Who Brings Good News: Righteousness and Charlottesville

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Romans 10:5-15

My sermon from the 10th Sunday after Pentecost (August 13, 2017) on Romans 10:5-15. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Righteousness is a funny word. It’s not a ha-ha funny kind of word but one of those words usually reserved for fantasy novels or cross-stitched and hung on dining room walls. It’s also a word scattered all over the Bible and one….that even I, as a trained religious professional, don’t always know what to do with. I know that righteousness has something to do with God. And righteousness should be something that I want. But when I take this word that Paul uses at the start of our reading from Romans today, and try to get to the center of what it means, I’m left with something in soft focus. Now, it’s not really fair to jump into Paul’s letter right at this point and with only these few verses to look at. Paul is actually in the middle of an argument that he started in chapter 9 and will conclude in chapter 11. We’re basically jumping into the middle of Paul’s train of thought and that makes this passage tricky. If we’ve studied Paul before, know the book of Romans well, and understand the different logic tricks Greeks and Romans used to make their point, then jumping into the middle of Paul’s argument isn’t as frightening as it could be. But if we haven’t done that kind of work, what then? What do we do with righteousness? We might decide to avoid Romans all together. Or worse, we might assume that a superficial reading focusing only on a few verses in this letter is all that we need. But I think there’s another option. We can come to this text knowing there are things we don’t know. We can enter today’s reading knowing we bring our own definitions, assumptions, and understandings to the text. We don’t have to understand righteousness right away. Not getting it is…ok. God wants us to bring ourselves as we are, fully into these texts because these texts are bringing God fully into us.

On Friday night, as I went to bed, I did what I always do: I grabbed my phone and opened up my social media feeds to get one more look at the world before I called it a day. And in between the cat pictures, animated gifs, and articles telling me what kind of avocados I should put on my toast, I saw pictures that terrified me. In the middle of the night, on a darken college campus in Virginia, a crowd of a few hundred, mostly young men, were bringing more than just themselves to Charlottesville. They also brought lit torches. They first assembled at the edge of the campus of the University of Virginia. Most carried tiki torches that lit up their white faces in a yellow and orange spotlight. No one tried to hide who they were because they weren’t scared of being found out. They were there to make others afraid. As they marched through the campus, they chanted slogans like “Blood and Soil” and “You will not replace us.” They matched their white supremacist slogans with nazi salutes and violence, encircling the 20 or so college kids on campus who protested them. And once the march started to break up, they headed towards a local church where over 700 clergy and faith leaders were hosting a prayer service for justice and peace. After that service ended, they couldn’t leave for several moments because the white supremacists forced them to stay inside. The Friday night terror march was just a precursor to the big event scheduled for the next day. These torch bearing people wanted a fight and they were planning to bring it.

Now, when it comes to events like this, I….take it personally. I read and watch, becoming absorbed as the event plays itself out. I pay attention because, as a Mexican-American, I can’t look away. When a neo-nazi screams “end immigration,” I know they’re not inviting my brown skin self to stay. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told to go back to my own country even though New Mexico and Arizona and Colorado were comfortable places for my ancestors hundreds of years ago. When a white man waving a Confederate battle flag shouts, “you will not replace us,” I’ve read enough “think pieces masquerading as serious thought” to know he’s advocating for a world where my mixed family, where my 2 kids, don’t exist. I can’t pretend that this is only a problem in other places because I’ve seen Confederate flags flying just across the reservoir from here. And the church itself, can’t ignore this stuff either. In a photograph taken yesterday, a black police officer was standing guard, protecting the Constitutional right for these neo-nazis and members of the KkK and armed militiamen to say their hate filled words. And in that same picture, a white supremacist is holding a sign calling the Jewish people the children of Satan with using verses from the gospel according to John to defend that kind of hate and evil. [Note: After I preached this sermon, I discovered this picture was taken in July. However, I believe my point is still the same.] As a Christian, a pastor, a person of color, and as a father, I don’t have the option to ignore when Charlottevilles happen because that kind of ideology feeds a hate and evil that is part of my life everyday.

