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:

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?


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:

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:

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.

Be Free 10-26-14

Today’s sermon is from John 8:31-36, the assigned gospel text for Reformation Sunday. In the sermon I explore just what it means to be reformed as well as what freedom in Christ really means.

You can listen to the sermon here:

You can also read 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

Last Wednesday evening, a group of us sat together downstairs, participating in a membership class. The four individuals who we just accepted into our congregation a few moments ago and I sat and discussed quite a bit of stuff…What it means to be Lutheran…the history of Underwood Lutheran…our own stories…many different topics flowed throughout the course of our time together.

But one thing that has stuck with me through the past few days was a joke that we made together about the somewhat unoriginal nature that is sometimes expressed when we name something…a trend that seems particularly plausible today…

For today is Reformation Day…the day when Protestants of various strains celebrate the beginning of the Reformation…which sparked off the day that Martin Luther picked up a hammer and nailed his 95 theses to the chapel door…But just what does that name really mean anyway? Reformation…or to put it a little more simply…reform? Well, to reform something means to, quite literally…make changes in the form of something…and it doesn’t matter what it is…anything…an object, or an institution…whatever it is…it is initially formed…or made…or created…and then it is…reformed…into something new.

And so, Reformation Day is apply, if somewhat unoriginally named for the day that the church as it was known in the 16th century began to be “reformed” into something new…And what was the result? Well, a lot of things to be sure…but one of them is the wonderful concept known as Christian Denominations…divisions within the church based on doctrine and practices…and what was the first denomination? Well…it all started around Luther himself…so in keeping with the unoriginal notion…they were named Lutherans…which quite literally means a follower of Martin Luther…fitting yes…but original, not so much.

And you know what…500 odd years haven’t done much to further us along this trend of unoriginality…and in the midst of the new member class, as we talked about the history of our congregation, I began to imagine the conversation that must have gone on back in the late 1920’s, as our congregation’s founding members tried to decide on a name.

Well folks…here we are…we need a name for our new congregation…what should it be? How can we be identified so new people know just who we are? (pause) Well, where are we? Underwood…ahh yes…and we’re Lutherans right? How about Underwood Lutheran? (pause) Distinctive…Absolutely…but Original, well, not so much.

So I guess when it all boils down, we are in Underwood, following Martin Luther in a reformed version of the church…which itself is made up of Christians…defined as followers of Christ…sound about right?

And as it is Reformation Day, we share the assigned reading…from John’s Gospel in which Jesus encounters believing Jews…who very quickly…decide to backpedal.

Here we are in Jerusalem…hanging out in the Temple during the festival of Passover…and Jesus is interacting with fellow Jewish people…some of them seem to appreciate what he’s got to say…other’s not so much. And of course, this is nothing new…we’ve been hearing stories like this for several weeks now…but it doesn’t take much for these Jewish individuals to turn their backs on Jesus…as soon as his teaching starts to touch a nerve.

Needless to say, the people at the time had a lot of cultural pride…they were God’s chosen people after all…but the second that Jesus says that the truth will set you free…they freak out…JUST A SECOND JESUS…WE ARE DESCENDENTS OF ABRAHAM AND HAVE NEVER BEEN SLAVES TO ANYONE…hmm…so I guess they’re forgetting about Roman rule…and maybe those little issues known as the Babylonian and Assyrian captivity…not to mention that brief little snippet of time in their history…hanging out making bricks in Egypt…it was only 430 years…I can see how’d they’d overlook that…

But what’s apparent is that the people consider themselves to be free…and its offensive that they might just be subject to something besides themselves…but they are missing Jesus’ point here…because Jesus isn’t talking about physical freedom any more than he’s talking about physical enslavement.

Even though Jesus goes on to spell it out for them…he’s actually talking about something a little more sneaky…but a whole lot more diabolical than anything physical. (pause) Sin. That which separates us from God…that which severs the relationship intended between us and our maker…the one who formed us in the first place…

But sin…you know what…sometimes that whole sin thing…is really tricky. We talk about it a lot…it’s a common theme here in church…and it has certainly found its way out into our regular day to day lives as well…but just what the heck is it…I mean, what is it really? (pause)

If you’ve heard me preach out of John’s gospel before, you’ve probably heard me talk about what John thinks sin is…and that’s failing to believe that Jesus is God…but if we think about that for just a moment more maybe we begin to see that sin is flat out failing to believe what Jesus has to say. Yes, at times he calls himself God…he also calls himself the way and the truth and the life…He promises that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life…in short…Jesus seems to tell us a lot of stuff…and he promises a lot of stuff…and if sin is not believing that…then I guess it really means rejecting his word…rejecting his teaching…rejecting the God-given divine truth that he promises us…that’s sin. (pause)

