Overcoming Joyless Busyness – #TheStruggleisReal

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.

Outside the entrance to 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.

Joy-less Busyness
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.

Buddy looking disapprovingly.

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.”

Could you imagine my Grandpa doing a mic drop?

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.

Iconography Metamorphosis Transfiguration Church
An iconography depiction of the Transfiguration.

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

Remembering one’s baptism after receiving communion at Spirit of Grace.

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

The Connexion Worship Band singing about joy at Spirit of Grace.

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

God claims you and loves you, just because you are a Child of God. (I love this sign and station at Spirit of Grace by the way.)

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

Honest Reflections of the Heart

It’s already late February. My birthday has come and gone, a big one actually this year in terms of milestones. (Yay for a new decade… I think.) Where has the year gone? I haven’t blogged as often as I like. I have been still figuring out what life is like in a new place, Nebraska, and in a new capacity, as the Nebraska Synod Director for Stewardship.

My heart is full of joy, love, and purpose. 

The staff of the Nebraska Synod gathered together before Christmas in December 2016.

This I do know- I love my job, ministry, and call. I love my team of colleagues, friends, and peers, who serve alongside me and whom partner together to serve in their various vocations and callings- for the sake of their neighbor, God’s work and mission in the world, and the spreading of the Good News of the promises of God. I love the community and congregation my wife and I are a part of. And I am excited for the year ahead.

At the same time, my heart hurts. 

I hurt as I see the continued rise in hatred and bigotry. I hurt as I see ill-conceived policies and decisions being enacted without apparent concern for compassion and humanity.

I could respond to a long list of decisions through news stories and commentaries, but I trust you see enough of those where you get your news and in your social media feeds. I could get on my soapbox and explain why theologically I feel so unnerved by many of these decisions. But today, I want to stick to a societal argument, if possible.

Policies and decisions enacted by leaders are not just for themselves. In a business world, there is truth that those decisions are for shareholders and customers. But in a civil society, those decisions are for the elusive and hard to define, “common good.”

How do you define the “common good?”

Everyone defines the concept differently, but it’s one that we must hold at the center of our decision making to be able to collaborate and live together in community. If we do not, then we really do not have much holding us together at all, except for some malleable laws and rights, which hopefully have universal meaning.

It’s my opinion (and my opinion alone), that many of the decisions and policies currently being enacted do not have the common good in mind. And I wonder, if the reason for this is because there is a misunderstanding of the role of government and civil society? I was taught and modeled in school and previous career opportunities, that leadership in such environments is a privilege and a gift. But most importantly, leadership in such capacity is service!

Leadership is service. Government is service. 

It’s not about popularity. It’s not about power. It’s not about partisanship on any side. It’s about service, and particularly serving for the common good of our shared ideals- those grounded in the Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. And also adapting as those ideals must evolve as our understanding of science, people, technology, and the world change over time. But through such change, we must hold on to the importance of service for the sake of the common good.

Why does my heart hurt?

  • Because those currently enacting policies and decisions don’t seem to understand this- the very notion of service and common good.
  • Because instead of moving to unite across party politics, campaign rallies are still being held by those elected.
  • Because the fourth estate, the press, is being singled out as the enemy, and those who offer differing opinions and protest or resist are being dismissed as the enemy or a few “paid” people.

Until these concerns are addressed, my heart will likely continue to hurt. And at the same time, protests and resistance will grow stronger and louder.

Here I am, grateful. Happy and willing to talk with you, because we are in relationship with each other.

So here I am. A person who is grateful for the role I am in, my vocation, and calling. At the same time, a person who is convicted by my understandings of leadership and theology by what I am seeing in my country that I love, and in God’s beautiful yet hurting and broken world that is thirsting and in need for reconciliation.

Wherever you are, know that I am here. A fellow Child of God, happy and willing to talk with you, because whether we agree or not, we are in relationship with each other as citizens of society, and people created in the Image of God. As you wrestle with your daily life, call, questions, ideas, dreams, worries, and wonderings, know that I too do so. We’re in this together. And God is here with us too.

