True Peace is Hard to Come By

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on June 25, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 6:1b-11 + Matthew 10:24-39

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Please pray with me:

Holy God,
We say we want peace,
Yet true peace is hard to come by.
Guide us as we walk down this path of discipleship.
And remind us again that you walk with us.
Amen.

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One of the things I hated most about being a kid was getting hurt. Scrapes, bumps, bruises, cuts, gashes…I got them all. I loved riding my bike more than anything, so all of those were basically a weekly occurrence.
I hated the cuts and bumps and scrapes most because 1) it meant playtime had to be put on pause, but 2) because the process of cleaning up scrapes and gashes and cuts is really quite terrible.
See, because before you put a bandaid or neosporin on it, you have to clean it. Really well.
You have to wash it with water, maybe a little soap, maybe put some hydrogen peroxide on it, and if you’re anything like me, you’re thinking back to when you had to do that last part and you’re cringing a little bit, right?

In order for wounds to heal well, they have be cleaned. And that part is awful, sometimes as bad as the injury itself. But it is necessary in order for good healing to happen.

In our Gospel this morning, we hear Jesus saying one of the most un-Jesusy things in all of the Gospels, “I’ve not come to bring peace, but I’ve come to bring a sword.” It’s a hard thing for us to hear from the one we call the Peaceful One. But I do think Jesus is talking about peace here.
It’s just that I think Jesus is talking about a deep, abiding, true peace, rather than the things that masquerade as peace these days. That abiding peace—that true peace—in Hebrew is Shalom.

Jesus is saying here that true peace is hard to come by.
And I think deep inside our heart of hearts, we know that to be the case. That so much of what passes as peace these days is a false peace. False peace is a peace that is gained by violence. False peace is a peace that is peaceful for some, but not for all.
But true peace—that abiding peace—I think we know, is a long, arduous, and sometimes painful road.

Because true peace requires you to confront some pretty ugly things about yourself. It forces you to recognize and be honest about the ways in which you’ve distanced yourself from your neighbor, how you’ve hurt or harmed those you once called family, and how you’ve used your words to cause injury or violence rather than building up and healing.

I think this poem by Christian Wiman that we’re using as our Confession during this Season of Pentecost does a pretty good job of naming this: “For all the pain passed down the genes or latent in the very grain of being; for the lordless mornings, the smear of spirit words intuit and inter…”
Right? These ways in which our words smear the spirits of others. Or the pain we cause others because it’s inherent to our very being, our DNA is infused with this sense of separation from God, and our innate inclination is to distance ourselves from our neighbors or the other.
Look deep inside yourself. Isn’t that true of you?

That’s what St. Paul is talking about when he writes about our “old self.” That the sinful posture of humanity is one of turning away from God. That’s been true of humanity from the beginning.
SparrowAnd we have to fight with every fiber of that being to overcome those tendencies. It takes a conscious choice on our part to try to live in reconciled relationships with God and with each other. And it’s not a one and done thing, we have to recommit ourselves to that difficult work of reconciliation and peace-making again and again, day after day, morning after morning, Sunday after Sunday. We come to this place to hear God’s word of forgiveness; that every single hair on your head has been counted, numbered, and named; that you, precious child of God, are worth so much more than a thousand sparrows; that neither height nor depth, that nothing in all of creation can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus; that if you have been joined to Christ in a death like his, how much more surely, dear people, will you be united with Christ in a resurrection like his.

True peace is hard to come by.
The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was preaching a sermon on these verses from Matthew said, “Peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.”

When we truly follow Jesus in this path of discipleship…when we take seriously the call given to us in our baptism to actively work for peace and justice in the world…when we internalize what the Reverend Doctor King noted that “No one is free until all are free” and that our liberation as humanity is inextricably tied together and caught up in “an inescapable network of mutuality”…when we really, actually work for and make justice a reality in our unjust communities…when we take up our own cross and follow Jesus…that’s how we start down the way of true peace.

But let’s be clear about where that way leads.
If you pick up your cross, if you undertake the difficult work of creating and cultivating justice, you will find yourself with Jesus along the way of the cross. And that way leads to death.

You will die to yourself, and you will have started to live for others.
You will lose your life, but in losing your life you will have gained it.

The path of discipleship, this way of the cross, is one marked by wounds and scars.
And it’s especially through the wounds and scars of the One we follow in this way of hard-fought, abiding, true peace that God gives life to all of God’s creation…including the sparrows.

Suffering With and Speaking Life

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on June 18, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 5:1-8 + Matthew 9:35-10:23

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This is a tough sermon this morning.
One that I hope names some of our deeper hurt, but also calls us to greater love.