When Saturday morning came to Charlottesville, the clergy gathered again for a sunrise service. Like the night before, I was following it through social media and more. I saw as men and women, Jews and Christians and Muslims, bishops, pastors, priests, and deacons, including bishops from our own denomination and colleagues I went to school with, marched. They headed to where the rally was taking place and they brought with them their collars and stoles, kippas, hijabs, and that’s…it. That’s all they brought. They stood between the white supremacists and the counter protesters. When the white supremacists finally arrived, they came ready for a fight. They wore body armor and helmets. They brought shields and clubs. Some were armed, wearing army fatigues and carrying AR-15 rifles. They were hoping for violence. They were hoping for confrontation. They wanted to incite terror. So they banged on their shields, shouted slurs against Jews, African-Americans, and gays. They made as much noise as they could…and the assembled clergy, without a weapon in sight, just…sang. They met the evil in front of them with the love of God in the song – this little light of mine. In the face of this one-sided hate, bigotry, and violence, these God-fearing interfaith men and women, met this evil by singing about the light God gives them. And this light lets them stand in the face of hate and sing, sing, sing.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, isn’t asking them to bring their rhetoric or intelligence or understanding to the problem of righteousness. Instead, he’s too busy telling them to stop trying to bring God down and instead see how God is already here. When we take this passage and make it some kind of test, where Jewish law and faith in Jesus are put against each other, we cheapen what we already have in God. We pretend that there’s some kind of work, some kind of thing we need to make ourselves believe, to get God on our side. But if we instead remember that the “you” in this passage isn’t general, that Paul is really talking only to a community of Gentiles, then this passage is less about what the community needs to do to get on God’s good side and, instead, is about God being with them right now. God, through their baptism, has made adopted them as beloved children. They are now newly chosen, bound together in an inclusive story that includes a Jewish savior who, on the Cross, opened his arms to all. Paul’s thought process is focused on these Gentiles, on these Romans, alone. And because they know God, because they are baptized by God, and because Jesus died for them, they now get to bless others like God blessed them. They now get to share God’s story with their family and friends. They now get to pray and worship and sing every Sunday morning. They get to be like Jesus to all who are in need. They get to do all these things not because they are righteous but because God is. And God’s righteousness means that God keeps God’s promises – these promises of love, hope, fidelity, and mercy to all of God’s children. It’s God’s righteousness that let’s us be God’s people. It’s God’s righteousness that let’s us know that love will never be overcome by hate. And it’s because of the hold God has on each us, that we get to stand tall in the face of evil, confront racism and white supremacy in all it’s forms, and undo it’s hold on us and our communities because we bring a different kind of torch, we have a divine kind of light, a light that Jesus gave to us, and we’re called to let it shine, today, tomorrow, and forever.

Amen.

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Children’s Sermon: Better Know A Liturgy – Telling God’s Story (the sermon)

Bring the book “Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks.”

I’m so happy you’re here today!

So this is week seven of our time talking about worship – about liturgy – about what we do on Sunday mornings. We’ve talked about the prelude and the lighting of candles. We’ve talked about making announcements and being a welcoming space for all kinds of people who gather here to talk about God. We talked about Confession & Forgiveness – where we start our worship by being honest about the ways we make mistakes and how God, through forgiveness, helps us be more like Jesus. We talked about shaking hands and sharing peace with each other cuz that’s what Jesus today. We’ve talked about why we sing and why we read bible verses during church.

But before we get to our next section, I have a joke for you.

Knock knock. Who’s there? Interrupting Cow. Interrupting cow wh—moooooo!

Do you like jokes? I like jokes. And there are a bunch of funny jokes out there. Recently, I found this book called “Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks.” It’s a book full of math jokes. Now, you might not know much math yet. But math is all about numbers and addition and subtraction and all of that. And I used to know a lot of math…once…since I studied a lot of it in college as an engineer. So let’s looks some of these jokes: go over some of the simple jokes.

So now you know some new jokes! And hopefully you found them funny. And you know what? You laughed and smiled and looked confused because I told you these jokes. You needed someone to tell you them before you experienced all these things.

And that’s sort of why, each Sunday, I share a children’s sermon and another sermon with everyone. After we hear some of God’s words from the Bible, I…talk. And I talk not because I like hearing myself speak. I share a sermon because, with the help of the Holy Spirit, I try to unpack a piece of God for all of us. I pray and pray and think and think and, hopefully, the Holy Spirit shows all of us a little bit of who Jesus is, who we are, how much God loves us, and how God wants us to live our lives. Not every sermon is great or perfect. But each sermon spends time with God and the Holy Spirit, inviting us to know God more because…I honestly believe that having Jesus in your life truly makes a difference. And how can we know how important Jesus is unless someone shares that love with us through their words and their actions?

