Monday, December 10, 2012

Put A Little Theology of the Cross in Your Manger

I preached last Wednesday evening. Our Wednesday Sabbath service is often full of Confirmation students and their families. So, our sermon follows the question for the evening in our Reform series of Confirmation lessons. Last Wednesday, the question was....(drum roll please)...."Why did Jesus go to hell?"

What a fun question! But what an odd question in the season of we await the cuddly baby Jesus' birth, the swaddling, the cooing, the adoring, the sweet baby smell. It's enough to give this 28 year old gal Baby Fever. Who on earth would spoil the mood by reminding us that this wittle baby Jesus will one day vanquish hell?! 
Oh, that's right, me. :)

The shadow of the cross is cast over the manger, as much as we'd like to pretend we don't see it. But this means good news for us! My Confirmation students picked up on this Good News and echoed in their sermon notes--As on 8th grade girl put it, "Even if something is a living hell on earth, that doesn't stop God from going there. He goes there more than the good places on earth. Nothing stops God in Jesus from loving you!" Amen.

Here's the sermon for your perusal:

"Nothing Stops Jesus" 
A sermon on Romans 8:35-39

My friends have a dog, and this dog loves to run. Brandy had a habit of running away. She didn’t mean to run away. She would just start running. And she would run and run and never realize how far she’d gone until she was far from home. A few times the family ended up driving around town calling the dog’s name until they would find her at a nearby park or playing with someone else’s kids in a front yard.

My friends decided that they could not risk losing Brandy for good, so they got a fence. It was an electric fence. Have you seen these before? The way the work is that you bury a wire in the ground at the border of your yard. Then your dog wears a collar that has a special sensor in it. And when the dog crosses over the boundary, a small shock reminds him to stay inside the electric fence.

It took Brandy a while to get used to the electric fence. For a few days you could watch from a window as she tested out the boundaries. At first she would run until the shock stopped her in her tracks. Then, after she caught on to what was going on, you could see her moving more slowly, trying to figure out just how far she could go.

We all have boundaries in our lives. Boundaries like Brandy’s electric fence are usually there to keep us safe. Inside the fence we are protected, if we go outside of this fence, we are open to more danger.

Can you think of boundaries that keep you safe? How about your curfew, if you are a young person who has one. It might seem like something like a curfew is just a hassle. Your parents made it up to ruin your life and keep you from having fun.
But why do you suppose your parents chose a time for you to be home at the end of the day? Your curfew exists so that you don’t get into a dangerous situation late at night. It puts a boundary around the time that is safe for a young person to be out and about.

Other boundaries that keep us safe are the age limit for driving a car or drinking alcohol. The idea behind these boundaries is that a person is able to make more clear decisions as we get older. The lock on your front door is a boundary to keep out anyone who might do your family harm. The guard rails along a bridge keep your car safely driving on the pavement instead of flying off the edge into the water below.

Human beings, all of us, need boundaries. Inside the boundaries, life can thrive and grow. Outside of the boundaries, we are at greater risk.

But, allow me to make things confusing. Follow me here, as I make this move. We’ve agreed that boundaries can be good and are typically meant for our safety and protection. BUT, boundaries can be bad too.

Are you with me? Boundaries can be good for us. But sometimes boundaries can be bad.

Here’s what I mean. Sometimes we put up walls, or even invisible fences, in our lives that keep us from loving and serving our neighbors. God has created us, forgiven our sins, and sets us free to bring God’s love to others. And we tend to create boundaries that keep us from doing this.

For example, I once visited a town called Logan in West Virginia. This was a while ago, so I don’t know if things are exactly the same there. I hope they’ve changed for the better. But when I visited, there was a train track running right through the middle of Logan. Logan used to be a busy and happy town. Coal mining was the business, and there was lots of coal to be mined. Family’s were doing well, food was on the tables, and even though coal mining was a dangerous and difficult job, things were pretty good. After a while, though, the coal started to become more difficult to get to. There was less of it available to be mined. Less coal meant less jobs. Men were out of work, and families had little money for food, clothing, bills. Times became tough. And they were still tough when I visited just ten years ago.

Remember those train tracks I mentioned? Life is especially tough on the west side of the tracks. Every house in town needs some repair, but the ones on the wrong side of the tracks were falling down. If you saw them, you would swear they were abandoned. You would think there’s no way anyone could be living in them. Then you’d see a group of kids rush out a front door, or a light turn on. It is hard to believe it, but these run-down shacks are people’s homes. Right here in our country.

Anyway, the tracks in Logan form a boundary. If you live on the good side of the tracks, you do not go to the other side. This is what I learned on my trip to this town. The train tracks form a physical line, but along that same line runs a boundary that is made out of fear, and pride, and ignorance...but mostly fear.

The people on both sides of those train tracks need God’s love. And God does love the people on both sides of the boundary. The people on one side have things, like food, water, shelter, a listening ear, that the people on the other side need. The people on that side have other things, a different perspective, skills for work, a story to tell, that the others need just as much. A boundary keeps them from sharing with each other. This boundary keeps them from showing God’s love.

The people on the right side might say that the wrong side is hell on earth. There are drugs, violence, disease, poverty, kids running in the streets with no parents, dirtiness, dinginess, and decay.
I would say it is hell on earth too. It seems like the last place a person would find God.

Then again, a cross seems like the last place to find God. A cross, the exact location of violence, torture, evil. A cross that gives off the scent of death and attracts flies that circle around it. The cross is hell on earth. And Jesus goes there.

Jesus ignores every boundary. Jesus ignores the bad boundaries that keep us from loving others. He goes to the wrong side of the tracks every time, touching the unclean, healing those in need, eating dinner in the run-down shacks of Logan, West Virginia and the world. He doesn’t worry about washing his hands. He doesn’t hold his nose or keep his distance. Nothing can stop Jesus from loving others. And these harmful boundaries shouldn’t stop us from loving others either.