Please pray with me:

Holy One,
We live in the midst of suffering.
But we do not suffer alone.
Remind us again of our call to bear one another’s burdens.
Call us again to speak words of life and peace and love.
Amen.

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I served as a chaplain in 2013 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in downtown Chicago. The summer of 2013 was one of the deadliest on record up to that point, and each summer since then has seen the violent crime and homicide rate increase in Chicago.
I served on the Medical ICU floor…the worst-case scenarios, the long-term sick, the touch-and-go cases, and the folks who were out of options…

I didn’t know what suffering looked like until I served in a hospital.

I prayed with a family of about 25 people all crammed into one hospital room as we held hands around the bed as their matriarch took her last breaths. The room was filled with cries and sobbing and shouts of lament like I had never experienced before, but they were the most honest prayers I’ve ever heard.
I sat with a man for 5 hours in the lobby of the hospital after he watched his wife of 47 years die on the stretcher in the ER. Sometimes suffering looks like someone who’s just lost their beloved staring blankly at a cell phone, trying to remember who they were about to call, or even what they were going to say.

As I’ve listened to and watched the personalities on NPR and the news channels this week, it seems like everyone’s carrying around a heavier weight with them. It feels like the news cycle is starting to catch up to us.
On Wednesday, a man felt justified in opening fire on Republican Congresspeople as they practiced baseball in part because of the virulent rhetoric present in our political discourse.
On Friday, a jury in Minnesota acquitted a police officer in the 2016 murder of Philando Castile.
Yesterday was the 2-year anniversary of the massacre at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. A massacre of 9 beautiful children of God, including their pastor, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who, by the way, studied at an ELCA seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. A massacre perpetrated by the white supremacist Dylann Roof, who, by the way, was baptized, grew up, and was confirmed in the Lutheran church. Our church, our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American, the ELCA…

And all of this in the same month when Coptic Christians are being martyred in Egypt, terrorist attacks are happening around the world including Manchester and London, and more than 50 people are presumed dead in an apartment fire outside London.

There is no shortage of suffering in our world.
And yeah…it’s been a tough week.

I think of the end of our Gospel reading this morning when Jesus talks about siblings and parents and children warring against each other, and ruling classes oppressing the lower classes, and state-sanctioned punishment and execution. And it really doesn’t sound so different than today.
And when we hear this, I think it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, like “What can I do in the midst of all of this?”
And I turn to our Gospel today here too. See, because I don’t think Jesus is sending the disciples out to convert people, to create the newest batch of the first Christians. We hear Jesus this morning sending the disciples with explicit directives to “cure the sick, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons.” Friends, the call to discipleship is a call to go and alleviate suffering. And not through thoughts and prayers and retweets and facebook posts, but through actual embodied presence. To alleviate suffering is go to the places where suffering is and do what you can with what you have to make things even just a little better for those people in those places.

Our Gospel this morning notes that when Jesus saw the crowds of people he was ministering to, those that were sick or diseased or cast aside or beholden to something outside of themselves, he had compassion for them. The Greek word is interesting…compassion…splachnizomai…literally, to be moved from your guts. Compassion is visceral, it’s feeling that moves you to action. Compassion, which we get from Latin…com—passio…to suffer with. To have compassion for someone is to be physically moved to suffer with them.
It only requires an investment of yourself.

But how many of you are dealing with suffering of own? I wonder for how many of you the thought of being present with someone else in their suffering feels like a really tall order because quite honestly you’re just trying to deal with you own stuff…
This, dear friends is why discipleship is a communal effort. Because it really does take all of us. To bear one another’s burdens. To lift one another up. To be present with one another in the midst of our suffering. To search out meaning and fumble around to find moments of joy in the midst of suffering.

There’s another interesting language note in our reading from Romans this morning. St. Paul writes that, “We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance; endurance, character; and character, hope; and hope doesn’t disappoint.” That “boasting in sufferings” part, that’s not boasting or being prideful because of suffering, but is more accurately translated as boasting in the hope we have from God in the midst of our suffering. It’s having hope in spite of suffering.

And that is the message of the cross. That though we are still sinners, Christ suffered and died for us. And for “them”. And for all of creation.
And not just that Christ died, but through the Resurrection, Christ overcomes suffering and death—Christ defeats death and takes away the sting of suffering. Death no longer has the last word. God’s final word to God’s people is one of life.

And if that’s true, I think that gives us an indication about how we are to go about at least beginning to follow this call to discipleship. If God’s word that overcomes death and suffering is a word of life, then the call is to alleviate suffering where we find it begins with our words. Speaking words of life instead of words that harm and injure and inflict violence.
Because how can we know the needs of someone else unless we talk and listen to them? How can we possibly start to show compassion to someone who is suffering if the words we use most often are those of division and violence and hatred?
There’s no shortage of suffering in our world; that harvest is plentiful, but the laborers willing to be present with and speak life-giving words into the midst of that suffering are few.
So how will you undertake the call to that kind of discipleship?