Part of our job is to share Jesus in our words and actions. That’s what we’re doing here every Sunday and what God helps us do every other day do the week too.

Thank you for being up here and I hope you have a blessed week!

Each week, I share a reflection for all children of God. The written manuscript serves as a springboard for what I do. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship on the 9th Sunday After Pentecost, 8/06/2017.

To and From: Loneliness and Promises

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Romans 9:1-5

My sermon from 9th Sunday after Pentecost (August 6, 2017) on Romans 9:1-5. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Rev. Marc A. Stutzel at Christ Lutheran Church, Woodcliff Lake on Aug 6, 2017. Romans 9:1-5.

Yesterday, for me at least, was a day devoted to birthdays. Now, I know that everyday is someone’s birthday. And thanks to Facebook, I wake up every morning knowing which of my friends are celebrating their big day. On some level, we’re never far from a birthday. But yesterday was different. As I sat in my room, composing this sermon, I was tired and completely stuffed because my family and I had just come back from a fun birthday party for a new friend. And the party was perfect for a five year old. There was a pool, bouncy houses, and more food than any person could possibly eat. As my stomach groaned and grumbled, angry at the amount of chicken wings I’d consumed, my sermon writing was distracted by the sound of my neighbors singing “Happy birthday” at a party they were hosting next door. Everywhere I turned, a birthday was there. In fact, even if I could have escaped to Mars yesterday, I wouldn’t have escaped from birthdays. And that’s because August 5 is also a birthday for the Curiosity Rover on Mars. It’s there, on the dusty slopes of Mount Sharp, where that little robot had a birthday party…of one. There were no bouncy houses or pools for Curiosity to play in. And there was no endless pile of chicken wings for everyone to eat. Instead, Curiosity was… alone. The friends who celebrated its big day were here on earth. When it was time to sing “Happy Birthday,” the Curiosity Rover was a choir of one – and in 2013, it sung that song alone on Mars.

Now, there’s something sad about the Rover spending its fifth birthday alone and millions of miles away from home. Even though the Rover is just a machine, our heart feels compassion and empathy for our robotic friend. It’s current situation might remind us of what our own lonely birthdays felt like and bring to mind those we know who have no one to wish them a happy birthday to. This kind of loneliness and isolation can be brutal. Being separated from what we know, who we love, and who loves us can leave us sad, depressed, and feeling incredibly broken. In some ways, one of the hallmarks of being human is learning how to deal with being alone. And that’s not something all of us are good at. Because we know that being around other people doesn’t always mean we are not alone. If no one knows our name, knows our hopes and dreams, and stops by to actually see us, loneliness stays with us instead. And this loneliness can show up in a multitude of ways. We can move to a new city and not know a soul. A broken relationship can take our friends away from us. Or a new path or life style or way of being can leave us feeling alone if no one else seems to join us. We lament and cry out as these feeling of isolation break into us. We can even wonder out loud if maybe this new reality, this new life, this new way of being should be undone. Our thoughts and prayers can sound a little like Paul’s does here. With sorrow and anguish, we too might want to be cut off from this new reality, because the isolation is just too much. Which might be why Paul says something in our reading from Romans’ today which doesn’t sound like Paul at all. For a brief moment, while dwelling in his sorrow and anguish, Paul wonders if he might want to be cut off from Christ.

Now, even the thought of Paul writing this is a little bananas because this is Paul we’re talking about. This is a guy who traveled around the Mediterranean, preached in city markets, and invited Gentiles to know how God’s kingdom includes even them. This is a guy who had no problem going to Jerusalem to confront Peter when Peter stopped eating meals with those who were non-Jews. Paul is one of the few workhorses of the early church that we know and celebrate. He’s the last person we can think of who should even hint at something like he does in verse 3.

But Paul says this surprisingly thing and I wonder if he does because loneliness is that strong. We know, from scripture, that Paul had many companions on his travels. We know he wasn’t the only Jewish believer who, in the generation after Jesus’ death and resurrection, traveled throughout the Mediterranean Sea. And we know pockets of Jesus’ followers were all over the Roman Empire. When we take a step back and look at the wider context, we can see how Paul wasn’t really alone. But Paul probably felt alone because his isolation was very real. Not every Jewish person experienced Christ like he did. And most Gentiles could never accept a savior who died, crucified on a cross. And even in the communities that agreed with Paul, Paul kept finding Gentiles who were trying to earn God’s love through the good works they thought God demanded. Paul dealt with people all the time but that didn’t mean he never felt alone.