Jesus ignores the bad boundaries, and Jesus also ignores the good boundaries too. Jesus crosses the boundaries that keep us safe, and he goes to truly dangerous places to save us. Dangerous, deadly the cross. Jesus died on the cross, and as we say in the Apostle’s Creed he descended into hell, or he descended to the dead. God died and went to hell. This breaks every boundary, every single harmful and helpful boundary.

The cross proves to us that there is no place that is outside of God’s reach, there is no place that God is not present, there is no place that God will not go to show love to the world, to show love to you.

So, when you look at the world around you, when you look at your own life, and think “there is no way that God can be in the middle of this mess,” picture the cross in that place, and remember that Jesus is most certainly there. Nothing stops Jesus from loving you.  Amen.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Signs of Hope

Trey and I don't have an Advent wreath,
 but five random candles will do. I'll just need
to pick up another "real" candle before the
fourth week of Advent!
It's Advent. Time for waiting, wondering, and watching. This week I asked members of my congregation to be on the lookout for hope, to watch for signs of hope, and even to become a sign of hope. Where have you seen hope this week?

Personally, I find hope in the 50+ degree weather and still green grass we've been enjoying here in Sioux Falls, SD in December. Others, I know, will see hope as that cold, white, fluffy stuff falls from the sky this weekend and it begins to look more like Christmas as they know it.

Whatever your weather preference, may anticipating Christ's coming to dwell among us bring you hope!

“Christ Came Down that We May Have Hope”
12/2/2012, Advent 1 Sermon

on Daniel 6:6-27

There is a Cherokee legend that tells the story of an Indian youth’s rite of passage: A father takes his son into the forest, blindfolds him and leaves him alone. The boy is required to sit on a stump the whole night and not remove the blindfold until the rays of the morning sun shine through it. He can’t cry out for help to anyone. Once he survives the night, he will be a Man. No boy can tell the others of the experience, because each lad must come into manhood on his own. The boy is naturally terrified. With his sense of sight gone, his hearing is heightened. He can hear all kinds of noises. Wild beasts must be all around him. Maybe even some human might do him harm. The wind blows the grass and earth, and shakes his stump, but he sits stoically, never removing the blindfold. It is the only way he can become a man! Finally, after a horrific night, the sun rays warm him and he removes his blindfold. It is then that he discovers his father sitting on the stump next to him. He has been at watch the entire night, protecting his son from harm.
Daniel entered the lion’s den alone. With no other human being to protect him and no weapon to defend himself, Daniel was thrown in to face these wild beasts. As the stone rolled to close the entrance to the den, the seriousness of Daniel’s situation sunk in...both for those outside looking on and for Daniel himself. It seemed as Daniel was sealed in, hope was sealed out, and there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it.
The king’s edict had been passed no many  days earlier, and it stated that whoever prays to anyone, divine or human, for thirty days, except to the king, would be thrown into a den of lions. The king’s counselors suggested that he make this law, and as the readers we know that they designed it specifically to trap Daniel, whom they knew would not stop praying to Yahweh, the Lord God.
Who knows why the king agreed to the law. I guess it played on his fragile ego. Either way, the law was written and sealed, Daniel had disobeyed it by praying to God and was caught. The thing is, though, that the king really liked Daniel. Daniel was a respected member of his court, and if the king had realized this law would lead to Daniel’s death, he would not have signed it. But, as the counselors and governors remind him, the king’s law cannot be undone.
So, a long night passed as the king fasted and waited and wondered if Daniel, whose sentence he had been unable to change, would, by some miracle, survive.
The king must have had hope. Because he rushed to arrive at the lion’s den first thing the next morning and listen to his hopeful question: “O Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God whom you faithfully serve been able to deliver you from the lions?”
What in the world made the king believe that there was a chance that this could be possible? What gave this pagan king hope?
The king was not disappointed. His hope was realized. Daniel’s voice came to him as wonderful news, echoing off the rocks of the den. “O king, live forever! My God sent his angel and shut the lions' mouths so that they would not hurt me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no wrong.”
Then the king was exceedingly glad and commanded that Daniel be taken up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no kind of harm was found on him, because he had trusted in his God. The king took things from here. He had the accusers who had plotted to have Daniel killed thrown into the lion’s den themselves. The hungry lions, having been prevented by an angel from enjoying a meal all last night, jumped at the opportunity to devour these guys whole.
Then the king blessed Daniel and gave a new decree. This law stated that in all the king’s royal dominion people should tremble and fear before the God of Daniel: For he is the living God, enduring forever. His kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion has no end. He delivers and rescues, he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth; for he has saved Daniel from the power of the lions.

Hope. What is it to be hopeful?
  • Is it to sit faithfully on your stump, unmoved, braving whatever may come, never-knowing that all the while you are protected?
  • Is it to enter the lion’s den, face real danger, trusting that God will keep you safe and guard your life?
  • Is it to pray and fast feverishly all night, while someone else faces real danger, exhausting your only power to help by calling on a God who might be able to deliver?
  • Is it to show up at the scene of possible tragedy expecting a miracle against all odds?
  • Is it to stand by amazed as powers beyond our control shut the mouths of lions who would eat us whole?
  • Is it to trust in the promise that no matter what you go through in the scary night alone, you will see the morning?

