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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.

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Creepy Crawlies and God’s Kingdom: A Sermon for Easter 6
May 2, 2016, 8:53 am
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Bible I’m proud to say I’ve grown a lot over my lifetime. For the most part, I’ve grown out of a childish fear of bugs. At least… I’ve come a long way. When I was about 7, my reaction to creepy crawlies was so bad that I remember a friend’s parents telling me to keep my eyes closed as we boated under a bridge where there were plenty of bugs just waiting to drop down on me.

 

I might have transitioned out of my irrational fear of creatures a fraction my size were it not for some bad experiences. At least one bad experience. At some point in my teenage years, I remember getting one of those crunchy stink bugs stuck in my hair, it’s legs all tangled up. I couldn’t get it out.

 

So my perspective on the dangers of insects grew disproportionally to the reality. I became convinced that I needed my home to be a bug free zone. I deserved to be safe there. The bugs didn’t get the message. One night, I came home after second shift, taking reservations at the Kalahari. My parents had left the light on over the door into our house. The bugs had treated that like the “open” sign inviting them in. When I opened the door, earwigs streamed out from under the welcome mat, dropped down off the door frame, and scurried their way between my legs into my sanctuary. I freaked out and started smashing everything. I took a can of Off and started spraying everywhere, trying to create a barrier that would repel the nasty things far away.

 

In case you were wondering, that’s not how Off works… and filling the house with Off is a sure way to get your parents ready to send you back to college.

 

When I hear this text from Revelation, I think about all that grosses me out, all that makes my skin crawl, all that makes me feel unsafe, and I imagine all those things no longer bothering me. The new Jerusalem is a place of safety and wellness. God paints a vision of perfect peace as the foil to our anxious fears, and God declares that our new home will be there.

 

If God were to prepare a place where you could live without fear, a place that would heal all that hurts you, what would that place be like? What would ease away all your pain and restore your life?

 

That might be how you would see the new Jerusalem. These culminating chapters of Revelation describe the new thing God is doing: creating a new heaven and a new earth, bringing all God’s people into a new life, which is like and yet different from the life we have known.

 

Things that are assumed to be necessary are no longer: the temple to meet God, sun and moon to give light, locks to bar people in and out. All these things are gone- and yet not missing. God has transformed everything. There is no temple, because God has come to dwell right with the people. The lights of the sky aren’t needed, because God lights up the city, so that there is no more scary darkness. Gates don’t need to be barred, because there is nothing bad, nothing to fear.

 

Revelation is an apocalypse: a vision with meaningful, poetic language, that opens up our imagination to try to glimpse a bit of what God’s intention is for us, so that we can live in trust and hope.

 

Knowing what’s coming next changes the way we live today.

 

I’m reminded of a campaign a number of years ago that was meant to encourage young people who were getting bullied, who might be considering suicide. Voices from all around the world declared, “it gets better.” Thousands spoke out for hope, sharing their stories, urging those in the midst of despair to hold on, to be held, to look ahead for the dawning of a new day that would bring something better than their current hell.

 

How might you be changed if you knew things would get better? If the pain of the current moment wouldn’t be all you ever felt?

 

Imagine a breakup. Young love. Over.

If at the moment when you realized your first love wasn’t going to last – you knew the joy you would ultimately find in your spouse- would it have made the break up easier to bear?

 

At the time, a break up is horrible. When I’ve had a friend call me over after breaking up, I’ve found it much better to bring over some chocolate and a closed mouth rather than waste my breath saying “he wasn’t good enough anyway,” or “there are more fish in the sea,” or “a year from now you won’t even remember his name.”

 

At that moment, platitudes aren’t helpful. Grief and pain are real and we deserve to have our pain honored rather than dismissed. That’s what God does for us. In our hard times, God is there for us, right in the trenches of our difficulty. God takes in the experience of pain in Jesus’ crucifixion. Not so that God could say, I know exactly how you feel, it’s not really that bad, I got through it. God enters our pain so that God can say, “I’m here with you. I’m here for you.” And- so that as God drew Jesus up out of death, God could assure us that we, too, will be taken up out of our pain into a new future where our tears will be dried.

 

As a Christian community, we’re called to be God’s presence to those in the midst of painful life experiences. To be compassionate is to suffer with another, to ease of burden of being alone while facing difficulty. Then, in the days, the weeks, the years to come, we continue to look for signs of God’s healing as wayposts that point us to the full healing in the future.

