Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christmas is coming

Luke 1.39-55


Read Psalm 80:1-7

Yes, Christmas is coming. It is less than a week away. Yes, Christmas is coming. We will gather together and rejoice and be glad and celebrate this festival with our family and friends. Yes, Christmas is coming. The fulfillment of all hope, the very fulfillment of our salvation will be born to a carpenter, his young wife, and the whole of creation in a stable for there was no room at the inn. Christmas is coming. Christmas is coming.

Christmas should be a time of hope and joy. Yet, I wonder if it also is a time where we cry out to God, “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we might be saved.” We should be dancing and singing carols of the glorious things that God has done for us, yet we know the bread of tears as we confront this joyous holy day without a loved one yet again or for the first time. We should be laughing at one another’s jokes and stories, yet there are people who will be struggling to find food and water for a day which looks too much like any other day struggling for the bare necessities for life. There are many people who face this coming season with these fears and sorrows, and maybe it just might be true that we all face doubts, uncertainty, fear, anger, and sadness, at least maybe a little while we are rejoicing in the glad tidings of Christmas coming.

I read that psalm to you today in part because it was the alternate reading set before us this day. I read it because it stands in stark contrast to the beautiful and hopeful Song of Mary that we did read together. It is a song that speaks of the hard things that we all do go through in our lives, but it also a song that gives us permission to cry out to God in our sorrow and ask for the help that we truly do need. Mary’s song is a song extolling the goodness and righteousness that God has done in bringing the justice and love that we need. I read this other psalm to you today, our life comes with the reality that we experience great joy and great sadness in our days here on earth. I read this psalm today, because it gives voice to the tension that God brings us joy and life and love, yet the reality of sin and death is ever present within our world today.

We live in this tension between joy and sorrow, and it is okay to do so. It is okay to cry out to God, “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved!” If we deny the sorrow and suffering of our lives, then we deny the gracious gift and love and that the Father has shown us in sending his only Son so that we might be forgiven and live united in his death. If we deny the joy that has come and is coming to us from the fruit of Mary’s womb, then we deny the truth that God has power over the suffering and death that our sin causes in our lives. This tension between joy and sorrow is a part of the story that makes us to know that God is real and that God loves us more than we could ever possibly put into words.

Yes, Christmas is coming. It is less than a week away. Yes, Christmas is coming. We will gather together and rejoice and be glad and celebrate this festival with our family and friends. Yes, Christmas is coming. The fulfillment of all hope, the very fulfillment of our salvation will be born to a carpenter, his young wife, and the whole of creation in a stable for there was no room at the inn. Christmas is coming. God has heard our cries, and God has given us great joy that we will be restored, that we will be saved. Christmas is coming.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Giving thanks to God

Matthew 6:25-33

Thanksgiving Eve 2009

When it comes to God and what God says and what God promises, there are simply times when I just don’t understand what God is doing or what in the world God is saying to you and me. This text that we just heard, and this national holiday that have for tomorrow is just one such of those times. Jesus says, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” And this confuses me because I keep hearing that, if I’m going to continue on living and not die, then I need food, water, air and shelter. Those are the very basic things that I need. They are the very basic things that everyone who lives upon this planet earth needs. So I’m not supposed to worry about what I will eat, what I will drink, or where I will sleep tonight?

Of course, when you take the whole world’s population into account, I am simply among the richest people on the planet. It doesn’t feel like it, but think about this. I never had to ask myself these questions: Will I have a place to sleep tonight? Will I have food to eat today, let alone this week? Will I have water to drink? Instead, I’ve asked myself these questions: Should I have a Diet Mountain Dew or Diet Pepsi? What will I have for supper tonight? When will I lay down in my warm bed after I get home tonight? Do you hear the difference in those questions? So the thing that has me completely befuddled with what Jesus is saying is how do I tell someone who’s physical well being depends on the very basic of needs to not worry about them?

The thing is Jesus telling us not to worry about we will eat, drink or wear is not a word of scolding for the person who is dealing with those basic needs in all actuality. It isn’t, because Jesus is simply stating the truth that worry will not put food on the table. It can’t. Only going out and finding food like a bird flying in the air will meet that need. Maybe I’m befuddled by what Jesus is saying, because I don’t know and I can’t understand what it truly is like to be that impoverished.

If you are aware of this or not, the Northwest Synod of Wisconsin, our synod, has a companion synod in Evangelical Lutheran Church in Malawi in Africa. The bishop from that synod said while he was visiting here in Wisconsin, “I don’t know how you people can believe in God. You have everything. What do you need God for?” Maybe this really gets to the core of what Jesus is saying tonight. Maybe Jesus is shaking us to look at the blessings that we have been given from God. Maybe Jesus is telling us what it is like to live a life where we truly pray to God “Give us this day our daily bread.” Maybe what we truly are called to be is a people who strive not for securing our future but instead striving for and seeking the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness. Maybe what Jesus is saying shows us our need for God and tells us that our trust, our faith should be in God alone, believing that God does provide.

I think that every year we enter into Thanksgiving day we have in our minds thoughts of what we have been blessed with in our lives. We give thanks for the people who have cared for us, who have made our life a little more joyous. We give thanks for the things that we do have even as we see the things that are slipping through our fingers. But perhaps we should give our greatest thanks to the one who has given us the life that we do have and who has freed us from the death our sins condemn us to. At times in our life it can be hard to see exactly what God is up to because we don’t see our need for God. But nevertheless, God is still faithful and God continues to provide for us even when gone as far as we possibly can go and taken our last breath. And God reaches down, scoops us up and hold us within those loving eternal arms. Let us give our thanks to God.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The insignificant made significant...

Mark 12:38-44


Insignificant. That’s maybe a word you could describe how it feels to be just one person amongst a whole world of problems. Just one person. Just one life. Living in a world with six billion people, a nation with 350 million people, a state of five and a half million people. Who am I in the midst of all this immensity? The world is filled with problems ranging from wars to hunger to pandemics to looming environmental disasters to financial crises. To confront any of those problems by myself would be like a rain drop falling upon a slab of granite – barely felt and quickly forgotten as it evaporates into the heat of a day.

