Sunday, February 21, 2016

Courage in the Face of Doubt-Tinged Faith (not to mention that old fox)

Sermon for February 21, 2016 (Lent 2)

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27:1-5, 13-14

Philippians 3:17--4:1
Luke 13:31-35

Go and tell that fox for me,
'Listen, I am casting out demons
and performing cures today and tomorrow…’

Jesus isn’t dealing with the mayor of Lake Crystal here; not even the governor of our state. Herod was the crazy king who killed John the Baptist—had his head chopped off! Jesus, however, isn’t intimidated in the least.

The Pharisees are.

I wonder if the Pharisees, deep down, think of Herod as being like a rabid dog—and who knows who might be next if Herod, after killing John the Baptizer, kills Jesus too—who of them in the Jewish community might be next once Herod has acquired the taste of blood?

So the Pharisees warn Jesus; and Jesus responded without flinching—indeed, Jesus taunts Herod, calling him an old fox, insinuating, to quote Daniel Plasman, “…insinuating that the one who threatens him is deceitful, untrustworthy, and a predator with animalistic instincts.” Jesus speaks Truth to Power and states clearly and without hesitation, I’m not going to be distracted or diverted from my mission.

Jesus won’t be swayed from his path—the path God has called him to—and no earthly ruler—no matter how annoyed, how bombastic, how powerful—no earthly ruler will force him to change his course. That course will eventually take him to Jerusalem and his death. Jesus knows this, and continues on that very road anyway.

So the first thing I’d like you consider today:

Might Jesus’ in-your-face response to Herod
give us Confidence and Courage
in our everyday lives
and in our communal life
as the New Community of Christ? 


It’s not easy to be confident and courageous.

It seems that Abram, to whom God had promised many descendants, a great nation, was anxious about how this could ever happen. “You made me this promise, God, but I’m not feeling it right now. It just doesn’t seem to be happening—and time’s a-wasting. I’m not getting any younger here, God.”

So like you and me, our spiritual forefather experienced worry and stress and doubt.

And God says
Do not be afraid, Abram,
I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.

We hear a promise like that and it often doesn’t really sink in. It didn’t—not right away—with Abram. I imagine Abram thinking, “Yeah, you’re my shield; yeah, there will be great rewards; yeah, I hear all that, God, but it shields and rewards don’t seem very concrete or down-to-earth. Like I’ve been saying, God, what about that very specific promise we’ve talked about… yeah, what about the great nation and the land, all that?”

And God smiles down and says, “Well, then, Abram, let’s go out to the front porch and talk about that. But first let’s just sit in quietness… Now, look up at the stars. Beautiful—even breathtaking, aren’t they? One of my best things—stars, that is.  Now, count them if you can—Ha! No, no you can’t count ‘em all, right? So listen carefully:  Like the stars, like infinity, so shall your descendants be.”

And Abram believed God and God chalked up Abram’s trust as one and the same with righteousness. And things were good between God and Abram again.

And yet, even after this, Abram isn’t totally convinced. Can this be? That Abram’s faith—credited as righteousness—might include a doubt or two?

Can grasp how significant this is? One of the Reformation’s “top ten” scriptures—“Abram believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness”—a passage cutting right to the idea of “faith alone”—and so often we take that passage and say, “yes, we must have faith but if it’s really going to be chalked up as righteousness it had better be a really big faith, a rock-solid faith, a faith without doubt…” But that’s not what this story tells us.

Even this faith of Abram was a doubt-tinged faith.

“OK, I hear you,” says Abram. “But how can I KNOW for sure?”


Sacraments, we often say, are visible signs that we can see and touch and taste—signs and seals of a great spiritual truth. So the sacrifice God directs Abram to prepare is sacramental. Usually the sacrifices were burned, but evidently God doesn’t give the go-ahead for that part of the rite. Abram is left to shoo away the vultures. And then, tired and maybe discouraged and stressed again and still not convinced or whatever is going through his heart and mind—poor Abram is unable to keep his eyes open, sleeps deeply…

And then, and then a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

Now that sounds a lot like depression. Deep darkness. Terrifying darkness. A darkness that just comes, seemingly out of nowhere. It just descends.  

