Semper Reformanda

Sermon preached at Christ Lutheran Church, Spring Green, WI, on 10/26/14.
© 2014 Shawn Brooks

Texts:
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

Today is Reformation Sunday, a day of great tradition in the Lutheran Church. Today we look back to the great reformer Martin Luther and remember his mighty act of protest against what he saw as corrupt practices within the church. We sing the traditional songs, we read the same scriptures that we use every year on this Sunday, and we remember our roots. We take pride in being a part of something that has lasted almost 500 years now. Perhaps we even feel connected to Luther himself as we contemplate the mighty work that he began and that we continue.

On this Reformation Sunday, some of you might be remembering your Sunday School or Confirmation days, thinking about the Small Catechism and Luther’s ever-present question “What does this mean?” Others of you might be pondering the “solas”, those Latin phrases that ring through Luther’s writings and give our theology its identity, telling us that we are saved sola scriptura, by word alone, sola fide, by faith alone, sola gratia, by grace alone. Or perhaps you are reminded of Luther’s summary of the human condition, that we are semper simul justus et peccator—always both saint and sinner at the same time.

There is some irony in this celebration of our traditions, and that irony should not be lost on us as we remember. The irony is that today we are celebrating traditions built around the actions of a man who wanted change. Luther was outraged at the many things that were for sale by the church of his day, in particular clergy positions and the forgiveness of sins through a piece of paper called an indulgence, sort of a religious “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Luther argued that indulgences were unnecessary. God has already forgiven our sins through the life and death of Jesus Christ. Nothing we do, no human action, can affect, cause, or add to this forgiveness. As the Apostle Paul says in our text from Romans, “we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” We are justified, made right with God, by Christ’s faith and by our faith in Christ. We are “justified by God’s grace as a gift.” Through this gift, we, who fall short of the glory of God through being slaves to sin, are made free. Through Christ, the living Word of God, we are made free, by word alone, by faith alone, through grace alone.

This simple concept set the church, and therefore all of Europe, on its ear, because it seemed to challenge the church’s structure and power. Luther was accused of trying to speak for God in place of the church. He was accused of trying to destroy the church, of trying to start a new church with himself at the head. But Luther wasn’t trying to start a new church—not at first, anyway. He was simply trying to change the church in which he considered himself a faithful member. But the church hierarchy rejected Luther’s changes, even as many members of the church embraced them. The Pope excommunicated Luther, and figured that he and his teachings would fade away under the full displeasure of the church.

Does that sound at all familiar? It might remind you of Jesus. Jesus wasn’t trying to start a new church either. He was just trying to return his church to a better relationship with God, one with less emphasis on the letter of the law and more emphasis on the spirit of love for one another that God desires in people. But the church authorities of Jesus’ day thought that Jesus was trying to destroy both the church, by abandoning the law, and the Jewish people, by bringing down the wrath of Rome on their heads by his actions. So the church hierarchy rejected Jesus’ changes, even as many of their worshippers embraced what Jesus was teaching. The leaders finally found a way to trap Jesus, and they had him killed. That was the end of that, they thought.

Except that it wasn’t, of course. The Jewish religious authorities hadn’t trapped Jesus at all. Jesus went willingly to his death because his faith in God led him to know that was what God wanted. Jesus let himself be killed, and asked forgiveness for his killers, in the ultimate act of love. His death, followed by his resurrection, brought about the biggest change of all—it set us all fee. We are free from sin. We are free from the power of death. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, we have new life and new hope. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, everything changed.

My friends, people of God, today we celebrate the traditions of our church, and it is good and right that we do so. However, we can celebrate our traditions and our history all we want without altering a basic truth: the church is always changing. Our brothers and sisters in some other Protestant traditions have another Latin phrase they use regularly: ecclesia semper reformanda est. The church is always reforming. On one level, this means that we need to regularly examine our practices and our beliefs, testing them against scripture and making sure both that they are sound and that we have not made a belief out of a practice. Making our practices more important than anything else is a form of idolatry, one to which the church is particularly susceptible.

But just as the church is always reforming, so it is always re-forming. Every time a new member is added or lost the congregation changes. Every time the world presents a new challenge through which we must minister faithfully both to members and to the world, the church changes. The church is always changing, always being made new. The church should always be changing. Life changes, the world changes, and our response must change accordingly. But although the church of today does not look like the church of 50 years ago, and although we cannot imagine the church of 50 years from now, some things will never change. God loves you. Christ lived, died, and was resurrected to save you from your sins and from the power of death. The Spirit is active among you, working in your lives and leading you to do God’s work in the world. You live your lives made right with the God of power and might by word alone, by faith alone, by grace alone. And this makes you free: free to serve, free to love others as you love yourselves, free to live in God’s grace and for God’s glory.

