Bread of Life

There was a couple at the first church I served back in New York State – very nice folks – and the wife, Diane, was an excellent cook.  In fact, she was such a good cook that every year at our church’s annual talent auction – she would donate two German dinners to be auctioned off. People would pay a high price for these dinners for the chance to come to Diane and David’s home and eat the food she would prepare. She would serve many courses and she would set the table with their finest dishes and silverware.

When Chad and I were first married they invited us over for one of these dinners and I was struck by how much care she put into the meal! The food was so beautifully presented in addition to being delicious and nourishing. Their home was warm and welcoming. I loved how she took these particular gifts Diane and David had for cooking and providing hospitality and used them to show love to the people in their life. When you left their home, you felt not only full but cared for.

Now looking back I have even more appreciation for the gift she gave. I didn’t realize then, because I didn’t have children yet then, so I couldn’t realize how particularly amazing it was that they would regularly have people over to their home for these elaborate meals – and they had a four year-old and a newborn at the time. Extraordinary!

Well, we all know people who show love through food, right? It’s a beautiful thing and it is shown in all sorts of ways. The hotdish brought over to a house when there has been a death in the family. The meal provided by the ladies of the church after a funeral. Some extra boxes and cans of food bought at the grocery store and then delivered to the food pantry – we know what it means to experience giving and receiving love through food.

So it isn’t strange at all that when Jesus tries to tell us what he means for us and for our lives he says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

During Lent, each Wednesday a group of pastors in the area are all switching pulpits each week and preaching on the different “I Am” statements of Jesus. If you remember, in the gospel of John there were seven different “I am” statements that Jesus said – “I am the Light of the World”, “I am the true Vine”, “I am the Good Shepherd”, “I am the Gate”, “I am the Resurrection and the Life”, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” and “I am the Bread of Life”.

Each of these are beautiful symbols and each of these tell us something different about Jesus.

This past Wednesday night I preached at Eksjo – we ate chili and crackers and then we gathered upstairs in the sanctuary. In my sermon, I preached about how Jesus said he was the bread of life and he used that illustration right after performing the miracle of turning a few loaves of bread into enough to feed thousands. I preached about how Jesus nourishes our bodies and souls through his body and blood and as long as we are fed with his word, we will be truly full.

It was a fine sermon. Finely constructed, finely delivered – fine. Sure. But ever since I preached it, there has been a troubling question that keeps drifting back to me. It’s a troubling question that steals away the crumbs of peace in neatly summing up Jesus as the bread of life who fills us full.

It’s one of those questions that people of faith often pretend not to have, and yet we do. The question is this:  if Jesus is the bread of life, why are there so many starving places? I don’t just mean people who are hungry. I don’t mean the kind of hunger you feel in your stomach, but the kind you feel in your heart.

Because even though we gather here and confess that Jesus is our bread of life, even though those of us who gather here love him and love the church and confess Jesus is the Lord of our lives – sometimes the truth is that we feel hungry, even starving for something we cannot name.

And how can we help it? This world is full of starving places. We see brokenness all around, children who have been abused, addictions that ruin lives and homes, questions that have no answers, healing that doesn’t come.

And it seems to me we are so hungry for peace, for answers, for healing.  What has this bread of life done to fill our hunger? The hungry places of this world don’t just disappear the moment we believe in Jesus Christ and the cross.

And that’s not all – you know what else is troubling?  That there is this hushed fear that we hardly dare think – but there it is, humming beneath the surface of our days – the doubt, the distrust, the truth that sometimes we need help even really believing in Jesus and in what he taught us. If this isn’t true, then, how else can we explain the fact that we don’t live like we really believe in this gospel?

Just a few examples: Jesus says, “Do for others as you want them to do for you.” And yet, I wonder who among us has not reasoned that we were too busy or too broke or too whatever to help someone who came to us asking for help.

Jesus says, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven.” And yet, the last time I checked, most of us not only have the things we need, but plenty of extra things filling out our houses and garages.

Jesus says, “the one who is least among you is the greatest,” yet whose call would you return quicker – your favorite celebrity, or that annoying neighbor down the road who keeps borrowing your tools and not returning them?

If we really stop to think about it, this gospel is so troubling. It asks impossible things of us. It becomes easiest to just smile and pretend we are feeling full of the bread of life when we aren’t and compare our less than holy actions to others instead of to the standard God holds for us.

