Rest and Grace (sermon – July 9, 2017)

Last Tuesday, the Fourth of July, was a blissfully inactive day at our house. It was one of those rare, precious days when we were all at home the whole day. We made no plans for any of it and just did what we wanted – which, for me, included about three movies, a walk, eating, and a nap. I tried to read part of a book but the nap quickly overtook the reading. For a little while the boys and I sat out on the deck just talking about nothing. For a moment, I was transported to summer days when I was a kid – most of which seemed to be filled with nothing and a lot of sitting outside with my parents and brother to try to catch a cool breeze when the house was hot and stuffy. Sometimes I remember getting very bored, aching for something to do, but my parents believed too many extracurricular activities were unnecessary and learning to enjoy quieter pursuits like reading and going for walks in the woods built character. Looking back now from the vantage point of my often overscheduled days, I know I was lucky to have those long, quiet days, plenty of time to think, to create, or just to sit and talk about nothing with my parents.

It seems like usually at least once every summer there is a text that comes up in our Sunday morning readings that includes something about the importance of rest. It often seems to come at just the right time, too – about this time of the summer when all I hear people saying is that summer is going too fast and they just want it to slow down!  But there is so much fun stuff to do and only so many gorgeous days to be outside! We schedule ourselves from dawn to dusk – mostly loving every bit of it – but with hardly any time to breathe, to be, to rest.

Sometimes we need a reminder like the one Jesus gives us. I’ll read a couple verses of our gospel for today from Matthew – but this time from another version of scripture, The Message – as I love this paraphrase…  Jesus says, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Are you tired? The National Center for Sleep Disorders estimates that 30 million Americans suffer from sleep deprivation. Often, our sleep deficit is related to too much caffeine, nicotine, alcohol. Many times it’s related to work – stress from work, putting in long hours at work, working night shifts, working on the home computer until the second we go to sleep.

Sleep deficits have been linked with poor work performance, driving accidents, relationship problems, and mood problems like anger and depression. The growing list of health risks has been documented in recent studies, too. Heart disease, diabetes, and obesity have all been linked with chronic sleep loss.

But we know that we can be and feel tired more than physically – we can grow tired emotionally and spiritually, too. No matter how we are attacked by weariness, each of us have experienced it in our own ways – whether it is the exhaustion that parents of a newborn can feel; or the bone-tired hours, days, weeks spent at the bedside of a loved one who is sick or dying; it could be the flagging energy and depression that comes from being overworked or just doing work that doesn’t suit you, or the draining, heart-rending work of trying to save a dying relationship – every person has faced days and nights when we understand to our very core what it means to be weary and heavy-laden.

To us, to all, Jesus says, “I’m here.”  “You don’t have to struggle so hard to carry it all by yourself because I am already here – let me help you carry those things weighing you down.” “Rest.”

David Whyte writes, “To rest is to give up on worrying and fretting and the sense that there is something wrong with the world unless we are there to put it right.”

Are you guilty of thinking that everything rests on your shoulders? Do you ever fall into the trap of self-important thinking where you can’t stop racing around and fixing things, because if you stop, everything will surely fall apart?

And In the church we are so good at talking about all the things we need to do – to pray, to serve, to study scripture, to meet for worship, to live out our discipleship – but our gospel for today blows in like a cool summer breeze and reminds us that resting is holy and necessary, too. When we do not rest, we suffer – not just physically, but spiritually and emotionally.  To rest is not self indulgent.  Rather, to rest is to prepare to give the best of ourselves, and perhaps, most importantly, to pause to appreciate everything we have already been given.

What is something you could do this week to slow down and rest? Could you find a way to leave some open spaces in your schedule for blissful nothingness, some open spaces to be surprised by the beauty of a sunset, a conversation about nothing with a friend or a stranger?

Or if you are at a stage in life where rest isn’t as hard to come by, is there some gift of your time or energy you can offer to someone who is stressed out, overworked, bone-tired? When my friends Terry and Amy had their first born child nearly twenty years ago, one of our mutual friends, Cathy, offered as a gift to them to babysit once a month so that Terry and Amy could have a date night. And while of course that gift of time alone together was a gift to Terry and Amy, Cathy talks about how offering to do that blessed her so much as well with a decades-long relationship with this baby girl and eventually that baby’s siblings as they grew up. An older couple in Colorado Springs offered to do something similar for Chad and I when we had a toddler and a newborn. The words had barely come out of her mouth, “We’d love to watch your children sometime if you and Chad would like a date night,” when I practically shouted “yes, yes, a thousand times, yes!” and I was digging out my planner to figure out a time that worked.

Sometimes we are able to give each other the gift of rest or help each other carry a burden. Sometimes we are the ones needing a break.