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The Peace That Surpasses Understanding

Sermon preached in Loehe Chapel at Wartburg Theological Seminary, on 10/13/14.
© 2014 Shawn Brooks

Texts:
Psalm 34
Philippians 4:1-9

Here we are. We made it. It seemed like it would never get here, but it is, finally, Reading Week. The first period of the semester is over, and we’re off the ice for a time. Not having classes is an academic Zamboni, clearing and restoring the playing surface so that we can start anew next Monday. Opportunity abounds! This time is a chance to get things done, to catch up, even to work ahead! Or we can just go crawl under a quilt and hope the world goes away for a little while. Either way, maybe, just maybe, we can find some peace.

It’s a tricky thing, peace. It’s fragile. It’s elusive. Sometimes it seems like it’s right around the corner, and we’re sure we could grab hold of it if we just had a bigger scholarship, or fewer assignments, or someplace to send the kids for a while. Other times, peace is harder to find than wild raspberries in January. I know I’m not alone in sometimes having trouble finding peace here at seminary. The late Ralph F. Smith, former Dean of the Chapel at Wartburg, captured this perfectly in our Gathering Song when he wrote that we approach the future with “glad anxious hearts.” Even if we love it here, seminary is discombobulating. It shakes us up. We spend our time piecing things back together, looking for patterns in the patchwork, and the one piece that’s often missing is…peace.

The apostle Paul seems to know something about peace in today’s text. This is not the hurt and angry Paul of 2 Corinthians, nor the exasperated, eye-rolling Paul of Galatians. The Paul of Philippians is calm and reassuring. In spite of having spent a lengthy time in prison, and facing a possible sentence of execution, Paul still patiently urges members of the church in Philippi to reconcile with one another. He tells them to rejoice, to turn to God through “prayer and supplication with thanksgiving.” When they do, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

As a former Pharisee, Paul knew the Hebrew Bible well. The peace of God he refers to here is the same as the Hebrew Bible concept of shalom, a state of well-being and wholeness. It’s hard to explain precisely, because it surpasses all understanding. But it is powerful. It will guard our hearts and minds, which according to the Greek means that it will protect and provide security for the center and source of one’s whole inner life and for the product of one’s intellectual process. In other words, the peace of God provides a buffer zone for everything life throws at us, and keeps us whole. According to Paul, we find this peace in Christ. We find Christ at the cross.

(Indicates crucifix) This is one of the least peaceful things I can think of: Jesus hanging there, bound, broken, and bloody, in pain and knowing that death is near. How can there be any peace in that? And yet, Jesus went there willingly, for us. He took that pain—he took the world’s pain—upon himself, suffering for you and you and you and you, and me, and everyone, to show us how much we are loved. Jesus lived and died to reconcile us with God. And because he did, the cross, even the crucifix, becomes a symbol of peace. We can’t understand how this can be. It is beyond our understanding. But we can feel it. When we stand at the foot of the cross, Christ meets us and brings us peace.

We are to share this peace, just as Jesus shared it with the disciples after the resurrection. It is to be given and received and enjoyed by all. Yet, when we share the peace in worship, how many of you are like me, so busy looking for the next hand to shake that you don’t take the time to receive the peace offered to you? “You take the peace.” “Oh, I would much rather that you take the peace!” If no one takes the peace that we’re all so busy trying to give, what happens to it? Do we need to vacuum after worship?

I remember the first time I visited Tami’s parents’ home, a few months before we were married. I knew Tami’s mother was a quilter, but when we got there she showed us piles of quilts and said “Please take the ones you like. I want them to be used.” We came home with over a dozen hand-made quilts—full-sized, crib-sized, and more. I felt like I was being given heirlooms for our new family, and that made me feel welcomed, and accepted, and loved. Those quilts bring our family warmth when we are cold and comfort when we are sick, and we treasure them.

God’s peace is not a bauble that we pass around with a handshake, that drops to the floor if we’re not careful. The peace of God is a handmade quilt that has been passed down from generation to generation, comforting us and covering us with love. We recognize, and urge others to recognize, this beautiful quilt when we share the peace. The sharing of the peace during worship was instituted as a means for us to reconcile with each other before bringing our gifts to the altar, as Jesus told us to do. Reconciliation is to be shared. Shalom is meant for everyone. We approach the people we like, the people we don’t like, and those we don’t know, and, in the words of Ralph F. Smith, we “reach out our hands with the touch of God’s grace.” We acknowledge that, because the other person is created in the image of God, they are worthy of God’s peace. And in doing so we encounter Jesus. As Smith says, “for in them we meet him, and there we shall greet him, this Jesus we name as the Christ and our light.” To share the peace of God is to meet Jesus in another. To know the peace of God is to be reconciled with one another.