Yet, the vision that captures my attention is this: how would it feel if we chose instead to be really truthful in our faith or lack of it. If instead of smiling and talking about how full we feel, fed by the bread of life, if we could look at each other and admit that we still feel hungry sometimes, and that is scary.

And I think about how great it would be if we could be honest and talk about the ways we tend to twist and manipulate the gospel to fit the way we are living and how we don’t really live like people who have had any kind of revolution happen in our hearts.

I think if we could do that, it would be quite wonderful.

Because when we begin to admit those desperately flawed things about ourselves – that is when we finally catch a glimpse of how desperately we need a Savior.

We are a gathering of broken people who make selfish choices – we worry and distrust even the God who knit us together, and it takes so dreadfully little to turn our eyes and thoughts and hearts away from him and his will and toward shiny things, or a little cash, or a juicy piece of gossip.

This is us. Martin Luther would say it is only when we can acknowledge the truth about our sinfulness that we should dare come to the altar rail for communion.

We don’t share in this sacrament because it is a nice thing to do or because we want to pay tribute to what Jesus did for us – we receive his body and blood because we are starving for the bread of life. So we come as beggars to his table and know that just as we are – full of doubts and flaws and questions, lacking in so many ways, and he sets out his best for us. The finest feast, the warmest welcome – every time we come. Not because we are good, but because he is good.

Those hungry places are there in our hearts and in our world, it’s true – but they aren’t places God is absent. If we don’t see him or feel him there yet, it’s because our vision is cloudy, not God’s. Those hungry places are simply where God’s glory and provision are yet to be shown – either to us or through us. We can trust the bread of life will be enough for us. Always. Keep turning to Jesus to feed the hunger you feel, keep being fed on the Word of God and this sacrament of Grace we share. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Good Moral Behavior? (a sermon for the last Sunday of Christmas)

It is the twelfth day of Christmas today.  Tomorrow is Epiphany and the Christmas season will end.  Sometimes I feel a little bad for the Christmas season.  We tend to rush to get it here – wanting to sing the Christmas carols and see the decorations long before Christmas Eve and then by the time we are at the end of the short, twelve day long Christmas season, we are wondering why are we still singing Christmas songs?  Why is the tree still up?  The rest of life around us has long since packed up Christmas, traded it in for New Year’s resolutions and even looking ahead toward Valentines Day.  But in here, it is still Christmas.  For one more day.

Our Gospel for today (John 1:1-18) won’t let us forget it, that is for sure.  If the gospel text sounds familiar, well, it should – especially if you were here Christmas eve and Christmas day – it is the same exact reading we heard both those days.

And no less confusing now than it ever is.  “In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God, and the Word was God.”  This text talks about Word and Life and Light – all these things coming into the world and becoming flesh.  This was John’s way of simply talking about Jesus’ birth.  God’s word put on flesh and came to live among us and through him we receive grace.

Not long ago, a friend of mine from Minnesota, a high school friend, wrote an article on his blog telling his readers that he wasn’t a Christian.  He said that he just didn’t really believe that Jesus was God and the only reason he sends his kids to Sunday School is because he thinks it is a good place to get sound moral teaching – but that is about it.  He then said that if anyone who knew him didn’t like that and chose not to talk to him anymore he would understand.

I thought a lot about his article in the days that followed and my feeling as I did so was sadness.  And not sadness because he was expressing doubt about believing in Jesus.  I think if most of us are honest we have all had doubts.  I know few who when standing over the gravestone of a child or after watching the news about another terrorist bombing, or even just after a troubling amount of days of feeling a lack of God’s presence or a distressing lack of visible answers to prayer, I know few who don’t have doubts about who God is and how it is that such evil or seeming absence can happen under God’s watch.  However, even for those people who might never have a doubt, if that were possible, such faith would be a gift from God anyway, so it is nothing to get proud about.  My experience is that most faithful people are quite a lot like that father in the book of Mark whose child needed healing from an unclean spirit and he came to Jesus asking for help and said, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!”  We believe but we also doubt.  We trust, but yet we are skeptical.  We are saints, but yet we are sinners.  This is us – human beings, all of us.

