The Gift of Grace

“This is what the Lord says – HE who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” – Isaiah 43: 16-19

As I contemplated the dearth of topics I could pontificate on for my end of year offering to you, I considered sharing my year in review, but then if you are a regular reader you already know how completely blown away I am by what has transpired. With that said, I will spare you the details of that novella until I get my feet under me again. Let me just say that if you had asked me last year at this time what would come to pass in 2018, I dare say that none of the life-changing happenings that made this year the paramount chapter of happiness in the book of my life were even being contemplated, let alone hoped for as 2017 came to a close.

We are approaching the waning days of December and for me, as a Christian, it is the time of Advent – a time of anticipation and personal preparation for the coming of our Savior. It is also a time filled with traditions and festivities handed down to us from time immemorial. If you are anything like me – sentimental, deep thinking and even deeper feeling, you may feel everything more acutely at this time than other times of the year. Everything we anticipated and planned for has either come to pass or has not.  Another journey around the sun is almost complete and inherent in that journey is the realization that this moment in time can never be repeated, ever again. And yet, we have been here before – year after year we close out a chapter of our lives and open a new one with traditions that encourage us to hold on to the past all the while looking ahead to the unforeseeable future. Do we look forward with satisfaction at a year well-lived and with hope for what is to come or do we remain focused on a past that we cannot change mired in judgment and/or regret?

When you look at your past what do you see?  What thoughts and feelings arise? Is it a painful memory, one of grief for lost loved ones, an opportunity lost, a heartbroken, a chain that binds and confines your soul? Or perhaps the past brings about a smile of gratitude, puts a skip in your step over a goal achieved, or triggers a longing for the good old days. For me, it is a mixture of the two. Following the deaths of my parents, I struggled to see the good amid the sorrow and to let go of the past and look forward to the future. It’s not that I didn’t want a fresh start on life (one that we are promised every day, by the way) or wish that my life could be transformed from one that seemed stuck in the same old familiar patterns, telling the same story, and hearing the same old voices (usually the critical ones). But for a time, moving on from grief felt like I was dishonoring my parents and moving farther away from their presence in my life. In addition, the past was known to me – familiar – I was used to and longed for the way things were.

Sometimes we can be so focused on holding on to the past – the good, the bad, and the what-could-have-been – that we get lost in the wilderness of what was.

Regardless of how our past plays out in our minds, regardless of what did or did not happen back then, our past has made us who we are today but it does not have to define us, it does not have to lay claim to your life.

We are about to celebrate again the birth of the One who broke through the wilderness of what was to give us the promise of what could be and what is – our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – God incarnate. We are told of His coming by a wandering figure – not someone sitting in a royal palace or government seat or even a religious authority.

No, the Good News came to John, “a voice crying in the wilderness,” who tells us to let go of what has laid claim to our lives – repent – if you will – from the powers that be that hold sway – be they political, economic, or status oriented. John tells us to escape the wilderness – to let go of the binding chains of fear, anger, disappointment, guilt, regret. loss, despair, and sorrow and calls us away from life-draining busyness, quenchless ambition, and the need for approval. He speaks of a transformer who will overcome our broken relationships, our broken hearts, and our harsh and critical voices. All of these things that lay claim to our lives, that have filled our past, taught us “how to live,” and shaped our character – none are more powerful than God.

John tells us to wake up to, break free from, and deal with these fraudulent powers that claim our souls so we can have a new life claimed by God’s faith in us, hope for us, and love of us.

None of us know what tomorrow or the year ahead will bring. In the closing days of 2017, I certainly could not have fathomed preaching would be a regular part of my summer and fall schedule of events let alone meeting the love of my life and getting married nine months later!  I wish I had opened and lived in the gift already given to me – the joy of trusting in God’s amazing grace for the days to come and letting go of the past that I could not change no matter how hard I tried.

We can face the unknown with the same old patterns, practices, and voices in our head or we can look forward in the freedom of God’s grace. Imagine starting the new year off with a fresh start, anticipating the unknown with confidence that a way will be made for us – no matter how daunting, unimaginable, or seemingly improbable the future is.

What would your life look like each day if you let God’s grace – faith, hope, and love have primary claim? What opportunities might you take? What doors might open for you? How might your relationships prosper? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to wake up each morning with the courage to face the day knowing that you have been healed from the brokenness of yesterday through the redeeming grace of God’s love? Well, you can.

As you look back on 2018 – look back and be satisfied that your life was worthy no matter what did or did not get accomplished and, as you look forward, rejoice in the freedom given to you to start fresh with hope – every single day.

My Christmas prayer for you is that you find God’s gift of grace that is waiting for you under your tree and that you will open your heart to it. Let His faith in you, hope for you, and love of you strengthen you and guide all that you do in the days to come.

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and your happiest New Year ever!!

Let your light so shine!

 

Leaving Jesus

A sermon based on John 6:56-71 

Well, here we are at the end of the loaf. Over the last four weeks we have had a crash course 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 true source of life to the hungry masses; we learned the difference between a bread that perishes and a bread that endures for eternity; we heard Jesus declare himself to be the Bread of Life, the living bread that came down from heaven to truly nourish us; and last week Jesus professed that He will give us his own self, his own flesh and blood, to be one with us in relationship to sustain us on our journey into eternity. Pretty heady stuff if you ask me.

In today’s Gospel reading, we come to the end of heady bread. Jesus is met with disenchantment. Even his closest followers are having a hard time comprehending what Jesus is telling them. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Sensing that he was losing some if not many in his audience, rather than changing his message to an easier one to grasp, he asks them if they will understand when they see him, the Son of Man, ascend to the heavens. He further explains that it is the Spirit, His spirit, that gives abundant life; the flesh and will of man is useless in this regard.