This peace that we share, God’s peace in Christ, isn’t something we find by eliminating the trouble in our lives. We can’t do that. God’s peace comes from knowing that Christ is with us in our troubles. Whether we understand it or not, the peace of God is the reason our hearts can be glad at the same time they are anxious. I have often heard it said that anxiety is like a little death. Because Jesus died and rose again, we do not fear death. Death is not the final sentence in our story, because our stories are written in the book of life. The patchwork pieces of our quilted lives do in fact make a pattern, but that pattern is much larger than our small section of the quilt. Christ sees the entire pattern, and our part in it, and loves us for that. As we gather at the foot of the cross, that love settles on us like a quilt, showing us that the God of peace is with us. Rejoice! Shalom!

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Getting Out Of The Boat

Sermon preached at Christ Lutheran Church, Spring Green, WI, on 8/10/14.
© 2014 Shawn Brooks

Texts:
1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Have you ever noticed how insurance companies refer to things beyond human control as “acts of God”? They frequently talk about the weather this way, as if God decides now and then that we need a tornado, or some hail, to bring us to our senses. Admittedly, the idea that God directly controls the weather has some Biblical basis. The Psalms, in particular, often talk about God sending the sunshine and the rain. But in this day of modern weather science, we realize that changes in the weather have complex causes. Yes, the weather is a part of God’s creation, as is everything else, but God doesn’t make it rain just to keep you from having a picnic. And God certainly doesn’t deliberately send a tornado, or hail, or a hurricane, or an earthquake to afflict us—not as a punishment and not for any other reason.

This makes Yahweh markedly different from the gods worshiped in lands other than Israel. In other cultures, specific gods were responsible for rain, wind and storms, for sunshine and for snow. Because storms were inexplicable and uncontrollable, they must be acts of the gods. Because they were powerful and dangerous, the gods controlling them were powerful and dangerous as well. Those gods used the weather to display the awe and majesty of their power so that humans would tremble before them and worship them.

But not Yahweh. Not the Lord our God. God tells Elijah “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” While waiting for God, Elijah ignores the wind strong enough to split mountains, and the earthquake, and the fire. Only when these have passed does Elijah come forth. God is not in the forces of nature. Rather, God is in the “sound of sheer silence,” sometimes translated as “a still, small voice.” The fury of nature is just a distraction. God is outside of that fury, beyond the destructive forces. God is in the calm that remains when the fury of nature has dissipated. God’s power is to the forces of nature as the forces of nature are to us.

The disciples see this demonstrated as well, but in their distress, it doesn’t sink in. No person can walk on water, so how can that be Jesus coming toward them over the lake? Yet when Jesus tells them it’s him, don’t be afraid, he doesn’t just identify himself as Jesus. The NRSV translates Jesus’ words as “Take heart, it is I,” but the Greek phrase translated “it is I” is the same phrase used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible for the name of God. Jesus is really saying “Take heart, I AM.” He is telling the disciples that God is with them. God, who is stronger than the storms, is here. And Peter basically says “Prove it. Make me able to walk on the water too.”

And Jesus does! Jesus calls to him, and Peter gets out of the boat and starts to walk. In the midst of the storm and the wind and the uncontrollable forces, God calls to Peter and Peter responds, eagerly. Peter begins to do something no human should be able to do, because God, in Christ, calls to him. And it’s fine! Until Peter notices the wind. Only when Peter loses his focus on Jesus and starts paying more attention to the world around him do things go wrong. It’s like the old Looney Tunes cartoons, where a character will run off a cliff and just keep on going—until they notice that there is no longer ground beneath their feet. Then they start to fall. Peter is the same way. He’s fine walking on the water until he notices the wind, and realizes that he’s walking on water, and remembers that he cannot, by his own power, walk on water. Then he starts to sink, and cries out to his God to save him. And Jesus does.

Some will say that if Peter had never gotten out of the boat, he wouldn’t have needed saving. But Jesus called to him to come. Some will say that Peter began to sink because he lost his faith and began to doubt. Indeed, Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Yet even though the Bible gives us Jesus’ words, it doesn’t give us the tone Jesus uses when speaking them. What if Jesus isn’t reprimanding Peter for doubting? What if Jesus isn’t pointing out that Peter doesn’t have enough faith? What if Jesus was just saying “Silly man, you were doing fine! Why did you suddenly lose faith in your ability to continue?”

Peter doesn’t lose his faith in Jesus, doesn’t doubt Jesus. Peter doubts that he is able to do something that everyone knows humans can’t do, and even though he was doing it just fine, the sudden conviction that he can’t is indeed enough to prevent him. This has nothing to do with Peter’s faith or lack thereof. Peter has enough faith to get out of the boat when God calls to him, just as he had enough faith to follow Jesus in the first place. Peter has more than enough faith in Jesus, he just doesn’t have enough faith in himself.

