Peace for the Way Things are Going to Be

A Sermon on John 14:1-14

Grace and peace to you, dear friends in Christ from God our Father!

“Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live. And you already know the road I’m taking.” from the Message

I sat at my Dad’s side – holding his hand, massaging his calf, willing him to open his eyes just one more time. After the longest, fastest drive I have ever made across the state of Montana, I’d made it home to Billings in time to hear him say my name one last time. His last conscious words were just a whisper over the annoying din of an old western movie playing on the TV. I will never forget the sound of his voice – it jarred me so. It was not the voice I wanted to remember my Dad by. I wanted to remember him waving goodbye to me from the assisted living center when I was home for Easter just two short weeks before. I would never have expected to be in this austere hospital room facing his ending so soon thereafter. But there I was looking at the shell of the man who with our wonderful mother had created for me and my brother, lives we wouldn’t trade for anything.

In the last hours of his life- as his body was shutting down, betraying him every step of the way – he seemed so meek and so willing to go on his way while I wanted him to fight, FIGHT with all his might to stay with me. There was so much I needed from my father. 

There was so much living left to do. So many things I had yet to know about him.  So many things left to say. I didn’t want to be alone. I was afraid of discovering what life still held for me without his wisdom and love to see me through it. 

Yes, in the hours before his death, my heart was troubled. Those last moments were the worst moments of my life. I wanted to die with him and at the same time I felt raw and alive with the wonder of the liminality of life. It was a blessing to share his last breath and lay my head on his chest for one last heartbeat.

I have thought about my last moments with Dad a lot lately – moments I didn’t have with Mom when she died. I still struggle with how his life came to a close. But Dad was ready. He knew where he was going, he had walked with Jesus his entire life and I could tell he was at peace – a peace that I longed for – to be at peace with the way things were going to be.

Today’s Gospel from John may have you scratching your head. Didn’t we just celebrate Easter and the resurrection of Jesus? Didn’t we just sing Alleluia  – Jesus Is Risen? Why do we have to go back to the hard realities of that dark night before Jesus’s death? Dare I say that much of our lives are not lived as though we are Easter people? That we are more likely to search for God in the darkness of life rather than our celebrations? And for this very reason,  we need to be reminded of just who this Savior we celebrated 5 Sundays ago – really is. 

We find the disciples in the Upper Room with Jesus at their last supper together. Jesus has washed their feet and He has foretold his betrayal by Judas. He has told the disciples that he will be with them only a little while longer, and that where he is going, they cannot come. And just before our reading begins today, He describes in detail Peter’s imminent denial of him. 

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says. “Believe in God and believe also in me.”“In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

You have heard these words before – even if you didn’t know they came from the Gospel of John or the setting they are said in. They are frequently read at funerals, including my mother’s just a year before my father passed away, and for good reason. Here are promises from Jesus that are profoundly comforting in the face of death. And yet, I’ll be honest with you,  just a year after hearing them there I was again with a troubled, scared, grief-stricken heart – knowing I should believe but like Phillip, so wanting tangible proof and like Thomas – in desperate need of a road map. Painfully frustrated, desperate even, with a deep longing for a tangible sense and experience of the presence of God. 

Oh yes,  I can easily identify with Philip and Thomas, and  I am sure you can too. 

“Do not let your hearts be troubled?” Are you kidding me?  The disciples have every reason to be troubled. Their beloved teacher is leaving them, one of their own has turned against them, and Peter, the stalwart leader among the disciples is on the cusp of his greatest failure yet. It is as though the ground is shifting beneath their feet.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says. “Believe in God and believe also in me.”

Do you think Jesus even knows what is happening in our lives and our world, right now? It’s easy to listen to these words on Sunday morning followed by a reassuring hymn and prayer of thanksgiving. But when we find ourselves at the side of a dying loved one, parting ways with a spouse, receiving a pink slip, or smack dab in the middle of a pandemic that we didn’t see coming with no end in sight – these words can ring rather hollow. When we find ourselves in the middle of yet another culture war over what is essential and what is not, blasted by counter-narratives from the left, right and everywhere, whether to mask up or not, and whether to open our churches or not. We long for the way things were, you know  – two months ago – but even when things do get back to normal, most of us have realized that the new normal won’t resemble the old normal for a long, long time. This is unsettling to our souls.  I don’t think we can look at the pain of the world today, the suffering of a loved one, or our own wounds and hurts and not have a troubled heart. I think it is safe to say that none of us will get through this life without a troubled heart. 

And Jesus knows that. Oh, how he knows. So he tells the disciples there is plenty of room for them in his Father’s house – a place for them in the storms of life. The word often translated as “mansions” or “dwelling places” is actually a form of the word “abide” and refers to “places of abiding.” In John’s gospel “abide” is another word for “faith.” It speaks of an “abiding” relationship with Jesus that begins in faith here and now in this life and continues in life after death.

Jesus’ words are part of the promise to a-soon-to-be Easter people then and continue to empower us to live in confidence in Jesus’ abiding presence today. Remember, these words come from someone well acquainted with isolation, sorrow, confusion, and disappointment.  Who took on our flesh and shared our lot and our life so that we might know that God not only cares but so we can see that he does. These promises came from the One who hung on the cross to fulfill the promises he made that night.  

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in me. Trust me. I am the way and the truth and the Life.  Hearing these words on the other side of the cross in the clear dawn of Easter light  – as the words of the resurrected Jesus – do they ring truer to you? Amid your uncertainty, unsettledness, pain, grief, fear, confusion – frustration at how messed up things are – do these words sound different to you now?  Do you see Jesus in a different light?

The God Jesus shows us throughout his life is not unmoved by our troubles or dispassionate towards our doubts. The God Jesus brings to us is not a distant God, but rather one who is engaged in our lives and committed to bringing us through all things. This is a God who took on all our trouble in the most visceral way to remind us that this present darkness does not get the last word! That this way we are living is not the final way. This is a God who not only saves but abides with and in us so that we have not just life, but abundant life, in Jesus! 

Jesus never promised us that our lives would be free of trouble – in fact, he guaranteed his followers would face hardship. What he did promise was that we would never have to face the road alone. Having faith doesn’t necessarily make things easier. Sometimes we will find ourselves just getting by with our heads barely above water but at other times we will flourish in the most challenging of circumstances. And when we share our lives of faith with one another as we are doing today, it makes things richer, more meaningful, and maybe just a little easier to handle. Trusting – believing in God means that in all times and all places we have the presence of God revealed to us through Jesus. 

When your heart is troubled and the journey seems long, remember that Jesus has already traveled it and is with us on it now. Believe! He really is the way, the truth, and the life, the one who leads us to an abundant life in and through his Father and helps us find peace in the way things are going to be.

Lord Jesus, We have a long road ahead of us, help us to remember that You have already traveled it and accompany us upon it now. Help us to see you always as the way, the truth, and the life, the one who dwells with us and leads us to abundant life. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, Sunday – So Good To Be Free

A sermon on Luke 13:10-17

Grace and peace to you, brothers and sisters in Christ from God, our Father!

The world weighed heavy on her shoulders. For eighteen years her burdens had claimed her spirit and held her captive – bound by chains of judgment, guilt, shame, regret, and hopelessness. The harshness of the world had not been spared for her. The divisions among neighbors, the violence permeating the streets, the economic and political roller coaster – all seemed to mirror her own experience. At times she felt invisible to her community but to be honest – that felt better than judgment. Fearful at what she might see, she had gotten used to looking down, only glancing at people out of the corner of her eye. It was safer that way- feet don’t look back. Feet don’t judge or dismiss. Still, she made her way to worship every Sunday, in spite of her struggles. And here she was despite the troubles at home, despite the sleepless night before, despite the fact that she had so much to do and so little energy left to do it, despite the storms that defined her very being. She was at a breaking point. She was here simply to escape.

The council president was busy making sure everything was in place for worship and the guest preacher. Order was the priority of the day. The batteries for the microphone were fresh, the sound system was working, and the bread and wine finally made it to the altar. The ushers were busy handing out bulletins and fretting that there wouldn’t be enough large print versions while preschoolers scampered back and forth from their seats to the activity bags in search of any activity but. The sanctuary was abuzz with chatter  – members of every age and stage of life – were all in their assigned seats sharing their latest hiking adventures, golf scores, bodily ailments, grandchildren tales, and business deals. This is good – GOOD – she thought to herself. Our guest will be impressed with our summer attendance. Now, what were those special announcements I was supposed to make? Oh yes, the rummage sale needs more helpers, especially for clean up, and the community dinner is coming up – volunteers needed, and Sunday School – oh goodness – we still need Sunday School Teachers.  Her mind drifted back to that week’s council meeting. There were issues, big ones to be dealt with and right now no one seemed to agree on anything. She longed for a break. But oops, no more time – it’s showtime! The prelude was over. 

