Different and Whole and Beautiful (Sermon for July 15, 2018)

On one of my first days here at First Congregational, I spent some time wandering around the building. This isn’t an old building, and you all have been very tidy, but one thing all churches have is a collection of… stuff. If you’re remembering back to last week, I’ve never been to a church that’s as bad as the House on the Rock. But still. There’s stuff. And I kind of wanted to see what stuff we had.

We have occasional pieces of old furniture. We have books and games and toys. We have combination tape and cd players in almost every room. It’s not much, but there’s stuff.

If we had an older building — one where I could walk through attics and basements and poke my head into closets and nooks — then I’m sure I would find old computers and reel-to-reel tape recorders and slides and Christmas pageant costumes and banners and tons of other stuff.

But if I could walk through this church — or any church — in a different, more spiritual way, I would find something other than stuff. I would find piles and piles — roomfuls — of promises.

We are Christians. We are a promising people.

A lot of you have, at some point, stood in front of friends and families and promised someone that you would love and cherish them from that day forward, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, until death parted you.

And a few weeks ago, the Magill’s stood up here. They promised, by the grace of God to follow Jesus Christ and resist evil and show love, and to teach Kaelyn so that she might profess Christ as her Lord and savior. And we promised to support and love and care for Kaelyn.

Last week, we made promises to the Jamaica mission trip team. Next week you will make promises with and to me. Next year, we will make promises with and to our confirmands. We have piles of promises. We are Christians. We are a promising people.

And, because we have so many promises, they can feel light. But if you’ve ever had to break a promise — not just forget that you made it, but break it — you know that they’re not. Promises are heavy things. They can weigh us down. They are important. They are dangerous.

Today’s reading from Mark is about a promise. And it’s a bit of a flashback, and it will help if we have a little more context… if we turn that flashback into a montage of flashbacks.

Herod the Great was the king of Judea around the time that Jesus was born. Now, he wasn’t an independent king. Judea wasn’t an independent kingdom. He was the king of Judea with the permission of the Roman Empire. And, at Christmastime, we tell the story of wise men visiting Mary and Joseph and Jesus, and Joseph having a dream where an angel warns him that Herod is planning to kill Jesus, and the holy family should run away to Egypt. Herod the Great kills all the children in and around Bethlehem who are two years old and younger.

And the holy family doesn’t come back home until the Herod the Great dies.

Now, when Herod the Great dies, the Romans divide his kingdom among several of his children, three sons and a daughter: Herod, the other Herod, the other other Herod, and Salome.

Meanwhile, Jesus grows up. He meets John the Baptist. He’s baptized. He goes into the wilderness. He returns to civilization. He begins his ministry. His name starts to get around.

And John is still working… for a while.

One of Herod the Great’s sons, Herod Antipas, had fallen in love with his brother, Herod Phillips’s, wife, Herodias. And Herodias falls for him. And Herod Antipas divorces his wife and marries Herodias. And not only is Herodias Herod Antipas’s brother’s wife, she’s Herod Antipas’s niece. And John is against that sort of thing. And he says so.
Herod Antipas has John thrown in prison. And Herodias wants John killed. But Herod is afraid to kill John, because he knows that John is a holy man.

Now, it’s Herod’s birthday. And his daughter comes in and dances and everyone is impressed. So Herod says, “Whatever you want, I’ll give it to you. Even half my kingdom.” And his daughter, coached by her mother, asks for John’s head. And Herod, knowing that he made a promise in front of his guests, gives it to her.

Time passes. Jesus is getting famous. His name reaches Herod Antipas. And people around him are asking, “Who is this man?”

Some are saying he’s the prophet Elijah, who never died, but was taken into heaven while he was still alive. And some are saying he’s another prophet like the prophets of old. And Herod Antipas is saying that it’s John the Baptist, back from the dead.

And it’s hard to tell if Herod is wistful or afraid. But I suspect he knows that something is coming. Something is happening. The world that he thought he knew is changing. And it’s all because he kept a promise he should never have made. “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

There is a disorder called ‘scrupulosity’. It’s characterized by a pathological worry that we’re not living up to our religious duties. If you watch The Simpsons, scrupulosity is Ned Flanders calling Rev. Lovejoy, worried that he’s coveting his own wife; or that he’s meek, but could probably stand to be meeker.

And I think Herod is experiencing his own bout of scrupulosity here. He made a promise. And because people saw him make that promise, he felt like he had to keep it; even though he knew that it would be terrible if he did. And now, hearing about Jesus, he is afraid that his promise has come back to haunt him.

We are Christians. We are a promising people. And we can find ourselves in a situation like the one Herod Antipas is in. Not the same situation, I hope; but a similar one. In a world where we never forget that we made a promise — or in a world where we feel like we can never break a promise or let go of one — well… we wouldn’t just keep our promises, our promises would keep us, too.

But we aren’t just a promising people. We are a covenanted people. We remember that when we come together at this table; this table hosts a feats that is both simple and luxurious.

On those days we remember that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus ate together with this disciples. We remember that he took the bread and blessed it and broke it and shared it, saying, “This is my body, broken for you.” We remember that after dinner, he took the cup and blessed it and shared it, saying, “This is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you.”

We remember that we are a covenanted people: that God has made a promise to us, and that we have made promises to God. But covenants aren’t just promises. They are promises with room for grace. They are a promises that can be broken… and that can be put back together again.