And that’s exactly what he tells us that we will be freed from…but you know what…that’s not all…Maybe, just maybe…what this freedom really is…is the realization all that all the lies the world tries to tell us don’t matter any more…All those things that whisper in the back of our minds…those voices that tell us we aren’t good enough…or smart enough…or attractive enough…or rich enough…you’ve heard those voices haven’t you…they talk a lot…and they come from a lot of different directions…all that judgmental garbage that tries as hard as it can to pass judgment on you. (pause)

Maybe…just maybe Jesus is telling us that when we abide in him…when we live in him…when we hang out with him…when we accept that he is God and that he wants to be in relationship with us…maybe then we are freed from the power of all that judgmental crap that tries to control us…and when that happens…well then my friends truly we are free. (pause)

Free from listening to the lies that everyone else is okay…but you aren’t. Free from listening to the person who says I’ve got it all together, and you don’t. Free from being subject to the notion that anyone…that any single person in all of history is ANY more…or ANY less worthy than you are…Jesus tells us today that when we live our lives…IN HIM…then we are subject only to the promise that he makes that you are good enough…that you are of worth…that you are formed in your mother’s womb by a God who loves you…and that all that loud obnoxious BS that the world tries to spew in your direction FLAT OUT DOESN’T MATTER…then you’re free from it…and the Apostle Paul screams at us that if anyone is in Christ…NEW CREATION!!!!!

If anyone abides in Christ…lives in Christ…remains with Christ…hangs out with Christ…then they are free of all of that…and not only that but that they are RE…formed…they are made something new…and all that baggage…all those lies that the world spews at us…all those falsehoods that Satan whispers in our minds…all that stuff…I WANT YOU TO KNOW…THAT IT DOESN’T MATTER…ITS ALREADY GONE…

And how do we know that this is true? Because Jesus said so…and abiding in his word means living in the promise that he has made. (pause) But now all that being said…and as wonderful as that might sound, I know that there are times when believing it is easier than other times…and of course there are those moments in our lives when we doubt…when the questions kick in…and when those lies of the world get really loud…and the strength of our Faith in Christ just isn’t as strong as other times…and maybe we find that loving ourselves enough to accept God’s promises…to live in God’s promises just doesn’t quite work…and we ask the question of just what are we supposed to do when that happens?

And the answer is that we turn to others…and together, we as a church support one another…love one another…and in doing so, we remind each other of God’s promises…we do this by offering a word of grace and forgiveness to one another…uttering the words that we as individuals long to hear and cannot speak for ourselves…that you are of worth and because of the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…you are forgiven…and you are free…freed from the powers of sin and death…freed from the lies of this world…(pause)

We are the church…and the church is the place where the forgiveness of sin is declared…not by our own power…but because of the promises of God…made real in the words of Jesus Christ…and made possible through his death on the cross…and together…as the church…each and every day we are being made new…We are being re-formed…ever closer to the image of God in which we were created in the first place. (pause)

Are we perfect? Heck no…but we are free…free from having to be…because God loves us anyway. Amen.

What if Jesus Was Serious About That Whole Love Your Neighbor Thing?

As a pastor, I do quite a bit of writing; weekly sermons, notes for classes, monthly newsletter articles.  In working on my article for November, it struck me that this might be something to share with all of you out there in the world.

I write this article shortly before Reformation Sunday, the last weekend of October. In celebration of the Reformation, our scripture lessons supersede the texts regularly assigned for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost. Had we gone with that set of scripture passages, the Gospel for October 26th would have been Matthew 22:34-46. I had to chuckle when I realized that, as it is a passage that I’ve run into more than once recently.

Recently the combined Confirmation/Adult Forum class discussed the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert in the 40 years between the Exodus and entering the Promised Land. Within that discussion, we looked at Deuteronomy 6:4-5, commonly known to the Jewish faith as the Shema. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” As the class talked about this passage and its importance, we also recognized that Jesus himself passed this vital Jewish command onto us, and this happens in the passage from Matthew 22.

When challenged by the religious elite to pick out the most important law, Jesus responded back with this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the command of our Lord, to first love Him, and then to love everyone else as well. But perhaps this is easier said than done.

