Epiphany 2, Year A, 2017

We know Jesus’ debut really well right?

We definitely have his birth story down. We read it every year. If our kids are of a certain age, we may even have the pageant script memorized! We know how Jesus came on the scene.

But what about his adult debut? We know he gets baptized, of course. We could probably give a pretty clear description of how he comes across John the Baptist in the wilderness and asks to be baptized. We might even remember that the heavens open for a moment and God’s voice booms down, “This my son, the beloved. With him I am well pleased.”

But what about Jesus’ first public words in each Gospel? How does he present himself?

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus comes out of his experience of temptation in the desert, goes right to the temple, unrolls a scroll and begins to read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me!”

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus comes out of the desert and proclaims “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

These are all dramatic proclamations of Jesus’ identity. He is telling the world who he is, and what he stands for. Today though, we aren’t reading from those Gospels. Today, we are reading from the Gospel of John.

In the Gospel of John, we get a slightly different story. Jesus’ baptism happens off-stage. We just get John’s word for it that God spoke and called Jesus his beloved. Two of John’s followers overhear John saying that Jesus is the Lamb of God. This makes them curious, so they start to secretly follow Jesus. Can you picture them staying a few paces back, occasionally slipping behind a tree when he looks around? Eventually Jesus stops, turns around, and speaks his first public words. But these words aren’t a profound declaration about who he is. He asks a question, “What are you looking for?” Another translation might be, “What are you seeking?”

These are Jesus’ very first followers. Can you imagine? He now has literally a billion followers, but once there were just two. Two curious men willing to sneak around to follow someone they knew to be of God. Two men willing to be impolite, willing to drop whatever their plans were for the day. Two men willing to be out in the wilderness listening to John the Baptist talk about God. We laugh at their bumbling attempts to tail Jesus, but they are the genesis of a movement that would change the world.

What were they seeking? What are we seeking? Why do we come here week after week to sing old songs and pray old prayers and eat the same meal we eat every single week? Do we come to be soothed by traditions that are familiar to us? Do we come to see people we love? Do we come to encounter the Divine? What are we seeking?

Andrew and his friend don’t have an answer to Jesus’ question. They ask a question in return, “Where are you staying?” Where does the Lamb of God stay? Does he rent a motel room? Stay with a friend? Does he carry a tent with him? Maybe they are really wondering how on earth the Lamb of God dwells with us. How is the presence of God able to stay here, with us? How does that even work?

Jesus invites them to “come and see”. It is his first invitation. In the other Gospels he tells his disciples to “follow me,” but here the invitation has a lower level of commitment. He responds to their immediate question. He doesn’t force them into anything. He simply invites them to see where he is staying. That initial invitation is the beginning of a huge change in the world. Andrew runs off to grab his brother, Simon. Simon, who becomes Peter, who becomes the rock of the church after Jesus’ death. In these very initial moments of Jesus’ ministry, the church is being born. By following Jesus, these disciples get to be part of history.

Jesus’ invitation to Andrew and the other disciple, still stands. “Come and see.” Whatever you are seeking: comfort, forgiveness, joy, meaning; Jesus invites you to come and see what following him will do to your life. Now, be warned, you may not get what you intend. The disciples end up being so devoted to Jesus they each ultimately died in his name.

We may not literally die from following Jesus, but we will be called to die to ourselves. For when we come and see what Jesus is up to, we see that following him isn’t that easy. When we follow Jesus we have to look at ourselves honestly. That’s not easy. When we follow Jesus we have to love other people. That’s not easy. When we follow Jesus we are supposed to put God’s priorities over our own. That’s definitely not easy.

But Jesus knows following him won’t be easy. In his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning writes,

For those who feel their lives are a grave disappointment to God, it requires enormous trust and reckless, raging confidence to accept that the love of Jesus Christ knows no shadow of alteration or change. When Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened,” He assumed we would grow weary, discouraged, and disheartened along the way. These words are a touching testimony to the genuine humanness of Jesus. He had no romantic notion of the cost of discipleship. He knew that following Him was as unsentimental as duty, as demanding as love.

“Come and see.” It is a simple, life changing invitation.

We all have different levels and interests in faith, but this Epiphany we invite you to “Come and see”. Wondered about contemplative prayer? You don’t have to be an expert to come. You don’t have to have prayed a minute in your life! Just come on Mondays at noon and join our prayer team. They’ll teach you what you need to know.

Curious about how it feels to worship God in a different kind of service? Come and see our Celtic service. You may encounter a part of God you’ve not experienced before.

