Hope from the Ashes

The ashes I wore on my forehead in observance of Ash Wednesday weighed heavy on my thoughts and heart. I left our evening service feeling as dark and broken as the ashen cross smeared across my forehead.

I have been filled with much sadness, regret, guilt and shame since my brief but once so blessed marriage was annulled. There is heartbreak, a sense of deep loss, and a distinct absence of belonging – belonging to someone and finally belonging in a world that doesn’t always include the individual who is alone. I failed.  He failed. We failed. Our relationship didn’t work.  Our marriage was not the kind of marriage reflected in our vows before God and to one another. When one is more alone in marriage then they were when they were alone in life, the way forward is hard to discern.  Trusting that  God brought us together and trusting that He would see us through no matter the path we chose, we let each other go.

And yet, I could not let it go. For I was afraid. Not afraid of being alone – though that saddened me greatly – no, I was afraid of God –  the retributive God that I had minded all of my days. How could I – me the ever faithful, chaser of God’s own heart- walk away from a covenant I made before God?

And so I wrestled, mightily. My life forever changed – condemned to a darkness one who believes should never know.  I let the darkness get the better of me. I felt compelled to share the darkness of our situation and in so doing I gave more life to it.  In hurt, anger, and shame I said things better left unspoken.  I regret that. That is not who I am.  I brought myself down and away from God. God knew the truth and that should have been enough for me.

I have felt separated from God and the life God intended for me ever since.  I have transgressed from the way I have always strived to live my life – with perseverance and honor – striving only to share hope and shine God’s light into this world. Not dwell in darkness.

Yes, the ashes of Ash Wednesday felt heavy on my soul – long after they had been washed away.  For a few hours, I bore the cross of Christ for all to see – while hanging on to my own cross of shame, regret,  sin –  at least that is what I thought my cross was about.

Later, as I was reflecting on the Words of Ash Wednesday, I realized that I seem to have forgotten the very faith that I profess, the very faith of which I preach the Good Life Saving News.

“God at the margins,
We have wandered far from your home;
again and again, we lose our way.
We turn inward, afraid of the world around us.
We forget that you have saved your people before
and promise to do so again.
Do not remember the deeds of our past,
but turn our faces toward the future,
where your forgiveness is sure,
your welcome is clear,
and your love overflows.
Amen.”

“Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”

“My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.” – from Psalm 51

Oh me, of little faith! The cross I bear is of my own making. The darkness I have held within me is my greatest sin. It has tamed and impoverished my life. I am the one who separated myself from God – He has never let go of me. God did not bring my marriage to an end but He will use every moment of that union and dissolution for good.

I have let fear, self-doubt, guilt, regret,  disappointment, and wounds control my life. God did not put these stifling parameters on me.  I let my brokenness embody my spirit rather than let the Holy Spirit embody me.  I have let life go by me – afraid of what might come at me next.

The ashes weigh heavy. They remind me that life is fragile, finite, precious, and unpredictable. There are no guarantees on tomorrow and the past is but a memory – all we have is the beautiful, painful, everchanging now.  God doesn’t want us to waste this precious gift of life in regret.  He made that perfectly clear in the waters of my and your baptism. I must remind myself of that. My sins are forgiven. God is not my source of condemnation. He is my strength and my shield.

From the ashes God calls forth a question -Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life? Well, if God can quote Mary Oliver –  then so can I – I will pay attention, I will fall down into the grass, I will kneel down in the grass, and I will be idle and blessed – and revel in His presence. with a pure heart and a renewed steadfast spirit within me.

Strengthened I can let go of what I cannot change and focus on every single wild and precious day that lays before me. That is the life God wants for me and it will be good, Changed and strengthened – transformed by pain and redeemed by grace.

The light has shined in the darkness. Lord, have mercy on me.

Grace in the Fall

“For each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth.”

Autumn, my favorite time of year, came and ended early this year – disrupting my much anticipated moments of relishing the peace that settles into our tourist mecca in the waning days of summer’s glorious reign. With a bone-chilling gale-force wind and a threat of white precipitation, my attention was caught, if only briefly, as warm days with gold and rust-hued pleasantries returned to soothe my shaken spirit. And for a week, all was right in the world! Autumn’s cool crisp mornings invigorated my body and brilliant sunsets disguised the encroaching darkness that would soon confine and redefine my activities.

