Vaya Con Dios My Friend

bob

As we move through this funny thing called life, we become something to other people. There are words that describe the sense of the relationship that exists between us. I could use many different words to describe the relationship that I held with the man in this picture with me. Pastor, Teacher, Supervisor, just to name a few. Eventually, this shifted over to the notion of Mentor…and as the years went on we added Colleague to the mix.

But above all, the word that meant the most to me to describe this man…he was my friend.

Bob Vaage might have started off as my pastor, but over the years he became much more than that. Mine was one of many lives that Bob influenced, but looking back it is very apparent to me just how important he thought that this was. Bob recognized gifts and talents within individuals, and then he worked to find opportunities for that individual to put the gifts to work.

One of the ways he did this was to encourage a 22 year old kid to take on the role of Council Secretary…an opportunity that would eventually provide the chance for a joke “Hey Scott, go to seminary.” It wasn’t long after that meeting, that Bob preached a sermon illustrating how we are all called to be “pastors.” We are all called to make a difference and live out the gospel in our day to day lives. That sermon had literal illustrations as well, as Bob walked around the sanctuary placing his stoles on different individuals.

I got the blue one if you’re wondering.

That moment stuck with me…and after several years of discernment, and many…MANY conversations with Bob, eventually I began seminary and the process towards ordained ministry. It was a long road with a lot of ups and downs. But eventually that chapter came to a close, and in addition to preaching the message at my ordination, Bob repeated the action of placing a stole around my neck…this time in a more official manner.

stole

In the years since, Bob continued to be my guide. Whenever something came up that threw me for a loop, I’d call him. He had this knack for asking the right questions to help me talk my way through the situation.

In many different ways, and in many different situations, Bob modeled what it means to be a pastor. He has shown me how to be a caring leader. And as I sit here, it strikes me with a touch of irony that he taught me what to do in this situation…and yet my role today is not pastor…and so what Bob taught me doesn’t really apply. And so I sit here, confused and hurting…wondering just what I should be doing, and my first thought is “Call Bob.”

But I can’t call Bob anymore, and in realizing this I have to accept the painful truth, that death has claimed my mentor…death has claimed my friend. And that hurts and I can’t make heads or tails out of it…but Bob taught me that when you can’t make sense of a situation, preach the gospel. Get yourself out of the way to let the gospel be the gospel and let God be God.

And the gospel tells us that there is another name that applies to Bob…one that describes the relationship that he holds with the Lord…Beloved Child of God. This is a name given to him in the waters of his baptism…and that’s a name that death doesn’t beat. That name means that Bob joined with Christ in a baptism like his…and now Bob has joined with Christ in a death like his…but the promise tells us that Bob will join with Christ in a resurrection like his.  We might not understand how…but that doesn’t take away the truth…while we were sinners, Christ died for us…because of his great love for us.

The apostle Paul writes about this in Romans chapter 8. He opens up by asking the question “what then are we to say about these things?” I often ask myself that same question, and I pose it to begin most funeral sermons that I preach. I think its a good thing to ponder on…but the promise of the gospel is revealed in Paul’s words, and they apply here. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Nothing separates us from the love of God…not one thing…not pain, not suffering…not anger or sadness or confusion…and most importantly, not even death.  And today I cling to the promise that God has given us, that is made real in the life and the death and the resurrection of Christ. That promise says that God will be with us and we will be with God and nothing will stand in the way of that. That’s what we say about these things.

That’s what we say, because that’s the gospel, even in moments when the pain we feel tries to hide it, it doesn’t change. And I cling to the hope that Bob is now in a place where he wants us to know that its true…I believe that Bob is held in the arms of his savior. He has now crossed a barrier, and we can no longer see him. But…we remember that death is not the end, because God’s love for us is bigger than that.

Painful as it is, we say goodbye to Bob…and as much as I hate the idea of moving forward without him in my corner, I know that I am a better person because of his influence on my life. I am proud to call him my friend, and I know that where ever it is that he has gone, that God is with him.

Vaya Con Dios my friend.

 

Its Not About Death But Life 11-20-16

In this sermon for Christ the King Sunday, taken from Luke 23:33-43, I explore the crucifixion of Jesus. This is an odd place to look for our king, yet we realize that the ultimate display of his power is the acceptable of weakness.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/its-not-about-death-but-life-11-20-16

You can 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

Have you ever had a time when you happened to be standing in just the right spot in a restaurant or a store…and from where you were standing you could see the back side of the counter? (pause) Admittedly, I’ve always been fascinated by little things like this…to see the things that most people aren’t supposed to see…in short…to see behind the scenes, or from the opposite perspective.

I was thinking about this very notion last Friday as I walked into the Presbyterian church up in Shelby in order to lead a funeral. I spent a moment just scoping things out, getting familiar with the layout, including the backside of the pulpit…and in my head it was just one of those moments in a restaurant, seeing what most people don’t see.

Now its worth noting that this was the 6 funeral I’ve led in the past couple of months…and if this rather regular schedule has done anything, its given me something of sense of routine…and while every single funeral is, of course, different…there are things that I can pretty count on happening.

One is actually the way I chose to open pretty much every funeral sermon…by acknowledging the hard reality of the day, and by commenting on how those who gather look to one another for support, recognizing in one instant we can offer support to another, and in the next the pain of the day catches us and we in turn need to be supported. (pause)
And that builds on the next thing that I expect to see…I’ve got a pretty unique perspective, either from a chair or standing in the pulpit…and I’ve grown accustomed to seeing the emotion catch people…sadness and pain…evidenced by tears and often gasps or sobs…but what isn’t routine, and what often surprises me, is who that individual actually is…the person who is overcome by painful emotion.

