.

 

            The disciples have been there. We meet them there in our reading from John. The text says they’ve locked themselves in a room out of fear. They’ve just seen their beloved teacher killed by the religious and political powers that be. They’ve buried the one who has given their lives meaning and purpose. Now they are alone, afraid, exhausted. Their courage, drive, faith, and purpose have been drawn out of them. They are deflated.

 

            That room feels like all the air has been sucked out of it. Suddenly, into that stagnant mess, Jesus appears. He who once was dead is filled with life. His presence fills the room. He speaks and breathes upon those gathered. He breathes out the Holy Spirit.

 

            The disciples are ex-hausted— drained out. Then Jesus comes and in-spires them. Jesus breathes into them. They are filled with the Holy Spirit.

 

            Early in John, when Jesus was describing what would happen through his ministry, he presents another image of the change he works from us being exhausted to inspired.

 

            Jesus speaks of all of us as parched, dried up, thirsty people. Jesus can change that, so he calls out, and welcomes everyone to come. “Come, and drink from me,” he invites. Then Jesus shifts the image. Instead of continuing the image by saying those thirsty people come to him and are satisfied, Jesus declared, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”

 

            Not only is the original dryness quenched, but it is replaced by a stream whose source will never be depleted. Instead of a one-time refreshment, there is a gushing abundance. Jesus changes us from dried up to overflowing.

 

            From exhausted to inspired, dried up to overflowing: this is the change Jesus works in you, through the Holy Spirit. Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into you, Jesus fills you with the living, flowing, rushing Spirit.

 

            Jesus sends his Spirit to you, so that you may have life, believe in him, and continue his work of proclaiming the kingdom of God. Jesus has continued to pour out the Spirit since those first days of his resurrection, when fears were calmed and people of all nations heard the good news in their mothertongue.

 

            So what does it mean when you find yourself in a dry spell? If Jesus is pouring out the Spirit abundantly, why would we ever be exhausted? Is Jesus withholding the Spirit? Is there something you’re not doing right?

 

            The Spirit is ever faithful. Jesus never abandons you. But feeling overwhelmed and abandoned are real. It’s important to remember the source of the Spirit when considering your expectations of how you should feel throughout life. Jesus has given you his Spirit. Jesus has always been connected with the Spirit, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t have difficult times during his life and ministry on earth. Even filled with the Spirit of life, Jesus wept at Lazarus’ death, was betrayed by a friend and followers, suffered, and died. Filled with the Spirit, Jesus still suffered.

 

            So, to proclaim that Jesus has filled you with the Spirit isn’t to say that all your problems will be solved, grief will be no more, and every mundane moment of life will suddenly be filled with meaning. It is to say that the God of life and love is faithfully with you always. One of my favorite verses speaks of the work of the Spirit when we are at our most troubled: Romans 8:26, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”The Spirit is always working to connect us with God.

 

            In connecting us with God, the Spirit reframes the troubles of our days. The Spirit elevates us to catch a glimpse of God’s longer and more hopeful perspective. God’s vision always includes light after darkness, presence after loneliness, life after death.

 

 

            If you find yourself overwhelmed by circumstances in life, there are things to be done to help you find yourself more settled in an awareness of the Spirit. The Spirit leads us to gather for worship, to pray, and to listen to God and join in God’s work in the world. These are places in which we are more fully aware of God’s kingdom in which all those things that burden us will be eased and made well. The Spirit brings us to the one from whom we can drink and be more than satisfied.

 

May Jesus so inspire you that you would have faith even in the most difficult times of life, and comfort in the overflowing grace of God’s life-giving presence. 



World is Going to Hell in a Handbasket: Nothing New- A sermon on Habakkuk and Luke 17
October 6, 2013, 5:45 pm
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Ever hear comments like these:

I don’t watch the news anymore, it’s too depressing.

The rich are getting richer and the poor poorer and the middle class is shrinking.

The world is getting more and more dangerous. Things aren’t safe anymore. I worry about my children.

