Saturday, December 03, 2011

A Beginning WITHOUT and Ending

(Many thanks to Dr. David Lose of Luther Seminary, who was a germination point for this sermon.)

Mark 1.1-8


How many of you sitting out there today knew that the new year has already begun? Well, okay, maybe not the new calendar year, because I'm guessing that many of us are putting "2011" as a date on our checks. However, the church year always begins anew with the first Sunday in Advent. I'm not too surprised if you didn't notice. There's not much that marks the beginning of the new church year. Really the only thing that is much different from this beginning of the new year from the previous church year is that, starting last week and running throughout the coming church year, we will be hearing the vast majority of our gospel readings from the Gospel according to Mark. Not much is different, but there is something nice how the church marks each new year with the beginning prologue to the Gospel story that has brought us and our ancestors together in faith throughout the centuries.

Beginnings are terribly important to us in our lives, are they not? How much time and energy do we put into the start of something new? One of our favorite and biggest holidays of the year is New Year's Eve, as many people gather together to ring in the New Year as the clock strikes midnight on January 1st. We mark the passage of time by celebrating the anniversaries of the beginnings of things. We measure the years of our life by celebrating the day we were born and our journey on earth began. Our marriages are marked by celebrating the day two people are united in the bonds of matrimony. And if you happen to be a Vikings fan, there's always the start of the new season, right? I believe that new beginnings are important to us because it shows us that life is not over. It shows that there is still something for us to live for. It shows us that there are new adventures for us to undertake – new stories to hear, new places that our friendships and relationships might go we live and grow together. Marking the beginning helps us to prepare for what just might be coming.

And really, this is where we find ourselves as we encounter these words from the Gospel of Mark on this day: We find ourselves at "the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Yet, even with all this talk of how things are beginning, we all know too well that so many things that everything that has a beginning also will have an ending. Sometimes that ending is tragic. Sometimes we just may feel that the ending has come all too soon. Sometimes the ending comes only a long journey filled with the ups and downs of life. That's one of the things we get to know to the core of beings, is it not? Friendships don't last. Whether through distance, disagreement, or death, all of our friendships come to an end sooner or later. The same goes with our work, our careers, and even the loving committed relationship we have with that special other person in our lives. This is all something we get glimpses of when we are young children, but become well-acquainted with as we get older.

Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Everything. Except that is for one thing: When we are baptized, we are baptized into something eternal, everlasting. We are baptized into the life love and Body of Christ that not even death and the grave can bring a ending to. This beginning is also a beginning steeped in the rich history of the past. John the baptizer is himself the very representation of the rich prophetic tradition of the Israelite people. He, very much like the prophets Jeremiah or Isaiah or Amos or Micah, calls the people back into the way of Lord away from the trappings of everyday life. Yet, comes bearing something new to the people who come to him to be baptized by him. He brings news. He brings Good News. He brings the news of the one who is coming after him who not even this pious man of God would be worthy enough to be a mere servant of. He brings news of the one who is coming after him who bears a gift to be given to the people: A new baptism that is itself the gift of God's Holy Spirit given to each so that he or she may be brought into A NEW BEGINNING WITHOUT AN ENDING.

That is really what all of our baptisms mean for each of us. Our baptism in an entering into a new life where no longer do we have to worry about what the ending is going to be. Instead we are given new life, right here and right now this day. It is simply a mistake to think that our baptisms only have to do with what happens to us when we die. No, on the whole they have a much greater importance the life we are able to live right here in this present moment. Each day we live out a response to the tremendous gift that is given to us as we receive the Holy Spirit on the day of our baptisms. We don't have to worry about the ending, so we can live everyday reveling in promise of that new beginning. We can live everyday still deeply amidst "the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" like it is a story that is still being played even 2000 years after it all began. We are not to give up on the life that we have right now. We are to live this day actively learning about what it means to be a people of The Good News. There is always something to learn or to discover or to engage in. What new thing would you like to learn anew this new year?

Friday, November 11, 2011

The intention of God's gifts

Matthew 25:14-30


The Gospel according to Matthew is replete with parable after parable after parable that Jesus often sets up in this way: "The Kingdom of Heaven will be like..." this or that or another thing. In earlier parts of the gospel, Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like the little bit of yeast that is put into flour to make bread. In another place, he says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a king putting on a wedding banquet for his son. Yet in another place, Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a mustard seed growing from something very small to a large bush or like a tree. So if Jesus keeps on using parables to tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like, what is he trying to tell us?

Is the purpose of the parables to simply give one to one analogies of the specific ways that God acts? Is God a landowner who throws slaves out into then outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth all because the slave didn't invest the money that God gave him? Is the lesson to be learned that God wants us to invest with banks in our lives? No, I think that the parables seek to do one thing and one thing only: they seek to tell us a truth about the world, about us, and about what having a relationship with God is all about.