I think it starts with our words.
In the wake of the attack in Virginia on Wednesday, US legislators of all parties are calling for a toning down of the vitriol and spitefulness in the rhetoric of Washington. And I think that’s a helpful lesson for us. It may or may not surprise you to know that your pastor can see your facebook posts. And you may or may not be ok with that.

Be kind to each other. Speak words that lift up and give life rather than words that tear down and destroy. Build bridges instead of walls. Build bigger tables for sharing food rather than larger fences for closing yourself off.

And when you do that, I think you’ll find that your capacity for sitting with one other in your suffering begins to grow.

These Are The Facts

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on February 5, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany:
Isaiah 58:1-12 + Psalm 112:1-10 + 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 + Matthew 5:13-20

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Please pray with me this morning:

Holy God,
You tell us the truth about ourselves.
That we are salt. That we are light. And you call us to live like it.
Remind us of these truths, these facts, when we are fearful.
And especially when we aren’t feeling particularly flavorful or luminous.
Amen.

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A few years ago I was making the solo 14-hour drive from Chicago to Arlington, TX. I was doing it solo because I had a meeting with my candidacy committee and Tiffany had to work, so I set off on my own. I left Chicago about 5:30 in the morning, grabbed my Starbucks iced coffee with 4 shots of espresso, and away I went. I turned on NPR as I do quite often, and I just kept going. I got about halfway down Illinois before I had to switch radio stations, and then I found the central Illinois NPR station, then the southern Illinois NPR station, and then the St. Louis area NPR station, and at that point it really just became a game. I made it almost to Joplin, Missouri before I was no longer able to find a public radio station.

I went almost 9 hours and nearly 900 miles of just listening to news and facts and commentary.
That’s another reason I was driving alone, because there’s no way Tiffany would have let me do that if she were in the car…

I consume information.
I listen to public radio, I read blogs, and articles, and headlines, and updates.
I am data junkie.

But to what end? What does my consumption of information do for me?
I certainly consider myself well informed. I purposefully seek out perspectives that are different than mine. But ultimately, what have I gained?

Knowledge without purpose isn’t useful. Our knowledge needs direction.
Consider us this morning, church. I mean, for the most part, we have a lot of information about Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and God. We know a lot of stuff.
But knowledge for knowledge’s sake is just that…information, data…

But what if we amassed information and knowledge for the sake of the actual, physical, life-or-death difference it might make on the life of another?

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that knowledge about God cannot exist simply as knowledge. Knowledge about God—or more simply, theology—is the knowledge of God’s very presence in the world. To know about God is to notice the ways God is moving and active in our world.
It’s not enough, then, to know about God. As disciples, we have to live into, we have to be the activity of God in the world.
It’s not just that we are salt and light, Jesus calls us to be salt and light.
Jesus calls us to live out our identity as salt and light.

To let our righteousness, or more accurately translated justice, exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.
That type of justice is an embodied justice, it’s actualized.
Like Dr. Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Church, it’s one thing to sit in here for an hour on a Sunday morning and nod our heads in agreement because everything I’m saying and everything we’re praying and singing sounds really good and really, wouldn’t that be lovely…but it is a wholly different thing to take these words to heart, and not just to take them to heart, but to let them seep into our very bones, the very fibers of our being, and have these words bind up our lives so that we can’t not go out and do the very things that the Gospel is calling us to do.

Knowledge without purpose, without action, perpetuates the way things are.
Knowledge without action allows us to see injustice in the world, but justify our inaction because it doesn’t square exactly with our worldview, or the problem is just too big, or there are too many problems, or “I’m just one person, so what difference could I really possibly make…”
Friends, it is a myth and a lie that injustices in the world are mutually exclusive. Yes, our world is rife with injustice. Yes, our world looks very different than the vision of the peaceable kingdom that God envisions for God’s world. But dear people, this is an opportunity, not a prohibitive excuse!
Because these are the facts: You are salt. You are light.
And as claimed, and called, and beloved children of God, we must start living like it. Because it is truly a matter of life or death.

Knowledge without purpose allows us to continue in the dominant narratives of fear that we tell ourselves.

I fully believe that, fundamentally, it is fear that prevents us from truly living as God calls us to live, as salt and as light.
And so I wonder, church, what are you afraid of? What do you fear?

