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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.


In the Vine: A Sermon on John 15:1-8
May 12, 2012, 9:21 am
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We have entered the season of growth. Finally, flowers are in bloom, budding leaves are opening, and the seemingly dead stumps of perennials are coming back to life. The world around us echos the gospel of this season: God brings life. 


We hear from the Gospel of John this morning, a teaching from Jesus. Jesus declares, “I am the true vine” (15:1). Jesus and his friends lived in an area of the world in which vines produced one of their major crops: grapes. Not many people around here grow grapes, although I think I may have seen a few vines around town. So we have to think a little to get our minds away from single stalks of corn and wheat, and on to vines. 


Vines have a base that descends into the ground, anchoring the plant, drawing in life-giving nutrients and water. Out from the vine come branches. Branches may stretch far, reaching for the bright sun, establishing their own place, but they can never exist without the vine that gives them what they need to live. When the branches are well supported by the vine, they are able to do what they are meant to do: produce fruit. 


Jesus uses what was for his friends a familiar image to explain his relationship to them. We find ourselves in this verdant image. Jesus is your vine. You are Jesus’ branches. 


Jesus is the rooted vine who grounds you in the source of life. God brought all life into being. God resurrected Jesus, giving life where there was only death. Every breath you breathe is given to you by the life-giving power of God. When you die, you will be held in the life-giving power of God through Jesus, and you will receive life again.  Through Jesus, you are given this everlasting life. 


There’s a vineyard near my parents’ home. Every spring, the vinegrowers trim back the plants, to encourage new growth. Those trimmings are available for anyone who wants them. Sometimes they can be encouraged to grow roots of their own. Mostly, I think people take them and graft them in to their own plants. 


Different varieties of grape branches can be grafted onto different vines. I’m not an expert on grapes, but from what I understand, people graft branches of different varieties onto established rooted vines so that the new branches will benefit from the strength of the vine, producing a good crop earlier than if it was planted on its own. Sometimes new branches combine with the vine to produce a special blended variety, creating a new flavor or a more hardy plant. 


We are united with Jesus through baptism. The Apostle Paul uses the language of a new variety being grafted into the vine, when he talks about us finding our roots in God through Jesus. We are among those who are grafted in, because God first had a special relationship with the people of Abraham and Isaac, and Jacob, the Jewish people. Jesus welcomes people of all nations into this special relationship with God. So we, who are not Jewish, are welcomed into the vine. Grafted in are people from Asia and Africa and the Americas and Europe and Australia: diverse peoples from every land are brought together as one organism through Jesus. 


Today, Tucker is going to be baptized. All along, he has received life from God. Something new is going to take place in this sacrament of baptism. He’ll no longer be a little branch all on his own. As God promises, in this water, God is going to welcome Tucker and unite him with Jesus. Tucker will receive all that Jesus has: holiness, perfection, victory over sin and death, relationship with God, relationship with all creation, and resurrected life: life for today and forever. Tucker will be connected in to Jesus’ vine. There he’ll find that he’s no longer alone, and he’s not in relationship with Jesus alone, he joins all the baptized of every time and place. He is joined into a great community of saints. As he grows in his baptized and rooted life, you all will be the fellow branches he’ll know best. You are called to live your life in relationship with God and with this newly welcomed branch, so that he knows that he belongs to God and to the whole community of Jesus-rooted people. 


When you are grafted onto Jesus’ vine, you are changed. You become like the one you are connected to. On your own, you’re just another branch, a dead twig good for nothing but the fire. On your own, you are fearful, selfish, and captive to sin and death. But in Jesus, grafted on to that life-giving, life-changing vine, you are alive, restored, freed from the powers of evil, and plugged in to the source of joy and life. God has grafted you in. You belong to this life-giving vine, and you will not be cut off. 


Drawing life from the vine, you also draw your identity and purpose from Jesus. You are nourished by that vine, to be like Jesus. Jesus gave up power, comfort, and prestige to come to those who were outcast, sick, and suffering. Jesus not only spoke about healing, forgiveness, and welcome, he embodied it. Jesus touched the unclean lepers and bleeding woman, and healed them. Jesus shared meals with shunned sinners. The Holy Spirit within you gives you the power to be working with Jesus, as Jesus worked, to bring healing and life to the world. 


You are the branches, who extend out from the source of life, to bear fruit for the sake of the world. You are each capable of bearing fruit that shows God’s love. Wherever you find yourself, however you spend each day, with whatever skills and passions and gifts you have, it is in and through those things that you are called to bear fruit. Do what you do with love and with the intention to serve and give life to others. 


The young people being confirmed this spring spent the year exploring what it looks like to bear fruit for the sake of the world. We considered our communities, and the assets and needs of this place. We gave thanks for each person’s gifts and passions. We explored God’s call to each of us, to live in service, with justice and love.  Then each student brought together all these things to write a plan and complete a faith project. These projects are meant to help the students understand that they have the gifts and the call to serve God. These projects are the beginning of much fruit born from a life of faith. We are all called to use our gifts, listen to God’s call, and do something about the needs of our world.


