A Righteous Branch 12-2-18

In this sermon, based on Jeremiahs 33:14-16, we kick off the Advent season by explore a sense of longing for the future fulfillment of God’s past promises.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/a-righteous-branch-12-2-18

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

Grace and peace of the Triune God is yours, now and forever. Amen

As I was growing up, back during my late elementary and probably jr high days…my aunt was the librarian at the local public library in town, which was located straight down the street a few blocks away from my school. And once I had gotten old enough to be trusted to walk these few blocks on my own, I would often head down the street after school on those days when we needed to stay in town and get picked up a little later.

This in itself isn’t really a very big deal, but there was something significant along that route that I would walk that I can still remember to this day.  On one of the corners was a great big tree…full grown…the type with a big trunk that went up about 10 feet before the first major set of branches came shooting out, creating a small open spot right there in the middle of the tree. And in that gap…at some point the seed of a pine tree found its way in there…and apparently there was enough debris present to allow that seed to kick out roots and grow. And I remember being amazed at the sight of this small, maybe 2 or 3 foot high pine seedling that was growing up in the midst of another tree…blew my mind.

Now, I know its not THAT uncommon…I’ve seen it in other places in the years since, maybe you have too…but I remember being so impressed with that little tree…thinking how tough it is…or maybe we could call it stubborn…but you know what…plants can be like that can’t they…especially trees or shrubs.

I’ve actually got a little seedling that keeps growing up through one of my hostas over at the house…doesn’t matter how many times I pull it or snip it off…darn thing just keeps growing back…and in a lot of ways, that reminds me of the way that suckers will shoot up around the base of many different types of trees here in the Midwest…same deal…doesn’t matter how many times you cut them off…they’re gonna on growing.

Now, admittedly, this is a bit of an odd topic, but perhaps you’re starting to see the connection…not so much with our gospel lesson…but rather with the Old Testament reading out of Jeremiah that we are sharing for today…and the promise made by God to raise up a righteous branch…or righteous shoot to be a little more precise for David. (pause)

Now you probably know that my normal style is to base the sermon off the gospel lesson…but this week that seemed just a little bit off…probably due to the season that we find ourselves in today.  All we have to do is take a quick look around the sanctuary and we can easily see that things have changed…the blue paraments…the presence of the Christmas tree and other decorations…and the Advent wreath which today only has a single candle burning.

We are, of course, in Advent…a season of anticipation…of waiting…or perhaps the best way to describe it, is a season of longing.  But when we start to talk along these lines, perhaps we wonder just what it is that we’re waiting or anticipating or longing for.  If we shoot from the hip, we’d probably say that we’re waiting for the birth of Jesus…which of course we’ll celebrate at Christmas in a few more weeks…and that’s not wrong.  But I can’t help but think that the season goes a little deeper than that…and that sense of longing that we’re probably all familiar with goes deeper too.

As we look around at the world that we live in…as we take a moment and ponder on the state of things…as we somehow witness evidence of the broken state of our reality…I think we all long for a something more…a time when there is no poverty leading to people standing on street corners…a time when there is no sickness or disease causing our loved ones to waste away before our eyes…a time when there is no hatred or violence leading to news reports of genocide or hate crimes or mass shootings. (pause) We know that sense of longing don’t we? Even in times when the sense lies too deeply within us to put words to, we know that sense. (pause)

But you know…Advent is bit of a funny time…a strange season…because it doesn’t quite gel into our linear experience of time does it?  We find ourselves looking forward to the birth of a baby which has already happened…likewise we find ourselves looking forward to the return of that baby who grew into a man…the man who lived and died and rose again…and who promised that this wasn’t the end…and that one day he would return in glory…an event that is promised but that hasn’t happened yet.

This ambiguity is telling, not only of the season of Advent…but of this oddball thing known as the kingdom of heaven that God ushered in though a past event…through past promises that even now, many thousands of years later, still points us into a promised but unknown future…an ambiguity that exists within this crazy thing called life…within this crazy thing called faith. This way of living that looks backwards to past events and promises which speak into our life right here right now, and yet point us towards something more to come.

And that sense is why I chose to focus in on Jeremiah today instead of the gospel. Now a touch of background…Jeremiah was a prophet. He was active about 600 odd years prior to Jesus…and while he was active for several decades, the most pressing historical aspect during his time was the fall of the southern kingdom of Judah to the Babylonian empire.

Jeremiah was active when they first came in and exerted their authority, hauling off the existing king and establishing a puppet government that would serve their interests…and he was still around a dozen years later when that puppet government got a little too big for their britches and tried to shake off Babylonian rule, only to have the Babylonians come in and lay waste to Jerusalem and haul everyone off into exile.

These were the events that Jeremiah talked about…a coming judgment…death and destruction and exile and isolation…prophetic words that actually landed him in jail when the local powers that be failed to listen…but words that would ultimately come true…and would result in the loss of the Promised Land…the loss of their national identity…the loss of their capital and the religious center of the temple…

When Jeremiah speaks these words, its still future tense…but it wasn’t far off and many of those who heard his words lived to see the reality…and yet in the midst of that turmoil…as their cultural and religious identity was utterly shunted to the side…they are reminded of the promises that God had uttered hundreds of years earlier…to the great King David as he still sat on the throne…that his descendent would hold the throne forever.

But here’s the thing about that past promise…David, as great as he was…and as much as he was praised for the heart he held for the Lord…David had his issues…his son Solomon…for all his wisdom…tried to “honor” the Lord by building the temple…by using slave labor…think about that…he honored the one who delivered their culture from slavery, through slave labor.  His son Reheboam…he made the foolish choice to treat the people even more harshly than his father had…resulting in the split kingdom and 10 lost tribes of Israel.  And all those kings that came after them, all the way down to Jeremiah’s time a few hundred years later…well they all had issues…and none of them managed to lead the people in the ways of God’s justice and righteousness…most of them did the polar opposite. That whole Davidic dynasty…can’t help but think that it failed on that front. (pause)

But then there’s Jeremiah…who in the midst of all kinds of turmoil, utters words that point the people back to that past promise…and gives them something to hold onto in the midst of pretty dire circumstances…a past promise that reminds them that whatever is going on right here, right now…that’s not the end…that there is more…that restoration is possible…and not only possible…but according to the Lord…is SURELY coming.

But what’s it going to be…or perhaps more importantly, who’s it gonna be?  This righteous sprout…the one who will bring about that divine justice and righteousness…the one who will lead the people in ways of honoring God’s justice…who will live their lives in a way that God will call righteous? Who will that be? (pause)
This is an important question to ask…and when we answer it…we tend to think that this must be Jesus right? We’re not wrong to do so…for Jesus was a descendent of David…and he has ushered in this new kingdom of Heaven…and as follower of Christ…we do have the tendency to view the scriptures through this lens…but its also important to remember that this is not the only way that the world sees or hears the promises uttered by the prophets.