Part of hope is trusting in a promise. God had promised his people, Israel, that he would make a great nation out of them. The covenant or promise God made with Jacob was that his descendants would number as many as the stars in the sky. And with this, God would give the people a land. Now, in the time that our story about Daniel was written, much of Israel was in exile in foreign lands. They had become a scattered people without a land to call their own. The promise of a Messiah who would free the people became their hope. The anticipation grew among the people. They awaited a Savior who would free them and establish a kingdom that would never end.
Hope clung with the dust of the road to the backs of weary travelers aching for home. Hope swirled on the wind. Hope echoed in the dreams of sleeping children who had never seen the land their parents talked about, the land they dreamed about. Hope cried out in the wilderness, calling God’s people to repent and return to their Lord. Throughout the ages hope remained, and the people waited. But some lost hope altogether, and they mocked anyone who waited hopefully and still expected God to fulfill the promise. God is dead--You fools keep waiting.
It’s easy to give up and agree with them. I mean, look at the world around us. It doesn’t take more than 10 minutes of cable news to convince even the most optimistic person that this is a broken place, that we are broken people. Consider all the things in your own life that tempt you to give up hope. What does the cynical voice inside you say? That the country has lost it’s way, and a petition to secede is the only option at this point? That your kids or grandkids don’t get it and it’s a waste of time for you to keep inviting them to church or dinner? Does it say that God must not care if God would let bad things happen to good people? Or have you been considering that faith is a waste of time, only for those who can’t handle that this life is all that there is?
We are like that Cherokee boy. To us it seems we sit on a stump, exposed to danger, alone and vulnerable, unlikely to make it through the night. All the while, there is one who watches over us. We are like Daniel, we face real danger, and we don’t know what the outcome will be. Meanwhile, there is one who fends off danger. There is one who will not let harm come to us. There is a God who will keep our lives, even if we should die. Hope is found in our faith that trusts that this is the truth. Hope is found in truth that God is there loving, defending, and claiming us even when our faith doesn’t trust it.
Today marks the beginning of the season of Advent. In the tradition of the Christian church, this is the time that we experience waiting for Christ, though we know Christ has already come. In a sense we live in a constant season of Advent. For we live in the now and the not yet. Christ’s kingdom is here now among us. Jesus is born unto us. But at the same time, we wait for the kingdom to come fully, for Jesus to come again. And until Christ comes again, we will live in a broken world. Only hope can look at the world around us, at you and at me, and see the way God intends things to be. And hope can make it so too. Can you see hope?
This week, be a detective on a mission to spot signs of hope. In your Taking Faith Home insert, you’ll find under the Service section, the details of this challenge. Be watchful and expect to see hope in the world around you. Note in your mind the moments that you notice it. And if you can, capture it on camera. If you have a pen or pencil, I want you to write down my email address, and then, if you find a wonderful sign of hope this week and catch it on camera, I want you to send it to me by email. Here’s my address: Don’t just be an observer of hope, create your own sign of hope for someone else. Serve your neighbor, even a stranger, through a random act of kindness. Be a bringer of hope. For Christ came down that we may have hope! Amen.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


New life has needed to be breathed in to this blog. Over the past months I've completed seminary, moved to Sioux Falls, accepted a call to Trinity Lutheran of Tea SD, been ordained as a minister of Word and Sacrament, and began to settle in to a new role, a new office, and a new congregation. The Sassy Passy has been in mega-transition mode, and despite becoming officially Pass(tor)y...the inspiration (and perhaps the time) for writing has escaped me. Today, inspiration came--the breath of the Spirit. Like Jesus said, the wind of the Spirit is a mysterious thing; it blows where it will. And today, the breath of God came through the words of ninth graders.

They may not have gone to seminary, their doctrine may not pass all the tests, and some have clearly been out to lunch on an adolescent hormone vacation for much of their Confirmation experience, but all-without exception-managed to put faith into words. That's a difficult task. try it.

As I read I am amazed most of all by the honesty with which our young people write as they prepare to partake in a public affirmation of their baptism this Sunday. And these short, thoughtful (albeit required) reflections on belief wear the scent of the Reformation tradition in which these Children of God have been steeped, the waters of baptism are dripping off the pages on my desk (though not as literally as they drip off the pages of my beautifiul and quicky-becoming-worn engraved copy of the ELW hymnal after presiding over two baptisms). They ask good questions, and pose some unique perspectives that the Church must ponder.

May these compiled honest, sometimes even sassy, words inspire you...

"When I first heard I had to write a faith statement, I was like O great..."
"When confirmation started this year, Pastor said that I know that most of you don't want to be here and you don't think much of confirmation or being confirmed. For the most part, he was right. Some kids wanted to be there, but I was not one of those kids."
"My faith isn't an easy topic to describe. It is a part of me that isn't talked about often, if ever."
"As my mom and I sit here and talk about writing this paper and what it means to me to have faith, I find that I am having a hard time figuring out what to write because I don't really know where I stand with my faith...I can tell you what I believe and what I have been taught."
"I was baptized when I was a baby, so I didn't understand what that meant. Going to Sunday School, First Communion, and Confirmation helped me to know what it meant when I got baptized. Water is just water until you add the holy word and then it becomes baptism."
"During my baptism God came down and claimed me as his"
"On the day of confirmation, I myself am confessing that I do believe in God, I do believe in Jesus, and I do believe in the Holy Spirit. However, I am not sure if I'm able to confess that I have a meaningful relationship with God."
"As a child, waking up to go to Sunday School was part of my weekly routine, just like many others. Of course there were those days where I decided to hide under my bed, hoping that my parents would just leave without me...But after being drug out from the bed I just learned to face the face that I was "going to Sunday School, and going to like it." Parental influence still to this day remains one of the biggest factors of my faith, and I am extremely thankful for that...even if it can get a little out of hand :)"
"When I was younger (my mom) brought me a princess Bible and we would lie in bed and read it every night."
"''The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks' (Psalm 5:7).
"When I am having a horrible day, I think of how Jesus Christ died on the cross for us. I bet that must have been hard to do, to just hang there until he died."
"So often we all forget to be thankful, we get so caught up in our busy lives we forget to wake up every morning and thank God for the beautiful life we have right in front of us. Even being a kid I am always so busy!"
"I know that I'm forgiven when I mess up and it's ok to not be perfect and ask for forgiveness."
"I feel like I'm still learning and growing in my faith."
"When I am confirmed on Sunday, it is not an ending but a beginning to my questions about finding my faith and religious path with God"
"After Confirmation I would like to get more involved with the Senior High activities at Trinity"
"As my faith grows, I hope I can go on mission trips to help people in need"
"I'll try to apply everything I've learned, from Sunday School to now, to my everyday life. I'll try to be a disciple, and give my time and talents. I'll try to always please God with my decisions and action. But there's one thing that I don't have to try to do...I will remain a child of God from now, to my final hours, and to the end of time."
"I will grow with Christ in my life. I will tell others of his words and his love for us. I am a disciple of Christ."

