Category Archives: Sermons

Defining Greatness

 

greatnessA sermon on Mark 10:32-45

When I was growing up, I went to church camp every year. As soon as I graduated High School (actually, a few weeks before I actually graduated), I headed off to camp to work for the summer. It was here that I not only learned the Christian Values I hold on to today, but I also had the opportunity to live them.

Carved in the stone by the waterfall was the phrase, “God is love.” The community I experienced there was the closest I have ever been to loving one another as yourself. It was the rare place where, as I grew up, I could be genuinely myself (even as I was still figuring out who I was).

It was also the place that thought me that I could question the church, that I could hate hymns (and that was okay), the place where I learned about the non-canonical gospels and the place where I heard my call to ministry and, try as I might, I could not unhear it.

Last month, I went back for the camp’s 75th anniversary. We had a picnic and everybody lined up. As though we were kids again (or really because some things don’t change no matter who old you get), some people rushed for the front of the line. I opted for the middle. The middle, at camp, was the safest place to be. Because you never knew when the staff would decide it was a “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” meal. It was a total crapshoot as to whether rushing to the front would actually get you served first or quickly land you at the back of the line. While I am generally not one to play it safe, I like to eat, so the middle always made the most sense to me.

Now this verse from Matthew, and the corresponding idea that is evidenced in both Mark (which we have here) and Luke, are tattooed in my memory, and this scripture regularly competes with what I have been taught by the world.

It started when I was young – my grandfather always told me to look out for number one. My father was in a pretty consistent battle to keep up with the Jonses (which, oddly, was most obvious in his weird desire to have the best lawn, but I digress). Awards went to the people who finished first, the kids who were fastest always got picked first, the kids who cut and pushed their way to the front of the line usually got it (and unless we were at church camp, that was just how it was). And on and on it goes. We are often rewarded when we fight to be at the front of the line or the top of the heap, no matter who we push aside or who gets stepped on.

More often than not, those who are at the front of the line or the top of the pile lord it over the ones below, often totally unaware of the real struggles those not at the front of the line have.

This is one of the biggest problems with being at the front of the line – you lose your ability to see those behind you. Even if you do decide to turn around, you can only see those just a bit behind you. You can’t see the back of the line.

When one surrounds oneself with privilege, it is so easy to forget the have-not’s. I grew up fairly well off, but I thought I was middle class because, for a long time, most of what I experienced was people richer than me. People who had houses on the lake with elevators down tot heir private beach, kids whose parents had multiple luxury cars – these things made my large 3 bedroom house and my parent’s buicks look positively poor. To my parent’s credit, they tried to show me, they tried to tell me, but it wasn’t until I went off on my own and made friends in other places that I got to see how truly wealthy I was. I couldn’t see the rest of the line from where I was standing, in large part because I was so concerned with who was in front of me, I rarely thought to look back.

We hear a lot of talk today about greatness. But rarely do we hear about what that word means to those who recite it over and over again. I suspect, however, that greatness means power and authority. I suspect that, in that context, greatness is a power, privilege, and position that allows certain groups to lord such things over others.

To those of us who follow Christ, a lot of the world’s paradigms are inverted. The way the world sees greatness is diametrically opposed to the way Christ sees greatness. We are James and John, asking to have a position that we don’t understand.

I mean, how entitled and blind are James and John to even ask this question? Seriously, they are asking the Son of God if he will give them whatever they want. What?! Who does that?! This requests makes me think these two have rarely heard no in their lives. It makes me think that they have, generally speaking, been at the front of many lines. It also shows clearly that they still don’t understand what Jesus is talking about, what Jesus is going to do. They just saw the transfiguration, and were likely thinking that they want that. They want to be all glowy and heavenly with Jesus and Abraham and Elijah. They still don’t get that the path to that place involves deep sacrifice, involves pain, involves death.

They want to be great, but they are thinking in the world’s terms, not in Jesus’ terms.

In the world, greatness is having your name on the top of buildings, it is wealth, it is the ability to cut to the front of the line and climb to the top of the heap by any means necessary, no matter who you slander, insult, or otherwise hurt along the way. Greatness is the ability to say whatever you want and not face consequences. It is to have enough power, authority and influence that the masses will not question you; everything you say is truth, even when your words are lies that hurt people. Greatness, in our current discourse, is being able to do whatever you want and not only not paying the price, but leaving the vulnerable to pay the price for you. It is backing out of promises and leaving those depending on you high and dry.

Greatness, in our current national conversation, means keeping to ourselves, protecting those who look like us, those who are “deserving”

For those who follow Jesus, greatness is defined differently. Greatness is going to the back of the line, it is moving to the back of the bus and offering our place to someone who was forced to be in the back. It is handing the microphone to those who rarely get to speak. It is giving up what we have: our power, our privilege, our money, or our voice so that others might have a share in those things too. Greatness is serving. It is giving up our very lives so that we might serve those who have been pushed to the bottom of the heap. To be great, those of us who claim Christ and have power, privilege and/or wealth are called to give that up and serve those who have less.

Greatness gets mocked and spit on. Greatness gets crucified. Greatness dies discredited. Greatness does all of these things so that we might live. Greatness does this to show God’s beloved children that there is another way, that there is strength in weakness, there is winning in losing, there is salvation in death.

Those around this kind of greatness do not understand – they see power the way the world sees power. They focus on Christ as victor and king and deny his status as a crucified victim of an unjust system, as a man who got caught, as a brown skinned man from the middle east, as a loser. Strength shows no weakness, power no vulnerability. They cannot understand the necessity of the crucifixion, they move ahead to the resurrection to the ascension, to asking for a share in the power they do not even begin to understand.

But Christ shows us the power in weakness, the strength in vulnerability. Christ shows us that to move to the bottom of the power structure is to be at the top, that greatness isn’t about winning wars, dropping bombs, forcing others to bend to your will or making them do or be as you think they should. Greatness is not having your name at the top of a building; it is having your name atop a cross upon which you have been crucified.

Greatness is found in serving. Greatness is found in love. Greatness is found in giving up so that others might have. Greatness is found in the cross. Greatness is found in Christ.