 

The Christian community has struggled with the question of how to live life today while trusting that God has a new future in store for us, a future with such whole living and joy that our current experience pales in comparison.

 

Faced with a vision of what it more important, the Christian community has sometimes ignored the importance of this life. Living only for the future, some choose celibacy, some ignore the command to steward creation, some live today only as a student watches the clock tick, waiting for class to be finished and summer break to begin.

 

We cannot envision this life only as something to be endured when we remember that it was with joy God declared this creation good, and choose to enter it so fully in Jesus Christ. And yet… we know the brokenness of this world so much so that we long for the vision John experienced to come into our present. Rather, this vision is meant to help us live the life we have with hope. These days are given to us, time during which we can join God’s work in creation, encouraged by this vision to be working towards God’s goals, and still hopeful even when we see no results of our work today.

 

What in this vision inspires you? It’s those open gates that feed my spiritual imagination. Jesus – the blood of the lamb has cleansed all – transformed all- so that even the nations, the foreign kings, are finding their way into the new Jerusalem. They are no longer foreign occupiers, not even humbled vassals bearing tribute, but they are finding their home- their healing and life- as residents in this new city ruled by crucified king. Can you imagine how radical it would have been for John’s people to hear that even their enemies might have a future as their neighbors in the new creation? It is a reflection of the words God spoke to Peter in our Acts reading from last week: “What I have made clean, you must no longer call profane” (11:9).

 

God is creating a new future for us. There we will find a safe sanctuary from all that once brought us fear and pain. There God will surprise us. All that we thought was necessary and as good as it could get will be outdone by God’s presence among us. All we did out of fear will be unnecessary and foolish. When we experience God’s welcoming embrace and find God’s made a home with us, we’ll also discover that the scope of God’s welcome is greater than we were able to embody in this life.

 

The barriers I’ve spent so much energy creating will be unnecessary. Even bugs and ex boyfriends are counted in the all creation God is drawing to Godself. Maybe God’s preparing not only to transform those I once was repulsed by, but is transforming me as well, so that I can see through God’s eyes of love and joy for all creation. I may have grown from my childhood, but God hasn’t completed that great transformation in me yet.

 

Maybe it’s only in hindsight that we can evaluate the relative importance of all that we once stressed out over. We’re given this future vision so that it can impact our lives today. We know the end toward which God is drawing us. There peace, healing, welcome, and connection with God are the founding principles. We’re not there yet, but we can try to live according to those building blocks of God’s kingdom today.

 

The future is coming. Through Jesus’ work, God has prepared good for you. Live today in hope: that’s God’s gift of faith for you.



Jesus’ Purpose Driven Life: A Sermon for Good Friday
March 25, 2016, 7:30 pm
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Bible Readings

Grace and peace to you, my sisters and brothers in Christ.

 

On this most holy day, we contemplate our Lord Jesus’ willing suffering and death. The radical nature of his love is found in more than his last hours. We see it from the very beginning. From creation and incarnation, Jesus has been working God’s love for all creation.

 

Today, we close our worship with a combined reading of Jesus’ birth and Jesus’ death. Together, these accounts give space for us to wonder about Jesus’ purpose. Why did Jesus come into the world and why did he die?

 

He did it all for love- for you, for me, for all people, for the whole creation. Jesus was willing to leave behind the glory and power of being God to be born a helpless infant. Jesus was willing to face ridicule to show the welcome of God to all people. Jesus was willing to die to declare that there is nowhere God is absent- God is with you, even in the midst of suffering, even in the finality of death.

 

Jesus loves even when his love is met with rejection. Many of our favorite Good Friday hymns focus on our part in rejecting Jesus. We contemplate our own sin, our choosing to make ourselves into gods rather than turn towards God in worship. Jesus’ closest disciples betray and abandon him. Knowing us, knowing them, still, Jesus continues on in his path of love. Jesus moves towards us in love, traveling into suffering, even as we move away from him.

 

Jesus enters this world, Jesus enters suffering and death, so that he can transform it. Jesus is born into this world to heal it. Jesus comes to us in the midst of our struggle so that he can pull us out of it. This may be Friday, but we know Sunday’s coming. Jesus will break free of death. Jesus will bring us all into healing and life.