Also in attendance were thinkers thinking various thoughts. “Will I ever be able to say no to my boss? This church is so tired. We need more singers in the choir.  I wish my husband would listen to me. The same ten people do everything around here. I wish my wife would hear me. I am afraid of failing tomorrow. Why am I here? I am scared about starting school tomorrow. I can’t pay my bills. I love this place. Does anyone even see me here? People are drifting away.  We feel so welcome here. Visitors must feel so unwelcome. Finally, people who see things as I do. The gatekeepers here just sit in judgment. Why do they always ask me? Why am I never asked? I can’t feel God anymore.”

What brings you to church this morning? Some innate sense of obligation to God? Because the third commandment says you should be here? Is it just part of your weekend routine followed by a trip to Costco? Maybe you were assigned to read or serve communion or more importantly serve the coffee afterward? Did you come to see your friends? Did you come because someone needs you to be here this morning? Or did you come because, like me, you just don’t feel complete if you don’t? I for one would like to thank you for being here this morning – I feel a distinct sense of wholeness when I gather here with all of you – my church family, not to mention I worked long and hard on this sermon!! Obviously, in my role as an LPA – Sunday’s hold special significance for me.

But, do you ever wonder why? Why this weekly ritual of gathering, worshipping, singing, reading, preaching, mingling — why do we do it? What is THIS all about? Has it ever gotten to you – church that is? To the point where you needed to take a break? Has Sunday/Sabbath lost something in the modern-day translation? I’ve heard the church as a whole referred to as a bunch of hypocrites  – not just by outsiders, mind you, but by actively practicing Christians.

In our Gospel lesson, we get to see into a day in the life of a church and a couple of its members in biblical times.  Jesus is at worship on the Sabbath Day. In those days, not unlike today, synagogues would invite guest Teachers – especially those of community interest who might be passing through – to come and teach and that is what Jesus was doing as he continued on his journey to Jerusalem. A woman with a crippling spirit about her is also there to worship. Jesus calls her to him and heals her. She is able, for the first time in a very long time, to breathe free and stand tall and she praises God. At once, the leader of the synagogue objects. Though he is “indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath,” he doesn’t attack Jesus; he goes after the crowd for having the wrong “standard” of Sabbath behavior, for not following the exact letter of the law. He cajoles the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”  And Jesus responds calling those gathered – you got it – Hypocrites! But the synagogue leader is right, you know. In Jewish custom, you are not supposed to do any work on the Sabbath. And here is this visitor – a fellow Jew – subverting God’s law in God’s house! The Jewish people took the Sabbath observation much more seriously than the rather happenstance way we sometimes view the various Sabbath “requirements” or restrictions today. There is not much that we do on the other six days of the week that we don’t also do on Sunday.  

I can empathize with the synagogue leader. Can’t you? Like him we like order.  Most of us have certain rules and standards that govern our lives that we think are particularly important. Think about your steadfast adherence to a morning ritual or more trivial laws such as eating only organic foods, your children’s bedtimes, refusing to schedule anything before noon on a Saturday, or refusing to buy anything not made in the USA. These legal tendencies are alive and well in our religious life too. We have firmly staked positions on who can and cannot receive communion, issues of marriage and divorce, human sexuality and gender; who can and cannot be called and ordained into ministry; and who we can and cannot minister to – as in the case of the recent Sanctuary Denomination declaration at the National Synod Assembly defining outreach to immigrants, refugees, and those seeking asylum. And then there is the almighty law of “because we have always done it that way.”  We can get so caught up in our positions on issues of and the “doing” of church that we lose sight of what Sunday and church is really all about. 

But we would be lost without them – our laws and traditions – wouldn’t we? The thing is – we need them. God would not have given the Israelites the law in the beginning if it wasn’t necessary for human flourishing. Throughout the Old Testament, we see how the law was used to provide guidance on how to live with one another so that all would get more out of this life and world. The law, in short, promotes civility, cooperation, and health and lends a sense of order to our chaotic world. But let’s be honest – we pick and choose the laws we follow. We follow the laws that keep us comfortable and safe. We like the laws that provide structure and familiarity to our daily lives. We defend the laws that support our ideologies and protect our beliefs and traditions. We get anxious if we see challenges to our way of doing things coming down the line. Our need for order and stability in this broken world makes it difficult for us to imagine “exceptions” to the law – even those that promote greater life and health. The good leader of the synagogue was charged with upholding a semblance of order and seeing to it that the Law was obeyed. The law is the law after all and if you start making exceptions goodness only knows what will happen next.

But as important as law is –  Jesus sees things differently and thank goodness he does! What better way of exemplifying the Sabbath’s origin as a covenant of deliverance than by freeing this woman from her crippling spirit while celebrating the Sabbath? Jesus draws directly from the law gifted in Deuteronomy 5, connecting the rest ordained in the Sabbath to Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you…” “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” 

In Jesus’ view, since the Sabbath law commemorates and celebrates Israel’s liberation, it ought to be a day for enacting – not inhibiting – liberation in the present-day. He’s been saying things like this since his synagogue debut in his hometown after his time of testing in the Wilderness.  When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” 

I like to think that Jesus was a rebel with a cause – not to break the law but restore to the law the love that inspired it. In freeing the woman from her crippled spirit and challenging the letter of the law, Jesus reclaimed the Sabbath as an opportunity to draw closer to God, to contemplate God’s goodness and love, recall God’s gift of freedom from bondage, and to be schooled in God’s will. 

As David Lose, the senior pastor at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minn., former president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary, and one of my favorite modern-day theologians explains, while the law matters,  it must always bow to mercy, to life, to freedom. Law helps us live our lives better, but grace creates life itself. Law helps order our world, but grace is what holds the world together. Law pushes us to care for each other, but grace restores us to each other when we’ve failed in the law.

We are captive to the law when it blinds us to God’s loving will. There are a myriad of reasons for us to be disconsolate and look to the security and comfort of law: oppression at the hands of corrupt power; guilt from the knowledge of participating in or benefiting from, systems of oppression; fatigue in faith; disintegration of community life; broken hearts and misunderstood identity; suffering caused by chronic physical, spiritual, mental, or emotional pain; and the list goes on. But with his outstretched arm, Jesus broke into the dogmatic world of first-century Judaism and our present-day with a new set of eyes and a fresh voice bearing witness that when it comes to upholding the law or nurturing life, God always comes down on the side of life. The entire law is summed up in a single command and is the one law by which to measure all others –  the absolute law of love. Love God and love your neighbor. And love God by loving your neighbor.

And so, while we gather today in this ritual of worship I want you to know that this is what it is all about: Sunday is about letting go of all those things you carried in with you this morning – the good and the bad – and laying them all before God to take rest in this,  HIS red-carpeted sanctuary – even if only for an hour. Sunday is about remembering how God has freed us so that we might be rebels with a cause to free others. Sunday is about calling to mind the mighty acts of God so that we too dare mighty acts ourselves. Sunday is a day to remember that God has freed us from the bondage of sin and death itself so that we might boldly bring order to this world with love rather than law. 

Finally, beloved children of God, God sees YOU and claims you this morning and all those with the weight of the world on their shoulders, those who lead, those who follow, those who are angry, those who despair, those who are weary, those who worry, those who are lost, those in the shadows, those who hurt, those who believe and those who have yet to believe;  and with an outstretched arm, God calls each and every one of us to receive His gift of Sabbath, to give us rest, free us from the burdens of this world, and to help us breathe again. He sees you and knows your deepest hurts. There is no sorrow or bondage on earth from which Jesus cannot set us free.

We will never be able to confine God’s grace and love with our laws, so why even try? Instead, let’s consider ways our insistence on law and order in our lives blocks us from showing genuine, heartfelt compassion to those in need and limits God from entering fully into our lives. 

When we let God break into our lives and break the laws of our lives with his grace and love – some amazing things can happen. So stand up straight and breathe – you are free – not just on Sunday, but every day. 

This is such Good News! Amen!

1. The Law of Love; David Lose

 

“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

Everybody’s Story

A sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

What a tale rich with the complexities of this world we have here! The Prodigal Son – or is it the Tale of the Lost Sons or the Tale of the Lamenting Older Brother – or is it a Tale of a Prodigal Love? Ralph Waldo Emerson called this the greatest story in the Bible. I call it Everybody’s Story. Part of the reason we are so drawn to this story is that we are never only one of the characters. We find ourselves with the younger son mired in the messes of our own making, with the elder son in our righteous bitterness and fear of being overlooked, and we long to be like the father who empties himself in his selfless devotion to bring in the lost and the forsaken.