In other words, when Jesus begins the parables, he just might be saying that The kingdom of heaven will be like this....a place where truth is revealed.

The parables, and especially the parable Jesus tells us this week have to do more than give us a simple moralistic lesson like one of Aesop's Fables. They have to, because if they don't then why are we wasting our time gathering around the Word of God that really only works as an advice column rather than words of hope and life that are able to lift us up in our lives wherever we just might find ourselves and be words of love and of forgiveness and of redemption that call us into a new way of life where we seek to share all of that TRUTH with the rest of the world in our words and actions.

The Bible is not a place where you can get advice on single, separate issues like some kind of ancient "Dear Abbey" letter next to the comics of Garfield and Peanuts you would find in a newspaper. Can you even imagine what THAT would be like?

Dear Bible,

I'm a 29 year old man who has fallen in love with a gorgeous, intelligent woman, but there is a problem. She wants the financial luxury that a wealthy investment banker can give her, yet I'm only a teacher who makes $40k a year and I have student loan debt. What can I do to attract her?


Not enough money for love

Of course the Bible doesn't work that way! Of course Jesus isn't some advice columnist who only seeks give a few words of wisdom about our minor, every day problems in life. Yes the Bible gives words of Wisdom, but words of Wisdom must eventually speak to the core of our being if they truly are going to be words that change and deeply affect our lives each and every single new day. They must speak to the truth about our lives. They must speak to the truth about who God is. They must speak to the truth about who we are in relationship with God. For if these words that gather us together as God's do not do that then, again, we are wasting our time here.

So what then is the truth in our parable for today? It is simply this (and this insight comes from Bishop Jim Arends of the La Crosse area synod): if we are indeed God's people, then we must let the gifts that God gives us be the gifts that God intends them to be. And God certainly does shower us with many gifts throughout the days of our lives. We owe our very life to God. There is no other place from whence it would be able to spring forth. We owe the people we call family and friends, those people love and support us in our lives, to God. For without God, we would not have them in our lives. We owe livelyhood that our skills and abilities earn for us to God. As many of us know, as much as we hard to develop the skills and education that lead to our vocations, our education whether in school or on the job refine the things we already have a raw innate ability to do. God is the source of these things, and that is where real stewardship begins, with the knowledge that all he have comes from God.

We are given those gifts not so that we can know that we ARE truly blessed by God. We are given those gifts so that we just might be able to share our gifts with in a loving community that seeks the welfare of others and not only ourselves. In some ways, God also gives us the gift of community through the ways we care for and share the gifts that we have been given.

And ultimately there is one precious gift that is given to us by God. We owe our forgiveness, our redemption, our new life in Christ to the God who comes to us in our lives where we are, where we have fallen short of the glory of God, where we should see that there has been no time and no place where we have earned the love and forgiveness of Lord for ourselves. This is a gift that is manifested in our lives as we are joined with Christ in our baptism. This is a gift that is manifested in our lives as we come to the Lord's supper as sinners indeed not worthy of the gift of Jesus' body and blood, yet still given FOR US. But here's the sticking point: we are not given these gifts so that we can isolate ourselves from the world in some kind of a mystical blanket that allows us to not have to worry about others in our lives. These gifts of our faith are indeed meant to bring us out into the world to engage our neighbor, to bring forth the love in Christ Jesus that we ourselves have already received. So in the end, the Kingdom of Heaven is truly the place where God gives us great gifts, gifts that are meant to burst forth and not be buried in a field because of some fear.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

God or Taxes?

Matthew 22.15-22


So now here we’ve come – right to the intersection where politics and religion meet. And again, what are the two things you are not supposed to talk about in polite company? Politics and religion. Yet today the very center of our faith, the basis of our whole religion is encountered with a highly charged political question when Jesus is asked: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Well, this certainly is not just any political question, but a question about something that colored the political discourse of our country for years now. It is a question about taxes. Taxes seem to be the one political issue that causes some of the most heated political debate to occur as we have a shared national history that literally began over a question of taxation.

And it continues to this day. One of the things I’ve seen that drives our public policy the most at the moment is the simple question: Will you raise taxes? Much of what drives our lawmakers this day is the pledge “I will not raise taxes.” A pledge that many of our lawmakers have taken in recent years. And what’s funny is that that pledge is a like a sword hanging by a small string over their heads ready to snap and slay anyone who would ever dare to consider raising taxes. The Pharisees and the Herodians in our reading for today are themselves seeking to place a sword on a string above Jesus’ head ready to snap at a moments notice if Jesus says “YES” or “NO.” But a funny thing happens as these people try to embroil Jesus into a debate over political ideals – He decides not to play their little game.