The first experience I have with something of this nature actually occurred in a completely different setting…my older brother’s wedding. I remember it is a similar fashion though, because as his best man I was standing right up next to him facing out towards the congregation, and so the perspective of my observation was pretty similar to how it is now as the pastor…Now about midway through the service, my late grandfather was overcome by emotion and he broke down crying. I honestly don’t know what prompted it…but it happened…and that moment seared itself into my memory.

Now my grandfather died just a couple of years later…and due to circumstances, I wasn’t able to get to his memorial service…and a couple more years went by…and finally I traveled to Arizona to visit my grandma, and one of the things we did was go see Grandpa’s grave…and I had a very unexpected reaction…I looked at his gravestone, and I lost it…the pain and sorrow that I’d been feeling for more than 5 years at that point came rushing out…and I learned in that moment, just as I have seen in many different situations as pastor…pain, sorrow, emotion, weakness, whatever you want to call….it demands our attention…it demands to be felt. (pause)
Now this notion of weakness…and pain…this is where we jump into our gospel today.  Today is Christ the King Sunday…and strangely enough…as we have already heard, our gospel features the crucifixion of Jesus…a strange place to think about a king right? In the midst of torture and weakness?

Downstairs in the confirmation class we’ve been talking about the history of Israel…and in recent weeks we explored the establishment of the monarchy through their first three kings, Saul then David then Solomon…and how each of those these men managed to expand the kingdom, bringing more territory under their control…and we talked about just what that meant at the time…that as king, you could control as much area as you were strong enough to defend…and so the tougher you were, the more you had…but we’ve also seen the flip side…and that as soon as someone bigger and stronger comes in…you are out of luck…and if you happened to be the king of the conquered nation, chances are you’d end up dead…maybe even crucified at certain points in history. (pause)
And so, how strange is it to hear about the crucifixion of Jesus on the day when we celebrate him being king. Admittedly, it seems like total nonsense…like a total reversal of all logic…and yet that’s exactly where we find him.

Jesus is nailed to the cross…and he suffers…and throughout the entire time…he is continually mocked…and interestingly enough that mockery carries a theme…three different groups of people, all with a very similar message.

First the leaders…He saved others, let him save himself. (pause) But he doesn’t.  (pause) Then the soldiers start in…If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself. (pause) But he doesn’t. (pause) And then finally, one of the fellow condemned…one of the guys hanging right next to him…suffering the same fate…this guy throws it at him too, along with a little personal venom…Are you not the messiah? Save yourself…and us. (pause)

In addition, his opponent keep dredging up the past…he has saved others…he has performed miracles…he has even brought the dead back to life…SURELY he is able to save himself….so why…won’t…he…prove it.

I think in the end, that’s what they’re all looking for. They don’t really believe the claims that Jesus is the Messiah, nor do they understand what it means…and so as far as they can tell, if he can’t save himself from the cross…then all that stuff they’ve heard is nothing more than rumors…there’s no truth to it at all…and perhaps as they mock him….they are thinking to themselves “he’s going to be dead soon…and all this, will be over.” (pause)

But that, right there, that raises a pretty important point today…when our passage end, Jesus is still alive…we don’t hear about his death today, even if we know that it happens shortly after this…when we leave off, Jesus is alive…and so as we consider Christ as King, our entire context…the entire story given to us to try and understand this idea involves Jesus ALIVE on the cross. (pause)

Christ the King is found in the midst of ultimate weakness…in the midst of pain…in the midst of sorrow and suffering…and this is a very Lutheran idea…we don’t look for our king in the same way that the world looks…we find true strength in the midst of that weakness…when we acknowledge the truth of it…when we acknowledge that it exists…and that we are equally broken. (pause)

This is the important and yet subtle truth of the gospel…and the cross…its not about death, but life. (pause) The gospel doesn’t work simply because Jesus died on the cross…but rather because Jesus lived on the cross…Jesus suffered on the cross…Jesus endured the cross in the midst of ultimate weakness…and all the while, HE…DIDN’T…HAVE TO.

If you are the Messiah, save yourself…and he could have. At any time, Jesus could have come down off that cross, healed his wounds, and passed through the people, ensuring his own safety…but Jesus wasn’t up there for himself…and his example opens our eyes to the truth…

Jesus was mocked for not saving himself…and in doing so we realize that we are not able to save ourselves…and so, just as the people stood by watching…we stand by as well, watching the one who lived on the cross…who lived in the pain…because we recognize that in our brokenness, pain and sorrow demands our attention…we cannot deny it, because it is our reality.

But the glory of the gospel, is that while we were sinners Christ died for us…we don’t have to clean all our junk out before it becomes true…its already true…its already done…Christ has already lived the pain of the cross…that penalty, that wage of sin, whatever you want to call it…has already been experienced for us. (pause) And by Jesus living on the cross, we are saved from it.

Here’s the thing…all too often we think of Christianity…or faith, or religion as the idea that I’m switching away from doing all the bad stuff to now only doing the good stuff…this isn’t some social club where we’ve got a list of moral attributes that we have to achieve…rather, living by faith is recognizing that Christ did all that in order to save us from that which causes our pain and suffering in the first place…broken relationship and the mental anguish that it causes us.

We are broken people, living a broken life, in a broken reality…one that is so broken that the good relationship…the good interaction that happened between God and Humanity way back in the garden can no longer occur…and yet in the midst of this, God does something about it.

That’s what the cross is all about…its God’s way of showing us “There is nothing I will not do to prove to you how much I love you, and to show you that I claim you as my own, even if the world refuses to acknowledge you.” (pause)
Luke’s account of the crucifixion is unique, as we hear about the one I’ve come to call the “good criminal.”  At the mocking of the other man, he cries out “Do you not fear God, since we are under the same sentence? We deserve what we receive but not him.”  With this first statement, the good criminal acknowledges the truth of his existence, that he is rightly condemned…sorta sounds like confession right? (pause) But then after that, he recognizes the Lordship of Jesus…Jesus, when you come into your kingdom, remember me.

