2018-03-02 Sermon on the Cleansing of the Temple – John 2:13-22
We all know what frustration and anger feel like. We’ve all got people who just keep pushing our buttons, who work our nerves until they’re raw. Kids, coworkers, friends, congregations. Who’s your favorite target? It’s not just about when they deliberately try to set us off. They don’t even have to go that far. They just have to break our unwritten rules, and we all have certain rules. Maybe as innocuous as toilet seats and toothpaste caps when you live with someone. But then there’s every time we get talked over or ignored. Every time we don’t get invited. Every time we feel disrespected. How about every time we call tech support or get behind the wheel? So many stories. We get fed up and say something, and maybe it works for a while, but does anything really change? We get wise. We can’t change them but we can change ourselves. Learn to own our feelings? Recite a serenity prayer? It’s easy to distract ourselves and think we’re letting things go, but they still stick somewhere deep down. Our hearts have memories like steel traps. All these little things add up like interest, and there’s always a tipping point. And then, everyone’s shocked by us, like we’ve lost our minds. Like we’re monsters. Can we ever truthfully say they’re wrong?
Still, let’s be honest – Jesus is doing exactly what we’ve all fantasized doing at some point. Most of us probably haven’t gone as far as he does, but I bet some of us have, and we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, Jesus is the epitome of self-control. If he can lose it, we can lose it, and he totally loses it.
2018-02-14 Sermon for Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6:1-6
Has anyone asked you yet? What are you giving up for Lent? I confess I don’t really give up anything for Lent. Evidently I’m not very pious. But I used to be. I grew up Catholic, sort of. We rarely ever went to mass. But something changed when I got to college. All of a sudden I REALLY wanted to be super Catholic, and I went to mass all the time, and told everyone all about it of course. I thought I was having some kind of incredible spiritual awakening. But I’m little older and wiser now. It occurs to me that’s a fantastic way to get attention at a Lutheran university. So we’re on spring choir tour during Lent, singing at Lutheran churches of course. And they’re good Lutherans. You know they’re going to feed you. So it’s Friday, and what’s for dinner? Lasagna! Like you do. There was one other token Catholic in our Lutheran choir, and we were so proud of ourselves that we only ate salad! No secret piety for us!
This is what Jesus is talking about when he says – “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” We do things for a lot of different reasons, especially when it comes to religion. But we don’t always think about it. Sometimes it’s about what we were taught growing up, and some of those things stick with you. The way we were taught to pray, or what our favorite hymns are. Sometimes it’s about trying to be better Christians. We take a look at ourselves and decide to make some improvements. We try to be more generous, or be more humble. Sometimes it’s about trying to get closer to God. We all have times when God seems distant, so maybe if we pray more or volunteer more, maybe God will notice and give us a little more attention.
Or maybe there’s a little bit of self-righteousness going on. We see how others live out their faith, and we think we can do better. We compensate for them. We compensate for ourselves when we feel undisciplined, and we want to prove to ourselves and everyone else that we’re really faithful. Now of course this is a pretty negative picture of piety, but if we’re honest we all have something to confess. So Jesus seems to be asking us what our motives are. Are we trying to be seen, or earn praise, or get attention? If it wasn’t true, Jesus wouldn’t have to say something. Jesus is also warning us that the things we do affect others around us. Is our fasting a stumbling block to how others show hospitality with lasagna? Do our prayers actually seek the wellbeing of others? Does our piety stand in the way of fellowship?
2018-02-11 Sermon on the Transfiguration – Mark 9:2-9
Do any of you know who Daniel Day-Lewis is? British actor. He’s in this new movie Phantom Thread, where he plays a fashion designer who’s some sort of tragic figure. He’s been acting for a few decades, and he’s got a laundry list of big awards. He’s a serious actor. I haven’t seen the movie, but I just happened to catch an NPR interview with a film critic who was talking about him, and apparently there’s a kerfuffle about him saying this is his last film, period. Supposedly, after learning all about fashion design for this role (that’s what serious actors do), he decided that’s it. He’s packing up and jumping ship for fashion design. The critic was pretty let down about this. He’s one of the best actors of all time. What possessed him? I mean, fashion designer? Can you say “irrelevant”? Oh, I’m really going to miss him. Like he died or something.
Of course, we don’t know the whole story. We’re not in his head. But you know what it sounds like? It sounds like an identity crisis. Think about it – you discover your skill. Cooking, building, remembering, you can fill in the blank. You fall in love with it. You work passionately at it. It’s a part of who you are. Then people notice and they start to expect it from you, but you don’t mind that at all. For a while. But something starts happening. Maybe you feel a little resentful, like people only care about you because you give them what they want. Maybe you feel used. Maybe you feel fake, like you don’t know what you’re doing anymore and you’re just going to let everyone down. Maybe you start wondering what’s the point? Am I actually helping anyone? Maybe you feel like no one knows the REAL you, like no one actually SEES you. Have you ever felt like this? Have you ever had an identity crisis? I bet we all could tell some hilarious stories about things we’ve done about it.
