Being Known 4-22-18

In this sermon, based on John 10:11-18, I explore Jesus’ statement “I am the Good Shepherd.” This passage implies a sense of familiarity within relationship.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/being-known-4-22-18

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

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

I will be the first one to admit that I do not know much about cars. I know you step on the tall skinny pedal to go faster. I know you step on the shorter rectangular shaped one to slow down. I know you need to put fuel in or you aren’t going anywhere.  I can change a tire…I can check the oil and if push came to shove I could probably accomplish an oil change…but that’s about it.

However, there was one time in my younger years when I did pull something off that made me sorta proud. I must have been about 16 or 17, still living at home, and it was winter. Now my dad had a habit of starting the cars when he went out for morning chores, just to get them running against the chill that sets into an engine after sitting outside on a winter night…but this particular day, Dad wasn’t able to get my car started.

It was an old beater, typical of a high school farm kid. And somehow dad manage to flood it. So when I stepped over the car a moment later, not realizing that Dad had already tried it…I managed to start it without too much trouble. And Dad asked me “How’d you do that? I couldn’t get it to start a minute ago.” And my reply, “Well, I drive it every day. I know all the quirks.” (pause)

Now that sense of familiarity that we have with our old cars…that’s really something isn’t it? The way you just sorta know it. That’s why its always a little nerve-wracking when you start driving a new car, because you don’t have that sense like you do with an old one. You know the quirks…you know the bumps and the rattles that are just “normal” for that car as you buzz down the road. You also know the rattles that AREN’T normal, and prompt you to get into the mechanic. You know the buttons that don’t work. You know how to smack the dash board when the radio cuts out. Its familiar…you just…know…it.

We can develop that same sense of familiarity within our relationships too can’t we? The way we recognize someone’s quirks and their tendencies. The way we can anticipate their reaction to a familiar situation. Like the way you can tell when your spouse walks in the door at the end of the day if it was a good one or not. Or how you know when your child is going to be a little bit touchy by a certain point of the week because they’re worn out. You just know.

As I think about this, I’m reminded of the old days of telephones, back before caller id. When that phone hanging on the wall rang, you didn’t know who was on the other end…but you picked it up…and if it was the right person, you knew it as soon as they said the word “Hey” because you know their voice. Its familiar…its comfortable even.

Now all of these different things indicate a sense of community…of familiarity, we can even use the word intimacy to describe the relationship that exists…and because of this familiar nature…that we develop a sense of comfort with one another…trust…even love. That knowledge that probably goes without saying that this other person has your best interest at heart. (pause)

But what does all this have to do with shepherds and sheep…with gates and pens, and wolves and hired hands? That’s the gospel lesson…and it comes from a larger batch of teaching on the part of Jesus that we feature each year on the 4th Sunday of Easter, which has come to be known as Good Shepherd Sunday.

But this whole big teaching on the part of Jesus…its in response to something specific…as it follows the healing of the man born blind. Jesus happens across this random individual who’s been blind since birth…a condition that brings with it all kinds of hardships…most of which boil down to his lifelong exclusion from the joy of true community and relationship.
Now if you know that story, you know there’s a lot of back and forth for the guy as the religious elite continue to hound him about what happened before finally getting fed up and kicking him out of the synagogue. Its only then that Jesus finds him again and invites him into community…and with this the big wigs start butting heads with Jesus again.

And now he launches into a chapter long discourse talking about all these things. Sheep held in the pen…thieves and bandits trying to break in. But I am the gate…the shepherd comes through the gate and calls his sheep by name. He knows them and they follow him because they know him and they know his voice.

Then it goes it on. He stays in the same theme but changes it up a bit as we hear, not once but twice today. I am the good shepherd. And just as I know the Father and the father knows me, I know the sheep and they know me.  He even goes on and repeats the same sort of thing again after today’s portion when we hear “my sheep know my voice. I know them and they follow me.” (pause) Are you sensing a trend? I’m guessing so…of knowing one another…familiarity. Community. Relationship. Acceptance…trust. Its all in there isn’t it?

Now the imagery that Jesus uses here is interesting…and perhaps familiar. Anyone who’s ever seen, or better yet heard…a farmer calling their cows into the barn has witnessed this. I’ve told the story before of Dad sending out to round up the cows in the pasture…only to have them stare at me as I try to push them up to the barn…and then dad stepped outside and with one holler of COMEBOSS…they all go traipsing in….it was maddening for me, but it’s a great illustration here. (pause)

Think about those voices in your life…the ones that you instantly recognize…the ones that carry enough familiarity, or love, or perhaps we can even say authority that your ears perk right up and make you pay attention…who’s voice are they?  Who are those who fall under the category of shepherd in today’s story…the one who calls out and you trust them enough to follow…maybe metaphorically and maybe even literally.

Now as Jesus is talking today…we hear it, not once but twice…that he is the shepherd…he is the one calling…but we need to pay attention to how its worded.  I am…the good shepherd. I am…the one who calls.  I am the one who leads. I am.

Recognize that name?  You can bet the Jewish audience that heard him that day did?  Because I am is the name that God…the Lord…Yahway…that’s the name that God told Moses to use. And Jesus claims it hear along with the distinction of shepherd.  And this isn’t the only time. In fact he does 7 different times here in John.

And when we stop and think about it…that’s a pretty big deal…because I am…is also the one who made all of this in the first place.  God said let there be light.  God said let there be order…Let there be land and sea and sky…let there be night and day….God said let there be plants and fish and birds and animals…and finally God said let there be people…who’s the one who said this? I am…that’s who…and now the one who claims the name I am…the one who claims the identity of the one who made all of this and all of us…offers all of us a place in the flock…he tells us that we are numbered among those whom he knows.

(pause) You know what, I want to stick with the whole livestock imagery for just a moment. I don’t know sheep. I’ve never really worked with them…but I know cows. And in my younger days I could walk past that herd and at glance I could tell you which ones were the good milkers…which ones always went to the right stanchion. Which ones never raised a foot…I could tell you the good ones.  But I could also tell at a glance which ones had kicked me lately…which ones took extra work to get locked into place…I could tell at a glance which ones were frustrating just as easily as which ones were favorable…because I knew them.

Now apply this same sense to the one who calls himself I Am. He is the one who made you and he is the one who loves you…and this is a huge deal, because he loves you…he claims you as his own regardless of what category you fall into in any particular moment.

And this is the crazy, mind blowing thing about the gospel of Jesus Christ…that he claims us period. Now I don’t know about you…but I know me pretty well…and I know full well that there are many times in my day when I do not feel overly loveable…and yet…there is one who calls me by name because he knows me…and there is something about that call that makes my ears perk up and pay attention.

And it is perhaps BECAUSE of the familiarity in this voice that knows me at my worst and loves me anyway.  It is a far greater thing to be loved at our worst than it is to be loved at our best. And yet, while we were still sinners…Christ died for us.  While we were sinners Christ laid down his life for us…and no one has greater love than this, than to lay down their life for their friends.

That is the voice of the one who calls to us…and there is something in that voice that somehow, someway makes us sit up and pay attention. I can only think that it is through the power of God at work…through the presence of the Holy Spirit acting within us that would make us pay attention…because the story of the gospel is so utterly laughable, that reason says we should just ignore it…and yet something within us listens when the voice of the one who is called I Am calls us by name. This same one who calls us has named us and has claimed us out of his earthshattering love for the ones that he knows….and that’s you. You are known and just as you are right now, you are loved…and that’s really something isn’t it? Amen.