Ironically, Jesus finds himself speaking to an emptying room, as He was preaching in the Synagogue, the place where his followers expected to at least draw near to the presence of God. And yet, when God offers them more than just nearness but oneness with him, it is more than his listeners can handle.

You would think that by their initial reaction that Jesus had just stated his position on the upcoming election rather than offering an invitation to an abundant life in relationship with him. Yet many leave him – many who had followed him steadfastly, who had witnessed and believed in the miracles he had performed. What he was proposing was just too much. No longer was he simply feeding and healing and meeting their needs for survival; Jesus was asking them to reject this life and come to Him, to think beyond the literal, to imagine life in abundance, life beyond measure. Life beyond their control. They don’t even have to choose. Jesus said, “For this reason, I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” God has already granted them the invitation to a relationship with Jesus and a life with Jesus in them, it is already theirs if they will only believe.

A life beyond our control. We don’t even have to choose. Jesus said, “For this reason, I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” God has already granted us the invitation to a relationship with Jesus and a life with Jesus in us – it is already ours if we will only believe.

From our enlightened perspective on this happening of some 2000 years ago, you would think we would “get it.” But, we live in a reality of belief and unbelief And, with our enlightened perspective comes lives that are complex, perhaps even intellectualized. We live in chaotic times governed by money, power, status, profession, principles, policy, and possessions; times focused on individualism, validation, and justification.  times demand logic and reason. We deal with this chaos and busyness and brokenness on a daily basis – living it, fleeing from it, sometimes thriving on it.

Deal with life long enough and sooner or later you realize that one aspect of life is complicated, even scary at times – that of relationship. It is at once something so inherent and vital to human life and yet something that can cause so much pain. Relationship opens us up to vulnerability, the unknown. Which is why it is so much easier to place our trust in that which we know, that which we can control – the self. Reason tells us so. But God is asking us to reject this kind of thinking and come to him. To cast the burdens of this world onto Him and live in abundance with him. And we so want to, don’t we? We try. But sometimes this world gets the better of us.

There are times when this relationship that God offers us may not seem so apparent – when God seems very far away – during the dark of the night, perhaps, when our failings and insecurities replay in our mind, or by the bedside of a loved one in the hospital, wondering why?  Or maybe in the early morning,  when you wake up alone and wonder why your spouse has left you or why no one wants to be with you? Or in the waning light of day as home beckons and you think about your family – the “family that won’t speak to one another” – or the friend who let you down again – and you wonder why things have not turned out the way you hoped. You wonder if they ever will.

Because sometimes our lives with God seem no different, no “better” than those who live theirs on their own accord – who have the freedom to just be and do, trusting only in what they know – themselves. Whether it is our family life, our jobs, our money, the things we do for fun, our sports, our health, our relationships, our time, our goals, our goals for our kids – we don’t just trust these things to anyone and when we don’t trust these things to anyone, someone, God – these things become our god.

I grew up in the church. My parents were church planters and builders. My earliest memories are often from times in church. I always knew that Jesus loved me and oh, how I loved Jesus. My Grandma used to delight in telling the story of seeing the 5-year-old me standing on my bed with that Sunday’s bulletin in hand preaching the Good News and singing Holy, Holy, Holy at the top of my lungs. I had a zest for life and a love for the Lord right up into high school. But then things began to change. In my senior year life started getting complicated. The friends I had run with had graduated, getting straight A’s didn’t seem to cut it anymore, there was disorder in my family and disorder in the church, we were moving once again, my life seemed to be out of control – and Jesus seemed very far away.

I loved to exercise though, and I was good at it – from lifting weights to running and everything in between. I found some solace from the chaos that I was fleeing in those activities. But it wasn’t enough. I still needed a sense of control. At that point of my life, food and exercise seemed to be the only things I could control, and I succeeded.  I was good at something again! I became so focused on that feeling of success and control that I didn’t need my family, my friends, or the church that was once my life, or God.

This is how betrayal works, at least according to John. As John scholar Karoline Lewis writes, “betrayal in John is not believing that the abundant life Jesus offers you is real. Betrayal is that which causes you to believe that this life is for everyone else but you. Betrayal is anything and everything that makes you think you aren’t someone Jesus could love.”[1]

Yeah, I knew God loved the world, but me? No not anymore, no, I was a special case, not worthy of the kind of indiscriminate love that came without demands or stipulations. I believed that rejection and marginalization was simply my lot in life; that real relationship lived only in my hopeful imagination. Real relationship? That meant belonging, intimacy, want, desire, mutuality, reciprocity, nurture, safety. That kind of relationship exists only in books and movies. The same books and movies that tells us that God manipulates instead of promises. That’s the kind of God the disciples were expecting and in which the world still wants us to believe.

When you are in the mucky thick of it, life, real life, life lived, abundant life is hard to fathom, hard to accept, hard to imagine that it could be yours. And so, like Judas did, I walked away. I went away to a place that only I could control. I couldn’t deal with the perfection I thought a relationship with God required nor could I handle the unknowns of life that requires us to trust in God!

We all have the proclivity in us to walk away from this relationship, to leave Jesus.  As Lewis writes, “Judas’s betrayal (in John) is fundamentally a rejection of relationship, but it is also an unwillingness to receive life beyond measure, an inability to accept that abundant life could be true, a reluctance to envision, to dream, to picture that when God said God loves the world that it actually meant him – and means you.”