This man sees the king in the midst of the pain…he sees the true display of Christ’s power in the midst of the weakness…and that power is on full display as Jesus answers. You ask me to remember you, I’m going one giant step farther…for today you’ll be with me in paradise. (pause)
Now paradise is an interesting word. We usually think of it as heaven…or eternal life…but remember that paradise is the word that was given to the garden, when Humanity was able to walk and talk with God directly…and so perhaps through all this, we see that the cross of Christ is not about death, but life…the good life with God that Jesus has made possible…and not just out there in some unknown future, but the hope we find in this truth…allows us to live in the joy of the kingdom today. (pause)

Jesus wasn’t dead when this story stopped today…because the kingdom isn’t about death, its about life…and the glory of God…the power of Christ…the Lordship of Jesus is something that we discover in the midst of our brokenness and pain, because it demands to be felt.  It commands our attention and pulls us away from any false notion of strength that we posses, and turns our attention to the one who was powerful enough…NOT to act…He was strong enough to NOT…save himself…because in his weakness, he was too busy saving us. Amen.

You Are Seen 11-13-16

In this sermon, based on Luke 21:5-19, I explore Jesus’ teachings when asked about the end times. He doesn’t give us much, but reminds us that there will be difficult times before the end comes. In light of the recent election, this seems rather fitting.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/you-are-seen-11-13-16

Note that at the end of the sermon I play a song. It is “True Colors.” Originally performed by Cindy Lauper, here it features Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick from the movie Trolls. The song is present on the audio track linked above.

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

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

As my kids get older, I’m starting to notice how much less they agree on movies that they want to see. Their tastes are starting to get pretty different, which probably isn’t surprising. But with this change that’s happening, its becoming increasingly rare for all four of us to go to a movie together. However, this past weekend a movie opened that both kids wanted to see.

And so we all ended up at the theater to watch the newest animated film called Trolls. (pause) The premise is quite simple…the world is populated by little trolls…colorful little buggers who love to sing and dance…and they all love each other so much that they give each other hugs every 30 minutes.  And they’re cute too…perhaps you remember the little troll dolls that were popular a few years back with their spikey colorful hair.

As the movie goes on, we’re introduced to a bunch of these trolls, led by the amazingly upbeat and optimistic Princess Poppy…and we eventually meet the one grumpy Troll named Branch…who’s is the utter contrast to everyone else…they’re brightly colored, he’s dull…they love to sing and dance, he refuses…and he’s a bit of a doomsday prepper, because he believes that their one enemy, the Burgins, will eventually find them and eat them.

And predictably, that’s pretty much what happens, as the Burgins capture several of Poppy’s friends, and she sets off with Branch in order to rescue them.  The rest of the plot is pretty predictable as well…but eventually, all of the Trolls are captured and everyone loses hope…and with it, they become sad…downcast…and their color fades…and now I’m not going to spoil the ending for you, but rather I’m gonna switch gears…because the notion of hope is present in our gospel today.

As we are reaching the end of the church year, we’ve gotten to the point where we commonly start hearing Jesus teach about the end times…and that’s exactly what’s going on today.  Jesus is sitting in the temple courtyard…surrounded by countless Jewish people who are there for the pending Passover festival…and some of them make comment about the beauty of the temple.

This sparks off several different teachings from Jesus…all of them aimed at what is to come…things to expect…realities to look for that will, in fact, precede the end.  And as per usual, the people want some clarification…Teacher…when will this be and what will be the sign that its about to take place? (pause) I think we all share in that curiosity…we all want to know…when will it be…what will it look like…and how do we get ready for it.

But what I think is interesting is that Jesus tells them some stuff that going to happen…but he also says this…these things must take place, but the end is not immediate. (pause) And even though he talks about some other pretty dire sounding things to come…he doesn’t actually talk about “the end.”

I found myself thinking a lot about this whole deal throughout the week…and I kept asking the question “what prompted this in the first place?” And it seems to stem from the initial prediction that Jesus makes, that there will come a day when that beautiful temple that the people were marveling at will no longer be standing…and they freak out about it.

And that right there, is what caught my attention…because why would this be so shocking for them? If they remember their history, this beautiful temple they’re looking at is actually the 2nd one…the original temple built by King Solomon had been destroyed…and eventually rebuilt…so you’d think that the idea that it might be destroyed again, while discouraging…shouldn’t be that devastating…and so I found myself wondering just why they see it as so dire.

But then I realized just how central the temple is to this culture…it is the epitome of all things Holy…it is LITERALLY the house of the Lord and the inner room…the holy of holies…that’s where God lives among the people….this is where they go to perform their ritual sacrifices…this is where the festivals occur…this is the place that at one time housed the ark and the 10 commandments…this is…quite literally, where they found God and therefore all of their hope rested on it. (pause)

Now imagine the source of your hope being destroyed…how would that make you feel?  Or if someone told you that the thing that you are placing all of your hope and trust in wasn’t going to last…that it would ultimately fail you. Wouldn’t you be devastated by that? Wouldn’t that seem like the end of the world? (pause)
I think it would…and so perhaps this is why Jesus starts talking about what the people can expect…things that will come BEFORE THE END…not in the midst of it. Wars…insurrections…Nation against nation…kingdom against kingdom…earthquakes, famine, plague…opposition…family members turning on one another…friends and relatives…and hate…hate…hate. (pause)
So let’s recap…the loss of an individuals source of hope…devastating cultural events…all of it leading towards the end times. (pause)

And I couldn’t help but think that this is the same feeling that a lot of people had this past Wednesday morning…I remember reading the gospel lesson when I sat down at my desk that morning…and I thought to myself that there are a lot of people out there who take the results of this election as the herald of the end times…and then I thought about it a little more and realized that if the election had gone the other way…then people on the other side of the coin might just have thought the same thing.