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This Is What I Have Witnessed 4-15-18

In this sermon, taken from Luke 24:36b-48, I explore another resurrection appearance of Jesus in which he charges the disciples to serve as witnesses to what they have experienced.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/this-is-what-i-have-witnessed-4-15-18

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

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

We get some weird weather here in Iowa don’t we?  Over the course of the past couple of winters, we’ve seen…or perhaps heard would be the better word…thunder-snow…which seems like an oxymoron just to say…but we’ve witnessed it haven’t we?

Well Friday morning I was listening to the weather report in the car and heard the weather man say “today we’ll experience spring like conditions…with Omaha temps possibly even reaching 80 degrees. With the warm air swirling around, there is a chance of developing tornados.  But then tomorrow we’re in a winter storm watch.” I heard this crazy forecast and thought to myself….well now I’ve heard of everything.

But the craziness didn’t stop there. A little while later, I was sitting in my office pondering on today’s text, and I noticed the wind had really come up…not unexpected with the crazy weather systems moving around…but as I sat there looking out my window…I heard something rattling and looked down to see a empty tall boy Bud Light can come rolling up the parking lot…I sent a text to a friend of mine about it…and he called it Small Town Iowa Tumbleweed…which made me laugh but also seemed pretty fitting…and as I was laughing, wouldn’t you know it, a second one came rolling by as well…and I thought to myself…well now I’ve seen everything. (pause)

And the more I thought about it…the more fitting it seemed.  It was crazy…it was certainly unexpected…but I can’t deny that I saw it…This is what I’ve witnessed…beer cans LITERALLY rolling uphill. (pause)

Now its this idea of witnessing some truly unexpected and out of the ordinary things that I connect us into today’s gospel. Here we are, the third Sunday of Easter…and as we’ve done for the past couple of weeks, we continue hearing from different accounts of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ…God in human form…the word made flesh which dwelled among us…this being that is fully human and yet fully divine, who was betrayed…who was tortured and hung on a cross where he died…who was buried in a tomb for several days before the unexpected happened…and he was alive again.

Now maybe, just maybe, you thought today’s resurrection appearance of Jesus sounds kinda familiar…and I wouldn’t fault you if you did…because it does sound an awful lot like what we hear a week ago out of John…a story in which the resurrected Jesus appears not just once but twice, somehow appearing within a locked room…showing the marks in his hands and side, offering a literal word of peace to the astonished and frightened disciples, not to mention singling out Thomas…that’s what we heard last week.

And of course, this time around Luke isn’t far off…but let me set the scene…here in Luke…its still the same day of the Resurrection…we’ve had a couple of weeks go by since we celebrated the empty tomb…but for everyone involved here in Luke…things are still up in the air…Early in the morning the women go to the tomb…they find it empty…angels have told them what’s going on and sent them to the disciples…the disciples utterly disregard what the women share…they pretty much ignore their testimony…then a little later that same day…Jesus has appeared along with two of his random disciples as they trudge along the road between Jerusalem and a nearby village of Emmaus that lies about 10 miles away.

Now those two individuals failed to recognize him for who he was…but as they’re together he opens the scriptures to them…helping them to understand how the written law and the prophets, what we would call the Old Testament, all points towards the Messiah…and then finally, in the evening, once they’ve reached their destination Jesus breaks bread with them…their eyes are opened to see him for who he is, and he promptly disappears…they pick up and run back to the city where they find the disciples…everyone’s in a great big tizzy over this…

And then…once again…this same night, as they are all locked away together trying to make head’s or tails of this whole deal…Jesus is standing among them. (pause) Now the same thing happens here that we have come to expect…because we know the story…but if we stop and think about it…if we stop and place ourselves in the disciples shoes in this moment…this is the last thing that should happen isn’t it?

He’s dead…we all saw it…we saw his tomb…we know he was buried and all logic tells us that there’s no coming back from that. Regardless of what the women said this morning…regardless of this crazy story that Cleopus and his companion are telling us from Emmaus….there’s no coming back from the dead.

And yet…in the midst of this crazy exchange…here he is…standing among us…and his first words “Peace be with you.” (pause) Now I don’t know about you…but if I was in a locked room and a dude that I know was dead is suddenly standing here talking to me…peace is probably the last thing on my mind…If it happened me today, I’m guessing my response would be pretty colorful, and not really appropriate to repeat here in the pulpit…I’ll let you fill in the blanks there.

But yet, this is what’s going on…and as we hear, the disciples are UTTERLY freaked out…thinking that they’ve seen a ghost…and rightly so…the guy was dead. But Jesus isn’t going to let their minds stay there is he…and he takes steps to prove that the opposite is now true.

Now EARLY Christian scholars…going back to about the 2nd century have written about practices that a person goes through to prove something like this…which in itself is odd…but apparently people were commonly mistaken for spirits in the first century…and two of the proofs are right here in the texts…

The first one is to prove that you have bones…because apparently ghosts have no skeleton…and consider…what are the boniest parts of the human body? Your hands and feet right? And what does Jesus say “Look at my hands and my feet.” He shows them…and then he takes the second step which is to eat in their presence…the whole first part of this encounter is Jesus slowly convincing the disciples that he is…in fact…alive.

He was dead…none of them dispute that…and now, somehow, he’s alive again…and gradually their fear and astonishment turns into belief and joy as Jesus opens their minds to understand what the scriptures have said about him…and not only that but then he gives them a mission…that the gospel of repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in the name of the risen Jesus throughout all nations, beginning right there where they were…in Jerusalem.

And then he gives them an important reminder…You are witnesses to these things…Now that’s a big statement…because I don’t think Jesus is talking about this amazing moment, although that’s included…I think he’s talking about this whole deal starting all the way back at the beginning.  I can’t help but notice that the message of repentance and forgiveness sounds a bit like John the Baptist and his message when the gospel’s begin…so maybe just maybe Jesus is saying “hey guys…you’ve been along for this whole ride…you’ve seen the miracles…you’ve heard the teaching…you’ve seen lives changed…you’ve seen boundaries crossed…you’ve seen me die and you’ve seen that I’m alive again. You’re witnesses to all this. Now its about time for you to do what witnesses do. Testify.” (pause)

Here’s the thing…Luke pretty much ends right here…there are only a couple more verses after this, in which we hear about Jesus’ Ascension to heaven and that the disciples remain in Jerusalem…but Luke’s writing isn’t done yet…because he also wrote the book of Acts…in which we see the disciples start living up to the title of witness…and through their work…through their testimony of what they have seen and experienced…God gives the growth this earliest church…God grows the body of Christ through the activity of humanity.

Now here’s the big thing that I think is so important about all of this…I believe that Jesus is showing the disciples…and not only them, but us as well…because of the ongoing witness of those who have come before us in the ever-growing body of Christ which still exists 2000 years later, and also through the testimony of the scriptures we continue to find the divine work of God going on in and through the human.

This is the mindblowing thing about the gospel which we find in the midst of all of the scriptures…Everything up to this point has reminded us that the divine is UTTERLY other than the human…that humanity is broken and flawed and sinful…and we are, I’m not disputing that in the least way…and because of this reality, that which is divine is separated…and it would seem that our brokenness hinders our encounter, or our ability to experience the divine.

But what if the Christ event…which includes the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus, who is both fully God and also fully human…what if this is God’s way of showing us that the brokenness which permeates our creation will not stop the presence of the divine?

What if the life death and resurrection of Jesus, is culminating here in the once fully dead and now fully not dead Jesus showing us his human form as a way of reminding us that the divine can and DOES exist within humanity as well?