Want to get to know God better? Come and see the bible study for Education for Ministry group? Both work to equip you for a deeper faith by educating you about what we believe about God.

There are many ways to encounter Jesus in this place. Wherever you are, he extends an invitation to you. Come and see.

It will change your life.

Amen.

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Christmas Eve, Year A, 2016

Sometimes, when I am feeling overwhelmed and trying to get some perspective, I just imagine where I stand in the universe. I stand on a patch of ground maybe a square foot large. I am one of seven billion people working and loving and playing on our planet. Our planet is this tiny speck in our galaxy, which is just a speck of a galaxy among billions of other galaxies. Human beings are very, very small if you stack us up next to all of the rest of creation. We are part of something much larger than ourselves, a universe filled with wonder and beauty and a wild order.

You would think the God of the universe wouldn’t give us much of a second thought, since creation is so vast. There are literally infinite numbers of places in space God could spend his time and attention.   And when you do zoom into Earth, and see the rubble and despair in Aleppo, the corruption in governments, and all the ways we hurt each other, you might think God would rather birth a new star or throw rocks into black holes rather than spend time with us.

And yet, knowing full well who we are, God decided to join us. God saw our brokenness and was not repelled, but was drawn toward us. He saw our pain and suffering, he saw our beauty and love and decided to break the barriers he had established between creation and heaven. Centuries of war and slavery did not keep him from us. Even first century sin did not change his mind. Corruption in the Temple could not keep him away. Herod, who wanted to kill him immediately, could not keep him from us. He chose to enter our world, as it is, as it continues to be, beautiful and broken.

In Luke’s Gospel, heaven first crashed through our atmosphere in the form of angels. Gabriel appeared to Mary. The Angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds. God used his messengers to wake up his people, to prepare us for what was to come. These angels appeared to ordinary people, a young girl, a group of shepherds. These were not the elite, just ordinary people going about their business.

But angels are just messengers. They come and go. And God wanted to stay with us. So, with Mary’s cooperation, the God of the Universe became a tiny, vulnerable infant. The Divine took human form and stayed.

In the incarnation, God inhabited our lives. He learned what it meant to not be able to move without another human carrying you around. He learned what it meant to have bodies that hurt. He learned what it meant to be dependent. He learned what it meant to be poor. He learned what it meant to see the world through a limited perspective. He gave our ordinary lives dignity, even holiness by living them alongside of us.

And he gave us an image for this abstract God we had been worshiping. Jesus continued to reach out to real, complicated human beings. He pursued ordinary workers, the oppressed and the oppressors, the grieving, the sick, the mentally ill, women with bad reputations, women with great reputations, children. No one was too insignificant for Jesus to bless with his attention. And no one was so powerful they could intimidate Jesus. He was completely sure of himself, but only because he was so connected to his Father. His strength came from a deep knowledge of his Father’s love for him, and that love poured out of him affecting everyone around him.

The same God who is so infinite that he exists outside of time, chose to make himself specific. And when we follow him, we worship him in all his infinite wonder, but we care about the specific. We contemplate his majesty while we help the poor. We contemplate his divinity, when we see the divine in each person we meet. We contemplate his power as we seek to heal the ill. God’s experience as Jesus changes us and shapes how we understand what it means to be a human being.

We understand now that being human means staying connected to the God that created and loves us. It truly does not matter how much money we make or whether we are respected or successful. If we are connected to God, and learning how much God loves us and how much God loves those around us, then we are pleasing to God.

There is enormous suffering in our world, even 2000 years after Jesus’ birth. We can find ourselves overwhelmed, eager to turn away from the pain of others. Jesus was often surrounded by others’ pain—crowds of needy people followed him wherever he went. He healed whom he could, but he also took breaks. He retreated not to watch TV and numb the pain, but to pray and draw strength from his Father.

We too, are called to care for those who suffer, whether in Aleppo or in our neighborhoods. But we cannot care for them alone. We need the strength of our God, and we need each other. Knowing that each human being is made in God’s image is a huge responsibility. But it is not “us” who are privileged and “they” who suffer. Christians are all around. The Presbyterian Church in Aleppo this week released a statement that read in part,

In this Christmas season, we promise to continue our ministry as a Synod and as a church to be a sign of hope in this despairing time. We will try to plant joy into the life of the society. We will never cease to dedicate our effort to bring love and peace into the city of Aleppo. We will continue our worship services (200 people), ladies meeting (60 ladies), Sunday school (125 children with 18 leaders). Greeting to all of our partners hoping that they will pray for us this Christmas in Aleppo in order that we will meet the needs of marginalized people.