There is a Japanese practice — an art, really — called kintsugi. It’s a method of fixing broken ceramics with a special lacquer that’s mixed with gold or silver or platinum. It makes the repair very visible. As soon as you see the piece, you know that it has been broken and that it has been repaired. It is not what it was before. It is different… and it is whole… and it is beautiful.

Any given mug or vase or plate will, eventually, break. And, it we really care about it, we can put it back together again. Different and whole and beautiful. Different and whole and beautiful because it has been broken. Different and whole and beautiful because it has been put back together again.

Covenants are the same way. Eventually, we break them. Sometimes, we put little chips in them, or hairline cracks. Sometimes, we knock big chunks out of them, or split them right in half.

We fail to love and cherish as we should. Especially when things are for worse.

We fail to resist evil. We wander off to find where demons dwell. And we leave others to do the same.

We fail to trust those who have left on a mission and come back to return to us as leaders who can show us new ways to make the world a more merciful place.

And Herod failed because he kept his promise. He didn’t make room for the grace to save a life, to say to his daughter, “I know I said ‘anything’, but I didn’t mean that I would do something evil.”

There’s another sermon about when we need to break promises. It’s a brilliant sermon. It’s a classic of homiletics. Maybe I’ll preach it sometimes. But it’s not this sermon.

We fail to keep those piles and piles — roomfuls — of promises that we’ve made. But… we can repent. We can return to those promises with grace, and put them back together again. God can come to them with a grace that is brighter than gold or silver or platinum, and put them back together again. And, by the grace of God, they can be different and whole and beautiful.

That is the beauty of the Christian covenant. We can always return to it.

And when we return to it, God does more than repair the covenant. God repairs us. With gold and silver and platinum… and love and hope and grace. God makes us different… and whole… and beautiful. Not because we have never been broken, but because we have.

There are going to be times when we cannot keep the promises we’ve made. There are going to be times when we need to hold our promises lightly. And I’m not saying that’s okay; I’m saying that’s life. That among the piles and piles of promises we have in this church and in our homes and in our lives, there will be some that are broken. And we will be broken with them… at least a little bit.

But there is joy. Because we can bring our broken promises — and we can bring our broken selves — to this place. And God will bring a sacred lacquer and a healing balm, and painstakingly repair us, making us different and whole and beautiful. Thanks be to God!

By Juan de Flandes - http://www.wga.hu/index1.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4817612 Categories SermonsLeave a comment Mark 6:14-29

Who We Will Be (Sermon for July 8, 2018)

A couple of years ago, Mariah and I went on vacation to the House on the Rock. If you’ve never been there, I really can’t do it justice. In the 1950s, this guy named Alex Jordan Jr built this crazy museum on Deer Shelter Rock in Wisconsin. There are rooms and gardens and displays, and they’re all incredibly weird.

There’s the Streets of Yesterday, a recreation of an early twentieth century town; the Heritage of the Sea, with a 200 foot model of a sea monster and a bunch of nautical exhibits; a collection of pneumatic orchestras where air hoses make violins and trumpets and drums play themselves; the world’s largest indoor carousel; and room after room of just… stuff.

And I vaguely remembered it from childhood. And it showed up in a novel I read. And so Mariah and I went there. On the last day of the season. And we walked through it… by ourselves.

And here’s the thing. When I was a kid, it was probably an enchanting place. I mean, the world’s largest indoor carousel! But now, well. It’s dusty, and everything’s broken, and there’s carpet on the walls, and almost everything is a model or a replica or something that you could pick up a bunch of at a roadside stand in the 50s. It’s creepy.

And I don’t think that it’s changed that much in the twenty or thirty odd years since I went there as a kid. I suspect that it was always this way. It was always dusty and rundown and, dear God, there has always been carpet on the walls.

But I’ve changed. Some of the magic and easy wonder of childhood has worn away. I see the world through different eyes.
Time changes us. None of us are who we were, once upon a time. And that can be hard to remember. And it can be hard to remember that this is true for everybody.

In today’s reading from 2 Samuel, we see David, in triumphant glory, sitting on the throne of Israel. All of the tribes of Israel — and the elders of the tribes of Israel — are with him. They are making a covenant, and they anoint David to be the king of all Israel. He is thirty years old and he will rule for forty years. And he will become a symbol of Israel. His name will be synonymous with a golden age. Centuries and millennia later, people will long for that kingdom to be restored.

And it’s worth remembering the story. Because David has not always been the king of Israel. He was not born into the royal family; he was not raised to sit on the throne.

David is the youngest son of a shepherd. He was a shepherd and a musician. He became a warrior and a trusted member of King Saul’s court. And when God chose David over Saul, he became a fugitive and a rebel. When he and Saul reconciled, he became the heir to the throne. And now he is here; the king of Israel, becoming greater and greater, because God is with him.

And it’s worth remembering the rest of the story. Because this is not who David will always be. He will sin against God and his neighbor. His favorite son will rebel against him and die. He and his kingdom will pass away.

Time changes everyone. None of us are who we were, once upon a time. Time changes everyone. Even David… even Jesus.
In today’s reading from Mark, Jesus has come home. He has been out in the world preaching and teaching and healing. He has gathered disciples and crowds come to see him. And now he is doing the hardest thing that a preacher can do: he is preaching in the worshipping community that he grew up in.

There are people there who have known him since he was a child. And they’re saying, “This is Jesus, right? Mary’s kid? Remember when he was little? Remember that time he…? Or that time he…? Ha! Who is he to tell us anything?”