 

Jesus has come to accomplish love- to prove that love wins, so that our hearts might be turned towards love and the God who loves us. Just as a marathon runner pushes through those last miles in order to reach the finish line, Jesus pushes through the suffering that kills him, the rejection that we throw up, in order to come to us, wherever we are, in whatever hurt we face, to show us love that is unconditional and unending. Jesus is victorious in love on the cross. There, the power of his love was tested and proven.

 

Jesus loves you, no matter what. No matter what you’ve done or haven’t done, no matter the price it costs for him to love. Jesus love you, no matter what. He’s gone to hell and back just so that you can hear those words and know they are for you. Jesus loves you. You’re why he came, and died, and rose. This is all for you.



Jesus’ Choices: A Sermon for Maundy Thursday
March 24, 2016, 8:13 pm
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Texts

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

At the beginning of Lent, we heard the story of Jesus out in the wilderness, fasting and being tested by Satan. In that testing, Jesus chooses to remain steady in his course. He commits to the whole plan of being incarnate, taking on human flesh and form. He chooses to be God among us, within creation, limited, sharing our boundaries as human creatures. He rejects the option to create food out of stones, he rejects the option to have power over others and to be worshipped and glorified, he rejects the option to keep himself free from harm and suffering.

Tonight, we see where that choice leads him.

That scene in the wilderness ended with the ominous description, “the devil departed until a more opportune time.” Tonight, that opportune time unfolds. “The devil had already put it into Judas’ heart to betray Jesus.”

Tonight, we experience the outcome of the choices Jesus makes when the devil opens up so many options for another path. Jesus is tested- will he really embody love for all people? Will he really maintain his stance of humility and service? Will he really be willing to suffer and even die- for those who will fail him? Once again, Jesus chooses faithfulness to us over his own glory and well-being.

According to the Gospel of John, it’s the night before the Passover and the disciples have gathered for a meal. Judas is there, even as his heart is turned towards betrayal. Peter is there, without knowing that his faithfulness is so weak that within a day he will deny ever knowing Jesus. At the moment, all seems well, normal.

As normal as things can be with Jesus around. Jesus is always pushing the boundaries of our expectations. He turns upside down our understanding of the right way to do things. For his culture, the way it’s supposed to be is that servants welcome important guests into the house by washing their feet. Jesus gets this all backward. At the end of the meal, Jesus, the master and teacher, kneels down and washes his disciples’ feet.

This act embodies Jesus’ choice to love, through humility and self-sacrifice.

Tonight, some of you have agreed to having your feet washed as we practice this act of love Jesus teaches us to do. I’ve heard that at other churches people take extra care to scrub their feet before coming to a service in which there is foot washing. For many of us, feet are kinda gross.

 

 

But they are not as gross as those disciples’ feet must have been. Their feet would be hardened by miles of walking, crusted with dirt and who knows what from the roads shared by people, wagons, and animals. We might imagine that the disciples are repulsed not only by Jesus’ reversal of the proper acts of status- a leader shouldn’t take on the work of a servant- but also by their knowledge of how gross they are, not wanting someone they love and respect to see the grossness of their bodies.

A couple years ago for Christmas, Tammy gave me a coupon to have her come over and clean my house. It was really sweet of her. But I never quite found a good time. With two little kids and parents who are always running, our house can be a mess. All the time. So, really, at any moment, there would be something I could use help cleaning. But then I get really embarrassed. I don’t really want anyone to see the corners where dust has accumulated. I don’t want anyone else to lift up the couch cushions to vacuum and find granola bar wrappers that never made it to the trash.  I don’t want people to see the mess I’d rather hide.

So, I can understand the horror some of the disciples might have felt as Jesus knelt with a basin, to wash their feet.

The thing is, Jesus already knows their mess- and ours. Jesus knows Judas’ betrayal will come, and yet he washes his feet. Jesus knows Peter’s denial will come, and yet he washes his feet. In the other gospels, it’s the same idea with a different practice. Jesus lifts the bread and says, this is my body, given for you, and the wine, this is my blood, shed for you- and he gives these elements out to each person, knowing that their faithfulness will fail. No one is worthy of the gifts Jesus gives. Jesus chooses to love, to serve, to give himself away, without weighing who is worthy.

Jesus loves you by giving himself for you. If the fear, “what would you think if you really knew me?” has ever crossed your mind- rest assured- God knows you and God loves you through all brokenness in your life.  Jesus loves through rejection. Tonight you get to experience that love, in hearing Jesus’ forgiveness spoken directly to you, in feeling the water of Jesus’ loving service, in holding and tasting Jesus’ presence given for you, in contemplating Jesus’ suffering for you.

