Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Struggle of Wonderful Grace

Grace is a powerful force.
It changes lives.
It helps us see beauty in unusual places.
It sets us free.
It is wonderful.
But it always comes with struggle, with pain, with loss.
We forget this about grace.
We want it to come to us easily, without the other parts.
We want it to be a magical pill that cures all our ills.
We want it to be instantaneous.
The faith of God's grace given in Jesus Christ is about a story.
It is about our story interacting with God's story of redemption and love.
I want to encourage all of us this morning to think about our stories.
And to think about how the pain, sin, loss, heartache, and struggles of our lives lead us to know God's grace.

Our stories cannot just be about the end result.
It has to incorporate the other parts, even the ugly parts, the parts we don't want to talk about.
I was talking to someone a couple of weeks ago.
He was a believer at one point in his life, but doesn't currently..
He  wanted to know from me why God had let some bad things happen in his life.
Why had God allowed his father to die?
Why had God allowed him to become an alcoholic?
Why had God not done a better job of caring for him in his life?
What I couldn't explain to him was that all of those things were not of God's making.
But that if he would have looked at his life he would have seen grace.
He would have seen Jesus in his recovery.
He would have seen Jesus in helping him to deal with his father's death.
Those darker turns of his life would have been part of his story that lead him to see Jesus' grace.
We have to go through hell to get to heaven.
In John's Gospel the lifting up of Jesus into glory is both his death on a cross and his resurrection.
Those thing go together.
It is in the death, pain, and heartache that we experience the wonder of the resurrection.
Any story of one's faith has to consider that we experience grace only in those times when we think it is not possible.

We have confused this.
We think that forgiveness comes without confession.
That grace comes without the struggle that goes with wondering why we are here in this moment.

The story can't be.
I did nothing wrong and I am wondering where is God's grace.
The story can't be.
Nothing bad has ever happened to me and now I know God's grace.
The story can't be.
I did nothing wrong now forgive me.

Any faith story has to be more complex.
It is twisted with dying and rising.
It is twisted with sin and redemption.
It is twisted with pain and relief.
It is twisted with struggle.

Recently it came to light that the President of the United Lutheran Seminary didn't put on her application that she was the executive director of a group that worked on "conversion therapy".
For those that don't know conversion therapy is an evil thing, that tries to convert people from being gay into being straight.
It is illegal in many states.
She was the executive director of this group 20 years ago.
Eventually someone found out about it.
There were people saying, "This happened a long time ago. A lot of people used to believe in this. She has changed her mind. Let's just let it go."
My problem is that she never made this part of her life part of her faith story.
It was probably a great story.
All of us have things we used to believe in that we find out later are not good.
All of us have things we have to change about ourselves.
She wanted the grace without the hard work that goes with confession, forgiveness, and understanding of who we really are.

This is what Jesus always confronts us with.
I find it weird that in our Gospel this morning Jesus doesn't really answer the Greeks.
When they ask to see him he doesn't say, "Sure come on in."
Instead he says, "If you really want to see me here is what it means."
It means that you will see me die and resurrected.
To understand me is to know that this will then be your story.
It will mean that glory comes through the hard and uncomfortable work of dying and rising.
It means giving of your life.
That you will have to wrestle with that as long as you are alive.

Isn't that the truth.
Wouldn't it be easier to not have to confront ourselves.
To not have to ask hard questions of our past.
To not have to wonder about who we are, and why we do the things we do.
Wouldn't it just be easier to live a life without care.
Don't worry about who we hurt, or why we do what we do.
Just do what feels good to you.
Just do what you think and believe.
Never have to confront yourself or the world around you.
That sounds like a pretty easy life, it is not a life of faith in Jesus Christ.
That life has costs, it has struggle in those deep questions of who we are and what we are about.

Why do it?
Because the payoff is grand.
Grace is so wonderful and beautiful.
It is so freeing.
It frees us from things we don't even know hold us back.
It frees us from having to hold onto so much resentment, and anger, and shame.
Like the man who came to see me who had lived through so much.
How much would he be able to let go of if he could see his life through death and resurrection, through confession and grace.

Mostly to herself.
She had not done the work of making her life story part of her faith journey.
I pray that she will.
Because I know that on the other side is grace.
The other side is the one who was lifted up so that the whole world would be drawn to God's grace.