The room you are currently sitting in is usually called the sanctuary, but those of you who are familiar with church architecture may know that it has another name: the nave. This is the root word of naval—having to do with boats—and navigate—sailing a boat from one place to another. We are sitting in a boat. The Holy Spirit brought us to the boat, and now Jesus is calling to you, to me, to all of us to get out of the boat, and to go out into the wind and the storm of the world and do more than we think we are capable of doing. We don’t need to be pillars of the faith. All we need is enough faith to get out of the boat. Once we do, God will give us what we need to do what God is asking. The promises inherent in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—the promise that we are made right with God and the promise that death is not the final answer, that we will be made new—give us all that we need to do what God asks us to do. And if we focus too much on the storms of the world and begin to sink when things seem impossible, God is there, reaching out to us and lifting us and bringing us to safety.

God is not in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire. Those can rage and do their worst, but when they have expended themselves, when the forces of the world have played themselves out, the great I AM remains, waiting, calling to us in a still, small voice and bringing us peace, the peace that comes from knowing that we are doing God’s work, whether we think ourselves capable or not. This work, the things we do to further the kingdom at God’s calling—these things are the true acts of God. For we are God’s agents, and when we do God’s work we are stronger than the storm. Jesus is calling us to get out of the boat, and even a little faith is enough.

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The Place of Abundance

Sermon preached at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, La Crosse, WI, on 8/3/14.
© 2014 Shawn Brooks

Texts:
Isaiah 55:1-5
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

When I was a child, I was a picky eater. I didn’t like most vegetables, or anything spicy or exotic. The things I did like I would eat over and over, so in one sense I was not difficult to feed, but not everyone has the same appreciation for grilled cheese sandwiches that I expressed in my childhood. Over the years my bland midwestern palette has expanded, so that I now enjoy foods from many cultures, with a level of spice I could not have imagined when I was young. On the other hand, the apple I have produced didn’t fall very far from the tree, so I am now seeing this same issue from the parental side. I frequently find myself thinking, and sometimes saying, very clichéd things, like “Just be glad you have something to eat,” and “How do you know you don’t like it? You haven’t even tried it!” (I’m so glad I never vowed not to say the typical things parents say…)

Hunger is both a simple and a complex thing. Physical hunger is simple. We need food to survive, so when someone is hungry, feeding them solves the immediate problem—for a time. But hunger isn’t just physical, it’s psychological. One of our first-world problems that we want variety in our food. Eating the same thing over and over decreases our appreciation for any food—even, eventually, grilled cheese sandwiches. This craving for variety is the psychological aspect of hunger, and it is complex. Sometimes we long not just for food, but for certain specific foods. Or sometimes we just want to try something new. These cravings, whether for food as sustenance or food as variety, are so strong and so basic to our nature as humans that we speak of any intense longing as a hunger, and of anything that satisfies such a longing as nourishment.

Our texts today speak of both kinds of hunger. In one of the best-known stories of the Bible—the only miracle story that appears in all four gospels—Jesus feeds five thousand from only five loaves and two fish. Everyone eats their fill, and there are plenty of leftovers. This is even more impressive when you note that the number five thousand refers only to the men. Add in the woman and children, and there were 10-15 thousand people, maybe more. And all were filled. Their hunger was satisfied. God provides. The really interesting thing about the story, though, is what Jesus says when the disciples tell him to send the people away to find food: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They need not go away. We’re good here. All will be well. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, food aplenty is available. The place of abundance is right here, in this very place where the crowd is. They can be, will be, fed. But the miracle needs work by the disciples to make it happen. Some miracles are like that. Sometimes the miracle—whether it be healing, feeding, or something else, comes through human agency. God’s work. Our hands. God provides, but often God provides through the actions of other people.

“God provides” is also the message of hope spoken by Isaiah to the Israelites in exile. Living in a foreign land, their own kingdom shattered by conquest, it would have been easy for the Israelites to believe that the gods of Babylon were stronger than the Lord. It would have been easy for them to turn from the Lord, perhaps to start worshipping the gods of Babylon, to try to assimilate into Babylonian culture and to make the best of their situation. But God, through Isaiah, calls them back. It’s a reprimand, of sorts, but one spoken in a gentle inviting way. I think of this speech being given by the Ghost of Christmas Present from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a jolly man sitting in the midst of plenty: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, buy and eat!… Eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” It’s an invitation, but it’s full of commands: come, buy, eat, listen. God’s invitation to return is also God’s command for our lives.

