Tell Your Story 3-26-17

This week’s sermon, taken from John 9:1-41, delves into the story of Jesus healing a man who had been blind from birth. Its a lengthy and rather odd story, where we find the man with a whole new life available to him, but the loss of community as he had known it before.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/tell-your-story-3-26-17

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.

Back in 1984, the confirmation class here at Underwood included a guy that many of you will remember. Jeff Montgomery…now while Jeff’s been gone from Underwood for a while now, his parents Gaylen and Karen were very active here in our community until just about a year ago when they relocated to the Branson area…but its Jeff that I want to focus for a moment.

Following his Confirmation in 1984, Jeff would go on to be a summer councilor up north at Ingham Okoboji…at it was there, during a week of camp in the summer of 1991, that Jeff first encountered a crazy little blond spaz case. They didn’t interact much during that week of camp, but they did cross paths.

Fast forward a few more years, and Jeff was the On-Site Director of the Ingham location, and in early 1996, he has a conversation with the local lumberyard deliveryman, and Jeff inquires if he might know anyone that wants to run a lawn mower part-time through the summer.  The deliveryman, who’s name was Rick Dalen…said, yah I know somebody…and his, then 17 year old son went out to meet with Jeff and got the job…only to decide a month later not to do it, because this crazy high schooler wasn’t a big fan of God, or of church, and was WAY too worried about what his friends would think when they found our he was working at a Bible Camp.

But then a year later, that crazy soon to be high school graduate thought about it again, and went out to talk to Jeff a second time…Jeff gave him a look, asked the question “Are you actually gonna do it this time?” And when the crazy kid nodded, Jeff laughed and said okay lets do this.  The crazy kid started that summer riding a lawn mower, but made a lot of relationships with faithful people that influenced him greatly.

Fast forward 20 years…and that crazy kid is now a pastor, nearly 4 years into his first call at the very congregation where Jeff was confirmed in 1984, and that pastor is sitting at the supper table when his son asks the question “Dad, if you hadn’t worked at camp, do you think you would believe it God?”  (pause) We never know the circumstances that God will use to get our attention…and that is precisely where we meet today’s gospel lesson of the man born blind.

Now as a blind man, his regular day to day activities probably involved sitting alongside the road…just trying to stay out of the way…and hoping for the kindness of those around him as he would sit begging day after day. And this day was a day like any other…when an amazing interruption happened…unexpected and out of the blue…an interruption that changed his life forever. (pause) Because on this day…Jesus came walking by.

As I think about this scene I find myself wondering exactly what happened as Jesus and the disciples happened upon this blind stranger. We hear that Jesus notices him first, but that’s about it. But then we don’t know what happened. Did the man ask them for some money…or was he just sitting there silently? We really don’t know the full details…but apparently something about his situation caught the attention of the disciples…and they ask Jesus a question centered around an old understanding that physical ailments or impairments…his blindness in this case…is the result of sin. (pause) But that’s not what Jesus tells them is it?

And in a truly…odd situation, we find Jesus setting the disciples straight with a statement punctuated by hacking a loogy on the ground. (pause) Just imagine it…imagine Jesus calmly professing “I am the light of the world” (hack a loogy)…and then not only that, bending down, mixing up some mud with said loogy…and smearing it on this blind man’s eyes. (pause)  Think about how crazy that would look…and now think about how crazy it must have sounded to this random blind guy as he sits there listening…You hear conversation…you hear a slight rebuke…you hear a guy spitting, which unfortunately would be a sound that this man probably heard fairly regularly…But then you feel a set of hands smearing cool mud over your eyes…something that would have probably been very unwelcome for this blind man…until he hears a gentle voice tell him Go…wash your eyes in the pool…

And then the stranger stands up and walks away, taking his followers with him…leaving this blind man alone with mud all over his face. (pause). But then…imagine what it must have been like after he made his way to the pool…and washed his face clean…and for the first time ever, opened his eyes to see the world. (pause) It’s not enough to say that this was life changing for him…though it certainly was…but I’d say its safe to call this an earth-shattering thing…and the crazy part is…he have no idea who did this for him. (pause) Think about that for a moment…because that is exactly the situation that this guy is facing now. Blind his whole life…some random stranger comes by, smears some mud and leaves before the man can see who helped him.

And that is an interesting point right there…because for the next 27 verses…Jesus is gone…right in the middle of the gospel…which we usually expect to feature Jesus pretty heavily…right here we discover that the LORD HIMSELF…disappears…and this is precisely the time that the man, once blind but now able to see…could have used a little divine backup.

Because this encounter with Jesus…as much of a blessing as it must have been for this guy to go from being blind as a bat to being able to see and care for himself…as great as that must have been…things get a little rough for him.

As the man is walking back home, he begins to encounter his neighbors…people who have known him his entire life…but they can’t recognize him… “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” He looks familiar but that man was blind…this cannot be the same man…and we see a sort of isolation begin to occur around the newly healed individual…as those around him fail to see past one physical trait that has defined him throughout his lifetime…they just can’t see past it…despite his continued assurances “hey guys…really, its me.”

And as bad as that must have been for this man…to not even have the ability to celebrate with is neighbors…we see him essentially put on trial. “What happened?” (pause) I don’t know…this guy put mud on my eyes, told me to wash them, and I could see…but I don’t know who he was.”

And things escalate…and now the people are bickering and they ask him again “WHAT HAPPENED?” (Pause) Mud on my eyes, he told me to wash. I did, I could see…But they still aren’t convinced…and he’s taken before the Pharisees who look down their nose at the fact that this all happened on the Sabbath…WHAT? HE MADE MUD ON THE SABBATH…HE PERFORMED A HEALING ON THE SABBATH…Surely not…he must be a sinner…Quickly now…tell us how this happened.
And the guy has to explain…again. (Pause, take a breath) Mud, eyes, wash…not blind anymore…and they bicker amongst themselves…some being swayed and others not…and they ask him again…HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? (pause…take a deep annoyed breath). Blind, mud, eyes, wash, not blind…yes we got that but who is the man…he’s a prophet…can I go now?