But what we might just share in common with our Jewish brothers and sisters is the re-assurement that the promises of God will come to fulfilment and that somehow, someway, we will be included in that. Our understandings might be very different…our way of looking at just how God might bring about that future fulfilment is also different…but the promise is, I believe…the same.

Now how its gonna look, that’s open to interpretation…and I think its safe to say that no one really knows just how God’s gonna bring it all into completion out there in the unknown future…but what does seem to be apparent is this…that God’s going to bring about something utterly new.

God will raise up one from that line of David that will do what no earthly king was able to do…to live in a way that truly reflects and embodies that divine justice and righteous…and the very last words from Jeremiah reveal this…that the name of the city…the city we know as Jerusalem…it will be changed…and it will be called The Lord IS our righteousness.

Whenever something or someone gets a new name in the scriptures…it pretty much ALWAYS indicates a new identity…a new understanding…maybe we can even say a new creation…and however God is going to bring about the future fulfilment of this past promise…its gonna be something new…we don’t know what or how or when…but I believe however it comes about, we won’t be disappointed…and that in one way or another…the promise remains that we will be grafted into that righteous branch…the promise that somehow we are included…and this is true now…and at the same time the promise has yet to be fulfilled…and so for that future fulfilment of this past promise…we wait…we anticipate it…and that is what we long for. May we keep that in our hearts during this Advent season. Amen.

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This I Know 11-25-18

In this sermon, based on John 18:33-37, I explore the odd encounter between Jesus and Pilate, as Pilate tries to wrap his head around Jesus. Its a mystery…and that’s okay.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/this-i-know-11-25-18

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

The grace and peace of our Triune God is yours, now and forever. Amen

Thursday afternoon, I was lounging around at my parent’s house, enjoying that low-key feeling post Thanksgiving-feast, when my brother grabbed me and hauled me downstairs into the basement to shoot a game or two of pool on our dad’s pool table.

We weren’t very far into our first game, when we noticed something strange happening. An odd tendency for a slow moving ball to begin curving towards the side pockets…and one of them in particular. We weren’t quite sure what was going on…only that this behavior was unexpected…but as confusing as it initially was to witness…we went into some investigation mode…and we came up with the following insight…

The temperature in my parent’s basement fluctuates pretty dramatically…and as it’s a wet basement, there are times when the air is quite damp and times when its quite dry.  We also realized that the pool table has been down there for several years now…and our final observation is that the table itself is wood, and not slate.  Perhaps you’ve already begun to realize what ultimately dawned on us…the table top has warped, creating slight downward angles towards the two side pockets…which itself results in a slow moving billiard ball curving in towards the pocket…which is great in every way, except if it happens to be the 8-ball…and so, once we figured this all out, we kept on playing, and simply adjusted our shots accordingly…in the end, this mystery was something we were able to figure out.

But thinking along those lines reminds me of an important bit of self-awareness that I have reached in my life…an awareness that there are some things I understand…some things I can figure out…and then there are things that will remain a mystery.

For example…I understand that anything that has mass will create a gravitational pull…however some things, like each of us for instance…is small enough that that gravitational pull our mass generates is so infinitely small, that it might as well be non-existent…but on the flip side…I also know that the earth is large enough and contains enough mass that it creates a gravitational force strong enough to keep us all firmly planted…and we don’t need to worry about floating off into space…I get all that…but what I don’t get, is how it works…that is, as they say…above my paygrade. (pause)

Now interestingly enough…this same sort of sense seems to be on display in today’s gospel. Christ the King Sunday…the final Sunday of another church year…and we wrap things up by acknowledging the kingship…or the reign of Christ in the kingdom of Heaven.

Now this year…our scripture lesson features an odd little back and forth between Jesus and Pilate…a setting found in the larger story of his betrayal and arrest at the hands of the religious leaders…just before his torture and eventual execution on the cross…an event commonly understood as his trial before the Roman authority. (pause)

Out of the 4 gospels…I do have to say that I appreciate John’s take on this whole deal…because when compared with the other three, John really does a good job of revealing the sneakiness of this whole situation.  Jesus is arrested for blasphemy…for daring to claim that he is God…and yet, the religious big-wigs know that they can’t order his execution on these grounds…the Romans may have cut them a lot of religious leeway…and they did…but that leeway didn’t extend to the point of allowing them to pick up a bunch of rocks and stone someone to death for claiming to be a god.

And so, if they want Jesus dead…and its seems that they do…they’ve got to ship him off to the political authorities…Pilate.  Now at this point, Pilate’s already asked them what he did…and he doesn’t really get much of an answer beyond Jesus being called a criminal…and with that…he’s got to try and figure things out.

Are you the king of the Jews? (pause) Now logic probably tells us the same thing that Pilate was thinking…this is a pretty simple question…yes or no answer.  If he says yes…that he is the Jewish king…well that means he’s in the midst of a political uprising…and crucifixion is the answer…if he says no…well then this whole deal is pointless.

But it seems like Jesus never gives a straight answer does he?  Are you king?  Why do you ask, are you curious or did someone say something?  And then we go back and forth…several questions countered with more questions…until Pilate seems to arrive at the conclusion “So you are the king.”  Only to get an equally confusing answer “You have called me king.” (pause)

I can only think that Jesus is revealing something important here…that whatever it is that God is up to through the Christ event…through the life and the death and the resurrection of the one who is the living Word of God made flesh…the one who existed with God and is God…the light which shines in the darkness…whatever God is up to in bringing about this whole kingdom of heaven which has already come near to us and at the same time is not yet fully realized…whatever it is…we just can’t grasp can we?

Pilate was a political dude…that’s what he knew…that’s what he understood…and so he was trying to apply this knowledge…this understanding on Jesus and whatever it was he was up to.  The religious leaders…his own people…they’re cranky with him…so clearly something is going on right?  And Pilate tries to put in terms that he can comprehend and deal with.

God bless him, he’s trying isn’t he? But clearly…he’s failing.  Just like my inability to understand what makes gravity…the kingdom of heaven, whatever that means…well that’s above Pilate’s pay grade isn’t it?  Honestly its above everyone’s pay grade…because God is just so much bigger than we can wrap our heads around…and that’s okay.

But if that’s the case…and we’re gonna leave things ambiguous and I guess we can say unanswered…then what do we do with this passage?  And as I ponder on that question I’m drawn to the very last thing that Jesus says today. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world…to testify to the truth…Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

I thought about this idea of truth…and it’s a concept that’s scattered all over John’s gospel…but perhaps no more importantly then when Jesus himself declares “I AM…the way…and the truth…and the life.”

Jesus himself is the truth…and he reveals so much about this life…a new way to live…a new way to be in the world…a new way to live in harmony with God and with our neighbors…not a perfect life, for Jesus knows that none of us are capable of that…but rather a life where confession and repentance and forgiveness is also a possibility. A life in which we live as if the kingdom is already here…because…it is…Jesus told us that.

And maybe, just maybe as we live our lives in a way that reflects the reality of this kingdom of heaven…and whatever that will ultimately look like…maybe that’s how we participate in God’s ongoing action of bringing that kingdom into existence.

