“A Real Prosperity Gospel”

A sermon based on Luke 12: 13-21; Colossians 3:1-11

Grace and peace to you, brothers and sisters in Christ, from God, Our Father.

Looking at my smile today, you would never guess that I was a thumb sucker until the third grade. Sucking my thumb soothed my childhood insecurities and just like Linus, I had a soft blue night-night that was far from hand. It wasn’t until sleepovers became a common occurrence that I began to feel insecure over my source of security – and I gradually found my comfort elsewhere.

Jump ahead to two summers ago. My parents had both recently passed away within a year of each other and their deaths were such that my brother and I were not prepared for their departure – as if you can ever be. Needless to say, there were a lot of end-of-life projects multiplied by two left for my brother and me to endure. One of those was getting the family home of 28 years in Billings ready to sell which meant sorting through all the things collected by our parents over a combined lifespan of 167 years (not including the things collected by their two children)! There were times that I just wanted it all to go away. I was flabbergasted at the amount of things our family had collected and held on to throughout the almost 60 years of my parent’s life together despite having moved 23 times! In retrospect – I now see how those things helped foster a sense of place and security given our nomadic lifestyle during my father’s career with the government.

It was an emotional, sentimental, and nostalgia-filled time of decluttering. Several times I nearly flooded the basement with tears. Seeing the invaluable contents of our life as a family displayed and bargain-priced by the estate sale experts sent me careening through a lifetime of forgotten memories. How could they commoditize our belongings? That was our story for sale. So much value and emotion devoted to things and the life and memories surrounding them. The sense of security I felt each time I came home to visit was gone.  The emptied house was no longer home and forced me to contemplate what brings value and meaning to life. 

Perhaps many of you have experienced the same feelings in the wake of a loved one’s death. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how much things have become a part of our lives. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize that life is what made those things matter. I know I felt very alone and empty inside. 

Today Jesus tells us, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Lk. 12:15)[3] 

Really? Carl Richards, the Sketch Guy in the New York Times, writes of how we give up over 40,000 hours of life over 20 years in order to acquire more stuff.

After my brother’s and my experience of clearing out our family home of stuff, I swear it felt like whole lifetimes were swapped for it! And yet, I identified with that “stuff” and found it difficult to part with. That stuff represented the security of our life as a family together – and those times had come to an end.

Despite my life-changing decluttering experience, I will be honest with you, Luke’s parable of the rich farmer served as a reckoning for me. I see a little too much of myself in the farmer’s pursuits. Maybe you too felt a little uncomfortable sitting with God’s final words to the seeming-to-have-it-all-figured-out farmer. “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”

He’s not a cheat or a thief, nor does he seem particularly greedy. Not unlike what most of us strive to do, he worked hard and made some money, and saved for the future – stocking away goods and treasure in barns for safe-keeping.  His land produced so abundantly that he does not have enough storage space so he plans to build bigger barns to store all his grain and goods. He set aside ample savings for the future and is all set to enjoy his golden years. 

I spend 40 hours of every week working for a financial advisory firm – and this is the kind of personal success we aim to see replicated in our client’s lives. This is what all the experts encourage us to do. Isn’t it wise and responsible to work hard, become successful, and save for the future? In my mind, I wish I had it as put together as this farmer.  If I were him I would be giving my soul a pat on the back too! “And I would say to my soul, Soul, you have ample savings put away for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God calls him a Fool! In Greek, this conjures up a senseless, mindless, rash or egoistic person.

There is one very important thing the rich farmer has not planned for — his reckoning with God. He has become so engrossed in his own livelihood – in securing for himself a good life –  that he has shut out the world around him. Perhaps not so unlike how ordinary hard-working people – you and me today – end up existing in our own seemingly secure universes, constructing lives solely focused on our own personal well-being, but all the while losing sight of what really matters in life until it is too late. When God demands his life, the farmer is faced with the fact that he has spent his entire life toiling and acquiring but not growing rich toward God. Jesus repeatedly warns that wealth will get in the way of our relationship with God. “Take care!” he says. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed;”

So what does Jesus mean by being rich toward God? To answer this it might be easier to look at what it is not.

We live lives in constant pursuit of more because we never have enough – not enough money, not enough status, not enough time, not enough stuff. We seek security in the tangible. Our culture regularly tells us that we are insufficient, incomplete as we are BUT we can have it all with whatever product or practice they are pushing. This constant pursuit of acquisition and egoistic perfection is in short, single-minded greed and this greed becomes our God. Like the farmer in today’s gospel, we have chosen to live in a world of one. This is not living richly toward God.

Money can do many things – it can provide for you and your family, it can be given to others in need, it can be used to create jobs and promote the general welfare of our communities, and it makes possible a more comfortable life. 

But money also allures us with the illusion of security and independence. Money deludes us into thinking that if we just have more of it we can transcend our everyday insecurities and needs that remind us that we are mortal beings who are and always will be dependent on others, most especially, on God. Money, or anything else for that matter, that we become fixated on, may bring us momentary happiness and satisfy our desire for security but in the end, it impoverishes our soul and rewires our values. This is not living richly toward God.

The farmer’s mistake and regretfully, that of many today,  doesn’t have to do with his riches; rather, he goes astray by believing that he alone can secure his future. That his treasure, possessions, and money can make him independent – independent from others, independent from need, and independent from God. We sometimes forget that our lives and possessions are not our own, that they belong to God. We are merely stewards of them for the time God has given us on this earth. Our need to be in charge and in control of our lives gets in the way of our relationship with God. Greed compels us to banish from our lives anyone and anything that might threaten “what’s ours.” This is not living richly toward God.