Amen

 

As a part of this sermon, I read the poem Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes. Everyone should know it. Read it ASAP. 

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Fear, hope, and Jesus the refugee

Cranach_Massacre_of_the_Innocents_(detail)

Twas the night before Christmas

America cried out in fear

of foreigners coming from far and from near.

“They might take our jobs, they might take our life!” the people shouted out, overtaken by strife.


Many seemed to forget the savior they claim

was also a foreigner with little to his name.

His parents, unmarried, far from their home,


as foreigners they were completely alone.

No room at the inn, they gave birth homeless, in a manger

to a son whose life would soon be in danger.


The baby, a king, born in poverty.

Lowly, unknown, a king he would be

.
A king who would turn the world on its head,

proclaim good news to the poor,

call for the hungry to be fed.

The embodiment of love, God in human form,

come to save us from the sin with which we all are born.

The way of peace, the way of love,

the way of the cross, and for these teachings he would pay the ultimate cost.

And so we remember, this wet winter night

what happened, what is now and what is not yet.


The hope that was born long ago in a manger

that love that calls upon us to love our neighbor

that peace which passes all understanding

come to Earth in Jesus Christ, our Savior.

Live into love, cast out all fear, act in the hope the Christ child is here.

 

Tomorrow, the church universal will celebrate the Day of the Holy Innocents. The day when King Herod, terrified of this baby of whom he had been told, this child he was warned would grow up to destroy all that he had built, called for all of the children under the age of two to be killed. Mary and Joseph, having been warned of Herod’s wrath, escaped to Egypt, where they lived until the reign of Herod had ended. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus became refugees, fleeing an oppressive government that threatened the life of their child. Had they not been able to flee, had the neighboring nations thrown up walls, fences, or red tape, we would not have the story from Luke today, the story of Jesus the smart, devoted, yet petulant twelve year old. We would not have the gospels. We would not know of this thing that God had done, coming to earth to be with us. The miracle would have ended just as it was beginning.

As we are given these stories of Jesus in his early days, we are given the story that Jesus was some of the things that we look down upon, some of the things we fear, some of the things we despise. Jesus was homeless. Jesus was a refugee. Jesus was a petulant preteen.

We do not have the details of Jesus’ time in Egypt, but they likely sought out other Jews, people with whom they had a common culture, a community of faith, people whose scriptures taught them to welcome the stranger, to welcome the alien for they had once been aliens. This is a heavy emphasis of Jewish scripture – scripture that we happen to share.

Were Jesus to be born today in a similar way, he could be born to a family in Guatemala, living in fear of gang violence, a family in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, Nigeria, or any of the many nations that are embroiled in civil way – a family running for safety, looking to find safe harbor in any nation that would take them – and the current dialogue in our nation would make it somewhere between difficult to impossible to come here. We would build walls, create red tape, to keep him and his family out, because we are afraid. We are so very, very afraid.

And I get the fear. The world seems to be a very dark place right now. As a campus pastor, I am afraid. I fear for my students safety. This fall, the day after the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, I was walking to campus and heard helicopters above and sirens seemingly all around me. My first thought was oh dear god, no. Not a shooting, not here. I quickly realized that the helicopters were for the fall startup activities on the quad and sirens were unrelated, but for a brief moment, I was terrified. This low grade fear lives within me – I am gathering the campus religious leaders to try to form a unified response to a shooting in the event we ever need one. I get the fear.

But we worship a God who tells us again and again to not be afraid. Fear is the enemy of love. When fear has a grip on our hearts love has a hard time finsing its way in. One cannot simultaneously fear and love ones neighbor. And so God says to us, through the scriptures, the ancient stories of our leaders and prophets, do not be afraid. Do not be afraid, the angels said to the shapers in the field, to Mary, to Joseph, to the prophets — to us. Do not be afraid.

Fear is the weapon of Satan. It is the sword Satan yields to keep us separate from one another, to engender strife, war, envy, hate… all of the things that lead to violence, all of the things that block us from the ability to love as God loves us, the things that cloud our hearts so that we cannot hear that still, small voice inside of us pushing us to love, to trust, to forgive – to be willing to give our lives for the lives of others. Fear keeps us not only from one another, fear keeps us from God.

Fear would keep us from welcoming this homeless, refugee baby into our nation, into our homes, into our lives. And the rhetoric of fear that pervades the conversation in the United States today is working. It is driving us to violate the Christian love we claim to hold so dear, to push away the stranger, to ensure that there is no room at the inn.

These words today from the Apostle Paul are a prescriptive against fear. To begin, we are reminded that we are holy and beloved. You, people of God, are holy and beloved. They, people of God, are holy and beloved. We are called to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. To bear with one another, and to forgive. To forgive, To forgive. Forgiveness which, through the power of God’s astounding love, frees us from hate, from anger, from the desire for retribution. Above all, writes Paul, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. This clothing sounds awesome. It reminds me of when you get a new pair of sweats and they are soon soft inside and you don’t want to wash them because you know that will ruin the amazing softness. It’s like wearing that, but a softness and comfort that will never wear out, like wearing that all of the time — to work! To the mall! To fancy gatherings! We would always be soft, always comfortable, always ready to love, no matter what the situation. We are called wear these clothes; to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts.

Fear cannot co-exist with this clothing. This clothing destroys fear and opens us up to be the people of God we have been called to be.

What would it look like were we to let go of this fear? What would it look like were we to let go of our anger, our hate, our suspicion of others, to give and love freely without worrying about what would happen next? To some, it may look like foolishness. But, for real, is this the most foolish thing in which a Christian believes? We believe God came to earth in the form of man, died and then was physically resurrected! So much of our faith can be called foolishness. To believe in God is not foolishness. To love without fear, without asking for anything in return is not foolishness. It is the Christian life. To live this way looks beautiful. It looks like heaven. What if were were to welcome the stranger, the refugee, the homeless, the petulant teenager into our hearts and homes the same way we welcome the sculptures of the baby Jesus that lives in our cresh?