You see, what’s at the heart of much political debate is a process in which people are thrown into a discussion where ideas and the defense of those ideas is paramount to anything else in the discussion. So, rather than have a conversation about how to engage an issue in government and how to come up with a solution; politicians, the media, and protesters engage in fierce defense as to how their ideas are right and other’s ideas are wrong. So in the end, the ideas become what is important and not the problem or the issue which needs to be solved. And is that not where we err the most often in our life? Is that not our biggest sin? Do we not hold to our ideas above everything else to the point where those ideas and our pursuit of those ideas becomes the God we seek and defend through our actions?

That’s why Jesus really doesn’t concern himself with getting enmeshed into the sticky political debate. That’s why isn’t concerned with the question the Pharisees and the Herodians want him to get entangled in. Because, the question that Jesus is concerned with is the question: how are we going to relate to God; and, through that, how are we going to relate to one another? This question goes beyond and breaks us out of our self-absorption and reorients us upon God. For Jesus is not so much concerned with what people give to the Emperor. He is greatly concerned, however, with how people relate to God, because that relationship, and only that relationship has the ability to give us life and show us exactly where our life, everything we have, and our hope comes from. Only God, and not our own powers or own ideas, only God has the power to give us life. And here’s the thing! God gives it to us abundantly!

Moreover, God gives this gift of life to everyone else around us as we are all created in the image of God and given the command to care for all of creation and the things that live upon it as well. You see, our political convictions never abdicate us from the reality that we are all God’s good creation and that we are all given grace upon grace to live and share the love of God with those who are around us. Jesus doesn’t get enmeshed in the political debate, because he points us towards that which we should truly care about in our lives.

You see it is very simple. Our love for God is shown in our love for our neighbor. That is made very clear when Jesus gathers the disciples for that last supper together and tells them “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) These are the things with which we are to consider if we are truly to live out our identity as followers of Christ. Being a follower of Christ does not mean forcing your ideas upon others in society, rather it means having what we say and do come forth from the setting of our eyes upon the Lord who truly does have the power to give us life.

It is very simple, yet as we know, it can be very hard for us because we are not always able to discern what is our own ambition and what has sprung forth from setting our hearts and minds upon the God who alone gives us life. But that is why grace abounds. That is why we are promised the Holy Spirit in our lives to inspire us to faith in the one God who gives us life. My prayer is always that the Holy Spirit may guide us from ourselves and to God and those around us.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Praise to you, O Christ? --> Praise to you, O Christ!

Matthew 21:33-46


There are certainly times throughout the church year where we’ll get done reading the Gospel lesson for the day and it just feels weird to say the words “Praise to you, O Christ” in response. The thing is, those are usually the times when we’ve heard a reading from the gospel that is filled with condemnation against God’s people or a group of God’s people. It feels disjointed to proclaim thanks and praise to God when we hear words like, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” Somehow those words don’t make me feel terribly safe, don’t make me feel terribly forgiven, don’t make me feel terribly loved.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it gain: I have never stood here in this pulpit and lied to you all. So when I say that God loves us and embraces us each all, I believe that message to my absolute core with every fibre of my being. So what then are we to do with this odd feeling we get when we say “Praise to you, O Christ” in response to a text that could make us feel like we have been raked over the coals? Well, for one thing, maybe we simply don’t feel like the message proclaimed by Christ is a message for us, because, surely God would not speak like that to a people as righteous as we are, right!? Yet even as I say those words, how can I not remember that Jesus is speaking to the righteous and Godly people of his day? This parable is a parable told specifically to the priests and elders, the leaders of the Jewish society! So to think that our righteousness and godliness saves us from these words being directed as us is folly. Moreover, as we take a closer look at this parable Jesus tells this day, can we not begin ourselves to identify with these wicked tenants?

It may not happen all the time in our life, and it may not be the way we generally view the world; but I wonder if there has been any time in your life where you could have possibly said to yourself, “I worked so hard to get to the place where I am at this day. I’ve put in long hours of study. I’ve been dutiful and conscientious with my time and money and not been frivolous. This life that I have now is mine, and I’ll not let anyone take it from me!” That very well may be true, but it does lose sight of some other truths along the way. No one has gotten where he or she is today all on your own. Family, friends, teachers, mentors have all helped us along the way, and if you are a Christian who believes that God the Father is indeed the creator of heaven and earth, the maker of that is, seen and unseen then you at the very least owe some kind of debt or gratitude to the one who has given you your very life!

And this is exactly what we see going on in this parable today. This landowner is the one who planted the vineyard and did everything necessary for it to produce fruit. Yet the tenants want to claim all of the fruit as their own. So the great sin committed in this parable is not so much that these tenants have beaten and killed everyone whom the landowner has sent to collect the harvest, as it is the profound foolishness that they thought that they could keep the whole harvest and then the inheritance for themselves. And in seeing that, the elders and the priests proclaim themselves a harsh judgment upon those wicked tenants.

