Sermon 3.13.16—Anticipating the Wilderness (Ephesians 6:10-18)
On the Sunday before finals week my junior year of college, a tornado blew through my campus, taking the roof off one dorm, and part of the roof from my dorm, and then totally demolishing the apartment complex in married student housing. In the afternoon before the tornado hit, I had no idea we were anticipating severe weather. I was getting ready to head to the Plaza, for the end-of-the-year dinner that my office hosted for the work study students. So, when I finally responded to the sirens, I was pretty unprepared. I had grabbed my dorm room keys, but I didn’t think to take my purse or wallet or car keys. I hadn’t even put shoes on—I just had shower shoes. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but the campus was a disaster. And after the tornado hit, we weren’t allowed back into our dorms because of potential structural problems and debris. So I had no clothes, no money, no access to my jeep (which ended up being totaled anyway)—I was stranded with just flip flops and a party dress. Some students ended up being housed by local churches, but I went home with a friend who lived nearby. Her parents generously gave me some cash so I could at least get a toothbrush and change of clothes, but it was a week before we could get back into our rooms.
It’s been 13 years since that day. And every spring it’s still the same. I assemble a tornado bag that is ready and waiting. In it are our important documents—birth certificates, marriage license, photo albums—and a first aid kit, water, and a camera to document any damages. I keep it right next to my purse and keys, and I also make sure we all have shoes on if we are under a tornado warning.
The first tornado season after Jason and I were married, he thought I was a little crazy. After all, this is Kansas, where people hear there’s a tornado coming and run outside. But I don’t ever want to be caught off guard again during a tornado if I can help it. I can’t stop a tornado from striking, but I can be ready for it when it does.
The same is true when it comes to our faith. God has shown us how to be prepared, what we can do to be ready. That’s what this scripture passage from Ephesians is talking about—equipping ourselves for whatever might come.
Now, some of us don’t like to think about that. We don’t like to think about the bad things that could happen. We find ourselves asking, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” We want our faith to shelter us and insulate us from the tragedies that other people have experienced. But we all know that’s not realistic. We all know that belief in God doesn’t immunize us against the darkness of the world.
And for some people, that’s enough. They ask, “What’s the point of faith if it doesn’t spare you from tragedy and grief?” But that’s just it—faith doesn’t protect you from experiencing painful things. But it makes the pain easier to bear.
Think of it this way. Let’s imagine you’re on an airplane. The flight attendant comes to you and hands you a parachute. She tells you to put it on because it will make the flight more comfortable for you. So you put it on. It’s a little awkward to wear, and you have to sit at an odd angle. It’s not helping you get your soda and peanuts any faster. Some of the other passengers start whispering about you. Eventually you decide it doesn’t help make your flight any more comfortable at all—it’s even more uncomfortable than flying normally is. So you take it off and decide parachutes just are not useful.
But imagine instead if the flight attendant had told you that the plane was going to be crashing at some point during the flight. No doubt you’d strap that parachute on and begin passing out parachutes to every other passenger on that flight. And when the crisis did happen, you’d be ready.
Paul tells us to “put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” Paul doesn’t say “if the day of evil comes,” but “when.” Brothers and sisters, as human beings living in this broken world, we are guaranteed that tragedy or loss or pain will befall us at some point. So the best thing for us to do is to be ready for it by covering ourselves in the things God offers to us.
We put on truth and righteousness. We walk in the gospel of peace and let our heads be crowned with salvation, not only for the future, but right now. We hold our faith up to extinguish whatever flaming arrows come our way.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who certainly wasn’t spared grief and pain because of his faith, knew this as well. As a seminary teacher, he required all his students to spend 45 minutes every morning reflecting and meditating on scripture. Then, when these same students faced the crisis of fighting in WWII, they were able to draw from the well of their faith, even in the darkest moments. Bonhoeffer himself wrote letters from the Nazi prison where he was held, and he wrote about relying on God, even in the face of discouragement, loneliness, and the likely event of his own death at the hands of the Nazis.
