Sermon 1 in Creation Series (Trinity Sunday)

Note: This is a reworking of a sermon I preached in 2014.

Note 2: We had two baptisms at St. John’s this morning.

Genesis 2:4b-22 & John 3:1-16

When I was a little girl, we lived for about 4 years in a town in New Hampshire called Keene.  It’s a town of about 25,000 people, and it’s a town where nothing really ever changes.  I remember returning there to visit after the events of September 11 and feeling comforted that this town remained almost exactly as I had remembered it, even as the outside world was in uproar.  In this town is a public park which has a small pond which is surrounded by a forest.  And in the forest, there are trails where you can walk around the pond and then deeper into the forest.  In my mind, I can still smell the scent of the leaves, and feel the quietness of the place as I walk further away from the noise of children playing on the playground.  I used to imagine that the trails through the forest would lead me to a different world, or perhaps a portal that would take me to a different period of time.  There was something special and magical about that forest, as well as something peaceful.  When my family moved back to Keene when I was a student in college, I would return to those forest trails when I needed to gain some quiet and to think about things.

Trees are some of the first things that God created, according to today’s account in Genesis.  “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.  Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”  Before animals were created, trees were there.  God made human beings to be creatures who need relationships, even relationships with trees.  Science tells us that the trees take in the carbon dioxide we breathe out, and in return, the trees produce oxygen that we need to take in.  Since we know that carbon dioxide warms the atmosphere, we know that having more trees is good, since they will reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air and thus keep the earth from becoming too warm.  Psychologically, we need trees as well.  Just think:  each year, in the depths of winter, we bring in a pine tree from outside or put up a replica of a pine tree and decorate it with ornaments.  Did you ever think about why we do that, aside from the fact that it’s a tradition to do at Christmas time?  I believe that it feeds a need we have to continue to see something growing even when snow is blowing deep and nothing much seems to be alive.

Today marks the first of four Sundays where we as a congregation will focus on God the Creator and God’s creation, the gifts that God gives us through creation and the challenge that God gives us to care for the creation.  The first commission that God gives human beings when he puts Adam in the garden is to till and keep the earth.  The Hebrew word translated “till” here can also mean “to serve”.  So, what would it look like for human beings to “serve” the earth as we keep it?  Let’s look at this in relationship to the two trees specifically mentioned in this chapter, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Noted theologian Brian McLaren suggests that each of these trees represents different things.  The Tree of Life, he says, suggests, “health, strength, thriving, fruitfulness, growth, vigor, and all we mean by aliveness.”  In contrast, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil “could represent the desire to play God and judge parts of God’s creation—all of which God considers good—as evil.”  The danger, McLaren says, is that, while “God’s judging is always wise, fair, true, merciful, and restorative,” our judging is “frequently ignorant, biased, retaliatory and devaluing.”  McLaren asks what gives us the right, as part of creation itself, to judge what parts of creation are good and worthy of preservation, and what parts are bad and worthy of destruction?  Even though I and many other people question God’s creation of the mosquito, for example, and would be very happy to wipe it off of the face of the earth, the mosquito does serve a purpose in God’s good creation: it serves as food for birds and for reptiles, for example.  If we were to take away the mosquito, other species that we judge to be good might go extinct.

So, the questions we ask are:  How do we choose the Tree of Life, choose health, strength, and aliveness, rather than choose the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, judging parts of creation to be good and parts to be evil, despite the fact that we ourselves are a part of creation?  How do we properly till and keep the earth, especially as regards forests and trees, in an age where our need for tree products is growing, but also in an age that is seeing an increase in carbon dioxide and other pollutants that having more fully-grown, mature trees would help to alleviate?

Let’s first start in our own yards.  I don’t know about you, but most of the time I generally don’t notice the trees until they either cause a problem or there is some change about them.  Since I rent an apartment, it is the landlord’s responsibility to care for the trees, so I don’t have too much say over what happens with them, unless they cause a problem for me.  But for those of you who own your homes, what are the trees in your yard?  Do you notice some more than others?  How do you care for them?  If you have to remove a tree because it is growing in the wrong place and getting into your plumbing, do you plant a new one to replace it?  If you don’t plant a new tree in your yard to replace the one you removed, or are not able to plant a new tree in your yard, do you make the effort to plant a tree somewhere else?

