Don’t Miss the Magic: A Sermon for Graduates

Mark 2:23-3:6
In the Gospel lesson today Jesus is with his disciples on the Sabbath walking through the fields. As they’re walking, the disciples begin to pluck off the heads of the grain. Presumably they did so because they were hungry and maybe needed a little snack. Who knows how long they’ve been walking. A quick look at a map in the back of your bibles show that Jesus walked so much and so far he would be the Fit Bit Champion of all time if he were tracking steps. So they might have just needed a quick bite. But they might not have been hungry at all. They may have just been mindlessly snapping them off as they walked; out of sheer boredom. Who knows.
But all of sudden, the Pharisees seem to jump out and sound the alarm saying, “Look! Why are they doing what’s unlawful on the Sabbath?”
First of all, where were the Pharisees to notice this? Were they furtively walking a few paces behind like private investigators, watching the group’s every move? Or were they hiding in the fields like paparazzi only to spring up to catch them in some sort of misstep? Second of all, why did it matter? Indeed work was technically forbidden from the Sabbath. So would this be considered work?
Jesus seems to take this all in stride. Maybe at this point he’s used to the Torah Paparazzi, so he casually responds by giving the example of how David did the same sort of thing when he was fleeing Saul. When he and his companions were hungry and they had no food, David entered into the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, sharing some with his friends, which would, in the strict sense, have been unlawful for anyone but the priests.
But the point is clear- the Sabbath is made for humankind, not the opposite. The Sabbath rules intended to restore God’s people offering them rest. The point of the Sabbath is to help humanity have a fuller life, not to constrict them. The Sabbath was intended to serve as an intentional time to reflect on God’s blessings and provisions. Like so many of God’s commandments, they aren’t intended to be some mystical power trip but to help God’s people. The Pharisees seem to be missing this. They’re so caught up in the rules and the legal specifics, that they’re missing the larger point.
The passage continues with Jesus entering into the synagogue and encountering a man with a withered hand. Again, the Pharisees seem to be lurking in the background, waiting for a misstep so they can pounce and catch him in an unlawful act. Jesus, knowing this, uses it as an opportunity for them to recall the lesson he just taught them in the fields—he brings the man before them and asks, “ok is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?” Basically saying, “ok folks, do I heal this guy or not?”
And the Pharisees are silent.
They’ve chosen adherence to their religious structure over the helping of another human being.
And this breaks Jesus’ heart. I can imagine Jesus with angry tears, glaring at the Pharisees, grabbing the man’s hand and healing it on the spot.
And this seals his fate. With evidence in hand—finally—the Pharisees race off to conspire how to kill him.
As I was reading this passage so many different thoughts came to mind, but one in particular seemed to stick out- did the Pharisees not realize that they had just witnessed a miracle? In front of them, Jesus heals a man! Heals him! Did they not notice that?
This wondrous act, this extraordinary act; that defies the natural order has just taken place right in front of their eyes and they seem to have just dismissed it altogether. In their spiteful tunnel vision they’ve focused so intently on finding fault with this man, on sticking to their rulebook, that they’ve missed the miracle. Right in front of them.
They’ve gotten so brainwashed by the rules that they’ve allowed it to overshadow the reason for the rules altogether.
Jesus has tried to show them that the rules are there to serve a larger purpose- to care for one another. The rules and regulations are intended to point to that which is worshiped, not become the object of worship themselves.
The Sabbath is for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.
Maybe this is an area where religion has gone off the rails. Some religious people have become so focused on following the rules and APPEARING religious that they’re missing God’s extraordinary work taking place right in front of them. Seeking certainty, they’re missing the wonder of embracing the mystery of the divine.
They’ve missed the magic of a life of faith.
This is nothing new really. Humankind has been trying to put God in a box for centuries.
And I get the instinct to lean on that which is black and white. I get that there is comfort in what is dependable. And I get that sometimes considering anything outside of that carefully constructed box can be a threat. I get it. It feels unsafe. It’s sometimes even scary.
But oftentimes embracing a new interpretation of something- letting your guard down and stepping into the unknown- allows God to do some incredible work and leaves you with an expanded view of the Creator.
Sometimes when we challenge our comfortable understanding of the world, we end up with a deeper, more authentic worldview and brings us more intimately into relationship with the other.
But when we stay locked in those safe spaces, we miss these opportunities.
We miss the magic.
We miss the miracle of God in front of us.
So don’t miss the magic.
Don’t allow your faith to be so legalistic and constricted that you lose sight of the purpose- to bring you into closer communion with God. Because trust me, our faith can take anything you throw its way.
My favorite author and pastor Rob Bell wrote in his book “Velvet Elvis” about how too many well-intended Christians miss the magic of faith by sticking too stringently to dogma.
He describes faith like a trampoline.
When jumping on a trampoline you recognize the need for springs. The springs support the surface for which you jump.
Those springs are the things in our lives that help us understand God and how to live faithful lives that honor God. They might be rules, regulations, doctrines, what have you. But the springs aren’t God. The springs aren’t Jesus. The springs can be removed, stretched, examined, and explored. That’s what makes them so helpful. They’re able to be flexible to examine its purpose.
But some prefer bricks over springs. Bricks are also those things that help us understand God. The bricks seem sturdy and dependable. They don’t bend or stretch. And together, with an assortment of different bricks, they can build a strong, sturdy faith that might be helpful to some.
But if you remove one brick. Just one brick to examine or question, the whole wall comes tumbling down.
Wouldn’t you rather jump? Wouldn’t you rather bounce? So don’t let your faith become so rigid that you lose the ability to experience the magic of a buoyant life of faith. Because this is the life Jesus offers.
Jumping can be scary. Jumping involves risk. Jumping requires trust.
But that’s where you find the true joy.
That’s where you find the magic.
Being a Christian today is absolutely awesome. But in some ways we’re getting a bad rap.
Now more than ever, Christians are being challenged for hypocrisy. And to be fair there are many examples of Christians who do awful things- make outlandish statements, advocate for horrific policies, and quite frankly do an enormous amount of harm all under the auspices of their faith. And when challenged, they run for cover under their strict adherence to a doctrine that is oftentimes misunderstood. But it’s carefully constructed with little room for examination.
Like or not, the media has in many ways helped establish this misunderstanding of Christians by giving air time to these folks. And as a result have unwittingly maligned a diverse, inclusive, loving faith.
As a result, there will be people who, when you proclaim yourself as a Christian, will be just like the Pharisees—who seem to track your every movement, waiting for an opportunity to pounce to expose you and your faith as hypocritical.
Because they’re used to bricks. And we’re used to springs.
So rather than keep your faith hidden, use it as an opportunity to teach.
Invite them into a deeper understanding of the Christian faith by sharing with them a God who works miracles in the world not by controlling an army of faithful rule followers but by inviting a host of unique created beings into a magical dance, guided by love and shaped by service to the neighbor.
Help them learn to jump.
Don’t miss the magic. And don’t let them either.