How you answer that question probably depends on your demographic or your social location.
For example, if you’re a 30-something like me, you might fear that you’ll never be able to pay off the mountains of student debt you might have.
Or if you’re a little older, you might fear the increased number of visits to the doctor, or the myriad of specialists you now have to make appointments with.
If you identify as LGBTQ, you might be fearful of being able to be your fullest self, for fear that some people might not accept those parts of you.
If you have a daughter, or son, or family member, or loved one serving in the military, you might fear the prospect of them being put in harm’s way, or worse, returning from their service only to be so deeply emotionally and mentally affected that they’re just not the same again, only to find a system not set up to give them the support that they need and deserve.
If you have family or loved ones overseas, you might fear for their safety. You might legitimately be afraid of going to visit them, for fear of not being able to return home.
These aren’t politics, church, this is real.
Just this weekend, a hate-filled note was left at the house of someone in the Riverstone community, just down the road. This also happened in Sienna Plantation. And near the Galleria.
This is not who we are.
These are all real, actual fears that many of you sitting here this morning have.
These are all real, actual fears that many of your siblings in Christ have.

barbed_wire_in_the_sky

Friends, don’t hear me saying that fear isn’t real, or that fear isn’t warranted. God does not say don’t be afraid because there’s nothing to be afraid of. God says do not fear, but rather trust that in all things God is with you. That God is with you in the midst of your fears and worries.
God says do not fear, because in the death and resurrection of Christ, God has taken away and freed you from the power of sin and death. God has overcome death and is actively at work redeeming the world, and does so through you, so you are free to live out your identity as children of God. To speak God’s peace and God’s justice to a world that desperately needs to hear it.
Rather than practicing self-serving fasts, like the prophet in Isaiah says. Rather than quarreling and fighting and going back and forth on facebook.

Because “This is the fast that I choose,” says the Lord, “To loose the bonds of injustice, to set the oppressed free, to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into your own house, to clothe the naked, to give to those who ask of you
Then your light will shine forth like the noonday! Then your light shines in the darkness!”
Then…you are being light.

You are free to be Christ…to be the very embodiment of God…to be Love…to your neighbors who are fearful. Who need to be wrapped in the loving warmth of God.
You are free to be salt and light to a world that needs to be flavored and illumined.
Don’t let your fear prevent you from living out the truth of who God calls you to be.
God says be salt and be light anyway, in spite of your fear.
Because by doing so, maybe…maybe…we can begin to overcome our fears.

If I’m honest, sometimes my continuous consumption of information makes me feel overwhelmed and causes fear to rise up inside me. And it’s not easy to see God in the midst of those times. But when I take time to pause, and breathe deeply, and really look for God, often a small flicker of light, a glimmer of hope, catches my eye.
It happened to me two weeks ago, when I was feeling particularly discouraged and fearful. And just then an unread email caught my attention. It was from a then-unknown friend at The Islamic Institute here in Houston. One of my predecessors had reached out to them and begun conversations about finding opportunities for partnership between our congregation and any number of Islamic faith communities in our area.
He and I have only just started exchanging emails, but I am so, so hopeful for the future directions of these conversations. I hope we can build bridges of peace in our corner of the world, rather than digging deeper trenches of division.

What do people see when they see you? Do they see salt that has lost its taste, or light that has been snuffed out under a basket?
Church, we are salt. We flavor the world we inhabit. Let that flavor be good and wonderful and pleasing to God.
We are light. Light that shines forth from us wherever we go. I hope that what people see from us is beautiful and Christlike. That people see Christ in us, and give glory and praise to God in heaven.

These are the facts, Church:
We are a city on a hill. We are the salt of the earth. And we are the light of the world.
Christ has freed us to live it.

One Spirit, One Community

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on Pentecost, June 4, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the Festival of Pentecost:
Acts 2:1-21 + Psalm 104:24-34, 35b + 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 + John 20:19-23

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This was a jointly preached sermon between one of our youth and myself.

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When I was young, well younger than I am now, I was taught the head, shoulders, knees, and toes song. You know, “head shoulders knees and toes, knees and toes,” you get the gist. And the preschool teachers began the long process of teaching us kids all the parts of the body and their roles. The hands were for touching, the mouth was for eating, the feet were for walking. And then years later the health and science teachers expanded on that, going into excruciating detail on organ and body systems, and how they interact with each other. My entire seventh grade science class was devoted to biology and the study of what makes creatures stay alive, while also adapting and evolving to continue thriving through homeostasis. We thoroughly explored how each part contributes to a whole, and that that is precisely what keeps us breathing in and out, among other things.

In the second reading, today we hear again the familiar idea that “all the members of the body, though many, are one body.” Reinforcing everything I had learned, a reminder even in faith. It doesn’t have the same meaning though. This liturgical version runs deeper as it applies to much more than just the scientific aspect of the body. If English class has taught me anything, it’s that to learn the true meaning, unwrap the layers of the text and focus in on the word choice. Paul chooses the word “member”, rather than piece or part. Now why is that? Paul uses the word member to represent living individuals coming together to become one, just as he uses the word body to symbolize not only the literal human body, but larger communities and societies. The dissolving of the differences that separate us brings us together, speaking the same language, listening to the same words, singing the same songs.