I could hold up a sign the declares that all sides should give up fighting and make way for peace, but myriad other voices would drown that out as each side would press on with their calls for fighting and defense for what is good. I could cook a meal for someone who needs food and nourishment, but that act of kindness would be statistically unimportant and thrown out of the gathered data as outlier insignificant to the overall picture of what is going on. Of course, I’m not exactly a faceless, nameless person without any voice to speak to a good number of people. I’m a pastor, and I have a place and time to speak at least weekly. I’m charged with inspiring people to action. I’ve been called to be a leader of people, to preach and to teach. As the world sees it, I am no faceless, nameless, homeless person without the power to influence people and situations. I have a position of authority. I have a position of importance….at least those are things I could say if I was delusional and completely concerned with who I am and what power I wield. Let me assure you. I am not completely delusional. Although, maybe there are times when I let that fantasy enter into my mind. Perhaps I will yet receive “the greater condemnation.”

What harsh words we are confronted with by Jesus in the beginning of our gospel reading. The scribes are just doing their jobs and fulfilling their calling as teachers and preachers of God’s word. We hear Jesus denounce them for wearing long robes (oops.). We hear that they are greeted with respect and like to sit in the places of honor (yeesh.). We hear that they like to say long prayers (*gulp*). Jesus is not kind to the thought that some people are better than others because of the trappings they surround themselves with. Yet, it is pretty clear that Jesus, while passing harsh judgment upon the scribes, is not passing judgment upon them for simply being scribes but for taking the fact that they are scribes as something to be especially honored. Then these scribes go further yet and take that position of authority as something that is even higher than the welfare and life of widows who in this society are relegated to total dependence on the care and generosity of others. Thankfully, we never get caught up in the “show” of who are, or do we?

It’s sad but you and I can get caught up in the image that other people see of us, and we can get caught up in the image that other people show to us as we encounter them in our lives. These scribes that Jesus is condemning have given up care for other people and care for the godly work that they perform for care of how they look and seem to other people. I bet that there are times when we can and should rightly indentify with these scribes and condemnation that Jesus proclaims for them. At least when we see that condemnation and hear it speaking to us in our lives, we can finally reassess who we are and who we should be. You see, that is part of the power of Christ. Part of the power of Christ is to shake us to the core so that we can see that we have turned away from the things that we should be concerned about and turned towards ourselves and how righteous and just we appear before the world. That is a power that names sin and names its hold upon us. That power can show us how we fight for our appearance. That power can show us how we devour widow’s houses, maybe not literally, but certainly figuratively as we are either implicit or complicit in the systems that keep people poor, that keep people hungry, and that keep people in conflict. It’s not even the money we spend in all the various places of our lives. It’s the way that we tend to put ourselves and our wants above the things we should really care about – our trust in God and our care for all the people and the rest of creation that God has made.

So today, where is grace to be found? Certainly we cannot find grace in our ability to always trust in God above all else and to always care for the needs of others. For as we know, a single person’s quest to do everything right will do nothing to change the reality of the situation. That is until one person was born showed us all that his IS the power to bring in a new reality. That is until Jesus is born and walks among us, teaches among us, and dies for us and our sin, that inability to trust in God above all else.

You see, grace is to be found in the way that Jesus declares and proclaims that even the seemingly insignificant contribution of a poor widow is deemed the worthiest gift of all. Normally, such a gift would go unnoticed and be considered meaningless the total sum of that is collected in to the treasury of the temple, but Jesus is seeing that poor widow give all that she had left took notice of someone and something and turns it into a proclamation of grace that, in God’s eyes, no goodness, act of kindness, sharing of love, or trusting in God is deemed insignificant. In the reality that Jesus ushers in, it is that trust in God, even as flawed as it is for us sometimes, and goodness that makes this immense world and universe a significant place. That is our hope in the face of the hopelessness of fulfilling the Law that God would have us fulfill. It’s not that we forget how to be sinners, we probably remember all too well how to be sinners, but has deemed each one of us as insignificant as we are individually as worthy of God’s love and forgiveness.

Today we will/we have baptize(d) a new child into the church. We will baptize a child that the world vastly on the whole has taken no notice. Yet, today God will take special notice of Evan and proclaim him to be as special and loved as anyone else in the history of the world, even the really great and really important ones. Today the Holy Spirit will enter into him and forever hold him in the eternal promises specially for him just as specially it was for all the rest of us here today. God has taken notice and God will not forget.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Mark 10

Mark 10.2-16


In 1992, my family on my dad’s side gathered together to celebrate my grandma and grandpa Ahles’ 50th wedding anniversary. In 1994, my family on my mother’s side gathered together to celebrate my grandma and grandpa Iverson gathered together to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. This year my parents will be celebrating their 32nd wedding anniversary. As you can tell, my immediate family experience is not that of a personal experience of divorce. Yet, I know that is not the case for everyone in their lives. Divorce is an all too real experience for many people in their lives. The statistic that I keep hearing concerning the divorce rate in the U.S. is at least half if not more than half of all marriages end in divorce. Divorce is so common in our society today that I try not to assume that all families are like mine when I enter into conversation with the people I meet. Rather than get involved with the rightness or the wrongness of divorce, divorce is simply a reality. It is a reality that involves hurt and pain. It is a reality where relationships that were once thought to be so sure, fall into brokenness.

It is no one’s intention to get divorced. Nobody gets married thinking that somewhere down along the line “I’m going to divorce my spouse.” Even the divorced person who really believes that he or she made the right decision sill feels the pain of that decision and will forever carry the marks of that relationship as who that person is has been shaped by that relationship. One of the things that we all experience is that at one point or another in our life we have all experienced the hurt and the pain that the presence of brokenness in our lives causes. No one intends to experience this pain, yet we all the same experience it. This brokenness is sin, but not sin that be placed upon any one single person. It is a sin in which forces that seem to be beyond our control play upon us, and we seem to be powerless to do anything about it. This same sin which causes our relationships to break down is the same sin which allows people to go hungry. This same sin which causes us to fall out of love is the same sin which allows the suffering of people to go on unchecked. This same sin which breaks apart families and friends is the same sin which allows us to only look at our selves and our own needs and not the needs of others. This is a systemic sin in which all the actions and inactions of all our lives leads to the suffering of other people. This sin is simply reality – not necessity, but reality.