On one other note, it is my plan to return to daily blogging on Ash Wednesday, blogging a short reflection each day during Lent. I hope to be able to follow through on that plan. We’ll see starting next week. Until then, blessings and peace friends, and thank you for reading, serving in your vocations, and being part of the conversation and work together.  -Timothy

Image Credit: For the Common Good

Choosing Life and Living Abundantly

The following is the majority of the sermon I preached at American Lutheran Church in Filley, Nebraska on Sunday February 12, 2017. The passages appointed for the day by the revised common lectionary (Epiphany 6A) included Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, and Matthew 5:21-37

American Lutheran Church in Filley, Nebraska on a beautifully sunny February morning.

Grace and peace to you this day, and greetings from your 100,000 sisters and brothers across the Nebraska Synod. I know that Bishop Maas was with you a couple of months ago, and he again sends his greetings and gratitude. On his, and the whole synod’s behalf, I want to say thank you again for your generosity and the many ways you have stepped up to answer God’s call to serve your neighbor in your many ministries and special gifts in honor of American Lutheran’s 85 plus years of ministry now. So, with all my heart, please here my sincerest thanks and gratitude.

Thank you also to Pastor LuRae for the invitation to be with you today. I am excited to be here, to be present with you and hear some of your stories.

Again, my name is Timothy Siburg and I am the Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod, and a deacon in the ELCA. Of all of my many tasks with my role and ministry, one of my great joys is getting to be out in congregations seeing God’s work lived out in creative and new ways, and hearing and sharing the many stories of God at work through the love shown for and through God’s people.

Stories of Abundance and Stewardship
Since moving to Nebraska this past fall from Washington state, I have had the chance to see the abundance of God in action all across this state. I have heard about congregations who have given up some of our their church building space, for example, to house a wood shop to create prayer chests and furniture for those in need in their community.

I have witnessed a congregation which has turned its entire basement into not just a “care closet,” full of donated clothes, shoes, and food, but it’s organized like a store, and people in need in the community can come and take what they need.

I have felt God’s abundance through the gratitude and graciousness of warm welcomes like I have received here in congregations like yours in Scottsbluff, North Platte, Wayne, Aurora, Tekamah, and many more. I’ve seen people show up and fill an auditorium for a benefit, like last night in Fremont for a friend in their community, a sister in Christ battling cancer. And I have seen partnerships with serving arms to do the good work of ministry through groups like Mosaic, Lutheran Family Services, and many others.

I have seen how God’s abundance is being lived out in the way people live their lives, and steward all that they are, and all that they have- their time, their gifts, their possessions, their passions, vocations, questions, ideas, dreams, and stories. And in this, I have seen God’s story to continue to unfold, and to be able to help point to it.

Stories of God at Work
The beauty of God’s story is that it is on-going. Just as God is with us, Emmanuel, God will continue to be present with us.

In the Old Testament reading today from Deuteronomy, we hear some of the story of Moses preaching and laying out what’s at stake once again for God’s people, Israel. It’s a message that’s all about life, and abundant life that is only possible through the living God.

Moses proclaims, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.”[1]

There’s no dancing around this for Moses. This is life and death sort of stuff, and has taken on tangible form in the midst of Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness, hoping to soon cross the Jordan to the land that God has promised to give to God’s people. Moses reminds the people again of the stories of God’s love and promises. The stories of the God of Abraham, and the promise God made with Abraham, the covenant of the Shema.

Some of the baptismal banners that have been made at American in Filley for the recently baptized. These are reminders of the promises of God.

Moses so deeply wants the people to hear him and understand. He wants them to “Choose life so that they and their descendants may live.”[2] That’s God’s hope too. God wants us to choose life, abundant life, a life we can only find in God.

That really is also the point of the “law.” Lutherans like to talk about this thing called “law and gospel.” You might hear about how the “law brings you to your knees,” and the good news of the gospel frees you. This might well be true.

But there is another way to think about this law. One of my favorite seminary professors, Dr. Terence Fretheim, argued in class often that the purpose of the law is the hope that “life may go well for you.”

That really seems to be what Moses is getting at. He wants the people to remember their identity, and their relationship with their God. He wants them to enjoy and live the abundant life only possible through God.