John 15:9-17

Growing up, I was blessed with good friends. Living in a small town made it easier, I think, because we could easily ride our bikes to one another’s houses. Our parents were friends. We went to the same schools, same churches, and would play on the same teams. If any of you are fans of the show “Stranger Things” that’s exactly what it was like. This was before kids were constantly entertained with a slew of scheduled activities. We had to make our own fun. So we created our own adventures. But it fostered true closeness.
We had each other’s backs. We looked out for one another, supported one another. We were a tribe. We were thick as thieves.
If one of us got in trouble, we all got in trouble, because no one was ratting anyone out. I recently read a quote that summed it up perfectly. It said, “A good friend would bail you out of jail. But a best friend would be the one sitting next to you, saying “dang that was awesome!” There is a mutuality to true friendship.
My best friend growing up was just like this. He was such a good sport. For example, I loved heavy metal in high school- Motley Crue, Poison, Guns & Roses- loved those bands. But not many of our friends did. Ok, none of them did. But he would always go with me to the concerts so I didn’t have to go by myself. That’s a good friend.
Any of you have friends like this? They’re a cherished gift, let me tell you.
Friendship is about loyalty.
Friendship is about trust and partnership.
Friendship is about love.
In the Gospel today, Jesus is instructing his disciples about this type of love. He tells them that when they keep his commandments, they will abide in his love. Now abide is an active word. Some translations use the word “remain” and that could work. But it doesn’t necessarily capture what’s going on here. Another definition of “abide” is to continue without fading or being lost. So in this context, when we obey God’s commandments, we will continue in God’s love without fading and without being lost. What a comforting promise.
I love that.
Because so much of what ails our society today is that feeling of being lost and detached. I think more people feel disconnected and isolated. I’m no psychologist or sociologist, but it’s hard not to think that perhaps the source of so many of our ails—depression, loneliness, anger, all this division – is not abiding in God’s love.
Because Jesus tells the disciples that by abiding in love, they will experience joy. The joy of Jesus will be in them. Abiding in God’s love means we will experience joy. I feel like our world needs a little of this joy right now, don’t you?
But Jesus isn’t talking merely about happiness here. He’s not promising this emotional response. The joy Jesus is speaking of here is a steady feeling of contentment. Jesus isn’t promising that following his commandments, abiding in his love, results in a state of euphoria.
Because we all know that following God’s commandments aren’t always easy. Two weeks ago I took some confirmation students to Lutheridge to learn and discuss the 10 Commandments. We agreed that they aren’t always easy. “Honoring my mother and father” isn’t always easy when you don’t feel understood or want to express my teenage independence. But we learned that God’s goal in these commandments isn’t control, necessarily, but to live in God’s love. And when we do this, Jesus tells the disciples, they will be able to rest in the experience of God’s love. I would argue that, regardless of our age, when we make the right decision, one informed by our faith and values, we do feel that good feeling. And that is joy. Happiness comes and go. It’s more of an emotion.
But joy- joy is an overriding feeling of contentment.
And this is what Jesus promises. And that’s what our world needs.
But it requires something of us. And Jesus doesn’t shy away from it.
He says quite clearly, “This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you. No none has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Now Jesus isn’t encouraging martyrdom here. What he’s telling them is that self-givingl love is what will identify you as a Christian. When you put others before yourself, that’s Christian love. It’s a surrender. I would guess many of you have friends in your life whom you would take a bullet for. It’s loyalty. I don’t believe Jesus is encouraging self-neglect or submission. But what I do believe he is saying is that putting others needs before your own is an act of Christian love.
Love one another as I have loved you, he says. How has he done this? Well, he’s washed the disciples feet, he’s risked his life and reputation to reach out to the Samaritan Woman, he’s healed, he’s fed, he’s encouraged. These are all marks of friendship. These are all active examples of loving and being a friend.
And that’s what he tells the disciples. That no longer are they simply slaves but friends.
Jesus is offering here something even greater. Friendship. The original hearers of this message would have realized what a big deal this was. And I hope you also realize it.
In some ways maybe our understanding of “Friend” has been cheapened in our digital age. We can easily “Friend” or “unfriend” someone in a matter of a click. And the responsibilities of these “friendships” are no more than occasionally “liking” one of their posts or tagging them in something they might enjoy. But here friendship means something much more.
A friendship means intimacy. A friendship suggests partnership.
Jesus is inviting the disciples- and us, for that matter- into a friendship with God.
God no longer has to be a distant stranger, but our intimate friend.
He chose us. Isn’t that amazing?
So how do we respond to this friendship?
How do we respond to this incredible, divine offer of friendship?
Jesus tells us. Jesus tells us to go bear fruit.
Live a fruit-bearing life.
Take care of other people. If someone is having trouble, help them out. We are blessed in this country in ways others will never be able to understand. So be a blessing to someone else. Share in that good fortune. Don’t be afraid that if you share you’ll somehow lose and someone else wins. Help someone else have a chance to experience the joy you experience. That’s bearing fruit.
Encourage other people. We all can use a little encouragement. Never try to guess who needs it and who doesn’t. You might be surprised whose day or week might be better with just a little encouragement.
Spread kindness. A fruit-bearing life isn’t one that tears other people down. I disavow this culture of meanness that seems to be becoming more acceptable. We need to honor and respect one another as fellow children of God.
Because as Christians we should live differently. If you’re abiding in love, you live differently. Christ gave himself so that we may live, so let’s live! Let’s live fruit-bearing lives. Let’s bask in the friendship of the almighty.
I think I learned a lot about God through the friendships of my youth. I learned how God always has our backs. How God is there with you, celebrating with you in the good times, and sitting next to you when life gets you down. God joins you on all of your adventures and one day will plop down next to you and say, “dang that was awesome”.
Thanks be to God.

My Tree-Huggin’ Sermon: Psalm 19

Late last year, a few of us from Cross & Crown set out to hike part of the Appalachian Trail. Getting on the trail had been a bucket list item for me for some time and I was so excited to do it. Unlike our very own Ralph Goodenough, who in just a matter of weeks is about to set out on what is known as “through hiking” the trail, meaning you hike all 2,200 miles, starting in Springer Mountain, Georgia and finishing up in Mount Katahdin, Maine. 6 months of straight hiking, through a variety of terrains and weathering multiple seasons. Well it might come to a shock to you but this body was quite happy with just a weekend on the trail. That was good enough for me.
But I was thrilled to escape the hustle and bustle of life and immerse myself in the splendor of nature. I was excited to join the thousands of hikers before me on this epic pilgrimage- if only for a segment of it- to travel where so many had traveled, participating in the folklore of the great AT (the Appalachian Trail for you newcomers). On the hike I would be able to contemplate the wonders of creation. I could marvel in the thrift of living off only supplies I was able to stuff into my pack, and satisfied with the realization of how little I needed. Hiking is a meditative act; an exercise in reflection. I was exploding with joyful anticipation.
Well, as Susan, Wayne, and Jared could testify, that first day—well, it wasn’t quite the vision I had anticipated. It rained—downpour rained- the entire day. ENTIRE DAY. We slogged mile and after mile through the cold, windy rain hoping for the skies to clear up and for the sun to warm and dry out our cold, soaked bodies. That was not to be. Having a flair for the dramatic I imagined myself an explorer in the new frontier, an attempt to positively reframe the disappointment of the experience.
Once we arrived at our halfway point, we decided to call it and returned to Lutherock to thaw and dry out by the fire and rest up, hoping that the next day would bring better weather.
And boy did it ever. The next day brought glorious sunshine. We returned to the trail with a renewed vigor. And it was everything I had dreamt it would be. The views were extraordinary—the colors were incredible. My disappointing experienced had been resurrected. Every single step was invigorating. At one point, which truly was the climax of the adventure, we climbed to the top of a hill- the highest point in a series of ridges- in the center of this extraordinary vista to have lunch. I slipped off my boots and leaned against a rock and soaked in this view. From every angle you could see for miles. The greyish blue ridges seemed to go on and on forever. The sky above was crystal clear and piercing blue-and the lush green hills rolled along forever. I truly was waiting for Julie Andrews to come spinning around at any moment. It was remarkable. I was blown away.
It was one of those moments where you couldn’t deny the existence of God. And not just some ordinary God, but an extraordinary, creative, artist of a God. And in this creation God was being revealed to me in a way nothing else really could. It was in this majesty that I could comprehend the majesty of God. It was in the power of this experience where I could comprehend the power of God. It was in this beauty that I understood that our God is a loving God; that God is beautiful. God longs to touch our souls with beauty and speaks to us in beautiful ways.
“Heaven is declaring God’s glory; the sky is proclaiming his handiwork.”
We comprehend God’s glory by noticing the work of God’s hands. Paul speaks to this in Romans when he states “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”
One of the best ways to receive God’s message is through nature!
And as the psalmist writes, “There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard”
But so often, we miss these powerful messages. In these uncertain times, we are anxious and distracted. We are so fearful of missing out on something, we occupy every single second of our lives with productive activity. We get caught up in our busy, hectic lives that we not only neglect to read or study our bibles, but we barely step outside to soak in the warmth of the sun or the brisk refreshment of the cold air. We stay trapped in the stale, manufactured air of our office buildings and neglect ourselves of the energizing elements of fresh air. We remain captive to our computer screens and our houses and forget to get outside to be greeted by the inspiring colors of the grass, the trees, the flowers, and the sky.
Many kids are growing up this way- busy with schoolwork, tutors, video games, and scheduled indoor activities that they are missing out on the critical benefits of the outdoors. In his book, “Last Child in the Woods” child advocacy expert Richard Louv names the lack of nature in our wired world as “nature deficit disorder”. He draws from loads of scholarship to make the case that direct exposure to nature is critical for a healthy development in children. In fact, some experts connect the link to an increase in childhood allergies to the absence of the microbes in dirt. That’s right- kids are getting sick because they’re not getting dirty.
We are all God’s children and as God’s children, God knows us and loves us. And in this love God gave us all we needed to thrive through creation. This planet for which God plopped us down is teeming with all the resources we need for life.
But just like a good parent, God commands us to care for it.
Genesis 2:15 “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”
And the Hebrew words for “work” and “keep” are actually better translated as guard, protect, and cultivate.
Numbers 35:33“You shall not pollute the land in which you live”
Over and again God in the Bible commands us to keep and care for the earth because God knows it’s not only one of the best ways for us to know God loves us but all because we need it for survival.
Wendell Berry writes in his poem, The Gift of the Good Land,
To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. When we do it knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, destructively, it is a desecration.
So what are we doing with this gift? How do you think we’re treating these invaluable resources?
Breaking news: we’re not doing so hot.
We continue to destroy the land, denude the forests, strip-mine the hills, and burn through the resources. Rather than protect and cultivate the earth, as Scripture mandates, we abuse it.
Perhaps in these uncertain times we are panicked about time and as a result look to making our lives more convenient without taking into consideration how it impacts the future. We are pressured to do more and we are tempted to consume more. But these practices are coming at too great of a cost. Our addiction to plastic is compromising the Earth’s ability to sustain life as we know it. Our addiction to fossil fuels is polluting the very air we breathe. We are systematically choking ourselves. This is not of God. Like a good parent, God wants what’s best for us.
I can’t imagine God rejoices when we destroy natural habitats and acres of life-sustaining resources to simply widen our highways and pave another parking lot.
Its unlikely God thinks polluting our rivers and streams with wrappers and bottles is a good exchange for making our already hectic lives more convenient.
This planet is the only home we have. It’s been entrusted to us so we need to take care of it.
No advancement, no understanding of progress is worth this cost.
So we should heed the ordinances of God to resist these habits which are hurting us and impeding our connection with God. We should protect that all-important lifeline to our Creator.
This challenge might seem overwhelming but we’re all in it together. None of us are perfect, but God has entrusted us to take care of what we have been given. But s human beings, are part of God’s creation too so we can be part of the solution. We can reverse the damage we’ve done to the earth by making simple changes. By taking just a little extra time; by being a little more thoughtful, we can begin to care for the gift God has given us. Jesus says in Luke 12:48, “to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
So where can we start?
Some simple tips:
Of course, first of all we can recycle and buy products made with recycled materials. Check.
We can also reuse things. We live in a disposable world but not everything has to be single use.
Instead of buying all that bottled water, use a reusable one and fill it up. Instead of getting that mug at Starbucks in the morning, take your own. They’ll even save 10 cents off your price.
These are just some easy things to dip your toe in the water.
It has been said, “how one treats creation says a lot about how it view its creator”.
These are uncertain times. But what is certain is God’s loving care and communication through creation! To God be the glory. Amen.