May your story follow the story of one who gave his life so that we might have ours.
May your story be one of pain, sin, heartache, suffering, and loss.
So that you might know the glory of God's grace.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

We Are Broken

A couple of weeks ago I was standing line to get popcorn at the movies.
My daughter Phoebe was with me.
She was telling me about some things happening at school.
Then she asks me this question, "Is everyone broken"?
It is a deep question, and where I want to start my sermon this morning.
In order to understand John 3:16 I think we need to understand this question.
Everyone is broken.
Not some people, some of the time.
But everyone all of the time.
And because everyone is broken our world is broken.
This is important the world is broken.
We tend to read this passage as being about our individualistic salvation, but it is really about how God saves not just us but the world.
The world doesn't work.
We have a false sense of security.
We think the world works, or will work.
if only we vote in the right person, or pass the right law.
Or we think it works in certain parts of the world, but not in other.

My answer to Phoebe was, "Everyone is broken, some just hide it better."
Some of us can hide our brokenness behind money, or tough talk, or self congratulations, or self delusion.
But if we are able to really see everyone for who they really are we would see people broken by something.
We all have something.

This week I read an article by the Basketball player Kevin Love.
He plays for the Cleveland cavaliers.
He is an all-star, NBA champion.
Richer than you or I will ever be.
He wrote about his problems with anxiety.
He had a panic attack  in the middle of a game.
At the end he wrote this, "Mental health isn’t just an athlete thing.
What you do for a living doesn’t have to define who you are.
 This is an everyone thing.
No matter what our circumstances, we’re all carrying around things that hurt — and they can hurt us if we keep them buried inside."
Kevin Love is essentially saying everyone is broken.

And this is why the world is broken.
It is why nothing works as it should.
It is why politicians are always caught lying, or cheating.
It is why our schools are not helping children succeed.
It is why we are killing each other.
It is why we are working harder and getting less results.

I want to believe that things can be fixed.
That we can make things better.
But I know that we are all broken.
It is hard to put things back together that are broken.

God's answer to this brokenness of the world is not to fix it.
God didn't come down to earth and make take away all the brokeness.
It is not to give us a prescription for getting rid of it.
God's answer is to join in it.
To be lifted up on a tree.
To be killed in the most humiliating way possible.
God's answer to our pain is to join it.

Interesting that we took that and made it into an institution.
We gave people titles of honor, we made a hierarchy, we gave power to a few people.
We built up a church around Jesus and made it almost impossible to actually see Jesus.
Because when we come here together we dress up.
We look good, we keep our kids quite so they don't disturb anyone.
We put on a good show.

I don't understand us.
We talk about our need for Jesus, our imperfections.
But we try to hide them from each other.
What God tells us is that it is only in love that we enter into each other's pain, and brokenness.
It is only out of love that we try to understand someone else.
It was out of love that God tried to understand us through Jesus.
Jesus came so that we might stop trying to be something we are not.

When something bad happens the first reaction we have is to ask, "how do we fix this?"
how do we stop this from happening?
And maybe the first question we should be asking is, "How has my brokenness contributed to this?"
Where is there a need for confession?
Where is there a need for love, empathy, justice, forgiveness, kindness?
Where is God's heart in this?

While talking to Phoebe she wanted to know how to fix it.
And I struggled to give her a good answer.
I struggled in this part of my sermon to come up with something that will be helpful to all of you.
Here is what I came up with.
Reading Kevin Love's story again, he talks about how he never thought that he could have anxiety.
He was taught to be a man, be tough, deal with it himself.
That is what lead him to his panic attack.
We need to talk about our brokenness more.
We need to share it with each other.
We need to name it.
That will be healing for us, to know that we are not alone, that we can find solace in each other's pain.

And as people of faith we need to look up.
We need to see Jesus lifted up on a cross.
It is there that we find God's heart for the world, and for us.
God comes not to condemn us, but to love us.
To give us something we can use in this life.
I have been clinging to that lately.
Yes, the world is broken, the systems the world creates don't work.
And yet God loves this world enough to join it.
And I don't believe that God has left us alone to spin out of control.

