I Am Not 12-14-14

This sermon is based on John 1:6-8, 19-28. This is the account of John the Baptist, and explores his role with the 4th Gospel.

You can listen to the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/i-am-not-12-14-14

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

The idea of greatness is not one that we ever achieve on our own…Never once have I heard a story of any single individual accomplishing something truly great by themselves…it involves a sense of togetherness…even in those times when one individual emerges as the public face…there is typically someone in the background…behind the scenes…

Perhaps you’ve heard that old saying “behind every great man there is a woman.” (pause) While I like the sentiment behind that phrase…it is, admittedly, a little outdated…and so in order to bring things forward into the 21st century, I did a quick google search for some more appropriate versions.

Behind every great kid…is a great parent…who’s pretty sure they’re messing it up. (pause) Behind every great dog…is a cat telling him what to do. (pause) Behind every great student…is an exhausted teacher. (pause) And perhaps the best one I could find…and certainly the case in my house…behind every great man…is a woman rolling her eyes. (pause)

All kidding aside, each of these statements shares a common theme…that the prominent figure or visual or subject…whatever you want to say…is supported by another…they’re bolstered by another…they rely on another. And so perhaps this is fitting here in the season of Advent, as we move quickly towards Christmas…now just 10 days away…when the Savior of the world will take on flesh and dwell among us. (pause)

But before that can happen, we take this time every year to prepare ourselves for the birth of Christ…we prepare our hearts and minds…just as we hope that world itself is getting ready to once again welcome our Lord. And in the midst of this time of preparation…this short season that bolsters us up for the joyful highpoint of Christmas…it seems to serve a little bit like that quiet person standing in the background…out of the spotlight…just offering support.

And in today’s lesson, we hear about an individual that also fit that role…though perhaps this notion will strike some of you as a little odd (pause) If I was to take a pole of the most famous New Testament characters…the most well known…asking you to write down your top 10…I’m guessing that the vast majority of everyone’s lists would include none other than John the Baptist. (pause)

And rightly so…he’s one of the few characters that pops up in all 4 Gospels…his personality is quite distinct…with his long crazy hair and beard…camel skin clothes and his weird diet of locusts and honey…not to mention his famous line “YOU BROOD OF VIPERS!”

And John…well known as he might be to us some 2000 odd years after the fact…was even more prominent back in the day. He came on the scene before Jesus…he was active in and around the Jordan river…preaching and baptizing while Jesus was still hanging around Nazareth building tables with Joseph. We hear that large crowds of people from Jerusalem and all over Judea came out to see him…priests and teachers, soldiers and sinners…he attracted quite a crowd…we even here that he had his own batch of disciples that followed him. (pause)

But interestingly enough…here…in the 4th Gospel…none of that really seems to come up….Here in the 4th gospel…John is pretty toned down. (pause) There was a man…sent from God…He came as a witness to the light…the light which shined in the darkness…the word which became flesh…and moved into the neighborhood…John came as a witness, even before the light came into the world. (pause)

Now I don’t think any of us would argue that John’s purpose…his task…his job was not important…certainly it was…but interestingly enough…he himself downplayed everything…and simply went about…out there in the wilderness…sharing his testimony…sharing what he had seen for himself.

But in the midst of his testimony…in the midst of the ministry that he was performing…preparing the way of the Lord…the big wigs started getting a little uneasy. Here’s John…attracting a crowd…getting a lot of attention…and he’s changing things up from what we’re used to…we better get to the bottom of this…and the religious elite send people out to give him the 9th degree. (pause)

You’re baptizing…tell us honestly…Who are you? Are you the long awaited Messiah? I AM NOT. Well are you Elijah…or the great prophet? I AM NOT. (pause) I AM NOT.

Its interesting…throughout all of this testimony John never does say who he is…other than some off handed comment from Isaiah…John never gives his name or his credentials…the only thing he says…is what he isn’t…I AM NOT. (pause)
Now if you’ve ever heard me talk about the gospel of John, there’s two main themes that I tend to stick to…I’ll admit it, I’m a one trick pony in that regard…but the gospel of John tends to be about the light of God shining in the world…which incidentally we hear about here….or its about pointing out that Jesus…is God…and we hear that throughout the Gospel because Jesus continues to use the phrase. I AM. I AM the way the truth and the life…I AM the vine…I AM.

Ever heard that phrase before? Maybe when a random shepherd was hanging out talking to a burning bush? I AM…the name uttered by God to give to the people…claimed by Jesus repeatedly in this gospel in order to let everyone know just who he really was.

But let’s come back around to John again…Are you the Messiah? I AM NOT. (pause) I think its safe to say that John was pretty self-aware at this point. I’m not God…I’m not the great I AM…but there’s one among you…one that you do not know…and HE IS…and I am not worthy to untie his sandal.

John sets us quite the important example here…recognizing that he is not God…he is not in charge…that he is simply following the direction that the Lord has given him. (pause) Throughout the course of his ministry, John pointed towards another…towards Christ…his whole role was to testify about the light which came into the world…and we are called to do the same thing. To testify about what has been revealed to us…through our own experience.

Now you may be thinking that you lack the ability to do this…but John’s example defies that notion as well. In the beginning…John didn’t know who the Messiah was…all he knew is that eventually he would see the Holy Spirit descend and rest upon the Messiah….and low and behold…one day, it happened…and John realized in that moment that he was in the presence of the light…of the messiah…and with that John shared his testimony…he shared that which he had witnessed…that which he had experienced…in short…he shared his testimony of the relationship that he now had with the living Lord…and this is the very thing that we are called to do…to share that which we have experienced when we live our lives with Christ…and when we recognize that God, has chosen to live his life among us.