So if we are like the elders, the chief priests, and these wicked tenants from the tale, what is the hope for us especially after this Word have fallen on us and crushed us? The hope lies not in what we can do to change God’s mind about this judgment. It lies in how God comes to the earth and acts. Again, look at the parable. When the landowner first heard word that his servants were beaten, stoned and killed, how does he respond? He sends more servants! And when that doesn’t work, he sends his very own son alone. If this landowner is indeed a representation of how God acts within the world, then I think we can see clearly that God acts, not in a way that brings destruction against these wicked tenants, but in a way where God continually seeks us out and seeks to bring us back into community!

Furthermore, let’s not forget where in the Gospel of Matthew this parable comes. This comes near the end of the Gospel, as Jesus has begun teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, before he is betrayed, tried and executed at the hands of Pontius Pilate. This parable comes to us as Jesus is in the very midst of going to the cross for our sins to reveal to us that our God is a God who gives up everything so that we may indeed see that we are forgiven and freed from our sins and death. This parable comes in the midst of the very thing that makes all of what we proclaim here to be GOOD NEWS!! And that is where our hope lies: In Jesus Christ our Lord.

There’s a song you may or may not know very well, but it is a song that I have gotten to know well over the years. Its lyrics come from a very early document that strove to teach the earliest Christians the Christian life. “As the grains of wheat, once scattered on the hill, are gathered into one to become our bread. So may all your people, from all the ends of earth, be gathered into one in you.” There are definitely times when it just may feel like we have been dashed, broken and scattered upon God’s judgment, but God does not leave us there. God seeks to gather us up, to gather us in, so that we indeed can brought into that warm embrace which holds us all even as we are sinners deserving death. And that why in the end, as much as this gospel reading crushes me this day, I can boldly say, “Praise to you, O Christ.”

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The church, definitely a motley crue

Matthew 16.13-20


A cheater, a hot-head, an adulterer, a drunk, a deserter, a murderer, a nervous wreck, a gossiper, a harlot, a worrier, a doubter, the impatient, a moody person, a stutterer, the old, and even the dead. That is quite the collection of people, don’t you think? Let’s say you were given a project to get done. The only stipulation is that you have to get this project done with this motley group of people. And this isn’t like Burger King – You can’t get it your way. These are your people, and you either work with them or you don’t get the project done at all. By a showing of hands, how many of you here today would be excited to enter into this kind of a project? How many of you would even attempt to do something important if these were the people you had to work with? How many of you would rather have a good group of Norwegians or Germans from the old days instead?

Believe it or not, the church we gather in this day is standing here because of the lives of that group of people. That group of people that includes people who have done terrible things in their lives. Don’t believe me? Every single person from that group I just mentioned is a major character in the Bible. Jacob was a cheater, Peter had a temper, David had an affair, Noah got drunk, Jonah ran from God, Paul was a murderer, Gideon was insecure, Miriam was a gossiper, Rahab was a harlot, Martha was a worrier, Thomas was a doubter, Sarah was impatient, Elijah was moody, Moses stuttered, Zaccheus was short, Abraham was old, and Lazarus was dead. From that group of people, you can tell the story of just about every major event beginning with Genesis and ending with Revelation.

When I think about the history of God’s people, a history that we are grafted into in our baptism, a part of me is strengthened and assured that God works within the world even amongst all of our failings. In knowing this, I gain a comfort that God’s will within the world has not been and will not be thwarted by the ways we separate ourselves from each other and from God. But even more than that, I know that no matter what happens to us here in this day, in this congregation, God will still be our God and we will still be God’s people. In fact, that’s really what the word “church” means: a people who are “of the Lord.” So, even if lightning strikes our steeple, we will be a people of the Lord. Even if a great flood washes our building off of its foundation, we will be a people of the Lord. Even if finances dictate that we do things in a different way from the ways we have done them in the past, we will be a people of the Lord. That will not change because it cannot change. No earthly force can ever remove us from the claim that God has placed upon each and every one of us – nothing!

But also, in reading our Gospel for this day, I also see that this history and this heritage that we have inherited from that motley bunch of people is something that we have confidence in, not because we are smart enough to walk through these doors on the weekend, but because God works this miracle of faith in us each and every day. What is it that Jesus says to Peter after Peter makes that bold proclamation that Jesus is, “the Messiah, the Son of the living God?” Jesus tells him, “Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my father in heaven.” Peter’s very own confession of who Jesus is comes not from within himself, but by the power of the Holy Spirit working in him, giving him the confidence, the trust to declare out loud who Jesus is. Now, Peter doesn’t exactly understand what all that means. In fact, he goes on from that place continuing to stick his foot in his mouth, denying that he even knows who this Christ is, and then arguing with Paul (the murderer remember?) about what it means to be a Christian.