Let us never forget that each and every member of the human race is created bearing the divine image of God…and that our very existence…our creation begins from a place of love and delight on the part of the divine…and the brokenness which is present, doesn’t come about until the 3rd chapter of our existence…we may be broken but we don’t start there.

And whatever it is that God is up to here in our reality through Jesus Christ…it has SOMEHOW overcome that which separates our existence from the one who made us in the first place. And that whatever this ongoing divine action is here in the world…we are witnesses to it, and as witnesses we are called to do the very same thing that the original disciples were called to do…to testify. This is what I have seen…this is what I have experienced. Come and see for yourself.

We are called to do this because that is how God is continuing to draw all people to himself…by the ongoing testimony of flawed and broken people who can testify to the fact that we have a God who has claimed us despite that very brokenness…and that through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ this same God has laid claim on every member of the human race….and there is NOTHING that will stand in the way of that claim…not even death. (pause)

Now remember, that Jesus gave a bit of proof to this new life by eating something…and in a few more minutes, we’ll do the same…because we will share together in a meal in which we hear the words that Christ’s body and blood were broken and shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins. Do this for the remembrance of me.

Eat it…drink it…and remember it, and know that this is what you have witnessed to be true…and that you are called to testify that it is true.  Amen.

A Locked Door 4-8-18

In this sermon, based on John 20:19-31, I explore the first few post-resurrection appearances of Jesus and what they mean for the disciples who were present.

You can listen the the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/a-locked-door-4-8-18

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

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Anyone ever found themselves on the wrong side of a locked door? It’s the worst isn’t it? As I think back, I can remember encountering this situation twice. Now the first time was during my first year at Iowa State. I got up one morning, like any other morning, and headed down the hallway to the bathroom for a shower. Now…during the time that I was in the shower, my roommate headed out for the day…and he did not realize that I was still on the floor…and so as he left, he locked the door.

And a moment later I came walking back down the hallway only to discover I was locked out…and wearing nothing but a towel…Panic ensues…Actually it wasn’t too bad…and a quick knock on a neighbors door and a call to the RA on duty got me back into the room within a couple of minutes.

Now the second time actually occurred on my wedding day of all days. 2 of my friends and I had taken my soon to be wife’s car to the carwash to get it all nice and shiny for the big day…and then headed back to my apartment. We got out of the car…out of habit I hit the door lock and slammed the car door…and instantly knew I had just locked the keys inside.

Fortunately, we hopped in one of the other’s guys car and zipped across town to my in-laws house…where we quickly managed to find an extra set of keys for her car…and I also managed to avoid the bad-luck scenario of seeing the bride too early on our wedding day…so all in all it worked out fine. (pause) But being locked out…That is the WORST feeling in the world, especially knowing that you did it to yourself.

Now…this idea of locked doors points us in the direction of today’s gospel lesson…a common one…one that comes up each and every year the week after Easter…that of the disciples locked away out of fear…and the Resurrected Lord appearing among them.

Now the setting is important here…and so’s the narration that we’re given by John…because we see the passage of time within this story…and if we’re paying attention we notice that this includes not 1 but 2 resurrection appearances of Jesus, though not the first one…but before we jump into this story…it’s probably a good idea to glance back at the first one.

Now, it probably goes without saying that the Easter Resurrection story here in John is a little different than what we heard last week out of Mark…a week ago we heard that the women who found the empty tomb ran off and said nothing to anyone out of fear. But John offers slightly different detail. Here in John, there’s only 1 woman at the tomb…Mary Magdalene…and this time we hear that the resurrected Jesus actually appears and encounters Mary.

If you’re familiar with the story…you know that she doesn’t recognize him at first…mistaking him for the gardener until he calls her by name, revealing something intimate in their connection…and with it Mary recognizes the Risen Lord. She runs off to tell the disciples with the mind-blowing testimony That “I HAVE SEEN THE LORD.”

Now here’s the weird thing…her passionate testimony…this story…this proclamation…this message that, maybe we would call “good news.” It doesn’t seem to take root…it doesn’t seem like the disciples, a couple of whom have already seen the empty tomb for themselves…it doesn’t seem like they buy her story…and so we fast forward from that morning…the morning of Resurrection Sunday…to evening of the same day…

And this is where the story picks up today. For us, its been a week…and maybe we’ve all experienced the come down from the celebration that is Easter Sunday…but regardless, here we are…but for the disciples, as we pick up today its just Sunday.  Jesus was betrayed and arrested and tortured and killed all within the past couple of days…and they’re huddled up behind closed doors…locked in out of fear…whatever Mary told them that morning, doesn’t seem like its had much of effect in the joy category does it?

I can only imagine what the mood was like in that house…in that place where they’ve gathered. Doesn’t seem like they’d be laughing and joking…its probably like any house that’s just experienced the death of a loved one…its usually quiet…subdued…as everyone there tries to process the reality that the person they loved is gone…and in this case…not only is the grief present…but so is the fear.

Jesus had been arrested and killed as an enemy of the state…that’s why he was crucified by the Romans…but he was targeted because he posed a threat to the cultural status quo of the powers that be in the Jewish culture…and the disciples were associated with him…this is why we hear of Peter’s denial during Jesus’ trial…this is why they all fled from the garden when Jesus was arrested…and this is why they’re locked away now…out of fear that they are going to suffer the exact same fate.

Perhaps its no coincidence that John tells us that now its evening…darkness is falling…and keep in mind that theme that runs throughout John’s gospel of light and darkness…the light of life shines, and the darkness of sin and brokenness and death within the world fights tooth and nail to squash it out…maybe its not out of line to say that the disciples were experiencing a “dark night of the soul” in this moment.

And yet…here in the midst of their grief…in the midst of their fear…this hopeless sense that they were metaphorically locked up in…not to mention the literal locked door of the house where they were hiding…in the midst of it…suddenly the Resurrected Jesus is there with the words “Peace be with you” and he says it not once but twice as he’s showing them the marks in his hands and side.

There can be no doubt…this is Jesus…somehow alive again…somehow here standing among them…and it is in this moment of recognition that the truth of Mary’s testimony…of HER good news begins to sink in…as they, in turn, are encountered by the Risen Lord, just like she did in the garden.

With this…we hear that Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into them…certainly reminiscent of the story that we’ll hear from Luke at Pentecost in a few more weeks…and now, empowered by the Holy Spirit within them…strengthened by their own personal encounter with the Risen, Resurrected Jesus Christ…we hear “Just as the father has sent me, so I send you.”

And with this…these 10 individuals, experience a change in identity…For up to this point, they’ve been disciples…followers of Christ…for that’s what disciples are…individuals who follow along after another…learning from them…being shaped by them…and up to this point, that is what they have done…that is what they have been.

But now, with Jesus literally sending them…they take on a new name…Apostle.  Because that’s what apostle means…one who is sent by God with a message. Sure we tend to use disciple and apostle interchangeably…but they do mean two different things. (pause)

Now here’s the thing…a second ago I said there were 10 disciples here…but when we think disciples we think 12 right? Well Judas is gone…he’s committed suicide by this point…and as we hear…Good ole Thomas the doubter is somewhere else. But these 10 Apostles, empowered the Spirit, they fill their new role by finding their friend Thomas and sharing the good news, just as Mary had shared with them. We have seen the Lord. (pause) And how does that go?

Yah…ummm unless I see his hands and stick my finger in the nail holes…I don’t buy it…WAY TO GO THOMAS…what do you think guys…let’s give him a nickname that will stick for the next 2000 years. (singsong) DOUBTING THOMAS…DOUBTING THOMAS.