Now interestingly enough…this realization of just who the Messiah was happened for John in the context of a baptism…when the Holy Spirit rested upon the newly baptized…and we believe that in our own baptism…that same spirit comes upon us…and we share in the same baptism as our Lord…and in just a moment we’ll all witness this same thing together as Mieren Minshall comes to this font…when she too is washed in the water…and she too is named as a Beloved Child of God. (pause)

If you noticed…John never did give his name when his opponents were grilling him about things…Are you the Messiah? No, I am not. But he was claimed by God and he did have a name…so too does each one of us…Named and claimed by our Lord in the waters of our own baptism, marked with the cross of Christ and sealed in the love of God forever.

And so…if anyone ever happens to ask you if you’re God…you can let them know. I Am not…but I do hang out with him…now let’s talk about that…Amen

Where Do We Go From Here

I haven’t actually sat down and written a blog in a long time…too long. I can’t even tell you the last time that I did any writing that wasn’t a sermon or a board report or a newsletter article.

But life has afforded me a moment to stop and catch my breath in the midst of a lot of craziness. And when I find these moments…which is admittedly often though typically quite fleeting…my mind starts going. Lately there’s been a lot to think about.

This is a crazy time of year. People and activities are buzzing all around us. Christmas shopping, holiday planning, school concerts, seasonal changes…the list goes on and on. Additionally, the wide spread buzz has been…well…buzzing with a lot of controversial things as of late. Arguments have erupted around different issues like gun violence/control, grand jury decisions regarding tragic deaths, racial based tensions, immigration…and the list goes on and on.

Here at home things have been crazy as well. Following a week’s vacation over Thanksgiving, I came into a week that I was expecting to be low key…thanks to the Adult Choir at church performing their Christmas Program this Sunday and letting me off the hook for preaching. But yet in the midst of a casual week, I’ve kept busy. Conversations with other area pastors my first day back filled an afternoon with discussions, sometimes heated, about the difficulties we face within our own small niches. Due to this, my normal monthly visits to members in nursing homes was postponed. A congregational family experienced a death, and in the midst of offering them support my wife’s family experienced their own loss of a beloved aunt.

Its one of those situations that sort of leaves you with your head spinning.

Where do we go with all this stuff…there’s too much. Too much violence…too much hate…too much death…ITS TOO MUCH LORD!!!! WHERE ARE YOU ON THIS STUFF…There’s more darkness in the world than I know how to handle.

And when I get in that mode mentally, my mood goes south in a really big hurry…and I kind of walk around in a bit of a dark funk…every bit as dark as my perception of the world around me. That was my situation as of about 24 hours ago…but I put on my big-boy pants…as well as a brave face…and I went on the nursing home visits that had gotten postponed a couple days earlier.

One of the visits found me sitting at a table with 4 or 5 ladies…a couple of which I knew…and a couple that I was just meeting for the first time.  I can’t quite account for this, but what I perceive to be the combination of extreme hearing loss as well as an “I’m old enough that I’ll say whatever I want to” attitude led one of the new ladies to lean over and “whisper” to her neighbor.

“He’s a pastor? Oh he can’t be a pastor, he’s too good looking.”

And then…

“He look’s like a hunk to me.”

Cue laughter…a lot of laughter from everyone at the table…myself included.

Here in the midst of the dark funk that I’ve been feeling lately…powerless to do anything about it, comes a glimmer of light…a spark of joy.

And in that moment I found myself reminded of the season. We’re in Advent, coming right up on Christmas when we celebrate the birth of Christ in the world…the Incarnation as its known in the church world…and when I realized that, I immediately thought of my favorite Gospel…sorry Matthew, Mark, and Luke…you guys are great but it isn’t you…and I thought of the Incarnation in John’s Gospel. Chapter 1 verse 5…The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Jesus is the light…he is the light of the world…and at Christmas he comes into the world…and in the midst of all that darkness…all this death and tension and fear and anger that so many of us are feeling these days…that darkness doesn’t win. God says so…because the darkness doesn’t get the last word…God does…and while I believe with every atom of my being that God is mourning the current state of our reality, I also believe that God is doing something about it, whether we realize it or not.

And that moment of extreme belly laughter, brought on by one elderly lady building up my ego, reminded me that God’s not hindered by our darkness…he’s not stymied by the difficulties that we face…and God IS…up to something. The darkness cannot and will not win…because the LIGHT has come into the world.

Don’t believe me…think I’m just another religious nut? Think I’m crazy to hold on some fantasy? That’s okay, but I’ll get scientific with you too. Darkness is the absence of light…period…darkness is not even its own thing…it can only be when something else is not…and that is the light…the instant light comes on the scene, darkness retreats. Darkness cannot exist in the presence of light.

So in the midst of a dark time, let’s hold onto the hope that Light is, once again, coming into the world…and the darkness CANNOT over come it.

Where Is The King? 11-23-14

This morning’s sermon for Christ the King Sunday comes from Matthew 25:31-46. In the sermon I explore where we find Christ, and more importantly where he finds us.

You can listen to the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/where-is-the-king-11-23-14

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

If the church year followed the calendar, we’d be in the gap between Christmas and New Year’s…just about to put the finishing touches on another year, and spouting off our resolutions for the new one.

But the church year doesn’t follow the calendar, and because of that, we’re already on the verge of starting over. Next Sunday begins the new church year, and with it, the short season of Advent. (pause) Now the church calendar, with its many different liturgical seasons runs in a cyclic pattern doesn’t it…and rightly so. Just as the 4 seasons of the year bring their own expectations…cold blustery winters, rainy transitional spring, hot dry summer, and cool dusty fall…the church seasons have their own expectations.

