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“Focus On…What Exactly?”
Sermon for U-CC Waupun

July 14, 2024
Philippians 4:4-9

Focus: in thinking about the mission of our church, it's important for us to remember that God calls us to focus our spirits on that which brings joy and blessing to us and our communities. It's in those acts that we will receive the peace of Christ.

When I was scrolling on Facebook this week, I encountered the image on the screen. It says, “You can do anything… but not everything.” As the image shows, you can either fill one jug of water all the way full, or five jugs of water partway fall. You can't do both unless you have more water. I want you to keep that image in your mind as I share today's message, because it has lots of relevance to my own life, and the life of this church. Maybe you might find some relevance in the ways that you love your own life as well.

As some of you know, outside of playing and singing music, a hobby of mine that is also part of my vocation is songwriting and producing music. My second bedroom in my townhome is a cross between a home office for doing church work and a small home recording studio. One of the things that I was most looking for and excited about when I moved here was the opportunity to have a dedicated space for making music.
But I'm learning that I need to carve out more time and space in my life to utilize it. I still have a lot to learn about the recording and production process. But the learning and the doing is also something that brings me joy, something that helps me fill my own cup when the workday is done.

As this is my first proper ministerial call, I know I have a lot to learn there too. I love this church, and I am honored to accompany you through important parts of your lives and be invited into both joyful and the challenging moments. You are constantly in my thoughts and prayers and every day I ask myself how I can be more effective or more present. Because I care about you all so much, you deserve my time, my attention, and my prayerful discernment, in order for me to serve you well.

But in order for me to serve you well, you also deserve a pastor who has taken time for self-care and other things that feed my creativity. You deserve a pastor who has interests and passions outside of local church ministry. You deserve a pastor who finds ways to set aside anxiety and focus on things that are important to me when I’ve done what I can do for the church that day. If I don’t engage in time management as a spiritual practice, if I don’t care for myself and do the things that feed my soul, there’s no way I can do a good job caring for you.

I think the same is true for this church. I think the anxieties that Paul talks about in today's passage are felt both in our local church here, and in the church universal. Because we have a unique theological perspective, in comparison to some of the other churches in the area, many of us want to promote that we still have “something for everyone.” And to make it so, we want to say we have progressive theology, meaningful children’s and youth programs, innovative worship engaging secular media, generous community outreach. and so forth. And most of that is true. We have a lot of that already. But so often the institutional church believes that we have to be all things to all people in order to stay relevant. Because if we don't, how will we pay our bills? How will we preserve our traditions? How will God's love be shared with the next generation?

But Paul reminds the church that the anxiety does not need to oppress us. You might remember that I often construct a sermon based on a particular verse or phrase of the text that has been buzzing around in my head all week. This week, that phrase is this one: “if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things.”

When there are so many things that we think about as individuals, and so many things that we think about as the church, to me, it's deeply liberating to be reminded to focus on what brings joy and love to the world. God calls us to focus our spirits on that which brings joy and blessing to us and our communities. It's in those acts that we will receive the peace of Christ.

For me personally, it might be the recognition that at some point it's time to set aside my own anxieties for the day, take the “pastor hat” off, and write a new song. (I have lots of ideas that could be fleshed out.) Maybe for you, it's taking time to spend with your families, or with those who love.

Maybe for the church, it’s the act of liberating ourselves from doing everything for everyone, and focusing instead of clarifying our mission, our particular ministry here at U-CC.

Perhaps we might respond first, by reciting the words of our mission and vision statement that we now recite about once a month. That's a good start. But I wonder if it's the place we finish.

There's a question that's worth asking as the church changes and we begin to realize that we can't be everything to everyone. Like the image at the beginning of my message, we can do anything, but we can't do everything. That leaves us with this question: Because we can’t do everything, what are we going to do?

Maybe Paul's encouragement can give us an answer. Our job is to focus on the things that are excellent and praiseworthy in our ministries. Perhaps that looks like packing over 300 lunches for people in need. Perhaps that looks like widening our welcome as we think about how to be more inclusive. Perhaps that looks like building beloved community, lifting each other up when times are hard. Perhaps that looks like providing meaningful visitation ministry or bringing food to folks when they need it.

In today's media song, Whitney Houston sings this:
“Each day I live, I want to be
A day to give the best of me
I'm only one, but not alone”

This reminds me why it’s important to stay focused, and to be present. If we let the peace of Christ live within us, and focus on the things that are most important to our church’s ministries, and to our own lives, we can put them into practice.

So is he going to your week, may you think about how you can unburden yourself from the pressure to do everything. Think about the things that you do best, the things that bring you joy, and do more of that. Yes, the work still needs to get done, and the anxiety might not totally go away. But it is when we live our lives with joy and passion that the peace of Christ can be with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

“The Choices We Make, and the Challenge of Sharing God’s Love”
Sermon for U-CC Waupun, Pentecost 7B

July 7, 2024

Focus: Sharing God’s love asks a lot of us, and sometimes the challenge is how we are going to share a different message than what others believe or what we’ve been taught in the past.

One of the side effects of being the pastor of a more progressive denomination of Christianity is that I often get a lot of questions, questions I think many people in a church like ours can resonate with because of what we say we believe.

Here are just a few.

“How can you believe that being gay isn’t a sin?” (That one came while I was getting a haircut.)

“I don’t believe in female pastors. How can you think that’s acceptable?” (It’s no coincidence that women were the first preachers of the resurrection and also no coincidence that the one who doubted it was a man. Also, I’m not criticizing anyone who is less used to the idea of female pastors, only the peoples who say that shouldn’t be.)

“Do you really think talking about racism or other forms of oppression are acceptable in church?” (In fact, yes I do, because I believe God wants all people to have the same rights as everyone else and we as God’s people cannot be free until everyone is free. Besides, if we’re doing it right, I believe we should be talking about hard things, even risky things, and trying to make the world better as a witness to God’s work in our lives.)

But unfortunately, not everyone who claims to be a Christian understands things that way. Too often, people go to church simply because they want to feel better about themselves for doing “the right thing.” Too many people want to "check it off the list”, saying they did their good thing for the week and can now live their lives without consequence the rest of the week. Or worse, some people believe that the primary motivator for believing in Christ is that you'll go to hell if you don’t.

I feel like Jesus probably felt the same way. For so many, the teachings of Jesus presented a radical departure from the established social norms of the day. Listening to Jesus, therefore, also forced listeners to make a choice: either get on board with what Jesus was saying, or don’t.

My overarching theme for today is that Jesus and his disciples offered a very different message than what people were accustomed to, and those who listened had a choice to make: either receive it or dismiss it. There are two important things that happened in this lectionary passage, and I will take each one by one. But that's the theme that runs through both of these, and after I make those connections, I will talk about what it means for us.

First, Jesus receives what can only be understood as a cold reception in his hometown of Nazareth. The popular paraphrase called The Message interprets it this way:

“He’s just a carpenter—Mary’s boy. We’ve known him since he was a kid. We know his brothers, James, Justus, Jude, and Simon, and his sisters. Who does he think he is?”

The people of Nazareth can't experience the authority of Jesus, because they know where he came from, who his parents were. They could make assumptions about him based upon what they had experienced of him. Anyone who knew him couldn't get behind most of the more important things Jesus was saying, because they couldn't get past the image of “little boy” Jesus in their heads.

We're about to watch a clip from one of my favorite movies, called Freedom Writers. It's based on a true story of a first-year high school English teacher, by the name of Erin Gruwell. Two years after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, Mrs. Gruwell, a middle class white woman, is hired to teach at risk high school students. Before the beginning of this clip, she’s startled by a derogatory drawing of one of the other students in the class, and has an encounter with her students which eventually teach both her and them some very important lessons. Let's watch.

(clip)

Happily, the scene we just watched, represents a breakthrough for both teacher and students, but they seen it also shows how people in the business of teaching others don't always get the reception they expect.

But this leads into the second part of the scripture, where Jesus gives the disciples some instructions. They are to share the good news of God’s love with others, but if others are not receptive to that love, the disciples are to kick the dust off their shoes and move forward.

Sometimes I wonder if that might be part of our task as more progressively-minded Christians. We are far from a monolith of our beliefs, to be sure, but we pride ourselves on being a church where people can belong if they don’t agree with the way the churches and their past have done things. When you put out your church profile in the most recent search process, one of the things on your “wish list” that intrigued me right away  was the sense that you were seeking to become more inclusive, more welcoming, and more strong in your mission than you already were. You recognized in that time that you were already doing some great things, but that you hoped that your next ministry leader would help you do more. I'm certainly not a perfect pastor, and if we wanted to take on some wider or deeper initiatives, those things could not be initiated by me. The pastor does not cast the mission of the church; the people cast the mission of the church and the pastor advises them, guides them, and prays for their discernment.

But here's what I do know.

So often, churches say that they want to learn to be more inclusive, or to be stronger in their mission. And I think most of the time when they say those things, they really believe it.

But so often, when we are faced with the desire to make a change, we are afraid of what other people in our communities will think if we take a strong stance on a controversial social justice issue. We live in a small town, and that risk is not a small one, because in small towns like ours, people talk. People form opinions of our church based on what we say we believe and how we choose to broadcast that belief system. Sometimes people will agree with our message and our belief system, and sometimes they won’t. That’s the nature of discipleship; what’s right isn’t always easy.

But what Jesus asks his disciples to do in this text is not to simply avoid doing the work of discipleship because of what other people will think. He asks them to keep going, shake the dust off their feet, and continue to spread the good news of God’s love to anyone who needs it, especially those who are most vulnerable, those who were caught in systems that oppressed and demeaned. 
I’m going to let you interpret what that means for you personally and how you want to see the church live out that call. But here’s the message I want you to take with you today. Sharing God’s love asks a lot of us, and sometimes the challenge is how we are going to share a different message than what others believe or what we’ve been taught in the past.

Because when we share a message of love, inclusion, and liberation—instead of the exclusionary belief systems of other churches—and share it boldly, incredible things can happen. Perhaps people in our community who are yearning for an accepting and caring church home can finally find that in us. (We’ve seen that in action today, as a new member has joined our church!)

So may you continue to do as Jesus asked of all of us us, to share the good news, to be courageous in your beliefs, and made stronger because God accompanies you on the way. May it be so. Amen.

 

“Lament, and Finding Our Way Back to Hope” 
Sermon for U-CC Waupun, Pentecost 6B, 

June 30, 2024
Lamentations 3:22-33

Focus: Even when there are reasonable circumstances to lament, we can have faith that God has not left our side.

When my mom got endometrial cancer, it was probably the moment where my own faith was tested the most. It was also undoubtedly the moment where God's strength and presence has been revealed to me the most.

When our family received the diagnosis, it was the summer before my last semester in college. We were told from the get-go that my mom had treatment available to her that would represent a full cure, but it would require some pretty intense treatment. They called it “sandwich therapy”. Three rounds of chemo, followed by 30 days of radiation, followed by three more rounds of chemo. As anybody who has ever had cancer treatment will tell you, that is the worst kind of sandwich you could imagine! But if that's what it took, my mom was willing to do that.

As it turned out, she would run into some difficulties along the way. The chemo made her feel absolutely horrible for several days afterwards. Going to radiation treatment every weekday for a month took its toll. And finally, since the radiation had wiped out most of her platelets, her last three chemo treatments had to be postponed several times because of low platelet counts.

Especially that first few months of her cancer treatment, I was an hour and a half away, trying to finish my last semester of college. I wanted nothing more than to be able to sit with her during her treatments and help her around the house when she needed it. I remember feeling so helpless, because there was so little I could do, and if I was going to find hope in the situation, I was going to have to dig deep to find it. Sometimes it felt like I had to stick my face in the dirt, like the text says.

But my faith was strengthened in these moments, because of the ways that God showed up to carry me and my family through. God showed up through casseroles and restaurant gift cards brought to my parents’ house so that dad didn't have to cook all the meals by himself. God showed up through college friends who would meet me for coffee on the days of mom's chemo treatments and tell me stories that would make me laugh. God showed up through caring teachers and professors who helped my sister Emily and I process our emotions around what was going on.

But on our journey to find that hope, we had to lament first. Part of the reason I chose this text from really strange text from Lamentations today was to remind us, that part of our faith journey both encourages and sometimes requires us to lament. In so many of our faith traditions, we've been told throughout our lives that if we're not praising God in every circumstance, we're doing it wrong. If we aren’t giving God thanks at all times for all the things God has done for us, we are ungrateful. But I think this text is inviting us to challenge that assumption. Lament is, by definition, an inevitable part of the human experience, because there's no way we can be happy all the time. The text says, example, that we should simply put up with anything God throws at us. We should expect to be slapped on the cheek, set our face to the ground, and sit stoically, waiting for God to deliver us from our current situation. It's almost as if the writer we should expect some kind of punishment from God in times of our distress.

We don't know exactly who wrote this part of the book of Lamentations, because the book of Lamentations has many authors, but the stark reality is that in this chapter of the book of Lamentations places the blame for the individual’s circumstance squarely on God. The lectionary cuts, this part out, but I feel it's important to give you some context. Among other complaints, verse 8 says: “Even though I call out and cry for help, God silences my prayer.”

Have you ever felt that God has ignored your distress, or that God has failed to intervene in our communities when it mattered? To be honest, it would be quite faithful of you to say yes, because it's biblical. So often, so many of us are forced to try to hold onto faith, and hope, even as it seems that the world is crashing down. So often, we are forced to ask the question of why bad things happen. Does God simply allow it, sitting and watching while the medical treatment doesn’t work, or the rights of marginalized communities are taken away, or people are without a home or dependable food sources in Dodge County? Did God simply watch idly as last weekend’s storm completely demolished the building of the Apple Grove Lutheran Church in Argyle, WI, a building that has been standing since 1893?

The truth is that sometimes we don't know why these things happen. The author of today's scripture passage was dealing with a particularly difficult moment in their lives, one that they believed that God caused.

But even in the midst of these complaints, even in the midst of this deep trouble in their lives, the author of this text doesn't falter in their faith. In spite of everything else, they say, “Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through!” There certainly is reason for hope.

In our media song for today, we are reminded that, even when there is no star in sight, God will be our guiding light. God is with us, even when things seem unexplainably difficult.
We're about to watch a heartwarming movie clip from A Dog’s Way Home, which we also thought was appropriate for today's message.

(clip)

After 2 1/2 years, a period of time which surely would have meant certain death for most dogs, a dog can still find her human companions. In a similar way, no matter what the situation, God can still give us hope.

This is the good news, friends. This is the grace you can take with you today Even when there are reasonable circumstances to lament, we can have faith that God has not left our side.

That was the grace that I took away from my mom's cancer journey. By God’s grace, she is now cancer, free, and we're very thankful. By God’s grace, my faith was strengthened, instead of weakened by hopelessness. No matter what happens, God has been faithful to me in my life, and I know that God will see me through any situation. And I know that God will do the same for you.

So this week, I invite you to not shy away from despair when it comes on your path, because it might be what strengthens your faith, the most. Think about a time where your faith was strengthened in a time of difficulty, and give thanks for God's faithfulness, which has sustained you. Amen

 

“Don’t You Have Faith Yet?”
Sermon for U-CC Waupun, Pentecost 4B, 

June 23, 2024
Mark 4: 35-41

Focus: In the midst of the storms in our lives, Jesus’ presence offers us hope, even when it seems like the rain won’t stop.

Do you ever feel like the rain won't stop?

On one hand, I actually mean this literally. Over the past couple of months, it seems like it's rained and rained and rained. I haven't been able to get my bike out to ride to work as much as I could this time last year, and most of you understand my bike is something that gives me a sense of independence. The mosquitoes are horrendous. The farmers in our community have probably wondered how all this rain would impact the planting, growing, and harvesting that they rely upon for survival. I had to stop writing this sermon when we were under a tornado warning, and the news told me we got well over 3 1/2 inches of rain yesterday.

But on the other hand, I mean this in a more metaphorical way. There was a time in my own family. For example, that was just so full of loss. First, my dad's brother, Jim, with whom he had a very close relationship, had just retired from managing a paper mill, and was consulting with his former company one day to help the young guys shut down the mill for routine maintenance. As he was giving them instructions, he collapsed right in front of them, and either had a heart attack or a stroke. They put him in a medically induced coma, and he never woke up.

Then, my mom's mom, the grandma that I talk about from North Carolina, was diagnosed with Stage 4 bile duct cancer, and 21 days later she was gone.

Then, our dear family friend, Dave, died a few days after my grandma, after a difficult journey with pancreatic cancer.

The three of them died in the course of about four months. All of us were grieving so much and it was just exhausting. For a time we didn't really know how to cope with it all.

It felt like the rain just wouldn’t stop.

Of course, at one point, the rain finally did stop, and we knew Bo felt God was with us, and that the people we had loved and lost. We're with us also, in our minds and our hearts. My sister, Emily, and I, can do pretty good impressions of the various wacky things that my grandma would say in her sassy, southern drawl. There are very few memories of my Grandma, Uncle Jim, or our friend Dave, that don't give us a smile or laugh, even if sometimes we laugh through misty eyes.

I would imagine a number of us have stories like this, in our own lives, in our own families. Maybe not with death specifically, but other traumatic life events, perhaps. If we're honest with ourselves, maybe we’ve felt like the disciples in the boat. There are many songs, both on Christian radio, and in our treasured hymns, that use the image of Jesus being with us in the storm. And it's a nice idea that gives us comfort, but it isn't always so simple. 
While we are caught in the eye of a storm, it sometimes seems to us that Jesus is absolutely unbothered by our circumstances, literally sleeping on a pillow (or a cushion, depending on which translation you follow), while we are the ones saying, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”

Often times when I'm preparing to preach, there will be one sentence that the Holy Spirit nudges me to talk about. This week, that sentence is this one: “Jesus asked them, […] ‘Don’t you have faith yet?’”

I think there are two ways to hear that sentence. The more obvious way is probably the way that Mark might want you to hear it, which is to say that Jesus is rebuking the disciples. He saying, “don't you get it? Snap out of it!”

But in his commentary for Working Preacher, New Testament professor Matt Skinner puts it this way: “[The disciples] have lost hope; their words reveal that they have already figured out how the story must end.”

Like them, when we face difficult circumstances, if Jesus were to ask us, “Don't you have faith yet?”, a response might be, “to be honest, it's a little shaky at the moment,” or maybe even, “I’m not so sure anymore, Jesus. So many terrible things have happened to me and you haven't been able to stop them.”

But what if we read that sentence a little bit differently? What if, instead of rebuking us, and telling us to shape up, Jesus said these words with love and compassion in his voice? As if to say, “why are you frightened? Don't you know I am going to love you and keep you safe? Don't you know I'm not going to leave you to yourselves? Don't you know that, no matter what happens, I am not going to give up on you?”

“Don't you have faith yet, in what I have done, what I'm doing, and in what I am going to do for you?”

I don't know what the kind of inflection was in Jesus’ voice, because I wasn't there. But something is leading me to believe that a rebuke from Jesus would not be the end of the story, because, as he says this, the storm call is down, and the disciples are filled with awe, and maybe even with a kind of peace. “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!”
Just like the disciples, we ourselves might be able to be filled with that kind of peace. Just like the disciples, the storm is not the end of the story for us. In the midst of the storms in our lives, Jesus’ presence offers us hope, even when it seems like the rain won’t stop.

It's true, that Jesus doesn't take away the things that caused the storms in our lives. Jesus didn't prevent my grandma, my Uncle Jim, or my friend Dave, from dying and leaving loved ones to move forward and navigate their lives without them. But we can have hope in these moments that Jesus does not leave us to ourselves. Jesus is gently calling us to be more faithful, to trust that Jesus will be there for us, as he has been so many times before. I can say for certain that my faith enabled me to get through that incredibly difficult time in our family’s life, and my faith will enable me to get through many more difficult circumstances in the future. I have every confidence the same will be true for you, because, from everything I know about you, you are a strong, faithful, and prayerful congregation. All of these attributes will carry you through any storm.

Even as, in many ways, UCC Waupun has recovered quite well after the pandemic, I think, in other ways, we are still trying to calm down again. And while it's true that the future will not look like the past, and things won't necessarily return to exactly how they used to be, Jesus is inviting us to maintain a resilient hope that he will be with us for whatever comes next.

Mumford & Sons exemplifies that resilient hope in today's media song. The chorus is simple and beautiful, and I want to make sure you caught this assurance in these lyrics:

But there will come a time
You'll see, with no more tears
And love will not break your heart
But dismiss your fears
Get over your hill and see
What you find there
With grace in your heart
And flowers in your hair

As you go into this week, I invite you to think about the storms that Jesus has carry do you through in your life. Remember, with gratitude the times that Jesus called you into deeper faith. A life of faith, after all, it's rarely easy, but so often deeply rewarding. May you were reflection on the times that Christ has carried you offer you opportunities to continue to grow. When Jesus asked you the question, “don't you have faith yet?”, may you work toward being able to respond in earnest, with a heart full of awe and joy. Thanks be to God. Amen.  
 

“Mustard Seed Moments at U-CC”
Sermon for U-CC Waupun, June 16, 2024, Pentecost 4B
Ezekiel 17:22-24 and Mark 4:26-34

Focus: Even as the church is changing drastically by every measure, we can celebrate the goodness of what we do together and recognize how God is calling us into exciting new opportunities to grow even more.

It's no secret that the institutional church is changing a lot. From this pulpit, I have talked about many disturbing trends that are impacting society and impacting how society views the institutional church. Add to that an increasingly divided political landscape and competing moral values, and it's enough to make anybody feel more than a little uneasy.

These are all real issues, and I don't want to belittle them or pretend that they don't exist. In the same way that I can't pretend that these social issues have no impact on us as a congregation, you can't pretend that, at some level, you don't come to church looking for personal direction, in the midst of all of it. As a Christian community, I think we crave spiritual accompaniment in the midst of life's challenges. So honestly, every once in a while, I think it's important to remember the things that we do well, as a tool for cultivating the resilience we need to get through the challenging times we're living in. 
So today, I want to talk about a couple of “mustard seed moments” that I personally have experienced here in this congregation, and how God might be calling us to continue our growth.

When I say “mustard seed moments”, I'm talking about the kinds of things that happen in the church that start a small and grow to something bigger. Jesus says, “When scattered on the ground, [the mustard seed is] the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; but when it’s planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.”

The first of many “mustard seed moments” I can point to is the formation of our congregational care committee. At some point along the first few months of my pastorate here, I realized two things: first, that I couldn't visit everybody on our visitation list with the frequency I would desire, and second, that not everybody in our congregation is well acquainted with the people in our membership who are living in care facilities. So I solicited the help of other individuals from the congregation, who now make regular visits to those in need of care and companionship. I can tell you that those who receive the visits find them extremely rewarding, and they feel more connected to their church family and less isolated. The care committee, in return, feels that this gives them the opportunity to get to know more people in our congregation, and provide friendship and companionship to those whose days might otherwise feel mundane or even boring.

The second “mustard seed moment” I want to lift up is the relationships I've been able to foster with people who have helped me out in various ways. Because of my disability, I need help in different ways than what might be typical for a pastor to need. To be blunt, some people in my life have questioned whether I could be a pastor, because of some of the physical limitations that I have. (One of them is transportation, but there are more ways than that that other people have stepped in for me. In fact, I would argue that pretty much every active member of this congregation has made ways for me to do the work that I do in big and small ways, some people in ways they wouldn’t even realize.) Not only has this congregation not seen my disability as a deficit, but you continue to celebrate my particularities, and you foster a sense of interdependence, relying on one another, in ways I deeply appreciate.

To me, this is what the realm of God is like. The people of God caring for one another, as Jesus cared for us. And what strikes me is that Jesus understood that dense or abstract theological concepts couldn't be grasped by most people at face value, but he could translate them into something that they could understand. It's probably fair to say that most of us would fit that description as well. Mark also makes a point to remind his readers that Jesus only spoke to most people in parables, and that he decoded the meaning of his teachings, only to those who were closest to him. Since they would be the ones carrying on the teaching, after he was gone, it was important for them to understand his motives. In the same way, that the farmer did not always understand how the seeds grew we don't always have the opportunity understand how God can take the stories, the joys, and the pains of our lives, and use it for the goodness of God's dream in the world. What I love the most about the mustard seed parable is that, even when we don't always understand it, God shows up and multiplies our efforts far more than we could fathom. God shows up through a caring congregation. God shows up through meaningful visitation ministry. God shows up even in the moments where we have difficulties and disagreements with one another.

This is the good news for today. Even as the church is changing drastically by every measure, we can celebrate the goodness of what we do together and recognize how God is calling us into exciting new opportunities to grow even more.

Nobody ever said that the realm of God would be without its uncertainty. We don't always know what will grow when we plant our mustard seeds. That's why I think the Sara Bareilles song, “Uncharted”, is appropriate for today's message. As I alluded to earlier, the institutional church is in a state of transition. We're out of foolproof ideas. The things that worked 50 years ago to grow the church just aren't going to work anymore. So, this calls us to be inventive with the mustard seeds that we plant.

And if there's a way you want to see the ministries of our church reach people in new ways, let's talk about it together. Let's think about how our particular ministries can be “mustard seeds” for the city of Waupun and beyond.

I’d also invite you to this week think about how God might be calling you to work toward spreading God’s realm in the world. What are some of your own “mustard seed moments”, when God showed up and turned something small into something bigger than you could fathom?

Friends, there are “mustard seed moments” all around us, and there are ways that this church has been part of God's transformative work in the world. Let's celebrate the gifts that God has given us, and then, after that, let's think together about how God might be calling us to plant more mustard seeds in the future. Thanks be to God. Amen. 
 

Listening to a Still-Speaking God
Revelation 3:20-22
Delivered at the Wisconsin Conference Annual Meeting 

Green Lake, WI 

June 8, 2024
Adapted by Pastor Jacob
 

Listen!  I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

Grace and peace to you!  I bring you greetings from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, where graduation was just a few weeks ago and we are now in our summer term. We at Eden continue to prepare passionate, well-educated leaders for congregations like yours, and we’d love to talk with you about which members of your congregation are being called to lead congregations in the future. I’m honored to be asked to explore this passage of scripture with you this morning, and I hope that you will be able to hear whatever the Spirit is whispering to you, for your life and for your community.  
 

Have you read about the new dolphin communication technology?  It’s so cool, and I am totally not making this up.  It’s called “CHAT,” C-H-A-T, which stands for Cetacean Hearing Augmentation Technology. (A cetacean, if you’re wondering, is a marine mammal like a dolphin or a whale.)  A team of scientists led by Denise Herzing has developed a device that you can strap to your wrist that will both listen to and produce dolphin sounds.  Using hundreds of recordings gathered over the course of 35 years, they are using artificial intelligence to build a large language model that will allow this device to both hear and produce dolphin communication signals.  It’s a little bit like the phone translation apps that will speak Italian or Mandarin or Serbo-Croatian—except that you’d be using it underwater, which is often a little hard on phones, and you’d be talking to a different species.  It may be stretch to say that dolphins have a language in the sense that we think of a language (Dr. Herzig prefers the term “communication signals”), but with this technology we humans are learning some amazing things about how dolphins learn communication signals from their parents, how they can learn new communication signals and add to their repertoire, and how they may be communicating far more than we knew.  With the help of artificial intelligence some waterproof hardware and a whole lot of research and effort, these scientists are learning how to listen to dolphins in new ways. 
 

What about listening to galaxies?  Have you heard about that?  Astronomical data sonification takes digital information gathered by telescopes and converts it into pitch, volume, and types of musical instruments.  You can go on Youtube and listen to the ghostly, mystical sounds of star clusters thousands of light years away.  Sound can’t travel through empty space, obviously, so we’re not hearing distant stars exactly, but data sonification allows people to listen for patterns in a data set, as well as making the data accessible to people with visual disabilities.  Scientists and musicians have worked together to develop this new way of listening to the stars.  
It's pretty amazing how much effort and creativity people are putting into finding new ways to listen. Makes me wonder if we in the church might be able to find new ways of listening as well, with some effort and creativity of our own. Not just listening better, but finding new ways to listen. 
We in the United Church of Christ are fond of claiming that God is still speaking: that revelation, or the word of God, is still unfolding, still evolving.  We are a faith tradition that tries to be more open than defensive when it comes to new kinds of knowledge. We’re not as afraid of new scientific discoveries as some faith traditions, for example. And we’ve tried to learn from the voices among us that have been historically marginalized and silenced. At our best moments we have worked to be less rigid, more flexible as new, emerging theologies have offered fresh ways of understanding Jesus and the astonishing, liberating grace of God.
 

But this theological stance brings with it some sticky questions about what it means to actually engage in listening to the God who continues to speak in an ongoing way.  It’s not always clear whose perspective is the new thing God is speaking, and it’s often even less clear how we can adapt to new ways of listening and responding in each new era.
 

We want to keep growing, to stay on the journey with a stil speaking God, but it’s so tempting to stay in one place after we’ve arrived at a new, exhilarating way of understanding the gospel.  We’re like Peter on top of the mount of transfiguration, saying to Jesus, “It’s so great that we’re here!  If you want, we can just set up camp here on this mountain top.  We’ll set up a tent for you, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah, and it will be all mountaintop experience all the time!”  But then a voice comes from the clouds.  Do you remember what it says?  “This is my Son! The Beloved!  Listen to him!”  Listen. You thought you were paying attention, you thought you already were listening. But Jesus is not staying on the mountaintop.  He is headed back down into the suffering world, he is “setting his face toward Jerusalem,” as Luke’s gospel says, to go confront the authorities in the streets. “We’re not staying.  I know you’re excited, but stop for a moment, and listen differently.” 
 

“Time makes ancient good uncouth,” as the old hymn says.  “They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.”  But when the ways of listening for God we’ve grown accustomed to don’t keep abreast with truth, our first impulse isn’t always to figure out new ways of listening.  When the ways we’ve interpreted scripture, or the theological frameworks that shape our worship aren’t meeting the moment, we are just as likely to assume that God just isn’t saying much, rather than seeking out new ways of listening.  We can start to feel like the elderly Eli in the temple at the time of the call of young Samuel. The story says, “The word of the HOLY ONE was rare in those days. Visions were not widespread.”  Eli is tired.  His adult sons are spoiled and greedy, taking more than their share of meat from the temple sacrifices, and they never listen to him, the text says that.  They just keep staring at their phones.  None of them, including Eli, are really hearing much from God.  
 

But is it really the case that God was not speaking much those days?  Or is it something else?  Is it, perhaps, that a younger generation can hear something that Eli can’t, because he’s not ready for God to be saying, “Samuel!  Samuel!” Samuel comes to Eli three times in the middle of the night, because Samuel thinks it’s Eli who is calling him.  Finally, on the third try, Eli figures out what’s going on. Maybe he remembers what it’s like to hear that call himself.  So, he tells the boy to go back and lie down, and if he hears the voice again, he should say what? Do you remember?  “Speak, Holy One, for your servant is listening.”  There it is again. The future is not Eli’s, but it’s his task to teach young Samuel how to listen differently, and perhaps Eli will learn to hear something that only seemed like silence before, in the process. 
 

In our reading for today, John (not John the gospel writer, a different John) is stewing in exile on the Island of Patmos, off the coast of what is now Turkey, with plenty of time to write. Apparently, banishment to a remote island has left him with more time on his hands, and he wants to keep in touch with some of the congregations he’s been supporting.  He sends a letter that includes seven different messages (which he says he has received from the risen Christ in a vision) for each of seven churches in Asia Minor. And honestly, a lot of it is pretty harsh.  The message to the Laodicians, in which the verses we heard appear, says they’ve gotten too rich and comfortable, and that they’ve become lukewarm in the process, neither hot nor cold, just kind of enjoying their prosperity and going with the flow. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on that, since it obviously has little to do with us, BUT…. But….each brief message ends with the same sentence: Let anyone who has an ear hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”  It’s kind of a refrain that rounds out each message. 
 

This refrain about listening to what the Spirit is saying gets repeated seven times. And of course there’s a good chance that John adds these words at the end of each message just to give some weight and authority to what he’s saying, since the implication is that these scolding messages are what the Spirit is saying. But it’s also a theological assertion, made by the risen Christ according to John’s vision, that the Spirit is saying things currently, in the present tense. And that is really good news, because at the same time that John is saying, “Shape up!”  He is also saying, “Don’t give up.  It’s not over, because the Spirit is still speaking to the churches.”  These are tiny little congregations, scattered far from each other in cultures that generally assume these Jesus followers have lost their minds. Many of them have risked persecution from their neighbors and sometimes the government. (And Franz, just so you know, the bishop of Laodicia was martyred a few decades after this was written, under the emperor Marcus Aurelius.) Over and over, seven times, John is reminding these tiny, struggling churches—Smyrna, and Ephesus, and Laodicia, and maybe Appleton, and Cecil, and Three Rivers, and Waupun, to Listen. To keep listening, and maybe listen differently than they have been. Why? Because God is faithful, and steadfast, and therefore the Spirit will continue speaking. 
· The Romans are breathing down your necks?  It's not over.  Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
· Fascist, white supremacist, misogynistic, and xenophobic imitations of Christianity seem to be overshadowing authentic lives of struggling to follow in the way of Jesus?  It's not over.  Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
 

What does it actually mean to listen to what the Spirit is currently saying, or listen to the God who is still speaking?  What does it look like in practice, to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches, in this era we’re in?  In your life?  In the practices of your congregation?  And how might we listen in new ways?
· It might mean listening in new ways through congregational practices of collective, prayerful discernment. 
· It might mean listening in new ways to the biblical interpretation of Palestinian Christians. 
· It might mean listening in new ways to distant galaxies, or dolphins. 
· And it might mean listening to what the Spirit is saying about new ways of being church.  Because the Spirit is saying something, to the churches. Thanks be to God. 
If these words be true, then let all who agree say, “Amen.”

 

“Known and Called”
Sermon for U-CC Waupun, Pentecost 2B

June 2, 2024

Focus: God knows us more deeply then we can ever imagine, and calls us into important work in the world.

Whenever somebody discerns a call to some sort of ministry, usually there's a biblical story that coincides with something in their own lives. The experience of identifying with certain biblical stories in the midst of what is going on in a person’s own life is often referred to as their call story. The story of Samuel and Eli from today's text is a part of my own call story. There's also a bit of Jonah wrapped up in there, too.

For years, so many people thought that I should go into ministry, even though I believed that I was doing what God called me to do going into music education, and sharing what I thought was one of the best gifts God has given me with the next generation. And still, for years, there were so many voices that were placed in my life to help me recognize a call from a God, who, in many ways, knew me better than I could know myself. I've since come to believe that God was calling me in the night through those voices. The voices that I thought were simply friends and professors and other influential people in my life were instead the voice of God, calling me into something deeper.

It was far from easy. There was a lot that I had to give up, and a lot of hard work that I had already put towards that other profession, that I am would learn to recontextualize into a different line of work. I had to learn that I could leave out my musical calling in other ways. Looking back on it now, I can recognize what God was doing, even though in the moment it felt like I was wandering through the wilderness for many years.

I think many of us can relate to the feelings of disorientation around being called into a new direction. Being called by God to explore a new passion, sometimes feels like being in the wilderness. But we do this because life changes, circumstances change, our family dynamic changes, or some other change in our life necessitates something new. According to a study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average person changes jobs about 12 times in their career, so society as a whole is very familiar with this concept. So it might be helpful, then, to think about what it means to be called to the work we do, as so many parts of our lives deal with some sort of transition.

What I'm going to trace for you is a theme that weaves through both of our texts for this week. I'm going to talk about how God knows us, and how God calls us.

Psalm 139 is almost creepy in how it talks about how deeply God knows us. Some of the first verses of the psalm recite this way:

2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down
   and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
   O Lord, you know it completely.

If the Psalmist was talking about anybody, other than God, I would have a lot of questions! Who is watching me sleep? Who is following me all the time? Is somebody inside my mind?

But still, I find this really beautiful. No matter what the rest of the world sees about us, no matter what we thought about ourselves, God has searched us and known our inmost parts.

Today's media song is one of my favorites off of Kacey Musgraves’ new album. God knows the complexities of human life. God knows both the joy and the pain of the human experience, and sometimes that causes us to ask God some questions, like, “Are you sure about this, God? Has anything surprised you? Is there anything that you regret?”

It's clear to me that God can only know us this deeply by loving us so much. One of the reasons this Psalm is my favorite Psalm in the entire book is the reminder that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made. We are made to live into God's joy, and to respond to God’s call with gratitude and with courage. This also seems like a meaningful message as we head into Pride Month. I've heard important and powerful stories from members of this congregation about how members of the LGBTQ+ community have found refuge and welcome here, in this faith community. And yet, far from patting ourselves on the back, I'm also struck by the reality that the institutional church, all around the world, has so much work to do as we think about what it means to be more fully inclusive. Being fearfully and wonderfully made by God is not something that applies to only some of us.

But because we are fearfully and wonderfully made, God calls us into something deeper. In Samuel, God calls a young boy. If my understanding of biblical life expectancies serves me, I would imagine Samuel is probably not much more than 10 or 12 years old. The scripture says he didn't know God at this point, but when Eli tells him what's going on, Samuel has the courage to immediately respond to God’s call, even if he didn't fully understand how to listen for God’s voice.

It's the same way with my story from earlier. I had to have a reminder on how to listen to gods voice in my life, and maybe you do too. But this is the good news.  God knows us more deeply then we can ever imagine, and calls us into important work in the world.

Here at U-CC, we recognize the call to be messengers of hope and liberation for a community in need. This week, I would invite you to think about where is that God has called you in your own lives. How has God called you by name, and what does God invite you into?

God would not call you into the work that you do in the world if God did not know you. But it's because God made you in the fullness of who you are, and because God loves you so much, that you have the chance to light the world with your love and your important witness. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

“The Power of Questions”
Sermon for UCC Waupun

May 26, 2024

Focus: Like Nicodemus asked questions of Jesus, we are also invited to ask questions as a means of deepening our faith.

My friend Marissa and I went to the same elementary school, and also went to the same home church for our early lives. I didn’t remember this, but recently she reminded me of times when she and I and a few of our other friends would run to the grassy corner of the playground at recess and “play church.” Predictably, I would be the “preacher” and she would lead us in a little song, something she had learned about John 3:16. I don’t remember the content of any of my little sermons, of course, but it was probably something to do with how God loves us and how we should love each other.

Marissa and I went to different middle schools. She went to a middle school for gifted and talented students and I went to traditional middle school. We didn’t lose touch, per se, but we had different interests growing up and didn’t have many of the same classes together when we rejoined at the high school.

Over the last couple of years we’ve reconnected. She lives out in California now and she’s working on her PhD in Immunology. (She’s one of the smartest people I know.) 
In one of our more recent conversations, which I’m sharing with her permission, she told me that in middle school, her family transferred their membership from our shared home church in Neenah to a different church a few cities over that preached a much different message than what we had known to be true. The message of Christ’s love tuned instead into a message of sin and hell and damnation, which didn’t seem to match at all with what we had rehearsed and affirmed all those years ago as we played on the playground. The most disturbing piece to her was that she no longer felt safe asking questions in that church, in a time when asking questions could’ve helped her grow. So, if she couldn’t ask questions, she resolved to find the answers herself. So, she read her Bible from cover to cover hoping to construct a faith that felt more authentic and real, but became even more confused because the Bible so often contradicts itself. So, she became disillusioned with religion and let that part of her life go.

She told me recently something to the effect of, “You know, Jacob, you really believed all that stuff you would say on the playground. And you still believe it, that God loves everyone exactly as they are and we should love each other. You asked a lot of questions so that your faith could grow, and now here you are in ministry. Honestly, I think if I had stayed in our same church through all my growing up life, I think I might still be a Christian. But I couldn’t be a Christian anymore if most churches were like that other church.”

I was immediately struck by how sad I was for my friend, that she had had that experience, and wished I had maybe been there to listen to her work through some of this as it was happening. I was also reminded that Marissa’s experience is not unique. A January 2024 report by the Pew Research Center asserts that 28% of US adults are religiously unaffiliated, and instead call themselves religious “nones”. Of that 28%, a third of them say that a bad experience with religion has driven them away from the institutional church as a whole. I bet you wouldn’t have to think too hard to identify a person in your own life that might fit that description.

But in light of all this, there are two points that strike me about today’s Gospel story of Nicodemus.

First, we need to remember that Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the middle of the night. I know it wouldn’t be historically accurate, but for some reason I can’t shake this image of Jesus in an old, baggy t-shirt and boxer shorts, having this really in-depth conversation about what it meant to be reborn into faith. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t ask those kinds of questions in the middle of the night! I don’t believe that Nicodemus is testing Jesus here, like many of the priests and leaders do, because of his preface: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
In verses 9-10 Nicodemus says, “How are these things possible?” “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? It’s almost as if Jesus is saying, “You have much to learn, young grasshopper.”

But here’s the thing: instead of rebuking Nicodemus, Jesus answers him, telling him what he thinks is most important. This gives Nicodemus an important opportunity to grow. Later in John’s gospel, in fact, Nicodemus sticks up for Jesus when the chief priests and Pharisees are questioning him, and when Jesus dies, Nicodemus participates in anointing Jesus’ body for burial. So this conversation helps Nicodemus become an important ally in the Jesus Movement.

The second point I’m struck by is Nicodemus’ central question: what is it mean to be “born again?”

I don’t usually call out other denominations, because it’s generally unproductive and doesn’t make me any better than they are. But this is a text evangelical churches love to use to talk about sin and salvation, the very same things that caused my friend Marissa to turn away. In evangelical contexts, the general theology is often something like this: I was such a terrible, sinful person until someone told me about God, and God saved me from myself, from the destructive path I was going down. 
Now, I don’t deny that God can help us turn our lives around or redeem ourselves. I’ve seen personally how God does utterly transformative work in peoples’ lives. What I take issue with is that this evangelical theology comes from the starting point that we are terrible people in need of saving, when I think Jesus’ theology was far more invitational. Jesus says in John 3:16-17, “God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send God’s Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

We have beautiful, full, and everlasting life because of a God who loves us so deeply. We are loved more deeply than we could ever imagine, with the kind of love that we can’t resist telling people about!

But this understanding doesn’t come without serious discernment and study. Like Nicodemus asked questions of Jesus, we are also invited to ask questions as a means of deepening our faith.

One of the gifts of our church, I think, is that we have created a sense of community for people who have questions about their faith, who aren’t content with simply believing what someone else has told them. Without getting into specifics, several of you have told me powerful stories about your reasons for joining our church that have something to do with this. Friends, we have both the gift and the responsibility to be an antidote to harmful theologies that demand unquestioning obedience. We have both the gift and responsibility to be a compassionate presence to those who are discriminated against, or those who are struggling with their spirituality.

Our media song for today recognizes that “the world’s not forgiving of everyone’s fears”, and that God gives us the opportunity to be peaceful. Also, the poem we listened to earlier in the service reminds us, “What if what it means to come to God is to enter into God’s joy?” And my favorite part: “What if God goes to hell every weekend with a load of tissues and listens to everybody who’s locked themselves up in there.”

Friends, God sent Christ into the world so that you might have life to the fullest. New life. Liberating life. Abundant life. May you respond to that gift by committing to your continued growth. Don’t be afraid to wonder. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to find the joy in the midst of wrestling with your faith. Because it’s in those moments that your own lives, and the lives of those around you, can be gifts to others. Thanks be to God. Amen.  

 

“Now What?”
TRAD sermon for U-CC Waupun

May 12, 2024

Focus: In our lives of faith, we may come upon difficult circumstances, but we can lean into the truth that God loves us as we are and that God’s instruction will guide us.

Today is a very important day. We celebrate the ongoing faith journey of three young men, who have grown significantly in these last two years. I've been privileged to see a remarkable shift in all of them along this journey, from being shy and quiet boys to truly impressive young men.

They grew from boys who really didn’t want to read or pray out loud, even amongst themselves, to sharing our liturgy for today without even a little bit of protest.

They grew from a group of individuals who hardly knew each other to a group of individuals that cares about each other, from teaching each other how to fish to laughing and giggling into the late hours of the night at our confirmation retreat.

They grew from not having had many conversations about God into thinking a little bit more deeply about how God is active in their lives.

But it's important to remember the confirmation is not the end of the journey. Confirmation is not a checkbox, or something we do merely because our parents ask us to do it. (Parents, I’m talking to you too. We don’t just bring up our kids in the faith to feel like we’ve done a good job. When we bring our kids up in the faith, we are modeling for them what an ongoing faith journey looks like.)

Instead of a “checkbox”, it's affirming the faith that our parents or other caregivers welcomed us into when we were young. In the United Church of Christ, we understand confirmation to be almost like “part two” of our baptism. That's a bit simplistic, but what makes this liturgy so symbolic is that those who are confirming their faith today will be answering the same questions that were asked if their parents, sponsors, or other caregivers, during the time of their baptism. This is the moment that they will affirm their faith in Christ, and affirm their desire to grow in it.

Because living and growing in our faith is an ongoing project, the question I have for all of us to consider today is, “now what?” As in, “you've reached the end of a long journey of studying your faith. Now what?”

So this message is, in part, a message directly to Bentley, Kolsen and Kameron. But it's also a message for all of us, and even for myself. We're all growing in our faith, no matter what stage we are. 
The book of Psalms, one of my favorite books of the Bible, starts out with these words:

“The truly happy person
   doesn’t follow wicked advice,
   doesn’t stand on the road of sinners,
   and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful.”

That verse alone could be a sermon all in itself. There are two things I want to highlight from that.

Kameron, Bentley and Kolsen, there are many voices in the world who might tell you you're not enough if you don't live in the way that other people want you to. There are voices who will tell you the only way to fit in is to be unkind, or to discriminate against other people because they don't fit the mold of the rest of society, for one reason or the other.

But I think you're very good people, and you're very smart. I don't think you'll fall for that. In the words of the Psalmist, I don't believe you will sit with the disrespectful. I believe that one push comes to shove, you will have the courage and the compassion to do what's right. I believe you will be like trees, firmly planted, standing on the side of justice and affirm refuge for the oppressed.

But it won't always be easy. You may not always feel like you have everything you need. You may not always feel that you have the knowledge or the courage to meet the tasks ahead of you, or follow, wherever your life path may lead. But, also, like the Psalmist, being rooted in God's love means that you will be able to bear fruit at just the right time.

Now, before we get our minds in the gutter, bearing fruit is a spiritual thing. It's a reminder that all of us are still growing, and that God will empower us to do the work of God's justice and love just the right time, when we're ready.

The psalm also tells us that those people and influences who do not follow the ways of God are going to do what they're going to do. They will continue to act in ways that run counter to what God asks of us. But we don't have to fall into that trap. We know the ways of love, hope and truth which will guide us along the journey of faith.

So some of us in this room are about to confirm their faith, and others of us in this room are about to remember why we ourselves have said yes to this journey of faith. Now what? What are we going to do as we continue the journey?

My hope for all of us is that we would remember to be strong and courageous. In our lives of faith, we may come upon difficult circumstances, but we can lean into the truth that God loves us as we are and that God’s instruction will guide us. A faith foundation can be a refuge in times of trouble, and even life-saving for some people. May it be this way for you. May you stand like trees, firm in your faith, knowing that God will guide you along the journey, and help you grow in just the right ways, and at just the right time. May you always travel on the path of justice, love, and compassion, knowing that God goes ahead of you, before you, behind you, and beside you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

“Not Our Decision, But God’s Grace!”
Sermon for U-CC Waupun

Acts 10: 44-48
Easter 6B

May 5, 2024

Focus: God’s Holy Spirit is active in all of us in amazing and surprising ways. God calls us to question our assumptions about who is worthy to receive God’s greatest blessings, because the Holy Spirit has already decided.

When I was in middle school, Daycholah Center held a summer week long retreat for students who were going to begin confirmation studies the following year. I was the only boy in my church’s confirmation class, so I was put in a cabin with six or eight other boys from other churches. And I'll tell you what, these boys were mean. They were bullying me, bullying each other, and goofing off the entire time. It was very clear that none of them wanted to be there, and in fact, most of their churches had required them to be there.

I, on the other hand, was taking this very seriously, and was very excited to meet other students who were on my same path. I thought to myself, “Don't they know what this means? Don’t they understand that we’re supposed to learn from this?” (You can probably see that I wasn’t always the typical middle school boy, and I knew it.)  

So I appealed to my pastor, Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith, who was there with us. I said to her, “These boys aren’t ready. They’re mean and they don’t care about each other and they haven’t been nice to me. You don’t really think they should be confirmed yet, do you?”

Even after all these years, I will never forget what she told me. She said, “I’m sorry that they’re being mean to you and we’ll work on that with you all. But you need to understand that whether these boys are ready for confirmation or not is not our decision. That’s up to them, and their pastor, and God.”

Pastor Lynne was very wise, and very good at her job. She had a way of making me feel heard, but also gently helping me understand things from a different perspective. While I wished someone could talk some sense into these boys and make them appreciate the reason we were there, eventually, I had to realize that that wasn't the point. God had already decided that grace could abound, and that even these people could be welcomed into the family of faith, even if I myself was not ready to admit that fact.

I wonder if those who heard Peter speaking in the book of Acts felt the same way.

In her commentary for Feasting on the Word, Barbara K. Lundblad notes that our passage for today begins at the end of the story, where Peter is speaking to a prominent gentile, Cornelius of Caesura, and a crowd around him. Peter’s in the middle of this elegant and beautiful speech about Jesus and what his ministry represented, and still represents. But that’s when the Holy Spirit decides to show up, even to the Gentiles, who were understood by some as second-class citizens. I've talked in previous sermons about how important circumcision was for early converts to the Christian tradition, as a way of knowing themselves to be worthy of the name, a ritual which allowed them to participate in the fullness of the early Christian church. Among the many differences between the Gentiles and Jews is that the Gentiles did not participate in this ritual act of circumcision.

To early believers, this would've represented an intense theological problem. The history of that debate is less important to get into at the moment, but perhaps the best comparison to our modern day theological disagreements might be how our more modern Christian traditions treat social groups who have been marginalized for their calls to ministry. Some denominations believe, for example, that women should not be ordained into ministry. Also, just this week, the United Methodist Church voted at its general conference that LGBTQIA+ people will from now on be allowed to be ordained into the ministry of the United Methodist Church, something that was strictly forbidden up to this point.
 

So, just like in our modern times, the early Christians had many debates on hot-button topics. But in the midst of these theological debates, Peter understood that, no matter what the early followers of Jesus believed, the Holy Spirit has already made a decision to fall on even the Gentiles. Suddenly the Gentiles were speaking in tongues and praising God, and those who had been circumcised, those who thought they had done everything correctly, were astonished.

But I love what Peter says in verse 47: “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?”

So it was that they were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and welcomed into the faith just as those who were circumcised had been.

In this prophetic question, Peter is asking the crowd to challenge their own assumptions about who was worthy to receive new life in Christ.

If I simply asked you the question today, “who is worthy to receive the blessings of God,” I'm sure most of you would probably say, “well, everyone!” And you would be right!

But I think a question that's worth asking, especially in times like these, is this: who are the Gentiles in our own lives? Who are the people in society that we might need to challenge our own assumptions about?

By our very human nature, all of us have implicit bias, even if we may not think we do. We might say outwardly, “I don't see the color of a person’s skin, I only see the person,” or “I don't care about a person’s lifestyle, I only see the person,” or “I don’t care whether someone was incarcerated for a time, they’re still a person.”

But whether we realize it or not, our opinions and assumptions about groups of people can cause us to treat them like the Gentiles were treated in the bible story, or the way I treated those middle school boys at the retreat.

But this is the good news: God’s Holy Sprit is active in all of us in amazing and surprising ways. God calls us to question our assumptions about who is worthy to receive God’s greatest blessings, because the Holy Spirit has already decided. God's grace abounds, even though we ourselves may not recognize it, or be willing to give it to others right away.

Whether others are worthy of God’s love, blessings, and spiritual accompaniment is not our decision. And for that I say “praise God”—because I know I would have so easily written these boys off, instead of letting the Holy Spirit work in and among and around and through them.