And this is grace, because if it is left up to us, we will surely never become anything more than the things the mar others, ourselves, and our lives. We would never be any more than Murderers, adulterers, cheaters, deny-ers, doubters, and even the dead. For our trust lies within the one who is able to even pick us up out of our graves and gather us up into new life. We are God’s people, and God will never turn his back on us. Yet, God also continually calls us into a new way of life, a way of life defined not by the things we have done or not have done, but by what this Messiah, this Son of the living God has done for us. With that, this church has a foundation that cannot crumble no matter what the world may throw at us.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Matthew 10:40-42


Here’s a question for you: Are we a welcoming church? Are we place where people come and are received warmly? What is it like to become a part of this community? Well, for one thing, there times when someone asks you a question that you must seek first to define the terms that are used in the question. What do I mean by saying “welcoming?” What do I mean by saying “church?” What do I mean when I use the term “community?” It’s important to define these terms because that will help us to really explore these questions with depth and honesty. First off, we must always knows in our minds and in our hearts that church always and forever means the Body of Christ that has died with him to sin and been raised to a new life faith with all the saints throughout the centuries that have gone by. Secondly, “community” always has a ever growing outward definition like the rings of a tree that start small but always increase in ever widening circles. We are individually a person who lives in the community of our family that then includes our friends that then includes our neighbors that then includes villages, then townships, then counties, then states, then nations, then the world, then the whole universe, but most importantly, even then those that we hate. And we all have an effect on those outer rings even if that effect gets infinitely smaller and smaller. But what about that term “welcoming?”

I think a simple definition that could suffice is that welcoming is the ways in which we react to a new person or situation. We can either choose to be gatekeepers making sure that the person coming to the door is acceptable, or we can be people that respond to those who come through the gate knowing that we ourselves are people who have come through that gate ourselves as strangers whether it was when we were little infants or as we have grown through the years. How we welcome others says a lot of things about who we are individually and collectively, about what truly is near and dear to our hearts. If we welcome only those who are near and dear to our hearts, then maybe that should show us that what is near and dear to our hearts is ourselves. And that is simply a vanity, self-love, and self-absorption. I don’t preach these words this day as words of accusation meant to expose something that should be changed. I preach these words this day as words of warning that we should indeed guard against that form of self love so that ourselves doesn’t become the most important thing in our lives and that we always seek to reorient our lives and our love on the one who loves us and gives us life each and every day.

In our baptisms we are welcomed into the church, the body as newly adopted beloved children of God. We receive a new identity where the question “Who are you?” is sometimes better asked, “Whose are you?” We belong to God and nothing can change that, but that reality also carries with it a responsibility that sometimes becomes easy to shirk. And really that’s what this teaching from Jesus is all about this day. It’s not so much a teaching about who and why we should welcome others. It’s a teaching about how we, the ones who have already been welcomed into Christ in baptism are to go out into the world and be a part of God’s mission to go out into the world to seek out the lost, the hurt, the reviled, the person who is on the outside, even if he or she lives within our local community.

We are called to do this, because we are called to be a people of God within the world, called to be followers of Christ in where he goes and what he does. Just two verses before our reading for today Jesus says plainly, “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” So the thing that should really make us uncomfortable about our reading for today is that it calls us and shakes us out of our ever present lives to go out into the world to engage the world with words and deeds of love and peace. We do this not so that we can receive fame, fortune or assuredness of our place in heaven, but because we have already been given the beauty of God’s unending grace.

What we bring out into the world is not something our own, a creation that we have come up with. We go out into the world bearing Christ and what he has. This means that bearing Christ to the world does not take special schooling. It does not take special talents. It does not take perfectly crafted and beautiful words. Because we simply bring the Word in all of its uncreated glory. For, whoever welcomes us, welcomes Christ, and whoever welcomes Christ welcomes the one who sent Christ. So in the end, we welcome the one who has already welcomed us with open arms that continually seek out the other with love, forgiveness and grace.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

My synod asked me to share my story at Synod Assembly this year...

Last October 10th, I prayed this prayer of the day with my parish as many of you did on that Sunday:

Almighty and merciful God, your bountiful goodness fills all creation. Keep us safe from all that may hurt us, that, whole and well in body and spirit, we may with grateful hearts accomplish all that you would have us do, through Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord. Amen

That prayer is lifted up in response to the readings we had for that day about Naaman being healed of his leprosy and Jesus having compassion for ten men who suffered from that same disease that openly ravaged the body for all to see. Now the part that has spoken to me the most as I’ve contemplated that prayer has been the phrase “that, whole and well in body and spirit, we may with grateful hearts accomplish all that you do.”

For those who know me, I have been struggling with my weight and the affect it has on my health and well-being for most of my whole life. Just two days after I led that prayer, a friend and colleague of mine asked if I would come and take a look at a program that he had been involved with, because he cared about me and was concerned with where I was and where I was heading in body and spirit.