Yes, money can do many wonderful things – it just can’t produce the kind of full and abundant life that each of us seeks and that Jesus promises. Solomon warns in Ecclesiastes: “He who loves money will never be satisfied with money; his desire is meaningless vanity and futility, a striving after wind” (5:10). We will never find security and lasting happiness if we base them on our attachments to the world where virtue is constructed around our own self-interest.

The farmer’s legacy was a full barn but an empty life without purpose or relationship. This is not what God wants for us. But it is hard to live into that concept – to place your trust in something you cannot grasp, to find security in the sometimes temporal realm of relationships, to derive meaning and happiness from that which you cannot control. Money, acquisition, pursuits of perfection – have one distinct advantage over the abundant life Jesus promises us: they are immediately tangible. 

The rich life that Jesus invites us to embrace and strive for – one secured in relationships, community, and purpose – is much harder to lay our hands-on. We know what a good relationship feels like, but it’s hard to point to or produce on a moment’s notice. We know how wonderful it feels to be accepted into a community, but you can’t run out to Walmart and buy it. And because we live in a culture that tells us this – whatever this may be – is the best there is, we repeatedly buy into the immediate gratification and security offered by money and material goods only to need more later because that kind of happiness and fulfillment will never be enough – nor does it last.

So, what, then, shall we do? How do we start living and being rich in the way of Jesus? First, by recognizing that all that we have and are is not truly ours, we can rejoice in the freedom this truth brings to our lives. Because all that we are and all that we have belongs to God, our future is secure beyond all measure. You are free to be all that God created you to be and live into the pleasures and purpose that He has given for your life. 

We can change our culturally informed beliefs about what constitutes the good life. St. Augustine once said that God gave us people to love and things to use, and sin, in short, is the confusion of these two things.  Let’s start having conversations about money and wealth and how we can live into and share the abundant life that money and material goods support but cannot produce with those who still search for and need the security that only God can provide. Let’s recognize that greed in all its forms can corrupt the poor as easily as the rich. 

While the entire media universe pushes us to tune into what is negative or missing rather than what is positive in our lives, lets name and celebrate our blessings. Rather than grasping for more stuff – cultivate an awareness of how many ways we are blessed each and every day.  We experience the wonders of abundant life every day. The joy of a good conversation, the sense of purpose that comes from helping another, the warmth of a loving relationship, the feeling of community found in friends or family – these are the very elements of the abundant life that Jesus describes throughout the gospels – relationship, community, love, purpose. 

While these abundant elements of life may be less tangible they are far more powerful than material goods and they are infinitely available to us if we seek them out. 

Living into the abundant life Jesus promises is incredibly hard and almost impossible to do alone. Find a community of support that seeks a higher purpose – those sitting around you today would be a great place to start. Make it a practice to see yourself as part of something bigger than you and your stored up treasures.  

Stop the habit of buying happiness – and look for ways to experience it without spending a dime. There’s something to be said for contentment and for perspective about how we view money and possessions. In His grace, we can find a healthy perspective on the things we possess – so they don’t become the things that possess us.

Practice an awareness of time.  We don’t like to think that our time with our loved ones, that our own time, frankly, is finite. I took for granted the time I had with my parents, and as many wonderful memories and not so wonderful memories that I have of our family, I will never have enough. I still take my time for granted.  It is so easy to just exist from day to day. I look at how much time I spend on advancing my own interests along with my skewed attempts at the perfect life and confess that I do not always invest my time nor the time I have with my family and others wisely.

I’ll leave you with a little investment advice without any disclaimers. God wants so much more for us than what our worldly and yes, our own little world’s pursuits can provide. God wants for us life and love and mercy and community. Nurture your relationships, give your time away to others, share your talents, bear another’s burden and let them help you with yours. Faithfully take risks and open your life to possibility. Your life will be so much richer if you do. 

The Apostle Paul tells us to be serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ. Pursue the things over which Christ presides – foster goodness, grace, and gratitude. See things from His perspective. Remember, your old life is dead. Baptized in Christ, your new life, your real life is secured with Christ in God. 

May the freedom that we have in Christ, empower you to live boldly into a legacy rich with relationships, purpose, and peace.

 

Amen

My Shepherd

A week of reflection, remembrance, and heart ache begins.  A year ago tonight I did not yet know the depth of sorrow that awaited me.

Oh Lord, You are my shepherd, there is nothing more I need.
You call me to rest in your garden and breathe in your sky;
You lead me to still waters amidst storm and fury;
You restore my soul.
You showed me the right path and I gladly follow.
For I have been through the darkest of valleys, and though I fear I do not worry;
For you are with me always;
You protect and guide and comfort me.
In times of despair you bring light and hope;
You remind me of your lovingkindness and my heart overflows.
And yes, as you promised, goodness and mercy are following me;
As I live out my life for you, oh Lord,
Forever.

A year ago I was in a much different place. I didn’t think I could ever feel at peace or find joy in my heart again. But I was wrong. It truly is well with my soul. Surely my entire life attests to the veracity of God. I do not know where I would be right now were it not for His presence.

Let your light so shine.

The Little Faith that Cried, “Lord, Save Me”

 

Matthew 14:22-33
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.  But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.  But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.  But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”  Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Dear friends in Christ Jesus, Grace and Peace to you from God our Father!

Four years ago, tomorrow, I got out of the boat.