Moving from our own backyards, we need to look and see how trees and forests around the world are being treated, and how we can best advocate for people to care for them.  All around the world, forests are being harvested for various reasons: burning for fuel, use of wood in furniture, use of the trees for paper products, etc.  This is the point where you might expect me to say, “Save the rain forests!”  I’m not going to do that, although that is a very good thing to work towards and advocate for.  What I’m going to talk about is something a little closer to home, across the Canadian border:  Save the boreal forest!  The boreal forest is a large swath of forest in Canada that is being clear cut so that oil companies can access tar sands and extract oil from them. The timber is also being used to feed our demand for paper products, even toilet paper. The boreal forest supports a large variety of animal life, and it is a source of clean water for many people of Canada.  It is home to many of the people of the First Nations, who we would call Native Americans, and these peoples have been just as marginalized and ill-treated throughout history as our tribes have been.  The First Nations depend on the boreal forest for their lives and their livelihoods.  But, of greatest importance in preserving this forest is this:  it is a vast storehouse of carbon dioxide.  Cutting down these trees would release about 47 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air.  And the cutting has already begun.

In just a little while, we will have the great privilege of baptizing two people into the Christian faith. Our Gospel reading from John talks about how no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Being born from above, or born anew, which is another way to translate the Greek, is what happens in baptism. It is a new birth into the kingdom of God, and it is a new birth into eternal life. And for the author of this Gospel, eternal life is not something that starts when you die and go to heaven. Eternal life starts here on earth, from the moment that you are born anew into the kingdom of God. That is the promise that God makes to you in the moment of baptism. This entry into the new life that God promises starts with our baptism.

Jesus also tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. The Greek word used for world here is kosmos, which we have taken over in English to mean the whole universe, not just the world. And that is one of the meanings of this Greek word, yes. But to get a more complete idea of what the kosmos is, it means God loves the entire world—down to each blade of grass, each flower, each wolf, each bear, each human being, and yes, even each mosquito. We human beings are just one part of this beautiful and fragile creation that God loves, and yet, we are having an outsize effect on it. So what this means is that, when we are baptized and born anew into this wonderful, eternal life God gives us, we are called upon to live in harmony with the rest of God’s creation, and to serve that creation, not to use it for our own selfish gain.

A derogatory word that is often used in place of the word “environmentalist” is “tree-hugger”.  I propose that we, as stewards of God’s good creation baptized into eternal life, turn that word from a derogatory usage to one that we proudly own.  After all, our Genesis reading today speaks of trees as one of the first things that God created and commanded us to care for.  Without the trees, we and most other life on this earth could not exist.  So, why wouldn’t we want to “hug” the trees and care for them as the precious resources they are instead of as something we can dispose of at will?  Martin Luther is supposed to have said, “If I knew the world was ending tomorrow, I would plant a tree.”  Let us go, then, to plant trees, to care for them, to walk and to rest in their shade, to wonder at their awesomeness, beauty and mystery, and most of all, to thank God for providing them for us.  Let us choose the Tree of Life.  Amen.






Sermon for Pentecost Sunday 2019

Note: Today we had two youth who were being confirmed (affirming their faith) at one congregation; but there was no one being confirmed at the other. The main body of the sermon got preached at both congregations, but what you will see here is the sermon I preached at the congregation where the youth were confirmed.

Romans 8:14-39

If today’s passage from Romans sounds familiar to you, there’s a reason for that, as this passage is often used in funerals. But it’s even more important for us to read and hear in the daily life of the church. In some of his most beautiful language yet in Romans, Paul describes the actions of the Holy Spirit in the life of the baptized Christian. And today is Pentecost, the one day of the church year when we Lutherans actually talk about the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s action in our lives. And this is the day when we are confirming two of our young people in the Christian faith, but what that really means is that they are taking on the promises for themselves that were made by their parents and their sponsors when they were baptized as children. And so, since Paul talked about baptism in the passage that we heard from him last week, we are going to trace that line of thinking from baptism to the Holy Spirit today.

