This past Sunday, February 26, 2017, I had the privilege to visit and preach at Spirit of Grace Lutheran Church in Holdrege, Nebraska. Not only was it Transfiguration Sunday, it was also the fourth and final week of a series in worship at the congregation called, #TheStruggleisReal. The premise of the series was, “We live in an age of distraction, temptation, and joyless busy-ness. But it doesn’t have to be that way!” Hence, my focus topic as part of the series was “joyless busy-ness.” The passage for the theme was Ephesians 2:1-10, and the accompanying gospel for Transfiguration was Matthew 17:1-9.
What follows is the majority of the manuscript of the sermon I preached. If you are interested in seeing a video of the sermon from the Connexion Service (the second service on Sunday mornings), you can see a recording via Facebook Live on the congregation’s Facebook page. Thank you again to Pastor Ted Carnahan for the invitation to preach and visit.
Grace, peace, and blessings from the one who calls, creates, loves, and saves us. Amen. It is a great joy to be with you this morning, and thank you again to Pr. Ted for the invitation. On behalf of the whole Nebraska Synod, and all of your 100,000 sisters and brothers from across it, I bring greetings. As the relatively new Director for Stewardship for the synod, I am still getting acquainted with Nebraska. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, spent a year in California, and five in Minnesota, but this is my wife’s and my first year in Nebraska, so, I am grateful for this first opportunity to come to Holdrege and see what God is up to in amazing and exciting ways here at Spirit of Grace.
To get to wrap-up this four part series about how the “Struggle is Real,” is an honor, and I think it fits nicely within a sense of holistic stewardship. For me, stewardship is not just about money. It’s about all of who God created us to be, and all that we have and all that we are. It includes our money, but it also equally includes our selves, our time, our possessions, our dreams, our questions, ideas, stories, vocations, relationships- basically every component of how we live our lives in response to the good ness of God’s gifts. But I’ll get to that more in a few minutes.
I don’t know about you… but it can be easy to get swept up in all of the work and busyness of life, so easy that we lose sight of the reason we’re doing everything we’re doing. In being busy, we can forget to take the time to breathe, to be, and, sometimes, there’s really a lot of things we’re doing which maybe we might not need to be doing, at all. You might call it, “Joy-less Busyness” perhaps.
Maybe a story might help. Let me set the scene. Imagine Minnesota in the middle of winter. Maybe like here during one of those winters where it actually snows a fair amount, and the temperatures are regularly below zero. My wife Allison and I had graduated about a year before from seminary with non-ordination degrees.
We were working in part-time roles in two different congregations, and doing various other contract type work that seemed common for people our age at the time. We were juggling all of these part-time roles, living in St. Paul, and working about 100 miles away from each other on any given day, while also being a 1-car family. You do the math. It was complicated. Thank goodness for Google calendars, or I don’t know how our marriage would have lasted through that busyness and craziness.
But it came to a point, that we realized it wasn’t sustainable. But what were we going to do? I think our cat Buddy had had it up to here with us and the craziness of our coming and going schedule from our central base of our nice little apartment south of Como Park, for those of you who might know St. Paul. It was getting harder and harder to feel joy. We were just too busy. And something would have to change.
Obviously, there’s more to the story, but I think you see the point. Whether it’s caused by work, relationships, things we volunteer for or put on our calendars, tasks we take on, trips to the store, meetings galore… life can get full of stuff quickly. And though you can find meaning in a life that’s always on the go, you can also lose any sense of calm, grounding, purpose, and fulfillment too.
So what are we to do? Where’s the good news in this?
Freedom, Promise, and Salvation through Christ (Ephesians 2:1-10)
I am not sure that I felt dead, but I know that anyone of us when we get so bogged down can feel dead and lost like Paul describes in the beginning of today’s reading from his letter to the Ephesians. But Paul, as Paul often does, brings it back to the heart of the gospel with words that we might often hear in the absolution or forgiveness, “But God, who is rich in mercy…”
It is through God that we are able to lay aside the things that hold us down, including our needs and feelings to be productive or to “measure up” to some self or societal created standard of achievement.