But wait a sec…didn’t they JUST do the exact same thing?  Didn’t they just hear the good news of the resurrected Jesus and ignore it? (singsong) DOUBTING DISCIPLES…DOUBTING DISCIPLES. (pause) Now we know what happens next don’t we…a week goes by…and apparently, they’ve got a pretty short memory, because once again, they’re all locked up…and the same thing happens…once again, Jesus passes through the walls…through the locked door…and is standing among them…and this time there’s Thomas…and he has his encounter with the Risen Lord…and unlike the rest of the disciples turned Apostles…he makes the proclamation My Lord and my God…he’s the only one who ever does that. (pause)

Here’s the thing…long has Thomas gotten a bad rap…but I can’t help but think that its misplaced…Thomas needed to experience a personal encounter with the Risen Lord before this mind-blowing reality of a risen Lord could sink into his heart. And I find myself wondering…are we any different?

I often think about my own experience…and how many times I had to hear the gospel…the good news…before it actually touched my heart…before I experienced that spiritual 2×4 that I often talk about…and I think about the “locked doors” that prevented it… “Locked doors” some of which were self-inflicted, whether I realized it or not…and I wonder about the “locked doors” that existed, or perhaps still exist…in your lives.

The doubts…the fears…the concerns…pride…whatever it is that stands in the way…somehow Jesus has overcome it…maybe this is why we hear, not once but twice…in two different occurrences that Jesus is able to somehow pass through the barriers that stand in the way in order to be revealed to those that he loves and claims as his own.

And so when we stop and think about that…what does it reveal about our God?  That we have a God who willingly wades into every single place of death and despair in order to bring new life out of it. This is what the resurrection shows us…that there is no length that our God will not go to for you…that no matter what the barrier…no matter what the closed door…no matter what the lock…not even death is enough to keep our God away from you…this is what the resurrection is about…about our God bringing new life out of every single place of death and brokenness…even the ones that we create for ourselves.

We’re all Thomas…every single one of us…at one time or another…and maybe even a lot times over the course of our lives…but you know what…that’s not a bad thing…that’s just the way it is…and that’s not a reality to mourn…it’s a reality that reveals over and over again, a God who cares SO much about every single individual that no amount of locked doors, whether literal or metaphorical, will ever be able to get in the way…and it is my hope and my prayer that we can be a people who will continue to share this good news…because I believe that we have been sent…just like the disciples…we are apostles, called to carry the good news of this God who won’t stay dead…whether it makes sense or not. Amen.

He’s Not Even In There 4-1-18 Easter Sunday

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In this Easter Sunday sermon, I explore Mark’s account of the Resurrection. The tomb is empty, but the Risen Jesus is no where to be seen.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/hes-not-even-in-there-4-1-18-easter-sunday

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

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

It probably goes without saying…but as a pastor I spend a lot of Sunday’s in churches…no big surprise, comes with the job. Now, most of time…most of those Sundays, this is the church where I’m at…again, no big surprise…but every once in a while a Sunday comes around when I find myself in a different church.

The most recent example of this happened just 2 weeks ago…14 days back I was not in Underwood Lutheran…but rather I found myself in a slightly larger place called the Church of the Holy Sepulcher…in Jerusalem.

Now this enormous cathedral is built over the site considered by many to house both the location where Jesus was crucified, as well as the location of the tomb where they laid him following his death on the cross. The two spots aren’t far apart…maybe separated by 100 feet or so…but within this one church, they are two very different focal points…the tomb has actually been enclosed into a tiny chapel, itself located inside this one great big church…and as our small group of Holy Land travelers went in…it took a bit of time before we could enter the tomb.

Now this tiny chapel that houses the tomb itself is not large. The entire structure would probably fit inside the narthex right outside our sanctuary doors…but before we could go it to see it…we had to wait in line…because of course we weren’t the only ones there. Now the line actually spun around the outside of the chapel structure…and MAN did it move slow.

We got in line…and we waited…and we waited…and we waited some more…every once in a while we’d take 2 or 3 baby steps forward…inching our way around the chapel towards the entry to the tomb of Jesus. As we moved closer, the people in line got packed in tighter and tighter as we funneled down into to single file…and needless to say we were all getting a little restless, both from the close proximity as well as the time that we were standing there.  Finally, after we’d been inching forward in line for about an hour…and were still roughly 30 minutes away from entering the tomb…one of the people from our group said “Seriously…why are we waiting…he’s not even in there.”

Now it was a sarcastic comment and we all laughed…but then I got to thinking about it…and by golly…there is some deep theological truth in that snarky comment isn’t there? And that’s a statement that sounds pretty familiar doesn’t it? (pause)

Easter Sunday…the day of the Resurrection…the time when we gather here in the church to celebrate God’s defeat over the powers of darkness…that through the resurrection of Christ the powers of sin and death have been overcome. We cue the trumpets…we smell the Easter lilies…it’s a time of celebration. But this time around it’s a little odd isn’t it…because this year we hear from Mark.

Early…EARLY on Sunday morning…the sun’s not even up yet…and we hear that Mary Magdalene, and another Mary, and Salome…3 women who had witnessed the death of Jesus on the cross on Friday…these women who watched as they took his lifeless body down, wrapped it up and laid it in that tomb…they watched as the giant stone was pushed in front of the door.  These women who have witnessed it all are on their way for a difficult task.

They plan to anoint the body of Jesus…but they’ve got some things working against them don’t they?  He’s already been dead for a while…his body would already be decomposing, which defeats the purpose of anointing him.

And not only that but as they’re walking along they have one of those startling moments of realization…one of those moments when you realize that what you’re attempting to do is complete futile…like when you get to the check-out counter only to realize that you left your wallet in your other pants…They ask “who’s gonna roll away the stone for us? We can’t do it.”

Maybe, just maybe these women are feeling utter defeat, and yet in the face of everything, they arrive at the tomb. Now here’s the crazy part…the stone’s already moved…and so, edgy and scared, they poke their heads inside…and there stands an angel.

And now that feeling of defeat turns into fear…into anguish…in fact its same exact thing that Jesus himself experienced in the Garden a few night back as he was sweating blood in anguish…this is the same feeling that the women are now experiencing…and who knows why…maybe its at the presence of the angel…maybe its because the tomb is empty…maybe its both…

But its stands to reason, as we consider all this, that for them…NONE of this made sense. He was dead…they saw it…they watched as he was placed here…and everyone knows that the dead don’t just get up and leave…and now to top it all off here’s an angelic heavenly being and we’ve heard in many places in scripture that this seems to be a freaky situation when an angel shows up…and yet the angel assures them…do not be afraid.

For the angel knows why they are here…and angel also knows the futility of their visit. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth…the one who was crucified…He…is…not…here.”(pause) Honestly, we could have used that same angelic proclamation 2 weeks ago in Jerusalem. What do you want in there for…he’s not even in there.

Now maybe this all sounds familiar…that’s the part of the story that’s pretty much the same regardless of what gospel account we hear from…but remember Mark’s different. The angel goes on. Jesus is not here…but go and tell the disciples and Peter that he has gone on a head of you into Galilee…there you will see him…And the women…still utterly freaked out, run off…and say nothing to anyone.

WAIT…WHAT? Its Easter…the tomb is empty…Jesus is risen…what do you mean they said nothing? That’s weird…I think we better read on and see what comes next right? (pause) But here’s the kicker. There’s nothing more to read. Mark ends here…strange as that might seem…and yah its weird…so weird in fact that a few hundred years later some well-meaning monks tacked on a couple extra endings just to try and tidy it up for us.