And we do this because this is what Jesus has told us to do. He has shown us a new way…he has illuminated a new way for us…and through the ongoing action of the Holy Spirit which Jesus has sent upon us all…he continues to reveal more and more and more about what life in the kingdom looks like.

And one of the commands that he has given us also serves as signs for us…and that is the sacraments. When we receive the bread and the wine, we are reminded that his body and blood were broken and shed for all people to make forgiveness possible…and in the waters of baptism, we are washed both literally and figuratively as we hear the promise of God’s claim upon each of us.

That’s the amazing thing about this whole deal…its always about what God has said about you…the action is accomplished by God through Christ…and while we respond to it…our salvation…our acceptance…our invitation to the party is never dependent upon us…something that I think is revealed when we consider that age old parable of the prodigal son.  The father goes searching for both brothers…and brings them in…doing so with an assurance that you’re already at the party.

Isn’t the joyful thing we realize through the gospel…that whatever it is that this kingdom looks like…that whatever this heavenly party is…we’re already at the party…and God’s ongoing action within this world seems to be aimed at reminded us of that.

But that doesn’t really fit into our rigid, rule laden reality does it?  And those who so strictly adhere to “the rules,” well they have a really hard time accepting this reality of Christ don’t they? And so they try and put Jesus in a box…that’s what Pilate was up to…and I can’t help but think that’s what the religious leaders were ultimately up to as well.

But the good news remains…that God will not be limited to a box…and God’s love and grace for each one of us will not be limited either.  The gospel tells us, we’re already welcome…we’re already accepted…we’re already at the party…some of us just haven’t realized it yet.

And that right there…that’s why God invites us to join in this ongoing work of reconciling the world…to be the hands and feet, carrying this good news…that you’re already at the party…not because of anything that we do…that’s not the way…He is the way…and his way reveals the truth…and this truth to hold onto is not who you are or what you have done…its who’s you are through what he has done. Amen.

Only the Beginning 11-18-18

In this sermon, based on Mark 13:1-8, Jesus gets apocalyptic. This is normal at the end of the church year. Unfortunately we’re only given little glimpses but we are given the promise that we will never be left alone in it.

You can listen the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/only-the-beginning-11-18-18

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

The Grace and Peace of the Triune God is yours, now and forever. Amen

Just out of curiosity…how many of you out there were raised in the city? Any city…doesn’t matter which one? (Pause) Okay now on the flipside…how many grew up in a small rural town, or even out in the country? (pause) Okay, now I know what I’m working with.

As many of you know…I was a farm kid growing up…living a few miles outside of a town about the same size as Underwood…roughly 800 people. Now one difference was the proximity to urban areas. Around here we’ve got the Omaha/Council Bluffs metro just a few minutes down the road…but we often joked that my hometown was 3 hours from everywhere. The Twin Cities…three hours.  Des Moines…about three hours…Omaha, yep, that’s three hours. Sioux Falls…OH!!! That’s only 90 minutes. (pause)

It probably goes without saying…that in my normal day to day life growing up…I was pretty used to open fields…and the tallest structures out there were usually a silo or the local elevator if you happened to be in town.  And because of this…the rare times when I ended up in the downtown area of a city were eye opening.

I can remember being in downtown Des Moines during high school for state FFA convention…and thinking how crazy busy it was as we small town boys made our way around the skywalk.  And maybe even more memorable…my freshman year when we traveled to Chicago for a music trip…and I found myself standing on the sidewalk beside the skyscraper known then as the Sears Tower…just staring up at this monstrosity of architectural and construction achievement.

It was just so huge…I couldn’t even begin to understand how anyone would make something like that…and on the flipside…now that its there…I couldn’t imagine anything ever bringing it down. (pause) Anyone know what I’m talking about?  Standing there looking at something, whether man-made or something in nature…that is just so huge…so grand…so massively immovable, that you find yourself in awe? (Pause) Well, as we consider today’s gospel lesson, you are in good company…as Jesus and his disciples go walking out of the temple courtyard in Jerusalem.

As we start to think about this…remember that the 12 disciples were likely pretty young…maybe in their teens or 20’s…and most of them, perhaps not all, but most of them were from small towns or communities…particularly the small communities from the somewhat backwater region of Galilee…communities where the biggest structure they would ever see was the local synagogue.

But now they find themselves in the middle of the city…staring up that enormity of the temple…which by every description we have available…must have been impressive.  Keep in mind this is the 2nd temple…completed by Herod the Great a generation before…and it was comprised of many different structures and courtyards and staircases…all surrounded by a giant wall, all built over the course of decades…it must have been a site to see…and for these small town boys…I can only imagine how overwhelming it must have been…and we hear it from them…Teacher, look at these enormous, magnificent stones and amazing buildings.

I bet it was impressive…I’ve seen first-hand some of those stones that are still standing today in what’s called the Western Wall…or Wailing Wall…the only part of that entire enormous structure that is still standing…and those stones alone are huge…roughly 4 or 5 feet cubed…and solid rock…can you imagine trying to put those into place? We’d need a crane of some sort now, but they did it with basic human labor…and even more amazing…those were the smaller stones…recent work in Jerusalem has uncovered massive foundation stones that were upwards of 20 feet long and 10 feet high. (pause)

Starting to see why these simple farm boys and fishermen were so impressed? (pause) But here’s the thing…no sooner does this one random disciple make his wondrous statement to Jesus…then Jesus makes a prediction that must really rain on his parade.  You see these stones…the day will come when not one will be left on another…and then apparently with no other explanation…he walks away.

With that, we find a scene change, as Jesus and the disciples have gone out of the temple area and crossed the Kidron valley to the east…and then plopped themselves down on the Mount of Olives…a vantage point where they can see the glory of the temple mount from a distance…and the first four disciples that Jesus called…Peter and James and John and Andrew…the epitome of the backwater country bumpkins…they figure its up to them to figure out how this is all gonna happen.

Master…what will be the sign that this is about to take place? (Pause) It seems that they want to know what it is they better be looking for…because anything that is massive enough or strong enough to destroy the utter gloriousness of the temple mount…well that’s probably gonna be a bad thing isn’t it?

But Jesus doesn’t really give them a straight answer does he? He starts off with a warning that they not allow themselves to be led astray…and then he gives warnings about wars that will come and go…and nations rising up against nation…and natural disasters…and all kinds of stuff. Stuff that sounds…REALLY BAD…stuff that if we found ourselves on the receiving end of it…would be something we’d call “the end of the world.” And, to be honest…isn’t that type of thing what we all hope we’ve got a little advanced warning for? (pause)

Now…this first portion of chapter 13 is actually part of a larger account of Jesus teaching the disciples about (air quote this) “the end times.” And the fact that we run into it here in late November is quite normal…as we come to the end of another church year, we always run into these texts…texts often described as “apocalyptic” in nature…texts which we all commonly think of as describing those end times.