The devil might put in your mind that you are not worthy. That you haven’t repented enough to receive forgiveness, that you don’t understand enough to receive communion, that you haven’t lived well enough to receive life. Those judgments are thoughts of Satan. They don’t come from God.

 

 

Look, remember and experience what God is doing for you. Trust what God shows you through Jesus. Let your faith cling onto these gifts that Jesus gives you freely.  Not one of us has done anything to deserve the gifts of Jesus’ love, and that’s why we are all welcome. None of us is higher than the other, more deserving than the other, none of our knowledge or our actions count before God. All that matters is what Jesus has done for you- choosing to come to you- choosing to accept you- choosing to welcome you. That’s the path of gracious love to which Jesus remains faithful, everything he does is for our sake, dependent only on his faithfulness to us.

When everyone is served at Jesus’ table, when everyone receives the bread and wine that carry Jesus’ presence into us, we enact God’s love that is for each of us, no matter what. We experience love in this meal. It doesn’t matter if we’re having a good day or not, Jesus is here for us. This goes against the way we think it should be. In our family, the kids earn a prize or an outing if they’re extra good, doing what they’re supposed to do, fulfilling our demands. But Jesus doesn’t act like that. This meal doesn’t work like that. Jesus feeds everybody, and there is always more than enough for all.

Tonight, Brianna and Britney have chosen to prepare for and receive their first communion. We celebrate with them as they finally receive this means of grace, the way Jesus has chosen to come into our lives to create and feed a growing faith.

As he washes their feet, Jesus tells his disciples to follow his example, commanding them to love as he has loved them. That command falls to us. Will we follow Jesus’ example, choosing deep love, radical inclusion, and humility for the sake of the world?

Jesus’ love isn’t diminished when we don’t live up to his example. The depth of Jesus’ love is amplified as we see him serving, feeding, and dying for those who don’t deserve anything from him.  Our encounter with Jesus’ sacrificial love, our taking in his presence, is meant to transform us into people who follow his command: to love with the same love that we have been shown. Don’t hold back from experiencing this grace of God; know that Jesus loves you as a free gift, and may God give you the strength to choose to live in that grace towards others.



What is Faith? A Sermon for Lent 1, Luke 4:1-13
February 15, 2016, 9:21 am
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texts this week

Throughout Lent, we’ll be exploring the theme of faith. We’ll ask questions like what is faith, what’s the point of it, and who is it directed towards? This week, we begin by defining faith.

 

Faith is trust.

 

Faith is not belief- saying you agree to a list of various proposals. Faith isn’t measured by your ability to spout off memory verses or church history.

 

Faith is trust. Trust requires a relationship. You can’t have trust without something to trust in. You can’t around declaring, “I have trust.” People will look at you, waiting for you to finish the sentence- you have trust IN… Trust isn’t a thing you can hold or possess- it’s an action towards something- someone- else.

 

There’s no faith in a vacuum. You need a partner with whom to dance this life of trust.

 

Faith occurs in a relationship. As Lutherans, we teach that faith is a gift that the Holy Spirit creates in us. We don’t go and get God for ourselves. We don’t even go halfway to meet God. God comes all the way to us. God does everything to create trust in us.

 

God comes to us, through the sacraments and the Word, and creates faith within us. When we are baptized, when we receive bread and wine, the Holy Spirit enters us and turns our hearts back towards God. Through these means of grace, the Sacrament and the heard word, God starts and sustains the relationship of faith.

 

God proves Godself trustworthy. Here’s where we need to step away from our individualistic mindset. Some of you may have experiences in which you feel God has answered prayer or otherwise rewarded your trust by acting the way you’d hoped. Some  of you may have plenty of examples in your life that might make you question God’s ability or desire to come through for you at a time of need.

 

God is trustworthy not just to individuals at a specific moment in time, but to a whole creation through all eternity. Where we are in life at this moment is not the final end God has in mind for us. God gives us seasons in which prayers are deeply answered during these long and sometimes difficult years as we await the day God will make all things new.

