Sunday, May 26th, 2013 – Sermon on Psalm 8 and Romans 5:1-5

Psalm 8

Romans 5:1-5

My son, Elliot, has a new favorite thing he likes to do. As we walk through the house, with him in our arms, he always stretches out his hand every time he sees a light switch. You see, he’s finally learned how they work. And now, he loves nothing more than to switch them on and then off again. On, off. On, off. From the outside of the house, it looks like a strobe light. But on the inside of the house, Elliot is laughing and smiling as he does it. And so am I.

He is quite literally a lover of the light. And I love that. I love that he loves the light. It reminds me of the candle that his Godparents lit for him at his baptism, and we were reminded of the words of Jesus following the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world.” And now, Elliot is a lover of the light.

In fact, Lauren and I have been teaching him the sign for light, in sign language. It is simple this – a closed hand moving to an opened hand. Light. Light.

So Elliot loves to flicker and flash the lights. And you know, that’s how this week has felt. Like the lights have been turning on and off, on and off. Light, darkness. Light, darkness. Good news, bad news. Good news, bad news.

On Monday, a tornado destroyed 1,200 homes in Moore, Oklahoma, and killed 24 people including 10 children, seeking shelter in their elementary school. Off. Darkness. Darkness. Darkness. Darkness.

But then, late Tuesday/early Wednesday, little Eli is born healthy to Brad and Stefanie. The earth is brighter with him in it because he is the light of the world too; there’s more light. In fact, we will light a baptismal candle for Eli in the months to come. On. Light. Light. Light. Light.

But then on Wednesday afternoon, I sat with a farmer who is frightened that they won’t get their crop in before the crop insurance deadline because of all the rain softening the fields. And then I heard about a group of fourth graders from St. Louis Park went searching for fossils on a field trip at a local park. While they were out exploring, the ground that had also become soft from all the rain collapsed, causing a mudslide. Two 4th graders were dragged under, buried, and died. 9-year-old Hayem Sani and 10-year-old Mohamed Fofana. A parent’s worst nightmare came true. Off. Darkness, darkness, darkness.

And then on Wednesday night, a man who I have barely met comes up to me at rehearsal for the musical I am in this summer. He says that he has a personal question to ask me. At first, I thought he meant personal meaning about me, but he meant personal for him. He said, “I’m not a member of a church anywhere. And my mom’s not very religious. But I want to get my daughter baptized and I was wondering if you could help me with that.” I told him I’d be honored and delighted to help him with that. I know it might sound like a small thing. But you could feel it in how carefully and sweetly he asked the question. This was no small thing. It seemed like something he’d been carrying around with him for sometime now. And he seemed quite grateful. And I was grateful for being asked. And there was light there. The light of a baptismal candle, we will get to light. On. Light. Light. Light.

So that’s what this week has been like for me. Darkness. Light. Darkness. Light. It is like someone is turning the light switch off and on, off and on.

Which makes it very hard to preach. Because when I hear Psalm 8, I can’t decide if I loved it or hated it. You see, Psalm 8 is a psalm of praise. It’s all about praising God. It begins – O Lord, our Lord, how exalted is your name in all the earth!  On Monday, I hated this psalm. How can we praise God when creation has betrayed us? When homes and lives have been destroyed by such monstrous tornados. How can we praise God?

But then on Tuesday night, I loved Psalm 8. A new child was born. There is suddenly more light and life in the world. How can you not praise God at such a time as that? How can you not say, “Allelulia! Thanks be to God!” when a baby is born? How can you not praise God?

And then Wednesday afternoon came and I hated it again. One of the elementary school students, Mohamed, was buried under the mudslide over night because it wasn’t safe for the rescue workers to continue. I cannot imagine anything worse than being a parent sent home knowing your child is out there buried somewhere and you can’t look for them because it isn’t safe.  I would lose my mind. How can you praise God at a time like that? How can you speak the words of Psalm 8 – O Lord, our Sovereign, how exalted is your name in all the earth! The words, they stick in your throat.