And after many different conversations with people based on this type of text over the years…I know its pretty common for all of us to hear them and think “well that doesn’t sound good…but it also doesn’t give us a whole to go on either.” And isn’t that true? I mean, its so true…and fairly universal interest in it is so real…that many people have made attempts to explain it away…even “read the code” to uncover just when it’ll happen…and how all the bad stuff that happens in the world…whether natural disasters or human centered misery…is actually a roadmap that points to just when “the end” often called the rapture…is going to be.

I always chuckle and shake my head when I hear these predictions on the news…and then I flat out laugh when the day comes and goes and the person who made the prediction in the first place sheepishly reports “We may have misread the signs.”  DUH!

But all sarcasm aside…I think it is human nature to look at the state of the world…to see horrible event after horrible event and think…Well this must be the end.  Oh no…well now this one is it…Oh I guess not, but THIS time is it right? (pause)

Maybe, just maybe, we humans have a really hard time seeing beyond whatever is staring us right in the face…whether its marveling at giant buildings or natural features like mountains or cliffs that we think will never be knocked down…or on the other end of thing to see forces at work which we are powerless to stop…like category 5 hurricanes or tsunamis or even the apparently blind hatred expressed by one group for another group.  And as we witness these different things we can only think “this is it” and nothing I can think or do or say is going to change it.

And that’s daunting isn’t it?  And maybe, just maybe, if we bring things down to a smaller scale we begin to realize that sheer size or magnitude isn’t the sole factor either.  Think about the lost job.  Or the cancer diagnosis.  Or the balance due notice…or the family standing at a graveside to bury their loved one…those moments when it feels like life is over, even as the rest of the world is going on about their business.  Are the dire feelings that come with those moments any less real than the sense the disciples felt when Jesus tells them the temple will be destroyed? (pause)

So are we in “the end times?”   Is Jesus about to come back? Well…I hope so…but honestly I don’t think so…and I don’t think that’s the point of all these different apocalyptic texts in the first place. Something that we especially see if we pay attention to Jesus’ final statement in today’s little section of this larger teaching.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. (pause) This is the beginning.

I am, as you may have noticed…a guy…and I will never ever know the pain and agony of childbirth…and honestly, as my two kids were born by c-section I’ve never really been adjacent to it either.  But I do remember a mom being induced at 6am the day after my son was born…and she walked the halls of that OB ward in the hospital for more than 25 hours before finally going to delivery…and then spending 2.5 hours pushing before her baby was born…and I can only imagine that for her…or for any of you moms out there that went through labor…that in the midst of it…it must feel like an eternity and that it will NEVER end.

And yet it does…and at the end…there is new life in that child…and maybe, just maybe…that’s what we need to remember as we consider these troublesome texts that point towards something unknown, but seemingly pretty earth shattering…just as labor pains leads to the joy of new life…it would seem that there’s new life on the other side of this unknown future that’s coming…and the idea of looking for something good and wonderful and joyful on the other side of things…there’s a name for that…Hope.

Now as followers of Christ…we’ve been given a promise…an assurance that the kingdom of heaven has come near to us…that it is here now and that we are invited into it…and at the same time we are also promised that there are aspects of this kingdom that haven’t come around yet…and that whatever they are…they lie out there on the other side of that unknown future…and for many of us, they lie on the other side of the boundary of death…and because of these promises of Christ…we hope…we are united by our common hope in this promised but unrealized future.

And there’s one more little detail from today’s story that points us in this direction. Jesus and the disciples are sitting on top of the Mount of Olives, looking across the valley at the Temple…now the temple pointed them towards God…it was the place where God is…the sign of God’s presence and God’s promises…that’s what they were looking at.

But the valley that lies between them…even back then…was a graveyard…and it still is today…they sat on one mountain…looking across the literal presence of death…and beyond it was the embodiment of hope.

I can’t tell you what that embodiment is for you. Maybe it’s the cross…or maybe it’s a song that’s especially meaningful for you…or maybe it’s the truth that is revealed to you in the scriptures…or maybe it’s the sacraments…the washing in the waters of baptism and the shared meal of holy communion…those physical elements that combine with the promises of God to reveal the reality of God’s grace and love for you…made real through the life death and resurrection of Jesus.

Remember these promises are made for you and TO you…not just once, but always…and we are given these blessings and mercies…new every morning.  No matter what the situation is…remember…this is only the beginning.  Let us live out this day…let us live out every day which will follow…and let us experience whatever it is that lies on the other side of this existence as we know it…secure in the hope given to us through the promises of Jesus Christ. Amen

You Are Seen 11-11-18

In this sermon, based on Mark 12:38-44, I explore an odd little passage including a warning from Jesus and the Widow’s mite.  This passage seems to offer a rebuke to a system that exists in order to perpetuate itself, but there is good news to be found here as well.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/you-are-seen-11-11-18

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

The grace and peace of the Triune God be yours, now and forever. Amen

Anyone out there have catch-phrases or words that you still use that have gone out of style?  I know I’m guilty of that…Groovy is a big one…I say that a lot…Awesome…which is probably still acceptable although whenever I say it I’ve got the early 90’s version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the back of my head.

On occasion cool-beans comes out of my mouth when I like the sound of something…and on the flip side I call things Bad-chicken, which is a throwback to lingo at a job that I worked more than a dozen years ago. But perhaps the one that is looming most prominently in my head happens when I’m with my buddies that I grew up with…especially if we’re playing a game of some sort…when one of us pulls off something impressive…we’ll boastful ask “Who’s the man?” to which the other guys have to respond “You the man.”  (pause) You are the man.

Now that statement is interesting…because it just came up in the confirmation class a week ago as we’re making our way through the Biblical Narrative…and we were talking about King David and his story that take place about a 1000 years before Jesus.  There’s a encounter, following some of David’s less than stellar moments, with the prophet Nathan, who tells David a story about a rich guy who’s got everything and his poor neighbor who only has one lamb that he loves more than anything…and the rich man takes the lamb and serves it in a banquet for his friends.

Now when David hears this story, he gets riled up and curses the rich man in the story…only to have Nathan look him in the eye and say “you are the man.”  David realizes the depth of his mistakes…the impact of his sins and he mournfully repents. (pause) Ever had a moment like that…when someone points out something significant that hits close to home…something that was sitting in a blind spot…but the moment they point it out, its convicting?  It’s a humbling feeling isn’t it? (pause)

I imagine though…you’re probably wondering what this has to do with the gospel lesson we’ve shared today…because the story of Jesus warning his disciples about the scribes leading into the story of the poor widow placing her last two coins into the treasury doesn’t really seem to have much to do with King David or random phrases…at least not at face value, but bear with me for just a little bit.

Beware the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces…and have the best seats in the synagogue and places of honor at banquets…they devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.