I think of what St. Paul said, "I see now only in a mirror dimly."
I can't see all the ways that God is fixing the brokenness.
Most days I can't see it at all.
But in faith I trust that it is being fixed.
In the meantime God has entered our pain in order to understand it.
That God is there for you and me, and the world.

Today you came to worship broken.
You will go back out into a world that is broken.
But you have come here and lifted up your head to see Jesus there for you, and now you leave knowing that you are not alone.
You know that other's share in your brokenness, and that it is good and right to talk about it.
That we can't fake it.
It will be our brokenness that saves us.
Because if we can see that we are all broken then we can be more Christ like to each other.
We can be more loving, forgiving, kind, and merciful.
Not because we are those things, but because Jesus Christ is.

We all have something we are dealing with.
So let us share our brokenness with each other, with the world.
Let us look up to Christ who is broken so that we can know the depths of God's love for our world.
Let us trust that Jesus has come to save our world from our brokeness.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Life on Mars! Some Thoughts on Turning 45!

For some reason I have been going through a David Bowie phase. My kids keep asking me, “Dad, what’s up with you and David Bowie”. I bought the book, The Age of Bowie: How David Bowie Made a World of Difference, by Paul Morley. I purchased two new David Bowie vinyl records (The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory). I believe certain music finds us at certain times for certain reasons so I have been thinking about why David Bowie and why now. My current phase started with the song, “Life on Mars”. I had heard it before, but became obsessed recently. For those that don’t know it is a song about dislocation. It is about feeling that the world is not of your own making. I will let David Bowie explain, “I think she (the girl in the song) finds herself disappointed with reality…that although she’s living in the doldrums of reality, she’s being told that there’s far greater life somewhere, and she bitterly disappointed she doesn’t have access to it.” As I turn 45 this is how I am feeling dislocated from the world. I have spent my life trying to construct a different world, and hopefully one that is better.
               I have always believed that we were moving to a new place. I have tried to live a life centered in God’s love. I have tried to find a way to understand people, even the people I don’t understand. I have dedicated my life to preaching and teaching that all people are created by God, and loved by God. And I am feeling that all of that work has failed. We live in a world that seems to be getting crueler, nastier, and harder of heart. Recently at a family dinner I broke down and apologized to my kids for the world they would inherit. I asked them to remember that I did try, but failed to produce a world that was better. I failed to create a world not being destroyed by corporate polluters, taken over by racial hatred, homophobia, and xenophobia. I have failed because we live in a world that wages war on the poor and disenfranchised, allows kids to be slaughtered at school by guns, separates families based on where they were born. In the words of Jack Black’s character in the movie, School of Rock,“The Man ruined the ozone, and he's burning down the Amazon, and he kidnappedShamu and put her in a chlorine tank!”
              I don’t know if 45 is the middle of my life. I know all too well that we simply don’t know how long we have on this earth. But it feels like the middle, like I am walking on a razor edge. And half of me is sad, frustrated, disappointed about the world we live in. I hear it in the stories my kids bring home from school. I hear the cruelty, the meanness, the violence, the disrespect for human life. I know that the world was like this when I was kid. I know that kids were cruel then too. Racism, sexism, homophobia all existed before now. I was hoping to make a difference. To create a world that was different for my kids to live in. I am also well aware that all those things exist in me too. In my human brokenness is my own sin. I was hoping to be better myself. It has been hard year to realize that the world is just mean, as mean as it ever was. It is hard to think that there is something better out there and realizing you don’t have access to it.
           But middle age means not only losing our optimistic view of the future. It is not only realizing we live in a world that we wish was different, that we were hoping to create. It also means a nostalgia for something that never was. I am finding myself being very nostalgic for days I can only remember as endless and free. I am nostalgic for summer days spent going to beach, jumping from cliffs, sitting in a movie theater, goofing with friends. All of the past is clouded in this nostalgia. It all seems so innocent now, so wonderful.
           I have been listening to songs about nostalgia. Not songs that make me think of a certain time and place, but songs that speak of what was and how great it was. I have been listening to songs that sing of that longing for that time gone by. I came up with a playlist of these songs.
Poems, Prayers, and Promises – John Denver
Fire and Rain – James Taylor
We all Go Back to Where We Belong – REM
Touch of Grey – Grateful Dead
These Are The Days of Our Lives – Queen
Glory Days – Bruce Sprignsteen
I Wanna Go Back – Eddie Money
Runaways - The Killers
Shining Through the Dark - Ryan Adams
Yesterday - The Beatles
Fire and Rain - James Taylor
Losing Days - Frank Turner
Ode to My Family - The Cranberries
When it Began - The Replacements
Home That Never Was - Chadwick Stokes
Stars are Crazy - Lindsey Buckingham
100 Years - Five for Fighting
The Toast - Adam Ezra 

