God’s Story, Our Stories, and God’s On-Going Story for Us

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It was a great joy to be invited to preach today (March 11, 2018) at Salem Lutheran in Fontanelle, by my wife and the congregation’s pastor, Allison. What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from, based on the revised common lectionary’s appointed gospel, John 3:14-21, and epistle, Ephesians 2:1-10 for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Lent 4B).

Grace and peace from God in Christ, who is for you, with you, and loves you. Amen.

It’s the Fourth Sunday in Lent. Good grief! Where has this season been going? Maybe I’m extra aware of the speed with which this season is flying, because of another certain countdown you’re all aware of.

Baseball, Baseball, Baseball
Oh, you thought I meant Baby Siburg… no, no, no… Baseball Opening Day of course! It’s only two and a half weeks away…

You might laugh, but even as the March weather bounces back and forth from the awesome 65 degrees of last weekend, to the snow of this morning… I’m super excited for the return of baseball. Baseball has long been part of my story, and to be honest it’s been part of Allison’s too. We fell in love in part because of our love of the Seattle Mariners, and for both of us, we really started to follow our hometown team in 1995.

the double
Ken Griffey Jr. sliding in safe, to win the American League Division Series against the New York Yankees, on Edgar Martinez’s double on October 8, 1995. 

If you’re a sports fan, you might remember Edgar Martinez hitting a double down the left field line, and having Ken Griffey Jr. fly around the base-paths sliding safe into home ahead of the tag from the catcher, and beating the New York Yankees. Admittedly, that was the last and only time the Mariners have beat the Yankees in the playoffs. But before I go too far… I am thinking about baseball, because it’s full of stories that I know. As I think back, I’m here in part today because of all the times I would be out playing catch with my Dad, spending hours throwing and catching, pitching, and hitting while talking with my Dad about life, pondering deep questions, and working out those many years of teenage tantrums, and agreements or arguments with my parents, brother, and sister.

Playing catch is glorious. For me there are a few things that I can lose all track of time doing- playing catch and playing piano are two of them. And to be honest, I’m excited to play catch someday soon with Baby Siburg. Girl or boy, there will be lots of catch to be had.

Baseball has been part of my story, and I suspect it’s part of some of your stories. But also, part of our stories, is God’s on-going story. The story of God coming near to us, as one of us. The story of love poured out, for us. And the story and promise of being with us. These stories we know. And sometimes in worship, we hear and read these stories in more familiar ways.

God’s Word for Us- The Promises of John 3
Today’s gospel story is one such example. I am guessing you all know John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”[1] This familiar verse is part of the larger chapter of John 3, which perhaps is at the heart of the story and promise of who we are as God’s children, and who God is. Don’t get me wrong, John 3:16, is a great verse. But, if we’re not careful we could give into the popular culture belief around John 3:16 as the end all, be all verse. It’s one you might often see on a baseball or football player’s face or uniform. And that’s great, as long as we put it into context.

baptism recent
Faith as a gift, such as seen and experienced in this recent baptism.

If we let it be its own thing as one verse by itself though, we perhaps over simplify God’s love. We also might be giving ourselves too much credit for what should be God’s work. Because if we are not careful when we read, “so that everyone who believes in him…”[2] the whole act of believing may become something we do instead of something we graciously receive from God. But, as we know from Paul and Luther, faith is not a work but a gift from God.[3] This may seem like a small thing, but it’s really a big thing for understanding our relationship with God and one another.

When reading John 3, my favorite verse is the one that comes next, verse 17. “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.[4] This is at the heart of the gospel, even more so than the verse before it. It’s a pure gift and promise of God. One which we respond to in the way we live. I wonder, how are we called to be a John 3:17 people?

Being a John 3:17 People
In what ways that we live, serve, do, and are, does God use us to share the good news that God in Christ comes not to condemn, but to save? God comes and God is with us, because of a love far deeper than words can express. Sometimes we know how true this is. Other times, we need to hear or share stories, questions, laughs, and tears, in so doing, we start to sense God’s presence, and again wonder what might God be up to.

20180311_120352
Shirley and Pastor Bob Kocher sharing some stories today after worship about their time living and serving in India and Malaysia.

I am guessing we’ll be doing a lot of this in a few minutes after worship, as Pastor Bob and Shirley Kocher share some of their countless stories, humor, and wisdom today. I’m excited to hear more of their stories. I suspect we might all have a new appreciation for the way that these two Children of God and servants have lived and continue to live out their vocations, and perhaps even embody the depth of today’s gospel story. Sharing the good news through word and sacrament, as well as the way they continue to love and serve their neighbor regardless of station or situation, but just because of who they are and who God has called and created them to be as Children of God. Just as we are all Children of God.

Too often in our world, whether we intend to or not, we go about the work of seeking or pointing out differences because the world is full of such different stations and situations. We divide ourselves based on our backgrounds, identities, experiences, orientations, or perspectives. In our human nature, this is how we make sense of the world by categorizing. But when we do this, we sometimes go too far. We sometimes start to think that God’s love is only for some, and not for all. We lose sight of the fact that God’s love doesn’t work like this.

