It's the Little Things That Mean A Lot

 Its The Little Things That Mean A Lot UprightA sermon preached for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost on Mark 4:26-35 dated June 17, 2018. Happy Father's Day!

Have you even felt like “nothing burger?” A nobody? A might-have-been? A small potato? For a number of years after I finished seminary, I struggled with an inferiority complex every time my seminary’s Alumni magazine came in the mail. I would thumb through it, reading about all the great stuff everybody else was doing, like getting a PhD, speaking at global theological conferences or becoming a missionary.

At seminary, a friend and I talked about getting a PhD; while I was home with three small children, she got her PhD and became a favorite professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary. It's not that I think raising three amazing people into adulthood and contributing them to the world is unimportant; I just felt like I wasn’t making as much of an impact as a leader in the church as I had imagined when I was in my 20’s. Nothing burger.

After I went back to work, sometimes that feeling of inferiority would sneak up on me when I heard the ads for the “celebrated personalities” who were coming to the Maryville University Speaker Series in St. Louis. I have noticed that there are “celebrated personalities” coming here, too--the SMU Tate Speaker Series is promoting Leon Panetta, Thomas Friedman, and Kathy Bates. Or the AT&T Performing Arts Center Speaker Series is hosting Steve Wozniak, Billy Murry and Michelle Obama.

Our life can feel insignificant in the grand scheme of things, like we are not making a big impact for good or for God. Nothing burger.

A visit with my old high school church youth director, Joani, several years ago, helped cure me of feeling like a nobody. She enabled me to shift my focus from myself and what I wanted to accomplish, to what God can do and what God wants to accomplish.

For many years, Joani has been the Chief Creative Officer at Group Publishing in Colorado—they publish all kinds of resources for youth, VBS curriculums, mission trips, day camps, leadership and evangelism training, and mission all over the globe. Joani always has great stories and this visit was no exception. She showed me this Prayer Bear (pictured) and told me it could be made in VBS, by youth, or a sewing group, and used on mission trips, and by members in their daily life. If you’re out and about and you see or talk with someone who’s having a hard time, you write an encouraging note or prayer, put it in the pocket and hand it to the person. Tell them that you’re praying for them and that God loves them and is with them. In my Prayer Bear, Joani wrote, "This bear is stuffed with love! Let it remind you that God's love is always with you along with the love of old friends!"

A member of their staff, "Ellen" was flying here, to Dallas to do a training for one of their programs. Ellen always had a stash of Prayer Bears with her and when she sat on the plane, there was a man serving in the army sitting next to her, coming home for his leave. They struck up a conversation and Ellen found out that he had received a Dear John letter from his girlfriend and he was so upset as he went home to deal with this painful break-up. When he got up to go to the bathroom, Ellen got out a Prayer Bear—wrote him an encouraging note, promised to pray for him, and that God would see him through this. She put it on his airplane seat and he found it when he came back. He was so touched and grateful! When the plane landed, he gave her big hug and thanked her for her love and support.

The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how (Mark 4:26-27).

At the end of the weekend of training, Ellen got back on a plane in Dallas to go home back to Colorado. It just so happened that she was sitting next to another soldier who just completed his leave and was headed back to his unit. Of course, they struck up a conversation. This soldier told her about a buddy of his from home who just got back from serving a tour of duty and his girlfriend had sent him a Dear John letter. He was having a hard time, but he told this soldier that he met a lady on the plane who gave him a little stuffed bear and promised to pray for him. It meant so much to him, and he thought it was such a great story, he wanted to share it with Ellen. He got up to go to the restroom, so Ellen got out another Prayer Bear, wrote him a note and promised to pray for him, that God loved him and is always with him, and put it on his plane seat. He came back from the bathroom, saw the bear and said, “You're her! Oh my gosh, you’re the lady who gave my friend the Prayer Bear!"

With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade (Mark 4:30-32).

Who knew a little Prayer Bear seed could produce such a great harvest of love and hope and strength! How many people were uplifted and encouraged by one Prayer Bear whose story has been multiplied and shared many times across families, friends, flights, and army units?!

God can do so much with so little! It’s terrific that some people can have a great impact on the national or global stage, but more often, it’s the little things that mean a lot. It's the small, unexpected gestures that have the biggest impact. Think for a moment about the times in your life that have meant the most to you, that communicated love or forgiveness or acceptance or hope. It’s probably not the grand gestures or the big moments like graduations and big parties and holidays.