God knows that all of us hunger, but God also knows that too often, we choose the wrong things to try to satisfy that hunger. Our longings are for peace, contentment, security, a feeling of being full. All of us try to satisfy those longings with that which is not bread: money, status, power, possessions. We labor for that which does not satisfy. God calls us back to the true source of life and happiness. “Incline your ear,” God says, “and come to me; listen, so that you may live.” Only in God can we find true contentment, true security, true peace.

God satisfies our longings. God’s word is our bread. God’s grace is our drink. God’s love is our peace and contentment. And God’s promises, given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—that our sins are forgiven, that death is not the final answer, that we will be made new—are our security in a troubling and broken world. Today, at this table, we will share the bread and the wine. These are the bread which satisfies and the wine without price, for which no money is needed. No money is needed because they were offered freely by Jesus to all of us. He gave of his body and blood that we might be justified, be made right with God. Through this bread and this wine God feeds us, fills us and sustains us. They may not look like much, one small wafer and a sip of wine, but they are filling beyond compare, satisfying beyond measure. Through them God’s grace lifts and sustains us and prepares us for the days and weeks to come. At this table, God’s table, we eat what is good and delight in rich food.

My friends, God provides. The place of abundance is here. It is here because God is here. Christ is here, in the word, the wafer and the wine. Yet wherever in the world we find ourselves, the place of abundance is there also, for God is with us there as well. The grace imparted to us through God’s rich sustaining love will lift us and bear us onward, carrying us through whatever places of exile we might have to endure, until we once again find ourselves back at God’s table for another meal. And even the pickiest of eaters can find something in this meal to delight them, for the food at God’s table never grows tiresome, no matter how often we eat there. The place of abundance is here. Come, eat your fill.

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Present and Persistent

Sermon preached at St. Matthew and St. Paul’s Lutheran Churches, rural Harmony, MN, on 7/27/14. This was the final sermon of my internship.
© 2014 Shawn Brooks

Texts:
1 Kings 3:5-12
Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Once upon a time there was a man who was only interested in what he could experience through his senses. He only cared about things he could see, taste, touch, measure, or calculate. Things that couldn’t be observed, or directly experienced, held no personal interest for him. They might be interesting to speculate about, or to study in other people, but beyond that he found them useless. Now, this man thought he was happy. If you were to ask him, he would say that life was good, that he was fulfilled, that he was content. He knew he was smart, funny, kind and considerate. He had enough to meet his needs. He gave to charity. He was a good man.

Or was he? He was also judgmental and dismissive. He took pride in claiming he didn’t suffer fools gladly, or at all. His humor was often at the expense of others. He had many acquaintances, but few friends, and no one other than his family that he felt he could really count on in an emergency. For all that he thought that he had the world figured out, there was always something missing. He never had a reason beyond himself to exist. For all that he claimed to revere the observable world, he was mostly disconnected from it. He was of the world, but he was not really in the world.

Our gospel today gives us several different pictures of the kingdom of heaven. A mustard seed. Yeast. A hidden treasure. A single pearl. Each of these are ‘of the world’, things one can see, touch, or measure. And yet for all that, they are not what they seem. A mustard plant grows from small to great, from something easily overlooked to something large enough to provide shade. A tiny bit of yeast leavens the entire batch of dough. Most people don’t even know that the hidden treasure exists, much less that it is a treasure. The pearl of great value is just hanging out with all the other pearls, being pearly, not calling attention to itself. We think we know everything there is to know about these items, and yet we don’t. They change before our eyes.

According to Jesus, this is how the kingdom of heaven works. The kingdom of heaven is always present, waiting to be discovered. It hides among the ordinary things of our days and lives, and is only revealed when we look at things anew, with different eyes. And once we see the kingdom of heaven, everything is changed. We are changed. We stop what we had been doing and do something new, something different. We don’t care if this new thing we are doing makes sense to anyone else. If they’ve discovered the kingdom of heaven themselves, what we’re doing will make sense to them. If they have not, nothing we say can explain it adequately.

The kingdom of heaven is also persistent. It doesn’t go away. The mustard plant was widely regarded as a weed in 1st century Judea. Farmers would go to great lengths to keep it out of their fields. And yet the tiny mustard seeds were so easily overlooked that mustard plants would keep coming back. Yeast was the same way. We tend to think that yeast bread is wonderful, but in Judea yeast was looked at as something like mold, something to be avoided. One was supposed to purge one’s house of yeast during Passover. Yet once yeast is added to dough, the dough is changed forever. There’s no going back.