We live in a trying time, and perhaps in those moments when we pick up a newspaper or visit a news website or turn on the nightly news report, we see too much negativity in the world to even begin to think about love. We are dealing with fear and paranoia over Ebola, videos and reports of ISIS beheading Christians and threating to attack the United States, and the ever present tension/conflict between Israel and Palestine. And that doesn’t even begin to take into account the constant barrage of attack ads on TV and the radio as we creep up on Election Day on the 4th.

With all of this staring us in the face day after day, perhaps we find ourselves feeling a little cynical about that whole “loving our neighbor” thing, and rather than loving God, we throw exasperated questions in the heavenly direction, “Where are you on all this stuff?”

But it is precisely these times that we must cling to those two commandments…love the Lord with all you’ve got, recognizing that maybe today “all you’ve got” isn’t as strong as it was last week, nor is it as strong as it will be a year from now. And at the same time loving our neighbors…all of them, and I don’t just mean the people that live around the corner from you.

In times like this, I find it helpful to return to John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” And funny enough…that means all of it. The world includes all of the people in constant conflict with one another. It includes the politicians cutting each other down to try and grab one more vote. And the world includes you and me, even in those times when the negativity present in life gets the better of us.

Interestingly enough, when we think about all that conflict going on “out there,” the fighting and the battling, and the terrorism and the atrocities happening all over the world, we begin to realize that despite our differences, we’re fighting a simple family squabble. Jesus’ commands remind us of our connection with the Jewish faith which traces all the way back to Abraham. And if we look back at the story, we realize that he was also the father of Ishmael, considered to be the patriarch of the Arab nation, what we would call Islam today.

And so, if all the conflict and tension in the world really can be sifted down into a family squabble, then maybe it’s time we all start taking Jesus’ command to love our neighbors seriously…because everyone out there is our brother or sister. What might happen if everyone started believing that, and seeing one another as God see each and every one of us; as beloved children of God.

In Christ
Pastor Scott

Who’s Are You? 10-19-14

In this sermon, taken from Matthew 22:15-22, I explore the conflict between Jesus and the joint effort of the Pharisees and Herodians. They intend to trap Jesus over a question of taxes, but as per usual, he simply points out a new way to think about the truth of the situation.

You can listen to the sermon here:

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

It never ceases to amaze me when I think about different groups that have come together in and around an issue…Groups of people that ordinarily wouldn’t be in the same room with one another find common cause against something, and because of this, they wind up working as a team. (pause)

Perhaps the most prominent example of this in recent memory occurred in 1985, when a committee was formed in Washington aimed at controlling and possibly even censoring lyrics of songs released in the public media.

As concern grew, particularly among the music artist community, about the actions of this committee infringing on 1st Amendment rights, an unlikely trio banded together in opposition. Frank Zappa, an unorthodox musician producer…Dee Snyder, the loud and gaudy front man of the popular heavy metal band Twisted Sister…and in a shock…mild mannered John Denver, a folk icon…these three men who had nothing in common except a connection to the music industry…banded together in opposition.

And in today’s story, we see a similar situation…individuals that normally have nothing to do with one another binding together in opposition of someone that they seem to hold equal distaste for…the Pharisees and the Herodians…working together with common cause…to discredit Jesus. (pause)
Now this is an interesting pairing to be sure. One group that we’re pretty familiar with…another…not quite so well known. (pause) Now the Pharisees, we know all about them don’t we? The religious elite…the upper end of the social spectrum in Jewish culture…the ones who knew…and followed the law to the letter…and all too often…the recipients of a certain stigma in today’s reckoning…slammed with the nickname the Biblical Badguys.

They are forever hounding Jesus, opposing his teachings…questioning his motives…and hounding anyone that aligns themselves with him…and on the other hand, we’ve got the Herodians…a group that, admittedly, we aren’t all that familiar with…We only hear about these guys a couple times through the entirety of the four gospels…this story and one other brief mention early in Mark…but what we do know about them is who they represent…Herodians…sounds like Herod doesn’t it?

While we might not know the specifics of just who these guys are, we can assume that the represent Herod Antipas…a “ruler” in Israel at the time…but more accurately, a Roman stooge…someone set up to help maintain the peace between the Roman control and the Jewish people that suffered under it.

Ironically, in most situations, these two groups would want nothing to do with one another…The Herodians, being loyal to Rome, not only represent the oppressive government, but they also represent the alternate view points of the Romans, up to and including what gods they paid attention to…To them, the Pharisees are old fashioned…stuck in their old ways of thinking.