And I wasn’t sad because this friend of mine said the main reason he sends his kids to Sunday School was so that they could have strong moral teaching.  I hope our churches will always be places where children can receive that – of course, I hope they get it at home, too, but I pray their church families always help reinforce that and are places of good influence.  However, I think if that is our main goal in coming to church – that idealized vision of good morals and nice people and kindness overflowing, then we can get pretty disillusioned in the church fast, too.  Because the church is, once again, full of human beings – and sin can slip in these doors just as easily as anywhere else on earth.  Christian people, all of us, are as big a lot of sinners as anyone.  Even if we unite here under the common goal of following Jesus it doesn’t take long before something happens that reminds us of that.  A cross word, a thoughtless deed, a selfish action, something happens and sooner or later, again and again, we get reminded that being on church property doesn’t mean perfect behavior.  Lord no.  I’d rather the lesson my kids get in coming to Sunday School is not one of good moral behavior not nearly as much as the message that they are forgiven and loved always.  That if and when they mess up, they are loved and accepted here by us and by our God just as much as when they have been on their best behavior.  Yes, we teach the ten commandments here – but those are just a fraction of the story and a story made complete by the message of grace that Jesus brought.  That, and that being part of a Christian community such as this means simply that this is a place where we come and try not to seek a utopia of any sorts – but rather this is a place where we get to not only worship and learn about God but practice being God’s people.  We keep practicing at forgiving, speaking the truth in love and encouraging each other in the faith and then do our best to bring those skills out into the world around us.

So why was I sad about the words my friend had written?  I was sad because his impression of his Christian friends was that some of them would probably not want to be his friend anymore if they knew this about him.  If they knew he was a person who could have doubts about faith and Jesus Christ, that his Christian friends would reject him.

Is that the impression we give to the rest of the world?  And if so, why?  And if so, how can we change that?  Because we must.

You know, the thing is, I don’t blame anyone for being confused about Christians – because I know a fair number of Christians who probably would  prove my friend right about his assumptions.  Refusing to associate with a non-believer.  Condemning a fellow human being for having doubts.  Pointing out the speck in the eyes of others without seeing the plank in their own.  But none of that is living as Jesus Christ showed us. 

And that is what this season of Christmas is supposed to remind us.  That God sent Jesus, God’s word with skin on, to show us that being God’s people wasn’t nearly so much about the law as about love. That all those things that you struggle with – whether it be jealousy or depression or greed or anger or boredom or addiction or gossiping – that you don’t have to be able to purge yourself of any of those things in order to be loved or forgiven fully and completely.  Who you are is precious and beloved – right now.  That Jesus came to be born and walk around the earth and show us God’s face – and that face was one that looked on others with compassion and acceptance, grace upon grace.

Let me be clear:  God doesn’t love you because of how good you are.  God loves you because you are. 

The Christmas season is coming to a close and we feel ready for that.  We can’t be eating Christmas cookies all year round.  We’re most likely looking forward to singing some new songs and putting the carols away until next year.  But before we do, let’s pause at that manger one last time to remember the whole reason for it.  Jesus coming to earth, God’s word coming to us, love coming to us – not merely a singular event in time – not at all.  Jesus came to us to show us that is how God’s love is always – it comes to us.  We don’t have to work to get to God and to deserve God’s love because God’s love comes to us and promises to be born in us again and again.

And as we turn now and walk away from the manger we show our response to God for that great gift.  What will we choose as we journey through the seasons to come?  To accept that gift of life and love and then respond with selfishness or do we respond with consistently looking for ways to serve and help others?  Do we accept that gift of life and love and then respond with hording as much as possible for ourselves – more stuff that we don’t need, more luxury for ourselves when others are wondering where their next meal is coming from – or- do we respond by working hard to learn how to give, to see the beauty and peace that can be found in generosity?  Do we respond to God’s gift of life and love with accepting division and animosity and gossip and hatred to be a part of our days – or – do we respond by always, always, always working to speak well of our neighbors and let kindness and mercy be our first response?

God’s gifts to us are already given and great – all that remains to be seen is how and if we show our gratitude through our days and deeds.

Let us pray…

Lord, help us to live gratefully, boldly, lovingly, hopefully, mercifully and generously.  Help us to never stop thanking you for this gift of Jesus born to us, our dear Savior.  Help us to remember that you don’t require perfect understanding in order to receive your love.  Help us to remember that doubts are normal and that it is often by praying our way through those doubts and looking for our answers in you that you drive us toward deeper faith and peace.  Living God, we are yours, now help us live our lives for you.  We pray all these things in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

The Church

I spend a lot of time trying to understand the church.

There are so many things I love about the church.  Here, I will list just a few:

1.  I love the stained glass and the old architecture of churches.  When churches are busy and full of life, that is great, but I’m also partial to when the church is quiet and still and it is a place to pray and think.  This may be why I have always been partial to country churches.