Now putting on my stewardship hat for a minute, at the heart of stewardship is this hope and message of the abundance we know in God in Christ. It’s like what the writer of the letter of 1st Timothy compels, in order to “take hold of the life that really is life,”[3] the life, death, and resurrection of the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Life in Relationship
This abundant life though is not one in isolation. It’s also not just one in sole individual relationship with God. It’s one in relationship with each other, all of our fellow Children of God. And that seems to be what’s on Jesus’ mind in this portion we heard today of his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is offering thoughts, questions, and rhetorical responses to how to be in relationship with each other.

Jesus preaches, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”[4]

Now obviously as a Director for Stewardship, this passage catches my eye because it talks about the importance of giving and offering up of oneself, that which God has first entrusted to us. But that act of giving, is a deeply spiritual and relational one.

When we give, it’s not all about us. It’s about showing our gratitude for God by returning just a portion of all that God has given for us, and entrusted to us. It’s like the hymn we’ll sing in a few minutes, “We Give Thee But Thine Own,” using that which God has given to our care, to serve our neighbor.

A beautiful bulletin board at American Lutheran in Filley. How might we be God’s little love bugs?

It’s about reaching out to those in need, those around us, to steward that which God has given for the sake of God’s world. A world that is called, created, and loved into being, to be in relationship with God.

Life is not abundant without relationships and community. And because of this, it also means life is not one absent of conflict. Why do we confess together just about every time we worship? Because we need to be reminded of the forgiveness that is given pure and simply through the gifts of God. Through God in Christ’s love, we are reconciled to God, and likewise, we are called to be reconciled to one another.

That’s why it’s such a beautiful thing for Jesus to frame our giving and offering around our relationships with each other. If there’s some area of hurt or forgiveness that’s needed, seek it and be reconciled. Through the reconciliation comes peace; forgiveness; freedom from pain, sorrow and guilt; and abundant life. It’s for this reason that in worship we often have a time of passing of the peace before offering, so that, perhaps, if you need to seek out another, you have the chance so that all may give back to God with joyful hearts.

Valentine’s and Vocation
This is all nice, well and good, I know. But what does it mean for us today?

Maybe an answer lies in Paul’s words to the Corinthians? Paul writes about how we are all called into vocations, lives of service to our neighbors in our relationships, roles, and duties. He writes that, “we are God’s servants, working together; we are God’s field, God’s building.”[5]

This recognition of our call to be for our neighbor is part of our joyful response to the goodness, gifts, and promises of God. Or put another way, how might you answer the question, “What is your joyful response to what God has done, continues to do, and promises to do for you?” “What will you do, because you are so moved by God’s love and gifts, that you will do for the sake of your neighbor?”

How will you steward your time? How will you share your talents, treasures, passions, stories, and gifts?

All of these and so much more, are who you are. Put another way, how will you live as a Child of God, freed and loved by God, but in that freedom and love, called to love and serve your neighbor?

This isn’t about earning brownie points to heaven. Salvation is a free gift of God, one that we can’t earn even by following all the laws laid down for us, which is impossible anyway. Rather the question about our response, is one about life. How will we live our lives? How will we live through the love and promises of God?

Will we live in scarcity and fear? Will we put up barriers between ourselves, and cut off relationships?

Or will we live in abundance and promise? Will we seek out relationships with our neighbors- those we know and those we don’t’ really know yet? Will we show up for our neighbors going through the hardest parts of life, joining them in our deep love we know through Christ?

Speaking of Valentine’s Day, I saw this on a bulletin board downstairs at American in Filley near the Sunday School classrooms and fellowship hall.

As Valentine’s Day is this week, what is a way that you feel the love of God at work in your life? How about the love of God at work through the life of someone you know- a neighbor, family member, partner in ministry? How about how you see the love of God at work through those around you- your neighbors and strangers? Around your community? Around the world?

Today’s a good a day to remember all that God has done, and to open our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds, to see what God might be up to in God’s abundance in our midst. God is active. God is present. And God’s gift and promise of love is for you, and is shown to others through you.