Advent finds us eagerly awaiting the coming messiah…at Christmas we celebrate his entry into our reality as a helpless baby…Epiphany reveals his presence to the world…then comes Lent as things get darkest…right before the new dawn of Easter when death is defeated…and then comes Pentecost where we track the growth and direction of the church from its infancy with the disciples and a few other people up through the descriptions of the end times and the call to be watching out…because at some unknown point in the future, Christ is coming back around for the second time and his heavenly kingdom will be established.

If you’ve been paying attention for the past month or so…that’s exactly where we’ve been…hearing week after week about the apocalyptic nature of what is to come…that we will eventually reach that unknown point…and Christ is coming back…and as we hear at the beginning of today’s text…that he will be in all of his glory and he will sit on that glorious throne…a throne…which is exactly the place that we expect to find a king…and perhaps this is fitting today as we celebrate Christ the King…and with today’s text, we hear, once again…that we need to be prepared because eventually…judgment is coming. (pause)

And today, I find myself wondering if any of you are as sick and tired of hearing about the end times as I am…if you are a little fed up with the repeated call to BE PREPARED…or to BE WATCHFUL…or in today’s case…if you’re tired of being told how you should be acting in preparation. (pause) Are you there too? Or is it just me?

I dunno, maybe its just seasonal burn out…perhaps I’ve just grown weary of the same topic time after time…week after week…but at times I find myself incredibly weary of trying to account every second for that unknown day in the future when Jesus will be sitting on the throne. (pause)

Now, before you all take a couple of steps back…perhaps trying to distance yourself from me just in case I’m suddenly struck down with lightning or fire for having uttered such things…hear me out. (pause) I grow weary of looking for Christ sitting on the throne out in the future…because if I recall correctly, the kingdom of heaven doesn’t really fall in the “not yet” category that we Lutherans like to talk about…on the contrary…I’m pretty sure that the kingdom of heaven is already here. (pause)

Way back in Matthew chapter 3…following nothing except a genealogy and King Herod trying to exploit the wise men…we hear John the Baptist declare to the world that the kingdom of heaven has come near…Its already here…and why? Because God made a choice to enter into our reality…In short…the word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood and with that…in that instant…the kingdom…became…reality. (pause)

And this whole time…throughout the course of the whole year…we’ve been hearing story after story…instance after instance of Jesus…of God in the flesh…walking around…encountering people…and today, in our story…we hear that reality of God encountering people never stopped…even when Jesus stood on a mountaintop…tipped his cap to the disciples…and ventured off into the clouds. (pause)

Today’s story features a division that apparently will happen at some unknown point in the future, when Jesus takes the judgment seat and divides the people…but I’m not really concerned about the division today…I’m more concerned with the response that everyone shares when Jesus addresses them.

I was hungry…I was thirsty…I was a stranger …naked, sick, and in prison. (pause) Everyone hears these words…and everyone responds in the exact…same…way…Lord, when did we see you? (pause) And Jesus response? When did you see me…More often than you think. (pause) You just weren’t looking for me.

That’s the crazy nature of this whole idea that Christ is the king of a kingdom that we don’t really recognize…its all around us…we just aren’t looking for it…but trust me…its there. (pause)

The kingdom is present when we help pay for supplies at the local food back…its there when we fill up a water bottle for a homeless man walking by Underwood on his way from Wisconsin to Oklahoma…and when we spend a few minutes talking with him even though he’s a stranger…the kingdom is present when we give clothing to Goodwill, or when we sit with a friend in the hospital…and its there when we take a moment to spend with the social outcast. (pause)

And if the kingdom is present…then you better believe that the king is present…and he tells us that today…whatever you did to the least of these…you have done it to me. (pause)

We have a God who made the choice…the conscious effort to put on flesh and experience this life…this life with all of its joys and with all of its hardships…and because of this, we have a God who is present in these times, good and bad…and so that’s where we look to find Jesus…we find Jesus in vulnerability…whether that vulnerability is our own…or someone else’s…that’s where Jesus is found…not because we’re looking for him…but simply because God is present in those circumstances.

We see evidence of this all over Matthew’s gospel…whether during Jesus first major address to the multitudes when he assured us that blessed are poor in spirit…and those who mourn…and the meek, and those who hunger and thirst…or when he reaches out to heal the sick and the lame, the foreigner and the unclean…for where they are…God is there also…and he tells us that he will remain with us, even to the end of the age…and you better believe that when God makes a promise, you can take it to the bank.

And today, we know especially that this is true…not only because God chose to put on flesh and dwell among us…but because Jesus was about to become the embodiment of the vulnerability that he talks about in today’s lesson. As far as the story goes, this is it…right after this, it’s go time…and the crucifixion train is off and running. (pause)

And in that, we see that God…is imprisoned…and stripped naked…he is the stranger on trial with the Romans…he hungers and he thirsts while he hangs on the cross…Jesus Christ…God in flesh becomes the physical embodiment of vulnerability…and he does so in order to share the experience with you. (pause)

We have a God who experienced every facet of life, so that he can meet us in those moments when we are most vulnerable…and through his example we learn that we are to meet him there as well…even in those times when we encounter the vulnerability of others.

Lord, when did we see you? More often than you think…because the kingdom of Heaven is here now…and we have a king that is with us always…even to the end of the age…even when we don’t recognize him. (pause)

And certainly there are many times in our lives when we fail to recognize Jesus being present in vulnerability…but in a short amount of time, he’ll prove it once more…Next week we enter Advent as the world waits in anticipation for the coming Messiah…as the world waits for its king…and that king comes into the world in the most vulnerable way possible…as a helpless baby…utterly dependent on others…just as we…utterly depend upon him.