Now…who do we know that tends to wear specialized outfits…and has a bit of an abnormal title connected to their name…who do we know that has a specific, perhaps considered “special” spot in the sanctuary…and even rattles off lengthy prayers during worship each week? (Pause)

I’ll admit it…the more I read this passage in preparation for today…especially this first portion…the more I heard “You are the man” in the back of my head and not in the positive “I just did something cool on the basketball court” kinda way…but in the “I’m King David and I screwed up” kinda way.

Because in the interest of full disclosure…I have my moments when this is pretty spot on…moments when I get a big head, or when a sense of entitlement creeps up because of the role that I’ve been given. I’m not proud of it…but it does happen…that crazy thing known as pride that’s evidence of my brokenness and my sinful nature.

And so this passage really makes me sit up and pay attention…but, the passage doesn’t end with that warning from Jesus does it? We hear following this brief teaching moment, he sits down across from the offering box in the temple…watching as people walk by and toss in their offerings.  Apparently some of the rich are pulling out their money bags and are tossing in healthy amounts…but then a woman walks up, takes a look at the two tiny coins in her possession…and drops them in the box.

Now this is one of those moments when I wish I was Jesus…because he seems to know a lot about this woman and her situation…information that we just aren’t privy to.  He seems to know that she’s a widow…she’s alone…and these two coins are the entirety of her finances…and she drops them in the offering plate.

The thing about this story…is that its become synonymous with the idea of sacrificial giving…often times featured in stewardship drives because of the way that, at face value anyway, Jesus SEEMS to praise her gift above the much larger sums also being given by the rich.

But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. I think Jesus is pointing out a flaw in the system…that this poor woman, seemingly with no other way of supporting herself…gives everything…essentially giving her life…making herself a financial martyr to the temple…if not an actual one when she starves to death.

Here’s why I wish I knew what Jesus knew…because I wish I knew what the widow’s motivation was to place her last two coins into the treasury.  Was she giving joyfully?  Or was she feeling shamed by seeing the large amounts given by others?  Or was she giving out of a sense of obligation to a system that demanded it? A system that was supposed to protect and provide for her…but as we heard in the first portion…a system that enables those with power and authority and prestige to take advantage of the powerless, just like this woman. (pause)

I thought a lot about that this week…the idea of a system, which seemed to exist only to perpetuate itself.  Many scholars have written at great length about the flaws of the temple system in Jesus’ day…something that he himself butted up against in many moments of debate or teaching or even violent outbursts like the cleansing of the temple.

Any funny enough…we’re given just a tiny glimpse of the eventual outcome of that flawed system in the very next portion of the story that follows this…a story that we’ll hear next week…as Jesus dashes the wonder of his disciples who are marveling at the glorious nature of the temple when he tells them that the whole thing is destined for destruction.

And so let’s think about the woman again…what’s she doing? What’s her motivation? Is she giving to a system that has hammered this obligation into her that’s destined for destruction?  Or is she giving cheerfully to something that she believes represents the ongoing action of God within this broken world that she’s a part of? We don’t know.

Now, I’m not trying to turn this into a stewardship sermon…I’m really not…but what I will say is this…there’s a big difference between giving anything to a broken system that will only exploit you to perpetuate itself even though its dying, and giving to the living embodiment of God’s action in the world.

And as I say that, I wonder if anyone else is hearing a little voice in the back of your head saying “You are the man.”  Because in many ways…we are that broken system.  The church is facing a tough tough reality…both the church as a whole, particularly here in North America…and even our congregation. I don’t say this to be a downer…but I think its true. I think the church, as it has existed in the past century or so…is dying.

But even as you hear me say that…hear this as well…we have a God who specializes in bringing new life out of death…and I believe that this is the case for the church as well…because the church IS the living embodiment of God’s action in the world…broken and flawed to be sure…because it is made up of broken and flawed people…and yet…God has continued to guide and use the church over the course of the past 2000 years…and I’m pretty sure its going to continue on long after every one of us in this room is dead and gone.

Just as the Jewish faith and culture continued on after the Temple was destroyed…the church will continue on as well…its just gonna look different. And we don’t know what its gonna look like. (pause)

Now in the meantime…as we consider this rather sobering reality…perhaps you’re wondering if there’s any good news to be found within this gospel today…because while we expect the scriptures to convict us, we also expect them to give us hope…and maybe here’s where we find it.

In the midst of the whole situation that happened that day…and even in the midst of the entire ongoing, broken and flawed system of the temple that Jesus witnessed that day…even if no one else noticed…Jesus saw the woman. He…sees…her.

The man, who is also God, took notice.  She is seen, even as every other cultural and systematic detail pushes her to the side and makes her invisible…she is still seen.  And so are you.

Maybe this text is troublesome…and maybe the message that I have shared today is also troublesome…and perhaps you find yourself in a state where things feel like they are going wrong and you wonder if anyone notices…and if that is the case, then remember that you are seen…and that no matter how insurmountable the situation…you will never be abandoned by the one who has acted out of divine love for you…and in everything, remember that there is nothing in all creation…not poverty…not brokenness…not our flaws and failures…not the powers that seem to stack the deck against us…not even death can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  In the midst of it all, even when it doesn’t feel like it…you are seen by one who loves you. Amen.

Where Were You Lord 11-4-8

Candlelight

In this sermon for All Saints Sunday, based on John 11:32-44, I explore the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  We are given a unique glimpse into the grief that even God has experienced in the face of death.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/where-were-you-lord-11-4-18

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

The grace and peace of the Triune God is yours, now and forever. Amen

There are times when I like to joke around that I’m turning into a hipster…but then I really got to thinking about it, and I realized that there are 5 signs that you are, in fact, a hipster.  Number one, you are a fan of facial hair…check.  Number two…you love craft beer…check.  Number three, you tend to wear baseball caps at an odd, ironic angle…which I do not do. Number four, you have a preference for wearing skinny jeans…nope.

And finally…the deciding factor…you have tattoos…which I don’t…so I guess I can say, for the moment anyway…that I’m only 40% hipster…but, someday that might shift…because I’ve always thought about getting some ink…so much so that I even know what I’ll get, if I ever decide to take the plunge.

There’s an image that I love…2 hands coming together…grasping each other at the wrist.  Now the first time that I saw this image was at the very end of the first Lord of the Rings movie back in 2001…(demonstrate the image) one of the characters, who can’t swim, has sank in a river, when another character reaches down from a boat…grabs his wrist, and after a brief second, they are both holding on as he gets pulled up out of the water.

This image is meaningful for me for a couple of reasons…one probably being because I’ve been pulled out of the water…many of you sitting out there have heard me tell the story of a time when I foolishly tried swimming out to a buoy in rough water and my brother in law had to pull me back to shore.

The second reason stems from that…when another impulsive decision on the part of Peter resulted in Jesus reaching out and taking him by the hand, lifting him up out of the water. And interestingly enough…this action of Jesus…grabbing another person by the hand…its something of a regular occurrence for him…especially in terms of the miracles that Jesus is famous for. Several different times…in different circumstances, we hear of Jesus grasping another person by the hand.  He heals several different people, including Peter’s mother in law, through his words combined with the action of grabbing the individual by the hand.  And in one instance…he even raises a young girl from the dead in this same way. And that’s worth paying attention to.