Our lives will probably never be quite so harrowing as those who lived through the horrors of WWII, but we can cling to the same promises that the victims of Nazi brutality did. That our God will never leave us or forsake us. That no matter the circumstances of our lives, God extends to us peace that passes all understanding, and hope for today and for things to come. That we are not alone.
We journey with Jesus into the wilderness, during the 40 days that Jesus took to prepare himself for his earthly ministry. For Jesus, those 40 days in the wilderness ultimately prepared him to offer himself in death.
We, too, willingly enter the wilderness in Lent, and we draw closer to God. But let us also use this time to put on some armor. To allow ourselves to be more firmly grounded in the promises of God. To anchor ourselves by our faith, so that the winds of life cannot blow us apart. Let’s surround ourselves more fully with the things of God—with scripture and worship and fellowship and community. With love and justice and service. Let us wrap ourselves up in those truths, and cling to our faith.
Beloved of God, let us cling to God when it is easy, so that we are already there when times are hard.
Sermon 3.06.16—Taking Hold of Life (1 Timothy 6:6-19)
One of the multiple jobs I held in the years immediately following my college graduation was at a challenge course on my college campus. Tucker Leadership Lab offered groups an opportunity to experience challenges in the form of games and group activities, and then apply that experience to their real lives. We had lots of different activities for the groups, but the most popular one was our high ropes course—The Odyssey. For this course, participants would put on a climbing harness and helmet, climb up a cargo net, and then, tethered to overhead safety cables, everyone would make their way out onto the course at either 25 or 35 feet above the ground. It was comprised of four separate challenges, each with different obstacles. And participants would walk across together as a group on only quarter-inch steel cables.
In my time there, I took over 400 groups on the Odyssey, and I found that there was one comment said at the end, almost every single time. “My hands are sore.” I learned pretty quickly why this was.
The rope system that connected the climber’s harnesses to the safety cables overhead did not require any intervention from the participant, but they were still allowed to hold on to their ropes if they wanted. Oftentimes what that resulted in was climbers who held a death grip onto their ropes. And so, by the end of the course, their hands would be exhausted.
Now, they didn’t need to hold the ropes. The ropes did their job whether they were held on to or not. But when they held the ropes, it made them feel more secure when they were fearful. In reality, though, clinging to the ropes meant that they were unable to receive assistance from the other members of the group. They were unable to reach out themselves. The people who clung to their ropes oftentimes didn’t engage with the other members of their group, and at the end of the course, they didn’t usually have much new insight to share from their experience.
The people who let go a little bit more, who held on to their teammates for support, and not their ropes, not only were their hands not quite so sore, but they enjoyed the course more. They learned to trust a little more. They discovered the value of teamwork a little more clearly. And they were just as safe as those clutching the rope.
In Paul’s letter to Timothy, we hear Paul’s encouragement for us to do the same thing. To not cling quite so tightly onto the representations of security we have here, but instead to take hold of God’s life.
Now, Paul does not say that wealth and riches are themselves bad things—only the love of them. Verse 10 says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
Those who clung to the ropes were no safer than those who didn’t, but they often were more sore, and they certainly were more alone. The same is true for those who cling tightly to the pursuit of wealth or any other temporary security.
We look at wealth, and think, “If only I had that kind of money, I would be satisfied.” But money doesn’t protect us from sickness or loss. And money cannot buy real, meaningful relationships.
We look a health, and think, “If only my body would cooperate, I would be able to do so much.” But we forget about the lessons we have learned in our weakness—the lessons of trust, or patience, or compassion for others.
We look at our appearances, and think, “Things would be so much easier if I were as attractive as her,” or “If only my body looked like that, I would like myself more.” But we often fail to understand that those who love us already see us as beautiful because of who we are.
We looks at our changing world, and think, “Things used to be so much simpler,” or “If only things could go back to the way they were.” And we ignore the voices who have said that in every generation, and that God works in change.
We look at politics, and think, “If my candidate or my party doesn’t win, things will certainly be disastrous.” And somehow we lose sight of the promise that God is in control.