Behold, the kingdom of heaven is here now…even if we fail to look for it…and if the kingdom is here…you better believe that the king is here too…and he promises to remain…even to the end of the age. Amen.

 

 

 

Go All In 11-16-14

This sermon is based on Matthew 25:14-30, the parable of the rich landowner giving talents to his servants. Through the example of Texas Hold ‘Em style poker, I explore how we go “all in” with the gospel, and when we do, we are not risking the lose of the gospel itself…for the gospel does not decrease, it can only increase.

You can listen to the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/go-all-in-11-16-14

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

About a week ago I was playing the late evening channel surfing game…sacked out on the couch, not ready to go to bed, and just hoping to find something on tv…I ended up watching coverage of the final table of a World Series of Poker championship. Now I’ve never been a huge poker player, but occasionally would play a game with my friends…and in particular the style Texas Hold ‘Em that gained popularity in the past decade or so.

This particular version of poker involves two cards given to each player face down, while 5 more cards are periodically laid out on the table. You use your two cards along with the available cards to make the best hand you can, and there’s a series of betting along the way. If you’re struggling to make a good hand, you can always fold, giving up any bets that you’ve already put into the pot…or on the flip side, if you’ve made a great hand and think you’ve got everyone beat, you can bet everything you’ve got…commonly called going All In. (pause)

Now, as I mentioned, I’ve played this from time to time before…and as I was sitting there watching it the other night, it wasn’t long before I picked up my tablet and started searching for an online poker app. I found one pretty quickly and so for the last few days I’ve been playing Texas Hold ‘Em against people all around the world…theoretical stakes mind you…but it’s a lot of fun.

In the midst of a game the other day, I had one really great hand that landed me a really strong payout…and suddenly my stack…or my pile of chips…was way bigger than everyone else’s at the table…and from that point on, I found myself way more willing to bet big…to let my chips do the work…even when other players tried to go All In, I was pretty willing to call them, because I knew I could handle it…and that I didn’t have to risk everything I had.

But on the flip side, I’ve been on the other side of the coin…working with a short stack as they call it…which means being the person without very many chips…knowing that any big bet could empty me out…and knock me out of the game…and in those instances, I get pretty tight…and I hesitate to take much risk…I guard my stack…because what little I have could be gone in an instant. That’s the risk when you go All In…either you double up…or you lose everything. (pause)

Today’s gospel story shares a similar type of situation…although I’m guessing high stakes poker probably wasn’t involved. Today’s story involves yet another parable…yet another story intended to point out how we should respond to certain situations.

A man was leaving on a journey…and obviously he must be a wealthy man, because he calls his 3 servants together…and dolls out a huge sum to them. To the first, 5 talents…to the second, 2…and the third, 1…each according to their ability. Not long ago we heard another story about talents…and in that sermon I talked about the value…a talent was worth 15 years of wages for a day laborer…15 years worth of work…I don’t know about you, but I’d say that would make a pretty great bonus if the boss just walked up and handed it to you…and regardless of how we look at it…in today’s monetary figures or the wages of Jesus’ day the simple fact that this is a sum equal to one and half decades worth of work should put it into perspective…what he is handing out…is something of immense value.

Now we hear that the three men received different amounts…each according to his ability…and that’s an interesting point…we don’t know what it is about the first guy that distinguishes him to the point of receiving the largest stack…but he does…and then the second guy must be a little more average…and the last, maybe not quite so skilled…but regardless of the amount, remember…they all received something of great value.

We hear that two out of the three immediately put their talents to work…we don’t know what they do…likely not poker…but however they do it…in whatever way it is that they risk the treasure given to them…the talents increase…they each manage to double down…so when the master eventually returns they are able to say “look Lord…you gave me 5, here, take 5 more.” Or “You gave me two…here they are and two more with them.” And this return is a joy to the master…and he tells them “Well done good and faithful servant…you have been trusted with little, you will be given much…enter into the joy…into the DELIGHT…of your master.” (pause)

But then there’s this third guy…the guy who only received a single talent…for whatever reason…and he’s not quite so pumped about the whole situation is he? We don’t know exactly what’s going on with this guy…but for what ever reason…he’s afraid…afraid to risk it. (pause)

Maybe he looked at the other two guys…and he felt jealous…he got twice as much…and he got five times more…they’ve got way more to work with…and perhaps his jealousy froze him…and just like that time when I was playing poker with the big stack, unafraid to risk some…knowing that I had more…or perhaps even more fitting when I was the short stack…sitting there afraid to bet…afraid to risk what little I had…because what if he loses it…what then? (pause) Whatever the reason…fear…fear of eventually having to face his master…a man that he believes to be harsh…that he believes reaps the benefits of other people’s hard work…he simply decides to sit on it…risking nothing…nothing gained…but nothing lost…so that when his master returns he won’t be blamed for losing anything…and he can just give the talent back to the master…and how does it turn out for this guy?

It certainly…does not…end…well. (pause)

Perhaps as we sit here today, thinking about this story…we start to wonder just what those talents are…and there are quite a few different answers to that question…considering the time of year that we find ourselves in…and tendency for the topic of stewardship to pop up…maybe we hear this and think its speaking about money…about how we are called to use the money that God gives us wisely. Nothing wrong with that.

Another option is to take the word “talent” literally and think about the gifts that we are each given…those gifts of the Holy Spirit…about how we are one body with many members and each member has an important role…so how are we going to chose to share those talents…nothing wrong with that either.