Last week, Paul said that, because we were baptized into the death of Christ Jesus, we now walk in newness of life, and in hope of the resurrection. And this newness of life means that sin is no longer master over us; rather, Jesus Christ is our master and it is he whom we follow. So that means there is no such thing as “cheap grace,” where we go out and sin on Saturday night so we can be forgiven on Sunday morning only to go out and sin again. Rather, because Christ is our master, we live according to his teachings. Paul then gives two analogies to help the Christians in Rome understand what he is saying. The first analogy uses the metaphor of slavery, which was common in the 1st century Roman Empire, and which his audience would have understood. The second analogy Paul uses is a little bit easier for us: he uses the concept of marriage. When a woman is married, he says, she is bound to her husband until her husband dies; then she is free. So also, when we were baptized, we died to sin and therefore we are no longer bound to it, and we are now bound to Christ in our baptism. Paul then goes on to talk about how we still struggle with sin in this life even though sin is no longer our master, and he gives thanks to God through Jesus Christ that God has saved him from his sins.

Then we arrive at chapter 8, where Paul continues talking about how we are no longer bound to the demands of our sinful flesh, but rather, we are bound to the Holy Spirit through our baptism. Because we have the Holy Spirit in us, the law no longer condemns us. We are free: free to walk in that newness of life given to us through Christ Jesus in our baptism. And, Paul says, we have not received a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but we have received a spirit of adoption. We are children of God, and the Holy Spirit bears witness to that. We are free to address God without fear; free to call God our Father. Such marvelous news!

Then Paul talks about some of the ways the Holy Spirit is active in our lives. He begins by talking about how the whole creation is groaning and waiting with eager longing to be set free from its bondage to decay. So, in other words, we human beings tend to focus exclusively on our suffering: the pain from illness, the pain from watching those whom we love suffer from illness, the pain of being separated from those we love, and so on and so forth. But we neglect the rest of creation. Every time a species of animal or plant goes extinct, the whole creation suffers. Every time water is polluted, and it is no longer safe to drink or to wash with, the whole creation groans in pain. We’ll talk more about this idea when we get to our sermon series on creation, starting next week. Paul’s point here is that, just as the creation groans as it suffers, we, who have the Holy Spirit within us, groan inwardly as we await the resurrection and the new creation, where there will be no more pain and suffering.

But, the Holy Spirit does more than make us long for the resurrection with hope of that which we cannot see. The Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we pray, because, Paul says, we do not know how to pray as we ought to. I want to tell a story to illustrate this. In 2004, my paternal grandfather was diagnosed with leukemia. He was 80 years old, and at the time the doctors said that the chemo was just as likely to kill him as it was to cure him. So, he opted for comfort care and to let nature take its course. When I got the news, I was very distressed. And I didn’t know how to pray for him; it didn’t seem right to pray for his death, but I also knew that the diagnosis would not result in my grandfather continuing to live, so it didn’t seem right to pray for him to live if he was going to continue living in pain. After talking with a counselor about this, I concluded that the best way to pray was for God to not allow him to suffer for too long. I don’t know if this was the right prayer—but I do know that the Holy Spirit was interceding for me with sighs too deep for words. And I know that God heard those prayers and knew what was in my heart, even though I couldn’t express it the right way. And I know this because of that promise of the Holy Spirit who was there with me, advocating for me before the throne of God.

Even more wonderful than these already wonderful words about the Holy Spirit is the last section of chapter 8. Paul summarizes all of his arguments up to this point by asking, “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” No one condemns us, Paul says, because God loves us. And nothing can separate us from God’s love. Nothing, no one. It doesn’t matter what sin you have committed when you’ve lost your struggle to resist it. God still loves you. You are baptized in Christ Jesus and into his death; nothing will separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. How amazing is that?

Emilee and Heather, in just a little while you will be affirming the promises that your parents and sponsors made for you when you were baptized. That means that you are taking the responsibility for fulfilling those promises on yourselves. Here are those promises: to live among God’s faithful people; to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper; to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. There are times when we will be great at fulfilling those promises, and there will be times when we will fail. Paul’s words about the struggle against sin still ring true over 2000 years later. But the good, wonderful, amazing news is this. When we fail, we are not alone: the whole creation groans with us, including the community of Christians that we find ourselves in. We have not received a spirit of slavery that makes us fall back into fear; rather, we have received the Holy Spirit, who frees us from all condemnation and gives us the promise of the resurrection, so that we are no longer afraid of anything the powers that be can do to us. When we don’t know how to pray, we can simply cry out to God and trust that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us and that God hears our prayers and our heartfelt cries. And finally, and most importantly, we know that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ. God made us, God saved us through Jesus Christ, and God has sent the Holy Spirit to live in our hearts to be with us always. God is always with us, no matter what.