A Sermon for Unsteady Times

Mark 1:9-15

This first Sunday in Lent we are kicking off a series that accompanies our Lenten devotional about embracing the uncertain in unsteady times.
And you don’t need me to tell you that we are certainly living in uncertain times.

All of us are likely reeling from the heartbreaking news about yet another school shooting. 17 of our children dead at the hands of gun violence.
There have already been 8 schools shootings in the US. And it’s only February. Our most vulnerable- our children- no longer seem safe in the very places where they are supposed to be- our schools.

These are unsteady times.

The suicide rate for teenage girls doubled in the last 8 years, according to the CDC. The suicide rate for teenage boys increased by 30 percent over the same time period.

Unsteady times indeed.

Reports of sexual harassment among women in the workplace are skyrocketing. Light is being shed on a dark, painful secret that has existed for years. Women enduring abuse in their workplace; unable to feel safe in their careers; dreams compromised at the hands of power.

Global political shifts are dividing citizens in many countries and giving rise to frightening, unstable leaders—all of whom boast at the power and the potential for catastrophic nuclear war.

Yes, we are living in unsteady times.

In the Gospel reading today Jesus has barely toweled off from his baptism before he is immediately- a favorite term for Mark- driven out into the wilderness. He’s there for 40 days among the wild beasts and animals- the wilderness where the wildlings and the demons roam, and while he’s there he is tempted by Satan.
Many of us have heard this story that the Spirit drove him out to be tempted. But at least in Mark, that’s not in the text. He’s driven out to the wilderness and while there, yes he is tempted. But it’s not like God set Jesus up to be tempted. That just happened to be the natural consequence of being in the wilderness.

We live in the world and oftentimes it seems like the wilderness, doesn’t it? It definitely seems that way now in the midst of all the uncertainty.
But our vocation as Christians is to go out into the world and spread the good news of Jesus Christ. In our baptism, we are named and claimed as God’s own for the sake of the world. To go out and be little Christs in our communities and in the world. Our baptismal vocation is not to stay comfortably ensconced in safety but to go out into the world that desperately needs us.

A world of gun violence.
A world of sexual harassment.
A world of depression, racism, addiction, and teen suicide.

But as Christians we have a message of hope to combat this despair. We know that as children of God we are loved. As children of God our identities aren’t shaped by our accomplishments, appearances, or social status. We are all equal at the foot of the cross. As baptized Christians we are freed for the good of the world. We are called to be change agents.

And the hope here is that we never do it alone.

Going back to the text, Jesus is in the wilderness among the wild beasts, repeatedly tempted by Satan. Now we don’t know exactly what the temptations are. Mark doesn’t tell us. But as we read this text devotionally, we all know what our temptations are. We know what the enemy uses on us, don’t we? It can be a variety of things but in the wilderness of our lives we are all tempted, aren’t we?

So where is the hope?

Notice in the text how Mark writes, “and the angels tended to him”.
Yes. The angels tended to him. God is always with us and among us, caring for us. Even when we feel alone. Even when we feel abandoned. Even when we feel on the edge of despair.

As baptized Christians we are cared for. We are never alone.

How does God do this? I know it seems like I’m a broken record, but I feel like it is one of the most important realities of our faith- we become angels to one another. God works through us to care for one another. Jesus says “I am the way and the truth and the life” and this is true. As the body of Christ we become the way, the truth, and the life by caring for one another.

There were times along my seminary journey when I wanted to give up. It seemed like way too much- balancing 5 young kids, a disabled wife, a full time job, and somehow trying to take classes and do all the requirements for ordained ministry. But thanks be to God I had angels tending to me. Those angels encouraged me, affirmed my gifts for ministry, and cheered me on to keep going. They helped in so many ways and in doing so, I was able to keep going.
Even now when hair lice infestations, broken AC units, and various health problems get me down, YOU ALL are my angels. YOU tend to me and encourage me and keep me going. And you do this for everyone. It’s what this community does best.

When a person in our congregation has a surgery or loses a loved one, within a blink the Miriam Circle (whom I lovingly refer to as the Miriam Mafia) have organized meals and cards.

That’s tending to people.

When a need surfaces to sponsor 45 more kids from single-parent homes for Vacation Bible School, you respond gladly by opening your wallets to cover the cost. Or when Lily Pad Haven, a home for victims of human trafficking expresses a wish for new sheets for their beds, you fill baskets in the narthex so these folks will have what they need.

That’s tending to people.

That’s being angels to one another!

And I argue this is the function of the church. Not entertainment- because let’s face it my sermons aren’t going to go viral on YouTube anytime soon and you definitely don’t want to see me with gelled hair and skinny jeans– But service to one another. Paul writes in Romans, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, WHICH IS YOUR SPIRITUAL WORSHIP.

The late Mr. Rogers famously said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

I say look for the angels. Look for the angels tending to others.
But let’s not stop there. Let’s become those angels in the world.
An uncertain world needs certain angels.