But the more I thought about it this week…the more I reflected…especially considering the theme that’s emerged in recent weeks…I got to thinking that maybe, just maybe, the talents that Jesus is speaking about in this parable…maybe they’re the gospel…the good news of Jesus Christ…the wonderful news that through his life death and resurrection, we are forgiven of our sinful nature…washed clean in blood through our faith…that the free gift of God’s grace is available…is offered to each and every one of us….because to me…that’s something of great value. (pause)

But if that is the case…then it raises the question of just what are supposed to do with that? The first two servants in the story put their talents to work…and their talents increased…while the third guy just sat on it…doing nothing with it…and it remained exactly as it was…and not only that…it was taken away from him.

So what does that mean? How do we put the gospel to work? (pause) How do we risk it? (pause) Jesus himself answers that question for us, just a few short chapters after this. Following his death and resurrection, Jesus takes the disciples out to a mountain…and he tells them…All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me…Go make disciples of all nations…teaching them all that I have taught you…and remember that I am with you always.

That’s it…putting the Gospel to work…risking the gospel…means making disciples…and how do we do that? Well…its pretty simple…we share the gospel…that’s it…because a person can’t become a disciple…they can’t learn about it unless they first hear about it? That’s what we’re called to do…and not out of obligation…but out of love…someone back in your history loved you enough to share the gospel with you…they must have because otherwise you wouldn’t be here today…and loving someone enough to share this life altering news with them…that’s just one way that we follow Jesus’ other command to first love God, and then to love our neighbor.

And the beauty of all this…the wonderful nature of the gospel is that when we risk it…when we go all in and share this incredible thing with others…we don’t lose it…we can’t…the gospel doesn’t work that way…we don’t divide part of what we have to give to someone else…when we share it…the gospel simply grows…and they have the full measure just as you do…and this is why those two servants were able to come to their master and say…look, what you have given us has doubled. (pause) The gospel cannot help but grow when we put it to work. (pause)

But what of that third man…the one who lived in fear…the one who chose to guard the talent…to safeguard the gospel and not give it away lest he lose it and have nothing to show for it…what happened to him? In his fear, exactly what he was afraid of became his reality.

The gospel does not live in fear…in cannot…because to be afraid to lose it…means that you never had it in the first place. (pause) The gospel…the good news that Jesus Christ lived and died for you makes you a new creation…and as a new creation, we know that this good news is not something that we keep to ourselves…we don’t guard it…we don’t hide it away from others…we must share it…because we know that this good news of salvation in Jesus Christ is not something that we are allowed to hinder…we do not get to judge who is worthy to hear it…because no one is worthy…including us…and at the very same time everyone is worthy…including us.

In God’s incredible wisdom…and immeasurable love for all humankind, God risked it all…God became human…lived among us…and willingly paid everything he could….because God died for you…God went all in…and because God is generous, he shares that with us.

And so today I pose the question…what are you willing to risk for the Gospel? Are you willing to risk it all…knowing that the gospel cannot be taken away from us when we share it…when we put it to work…knowing that it can only increase…

Truly we are all given gifts…we are all given talents and treasures…but most importantly we are given the Gospel…and when we chose to use it…when we take it out into the world and share it with those we encounter, then one day we too will hear those wonderful words from the master…Well done good and faithful servant…enter into the joy…enter…into the delight…of your master…and make no mistake…God delights in you…because God loves you

This is why God went All in…will you?

Amen.

Talents. Metaphorical or Literal?

Here in November, as we approach the end of the season of Pentecost and with it the end of another church year, our weekly Gospel texts have become quite apocalyptic in nature. Jesus talks with his followers about the end times, affirming that at some unknown point in the future, it will occur. Jesus will come back…the kicker is that no one short of the Father himself knows when this will be. And so, Jesus stresses the importance of living out our day to lives reflecting the truth that at any moment, it will be time. It may happen 5 minutes from now, or it may happen a millennia from now. Despite this, often times maddening unknown, Jesus stresses that we know the truth and we are called to live in a way that reflects that.

This week’s Gospel found in Matthew 25:14-30, fits right into this same theme, as we hear the parable of the three servants, each given talents as their master departs on a journey. One receives 5, one 2, and the final a single talent. The first two servants immediately put the talents to work, and by the time the master returns, they have doubled their investments. But the final servant, worrying about the Masters ability to be a harsh judge, simply hides the single talent until such time as he can return it, along with some harsh words based on his perception of the master himself. It does not end well for this final servant.

This passage, partnered up with last week’s gospel lesson of the 10 bridesmaids, 5 of whom eventually find out that the door into the celebration is shut, as well as next week’s lesson of the eventual separation of the sheep from the goats, paints a tough picture. The reality that Jesus implores us to recognize is that there WILL be a time when the door is shut (10 bridesmaids) and you’ve been entrusted with this amazingly valuable gift (the gospel) so what are you going to do with it? Its not about earning your salvation…its about sharing what you’ve been given…not storing it away. It seems to be, once again, how you live your life today in a way that reflects that Jesus could come back in 5 minutes.

Some may find a connection between this train of thought and the notion of stewardship. While stewardship can, and often does get associated with money, its more important to consider that stewardship is all encompassing. How do we honor God with all that He has given us? And perhaps this is fitting for us today as we begin to look forward at the upcoming year. How is God calling us as a congregation, as a community of believers, to act with the gifts we’ve been given?

A talent was the equivalent of 15 years worth of wages for a day laborer in Jesus’ time…so in short, it was of great value. Perhaps this gospel lesson speaks of talents as our Spiritual Gifts (the most common interpretation). But I tend to think of the talent being the Gospel itself…something of far greater value than simple wages. If this is, in fact the case, then it seems as if Jesus is telling us that today, right now, we need to live in a way that reflects the life-shattering difference that the gospel makes in our lives. No longer are we called to live in the darkness, but rather to bear witness to the amazing light that is Christ himself. And as the Apostle Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” Let us keep this in mind as we continue to do the work entrusted to us by God until the day when we see our Maker face to face.