Hope was born in that manger 2000 years ago. Hope that love would be the law of the land, that fear would be no more. Fear cannot coexist with hope – at least not the hope that was born in that manger. That hope is a living hope, an active hope that we live into each and every day as we wait for Christ to return, a hope that calls to us to prepare the way of Christ each and every day, to love as we are loved. This hope is alive, it is calling to us to put down our weapons, to put away our fear, to say yes to love, to say yes to Christ.

Because we are loved. Deeply. Without requirement, without payment, without earning it, we are loved. The proof of this lovelies in a manger, in the child of an unmarried couple without a home, who would soon become refugees, This proof of love lies in the man who would die so that we might live an abundant life, a life free of fear.

Hope is calling. Listen, do not be afraid.


Jesus is the stranger

And we walk together on the road to Emmaus. Waiting to see Christ in our lives, waiting for the death and resurrection of Christ to turn our worlds upside down, to change us for the better, to change our world for the better, we walk. As we walk, we talk of the impact Jesus has had on our lives, and we wonder where is he now? What happened? Why can’t we see Jesus in our lives today – all the while, looking down at our feet, focused inward on our troubles and our confusion.  A stranger comes us to us, asks us for spare change, asks us for a blessing, asks us if we need anything and we , so caught up in our conversation, so stuck in our own heads, mumble a few words and keep walking. Jesus was there, and we missed it.

Despite our desire for an encounter with Jesus, our longing for him in our lives, we miss out on him a lot. We look for him, sure, but we look for him in the expected places. We look for Jesus in prayer, we (sometimes) look for him in church or in the faces of those we love. Rarely do we look for him as we walk down the street, our heads stuck in the future or in the past, in our troubles or in our phones. Most of us pass through our days unaware that we have encountered Jesus, even though we have a deep longing for him. We are just so trained to look in certain places but not others and have such difficulty being here in this place in this moment that Jesus comes by and we don’t see him, don’t notice him, he is just another stranger on the road to work, to play, on the road home.

This is a problem. You see, when we don’t look for Jesus everywhere, when we aren’t expecting to be surprised by Jesus in strange and unusual places, we see Jesus less and less. Because Jesus is rarely found where Jesus is supposed to be. While he can be found in the synagogue, he can also be found talking to women shunned by society, by a well at the hottest time of the day. He can be found having dinner with people no one likes, the sinners, the prostitutes, murderers and the tax collectors – not the pastor and the church council. Jesus appears, again and again, with and within the stranger. We are called to look for him there. When we don’t – when we forget that this is where Jesus lives, we forget about the importance of the stranger, the necessity of loving the stranger, the foreigner, the sinner, and those on the margins. When we forget to look for Jesus in the face of the stranger, we miss Jesus, and we forget about the value of each and every single human life.

bring-back-our-girls

What happens when we forget to look for Jesus everywhere? Some news clippings about Jesus from the last week. Where has he been?

Jesus lost his ride to work last week. He is trying to piece together some way to get to his job, trying to figure out how he can keep supporting his family without a car.  Jesus might lose his job because he can’t get to work anymore. That or he will spend 2 hours bussing each way, losing valuable time with his family, easing the stress on his partner and helping his kids with their homework. We were so busy making sure we didn’t have to spend an extra $60 on our car tabs, we missed seeing Jesus in all of those people who rely on public transportation to get to work, to get to the doctor, to get groceries – to get anywhere.

Jesus was kidnapped last week. Kidnapped and sold as a child bride in Nigeria. Jesus is gone, we don’t know where. No one is looking for him because no one expects Jesus to be found in a group of Nigerian schoolgirls. Nigerian schoolgirls, apparently, are not terrible important in our world.  They are black, they are female, they are poor. A trifecta of things that make someone unimportant. These girls are important to their parents, to the handful of activists working to get this story out, to people in their villages and girls afraid of facing the same fate, but not to many other people, as is evidenced by the amount of time it took for Western news outlets to start picking up this story and the lack of offers of international assistance. These girls were missing for almost two weeks before most of us started hearing about it. Now they are gone. Jesus has been kidnapped, and we missed it.

Jesus was tortured last week. He sat in an execution chair, chemicals pumped into his veins (or his skin, rather, as the drugs didn’t make it into his veins). He writhed and tried to speak, seized and foamed at the mouth. Jesus was there, but no one saw him. Because no one would think to look for Jesus alive in the heart of a murderer. Jesus was tortured and, collectively, we just look away.

When we forget to see Jesus in the stranger, we allow people to die of hunger, of starvation, of neglect. We allow our brothers and sisters, our fellow travelers on this road, to fall to the wayside and die. What is it that Jesus said? When you do this to the least of these, you do this to me.

Our faith, at its heart, is a story of love. God created us, very good. God made covenants with us our of God’s infinite love for us. God came to earth to show us how to love one another and how to be in relationship with God. God died a painful death so that we might have life.

Again and again, God extols us to love one another.

In our reading from Peter today, we are told that the fruit of our faith, the result of obeying the truth, is love. If we are obedient to God, it will show because we will love one another fervently. Love is the fruit of faith.

And we want to be obedient, we really do! But there is just so much out there that is so shiny and distracting. Our phones. Our relationships, so fraught with drama that we often cause, our work, our desire for money, for things, for power and success. We are even distracted by replaying our pasts over and over again in our heads or by living in the future, never the present. Plus, love takes energy, and, more than that, it takes vulnerability. Who wants that? When we are vulnerable, when we invite others into our hearts and our lives we put ourselves in the position of possibly getting hurt. So we distract ourselves with things that we somehow believe will never let us down. Cause I have certainly never been let down by any of my stuff. Wait… that’s so not true.

For God so loved the world… our faith is a story of love.

To love and to be loved, you have to show up. You have to pay attention. You have to allow yourself to be loved and allow space for love to happen, to create space for interaction, to expect the unexpected, to expect love.

The two men walking along the road did not expect love. They were not looking for Jesus; they were too caught up in their lives to see love standing there in front of them. They were too busy with their own thoughts of who they thought Jesus should be and where they would find him to see him standing right in front of them.

Just like most of us.