And maybe, depending on your point of view, it still feels like that. Many people placed a lot of hope in results of this election…only to find that the source of that hope has crumbled…and we don’t have to think very hard about how utterly divisive this election has been for our country to be reminded of Jesus words about nation rising against nation, and relationships being damaged, if not destroyed by our opinions and choices… and the aftermath…at least so far doesn’t seem much better…the craziness and the ugliness might have switched topics…but its still getting thrown around on both sides.

The reactions of different people to this election cross a wide spectrum…there are extremes ON BOTH ENDS of that spectrum who are reacting in some pretty foolish ways…and I’m not condoning either extreme…but then somewhere in the middle is pretty much everyone else… a lot of other people who are just trying to make the best of the situation that they have found themselves in. And I also know that when each of us stepped into that voting booth on Tuesday, we had our reasons for the choice that we made. (pause)

What I have found troubling in the days since…has been the question of how do we care for one another in the midst of our division…and have we placed so much stock…so much emphasis…so much belief in my candidate winning or losing that we fail to see one another as people…that we fail to see one another as our neighbors?

And admittedly, I’ve been troubled at the words that I’ve heard that people just need to get over it…that they need to get over the elation that they feel because their person won…or that they need to get over the shock and the sadness that they feel because their person lost.

And this might come as blunt for me to say…but how dare we tell someone how they can feel?  Not long ago we as a community were united in grief at the death of a young man…we shared sadness and pain and anger…and no one batted an eye at it.

But this is different…we are not united in our reaction to this election…far from it…and there are people sitting quite close to you now…who voted differently…and who feel quite differently about the result…You might not like how they chose to respond…but if they aren’t breaking any laws…they have the freedom to react how they react.

And if you don’t appreciate me saying that, its okay…it might ruffle some feathers…but even if we happen to disagree on this, I hope that we can continue to care for one another…because that is the example given to us by God, that we are all called to follow (pause)
The glory of the gospel is that each and every one of us fail in life…we place our hope in something that fails…and often times that source of failure is ourselves but regardless, when we have placed our faith and our hope in something of this world, it will ultimate fail.

But God is not of this world…and Jesus, though he was in our world…he is not of this world either…He is something else…and he has overcome the failings of this world…and he has done it for everyone…because he loves everyone and he tells us that we are to do the same…his words for us…his teachings…his commands is that we love God and we love our neighbor…and we do this when we realize that our neighbors all share in the same distinction as we do…being created in the divine image of God, whether they look different or talk different or think different…or heaven forbid…if they vote different.

And part of loving our neighbor is to actually see our neighbor…not as an obstacle but as a person who is worthy of love and acceptance and dignity. (pause)

And so, as we look forward into the unknown future…that unknown that Jesus doesn’t really give us much insight about in today’s glimpse towards the end times…let me say this…You matter…you are seen and you are heard and you are loved.  For those who’s candidate came up short, and you feel as if the country has taken a big step backwards, you are seen and you are heard and you are loved.  For those of you who’s candidate won, and you feel as if the country is taking a step forwards, you are seen and you are heard and you are loved. (pause)

And remember, that through Christ, this broken world is already redeemed…and we are invited into the work of reconciliation. Sometimes that’s pretty easy to see…but sometimes its not…and we need to support one another in that.

Remember Trolls…where I left off…they had all lost their hope…and with it their color faded…but since its super predictable, Branch…the one who refusing to sing…starts to in the midst of their depair.

The song he sings is an oldie but a goody…True Colors…He sings to Poppy hoping to encourage her…and eventually she starts singing back. Last Monday, I was driving to synod event and I listened to this song over and over again…and I began to hear the voice of God…saying over and over again I see you in the midst of all this…and then I heard a voice answer back…finally able to join with God in the work of creating beauty in the midst of despair.

I’m going to play for you now…so listen to the words…and hear God talking to you…telling you that you are seen and you are loved…and know that sometimes we are already able to join in the song…but sometimes we aren’t quite ready… (Play the song)

You are seen, you are heard, and you are loved. May we all join in that song. Amen.

Just Wait 11-6-16

In this sermon for All Saints Sunday, I explore the crazy cycle of life as Jesus describes in in Luke 6:17-31. Throughout the ups and downs, the promise remains that the kingdom is already with us.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/just-wait-11-6-16

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:
*note, that between the writing and recording of this sermon, a congregational member died, and so rather that the number of All Saints names being 4, it was actually 5*

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

So the Cubs finally won the World Series. All the jokes and the predictions…all the ho-hum years that went nowhere, and all the heartbreaks of good teams that didn’t quite make it are over…the longest streak in American professional sports since winning the championship no longer belongs to the Cubbies.

And if social media is to be believed…there were a lot of us watching that game…a lot of us biting our finger nails…especially in the bottom of the 9th when the Indians smacked a 2 run homer to tie it up and send it into extra innings…and if you were still up watching at that point…you know we had to wait even longer because of a rain delay between the 9th and 10th. Fortunately it wasn’t overly long.

In a lot of ways that brief rain-delay reminded me of a very common saying that we have here in Iowa. (pause) Don’t like the weather? Wait 5 minutes. (pause) And isn’t it the truth? It never ceases to amaze me at how quickly the weather can change in this part of the country…and who knows, maybe it’s the same everywhere…but its really true here. Now, typically we use this expression to talk about rain…how it can come and go so rapidly…and often does.

But this time of the year, this phrase runs through my head just thinking about the way the temperature changes so much over the course of the day.  We start the day with heat…by mid-morning you open the windows…you turn on the air conditioner in the afternoon when it gets a little on the hot side…but by evening…you’ve got the heat on again. (pause) Don’t like the weather…just wait…it’ll change.