Any of us who have been recipients of God’s grace and blessings understand the judgments and assumptions people make about us all too well, because of who we are or decisions we've made in our lives that people may not understand. But just as we ourselves have experienced the grace and blessings of God, part of our work involves extending that grace to others.

So, as you go into this week, may you be willing to challenge your own assumptions about other peoples’ worthiness. May you be open to the action of the Holy Spirit, which moves in us, through us, and in spite of us. May you recognize the gifts of the Holy Spirit that are present, even in those whose lives you may not understand. After all, it is in this understanding that we can begin to know others as God knows us—worthy of love, worthy of grace, worthy of blessing, and worthy of belonging. God’s decision to welcome us into blessing and belonging is, after all, the only decision that matters. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

“Loving One Another In Times Like These”
TRAD sermon for U-CC Waupun
April 28, 2024

Focus: We are living in anxious and divided times, but we remember that God asks us to love each other in spite of, or perhaps because of, the ways we are different from each other.

I was six years old when 9/11 happened. I honestly don't remember much from that day, other than the fact that my dad sent me down after school at the edge of their bed, and told me in an age-appropriate, very simple fashion, what had unfolded that fateful day in our country. Because I don't have as many concrete memories of my own from that period of time, I've tried to learn as much as I can about what happened that day, and how it impacted the country’s future.

Even as that was such a scary time for our country, and the political ramifications of all of this divided us, there's one story that sticks out in my mind that reminds me that it’s still possible to have hope for humanity.

That hope came in the form of a film adaptation of a Broadway musical. The musical is called Come From Away. It's based on true events, where 39 planes, carrying 7000 passengers were forced to reroute all of their passengers to Gandor, an island in the Canadian province of Newfoundland. The musical talks about how both the Canadians and Americans bonded with one another, how the Canadians provided the Americans with refuge and comfort in an incredibly difficult time, without regard to their race, gender, sexual orientation or other identifiers. It's heartwarming and beautiful, and you come away with the realization that there really can still be good people in the world. In the finale of the musical, one character remarks, “today we honor what was lost, but we commemorate what we found.” One reviewer called the musical “a love letter—to Newfoundland, to New York, and to what people can do if they set aside fear and hate.” The entire film adaptation of the musical, which was taped straight from the stage production and acted by the original Broadway cast, is available on Apple TV+. If you like movie musicals, and don't mind spending six dollars for a month or starting a free trial to another streaming service, I would heartily recommend you watch it.

Of course, we live in very different times than we did in 2001, but I’ve thought a lot about the upcoming presidential election and the divisiveness that we face along ideological lines. You need to know that I'm never going to endorse any political position from the pulpit, as doing so would be deeply unethical and unnecessary, besides the fact that it takes away the focus from our own church’s response to the divisiveness in the world. But I think today's new testament reading from 1 John is a helpful reminder for all of us of how we want to live in Christian community when we're at our best. Today, I'm going to talk about how this text reminds us how to be in community with one another, and what we can learn from that in the increasingly divisive times we face as a country.

Our text begins by saying, “Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love.” This makes it clear that the capacity to love one another is born with us, innately in our beings. I think our congregation loves each other well as a group, and we try to maintain friendships with a wide diversity of people. But I've been troubled in recent years that in some ways, it seems like we as a society forgotten that.

But commentators agree that the writer from first John isn't so much rebuking their audience. Instead, the new testament professor Jeanette K. Ok says in her commentary for Working Preacher that the author believes “the struggle to love is real.” I can relate to that, because there are some people who make it really hard for me to love them. It’s so much easier to pigeonhole people on the basis of how they are different from us, what their beliefs are, or some decisions they’ve made in their lives. Other times it's hard for us to love people because we fear them. We fear that our own perceptions of the world might be under threat, and we fear what would happen if we were wrong about someone else.

But the writer of 1 John reminds us that God loved us, even when we have messed up. God loves us with a perfect love which drives away fear and hatred. God’s inexhaustible love is greater than any fears we could hold against another person. The author of this text does not pretend to believe that loving one another is easy, especially when we disagree with one another, or when our personalities clash.

So this is why God makes the commandment to love one another. We are living in anxious and divided times, but we remember that God asks us to love each other in spite of, or perhaps because of, the ways we are different from each other. Like my story from earlier in Come From Away, the people in Newfoundland welcomed weary, frightened travelers with open arms, and learned something along the way. I feel like we can learn from that example ourselves. As much as we don't want to admit it, it seems inevitable that in this divisive season, people will try to get us on their side by saying we're wrong if we don't believe a certain way.  Friendships and other relationships will be tested by the broader social climate. Different points of view will be present in every social circle. Feelings will be hurt. I think we're kidding ourselves if we believe we’re immune to those threats. I don't care who you vote for; there's divisive rhetoric on both sides.
But this is the grace. God has loved you so deeply that God gave God's only son for your benefit. And God understands that we will continue to mess up, and mess up again, and mess up again. But there's always a new opportunity to learn how to love somebody who is different from us. We have so many different opportunities to love God by loving our neighbor. These may be difficult times ahead, but even as our country, and our world are so divided, there's always an opportunity to continue doing our best to love those around us. I believe this church understands very clearly that our commandment is to love one another even when, and especially when, things get messy. Multiple people have told me that they have chosen this church because of some difficulties with churches of their past, and it's also clear that we may not all believe the same things. And in United Church of Christ, thank goodness, we don't all have to believe the same things.

The only thing we have to do is love people where they’re at, knowing that everyone is in need of God’s grace just as deeply as anyone else.

So, as you go into this week, may you find opportunities to love as you have been loved. Every one of us has unique ways that we can show our love for others. Like this song that Siera and I sang says, “I see evidence of great love all around and my part in this story.” All of us can be part of the story, and all of us can provide love to the weary, to the refugee, to the disenfranchised, to the other. How we love others is how we love God, and I know that you all are deeply loving people. So may you share your love with joy. In times, like these loving others may be messy, but it is always worth it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

“Change Your Hearts and Lives”
TRAD Sermon for U-CC Waupun 

April 21, 2024
Acts 3: 12-19

Focus: Sometimes in our life of faith, we have to recognize the consequences of falling short. But there is grace in the fact that God always gives us another chance to repent and believe.

This isn’t a direct comparison, but it gives me a way into kind of a strange text.

When I was a kid, I wasn't always the best big brother. I did what a lot of big brothers do. I teased Emily. I played a little too hard and maybe hurt her from time to time. We thought a lot, and I wasn't always in the right. Because my parents didn't show any favoritism, they would put me in timeout or separate us so I can think about what I have done. Sometimes my parents would be quite stern with me, reminding me of how my actions had resulted in either Emily's bodily injury, or her hurt feelings. Usually this undeserved act would result in some kind of punishment, or grounding, or whatever for the offense. But after that, I would always have the chance to redeem myself, apologize and mean it, and then move on.

But as I think back on it, now, I think about how embarrassing it was to be called out. Facing consequences for my actions was difficult, and, at least sometimes, it taught me to not do that again.

I wonder if the crowd the disciples were talking to might have also needed an attitude adjustment. To fully understand this text, we have to set the stage using the previous 11 verses of the third chapter of Acts.

Most biblical scholars agree that the writer of the book of acts it was also the author of the gospel of Luke, and that the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts should be read as a continuation of the Gospel. The gospel of Luke ends with the story of the road to Emmaus, and the story depicted in this text is likely happening just a short time later. The story told in these first 11 verses is problematic, because it depicts a man who can't walk as a beggar. but then Peter takes him by the hand, and all of a sudden he can walk. The man who was previously unable to walk God, and everybody is amazed. The position of the disabled man as a beggar paints the man in the negative light, which might be why these verses are omitted from the lectionary, but it's important context. The commentator Michal Beth Dinkler reminds her readers that this act bolsters peters authority for what he's about to say. Peter says to the crowd of Jewish leaders, “Why are you amazed by this?”

Peter then makes a comparison of his own. He reminds the people what they have done to Jesus. They think it's cool, that a man can walk again? Try being raised from the dead! The author of life— the one who said he was the way, the truth, and the life—died at their hands. Pontius Pilate was forced to sentence an innocent man to be crucified at their insistence. The people were duped by the propaganda of the Roman government, which caused an innocent man to die and a movement of liberation to be threatened.

Peter, of course, is very stern about laying the blame for Jesus's death directly at the feet of the crowd. I'm struck by how this is one example of the larger story of following Jesus that we all encounter. If we didn't know any better, how many of us might be tricked by the same government propaganda if we lived in biblical times? How do we know that we wouldn't betray Jesus to the hands of sinners ourselves? This text is a tragic reminder that, as we live our lives of faith, our actions have consequences.

But Peter also doesn't say we're doomed. By God’s grace, God does not leave us to ourselves. Peter says, “Yes, you killed the author of life and you should be ashamed of yourselves, but that's not how they say it is. You acted out of ignorance, and you have another chance to redeem yourselves.”

These final verses depict, what I believe we can learn most from this text. Yes, our actions have consequences, and yes, we should be vigilant so that we don't fall into the traps of corrupt belief systems. That's all true. But aside from just being a cautionary tale, this text, can you remind us that we have another chance to follow Jesus as we grow in our faith as a result of events like these.

Sometimes in our life of faith, we have to recognize the consequences of falling short. But there is grace in the fact that God always gives us another chance to repent and believe. Even at those moments, where we think we are irredeemable, and God reminds us, that we still have another chance, and another chance, and another chance to continue to live lives of faith that are authentic and meaningful.

In a similar way, with my story earlier, I knew I would have a chance to be forgiven, and learn how to be a better big brother to my sister. Now we have a lovely relationship and we've grown a lot as adults.

And what about you, and what about us?

Our lives of faith have had twists and turns, and many of you have told me powerful stories of how God has worked in your life when you have fallen short of what you believed God desired from you. But in each circumstance, you have also told me about how God has given you chance, after chance to return to God, and continue learning in your life of faith.

So as you go into this week, I invite you to think about how God is working in and through you, as you learn to repent and believe in the ways you might feel the need to do. May you responders thankful people for the chance you have to grow alongside of God who will not give up on you. Amen.

 

“Fully Known”
TRAD sermon for U-CC Waupun 

April 14, 2024

Focus: Jesus firmly stands on the side the side of all who are oppressed. Jesus calls those of us who are allies to do our part, working for justice for our siblings in Christ.

My friend Bekah is one of my co-conspirators in the work of disability justice. She works with me on the UCC Disability Theology Committee, and we write original songs together every year for the UCC’s Access Sunday observance. Bekah is blind, and very thoughtfully talks about how she navigates a world that is often quite dependent on visual information. She also told me a story one time about how she felt exiled by society because of her disability: she was once excluded from a summer dance camp for kids because the dance instructors didn’t believe they could teach a blind girl to dance.

Bekah will tell you it isn’t always easy to feel comfortable in our own bodies, especially when our bodies don’t work the way society might expect. Even so, in talking with Bekah it’s immediately clear that she loves her disabled body. She loves the fact that she can write songs, prayers, blog posts, devotionals, and other resources which challenge the thoughts the church has about disability experiences and offer a new theological perspective instead.

I also have Bekah to thank for being one of my first conversation partners on disability theology. She modeled for me that not only is possible to find God in my disabled experience, but also that Jesus can resonate with the wide spectrum of disability experiences. She was one of the first to affirm in clear language that disabilities are’t deficits, and they aren’t things we have to “overcome”. Instead Bekah taught me that our disability experiences can enrich how we live our lives and make meaning of who God creates us to be.

Our Scripture reading today talks about how Jesus honors us as we are. He says, “I know my own sheep and they know me, just as God knows me and I know God.”

I love how Jesus starts out this passage with the intimacy of being fully known by the God who created us. Jesus knows who his people are, and the people know who their liberator and their guide is.

Throughout the Bible, we experience Jesus recognizing the worth and dignity of his people, even if they don’t always fit in with society’s construction of human value. So much of Christianity has tried to write off the LGBTQIA+ community, the disability community, people of color, and other communities as unworthy of God’s love, and undeserving of the richest blessings God has to offer,. But in his book, Radical Love, Patrick S. Cheng talks about how Jesus Christ is the embodiment of what he calls “radical love”—a love that dissolves the boundaries of society and invites all people into it, without exception. That means that our gender identities, our sexual orientations, our disabilities, our race, and any other identifiers that make us who we are, do not preclude us from knowing ourselves as beloved.

Jesus goes on to say that he has other sheep that don’t belong to this pen, and that he must lead them and love them just as much. This is another reminder that God’s love encompasses even the people we have trouble loving for whatever reason. That’s what makes this love radical love.

This bring us to the second point I want to lift up: Jesus says, “They will listen to my voice.” In her commentary for the New Interpreter’s Bible, Gail R. O’Day reminds us that this means Jesus’ followers will listen to his voice and his voice alone, not the voices of corrupt people in power who would love to lead them astray, or harm them in any way. He will be the one voice who leads them to safety and blessing.

Finally, Jesus is willing to give up his life for the sake of those he loves. He gives up his life because he wants to, not because anybody is making him do so. He understands that he must be willing to do whatever it takes to protect his sheep, because of the evils that lurk in the shadows to hurt them. 
In many ways I know that this congregation appreciates me and what I bring to the table. You also tell me you appreciate the ways I can help you consider things in a different way. A part of my own advocacy work, and confidence to find my place in the movement, is thanks to Bekah’s gentle, encouraging, compassionate spirit, born out of her own experience.

But at this time, obstacles are coming at our marginalized siblings from many directions. Legislation which targets and endangers the LGBTQIA+ communities. Threats to reproductive healthcare. Racial injustice. Antisemitism and contempt for the practice of other religious traditions. An unprecedented mental health crisis.

There are many reasons for concern, for anger, even for fear.  But I believe there is reason for hope too.

This is the good news for today: Jesus firmly stands on the side of all who are oppressed. Jesus calls those of us who are allies to do our part, working for justice for our siblings in Christ.

We worship God, and we worship Jesus Christ, who know us, love us, and affirm our full humanity, exactly as we are.
And it’s because we worship this God and this Christ that we know we are not alone in our work for justice. 

This week, I invite you to think about ways to transform your fervent prayers and welcoming hearts into true, meaningful action. Educate yourself. Call your lawmakers. Speak out for what you believe. Or even have a cup of coffee or tea with someone who is hurting right now.

Because we’re all trying to do our best to live authentically into our humanity.

As I think about the work we have ahead of us as pastor and people here at U-CC Waupun, I think first about how this church has been a refuge for people in this town. We join together to affirm that we are beloved of God, fully known and celebrated, even as other faith communities from our past might want us to fit a certain mold or believe a certain way.

But we can’t just keep this joy for ourselves. Our work and our witness has already proven life-altering for some of us in this congregation, and I dare say it might even be wrong of us if we didn’t embody this to others. How can you witness to Christ’s care and protection in your life, and how it has been nurtured in this faith community.

As we consider the next parts of our faith journey together, may we respond as thankful people. ready to share how Christ’s protection and provision have impacted our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Sermon for U-CC Waupun
April 7, 2024 

Guest Preacher: Emma Landowski-Sancomb

Let us pray: Living Christ, we hear stories of you, on the other side of the grave, visiting your friends; letting one of them, who could not believe your return, touch you. You show us the importance of intimate friendships, the need for community. May our hearts be open this day, to hear what we need to hear and see what we need to see. Amen

Peace be with you.  Peace be with you Jesus expresses to his beloved friends as he comes to them behind closed doors.  In just the previous verses we know that Mary Magdalene saw Jesus and was told by him to tell the disciples that he is ascending to the Divine.  And we know that she goes to them and tells them that  she has “seen the Lord”.  

But can you imagine what must have been going through the minds of his disciples as Jesus comes before them now?  Fear, grief, confusion or maybe even joy? They saw their beloved friend killed in front of them and today…

Jesus simply enters this room…he enters this room to commission his disciples…I envision Jesus walking in with this calm, grounded energy, similar to the clip we saw moments ago. As Jesus enters into this space, he greets his friends with this phrase “peace be with you.”

As our story unfolds he reminds them that just as the Divine sent him, so too, he sends them…into the world.  To do what? Jesus goes on to say that If they forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.  And if they retain the sins of any, they are forgiven.  

For too long our culture has put more focus and energy on what sin might be that we forget Jesus’ invitation to forgive.  We have also lost sight of the fact that for John’s culture, sin is not a “category of behavior” but a theological category about one's response to the revelation of God in Jesus.  So despite our best efforts to try and judge or define sin, the book of John is trying to teach us that “sin” is alienation from God or more specifically, it’s not continuing the work that Jesus commissions the communities of faith to do.        

So when we ask ourselves, what is it that Jesus is calling us to? I keep going back to his invitation for peace…peace be with you…Just as the Divine has sent me, so I send  you.  He breathes on his friends and says receive the holy spirit.  

I’m going to be a theology nerd for a second…Ruach is the Hebrew word that can be translated in three different ways.  It can be translated as “Holy Spirit,” “wind” and “breath.” This is one of my favorite words because it holds space for both breath and the Holy Spirit.  You cannot breath without being reminded of the holy or without the Divine being present.  

So as Jesus breathes on the disciples, I’m picturing him breathing with them…grounding them to the present moment. Guiding them to reconnect with their bodies and again inviting them to reflect on what they need.  Reminding them that they are not alone and that with every breath they receive the Holy Spirit.  

Now this is a helpful, and maybe necessary reminder as we and the disciples struggle with doubts and fears.

Doubting, like Thomas, simply because of our own experiences in life.  In Thomas’ doubt, he did not flatly refuse to believe; he rejected a faith that relies strictly upon the experience of others. His faith waits for an encounter with the Living God. Once he has it, he exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” In that moment, hope prevailed. Jesus lives. The world has changed and his life has been changed.

Where might we be looking for our own physical signs of the living God, showing up to us in this space…praying, “breathe your spirit on us, oh God”.  Wishing to hear that invitation for peace.

I’d like to share another Hebrew word with you, one you might be a bit more familiar with.  The Hebrew word for “peace” is shalom. My seminary professor and Old Testament theologian, Dr. Clint McCann, suggests that “shalom” is better translated as “comprehensive well-being”.  This may seem like a bit much to wrap our heads, so I ask you to bare with me.  What if this “comprehensive well-being” or well-being that is “all encompassing” depicts what it means to have peace?

There are several different dimensions that contribute to our wellbeing.   We have emotional, environmental, financial, intellectual, physical, occupational, social, and of course, spiritual well being.  All of these demotions of our lives require care, rest and work.

As you know,  I am a hospital chaplain, and in one of the groups I provide for our patients in behavioral health, we reflect on this idea of “comprehensive well-being “.  We are invited to reflect  on each of these areas in our life, assess which areas are healthy and which areas might need a little extra work.  I might then ask which areas you are feeling most fulfilled in and which areas might be feeling  a bit vulnerable. This “comprehensive well-being”, as we call it, is a continual practice.  It’s a journey that requires work and care and support from those around you. I’m grateful for the words of Mother Teresa as she reminds us that this is work we cannot do alone.  She once shared: "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other." …We belong to each other.  God created us to be in community and it is also the invitation we receive from Jesus, for holistic peace, peace in all areas of life.

So as we hear these words from Jesus today, “peace be with you”? I invite you to ask yourself what that might practically look like for you individually and as a community?

God created us to be in community, Jesus calls us into community, we are called to take care of themselves and each other.  We are invited to take inventory of our  thoughts, feelings, and emotions and assess what it is we (individually and collectively) might need. Jesus shows up to them behind closed doors.  He meets them where they are and honors their need for peace, for comprehensive well-being and just as the Divine has sent him with that message, so he sends us.  

I don’t know about you, but that’s a pretty vulnerable place to be… to slow down enough to ask ourselves how we are doing.  What do we need? How might we be supported by or support others?  

But it is also a beautiful place to be, a place of peace.

One of the things that church is often known for being good at is showing up after major life events.  Meals are made, transportation can be provided, hugs are shared and words of prayer are frequently spoken of.  Each of these, a demonstration of building peace on earth.

How might our relationships with church and community change if we leaned into the idea of peace being individual, congregational and communal well-being? What would it look like to genuinely check in with our neighbors to see if there was a way they needed support this week? Or what if we practiced our own vulnerability to share that we are having a particularly hard day and need support in some way?

Even though we may sometimes have weary hearts and feel like hiding behind closed doors. Somehow, paradoxically, the kin-dom of heaven is still being co-created.  With every breath we receive the Holy Spirit. Comprehensive well-being is still happening through communities meeting each other’s needs.

May we continue to be emboldened to breathe in that sacred holy spirit and receive the blessed message of peace and well-being.  Beloved siblings in Christ, peace be with you.  Amen 
 

“I’ve Seen the Lord”
Sermon for U-CC Waupun

Easter 2024

March 31, 2024

Focus: If you were the first person to see the risen Christ, how would it change your life? How would you share the good news?

Some of you know that when I was a student at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, I worked as a children's ministry director at a local church part time. It was a big church, and the job had a lot of responsibility. I was in over my head most of the time, and improved to be one of the most challenging jobs I had ever had.

But one of the people I will remember forever is a woman we’ll call Alice.She was quirky, she could be brash, and she had a very strong personality that wasn't always easy to get along with. But she ended up being one of my best children's ministry volunteers. She understood how to live a life of faith authentically in a way that I haven't quite seen before or since. Her love for God, and her love for Jesus, was so clear to me. Equally clear to me was how much she loved ministering to children, because she had a particular gift for working with children who were misunderstood themselves.

We would have fascinating conversations when she would drive me back to my apartment after church events. One of the clearest things I remember her saying to me was this: “You know, Jacob, there have been a lot of people in my life who have misunderstood me, but my faith has gotten me through a lot and it means the world to me that I can share it with kids. There was a time in my life that I had to make a choice to be who I was, no matter what other people thought of me, and you've given me the opportunity to do that.”

It was shortly after this conversation that Covid hit, so we didn’t have the opportunity to work together on events anymore. But it's always stuck with me that in our time together, she started to learn how to let go of other peoples perceptions in order to share her love for Jesus with her community.

Part of the reason that Alice's story speaks to me so clearly is what she had to let go of. She knew that people talked, and how she was misunderstood. And yet, she let go of other peoples’ perceptions of her, of her perceptions of herself, because the gospel of Jesus was so compelling to her that she had to share it.

I wonder if this is how Mary felt. She was the first one, according to John’s gospel, to experience the resurrection of Jesus. Like the other disciples, when the body of Jesus is gone, she thinks that someone must've taken it away. In a time when they are already grieving, this is a state of emergency. Finally, she speaks to someone who she thinks is a gardener, but it's actually Jesus. Once she makes that realization, she literally cannot let go of Jesus. She wants to bask in that moment of being with Jesus, someone she thought she would never see again. In her devastation, in her grief, the only thing she can think to do is to stay right where she is.

So Jesus has to say to her, “Don’t hold onto me any more! Go and tell the others!”

At this moment, Mary understands that she has a choice to make.

If she holds onto Jesus, she can bask in the resurrection and glory, and keep it all to herself, taking comfort in Jesus's presence with her.

If she lets go, and does what Jesus tells her to do, she may not be believed. She may not be understood. Because she's a woman, society might consider her a laughing stock. They might even accuse her of stealing Jesus's body. We don't know what happens, because the gospel doesn't address it. Instead, John's Gospel goes right into the Doubting Thomas story that we’ll engage next week.

But somehow, despite whatever self-doubt she might've felt, she makes the choice to do as Jesus tells her, to proclaim the good news that he has risen. She has seen the Lord, and she will never be the same. Through God, Jesus has done something so incredible and unexpected that deserves to be shared.

When we know this to be true, we are filled with such joy. Christ has conquered death, and in doing so, conquered the corrupt government that threatened to squash the Jesus movement. But none of this would be known if Mary had not made the choice to let go of her self doubt, let go of her fear, and even let go of Jesus himself in order to tell the world the good news.

So today, friends, I'm asking you this question. What fears might you be called to let go of as you share the good news of Christ's resurrection?

Are there times that you feel like Alice, misunderstood because who she was, but yet so compelled to share the good news of God's love with others? Are there times that you feel like Mary, where you have to physically let go of what holds you back, needing Jesus himself to remind you that what you have to share is important?

I'm mindful that, for some of us sitting here, that isn't an easy question to answer. The wider church has not been kind to people who are marginalized, to people who don't fit the mold for who Christ’s disciples should be. In biblical times, women were not permitted to hold positions of power or leadership in society, so whenever women have a story to tell, they are taking a big risk. But it’s not a coincidence that every Gospel account of the resurrection of Jesus begins with women sharing the news, and being the first people to proclaim Christ’s return. It’s not a coincidence in biblical times, or in our present time, that those who are marginalized can offer compelling testimony that will change the trajectory of the Jesus movement forever.

This is exactly what the world needs. This is exactly what the church needs. The world is so full of fear and hopelessness. We live in such difficult times. Having the courage to witness to what we have seen, heard, and experienced can truly transform lives.

In today’s media song, Queen Latifah talks about the risks we take, and the choices we make along the journey. As the story from Hairspray reckons with racial inequality, we also take risks on the journey of faith to share a message of God's liberating love, when we have been told we don’t fit into God’s dream for the world if we don’t fit the mold.

In order to take those risks, we have to let go, just like Mary had to let go of basking in the resurrection moment, to do meaningful and important ministry that changed the world.

So, as you go today, with the resurrection joy that you now feel, may you go with courage. May you go knowing that your witness of joy can provide hope to a hurting world. Like Mary, and like Alice, may you let go of your fear. May you let go of your indecision. May you let go of what holds you back from sharing the revolutionary love of Christ with the world.

Thanks be to God. Amen.
 

“The Lord Needs You!”
TRAD sermon for U-CC Waupun

Palm Sunday 2024

March 24, 2024

Focus: Like the colt, Jesus needs you so God’s message of love can be known to a world in need.

My Grandma Nault was a simple woman. She loved gardening, taking walks, and spending her time in prayer. She was perfectly content being a loving mother, wife, and grandmother. She lived a simple life, and shared her incredible cooking with those she loved. I experienced her as quiet, understated, classy.

But this quiet woman was probably the best example of God in another human being that I have ever experienced. 
Her deeply held Catholic faith was evident in everything she did. Every morning she would wake up and say to God, “Good morning, God. Thank you for another day.”

I think she would have been too humble to boldly call herself a modern-day disciple, but she sure was if I’ve ever seen one. Every week, she went to her parish for a full hour and silently prayed for the world, for her family, for her friends, for anyone who needed it. Also every week, she traveled to New Holstein with a group of ladies who packed lunches for poor and homeless folks. She did all of this, and yet talked about it as if everyone else did that too.

Each year, we reflect on the same story. Jesus comes into Jerusalem, ready to do this unimaginable thing God has asked of him, ready to die. It's a story of irony and tragedy. Many churches not only celebrate Palm Sunday on a day like this, but we also celebrate Passion Sunday, because today is a day of stark contrast: a seemingly triumphant celebration, as Jesus enters Jerusalem, and the tragedy that those very same people who cry “Hosanna”—save us—are the ones who will cry out “Crucify him” just a few days from now.

There are many different ways to look at this text, but this year I'm feeling drawn to think about what it might've been like from the colt’s perspective. Understanding the Palm Sunday story from the perspective of an animal isn't exactly a common way of looking at it, but I think it's instructive to how God asks us to respond to God's call on our lives. Sometimes, the ordinary, unassuming people, like my grandmother, are the ones who help usher Jesus into the world most authentically.

Not much is said in the passage about the colt, of course. Only that it had never been ridden before, and that the Lord needed it. The focus is more often on Jesus subverting the political powers at play before he does, as God asked him to do, and dies at the hands of those who wield that political power. Of course, this is important, and not an insignificant thing to remember. In his commentary for Working Preacher, Don Hyeong Jeong reminds us, that one is so often known as the “triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem” is anything but that. He points out that Jesus is entry into Jerusalem is totally devoid of the typical features of a royal procession, like an animal sacrifice, political takeover, or a banquet celebration. None of these things happen in the course of Jesus's procession. Another commentator, Ira Brent Driggers, points out that Jesus arriving on a colt was totally countercultural to the ways that people would've expected a divine ruler to appear. If you wanted to make a more culturally, understandable statement, Jesus would have processed into the city on a war horse, all confident and full of himself. But that’s not who Jesus was. Those weren’t the values that he espoused.

It's striking, visualizing Jesus arriving on a colt that had never been ridden before. Did the poor animal stumble a tie or two from the weight of a thirty-year-old man? Did it follow Jesus’ direction obediently, or did it need to redirected from time to time?

Jesus might've had a smoother ride on a more experienced horse. Jesus might've made a better statement on a more experienced horse. But the other piece that the scripture tells us is a striking as it is powerful. The disciples are instructed to say, “the Lord needs it.”

I've been thinking a lot this week about what that means for us, in our own lives of faith.

So many of us like to think of ourselves as “simple people.” Not in a degrading way. Not in a way that implies we are unintelligent. But, in ways that declare that we only focus our attention on the important things. Faith. Family. Friendship. Kind of like my grandma did.

If we were called upon by Jesus’ first disciples to help Jesus share his message of love and compassion with the whole world, how many of us would really think we have what it takes? How many of us would say, “Um, I think you might be looking for someone else?”

But this is exactly why Jesus did not choose the war horse. Jesus did not choose the war horse because he wasn't like other kings, and yet he was greater than all of them. Jesus chose the unlikeliest of animals in the same way he so often chose the unlikeliest of people. Greedy tax collectors. Ineffective fishermen. Even the man who would turn him over to the custody of a corrupt government was among his closest friends and advisors.

So, I believe it’s not too far of a stretch that Jesus chooses us.

Like the colt, Jesus needs you so God’s message of love can be known to a world in need. The colt was an unlikely animal for Jesus to use, especially since most people would've considered those who make a grand entrance to come in on larger horses. In a similar way, many of us may believe that we are unworthy or not good enough to vessels of God’s liberating love. But like the colt, you are exactly who Jesus needs. In these days, when divisiveness, deceit, and discrimination, want to control our society you can be away to share a different message.

How can we do that in a world of such need?

When the world cries, “save us,” maybe you can be an instrument to usher in another way. The way of love when so many would rather marginalize people who don't fit the mold. The way of hope when there is despair. The way of compromise and collaboration when our society is content with “my way or the highway”. The way of connection when society would rather live in silos.

You might feel like you aren’t enough, that you aren't worthy of being a vessel of the message of Christ. But, indeed, you are more than enough, and you are exactly who Jesus needs to change the world.

So may you do your part, knowing that God has chosen you. Amen. 
 

“Covenants and Reckless Love”
TRAD sermon for U-CC Waupun

March 17, 2024

Focus statement: When we promise to follow Jesus, sometimes it’s difficult and heart wrenching work. But when we are reckless in sharing our love, we will surely receive the greatest reward.

I took Uber and Lyft often when I lived in St. Louis, because the bus system wasn’t always super reliable. Often the drivers would be cordial, and we’d have decent conversations about our lives. You can learn a surprising amount about a person in a 10 minute car ride if you’re open to genuine and open-hearted conversation. Sometimes you’d get a creepy or even rude individual, and you’d be waiting with anticipation just to get out of the car, but more often than not, it was a very pleasant experience.

But none were more pleasant than one man. I wish I remembered his name, but it’s been around 5 years since our encounter, and I never saw him again after this. We’ll call him Erik. I opened the door as he picked me up from my workplace, and encountered a man with a winsome smile and an effervescent personality. “You Make Me Feel So Young” by Sinatra filled the car with joyful sound, and he was clearly having the best day of his life. He was the kind of person who probably had the best day of his life every day. We had easy conversation, which was mostly small talk from what I recall, but the one thing I remember was that I hopped in the car, and soon after I buckled in, he said, “man, it’s such a beautiful day, isn’t it?”

And it was. It was such a beautiful day, in part because it was sunny and warm, but mostly because of the joy that radiated from Erik’s spirit. Being a full-time seminary student and working part-time doing children’s ministry work was incredibly stressful. That day had been one of those days. It warmed my heart to experience his joy, especially after the day I’d just had.

This week I’ve been thinking about what it means to be reckless in our love, even when it's hard. We’re also closing in on Holy Week, and the gospel passage foreshadows the understanding. So today that's what I'm feeling led to talk about.

Jesus loves using seed and gardening analogies throughout the gospels. There are several parables related to this kind of imagery (several of which were in the lectionary last summer), and sometimes Jesus simply uses them as analogies. If you think about how God’s beloved community works, it makes sense. Jesus talks about the importance of planting seeds or grains, and letting them grow. That would've been a very relatable way to explain the realm of God in biblical times, because of the amount of people whose livelihoods depended on some sort of agricultural vocation. Several of us in this congregation, and in the broader Waupun community, either grew up on farms ourselves, or were intimately connected to the agricultural industry as a way of life in some other way. So, for some of us, these analogies that Jesus uses aren't really analogies. We understand that people have to plant something and tend to it with care, in order for it to be a viable crop. Seeds do no good if they are kept in the bag that you purchase them in.

The same is true about the realm of God. Those of us who plant our roots deeply, tend to them, and let them grow, are the ones who will experience the fullness of God's love, and the blessings that come from a life of faith. In his commentary for Working Preacher, Dong Hyeon Jeong reminds us that gardening can also teach us about the resurrection. Just as losing the seeds that we have in our hands by putting them in the ground is not the end, losing our lives, for the sake of what we used to have is not the end, either. Our lives can be more fulfilled, more prosperous, and more joyful when we have a strong faith foundation, and all of this reminds us of new beginnings of resurrection.

But none of this promises us an easy life. Jesus himself says so in The Message, which is a paraphrase of other translations which are more literal to the original text. The text renders Jesus’ conundrum this way: “Right now I am shaken. And what am I going to say? ‘Father, get me out of this’? No, this is why I came in the first place. I’ll say, ‘Father, put your glory on display.’”
Jesus understood that God’s will and purpose for him would include being brutally attacked, and later killed, as a result of speaking out against the current government structure, but he also understood that all of this would be done for the glory of God, so that others would be able to understand God's will and purpose for them.

Covenant is also an important piece of this. Our Jeremiah text reminds us that God continues to make a covenant with us, promising to be present with us, as we live our lives of faith. From the days of the prophet Jeremiah to the ministry of Jesus, the covenant of God’s law and God's love will guide us in the ways we should go. Many theologians understand God's love and God's law to be interchangeable ideas, because many theologians understand the intent of God’s law to be fundamentally loving.

So, as we follow Christ who will soon make the ultimate sacrifice for our benefit, to show how much he loves us, how will we respond?

I believe the most important thing we can do as followers of that Christ to be reckless in our own love. When we promise to follow Jesus, sometimes it’s difficult and heart wrenching work. But when we are reckless in sharing our love, our faith will multiply in ways we could never imagine.

Jesus reminds us that “At this moment the world is in crisis.” Indeed, people are experiencing literal war across the world. Other people are experiencing metaphorical war in many different ways. Our differences in political ideologies are tearing families apart. Mental illness is at an all-time high, not only for our children and youth but in many demographics. Too many experience discrimination based on race, gender, identity, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, and other identifiers. Too many experience, homelessness, poverty, or food insecurity in a country where some people have more resources than they know what to do with.

With all the difficulties so many people are dealing with, at our church, and in our community, our call is to be as loving as we can be. Like Erik, the Uber driver in my story, we had the opportunity to show love and compassion, which will make a lasting impact on the people around us.

So may you go from this place and be reckless in your love. May your plant your roots deeply in faith, not just because you will receive eternal life as a result, but because the world needs a reminder that hope can still be found even in the deepest despair. Amen. 
 

“Loved So We Can Live”
TRAD sermon for U-CC Waupun

March 10, 2024

Focus: God’s grace covers us in unimaginable ways, and through Christ’s life and ministry we can be assured of that love.

On Upworthy.com, one of my favorite websites, the talks about the best moments of humanity, a woman named Anjuli tells a story about how her mom showed her unconditional love as she grew up, with one simple phrase: “I love you more than…”

She gave the example of a time she was washing Christmas dishes, the fine china, that they only use once a year. In the middle of washing those dishes, five of the 12 china dishes shattered to the floor. These dishes have been part of their family for generations, and they were very special. Instead of being upset with Anjuli, without a moments hesitation, her mother yelled from the other room, “I love you more than those dishes!” This was a phrase her mother used throughout her entire life. “I love you more than bad grades.” “I love you more than the way you treated your sibling.”

It strikes me that not everybody could have that level of grace the moment something bad happened. Anger, or at least exasperation, are natural human emotions. I think most of us would at least have some reaction to the china breaking. But all that mattered to this mother was teaching her children self forgiveness and reminding them of her unconditional love.

For me, that's what links our two scriptures for today. I'm going to zoom in on both of them individually, but I want you to keep this little story in mind while I talk about the biblical passages and what they mean for our life of faith today. We're going to talk a great deal about grace and how God's love offers us salvation and hope.

Perhaps more than any other time in the liturgical year, Lent is a time where we focus more inwardly, working to refine and refocus ourselves in our faith journeys. Not every denomination deals with the season of Lent in the same ways we do in the UCC (which is objectively an oversimplified statement, but that's the level at which I’ll get into it right now), but I really appreciate the theological focus of this season. Of course, it's always a good time to refine and refocus ourselves on our faith journeys, no matter what time of year it is, but there's something about this season that offers us more corporate opportunities to do that work.

The text this week give us an opportunity to think about how we have fallen short as people of God, which ism’t easy, but by definition it is necessary. In the letter to the Ephesians, someone who is likely a disciple of Paul reminds their audience of the ways they lived before their faith in Christ began. The author writes, “All of you used to do whatever felt good and whatever you thought you wanted so that you were children headed for punishment just like everyone else.” In other words, their priorities did not match God’s desires.  But yet God offers grace. Grace to start again, grace to live into fullness of life in ways that honor God. Multiple commentators highlight the importance of this “before-and-after”: before making a commitment to our faith, and after making a commitment to our faith. Before we understood the wheel of God, we were doing things that didn't honor God, but after we were taught what God desired, our faith matured and refined. But even as we ourselves need to grow in order to experience the fullness of life that faith offers us, God has already made a decision. God has already decided to love us, in spite of and even because of who we are. God gives us the gift of grace and salvation, that we could not earn, but instead, it was given to us with no strings attached.

Similarly, in this very famous text from the gospel of John, John reminds his audience, that God loved the entire world enough to give the world God's only son, so that anybody who believes in him may receive eternal life. One of the most important things for us to remember out of this text is that the text says God so loved “the world.” Not “God so loved humanity”, and not “God so loved people who believe in this or that way.” God loves humanity, and all lives on this planet, so deeply that God gave us Jesus to offer liberation and hope.

This is today’s good news: God’s grace covers us in unimaginable ways, and through Christ’s life and ministry we can be assured of that love.  God loves us so deeply, and we don't need to do anything to earn that love. Even if we mess up, God loves us enough that we can have a second chance, and a third chance, and a fourth chance. Both riders of our text today, saying that we only need to be ready to receive it.

Like my story from earlier, God loves us more than others dishes. God loves us more than any way, that we might fall short of God's love for us, and that is the kind of grace that invites us into deeper faith. That is the kind of grace that makes us want to respond as thankful people.

How do we respond to this gift of great love and grace in our community, and around the world?

First, it's helpful to remember that God has already decided that all of us are worthy of God's love, God's blessing, and the belonging that comes from God. That also means we don't get to decide. As we live in community with one another, at times we will disagree. At times we will differ from one another because of the way we vote, the way we love, what we look like, or are the ways we live our lives. Some of these disagreements may cause us stress or other negative emotions. But because we receive the amazing grace of God's love, that grace extends to others just the same.

Second, it's helpful to remember that our call is to share that love with others. Living in community is rarely easy, and sometimes quite complicated. But because of the love and grace we have found in Christ, we have the opportunity to grow, mature, and refine our faith.

So this week, may you remember that God does not condemn you. May you remember that you have been loved long before you could understand it. Empowered by that love, may you go into your week, proclaiming that to others. To the needy, to the oppressed, to the marginalized. Because all are worthy of the incredible love and grace that Christ offers us. Amen.
 

“Jesus’ Teachings and Our Call to Change”

Sermon for U-CC Waupun

March 3, 2024

Focus Statement: When we misuse our power for greed and selfishness, we lose focus on what God desires for us.

 

There are so many directions I could take with our Gospel text for today, but if I could sum it up in one word, it would be “power.” Jesus becomes very angry at those who are using the temple for greed and selfishness, and takes their power away by driving out their greedy behavior.

 

I spent most of this weekend with our confirmation students at Daycholah Center for the Youth Faith Formation retreat. Our confirmands enjoyed fishing together and growing closer as a small group, which Heather, Becky, and I enjoyed experiencing.

 

Every time I spend time at camp, I’m struck by how special of a place this can be as all of us journey in faith. If you've never been to any of our camps for a retreat, or even just to walk around, I would encourage you to go, because we are one of only a few conferences who have this kind of gift. The camping programs in many other conferences of the United Church of Christ and other denominations have since closed due to financial difficulties. I wrote about half of today's sermon while sitting outside near Vesper Point, overlooking Green Lake, as our confirmation students were fishing and nature was abuzz with activity.

 

But it isn't just about the beautiful scenery, the fishing, or the great food. There is something powerful about the practice of this mastery. This is a place that gives people permission to be who they are, authentically, when perhaps their schools or other places in their lives don’t allow them the kind of grace and compassion to be that authentic.

 

This was apparent in a special way when I was leading music and worship at the Knock Knock middle school youth event in November of last year. This event was attended by 30 youth from across the Conference, and adult chaperones who went with them. One of the youth there was a kid who we’ll call Brian. Brian was the type of kid who might’ve been bullied in his school, but his church group set the tone and really rallied around him, so the rest of the kids at the camp did the same.

 

A particularly beautiful moment was at the closing worship, where Brian wrote and recited a very meaningful prayer for the gathered, and shared a favorite song of his during the service that made him feel closer to God. In this moment, his delivery wasn't polished, and he was nervous as all get out, but he claimed the space that was rightfully his, and let us all in a meaningful and spiritually empowering experience.

 

This may seem like a strange illustration to talk about power until you process the ways that people like Brian are marginalized in society. When he shared this song and this prayer, he was, in a way, claiming his own power, as someone who is loved by God and worthy of care and belonging. Places like Daycholah Center, and events with our camping programs, can have that kind of liberating effect on people.

 

Today’s media song also offers an important commentary on taking back our own power. Taylor Swift talks about the walls that society put up to hold people back, and the revolution which is often required to defy our marginalization and work for the positive change we want to experience in the world.

 

As we consult today’s Biblical texts, we can trace the threads of power and God’s will for us as well. I'm going to mostly talk about the gospel today, but I will say just a little bit about the text from Genesis. In the Old Testament text, God has given us commandments for how we should live. Most of these sound very familiar to us, but one I want to highlight today is how the CEB renders that commandment that typically says not to “take God’s name in vain.” The CEB renders it this way: “Do not use the Lord your Gods name as if it were of no significance.” When we consider this rendering, I wonder if we might be willing to “think outside the box” a little bit. In our society, we sometimes encounter people who treat others poorly based on things they can’t control because “God told them to do it.” Many Christians have done and said terrible things in God’s name, including all sorts of discrimination, many instances of war and family conflict, and plenty of other things. In doing so, we make Christianity in our own image, taking away the ability for people to understand the truly liberating and all-inclusive message of God's love.

 

Later on in the Gospel, Jesus acts out on his frustration, and the way that the temple has been made in the image of so-called thieves and robbers. He accuses those exchanging currency in the temple of making a place of worship something it's not supposed to be. In doing so, he takes away the power of those who are probably trying to swindle the common people, and instead demonstrates the power of God’s liberating teachings.

 

He understands that, for the Jewish people of this day, the temple is a meeting place, and a place to continue to grow in faith and learn more about God's teachings. In this angry outburst, Jesus is doing his best to protect the will, and purpose of what this building was meant to symbolize.

 

As we later understand in the story of Jesus’ life and ministry, Jesus makes it very clear that his message is for the benefit of the oppressed and marginalized. Jesus's message is meant so that people like Brian, or other children who might be bullied for something about themselves, can find liberation and love in community.

 

Here at our church, I wonder how we can continue to re-dedicate ourselves to fighting for the powerless in our community. Many people in our community are struggling in various ways. I think we understand that it would have been Jesus’ desire for us to be true to the call of justice, making sure that our worship spaces and our community life stay true to Jesus’ intent. When we misuse our power for greed and selfishness, we lose focus on what God desires for us.

 

So, as you go into your week, may you have the grace of knowing that Jesus’ fight for the integrity of worship was for your benefit, so that you could be known like all of us desire to be know. May you take back your power to do justice in a world of need. Amen.

“Believing in God’s Promise”

TRAD sermon for UCC Waupun, Lent 2B

February 25, 2024

 
Focus statement: When we trust in God’s promises, we are committing ourselves to trusting in a future only God can imagine for us. The examples in both of these texts call is to be hopeful, and trust that God can do wonderful things through us if we are willing to follow.
 
One of my family's favorite stories to tell about me growing up was the time that God talked to me in a dream. I was about five years old. I announced to my parents one morning that God had talked to me in a dream. God said I was going to have a new baby sister and a new puppy. The best part about the story was that my parents already knew part of this was true. Mom had just discovered that she was pregnant with my sister Emily, so recently that they didn't even know the baby’s gender, and hadn’t told me yet! So, when the two of them would say in front of me, their own theories about whether Emily was going to be a boy, or a girl, I would say very definitively, “God told me we were having a girl, so it's a girl!” (As I look back on it now, I'm struck that my parents never totally discounted my revelation, but instead that they were open to the possibility that God really had appeared to me somehow.)
 
We never did get that puppy, though, but we turned out okay.
This is the only time I can remember having this vivid of an experience with God telling me something in my life. As often as I have felt God's guidance in my life, and as much as I believe that God can answer prayer in certain ways, I don't believe God appears in peoples’ dreams willy-nilly. God appears in peoples’ dreams when God has something important or consequential to tell somebody.
When God appears to Abram in the Genesis text for today, this translation doesn't necessarily clarify, whether it was a dream, a vision, or some other manifestation, but by whatever means, God comes to tell him something important. God comes to tell him that he will have a rich ancestry, even at his advanced age. God also tells him that he will have a new name. Abram becomes Abraham. If you were to look at the footnotes in the Common English Bible, which is the translation we use most often in worship together, the name “Abram” means “exalted ancestor,” and the name “Abraham” means “ancestor of a multitude.” At 99 years old, Abraham will be an ancestor of a multitude!
 
Of course, for any of us who have heard the story in Sunday school, or other times throughout our lives, we know how Abraham initially took this news. According to this translation, “Abraham fell on his face and laughed. He said to himself, Can a 100-year-old man become a father, or Sarah, a 90-year-old woman, have a child?”
 
But Abraham never stopped believing in how God was at work. Our text from Romans 4 uses a different translation, because we were having trouble making sense of the Common English Bible when we were planning this week out. The New Living Translation makes meaning of Abraham’s reaction in this way: “Abraham never wavered in believing Gods promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever God promises.”
 
I want to say that I'm really grateful to our media team for sticking with me on this one, because it wasn't an easy text for us to consider. It was actually a member of our media team who found a different translation of the Romans text for us to use, which I think really gets to the “meat” of what Paul is trying to say in his letter to the Romans. I'm not going to say this person's name because I didn't get their permission, but I do want to highlight that because we really do have an incredible and faithful media team which is willing to make meaning out of difficult parts of Scripture. It may be a difficult text for us to conceptualize, but I think it's important for us for a number of reasons.
 
It strikes me that sometimes it's hard to believe in what God promises to us. How can we believe that we inherit the richest blessings imaginable, when war rages on all around us, when they're in such a variety of pain in our communities, and in the world? This has been a really hard time for several members of our congregation, who are navigating various different journeys. In our communities—in this county, for example—people experience difficulties paying their utility bills, which our Missions committee is endeavoring to address in this quarter’s Mission offering. Our church has helped with Loaves and Fishes events, which provide hot meals to people who are in need of that provision.
 
Equally, Abraham was concerned about his family’s future, since he and Sarah struggled to have children of their own, which would have represented far more than simply their own sense of accomplishment in biblical times. They must have felt such grief over that.
 
Believing in God's promises when your world is crashing down requires a lot of faith.
 
But as our text from Romans reminds us, stories like this were recorded for our benefit, so that we can use Abrahams experience as a model for believing what God can do using us as conduits.
 
My experience hearing from God around the time my mom was pregnant helped me understand that God can work within us to do important things when we may not consider the possibility on our own. It also reminded me that having faith in what God tells us about our future can deepen our faith when God does what God promises.
When we trust in God’s promises, we are committing ourselves to trusting in a future only God can imagine for us. The examples in both of these texts call is to be hopeful, and trust that God can do wonderful things through us if we are willing to follow.
 
As we go into this week, how might you be called to trust God? What kinds of things might God be trying to say to you about your future that might not be apparent to you at this time? And if you are so privileged to receive that kind of revelation, what are you going to do about it?
 
When we believe in God's blessing and God's provision in our lives, incredible things can happen, not just to us, but also through us. As you go into your week, may you be open to the work of God within and around you. May you be ready to believe that God can use your story to deepen your own faith, and the faith of those for generations to come. Thanks be to God. Amen.
“Promises”
TRAD sermon for U-CC Waupun
Lent 1B, Genesis, and Gospel texts
February 18, 2024
 
Focus Statement: In both of the texts this week, we notice examples of covenants (promises). In the promises we make to God and God makes to us, our relationship with God becomes deeper and richer.
 
When I was a child, I liked to test my limits. I could be a stinker sometimes, and I liked to do things that I knew I shouldn't be doing or say things I knew I shouldn't say. Most of us can probably relate to doing some of these things as a kid. And sometimes, my parents would get really upset with me. I would have to take a time out and think about what I did. When we talked about it, I apologized, and we moved on.
 
My parents would be upset with me for a little while, but I learned very quickly that they would still love me, no matter what I did, and that they wouldn't hold my previous actions against me. Just as much as consequences were very much a thing in our household, so is the old adage of forgive, and forget. There was always another chance. There was always something to grow from. There wasn't much of anything that we couldn't move past it, because we were family, and we loved each other.
 
One day, I asked my dad if he was still mad at me for something that I have done. I don't remember any details, but I will never forget what he said back. He said something to the effect of, “I wish you hadn't done what you did, but I am a big believer in forgiving and forgetting. I love you no matter what.”
 
It was a powerful thing as a six or eight year old to hear my dad. Tell me that he loved me no matter what. It's even more powerful as a 29 year old because not every kid gets to hear that.
 
Today, both of our scriptures talk about elements of covenant. Another word to use for “covenant” is promise. I am especially going to highlight how sometimes we make promises to God, and sometimes God makes promises to us. It changes our faith and it changes our lives.
 
To be able to fully understand why the covenant God makes with Noah in the book of Genesis is important, we need to trace some of the common themes of the book at large, which I will do in about a paragraph.
 
In the book of Genesis, we are first exposed to several examples of God's blessing. God makes the world and calls it good, and God makes people, and recognizes that Adam is not meant to be alone. But then, of course, Adam and Eve fall short, God gets upset, and there is a consequence. Humanity tries to restore relationship, God forgives them, and everybody moves on. Then, the cycle continues with the next situation.
 
This time, God has had enough. Because of the amount of transgressions, God feels the world has committed, God wants a clean slate, so God wipes out most of the world with the flood, except for a chosen few people and animals. But in her commentary for Working Preacher, Song-Mi Susie Park recognizes that God has to reconcile with Noah and those people and animals that are still left, because wiping every last being off of the Earth is neither a healthy nor productive solution to God's anger. Put another way, when my old testament professor, Clint McCann, taught us about this passage in seminary, he said that God was learning how to be God. It's not often we think about God making mistakes, or God, having to grow from an experience, because so many of us have been taught that God is an all-knowing and benevolent creator. This is a very early example of a time that God gets angry, and God has the choice between taking a step back, and renewing relationships, or saying, “to heck with it,” and wiping everything out.
 