But Jesus isn’t who he was, once upon a time. He isn’t a little baby, meek and mild. He isn’t a kid doing all the things that kids do. He is a hidden king, with a throne in heaven, ruling over the whole earth, rebuking the wind and calming the waves, raising people from the dead, bringing the kingdom of God into the world.

So he leaves. He moves on. He gets back to work where his work will be appreciated.

He has gone out. He has come home. He goes out again.

And he calls us to the same work.

Today, we are blessing and commissioning our Jamaica mission trip team. I spoke to one of the members of this team the other day and they told me about their first trip to work with the boys at Sunbeam Children’s Home. They told me how it pulled them out of their comfort zone, how they saw the faith of those boys, and how the trip had rejuvenated their faith.

And I know that person is not alone. I know from experience — I know from watching hundreds of volunteers go through Back Bay Mission, I know from watching friends who have gone on mission trips, I know from my own mission work — that going out to serve changes us. Sometimes those are big changes. Sometimes those are little changes.

Going to serve — whether it’s a flight away or a drive away or a walk away; whether it’s halfway around the world or across the country or down the street — plants a seed in us. And we care for that seed by loving our neighbor. And it grows.

When Jesus leaves his hometown again, he gathers his disciples. He gives them the authority to cast our demons, and heal the sick, and call people to repentance, and deliver the good news. And he sends them out into the world in pairs. And he tells them not to take anything: no staff, no bread, no bag, no money, no extra clothes (but to wear sandals, because protecting your feet is just good advice). They are going to be dependent entirely on the hospitality of the people they meet.

They will go out. They will come back. And, even though the Bible doesn’t say anything about it, they will be changed. They will meet new people. They will experience new things. They will do things that they have never done before.

Time changes everyone. None of us are who we were, once upon a time. Time changes everyone. Even David, even Jesus, 

Time changes everyone. None of us are who we were, once upon a time. And, by the grace of God, we have a choice about how we will spend that time. By the grace of God, we have a choice about who we will be tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, when today is once upon a time. By the grace of God, we have the choice to grow closer to God through service to our neighbor.

Last week, I used a saying that a friend of mine uses all the time: There is no such thing as other people’s children. This morning, I’m going to use a saying that I got from Connie Schultz. Connie is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist who used to write for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She’s also the wife of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. A few years ago, she spoke at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod, and I heard her say this: Christianity is about serving others and fixing ourselves, not the other way around.

Let me say that again: Christianity is about serving others and fixing ourselves, not the other way around.

And that’s not quite right. We don’t quite fix ourselves. But when we serve others, we open ourselves up and invite God to fix us. Christianity is about being open to God’s healing love… through our service to others… whether those others are the boys at Sunbeam, or kids at the border, or families in DeWitt. That is who we are. That is what we do.

Today, we are blessing and commissioning our Jamaica mission trip team. We are doing that so that we can send them out in love. We are doing that so that they can be changed. We are doing that so that next week they will not be who they are today. And we do that so that we can welcome them home again… so that next week we will not be who we are today.

Time will change us. Service will change us. The Holy Spirit will change us into people who are a little bit closer to the people who God calls us to be.


Other People’s Children (Sermon for July 1, 2018)

We are continuing to have some challenges with recording, so there is no audio this week. We’re sorry for any inconvenience!

You all know that Mariah and I don’t have children.

Now, I’m almost 40, so this happens less often than it used to, but it still happens. Someone asks when we’re going to get around to having kids, or reminds us that there’s still time, or tells us that we’re going to regret it if we never have children. But the fact is that we thought about it, and we prayed about it, and we made a choice.

Some people are called to have children. We are not. And that’s okay.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t like kids; in fact, we love them. And while we might not have children of our own, we take the idea that it takes a village to raise a child seriously. We are there for the children in our neighborhood, and our congregations, and our communities. And we are happy to do our part.

But, because I’m not a parent, I’m going to borrow some credibility from a friend of mine who is. Like a lot of my friends who are women and who are around my age, she’s a mom with two young children. And, honestly, her husband is kind of a big kid sometimes. And, to be fair, so is she. But she is a mom. And she takes being a mom seriously.

And one of the things that she likes to say is, “There is no such thing as other people’s children.”

I’m going to say that again. It’s that important. There is no such thing as other people’s children.
And Jesus knows that.

In today’s reading from the gospel of Mark, we have two stories; one wrapped inside the other. Both of them are stories about healing. Both of them are stories about other people’s children.

Jesus has just crossed the Sea of Galilee and stepped off the boat when a man named Jairus comes up to him. Jairus is a leader in the local synagogue and his daughter — who was about twelve years old — is on the verge of death. And he begs Jesus again and again to come and help, tears in his eyes, his voice cracking, “Come, please, and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

And, because there’s a child in need, Jesus goes with Jairus.

But while they’re walking, the crowd is pressing in. Everyone wants to see Jesus.

And in that crowd is a woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. As long as Jairus’s daughter has been alive. She’s spent all of her money on doctors. She has nothing left and has nothing to show for it. And just like Jairus said, “Come, lay your hands on my daughter so that she can be made well,” this woman says to herself, “If I can just lay my hands on the hem of his cloak, I can be made well.”

She gets close to him. She lays her hands on his cloak. Jesus feels the power go out of him.