With all my belongings loaded into a cargo hauler hitched to a Flathead County licensed pickup truck, I departed from the only place, aside from the town I was born in, that I had lived in for more than 4 years at a time. A place where after 24 years my roots had grown deep, tested and nurtured not only by the incessant winds, biting cold winters, tempestuous thunderstorms, and hot summer days of eastern Montana, but the storms and sanctuaries of life – college, 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th jobs, illness, failure, challenge, success, family, community, and faith. The longest chapter of my life was written there. My sense of determination and my will to live was born there.  It was there that I learned to walk strong again, in the light of the Lord, wherever that path led me. Four years ago, today, that path was about to lead me here, to the next chapter of my life.

If there was one thing I was not in Billings, I was definitely not spontaneous! My life didn’t stray outside the lines of my highly scheduled routine. You could pretty much find me at the same places at the same time every day of every week of every year. Sleep, walk/run, work, walk the dog, church, home. Once a week I ventured into the countryside on my bike, but even then, my route was pretty much always the same.

Now I will admit, I have acquired a pretty well-worn running and walking route here in the Flathead, and if you are looking for me at 5:00 a.m. you can be sure to find me running down Monegan road dodging skunks and capturing sun-rises when the timing is right. Actually, I am a bit surprised at how quickly the once amazing-to-my-eyes landscape of the area I now call home has become a part of me, and how quickly I have created a new “routine”. I guess that is what they call life.

I have always found comfort in routine.  For as long as I can remember I have sought certainty. Why the unknown frightens me so, I am not sure. As a person of deep faith who trusts in the Lord, one would think I could trust in the surety of my step, come what may. But I did not. Rather, before I moved here I kept myself sheltered from too much spontaneity and secured my days in routine. Perhaps it was my sense of inadequacy as a person, my fear of failing at something I wasn’t prepared for, or a sense that I could never measure up that made me stick to what I was good at and master it… trying something new took a great deal of planning and preparing for me to take on the adventure!

Four years ago, my Facebook post was short and sweet: “HELLO WHITEFISH, MT!! Are you ready for Miss Erika Morck???” The exuberance I expressed as I settled in for my first night in my new town belied my fear and my trepidation… what in the world had I done uprooting a perfectly good life and moving by myself across the state at 42 years old; leaving all my family behind, my beloved dog, a good job, my friends, my church, life as I had known it and made it for 24 years, behind.

No, I am not one who likes the unknown, and yet for the past four years that is what I have faced at every turn. I felt like a fish out of water, surrounded by water, after years of swimming with the tide in one of the driest parts of our state.  But somehow, I have mustered up the fortitude to take the unknown and unexpected in stride. Surprising everyone who knew me before with my affinity for the mountains and bear encounters.  Perhaps my Facebook post should have said, “Welcome to your new life, Erika! Are you ready for what God has in store for you?”

I can’t tell you that the last four years have been an easy walk with the Lord as my best buddy. In all honesty, I have looked back on that day in 2013 with a bit of cleared eyed realism and smirked at my naive exuberance for what my “new life” would entail.  This “new life” certainly didn’t turn out as I had planned it on August 12, 2013.

Sometimes we must face our fears, embrace the unknown that awaits us, and take the leap. And while leap I did, despite my best intentions of being a brave new me – as the storms and waves of life passed through, as they always do, those feelings of inadequacy, trepidation, and fear of failure have managed to creep back into my being and hold me in their grip.

What holds us back from risking it all? What do we do when we choose to doubt rather than trust that God is writing a new chapter of life for us each day? How do we overcome our fears? It is easy to find comfort in the routine when life gets chaotic – to become risk averse and focus on our problems rather than our goals and where the Lord is calling us to.

In today’s gospel reading we see Peter, always the adventurous disciple, despite being storm battered and weary, not to mention wary that he is about to make friends with a ghost, take the opportunity to focus on Jesus and show his trust in a remarkable way.  “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Jesus invites him to come. Peter jumps out of the boat and walks on the water with his trust steadfast in Jesus, his Lord and Savior, until he lets the wind get to him. Peter saw the wind and HIS “better judgment” kicks in. He took his eyes of his Savior, he let his faith lose focus, and he looked around him. If he was anything like me standing on the water in the middle of the Sea of Galilee in the middle of a storm he would be saying, what in the world am I doing? Why am I here? I am going to get hurt, or worse, die! The waves are too much; the wind too strong! What is going to happen to me?!

Peter took his focus off his source of power and he began to sink.

I can relate to this. I start everyday confident that this is the day that the Lord hath made. I rejoice and I am glad in it. Heck those words sometimes become part of my cadence as I run. And then the storms roll in, the wind turns against me, and the waves start crashing… my faith turns to fear –  and my response to fear is to rely on what I know, to return to what feels familiar and safe – I get back in the boat, or worse I never even set foot out of it.

I am a lot like Peter.  Maybe you are too. I don’t always trust God. I don’t always trust that His will is being done and despite the encouraging words from Romans I shared with you 2 weeks ago, that God is working everything that happens to us for our eternal good, it sure doesn’t feel that way in the middle of a storm. I prefer to rely on my own strength to protect me and work things out for me.

We have plenty to fear outside of our inner sanctums – threats of nuclear war, financial woe, health insurance premiums, fire, flood, terrorism, hate. Add our own problems and fears to these outside forces and little wonder we have trouble rowing the boat let alone getting out of it. In response, we put our trust in our own skills, our intellect, our money, and our connections to navigate the stormy seas rather than in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! But what happens when our own strength is weak and our power lacking? I know I will get nowhere. Fear will certainly take over.

Some preachers and maybe even a few lay pastors will condemn Peter for his lack of faith. I am not one of them. No, I want to be more like Peter –  yes, the Peter who had ” little faith”; the Peter that doubted, because Peter’s little faith got him out of that boat to follow Jesus – while the rest of the disciples stayed in place.  And when he began to sink, when the storm began to overwhelm him?  I want to be like the Peter who let go of himself and cried, “Lord, Save Me!”