These brothers and sisters remind us that this incredible gift of Jesus’ birth is life changing whether you are surrounded by a beautiful home and lavish presents or whether you are desperately worried as bombs fall on your community. Jesus’ birth to a young woman is not just a sweet story we tell once a year, it the foundation of what makes our lives meaningful. It is the strength to get us through impossibly difficult situations. It is the courage to stand up for what is right and good.  It is the compassion that helps us look up and out and care for those around us.

Jesus may have ascended after his resurrection, but he sent his Holy Spirit so that we would never again be parted from God. At the moment of our baptism that presence of Christ takes up root in our heart and will never leave us. Jesus came to live among us and he still does. You may think you are far from God or don’t know God, but he is closer to you than your own breath. He is with you now, in this moment, ready to give your life meaning, ready to give you courage, ready to give you compassion. You are loved as much as the most complex galaxy in the universe. Jesus has crashed through our atmosphere. And he’s not going back.

Amen.

Advent IV, Year A, 2016

In the Gospel of Luke we get the annunciation from Mary’s point of view. We get the Angel Gabriel and Cousin Elizabeth and the Magnificat. We tell Luke’s version of the story every year in our pageant. Luke’s version appears in Christmas cards and children’s books. But Luke’s is only one version of our Christmas story.

The Gospel of Matthew has a different story to tell.

“Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, Mary’s annunciation happens off stage. Mary initially is a problem to be solved, not the heroine of the story.

In one of the first scenes in the Sound of Music, the nuns are gathering to express their concerns about their flighty postulant. Maria has been off spinning in circles on top of mountains again and they are tired of her shenanigans. The nuns sing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”

I imagine Joseph singing the same tune about Mary! How is he, a faithful Jew, going to go forward now that he has found out that his fiancée is pregnant? He knows that, according to the law, he has the right to dissolve the marriage. In fact, the correct legal thing to do would be to have a public tribunal, where Mary would be be shamed publically. She has been unfaithful, clearly—despite all this crazy talk about the Holy Spirit—but he doesn’t want to shame her, so he plans on dismissing her quietly.

But God has different plans for Joseph. God understands that Mary’s situation is a huge gift, not a problem, and that Mary is going to need Joseph to fully live out her call to be Jesus’ mother. While God has given Joseph the law as a tool, he is calling Joseph beyond the law to love and risk.

So, in the Gospel of Matthew an angel appears to Joseph, not to Mary. Just like his namesake, Joseph has an incredible dream given to him by God. And in the dream an angel appears before him and reassures him that Mary’s story is true, that this baby is of God and will save humanity. The angel tells him to marry Mary—and so Mary is able to fulfill her call.

Joseph is a vital part of Mary’s story. Joseph gives Mary the legitimacy she needs to raise Jesus. Joseph gives Mary and Jesus protection. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph also gives Jesus lineage. The savior must come from the line of King David, and Joseph does. So Joseph, though not his genetic father, becomes Jesus’ legal father and bestows the line of David upon Jesus.

Joseph is the often-unheralded backdrop of Jesus’ ministry. We don’t hear much about Joseph later. This is his one really heroic act as far as we know, but in cooperating with God he allowed so much goodness to come into the world.

Joseph’s movement beyond the letter of the law to an act of great love and trust also gives us a preview of how Jesus is going to live in the world. Over and over again, Jesus shows that God gave us the law as a tool to love each other and love God better. Joseph’s story begins to give us a glimpse of who our savior is going to be.

We each have a call from God—to serve him in some particular way. And each of us needs the cooperation of our family and communities to make that call happen. I think back to Maria from the Sound of Music. She thinks her call is to be a nun, because she loves God so much. But it takes her cloistered community and a family of children to help her live out her true calling–to be a loving mother who helps a family to heal through music and has the courage they need in a time of danger.

Joseph gives us a model of how to respond when God is calling someone we love to something we don’t understand. We can get ideas about who the people we love are and what is best for them. We want to keep them safe and close to us. But sometimes God calls people to risk—to love people we wouldn’t choose, to move to parts of the world far from us, to make less money so they can serve the world. It can be tempting to want to corral and give advice and keep our people safe. But Joseph shows us a different way forward.

Joseph was willing to believe God was doing something miraculous through and with Mary. Joseph was willing to take the risk of public shame and humiliation by marrying someone who carried someone else’s child. Joseph was willing to trust that God was calling him beyond the letter of the law to an act of love and faithfulness. Joseph was willing to be Mary’s partner on a terrifying and exciting adventure, to give up his own ideas of what his future might hold so that he could serve God.

