Leaving the Church

leavingJuly 27, 2017

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

I have been a parish pastor just barely a month shy of 9 years. Monday will be my last day.

And for my last sermon as a pastor called to a congregation, it seems like I’ve been handed a box of odds and ends, the kitchen junk drawer of parables. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…yeast…treasure hidden in field…a merchant in search of fine pearls…a net thrown that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.

It’s kind of a mess. And I’ve got to admit: it suits.

We’ve all heard about one’s life flashing before their eyes in the last moments. In these last moments of my life as “Pastor Sarah” a jumble of visions from first call in Virginia to this call in Iowa come to mind:

Shooing away the cows in a parishioner’s driveway to find they had licked the salt off every inch of my car, leaving the windshield a smeary, opaque mess…Catching the crickets (and one time even a tiny, hopping green frog) that had snuck in from the suburban garden to make their home near the baptismal font…balancing thimbles full of wine and a stack of wafers on whatever surface I can find in so many hospital rooms…The random bits that tend to collect in every office space I’ve every occupied: scattered business cards, bunny ears, post-it-notes with indecipherable scribbles, a Santa hat, that bulletin board I always intended to hang on the wall, Tibetan prayer flags, a giant plywood pig… Standing alone in the sanctuary talking to myself for hours until the scripture feels like it is a part of me…Picking up the phone so that I can have that conversation I’ve been dreading with someone who is so very angry at me…Lifting up a toddler so he can kiss his mother’s face one last time before they close the casket…The stories I love to tell, the ones I can’t repeat, the ones that make me cry.  

As in parables, these the kingdom of God moments have defied explanation and challenged expectation. The wheres and hows and shoulds of what it means to be in ministry and what church looks like repeatedly troubled and sometimes even turned on their head. But even in the midst of the worst, the most wonderful gifts have emerged.

Such it is with these parables. There is no separation, no distinction in the messy kingdom of God. No place that is unholy, no thing that is to be set apart. It is the way of holiness to be revealed in the profane, redeem the worthless, and resurrect the dead. It is the essence of holiness to surprise us and speak the good news with the last word we ever thought we’d hear.

The unwanted weed is actually the greatest of shrubs. The unseen forces are at work, bringing forth new things. The treasure is hidden, but it it’s there.

Walking out the door, I know that I am not leaving the church. I am going out into the world to discover anew the church already present in the world.

Pastor Sarah

Thank God for the Difficult Word

difficult2Thursday, July 6, 2017

Matthew 11:16-30

The pastors in this congregation don’t get to pick the scriptures they preach on.

We use the Revised Common Lectionary, in which a committee selected scriptures for every Sunday in a 3 year cycle. There is nothing prohibiting us from saying, “Forget that!” and making our own selection. But we haven’t—and there is a good reason.

It is something of a faith practice to commit to taking on whatever comes your way. In life, we don’t get to pick and choose. So in preaching, I think it is good to practice viewing all things, wanted and otherwise, through the eyes of faith.    

And this is one of those “undesirable” scriptures that make me as a pastor both irritated and thankful for committing myself to the lectionary. Irritated, because I know I’m going to have to put in a lot more work to make sense of this passage. Thankful, because I know I will grow from the experience and probably learn a thing or two in the process. The lectionary committee even tried to do pastors a favor by cut out that troubling judgment part in the middle (v.20-24), but I’m not skipping over it. I’m all in. I’ve already made up my mind to do the hard work of facing a difficult word, I’m not about to take shortcuts. Bring it, Jesus!

And I’m not the only one who could benefit from such an exercise.

In the case of this scripture it is the Israelites, the religious insiders, the chosen ones, the people from Jesus’ own community:

They’ve seen Jesus.
They’ve heard his words.
They’ve witnessed his deeds of power.

Yet still, they go right on behaving like bratty, little children. They taunt one another. They slander God’s messengers. They forget themselves, their identity as the children the Father created them to be.

And they aren’t going to like the difficult word Jesus is speaking to them now—taking them to task, pointing out the error of their ways, calling them to repent. They really won’t care for the way Jesus unfavorably compares them to the foreigners on which they have long looked down. They don’t want to do the hard work of listening and soul-searching. They don’t want to have to acknowledge their failure, because that means they would have to do the hardest thing of all: change.

The Israelites think they can do no wrong.

And they don’t want to hear otherwise.

But the word that God will speak is not up to them. And while it might not sound like good news, it sure would do them a world of good to listen.

Pastor Sarah

Outside In

Welcome

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Matthew 10:40-42

Often when Christians think of welcome, we think about it inside out.

That is, we start with us on the inside, welcoming them who are on the outside.