Yet being alone and feeling alone are two separate things. Paul, immediately after his words in verse 3, spends the next two verses on all the ways he’s not alone. As a Jew, Paul knows his lineage and his connection to God’s story. Paul never in his writings renounces the love and the special relationship God has with the chosen people. God picked them while they were slaves in Egypt to be God’s people. God chose this band of people with no rights, no legal status, and no power, to be God’s beloved. It wasn’t the Egyptians, with their chariots and gold and military might, who God chose in this special way. God picked these strangers, living as foreigners in the land of Egypt, as the people who will change the world. The covenants, the law, the prophets, and even Jesus himself, were given to this former nation of slaves who, in Paul’s day, were still occupied by an empire not their own. And God did this, according to Paul, because God made a promise to Abraham and to Jacob and to the people of Israel. And God is, first and foremost, a God who keeps promises.

Which is why the Messiah, this Jesus, isn’t for the select few. Jesus is Jewish but God’s promises are for all. Abraham wasn’t only an ancestor to the people of Israel. He also was the father to many nations – nations and peoples and races and ethnicities that now populated and crossed borders with the Roman Empire. This Jesus, as the culmination of Abraham’s promise, makes a difference to everyone because he is Emmanuel, God-with-us. Even in our loneliness, Jesus is there. Even when we feel like no one knows who we are, he does. In fact, we don’t hold these feelings of loneliness by ourselves. Jesus holds those emotions with us because there is nothing God won’t go with us through. Jesus isn’t only a part of the Trinity. Jesus is also a promise that, no matter who we are or what we’re experiencing, we are known….and we are loved.

Rooted in Paul’s experience of Jesus is an acknowledgement that Jesus really is for us, that Jesus is really with us, and that God’s blessings are not reserved for only a select few. Paul knows that God’s kingdom is expansive and has space for Jews and Gentiles and everything in between. God’s love isn’t reserved for the select few; God’s love is for all. And as part of God’s people, our love and care for others is to be as expansive as God’s, regardless of their race or class or background or where they were born or where they go. Because, in Jesus and in the Cross, the walls between us and God were torn down – so that the walls we build between ourselves, these walls that make us lonely and afraid and full of sorrow and fear – can be torn down too.

Amen.

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But…. Jesus and the 5000

I don’t know if I would ever say the word “but” to Jesus.

In our reading from Matthew 14:13-21 today, Jesus is in a deserted place. He left the highways and byways after learning that John the Baptist was beheaded during a feast by King Herod. Instead of responding to this violence inflicted on his cousin, Jesus retreats. Jesus, however, isn’t left alone for long. Word spread that he is in the area so people go out to meet him. Jesus finds an immense crowd looking for him. When he sees them looking for him, he stops retreating. He enters the crowd and heals the ones who are sick. Jesus is compassionate and full of love. As the day turns into evening, people start to get hungry. Instead of waiting for the crowd to become hangry (hungry + angry), the disciples asked Jesus to send everyone home. The disciples saw Jesus heal the sick but their imagination does not see Jesus dealing with their hunger. So the disciples, thinking about the crowds, invite them to take care of themselves.

Jesus, however, will have none of that. Instead, he invites the disciples to be as compassionate as he is and take care of the crowd. This is when the disciples use the word “but.” They claim they have nothing but five loaves and two fish. Five loaves and two fish are not nothing. The disciples do not think they have enough food to share. They are focused on feeding just themselves. They are blessed to have food but they lack the imagination to share it. Jesus then takes what they have and feeds everyone.

One of the unspoken ideas Jesus continually struggles against is the idea that there is only “so much” in the world. There is only so much love, so much kindness, so much food, so much housing, so many rights, so many opportunities, and so many other kinds of blessings in the world. Opportunities and material things are viewed as limited. Once we are receiving this blessing, we struggle to extend it to someone else. We are afraid that if we give it away, we will somehow lose that blessing for ourselves.

But Jesus invites us to see this blessings as opportunities to share the limitless love that God has. The text doesn’t claim that Jesus somehow multiplied the loaves and the fishes. Instead, he blesses what the disciples have and the disciples are empowered to feed everyone. The meal the crowd has is shared by everyone. The disciples, Jesus, and even the women and children eat their fill. Jesus is showing all of us that following him means taking what we have and sharing it abundantly.

