GUEST BLOGGER – Laura Aase, Sermon for Elliot’s Baptism

Beloved friend and Eddie-Vedder-loving preacher, Laura Aase, from River of Hope in Hutchinson, MN, preached this sermon on November 18th, 2012 at Elliot Griffin Davis’ baptism.

Sermon

Mark 13:1-8

Hebrew 10:11-25

I have blown the ending and a major plot point of a book and a movie for my younger sister.  It was in quick succession that I did this, years ago now, and I felt awful for having taken the punch out of these stories for her. One movie required you to be oblivious to the state of the characters (they were all dead) and another involved revealing a major character’s untimely death.  I felt bad at the time, knowing she wouldn’t experience these stories in the same way. She knew the endings. She knew too much.

Being a Christian in 2012 involves us knowing the ending, doesn’t it.  We know how it works out for Jesus, for his followers, in the bleakest times.  We can think, ‘well, he resurrected. It’s ok.’  Yet, this doesn’t mean we have it all figured out. This doesn’t mean we have easy answers.

I really think the disciples thought they’d get an answer from Jesus.  They wanted to know the ending. They were making small talk on the way out of the temple, remarking at the wonderful building it was, and Jesus, who never seemed to be any good at small talk, says – it’s all gonna be thrown down, gone.

So the disciples go right where I think I’d go.  “When, Jesus?  When is this going to happen?  What should we be on the look out for?  Guys at the Metrodome carrying signs about end times?  Street corner preachers, yelling about our damnation? Hurricanes and earthquakes? Tornadoes and drought? Election results? When, Jesus, when?!”

Of course, Jesus doesn’t answer them the way they want him to answer.  No one knows, he says.

Great. What’s the use of hanging out with the Savior of the world if he’s not gonna at least give you some hints about things!?

No, instead Jesus gets all apocalyptic-y, all end of the world-ish: For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. And then, this: This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

The ending is the beginning. It’s just like Jesus to make the end the beginning.  For him to paint pictures of destruction, upheaval, and general unpleasantness – things we would certainly define as endings – and then call them beginnings. But I suppose it’s about right.  I mean, Jesus is one to talk about power through weakness; the poor being rich; the small thing doing the most good. Victory through death.  Yes, this is the Jesus we know.  The end is the beginning.

Things look pretty bleak, don’t they Elliot?  Here you are – pretty new to this whole outside the womb living, on the day you’re baptized, and this is what the Bible – your story – has to say to you?  The end is the beginning?

Well, dude. It’s tough stuff, this baptism stuff. Because it is the beginning of everything. It’s the beginning of your life with God because it’s all wrapped up in an ending.  The ending of you ever having to explain away your sin – to try and earn God’s love. This water takes care of that. This water, this simple, ordinary, every day water is no longer simple and ordinary when God’s promises are spoken into it.  This water is full of promise – so it means that this water says no matter what, you belong to God.  No matter what, you are forgiven.  This water means you get a new start every day, or on the really bad days, every minute of every day.  This water is an ending to you saving yourself. It an ending, but your life doesn’t stop. It all starts. It all begins from here.

And how do we know that?  How do we know this is a beginning out of an ending? Well, the reading from Hebrews assures us of this beginning, this new life.  A life not spent trying to pin down a date on the calendar for when to expect Jesus. A life not spent paralyzed by the question “when”- but instead a life lived knowing the “when” is now!

The writer of this letter talks about the Jesus Christ that is alive and among us now. Forgiving sins now. Writing the law on our hearts now.  Infusing our lives with the purposes of God now.  This writer is begging the people to take their eyes off of some imagined horizon and to see Jesus right there right now.

You see, if we spend too much time demanding “when” from Jesus, we forget about now. And getting so fixated on the future with fear in our hearts turns us in on ourselves and we start to imagine falling buildings and earthquakes, death and destruction. We fixate on all the signs that must mean our end is near. And then our Hollywood brains take over and everything is bleak and dark.

One of my favorite singers is Eddie Vedder – a favorite I share with your pastor. This week, in light of these scripture readings, I turned to a song by his band called The End. He sings it right at the breaking point of his voice – you just wait for it to fall apart, for it to break either high or low or into silence or sobs.  His voice is strained, urgent, asking. You can almost hear the furrow of his brow. (The live version at the end of the link highlights these very qualities.) As he sings, it seems he’s getting farther and farther away from life, his family, living in regret, looking toward death, even putting himself at the bottom of a well. It’s from that vantage point that he sings, Give me something to echo in my unknown future’s ear.

You see, Elliot, we all know the ending.  We all know that Jesus defeats death – that life comes from death. That’s why we’re all here. But then, we forget.  Plain and simple, our lives take turns and we shake off this story, believing it only to be a story, or only a sliver of our lives instead of it being our life.  This truth we know in Christ Jesus becomes a faint memory, not even an echo. We start to that other things or people will save us. Or worse yet, we believe that we’re unsaveable, unloveable.  Lost causes. That we’re far away from the people who love us most – that no one can hear our yell from the bottom of a well.  We forget the ending all the time.

So Elliot, that’s why we’re all here.  Because we forget the ending all the time. It’s why we get together at worship.  So that we can practice these words of promise and love.  So that others can say it for us on the days we can’t quite get our mouths around those words. So that we might remember – that our bodies might remember this love, this promise in our every day life.

It’s why we get together today, Elliot, to pour water over you – so that we might remember that this water claims us too.  That this water changes us, cleanses us from evil, says the writer of Hebrews.  So that we can form words of hope confident they are true.