Maybe that doesn’t make a great Valentine’s Card that Hallmark can market and sell- but the depth of it, makes it possible to show God’s love to all those you meet, through your words, actions, and the way you live your life in relationship with one another.

No matter how you answer the question of what will your joyful response to the gifts of God be; know that you are called, created, and loved to be uniquely who you are. And thank you for being the beautiful Child of God you are- sharing love, hope, light, and peace with the world. Amen.

References and Works Cited:

[1] Deuteronomy 30:15-16, NRSV.

[2] Paraphrased from Deuteronomy 30:19, NRSV.

[3] 1 Timothy 6:19, NRSV.

[4] Matthew 5:23-24, NRSV.

[5] 1 Corinthians 3:9, NRSV, paraphrased.

Child of God, Kingdom of Heaven, & the Love of the Refugee- our Neighbor

I was invited to preach this past weekend by my wife, Pastor Allison Siburg, at our congregation, Salem Lutheran Church in Fontanelle, Nebraska. When I was invited weeks ago, I was excited because the lectionary readings (Epiphany 4A) included a few of my favorites. That invitation, however, came before the refugee ban. In the midst of this, I shared what was on my heart. I have to admit, I was more nervous to preach this past weekend than I often am. But here is what I came up with and preached on Sunday January 29, 2017. 

The following sermon was based on the readings of Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, and Matthew 5:1-12. Included at the beginning of the manuscript is a poem that I found on Sunday January 29th. When I preached I did not include it in its entirety, just the final stanza. For the purpose of the blog, however, I have included it in full. 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.[1] Grace and peace from the one who knows you, claims you, and loves you. Amen.

I would like to start with a poem I read on Facebook this morning that has been with me ever since. It’s called, “Heaven Has No Borders,” and was written by Minnesota pastor Luke Stevens-Royer.

Where was it, where we first fell
into the delusion of our separateness.
Of our “other-ness”?

Was it somewhere between the Tigris and the Euphrates,
or at the Rio Grande –
or near the Mississippi.
Somewhere down from the tower of babel,
we fell into the first sin –
of fearing difference.
And we began to build walls.

And the walls that we place
to seemingly protect ourselves
we soon realize are prison walls
isolating us from the fabric of life
from our kindred –
which is all people.

We’ve built walls of prejudice, fear,
and a delusional false sense
of rightful ownership –
as if we all aren’t guests
on any land we inhabit.

Heaven has no borders.
When we forget this,
we set up the gates of hell.

But something happens.
When the hard heart
is watered with empathy
and the closed soul
soaked in compassion
the rigid borders dissolve.

Something happens
when the people remember they are family
and we have the tools we need
like Joshua at Jericho
to dance down the wall –
the walls come tumbling down
crumble to dust from the dancing rhythm
of the songs, the poems, the common work
of love made flesh – enough love to save us all.

And again,
the question from ancient scripture
echoes in our moral conscience –
behold, says the stranger,
the immigrant, the refugee,
I stand at the door and knock –

will you lift up your gates?[2] – Luke Stevens-Royer

Most of you know that, though I’m most importantly your pastor’s spouse, I am also a deacon in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America- one called to preach, teach, and serve. In this, I’m the Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod. As the days grow longer, there’ll be about two weekends a month that you won’t see me, as I’ll be preaching in Kearney, Holdrege, Filley, Wahoo, and many other places in between.

Since coming to Nebraska, I have been to Scottsbluff, North Platte, Aurora, Wakefield, Nebraska City, and so many other places. I have heard stories of ministry in action, of communities loving their neighbors in unique ways. From supporting the work of Mosaic, to starting a care closet that has taken over an entire church basement, to congregations who have partnered with Lutheran Family Services to sponsor refugee families. And congregations, like this, who understand Jesus’ welcome and love at a deep, deep level- the welcome Jesus talks about when he says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,”[3] like in the poem I opened with.

Looking at Today’s Words of God
That’s partly why it took me all week to be able to sit down and write a sermon. Today’s lectionary passages are some of the most well known in our faith- at least for describing who we are and what our character is called to be in our identity as Children of God, and the many vocations we serve as Children of God.