Jesus knows this. He sees the Pharisees coming to him with this question to try and get Jesus to take moral judgment upon people who they think are simply wrong. Yet, when the Pharisees ask him this question, Jesus does not point to what’s morally wrong. He points to what is good and right. They ask him to make a judgment upon divorce, and Jesus says that it is good for a man and a wife to live in committed relationship with one another. Jesus knows that God does not intend for our relationship to be broken, but Jesus knows just as much that our relationships will be broken. Jesus has for some time now been trying to tell the people that are following him what he must do. He keeps on trying to get people to know that he has come for us. He has come for this people who are enslaved to sin and death. He has come to die for us so that we may be redeemed in our sin and brokenness and be forgiven for the things that we know that we do and the things that we don’t know what we do. Two times Jesus has foretold this to the people around him, and a third time is just around the corner.

So when Jesus says, “Therefore what God has joined let no one separate,” he is saying that God’s intention for us is that we would live in relationship with one another. He is saying that it is God’s intention that we live in community respecting the bonds that tie us together. He is saying that God intentions are wholly good, and it is only when our sin enters the picture do those intentions get distorted. Jesus does not come to make excuses for our sin, but he does come to forgive us of our sins. Jesus sees that we are a broken people makes for us a lament that cries out on behalf of us to restore us to wholeness and to restore us to righteousness. This does not mean that are to live in unhealthy situations, but he has come to us who are broken.

And so then, little children are brought Jesus so that he might bless them. If you are saying to yourself at this time that this turn in the story seems to be coming in straight out of right field, then you could be right. Yet, having this story of Jesus welcoming the little children into his arms is a wonderful moment of reconciliation and grace. These little children, people who were very much “the least of these” in Jesus’ society, are the ones who Jesus has come to bring into his kingdom of reconciliation and grace. It is in turning to these children where Jesus makes the bold statement that he has come to be our Lord, a Lord of Life, a Lord of Love, a Lord of forgiveness. It is wonderful to see that what really makes Jesus indignant amongst all this talk of divorce and adultery are foolish disciples who try to bar the way for the children to come to Jesus and receive his blessing. Sin is a reality that Jesus has come to address, but denying grace and forgiveness to least, the weak, the forgotten, the hurting is what causes him to make a clear statement about what people shouldn’t do. Grace and Blessing is something that Jesus will not let be denied. Reconciliation and forgiveness is what he has come here to do.

Bishop Pederson at the synod ministry retreat painted a picture of just who are these children who come to Jesus. He said that this image is one of the more beloved images of Jesus’ ministry as we imagine this scene more often than not with serene, peaceful little children who are quiet, respectful, and nearly angelic in the presence of Christ. I don’t know about you, but children are rarely quiet, serene, peaceful, and nearly angelic. More often than not, they are giggling, yelling, running around to and fro, getting into things, getting dirty, demanding this or that, or crying. Children are getting into fights with their siblings telling each other not to touch them or even breathe their air. Children come with bumps scrapes and bruises that only a gentle kiss can cure. Does that sound like any children you know? Yet Bishop Pederson went on. He painted the picture of children who are living in destitution, hungry, sick, or made to grow up in a way that we could almost never imagine for our own children.

It is all these children who Jesus scoops up into his arms. All these children who are dirty, poor, sick, scared, laughing, screaming, and playing. These are the ones to whom the Kingdom of God belongs. And what’s more is that is us who are made children of God in our Baptism who come to Jesus broken, sinful, sick, tired, and hungry for forgiveness that Jesus wraps up in his arms blessing us and forgiving us for the things that we have done and the things that we have left undone.

Monday, June 22, 2009


Mark 4:35-41


(Inspired in part by WYNC's Radio Lab)

Stochasticity. Do any of you know what this word means? Could you even spell it? No? Stochasticity is something that we encounter every day of every year of our lives. Still doesn’t ring a bell does it? Well, don’t be too distressed. It is a big fancy science word and my spell check doesn’t even recognize it as a word. It just gives that red, squiggly line underneath it telling me that there’s something wrong with it. However, like I said earlier, it really is a word that describes something that happens to us in our everyday lives. Stochasticity is simply the concept of the ever pervasive presence of randomness in our world. It’s why making exact weather predictions is nearly impossible. It’s why baseball players and basketball players usually make only a certain number of shots in a game. It’s what is behind this sometimes chaotic world as lives and events don’t always go as orderly as we have them planned in our minds. We often like to think that our lives are going to go A, B, C, however that plan gets derailed as X disease ravages one’s body unexpectedly, Y layoffs put retirement plans on hold, or even Z the slippery spot on the road causes the car to spin out of control paralyzing the person from the waist down.

Sometimes life takes unexpected turns and even sometimes it can feel as if it is completely spinning out of control as life seems to get only more and more chaotic as what was supposed to happen is disrupted by random chaotic events. If he had come to the intersection just a second earlier… If she had stayed on her original flight… Basically, if the coin had come up “heads” instead of “tails.” Each moment in our lives has a number of different outcomes and choices and possibilities, and at times it feels like we have no control over how things are going to turn out in our lives. Sometimes it feels like we are caught in a storm at the mercy of the crashing waves and swirling wind crying out “Teacher! Do you not care that we are perishing?”

This cry from the disciples comes out of the ancient image of Chaos within the world – the sea and the storms that rage across it. All throughout the Bible this image for chaos gets played out in story after story. In the Exodus story, it get played out as the Red Sea blocking the escape of the Israelites from the Pharaoh’s army. In the book of Joshua it is used to mark the boundary demarcating the end of the 40 year wilderness journey and the beginning of their life in God’s Promised Land. In the book of Jonah, the seas crashed and raged around the boat Jonah was trying to use to get away from God. You see, water is an amazing, powerful image for the people of the Bible. It has the power to give life and the power to take it away. The sea was a place that claimed victims in the storms and winds crash about on them. One was never completely safe and secure and the stochasticity of life, the randomness of life was ever apparent. No wonder the disciples were afraid. Even though they were fisherman, that perhaps made them keenly aware of the seriousness of their situation as water began to swamp the boat they were on. Fear gripped the disciples, and what makes it worse is that there was nothing that they could do about it. In fact, they believed that they were going to die – Jesus! We are perishing!