We recognize that God chooses the former, because God understands that it isn't healthy just to give up because someone makes mistakes. If our relationship is important to us, and there is value to that relationship in our lives, working through problems, and being willing to change ourselves is the only way we will truly succeed in our own growth.
 
But growth, and maturing, both begin and end with the reminder that we are beloved, as we are. When Jesus was baptized, even as he was forced into the wilderness, his faith and his being were deeply anchored by the fact that God loved him. God needed him in order to do the work of restorative justice for a world in need of it. Jesus leaned on the promises that God loved him, and that God would be with him no matter where the journey led them.
 
In a similar way, we have heard the promises that Nicole, Casey, and the rest of us have made to support Riley in her faith journey as she grows up. We know that a productive faith journey is full of many experiences, from deeply affirming experiences of God’s love to the more difficult moments of feeling like we're at a crossroads. As Riley enters her journey of faith, she will have several opportunities to think about who God is to her, and what it means to be Christ’s disciple in the world. As a congregation, we have promised our love, support, and care to Riley, to her parents, and to her family as Riley grows in faith. Riley may experience wilderness moments, like Jesus did. I know I had my own wilderness moments as I grew up. But as long as she knows that she is beloved, and knows the promises that those closest to her have made to support her, she will be able to embody love, justice, and peace wherever she goes.
The same is true for all of us. This is the good news for today, my friends: In both of the texts this week, we notice examples of covenants and promises. In the promises we make to God and God makes to us, our relationship with God becomes deeper and richer.
 
As we live our lives of faith, we regularly make promises to God to be the best version of ourselves that we can be, pursuing justice, loving kindness, and journeying humbly alongside a God who makes promises to us. Even when God is disappointed in our actions, God loves us, no matter what, which is a promise we can cling to. As I shared in my story about my relationship with my dad, knowing that I was loved “no matter what” gave me the space to grow in a healthy way. God also makes promises to us that God will not let God’s anger win the day, but instead God will be the patient and loving God that we know God to be.
 
So friends, as you go today, may you know that you are beloved, and that God loves you, no matter what. May you be patient, may you be kind, and may you have the wisdom not to let your anger win the day in your relationships with others. May you have the grace to make promises to those in your life that you will love them no matter what, just as God has made that promise to you. Amen.
“Called and Changed”
TRAD sermon for U-CC Waupun
Transfiguration Sunday
February 11, 2024
 
Focus Statement: In this moment, Jesus is revealed by God as beloved and called. In this moment, something in him changes, and perhaps something about us changes too.
 
When I was beginning middle school, the district used to take the incoming sixth grade class on a weekend retreat to the Green Lake Conference Center. The purpose of the event was to get to know other sixth graders, and also get to know your team of teachers that would help you through your sixth grade year. In the Neenah school district, five or six elementary schools funneled into two middle schools, so there would be a lot of people who didn't know each other.
 
It was Friday night in the boys dormitory. We had some free time in the game room, where many of the boys were playing table tennis or other games. But right there, in the corner of the room, I saw a dingy upright piano, and went over to play that. Even though it was out of tune and sounded terrible, my social studies teacher, Mr. Lewis, was amazed at how well I played, and wanted to know if I wanted to play for the whole class the following evening. I have never played for a group of 3-400 people before, but I said yes anyway. To be honest I was a bit worried that I might be bullied in middle school for having a disability, so I was going to jump on being given an opportunity to be known on my own terms.
 
So the following night, in the hot, sweaty gymnasium, it was my time to shine. I approached the much better piano, which actually sounded pretty good. As I played my first song, you could hear a pin drop. Their attention was glued to my playing. When I finished, the entire class burst into thunderous applause and cheers. It was a feeling unlike anything I had experienced before. Then I asked them if they wanted to hear another song, and that got me more cheering and more applause. So I play the second song, and then all of us went back to free time. This time during free time, lots of people were talking to me, and asking me how long I had played the piano and all sorts of things like that. I was known in a different way than I would've been had it not been for that experience.
 
To be sure, I'm not going to be so self-important as to say that my experience compares with the kind of experience Jesus had, and the experience his disciples had seeing this. But I'm also mindful that, in order to understand certain dimensions of the Biblical story, we have to somehow relate it to our own experiences. The stories included in the Scriptures are meant to be instructive for us about how we live our lives, so it's important for us to find ourselves within the words.
 
Part of what makes the transfiguration story so tricky is that its meaning is not immediately clear to most people, even to those who have theological training. There are many different ways we can interpret this text, which in its own way adds to the difficulty. So today I'm going to talk about what it symbolizes for Jesus and his ministry, and what it can symbolize for us as well.
 
When I looked up the word transfiguration in the dictionary, the first definition was: “a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state”.
 
As I understand it, the transfiguration is a twofold event. The first part of the transformation is visual, with Jesus turning dazzlingly white and appearing with Elijah and Moses. The visual part of this transformation draws immediate attention to the event, so much so that it terrifies, Peter, James, and John. And I think I would be terrified right there with them! This is not something that we normally experience, which adds to the mystery of it.
 
But the second part of the transformation is, I think, the more interesting one. It comes with words, and with naming. A voice from heaven says: “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!”
 
For me, this is an important moment for Jesus. The same words are spoken about him at the time when he is baptized, but the juxtaposition of these words, at this point in the liturgical calendar is equally important. We're about to enter into the season of Lent, where we will see, Jesus questioned, mocked, betrayed, and killed. Experiencing these words spoken about Jesus, at this moment is, in part, a reminder about why we are following him to the cross. We follow Jesus, because he is the fullest embodiment of God’s hope for the world, a world that is in deep need of that hope. In biblical times and in modern times, people are just trying to get by, reeling from the hatred and discrimination, which is too often spewed at them. When we think about those people experiencing homelessness, poverty and discrimination here in Waupun and the surrounding area, when we think about the children and youth who are growing up and trying to find their truest identity… they are the reason why Jesus came. Through the transfiguration, Jesus models the affirmation that we receive when we dedicate ourselves to God's ongoing project of peace, justice, and comprehensive well-being for all. When so many people are distracted by their own self importance, listening to Jesus, is instructive, because we can more clearly understand the will of God through his witnes.
 
In this moment, Jesus is revealed by God as beloved and called. In this moment, something in him changes, and perhaps something about us changes too.
 
I believe we can become changed people ourselves, when we are revealed for who we truly are. Jesus is God's beloved son, who showed us the way from the very beginning, so that we would know how to share peace, love, and joy with a weary world. In my story from earlier, part of me was revealed to relative strangers, people who might first have judged me on the basis of outward appearances. It was a reminder, both to myself, and to my peers, that I was worthy of love, and knowing. And I believe the same thing is possible with you. When we claim ourselves as God's beloved child, whatever tries to get in the way of us being our authentic selves is silenced and dismissed forever.
 
 May it be this way with you. May you claim yourself as God's beloved child. May the people around you elevate your gifts, and affirm your experiences, and may the world be changed for the better because of who you are. Thanks be to God. Amen.
“The Reason Jesus Came”
Sermon for U-CC Waupun
February 4, 2024
Epiphany 4B
 
Focus Statement: Jesus comes to comfort and heal spiritually with his love. How do we need to be comforted by Jesus, and how can we provide that comfort to others?
 
Earlier this week, Sesame Street posted from Elmo's official X account, the website formally known as Twitter. Elmo asked a pretty simple question: “How is everybody doing?”
 
It's possible that Sesame Street may not have predicted what happened next.
 
As of the time I wrote this, this tweet got over 18,000 responses. The responses included many people who had fallen on hard times. One user said, “The world is burning around us, Elmo.” Another said, “Hi Elmo, I have accepted the fact that I'll never be able to buy a home in this economy.” Another said, “Honestly Elmo. I need a hug.” The actress Rachel Ziegler said she was “resisting the urge to tell Elmo that I am kinda sad.” Finally, one more person said, “I shouldn't have rushed wanting to be an adult. I need a break big guy.”
 
After some of these responses came in, Elmo posted again, saying he was glad he asked and that he would check in again later on. Then Sesame Street pointed users towards mental health resources which might be helpful to them if they needed further assistance.
 
On first glance, it might be strange talking about Sesame Street in church, and yet this sequence of events  amplifies the larger mental health crisis affecting children, youth, and adults of all backgrounds. So many people are struggling in this world, and the problem feels so vast that, addressing it seems insurmountable. Beyond the mental health epidemic, there are plenty of other pressing issues affecting both our congregation and our community. Living expenses, sometimes feel out of control. Grocery store prices in Waupun and elsewhere are astronomical, even as people across Dodge County face rampant food insecurity and homelessness. In talking with representatives from the Food Pantry, the school district, and Church Health Services, our church leadership has been made aware of the incredible magnitude of this community’s difficulties.
 
Our media song for today also demonstrates the kind of difficulties so many people face. Sara sings:
 
“I've been talking to God, don't know if it's helping or not
But surely something has got to give
'Cause I can't keep waiting to live”
 
I can only imagine that many of us have experienced a similar desperation at least once in our lives.
 
So it seems important to pay attention when we have the opportunity to engage scriptures that provide comfort and  compassion. Today's text from Isaiah 40 is a prime example of that. We begin by encountering these stark words:
 
“Dont you know? Havent you heard?
Wasnt it announced to you from the beginning?
Havent you understood since the earth was founded?”
Isaiah reminds us about how God has been caring for humanity, and for all of creation, since the world began. God extends compassion to the needy, to the oppressed, to the marginalized, and send the rich away empty. This is a counter-cultural reality, because, in this world where it seems that the rich are getting richer and the needy struggle to catch up, we need to remember that God is taking care of us too. Isaiah also speaks of gods endurance: “ God doesnt grow tired or weary. Gods understanding is beyond human reach.”
 
Isaiah also stresses that God has a deep understanding of our worldly predicament. Because sometimes, when life happens, or when the world seems to be conspiring against us, we hope for somebody, anybody, to understand where we're coming from, and sympathize with the difficulties we face. Too often, we find other people are so absorbed in their own difficulties that it's difficult for them to be present for us. So our struggles become compounded by the fact that we feel isolated. But Isaiah reminds us that God is with us, and that because God is with us, we can face whatever it is, we need to face, and we are not alone. Because we hope in God, our strength will be renewed, and we will not grow weary by the problems of the world.
 
In our gospel text for this week, we join Jesus as he refocuses himself, sharing the good news. This time I won't delve into deeply to the problematic nature of the healings that take place. I spent a lot of time on that last week and I won't beat you over the head with that. For now, I will suffice it to say that, any time bodily healing is said to be taking place, it's important to view that with suspicion because of the ways these stories are misused to hurt people with disabilities and mental illnesses.
 
But this time, I find it, striking that even Jesus needs rest and prayer as he delivers the good news as far as they can go. Jesus needs a moment of prayer and centering, to renew his own strength, and to refocus him for the journey ahead. Eventually his disciples find him, and say, “Everybody's been searching for you! Aren’t you going to go help them?”
 
Jesus’s reply surprises them. “Actually,”he says, “I think I've done what I need to do here. Let's go the other direction so I can share the good news there as well.” Even though the healings themselves are problematic in how they were discussed in the Bible, there is still so much good news with Jesus and his message. We can hold, intention the difficult and even problematic pieces of the biblical narrative with the pieces that are deeply liberating. No matter how these narratives have been. Miss used against people with disabilities and mental illnesses, the story of Christ’s revolutionary love still rings, true. The reason why Jesus came has been explained to us time, and time again throughout the New Testament, and arguably, predicted in the Old Testament. Jesus came to fight for the powerless, to remind the world that there is still another way. A way of peace, mercy, and justice.
 
My friends, this is the good news for today. Jesus comes to comfort and heal spiritually with his love. There is so much good news in the message of Jesus, and what it means, for people like you and me, who are dealing with so many difficult circumstances in our lives.
 
The question becomes this: How do we need to be comforted by Jesus, and how can we provide that comfort to others?
 
Maybe the comfort we and our communities need is that people will be present for us when we fall on hard times. From what I've seen recently, especially in the last few weeks and months, this church family supports one another and lift each other up in times of difficulty. I have noticed that in big and small ways.
 
Maybe the comfort we and our communities need is more systemic. It's what happens when the walls of oppression and exclusion are broken down. It's what happens when those who experience homelessness or food insecurity receive the resources they need. It's one people earn the kind of reliable income necessary to find safe and sustainable living conditions.
 
But first, before we can do anything that approaches systemic change, we have to have that comfort within ourselves. The comfort to have courage, the comfort to know that God love is sustaining each of us. Jesus came so that we would know the fullness of God's love for us, even to the point of his own death. We are rapidly approaching the last Sunday of Epiphany, before we begin Lent, our journey with Jesus to the cross. We will journey together in self reflection, thinking about the ways we might need to refocus on our faith journeys. As we prepare to do that hard work, may we go from this place today, knowing that we are so deeply loved, and that God does not give up on us. Instead, God understands our predicament, and sent us Christ to work for our justice. May we share that good news, the love we found, everywhere we go. Thanks be to God.
“New Teachings With Authority and Love”
TRAD sermon for U-CC Waupun, Epiphany 4B,
January 28, 2024
Mark 1: 21-28
 
Focus Statement: Jesus teaches his followers differently from what they have been taught in other places, showing them a way of living that liberates the oppressed and empowers the marginalized.
 
One piece of the experience of having a disability that may not be apparent to those who are without it is the experience of what’s called “internalized ableism.” I could speak about internalized ableism alone for a whole sermon. The easiest way to explain it quickly is that disabled people are given so many assumptions about who they are or their life experience from abled people. In the absence of more empowering language spoken to them, sometimes disabled people will take those things on as part of their own self-talk.
 
For example, one assumption that disabled people often have to unlearn about themselves is that they are a burden to society. Because of the different needs that they have, in a world where people are often pressured to live independent lives, asking for help that “normal people” don’t require is considered to be an inconvenience to another person.
 
When some people experience another person who has a disability, they label their lives as “sad”, or even “pitiful”. I can’t tell you how many well-intentioned people throughout my life have said to me, “I would never be able to go through what you go through every day. You’re so strong. You’re so brave. You’re so inspiring.”
 
When I talk about some of this, you may be shocked that those kinds of things have been said to me, and so many others. But the tragic reality is that these are the kinds of things people are taught about disability, and when that is all you're taught, that's what you're going to tell yourself, or your children, or your children's children. People are going around talking about how living with a disability is so negative, and how people who live with them must live terrible lives. When a disabled person is told those things, for some of us it might go a step further: “Wow, someone just told me they think my life is so hard and so unimaginable. There really must be something ‘wrong’ with me after all.” That’s internalized ableism.
 
I feel I can speak about these kinds of things freely with this congregation, because of the ways that you celebrate my personhood and my ministry, and have told me you enjoy helping me out. This has really made me feel that I can be authentic with you. Your understanding of the interdependence that we share is truly appreciated. But it's important for me to remind anybody who will listen that not everybody who has a disability is treated with the same kind of warmth and compassion.
 
Today, I'm going to start by talking about why talking about preaching on the healing texts is a slippery slope for people who live with disabilities, and end by offering us a piece of this text that can actually be liberating.
 
When confronted with healing narratives like this one, where Jesus cast out a demon, many preachers either avoid touching it with a 10 foot pole, or worse, perpetuate harmful theology around disability. This theology is aided and abetted by people in biblical times being told that they should not associate themselves with people with skin diseases, demons, or other disabilities. After all, people with any kind of disease were considered to be unclean or unworthy of God's love in Biblical times.
 
Understandings around ritual cleanliness were likely perpetuated by the very legal experts that are spoken about in today's text. This is why, for so many people, the healing narratives are so powerful. Jesus cures a disabled person, whether or not they ask for it, and their place in the community is restored. Jesus summons a demon out of a man, and this is what causes the crowd around him to be amazed.
 
For me, in reading this text, we put us a lot of focus on the casting out of the demon. Though we don't entirely know what it means to have a demon inside of us from a medical perspective, some people have interpreted demons like having a mental illness. Unfortunately, as those of us understand if we live with mental illness, or know someone who lives with mental illness, disability and mental illness don't just go away. We understand that Jesus does incredible things that ordinary people couldn't do, and yet, the ways that the healings of Jesus have been misused continue to hurt people with disabilities all too often in our Christian churches.
 
But I do think there's a way to read this text without solely putting the focus on the poor disabled person in the crowd.
 
Toward the end of this passage, the people understand that Jesus is offering new teachings with authority, unlike the tired interpretations of the legal experts. Of course, in this text, Jesus doesn't speak beyond rebuking the demon, but we also know what Jesus cares about by understanding the rest of his public ministry. He turns the world on its head by saying that the poor, the marginalized, the needy, and the oppressed are the ones who benefit most deeply from the blessings of God.
 
Jesus teaches his followers in a different way from what they have been taught in other places, showing them a way of living which liberates the oppressed and empowers the marginalized.
When we read texts like this, and the emphasis is placed on casting out demons, we lose the opportunity to remember the larger point. Jesus came to remind us that God loves us, exactly as we are, and that those who were relegated to the margins would finally have what they needed to live as God intended.
 
Jesus loves us so much that he is willing to redirect our understandings away from what we have been taught in the past, in order to embrace the more inclusive, more just future. When we are willing to be open to new understandings, we can think differently about not only how we talk about disability, but any other human difference.
 
When we recognize that Jesus gives us new understandings with authority, our hearts can be changed and renewed by an incredible love that we could never understand.
 
So, as you go into this week, may you know how deeply loved you are by your creator and your savior. Also, may you be receptive to new teachings and new possibilities as you live a life of faith. Amen.
 
 
 
 
“The Work of Saying Yes”
TRAD sermon for U-CC Waupun
January 21, 2024
Epiphany 3B
 
Focus Statement: It may not always be easy, but when we say yes, to God, not only can our own lives change, but the lives of people around us as well.
 
One of my favorite memories with my dad growing up happened when I was a teenager. We had just gone to the grocery store, which is just a few blocks down from my parents house. It was supposed to be the kind of shopping trip that you go, get a few things, and go back home and you might only be gone for 20 minutes. But this time was different. This time they had a sale on one of dad's and my favorite varieties of potato chips: Cape Cod Sea Salt and Cracked Pepper kettle chips, and it was a good enough sale that we got two or three big bags of them. After we had shopped, we were sitting in the parking lot. Dad started the car, and said to me, “You know, I want a few potato chips before we get home.”
 
I said, “Dad, we’re two minutes from our house.”
 
He goes, “I know. But just a few. Put on some music and we’ll just sit here a minute.”
 
So I put on some music, and he ripped open the bag. We sat there, and we both ate a few. And then a few more. And then a few more. Before we knew it, we had eaten an entire bag of chips sitting in that parking lot while listening to almost an entire CD’s worth of songs. Dad said not to tell Mom when we got home but she found out anyway after the conversation of “what in the world took you so long?”
 
That was such a simple moment of both of us saying yes, but it ended up being one that I will remember forever. It was such a spur of the moment thing, and I remember being so thankful that he had taken the time to do that with me. He had a number of things to do around the house that day, and maybe he didn't get everything done that he meant to, but that moment was special to both of us, and he knew that it was important to spend some special time together.
 
Though this is a funny example, it relates to a common thread of both of our scriptures for today. Each of these scripture passages talk about what might happen if we say yes to one thing and no to something else, and the reward which comes along with that. So, keep that theme in mind as I trace it between each of these passages.
 
First, we will focus on the story of Jonah. Jonah came up in the lectionary a few months ago, so I won't go through the entire story again, but this is the most important part for today. We remember that the Ninevites had done some real harm to their perceived adversaries. They had cheated people out of more than their fair share in taxes, and generally treated them terribly. God is not pleased with how they are acting, and so plans to destroy the city and all of those people in it. But before carrying out this plan, God wants to give them one more chance through the prophet Jonah.
 
Of course, Jonah has already written them off, and delays going to Nineveh to share God's message with the Ninevites, because he believes that there's no way that the Ninevites will listen to God anyway. After Jonah is spit up from the whale, and finally agrees to do what God has asked of him, Jonah is shocked by what happens next. Not only are they receptive to Jonah's message, but they repent from their greed and selfishness immediately. The text says that they put on mourning clothes. This was a common practice of the day to represent a shift from the average every day life to grappling with a new reality. It was a visible sign that something had changed in someone’s life. In this case, the Ninevites show God that they are ready to recommit themselves to following God, changing their hearts and lives to understand what's most important. Although we don't get the benefit of seeing what the Ninevites do after Jonah leaves them, we can imagine that the Ninevites have completely reformed and live in more intentional community. They are saying no to their greed and selfishness, and yes to an existence, that is more just, and more obedient.
 
In a similar way, at the beginning of our gospel text for today, Jesus invites his listeners to change their hearts and lives, and trust in this good news. Through Jesus, God has come to the poor, the needy, the oppressed, and the marginalized, and there will be great joy for all who believe in God, and for some of Jesus, his first messengers, he call, some lowly fisherman. The most amazing thing is they immediately drop their nets and follow Jesus, throwing caution to the wind, and not worrying about the cost. I wonder sometimes what was going through their heads. When Jesus told these fishermen to leave their steady jobs, to leave their families, and to leave everything that they had known to follow him, it could not have been a simple proposition. Like the Ninevites, these fishermen were forced to confront a choice: either except the status quo, or prepare for their lives to potentially be transformed beyond recognition. In the fisherman's case, they gladly chose the latter, and I imagine that their faith gave them great strength in this time of re-orientation.
 
So what can we learn from the Ninevites and the fisherman, who re-orient and re-dedicate their lives to God's work in the world?
 
This is the good news: It may not always be easy, but when we say yes, to God, not only can our own lives change, but the lives of people around us as well.
 
As we go into this week, I wonder what we might be called to say no to in order to say yes to God.
 
In such a contentious election season, for example, we might be called to focus less on what divides us, resisting the urge to put other people in a box, and instead, lean into more intentional community building.
 
In a world where peoples’ differences convince us that we should be allowed to exclude people, we might be called to be more radically inclusive.
 
Finally, in a more rural community like ours, where individuals and families have to make hard decisions about how they will make ends meet, those of us with greater financial stability might be called to be more generous, instead of keeping it for ourselves.
 
Good things, even incredible things, can happen when we do just that. Lives can be transformed, both our own lives, and the lives of those we encounter. And as a result, we will be blessed by the ways that we continue to work towards the will of God. So may you go into this week, prepared to turn and follow God. May you be blessed and challenged in equal measure, knowing that your work to deny your own desires and follow God will change lives for the better. Amen.
 
 
Defying Tyranny, Serving Christ, and Knowing Were Beloved
Sermon for U-CC Waupun, January 7, 2024, Epiphany 1B
 
Focus Statement: Serving Christ sometimes calls us to defy systems of power, which is difficult and even scary. In that work, we know that God loves us and equips us to do the next right thing.
 
A while ago, I talked about some of the camp concerts that I do at Daycholah Center when I am a part of an event called Knock Knock, which is a middle school youth event that happens in the fall of every year. Some of the songs I do have religious themes embedded in them, while other songs are things that they might've heard on the radio or in a musical. As I talk between songs, I like to try to explain why I chose a certain song to be part of the concert, and get them thinking about both the world as it is and how God calls us to share God’s love in the world.
 
At the last concert, that I did there just a few months ago, one of the questions I asked the kids as the concert was going on, was what kinds of people in the world are discriminated against because of who they are. They called out a long list of different groups of people based on race, gender, ethnic background, sexual orientation, ability and disability, and several other identifiers.
 
Part of our job, I told them, is to notice when society is discriminating against people, and trying to do our best to make a positive change.
 
I was really impressed by their perceptions of the world, and in my conversations with them throughout the weekend, they talked a lot about how they’re learning to be better friends and caring people. By continuing to learn to do this, they are trying their best to defy the discrimination that too many people around them experience.
 
One of the dominant themes in the entire Bible has to do with power. Who has it, and to whom it is denied. Throughout Advent and Christmas I talked a lot about how Jesus came to liberate those who had been marginalized and oppressed. Today, I'm going to talk about our own relationship with power, and what we might be called to defy as we usher in the coming of Christ, the light of the world.
 
Today, some churches are celebrating Epiphany Sunday, and most churches are celebrating what's called Baptism of Christ Sunday. The lectionary is a little bit weird this week. As it turns out, I'm breaking the rules a little bit, because the baptism of Christ reading is the same exact reading we've done twice already, so I'm not going to bore you with that again. You’re welcome.
 
Epiphany is the season after Christmas that reminds us that Jesus is the light of the world, and over the course of the next month or so, we will engage biblical texts that spotlight the tension between Jesus and the ruling powers in the places he visits. Baptism of Christ Sunday, on the other hand, recognizes the time when John the Baptist baptized Jesus, and proclaimed his coming.
First, a reminder of how King Herod is related to this story seems important. King Herod, otherwise known as Herod the Great, who is not afraid to torture, or even kill his perceived enemies. Not even his own wife, or sons were spared from this terror. The scripture tells us that Herod was terrified when Jesus was born, and all of Jerusalem with him. He was terrified, because people had proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah. If Jesus was the messiah, Herod would no longer have power. On the other hand, the commentator Audrey West reminds us that everyone in Jerusalem was terrified because they did not want to be caught in the crossfire of the conflict between Jesus and Herod. The birth of Jesus, for so many people symbolized hope in a hopeless world.
 
So Herod asked the magi to do his dirty work for him. He asks them to find where Jesus was born so that he could go and “worship him” also. As you might imagine, Herod really has no interest in worshiping Jesus, but instead he probably wants to kill him. But the magi journey anyway, bringing gifts they feel are fit for a king. They immediately worship him, and they understand the importance of his coming.
 
The most striking piece of the magi’s story for me is that they are warned in a dream, not to return to Herod, so they go home by another way. By doing this, they are making a statement. They understand Jesus to be the true ruler, the true light of the world. Herod doesn't come close.
 
They understood a crucial point, which also serves as are good news for today. Serving Christ sometimes calls us to defy systems of power, which is difficult and even scary. In that work, we know that God loves us and equips us to do the next right thing.
 
Like the kids in my story from earlier pointed out, imbalances of power are all around us. So many different groups of people in this world don't get a fair shake. But we can choose to reject power structures in this world, that demean or oppress, if we are brave enough and bold enough to do the work.
 
Our media song today by Crosby, Stills, and Nash is another example of this. It talks about teaching each other how to live in the world, fostering a better sense of empathy through another's life experiences.
 
And this work isn’t easy. This work can force us to make difficult decisions about what we believe, and how we want to respond to powerful social structures. So we need to remember that we are beloved. The most important part of the baptism of Christ story is that God calls down from the heavens, and says that Jesus is God’s beloved child, and that the world should listen to him.
 
So, as you go into this week, I invite you to think about the kinds of power structures who might be called to defy. Are there any ways that you might be called to speak up, or to go home by another way like the magi did? As you do this important work, may you know that you are beloved, and that, even though this work isn’t easy, it will bring the light of Christ into the world. Amen.
“Hope for the Whole World”
TRAD sermon for U-CC Waupun
Christmas 2B
December 31, 2023
 
Focus Statement: Simeon and Anna’s testimony reminds us that Jesus offers hope for the whole world. Because we have this hope, we can participate in sharing the good news of Christ wherever we go.
 
When I was younger, for whatever reason, I was afraid of death. Those who have studied child psychology often remind us that that's a normal fear for a child, mostly because the way we talk to children about death is oversimplified. When a child asks what it means for a person to die, sometimes an adult’s response is that dying means you go to sleep and don't wake up. Psychologists have warned that children can become afraid of going to sleep at night because they think that they will die instead of waking up in the morning.
 
But my Grandma Nault helped me to not be afraid of dying. As she was aging, and we could see her health declining, I remember asking my grandma, “Aren't you afraid to die?”
 
“No,” she said. “I’m not afraid to die, because when I die, I will get to be with Jesus. I will get to be with my mom and dad, with all my siblings, and I will finally get to spend time with my baby sister Rita, who died when she was just a year old. I've missed Rita so much.”
 
We talked a little bit more, and over time, I think I've gotten to a place where I'm not afraid of dying either. Of course, I hope to live a long life because there are so many things I haven't gotten to do yet. When the time comes, I'm not afraid of what will happen, and I always thank my grandma for the sense of peace I now feel around that.
 
Today's text talks about Simeon, a man who was preparing to die at the time that Jesus was born. Today I am going to talk a lot about his faith and what that can teach us. I'm also going to talk about the prophetess Anna, who doesn't get nearly as much coverage as Simeon does, but his testimony is equally important.
 
First, let's zoom in on Simeon. Luke’s gospel points out that Simeon was righteous and devout. For years, he has been waiting for what this translation calls “the restoration of Isreal.” That's a theme we encounter often in the gospel of Luke, because Israel has been suffocated by oppressive Roman rule. Luke's Gospel wants us to continually remember just how bad regular people of Israel had it. As I talked about last week, both in my Advent and Christmas Eve sermons, the people of Israel deeply needed hope and strength, and they were in need of a better life. The rule of the Roman empire was supremely unfair for people living on the margins. As he approaches his death, Simeon is painfully aware of this reality. But he is also aware that the Holy Spirit has told him that he will not die until he experiences the salvation he has been waiting so eagerly for. So this is why he says, Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, because my eyes have seen your salvation.”
 
Being dismissed in peace is a very deliberate choice of words for Simeon. The commentator Raj Nadella reminds us in his commentary for Working Preacher: “Simeons peace comes not from thinking that everything will be peaceful in light of Jesusarrival—it will not be—but from deep awareness that Jesus will challenge the Roman Empire that offered its own version of peace and reserved it for a select few.”
 
Last week I talked about the ironically named era of Roman peace, which promised a peaceful and prosperous existence for those of the top and excessive violence for those at the bottom. But Simeon understands that Jesus is going to flip the script, comforting the needy, marginalized and oppressed. So Simeon can finally go in peace, knowing that, even though things may not always be peaceful, the Israelites will at least have a fighting chance at a better life now.
 
Now, we will set aside Simeon for just a moment and talk about the prophetess Anna.
Like other female messengers in the Bible, Anna's testimony is treated differently from her male counterparts. Luke's Gospel does not offer the words of Anna as it offers the words of Simeon. Instead, almost as an afterthought, Luke's Gospel introduces Anna to the story by saying, “There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, who belonged to the tribe of Asher.” She was at least as as devoted as Simeon was, and maybe more. The gospel says she never left the temple, and worships God with fasting and praising on a daily basis. According to another commentator, Holly Huron, she fasts because she is in mourning for the people of God. After all, since the people of God have been so oppressed, they have lost many reasons to be helpful. But upon seeing Jesus, Anna's mourning turns to unrelenting praise! At the very moment she sees Jesus, everything comes together for her. She sees all the hope and all the possibility that Jesus will bring to the world, and she no longer has to live in this mournful state. 
 
The commentator Nadella reminds us that Anna is the prophet here, not Simeon, even though Anna’s message is overshadowed by Simeon’s ecstatic and relieved declaration.
 
What can we learn from these two examples of deep faith?
 
My friends, this is the good news. Simeon and Annas testimonies remind us that Jesus offers hope for the whole world. Because we have this hope, we can participate in sharing the good news of Christ wherever we go.
 
In a way, my Grandma Nault was a prophet to me. Like the testimonies of Simeon and Anna, my grandma offered a testimony to the good news of Jesus Christ in her life, and what that could mean for me. Also like Simeon and Anna, some of her greatest testimonies of the presence of Jesus, the most important testimonies of her faith came to me when she was nearing her own transition from this life to life eternal.
 
But here at Union-Congregational Church, we don't have to wait until we are close to our deaths. We can share the good news of Jesus Christ here, and now.
 
There are many ways our church mirrors the testimony of Simeon, for example. Many people from this congregation have told me powerful stories of how they have seen the love and presence of Jesus at work in their lives, and how they feel empowered to share his message in the community.
 
Equally, there are many ways that this church mirrors the life and ministry of the prophetess Anna. In our Christian education department, the vast majority of the people who are preparing our children for a life of faith our women. Women hold important leadership positions in our congregation, something which many churches wouldn't embrace. And in the wider United Church of Christ, there is a growing number of female clergy, many of whom I count as my greatest mentors in the profession.
 
And yet, there is much work to do. As much as we appreciate the testimony of Simeon, we must also elevate the message of Anna. Because all of us, regardless of gender or experience, have important messages to share. Since we know the good news of Jesus benefits everyone, our job becomes to go and share it.
 
So, as you go this week, may you take heart in the incredible love and presence of Jesus Christ in your life. And may you be prepared to go share that news wherever you go. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

“Good News of Great Joy…Really”
U-CC Waupun, Christmas Eve 2023
December 24, 2023
 
Focus Statement: No matter what the world is facing, or what is going on in our own hearts, Christ’s birth can remind us that joy is still possible.
 
When I was a kid, we used to spend Christmas with my grandma in North Carolina. The 18-hour drive from Neenah, Wisconsin to Chapel Hill. North Carolina was always full of anticipation. This was the one time every year we got to go to Grandma’s house, and so there would be some of our favorite foods, lots of love and laughter, and a sassy southern woman wearing a Santa hat saying (in Grandma voice) “Murry Christmas!” upon our arrival! She would labor for days to decorate her house to the nines, because she was so excited for our arrival, and my parents always hyped my sister and I up for the adventure.
 
Of course, the trip would often have its share of ups and towns. 18 hours in the back of the van wasn’t easy for any kid. You can ask my dad about the wooden divider that he built for between my sister and I so that we wouldn't fight in the car on the way there!
 
But I have so many good memories of that time, sharing Christmas Eve service at my grandma's beloved Binkley Baptist Church, enjoying hours-long catch ups with my aunt and uncle and cousins.
 
Part of what made that trip so enjoyable every year was that it always came at just the right time. In the ups and downs of whatever it happened that year—school troubles, loved ones dying, best friends moving away— we always knew at the end of it, that we were going to Grandma’s house. Grandma’s house was a special place, and there was always joy there, no matter what was happening in other parts of our lives.
 
It's no secret, that, for many of us, aspects of these last few years have not been easy. The “good news of great joy” the Gospel of Luke proclaims may run counter to what some of us actually experience. Many people in Waupun and the surrounding areas are struggling to make ends meet. Other people around the world are also struggling; Jesus’ birthplace of Betlehem, a city in the state of Palestine, is embroiled in war and conflict. Many people are fearful, and could use some good news.
 
Any of us who are fearful, or who are pained by the difficulties in the world around us, are in good company with the people of biblical times. To understand that, there are two separate realities we need to contend with.
 
First, Jesus was born under the fog of oppressive government occupation. Caesar Augustus decreed that everyone needed to return to their hometown to be registered to be taxed. Far beyond monetary taxation, produce, and other goods were also taxed, and some people were forced into labor for the government. These taxes ensured the wealth of the rich, and the suffering of the poor in equal measure. Further, the ironically named era of Roman peace ensured a peaceful lifestyle for those at the top, and excessive violence for those on the margins. So often we forget that Jesus's birth was an existential threat to the status quo. If Jesus was understood to be the true king, the power of Herod and Caesar would become irrelevant. Worshiping Jesus, therefore, necessarily meant defying Herod and Caesar at one’s own peril.
 
The second reality is the fear that Mary and Joseph were experiencing. I can only imagine the courage that it took for Mary to carry and give birth to Jesus under such stress, worry, and pain. When Mary sings her song earlier in the gospel of Luke, I wonder if it came through tears. And I wonder how angry, frustrated, and scared Mary was when Joseph couldn't find a room for her to deliver Jesus, when she was actively in labor. As if that wasn't enough, Mary understood how the birth of her son would radically change the world, and how she needed to raise him to do God's will no matter what happened. The enormous pressure for both Mary and Joseph is something the Bible only addresses briefly, a far cry from her peaceful and picture perfect birth story many of us like to believe.
But even amid all this fear, even as the birth of Jesus totally upset the political and social structures of the day, the birth of Jesus brought joy. So much joy. A tiny baby brought joy that could not be contained, and hope for a world that so badly needed it.
 
 So, what do we do with that when we are so keenly aware of the suffering of the world around us, or the suffering of our loved ones, or even our own suffering?
 
This is the good news. No matter what the world is facing, or what is going on in our own hearts, Christ’s birth can remind us that joy is still possible.
 
In fact, joy is not just possible. Joy is resistance.
 
Joy is resistance because the talking heads on the news want us to believe that there's no hope left. Joy is resistance because it cannot be taken away by those who have power over us.
 
Joy was resistance for an unwed teenage mother, a young carpenter, some shepherds, and the Magi. And in the same way, joy is resistance for the single parent recovering from tragedy, or the person discovering their identity even as our social structures try to keep them quiet. Joy is resistance because it’s accessible to everyone, not just the rich, the powerful, and the privileged. The last, the lost, the least, the marginalized and the oppressed can resist the culture of doom they are so often subjected to, and trust in God’s care and provision for them. Joy is resistance because a tiny baby changed the world forever.
 
I will admit that it's not always so simple. Just last night, I myself was struggling to find the good news as I prepared my message for tonight. Sometimes we preach the message we ourselves need to hear. The world is hard, and it’s so messy, and it’s so complicated.
 
But there is still joy to be found, whether you’re like me as a young kid, finding joy at the end of the year by spending Christmas with Grandma, or whether you’re finding joy in another way.
 
May you know that God’s good news of great joy is for your benefit, and that joy can overpower fear. Once you’ve found that to be true for yourself, may you go and tell it on a mountain, over the hills and everywhere. These are hard times, and the world needs the joy in your heart. Amen.
 
 
 
 
 
 
“Good News For All Time”
Advent 4B sermon, U-CC Waupun, 12/24/23
 
Focus Statement: We can magnify and declare God’s work in our lives in many ways. As we approach Christmas, how will we do that?
 
Part of the reason I initially went to college wanting to be a music teacher was because I felt that a career totally devoted to music was the best way to honor the gifts that God has given me. I wanted to share my gift of music with the next generation, and hopefully instill the passion that I have for that work with others. That’s why I initially felt cheated when it didn’t work out to get into the music education program, all because I couldn’t pass a math competency test! But I can honestly say now that I'm doing work that I feel called to do, in serving the church. I still get to use my musical abilities, just in a different way than I expected.
 
Sometimes God surprises us with how God will use our lives to “magnify”, or honor God. Today, I have a shorter message for this morning’s service that is more tailored to the Advent lectionary. We’re going to be looking at two different songs in the Bible, and how they exemplify ways of praising God.
 
We’re going to start with the Psalm that Christina read for us. Most biblical historians understand the book of Psalms to be written with skinning in mind, rather than reading in the poetic way we read them. This can be reinforced through the psalm’s opening verse:
 
“I will sing of the Lords loyal love forever.
    I will proclaim your faithfulness
    with my own mouth
    from one generation to the next.”
 
The psalmist further recalls all of the wonderful things God has done for them. Then the perspective shifts to God speaking, telling of all the wonderful ways God will be with David. This is common in the psalm form, to have God responding to the Psalmist in psalms of praise. This ends with the final verse:
 
He will cry out to me:
    “You are my creator,
    my God, the rock of my salvation.”
 
Next, Mary’s song follows much the same form as the Psalm. It has some beautiful language in the first couple verses:
 
Mary said,
With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
47 In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
48 God has looked with favor on the low status of God’s servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
49 because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is God’s name.
 
What makes Mary’s song special is that she understands God’s actions to dismantle power structures:
 
God has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
52 God has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.
53 God has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed.
 
Mary understood how the birth of her son would radically change the world, and how she needed to raise him to do God's will no matter what happened. The enormous pressure for both Mary and Joseph is something the Bible only addresses briefly, a far cry from her peaceful and picture perfect birth story many of us like to believe.
But even amid all this fear, even as the birth of Jesus totally upset the political and social structures of the day, the birth of Jesus brought joy. So much joy. A tiny baby brought joy that could not be contained, and hope for a world that so badly needed it.
 
 
 
So, we’ve very briefly examined multiple different songs and how they were used to glorify God and God’s presence in their lives.
 
The question I want to leave you with is this: how will you glorify, or magnify, God in your lives as we head into the Christmas season?
 
Many of us aren’t singers or musically inclined but all of us have important gifts to share. As I’ve worked with you in the last year, I’ve seen God at work in this congregation in more ways than I can count. Your deep heart for service. Your care and compassion for one another. These are only a few. And as individuals, your gifts are as varied as you are.
 
So may you be empowered to glorify God in all the ways you can, so that God’s greatness may be revealed in you. Amen.

 

“The Worlds Heartache and the Joy of Christ”
Advent 3B, December 17, 2023
TRAD sermon for U-CC Waupun
 
Focus Statement: Jesus comes to liberate the brokenhearted and marginalized, and if we believe that to be true, our call is to enact Christ’s liberation in the world.
 
I don't know about you, but for whatever reason this year, I’ve found preparing for Christmas to be more complicated than in years past. I only just finished my Christmas shopping, and everything will just barely arrive in time. As I was writing the sermon, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” came on my radio, and it struck me as out of place. There’s been a great deal of war and conflict and despair in the world, and turning on the news seems to be especially difficult right now. If we aren't talking about wars on the other side of the world, we're talking about political mudslinging, or a mental health epidemic. In conversations, I've had with various people, that comes out in having less of a desire to decorate our houses, or recognizing that our holidays are going to be different this year for one reason or the other.
 
It feels kind of ironic to be talking about lighting a candle of joy this week, especially in a time like this. As I think about my own life, there's a lot that I can still find joy in, but part of me resonates with the difficulty others feel in finding that joy.
 
(“Wow, the week before Christmas and our pastor is such a downer.”) Don’t worry, it gets better.
 
If anything can provide the antidote for what is seemingly a joyless world, scriptures, like these are it. The words from the prophet Isaiah are quite stirring. In fact, they are so compelling to Jesus’ own message that this very text from Isaiah are among the first words that Jesus quotes to begin his public ministry. According to Luke's Gospel, he would later say, Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”
 
Jesus promises release to the captives, support for the brokenhearted, and the day of the Lord's favor coming near. But as I was thinking about what I wanted to share today, I remember that we hear the same words every year in some form or fashion. If we hear the same words all the time, as powerful as they are, they can lose a little bit of their meaning if we don't think about what they mean in our lives today.
 
When we read texts like this, it's important for us to remember the context of the biblical moment. In this text, the speaker is comforting a deeply weary people. The people of biblical times were living at a subsistence level, barely having enough money and other basic resources to make ends meet. But part of what makes the coming of Jesus so revolutionary and compelling is that he will transform the entire social order into something that is in better alignment with God’s desires for the world.
 
In one sense, the transformation of the world is literal. In verse 4, the Isaiah text says,
“They will rebuild the ancient ruins;
    they will restore formerly deserted places;
    they will renew ruined cities,
    places deserted in generations past.”
 
But more often, this passage talks about people.Later on in verse 9, the text says:
“Their offspring will be known among the nations,
    and their descendants among the peoples.
All who see them will recognize
    that they are a people blessed by the Lord.”
 
A modern reading of this text could suggest that Jesus is coming to break down the barriers which prevent us from experiencing the goodness of beloved community together.
 
Who are the people who could use liberation? For whom does the day of God’s favor apply?
 
For me, a modern application of this text would include many people who are oppressed and marginalized in our own communities. When I think about my own life and my own development, as a child, I think about all the barriers that so many people helped me break down, so that I could succeed as a person with a disability. There was no illusion that the disability was going to go away, or that I could be successful in spite of my disability. Instead, the people who were at my side, rejected the notion that the world around me could not adjust to accommodate, or embrace me for the person that I am.
 
Beyond my own experience, there are so many others. Part of the liberation that Jesus might promise is for the teen in the LGBTQ plus community, discerning how they will live into their fullest, truest self. Maybe it's for those discriminated on the basis of their race, or gender, who have long fought for equal representation in the workplace, or in other public spaces.
 
Our gospel for today is another version of the text from last week, where John recognizes that Jesus is coming to do, justice, kind of liberation that the Isaiah, Texas talking about. For John, Jesus is the one who will come to baptize, liberate, and set free. People sent by the Pharisees are asked to question his authority, because indeed, this message is so revolutionary.
 
But this is how we can find the joy in a seemingly joyless world. Jesus comes to liberate the brokenhearted and marginalized, and if we believe that to be true, our call is to enact Christ’s liberation in the world.
 
Because of the amazing work, that Jesus did in the world, and continues to do through all of us, systems are transformed, societies are made more inclusive, and peoples lives are changed. It's in those moments, when we can act for lasting change in the world. The people who have been demeaned and denied by oppressive human systems Will be empowered to rejoice in God’s goodness. In the promises of God, and in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, real people, find liberation, hope, and joy.
 
Here at Union-Congregational Church, the work that we do for our community can provide joy to a world where Joy is hard to find. Just last week, Becky came into my office and told me how blown away the school district was to receive our donations of shoes from our children's program. Members of our congregational care committee made, and delivered cookies to people on our visitation list, to provide them with some much-needed holiday cheer when they otherwise might have felt fairly isolated. Members of our church are part of bringing joy to the world every day, and I continue to feel so blessed that I get to be your pastor and watch you make the world better in big and small ways.
 
So, even though joy is hard to find sometimes, and even though this holiday season, things, feel more complicated, may we go from this place, remembering that the liberating message of Jesus Christ is always the same. The life and ministry of Jesus gave power to the powerless and hope to the brokenhearted. And because the life and ministry of Jesus are so compelling to us, it is our joy to give back to those in need, especially in times like this. So may you be empowered to change the world in your own small ways, so that the world around you can be transformed by revolutionary love. May it be so. Amen.
“Someday at Christmas”
TRAD sermon for UCC Waupun, Advent 2B
Isaiah 40: 1-11, Mark 1: 1-8
December 10, 2023
 
Focus statement: In this Advent season, God is preparing our hearts to respond so that God’s way and hope for the world can be realized.
Behavioral purpose: “Someday at Christmas”, with God’s help, God’s way for the world will be realized; how can we respond so that “someday” is “someday soon?”
 
I always love our media team meetings. I have to tell you that we have a group of deeply faithful people on that team, who are always willing to ask difficult questions of the text, and yes, even of their pastor! (And that’s a good thing…they keep me on my toes!)
 
But the central question we were all asking ourselves is a very serious one. How do we prepare for Christmas when so much is going on in the world?
 
Multiple countries that our own country has an interest in are engaged in brutal war and conflict. The political climate in our country in next year’s election cycle is looking more disgusting and scary with each passing day (it matters not to me which side you’re on; I would say it looks bad no matter who you’re voting for).
 
 
And that's precisely why today's Scripture passage is so important. Like the people in biblical times, we are thirsty for hope. In the midst of desolation and despair, we would be right to ask, “where is God?”
 
Then, a voice comes from the heavens, saying, “Comfort, comfort my people! Here is your God!”
The scripture tells us of the many ways that our world will be changed, that the very earth we live upon will be re-formed. The valleys will be raised up, the mountains and hills made low, and the rough places plain. God is preparing the world for hope and peace in ways we cannot imagine.
 
Then comes, I think, the most important part: “the Lord's glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together.” We would know it when we saw it, because the world would be turned upside down for the better. God is depicted as a protector and a provider for those most vulnerable. God will tend to God's flock like a shepherd: feeding them so everyone has enough, always leaving the 99 to look for the one, and leading them along the good paths of justice, righteousness and peace.
 
Anyone who reads the New Testament in light of the Old Testament will understand the coming of the Lord to be accomplished in the coming of Jesus. In the Gospel reading that was paired with this Old Testament reading we have just heard, John the Baptist is saying that someone greater than him is coming to baptize the world with things greater than water. Jesus was coming to dismantle oppressive structures, and interrupt patterns that disenfranchised those at the bottom, in favor of a world that more closely aligned to the will of God: comprehensive well-being for all humanity, and all creation. John the Baptist was saying that someday, things would be better for the people who relied on God for refuge and strength.
 
This was how the people in biblical times found hope. After the suffering and oppression they have endured, there was hope in the understanding that someone was coming to liberate them, and teach them how to live in right relationship with one another in the world.
 
These days, there's a lot that needs to be done for our society to be the way that God wants it to be. We understand that the work that needs to be done now is similar in many ways to the kind of work that needed to be done in biblical times to achieve that justice. Dismantling the systems that provide privilege and protection for those with power. Equal opportunity regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or ability. Living simply so that others may simply live.
 
These are the kinds of things that God wills for our world, and even after all this time, I still think that God believes in us to do the things that need to be done. But in order to do those things, we need to name them.
 
Stevie Wonder’s song, “Someday at Christmas”, both lives into that hope that someday, things will be better, and also names the things we need to do to make it so. This song was written during the Vietnam War, and is considered one of the first Christmas songs to have a social and political message.
 
The passage in Isaiah and this song complement each other well. I'd like to talk about some common themes between the two.
 
Stevie sings for a world “where all are free”, “where people are equal and none have fear.” The Isaiah passage says that the glory of the Lord will come near, and all humanity will see it together. This means that all of humanity will not see God's glory together until everybody has been liberated. Until all the forms of oppression which are rampant in our society are no more. The mouth of God has spoken that God wills peace and justice for all humanity.
 
Stevie sings for a world “where people care”, with “no hungry children.” It is not the will of God that some should go hungry while others have more than what they need.
It is not the will of God that the line of cars at food banks stretches for miles. A world that aligns with God’s vision is one where everybody has enough, and we care for the well-being of each other.
 
Stevie sings that this may not come in time for you and me. The arc of the moral universe is very, very long.
Of course, the entire world won't be totally reformed to God's will in time for all of us to experience it, but it seems important to remind ourselves of the part we can play in making it so.
 
We will always have work to do to achieve the kind of right relationship with each other that God wills for us. We will always have work to do to dismantle the oppressive systems that continue to inform how we live in community with one another.
 
Someday at Christmas”, with Gods help, Gods hope for the world will be realized; how can we respond so that someday” might instead besomeday soon?”
 
I dont have to tell you that it doesnt help to say that someday race and ethnicity won’t be a deciding factor in how we treat others”, someday we will solve the hunger and housing crises in Waupun”, someday we will create greater access for disabled people”, someday women will have equal opportunities in society”, . We can do work today that will make real lives better tomorrow, or next week, or next year.
 
The only way for things to be better someday” is for you and me to take real steps towards lasting change today. Like the old Hebrew proverb says, You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
 
In this Advent season, God is preparing our hearts to respond so that Gods hope for the world can be realized. We celebrate the coming of Jesus every year and ask Jesus to show us the way.
 
My friends, this is the way. Hate will be gone and love will prevail. No hungry children. All people are free.
 
When that happens, the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all humanity will see it together. The mouth of God has spoken it.
 
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 
 
 
“Meeting Christ In Our Neighbor”
TRADITIONAL sermon for U-CC Waupun
Reign of Christ, Year A, Matthew 25:31-46
November 26, 2023
 
Focus Statement: as we wrap up this Thanksgiving weekend and set our faces towards Advent, we recognize the call of Jesus to love the least in our communities.
 
I recently found a story on a website I browse periodically called upworthy.com. Upworthy posts stories from around the world that give commentary on social issues. Sometimes those stories remind us of the positive moments of people making a meaningful difference in the world. Other times these stories offer stark reminders of the work that still needs to be done in our society. This particular story is one that I've wanted to share for a while, but needed to find the right moment to share it effectively.
 
This story out of Ontario, Canada follows a woman by the name of Danielle and a man by the name of Brian. You’ll see a picture of them on the screen.
 
Danielle owns a farm and employs many workers to keep it running. One day, she encountered Brian sitting on the street corner, reading a book and collecting change. Brian was experiencing homelessness and told Danielle his story. He told her about his journey as a recovering drug addict, surviving abuse, and losing two wives—one wife died in a car crash and one died from cancer. It was so clear that Brian needed a win.
 
Danielle was so moved by Brian's story and wanted to help Brian. But she didn't just give him a few dollars and go on her merry way. She offered him a job at her family Farm, asking him to start work the very next day. If that wasn't enough, she organized in the community to help him get some basic financial support, a phone, and a hotel room to stay at. They are now looking for a more permanent housing situation for Brian, supported by generous donations from around the world.
 