We grasp at the things we think will make us safe, but they offer little more than sore hands and a false sense of security.
Today, as we continue our journey with Jesus to the cross, we remember again Jesus’ temptation in the desert—the temptation to bow down to receive power. Our temptation to idolatry is usually not so dramatic—our idolatry comes in the form of clinging to the ropes.
We cling to some little truth we have told ourselves, often because it feels more dependable than trusting in God. But all we are doing is subjecting ourselves to pain that doesn’t bring us any closer to what God wants for us.
So, we have to decide. Do we cling to the things we hope will make everything better, or do we “take hold of the eternal life to which we were called”? Paul isn’t meaning that we should focus on the afterlife. No, he is saying our eternal life starts now. Here. When we cling to God, we are already experiencing a bit of our eternal life.
You can only cling to so much. You can reach out to grasp at what the world has to offer, to grab at things that offer temporary comforts, shallow self-worth, empty promises.
Or, you can reach out for God, and make the pursuit of your life, “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, storing up for yourselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that you might take hold of the life that really is life.”
Beloved of God, aren’t you tired of chasing after those fleeting things? Aren’t your hands sore from holding on so tight? It’s time to let go.
Sermon 2.28.16—Stretching Grace (Romans 6:1-14)
In our journey through Lent, we’ve looked at Jesus’ time in the desert, and we have explored a little bit of the temptations he faced. He was tempted to focus on his physical needs. He was tempted to focus on power. And he was tempted to test God.
Jesus was tempted to jump from a tall building, sure that God would send angels to his rescue. That’s probably not the way most of us are tempted, but we do find ourselves in a position to test God. And that’s what today’s scripture is getting at.
So, let me tell you a little story about my dad. About 15 years ago, my dad was diagnosed with Type II diabetes. After he was initially diagnosed, he put some effort into changing his diet, but eventually his doctors decided to put him on insulin for better control of his blood sugar. That had some horrible repercussions for my dad. Once he figured out that he could simply give himself additional insulin to counteract what he ate, he no longer was concerned with really modifying his diet, and he resumed eating whatever he felt like, and just dosed himself with more and more insulin. The result is that, while the insulin is working to keep his blood sugar fairly low, his lifestyle is now probably even more unhealthy than it was before he was diagnosed. Instead of living a healthy lifestyle and allowing insulin to benefit him, he’s really just using insulin to keep doing whatever he wants.
That’s what Paul is talking about in this scripture passage from Romans. We experience God’s grace in forgiveness, but God intends for grace to do so much more than that. If all we expect from a relationship with God is forgiveness then we have missed the point as much as my dad with his insulin use.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, talked about three different expressions of God’s grace. There’s prevenient grace—the grace that we experience before we know to ask for it, the grace that draws us to God. Then there’s justifying grace—the grace that we experience through God’s forgiveness. But there’s also sanctifying grace, and that’s the grace that Paul is talking about here. Sanctifying grace is the grace that transforms us. It’s the grace that shapes us and remakes us to that with every step, we find ourselves closer to who God has called us to be.
But sanctifying grace is the hard one. Prevenient grace requires nothing from us—it’s simply God at work in our lives. Justifying grace requires only our acceptance of it—when we ask and receive God’s forgiveness. But sanctifying grace, that’s the one that would be like the lifestyle change in the story of my dad. Sanctifying grace requires our participation, and our willingness to surrender ourselves to God. It goes beyond just fixing our mistakes—it creates new patterns for us.
Paul compares this to a kind of death, to being crucified to sin and given a new life in Christ. “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.” If we accept God’s grace, it means we accept more than just forgiveness.
Forgiveness is no small thing, but God wants so much more for us. And this is the way we probably test God. See, God extends forgiveness to us always, no matter what, even when we find ourselves making the same mistakes over and over and over again. We can do absolutely nothing to change ourselves, and yet we can be sure that when we seek God’s justifying grace, we will find it.