Now its that notion of the way things change, and specifically the cycle of the temperature through the day at this time of year that gets me thinking about the gospel lesson for today…because the gospel highlights a very familiar notion…that in life…there are ups and downs…back and forth…reversals…cycles…and if our experience shows us anything as we go through this crazy thing called life…its that these cycles of the good and the bad…they just keep on happening don’t they? (pause)

Now perhaps today’s story seems familiar to you. It’s from a portion of Luke’s gospel called the Sermon on the Plain…it lines up with a lengthy portion of teaching from Jesus found in Matthew’s gospel known as the Sermon on the Mount…and they have A LOT of similarities…including the way they both start off.

Both accounts start off in the same way…with something called the Beatitudes…but where Matthew shares a slightly longer listing of people who are blessed within their present circumstances…Luke shortens the list…but he also shares the flip side of things…because we’ve got the “Woe’s” in there too. (pause)
Now it’s interesting how Luke presents them…this list of 4 sets of people who have it rough in the present, but they are blessed…and in the future the opposite will be true…and then, once those things are listed, we hear Jesus switch gears…and he lists off 4 more sets of people…who seem to be enjoying good times in the present…but they better watch out, because harder times are coming. (pause)
Now maybe this makes sense…because that’s a pretty accurate notion of life. Sometimes things are good, sometimes things are hard…Some times we feel pretty blessed…and sometimes we need to watch out. (Pause) But there’s a little  more too it than that isn’t there? Admittedly, I’m not much for rearranging scripture, because I think it typically does a pretty good job on its own, but I do find myself wishing that the order of things was mixed up just a touch here….because it’s a little more eye-opening if we pair them up together.
Blessed are you who are poor…for yours is the kingdom of God…but woe to you who are rich. (Pause) Blessed are you who are hungry now…for you will be filled…but woe to you who are full. (pause) Blessed are you who weep now…for you will laugh…but woe to you who are laughing now. (pause) And finally…blessed are you when people hate you…and exclude you…and revile you and defame you on account of the Son of Man…for surely your reward is great in heaven…but woe to you when all speak well of you…

Isn’t that crazy? These sayings of Jesus all partner up…they are two sides of the same coin…and through these 4 different situational pairings, Jesus seems to be saying…if it stinks now, it’ll get better, but if you’ve got it good now its gonna go downhill…ups and downs…lots of reversals…a cycle…just like life. (pause)
Now…out of all 4 of these situations…perhaps one of them is a little bit more fitting than the others today…Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh, but woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

Today is, of course, All Saints Sunday…and already within our worship service we have taken the time to remember those who have died in the last year…we have shared their names…we have shared a moment to dwell in their memory…and we have lit a candle for each of them which is still burning right over there.

And I’m sure I don’t have to remind you of just how recently three of those 4 names were added to the list for today.  Just within this congregation, we have experienced 3 deaths…3 funerals in the past 2 months…and the most recent one just 2 weeks ago. (pause)

For many of us here…we don’t have to think very hard to remember being in the state of weeping and mourning…and maybe in some ways…maybe even in every way for some of you sitting out there today…we are still fully in this state…and the very last thing we might think is possible is that we would ever smile again…or laugh again…or in some way feel any sort of joy. (pause)

Because grief is a hard thing…and there is no right way to go through it. Two weeks ago I stood before in the midst of my own grief…my own shock in the death of a 15 year old boy, and in that moment I shared the sense of anger and sadness and the honest feeling that any joy was pretty hard to see.

In the time since then, I’ve had conversations with many different people expressing the same sort of feelings…the same sort of pain and sorrow and disbelief…and I’ve heard statements of gratitude to hear that its okay to react to senseless things this way. (pause)
But time goes on…and in the short amount of time that has passed since that day, I’ve seen some things that have brought a smile to my face…some things worthy of happiness…things worthy of joy…things worthy of celebration. Things like spending time with a group of 5th graders…watching them get their hands dirty to help make the bread that we’ll share today in Communion…and laughing with them as we talked about the Lord’s Supper…those are good things…and it sheds just a touch of light on what Jesus says when he tells us…when he promises us that you are blessed now as you mourn for one day you will laugh again. (pause)

I think this is important for us, as a community who has recently endured a tragedy to hear…that yes we have all experienced pain and suffering…and in many ways we still are…but the promise of Christ is that joy WILL be found again. (Pause) Now that being said…one thing Jesus does not give us is a time frame. And so, if you are hearing this today, and within your life you are still experiencing pain of some kind, mourning or otherwise…and its still difficult to see the possibility that things could get better…that’s okay. (pause)

And on the flipside…if you find youself in a mode today where things are looking pretty good…just keep in mind…the cycle of life is going to bring around some bitterness again…and I think its pretty safe to say that this cycle just keeps on going…things go well, then something happens…and it sends us reeling…and we wallow in it for awhile, but then, right when we aren’t paying attention, things start to turn around again…That’s the craziness of life…and it seems a lot like that old saying about the weather in Iowa…wait 5 minutes…it’ll change. (pause)

But you know what…I stand here and I think about all these words I’ve said in the past few minutes…and I think it sounds pretty “self-helpy.” That yes life is rough but all you have to do is grit your teeth because it’ll get better…And I know that sometimes our experiences show us that this idea…is a big load of crap…and being honest about that raises the question…that where’s the gospel in the midst of all this? Where’s the good news?

And interestingly enough, we find it in a couple of very simple, almost throw away comments. First of all, think about the narration at the begin of what I read today…Jesus, God in human form…was up a mountain…but he came down to where the people are. And it was in the midst of them that he shares this teaching…but he’s also healing them…he’s meeting them in the midst of their pain and their suffering…and not only does he offer healing…but most importantly he offers them his very presence…Jesus, God in human form comes to where WE are…and is present in the midst of all this…the good and the bad.