There will always be rumors of war.  There will be earthquakes and tornadoes and election results. So we turn to simple things like gathering bodies together in a building to sing praise and ask for mercy and to practice loving.  And we turn to water, which has the power to destroy and the power to build up. In water, there is ending and beginning.  You can’t have one without the other.

So when this water of new life is splashed on you, Elliot, may it too wash over us, reminding us these promises are for us, that we are the hands and feet of Jesus in this world right now. Help us to remember the ending, Elliot, so that the beginning will take hold of us again and again.

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Christ the King, November 25, 2012 – Sermon on John 18:33-37

John 18:33-37

King.  Who is King? There was Elvis. There was Michael – both Jackson and Jordan, depending on your tastes. Who is king today?  Some might say Lebron James, the basketball star, is king. They call him King James.  This past year, Justin Bieber, the 18-year-old music sensation, got a crown tattooed on his chest. Don’t ask me why I know that.  But it does beg the question, is Justin Bieber king? The American Music Awards thinks so. Who is king?

Friends, today is Christ the King Sunday. And it is the last Sunday of the Christian calendar. This is it. This is New Year’s Eve. And like New Year’s Eve, we are called to celebrate. We are to throw a party for Christ as being our King. Which means the point of the Christian year, is that when we come to the end of it, when it reaches its culmination, we might be able to name and claim Christ as our king. So this is that day. Christ the King Sunday.

Does that sound ridiculous? It does to me sometimes. Does king and royal language even apply anymore? What does it even mean to be king? Based on culture, being king seems to mean being the one with the most fame and the one we can’t stop talking about. I don’t know about you but I almost never hear people talking about Jesus. Christ is king? Really?

Perhaps we are so far removed from castles and crusades, kings and cloaks that we have forgotten what it means for someone to be king. Today isn’t about rock and roll, or pop music, or basketball, or dreamy teen heartthrobs. It’s about power. It’s about who your ruler is. It’s about authority. And it’s about who has it for you and your life. So maybe this Sunday just needs to be renamed. How about Christ our President Sunday? Christ our Commander in Chief Sunday. This is Jesus is my boss Sunday. Jesus is my coach. That’s what it means to say Jesus is my king. It means Jesus is my president. Jesus is my boss. He is the one with full authority in my life.[1] He is my ruler.

Which makes today a political event. A political rally. Sorry, if you are one who likes your politics and your religion on separate plates. Contrary to popular opinion, they go together like turkey and stuffing. Because Jesus was political. And for us to call Jesus king is a political statement. It is to say that Jesus has number one authority in my life. No one else. Just Jesus. Which means anyone who has power and authority should be nervous. Especially today. The United States government should be investigating churches for treason because we do not pledge allegiance to a flag, we pledge allegiance to Jesus.

Christ the king. It is a political statement today and it was a political statement back when Jesus was alive. Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you king of the Jews?” This is a political and problematic question because if it is true. If Jesus is king of the Jews, then he too is guilty of treason. And subject to death, for the emperor of Rome is the only one allowed to be king.

I know it doesn’t seem like it but if we really take seriously calling Jesus as our king, it should feel dangerous for us to be here. So it’s dangerous for us to be here, folks. To be here and to call Jesus king. In the 20th century, not long ago, during the times of racial segregation in South Africa, when the people with white skin ruled over those with dark skin, whole congregations were arrested, because they didn’t follow those rules. They claimed Christ as their king and not the government or the laws of segregation. And they were arrested. All 240 members, from babies to 90 year olds, we put in jail because they claimed Christ as their king.[2] And Christ would not stand for segregation. It is dangerous to call Jesus king.

Which means this risky stuff we are doing here. It’s risky what we’re doing with Carter today. Carter is baptized and entrusted into a life and community in which Christ is king. Where Christ gets the final say. And that puts all other people with power and authority at risk. People like Pilate and the Roman emperor. Because there is a big difference between the Pilates and the Emperors, the Presidents and the bosses of the world…and Jesus.

The Pilates of the world use their power and authority for selfish reasons with no concern for the community. Meanwhile Jesus gets on his hands and knees and washes his disciples feet. He spends every last ounce caring for those whom he leads. He gives his life to bring life. The Pilates of the world bring terror, even when things are calm. Jesus brings peace, even in the midst of terror. The Pilates use violence to conquer and divide the world. Jesus tells his disciples to put away their swords.[3] You can see why the Pilates of the world don’t like the Jesus’ of the world.

Now I don’t want to completely demonize Pilate, because I know what it is like to be Pilate. Notice what word shows up at the very beginning of our text. It’s in that first line. Then Pilate entered the headquarters again. Again. You see, Pilate has been going back and forth between talking with the crowd outside who want Jesus killed and talking with Jesus in his headquarters. And he doesn’t do this just once or twice. Seven times, he goes back and forth, back and forth, between those who want Jesus dead and Jesus himself. He’s wavering.[4] Unsure of what to do, back and forth he goes. Does he cave into political pressure to please the crowd and kill Jesus? Or does he set Jesus free. He knows which is answer is right. He also knows which decision is easy.

I know what that is like. To waver. To be confronted by Jesus. To be invited to make Jesus my king and to feel split between the right decision and the easy one.

Anytime I am asked to love or care for someone who I don’t particularly want to love or care for, I know it is Jesus showing up in my life. I know what I am called to do. But I waver. I hesitate. I hesitate to roll down my window and to give a buck to the guy on the street. I hesitate to call when someone is hurting and I’m scared to face it myself.  And sometimes, more often than I like, I hesitate too long. And the opportunity to be Christ-like, the opportunity to claim Christ as my king vanishes.