And what did Jesus, do? Despite Peter’s little faith, Jesus saved him! Do you know what became of Peter?  Despite being a disciple who faltered and feared, Peter’s earnest faith led him to the soothing balm of forgiveness;  he will know the joy of being used greatly by God on the day of Pentecost, and he will preach a sermon that will lead 5000 people to join the church. He will be martyred because of his great faith.

I seem to recall Jesus saying, “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Why is it so hard to cry, Lord, Save Me? Why do we wait so long to cry Lord, Save Me? There are storms on this sea of life that you and I can’t deal with. Waves are crashing in and threatening to drown us! Ironically, the more we hold onto our problems, the worse they become. We tend to make the problems of life worse in our head than they really are. We are masters at seeing the worst possible outcomes and worrying ourselves to death.  We drown ourselves in our problems, rather than seek their solution who stands right in front of us.

Most of the challenges in our life are insignificant. Little challenges that throw us off our schedule, that wrangle with our sense of control, an errand here or there interrupted by a very long oil train, a surface wound or biting word, a little rain when we want to go hiking. Much of our time gets focused on the little things that interfere with our ideal plan.

What if we could spend a little more time each day focused on the good that we do have control over?  What if we could reach out from our inner self and live into the grace that we learn from our faith? When we take our eyes off our problems and instead focus on God, we will begin to see the miracles of His goodness. Perhaps, you and I, can be more like Peter, and call out to Jesus to help us bear through our problems and in turn focus more on living out God’s grace. We can do that when we place our trust in the One who watches over and lovingly cares for us.

And don’t wait until you are drowning. Why not get to know Jesus when the wind is still, and the water calm?  As Lutherans, we understand that God comes to us, His saints and sinners, and we confess our sins to God, who is faithful and just, and He forgives us. We know that our actions don’t earn our place in heaven or make us the better Christians.  But imagine if we all got out of the boat together and overcame many of the little things that make life hard. What if we had more strength to be a little more welcoming and capable of showing a little more forgiveness. Imagine if we all found a touch more peacefulness in our lives and extended more joy and kindness to one another. If you have the Lord as your focus, you might be amazed at the power you will find inside of you.

Making a new life someplace is anything but routine, especially in a place as ripe with adventures as the Flathead, and the unexpected can be expected.  I have had a lot of “Lord, Save Me” moments in the four years since I moved here – with all my exuberance for life. I have been buffeted by winds, drowned by incessant rain, and lost to my problems. But I have also had some mountain moving moments, when I let go of my fears and trusted Jesus. Although I ventured here on my own, I know I was never alone. In fact, I have never felt closer to my Lord, than when I stood on my own, in my own right, faced the world with Jesus and followed His plan. The result? Well, I survived and am still standing here today, with an even greater faith in the One whom I occasionally doubt.

The good news is, as we heard in Romans today, is that is okay. You see if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  If you believe with your heart and so are justified, and you confess with your mouth you are saved.  The same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

When you cry, Lord, save me… you are confessing that He alone is your Savior. He alone can save you. So, get out of your boat. Jesus is calling you and you have really good news to share.

Let your light so shine!

Nothing Can Separate You from the Love of God

As I continue in my Lay Pastoral Associate studies,  I am growing more certain of the course my life is taking in answering His call.  I don’t know where this journey will lead me but as Martin Luther said, “well do I know my guide.” Or at least I am getting to know Him better!

Living an authentic life is powerful stuff. I have never felt more like I am who I am, than when I am studying, thinking about, interpreting, and sharing the Word. Do I have doubts? Oh yes, self-doubt is inherit to my nature. Questions? Oh yes! I will admit that reason messes with my faith more often than not. And then my faith messes even more with reason, and I feel stronger in my walk for the questions I ask.  Do I worry I will lead others astray? Absolutely. The weight of responsibility that I feel behind the pulpit is great. When someone comes to church, they come to to find God, to find welcome, to find peace. They come to be fed and to sort out the events of their life in sanctuary. I don’t ever want to mess that up! I don’t ever want someone to walk out of church feeling worse for coming. I pray every time I sit down to write, that my words reflect the shining light, the way, and the truth of our Lord Jesus Christ  and that they touch someone, in ways I may never know or need to know.

There will always be risk but even greater reward. 

***

Sermon: Nothing Can Separate You from the Love of God

Romans: 8: 26-39

Dear friends in Christ Jesus, Grace and Peace to you from God our Father.

Oh, those words!!! How many of you felt your heart leap, your spirit soar, your cares ebb as Krista read Paul’s powerful words from Romans today?

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We so often hear these words in the context of a funeral or memorial service and they bring us great comfort, knowing that nothing has separated our loved one from the love of Christ Jesus our Lord.  Having completed their earthly journey with all their joys and sorrows, talents and flaws, deeds and sins behind them, we have confidence that our loved one lives on with the Lord.

But consider for a moment, who Paul was writing to and consider all of his words, not just the triumphant final three verses of this pivotal chapter. Consider for a moment that these words written to all of the Romans, not just the saints or the church as many of Paul’s letters were, he meant them for everyone. Give them serious consideration, as they also apply to you today, alive and well, on this beautiful, summer morning because I don’t have any plans right now to be giving your funeral sermon– I want you take these words with you for your life!