And the need is great. Right in our back yard in Matthews there are over 1700 people living in poverty.
• 70% of single parent families do not receive any kind of child support
• 50% of single mothers have an annual income of less than $25,000 per year
• 40% of single parent families are “food insecure

Even on a larger scale, consider our environment. The effects of our lifestyles on the environment are horrific. The products we use, the things we buy- all have consequences. Our consumption, production, and acquisition patterns threaten Earth’s capacity to sustain life as we know it, and exploit vast numbers of people worldwide.

But we can make different choices. And in doing so we can be angels to people we’ve never even met.

The world can certainly seem like a wilderness. And each day we seem to be reminded of the constant state of despair. Unsteady times for sure.
But friends, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to tend to one another, to go out into the world with courage to combat these issues. As the hands and feet and Christ we can stand against these social ills and work to eradicate them.
Social media is lamenting about how many are offering prayers for victims but little else. Well I say it’s time to put our prayers into action. Filled with the promise and hope and power that is Jesus Christ in each of us let’s actively pray by working to steady this unsteady world.

It’s our baptismal call.

Let’s get to it.


Partisan Division: An Unclean Spirit

Mark 1:21-28

When I was in high school, I had a political sticker on my car. And to me this sticker represented my identity. It showed the world that I was intelligent, engaged…even worldly. It proudly announced to the world that I was mature and smart. To me, this sticker and this affiliation reflected a clear-cut understanding of the world. Everyone should think this way! I would muse. These issues are just so clear! I imagined. How could any logical, thinking person think differently? So I zipped around Elkin, North Carolina with my Datsun heralding my sophistication for all to see, smugly maintaining that at 17 I had it all figured out.

Well as you can imagine, as my world expanded and my interactions with others increased, as I gained a little more real-world experience, I developed a more thoughtful understanding of the issues facing our country. I was confronted with situations and circumstances that challenged my neatly packaged worldview. It became clear that the issues and stances I once thought were so clear cut- were actually complicated and more nuanced. There were multiple perspectives to the issues and all of them from thoughtful, loving people.
It dawned on me that in my naiveté I had neglected to consider that there were always many sides to a story.

Recently our Men’s Group had a discussion about faith and its impact on the Civil War. One guy took the perspective of the South and another guy took the perspective of the North. And we discussed how the faith lives of the leaders in this war shaped and informed their decisions. It was a fascinating and eye-opening discussion. Because what we all learned was that historically, both sides felt God was firmly on their side.

We have a tendency to do this, don’t we? Become so entrenched in our own worldviews that we co-opt the divine to substantiate our perspectives. And this is happening EVERYWHERE. In our churches and denominations we all claim that God affirms our theological stances and surely disapproves of the others who might challenge these positions. But in the midst of this, we forget that oftentimes these issues are far more complicated and nuanced than we imagined.
In the gospel today, Jesus enters the synagogue- the establishment of the day–the center of the community—and began teaching in a way the prompted questions. During this time, rabbis would teach and often cite respected religious leaders with authority. But Jesus was doing something new. He was teaching a new message that hadn’t ever been cited before. We don’t know exactly what Jesus was teaching that was different, but it’s fair to conclude that something was different enough for them to ask the question.

And just after this, he’s met by what Mark describes as a “man with an unclean spirit”. When Jesus encounters the man, the demon speaks, “what are you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, Holy One of God” But Jesus rebukes him, and calls him out of the man. And with this the demon comes out convulsing and crying with a loud voice. And again, people are amazed and proclaim this “new teaching” and one “with authority! They’re amazed that even the unclean spirits obey this man. And Mark concludes that Jesus’ fame begins to spread.

There are many different ways to interpret this passage and all of them are compelling. We learn that Jesus has the power over the demons in our lives. Which I believe is true. We believe that Jesus’ teachings likely challenged the establishment of the day, which is also true. Especially since we obviously learn that Jesus’ radical ministry ultimately leads him to be executed. But what this passage saying to us today?

So as I was mulling over this sermon, prayerfully reading the text, trying to figure out what message God wanted me to lift from this passage and deliver to you folks today, I kept getting reminded of the heaviness I, and many people in our country feel today in light of this divisive political climate. And I couldn’t help but imagine the partisan division of our day as the demon in this story.

And maybe the establishment that is facing this new teaching is our political system?

So I’m asking- Has our partisan affiliation become an idol? Are we seeking first our partisan views prior to prayerfully inviting God’s perspective? Are we so entrenched with our political affiliations that we’ve convinced ourselves that only our views are sound? Whose authority are we seeking? And have we somehow convinced ourselves that God is on our side?
Because what I can say is that God is on the side of unity.
The world will always seek to divide.
But God is in the gathering. God is in unity.
As we walk through the Bible we consistently see this theme, don’t we?
The world through Pharaoh divided God’s people and what does God do?
Gathers them together. God liberates them and frees them, bringing them safely to the other side where they could convene and rebuild.
The world again divided God’s people, separating them from their land and their families. Sending them into captivity in Babylon. And what does God do? God brings them back together and unites them as one nation.

God gathers. God unites.

Jesus says in Luke, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls.”

God is for unity.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”

Now there are many passages in Scripture that seem to suggest Jesus divides.
For example, In Matthew, Jesus says, ““Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
But a closer reading of this text shows that Jesus’ intent is not to divide, as one might think, but to warn that his message of love and unity might not sit well with some.

God knows this won’t always be easy. Jesus warns us that following him can be divisive for those unwilling to surrender to the unity; who are unwilling to allow their allegiances to take the backseat of a higher authority.
But ultimately God liberates us from those forces that are dividing us. God is always on the side of unity for the sake of the kingdom.
Our political climate has us so divided that many of us are no longer seeking understanding. We are drawing lines of division that are hurting us. People are hurting.

This is not of God. God is in the healing.

God is in the conversation that seeks first understanding.

The unclean spirit would have us separate into our corners and shut down discussion.
The unclean spirit would tap into our egocentricities and have us believe that only our way is right.
The unclean spirit would cloud our vision so that the other is seen as an enemy rather than a fellow child of God.

But Jesus calls out this demon.
Jesus rebukes this demon.

Yes, it comes out reluctantly- kicking, screaming, and convulsing.
But God in Jesus is the authority. And that authority is love.
God pursues us all. Until every knee should bow.
We are all in this together. For the sake of the kingdom.
As the body of Christ we are all equal members.
We might disagree but we must stay united for the sake of the other. In love.
I’m not saying it’s easy.
It takes work. But that’s the power of Christ working in and through us.

Look at us here.
All of us share different views but we gather together each week under our shared mission of spreading the love of Jesus Christ with one another, this community, and the world.
Let us be the example in a world needing it.
Let us, as followers of Christ, demonstrate what it looks like to have the real authority informing our decisions.

Not the authority of the Republicans.
Not the authority of the Democrats.
Or the Green Party, Tea Party, Libertarian party… whatever.
Folks we are the party of Jesus Christ. And that holds more power, more potential than anything on the face of the earth.

At the time I thought that symbol stuck on the bumper of my car said everything about who I was and how the world was supposed to be. But as I got older and as the Holy Spirit got hold of me- that’s when I realized that the true mark of identity. The true symbol of meaning. Was traced on my forehead as a baby. Sealed by the Holy Spirit forever.

And that’s real authority.