Amen! I am excited to continue to witness the fruits of faith in these young adults this weekend and beyond.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Preacher in Her Hometown

They say a prophet is never well-received in her hometown. Well, personally, I had an amazing experience this past weekend preaching in Grand Forks. So, maybe I'm not much of a prophet after all! 

This past Sunday, the young adults at Calvary Lutheran Church in Grand Forks put together a wonderful justice-focused action event called "Do Something Now." Over $3,000 was raised to help do something about global causes like building wells for families in the world who have no access to clean water, weekend meals for students in need in Grand Forks, and de-parasiting & fluoride treatments for people in Honduras. 

It was my honor to preach about justice this Sunday in coordination with the appeal to Do Something Now. It was my hope to highlight the ways in which God's justice is different than our sense of what is fair. Thanks to a special request from my cousin Ashley, I've posted the text of my sermon below.


It's not fair!

How many of us remember saying this phrase as kids?  How many of the kids here have said this already today?  How many of us have suppressed the urge to shout this lately even though we are supposed to be more grown up than that?

Well, the world's not fair.
Lovely.  I can't wait to have kids so that I can tell them this.  It's like hazing.  We all experience injustice in our lives and want to scream about it, but when we grow up, we learn to deal with it.  And when we have kids, we get to pass on this agonizing yet true sentiment.  The world's not fair.

All of us are born with some sort of instinctual sense of what's fair and what is not fair.  We want the same portion of the pizza as our brothers and sisters.  We want an equal slice of everyone's attention as others receive.  We want to be paid a wage that's fair according to our experience and qualifications and time put in on the job, not a salary that is different because of our gender or race or age.  And we all want to get what we deserve when it comes to our merit…if we wrote a better paper we should get a better grade, if we are more competent at our jobs we should get a raise or a promotion or at least be safe from being laid off, if we helped to bake the cookies, we should get the first warm one when they come out of the oven.

It's not fair!

Our keen sense of what's fair can be a positive thing for the world.  Our childhood whining can grow into a mature sense of justice on behalf of those who are being treated unfairly.  It may lead us to see with the eyes of justice as the young adults who have organized the Do Something Now event taking place this morning have seen. 

With such eyes we can see that it's not fair that Children in Uganda, orphaned by HIV, have nowhere to sleep.  We can see that it's not fair that one in eight human beings in the world don’t have access to clean drinking water.  We can see that it’s not fair that some who attend that hunger meal today will be served a half a slice of bread while others will eat all they’d like until they’re full.  And we can see that it’s not fair that hunger statistics in the world mirror this great difference between plenty and not enough.

The problem is that, more often than not, our idea of "justice" becomes about, as Pastor Roger mentioned last week: just us.  We worry most of all that things are not fair for me.  We see most clearly when I am not being treated fairly.  And when someone gets, not what they deserve, but much more than they deserved, we find ourselves exclaiming, "It's not fair!"

The workers who worked all day, in the blazing sun, were certainly whining in these or very similar words.  "It's not fair!  We worked all day, we got more done, we were here from the start, we endured the heat, we are exhausted.  They hardly worked at all, they just got here, they didn't contribute as much, they didn't suffer as much, they certainly don't deserve as much as us."

It wasn't the workers' understanding of fair that was off.  It was their understanding of the one who was in charge.  The owner even agrees with them to some extent, "Sure what I'm doing isn't fair; it's more than fair.  It's generous.  Is it not my prerogative to be generous?  Have I not still treated you fairly?  I paid you what we agreed, and what I pay these others is really none of your business."

The vineyard owner gave out of his own generosity, not paying on the basis of what any of the workers deserved.
It's not fair.
It's not fair indeed, it's grace.
Through this story and beyond it in our lives, we get to know our God who gives based on God's merit, not on ours
This means that what we think is fair is not always what God thinks is fair
The laborers in the vineyard, the older son in the parable of the Prodigal, the grace given just the same to those who were baptized and will never show up to teach Confirmation or lead on Church Council, or give an offering to support the ministry of the Church
We tend to think that justice is getting what we deserve
But God's justice doesn't fit our worldly understanding of what is fair.
God blurs the lines between justice-getting what we deserve, mercy-not getting what we deserve, and grace-getting much more than we deserve.
This is Good News for us…
This is always Good News for us
For as redeemed sinners, we continue to be sinners still, and we need the kind of justice of our God who is a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love
There's only one problem, this justice, full of mercy and grace is not about just us

It's hard for us to swallow God's unreasonable mercy shown to others
Jonah found out how hard it can be to understand the way God shows mercy and justice.

He had been sent out from his homeland to the city of Nineveh to proclaim the coming wrath for this sinful city.  And they were the worst.  In fact, so bad that Jonah tried his darnedest to get out of the job.  You probably know how the story goes…Jonah runs from God, by way of ship, a terrible storm comes up and the sailors demand to know who has upset God and caused such a storm.  Jonah confesses and volunteers himself to be thrown overboard.  He should have drowned, but instead God sends a giant fish to save him of all things.  Within the belly of the fish, Jonah waited three days, praying to God for salvation.  Finally, the fish coughs Jonah up on the shore, and God sends him in the original direction again, to Nineveh.  Jonah proclaims, half-heartedly I’d imagine, God’s coming wrath to these his enemies.  And something miraculous happens, those nasty sinners turn from their ways, they repent and fast and wear sackcloth…everyone, down to the last cow in town.