I think most people know what that’s like. To waver between what’s right and what’s easy. A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to visit a young man in prison. He has been tangled up and tortured by drugs and destructive behavior. It wasn’t his first time in prison. He has been wavering too. He asks, Do I change my life now, when I get out in a couple days? Or do I change later? He knows. He knows which one Christ is calling him to. Especially for the sake of his daughter he hasn’t met yet. But he also knows which would be easiest. He got out on Tuesday. I don’t know what he decided.

Christ the King. It’s a political statement. It’s dangerous too. To claim Christ as your king is to give Jesus authority over your life and no one else. And the struggle is King Jesus looks nothing like the kings we’ve come to know. He comes not as a boss but as a servant. He comes in power but in love. He comes not enhance his own life but to give it away.

Jesus doesn’t waver. Jesus has already made his choice. Jesus has decided to love this world and the people in it. People like Carter. People like you. So the love of Jesus is yours. You have it.

The question becomes whether that love has any impact on our life or not. Does it matter? Will it impact us in anyway? Will we let it be a light in our life guiding us? Will Jesus be our king?

Thanksgiving Eve, November 21, 2012 – Sermon on Joel 2:21-27

Joel 2:21-27 

I made a mistake yesterday. I read the Bible. I know, I know…shame on me. But  I was reading through the texts for tonight, and all of a sudden I realized that I had never read the book of Joel before. In fact, I’ll admit my first reaction was…”Joel? Joel? Where the heck is that book?” I couldn’t even tell you where it was in the Bible, let alone what it was about. So I had to flip through these fancy little tabs on the side of my Bible before I discovered that it was towards the end of the Old Testament. Joel is what we call one of the minor prophets. It was only three chapters long, so I thought, “Ah, what the heck. I’ll read it.”

It was a mistake. Much of the book is about a terrible plague caused by locusts that leads to the starvation of animals and the people of Israel. It paints images where there are no pastures for the animals. The cattle groan; the sheep walk around in that daze you get when you haven’t eaten in awhile. The crops in the fields…they droop. So withered and ruined from no rain. Fires appear to be everywhere and all things seem destroyed. And then, last but not least, there are the people. They are in anguish the book says, and their faces grow more pale by each verse. To top it all off, Joel, this prophet, has the nerve to suggest that the people have brought this on themselves. They have turned away from God and, now, God is punishing them.

It is such a dark text. It doesn’t feel very good to read. It doesn’t reflect the god so many of us know in Jesus, or the god we learn about in Sunday School. And it certainly did not seem like an appropriate text for this eve of Thanksgiving. A time when we celebrate the homecoming of family members we’ve missed all year long. A time when we feast and celebrate with the people we love. A time when we give thanks for all that we have. So, what’s a preacher to do? “Pick a different text!” my friends said.

But then, I started to think back on the past couple of days, weeks, and months, and I realized – maybe Joel isn’t such a bad book for Thanksgiving after all.

Holidays seem to be a time when our minds drift off into the distance and look back on the past year and we remember all that has happened since the last time we gathered together like this. Are there any newbies to the earth who celebrate this holiday season for the first time?  Are their loved ones who we never imagined wouldn’t be around this year? Are there some who are wondering if this might be their last holiday season? As my mind journeyed back over 2012, I realized we are not so different from the people in the book of Joel. This year, we too know of withered crops. Just this summer, farms 30 miles south of here had to till up their corn much too early because there was no water for the crops to drink. The East Coast knows what it is like when everything seems to be on fire and all is destroyed. And I can think of people in our community and in this very room who have felt the tight-chest that anguish can bring. Anguish over the loss of a spouse, or a sick parent, or a friend who died much too young. Anguish over the loss of a job or a marriage in ruins. Anguish over the constant loneliness that the night brings.

This past week, I sat beside a woman, with an oxygen tube draped over her face, who paused mid-sentence to take a couple deep breaths out of exhaustion brought on by a very short walk. You know she wonders, “Just how long can I keep this up?” This past week, I sat at a table that used to occupy four of us, only now just three remain. And that empty chair weighed heavy on our crooked hearts. This past week, I heard the prayers hidden behind tear-laden health updates on a man so many people love.

No, we aren’t so different from the people in the book of Joel. But, unlike Joel, I’m not a big fan of saying that all of this is something we have brought on ourselves by turning away from God. However, we do know what it is like to wonder. To wonder if God is punishing us and why any of us deserve it. Joel raises that question that so many of us ask, “Where is God in all of this?”

Which makes the words from Joel chapter 2 that we just heard feel like such a seismic shift in the story. Do not fear, it reads. Do not fear, O soil. Do not fear, animals of the field. Children of Zion, rejoice and be glad. For God has poured down abundant rain. The threshing floors will be full of grain again. I will repay you and you shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, the Lord says. You, my people, shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in your midst and that I am your God.

You see, in the midst of what seems like chaos and destruction, Joel proclaims God’s response and promise – restoration. In the midst of what seems like chaos and destruction, there will be restoration says the Lord.  Which, turns out, has been the Christian story all along. Sarah’s closed womb is restored and gives birth to Isaac. The Israelites, held in bondage and slavery in Egypt, are restored by being set free. Blindness is restored into sight. The father’s family is restored when his prodigal son comes home. And Jesus, the one whose beaten and broken body is laid in a tomb, is restored through resurrection. Looks like the god found in the book of Joel isn’t so far off from the one we’ve come to know.