Come & See

John 1:42-51

In the breakthrough movie “Miracle Worker”, Anne Bancroft (who in my view will always be Mrs. Robinson) plays Annie Sullivan, the teacher who is hired by the Keller family in a last-ditch effort to help their young daughter, Helen, who as a result of a fever as a baby, is rendered deaf and blind. Now 6, Helen is unable to communicate and as a result is often prone to outbursts, tantrums, and the occasional violence. As a result, she is on the verge of being institutionalized. Helen seems lost in an interior world of silence and darkness and the family is at their wits end, unable to reach her. Unable to help.
Sullivan, who is half-blind herself, is brought from the Perkins School of the Blind to tutor the young girl. Despite her efforts, Sullivan is unable to explain to Helen the connection between words and meaning.
In the famous “Water Scene”, Helen has just had one of her blow-up tantrums and has thrown a water pitcher at Annie. In frustration, Annie grabs Helen and drags her out into the yard to the water pump and begins furiously pumping the water, forcing Helen’s hands under the spigot, repeating “WATER, water, water,” forming the sign language with one of Helen’s hands while water rushes over the other. And at that moment, a breakthrough occurs. The feeling of the water, the experience of water connects for Helen. The words are no longer just words. They now have meaning. And at the feel of the water, she slowly speaks the words, “WATER”.
In delight, Helen rushes further into the yard, drops to her knees, pounding on the ground, pulling her fingers through the dirt, reaching for teacher who takes her hand and forms the word “GROUND”
With the thrill of a world opened up to her, Helen gets up and runs to a tree, wildly grasping at the branches and the leaves and again, reaches for Annie who forms the word “TREE”
She then dashes for the house, throwing herself onto the porch steps, pounding her hands on the wood and learns they are “STEPS” then clambers up the steps to a bell attached to the porch and rings it, now learning the word “BELL”
Annie calls out to Helen’s family inside, who races out to experience this dramatic, emotional breakthrough in their daughter, one they had longed for for so long.
They witness the transformative connections their daughter is making on the front lawn and are overwhelmed with emotion, scooping up the young girl, covering her with kisses, and bringing back inside the house.
The scene closes with Annie sitting that evening in her low lit room in her chair, basking in the events of the day. Young Helen enters the room quietly, gives her teacher a kiss on the cheek and then curls up in her lap. As she gently rocks the sleepy child, Annie forms the word “love” in Helen’s little hands.
It’s a powerful scene in a powerful movie.
And it reinforces an important point.
The power of experience.
Some things can’t simply be taught, explained, or described. They must be experienced. There is really no other way.
In the gospel today, Jesus goes to Galilee and finds Philip and says to him, “Follow me” and Philip, of course, immediately does.
I often wish I had the same sort of mojo as Jesus- where he tells someone to do something and they just do it.
I guarantee you if I did, I would have a sparkling clean house, kids with perfectly brushed hair, and I would never be late another day in my life! You might be good with these disciples, Jesus but let’s see how you do with a 5 year old!
But seriously, Jesus calls to Philip, who agrees to join him and then Philip, in turn, goes and invites Nathaniel to do the same. Now Nathaneal seems more like a Seaford, prone to a little bit of push-back. We’ll call that “discernment” but he asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and Philip responds with the ultimate invitation. “come and see”
Because most of the good things in life can’t be understood by mere explanation. The transformative things require experience. I recently crowdsourced this on Facebook asking the question, “have you ever been invited to something truly life-changing, but reading about it, learning about it, hearing about it, were all inadequate. It had to be experienced to be understood?” I got the most amazing responses, too many to recount here but they included mission trips to third world countries, fulfilling vocations, unique concert experiences, skydiving, watching a friends’ baby hearing their mother’s voice for the first time after cochlear implants, scuba diving, and marriage.
All of these examples were experiences that translated meaning in ways that explanation simply couldn’t.
You can’t understand the feeling of weightlessness until you’ve experienced the feeling of floating in water.
You can’t grasp the magnitude of our privilege until you’ve been to an impoverished area where even our most basic of resources are luxuries.
You can lecture your kids over and over again about the meaning of money but they won’t really get it until there is something they really, really want but don’t have the cash to buy it.
You can’t understand the Christian faith, truly understand it, without an experience of Jesus.
Oftentimes we want to intellectualize our faith through our complicated theologies, well-intended theories, and explanations. And there is certainly a place for those things, don’t get me wrong. But they don’t stand in place of experience.
Maybe this is what our passage today is getting at.
Philip is inviting a doubtful Nathaneal to “come and see” all of this he is hearing about Jesus. This is the same invitation Jesus uses with his disciples just a few verses before, and is the same invitation the Samaritan woman uses with her townspeople after her encounter with Jesus at the well.
These all suggest that one way to witness to your faith is by inviting someone to experience Jesus for oneself.
Because oftentimes when one has an experience of Jesus, they are transformed.
The theories become meaningful. They finally “get it.” And their lives are never the same.
We don’t exactly know how, but in this passage, Nathaneal experiences Jesus and in a quick transformation declares, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!”
And Jesus responds by alluding to the fact that the journey is only beginning. “you will see greater things than these.” Because Jesus rarely stops with the amazing experience of him.

I can stand up here and tell you until I’m red in the face about the transformative value of the Christian faith. I can talk to you about Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, but you really won’t be changed until you’ve had an experience of Jesus. The word made flesh.
I can debate you and launch into a tirade of carefully crafted apologetics, I can articulate undeniable proof of the existence of God and the power of Jesus. But as they say, no one ever came to faith by losing an argument. You must experience it. Faith has to be experienced.
So how do we experience Jesus?
There are many ways, but one undeniable way is through a community of faith. As Jesus himself says in Matthew 18, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst”
When you are experiencing loss and are comforted by the compassion of loved ones. That’s Jesus.
When a friend is sitting with you at the hospital as you await test results or walking with you through some really difficult decisions, that’s Jesus. That’s an experience of Jesus.
Or when you are feeling really alone and you walk into this church and are greeting my warm, smiling faces, are soothed by the inspiring music of Randall, and nourished by Holy Communion, those are experiences of Jesus.
Few people have that mind-blowing Jesus appearance that Paul had on the road to Damascus. But many of us have that experience of Jesus through other Christians. And I would argue they’re no less powerful.
And when this happens, when one has a true experience of Jesus, it often sets them on an entirely new and exciting journey.
This happened to a friend of mine who was spiritual, but mostly agnostic, at least when it came to organized religion. But in the midst of the ordeal involving my wife’s illness, he witnessed the powerful example of Christians bringing us meals, caring for our children, and supporting us. He experienced the powerful example of faithful prayer and the love and support offered by not only our immediate family but from friends and family from all over. For him, it was an experience of Jesus. And I will never forget the day when he shared that this experience had inspired a life of faith.
We’d debated and discussed the impact of a Christian life countless of times over beers on my front porch, but it was a true experience of Christ that made the difference.
But what’s the key action in the passage? An invitation. Philip invites Nathaneal to come and see for himself. Don’t take his word for it, “Come and see”. And once he does, Jesus takes it from there. And Nathaneal is forever changed.
Folks we have that opportunity. Each and every day. We, too, can be Philip and simply invite people to come and see what makes this faith community so special. Because it is. Jesus is right here, active in our midst all the time. Ready and able to be experienced.
Jesus is here in the hands of those quilters who lovingly prepare warm and colorful quilts that will comfort people who are sick or have just undergone surgery.
Jesus is here in the work of the men of our handyman ministry who will go out and provide repairs for those unable to do it themselves.
Jesus is here in the smiles and hugs of Ms. Edith, the tireless dedication of Gordon, or in the loving and delicious Wednesday night meals of Terry and her crew.
These are just a few examples. There are way too many examples of Jesus at work in this place. Doing transformative work in the lives of this congregation and in this community.
There is so much here to “come and see”. So why not invite someone to experience it for themselves? There’s no need to try to convince anyone of why we’re the best church in town (which we are). They’ll experience it for themselves, right when they walk in that door. If you’re visiting today, welcome because you’ve just walked into an extraordinary faith community that I hope will offer you a life-changing experience of Jesus.
So the next time you’re at the Y, or at the grocery store, at your kids school, or walking your dog in your neighborhood, invite someone to church. This church. So they may experience Jesus. And be forever changed.

Come and see indeed.