That week beginning with worship on that Sunday and continuing with a friend asking and caring about me became a place where Christ met me at a crossroad in my life and spoke a word full of grace and healing that has sent me on a journey where, like the ten lepers in that gospel story from Luke, I am finding that I am being made well.

Since that week in October, I have lost a total of 164lbs. My blood pressure is down at least 20 points, and now I walk for at least 30 minutes everyday. But this is not something that I could have done alone. Without the care and support of my colleagues, without the care and support of all my family and friends, and most especially, without the care and support of the people of my parish, I would not have gotten to the point that I have gotten to this day. In whatever mission endeavor we undertake, that will always hold true. The call to serve God will always be a call that followed within a community that seeks to share the love that our Lord has shown to us on the cross – that ground, that intersection from which we are sent out into the world.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Causality That Indicates the Reality

John 14.15-21


“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

How do you hear these words this day? What does it mean to you to hear “If…then you will?” There are a couple different ways we take these words from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, these words spoken to his disciples on that last night when Jesus was betrayed, handed over to those who sought to control and kill him. You could first hear these words as a conditional statement that probably sound a little more like “If you really do love me, then you will do what I ask of you.” There’s nothing wrong with complying with the command and request of our Lord, Savior, and Friend, yet it can come across as something akin to what a parent would say to a child who has a pile of broccoli sitting on his or her plate: “If you want dessert, then you have to eat your vegetables.” I think we can start to see why this would be problematic. Taken as a conditional statement, it turns loving Jesus into a chore that must be completed or, like that child who is sitting at that dinner table 20 minutes after everyone else has left, keeping his commandments can become something like closing your eyes tightly and holding your nose as you are forced to do something that you really would rather not do. And is that how we are supposed to approach Jesus’ command “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another?”

In case you don’t know the full context in which our reading from the Gospel according to John comes, “…love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love another.” has just been spoken mere minutes before we begin our reading for today. So is our love for another really to be something like eating our vegetables, where we see other people in our lives and begrudgingly hold our nose, close our eyes tightly and do just enough so that we can receive the reward of our dessert? Certainly not! So there must be another way to hear these words that come from our redeemer on this day.

Maybe we can possibly hear “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” as simply a statement of causality, where our love for Christ necessarily causes us to keep his commandments, where keeping his commandments is necessarily is an affect of our love for him. And this reading of our gospel for today simply states the reality that if we truly do put our faith in Christ, if we center our lives upon the love that he has for us, we can almost do nothing other than love all those who abide with us on this planet we have called Earth. When it does get difficult for us to truly and deeply trust who this Jesus is, we also see that we will never be left alone and abandoned to try and do this all on our own. In fact, we will fail on our own without the help of that Advocate, that Spirit of truth guiding us to know, love and trust the Son of the Father who was sent into the world not to condemn the world, but “in order that the world might be saved through him.” No, in fact this statement is a statement of causality that brings to light the reality of who we are in Christ Jesus our Lord, that who we are is simply a people who gather around the cross that saves us all from sin and death, not to only die, but to be raised up into eternal life with Christ in the resurrection.

No, our Lord will not leave us orphaned, abandoned to our own inability to fulfill the requirements of the law. Jesus knows that we will fail, just much as he knew that even his most steadfast disciple, that rock on which the church shall stand, Peter, will deny that he knows this man who he has called teacher, and who the teacher now calls him his friend. Every day of our lives we need the support and care of the Holy Spirit inspiring us to know and love God, so that we may see just how much God loves us this day and every day from here on out. This Spirit shapes us into being what God has created us to be – a good creation that God is pleased to invite into the life and love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This Spirit sets our eyes toward that hill where we see exactly what God has given up and done for us in our lives, right here, right now!

So if this is who we truly are, then let us truly be the people of God in the world for everybody to see, where they will know that we are Christians not because of how correct our doctrine is, not because of how morally righteous we are, but because we simply show the love Christ has for us by the love we have for all of those around us. This is not a chore to be completed to get to the really good stuff, the dessert, the paradise of heaven. This is something that, when our eyes are firmly affixed on the cross, we rejoice in the freedom that has been given to us to finally love and serve our neighbor, not because we have to, but because we simply do! This promise of the Holy Spirit for our lives is for today and everyday. This is the promise which gives us life, love, and direction.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Jesus meets us on the road, reveals himself in the meal

Luke 24.13-35


Imagine, if you will, a walk – a beautiful walk on the first day that feels like spring. You pass by trees which are just beginning to bud and flower. You pass by lawns that are lush with soft, cool, green grass. There is a slight breeze in the air which gently blows the fragrance of new flowers upon the air. It is a beautiful day, and it seems as if the sun itself is declaring this to be a beautiful day. After the long, cold, and wet winter that we’ve had, it may just perhaps be hard to imagine a day, a walk such as this. But, I’m told that they do exist. Those are the kinds of days that seem to gently, yet persistently whispering that life is good, that life is beautiful, that God has ordained that day to be a day of joy and peace.