Psalm 15 asks, “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?”[4] These are questions which lead to a list of some of the marks of character- of what it means and looks like to be a Child of God.

In this tumultuous time, a time of change, fake news, irrational fears, and fear driven decision making, Paul reminds us in his letter to the Corinthians, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”[5]

The prophet Micah asks and declares in one of my absolute favorite Bible verses, “O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you God?”[6]

And then of course, there is today’s gospel- commonly called the “Beatitudes,” or blessings, the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus paints a vast picture of the changes and reversal only possible through God, a glimpse of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, and a description of just what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like and might be.

This is Good News. But it can also drive us all to our knees, when we see just how far we have yet to go as people, society, and Children of God. It can drive us to prayer, confession, repentance, and Kyrie’s or songs of “Lord have mercy.”

God’s vision is big. God’s children are many, if not all. Because, think about it, if God creates all people, then aren’t we all, God’s children?

The Relationship of being a Child of God and our Neighbors
Martin Luther famously wrote about this in his work, The Freedom of a Christian.[7] Luther wrote basically that, “We are all perfectly free people, bound to none.”

We are freed through the gifts and promises of God. Yet at the same time, “We are all servants, bound to our neighbors.” We exist, for the sake of our neighbor.

Some of the turnout for a vigil for Refugees that was held in Omaha, Nebraska on January 31, 2017. I was there along with Allison, a number of colleagues from across the Nebraska Synod, and people from all faith backgrounds.

But, just who is our neighbor? Fred Rogers, or Mister Rogers as you probably know him, made a career out of this question. As a Presbyterian pastor, he knew the depth and complexity of it. We like to narrow our answer to who is our neighbor, to just a few people we like and can see, and certain groups of people we identify or agree with. The problem is, we can’t do this. We can’t narrow the definition of neighbor. If God creates all, if we’re all God’s children, we are then all neighbors to one another.

Think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.[8] If the Samaritan man had given into societal norms, there would have been no “good Samaritan.” But the Samaritan saw across boundaries, walls, societal norms, and our human nature to group and judge people. He showed mercy to his neighbor in need. He did as Jesus preached on the mount, “Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.”

Think of the Holy Family in the gospel story we heard earlier this month on New Year’s Day.[9] Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt to escape the power thirsty murderer, Herod, who felt threatened by the prospect of a possible king in the form of an infant. The Holy Family fled as refugees to the land, generations earlier, which had enslaved their ancestors.

This story convicts me as I think of the world around me, and remember the work of our Lutheran brothers and sisters in Christ who responded to the refugee crisis of World War II by creating the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Today, it is the second largest refugee resettlement organization in the country. It is a serving arm of the church responding to the largest refugee crisis now since World War II, with the help of organizations like Lutheran Family Services here in Nebraska.

A Nebraska Immigrant’s Story[10]

This past week I heard the story of Afghan refugee Feroz Mohmand here in the local news.[11] Now a permanent resident in Omaha with his wife, for Mohmand, being a refugee and fleeing Afghanistan in 2012 was a matter of life or death. “The reason I became a refugee was not my choice,” he said. He said that he received a phone call saying that he would have less than 24 hours to leave his country if he wanted to stay alive.

Mohmand and his wife worked alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai to protect education and abolish terrorist groups like the Taliban. Because of their work, extremist groups made them targets for attack. One day, kidnappers almost took his son. He said that, every morning when he left home he would hug his family, and think this might be the last hug.

His family was relocated to the United States in 2013, but Mohmand says the process typically takes much longer– even years. It’s not uncommon, especially in the case of Syrian refugees now, to be in refugee camps for upwards of 3-4 years. Can you imagine not knowing where you’ll live for 3, 4, or more years?[12]

Modern Beatitudes
Lutheran Bishop Michael Rinehart from Houston, put it this way in light of the Beatitudes,

“Blessed are the refugees. Blessed are all 65 million people, those who are victims of war and poverty; those who have been evicted; those who cannot return home; those who seek a safe place for their children; those who are feared and despised; those hated by both sides of the conflict; those for whom nobody seems to care. You are children of God. And the people of God care about you.”[13]

We could add any numbers of needs here. For example,

“Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are the 48 million hungry Americans, those who are ridiculed; those who work multiple jobs, just to give their kids a chance; those who rely on food stamps and credits to provide a safe home for orphans and foster children; those with homes, and those without; those for whom nobody seems to care. You are children of God. And the people of God care about you.”

