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Jan. 17 sermon

17 Jan

(… shout out to my friend, Elisabeth, if she is reading this … I hope it’s okay I used you in my sermon!)

I had read through the lectionary texts for today more than a week ago and was prepared to preach this Sunday on something completely different than what follows.  But suddenly, with the events of the past week, my sermon seemed inappropriate.  It seemed small.  It wasn’t where I was pulled to go.

The way we hear scripture changes.  The words stay the same but based upon where we are in life and what is going on in the world around us, scripture speaks to us in different ways.  A seminary professor of mine makes the claim that we interpret scripture and scripture interprets us.  Both of these interpretations are subject to change based on where we are on our journey.  After a certain event in our lives, scripture may sound different.  It speaks to us in different ways.  We all know this well – a scripture passage read at the bedside of a dying parent or the passage read at a funeral suddenly seems different to us.  The Spirit works through the words and through us.  After Tuesday’s events in Haiti, I looked at the lectionary texts differently.

I felt suddenly connected to the psalm for today.  Psalm 36, verses 5 – 10.  If you would like to read along with me, you can find it on page 473 in your pew Bible.  I read it as a prayer, as hope, as trust in God.  It is a psalm full of promise and I don’t know about you, but promise is exactly what I long to hear right now.  Listen and see how it speaks to you.

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,

Your faithfulness to the clouds.

Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,

Your judgments are like the great deep;

You save humans and animals alike, O Lord.

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!

All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.

They feast on the abundance of your house,

And you give them drink from the river of you delights.

For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.

O continue your steadfast love to those who know you,

And your salvation to the upright of heart!

The scenes from the streets of Port au Prince are heart wrenching.  I cannot watch the news and hear the stories without crying.  Thousands upon thousands of people have been thrown into the worst nightmare possible.  Uncertainly regarding the lives of loved ones, no food or clean water, hurt, crying, desperate.  People estimate that the death toll could approach 100,000 people.  A country that has already known its share of pain and tragedy.  What do they have left to cling to?  I cannot imagine in the slightest what it would be like to be in there, to be amid the destruction and brokenness.  The pictures and video clips on the news can be nothing compared to what it is actually like to be in the midst of it.

Questions flood my head and heart – similar questions to the ones that may be on your hearts and lips.  Why?  Why did this happen?  Why are people suffering?   Why was I born in the United States with a roof over my head and clothes to wear when the people born in Haiti struggle to earn $2 a day?  Why didn’t God stop this?  Where is God in all of this? 

I won’t pretend to know the answers to these questions.  No one can know the answers.  Just like other natural disasters, we cannot know why a tragic event like this has shaken the country of Haiti and the world as a whole.  We don’t know the answers.  But we can stand together in our questions, in our anger and in our doubt.  It’s okay to be angry, to question God, to be in doubt.  The psalm writers are perfect examples of this; we lament.  We lament and are saddened together, and that brings us in closer relationship with the God who hears our lament and prayers of sorrow, our prayers of questioning.

I traveled to Minneapolis on Friday to be with a community of people.  People lamenting, praying and singing for the people of Haiti and for Ben Larson.  Ben was the son of two Lutheran pastors, originally from LaCrosse, WI, and more recently from Duluth.  Ben was a senior at Wartburg Seminary and was in Haiti at the time of the earthquake, teaching leaders in newly formed Lutheran church of Haiti.  The news was released on Thursday that he was killed in the earthquake.

Suddenly, this tragedy I had watched on the evening news hit much closer to home.  It had a familiar face.  Ben and I were classmates at Luther College.  He always amazed me with his musical skills and the way of his interactions with people.  He walked around campus with a smile on his face, always singing to the music in his head.  He could make anyone feel at ease in his presence and gave wonderful hugs when sharing the peace after church services. 

Ben’s is a face that I recognized, a person I knew.  But he is only one face.  One of tens of thousands.  And for each person who died, there are parents, siblings, husbands, wives, children, friends who grieve.  The death, the destruction, the desolation in the streets of Haiti are hard to take in.  They can’t be understood or explained but yet, that is the reality of today.  The reality of the weeks, months, and years to come.

I struggled to write this sermon, to know where to go, and maybe I’m jumping here too quickly but – there is promise.  The psalm for today is full of it.  It may be difficult to see but we remember that in the times of suffering, there is promise.  In these days of death and tragedy, there are babies being born, people being married.  Life isn’t neat and orderly.  It doesn’t follow our timeline.  Earthquakes are an unfortunate reality, relationships are broken, jobs are cut.  We don’t always know why.  But even on the days that these things happen, babies are born and successful surgeries happen in hospitals.  People pledge their lives to one another in love.  Life isn’t neat.  What we do in the midst of the joys and in the midst of the sorrows is trust that God is there.  God is in the midst of the good days and the horrific natural disasters.  God’s steadfast love extends to the heavens.