A Fresh Start: New Year’s Eve Sermon

Luke 2:22-40

Those carefully placed mountains of colorful cookies have been reduced to plates of crumbs, and those glorious, glistening turkeys are now sliced sandwich meat stowed away in Tupperware containers in our fridges.
Those beautiful, shiny packages that once surrounded the tree are now brand new jackets or sweaters keeping us warm, jewelry adorning our necks and wrists, or in my case VERY LOUD toys occupying the bandwidth of our already cacophonous house. The excitement of Christmas has given way to a return to our routines. Friends and family have traveled home and many of us are back at work.
But this morning I want to bring you back to the joy of Jesus’ birth and return to the story of our Savior.
In the gospel text this morning, Luke tells us of the Holy Family’s journey to the temple for the ritual purification, which according to the Law was required of Jewish women before returning to everyday life after childbirth. In addition, all firstborn sons are required to be presented at the temple and dedicated to God.
We also meet two prophets, Simeon and Anna, described as old in age, who meet Jesus and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit experience the fulfillment of their hopes and prayers and offer blessings and praises. They’ve been waiting and waiting for this fulfillment, the one who would usher in this new future. He would be the light to the Gentiles and the glory for the people of Israel. He would bring forth a new future of peace. And as a result of this, Simeon exclaims “you now dismiss your servant in peace for my eyes have seen your salvation”
It’s almost like a passing of the torch.
God in Christ has relieved these two faithful saints of their faithful vigil and offered them the promise of restoration they had hoped for.
One story ends as one begins.
With the arrival of Jesus in the world, a fresh start is underway.
This seems to be the perfect text as we bring 2017 to a close and look toward a brand new year. For some it was a tough year, with the loss of loved ones or the experience of life transitions. For some it was a year of great joy, with the arrival of new babies, or the start of new jobs or careers. And maybe for some it was a mix both- the joy of retirement from a long career followed by maybe the nervousness of what’s next.
The end of one thing followed by the beginning of another.
I for one love fresh starts. The start of the week or the 1st day of the month and especially the start of a new year gives me such joy. To have that clean slate is exciting to me and is pregnant with such possibility. You can put away whatever mistakes you made or regrets you had and start fresh. You can imagine a new reality and step into it, molding and shaping your decisions and choices to fit whatever goal you have. The past no longer holds you captive. A new journey has begun.
It reminds me of our baptism, when what is old is put to death to give birth to what is new in Christ. God comes to us offering us these fresh starts. Grace has set us free from the past and offers us a new future. We are washed clean and are offered a clean slate. Talking about good news.
My family went to see a movie on Christmas. It’s become sort of a tradition. This year we watched the new musical, “The Greatest Showman” a fictionalized treatment of the life of P.T. Barnum starring Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michele Williams, and Disney star Zendaya.
It was an incredible movie. Beautiful and visually stunning. Incredible music and dance sequences featuring fascinating characters and interesting storylines. Very much like a classic, big-screen Hollywood movie. I’m not sure which parts were historically true, and which parts weren’t, but I know truth most certainly rang true in the film in terms of equality, love, loyalty, and beauty. And that was enough for me. Sounds a little like the bible, doesn’t it?
But at the core of the film is Barnum’s rags to riches story. He’s the poor son of a suit maker but imagines a bigger life, one that would allow him to realize his dreams of adventure, beauty, opportunity, and riches. It would also allow him to win the heart of his childhood sweetheart, the wealthy daughter of one of his father’s clients, who disapproves of his social position.
Barnum is relentless in his pursuit; a true optimist who will stop at nothing to fulfill his destiny. He experiences setback after setback along his quest to fulfill his dreams. He takes big risks and they flop. He tries new things and they don’t get traction with audiences. And with these failures comes financial hardships and public humiliation. He worries about how he will provide for his wife, who was used to a life of privilege and his two young daughters.
But each day, like many of us, he starts fresh and tries again. He starts the day with hope, puts on his clothes, straps on his boots and goes out into the world to try again. Until that day arrives where things finally fall into place, his opportunity arrives, things click and he is thrust into fame and fortune with the start of a show highlighting a host of who many at the time referred to as “freaks” including the bearded lady, the tallest man on earth, and dog boy among many. This show would evolve into the Barnum & Bailey Circus, which would eventually become known as “The Greatest Show on Earth”.
Each day offers us a new start. And we can capture that hope. And never is there a better time than New Year’s Eve. So ignore those haters who try to shame you for making resolutions. Go for it. Whatever you imagine your future to be, take hold of it and start now.
And folks this hope is rooted in our baptism. Our baptism liberates from all those forces holding us back.
Baptism silences the voices that tells us we aren’t good enough, that our hopes and dreams are impossible.
Baptism urges us forward to try those new things, to nurture those gifts, to take those risks.
Baptism washes away those memories of failure that haunt us.
Baptism puts to death that person that was never who you wanted to be.
Christ has arrived in our lives and we have been reborn. We are created new in Christ. So fear, doubt, insecurity- they hold no power over us.
So grab hold of that new reality.
Start that new chapter. God has placed faithful people like Simeon and Anna, who will see you for who you really are and will support you and encourage you. They will see the Holy Spirit at work in your lives and will help you. The torch has been passed and the Holy Spirit is alive and well in you and is waiting for you to act.
So what’s it going to be? What is God calling you to do in 2018?
My guess is many of you already know. Many of you have had that deep desire marinating in your hearts for some time now. But you’ve never acted on them. Maybe you’ve allowed those negative forces to hold you back. If so, hear this message today: Go for it. Do it. Be who you were born to be. And make it a wonderful, incredible, exciting, and joyous 2018.

Here I Am

Luke 1:26-38

The angel came to Mary in what must have been a frightening scene for the young girl. “Greetings!” announces Gabriel. And I can’t imagine it being subtle. Can you? To be fair, I don’t know what angels sound like, but I can’t imagine this one being a whisper. In my imagination at least, it’s a loud, thunderous sound that echoes and reverberates.
And please, sound system, don’t take this as a cue!
But I think it would be just a little bit scary. And sure, Gabriel says to her, “Don’t be afraid!” But come on, can you imagine poor Mary?
I’m sure she was scared to death. The text says she was “perplexed” but that hardly seems realistic for the circumstances. After all, she was a 13 year old girl who was just told by a celestial being that she would be pregnant with God’s son. And although engaged, she wasn’t married yet which could cost her her life. That’s enough to scare most people I know.
But regardless of her feelings, her response is really the ideal response to God. A combination of humble trust and obedient service. From a position of faith, she ultimately answers, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.”
Don’t you wish we were all like this?
God breaks into your life, calls you to a new direction; maybe even a new life, no details, really and lots to fear, and your response is an unequivocal “here am I” or in other words, “send me.”
I think many of us push back on these urgings from God and instead convince ourselves that our paths are the correct paths. We allow fear to dictate our decisions and push forward with our own agenda rather than discerning and honoring God’s will. It’s human nature.
This is what makes Mary’s response so awe-inspiring.
Because in doing so Mary becomes the model for the ages for Christian discipleship—the person who all Christians should emulate. She embodies faith and faithfulness.
There are lots of examples of this type of faithful response in Scripture, which makes you wonder if maybe it’s a theme that God wants us to pay attention to.
Consider the responses of others in the Bible:
Mary? She answers, “Here I am”
Abraham? “Here I am”
Moses? “Here I am”
God calls and people answer. And these are folks just like you and me.
All of these examples- and there are others- are regular, ordinary people being called by God and their responses- ultimately, not always at first, are along the lines of “Send me”. The Bible gives us models of faithful responses in all sorts of situations for which to emulate.
The Hebrew word for this is Heneni. It’s a courageous response and means you are ready, willing, and able for whatever God has in store for you. Fittingly, it was the focus of the sermon given at my graduation from seminary.
In addition to “Here I Am”, another translation of heneni,” is “Here I Stand” which is interesting considering our Lutheran heritage. For those new to the Lutheran tradition, “Here I Stand” were the famous words believed to have been uttered by Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms as he is asked by officials of the Roman Catholic Church to renounce his claims and calls for reforms of the church; reforms he felt were mandated by Scripture. His steadfast resolve, guided by the Holy Spirit, moved him to stand his ground, despite the risk to not just his career, but his life. His famous words are, “Here I stand. I can do no other, so help me God.”
When faith is our lens, we can trust that whatever we feel God calling us to will be the right path. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, but our fears will have no license over us because we can trust in God’s loving protection and provision.
Mary is told not to be afraid. That God is with her and will not abandon her. God will walk with her and be with her the entire way.
The message is the same for us today.
With our faith in God’s loving presence and provision as our lens, we can respond to our circumstances with confidence and resolve.
With faith as our lens, we can respond to whatever God calls us to with trust.
Mary doesn’t have all the answers- she doesn’t know what all of these things will mean for her. She doesn’t know how it will all work out. But she trusts in God and God’s capacity. And she is able to step out in faith.
The same is true for us. We rarely have all the answers, but we are still called to respond.
Perhaps the most important words in this passage, ones that should calm our fears, are “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Mary knows this and responds accordingly.
Nothing will be impossible for God.
Friends, these words are true. And I want you to hear that today. Nothing is impossible for God. So there is no need to be afraid.
God’s got this!
So when you feel God calling you to whatever task or challenge it might be, you can rest assure that even if it seems impossible, even if it seems outrageous, with God all things are possible. My buddy used to have a saying, “If it’s God’s will, He’ll foot the bill!”
My friend Carol was enjoying a successful career in Corporate America when God began luring her in a new direction. She was pulled toward helping those in her community living in poverty, in particular those who were in the midst of crisis. For a multitude of reasons, they had lost their homes, or had their electricity or water shut off. Or they had no money to feed themselves or their families. After 18 years at Duke Energy, she followed God’s call and took the leap, abandoning the comforts of a big, corporate job and went to work for Crisis Assistance Ministry, a local non-profit helping those in poverty. 17 years later, she is now its Chief Executive Officer, only the 2nd in its history, and has made a tremendous impact on our community.
When God called, Carol said, “Here I am”
My buddy Clint and his wife Angela were living a comfortable life in Chapel Hill- already a busy one with their 4 young, beautiful children going in a million different directions with sports and activities when God called them to add to their family through adoption. What in the world were they thinking?, all of us asked. And they were most certainly afraid of what it all might look like- and they weren’t necessarily sure how they would manage. But God was pulling that thread, as Pastor Ginn mentioned last week, leading them to Ethiopia where they met 2 year-old brothers, who are now part of their family.
God called, Clint and Angela both said,”Here I am.”
There are countless stories of people in comfortable circumstances being called by God into new terrain. Sometimes it’s a new career.
Sometimes it’s a new relationship.
Sometimes it’s a move to a different part of the country or even world.
But God never leads us astray. We don’t always have the full picture, that’s to be sure, but we can trust that if God is calling us somewhere, we can be confident it is for our good.
Although we tend to think of the dramatic examples of God calling and brave souls fearlessly responding in the affirmative, these are not the only examples.
God is breaking into our lives and calling us each and every day.
Sure, sometimes it’s in big, dramatic ways but also it’s in more subtle, gentle ways.
But the message is the same. Do not be afraid. God is with you. And with this knowledge you can respond, “here I am”
So where is God calling you?
Where do you feel that gentle tug toward an area that might seem a little scary?
Maybe it’s taking on a new responsibility at work or even starting a new business.
Maybe it’s picking up that instrument you abandoned years ago.
Maybe it’s trying a new committee here at church in a completely unfamiliar area.
Whatever it might be, trust in God’s guidance. Trust that our God will not lead you on a path you aren’t intended for.
Mary was called by God to an unimaginable task. And we all know it was far from easy. But in faith and courage,she heeded the angel Gabriel’s advice and was not afraid, choosing trust over fear.
May you, too, have the same faith and courage to respond to God’s call however it might surface in your own life. And maybe you be richly blessed as a result.