And then on Wednesday night, a man finally finds a place to have his daughter baptized. It’s like he’d been looking forever, but never knew whom to ask. And all I could say was “Thanks be to God.” And suddenly Psalm 8 is back in my good graces. How could you not praise God at someone finally finding a church to baptize their child?

So friends, such a week as this makes it very hard to preach to you. I didn’t really want to do it. I wasn’t sure what to say. I’m still not sure what to say. All I can do is lead to where I was lead. And here is what happened for me. On Thursday – I got a haircut.

As I was sitting in the barbers chair, the news was on, covering the tornados in Oklahoma. And they started playing cellphone footage of a rescue in Oklahoma. This grainy and shifty video shows what looks like a garbage dump, but it is a neighborhood torn down by the tornados. In the background, you can hear the man carrying the cellphone calling out…”Is there anybody here? Is there anybody here?”

He is walking all over the place, calling that out. And then, suddenly he starts running. And he’s screaming, “Over here! Over here!” He starts asking, “Where are you at? Where are you at?” And deep underneath a mountain of rubble, you can hear the faint sound of a man…”Here! I’m here!” And the man holding the camera says, “We’re gonna get you. We’re gonna get you. We got you. We got you.”

So here I am, sitting in the barber’s chair watching this and I start to tear up. My eyes become watery and I am crying. To anyone who noticed, how ridiculous I must have looked. But the tears came at the sound of that man’s voice, “Where are you? Where are you?” and then, “We’re gonna get you. We’re gonna get you. We got you.” Because it sounded like the voice of God.

Do you remember in the garden scene, after Adam and Eve ate the fruit, what God’s first words to them were? “Where are you?”

Where are you? Where are you? We’re gonna get you. We got you. We got you. It sounded like the voice of God to me.

I was reminded that God comes to find us in our suffering. In the places where we are lost and living in darkness. When we are that one sheep, that one sheep that has been lost from the herd, God leaves everything behind to come and find us. When the world is dark, God comes to be with us.

We read in Paul’s letter to the Romans that we are to boast in our suffering. We are to boast in our suffering, Paul says. Which sounds ridiculous. Until we remember that in our suffering is where God meets us. We see God’s solidarity with us in our suffering no more clearly than on the cross. God comes to meet us, hidden in the human of Jesus. God suffers and God dies on a cross. Then from death on the cross is brought the resurrection. God meets us in our suffering and then brings about life there.

God finds us in our suffering. And then God takes our suffering, when we are ready, and uses it to bring more light into the world.  A few weeks ago, we heard in Revelation that God wipes every tear…you can’t wipe away a tear unless you are close those who are crying. Unless you are near to them. And that is the promise. That God is never far away.

I realize that might not be enough for some of us. Some of us might still hate Psalm 8 today. We might not be ready to praise God yet. We might not be ready to boast in our suffering. And that’s okay. But we can cling to the promise that God will meet us in our darkest hour. That God will find us there.

Friends, it has been a hard week. It has been a hard year. It’s like the lights are flickering on and off. Good news. Bad news. Good news. Bad news. So let’s  just be quiet for a moment. Let’s take a moment for some silence and then I will close us with a prayer.

Oh, Lord, how can we praise you on a week such as this. O, Lord, how can we not praise you on a week such as this. Lord, gives us the courage to be like Paul and to boast in our suffering. Not because it is good that we suffer. Not because you cause our suffering, but because you promise to meet us there. To find us there. And bring about light and life there. So give us eyes to recognize you. Helps us to be lovers of your guiding light in the midst of so much darkness. Amen.

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Sunday, May 12th, 2013 – Sermon on John 17:20-26

John 17:20-26

I know it might be a strange thing for me to say, but…prayer does not come naturally for me.

I can remember in high school, each night I would lay in bed and look through a Lutheran prayer book that I received at Confirmation. I would read any prayer that seemed to apply to anyone in my life at that point.

A prayer for the sick. Ahh yes, yes, Grandma was ill this past week, I’ll pray that prayer. A prayer for those traveling. My aunt is heading back to Chicago today. I’ll pray that prayer for her. A prayer for those…And so on and so on. I was so glad to have that book of prayers because it gave me words when I had no words to say.