I read a sermon this week. It said, “Few believe the present recession will do anything but deepen, that unemployment and inflation will do anything but rise…Maybe the city will continue to cut back music programs in the public schools.” Pretty bleak stuff. Fears we all have. But you see, that sermon was written in 1980. 32 years ago. And you know what…we’re still here. And for as bleak as it looked back then, there has been restoration. There has been much for which to celebrate and give thanks in the past 32 years. And now, we pray for restoration again.

In order to see this restoration, Joel has specific instructions. When it gets dark and stormy, when life seems less manageable than it was last year, when it feels like everything is just going to the pits, Joel calls us to worship. Joel says to blow the trumpet, call the assembly, and gather the people. Bring together the congregation, both young and old. And so we do. Even now. In the midst of a hard year, we come together for worship on this Thanksgiving Eve to receive the grace of God found in the fellowship of friends and strangers, in the hymns that wash over us, and in a tiny piece of bread and small sip of wine taken into our bodies.

I am often one who wishes Holy Communion was a bigger display of a meal. With such small wafers and smalls cups we forget that we are having a meal up here. The Christian meal. Like many of us will tomorrow, tonight we gather as a family at a table and we eat. In fact, there is one similarity in particular between this meal tonight and the meal many will eat tomorrow. Both are about thanksgiving. Another word for Holy Communion is the eucharist. And eucharist is Greek for Thanksgiving. Both meals are about offering thanks to God for the whole of our lives.

But you know, tonight, I’m kind of glad the wafers and cups are so small.  They remind us that Thanksgiving, the Holy Eucharist is about being thankful for all things, even the small stuff. We are called to be thankful for even the small things in our life. To live a life of gratitude for everything, because in the end it is not ours. It is all a gift from God.

Whether they are big things or little things, we are called to be thankful for them.  Like a roof over our heads. A bed to sleep on. Oxygen that helps us breath. Grandsons who remind us how to smile again. Friends and family who gather around in a time of grief and loss. Or a meal that holds us over tomorrow, whether it comes from grandma’s oven, the VFW or McDonald’s. And sometimes just noticing those things is the restoration we need.

It is not easy to do this. To be thankful for all the little things in your life. We know this thanks to Joel and the events of the past year.  But I think Joel’s word for us tonight is that in the midst of what is. In light of whatever is going on in your life, God is at work in it, and hope is always the last word. Or as one of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, says, while things will fall apart for us sooner or later, for all sorts of reasons, we “never die to the love of God, and that in between the cracks of that great truth there are a thousand reasons to say thank you to God and to one another.” Happy Eucharist, friends. Know that I am grateful for you. Amen.

All Saints Sunday, November 4th, 2012 – Sermon on John 11:32-44

John 11:32-44

Today is a day when death hangs heavy in the air. Today is All Saint’s Sunday.  It is the day when we remember those who have died in the past year and those who have died in years past. We toll the bell and we light the candles. We ring the bell because words just sometimes don’t ring like we need them too. And the silence is too frightening, so the bell gives us something to hear when words fall flat and the silence gets too loud. And then we light candles. They invoke that misty-eyed mystery of life and death. And because they lighten our darkness. They become like flashlights into our deep and dreaded caverns of grief. And they remind us that these people, this person, this once-beating heart was a light in our life.

Today is a day when death hangs heavy in the air. Where there are different and diverse layers of pain throughout the room. Some of you come with fragile hearts – others with hearts of stone. Some of you come with healed hearts and some with hearts still freshly broken. Some of you come with neutral hearts, knowing death only distantly. I can only imagine the feeling today in some congregations on the East Coast. Congregations that will call out names this morning that just a week ago, with Hurricane Sandy on the horizon, they never imagined would be printed in their bulletins 7 days later.

Today is a day when death hangs heavy in the air and the gospel gives us no rest from it. Lazarus, Jesus’ friend, has died and Mary, Lazarus’ brother is not shy about her feelings. The text says she came and knelt at Jesus’ feet. That’s a little too controlled, if you ask me. A little too put together. Too worshipful. The Greek word there suggests something different. She fell. She fell at his feet. She collapsed and crumpled to her knees. That sounds more like it. This is not worship; this is not any other calm day. This is despair and desperation.

Mary, then, cries out the claim of all humanity…”Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It is the cry of all humanity – Lord if you had been here, my loved one would not have died.

There are a number of people I know, both young and old, who don’t know if they can believe in God. Why would I believe in a god I cannot see and a god who seems to not care about us? Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. For many, the story ends there. For many, their faith ends there. We want answers. We want to understand the profound mysteries of this life, but we can’t.  Lord, if you had been here, my brother, my daughter, my nephew, my mother would not have died…but you weren’t.”

For many the story ends there, but the story does not end there. And those are not the last words. Notice Jesus’ response. Jesus doesn’t get defensive. Jesus doesn’t say you didn’t pray enough. Jesus doesn’t say he had better and more important things to do. He simply looks at her. He sees her tears and the tears of those around her and it says he was deeply moved. But even here the words don’t do justice to what is happening. The word there means Jesus was greatly disturbed in his body. His body was shaken by the tears of Mary and the others. Her tears of grief and loss affected Jesus. Your tears of grief and loss affect Jesus. God is moved and impacted by your tears.

Jesus is so moved that he asks, “Where have you laid him?” Take me to where he is. I want to be near to him, my beloved friend, who has died. Take me there. To which they respond, “Lord, come and see.” And then…Jesus weeps. If we take seriously Jesus as the revelation of God, God in the flesh, God with us, then God weeps. With the people. Our God is a god who cries.