2.  I love the quilting ladies and all they represent.  The fellowship that can be found among a group of women who come together and quilt is a lovely thing.  I like the simplicity of the process of making the Lutheran World Relief quilts – how the women find scraps of clothing that may be otherwise thrown away and they stitch them into pieces of art that are then sent around the world and help people in countless ways.

3.  I love when the congregation sings in harmony on a Sunday morning – or especially how it sounds when a group of pastors sing together.  There is little as lovely as a group of Lutheran pastors singing in four-part harmony.  I cry every time.

4.  I love funerals – and how the body of Christ gathers together to remember the person who has departed and support the people left behind.  I love how Christian people throughout time know that there is real comfort that comes along with the casseroles and plates of sandwiches brought to a grieving family.

5.  I love how the Holy Spirit can still surprise me and show up when I least expect it – on a Sunday morning when I am feeling tired or crabby, and yet something in the music or the scripture will still touch my heart and leave me feeling comforted, better, and whole.

6.  I love how the church has been a home for me as long as I can remember.  Church people have always loved me and embraced me and supported me all through the years of my life.

But there are many things about the church that frustrate me, too.  Here, I will list just a few:

1. I am frustrated that so many have not felt loved or embraced or supported by their churches and thus have given up on the idea that it is a place where worthwhile and wonderful things can happen.

2.  I am frustrated that church is seen as a destination.  At the same time that I love the architecture and the stained glass because of all it represents to me personally and historically, I know that the building isn’t the church, the people are the church.  And too often, we fall so in love with our church buildings and keeping them looking how we think they should look that we forget that we don’t need them. At the end of the day, church buildings are really only so much brick and wood and stone, they are not the living Word.  They will not save us. They cannot comfort or sustain us.  Too many church buildings have become, quite simply, false gods.

3. I am frustrated by apathy, mostly my own apathy.  Long ago, people regularly died for their faith. Now we can hardly get people to make sure their kids come on a confirmation retreat. Jesus and the disciples journeyed long and hard to preach the gospel.  My ministry looks more like this – I moan that church is a whole hour earlier now at my new church than it was at my last church.  When did I become such a spiritual cupcake?  I get frustrated with so much passionless faith I see around me and yet, too often I wonder what exactly has become of mine?  I’m comforted in my knowledge that doubt and faith go hand in hand and I trust that God is just as at work in fertile seasons of belief as well as in all our times of desert and questioning.  However, I can’t get over the unsettling wondering of just what Jesus would think of what we have built the church to be.

No one has said the church is perfect and I have seen incredibly good things happen because of and through the church. However, there are some days I think a lot about  what a church council president said to me long ago.  He said he thought it might be the best thing for the Christian church on earth if all the church buildings burned to the ground.  No longer would we be tied to all our edifices and trinkets.  We’d be forced to go out into the community, meet together in homes, remember that this faith we share is about so much more than a place.  We’d no longer be on the autopilot of “are these the paraments for this church season” and “are the bulletins ready for Sunday yet” and “how much was the offering for Sunday?”  None of those things would matter anymore and we could just get together and pray – in a park, in your back yard, by the lake, anywhere.

I can imagine Jesus entering into that kind of space a lot more easily than I can imagine him feeling comfortable in most any church building I have known.

Slippery Strands of Faith

Faith is a funny thing.

For some faith is just a lifelong journey beginning with the waters of baptism. It is a beloved relationship. Spirituality may not be something completely understood, but there is nowhere else we are likely to be found on a Sunday morning than right here with our eyes fixed on the cross.

For others, faith is like a wrestling match – trying to reconcile all the pain and suffering in the world with the belief in a loving God. Worship and time spent with the Scriptures is equal parts soothing for the spirit and fuel for the flames of our questioning as faith is both loved and something with which one struggles.

For others, faith is a lot like a love story. At some point or another, this person falls deeply in love with the Gospel – perhaps through some life-changing experience. But like all love stories, after the initial swooning and falling and deep, sweeping emotion, and after all the fire of first passion has burned away, hopefully there is still enough heat left in the embers to keep the flame alive over the years.

Faith is different for each of us. There are different reasons that bring you and I to this place each week to think about God and thank God and show our devotion to God and wrestle with God.

Many famous words have been written about faith to try to convey the many different facets and understandings of faith.