Sometimes I still feel the same way. Without words to say. I lay my head on my pillow at night and I think, “Where do I begin? What do I even say? Does it even make any difference?”

In Annie Dillard’s book, Holy the Firm, she writes about a time when she was living in a little cabin in Puget Sound. Every Sunday she would make her way to a little church down the road in the fur trees. On a good Sunday, there’d be about twenty or so people there. Every Sunday, the pastor would pray the prayer out of the prayer book. Every Sunday. Every Sunday, the prayer from the prayer book. One Sunday, Annie says, he was leading us in the prayers of the people from the prayer book. He was praying for peace in the world and wisdom for the leaders and healing for the nations and forgiveness for the sinful, when suddenly he stopped in the middle of the prayer and blurted out, “God, we bring you these same prayers every week!” Then, startled, he went back and started reading the prayer again. Annie Dillard said, “Because of this, I like him very much.”

I suspect at that moment that minister named a truth that everyone else in the small congregation felt from time to time. God, we bring you these same prayers every week. Every week.

Sometimes, it’s hard to pray. Where do we begin? Lord, we bring you these same prayers every week. When we struggle to pray, I think it is because questions start to creep in, disrupting our prayers. All kinds of questions.

Sometimes when we start to pray, practical questions sneak in. Is there a God? Is there a God who hears? Is there a god who answers?

Other time ethical questions become the intruder. If my grandfather is living with torturous pain and can hardly move his body on his own. When all signs point to the fact he needs to die…is it alright to pray for death?

And sometimes, it is theological questions that hijack our prayers. If I pray for my sick child and they don’t get better does that mean that God didn’t hear my prayer. Or, if I pray for my sick child and they do get better, does that mean God would not have healed her without my prayer? (Tom Long)

Prayer does not come naturally for me. Sometimes…sometimes, it is just too hard to pray. I just don’t have the words to pray.

You may not have caught it, because it is easily missed, but Jesus, in our Gospel lesson,…is praying. He’s gathered around the table with his disciples. It’s the last supper. They’ve broken bread together. He’s gotten down on his knees and washed their feet. He’s given his farewell speech to his beloved friends and now…Jesus is praying.
Jesus is not just praying to God. He is praying to God on behalf of his disciples. He is praying for them.

Have you ever had someone pray for you? Have you ever had someone stop you in the middle of your conversation and say, “Can I pray for you right now?”

A pastor friend of mine has started getting into the habit of asking people, “How can I pray for you?” She asked that question to a congregation member, and do you know what the man did? He laughed. “How can you pray for me? Well, are you serious?” We do that sometimes when we are uncomfortable. We laugh. But then he stopped laughing and said reflectively, “Well…I don’t know.” You could hear it in his voice. It was like no one had ever asked to pray for him on his behalf before.

We aren’t use to someone praying for us. In fact, we might even laugh the idea off at first. But if we can get past that initial discomfort…it can be a great gift. And that is what Jesus does with his disciples. He prays for them.

But the thing is, it is a confusing prayer. You can’t quite figure out what it is that Jesus is saying. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, Jesus says. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory.” I mean, c’mon Jesus, what’s the point. What are you saying? If we can’t even understand it when you pray…then what’s the point?

When the mother of Terry Fretheim, Old Testament professor up at Luther Seminary, was close to death, she said to her son, “Terry, I have prayed for you every single day of my life.” A couple of weeks later, he shared that story with his class of seminary students. After class that day, a middle-aged woman came up to Terry and said, “Professor Fretheim, I would like to pick up where your mother left off. Know that I will pray for you…every single day.” Years later, telling that story to my seminary class, Fretheim said, “Ever since then, I have always felt held up by the prayers of someone else.” And you know what I realized. Everyday this woman prays for him and he has no idea what she is praying about. And yet it continues to lift him up knowing someone out here is praying for him. He doesn’t know what she is praying for, but it doesn’t really matter does it? All that matters is that it is on his behalf.