So where does God fit into all this chaos of fear and death? How does God fit into this world where chaos rages from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth? How does God fit into a world where our lives seem to hinge on the outcome of a coin flip? How do we want God to act in a world where an infinite amount of causal relationships of the decisions we make and decisions thrust upon us are made? For the disciples, it seems as if they almost want Jesus to react as fearful and anxious as they are themselves. Water is swamping the boat! Wind is whipping around tossing the boat back and forth! Come on Jesus! Wake up! How can you be sleeping at a time like this?

We would rather that Jesus exhibit some of the same fear and anxiety that we are feeling. Instead, Jesus displays a calm indifference to our fear when we would rather he rush in and save us from our immediate fears. There are times when we’d rather have our God be a God who comes running like mother after her child wandering out into the street than have who stares calmly into the face of chaos and death. It’s not until the disciples wake him up that Jesus even has any care about what is happening. Upon being woken up, he simply turned to the sea and said “Peace. Be Still.” Jesus’ words calm the storm. Jesus’ words calm the sea. Jesus’ words then create astonishment in the disciples as his words bring order and peace to chaos and randomness within the world. Jesus stands up to the chaos creates calm with his very words. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Who is that order and creates out of the chaos?

Before this, maybe they saw Jesus as a prophet relating the will of God to the people. Maybe they saw Jesus as a healer helping the sick. Maybe they only thought of him as a teacher like how they do on the boat. But, upon seeing Jesus do this, they are simply in awe, yet they still don’t get it. They don’t get that this man who sleeps on a boat in the stormy seas is God, the creator and sustainer of all life, and he has come to bring in the Reign of God where sin and death have no more power over our lives. Trusting in that, in other words, having FAITH means trusting that Jesus has come to put a calm and an order upon our lives that truly allow us to finally live free from our constant fears of whatever might happen to us in our lives. It doesn’t mean that we are unaffected by randomness, by this concept of “stochasticity” in our lives. It means that when go through the storms and chaos in our lives, God is right there with us, never abandoning us, and giving us the strength of God eternal steadfastness throughout all our lives.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

For all the beauty even unseen...

Mark 4:26-34


I did a big part of my growing up in western Kansas where my parents served as co-pastors of upwards of four congregations in a 60 mile radius. Now, one of the things that I still remember fondly was the literal amber waves of grain. We drove by them on the way to school in the school bus. We drove by them on the way to church. We drove by them on the way into the city to do our shopping. One of the things you should realize is that “amber waves of grain” isn’t just an image in a patriotic song. It is literally what happens as the strong southerly winds drive across the open fields of grain causing them to undulate and crest like the waves of the open sea. That take by itself is an absolute beauty and sight to admire.

I’ve often heard from people that the drive along the roads to get through the state of Kansas is one of the most boring things you could ever do. I’ve heard it said, “There’s nothing to see out there! It’s just flat and empty.” I lived out in western Kansas for seven years, and I’ve had multiple occasions to go back to visit and see the area in which I spent a significant portion of my childhood. Let me tell you all here, there is a depth and breadth of beauty that is almost unmatched. Sure there aren’t many trees, and the trees that do grow are stunted and twisted by the whipping winds. Sure there aren’t majestic hills, let alone enormous mountains that loom high in the sky. But, Kansas has a beauty that you wouldn’t expect. The beauty is in the grand scope you can get looking off into the horizon and be amazed at the vastness of God’s creation. The beauty is in those undulating fields that ripple and roil in the wind. The beauty is in the subtleties of the landscape that may not be apparent at the first glance. However, getting people to see that and realize such tremendous beauty often fails, because for some reason mountains are something to look at and the plains and prairies are not.

Let me assure you right now that I’m not bringing this up because I’m being paid on the side by the Kansas State tourism board. I’m not even implying that I don’t like or appreciate the beauty that I’m surrounded by right here right now living in Wisconsin. But I bring this up because, for some reason, we all tend to have trouble seeing the value and the beauty in the small, broken down, dilapidated, poor and seemingly insignificant. We love what is grand, extravagant, well kept, popular and successful. But, what makes the grand and glorious be something that we end up valuing so much? What gives things like mountains, canyons, and city skylines an inherent value and worth? Who decided that the mountain was something to look at while the open prairie is just empty and boring?

Jesus knows that when we think of what is good for us in our lives we think of what is grand and glorious. Take a moment. Close your eyes. Try to imagine what the Kingdom of God will look like. Focus on the images that pop into your mind’s eye. What do you see? Do you see a mustard seed growing into shrub? Do you see a farmer harvesting his or her crops? I think that if we’re honest with ourselves, we probably think of the Kingdom of God like we so often imagine heaven in our pictures and descriptions. We first see pearly gates. We see streets paved with gold. We see grand houses in which we will be reunited with all our friends and relatives. But do we see God? Would we even be open to how God makes the Kingdom of God a reality?

Jesus uses these parables so that he can confront what we would expect the Kingdom of God to look like. He uses these parables challenge and confuse what we are expecting from God. He uses these parables to tell us that God’s reign is an event, not a place, where people have trust in God’s love and care for them and where people then respond in showing that love to one another.

This first parable that we heard today is a parable telling us that the kingdom of God is going to grow and happen whether we are vigilant watching it grow or even know all the processes that need to take place for a seed to grow. The farmer doesn’t know and doesn’t need to know the second by second progress of the seeds life. The farmer simply plants the seed and gathers the fruit that the seed bears. In this, the Kingdom of God is simply being open and trusting that the seed will bear fruit in its due season. The process is ultimately out of the farmer’s hands.