But he can’t leave…because the elite aren’t satisfied…and they bring in his parents…and what happens there? Well, we see the man further isolated because of the fear his parents experience…they don’t want to be kicked out of the synagogue…and so all they’ll say is “well, yes that’s our son and he was blind…BUT WE DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT IT…ASK HIM!”

This is getting ridiculous for the man…first he’s healed, but he’s alone when it happens…then his neighbors and friends fail him…then the religious leaders fail him…then his family fails him…and then to top it all off the religious leaders haul him back in for a second round.

Tell us again…how did this happen? (pause) After the day this guy is having, perhaps its understandable that he gets a little snarky with them. HEY…I already told you…why do you want to hear it again…planning on learning from him or something? And low and behold, he’s kicked out of the synagogue because of his situation…and then…only then…do we finally see Jesus come back on the scene…and for the first time, the formerly blind man is able to look in the face of the one who offered him this great gift…but he doesn’t know it…until Jesus asks the right questions…and gradually opens the man’s understanding of the truth…that this is the Son of Man…and he… believes. (pause)

Now take a moment to think about all this that’s happened. In the midst of the normal routine of his day, Jesus utterly changes his life…and that change causes two completely different things to happen to the man…as we’ve seen, it creates a brand new isolation from him as he loses the relationship with his neighbors…and then with his parents…and finally with his “church.”

And that can happen…for some…the radical change brought upon them by encountering Jesus can cause the loss of old relationships…because the light of Christ shining in their lives drives away darkness…perhaps you’ve experienced that in your own life…but in the midst of this growing isolation…we also find a change coming over the man…and this change has to do with his testimony about Jesus.

First, he’s just the man that smeared mud on my eyes and told me to wash…but I don’t know who he is…but then, as the man continues to speak about the truth of his own experience…he calls Jesus a prophet…and then he starts getting really bold in his testimony. We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, so if he were not from God he could do nothing…Yes, this man comes from God…and then finally, he comes to know and believe that Jesus is the son of God…Lord I believe.

And Jesus gives this man a new found relationship in the face of the loss of his old relationships…and this is the relationship with God himself…the one that send Jesus into the world…and that is a reality that we all face.

In one way or another, we encounter Jesus Christ through our experience with the Gospel…one way or another we have each heard the good news that God loved us enough to overcome the sin that stands in the way of our relationship with him by willingly coming to Earth to live and die a brutal death on the cross…so that in the end, we will not face the consequences of our sin…

But sometimes…often I think…our encounter with Jesus Christ puts us on a path that causes rifts in our old relationships while at the same time granting us the courage to speak truthfully about our own experience with Christ…that’s all this man did…throughout all the trials and the hounding…this simple man spoke a simple truth of his own experience….in short…he shared his story of what God did…even if he didn’t know that it was God who did it…not to mention that he had no idea how it worked.  He simply shared the truth.

GIVE GLORY TO GOD, We know that this man is a sinner. (Pause) I do not know whether he is a sinner…I only know that I was blind and now I see. (pause) For this one many who lived and died all those years ago…his encounter with Jesus brought physical sight to blind eyes. But for us today…our encounter with Jesus illuminates our eyes, blinded by the darkness of sin…darkened by the lack of understanding of the truth…but praise be to God that he has sent his Son so that we may be freed of this blindness…and we too may have the courage to testify “Lord, I believe.” And then, as time goes on…the courage to share our own stories…This is what happened to me. I don’t know how it works or why, but this is what God has done. Amen

He Sees Me 3-19-17

This week’s sermon is based on John 4:3-42. Here Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well and they have a rather lengthy conversation. Her perception of Jesus changes, while his perception of her never wavers. He sees her from the get-go.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/he-sees-me-3-19-17

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 are probably aware that I fall under the category of second career pastor. I lived some life after college before I started seminary. Likewise, many of you know that when I started seminary, I was living up in the Okoboji area…juggling a full time job and my family…and I completed the first half of my seminary education through a distance program.  This first portion of my education took me about 2.5 years, and during that time I grew quite close with a group of fellow students that were all doing the same thing. Most of our work was done online, but a couple times a year we would gather on campus for intensive classes.  In the realm of seminary education, those people were my community.

But then, right about the halfway point, opportunity took my family to the Twin Cities, and I switched from the distance program to completing my work on-campus…and with this switch, I found myself outside of the community that I had developed. Most of the on-campus people had been in classes together, and so when I started off the spring semester that year, I felt amazingly isolated.

But it wasn’t long before one of the other guys recognized this sense of isolation that I was feeling…and he made a very solid effort to get to know me. He asked me a lot of questions. He was always intentional about asking me how my day was going when we’d bump into one another. In short…he made the effort, which meant a lot to me.

Now after that first semester, we all went off for our year of internship, but when we got back for our final year of on campus work, he picked right back up again…and pretty quickly invited me into a group of other guys…they became my community during that last year…3 or 4 of us…each of us unique in our own ways…each with a different approach towards ministry…but bonded together over one thing we all had in common…a love of having a couple beers on a Friday afternoon while playing random video games for a couple hours.