For when your life is not easy. When life seems to be made up of one crisis after another. When life separates you from joy. When life feels very lonesome. For when life takes your plans and throws them into the fire.  For when life feels like death. For when life challenges your confidence and exposes your weaknesses, your doubts, your fears, and your sins. For when life brings achievement and disappointment, celebration and regret, great success and great suffering. For when life hands you hardships that threaten to undo you –  hardships and failures in the present, from the past, and in the future. For when you feel distress, shame, stress, and opposition. For when your foolish choices, public failures, personal disappointments, and ever-present sin cause you to forget who you are and whose you are. For when life makes you question who’s in control and for when life brings you to your knees but you don’t know how or for what to pray for. These words were written for those times.

What does Paul say about these things, these times that try our souls??

Romans 8 is a powerful chapter with a powerful ending, smack dab in the middle of 16 chapters explaining the Christian life to the Romans – chapters filled with what Martin Luther called the purest gospel … a bright light almost sufficient to illuminate the entire Holy Scriptures.” Many theologians say the verses you heard today –  that caused you to take a deep breath and rejoice in your baptismal promise of salvation – are the key to the whole Bible – the summa theologia – the summary of the Gospel.  Paul’s last letter; a letter written at the height of his ministry – some 30 years after his conversion – is a powerful summation of what he has been trying to say all along – the grandness of God’s grace and the power of his uncompromising love are yours.

Paul is seasoned. He writes with conviction and authority and passion what he knows to be true. His missionary life has not been easy.  He has endured imprisonment, beatings, stoning, constant harassment and strong opposition – just as God promised he would shortly after his conversion – that he would suffer much as he witnessed for the reign of God’s kingdom.  A kingdom, as we learned in today’s gospel reading, that can be much different than it appears. A kingdom that challenges what we value and what we think is good. Though sometimes obscure, the ultimate reality of God’s kingdom is that God’s love is unconditional and inseparable.

Despite his suffering, Paul was convinced of this and you should be too: we have a sovereign and loving God who has searched our hearts, who knows our minds – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and get this, He still loves us. Loves us so much that he sent His only Son to die for our sins and destroy the curtain of sin and death that separated us from Him. And then, through the promise of the resurrection sent His Spirit to forever dwell in us and intercede for us.

In the midst of desperation over a sudden illness, as you yell at the kids as the toilet floods, as your boss tells you your position is not needed anymore, as your spouse slams the door one last time, as you feel the need to cover your indiscretions yet again, as you look in the mirror with disdain after another let down or as anything that life deals you separates you from that confidence in God’s love – you might say, yeah right – a loving God – What kind of God let’s suffering happen? If all we had were the first few chapters of the Bible to understand the Christian life, some might believe that God really was against us. But Paul shows us the lengths that God went to save us from His wrath and equip us for victory over sin and death and the trials and storms of this world with the sacrifice of His son, Jesus Christ and the gift of His Spirit.

The letter Paul writes to the Romans is about living life with the Spirit in us. It is for these times that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”  When we do not know how to pray as we ought, that very Spirit who searches our heart,  intercedes with sighs too deep for words. He guides our prayers according to the will of God.  That’s the kind of God we have. Given that, who can doubt that God is for us?

Have you ever been insulted? Have you have been taken advantage of or hurt by someone else? Has someone ever wished you ill? I remember well, being the new girl in town – the new girl from back-woods Montana (even though eastern MT didn’t have much forest to speak of) when we moved to Fairfax, VA just before my 6th grade year. Fairfax was a middle-class suburb of Washington, DC where most of our neighbors were military brass or some other mid to upper level government office holders like my dad.   I soon found that I had landed in a trough of military brats who in turn found me to be a prime target for bullying with my odd style of jeans (hey, they were hip in Billings!) and last year’s shoes. That I was a shy tom-boy didn’t help matters with this catty bunch of snobby girls and I was subjected to having mashed potatoes further mashed into my hair at lunch time, tables emptying when I came to sit down, snickers when I walked down the hall, kicked shins, and nasty notes slipped into my locker. Even Mrs. Johnson, my assigned sixth grade teacher made me feel like an odd ball – singling me out when, to my utter horror, my Snoopy lunch box slid off my slanted desk and crashed to the floor. I was forced to stand and apologize for distracting the rest of the class – who were already making plenty of noise ahead of lunch time. I was completely humiliated. I had left a home in Montana where I was the kickball queen who giggled – a lot- and moved to a place where I was afraid to ride the school bus and I would be sick before going to school every morning. I had never felt so alone in all of my 12 years and to this day, I still have moments of self-doubt and flashes of utter fear before meeting new people, wary of what they will think of me and the pain I know I am about to experience.

As that school year progressed, over-crowding forced the school administration to add another sixth-grade class that was housed in a portable classroom – separate from the main building. They hand selected the students who would move. Providence was mine and Mrs. Shaw- a true southern belle with beautifully painted fingernails that scratched the chalkboard when she wrote, became my teacher. She quickly showed her students how special it was that we were brought together to this new space – and that we were going to be the top sixth grade class in the school – if we worked together. We did and we were! Tops in grades, tops in field day events, and tops in learning how to make do with what life handed us.  She turned what could have been my worst year ever – if I even survived – into a year of new friendships, gained confidence, and a renewed trust that people are good.

Paul writes: We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

In moments of desperation we wonder how any of this can be for the “good” of God. We feel abandoned. We feel weak with the forces of the world closing in on us. Even at the tender age of twelve, I wondered where God was and why, oh why He was letting these awful things happen to me. I was made well aware of the evil in the world, and I didn’t understand why our move to Virginia had brought this evil into my life. Was I being punished? Worse, was I being punished by God?

Mind you, I was not the innocent angel I am now. I once pushed a girl into the creek behind our house in Billings when she made fun of my mother’s shoes, and I took off on my Schwinn banana seat bike many a time to explore the wilds beyond our neighborhood without letting my parents know where I was going.  But back to my misery. If ever there was a time to ask where the good was in what was happening to me, this victim of bullying certainly had found it.