Martin Luther wrote: God our Father has made all things depend on faith so that whoever has faith will have everything, and whoever does not have faith will have nothing.

Oswald Chambers wrote: Faith for my deliverance is not faith in God. Faith means, whether I am visibly delivered or not, I will stick to my belief that God is love. There are some things only learned in a fiery furnace.

And my favorite is from E. Stanley Jones: Faith is not merely your holding on to God–it is God holding on to you. He will not let you go!

I really like Nicodemus, the Pharisee leader of the Jews central to our Gospel for today. Here was a man who was publicly a religious leader, kind of supposed to have matters of a religious nature figured out. So when you think about it that way, perhaps it is no surprise that he comes to Jesus by night to ask him questions. He has seen the amazing things Jesus can do, he has seen his miracles and he wants to know more. He is drawn to Jesus.

To tell you the truth, I’m so jealous of Nicodemus. I covet what he gets to do here – because he gets to share this quiet moment with Jesus and ask him the deepest questions of his heart. Just he and Jesus, alone together, sharing in conversation about the kingdom.

And I love how Nicodemus peppers him with questions and Jesus is trying to explain his answers and Nicodemus says, “How can these things be?” And Jesus says, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Because I know that if I were ever to have a quiet evening conversation with Jesus, I would be asking Jesus questions like this and many others and eventually he would say to me something like that, too – “Ruth, are you a pastor at Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church, and yet you do not understand these things?”

But I am certain he would say it with a twinkle in his eye – because he would know already how desperately little I understand. He would know already how slippery the strands of faith can feel on my fingertips some days. He would already know that every day I long to feel closer to him and my only comfort is the knowledge that he is closer to me than my own heartbeat – whether I feel him near or not.

There’s an old story that illustrates this thought pretty well. I’m sure you may have heard it before. One night a house caught fire and a young boy was forced to flee to the roof. The father stood on the ground below with outstretched arms, calling to his son, “Jump! I’ll catch you.” He knew the boy had to jump to save his life. All the boy could see, however, was flame, smoke, and blackness. As can be imagined, he was afraid to leave the roof. His father kept yelling: “Jump! I will catch you.” But the boy protested, “Daddy, I can’t see you.” The father replied, “But I can see you and that’s all that matters.”

Our vision is small and we can only see so far. This life is such that we are oftentimes only given glimpses of the glory of God. We spot him in those moments of grace or deep truth or mercy, when we witness true, selfless love, the perfection of sunlight rippling on the water or the scent of a baby’s cheek next to our face. We catch glimpses of God all the time. And yet, for those countless times when we do not, there is something else – and it is quite something. It is a promise.

Jesus and Nicodemus, I don’t know how long they were able to speak that evening, but we know that after spending a great deal of time talking about the questions in Nicodemus’ heart, Jesus finally tells him what it all comes down to.

It’s a verse we all can probably quote by heart, John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

But it doesn’t stop there – praise God it doesn’t stop there. Verse 17 reads, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

When I think about the context of this conversation, it is so particularly beautiful. Nicodemus, a man coming to Jesus in secret at night, because he doesn’t want everyone to know how he questions and how he feels a desperate need to know Jesus more deeply – and Jesus tries to explain all these inexplicable things to him patiently and with care – but finally he sums up everything for Nicodemus and for us saying, “I didn’t come to condemn you, I came to save you.”

Jesus doesn’t condemn us for our questions, or for our lack of faith. He came to love us and save us in spite of those things. Although faith may feel like wandering in the dark much of the time, may we never doubt that Jesus is right there in the darkness beside us, closer than we could ever know.

When my mother was dying back in 2011, I was surprised the moments of comfort that would come. Of course, none of them could take away the pain that I was going to lose her, but they helped me catch glimpses that even though I had to travel this road of her death and the grief to come, I was not forsaken. I would be okay. Mom would be okay. I wouldn’t know how until I journeyed into that unknown – but we would be okay.

And out of nowhere, the lyrics of old hymns that my family used to sing together when my brother and I were children, those lyrics would run through my mind over and over. “When peace like a river attendeth my way. When sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say It is well, it is well with my soul.”

I took those moments of peace and comfort as the gifts from God I know they were. I held tight to them and hold them close still. There have been times in life when God has seemed remote to me – but that was not one of those times. And I know that peace wasn’t given to me because I am good but because God is good.

Brothers and sisters, the good news for today is that no matter how you feel about your faith or how near or far God seems to you, he is here. God is journeying with you and holding you close – and God will not fail to remind you of that just when you need it most.