Out of God’s “great love” we have been “made alive together with Christ,” and so fittingly we hear this passage today, as we are in this 500th commemoration year of the Reformation. “By grace you have been saved.” This is a free gift. This is freedom that is only possible through God in Christ.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
My grandpa was a Lutheran pastor, and the one thing I remember from him teaching me about preaching, was that, if a sermon doesn’t have grace, it’s not worth preaching. And I can imagine my Grandpa, if he were still around for the rise of YouTube, would have just read this verse, dropped his microphone, and sat down. It’s that good. It’s core to who we are as Christians, and particularly within our lens as Lutherans.
In this we hear of salvation, we are reminded that it is a gift. It’s also a promise. A promise of relationship that began at the very beginning of creation, and was affirmed with God’s covenant with Abraham, and then of course through the cross with Christ. We are created in Christ Jesus, as Children of God, and we are reminded that we are all created in the very image of God. That’s an on-going promise of a God who knows us- who doesn’t just create us, but a God who knows us more deeply than we know ourselves, who is with us, and as we’ll remember in a few moments in communion, is for us.
So, what do we do? We can’t do anything to earn this gift. But, it’s such an incredible gift, that we can’t just sit on our hands or continue to run around in our daily lives ragged, weary, and detached.
In these words from Paul, we are reminded that we have purpose. We were created for good works, something that Martin Luther picked up on immensely when writing about how we are perfectly free, yet also, perfectly enslaved or bound to our neighbor. Put another way, we are created to serve and love our neighbor.
It’s our joyful response to the gifts and promises of God. Not because we need to do this to be saved, but because God has already promised and saved us. We can’t help but be so caught up in joy for the relief of the good news, that our lives are changed. How we go about living them, serving in our various vocations, roles, and relationships, reflects how that good news impacts us.
Of course… you might think I am a little passionate about this, as the Director for Stewardship, but I can’t help it. When I hear stories of people serving their neighbor, when I see the many unique ways congregations go about responding to the needs they see locally and globally, I get so excited, I want to learn, listen, share, and tell those stories. They are real life examples of people’s lives being changed because of the Good News, and the love of God, as shown through the love, words, and deeds of God’s people.
Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9)
It’s interesting that today in the church we are also remembering and celebrating the Transfiguration. As much as the world changed when Jesus was baptized, and God’s voice broke into the gospels for the first time, in today’s story of Jesus, Peter, James, and John going up to the mountain top, God speaks again.
The disciples were amazed at the sight, and I mean, who wouldn’t be, if before their eyes they saw Moses or Elijah? They wanted to stay, and who could blame them. It all must have just felt perfect. Bright, safe, majestic. Maybe you have had an experience of pure joy that you didn’t ever want to leave. Perhaps a dream vacation or honeymoon like I just had? Or perhaps a moment of transcendence and closeness with God where you lost track of time? A place where the worries of today, the to-do list that never ends, and all the other things on your calendar, didn’t matter anymore.
I imagine that’s especially how Peter felt as he offered to make three dwellings there. But before everyone could get settled, God’s voice broke in, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.” We hear these words more or less in every telling of the Transfiguration story. But what’s unique in Matthew’s version, are the last three words God says, “listen to him!” “Listen to him!”
What do you say to that? I kind of wish God would be so direct today. But it can be hard when we get so busy to hear God. And perhaps when we do sense God’s nudge, pull, or tap on the shoulder, we might either be too scared to listen, or too busy to make the time to listen and start to wonder, what might God be up to here?
As anyone probably would have been, the disciples were terrified at this whole experience. But Jesus is there with one of his most common sets of greetings, after commanding them to get up, he says, “do not be afraid.”
It’s easier said than done, to not be afraid. We can again get so caught up in our busyness, stress, worries, and anxieties, that it can seem impossible not to be afraid of something. And this fear, not only can hurt our relationship with God, it certainly hurts our relationships with each other, and within our self. Perhaps it’s this very fear of not being enough which drives us into the madness of our over-scheduled non-stop chaotic lives, where we can lose sight of why we are doing what we are doing?