            It might seem from what I am saying that I am depressed about turning 45, or that I am going to have some major breakdown. I will buy some fancy sport car, or run off on some crazy adventure in order to recapture my early days. The truth is that what I really feel is gratitude. It seems weird thing to say considering what I have written above. In the middle we walk the razor’s edge of what was and what is going to be. I can only be thankful for what has come before. I can only be thankful for those memories of glorious times gone by. I am thankful for those summers on the shores of the Lake Ossippee, the people I have met, the friends I have, the Church that formed me, the family that raised me. All of those things are what brings me to this point. They have made up a fabric of my life that is far from ordinary or boring. I am nostalgic, but I would never want to live those days again. I actually like these days a lot. They are filled with different things like picking up my kids from school, sharing a fancy dinner on Friday nights, snuggling on the couch and watching a movie, trips in a car together, getting away for a night out, working on a sermon, visiting people in a hospital, sitting around a table with family and talking about the challenges of life. These are great days. In some ways these days do seem like a life on Mars. They are better than I could have dreamed. My life is so rich and wonderful I am thankful for it. When I was young I am not sure I imagined it to be this good.     

            I am still dismayed at the world’s cruelty. The good news is I am not done yet. I still have some more years to convince others of the power of love, the goodness of God, the beauty of grace, the importance of justice. My hope lies in God. I also see in my children an improvement over what I lived through. They are more open to things that were taboo in my day. They don’t care if someone is gay, transgendered, or whatever. They are open to the world in such wonderful and beautiful ways. So I see that this is the way of life. We pass things down. We hand off the work that is always ongoing. I am sure they will face their own challenges, they will have to make the world they live in their own. They will have to decide what kind of world they want to create. Will they live here or move to Mars? I hope they choose Mars! I hope they don’t accept that things are the way they are. I believe in the kingdom come, in God making something new out of the dust we create.

            And ultimately this is where I am right now at 45. I am in the middle, in the space in between, on the razor’s edge. I am living somewhere between despair and hope, acceptance and rejection, what was and what is to come, life and death. I am in between life as it is and life as it could be, between life here on earth and life on Mars. All in all it is not a horrible place to be. I am happy for this time of my life to live in that in between space. I am grateful to be alive. I the words of John Lennon, “Where there is life there is hope”. I can honestly say that I am looking forward to what comes next, because you never know there just might be life on Mars. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Turning Points

Today’s Gospel is a turning point.
It is the point in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus literally turns his back on people’s expectations, and begins to tell them what it really means to be the Son of Man, the Messiah.
Jesus didn’t come to overthrow the Romans, didn’t come to walk on water, still storms, or even heal the sick.
He came to give his life.
To show us that it is only when we give our lives do we really find them.
Only when we deny ourselves do we follow Jesus.
It is in the cross that Jesus shows us what it really means to live a godly life, a good life.
It is here in this moment with Peter that the Gospel turns.
And the question for the disciples and for us is will we turn with it.
Will we follow Jesus?
Will we give up our ideas of what it means to be great?
Will we give up our world?

Maybe all of lent for us is a turning point.
It is a time to reflect on life, on where we are, where we are going.
It is a time to reflect on the priorities we have in our lives.
To think about what our relationship with Jesus really means to us.
What are the things that really matter?
What are we giving our time, our energy to?

In our lives we have turning points.
Times that make us reevaluate.
Times that make us change and redirect.
I was thinking a lot about those times this week.
Some of those things are part of life, they are part of how we think things will go in our lives.
Like our first day of school, or graduating high school, getting married, having kids, college, our first job, retiring.
Those are all turning points for some people.
Other people have other events like this in their lives.
But they are things that happen over a lifetime.