Now we find Jonah, who ought to be elated as the only prophet who ever really succeeded in getting anyone to repent.  But instead he’s upset, and rather dramatic.  And he cries out to God, in what I imagine to be a very whiney voice…

" Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
He knew it.  He expected it.  He tried to escape it.
But Jonah had been sent to be a prophet, to warn of God's coming wrath, when all along he knew that wrath might well turn to mercy
And in the end he basically says he'd rather die than have God be merciful to them
Jonah had to face the reality that God loved those who were his enemy
Those who even threatened his life and the life of all of Israel as Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire that would one day crush his people and send them into captivity
Still, God loved them
He showed them mercy
He gave them the same favor thought to be reserved for those who lived "good" lives, those who did the right thing, those who go to church each week, those who had "earned" their share of God's mercy and grace
It's not fair!
Perhaps God is modeling for us in the story of Jonah a higher good than fairness, an ethic of mercy, a philosophy of grace, a call to live a life that bursts forth with radical justice, full of the abundant love of God.  And in the story of the workers in the vineyard, Christ breaks our “just us” measuring sticks for fairness and lays out instead a pattern of generosity that goes beyond our judgment of what we or others deserve. 

Christ pours out for each of us much more than we deserve, grace upon grace.  And as much as we tend to think that we’ve earned it somehow, the truth is that God has done for us what only God could do.  God has given out of God’s generosity, not our merit.  In Jesus we have been freed from the grip that sin and death had on our lives. And this freedom, this grace, isn’t just for those who get it right all of the time, or even most of the time.  It’s for those who are sinful, those who mess things up, those who get it wrong over and over again.  That is to say that it’s for all of us.  We may wish that God were more fair, that our actions would count for something with God, but what a mess we’d be in if this were the case.  We’re all lucky that God doesn’t judge fair the way that we do—or we’d all be surprised to find out what we really deserve. Instead here we are, the undeserving recipients of mercy and grace.

Of course Jesus is the only one who can really deal out this kind of true justice, leveling the playing field in which all of us find ourselves living and working and making us equals in every way.  Christ’s work of justice and salvation is making all things new.  In the meantime, since the world is not fair, we are called as Children of the Kingdom to see matters through the eyes of Christ.  We are called, as those who have much, to ac, to strive for true justice on behalf of those who are marginalized.  We are called, as those who have access to the rule makers and the resources, to speak for those whose voice has no power in our world.

It’s not fair.

The world as we know it is not fair.  And the good news is that Christ’s Kingdom isn’t fair either.  It’s more than fair.  It is full of unmerited grace, undeserved mercy, relentless forgiveness, and true justice that has been given for you today by the Lord, our gracious God who is merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

So we might say, Thanks be to God that it’s not fair.  Amen!

Monday, August 1, 2011

More than Enough

Yesterday was my official "Farewell and Godspeed" party at Bethany. It was my last Sunday in the pulpit. My last Sunday in general actually. It was a morning of blessings for me. Instead of saying "goodbye," we said "until we meet again." And so many people expressed affirmation of my call and my gifts. I left feeling uplifted and ready for the next part of the journey.

Today, the next part of the journey consists in cleaning up my office, attending further farewell get togethers, and tying up loose ends. Trey and I hope to hit the road bright-and-early exactly one week from now. While I am super sad to leave Colorado, there's a cool, shimmery Minnesota lake waiting for me at the end of the road, and you can believe I'll be jumping right in. Of course, I'm looking forward to spending some time with my family...I believe they're excited to have us back (don't spoil my illusion if you're reading this!). And a bit of RnR will be just the thing we need before classes start on September 6.

The new intern was here yesterday. It was fun to pass the cincture (or the torch if you don't speak nerdy liturgist terminology). I told him that he is a lucky dude, that he's going to have a great year, and that I could not have imagined a better internship all around. It's true. I am glad to be sad to leave. It means I connected, I invested, I loved. And I will carry the relationships I've built with me wherever I go. But for now, I'd better get back to boxing stuff up. The to do list is long, and reminiscing is hardly on it! In the meantime, you can find my final sermon as "The Intern" below, may it inspire you!

“More than Enough”
Matthew 14:13-21
A sermon by Jessica Harris Daum
7-31-11, Bethany Lutheran Church

The last time I reflected on our Scripture for this morning, the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, I was in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. It was just over a week into my tour of the Holy Land, and I had seen and experienced so much. The group I traveled with was not just in Israel and Palestine to see the ancient stones and walk the historic footsteps of Jesus, but we were also there to meet the living stones, the Palestinian and Israeli people who live in the midst of a reality colored by conflict and need.

By the time we found ourselves sailing across the soothing waves of the Sea of Galilee, I had seen and experience more than I could process. I had witnessed the frustration of Palestinian young people who were unable to move freely from their villages to other parts of the country and world for education or jobs. I had witnessed the fear of Israeli mothers who worried that the systems of bureaucracy and occupation would never create a peaceful and secure future for their children. I had witnessed the grief of people who had been cut off from their livelihood, their ancestral farmland, by a fence intended to bring security. We witnessed the pain of two peoples; people who were not so different; people who, when moved by joy smiled very similar smiles, and when touched by sorrow, cried the same salty tears.

Rocking on the waves in that boat on the Sea of Galilee, all of these scenes flooded my mind. When we had reached a point in the middle of the water, the boat’s motor stopped, and we were still. It seemed that each of us was lost in the same reflection. Then, Pastor Arnie, our group’s leader and guide, broke the silence. He recounted the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes.