I reconnected with a college friend, Elisabeth, while at the service on Friday.  She is also a seminary student, currently doing her internship in Montana.  She was planning to come home to Minnesota this weekend to baptize her godchild when she heard the news about Ben.  And so Elisabeth said farewell to a dear friend in Ben on Friday evening but also helped welcome a new member into the family of Christ through baptism today.  What a stark contrast.  The tragic beauty of life – there is death but there is also life.  Joy and sorrow are intertwined and comingles and God is in the midst of all of it.  God is with us and holding us under his wings, in refuge, in times of suffering; giving us the fountain the life in times of joy.

God is here, God is in Haiti, and there is hope.  We are so saddened by the events in Haiti because our brothers and sisters in Christ are suffering.  A part of the body of Christ is hurting.  When they hurt, we hurt too because we are all one in Christ.  The people of the world have gathered together for the people of Haiti, sending financial help, medical supplies, and qualified people to aid in the efforts.  We contribute financially, we voice prayers, and we do all that we can to bring hope and the promise of love to the people of the nation.  God works through us, here in Dawson, to send us into the world.  Christ is active in and through us, bearing his love and compassion to those who mourn, those who suffer, and those who need healing.

Ben Larson’s mom was quoted as saying that if you want to know Ben, listen to his music.  One of his songs include the lyrics – “in times of sorrow/and in times of pain/when sensing beauty/or love’s embrace/whether we suffer/or sing rejoices/we belong to God/we belong to God.” God’s steadfast love has a claim us.  God claimed Ben at his baptism and claims us at each of our own.  God’s love extends to the heavens and God calls each of us his child in our baptisms.  Ben knew and understood the promise of God.  Ben sang ‘we belong to God.’  In living.  In dying.  God’s faithfulness extends to the clouds.  The love of God extends so far into the sky that we cannot know or grasp the expanse of it.  We are God’s and know that he is with us in the midst of all of it.  We belong to God.

On my drive back to Dawson yesterday, I stopped just outside of Silver Lake.  On my drives back and forth to the cities on highway 7, the cemetery just outside of that small town has always caught my eye.  It’s set just off the highway, up on a tiny hill.  In the center of it, is the scene of the crucifixion.  The cross extends high above the hill, the white sculpture of Jesus nailed to the cross.  The women at the foot of the cross, crying, lamenting.  The cemetery has always intrigued me and yesterday I pulled off and stopped.  I put my car in park and walked in front of the scene.  And there, I broke down.  I wept.  I lamented for the people of Haiti.  I prayed for the family and friends of Ben.  For the family and friends of all people whose lives have ended in the midst of this disaster.  I prayed for the body of Christ, for the swift and necessarily help to arrive to our brothers and sisters.  I prayed to feel God’s presence.

We can be certain that we belong to God and that he is with us in the midst of the joys and the sorrows of life.  We are certain because of Jesus Christ.  Because of the incarnate God.  Because God became human and dwelt among us.  And in our suffering, we know God is there because of the cross, because of the scene that is represented in that cemetery.  The incarnate and crucified God is present.  That is the promise we cling to in the midst of tragedy.  God is with us in this and in every day.  We look to God, to the cross, and take refuge in the shadow of his wings in the days and weeks ahead.  Amen. 

Christmas Day/December 27 sermon

27 Dec

(Our Christmas Day service was cancelled so I may have just recycled that sermon to use on the following Sunday. We’re still in the Christmas season so it works.)

Grace and peace to you from God our father, Jesus Christ our savior and Lord.

The town of Bethlehem set the scene for our Christmas day, the day we celebrate Christ’s birth. In the town of Bethlehem, the streets are dark. No streetlights or headlights. It is night and we imagine people are escaping the darkness of night by being in their homes. The streets are empty but for a lonely couple. Joseph and Mary. Weary from traveling, tired with child. They cannot find a place to escape the darkness of the night, the darkness of their tired travels. Each opportunity, each knock, becomes a disappointment. Finally Joseph and Mary find a place to rest their heads – a stable. With livestock and straw. They escape the literal darkness of the streets but the darkness in their hearts remains – the darkness of uncertainty, anxiety, the worry of giving birth. Are they safe? Can they stay warm? What is to come next?

Suddenly something changes. Into the darkness breaks light. We sing – quietly at first and then evermore boldly – “yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.” The true light, to be for all people, to dwell with us in grace and truth. The light breaks in. The darkness is no longer what dominates. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. Christ is born.