But this isn’t what God intends for us. It’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.” When we are willing to accept partial grace, when we simply rely on grace as a kind of “Get Out of Jail Free” card, but we don’t let it permeate into our deepest selves. And so we waste the gift that God has offered us.
And we never really let God free us from our chains. When we read Paul’s language of dying to sin, it’s easy to understand that as a self-sacrifice, as a way of denying ourselves, but that’s not how Paul sees it. He talks about our slavery to sin—when all we allow God to do us grant us forgiveness, then we are still controlled by our sinfulness. But when we surrender ourselves to God—our fears, our desires, our deepest dreams—God frees us from the power of our sin
Because sin is not necessarily something big or terrible. It’s not even necessarily something we’ve done. It’s simply whatever keeps us from living into the will of God. It’s whatever keeps us from becoming the people God created us to be. It’s whatever keeps us from knowing and experiencing the good, abundant life that God has offered us.
We journey with Jesus to the cross, and we rejoice in the cross’s message of limitless forgiveness. But today, let’s also rejoice in the cross’s message of death. Because when we truly embrace God’s grace, those things that hold power over us die. God puts to death the futility of our struggles. God puts to death those things that bring us shame. God puts to death our brokenness.
And we are raised to life with Christ, whole and holy. Extended not only eternal life, but abundant life, here and now.
Don’t just test God. Don’t simply try on God’s mercy. Christ’s call is a call to die, so that you might live. For then, sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.
Are you just taking advantage of grace? Or are you taking advantage of all the grace God has to offer?
Sermon 2.21.16—Bread and Birds (Matthew 6:25-34)
Jason and I have three dogs, and from time-to-time, we will give them bones. Now, Maggie and Mia will take their bones and go right to work gnawing away at them. But Molly, our Basset Hound, is a little different. Molly will take her bone, and run around the house (or the yard) and constantly search for some place to hide it. She doesn’t necessarily hide it very well, and so frequently the other dogs will simply watch her and know where her bone is. But she still does it every time. There have been times when she spends an hour or more hiding and re-hiding her bone until she’s satisfied. And inevitably, one of the other two dogs will come along and take the bone after Molly has hidden it.
The term for what Molly is doing is “worrying the bone.” Molly’s worrying her bone when she works and works and works to hide it and keep it safe. But it doesn’t actually help her. If she simply took the bone and chewed on it right away like our other dogs, she would get to enjoy it. But in spending so long trying to hide it, she misses out completely on the reason we gave it to her. And Jason and I will watch her, and wish we could just convince her to stop and sit, and enjoy what we’ve given her.
With Molly, I think it’s appropriate that the term isn’t “worrying about her bone.” It’s simply “worrying her bone.” That changes it a bit. In a way, she’s lost sight of the bone altogether, and it’s simply her worry that she’s tending to. If she would pause long enough to think about the fact that she was carrying a delicious bone around in her mouth, then maybe she could set aside her worry and just enjoy the bone.
Molly is my favorite dog, and I think it’s because we have some personality similarities. I worry things, too. I worry about finances and about our house. I worry about Jason and I really worry about Eva. But sometimes I get to the point when I lose sight of the thing I am worrying about, and my worry becomes about the worry itself.
And I know that I’m not the only one who does that. 2016 is an election year, and so if I ever needed proof that other people worry, we’ve got it in abundance. Apparently, we worry about just about everything, from immigration and jobs to healthcare and college, to our candidates spouses or brothers or their legendary hair. Elections expose all our underlying worry.
And now, when our world seems to be increasingly marked by terrorism and gun violence, our worries only seem to be amplified. Watch any of the news stations today and I guarantee you’ll be able to walk away with a whole list of things you ought to be worried about.
But this isn’t just a modern phenomenon. Worrying and being anxious is part of the human condition.