I’ve always appreciated this particular guy, not only because of his invitation into this community…but also because of our mutual respect for one another. Because while we had a lot in common, we had some very real differences as well…especially in terms of ministry. I’m very laid back in many ways, including worship…you’d call me very low-church as I don’t put a lot of stock into ritual and tradition…He’s on the opposite end of the spectrum…he loves all the pomp and circumstance of the traditional liturgy.  You’ll find him all decked out in the clergy gear…the collar, and the robe, and the decorative vestments. Me, I’d stand up here in a t-shirt and jeans if I thought I could really get away with it. (pause) Now those are just a couple differences…but they were never a problem…and I loved how our branch of the body of Christ…our denomination had room for both of us. And we were able to see past our differences to see one another as people of worth. (Pause)

Now I bring all this up, because the idea of being seen is on full display today. That was a long story…but a familiar one…as Jesus has an encounter that illustrates the truth of what he told Nicodemus a week ago…that God so loves…ALL…the world that he gave his only son.

Jesus goes hiking through Samaria…and long story short, Jews and Samaritans do not get along. Relations between the two ethnic groups are tense at best…and more often than not they just avoided each other. And yet, as Jesus is traveling back from Jerusalem in the south to Galilee in the north…he is compelled to go right straight through enemy territory…and now at noon…tuckered out from travel, Jesus has sacked out by a well in the heat of the day, while the disciples headed off to town to find lunch.

Now we could go back and forth about the intentionality of Jesus being here at this particular moment…but regardless of all that…he’s there, and the woman shows up with her bucket to grab some water. Jesus asks for a drink…and their dialogue is off and running.

Admittedly, I wish we knew a little bit more about this woman.  There’s been a lot of speculation about her over the years…most of it really bad assumptions…but all of them aimed at the question of just why she’s there alone in the midst of the day…the norm would have been to come with the other women of the nearby city when its cool, in either the morning or the evening…but never alone in the midst of the day…when we partner up this odd situation along with the realization that she’s had 5 husbands and is now living with someone who isn’t her husband…we have the tendency to think that she’s got a “past,” that she’s…sinful. But you know what we need to throw that out the window…because there’s no mention of sin or the need for repentance in this story. What’s likely going on is that the woman has been either widowed or abandoned 5 times over…which at the time…happened…they even had laws that dictated that it needed to happen in certain situations.  So whatever assumptions we want to make about her…we are probably wrong…but then we all know what happens when we assume don’t we?

All that being said…the woman arrives here…at noon…probably used to whatever stigma has been applied to her because the situation she finds herself in…and it seems that she’s accepted it…and as she walks up on this particular day…there just happens to be a man sitting there at the well…and all it takes is one look at his appearance to know…this is no local…he’s a Jew…so she thinks she’ll just ignore him. (pause)
I can’t help but think that the Samaritan woman…one who has been on the receiving end of assumptions of character…she seems to do the exact thing…and we see it in the way that she addresses Jesus once he asks for a drink.  How is that you…A JEW…asks me for a drink.

The way we address one another is telling isn’t it? The way we refer to one another…and the fascinating thing about this long back and forth encounter…is the way the woman addresses Jesus throughout the course of the narrative.

It starts off…Jew…he wants nothing to do with me and I want to do with him. But when Jesus does…well, whatever it is that Jesus seems to be so good at doing…and he engages with her in the way that only the Son of God seems to be able to do…that perception begins to change.  They start off talking about water…and being thirsty…and somehow that shifts over to something that Jesus calls living water, whatever that might be…and during this part of the conversation she calls him…sir a couple of times…no longer A JEW…but now, sir. (pause)
Now at this point, Jesus makes the random request for her to go get her husband, leading to the truthful revelation from Jesus that he knows her marital situation…in short that he knows her…and she realizes that God must be with this guy…he must be a prophet…and so, in order to impress the prophet, she starts dropping some religious knowledge as they banter about places of worship…and she starts talking about the Messiah…and what’s really interesting, is that she uses the Hebrew word. I’ll impress the prophet by speaking the old language…and its not until she finally goes into town, utterly changed by the encounter…when she’s breaking the cultural boundaries to do the inviting to everyone she encounters…that finally she calls him the Christ. (pause)

I don’t think any of us would argue that this was a long encounter…it was a long conversation with a lot of twist and turns…and amazingly, it took this long for her to begin to see Jesus for just who he really is. He went from a Jew to be ignored….to the Christ…God’s anointed one…and it didn’t happen because he shamed her in anything…it didn’t happen because the clouds opened up with heavenly proclamation.  It happened because they took the time for her to eyes to be opened to the truth about who he is….that this is God standing before her.

But on the flip side…this entire conversation happened because Jesus sees her from the get go. He doesn’t see Samaritan…he doesn’t see woman…he doesn’t see stigma…he sees someone of value…someone of worth…he sees an individual lovely made in the divine image of the Father…and she realizes this when he speaks the truth about her existence…not condemning her, simply SEEING…her.

Now you’ve often heard me speak of how God uses the unexpected person…and this woman is a perfect example…but her story lines up perfectly with the encounters that Jesus has with the first disciples.  Andrew asks where he’s staying…Jesus invites him to come and see…which Andrew does…and then he goes off to find Peter, inviting him to come and experience the Messiah for himself.

The woman does the very same…she spends time with this man…and gradually her eyes are opened to the truth of his identity…and she issues the very same invitation…come and see. This woman…who so many, including us, have labeled according to our assumptions about her…she’s an apostle…she is one sent by Christ with a message.

But perhaps most wonderful of all…whatever stigmas had blocked her from community prior to this encounter…we hear at the end of the story that those stigmas are gone and the gift that Christ has given her is relationship with her community.