2017-12-03 Sermon on the Potter and the Clay – Isaiah 64:1-9
The prophet Isaiah prays, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” I remember elementary school, when we had art class a few days a week. Oh, the things we used to do with paper and fingerpaint and yarn, and whatever else the teacher could think of, bless her heart. God only knows how much paste we ate in that room. I always loved art, except for those days when we got the ball of clay. This palm-sized magenta ball of cold, hard clay, and it’s like you had to warm that stuff up forever with your hands before you could do anything with it, and maybe by the time the bell rang I had a snake and that was about it. Or at least that’s all I can remember.
We are the clay and you are our potter. It’s such an earthy image, God working at the potter’s wheel, slowly turning and shaping some unremarkable lump into creation. God’s skilled fingers furrowing crevices and curves, folding into the middle to push and pull and create space where there wasn’t any before. But that’s just the romantic part. You have to start at the very beginning, with a cold, hard lump that needs so much preparation to soften up. Moisture. Temperature. Time. Patience. Some kind of faith to know that this worthless hard lump of earth could be transformed into anything of value.
That’s really what Advent is about. Time. Patience. Faith to know that God really is doing something of earth-shaking proportions, even if nothing seems to be changing. And right now we’re desperate for change, because things are getting worse. Every day we hear more allegations of violation and harassment. More victims saying “me too”. But we don’t always believe them. We think they lie. Or we say “but you can’t be a victim, you’re so successful!” Or sometimes we believe them but we wonder if maybe they had a hand in it. Wrong place, wrong clothes, wrong words. We’re hell-bent on figuring out a reason. And even if we’ve been victimized ourselves, we still cling to some kind of fantasy that people aren’t capable of that kind of violence and damage. Our hearts can be hard as clay in our convictions. But we also think about the grace of Jesus. We constantly teach each other to interpret our neighbor’s actions in the best possible light. We remember how Jesus warns us over and over again about judging. Except, holding our tongues doesn’t seem to save anyone from danger. So, what’s the difference between God’s grace and our denial?
2017-07-23 Sermon on the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds – Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
So, how many of you would call yourselves farmers or gardeners? Well, blessed are you! I don’t really have a green thumb, but every once in a while I try to grow some flowers or something. And every time I learn the same thing. I’m not very good at growing flowers or vegetables, but I’m REALLY good at growing weeds. I don’t even have to try. In fact, the less work I put into it, the more weeds I get. It’d be great if that’s what I was going for, but it’s not. Please tell me I’m not the only one who has that experience. But there’s something else – when I do get all responsible and try to weed, I have a lot of trouble telling the difference between weeds and not-weeds. Sometimes it’s obvious – even I know what a thistle looks like. But after a while everything just looks the same. I don’t know what to pull out.
That’s kind of the basic problem in Jesus’ parable today. A farmer sows wheat in a field, but when it finally comes in, bonus! Two crops. Wheat AND weeds. You know, last week it was all about seeds that DON’T grow, and weeds that choke, and how rare a good harvest was. But that’s not our situation here. There really is a crop of wheat, and everyone sees it, and it’s totally abundant, and the weeds DON’T choke. That’s good news! But with all these weeds everywhere, how do you get the wheat without killing yourself or giving up in frustration?
2017-07-16 Sermon on the Parable of the Sower – Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
I don’t know about you, but I love Jesus’ parables. Especially those ones in the gospel of Matthew that end with weeping and gnashing of teeth, because they’re just SO HOPEFUL! But let’s save that for another time. Seriously, the parables are great for a lot of reasons. They’re easy to remember – and even when you get the details wrong, the basic point sticks. They’re interesting – you hear one a thousand times and still get hooked. But we know Jesus isn’t just telling stories – he’s teaching. So what we really want to know is how we fit into the story. Well, how fabulous that Jesus actually explains this parable, just so we might get his point.
2017-04-14 Sermon on Good Friday – Isaiah 52:13-15
See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him — so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals — so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
This is one of our lectionary texts for Good Friday, though we didn’t read it this year. But I’ve been reading a lot of Isaiah lately, and something about this text won’t let me go. And it’s also a really strange vision of God and servanthood, and maybe that’s why we need to hear it right now, because Good Friday is really strange. When did we ever dress all in black for anything good?