He turns to the crowd and asks who touched him. And this woman steps forward and falls to her knees and tells him what she did. And Jesus says, “Daughter…” That word is important, he says, “Daughter… your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”
In that moment, she is his child. Because Jesus knows that she is someone’s child. And Jesus knows that there is no such thing as other people’s children.

No sooner does he tell her to go in peace than some people come from Jairus’s house and say to Jairus, “Your daughter is dead. There is nothing we can do. Stop bothering Jesus.”

And Jesus says something that should sound familiar. We talked about it last week. “Don’t be afraid. Have faith. I got this.”

And they go to Jairus’s house. And Jesus revives his daughter. And he tells them to tell no one… and to get her something to eat.

Jesus knows that this is Jairus’s child. And Jesus knows that there is no such thing as other people’s children.

It would be easy for me to say that we are all Jesus’s children. And that’s true. It’s true in a broad, abstract, metaphorical sense. It’s true in the kind of way that a Hallmark card is true. But it is also true in a deep, personal, visceral sense.

It’s true in this way… I recently read a story by a woman whose husband is a pediatrician. This woman wrote that her husband understands how babies cry. He understands what those cries mean. They’ll be out at a restaurant or a store or wherever and hear a baby crying and he’ll turn to her and say, “That baby is hungry,” or “That baby is sick,” or, “That baby is mad as hell.”

But sometimes, he’ll hear a child crying and he’ll suddenly sit up straight, cock his head to the side for a second, and then stand up and start running. Because he knows that cry means that child is hurt… and needs help… now.

And we are Christ’s children — all of us, the people in this sanctuary and the people out there in the world — all of us are

Christ’s children in that deep, personal, visceral sense. He knows our cries. he knows that we’re hurt. He knows that we need help.

And he commands us to love each other and he loves us. And there is no such thing as other people’s children.

The great theologian Karl Barth didn’t quite say, “when you preach, hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”

There have been a lot of children in the news lately.

On my first Sunday as your pastor, it was the children of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Earlier in June, it was a young undocumented immigrant from Des Moines who was deported and died on a street corner in Mexico.

Over the last couple of weeks, it’s been children at the border between the United States and Mexico, who have been separated from their parents and put in detention facilities.

And even when they’re not in the news, there are children in this world suffering. They are mining the rare earth elements for our computers and smart phones. They are laboring in sweatshops making sure that we have fashionable but affordable clothing. They are being abused and neglected and forgotten.

And there are hundreds… thousands… tens of thousands… millions of them.

And there are people who are telling us that it’s okay. Those kids don’t live in our neighborhoods. They don’t go to our schools. They don’t come to our church. They are other people’s children. And wouldn’t that be nice… if it were true?

But it’s not. Those kids live in our neighborhoods and go to our schools and every single one of them is welcome to sit on these steps during the time for young worshippers and join us at this holiest of tables. And there is no such thing as other

people’s children.

There’s no such thing as other people’s children.

There’s no such thing as other people’s grandchildren.

There’s no such thing as other people’s cousins and nieces and nephews. There’s no such thing as other people’s brothers and sisters. There’s no such thing as other people’s aunts and uncles and parents and grandparents.

There’s no such thing as other people’s family. And that means that there is no excuse when we see a child in pain. Or a woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years or a man with tears in his eyes, a crack in his voice, begging for help, saying, “My child is on the verge of death.”

And I know that you know this. Because next week, we’re going to send a team off to an orphanage in Jamaica. And we’re going to bless shorts that our Crafty Stitchers have made for those boys. Because those are our boys. We know that there’s no such thing as other people’s children.

When Jairus comes to Jesus and begs him to heal his daughter, Jesus cannot do anything but go with him. When a woman touches the hem of Jesus’s cloak and hopes for healing, Jesus cannot do anything but let his healing power go to her. When Jesus hears someone cry, he goes to their aid. That is what Jesus is like and it is how we know that Jesus is God… because that is what God is like.

And that is what God calls us to be like. We’re not always going to be good at it — God knows I’m not always good at it, it may even be that I’m not often good at it — but that doesn’t let us off the hook.

We will not help everyone. We will not heal every wound. We will not bring justice to fruition. We will not repair the whole entire world. But we are still responsible to do our part in the work that we will not complete. We must still care for the seeds and the saplings of trees that our children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren will sit under.

That is the work we are called to. That is the work this table strengthens us for. When we see a father with tears in his eyes begging for help, to go and heal his daughter. When we see a woman who is suffering to heal her. When we hear a child crying to stand and run.

Because we are one family, made up of the children of God. That means that we can take comfort in the parent who cares for us all. Hallelujah.

But that means that there is no such thing as other people’s children. That we have work to do to care for them all. That we have the responsibility to show them that there is nothing to fear, that they can have faith, and that — by the grace of God — we got this.

Save the Date for Pastor Chris’s Installation!

Pastor Chris has been with us for a few months, and we have scheduled his official installation as our pastor! In the United Church of Christ, the service of installation is an opportunity for the wider church to recognize, affirm, and celebrate our pastor’s ministry with us.

We will install Pastor Chris at First Congregational United Church of Christ on July 22nd at 3pm. Clergy are invited to robe and process in red. There will be a dessert reception afterward. To make sure that we have enough dessert for everyone, please RSVP to the church office by calling 563-659-3166 or sending an email to Pam.

Please join us for this celebration!

Fear and Faith (Sermon for June 24, 2018)

Due to a technical problem, there is no recording for this sermon. We apologize for any inconvenience!