Of course, there are far too many stories in the world like this one, and it's easy to get discouraged by the enormity of the world’s problems. Even without looking past our own community, we know of people who are struggling to make ends meet. Our country is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and yet not everybody has the same opportunities. Some of the circumstances people face result from their own decision-making, but many result from unexpected circumstances or untenable situations. So today, I'm going to talk about how Jesus calls us to respond to the needs of the world, and what was most important to Christ in his ministry.
 
I will admit that the theological significance of Reign of Christ Sunday can be tricky for some of us. Most of the theological backbone of this Sunday has to do with the desire for Christ to reign in power throughout the world, and for Christ's teachings to govern as much of the social order as possible. As much as I personally find the teachings of Jesus Christ deeply compelling (I wouldn’t be a Christian pastor if I didn’t), I am sensitive to my many colleagues who profess other faiths, or no faith. Christians don't have a monopoly on good moral judgment, and in fact, very hurtful things are done in the name of Christianity every day. Christianity has infiltrated our political system and affected our social attitudes in dangerous ways. Anti-LGBTQ legislation at state, local, and federal levels alienate people and prevent them from living fully into who God has created them to be. People with various mental illnesses are told that if they just prayed more or if they just accepted Jesus more fully into their lives that all their problems would go away. Those of us who are advocates for mental health care or have experienced mental illness know it doesn’t work that way. We qualify that it’s an open communion table at our church precisely because sacraments have been denied far too often to far too many people. In sum, I think the commentator John Buchanan says it best:
 
“The God of Jesus, the God of the Bible, is not a remote supreme being on a throne up there above the clouds or out there somewhere in the mysterious reaches of the universe. Jesus said, God is here, in the messiness and ambiguity of human life. God is here, particularly in your neighbor, the one who needs you. You want to see the face of God? Look into the face of the least of these, the vulnerable, the weak, the children.”
 
In fact, Jesus uses how we respond to the needs of those around us as a litmus test for who will receive the greatest blessings God can give. Jesus puts people into the two categories of sheep and goats. The sheep symbolize those who follow the ways of Jesus, and the goats symbolize those who don’t. The entirety of Matthew’s gospel looks toward the day where Jesus will judge the righteous and the unrighteous, those who have understood the assignment and those who have not. He says, “Then the king will reply to them, I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.” 
 
As we wrap up this Thanksgiving weekend and set our faces towards Advent, we recognize the call of Jesus to love the least in our communities.
 
Danielle, from my story earlier, understood the assignment. The way she helped Brian and rallied the community to do the same. As a result, Brian had a real chance to restart his life and do meaningful work in the world. Danielle also insisted that her generosity wasn’t simply an act of charity. Their friendship was an equal blessing to her as well. On top of that, the local community had an opportunity to contribute to the restorative work of supporting a person in need as he found his way again.
 
Maybe we won’t have the opportunity to help in such a specific way, being able to put a name to the need, but we have so many important needs in our community. We have meaningful ways to support people we may never meet. Through organizations like REACH Waupun, Church Health Services, the Food Pantry, and others, we can provide everything from basic needs for clothing and food to dental and mental healthcare to valuable companionship.
 
As we await the coming of Christ, what kind of community care might you be called to do? How will you share love with those who need it the most? Together, we are called to love others as generously as God has loved us. The people the rest of the world casts aside might be the very same people Christ asks us  to love the most. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 
 
TRADITIONAL sermon for U-CC Waupun

Message: “Use It or Lose It”

Guest Preacher: John O'Donovan

November 19, 2023

Trying to understand what Scripture is trying to tell us can be difficult at times. Our reading today was one such time. Why was the Master so upset that one servant saved his money? He didn’t lose it, it wasn’t stolen. In most people’s eyes, this would be a success.
But when you get a chance to meditate and roll it around in your mind, some ideas open up to you. Recently I gave a sermon at the Christian Home about Spiritual Gifts, and it clicked in my head that this reading could relate to that. Mind you several topics could be drawn out from these words but I want to tell you about what I see with them.
We are all different, we are all individuals, you are an original, and thank God for that. Can you imagine what it would be like if we were all the same, how boring! Everyone would be good at doing the same thing, like the same stuff, and do the same actions. Also, a lot of other things wouldn’t get done if we were all the same because no one would know how to do them.
Being different people means that we have had different life experiences and with those different life experiences, different abilities, and different educations, we each have unique and individual abilities or as our reading states have been given a number of coins to see what we can do with them.
Money is sometimes referred to as talents in the Bible, and I like that because your spiritual gift in the current age can be referred to as a talent you have.
What are some of these gifts or talents that Scripture and I are talking about? Wisdom, speech, interpretation, faith; and let me add a few others, compassion, caring, friendship, mediator, and I can imagine all of you can add even more.
When most people acknowledge their talent they try to downplay it saying it came out of nowhere, or it’s just something I’m good at. Very seldom do they say it is from God and the Spirit.
But yet it has to be from the Spirit - - who else could have given you this gift? 
Several times when I have sat down to write a service, some thoughts and ideas come out that I know on my own I don’t have the ability or skill to create, but there they are. I have been given a gift, a talent, or a coin that I need to invest in because it has been given to me by the “master.”
All of us have been given talents; and as our reading states, not everyone is given the same or same amount, however, that does not make one’s talent better or less than another’s.
The world and this community and congregation need a variety of gifts or talents to keep us level, sane, protected and comforted. Once again, people will know if we are Christians not just by our words, but more importantly by what we do and how we treat others and use what we have been given.
I know this has happened to you too. The right word, the right action, doing something just at the right time, these actions have to be the Holy Spirit’s influence - the utilizing and using of the talents that the Spirit has given us,  and your gifts are special, and thank God you have them.
When there is a chance for talents to combine LOOK OUT! 
Just look around here. We have accompanists sharing their gifts, we have educators sharing their gifts, administrators, leaders, singers, prayers, preachers, and volunteers all sharing their talents.
This place is special- - a place that allows people of all abilities and walks of life to use and share their talents with others. A place like no other. A place of refuge;  or as Katy Perry's song says, the rainbow after the hurricane -  and it is that way because of people using their talents, and using them together with one another.
The reading doesn’t state what decisions the property owner went through to determine how many coins each servant got, or that those gifts are for women or these are for men, or a person at this age can only have this, or that they can’t change or increase.  
The only limit - - would be the one you put on yourself or - - that you let others put on you. The only limitation was that they needed to be put to use.
The last verse bothered me, if I believe the property owner is God and the Spirit, then how can they be accused basically of theft of what others have planted? 
In doing more research, I found this. Note that the one who did not use his talents is the one accusing the property owner. 
Just as some people who are found not to be doing what they should try to come up with excuses or lay the blame on others, this servant accuses the property owner of being harsh and a thief, thus it wasn’t his fault that hid his talent instead of using it. Please don’t go this route when you realize what your talent or talents are- - instead, invest them in the world.
Like a muscle, the more you use your talent, the stronger it gets and the more comfortable you are with it. You don’t have to do anything life-shattering or perform miracles, if you can do this, good for you and go for it, however, the right word, your presence, your voice, these too are gifts, important talents, and at the times they are needed are invaluable to the one you are sharing them with. 
What someone thinks is “ a little thing “ can be an important talent. Just as the property owner stated to the employee with one talent, he would have been happy if at least the servant had put his talent in the bank and it had earned interest. 
Or to look at this in a religious sense, maybe your talent is to just plant a seed, but from that idea who knows what will grow? Doing something - can be better than doing nothing.
So please share your gifts; and your talents, don’t bury them because you are scared,- you and your gifts are special, and it would be a loss if you and your talents were not shared with this congregation, this community,  and all of God’s communities. God and the Spirit have given you these talents to be used and shared, so go out and use them.
AMEN
“What God Wants the Most”
TRAD sermon for U-CC Waupun
Pentecost 24A, Amos 5:18-24
November 12, 2023
 
Focus Statement: God doesn’t want worship and piety which is disconnected with justice. Instead, God asks for our hearts to be open to the vulnerable and marginalized people in the world.
 
Some of you know by now that I'm a procrastinator, and after hearing the Amos text for today, and you might share my initial difficulty with it. I chose it because I think it's an important reminder for us to consider why we do what we do. Especially on a day like today, when we join together in service to the water community after church, it seems important to have a reminder of what can happen when we get focused on the wrong things.
 
One of the most important elements of this text revolves around worship. On my personal Facebook page yesterday, I asked for responses to a question to help me write today’s message. I asked a question that is on the one hand a very simple question, and on the other hand, maybe not quite so simple at all. The question was: “Why is going to worship important to you?”
 
As you might imagine, the kinds of responses I received were as varied as the people on my friends list.
 
For one individual, going to worship helps them think more deeply about scripture, and gives them something to chew on throughout the rest of their week.
 
For another individual, even though they can pray and be in worship in private, attending worship with a community helps them be reminded of God’s love for them and empowers them to do God’s work in the world.
 
For another individual, attending worship helps them discover things. Experiencing change, experiencing new perspectives, or experiencing a new piece of art or music for the first time in the context of a worship service helps them feel closer to God, and belonging to the body and work of Christ.
 
Finally, for another individual, being in worship allows us to open ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit within us in a special way.
 
I don't want to put anybody on the spot, but would anyone else like to share? (wait for responses)
 
These are all good answers. There is a great deal of truth in what these individuals have voiced. In many ways, the responses of these individuals exemplify exactly what worship should do when done correctly. But the critique from the prophet Amos is that the Israelites might be doing this for other reasons.
In this text, Amos is accusing the Israelites of what I would call “performative worship”. In a way, the words “performative worship” might seem like theological buzzwords, so I'm going to try to explain what I mean by that.
 
Have you ever been to a church service that feels like it may be too rehearsed, too reliant on ritual, or too sleek? Some people have described a megachurch experience like this, where the praise and worship music is more a show of the singer’s talents than an opportunity for the congregation to join in song. Sometimes the theology is deeply emotionally manipulative, and harmful, especially to marginalized groups. Even worse is the tendency of some of those pastors to preach on things like the prosperity gospel and owning private jets, while they hide some pretty egregious misconduct.
 
Performative worship makes us feel good about ourselves, rather than actually doing the hard work that God asks of us. For Amos, worship cannot possibly be pleasing to God if it does not empower God's people to do justice, to do God’s work in the world. If worship doesn't ask us to do more, we are not truly worshiping the God of love and justice, only the idea of God made in our own image.
 
That's why the God of Amos says God doesn’t want burned offerings or loud, showy music. Instead, God rages, saying that instead the people of God should pursue justice, until everyone has what they need. God seems to make it very clear that God wants our hearts to be attuned to the justice that God wills. In our prayers, in our worship, in the ways we live our lives, we must always be considering what's most important to God.
 
In our gospel text for today in Jesus tells a parable which teaches pretty much the same lesson. Advent is coming, which is the time of year that anticipates the coming of the Christ child into the world once again. The revolutionary miracle of this tiny child coming to save the world from itself. But Jesus says that, since we don't know the day or the hour that God will come into our midst, we need to be sure that we are pursuing God's justice all the time, not just on Sundays. In our prayers, in our worship, in the ways we live our lives, we must always be considering what's most important to God.
 
God doesn’t want worship and piety which is disconnected with justice. Instead, God asks for our hearts to be open to the vulnerable and marginalized people in the world.
 
To return to some of peoples’ comments that I received, a theme that emerges over and over is that people believe the Holy Spirit invites them to turn their worship into witness, and their prayers into actions. To quote the theologian Rob Bell, “Don't ask God to feed someone who is hungry when you have plenty of food.”
 
In the service Sunday activities that our missions committee has prepared for us, we get the opportunity to do just the kind of work that the scripture is referring to. We have a meaningful alternative than just writing a check, or putting money into an offering plate. Even though the nonprofits and other organizations in our communities desperately need our financial donations, this is a day that we have the opportunity to do some more boots-on-the-ground work. There are various activities which turn our attention to the needs of our community. The need for God's comfort to be with them. The need for human connection to one another. The need to break down barriers which actively prevent people from having what they need.
 
As you go into this week, I invite you to think about how are you can continue seeking justice in the world. How can you join the work of love and liberation which is happening around you?
 
May you leave worship this week and every week, challenged and empowered to do more than just pray for justice. Indeed, we are the hands and feet of God, and there are so many ways that we can continue to pursue justice in our every day activities. So let's get to work. Let's be part of the justice and liberation that God asks of us. Amen.
“What Saints Teach Us”
Sermon for U-CC Waupun, All Saints Day 2023
November 5, 2023
 
Focus Statement: From the saints in our lives, we learn how our faith is best lived, and work toward that faith until we reach the blessed rest that God has prepared for us.
 
Since I got here, I have done six funerals for this congregation. In each situation, I've learned a great deal about the life of this congregation through them. Some of those beloveds who have died in this last year served on committees. Some sang in our choir. Some could always be counted on to prepare casseroles when people were sick or otherwise in need.
 
I personally had known some people better than others, so much of my learning was through family connections, and the stories this congregation told me. Each person had a particular life experience, with joys, struggles, and pain, but I want to reflect on some of the commonalities I experienced in talking with their families, and what I think we can all learn, as we both grieve their losses and remember their lives with love. (Don't worry. Since we have such a full day today, I'll keep this short.)
 
The revelation text begins by providing us with a glimpse of what heaven might be like. A chorus of those who have gone before us, and the angels, alongside the Lamb of God. It begins with a stark image of everybody in white robes, which have been washed by the blood of the Lamb. In his commentary, M. Eugene Boring (yes, that’s his actual name) points out that the people of God are not simply conquering their own death. That would be too easy. It's a celebration that Christ himself conquered death, and because all of these people believe in Christ, they enter into eternal life with him. There is perfect peace. No pain, only praise.
 
The Revelation text also points out that the people of God have been through hardship. Their existence on earth has brought them many challenges. But they have come to great reward.
 
As we think of the people in this congregation who have died in this last year, and maybe even others who are on our hearts, it's natural to think about the different challenges that they all faced. Sometimes this life is not easy or kind, and we know that the rain falls on both the just and the unjust. But we give thanks that for those who have died, trial and tribulation have ended.
 
And so this leaves us, living in the world and moving forward without those we love. This day is both a painful reminder of our own mortality and also a day filled with hope for the comfort of eternal life to come. We would do well to think about what we could learn from the dearly departed of our lives. How could we live by their example?
At the outset, the Beatitudes may not seem to be the most natural tie-in to a day like this, but indeed, it is the kind of guide, that many of the saints of our lives have followed. You are blessed when you are humble and when you are kind. You are blessed when you are persecuted for the sake of justice and peace. Some of the most important work we can do is also the hardest, which is what the revelation text alludes to.
 
Finally, one of the connections I feel to All Saints Day with the Beatitudes text is that Jesus is showing the way to love. Each of the families I have talked with after their loved one has died has told me about the ways that they in turn showed love to others. Jean made children feel cared for while working in the school system. Roy made people laugh. Donna demonstrated great care to her community in the medical profession. Janice enjoyed sharing a good meal with loved ones. Joyce shared her love quietly, but nonetheless, it was deeply present. As a pharmacist, Marion worked for the well-being of her community. These are just some of the attributes of the seven souls who have departed this earthly realm in our congregation this year, but in their own way, each of them returns to witnesses of love. Love for family, love for friends, love for community.
 
In a similar way, our media song by Ed Sheeran talks about what we can learn from those in our lives, whom we have lost. If we could go up to heaven and talk to our grandparents, our parents, our friends, there are so many things, all of us would want to say.
 
Heaven may not have visiting hours, but this is the good news we can hold onto. From the saints in our lives, we learn how our faith is best lived, and work toward that faith until we reach the blessed rest that God has prepared for us.
 
As you enter into this week, may you carry the message of your loved ones with you. May their witness of love provides strength in times of sadness, and hope in times of hopelessness. Amen.
“Whats Most Important?”
TRAD sermon for U-CC Waupun
Pentecost 22A, Psalm 1, Matthew 22: 34-46
October 29, 2023
 
Focus Statement: Jesus is clear that the most important commandments are to love God and love our neighbors. As we take in the news of terrible events going on in the world, our call is to do likewise.
 
When I was on the camp staff at Daycholah Center, I often did weekly concerts for our campers, which ranged from kindergarten to high school. I had to choose music that was engaging for all the different age groups all at once, and at the same time, had powerful messages that we could relate to our camp curriculum for the week.
 
But in one of the first concerts that I did, what I didn't account for was the snack break in the middle, where the younger kids would go to bed, and the older kids would come back for a little more music. The tricky thing was the snack break was a full ice cream sundae bar with all the fixings. You haven't seen hyper until you've seen middle school kids hyped up on hot fudge sauce, sprinkles, chocolate chips, and at least one scoop of ice cream.
 
My dad happened to be at the concert, and a few of the middle and high school kids started to come shuffling in, waiting for my next set, but they were getting antsy because they had just had their ice cream. Then Dad said to me, “You can play a lot of different music. Why don't you take requests from the kids?”
 
What ensued was chaos. After the kids found out I could play the opening piano part of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, they asked me if I could play songs from the musical, “Hamilton”, or their favorite hymn, or songs by Ed Sheeran, or the Pokemon theme song, the Harry Potter theme song.
 
About 70% of the time, I was able to come up with something that sounded vaguely like what they were asking for. And they loved it! My only rule was that they had to sing along with me if they knew the song. That's now become a tradition when I do music for camp weekends, and I'm already scrubbing the top 40 charts for when I go to Daycholah for to do music for a middle school youth retreat in a couple of weeks.
 
So that's the kind of “stump the musician” story. Other people in my life have also asked me difficult theological questions, so I've had plenty of examples of “stump the pastor”.
 
In today's gospel text, we experienced one of the many times that the Pharisees tried to stump Jesus, to call him out on a technicality, and to supposedly prove that he didn't know what he was talking about. Because they wanted to keep the status quo, where they were in power and could do whatever they wanted, they mercilessly picked on this political rabble-rouser. For us to understand this text fully, I want to give us some brief historical context, and then I will break down
 
He had already proven to the Sadducees in a previous encounter that he was too smart for them, serve the Pharisees wanted to try their hand and see if they could beat him in the song game. So they asked the question, “What's the most important commandment in the law?”.
 
Since there are 10 Commandments, choosing just one as a value judgment puts Jesus in a difficult position. The commentator Jeannine K. Brown points out that the Jewish leaders were figuring that Jesus would say something that wasn't in the Torah, the sacred text of Jesus’ day on which both Jews and Christians rely as foundational to their faith. If Jesus had said something that ran counter to the Torah, that would have been a license to bring charges against him right then and there.
 
But Jesus has a profound respect for the Torah and knows his audience well, so he responds with two scriptural references from the Torah. The first was from the book we know as Deuteronomy and the second was from the book we know as Leviticus.
 
The first and most important commandment, he says, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind.”
 
In our modern context, we might interpret that this way: we're called to love God, by being willing to follow God and care about the things that matter to God. It matters to God, for example, that at least 18 people were killed in Lewiston, Maine this week, with a gunman still at large and a country seemingly not willing to agree on anything, so that these mass killings are a thing of the past in this country. It matters to God that people in our community experience economic hardship, homelessness, or food insecurity. It matters to God that youth mental health is in a precarious position. It matters to God that people are discriminated against for being who they are. I could go on, but I think you get the point.
 
Jesus says the second commandment is like the first: “You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
 
It's easy to love our neighbors when they look like we do, when they love like we do, or when they share the same beliefs and values that we do. But it's much more difficult to love our neighbor who is different from us in various ways. And sometimes, if we don't love ourselves enough, we can broadcast our insecurities to other people, and make them scapegoats for our self-loathing.
 
I could dive into some of this a little bit more deeply, but I will finish up the synopsis of the text, by simply saying that Jesus turns the tables and asks the Pharisees a question that they can't answer, and scripture says that nobody else dared to ask him a question after that. Jesus foiled their attempts to trip him up.
 
My larger point today is simply this: Jesus is clear that the most important commandments are to love God and love our neighbors. As we take in the news of terrible events going on in the world, our call is to do likewise.
 
In all of the theology, all of our divisions, and all of the ways that we live out our faith differently, for so many of us, identifying the greatest commandment on our own would probably stump us. In a way, the Pharisees were like a bunch of middle and high school kids, trying to stump the person who was supposed to be leading them.
 
But for Jesus, it was simple. For Jesus, loving God isn’t just about praising God. It's about caring about the things God cares about. It's about caring about the people God cares about, just as we care for ourselves.
 
How should we embody the greatest commandments here at Union-Congregational Church?
 
For starters, in our mission and vision statements, we say these words: “We go now to Love God's Creation, Share in Fellowship, and Live Christ's Example while seeking God's blessing on our lives and our communities. Living our core values, we the family of Union-Congregational Church, seek to deepen our spirituality with acceptance of all through love and a commitment to Christ.”
 
We also love our neighbors by the connections we make with local organizations that offer assistance to those most vulnerable in our communities.
 
As you go into this week, I'd invite you to think about how you can live out those commandments, and where you might need to stretch a little. Hopefully, most people won't be like the Pharisees, trying to stamp you and ask you what's most important, but you may be challenged to live out the call with grace and with love. May it be so. Amen.
God Will Be With You
TRAD sermon for UCC Waupun
Exodus 33: 12-23, Pentecost 21A
October 22, 2023
 
Focus statement: As God accompanied Moses as he led his people out of Egypt, God also accompanies us as we share the love of God in our words and actions.
 
Part of the ordination process in the United Church of Christ involves something called Clinical Pastoral Education, where a student learns not only how to do pastoral care effectively, but also learns how their own emotions and their own upbringing affect their pastoral identity. It's challenging and can even be painful work at times for some, but I also couldn't imagine doing what I do without it. As a student you can be placed in many different types of clinical settings, like nursing homes, rehab facilities, hospitals, and even the church theyre currently serving.
 
For me, it was Aurora Medical Center in Oshkosh. I was there for a 12 week intensive internship, and I was a chaplain intern for this period. One of the things I learned very quickly about hospital chaplaincy was that it was very different from serving churches. In some ways, this feels like an oversimplification, but it seems that every time a person goes to the hospital, they're going through some sort of crisis, and responding to crisis after crisis day in and day out sometimes gets exhausting. In local church ministry, it feels like there's room for more variety in what we do. Sure, we end up dealing with various crises, but part of the work in a local church is bouncing between the deeply painful moments in a congregation's life and the wonderfully joyful ones. Put my call at this moment was to be a little bit uncomfortable so I could learn something.
 
One day in the hospital, I was preparing to go to a visit, which made me nervous. I won't go into details about the situation itself for confidentiality reasons, but I remember asking my supervising chaplain a question which is very similar to what Moses is asking God here in the scripture text: How am I going to know what to say? How am I going to know what to do?
 
Kelly, my supervising chaplain, and a woman of deep Christian faith, said to me: Even if you don't know what to say, or what to do right now, just remember that God will be with you, and that God will guide you to do and say the right things. And remember, now is the time to make mistakes, because we can talk about them, and you can learn from them.
 
I made a few mistakes during that visit, and the visit after that, and the visit after that. But I can honestly say that I am a better pastor because of those experiences.
 
A few weeks ago, we encountered the story of God calling Moses as a burning bush. I talked about how Moses exhibited worries that he wasn't good enough for the job, and his proposition to God that God should pick somebody else. This time, even as Moses understands that he is the right person for the job, he feels nervous because he feels he doesn't have anybody to fall back on for support, or, at least, not someone he can touch and see. Hes honest with God, basically saying, God, you told me that you would send someone along with me to help these people escape their oppression. You havent told me who that is yet. What gives?
 
As I think about our two texts, for today, one thing that strikes me is that even the leaders need a leader. People like Moses are expected to accompany people out of their trauma, out of their fear, out of their anger, and out of their betrayal. That's exhausting work. People like Moses need to be comforted and guided, too. But that comfort and guidance can't come from the people Moses is leading. They have their own trauma to work through, and they cant be responsible for Moseswellbeing.
 
Even as not all of us are leaders in the church, specifically, I think many of us can relate to this in some form or fashion. Many of us in this congregation are or have been leaders in their personal and professional lives.
 
If youve ever been a teacher, a healthcare worker. a correctional officer, a parent, a grandparent, or if youve ever had the sacred responsibility of leading people through difficult situations in their lives, you can probably identify with this. Even as you have to display confidence, you need the reassurance that youre going to be okay as you do what God asks you to do.
 
Thats exactly what God gives to Moses. God affirms to Moses that he has Gods special approval. In other translations, Moses is told he has Gods favor—words we often hear at Advent when the angel Gabriel tells Mary she has found favor with God. This means that God will do what God promises, to carry Moses through and help Moses do the sacred and special task God has assigned to Moses.
 
Our text from 1 Thessalonians adds another layer to this. The writers of the letter to the Thessalonians remind them that God has chosen them for a special purpose, and that God doesnt bestow special powers of the Holy Spirit on just anyone. We know this because our good news didnt come to you just in speech but also with power and the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.
 
As God accompanied Moses as he led his people out of Egypt, and as God gives special gifts of the Spirit to the Thessalonians, God also accompanies us as we share the love of God in our words and actions.
 
This can be good news to us as we tackle the difficult challenges facing the community here in Waupun. As we endeavor to be a refuge to those who are questioning their identity, or their faith. As we prepare to address the needs of people experiencing homelessness and food insecurity in our backyard.
 
This isnt easy work. Perhaps the people we encounter will have hard stories. Perhaps the people we encounter will feel that in this land of opportunity they havent gotten a fair shake because of who they are. Perhaps people will be fleeing unsafe situations.
 
And somehow, by the grace of God, they will find us and ask us to help them, and to come alongside them.
 
We dont have to have all the answers, or wonder whether we say the right things, because that will all work itself out. God will be with us as we minister to our community, just like God was with me, and many before and after me.
 
So as you go into this week, may you know that God calls you by name to share love, compassion and courage. And may you know that, in doing that work, you are not alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.
“Gathering Everyone
TRAD sermon for U-CC Waupun
Pentecost 20A, Matthew 22: 1-14
October 15, 2023
 
Focus Statement: Our call is to invite everyone into the fullness of God’s love, regardless of society’s labeling of people.
 
My friend Syd came into my life rather unexpectedly but taught me a lot about what it means to be a welcoming person.
 
Syd and I met in high school, when one semester, I only knew a single person who shared the same lunch period as I had. I had been at this school for a couple of years, so it was common for me to have people I could have lunch with, but for whatever reason, my lunchtime didn't line up with the rest of my friends.
 
I was introduced to Syd by a mutual friend, who graciously included me at the lunch table with all of her friends. One of those friends was Syd. Syd had the warmest smile and always seemed genuinely happy to see me. Over the semester, Syd and I got to know each other extremely well, learning later that my dad had worked with Syd’s dad at his small auto repair shop. We sat together at the same lunch table every day for several months, and every day they had that same warm smile.
 
That could've been the end of the story, because they were upperclassmen, and I was a lowly sophomore. They could’ve distanced themselves from me or said “Good luck with everything” when they graduated. But actually, it's far from the end of that story. Syd and I have been friends ever since, continuing to bond over meeting at Starbucks, taking long car rides driving around town, and our regular FaceTime calls. Our friendship has seen each other through both joyful moments and extremely difficult ones. Even though we don't talk as often as we once did, when we reconnect, it’s as if no time has passed at all. They now live a wonderful life in Montana, surrounded by people who see the world with as much open-mindedness and adventure as they do, and I love that for Syd.
 
A common theme that arises from our text for today is the theme of community. Who’s included, and who’s left out? Who makes the rules? And unfortunately, that welcome and care that I found in my friend Syd doesn’t exist everywhere.
 
I’m a pastor in a denomination that welcomes people other churches might push aside. That sometimes means I find myself apologizing to people in vulnerable moments for the questionable theology that they've been taught about themselves. Multiple times, folks have come to me after they've been told they were unworthy of God's love, because they were abused, or because they were a member of the queer community, or because of a traumatic event that's happened in their lives. I've heard of people who have been at weddings and funerals that were deeply emotionally manipulative.
 
And the truth is, when people come to me with stuff like this, I'm heartbroken right along with them. Sometimes there are words a person can say to console people when they've been subjected to that kind of behavior.
 
This is part of why I find today's text so interesting. It's an interesting commentary on the ways we build community in our society, or maybe the ways we don’t.
 
This text is another parable that Jesus uses to teach a lesson to his disciples. He begins by inviting important guests to a lavish banquet. To fully understand this parable, it's important to recognize the cultural significance of a wedding banquet. These are cultural moments, the talk of the town, and if you were invited, you were somebody. But as it turns out, all of the guests blow him off, finding other more important ways to spend their time. Even if that's not always the “right” way to do it, I can't entirely blame the king. We all have certain people who we would most want to spend our time with, and others who are a bit more on the periphery.
 
Undeterred, the king asks his servants to find anybody that they can. The good ones. The evil ones. The outcasts roam the streets. The dog catcher.The local librarian.  The garbage collector. The law enforcement officer. Anyone. This time, everyone comes. I find myself thinking a great deal about what that would look like in our modern context. In addition to like-minded people, maybe we will find people of the opposing political party, each wearing the respective merchandise of their chosen candidate. Maybe Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos would each arrive on their private jets, laughing loudly together as they sit in their freshly-pressed suits (or maybe they would’ve been on the first guest list).
 
Would the wedding banquet have gone without problems in these circumstances? Would people have been able to turn their focus away from those people sitting across the room? If I am honest with myself, I'm not sure I would have been able to do that.
 
But it doesn't matter, because it's not us who gets to decide who is at this wedding banquet. It's God. Just like other people don't have the right to tell us that we aren't worthy of the good news of God's love because of who we are, we don't get to judge those who say that they are faithful. And to be honest, I'm kind of glad about that because I bet that most of us sitting in this room or this Zoom space have been told at least once in our lives that we aren't worthy of the goodness other people receive so easily.
 
There's one more piece that I want to dive into. The strangest part of this text is the person who isn't dressed in the wedding garment, and the suffering they are forced to endure as a result. The commentator Michael E. Lee tells his readers that this part of the story symbolizes that Jesus asks all who follow him to always be ready to respond to God's invitation. Jesus asks us to always be ready to do God’s work in the world, to care for the marginalized and the oppressed, and to invite them to our community.
 
If not for my lunchtime scheduling mishap, I might never have developed the kind of friendship that I have with Syd. But I think what has made our friendship work over the years is that both of us have had a real desire to support each other in the ups and downs of our lives, make each other feel important, and cheer each other on, even from afar. And we’ve both watched out for each other, being a caring presence when the other needed it.
 
How can we do that in this church, in this community?
 
As we prepare to answer that question, it might be prudent to ask ourselves another one. If we found a random person who is not affiliated in any way with our congregation and asked them what they know about our church or the work we do, what do we think they would say? How would they respond to that?
 
When I ask people what has drawn them to this church in their lives, they respond in some way by talking about the all-encompassing community that we try to create here. As you're going through this week, I'd like to encourage you to think about how you can remain watchful for the way that you can share God’s love in your world, as Jesus asks us to do. Maybe you have an idea about how we could do that here at our church, and I would love to hear more about that. Or maybe it's a way for you to give back in your own life, and I'm happy to be a discernment partner if that's helpful for you.
 
As you go into this week, may you know that you are enough and that you are worthy? When you know that, you may be prepared to respond to God's invitation, to partner with God, to do God's work in the world. May it be so. Amen.
“Praising God However We Can”
Sermon for UCC Waupun
Access Sunday 2023, Psalm 19
October 8, 2023
 
Focus Statement: Our praise can come in multitudes of ways, and God’s love continues to be made known through our bodies, minds, and lives.
 
It was my freshman year in high school, and we were doing the swimming unit of gym class. In swimming classes, physical education teachers often teach about 15 different basic strokes, and students are supposed to demonstrate a certain level of proficiency with them. But my physical education teacher and I both knew that I wasn't going to be able to master those strokes, so she was willing to help me figure out alternative methods to get the proficiencies I needed to pass the course.
 
My teacher also knew that it was possible that some of the other students would wonder why it seemed I was getting special treatment, or even be made fun of for how I swam. So she said to me one day, “I’d like to use you as an experiment. Are you okay with this?”
 
Those aren't exactly the kinds of words you want to hear from your physical education teacher, but at that point, I had worked with her long enough that I trusted her. So I said yes.
 
So she said to the other students, “For your next exercise, I want you to swim from one end of the pool to the other using one arm and one leg.” This is basically how I swim.
 
“What are we supposed to do with the other arm and leg?” somebody asked.
 
“Nothing. They just kinda lay there. On your mark, get set, go!”
 
And they were off. For some reason, all I could do was laugh. I don't know why. It wasn't mocking laughter. It just seemed like the only reaction I could think of at the time. I heard things like “oh my gosh” and “how is this even possible”.
 
Don't get me wrong, this exercise was flawed and maybe even a bit ableist. She didn’t tell me exactly what she would do, or why, before she did it, for example. All the other kids could go back to normal swimming afterward. In a way, doing this exercise was, for them, like trying on a new pair of shoes and realizing you don’t like the way they feel after taking a few steps and putting your tried-and-true pair of shoes back on. I would continue to swim that way and it could lead some people to think, “Oh, poor Jacob.”
 
But they all made it to the other end of the pool, and I didn’t get a single snide comment after that. 
I admit that this is kind of an odd and complicated story to begin the sermon with today, but the reason I share it is because it demonstrates, in its way, that there are all sorts of ways to do things. There isn't a single right way to swim, a single right way to praise God, a single right way to live in the world. In all sorts of ways, I’ve accessed activities of daily living in ways that have differed from other people around me. Many people have been very generous about that. Some people haven't, but I keep learning that there can be multiple ways of doing things that still yield the same result.
 
On this Access Sunday, we celebrate the many gifts that disabled people have brought to our community life, and two congregations all throughout the United Church of Christ. We also recognize, as with any other marginalized group, that the work is never over, and vow to continue working for deeper inclusivity and more accessibility with a joyful spirit.
 
Last week we talked about Jesus being closest to the most vulnerable among us, and I think this week is a good example of that, because although we're not dealing with a gospel text this week, a fundamental element of disability advocacy in the church is that Jesus is deeply sympathetic to the cause of disabled people, just as he is to all who are most vulnerable. Both God and Christ are committed to the causes of those who are oppressed by the systems humans put in place. If you've been paying attention, you might recognize that I have talked about disability in lots of my sermons and brought some principles of disability theology into various messages, so some of this information probably isn't new to you. But today, we're going to zoom in and talk pretty specifically about how disability advocacy complements a life of faith.
 
I’m going to boil down this Psalm into three major points, each from a disability theology perspective.
 
First, Psalm 19 opens with a proclamation. The heavens are telling the glories of God. But the psalmist makes it clear that there is no speech, there are no words. The ways in which we expect God's glory to be proclaimed are notably absent. Singing and speaking words of praise is the dominant way of expressing our faith, but it doesn't have to be that way.
 
God's glory is our being proclaimed in ways where words are not necessary because their voice goes out to the ends of the earth. Knowledge is declared in ways that words cannot touch. Many people with various disabilities are unable to speak, and yet, the idea that people can still communicate without the use of language is hard for some of us to wrap our heads around.
 
The lyrics that Bekah wrote have this line: “Would that we could commune so clearly with our words or without words.” What would church be like if we decided to praise God with more than just our lips? But what if we took inspiration from this text, praising God with more than our words—with our dancing, with our praying, with our meditations, with our very lives?
 
Because, after all, God’s teachings can enlighten our bodies, revive our souls, and gladden our hearts.
 
My second point is that all bodies know the love of our God. Not despite our disabilities or whatever makes us “different”, but because of the particularities that make us who we are. What are the foundational teachings of more progressive Christianity is that God loves us exactly as we are, and nothing can separate us from that love, no matter what conditions humanity might want to place on it.
In the text, we encounter a lot about God’s commandments or God’s teachings.For some theologians, love and law can be used interchangeably, because love is so foundational to who God is and what God does.
 
Finally, he psalm ends with a question, which I think is a question all of us could be asking ourselves, both in this church and in churches around the country. Who can detect one’s own faults?
 
Lots of people in my life ask me lots of questions about my disability, which, when done in a spirit of generosity and genuineness, I'm totally fine with. It helps de-stigmatize the experience of disability if people ask thoughtful questions.
 
But oftentimes, we don’t always know whether a question we ask someone else is appropriate or not. Sometimes we do ask a question that is hurtful or harmful, and somebody has to kindly take us aside and educate us on why we might not want to say it that way. We don’t know our own wrongdoing until someone helps us understand it.
 
That was a lot, but boiling the entire message down to one sentence would sound something like this: Our praise can come in multitudes of ways, and God’s love continues to be made known through our bodies, minds, and lives.
 
In many ways, this church is ahead of the game in terms of physical accessibility compared to other churches. Our building is fully physically accessible on a single level, including the chancel. We have hearing assistance devices available. We offer large print bulletins to those who need them.
 
But this week, I invite us to think about how we can move beyond simply saying we are physically accessible. Part of our job is to keep our attitudes and assumptions about disability in check. Some people with various disabilities don’t want to be cured of them, because it’s part of their identity. In other situations, disabled people are pitied, like the “oh, poor Jacob” thing I said earlier. I hope this worship service has helped you experience the joy of an accessible community and how disability isn’t a bad thing.
 
If you want to be more active in an intentional way, there is active federal legislation you can support to better the lives of disabled people. There is an Accessible to All (A2A) designation in the United Church of Christ, by which congregations can dedicate themselves to providing accessible worship and community life to disabled people in their communities. You can talk to me if either of these appeal to you and I’ll give you more information.
 
However we choose to respond, may we continue to dedicate ourselves to joyful accessibility, meaningful inclusion, and doing the work together so that we may be closer to God's dream. May it be so. Amen.
 
 
“Working Towards God’s Dream”
Sermon for U-CC Waupun
Pentecost 17A, October 1, 2023, Phillipians 2: 1-13
 
Focus Statement: When we take on the same mind as Jesus Christ, our focus turns to the most vulnerable and the emptying of our own egos and needs.
 
How many of you have seen the TV show on ABC called, “What Would You Do?”
 
If any of you haven't seen it, it's a show where the producers, re-create common social scenarios and watch to see how regular members of society respond.  These individuals, who don't realize they’re on camera, are then asked why they responded in the way that they did.
 
You’ve met my friend, Rev. Emma Landowski-Sancomb, since she has filled the pulpit for me a couple of times this year while I've been on vacation. She gave me permission to tell you the story. Emma was actually the subject of one of these scenarios. She was responding to a situation that the producers had put together. At the coffee shop she frequented when we were in seminary together, an actor was hired to portray a homeless man who didn't have enough money to buy his coffee, and was being judged by the restaurant managers, who were also actors. Not only was Emma prepared to pay for the man's coffee, but when the restaurant managers threatened to kick the homeless man out of the coffee shop, Emma got her coffee to-go and was going to sit outside with him.
 
She was interrupted by the producers, who asked her why she did what she did. She said, “I am a poor student myself, and I would hope someone would've done the same thing for me.”
 
Emma is more than just a good friend or a caring human being, although she is both of those without question. In that moment, Emma was clearly enacting what she believed was the right thing to do, or maybe what she believed Jesus would've done.
 
My message's overarching point today concerns one verse: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” I'm going to talk about what that means for us in the world we live in, and also what it means to “empty ourselves.”
 
When we think about having the same mind as Jesus, it seems important to consider what that entails. Part of what makes the ministry of Jesus so compelling is remembering who was the most important to him. A common theme is that he sympathized with the last, the lost, the least, and the marginalized. He demonstrated, over and over again, that the systems of power that were in place routinely did not serve the people, and in fact, made their lives extraordinarily difficult. People lived on subsistence wages, they were unfairly taxed, and they were outcasts if they did not match the accepted norms of how society should be. In other words, able-bodied, usually men and boys, and racially homogenous. The entirety of the gospels, as well as the rest of the New Testament, witness to the ways that Jesus raged against the machine.
 
We would do well to consider the people who are marginalized in our community when we want to follow the ways of Jesus. I actually just received an email earlier this week from a representative of the Waupun School District, detailing frightening statistics of families right here in our backyard, who are experiencing dire hardship. For example, a whopping 41.8% of the student population of our school district is considered economically disadvantaged, qualifying them for free and reduced lunch programs. The district also has 22 students from 15 families who are currently experiencing homelessness. And this is just a small sampling, which doesn't even account for the needs of our adult, elderly, or disabled populations. Terri at the food pantry said in a clergy meeting recently that in her decades of working for the food pantry, she has never given out so many sleeping bags. (Our church council and our missions committee are actively discerning how we can respond to these deep needs in our community and we will update you when we have more to share about how you can contribute.) Add to that all of the marginalized groups that we consider on a daily basis, and it gets even more disturbing. Oppression based on race, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, and other identifiers. The mental health of youth and children is at an all-time low, partially because of the pandemic and partially because of other reasons. It seems to me that these are the kinds of issues that Jesus would care about.
 
Another verse that seems important to dive into is this one: “Though he existed in the form of God, [Jesus] did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, assuming human likeness.”
 
“Emptied himself”? Kind of an odd phrase. But it turns out this phrase can help us understand further what Paul is talking about.
 
The Greek word for “emptied” is kenosis. It's become a theological term that basically means that Jesus, a divine figure sent by God, takes on human form and embraces human vulnerability. And he does what God desires by working for the cause of the most vulnerable.
 
To understand this piece of the text is to understand what the text calls us to do. Like Jesus, part of working toward God’s dream for the world is setting aside our own egos or our desires, because God is at work within us. And when God is at work within us, we can be more deeply attuned to what God wants us to do and to be.
 
Our media song for today is one that a member of our media team has wanted to integrate into worship for a very long time, and it makes so much sense for what the scripture is talking about today. The lyric that seems most applicable to me to what we're talking about is this one:
 
“Therе's been a dark cloud
Hanging over my neighbor′s house
Long еnough there can be no doubt
Something else is going on
 
I do not know his pain
Wonder if my sunshine brought his rain
All I know is it's a shame
I don't even know his name”
 
When we take on the same mind as Jesus Christ, our focus turns to the most vulnerable and the emptying of our own egos and needs. To sympathize with the pains and needs of our neighbors—those whom we share community—is to work toward God’s dream for our communities and our world.
 
Emma could've easily looked the other way when the man was struggling to afford his coffee, and she certainly didn't help him because she knew cameras were watching. She could have stayed at her table, drank her coffee, and driven home. But she was mindful of what Jesus would have asked her to do in that situation.
 
Because of the deep needs that we recognize in our own communities, we have so many opportunities to help people in need without ever having to leave our city. In doing that work, we know that God is with us, because of how God sympathizes with the cries of those in need.
 
Just a little while will be celebrating World Communion Sunday, which is a yearly occurrence recognizing that Christian churches all around the world give thanks for the gift of Jesus’ love and sacrifice.
 
In the spirit of Jesus Christ, may we all go into this week doing our best to follow Christ's call. How can we care for others as Jesus cared for us?
 
As you prepare to answer that call, know that God is with you, and that God is working within you as you co-create a more just, more loving world alongside God. Amen. 
 
 
“Shouldn’t I Care About Them, Too?”
TRAD sermon for U-CC Waupun
Jonah 3:10-4:11, Pentecost 17A
September 24, 2023
 
Focus Statement: God’s mercy and love are more abundant than ours, and God calls us to grow in our efforts to be more Christlike.
 
There's a six-year age difference between me and my sister Emily. These days, we have an excellent adult relationship, as she is 23 and I am 29. But as any of you who have siblings know, it wasn't always that way. For six years, I was used to being the center of attention, and the only one that my parents were spending their time and money on. For some time it was difficult to get used to the idea that not only would my parents give attention and love to another person in our family, but that I would need to be a model big brother and love her just as much.
 
I’ll preface this by saying that looking back, I had everything I needed and can recognize that my parents never loved me any less than they loved my sister, but sometimes, I felt in my six-year-old that I hadn't gotten enough attention. So I would try to mimic her behavior so that I would get a reaction from Mom and Dad. But it wasn't always the reaction that I thought I would receive. Sometimes, the things mom and dad thought were cute coming from Emily were pretty obviously not cute coming from me. When I was told I knew better than to do that particular thing, I would respond. “well, Emily did that and you didn’t get mad at her!”
 
“But she doesn’t know that yet. Part of being a good big brother is to show her what’s right and wrong by how you act.”
 
Did anyone else get a similar lecture from their parents growing up?
 
I was talking back to my parents in this situation, which, according to child development experts is a pretty normal milestone for a child at that age, or maybe even a little younger. Of course this is a far less extreme example than what we find in our text for today, but it's the best I could find because I've never set up waiting for a city to burn down!
 
But talking back is a learned skill that continues into adulthood. Here we find Jonah full-on pouting.
 
We find ourselves this week at the tail-end of Jonah (no pun intended). It's one of my favorite books of the entire Bible as it explores God's grace and mercy at a very deep level. If you take this chapter of the book out of context, that might be a little bit hard to recognize, but if you'll stay with me I will make the connection later on.
 
If you need a reminder of the story of Jonah, I'll try my best to summarize it quickly. Jonah was a Prophet who was sent by God to go to Nineveh to tell the people of Nineveh to turn from their wicked ways. But he didn't want to go to Nineveh, so he instead fled from God in the exact opposite direction, taking a ship to Tarshish. But one night a huge storm brews up, and all the sailors are terrified. Jonah realizes that the only way to calm the storm and protect the sailors is for the sailors to throw him off the boat. So the sailors throw him off the boat, and God provides a whale, which swallows Jonah for three days and three nights. After the whale spits Jonah out, Jonah agrees to follow God's call to go to Nineveh and tell the people to stop what they're doing. And miraculously, the Ninevites repent, and decide to follow God for the rest of their days. So God decides not to punish them after all.
 
This leads to the current point in the story. We find Jonah sitting on the hill, waiting for Ninevah to be destroyed. I believe the line in the Jonah VeggieTales movie is something to the effect of, “All right, let’s watch the show!”
 
And nothing happens.
 
Jonah is incredulous. He can't believe that God won't destroy the people of Nineveh like God said God would. “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning, for I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from punishment.” Jonah sees this as God bluffing, and if God is going to bluff, it would be better if Jonah was dead.
 
What Jonah fails to recognize and be thankful for is all the ways that God has provided to him up to this point. If you read the entirety of the book of Jonah, you'll notice that the text uses the words “God provided” over and over. God provided a whale so that Jonah wouldn't drown in the sea. God provided a shrub to ease his discomfort on a hot day. And then to teach him an important lesson, God provided a worm to eat the shrub. In all this provision, Jonah's response could've been to extend that same spirit of grace to the Ninevites. Because of all the ways that God has provided for him, he could've been a changed person, and modeled that spirit of forgiveness.
 
But he doesn’t. And because he doesn't, God says to him in essence, “I provided a whale and I provided a plant for you. I provided you another chance to find a spirit of grace over and over again. And yet all you care about is that a silly worm ate your plant. What about all those people who don't know what they're doing and have to be told how to act? Shouldn't I care about them, too?” 
 
And that's how the book ends. There's no response from Jonah, no aha moment. He’s just left to sit and think, and sulk. We don't have any real evidence that Jonah learned anything. The commentator Michael S. Chan reminds us that this might be done on purpose—that we're supposed to draw our own conclusion and think about how God invites us to respond.
 
Chan further reminds us that at some level, we might not want to heap blame on Jonah for feeling the way he does. The Ninevites have done some truly terrible things, including unfair taxation, destroying cities, and causing all kinds of damage to surrounding areas. Jonah’s own people were likely recipients of that havoc at some level.
 
But God's mercy is boundless to those who are willing to repent, and God just wishes that Jonah would go along with that.
 
God’s mercy and love are more abundant than ours, and God calls us to grow in our efforts to be more Christlike. If God is willing to extend this kind of love and mercy even to those whom we might consider enemies, what are we supposed to do with that?
 
Are we going to be like Jonah, talking back to God, or like me as a self-righteous six-year-old talking back to my parents about my sister?
 
It would seem that, at least, we should do better than what Jonah did, sitting and sulking on the hill.
 
It might be easier said than done, but I think part of our call is to do our best to remember God's love and compassion for those we may not like very much. God is God, and we are not, and we worship a God who loves even the Ninevites as much as God loves Jonah.
 
Even when some of us would rather see our enemy is burned to the ground, we worship a God who abounds in steadfast love even for them. By God’s grace, God will give you even them a second chance.
 
As you go into your week, I invite you to consider to whom in your lives you might need to extend God's grace. Even though it might be easier, and more satisfying, to sit on a hill waiting for them to get their comeuppance, I hope you'll consider that we worship a God who has enough grace even for them. Amen.
 
 
 
 
 
 
“Forgiveness For A Purpose”
TRAD Sermon for U-CC Waupun, September 17, 2023
Genesis 50:15-21; Matthew 18:21-35, Pentecost 16A
 
Focus statement: At times, forgiveness can be messy, but by faith in God, we have the opportunity to recognize that God can use our pain for something good.
 
One of my least favorite phrases in the entire world is “everything happens for a reason.”
 
It's a phrase that's often uttered after something tragic occurs when someone doesn't know what else to say. I can also tell you that we as pastors often have to do serious repair work in pastoral care conversations when somebody has been told this, in the midst of a difficult moment. We usually have to respond to some version of this: “I've been told that everything happens for a reason, but why does it feel like God is abandoning me? Why does it feel like I have to suffer and keep the faith at the same time for God to love me?”
 
I fully understand that there are some people listening to this for whom this phrase is a great comfort, and I'm not going to stand here and scold you, saying that you should never use that phrase ever again if it truly does work for you and the person you're speaking with. Sometimes, knowing that God has a deeper understanding of our lives than we could ever have really is a comfort in times of deep pain and difficulty.  Sometimes there is a greater purpose that God can discern, but we cannot yet. In some ways, I can see why it is a comfort to people.
 
You’re always free to disagree with me about things that I say from the pulpit, and I’m always happy to hear your point of view. But if you'll stay with me, I want to dig into the difference between “things happening for a reason" and "things happening for a purpose.” There's one verse that has been rattling around in my head all week, which will serve as the basis for what I'm going to talk about. At the end of the Genesis text, Joseph says, “Am I God? You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as Gods doing today.”
 
Often, I start out my sermons with a story from my own life that applies in some way to our scripture for the day. I can honestly tell you that I couldn't find one this week. I couldn't find a story I could share that demonstrates the depth of forgiveness that Joseph grants, because I can't remember many times in my life that I have had to forgive somebody for something as egregious as what Joseph experienced.
 
To fully understand the context of this scripture, you have to go back 13 whole chapters, and I know we don’t have three hours to dive into all that. But if you've ever seen Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, you have a head start on the rest of us. But I'll do a quick summary in a paragraph or so to get you caught up.
 
Joseph's father, Jacob, favors him over his other 11 brothers, so Joseph's brothers conspire to kill Joseph but end up selling him into slavery instead. He ends up with Potiphar, who thinks very highly of him until Potiphar’s wife brews up a plot to throw him in jail since she can't have her way with him. But through all of this God is with him and remains loyal to him. It's discovered that Joseph has a knack for interpreting dreams. He interprets a dream for Pharaoh, which indicates that there will be a famine. But because of Joseph's dream interpretation, they were able to plan for the famine and save many lives.
 
Unfortunately, Joseph's family isn't so lucky. They're about to starve to death, but they find out that there is food in Egypt. So they make the long journey over and are greeted by none other than Joseph himself. Instead of turning them away, Joseph forgives them and helps them survive. He says that what they intended to hurt him, God used for good.
 
What strikes me is the depth of love that Joseph had to have for his brothers, not only to forgive them for what they did to him, but also to explain God working in and through the ordeal. He is able to recognize God's greater purpose in these events. He's been thrown around, inconvenienced, and abused by so many people in this story, and he's able to let all of that go because of God's presence in his life. He is able to forgive, and forgive, and forgive some more, and rebuild relationships.
 
This is kind of like what Jesus asked us to do in today's gospel text. This translation uses the quantity of 77 times, and other translations use 70 times 7, or 490. For me, that exact number is not important, but what Jesus is saying is that we often have to forgive people more than we originally thought.
 