By age 23, I had become the master of my sorry destiny. Until I died twice, once in my bedroom when my heart stopped beating and again in an ambulance. I found myself at rock bottom, in ICU with tubes sticking out of every cavity of my body and wires taped to my chest.  I remember hearing the doctor tell my parents that my 54-pound body was dying and if things didn’t turn around drastically I would be lucky to make it another 4 weeks. In that moment I realized that all the control I thought I had gained through mastering my body had, in reality, brought me to the gates of hell.

Sometimes we don’t know what we have lost until it is gone – and I had lost everything.

Oh Lord, to whom can I go??

But you know – the foundation of my life had never left me, God was always there – I just had to believe again – to let him in.

There was no altar call, no rapturous music, no radiant light – just the beeping of monitors and the hushed hospital hustle outside my curtained off room and the promise of a better life, a more abundant life – waiting for me. When I gave my life back to Jesus – including the food and the control – he fed me with the Bread of Life – and there was peace in my heart again and a renewed will to live. I entered a residential treatment program in the desert of Arizona that was grounded in Christ. Through equine therapy I learned how to trust again and grow in relationship with someone other than myself. Most importantly, l discovered what a relationship with God was all about. It wasn’t one of manipulation or control. It was a relationship of grace and love. To this day there isn’t a moment that I do not thank Him for the breaths I take and the abundant life I have in him.

This is what the closing of John 6 talks about. Peter knows the truth. When asked if he too will walk away he answers, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter has experienced Jesus, sat around the fire and eaten with Jesus, and he believes that Jesus is who He says He is. God in the flesh. God committed to relationship and wanting to be in relationship.

And yes, we do know that Peter experiences his own crisis of belief later in the story – just as I still do from time to time, but in John, Peter does not deny who Jesus is, Peter denies who Jesus wants him to be.

We forget just how vulnerable we are when in relationship. Relationships mean being known and knowing. Not wanting to be known for what we really are we acquiesce to fear and walk away especially from our relationship with God. We walk away before he gets too close. We trust only certain aspects of our lives to him, sometimes just our dying. We temper God’s desire for relationship with us in our living, never mind that He came to us in flesh and blood to be one with us, to know our joys and our pain, and to die for us so that we may have him in us for all time. We put the truth of His incarnation in a box as if it was only a temporary moment in God’s time and not meant for our time.

But now, knowing the truth – knowing what it is to be in relationship with God and to live with Him in me – it is with joy and humbleness that I am reminded every Sunday in The Bread and Wine of the Spirit that lives in me, leads me, and sustains me.  And it is an abundant life with Jesus, the intimacy of the relationship with God – that I want you to know. You too are fed with the Living Bread of Jesus – His choice has been made, all you need to do is say yes Lord, count me in, I believe.

 

Amen.

[1] Not Just Bread Anymore, Karoline Lewis. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3676

 

Of Walls and Wilderness

A sermon based on Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 23, Ephesians 2:11-22, and Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Grace and peace to you, brothers and sister in Christ, from God our Father.

I had a slightly different sermon prepared for you today. For those of you who read my midweek prologue you probably came to church expecting to hear politics from the pulpit or at least the inference of such. Alas, I woke up yesterday morning knowing that the divisions of which I was going to speak wasn’t what I needed to hear right now. Trusting in Pastor Mark Gravrock’s wisdom from 2 weeks ago – I am going to guess that what I need to hear today may just be what you need to hear too.

And so there I lay at 6:30 a.m. Saturday after a night of writing the sermon on walls I had planned for you, restless and a tad weary, I was in need of good news. Frankly the level of angst and division that is polarizing our nation and world has been taking a toll on me. Maybe it is because my job in a financial advisor’s office exposes me to our client’s rollercoasters of emotion as the political and economic frenzy of empire impacts the very thing we manage – their money – on a daily basis. Let’s just say the last couple of weeks of have been especially trying.

Needless to say, the last thing I wanted to hear about at 10:15am on a beautiful Sunday morning is more about the things that divide us -the dividing walls of hostility between “us” and “them,” whether based on ethnicity, religious, political, or economic views, class, citizenship status, gender, culture, job position, or whatever else of this world that we choose to hang our identities on or take offense at. No, this what I really want to hear is someone saying ‘Erika, on October 1st, your sabbatical starts!” But I digress…

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Jesus tells his disciples upon their return from their first missions without Him -they had preached, they had cast out demons, they had anointed with oil those who were sick, they had called people to wake up to God’s call and purpose for their lives. In other words, they had been really busy doing some pretty heavy stuff.

Other translations of the bible use the word “wilderness” – come away to the wilderness and rest awhile. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? We are lucky to live in a playground of wilderness. Lately, our slice of wilderness is looking very much like the one Jesus and his disciples experienced in today’s Gospel – “And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.  As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd;” Sound familiar? What wilderness?  No matter where they went the masses found them. Bringing with them the immensity of human need and despair.

Mark refers to a wilderness often throughout his Gospel. In fact, he opens his Gospel with John the Baptist appearing as a voice in the wilderness telling of the one who is to come. Jesus spends 40 days in a wilderness. While the wilderness can be a place of rest and solace and recreation like that to which Jesus invited his disciples today, it can also be a very hostile place – a place to escape from.

When I woke up yesterday morning, it dawned on me that the sermon I was going to preach sounded an awful lot like that kind of wilderness – the hostile one. The wilderness that is played out on the opinion pages of our newspapers and broadcast across the airwaves and social media. The wilderness of empire where politics and power separate us from humanity and hope. The wilderness of “Us vs. Them” and Right vs. Left power plays. The wilderness of broken relationships and broken trust. The wilderness of lives and families torn apart by addiction and violence, of communities divided by hate. The wilderness of loneliness. The wilderness where we are consumed with working, collecting, amassing, and generally “getting ahead” to the detriment of our spirits, our relationships, and rest.