Vulnerability & Talent: My Sermon from Today

The Parable of the Talents
Matthew 25:14-30

Despite what you might be thinking, this parable is NOT about managing your portfolio..
Sorry, Suzy Orman, Jesus is talking about something a little deeper than just making sure you invest wisely.
So what does this parable mean?
Well we find it situated in the section of Matthew where Jesus is using 3 different parables to instruct his disciples how to live in anticipation of the Lord’s return.
Last week Pastor Ginn discussed the parable of the ten maidens, where Jesus seemed to be inviting listeners to share freely; not to be constrained by feelings of scarcity—to remind them that in God’s kingdom there is abundance.
This week, with the Parable of the Talents, we hear a similar message.
In this story, a master has entrusted three slaves with part of his estate while he is away.
He’s divided it in the form of “talents” which is a monetary amount- where 1 talent is equal to about 20 years wages for the average worker.
So he’s entrusting them with a ton of money.
Think about it, the first got the equivalent of 100 years wages, the second 40, and the third 20.
So when he returns, after what the text says is “a long time”, he is interested to know what the slaves have done with the generous resources for which he has entrusted them.

In this parable, the resource is money, but like with most parables, its meaning is intentionally open, capable of making a variety of deeper claims.
So let’s take this word- talent- and think about it more along the lines of how we define it today- to mean a skill, aptitude, or ability.
And let’s look at the parable in this way.
Because the parable hinges not on the specifics of the resource, but the master’s response to how they’ve used what they were given.

To those who “invested” their talents, they were rewarded and invited to “enter into the joy of your master”
To the one who didn’t, who buried his talent- he’s “thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”.
Seems harsh, doesn’t it?
So what to make of this?

Our talents, whatever they might be, are generous gifts from God and they are unique to us. And we are to offer that talent as a gift to the world.
1 Peter calls us to “serve one another with whatever gifts each has received.”
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.” Or as some say, you are “blessed to be a blessing”

So burying that talent—Denying that gift—is not a faithful response to God.
It’s certainly not actively participating in the body of Christ.
Because our talents are how we participate in the body.
They become our contribution to the world.
And as a result, they’re deeply linked to who we are.

But so often we don’t recognize our talents. We aren’t sure if what we have to offer is significant.
Society has a way of keeping folks at bay.
With impossible standards.
Unrealistic expectations
The messages we are pounded with are relentless, really
Telling us we aren’t good enough.
That only perfection is worthy
No wonder people hide talents or are reluctant to share them.
Because the repercussions can be brutal.
The risks, too great.
To me, this is the enemy at work.
Keeping our gifts tucked away.
Under lock and key.
A light that’s hidden.

When we don’t allow our gifts to be seen
When we keep our light hidden.
We not only bury our talents.
We bury ourselves.

It’s vulnerability and that’s not comfortable.
Offering ourselves openly and honestly can be scary.

C.S. Lewis writes, “to love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal…Lock it up safe in a casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless- it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

So maybe the third slave isn’t so much condemned as he condemns himself to a place- that knows not joy, that knows only darkness and wailing and grinding of teeth.”

Vulnerability is not easy.
To many- I would say most-
It’s scary, it’s uncomfortable.
It most definitely requires courage.

Before the King of Rock n Roll hit it big he was told by the Grand Ole Opry manager that he would be better of going back to being a truck driver than pursuing a career in music.

For the record, it is estimated the Elvis Presley has sold over 1 BILLION records to date worldwide.

Albert Einstein struggled early on- not speaking until age 4 or reading until age 7. Those challenges did not prevent him from winning the Nobel Prize in Physics and developing the theory of relativity.

In 1919 Walt Disney was fired from the Kansas City Star because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas,” according to his editor.

And those are just a few examples!
There are countless others.
Thank goodness these folks didn’t succumb to the insecurity and fear of the unknown that could have hidden their talents.
They didn’t avoid the vulnerability required to harness their gifts.

Most of us avoid vulnerability at all costs.
We run from it with all our might.
We think if he can avoid failure, eliminate risk, or micromanage our environments, we can minimize or even diminish the discomfort that comes with vulnerability.
But this is to our own peril.

In her bestselling book, “Daring Greatly”, sociologist Brene Brown notes that when we avoid vulnerability , “we limit the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: Love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity to name a few.”
And those experiences are what shape us
Those experiences are what help us identify our gifts and share them with the world!
Those experiences are what help us step into the fullness of ourselves.

Brown writes, “Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen. It’s tough to do that when we’re terrified about what people might see or think. When we’re fueled by that fear or listen to the voice that’s constantly whispering “You’re not good enough”, it’s tough to show up. We end up hustling for our worthiness rather than standing in it.”

Friends in Christ, remember that our worthiness is already in place.
We are worthy because Christ made us worthy.
We don’t need to jockey for our worthiness.
That bill has been paid.
So we can lean into the confidence that we are loved and valued by the creator of the universe.
The Psalmist writes, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

So maybe this parable is about being your authentic self and celebrating those God- given gifts- the talents- you have been entrusted with.
God invites us to embrace and harness these gifts—
Not bury them in the ground.
Folks, I don’t think this parable is about doubling your money to please a harsh boss.
It’s about standing into your worthiness.
Offering to the world the gifts God has given you.

We have a responsibility to use and maximize those resources for which we have been entrusted.
Because at the end of the day, they really aren’t ours, they’re God’s.