But then something changed. They may not have recognized Jesus, but they remembered their faith. They remembered the importance of love and of showing love through hospitality. They invited the stranger inside, into their homes and their lives. They offered him a meal. It was in that act, the breaking of bread together, the act of allowing him to bless them (an act of vulnerability and love) that their eyes were opened and they saw Jesus, right there in front of them. He had been there the whole time.

Let him in. He is walking along side of us on the road of life in the face of so many strangers. Pick up your head, pull your mind out of your phone, out of your worries, out of your present and your past and look for Jesus everywhere you go. Open your heart to the possibility that he might be in the homeless person on the corner you pass every day, yet don’t know his name. To the possibility that he might be the undocumented immigrant living down the street or the young child bride taken from her family half a world away or an inmate on death row. What you find might surprise you. What you find might just be love – the fruit of our faith and our salvation.

Amen


Ask and you shall recieve. Or, you know, not.

Sometimes you can ask, and ask and ask and... nothing seems to happen. (photo from elca.org)

Sometimes we can ask, and ask and ask and… nothing seems to happen. (photo from elca.org)

 Text: Luke 11:1-13

I find this text to be… difficult. I mean, the Lord’s Prayer, I’m fine with. Who can argue with that? The part I find difficult is at the end. “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened…” We’ve all heard it. And I think it is safe to assume we have all asked and not had it given unto us. It’s hard, and it hurts.

When I worked at Northwest Memorial in Chicago, during my seminary chaplaincy, I was called to the room of a woman who had, for lack of a better phrase, full body cancer. It had metastasized everywhere. While we were talking, she asked me about prayer. She was a lapsed Catholic and wondered if I might bring her a rosary and help her learn the Hail Mary. I went to the office and grabbed her a rosary and a Catholic prayer book, recited the Hail Mary with her (as my Swedish Lutheran grandmother’s head spun somewhere in Ohio), and said goodbye. Weeks later, she was back in and asked to see me. She wanted to tell me that she had been cured through prayer. After her last time in the hospital, she started going to church and attending a women’s prayer circle. The women prayed for her and laid hands on her every week. Now, no cancer. They were just running some final tests.

I wanted to be happy for her, I really did. I tried. But as she prayed for a cure, so did I. I prayed and prayed for my father’s brain to somehow be rid of the malignant tumor that was killing him. There was no cure. He would die. God is so fair that God is unfair, a friend once told me. Some prayers are answered in the way and time we want and, well, some just aren’t. And it sucks.

Sometimes, I watch televangelists when I can’t sleep.

I was watching a particular evangelist known for preaching what is called the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel is the idea that God wants you to have everything you want, and you will get it if only you pray hard enough and work hard enough (and, often, donate a lot to the church or preacher who is telling you this). This preacher was on a prosperity gospel roll when he remarked that people who have financial troubles have them because their faith is not strong enough. Then he went on to say that people who are ill, people who have cancer, people who are dying, are in that state because they weren’t praying hard enough.

Wait, what the what?

But there it is in the scripture, right? Ask and it shall be given unto you! Seek and you shall find! Knock and the door will be opened! Jesus said it, it’s right there. So if it’s not happening for you, there must be something wrong with you. That’s what this preacher was telling the people in his congregation and the people he reaches across the world through the glowing screen.

Few things get my hackles up as much as placing the brokenness of the world on people’s shoulders and telling then that it would go away if only they worked hard enough. I guess that is the Lutheran in me.

This kind of thinking is dangerous. It can kill faith. When we walk around with the idea that God is a cosmic butler who will respond to our desires (as long as they are Godly desires, naturally. Or maybe desires for a new car), with a resounding yes!, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.

But still, we have this section of the Bible (and in Mark and Matthew as well) that tells us that if we ask we will receive, if we seek we will find, and if we knock, a door will open. So what do we do when that doesn’t happen? What do we do when we have been unemployed for months and we are knocking and asking and seeking, but no doors seem to be opening, no answers coming, no jobs to be found? What about when a loved one is ill and we pray and pray and pray and yet there is no cure, no remission, no end to the pain?

If we have hung our faith on a God who will do exactly what we want, when we want, it may not sustain us through hard times – because that’s not how God works.

We have ways we explain God’s apparent lack of response to our prayers. God answers all prayers, sometimes the answer is no. It wasn’t the right time, be patient. But these answers are wholly unsatisfying. I want what I want and I want it now.

It’s one thing when I don’t get something I want like a parking space (yes, I have prayed for those before), or a shiny new car. Then it’s pretty sensible that God’s answer was either no or silence (because I don’t doubt God has better things to do than help me get a parking space). But when we pray for a cure, for an end to pain, for a job that will help us feed our families – then the silence on God’s end seems uncaring and distant. It is this silence that leads people to disbelief, to observe that a good God just wouldn’t let these horrible things happen, so either there is no God, or God is not good.

This misunderstands who God is, what God is, and God’s role in our lives and the universe.

God is not a genie, or a celestial butler or a vending machine. God is so much bigger and more than this. God is a mystery we have only seen in pieces and parts. But all of those pieces and parts add up to one thing: God is love. God is the creator, the ground of being, beyond our comprehension, And sometimes, this is really hard to deal with. We want a God who is like us. We want a God whose primary job it is to respond to our demands in the time we want the way we want. When we do this to God, we make God small, and relegate the source of our being to our servant.

But what so we do with the fact that something that Jesus said doesn’t jive with our experience of God and our stories of God in Jesus Christ that tell us God is a God of love? What do we do when something that Jesus said doesn’t appear to be the way the world works?

We put it back in context. We look at the verses around it, we use the rest of the Bible and our tradition to help us out. When we do this, we discover that  maybe because we aren’t making the connections Christ wants us to make, we’re making the connections we want to make, the connections that give us butler God.

To make sense of ask and it shall be given unto you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened unto you, let’s look at the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. What are we to ask for? What are we to seek? Where shall we knock?

For Jesus, it is all about the kingdom. Start with thanksgiving, with a heart of gratitude. Ask for our basic needs to be met. Ask for forgiveness. Seek the ability to forgive others. Seek God’s will. Knock on the door of the kingdom.