There are only three instances in the gospels of Jesus raising people from the dead…the young girl…a widow’s son when he walks up on the funeral procession…and today’s story of Lazarus. I can’t help but think that’s eye opening to consider, knowing how much stock we place on Jesus and his action of overcoming the power of death in the world…its strange to think that only 3 people are actually raised from the dead.

But today’s story is one of those times…but to be sure…the story of Jesus and Lazarus is an odd one.  For starters…I wish we knew a little more about the relationship between Jesus and this family…for he was close to Lazarus but also his sisters Martha and Mary…we hear about these three siblings in quite a few different instances….but we never really hear about the basis for their ongoing relationship, beyond the love that is expressed between them.

But regardless of their history…it would certainly seem that there is a sense of extreme familiarity, perhaps even a sense of duty that lies between them…evidence in the details within this greater story…a portion of which takes place before our action begins today.  Because for starters…Lazarus gets sick…we don’t know his ailment…but its serious enough for Martha to send off for Jesus…who’s hanging out somewhere in the region in the midst of his ministry.

Now keep in mind…Martha can’t just pick up a cell phone and shoot him a text…she had to send someone to look for him…and who knows how long that took…but when word finally reaches him…Jesus acknowledges that Lazarus is sick…and promptly stays put for a couple more days before finally meandering his way to Bethany…in fact he takes so much time in getting there…that by the time he approaches the village…Lazarus has been dead and sealed in the tomb for the better part of a week.

I can only imagine how frustrating this must have been for the sisters…and maybe you can too…ever been in a situation like that…one where duty or personal obligation dictates that you should put some hustle into the situation…or vice-versa that you expect the person you’ve reached out to to do the same?

That seems to be the case here as well…because before Jesus even makes it to the village, Martha hears he’s coming and she marches out to give him a piece of her mind…and in the midst of a back and forth between Jesus and Martha…one that I imagine was a touch on the heated side…she says “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (pause)

Now this isn’t the only time we hear it…because pretty soon Mary…who had stayed in the house when Martha stomped off the gates of town…Mary follows suit and heads out to find Jesus as well…and when she does…she says the exact same thing to him. “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  I can only think that both sisters are placing blame…casting some shade…seeking out a target for the grief and sadness and anger that they are feeling in the death of their brother…in the death of someone that they love. They might as well be saying “Its your fault he’s dead” or even asking the question “Where were you on this one Lord?”

I can’t help but think that we’ve all been there at one time or another…because death is a reality isn’t it? One that we’ve all encountered…and death’s a funny thing, though perhaps that’s not quite the right word for it…because sometimes death feels almost okay…but other times everything about it is wrong.

Circumstances can alter how we look at death…the life of the individual…how old they are…if they’ve battled a long illness…or if its an accident that comes out of nowhere…all of these things factor into our response…but if there is one thing in common, regardless of the circumstances…it’s the pain and the sorrow that we feel when death enters the picture.

Now here’s the thing. We’re not the only ones who feel it.  Because not just once…but twice in today’s story…we hear how deeply Jesus is moved…he is shocked…angry…deeply agitated within himself. Our English translation doesn’t do justice to what Jesus was feeling…and not only that but we hear that Jesus weeps openly when he come face to face with the death of a loved one.

And as we recognize the response of Jesus we begin to see that we are not alone in grieving…but that we have a God who mourns death just as we do…in fact I believe that the first being to mourn every single death is God…and that God is weeping before the reality even begins to take hold in our hearts and minds when something like this happens.

God is no stranger to the pain of loss…the emotion that comes with it…because God has experienced it first hand when the Word became flesh and dwelled among us…and this is why God has made us a promise over and over again in the scriptures…one that we heard today out of Revelation…now I don’t know if you are familiar with Revelation, but it’s the last book of the Bible and the reading today was one of the last parts of it. And this promise says that once this crazy broken-down messed up reality is over…that God will make everything new…somehow, someway…and not only that, but God will dwell among us…and he will wipe away every tear from our eyes…death will be no more…mourning and crying and pain will be no more. (pause)
I’ve often said…I have no idea what things are going to look like in the life to come…but somehow it seems that the pain that we feel now…the pain that gives us sorrow and tears…and the pain that makes us angry enough to scream out at God “Where were you on this one?” That will be no more.

And that gives me hope…even in the midst of times when everything else gets cloudy in the face of the pain…and this is a place that, perhaps, you find yourself in today…I’m guessing many from our community are still in this state…still feeling that anger and loss…still asking those questions after the tragic death of a high schooler just a couple weeks ago…a sense that we’ve felt before in our community in the face of tragedies that just don’t make any sense.

But we remember in these times, that not only do we have a God that mourns along side us…but we have a God who has done something about it…even in those times when we might be a little too sad or angry to see that hope clearly…that hope remains…and in these times, we look to each other for love and support.

We look to each other because together we are the hands and feet of God…together we are the body of Christ here on earth and we are called to lift each other up…because sometimes the immediate answer that God gives us when we ask “Where are you on this one” is to point us to look around and see those that are here to share our burdens with us.

There’s a painting that hangs up in the high school. Admittedly I don’t know what the story is behind it, but sometimes I wonder if its actually based on the same image from the movie that I talked about before…two hands grasping one other by the wrist…one whole and strong…the other bruised and scarred…and that my friends…is life…we do this for one another…knowing in the next instant that our strength might fail and we’ll need someone to take us by the hand…to mirror that love and that strength and that power to comes from God in the first place…that’s how we get through these times…holding onto the promise that one day…one glorious day…we like Lazarus, will hear a voice calling our name…a voice that is bigger…louder…greater even than death and the separation that it causes with those still living…a voice of one who knows the pain of mourning…and who will always be there to take us by the hand…in one way or another…and lift us up to new life. Amen.

Lord Have Mercy 10-28-18

In this sermon, based on Mark 10:46-52, I explore the healing of Blind Bartimaeus. This is Jesus’ final ministry act prior to his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem which marks the final week of his life. Jesus asks the same question that he posed to his disciples in the previous story. What do you want me to do for you?

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/lord-have-mercy-10-28-18

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

The grace and peace of the Triune God is yours, now and forever. Amen

I have to say that I am a huge fan of spellcheck…because my spelling is horrendous.  When I’m typing quickly, its super common for me to look up at the screen and see those little red squiggly lines under all kinds of words…because I often tend to spell something phonetically, even when that’s not correct.

This even catches us in today’s lesson…do you think I’m in anyway capable of spelling Bartimaeus correctly?  Its funny though…because the opposite side of things is also true at different times…because sometimes English is hard.  There are some words that I’ve discovered over the years, that trip me up.  Words that I might even use in regular conversation…but when I encounter them on the page…I don’t know what it is.