Emilee and Heather, you are taking on these promises of the Christian faith for yourselves in a time when the world is changing rapidly in many ways, some of them for the better and some of them for the worse. You are here to show us who are older how to live out our Christian faith in this new world. We are here to support you with the wisdom we have gleaned in our years of living. It’s going to be challenging for you, and it’s going to be frustrating when we older folks get stubborn and don’t want to follow where the Holy Spirit is urging you to lead us. In fact, one of my colleagues, John Stevens, who is a pastor in Oregon City, Oregon, wrote this series of three haikus that I think you will identify with in the coming years:

Annoying Spirit,

My life was fine before You.

Or at least I thought.

Annoying Spirit,

No longer can I sit still.

Feeling Your call deep.

Annoying Spirit,

You give me new ears to hear

My neighbors in need.

My prayer for you is that you would not give up on us. We love you and we want to support you as you continue living your lives as the Holy Spirit has called you to live: free from fear and resting secure in the knowledge that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing. No one. God loves you. Period. Amen.



Sermon for Easter 7 Narrative

Romans 6:1-14

Last week in Romans, we talked about how Paul says that everyone is equally sinful, no matter who they are, whether they are Jewish or Gentile. We talked about how it is not your nationality that makes you right with God, but rather, it is Jesus Christ who makes you right with God. And then we talked about God’s radical love for us: that Christ died for us while we were weak, while we were sinners, and while we were enemies of God. Do you remember the homework assignment I gave you last week? About how every time someone makes you angry or you find yourself hating someone because of something reported in the news, you were to stop and pray for that person? How’s that going? I want you to know that I don’t ask you all to do something like that without disciplining myself to do the same thing, and yes, I found it very difficult this week when I stopped to pray for someone in a news story that I discovered I was hating. So, I want you to know that I feel your pain, and I hope that we all can continue to discipline ourselves to do this.

This week, we need to trace Paul’s argument through the rest of chapter 5 before we start talking about today’s reading. At the end of last week’s reading, Paul tells us that if, “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” Moving on into the rest of chapter 5, Paul says that this idea makes sense, because sin and death came into the world through one man—Adam. Therefore, righteousness and life come through the one man, Jesus Christ. And here is where the argument for translating the Greek as “the faithfulness of Christ” rather than “faith in Christ” makes sense, for Paul is saying that just as by Adam’s disobedience many were made sinners, by Jesus’ obedience—that is, his submission to death on the cross, or in other words, Jesus’ faithfulness in following the will of God the Father—many will be made righteous. Finally, in verse 20 of chapter 5, Paul talks about grace and sin. He talks about how, when sin increases, grace increases right alongside of it. God’s love and grace for those who sin is greater than all the possible sins we could commit.

This then leads to Paul’s opening question in chapter 6: “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” In other words, let’s go out and party and do bad things on Saturday night and then on Sunday morning we confess, and God forgives, so we have a clean slate and we can continue to do wrong things because God always forgives us. This idea is usually referred to as “cheap grace”. To the concept of cheap grace, Paul says, in a slightly more modern turn of phrase, “Oh, hell, no!” Because we have been baptized into Christ Jesus, he says, we were baptized into his death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

Here I would like to use an image to help us understand what Paul is talking about in reference to baptism. I want to preface this by saying that I believe that baptism takes hold no matter the form: if you pour water over a person’s head, or if the person is fully immersed in water and comes back up. According to what Martin Luther taught, it is not the water itself or even the amount of water that is important. What is important for the Sacrament of Baptism is water combined with God’s saving Word; together, water and the word is what makes a baptism. Now, that being said, one of my goals for my pastoral career is to do a full immersion baptism, preferably in a river or a lake. Why? Because of Paul’s imagery here: we who are baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into his death. And when you do a full immersion baptism, you are certainly getting the image of death by drowning, even though the person would hold her nose when going under the water. And what dies in baptism? Our sinful self. That sinful self was crucified on the cross with Jesus and died with Jesus.