So my second thought to take home and mull over during this season of Lent—and it’s not that new or original of a thought but it’s good to be reiterated:

It is often during those times of deep, even terrifying darkness that we discover God’s covenant, God’s promises, God’s purposes, presence, and power in a new way.

This was true for Abram—it was during his deep and frightening dark night of the soul that the smoking fire pot and flaming torch pass through the sacrifices and they become burnt offerings, and God’s makes a covenant, a sure-to-come-true promise to Abram, “To your descendants I give this land…” God shows up in a real and tangible way. When? In the midst of the darkness!

 “Wait for the LORD,” sings the psalmist,
“Be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!”
“Stand firm in the Lord,” says the Apostle Paul.


And yet…

How can we not be sad or anxious when we think about the sad state of much of today’s political rhetoric? Just as Herod was a fox, feeding on the chicks (and, remember, Jesus longed to gather the people of Jerusalem together like a mother hen gathers her chicks)—but just as Herod was a scheming, tricky, lying, ravenous fox… Well, sometimes I wonder…  What does it say when a professing Christian immediately sides with Donald Trump over Pope Francis on an issue intrinsically tied to racism, care and concern for the oppressed, and basic human values (by, for example, posting a meme questioning the Vatican's open door policy and its walls)?

I am convinced it means one of two things: You are either careless or unintelligent and you’re simply reposting something a friend posted, or you are just as racist, sexist, and xenophobic as Trump. And possibly both.

Pope Francis is spot on:  "A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel.”

The book of James in the NT teaches, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress..." (James 1:27). The OT scriptures consistently demand fairness and compassion towards the poor, oppressed, and potentially oppressed--specifically the stranger (alien, immigrant). Even the gift of Sabbath is extended to “the stranger within your gates.” The prophet Malachi wrote, "I will draw near to you for judgment... against those who cheat the day laborers out of their wages as well as oppress the widow and the orphan, and against those who brush aside the foreigner and do not revere me, says the Lord of heavenly forces."

The prophet Malachi makes a direct connection between how we treat the last and the least and our devotion to God. Jesus’ first sermon made the same connection, proclaiming, “Good News to the Poor.” If we preach a “gospel” that isn’t good new to the poor then it’s not the Gospel. Father James Martin reminds us to remember, “After the controversy fades, the pundits have had their say and the water cooler conversations have moved on to another topic, remember Pope Francis's simple but subversive message about migrants and refugees. They are our brothers and sisters. They are beloved children of God.”

The bottom-line is clear:  Your devotion to God cannot be disconnected from your solidarity with immigrants, persons of color, woman, wage-earners... in short, your solidarity with any of the last and the least. If you "brush aside the foreigner," you do not love God!


Speaking Truth to Power takes courage and courage means taking the risk of being vulnerable. Taking that risk is hard. It’s almost if we’re chicks afraid of the mother hen, too frazzled to allow ourselves to come home to the place of refuge.

One commentator, Daniel Plasman—I quoted him before—he says, “From Genesis to Revelation, the notes of the refrain repeats… ‘The Lord loves, the Beloved spurns that love.’” The Lord sends prophets with good news, but the Pharisees won’t listen. The Lord sends good news to the poor, the Lord sends love, and we refuse it in countless and varied ways.

And yet, in all of this, there is hope because the God who loves us to the uttermost really cares, and sent Jesus to live with us, to demonstrate and teach God’s love, to put love in action by never deviating from the path to the cross—which not only saves us for “forever” but rescues us today.

Let Abram's doubt-tinged faith be an encouragement--don't beat yourself up when you feel your faith is too weak or small. Let Abram's dark night of the soul be a light assuring you of God's presence. No. Matter. What. Let Jesus’ willingness to speak Truth to Power transform you to be more courageous and confident. And let Jesus’ compassion and yearning bring you comfort and calm assurance: Without a doubt, Jesus feels what you feel and is walking with you through whatever you’re going through—temptations, sufferings, depression, even wrestling with God, even the deepest grief imaginable.