Paul makes it clear that the “good” which God brings about is His ultimate good for us. God never causes evil or harm to come our way –  that is the work of the fallen world – but God will use our suffering as a result of that evil to bring us closer to Him. God made an enduring promise to those who love Him – if we persist in faith, He promises to see us through to glorification. He alone has the power to work all things, not just some things, not just the things we associate with the “good” like health, comfort, and success, but all things, together for His ultimate purpose.   “All things” includes our suffering and our groaning. It includes our weakest moments when we don’t know how or for what to pray. It includes our times of sorrow and sickness and death. Just look at the ultimate good He worked through the storms, struggles and death of Jesus Christ!

This is why Paul commanded in his letter to the Thessalonians, “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Looking back some 30 years later, I know that the suffering I faced as a bullied 6th grader, while not God’s doing, was redeemed by God giving me a deeper level of empathy for others and a streak of independence that continues to strengthen and serve me well today.

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?

Our lives are governed by laws and regulations, worldly judgements, class, party, and rank. We can be deceived by moral superiority and cast away from the church.  Legalism and reason test our belief.  These things serve only to crush our spirit, bring us sorrow, and encourage us to ask how God can be for us if we have failed Him with our errant ways. But God wants to transform us and conform us to the image of His Son, and that entails persevering through all things in life.

In 2nd Corinthians, Paul makes a clear distinction between godly and worldly grief (in today’s language:  guilt and shame): “Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.” (2 Cor 7:9-10) The kind of sorrow, grief, guilt and shame God wants us to experience and yes you will experience it, leads us away from sin and results in salvation.

But, if we love God and we strive to live in the ways of Jesus Christ we can be secure in our belief and assured of God’s love. Again, we have the promise of the resurrection. God’s gift to us – Jesus Christ.

God did not promise that our lives would be free from suffering and hardship but he assured us in our baptism that our lives in Christ Jesus have been freed of judgement and condemnation. In Baptism, God defines and claims you as His own – forever, a relationship that no matter what you do, you can’t screw up! When you were baptized, God proclaimed His unconditional promise to accept you as you are, adopted you into His family, and forgave all your sins including those you have yet to make! Martin Luther, a man who suffered greatly from doubt and guilt himself, urged his followers to remember their Baptism daily,  to wash themselves in God’s unconditional love daily. But relationships take two to tango – God’s unconditional love cannot be one-sided. Indeed, the only thing that can separate you from the love of God, in Christ Jesus is YOU.

When the hardships, ills, judgements, sorrows, struggles, and guilts of this world threaten to steal your confident trust in Christ, rather than turn away from Him, let the Spirit intercede for you, strengthen you, and carry you until you can believe again.

A good friend of mine who has seen a lot of life in his life including surviving a severe motorcycle accident out in the middle of nowhere alone with a broken femur and later, a head on collision with a drunk driver. He served as a missionary with Young Adults in Global Mission and as a youth leader and camp counselor at a Lutheran bible camp. He pursued outdoor ministry, photography, and plans to go back to school this fall to finish his Secondary Education degree. Last year he started his own business as a handyman doing painting and construction work and it was this success that now threatens to undo him. Scaffolding collapsed on one of his jobs causing him to fall and this time shatter his femur and his knee. When I told I was praying for him and asked how I could pray for him, he shared with me that he no longer walks in faith, hasn’t for a long time. He has separated himself from God.

I don’t know what to say to my friend. I don’t have the answers to his loss of faith or the life changing circumstance he now finds himself in. All I can do is pray for him. MY faith tells me he will get through this crisis and because I know his heart, I know he will be stronger in the end. My faith tells me that God is with him right now even though my friend is not with God, and God WILL use this momentary pause in my friend’s life for His ultimate good.

 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

Take Paul’s powerful words home with you today. Let them live in you and guide you through your day and week ahead. Remember your baptism. You are a child of God. A loving God whose ultimate purpose, whose ultimate good for you, is to preserve you pure and holy.

Dear Lord, thank You for giving us Your Spirit as our constant companion who, in the depths of our desperation, is present to help us when we have no idea how to pray, with sighs too deep for words. Thank you for your uncompromising and unconditional love. Help us to keep our hearts and mind open to You as we walk faithfully in your name. Amen

The Spirit at Work

 

 Writing a sermon, I am learning, is far more than sitting down and writing about whatever moves me. It entails a thorough reading and research of the scriptures and lots of time spent pondering the message contained therein until the Spirit moves me to share that message in a way that is relevant to today and moves others to a closer relationship with and/or understanding of God. This is exciting  to the writer in me but I am also daunted by the incredible opportunity and responsibility I have to share the message of Jesus Christ! It is a heavy burden knowing that someone in the pews really needs God in their heart that day and I don’t want to let them down. I want my words to be God’s words and I want them to mean something! And so, after much prayer for the right words, God’s words. I endeavor to bring His light to someone’s life. 

****

Grace and peace to you, fro God our Father.

In today’s Gospel, we find the disciples hidden away on the evening of Easter Sunday – their Lord had just been crucified, died, and apparently risen and they had been left behind. These were the people who had given up their lives to follow Jesus. Their hope for the promise of salvation that Jesus taught had now become their fear. I am quite certain none of the Disciples expected the story to end this way when they signed on with Jesus. How could they possibly comprehend that the story was just beginning as they wrestled with their fear, grief, and shock at what they had seen that morning, gathered in the safe confines of that locked room? What had they just witnessed? Would they be next in line for the cross if they continued to spread the news of Jesus the Messiah? To the casual bystander, the story of Jesus Christ “the Messiah” appeared to be an utter failure!  Would the Disciples trust the words of Jesus that he would indeed return, that they would never be left alone, or would they let their dreams die on the cross? Amid the Disciples shock at Jesus’ resurrection and their fear of the unknown, Jesus broke through the barriers of this world and came as a vessel of peace. He breathed into them the amazing gift of the Holy Spirit – giving them and all who believe His ever-abiding presence, His oneness with us and with God, and the strength that comes only from an uncompromising faith.