Oh, my goodness, are we ever living in a wilderness of walls and human despair!  We are just like the masses of lost sheep rushing to Jesus in need of a Shepherd. Living behind walls that separate us from God and one another, longing for the healing of our hurts, wanting to belong, searching for peace.

The scriptures I had read over and over again in preparation for today took on a whole new meaning for me. So perfect for our time and our place in this wilderness – they are full of Good News!  In Jeremiah, we hear of a promised shepherd for the world (the Shepherd in those days -as we learned from pastor Mark last week – was symbolic of a King.) While corrupt leadership had “scattered” the sheep, lead them astray and dashed their hopes, God gathered the remnants of his flock back to him and promised the coming of a righteous shepherd. When we place our hopes and trust in leaders of this world we will no doubt be lead astray and have our hopes disappointed at some point. But God is the good shepherd, and when we place our hope and trust in Him we will always know justice and good care.

We see in today’s Gospel, the stark contrast of Jesus to that of the corrupt King Herod we witnessed last week, as Jesus takes on the role of the good shepherd. Despite having been rejected in his hometown, despite having received news that his comrade John the Baptist has been killed, despite crossing over the sea and the barriers it represents many, many times, despite being tired and hungry and in need of rest, Jesus sees the crowds of people who are “like sheep without a shepherd,” and has compassion for them and he begins to teach them. They are brought out of their wilderness and healed.

We are reminded by the 23rd Psalm that our Lord will give us all that we need. That in Him we will find a place to rest and restore our broken hearts and burdened minds. We are assured that He will lead us in the right ways – not for fulfillment of our worldly desires but for those of a higher calling. He will comfort us when fear and evil try to separate us from Him. He will stand with us in the face of our enemies and feed us together at His table – no need for a wall here. We are promised goodness and mercy in all our days.  This Lord who is our shepherd is with us always. He goes from being a God above us to one with us, accompanying us in our place of wilderness

And then, we hear of God’s ultimate promise to us from Paul in his letter to the divided people of Ephesus – Christ is our peace. In the ultimate act of shepherding, Jesus went out into the hostile wilderness and gave his life for us – declaring peace and freedom from the shackles of sin on new terms, a peace and freedom forged not by the powers of Empire in its various forms, but in the blood of the Shepherd on the cross. Through the cross, the wall dividing Jew and Gentile, citizen and stranger, those who are us and those who are them, was broken. And that is only the beginning. God in Christ made one humanity of the two.  Not making us uniform but rather uniting us with all our complexities in Christ as Jew and Gentile; citizen and stranger, us and them. This unity is not of our doing. It is out of the grace of God. This is the church and Christ is the cornerstone.

It doesn’t stop there. Paul tells the people of Ephesus – and the words should ring just as true to us today – remember who you were, see who you are now.  Remember when you were dead through your trespasses, God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us – made us alive together with Christ—by grace we have been saved! Through his great love for us, Christ calls us, his lost sheep, out the wilderness – the wilderness of exclusion and hostility and divisiveness. He alone tears down the walls that we build up around ourselves, walls that separate us from Him and “them.”  Christ calls us to a place where we are united together in Him. This togetherness in Christ – our good and compassionate Shepherd – empowers us to welcome the stranger, to teach and share the Good News, to have compassion and suffer with those who are wandering in a wilderness of their own – not just on Sunday but every day as well as on the opinion pages and our social media posts. Doesn’t that sound like a nice respite from this wilderness of walls we have been wandering in?

We will never know perfect peace or unity in this world. Our defenses and offenses will always be aroused by the sins inherent to humanity. But through Christ we have a place to go where walls are invisible. This place is a daring place where a different kind of power – the self-outpoured, boundary-crossing power of Christ’s cross – is at work.  We can trust this power to undermine every wall that divides us, to heal our hurts, to unmask our defenses, and bring us peace until we are as Paul wrote, “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

There is hope. Saturday morning, I heard a voice in the wilderness- it was good news – as I relished the extra minutes of pillow-time with the cool breeze wafting in through my window contemplating where in the world my sermon on walls was going to take me. Ye, I heard good news on the news! The Mayor of Branson, MO was being interviewed in the aftermath of the duck boat sinking tragedy where 17 sightseers lost their lives and many more were injured. Her comments are just what I needed to hear this morning and echoed what I hope you will take away from my sermon today: “We are all about taking care of our citizens,” she said, “but what makes us unique is we are all about taking care of strangers too. When you come here we love on you no matter whether you are here as a citizen or as someone we have never met before.”

Yeah, I think she was at a bible study this week. I think she got the message.

There are no walls of division or exclusion with Christ. We will never be alone in the wilderness. We can come to Him and rest awhile. And Erika needs a sabbatical.

Amen.

Do Not Fear, Only Believe (Jesus Changes Everything)

A sermon inspired by Lamentations 3:1-33; Mark 5: 21-43

The call had come. The call I had prepared myself for but was not anticipating – I thought things had stabilized for my Dad, but my brother’s voice on the other end of the line some 475 miles away –  said everything without needing words. My Dad, who had had a couple of bumpy days after falling and hitting his head had just moved into his new residence at St. John’s Nursing Home – into the skilled nursing wing – a transition in life we didn’t plan for but knew was for the best. He lasted there 4 hours when the chaplain that stopped in to visit alerted the staff that something didn’t seem right. When my brother called, Dad had already been transported to ICU. Fred didn’t know what was going on with him, but I had better come. Don’t try to drive tonight – he said – just get here.