And this risk was its own end. When you list biblical heroes, Joseph isn’t at the top of the list. He never slayed a giant or led people out of Egypt. He probably died before Jesus’ public ministry, which is why we know so little about him. But he had the privilege of living with the Son of God, and watching him grow up—an experience that must have been incredibly moving. The part of Jesus’ life that Joseph affected is hidden from us, is something he and Mary kept in their hearts. And perhaps that intimacy with our Lord was enough of a reward for Joseph. As Christians, we talk about having Jesus in our hearts, but how Joseph and Mary must roll their eyes at us, for they know Jesus in a way no one else ever will, in all of his vulnerability and humanity. They taught him how to toilet and brought him to Temple for the very first time. They told him his first stories, and fed him his first loaf of bread. They taught him to love his neighbor, and gave him space to pray to his Father. They literally made a home for the living God in their hearts and in their house.

This final week of Advent, we are invited to make a home in our heart, too. We may not be called to rock the infant God to sleep, but God does choose to be born in us. God chooses to dwell in us and transform us. God chooses us. May we follow Joseph and say yes to God’s call.

Amen.

Advent 1, Year A, 2016

This week while visiting my in-laws in Texas, I received a text from my landlady. “Do you guys have an evacuation plan?”

This is not a text I expected to get. I found my heart pounding and my brain racing. I wrote something articulate, like, “Um, what?”

She explained that Peebles Hill, the mountain on which our houses are built, was on fire. The forestry department had come through and warned everyone to make an evacuation plan.

That woke me up. In fact, it took me about three days to come down from that text, even after I read the reports of how the forest service bulldozed a barrier so the fire would not come down the mountain and burn Lovingston.

Do we have an evacuation plan? We do now. We quickly got a list together of paintings and jewelry and important documents and texted it to our dog sitter and a friend. We know now what we consider essential.

This Advent I ask you: Do you have an evacuation plan?

And I don’t mean the kind where you gather up your grandmother’s jewelry and your passports. I mean the kind you would need for the situation Jesus describes in the Gospel of Matthew:

so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

Now, if Jesus sent you that text, it would make your heart race a little, right? Matthew describes a terrifying and disorienting scenario in which Jesus’ return means people start disappearing left and right! In this kind of evacuation scenario, I’d be tempted to gather up all my good works in a bag to show Jesus. “See Jesus, I gave to my church, I was basically nice, I bought an Angel Tree gift every year!”

Do you have an evacuation plan? Do you have a plan for what you will do or say if Jesus was to suddenly appear in a cloud before you? It’s a terrifying prospect, all these images of people disappearing, imminent destruction. Advent, the season in which we anticipate Jesus’ birth at Christmas, is the season when we also anticipate the second coming.

Jesus’ work of salvation began during his birth, but is not yet fully complete. He promises us a Kingdom where everything is perfectly in line with God’s vision—no more grief, no more sickness, no more broken relationships. But we all know that world has not arrived yet.

Some people believe that this perfect world won’t be ushered in until Jesus returns to earth in one cataclysmic event as described in the Gospel of Matthew.

Other folks believe that this perfect world will start to unfold gradually. In fact, that God’s Kingdom is right here, right now and we get to participate in building it with God. We carry the presence of Jesus in us, through our baptism, and renew it through our weekly communion. The Holy Spirit helps us to share that presence of Jesus with the world and grow God’s kingdom.

If that’s the case, maybe we don’t need an evacuation plan. An evacuation plan is the easy way out, right? You pack your suitcase of self righteousness and say beam me up, Jesus! I’m ready for my time share in heaven!

If God’s Kingdom is here now, always unfolding, right before our eyes, then Paul’s admonition to the Romans makes a lot of sense: Wake from sleep! Wake up! Look around you! Paul describes salvation as being a little closer than it used to be because Paul understands salvation as an event in history, not someone’s personal moral and ethical condition. For Paul, salvation started at Jesus’ birth and continues through this mysterious second event. Paul doesn’t care about our bags of good deeds. For Paul our salvation is not about our behavior, but about Jesus’ acts in history and the future.

And Paul doesn’t say anything about an evacuation plan. Paul wants his readers to put on the armor of light, not as a moral response to salvation, but because the armor of light is just what people who have been saved by God wear. Whether we realize it or not, each of us has the armor of light in our closet. It comes free with our baptism. I often tell kids who are being baptized that after they are baptized they will be a little bit like superheroes. If we are superheroes, this armor of light is our costume.