Understand: Saying Yes to Jesus’ Parables

What was the last question you said “yes” to? And did you really mean it? In today’s reading from Matthew 13:31-33,44-52, we read parable after parable describing the Kingdom of God. All of these parables are short, sweet, and inexact. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, yeast, treasure, a searching merchant, a net, and a scribe. Many of these “likes” are a bit absurd. A person finds treasure and hides it in a field. They then buy the field and keep their treasure buried. A merchant is looking for pearls, finds one, and then stops being a merchant. The fisherman waits until the fish are on the shore before he sorts through his catch but he doesn’t toss the unwanted creatures back into the water. And then, after a chapter full of parables, Jesus asked his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” And the disciples said, “Yes.”

This doesn’t feel like a honest yes. When we step back and look at everything in Matthew 13, this “yes” by the disciples reads like a “yes” trying to get Jesus to stop talking. Over and over and over again, Jesus teaches them with a parable. The disciples are overwhelmed by absurd stories and they are not given the time to process what they’re hearing. So when Jesus finally paused and asked them a question, they respond with just, “yes.” They don’t even try to explain what they understand. Jesus understands what they are doing so he responds with another parable about scribes.

According to Richard Lischer in his book Reading the Parables, scribes in Jesus day were not like a master of a household. Scribes were important. They knew how to read and write. They were employed to take notes, write contracts, and compose letters. Even the apostle Paul used scribes to write his letters down. Scribes are useful but they are not the head of the household. They are hired by the head of the household. Yet Jesus says the disciples “will preserve…all that is eternal in the law and the righteousness of God, and so doing will find the greatest treasure of all.” The absurdity of Jesus’ ministry is that his followers of tax collectors, fishermen, women, and sinners will know, find, and pass God’s holiness and goodness to those around them.

Parables are not simple stories we’re asked to only understand. They are stories we’re supposed to chew on, over and over again. When we struggle with Jesus’ words, we discover who God is and what God expects of us. Jesus’ journey with us isn’t about providing easy answers to the dilemmas we face. Instead, he prepares us to live in the world like he does. And that world can sometimes be absurd.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 8th Sunday After Pentecost, 7/30/2017.

Children’s Sermon: Better Know A Liturgy – God’s Story

Bring a bag of books! We’re also showing our publicity video today.

I’m so happy you’re here today!

So this is week six of our time talking about worship – about liturgy – about what we do on Sunday mornings. We’ve talked about the prelude and the lighting of candles. We’ve talked about making announcements and being a welcoming space for all kinds of people who gather here to talk about God. We talked about Confession & Forgiveness – where we start our worship by being honest about the ways we make mistakes and how God, through forgiveness, helps us be more like Jesus. We talked about shaking hands and sharing peace with each other cuz that’s what Jesus today. And last time, 2 weeks ago, we talked about why we sing.

But before we get to worship, I have a question for you: do you like stories? What’s your favorite story?

I know I’ve shared books here before of stories I share with my two kids. And these are all books that we read a lot during bedtime. Go through the stack of books. You might know these or you might have your own. And we learn about these stories in a lot of different ways. We might hear stories our parents or guardians liked and then they shared them with us. We might learn new stories at school or daycare. A friend might tell us a story to read or we might just find one when we are at the library, browsing through books. Stories are important and it’s good to read and share these stories.

Which is why, every Sunday, we hear God’s story. And we hear that story in….show a bible. Every Sunday we hear different part of God’s story. We hear about God’s story with the people of Israel. We hear something that Jesus did or said. We hear a bit of a letter or special writing that others shared as well. We hear god’s story each and every Sunday because when we know God’s story, we know how much God love us and we learn how God wants us to live our lives. So the more we hear God’s story, the more our story become God’s.

So in honor of telling stories, we’re going to watch a story about this church that we just created. It was organized and devised by Mr. Scance, one of the musicians here, and it’s a 10 minute film about the story of this church – about who we are, what we do, and where we are going!

So go back to your seats and get ready to watch CLC’s story

Each week, I share a reflection for all children of God. The written manuscript serves as a springboard for what I do. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship on the 8th Sunday After Pentecost, 7/30/2017.

Sighs Too Deep For Words

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:26-39

My sermon from 8th Sunday after Pentecost (July 30, 2017) on Romans 8:26-39. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Who are your faith partners? Who do you pray with? Who are your go-tos when you need a little Jesus in your life?