And there’s another thing….keep in mind that throughout the Beatitudes, the statements tell us that things are one way now, but in the future they will be the opposite…you suffer now, but you will be better…You have it good now, but you will suffer hardship…that’s the way they are all listed…with one exception…

Throughout all of this…the one constant…is that the Kingdom of God…IS. Because the kingdom came among us when Jesus…God in human form made the choice to come down to where we are…the kingdom is present here…now…in the midst of whatever state we find ourselves in today…if we are mourning, the kingdom is here…if we are laughing and celebrating…the kingdom is here…and when we find ourselves in the midst of the craziness…the ever changing reality of life…the kingdom is here…and through Christ…we are made heirs of it.

And if we are heirs of the kingdom…then we are heirs to the promise of the Risen Christ…that where he is, we will also be…and today we look at those 4 candles…and we remember the 4 individuals that they represent…and we trust in the promise that Christ has made that the death which they have experienced doesn’t get the last word…God does…and I believe that those 4 people are in a place today where they want you to know it.

However you find yourself today, rest assured that the one who made you, sees you…and the promises are yours. Blessed are you…for yours IS the kingdom of God. Amen.

What Does Cross Generational Ministry Look Like?

If you were asked to name 3 people that influenced your faith, 3 people who shaped you into the person you are today, who would you say?

I’m guessing that those 3 people come from a previous generation. Do you know why they stand out in your memory? I would venture a guess that they looked at you and saw someone of value, someone worth investing in, someone worth sharing with.

Maybe, just maybe, what they did was invite you into an opportunity. They worked alongside you, or they shared something with you. By doing this, a portion of your history, of your story, intersected with theirs.

This is Cross Generational Ministry. It isn’t a program, it is a way of life. When we are baptized, the Spirit brings us into the body of Christ and our story becomes part of God’s story. Sometimes that big scary word “discipleship” simply means embracing the example of Christ when he invited Andrew to “Come and See” (John 1:39).

Faith is not taught, it is caught. Often times it is caught from those individuals who are willing to invest, to encourage, and then to offer an opportunity to join in.

One of the small, yet utterly vital, aspects of ministry at Underwood Lutheran is the baking of bread for Holy Communion on the first Sunday of every month. In November, this lines up with our 5th graders going through Communion Education. Part of this educational process involves teaching. Part involves reading the scriptures to see what Jesus had to say about all this.

But there’s another part. Physically doing it. And so, one of our adults joined together with the students, talking about how they make the bread. She shared why we make the bread and why it is important for the entire congregation. That being said, its not enough to just talk about it. So she rolled up her sleeves, and so did the students. And together they made the bread that we will all share this Sunday.

image13    communion-bread

So when the pastor looks you in the eye and says “The Body of Christ, broken for you” and hands you a small piece of bread, it was was made by two different generations of Christ’s body, experiencing the wonder of faith together by serving side by side. And in that moment, their stories of faith overlap in the midst of God’s story.

Not Really A Hero 10-30-16

In this Reformation Sunday sermon, based on John 8:31-36, I explore the notion of freedom through Christ, and how understanding this idea has led to all kinds of division throughout history.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/not-really-a-hero-10-30-16

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

Most of you know I’m a movie buff, and I watch a lot of movies. Some I hate, some are okay, and some I love. But most movies, once I’ve seen them, I don’t really go back and watch them again. That being said, there are exceptions. There are some movies that I can watch over and over again…the type of movie that if I’m channel surfing and I stumble across it, I’ll just stop and watch it, regardless of what I might have been planning on doing.

One of these movies is Tombstone, came out back in the 90’s…telling the story of the shootout at the OK Corral as well as the aftermath. Now if you’ve seen this movie…you know who the hero is…and honestly, even if you haven’t seen it, common knowledge of the OK Corral would probably lead you to say that the hero is Wyatt Earp…backup players…important, but not quite as cool…were his brothers Morgan and Virgil, and his friend Doc Holliday.  And the badguys…well that was the Clantons and the McClauries…who, of course…got what was coming to them.  Throughout the course of the movie, we route for Wyatt as he blazes a trail through the bad guys before finally getting the girl at the end of the movie and settling down for the rest of his life. (pause)
But that’s just a movie isn’t it? And even though its based on real events…its still just a story…and Wyatt Earp, probably wasn’t anywhere close to as heroic as the movie portrays him…in fact, just a little digging shows us that in all honesty…he was a pretty regular guy who had a lot of ups and down.  But history remembers him as the hero.

Its funny how that happens…how our opinions of someone are shaped over time, or perhaps by a specific instance or period in their lives and we forget that in reality, they were just a regular person, doing their best with the situation that they’ve found themselves in…and that this is pretty much the reality for everyone…even the individuals who were portrayed as the “bad guys” in the movies…I’m guessing that they didn’t consider themselves to be the bad guy…just like the one that history portrays as the hero, they were just trying to do the best they could with the situation they found themselves in.  I’ve heard an old saying that everyone is the hero in their own story…its just a question of who’s telling it.

This same notion applies throughout our church history as well…even going clear back into the period of the Old Testament. We are talking about this idea in the confirmation class this year, as we move through the overarching Biblical Narrative…that the big names in the Bible…none of them were perfect people…and even if God used them to accomplish some amazing things…they had their issues as well.

Think of a few examples…a few big names in the Bible…names like Paul…a former Jewish zealot who, if he didn’t commit murder, he at least condoned it.  Peter, the rock…the first pope…a loud mouth who often spoke without thinking, and denied Christ when things got tough.