It’s probably the little things—the little seeds of love, kindness, and encouragement that people have offered:

• the unexpected card in the mail that encourages you—my sister, Julie has done that many times for me.
• the friend who listens to your bad day;
• the phone call just when you needed to hear a familiar voice;
• holding hands on a quiet walk;
• a cup of hot chocolate in the middle of a storm;
• a cup of hot soup when you’re sick;
• that moment when your grown child says, “you were right, Mom” or “thanks for the great advice, Dad.”
• when someone takes time that they didn’t have, to be with you.
• when your spouse surprises you with your favorite dinner, or flowers "just because."

Jesus says this is the nature of God’s reign. Something very small—a gesture of love and hope--morphs into something much larger, and it expands and spreads and multiplies from person to person, from community to community and around the world—just like that little Prayer Bear on an airplane seat. It can have a global impact that we don't necessarily see. Something that appears minor and insignificant—one little seed in the ground—one little message of encouragement or one little act of kindness turns into something magnificent because each of us, perhaps without even thinking about it, pays it forward.

That’s how God’s kingdom grows—it’s inevitable, it’s unstoppable! A mustard tree can grow to 9 feet, it has medicinal qualities in addition to great flavor, and though a shrub, it provides a home for birds and shelter for God’s creatures. Who knew a tiny seed could do all of that? Every kind act, every small gesture of encouragement, every expression of love, every offer of hope and help, becomes a life force that nourishes and sustains, a community that offers hope and healing, a place where the creatures and people of the earth find shelter and security and home. The inevitable, unstoppable kingdom of God grows among us and through us for good and for God! God can do so much with so little, because it’s the little things that mean a lot.

In thanksgiving for my Dad who’s here on Father’s Day, I’m going to conclude with a story about a mustard seed that my dad planted in me when I was about 7 or 8. It was a Saturday afternoon; my three siblings were otherwise occupied, and I was playing alone in the family room of our home in southern California. My dad came in and asked me if I wanted to go play Miniature Golf—or Putt Putt as it is often called. I was so excited! Being the extrovert, I asked if I could bring a friend, and he said, “Nope, just you and me.”

Off we went. With 4 kids, it was hard hard to get a lot of 1:1 time with Dad, especially because he traveled for work. The Mini Golf place had windmills, and little castle doors that opened and closed, and we just had a blast. I felt so important, so loved. In fact, every time I play mini golf, even when I have lousy game, I still always feel loved and important and happy. Nearly 48 years later, a seed of love and affirmation planted long ago, has become a mustard tree that still sustains and nourishes me, providing me with love that gives a sense of shelter, and security and home. When it’s my turn to pick the family activity to this day, guess what I pick? Mini-Golf! (I can’t wait to try the one up on Coit Road—maybe the youth and I can go in December--is that when it gets below 95* here?!).

All of us have a Father who wants to spend 1:1 time with us. God our Father is happy when we’re all together like this, worshipping and singing and loving each other. And, He also wants to spend time with us 1:1, so He can plant seeds of love and kindness, hope and encouragement in us, that we can spread throughout our day, and throughout our life! God has a role for each of us in helping to bring about the inevitable, unstoppable love of the Kingdom to heal and transform the world. Whether we take 10 minutes with our morning coffee, tea, or diet coke, or 5 minutes in the car before we go into work, these small acts of love flow from us when we're nourished by time with our heavenly Father.

We may not be destined for the national stage, but like Ellen, we are a “celebrated personality”  in God's Kingdom, filled with the grace and hope of our risen Lord! As Mother Theresa said, Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love. And God can do great things with our small things.

That’s where God does his best work, because the little things that mean a lot. God uses the little things to spread love and hope in the unstoppable Kingdom of God!


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A Tale of Two Kingdoms

A Tale of Two KingdomsA sermon preached on June 10, 2018 for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost on Mark 3:20-35, Genesis 3:8-15; and 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas on June 10, 2018.

 Our readings this morning tell us a Tale of Two Kingdoms. The stage is set at the very beginning of the Bible in the story of Genesis. Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden where they are surrounded by life, love, and sustenance—The kingdom of God. But the serpent tempts them to enter the kingdom of the enemy—a kingdom of rebellion and sin, blame and brokenness, and they bite.