The second parable we heard today is a parable telling us that the Kingdom of God is like the unlikeliest of seeds and plants. The mustard seed is small. In fact, if someone dropped it on the ground outside, we just might not be able to find it. Compared to the other things in life back then like having a labor animal or a heard of sheep, just one mustard seed would seem very insignificant. Yet God’s Kingdom comes even in the seemingly insignificant and proceeds to bear the fruit and love that provides shelter, food, and a nesting place for the birds of the air. God’s kingdom comes unexpectedly and directly challenges our normal ways of thinking and shows that that grace has come for the whole of creation and even the seemingly small and insignificant has the power to share God’s grace. God’s kingdom is a place where grace, forgiveness, and simple care for the other person happens as a response to what God has done for us. It doesn’t happen because we know and are making sure it happens. It happens because God has willed it to happen, and happen it does in many surprising and unexpected ways. Even the “flat and empty prairie” is a place where the beauty of God’s work can be seen, if you only have the patience to open your eyes and see its beauty.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Spirit of Truth

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15


Synod assembly – what a wonderful, inspiring, yet perplexing event to be a part of every year. As most of you know, I along with your voting members sent to the assembly spent the weekend gathering together to not only do the business required of the larger church, but also be inspired by speakers opening our minds to new insights of the scriptures that we hold so near and dear to our hearts and be reminded of the mission that God calls to as the church. How fitting is it that we gathered together the very same weekend when we celebrate that day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples and turned them into apostles who proclaim the good news to everyone they meet. I really did have wonderful time this past weekend even with the long hours of sitting and listening. I was inspired by our people who presented telling of their stories engaging the book that reveals to us who God is. Yet, like I mentioned earlier, I was perplexed at times wondering what and why people were bringing up the things that they did yesterday and the day before.

I say I was perplexed, and what I mean by that is actually in reference to one particular resolution that came before the assembly just yesterday. That resolution was this: “Be it resolved, that the Northwest Synod of Wisconsin affirm the witness of scripture that Jesus is the only savior.” It sounds pretty straight forward, doesn’t it? There wouldn’t be anything that you would object to in that would there? Saying Jesus is the only savior would be something that we would all be able to agree upon. So, why would this resolution cause me to be perplexed? First off, this statement is something that we already proclaim to be true AND gilds our constitutions in the very opening lines. To bring this up for a vote would be redundant and even imply that this hasn’t been the case in this synod or the wider ELCA. I find it difficult to believe that anyone could have made it through the arduous candidacy and seminary process without this being at the very center of his or her preaching and teaching. However, this is not what has me so perplexed concerning this resolution. What has me perplexed was the discussion that took place over this resolution. In particular, there was one comment that sticks out in my mind even on this the morning after. It was said, “What might be true for me may not be true for somebody else. What might be true for me may not be true for somebody else.”

This perplexes me, because I agree and I disagree with that statement at the very same time. It’s true. We don’t live within a world where everyone agrees upon what they believe. In fact, we have entered an age where no religion can claim that it speaks for everyone in their region let alone their country. There are multiple claims to truth in our world that all seem as true to those people who proclaim them to be true. We as the whole people of God can’t even agree upon which version of Christianity is the “right” one. The world is a messy muddled up place where universal truths that everyone, and I mean everyone, can agree upon are few and far between. You throw a ball up into the air, and it will come back down. The sun will rise every morning just as surely as it will set at evening. You give birth to a person, and that person will eventually die some day. Otherwise, what is truth?

The gospel of John revolves around this question of “what is truth?” Today, we hear Jesus tell the disciples of the Spirit of truth. This Spirit of truth is the very same Holy Spirit that descends upon the disciples on Pentecost after Jesus has risen and ascended to heaven. Sadly, by Jesus telling the disciples that the Spirit of truth is coming to bring them into all truth, he implies that the disciples, no matter how loyal to Jesus they profess to be, no matter how hard they will try to tell the story of who Jesus is, no matter how much they love one another, their neighbors or their enemies, the disciples will be unable to testify to the truth by themselves. They will abandon Jesus. They will lock themselves inside of rooms for fear of persecution. They will doubt the news of Jesus’ resurrection. They will not understand all that has happened if they are left to their own power of understanding to know and trust in who Jesus is. Jesus sees the disciples for who they are. He sees them as human beings. He sees them as people who will struggle with their faith. He sees them as human beings who are in desperate need of God’s help.

Yet, that is why Jesus tells them that the advocate, the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit will come to testify on their behalf. The Holy Spirit is God who is going to come to them to sustain them in the rest of their lives and call them to the mission and ministry that they are to do with their lives. The Holy Spirit will come to them to reveal to them the truth. Yet again, what is truth? The truth is Jesus Christ himself. He is the truth, the way and the life. The truth is not an idea or a rule for life. The truth is a person. The truth is a living, breathing person they can see, feel, hear and touch. The truth is God has come to earth to live as we do, to die as we do, and to raise us up to new life as HE DOES. However, as we know quite well and as the disciples are going to find out, Jesus returns to the father and will not be out walking around with us in the same way that we might walk and talk with our friends and our family every single.

We can say that Jesus is here present when we are gathered. We can say Jesus is present in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. We can say that Jesus is in the people who are rejected, downtrodden, in pain, or hungry. But, we know that Jesus is not here in the same way that he walked and talked with the disciples in the Holy land so long ago. Jesus knows this, and that why he goes to send us this advocate who can bring us day after day back to faith in the truth, in who Jesus is. Luther said in his small catechism speaking of the Holy Spirit, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.”

So, when I hear the statement “What may be true for me may not be true for somebody else,” I must disagree with it, because the truth that we are given by the Holy Spirit is a truth that makes a complete claim upon your whole life and raises you up to new life. This doesn’t mean, let me repeat, DOESN’T MEAN you can throw away someone else’s experience or expression of faith. What it does mean is that you engage that person in being honest to who you are and the truth that has been given to you. These are not truths that we decide for ourselves. They are truths given to us.

When you deal with the question of Jesus being our only Lord and savior, you are dealing with a truth that makes a demand upon your life to share that truth with everyone you meet in words and in action, because it the truth that gives you life in a world that says that there is only sin and death. The apostles, once disciples, know this when the Holy Spirit descends upon them like fire. They proclaim their message to about as diverse a grouping of people that you can get. They don’t say “this is our truth that we have discerned.” They say “this is truth. This is the truth that gives life.”