 

 

You might visualize faith as trust in this way. Let’s imagine Tammy’s having some friends out on her pontoon boat this summer. They’re out in the middle of the lake, zooming to the other side, when someone- let’s call him Kurt- trips and falls off the back of the boat. Kurt is so surprised, he starts drowning, flailing his arms, dipping down and bobbing back up. Tammy turns the boat around and drives towards her friend. The other people on the boat throw out a life saving ring for Kurt to grab. Now, there also happens to be a very brave duck who is totally undisturbed by all this commotion. So Kurt’s there, splashing around, and he reaches out to grab something. Will he grab the duck? Will he grab the life ring? They both seem to be floating on the water. But only one is going to save him. Kurt knows which one to grab because he knows what it is- he knows the ring will be trustworthy. He didn’t create the ring, he didn’t manage to make it come towards him, but he will grab on to it. In the same way, God comes to us, sending faith right to us, and showing Godself to be the one worthy of our trust.

life-saver-1178355-640x480

Image by Michael & Christa Richert http://www.freeimages.com/photo/life-saver-1178355

God’s trustworthiness is recounted in the many stories of faith contained in our Holy Bible. That’s where we learn God is worthy of our faith.

 

The problem is that for many people, those stories in the Bible don’t hold a lot of meaning. They’re old stories, sometimes objectionable stories, and with their strange words and rituals, they’re not stories that are easy to claim as our own. That’s a big problem for the church.

 

It’s one we’ve had a role in creating. When we treat the Bible as a book of history that belongs in the past or as a life-answers book for moments of struggle, we neglect its richness and its purpose.

 

If we could reclaim the Bible as the source for a more fluid encounter with God, then through it, God would restore our trust. If we let our creative imagination be caught up by the Holy Spirit so that these stories became our stories of identity, our stories of faith in a way that leads to our living them today, then we would know -and act in- the trust that is built on the relationships the generations of faithful have had with God. When we claim Scripture as our faith story and discover Christ working a story of faith in our own lives, then we are moved to trust in the God who has been faithful through the generations and will be trustworthy to the end.

 

In Deuteronomy, we see the Israelites benefitting from just such a practice of faith. When the harvest begins, they are to go to the priest with a basket of those first crops. When they give the offering to the priest, they recite the story of their relationship with God. They name Joseph as their father, remembering that God brought him to Egypt through his brothers’ plotting so that all of his family and God’s people might be saved from the famine. Then, generations later, when Joseph’s descendants are enslaved, God frees them and leads them out of slavery into the Promised Land.

 

 

The one presenting the offering locates himself within this story. He declares that his people have experienced God’s trustworthiness and now he is enjoying the Promised Land. He gives the offering as an act of trust, built on this identity and relationship forming story of God’s trustworthiness for the people.

 

The offering is an act of trust because it is a giving up of what is harvested first, while the rest of the crops remain out the fields to continue to grow or await harvest. It’s not a carefully measured portion of the entire harvest, once all is safely stored away.

 

Anything could happen to the rest of the harvest. Bugs might come through and eat it, hail might rain down and destroy it, the quality might not be as good as expected. They might realize they have given the best away and can’t get it back. They might not have enough to feed the family, to survive until the next harvest. They might be ridiculed at their foolishness for giving away that first good harvest.

 

That’s the risk they take in faith. They take that risk because they are able to claim relationship with a God who has protected them, liberated them, and fulfilled promises for them.

 

Sure, God protected Joseph and his family by having his brothers try to kill him and eventually sell him as a slave. Yes, God only had to liberate the people because they ended up in slavery in Egypt for generations of suffering. And it had been many generations from the time Abraham was promised a new land and a nation and when the people entered the Promised Land and tended their first harvest. The Bible contains messy convoluted stories of God’s faithfulness in which the end of the story isn’t achieved in one person’s lifetime. Still, God’s people are invited into lives of faith and they follow, not knowing where they are in the grand story of God’s action for all.

 

Trust is a relationship that leads to action.

 

Sometimes that trust leads to actions that puts your livelihood and life at risk.

 

That’s what our Gospel reading is about: will Jesus remain in a trusting relationship with the Father even though it will put his well-being and his life at risk? That’s what Satan is testing. Satan is testing Jesus’ faith. Jesus passes. He will not break trust with God even when God does not provide the food for which he hungers. He will not change allegiances to gain power over nations. He will not demand God keep him safe from all danger.

 

Luke is the only Gospel to end on the ominous note, “Satan departed from Jesus until a more opportune time.” In Luke, Satan will return, to use Judas to set events in motion that will lead to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. Then Jesus’ trusting relationship with the Father will be tested again. Will Jesus choose to be rejected, humbled, and killed or will he choose to escape to safety?