Back in 2009, I spent three weeks in Los Angeles for a Spanish Immersion class through seminary. For those three weeks, fellow seminarians and I lived and breathed Spanish language and Latino culture. Now at the same time, Lauren was in Geneva, Switzerland, also for a seminary class. We were literally half a world apart for three weeks. As you can imagine, it was hard to stay connected. Every day, I drove to class with the same two guys, Tom and Olaf. Now Olaf was a large 300 pound intimidating German man. When he order coffee at Starbucks, it was like a drill sergeant giving commands on the front lines of war. Despite this, he was a soft hearted and deeply loving man. One day, in the car, I was lamenting about how hard it was to be so far away and disconnected from Lauren. When we arrived at the church where our class was being held, Olaf got of the car, and in his booming German voice said, “Well, let’s go pray about this.” I know I was a seminarian and all, committed to this whole pastor thing. In fact being trained to pray for others but the moment Olaf wanted to pray for me, I was uncomfortable. Olaf marched Tom and I into the chapel, stopped in front of the altar, and reach out his hands. And there, with hands clasped, Olaf and Tom prayed for Lauren and me. And you know what? I felt lighter that day. I felt like something greater than me was holding me up that day. And truth be told, I can’t even remember the words that Olaf said that day. But it doesn’t really matter. All I know is that when I least expected it, someone else prayed for me on my behalf.

Jesus’ prayer for his disciples is confusing. It’s hard to understand. You don’t know what he’s saying. But you know…maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe all that matters is that he is praying for them. On their behalf. And here is the best part…he isn’t just praying for them. He is praying for you and me too. It’s right there at the beginning of our text. “Lord, I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.”

Sometimes, it can be hard to pray. Sometimes the words just aren’t there. Sometimes the questions are too haunting. But when you don’t know how or what to say. When the words just aren’t there… know this. Jesus will come to you. Maybe in a 300 pound German man, or maybe in a former student, or maybe in the prayers of a community…Jesus will come and pray for you on your behalf. Maybe it doesn’t matter if we understand Jesus’ prayer for us. Maybe all that matters is that he prayed. And continues to pray for us. When you don’t have the words to pray. When you are not even sure you believe in prayer, there is someone out there praying on your behalf. And it is the greatest prayer of them all. The creator of prayer, the hearer of all prayers, Jesus Christ himself. And Jesus said, “Lord, I ask you not only on behalf of my disciples, but also on behalf of those who will come to believe through them.” AMEN

Sunday, May 5 – Confirmation Sermon on John 14:23-29

John 14:23-29

Friends, today is Confirmation Sunday. Now, the other term for Confirmation is Affirmation of Baptism. Confirmation is about a person affirming their baptism. We have two confirmands, Raven and Billy. And Zach who is not baptized, but who has decided to get baptized this summer. Which means we will celebrate Confirmation at a later date, because baptism always comes before the affirmation of Baptism. So today, while Raven and Billy are affirming their baptisms. Zach today is entering into the process of baptism. A welcoming of sorts to baptism, which is in the form of a blessing for his journey towards the promise-filled waters of God.

Now, I want to make some things clear today. Today is not about the church doing something to these three young people. Today isn’t about Raven, Billy, and Zach receiving a reward for their hard work; it isn’t about them receiving an extra blessing for knowing all the right answers about faith and God. They don’t become more holy today than they were yesterday. Today isn’t about the church is doing something to them. It can seem like today is about the church saying yes to these young people. Yes, you are good enough. Or yes, you know enough. Or yes, we accept you. But this is not what today is about. Today is not about the church saying yes to them. Because God has already said yes to each one of you. When God knit them together in their mother’s womb. They don’t need our approval; they already have God’s approval. Instead, today is about what these young people are saying yes to. Today, you are affirming your baptism and beginning the process towards baptism. Today, you are the ones with the power. Today, you are the ones who are saying yes.

Now, the question becomes: what are you saying yes to today?