This is the kingdom of heaven, the extraordinary hiding in the ordinary—much like Jesus himself, God contained within human form. For many, it was as easy to look past Jesus and not see the kingdom of heaven as to overlook the mustard seed or the hidden treasure. But just because we can’t see it, doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. Present and persistent, the kingdom of heaven is in the world, but not really of the world. And yet, it so often comes to us looking like the world. The kingdom of heaven is people doing what they can to help others. It is anyone who does something for Christ by doing unto the least of these. Not all miracles are miraculous; some are just everyday people using the gifts God has given them to do what they are called to do, helping and healing and supporting and caring. We spend so much time praying for the wondrous that we overlook God’s work through the hands of other people. We spend so much time looking at the field without really seeing it that we never find the hidden treasure. We spend so much time annoyed at the existence of mustard bushes that we fail to give thanks for the shade they give.

Yes, the kingdom of heaven is manifest in Christ’s death and resurrection. Yes, those events bought us our tickets to the kingdom of heaven. But we don’t have to wait. The kingdom of heaven is here, now, just sitting there among all the other pearls, waiting to be discovered. The kingdom of heaven is in people, in you, and you, and you, and all of you…because you are made in the image of God, and are therefore made capable of doing God’s work. And because of that, you can rest assured that God will always be with you. And because God is with you, the kingdom of heaven is here, now, in the resurrected Christ. And it is worth doing something new, something different with our lives.

So, whatever became of that man who cared only for the things of the world, but was never really in the world? Believe it or not, God could reach even him. It took a long time, but finally the man began to notice that some pearls were different from the rest, that some bread was bigger and tastier, that some fields contained more than just grass. He stopped looking at the world as something to measure, and began looking at it as something to treasure. He stopped looking at people as problems to be dealt with, and now tries to look at them as children of God. He stopped writing computer programs and started writing sermons. And eventually, all of that brought him here, to stand in front of you for the past year, and for one last time today.

From the moment I arrived, we all knew that my last day would come, and now it’s here. Although I am excited about what God has in store for me, it is still hard to go. The internship coordinator at the seminary told us that leaving a good internship experience has an element of grieving, and is a process of saying both “I love you” and “Goodbye” at the same time. Make no mistake, this has been a good experience for me. I have grown and thrived here, because you have watered me with love. You have been tangible evidence of the kingdom of heaven every day I have been among you. But I leave knowing that God will provide. I know that God has good things in store for St. Matthew and St. Paul’s. We can go forward knowing that the kingdom of heaven, although not totally here, is coming. We know this because of the promises of Christ’s death and resurrection: the promise that God is always with us and the promise that, forgiven and made right with God, we will be made new. We are in the world, but we are not of the world. We belong to the kingdom of heaven. And the kingdom will always be with us.

Thank you, for all that you have done for me and my family. I love you. Goodbye.

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Acts of God

Sermon preached at Christ Lutheran Church, Spring Valley, WI, on 8/10/14
© 2014 Shawn Brooks

Texts:
1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Have you ever noticed how insurance companies refer to things beyond human control as “acts of God”? They frequently talk about the weather this way, as if God decides now and then that we need a tornado, or some hail, to bring us to our senses. Admittedly, the idea that God directly controls the weather has some Biblical basis. The Psalms, in particular, often talk about God sending the sunshine and the rain. But in this day of modern weather science, we realize that changes in the weather have complex causes. Yes, the weather is a part of God’s creation, as is everything else, but God doesn’t make it rain just to keep you from having a picnic. And God certainly doesn’t deliberately send a tornado, or hail, or a hurricane, or an earthquake to afflict us—not as a punishment and not for any other reason.

This makes Yahweh markedly different from the gods worshiped in lands other than Israel. In other cultures, specific gods were responsible for rain, wind and storms, for sunshine and for snow. Because storms were inexplicable and uncontrollable, they must be acts of the gods. Because they were powerful and dangerous, the gods controlling them were powerful and dangerous as well. Those gods used the weather to display the awe and majesty of their power so that humans would tremble before them and worship them.

But not Yahweh. Not the Lord our God. God tells Elijah “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” While waiting for God, Elijah ignores the wind strong enough to split mountains, and the earthquake, and the fire. Only when these have passed does Elijah come forth. God is not in the forces of nature. Rather, God is in the “sound of sheer silence,” sometimes translated as “a still, small voice.” The fury of nature is just a distraction. God is outside of that fury, beyond the destructive forces. God is in the calm that remains when the fury of nature has dissipated. God’s power is to the forces of nature as the forces of nature are to us.

The disciples see this demonstrated as well, but in their distress, it doesn’t sink in. No person can walk on water, so how can that be Jesus coming toward them over the lake? Yet when Jesus tells them it’s him, don’t be afraid, he doesn’t just identify himself as Jesus. The NRSV translates Jesus’ words as “Take heart, it is I,” but the Greek phrase translated “it is I” is the same phrase used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible for the name of God. Jesus is really saying “Take heart, I AM.” He is telling the disciples that God is with them. God, who is stronger than the storms, is here. And Peter basically says “Prove it. Make me able to walk on the water too.”