Let’s back it up. King David, an adulterer who conspired to murder…Moses committed murder…Noah was a drunk…and even Abraham…the great father of faith…the father of a great nation…the key name that we hear in today’s gospel story…He had his moment as well, like trying to pass off his wife as his sister in order to save his own skin. (pause)
Now I can say for certain, because of course I wasn’t there…but I’m going to venture a guess that none of these individuals probably thought of themselves as the hero…but rather they just tried to do the best they could in the situation they were in…and the case of these specific individuals…the situation they were in corresponded with the action that God happened to be taking in our reality…and so, their names are found in the scriptures…and for the most part, they are remembered as heroes. (pause)
And likewise, there are the bad guys in the scriptures as well…sometimes individuals, sometimes groups of people…and when we find ourselves in Jesus’ time…within the narratives of the Gospels…well those bad guys were usually the Pharisees or the Sadducees…the religious elite…occasionally the Roman oppressors…or in John’s gospel, the group commonly referred to as “the Jews.” And that’s the case today.

Jesus is in Jerusalem…hanging out at one of the big Jewish festivals that he was known to frequent…and over the course of a couple of chapters here in John, he continually ends up in the temple…hanging out…teaching, debating…arguing, correcting…in short, he was there doing his thing…and rest assured between the beginning of Chapter 7 and the end of Chapter 8, there is a lot of arguing…and this short little tidbit that we hear today, barely scratches the surface. Rest assured that the mood within this particular little tidbit of scripture…is not peaceful by any means.

But what I find interesting here, is that by the point where we start off today…Jesus’ teaching actually seems to be working for a portion of the audience…for we hear just prior that many believed in him…and so as we pick up today with verse 31, that is who Jesus is addressing.

You believe in me…Good…now here is what that means…this isn’t a one time deal…abide in me…remain in my teaching…if you do so then you are my disciples…you are my followers and you will know the truth…and the truth will set you free.

Now here’s the weird part…we hear that…and it sounds pretty good…almost a no brainer…freedom in Christ…remain in the word, hold onto the teachings of Jesus…okay.

But for those individuals there that day…this notion that they would receive freedom…well this is something that they just can’t get over. WAIT A SECOND JESUS…WE ARE DESCENDENTS OF ABRAHAM…WE HAVE NEVER BEEN SLAVES TO ANYONE. (pause)
Now that’s a laugh isn’t it? Apparently these guys have a really short memory for history, because their very culture, became a culture in the midst of slavery in Egypt…and there are several other examples of servitude within their history as well…but regardless of all that…regardless of any further debate on the nature of sin, and belief and faith…regardless of all that stuff…these guys are clinging to their heritage as the literal end all be all. We are descendants of Abraham…and for us, that’s all we need.

God gave Abraham the promise…and since we are his descendants, we automatically get it too. (pause) But that’s not how this works.

The promise of God is an amazing thing. The notion of salvation…of eternal life…of being included in the kingdom of God, both in the here and now as well as in the age to come…this is a really big deal…even if it goes far beyond our comprehension…

But the amazing thing about this promise…the amazing thing revealed in this short tidbit of scripture…this short tidbit of Jesus teaching…it reminds us that this freedom that he is describing…it is not some physical freedom…its something more…something that honestly goes so far beyond our ability to wrap our heads around, that all we can do is trust that whatever its going to look like…it will be wonderful…it will be beyond comprehension…and that since God has promised it, God will make good on that promise and nothing will stand in God’s way of giving it to us.  For if the Son sets you free, then you are free indeed…free to receive this gift of the heavenly inheritance…whatever that means….Jesus makes it possible for us to enter into the house of God and be in God’s presence. (pause)
Now once again…for us, here, 2000 odd years after this conversation took place…perhaps this seems almost second nature…maybe it seems like a no brainer…but we’ve got more in common with Jesus’ opponents on that day than we like to admit.

They held onto to their cultural heritage as the end all be all…that being Jewish was all they needed…and we do the same don’t we…we have all sorts of traps that we fall into…cultural…racial…financial…political, just to name a few…we fall into the notion that this is right and that is wrong…and even here within the church we fall in this same trap.

Today is Reformation Sunday…a day when we recognize and celebrate the work of the reformers that all started when a random German priest decided to try and reform the Catholic church and nailed a poster on the church door…and depending on which side of history we fall on, Luther was either a big hero…or he was the chief bad guy.

And in the nearly 500 years that have passed since that day…we have organized ourselves into countless different groups…groups based on tradition…and culture…and interpretation and understanding…we’ve rallied ourselves around different themes and ideas…often times demonizing those who take a different stance…and I fear, all too often we place all of our stock in that basket, along with the false notion that God thinks the same way we do…that we’re right and they’re wrong.

But I’m pretty sure God doesn’t think the same way we do…which is probably good because if God thinks like me then we’re all in trouble. (pause) But the wonderful thing about all this…is a simple promise of Jesus…abide in my word…remember my teachings…even in times when they don’t make sense…even in times when you might disagree with one another on just what I was talking about…even when you’re trying your best to hold on to truth that goes beyond your human ability to understand…in all of this…I have chose you.

That’s the glory of the gospel…we don’t have to get it right…we don’t have know some magic words…we don’t have some cosmic checklist that we need to complete in order to receive it…the glory of the gospels tells us that in the midst of our flaws….in the midst of our brokenness, God has chosen us, simply because he loves us…and he will not be separated from us.

That’s the truth…that God has chosen you…you don’t have to be a hero…you just have to be…God’s already done the rest. Amen.