Now, here’s the thing, though: Paul does not say that we are resurrected with Jesus when we come up out of the water. Our physical resurrection does not come until Jesus returns in glory. But what does come up out of the water is a new life for us. Baptism transforms us, so that we no longer even want to sin, to do bad things. We have a new life where we walk with Jesus and live according to his teachings. So, no, we don’t deliberately sin and then walk into church on Sunday morning to get forgiven so we can do it again. Rather, our baptism has transformed us so that we want to live that new life in Jesus Christ, in harmony with everyone around us.

But even though our baptism has transformed us, we are living in a time period that we call “now and not yet”. We only have to look around to see that, while we may be transformed by baptism, the world around us is certainly not. And even we who are baptized and walking in that newness of life still fall into sin. Paul says a little bit later, in chapter 7 of Romans, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” We are still sinful human beings, and even though we want to do good and walk in that newness of life given to us in baptism, we still fall into the power of sin. We get angry with one another and we tear one another down rather than build one another up. We live in a system that does not care for the world around us and we uphold that system because we do not see a way that we can break out of it. We look at people who are different from us and condemn them without trying to understand them first. So, what good does baptism do if this is the case?

In fact, baptism does much good. Paul writes: “For if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” In other words, the resurrection of our body does not happen immediately upon being baptized. But, because we have been baptized into Christ’s death, we have hope: hope in the promise that, one day, like Jesus, we too will be resurrected and have a completely new life. And because we have that hope in the resurrection, we do not need to be afraid of the powers that are at work in the world. We know that death is not the end. And because we now have no fear of death, we are free to resist the power of sin and to resist the evil that is at work in the world. When we see evil happening in the world, we can call it out and not be afraid of what the powers that be can do to us, because we have that hope in the resurrection that Jesus has promised us through our baptism.

At the end of today’s section of Romans, Paul calls on the Christians at Rome to “present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” Yes, sin is still in the world, and yes, we still fall into sin. But sin is no longer our master—Jesus Christ is our master, and it is him that we follow. What are some ways, then, that we can present ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness?

On Friday, there was news of yet another mass shooting, this time in Virginia Beach, at a municipal building, by a disgruntled employee. We in this country cannot seem to stop the tide of mass shootings. Every time one happens, people rise up and demand better gun control laws on one side of the issue and better mental health care on the other side of the issue. There’s a lot of noise, but nothing gets done, and then things quiet down until the next mass shooting happens. How are we as Christians to respond to this? In this case, what does it look like for us to present ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness? Well, God desires that we live in peace, safety, and in harmony with one another. To my mind, this is what that looks like: we are called to work for better gun regulations. After all, those who use guns for valid purposes, like hunting, really have no need of semi-automatic weapons. On the other side, God desires that we strive for the mental and physical well-being of our neighbors. This includes better access to mental health care and removing the stigma from asking for help with mental issues. Just as we would go to the doctor to heal a broken bone, we should also be able to go to a mental health professional for a broken mind or spirit. So, as Christians, we are called to advocate for everyone’s mental health and well-being. Practical ways to do this are to contact our federal and state legislators and to volunteer with organizations who are advocating for changes in the way our systems work. Change will not come overnight, but that doesn’t mean we can give up and stop working for that change.

Baptism into the death of Christ Jesus doesn’t mean that since we are saved, we can sit back and do nothing until he comes again. Baptism into his death does mean that nothing we do can save us, because Jesus has done that already. But what our baptism calls us into is that walk in newness of life. We are now called to actively resist sin and not just to throw up our hands and say there is nothing we can do. Sin is no longer our master; Christ Jesus is. And since death could not hold Jesus down, death cannot hold us down either. We are called to get out in the world and speak for our neighbor, and not just in matters of mass shootings. We are called to speak for our neighbor wherever matters of injustice are found, be they things that happen in our ordinary lives or things that happen on a bigger scale. And since we no longer have death to fear, that means that we should fear nothing, for Christ Jesus is with us. So, go, resting secure in the knowledge that you are safe in Jesus’ arms, live out your baptismal calling, and resist sin by calling it out and working for change. Amen.