We have prayed for Christ’s coming. We have waited. We have prepared. We light all the candles on our Advent wreath. We think we are ready. We think we are ready for the coming of the light, the coming of the Christ child. We wait for the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

We know darkness. We know what the streets of Bethlehem were like that night. We can feel the darkness of night. The kind of darkness when you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. We also know the darkness of sin. The darkness of uncertainty, of loneliness. The kind of darkness when you don’t know where your next step will land, where your next day will lead. The dark places in our lives are heavy. The darkness weighs us down, presses upon us. Our darkness are the things that shame us and the things that drag us down.

So we try and hide our darkness in our closets. We don’t want other to know what shames us or what presses upon us. We send out Christmas cards with the perfect family picture. The Christmas letter with the highlights of everything good from the past year. We conceal our darkness and our shortcomings. We put a smile on our face even if it hurts us. Even if we are living in pain, we don’t want others to see. We hope that we can keep those disappointments to ourselves, letting few others see the shadows. We don’t want others to see our messes and imperfections.

Our darkness grows. It changes. Darkness is maybe different than years before or maybe it is the same struggle. We mourn the loss of a loved one and face the first holiday season without them. We are stressed financially in tough economic times. We’re unemployed. We struggle with addiction. We face the reality of old age. We have been abused. Physically. Mentally. We feel the need for deep relationship but have found none. The darkness of loneliness. The darkness on my heart today is spending this Christmas season away from family, far from the people whom I love and who know me as a daughter, a sister, a grandchild. We all have darkness, whether we share it with others or keep it deep within ourselves. Darkness that presses up against us, that we fight day in and day out.

But today we sing that in the dark streets shineth. Shineth the everlasting light. We have prepared our hearts and our minds through the weeks of advent, awaiting the coming of the Christ child, the coming of the light of the world. The darkness in our lives are the things we want unseen, the problems, addictions, and secrets we want no one else to know. Those things are still present in advent, in our preparation. The light comes. Light breaks into our imperfect world and we are filled with joy and with hope. Light breaks in, the Word made flesh appears. Who is with God and who is God.

The Christ child is a great gift, the greatest of gifts we are given each Christmas. The word became flesh and lived among us. God comes to earth, to dwell with us, to live with us. God loves the world so much that he sends his only son to be with you. With me. With us. In Bethlehem we see the baby, born of Mary. The one who was with God and who is God. We know the rest of the story – we know where it goes from here. This is only the beginning of the rest. We know that this great gift will become a great sacrifice for our sins, to reconcile us to God. We know this and we celebrate this.

The light shines in the darkness and we are mesmerized by the light. In this Christmas season, we hang lights on our Christmas trees. We light candles. We welcome and invite light into our lives. The light comes to illuminate the world around us. The darkness cannot overcome it. But no where does it say that the darkness leaves. The darkness cannot overcome the light but the darkness is not gone.

The darkness in our lives has not miraculously vanished with the dawn of Christmas day. Culture models that this season is one of cheer and love, miracles and community. To feel anything but is to be called a Scrooge. We place so much emphasis on the joys and hope of Christmas that it is a disappointment when the cancer is still there. Your loved one is still gone. Broken relationships still exist. The light that comes illuminates the world around us. We see again the deep cracks and stains that are in our lives; dark corners still remain.

I used to feel this as kid. The hype, the excitement for the day of Christmas kept growing and growing inside of me. Anticipation of how special the day would be. Of how wonderful that single day of Christmas is. The excitement mounted on Christmas eve and my brothers and I barely slept that night. We were too excited. The day after Christmas was always a disappointment. Things were the same again. The way they were before Christmas but with nothing more to look forward to. It was a let down. Christmas was over. And had anything really changed except that the presents had been opened and the house was a mess?

But there is something different. We’re reminded again that Christ illuminates the world around us. Christ lights our path, our going in and our coming out. Christ, as a light, goes into the darkest places, into the struggles and brokenness of our community and our lives. Are you ready to let someone into your darkest places? To open the closet where you have hidden your struggles, disappointments, sins? We may not be ready, we don’t want our cracks and shadows to be shown, to be known by others but we can’t stop the light.

Light has a way of breaking in, of flooding all the space it can find. It pours through the air, through the cracks, through the space that surrounds us. Think of your bedroom at night. Even in the place of night there is light. The street lamp streams through the window, between the closed blinds. The light from the hall peaks from under the door. Wherever there is the opportunity to spread, the light is there. The light reveals where darkness has been, where our struggles lie. There in those places, the light spills out, Christ with you in the midst of depression and loneliness, sickness and struggle. Christ as the light of the world cannot be contained.