 

Jesus passes that test, too. Jesus embodies the trustworthiness of God, the one who comes to us in love and remains faithful to us even when it means his own suffering and dying. God shows God’s trustworthiness when everyone turns away from Jesus, and Jesus still moves towards them in love. This is the lived revelation that the relationship of trust we have with God is created and sustained by God alone. Our faith is founded on Jesus’ faithfulness, not our own.

 

Faith is trust, a trust that God creates and inspires within us. This Lent, you don’t have to attempt the impossible by trying to create faith in yourself. However, you do have the opportunity to be amazed by the trustworthiness of the God who has come to you in love. Spend this week considering how God has been faithful to you. That might mean taking a walk and celebrating God’s masterpiece of creation. Write a list or create an album to share on social media that showcases ways God has brought you through hard times, placed people in your life to inspire you, or cared for you. Send a letter to someone going through a struggle that recognizes the difficulty of the situation without needing to push too quickly to the final joy God will bring. God has called you to be a witness to God’s faithfulness.

 

May you be blessed with trust, the gift of a God who will never give up on you.



Ashes, ashes, we all fall… A Sermon for Ash Wednesday
February 11, 2016, 2:21 pm
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Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

As I explained Ash Wednesday to my four year old, I said this day reminds us that we are going to die and that sometimes we do bad stuff. She replied, “But Mom, I’m little. I’m not going to die for a long, long time.”

I asked her to put ashes on me. She’s used to the practice of an evening blessing, so she’s knows the ritual, but had to repeat the words after me. She wanted ashes before school, too, so I marked her, “you are dust and to dust you will return,” held her hand, walked her to school, and kissed her goodbye. As I watched her merge into the steady stream of students climbing off buses and out of cars, backpack bouncing as she ran into school, I was struck by what we had just done.

I was reminded by the child I have borne and committed to care for and be there for- that I will die. That I may not always be there for her. That even if I live as long as she does, there will be – there already have been- times when I fail her.

And we were reminded that she will die. Even while I thank God that she hasn’t had a reason to know that young ones die, I never forget it. She’s not too young to die. That’s what so poignant about this day. We try to hide the truth from ourselves and our children, but in the end, we can’t protect them from death. That’s where our trust in God really is tested. That’s when I realize most that I want to be God. It’s my job as her mother to make sure she’s safe, isn’t it?

But I know I do not have that much control. I am haunted by the knowledge that other parents have dropped off children who would never return from school. I can’t make sure kids are always nice to her. I can’t make her succeed.

The only way I can let her go- the only thing that gives me the strength to not rush back and pick her up and stick her in a bubble for the rest of her life- is to trust in God.

It’s not a trust that thinks that somehow my faithfulness or my prayer will protect her from all harm. It’s a trust the releases her into the wide vision of God’s mercy, recognizing that Jesus is with her today and will bring her in to the future creation. Ash Wednesday is about our recognition that we need to shift our trust- from looking for life and safety within ourselves to discovering we have already been gifted with those things by Jesus Christ.

Someone challenged me the other night when I was talking about Ash Wednesday. I was describing how this day might be one of the most important public witnesses we Christians make to the world. On this day, we participate in a public act of declaring that we are in the wrong. It’s one of the most counter cultural acts we do this year and we do it out in public.

These ashes mean that we will die, we have sinned, we have brokenness within us, and we have participated in systems that hurt others.

We mark them in the shape of a cross to remember Jesus’ choice to do all things to love us, be with us, and bring us into a healed creation and new life. He died on the cross to accomplish all this, knowing that we can’t accomplish it on our own.

Today, we do this act of repentance in public. I offered ashes and prayer out in town earlier today and tonight we’ve come together to make public confession and receive ashes. Throughout the day, I saw other people wearing dusty crosses- even ESPN sportscasters didn’t let their makeup artists wash their crosses away.

The person I was talking to found this public display to be altogether too public. He argued that the Gospel talks about Jesus telling people to stop being so public about their faith. But that’s a misreading of the text. The text frames it as Jesus questioning who will be rewarding their acts of piety. Are we out praying in the streets or parading our ashes so that others will think we’re holy? Are we trying to one up our neighbors by declaring we’ve given up not only chocolate but also Facebook for Lent? If being here at church, or taking up a Lenten practice, or wearing ashes all day is about impressing other people, then that’s missing the point. That’s what Jesus is preaching against.