Divine pathos runs deep. God isn’t a stranger to grief. The God who creates and saves is not an unmovable deity. God feels. Rejections of heaven’s love move God to tears.  (Daniel Plasman from Jesus, a Life: Daily Reflections on the Gospel of Luke.)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jesus, a Life: Daily Reflections on the Gospel of Luke

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sermon for Mother's Day 2015

Sermon for Sunday, May 10, 2015
First Presbyterian Church - Lake Crystal, Minnesota
Rev. Randal K. Lubbers, Pastor and Teacher

Gospel Lesson:  John 15:1-17

In the Garden, In the Cool of the Day

By Mary Oliver
Have I lived enough?
Have I loved enough?
Have I considered Right Action enough, have I
       come to any conclusions?
Have I experienced happiness with sufficient gratitude?
Have I endured loneliness with grace?

I say, this, or perhaps I’m just thinking it.
      Actually, I probably think too much.

Then I step out into the garden,
where the gardener, who is said to be a simple man,
is tending his children, the roses.

Have I lived enough?
Have I loved enough?
Sometimes it seems like life is passing me by. Sometimes it feel like I haven’t considered what Mary Oliver calls “Right Action” enough and I even feel ashamed because, doggone, if the pastor hasn’t come to any conclusions, then…. Well, what then? Of course then I’m falling into the common misconception that the pastor isn’t human. And I’m about to prove he is… After all…

What kind of a pastor swears in front of this very bouquet of roses when they fall over in the van while driving them from the florist to the church? What kind of pastor swears as he enters church because the box holding the bouquet--made limp because of the water which spilled when they tipped in the van—the bottom of the cardboard box disintegrates and the whole thing nearly crashes to the landing? And after this all happened I could only wonder… Yes, I know we’re Presbyterian but how many Hail Marys must I say now in order to cleanse these roses sufficiently from my anger and make them suitable for a sermon illustration? What kind of pastor would do all that?....  A human one, I guess?

The word human comes from the same root word as the words humus and humor and humility. The common root word refers to something that comes out of the earth, as in, “the Lord God formed the human from the dust—the humus—of the earth…” To be human is to be down-to-earth.

I can laugh now about my misadventure—to grasp humor is to be human (and humble)—and yet, the questions from the poem persist. And besides, not all my foibles are funny:

When I miss the mark it’s not always in private… and it’s not always pretty.

I can be reactionary instead of calming; cross instead of compassionate. My words can bite, sound bitter (even angry) and cut like a knife.

And that was me this week—Luke would vouch for it and some of you too. Right?  It’s hurtful and I’m sorry—I’m sorry. Please forgive me.

Mary Oliver asks, “Have I experienced happiness with sufficient gratitude?” And certainly I’ve experienced happiness—and just as surely I know I’m not sufficiently grateful. “Have I endured loneliness with grace?” Yes, I’ve endured… but not with the grace I see in others. My sense is that most people in our congregation are better than I am at all these things—better at doing what Jesus has commanded us to do and which we can only do while connected to the True Vine:

Oh, sure, there are times when I’m kind and compassionate, thoughtful and loving, gentle and meek and humble. Amazingly, I’ve even been told as much. Even last week. Wow.
But when I’m trying to do five things at once and feeling overwhelmed and when I’m a bit tired and my resistance to the acting-stupid-virus is at a low ebb; when I forget grace and forgo gratitude and start believing the world owes me roses. When I stop being humble… stop being human… Just then some jerk in a BMW will cut me off—obviously not understanding that I am the one who owns the road—and then the vase of roses tips over.

And there are two points here:  One, if you think pastors are somehow exempt from the earthiness of life, from days where your boots get stuck in the mud and manure, then you are mistaken. Pastors have terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days too. And, item number two:  as often as anyone, pastors need to confess and apologize and ask for forgiveness. At least this pastor does.  Because I don’t always endure with grace; and, for all the times I talk about gratitude, sometimes I forget to count my blessings.

I say, this, or perhaps I’m just thinking it.
      Actually, I probably think too much.