Now I think that’s significant for us to recognize…that Christ makes it possible for broken people to look past the things that separate and to join together over what we have in common…we are all broken people…each one of us…and because of that brokenness we are really good about demonizing the same brokenness in others…we are really good at seeing only that which separates us…and hating each other because it…and that is a truth that has dominated our society, and even though I fully recognize my own part in that…I am sick of it….I’m sick of it in our regular day to day lives and I’m sick of it here in the church.

I’m tired of the church only being known for what we hate…when Christ has called to be his body here on earth…He has looked past our brokenness to see each of us…he sees me…he sees you…and he loves you…and that is what we need to focus on.

We come together today…and in just a few moments we will gather around this meal…broken people gathered around the table of Christ to hear a word of forgiveness…a word of love…a word of acceptance…and it is my hope that the church…Christ’s church…not just our congregation or our community or our denomination…but the entirety of CHRIST’S body will realize that there is room at that table for all us…and may we all be united in the knowledge that we are broken people…and yet because of what Christ has done…because God has come among us as one of us…we are no longer separate by that brokenness…we are no longer defined by it…because each and every one of us are a beloved child of God…each of us. Even those that look different, or think different, or talk different…everyone is made good, bearing the divine image of God, whether we want to believe it or not.

And so as we walk out of these doors today, having heard the proclamation that the body and blood of Christ has been broken and poured out not only for us as individuals but for all people…will we hold to the truth that we have a God who sees past all the junk that we get stuck on to see the person…and will we recognize that this table that we gather around is big enough for everyone? Because if we truly believe that, then maybe we’ll walk outside these 4 walls and invite those that we encounter to come and see that they have a place here as well…and if we can that, then maybe, just maybe all people will begin to see the truth, that when it comes to God…HE…SEES…ME. Amen.

I Do Not Understand 3-12-17

In this sermon, taken from John 3:1-17, I explore the odd encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. A grammatical situation reveals the truth, that often we lack the ability to understand what God is up to.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/i-do-not-understand-3-12-17

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

Just out of curiosity, is anyone out there fluent in Spanish? I am not…I know just enough to be dangerous…and I truly discovered this fact during my final year of seminary as I spent two weeks in a congregation with a large Hispanic population.  Throughout the course of the time that my small group of classmates and I were in the congregation, we met with many different individuals for conversation…and that would always include one of the two pastors present for the purpose of translation…but we all attempted to communicate with one another directly in one another’s language, at least as much as we were able.

Now for me…my one year of Spanish my sophomore year of high school didn’t do a lot of good…and my ability to communicate in Español was pretty much limited to introductions. Time after time we would go around the table introducing ourselves…and each time I would say Mi llamo es Scott…which literally means “My name is Scott.”  Now, grammatically, there was nothing wrong with what I was saying…but after hearing several others from my group introduce themselves I started to pick up on the regular way for a person to say it. Soy Scott…now saying it this way literally means “I’m Scott.” (pause) Again, neither one is technically right or wrong…they are just two ways to say the same thing.

Now the polar opposite situations happens in today’s gospel lesson. Rather than hearing two different ways to say the same thing…we begin to discover one way of saying two different things…but first, let me set the stage.

We’ve moved into John’s gospel…where we’ll remain for the rest of the season of Lent…and perhaps that’s not a bad thing…maybe its fitting during this season we usually consider pretty dark as we move towards the cross…and if you’re familiar with the major theme here in John’s gospel it’s the idea of light and darkness…and the contrast between the two…we hear this theme all over John…as the narration of different stories continues to give us little clues about the state of things…telling us the time of day or that an encounter happens at night.  (pause) And in our story for today…that bit of narration is right out there.

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus…a leader of the Jews…He came to Jesus by night, calling him Rabbi…seeking something. Now this all happens in Jerusalem…and of course we’re pretty early in the whole story. Jesus has been baptized…he’s publically performed his first miracle…or sign as they’re called here in John…and he’s made his way into the capital city for the first of 3 Passover celebrations…he’s already caused a major stir in the temple when he started cracking a whip and throwing a bunch of tables around…and since then he’s just been around the temple…performing more signs and teaching. And this is where we pick up.

Nicodemus is one of the big wigs…not only is he a Pharisee, but he’s also a member of the Jewish ruling council.  He’s kind of a big deal…and if we were to compare him to a present day figure, we’d probably call him a Seminary professor with 3 or 4 different PhD’s. This guy…he knows his stuff…anything having to do with Jewish culture or their religion, or their faith, or their understanding of the law…he’s your guy…Nicodemus was the 1st Century Jewish equivalent of Google…if you had a question you went to him…not the other way around.

And perhaps this is why its so strange that we find him seeking out Jesus in the first place. Maybe the council sent him…or maybe he was just curious…but either way…here in the middle of night…in the midst of darkness…Nicodemus comes searching…calling Jesus Rabbi.

Now there’s a lot of back and forth in this story…as the teaching moment begins as a dialogue between the elite Pharisee and the traveling Rabbi…and the first thing that Jesus does is point out the error in the way that the council perceives him. We know that you are from God because no one can do the signs you do apart from him.

And Jesus response…you don’t get it. You can’t see the kingdom of God…you can’t perceive it unless you are born from above…and with this statement…Jesus and Nicodemus are off to the races…they engage in a lively debate around the idea of being born. (pause)
But here’s the problem…remember how I talked about 2 ways to same thing in Spanish…well here…we find 1 way to say 2 things…Jesus says “born from above.” But Nicodemus hears “born again.” (Pause) And it raises the question of just how that happens.  Well, funny enough it has to do with the original language…the very language that Jesus and Nicodemus would have been speaking to one another as they sat there debating…keep in mind they’re speaking the same language, but Greek gets funny right here…and the word that Jesus uses to say “from above” also means “again.”