I knew this highway well – the one fraught with panic, emotion, tears, and farm machinery that pulls out in front of you and robs you of any polite composure behind the wheel. That I was making this dreaded drive across Montana again so soon after my mother’s death left me desperate for answers that were not forthcoming from God. WHY? Why was he doing this to my Dad, a man that had given so much of himself and deserved so much better. WHY was he doing this to our family?

From Lamentations – “He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.”

I was angry. I was desperate. I felt guilty for living so far away and attending to the ends of my parent’s lives from afar – detached from the wasting away of life that comes before death. I was afraid. Afraid of what saying goodbye would be like – I hadn’t had that chance with my mother – I was afraid of what death would feel like as it overtook him. I was afraid of living without him. I was afraid of life without my dad. My heart was pounding, and my ears were rushing and the pit that grew within my stomach began to overwhelm me as I drove on. And then Jesus heard me.

From Lamentations – “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope…”

It was up to God now – like it always had been. Even though my faith was my foundation, it had been very hard for me to wholly trust and not try to control God – to make my ways His way. This ending, this sending – this story of the greatest man I had ever known was not supposed to end like this.

You see, the amazing thing about Jesus is when I finally gave Him my will and fully trusted my Dad to Him, a certain peace came over me. My heart quit pounding, my ears quit rushing, and while my tears didn’t stop flowing, my eyes could see clearly again. His grace is amazing.  Jesus changes everything.

The Lord’s mercies are new every morning, but sometimes we have to experience the darkness of night to appreciate them – and sometimes those nights can be pretty dark if not downright scary.

We are in good company when we find ourselves searching for God, feeling abandoned by his presence, feeling forsaken and heart broke. The Bible is full of stories of suffering and sorrow, ire and isolation, fear and frustration; full of human struggle and seeking – Adam, Eve,  Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Joseph, Naomi, Job, David, Jeremiah, Jonah – all the great ones with great but in no way always happy stories.

The words of hope we heard this morning in the reading from Lamentations came from an author who wrote, in the 2 preceding chapters, verses of incredible mourning for the once great and promised city of Jerusalem now in ruins, her people slaughtered, and the Lord’s temple destroyed. Words of hope preceded by words of mourning not only for what had  become of Jerusalem but, like many of us who have had our lives turned upside down and our greatest hopes dashed – for the special beauty of that life. He grieved not only for the past that was lost but for the future he had expected and hoped for. And, he like we, searched for a God who, in the midst of such immense, even violent suffering, seemed to be a stranger.

Those people knew God to be steadfast in his mercy and in his wrath. Their circumstances of suffering were a direct result of their sin. They navigated in a wilderness of their own making. And they lived in fear of God, rather than in relationship with him.

There are times when we too, find ourselves in a wilderness. Alone. Afraid. Angry. Questioning the goodness and presence of God amidst the messiness of life. Who hasn’t wondered if there even is a god?

Afraid that if we get angry with God –  if we let Him have it –  voicing the injustices in our lives and the world –  he will utterly reject us; or perhaps it is more a sense of fear of losing control of the situation –  afraid of relinquishing to God the outcome we desire.  In so doing, when we hold back on God with our anger – AND OUR TRUST, we construct our own barriers to an authentic relationship with him as well as saying that God’s power and mercy is finite.

Walter Brueggeman, a renowned and quite popular on YouTube, Protestant, Old Testament scholar and theologian, says that you can’t have an authentic relationship with God If all you can do is praise Him.

Luckily for us, our God whose wrath is measured, is also a God whose mercy is unmeasurable. And so, to know the weight of the sin that is of this world and to better know us, he sent his Son to bear with us and to ultimately bear our sin.

And Jesus changed everything.

Let’s take a look at what an authentic relationship with God, our Lord and Savior Jesus looks like – one in which we put voice to our lament,  where we let God in on the matters at hand, and trust that  every morning is new and full of mercy:

There was a woman, suffering for 12 long years with an affliction that made her unclean – that cast her out of her community – that she could do nothing to resolve or control. She longed to be well and had tried everything physically possible to be well. Seeing doctor after doctor, spending all she had but nothing worked.

Imagine her frustration with a body that wouldn’t function as it was supposed to – that caused her pain –  that had betrayed her and bankrupted her.

Imagine her loneliness – isolated; cast out by societal rules for something she could not control.

Imagine her loss of hope as doctor after doctor failed her.

From Lamentations – “I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; against me alone he turns his hand, again and again, all day long.”

She cried out to Jesus – she made her plight known and Jesus changed everything.

She had hoped for healing. She got so much more.

“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.”

For so long fear and illness had defined her – they still had their grip on her. But Jesus’ gives her more than she could ever have imagined. She is no longer just “a woman,” but a “daughter.” Jesus claimed her as his own and restored her to community as one whose “faith” has “made her well”.  Promise and peace have been added to the new reality in her life. The healing of her disease comes as almost an afterthought.

There was a father, a religious leader in the community, who was bereft and urgently seeking help for his dying daughter – who finds help but is put aside by other pressing matters and then that help comes too late. His hopes are dashed. His faith shaken.  Gone is a life that had yet to begin, that held so much promise and had brought so much joy. He was a leader in the community and yet he still was met with suffering.  Pain knows no boundaries, but it appears that sometimes faith does.

Imagine his despair as he ponders the unfairness of this broken world – that his little girl should die while he is left behind to mourn.

Imagine his anger that he of all people could not protect his daughter from the ravages of her illness.

Imagine his broken heart –  that he would never hear her jubilant laughter or watch her dance again.

From Lamentations – “He has made my flesh and my skin waste away and broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me sit in darkness like the dead of long ago.”

Jesus sees beyond the doubt. Jesus changes everything.

“Do not fear, only believe.”