What if we thought about Jesus’ second coming not as an evacuation route, but as a chance to be strap on our Armor of Light and participate in the new world he wants to create? Whether Jesus is actually going to come in a historical event or whether Jesus is already here, at work through the Holy Spirit, through each of us, our role doesn’t really change.

Paul describes the Armor of Light as giving us the power to live honorably and with self control.

The world really hungers for honor and self control these days. Whether you’re a Real Housewife or an Internet troll, it seems our society rewards those who can make the biggest splash or be the most hurtful. But the fabric of the Kingdom of God is and will be made up of the quiet, the faithful, and the kind.

The town of Lovingston was saved this weekend because of faithful employees of the Forest Service and faithful volunteer firefighters. Now, I don’t know if I have ever heard of a splashy story about a member of the Forest Service. I can’t even tell you what they do, exactly. But I know this week they spent about three days in bulldozers, creating a fire line between the fire and our homes. They sacrificed holiday time with family in order to serve us. And dozens of the residents of Nelson County brought by granola bars, fruit, sandwiches and water as a thank you.

None of this is headline news if you don’t get the Nelson County Times. And I don’t know if any of these folks are Christians, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they were. Their faithful, sacrificial work is exactly the kind of work needed to knit together the Kingdom of God.

And they did not do the work in order to fill up their bags with their good deeds. They fought the fire, because that is who they are, what they have been trained to do.

How has God been preparing you to wear your Armor of Light? How are you part of the completely ordinary and completely supernatural coming of the Kingdom of God? How will you communicate God’s love to the world? How will you enact God’s justice?

Each of you has a vital role to play in the creation of God’s kingdom. And you don’t have to become someone else to do it. God created an Armor of Light that perfectly matches your temperament and interests. Only you can do the specific thing that God has designed for you.

My prayer for each of us this Advent is that we wouldn’t plan our evacuation, but that we would plan to stay, to put on our Armor of Light and to show up for God and the people who desperately need him. Amen.

Proper 24, Year C, 2016

I was an uptight little girl. I liked order. I liked to know what was happening. I was never totally convinced my very competent parents had everything under control. And so, one of the refrains I heard over and over again as a little girl was, “Sarah, stop NAGGING.”

To nag, I learned was unattractive, annoying, and pushed people away.

What a delight, then, to find a parable in which Jesus is telling his male disciples that faith sometimes looks like a nagging woman.

In the world of the parable, there is a man in power that is so disconnected from God and God’s justice that he even says, “I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone”. He owns that he is not a good guy, certainly not interested in helping a widow. But this widow, a vulnerable woman, has been wronged. And she is not going to give up. She comes to this unjust judge over and over and over again. She nags him unrelentingly. And so, finally, he gives in. She wears him down and she wins justice.

And if you read the Bible, especially the Old Testament carefully, you’ll see this is how Biblical women operate. Women in the Bible don’t have a lot of political or social power. They can’t own property, they can’t decide where they move, their stories are dictated by the men in their lives. People without power are not always able to get things done directly. People without power have to manipulate and subvert power in unexpected ways. Biblical women working behind the scenes, on the margins, brought to bear our faith story the way we know it.

My favorite example of this is how Rebekah, mother of Jacob and Esau, manipulates her sons and her husband into making sure her favorite child, Jacob, gets the birthright. Do you remember the story? Esau is the very hairy firstborn who gives up his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. And then Rebekah convinces Jacob to put on a goatskin to trick his blind father into thinking smooth skinned Jacob is hairy Esau. She is incredibly pushy—and God uses her to get the heir with whom he wants to work. Jacob is the chosen one, and God uses Rebekeh to make that happen.

Rebekah is not the only example. In one of the weirder stories in the Bible, God comes to kill Moses, but his wife Zipporah, intervenes by touching a piece of their son’s foreskin to Moses’ feet. Mysteriously, this makes God relent and Moses continues his work. I do not recommend trying this at home.

Years later, when the Israelites are trying to move into the Promised Land, Joshua sends two spies into Jericho to check things out. They get discovered and prostitute named Rahab hides them on a roof under some stalks of flax.

Over and over again, women in the Old Testament use their cunning to do the work of God. Biblical women are not passive or compliant. Biblical women and tough and smart and very, very creative

And Jesus holds us this kind of nagging persistence as a model of how to pray. He says, “and will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”

When life gets hard or scary, when you’re not in control of a situation, sometimes it can be tempting to give up. But Jesus wants his followers to hold on and and keep asking for what they need. Jesus wants us to nag God in our prayers. Jesus wants us to tell God when we know something isn’t right, when we face injustice, when everything seems out of whack.