The Gospel of Mark continues the tension of this age-old human struggle between good and evil. Chapter one sets the stage for the Tale of Two Kingdoms: when Jesus was baptized and received the Holy Spirit, the Kingdom of God intensified its efforts. But so did the kingdom of the enemy because Jesus immediately battles satan’s temptations for 40 days in the wilderness. Jesus wins the battle and starts the Kingdom of God with a flurry of healing.

In the first 2 chapters of Mark, Jesus healed a man with demon, and Simon Peter’s mother-in-law from a fever, along with crowds of people who were sick and demon-possessed. Jesus went on a preaching and healing tour of Galilee, restoring more and more people to health, including a man with leprosy, a paralytic lowered through the roof by his friends, and a man with a withered hand. Jesus also called the disciples and gave them power over unclean spirits; more people are restored to health and community, they are given dignity and hope. Jesus really had the Kingdom rolling, and the gauntlet against evil has been thrown down.

The very first congregation I served in 1989, was in an urban neighborhood of a major Midwestern city. The community was 85% African American and the congregation was about 30% African American. When I interviewed there, they said they wanted to be a neighborhood church and grow in membership and ministry within the surrounding community. I thought, “Great! Let’s do it!” This was the multi-cultural, urban ministry for which I had prepared.

There were three wise women in the neighborhood who became my mentors, we expanded the summer program for children, trained the youth as leaders in that program, and built relationships with families around the church. In the first 2 ½ years, we took in about 40 new families from the neighborhood, and on Easter Sunday of 1992, we had 8 Baptisms! Who knew church could be so fun?! We started to include more hymns from Spiritual and Gospel traditions, started training deacons, and participated in a joint confirmation program with other Lutheran churches. We really had the Kingdom rolling!

In our text from Mark 3, Jesus then arrived at home; the crowds, who had been pressing in around him to touch him for healing, had followed him there. They were so excited to participate in the power and life of the Kingdom of God they experienced in Jesus, he couldn’t even take time to eat. But Jesus quickly learned that getting the kingdom rolling, was not good news to those who ruled by power, domination and fear in the kingdom of the enemy. Empowered, healthy people are harder to control, more difficult to tax, and less easily manipulated by fear. Abundance and possibility, hope and opportunity make it harder for the powers-that-be to maintain their position. So the battle with the kingdom of the enemy began again in earnest.

Jesus’ family showed up—not to support him and say, “That Jesus who’s healing everybody? That’s my son! He’s my brother!” No, it wasn’t pride and hope that brought them out, it was shame! They said Jesus had lost his mind and tried to contain him! No wonder Jesus redefined what family is—family is not just those who are connected to us by blood, but those who live and work in God’s Kingdom for the power of love, and all that is good!

The Tale of Two Kingdoms continued as the religious establishment attempted to discredit Jesus. The Scribes were the theological experts of the day who had religious authority and impeccable credentials. The Scribes recognized that Jesus had power, but they labeled his power as evil, that Jesus was an agent of satan. They called him Beelzebul, a demon associated with the Canaanite god, Baal with whom Elijah did battle in 2 Kings. That was "blaspheming against the Holy Spirit"—to call the healing of God, the work of the devil (many today teach that suicide is the unforgivable sin, but this is a hurtful misinterpretation of this text). The religious experts in Jesus' day preferred to keep their power, even if it meant serving satan’s kingdom in the guise of religion.

It’s heartbreaking to contemplate, isn’t it? People who dedicated their lives to God, completely dismissed the possibility of God’s power, restoration and healing. They saw people set free from demons, experiencing wholeness and dignity for the first time! Jesus promised forgiveness to all, including them: Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter! The scribes could see, touch, hear, and witness miracles right in front of them, yet, they were devoid of hope, blind to forgiveness, and held nothing but contempt for God’s work.

It was also heart-breaking, to experience the very same thing in my first congregation. Right when it was going so well, and it was so exciting, it all started to unravel because some, thankfully not all, but many of the long-time white members were too uncomfortable with their loss of power. They began to undermine the success of all the ministry and community we had built. Someone went so far as to commit racial slander against two African American female members of the Council at the Synod Assembly. I had to remove that person from their leadership position, and after that, it got pretty ugly. I was called some terrible, racist names, that I won’t repeat, and people spread lies about me. Some members had so much internalized racism, that they could not see what was really happening until after I left. It was indeed, a Tale of Two Kingdoms. Like the Scribes, many of the white people preferred to keep their power, even if it meant serving the enemy of racism in the guise of religion. It was so devastating, that I sought counseling for about eight months afterward to put me back together, emotionally and spiritually.