These days in the media you hear the way people treat each other. As if they have nothing in common. You see the inequality. The discrimination. How somehow people think it is acceptable to treat people differently than they deserve, based solely on things that make us people. Things like, “race, gender, sex, pregnancy, ethnic or social origin, color, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth, etc.” If this all exists then how can we also be simultaneously members of one body, all whole as one? The other day I was sitting at the lunch table with my friends stressing over finals, how we were going to miss each other in high school, plans for the summer, etc. And the topic of Ariana Grande’s concert came up. Immediately we expressed our sadness for those who were injured and those who lost their life. But then my best friend in the world, who happens to be Sudanese and proud of it, looked at me, straight in the eye and said, “I hate those attacks because whenever people die or get injured everyone assumes that all Muslim people are bad and not every Muslim is a bad person.”

Therefore, how, in the midst of all this, can we be one whole society?
Paul tells us. “In one Spirit” For in one spirit. We are all connected. Today’s reading stresses that the Holy Spirit is truly what brings us together and creates that bond of members we have under the church of Christ. When I was growing up out of the three and one, the Father and the Son were most talked about. But now as I mature I start to realize that the Spirit might be one of the most important of all. The Holy Spirit not only unites us, but marks us as children of God during baptism. It is during that time when the Spirit washes over us, cleansing our mind, body, and conscience of differences, so that we can be our own selves, but joined under the entire umbrella of the church, sheltering us from the harsh rains of separation.

Furthering this train of thought, Paul grasps at something bigger for he touches the theme of identity, and defining who you are in relation to others. For not only does this reading ask “how can we be united when we are so different?” but also “how can we be different if we are so united?” The Holy Spirit guides us to help find that perfect middle, so that all those pieces of the puzzle are distinctive, but whole, and all irreplaceable.

Today we honor the Spirit and all that it entails, shaping our lives so that we can be who we are. Who we were created to be. Today we remember not only the stories when the Spirit comes as fire, or water, or wind, but especially the present stories of ways the Spirit shines through people now. In my now old middle school we had the most diverse classrooms I have ever seen. I must’ve had friends from countless countries teaching me about their traditions and lifestyles. I personally hung out with many Indian friends, so much that they have accepted me into their culture and called me an honorary Indian. I participated in doing an Indian dance in PE when we had to choreograph one together, and I’m pretty sure right now I could name at least 10 Indian songs that are popular even though I don’t understand the language at all. The purpose of this now lengthy example is that this is how I see the Holy Spirit. When I walked into school every day and saw all those friendly but widely varied faces it evidenced the power the Spirit has, forever bringing us together, no matter what.

NHLC Pentecost

Like Abby said, Paul writes “In the one Spirit we were baptized into one body, and so it is with Christ.” Friends, in our baptism we are brought together as one, joined to Christ, joined to one another, through the Spirit. And “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”.

I think that’s a really important verse for us. As Abby notes, we’re much more ready to identify those things that divide us than those things that unite us. And how on earth could we possibly work together for good if our starting point is one of division?

God’s not looking for mindless drone robots. That’s why I think Paul’s language of members of the body is so beautiful. Each member of the body retains their own identity. A finger is different than a toe, a shoulder different than a nose, but all of these members are dependent on one another to accomplish that which a body is used for. Our task, dear people, is to come together, bringing our individualities and identities, yet asking the prayerful and discerning question, “What is that God would have us do together?”

It’s part of the reason that today, during this celebration of Pentecost, that we’re recommitting and rededicating ourselves to the mission and ministry of New Hope Lutheran Church. On a day when we celebrate the birthday of the Church, the day when the message of the Gospel was heard in new ways by new groups of people and set loose in the world by the Holy Spirit, we’re also celebrating the ways in which we, as a church, as New Hope, are hearing and experiencing and living out the Gospel in new ways and being moved out from our pews by that same Holy Spirit.

Recommitting ourselves to the mission and ministry of New Hope means recommitting ourselves to prayerfully asking that question about what God is calling us to. It means moving forward into a new future, a new mission, a new path… It’s not closing the book, at all, it’s committing to beginning a new chapter, one that remembers and is informed by but is not beholden by our past.

There are many ways in which the church we are now has been incredibly blessed by the church we once were, and we are thankful for that. And, we are and we can be so much more than the church we once were.
Recommitting and rededicating ourselves to the mission and ministry of New Hope is recommitting and rededicating ourselves to listening for and following that Spirit of God that was set loose at Pentecost and is still moving mightily in our world and in this place.