Leaders are corrupt, everyone is just in it for themselves.

I feel like the world is crumbling around me.

 

These are things I’ve heard people say today- maybe you’ve said one or two yourself.

They are also things that Habakkuk, or the people around him, might have said. Habakkuk lived back in 600 BC, in Judah. Judah was a small country, stuck between the powerful empires of Babylon and Egypt. Their situation was precarious at best. Even within their own land, leaders were corrupt, the rich cheated the poor, violence was rampant, and nothing seemed likely to change.

Habakkuk was a prophet. He spoke to God and shared God’s message with all the people. The book of Habakkuk records some of this conversation. It begins with Habakkuk’s rant against God: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” (1:2a)

The courage and faith of the prophet- that he can tell it like it is! These words of Habakkuk were written so very long ago, and yet I hear them coming alive for us today. Have you not seen injustice, and thought, “God, why are you not doing anything!”

Maybe you’ve put the question this way: If God is all powerful, if God cares about God’s people- why are violence and evil winning? I think there are a lot of people, in and out of the church, who have this question. It might be a big reason many people leave the church, or don’t come to a life of faith when they first hear a witness speak of God. After all, what good is it to believe in and worship a God who says he doesn’t want war or injustice or poverty or death… and yet still seems to let it all happen- or maybe worse, is powerless against all these evils.

 

Habakkuk doesn’t disengage God because of the situation he sees the world in. Rather, he calls God to account. He lays it all out and then waits for God to give some reasoning and answer. At first, God replies in an evasive way, speaking of using other nations to punish the wicked among God’s people. We skip this part in our reading this morning. Habakkuk won’t accept this as God’s answer. Instead, Habakkuk declares that he will wait for a better response. This declaration reminds me of the new stage we’ve entered as parents of a two-year old. Our sweet little girl has become frighteningly adept at pouting her lips, crossing her arms, and sitting down on her butt whenever she’s determined to get her way. Habakkuk has a bit more dignity, but his resolve is just as strong. His message to God is “I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep what to see what (you) will say to me, and what (you) will answer concerning my complaint” (2:1).

Finally, God gives an answer Habakkuk accepts… but I’m not sure that it will satisfy all of us. God declares: “there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie” (2:3a).  

Habakkuk clearly does not want to wait for God to act. His earlier speech shows that he wants to see results now. In God’s answer, God reflects a recognition of Habakkuk’s impatience. God’s promise that there is still a better future is followed by a rather cryptic explanation of when this future will come: “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (2:3b).  

At the end Habakkuk seems able to accept that God is faithful to God’s promises, that God will bring a better future someday, even if all signs in the present point to the contrary. Habakkuk’s response is a long poetic prayer that images God as a powerful warrior, protecting and saving his people, destroying the enemies, and even having control over all the natural forces. Habakkuk keeps this vision of God even when his world hasn’t changed, when evil still seems to win, when God’s power seems questionable. The book of the prophet ends with quiet words of hope welling up from a place of pain:

“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.” (3:17-18)

 

You may be finding yourself in a strange season: when the fig tree does not blossom, and all that is expected to give life is strangled on the vine. When you wonder how God can let something wrong continue. Are you able to hear God’s vision for the future, even in that difficult place? It takes great faith to stand in the midst of despairing circumstances and declare: “yet I will rejoice in the Lord.”

We hear from the Gospel of Luke that “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” (Luke 17:5). This may be related to Jesus’ previous teaching regarding forgiving an offender even when he continues to sin in the same way, or it may lead up to the teaching that disciples are simply expected to do the work before them, or it may not be connected to either.

It may be the plea that we need to cry. Without God working faith in us, how can we trust God when there are so few signs that God is at work? How can we join Habakkuk in looking at the brokenness and injustice all around us, and declare, “I will exult in the God of my salvation?”