And Jesus does! Jesus calls to him, and Peter gets out of the boat and starts to walk. In the midst of the storm and the wind and the uncontrollable forces, God calls to Peter and Peter responds, eagerly. Peter begins to do something no human should be able to do, because God, in Christ, calls to him. And it’s fine! Until Peter notices the wind. Only when Peter loses his focus on Jesus and starts paying more attention to the world around him do things go wrong. It’s like the old Looney Tunes cartoons, where a character will run off a cliff and just keep on going—until they notice that there is no longer ground beneath their feet. Then they start to fall. Peter is the same way. He’s fine walking on the water until he notices the wind, and realizes that he’s walking on water, and remembers that he cannot, by his own power, walk on water. Then he starts to sink, and cries out to his God to save him. And Jesus does.

Some will say that if Peter had never gotten out of the boat, he wouldn’t have needed saving. But Jesus called to him to come. Some will say that Peter began to sink because he lost his faith and began to doubt. Indeed, Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Yet even though the Bible gives us Jesus’ words, it doesn’t give us the tone Jesus uses when speaking them. What if Jesus isn’t reprimanding Peter for doubting? What if Jesus isn’t pointing out that Peter doesn’t have enough faith? What if Jesus was just saying “Silly man, you were doing fine! Why did you suddenly lose faith in your ability to continue?”

Peter doesn’t lose his faith in Jesus, doesn’t doubt Jesus. Peter doubts that he is able to do something that everyone knows humans can’t do, and even though he was doing it just fine, the sudden conviction that he can’t is indeed enough to prevent him. This has nothing to do with Peter’s faith or lack thereof. Peter has enough faith to get out of the boat when God calls to him, just as he had enough faith to follow Jesus in the first place. Peter has more than enough faith in Jesus, he just doesn’t have enough faith in himself.

The room you are currently sitting in is usually called the sanctuary, but those of you who are familiar with church architecture may know that it has another name: the nave. This is the same root word as naval—having to do with boats—and navigate—sailing a boat from one place to another. We are sitting in a boat. The Holy Spirit brought us to the boat, and now Jesus is calling to you, to me, to all of us to get out of the boat, and to go out into the wind and the storm of the world and do more than we think we are capable of doing. We don’t need to be pillars of the faith. All we need is enough faith to get out of the boat. Once we do, God will give us what we need to do what God is asking. The promises inherent in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—the promise that we are made right with God and the promise that death is not the final answer, that we will be made new—give us all that we need to do what God asks us to do. And if we focus too much on the storms of the world and begin to sink when things seem impossible, God is there, reaching out to us and lifting us and bringing us to safety.

God is not in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire. Those can rage and do their worst, but when they have expended themselves, when the forces of the world have played themselves out, the great I AM remains, waiting, calling to us in a still, small voice and bringing us peace, the peace that comes from knowing that we are doing God’s work, whether we think ourselves capable or not. This work, the things we do to further the kingdom at God’s calling—these things are the true acts of God. For we are God’s agents, and when we do God’s work we are stronger than the storm. Jesus is calling us to get out of the boat, and even a little faith is enough.

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No Other Rock

Sermon preached at Greenfield Lutheran Church, Harmony, MN, on 7/20/14.

NOTE: This was my final sermon at my supervisor’s church, and the penultimate sermon of my internship. My supervisor is Pastor Betsy Dartt. She will be retiring early in 2015.

Texts:
Isaiah 44:6-8
Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

A civilian airliner blasted from the sky by rebels who thought they were targeting a military plane. Israeli tanks rumbling across the border into the Gaza strip, destroying homes and a hospital in an attempt to demolish hard-to-find tunnels. US citizens standing near the sites where Central American children are being detained, holding signs that say “Go home! We don’t want you here!” A pastor in Kansas excommunicating a parishioner who recently came out as being gay. These items from the past week’s news horrify me, not only for the violence they contain or imply, but because they are vicious examples of what can happen when one attempts to do human weed control.

In nature, a weed is any plant we don’t like having in its current location. Although I’m not a farmer or a gardener, I understand that, left unchecked, weeds diminish the actual crop or detract from the beauty we are trying to create. So we try to get rid of them. But getting rid of weeds is a tricky business. As our parable points out, when gathering weeds it’s easy to uproot the good plants at the same time. The wrong plane, a plane full of AIDS researchers and families on vacation instead of military cargo, gets shot down. Hospitals and homes, harbors for the sick, the injured, and children, get destroyed because you’re trying to find hidden tunnels. Oops.