 Jesus says and with those words, resurrects a life out of fear and doubt into one lived in trust and faith.

There was a man who walked among us, who brought the dead to life and helped the blind to see. Who for a time was celebrated and followed for the things he did and the words he spoke. But like so many of us – just when we are at the top of our game – he got knocked down, he found himself alone – he felt utterly rejected by his friends and his Father – as he bore within his body and spirit the physical manifestation of the sins of the world.

Imagine his terror as he contemplated his fate.

Imagine his sense of abandonment as he waited through the darkest hours of his life alone among sleeping “friends.”

Imagine his sheer sadness and heaviness of heart over the sins of this world.

Imagine the agony He endured on the cross – the mocking and scorning, the pain and the death just so that he could be one with us, to know our struggles and deepest hurts, and so that we of all people, could have everlasting life – freed from the sin that keeps us in darkness, and a life filled with the light of new mercies every morning.

From Lamentations – “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases his mercies never come to an end.

Jesus changed everything. He came to be with us to bear with us in our darkest hours and give us all that we need. His mercies are there for us each morning – if we seek him and trust that he will see us through. Saved by grace, we are given Jesus’ strength, wisdom, guidance, power and discernment to get through every moment of every day.

Jesus changed everything for me. I made it home in time to hear my Dad say my name one last time. He passed from my arms into the arms of Jesus the next morning. Death was not as I had pictured it would be – at once rather matter of fact – at once incredibly holy.  The fear I expected was instead a quiet peace. The cries of my heart were not out of anger or abandonment but out of relief and acceptance of an end and a beginning. Jesus changes everything.

Since that day that he brought peace to a heart filled with anguish, I have known times of darkness again. But I have not faced it alone. His mercies are there every morning –  giving me just what I need – not always what I want or expected – but always what I need.

From Lamentations – “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

Look to Jesus. Do not be afraid. Believe and go on living as He leads you – with faith.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness, oh God.

He is there for you too.

Amen.

Thoughts at the End of a Life-Changing Journey

“In times when everything is changing, when everything seems to be in transition, when nothing seems certain, God plants people in our lives with voices of hope. These are those who in our times of suffering point us toward the day when suffering will end. They reassure us in times of doubt that we can have faith. They remind us of our baptismal callings and of the God who makes a way out of no way. They remind us of God’s purpose and God’s love for us. They believe in miracles, not least of which is the miracle of God calling us to fulfill God’s purposes. And when we cannot, they remind us that God claims us as beloved anyway, just because.”

Three years ago, I read those words as I was idly skimming through a random Lutheran website. Yeah, I know you are asking who randomly skims Lutheran websites?? Well, I did at the time -and do so more fervently now –  but I began to slow down as the words caught me with my guard down and my heart quickened.

Every single word spoke to me. This was who I wanted to be. THIS was WHO I am called to be.

And so, I took a giant leap of faith toward fulfilling that dream. This morning, two years of challenging, inspiring, and thrilling study of God’s word and the Lutheran faith with an abundance of self-discovery thrown in for good measure came to an end as I became a certified Lay Pastoral Associate of the Montana synod of the Lutheran church.

When I began this journey, it was to be a voice of hope in the lives of others. Little did I know that I would be the one needing a beacon of hope, a reassuring voice leading me through some very dark days of grief and personal wilderness, reminding me that God does indeed end all suffering and that no matter how much I questioned His will –  His grace would set me free. This program and my fellow classmates became that voice.

In the process, I gained an even greater appreciation of my faith and deepened my relationship with the Lord. I have grown as a person and as a disciple. I have been inspired to think beyond what I assumed was my calling in life and dared to open my heart and my mind to the ways and will of the Lord. This class became my rock and my salvation – giving me something to focus on and find myself through during the most difficult time of my life – losing both my parents.

As I stood before the synod assembly this morning, I so wished my parents could have finally seen their daughter accomplish something she set out to do with such passion and heart; but losing them both as I delved into the tenets of my faith made everything we profess as followers of Christ that much clearer – there is more to this life and beyond this life than I will ever know, our God is a loving, merciful God and the promise of the resurrection is real. I have been forever changed and by trusting in Him, I was able to stand strong in spirit with a happy heart again.

Through my wayward and wandering life, He has prepared me to be one who in times when everything is changing, when everything seems to be in transition, when nothing seems certain  – is a voice of hope for you; one who in times of suffering points you toward the day when your suffering will end; one who reassures you in times of doubt that you can have faith – because I know what it means to doubt and to see; one who reminds you of your baptismal calling and of the God who makes a way  – an amazing way – out of no way; one who reminds you of God’s purpose and God’s love for you; one who believes in miracles, not least of which is the miracle of God calling me to fulfill God’s purposes; and one who – when you cannot – will remind you that God claims you as His beloved anyway, just because.

Tonight, my heart could not be happier or more at peace. I have no idea where God is going with this endeavor, but I do know I will let His light so shine through me wherever He leads me.

The Immense Grace of Listening

“Knowing how to listen is an immense grace, it is a gift which we need to ask for and then make every effort to practice.”  – Pope Francis

As I was out running a few mornings ago, I found myself listening. Not to the latest news or my favorite podcast or even Vivaldi (truly some of the best music to run to – try it!). No, I found myself listening to the chorus of chickadees and sparrows breaking the silence of a snow blanketed earth with their morning songs. In that moment, I felt the icy grip of this long, dark winter loosen its bonds on my soul. I wondered if they knew I was listening to their melodies. I wondered if they were responding to my conversation with God. I wondered if they could ever know what a gift they had given me in the act of listening and being listened to. It reminded me of the deep conversation I had with a good friend the night before, one filled with honesty and pain, hope and laughter. As the sun peaked over the mountain top and warmed the frosted valley and my frostbit face, I had a spiritual awakening. I realized that I had been heard.