Who among us has not squandered the love we have been given? Who among us has not chased after our own impulses, passions, and needs be they hunger, thirst, or wanton desires instead of choosing a higher path?  Who hasn’t felt the unrelenting pain of losing someone we deeply loved and the regrets that fill the void they leave behind? Who hasn’t felt the bitter sting of insecurity and fear of being left out or chased blindly after love, hoping it will be returned? Who hasn’t thought better of themselves only to be humbled by a harsh lesson in humility? Who hasn’t hoped, hungered and prayed that someone — anyone – God — will come searching for us when we are lost, broken, and alone? It is a story about joy, about love, and about grace – and about our misunderstanding of the nature of grace.

And so, without further ado – as the late, great comforter on the airwaves Paul Harvey would so famously begin every radio show – the rest of the story…

The tax collectors and sinners were very near to Jesus now. He had them on the edge of their seats. Never had someone so different from them taken the time to talk with them. He offered them something no one else could or would. And the Pharisees and the scribes continued in their grumbling, saying, “Not only does this fellow welcome sinners and eat with them – he’s offering them grace – a cheap grace at that. He’s breaking every law in the book! He’s crossing the line here. The government surely won’t stand for it. He’s saying God loves them too!”

Jesus could hear the Pharisees grumbling. He knew they were right –  He did, after all, hang with the wrong people, he was breaking the rules – but he had more important things to do than observe the laws of this world – especially laws that served only to divide and condemn – laws from a time before – laws that served more to separate people from God rather than bring them to Him. His father sent him to take on the cloak of sin and bridge the great chasm it created between Him and his children and by George, he was doing a good job of it! He found it ironic that the most religious and pious in his audience where his greatest critics. Jesus continued.

Now, the younger son, still basking in the glow of his new life, overheard his father’s pleas to his older brother. He excused himself from the party and went to see to his brother.

“Come on brother, don’t be like a stubborn old mule, without understanding. Get over yourself! Your bitterness and resentment towards my redemption is confining you to a fallen world. Come inside and celebrate – there is much to rejoice!”

The older brother glared at his precocious and suddenly highly prolific sibling. Who did he think he was? Telling him what to do?

Seeing his brother’s continued hardness of heart, the younger one continued.

“Look, I don’t fault you for feeling as you do. Everything you said to Dad is true. I get it. You have worked all these years – and worked hard! I mean look at this place – it’s amazing – so much better than when I left it all behind.  You didn’t run off and desert Dad – let alone practically wish him dead by asking for your inheritance early. You didn’t squander the family’s wealth. You, for the most part, I am sure, have been dutiful and responsible and trustworthy all this time, and so it must really burn for you to see Dad running down the road flailing his arms like an idiot in disbelief and joy – for me – I mean what an embarrassment!! And then he welcomes me home with an outpouring of love and no questions asked. Even I wasn’t expecting that! I know you don’t think it is fair and that’s because it’s not!”

“Not just unfair, it is a complete disgrace.” Said the older brother – finally finding something to agree with.

“Look, this hasn’t been easy for me, either. I was so certain there was something more in this world for me – that there was nothing for me here. I felt suffocated by rules and expectations that meant nothing to me. I wanted to live! And it was great for a while in that distant country – living with abandon – enjoying what I thought were the finer things – a far cry from what you’ve been toiling at all this time – but then things took a turn. The recession hit and my careless living was taking a toll on me. I had nothing to lean on – no savings and no foundation – no relationships of value – nothing to give me strength. I found myself at rock bottom – well actually slop bottom – I had to feed pigs to survive! Can you believe that? The only job I could find that I had any skill for was on a pig farm! Not only that – but my hunger was insatiable – nothing filled me – I even began to eat the pig’s pods. Pride kept me silent but soon I realized I was dying inside. And look at me – my body practically wasted away! The weight of all that I had done and all that I had lost was unbearable. When I realized I was worse off than – well those people – I came to my senses.”

“Yeah, you came to your senses when you wanted more from Dad. I’m sorry, but I just can’t believe you would come back – that you could come back after what you have done. The shame you have brought upon yourself and Dad.”

“Oh, believe me, I know what I have done – and now so does God – he knows everything, you know. We had a long talk on my way back home you see – I told him about everything – I confessed my rebellion – I accepted my failures – it was a pretty long walk. But as I walked, I felt the weight of my guilt and my failures wash away with a rush of mighty water.

“Look, the more I think about it, my return home actually seems much easier than bringing you out of that cold anger making itself at home in the deepest corners of your being. Brother, your resentment is killing you. But it’s not just about me, is it? It’s about your virtue!”

“Hey, don’t try to bring me down to your level!” The older brother spat out defensively.

“Down to my level? Look! We are all sinners here. You just happen to be sinning in a different way. I am trying to lift you up.”

“Oh, come on! Where is it written that it isn’t good to be obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, hardworking, and self-sacrificing? Such attitudes are praiseworthy!”

“And indeed, they are! We should all strive to be that way – I know I should have. But don’t you see, you are so caught up in being right that you can’t see past yourself! I see your despair! It’s like you are battling against yourself. At the very moment you want to act out of your most generous self, you get caught in anger or resentment. And just when you want to be selfless, you find yourself obsessing about being loved. And just when you have done your utmost to accomplish a task well, you question why others do not give of themselves as you do. You think you are better than me for overcoming the same temptations that I had, but in truth, you envy me for giving in to them!  It seems that everything you are basing your virtuosity on is turning you into a resentful complainer. Where is there happiness in that way of living?”

“I am happy…”

“Oh please, you are deceiving yourself – and Dad. Continue on this path and you will be stuck here and tormented forever! True happiness belongs to those whose sin is forgiven, covered – forgotten. Look at me! I feel like my slate has been wiped clean! Like God is holding nothing from me – because I held nothing back from Him. That’s the kind of happiness I have now. I have found shelter from my troubled ways and joy in my freedom.”

Shaking his head, the older brother replied, “You may be happy – but you are not being realistic. The world doesn’t work that way kid. I am proof of that!  God may have removed the label of “sinner” from you when you sought restoration but there are plenty of people here at your party who will try to pin it back on you as soon as they have had their fill of wine and taken their leave. They’ll cast sideways glances at you in the store and I bet they won’t sit with you in church.”

Having stood by and watched his two sons stand their respective grounds, the father had finally had enough. Shaking his head but at the same time opening his arms he interrupted.

“Sons, both of you have wandered far from me. You,” he said to his younger son, “alienated yourself from me by trying to satisfy your passions with no regard for anything or anyone but yourself. And you,” he said to his older son, “distanced yourself from me and all those who care for you, by indulging in anger, and envy, and caring only about your place in life.”

Putting his arms around both his son’s shoulders for the first time in a long time he continued.

“I wouldn’t want to live in this world if rules and fairness and equity didn’t matter. It could get out of control pretty fast. But we can get lost in the means and forget what the end result of rules and fairness and equity is all about. Just look around. Take a good hard look at your own hearts and motives. We want to be judged only by our best moments – but condemn others who have fallen short of our ideals. We seek validation and vindication for our accomplishments, but when it comes to those we deem as unworthy of the same we’d rather have our own pity party than join in celebrating them. We keep scores for everything. We literally count everything – from calories to miles to money – even good deeds – all in an effort to tip the scales of fate in our favor. We see life as a game of winners and losers and that skews our relationships and diminishes the value of every one of us. Good scores, accomplishments, fairness, equity, – those are important goals, but they are not the only things that matter in this life – at least not to me. What matters is that we have joy – joy in our hearts, joy that fills our minds, joy that strengthens us for this world. A joy that reigns in this house.

“That joy comes from love. And my love is something that cannot be counted. I could never apportion my love. I don’t track it or measure it or parcel it out. I can give all of my love to one of you and – guess what? – I still have all of my love left to give to the other.

“You might fear that there is a limit – or secretly hope that there is – and only a certain amount of love is reserved for a select few – including you – but that is not how my love works. There is never a limit – never was and never will be. You see, love is one of those things that the more you give the more you seem to have – you may try, but you will never be able to control who I love, how I love, or quantify it.”

Having been silent for too long, the younger son looked at his father and said, “Thank you, Dad. Thank you for forgiving me before you even saw me and loving me. I want to love like you love.”

Not to be outdone the older son reached deep.

“We live amid war, fires, floods, poverty, greed, persecution, imprisonment, betrayal, hatred, and sins we have yet to imagine. Signs of the world’s darkness that will never be absent. But you are telling me I can still have joy in the midst of it all? The joy of belonging to a household whose love is stronger than my present darkness and even death; a love that empowers us to be in the world while already belonging to a home of joy.”

“Yes, my son. It is yours every day. You have always been loved and that joy is yours.  Every day you are made new and made whole in the waters that wash away your sin and make you shine.”

Upon hearing this, the Pharisees went away in silence as Jesus broke another loaf of bread to share and the tax collectors and sinners were filled with joy.

And there you have it. The rest of the story. We are restored every day in the waters of our baptism. God’s forgiveness is always there; we are the ones who cut ourselves off when we choose envy and bitterness or go our own way. But God never stops trying. His love and grace have no limit. God promises us a warm welcome and complete restoration to God’s household -if we simply approach and come home.