Let me give you an example…desert…I say that and I might be talking about a delicious sugary post-meal treat…or I might be talking about leaving you high and dry in the midst of your need. Same word…two different meanings…and the same thing has happened between Jesus and Nicodemus.

Now the conversation goes back and forth…Jesus offering explanations…Nicodemus asking more questions…but seemingly getting nowhere as he tries to understand what Jesus is attempting to teach him.

But maybe that’s not so out line in the first place. Jesus talks about being born from above…whatever that means. Nicodemus is thinking more about the physical reality of what Jesus has said…and logically speaking…it just doesn’t work…to be born again? How can that happen…no one can enter the womb and be born a second time. I know how biology works…and that’s not how biology works.

And so after some back and forth Nicodemus finally throws up his hands and utters his final words of this story. “How can this be?” (Pause) You know there was another time when a person asked that very same thing…when an angel appeared to a young woman and said You will have a child…and this girl, maybe you’ve heard of her, she goes by Mary…asks How can this be, for I am a virgin?

In both cases…Mary and Nicodemus, they’re thinking about these things in terms of the physical…what can we see, what can explain…but the kingdom of God…this new reality that Jesus is bringing into the world…its not physical…its something else…something that we can’t quite put our finger on…and I’m guessing that often times as we consider what this book (hold up a Bible) has to say to us…we can’t quite put our fingers on it either…and like Nicodemus we end up asking “how can this be?”

Now Jesus seems to respond to that question today…offering up what I’ve long considered to be a rebuke…at least until quite recently. Nicodemus, you are a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things.” I always thought Jesus was coming down on him…but what if Jesus is simply making an observation…that even the most highly educated…even the one who by all human understanding should be the one to get this…even you CAN’T understand.  He goes on too…if you can’t fully grasp earthly things…how could you be expected to understand heavenly things?

Now a couple different things happen at this point…Jesus goes on teaching…and in the end offers up one of the most well-known passages of scripture…reminding us that because of God’s perfect sacrificial love for the ALL the world, he gave his son, not to condemn the world but to save it…all of it. (pause) Jesus lays out this vitally important, and very deep…DEEP truth…and Nicodemus has faded from the story. (pause)

Quick side note, remember when all this is going on?  Night time right? In the midst of darkness…and its still dark…and it would seem that Nicodemus remains in the dark…lacking understanding…not finding what he’s been looking for…for Nicodemus, the light bulb hasn’t gone off yet…Now I’ve long wondered if he ever “gets it.” Because here today…it looks like a no.

But his story isn’t over yet either…and he pops up 2 more times…the next time we see him…his kind of passive aggressively defending Jesus to the council…saying that its not lawful for them to condemn someone without a trial…not really picking a side…but cling to technicality.  But then the last time he pops up…at the cross…helping deal with the dead body of Christ…out there in the open…in the midst of the daylight for all to see. (pause)
Admittedly, Nicodemus is often criticized…because here at least…he just doesn’t get it…and he remains in darkness…in the lack of understanding…but I think its because he comes looking for Jesus instead of the other way around.

Maybe its because I’m Lutheran…but it seems to me that anytime we go looking for Jesus…when we go searching for God…we’re gonna miss the mark…because we look in the wrong places…and it is God who finds us. That’s what Jesus’ presence in our reality is all about…that’s why, out of his perfect sacrificial love for the world, God sent Jesus into the world…and that event…the whole aspect of Jesus’ in our reality…something they call the incarnation…that’s about God coming to find us where we are…in the midst of the darkness…not the other way around.

Now the amazing thing about the incarnation is that we need every aspect of it to even begin to makes heads or tails of this whole Kingdom of God thing. You’ve heard me talk about the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…and we need every aspect…his perfect life gets us nowhere without his cursed death on the cross…and we need the death, because you can’t have a resurrection without it.

And if the ongoing example of Nicodemus shows us anything…its that we need all aspects to even begin to understand. He didn’t get it until after the death of Christ…when he publically displayed that he was a follower of Christ…but even his closest followers, the disciples…even they failed to understand what was happening until the resurrected Jesus showed up again….and to be perfectly honest…even that was lacking.

Because here’s the thing about faith…we are clinging to the promises of that which we cannot see clearly. Scripture gives us tiny glimpses into the truth that Christ has brought into the world with him…but we cannot fully understand in this life.  The apostle Paul reminds us that now we see as in a mirror dimly…but one day we will see face to face.

One day…but, we’ve got to get through death before we reach that day…because it is only when we join with Christ in the resurrection…and we have put aside all these human limitations…only then will we truly comprehend the glory that Christ has made possible.

And so in the here and now…its okay for us to admit that we don’t understand…to ask the question How can this be? And then to realize that we probably won’t come up with a satisfactory answer…but rather to cling to the hope we find in the promise that because of God’s perfect love for us…we will not perish, but will have eternal life. Amen.

 

Words Have Power 3-5-17

In this sermon, based on Matthew 4:1-11, I explore the temptation of Christ, and the power that is held in the different names used in the story.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/names-have-power-3-5-17

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

Names are important…and far more than we realize…names have the tendency to mean something. (pause) For some of you long time attenders, this might sound a little familiar as I’ve shared it before…but I am fascinated by the meaning of names…and the idea that what we are called might mean something more than “the sound that comes out of my mouth to identify that person over there.”

Sometimes when I think about the names that parents have given to their children, I realize that both sides of the coin are in play. Some people just like the sound of a name and that’s why they choose it. Others pick names for their kids based on the meaning…based on what the name itself is supposed to indicate. And thinking along these lines, I did a little personal research into my own identity.