God’s love is poured out on the cross with arms outstretched. As we get closer and closer to the passion story of Holy Week, we draw closer to Jesus on the cross, saying “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”[5] These arms out for us, the same arms and hands which offer us all life and salvation, aren’t just for a few. They are wide and outstretched for all. They are outstretched “in order that the world might be saved through him,” the world, the whole world, not just some people or parts of the world.[6]

I feel like I’m a lawyer today, arguing passionately about this. I don’t mean to be. It’s just hard to not be passionate, because this story is so well known, so powerful, and so beautiful.

This is the love of God poured out for the whole world, for all. It’s the greatest story, and it’s one we are called to share. It’s a story we are called to lean into, and to live out. It’s one that breathes life into all that we do, and all that we are.

Faith as a Gift
This week, we also hear these famous words from the Apostle Paul, words that nearly 1500 years later would help comfort, challenge, and inspire Martin Luther to ask some deep questions about faith and the church. “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.”[7] Hear this again, “this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…” Faith and belief are God’s gifts, for us and for the world.

first communion bread
First communion recipients learning how to make, and making the communion bread with Angie, and serving the larger community together.

It’s not about how much or little faith we might have. Rather, it’s about being willing to wonder, and be vulnerable enough to follow.

It’s about being willing to journey with Christ, as we do during Lent. It’s about being willing to be like Jesus, who even on the night he was betrayed, got down on his knees and washed the disciples’ feet.

As we live out a life of faith, we too are called to sometimes wash our neighbor’s feet, and to serve in whatever way our neighbor needs.

Grace and faith are gifts for the world, which lead us out into our daily lives called, equipped, empowered, and entrusted with whatever we might need to serve our neighbor and share God’s story, love, and promises. God has already done the hard saving work on the cross, once and for all. But we sometimes lose sight of this. We sometimes take it for granted. And at other times, we wish that God’s love is limited to a few of us, to those of us who believe enough. It’s at these times where belief becomes a work and not a gift. And it’s at these times where we miss the point of God’s story, work, promises, and love.

What we do matters. But it doesn’t matter for our own salvation. That’s God’s work in Christ, for us. At the same time, faith in God is a gift. It’s not something we can suddenly create more of, or store up for ourselves. No. What we do matters though, because we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works,” for the sake of our neighbor.[8]

God’s (on-going) Story and Salem’s Story
Whatever these works that we each do are, we do them because we feel called or invited to step up and respond to our neighbor’s needs.

snow removal
What some serious snow removal looks like at Salem and around Fontanelle.

I have seen this even more so lately in this community, by the way people help each other out removing snow, fixing cars, being there as one big family of faith for so many.

I look out and see not one, not two, not three, but four babies. I know it will soon be five. Not every congregation is one that is so fortunate, and not every congregation is so welcoming to young children and young families in worship. I think this is part of who we are as Salem Lutheran Church, living out our understanding of John chapter 3, and also the freedom Paul points to in Ephesians. I also think it points to something about who we are together as the People of God.

Cries, laughs, sharing of faith stories, questions, ideas, wisdom, honest wondering… these are signs of relationship. They are signs of the people of God being vulnerable enough with one another to grow into deeper relationship. They are signs that God is indeed up to something here, around, and among us. I am not always sure what it is, but I am sure, it’s something.

To be honest with you, I was never sure that I was called to be a parent. Clearly, that question has come and gone. In talking with my spiritual director this past week, (basically someone trained in asking some deep questions about faith and life and what God might be up to, and how things are with your soul), I felt the need to admit something. I could never have predicted where life has led, and I am guessing that might be true for each of you as you think about your own life stories.

shower
Many of the wonderful women of Salem Lutheran who helped celebrate Baby Siburg with a fantastic baby shower in February.

But, as I look back on all of the moving around, all of the times where we were working multiple small jobs at a time to make ends meet, going to school, wondering what God had in store… God has been truly present. As I look out at all of you, I am grateful that Baby Siburg will be raised as part of this faith community, as part of this Salem Family.

Don’t hear me as saying you’re all perfect. I don’t want any of you to get big heads, besides, I know some of you are Yankees fans. But what I am saying, is that together we are able and willing to do the hard but beautiful work of being God’s church- being there for one another, and for those not here today that we might meet and pass by during the week. That’s what it means to be a part of God’s on-going story.

Salem Lutheran obviously as a congregation has changed over time. That’s a sign of life. If we still worshipped in German, or did things exactly as they were done 158 years ago, I suspect none of us would be here. But God has been at work, active, and up to something because God in Christ comes not to condemn but to save, and that’s God’s work for us. It’s God’s story, and we all have the joy, privilege, challenge, call, and blessing to lean into it, and live and share it.

As we walk in these last few weeks of Lent together, let us do so with eyes, ears, minds, hearts, and hands open. Let us do so together, resting assured in the promises of God’s love and saving work, but compelled to share that message and meet and serve our neighbor’s needs in old and new ways, as Christ to the world. Amen.

Citations, References, and Credits:
Image Credit: 
Ken Griffey Jr. Sliding Home on “The Double”
[1] John 3:16, NRSV.
[2] John 3:16, NRSV.
[3] Ephesians 2:8-10, NRSV.
[4] John 3:17, NRSV.
[5] Based on Luke 23:34.
[6] John 3:17, NRSV.
[7] Ephesians 2:8-10, NRSV.
[8] Ephesians 2:8-10, NRSV.

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