As Paul so eloquently shares with the Christians in Corinth and as written in The Message: “He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own. Because of this decision we don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don’t look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins.” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)

Amen.

The Jesus Tribe

A sermon based on Mark 9:38-50

The words were flying like bullets. I had shared what I thought was a well thought out, reasoned article on faith in today’s politically polarized environment on my Facebook page – then without a second thought headed out for a walk. When I returned I found a message waiting for me from one of my high school friends apologizing for the messy tirade she had made of my post. I had no idea what she was talking about but when I looked at my Facebook page – holy moly! While I was out enjoying God’s magnificent creation, a few words had turned into a violent verbal battle between two friends of mine who did not know each other but shared me as their common, well-meaning opiner. I had missed most of the volleys thrown my way – the writer had deleted her words before I could read the vitriol – but I was filled in on their content later.  Words that went along the lines of because of who I did or didn’t support as president (which I did not divulge, to begin with) I could not possibly be a true Christian. ME! Of all people!! My high school friend, someone who is also strong in her faith, had met with the fiery tongue of yet another strong believer who just happened to be of very different political stripes and unfortunately, the two did not see eye to eye. Needless to say, my high school friend felt bad about airing her views while the other posit-er blocked me and would not respond to my attempts to temper the discussion – deleting all of it instead. Not that I had anything to say that could change such polarized minds. In the end, all parties involved retreated to our safety zones – our respective tribes – the place where we belonged, where we found camaraderie, loyalty, and protection for our differing views on what it means to do life and what it means to be a Christian.

In ancient times, tribes provided the social, economic, and religious structure along with the necessary physical protection that we humans needed for survival. We humans were and still are ill-equipped to survive on our own. I like to think and am pretty sure that God had a hand in that piece of our evolution.

A recent Google search returned page after page of insight on modern-day tribalism. There are tribes designed for sports enthusiasts and business influencers. There are tribes for hobbyists and travelers, tribes for political junkies and naturalists. Musicians, parents, adventurists, holistics, yogis, the list goes on. There are “find your tribe” memes, inspirational tribal quotes, and tribal gurus ready to help you find your special tribe. Companies build advertising campaigns appealing to our tribes. Tribes are apparently good for business and obviously, finding yours has become an important quest in today’s world and for good reason. Tribes at their best nurture an environment for generating new ideas for work and life and create a sense of community which is vital for a healthy productive life. Our tribe provides us with a sense of purpose, a reason to interact with others and, if developed to its highest purpose even provides health and wellbeing benefits.

According to management consultant and TED Talk presenter David Logan who has researched and written on tribal development in modern society, there are millions of different tribes in the world but they all fall into one of five categories determined by their stage of cultural development. Those consist of the undermining stage which is often seen in prisons and gangs who share the belief that life sucks and you are coming down with me,  next are those in the apathetic victim stage who share the view that “my life is hopeless, your life is better” which in turn breeds resentment among the tribe members with a kind of ‘lose/win’ mentality, next are those in the lone warrior stage who say  “I’m great and you’re not” which creates a ‘win/lose’ mentality within the tribe and sets members up for disappointment in their fellow tribe members. Those in the tribal pride stage belong to a group that is united around a set of values and form the view that “we are great, they are not” – it is still a ‘win/lose’ approach, but one where the ‘win’ is based around the group rather than an individual. The final stage is the innocent wonderment stage; the stage of highest purpose and not surprisingly – the least likely level in tribalism to achieve. It is also the most enlightened stage of tribalism, where life really is great and a healthy ‘win/win’ mentality forms. The group is in competition with what’s possible, not with each other or another tribe.

According to Logan, most of us find ourselves in tribes characterized by the middle three categories: apathetic victims, lone warriors, and tribal pride. All three of these tribal development categories share a win/lose or an us versus them worldview.

Worldviews set on human things like judgment and greatness. Views built around fear, anger, resentment, envy, and acquisition. Views set on perfectionism, our need for approval and to be liked, or in control. Views that harbor prejudice, indifference, or apathy. These tribes nurture and advance our stumbling blocks rather than help us overcome them, and in the eyes of God – do nothing to advance His kingdom on earth.

Not that this form of “belonging” or joining together is anything new. This sort of tribalism began in the Garden of Eden and follows through all human history. It confounded Moses, it inspired David’s Psalms, and it provided plenty of teaching material for Jesus. Today, this win/lose, us versus them, I am right and you are wrong vision permeates our politics, defines our dogma, and has crept into our churches. Even with our increasingly pluralistic society, perhaps because of it, we hold tightly to our doctrines and orthodoxy – certain that our tribe has all the answers, knows the ways and will of God. We take ownership of and want to control what God’s work in the world will look like, even to the point of deciding who can witness to it and experience it. We, of course, are foolhardy in doing so as God can never be owned, can never be controlled. But we sure try!

September 9th was Rally Sunday. It was a kind of unusual one for us this year with Pastor Pete on sabbatical. Rally Sunday is usually full of excitement – everyone is back from their summertime doings – Sunday school kicks off – new programs are introduced, new liturgies are sung, and the pews are filled with all ages again. This year we struggled to get Sunday school teachers – and we are still searching for a Sunday School Director by the way – we were singing the same tired liturgical verses we had sung all summer long – and our pews were certainly not full. As a member of the congregation’s leadership, I notice these things. I was also very aware of the big deal happening down the street and around the corner from us. The grand opening of a “mega-church’s” Columbia Falls satellite congregation with their praise band and worship team all set to put on weekly concerts for God lovers. Their parking lot was reportedly full – for all three services mind you – and I couldn’t help but wonder… We have competition! If all those people were so hungry for God – why not just join us??  We obviously had plenty of room – and maybe we could even find a few more Sunday School teachers! My tribal pride was aroused – feelings of envy, frustration, fear that we might lose members to the next big thing to hit Columbia Falls swirled inside me. What do they have that we don’t? God should be working through us!

Now I admit, I am not proud of my reaction. But I know I am not alone with thoughts like this. Heck, even Jesus’ earliest followers went wayward in their discipleship, quite often in fact, as we have seen lately throughout the gospel of Mark.

In today’s gospel reading, John zealously informs Jesus of someone performing acts in His name, but the disciples stopped the exorcist because he was not one of them – not a part of the “in” group. We don’t know much about this outsider – perhaps he didn’t speak, think, act, or look like them but we do know this – he was not part of their Jesus Tribe – and the disciples saw him as getting in the way of their faith and ministry. And when they could not stop him they told on him.

One can only imagine the thrill it gave John to tattle on the outsider given that the disciples themselves had just recently failed at what this outsider was succeeding at – driving out demons. They were also still puzzling over the comeuppance Jesus gave them when they were arguing over who among them was the best. This act of loyalty would surely please the teacher. Apparently, to the disciples it was not enough to be a follower of Jesus; you have to be a certain kind of follower – one of them (or one of us?)

But Jesus sees through John’s self-righteous glee. In Eugene Peterson’s Bible translation, The Message, Jesus wasn’t pleased. “Don’t stop him. (Jesus says) No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally. Why,  anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice. On the other hand, if you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You’d be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck.”

Once again, the disciples find themselves on the receiving end of a whole new way of thinking. I imagine they were a little disappointed in Jesus’ response. Not only does Jesus not support the disciples in their action, but he also does not criticize or condemn the outsider.  As Duane Priebe, Professor Emeritus at Wartburg Seminary, says, “every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you’ll find Jesus on the other side.”  Not only have the disciples drawn a line between who is in and who is out, it seems the disciples have crossed a line – the line between protecting the faith and claiming ownership of the faith.

It is a line each of us has to negotiate as we encounter the others in our lives, as we encounter differences of opinion, as we encounter different practices and understanding. Is our zeal for our particular view of the gospel – or maybe it has nothing to with the gospel but rather – our fear of those who are different from us – is that zeal or fear placing a stumbling block before others that makes it harder for them to see and feel the love of God in Christ?

Do we stay within our win/lose us versus them tribal safety zones or do we strive for an enlightened response – do we dare contemplate the possible (because with God anything is possible)? Can we step up to the next level of wonderment described by David Logan or the kind of discipleship we are freed in Christ to live?

Only if we surrender the tribal patterns of life we have created for ourselves or to which we allow others to perpetuate in us. Only if we surrender the ways of seeing, thinking, and acting that blind us to who we, our neighbors and God really are.

The choice is ours, but it is a heavy choice. As Fr. Michael Marsh, an Episcopal priest writes, “Every time we stumble or cause another to stumble we have denied life – our own or another’s. We have diminished the kingdom of God and ultimately destroyed love.”