And on the flip side, for the Pharisees…arguably the most pious of the Jewish people…possessing the most “cultural pride,” they would see the Herodians as traitors at best…loyal to the rulers of the day, but far to willing to compromise in order to get along. (pause)
But despite these differences…it seems in this case…that both groups…the Pharisees and the Herodians start listening to that old question “is the enemy of my enemy my friend or my enemy.” And in the very least…within today’s story…they decide that the answer is…friendly.

And so they take common cause in opposition…to Jesus….and they’ve devised a trap for him…a trap that, ironically, highlights the very differences between them that they are choosing to ignore…and after some initial…and likely quite snarky…flattery…they pose Jesus with a question…Tell us what you think…is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?

At face value…this seems like a pretty logical question…but in their minds…they’ve got Jesus in a corner, because either way he answers, he’s going to land in hot water. On one hand…just as the Pharisees despise Roman rule…the latest in a long line of conquering empires…the rest of the Jewish culture is equally hateful…and the mere fact that they are required to pay taxes to the very people that are oppressing them…supporting that very oppression…is a slap in the face to the Jewish people…and so, if Jesus comes out and says “well yes…of course it is lawful to do so,”…he’ll lose credence with the people…and the Pharisees will gain the upper hand over him.

But on the other hand…the Herodians…well their interests were certainly more…politically minded…they represent the “king,” even if he is a Roman lackey…and so if Jesus makes the statement opposing paying taxes…well, in their eyes, that’ll land Jesus in some political…perhaps even legal…hot water. (pause)

Two different groups…who normally fall on opposite sides of the fense…joining together in opposition…to Christ. (pause) But of course…not wanting to seem too bloodthirsty…they begin their scheme with flattery…and reading this almost makes me laugh…just thinking about how thick they’re laying it on. (pause)

“Teacher…we know….that you are sincere…and teach the way of God in accordance with truth…and show difference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” (pause) It had to be dripping with sarcasm…and yet…do they say anything that isn’t true? (pause)

Jesus is always sincere…people might not like what he has to say all the time, but he’s nothing if not sincere in his interactions…and of course his teachings are true…and yes he teaches the way of God…HE IS God for pete’s sake…and truly, he shows no partiality but deals with each and every individual as God sees them…as a beloved child of God…worthy of respect…and time…and relationship.

And thinking about this…about how Jesus’ opponents are trying to be funny and yet they still speak truth…and not only that but also about how their well devised plan, where they are working together…really does nothing except point out their respective differences in loyalty…I realize that when we deal with Jesus…the truth is going to be revealed…whether we want to…whether we intend to…or not. (pause)

Not only does Jesus make a point with the coin about the importance of giving what is due to any individual, whether Caesar or God or anyone…but he also reveals the truth of just where our loyalties really lie.

As Jesus talks about the coin…he’s talking about ownership. “This coin has the face and inscription of Caesar…so its his…so give him his due.” And in the same sentence he also tells us that we are to give God his due.”

But then this raises the important question of just what is God’s due? So let’s think about that for a bit…we know that it is right that we offer God our worship and praise…that’s a no brainer. And perhaps we can use this to talk about stewardship and offering our gifts back to God…or maybe we expand it a little bit and think about the notion that everything in the world belongs to God and we shouldn’t hold anything back. (pause)

While these are all valid thoughts, I think today that Jesus takes us beyond that…and just as he proposes that the coin belongs to the emperor because it has his name on it…I think we need to ask the question of who do we belong to…who’s got their name…on us? (pause)

And perhaps that’s hard to think about…after all, we are constantly drawn in so many different directions at any given time…but in the end…its important to remember the words and the promise that was made for each of us in the waters of our baptism…when God claims us as His own…when we are marked with the cross of his son Jesus Christ and we hear the promise that we are sealed in his love forever. Pause)

We celebrated a baptism just last week in worship…and while that is a wonderful reminder…we must each remember our own baptism day by day…when we put to death the sinful self…and we received the mark of Christ upon us…and in doing that…we remember not just who we are…but more importantly, we remember who’s we are…and today, here in this sanctuary, we remember in who’s name we gather…the one that names and claims us…even in those moments when we overlook it…or forget it…or even turn our backs on it…the name of God…the cross of Christ…and the seal of the Holy Spirit remains upon you…to carry with you as you go through this life…and what joy we find in knowing that God shows no partiality…and because of that…we too…are included in his number…and that is a truth, which will not…be denied, no matter how hard the world tries. Amen.



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