I don’t know about you, but I find that the older I am, the more often I cry. I cry during TV shows, commercials, articles I read. I cry at home videos my friends make. We are trained to view tears as weak. As embarrassing. We even tell people, “Don’t cry, don’t cry.” But I have found that I feel more alive when I am open to being moved to tears. And I feel more dead inside if I am stiff and rigid, and protective of my emotions. I feel more alive when I am moved to tears. Which tells me that even in this place of death, where Lazarus is beginning to stink, there is life there. Because there is love there. Love for a brother and a friend.

Jesus weeps for his friend Lazarus and he wants to be close to him. So he says, “Take away the stone.” Roll it away. And the people…they think he is crazy. I mean, Lazarus has been dead for four days. He’s begun to stink. He’s not just kind of dead, he’s really dead. But roll away the stone anyways, Jesus says.

And then Jesus says, “Lazarus, come out!” He calls him by name. There is something intimate about a name and using someone’s name. A spouse might leave the house everyday and yell from the door, “Love you!” But it is completely differently to use the person’s name. Lauren, I love you. It’s more intimate.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a letter to the editor inviting anyone who was confused about the upcoming marriage amendment vote to email me and we’d get coffee. Only one person responded. I could tell by what was said in their email that they were not interested in a conversation, they wanted to debate and fight. And the most telling thing was that they never gave their name. They were protecting themselves because to give your name invites a level of intimacy and closeness that this person wasn’t willing to give.

When Elliot was born, there was about 30 minutes in which he didn’t have a name and I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t wait to name him because I felt like I couldn’t know him until he had a name. There is something intimate and close about knowing someone’s name.

And Jesus uses his name, “Lazarus…come out.” And Lazarus came out. But the text doesn’t say, “Lazarus came out.” No, it says, “The dead man, came out.” Isn’t that strange? It doesn’t say, “The previously dead man” or “The one who was dead.” It says, “The dead man.” This is a dead man walking and his hands and feet and face are still bound in burial clothes. There is this sense that he is still dead! He’s not alive yet. There is something left to do until the resurrection is complete.

Sometimes, our loved ones who have died can forever remain as “the dead man.” As the one who has died. My husband who has died. My daughter who has died. My nephew who has died. And here is Lazarus walking out of the tomb still being called “the Dead man.” It’s incomplete. It isn’t finished. Before Lazarus can become alive again, Jesus needs the help of the people who love him.  says to the people, “Unbind him and let him go.” You, you who are gathered here, you who love him…unbind him and let him go. Jesus gives the people something to do. Which is what they need, isn’t it? I mean that is one of the worst parts of pain and grief is nobody knows what to do. Nobody knows what to say or what to do, and Jesus gives them something to do. Unbind him and let him go. What a relief. Finally, something they can do. There is this sense that the resurrection of Lazarus isn’t complete until the people participate. And what has haunted and perplexed me all week is the very last words. Let him go. It doesn’t say, “Unbind him and embrace him.” It doesn’t say, “Unbind him and celebrate.” It says, “Unbind him and let him go.” I don’t know what that means, but I think it is significant. Unbind the dead man. The one who has died. And let him go.

Maybe it is only when your loved one goes from being the one who has died to the one who showed me love. Or the one who taught me how to hunt. Or the one who gave the best hugs. Maybe it is then that they and you come alive again.

You see, I don’t think Lazarus was the only dead person in the story. Those of you who have lost someone close know that when a loved one dies, it can often feel like a part of you has died. Pain and grief can feel like a slow form of death. So often we want God to fix and remove our pain and our grief, but what if that is not how God works? What if God is the one who sits beside us. Weeping beside us. Maybe Jesus does not come to prevent death. I mean, even Lazarus will die a second time. But Jesus comes to overcome death. Jesus doesn’t want to prevent death as if death never existed. Death is real. It comes for us all. But Jesus wants to bring life out of death. In Jesus, God is revealed as the one who grieves the death with the people. God weeps with those who are also weeping. And God seeks to be near to those who have died. “Where have you laid him?” Take me there. And then God comes and knocks on the tomb of those who have died and calls them by name. Lucille. Clinton. Larry. Jeanne. Roger. Come out!  And then invites us to unbind them and to let them go. And maybe that’s the only way for those who have died, and those who are grieving, to be brought to life again.

Because as long as your loved one remains as the one who has died, they will always be bound up, but as soon as you can unbind them from their place of death and lift them up for who they were and how they’ve impacted you and then let them go, maybe only then is their new life them and you. Maybe this isn’t just the resurrection of Lazarus, but it is the resurrection of Mary and Martha, and his friends as well.

So as we prepare to honor all the Saints today, as we ring the bell and light candles, as we whisper and pray their names, as we entrust our loved ones and let them go into new life in God’s good care, maybe a part of us will come alive too. Maybe the dead places in our life where grief and pain lurk can be resurrected and healed. For just as God calls our loved ones by name, so God calls you by name. Each and everyday, claiming you as God’s very own. Promising to be near to you and giving you something to do for the sake of the well-being of the world that God loves so much. May this be so. Amen.

Reformation Sunday, October 28, 2012 – Sermon on John 8:31-36

John 8:31-36

A couple of weeks ago, in Confirmation, we talked about all the things we do to try to impress people.  We talked about how we try to be funny. We talked about how we try to dress cool by popping our collars or how we might impress others by being very polite. I shared how every Sunday, I feel the pressure to impress all of you, because as Cameron Kubista so wisely pointed out, I want you to come back.  As if your faith and desire for God is somehow dependent on me.

Lauren and I have these great friends. We love them to death, but they are just so darn perfect. Do you have friends like this? Do you know people like that?