Preachers. Keep on Preaching.

I read a story yesterday about a campus chaplain, Dr. Randy Beckum, who was demoted for preaching about peace and the false god of patriotism during a campus chapel service.  He had his role as Vice President of MidAmerica Nazarene College stripped of him because many saw his words as inflammatory, yet he retained his role as chaplain.

Perhaps one cannot be both chaplain and hold a role that needs to answer to human beings in power.  In fact, I think it is impossible to satisfy both God’s calling upon our lives and the desires of the human beings around us.  Any preacher understands this – if you are going to preach from the scriptures, you are going to upset people.  If you are trying to actually live by what Jesus taught, most will think you are nuts or naive or both.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ (grace, peace, kindness, mercy) is just too contrary to the gospel of popular culture (war, revenge, violence, materialism) for many people to stomach.

I have seen evidence of this so often in churches – lay people in leadership feeling torn apart because they want to do what is right and yet too often their vision gets clouded because they don’t want to upset anyone.  I hear multitudes of pastors feeling real fear of job loss if they were to proclaim the Gospel fully rather than temper it for their own particular, comfortable setting.  I’ve known  many congregations who compare themselves to a “family” and wring their hands over they don’t the “family” to be disrupted over an issue or, heaven forbid, someone to leave!  When the loudest voices cry that it’s better to stick to what is tried and true, when most decisions are made out of fear rather than faith, eventually God’s holy house begins to look more and more like a feeble social club rather than a place for the Living God to be made known.  It might be a nice place to visit and catch up with one another, but bears little to no resemblance to Jesus’ intention for His church on earth.

I have been a pastor for sixteen years.  I love the church beyond measure.  I love the different-colored banners for the changing church seasons, sharing the stories that Jesus told, and singing the hymns I learned sitting next to my grandmother on a wooden pew in a little Lutheran church in Minnesota.  There is nothing that makes my heart so glad as carrying on the rituals of making ashes from dried palm leaves, reading sacred scriptures as a parishioner takes her final breath, hearing children learn the Lord’s prayer, and the smell of coffee wafting from the church kitchen.  The Lutheran church, everywhere, has always been my second home.  Life looks beautiful to me in the glow of the stained glass and with the sound of Jesus’ words echoing in my mind.

But I’m just as guilty of creating false gods.  Mine might not be patriotism or materialism, however I still like to keep God in the places I can understand God and where I can make sense of God.  Others may catch glimpses of holy things in flags, earthly heroes, or an ideal of a perfect church “family” that exists only in their minds. I have caught glimpses of holy things in quiet country churches and the nostalgia of sacred music.

I guess I dream of what is impossible while I’m still here on Earth – the sacred unfettered by all that we put upon it in this world.  I long for God, pure and only, not God through the eyeglasses of a particular group or faction.

All our best intentions, our righteous rites and wordy words, still only hint at the wonder and mystery of the One who made us.

So why should we be surprised when speaking about God and trying to live our lives in God often gets frustrating?  We are trying to lasso the wind.  We are looking out for the black dog laying on the black pavement on a pitch dark night.  All is hidden from our sight – yet – the smidgen of the Holy One in each of us can’t help but keep searching for and naming God, while at the same time, the sin in us is busy pointing out the speck in one another’s eye and ignoring the log in our own.

I’m proud of Dr. Beckum for naming the false gods he has witnessed.  He is called there to do just such a thing.  I bet he wasn’t surprised at all about the reaction it received.  We preachers know when buttons are being pushed.  But God has called us to do just that.  When we stop having the courage to name sin and proclaim God’s forgiveness to the repentant, it is time for us to step down from the pulpit. Until then, preachers – take heart, fight the good fight, keep on preaching.


For a long time, many years of my ministry, it seemed like the recipe for a good Reformation Sunday sermon was to tell the story about Martin Luther again and again. And it never occurred to me to do anything else until I read an article by a well-respected Lutheran theologian last year who said, “Preachers, this Reformation Sunday, I don’t want to hear about Martin Luther. Instead, I want to hear the truth.”
And it occurred to me that he was right. I mean, the story of Martin Luther is compelling, but if you don’t already know it, or want a refresher, you can google “Martin Luther” on the internet or I’ve left some handy pamphlets in the back that you can feel free to take with you. Because this Reformation Sunday, you aren’t getting a history lesson on Martin Luther, you are getting the truth. And the first truth is a hard one that comes barreling at us out of our Gospel from Saint John where Jesus says, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”