And if you’re wondering if that’s true, if you’re still not convinced, just take a look at our worship this morning. Everything we’re doing this morning has been planned and led by this group of faithful Christians, who want nothing more than for you to recognize what they’ve known this whole time: that the Spirit is here and the Spirit is moving through this place like fire.

 

So in your everyday life, if you haven’t already, start noticing the little ways the Holy Spirit contributes in your life. Notice how the Spirit sparkles and flows through members you see, for all of them are surely becoming one body.

Worn Out

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the Festival of the Resurrection, Easter Sunday:
Acts 10:34-43 + Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 + Colossians 3:1-4 + Matthew 28:1-10

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Please pray with me:

Holy Crucified and Risen One,
We live in the tension of this morning,
When our Alleluias are bursting out of us,
And some of us are so weighed down we can barely stand.
Call us, again, to live.
Help us be resurrected, again, today.
Amen.

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It’s a marathon, not a sprint, right, church?

The worship services of Holy Week can feel like a whole lot of worship, but I assure you, they are packed full of meaning. And if you made the commitment, and it is a commitment, to come to all the worship services of Holy Week, even if it was somewhat coerced (thanks, Choir…), I guarantee that you experienced this sacred story of salvation, of betrayal, of torture, of death, and of resurrection in a way that was both completely familiar and terrifyingly new.
Thank you—all of you—for helping me tell this story in our time and place…here at New Hope Lutheran Church in 2017.

I’m somewhat of a superstitious person, at least when it comes to some pastory things.
I’m just going to tell you…I have lucky shoes. I call them, My Preachin’ Shoes.
I’ve had them for almost 5 years now, and these shoes and I have been through a lot. I preached my first sermon to a congregation in these shoes. I graduated seminary in these shoes. I won a preaching award in these shoes. I was ordained in these shoes. I baptized little Elwood, my first baptism, in these shoes.
I wore these shoes last night at my first Easter Vigil here at New Hope.
And I’m wearing them this morning, my first Easter Sunday here at New Hope.

And I’ll be wearing them at my second and third baptisms this morning, when we baptize Noble and Nirmal.

These shoes and I have been through a lot together, and I hope that we’ll continue to go through a lot more, but I worry about, and truthfully I’m afraid of, the day that will inevitably come when my shoes are just too worn out.
They’ve got holes, or stains, or begin to separate at the sole…shoe

Because that’s what happens when you commit to something for any worthwhile amount of time or spend any worthwhile amount of energy on something, you get worn out.
The disciples most certainly felt worn out after following their teacher, their Rabbi, around ancient Palestine for three years. I’m sure they had blisters on their feet, holes in their hearts, and an emptiness in their souls when the one they walked around with, the one they thought would surely be the savior of the world was hoisted up on a cross and met the same gruesome death as a common criminal.

And it wears on us too…
We feel worn out after committing to all the services of Holy Week.
We feel worn out after making the long 40-day Lenten trek from Ash Wednesday to now.
Beginning by hearing the truth about ourselves, about how we’re nothing more than the dust from which we were formed…
Journeying through Lent and examining the patterns of our lives that keep us from living fully and completely as God calls us to live, lives of compassion and mercy with arms and hands made for embracing and serving…
Traveling to the cross where God takes all of those things in our lives that keep us separated from God and from one another, Christ takes all of those things unto himself, and they die…with Christ.

And for what? Why wear yourself out, why wear holes in your shoes and in your hearts, if the story just ends like that…?

These women that arrived at the tomb early that morning, their hearts and feet worn out, carrying spices and oils to care for the body of their teacher, were there to turn the page on that chapter of their journey. This part of the story was done, time to go back to what they were doing three years ago, or maybe start something new.
But where they came to turn the page, God picks up again and keeps writing.
Because this is not the end of this story.

The tomb is empty. Christ has been raised.
And these brave women, the first witnesses to the glorious resurrection of Christ, fall down at Jesus’ feet and they bless those worn out, blistered, scarred, and nailed-through feet because it means that their blisters and scars…our scars and bruises and the holes in our lives and the emptiness in our hearts, have all been redeemed.

Because this story is our story too, church. Christ’s resurrection is our resurrection.
And I think we could all use a little resurrection from these things that wear us out.

Because the promise of the resurrection isn’t that there won’t be death.
It isn’t that there won’t be things that wear us out, or weigh heavy on us, or that we struggle with, or that there won’t be illness or sickness or disease.
The promise of the resurrection is that even in the things that wear us out, that weigh heavy, that we struggle with…even in the midst of illness and disease…even in death…
God is there. With us.
Because God has been there.

Resurrection isn’t ignorant of death. Resurrection promises life in the midst of death.
Resurrection promises life in spite of death.