Jesus had come ashore, from these very same waters and found a crowd. There were always crowds. It seems that they even anticipated where he would be before he got there. And there they were. (If I had been Jesus, and thank goodness I’m not, I would have been annoyed. He had set out to find a bit of solitude and here’s another crowd.) But Jesus wasn’t annoyed….instead “he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” And he spent time in their midst. Soon it was evening, time to go find dinner. But just as everyone began to gather up their things and kids to leave…Jesus issued an invitation to a feast, right there, in the deserted place. The disciples didn’t get it of course. And they wondered aloud how it could be possible to feed such a crowd, they weren’t rich after all, and McDonald’s dollar menu had not yet been invented. But we know where the story goes from here. Miraculously, with only five loaves and two fish, Jesus feeds the masses…and there are baskets of leftovers…not just provision, but abundance…Jesus makes their very little into more than enough.

After retelling the story, Pastor Arnie looked at our group and he must have sensed us wondering. We wondered, How is it that we can hear and believe such a story of Christ’s compassion and provision, in the midst of a present day reality of need and division? Then, looking at each of us, he said, “After seeing all we’ve seen here in the Holy Land, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and fall into despair. We see all that needs to be done and the little we have to offer, and we begin to wonder like the disciples wondered about the loaves and fishes, ‘What are these among so many?’ The problem seems huge, and we feel small in the face of it. But we know that Jesus multiplied the fish and loaves, and so we can trust that he will multiply what we have to offer. He will multiply the seemingly small efforts that we are able to make. He will make from our very little, an impact that is more than enough.”

This year, I’ve witnessed the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the miracle of more than enough. In fact, I’ve seen it more than once.

Within weeks of my arrival here at Bethany, I was amazed to witness the miracle of more than enough on October 10th 2010. The 10-10-10 campaign called upon each of you to gather and set aside a dollar a day or a pound of food a day for 100 days. And on that Sunday in October, at the end of the 100 days of setting aside just a little, I witnessed a miracle as the jars of dollar bills kept coming forward all morning long…until they amounted to a mountain of aid that would help Metro CareRIng fill the stomachs of hundreds of hungry families in our community. And on top of that, the mountain of canned goods in the hallway stood as a physical sign that through our small gifts God provides more than enough.

Lest I think that this miracle of more than enough was some sort of fluke, God made it happen again. On this altar at Thanksgiving, ordinary shoes became holy. In fact, it seemed like they were multiplying all on their own. And as I helped haul those hundreds of pairs of stinky shoes to fill the Soles for Souls shipping container, I felt like a disciple gathering up leftovers in my basket. Again, my eyes were gazing upon a miracle of more than enough.

These first miracles of generosity, and provision, and abundance are what gave me the confidence that God would help us pull off a crazy thing called Be The Blessing. As you all, one by one, signed your names to spaces on paper promising to give of your time and energy and talents on May 22, I witnessed once again, God’s multiplication. Do you know that together, more than 800 of us did in one day the work that it would take one person an entire year to do?! As a congregation we made an impact that was hundreds of times bigger than one person could have made alone. But what’s even more amazing is that God partnered with us. God multiplied the work, the smiles, the impact. We could never measure the results of a day like that, but we can trust that it was for sure more than enough.

There’s at least one more miracle of more than enough that I’ve been allowed to see with my eyes this year, and this one happened in me. A year ago, I worshipped with you all for the first time. Pastor Ron greeted me that morning…and then he tested my swimming skills by throwing me in the deep end of the pool! I didn’t know if I had what it took to stand up here in front of you all and do what I was called to do. But I didn’t have the chance to say all that before I was at the font, leading the confession and forgiveness. It wasn’t the last time this year that I felt like what I had to offer was too little. And it wasn’t the last time God took what I had to give and made it more than enough.

I have a favorite saying as a person going through the process of becoming a pastor. It goes like this: “God doesn’t call the equipped. God equips the called.” This saying is true. And it isn’t just about pastors. It can be scary answering God’s call in our lives—whatever that call may be. But God asks each of us to use what we’ve got to do his work. To bring our gifts forward without holding back. And as we do that, he promises to multiply what we have and make it more than enough.

Jesus could have fed the crowd on his own. Christ could have fed the whole world by speaking a word. But this wasn’t the way of Jesus’ ministry. This isn’t the point of Christ’s mission. God calls each of us to be participants in Christ’s mission of compassion to the world. God intends to feed the hungry in body and spirit. And he wants us to get in on the action. He wants us to be the ones handing out the loaves and fish so that we might witness the miracles. God wants us to care for our neighbors so that we might be changed in the process.

What is the food that you’ve been called to contribute? What is the little something that you can bring forth in faith so that God will multiply it?

Who do you know that is hungry? Who will you see this week that needs the bread of life? Can you be the hands and feet that bring it?

How have you been the one carrying the basket to gather up the leftovers? When have you witnessed God’s extravagance and the good news of abundance lately? Has it changed you to see the way God can create more than enough out of what you thought was much too little?

Are you the one hungering for food that satisfies? If so come, come to the table of mercy. Feast on the bread of life come down from heaven. Know that Christ, in all his compassion, has prepared a place at the table for you this day. And at Jesus’ table there’s always more than enough.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Children's Sermon?

*the sassy passy in action*
As I said in a previous post, this past Sunday, I preached and helped to lead worship in the absence of my supervisor and our associate pastor. Leading worship often calls for me to draw upon all of the improvising skills I have. Luckily, I took a SPA (summer performing arts) course in improv one summer in high I am abounding in improvising skill. At least I'm abounding in hyperbole skill.