I can tell you from personal experience that when things are falling apart, starting the day or your prayer with gratitude feels impossible. It is really hard. It can feel forced. But it can also switch your frame entirely and change the way you are looking at your life and change how you approach your day.  A little thanksgiving to the creator can refocus not only your day, but your life.

It’s about God and the kingdom. God wants us to seek the Kingdom, God wants us to knock on the door of the kingdom. This is the gift we are to ask for – and it is already here. The kingdom, Christ said, is here. It is in prayer that we encounter God and it is in seeking God’s will, seeking to forgive and be forgiven, to praise, to ask for salvation and to ask for our basic needs to be filled that we knock on the door of the kingdom. When we live in a Christ centered way, when we live in prayer and love, we seek the kingdom and we will find the kingdom. For most of us, the discovery will be fleeting. We will have kingdom moments, moments when we are filled with God’s love that everything feels perfect. Then the moment will fade. The world will get in our way. We will start thinking about ourselves and our needs and what we don’t have, we will compare what we have to what those around us have. Or our illness will break through, despair will grab a hold of us and we will become blind to the kingdom again. Sometimes we may pray and pray and pray and it will seem like the door isn’t opening and there is nothing to find. Then a friend will appear at the perfect moment with words of encouragement and the kingdom breaks through into our world again. And again. And again.

I don’t want to sound like I’m saying God doesn’t want us to pray for cures or love or hope or for the pain to go away or for whatever else we may be praying for. God does. God wants to know what we want, God wants us to be in relationship together and one of the paths to relationship is by being honest about what you want and need. But it’s not always going to work out the way we want it to. Sometimes it will. Cures happen, jobs appear out of the blue and sometimes love falls out of trees. But it also might not. Because the world is a broken place, and as much as God may love us as individuals and as a people, we aren’t always going to get what we want. But we will get what we need: love. Forgiveness. Community. Small glimpses of the kingdom.

The kingdom is the best gift God can give us. It is the opposite of giving a child a scorpion. The receiving, finding, and opening to God’s kingdom is the gift of eternal life. It’s not about what I want or what you want, which is hard. But it is about God’s kingdom, which, even in glimpses, is more than anything we could possibly ask for.


Embody hope

Art by Banksy, photo unknown

Art by Banksy, photo unknown

A sermon for the 4th Sunday in Easter.

Revelation 7:9-19

John 10:22-30

It is part of a preacher’s job to bring good news, and have I got some good news for you: today is Sunday. That means that last week is over and we have a new week with new possibilities ahead of us. Wahoo!

Weeks like this past week are the weeks, the days, the times when it is most difficult to come up with good news and, simultaneously, the weeks when sharing, hearing, partaking in the good news is vital. When everything seems to be spinning out of control, that is when we need the good news of Jesus Christ more than ever.

I really wish I could just come up here, say, “Jesus loves you!” and sit back down. I’m angry and I’m sad and I’m frustrated with the state of the world. I’m tired of watching innocent people die, angry about the role money plays in politics, tired of people who prefer their own version of liberty to the safety of others. I’m incredibly sad that every time a terrorist attack occurs on our soil, someone decides to just start beating up anyone who looks like what they think the terrorists may have looked like (usually someone with brown skin). I’m very much over companies that complain about regulations, don’t abide by them, and then have horrific accidents that kill people. I’m outraged at the way our elected leaders have violated human rights accords and human decency. I’m kind of tired of it all. I want to take my ball and go home.

Then I am reminded of the reasons to hope, the reasons to stay and keep playing.

I have read a ton of great mini-sermons this past week that are springboards for hope and optimism. One of my favorite memes going around right now is the quote from Fred Rodgers that says, “”When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

Look for the helpers. They are everywhere. Not only in times of tragedy, but in every day life. We are surrounded by people who teach, who heal, who serve and love boundlessly.  But these aren’t the news stories. The news stories celebrate the ugly, the inhumane – the news stories celebrate our sin and keep us in a state of fear. Fear of our neighbor, fear of the other, fear of this world.

As the 24 hour news cycle rolled on and on this week, they managed to highlight the helpers, but still kept a lazer focus on the gore, the blood, the death that happened on our own soil, with nary a mention of the daily reality of terror that exists around the world or the terror that our nation has inflicted on other nations and individuals.

Sorry, I’m going down the spiral of negativity again. My bad.

Here’s another mini sermon I read this week, a quote from comedian Patton Oswalt:

I remember, when 9/11 went down, my reaction was, “Well, I’ve had it with humanity.”

But I was wrong. I don’t know what’s going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.

But here’s what I DO know. If it’s one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. This is a giant planet and we’re lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness.

But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago.

So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, “The good outnumber you, and we always will.”

 

There is a lot of gospel truth in those words. The prices and penalties incurred Oswalt is talking about is what we, as Christians, call sin. We are all broken, but every once in a while someone (or some ones) get more broken than the rest of us or they act out on their brokenness in ways most of us would never dream of.

In our brokenness, in spite of our sinful nature, most of us still try to do right. Most of us still try to follow Jesus, most people still try to do the right thing. We hear his voice beckoning us, trying to call us out of the darkness and into the light, calling us away from our self-serving ways and towards God-serving ways.

The helpers, the people who run into the violence, the people who open their homes to strangers and immediately donate blood: these are the people who follow the voice of the Good Shepherd.  These are the people who give us hope that not all is lost, that there is still love and decency in the world.

I have seen these helpers and felt sparks of hope for the world in the world. Where do I, in my cynical, irritable state, look to find hope right now in the word of God?

Revelation? Yeah, that’s totally weird for me. Revelation has never been where I have gone to for hope. Weird stories? Yes. Tales of bloodshed and war? Yes. Hope? Not usually.

But it’s right there. John has been writing for quite a few chapters about all kinds of horror. Then he takes a break and reminds us that horror, even of the kind of horror he describes in his Revelation, has an end. Pain has an end. Hunger has an end. And we have a God who wants to end all of these things for us and to wipe every tear from our eyes.