Today, Andrea is affirming her baptism. She is saying “yes” to the promises to live as a baptized Christian. She is taking responsibility for putting herself in places where her faith can flourish. She is promising to be a part of Christian community, to be active in church, where she will hear the Word of God and experience the sacrament of Holy Communion, and she is promising to bear the fruit of service and justice. Confirmation is our flowering, our continuing to bear fruit. Andrea is declaring her intention to live a life of faithful growth. 


Even as we rejoice that Andrea is taking this step of faith today, we celebrate all the more that our baptism is a gift of God that does not depend on our faithfulness or our ability to fulfill the promises that Andrea will take on today. God has claimed Andrea, God will claim Tucker, God has claimed all the baptized, through Jesus Christ. You have been united with Jesus for life forever. God will never go back on that promise. Not if you ignore the baptismal promises, not if you welcome the forces of evil, not if you cease to believe as we confess with the Apostles’ Creed. Jesus will always be faithful to you, and will always nourish you for a whole and healed life. 


Everything that lives receives its life from God. You have the joy of being aware of that gift. You have the joy of knowing that Jesus gives you life. Jesus promises, “I am the vine” and you are each nourished by this life-giving vine. 

Why am I Here? : A sermon on Romans 4:13-8 and Mark 8:31-38 (Lent 4)
March 26, 2012, 10:26 am
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The recent beautifully warm weather brings me back to nights spent under the stars. Having spent three summers working for outdoor ministries, I’ve been lucky to have a number of them. There were Friday nights at Luther Park Bible Camp, when a group of us counselors would gather on the sitting dock, and watch the moon’s reflection dancing in the water. Sometimes we would sing. Sometimes we would chat and laugh. Sometimes we would sit in silence and think. The universe was so large, and our lives pregnant with possibilities. Dreams had the potential to ripen into lives well lived. It was a time in my life that I was blessed with a community to walk alongside as we wondered, “What is the meaning of life?”,  “Why am I here” and “How will I matter?” 


My answer then had likely been formed by some half-heard idea, a phrase that became stuck in my head. I thought the purpose of life was “to give God glory.” I’m not really sure that I knew exactly what that meant. What that would look like or how I would go about doing it. But it sounded like the right type of language for a Bible camp. 


Our two New Testament readings this morning help to give shape to some thoughts on the purpose of our lives. One way in which these writing do this is by contrasting two different ways of life: the way of life of those without God, and the way of life of those whom God has claimed. 


The letter writer speaks to the Ephesians a vision of their lives. Once they lived in a way that brought death. This is the way of the world: to live lives seeking only pleasure for the self. Formerly, they believed the purpose of life was what many might still today believe the purpose of life to be: be happy, get rich, enjoy as much as you can, and care first about # 1- yourself. 


Even though this would sound like the path to a good life, the author of Ephesians calls it the path of death. This is not living life to its fullest. The path to true life comes from God. It is opened to us all through the death of Christ. In that one death, Jesus’ death, we are united to God, and in Jesus’ resurrection to life, we are raised to new life. 


But don’t let the mention of being “raised up… and seated in heavenly places” make you think this is all only about the afterlife. What God has done in Jesus for you has already occurred and you are living in its effects right now. The Ephesians aren’t being told that their old way of life wasn’t good for anything only to be told that life in Christ isn’t good for anything but waiting around to die and go to heaven. In some mystical way, even while they and we are standing here on this earth, living our daily lives, God’s grace and power has already placed us with Jesus “in the heavenly places.” 



The Gospel of John records Jesus speaking of those who love darkness because it hides their evil deeds, and those who love light because their deeds have been done in God, and so they have no reason to hide them. Jesus is talking here to Nicodemus, a respected Pharisee, who has come under cover of darkness to find out more about Jesus. His fear about what others will say about him, if they knew of his interest in Jesus, might be a major reason he has come when his identity might be hidden, rather than ask his questions in front of the large crowds that daily surround Jesus. So, in these words about light and darkness, Jesus may be pushing Nicodemus to discover his own rationale and the lack of trust that have led to his actions. 


John lets this scene stand as a mirror for us. Are we people who love darkness, or light? Is the self we make public the same self we hold inside? Are the kind words we speak and the smiles we share radiating out from a stance of love, or are they empty gestures of obligation, things we do to appear like good people? Is the going along with the crowd of darkness, doing things our hearts that long for light warn us against, being true to who we are called to be?


Our lives can follow one of two major paths: a life lived fully, generously, and openly in the joy of God’s grace, or a life that is hidden in the selfish ways of the world. 