As for me, as I think about engaging a world that is as religiously diverse as it is, I try to remember that the Holy Spirit works in ways that I sometimes can’t imagine. I know Jesus to be the Lord and savior. But, I wonder how else God has reveled himself to all the diverse people he has made, and I hope and trust in the truth Jesus brings to us in our sin, in our confusion, in our hatred, in our sadness, in our death. That is a truth that comes to us and brings us life. I must proclaim that truth. I can only proclaim that truth. I hope that you too can proclaim that truth, even in a world of multiple experience and expressions of faith.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

High School Baccalaureate 20090

Joshua 4


Class of 2009 of the Blair- Taylor school district, now is set before you a threshold upon which you stand that marks the passage from one time in your life to the next time in your life. Upon this threshold, you can look back and see all that has happened in the past, and you can glimpse into what the future may hold for you in your life.

Psychologists call these places liminal places where, even though you have not quite become the women and men you hope to be, you most definitely not the children who you once were. These liminal places in your life can be joyous events where you celebrate with fond memory the people and events of the past, yet they can also be fearful places because questions such as “What are you going to do with your life?” and “Who am I going to spend my life with?” may not be completely answered. To tell you a little secret, that’s okay! You don’t have to have your life completely planned out to hour, minute, and second, because who knows what the future has in store for you? Just know this, you will take with you all the things that you have experienced, all the things you have learned (whether you will realize it or not), and all the people who have made an impression on you in your life.

When I read the scripture passages that you have selected today, I was struck by your decision to include the reading from Joshua. The majority of the book of Joshua is a book of triumph and conquest, often at the expense of other people’s lives, yet the beginning of that book paints a picture of one of those liminal places where God’s people are now finally living and moving into the promise that God gave them when God liberated them from their slavery in Egypt. It has been a long time and a long journey for the Israelite people. For forty years they had wandered in the wilderness living off of the daily bread, water, and meat that God had provided them day after day. Some people had passed away along that journey. Others had been born along the way. But now, they are here at the banks of the Jordan on the cusp of their new life in a new land. This most definitely was a celebratory, yet anxious time for the chosen people of God.

Still, while there is much unknown to the people of Israel, much future yet to be explored, they are given a command to remember. They are given a command to remember all that had happened to them in the past forty years. They are given a command to remember the people who have gone before them. Most importantly, they are given a command to remember what God has done for them. They are told to remember who God is. Who God is is the one who did not abandon them to slavery. Who God is is the one who sustained them day by day. Who God is is the one who brings them to land and time of new hope and dreams.

So as you embark on this new part of your life, cherish the friends you have made over the years, yet learn from the relationships that have broken. Stand firm in the values you have learned from your parents and teachers, yet be open to love and care for people who may not share your same exact values. Lean on the education you have received over the years, yet come to each new learning opportunity in your life with a renewed curiosity that seeks to know more about the world around you. Most importantly, remember what God has done for you in your life, and trust that God will be there with you wherever you might go and whatever you might do. That relationship will always last and will continue on even if you don’t see how it possibly could be so anymore. That is something that you should pay attention to however your life turns out.

Joshua is told by God to pick up the stones that were in the middle of the Jordan as the people of Israel passed through on dry land just as they once had at the Red Sea. Joshua tells the people of Israel to take these stones so that when their children ask them what they are, they can recount story of what God did for them in liberating them from the bonds of slavery. I invite all of our graduates to come forward and take a stone as a token for them to see, feel and remember the life that has shaped them into the future – whatever that future may hold for them.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Unexpected Grace

Acts 10:44-48


Who are the people who we’ve left out? Who are the people that we consider to be too far gone to include into our community? Who are the people that we just think that wouldn’t be interested in being “church people,” because they obviously haven’t made the commitments to be here every Sunday or to help out with all the everyday church stuff that takes such hard and dedicated work from “faithful” people for the church to run as well as it does? We’ve all seen people who we would never think would really part of all this good stuff that goes on in church – people that we’ve counted out because they aren’t around and they’re obviously more interested in other things than having faith in God. Sometimes, it just seems like there are people who it would almost be a waste of time to invite or share the good news with. Sometimes, we just simply count people out.

When I was living out in western Kansas in the small town of La Crosse, KS, my family would get the nightly news that was broadcasted from Wichita, KS. There would be segments of news that dealt with the local area we lived in, but we also would hear reports every night about the goings on in Wichita. Wichita, like any other big city, had its part of town where bad things, shootings, thefts, vandalism, seemed to happen on a regular basis. There was even one particular intersection in Wichita that I remember being in the news on a consistent basis – 21st and Grove. This was one of those proverbial parts of town a person that had concern about safety would want to avoid, just because there was a chance that something could be going down there.

We didn’t go to Wichita often, because it was over three hours away, but we would go to Wichita when my mom would have to go there for board meetings at the Lutheran Social Services office from time to time. This usually happened without any major happenings, and we usually thought of these as small family vacations during the busy church year. However, one time, as we came into town, something did happen – the engine stopped and wouldn’t turn over. Our was dead and wasn’t going to go anywhere by itself anytime soon. The thing was our car decided to break down right at the intersection of 21st and Grove – the very same intersection that we would hear about on the nightly news. We were stranded at the very place where just didn’t want to be when in Wichita.

Obviously, by my presence here right now telling you this story, nothing terrible happened that night. In fact, something absolutely wonderful happened that night when we were stranded in what was supposed to be the “bad” part of town. Within just a couple of minutes of being stranded at that intersection, people came to help us roll our car into a parking lot while others directed traffic so that we might safely get into that parking lot. Right there, in that notorious intersection, God’s love and care was shown to us by people who, by the conventional wisdom of the day, should have otherwise taken advantage of our situation. God’s love and grace came to us unexpectedly in the help of strangers who didn’t know us or what we were in town for.