We could argue all day about what Revelation is. Is it an accurate prediction of what will happen when Jesus comes again? Is it a hallucination brought on by seizures or eating the wrong berries on the island? Is it a political tome to provide courage and hope to the Christians in the diaspora? Does it matter? However literally it is meant to be taken, Revelation is still a book of hope, of renewal, of encouragement for us when we go through our own tribulations. It is a story for when we see our worlds falling apart around us we can take a moment to remember that it hasn’t always been this way and it won’t always be this way. We can take a moment to remember that God wants to wipe every tear from our eyes.

The cynic in me asks, “If God wants us to not have any pain, then WHY IS THERE PAIN?” The cynic in me asks that a lot.

But the answer is sin. Our world is a broken place. Not everybody hears the Good Shepherd, and not everyone who hears follows. God doesn’t force us to listen. We get to make our own choices. And, sometimes, we make some really, really bad choices.

The root of our bad choices is, usually, fear. We fear for our lives, our livelihood, our safety, our belongings. In order to stay safe, to protect what is ours, we put ourselves first.

This is how common sense gun regulation supported by an overwhelming majority of the American people gets voted down. Representatives afraid of losing money, of being primaried, afraid for their careers (more so than for the lives of their representatives). This is how our leaders justify torture of prisoners – they are afraid of more injuries, more attacks and will use any means necessary to get the information. Information that usually ends up being useless. This is how terrorists rationalize what they are doing – they are protecting a way of life they fear losing. Fear is what drives racism, homophobia, misogyny – the list goes on and on.

When we trust in God, we are able to lose that fear. When we follow Jesus, we are able to let go of our fears for our own lives and worry more about the lives of others and the life of Christ.

Our world will never be free from sin. It will never be not broken. But it can be less broken. There can be less violence, less hate, less anger, if we truly hear Jesus’ voice and follow. We are called to be the helpers, we are called to be beacons of hope when the world gets dark. Our knowledge of salvation in Christ in both this life and the next allows us to hold on to hope when the rest of the world can’t, to be hope for others when their worlds are falling apart. We are called to be hope, to embody it. This is the call of the good shepherd. We are able to do this, to follow Jesus, to be hope as a gift of God in Jesus Christ.

I am still angry, I am still sad, I am still hurting for the world. But I can hear the voice of the good shepherd calling me, calling us to follow and I know that, in that call, lies hope.


The devil’s question

If the devil really looked like this, he would be much easier to avoid.

If the devil really looked like this, he would be much easier to avoid.

A sermon on Luke 4:1-13

This past Wednesday, we entered into the season of Lent; the time the church has set aside for penitence, reflection, fasting and prayer. It seems only right that we begin our Sundays in Lent with this story about Jesus’ temptation. This is a season when many of us put ourselves face to face with temptation – giving up things we love like chocolate, wine, perhaps whining. We do this to practice discipline (and sometimes to lose weight or give up bad habits), and, in doing so, we enter into prayer and build our relationship to God. Jesus’ temptation was far more formidable than chocolate – the devil tempted him with some of the more difficult things that we wrestle with every day. The need for self-reliance, the desire for power, the easy way out. But at the bottom of all of these temptations, and most of the temptations we face in life is the question, “Do you trust God?” That is what the devil is asking Jesus. Do you trust that God will provide for you? Do you trust that the path God is leading you down is the right path? Do you trust God with your life?

These are the same questions the devil asks us. Do you trust God? Or do you trust yourself?

Jesus had just spent 40 days in the wilderness. He had not eaten, and was very hungry. It is reasonable to imagine that he had not slept all that well either – sleeping out in the open, weather and animals keeping him awake. And here comes the devil, doubt and temptation personified, to offer Jesus a solution to his problems. You are hungry, Jesus, and you have the power to fix this on your own. Use your power for yourself, just this one time. Be fed. Fill yourself with what you have created by yourself. God might not give you the bread your stomach so strongly desires, Jesus. Fix it.

We are hungry. We are hungry for connection, for community, for meaning: we are hungry for love. The media and product peddlers take on the role of temptation and doubt personified. They tell us that we are not attractive enough, but there are pills and diets and surgeries and clothes to fix that. They tell us we are not complete, but there are cars and furniture and kitchen sets to fix that. They tell us we are not truly loved until we have extravagant presents to prove it. We are unsure of who we are and where we belong, we are told that the products we buy can help us define who we are, and along the way provide us with a community who is into the same stuff. We will find connection through our things. And we are surrounded by it, this message. It is in our ears and faces all the time. We absorb it through our pores. We doubt our worth and fall prey to the belief that we have the power to sate our own hunger. We fall into the cycle of spending our time to earn money to buy things to fill our hunger but it never lasts. And so we do it again, and again.

Jesus knows about this cycle. He knows that, on his own, he can do nothing, that it is only through God that he can act for good. Jesus knows that life is about so much more than that bread. He knows that he cannot fill himself on his own. He is hungry, he is weak, he is tired. I would imagine he is salivating at the thought of a meal. But he is also grounded in the Word of God, in scripture and prayer. He is grounded in faith in God and the knowledge that God can and will provide so much more than the things of this world, so much more than Jesus’ own power and abilities can bring him. It is his grounding in the word of God and trust in God’s promises that allows him to put aside his hunger and reply with words from scripture, “The human shall not live by bread alone, but by the word of God.”

By what are we living? The word of the world, or the word of God? Where do we put our trust?

The devil sees that this tack will not work. What else can he offer Jesus? What else might throw Jesus off track? An offer of power, perhaps? The devil offers all of the kingdoms in the world. Just the fact that the devil was able to show this to Jesus hints at the devil’s power. The devil claims that the kingdoms of the world have been given to him – is the devil lying, or does the devil control the major cities of the world? If the devil does have this power, this could make Jesus become the messiah the people of Israel were expecting – a mighty king, a political leader, come to free God’s people. This would be a very different king than the road Jesus is currently on. His power would be more visible, more worldly, would be seen in a way that those around him could understand. Moreover, it would be a power that he could understand, that he could control. Not only is the devil offering Jesus power and control, he is offering him it in a way that makes sense in this world. The power Jesus has, the role he plays in the world is almost never understood by those around him, not until after his death. All he has to do is pledge loyalty to the devil — in return he will recieve power, control and a different destiny.