However, Hebrew Bible talks about ashes as a communal act of repentance for shared sin. It’s a whole community declaring that they’ve created and embraced sinful structures of society that have broken away from God’s intention.

The public nature of this act is an antidote to the typical public voice of Christianity we’ve been shouting to the nation. So often the Christian voice says, “I’m right and you should do it my way.” Today we say to the world, “I’ve been wrong. I’ve hurt you.”

This day acknowledges our need for forgiveness. It’s about all of us taking a break from pretending we have it all together. It’s about accepting responsibility for the ways our actions and attitudes contribute to the brokenness and suffering of the world. Recent events have led many to become increasingly more aware of the price to the world of our inward looking lifestyles. We have seen refugees die without a welcome into safety, citizens attacked because of their race, and increasing lining up of oppositional forces. As a community, we have chosen against God. As a community, we need to repent. Whether we offer ashes one on one on a street corner or cafe, or within the church community, this is necessarily a public, communal act.

It might seem safe and private here in the church, but think about the difference between standing together declaring “I have sinned” and hearing “you are dust” over and over again- and an alternative of taking a little baggie of ash to mark yourself while looking into the mirror. We hear the reality of our sin – and we hear echoes around the room that declare we are not alone in our sin. Today your friends and neighbors will know that you know you are caught in sin. Then they will know that they are not in this struggle alone. We all carry guilt, we all need forgiveness, and Jesus has made it ours through his own faithfulness.

Through this public act, we declare that we are in need of forgiveness. We need the work Jesus has done for us. Jesus left heaven to come into the brokenness of our world. He has come to heal us, forgiving us and opening the way into a new creation where death no longer wins.

When we look at each other with ashen crosses above our eyes, we are reminded that we are in this brokenness together, and Christ alone will bring us in to a new creation. For one day we stop pretending that we have control over our ability to choose good rather than evil. We stop pretending that we have life together. We stop pretending to be God. Today, we put all our trust on God because there is no other option. Only God can wash away our sin, break the power of systems of evil, and breathe into us creatures of dust the life that is never taken away. God has already done this work, through Jesus, for you. Amen.



Widow’s Mite and the Temple’s Might: A Sermon on Mark 12
November 9, 2015, 9:39 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , , , , , ,

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

Over a decade ago, I was studying in India. While my focus was on the religions of the country, I clearly remember a visit to a school. My classmates and I were ushered in to a classroom, meeting children who were about 8. They welcomed us, and told us how they were learning about our country. They knew the name of our president, and how our government was structured. I was impressed- what smart little kids!

Then they asked us how much we knew about their country.
And we were unimpressive.

While I might assume that everyone in the world knows about the United States of America, and can name our president, I don’t often feel like I should know that much about other countries. That’s coming from a place of privilege, in which I’ve bought in to the image of America as a superpower, with influence over other nations, deserving of respect and honor and of being in the international curriculum of 3rd graders. Why would I need to know about another country- what effect could they have over me?

With globalization and terrorism, I think we have reason enough to recognize that people of every nation can have an effect on us, but my point is that many of us can exist in a world of privilege in which we don’t ever have to think about how someone else is living.

Our Gospel text is like that for me. I’ve never had only two pennies to my name. I don’t know what it is to be poor. So I read this story as a rich person, and I hear a rich person’s privilege in my reading.

Mark 12: The widow’s mite: an example of faithful giving, generosity, and selflessness. That’s the storyline I’ve always heard.

But this week, I was struck by something else. Jesus opens this scene with a rant against the Temple and the scribes. He declares, “they devour widow’s houses.” This scene is part of Jesus’ conflict with the way God’s people are living wrongly. It’s not a go and do likewise scene, it’s a stop the madness scene.

Scholar John Shea writes:
Throughout the Gospel Jesus has consistently championed human needs over the
hardened practices of the synagogue. Now he targets the Temple treasury. When he sits opposite the treasury, it symbolizes that he is opposed to the whole temple atmosphere around money. It is a public affair with the rich parading their large sums. But Jesus is not concerned with the rich. They are never exploited. They give to the temple out of their surplus. Piety will never carry them away. Like the scribes, the rich take care of themselves.