The goal of faith is not winning, unlike that of our tribalistic culture. Those of us in the Jesus Tribe need to remember that the goal of believing is not who can be better – whatever “better” means. We need to remember that being a Christian is not about comparison but individual expression, as individual as the incarnation of Christ is in us. The new satellite church is not Our Saviors and we will never be like them. But together we will express the love of God in ways that reach people who may not be able to hear it as they or we might express it. Just think how boring it would be if we all believed and worshipped the same way. Not even our Scriptures propose that. If we truly believe what we confess, that the Holy Spirit lives in each of us – then we should rejoice in and encourage that expression of God through us in its beautiful particularity.

In this time of pluralism and polarization, we need the community and support of a tribe. A tribe that reframes how we think about our lives, our commitments, our identity, and our vision of what constitutes authentic Christian community. Let’s ensure the Jesus Tribe is one in which we do see Jesus – one that is open to all who seek to know his grace, his forgiveness, his amazing love. One in which life really is great – for everyone – because in it we see God. Our God is there.

Amen.

 

Hungry for Life

A sermon based on the Gospel of John  6:51-58

I love bread. I love Wonder bread slathered with Strawberry jam and peanut butter. I love wheat toast dusted with cinnamon sugar then cut into logs, so I can build cinnamon toast cabins like Mom always did for me when I was home sick.  I love artisan breads in all their handmade loveliness. Whole grain, nutty wheat, sourdough, Rye, Pumpernickel, and then there are those wonderful riffs on bread…  French toast, cinnamon rolls, bread pudding, bagels, popovers, and of course – lefse!  I could go on and on with my carb-fueled mesmerizing. Yes, bread makes life worth living and without its doughy goodness, my life would be devoid of joy.

I also love the Gospel of John and for three weeks now I have been sitting in rapt attention as visiting Pastors Mark Gravrock and David Rommereim expounded on the amazing goodness of a particular kind of bread –  one that works miracles as we saw in the feeding of the five thousand, bringing the source of life to the hungry masses – although the masses just came for the bread and fish; we learned the difference between a bread that perishes and a bread that endures for eternity; and though my fellow classmate Dick Sine didn’t preach on it last week,  in the Gospel reading we heard Jesus declare himself to be the Bread of Life, the living bread that came down from heaven – but those in the crowd could not accept that a mere man born of their friends Joseph and Mary, could be the divine.

So, imagine my anticipation and excitement as I looked forward to my turn to preach on not just bread, but the Bread of Life! And then I cracked open my Bible….

Jesus changed the menu on me!!! We went from this heavenly and earthy nutrition for life bread to flesh and blood! I just about spewed my coffee all over my wheat and quinoa toast!

I was really liking the “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever” stuff.  But the bread that Jesus is serving up is his flesh, and folks, there is no coffee on this table today – nope, we are drinking his blood!! And this isn’t just your lyrical taste and see that the Lord is good luncheon affair. No, Jesus goes from telling us to merely eat or consume him to the slow but intensely urgent process of gnawing and chewing, crunching and munching.

The Greek language uses nine different words that are translated “to eat” in the New Testament. In John 6:49-58, two of these words have a very distinct difference in translation. And it is no wonder that the Jews upon hearing Jesus speak were repulsed by his choice of words – as I suspect you may have been too. The carnality of what Jesus was saying flew in the face of Jewish law and frankly, what we hold to as common civilized decency today.

According to Strong’s Bible concordance (which combines the King James Bible version with Greek and Hebrew lexicons to help us discern biblical meaning using the original words not the translation) and accompanying commentaries, one very common Greek word is phago, which is used in John 6:49-53, and 58 and means “to eat, devour, consume.” The word trogo means “to gnaw, to chew,” a much slower process. Trogo is used nowhere else in the New Testament, except in John 6:54 – “Those who eat (trogo) my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life,” and John 56-58 – “Those who eat (trogo) my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats (trogo) me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate (phago) and they died. But the one who eats (trogo) this bread will live forever.”

When the Jews ate (phago) manna, it was to satisfy a carnal appetite, whereas the verb trogo means “to feed upon.” In these verses, phago indicates a one-time action, usually in the past. Trogo is always in the present tense, indicating a continual ongoing action. Therefore, when Jesus said, “he who eats (trogo) this bread will live forever,” he means a continual feeding, something that is to be done on a constant basis to satisfy one’s spiritual appetite.

Jesus uses this language in a spiritual manner as He reveals Himself as the True Bread. In the context of these verses, since the Lord’s Supper was not yet instituted, this “feeding upon” He is referring to a spiritual eating, not necessarily a sacramental one – though it is right that we hear it as such. (Catholics and Protestants have been at war over this understanding of the Bread and Wine for centuries). Jesus proclaims that he is the “food” that endures to eternal life. Food that is eaten and then digested so that it becomes a part of our body for our life in the present.

But rather than questioning whether Jesus is actually present in the Bread and Wine or wondering what kind of diet this is that encourages the eating of flesh and blood, perhaps the question we should be asking is what kind of life is this that he is promising compared to the life without this true bread?  I think this is the kind of deep questioning Jesus would want us to engage in.

What kind of life are you living?

When someone says, “Good Morning,” to you and asks, “How are you today?” Is your automatic reply, “Just fine thank you! Been really busy with you know, life, but all is good.” An earnest attempt to convince someone, anyone, yourself – that all is good.

And then you walk away as life enters your thoughts. You know – the fine and busy, getting our work done, meeting deadlines and commitments, fulfilling obligations, volunteering our time, and loving and caring for our families – life. Yes, we are doing just fine at doing that life.

But what kind of life are you living? After all that doing life, is there any life left in you? Or, are you left hungry. Hungry for something… something more?

Most of us have asked the question at some point, “What am I doing with my life?” I know I sure have!

We spend a fair amount of our time, energy, and money trying to create and possess the life we want. And yet, despite our best efforts nothing seems to satisfy. We want more, and we want to be more, but more doesn’t fill us.  And, when nothing seems to satisfy, when we despair at what is and what we think will be, when despite being surrounded by family and friends we find no place in which we really belong – we wonder if this is all there will ever be. We feels as if we are dying from the inside out. Is this as good as it gets?

Today, Jesus tells us no, it gets better.

The pastor of the church I went to in Billings when celebrating communion, would always call us forward with the words, “Come the table is ready.” And as Jesus fed us Pastor Steve would say “The Bread of Life, food for your Journey. “

I always liked those words – they had a nice flow – compared to the “body of Christ, broken for you.”  but it didn’t really hit home with me what he meant until I began working on this sermon. I always associated communion with the end of Jesus’ life. A remembrance of his death on the cross and the forgiveness of my sins.

But in John’s gospel, Jesus is giving himself to us- body and blood – in his active life. He urges us to eat of him in an urgent, almost desperate manner – as if our life depended on it. Because it does.

He is concerned with far more than just our physical or biological life. The life Jesus talks about is beyond words, indescribable, and yet we know it when we taste it. We taste it when we love so deeply and profoundly that everything we once clung to passes away from our lives yet somehow, we are more fully alive than ever before. We taste it when everything just seems to fit together perfectly, and all is right with the world; not because of something we have done but because we knew we were a part of something greater, more beautiful, and more holy than anything we could have imagined. We taste it when for just a moment time stands still and we wish it would never end. Like at the end of a piece by Norwegian composer Ola Gjielo where our body and breath seem suspended in an ethereal aura or when the sun sets over Flathead Lake and you are standing on its rocky eastern shore – caught in the warmth of fleeting golden light reflecting and sparkling on the water before the sky turns from fiery shades of orange and purple to a placid periwinkle as night takes over and your breath is deep and your body is calm but your heart beats strong and you just can’t put a word to the feeling inside.

In that moment we are in the flow, the wonder, and the unity of life, and it tastes good. We are tasting life – the satisfied, hungry no more, peaceful life in Jesus.

Today, Jesus says, “Eat me. Drink me. Come and have that life beyond words inside of you always.”  This is the only way we will ever have true life within us. Sure, there are lots of other plans we can try – from fancy diets to fancy cars to fancy houses with fancy décor. But, Jesus is very clear and blunt about where true life comes from. He comes to us in the most basic and universal source of life – bread and blood.  His flesh is true food and his blood is true drink. Any other diet will leave us empty and hollow, hungry and deprived of life.

Jesus not only wants us to abide in him – he wants to abide in us – to be with us and fill us with his spirit – his life.

Jesus is our life and the way to the life that we most deeply hunger for. As one Episcopal priest put it: “We don’t work for the life we want. We eat the life we want.”

The saying, “you are what you eat” has never been truer or more profound.

As we partake in the flesh and blood of Jesus, He lives in us and we live in him. We consume his life so that He might consume and change ours. Let it be so that his life, his love, his mercy, his forgiveness, his way of being and seeing, his compassion, his presence, and his relationship with the Father become our way of life.