We can get the idea that to be a Christian woman means to keep our mouths shut, to be helpful, to be compliant. There are parts of the Epistles that can be read as an instruction for women not to teach or speak up in church.

But Jesus doesn’t seem to agree with that interpretation. Jesus surrounds himself with faithful men and women. In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew there is a great story of a Canaanite woman who pesters Jesus and is so good at arguing that he finally gives in and heals her daughter even though she is not Jewish. Jesus is dear friends with sisters Mary and Martha. And in all the Gospels, Mary Magdalene is the first person to see the resurrected Jesus. Jesus honors women and relates to them as individuals. Jesus knows they are an important part of God’s Kingdom.

God is still using nagging women to do his work. Mother Teresa was a notorious pain in the neck. She would berate officials until they gave her the permits or money she needed to do her work. In Ireland, working behind the scenes, mothers led the way in the peace treaty that stopped IRA violence. They persisted in building relationships across religious lines when no one thought it possible. Women in Chicago began movements to set themselves up on street corners after violent episodes to offer hugs and love to young people in order to stop cycles of violence.

These courageous women remind us that lives of faith sometimes look fierce. These women remind us that sometimes seeking God’s justice on earth can turn you into an annoying nag. Or, as the writer Rachel Held Evans would say, “A Woman of Valor.” And these women of valor are role models for each of us, whether we are men or women, to never give up on the idea that our world can look more like the Kingdom of God. Jesus knows that faith is going to be difficult for his disciples. He knows faith is difficult for us. He wants us to hang on, to stay invested, to stay in communication with God even if we are frustrated or want to give up.

So, hang in there. Keep nagging God. Keep knocking on his door. God is listening.

Amen.

Proper 22, Year C, 2016

Have any of you ever watched a live debate on a channel where they track audience response? Below the candidates talking, there are several lines representing different groups of voters. When a candidate says something the audience likes, the line moves up. When a candidate says something the audience doesn’t like, the line moves down.

I think sometimes we get fooled into thinking faith works the same way. Like, when I am praying in the car in the morning, my line goes way up! But then, if I get stuck behind someone driving slowly, that line goes way down. When I’m leading worship, up! When I’m feeling anxious about the future, the line goes down.

I have had multiple parishioners over the years approach me because they are concerned that they are not faithful enough. Perhaps at one point in their life they felt very close to God, but now they feel their faith dimming.

Anyone who has this concern is in good company. Mother Teresa struggled with this. St. John of the Cross struggled with this. Fearing the loss of faith is a tradition as old as the disciples!

Our Gospel lesson this morning is a perfect example. Jesus has just said some really challenging things to a large group of his disciples. He’s said things like, “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. “ Can’t you imagine everyone’s eyes getting a little bigger when they heard that? I know I would feel a little nervous!

A group of the apostles—those disciples closest to Jesus—come up to him and tell Jesus, “Increase our faith!” They don’t want to have a millstone hung around their neck! They love Jesus. They want to be faithful! They want Jesus to zap them with faith. They want a doubt proof, mistake proof shield of faith so they will be sure to be pleasing to God.

Jesus goes on to tell them this famous anecdote about the mustard seed. He tells them if they just had the tiniest amount of faith that they could stare at a tree and make it leap into the sea. Now, I will confess something. I have tried this. Periodically, I’ll just stare at an overgrown bush in my garden really hard and imagine it tearing itself from the ground. News flash: This has never once worked. While I would very much like gardening to be a Mary Poppins like experience where all the weeds dance themselves out of the ground, gardening remains hard labor. Jesus here is using a bit of hyperbole. One might even say he is being sarcastic.

The disciples miss the point. The amount of faith a person has does not matter. What matters is who the faith is in.

If your faith is in the one God, who created the universe and inhabited a human body and whose spirit dwells in our hearts—if our faith is in that God, the tiniest amount of faith is enough. Because faith is not about us being superheroes. Faith is God using ordinary people to do his extraordinary work.

Jesus drives home this point in the story of the slave and the owner. Now, this is a very first century story. This story of household slaves is a little horrifying now that we understand liberty and equality as so important to being a human being. But, at the time, wealthy people had slaves who would work for them for a set period of time, and then earn their freedom. But keep in mind that Jesus’ apostles were not wealthy. Many were Galilean fishermen. So Jesus telling this story to them is like me starting a story by telling you, “You know how when you have a maid and chauffeur and a cook. . .” You all would be rolling your eyes at me! Jesus’ point is that someone who is staff doesn’t expect to be celebrated, they just do the work they are hired to do.