I don’t play favorites. I don’t have favorite things.

If you ask me what my favorite food is, I will name every cuisine on the planet. If you ask what my favorite movie is, I’ll name ten or twenty, and they’ll be different movies on different days. If you ask who my favorite muppet it, it’s Animal… and Gonzo… and Rolf… and Dr. Teeth… and all of the others, too.

I don’t have favorite things.

So I don’t have a favorite scripture. When you’re a pastor, that question — what’s your favorite scripture? — comes up more than you would think. And I usually say that it’s Luke 4:18-19, the moment when Jesus is in a synagogue reading from the scroll of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And that’s a good scripture, but it’s not really my favorite scripture. It’s just one of them.

And this scene in Mark is one of the others… because you can hear Jesus let out a frustrated sigh.

Let me set the scene. It’s night. Jesus and the disciples and some other people are on a few small boats crossing the sea, and a storm comes up. It’s only a windstorm, but still. The scene on every boat is the same. The waves are beating against the hull and coming up over the side and it’s just a small boat and it’s being swamped. And they all know the stories. They all know the tragedies. This is how boats go down. They are perishing.

And in one of the boats, Jesus is in the back… asleep.

So the people in that boat run to the back and shake him awake, and they say, “Teacher, there’s a windstorm. The waves are beating against the hull and coming up over the side and it’s just a small boat and we’re being swamped… do you not care that we’re perishing?”

And Jesus rebukes the wind and tells the sea to be still. Then — and this is where you can hear the frustrated sigh — he says to the people, “Why are you afraid? Do you still not have any faith? C’mon guys.”

And the people, missing the point, are awestruck, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

And I say they’re missing the point because the question they should be asking is, “Why are we afraid?”

Fear is one of the most basic emotions. We have all been afraid. We’ve all felt the flight response click on or stood frozen in terror.

And it isn’t just us. If you have a dog, you’ve probably learned to recognize the signs of fear: tail tucked and backing away; or turning to run while keeping the scary thing in view. Fear is built into us.

It is, maybe, a basic part of the world that God created. And, if it is, then — like everything else in this world — it is good… and it is broken.

There’s another sermon about when fear is healthy and when it’s not. It’s a brilliant sermon. It’s a classic of homiletics. Maybe I’ll preach it sometime. But it’s not this sermon.

For now, just remember this: there are different kinds of fear. Sometimes, fear can be a good thing. Fear can have a purpose. A little bit of fear when you’re on the sea and a storm comes up can make you pay closer attention and move faster to protect your boat and your life. Fear can be a good thing. Fear can have a purpose.

But fear can also be a bad thing. Fear can distort love. A little bit of fear when you meet a stranger can harden your heart and make you put up walls. Fear can be a bad thing. Fear can distort love.

Remember that.


Today’s Old Testament reading is from Job. According to the story, Job is a wealthy and righteous man. He has a large family, and thousands of camels and oxen and donkeys, and many servants. And he makes his sacrifices to God. He is blameless and upright. He turns away from evil.

Now, all of the beings in heaven come before God. And God brags about Job a little bit, about how he is blameless and upright and turns away from evil. And one of the beings of heaven says to God, “Well, of course he is. You protect him at every turn. Let me screw with him, and we’ll see if he remains blameless and upright.”

And God says, “Okay.”

And Job’s sons and daughters and most of his servants are killed. And his livestock is stolen. And he himself ends up with terrible sores all over his body and ends up sitting in ashes, scraping himself with a piece of broken piece of pottery. And it’s just him and his wife and his three friends.

And Job’s wife tells him to just die. And his friends tell him that he’s suffering because he sinned; even if he doesn’t know what sin he committed and even if he has always been upright and blameless. And Job… Job is fearless. Job pleads his case. Job demands an answer from God.

And today’s reading from Job is the beginning of that answer. And, if I can summarize a speech by God, it goes something like this:

I made an entire, huge, amazing cosmic order with seas and rain and snow and stars and constellations and lions and ravens and ostriches and hawks and behemoths and leviathans. And I’m not going to explain how it all works to you. I’m going to need you to trust that I know what I’m doing.

It’s easy for us to think that faith is about believing things: that God exists, that Jesus is the son of God, that something about the cross and the tomb and Easter morning saved us all. And when we think that faith is about believing things, it’s easy to think that the opposite of faith is doubt.

But the story of Job makes it clear that faith is about something else. Faith is about trusting God. And our story from Mark — our story about Jesus, on a boat, asking a question — makes it clear that the opposite of faith is fear: “Why are you afraid? Do you still not have any faith?”

And that adversarial figure from the beginning of Job has a point: it’s easy to trust God when things are going great. It’s easy to have faith when the seas are smooth. It’s harder to do when they’re not.

And there are a lot of people telling us that they’re not. There are a lot of people telling us to be afraid. They are telling us to be afraid of immigrants and crime and guns and fascists and a thousand other things… and ideas… and people. And I am sure that some of us here are afraid. I’m sure that some of us here are running around our boat in a panic shouting, “we are perishing!”

A storm has come up. It can be overwhelming.

But… here’s Jesus, in the back of the boat, wondering why we’re running around, letting out a heavy sigh, and asking us, “Why are you afraid? Do you still not have any faith?”

And I want to say, “Yes. I’m afraid. There’s a storm upon us. It’s overwhelming. People are perishing. And it would be great if you would rebuke the winds and calm the sea, but that isn’t happening. And it would be great if you would answer me out of a whirlwind, but that isn’t happening. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to work on bailing the water out of the boat.”