Jesus is the vision we are meant to hold onto, cling to, when all else seems to fall apart, and the floor opens under us. Jesus is the one who gives us the faith to trust in God’s power to make good win, and a vision of how God is doing this. Jesus was not blind to the injustice around him. He confronted it. He saw the suffering around him. He entered it. Jesus was killed, and God showed ultimate power in raising Jesus to life.

The vision of Jesus resurrected is that which out to be made “plain on tablets” (Hb 2:2) so that not only a runner far off or zooming by might read it, but so that all people, whether in the midst of despair or joy, would know that God is at work- that God has a plan- and that God will follow through. God will restore all things. God will resurrect this creation. Jesus is the first sign of that great action to bring life. God will bring your salvation.

 

May Jesus Christ meet you in this word and supper that we share, giving you the faith you need to live in the struggle of this life and yet rejoice in the God of your salvation. Amen. 



Suffering Produces… Hope Through the Triune God: A Sermon on Romans 5 for Trinity Sunday
May 28, 2013, 8:27 am
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Grace and peace to you, brothers and sisters in Christ.

My heart is heavy this week, as I see photos and videos of the destruction in Oklahoma following the F-5 tornado that ruthlessly cut through homes, businesses, and schools. Even the printed words of the news coverage conjure up vivid images of children huddled in hallways, or trapped under rubble.

Sudden tragedies like this one cause me to pause as I go about my daily routine, and recognize what a gift life is. I stay a little longer, checking in on Laila before I go to sleep at night. I watch her breathing in her crib, and think of parents whose little ones will never raise their arms for an embrace again.

There are times when I find myself wishing I could erase all the images of hurt I’ve seen.  It might be better to turn off the news and focus on life near at hand. Hearing about all who suffer because of violence and poverty, accidents and disasters, injustice and greed, is overwhelming. There is so much pain, and so much wrong in our world.

But I know better than to believe that hurt exists only somewhere out there, distanced from my own life.  Violence, illness, death, broken relationships, and crushed hope are not strangers to me, and I doubt they are to you.

What does it mean to trust God in the face of suffering around us and within us?

Through the letter to the Romans, Paul speaks an answer to us. Paul shares his conviction out of his own experience with Jesus in the midst of the sufferings and triumphs in his life.

The key thing to remember about Paul’s experience and understanding of Jesus is that it is centered in Jesus’ crucifixion. In Paul’s earlier life of faith, he trusted in the one God, who brought creation into being, chose the people of Abraham to be blessed, and set boundaries and an identity for the Hebrew people. He was waiting for a messiah from God who would be powerful and priestly and restore glory and power to Israel and its people.

Later in his life, Paul had an experience of the crucified and risen Jesus. Jesus met him powerfully, still carrying the scars of his crucifixion. Paul emerged from his meeting with Jesus changed and convinced that the one who suffered and died was the one who came from God, the one through whom the world was saved. Jesus, the one who suffered, was also the one who was glorified. God chose to be known in Jesus, especially in Jesus’ suffering and death. Paul knew that the message about Jesus being identified with God would be difficult for many people to accept.

Paul carried the message and ministry of Jesus to people throughout the Roman Empire. Sometimes this work went really well. Paul could see the Spirit working, bringing people to faith. But much of the time, it didn’t go so well. People rejected the gospel, and sometimes Paul suffered for it, ending up in jail, and probably was executed.

Paul writes these verses in Romans, “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…” knowing full well what suffering feels like. Even more than knowing suffering, he knows Jesus, who has suffered for our sake, and has risen up out of the death of suffering, so that one day, we would all be raised from death and pain. Paul sees the good God works out of the suffering that happens.

It’s important to realize that Paul does not write, “We boast in the suffering that God has given us.” God does not desire or need you to suffer. God does not delight in our pain. God doesn’t need us to hurt so that we turn to God in faith. It is not God’s plan to make us suffer so that God can work some greater good out of it. God does not send tornadoes or terrorists or cancer or mudslides because God wants to hurt us.