Because to hear the words of the Resurrection is to hear the good news that death is not the final word. It’s to hear the good news that the death-dealing powers of this world that seek to exert control over us and that try to prevent us from living lives of goodness, grace, mercy, compassion, and love toward God and toward one another have been crushed under Christ’s foot, and by God, church, we are free!
We are called out from our graves, called out of our tombs like Lazarus, released from the darkness and stench that tries to kill us and keep us locked away in our tombs, and we are told that we are unbound! We are freed to live the lives that God has called us to in our baptism.

Noble and Nirmal will hear that call on their lives through their baptism in just a little bit, and these rafters will shake with glorious shouts of “Alleluia!” because your sin has been drowned in those waters, and you are free to live lives that reflect the light of Christ, a light that overcomes darkness and warms even the most frigid places in our world.
Lace up your shoes, church, because we’ve got a lot more living to do.
Living of lives that are created for…that are made…for showing and giving mercy and grace and peace and love.

Come to this meal, people of God.
This is what resurrection tastes like.
Christ’s very body and blood are given and poured out for you, so that you might receive just a foretaste of that glorious day when we will all join together in God’s great reconciliation and resurrection of all things.
Hold out your hands and receive nourishment to sustain you when you are worn out and to strengthen you to live the life that you are called to, that you were created to live.

Thanks be to God!
Alleluia!

 

The Crosses We Wear

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for Ash Wednesday:
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 + Psalm 51:1-17 + 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 + Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

***************

Please pray with me this evening:

Holy and Almighty God,
Return us to you tonight.
Remind us that you are God,
And that we are not.
And give us hearts that ache with the same love
And life that you first breathed into the dust.
Amen.

***************

I have a curious relationship with Ash Wednesday. For a couple of reasons, I think.

The first is that I’m a pretty high empath. That is, I feel things quite deeply. And so I enter and walk through Lent not only with a heightened sense of my own failings as it relates to living close to the heart of God, but I’m also more aware of how, on a larger societal level, our shortcomings feel greater and more vast. I tend to get quite introspective during Lent, and usually what I uncover doesn’t bring me much joy.

Secondly, is that it’s curious to me that every year we hear these same cautionary words from Jesus about practicing our piety before others, and yet, here we are, gathered together among friends and family, to be smudged with dirt, to then file out through those doors very publicly displaying these badges of mortality.
As you walked around today, did you notice the dusty crosses on the heads of some of your co-workers or neighbors or strangers? Did you give each other a knowing look or wink or nod? There’s a collective relationship with Ash Wednesday that doesn’t feel present with almost any other liturgical day.
And it makes me wonder why.

Part of me thinks that there’s a sense of cultural expectation with Ash Wednesday. Most of us grew up going to Ash Wednesday services, but even if we didn’t, seeing all these people walk around with smudges on their forehead…well, it kind of feels like the thing to do, doesn’t it?

But there’s another part of me—the more hopeful part, I suppose—that thinks that maybe…just maybe…there’s something so undeniably compelling about being told the truth about ourselves.

That for all our complexity and brilliance, we’re nothing more than the dust of the earth traced on our brows.

That’s a hard truth to hear, I think. Because so much of our lives these days are focused on what anthropologist Ernest Becker calls “immortality projects.” We avoid death at all costs. On average, we’re living longer than ever before, but we consume ourselves with running away from death.

But what if we reframe what it means to be dust?
What if instead of running away from death, we imagined ourselves as running toward life?

Dust and dirt are precious, church. It’s out of the dust that life was brought forth. It’s out of the dirt that life springs up from the ground.
Hands Holding SoilYou’ve heard that the dust in your homes is made up mostly of skin cells, right? Not that I’m saying that we shouldn’t clean our houses, but think about that…dust contains DNA…the very foundations of life are contained within those balls of dirt.
Dust is holy. Dust is precious. Dust is life.

And you know, when we’re baptized, the pastor marks this very same cross on our very same foreheads, and declares to us, “Beloved, child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
Baptism—this act of joining our very selves to Christ, so that, even in death, we are united, through Christ’s resurrection, to Christ’s life.

These crosses, that are so familiar to our foreheads, are identity markers for us.
They’re touchstones for us when we feel distant from the One who crafted us from the dust.
They’re guideposts helping us find our way back to the Source of our life.
They’re hallmarks reminding us who we are and whose we are. That God is God, and we are not.

And that’s Gospel, church. That’s Good News for us who are consumed with our immortality projects.
Because it means that we don’t have to have it all together, and still God redeems us.

This cross of ash on our heads does serve as a reminder to us of how far away from the heart of God we’ve drifted.
But it also shows us the extraordinary lengths that God goes to bring us back.

And if you’re wondering, it’s about the distance from one outstretched hand to the other.