My given name is Scott Allen Dalen. Scott is a descriptor meaning literally from Scotland. Allen means either rock or handsome. And Dalen comes from Dale which is a clearing in the woods. So my name…Scott Allen Dalen means that I am a handsome rock in the midst of a clearing in the Scottish woods…Fascinating…If you’re curious about what your name might mean…a quick google search will tell you volumes. (pause)

Now I bring up names, because there are a lot of them being thrown around in today’s gospel lesson. It’s a familiar one…the temptation of Christ…one that we hear about every single year at this time…as the 40 days that Jesus is in the wilderness enduring various temptations seems quite reminiscent of the 40 dark days of the season of Lent, stretching out before us until the culmination with Christ dying on the cross just before Easter.

But before I jump into today’s story, a bit of logistics…the end of chapter 3 features the baptism of Jesus…and in the final two verses of that story, which we actually heard 2 months back at the beginning of Epiphany, the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus, and the voice of God the Father identifies him as his own beloved son. (pause) And now, here as we pick up the story…the newly baptized Jesus is led by that same Spirit which just came upon him, out deeper into the wilderness.

We hear that Jesus fasts over the course of 40 days…and then…boom…Satan shows up and here comes the temptation. We hear about three of them…as the intensity and the apparent cost continues to ramp up. If you’re the son of God, command these stones to become bread. I know you’re hungry, you haven’t eaten in weeks…best to sacrifice this tiny bit of God’s creation in order to meet your physical need.

But Jesus isn’t havin it…and he quotes some scripture back at the devil…temptation number 1 being overcome…the tempter tries again…and he switches up his tactic…Hmmm Jesus quoted scripture…maybe I’ll do the same.  And he wiskes Jesus off to the top of the temple and tosses an obscure psalm at him.  If you are the son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written that God will send his angels to catch you and you’ll be unharmed…Might as well be saying “Hey, if you are who you say you are” or maybe “If what God has said about you is true” then why don’t you prove it. (pause) But Jesus tosses scripture back on that one as well…You shall not put the Lord your God to the test. (Pause)
Well fine…let’s try one more…and the devil thinks to himself…it seems that Jesus is trying to reconcile the world…to gather them all together under his banner…so lets try appealing to this mission…and so Jesus finds himself on a mountain looking at all the kingdoms of the world…and the promise that all of them will be given to him…if he’ll only forsake the first commandment, turning his back on God to worship the father of lies.  But once more, Jesus isn’t having it. Because the power of the world…which is the power that the devil has some control over…that’s not what God has in mind…and Jesus knows it, and so once more…scripture in the face of temptation…and finally this time, Jesus calls that wiley old liar by name. Away with you Satan. (long pause)

Now if you’ve been paying attention…maybe you’ve noticed that I’ve been throwing a lot of names around…especially one that anyone familiar with Saturday Night Live in the early 90’s would find familiar…who remembers Dana Carvey playing the church lady? (in the voice) Maybe…Satan?

Its interesting, how many different names are given out to that old bugger in this brief story…He’s called the devil…at one point the tempter…and finally Jesus calls him Satan…about the only name we’re missing at this point is Lucifer and we’d have all the bases covered wouldn’t we? (pause)
But now remember…names have meaning right? And each one of these does too.  Now to call him the tempter…that’s pretty much on the nose…pretty self explanatory…and as we’re hearing about the temptation of Christ, that’s a fitting one…so having acknowledged that one, we’ll leave it alone.

Next is the name that we hear the most, both in this passage, and I think probably within our regular day to day conversation whenever we find ourselves on the topic of evil or sin or temptation…and that name is the devil…now this name means the accuser or the liar, which might just be fitting…because we hear in this passage how he’s twisting scripture…how he’s lying about what he can give Jesus…so that one’s pretty fitting.

But the final one is perhaps the most important. Satan. Now Satan means the adversary…the one who is standing in opposition of what God is up to…and so calling the devil Satan…well that’s pretty spot on isn’t it…because clearly Old Scratch is working pretty hard in opposition of the mission that Jesus is up to…to bring about reconciliation between God and humanity…to repair the breach caused by the dark powers of sin and death…those powers that are present all the time in our existence, but perhaps seem even stronger now in this dark season of Lent…that season that will ultimately culminate in the death of Jesus to atone for the of all humanity.

And it would seem that Satan believes that if he can just trip up Jesus…even this one time…then he wins…and he’ll remain in power…he’ll hold onto whatever twisted authority has been granted to him…and that’s why he’s tempting Christ. (pause)

Now here’s the thing on that. We hear today, that once the third temptation is finished, Jesus tells Satan off…and Satan has to listen, which makes sense because Jesus is God the Son…and as much as he hates it, Satan knows who’s boss…but its also important to realize that temptation itself didn’t end here. It was ever present right up to the instant that Jesus breathed his last and died while he was hanging there on that cross.

And we see a lot of similarities between the temptation story here today and the passion coming up in 40 days. Today Jesus is hungry and is tempted….on the cross he’s thirsty.  Today he’s lifted up in Jerusalem, and on Good Friday he’s lifted up just outside the city, only that time he’s nailed to a piece of wood. Today, the devil offers him political authority, to draw all nations under his power…and on the cross he draws all people to himself…

And there’s one more similarity…in both cases…on both ends of this season…Jesus is mocked because of his name…because of his identity. If you are the Messiah, come down from there…save yourself if you can. If you’re the Messiah, prove it. (pause)  And today…if you are the Son of God…prove it. (pause)

Keep in mind that the temptation of Christ begins as soon as his baptism is over…as soon as he has been named as God’s son. We might do well to remember that in our lives, that our baptism doesn’t excuse us from temptation, only that it cleanses us from the resulting sin. (pause) But the truth of this whole situation, regardless of Satan twisting it or not…is that Jesus IS the Son of God…and because of this, his words ARE true.