We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We do not like this idea very much. It goes against everything we might like to think about ourselves and about how life works. I think that is why the writing by Chad Bird that I put on the front of our bulletin this week (you can read Chad Bird’s brilliant piece on the “Deathbead Defeats: Five Failures I Hope to Achieve Before I Die” and his other great writing at: caught my eye – because upon first glance the failures he says he hopes to achieve sound so opposite of how we normally are told we ought to live. What does he mean he hopes to fail to follow his heart? That’s crazy! But then we read further and we recognize he is just describing our Christian walk and how we can’t use our own hearts as our guide, but rather God’s word needs to be the light to our path.

He hopes to fail at being one of whom all people speak well. What? We all want to be liked and we don’t want to be busy upsetting people, do we? But it was Jesus himself who said “woe to you when all speak well of you.” We should be upsetting some people if we are busy being about sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus upset a lot of people with his message of radical inclusion and completely undeserved love. He upset many by always placing people before protocol.

He hopes to fail to devote his life to the pursuit of happiness. He recognizes the key truth that the pursuit of our human ideal of happiness is far different from the sacred thing called joy. In addition to this piece, this author wrote another brilliant piece this week and it had to do with this idea of things that humans think will bring them happiness as opposed to what actually brings joy. It was a reflection on the new television program that just started airing on Showtime called “The Affair.” The premise of the show is that there are these two people who are in marriages that are fine but not really very exciting anymore, and they have endured the usual difficulties that come over the course of a life together, but now they have met each other and feel this immense attraction and are thinking they have found their “soul mate” and hence, the name of the show, “The affair.” There is a happiness they are pursuing and they feel like they have no control over it. Chad Bird writes, “falling in love” has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with love. No exceptions. It is not the prelude to love, nor the foundation of love, nor the ongoing nurture of love. What we term “falling in love” is stumbling into a state of emotional bliss with another person. True love, on the other hand, is the willful choice to act selflessly for another person, to commit yourself to that person, regardless of the emotional ups and downs. A man and woman who commit adultery together cannot love each other. It’s impossible. That’s like saying two people who are stabbing each other are giving life to each other. If they loved each other, they wouldn’t be harming each other through adultery, harming their spouses and children, and living a lie. Adultery begins in selfishness, continues in selfishness, and breeds yet more selfishness. It is not, and cannot be, a relationship of love. They may mouth the words, “I love you,” but what they really mean is, “You are meeting my selfish emotional needs and I am meeting yours.”

I thought the words he wrote were so strong and good and right on. It doesn’t mean that divorce is always the wrong choice – sometimes divorce is very much the right choice, but faithfulness while in that covenant of marriage, raising Godly children if you have them, remaining diligent at work, being truthful in our words, all of these things show we are pursuing God’s will and bring such greater joy than simply pursuing our own vague vision of “happiness.” God’s vision for our future is far, far greater than our own vision.

Bird next writes that he hopes to fail to believe in himself. Certainly it is important to have confidence and to do our best – but far more beautiful than confidence is humility and the recognition that however brilliant or talented or accomplished you are, you wouldn’t be much without a Creator who made you and a Savior who died for you.

And finally, Bird says he hopes he fails to be a first place winner. Maybe this is the most difficult one of all to swallow. Because we know it feels good to get the prize, to receive the honor, to gather up that promotion, and it’s very tempting to treat all those things as the most important thing. But it just isn’t. Not according to Jesus. Rather, in the eyes of Jesus we are shining the brightest when we are lifting up others. When we humble ourselves so others can receive the spotlight. When we sacrifice comforts and honors so that someone else might have such things.

I love underscoring all these failures that Bird wrote about because they illustrate very well how much we have affection for sin rather than the truth. Because all of us can resonate with wanting to follow our hearts, or wanting people to speak well of us, or wanting to pursue happiness, or wanting to believe in ourselves, or wanting to win first place. There are a thousand “buts” that rise up out of us as the knee-jerk reaction to thinking any of those things could possibly be bad or wrong. And that is sin, right there. We love it. Most days we would rather cuddle right up to it and go with the flow of what culture and our own senses tell us rather than sit with the hard truth of living the life Jesus calls us to live.