Peter too was surprised by the unexpected ways that God’s love works in all people. In fact, we hear a story today from the book of Acts that tells of Peter’s complete surprise. Peter is shown that even the idea that someone who he had thought was simply profane and unclean was someone who the Holy Spirit could inspire to the same faith that he himself has. The general idea had been in this very early church, DAYS and weeks early even, that Jesus had come to be the savior for the people of Israel, and only the people of Israel. The Gentiles were people who did not know God and certainly didn’t follow the Law that God had given as a gift to the people of Israel in the wilderness through Moses. They didn’t share the circumcision that was an outward physical sign of being of God’s elect people. They ate things that the Law considered to be profane and unclean. Certainly, the message of the good news of God of Israel sending the Son to save God’s people would not be for Gentiles. Peter didn’t expect them to be able to hear the good news. He counted them out – that is until God showed Peter and the rest of his followers starking differently.

God comes to Peter and tells him in a vision this simple message. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This was something that Peter had to hear THREE TIMES before he truly understood what it meant for him and his ministry. That is simply this: God’s love and redemption is something that is freely given to all creation. God’s chooses what to make clean, and God chooses to make even those things that were considered to be on the outside clean. So, while Peter is speaking to these Gentiles, these people on the outside of Jewish society the Holy Spirit falls upon them and inspires them to faith in who God is and what God has done. God chooses, and God gives, especially to those people who we think are on the outside of the people we would expect to hear and trust in God.

So, I ask you again. Who are the people we expect would never be a part showing God’s grace to the world? Is it the single mother who we think is scamming the government by living off of welfare while we do the hard work that pays for that? Is it the young couple who would rather be up all night on a Saturday drinking and carousing than coming to church on Sunday morning like a good Christian should? Is it the migrant worker or immigrant who has come here to work a job that pays a little money to help support his or her family? Is it the person who has left church because of a conflict that no one really knows what it was all about anymore?

The power of Holy Spirit works in ways and works in people who we might never think the Holy Spirit could bring faith in God’s steadfast love, laying down the life of the Son so that we might live! While this may condemn us in our short sightedness and our propensity to categorize people on the outside, this is grace for us in our lives as well. God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s saving grace knows no bounds, especially the bounds that we construct for ourselves. God breaks through our barriers. God crushes what we expect that we deserve. God comes to us as we are no matter what we are. If God embraces the outsider, then God just as surely embraces us in our own sinful ways as we place our trust in our reasoning, in our constructions, and in our good deeds and not in the God who gives us our life. We are all deserving of God’s grace because we are all in desperate need of God’s grace in our lives. These are the gifts that God has given us, that God has given us freely. No wonder that when Peter saw that these outsiders were extolling God he proclaims that baptism, that entry into the Body of Christ which is the church, is something that cannot be withheld. God’s free gift of grace is exactly what makes baptism and the Lord’s Supper sacraments. They are the places where we see, taste and touch God’s love for us. Come to table! Receive God’s goodness! Receive the forgiveness of your sins! And GO and share that good news even to the people who we may think are outside of God’s grace and forgiveness!

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The wedding of my sister and my new brother...

Col. 3:12-17 & John 15:9-17

Phoebe and Nathan’s Wedding 5/2/09

Here we are. Here it is. My sister is getting married. I remember how Phoebe and Nathan surprised us all on that Christmas morning when mom opened up that last present telling us that you had decided to get married. I remember the tears of joy and congratulatory handshakes that were passed around as you both surprised us with such wonderful news. And now, we’ve come to that day we’ve all been waiting for as you both embark on this new life together making vows that you will love, support, and care for each other as life with all its up and downs comes year after year. I had almost forgotten how long you’ve known each other, but life has gone by almost too quickly. But, as I’ve gotten to know you Nathan over the years, and as I’ve gotten to know my little sister more and more over the years, I love, perhaps more than anything else about your relationship, how you came to love and accept each other as you are and not as you would want one another to be. I appreciate that more than anything else, because it is that which is going to get you through your life together more than anything else as you should keep coming back to that point where you simply recognize that the other is worthy of your love and care.

This also has reflected greatly in your choice of scripture readings for today. First, we hear of Paul telling a fledgling Christian community to bear with one another in love. Then we hear Jesus again telling his disciples to love one another as he has loved them. Now, while both readings speak of the loved shared within a community of people, you don’t love the other person because they say the right things. You don’t love the other person because of the wonderful things that they do. You love the other person simply because they are loved by a God who gives up everything to be with the creation that God has made. The people that Paul is writing to in this letter to the Colossians are just beginning their life together as this new community of Christians. They are struggling with what it is they need to be doing in order to be good followers of Christ. They keep hearing about things that they are not to taste, touch or handle. They keep hearing that there is secret knowledge and teachings that they need to acquire if they are truly going to be able to have a part in God’s salvation for us. In essence, they hear that they need to act right enough, speak right enough, and even eat right enough to be able to be loved by God, as if what Jesus did on the cross was simply not enough.

But, that’s not the love that God shows us when Jesus is nailed to the cross. When we see Jesus, we see the full depths to which God goes for us AS WE ARE and not as God would have us be. God comes to us as sinners, as broken people, as a people in desperate need for compassion, forgiveness, humility, kindness, and in desperate need for something to truly be able to trust with our life and our love. God comes to us, claims us, and loves precisely for who are and not for who we should be. This is the love that Jesus is telling his disciples to have for one another. He’s telling them that this perfect self-giving love is what we should aspire to, because it allows us to see the inherent worth in the other person and not simply the outside and external qualities that we so often can become infatuated with. This is the basis for a community that is finally able to live for others and not only yourself. “No greater lover than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends?” That is truth and a whole life-giving truth! When you see the love the love that God has for another person, when you see CHRIST in that other person, you are finally able to forget yourself and live fully and freely for the other person.

Nathan and Phoebe, this is something that I already see in both of you as you have come to dedicate your lives to each other is this day. In your love for one another, I see an acceptance and respect for who the other person inherently is. There may be things that you might change if you had the power, but I’m not sure you would both really want to do that because you both love each other as you are.