Or maybe you are kind of like that?  Probably in some way we all.  We all try to impress people.  What’s your trick?  How do you try to impress people? Take a couple of minutes and talk with someone near you about how you try to impress others.

What are some answers? We dress nicely and sit up straight during job interviews. We make sure our shirt or skirt isn’t wrinkly before a first date and that we smell good. I have been thinking about how we impress people and I wonder what is behind it?  I mean what are we trying to hide?

Let’s go back to my friends. One Saturday afternoon, Lauren and I stopped by their house for a surprise visit. When they hesitantly opened the door, unsure of who was on the other side, we could tell by their food stained shirts, their unkempt hair, and the shocked look in their eyes, that they were not expecting to see us. Toys were all over the floor; dirty dishes were in the sink without a scone in sight. It just looked like a train wreck in there. Just a big old mess they didn’t want anyone to see.

I think that is what we try to hide from people when we seek to impress them. The messes in our life. So what are the parts of you that you want no one to see? What do you wish you could hide away forever in a closet, covered by the blanket of a successful job, plenty of friends, a well-behaved family, a straight smile, or a good personality?

When we try to impress, we are trying to hide the places in our life where we know we are just a mess. The places where we don’t have it together. The places of failure. We don’t want people to see the piles of laundry, or debt, piling up in our homes. We don’t want people to see our tear-stained cheeks from fighting with a spouse or a parent. These are the things that bind us up and hold us down. The things we just can’t seem to get out from underneath. The things that tell us we are not good enough. The things that enslaves us.

And we are slaves. We are slaves to our desire to please. Slaves to our belief in a right way of doing things. Slaves to making ourselves be good enough in the eyes of society. It is hard for me to use that word “slaves”, so embarrassed we are as a country for how we have enslaved people. But I didn’t choose that word to talk about this. Jesus did. The way Jesus puts it is he says we are slaves to sin. And you probably don’t think of the ways we try to impress others as “sin.” We have been so well trained into thinking that sin is simply bad behavior. You know, not being a good little boy or girl. Not doing the nice thing. But sin is much deeper than this. Sin is whatever keeps us from actually trusting that we, and everyone else, are enough for God. And when we start to think we are not enough – we resort to trying to impress instead.

So yes, we are slaves indeed. We can’t help but feel like there is a part of us that isn’t good enough. A part of us that we need to mask with more make-up or a nice personality. It is the truth that Jesus reveals today in the gospel. But then Jesus tells us a second truth. You are not a slave. You are free. You are free because Jesus tells you who you are. Free from ever worrying about where you stand with God.  Because you’re place in the life of God has been secured. Written in stone forever is your identity – child of God. No questions asked, no resumes reviewed. As you are. Dirt and all.  God takes you with your short temper or your dull personality. With your immaculately clean house or with the moldy food in the back of the fridge. Even when you don’t know if you can believe in God, God claims you as God’s very own child. God does not need you to impress.  You are enough; you are free to be who you are.

Today is Reformation day. A day when we decorate the church in red as a sign of the movement of the Holy Spirit.  A day when we remember Martin Luther and other reformers who changed the history of the church forever. You see, 500 years ago, Martin Luther, along with many others, was sold a bill of lies. He was told that he needed to make himself worthy of God’s love. That he needed to make himself holy enough and clean up all the messes in his life before that grace and love of God would be bestowed on him.  And Luther believed this lie. Feverishly. Painfully, he believed it. Until one day the Word of God spoke louder than everyone else. The voice of God came from Romans chapter 3, where it says that God’s love is not something we earn, but is a free gift. It is free. It is yours. You have it. Which now means you are free. Free from the slavery of trying to earn something that is already yours. The question becomes, what will you do with you freedom? You are free to continue sinning and believing you are not enough, or not. You are free to be kind, or not.  You are free to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’, Obama or Romney. You are free to care only about yourself and no one else. You are free to volunteer at places like Feed My Starving Children.

And we will probably keep trying to impress others. But we don’t have to. Either way, your status with God is set. To put in the language of Facebook, God will never unfriend you. In the working world, God will never fire you. In the election world, God will never vote against you.

Martin Luther has a famous quote: Sin boldly, he says. It is a radical statement that entices that reckless behavior that lurks within. But that’s only half of the quote. Sin boldly, Luther says. But trust in God more boldly still, he continue. So yes, sin boldly. Do not be afraid to make a mistake. Do not be afraid of opening the door to reveal your ragged hair and littered floors. Do not let your fear of failure prevent you from being bold and brave. But trust that your sin, your messes, your dark places do not define you. Trust that the part of you that you hate, that you despise, that you don’t like… does not define you. For it is in baptism that God tells you who have been and who you always will be. A beloved Child of God. No longer must you be a slave to the failures and fears of your life. In Christ, you are set free from all of that. Because nothing else can lay claim over you. God does not identify you by what you have done but by who created you. And you were created by God. AMEN

Sunday, October 21, 2012 – Sermon on Mark 10:35-45

Mark 10:35-45

This should have been an easy sermon. I should have been able to crank it out in an hour on Tuesday afternoon over a tall (meaning “small”) cup of Starbucks coffee. Why should it be easy, you ask? Because Jesus says this, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.” It is the perfect text to tell all of you about the power of service. About doing good things for others. How it’s better to give than it is to receive. That Jesus doesn’t want you to be selfish and greedy, Jesus wants you to be generous and willing to serve others. It was supposed to be an easy sermon.

The problem is…we already know this.  In fact, we know it too well. We’ve figured out how to take this sage wisdom and use it to our advantage.