How often do you let your own dreams die on the cross? How often do you rely on what you know to be true when facing big decisions rather than where your heart – the Spirit within you-  is leading you? We come to church on Sunday mornings to be fed with the bread of life and have a right spirit renewed within us, and then what? We go back to our comfort zones because we are comfortable and have control over what happens there. Why is it so difficult for us to trust this Spirit we seek on Sundays with all of our days and all of our ways? We like to leave “it” safely behind in the church sanctuary “where it belongs” until next week.

We make our way through life, trying to control our interactions, the outcomes of our actions, and we expect certain results from our efforts –  but we blame God when things don’t turn out as we intended. We believe we can secure our destiny and our salvation through our own means, even if our ways lead us to despair. This is human nature. We are given free will after all, and we like to run wild with it at times. But what guides that will? From whom do we seek our direction?

For those of us lucky enough to have been schooled on Luther’s Small Catechism, we know (but perhaps we have forgotten or are too set in our logical ways) that our friend Martin emphasized our utter dependence on faith. This faith cannot exist apart from the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the Word. We cannot believe in Jesus Christ without the aid of the Holy Spirit nor enjoy God’s saving power without the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ calls us through the gospel, enlightens us with His gifts, makes us holy, and keeps us in faith not by our own means and strength but only through the Holy Spirit that dwells in us just as it does the whole church.

In todays’ readings, we find very different manifestations of this Spirit. We hear about the powerful rushing wind-like force of the Spirit complete with lashing tongues of flame – the Spirit we traditionally associate with Pentecost – the Spirit that gave birth to the church, and we hear about a much more intimate encounter with the Spirit – where the Holy Spirit speaks of peace and breathes into our hearts and empowers us.

We see the Spirit at work in the texts, at times doing some pretty amazing things – creating community, renewing the creation of earth, inspiring gifts in service to the Lord, and breathing life into and empowering dreams – but do we stop to recognize when the Spirit is at work in our own lives?

We are infinitely blessed by the Spirit’s work in the creation and we rejoice in the grandeur that surrounds us. We give thanks for the bounties and blessings He provides when we gather in celebrations. We see the goodness of God when life is good, but when we face challenges in life- be it a serious illness, loss of a job, divorce, death, financial troubles, wayward children, struggles with addiction, even just the daily monotony of living that wears us down – we wonder “Where is God in this?”  But what if God is right there in the mess?

He is, you know, always, just as He promised.  And that is what makes us nervous. The Spirit is always with us and at work in ways that will sometimes affirm, sometimes surprise, and sometimes forever alter our faith in Jesus. That is the Spirit’s intent. If only our faith was as strong and true as our hindsight!

None of us are immune to the difficult challenges of life. I will be the first to admit to bouts of faltering faith, complete frustration, irritation, hopelessness, and despair especially in the last year, as I dealt first with my mother’s unexpected death, my father’s cancer diagnosis and debilitating treatment, my own health crisis, and then Dad’s rapid onset of Alzheimer’s leading up to his recent death – my faith faltered and despair hung over me – for as long as I was trying to control the outcomes. This was not how 2017 was supposed unfold! Things like this didn’t happen to us! It wasn’t supposed end this way! Yes, I demanded, where was God in this chaos?

He was right there with me, and when I yielded control and opened my heart to accept that His way was better than MY way, that life was unfolding as it would even though I couldn’t comprehend why at the time, I felt empowered to keep on. God moved me out of my comfort zone, that frankly really wasn’t all that comfortable, and with His Spirit coming alongside, showed me the peace that comes with trusting that He was with me and would guide me when I needed to be guided, He would lead me when I needed to be led, and He would comfort me when rest was needed but would not come. Just as He was doing with my Dad.

Where was God? Well, not only was he working through the Holy Spirit in me, he was working through the Holy Spirit in YOU! That same Holy Spirit that was coming alongside me was manifested in and poured out from you! Just as Paul said, some of you were given the gift of wisdom which you shared with me when I was frustrated, some of you were given faith which you held for me when mine was faltering, and some of you were given the gift of healing which you did when you cared for me. And it wasn’t just me that was the beneficiary of these gifts and all the fruits of the Spirit. I saw them poured out from you in times of need and times of joy onto other members of this congregation, on members of our community, and this church body as a whole.

That is the Spirit at work. There you see God.

Without the Holy Spirit’s presence, there is no Christian community because the Holy Spirit is essential in calling, gathering, and creating community. The Holy Spirit is the direct presence of God in our life.  The Spirit expressed in the love of our hearts and that remains there throughout our lives is God’s spirit. God will act in our life in ways we don’t always understand or even like. God will correct us when our ways need correcting and sanctify us with the grace revealed in the resurrection when our human predicament of sin gets in the way.

That is the Spirit at work. There you see God.