But that it isn't to say it’s easy. Far from it, actually. When a person has been abused in the way that Joseph was, perfectly reasonable people would probably be jaded. Why should I forgive them after what they did to me?
 
This is where lots of people go to why bad things happen to good people. This is where you often hear the phrase that everything happens for a reason. But I believe that there is a difference between everything happening for a reason and everything happening for a purpose.
 
When we say that all things happen for a reason, we are expected to see that God has a plan that we can't see ye. Sometimes that works for people, and we can take comfort that God has a plan. More often, I've experienced that as shallow comfort when tragedy has struck in someone's life.
 
When we say that things happen for a purpose, I believe we are using a different motivation. When things happen for a purpose, we can actively discern how God has used a bad situation and turned it into something positive. It’s not intellectual, because using things for a purpose means that something good will come from it. If Joseph's brothers hadn't wanted to harm him, he couldn't have helped the pharaoh save all those Egyptians from certain death. He's able to forgive them because he can recognize how God uses the situation for the greater good.
 
The tricky thing is that discerning a purpose out of tragedy is not something that happens quickly or easily. In order to discern a purpose, we have to look backward, reflecting on the events that have happened, and we don't have the benefit of recognizing it in the moment. In the moment, perhaps the only thing we can feel is the sadness or harm that we've experienced, and it may not be first on our priority list to forgive someone when they’ve hurt us.
 
But that’s the point. At times, forgiveness can be messy, but by faith in God, we have the opportunity to recognize that God can use our pain for something good.
 
This church has had several interpersonal conflicts in its history, but from everything I can discern, those conflicts have dissolve themselves in such a way that we've been able to learn more about ourselves and discern God's action in all of it.
 
I don't know what you individually are dealing with, or how you have been done wrong by others, and this week I'm not going to ask you to automatically make this grand gesture of forgiveness that Joseph or Jesus invites us to do. In Joseph's case, that took a very long time, and forgiveness might take a long time for some of us too.
 
Here's what I'm inviting you to do instead: this week, I invite you to reflect on an event from your past that has been hard for you for some reason. Not something you're still healing from; I don’t want this to be too emotionally difficult. Consider that time in your life, and then ask yourself some questions. What have you learned about yourself? Do you need to let go of any anger or resentment around the issue? And finally, where have you experienced God's presence in the midst of it?
 
Sometimes believing that everything happens for a reason may not be entirely comforting. But may you know that God can use difficult moments in your for a positive purpose. As you go into this week, may you know that God is with you, and guides you on a path toward reconciliation. Amen.
You Know What To Do, But Heres A Reminder”
TRAD sermon for U-CC Waupun
Pentecost 15A, September 10, 2023
Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20
 
Focus Statement: On this reunion Sunday, we recommit ourselves to the covenantal relationship that God calls us into. Above all, we remember that God calls us to love one another, work out our disagreements peacefully, and labor toward God's redemptive work in the world.
 
When I was on the summer staff at Daycholah Center (formerly known as Pilgrim Center), we always started the week at camp by asking the campers to work together on writing a covenant. We explained in very simple terms that a covenant is a promise that we make to one another, and to God. Having had that initial primer, we would ask the kids what kind of “camp rules” they would like to see on that week's covenant. We didn't really call them rules, because we wanted to maintain the spiritual component of the activity, but that was sort of the intent.
 
Some of these policies that we agreed to abide by were typical, or even generic. Be kind. Tell an adult where you're going. Follow directions. Other common ones had something to do with nature because if you've ever been to Daycholah Center before, you know how deeply this place cares about nature.
 
Of course, kids found ways to make it funny too. One of my favorites was when one kid suggested that we write on the covenant that there would be no farting in any of the cabins!
 
After we were through writing the covenant, we had each person, including adults, sign the covenant as a symbol of their consent to abide by what we had set up.
 
As I reflect on this illustration in juxtaposition to our scripture texts for this morning, it strikes me how, even from a very young age, we are taught how to be in a relationship with one another. We're taught how to be kind and how to treat others the way we ourselves would want to be treated. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don't. Sometimes we feel like we've been wronged by others, and sometimes we are the ones doing wrong. But that's such a part of the human experience, to set parameters, to mess up, to hopefully apologize, and to work towards a mutually agreeable resolution.
 
In the Romans text, Paul boils it down to one fundamental teaching: love one another. I am reminded of a song that my friend Andra Moran wrote, that says, “Love first, love always. We’ll figure the rest out as we go.”
 
When Paul says that love is what fulfills the law, it seems to me that he’s saying that leading with a spirit of love is just as important as following the rules.
But commentators point out that Paul has had a pretty adversarial relationship with the law. Previously in this book, Paul has subscribed to the notion that a person can't follow the laws of society and the ways of God at the same time. In many of his letters, he talks about her things like circumcision or other purity codes aren't worth fighting over in the ways that the Romans seem to think they are. A common theme of Paul’s writings is that the small, nitpicky things that they might think are important are still less important than following the will and the way of God.
 
So, it seems a bit out of character for Paul to be less upset about the Law in this text. But here we notice how he turns it around, how he says that having love is how we follow the law.
 
Even further, Paul affirms to the Romans that they actually know what to do already. He says, “As you do all this, you know what time it is.” He instructs the Romans to leave behind actions and behaviors that run counter to the will of God, and follow God’s will instead.
 
As usual, in our gospel text, Jesus takes a more instructional approach. He outlines several methods for conflict resolution. He outlines them in sort of a step-by-step process. If somebody is wrong with you, the first step is to take them aside and talk with them one on one. If that doesn't work, bring a few people with you. If that doesn't work, take them in front of the entire congregation. The last resort is to treat them like an outsider.
 
In a strange way, commentators point out that this is actually a way to show love to another person. You wouldn't want to embarrass them and call them out on the carpet right away. Whenever there's a conflict, the healthiest first step is always to speak with the individual directly and privately, as many disagreements can be resolved by simply talking about them. Following the steps is a Christlike way to deal with conflict, and Jesus promises us that whenever two or more people follow his way and are gathered by his spirit, he is there with them.
 
These two texts are connected in an important way, because they talk about the importance of showing Christian love, and re-doubling a commitment towards healthy and productive relationships with one another.
 
So what does this mean for us today, as we restart our church year?
 
On this reunion Sunday, we recommit ourselves to the covenantal relationship that God calls us into. Above all, we remember that God calls us to love one another, work out our disagreements peacefully, and labor toward God's redemptive work in the world.
 
Ever since I received notice of her death, I've been thinking about how Jean McKim exemplified these qualities, and what I have learned from Jean in the short time I had to know her. She showed love for so many people in this congregation, inviting them over for coffee or a meal, bringing food to people when they were sick, or sitting with them when they needed somebody to talk to. I learned that she taught Sunday School for a number of years, which is one way that she labored toward God's redemptive work in the world.
 
As Jean embraced this work, I think this is also our task as we enter into the new church year.
 
Similarly to my experience at camp, I leave you with this question. If you could write a congregational covenant for the coming year that we would abide by, what kinds of things might you want to write? Would it be all serious, or would you want to have a little bit of fun?
 
The writings of Paul and the teachings of Jesus serve as a reminder to us, even though in many ways we already know what to do. Together, as we begin this church year, may we lean into love, the kind of love that opens us to deeper understanding, greater accountability, and more meaningful relationships. May it be so. Amen.
 
 
 
 
 
“Following God When It’s Hard”
Sermon for U-CC Waupun, September 3, 2023
Pentecost 14A: Exodus 3: 1-15, Matthew 16:21-28
 
Focus statement: Sometimes, the call of God will ask us to do incredibly strange or difficult things. We might wonder if we are up to the task, but God promises to be with us, in the midst of it all.
 
I'm going to start off today by asking if any of us can remember a time in our lives when we felt we were given a task there was no way we could complete. The kind of task that seems so far out of our realm of experience that it's laughable. The kind of thing that makes you say, “You want me to do that?”
 
Many of you know that last year, before I came to this church, and while I was in the search and call process of the United Church of Christ, I served as the sabbatical minister at First Congregational Church in Oshkosh. My friend, Rev. Nancy, took a few months away for rest and study, and asked me if I would be interested in doing the things that a pastor does while she was gone.
 
Of course, I was flattered and honored by the invitation, but I was also sort of flabbergasted. Usually, retired pastors do this sort of work so that a congregation can have steady, experienced leadership in the midst of their regular pastor's absence. I think I even said to her, “Are you really sure that I have what it takes? This is a big church with vital ministries and lots of history. Do you really think I'm ready for this?” The imposter complex was coming in really strong for a while there! Was someone going to come out of the woodwork and say I was a fraud, or compare me unfavorably to a ministry leader from their past? I recognized that, if this went well, this could prepare me well for my future ministry, but if I bombed it, all my seminary training, all my studies, and all my work would have led me to a very different conclusion.
 
When she explained more about why she asked me to do this, she went on to talk about particular gifts that I had, that she believed the church could benefit from. I had to learn that she didn’t ask someone else because “someone else” wasn’t who that church needed at that time. They needed me.
 
And, there were support systems in place. She talked about how strong their lay leadership was, and the quality of the pastoral relations committee that existed there. All of these pieces would help me if I didn’t know where to turn or had a question. And they did. In many ways, it was a deeply successful mutual ministry. I asked a lot of questions. I made some mistakes. I grew both as a pastor and as a person from that experience.
 
Looking back on a year ago, I want to tell you that every day I give thanks for the community of First Congregational Church, and the opportunity that they gave me. Even though Union-Congregational is my first church as a settled Pastor, I can say confidently that I am much better equipped to serve you, my beloved congregation, than I otherwise would have been without their generosity. And guess what? I’m going to make mistakes. I'm going to miscalculate on things from time to time. I've done things at this church that I had never done before. I’ve had successes and I will have failures. I’m sure of it. But I have faith that the experiences in my past will prepare me for my future with you. Every day, I wake up with a desire to do what is in the best interest of this congregation. And I don't take it for granted that you gave me my first shot. As the one-year anniversary of my ministry with you rapidly approaches, I am as excited as ever to discern how we can take part in God’s work in the world and in our community.
 
Today, we're engaging two passages with a similar theme. Moses definitely had impostor syndrome, and part of me wonders if Peter did too, even if the Bible doesn’t directly address it. These two passages come at this theme from slightly different perspectives. For now, I'd like to focus on two verses from the Exodus text, and then I’ll connect it to the Gospel text. The two verses are: “Who am I?”, and “I will be with you.”
 
I won't go into great detail retelling the story of Moses and the burning bush because it speaks so well on its own. The short version is that God appears to Moses as a burning bush, and tells Moses that people are suffering, and they need his help. Moses can't believe that he is called to this task and understandably asks God how on earth he will be able to do the job. But God says that God will be with him.
When Moses says, “Who am I,” he taps into the worry that most of us would probably experience if given this kind of a call from God. Moses has simply been minding his own business, taking care of sheep, on the edge of the desert, when God tells him of the heartbreaking plight of the Israelites. They had sold themselves into Egyptian slavery in exchange for food, and now they were being treated horribly. So God asks Moses to help the Israelites get out of the terrible situation they’re in.
 
Moses has a deep faith in God, and is willing to follow God's command, but he still has plenty of doubt. Who is he to liberate the Israelites from their oppression? If you read on further in Exodus, you will hear Moses protesting until God finally convinces him that it's time to go and do the work. God didn’t wait for “someone else”. God called Moses.
 
And there’s a support system in place. God says, “I will be with you,” because that's the only way to calm his fear. Knowing that God will be with him empowers him to do the important and difficult work of ministry, care, and liberation.
 
The gospel text for today takes things in a bit different direction, as Jesus often does, but I still want us to keep track of those two verses from Exodus: “Who am I” and “I will be with you.”
 
According to Matthew's account, Peter is the first individual to answer the call to be Jesus's disciple. He makes all these grand proclamations throughout the gospel that he will never let Jesus down, yet he fails at almost every one. But Jesus uses this as a teaching moment for Matthew. When we ask ourselves, “Who am I”, it isn’t enough to praise God with our big words or our deep proclamations. Instead, we praise God with our actions and willingness to follow to the best of our understanding. Jesus tells us that we must take up our cross and follow him. We have to be willing to do the hard work. But in doing so, he gives the assurance that those who follow him will be rewarded more deeply than they can imagine in eternal life.
 
Sometimes, the call of God will ask us to do incredibly strange or difficult things. We might wonder if we are up to the task, but God promises to be with us, in the midst of it all.
 
So what about us, here at Union-Congregational Church? Who we are, what is the work God calls us to do, and how can we trust God’s presence as we join in God’s work?
 
I think that one of our greatest opportunities at this church is to ask ourselves who we are as a congregation and how God is calling us to make a positive impact on our community. There are many good churches here in Waupun doing good work. What is the particular work that God asks of us? How are we called to the work of justice and liberation in our particular ways? That’s our connection to the “who are we” part of the scripture.
The second piece is trusting that God will be with us.
 
Friends, as we carry our crosses with Christ, and as we do the important work of discernment and action, it won’t always be easy. Like my illustration from before, I can honestly say I struggled from time to time and hoped that I would be able to give First Congregational and the surrounding community what they needed in the time I served there. I hope the same for this church and this community, even when I make mistakes. But in the midst of it all, I know I can trust in a God who will do great work in me. And we can trust in a God who will continue to do great work within us, around us, among us, and through us too.
 
Tomorrow, Labor Day, many of us will rest from the vocations of our day-to-day lives. If you think about it, you might like to take the opportunity to consider how you, and this church, are joining in God’s work. May you know that know you are exactly the person that God needs to make a difference in the world and that God will be with you as you go. Amen.
 
 
 
 
Loving Our Enemies In A Polarized World
Sermon for U-CC Waupun
August 27, 2023
 
Focus statement: In these teachings, Jesus helps us free ourselves from the vengeance that eats at our souls. We can be assured of God’s grace and faithfulness in our lives as we navigate challenging relationships with others. 
Behavioral purpose: Put aside vengeance, anger, etc.
 
When I was in elementary school, I had a classmate who I knew was smarter than me. Things came easier to him than they did to me, and sometimes it felt like he was teasing me about it. Everything felt like a competition I could never win. I would come home and vent to my parents about what this kid said today, and how I was so mad at him, whether I had a reason to be or not. It was silly, really, but I had a pretty fragile ego back then, so I was probably a bit of a drama queen.
 
One day, I got an invitation to this kid’s birthday party.
 
I resolved that there was no way I would go, but my parents had other ideas. “You got an invitation to his birthday party, and he wouldn’t have given you one if he didn’t want you there.”
 
“But what if he’s mean to me?”, I protested. “Am I supposed to be nice to him?”
 
But there I was, going to this birthday party. Here’s the thing: my parents were right. His family was glad that I came, and it turned out that this party helped us become better friends later on. We learned to be kinder to each other, and a couple of years later, we were signing each other’s yearbook.
 
I bet all of us could name at least one person in our lives whom we have difficulty interacting with. Maybe it’s the result of a petty grudge like my classmate, but maybe it’s far more complicated than that. We’ve had plenty of different excuses to pigeonhole people. Who voted for a certain political candidate, who has different opinions on social issues, and who has said harmful things about others. I may be only 29 years old, but I can’t remember a time our country has been more divided.
 
Yet, instead of having meaningful conversations, our society digs its heels further into the ground, resorting to name-calling and cheap-shot rhetoric. No matter where we stand on the spectrum of political, social, or religious ideology, we all do it; no one is immune to anger and “othering”.
 
Before I go any further, I want to be careful to clarify that I don't share this message today because I think that we are hurting each other at this church. I’m not trying to subtly call anyone out. I believe that Union-Congregational Church is a warm and caring community, that looks out for each other, and wants the best for one another. But I do believe that a message like this is a good reminder of what it means to live in genuine Christian community. Sometimes we need to experience messages that equip us for the world we live in, outside of the interpersonal relationships we share in this place, with these people. I really do believe that we want to get along with others the best we can, but increasingly, I fear that society is losing our sense of goodwill for one another. So, I want to offer a message about the teachings of Jesus, and how our society lives that out (or maybe doesn’t). If you’ll stay with me, I’ll talk about how our community of faith can provide an antidote to this kind of rhetoric.
 
Naturally, people living in biblical times also got angry at each other for a number of reasons. We often see the theme of the rich and powerful taking advantage of those with fewer resources, or the theme of people not following the laws and purity codes of the day, which earned a person the descriptor of “sinner.” Just like us, people living in biblical times needed guidance to navigate an angry, divided society.
 
Our scriptures for this morning offer two different ways of dealing with our enemies. Psalm 37 explains that we shouldn’t worry ourselves with the ways of our adversaries, because our salvation comes from God. The psalmist is speaking to people who have been oppressed for a long time by people in the communities in which they live. It appears that “the wicked” have prospered, while the righteous followers of God appear to be languishing and suffering under the hands of their oppressors. It makes sense, then, that the psalmist is trying to speak a word of comfort into people’s lives.
 
My friend, the psalmist and songwriter Richard Bruxvoort Colligan paraphrases Psalm 37 by saying a song of his, “Don’t worry about them. Don’t lose any sleep, don’t waste your anger, you just keep on doing your good and don’t stop. Their day is coming. No one is forgotten in the end.”
 
If you read Psalm 37 on a surface level, you might stop there, but there’s another important piece to understand. The second point is that we cannot simply wait and watch while God is exacting revenge on our enemies. The psalm says, “Commit your way to the Lord! [God] will act and will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, your justice like high noon.” We have specific instructions to follow while God is taking care of business. If we do what God asks of us, we’ll receive the reward of justice.
 
That’s all well and good, but as usual, Jesus takes this to another level. He tells us to love our enemies.
 
Love our enemies?
 
So Jesus, let me get this straight. You want me to pray for people who hurt me and literally give them the shirt off my back? Why do they deserve my care and compassion when they have mistreated me?
 
You want people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, the disabled community, women, or others to show kindness to the very same people who would dismiss our equality in churches, schools, and other public spaces? The very same people who see us as lesser humans and use our existence for their political, social, and religious exploitation?
 
I don’t know about you, but to me, this seems like a hard ask. On the surface, it’s as if Jesus wants us to be human doormats, letting those who taunt and demean us walk all over us and take what’s left of what we have. Yet, the theologian Joel B. Green reminds us that this is part of the new way of living Jesus wants to create. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, we see Jesus advocating for a different way to live which might not always be popular, but helps humanity achieve a more equitable, more just society, which works the way God intends.
 
Even though this may not sound like good news on the surface, it’s good when we look at the ramifications.
 
When Jesus asks us to love our enemies, Jesus helps us free ourselves from the vengeance that eats at our souls.
 
Among other reasons, the vengeance that we seek when others hurt us, the anger that we spew at each other, and our constant need to be right, all contribute to why our country, and our world, are polarized. Yet, none of these qualities are part of Jesus’ vision of a fulfilling and productive life. Instead, Jesus invites us to free ourselves from the anger we feel for others, and be in relationship instead. When we are free to be in relationship with others, we have the chance to remind ourselves why the call of Jesus is so compelling to us.
 
Obviously, this is easier said than done. Sometimes our dedication to the call of Christ will ask a lot of us. Today’s media song offers a good example. The person who is picked on for “things they can’t change.” We don’t know exactly what the person can’t change about themselves, but we might be able to take a good guess based on the rest of the song—it could be any number of things. But whatever our differences, it’s so easy to let what makes us different divide us against one another. But I think this song reminds us that there could be another way. It offers a hopeful tone for the future in the face of a country and a world in deep need of that hope. 
 
We could choose to wait for someone’s day of reckoning to come, or we could choose to show love and care for the people who surround us.
 
Even if we don’t like them.
 
Especially if we don’t like them.
 
When we do that, we can more authentically live into the world that Jesus calls us into. “A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into [our] laps. The portion [we] give will determine the portion we receive in return.”
 
We love our enemies in a polarized world by understanding that they are not simply two-dimensional characters. They are more than the labels we so easily assign to them.
 
We love our enemies in a polarized world by understanding that they are people, people who need the love and grace of Jesus Christ, just as much as we do. It may take all we have some days to prevent our cynicism from winning the day. They might make it really hard for us to show care and compassion.
 
But sometimes the most difficult opportunities to practice Christian love are the ones that deepen our faith the most.
 
At our church, we don’t preach a gospel of absolutes. Believe the way we do or else. Act the way we do or else. But that doesn’t mean that society won’t try to challenge us that way. So let this message be what will equip you for the world we live in today. Perhaps one of the most important ways our church can help our community is by providing a space that leans into care for one another instead of divisions and “othering.” Perhaps we can truly be the embodiment of our media song for today. Because the enemies of our life will come, but we can decide how we want to respond to their energy.
 
When I was on vacation this week, one of the attractions that we saw in downtown Boston was a statue called “The Embrace”. This statue is meant to depict Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, embracing one another. The artist Hank Willis Thomas brought this to life, and if you go to the website about this monument, you’ll read that the work was inspired by “the power of collective action, the role of women in the freedom movement, and the forging of solidarity out of mutual empathy and vulnerability.”
 
It's also accompanied by a quote by Reverend Dr. King, which reads: “Love is such a powerful force.It's there for everyone to embrace—that kind of unconditional love for all of humankind. That is the kind of love that impels people to go into the community and try to change conditions for others, to take risks for what they believe in.” This monument seemed appropriate to share in today's message because it references the kind of radical love that Jesus asks of us. Instead of wishing our enemies pain and struggle, we have the opportunity to be in a relationship, and improve the living conditions of people everywhere
 
Friends, may you be freed to put aside your vengeance, your anger, and your frustration for anyone who makes your life difficult. May the call of Jesus Christ challenge you and deepen your faith in equal measure. When you could just as easily turn away, may you have the grace to show love instead. Amen. 

 

 
Cultivating Self-Worth 
August 20, 2023
Sermon for U-CC
Rev. Emma Landowski-Sancomb - guest preacher
 
Opening Prayer: Gracious and loving God, Divine creator and gardener of us all.  Open our hearts and minds.  Help us to let go of all that we need to let go of and to hear all that we need to hear.  May it be so.  Amen 
 
STORY
Our scripture this morning shares an exciting conversation that Jesus had with a group of individuals.  And as Jesus often does, he shares a story.  As we look at the fig tree in the middle of a vineyard, we notice a dynamic relationship between the landowner and the gardener.  There seems to be tension as they argue about what should be done with the fig tree in the middle of this vineyard.  
 
The landowner feels a lot like society…filled with standards of what should be, and expectations to always be producing and not wasting any time or space…why else would there be a fig tree in the middle of a vineyard except to make sure every bit of soil is used?  As soon as the fig tree seems to have no purpose, the landowner feels like it has no other purpose and should be cut down.  
 
On the other hand, we have this caring gardener, who undoubtedly has spent much more time with the fig tree and the gardener is asking for time to pause and care for the soil around the tree.  To nurture it, because they want to see it do well.    
 
And then you have the fig tree, in need of being nurtured and worthy of staying in the garden despite not producing any fruit.  
 
I wonder what it might look like if we placed ourselves in the roots of the fig tree that hasn’t produced fruit in the last 3 years, and are surrounded by a beautiful vineyard, how might we feel? What might we notice? Would you be uncomfortable? Feel a sense of pressure or shame? 
 
Sometimes we find ourselves in places or situations where society tries to make us feel like we don’t belong or we aren’t worthy enough. Or our family and “friends” try to hold us to unrealistic standards and expectations in an effort to make us look or think or act more like them. 
 
In the song, “Yellow” that we heard earlier, we find a message of care to someone who struggles with their self-worth. In the parable of the fig tree,
Jesus reminds the disciples not to cut down the fig tree that isn’t producing, because it may bear fruit in the future “turning into something beautiful” as the song says.
 
Likewise, in the movie clip from “How to Train Your Dragon”, the character Hiccup longs to be respected by his father, and by his tribe. The Isaiah passage affirms that God invites everyone, as they are, to join in God’s bounty and share in God’s work in the world. And we see this again from Jesus as he tells the disciples not to cut down the fig tree but to prune and nurture it instead.   
 
Like the main character, Hiccup, in the movie clip, we are all invited to learn that we don’t have to be different than we are to please God.  We don’t have to become something we aren’t to please God.   We are actually invited to be our authentic selves.
 
So, despite what the landowner says, the gardener makes it pretty clear that the fig tree belongs. 
 
So, if we are ever wondering about who or what can take up space…and we ask  ourselves,  
Who is worthy of being present? 
Who is worthy of receiving support or care? 
Who gets a second or third chance? 
 
Might we remember that Jesus encouraged even the fig tree which wasn’t producing any fruit, to be nurtured and cared for?  
 
Just because we live in a society that praises productivity and hard work.  While judging and looking down on those who don’t meet social expectations,  Or discriminating against people who have a physical or mental ability that is different from the social norm. 
 
That doesn’t mean that we need to conform to those expectations.   
 
Why do we feel like everyone needs to be able to “contribute” something to the community in order to be worthy? And why is it always so difficult to ask for help when we are in need?  This tension often pulls communities apart rather than bringing people who need each other closer together. 
 
Why has our worth become so tied up in our productivity? 
 
In our Isaiah text, we hear that all are invited to an abundant life.  It doesn’t matter what you have or don’t have.  
 
If you are thirsty, 
 come to the waters;
and if you have no money, it doesn’t matter….
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.
 
Wouldn't that be lovely! Wouldn't that be wonderful if we could just show up, just as we are?! Without any worry for what others might think or expect of us? 
 
What do we need to do to detangle our worth from our productivity? 
 
As a denomination, we have acknowledged that, whoever you are or wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.  But what if we really lived into that in every aspect of our life?  What if we treated OURSELVES with such love? 
 
What if the collective We acknowledged that we are all worthy of being cared for. Or that if, like in the book of Isaiah, we were thirsty and all had clean water to drink. Or were able to get food despite a lack of money.  
 
What if we saw the worth of ourselves and each other the way God sees us? 
 
To practice self worth is indeed a practice because it requires dedication to oneself.  It requires us to acknowledge that we are beloved children of God made in the image of the Divine.  
 
Psychologist, Author and Podcast host, Dr. Adia Gooden offered a TEDx conversation focused on cultivating a sense of unconditional self-worth.  She shared that, 
“unconditional self-worth is the sense that you deserve to be alive, to be loved and cared for, and to take up space.” 
 
You  deserve to  be alive.  You deserved to be loved and cared for.  You desire to take up space. For some of us, this may be a hard message to hear or believe.  So, I want  to invite us to practice believing these words.  
You are invited to take up space here. Open your heart and your chest.  Take  a deep breath. Notice where we are and notice those that are present with us?  
As you take another breath, I want to either invite you to soften your gaze or close your eyes and begin to imagine that you are grounded in the earth.  Your roots are going deep into the soil.  Draw an imaginary circle around you and fill that circle with love, support, strength.  
 
Take a deep breath 
Stretch your arms out 
Open your chest 
Open your heart 
Focus on your breath 
 
Now if you are willing, I invite you to place your hand on your heart and close your eyes.  Softly and out loud, say: 
“I am worthy” 
“I am worthy  of taking up space” 
“It is okay for me to rest” 
“I can be patient with myself” 
“I am worthy of being alive” 
“I love myself” 
“I am a beloved child of God” 
“I am enough” 
 
Taking another deep breath, you are invited to come back to this space when you are ready.  This is just one way we can practice self-worth. Dr. Adia offers several other examples of how we can practice self worth.  
 
She talks about the need to forgive ourselves and practice self-acceptance.  She also talks about being there for ourselves and connecting to supportive people.  
 
How might you practice this?  What patterns need to be broken or which systems need to be changed in order to show up more presently to ourselves and each other?  
 
Is it connecting with people in your life that fill your spirit with love and joy? Or setting boundaries with those that don’t? 
 
Is it visiting a place that makes you feel grounded or safe? 
 
Maybe it is simply allowing yourself to take a nap and rest. 
 
Rest, it allows space for healing…it allows us to be more human!   I’m reminded of the story of Elisha in 1 Kings, where he is reminded by the angel to step away into the cave, to take naps and to eat.  Once we do this, we are so much more able to show up for ourselves and other people.  We could turn to several other texts in scripture where Jesus encourages us to rest, or is found napping himself! 
 
We are created, in our bodies, to be connected to other bodies.  To be present and show up for each other.  When we get so caught up in the busyness of life, we forget to be present in our bodies.  It is essential that we allow ourselves time to rest.  
 
It’s amazing how we can show up so differently when we do. 
 
Can you imagine if we all focused on nurturing our soil right now?  If we spent time digging up the soil around ourselves for the sake of providing healing and rest for another year? What if we encouraged others to nurture their  soil too. What might be composted, repurposed, or simply let go of? 
 
Friends, at the end of the day, Jesus reminds us that we are all worthy of being loved and cared for.  Each and every one of us.  We are worthy of rest and nutrients because we have a God who is such a beautiful gardener.  A gardener that has called each of us good.  
 
So, as we go out into our day and week, know that you have been created good. 
 
And you are deeply loved, just as you are.  
 
Closing Prayer: God of love, I give you thanks for this beautiful community.  May you be with them this day and every day, reminding them that they are worthy simply because they are your beloved children.  Amen.
 

 

“Doubting Our Faith: Holding Us Back or Moving Us Forward?”
Sermon for U-CC Waupun, August 13, 2023
Pentecost 11A
 
Focus Statement: While we may doubt our faith at times, the moments of doubt we experience actually give us the opportunity to dive deeper.
 
Several of you know that one of my first work experiences in the ministry world was working on the summer staff at Daycholah Center, which was then called Pilgrim Center. As a summer staffer, I rotated between counseling, maintenance and kitchen duties, and learned lots of valuable lessons along the way.
 
One of the most important lessons came in my first summer there. As a counselor, there would be a form to fill out at the beginning of the summer indicating which camps you wanted to work with. You wouldn't necessarily get all of your wishes, but at least you could have a say in the kinds of groups you wanted to counsel. There was also a spot on that form to write down the groups a person didn't feel they would be best suited for.
 
I didn't feel like I had the energy to keep up with little kids. I don't have as much physical stamina as some of my coworkers. I couldn't run as fast or as far. So I wrote down that I didn't feel like working with younger kids was going to be the best for me. I said that I would most likely prefer to work with middle or high schoolers.
 
But Mike, the Executive Director at the time, had other ideas. Very first week of camp, I was assigned to Grandparent and Me camp—the camp with children whose ages ranged from kindergarten through third grade, and their grandparents.
 
So I asked him: Why did you put me here? Im happy to do whatever you want, but…isnt there someone else who would do a better job?”
 
Why do you think you wouldn't do a good job?” he asked. I told him my concerns, and he listened intently. He validated my feelings, but then he told me what he saw.
 
He said, You have both the energy and patience to work with young kids, while also being able to speak with authority to grandparents as they adjust to the camp lifestyle. I'm asking you to trust me just this once, and if it doesn't work out we can do something else in the future. But I just want you to try it.”
 
“Okay, if you say so,” I said.
 
The very first night of camp, I was playing tag with a little girl and we were running down the hill. I lost my balance and fell flat on my face on the ground! We were wondering if I might have a concussion, and I thought to myself at first but this is exactly what I was talking about.
 
But then something shifted. By the end of that half week of camp, the kids loved playing and singing and being silly with me, and despite the little mishap, I didn’t get a concussion and I had lots of fun at the same time. So throughout the three years I served on staff, I was one of the first people that Mike would assign to a grandparent army camp, and many of my coworkers began to see in me what Mike saw, and looked to me for guidance as we worked with the kids.
 
In a way, I might have felt like Peter in today's gospel text. I was cynical and even nervous. And then, when I fell playing tag, I began to doubt even more. Like Peter, my doubts were holding me back from trusting myself, and trusting that Mike would not put me in a position where he knew I would fail. So today I'm going to talk about how we think about doubting our faith. Sometimes it might hold us back. Sometimes it might give us new understandings. And when we put it all together, maybe both might be true at the same time.
 
Peter shows his doubt that Jesus has come back by initiating a test. “If you really are who you say you are, Jesus, make me do something I could never do without you. Make me walk on water.”
Jesus pretty much responds, “OK, you asked for it. Come over here.”
 
Here's Jesus calling Peter's bluff! It's like that saying, be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it. He then falls and starts to sink, pleading with Jesus to rescue him. Our scripture almost ends with Jesus scolding Peter for not believing it was truly him.
 
This could also be seen as an argument for why it's wrong to doubt our faith in Jesus. There's solid biblical evidence for this viewpoint in this text.
 
In fact, that was the most important piece I saw in the text about a month ago when I originally planned to preach on this text. It was only in the media meeting that somebody reminded me there could be another way to look at this. I was originally going to talk about how doubting our faith holds us back from true growth, but one of our media team members said, “Wait a minute, Pastor. Is that really all there is, or does doubting our faith help us grow?” And I’m glad she said that, because sometimes pastors need a reminder too.
 
She reminded me of the last verse of the story, where the disciples begin to understand that it really is Jesus appearing to them and calling out to them. “You must be God’s Son!” they cry. They place their cynicism aside and allow themselves to be enlightened by new understanding. I can only imagine that this would've been an utterly foundational moment for them, especially for Peter.
 
Some Christianity preaches the virtue of unquestioning obedience. Doubting God is bad. Doubting our faith is bad. Asking questions is bad. If we question our faith, that must mean that our faith is not strong or deep enough, or that we don't believe that the Bible has enough authority in our lives today. Some of these teachings might sound familiar to some of us who were raised in more strict Christian upbringings.
 
But this scripture could be interpreted as a way to turn that on its head. In fact, the faith of the disciples was strengthened in this encounter, rather than weakened.
 
As it turns out, this discussion of whether doubt helps or hurts us is a common part of the human experience. In today’s song by the Avett Brothers, I'm particularly drawn to the second verse, where they sing,
“There's a darkness upon me that's flooded in light
In the fine print they tell me what's wrong and what's right
And it comes in black and it comes in white
And I'm frightened by those that don't see it”
The way I interpret this is that the “black and white”, binary thinking, the certainty that we cling to in society, prevents us from giving the gray areas their proper attention. When we stop allowing our doubt to hold us back, we have a better opportunity to grow.
 
I believe our faith is the same. While we may doubt our faith at times, the moments of doubt we experience actually give us the opportunity to dive deeper. I doubted myself, I doubted my abilities, and I really doubted my supervisor in my opening story. But I learned a lesson that would shape my life and my career for the better.
 
What about you, or what about us?
 
I would imagine that, if we're honest with ourselves, most of us could point to at least one time in our lives when we have doubted our faith, or doubted that God or Jesus was with us in our time of need. But it's clear to me right now that all of us sitting here today, whether in these pews or online, have been able to utilize that doubt to strengthen our faith, rather than suppress it. As I've been getting to know people in this church, I've heard several stories with a similar theme, that this community of faith was a refuge in their lives when they need it at most. How can we continue to use our situations of doubt to strengthen the faith of this church? How can we welcome other people who are at a vulnerable point in their faith journey and remind them that the questions are part of a commitment to that journey?
 
May you know that you and your doubts are loved by God, and may you feel the strengthening of your faith through the questions and doubts you wrestle with. Amen.
 
 
 
“Wrestling a Blessing”
Sermon for UCC-Waupun, August 6, 2023
Genesis 32:22-31 , Pentecost 10A
 
Focus statement: God gives us great blessings through our faith, but sometimes we have to wrestle to get there.
 
My Uncle Tom (my dad’s brother) and I have a very close relationship. I learned something new from him almost every time we see each other, whether it's about his life's philosophy, his sense of spirituality, or what he's learned along the way. In many ways, Uncle Tom has felt like a stranger in a strange land his entire life. He grew up in a devout Christian family, and he even went to seminary at the end of eighth grade with the goal of becoming a missionary. That all changed when he learned that, for some Christians, being a missionary entailed going to a foreign country, carrying with him all of America's privileges and affluence, and telling these poor, uneducated people that they had it all wrong. Instead, he was supposed to show them the right way to live. 
 
But that didn't sit well with Uncle Tom. He didn't really believe that he had the right to tell people from another country what they were missing out on, because he himself didn't truly believe he had all the answers. Instead, he noticed how hypocritical organized religion can sometimes be: saying we have all the answers and then treating people like garbage if they don’t believe the same things we do. He has since left organized religion altogether in search of something he could get behind, something that felt more generous.
 
That's why I was so honored by his support of my ministry journey. Long before I got ordained, he asked me lots of questions about what I believed and what the process was like to get ordained, far more questions than most people would be interested to know. Then he told me that not only would he drive eight hours from Ohio to attend that service, but that he would be one of the happiest and proudest people there. For him, my ordination symbolized something deeper, something that he had been searching and hoping for.
 
I tell this story not to toot my own horn, or because I think I'm so great. I would love it if my ministry brought hope to people, and helped them see that could be a different way to practice religion from saying one thing and doing another, but that’s not the point. Instead, I tell this story because my Uncle Tom is a man who wrestled with what he believed, and still found something, and someone, he could support, even though he and I approach things differently. He’s even attended worship at this church. The gray-haired man with the ponytail even had notes for me after listening to my sermon that day!
 
Of course, today's Scripture talks a lot about wrestling. It's such a strange text that we’re left to wonder what really happened. Who did Jacob wrestle? What is it just a man? Was it an angel of God? Was it actually God? Did it even happen at all? Are we supposed to take this literally, or figuratively?
 
So many questions! My mind would turn to mush having to answer them all, and you all don’t want to be here for hours and hours. But this story is significant both because of who Jacob is, what he has done, and what happens at the end of the story. 
 
The rest of the book of Genesis depicts Jacob regularly as a troublemaker. Earlier, he tricked his brother Esau into giving up his inheritance as the oldest son. He conspires with his mother so that his father will give him his brother’s blessing at the last moments of his life. He tricked his father-in-law to become very rich. He sounds a lot like the person our song is about today. The person in the song takes anything he likes, got wise in his ways, is too good to be true, marches to the beat of his own drum, and doesn't care who he uses as collateral damage along the way. And yet, he cries, “somebody save my soul!”
 
It's what happens at this vulnerable moment that changes Jacob’s entire perspective.
 
The text doesn't specify exactly who Jacob wrestled, but it was clear to Jacob that whoever this was with someone sent from God. This was the inflection point that caused Jacob to turn over his life to God.
 
It's at this point that the text turns, and we get to the verse that has been rattling around in my head all week long: “I won't let you go until you bless me.”
 
Jacob asks for a blessing of his own. This time, it's one that he actually deserves. The form of blessing he receives is a new name, a new identity, that is inspired by this pivotal moment. He is renamed Israel, which is translated as either “God struggles” or “one who struggles with God”. In turn, Jacob names the place “face of God,” because it's in this place that he believes he sees God for the first time.
 
What's so interesting to me about this text is that the blessing comes from the wrestling. So often, when we think about our greatest blessings, we think about things that make us warm and happy inside. A loving family, and the friends or chosen family we have beside us. Food to eat. Clothes to wear. Sufficiency to live comfortably within our means. 
 
But it strikes me that most of the blessings we enjoy don't come without work, or some amount of wrestling. Keeping the spark alive in our relationships. Being mindful of the needs of others. Doing honest, hard work to meet our basic needs.
I would say that our faith asks the same thing of us. God gives us great blessings through our faith, but sometimes we have to wrestle to get there.
 
Jacob left his self-seeking schemes behind in order to grow in his faith. My Uncle Tom saw a glimpse of hope when he had experienced great hypocrisy in the Christian faith. But none of that just happened. It required work, and wrestling, and wondering.
 
What are we wondering about and wrestling with here, at Union-Congregational Church in Waupun, in this particular time?
 
For starters, each of us come from different backgrounds, and we’re all trying to do the best we can to discern how God calls us to be the church in the world.
 
In your church profile that your search committee put together in this most recent search process, you wrote that God seemed to be calling you toward enhancing our reputation of inclusion and meeting people where they are in their faith lives.
 
Friends, enhancing that reputation and accompanying people on their spiritual journeys invites us to wonder and dream together. It invites us into some important work. What spaces can we create for meaningful discernment? How do we hold different views, yet remain in connection? How do we ensure that those who need it most, those most vulnerable in our communities, experience safety, care, and belonging in our ministries? 
 
I won’t pretend that this kind of thing is easy. But I’m convinced that doing this discernment together will bless us in ways we can’t yet imagine.
 
One way I saw blessings at work this week was through our VBS Family Night. The institutional church has wrestled with how we’re going to engage children and families in a post-pandemic world, and the joy in our children’ faces and our volunteers’ hearts was absolutely infectious. I’m excited about how this ministry will continue to grow.
 
Finally, as individuals, we may have our own things to wrestle, myself included. Several times over this past year, I’ve wrestled things that continue to refine me, making me a better person and a better pastor. It hasn’t come without its challenges, but I have opportunities to learn, to wait, and to hope.
 
So you’re not alone. We’re in this together. May we all wrestle with the things God calls us to do, and to be. May we also take heart, for after the wrestling there are blessings beyond our imagining. New names. New starts. New opportunities. And like Isreal, maybe even new life. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 
 
 
“No, Really…NOTHING Can Separate Us From God’s Love”
Sermon for U-CC Waupun, July 30, 2023, Pentecost 9A
Romans 8: 26-39
 
Focus statement: Regardless of what the world might tell us, nothing can separate us from God’s love. We are called to share the expansiveness of that love in everything we say and do.
 
As some of you know, when I was on vacation this last week I went to St. Louis to participate in the ordination service for one of my best friends from seminary. This is my friend, who is now the Rev. Tim Powers-Reed as of a week ago today. On the screen, you’ll see a picture of him and me together. His pastors a church called Trinity United Church of Christ in Belleville, Illinois, which is at the southernmost tip of Illinois right before you get to St. Louis. I’m a good friend (and I’m also a nerd), so I preached on my vacation so he didn’t have to preach on his ordination day!
 
If you go to the next slide, you'll see a picture of me singing during the ordination service with my dear friend Rev. Tarrah Vaupel, along with Tim’s husband, Shea.
 
Next, you'll see all the clergy who gathered to celebrate Tim's ordination and installation in one service. Some people there said that it was the most clergy they had seen at an ordination service in recent memory. If you recall, they said the same thing about mine back in March!
 
The last picture I'll show you is based on a hobby Tim enjoys. He got a Cricut machine and enjoys designing t-shirts for friends. One of the T-shirts he made for me is pictured here, and it says, “Warning: may suddenly start talking about theology.” I think I’ll wear that to VBS Family Night on Wednesday!
 
Tim gave me permission to share some of his story, which I think ties in quite well with our scripture for today.
 
Tim's ordination was distinct in the fact that he is the first openly queer person to be ordained by the Illinois South Conference of the United Church of Christ. He also experienced his call to ministry for the first time while being incarcerated in 2016. A major theme of his ordination was the understanding that he was redeemed from his past failures, and dedicating his life to serving God in this very important way.
 
But it's also true that Tim was quite nervous that somebody, somewhere, would try to stand in the way of his ordination process because of his past. With the combination of homophobia and complicated perceptions of incarcerated individuals in this country, he thought for sure that someone would come out of the woodwork and say, “Oh no! Not him.”
 
Not only was his ordination process able to go forward without that interruption, but I think it's pretty clear by the number of people who were there supporting him that he is deeply, deeply called to this work. I couldn't be more proud of the friend, colleague, and brother that I have.
 
I want to point out that some preachers avoid talking about Paul's writings altogether, because of his questionable and even homophobic theology at times. Paul himself may even bristle at the fact that I'm using Tim's story in juxtaposition with his writings. But this is one of the more important and well-known Scriptures in the Bible and still offers fresh assurance even now. So, I’ll talk a little bit about where Paul was coming from when he wrote this and then talk more about what this means in our modern context.
 
First, it’s written, “We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.” And later, connected to that: “Those whom he called, he also made righteous. Those whom he made righteous, he also glorified.”
 
God working all things together for good does not mean that everything about our life will be good, that the rain won’t fall or trouble won’t come to find us. The most important thing that we can trust here is that God is at work, even in the midst of those difficulties. An argument could be made that God is with people especially in those seasons when they are most vulnerable. God is most especially with the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, and the needy, and God will use our stories, and our very lives, as a testament to what God can do in the world.
 
Even after the death of Jesus, after all, it was a hard time to be a Christian. The Roman government was even more angry at the Jesus movement after Jesus rose again and appeared to his followers. Paul was not an original disciple, but he calls himself a disciple because he wants to carry on the Jesus movement after Jesus himself has ascended to heaven. These early Christians lived with the constant threat of a Roman government that so desperately wanted to wipe out any traces of threats to their power. Paul quotes earlier Scripture as he writes to the Romans, saying, “As it is written, we are being put to death all day long for your sake. We are treated like sheep for slaughter.” These early Christians also understood that it was their job to carry on the Jesus movement, even in the midst of that opposition. Especially in the midst of that opposition. Doing so would require dangerous living. But Paul says that all things will work together for the good of those who love God because he believes that God's people will ultimately be rewarded in the end.
 
Even in the midst of oppression, even his trouble continues to come their way, Paul says that people who love God will emerge victorious from any trial they face and that nothing in the world will be in their way. He says, “Im convinced that nothing can separate us from Gods love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.”
 
In today's media song, “God of the Moon and Stars”, we encounter groups of people who might have a dubious reputation in our society. And yet, God has enough love for even the prostitute, the pedophile, the refugee, and the junkie, just as much as God has enough love for you and me, or for those whom society views as better people. 
 
We don’t have to wonder what God will make of us, or what God will think of our failures or our aimlessness because God has already decided that all that’s left is to love us and to remind us that we are made for a purpose. For my friend Tim, that purpose was to use his story and his witness in the context of ordained ministry in the United Church of Christ. He’s even writing a blog, called PastorTalk.net, which is attracting readers from all over the world.
 
And what’s true for Tim or for the Romans is also true of us. Regardless of what the world might tell us, nothing can separate us from God’s love. We are called to share the expansiveness of that love in everything we say and do.
 
This church has a reputation in the community for being a church that welcomes people who are searching for a place they can experience God’s love when maybe they haven’t experienced it in other places. And I think we’re trying to work towards ways we can embody that kind of all-expansive love. Learning about the WISE designation. Working with community organizations to provide basic needs to those who need it most.
 
How do you feel called to contribute to that work?
 
Maybe this church has been a refuge for you at a vulnerable time in your life and you now feel called to share the good news of God’s love with others. Maybe you’re navigating some questions on your faith journey.
 
May you take courage and hope in the all-inclusive, inseparable love of God. May you be empowered to make the world better because of the sweeping victory you have in Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Union-Congregational Church
Waupun, WI 
July 23, 2023
Sermon by Emma Landowski-Sancomb (filled in for Pastor Jacob Nault due to his being on vacation)
 
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
I’m curious if we have any gardeners in this space? Anyone with pets? People who like to spend time outside? 
I’d like you to think for a moment, what does your relationship with other animals or plants look like? How do you make space for them and how does your life impact them? 
 
How does your spiritual life inform your choices and actions when it comes to the rest of creation?  
I have always had a love for nature and gardening but have only recently been in a space where I can actually care for my own garden.  My husband and I purchased our first house last May and had four raised garden beds in the ground before we had furniture in our house! Our garden was so successful that we decided we would at a minimum, double it this year.  Well,  it grew a bit more than that…we have 8 raised garden beds for veggies, one large in-ground garden bed for veggies, a garden for all of our berries and a native butterfly garden.  Oh, and we planted a pear tree! To say we got excited about gardening is an understatement.  We’ve had lots of learning curves.  We’ve failed at  some things and other areas have been really fruitful! 
 
One of the things I have been fascinated by during this current growing season is how our cucumbers that did so well last year are struggling the most this year.  We’ve also had a tomato plant pop up in the midst of our cucumbers and the tomato is quite happy where it is.  We thought about moving it, but why disturb something that is doing so well? 
We live in a society that likes to think very black and white.  You’re either a “good seed” or you’re a “bad seed” and if you’re a bad seed, then, well, you’re going to burn in hell.  But in the world of gardening, and in the world of being connected to the ecosystem we are a part of, it’s so much more complex than that…or maybe so much more simple? 
 
You see, the definition of a weed is any plant growing where it is not wanted. 
This definition can apply to crops, native plants as well as non-native species. If it is considered to be a nuisance where it is growing, it can be termed a weed. However, weeds are not just unwanted species; they can have substantial negative impacts when they are present. Weeds can effectively compete with crop species, can lower yields, increase labor requirements and, ultimately, increase food costs for the consumer (Klingman and Ashton, 1975).
 
So maybe we should have moved the tomato plant away from the cucumbers? 
What I appreciate about this definition is that it acknowledges that weeds aren’t inherently bad and there is no list of “weeds” that is universal.  It depends on your context and your intentions.  
Speaking of intentions, another characteristic that determines the “weediness” of a species is the ability to colonize under high sunlight and low soil moisture conditions. So what might scripture be saying to us about our relationship to the land and how we care for it? 
 
I think our scripture today might have some guidance for us.  But I should acknowledge that when I read this text, it can sometimes feel aggressive hearing words like “the devil”, “sin” and burning in the “furnace of fire". But then I remember that everything has a context and intentions.  It can be helpful to remember that even sin can be translated to a tragic flaw or missing the mark and the devil can be translated to a mischievous or self-willed person.  
 
I’d like to invite you to hold onto the importance of context and intentions as we think back to our own gardens for an example.  Think about the weeds you might find.  I don’t know about you, but I’m picturing dandelions right now.  I’m sure many of you have had your fair share of frustrations with dandelions, because they are growing where you don’t want them to be growing.  But did you know that dandelions actually have many nutritious aspects too! They support liver health, improve cellular health, reduce inflammation, protects against illness, improves gut health, keeps kidney stones at bay, battles bloating and helps treat urinary tract infections.  So in the right place, with the right intentions, dandelions can be healing.  
 
Even though some may consider them a weed, you can also buy them in tea form off of Amazon!  
But that’s just dandelions, I want to invite you to think about other aspects of the world that you are a part of, the people and other beings you interact with in your own ecosystem.  What frustrates you, frightens you or even angers you? How do you deal with them? How do they deal with you? Is there an invitation for making peace or setting a boundary? 
 
I’m wondering if this parable might be an invitation to ourselves and each other towards accountability, healthy communication and knowing when something needs to change.  After all, we are a part of a whole ecosystem and we are called to function in harmony with all beings around us. If one of us or a group of us is functioning in a way that impacts the growth of the rest of the community, what harm are we causing?  This doesn’t mean we are inherently bad, it simply means that something needs to change, a shift needs to happen to allow for healthier growth.  Even the ashes from the bundles that were burnt can be repurposed by fertilizing the soil.  
 
Are there aspects of your life that could use some composting or burning right now? Some areas that could be repurposed into something new? Maybe you’re feeling like it's time for a change in your career or you’ve been putting off a necessary conversation with a family member because you don’t want to “rock the boat”.  Maybe it's setting a boundary with yourself or setting up that doctor's appointment you’ve been pushing off. 
 
Navigating our ecosystem of life can be challenging.  It requires awareness and reflection.  It invites us into vulnerable spaces and asks hard questions.  It can also be beautiful and powerful.  It can be brave and magical.  But when we open ourselves to cycles of the ecosystem and allow the energy to flow, we begin to grow in harmony with those around us.  
 
I’ve recently been reading the book Braiding Sweetgrass.  The author, Robin Wall Kimmer, is a mother, scientist, and citizen of the Potawatomi Nation.  One of the stories she shares in her book is about the relationships of the “three sisters”: the corn, beans, and squash, and how they so beautifully grow together. Supporting each other in their different ways. She shares that it’s “tempting to imagine that these three are deliberate in working together, and perhaps they are.  But the beauty of the partnership is that each plant does what it does in order to increase its own growth.  But as it happens, when the individuals flourish, so does the whole.”  The corn provides a stalk for the beans to climb, the squash provides large leaves that keep the moisture in the ground and the roots of the beans create a nitrogen fertilizer that fuels the soil and supports the growth of the corn and the squish.
 