I don’t think Jesus in our Gospel for tonight is admonishing against religiosity, so much as he is explaining what a life steeped in spiritual practices looks like.
The three traditional Lenten spiritual disciplines are prayer, fasting, and acts of mercy. And I don’t think Jesus is reprimanding these practices, I think he’s resetting their direction.
See, piety had become a display. In ancient Jerusalem, the religious people were making a show of their prayer and fasting so as to be seen and noticed by others.
But Jesus says, these practices aren’t about you. The spiritual disciplines we undertake during Lent aren’t about making ourselves feel better or more holy. Their function is to make us more aware of God’s presence in our lives and to turn our focus outward, away from ourselves, and to give of ourselves, for the sake of others.

Rather than avoiding death, embrace life, church.
Plant, and grow, and give, and cultivate life where life is needed.

That’s what this mark on your forehead is.
Not a sign of death, but a reminder of the life to which you are called.

Holy Week 2017 at New Hope Lutheran Church

As we move ever closer to Easter, you may have heard an announcement in church or overheard one of your friends talking about Holy Week.

But what is Holy Week? Why do Christians celebrate it?
And what the heck is a Triduum?!?

In the earliest years of the church, devout Christians would travel to Jerusalem during Passover to reenact—and in some ways, relive—the events of the week leading up to the Resurrection.
This profound act of remembering Christ’s ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection served as a way for the earliest Christian believers to grow in their own faith by recalling the formative and foundational events of their faith.

By retelling the story year after year,
we remember the
why behind the what of our faith.

Holy Week starts with Palm Sunday and goes all the way through Easter Sunday. This is the most important week in the life of a Christian.
And the pinnacle of Holy Week is the Great Three Days of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Rather than three distinct worship services, these separate liturgies are best seen as one large complete worship service over the course of three days. Collectively known as the Triduum (trid-doo-um)—which is Latin for “three days”—these three worship services are the most important worship events in the midst of the most important week in the life of a Christian.

Taken all together, the worship services of Holy Week give us the most complete picture of the fundamental people, places, events, and beliefs of the Christian faith.

You are invited to join us as we journey this holiest of weeks together.
All services are held at New Hope Lutheran Church.

 

Palm Sunday – Sunday, April 9, 2017 at 8:00am and 10:30ampalm crown

We’ll hear from the Gospel of Matthew and recount Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We’ll begin outside, waving our palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!” as we celebrate the king who rode a donkey rather than a valiant horse, who wore a dusty cloak rather than fine linens, and who would later ascend a cross rather than a throne.
Also known as the Sunday of the Passion, we’ll also hear Matthew’s account of the crucifixion.

 

Maundy Thursday – Thursday, April 13, 2017 at 7:00pm

Taken from the Latin word for “commandment,” we’ll retell the story of Jesus with his disciples when he washed their feet and gave them a mandatum novum—a new commandment—that we should love one another as Jesus loved us.
We mark the official end of Lent by receiving individual absolution, or forgiveness—the oil marking the cross on our forehead just as the ashes did on Ash Wednesday. We’ll remember the new commandment by having our own feet washed, and we’ll share in the meal that Jesus shared with his friends.
We’ll conclude by stripping the altar, as Jesus would be stripped of his clothes before being handed over to be crucified.

 

Good Friday – Friday, April 14, 2017 at 7:00pm

Jesus Christ crown of thorns and nailIn this solemn service of fading light, we’ll hear John’s account of Christ’s Passion and ponder the mystery and majesty of the cross. The Passion will also be performed in mime and the service will end with an opportunity to venerate the Cross, showing reverence to this instrument of death that God used to redeem all of humanity and give life to all.

 

The Great Vigil of Easter – Saturday, April 15, 2017 at 7:00pm

candle vigilIn the early Christian church, they would gather together on the night before major festivals and keep vigil until the morning. While we won’t stay up all night, we will gather together to celebrate this most ancient of Christian festivals. In the early church, the Easter Vigil was the most important worship service of the year.
We’ll gather down at our lakeside chapel where the new fire will be lit and our new Paschal candle will be blessed. We’ll then process into the sanctuary to retell some of our salvation stories, remembering God’s promises throughout the ages to save and redeem us. This will be the first reading of the Resurrection narrative from the Gospel of John, and we’ll shout “Alleluia!” and give thanks for our new life in the risen Christ by sharing in Holy Communion.

 

Easter Sunday – Sunday, April 16, 2017 at 8:00am and 10:30am

On this glorious day of resurrection, death has been defeated, the grave is empty, and life eternal is promised to all. Our rafters will ring with glorious music and we’ll gather around the table to celebrate the new life given to us through Christ’s Resurrection. We’ll also have breakfast being served in the Community Center to help our youth raise money to attend the National Youth Gathering.