These were the questions on my mind last night, as I sat on my bedroom floor, drafting my sermon. On the bed behind me was a pile of laundry I needed to put away and, next to me, was a pile of pillows that were in the wrong place. Next to the pillows, however, was one of my newer faith partners. She was just lying there, half covering my bulletin, my bible, and the commentaries I was looking at. In fact, her and her brother always seem to be around when I’m sermonizing. It doesn’t matter where I am in my house – If I’m working on a sermon, my two cats, Finn and Flotus, show up. Any bible or biblical commentary I’m using becomes the pillow for a fuzzy friend. If I wiggle my toes while I write, I soon have claws deep into my socks. And if I’m sitting there, staring at a blank screen with no idea what to write, both Finn and Flotus act like they’re listening as I bounce ideas off their furry little heads. These 2 friends hear every word I preach. They listen as I scrap my first and my second and my fourth draft. And if it’s 3 pm or 3 am, they’re both just…there, my two faithful companions accompanying me in this life of faith.

Now, I have no idea if Paul had a pet while on his missionary journeys around the Mediterranean. It might have been helpful if he did because science shows that a pet helps lower your blood pressure, decreases your stress levels, and increases your quality of life. Based on some of the things we know Paul wrote, there are times when being less stressed might have been good before he put pen to papyrus paper. But our reading today from his letter to the Romans isn’t one of those pieces. Instead, it’s one of the most beautiful verses he ever shared. The love embedded in these words is why this passage was read at the last memorial service and funeral I was a part of. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Paul is telling this community of Gentiles located in capital of the most powerful empire in the world, an empire that crucified Jesus because he was a rabble rouser in a small city in an insignificant part of the Roman Empire. Paul is telling this small group of men and women, slaves and free, rich and poor, that there is nothing they can do to get God to love them more. It’s too late to try and bargain with God. God has already played God’s hand. Jesus has already showed up. So what else could they possibly need?

Paul’s confident declaration is….awesome. It’s empowering, inspiring, and amazing – all at once. But that confidence isn’t, always, our default reality. Paul’s confidence isn’t something we always have. Sure, we might be able to say God loves us, but there are plenty of times in our life when God….isn’t on our minds. Or maybe there’s a crisis or a loss, or doubt or fear or worry or concerns or a million other reasons – that are making this Jesus thing something that doesn’t feel like it includes us. When the church hurts us or when we watch as self-professed Christians hurt or discriminate or attack others because of who they are, or how they were born, or what’s happened to them…it’s not hard to look at this Jesus thing and think it’s not for us. There are times when Paul’s words empower us to feel and love and be the Christians God calls us to be. But there are other times when Paul’s words seem like bits of air that sound meaningless.

I would like to be able to stand here and say that little Harper, who we’re about to baptize today, will never have those kinds of moments. I want her faith to be strong. I want her to know that Jesus is with her no matter what. I want her to experience what being with Jesus is all about so that Paul’s words are her words, always. But I know that the life of faith isn’t always like that. There are times when, even after we do everything right, things just…don’t seem to go the way they should. Harper will live her life and, at some point, she’s going to feel loss. She’s going to shed real tears. She’s going to suffer that broken heart even though all who love her will do everything they can to prevent that from happening. She’s going to discover that there are moments in our life when we are at a crossroads and, as one commentator put it, we don’t have the words to say and we have no idea even what to pray.

And that’s why, I think, God gives us a faithful companion that’s a little less fuzzy that Finn and Flotus, but one that is more permanent and always present. At those times when we don’t know what to say, this faithful companion will give us the words we need. And when we can’t pray, this faithful companion will intercede and get others to pray for us. Because once we’re part of Jesus’s family, once those waters of baptism are poured over us, our relationship with God doesn’t depend on having the confidence of Paul. Even when life has taken away all the words we can muster, the Holy Spirit, this faithful companion, is ours, forever. And this companion does more than just sit, curled up next to us, with ears twitching when we call her name. This Spirit gives us the breath we need and empowers us so that we can become a faithful companion to God and to all who God claims. The life of faith isn’t just something we have. The life of faith is lived. It’s a life active in love, active in care, and filled with hope because we, along with Harper, are part of a larger family – a family where Jesus leads us, a family where Jesus loves us, and a family where being a faithful companion to all becomes who we are. The Spirit will give us the words. The Spirit will keep us silent when we need to be. And the Spirit will keep turning us into Jesus’ people, whether we’re eight months old or 102. We might not be able to speak Paul’s words but, through the Spirit, those words are already ours. So let’s trust what we have been given, this faithful companion that will keep Jesus’ promises close to us, no matter what may come.