Jesus tells his apostles this parable as a way of saying, “You are overthinking this faith thing. Don’t worry about your level of faith, just do the work of a faithful person.”

Most of the time, Jesus sounds like a wise philosopher, but every once in a while, Jesus sounds like an exasperated mom. “Stop whining about all the homework you have to do, and just do the homework! If you had just started the homework when you started whining, it would be over by now!”

In the same way, Jesus doesn’t seem that interested in our anxiety about faith. We are not central to our own salvation! God does all the work of salvation. We are simply recipients of the hard work of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. However we feel about our faith is irrelevant. We are beloved by God and in God’s good graces because God says so, not because we feel faithful.

When God looks at us, he sees our faith meter as completely full, because Jesus has done all the work he need to do to make it so.

So, we can relax. But relaxing does not look like sitting on the sofa the rest of our lives. Relaxing looks like living the life of faith. Breaking bread together, serving the poor, doing our best to live lives of courage and integrity, forgiving those who hurt us, seeking justice, being kind. The life of faith is not easy. Following Jesus is not easy. But we don’t have to complicate it with anxiety about how God sees us.

Whatever your current level of faith, it is enough to serve God. You don’t to wait until you know more or feel more. You can start right now. I was so impressed by our youth a few weeks ago when they were packing up the bags for the food pantry. Many of them had never done it before. We gave them only the most minimal instruction. But they knew it was an important job and so they figured it out! There were twenty people in our tiny food pantry and so there was much shuffling around and trying not to bump into each other. But no one complained, they just did the work of faith. They served God in a new way. And I was impressed by the grown ups, too. The “experts” stepped back and allowed a little chaos. They did not try to micromanage. That might have been the bravest act of all!

There are things about living a life of faith that scare or intimidate us. But our God is so big. He has done all the work for us. So when God calls us to something new in our life of faith—new friendships, new leadership roles, new life adventures—we can have confidence that we are enough, our faith is enough. We don’t have to be a bible expert to teach Sunday School. We don’t have to have perfect pitch in order to sing in the choir. We don’t have to have been a CEO to serve on the vestry. We don’t have to have gone to seminary, to talk with a friend about God. Our experience with God is enough.

Now, God is not going to leave us where we are. We will continue to grow in our knowledge, and maybe even our faith. But we won’t be any more saved or any more loved than we are right in this moment. This is the paradox of the life of faith: God has done everything for us, but God can do great things through us.

I invite you to release any lingering doubts you may have about how God feels about you. Say your confession when we get to that part of the service and then really, listen to the absolution. Nothing stands between you and God. Not even your doubt is powerful enough to get in God’s way.

And then, when you hear, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” go out there and get to work!   You have all you need.

Amen.

Proper 19, Year C, 2016

One of the images that burns in my mind when I think about September 11th, 2001 are the walls covered in posters of people who were missing. So many people died at once, and the crime scenes were so chaotic, that it was sometimes weeks before people confirmed whether their loved ones were dead or alive.   Walls in New York were covered in handmade posters with the faces of people who were lost. Their families did everything they could to find the people they loved so much. Some were successful right away—finding their loved ones in a hospital, and some kept on looking, but never stopped until they knew for sure what had happened.

That image has stayed with me this week, because our Gospel text is full of images of people looking, searching, for something precious. Jesus is surrounded by tax collectors and “sinners” who have heard about him and are fascinating by the things Jesus is saying about God. The Pharisees are horrified that someone who claims to be delivering messages from God is surrounding himself with tax collectors, who take advantage of the people of God on behalf of the Roman Empire and by sinners, who you know, do sinful stuff.

Jesus responds by telling the story of the shepherd, who has lost one sheep, leaves the other 99 sheep and searches until he can bring the lost sheep back to safety. He goes on to tell a story about a woman who loses a coin and turns her whole house upside down to find it. He then tells the story of the prodigal son, which the lectionary saves for another day.

There is no one so lost that they are outside the bounds of God’s grace. A couple of weeks ago, when we did the backpack blessing, I told the children that with God, they get infinite do-overs. A couple parents laughed/shot me dirty looks, because this is not particularly helpful ammunition to give a grumpy seven year old. I want to be clear that it is God who gives the do-overs, not people. No human being is willing to give us infinite do-overs. Our teachers won’t give us infinite do-overs, our siblings won’t give us infinite do-overs, even the most loving parent eventually has to draw a line. It’s not good for human beings to give us infinite do-overs. Sometimes people drawing the line on our destructive behavior is what finally gets us to make better choices.