And I’m drawn to the one name that Jesus gives to his tormentor today…Satan…adversary…one who is opposed to what God knows must happen…and Jesus calls one other person the very same thing later on in the gospel. At a certain point, Jesus has told his disciples that he would be betrayed and killed…and Peter rebukes him for it…and as a result, Jesus calls Peter…Satan…adversary…one who is opposed to what Jesus knows must happen.

Now if Peter can get in the way…Jesus’ most trusted disciple…the one that he will eventually place in charge of the church, I find myself wondering, do we get in the way? Or perhaps more importantly, what do we allow to get in the way?

In short, I’m posing the question, what tempts you? What lies get whispered in your ear that draw your attention away? What physical needs come up that draw us away…what desires…or maybe what insecurities?

Satan tries to trip Jesus by making him question if what God had said about him was true. If you are the son of God, prove it. Did God really say that about you? (pause) And I fear we come under the same attack…Does God truly forgive you? Does God really love you? Are you good enough…I know the truth…just like you do…and if everyone else knew, they’d never accept you. (pause)
Those are the lies that the adversary…the deceiver…the liar, whispers in our ears…and he’s a crafty one…but no matter what he tells us, he can’t overcome what God the Son has said about us…that we are made heirs of the promise…and that if the son calls you free then you are free indeed. (pause)

Let me make one important thing clear. When we hear the story of Jesus’ enduring temptation and overcoming it…this is not some moral obligation for us to follow. This is not giving us an example to live up to…its not telling us that if we simply pray hard enough, or quote enough scripture…or are pious enough that we can overcome temptation…so don’t think that. Because our human broken WILL fail us every time.

Rather, let this story be a reminder that names have power…and if you don’t believe what I’ve already said, remember that when Jesus calls him by name, calls Satan what he is…and then tells him to leave…Satan has to listen…because what Jesus says…Goes. And Jesus tells you…he promises you…that you have joined with him as an heir to the promise of the kingdom of Heaven.  You are a beloved Child of God…and nothing can take that away…not any failing on your part…not any lies that the devil throws your direction. You have that name and nothing, not even you…can get in the way of that being true. Amen

Say What You Need to Say 3-1-17 Ash Wednesday

In this Ash Wednesday sermon, I explore 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10. We are reminded of death, a theme of this day, but must recognize that death does not get the last word.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/say-what-you-need-to-say-3-1-17-ash-wednesday

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

A couple days back, I was texting back and forth with a fellow pastor, jabbering about our respective sermons for tonight. She had already written hers, but she was worried that it was too short. I thought about it for a minute and then shared a bit of wisdom that my old preaching professor from seminary told us.

When you’re preaching, step into the pulpit, say what needs to be said, and then get the heck out of there. (pause) Now maybe this is a bit of a Lutheran notion…especially when compared with the preaching approaches in some different denominational bodies…where sermons can carry on for 30-40 minutes…but it’s a lesson that I’ve taken to heart, as most of you have probably figured out by now.

But that being said…there is one style that I just can’t wrap my head around…and that is the ongoing preaching in an old style revival. Now I’ve never been to a revival…but I’ve heard stories of the proverbial old school Baptist minister…getting up there and railing away for hours…eventually the suit coat comes off…the collar gets loosened…the shirt sleeves get rolled up…and when I’ve seen images on tv it always seems like its happening in mid-summer because everyone is all hot and sweaty…waving themselves with fans while the revival goes on and on and on. (pause)
Now, as I mentioned…I’ve never been to one…but I remember seeing a revival depicted on tv…on the classic show…the Waltons with John Boy and Mary Ellen and the rest of the Walton clan…Now, I remember seeing this episode as a kid, because my parents loved the show and watched it in syndication constantly…and not only that, but quite recently this particular episode was on in the background when I was visiting one of our members recently.

And the revival is depicted just as I described it a moment ago…as the visiting preacher rails on and on…focusing in on various individuals…and preaching fire and brimstone their direction…now one of the Walton boys catches an attack…and pretty quick he comes up to the front in a bit of an altar call…and later on in the episode he ends up in the river getting baptized…but then the preacher turns his attention to John Sr…who the show depicts as being pretty absent from worship most Sundays…and starts railing on him about the fires of hell…and John gets fed up…stands up…and walks out. (pause)

Now thinking about that whole scene reminds me of a portion of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, our featured passage for this evening…if there’s an overarching theme to this reading…and in fact to the entire letter of 2nd Corinthians in general…it’s the theme of reconciliation.  Somewhere in between Paul’s 1st letter to them and this one, the relationship has gotten strained…we don’t know what happened…but Paul is attempting to repair the breach…both for the sake of their own personal relationship and reconciliation, as well as for the sake of the gospel that he has taught them in the past.

Paul’s fear is that their irritation with him, whatever that might be about…will sour their opinion of the gospel that he had proclaimed…and so the theme of reconciliation…the need for it…particularly in terms of their relationship with God…and for a brief moment…I could almost imagine Paul as that Revival Preacher…NOW IS THE TIME…NOW IS THE DAY OF SALVATION. (pause) Whatever else Paul might be talking about…this small portion of the passage gives us a sense of urgency…that they must be reconciled now in this moment.

Now interestingly enough…Paul doesn’t get all fire and brimstoney on his audience…there’s no sense of trying to scare them into faith…no ultimatum of “Accept Christ or burn in hell.” And honestly I’m grateful for that…because I’ve never been partial to that style of proclamation…yes…Christ’s sacrifice frees us from the power of sin and death and condemnation…but if we are proclaiming Christ for the sole purpose of a get out of jail free card, then I think we are missing the point…for Christ desires that we be reconciled to God now…that we be in good relationship with God and our neighbor now…today…in this life. (pause)
But that being said…today is Ash Wednesday…today is one of the few days in the church year when we take an honest look at the end…and with that in mind…maybe, just maybe that sense of urgency isn’t a bad thing.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return. (pause) God formed humanity out of the dirt…God gives us life…but at some point…that life is over…and we return to the dirt that we came from in the first place. That’s what we’re talking about tonight…and when I look you in the eyes in a few more minutes, and I smear some ashes on your forehead and say those words to you, that’s what I’m saying. That at some point…you…will…die.