But thank goodness there is another truth which must be proclaimed on this Reformation day. There is not only the truth that we are slaves to sin. There is also the truth that we desperately need to hear. The truth about God’s great love for us. It comes through loud and clear in the first reading for this day, where after acknowledging that Israel — and, let’s be honest, all of us — shattered God’s covenant and commands, God still says, “I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sin no more.” God doesn’t just forgive but also forgets. God develops a case of intentional amnesia when it comes to our sin and regards us as if we were perfect, blameless and whole. God regards us, that is, as if we were Christ.

Now this is a beautiful truth, but not necessarily an easier truth. Because here’s the thing: as much as it hurts being justly accused, sometimes it hurts even more when we’re unjustly forgiven. This may be hard to explain at first, but maybe a story will help.

When I was in my first semester of seminary, I was taking an Old Testament class plus a few other classes and everything was going fine. I was getting good grades, I was working a lot, I was spending time with friends. I thought I was the picture perfect seminary student. But then the very last week of my first quarter, everything kind of collapsed at once. I got really sick with the flu, I had a car accident that totaled my car and left me in a cast, and my boyfriend of two years broke up with me. I was miserable. I just had this one paper left to finish before the quarter was done and I could have a few weeks off to recuperate. I knew I would be fine if I could just get this one paper done. But I would stare at the computer screen and try to work on this paper but I just couldn’t come up with any words. It didn’t occur to me to ask for an extension, because I never had before. But the hours and days were ticking by and I had to get this stupid paper in. And what did I decide to do? I plagiarized about three pages from a book – used someone else’s words to finish what I couldn’t get finished myself. And I got caught.

That was pretty much the worst feeling I had ever felt. To know I had made such a ridiculously bad decision and I had gotten caught. I was humiliated and I figured, well, that was it. I would drop out of that school. I was too ashamed to even fathom continuing on there. I wrote a letter of apology to the dean and to my advisor and said I would be dropping out.

But you know what? They asked me to reconsider. I wasn’t ready to give myself a break, to forgive myself for what I had done, but they were. What I deserved was to be kicked out, but what they gave me was another chance. And that new chance wasn’t easy – because it meant I had to walk back onto that campus and face the dean and my advisor and the professor who knew what I had done. I had to humbly begin the next quarter knowing I was anything but the picture-perfect seminarian, and live into the knowledge that I was welcome and encouraged to be there regardless.

I’ve never, ever told anyone that story before. But now that enough time has passed I can see how maybe it was the perfect lesson for the fledgling pastor I was and perhaps for all of us on Reformation day. That there are two great truths to who we are as Christians and they must both be told. That we cannot skip too quickly to the second truth of God’s great forgiveness before we admit the fullness of how true it is that we are all slaves to sin. We all make really bad choices sometimes, and oftentimes our sin is so ingrained into who we are that we don’t even realize how sinful we are…but still, we come here to this place, and we confess those things – humbly – and we don’t receive what we deserve for those things, instead, we receive forgiveness.

I’m so thankful for that grace. How about you? Brothers and sisters, as God has promised to forgive you, now forgive yourself. Whatever you have done, whatever you have said or thought, God washes the repentant heart in grace, and there is always the chance to do better moving forward. Please grant that same grace to yourself. Treat yourself and others kindly. Know you are loved and forgiven this Reformation Day and always. Thanks be to God. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Admissions and Confessions

It was a stark and disquieting day – the day he admitted that he didn’t really believe in Jesus.

He admitted it as he was reading the Bible and all he could think about were the questions he had swirling around in his head.  The scripture said, “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  He admitted that he wasn’t particularly interested in being servant of anyone, much less of everyone.

He admitted it as he thought about all the questions he had about how the Holy Spirit worked through the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of Communion.

He admitted it as he thought about how on the surface he appeared to be a very ‘good’ Christian.  However he knew very well that underneath that very thin veneer there was a man who lived stingily and cautiously, and not like someone who really ever believed in a gospel of transformation.

He admitted that if he was truthful with himself, he didn’t want to give away his hard-earned money to the poor.  Sure, he desired to help the starving children in Africa – but honestly, he really, really desired a flat-screen plasma television.

He admitted that any shred of faith he had now was completely unrecognizable from the faith he had as a child or even as a younger adult.

He thought that admitting all these things might spin his faith off into some void, that he might somehow become lost forever in a sea of agnostics and atheists with no way back.

Rather, it led him back home again.   His admissions, his confessions, reminded him why he so desperately needed a Savior.  By refusing to just play the part of a Christian anymore, he was coming closer to being the real thing than he had in a long time.