But maybe we can’t tidy anything up…because think about it. Easter is about resurrection…but resurrection starts from a place of death right…it has to…and logic, along with our personal experience, together these things tell us that there’s no coming from back from death. And the women at the tomb that day…I’m guessing they thought the exact same thing.

So what do we do with this today? What are we to make of this odd ball, utterly abrupt ending of the gospel of Jesus Christ? What are we to make of this empty tomb and this Easter story that lacks actually seeing a Risen Jesus? What are we to make of this oddball decree to go out into Galilee where we’ll see him?

I think that perhaps…odd and confusing as this all is…it is perhaps the best possible way to hear about the resurrection…because it doesn’t make sense…and yet we profess that it is true…We can’t quite understand it…and we sure as heck can’t explain it…and maybe like the women, we just walk away confused by this whole deal, and don’t say anything to anyone…because honestly…who would believe it right? Dude was dead and now he’s not? He was in the tomb and now its empty…HUH?

But here’s the thing. This isn’t the end…and if you don’t believe me, let’s back up to the start of Mark’s Gospel. Chapter 1 verse 1. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (pause) I don’t think Mark spent 16 chapters telling us the whole story…I think Mark spent 16 chapters telling us the beginning of it. And here, with the women running off from the empty tomb…that’s not the ending…that’s just the conclusion of the beginning.

We cannot hear this amazing news of Jesus, raised from the dead…this amazing news of how God has stepped right into death and brought new life out of it, not only for Jesus but for all life through him. We cannot hear it and simply walk out of here today unchanged…perhaps to step back in next week or next month or next year to simply hear the same message again.

Resurrection life is about becoming something different than we were before…about life looking different…about life being lived different than it was before the empty tomb. (pause) This is what’s happened…and this is what Easter is really all about…not about lilies…not about trumpets…not about nice new Easter outfits and family dinners.

Easter is about a God who takes SO MUCH delight in the creation that he made that he willingly took on flesh and stepped down into it…he walked around, and went headlong into every single solitary place of death, even those that we have created for ourselves…and that same God has already, and will continue to create new life out of death…even if its scary…even if it doesn’t make any sense. (pause)

Now let’s swing back around to the command given to the women to pass along to Jesus’ disciples…to his followers.  Go into Galilee, there you’ll see him. Now I’ve often wondered…why Galilee…why not into the temple, or over to Bethlehem…these big name places that were literally right around the corner? Why back to Galilee, that backwater province far to the north?

Well…let’s back up to Mark chapter 1 again…the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ…Where do you think it all started? Galilee…Galilee is where the Jesus called the disciples to follow him…its where he performed countless miracles…its where he spent time teaching them…leading them…and showing them what the kingdom of heaven looks like when it comes near…when boundaries that society has established about who’s in and who’s out are utterly overcome…when those boundaries are utterly demolished…Galilee is where discipleship happens…because Galilee is where life following Jesus happens.

I can’t help but think that Mark’s gospel is one heck of a cool cycle. The gospel begins, and as present day followers of Jesus and readers of the gospel…as present day members of the Body of Christ, we travel along through Galilee right alongside Peter and the rest of the disciples…and we follow along when Jesus is betrayed and killed and laid in the tomb, and now that the tomb is empty…we are sent back to the place of discipleship once more…we are sent back into those places of joy and of sorrow…those places of unity and division…those places of community and isolation…we are sent back out from the empty tomb into the place of life…and that’s where we see him in the faces of one another…in the hungry mouth that we feed…in the widow that we visit…in the time that we spend supporting one another. (pause)

Sure we can visit the tomb. Its possible, I’ve been there…and we can jostle around, pushing to get into that place of death…but in the end what’s the point…Jesus is out here in the place of life…that tomb is empty…Dude’s not even in there. Amen.

Its Not Up To Us 3-29-19 Maundy Thursday

In this Maundy Thursday Sermon, I explore the Last Supper found in John 13. Jesus washes the feet of the disciples, knowing what’s coming, as an example of the way that we are called to love one another.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/its-not-up-to-us-3-29-18

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

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

It never ceases to amaze me to consider the utterly outlandish stories that I come across as I read through the Old Testament narrative. There’s one in the book of Numbers that’s a great example. At this point in the Israelite history, the people have been wandering in the desert for quite a while. They’re of course, very numerous…and they’re actually approaching the borders of the Promised Land.

And as they’re traveling around, there’s this gentile king named Balak who’s getting a little freaked out…he’s seen their numbers…he’s heard reports of battles that they’ve fought with other forces…and he’s concerned.  So King Balak get’s this awesome idea to call in a prophet…a holy man…to call down a curse upon the Israelites…and this prophet’s name is Balaam.

Now maybe you recognize the name of Balaam…and maybe you know his story…at first he resists the messengers that King Balak has sent his way…figuring that if these are God’s chosen people, he better not try to curse them, even if King Balak offers him great riches…which he does…but then God tells Balaam go ahead and go…and so he saddles up his donkey and off he goes…but then an angel of the Lord shows up in the road…which only the donkey can see.

Now the donkey isn’t going anywhere near that angel…and just stops in the road…and Balaam gets so ticked off at this stubborn animal that he gets off and starts beating it…until God opens the mouth of the donkey who pretty much says “DUDE!!! Why are you beating me? There’s an angel there.” Now talking donkeys are awesome…but what is really important about the story of Balaam is the way he views God’s chosen people.  3 times, in 3 different places King Balak calls upon Balaam to curse the Israelites, but he won’t do it…because Balaam knows that God will bless whoever God choses…Its not up to us…and there’s not much that we can do about it. (pause)

Now with that in mind, let’s consider our gospel lesson for tonight…Maundy Thursday…the night of the Last Supper…the time when Jesus joins together with the 12 disciples for one last bit of fellowship…a time of teaching…a very intimate exchange between Jesus and these men that he has claimed…these followers that have been and will continue to be the closest recipients of his personal attention and his love.

We hear this from the get-go. Jesus loves his own…and he loves them till the end…regardless of what anyone else might think…regardless of how they might respond…regardless of everything…the love of Christ…the joy that he feels in the very presence of these people…this is the sense that takes shape here in the Last Supper.

After this time together…they will go out to the garden…Judas will bring along a great crowd…the disciples will flee…Peter will deny…and things only get darker from there. Tonight Jesus will be arrested…tomorrow he will be tortured and killed on the cross…and Jesus makes no secret of that. He’s told the disciples time after time what’s coming…and he even says it here with a term of beloved endearment. Little children, I am with you only a little longer.

And remember Jesus knows all this…he knows what’s coming…he knows what’s in the hearts of the men that are with him…he knows it all…and despite the utter betrayals that will come about on EVERYONE’S part…he still takes this time to literally show them what true love looks like.

During supper Jesus rises from the table, takes off his robe, wraps a towel around his waist…and then one by one, he stoops down to wash the feet of his disciples…some protest…Peter in particular…failing to understand just what it is that Jesus is really up to…but one after another, Jesus looks them in the face…knowing the failure that each will experience just minutes after this time together…and he still washes their feet.

Now you’ve maybe heard me talk about this before…that the job of washing the feet of a traveler would never fall to the master…either the individual would wash their own feet or the lowliest household slave would come along to do so.  This is a matter of hospitality…but no one would expect it go down like it did…and this is why we hear the confusion from Peter…the back and forth as he struggles to understand what’s really happening, just as I imagine the rest of the disciples were feeling as well…and then in the midst of it…in the middle of this odd back and forth which continues to reveal the perfect love of Christ in the face of Peter’s aversion to it…we hear the declaration that Jesus makes…you are clean. (pause)

Now as I think about water along with a statement about the individual on the part of Jesus…on the part of God, my mind goes to things sacramental…because of course this sounds like baptism.  Likewise, as we consider the Last Supper, perhaps we are reminded of Holy Communion…and rightly so…the other gospels tell us of Jesus’ first institution of the Holy Meal…one that we’ll share together in a few more minutes…a meal in which we are all reminded that this is for you for the forgiveness of sins…but not only that…we are also reminded that this meal is for all people.