The Word became flesh and lived among us. Christ, the light of the world, became human, born a baby to an unwed teenage girl. Visited by shepherds. Born in a building with sheep and cows. Christ lives among us; he dwells with us. There is more here – the verb used for lived can also be translated as tabernacled – Christ tabernacles among us. Not necessarily a word in our everyday vocabulary. A tabernacle is a tent – Christ sets up residence with us. He sets up a tent in our lives and is here for the long haul. He did not come for a fleeting moment but the light of world came and stayed. Christ tabernacles with us like God tabernacled with the Israelites in the wilderness. God with us. Christ with us. Setting up a tent and camping with us in the midst of our broken lives.

In the darkness, in our struggles, God is with us. Emmanuel. We celebrate the coming of the light in the midst of our darkness. In the dark streets of Bethlehem and in the darkness of our lives, there is light. Light illuminates the world around us and the darkness cannot overcome it. The light of the world comes and is present even when the darkness seems overwhelming. Light spills into every space possible. It feels for every opening. Christ, as the light of the world, the word made flesh, feels for every opportunity to enter into our hearts and minds. To flood our life with the knowledge of the love of God. The everlasting light shines in the streets of Bethlehem and in our lives. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. Amen.

Put down your post hole diggers!

27 Sep

I did it – I preached my first sermon on internship.  Phew.  Nerves were high this week as I anticipated the Sunday service and wrote my sermon.  I was pretty nervous until I was there reading the gospel and then I was okay.  No rotten tomatoes were thrown and I wasn’t rushed outside to be tarred and feathered so I think it went over fairly well.  So far anyways.  I realize that what I preached could have some further reaching implications – it seems very applicable to the ELCA churchwide assembly vote to allow gay clergy to be in same gendered monogamous relationships, which continues to be a sticky issue at Grace.  I do not in any way feel that it is my duty to preach my point of view regarding the vote and feel that this sermon was true to the text but could very easily lead people in that direction.  How my words rest and speak to the congregation members, my dear, is the job of the Holy Spirit and not my own.

Gospel text: Mark 9:38-50

My sermon is as follows:

My family has always included a canine member.  I remember running around the farm with Barkley and then Lucy.  Barkley was our guard dog, a black lab mutt, and Lucy was the sweetest yellow lab.  Now we have Jetta, another yellow lab, who is, by far, the most rambunctious and wild of the family pets.  Jetta is friendly and loves to run off and make new friends.  After a few instances of Jetta’s attempts to make friends, we decided Jetta needed boundaries … so Jetta is now subject to an invisible fence.  She is trained to stay within the limits of that fence.  The thought of crossing the line where the invisible fence lies is threatening to her.  She’s scared of it, knowing it will lead to a slight shock from her collar.  Once, when the invisible fence was still relatively new, Jetta crossed the line.  Her favorite toy had wound up on the other side and she was determined to get it.  She crossed the line, felt the shock, and was then fearful to cross back.  She sat on the other side of the fence and cried and whined that heartbreaking puppy cry.  My brother finally found her and brought her safely back inside of her fence. 

Poor Jetta has been stuck on both sides of her fence.  With a fence, we’re always on one side or the other.  We’re either in or we’re out.  Fences create limits and boundaries. They enforce ownership and can put people on the de-fense. We are excellent fence builders in our day and age, and have been for hundreds of years.  Think about the walls of Jericho.  The great wall in China.  Fences for farm animals.  Property lines.  White picket fences.  Snow fences.  A fence that spans the United States and Mexican border.  We even have invisible fences – fences that enforce limits but can’t be seen. 

I don’t think pets are the only ones with invisible fences to keep them in or out, within limits or out of boundaries.  I have invisible fences in my life.  The fences in my life don’t deliver a physical shock to my body if the line is crossed but many times, they are fences that I build myself or am a part of, either intentionally or unintentionally.  When we stop to think about it, we are all faced with fences.  Our families, our churches, our country – think of the lines we draw for membership within these groups.  We put up fences to keep people in or keep people out, to maintain order, or to govern with rules.  Fences can have a good, needed purpose but fences can also be limiting and damaging in negative ways.

The disciples in the gospel reading today want to put up a fence.  They encounter a man who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name but this man is not one of the disciples.  The man casting out demons isn’t one of them – how dare he do such a thing when he is not one of us, the disciples think.  The disciples, with their post hole diggers and wire cutters, had built themselves inside a fence with Jesus.  This other man?  He was not on the inside.  He was on the outside of the fence and the disciples did not want to let him in.  He could not be a part of the group that cast out demons in Jesus’ name.  He was not one of them, they did not know him, and therefore, according to the disciples, must be stopped.