We welcome others into our building. We welcome others into our worship. We welcome others into our fellowship. We welcome others to our table. We think about welcome as something we do for others. We’re on the inside, just waiting for someone to come to us seeking welcome.

Or at least, that’s what we think we would like to do.
And sometimes, it actually does happen.

But that’s not the kind of welcome Jesus is asking of his disciples. Not in this scripture, anyway.

If you’ve read the lines leading up this passage, Jesus is asking his disciples to go out into the world. And he sends them without money, or provisions, taking just the clothes on their backs, leaving behind family and friends, stepping out into the day with no plan for where they’ll rest their heads that night.

Jesus is asking his disciples to be the ones in need of welcome—and there’s a good reason for that.

Because the disciples have no one else to depend on, they will seek God in the faces of strangers all along the way.
Because the disciples have nothing, they will live lives of gratitude for all they receive.
Because the disciples have nowhere they belong, they will experience the true meaning of hospitality.
Because the disciples have not a thing to offer in return, they come to know grace in a powerful, life-saving way.
Because the disciples are on the outside, they will truly understand what welcome means, and long for the day they can offer it in return.

Maybe it’s time for disciples to start thinking of welcome in this way again, from the outside in.

Pastor Sarah

In The Beginning

genesis.1Scripture: Genesis 1-2:4a

Because it is in the beginning of the bible,
and also, because it talks about “the beginning,”
the book of Genesis is often assumed to be the oldest.

WRONG!

Genesis is not the oldest book in the bible—that distinction goes to the book of Job.
Go ahead, impress all your friends with that fun bible fact at the next barbecue. No need to thank me!

The bible is not actually a book. It is a library of books. And these books are not arranged chronologically. They are not a series of eyewitness accounts. The whole process of the writing and gathering and ordering was a lot more complicated than that.
And if you’d like to know more, invite me over to your next barbecue and I will regale the crowd with captivating tales of the process we scripture nerds like to call “canonization.” Who knew history or pastors could be so fun!?

But seriously—
understanding when Genesis was written is essential to hearing its message.

Rather than being jotted down shortly after writing was created, Genesis was likely written while the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon, roughly 592-539 BCE. The period of their captivity lasted around 50 years. This was an incredibly long time to be so far from their holy places, their holy land. Generations were dying in Babylon, new generations being born. It seemed that they may never get back to the land of God’s promise. The people were in danger of giving up. The people were threatened by despair. The people were at risk of forgetting who they were.

And so, rather than to detail “the how” of creation, Genesis was written to remind the people “the who” of creation. This passage was written to make sure they knew who the creator was, and who they were as creations.

And until that day of homecoming, no matter how long it took, or what challenges they faced, they could turn to these words from Genesis and remember:

Do not doubt God’s power to act, God spoke this entire world into existence.
Do not doubt God’s concern for the world, everything God created was called “good.”
Do not doubt God’s love for you, you were created in God’s image.

And throughout time, the Israelites have not been the only ones who needed help remembering who God is, and thereby, who they are.

Maybe for us, today, we could use this reminder as well.

Pastor Sarah

Don't Take This Personal

last supperThursday, May 18, 2017

John 14:15-21

There are some who say they have a “personal” relationship with Jesus.
There are some who call Jesus their “personal” Lord and Savior.
There are some who talk about their faith as a “personal” matter.

To them I say: Don’t take this personal.

Because it’s not.
That is—this love for Jesus—it’s not personal.
It never was.

It is communal.
Always.
And all ways.

At the table of his last supper in the 14th chapter of John, Jesus instructs the disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

And there are a few things taking place just moments before to help us know what this love is:
Jesus washes the disciples’ feet.
Judas leaves to betray Jesus, and Jesus knows exactly where he’s going.
Jesus gives a new commandment, “that you love one another, just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Jesus foretells Peter’s denial.

Jesus tells—no, commands—the ones who love him to love others. And more specifically, to love in the way in which he loves them.

Love taking hold of filthy feet.
Love right smack dab in the middle of betrayal and denial.
Love in the face of suffering and death.

This love is not a warm fuzzy, sentimental kind of love. It is an effort, a commitment. It is a love fit for the tough times.

There is nothing private, personal about this love. It is a love asked not just of you (singular), but of y’all (plural). This includes the ones we know are at the table, as well as those hanging out in the shadows, but also the ones now silently clearing away the dishes.

The disciples and their love don’t get to stay here, sheltered in this place. For that reason, Jesus tells the disciples that he’s also getting the Father involved. And soon, a helper, an advocate, the spirit of truth will be on the way. Because from the very beginning, loving Jesus, keeping his commandments of love out in the world, was meant to be a group effort.

So please, for the love of Jesus, don’t take this personal.

Pastor Sarah