Why do I share this story? To make it clear that the Tale of Two Kingdoms is not limited to Bible times, and the history books. The Tale of Two Kingdoms isn’t out there somewhere else on the other side of the world. The struggle between two kingdoms, between good and evil, between God and the enemy of God is in our hearts, and in the church, and in our families, and in our work places, and everywhere we go every day of our life.

My husband Dan spoke this week with a woman who left her job at a real estate company because another employee was stealing business from colleagues and undercutting their sales. When she reported this to her boss, she was told that the unethical employee was producing sales, so nothing would change. A Tale of Two Kingdoms.

A friend of mine recently told me she had to confront her boss about his request for her to submit a reimbursement for the same expense to two different companies. She refused to do it; fortunately, her boss reconsidered his behavior and she kept her job. A Tale of Two Kingdoms.

Today, Jesus invites us again to choose the Kingdom of God. Choose life, choose wholeness, choose forgiveness, choose justice, choose love, even when it means sacrificing something that we value, so that others may live or heal or eat.

• When children are dying in our schools from automatic rifle fire, and politicians and citizens act as if nothing can be done, whose kingdom are we choosing? If we as people of faith cannot find a way to respect the second amendment AND prevent children from being killed in school, then we have abdicated the power of the Gospel to save and transform us.
• When immigrant parents come to our border asking for asylum, even legally, only to have their children taken from them, who’s kingdom are we choosing?
• When more than ½ million people in north Texas are food insecure, including 1 in 4 children, whose kingdom are we choosing?

Through the power of Jesus Christ within us, we have all the power we need to choose Life, to choose God’s Kingdom and live by the values of love, and wholeness and dignity for all people. Our reading from 2 Corinthians reminds us that we have the power to speak and to act in accordance with our belief in Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world. Verse 14 exhorts us, we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus… so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart.

We do not lose heart in extending grace to more and more people! The power of God that raised Jesus from the dead resides in YOU, in ME, in our life together as the church. In case we forget or feel empty—we get a free re-fill right here at this table every week, where we are being renewed day by day. We are renewed in the power of Christ Jesus to speak and to act, to live lives of bold justice, radical love, and all-inclusive grace. One way to choose the Kingdom of God is to participate with Faith in Texas, an organization that works with religious communities to address issues in the metroplex—right now it’s working on issues in public education. They have a training coming up in two weeks, and you can talk with Gail, Emily or me for more information.

When we choose the kingdom of God every day, God uses our hardships to bring more blessings and abundance in the next place. 

• One of the women who was slandered in my first congregation went to seminary and became a Lutheran pastor!
• The building of that congregation is now being used by a non-denominational church that’s reaching out to the community.
• After I resigned from that call, and got some healing, I served as an Interim Pastor at another urban congregation. It was only because of that painful experience at my first call that I was able to help prevent similar destructive behavior from happening in that congregation.

God uses all of it!--the good, the bad and the ugly--to bring life and love and hope anew, because that’s the way of God’s Kingdom!  God is always working life in us and through us. So, do not lose heart in extending grace to more and more people! The Tale of Two Kingdoms is on-going, Choose life! Choose the Kingdom of God.


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Clay Jars Need Sabbath Rest

Clay Jars Need Sabbath RestA sermon preached on Mark 2:23-3:6, Deuteronomy 5:12-15, and 2 Corinthians 4:5-12 for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost on June 3, 2018 at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas ~with apologies for late posting due to my last intensive class for my Certificate in Spiritual Direction!

It was the summer of 2005 and we were visiting my husband, Dan’s parents in Madison, Wisconsin. His mom, Joan, had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for about 3 years, and we went to spend time with her, to support Dan’s Dad, who the kids called, “Baba,” who was taking care of Joan at home. Baba had learned how to cook in his 70’s as well as other household and care-giving tasks he had never previously imagined as a pastor and denominational leader.

One afternoon, Leah, who was six years old at the time, looked at her grandpa asked, “Baba, why are you so mean to grandma?” (Out of the mouths of babes!). Baba’s face dropped with the realization of the truth her question revealed; an expression of resignation and sadness replaced irritation as he looked at himself in the mirror Leah gave him.