This is the thing that seems so utterly significant tonight, as we enter once more into a mindset of remembering…of celebrating if we want to use that word…what Jesus endured…what God experienced in the event of Jesus’ life and death, which will lead to his resurrection in a few more days…the thing that is so significant, is that its not up to us.

Peter tries to control what Jesus will do, but Jesus shuts that down.  Judas has his part to play as well…and the rest of the disciples all have their failings. Likewise so do we…and yet, the promises of God, made real in Jesus Christ are still given to each and every one of us…simply because of God’s perfect love and delight found within each of us as individuals…each of us who were lovingly created bearing the divine image of God.

That’s something that we need to remember….that yes we are flawed and broken people…that’s a reality of humanity…but that’s not where our story begins.  If we go all the way back…Genesis chapter 1…we see that Humanity…each one of us was made by God from a place of delight…and God calls us good.  Brokenness doesn’t happen until chapter 3.

We don’t deny it…but we remember that the God who has chosen to redeem this world through Christ has done so because from the beginning of your existence…in the beginning of OUR…existence…we start from the place of goodness and the joy of our creator. (pause)

Now this perfect love…a love which admittedly, our brokenness hinders within each of us…this is the basis for the new commandment that Jesus leaves with his followers…to love one another. The Greeks call this agape love…perfect…sacrificial…all in love…and Jesus says that this is how the world will know that we are his followers, if we have love for one another. (pause)

But what does that look like? That’s a question that I often wrestle with…because it seems like we as a culture have gotten really good at the polar opposite. Many will argue that this is the single most divisive time in our history…and while that’s open to interpretation, I don’t think that any of us would argue that there is a sense of animosity…of division…of vitriol and anger…and dare I say, hate…that exists within the world…and all too often that’s the topic of conversation.

And rather than listening…we yell…we demonize…we throw the other side under the bus…and why? Because might makes right? Does it make us feel superior to have what we consider the better argument? Or have we just gotten really good at yelling louder than the other person?

Today…right now…it seems to be the 2nd Amendment and if its still relevant or outdated.  Or it’s the conservative right verses the liberal left. Or the president verses a porn star over who’s level of morality is better or worse. These are the big topics that everyone seems to be stuck on right now. And as we’ve all heard, maybe even participated in, its full of animosity.

And perhaps no where is this vitriol more present than right here in the church. And I don’t know about you but I’m sick and tired of being defined by who we hate. Jesus said love each other…so maybe just maybe its time that we as the body of Christ figure out how to start doing just that…instead of tossing logs around that look or sound a lot like judgement of who’s in and who’s out.

Let us remember that Jesus makes the declaration of who’s clean…Jesus makes the determination on who’s being blessed…not the other way around…and he is the one who reminds us that God loves the entire world and that God has sent the son into the world so that it might be saved through him. (pause)

So what does it mean? What does it look like to love one another? Maybe it starts from a place of respect and dignity for whoever it is that’s on the opposite side of the line from you…or maybe it starts from the realization that we’re all in this together, like it or not…and maybe we should act like it.

Maybe love looks like supporting a young man who’s bravely fighting cancer in our community.  Maybe it looks like crossing the street to say good morning to our neighbors. Sometimes it looks like just showing up when someone else is experiencing their own dark night of the soul…not with words of wisdom or the offer of a solution…but simply to bring your presence into their darkness so that they can see the truth that they are not alone.

We live in a world filled with darkness and brokenness and pain and suffering…that is our reality…but there’s a light that shines in the midst of it…a light that the world has tried REALLY hard to snuff out…in fact it tried so hard that it killed the source…but even death wasn’t strong enough to overcome it.

That light shines as a man named Jesus…And this same man, who looked his disciples in the eye, knowing that one by one they would somehow fail him, and he washed their feet…then he declared a blessing upon them…and he has declared the same blessing for you and for all people. Let us remember that in the end, this blessing is not up to us…for God will bless whoever God choses. Amen.

Maybe Its Both 3-25-18

In this Palm Sunday sermon, based on Mark 11:1-11, I explore Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, but consider the possibility of mixed emotions.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/maybe-its-both-3-25-18

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

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

I have a tendency…and I hope I’m not the only person who does this…there are certain movies that are SO good…that when I stumble across them while channel surfing…I’ll sit and watch them. It doesn’t matter where the story is at when I find it…I know these movies so well that my brain fills in the backstory…and I just sit and watch it through till the ending.

One of these movies is Forrest Gump…an instant classic from the mid-90s with Tom Hanks playing the hero…simple minded Forrest Gump…who knows “I am not a smart man.”  Somehow, over the course of about 2 hours’ worth of movie…this simple man manages to find himself present and involved in just about EVERY major event that occurs over about 50 years of American History.

His simple and yet utterly amazing life is shaped by the countless people that he encounters…but throughout all of these major events, he is shaped by the words and advice of those closest to him.  The words of his momma…of Jenny, the love of his life…of his friend Bubba, and his commanding officer Lt. Dan.

Now there’s a scene at the end of the movie that encapsulates this quite well. Spoilers for a 24 year old movie…but Forrest is standing at the grave of his beloved Jenny, talking to her while perhaps reflecting back on the life that he has lived and all that he has experienced…and he says this…

I don’t know if Momma was right…or if its Lt Dan…I don’t know if we each, have a…destiny…or if we’re all just floating around accidental, like on a breeze…But I think…maybe its both…maybe both is happening at the same time. (pause)

I can’t help but think there’s a lot of truth in that statement. Often I hear people talking about the idea of free will, and I hear about God’s plan…seemingly 2 sides to the same coin…and I think Forrest might be on to something…because maybe its both…and maybe, this idea of 2 things happening at the same time…2 things that perhaps seem like they are polar opposites of each other…I think that’s often the case in the life, and perhaps in the thoughts of people as individuals as they go through the day to day experience of life. (pause)

Now, in another thought…in my own recent history, I sort of felt like Forrest Gump. In a 2 hour movie he’s present for countless important events in history…and in a 10 day period over the last couple of weeks, I was present in the place where countless BIG events happened, both in the life and ministry of Jesus, as well as some of the much older events in the history of the Bible and the people of Israel…and one of those events…one of those places that I was blessed to see happens in today’s scripture lesson for Palm Sunday…the event that we’ve come to call the Triumphal Entry…as Jesus rides a donkey into the city of Jerusalem, kicking off what we call Holy Week…kicking off the final week of his life before his betrayal and arrest, which of course culminates in his death on the cross before his glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday, one week from today.

For Jesus, its all been coming towards this point. We’ve heard time and time again, stories of his miracles…displays of his divine power here within our reality. We’ve heard stories of his teaching, and the way it continues to open up old ways of thinking into a new way of being in the world. We’ve heard of his interactions with people…often times the outcasts as he continues to show us what it means that the kingdom of Heaven has come near…and we’ve heard, several different times, his prediction of what’s going to happen in Jerusalem.