In elementary school, when it was time to line up for a snack, everyone would race to the front to try to be the first one in line. But what happens? The teacher takes pity on those who were slower to the line and says, “Okay…those at the back of the line get to go first.” “Awww, man!” those of us at the front of the line say. Well, it didn’t take long to figure that system out. Be slower. Don’t be the first in line, be the last. Let others go ahead of you. And then you are more likely to get to go first.

A couple of years ago when I worked a different church, there was one youth who had really figured this out. You see, her body wasn’t like everyone else’s. It demanded that she walk with a walker.  And she knew that being a kid with a disability meant that people felt bad for her and she knew how to use that to her advantage. One time at a lock-in, when the late-night pizza was delivered and every one gathered around to eat, she pushed her way to the front and proclaimed, “I get to go first!” “Oh yeah, why is that?” I asked. “Because I’m handicapped!” she said.

Whoever wishes to become great among must be a servant.” You see, we are too smart for such simple wisdom – we know how to work that system. Businesses know how to be generous with their money so that it is a better tax write-off for them. Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates (all of them) know when to show up at the soup kitchen and wash a couple of dishes, so that it shows their humanitarian side and encourages voters to vote for them. And high schoolers know that a summer of volunteer work looks great on a college or job application.

So this should be an easy sermon about how we all need to go out and serve our community like Jesus asks. But it isn’t an easy sermon and it didn’t get finished until yesterday evening. It haunted me all week long, because service in the name of Christ has been taken hostage. And it is being used to benefit those seeking power, rather than to care for those who are powerless.

And if there is any comfort in this, it is that we aren’t the first to do this. James and John, sons of Zebedee and disciples of Jesus, were guilty of it too. In the verses leading up to our Gospel text, Jesus has been telling his disciples all sorts of outrageous things.  He has been saying things like, “The kingdom of God belongs to those who are vulnerable. It belongs to those who are weak and powerless, like little children.” He says the way to inherit the kingdom of God is to go and sell all of your stuff and give it to the poor. He says that those who are last will be first and those who are first will be last. And he tells them three times that the road he is on leads straight into Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the place where a couple of pieces of wood and a handful of nails are waiting for him. Jesus tells them straight out, “I’m going to be killed. That’s how this thing goes.” And that to be a follower of Jesus is to follow him to that very same cross.

But then in our text, James and John stumble in. The first thing Mark reminds us of is that James and John are the sons of Zebedee. Do you remember Zebedee? He goes all the way back to chapter 1. He was fishing with his boys, James and John, back then when Jesus came and called them to follow him. This little detail reminds us that James and John have been with Jesus since the beginning. Since chapter 1. They’ve been followers of Jesus for a very long time.

But they still don’t get it. They don’t get what Jesus is about. They say to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” A bold statement. It isn’t unlike many of our prayers – God, we want you to do as we say. But still…bold.  It is a dangerous statement. Built into it is the desire for power – we want you to do whatever we want. The disciples want to control Jesus. The disciples want power over Jesus. And when people get too much power, there is a tendency for others to get hurt.

But Jesus obliges. “What do you want me to do?” he asks.

“Gives us the best seats in the house,” they say. “When you come into your glory, make sure we are sitting right next to you.” They are like the friends of a 25-year old lottery winner being interviewed on TV. Standing in background right next to him, waving. Holding up signs that say, “Hi mom!” They just want their own piece of the pie. They want to ride the coat tails of Jesus all the way to the end where they will be richly rewarded.

We can see what they are doing. They are cozying up to Jesus. They are figuring out how they can be the winners in this deal of following Jesus. They are the ones walking slowly up to the snack line. They are the ones demanding that they get the pizza first because they deserve it. And the other disciples get mad at them, but only because they didn’t think of it first.

They don’t get it. They still don’t get it after all this time with Jesus. And so Jesus has to break the news to them…again. His path does not lead to glory. It leads to persecution. It leads to the cross. It leads to death. Not exactly the best ad campaign for the church, is it?

But it’s the truth. To be a follower of Jesus doesn’t make your life easier. It makes it harder. Shane Claiborne, a theologian and social activist in Philadelphia, learned this the hard way. He says that he never got arrested before he was a Christian. Only after he became a Christian. You see, Philadelphia in the last couple of years passed some awful laws aimed specifically at the homeless – like they made it illegal to sleep in public parks, illegal to lie down on the sidewalks, and then they banned all outdoor feeding of the homeless. It’s a good thing Jesus didn’t live in Philadelphia, or those 5,000 people he fed outside on the hill would’ve gone hungry. So Shane and his group of friends decide they needed to do something about this. They held a big party, worship service in the park and they invited all of their homeless friends. And then they did something kind of sneaky. They knew they couldn’t feed the homeless there, so instead they served communion. And none of the police officers wanted to arrest anyone for taking communion. So they pushed a little further continued the breaking of bread by ordering in some pizzas. This worship went on for days and days, with all the people sleeping out in the park, until finally the police were ordered to arrest them for disorderly conduct. For sleeping. Sometimes to be a follower of Jesus to care for those whom Jesus calls you to care for doesn’t make your life easier. It makes it harder.

The road that Jesus is on leads straight to the cross. There is no throne waiting for him there, only a death sentence. And there are a couple of spots next to Jesus up there, one on his left and one on his right. But by then, James and John are nowhere to be found.