Last week, we talked about Jesus’ temptation in the desert and we also talked a bit about the Israelites and their 40 years of desert wandering. If you remember that story, you might recall that God provided the Israelites with quails and with manna every day. They were commanded to gather enough food each morning to satisfy their need for the day, but they were not supposed to store any of the leftover food. But, because the Israelites were very good worriers and not very good listeners, they did try to save some of the manna, just in case God didn’t come through for them the next day. And God called them out for their inability to trust, and they got in trouble, but God continued to provide the manna for them anyway.
I think it’s easy for us to blame the Israelites. We look at them and think, “Look at all the things God has done for you. God has done miracle after miracle to keep you safe! How can you still not trust God to provide for your needs?” But we do the same thing.
In our scripture passage today, Jesus assures us that God will provide for us. That worrying won’t help us, but that all we need to do is trust God. And that sure sound’s simple.
But what I’ve realized is, I’ve never been really worried about God providing for me—I think I trust God to take care of my needs. I think my worry stems from, “But what if God doesn’t take care of me the way I want.”
And I think that’s what Jesus is getting at. He tells those first followers, “Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, and everything else will be taken care of.” He’s not saying that if we follow God, we will get what we want. Instead, he’s trying to flip the problem. When we worry, we start with our problem, with our fear, and then we move to God. But if we seek God first, even if the problem doesn’t change, our perspective on it does.
And that’s scary to me. When I ask God for something, I want God to grant my request. I don’t want God to tell me to wait, or to tell me there’s another way, or to tell me no. And so I worry, “God, please do this the way I want you to.”
But Jesus knew the answer to worrying wasn’t to get what we asked for. That didn’t work for the Israelites—God did everything they asked and more, and they were still constantly afraid. No, Jesus knew the answer to our worrying was simply to orient ourselves to God. To keep our eyes focused on God. To trust that God is going to do what is best for us. To trust that God is in control.
Some of the issues on the news today are manufactured. They are the tempest in a teacup issues, the things that get us worked up about nothing. But there are many things for which our fears are justified. Our families and our selves. Our communities and our governments. God isn’t telling you to ignore your concerns, or to cast aside your fears. God is telling you, “I’ve already got them under control. Just let them go so you can take hold of the blessings I have given you.”
What are you holding on to? What’s holding you back? Do you worry for bread, or are you ready to accept manna? Do you toil under the burdens of your fear and anxiety, or are you ready to be free like a bird?
Whatever you’re holding on to, God’s got it. Let go.
Sermon 2.10.16—Embracing the Wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11)
This is our first Sunday in the season of Lent, and many of you probably know already that the 40 days of Lent were initiated as a reflection of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Immediately after being baptized, Jesus enters into the desert wilderness and spends 40 days fasting and in prayer, until finally, he successfully rejects temptation, and he emerges from the desert wilderness to begin his earthly ministry. The wilderness is the turning point for Jesus, and that’s why the earliest Christians chose to follow Jesus into the desert of Lent.
For me, as someone who grew up with rivers and streams and green grass, entering into a desert wilderness has never really appealed to me. And for a long time, I kind of wondered why Jesus would need to make this step before starting to preach and teach and perform miracles. But I think there’s a clue even in the length of time Jesus spent in the desert.
Forty days. The number 40 appears a multiple times in the Bible. In Noah’s story, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai receiving the 10 Commandments. There are actually over 140 times the number 40 is used in the Bible. But I think our answers lie with the Israelites and their 40-year journey in the desert wilderness.
The story of the Israelites begins with God delivering them from slavery and promising to guide them to the Promised Land. And yet, despite the countless miracles the Israelites had witnessed, despite receiving manna from heaven and having water spring forth from stones, the Israelites grumbled and complained and worried and argued. They worried about what they would eat, even though God provided manna and quails. They asked for sign after sign to prove that God was there. At one point, they even created a little gold calf idol, just in case the God who had done all these miracles for them couldn’t be trusted
And so, God made them wait. God knew that they wouldn’t be ready to enter the Promised Land in their current state, that they would take it for granted. And so they waited. For forty years they waited. Until the children who had spent their lives in the desert depending on God were grown and could lead. Until they really understood what it was to trust God, because God had always provided for them and their every need while in the wilderness.
Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness takes him through the same journey made by his Israelite ancestors hundreds of years before. Jesus emerges, not from slavery, but from the waters of baptism, and new birth, claimed as a child of God. Jesus spends his days in prayer and fasting, connected with God, and yet his temptations mirror those of the Israelites. He is tempted to satisfy his hunger. He is tempted to test and prove God. He is tempted to give his worship to another, simply to provide for his earthly comfort.
But unlike the Israelites, Jesus doesn’t give in to his temptation. He emerges victorious, having relied on God to guide him. In a way, Jesus’ time in the desert redeems what the Children of Israel had done in their wilderness. He starts his work of redemption and salvation right there in the desert wilderness. And he also sets the example for us.
You see, we follow patterns. The Israelites certainly followed a pattern of grumbling, mistrusting God, making a mistake, and then allowing God to rescue them. And the ways that they made mistakes all fit into a pattern—that’s why God was able to give them only 10 Commandments. Ten rules covered everything.
We follow patterns, too. We tend to get in ruts when we make mistakes. We tend to make the same mistakes over and over again. We get into a habit, and it’s hard for us to break. That’s when the wilderness is helpful.
About 10 years ago, when I was just starting seminary and working multiple jobs, and living a pretty hectic life, I had the opportunity to go on a two-week canoe expedition in the Everglades in southern Florida. A group of 10 of us, mostly college students, and our two guides set off from our outpost at 5:00am on December 28, and we didn’t see another sign of civilization for 12 days—no buildings, no people, only boats at a great distance. We lived in our canoes. We even slept in our canoes. We had no electronics. We were allowed only a notepad and a pen for taking notes or journaling. At the end of the 12 days, each member of the group spent 36 hours alone on an island in the Gulf of Mexico.
The trip was exhausting. But it was energizing. It was physically demanding, but so exciting. I have never seen such beauty in my life—stars that weren’t dimmed by city lights, waterways and little islands that were undamaged by human industry, sunsets and sunrises that I could watch without all of the normal distractions of daily life. I came home knowing more about myself than I had probably learned in the two decades prior. I came home knowing the answers to questions about myself that I didn’t even know I needed to ask. There was nothing to distract me, to keep me busy and focused away from my thoughts the way normal life does. That very literal wilderness showed me who God wants me to be.
In Lent, we are called to embrace wilderness for some of the same patterns. To step out of our normal, to interrupt our habits, to remove distractions. Maybe for you, you already feel like you’re living in a kind of wilderness. It can be the wilderness of life’s circumstances—of your physical health or your financial situation. It can be a wilderness of your own making, like that of the Israelites—the wilderness that comes from trying to do things your own way.
And if you’re like me, when you find yourself in a wilderness unexpectedly, you want to fight against it. You want to do everything you can to escape the wilderness. But maybe… don’t. Maybe take some time to stop and look around, and see if there’s something God is trying to show you. Maybe look back and see if you find evidence of God’s provision for you all along, like the manna for the Israelites. Because if you’re in the wilderness, one thing you can be sure of is that God is there with you, too.
And if you’re not in the midst of a wilderness right now, maybe you need to cultivate a little wilderness for yourself for the next 40 days. Maybe you need to let God disrupt your patterns for a bit, to interrupt your status quo. Maybe you need to find some ways to step out of your normal routine, so that you can see or hear or experience something new.
That’s where the idea of giving something up for Lent began. It wasn’t so much a focus on self-deprivation (although there can be merit in that), but rather, it was a way to throw things a little off balance. To introduce a little wilderness, and remove some of the things we take for granted, some of the things that distract us or occupy us, so that we might be able to hear God that much better.
Because we know, when Jesus emerged from the wilderness, he went to work fulfilling his call. God has a calling for you, too. But it can be easy to miss when your days are consumed with routines and habits and busyness. It can be easy to miss when all our efforts are spent trying to get out of our wildernesses, instead of remembering that God uses even desert wilderness.
Brothers and sisters, this Lent, let’s join Jesus in the wilderness.