You see, there’s another sermon about how Jesus will walk with us and everything will be alright by-and-by. It’s a brilliant sermon. It’s a classic of homiletics. Maybe I’ll preach it sometime. But it’s not this sermon.

We live in a tension between fear and faith. We live in the world-that-is and the hope of the world-that-is-yet-to-come. We pray as though everything depends on God, because it does. We act as though everything depends on us, because it does.

But… here’s the thing. I don’t have a favorite scripture, but the one I return to again and again is that passage from Luke:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And I have faith, I really have faith, that as long as we are doing that work, we have nothing to fear. As long as we are bringing good news to the poor, as long as we are proclaiming release to the captive and recovery of sight to the blind, as long as we are freeing the oppressed and proclaiming a time of the Lord’s favor, we have nothing to fear. We might have that little tickle in the back of our minds that makes us pay closer attention and move faster. But we have nothing to truly fear. Because when we are doing that work, God is with us.

And, more importantly, we are with God, who is always right there, in the back of the boat, telling us that we have nothing to fear. But we do have work to do. Amen.

When All Seems Lost (Flannel Board Jesus) (Sermon for June 17, 2018)

Sorry that this took so long to get up on the website. Pastor Chris is also our sound editor and web guy, and he was on vacation. This is a sermon from our guest preacher for June 17, 2018: Torri Vande Zande. Enjoy!

Today’s scripture is one of my favorite stories in the bible. It brings back memories of Sunday School and bible lessons and one of the greatest teaching tools every invented…. The flannel board. Do some of you remember that?

The flannel board fisherman’s boat is put up on a fuzzy light blue background, then the disciples get tucked under the boat so it looks like they are inside of it. Next comes the waves but they don’t stick to the flannel very well because you also use the waves for Noah and the ark, Moses  and all the Israelites crossing the red sea, and various New Testament stories where the disciples did something while in a boat and Jesus did something cool…. Like calm the storm or tell them to cast their nets on the other side… or… when he walked on water. So since it didn’t stick, tape was placed on the back of it so it would at least stay up there for more than 3 seconds. Last but not least, you had flannel board Jesus! He doesn’t stick at all anymore, so the teacher just holds him next to the flannel board scene of the disciples in the boat.

When taught this story in Sunday School, the lesson always had the concepts of doubt, faith, and trust attached to it. Peter trusted Jesus enough to get out of the boat, he saw the waves and wind, his faith was shaken, and he fell in the water and almost drowned… BUT he cried out to Jesus to save him and Jesus did. The end. That’s a nice story. That’s a great story.

….and it does deal with doubt, faith, and trust. But as adults we can now read this story in a deeper way.

Today I want you to do something a little bit different. Take the pew bibles in front of you… you might have to share. Turn to Matthew 14… it’s in the last half of the book, and it’s on page 16. I will wait for you… help those around you… make sure everyone is there.

Matthew 14: 22-33 is our scripture for the day, but we are going to be zooming out a little bit and looking at the context of this story. We will be looking at the entire chapter of Matthew 14.

Matthew 14 starts off by telling its readers that Herod heard about Jesus and thought he might be John the Baptist raised from the dead. Then it gives a little flashback story of how Herod killed John the Baptist.

(Overview of the story)

Vs 13 When Jesus heard about John, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.

Why? Why is John’s death such a big deal to Jesus?

We first hear of John the Baptist in Matthew 3

Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight

Baptized Jesus and a dove came down

Luke 1 – Mary visits Elizabeth


Some thought John was the Christ but he denied it saying, “I baptize you with water, but one more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”

Some of Jesus’ disciples were once John the Baptist’s disciples so John’s death impacted the disciples as well.

Jesus and John knew each other. They were relatives, maybe friends too. Maybe they grew up together while their moms taught them ancient stories of Abraham, Noah and Moses. Maybe they used flannel board… probably not.

Vs 13 When Jesus heard about John, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.

John’s death impacted Jesus. He wanted to be alone for a while.

Look what happens… vs 13b and 14: “When the crowds learned this, they followed him on foot from the cities. When Jesus arrived and saw a large crowd, he had compassion for them and healed those who were sick.”

So Jesus is trying to get some alone time… but he can’t! He has compassion on the crowd and begins healing.

Then…what story do we have… The feeding of the five thousand!

So Jesus is healing people and it becomes late in the day. The disciples are there and tell Jesus to dismiss the crowd so they can get something to eat before it gets too late. Jesus said, “You feed them”. They only had a few fish and several loaves of bread, but Jesus broke the bread and all 5000 people were fed! They even collected extra food at the end of the meal.

So now, the entire day was spent healing numerous people, feeding 5000 of them, and now it is late. The disciples are physically tired, mentally spent and some are grieving like Jesus is because of John the Baptist’s death. Here is a side note: A few of Jesus’ disciples (Andrew and John) were first John’s disciples who then started following Jesus.

It’s late in the day…

Jesus made the disciples get in a boat and head to the other side. Jesus finally got to his original agenda… he went up to a mountain to pray by himself. Jesus sent them home. This is where our scripture for today starts!

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.

Jesus had a long day…. The disciples had a long day. Jesus told them to get in the boat, they got in the boat… now what happens?….they are stuck out in the sea and can’t get anywhere because the wind and waves won’t let them.