How Are We Supposed to Prepare Ourselves 11-9-14

This morning’s sermon is based on Matthew 25:1-13, the parable of the 10 Bridesmaids. Jesus instructs us to be prepared, and I explore just what that means for us.

You can listen to the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/how-are-we-supposed-to-prepare-ourselves-11-9-14

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

Over the course of this week, I found myself reflecting back on the process that prepared me for pastoral ministry…namely the process of candidacy through the Synod office, which I began in the fall of 2007…including 3 separate steps which were completed at different stages alongside the process of my seminary education.

Both candidacy and seminary included a lot of milestone moments…each defined by a specific portion of time and effort…there were papers to write, interviews to endure, work to do…and in many instances, I found myself in a big hurry to finish some specific requirement by a deadline…only to find myself then in the process of waiting for that next step to occur…but one trend emerged throughout all that time and all those steps…for each and every one of them, I had to be prepared, even those that I really didn’t know what to be prepared for.

As I look back at all those different steps, I think my favorite one was my year of internship, fairly late in the whole process…a time when I was able to start putting all the theory into practice…experiencing ministry by doing it in a congregational setting…and while the year of internship had its fair share of times that I had to be prepared in one way or another…there is a specific instance that really stands out in my memory.

Fairly late in the year I had the opportunity to go along for a week in Green Bay, WI on a Junior High mission trip. Admittedly I was pretty excited about this whole deal. I’d been teaching the jr high confirmation class all year and had a pretty good relationship with most of the kids…I did, and still do, claim to be on the same mental level with jr high students so it promised to be a good time.

During the week in Green Bay, we had one evening of “free time” and the plan as the group, including about 40 kids and 5 adults…to head off to a small amusement park. We divided up into groups, and I found myself surrounded by about 6 or 7 8th grade boys…and we joked around as we headed off to our first destination…the roller coaster.

Now this particular roller coaster was an old time wooden coaster…and if you’ve ever ridden of those, you know that the safety system that keeps you in the cart…while certainly functional…isn’t exactly the most comfortable situation…2 people to a car, with a big metal bar that locks down over your lap. It keeps you there, but there’s a lot of sliding back and forth as you go around curves…not to mention a certain amount of bouncing up and down when you go over to top of hills.

Now as this group of young gentlemen and I took on the coaster for the first time we were all surprised at a certain point towards the end of the ride when a very quick hump lifted us up before immediately yanking us right back downwards again…and with the loose safety bar situation…you can imagine the reaction when we unexpected made contact with that bar locked down across our laps.

Interestingly enough, being jr high boys…and one adult leader on the same mental level…we all got quite the charge out of that…and it was certainly the immediate topic of conversation as we exited the coaster…and it took us all about 5 seconds to decide that we needed to go again.

Now on our second time around…as we approached this certain spot on the coaster…all of us anticipating the shock that we would once again experience…I yelled out the boys. “PREPARE YOURSELVES!!!!” and heard laughter from the whole crew for a brief second until everyone…once again…reacted to meeting with the cross bar…Now let me tell you…this whole group got such a kick out of the whole situation, that we actually named that portion of the roller coaster “prepare yourselves” and we spent the next hour standing alongside the coaster itself, just so we could laugh at the reaction of every single guy that went over it. (pause) Was it wise on our parts, probably not…was it foolish? Most likely…prepare yourselves.

This notion of being wise or foolish regarding being prepared pulls us right into the gospel lesson today…the parable of the 10 bridesmaids…a well-known tale that cautions us to “be prepared.” (pause) Now if we stop for a moment and think about just where we are in the church year, perhaps this passage starts to make a little more sense. It’s November, and we find ourselves rapidly approaching the end of the season of Pentecost…just a couple more weeks from now…and the season of Pentecost is one where we as the church take a long look at the ongoing history of the church itself…beginning with the acts of the apostles shortly after Jesus ascension…and culminating now as the church looks forward to the end times.

And this is exactly where our passage occurs today. In the chapter just before this passage, Jesus has been talking about the last days…speaking very apocalyptically to his followers about what will happen…about what to expect when all of this comes winding down to a close before Jesus returns…Matthew’s gospel is certainly keen on this notion as well…often times we catch glimpses of what is to come…of the trials and tribulations…of the final judgment to come…and today’s story does more of the same.

The bridegroom is coming…but when? That’s the real question…both the question for us today as we think about Christ…the ultimate bridegroom coming back for his bride…the church…as well as for the proverbial bridesmaids in the parable.

Now speaking of these 10 bridesmaids…we can raise the question of just what exactly were they doing? I wish I could give you some sort of perspective, but in all honesty I don’t really know that much about 1st century wedding customs to know what they were up to…all I know is that the groom goes and fetches his bride…and brings her to the wedding feast…and apparently the bridesmaids are tasked with bringing along a lamp and escorting them as they go.

And when we take a look at these 10 girls…all 10 were ready to do that…all 10 picked their lamps…and stepped out into the street to wait…ready to do their duty…and what happens? Well…for whatever reason…the groom doesn’t show up when he’s supposed to…and darkness falls…and still they’re waiting…and as none of them had a smart phone to mess around with while they stood around…they got bored…and they got tired…and all 10 of them konked out. All 10…wise and foolish alike…and then, in the middle of the night when things are at their darkest…they are jolted awake when suddenly he decides to show up.

Now at this point all 10 discover that their lamps are out of oil…and here’s where the division starts…5 had thought ahead and brought a flask of extra oil…and 5 hadn’t. 5 were ready for this unseen delay…and 5 weren’t…all 10 were ready for their duty in the evening…but only 5 were prepared to wait.