Amen.

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Life Carries On: A taste of prayer in Romans

Taking a Sunday off during a sermon series is a little problematic. But like the British band Big Audio Dynamite says, “Life carries on, even when I’m not there.” And that’s true. Life is happening to other people and in other places even as you read these worlds. As human beings, we are the centers of our own little universes. People and situations revolve, interact, and move through and around us. We sometimes act as if the possibilities of life are limited to our own experiences, senses, and imaginations. But other people lives, thoughts, and experiences that are not our own. We are all centers of our own little universes but we are not the center of the entire universe. Yet with God’s Spirit, we can see what a full, thriving, and loving life can possibly be.

This passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans 8:12-25 is amazing because Paul is making a bold claim here. He’s telling this small community of two dozen people that they are who the world is waiting for. These men and women, rich and poor, slaves and free, are everything. Now, there is a dangerous way to read this passage. If the Roman community took these words as an excuse to push others away or to act like they are the only people entitled to being with God, then Paul’s words create an us-vs-them view of the world that is problematic. The Roman community would seem themselves as “winners” and reject, forcefully, anyone who doesn’t fit in. Their relationship with God would be an entitlement that would be for them alone and no one else.

But Paul isn’t, I think, doing that here. We need to remember the context of Paul’s letter. He is writing to a small community located in the capital city of the Empire that killed Jesus. They are a community that celebrates and worships someone who was killed as a criminal in the worst way possible. They worship and celebrate what should be the epitome of weakness and smallness. And as a mixed community, they are filled with slaves who had no control over the violence inflicted on their bodies. This community is insignificant. Yet it’s this community that Paul says is worth everything. They, through the Spirit, will change the world.

And how will they do that? Paul doesn’t go into details here but will later in his letter. The how is rooted in the why because living with the Spirit makes a difference. We can see that in our prayers. When we pray, the Spirit is helping us to believe that our smallness can talk to the everlasting God. In our worship service, that’s why each Sunday has a specific prayer of the day. Before we read God’s story and share with Jesus a holy and special meal, we ask God to make that Spirit live within us. This Spirit doesn’t ask us to create a world of winners and losers. This Spirit asks us to live a life of love that is as complete as God’s love for each of us. Because it’s this kind of love, a love that even sacrifice itself for its enemies, that all our universes need.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 7th Sunday After Pentecost, 7/23/2017.

Children’s Sermon: Better Know A Liturgy – Gathering hymn and all singing

Bring a bag of puppets.

I’m so happy you’re here today!

So this is week five of our time talking about worship – about liturgy – about what we do on Sunday mornings. We’ve talked about the prelude and the lighting of candles. We’ve talked about making announcements and being a welcoming space for all kinds of people who gather here to talk about God. Last week, we talked about Confession & Forgiveness – where we start our worship by being honest about the ways we make mistakes and how God, through forgiveness, helps us be more like Jesus. Last week we talked about shaking hands and sharing peace with each other cuz that’s what Jesus today.

And today we’re gonna talk about singing! And we’re gonna use puppets to do it.

Pass out puppets. So which puppet do you have? What noises does that animal make? What noises would that animal make if it sang? Some of these animals would probably have beautiful voices. But some of them….might sound bad. Some might be loud or scratchy or hissy or just hurt our ears. A moose and a snake sing differently and not always good to our ears.

Now, this week, I got to sing the song Happy Birthday to someone. And that’s a song most of us know. But I want to tell you something: I didn’t always like singing happy birthday. I didn’t always like singing. I didn’t like my voice. I never took lessons. I still get nervous singing because I still sometimes struggle with my voice. Learning to sing takes time, and effort, and work. And sometimes we don’t sing as well as we want to.

But we sing in church – loudly, no matter how we think our voice sounds. We might sing beautifully, or we might think we sound like a moose. We might sing a song that we’ve never seen before or one we’ve seen a million times. But whatever we see, we sing. We sing because music moves us; songs inspire us; and when we want to share how much God loves us and how big a difference jesus makes in our lives – sometimes only a song will do.

Thank you for being here! And I hope to see you next week (except I’ll be on vacation).

Each week, I share a reflection for all children of God. The written manuscript serves as a springboard for what I do. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship on the 6th Sunday After Pentecost, 7/16/2017.