Now this has happened a lot…but two in particular come to mind.  I was way too old…probably about 7 or 8th grade…before I stopped pronouncing the written word chaos as “chose,” and I was also very sheepish when someone pointed out to me…in my 20’s…that the written word segue was not some random word “seg-you.”

Interestingly enough, we’ve even got one of these words that used to trip me up within our liturgy…most of you are familiar with our flow of worship…how we feature the Brief Order on page 56…but then, typically we move back out of the order of worship found in the hymnal…but the very next thing listed within the traditional liturgy is something called the Kyrie…a call and response, often chanted, portion that sounds like (sing) “In peace let us pray to the Lord…Lord have mercy.”

I grew up with this Liturgy…and the name…kyrie is printed right at the start of this portion…but for many years I looked at it and pronounced it “kie-ree.” And I’m embarrassed to announce that I didn’t learn the correct pronunciation until I was in Seminary.

Now, since we’re talking about this, maybe you’re wondering where the name Kyrie actually comes from…and its from the original language. We sing it in English…but the phrase Lord have mercy comes from the Greek Kyrie Elieson…Kyrie means Lord, and Elieson means have mercy.

Admittedly…this is some of the fancy seminary type stuff that they taught us in school…and I’ve shared before that I’m not overly fond of the big fancy terminology and 50-cent words…so this is one of those things that I learned…but then sorta just tucked in the back of my mind and forgot about.

But then this week I was working with the translation of the gospel text, as I usually do during my background sermon prep work…and I started focusing in on the word for mercy that we hear pop up a couple times…and in looking at that specific word…I realized, once again…my tendency to not connect the phonetics of how a word sounds with how a word looks on the page…until I’d been working with “elieson” for a few minutes…and in another instance of healing from Mark’s gospel…I found a time when Jesus talks about showing mercy…and sharing with others what the Lord has done…and with that, since I have the tendency to think out loud when I’m alone in the office, I said to myself “mercy from the Lord…Lord have mercy…like Kyrie Elieson.” And then the next thought that came spilling out was “duh Scott…you’re a pastor…you really should have known that.” (pause)

Now…all of these thoughts about my personal difficulties with the English language aside…this is an idea that we find within the gospel today…the healing of Blind Bartimaeus. An outcast…a beggar…cast aside to the fringe of society because of his disability…a man who must sit by the roadside…utterly dependent upon the pity of others to throw him a coin or two, in order to survive. But for whatever reason…call it luck or happenstance or serendipity…he happens to be along the way that Jesus is traveling in this last moment before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the final week of his life.

This story concludes the middle section of Mark’s gospel…one that we’ve been in for the past several weeks…a time of transition when Jesus has moved away from his early itinerant ministry around the region…and he’s moving towards the inevitable conclusion in Jerusalem that will culminate on the cross and in the tomb…this central part of the gospel features his teaching and miracles and encounters along the way.

Now interestingly enough…that whole section started off with the healing of another blind man…who the crowds bring to Jesus…and Jesus heals him as well…though that was a bit of an odd situation as Jesus seemingly has to try twice in order to get the healing done correctly…as the first attempt results in the man seeing people walking around looking like trees.

But before we get to the Bartimaeus here at the end of the section…several chapters go by that include events we continue to talk about, even as recently as a week ago…the predictions that Jesus makes about his betrayal and arrest…his torture and execution on the cross, but also the fact that on the third day he will be raised.

We’ve talked about these as we’ve encountered them…and the strange responses that the disciples have had each time Jesus makes the prediction…how their expectations are on display…or their bickering and jockeying for positions of authority and prestige, particularly with James and John a week ago.

Admittedly, I had that moment in mind as I approached this week’s gospel…because there’s a pretty stark overlap between the two stories.  In both stories…the interested party…James and John last week, and Bartimaeus this week…approach Jesus wanting something. And Jesus poses the exact same question both times, because it would seem that he wants them to admit just what it is they want.

What do you want me to do for you?  Now the brothers…they were looking for status…namely an increase for them at the expense of others…but Bartimaeus…well, as we hear from the get-go…he’s looking for something entirely different.

Jesus, Son of David…have mercy on me…and as the people in the crowd try to hush him up…making a quick judgement that he’s not worthy of Jesus’ time or attention…he cries out all the louder…JESUS SON OF DAVID, HAVE MERCY ON ME. (pause)

Mercy…He’s putting it right there on front street…and he’s appealing to one that he believes is able to offer it.  Now with this, Jesus turns his attention to the man…and despite the grumbling going on in the crowd around him…Jesus calls him…here’s another thing we hear multiple times…three times, the “call” of the Lord is offered to Bartimaeus…who jumps up and comes to him.
What do you want me to do for you? Teacher, let me see.  Your faith has made you well…and instantly his eyes are opened…and Bartimaes can see…he’s freed of the thing that has kept him pushed to the margins…the thing that has kept him hindered on the outside…and as we hear…this blind man, follows Jesus along the way.

That’s an important final statement…that Bartimaeus becomes a follower…in fact in Mark’s gospel there’s no more important command that Jesus makes…than the one that we hear over and over again from the Savior…Follow me. Discipleship here in Mark’s gospel means following the one who has called us…following the one who offers mercy to those who are seeking it.

I can’t help but think that’s why Mark placed those two stories right next to each other….especially with the exact same question being asked by Jesus. The repetition to should make us perk up and pay attention. The disciples wanted prestige and didn’t get it…because prestige is not for Jesus to bestow.  But Bart asked for mercy…and it is given to him.

Now as I think about this particular call to follow Jesus…which we can also say is a call into discipleship…I can’t help but think that the Lord calls those seeking mercy…and mercy is received…and maybe Jesus’ final statement to Bart is also telling…your faith has made you well.  Faith…believing that the mercy of the Lord IS offered to you freely…that the promises of the Lord are real and that they are for you.

Now maybe you see where I’m going with this…because as I look down at this font, I’m reminded that in the waters of baptism, we are given a physical representation of this promise of God’s mercy offered to us freely.  In baptism the promises are spoken over us that we have already been claimed by God as beloved children…and that it is made possible the through the action of God in the life death and resurrection of Jesus…that whatever it was that Jesus was accomplishing…its already done.

Baptism is not something that we are doing…its not something that I’m accomplishing as pastor…or the individual is earning or that their parents are achieving on their behalf…the action that happens in Baptism is God’s claim upon the individual, which was made through Christ 2000 years ago…this just gives us something tangible to hold on to in our moments of doubt or fear that we experience at different times in our lives.

And in a few moments, Breckin is going to share in that promise…one made freely by God for all people…as we cry out Lord have mercy…and thanks be to God that the mercy of the Lord is already given. Amen.

This Is Not Normal 10-21-18

In this sermon, based on Mark 10:32-45, I explore Jesus’ final Passion Prediction and the strange way that the disciples continue to react to it. It shouldn’t be normal…and in light of a tragedy in our community, it seems quite fitting.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/this-is-not-normal-10-21-18

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

The grace and peace of the Triune God is yours, now and forever. Amen

Yesterday I spent I pretty big portion of the day in the car, as my family road tripped up to the central part of the state for the funeral of my wife’s aunt. As we were driving in the morning, both my wife and I commented that it was strange that there weren’t very many farmers out in the field yet…with the mild dry and breezy weather that we’ve had the past few days finally making harvest work a possibility.