Now, I don’t know what you are supposed to do with all of this. It is up to you and the Holy Spirit to decide how to respond to these hastily crafted words. All I know is that Jesus calls us to follow him and to be servants in this world. And if we really are being servants in the name of Christ, it will feel like risky business. We will be more likely to lose something than actually gain anything.  But if our service becomes a stepping stool for something greater for us, then we’ve missed it and we’re no longer following Jesus.  And if there is any good news in this story, it is that if the disciples don’t get what it means to follow Jesus, then we aren’t the only ones if we don’t either. And Jesus never asks his disciples to leave. He still invites them to the table with him for bread and wine. Which means Jesus never gave up on them. I guess he’ll never give up on us either. AMEN

Luther Seminary Previews – Sermon on Mark 12:38-44

Mark 12:38-44

Good morning. Let me begin by saying I am so happy to be here with you this morning. It’s an honor to be here. It is humbling to here. It’s downright terrifying to be here. You see, I’m not used to a congregation and sanctuary of this size. I have the great joy of being pastor at two rural churches and we are significantly smaller than this. Which is great, because it creates a real close-knit community, where you can really know who the people are.

 

Perhaps, it would be helpful if I had a better sense of who you are. I am mindful that today is Previews. So where are the high schoolers? Can you raise you hand? How pastors or church ministers who brought the highs schoolers? Professors? Staff and students at Luther? Anyone else visiting today or from the community? Great, thank you. It’s good to have a sense of who you are.

In our gospel story for today, right off the bat, Jesus warns, “Beware of the Scribes.” They are the ones in the long robes. The ones with the seats of honor. They also say long prayers. I realize that Sarah and I don’t fair very well in this description. But it is more than just the clothing and the long prayers. The Scribes are the ones with power and authority in Jerusalem. They are in charge of the temple. They are the legal and religious muscle in the city. They are the boss and the bully. What they say, people do. And…Jesus says…Beware of them. They’ve become corrupted. They eat at these overpriced and lavish banquet, while at the same time they devour widow’s houses.

What’s happened to them? They are the religious authority. Have they forgotten who they are? Have they forgotten their own law – the call to care for the vulnerable and the poor? Like many religious institutions, they’ve become corrupted. They take advantage of defenseless widows, by squeezing them of their money.

And what do you know. Two verses later, a widow comes on the scene. Jesus and his disciples are sitting in the temple, watching the treasury. The offering plates, if you will. It is there that they witnessed the rich putting in large sums of money, and then along comes a widow, who had nothing but two pennies to her name, give everything she had. She had nothing but two pennies to her name, probably because the Scribes wearing fancy clothes and going to fancy banquets devoured her house. And then she gives all that she has left to the treasury of the temple. The very place controlled by those religious authorites. They have quite literally taken everything from her.

Now it would be easy for me to distance us from the Scribes, pointing out how bad and awful they are and then pointing out other corrupt leaders in our society and how bad and awful they are that you just shouldn’t be like them. It would also be easy to cozy up to the poor widow as a great example of a generous giver to the church and, you know, shouldn’t we all be more like her? This is a powerful story that can be about corruption and generosity. But what if it isn’t? Maybe it is not about how bad the Scribes are. I mean, we all are aware of how evil we can be at times and the corruption that can lurk within us. And maybe it’s not even about being generous with your money. I mean, Jesus never praises the woman for giving everything she had away. He simply points her out. He draws our eye to her. She is the one to watch.

This is a hard text to know what to do with and I’ll admit, my understanding is perhaps a stretch, but what if this story isn’t so much about corruption and generosity, but is about what has been entrusted to us by God. And I learned this from a 6-year-old boy, named Damien.

Like all Communion Sundays, a couple of weeks ago, I had the great honor of blessing all of the children who come up to the Communion table. Marking on the cross on their foreheads – God bless you and keep you always. It’s one of my favorite parts of worship. After the service that Sunday, I was greeting people outside the sanctuary, when Damien comes running up to me. So I did what I always do – I knelt down to give him a high five. But this time was different. His outstretched hand reaches past mine. At first, it seemed like he was playing with my hair. But no, he was just moving it, so that his little index finger could make the sign of the cross on my forehead. Few words can express what that was like for me. It was something I didn’t know I needed until I had it.

That day I was reminded by a 6-year-old boy that I have been entrusted with something. Something precious. I have been entrusted with the blessing of God, the cross of Christ placed upon my forehead. Something I carry with me always. And I realized how easy it is to forget.

The Scribes had something precious entrusted to them. The care of the temple, a place of worship, and the care of those most vulnerable. But somewhere along the lines, in the midst of fancy robes and fancy banquets, they forgot who they were called to be. They forgot who God called them to be when God said you shall love the stranger, care for the orphaned, and you shall help the widow.

I wonder how often we forget. I say we because I am not the only one who has been entrusted with something precious by God. You have been entrusted with something too. We have this thing in our Lutheran and Protestant theology. It’s called the priesthood of all believers. What that means is that all people of God are pastors, called to care for this world that God loves so much. It might sound strange to hear this but… you are pastors.  All of you. And you have been entrusted with the hard, and wonderful, and menial, and exciting, and frustrating, and blessed work of loving your neighbor and caring for the outcast. The task of comforting your heart-broken friend. You are called to stand up for justice and reject bullying. To tell the truth in love to your friend, even when it is hard. You have been called to bless those who need a blessing. The 6-year-old boy was my pastor when he cared for me by blessing my forehead. And I guarantee that you have been pastor to someone.

On this Previews day at Luther Seminary, you may be wondering why you are here. But you know, it is not hard to imagine any of you as future pastors doing the work of God. Because you already are. Do not forget – you are children of God. You have been entrusted with the care of God’s people. Which can be terrifying because it means that what you do actually matters to God. But it is also the greatest blessing. Because it means that what you do actually matters to God.

So, can I get all the pastors in the room to raise their hands? It’s good to have a sense of who you are. AMEN