And that’s the kicker right there…these 10 girls found themselves in a situation where they needed to be prepared to wait…but they didn’t know it until they were faced with the reality.

And so I pose to the question today, how are we supposed to be prepared for every unforeseen situation? (pause) Think about it…were those 5 wise bridesmaids simply type A personalities who thought about every single contingency? Perhaps…and maybe the 5 foolish ones were simply more reactive…getting themselves ready for the task at hand and never thinking that it might go beyond that.

And so think about that for a second…since parables are aimed at pointing out the truth of our situations to us, which side do you fall on? Wise…or foolish…oil or no oil…prepared or reactionary? (pause) Does one side resonate with you? Or maybe, just maybe can you see yourself in both groups at one time or another? I know I’m guilty of that.

There have been certainly situations in my life where I have “carried extra oil.” One simple example involves packing for our yearly trip to Colorado. Knowing that we experience hot and cold…back and forth…each and every day I have the tendency to fill a suitcase with all kinds of clothes…and honestly, way more than I need…all I’m really accomplishing is taking up unneeded trunk space…but hey, I’m prepared…but on the other hand…I have the tendency to be very reactive…particularly in ministry situations…long range planning…not one of my gifts…but if there’s a confirmation class pending in a day or two, I can write you a lesson. (pause)

Think about it…isn’t that our situation…completely back and forth between these two groups…ready one hand and caught totally off guard on the other? (pause) I think so…but if that’s the case for most of us…if not all of us…then just how are we supposed to be prepared in that unknown day and hour when the Father finally looks at the Son and says “Okay…time to head on back.”

No one knows the day or the hour when Jesus is coming back…and despite claims in recent years by individuals who have “cracked the code” and predicted when it’ll be…the reality of the situation is Jesus is coming back…sometime…but we don’t know when…and yet he tells us that we must be prepared.

The 5 foolish bridesmaids were caught off guard, while the 5 wise ones lucked into their situation…blind luck…that’s really all it was…because what if the groom had waited till morning…it would have been light outside and the lamps would have been useless…and all 10 girls would have walked through that door with him. (pause)
No one knows the day or the hour…so live your lives in a way that is prepared…because while Jesus might not come back in our lifetime…he might come back this afternoon…we just don’t know…and since we don’t know…we ask the question again…how can we be prepared? How do we live our lives as if he’s coming back in a moment, when history and our gut instinct tells us that we likely will not live to see it for ourselves?

This is the pickle that we find ourselves in…caught in the tension of living as if Jesus is coming back now, even if he doesn’t…of trying to balance out our own interests and endeavors while still living for him….this is the pickle…this is the Christian condition…living with the knowledge that the promises of God are both now and not yet…How are we supposed to do that? (pause)

You know what…I think Jesus himself actually gave us that answer…because there was a time when he was sitting there and someone asked the question “what’s the most important commandment?” That random stranger might as well have been asking the question “how are we supposed to live to keep God happy?” (pause) And Jesus responded…really quite simply…Love God…and then love your neighbor. (pause) Yah but that can’t be it can it…there has to be more to it than that right? Love God…and then love your neighbor.

Well what about those times when we mess it up? Because those times happen don’t they? If the answer is really Love God and Love your neighbor then hallelujah…because we have moments when we fall into the wise category…(pause) But…we also have moments when we screw that up don’t we?

And so, as a community of faith…as a community of believers, we offer a word of grace and forgiveness to one another…that’s one of the reasons that we gather here for worship…to hear a word of forgiveness for those times when we are unprepared…when we are foolish…and we praise God in the promise that right now…today…the door to the celebration is still wide open…and that God desires for you to walk through it.

And so today if you find yourself longing to walk through that door…and you are wondering if in fact you are worthy…if you are acceptable…if the door will be open for you, then know this…through the power of Jesus Christ, made real through his life death and resurrection you are cleansed from your sin…and to hear this and believe it to be true is to believe the promise of God to be true and clinging to that promise is what makes you prepared. (pause)

Love God…and love your neighbor…have you messed that up lately? Yah? Okay, own it…and by doing so you are repenting of it…and God promises that when you do that, you are a new creation through Jesus Christ…and if that’s good news, then hold onto it…because tomorrow, you might need to say it to someone else…That’s why we come together in fellowship. I say it to you…and tomorrow you say it to me…and together, we are prepared to wait. Amen.

All Saints According to Titanic 11-2-14

This sermon is based on Revelation 7:9-14, one of the assigned readings for All Saints Sunday. Within the sermon I take a look at the tiny glimpse of what lies beyond death based on this passage from Revelation.

You can listen to the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/all-saints-according-to-titanic-11-2-14

You can follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

Today is a busy day for us here at Underwood Lutheran isn’t it? (pause) In addition to all the normal aspects of worship, we’re celebrating All Saints Day…we’re joining with three young people in our congregation to celebrate a milestone in their life of faith…we’ll share in Holy Communion together in a few more minutes…it’s a busy day…about the only thing we’re missing is a baptism, then we’d have all the bases covered. (pause)

By now, I’m guessing that you’ve picked up on my tendency to relate pretty much everything to a movie…and today is no exception…As I thought about all the different things that we are packing into worship today, I started relating it to a film that does the same thing…Titanic, the 1997 powerhouse that covered all the bases. It had everything…a love story…intrigue…action…comedy…dancing…betrayal. (pause). Oh and somewhere along the way, the boat hits a iceberg and sinks right?