Of course, he didn’t intend to be mean to grandma, he was just exhausted, frustrated, overwhelmed, tired of repeating himself, worried about her wandering off, planning the next meal, organizing companion visits, and all the while, grieving the relationship they once shared. We have this treasure in clay jars to make it clear that this extraordinary power comes from God and does not come from us. Baba needed rest—he needed Sabbath rest, but as many caregiver’s experience, rest is hard to come by when caregiving requires nearly 24-hour vigilance.

Our Gospel reading today entails an argument about the meaning and purpose of the Sabbath and the rest it requires. The 3rd Commandment exhorts that, “you shall honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” The religious leaders were no doubt threatened by this upstart, wandering preacher named, Jesus, from the backwater of Galilee.

He was disrupting the community and their religious system with his healing, and teaching. I can understand the Pharisees’ suspicion. I’ve met more than one arrogant intern over the years who thinks they have this whole ministry business figured out and I think to myself, “you don’t know anything.” But I digress.

The ensuing discussion really gives us a window into a first century bible study. The Pharisees and Jesus take differing views on how to interpret an ancient text –the giving of the Ten Commandments, recorded in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5—and how live it out in their current context. Can the commandment to “Honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy” include plucking grain in a field and healing a man’s hand, or does it forbid them as work?

The answer is not quite as straightforward as it might first appear. Unlike other commandments that just give a single phrase, like, “you shall not kill,” the giving of the 3rd commandment is quite detailed which we heard in our first lesson. After describing that everyone and everything should rest on the Sabbath, Deuteronomy continues with God’s rationale:

Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Escape from slavery in Egypt was still a fresh memory for the Israelites when the Ten Commandments were given at Mt. Sinai—they knew what it was like to work 7 days a week with no rest, no holiday, no family time, no sick leave, no worship. When they were slaves, they were not allowed to rest, so now that God liberated them, God commands them to rest from work—and not only them, but their entire household, including family, workers and animals, and the whole community, including immigrants.

God puts the very first labor law on the books--faithfulness to God does not include workaholism and perfectionism, but rather rest and renewal. In other words, God started the very first weekend!

To people recently liberated from slavery this must have sounded strange and wonderful. Instead of engaging in forced work, God invited the people of Israel into “forced grace.” This forced rest served both as a remembrance of the freedom God had won for them, and as a celebration of the goodness of life, wholeness, family, and community that God provides.

The sabbath, in all its aspects, is about freedom—a life-giving liberation from all that holds us captive, whether it’s work or sin, brokenness or addiction, pride or irritation. On the Sabbath, we rest from earning anything—and step into a moment of forced grace—a time each week of opening ourselves to simply receive the peace, wholeness, blessings, and freedom God so deeply wants to give.

The Pharisees in this discussion got caught up in following the letter of the law down to the details—you can’t pluck grain, prepare food, or heal on the Sabbath. But Jesus argues that the proper function of the Sabbath is to promote life, and to celebrate God as liberator from all that enslaves us—including following the letter of the law when there is a greater need at hand. As religious experts, the Pharisees understood this view of Sabbath, but like Baba and us, it was hard for them to stop trying to be perfect; they even tried to rest perfectly. We have this treasure in clay jars to make it clear that this extraordinary power comes from God and does not come from us.

Instead of indulging a legalistic and perfectionistic view of the command to rest, Jesus argues that plucking grain for food promotes the life that Sabbath is designed to sustain. Healing a man of a crippled hand promotes well-being, wholeness, and freedom from a life of begging—also life that Sabbath is designed to sustain. The question is not so much, “What’s the list of things you can’t do on the Sabbath?” as it is, “What is life-giving, nourishing to the body and soul, and promotes peace, rest, and well-being?” The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.

Although we still have a couple of Blue Laws in Texas restricting the sale of cars and alcohol on Sundays, we as a culture, are notoriously bad at Sabbath. Even though we have added Saturday to the “weekend” that God started with the 3rd Commandment, the Puritans left us with a work ethic that doesn’t quit (literally!).

When I exercised at the YMCA in St. Louis, I would use an elliptical machine that would track my miles, heartrate and calories burned. When I paused for a minute to take a sip of water, the readout on the screen would say, “climb faster.” We live in a “climb faster” culture where there’s always more to do, to attain, to earn, to buy, to accomplish. Rest feels like laziness, or that we’re giving up on our goals, or that we’re being selfish or self-centered, especially when, like my father-in-law, we are devoted to caring for a chronically ill spouse or family member.