And now…we hear the story itself…and I can’t help but think that there’s a lot going on here.  Jesus and his merry band of followers come upon the twin villages of Bethpage and Bethany…just outside of Jerusalem…and it seem that perhaps Jesus has been pulling some strings behind the scenes…He knows that there’s the colt of donkey that the disciples will find tied up outside a house in the opposite village…he knows what people will say when they try to take it…he tells them how to respond…and it happens, just as he predicts. Now maybe he was setting things up ahead of time…or maybe this is evidence of his divinity…and how he knows all things…maybe its both.

Regardless, the two disciples bring the colt, throw their cloaks on it…Jesus climbs on and rides into the city…people along the way are crying out…laying their cloaks on the road in front of him, along with waving the leafy branches that they’ve cut.

Now, think about it for a moment…how do you pictured this scene? I’ve long thought about it, that Jesus rode down a little bit of a hillside, pretty much in a straight line, and then came back up just a little ways to the gate of the city…people chanting and celebrating the whole way…I’ve always pictured a very joyful scene…like everyone’s really happy that he’s here…with the possible exception of the religious elite trying to hush everyone that we hear about in Luke’s account.

But…things are little bit different in my mind this time around…because 7 days ago…I was standing on the Mount of Olives…I stood there and looked…just as Jesus must have looked…taking it all in….and I wonder what was going through his mind…had he planned this? Or was it just happening. Was this intended to reveal his divine kingship to the world…or was it all just a coincidence? We don’t know…we don’t know.

But what I do think is this…Jesus was there on top of the Mount of Olives…and he looked to the west…and there was the temple mount…not far away…maybe 5-600 yards as the crow flies…but before he could get there…he had to go down through the Kidron Valley…now this is no simple low spot between hills…it’s a deep…deep ravine…with utterly steep sides…today, each side of the valley is utterly filled with graves…its literally a grave yard, its literally a place of death…Jesus would have looked across this valley…and it was nearly evening…the sun likely going down on behind the city, the valley growing darker with every passing moment.

Perhaps Jesus looked to his left, and out there to the south of the city was the valley of Gehenna…the valley that served as a trash heap for the city…a place where a fire was perpetually burning to consume the waste and the garbage and even the bodies of those condemned by the Romans…he would have seen the smoke rising from that fire.

This is no simple little walk that Jesus was about to experience…and I wonder what was in his head as he looked and saw all this. Was he determined…was he happy and joyful…was he concerned? He knew what was coming, just as we know now. Is he afraid yet? In 5 more days he’ll sweat blood in his agony…is that in his mind?

How easy would it have been to just shake his head, slip down off the back of that donkey’s colt and walk away? He could have done it…but he didn’t. He rode down into that deep dark valley…into that place which is now a place of death…and then he came back up from it into the city…with just enough time to look around the temple, and then to walk right back out the same way he came. He literally walked right back through that dark valley a second time, so he could spend the night in the village of Bethany.

Now there’s another aspect to consider here as well…because we don’t know what was in Jesus’ mind and heart in this instant, other than the conviction to do what he must do regardless of the inevitable consequences…and that other factor is found in the hearts and minds of the people that were following along behind and walking along in front, crying out Hosanna in the highest heaven…Blessed in is the one who comes in the name of the Lord…blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.

I wonder just what they were thinking that day as they cried out Hosanna…because this word is important. 2000 years later, its certainly become a word of praise…of exultation and excitement…one that we perhaps hear in our minds along with children parading around the sanctuary waving palms.

But the word Hosanna…it literally means “Save us now.” (pause) Save us now, you in the highest heaven.  And I wonder, if that perhaps sounds a little familiar.

These would be Jewish people lining the road as Jesus passes by…people coming into the city to celebrate the Passover festival…a festival that literally serves a remembrance to the action that God had taken so long before in Egypt…the action that God took in response to 400 years of crying out in agony for God’s mercy and deliverance.

And now, so many generations later…this same people, who have experienced domination and enslavement from empire after empire…these same people are crying out “Save us now.” Perhaps they hoped to be saved from Roman control…perhaps they saw this man entering David’s city triumphantly and thought here we go…God’s chosen one…God’s anointed leader is finally here…the messiah…the one who will save us.

Were they joyful in this moment…was it the big parade and party that we tend to think in our minds? Or were these cries of Hosanna full of pain and sorrow…were they beseeching God for deliverance, perhaps through this man who could walk on water.  (pause) Maybe its both.

Maybe both is happening at the same time. (pause)

Now as we consider this, I can’t help but think that this dual nature…this tendency towards two different responses…this is truly what it means to be human…because nothing is black and white is it? Within a crowd, there will be some who are feeling joy and happiness…while at the same time there will be some who are experiencing pain and sorrow because of their circumstances…and maybe…just maybe, there are some who are feeling the swirl of both all at the same time.

As we look around this room today, I’m guessing that this is the case. As we kick off Holy Week today, some feel joy…some feel sorrow…some are excited, some feel pain…and you know what…that’s to be expected…because to feel this whirlwind of emotions and thoughts and feelings is simple evidence that you are alive and that you…are…human.

We know that Jesus laughed…and we know that he cried…we know that he felt joy and we know that he felt agony…and we know this because while Jesus was fully divine, he was also human…and what he accomplished…what we will remember this week as we move through it…is that Jesus came to bring the kingdom of heaven near to us…a kingdom which begins from a place of love and delight…the love and delight that God feels for all of creation…for all of life, because to God all life is precious, even when that life is full of brokenness and pain.

Through Jesus, God was showing the world the way of perfect love…but the world said no…and on Friday we’ll remember that in the literal face of the love of God, the world killed him…and we’ll sit with that…but then on Sunday…God says “Oh you thought I was done?” (pause)

Now its not quite Easter yet, though we do celebrate our Risen Lord each and every day…and so today, allow yourself to be human…allow yourself to feel whatever it is that you need to feel…that you need to think…that you need to experience…even if its joy…even its if pain…Or maybe its both.  And remember that we have a God who can and does continue to willingly enter into places of pain and death and darkness in order to bring us into the light of new life. Amen.

So Simple So Complex 3-4-18

In this sermon, based on Exodus 20:1-17, I explore the 10 Commandments. They are given to God’s people as a gift of covenant, not just a rule book.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/so-simple-so-complex-3-4-18

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

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen
Many of you out there know that I’m not much a sports guy…I often joke that if its not a little white ball with dimples I don’t really pay attention…but golf…man I love it. It’s a wonderful game, both to watch and to play. Its amazing simple and yet utterly complex all at same time.

Now I don’t claim to be an expert by any means, though I’ve got an okay swing…and I’ve tried at different times to teach someone how to swing a club…and every time I try this, I gain more respect for golf coaches…for swing coaches…for those who manage to actually teach this uniquely wonderful and challenging maneuver.

And as per usual…there’s a movie scene that I think of in this instance…comes from a great film called Tin Cup staring Kevin Costner as a skilled but flawed golf pro who’s giving Rene Russo her first ever golf lesson…and they begin with the question “How do you hit a golf shot.” He walks over, smacks a shot off the range and says “Like that.”  And she responds “Well I process verbally. Can you break down into words how you just did that?” And so he does.