If I was a disciple I would be asking, “What is happening? Half of us are fishermen and we can’t even row a boat across the lake! Why would Jesus send us out here?

They were doing what Jesus told them to do… they are mentally exhausted, physically drained and emotionally grieving. And they are stuck in the sea.

They never covered this part on the flannel board!

When I read a story like this, I often ask myself questions. Today, I have 3 questions I want to explore.

Vs. 25-27

And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Why did Jesus choose to walk on water?

Jesus came down from the mountain and found himself alone. He needed to get back somehow… what were his choices? He could walk around the sea like the crowd did, he could find a boat, he could build a boat (he was a carpenter after all)… or since he was God… he could snap his finger and just be across the sea… He chose none of those things…. He chose to walk straight out into the sea and meet up with his friends.

High winds were keeping the boat from moving across the sea and waves were smashing into the boat. Jesus was not going to leave them out there alone…. Not after the long day they had. He wanted to be with them and he chose to enter their situation, their drama, their pain.

Vs. 28-32

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.

I know what some of you are thinking… you think my next question is, “Why did Peter get out of the boat?” Right? Well, that is not my next question. I know why Peter got out… walking on water is cool! My question is….

Why did Jesus say yes to Peter and tell him to “come” out?

If I was Jesus, I would say, “No, just stay there, I will come to you… stay in the boat! Keep your hands and feet inside of the boat”. But Jesus didn’t do that! Jesus saw a glimmer of faith in Peter and he was willing to allow Peter to test that faith.

So Peter gets out of the boat, sees the wind and the waves… gets scared and goes down in the water. He yells for Jesus to save him… and Jesus grabs him up out of the water. My last question is….

Why didn’t Jesus stop the wind and waves when Peter was in the water?

Jesus never stopped the wind and waves to pull Peter out. Would it not be easier to save Peter if the sea was calm?

For Jesus, the wind and waves were not the problem. The problem was… Peter was drowning. Jesus took care of the real issue… drowning. The wind and waves were a secondary concern.

Vs. 33

And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

They worshiped him as the Son of God

First time in Matthew they worship Jesus as God

What does this mean for us?

This story is a story of faith, doubt and trust, but is also a story of Jesus’s character.

  1. Jesus is willing to enter into our difficult situations. When we are tired, weary, grieving and hopeless… he want to enter in and is with us through it. Many of us don’t allow Jesus to do that. We keep him on the side of the flannel board and never let him enter our story. Are you ready to acknowledge and welcome Jesus into the difficulties in your life?
  2. Jesus is delighted by those who show a fearless faith. It may be hard to take that first step… scary even…. But he will always say “come” … come to the deeper end of faith…. I will be right by your side. Are you daring enough to take a chance on putting your faith in him?
  3. Jesus will rarely calm the wind and the waves in your life. Wind and waves are a part of life. Peter didn’t need to be saved from the sea, he needed to be saved from drowning. We don’t need to be saved from our life’s circumstances… we need to be saved from our hopelessness and our fear. When life is overwhelming and it feels like you are going under the waves, are you willing enough to cry out to him “save me”.

The character of Jesus is easy to see in this story. Even in his own pain, his compassion overrides his own feeling of wanting to be alone. His loyalty to not leave his friends in distress, his power to manipulate the water to hold his weight, his hope and encouragement when one takes a chance on faith and his strength to pull us to safety when we are downing.

Back in Sunday School I had a new teacher… she did not like the fact that Jesus did not stick to the flannel board. So… she took some Elmer’s glue, turned Jesus to the back, covered the entire back of Jesus with glue and stuck him to the middle of the flannel board.

From then on, every story she told had Jesus at the center of it. She built every story around Jesus! What a great metaphor for live!

Every story, every situation, every circumstance of our lives…. Jesus is at the center!

May we live our lives knowing Jesus is with us in the storms, may we live with fearless faith and allow Jesus to save us, not from our circumstances but from our hopelessness and fear.

Save the Date for Church Directory Photos

It’s time to make a new church directory! Be sure to save the date, July 25 and 26 for Universal Church Directories to take your family photo. If you’re not available on those days, you can also submit a family photo to be included in the directory (there will be a small charge for including those photos). We’ll have more information on times and scheduling as we get closer to the date.

Blasphemy! (Sermon for June 10, 2018)

Due to a technical issue, there is no recording of this week’s sermon. We apologize for the inconvenience!

The Pharisees are plotting against Jesus. They know that he’s a threat to the social order. They want him gone. They want him discredited. And they have a plan.

You see, Jesus has been going around healing people and casting out demons. Last week, we heard a story about Jesus restoring a man’s withered hand. And since then, he has been curing diseases and exorcising demons. And he has gathered disciples and given them the authority to cast out demons. And it all looks a little strange.

And now he’s at home. And the scribes from Jerusalem are spreading rumors. “He’s gone out of his mind,” they’re saying, “he is casting out demons using authority given to him by the king of demons.”

Even his family wants to hold him back. These rumors are bad for their reputation.

And Jesus responds with this: A house divided against itself cannot stand. Satan isn’t going to go around casting out his own demons. If he does that, he’s just fighting against himself and his days are numbered. No, this is not the work of the devil. And I’ll tell you what. All of your sins and blasphemies can be forgiven, except… blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an eternal sin. There are no backsies.

Now, we’re good mainline Protestants. We don’t talk about sin very much. But we just had a baptism, an outward and visible sign of the grace of God, a outward and visible sign of the forgiveness of sins. So let’s walk out of our comfort zone a little bit. Let’s talk about sin.