Everything in our ecosystem has a different purpose. But if we end up doing things we aren't meant to, we can not only hurt ourselves but there can be negative impacts on the communities around us.  So how do we hold each other accountable, grow together with healthy communication, and know when and how to set healthy boundaries? 
 
I’d like to close with words from Robin’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass. She offers this example of how to live in the “right relationship” with those around us.  She shares: Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.  Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life. Ask permission before taking it. Abide by the answer. Never take the first. Never take the last. Take only what you need.  Take only that which is given. Never take more than half. Leave some for others. Harvest in a way that minimizes harm. Use it respectfully.  Never waste what you have taken.  Share. Give thanks for what you have been given. Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken. Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.
 
May we learn the lessons the Earth has to teach us? May it be so.  Amen. 

 

“Words of Hope, Words of Harm, and Strong Foundations”
Sermon for U-CC Waupun, 7/16/2023, Pentecost 7A
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

 

Focus statement: God gives us the opportunity to grow our faith with a strong foundation. Just as much, we have a responsibility to live out that faith with integrity and avoid abusing others because of our interpretations of God's word.

Before I start my sermon, I’m letting you know I’m going to be talking in a little while about the misuse of Biblical text as spiritual abuse. I believe I must call it what it is, so I’m not going to water down the language, but I do want to offer that in case someone here has been subject to such degradation.

My Grandma Nault had a green thumb. One of my very first experiences of how gardens worked was watching her lovingly tend her vegetable garden. She regularly grew cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, and several other vegetables for all of us in our family to enjoy. Often, times she would can them, or make cucumbers into pickles, which was one of my favorite things.

Because we lived five minutes from my Grandma Nault, part of the educational experience was putting the seeds in the ground. She explained the entire process of how putting the seeds in the ground, and how water and sunlight would help them grow. My favorite part of planting the seeds was when she told us to stomp on the seeds to put them into the ground. I loved that part so much that she finally had to say, “OK, OK, I think that's enough!”

After doing the fun part, stomping the seeds in, she talked to us about how important it was to keep up the work so that the vegetables would grow. Throughout the summer, sometimes she would show us how to water the garden, and later she would show us how to know when it was time to harvest. She would put in most of the work of course, but I still felt a sense of ownership in being involved in the process in some way.

In his parable, Jesus makes a parallel between what it means to tend a garden with water, sunlight, and patience, and to tend our faith with God's word. Parables are one of Jesus's favorite teaching methods because they take a concept that would otherwise be quite abstract, and contextualize it into something that those who will listen have a better chance of understanding. The lectionary for this month really likes to talk about gardens, plants, and faith, so I'll try not to be too repetitive. But this particular text offers me an opportunity to talk about something else that is very important.

Jesus begins by talking about various conditions under which seeds are planted.

For example, the seeds that fall onto the path don't stand a chance, because they don't have the opportunity to be impacted into the soil. If seeds were planted into rocky or thorny ground, they could still grow, but they would encounter other challenges that would make them wither eventually.

For Jesus, the kinds of conditions that seeds need to grow effectively are kind of like our faith.

If we receive God's word in our hearts, but don't understand it enough to live it out, evil forces can come in and I manipulate us. There are so many forces in the world that would like nothing more than to manipulate us.

Take, for example, something that’s consistently told to us throughout the biblical narrative: God loves us just as we are, even as we fall short sometimes of God's will for our lives. If we didn't receive that kind of message, we might truly believe that we need to be taller, skinnier, wealthier, straight, male, able-bodied, or neurotypical.

Next, if our faith is only skin deep, if we don't have a strong foundation on which to base it, we can lose our faith when the rubber hits the road. If we don't have a strong foundation on which to build our faith, what happens when the storms come?

One of the bigger pieces I want to highlight today is the issue of abuse by the word that Jesus talks about. When people are abused by the word, they immediately fall away, he says.

I'm doing my best to tread lightly in this circumstance because the issue of church abuse is very real for many Christians. This is far from a mere hypothetical. For too long, much of Christianity has existed within a sort of purity culture, relegating to the margins far too many diverse groups of people.

If someone is gay, for example, they have several biblical texts thrown at them known as “the clobber texts”. These are several texts that are used to justify homophobia. Many of us would shutter at the thought of the biblical text coming to “clobber” us, but too many people I know don't have to imagine it, because they’ve been subjected to it. It’s possible to find ways to be liberated from it, but as long as humans are involved in organized religion, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that someone will be hurt by it.

If someone is disabled, there exists a myriad of biblical texts that perpetuate the notion that somebody in that person's life has sinned in order for that disability to occur. Worse still, the only way for the individual to experience belonging in biblical society is to be cured of their disability. Today, that manifests in the so-called “healing services” in some Christian traditions, where if a disability is not healed, that individual does not have strong enough faith. The Holy Spirit is not active in their lives.

I've named only two examples of intense spiritual abuse, each backed by the gross misuse of biblical teachings. There are far too many other examples I could've named. The people affected by this kind of abuse are probably as active within our Christian churches as any one of us sitting here. They’re regular attenders in church on Sundays, maybe they serve on committees, and perhaps they even tell a friend to come and join them at their church.

But then someone hurts them because of who God made them to be. The church becomes just one more institution willing to take a stand against them. The faith foundation they’ve claimed, the garden they are growing in, is parched or polluted.

If our faith foundations are shaken by this kind of hateful rhetoric, why would they want to take the risk of coming back to the institutional church?

We might really believe the words we say—“No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”  But those who have been hurt by the church might have reason to be suspect of our welcome, as they have plenty of solid evidence that nothing has changed.

The Biblical teachings that many of us have experienced as words of hope can so easily be turned into words of harm, and what we experience as a strong foundation can crumble down to nothing. Before we judge the reasons why some people haven't come back to church, it might be useful to employ some humility in these kinds of circumstances.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Jesus tells us that those who live our faith with a strong foundation will be fruitful and share the teachings of God through our words and actions. “In one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case, a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one.”

God gives us the opportunity to grow our faith with a strong foundation. Just as much, we have a responsibility to live out that faith with integrity and avoid abusing others because of our interpretations of God's word.

In our media song for today, we experience calling to “be a light.” We are called to use our strong foundations of faith to work towards the world that God wills, a world where there is justice and love for all.

I don’t say these things to scold us. I really do believe that this congregation does a good job of providing a welcoming and caring environment. I say these things because we need to know what we’re dealing with in the institutional church, so we can think about how we share a different message. A message of love, hope, and liberation. We can do this. I know we can.

This week I invite you to think about how your strong foundation empowers you to share the strong love of God and the liberating hope of faith in Jesus Christ. Just like my grandma's garden, it grows over time and it's hard work. But may we continue to do the work, and do it joyfully, so that our world may be further aligned with God’s hope. Thanks be to God. Amen.

“Living ‘The Good Life”
Sermon for U-CC Waupun, 7/9/2023, Pentecost 6A
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30, Romans 8: 15-25a
 
Focus statement: Jesus gives us the opportunity to live a good life, free of burden and waywardness. Jesus also invites us to learn from him.
 
Around the time I got ordained, I told this congregation that I’d be wearing clergy vestments from time to time. I knew that you didn't need me to wear vestments to clarify the relationship that I am your pastor. By then we had worked together for a few months already, and you received me from the start with grace and enthusiasm. But this church’s culture doesn't rely that much on formalities, and in fact, I’ve been advised that maybe it might be a good idea to start preaching in Hawaiian shirts from time to time! 
 
One piece of feedback, which I thought was a good one, was that it might be helpful to the congregation to talk about why pastors wear vestments, and why it felt important to me to make the change at the particular time that I did. I didn't forget about that suggestion, but was waiting for the right moment when it felt like talking about it was a natural tie-in, rather than some tacked-on education piece. But now, as you'll see, my reasoning for doing this coincides with one of our scriptures this morning.
In our gospel text for this morning, Jesus invites those who will listen to place his yoke on their shoulders. If you look up the definition of the word “yoke”, one definition is “a wooden crosspiece that is fastened over the necks of two animals and attached to the plow or cart that they are to pull.” Connected to that is a sub-definition, to describe something that is “regarded as oppressive or burdensome”.
 
My friend, Rev. Joanna D’Agostino, began her sermon at my ordination by likening wearing a stole to a yoke upon her shoulders. “It can feel very heavy, and it can feel very light,” she said. As you know, the stole I'm wearing today is a very special stole to me and connects me deeply to my own spiritual roots as I preach and teach. I also think that it’s the heaviest stole I own right now. It’s weighty. Kind of like ministry.
 
I love this church and its people, and I love this call, so what I’m about to say is not at all a reflection on any of that. But I will admit that it’s hard to be a pastor sometimes. It’s hard to be a pastor when I’m doing my best to preach a message of hope in a world where hope is hard to find. It’s hard to preach a message of love when far too many of God’s beloved children have been shunned by the institutional church—shunned because of their race, their gender identity, sexual orientation, their disability, their socioeconomic status, or other systems humanity uses to put people in a box. It’s hard to preach a message of peace when there is no peace—only war, conflict, and bigotry. And sometimes instead of preaching, it would be easier to have some chocolate, turn on Netflix and take a nap.
 
I'll get to how this connects in a second, but I first want to zoom out a bit.
 
There's a great deal of grace to be found in Jesus taking away our burdens and taking our worries upon himself, but the point can be driven home even further when we look at the text that has been kept for us in Paul's letter to the Romans.
 
If we're honest, many of us would identify with Paul in his letter, at least some of the time. Even when we want to do good, evil is right beside us. We have to stop ourselves from the impulse to act in ways we know are against God's will for our lives. Both individual and systemic shortcomings befall us constantly. Either we individually choose to live in ways that are against God's will, or we as a society fail our most vulnerable people.
 
Our media song for today, “Son of a Sinner” depicts a person who is all too comfortable following his own will. He always says he's going to change his ways, but his impulses get the better of him.
 
But our movie clip from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix gives us a window into some grace. At this point in the Harry Potter saga, Harry is experiencing the most angst of time of his entire life up to this point, while he reconciled with the fact that part of his arch nemesis, the evil Voldemort, is living inside of him. He’s having a conversation with his godfather, Sirius Black, who has a calming influence on him. Let’s watch.
 
At a moment of vulnerability and self-doubt, Harry seeks a caring companion in Sirius. Harry has been reminded, “You're not a bad person. You're a very good person who bad things have happened to.”
 
What if Paul had gotten that grace from Jesus, as he reflected on his own fallibility, and the fallibility of the human condition?
 
How often do we get to hear that, we’re good people, and that we deserve to have our burdens taken away from us by someone who loves us so profoundly?
How would our lives be changed if we got to hear that more often?
 
Jesus gives us the opportunity to live a good life, free of burden and waywardness. Jesus also invites us to learn from him.
I began my sermon with examples of why ministry is difficult, and why the yoke upon my shoulders that I wear every week can feel like a weight. I'm not denying that sometimes it feels like that. But each moment I wear this stole, and others like it. It's a blessing. It's a blessing because I get to be part of the work of Christ, which can provide hope in difficult circumstances, or a presence of companionship for those in grief or crisis. In my own small way, I try to model living “the good life” for people. Not “the good life” in a self-righteous sort of way, as if I have all the answers, but the good life—a life that rests in Christ’s love and leans into Christ’s teachings. That’s a sacred responsibility, one that I don't take lightly. So I could preach without vestments. I have preached without them and I will do so again in the future. But responding to Jesus’ call to wear his yoke upon my shoulders helps me know that I don’t go into this work alone. I’m connected to a long line of those who have come before me, and those who will come after me.
 
This week I invite you to think about how you can live “the good life” where you are. How can you rest in the fact that you are beloved and that you are free to have your burdens taken from you? And then, how can you learn from Christ’s teachings to take his yoke upon your shoulders?
 
May you rest with and learn from your Savior this week. May your yoke be easy and your burdens be light. Amen.
 
 
 

 

“Passing the Test?”
Sermon for U-CC Waupun
July 2, 2023
Genesis 22: 1-14, Pentecost 5A
 
Focus statement: Sometimes our faith will ask us to do unexpected things, but by the grace of God that isn’t the end of the story. How far are we willing to go to demonstrate our faith in God and Christ?
 
After last week’s gospel passage, and after hearing the scripture Linda just read, I wouldn't fault you if you were a little bit nervous about what your pastor is thinking.
 
We've had two weeks in a row of really difficult texts. Isn't church supposed to uplift us? Isn't church supposed to give us a good feeling when we leave and something to think about as we enter into the week? Giving your own son as an entirely burnt offering doesn't exactly give us a window into talking about God’s grace, or God’s love for us on its own. But I'm asking you again to trust me because I do think that even these stories are important to our life of faith, and they have something to teach us.
 
Because the rest of this text is so difficult, I want to give us a taste of the grace at the end, and I'm going to trace that throughout the rest of the message. The grace of this text is found in the last verse, where it reminds us that the name of that mountaintop where Abraham brought Isaac to die is translated as “the Lord sees”. The grace is that God provides, but at first read, that’s hard to catch.
 
Earlier this week, my sermon was called, “Passing the Test,” because it's easy to treat this text in a one-dimensional way, as a moment where God tested Abraham, to see if Abraham would do what God wanted. In fact, that was where my mind went when I first read it. This interpretation would demand Abraham to demonstrate which he loved more, his beloved son Isaac, or his God.
 
As much as we are told in our Christian faith to put God first no matter what, we don't often expect to do so in such a grizzly way. Abraham had to do something that I hope none of us will ever have to endure. None of us would ever want to think about offering up our own children as a sacrifice to God, and yet, this is what Abraham was being asked to do.
 
The theologian Walter Brueggemann colors in some of the lines of this text. Abraham is "an utterly blameless man”, just like Job was when a similar thing happened to him. But unlike Job, we don’t get the emotional arc of this story in the book of Genesis. Did Abraham go up to the mountain immediately after God asked him to do so? Did he pray, or weep, or both, even if at the end he was going to do what God wanted him to do? Apparently, none of these details are important to the story, as the focus shifts to what God is doing in the situation.
 
One of the other important pieces of Abrahams's faith here is that he understands that God will reveal the reason for the sacrifice. Even in the midst of confusion, and probably despair, Abraham understands that God will provide. As they’re going up to the mountain, Isaac notices something is missing, and says, “Hey Dad, didn't you forget something? Where is this lamb we're going to sacrifice?”
 
Abraham replies, “God will see to it,” or as the New Revised Standard Version puts it, “God will provide the offering.”
 
So now the focus shifts from viewing God as the Divine Tester to viewing God as the Divine Provider.
 
This is finally where the grace comes in. My preaching professor at Eden theological seminary always said that sometimes you have to wrestle a blessing out of a text. It may not be immediately apparent, but it's still there. God does provide the lamb for the burnt offering, and by the grace of God, it is not Isaac. By the end of it all, God reveals that this has never been just a game or something God has done out of malice. Walter Brueggemann, in a sense, concludes that there can be testing and providing at the same time.
 
In our media clip for today, we see the climactic peril of the girls who were entrusted to Gru’s care. Gru it's certainly an unlikely caretaker. In fact, he pretty much  epitomizes the exact opposite qualities. But in this moment, the girls must take a leap of faith in order to be rescued. Margo is especially reluctant, remembering the betrayal earlier in the movie, but Gru provides a way out of certain death for them. God may be a better character than Gru in terms of personality traits, but in this story we recognize that our relationship with God is complex and requires us to make difficult choices from time to time.
 
So how do we live this out here, at Union-Congregational Church?
 
It seems to me that a starting point might be to think about two things: the tests we will receive as part of our faith, and God’s provision when we follow God’s will.
 
Going along with the theme of my last couple of sermons, that testing could come in a number of ways. For example, will we truly live out our mission and vision statements, which proclaim that we work towards “deepening our own spirituality with acceptance of all through love and a commitment to Christ?” Will we sacrifice comfort and congeniality, providing a bold welcome to the marginalized, and really meaning it? Will we advocate for all whom Jesus would advocate for—the lost, the least, the marginalized, and the oppressed?
 
Will we love our neighbors through our words and actions, not just through our checkbooks?
 
As Abraham’s faith was tested, our faith—our values and what we say we believe—will be tested also.
 
But God also provides.
 
In a time when the institutional church is changing, when attendance is down from decades ago, when fewer people or engaging in deeper, more meaningful faith formation, and when the expenses of running a church sometimes scare us—God provides.
 
If we truly live out our faith, if we take to heart what we say we believe, God will make a way when there seems to be no way. God will extend grace deeper than we could imagine.
 
By the time I finished writing the sermon, I added a question mark to my title, “Passing the Test.” I found myself questioning whether this scripture was really about passing the test in a one-dimensional way, and if there wasn't also a dimension beyond that.
 
Make no mistake, we may be asked to do difficult things. We may be called the sacrifice. But that doesn't have to be the end of the story. God will provide, and God will love us more than we could ever imagine. As you go through this week, I invite you to think about how to live out your faith in response to that love. May you be tested from time to time. May you remember to focus on what's important—a relationship with your Creator. But may you also remember that it's not just about a test. It's also about the grace that God will provide.
 
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 
 
 
“Your Mission, If You Choose To Accept It…”
Sermon for U-CC Waupun
June 25, 2023
Pentecost 4A, Matthew 10: 24-39
 
Focus Statement: Jesus gives us a difficult call that may divide us from those we love, but in facing and accepting that call, we are welcomed into a love greater than we’ve ever known.
 
I'm going to start off today by acknowledging that this is a grizzly text. It's almost hard to find a modern-day comparison to the words Jesus is saying because his words are so terse and so revolutionary. The closest comparison I can find is the human experience of being misunderstood.
 
Many of us, I suspect, have felt misunderstood because of the calling or career we have accepted. I’ll demonstrate this by using careers I know a lot of people in this congregation have held.
 
For example, if you want, raise your hand if you are or ever have been a school teacher. Any grade, any subject. (Wait for hands)
 
Schoolteachers and professors of all stripes have long been underpaid and under-appreciated. They're treated by some parents as a mere babysitting service, and more recently, they've been dragged into political nonsense they didn't ask for, on the assumption that they are indoctrinating our children. Most don’t truly get the summers “off” that society thinks they do. They just don’t get paid for the work they do during the summer—the lesson planning, the continuing education, or the meeting up with colleagues. The massive teacher burnout after COVID has been no coincidence. But despite all this, many teachers would say to you that it feels like their calling, what God placed them on this Earth to do. The good people in this congregation who have been teachers tell me that they’ve had some of the most rewarding experiences of their life supporting students in the classroom.
 
Now, if you want, raise your hand if you've worked in law enforcement, corrections, or any other job related to the justice system. (Wait for hands)
 
Because of the horrible discrimination and racial profiling that some people in our country have perpetrated, the entire industry has been accused of abusing its power and holding unfair agendas. From what I’ve been told by the many good people in this congregation who have worked in the industry, many might be hurt by such a broad characterization. They work very hard to see the humanity in all people, regardless of where they’ve been or what they’ve done up to this point. So they would not want to be lumped together with the people that commit these heinous acts of injustice. But despite all this, many people in this industry would say to you that it feels like their calling, what God placed them on this Earth to do. They truly want to build safe and caring communities and protect them to the best of their ability, and as much as possible, rehabilitate people to become productive citizens once again.
 
On a more lighthearted note, I would be a very rich man if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me, mostly jokingly, “So we know what you do on Sundays. What do you do the other six days of the week?”
 
In today's scripture text, Jesus talks in very stark terms how about dividing families based on who believes in him and who doesn't. This is one of the few times, that Jesus does not come to bring peace, healing, or harmony to the world. But instead, he brings a sword. A sword that will sever family relationships or any other relationship that is in competition with a person's relationship with Jesus Christ. This is far from an easy calling. Normally, we would call it abusive (or at least emotionally manipulative) if anybody asked us to choose between having a relationship with them, or having a relationship with our families. Most of us would probably dismiss the person faster than you can say, "Don't let the door hit you on the way out.” And to top it all off, Jesus says something that’s difficult to understand: “You who have found your life will lose it, and you who lose your life for my sake will find it.” How could anyone say such a thing and be taken seriously?
 
But this isn't just anyone. This is Jesus we're talking about. The man who came in our ancestors in their most desperate times, saying that he came so we all would have life, and have it to the fullest. The man who did extraordinary and unexplainable things. The man who taught us how to live in relationship with one another.
 
Jesus helped us experience a kind of love we could never fathom. Sometimes responding to that love will cause us to be misunderstood. Jesus advocated for the lost, the least, the marginalized, and the oppressed – people whom most of society would not dare associate themselves with.
 
In each circumstance, Jesus was misunderstood. Jesus made it very clear that he would not play by the set of rules set forth by the Roman government, as to who was worthy of the love of God. Similarly, many of our more progressive churches often find ourselves in the hot seat.
 
“Do you really believe that it’s right to welcome gay people into your church? Haven’t you read the Bible?” And yet, many people in the UCC, and other denominations, would respond with, “of course—we’re all God’s children and deserve to be treated as such.”
 
Or perhaps people might say, “Do you really believe rejecting racism is a religious issue?” And yet, many people in the UCC, and other denominations, would respond with, Of course—as Paul said, there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, because we’re all one in Christ.”
 
And finally, one might say, “do you really believe the unique needs of people with disabilities or mental health concerns should be accommodated in our churches? Isn’t that going to be too expensive?”  And yet, many people in the UCC, and other denominations, would respond with, Of course—our worship spaces and programming should be accessible and inclusive to all who wish to be part of them.”
 
I could go on, but the point is this: Sometimes, when we’re included in a love so wide and welcoming, sometimes we're going to be misunderstood. There is a cost to discipleship. Progressive churches like ours might be called to lose the life of comfort, or ease, or “church as we’ve always done it.” We might instead follow Christ, who ushers in new possibilities, and new hope, even though sometimes that hope is found in making bold statements or difficult decisions together. Jesus gives us a difficult call that may divide us from those we love, but in facing and accepting that call, we are welcomed into a love greater than weve ever known.
 
In today's media song, "I'm Not for Everyone”, it’s almost as if Jesus was writing a country song. He would've been better off biting his tongue sometimes. Maybe he wouldn't have gotten killed. Sometimes, like in this text, Jesus can be a little rough. He's good for some, or even for many, but he admits that he's not for everyone.
 
Going back to my earlier illustration, being a teacher, a correctional officer, or any number of different occupations that require some sacrifice—aren't for everyone, and they often cause us to be misunderstood.
 
But here's the good news: because we respond to that love, Jesus knows us in a way we could never imagine. Jesus knows how many hairs we have on our heads, and considers us more important than any other species of nature. God and Christ love us more deeply than we could ever imagine.
 
So this week, your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to follow Jesus Christ, even when it's hard. Even when it divides you from others. Even when you're misunderstood. It's OK to be nervous. It's OK to even be a little bit uncomfortable. But may you know that, in all this, you were held in the love and grace of God, which is deeper than anything you could ever fathom. May you be prepared to lose the life that society gives you, in favor of the fulfilling life that Christ will give you. May it be so. Amen.
 
 
“Discipleship Is Risky…Tag, You’re It!”
Sermon for U-CC Waupun
June 18, 2023
Pentecost 3, Year A
Matthew 9:35-10:23
 
Focus statement: Following Christ in the ways of justice is risky business. Still, we are called to live out the ways of love and liberation in a world that is thirsty for hope.
 
Last year, the US poet laureate Amanda Gorman was interviewed about her family’s traditions to celebrate Juneteenth, which many people around the country will celebrate tomorrow, June 19. This is the day that African-American slaves were emancipated. She talked about going to the African American history museum in Los Angeles, and marking the day with her church, and her wider community. She remembers celebrating this day of freedom long before it was federalized, because nobody needed to give her permission to celebrate such a significant day.
 
Now that it is a federal holiday, however, Amanda hopes that communities will take time to reflect upon not just how far our society has progressed, but how much further we still have to go. In her words, “we all can be vessels of both hurt and hope at the same time.”
 
As we think about observing such an important anniversary, sometimes we have to sit with some uncomfortable truths. Even though the kind of slavery we learned about in the history books is no longer, institutional racism and implicit bias are still alive and well in our communities. Even worse, Christian churches have too often been those vessels of harm, playing party to racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and many other harmful ideologies.
 
On the “What We Believe” section of this church’s website, it is written, “We believe that the UCC is called to be a prophetic church. As in the tradition of the prophets and apostles, God calls the church to speak truth to power, liberate the oppressed, care for the poor, and comfort the afflicted.”
 
For some of us, this kind of statement feels very natural. If we are fierce advocates for justice, we want others in our community to feel like this is a welcoming church home for them, and want to do whatever we can to make that possible.
 
But at the same time, the greater community of Waupun is full of people with many different theological and ideological beliefs. We all want to get along as much as possible and be friendly with a wide variety of people. How do we respond to justice issues in such a way that also feels authentic to the diversity of beliefs in our community?
 
Today's scripture gives us a taste of that. Jesus is preparing the disciples for the work of ministry that will happen after he leaves them. He knows the disciples well enough at this point to be frank with them, telling them that it's not going to be easy. But he also knows they need a model. They need somebody to tell them how to respond to the pressures of the complicated world they face.
 
He begins by saying, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers.” In other words, the love and grace that we’ve found in God is greater than we can possibly fathom. We've been blessed more than we can name. But in this world of hopelessness and deceit, there aren't enough people “keeping the light on”, or trying to find that light in hopeless places. So, tag, you’re it!
 
He instructs the disciples to heal the sick, raise the dead, and throw out demons. Disability theologians would remind us that, when we say these things, we focus too often on the disabled person, and not often enough on the communities they live in. Communities need healing. Communities need to learn how to be in more fulfilling relationships with one another. The disabled person can be healed by the love and grace of God shared with them in their community, whether they’re actually cured—rid of the physical disability—or not.
Communities also need the good news of the Gospel to be shared with them. Jesus instructs the disciples to bring blessings of peace, without asking for anything in return. What they’re sharing is radically different from the dominant narrative of placing more value on some people than others. Instead, in Christ there is no slave or free, no Jew or Gentile—we are all one in Christ.
 
But not everyone will  be receptive to that message. Jesus concludes by saying that he is sending them as sheep among wolves. People might laugh at them, harm them, or even worse. But Jesus tells them that it's important, and needed. If not  for their work, God’s message of love and liberation could be drowned out by the corruption that was ever-present in society at that time. If not for the boldness and resolve of Jesus’ disciples to follow in his way, we likely wouldn’t be gathered here together right now.
 
Following Christ in the ways of justice is risky business. Still, we are called to live out the ways of love and liberation in a world that is thirsty for hope.
 
So, we know the call. What are we going to do about it?
 
As tomorrow is Juneteenth, a good place to start is by not only rejecting racism but also educating ourselves to become better allies to those who are hurt. Our ancestors, and even we ourselves, have sometimes been the vessels of hurt that Amanda Gorman talks about. But here’s the good news: we can make the choice to be vessels of hope.
 
We can be vessels of hope by loving our communities for not only who they are, but who they can become. Like the disciples, we can provide a bold witness in our community. We can embody a more just, more loving, more inclusive future for the wider church if we’re brave enough, and bold enough, to take the first step. Through our conversations on the denomination’s WISE initiative. Through our book group that reads literature by authors of different cultural backgrounds and discusses what we can learn from them. Through working with Church Health Services, the Food Pantry, World Central Kitchen, Feeding America, and other organizations which provide basic needs to the marginalized. Working with and on behalf of the marginalized doesn’t come without a cost, but the reward is greater than we could imagine.
 
As you move into this week, may you be moved to follow Jesus into the difficult, yet important, work of love and liberation, in big and small ways. May you share the good news of God’s love in the world, just by being who you are.  It won’t be easy. Sometimes it will frustrate your spirit, wear down your soul, or break your heart. But may you feel Christ’s strong presence guiding you on the way. You are not alone. We’re in this together. Let’s kick the dust off our sandals and get to work. Tag, you’re it! Thanks be to God. Amen.
 
 
 
“Finding the Blessings in Changed Plans”
Sermon for UCC-Waupun
June 11, 2023
Isaiah 55: 3, 8-9; Mark 14: 3-9
 
Focus statement: God has hopes, plans, and desires for our future which often change our own plans. How can we be open to what God is doing in our lives and plan in ways which affirm Gods presence in our lives?
 
The pandemic hit about a year and a half into my three years of seminary. At the time I was living in St. Louis in a small studio apartment, and we made the decision that it was best for my mental health if I came back to stay with my parents to ride out the wave. Of course, none of us knew how long this would last, or the level of collective grief we would all experience. But for the first few months, especially, all I wanted to do was be back with my friends, in my apartment, continuing to chart the path to a more self-actualized and independent life. I was just getting the hang of living independently and I was loving it! But then, all of a sudden, I was thrust back into the weird in-between of being an adult child in my parents’ house.
 
I love my parents so much, but I have worked hard to unlearn some old habits and find my own way in the world. Why would I want to move backwards?
 
But even in this uneasy situation we found ourselves in, my dad was able to find a way to put a positive spin on it.
 
We were having a conversation one day, and I got into my rant of “I've built this new life for myself, and I miss my friends, and I just want to go back, and when is this going to be over” and on and on.
 
My dad said, “You know what? I know you want to go back, and I understand what you're saying. But Mom and I are actually enjoying this. It sort of feels like ‘bonus time’ with you for us. After you and Emily graduate, you're going to go on and live your lives and move away and we aren't going to see you as often as we used to. So if this is the way we get to spend some extra time with you before you start this new chapter of your lives, we’ll take it.”
 
So, as much as I protested, as much as I yearned for a return to the life I had experienced the year and a half prior, I eventually learned to settle into this new reality.
 
But in a lot of ways, it's just like a church. Not just this church, but the universal church. Frankly, we don't like it when we can't see the way forward. We don't like it when we are forced to think about how the institutional church is changing, not just because of the pandemic, but because of societal changes before and since the pandemic. Many church leaders sensed that we had been on the precipice of a major institutional change for a number of years before the coronavirus even hit the news cycle. Our Christian Education committee has talked about various ways the expanding extracurricular offerings in Waupun area schools impact our programming for children and young people. Our church council and diaconate have each noted how the processes for communion preparation or funeral lunch preparation have changed because of the volunteer base we now have.
 
I also see some parallels in our media clip for this week. This is the first time I've actually watched an entire movie to prepare for my sermon! But I'm so glad that I watched The Croods in its entirety because I got so much out of it that helped me deliver today's message.
 
If you're not familiar with the story, like I wasn't, the basic premise is that a family of cavemen experience a natural disaster that takes out not only their cave but all the surrounding caves nearby. So throughout the film, they're working to find a new home, in the midst of significant interpersonal conflict and a patriarch with high anxiety. Eep, the daughter who narrated the opening monologue we just saw, encounters another individual when she briefly separates from her family, who then attempts to help them find a suitable place, much to her dad's chagrin.
 
I won't give away all the plot details, but I will say that the movie explores themes of fear in unprecedented circumstances, injured pride, and eventually, I kind of reconciliation that only comes through collective trauma.
 
As it turns out, both the movie and my story from earlier provide a glimpse into what people in biblical times might’ve experienced. They were likely quite afraid because the physical world as they knew it had been defeated by war. But the commentator Paul D. Hansen reminds us that, at this moment, the people of biblical times would've found this profoundly pastoral and comforting. After all, God's plan for people has not been defeated by the destruction of the physical world around them. Instead, God reminds the people that God's plan is bigger than any of that. Because God's plan is bigger than what we can conceptualize, the signs on the cave walls, the advice in news columns and self-help books, and the frantic Google and YouTube searches one might engage when they are going through a difficult time simply don't offer the help that we seek.
 
But by God's grace, we don't have to rely on any of those things. God's grace and love have the ability to cover us when things look uncertain, and we can find beauty breaking through in difficult moments. God says “listen, and you will live.”
 
In a similar way, the story of the woman with the alabaster jar is an example of God's greater purpose in the midst of surprising occurrences. Spending a whole year's pay on anointing the body of Jesus before his burial was sort of an improvised ritual. It wasn't planned, but the woman had everything she needed to give honor to Jesus, as the moment of his death drew near. Jesus expresses his gratitude for this ritual, saying something that would've been utterly revolutionary in biblical times: “I tell you the truth that, wherever in the whole world the good news is announced, what shes done will also be told in memory of her.”
 
Jesus and many generations after him will honor the woman, who has no name but has nonetheless made an indelible mark on the story of our faith.
 
So how does this connect? What are we taking away from this?
 
Here’s a start: God has hopes, plans, and desires for our future which often change our own plans. How can we be open to what God is doing in our lives and plan in ways which affirm Gods presence in our lives?
 
Faith, after all, doesn’t always involve having a clear or immovable path forward. More often, it involves being open to what God will do when our pre-conceived ideas fall by the wayside.
 
Early in this church’s history, multiple mergers required a commitment to a shared vision for ministry, while honoring particular skills of each congregation—which was possible because of faithful people and God’s guidance. More recently you did this as a church as you’ve navigated multiple pastoral and staffing transitions in recent memory, learning and growing with each other in the process.
 
There are blessings to be found in uncomfortable, unexpected situations.
 
So this week I would invite you to think about just that. How have you found the Spirit breaking in through chaos and discomfort? How have God’s plans been better than your plans? How has God offered you blessings in difficult times?
 
May we never be afraid to listen to God’s voice in the midst of chaos, since it is by doing so that we will truly live. Amen.
 
“Taking Care…or Taking Control?”
Sermon for U-CC Waupun
June 4, 2023
Pentecost 2, Year A
Psalm 8
 
Focus statement: As we build the world that God asks of us, God also gives us a command to care for creation, even as we face the temptation to control it.
 
In a quest for a more autonomous and independent travel option, I recently invested in an e-bike. It's basically like a regular bicycle, with the addition of a small motor and battery power. The motor hardly makes any noise, but it gives me some valuable assistance as I ride on the hilly roads of Waupun on my way to and from work or other places within the city. (Except for Main Street, where it seems pretty clear that people don’t care about bike lanes.) With the level of assistance that I enable through this electronic system, I am able to ride about 10 to 12 mph, which is just fast enough to help me get where I want to go.
 
Since I've had it in the last few days, it's been really fun for me. It's also been spiritually fulfilling in a way I didn't expect. (I can hear you saying, “There goes the pastor, theologizing about bike rides.”)
 
I am spiritually energized by feeling the wind in my face, hearing the birds, hearing the laughter and shouts of children playing, and noticing how I am interconnected with the rest of the creation in front of me. Like the birds, I'm out in the elements, on my way to wherever I need to go. Like the children, I feel the joy of being outdoors, enjoying the blue sky and all of the sure signs that summer is here. (Also, like the children, I forgot to put on sunscreen one day and have felt the consequences all week long.) I feel interconnected with creation in a different way than I might if I was sitting in a car. I’m in awe of the world God has made, and at times I might even be drawn to exclaim in the same way the Psalmist does: “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name throughout the earth!”
 
It certainly isn't a perfect world, but yet I feel blessed to be part of it.
 
I imagine that most of us have moments of our own where we marvel at God's creation and God's goodness in our lives. God is with us through the amazing gifts of family. Through the animals that enrich our daily lives. Through the trees that provide us with oxygen. Through the plants that provide us with food.
 
In this week’s reading, the Psalmist also feels interconnected with creation, noticing all that God has made and being in awe of it. The presence of nursing children brings strength and hope to a hurting world. The moon and stars are set firmly in place and guide us through our days and nights.
 
James Mays, one of the most revered commentators on the book of Psalms, reminds his readers that this psalm is also unique in the fact that it speaks directly to God, rather than about God. Taking on that sort of tone might suggest a devotional and intimate relationship with God.
The Psalmist understands humanity as an interconnected part of creation. We have an important role to play. The Psalmist continues in awe by saying, “What are human beings that you think about; what are human beings?
that you pay attention to them?”
 
Then the Psalmist says something which leads to my larger point for today: “Youve made them only slightly less than divine, crowning them with glory and grandeur. Youve let them rule over your handiwork, putting everything under their feet.”
 
As you might imagine, this can be taken in two very different directions. It would be wise for us to ask ourselves if we are taking care or taking control.
 
When we take care, we live our lives in such a way that promotes a harmonious relationship with each other, and with the rest of creation. One way I’ve heard verse 6 paraphrased is, “You put the world at our mercy,” and sometimes we get it right. When we live in environmentally responsible ways, or when we work to preserve the living environments of plants and animals instead of using and abusing them for our own selfish ends. When we utilize cleaner, more efficient energy sources to power our homes or our cars (or our e-bikes). All of these decisions have a direct impact on the rest of creation, with which God is calling us to be in a relationship. These decisions affirm that we are grateful and in awe of everything God has made, and respectful of our place in the wider ecosystem. One of the other pieces of the lectionary this week involves the creation story in Genesis chapters 1 and 2, where God creates the world, and after doing so declares that it is good. It certainly isn't perfect, but it’s good nonetheless.
 
Unfortunately, it's somewhat easier to think of ways that we have taken control, where we have taken God’s invitation to rule over creation as carte blanche to basically do whatever we want. If we’re honest with ourselves, we probably would come to the conclusion that we don't treat all of creation as if it was all made in God’s likeness, as if it’s something to be protected and celebrated. In our world, for example, we create toxic living environments for fish. We have a climate crisis that just keeps getting worse.
 
And it's not just the natural world around us; we act this way with each other as well. As we begin LGBTQ Pride month in this country, anti-trans bills are on the rise. Meanwhile, the mental health of youth and children is at an all-time low for all sorts of reasons. Lizzo, a pop singer on the radio right now, said the other day that she might quit the music industry because she was being endlessly body-shamed on social media because of her weight. Finally, some have misused Jesus’ command in today’s gospel reading to spiritually abuse others, emotionally manipulating them to fall in line with their interpretation of faith.
 
When we take control over the world around us, and when we are controlling over the people with whom we share the world, we simply aren't living according to God’s desires.
 
But it doesn't have to be this way.
 
As we build the world that God asks of us, God also gives us a command to care for creation, even as we face the temptation to control it.
 
If we live according to God's will for caring for creation, and for caring for one another, we have an opportunity to be in awe. God made an amazing world. It's not perfect, and it's rough around the edges, and there are problems. God did not look at the world and call it perfect. God looked at the world and called it good.
 
So this week, I invite you to be in awe. Think about how you might be able to proclaim as the psalmist did: “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name throughout the earth!” How might you take care of the creation around you—both natural and human? What is one way you can live in gratitude for the amazing gifts God has given you through the world we live upon?
 
If we work to truly care for the world around us, we have the opportunity to live according to God’s desire—a world where all creation is treated with dignity and respect. May it be so. Amen.
 
“Sharing the Gifts of God”
Sermon for U-CC Waupun
May 28, 2023
Day of Pentecost, Year A
 
Focus statement: God has been active in our lives in amazing and incredible ways. We can respond by sharing parts of ourselves, the gifts God gives us, in gratitude.
 
All of us have many gifts. Sometimes we share the same gifts, and sometimes our gifts are quite different.
 
Some of our gifts seem trivial but are still useful. I will admit that I’m not a very physically organized person. My childhood bedroom was always cluttered in one way or the other. I’d like to think it wasn’t because I was lazy, but because I just didn’t know how to organize effectively or efficiently. Clutter overwhelms me, but I struggle with conquering it. On the other hand, my mom always had the frustrating ability to find something I had lost in under 10 seconds, despite the fact that I had been looking for the same item for at least several minutes! My mom is very organized and thrives when everything has a place.  Even if I’ve gotten better over the years, physical organization is decidedly not a gift God gave me, and honestly, I doubt that will completely change, no matter what I try or what I learn.
 
But sometimes, the gifts we do possess come in handy, even as we fall short in other areas. As a pastor, I’m called to be present to those who are brokenhearted, confused, angry, or lost. Because of what I’ve learned from living life with a disability, I’m able to empathize with people when the system is failing them, or when a particular life experience is painful or challenging. I know what it feels like to be a misfit, the square peg in the round hole.
 
I’m far from perfect, and sometimes I mess up, wishing I had done things differently. But in my words and actions, I’m ever mindful of what God has given me, and how I’m called to share it.
 
I’ll connect this back in a minute, but it feels important to give us some theological background first.
 
I’ve been thinking about the meaning of Pentecost. Many people recognize the story, and it’s so rich, but theologically, it’s a bit hard to conceptualize.
 
Maybe it’s because of the wind and flame imagery, which none of us have ever experienced before, in the same way the disciples did. Maybe it’s because our celebrations of the day have been informed by different interpretations of the event. At least once when I grew up, we sang “Happy Birthday” to the church in Sunday School, even though some Biblical commentators would rather us take a different approach, because a birthday celebration doesn’t fully capture the meaning of this day.
 
One thing that jumps out at me is that each of the disciples and gathered community are being empowered by the Holy Spirit to share the mighty works of God as the Spirit enables them to do so. So, I’ll share why that’s important for our life of faith in a minute, but it seems important to offer some context.
 
We start our story with the disciples being gathered together in a community. They had surely been through a whole range of emotions, as their leader had shown them the way, told them he was going to be leaving them, and then was killed by a power-hungry government that was all too happy to uphold the status quo. Then he was resurrected, and now he was gone yet again. Now it was their turn to carry on his message. This was a tall order for sad and weary people who were very much a religious minority.
 
Since Christianity is now among the most frequently claimed world religions, we might not be able to be in touch with the despondency these disciples might feel.
 
What risks would they take? What might they endure along the way? How were they supposed to measure up to someone whose ministry was so transformative and compelling?
 
But still, they worshipped. Until something incredible happens.
 
Suddenly, wind and flame surrounded them and they were empowered by the Holy Spirit to testify to the mighty works of God in their native languages!
 
Biblical scholars note that these native languages would have been affected by the signature Galilean drawl. Galilee was often scorned for its peoples’ reputation in the social structure of the day. For example, some people in our society might criticize people whose ways of speech might make them sound uneducated or unintelligent. People don’t know what to do when words don’t come out the same way they expect. It might feel like someone suddenly speaking German with a British English accent.
 
Naturally, because the meaning of this wasn’t clear, some people’s minds automatically went to the gutter: “they must have had too much to drink!”
 
But that’s just like us humans, to explain away something before we open our hearts to what God might actually be doing within us.
 
But Peter’s speech helps these followers reframe their perspective to what’s most important: God’s spirit will be poured out onto all of us so that we might share the good news of God’s love to others.
 
Our other text from 1 Corinthians carries this point forward even more. Paul reminds the Corinthians that every gift they have is given to each person for the sake of the common good. Paul gives several examples: interpretation of scriptures, speaking in many languages, and embodying the healing hope of God’s love in a complicated, hurting world.
 
This is also part of how God calls us to respond to the gifts we’re given. In other words, each individual in our church responds to the mighty works of God in our lives by doing faithful work in our community. Some respond to God’s call to love our neighbors by providing warm hospitality during coffee hour or by serving on our Congregational Care Committee. Some respond to their gifts of administrative prowess by making decisions on our committees.  I can’t possibly name the individual gifts of each person here, but I want all of you to know that they don’t go unnoticed. Our church is richer and more faithful because of each of you.
 
Of course, sometimes it isn’t as easy as simply proclaiming the mighty works of God through our words or actions. Sometimes we feel like Lauren Daigle, feeling the weight when others tell us we aren’t enough. Our words, our actions, and our accomplishments don’t always measure up to society’s expectations.
 
But in all this, we remember that God does not give as the world gives, or judge as the world judges. Instead, God has been active in our lives in amazing and incredible ways. We can respond by sharing parts of ourselves, the gifts God gives us, in gratitude.
 
I have been blessed by many gifts in my life. A mother who embodies grace. Life experience which helps me provide hope and solidarity to those in my care. Music, which helps me express God’s goodness creatively.
 
How have you been blessed by the gifts of God? What has God given you that you can turn back to praise, sharing in your own way? Will you share words of justice? Hands of service? A heart of love?
 
My friends, I give great thanks for the many gifts this congregation shares with the world. Let us continue the work, together, to declare the mighty works of God from where we are. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 
 
 
 
 
“We’re Not Alone”
TRADITIONAL sermon for U-CC Waupun
May 14, 2023
Easter 6A: 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21
 
Focus statement: Sometimes we endure suffering on account of or in spite of our faith. But God and Christ give us the assurance of their love and presence with us in the midst of it.
 
Some of you know that one of my greatest passions in the church is disability justice. I'm a member at large of the national United Church of Christ Disabilities Ministries board, which provides disability advocacy resources for the entire denomination. I've been honored to write devotionals, music, and other resources which help United Church of Christ churches be more disability-friendly. Right now I see working for local churches like this one to be the primary focus of my ministry, but I made sure to let both the conference and the search committee of this church know that I see that kind of work as a significant part of my vocation.
 
I could talk for hours about the kinds of disability justice issues that I'm passionate about as it relates to the church, but I'll start with one quick story. One of the books I hope to engage with this congregation as a book study in the future is called The Disabled God, written by the late disability theologian Nancy L. Eiesland. This book invites us to confront how we think about disability in our society, and how the Bible depicts disabled people in a rather negative fashion. It then invites us into some ways we can reframe some of that thinking into something that might be more helpful.
 
Eiesland gives a prime example in this book of why disability-affirming conversation needs to happen in the church. She brings up the story of a woman who felt excluded because of her disability. She, a wheelchair user, wanted to join the church choir. She was told by the choir director that she couldn't join the choir because it would just look too weird to have a wheelchair user sitting with the people standing in the choir loft.
 
This woman felt so utterly invalidated. It was made clear to her that even the church, where she was supposed to feel welcomed and valued, was actually no different from other places in society where she felt excluded.  If I remember correctly, this had a profound impact on not only her spiritual journey, but also her mental health. It just fed into the narrative that disabled people were meant to be relegated to the margins, so as not to be a distraction in our worship spaces or community life.
 
Sadly, these kinds of stories are not isolated incidents. Even churches are communities of people, and communities of people are inherently flawed and sometimes exclusionary. Persecution was common even in biblical times, both because of our religion and by people who profess to be religious. Scholars don't know for sure whether the book of 1 Peter was written by Peter, Jesus is disciple, himself, or by somebody else who knew what he was thinking. In either case, it seems clear that the author is preparing the readers and listeners of this letter that they will be subject to some kind of persecution. Even when they are doing things that are honorable to God, the Roman opposition and others are going to come their way, trying to discourage their faith and test their resolve. It's incredibly hard to be a follower of a post-resurrection Christ, in a time and place when kings and other rulers demanded their followers’ obedience and unquestioning loyalty. To calm their fears, the author of 1 Peter reminds the recipients of this letter that they have been baptized into the love of Christ, and they can be firm in their faith because they know God will deliver them from the evil of their oppressors.
 
In a similar way, Jesus does this with his disciples. In the gospel, we're picking up where we left off last week, earlier in the gospel of John where Jesus is going to leave them to go up to heaven to be with God. In their saddened and worried state, Jesus is mindful that the disciples need some comfort as he prepares to leave them. He says that he will not leave them alone, but in fact will be with them in an intimate way. “A little while now and the world will see me no more; but youll see me; because I live, and you will live as well. On that day youll know that I am in God, and you are in me, and I am in you. “
 
Both Jesus and the writer of 1 Peter share the common theme that God and Christ will be with all who believe them, no matter what might come their way or who tries to hurt them. God lives in us and loves us more deeply than we could ever understand, and protects us in the midst of our deepest difficulty.
 
Finally, even though Jesus is leaving to go to Heaven to be with God, Jesus gives the disciples another advocate, another guide for the journey. When I think about how our church advocates for those in need, I think of our work with Church Health Services or other organizations in the area. I also think about our church council’s decision to invite our church to learn more about the WISE designation of the United Church of Christ, to become a church that offers trained volunteers and helpful resources to those who live with mental illness.
 
If someone had been an advocate for the woman in my story earlier, I wonder what that church would've learned. I wonder how the worship experience would have been enriched by her ministry among them. Instead, she was dismissed while in pursuit of a righteous cause—sharing her praise for her Creator. She was maligned for her good lifestyle in Christ, as are many of us who don't fit the mold of what society might expect. We’re dismissed or “othered” because of our disabilities, our mental health conditions, our political beliefs, our gender identities, and our sexual orientations. On this Mother’s Day, we recognize that some women are pushed aside because they are not mothers in the traditional sense, yet provide nurturing and care every day.
 
But in all this, I’m comforted by this good news: Sometimes we endure suffering on account of or in spite of our faith. But God and Christ give us the assurance of their love and presence with us in the midst of it.
 
This week, I invite you to think about how you can be an advocate for someone in need of love and justice. With all the challenges we face, it's a hard time to be people. As Christ was an advocate for you, may you be an advocate for others. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

“What Is God Like?”
Sermon for U-CC Waupun, May 7, 2023
John 14: 1-14, Easter 5A
 
Focus Statement: Though we may not always understand what God is like, Jesus’ life and ministry anchor our faith.
 
Behavioral Purpose
When I was in middle school, my grandpa’s second wife, whom I called Nana, suffered a traumatic brain injury during a car accident on her way home from work. Her convertible flipped over five times when she hit a culvert, and miraculously, she survived. But it wasn't an easy road for her or her family after that. The brain injury radically changed her ability to have conversations, and her ability to care for herself physically. It plunged her into what seemed like a deep depression for the rest of her 13 years of life before her death. At times she would relive the moments leading up to the accident out loud, which we could tell was very distressing for her.
 
Shocking as it was, we tried our best to readjust our expectations and adapt to a new way of being with and talking with her. She didn't always verbalize coherent thoughts, but we discovered that occasionally she would have short bursts of incredible clarity. This demonstrated that the person we knew was inside this body we didn’t recognize.
 
Shortly after the accident, my dad and I experienced one of these rare moments of clarity. We were having a conversation with her, and then out of nowhere, she addressed my dad. “Bob,” she said, “God is a woman.” She said it definitively, with confidence, but that was that. Soon enough, her brain led her onto another conversation topic, leaving us to wonder what had just happened. You were totally gobsmacked. Dad might have said, “What do you mean by that, Carol?”, but there was no response.
 
Now, some people might hear that story and be startled by it because it goes against what many of us have been taught about who God is. We're very accustomed to understanding God as a male figure. Some people might go so far as to dismiss her comment, saying that that was the brain injury talking, or that she was misinformed along the way, or that she didn't know what she was saying. People generally don't like their perception of God to be challenged, and I don't entirely blame them. After all, if we challenge our most basic beliefs about God, what happens if we're wrong? How can we know for sure what's true and what's not true?
 
But to outright dismiss this comment would discount how real this was for her. We knew that she had had a near-death experience, and who were we to say that this isn't what she saw? When we were processing it later, Dad and I agreed that perhaps God might appear differently to different people, or that there was a certain element of who God is that we weren't supposed to know until we went to heaven. I'm not sure that this conversation made me believe automatically that God is a woman, but the conversation at least reminded me that I didn't have to constrain myself to the narrow understanding of God that I have learned implicitly.
 
Similarly, the Joan Osborne song we just heard makes other efforts to humanize God in the same thing we can understand. The song's lyrics invite us to live into the questions of who God is and what God stands for. 
 
As the biblical text has been rattling around in my brain this week, and as I've been thinking about the story of my Nana, I wonder if the disciples might've felt a similar feeling when they were talking to Jesus. They were surprised by what they heard, and they wanted some guidance as to how they could live out their faith without their leader. They needed a greater understanding of who God is in order to share God's message.
 
Often, when this text comes up in the lectionary, we focus on the phrase, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” These are meant to be words of comfort to the disciples, as Jesus is their guide who shows them the way. But the commentator Elisabeth Johnson points out how these words have been used by evangelical Christians as a “trump card,” to make the argument that people need to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior if they want to have any hope for salvation. Some people even italicize the words: I am the way, the truth, and the life.” As if to say, “There’s no way you get to heaven without believing in me”. To interpret these words in this way is to use words Jesus meant for comfort as ammunition for violence. This perpetuates the notion that to have a relationship with God is to be legalistic about our interpretations.
 
But I wonder what would happen if we went in the other direction. Lots of people question what they believe about God, and who we understand God to be. So, when scriptures like this come up in the lectionary, it seems important to wrestle with some of those questions.
 