Life being likened to a beautiful walk on a sunny Spring day is something that we could probably wish was like all the time. But I think we all know that life is not only a beautiful walk on a beautiful spring day. Rather it is a walk, a journey that we find ourselves in the midst of every single day. It is a walk where we recall what is behind us, perhaps even get glimpses of as we share memories and photos, but nevertheless the walk continues forward. We recall the beautiful times of love and joy, perhaps at the birth of child or at the close of another school year. We recall the cloudy, gray times, perhaps when violence and war have the whole world in its grasp or when we see our brothers and sisters who live on this pale blue dot succumb to the devastating effects of natural disasters that destroy homes and lives.

Yet we carry all those memories and those experiences forward with us, maybe not even realizing the impact that people and events have had us until later. It keeps on moving to a place off in the distance. We can try to imagine what that place will be, where it will be, and what that place will hold for us, but often as we get to that place we find that it is not what we expected and that the road seems to continue going forward. We cannot know what the future has in store for us, and when our journey through life takes to places we didn’t expect we can often feel confused and bewildered by what has just happened.

The disciples find themselves in this place in this journey of life. They thought that they were coming near that destination where their friend and teacher was going to become the fulfillment of all their dreams. They said, “He was going to be the one who would redeem Israel and usher in a new age of peace and prosperity!” Instead, their friend and teacher was handed over and crucified. This was not the destination they though their journey was taking them towards. To make matters even worse, they now begin to see that their journey has not even ended as they hear strange stories from the women of their group about an empty tomb. They find themselves in the midst of a walk, a journey where they don’t quite know what to make of any of these past events, and that is perhaps not too alien a feeling for us even in our present day lives. We too know of confusion we can feel as events swirl around us and cause us to wonder “what is going on!?”

This is where these two disciples find themselves on that day, a day that many of us could or will indentify with in our lives. But they also find themselves being joined by a stranger who unbeknownst to them is the very friend and teacher they mourn over on this walk, on this journey to Emmaus. They are joined by Christ on this journey. They are joined by their friend Jesus on this walk where they are in the midst of their own pain and confusion. That is truly on of the wonderful things about this story we are dwelling in this day – Jesus comes and meets them where they are in the midst of their journey. And then he brings to them the Word – the word that it was necessary for the Messiah to go through that pain and death and rise up to new life. A word that declared by Moses and the prophets that God’s work within the world goes far beyond the uplift of God’s people into a saving embrace for all creation. Where Jesus, this Word made Flesh, gives up everything for the creation that God has made, declaring “I will not let you go!”

At the risk of relating this all to myself, my godson did something just this past week that simply brought joy to my face. Last week, I got to go to chapel with my classmates that I graduated with three years ago. It was wonderful to be in that chapel to be surround by all those familiar faces and voices. When it was time for communion, the presiding minister got and started saying the Eucharistic prayer, giving thanks to God for all that god had done. When the presiding minister got to the words “In the night in which be was betrayed…” my godson turned to his father and said, “I love this part!” And so seeing that journey of these two disciples is not over, we come to the part of the story where I simply have to say, “I love this part!” This part where Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

For this meal that we gather around at least twice a month (and I wish we could do it more!) is a meal where Jesus himself is made known to us in a very real and very physical as we eat of the body that was broken FOR US and drink of the blood that was shed FOR US. You see this sacrament is in itself they very place where we come to meet our Lord in the breaking of the bread. The promise that this bread and this wine really truly is the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ when we hear those words GIVEN FOR YOU and SHED FOR YOU is the place where we can say with all certainty of our faith that the Lord has come to meet us where we are, along the road that we travel this day as well the days past and the days ahead. And I love this part, because this part declares to me that no matter where I am what I may have possibly done, or how lost I feel in my life, Jesus is present with me this day in this bread and wine that becomes the body and blood through the word that God has declared. When you hear that, you hear all that our Lord has done and given up for us so that we might be forgiven, so that we might be raised from death into new life.



Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday 2011

John 18-19

Good Friday 2011

I am stripped bare

there is finally nothing left to hide me.

I’ve fought and fought

trying desperately to cling to what has covered me.

You show me, me

and I cringe at the crusty corners that have cut and scraped.

My deeds, my sin

turning from life, turning toward what eats up my life.

I lash out

striking with the sword, returning to that vicious circle that has spiraled down throughout history.

Though in the End, I’ve forsaken you

running in shame, denying what you have tried so desperately to teach me, denying who I am, denying who you are because fear for my own life has consumed me.