And then, as is so often the case in life, just like that it was gone. Almost overnight the golden glory in the trees was stripped away, and the lollygaggers that had yet to debut their autumn-hued wardrobe were frozen in time, left to wither and shrivel to a boring brown descent. The vibrancy of life was interrupted by the suddenness of death – a painful ending.

“We were robbed!” some, including me, would exclaim. An air of solemnity permeated gatherings. Moments of shared panic ensued as readying for the long nights of winter was packed into already too-short days instead of a few leisurely, festive weeks. And yet, as abrupt as her arrival was with her fierce demands for attention that shocked my system, I find comfort in autumn’s whimsy, and no less so this year.

Of all the seasons we are so fortunate to observe, autumn’s nature feels most promising to me. I have come to realize that there is a quiet, if not hidden, beauty in the dying that takes place – in this season and in life. Life is a continual series of dying’s – endings – that give way to seeds of new life. Parker Palmer, an American author, educator, and speaker, eloquently describes the grace of this truth: “The hopeful notion that new life is hidden in dying is surely reinforced by the visual glories of autumn. (Indeed,) what artist would paint a deathbed scene with the vibrant and vital palette nature uses?”

We often associate the radiance of springtime with the beginning of life. We celebrate the emergence of tender shoots and sprigs of green from the cold, barren, snow-covered earth; beginning a cycle that winds slowly down to the rustle of dying leaves that have fallen back to earth. But something first had to die – come to an end – so that a newer life, fed and strengthened by whatever has been lost, could come alive in its place. It is in the radiant dying in autumn and the barren sleep of winter, that the seeds for the new life born in spring and lived in summer, are first imagined.

Resurrection can only come through death. Fr. Richard Rohr describes this passageway to new life: “Jesus willingly died—and Christ arose—yes, still Jesus, but now including and revealing everything else in its full purpose and glory.” It is in the dyings of life when our full humanity comes to life. In truth, life is born through death. We experience these dyings more often than we – at least on the surface – realize. Ideas, plans, and philosophies die back to engender new ones. When we graduate high school and college that season of life dies as we enter the next stage of life in adulthood. When relationships begin and end, when we marry, when we have children, when we leave a job or a neighborhood, when we begin a new endeavor or pursue a different direction, a part of us dies. Must die. Must end. You can choose to view the dyings and painful endings in life as passages to anger, blame, hatred, depression, and resentment, or you choose to let them be passages to something new, something wider, something deeper. With each of these dyings, we are given the opportunity for new life; they allow us to let go and lead us to discover new directions, new purposes. With every ending, we are given a passageway to something more.

That’s much more hopeful than the idea that life, the moment it appears, begins winding its way inescapably toward death. If you think about it, everything alive in the world and in us is made up of things that have passed before us, gone about the business of dying.

We live in a culture that wants light without darkness, the radiance and revelry of spring and summer without the demands and dying of autumn and winter, the pleasures of life without the pangs of death. But the longer I walk this earth, the more I have come to realize that the fullness of life can only be gained in the tension of this paradox. Life is not diminished by darkness or death. It is made more organic, more wholehearted, more resilient and resplendent. The endless interplay of darkness and light, the dying and rising, the endings and beginnings, the autumns and springs of life remind me that everything is forever being made new.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Colossians 1:19-20

Let your light so shine!

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

 

My prayer this Maundy Thursday

Lord,
Forgive me for the times that I too have been Judas. One cannot betray unless you’ve first been given something to betray. You entrusted Judas to be one of the twelve. You entrusted to me love, friendship, trust, confidence, responsibility, a call – promises and gifts that I have left unopened, broken, or thrown away. This Maundy Thursday, I recognize that I am not deserving of your gracious love.
But you are Jesus. Your economy of grace is different than mine. You washed Judas’ feet just like the other disciples. You loved him with the same love that you loved them. Oh, what wondrous love is this? I want to love like You. I want to live not just for You but like You.
Help me, Lord. In your name, I pray.

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 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.