I know that God always hears my prayers, but at times I don’t always feel like He is listening to me. This time I did, and the feeling of being listened to, of being heard, of being accepted and not judged for my thoughts and insecurities did more for me than any vain attempt to fill the silence with bluster and avoid the uncomfortable intimacy of deep conversation. God’s voice is not always something we can hear or want to hear. His voice reveals to us our deepest truths about who we are – and though that may be painful we also hear that we are His.

At the heart of all relationships is the act of listening.  To be heard by someone close to us is an incredible gift – one that can heal the scars left by this imperfect world and bring us into communion with one another. To listen to someone is to tap into a deeper essence of being one with another – you share a oneness that precludes backgrounds, religions, cultures and class. For in that moment all you are doing is receiving the essence of who they are, welcoming without judgement, the reality of their life. The act of listening leads to new understanding. It allows us to connect to each other at the heart level and discover common ground and new possibilities. It may even reveal opportunities for our own growth and inner healing.

Indeed, the act of listening has incredible power. Anyone who feels they haven’t been listened to can give testimony to this. Those who haven’t been heard by others – especially those close to them –  feel they have been invalidated, that their thoughts have no real worth, that their presence in others’ lives really doesn’t matter, that their troubles are inconsequential, and their goals lacking. Indeed, listening can be a powerful force for good when done well and a powerful force for evil to take hold in someone’s life when done poorly or not at all.

I must admit, I am not the best listener. To be a good listener you need an inner strength and confidence to not need to prove yourself with wise declarations, witty statements, or surface level sympathy. An effective listener does not need to make her presence known other than to let the one who needs to be heard know that she is ready to receive, to welcome, and accept what one has to say. The good listener does not need to fill the silence with platitudes or hear her own voice. The good listener can and must simply share the silence and let the silence speak.

The late Roman Catholic priest Henry Nouwen describes the act of listening as spiritual hospitality. “Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”

Having experienced the healing power of being heard, I am intent on becoming a better listening presence in the lives of others. I think the world needs more listeners – those willing to engage in an exchange from the deepest level of our humanity. Perhaps if we really listened we might all feel more at home with others and ourselves, comforted and encouraged by the grace and peace of authentic relationship.

Listen and let your light so shine.

Reflecting On Life through Death and Learning to Dance Again

“This is what the Lord says—  HE who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” – Isaiah 43: 16-19

We will all eventually die. Learning how to live in this mortal truth has transformed me from my soul to my song.

I have known death from a young age as I watched grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and yes, dogs – die. And, for a long long time – even though my faith was strong –  I was so very afraid of death –  not so much the thought of me dying – for my faith was and is strong –  but the thought of the living on after that must follow when those we love leave us. That inescapable truth was made resoundingly clear in my life this year. Fear and love are forever intertwined – life teaches us this, death makes it real.

It is not an easy truth to grasp – even for those who have watched loved ones die. When my mother died last year, I was not with her. Her death seemed surreal to me – still does at times. One moment she was there –  as I knew she always would be – and the next – I was on the other end of a phone call no one wants to make. Her death journey during Holy Week made it even more, how shall I say it, awe-some? That our ever-loving God would call home his sweet sparrow on the first day of Spring – Palm Sunday, that we would memorialize her on Good Friday, and celebrate her new life with Jesus on Easter Sunday seemed so fitting -and yet her death and our journey through it is one I still have difficulty grasping. Perhaps because we didn’t have the chance to mourn.

I was with father when he died, just over one year later. His death remains very much alive in me – almost as much as his life continues on in I me. I was there for his last breath, I saw the light leave his eyes, and felt the life leave his body. It is a feeling that has accompanied me to bed at night, in the pews at church, but mostly when I am out walking. That my Dad would die after a hard-fought battle with cancer and the rages of sudden onset Alzheimer’s left me numb and yet completely aware of every whisper of his life. The greatest man I had ever known was gone. With his death, I was awakened to the reality of life.

It is in death when our full humanity comes to life. In truth, life is about learning to live through death. We experience death more often than we – at least on the surface – realize. When we graduate high school and college that season of our lives dies as we enter the next stage of adulthood. When we marry our life as individuals ceases. When a relationship ends – a part of us dies – the part we had given to that other person. When we leave a job, that part of our daily life ends. And yet, with each of these deaths we are given the opportunity for new life; they allow us to let go, they cut away the ties from our past, and lead us to discover a new direction in life.

Indeed, in this year I have experienced many deaths. It has been the most sorrow-filled time of my entire life. I have never been one who could let go of people or things –  I am loyal and committed to the end – sometimes to my detriment. Saying good-bye does not come easy for me –  and I have had to say goodbye so many times to so many people and things this year (good grief I even sobbed when I closed the door on my apartment for the last time!) but sometimes we have to say good-bye to live again.

During my journey through grief this year I stumbled upon a gem of a book: “Turn My Mourning into Dancing,” by Henri Nouwen. The title strikes me tonight, this eve of a New Year and the end of year that has left my heart ravaged and my life unfamiliar, because I have found myself dancing, yes DANCING this year away!  I am dancing once again as I reflect on a year of fear and love and the new life borne of them.

As I mourned my mother and father, I made peace with who I am now –  I can be no other than the daughter and woman God created through them 46 years ago. They raised me to shine a light in this world and shine it in honor and love for them I will!  This year, I found my voice and my place. Never have I felt so fulfilled and so right then when I am sharing God’s love and the Good News through Word and Sacrament.