If you think your talents are simply for you to make a lot of money, retire, and die, you’ve missed the point of your life. God gave you talents to benefit others, not yourself. And in return, God gave other people talents that benefit you.
We’re all a part of the body of Christ, and each part matters. There are no insignificant people in the family of God. You are shaped to serve God, and God wants to see how you are going to use the talents he gave you.

So maybe that’s what the master means in the parable when he says those who have utilized their talents will “enter into the joy of your master”.

So what is your talent?
What is it God has entrusted you with to bless the world?
Don’t worry if you think you’re “good” at it- what brings you joy?
Do you have a knack for fixing things?
(side note this is NOT me)
Do you enjoy numbers?
Are you a talented singer, painter, writer?
How about cooking?
Are you good with kids?
What is it?
Because God has equipped you specifically with that gift- that unique ability – so that you can bless the world.
Are you making the most of it?
Are you using your talents?

Don’t let fear keep you from experiencing the joy God has in store for you.

Enter into the joy of the Master.


All Saints Sermon 11/5/17

All Saints Sermon

I can remember when I was younger watching the movie Superman. Remember the scene where the kids are on the school bus that’s crashed and is now teetering over the edge of a bridge? That always struck me with a deep fear. “That could be me!” I would think. “That could be my bus!” I would gasp, immediately suspending the reality that in Elkin, North Carolina the only body of water my bus ever crossed was the Big Elkin Creek which was about 6 feet deep.
But nevertheless I was instantly drawn into this scene where a hero saves the day.

After Superman safely lifts the bus back onto the bridge saving the kids and driver,
-sorry if that’s a spoiler!—
everyone involved breathes a collective sigh of relief and offers passionate thanks and admiration to this extraordinary individual.
In our movies and in our lives, we long for a hero.
To come and save the day.
It captures our imagination.
It offers us hope.
So we actively seek out these stories.
Take the Marvel Universe, as it’s known. Its the comic book company who is now bringing these comics to the big screen. Their characters include Thor, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Black Widow and Captain America and have all been made into big movies and sequels.
To say they’re popular is an understatement. In fact, as of today, the movies collectively have grossed just shy of $5 BILLION dollars. Yes folks, that’s a b.
The concept of heroes fascinates us and taps into a deep longing that exists in almost all of us.

Obviously, this is nothing new. Heroes, gods, mythological creatures with special powers all date back to the beginning of time.
In a way, these figures served as narrative devices that helped listeners and readers make sense of a confusing and chaotic world. Mythological entities were created to explain how plants grew or how the seasons changed. Dramatic stories of fantastical beings were imagined to explain storms, earthquakes, and other natural phenomenon.
But their influence didn’t stop with the natural world. These stories also served as a way to help us in our human experience. These gods and heroes modeled exceptional traits which most could only dream of exhibiting.
But they became the ideals for which our leaders were compared.
They became the standard for heroes.
The ancient Israelites longed for such a hero to come down and rescue and deliver them from their troubles and despair. But God threw in a twist.
God told them that their deliverer would not be a supernatural being, but a human one. This hero, known as the Messiah, would embody all the traditional markings of a legendary hero: a strong political presence and a legal expert; a charismatic and powerful military leader.

But then comes the ultimate twist.
Along comes Jesus- the fulfillment of this prophesy.
the arrival of the Messiah,
and he is nothing like he was supposed to look.
He wasn’t an epic warrior, he was a peace-maker
He wasn’t an esteemed leader from nobility, he was the peasant son of a carpenter from a little known country.
This was definitely NOT what anyone expected.
Imagine the bewilderment as God seems to be throwing yet another curve ball!
This unpredictable hero is turning over everything.
In the Beatitudes we read today, we hear first-hand as Jesus subverts many of the norms of the day:
Blessed are the hopeless
Blessed are those who grieve
Blessed are those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness.
Blessed are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous.
Those are simply unconventional – maybe even confusing messages!
Because it defies our preconceived understandings.

This is why may people at the time weren’t convinced Jesus was the Messiah
he simply didn’t meet the criteria.
He didn’t fit the bill.
He didn’t say what he was supposed to say.
He was countercultural.
But that’s what is so awesome about our God.

God is always subverting our limited understandings to open up a new and incredible life available to us all.
God turns on its head all those preconceived notions we have about what it takes to be a hero.
Because in God’s eyes we are all heroes. By doing God’s transformative work in the world, we are heroes.
Epic feats aren’t required for God.
Super strength and perfection isn’t necessary.
For God, love is the only prerequisite for heroism.
Blessed are the meek.

Israel was indeed delivered as was promised.
In fact all of humanity was rescued.
But not in a way anyone thought.
God was saying something new.
God redeemed humanity by becoming human -entering into flesh and taking on a body and walking among us.
Feeling what we feel
Doing what we do
Trying things we try.
And by doing so God points to the fact that deliverance comes not by supernatural megaheroes but through ordinary folks just like you and me.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ lives in each and every one of us, giving us power- we mere mortals – to be heroes.
to do amazing things.
To be courageous leaders
and brave change-agents.

Who are your heroes?
What are they like?

On Wednesday night I was talking with the Confirmation students about the Exodus story. And it was interesting to discuss how the hero of that story- Moses- was an ordinary, flawed guy, just like me and you.
Just like us, Moses had baggage. I mean, he had even killed a guy!
Just like us, he was unsure of himself and doubted whether he had what it took.
He even had a speech impediment!
So he also failed to meet the extraordinary job description of a heroic leader for the ancient world.
But God used this ordinary man to be the hero of the Israelites!
And it’s not just Moses but all the heroes of the Bible seem to be ordinary, flawed folks just like you and me.
See the pattern here?
So I implored the students to remember this when they started to doubt themselves or second-guess that they have what it takes to do some cool things.

Because there is a long line of folks with modest backgrounds who God has used
for God’s glory.

Today is All Saints Sunday.

The word “saint” can confuse people.
Different faith traditions define saints differently.
The Roman Catholic Church has a very structured process and specific criteria for qualifying someone as a saint. For example, one requirement involves the performance of a miracle. So as a result these heroes are often held in the highest esteem and honor- St. Francis, St. Theresa, St. Paul, and St. Peter, among others.
It would be easy to struggle to relate to some of these individuals as actual human beings,
because many people think a saint was someone who was perfect in life.
That wouldn’t seem to jive with what we’ve come to learn about how God works, does it?
But outside of the miracle, if you read about the lives of these saints, you quickly learn they had mostly been everyday folks who God used to do incredible things.
Just like in the Bible.
And just like today.
And this is the approach we as Lutherans take.
We keep it real simple.
To us a saint is defined as simply a loved one who has died in the faith.
And to us, these saints are as much a saint as the biggest names in the Bible.  

This year we have several loved ones- saints- who have died in the faith.
But each of them God used in ordinary ways to do extraordinary things:
Never underestimate the power of small things done in love.

Gary Maillet protected men, women, and children in New York for years before moving South to be a loving and compassionate grandfather.

Gabe Spil left a legacy with his family that challenged them to think bigger. His son wrote, that if he ever said he hated someone, Gabs would correct him and say it wasn’t hate, it was a lack of understanding. Or if he ever said he couldn’t do something, Gabs would simply say, “Cant never could.”

Duane Barrett blessed the world with a beautiful signing voice and by all accounts practiced extraordinary hospitality to everyone in her midst.

Peggy Hall welcomed family young and old into her house to stay as long as they needed.

Worth Vanderburg served his country in the military and then later brought joy to his nephews by getting on the floor and playing with them, leaving lasting memories for all.

Steve Fetner served as a father figure to many, collecting a slew of “adopted” children of all ages.

These are holy legacies.
These are saints.
These are people who through ordinary acts of love made an extraordinary impact on the world around them.
These are heroes.

Gabe might not have been Iron Man, and Peggy might not have been Wonder Woman with a magic lasso.
But they are every much as heroic and remarkable and and saintly as anyone.

And these saints join with us each Sunday in the Divine Service where heaven and earth meet.
So today we remember those that have passed from our midst and rest safely in Christ awaiting the Resurrection of the Body.  
And for their witness we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude.
Thanks be to God.