Perhaps one of the hardest parts of this story which gathers us this day is witnessing to the actions and reactions of Peter and the rest of the disciples. Just the night before these are all the very same people that Jesus spent quite a bit of time and care telling these disciples, “No longer do I call you servants, but I have called you friends.” (John 15.15) these men and these women who Jesus has called and gathered around himself are more than just pupils to be taught lessons. These men and women are friends who share in a deep love that cares dearly for each and every one of them. So when disciples run away from the scene of Jesus’ arrest and then when Peter denies fully, whole-heartedly that he does not know this man who has just called him a friend, we begin to see the completeness of the disciples failure to trust and follow in the way of their Lord.

And when I hear about how these people who knew Jesus personally and loved him dearly abandons him to die, I cannot help but begin to see where I’ve failed, where I’ve run away from what I avowed to stay loyal to. Even the best of us fail in our lives to always do what is absolutely right. Even the best of us have our faults that are laid bare from time to time. And that simply is a part of what the cross reveals in stark detail. It reveals the sins we have committed, and it reveals all those times when we very possibly could have done some more. In the end our strength, our reasoning, and our intellect fail us. For sometimes the right thing to do is not clear, and other times it can be as clear as a bell ringing, and yet we fail to act.

But the cross also shows one amazingly foundational truth that undergirds all of creation throughout all time – Jesus dies for us so that we may see the depths to which our God goes for us people who have failed. Jesus does not make a pact before he is handed over to be killed. He does not say, “I will go do this for you if you promise to shower me with love and glory.” He does not say, “I will do this for you if you promise to be perfect from this day on out.” He says, “I do this for you, because I love you and I do not want to let you go.” So the cross finally shows the vastness of God’s love that as the Apostle Paul says in Roman, “nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God that we have in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8.39)


Truth is stripped bare

everything that clouds my vision has vanished.

Light shines and shines

illuminating what is real and what is from everlasting to everlasting.

You show me love

and I smile at something so steadfast and serene.

My hope, my trust

reveling in wonder, reveling in the life you continually give me.

You’ve forgiven

And I am stripped bare

There is finally nothing left to hide me or your love.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Strange, yet Holy Table

Matthew 26.17-30

Maundy Thursday 2011

This is my body given FOR YOU.

This is my blood shed FOR YOU.

These are the words that grace us this night. These are the words that turn simple bread and simple and simple wine into something more and something greater than we could have ever possibly imagined. These are words FOR US, including those who are celebrating their place at the communion table that has always and always will be there for them. These words are the very words that Jesus imparts to his disciples, his friends on an evening where he very much knows that he must do what he must do, that he must be betrayed and abandoned by these very same people that he dearly calls friends. These words gather us all around a table set for a meal where there is a place for all of you.

It is a strange table, is it not? It certainly does not look like a big long table that a family would gather around for Christmas or Easter, and there certainly is not a sumptuous feast of turkey, roast beef, or ham with all the trimmings. We sometimes kneel. We sometimes stand. We even sometimes have it brought to us when cannot make the journey to it ourselves. It is a strange table that people the whole world over share a place at when they hear those words “given and shed FOR YOU.” This meal that we receive at this strange table is a sacrament – a gift given to us by God by God’s command FOR US for the forgiveness of our sins.

It used to be thought for a while that for a person to be able to come to this table that person had to prepare and purify his or herself – that he or she had to take care not to receive it in an unworthy manner. But this line of thinking simply misunderstands what Jesus declares to be true for us all as they gathered for that last meal together. What happens in this holy meal is something that God does and that God does alone. It is God’s word that turns this everyday bread and every day wine into the body and blood of our Lord Jesus. It is God’s word that commands us to this in remembrance of our Lord Jesus. It is God’s word that declares from that night in Jerusalem to this very day in a small country church in Wisconsin that, in Christ’s body and blood, we have the forgiveness of sins. All because it is FOR US.

So when we come to this visually strange, yet wholly wonderful meal, we come as people in need of God’s grace. Jesus knew this that night in which he instituted it. He knows that this night he is to be betrayed. He knows that these people who he has come to call friends are going to abandon them. Christ knows that they are very much a people who need grace and forgiveness even as he speaks those words of institution at that Passover meal and gives to us this daily food that has the power to refresh and strengthen us in our faith.

There are times when doubts and sorrows assail us for all sides. There are times when it seems like the devil “sneaks and skulks about at every turn, trying all kinds of tricks…[wearing] us out so that we either renounce our faith or lose heart and become indifferent or impatient. For times like these, when our heart feels too sorely pressed, this comfort of the Lord’s Supper is given to bring us new strength and refreshment.” (Luther’s Large Catechism, p. 469; Kolb-Wengert ed. of the Book of Concord.)

The power of this meal resides in the one who goes to do what he must do. Today and through the next two days we will see the depths and the heights our God goes to for us. For the next two days, we see that Jesus’ body and blood are broken and shed for us, for all of us, for the forgiveness of the sins we carry with us, even to this strangely shaped, but wholly holy table.