Committing myself to doing more than simply following in Christ’s footsteps but going to wherever He leads me, has transformed my faith from one of rigor to one of complete awe, trust, and love.

As I said goodbye to my family home of 25 years in Billings and my little nest of 4 years in Whitefish, I embarked on a journey of independence and responsibility I hadn’t yet known – proud Columbia Falls home ownership – all in one month!

As I let go of one I was holding on to because I do not fail at love –  I discovered what self-love is all about –  the door to giving and receiving more love to others.

As I struggled with despair and loneliness, I was humbled before God and found that life is far richer when shared with others and that meant letting go of my need to control and my fear of failing and not just share my life with others but give my life to others.

And most of all, I learned yet again that sometimes with great sacrifice comes great reward –  that life is more than great running times and a good night’s sleep –  that puppies are worth lost mileage and every sleepless moment. That out of the ashes of life and death comes new light, new life, and great love. The Ember of my heart.

So yes, as another year passes, as another season of life dies away – I am carried into the new year by the melodies of new life showing me how good it is to dance once again.

Thank you, dear Lord for the lessons of death and the light of new life –  there for us each and every day.

May God bless you and keep you. May the Lord make His face to shine upon you with mercy and grace and give you peace, joy, and new life in the New Year!

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.

Trail Faith

To trust God in the light is nothing, but to trust Him in the dark—that is faith.

~ Charles H. Spurgeon

On a recent Sunday, I was on an adventure in the mountains. Yes, I know I should have been in church, but it was a respite from the everyday life I have been living that was sorely needed. Besides, I was in the mountains thinking about God rather than in church thinking about the mountains, so I think I can claim a bit of redemption, no?

Anyways…. As many of you know, and now the rest of you do, in the few short years that I have resided here in paradise this former eastern Montana flat-lander has acquired quite the affinity for climbing mountains. This is actually quite an amazing feat for me, as anyone who knows me well also knows that there are significant reasons that my parents decided against naming me Grace. My blog site is suitably subtitled Tripping Gracefully through Life One Adventure at a Time. I have a fear of the unknown, a fear of heights, and a fear of losing control. But I digress…

I have acquired this affinity hiking mile after mile on and off trail, up rocky slopes and down scree slides. I have a quick, determined pace; eager to get to the top, but not so eager that I can’t stop to take in the beauty around me, do a bit of photography, and wax philosophically with my hiking partners. I always seem to fall into the lead on the trail, a place I am most comfortable – as it means I am in control – and I am not stepping on the back of anyone’s heels. I am a leader not a follower- I am my father’s daughter. I like to rely on my own compass – not someone else’s and usually it serves me well, usually…

So, on this Sunday there we were, hiking(!!) one of my favorite routes, the epic 22-mile (at least the route we took was that long) Dawson – Pitamakin Loop and after enjoying the best-ever turkey sandwich at Dawson Pass we headed on our way across the very rocky, trippy slope in-route to Pitamakin Pass. I kept thinking this route seemed a lot more precarious than the last time I hiked it 3 years ago… but then the earth shifts and so do rocks, so I pushed ahead. I was in the lead and determined as usual, so determined that it took me awhile to face the facts that we were NOT on the trail – my natural compass was OFF and I had us cliffed out – yes, cliffed out on the Dawson Pitamakin trail (who does that??). Unfortunately, my wayfinding had brought us to a point 200 yards below the actual trail in the portion of cliffs that sent my head spinning the last time I hiked this when I was ON the trail. (Granted, I was not as trail dusted and tested back then.)

Suddenly, this confident mountain goat turned into a quaking, peeping pika. I’ve climbed cliffs far more difficult than the ones towering above us this Sunday, but for some reason I was off my game. I felt out of control, and I froze. I am sure my face went white as a ghost and that turkey sandwich in my tummy suddenly didn’t feel so good. I was embarrassingly afraid. I began to doubt every step I took because my prior confident steps had landed us in a spot with no place good to land! In that moment, all the climbs I have logged disappeared. I didn’t know where to turn. I didn’t have it all together. My determined role as leader went tumbling down the slope with the rocks that did the same. I lost faith in my ability to navigate the terrain.

And then I heard it, this familiar, comforting voice pulling me out of the gripping fear that was causing my eyes to well with tears and my head to spin. “Erika, it’s up this way. Here, take my hand.”

Take it I did. I blindly trusted that someone knew what they were doing, because I sure didn’t. Scrambling up the cliff on a wing and a prayer I put my trust in something other than me. When I couldn’t quite get my trembling leg on the just too high ledge above me, a knee was bent to help me along. And with that, I did it. My innards quit trembling and I think some color returned to my face. I climbed the rest of the way up with vigor – and once I was standing on top I was ready to give my hand to my helper – though he didn’t need it. I felt safe and confident again.

We can’t face everything in life on our own. We weren’t made that way. It is scary to put our trust in someone else and difficult to have confidence in the unknown. We know that we are imperfectly human and thus we are placing trust in imperfect humanity. But when we allow ourselves to be helped by another we allow them to show mercy – acts that both parties can grow from and be blessed by.

It is easy to trust God, when the going is good – not so much when you can’t see around the cliff, or where your next foothold will be. By faith, we know that God is perfect and His power a certainty. When we trust God, we may not know what the outcome will be but we can rest assured in His mercy, knowing He is always with us offering a hand and bent knee along the way.

How kind the Lord is! How good he is!
So merciful, this God of ours!
The Lord protects those of childlike faith;
I was facing death, and he saved me.
Let my soul be at rest again,
for the Lord has been good to me.
He has saved me from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling.
And so, I walk in the Lord’s presence
as I live here on earth!
~ Psalm 116: 5-9