When you come to the table today, come hungry – hungry for forgiveness, hungry for relationship, hungry for life in and with Christ for now and forever.

Amen

Find True Belonging in the Journey of Lent

“Fitting in is when you want to be a part of something. Belonging is when others want you.”    – Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness

We are living in a lonely age, a time when, despite technological advances that make connectivity almost a distracting and annoying constant, we have never felt so disconnected from one another. It is our human nature to seek connection with others and we have an innate desire to belong. Scientific and social studies have concluded as much.  “(H)uman beings are fundamentally and pervasively motivated by a need to belong, that is, by a strong desire to form and maintain enduring interpersonal attachments.” (Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995).) John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, who has done extensive studies on the impact of loneliness, says that the “only real biological advantage we have over most other species is our connection, our belonging; our ability to collaborate, plan, be in relationship with in special ways.”

Our need to belong is beyond our control, it is a part of our DNA, we have evolved to need one another and yet, we have come to idealize the independent individual. Because of modern advances in survival we no longer “need” each to survive. The less we need each other the more dependent we become on ourselves. The more dependent we become on ourselves the more certain we become of our ways and our ways of thinking. Yet despite our independence and strength in self, our need for connection remains, thus we take the paths of least resistance and align ourselves with those who think like us, look like us, and believe like us. Social scientist Brene Brown calls this a “high lonesome culture.” One in which we are the most sorted that we’ve ever been. Most of us no longer hang out with people that disagree with us politically or ideologically. The sad part of this type of “belonging” is that the commonality we share with “our people” we have sorted ourselves to is we all hate the same people or things rather than being joined together on the basis of mutual respect and acceptance.  Brene Brown calls this “common enemy intimacy.”

The thing about “common enemy intimacy” is it negates the self. We are no longer drawn to each other by the one qualities of our personhood –  it doesn’t matter who you are but what you agree or disagree with. No wonder loneliness is pervasive! We have lost what it means to be in relationship with one another. We no longer need to adapt to or accept each other’s imperfections to find community. Instead, we move on in search of those who bear our more perfect likeness.  Father Adolfo Nicolas, the former head of the Jesuits (the pope’s religious order) termed our present state as the globalization of superficiality — an “emerging era marked by extreme anomie and the deterioration of human relationships through technological advancement and materialism.”

Today, we can block out the cacophony of the world by losing ourselves in the addictive blue screens of our phones and we can skim and scroll through our choice of “news”- that which affirms our ideology and confirms our rightness and righteousness.  In turn, our perception of others remains shallow and we can keep a safe distance from the burdens and brokenness of the world.

Today, we can foster superficial, pseudo, and incomplete relationships by “friending” mere acquaintances or total strangers on social media and then — when necessary — “unfriend” real friends without the hard work that goes into forming lasting and real relationships through encountering, confronting and reconciling. What we have come to accept as belonging is really just fitting in. Fitting in is less risky –  you choose who you want to align yourself with without running the risk of revealing and being judged by who you are – the real you with all your strengths and imperfections. We no longer need to be vulnerable to amass a community we just have to be strong and set in our similar ways.

What if this pervasive loneliness is driven in part by our lack of vulnerability and authenticity? Have you ever been surrounded by people at a party or out and about but feel completely disconnected, lonely, or anxious, because never once during that experience did you feel like you could be yourself? Instead, you were who you thought others wanted you to be. You put on a face that masked your true feelings and your fears. These connections do nothing to satisfy the innate desire to belong to someone – for someone to want us for who we are. As Brene Brown states – “Your sense of true belonging will never be greater than your willingness to be brave and stand by yourself.”

As I was sitting in church this past Ash Wednesday – I was contemplating what it meant to belong. To be a part of something that was bigger than myself while at the same time being accepted and wanted just as I am – real, imperfect, somewhat stubborn, determined, shy, lonesome, life-loving, childish at times, frequently forgetful, sometimes impatient, often in a hurry, occasionally late, full of myself at times, compassionate, wanting to love, wanting to be loved, fearful of change, hopeful for tomorrow, challenged by my past… the list goes on.  Aw, if only I could find someone who wanted me with that laundry list of qualities!

By some perfect measure, this year, Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day. The coincidence was not lost on me. As I thought about my 40-day Lenten journey to the cross –   the greatest act of love -where Christ died for our sins and freed us from our no-win human struggle for unachievable perfection – perfect love, perfect acts, perfect penance, perfect lives – and on to His resurrection with the promise of new life in the baptismal waters of Easter –  it donned on me that this is where belonging is born –  if we are up for the journey.

Talk about becoming vulnerable! As people of all different ways and ways of thinking we willingly stepped forward from the pews to receive a cross of ashes on our foreheads as the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” were spoken. The ritual reminds  us of our common mortality and symbolizes God’s judgement upon us –  a rebellious creation and our sinful need for repentance.  Smudged with blackened ash as a sign of the divine love God has for us – a love that is depicted in a gruesome death and a new life because of that death – at once, there I was, inextricably connected to these likewise fallible and broken people by something greater than all of us. And that thing that is greater than us is rooted in love and compassion. It is a love so great and so deep that it is willing to suffer and die for another.

The traditional gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is Mathew 6:1-6, 16-21. Jesus instructs his followers in the manner of giving alms, praying and fasting: if done with the goal of gaining the attention or approval of one’s peers, that attention is your reward. There is, in other words, no spiritual value to the practice, if it only feeds your desire and need to “be seen” by your neighbors – kind of like that artificial self we share with others to fit in with “our people.” Rather, such practices should flow from a devotion to God that is expressed through caring for our neighbor, praying, and disciplining ourselves with fasting – attuned to our failings and in humble repentance for our sins – being authentic and selflessly driven. When this happens, we are seen by God and in this way rewarded. The text repeatedly talks of the Father seeing you.

Who doesn’t want to be seen –  to belong? Imagine a type of belonging born out of mutual love for one another! Rather than acting in ways we think will win approval from our peers, or make us appear more righteous, we must act out of genuine devotion to one another. Nowhere in Matthew’s gospel does it say that it is wrong to want to be seen by others, to matter to someone, to be noticed for who we are and be counted as worthy but Jesus urges us to look to God, the one who is not impressed by outward righteousness but sees even the hidden and broken places of our heart to fulfill those desires.

God sees us for who we are.  God notices us in all we do. In the waters of our baptism, God claims us as His own. What a wonderful sense of belonging that inspires! Belonging of the truest, richest kind! The Lenten journey to the cross – the greatest act of love – is one in which we can learn how to love again and find true belonging.  Over the next 40 days I will realign my life to one rooted in the authentic assurance of my relationship with God – not hoping to achieve the approval of others but trusting that God’s approval has already been given. With that confidence I can offer my life as testimony to the One who gives me worth and dignity in the first place and let my light and love shine on others so that they too may know what it means to belong.

Let your light so shine!

Who is Your Master?

Matthew 25:14-30, Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18, Psalm 90:1-12, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father!

I love to read obituaries, much more than write them mind you. I often find myself skimming past the headlines of the day but once I get to the obituary page, I read them word for word. It is the only time, that I know of at least, that the dash takes center stage – the life in between the numbers. I know what an impact the dash can make. Seeing the dash on my family’s headstone with both of my parent’s birth – dash – death years is one thing. Seeing my name with my birth date – dash – (blank) is a rather unsettling experience! But I digress…

0505171400bObituaries can move me, leave me awestruck, and inspire me. The really good ones cause me to reflect on what I have done with the dash in my life. They don’t dwell so much on one’s scholarly or professional achievements, though certainly worthy of mention, but where those achievements led the person and the impact that person had outside of themselves during their dash. We get to learn about what is really important in life and we get to laugh at the humorous side of our humanity.

I have noted two commonalities among most obituaries: they often recount a person’s relationship with God and they rarely list one’s fears. For good reason. With God, our lives are lived with anticipation whereas fear negates the talents we are given – the opportunities and the possibilities God entrusts to us. Fear can have a very powerful role in the direction of our lives. We see that play out in today’s Gospel. Imagine if you will:

Jesus was going on a journey, one that he knew he would be on for quite some time.  He called a few of his followers to him and entrusted some very valuable treasures to them. To one, named Martin, he gave stories; to another named Paul he gave compassion; and to a third, John Doe, he gave the bread of life and the cup of salvation. These treasures were of incredible value – he deemed each of them of equal importance even though the weight and substance of each differed.  Then Jesus went away.

Martin took those stories and studied them and wrote them out so the stories could easily be read and shared. While a little unsure of where Jesus was leading him, he knew his guide well. His Lord, had been a dwelling place for all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever he had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting He was God. That He had entrusted Martin with stories filled Martin with joy as he set to work. Soon there were five more followers of Jesus reading and sharing those stories and those stories are still being read and shared today.