But truthfully, resting in Jesus is more than taking a nap – it is leaning into Jesus’ love. Ultimately, this scripture is about much more than just self-care. It’s about discipleship, really. It’s about grace. Jesus tells us, “I am with you as you live as my disciples.” Self-care matters, of course, but we have to be careful not to confuse the good news with good advice.  Good advice is nice, but it doesn’t save. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once put it this way to his students: “God’s intention is to bear or sustain us, not to teach or improve us.”

So hear this, church: Jesus is beside you, loving you and forgiving you – helping you weather it all – the good days, the awful days – the sunny and rainy days and every other day. And we as a church community are here to support one another as well…to do our best at loving each other and the world as Jesus taught us.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I love that picture from 1946 we have hanging in our hallway out there – the picture of the whole congregation then. The picture we are going to try to recreate after worship today. They are sitting and standing side by side – the people of Saint Peters in that time. So many different people. So many different gifts. Perfectly flawed and perfectly beautiful. God brought them together – to love and serve God as best they could.  God called them. And today God calls us.

In Jesus’ name we work and rest – today and every day. Amen.

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The congregation of Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church – 1946
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The congregation of Saint Peters Lutheran Church (with a few missing…) – July, 2017

Okay, God, What Next? (a sermon from June 28, 2015)

I was ordained almost sixteen years ago.  I had a shiny new call in hand from a little church in Western New York and planned the ordination service at my home church – Good Shepherd Lutheran in Henning, Minnesota.  My pastor from all my growing up years, Rev. Darrell Vetter, preached.  Bishop Arlen Hermodson of this synod did the ordination.  My internship supervisor, Rev. Allyne Holz, placed the stole on my shoulders.  Afterward, the wonderful ladies of the church provided a lunch – little sandwiches, cake, and coffee.  It was a gorgeous September day.

A few days later I was driving out to New York with everything I owned in my black 1984 GMC Jimmy.  My two faithful cats, George and Sam, meowing at me the whole way.

There were many unforgettable moments in that trip and those weeks but one that often comes to mind is my first morning in my office.  I arrived early – the sun was just coming up.  I stood looking out the window across the street at the cemetery and the church’s former building which now stood empty and peeling paint.  I stood there and thought, “okay, God, now what?” Here I am.  Now what.

Years and years and years of preparation had led to that moment – and I didn’t have the foggiest clue what to do.  But then the phone began to ring and people began to stop by and hour by hour, day by day, prayer by prayer, joy by joy, and frustration by frustration, suddenly sixteen years have gone by.

But most days I still look out my window and my silent or whispered prayer is, “okay, God, now what?”

It’s my ineloquent way of saying, “God, please lead me and guide me.”  Partly because God must, and partly because I am clueless on my own.  I always have been – I have no qualms about saying that.  I need God’s guidance in all things.  I listen like a hawk for the still, small voice of God’s direction because without it I am just floating about on the wind.  Without God’s guidance I would be easily deceived, I have no doubt about it.  So I cling to God’s promises and I cling to the assurance that I belong to Him.

What am I going on about here?  I don’t know.  It’s just been another one of those weeks where as a preacher, I’m a little bit terrified to preach. The Bishop of the ELCA recommends that we keep talking about Charleston and I agree this is important.  Did you see President Obama’s beautiful eulogy at Reverend Pinkney’s funeral – it was gorgeous as he talked about God’s amazing grace and even sang. 

But also in the news this week we have huge news about the Supreme Court of the United States saying all gay and lesbian marriages are legal.  This is huge. And this is news that I know everyone here has an opinion about and I don’t think it does us a lot of good to not talk about it.  In fact, I don’t think it is faithful for us to not talk about it.

So let me start – I grew up as the daughter of a preacher – but my father was a very different sort of preacher than me.  He loved the fire and brimstone.  He preached law with a small sliver of grace on the side.  And don’t get him talking about “the gays” because for some reason, in his view, homosexual people were excluded entirely from God’s grace. 

I didn’t understand this.  To me, it seemed so contrary to everything else I had been taught about God.  Then I went to college where I knew a lot of nice conservative Christian people who were super kind people – when talk about homosexuality would come up there were a lot of phrases like, “hate the sin but love the sinner.”    I remember I had to do a little speech in a class after reading a required book called, “Is the Homosexual My Neighbor” and I spent hours and hours studying and preparing my opinion piece – which basically came down to the simplistic, yet I felt faithful, conclusion that God made us all and loves us all just as we are.  Period.  From that point on there was a small group of particularly ardent conservative Christians on campus who were gently trying to confront me lovingly and steer me back in the right direction. 

It wasn’t until seminary that I actually had a close friend come out and tell me he was gay.  He was so scared to tell me.  I hated that he was so scared to tell me.  But growing up in the Christian church, he knew that admitting this about himself was a big thing.  He knew there were good people for whom this would be no big deal but he also knew that for other good people, this would be a deal breaker.  They wouldn’t want to be his friend anymore.  They would distance themselves from him.  And many did. 