There’s another problem with weed control: too often, we can’t tell what is a weed and what is a good plant. Take dandelions: did you know that they were brought here deliberately from Europe, where they were and are prized for their nutritional and medicinal properties? 200 years ago, people cut away the grass to make room for the dandelions. I remember once, when my stepdaughter was 7 or 8, talking to her about weeds vs. flowers. She said something very profound: “All flowers are weeds. We’ve just decided that they’re pretty.” Flowers are weeds, and weeds have flowers. Why are some prized and not others? Why are children fleeing murder and violence for a better life in a land of plenty so dangerous that they must be kept out of the garden? Why is one sinner in a congregation considered so grievously in the wrong that they should be excluded from God’s grace, while all the other sinners in the congregation are considered to be decent, upstanding church members? Jesus came for all sinners, right? Who are the weeds, and who are the wheat or the flowers?

This is a personal question for me. Hello, my name is Shawn, and I am a weed. I spent over 20 years away from the church, rejecting God. And yet I stand before you today, bringing you the Good News of God’s love for you. Things change. People change. A flower is a weed we’ve decided is pretty. Now, I’m not making any claims to being pretty … but you get the point. We are all weeds, but we are all wheat or flowers as well. In the words of Martin Luther, we are each, at the same time, both sinner and saint. This is part of why Jesus in our parable today says to leave all of the plants alone. “For in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers…” Only God is able to tell the weeds from the wheat, and the flowers.

So why then do we humans feel such a need to weed in God’s garden? In part, it stems from a misplaced desire to defend God, and the church. “Those people will ruin our church! We must keep them out!” This desire to defend the church comes from a fear of change. It’s no wonder we fear change; change is hard. Change often means giving up control, moving away from what is comfortable. I want to do a little experiment. Please raise your hand if you can remember life before cell phones. Now, I’m going to mention some other things. Please lower your hand when I mention something that has always existed in your lifetime. Computers. Space flight. Color television. Any television. Electricity to rural areas. Radio. Cars. Thank you, you can put your hands down. These advances in technology are just one way of pointing out that change is always happening. We don’t have to like it, but we have to adjust to it. We are mortal, and because we are mortal, change happens.

Everything changes, except God. God is eternal, and constant. Isaiah tells us that God is the first and the last. “Do not fear, or be afraid,” Isaiah says, “There is no other rock.” God is our rock, with us always, solid, strong, and dependable. God the Father created and fills the universe, bringing us life. God the Son walked among us. He gave his life that we might be turned from weeds into wheat, and he is present with us still, in the Word and at the Table. God the Spirit makes the flower in each of us bloom. God does all this without us. God can handle everything without our help. There is no need for us to defend God. And there is no need for us to fear change, because God is always with us.

Two years ago I spent the summer serving as a chaplain intern at the Mayo Clinic hospital in Rochester. Every day I walked into the rooms of people I did not know, to see if I could help them with whatever fears or anxieties they, or their families, might be facing. Early in the summer, while I was still very unsure of myself, I happened to visit a Lutheran pastor who was dealing with a variety of issues. In spite of her pain and how tired she was, she was very easy to talk with. She told me about her church and I told her about my first year in seminary. It was a wonderful visit. She was very encouraging, and I left feeling reassured that I was capable of doing what I needed to do as a chaplain. That pastor’s name was Betsy Dartt. When I walked out of that room, I had no idea I would ever see Betsy again. Yet because of that visit, when Harmony was proposed as my internship site, Betsy and I each realized that we could easily work together.

God was there in that hospital room, watching over Betsy and watching over me. While you, and Betsy, were wondering about what the future might hold for Greenfield, God was planting seeds to create that future. God is still planting those seeds, for Greenfield, for Betsy, and for me. There is no growth without change–for a seed, a person, or a church. There is no future without change, but it is equally true that there is no future without God. God is the rock on which our future is built. There is no other.

I will be leaving, very soon. We all knew that day would come from the time I arrived. Although I am excited about what God has in store for me, it is still hard to go. The internship coordinator at the seminary told us that leaving a good internship experience is a process of saying both “I love you” and “Goodbye” at the same time. Make no mistake, this has been a good experience for me. I have grown and thrived here, because you have watered me with love. You have been an important part of my journey from weed to wheat. But I leave knowing that God will provide. I know that God has good things in store for Greenfield. We can go forward secure in the promises of Christ’s death and resurrection: the promise that God is always with us and the promise that, forgiven and made right with God, we will be made new. We go forward secure because we know that God always keeps promises. God, in Christ, is our foundation. There is no other rock.

Thank you, for all that you have done for me and for my family. I love you. Goodbye.

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