This doesn’t mean it is always going to be easy. This doesn’t mean that you’ll never wish one or the other would change. There will be fights. There will be disagreements. But it does mean that, as long as you keep in mind the love that God has shown for both of you and everyone else here in and even outside the church, you will be able to come back to love that is freely won and given to us by Jesus – our friend who has given up his life for us. Keep that in mind and you will be able to bear with each other in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, and love.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Not Another Ghost Story

Luke 24:36-48


About a week ago, I decided to stop in at Trempealeau Valley Lutheran Church when I had a little time on my hands just to take a look around and spend a little time quietly meditating in this beautiful country church. As I was about to head downstairs, I thought I heard someone moving around down there. This was odd, because as I pulled into the parking lot of church I noticed that there weren’t any other cars there. Wondering who it could be, I went downstairs to check and see who it could be. I didn’t see anybody down there, but I heard a sound again, this time coming from the furnace room. As it turns out, there seemed to be some kind of animal crawling around the duct work who I disturbed upon my entry. At least that’s the conclusion I came to when I heard more clearly the sounds of scurrying coming from the ducts in the furnace room. I have to admit, though, I let my mind wander into the more imaginative parts of my thinking.

You see, my imagination tends to run wild in those situations, coming up with any number of possibilities not least of which can be “supernatural” in my thoughts. When I was a child, I routinely let myself get caught up in ghost stories that I either heard on television or heard from my friends. They warn of self-disclosure in one’s sermons in seminary, but to tell a little secret, there was a time when my imagination ran so wild that I actually slept with a night light, much to the dismay of my older brother who shared a room with me for many years and liked sleeping in the dark. There was something about those stories that really just captured my imagination where I could turn any number of odd sounds or odd lights into any number of ghosts benevolent or otherwise. I don’t think that I’m alone in this either. We seem to have the ability to forge the odd into the supernatural. I think that most of us have a story like this, but I don’t think they are simply the products of us being gullible (although, gullibility, the ability to be taken in, may play a part in our susceptibility to ghost stories). I think that it really is more of a product of our mind trying to make sense of a situation that doesn’t logically add up. Yet, that even fails as I know of quite a few people who have had very real experiences, especially when it comes to loved ones who have passed away.

As it turns out, the disciples are no different. They too are confronted with a situation that just seems too odd to be natural. They too are trying to make sense of what’s been going on around them. So, when they see Jesus the man, friend and teacher that died standing before them, they immediately start thinking of the supernatural. As the Gospel of Luke says, “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” Nothing seems to be making sense to them. First, he died. He was supposed to be the Messiah! He was supposed to be the one who would lead them into a new age. He was the one who had done such amazing things right be fore their eyes, yet he died. To make matters worse, all in the same day, some of the disciples who were women told them that Jesus had risen – story that just seemed to be “an idle tale.” Peter, though, ran to the tomb only to find it empty, was simply “amazed.” Now, they hear this other story from two other disciples who walked with Jesus but didn’t know until they broke bread with him in the town of Emmaus. All of this seems too odd. All of this seems too strange. All of this doesn’t add up in their minds.

No wonder they thought that they were seeing a ghost. What other explanation could there be? People don’t rise from the dead. Usually when someone dies, they stay dead. But the Greeks, they talk of spirits and ghosts of people. Maybe, just maybe that is what they are experiencing. But, even that doesn’t make any sense to them, considering all the tales they’ve been hearing all day long. An empty tomb? The Greek idea of ghost was that it was a manifestation of the soul that separated from the body. Why would a ghost need the tomb opened? And, why is there no longer a body within the tomb? All of this doesn’t add up. Still the best guess that they can come up with is that Jesus standing here before them must be a ghost.

Thanks be to God that Jesus doesn’t leave the disciples in that place, nor does God leave us in that place to fumble around with that very same conclusion. Jesus sees their confusion right away and sees the doubts that are creeping into their minds even as he tells them, “Peace be with you.” They are to look at his hands and his feet and touch him to see that it really is him. Here he is! Not an ethereal ghost but a man of flesh and bone! You see, Jesus, the risen Christ is really risen! This is not simply a spiritual rising. This is not simply a ghost who has come back either to haunt them or even give them just one last piece of advice. This means everything to the disciples, with the help of Jesus opening up the scriptures, because they are finally able to understand, know, and trust who Jesus is. They now are able to understand that Jesus truly is the Messiah, even if he’s not the Messiah they were expecting. They now are able to know who Jesus is, because they finally see what God has come on earth to do. They see that God has come to die for us and our sins so that we may be united with him in a death like his and raised to new life in a resurrection like his. And, they are finally able to trust in God, because they see the depths to which God will go for us. “Everything written about Jesus in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” And, it is only by the power God opening these scriptures that they are able to know what this means for them – God’s abundant love, care, and redemption for all of creation.

Even though we know this to be true, and we hear about it time and time again, I believe that we find ourselves living much like the disciples in those few days of confusion following Jesus’ crucifixion. Confusion, doubt, and uncertainty assail us from all angles of our life. Sin and evil are still present in the world. Atrocities are still being carried out for one reason or another, though it too often seems like there’s no reason at all behind it. Our loved ones still die no matter how much we try to keep them alive. Greed grips our society as the actions of few people affect the lives of so many people who depend on steady work and income. By all our reasoning, it seems as if nothing has changed and the world makes perhaps even less sense than it did even 50 years ago. But this is why it is all the more important that this story of Jesus appearing to the disciples is not just another ghost story. Jesus is not just kind of risen. Jesus is not just part way come back from the dead. Jesus, this person who is fully human and fully God has been fully raised into new life and brings us the hope of our own resurrection. This isn’t something that we know by the power of our own reasoning or the power of our own will. We know this to be true only by the Holy Spirit who shows us the truth, the way, and the life. That is why we come back to this story year after year. That is why we come back to the table that our Lord set for us. This is why we should constantly remind ourselves what God has done for us in the waters of baptism. This is why we come together as a community so that we can see, feel, smell, and hear the love of Christ in the people that we meet – especially the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the oppressed. We do it so we can receive yet again that promise of grace and love that is the presence of Christ in our lives. As much as it is wonderful to live yet again in this Easter time, it can be very hard to live in a world that still has pain. But again, Thanks be to God for not leaving us in that pain and sorrow!