But the widow divests herself of all support. Her generosity plays into the devouring greed of the Temple. Those who are supposed to protect her leave her, literally, penniless. (John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Eating with the Bridegroom (Mark – Year B)p. 267 http://girardianlectionary.net/year_b/proper27b.htm)

What sense of obligation or gratitude or faithfulness would have led this woman to give all she has? Walking past the scribes in their fine robes, looking around at the richness of the Temple, how does she reconcile God’s identity as the protector of the poor with God’s holy people and holy institution taking everything she has for itself, rather than serving her needs?

This text confronts me. Shea’s words hit me hard: “The rich… are never exploited.” When have I wanted to save my money without worrying about who will receive less money because of my thrift? When have I thought I can’t afford to give any more, or I don’t have anything extra to give, rather than wondering who can’t afford for me not to be generous? What systems do I live in that leave widows penniless while I am made more comfortable?

So often, I find myself in the powerful group. I wonder if many of you might be there, too. We operate in systems that benefit us, and we never really notice them, it’s just the way things are to us. But for others, the systems that benefit us don’t benefit them.

There’s another side to this text, beyond the surface level on which I’ve always accepted it. Sometimes, from where we are in life, we can’t hear the whole text, we can’t get the whole message of what God is saying to us. We need other voices around our table, people from different life experiences, to help us see what we cannot.

Our Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is a church that values
partnerships. Our core mission value is “accompaniment.” We walk alongside each other, as partners, brothers and sisters in Christ. This core value means that we seek out
diversity in the voices around our study and meal tables- and in our work to join God’s work in the world. We see everyone as being gifted with God’s spirit, revealing God’s fullness.

Accompaniment is the opposite of a white savior complex or the westernizing missions that we’ve tried to leave in the past. It starts with hearing each other’s stories. It starts with valuing the voice on the other side. It includes the hard work of being confronted with our assumptions about what is good and what is helpful and what might benefit us at the expense of another’s well being.

This means that as we prepare to travel to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, we go with eager hearts and hands to serve, ready to receive from the people who live on the
reservation just as much as we are ready to give. We look to their leadership for solutions that make sense in their world, rather than assuming the systems that work for us will also benefit them.

With our Mission Fest today, we celebrate our partnerships. Jesus has made us a part of a diverse community, his body, at work in the world. Not only can we do more together than we could independently, but we are better able to discover God’s word for us today when we join together.

Today, we highlight our partnership with Reformation Lutheran Church. Our brothers and sisters who live in the center of Milwaukee are affected by the systems of this world differently than we are. They can help us hear more of who God is through their witness. They can invite us in to questioning our assumptions about how the world works and what God intends for communities. They can invite us into joining the sacred work they are already doing.

Last week, I was blessed to have breakfast with the women clergy in Watertown. We were talking about our ministries and about things we might do together. Suddenly, one of the priests ended up sneezing her breakfast all over her shirt. We giggled like school-girls as we pointed out where she’d need to clean up.
A sign of a true friend is that they’ll tell you when you have egg on your face.
I’m not sure we’re quite there yet, because we let her talk to a parishioner for a few
moments before we had finished pointing out all the crumbs.
Sometimes, that’s really embarrassing. Especially if you’ve been going about your life ignorant of the state you’re in.

That’s the difficult delight of being in partnerships with people whose experiences are different than your own. Sometimes, things will be pointed out that don’t put you in the best light. It’s not comfortable to acknowledge our own ignorance or foolish assumptions. But without those realizations, we cannot grow. Life is richer, growth is possible, and community is truer to God’s intention when our partnerships are real and diverse.

People in all sorts of life circumstances reveal God. When we gather together in work and worship, we gain from each other a fuller sense of God, and we do things that make a
difference in the world. Our eyes are changed to begin to see each other as God sees us: each loved and valued.

Jesus isn’t pointing out this woman to call her a fool. He’s helping us notice her.
God sees those who are so often overlooked, those whose work and sacrifice aren’t
appreciated. God sees those whose lives are not what they should be, those who have fallen under the power of the systems that benefit the powerful, systems that have taken away their lives or kept them from living their fullest.

Jesus sees the widow giving away her life. Perhaps he recognizes himself in her. He is in Jerusalem to give away his life. He will give away his life as a victim to the systems that require violence, require a scapegoat on whom to put their anger and pain. Jesus’ life will be taken away. And God will give it back. All that destroys life, all that breaks down community, all that lifts up some at the expense of others does not have ultimate control. God has a new future in mind. God is making that future now. We glimpse this future best when we look for it together.

Thanks be to God for the unity we have with brothers and sisters down the street, in the city, and around the world, through Jesus Christ our Lord.