Interestingly enough…the final images from Titanic seem to hold a lot of the same images that we heard in the passage from Revelation. In the conclusion of the film…the narrator Rose…a very old woman who had been on board the Titanic…who had made a promise to her great love before he died that she would go on…dies in her bed after a long full life…and in the afterlife, she is transported back on board, where she walks through the lavish dining room among a great multitude of other people…a great crowd of individuals…too large to count…individuals from all walks of life…rich and poor, old and young, passangers and crew…all those who had died in the great ordeal of the ship sinking…and as Rose walks through all those people she is reunited with Jack…her great love…they embrace…the crowd all cheers…they are together forever…and no more tears are shed among these people. (pause)

Sound about right? A great crowd…those who have died, experiencing a great ordeal…and nor more tears in the afterlife…Titanic…and today’s lesson from Revelation. Hmmm…maybe James Cameron was reading this when he wrote the script.

There are many images from that movie that come to mind for me as I ponder on this passage today…one of which is the look of terror on the face of one passanger as the water comes rushing up to him…and he knows that he’s about to die…that he’s about to experience the unknown.

That sense of fear, or apprehension tends to be associated with the book of Revelation does it? It’s one of those books in the Bible that we tend to steer clear of…and why? Well, because its full of imagery that we just don’t quite understand…but we know that its related to the last days…to that great unknown when Jesus comes back…and to be sure, Revelation is full of crazy stuff…but in the midst of all that craziness…all that stuff that we tend to shy away from…we find that God is giving us a glimpse of what’s coming…its certainly not the entire picture…but it’s a glimpse.

And so perhaps its fitting that we hear these words today, on All Saints Sunday…as we sit here today and remember those who have gone on before us…those who have followed the path that one day we will all face…those who have tasted death…and what lies beyond it.

Often times in life, especially when we encounter death…we begin to wonder just what lies beyond it…sure we have the promises of God that we are saved from our sin…and that Jesus has gone on before us into death…doing something about it…preparing us a room in God’s heavenly house…but really…that’s about it…and if you’re anything like me…you see a lot of unknowns in all that. And perhaps in these moments we experience apprehension or fear about just what’s gonna happen. (pause)

Now I won’t stand here today and claim to have all the answers…because I’d be lying if I said that. But what a gift God gives us today, as we sit here thinking about death…thinking about our own mortality…what a gift to catch this little glimpse.

A great multitude…beyond measure…from every nation and tribe and people and language…standing before the throne of God…For with God there is no distinction…and all are welcomed regardless of where they came from…and together in one voice this great crowd declares the truth that salvation belongs to our God…and they find joy in it because they know not only that its true…but they know that God chooses to share it with us…and so they stand there and praise God before his throne into eternity.

And we hear a few verses later, that these are the people who have come through the great ordeal…but just what is this great ordeal? What is this great tribulation that they’ve come through? (pause) If we think about that last image from Titanic, the great crowd is made up of people who died on the ship…and I think this great ordeal that the author of Revelation is talking about is quite similar…this crowd, praising God on the throne, is made up of those who have lived life and through death been delivered from it…the great ordeal is our lives…the ups and downs…the back and forth…the good and the bad…because that’s life isn’t it? Even life as a believer…its tough.

We experience much hardship in life…and following God…believing in Christ…it doesn’t give us a free pass from suffering…it doesn’t eliminate pain…it doesn’t take away anguish…it doesn’t stop us from mourning…mourning the death of those we care about…mourning the trials and tribulations that we experience in our lives.

As I stand here before you today…I know some of these stories of suffering. For some of you it’s a lost job, lost income. For others, there has been the hardship of watching a loved one deteriorate and die. Others struggle in relationships…there are countless stories just in this room today, not to mention the countless stories of all those who have come before, all those living now, and all those to come in the future…Life, wonderful as it is…joyous as it can be…is a great ordeal…and to deny this is to deny the truth.

But yet, our lesson today tells us that those washed in the blood of the lamb have come through this ordeal…and their robes are white…gleaming…cleaner than any soap could ever make them…and in the great beyond…in whatever lies beyond this life…beyond this great ordeal, the blood of the lamb has cleansed those saints of everything that tainted them in life…sin is gone…suffering is over…pain is no more…because God has taken it away.

There’s one more image from Titanic that has always stuck with me, and ironically, it’s a direct quote from today’s scripture. Late in the movie, as the ship is about to go down…the weight of the water in one end begins to pull the ship up vertical…and in the midst of that a crowd of people cling to a priest…and he himself is clinging to post in order to hold himself steady…and he utters the words to these frightened people that God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes…and there will be no more death.

In the end…we know that death claims us all…just as it has claimed those saints that we honor here today…but we also cling to the hope that we find in God’s promise that death does not get the last word in our story…God does.

And when each of us walks that final road of this life…and when we leave behind the great ordeal that is this life…we cling to the promise that we will join that great multitude…and we too will wear the white robe…washed clean in the blood of the lamb…and we cling to the hope that God will wipe the tears from our eyes, because death and pain and suffering will no longer hold us.

And make no mistake this hope that we cling to is wonderful…but yet we also realize that we live in the tension now…here in this life…We know that we still experience the hardships and the pain…and we still experience the tears…because for us, Revelation chapter 7 hasn’t happened yet…and so in these times, when we find ourselves looking forward to the end and wondering what lies beyond it, we look to the end of Revelation. The final words of the Bible are Amen, come Lord Jesus.

We say Amen, because we believe this to be true…and we say Come Lord Jesus because we anxiously wait for him…and we live in the tension between the two…The tension between the Amen which leans back to the promises that God’s work of salvation in Jesus Christ is for you…and between the Come that leans forward to the day when we stand before the throne, content in the presence of our maker and redeemer.

So today, as we find ourselves in this tension between Amen and Come Lord Jesus…and as we remember those beloved saints who have gone on before us while we still struggle here in our great ordeal, we cling to the promise that Salvation belongs to our God…and that he shares it with us today. Amen.

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