Since Jesus is leaving the disciples to go be with his Creator, the disciples are sad. How on earth will they be able to share Jesus's message without Jesus? Do they really know everything they need to know to do this alone? They're looking for another guide who will care for them as they share the message of Jesus. They say, “Show us the Creator. That will help us.” It's as if they're saying, “Give us something we can conceptualize. Show us something that makes sense.”
 
Jesus’ answers aren't always direct; they don't always give the disciples what they think they need. Instead. Jesus tells them that they already know God because they know Jesus. They don't need to see a visual representation of God to understand God’s character, what God wills, or whom God favors, because Jesus is the best human example we have.
This is the good news for today: Though we may not always understand what God is like, we can take comfort in Jesuslife and ministry, which anchors our faith.
Even though it was a slightly unexpected conversation, that conversation with my Nana reminded me to be open to the possibilities of who I understood God to be, whether I came to the same conclusion or not.
On the “What We Believe” section of this church’s website, I found this about how this church understands God: “We believe that the persistent search for God produces an authentic relationship with God, engendering love, strengthening faith, dissolving guilt, and giving life purpose and direction.”
 
I’m especially drawn to the first phrase, about a persistent search that produces an authentic relationship. In many ways, I think that's our task. We are invited to live into the questions of our faith. An authentic faith journey involves searching for the truth, and not necessarily searching for the truth or the way. I admit that a good deal of this sermon probably sounded like me speaking from my head, instead of from my heart or my spirit. Some of this probably sounded a bit more abstract than what you might be used to from me. But I believe that in order to have that authentic relationship, we need to question, we need to wonder, we need to ponder from time to time. Because it's in asking those questions that we have the potential to grow our faith into something more than skin-deep.
 
So as you move into this week, I invite you to ask questions about your faith journey, without necessarily feeling like you have to have the answer today. May you ponder who you believe God to be, and how God has been active in your life? Some of this questioning may feel strange, but in all of this, I invite you to trust in God and trust in Christ. Just like the disciples, Christ is within you as you share your message and your faith with the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
“Called By Name”
TRAD sermon outline for U-CC
April 30, 2023, Easter 4A
John 10:1-10
Focus statement: We are known and loved by Jesus, who will intercede for us in the face of our adversaries.
  1. Story of Anne opening the milk carton
  2. Main point: Jesus is going to protect his followers from persecution and their adversaries
  3. Lots of figures of speech!
    1. Jesus as gatekeeper
    2. Others are thieves.
    3. people don’t understand
  4. Theologian Warren Carter
    1. In the Greek and Roman world, rulers and emperors were thought of as “good shepherds”.
    2. Their goodness only goes so far (greed, corruption),
    3. Jesus, an opponent of imperial rule, will absorb the power-hungry attacks on his people.
  5. Pairing with Psalm 23
    1. The Lord is my shepherd
    2. Goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives.
  6. Focus: We are known and loved by Jesus, who will intercede for us in the face of our adversaries.
  7. When we think about ways to respond to Jesus’ love in our world, whom are we called to protect/advocate for at U-CC?
    1. children
    2. community care when we see someone in need in our congregation
  8. Our call: care for the needy, fight for the powerless, love those who some consider unloveable, because that’s what Jesus did.
“Surprises on the Road”
TRAD outline for U-CC
April 23, 2023
Luke 24: 13-35, Easter 3A
 
Focus statement: Jesus helps us learn from our wandering on the road and gives us the strength to carry on to spread his message.
Behavioral purpose: Reflect upon when Jesus helped you gain a new understanding, and if you feel like it, tell someone about it.
 
  1. My wilderness story
    1. Art and Cathy
      1. “Why did you want to go into education in the first place?”
    2. Moira
      1. You only spit out of the whale when you’re ready to give in.
  2. Disciples were in the wilderness too.
    1. After three weeks, we’re still on Resurrection Day.
    2. Disciples are probably exhausted!
  3. Disciples were prevented from recognizing Jesus until the proper moment.
    1. Needed to process
    2. “We thought this would be the one who would save the world”
    3. But some women told us he rose again—how do we make sense of all this?!
    4. Jesus pointed to them: “Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about.”
    5. Jesus finally explains everything, and it finally makes sense.
  4. “Wasnt it necessary for Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”
    1. “Everything happens for a reason” can be a slippery slope.
    2. The theology of why Jesus died is tricky.
    3. But this worked for the disciples.
  5. What did the disciples learn from being on the road?
    1. The purpose of Jesus’ life and ministry
    2. Why it’s important for them to carry the message forward
  6. Main point: Jesus helps us learn from our wandering on the road and gives us the strength to carry on to spread his message.
    1. What I learned on the road
    2. What did U-CC learn on the road?
      1. COVID
      2. Pastoral Search
      3. Staff transitions/programming
  7. What are we going to do now?
    1. Reflect upon when Jesus helped you gain a new understanding, and if you feel like it, tell someone about it.
“A New Opportunity to Believe”
TRAD sermon for U-CC
April 16, 2023
John 20: 19-31, Easter 2A
 
Focus Statement: As Thomas was given a new opportunity to believe, we too are given the opportunity to recognize a new understanding of who Jesus is.
The first time I experienced a funeral was when my Grandpa Nault died. I was in second or third grade, and I didn't totally understand how well it meant for somebody to die. Lots of people were very sad, lots of people were clinging to their faith, and emotions were high.
Most of that experience was kind of a blur for me, but I do remember the first time I experienced pastoral care in the wake of a death, and it wasn't what I expected.
To understand the story, it's helpful for you to understand that my grandparents were devout Catholics. They went to mass as often as they could. Grandma was very active in the prayer life of the church and did lots of service work. I had been to mass a couple of times for various important things in our family, and I had a fairly vivid picture of what a priest looked like.
So we were in the nursing home on the day that my grandpa died, and the priest had been called to be with our family. When I got up to walk around the hospital, I saw a man walking down the hallway toward our room. He said he was the priest. But this man wasn't robed, and he didn't have a stole or any of the formal wear that priests wear. So when he said he was a priest, I simply replied to him, “Well, you don't look like one.”
My parents later explained to me that priests don't always wear clergy vestments, but instead, they dress like normal people the other six days a week!
But I did get a shout-out from the priest during mass. “Well, Ervin’s grandson wondered if I was really a priest because I wasn’t wearing my robe. Well, Jacob, now do I look like a priest?”
I don't remember much else about my grandpa's funeral, but I will always remember that.
I will connect my disbelief in the priest in just a minute to the story of Thomas, but I want to observe something else first. Since the story comes up every year in the lectionary, many people get tired of the same old interpretation. “Ugh, this story again?!” I get it, I do. I will say that I am going to start with that interpretation because I think it's important to confront our society’s cynicism. We find it easy to doubt things. We have to see things to believe them. But another commentator reminds us that there is another layer to this tired interpretation, one where the disciples are deeply afraid. So I'm going to bring that into the conversation also.
Pairing the story with the Acts story we read provides sufficient evidence for the cynicism. Here, Peter places the blame squarely at the feet of all of those gathered. He puts the consequences of Jesus's death in stark terms: “You saw what Jesus did, and yet you had him killed in spite of all that. How could you do this?” The corrupt Roman government had convinced people that Jesus was a threat, even those who believed in him. Now they had to live with the consequences that they had done what the government wanted them to do, ridding them of that threat. They either weren't able or weren't willing to recognize that Jesus was the one who was going to save them from their oppression.
But then, Peter reminds those to gather that they have a new opportunity to believe because Jesus has been raised up. “We are all witnesses of this. We've seen this happen, something that we never imagined, and now we have an opportunity to change our hearts and lives.”
Jesus gave Thomas a similar opportunity in the gospel reading for today. The late disability theologian Nancy L. Eiesland talks in her book, The Disabled God, about how Jesus embraces his newly acquired disability—hands and sides (and probably nerves) which have been damaged by the nails the Romans used to kill him. It's curious that these nail holes did not go away with Jesus's resurrection, but they were used as a symbol of what had been done to him so that the disciples might believe.
A final piece of the cynicism angle comes when Jesus says to Thomas, “Do you believe it now because you've seen me? Is that what it takes for you?” It's a bruising remark to be sure. But in Jesus's eyes, it isn't unfair.
But what if there's more to it than that?
Thomas, like all the other disciples, has experienced unimaginable grief and probably feels like the Roman government is going to come or his neck also. After the death of Jesus, it’s become even more of an existential threat to follow his way of love and justice in the midst of corruption and terror.
It seems like Jesus knows this too, because he says multiple times in this encounter, “Peace be with you.” He performs miracles and spends time with his friends, which probably brings them the comfort and hope they need to carry on his message.
There’s surely a note of cynicism in Thomas’ response, and Jesus does scold him for not believing without seeing. But I’d like to think Jesus was also compassionate in this encounter. It’s as if he was saying, “You don't have to wonder anymore or be afraid anymore. I’m here, and I'm giving you my spirit as you go forward. Believe in me, because I am in you, you are in me, and we are in God.”
As I think about how this relates to us, I wonder a few things.
First, I wonder how fear or cynicism prevents us from sharing the message of Jesus. Do we believe that Jesus is actually with us in uncertain and difficult times in our lives? When we work for justice, believing we are doing the work God has called us to do, does God abandon us when we fall flat on our faces in defeat?
Yet even through all the complex wondering, I find hope in this good news: As Thomas was given a new opportunity to believe, we too are given the opportunity to recognize a new understanding of who Jesus is.
Even though the priest didn't look like what I was expecting, he was still providing pastoral care in the midst of a very difficult time for our family.
Even in Thomas’ cynicism, Jesus comforted him and helped him believe.
This week, I invited you to think about how you might set aside cynicism or fear, and look for ways that the resurrected Christ is active in your life. How does Christ's presence help you find hope in the midst of hopelessness? How does your faith in the resurrected Christ help you share the message of Christian love?
Let us give thanks to Jesus, who calms our fears and helps us believe. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 
 
 
 
 
 
“What Can We Learn In The Darkness?”
Sermon outline for U-CC
April 9, 2023, Year A
John 20: 1-18
 
Focus statement: Jesus reveals himself to Mary in a moment of darkness, and we can learn new and unexpected things within the darkness of our own lives that shine through the hopelessness we feel.
I’ve talked several times about my Grandma Mae Lee, who died a couple of years ago. Although she was older and had some nagging health problems, her death was fairly unexpected. She died from stage 4 bile duct cancer, which we didn’t even know existed. Her death was also swift—21 days after her diagnosis.
Of course, we were absolutely devastated. In many ways, she had been the glue that kept that side of the family together, and it was hard to imagine life without her. But as I think about it now, even in our grief, our family experienced her presence in unexpected ways after her death.
One way has been the fireplace in my parents’ house. We loved the fireplace she had in her home, and we knew we’d miss it. So Dad and I built a fireplace for my parent’s living room, and Mom and Emily lovingly decorated it for Christmas in much the same ways she did.
Another was my housing situation in Waupun. I was looking frantically for housing that ticked all the boxes and was in a good location, and suddenly the listing for my townhome came up. Ask me sometime about the waiting list. I somehow jumped to get into this place. Some people say it was divine intervention, but I think Grandma might’ve had something to do with it too! It seems like she’s everywhere—in our words, in our actions, in our thoughts. Our grief has taught us how to notice her presence in our lives in different ways. We’re learning to relish the ways she still shows up in our daily lives, even when her physical presence is no longer with us.
The Gospel of John is a bit of a funny gospel in that it has many different materials in comparison to the other three. In this Scripture text in particular, there’s a good deal of symbolism in the comparison between light and darkness. So today I’m going to be talking about Johns and Christianitys understanding of darkness, and also how darkness can reveal unexpected gifts to us.
John begins his gospel by Calling Christ the light of the world. He says: “The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world. The light was in the world,
 and the world came into being through the light, but the world didnt recognize the light. The light came to his own people, and his own people didnt welcome him. But those who did welcome him, those who believed in his name, he authorized to become Gods children, born not from blood nor from human desire or passion, but born from God.”
 
For John, that light was extinguished when Jesus died. We know that darkness covered the Earth on Good Friday when Jesus died, and John says it was still dark on Sunday morning when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb as if darkness had not left the world in those three days. It was an utterly hopeless time, after all, and everyone who followed Jesus was deeply weary and deeply saddened that the Roman government had supposedly won. For John, light theologically returns to the world when Jesus rises from the dead.
As I talk about this, I want to be careful to avoid giving in to the common moral judgment between light and darkness. Christianity has a complicated and even troubling relationship with darkness, both literally and theologically. In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Bare Brown Taylor observes that Christians, and many of us in modern society, learned to equate light as good, and dark as bad. We’re scared of the dark like children and hear about monsters under our beds. We often refer to a period of hopelessness as “a dark time.” Most disturbingly, our society has learned to assign lesser moral value to people with dark skin, making them the object of prejudice and ostracizing, and yet, dark skin is beautiful. We even have a line in our closing hymn for today that says, “Light is stronger than darkness.” So, those of us who are white and pale-skinned would do well to pay close attention to how we think about darkness so that our understandings aren't hurtful or limiting,
Instead, Barbara Brown Taylor talks about all that she has learned from being in spaces of darkness. It’s a brilliant and accessible book. If you’re a reader, I highly recommend it.
Darkness plays an important role in John’s retelling of the Easter story. The intense grief of the past days is now compounded by the emergency that Jesusbody is gone.
Disciples looked in the tomb and saw clothes but no Jesus. In her unimaginable grief, all Mary could do is cry.
She is asked twice, What are you looking for?” She is scared, she is devastated, and because of the darkness, she’s not able to make out the face of Jesus Christ in front of her. Part of the beauty of this account of the resurrection is in Marys slow realization that the person in front of her is the one she’s been seeking. But in John’s opinion, she has to be in physical darkness to see the light poking through her hopelessness.
Sometimes our best realizations come from places of darkness. We cant fully appreciate the resurrection without experiencing the sadness and despair of Holy Week. Sometimes the darkness is difficult, but it doesn’t have to be bad or scary. We can learn from the light that shines through the darkness and gives us hope when we fear there is only hopelessness.
On this day, we celebrate the ways that evil could have so easily won out over justice, and how love could have so easily been stomped out by hate. The people in Jesustime didnt have the reassurance that Sunday was coming. But it’s in this moment of intense grief, of utter hopelessness, that God’s love breaks through and offers another way. This day is a cornerstone of the Christian faith. In fact, it’s so powerful that we integrate it in all sorts of places in our worship, and in our prayers.
What have we learned about ourselves from times of despair and difficulty in our own lives?
Ten months ago, your beloved Pastor Robert retired. It was hard to say goodbye, especially when the world was dealing with a global health crisis. But your Search Committee worked with you to reflect upon who you are as a church, and now we are working together toward an exciting new future. Sometimes hope and possibly come out of unexpected places.
But it isn’t enough to just be comforted. Like Mary Magdalene, our job is to “tell the others”. Don’t hang on to Jesus too tightly, but share the good news that love wins. Tell those who have been oppressed and mistreated that Jesus loves them enough to live, suffer, die, and rise again for their sake.
This Easter week, I invite you to share that love and that joy. Jesus revealed himself to Mary when it was dark. Lets look for ways we can share Gods love in unexpected places too. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 
 
 
 
 
“What Have We Learned?”
Sermon for U-CC, Palm Sunday 2023
March 24, 2023
Year A
 
Focus statement: The tragedy of the link between Palm and Passion is impossible to ignore, but in it, we can experience the depths of Jesus’ love for us. 
 
Behavioral purpose:
Just like you, I was shocked and saddened by the shooting at the Covenant Presbyterian School in Nashville this week. It makes me weary to think about all the needless deaths of children over the past decades. A friend shared on Facebook that the church she serves celebrated the life of one of the nine-year-olds killed in the shooting. She talked about the healing they’ve found in community prayer vigils. She said something to the effect of. “even though we need much more than thoughts and prayers for our country, we certainly believe that thoughts and prayers are powerful.”
And if we're paying attention, we understand that school shootings often follow a pretty predictable pattern. As we continue to reckon with another school shooting, I think our country would do well to ask what we have learned, and how we could prevent this from ever happening again.
Of course, I have my views on what this country needs to do to prevent this from happening again, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss that here. Instead, I feel drawn to discuss the connections I see between the tragedy in Nashville and the tragedy of Jesus’ death.  I'll get to how that connects to my larger point in just a bit, but it also seems important to remind us of the context behind this familiar story.
We hear it every year as holy week begins, but it seems important to remember how this story contributes to the drama of Jesus’ final days on earth. One of the worship resources that I often use to help me plan reminded preachers to avoid glossing over the sharp contrast between Palm and Passion Sunday. Some people would prefer to separate the two events, focusing strictly on palm Sunday today and saving the rest of holy week for the rest of holy week. These commentators argue that this kind of interpretation misses the point. “Palm/Passion Sunday opens with shouting, waving palms, and a triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It ends with darkness, death, and the pronouncement over a dead body."
So let me color in some background for you. Throughout Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, he predicted his death and told his disciples that this is necessary so that the world can understand the glory of God. When the day comes, a crowd in Jerusalem has heard about Jesus all throughout his ministry and celebrates his triumphant entry into Jerusalem with shouts of “Hosanna!” In other words: “Save us!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Psalm 118 capitalizes on this, praising God because God has heard the cries of God’s people for justice and hope in the midst of a deep struggle. The Psalmist thanks God for taking care of them in their hour of trial and rededicates themselves to praising God all of their life because of what God has done for them.
After all, Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of what people in biblical times were told the Messiah would be. Finally, the people who are used to living with nothing, only a subsistence level of living, would actually get to experience the blessings of God. As a result, the people celebrate the joyful entry of Jesus into the city, and their hearts.
But we know the story doesn't end there.
By the end of this worship service, we will be plunging ourselves into the holy week with a prayer to orient us on our way, and singing “Go To Dark Gethsemane” as our closing hymn. Because we understand the tragedy of this day and this week. The same people who cried out hosanna to Jesus Christ on Sunday cried to Pilate to order Jesus to be crucified on Thursday.
They didn't learn what they had done until it was too late. Or maybe they gave in to the political propaganda of the Roman government. Either way, in Acts 3:14-15, after Jesus’ death, the disciple Peter put the blame right at their feet: “You rejected the holy and righteous one, and asked that a murderer be released to you instead. You killed the author of life.”
This bears some similarities to this week's tragedy in Nashville, and far too many tragedies before it. Innocent children and their teachers died, and what have we learned? Will these children die in vain because of our country's inaction?
I don't know how our country will respond in the future, and it's not for us to discuss or debate in this space. But may we be part of a loving response when tragedy strikes in our nation, and in our world. May we offer thoughts and prayers, but may we also be willing to go beyond that when the situation calls for it? This community of faith is full of former teachers, former law-enforcement officers, and many others who have had the opportunity to provide compassionate, caring responses to unthinkable tragedies. May we join others in grief, and surround them in love.
This week, in our church, we have to live in the difficult space of grief and tragic loss in order to understand the gift that awaits us next week, the resurrection of Jesus. And as it turns out, those difficult and uncomfortable spaces of grief occur far too often in our own lives. We don't like to sit there. Many of us would rather go straight from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, totally bypassing the drama, the betrayal, the agony, and the killing of Jesus. For some of us, attending a midweek worship service on Thursday or Friday may not be compatible with your schedule. This makes observing both events today that much more important.
But whatever your reaction might be to the need to sit in that grief, know this: The tragedy of the link between Palm and Passion is impossible to ignore, but in it, we can experience the depths of Jesuslove for us. As we journey through this last week in Jesus’ life, let us take comfort in that love. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 
Connections, Year A Vol. 2 p. 111
Waupun Union-Congregational Church 
March 26, 2023
“The Music Garden”
TRAD sermon outline
John 11: 17-45
 
 
Focus statement: Even in our most profound grief, Jesus can make resurrection possible through us, if we are willing to participate.
Behavioral purpose:
 
  1. I’ve been thinking a lot about Keith this week.
    1. I planned to preach this text about a month ago and didn’t realize how close to home this text would hit
  2. Story about Jack
    1. (First slide) Jack was a member of our Neenah church before his death at age 9. Wheelchair users, nonverbal, but expressed emotions through noises that were not words but reflected what words could not
    2. (Second slide) He lived his life with enthusiasm and joy, and especially loved music!
      1. the louder the better
    3. When he died, his loss was felt by the entire church.
    4. Henry’s eagle scout project
      1. (Third slide) music garden at MB
      2. A way to honor his legacy after his death
  3. Jesus processes
    1. Waits four days before coming
      1. Jewish opposition wants to kill him
      2. worth the risk
    2. Anger
      1. Jews are consoling the family!
      2. “Where did you put him?”
      3. Even if these Jews really are consoling the family, Jesus is ever mindful of the opposition.
    3. Weeping
      1. We see Jesus weeping two times in the Bible.
        1. Jerusalem and this time
        2. Jesus probably wept when Jack died.
  4. Jesus helps Mary and Martha believe
    1. “Your brother will be raised up.”
    2. You dont have to wait for the end. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?”
  5. Doing the hard thing
    1. Well, if he loved him so much, why didn’t he do something to keep him from dying? After all, he opened the eyes of a blind man.”
    2. Melinda Quivik (Liturgical and homological scholar)
      1. Jesus doesn’t do the easy thing (keeping bad things from happening), but instead does the hard thing (reversing destruction).
  6. As I prepare to close: what does resurrection mean?
    1. The revolutionary act of creating meaning and hope out of despair and longing
    2. Jack: Moon Beach has a lovely way to honor his memory
    3. This church:
      1. Coming out of COVID: what have we learned?
        1. Making worship more accessible through Zoom
        2. reinvigorating old ecumenical partnerships with Waupun and Fond du Lac area churches
        3. new energy in our church that hasn’t been there since before COVID
  7. What do we do now?
    1. We may not experience physical resurrections, but we can be a part of the new direction God is taking the church.
    2. It may not look the same as it did when we grew up, but we have the chance to participate in God’s work in the world.
    3. Because we believe in Jesus, we believe that death does not have the final word.
    4. May you find ways to be part of the resurrection and new life Jesus gives.
“Created Out of Diversity”
Peace United Church of Christ, October 24, 2020
EDIT FOR UCC WAUPUN 
March 19, 2023
Jacob Nault
John 9
 
Focus statement: God creates each of us in our diversity to witness Gods work in the world.
Behavioral purpose: “Dream with me”
 
My friend, Madison, taught me a lot about what it's like to live in the community. Madison was a seminary student with me at Eden. We started school at the same time, and we’ve both learned from each other in a number of ways. As she got to know me, she developed a very particular way of helping me and caring for me.
Many other people in my life have meant well when they’ve helped me, but sometimes I try to do something and it takes longer than they think it should take. So after watching me figure it out for a little while, many of those people will inevitably say, “here, let me do that for you.” Maybe it's something I've done a thousand times, and I could’ve done it myself. But in this society of efficiency, there isn’t much praise for taking extra time to do things or doing things differently than is commonly expected.
But Madison saw things differently.
Madison has been a model for me giving me agency over my own requests for help. She promised to avoid assuming that I need help, and let me ask. Then she remembered for the future and advocated for me when she recognized I might need something. “Remember, if we go anywhere, someone needs to go and pick up Jacob.” She asked how I would like her to discuss my disability, so that if it ever comes up in conversation, it is always done on my terms.
But unfortunately, most people in the Bible weren’t like Madison. In many ways, the Bible mirrors the attitude of our modern society when it comes to disability. Disability is seen in the Bible and the world as a Bad Thing that needs to be fixed. Capital B, capital T. People in biblical times were told not to associate with the blind person or the leper or whoever “they” were, and instead spoon-fed harmful theologies about disability. Unfortunately, this culture continues to persist in some religious circles today. One YouTuber who lives with spinal muscular atrophy recounted a time when he and his wife were on a dinner date, and a woman walked up to them and loudly began praying for his healing, as aghast restaurant patrons looked on. He didn’t ask for extra attention, and his life is quite fulfilling. But ableism makes no room for such a reality. In the woman’s worldview, there is no room for disability to be characterized in any other way than sad, pitiful, or pathetic.
If you’ve never heard the term “ableism,” you might be able to intellectualize a working definition based on your understanding of racism. Here’s another starting point to guide us in our work today, from a Facebook group called, “So Informed”. They write, Ableism is the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that people with typical abilities are superior. At its heart, ableism is rooted in the belief that disabled people require fixingand defines people by their disability. Like racism and sexism, ableism classifies entire groups of people as less than,and includes harmful stereotypes, misconceptions, and generalizations of people with disabilities.” You might ask, how does ableism show up in the Bible?
At the first reading of this text, you would be right to recognize political dimensions to this story. The Jewish leaders didn't know who this Jesus guy was, and he had committed what was considered a cardinal sin–doing anything of substance on the Sabbath day. To them, Jesus could not be affiliated in any way with God, and anyone who believed he might be was also a sinner.
But as this story unfolds from its beginning, the systems of ableism begins to appear. The disciples have had a conversation with Jesus asking who has sinned: the man born blind, or his parents. This comes from an all-too-common trope that the person with a disability, or someone who loves them, must've sinned for them to be in this situation, as if able-bodied or neurotypical people haven’t fallen equally short.
Jesus, however, denies that either the parents or the man born blind have sinned. He reminds the disciples that this happened to the man so that God’s mighty work could be displayed through him. Then he makes some mud out of his saliva and the dirt on the ground, rubs it on the man’s eyes, and heals him.
The Jewish leaders who see this are pretty upset, so they go to talk to the man's parents, after they didn’t like his answer.
They don’t believe he is actually sighted now, and they may also believe another ableist assumption: if there’s something wrong with him physically, there must be something wrong with him mentally, too, and he can’t speak for himself. So it’s better to go to someone who can.
 But then, they are met with a response that surprises them: “Ask him. He's old enough to speak for himself.”
The text says the parents tried to deflect the question, fearing that they would be expelled from the synagogue. But an anti-ableism reading of this text concludes that the real reason behind this was so that the parents could make space to let him speak, and have agency over his own personhood.
He takes the opportunity. He might not have known what to make of it, or that he even wanted to be healed in the first place, but he does know that something has happened that could only be possible through God. He berates the leaders for not listening, and for him having to repeat himself when he was speaking his truth. And then, because the Jewish leaders don’t have a better retort, they berate the man again and expel his family from the synagogue.
It seems to me that the Jewish leaders missed an opportunity, and our modern church equally misses an opportunity when it behaves in this way. We miss the opportunity to see each created being as an image of God, capable of witnessing God's work in the world in their own ways.
When disabled people—or anyone who is oppressed—are given the agency to express ourselves, out of our own lived experience, in whatever ways our bodies and minds allow us to, the church, and the world, has the opportunity to be a richer, more welcoming, more inclusive place.
I don’t believe that God intentionally gave me this disability, that it was God’s will for me to be disabled, or that everything happens for a reason in this circumstance.
When Jesus says, “this happened”, I don’t read that as an explanation for the disability. It’s not about saying, “This is why he was born blind. This is who we can blame.”
Instead, when Jesus says “this happened”, a more affirming reading might be as follows: this man was born blind. That’s a fact. But this happened so society can see God at work in the world.
I may not believe God made me disabled as a means for society to benefit from it. God didn’t make me disabled so others would be better educated, so someone would advocate for health insurance reform, or to call out discrimination when I find it. But I do believe God can use me and my particularities to share the truth that the good news of God’s love is for everyone. And God can do the same with you.
The simple truth for all of us today, friends, is this: God creates each of us in our diversity to witness to God’s work in the world. Then, God brings us together into one body of Christ, that we may work for justice and peace for all created beings.
The man who was born blind was utilized by God to speak truth to the Jewish leaders. If only they would have listened.
I’ve been able to use my experience to help give voice to disability theology and disability justice. And Madison has been a representative of the body of Christ, lifting me up and standing with me on the journey,
This church practices being the body of Christ every day. We celebrate diversity and continue to work for justice for all created beings. We are proud of the ways our church provides the kind of welcome many in this community have yearned for.
So what can we do to further make this a reality? This week, I invite you to dream with me.
Dream with me for a church, and a world, where wheelchair users and people with autism can be embraced in our church buildings, in our worship experiences, and in our public spaces.
Where stutters and slurred speech can become part of the understanding of what people who are loved by God sound like. Or maybe even what God sounds like.
Where people who look and act differently than we do are not looked upon with pity or disgust, but they’re looked upon with love, and they’re told, “you belong here.”
Where there are elevators for every staircase, and there is health insurance for every condition, without the fear that it may be restricted, or worse.
Dream with me for a world where racism, sexism, heterosexism, homophobia, xenophobia, ableism, and any other discriminatory behavior is no more.
Instead, dream with me for a world where we come from all our particularities and witness to God’s work in the world, so that God’s work may be revealed through us. And then, let us do what we can to take the next steps towards peace, justice, and shalom for all. Amen.
Sermon for Union-Congregational Church
Third Sunday in Lent 
March 12, 2023
Guest preacher: John O'Donovan
 
Today is the 3rd Sunday of Lent; Lent is a religious season where we are asked to take time to reflect on ourselves, on our beliefs, on our theology, and on our conscience.
When I was reviewing this familiar parable of the Woman at the well, some new ways of looking at it came to me - and I’d like to share them with you.
Do you remember a while ago there was WWJD? What Would Jesus Do? It was an evaluation or process we were to go thru prior to making a decision. We were to look at it and decide that if Jesus would solve the problem in a certain way then that was the right decision. The verses and parables that we have gone through today are a prime examples of what Jesus would actually do and that is what Jesus has and continues to do for us. They are giving us true lessons in who we are and how to act.
Everyone has some type of problem or hang up, or using the great euphemism we all have issues, and everyone has an opinion.
In the reading of John, we are acquainted with the story of the woman at the well. Jesus' followers have left him and he strikes up a conversation with a woman who comes up to the well that he is sitting by.
There is an importance here. The social norms of the time and place are not being followed. A man is having a conversation with an unchaperoned woman, and not just any woman but a Samaritan. A group of people who as a tradition, the Jews looked down upon. Besides all of this we also find out that she had had 5 husbands and that she was not married to the person she was now living with.
So how do these two interact well? The tradition of the time and place would have ruled that Jesus ignore this woman, and I believe further that she would have kept her distance until the Jewish man had left. But is that what happened?
There was no dismissing of the perceived lower-class person, no prejudging just because of who they were. Which is remarkable, being Jesus was the only person on Earth who could have rightly judged this person. Instead, Jesus talks to the woman, he engages in conversation just as he would with anyone. And they also listen to each other. There was no judging “a book by its cover.”
Jesus, you could say, preached to her. Preached salvation to her, the person he never should have been talking to just because of her ethnicity, an outcast, the Samaritan.
Every day we encounter other people. And if we are lucky, it will be a variety of people.
As we go out into the world, we will encounter people who are not like us, whether in appearance, language, customs, or a whole slew of other differences.
The Bible says that we are made in the image of God. The writer of that verse didn’t specify a race, nationality, or culture.
So, the person out there is not an image of God.
I’m not going to tell you that there are no bad or evil individuals out there, however I am going to say that if you are making that decision on just what you see then you are not doing What Jesus Would Do.
Why do we judge? In researching this I found some thoughts on the Internet.
The root of all judgment appears to come from one place and one place alone:  Our Ego.
When we see someone behaving in a way that we disagree with, we think, “I would never act like that! I’m better than that. That’s not our way, etc.” Putting someone down makes us feel temporarily better about ourselves.
Our own internal image of ourselves can be like a master magician, constantly deflecting our attention, and distracting us from our own shortcomings and the work that we need to do to improve ourselves.
The problem with judging people is that we reduce them down to a handful of characteristics – completely ignoring the fact that people are complex, three-dimensional beings with many different sides. For instance, we may judge someone based on their upbringing. By mentally labeling someone as spoiled, we dismiss the notion that they can sometimes be selfless and share.
After a moment’s observation, we tend to think we’ve got someone figured out for the most part, and we don’t leave much room to be proven otherwise. In truth, we’ve no idea if the person helping the person across the street is a good Samaritan, or if that person is at that moment stealthily robbing the person they appear to be helping.
How many of us have been dismissed, or walked the other way when you saw someone you assumed was homeless. Did the first thought that came to you is I wonder if they are going to use the change given to them for drugs or booze?
Now how would you feel if later you found out that same person was living paycheck to paycheck as many people do, got laid off due to the strange economics we are now going through,  and was trying to get money for insulin, since being laid off stopped their paycheck, stopped their insurance, but the layoff didn’t stop their disease or need for expensive medicine. Do we see the tattoos, the clothes, the unkempt hair, nationality, race, and use only that to determine if a person is worth your time or do you see the person, or do we see the person as one of God’s people?
In my personal life, I was given a chance to observe this many times over.
Prisons are where people - people that the majority of the community believe are society’s outcasts. I had a chance to talk to many of these men and women.  Many in this world have preconceived notions regarding those that are incarcerated. But I was surprised sometimes by the individual's life story.
Let me ask you, what is a person judged by our courts as a thief, a murderer, or someone selling illegal materials? What does that person look like?
 In that same regard, what does a Christian, a saint, or a good person look like? Do you have an answer to either of these questions? I know that I don’t anymore. After being in the criminal justice system, I can say that a thief, a murderer, and a drug dealer, all look like the person next to you and probably had a lot of the same life experiences you and the person next to you had, but somewhere their life took a different direction.
In the same regard, there are people who put out the image of being pious and religious, but yet they really are abusive, backstabbers, thieves, or worse.
The judgments and opinions about others, or groups of others, that we were taught or that we picked up through life may be wrong, or they may be right. We just can’t tell just from the outside. Everyone does not fit into a neat little category, nor do a few represent all of the group, nor is everyone the same.
Again, let me remind you, I am in no way saying that every person is good and that there isn’t evil in the world. What I am saying, and what I believe Scripture is saying, is that you need to try to get to know and understand the individual before you make your “judgment.”
The parable states that through Jesus’ discussion with this woman and her spirit opening up Jesus, Jesus went and spent time in the Samaritan Community, and many came forward and believed and now knew that Jesus was the Savior of the World.
The whole community changed because one person took the time and chance to find out about another, instead of dismissing them because that was what was expected in that time and place.
Don’t just judge a person by how they look on the outside. Look deeper. God has done that with you. Doesn’t the next person deserve the same?
Who knows, maybe that person you come across is already filled with God’s love - - and you would have missed the experience with that person if you had just gone by. Maybe that person has things to teach you, ideas that open your mind, or faith that strengthens yours. You’ll never know if you immediately dismiss them because they are not your kind of people.
Let’s change that acronym from WWJD to WWID - What Would I Do, and follow that up with the simple WID - What I Did. We were made in God’s image, and God sent Jesus to save the world. Jesus, a person who sought out the marginalized and those that were diminished by others instead of just walking by them, can we do any better than that?

 

“Strength for the Journey”
Sermon for Union-Congregational Church
March 5, 2023
 
Focus statement: As Jesus calls us to accompany him on this difficult journey to the cross, God remains steadfast and continues to be with us through it all.
 
I was blessed to have two grandmothers who had very strong faith. On the surface, the two of them lived very different lives and had very different faith backgrounds, but I learned a great deal from each of them about living through periods of adversity.
 
My dad's mother was a devout Catholic. She was the mother of seven. I experienced her as a quiet, prayerful woman. She loved cooking, fishing, gardening, and taking long walks. I think the most important thing I learned from her was that I didn't have to be afraid of dying. Over the last several years of her life, we watched as various health issues took their toll on her body, and certain physical tasks weren't as easy for her as they once were. But she had such a strong faith that all of these things would pass away, and that she would be with God in heaven.  She also talked about the promise of being with her sister, Rita, in heaven. Rita had died in infancy and Grandma talked frequently about how much she missed her baby sister. One of the reasons she held so strongly to her faith was her desire to make that reunion a reality. She lived out her faith more completely than most people I've ever met.
 
My mom’s mother had a different experience. She was spunky, hated cooking, and was too susceptible to mosquito bites to take many long walks. She was a member of a progressive Baptist Church that was kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention because they ordained a gay person. The kinds of adversity that came her way were different too. After many years of marriage, she suddenly found herself a lonely single mom. When she did remarry, her second marriage lasted five years because of her husband’s ill health. She died a couple of years ago, 21 days after being diagnosed with stage four bile duct cancer. She navigated the difficulties of her life while also maintaining a deep spirit of love. She had her flaws, to be sure, but she always tried to learn more about the world around her, to understand the people she shared it with.  I experienced her as a doting grandmother, and a loving mother to her children.
 
I couldn't possibly capture both of their individual faith lives in a short sermon illustration, but as I was preparing the sermon it struck me that each of them lived through different kinds of adversity. Moreover, each of them recognized their faith would see them through the difficult times of their lives.
 
I think the Psalmist can relate to this. The Psalmist is looking around, across God’s vast creation, saying, “in my life, when I'm feeling stuck, when things are hard, where does my help come from?”
 
The next line provides the answer. “Oh yeah, my help comes from the Lord.” The psalmist seems to be in awe of the fact that the very same God who made heaven and earth is mindful of God’s people when they need God the most. The psalmist understands that, in addition to the dimension of God as an unimaginable celestial being who sets the stars in place, there is equally a very intimate dimension of God—near to the broken-hearted, the lost, the lonely, and the oppressed.
 
After establishing from whom their help will come, the Psalmist speaks with confidence about how God will render that help. God's watchful eye will protect us in all of our days and nights. I especially love the way the Common English Bible renders this line—“Your protector wont fall asleep on the job.” When I hear that line, I think about my grandparents, my parents, and other trusted people in my life who always made sure I was safe and felt loved. Who are those people in your life? Speak their names aloud if you’d like.  (Wait for responses)
 
In these beloved people, we see the likeness of God. Thanks be to God for them and their protective love.
 
The Genesis text offers another dimension to the understanding that God is on our side. God asks Abram and his family to trust the journey, as God leads them into a new home. God reminds them that God will be with them at every turn, protecting them from the will of their adversaries and providing them with abundant blessings. Moreover, because of Abram’s family, many generations of others will also be blessed.
 
In a similar way, my faith wouldn't have been quite the same without the witnesses of both of my grandmas. Sure, they had different views, different politics, and different theological convictions in some ways. But it was clear to both of them who would care for them in their times of adversity. When their health failed. When their siblings died. When loneliness crept in.
 
In just under a week, I’ll be taking my ordination vows into the United Church of Christ. It’s been a long time coming, and I’ve certainly been formed by the faith of those who have gone before me. As I take these vows, and as I wear the clergy vestments for the first time, I will give thanks for all the ways God has been by my side, and blessed me on the journey.
 
And you—you’ve surely found hope in God’s presence in your life. When your job or career has changed. When children came. When it was tougher than usual to make ends meet. God, your protector, didn’t fall asleep on the job.
 
When I asked your search committee about a time in recent history when your congregation endured challenges, they responded by talking about COVID, and how, like so many other churches, building community looked different. You couldn’t utilize the new kitchen you’d just remodeled to share meals together. Even the best attempts at meaningful faith formation felt isolated and at times, lacked connection. You ran into ideological differences.
 
But yet, this church is still here. And though it may not always seem like it, we’re getting through, during what is a very difficult period for the church at large. We’re navigating tough challenges with grace, courage, and faithfulness.
 
So what’s our task? What is God inviting us into this week?
 
This is the good news for today: As Jesus calls us to accompany him on this difficult journey to the cross, God remains steadfast and continues to be with us through it all.
 
As you go into this second week of our Lenten journey, may you consider the ways God has been your help, your guide, and your protector. May you share your story of God’s love with orders, and in doing so, may you be part of the hope that comes in uncertain times. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Message for Wednesday Lenten Worship
March 1, 2023
 
Focus statement: As God’s angels looked out for Joseph to protect his child from Herod, so God looks out for us as we journey with Christ to the cross.
 
When I was a summer staffer at Daycholah Center, one of the church camps affiliated with the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ, we did a number of emergency preparedness drills during staff training to learn how to keep our campers safe. We talked about all these different scenarios, which were absolutely frightening. Missing campers, active shooters, and so on. For many years, this had been a place of retreat and respite for me, even as a child, and I couldn't imagine that such a sacred space could be harmed in such a way. But the unfortunate reality was that we had to think like that, in order to continue our mission with integrity.
 
It strikes me that being on staff at summer camp meant working with a bunch of other college students. Some days, I felt like we lived in a reality show. We lived through interpersonal drama, personality clashes, and sometimes even questioning each other's maturity, and yet, when push came to shove and a serious situation arose, we were all united in the singular purpose of making sure each camper knew they were cared for and protected.
 
I wonder if this is how Joseph felt.
 
If he was planning on having kids with Mary, certainly wasn't the way he expected to do it. Receiving words and dreams from God's angels telling them Jesus was special, that he would save the world. Then suddenly having to protect this child from a greedy and power-hungry king who wants to rid the world of any threat to his power. That’s not exactly something you read about in What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
 
By a show of hands, how many of us would still want to have children if we knew that would be the consequence?
 
In the biblical account of birth of Jesus, we never actually hear from Joseph, so we don't entirely know what he felt. Not in a conversation to Mary, not in his own thoughts or prayers. The original storytellers of the gospel believed, for whatever reason, that his side of the story just wasn't worth getting into.
 
But it certainly isn't without its drama.
 
In the resources for the sermon series put together by the Iona community, they offer some skits from the points of view of these lesser-known followers of Jesus. We won’t be reading these skits in full, but I offer you part of Joseph the carpenter's story. In this skit, Joseph reflects on telling Jesus the story of the beginning of his life:
 
I told Jesus then how wed fled
for our lives, under the dark; the stark fear and loss of leaving, saying nothing, fearing all
on the long road to Gaza, chariots kicking dust in the face,
and us parched, but afraid of the proffered lifts and drinks
and hidden costs,
me powerless to protect: he
d seen with toddler eyes.
We reached the sea and the coast ahead – but no waves parted,  though the full boat foundered on the further shore. We lived. Storytelling
s in the family. I taught him.
 
So ends the excerpt.
 
But even though Joseph might've had an imposter complex, even though he was probably bewildered by this turn of events, he might have understood that he was not alone. As the biblical text tells us, the birth of Jesus was part of a prophecy. The text traces some of that prophecy for us, saying first that Jesus is the one whom God calls out of Egypt.
 
Then, Herod retaliates against the magi for tricking him. Herod demands the killing of all children ages two and under. This brings to mind the story of Rachel, fulfilling another part of the prophecy:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
 
But it's little consolation for things to be part of a plan when you're running for your life.
 
That's why God's angels appeared to Joseph in dreams, instructing him on the best way is to keep his family safe. God's angels were on the lookout for any potential danger to Joseph, Mary and Jesus, both fulfilling the prophecy, and also fulfilling God's promises to God's followers throughout time: when we pass through difficult times, when someone is coming for our necks…God will be with us.
 
As God’s angels looked out for Joseph to protect his child from Herod, so God looks out for us as we journey with Christ to the cross.
 
I never did have to use any of those emergency preparedness drills at summer camp, but like Joseph, I had been given the resources to keep people safe if the need arose. I think God for God's care and protection, not only for me and my coworkers but also for the children and youth and trust to our care. Too often, the spaces that youth encounter in their daily lives are made unsafe by abuses of power and hateful ideology, but because of God's love, this space could remain a safe haven.
 
As we begin this Lenten journey, I have a question for you. (Actually a series of questions, but they communicate the same point.) How has God looked out for you? How has God kept you safe in the midst of difficult periods in your life? How has God given you the strength and the courage to carry on in difficult times, and surrounded you in love?
 
As you journey with Jesus to the cross, may your prayers remind you of the assurance of God’s love in your life. As you pray, may you give thanks for the time God has looked out for you. Then, after giving thanks, may you turn those prayers into action. Be advocates for those people who are threatened by unjust systems in our world, because of their race, their gender identity, sexual orientation, their disability, mental health condition, their socioeconomic status, and other systems that oppress, threaten, and demean. May you advocate for others because God has advocated for you. Amen. 
 
 
 
 
 
“How Are We Tempted?”
TRAD sermon for U-CC
February 26, 2023
Lent 1A
 
Focus Statement: As we start this Lenten journey, Jesus invites us to follow his example, resisting the forces that tempt us.
For those of you who haven't figured this out yet, one of my very favorite things is a good, flavorful cup of coffee. I usually take it black, but sometimes I'll go for a latte or mocha at a coffee shop. I love coffee so much that, truthfully, I've become a bit of a snob. I learned from my dad that coffee tastes better when you grind your coffee beans immediately before brewing, and I have my detailed list of likes and dislikes with different coffee roasts.
Several months ago I bought the most amazing coffee maker, which is pretty fancy and very expensive. I had been eyeing it up for a very long time but figured I would never actually get one. It makes the best home-brewed coffee I've ever had in my life. Its certified to brew coffee at the exact right temperature, for the exact right amount of time. It undergoes a special process to ensure maximum flavor extraction from my freshly-ground beans. The flavor is deep and rich, especially when you brew freshly-roasted coffee.
I might justify to myself that I got it on sale. It was $100 off on Amazon Prime Day! How could I say no?
I might justify to myself that most people have a few nice things in their homes. I otherwise live a pretty modest life. But I have to admit that its not really something I can use to further my values, deepen my faith, or work for the kinds of change I feel passionate about. It's not a possession that calls me to live in response to the many gifts that God has given me in my life. It just makes great coffee.
Now, I certainly dont feel guilty enough about owning this coffee maker to return it, and my dad was pretty sad that I took it with me when I moved from my parents’ house to Waupun! (Don’t feel too bad for him, we got him one for Christmas.)  But I will admit that I didn't really need this. I had a perfectly functional coffee maker that I got for just over $50, and it got the job done. So I guess you could say that I gave into temptation, even if the object of my temptation was fairly innocuous.
But sometimes the stakes are much higher than a coffee maker. In today's text from the gospel of Matthew, Satan, whom the Common English Bible renders as “the tempter”, promises all these things to Jesus and tries to exploit his vulnerability.
As I was re-reading this text as I prepared to preach for you today, it struck me that the scripture begins by saying the spirit led Jesus into the wilderness so that he might be tempted by Satan. Satan didn't just happen to show up. There is reason to believe it was all previously orchestrated to test Jesus’ resolve.
But why now? Hasn't Jesus just been baptized? And didn't we talk just last week about how God said, “This is my beloved child! Listen to him!” It would seem like a bit of a sick joke that God would be putting him to the test now, wouldn't it?
But this is exactly what the commentator Audrey West would argue. I’ll share with you her opening words to the commentary she published online. She writes, “It is no accident that Jesus winds up in the wilderness after his baptism. He is not lost, and he is not being punished for something he has done wrong (assumptions that people today sometimes make about their own wilderness experiences”). The Holy Spirit has led him for a purpose: to be tempted or tested.”
So, in other words, the Spirit is making sure that Jesus’ own profession of faith is not merely skin deep as he imparts that faith to others.
But three separate times, Jesus doesn't take the bait, each time replying with a verse of Deuteronomy. Quoting from this particular book of the Bible was significant. If you read Deuteronomy, you'll find that this book spends a lot of time with people whose actions run counter to God's desires, and gives those people instructions on how to live according to God's will. So Jesus latches onto the teachings of Deuteronomy to demonstrate the strength of his faith, to alleviate any doubt about who he thinks is in charge here. And it certainly isn't Satan.
Since we just heard the text, I won't go into great detail on the specific ways Jesus was tempted, but I’ll talk just a little bit about what all of these temptations symbolize.
For one, since Jesus was starving, Satan tempted Jesus to make stones turn into bread in front of him, to which Jesus replied that bread was shallow nourishment in comparison to living life according to God's way.
Next, Satan tries to tell Jesus to literally put himself in danger so that he can save himself, but Jesus once again replies that this is an unnecessary test.
Finally, Satan tries to appeal to Jesus’ ego, saying that Jesus could have all the power he could ever want if Jesus would worship him instead of his creator. Power, after all, can do funny things to people who want status in the world. We've seen it throughout this last year of the Russia-Ukraine War, where Vladimir Putin wants to take control of as much neighboring land as he possibly can for his own self-preservation. But even after throwing the kitchen sink at Jesus, Jesus won't budge.
So Jesus passed the test. His plot is foiled, the devil goes away from Jesus and the angels take care of him.
I would like to think that all of us here would resist Satan's threats as well. But this text does offer us an important question to consider: how are we tempted? What kinds of things do we desire in our lives, and do they line up with what God wants from us?
As we start this Lenten journey, Jesus invites us to follow his example, resisting the forces that tempt us.
We didn't get to celebrate Ash Wednesday properly, because of the winter storm. If you'd like, you can receive ashes on your forehead or wrist in a few minutes. But this text offers a nice tie-in with the general message of Ash Wednesday, which focuses on our human frailty and the ways we have fallen short of God's desires. Sometimes, our temptations come from material possessions, like my coffee maker, and sometimes they come from other forces. But this week, I’d love to invite you to think about how you might resist temptation in your own life. Of course, we're not going to be able to do it all the time, and we're going to fall down and make mistakes. That's why we're human after all. Still, it's an invitation to be intentional in following the ways of Jesus Christ as we accompany him to the cross.
So my friends, may you be blessed with discernment this week of that which distracts you from living according to God's will for your life. May you be blessed both by knowing your own frailty, and yet knowing you are beloved simultaneously. As you consider your habits and the things that distract you from God's will for your life, may you be blessed with clarity for your faith journey. May it be so. Amen.
“We Are God’s Beloved. What Are We Going To Do About it?”
TRAD sermon for U-CC
February 19, 2023
 
Focus Statement: God reminds us that we are God’s beloved. As we rest in that knowing, we also have a sacred call to be part of the transformation.
Today I’m going to tell you a story about one of my favorite volunteers in children's ministry at a former church. I'm not going to use her real name, but we’ll call her Alice.
I arrived for my first days of work in this particular congregation as Children's Ministry Director two weeks before we were to have a huge Easter egg hunt for about 200 people, and nothing had been planned yet! No activities, no volunteers, no food, nothing except for the relief that the easter eggs had been filled a couple weeks ago. I was utterly overwhelmed, and I was still a full-time seminary student, so I had all those pressures too.
Alice had an idea for an activity, and I was all too eager to take that meeting with her, since it was one less thing I had to figure out. But I had also been warned to watch out for Alice. I was told that she could be a bit of an alpha-type person, and that she had various other pieces of her personality that made it hard to work with her. But I told myself that I would draw my own conclusions, and not let other people's opinions color my own too significantly.
The day of our first meeting, in walked Alice, with a dog that obviously had severe breathing problems but wanted nothing more than to sniff every bag of Easter candy that lay on the floor in my cubicle. After we had planned her activity, she helped me handle some other logistics, making phone calls and getting volunteers.
To make a long story short, her activity for the Easter egg hunt was incredibly successful. People loved it. And she was gleaming with joy, because it was so clear that she loved kids, but that she hadn’t been given the experience to share her ministry. Of course, Alice still had her quirks, but over the year and a half I was there, I watched Alice transform into someone who had found her passion, all because a community finally gave her a chance. This certainly wasn't all about me or what I did, but instead, the wider community of this congregation was taking notice of her gifts. Working with Alice taught me a very important lesson, that the gifts of an unlikely person might be exactly what the church needs if we're willing to embrace that person for who they are and what they can share.
I’ll connect the story of Alice to the story of Jesus in a little bit, but first, it seems important to remind us of what the story of the transfiguration actually means.
For many of us, the transfiguration story might feel a bit abstract or obtuse. What is the significance of Jesus’s clothing turning a different color or a voice from God? How do we understand this in our modern context?
Retired preaching professor Ronald J. Allen starts by reminding us of just how difficult it was to live in this biblical time. There were plenty of reasons why Jesus's disciples might be inclined to fear. After all, they were taking great risks in following this countercultural person who deliberately and unapologetically spoke out against the established Roman government, introducing a new way of living instead. It's exhausting paving a new way forward, and spreading a new religion.
This mountaintop vision would've felt familiar to the disciples, who had heard the story which has been kept for us in the book of Exodus, when God leads Moses up to a mountain. These mountaintop visions were a sign of important instruction from God. Indeed, the disciples fell over in fear—terror even—because they know how important these messages are. In their minds, they had better pay close attention and prove themselves worthy of receiving such a message.
But for Professor Allen, what makes this mountaintop vision different is that it has a huge dose of compassion. The significance of Jesus showing up at his resurrection body—brilliant white clothes—is a vision for the future, a reason why the disciples don't need to be afraid. It’s as if God said to the disciples, “I know it's really hard right now, but you're on the right track. Continue believing in my son, whom I love, and everything will be okay.”
Jesus tends to his friends with deep compassion, but also with a word of instruction. The disciples can't tell anybody what happened until after he dies, because no one will understand it unless they've seen it. Without experiencing Jesus's resurrection body, others won't understand the significance of such an event. So it's best to wait until they can see a sign. But make no mistake – this vision changed the disciples in a fundamental way, and gave them courage and hope in an extraordinarily difficult circumstance.
In some ways, the transfiguration story doesn't really have a contemporary parallel. We've never seen anything like this, so it doesn't make sense to us, either.
But it's also true that we see the transfiguration of people every day.
Alice became more confident in her gifts, more affirmed in her ministry, and felt a kind of validation that she may not have received before.
Those in the transgender community, who do the best they can to live in a body that feels inauthentic, can finally breathe a sigh of relief when their physical body finally matches their lived human experience.
For some of us, the transfiguration is less physically obvious, but deeply spiritually fulfilling, when we find an expression of faith that feels authentic to us.
In all these moments, when we experience these transfigurations, we hear God saying, “This is my beloved child! Listen to them! Experience their goodness. See for yourselves who I have made them to be.”
God reminds us that we are God’s beloved. As we rest in that knowing, we also have a sacred call to be part of the transformation of the world alongside Jesus Christ.
When we live authentically as the person God created us to be, we have the power to change perceptions, and even change the lives of the people around us.
We are partnering with Jesus Christ. Today is the last Sunday before Lent begins, which is the journey to the cross. For many, Holy Week and Easter are what solidify the mission of Jesus the most. Even though Lent and holy week can be a difficult time for some people, the transfiguration is a reminder that the pain and the heartache doesn't last forever, and that hope will rise again.
Let us go into this week, celebrating that we are beloved as we follow Jesus into these days. Amen.
 