It takes a 6-year old to ask, “Baba, why are so you mean to grandma?” to catch us up short and confess that Sabbath rest feels strange and unfamiliar, even after 3 millenia. Leah’s question reminds us that, We have this treasure in clay jars to make it clear that this extraordinary power comes from God and does not come from us. We are very useful clay jars for God, but also limited, even fragile. From our vantage point, it becomes clear why God made rest, and the freedom and well-being it offers, a commandment. Forced grace. Stop and receive life-giving rest.

For Baba, rest and Sabbath came in the spring of 2006 when, after being on the waiting list, a spot opened for Joan to move into the Memory Care unit at a Senior Living facility. But when we are accustomed to doing everything, Sabbath grace is hard to accept. Of course, Baba’s first response was that he was not ready to put Joan in a care facility, and he could continue to care for her at home. Like most of us, he believed he should “climb faster” and try harder. His four adult children thought otherwise, and he eventually agreed. Forced grace—admitting to being a clay jar—became an invitation to step into rest and well-being for both of them.

As a family, we will be forever grateful to Judy, the director of the memory care unit, who explained to Dan’s father that when he allows the staff to take care of bathing, dressing, preparing food, and giving medicine, it frees him to do what only he can do—offer Joan love, affection, memories, and the continuity of relationship that defined their life and ministry for over five decades. Without knowing it, she described Sabbath rest which would free Baba to love Joan as only he can. Baba spent time with her every day—he helped her eat, they took walks, and looked at pictures—all offered without irritation, because Sabbath was now a part of both their lives. In Paul’s words, they life of Jesus was made visible in their bodies, when they accepted they were clay jars. Joan actually improved for a while, and they both had an increased quality of life for her remaining 1 ½ years.

As the calendar turns toward summer, it’s the perfect time to ask yourself what Sabbath rest your body and soul crave. What will bring you freedom, nourishment, wholeness and well-being? What will restore your soul, making you, as a clay jar, more useful to God?

This summer accept God’s gift of forced grace, scheduled rest, and unhurried renewal. With Baba, you will be freed to love more deeply and live more generously, making visible the life of Jesus through you!


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Jumping In with Our Whole Heart

Jumping In with Our Whole HeartA sermon preached for Holy Trinity Sunday on John 3:1-17 at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas on May 27, 2018

When I was in college, I was thinking about becoming a pastor, but I wasn’t completely convinced it was a real call, so I had two pathways out. I chose a double major—one combining Political Science and History, so I could go on to law school; the other major was Psychology, so I could become a psychologist.

My senior year of college, I did an Urban Studies semester in Chicago. My family moved frequently growing up, but always to white middle class suburbs. I thought that if this call to ministry turned out to be real, I had better learn something about living in a city with more diversity and poverty. Maybe I would also gain some new knowledge about what I should do with my life.

I became a tutor in the Cook County Jail, living in a poor community. A homeless woman named, “Love” would sometimes sleep in our living room. For my independent study project, I thought I would try to live as a homeless person for a weekend. I’d heard this idea from another student at my school who had done it the year before.

It was early November, so it was chilly, but not yet frigid. I put on old clothes, left my cash in the apartment and headed downtown. I wasn’t too worried about finding a place to stay that night; I expected to stay at the Salvation Army center downtown. As dusk set in, I headed there. The problem was, that the shelter was already full, there was no room for me. This possibility had never crossed my mind. It was dark and cold—now what was I going to do?

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, under the cover of darkness because he is seeking understanding and the truth about God. He wants Jesus to give him the right answer, so that as a Jewish leader, he can fit Jesus’s life, healing, preaching, and ministry into his knowledge base and structure as a Jewish leader.
But Jesus isn’t much help. He doesn’t give Nicodemus the facts he seeks, but instead Jesus talks about being born from above, of being born anew, and being born of water and the Spirit.

“What are you talking about?” wonders Nicodemus. Jesus’s words make no sense to him, so he takes them literally. "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born again?"

Of course, Jesus is not talking about an earthly birth, but rather a spiritual one. God calls us into a re-birth, a new birth, to be born again spiritually—into a relationship with the God who made us.