Power. Control. Understanding. Recognition. We really like those words. Who doesn’t, at one time or another, daydream of being in charge of a kingdom, be it having control of your household for five minutes or having control of the world. We love control, and we really, really hate to admit that we aren’t in charge of much of anything. Most of us want to be recognized for what we do, to be seen as the one who just did that awesome thing. But we have a God who doesn’t show us the end of the story but lets us work it out. We have a God who asks us to do our good deeds on the down low. We have a God who asks us to pledge our loyalty to him and only him, in return for things that are hard to see, hard to explain, and often unrecognized by our world as being awesome. The world tells us the opposite – power is visible, control is ours, and we deserve to be recognized for what we have done. What are we willing to trade for some recognition, some power, some control? What are we willing to give up to God?

Jesus is still hungry, still exhausted, and can likely see some positive outcomes of the devil’s offer. After all, he is fully human as well as fully God. But he knows his call, he knows who he is created to be. Once again, the strength of his faith comes through. His grounding in God and knowledge of his path takes over and he is able to say, “Get behind me Satan: for it is written, you shall worship the Lord your God and no other.”

But the devil is not done. There is one more thing. And, really, it’s kind of bratty. Satan must be annoyed that Jesus keeps pushing him back with scripture, so he comes with some of his own. And through that, he manages to ask Jesus if he really trusts that God will protect him. “Jesus, God has said he will protect you. Do you really think he will? If you do, if you really believe in God, put his love to the test.” Or, the flip side of this question, “If you believe what God has told you about who you are, put who you are to the test.”

Most of us know this is a bad move in a relationship. It is rarely, if ever, a good idea to say, “If you really loved me, you’d…” Or to act out to see what your beloved’s response is. And yet… how often do we put God’s love to the test?  How often do we act out hoping for some response from God, for some lightening bolt from the sky. How often do we put God to the test by questioning who we are, by questioning if we are loved?

You are loved. I am loved. We are loved. By God. The proof in this lies in our lives, our community and in stories of God’s love passed down through the generations and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus  had the stories, he had the community, he was rooted in God’s love for him. He didn’t need to throw himself off a building to prove it. He knew.

The devil is done with him… for now. The scripture here tells us that the devil will come back – at an appropriate time. Not even Jesus could escape temptation. But he could face it down, he could push it back – and so can we. With Jesus’ help.

But, why? Why should we push back temptation? Usually temptation has something fun on the other end of the line. True. Usually it does. Just like a fish sees a tasty worm at the end of the line but misses the hook. Giving in to temptation usually does have some fun, but it almost always comes with pain, loss, grief, embarrassment, and more.

Jesus was able to push back temptation because he was deeply grounded in the word of God. Not just the words of God, though his knowledge of scripture and his ability to quote it certainly helped him in this situation. He was grounded in the word of God, the word that was there at the beginning, the word that lived inside of Jesus Christ and the word that lives among us today. As the Apostle Paul writes, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” We have the word in our midst! We have scripture, we have ritual, we have community, we have the Holy Spirit, we have the unending, always forgiving, never fading love of God. When the devil asks us, “Do you trust God?” We can look at all that we have been given, all that is around us, all that God has entrusted to us and respond with a mighty, resounding Yes.


These gifts are not for you alone

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This is a sermon from Sunday, January 20.

Isaiah 62:1-5
Corinthians 12: 1-11

John 2:1-11

The world in which we live is a messed up, violent, broken place. In 2012, 43 of the worlds nations were in some state of war or conflict – not including nations that may have been participating in covert operations. Daily violence threatens the livelihood of families and the future of generations who are being left uneducated, poor, jobless and angry. Around the world, women live under the threat of domestic violence and other forms of abuse – in some countries, women are actually losing rights they once had to go to school, to drive, to leave the house unaccompanied. 6.9 million under the age of 5 died in 2011, and half of those died due to malnutrition.

In our nation, the political divide seems to grow deeper every day. We appear to have largely lost the ability to engage in civil discourse over topics upon which we disagree. The divide between rich and poor is growing at an alarming rate – and it is getting harder for poor children to bridge that gap through obtaining a college education. There are shootings in schools, in workplaces, in malls and movie theatres. Almost 50 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. shared his dream with America, we may have a black president, but racism is still alive and well. Women have made great strides, but sexism is by no means dead.

The world we live in is a messed up, violent, broken place.

Gee, thanks Vicar Elizabeth! I feel great now!

I come to bring the cheer.

But, seriously, this is but a sampling what we see around us every day. And what are we to do? We have no prophets anymore. Who is leading the way? Anyone? Bueller? When we look back at history, we see all of these great people leading the people out of misery. In our tradition have the stories of Abraham and Moses, the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible. In today’s reading from Isaiah he is bold! He is standing up and shouting out – that’s his thing! We have Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple, talking back to the established powers of the day. We have the disciples and Paul spreading the word of God.

In more modern history we have Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. It was only 50 years ago that Dr. King and his colleagues inspired – and demanded – change from the world. And they got a lot of it. But who do we have now? We can’t find that person, that leader. Everything is awful and no one is helping us get out of it! Like musician John Mayer says, “We’re just waiting on the world to change.”

Waiting, waiting on the world to change. Because we can’t possibly do it ourselves, can we. I mean, none of us is Dr. King, Susan B. Anthony, or Gandhi. None of us is gifted enough to change the world, right?

Wrong.

I hate that John Mayer song. What happened to “A change is gonna come” or “we shall over come?” We can’t wait for the world to change, because then it never will. Change doesn’t come in a world of passive observers.

There is a theory that we have no great leaders of change these days because no one can envision themselves there. That when we try to stand next towering figured like Dr. King, we see ourselves as small in comparison, figure that we can’t do anything, and we just give up.

But we can do so much. We can make concrete changes in the lives of those around us and in the lives of our brothers and sisters around the world. We have been given the gifts, we just have to use them.

In this reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he spells it out for us. Each of us has a gift and, not just any gift, a gift bestowed upon us by the Holy Spirit herself. Some of us have the gift of knowledge, some the gift of wisdom, some the gift of teaching, some gifts of healing, the ability to prophecy, the ability to interpret tongues. Each of us has a gift. And we were given that gift not for ourselves but, as Paul writes “for the common good.” They weren’t given to us so that we could be awesome on our own, or so that we could use our gifts to receive praise, status, money and power for ourselves. Our gifts were given to us so that we might use them for the common good.