Reflecting often on his mangled past, Paul couldn’t believe Jesus had entrusted him with compassion – him of all people! And yet, Paul, acknowledging Jesus’ decisive impact on his life, changed his name from Saul to Paul and relinquished his life to him. The freedom he found in trusting Jesus fueled him with a drive that couldn’t be stopped. He took the compassion and traveled all over the region offering compassion to all who would hear and open their hearts to him. The first two who opened their hearts shared the compassion with another 2 and so on and so forth. Soon all across the world many were receiving and giving compassion in the name of Jesus.

But John Doe, who had been given the bread of life and the cup of salvation, dug a hole

in the ground and buried them because he believed the Lord would plunder his wealth and lay his house to waste. He was afraid— afraid of messing up, of not getting the theology right, of what Jesus would do to him if he didn’t get it right, and because he had no idea what might happen to him if he shared the bread of life and the cup of salvation with others. There were so many unknowns! People might expect him to do more than he thought he was capable of! Surely, all would be better if he just stored the bread and cup until Jesus got back. Besides, John Doe thought, he was a much better farmer than an evangelist.

Finally, back from his journey – no worse for the wear – Jesus stopped by each of his follower’s homes and asked them what they had done with the treasures he had given to them.

The first two followers offered Jesus some coffee and cookies and told him about how the stories were now in book form and in their millionth copy! They told him how the compassion had grown and was now administered not only on the streets but in buildings called churches. They introduced so Jesus to some of his new followers and the new followers in turn introduced Jesus to their friends and families.

Jesus was very pleased.  He thanked each of them for their wonderful hospitality and told them, “Well done, good and trustworthy followers! You have been trustworthy in a few things, now I will trust you with many things. Enter into my joy!”

Martin and Paul and all Jesus’ followers, now called brothers and sisters in Christ, went about their lives with the joy and freedom knowing Jesus brought them. For all those who have the Good News, even more will be given to them. Gone was their need to control and worry about everything, for Jesus showed them that He was their true Master, who, with grace and mercy, would lead them through life’s ups and downs and welcome them home at the end of their days.

Then it was John Doe’s turn. After a long hot day working in the field harvesting his pea crop, he was slow to answer the door when Jesus knocked.  “Hello J.D.,” Jesus greeted him, as he looked over his shoulder at an empty room accept for a Lazy-boy recliner and a radio blaring some hotheaded advice guru. “I’ve come to review your work. May I come in?”

“Geez, Jesus, now? Can’t you see your interrupting…”

“J.D., please, it is time. Let’s talk.”

John Doe stepped aside and let Jesus into his house. He felt a bit nervous – no make that terrified – worse than when he was first given the bread and the cup. But Jesus just stood there and waited patiently until John Doe cracked.

“Jesus, I knew you were a harsh man. I knew you reaped where you didn’t sow and gathered where you didn’t scatter seed. I don’t much care for people who trespass on my property.”

Jesus raised an eyebrow.

John Doe’s reddened face paled. He continued. “Alright Jesus, I was afraid of messing up, of not getting the theology right, of what you would do to me if I didn’t get it right. Besides, I had crops to tend to. With no idea of what might happen to me if I shared the bread of life and the cup of salvation with others, I just couldn’t bet the farm.”

Jesus stopped him mid breath. “JD, I think you’ve misread me. Of course, I reap where I don’t sow! I give you free will to live your life as you will and sometimes I get really lucky when someone gets a brilliant idea – like your friend Martin did with that printing press! Boy, I never saw that coming! But I entrusted you with a few tasks I thought you would be perfect for. I guess you didn’t see what I saw in you.”

John Doe continued in his protest, “But there were so many unknowns! People might have expected me to give more of my time than I was able! So, I thought, surely all would be better if I just stored the bread and cup until you got back. Besides, I am no evangelist.”

And that could have been the opening line to John Doe’s obituary and the engraving on his headstone. There would be no dates with a dash in between. What would anyone want to remember him for? After their conversation, John Doe gave the bread and cup back to Jesus. Condemning himself to a place of darkness rather than risk the unknowns, he turned Jesus away. Feeling what was left of his poor sham of a life suck out of him, he wanted to stop living – after all what was the point? He did the same thing over and over again and look where it got him. Nowhere.  Standing in the darkness of his empty living room he ground his teeth so badly he felt a filling fall out.

That is what happens when you let fear be your Master. Indeed, we all have times of anxiety — times filled with worries over the direction our culture is drifting or concerns for our children, our marriages, our businesses, our finances, our personal health and well-being. Whether it is fear of losing control  – so you live your life so tightly shut that no one can venture in and you cannot get out, fear of being alone or standing alone in your beliefs, fear of not measuring up, or fear of the unknown – staying well within your comfort zone, walled off from the risks of new opportunities and possibilities – nothing Godly or goodly can come from fear.

Fear limits us. But our fear cannot limit God, nor can it limit what God wants for us.

John Doe walked to the sink, spit the metal out of his mouth and went to bed. After a restless night with little sleep there was a knock at the door. “Now who could that be? Why won’t people leave me alone?” he muttered as he passed by the empty mail catch and phone that never rang.

He opened the door and a radiance shown into his dreary space and forlorn face.

“Jesus! You came back!”

“I just couldn’t let it go – you saying I was a harsh man.” Jesus looked at John Doe. He looked pretty scruffy and what was going on in that mouth of his? Could it be he wasn’t frowning quite so much?  “You’ve had a long night. What do you say we go get some of this bread of life and a good swig from the cup of salvation? It really is far more appetizing than you think, and I know just the place.”

Jesus put his hand on John Doe’s shoulder – he felt the tension release and the strength he once saw in him come back.  John Doe closed the door to his emptiness and headed down the road to this place Jesus had heard about from Paul.

“You say they call this a church?”

“Yup,” said Jesus. “It’s full of people just like you – I was kind of surprised, but then not so much as it is kind of hard to surprise me. There are people in there just as fearful as you. Life isn’t easy, I know.  There are people inside who see me as harsh and full of judgment, easy to ire, impatient, and kind of surly and so they go to this place because they think they have to. And then – then there are those inside who have fully embraced the new me – loving and kind, patient and enduring – I like to think I’m their Great Protector – of course, I am, to all of them.”

On the way they pass by a few who see Jesus as someone who will not do good or do harm – Jesus shook his head, “They think I’m a willy nilly – to them I’m some old man from ages past who doesn’t much impact their day to day lives. Do you know how that makes me feel? After all I’ve given? But enough about me, we should welcome them.”

John Doe and Jesus went inside the church and found themselves surrounded by children of the light – clothed in their Sunday best – faith, love and hope. And they heard the story of a God who loves us so much that that he came in the person of Jesus to experience our lives first hand, to share our hopes and dreams, and our fears and failures. A God who does not want the time between our numbers to be spent in fear. A God who wanted working knowledge of our trials and tribulations and to see just how amazing His creation turned out to be. A God who entrusted us with stewarding his amazing creation for our joy and our fulfillment.  A God who fell so in love with us that He died for us on the cross, so that we could be freed of our sins, and live our lives abundantly – without fear.

John Doe felt his fears melt away. He realized his life was not his alone to live – his life belonged to God – the One who gave his own, so that he, John Doe, might live fully –  and by golly, live it fully he would! Surrounded by fellow brothers and sisters – the body of Christ-  who would continue to hold him and each other in love, encouraging and building one another up in their various pursuits, until the day of Our Lord comes again.

Amen.

Fuel Your Faith

 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”    Matthew 25:1-13

Grace and peace to you from God our Father!

August 14, 2016 dawned a perfect, bluebird sky morning. It was the day I would meet heaven on earth!   Not just any heaven mind you, but the most anticipated, dreamed about, read about, prayed about, planned for, trained for, stayed up late waiting to get on the much-prized waiting list for –  journey across the infamous Floral Park Traverse in the back country of Glacier National Park. From the first time I heard about it, the Floral Park Traverse captivated me to the point of nearly reaching an obsessive quality in my mountainous pursuits. Tales of deaths, grizzlies, cliffs, glaciers, even just the name – inspired my wanderlust to go wild with want. After enduring a year of emotional trials with the death of my mom and my dad’s illness I was ready for a challenge of a completely different sort. And finally, the day had come when my wanton wanderlust would be fulfilled!

You have to plan and train for an excursion of this magnitude –  proper equipment is essential: pack, poles, good boots, water, food, clothing for all seasons, and for climbers like me – camera gear and back up batteries. This route is not for the lazy or inexperienced hiker. With 4000 ft of elevation gained and a 7000 ft descent over 21 miles and 14 hours of trail time you must be prepared physically and mentally. As a distance runner and hiker with plenty of 20+ mile excursions in my trail journal I was certain I could handle the mileage and having a few mountain summits under my belt I was pretty sure the elevations would not get to me either.