And it’s precisely when this happens, that we need to recall that God is in fact still with us. God is walking alongside us. And God wants us to choose life- a life of abundance and joy, not a life of scarcity and fear.
Looking to the Cross
On Wednesday, Christians across the church will gather and be reminded that “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” No other day of the year so clearly points to the finiteness of human life and frailty on earth. It’s the day we all begin our symbolic journey on the road to the cross in our time of Lent. It’s the time we might most deeply remember Jesus’ journey to and through the cross. The harshness of it, yet also, the insanity of the gift that it is for us. A gift we could never earn nor deserve. A gift God gives freely out of love for us.
Questions, Impact, and Abundant Life
So, as I like to ask, how will you live your life? How will you be so caught up in joy for all that God has done and continues to do for you? And what will that joy lead to? What will your joy look like? Will it be a joyful response and change in your life? Or will it be a fleeting moment of joy on a mountaintop, before having to go back out into the craziness of a non-stop schedule and world?
Putting my stewardship hat on, your answers to these questions are stewardship answers. They get to how you will use, live, or steward your life. No answer is necessarily wrong or right, they just are. But here’s my hope for you:
Take the time to look at your to-do list and calendar. What’s the busiest part of your life? How does it bring you joy? Or, how does it keep you from experiencing joy? If there are things on your calendar that keep you from experiencing joy, what can you give up? I promise you, there are things that you, as hard as it might seem at this moment in time, can make the choice to give up and not be so busy.
Think about your daily routine. Do you have any breathing space? Time to center in prayer? Time to sit with God’s word? Or, sing and play some music that might help you experience God? Perhaps you feel God on walks out in the beauty of God’s creation, or by being artistic, in coloring or designing something? Whatever it looks like for you, find that breathing space. Even if its only 5 minutes a day, that five minutes will have a big impact on the rest of your day.
Finish this sentence, I will make room for joy in my life by _______________.
Putting it all together- the Rest of the Story
Here, I’ll help you by fast forwarding a bit in the story of who I am, and how my wife and I discerned a path out of the chaos of always on the go life in Minnesota. Long story short, Allison went back to seminary and was ordained to word and sacrament ministry this past fall, and I was consecrated as a deacon for word and service ministry.
That’s what I have the joy of doing now in serving here in Nebraska- teaching, thinking, listening, partnering with, and coming alongside the many individuals, congregations, and communities who are in partnership together in the Nebraska Synod. I get to hear, and help tell the story of God at work, and how that is seen through lives of service and great generosity across this whole state out of love and gratitude for all that God has done and continues to do.
But, it has not always been easy. Since moving to Nebraska, I have been still trying to figure out a routine. My wife Allison is the new pastor at Salem Lutheran in Fontanelle, which is just northeast of Fremont.
It’s a lovely congregation in a rural setting. In figuring out daily life, however, I still haven’t settled into a routine that allows me to work out as much as I need to. So, to finish the sentence for myself, I will make room for joy in my life by either going for a walk daily, or making the time to leave work a little early in Omaha to be able to work out at the YMCA in Fremont.
How about another sentence to finish. I will respond to the good news of God joyfully by __________. What is something you will do, whether you do it all the time, haven’t done it in awhile, or have never done, because you feel a passion to do it, and because you feel that it’s a way you can share God’s love with the world around you?
A Way Forward and a Reminder of God’s Love and Promises
These answers are part of the answer to the question of what will you do because you are so grateful, thankful, and caught up in joy for all that God has done and continues to do. They are also a start of a way forward to with God’s help, overcome our self-inflicted joylessness.
No matter where you are- living joyfully, or working on paths out of joylessness, please hear me and remember this. You are enough, because God is enough. God created you, knows you, claims you, and loves you. There’s nothing you can do about that. It’s freeing. It’s counter-intuitive, perhaps counter-cultural in today’s society, and it’s a central promise from God.
As Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
Image Credit: The Transfiguration