What are your gifts? How are you using them?

Are you using your gifts to glorify God or are you using them to glorify yourself. Because one of those stances concerns the common good, and one cares not a whit for common good. One of those stances is the path to peace, and the other is the path to war. One seeks to erase the divisions in our society based on class, ethnicity, color, sexual orientation, gender identity and more.

For as long as we are continually looking out for ourselves, as long as considerations about the common good fall behind concerns for self-preservation, our divisions will stand. The gulf between rich and poor will continue to grow. Violence will be the rule of the day.

We are called to use our gifts for the common good, to boost up all humankind. To do otherwise is an affront to the gifts we were given and, most of all, the one who gave those gifts, the root of all that is. God.

Now, this is sticky. Because I don’t want to come off like I’m saying you have to do these things to get God’s love or to get into heaven or like God will curse you because you don’t listen. God’s people have been ignoring God and putting themselves first for the better part of human history. God’s love endures. God keeps redeeming us. That’s God’s thing.

But to respond to the gifts God has given us by using them for the common good is to make faith more than words and to make the phrase “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” more than a passive platitude. It makes it real. God gave us our gifts out of God’s unending, abiding love and calls us to use those gifts for the good of all of God’s children – an extension of God’s love

There is a school of thought that we should not try to fix anything because our world is broken and we are to wait until the second coming of Jesus and everything will be fixed or God will fix the things God wants fixed. The God of the Bible is not a God who asks people to be passive. Jesus repeatedly instructs people on kingdom living and asks them to implement it in their lives this very day. God doesn’t ever tell us, “Hold up, do nothing, I’ll be by in a while and I’ll fix it.” Through Moses, Abraham, the Prophets, and the life and death of Jesus Christ, God repeatedly instructs us to not just change our ways to save ourselves, but to change the direction of the world. Or, as Dr. King wrote, “…we must never feel that God will, through some breathtaking miracle or a wave of the hand, cast evil out of the world. As long as we believe this we will pray unanswerable prayers and ask God to do things that he will never do. The belief that God will do everything for man is as untenable as the belief that man can do everything for himself. It, too, is based on a lack of faith. We must learn that to expect God to do everything while we do nothing is not faith, but superstition.”

We have been given these gifts by God to be participants with God in preparation for the coming of the kingdom. We have the gifts.

In reading the story of the wedding at Cana, we read of the first time Jesus was asked to demonstrate his particularly unique gifts in front of what we can assume is people he knew. He was, after all, at a wedding with his mother. There is so much I find fascinating about this story. First, I love the way his mother asks him for things without asking. She simply makes statements. But he knows what she is up to.
Second, I want some backstory. I want to know how Mary knows that this is something Jesus can fix. Has he been practicing changing liquid from one thing into another for a long time? Was this old hat to him by now, or was he new to this particular facet of his Godliness? Finally, why does he say that it is not yet his time? Is it because God has revealed to him that his time will come later, or does he just not feel as though he is ready? I don’t have much for the backstory but what my own imagination will provide. But I do have thoughts on Jesus’ response to Mary’s observation. I think this was a deeply human moment for Jesus. I think that he just didn’t feel ready. He had been teaching for a little while now, he was getting used to having a following and being listened to for his wisdom. There had always been whispers that there was something special about him, but this, he knew, would change everything. Even if no one knew what he did, this would be the first moment he does something big and God-like outside of his house. And that was a lot for him to handle. Besides, he was just at the wedding for fun.

He did the math in his head and decided that it was not the time for him to do it. But Mary knew something different. She knew that her boy was ready. And all she had to do was nudge. In the way that only a parent or spouse can. So she nudged. Someone had to get this thing started, after all.

Every day we are presented with opportunities to use our gifts for the greater good and, once in a while those opportunities are obviously intimidating or life-changing. All too often, we look at the opportunity and decide that we aren’t ready yet. We aren’t ready to help anyone but ourselves. We don’t have enough savings. We haven’t built our portfolio. We aren’t ready to teach, we aren’t ready to share our wisdom or knowledge, we aren’t ready to lead, to heal, to make a difference in anybody’s life, not even our own. We want to stick to status quo.

But we are ready. God gave us these gifts for the express purpose of contributing to the greater good and there is no better time than right now to use them.

Our world may be messed up, violent, broken place, but we are its stewards. God has given us gifts to use for the common good. We are ready. We have to be.

Somewhere in Jesus’ heart, he knew it actually was his time. He knew he was ready. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have this story. We might not have many of his stories. But he just needed a little nudge from his mom to perform the first of his signs and begin his path towards Calvary.

God has given us gifts. We are ready. God has given you gifts. You are ready.

But God is like Mary – the parent who will nudge us to do what we know must be done. God will present us with opportunities to use our gifts for the greater good. Sometimes these opportunities won’t even be that obvious – like a statement rather than a question. We may have the opportunity to tell someone that that joke was racist, to confront our own racism, or to reach out from a position of power and privilege to pull someone up. We might be faced with a dilemma at our work that forces us to re-evaulate whose glory we are really working towards. We might have a nagging in our heart to mentor a kid, to serve at a shelter, or to offer our gifts to an organization that needs our help. We may be able to use our minds to cure disease or to bring an end to war – or we may be asked to care for someone who is sick or stop a fight. Each of these is ways to use our gifts for the common good.

But we must not let ourselves be stopped by fears that we aren’t ready, that we aren’t good enough, that we aren’t really called to do that. We must also not let ourselves give in to society’s theme that we look out for ourselves first or fall victim to the lie that we are each independent people totally reliant on ourselves for our successes. God has given us amazing gifts and the opportunity to use them for the common good, to heal the worlds brokenness and work towards becoming one people, under God. We are called to use them. We are ready to use them. Let us join together in song, prayer and sacrament. Then let us go out into the world as a people equipped by God for the journey ahead, equipped by God to counter the cultural narrative that it is all about the individual, equipped to make a change.