 
 
 
 
“Stop Eating Baby Food!”
TRAD sermon for U-CC
February 12, 2023
 
Focus statement: Paul reminds us of God’s call to set aside our petty divisions and our watered-down faith, focusing instead on a genuine relationship with God.
My apartment at Eden Theological Seminary didn't have a dishwasher. I know that a lot of people have lived without dishwashers for a long time, but if you've never tried to wash dishes by hand with one hand, you know it's really hard. The dishes don't get as clean, and it's more difficult to get the tougher particles off of them.
To combat this difficulty, I wondered if I should rely more on plasticware that I didn't have to wash so much, rather than a more traditional silverware set. My parents said, “no, we don't think so. Plastic spoons are for college kids who don’t have sinks in their dorm rooms. You're an adult now! You may not have a dishwasher, but you have a sink!”
So, I got a silverware set secondhand and washed it as thoroughly as I could. Sometimes it was difficult, and sometimes I had to re-wash dishes a few times to get them as clean as I was accustomed to. But, I was an adult, and even second-hand silverware felt like a more adult thing than using plasticware on a regular basis.
Needless to say, one of my non-negotiable criteria for searching for housing in Waupun was that it had to have a dishwasher!
Paul seems to think that the spirituality of the Corinthians is only as deep as people who use plastic spoons all the time and eat food they don't have to chew very much. The lectionary this year has exposed us to a lot of Paul's writings to the Corinthians, and in them, Paul doesn't mince words when he calls the Corinthians out on their crap. They seem to love thinking about the wrong things, putting their faith in the wrong people, and in the process, forgetting what's most important.
At the beginning of our lives, of course, we need baby food, or else we're not going to survive. We start with milk, then we start with soft and semi-solid food, and then we graduate to food that is more nourishing and satisfying. We aren't meant to stay in one spot.
Paul likens believing in himself and Apollos to the Corinthians staying in that one spot. Surely they helped the Corinthians experience their faith for the first time. Their witness was obviously powerful to the Corinthians, or else they wouldn't be trying to build the early Christian church in the midst of such suffocation by Roman power structures. But they haven’t moved any further in their spiritual development, despite Paul’s repeated efforts to lead them further. He says, “Now you are still not up to it because you are still unspiritual.
Paul has finally had enough. Chloe's people have told him all about the quarrels that the Corinthians I've been having, and this is Paul's chance to give the Corinthians a piece of his mind.
After venting his frustration, Paul refocuses their attention to what matters most. Paul and Apollos may have watered the tree of faith for the Corinthians, but it's only God who makes it grow. It's only God who will journey with them when they pass through the waters, through the valleys of hopelessness and despair. Further, because God journeys with them, they are to be God’s coworkers. They are responsible for helping others know the story of god's redemptive work, and the revolutionary teachings of Jesus Christ.
The Deuteronomy passage in today's lectionary reminds us of the stark consequences of refusing to do this work. If our hearts turn away from God's teachings, Deuteronomy says we will surely die.
Sometimes, the Scriptures give us comfort in uncertain times, and a reminder of God's deep love for us. But sometimes, the scripture is callout some painful truths in our practice of faith.
I'm not about to predict the apocalypse, and I'm not about to say that our lives will literally end if we don't follow God's will. (Some pastors might go there, but I'm not feeling that right now.)
Instead, when the church as we know it is changing, I think it's time to heed Paul's command to stop eating baby food. To stop professing a faith that makes us comfortable while we carry on with our divisions.
Paul reminds us of God’s call to set aside our petty divisions and our watered-down faith, focusing instead on a genuine relationship with God.
In the wider church, what does it say about our faith if we sing “Amazing Grace” on Sunday morning, and tell someone they’re going straight to hell on Sunday afternoon?
In the wider church, what does it say about our faith if we pray about the justice seekers and peacemakers, and yet are silent when our neighbor is being oppressed because of their race, gender identity, their sexual orientation, their disability, mental health condition, their political affiliation, or any other system that allows us to put each other in a box?
I could go on, but I think you get the gist.
Even though Paul is angry with the Corinthians in this text, for us here at Union-Congregational Church, I'm going to take a bit more compassionate angle.
We pride ourselves in living out the philosophy I begin worship every week with: “No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here.” In many ways, I think we would say we really believe that. I've heard many stories of people telling me that it was this church that gave them a spiritual home.
But if what Paul says is true, that God is the one who helps us grow in our faith, I wonder what God is calling us to do as a response to that welcome? How can we make it more clear? How can we be God’s coworkers in that effort?
I think we have the capacity to move beyond the kind of faith that Paul calls unspiritual, the church politics and disagreements which distract us from the work of God. We have the opportunity to play an important role in our community if we're willing to work together, discern together, or even ask hard questions. None of those things happen while you’re consuming a faith made of baby food. Baby-food-faith might be satisfying in the short term, but it doesn’t change our lives or ask more of us.
When we stop eating baby food, God gives us spiritual food which calls us to chew on something instead.
So this week, I invite you to think with me about ways you have been God’s coworker, and how you feel called to work alongside God to help our church, and our faith, grow and mature. The church is in need of your wisdom, your hope, and your collaboration. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 
 
 
"Let Your Light Shine!"
Sermon for U-CC (Confirmation Sunday)
February 5, 2023
 
Focus statement: Jesus encourages us to let our light shine, and live authentically in the reality of being God’s beloved child.
 
Today we have the incredible gift of confirming Eliza Neumann into the full membership of this congregation.
Of course, I have not known Eliza for a very long time, and I haven't been privileged to witness the full arc of their journey up to this point. But make no mistake—I have seen them claim an identity for themselves. They claimed this with me from the moment we first met. Like God renamed Abraham, Sarah, and others, Eliza has embraced a new identity of their own, claiming God’s blessing as they journey alongside God.
But it isn’t just their name. I have seen the bright smiles, caring hearts, and contagious laughs that radiate from their souls. In many ways, Eliza embodies what Jesus asks of us in today's scripture text, because Eliza is shining their light on the world as they share their journey of faith and life with others.
As Jesus often does, he uses a metaphor to explain his teachings. If salt loses its saltiness, he says, what good is it? The saltiness, after all, is the essence that spices our lives. Many of us would be perplexed if all of a sudden we could not have salt in our kitchens. In a similar way, our faith community would lose some of its flavors if any one of us stopped coming to our church, or was less active in some way. We would be that much less friendly, that much less humorous, and that much less generous. The sense of community would radically change, and while we would likely find a way to fill some of the gaps, there would always feel like there was something missing from those who faithfully maintain our building and make structural updates as needed, to those who show hospitality at coffee hour, to those who welcome visitors with joy and tenderness, to those who pray with one another in their time of need. If any one of those groups of people faded away, our whole identity as a congregation would feel off balance.
I thank God often for the gifts and graces of this faith community, as you have all welcomed me into your midst. Indeed, I might not have made the decision to come to this church if it hadn't been for the attributes that make you who you are. If you will, your saltiness is in your generosity, in your community care, in your humor, and in your love for one another.
 
This brings me to my second point.
Once you have found your saltiness, once you have determined what your essence is, Jesus has maintained that we should share it. You wouldn't hide your light under a bushel basket. You wouldn't write a song for anyone else to hear (most of the time). You couldn't share your reflections on your faith journey in the same way if you didn't have anyone with whom to share them.
So don't be afraid! Shine your light brightly for all to see, right?
Well, for some of us, it's not always that easy.
When we share part of who we are, sometimes we run the risk of people dismissing us, belittling our identities, or using some of our newfound vulnerability to hurt us or push us aside.
There is surely a risk with shining our light.
But here’s the good news: Jesus encourages us to let our light shine, and live authentically into the reality of being God’s beloved child, knowing that God is with us on the way.
Today is partially about celebrating the journey of Eliza, but this part of the message could just as easily apply to any one of us, whether we've been through confirmation or not. We are each on a journey to discover our true selves, and sometimes that journey poses some bumps along the way. The twists and turns can test our resolve, challenge our faith in God's presence in our lives, and even break our hearts. I think most of us would probably be lying if we said that our faith journey was easy or linear.
But we shine our light for others because they will see the presence of God through us. God has brought us all a mighty long way. When we claim our relationship with God, no matter where we've been or what we've done up until now, God will name us as God’s own beloved child, in whom God is well-pleased. God has brought Eliza a mighty long way to bring them to this moment of their faith journey. And God isn’t going to give up on them, just as much as God isn’t going to give up on any one of us.
 
So, as Eliza takes their confirmation vows in a few minutes, I invite you to think not just about Eliza's faith journey, but also about your own. How has God brought you a mighty long way? What have been the twists and turns in your life up until now? How have you resisted the powers of evil and worked towards a more just world? How can you do more of that?
My friends, confirmation is not a one-and-done commitment. It's not something we do to check off a box or because our parents want us to believe something. It's a lifelong proposition, and a lifelong invitation to share our light with the world because the world needs the zest and the passion that we have to offer.
So shine your light, knowing God is with you at every turn, every twist, every bump along the way. You are worthy, and you are more than enough in the eyes of God. You are God’s beloved child, and you have something to teach the world. You have an essence about you, a saltiness in the best possible way, which cannot be imitated or emulated by anybody else. God's light and God's love are shining in you. May you share that love everywhere you go, knowing that it is your Creator who gave it to you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

“From Hopelessness to Blessings”
TRADITIONAL Sermon for U-CC
January 29, 2023
Epiphany 3A, Matthew 5: 1-12
 
Focus Statement: Through the teachings of Jesus, we are reminded of what's important as we live a Christian life.
 
It strikes me that I didn't choose today's scripture passage off of my own agenda. This truly is the lectionary text for today, but it feels like a “God thing” that this is the text that is coming to us on the day of our annual meeting.
One pastor colleague of mine joked this week that this is one of the easiest texts for a pastor to preach on. In some ways, this text practically preaches itself! I won't deny that there might be some truth to that, but there's another reason why I wanted to dive into it.
On this day, when we chart the path forward for the coming year by making various decisions and thinking about what is important to our congregation, it seems particularly important to align ourselves with the mission of Jesus Christ.
The scripture is powerful enough on its own, without any context, but to truly understand the text, I believe that some context might be helpful.
So today, I'm going to offer some context to the world that the followers of Jesus were experiencing at that time. That will naturally lead us to talk about a significant difference in this translation of this familiar text, which will then give us some food for thought about the world we live in now.
First of all, we need to understand how utterly hopeless the followers of Jesus probably felt at that time. The commentator Jillian Englehardt reminds us that it might be easy to overlook just how hopeless these people were, as we read this text while living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. In some of my previous sermons, I've talked about just how terrible and suffocating Roman occupation was, but I also recognize that none of us can truly understand what that's like because we didn't live it ourselves. The closest many of us have ever come to that is saying, “ such-and-such a president is such an idiot” or “a so-and-so politician is so evil”. Some of these politicians might make decisions that impact our lives to a certain degree, but we have the power of the ballot box on our side, and we can mostly go on with our lives no matter who sits in the oval office or the U.S. Senate.
That simply wasn't true for these folks. They had rulers they didn't choose who was personally making sure that people like them only lived a subsistence standard of living. They hardly had enough food. So much of their money was being unfairly taxed. They were dying from preventable diseases. Life was utterly hopeless.
So I can only imagine the level of re-orientation it would've taken for people to hear these words of Jesus—happy are those who are hopeless, meek, and marginalized. Happy are those who are persecuted for believing in Jesus Christ.
It took so much re-orientation because of all the walking in darkness, hopelessness, and sadness they have done. But at this moment, they see a great light that the darkness, hopelessness, and sadness cannot overcome. Jesus is showing them the way toward a better life, the path to true blessing.
Now, if you've read the Bible for a long time, you might recognize that this is a different translation of this text from what you might've heard growing up. I typically use the Common English Bible in our worship together, because I believe it's one of the more accessible translations currently available. Some of you might be more accustomed to a translation such as the New Revised Standard Version, which renders this text slightly different.
Instead of using the word “happy”, the NRSV uses the word “blessed”.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” And so on.
I found that difference interesting, and I wonder at times how it's different to talk about being blessed and being happy.
It seems to me that we can be blessed with good things, and still not be happy. Sometimes it's hard for us to get out of our rut of feeling hopeless.
It seems equally possible that we might not be blessed with everything we need, but in spite of that, we can still be happy.
I don't know which translation would be more correct for Jesus’s people, and I don't know that I have a preference between the two translations. Maybe you might, and I'd be interested to hear what you think.
But in either case, the message of Jesus here is as pastoral as it is prophetic. Jesus reminds us that those who are oppressed, marginalized, and dismissed by society, are the ones his ministry most directly benefits.
So how can I focus our attention on this day of our annual meeting?
For me, I think scriptures like this offer us an opportunity to refocus our ministry as we enter into this new year of the church’s life. Through the teachings of Jesus, we are reminded of what's important, and who needs our presence in the community the most.
Is our programming aligning with the teachings of Jesus Christ set forth in the Beatitudes?
Is our mission and outreach work benefiting those most vulnerable in our community?
Are we strong enough in our solidarity with those others might push aside or dismiss?
As the church, as we know, is changing, I believe we have important work to do if we wish to stay relevant. Our job as followers of Jesus is to find those who are in the greatest need of the love of God, and joyfully provide it to them however we can, without any agenda. After all, it is people such as these to whom God's richest blessings belong.
So, together, let us renew the focus of our ministry toward those who are most vulnerable. Let us work together for the coming of God's realm on earth, as it is in heaven. I can't wait to work alongside you. Amen. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
“Repent from What?”
TRADITIONAL Sermon for Union-Congregational Church
January 22, 2023
 
Focus Statement: Through Paul’s words and Jesus’ teachings, God is asking us to repent from the petty divisions of our world, and unite instead around the purpose of Christ’s redemptive work.
According to a 2021 report from the Pew Research Center, approximately three in 10 American adults are now religiously unaffiliated.
As you can imagine, this statistic is startling not only for pastors but also for many Christians, who yearn for the “good old days” when religion was supposedly a higher priority in peoples’ lives. When soccer games didn't happen on Sunday mornings, kids had less homework on Wednesday nights because teachers knew that they were going to a youth group.
This seems to give way to a few different kinds of responses.
We might change something about ourselves to become more relevant. One way our congregation has done this is the implementation of our media service. Not a lot of churches incorporate secular music and movie clips into a weekly worship service and then apply those points to our daily lives.
Some Christians use their belief in God as fire insurance, telling everybody else that they will be sorry if they don't fill the pews of our Christian churches, or help us balance our budgets. (I don’t think that’s us, but I’ve seen it in other contexts.)
Finally, some Christians get all “doom-and-gloom” about the future of the church. Giving is down, attendance is down, engagement is down… and it gets depressing for some people.
Every Christian is going to respond differently, which is why there are differences and divisions in every single church. And with those divisions sometimes comes infighting, or at least intense disagreement on the future of the church.
The funny thing is, no matter how people's beliefs shape their actions, all of this can be done in the name of the person we understand Christ to be.
Just like the Corinthians, our impulse is often to dig in our heels even further. Many Christians choose one of these three responses, without being open to genuine conversation about how to be part of the new thing God is already doing in our church and in our community.
When Paul asks the question, “Has Christ been divided? Were you baptized by Paul, or by Apollos, or by Cephus, or by others?”…of course the Corinthians know the answer is no. But Paul is criticizing the Christianity they have made in their own image, which is preventing them from focusing on the life and teachings of Jesus. Paul believes that focusing on his teachings, or any of the teachings of others waters down the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
I wonder at times if modern-day Christianity is falling into the same trap. We worship a Christ who breaks down barriers, favors the outcast, and challenges us to care for those in need. On the other hand, the kind of Christianity that has taken hold of some people in society is infused with hatred, fear-mongering, and discrimination. Our most vulnerable siblings in Christ—those who have been treated unfairly because of their race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, and other self-made constructions—continue to be told, or shown, that the good news of God’s liberation does not extend to them. Society is divided on how far it should go to embrace the outcast when, in fact, we worship a God who already has.
If Jesus lived and died because of his love for people like us, then Jesus also lived and died for people who are not like us—for people who live or love or vote or believe differently than we do.
As usual, when God’s people are divided and fighting against each other, Jesus has a message for them. We have a prime example in today’s text from the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus calls us to change our hearts and lives.
After Jesus proclaims to a crowd that God’s realm has come to Earth, he issues a command.” No sooner does he offer this command than he calls some of his first disciples. It seems that these disciples are like an illustration, an example of what he has just asked society to do. In this case, he calls two young fishermen, telling them to put down their nets and share the good news with people instead. The amazing thing is that they don't hesitate. The text tells us that immediately after Jesus invites them into a relationship with him, they immediately throw down their nets and follow him. No analysis, no conversation among themselves, just taking a leap of faith.
I'm not going to pretend that it's that easy for all of us. Some of us have been hurt by the church. Some of these divisions have made us question our beliefs, or maybe even feel spiritually homeless. Some of us might have stories of people who have hurt us. And in those cases, I wouldn't fault you for being a little wary of keeping the institutional church alive.
But there is good news today: Through Paul’s words and Jesus’ teachings, God gives us the command and the opportunity to repent from the petty divisions of our world and unite instead around the purpose of Christ’s redemptive work.
Responding to the call of Christ to change our hearts and lives seems to reject any sense of comfort on the surface. There are all sorts of topics that I was urged in seminary not to touch with a 10-foot pole until I have been at a church for at least a year.
But a deeper look at this might give us a different perspective.
At my ecclesiastical council, where I was approved for ordination pending a call to ministry, one colleague of mine asked me where I find hope in the institutional church when it is supposedly dying by every discernible metric.
I responded that I had faith in God who makes all things new.
I know that at first, Jesus’ call for change may not feel like a gift. We might have to talk about difficult things. We might have to learn how to forge a new path in a rapidly changing world. We might have to rethink how we do things from time to time.
But Paul reminds us of the power of the resurrection, new life after death.
Even as we see all the signs pointing to sweeping changes to the institutional church as we know it, we worship a God and Christ who can make beautiful things happen in the midst of discernment, and even in the midst of division, if we are willing to let God do that slow work in us.
So, my friends, today I ask you to think about something in your life, or in the broader church’s life, that might be due to some change or renewal. Even in difficult times, after all, the work of resurrection is both liberation and hope for us if we are willing to receive it.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
“The Faith To Do The Work”
TRADITIONAL Sermon
Epiphany 2A/MLK Sunday
January 15, 2023
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
 
Focus Statement: Even through all the ways we struggle to live with one another in the world, God gives us every spiritual gift we need as we wait for Jesus Christ to show us the way toward the right relationship.
The night before his assassination, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous speech called, “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop.” For many people, the very end of the speech is quite eerie, as if he knew that he would die the next day. He talked about looking over the mountaintop and seeing the promised land. “I may not get there with you,” he said to his listeners, “but we as a people will get to the promised land!”
I’m going to read one other small excerpt of this address, but I’d invite you to listen to the rest of it on your own because his delivery is full of a kind of passion and urgency that I couldn’t possibly articulate. 
He said: “All we say to America is, "Be true to what you said on paper." If I lived in China, Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn't committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights. And so, just as I said, we aren't going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren't going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.”
Martin Luther King Jr. lived his life according to his faith in God and enacted that faith through his work in the public square. In some ways, the excerpt I just read is just as relevant in today's society as it was in 1963. While it’s true that we have made significant progress, our society still has not evolved beyond the discrimination of that era. Our country still discriminates based on race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, and other identifying characteristics of humanity. The only difference now is that we might be more clever about how we do it.
This kind of infighting in our society parallels the situation in Corinth. The commentator Matthew L. Skinner paints the Corinthians as a deeply annoying, deeply divided people. There's a great deal of conflict as these people try to figure out how to build a church that works harmoniously towards God's desires for the world. In order for them to work towards these goals, Paul first has to remind the Corinthians who they are. They may be flawed, ragamuffin people on their own, but Paul reminds them first that they are part of the communion of saints. Paul even thanks God for these people, even when Skinner says they might have been like his “problem child”. Paul assures the Corinthians that they have everything they need as they wait for Christ to be revealed to them. In doing so, Paul attempts to call them away from their needless squabbles, focusing their attention instead on the liberating promise of God.
At the end of this particular passage, Paul reminds the Corinthians that they were called into partnership with Jesus. They have been given everything they need to work towards their goals.
In other words, they were given the faith to do the work, if they were willing to hold onto it. It wasn't going to be easy. They needed to learn how to live with each other and advance the message of Jesus, at a time where Roman occupation was working against them. They didn't need to complicate this any further by turning against one another.
But even so, the commentator Alan Gregory reminds us of Paul's belief that the Corinthians are more than their failures and more than their divisions. Paul believes that the Corinthians can work towards the kind of society that Christ models if they commit to a partnership with Christ.
In a similar way, Martin Luther King Jr.'s audience was mobilized because he didn't give up hope that the oppressed would find their way toward a fairer country, a country that actually embodied the ideals it said it believed. Rev. Dr. King held the country to its highest standards when, in some ways, it would have been easier to just give up and submit to suffocating racism. He understood that violence was not an antidote for violence and that only love would drive out hatred.
But it was not without risk. It would be incredibly dangerous to live among those who favor segregation, with the ongoing threat of dogs, water hoses, and corrupt law enforcement. But he mobilized his followers to press on, even in the midst of the greatest difficulties, because he knew that there could be a better future if people were willing to work for it and be a part of its coming.
So, what about us, here in Waupun? How do we live out the spirit of Paul, Martin Luther King Jr., and of Christ?
One of the ideals we are most proud of is that this church is a welcoming and inclusive congregation. We are a melting pot of different traditions; faith backgrounds, work backgrounds, passions, hopes, and fears. In our mission statement, we talk about living our core values and living Christ’s example.
Sometimes, living Christ’s example takes a lot of risks, doesn't it?
If we truly welcome all, are we willing to make a firm stance against hatred and exclusion, even if it might be easier to just get along with everyone?
Are we willing to be strong enough in our words and actions that others might ask us to explain them, or defend them?
As we think about this, here is the good news for today: Even through all the ways we struggle to live with one another in the world, God gives us every spiritual gift we need as we wait for Jesus Christ to show us the way toward the right relationship.
Paul assures us that as long as we work towards God’s hope for the world, we will be blameless in the eyes of Jesus Christ when we go to heaven. We worship a God that is faithful and will guide us in the way that we should go.
So this week, I invite you to reflect upon what it's like to live in a Christian community with one another, and what kinds of risks we might need to undertake in order to create the world God desires. It may not be easy, but I do believe it will be worth it. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 
 
 
 
“What Time Is It?”
Sermon for Union-Congregational Church, Jan 1, 2023
Christmas 1A/New Year’s Day
Ecclesiastes 3: 1-13, Matthew 25:31-46
 
Focus statement: As we approach this new year, God gives us a task: to work for justice, peace, and well-being for all.
 
Behavioral purpose:
Last summer, my family miraculously all got together for a family vacation. We spent a week at a beach house on Carolina Beach, near Wilmington, North Carolina. When we weren't enjoying the beach, we were eating half our weight in excellent seafood or indulging in what we like to call our “dip of the day”, which entailed trying a different chip and dip combination every single day! (We ate way too much on that trip.)
Around that same time, thing happened in our lives. Emily had just finished her first semester of grad school, and I was interviewing for pastor positions, and conducting a nationwide search. So we were all keenly aware that this might be one of the last times we had a family vacation with just the four of us. We knew our future work schedules might place different demands on our time. We hope to welcome partners or children into the family one day, which will change the dynamic of our family time.
We also knew that we wanted to stay connected with our roots. My mom is from North Carolina, and we happened to be there on the one-year anniversary of my grandma's death.
We hope and anticipate that there will be more family vacations in the future, but we are basking in the sweetness of the present moment. Even if that present moment involved getting up really early for sunrise, which isn’t a normal activity for this night owl!
As I look back on that trip, I think about the various seasons of life we were all in. Some seasons were ending, and others were beginning. I can imagine that many of you have reflected similarly on the seasons of life you’ve encountered. Also, on this New Year's Day, it's natural to take stock, set our goals and priorities, to look for ways we can better ourselves in the year ahead.
However, we decide to orient ourselves as the calendar turns. It seems to me that we can find helpful accompaniment in our text from Ecclesiastes.
For starters, commentator William P. Brown reminds us that positive and negative situations are paired in no particular order, to demonstrate the totality of the human experience. It’s a reality, for example, that someone we know will give birth this year, and someone we know will die this year. These are facts of life, whether we like them or not. But life and death also extend beyond the literal sense. There are also priorities in our lives that we may choose to build and grow, or other priorities we choose to let fall by the wayside because they don’t carry the importance they once did. Relationships end. Circumstances change. Priorities shift. Sometimes that change can be good, and sometimes that change can break our hearts, but nonetheless, it’s inevitable.
There are also those differences in situations that affect how we live our lives. Sometimes we stay silent when it's not our battle, and sometimes we have to advocate for the justice we want to see in the world. Sometimes, what is broken can be mended. Other times, it's best for our health if we don’t.
The Ecclesiastes text ends by alluding to a task God gives human beings. This passage doesn’t go into great detail on what that task is, but if you read further into Ecclesiastes 2 and 3, you’ll find a common theme of reflection on work and vocation, which is a worthy study on its own merits but not quite fitting with the rest of today’s message.
So, what about Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us? What is his task for us?
According to the text which has been kept for us in Matthew 25, Jesus talks about all the ways those who are righteous will follow his will. In other words, he offers a blueprint for some of the most important behavior, according to him.
He talks about what some would call the day of judgment, where both the righteous and the unrighteous will answer to Jesus upon their death. To the righteous, Jesus will say: “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.”
It turns out, it’s not about doing these things for Jesus specifically, but instead, seeing the face of Christ in one another, and caring for one another as Christ cared for us.
It might not seem at the outset that these two scriptures connect very well, but this second text actually leads us to the main point I want to make today: As we approach this new year, God gives us a task in every season of our lives: to work for justice, peace, and well-being for all.
As I begin to draw this message to a close, I’d like to ask you this question: “what time is it?”
I have a watch on, so I’m not asking what the actual time is. But I’m asking what time it is for our congregation, and also for you in your life.
We have our annual congregational meeting after worship in just a few weeks, and we’re about to reflect on the year, make decisions together, and present our goals for the future. As the year goes on, will we consider a new initiative? Will we do more community outreach? Will we reevaluate our mission or our programming, making the necessary changes to improve its effectiveness? Surely, opportunities await us to build, grow, reach, to give birth to something exciting in the life of our congregation. God will guide us in the ways that we should go, and God might reveal something you or I never thought possible.
And what about you? What seasons of life will you navigate in the coming year? Will it be like the story I shared of my own family, where some seasons were ending and others were beginning? Do you enter this coming year with excitement, with wonder, or even apprehension? My door is always open to you if you’d like to talk more about that.
As you consider these things, also be mindful of Christ’s call to you, and to us all. The season is always right to do justice, work for peace, and to care for our neighbors in need. Christ’s advocacy for “the least of these” is a vital part of the mission we’re called to co-labor with together.
So I ask again, what time is it?
What time is it for you? What time is it for the church? What time is it for our community?
As you prepare to answer that question as this new year dawns, may you remember Christ’s companionship, Christ’s care, and Christ’s call to action?
Happy New Year, friends. Let’s work with Christ to make it a season of hope. Amen.

 

Fear Not—the Light Is On The Way!
Sermon for 7 PM TRAD SERVICE, Christmas Eve 2022
U-CC Waupun
 
Focus statement: In the midst of living in a complicated world, we rejoice in God’s gift of Jesus, who brings hope to our world.
My parents have always been great gift-givers. They are good at giving gifts that surprise and enchant me, like my first iPod or our Nintendo Wii, and also gifts that are practical and necessary in this season of living independently. As a child, I used to hate getting clothes for Christmas, but sometimes that big pack of socks or that new sweater is just what a guy needs!
I’ve gotten some great gifts over the years, but it seems like Dad always has something special and unexpected in mind for Mom. Sometimes it’s something that the whole family can enjoy and appreciate, but many times it’s something especially for her, where he can demonstrate his appreciation for all the ways that Mom enriches our lives. Sometimes my sister Emily and I pitch in and share in this special gift-giving, and sometimes Dad gives this as his own token of love and appreciation.
One recent Christmas, my mom was grieving the loss of her father, and my grandfather, and remembering the journey of their relationship, with all its joys and challenges. That Christmas, Mom received a very special diamond ring, which was accompanied by a beautiful handwritten note from my dad. This note explained to Mom that while my dad was the one giving her the ring, it was really her own father’s generosity that enabled my dad to give her this ring. Her dad died a couple of years ago, and my dad gave her this ring in hopes that Mom would always feel the love of her dad surrounding her as she wore it.
I can imagine many of us have a story like this in our families. Some of the best gifts we can receive are symbols to remind us of someone important to us.
Of course, tonight we have many different scripture readings, and a solid Christmas Eve message could be made out of any one of them. But this year, I feel particularly drawn to the scripture which was recited by Linus van Pelt in that dramatic and beautiful scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas.
There are two main points in the text that I want to reflect upon tonight. The first is “don’t be afraid.” The second is “this is a sign for you.”
First, Luke's Gospel tells us that the shepherds were terrified, and I can hardly blame them. They were just minding their own business, taking care of the sheep, and all of a sudden an angel visited them to tell them this news that nobody else knew yet! I would be terrified too! Luke makes a point of reminding us that these people were shepherds. Nobodies. Ordinary people, doing ordinary things. They have such low status in society that they’re not the people with whom this kind of news would normally be shared first.
It actually makes sense when we think of the people Jesus cared about the most. His whole ministry, his whole life, his death, was for the nobodies, the outcasts, the downtrodden.
So we've received the good news of great joy. Now how do we find it? The second piece of the angel’s announcement is when they say, “this is a sign for you.” In other words, this is how you will know that what you are hearing is true. They're instructed to find a tiny baby wrapped in whatever cloth they could find, laying in the same place where animals eat. And against all odds, this was the person who was supposed to save the world.
The shepherds would have a right to be skeptical. But instead, their faith is so deep in what the angel has told them that they stop everything they're doing, throw caution to the wind and go find this baby. And at that moment, the whole world changed forever.
In some ways, the story is a lot like the story of my mom and the ring. In the midst of a complicated time in her life, my dad and my grandpa both gave her a sign that everything was going to be okay. That didn't mean the journey forward would be free of difficulties, but it was a sign that her father’s spirit was with her in the midst of it all.
The story also has some parallels with us, as a congregation. Over the last couple of years, this congregation has weathered many challenges. Retirement of a well-loved pastor. Other staffing changes. Covid. Online worship. Multiple deaths in the last month. And that doesn't even include the individual challenges you face in your lives outside here.
But this is precisely why the Christmas story is so beautiful. In the midst of living in a complicated world, we rejoice in God’s gift of Jesus, who brings hope to our world.
“Don’t be afraid” and “this is a sign for you” are not throwaway phrases in our time and place. Through the coming of Jesus Christ, God is telling us, both in our own church and in the world, that something wonderful is on its way.
Even though I've only been here for a month, I can see the new things God is doing in this congregation and the wider church. There are signs every day that God is working within us, among us, around us, and through us. These are the little moments where Jesus breaks through our world's chaos, grief, and wandering, bringing a revolution of amazing and unexplainable love.
So as you enter into this Christmas season, I invite you to ask yourself a question. How can you share the good news of God's love, which is true for all people? How can you remind somebody that, even in the midst of everything they've been through, they don't have to be afraid anymore?
As you enter the end of this Christmas season, don't be afraid, and search for the signs of Jesus coming into your life. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 
 
 
 
Fear Not—the Light Is On The Way!
Sermon for 4 PM FAMILY SERVICE, Christmas Eve 2022
U-CC Waupun
 
Focus statement: In the midst of living in a complicated world, we rejoice in God’s gift of Jesus, who brings hope to our world.
My parents have always been great gift-givers. They are good at giving gifts that surprise and enchant me, like my first iPod or our Nintendo Wii, and also gifts that are practical and necessary in this season of living independently. As a child, I used to hate getting clothes for Christmas, but sometimes that big pack of socks or that new sweater is just what a guy needs!
I’ve gotten some great gifts over the years, but it seems like Dad always has something special and unexpected in mind for Mom. Sometimes it’s something that the whole family can enjoy and appreciate, but many times it’s something especially for her, where he can demonstrate his appreciation for all the ways that Mom enriches our lives. Sometimes my sister Emily and I pitch in and share in this special gift-giving, and sometimes Dad gives this as his own token of love and appreciation.
One recent Christmas, my mom was grieving the loss of her father, and my grandfather, and remembering the journey of their relationship, with all its joys and challenges. That Christmas, Mom received a very special diamond ring, which was accompanied by a beautiful handwritten note from my dad. This note explained to Mom that while my dad was the one giving her the ring, it was really her own father’s generosity that enabled my dad to give her this ring. Her dad died a couple of years ago, and my dad gave her this ring in hopes that Mom would always feel the love of her dad surrounding her as she wore it.
I can imagine many of us have a story like this in our families. Some of the best gifts we can receive are symbols to remind us of someone important to us.
Of course, tonight we have many different scripture readings, and a solid Christmas Eve message could be made out of any one of them. But this year, I feel particularly drawn to the scripture which was recited by  Linus van Pelt in that dramatic and beautiful scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas.
There are two main points in the text that I want to reflect upon tonight. The first is “don’t be afraid.” The second is “this is a sign for you.”
First, Luke's Gospel tells us that the shepherds were terrified, and I can hardly blame them. They were just minding their own business, taking care of the sheep, and all of a sudden an angel visited them to tell them this news that nobody else knew yet! I would be terrified too! Luke makes a point of reminding us that these people were shepherds. Nobodies. Ordinary people, doing ordinary things. They have such low status in society that they’re not the people with whom this kind of news would normally be shared first.
It actually makes sense when we think of the people Jesus cared about the most. His whole ministry, his whole life, his death, was for the nobodies, the outcasts, the downtrodden.
We see this also in Linus’s retelling of the story. If you know Linus even a little bit, you know that Linus is kind of a misfit, and he always has his blanket with him. His sister Lucy chastises him endlessly about why he carries around that stupid blanket.  It's a safety object of sorts for him, like so many of us carry around our favorite stuffed animal. But we also know how faithful Linus is, because the minute he says, “fear not”, he drops his blanket, and smiles from ear to ear when talking about the good news of great joy which shall be for all people! I have a hunch that he would be the first one to go see the baby in real life, and not just because he played a shepherd in that Christmas play.
So we've received the good news of great joy. Now how do we find it? The second piece of the angel’s announcement is when they say, “this is a sign for you.” In other words, this is how you will know that what you are hearing is true. They're instructed to find a tiny baby wrapped in whatever cloth they could find, laying in the same place where animals eat. And against all odds, this was the person who was supposed to save the world.
The shepherds would have a right to be skeptical. But instead, their faith is so deep in what the angel has told them that they stop everything they're doing, throw caution to the wind and go find this baby. And At that moment, the whole world changed forever.
In some ways, the story is a lot like the story of my mom and the ring. In the midst of a complicated time in her life, my dad and my grandpa both gave her a sign that everything was going to be okay. That didn't mean the journey forward would be free of difficulties, but it was a sign that her father’s spirit was with her in the midst of it all.
The story also has some parallels with us, as a congregation. Over the last couple of years, this congregation has weathered many challenges. Retirement of a well-loved pastor. Other staffing changes. Covid. Online worship. Multiple deaths in the last month. And that doesn't even include the individual challenges you face in your lives outside here.
But this is precisely why the Christmas story is so beautiful. In the midst of living in a complicated world, we rejoice in God’s gift of Jesus, who brings hope to our world.
“Don’t be afraid” and “this is a sign for you” are not throwaway phrases in our time and place. Through the coming of Jesus Christ, God is telling us, both in our own church and in the world, that something wonderful is on its way.
Even though I've only been here for a month, I can see the new things God is doing in this congregation and the wider church. There are signs every day that God is working within us, among us, around us, and through us. These are the little moments where Jesus breaks through our world's chaos, grief, and wandering, bringing a revolution of amazing and unexplainable love.
So as you enter into this Christmas season, I invite you to ask yourself a question. How can you share the good news of God's love, which is true for all people? How can you remind somebody that, even in the midst of everything they've been through, they don't have to be afraid anymore?
As you enter into this Christmas season, don't be afraid, and search for the signs of Jesus coming into your life. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 
 
 
 
Sermon for Union-Congregational Church
December 18, 2022
TRADITIONAL SERVICE
 
Focus Statement: Even in our most desperate and desolate situations, we are waiting for the coming of Jesus Christ. He will remind us what it means to be in healthy and productive relationships with each other, and with the world around us.
Behavioral purpose: Today I’m beginning my sermon with part of a message I received via email from Rev. Franz Rigert, who’s our conference minister at the Wisconsin Conference UCC. Franz writes:
In December 1914, British and German soldiers were bogged down in trench warfare on the Western front of the First World War, the two sides dug in so close that they often shouted insults at each other. But in the dark quiet of that Christmas Eve, the Germans began singing Christmas carols. Soon jokes were exchanged, and weapons put down. The story is told of a lone voice shouting, Tomorrow you no shoot; we no shoot,” and a British soldier answering, You come halfway; we come halfway.”
On Christmas morning, the soldiers met in no mans land” to exchange handshakes, songs, cigarettes, and cheer. They even played soccer. But that Christmas truce prompted by the spirit of God was quickly squelched by the generals. Imagine what could have been if the voice of the angels and the love of the Christ child rested in every heart on the battlefield.
Franz goes on to reflect upon what the world might be like if we engaged in “Christmas truces” of our own, from such things as our political warfare, the discrimination we perpetuate, and all that separates us from God and one another. I’m happy to share the entirety of Franz’s remarks with you if you’d like, and I’ll try to get them posted on our church's Facebook page.
This week we lit the candle of peace, which seems appropriate given the Scripture for today. The Psalmist seems to waffle between desperation and anger.
First, the Psalmist desperately seeks hope in God’s presence. “Listen! Wake up your power! Come to save us!”
We don’t have much context into the Psalmist’s plight, or from what they need to be saved, but it strikes me that the Psalmist didn’t say, “Come to save me. Make your face shine, so I can be saved.”
The Psalmist is asking for God’s help in the restoration of their community. Restoration from apathy. Restoration from petty anger. Restoration from that which prevented them from following God’s will.
But often, desperation and anger go hand in hand. In the Psalmist’s desperation, they accuse God of turning people against each other and making them suffer.
We are rapidly becoming angrier at each other, at the world, and at God. We believe the only logical answer is violence, despair, and desolation. Worse yet, we accept that this is just how things are going to be. We accept that people are going to get angry with each other or kill each other before anything changes.
But the Psalmist understands that this is outside what God desires for the world. The Psalmist understands that God has an alternate vision for how the world will live in relationship with one another, and the Psalmist hopes—even demands—that God will show up and make it all better. Indeed, this is one of the deepest forms of prayer. Reaching out to God at all required that the Psalmist actually believed that God would respond. If the Psalmist didn’t believe that God would respond, why even bother?
We long for a relationship with God when times are difficult, scary, and hopeless. Michael talks about being in the arms of someone who believes in him in his despair—the kind of connection so many of us long for when we’re scared.
One thing that makes the Psalms one of my favorite books of the Bible is that each psalm captures a person's emotions at a moment in time, without the finality of some resolution by God. That very same factor makes them difficult for others. In this situation, I can see why many people might hear this song and say, “Man, this seems pretty bleak. How are we supposed to find grace in this? What does this teach us about God?”
I believe the Isaiah text in the lectionary can give us our answer.
Isaiah prophesied that God would give God’s people a sign of the coming of the Messiah. He says, “The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel. He will eat butter and honey, and learn to reject evil and choose well. Before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned.”
This is our good news for today. Even in our most desperate and desolate situations, we are waiting for the coming of Jesus Christ. He will remind us what it means to be in healthy and productive relationships with each other, and with the world around us.
Sometimes living in healthy relationships with other humans is messy. For some of us, the people whom we will share Christmas with don't share our values, make us uncomfortable, or don't treat us in the ways we deserve to be treated. Sometimes the holidays are a reminder of fractured family relationships, or painful Christmases past, rather than a joyous celebration.
We might get cynical, or we might cry out to God, saying, “Save us! Save them! Make us care for each other again!”
The grace is that Jesus will do this. Jesus is going to come and make the world align with God's will once again. We need not fear a world that is drifting further and further away from what we understand to be right, because God is going to set things right again.
But this is far from a passive exercise.
The subject line of Franz’s email was “… and let it begin with me”, as in, “let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”
Part of encountering a world that is filled with the peace of Jesus Christ is to do our part to make it so.
So let us find ways to refrain from turning against each other. When we cry for God to restore us, may we be willing to do our part to aid the restoration? Amen.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Sermon for Union-Congregational Church
TRADITIONAL Service
December 11, 2022
Advent 3A: Luke 1:46-55 and Matthew 11:2-11
 
Focus Statement: We may have different reactions to the coming of Jesus, but his coming will change the way we live in profound ways. We are called to respond with joyful expectation as we await his coming.
 
Behavioral purpose:
Raise your hand if you can say with confidence that you believe in miracles.
For those of you who raised your hand, did you hesitate first? Did you have to think for a minute? Were you waiting to see where I was going to go with this before you made a judgment?
In some ways, I will admit that I myself struggle to believe in miracles. Maybe I’m too cynical, or maybe I’m a product of a society that has to analyze everything, where everything has to have a reason for being. Sometimes the word itself feels overused to me since it's used to describe “miracles” that aren’t actually miracles.
Childbirth? Yes, I can say that's a miracle, no matter the circumstances of the child and the parents. But finding the one empty spot in the parking lot at a Walmart Super Center? Not so much.
People have many reasons to be cynical. Throughout the last few years, I’ve heard people talk about the exhaustion of listening to the nightly news, referring to an endless loop of violence and depression that dominates the narrative. It also has a cumulative effect on us as we grow older, which adds to the sadness as well.
Biblically, those of us who are cynical are in good company with John the Baptist today. He sends his disciples to go see Jesus, saying, “how can we be sure this is the one?”
One commentary by Stanley Saunders, who served on the faculty at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, suggests that there are two different emotions John could be conveying when he asks the question. He is either deeply hopeful and filled with awe that Jesus is really here, or he is exasperated because of a long line of people who have said they were the one chosen by God to bring about God's dream for the world. So John’s disciples go to Jesus for answers.
Jesus responds, “Go, report to John what you hear and see. Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them.”
As an advocate for just disability representation in the Bible and in the church, I have to note that using the curing of disabilities as evidence for Christ's presence is troubling. For me, and for many of my colleagues in the disability theology world, doing so perpetuates the erroneous notion that those of us who live with incurable disabilities are not worthy of or don’t experience love by God, by Jesus, or by society unless our disability is taken away. Sure, I experience the healing of Christ’s presence, but I don’t need to be cured of my disability to experience Christ’s, revolutionary love.  So while this is a biblical account, I want us to watch out for how folks in various minority groups are being represented in the biblical text.
Yet at the same time, the redeeming quality of this text is through its recognition of things that can only be possible through Jesus Christ, whose coming we await. At the end of this text, Jesus makes it clear that John the Baptist’s prophecy is connected to him, further cementing his mandate.
In her song in Luke chapter 1, which is commonly known as the Magnificat, Mary understands this too. She recognizes that her baby is no ordinary child, but instead somebody who will fundamentally change the entire world as she and her people know it. Whenever I encounter this text, I'm always amazed at the level Mary understood about what Jesus would do for the world, even as she got the news in such a shocking way. Somehow, the only way she knows how to respond to this news is to sing about it. She sings with passion, hope, excitement, and with wonder about what God is doing. If only they had a megaphone in Biblical times because I think Mary would’ve used one!
Mary resolves to choose joy in the midst of incredibly difficult circumstances. She and Joseph had not gotten married yet, so in multiple ways, they were deviating from the social expectations of the day. Deviating from those social expectations had much graver consequences in those days than doing so in our society. I wonder how much that scared her. Mary’s song focuses more on her awe and wonder at what God is doing in her life, and praise for the character of God, and not much on whatever fears she might have. She chooses to raise her voice in praise even in the midst of all that uncertainty.
In our two scripture texts for today, we've seen two ways of responding to the arrival, life and ministry of Jesus Christ. To be honest, in some ways I don't fault either person. John the Baptist is cynical, or at least wary, that the presence of Jesus could be this miraculous. Mary is overjoyed at the miracle she knows is on its way inside of her. Jesus would go on to do unimaginable, liberating work. Feeding the hungry, holding space for those in need of love and grace, giving good news to the poor. All the liberation so many people find through Jesus Christ in their own circumstances truly is miraculous.
So what does this mean for us?
This is the good news for today: We may have different reactions to the coming of Jesus, but his coming will change the way we live in profound ways. We are called to respond with joyful expectation as we await his coming.
What does it look like for you to choose joy in this Advent season?
For some, we might find joy in spending time with our family as we prepare for the holidays together. We might even find joy in the chaos.
For some of us, the prospect of finding joy does not seem to resonate with our experiences. Maybe we're dealing with the loss of a loved one, or this season is difficult for us for some other reason. Perhaps you might find joy in the quiet, peaceful moments of sitting by a fire, reminiscing, or waiting for things to turn around. We might be cynical or exasperated because these have been exhausting times. But this is a miracle we can believe in, no matter how cynical, exasperated, or distressed we might sometimes feel: Jesus is on his way, and his life and ministry are going to make the world further aligned with God's hopes and desires. I find great hope in that: hope for you, hope for me, and hope for all of us. As we wait, let us do what we can to work toward God’s desires for the world. Amen.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Sermon for Union-Congregational Church
MEDIA Service
December 11, 2022
Advent 3A: Luke 1:46-55 and Matthew 11:2-11
 
Focus Statement: We may have different reactions to the coming of Jesus, but his coming will change the way we live in profound ways. We are called to respond with joyful expectation as we await his coming.
 
Behavioral purpose:
Raise your hand if you can say with confidence that you believe in miracles.
For those of you who raised your hand, did you hesitate first? Did you have to think for a minute? Were you waiting to see where I was going to go with this before you made a judgment?
In some ways, I will admit that I myself struggle to believe in miracles. Maybe I’m too cynical, or maybe I’m a product of a society that has to analyze everything, where everything has to have a reason for being. Sometimes the word itself feels overused to me since it's used to describe “miracles” that aren’t actually miracles.
Childbirth? Yes, I can say that's a miracle, no matter the circumstances of the child and the parents. But finding the one empty spot in the parking lot at a Walmart Super Center? Not so much.
Our song by For King and Country today joins us in the cynicism, or at least in exasperation. The song begins by talking about the exhaustion of listening to the nightly news, referring to an endless loop of violence and depression that dominates the narrative. It also has a cumulative effect on us as we grow older, which adds to the sadness as well.
Biblically, those of us who are cynical are in good company with John the Baptist today. He sends his disciples to go see Jesus, saying, “how can we be sure this is the one?”
One commentary by Stanley Saunders, who served on the faculty at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, suggests that there are two different emotions John could be conveying when he asks the question. He is either deeply hopeful and filled with awe that Jesus is really here, or he is exasperated because of a long line of people who have said they were the ones chosen by God to bring about God's dream for the world. So John’s disciples go to Jesus for answers.
Jesus responds, “Go, report to John what you hear and see. Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them.”
As an advocate for just disability representation in the Bible and in the church, I have to note that using the curing of disabilities as evidence of Christ's presence is troubling. For me, and for many of my colleagues in the disability theology world, doing so perpetuates the erroneous notion that those of us who live with incurable disabilities are not worthy of or don’t experience love by God, by Jesus, or by society unless our disability is taken away. Sure, I experience the healing of Christ’s presence, but I don’t need to be cured of my disability to experience Christ’s, revolutionary love.  So while this is a biblical account, I want us to watch out for how folks in various minority groups are being represented in the biblical text.
Yet at the same time, the redeeming quality of this text is through its recognition of things that can only be possible through Jesus Christ, whose coming we await. At the end of this text, Jesus makes it clear that John the Baptist’s prophecy is connected to him, further cementing his mandate.
In her song in Luke chapter 1, which is commonly known as the Magnificat, Mary understands this too. She recognizes that her baby is no ordinary child, but instead somebody who will fundamentally change the entire world as she and her people know it. Whenever I encounter this text, I'm always amazed at the level Mary understood about what Jesus would do for the world, even as she got the news in such a shocking way. Somehow, the only way she knows how to respond to this news is to sing about it. She sings with passion, hope, excitement, and with wonder about what God is doing. The singers of our song today ask for a megaphone, and this is clearly Mary’s megaphone moment!
Mary resolves to choose joy in the midst of incredibly difficult circumstances. She and Joseph had not gotten married yet, so in multiple ways, they were deviating from the social expectations of the day. Deviating from those social expectations had much graver consequences in those days than doing so in our society. I wonder how much that scared her. Mary’s song focuses more on her awe and wonder at what God is doing in her life, and praise for the character of God, and not much on whatever fears she might have. She chooses to raise her voice in praise even in the midst of all that uncertainty.
In our two scripture texts for today, we've seen two ways of responding to the arrival, life, and ministry of Jesus Christ. To be honest, in some ways I don't fault either person. John the Baptist is cynical, or at least wary, that the presence of Jesus could be this miraculous. Mary is overjoyed at the miracle she knows is on its way inside of her. Jesus would go on to do unimaginable, liberating work. Feeding the hungry, holding space for those in need of love and grace, and giving good news to the poor. All the liberation so many people find through Jesus Christ in their own circumstances truly is miraculous.
So what does this mean for us?
This is the good news for today: We may have different reactions to the coming of Jesus, but his coming will change the way we live in profound ways. We are called to respond with joyful expectation as we await his coming.