These writings also give guidance in our discernment of how we are to live: how we might “give glory to God” as I once considered the call to live a purposeful life. 


In Ephesians we hear: “For we are what (God) has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (2:10). God has made each of us for a purpose! Our way of life is to be rooted in Jesus, doing good works. Consider how you might reflect the work of Jesus. Jesus points the way to God. Jesus heals the sick. Jesus declares forgiveness. Jesus welcomes the outsider. Jesus gives life. Where are the opportunities for you to do this work in your own life? When were the times in this past week that you have done this work, but didn’t even notice or celebrate it? 


You were living as God created you to live when you welcomed a child or a neighbor in worship; when you sent a note of comfort and support; when you gathered to sew a quilt; when you shared a smile with a stranger; when you invited the kids who’s always picked last to be the first on your team; when you gave someone a second chance, or maybe a third, or a fourth… 

These are examples of the acts of a life lived in the light of the love of God. We are given the joyful responsibility to live in ways that reflect God’s love. 


Finally, and most importantly, these writings claim that it is all God’s work alone, and not our own, that roots our lives in God’s great story of salvation. Our lives have meaning outside of our own personal existence because they are drawn up into the work of the Creator and Redeemer of all creation. You are connected to something bigger than yourself. You are not alone. Your existence is more than these days of life on earth. Even as these days have meaning and purpose in God, because you have been united with Jesus, you will continue to have life and joy after your death. 


Ephesians reminds us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God- not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (2:8-9). John declares, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life” (3:16). These are two of the most beautiful verses in the Bible, declaring that God gives you healing life out of God’s love for you. As you seek to live a life of meaning, remember that it can never be a life that earns God’s love or salvation. That has already been given to you. Nothing you can do can make you worthy of this love and life, and nothing you can do will make God take it away from you: this love is freely given. 


Yet there are people who struggle their whole lives, trying to work out their own salvation. Somehow they have heard that they have to do something, prove something, in some way be faithful enough to make God accept them. This is an anxiety that does not rest in God’s promises. There are also those people who do not know and do not trust in God’s promises, and so cannot see the gift of love God has given. In both cases, life is not lived in the joy that it is meant to be lived in. God desires you to live lives of joy, confident in the gift of love, forgiveness, and life that God has given each of you in Jesus. 


There are two examples that help me to think about this contrast between living a life that rejoices in God’s grace and living a life that is blind to the grace that has already been given. 


The first is the image of floating on water. Imagine yourself in a warm swimming pool or lake on a quiet morning. You lay back and let the tension of your body relax as you trust the power of the water to support your weight. If you trust the water to do what it has the capacity to do, you will find yourself upheld, softly and slightly rising and sinking with your breath. If you do not trust, if you do not relax into the comforting warmth, but instead try to do something to keep yourself above water, you’ll find yourself fighting against it, no longer embracing its support, but seeing it as an enemy seeking to take away your life. 


The second image comes from C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. The old earth has ended and a new Creation without the pain of the old has been brought into being. The entrance to the new Creation is through a small stable. Many creatures enter through, and although they are transported to a new and glorious Creation, where all the best parts of the old World are somehow made even better, some do not see the new Creation around them. All they see is what they expect: the inside of a stinky animal stall. 



God’s presence with you may not always be visible. It may be as clear as clean water. Yet God is there, with you, to give you abundant and joyful life. Open your eyes to the life God gives to you right now. God has already given you salvation, a healed, forgiven, whole life, the days past and days to come, this day, to enjoy as you rejoice in all God has created and all God has promised. 


Each of us will find ourselves uniquely able to live lives of good works, united with Jesus, and reveling in the joy God’s grace makes possible. Part of the joy of life is discovering how our lives align with God’s purposes at the various chapters of our lives. 


I remember one presentation during my freshman orientation week at St. Olaf. Maybe it was the dean of students who came out and spoke to us about what it meant to become Oles. We received little cards that listed the values of the college, and I know I let most of the speech wash over my head. But part of the mission statement has stuck with me. That is that we would be prepared to live “lives of worth and service.” I believe this is part of the call which extends from God to all of us. God has created you for a life that has worth because of its connection with God’s purposes for all of creation. We live out that purpose through our service, our acts that flow out of God’s love for us. 


College and camp were major times of discernment in my life, when options were widened, as I sought to discover the purpose of my life. I think that we each have special times in which we are most open to a time of discernment: when the need to discover purpose comes forward most strongly. This might be brought about my an abrupt change: an illness or death, a move, a loss of a job or ability. Or it might come from a sinking realization that each day has become more and more filled, but less and less fulfilling. Rejoice in the opportunity to discover yourself in God’s vision for creation. Let this community be a place in which we encourage each other to recognize the tug from God that aligns us with opportunities to live as we have been created to live. God is with you, gifting you with grace, inviting you to join in God’s great work to love the world.