Then I step out into the garden,
where the gardener, who is said to be a simple man,
is tending his children, the roses.

The gardener is living and loving by tending the roses. Wow.

And so finally, we get to talk about the bouquet of roses—red and white and pink. The bouquet is at once a memorial and tribute, sermon illustration, and touchstone—a gentle reminder of grief and joy, tears and laughter, warm memories and deep agonies—of what it means to experience loneliness with grace and happiness with gratitude.

The thoughts behind the colors come from the sermon “The Pink Rose” written by my seminary professor and friend, Jeanne Stevenson Moessner.  In the South, where Jeanne was raised, it’s a custom on Mother’s Day to wear a red rose if your mother is still living.  And, in the South, men, women, and children wear white rose if their mother is no longer living—if she has, as they would say, “passed over.”

Red roses symbolize love, and red is the color of the Holy Spirit and the color of passion and suffering—appropriate for our long-suffering, patient, never-take-the-last-cookie moms.  The white roses are in remembrance of those we dearly miss—the white roses are for my kids and for any of you who, like them, can no longer say “Happy Mother’s Day, I love you, Mom” face-to-face.

In the South, Luke and Elyse would each be wearing a white rose; I’d be wearing red; and that just doesn’t seem right, does it?  The white roses are for you who feel just a tinge of sadness or maybe even a deep, renewed grief on Mother’s Day—whether you said goodbye to your mom 20 years ago or more, or just last week, or somewhere in between the extremes.

Two days ago, as I was just beginning to organize these thoughts, I said a prayer for Duane Jones and his siblings—on Thursday I’d spent some time with his mom Katherine and many in the family. She died Friday morning surrounded by many members of her family and surrounded by God’s love—one of the last things she read was the last few verses of Romans 8, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life; nor angels, rulers, things present, things to come; not powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation—nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

White symbolizes Easter and resurrection and victory. We wear white at baptism, at confirmation, and in glory—white robes—because we’re clothed in Christ’s righteousness. White roses are celebratory. And yet our remembrances bring tears too.

My pastor-friend Kim was in the check out line at a Costco store and was greeted with “Happy Mother's Day!” to which she responded, “I'm not a mom.”

Not letting it go, the still-cheery clerk said, “Well, we all have moms.”

I imagine Kim paused at that point, composed herself, and then said, “Yes, we do; and mine died two years ago. I miss her.”

Mother's Day can be agonizing. And not just for those, like Kim, like some of you, who have lost your mom recently. There are agonies, heartbreaks, and tears even beyond the symbol of the white roses….

What symbol do we have, for example, for the oldest sister of four girls, who longs to be a mom—she’s in her 30s and her three younger sisters have seven children between them? What symbol for women who never bore children and for the women still dealing with infertility, for a woman waiting for a child to be placed with her through adoption, or for mothers who have lost children through miscarriage, stillbirth, accident, injury, or illness? What symbol do we have if a child’s mother is alive but not around—5000 miles away; or in prison; or imprisoned by addictions? What symbol do we have for the experience of losing one’s mother slowly—fading memories, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia?

For all these stories and more, our vase includes pink roses.

For the mother who has lost a child, a pink rose.
For the women who longed to be mothers, but could not, a pink rose.
For mothers who gave up a child for adoption, a pink rose.
For women waiting to adopt, a pink rose.
For all the other experiences—
so many that fail to fit into our neat categories, a pink rose.

The pink roses are for unspoken agonies and sorrows the commercialized Mother’s Day glosses over. And, the pink roses are also for the JOYS and BLESSINGS we risk overlooking if we buy into the one-size-fits-all approach.

Anne Lamott says,
…My main gripe about Mother’s Day is that it feels incomplete and imprecise. The main thing that ever helped mothers was other people mothering them; a chain of mothering that keeps the whole shebang afloat. I am the woman I grew to be partly in spite of my mother, and partly because of the extraordinary love of her best friends, and my own best friends’ mothers, and from surrogates, many of whom were not women at all but gay men. I have loved them my entire life, even after their passing.