For the first time as The Intern I was in charge of giving the announcements at the beginning of worship. And as a first-timer, I did a pretty good job. Except for one thing. When I sat down in my pew, it dawned on me...I had forgotten to introduce and thank our substitute presiding minister, Pastor Laurie J, a member of our congregation who serves as director of pastoral care at a Denver area hospital. Oh man, I thought as I listened to Pastor Laurie lead the prayer of the day, I dropped the ball. Super improv skills to the rescue!

It occurred to me that I could fix my mistake before beginning the children's sermon. I'd introduce her and thank her, all under the guise of an innocent intern who didn't know any better. The perfect plan.

Only one problem. As we sang "O Sing to the Lord..." the song during which the children were supposed to come children came forward. I could punt one off-the-script situation, but two? I had no choice, it was time to improvise.

"I have two problems right now," I announced from the front of the sanctuary. "The first problem is that, sometimes as The Intern you make a mistake. And I've made a mistake this morning by not introducing our guest presiding minister. Thank you, Pastor Laurie J., for leading us this morning. We are so glad to have you."

"Now, the second problem is more obvious...." The congregation laughed on cue as they realized I was standing up front to give the children's sermon...with no children. "Clearly you can see there are no children up here for the children's sermon. Last chance...are there any kids who want to come up? Okay, are there any kids at heart who will come up?" A shot in the dark, but I trusted God to provide.

And God came through of course. So did about 6 adults in our 8am worshiping congregation. My "children" ranged from the few teens and preteens who came up to relive their no-so-distant childhood to a couple of young-at-heart parishioners whose age calls for enough respect that I ought not guess at their age. It was an inspirational testament to the fact that we are all God's children, no matter the year of our birth.

What a fun time! Sure, I could have just moved on with no children's sermon, but to tell the truth, that option just didn't occur to me. I am thankful for many things this year on internship, but most of all, I'm thankful for all the good, faithful folks who were willing to let me be their leader and who have followed me down many a path less-trodden, trusting the same faithful God that I trust to take us somewhere good. I hope all the years of my life in ministry are as fun as this one has been!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

What a difference a year makes

Today was a milestone for me. Nearing the very end of my internship at Bethany, this morning was the first time that I helped to lead worship without my colleagues Pastors Ron and Ruth Ann. It was a crazy realization to discover that I was the one who knew what was going on in worship this morning! I went from being "the intern"--without a clue, just 11 short months ago, to being people's "pastor" this morning in the absence of the rest of our regular leadership team.

What a great capstone to the year. What a way to gauge all that I've learned. What a perspective this gives me to look back on the road I've traveled and how far I've come. What a morning!

I'm so thankful to have had this year to learn and grow with the guidance of mentors like Ron and Ruth Ann and in the midst of such a supportive and uplifting congregation and staff. The only downside is saying 'goodbye.' But I still have 2 weeks until I have to do that officially.

For now, here's the sermon I preached this morning, on gardening with Mom, holding back judgment, American Pickers, and our patient, hopeful God of transformations.

“From Weeds to Wheat”

Sermon by Jessica Harris Daum
on Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43--The Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat
Preached July 17 at Bethany Lutheran Church, Cherry Hills Village, CO

President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you're a thousand miles from the corn field.”

I feel at least a bit unqualified to be preaching to you about growing things this morning. You’d think that being a North Dakota Girl, I might know a bit about farming. But the truth is, I grew up in the city. Even though that city was surrounded by farm fields--fields that served as the “bread basket of the world” as North Dakota is the country’s leading producer of cereal grain crops like wheat. Yet, while I have seen more wheat fields than most and understand and appreciate their importance, I never really had the chance to enter them and learn about the art of farming that rich, black, Red River Valley soil.

What’s worse is I can’t even keep a house plant alive. I certainly don’t have a green thumb.

But even I know one thing: weeding your garden or your field is an important thing to do. I know this because of the number of times my mom has given me a pair of gloves, a kneeling pad, and some metal gardening tool of which I don’t know the name and pointed me to a patch of garden with one mission: remove the weeds.

The job of weeding goes on all summer long at my parents’ cabin. My mom will use any help she can get when it comes to weeding the gardens that snake up and down the hill. As evidence take the fact that she would put me to work, with my zero knowledge in horticulture.

Weeding is a tough job. Not just because of the physical labor involved, but also because it can be hard to tell which things need to be plucked up, and which ones are about to bloom into some wonderful, rare flower or bear some unexpected fruit.

This week I’ve gathered a number of definitions for the word “weed.”

Some say, “a weed is a plant for which we have yet to find the use.” In other words, it is an undiscovered treasure. Plenty of people have found good uses for plants once, or even still, considered to be weeds. For example: dandelions fashioned into a beautiful crown, or thistles that can be turned into thistle wine, or common milkweed--a large food source for the Monarch butterfly. I think that a plant we haven’t found a use for yet is a pretty optimistic definition of weeds. In fact I like it. But some people aren’t the biggest fans of their neighbors who use this definition in tending their yards.

Some say, “a weed is a plant that’s growing where you don’t want it.” I know some people with this definition of weeds. Some of whom make beautiful use of so-called “weeds” by allowing them to grow in parts of their garden. Others of whom use this definition to indiscriminately remove plants, even useful and beautiful ones, at the direction of their whim. My mom doesn’t like these sort of people weeding in her garden.

Since I’m back on the subject of my mom’s garden, there’s something important to note. My mom inherited the many gardens around the cabin from the previous owner. And prior to this inheritance, she had the brown thumb that you can find in her offspring. Weeding in the garden the first summer of the cabin was an experiment in patience. She and I had very little knowledge of what the plants were that were poking out of the spring ground. I would point and ask, “weed?” And she would page through her Minnesota Gardens book and sometimes answer “Yes! Pull it!” Then sometimes she’d find the picture of the little green sprout and share her discovery with joy, “No, that’s (some scientific plant name), it’ll have big pink flowers in July.” Most often she’d look up from her book, squint at me, and say, “Let’s leave it and wait and see.”