And of course there are things that we don’t expect.
Things that happen to us, or maybe even that we choose that are unexpected.
I know a big turning point in my life was when I didn’t make the freshman basketball team.
I thought I would.
I had been a starter the year before on our Jr. High team that was second in the state.
I loved basketball.
I played a lot.
It was in some ways the most important thing in my life.
But then it all changed, in that moment.
I can tell you for certain that if I would have made that team I wouldn’t be a pastor today.
I wouldn’t have gone to Calumet to be a CIT, because I would have been playing basketball all summer.
I wouldn’t have seen that I have a gift and passion for teaching about God’s love.
I wouldn’t have been as understanding about our need for God’s grace.
My life would have been different.

What about you?
What moments seem like turning points in your life?
What moments have happened to you that you didn’t expect?
How has that lead you to this point?

The thing about turning points is that they are also moments of God’s grace.
Because they shake us up.
They make us look at our life differently.
They make us understand ourselves differently.

I know that many of you are going through these kinds of moments.
Some of you are making major decisions about your life.
Some of you are trying to make decisions about where you will spend the last years of life.
Some of you are looking for jobs.
Some of you have lost major relationships in your life.
All of these things are turning points.
And the truth is that usually they are difficult.

I was talking with one of our older members about having to give up driving.
I know from past experience that this is one of the hardest things in life to do.
It represents so much.
It is a loss of freedom and mobility.
It is a turning point for people.
It forces people to rely on others.
And forces people to reevaluate what are the things that matter, and why we do the things we do.

I think that in our Gospel this morning we all feel a little like Peter.
Peter is the one of the most important disciples.
And Peter thinks he knows the answer.
And Jesus just blew it up.
Changes what Peter thought to be true.
It is really disorientating.
Jesus is going to die!
Peter just can’t accept that answer.

That is the same for all of us when we hit those turning points.
This is not the way we saw it playing out.
This is not the way we thought our lives would go.
Maybe we thought it might happen someday, but not now.
We like Peter don’t like the idea that things must die to be resurrected.
That life includes its fair share of suffering and rejection.

So what does Jesus say that will be helpful?
Jesus tells us this morning that it is in those turning points when we lose the lives we think we should have that we find a deeper spiritual truth.
It is in the giving up, that we profit.
When we lose things in our lives we learn to turn again to God.
When we can’t count on money, or youth, or our ability, we learn to turn again to Jesus.
It is in this turning that we realize what I assume Peter and the other disciples came to realize, Jesus is in the suffering, dying, and resurrecting.
That it is in the turning that we come to understand better the love and grace of God.

I know I did when I didn’t make the basketball team.
I know that others do when they lose a part of themselves they thought they couldn’t live without.
I am not suggesting that any of that is easy, I am simply saying that there is something deeper going on in those turning points than we are able to realize at the time.

It is in the losing, the letting go, the cost of living that we find something better.
We find Jesus.
We find our true selves.

This lent may it be a turning point for all of us.
Let us turn to see Jesus in the turning points of our lives.
To see in the dying...rising.
In the loss…profit.
In the letting go…gain.
To see in our lives the grace of God that runs through our lives and helps us to turn to Jesus again.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018


It has been my experience that people don’t like confrontation.
We will avoid it as long as possible.
We don’t like to have to talk about issues that are difficult.
We don’t like the feeling of being uncomfortable.
Usually we wait until we absolutely have to before we confront someone about things.
And usually by that time we have built up lots of resentment and anger.
It is my contention that most of the time when people wrong us they don’t know they are doing it.
It is only when we confront them with our pain do they understand.
The interesting thing is that once we do confront people afterward we feel better.

There was this moment in seminary.
I was talking to a classmate.
She was an African American.
I said something that I thought was true.
I had said it before in other conversations and people seem to agree with me.
She confronted me.
She told me, in a wonderfully thoughtful way, that what I had just said was racists.
At first I was defensive, but the more I thought about it the more I realized she was right.
It was a best an insensitive thing to say, and at worse it was simply hurtful.
What if she had not confronted me?
What if she let it go?
I would still be saying that thing, and thinking that way.
Confrontation is essential in human relationships.