So the pink roses are for the spiritual mothers in the church and for stepmothers and grandmothers who came to the rescue… for a whole host of substitute moms… my children could name dozens…

The red, white, and pink roses mean something different to each of us, based on our experiences. The pink roses, especially, are for all of us, just as God's grace and love is for all of us. Everyone. No exceptions.

And so Jesus' words surely apply to all of us too… “I’m telling you these things for a purpose: that my JOY might be YOUR JOY, and that your joy might be complete and mature.  So this, friends is my rule for living, that you love one another as I have loved you."

The pink roses carry a meaning unique to each of our own experiences.  My friend Jeanne wrote, “It would take an all-knowing, all-seeing, vulnerable, and loving God to fully understand the pink rose signifies to each one of us.” 

Jeanne—who taught pastoral care—was herself in need of tender care this year. She and her husband David experienced the death of their son.  Jeanne would be the first to tell you that God’s healing doesn’t happen overnight. And yet she would speak, through her tears, of grace and love and laughter-in-the-midst-of-tears…. and of hope!  She wrote, “Our God is a God who formed our inward parts, knit us together in our mother’s womb, and saw our unformed substance. It is from such a God that healing will one day come, a healing that extends beyond childhood, before birth, to the very womb. This healing is to be found somehow in the very womb of God.”

So now I think of the garden as the womb of the gardener.  It’s a place of healing. I don’t learn to live by analyzing what it means to love…  So much as I learn to love by living.  In the garden… Tending the roses…

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A Prayer for Mother’s Day (Rev. Leslie Nipps, adapted by Randy Lubbers for worship)

On this Mother’s Day, we give thanks to you, O God, for the divine gift of motherhood in all its diverse forms. We pray for all the mothers among us today: for our own mothers, those living and those who have passed away; for single mothers who helped their children pick out their own card or gift; for mothers who loved us; and for those who fell short of loving us fully; for all who hope to be mothers someday and for those whose hope to have children has been frustrated; for all mothers who have lost children; for all women and men who have mothered others in any way—those who have been our substitute mothers and who have done so for those in need; and for the earth that bore us and provides us with our sustenance. We pray this all in the name of our birthing and adoptive God, who loves us to the uttermost.  Amen.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Transfiguration Sunday

Advance Notes for Transfiguration Sunday
February 15, 2015

Jesus, Take Us to the Mountain
Jaroslav J. Vajda, 1991
Jesus, take us to the mountain,
where with Peter, James, and John,
we are dazzled by your glory,
light as blinding as the sun.
There prepare us for the night
by the vision of that sight.
What do you want us to see there,
that your close companions saw?
Your divinity revealed there
fills us with the self-same awe.
Clothed in flesh like ours you go,
matched to meet our deadliest foe.
What do you want us to hear there,
that your dear disciples heard?
Once again the voice from heaven
says of the Incarnate Word,
“Listen, listen, everyone:
this is my beloved Son.”
Take us to that other mountain
where we see you glorified,
where you shouted, “It is finished!”
where for all the world you died.
Hear the stunned centurion:
“Truly this was God’s own Son!”
We who have beheld your glory,
risen and ascended Lord,
cannot help but tell the story,
all that we have seen and heard;
say with Peter, James, and John:
“You are God’s beloved Son!”

Questions for personal reflection
·         Stanza 1.  What images come to mind when you think of someone’s face being “lit up,” aglow, shining, or bright? Can you remember or describe or reflect upon the times in your life when you felt “aglow” or “more fully alive”?
·         Stanza 2.  What strikes you personally as something most awesome or amazing: Jesus revealed as divine? Or, Jesus “clothed in flesh like ours”? Why? 
·         Stanza 3.  In what concrete ways do you listen for Jesus’ voice in your life? Are there new ways of listening for Jesus that you’d like to try?  
·         Stanza 4.  Read Mark 15:33-39 and imagine yourself as the centurion. What are you thinking? What are you FEELING? What will your “tomorrow” look like, do you suppose? Will you, centurion, find yourself in the final stanza of “Jesus, Take Us to the Mountain”?