Over the next years there was this huge wave of honesty as friend after friend of mine came out.  All of them Lutheran Christians who had grown up in surroundings so much like mine. Some told me through conversations, quite a few through letters they constructed to tell me this news about themselves.  I was always surprised – I have no gay-dar whatsoever.  But one by one they entrusted me with this news that they had wrestled with and struggled with and had come to love and accept about themselves.  And they became even more dear to me because I knew that this process of unfolding and becoming their real selves was painful for them – but ultimately it was part of their becoming even more of the precious people God had made them to be.

I knew it.  I knew it like you know a good melon.  I knew it like you know that rain is in the air or that you are pregnant.  I just knew. 

But the hard thing is that there are just as many people, good people, faithful people, people I love, maybe even some of you, who just know that homosexuality is wrong and are certain that what is happening in our country is a slippery slope to Armageddon.  You know it like you know a good melon, or that rain is in the air, or that you are pregnant.  You just know. 

In 2009 our ELCA churches had a lot of heartfelt conversations around this topic.  Good, faithful people of all opinions came together to pray and think and listen for God’s voice.  I went through this with my church in Colorado and also in Texas in 2010.  In Texas it was harder because there was a small group of people, lifelong members of this little historic church, who just saw the issue of homosexuality as the deal breaker for them.  They wanted our church to be the church in our area to leave the ELCA.  They pushed hard and rallied members but they couldn’t get much traction.  About ten ended up leaving our church and started their own non ELCA church downtown. 

It was so hard for all of us.  I prayed so hard all the time – especially then – that if I was wrong, that God would help me see it.  I wanted to do what was right, not be blinded by my own emotions, my sentimentality for the friends I love who are gay. 

But the more I prayed, the more I was just convinced that there was no part of the God I had been raised to know and love or even the scriptures I had studied my whole life that informed me that the thing to do would be to tell all gay people that the love they have for one another was lesser than the love given to heterosexual people. 

Yes, there are parts of scripture that are complex – there certain texts that some want to hold up as a beacon that homosexuality is wrong – these scriptures reside with many others that seem to reflect the culture and times the biblical authors lived in more than the timeless will of God:

Concubines and polygamy and the use of slave girls as surrogates in childbirth were all acceptable family values in the Old Testament.  Slavery was found to be morally acceptable in the Old Testament and slave-owning Christians in the early church were not asked by the apostles to set their slaves free.   Priests were commanded to burn their daughters alive if they became prostitutes, and rebellious children were to be stoned to death. Women who were raped were required to marry their rapist.  And when Israel went off to war she believed God called her to destroy every man, woman, and child among the nations she conquered—what today we call genocide.  The Apostle Paul teaches that women are to pray with their heads covered and to not wear their hair in braids.  They are not permitted to teach a man, and Paul notes that it was “shameful” for a woman to even speak in church.

But if I’m not willing to embrace slavery or polygamy or to tell a rape victim they have to marry their rapist, and if I, as a woman can feel the call to ministry and the calling to speak in church – and all these things go against certain cultural laws in the Bible – how can I tell a gay couple their love is wrong – especially when the overarching message of Jesus Christ is that love is the greatest of all things? 

How can I feel anything but glad for the healing that so many gay and lesbian families are feeling now – because of all the big and small rights they now have that they never had before.  And does that healing mean any less to them than the kinds of healing we read in our scriptures for today?  A woman suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years is healed.  A young girl who is thought to be dead hears a word from Jesus and walks.  A group of people feel marginalized and unaccepted their whole lives, undeserving of love, unable to participate in the gift that is family – but then allowed in, over time welcomed, over time given justice and rights.  All these things seem like healing to me.  All these things seem holy to me.

People of God, please don’t think I stand up here thinking I have everything figured out or that it is my job to convince or sway opinion.  I only share all this with you because I want you to know how much I wrestle with all these matters of faith, too.  I share my own journey with you so that maybe you will share yours with me, too, and with each other.  As we seek to listen to each other and understand each other – I think there is more room for the Holy Spirit to really move.  As we let love and grace guide us, rather than fear or judgement, we become more nimble vessels for sharing all that is beautiful and helpful and life-giving about the church.  If we can talk openly and lovingly about things that matter, if we can disagree with each other and still live and worship together in respect and work together to serve God – then our children will grow up knowing that they can do this, too.  That they will know, with no shade of doubt, that no matter who they are or who they love, they are welcome here and beloved to us and to God.

This is what we need.  We need to be able to stand together in our questions and our certainties, all our stumblings and steps of faith and trust that in the end, it’s God who catches us.  Whether we end up wrong or right, it’s Jesus who saves us and loves us to the end.  That we are wrapped, cloaked, enveloped in this Amazing Grace that is big enough to cradle us all.  That when we say, “Okay, God, what next?”  The answer is always going to be grace.  Treat yourself, treat one another with grace – because this is what God pours out to us and wants us to be about as God’s church on earth.  Amazing Grace.

Reformation

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: http://birdchadlouis.wordpress.com/) 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.