It is also a major part of Jesus’ ministry.
I mention it because Mark’s telling of Jesus’ temptation is stark.
It doesn’t have all the banter of Luke’s or Matthew’s Gospel.
It just tells us the bare bones.
Jesus is driven into the wilderness.
He is tempted by Satan, and the wild beasts are there.
He is served by angels.
It fits in well with the way that Mark tells the story of Jesus.
Things happen fast.
But reading it this time it struck me that essentially what Jesus is doing here is confronting evil.
And it will be what Jesus does throughout the Gospel confront evil.
And Jesus will confront that evil directly and straight on.
The mission of Jesus is to spread good news.
The good news is that the kingdom of God has come near, and to ask people to repent so that they can believe in that good news.

That what Jesus asks of us is to confront evil.
Jesus asks us to confront the evil in us, and around us.
To ask hard questions of ourselves, and about the world we live in.
And the truth of those confrontations is that it won’t be easy.
It will be uncomfortable.
We will at times feel afraid.
We will at times feel ashamed for what we think or do.
We will at times have to come to admit our deepest feelings or shortcomings.
And none of that sounds fun.
However, on the other side of that confrontation there is good news.
The process of repenting and being forgiven leads us to good news.

If you were to read Mark’s Gospel in one sitting you will see that all that confronting is no fun.
In a world filled with hatred, prejudice, corruption, and violence it is exhausting to always be confronting the world.
It is exhausting to have to always be feeling that things can be better and are not getting any better.

I know I feel exhausted about the world we live in.
This week we were yet again confronted with news that 17 people were shot at a school in Florida.
We had more killing with a gun, more violence.
I am exhausted trying to find a way to talk about this issue with people.
I am exhausted trying to find the strength to weep again for more kids being killed.
I am exhausted because I know yet again we won’t do anything about it.
We won’t pass any new laws, we will talk about mental illness, but we won’t do anything about that either.
We will blame the culture, blame the parents, blame the teachers, and blame each other.
But we won’t confront the real issue.
Why do we love violence?
Why do we love guns?
I am going to tell you this morning the truth, and it is not politically correct to say.
It might anger some of you.
But I don’t like guns.
I don’t like them.
I think they are a symptom of a deeper problem we face, that we as a society are addicted to violence.
We think it will solve the problems we have.
But as Jesus has told us, “live by the sword, you will die by the sword.”
We seem to be dying a lot lately.

But there is another problem we face and that is we can’t even talk about it.
I want to invite any one to talk to me about this at any time.
I know we have people in our congregation that have guns, or like guns.
I want to talk to you about it.
Let us try to understand each other.
Because that is how we solve problems.
We talk about it.
We don’t just go on Facebook and post a newspaper article we read, we don’t just Tweet out something.
We talk.
We confront each other, face to face, in person.

We have been told that you don’t discuss politics or religion.
I guess because those subjects are too heated.
The problem for me is that it is my job to talk about religion.
And most often that job comes into contact with politics.
I think that this has also been a disservice to us, because we have learned not to talk about those things.
And now we can’t.
We have forgotten how to talk to each other.
We have forgotten how to confront each other.
We have forgotten how to be humble enough to say we are wrong.
We have forgotten how to listen.

We can’t be afraid to talk to each other.
We can’t be afraid to be wrong.
We can’t be afraid to repent.
All those things are outcomes when we confront one another.
When we take on the evil that lives in us it will be hard, but on the other side is good news and the kingdom of God.

But it is not something we do alone.
Jesus is an essential part of this process for us.
It is the Holy Spirit that leads us into the dessert.
It is Jesus who confronts us with the good news of the kingdom of God.
Are we ready for that kingdom?
Are we ready to repent?
Lent is that time for us to let Jesus confront us with our sin.
Lent is the time for us in the wilderness, when we contemplate our love of violence, power, and money.
We will have to confront our prejudices, our corruption, and how lost we are.
But on the other side is good news!
We are loved, the world is loved, and the kingdom of God has come.

I hope for you this lent confrontation.
I hope for you confrontation of your own sin, and that of the world.
Don’t be afraid, or ashamed, because God is on the other side of that process waiting to serve you, like the angels served Jesus.
Don’t be afraid because confrontation is part of human relationships, and what is needed to bring the kingdom of God.