But that was the case…very little activity in the fields as we traveled in the morning.  But then on the way home, it was the polar opposite. Combines in almost every field…the tell-tale presence of a large dust cloud as the crops are pulled out…and as we drove along, it crossed my mind “now that’s more like it….this is what I expect to see this time of year…this is normal.” Year after year of history all adds up for us to build these images of normal, as we witness or even experience those things that just end up being common.

Now that being said…I can’t help but think that today’s scripture reveals something else that is starting to become normal. Now, as I mentioned, I included an extra couple of verses in the reading today…because the setting is important.  For the third and final time, Jesus has shared the prediction of his pending passion…his betrayal and arrest…his persecution and torture…his death on the cross…and perhaps most importantly…the good news of the resurrection that he will also experience.

We’ve heard the other two predictions in recent weeks…as all three occur in a fairly brief portion of Mark’s gospel…now here’s the thing.  Jesus doesn’t deviate much in terms of the details that he shares each time…but the thing that’s starting to become familiar…that’s becoming…normal…is the reaction on the part of the disciples.

The first time Peter makes a proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah…and Jesus responds “You betcha…now here’s what that means.” And Peter oversteps his bounds…rebuking Jesus, likely due to an misplaced expectation of just what the earthly Messiah means.

The second time around…Jesus predicts it again…and this time the disciples sorta clam up in front of him, but as they continue walking along they start bickering about who’s the greatest among them…and Jesus has to stop and redirect them again.

And now today…he makes the same prediction for the third and final time…and this time, its James and John who come up to him with this off-the wall request…now…I can’t help but think that they know this probably isn’t the smartest thing to be asking for…so maybe, just maybe they have been paying attention to what happened the first two times…but they come up to Jesus and say “Teacher…we want you to give us whatever we ask of you.” And Jesus…who probably already has a pretty good idea of what’s coming, poses quite the question back at them…What do you want me to do for you?

And with that…we hear this request to hold the places of honor, at the right hand and the left hand of Jesus when he comes into his glory. (pause)
Seriously…its bad enough that the disciples never seem to fully grasp what’s going on…and not only in these three instances…but honestly throughout the course of the gospels it constantly seems like they lack any shred of comprehension…like their boneheaded responses are just the normal thing that we come to expect from them.

But you know what…it shouldn’t be.  These 12 guys…these men who follow Jesus around to witness the ministry first-hand…never seem to get it…and what’s worse…in two out of the three passion predictions…it’s the big 3…Jesus’ inner circle of Peter, James, and John…who misread things…and honestly…the gospel of Jesus Christ…the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near to us through the incarnate word of God made flesh in Jesus…that’s WAY to big to get brushed off with these boneheaded responses of the disciples…maybe we think its normal…but it shouldn’t be normal. (pause)

Now with this…I need to switch gears…Friday morning, I walked into the office with an expectation in mind…but I was a little off…because as I had taken my kids to school, I had seen and heard several patrol cars as well as the firetruck and ambulance go flying up the hill out of town…and for some reason, the thought went through my head…this is a big one.

Admittedly…I was already a little edgy going into the day…many of you sitting out there probably know the significance of October 19th here in our community…but I sat down at my desk and started working…only to get a message a few minutes later with some of the worst news we can get.

There’s been a car accident…and a student from the high school has been killed…now at this point it was only a rumor…but one that prompted me to reach out to the principal up the hill…and to quickly receive confirmation that yes…that’s what happened…and with that I jumped in the car to go be present and help out at the school in any way that I could.

When I arrived, the students were all in their classrooms…and they were being told what had happened…and as I sat there in the commons, talking with a few of the administration, I knew what I was going to see next.  I was going to see students come back out into the hallways crying…I was going to see them utterly devastated…clinging to one another in the shock…some would continue to walk around the school with that shocked look on their face…some would call their parents and go home…and over the course of the next couple of hours, the school day would continue on as many of them defaulted back into the familiar…upset and shaken…and yet trying their best to go on with things.

And that’s exactly what happened…now here’s the painful thing about this…I knew what to expect…because this isn’t the first time I’ve been at that school when something like this has happened. 3 times in the past 4 years our high school has experienced the tragedy of the death of a classmate…a life lost far too soon…and this should not be normal.

(pause) Now please don’t think that I’m trivializing this in anyway…its heart breaking…utterly devastating…and I know enough of those kids up the hill to feel the anguish of having been through this, not just once, and not twice, but now three times.  And to know that as devastating as it might be for the school and the community…that there is a family who has now experienced the nightmare that you don’t wish on anyone.

And if you have heard the news report about the accident…you know how bad this is without me needing to say it…and I’ve had conversations with several different people in the meantime…conversations that pretty much end up saying “this doesn’t make sense?” or “I want to know why?” And usually once they say that, they follow it up with “and I know I can’t know, and that’s not right.”

There’s a lot of truth in that…when a tragedy like this happens…something that we can’t make heads or tails of…it usually leaves us with a bitter taste in our mouths…and we’re either really sad or we’re really angry…and often we look for someone or something to aim that emotion at.

And as we consider that…maybe, just maybe…Jesus response to James and John is fitting today…what do you want me to do for you? The quick answer…is that we want God to take it away…to snap his fingers and make it just a bad dream that didn’t actually happen…but our broken reality has also shown us that this is not what’s going to happen…because Jesus did not come into our reality in order to serve as something of a magic lamp…to grant wishes to us…I can only think that Jesus had something much bigger and more profound in mind, not only as he predicted his passion…but as he actually experienced it.

Because in the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus…God was doing something about this broken reality that we live in…a reality that includes pain and suffering and death…whatever it was that Jesus was accomplishing…the promise of the gospel assures us that whenever death rears its ugly head…it doesn’t get the last word…God does…because God mourns this reality just like we do…and God knows that while it might feel normal…it shouldn’t.

This is the gospel…that while we were sinners, Christ died for us…and this is true whether we feel good about it or not.  I don’t know about you…but in light of this tragic death…just like the others like it that our community has experienced…sometimes these promises of the gospel feel kinda bitter…but the truth is that the promises don’t change based on how we feel. (pause)
Once more, our community has experienced a tragedy…and now together, we will all try our best to find the new normal going forward…and as we do, whether this feels trite right now in the moment, or if it is a comfort…we have a God who is walking this road with us…a God who has promised to never forsake us even in the times when we find ourselves hollering and screaming at him…God will take it…so if that’s what you need to do…if that’s what you need to feel…feel it, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

This is not normal…nor should it be…but regardless of how we find ourselves feeling right here, right now…know that God doesn’t think its normal either…and even if it doesn’t feel like it, God HAS already done something about it. Amen.