My Dad knew and was guided by the Spirit within him and he was the greatest example of a life lived in faith that I have ever known. He lived assured in his decisions and he carried an essence of joy with him because of this. He knew how important it was that his children had the same foundation of faith and confidence that he did. He was eager to get to church on Sunday mornings and he did not leave the Spirit safely behind. Aside from his love, our faith is the greatest gift our Dad could have my brother and I. The circumstances of my Dad’s last days were beyond my brother’s and my control and seemed at times to be a constant swirling chaos in our heart and minds. We felt we were failing him, that we had to do more.  But the same empowering peace the Holy Spirit breathed into the Disciples was ever present in my Dad throughout his last days. As Dad left us, he took with him an intangible part of our lives and we were emptied but the one called alongside us, the Holy Spirit breathed into us His empowering peace, redeeming our greatest loss into our Dad’s greatest victory.

That is the Spirit at work. There we saw God.

The Holy Spirit is there to guide us, to comfort us, and advocate for us. Look at what God has done- the Word became man; this man did things so contrary to popular belief that he had every reason to fail; and He endured the ultimate failure – humanity’s greatest failure – humiliation for His acts and death on the cross. But God redeemed our failure with the ultimate victory over sin and death – raising His Son in the glory of the resurrection and sending the Holy Spirit to dwell within us.  If God can do this, imagine what He can and will do in your life!

Will you let go of your fears and be nudged from your comfort zones? Will you trust the Holy Spirit with your dreams and let Him guide your life?

Let us pray-

Come Holy Spirit, help us in our unbelief and open our hearts to the work you are doing in our life. Direct us by the light of your Spirit that we may have a right judgement in all things and rejoice always in your presence and peace. We are never alone for you are our Lord and our God. Amen

 

 

The Goodness that Grows from Grief

“The dance of life finds its beginnings in grief……Here a completely new way of living is revealed. It is the way in which pain can be embraced, not out of a desire to suffer, but in the knowledge, that something new will be born in the pain.”  – Henri Nouwen

It has been nearly a year as I write this, since my mother’s passing. March 20th to be exact. The first day of spring and the beginning of Holy Week. Her passing as the death of winter gave way to the new life of spring continues to shape my journey through grief.  There was something about my Mom dying at Easter that helped me get through her death with hope and faith. I felt a strength and peace I didn’t know possible carrying me through her memorial on Good Friday and the celebration of her resurrection alongside that of my Lord, Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. The promise of the new eternal life we have in Him enabled me to push through my grief and resume living or at least tried to.

But time is not the great healer as I was told. I will be honest, despite my best efforts to be strong and shine brightly in honor of my mother, the sorrow is still right there, just below the surface, waiting to turn my eyes into pools overflowing with the emptiness her absence has left in my life. However, my mother and father raised a rather stubborn and determined daughter and as such, I am determined that this season of sadness will nurture the goodness that grows from grief.

You see, my mother’s death plowed my heart, turned over the broken stubble of the past, and inspired new shoots take root.

“So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” – 2 Corinthians 4:16

I am a year older. If anything, the events of this past year – my mother’s passing, my Dad’s rapid decline in health, and my own health crisis – have affirmed that I am closer to my expiration date than I was yesterday. This past year has brought me up close and personal to the reality of my mortality. Through the goodness of grief, this grim awareness has sparked a sense of urgency in me – not in a panicky sense – but rather a determined urgency that calls me to shine in the sorrow and shine in the joy of each day.

“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” – Romans 12:12

A common phrase shared between my brother and I of late as we deal with some of the sad realities of life has been: “It is what it is,” but the goodness of grief calls me to rebuke that sort of thinking. Rather than take each day “for what it is” I am decidedly giving thanks for every day that I have no matter what emotions the events of the day conjure up.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” – Romans 12:15

Having my heart plowed by death did a good job of breaking down my belief that sorrow should be a silent and a solo affair. Through the goodness of grief, I have come to realize that sorrow is meant to be shared with others just as joy is. The key words here are shared and with. Not just my sorrows and joys, but sharing with others in their sorrow and joy.  This means not just praying for but praying with someone and not just sharing in someone’s celebration but truly rejoicing in their joy.  Bearing grief with others means being vulnerable to one another but also means we find comfort in one another. Through that vulnerability we are made stronger.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. ‘Be still, and know that I am God!’”  – Psalm 46: 1, 10  

Having my heart plowed by death also forced me to pause the chaos of life. Perhaps my own health crisis was the final till that cultivated this new sense of being. Through the goodness of grief, I have let go of some of my past busyness and grown more comfortable with being alone. I have learned to relish moments of solitude and carve out time for them. Moments where I can be still and let my emotions be raw and real in the quiet of His presence.

“And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly… But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” – Romans 5: 3-6, 11

Turning over the broken stubble of the past is not an easy process. The deepest furrow was my broken relationship with my mother and the regrets I experienced in her last months over the state of our relationship. Unfortunately, so much of what I truly felt – the love and appreciation I had for her was left unsaid. The mother-daughter bond we shared – though different from a Hallmark card – meant everything to me, a truth that I will forever live with and pray that she knew in her heart how I felt. Through the goodness of grief, I have accepted the past, the broken parts, the unrealized goals, the lessons learned the hard way – the stubble of life –  for what it is – the nutrient rich soil from which new life springs every day.

“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” – Psalm 147:3

Through the goodness of grief,  I have found new shoots taking root in my life—I have been spurred to change  and to grow because the temporal nature of this life has been made real to me. I have taken on new studies, reinforced relationships, and discovered new interests. I have become more intentional in the things I do rather than just going through the motions. Each day  is an opportunity to become more  alive and make more of life.

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” –  John 8:12

Through the goodness of grief, I have come to know what true joy is. To see light, you must first know darkness. The two are not incompatible but rather depend on each other. Seeing light from the darkness and shining light into darkness is the beautiful dance of life. The goodness of grief has shown me that I must walk through the darkness to dance in the light and it has called me to share with others that new way of living.

Let your light so shine!