“Don’t you see, Nicodemus?” says Jesus. “God wants a relationship with you. That’s why God sent Me, the Son of Man, so that through a relationship with me, you would give yourself—not just your mind and your correct doctrines, not just your adherence to the law, and your good behaviors—but that you would give God your heart, your love, your devotion, your deep trust.”

Jesus uses birth imagery to evoke the experience of love and trust between a parent and child. God loves us the same way a father and mother love their child, and God deeply desires for that love and trust to be returned.

When our kids were little, Dan and I did what all parents do—we taught our three children how to read, and to count to 100. We taught them how to look both ways before they crossed the street, how to share toys, and how to dress themselves.

But if our whole interaction with them ended with giving them correct information and getting them to behave properly (most of the time!), it wouldn’t have been a very satisfying relationship. The moments that made all the dirty diapers and sleepless nights worth it were when our kids wrapped their arms around our neck and gave us sticky kisses; when they climbed into our laps and snuggled in for love and comfort, and when they jumped into our arms with total trust from the edge of the swimming pool.

Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You’ve got the information about Scripture and the law, and your behavior is stellar, but you haven’t yet jumped into God’s arms from the edge of the pool with love and complete trust.

“God keeps holding out these strong, loving, inviting arms with a desire to give you all that need, but you haven’t given God your heart.”

“Thinking with your mind is good, doing the right thing is important, but without feeling, without love—you are a noisy gong or clanging symbol. Without love for God, you have nothing.

“God wants all of you—thinking, doing and feeling—for an intimate, trusting relationship! Jump into the pool, Nicodemus— be born of water and Spirit as God’s very own child who loves you, embraces you, and who desires to give you everything you need for fullness of life. That’s why I came --so that you would know that God wants a loving relationship with you, all of you.”

For God so loved the world—a better translation is ‘cosmos’—for God so loved the cosmos, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

That’s why we follow Jesus—

• He took the first jump, the first leap into human skin, trusting that God would catch him.
• Jesus jumped into the fullness of human life, experiencing everything from love, family, and friendship to abandonment, grief and betrayal, trusting that God would catch him.
• Jesus willingly fell onto the cross, trusting that even in suffering and death, God would catch him.
• Jesus jumped from the grave showing us and the whole cosmos that no matter what happens in this life, God will catch us.

When the Salvation Army turned me away, they told me of another shelter at a church west of downtown, about a mile away. I had no money, no food, and it was 1984, so no cell phone. They said I could ask a police officer to drop me off at the shelter. But I was too stubborn and naïve to do something smart like that. I felt as if that would ruin the point of the whole learning experience.

I knew the grid system of how Chicago was laid out, so I decided to walk…in the dark…alone…in a part of town I did not know. I was more scared at that moment than I had ever been. It didn’t matter how much knowledge I had, it didn’t matter whether it was the right thing to do. At that moment I needed a God I could love and trust with my whole life and heart. I jumped into God’s arms like I never had before.

In my mind I sang, “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say, rejoice!” over and over, as I walked in the dark through an industrial area and made it through to the church shelter. I’ve never been so happy to see a group of homeless people! I was safe in God’s arms.

Our Gospel passage today doesn’t give us the end of its story. Did Nicodemus remain a religious leader who gave his mind and actions to God, but not his heart, not his love, not his trust? We don’t know exactly, but John’s Gospel does give us a hint in Chapter 19. As he hung dying on the cross, Jesus could see someone walking up the hill toward him—no longer coming under the cover of darkness—but in the light of mid-day. It was Nicodemus, weighed down with 100 pounds of aloes and myrrh to anoint Jesus’s body for burial, an act of love and devotion (for no law-abiding Pharisee would touch a dead body).

But, Nicodemus had jumped. He had leapt into God’s loving arms with his whole heart, offering himself, his love and his trust to the God he met in Jesus the Christ.

At the end of my Urban Studies semester, I knew I wasn’t going to become a lawyer or a psychologist. I finished college and went straight to seminary in Chicago, where I could serve as a GED teacher at the jail while I studied. Over the years, I have learned that jumping into God’s arms with total love and trust is something we choose over and over and over again, every day. That’s why Martin Luther encouraged us to remember our Baptism every day, so we can experience our rebirth through water and the Spirit.

Sometimes I wonder what Nicodemus would say if he were among us today. I’d like to think it would be this: “Jump in, St. Luke’s! The love is deep and the water is fine!”

Image: Kim Ruoff, Shutterstock; Royalty-free stock photo ID: 13174942.

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