A Broken Hallelujah 10-23-16

In this sermon, based loosely on Luke 18:9-14, I explore the unchanging nature of the gospel in light of difficult events happening in my community.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/a-broken-hallelujah-10-23-16

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

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

If today is the first time you hear me preach, I’m going to give you some insight. If you’ve heard me before, you already know this. I’ve got a pretty distinct style in my sermons.  I open with a story…usually something that has happened in my day to day life or some applicable pop culture reference. I’ve got different reasons for doing this. Mainly because I’m a story teller and I find connections between understanding scripture and regular life…but I also typically use a little bit of humor to try and get you to laugh just a little bit. I guess you could call that something of an icebreaker if you wanted to. (pause)
But today I don’t have a story…today’s different…because today humor doesn’t feel okay, and I don’t know about you, but today I don’t feel like laughing.  In about 2 hours I’ll be at a funeral home for a visitation, and in about 24 hours I’ll be leading a funeral for a 15 year old boy who killed himself.  This may come as a shock if you haven’t heard the news, but this is a small town, so I’m guessing that most of you sitting out there today already know this…and I’m guessing that most of you don’t feel like laughing today either. (pause)

So what do we do?  What do we think? What do I say? (pause) Normally this is the part when I start talking about the gospel lesson. I unpack what’s happening. I look at what the characters are up to…and I attempt, over the course of a few minutes time, to find a nugget of truth and hope within the gospel narrative…and I also try to bring in real world examples…moments that perhaps you are experiencing in your life so that in the end, the gospel…the good news will be something that you can cling to moving forward…because the sermon has done its job.

I’ve heard it said that the job of a sermon is to bring affliction to the comfortable, and to bring comfort to the afflicted…and I’ve often told myself that in any given moment, both will be sitting in the pews. Some will be comfortable, and some will be afflicted.  But today I can’t help but think that none of us are really comfortable…me included…and so I continue to struggle with the question, what do I say? (pause)

How do I offer a word of hope or comfort, from the perspective of the gospel…from the perspective of Good News…when I find myself in a state of not really buying it myself?  Let’s be perfectly frank…in times like this….times when our community is shocked by a tragedy…every single conversation that I have seems to reveal the same thing…we are all asking Why or How and we all know that we can’t and won’t get answers to those questions…and it either makes us really sad…or it makes us really angry.

I’ve been in that state for the past few days…and it really struck me on Thursday afternoon. I had just received the phone call asking if I would lead Caleb’s funeral, and I sat down at my desk and stared at my computer for a moment, and all I could think was “How am I going to do this? How can I proclaim the gospel when I can’t even see it?” And never have I felt such a feeling of inadequacy. (pause) I don’t bring this up to say poor me…I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I bring it up because it is the truth…and as I thought about having to sit there with a family who has just experienced the worst thing that could ever happen, and the call to try and speak a word of hope and comfort into it…the “GOOD NEWS” seemed really bitter. And I suspect that for many of you sitting out there today, perhaps even all of you, it feels the exact same way.

And if that’s the case then maybe today what we need to be talking about is the truth of the gospel. Just what is it…and can we find it in the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector? And if there’s only one thing that I can pull out of that story that seems to be the least bit applicable today, its this…Jesus calls the tax collector justified rather than the Pharisee.

The Pharisee might do all the righteous things…but within his life, or in the very least within his prayer, He is the focus. Lord I thank you that I am not like other people. I do all the right things, and I refrain from the bad things…But the tax collector places the focus on God.  Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.  We don’t know anything about the guy other than his job. We can figure that he’s probably a cheat and a swindler, they usually were…and he made his living at the expense of his fellow countrymen…and following this moment of humble confession, he went home, very likely to continue the very same behavior, and perhaps returning to the temple a week later with the same exact prayer.

But again…he is justified because he appeals to the one who is actually capable of doing something. God, have mercy on me a sinner.  (pause) If nothing else, the tax collector recognizes the truth about who he is…and he also recognizes that there is nothing that he is capable of doing about it.

Salvation…justification…righteousness…whatever we want to call it…is not possible for us. We simply can’t do it…but God can…and not only that but God does…and through Christ it is already done for you.

That’s the gospel…that’s the good news…and what I have to continue reminding myself this week is that doesn’t change….whether I feel good about it or not…and to be perfectly honest today, I don’t feel overly great about it…and if I’m to utter the word Hallelujah today it feels pretty bitter.

But sometimes that bitter Hallelujah…that cold and broken Hallelujah is exactly what we need to say…because it is in the midst of our brokenness and our pain that God is up to something. Its in the midst of the honest realization that I just can’t do this that we finally get ourselves out of the way to let the gospel be the gospel and to let God be God.

If the gospel tells us anything, over and over again…its that God is God and I am not…and salvation from sin…the healing of this broken down messed up reality is not something that I can achieve…only God can do that.

And whether I want to feel good about it in this exact moment when I’m too pissed off at God to want to hear it, much less talk about it…the gospel does not change. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Even if it doesn’t make sense, Christ died for us…Even if it sounds too good to be true, Christ died for us. Even if I’m busy yelling at God to listen…Christ died for us.

And if we feel the need to react to all this stuff in that way, God will take it. Because God has broad shoulders…shoulders broad enough to handle all the sin in all the world…and not only to handle it, but to overcome it. (pause) You want to be mad, you be mad. You want to be sad, you be sad…and by all means direct that towards the one who can do something about it…who has already done something about it.

When Jesus hung on that cross and said it is finished…he wasn’t being metaphorical. This is already done…this flawed broken reality that we live in has already been redeemed…even if it doesn’t feel like it.

And this has all been done by God through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ in the world…even if it doesn’t feel like it right now. And that, my friends is the gospel, whether we like it or not in this moment. And the glory of the gospel is that it doesn’t change. This is truth now, in the midst of all this junk. And it will be true tomorrow…and it will be true the day after…and the day after and the day after. And it will still be true when we find ourselves back in a headspace that is capable of hearing it with joy. (pause)
And so today we offer up what may feel like a broken hallelujah…may we cling to the tiny bit of hope, even if it might feel bitter…than one day soon, our hallelujah is a joyful one. Amen.