The disciples wonder how anyone else can do good in Jesus’ name but them.  They are the ones who are following Jesus.  They are the ones who are within the fence they have built.  The disciples and Jesus.  Because the others are not with them, what they are doing cannot be right.  It must be stopped.

Jesus thinks differently.  “Do not stop him,” Jesus says.  “For no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us.”   With those words, the fence is torn down.  The fence that keeps the disciples and Jesus on the inside and this other man on the outside is unnecessary – whoever is not against us is for us. 

Jesus continues, “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”  Jesus tells the disciples that any act of kindness, even an act as small as giving someone who is thirsting a drink of water, is an act that advances the kingdom of God, an act in God’s favor.  It makes no difference who does this act – if it is not against God, it is for God.  An act as simple as a sip of water – how simple and trivial this is and yet, how often we need to be reminded to do it.

A small gesture is one that can advance the kingdom of God and further share the love of Christ in and among God’s people.  But just as a small gesture can do good, so a small gesture can do harm.  Jesus continues by warning the disciples against creating stumbling blocks for the little ones.  Earlier in the gospel of Mark, Jesus welcomes the children into his arms, further telling the disciples and us today to welcome the children.  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  Jesus goes on with a series of extreme examples of warning regarding the severity of sin and causing others to stumble in their faith.  But as these verses contain warning about cutting off a hand, a foot, or an eye if that body part causes one to sin, the verses also contain promise that speaks to the greatness of the kingdom of God.  It is better to enter the kingdom of God with only one hand than not to enter at all. 

We also know that this is not the last word.  The gospel doesn’t end here but rather continues with Christ’s death and resurrection.  We are sinful people and come before Jesus broken and maimed.  We repent and meet Jesus at the cross.  Three days later, with Christ’s resurrection, we are given a promise.  Promise that we will be raised and that we will be made whole again.  We are sinful people but in the death and resurrection of Christ through God’s love, we are made whole and forgiven.

This promise is not only for those on the inside of the fences we build.  This promise is not reserved for a certain few or the ones that we think deserve it.  It is not within us to determine these limits or boundaries.  God’s love has no boundary.  God is in all places with all people; who are we to say that he isn’t?  God cannot be put inside a fence.  There is no fence long enough or no words in our vocabulary to describe the limitless love and power of God.

When we put up fences, we limit the work of God in the world and limit the promises of God.  We limit what we see as good and the Holy Spirit working among us.  To God, there is not fence.  No insiders or outsiders. Everyone can be the source of God’s action in and among us.  There is no us and them.  We are one.  It is together as one, working to share the good news and love of Christ.  We are not to limit who is restricted from the gospel or who can share the gospel news.  God’s action cannot be contained or completely explained by us. 

God’s action in the world is not always something we can understand.  It does not always come from the sources we think it should.  It can’t be contained in a fence or within only a certain group of people.   We cannot claim as Lutherans that we do more or better work for God’s kingdom that others, like those of other denominations.  We in the United States cannot fence ourselves off and say that we do good work, but kind actions in Asia or Africa or Canada are not pleasing to God.  We cannot say this.  We cannot know God’s master plan or in what ways He is working for the good in this world.  But as we listen to the Spirit, read God’s word, and welcome all into our community, we hope, pray, and act for our neighbor, for the other, and for the coming of God’s kingdom.

If we take down the fences, it might be a scary adventure at first.  With no fence in place, we lose control.  We’re not in charge of who is on the inside and who is not.  We’re no longer the one to say what is acceptable and what is not.  We lose control and we lose definition.  It’s no longer clear who the insiders and outsiders are.  It’s not black and white, not us and them.  But then we wonder – did we ever have control to begin with?  Is it our job to decide who is on the inside and who isn’t deserving of Christ’s promises?  As we take down the fences, we learn to give control to God.

If we take down the fences that separate us, perhaps we’d be surprised about what we would find.  We may be surprised at the people we meet and the deeds of kindness and works of love they are doing because of the gospel.  As we meet people, we should not assign labels or instantly start building a fence to separate us.  Cultural labels, ethnicity, age, economic status.  Instead of labels, instead of fences, we look for the actions, attitudes, and spirit, for mercy, justice, integrity, and faith and welcome it as God working in the world.  As we look to our neighbors, we can tear down the fences we have built, and leave God in charge. 

Let’s put down our post-hole diggers and wire cutters and let us go forth and show Christ’s love with our own actions of kindness, sharing the promise of Christ with all people.


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