Paul does write, “We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings.” Paul sees in Jesus both the experience of the glory of God and the experience of the suffering of humanity in a sinful world. In the risen Jesus, Paul sees that God brings life out of death, healing from suffering. We join Paul in looking with hope towards a future when heal all wounds, wipe tears away, and restore life to all. In the meantime, Paul gives us the courage to face our sufferings with trust that God can nurture a seed of hope even in the midst of the greatest despair.

God can work good things out of bad without having chosen to make the bad thing happen just so that the good thing will come. Sometimes people look at a tragedy once they’re through it, and they seek God at work. They’ve learned something or grown, and so they thank God for the experience.

Viktor Frankl is one of my favorite historic psychologists. He was a Jew who was imprisoned in a NAZI concentration camp and later wrote about his experiences and the way they informed his counseling practice. His is a fascinating and horrifying story of suffering experienced by many people. He found that in a situation of utter loss of control, humiliation, and death, some were able to continue their days with more strength than others. The hope that drew people forward came from finding meaning in their days. He wrote, “Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on.” (Man’s Search for Meaning) Frankl believed our lives, our suffering, must be met with our creating meaning in them through responsible action. In the midst of the concentration camp, meaning came through the contemplation of the love he had for his wife. In his therapy, meaning after tragedy came through the survivor taking action to help others, such as the mother of a daughter killed by suicide advocating for better access to mental health and speaking to family members of those dealing with depression. Frankl’s practice follows Paul’s thought, that in the best circumstances, suffering can be followed by strengthening, healing, and service, in Paul’s words: “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” (Romans 5:3b-4).

“and Hope does not disappoint us.” (Romans 5:5a). Another way to put it: “Hope does not humiliate us”; “hope does not put us to shame.” Your hope does not make you a fool. You can both acknowledge the hurt in your life, and the brokenness of the world, and rejoice that God is victorious and gives life and healing. To look with certainty towards the glorious future God has promised, even while standing in a suffering present is to be blessed in hope, not to be lost in foolishness. Paul writes elsewhere about the foolishness of the cross, how crazy it is to see God in the one who hangs powerless on the cross. Yet it is precisely in Jesus on the cross that we see our hope and God’s promise: God will bring life out of death, joy out of suffering, welcome out of abandonment.

Today is Trinity Sunday. The Trinity is a mystery. There is much we can’t understand about what it means that, in the words of the Athanasian Creed,  We worship one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the divine being. We accept on faith, in trust, what we see God revealing about Godself. Part of the mystery that is beyond our grasp is the idea that God is one who is uncreated and unlimited

Yet God has taken the experience of limitation into Godself: God has taken humanity into himself     Jesus’ experience of suffering and death is brought into the shared knowledge of the Triune God. Jesus knows what it feels like to walk to the grave of a loved one who has died, Jesus knows what it is to have to entrust family members into the care of another, Jesus knows abandonment, pain, and death. So it is that if there is any suffering in your life, God is able to understand and share that pain.

Jesus also knows the joys of daily life: laughter and a shared meal among friends, the touch of a little one’s hand held in yours, the satisfaction of work well done, and the dedication of sacrifice for a loved one. Both joy and suffering are brought into God’s knowledge, from the vantage not only of the divine, but also of the human. The Trinity is our God-in-relationship reaching out to welcome you into sharing that relationship. God knows your experience, and is working to bring you hope for today and full healing and joy forever.

“…God’s love has been poured into our hearts…” (Romans 5:5). To us who live in a sometimes joyful, sometimes suffering world, God reaches out and enters in. God places in our hearts love that could not otherwise be there, a love that turns us in trust towards God. Turned towards God through the work of the Spirit, we recognize that God also suffers when we do. God gives us the faith to see that God’s plan is not derailed by tragedy. God’s plan was not derailed by Jesus’ death, but even in the finality of death, God worked life. In the presence of suffering, God gifts you with hope and love. That hope and love draw you towards God, and you may find yourself being called into joining God’s work to share hope and love with others: in service and in proclamation. As you look through the mist of the present suffering, may God open your eyes to see the dawn of restoration God is pulling forward.