But even if we have alienated every human being in our life, even if our parents have cut us off, God is still patiently waiting for us and as soon as we want to, will help us start a new life in God. In fact, if we are to believe Jesus’ parables, God isn’t just patiently waiting, God is turning over couch cushions looking for us. God is looking behind every hedge and under every rock. God isn’t sitting around waiting for us to get all our answers straight. God isn’t waiting for us to pull ourselves together. God is looking for us right now. Exactly the way we are. He longs for us.

There is a story out of Denmark, reported by Hanna Rosin of the NPR Podcast Invisiblia, that made me think of these parables.  This is the story of those who were lost, and how a community found them again.

One day, in the Danish town of Aarhus, police got a frantic call from parents whose teenage son had gone missing. While they started to look into the case, they got another call. And then another. In all, it turned out dozens of teenagers and young adults had disappeared. The police investigated and found that these young people had been lured by ISIS to Syria, along with thousands of other European young adults. Rather than recruit directly through mosques, ISIS recruited through social media and peer to peer recruiting. Some parents had no idea their children were being radicalized until the day their children disappeared.

Now, in the rest of Europe, police reaction to this recruiting was to get even tougher on terrorism. Countries forbid travel to Syria, threatened to take away passports, declared those who had left enemies of the state. None of this seemed to work. Young Muslim people felt so alienated that the call to travel to Syria and help build an Islamic State seemed attractive to them. They wanted to belong.

Belonging. Belonging is what the Aarhus policemen decided to use as a tactic to solve this problem. Instead of warning young people that they would get in trouble if they went to Syria, Hanna Rosin reports that:

They made it clear to citizens of Denmark who had traveled to Syria that they were welcome to come home, and that when they did, they would receive help with going back to school, finding an apartment, meeting with a psychiatrist or a mentor, or whatever they needed to fully integrate back into society.

Instead of punishing radicalization, the police officers tried to fight the roots of radicalization. They apologized to young people that had been arrested on bogus charges. They followed up with these young people and found them mentors, jobs, health care. Instead of treating them as lost causes, they treated them as people who wanted to be found.

Since 2012, 34 young people have left Aarhus for Syria. Six were killed and ten are still there. 18 have come home and met with these police officers, as have more than 300 other radicalized youth from Aarhus. Since the program started very few young people have left Aarhus. Last year, it was only one person. The engagement is working. One young man said that while he always felt like an outsider in Denmark, now he feels Danish.

In the years since 9/11 our country has gotten more and more polarized. Public discourse has almost entirely broken down. But these images of God searching out the lost give us hope. If God can look for us no matter how broken we are, if we can fully feel the joy of that kind of love and forgiveness, perhaps we can reach out to those around us in love. Rather than judging those different from us, perhaps we can seek them out, too, remind ourselves that their difference does not mean they are cut off from God’s love that flows through us.

The God we worship is a God who seeks the lost and then gathers them into community. As members of Christ’s body, we are invited into this gathering, both as the invited and the inviters. The police in Aarhus give us a great example of how that might look. Instead of cutting off troubled young people, they invited them back into their communities and made sure they had deep connections. I guarantee you, their experience was not easy. But it was important to preserving their community, and so they did it.

Today we begin/began Christian Formation, and I can’t stress how important this is for you and for your families. Christian Formation is not just about educating ourselves and our children about God. Christian Formation is an opportunity for us to connect to one another and to God. It is a change to be brought into community, and to give yourself the bonds of connection that will see you through hard times. One of our college students told his parent that he’s not sure what he believes about God, but he knows that the people of St. Paul’s love him. He knows that because he was an active participant in our life together. He knows that because he showed up and was willing to be gathered in. We hope that sense of church as a place of love will continue with him his whole life and ultimately draw him to God. We hope that every child who grows up in St. Paul’s has that same sense. We hope each adult who enters our doors feels that love.

But your clergy and staff cannot do it alone. We need you. We need your presence. We need your leadership. We are so grateful every time someone volunteers to chaperone or teach or plan a reception because each of those encounters creates another bond, another chance for people to feel connected.

If you are new to St. Paul’s, we invite you to join us in the courtyard this afternoon at 4:00. We want to form those bonds with you, too. And September 25th and October 23rd, Eric will be leading a Welcome Class including a tour of the church at the 9:30 hour. It can be hard to enter a new church. People are often embarrassed to reach out to a new person in case that person is not new! But we are committed to helping you find ways to connect, both to people and to God.

God wants every single one of us as part of his community. He wants us to be gathered in, together. He wants each of us to know him deeply. And he will keep looking for us until we do.

Thanks be to God.