To try to answer that question, I want to focus on our Gospel reading, from John. The setting is the last supper. Jesus is at the table with his disciples and it is his last night alive. In 24 hours, he’ll be dead on a cross. So, you can get a sense that is a pretty serious moment for Jesus. He is saying goodbye to his beloved friends. He is telling them everything he wants them to know before his end comes. And our gospel begins with these words: “Those who love me will keep my word.” Now, what is Jesus’ word that his disciples, and presumably us, are asked to keep.

In order to figure this out, we have to go back a chapter, I think. Because in chapter 13, as we heard last week, Jesus gives his disciples something very important. A new commandment. The disciples already knew the 10 commandments, but Jesus, in his hour of death, gives them a new one: love one another.

So that word that Jesus is asking us to keep is this: LOVE. Love one another. That the primary a work of our life be that of love.

Now, I don’t know about you, I think love is great and all but, after awhile…love can eventually start to sound syrupy sweet. It can sound too much like Barney, the purple dinosaur. Do you remember? I love you, you love me, we’re a great big family. It can sound too nice, too sweet…too easy. It can seem like to be a Christian is to be a goody-goody who is nice and polite all the time.

But if we look at Jesus as our example, Jesus’ kind of love was not a sweet, syrupy, feel-good kind of love. It was a suffering love. You see, Jesus loved too much. Ultimately it was Jesus’ love for the world that got him killed. He loved the people that no one wanted to love. He stood beside the powerless, not the powerful. Jesus wanted to give God’s love and forgiveness away for free. It is dangerous to love in this world. It will be painful.

What we forget is that love is hard. Talk to anyone who has been married and they will tell you that marriage is hard work. To love is hard. Or as one of my professors would say, “To love is to suffer.”

He said that he had never suffered so much until he became a parent. He isn’t saying that he is a suffering parent because his kids are a pain in the neck. He is a suffering parent because he loves his kids so much. So much that when they hurt, he hurts. So much, that he is constantly afraid for their well-being.

When you love people, and they hurt, then you hurt too. To love is to suffer. Jesus is asking you to love too much. So much so that it hurts.

Today, you are saying yes to suffering love. That you strive to love so much in this world, that it hurts. You say yes to Jesus’ call to make your life more loving. To constantly be asking, how can I be more loving, how can I be more loving.

That’s the first thing. But then notice Jesus doesn’t just say LOVE, Jesus says love ONE ANOTHER. Meaning, we need one another. We need love from one another. We can’t go through this life alone. We need to be part of a community. Jesus’ hope for us is that we would be part of a community. So the second thing you say yes to today is community. Your need to be part of a people who love and care for one another. I believe that you need our love and support in your life. But I also believe that we need your love and support in our life. We need you. All three of you.

Lastly, Jesus says to his disciples that God will love them and that he and God will make a home in them. Isn’t that interesting language for Jesus to say? God and I will come to you and we will make a home in you. Meaning, you have roommates living inside of you. God and Jesus. Meaning, inside of you is where God will live. Meaning God will always be with you. You carry God inside your body. So then, how does God come to us? Through other people. If God has made a home in you, then God is going to come to me through you. And if God has made a home in me, then God will come to you through me, or any other person. God always comes to us through other people. God will come to you through your best friend who is a light in your life during a dark time. God will come to you through family members who care for you when you are sick. God will come to you through strangers that you meet throughout your life. God always comes through other people. Because God and Jesus make a home in you, others will encounter God through you. I promise it. Which makes you a gift to the world.

So these are the things that you say yes to today on the day of affirming your baptism and entering into baptism. You say yes to Jesus’ call to love so much that it hurts. You say yes to the truth that we need each other. And therefore need to love one another. And you say yes to the promise that God will be with you always. Throughout your life. God will never abandon you.

Earlier I said today is not about the church approving you, but you know, the church say yes today too. Today, we are saying yes to loving you always, we are saying yes to always supporting you and caring for you and praying for you. We are saying to always being a place where you are always welcome. That is our yes to you.

Raven, Billy, and Zach, the truth is that the world needs you. We need you. We need you to show God to us…through your love. Every confirmation session, we each lit a candle. As a reminder that Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” Know that you will be like that candle – you will be a light to the world. The world is a better place with you in it. To which I say, thanks be to God! AMEN