I think this is what God, the great gardener says when he looks at the sprigs and sprouts that poke up out of the dirt of this world. “Let’s leave it and wait and see.”

At this point, I’ve reached the very end of my little knowledge about plants. And I’m also doubting that very many of you have farming experience outside of your backyard garden. Assumptions are rarely good though, so let me check mine. By a raise of hands, how many of you would say that you have an agricultural background. As people who live in a mostly urban or suburban world, these farming parables of Jesus can sometimes miss the mark for us. So, I’m wondering if you might grant me permission to share my own parable with you: The Parable of the Junk Drawer.

First of all, let me be sure that this one will hit home for us. By a raise of hands, how many of you are the proud owner of a junk drawer....or an attic...or a basement, garage, or storage unit full of stuff? Okay, looks like we’re on the right track, so here we go...

I put before you another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who put important things in a drawer; but while everybody was busy doing other things, their children, (or spouse, or alternate personality) came and put junk in there, and then went away. So when the drawer began to fill up and somebody opened it to find their important item, the junk appeared as well. And the obedient children (or helpful spouse, or alternate personality) of the householder came and said to him (or her), “Master (your children or spouse call you that right?), did you not put important things in your drawer? Where, then, did this junk come from?! He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves (errr, I mean obedient children, helpful spouse, or alternate personality) said to him, “Then do you want us to go and sort out that junk and give it to Good Will?” But he replied, “No; for in sorting out the junk you would end up getting rid of some of the important things as well. Let both of them remain in the drawer as long as we live here;; and someday when we move, while we’re packing I will tell the movers, Collect the junk first and throw it away, but the important stuff mark “handle with care” and ship to my new home.”

We all have a junk drawer, or closet, or room, or level of our home...but most of us don’t intend for it to be that way. We don’t say “let the junk and the good stuff remain in the drawer together as long as we live here, for in sorting out the junk we might get rid of something good.” That’s called hoarding, and it’s a diagnosable, treatable disorder that people would rather not have. Instead we have junk drawers that accumulate over time against our best struggles against them and our many good intentions to clean them out. If a member of our household should volunteer to sort out the junk, most of us would gladly take them up on the offer.

I’ve been watching the show “American Pickers” lately, and I think it has inspired this new parable. If you haven’t seen it before, it’s a show about a couple of guys who love to dig through junk piles, and garages, and basements, and barns--all in search of the diamond in the rough. They drive around and keep an eye out for the yard with six old cars in it or the old barn with gasoline signs hanging haphazardly from it. Then they pull in, meet the owner, and ask if they can dig through their trash to find a hidden treasure. In the show’s opening, one of the Pickers Mike says, “Where other people see junk, we see dollar signs.”

It seems to me that the same couple of definitions of “weeds” I’ve mentioned can function to describe people’s understanding of “junk” as well. As Trey and I sort out our stuff to get ready for our trip back to MN, we tend to be defining junk as stuff that is growing where we don’t want it. Or rather, stuff that we no longer need or want...really stuff we don’t have room for anymore. Most of the people that the Pickers visit look at junk and see something that hasn’t reached it’s full potential. To them, junk is a thing for which we have yet to find a use. One woman explained as she showed the Pickers around her “junky” garage, “My father wasn’t a junk man really. He was just a depression era man who saw a potential use in everything.”

As I’ve watched this show I am taken, not by the entrepreneurial spirit of the “Pickers,” though they do love to turn a profit on the things that they find, but I’ve been moved by the way their eyes sprakle when they pull a 1920s tin toy out of a pile of old newpapers. The way that their spirits light up as they tell the story of a high-wheel bicycle that is rusting among the carcasses of junked autos. The way they shout as an old Studebaker is brought out of a garage and into the sunlight for the first time in 30 years. These guys delight in finding the treasure among the junk. Even more so, they delight in turning junk into treasure. Most of us don’t have the gift of seeing things this way. But I believe this is how God looks at us. With a passionate gleam in his eye, God looks at each of us and sees not the rusty exterior or the space we take up, but sees instead the shiny self we will be when he’s through restoring us. God sees in us great potential, and is as excited as a Picker at the opportunity to reclaim us and remake us.

The landowner who turns down the opportunity to have his field weeded is bizarre. Any other landowner would not only take his workers up on the offer, he wouldn’t have been waiting for the offer at all, but instead he would have been scolding his neglectful employees who hadn’t already taken up the obvious and necessary task.

Last week Pastor Ruth Ann showed us how the parable of the seeds sown on the path, and rocky ground, among thorns, and in good soil tells us less about the type of ground and more about the sower. I believe the same is true for us with the weeds and wheat this week. Jesus lays out for us a story that is Good News for you and me. Not a story of the fiery fate of those who turn out to be weeds in the end, but the story of our God who is an extra-ordinary farmer. A farmer with the generosity, joy, and audacity to throw seeds “willy-nilly” and see what might come up. A farmer with the patience and hope to “wait and see” when it comes to the weeds growing among the wheat.

Horticulturally speaking, weeds cannot become wheat. Theologically speaking, that’s exactly what we are: people who have been changed from weeds to wheat. Changed from junk to treasure. Changed from people without a purpose to the Children of God, workers in the Kingdom, and heirs with Christ in all that God has to offer, including eternal life.

If the workers had been allowed to weed us out, we would have been in the Good Will box along with all of humanity. But the Good News from Jesus today is this: God is not an ordinary gardener. We are not ordinary plants. Instead we are seeds sown in the spirit, genetically altered sprouts infused with the DNA of Christ, and one day we will grow to mature plants, created in the image of our God who loves to perform horticultural miracles in us each day.

Thanks be to God for that. Amen.