Or, another,

“Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who serve and have served, to bring freedom, hope, and a new day; those who resist the sinful ways to meet violence with violence; those who resist the sinful feelings of supremacy and power; those who some people fear are too soft, and others who think they don’t do enough; those who do not receive the care and support that they so greatly deserve. You servants are children of God. And the people of God care about you.”

I could keep going, but I don’t think I need to, because I deeply believe you feel this call too- this call to respond to God’s promises and blessings.

Bishop Brian Maas sharing, praying, and responding at the vigil in Omaha on January 31, 2017. He said that he was there because “his boss called him to be there.”

I have seen it- in the warm welcome you give and have given. I have seen it in the way that this congregation serves, listens, and dreams about what God might be calling us to be. In the great capacity to grow, teach, and serve; and how I have heard from many of you wondering about, what are some new ways we might be being called to serve today? What are some new projects that we might be being called to be part of?

God’s Promises Today
Today may seem uncertain. The news may excite or terrify us. But in-spite of this, and through this, we are called, created, and loved by a God who came into this world as one of us.

A God who walked alongside us, and taught us, like in his Sermon on the Mount; who challenged the powers that be, overturned the money tables in the Temple, and who always showed up with the people that common sense and society had seemingly marginalized and pushed aside; who, for us, faced death and the grave… And not only faced them, Jesus beat them at their own game, once and for all.

God in Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, is a gift- a free gift we can do nothing to earn. A gift of the promise of salvation- abundant life eternal, and thanks be to God for that.

But that begs the question. What will you do in response to this pure gift? Or, as I like to say when preaching on stewardship, what will your joyful response be?

For all that God has done for you, and promises to do, what will you be so caught up in joy for the goodness of God that you will do in love and gratitude for your neighbor? How will you serve your neighbor? Meet them, and join them? How will you welcome your neighbor, the refugee? How will your life and story show God’s love in the world around you?

In worship this year, we’ll continue to journey through the Gospel of Matthew. And not to steal any of my wife’s thunder, or to flip to the last page of the book, but the Gospel of Matthew ends with the Great Commission- a call to baptize and teach.[14] A call to share the Good News of a God who has come near, and who is for all.

There are stories to tell- stories of God at work in and through all our lives. Stories of blessings and woes, joys and sorrows. Stories of how God has shown up and continues to show up. Stories of how God calls us each into our various roles, daily lives, and vocations to serve our neighbors.

Tell your stories. Live your stories. And please, go about the work of what it means and looks like to be a Child of God. For all of this- all of you- are part of God’s on-going story of promise and redemption. A story of the Kingdom of Heaven in our world- yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Amen.


Citations and References: 

[1] Based on Psalm 19:14.

[2] “Heaven Has No Borders,” Luke Stevens-Royer, shared on Facebook, 28 January, 2017.

[3] Matthew 25:35, NRSV.

[4] Psalm 15:1, NRSV.

[5] 1 Corinthians 1:31, NRSV.

[6] Micah 6:8, NRSV.

[7] Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, (1520), trans. Mark D. Tranvik, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008).

[8] Luke 10:25-37, NRSV.

[9] Matthew 2:13-23, NRSV.

[10] http://www.ketv.com/article/local-refugees-immigration-attorneys-react-to-president-trumps-executive-orders/8640197

[11] Ibid.

[12] If we turn our back on refugees, and all our neighbors in need, it’s not hard to imagine Jesus saying as Nebraska Bishop Brian Maas pointedly pondered this past week, “Depart from me… because I was a stranger, and you did not welcome me.” From Bishop Brian Maas, Facebook post, 27 January, 2017, quoting and reminding of Matthew 25:43, NRSV.

[13] Bishop Michael Rinehart, Facebook post, 26 January, 2017.

[14] Matthew 28:18-20, NRSV.