In today’s reading from Genesis, the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden have just eaten the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. A talking snake offered it to the woman, who took it and ate it. And she offered it to the man, who took it and ate it. And now they know things they didn’t know before.

And they know that they are naked. And they are afraid. And when they hear God walking through the Garden, they hide. And that tips God off. “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from the tree?”

The man confesses his crime and blames the woman. The woman confesses her crime and blames the snake. And the snake — who earlier was pretty chatty — says nothing.

So God curses the snake. And God curses the woman. And God curses the man. And God curses the earth. The whole world breaks. That’s part of sin. My sin isn’t just between me and God. It makes the entire world a little bit worse. It takes the entire world a little bit farther away from the world that God created.

Sin is personal: I sin. But sin is also systemic: it hurts everyone. And that matters.

When I was in college, I hung out for a while with a group that was not-so-affectionately known as the ‘turbo Christians’. They were deeply conservative evangelicals, but they were the only Christian group on campus and there was this girl and you know how things are when you’re eighteen.

The turbo Christians knew about sin. There were lists of sins. There were books about sin. I remember reading something about Christian dating and the deep importance of keeping four feet on the floor at all times; because while not doing that might not be a sin in and of itself, it was a temptation to sin. Sin loomed large in the turbo Christian imagination.

We’re good mainline Protestants. We don’t talk about sin very much. Turbo Christians talked about sin a lot. And they talked about the personal side of sin a lot. They told me that my sin was between me and God. And God was very angry with me about it.

And I had to repent.

And I got worried. Really worried. I was repenting constantly. Because, let’s face it, I sinned.

But… the turbo Christians seemed so unconcerned with the systemic side of sin. If they saw starving people in Africa, they would tell them to repent and be saved. But no one would preach about the sins that kept food from them.

Now, I’m not saying this to cast blame or say someone is wrong. I probably focus on systemic sins at the expense of personal ones. I probably need to spend more time confessing my own sins. And others focus on personal sins at the expense of systemic ones, and probably need to spend more time confessing that they hold up an unjust order. We all have things we’re not repenting of.

We are all sinners, every one of us, including me. We are all hurting God though our sins, every one of us, including me. We are all hurting our friends and neighbors through our sins, every one of us, including me. We are all hurt by the sins of our friends and neighbors, every one of us, including you.

We are all hurt by our own sins, left naked and afraid, trying to hide, knowing that we will be found out.

But… there’s good news. There’s always good news.

After God tells the man and the woman about how their sin has cursed the world, God sends them out into that world. But before God does that, God makes clothes for them. They might be afraid, but they are no longer naked. And throughout the Bible God will keep showing up and saying, “Don’t be afraid.” God will keep comforting and forgiving and saving. Again and again.

And that brings me back to this story from the gospel. This story where the Pharisees and scribes are plotting against Jesus. This story where rumors are going around.

“Truly I tell you,” says Jesus, “people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter.”

There is always forgiveness. There is always healing.

But Jesus goes on, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

That doesn’t sound good. In fact, several years ago, some atheists on the internet — you know, the opposite of turbo Christians — decided to show how serious they were by recording themselves ‘committing blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ and posting it to YouTube. They got on camera and said things like, “I don’t believe the Holy Spirit exists” and “I blaspheme the Holy Spirit”.

Fortunately for them, that’s not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Saying “I blaspheme the Holy Spirit” is like saying “I want to say thank you” instead of “thank you”. It’s like saying “I apologize” instead of “I’m sorry”. It’s talking about the thing instead of doing the thing.

Where the scribes in this story messed up is that they saw Jesus healing people and attributed his power to the devil. They saw Jesus doing good and called it evil. And I want to be clear, I still don’t think they committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

But, maybe, they got a little closer.

You see, we commit blasphemy against the Holy Spirit when we knowingly and with malice see the work that the Spirit is doing in the world and call it evil. When we become so depraved and so lost that we truly and deeply believe that comforting and forgiving and saving, that healing and caring and loving, are evil. It’s a pit so deep that we cannot see the light at the top.

And I don’t think for a moment that it’s even possible for us to get that far away from God.

I believe that even the most hardened among us, even the most villainous people in history, even the most depraved humans in the world, still have a conscience that pulls them towards God. I believe that even when we are in the deepest pits of despair about our own self-worth, we can still see the light of Christ. I believe that even when we are naked and afraid, hiding and worried about being found out, God is waiting with a needle and thread to clothe us and comfort us.

That is the good news that we preach, and the good news that we live out, that as long as even the smallest part of you longs to be made whole, God is there for you.

Today, we welcomed Kaelyn into our church family through the sacrament of Christian baptism.

Now, baptism has many promises. We baptize as an outward sign that God has promised to forgive sins, and that God will keep that promise. We baptize as a way of promising that we will always be here for her, even if she wanders off to find where demons dwell. We baptize as a reminder of our baptisms, and the fact that we always stand in need of forgiveness.

And we baptize as a reminder that we have a superpower. We can forgive each other. We can make clothes for someone who is naked and afraid, we can sit with someone in the pit of despair, we can point people towards a God and a community that stands ready to accept them. We can tell the world (and each other) that no matter who you are, or what you’ve done, or where you are on life’s journey, you are so welcome here, as a friend and neighbor of Jesus Christ.

And that is good news. Amen.

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