I felt sure and strong as we hit the trail at the crack of dawn. I was in my element with a great group of friends. Although I had never ventured across a landscape as challenging as what we were about to embark on I felt safe knowing that most of my crew were more experienced than I. However, unbeknownst to me at the time, I was in the mid stage of a serious medical condition. My red blood cells – the ones that carry oxygen through your body and basically keep you alive were quietly disappearing. As a result, I found myself struggling to keep up with a crew I usually had the lead on. By mile 17, I had fallen so many times in water crossings and on scree slopes that my hands couldn’t bleed anymore, and my body was shutting down. Thankfully my crew had an incredible leader who was not only prepared for her hike but my crisis – giving me electrolyte shots, Advil and caffeine boosts – she helped me get over the last 4 miles and through a wicked thunderstorm to the journey’s end alive where we enjoyed a fabulous tail gate party. But I was shaken. I was not prepared for the long haul or the hurdles I faced that day – just the wonderful experience I had anticipated for so long – and as a result I put someone else in the position of saving me.

Let me give you fair warning – the mountains are NOT the place to discover your weaknesses – at least not your physical ones. While I thought I was prepared for everything my mind could conceive of happening, I clearly was not prepared for a physical crisis of my own. Those things simply didn’t happen to me.  Like the bridesmaids in today’s Gospel, I had brought my lamp with the usual amount of oil in it, but I did not bring the right kind or enough oil to keep my lamp burning through the unexpected and the revealing judgment of the mountains.

Thoughts of heaven can be spurred by joyous mountainous adventures, the grief of death close to home, or tragedies like those we recently witnessed in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs that strip away our comfort and complacency and bring to mind the question:  what awaits us at the end of our earthly journey? Is it a festive feast from a tailgate like the group I hike with has at the end of every adventure? After a long day in the mountains, we know that we have earned our celebration with plenty of dust on our boots to prove it. It is heaven in a parking lot or highway pullout.

Jesus tells His Disciples that the kingdom of heaven will be like a wonderful wedding banquet. As believers we believe that we have all been invited to this most wondrous occasion. It is a comforting thought, isn’t it – especially after enduring life here on earth.

But in today’s Gospel, Jesus takes that comfort and does a pretty good job of dispelling it, doesn’t He?  It would seem that our end-times expectations may not be so cut and dry.

We meet ten bridesmaids awaiting a bridegroom’s return for his bride, but he is delayed.  Five of the bridesmaids are described as “wise” for they were prepared for the unexpected by bringing along extra oil for their lamps; the other five are described as “foolish” because they did not bring along extra oil to keep their lamps burning. When the foolish realize they have run out of oil they ask their wise cohorts to share some of theirs but are told to go get their own. The foolish five abandon their posts in search of oil to buy. In their absence the bridegroom arrives, the wedding banquet begins, and upon their return, the foolish bridesmaids find themselves not only shut out of the festivities but denied by the bridegroom.

Matthew shares Jesus’ words as instruction to a community dealing with several issues: a destroyed temple and people questioning what it was to be and judging who could be a Christian. The delay in the promised return of Christ – their Messiah – was causing a flagging vigilance to His teachings. They were weary of crisis after crisis occurring without any sign of deliverance. They were becoming too worldly giving into their desires and straying from God’s while also being overly spiritual – relying on God as a magician who would perform acts at their request and alleviate their troubles.

In those days, people lived with the belief that the end-times were near. There were many apocalyptic teachers and Jesus was one of them. With this story, Jesus sought to clarify what it meant to truly be ready for his return and how to live until that time.

But what are we to make of a bridegroom, that by all accords represents Jesus, who denies entry to the kingdom which we thought was open to all believers? What do we make of a bridegroom that offers welcome to bridesmaids who don’t share and denies it to a few who were simply unprepared?

This Gospel story raises a lot of questions for those of us who follow Jesus.  Just last week we heard Jesus give the Beatitudes –  comforting words that turn our worldly assumptions upside down — that in the brokenness and injustices of this world we find those who are blessed in His eyes. We could dwell on that scripture for quite some time and never tire of it. Today’s Gospel also turns our assumptions upside down, but this is one we are likely to read and then move on from, quickly.

Yet while stern, they are the words of Jesus. Given as direction to his followers. To you and me. As much as I would have liked to preach on the Psalm today, we need to spend some time listening to Jesus.

As Bible commentator Richard Bruner writes, “If we teach only Jesus’ mercies but not his judgements we disfigure the Gospel.”

And boy does this gospel lend itself to me standing up here and scaring you straight – with a fire and brimstone sermon of judgement on who will and won’t be celebrating with me and Jesus in heaven!  But our heavenly fate is not for me, or any human to judge.  Who God choses to know at the hour of His choosing is His judgment alone.

We don’t like to think about the judgment factor as part of the Christian life, as humans both saints and sinners, we never have.  Yet just about every week we profess our belief that Jesus died, descended to the dead, and on the third day rose again and ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the father and will come again to JUDGE THE LIVING AND THE DEAD.

After much blood, sweat and self-condemning tears while trying to discern the Good News in this text, I have come to the conclusion that there isn’t any!!

Just kidding… I have come to the conclusion that this parable is not all about God’s judgement – even though it is our sinful nature to immediately start looking around and pegging who will and won’t be joining us in heaven all the while wrestling with our own failings.

We like to think that we are wise in most contexts, but we secretly admit to being foolish in others. What if that moment of foolishness is the judgment factor? Who are in the insiders and outsiders? The true believers? What is the distinguishing factor of those for whom the door is open?

The Good News is that God frees us from these fears of judgment by giving us His Son and a better way to live. Just like a parent warns a child out of love, so too does Jesus. Jesus loves us too much to leave us as we are or leave us left out. The Gospel today is all about that better way to live. Prepared – like my crew leader was – with plenty of lamp oil, awake, alert and full of anticipation to get you through the waiting time for the wedding banquet and me down the mountain to the tail gate party.

Lamp Oil? Yes, it is all about the lamp oil – your faith.

Last Sunday, we recognized the saints who have gone before us and guided us in our faith journeys.  I dare say they had plenty of lamp oil. They tended it well and brought you along on their journey with plenty of light. But they didn’t get that lamp oil at the last minute – well maybe they did, but it is likely they had been nurturing their faith for a lifetime.  We are reminded today that our relationship with Jesus, though nurtured by many, must be our own. Our faith is a gift from God but he gives us the reigns to maintain the condition of it; tending to it must be a part of our daily life, not just at special times like baptism, confirmation, Easter and Christmas, or the death of a loved one. Our faith cannot be bought or borrowed at the last minute. Martin Luther thought the condition of our faith was so important he gave us the Small Catechism to nurture the formation of it daily.

Fuel your faith by putting Christ first in your life, being obedient to his word, abiding in Christ and letting the Holy Spirit work in you and through you, acting in love towards others, and sharing your faith, the Good News, with the world. You might be saying “but Erika, hold on there –  we are Lutherans! We are saved by grace, not by our practices.” Being prepared, tending to the oil, keeping the faith is not about works righteousness – we cannot earn our way into Gods favor or His kingdom.  But we can live in a way that frees us from the tension of waiting for an unknown end.

A fueled faith is an engaged faith – one that is found through prayer, trust, and gratitude.  Let God nurture a relationship with you before you have an emergency and you will find that you have enough faith to get you through those dark nights of the soul and the unexpected.

The thrill of being baptized into new life and attending praise services with awesome music that leave you feeling charged for God are a wonderful part of the Christian experience, but true faith means abiding and trusting in Him in the day to day busyness of life, sometimes in drudgery with little of the ecstatic flair of worship. It means having enough oil for God to use you as a light in the lives of others. It means living the kind of Christian life that allows you to go to sleep at night with a good conscience, not proud of the good works you have done or the desires you didn’t give into but knowing that you have honestly prepared and tended to the condition of your faith. God offers a special wisdom to those who belong to Jesus. We await the kingdom with eager readiness because we know that Jesus turns all the demands of God’s law–our lives spent in judgement — into pure grace and mercy.

My last LPA (Lay Pastoral Associate) training retreat in October focused on the art of writing the sermon. We were introduced to the concept of discerning the text through a trouble in the Bible –  trouble in the world –grace in the Bible – grace in the world format. Sounds pretty straightforward until one is faced with a text like today’s. My Floral Park adventure was less of a challenge than this!

““Truly I tell you I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore for you do not know the day or the hour.”  I ask you, where is the grace???

Believe it or not, the grace was there from the beginning.  ALL were invited to the wedding banquet and the door to the party is still open for you. The Lord is still coming – and you have been invited to greatest wedding banquet ever held. Now don’t panic because you forgot to fill up the oil this morning. We are living in the grace period and you happen to be in a pretty fancy filling station where all the pumping is done for you. So what are you waiting for? Open your heart, open your life, and say, “YES!” I want some of that oil. Now, live in the light of Jesus and await His kingdom with joy.

Amen.

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!