It begins with the grip, the hands combine together to form a single unit…overlap the pinky. Lowly and slowly the club head is led backwards, pulled into position, not by the hands, but by the body which turns away from the target, shifting weight to right side without shifting balance, tempo is everything, perfection unobtainable as the body coils now to the top of the swing, there’s a slight hesitation, a little nod to the gods for he is fallible, and now the weight begins shifting back to the left, pulled by the powers inside the earth, its alive this swing a living sculpture, and down through contact always down, striking the ball crisply, with character, a tuning fork goes off in your heart, such a pure feeling is the well struck golf shot, and then the follow through to the finish always on line…

She just kinda looks at him at this point…and they go back forth a couple times before he says “there’s only one other acceptable theory on how to hit a golf ball…grip it and rip it.” (pause)

I love this scene because it highlights an important point about golf, its both incredibly simple…and its utterly complex all at the same time…and this same truth applies to life as well doesn’t it? (pause)

Now I bring all this up today, because today’s lesson features something else that falls in this same category of incredibly simple and yet utterly complex…the 10 Commandments…the beginning of what we have come know as the Law…specially Jewish Law or Old Testament Law…its got a lot of different names within different traditions…but one thing we can all agree on is where it came from.

Now this story is the third covenant story that we’ve hit upon here in the season of Lent. We started two weeks ago, about 10 generations following the creation and fall of humanity, and we found God making a covenant with Noah, post flood, that never again would the earth be destroyed by flood water. Last week we shifted ahead about another 10 generations….the covenant that God made with Abraham, that despite all logic, his descendants would become a great nation, and all the earth would be blessed through him.

And now we shift ahead once more, covering roughly 500 years of history since Abraham…his descendants have grown…becoming not only a family but eventually an entire culture…an entire nation known as the Israelites…a nation that came into being under the yoke of bondage…in slavery in the land of Egypt…but following some amazingly miraculous signs from God…signs that show them that they have a God who is not okay with enslavement…that their God is one of freedom from oppression, they follow the great deliver Moses out of Egypt, through the waters of the Red Sea…and onward through the desert to Mount Sinai where they camp out for a pretty lengthy amount of time…spending about a year here at the base of the mountain…a period of time that starts off with Moses up on top of the mountain for 40 days receiving what has come to be known as the law.

Now this long teaching…this long period of instruction that the Lord gives to Moses on behalf of the Israelites is utterly complex…all told, between what God gives Moses, and what their later interpretations would establish…there are over 600 articles in the Jewish Law…it takes up a ton of Exodus…a bunch of Leviticus and a fair amount of Deuteronomy to cover it all…and you know what, its not unlike golf in that respect either…serious side note…the official rules of golf include 34 separate rules broken down into 126 sub-sections…its super complex…but can be narrowed down to something as simple as hit the ball repeatedly until it falls in the hole. (pause)
But now back to the 10 Commandments…and the law. I wrestled around with this quite a bit this week…because it seems, at first glance anyway…that this one doesn’t quite fall under the category of covenant like the previous readings.  Those came right out and said it…and for the most part, the action in those seemed like it fell on God, and not so much on the people…but this ones different isn’t it? (pause)

Now I’d like to think that the 10 Commandments are pretty well known…many of us here have studied them in the past…it’s a very common topic in our confirmation tradition…and pretty much every time I’ve worked on this topic with a group, our initial conversation goes the same direction…at face value, the 10 Commandments come across like a rule book…like God is some cosmic life judge who’s giving us pointers on what is and isn’t acceptable…like the Lord is just trying to take away our personal freedom and control everything.

Think about it…is that your response to this list? Is that how you view it? How you hear it? Let’s go down the list…I am the Lord your God, have no other gods before me…Don’t take the name of the Lord your God in vain…Honor the Sabbath and keep it holy…honor your father and mother…do not commit murder, don’t commit adultery…don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, don’t covet your neighbors stuff…don’t covet your neighbors people or animals…sure enough, it’s a lot of do’s and don’ts. (pause)

As covenants go, this one sure seems to put the pressure on the people doesn’t it? But here’s the thing…while its become second nature for us to consider this a drag…a how-to list for acceptable living…just another notch on the board of what we have to…for the original recipients…it wasn’t a drag…it was a gift.

The 10 Commandments were given to a people as a physical reminder of the promise that God had made to them all those generations before…a promise to be with them, and the bless them…but not only that…that they would be a blessing to the rest of the world. And this is the next step in how all that works.

All too often we hear rules…regulations…the list of what we have to do in order to be considered “in”…acceptable…good. But what if I told you that God has intended this for something way deeper…what if I told you that the covenant that God has made with these people is intended as a way for them to be an example of how to live in harmony in this world that God has made…because that’s what God says to them before this whole carving the law out on stone tablets thing happens.  You shall be for me a priestly kingdom…a holy nation…

God intends for the Israelites to be an example for the rest of the world…an example in the way that they live with one another and for one another…and we see it in the recipients of the Commandments themselves…I often bring this up when teaching on the commandments…that the first 3 are aimed at our relationship with God…and the rest are aimed at our relationship with our neighbors…a distinction not lost on Christ by the way…for when Jesus was asked “what’s the most important commandment, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He responded Love God and love your neighbor…all of the law and the prophets can be hung upon this.

But why? Why is it important…that is perhaps the big question both for the Israelites back then…and for us now…and to answer that question, I need to point out a distinction that pops up repeated in this passage.  I am the Lord your God….anyone catch that? 5 times it shows up…5 times we are reminded that the Lord is our God, and if that is true, then so is the reverse…God belongs to us, but more importantly we belong to God, because God is the one who made us in the first place.

If we go all the way back to the beginning, we find a God who creates our world…our entire existence, bringing chaos towards order, and calling each and every step good. God created all of this out of delight and it culminated when God created humanity, each member of the human race bearing the divine image of God…a creation that God calls VERY GOOD.

But this work of bringing chaos towards order isn’t done yet…and I believe that bearing the divine image of the Lord means that we are capable of being invited into this work alongside God…and that means that we are called…we are invited…we are blessed to be able to live in harmony with the one who made it all in the first place…and to live in harmony with the good life that surrounds us in every other person…because all life is precious…all life is good…and we share the ability to recognize that.

But…we also share a different distinction…that we each have the capability for great destruction…and I believe that this is why God has given us a reminder of how to live…not as a way to curry favor…not as a way to try and buy ourselves into divine good graces…but as a response to the divine love and favor that has already been shown to us, simply because God delights in you.

Let me be clear…the law…the commandments…whatever we want to call them are not intended to be viewed as the way to earn God’s favor…and if we only see them in that way we have missed the mark…but rather…they are intended to reveal the way to live in gratitude for the love of God, and in harmony with one another.

And as we consider this, we must also recognize that the Commandments themselves…are utterly simple, and yet utterly complex all at the same time…take number 5 for instance…you shall not kill…no brainer…unless someone threatens you…unless someone threatens your children….what then? Is it okay? Can we justify it? Maybe, maybe not? (pause)

And does it go even deeper than that? If Jesus is to be believed…and I think he is…then it would seem so…remember that little ditty when Jesus says “You have heard it said in ancient time you shall not murder, I tell you that if anyone is angry with a brother or sister, they have committed murder in their heart.” Not quite so simple anymore is it?

Here’s the take away…as we travel through the season of Lent…as we continue to move closer and closer and closer to the betrayal, the arrest…the torture and death of Jesus…as things continue to get darker, we are reminded that whatever it is that God is slowly moving this existence towards…whatever the eventual order is that God is pulling us towards…its not done yet…because there is bad that still occurs right alongside the good.  And yet, the kingdom comes near as we live in a way that brings honor and dignity to those around us…because by doing this we honor the divine image that lies within them as an individual…and when we do this, we honor and respect and love the one who made it all in the first place…and who is this? Who is the one that gives us a way to live that is both utterly simple and yet utterly complex…He tells us several times today…I am the Lord your God.

Now you can take that and try to make it really deep…really complex…really difficult…or you can just grip it and rip it.

Amen.