I’ll be honest…death is not one of my favorite subjects…and perhaps tonight more than any other Ash Wednesday that I’ve been a part of in the past…it seems particularly uncomfortable…There’s been too much of it in recent history…last fall our community and our congregation experienced several in a pretty short amount of time…some at the end of a long full life…and some shockingly early and unexpected.  And for me personally, it was all capped off with the death of my mentor in late November…a 57 year old man who was the pillar of health…unexpected to say the least…and wouldn’t you know it…I also got word this past weekend that one of my parents neighbors…a man that I’ve known since I was 3 years old suddenly died.

The thing about death…is that there’s no rhyme or reason to it…it comes out of the blue…and it catches us unaware…and if these unexpected deaths that have happened around all of us over the course of this past year have shown us anything…its that tomorrow is not guaranteed.

And while God may continue to display infinite patience with us in this life…it would seem that our death creates something of an expiration date…and so, Paul’s urgency…now is the acceptable time…now is the day of salvation…and yes maybe I sound a little fire and brimstoney here. Its not my normal style…but I can see today where Paul is coming from.

But here’s the thing…that salvation that he’s talking about…its already offered to you…its already been done for you…its already been accomplished for you. Christ did it at the cross…just how it works, I don’t know…just why it works, I don’t know…all I do know is that God loves us fully and completely…every single one of us…and God loves us so much that this blasted sin and the separation that it causes must be overcome and since we can’t pull it off on our own God stepped in through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and did something about it on our behalf…and this freedom…this salvation…whatever you want to call it is offered to you freely…now.

And the amazing thing about this…is that death…which has to be the worst part of our existence…both from the standpoint of having to watch it happen and experience the pain of loss that death causes for those still living…as well as the horrific reality of our own death, when our existence…our life as we know it ceases to be…and we cross into that great unknown that is lying on the other side of it…this horrific truth…this horrible thing…death, the worst thing that will happen to us…it is not the last thing that will happen to us.

If you’ve been to a funeral that I’ve led, you’ve likely heard me say that death comes for us all…but death doesn’t get the last word…God does…and we’re given a tiny little glimpse at that in the very last thing Paul says tonight…we are treated as having nothing…yet possessing everything.

You’ve all heard the saying “you can’t take it with you.” And its true. We come into this world with nothing…and we leave the same way…taking nothing with us…BUT…the promise of God assures us that we are made heirs of eternal life…WHATEVER that’s going to look like in the age to come…we are given that promise…it is spoken over us in the waters of our baptism…and it is spoken to us in the bread and wine of Communion.

Now in just a few minutes, I’ll look you in the eye and say words that refer to your death…but right after I say that to you, you will hear the words “the body of Christ broken for you…the blood of Christ shed for you.”  And this is done for the forgiveness of sin. Death is real, but the last words in the conversation belong to God. (pause)

Tonight we kick off the season of Lent…and we do it by acknowledging death…by recognizing our own limitations…and in about 40 days, Christ is going to be nailed to a cross where he’ll endure the true cost of our broken sinful reality…a cost that we can’t even begin to understand…he’ll endure it…or in actually he already has…because you have to go through death before you can get to the resurrection…but maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself there.

Tonight we remember that death comes for us all…and tonight we leave the conversation unfinished…which might seem strange…but I’ll make you a promise…or at least I’ll share God’s promise to you…this isn’t it…we’ll pick it up again at Easter with that tomb…is empty. Amen

 

The Story Within the Story 2-26-17

In this sermon, based on Matthew 17:1-9, I explore the Transfiguration of Jesus, which was both thrilling and terrifying for those who witnessed it.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/the-story-within-the-story-2-26-17

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

If you happen to be a movie buff as I am, then today is an exciting day for you…because today, or more specifically, this evening is…the Oscars. One of countless award shows that goes on every year, but in the movie world, this is the big one…the most important.

Now my only complaint with the Oscars…is that it is really long…the typical runtime is usually way over 3 hours. Its long for different reasons…but one of them is the number of awards that are given out. There are a lot of them…and they are aimed a lot of different directions…but if I’m perfectly honest…I don’t really care about most of them…the only ones that I’m really excited about are Best Picture…which makes sense as that’s sorta the big one…and then the acting categories. Best Actor and Actress as well as Best Supporting Actor and Actress.

I think both sides are pretty important. In the lead category, you are looking at the actor or actress that carries the story…they are absolutely central…the supporting categories are aimed at performances that occur more in the background…important for the story…but not absolutely central…but that being said…I’ve often found that for those supporting characters…we could describe their role within the movie as “the story within the story.” (pause)
As I was working with this week’s text for the Transfiguration…and honestly as I was pondering on the gospel as a whole…I recognized that this idea of a story within the story seems to apply.  (pause) Now I don’t think any of us would argue that Jesus would fall in the leading actor category when it comes to the gospels.  Its kinda hard to have a Gospel of Jesus Christ without Jesus in it…and understandably, as we work our way through the different gospels…doesn’t matter which one…Jesus is at the center…and if the New Testament had its own Oscars ceremony, I think Jesus would take Best Actor every single year.

And maybe, just maybe, today’s story would win for best visual effects…because here at the Transfiguration some pretty amazing things happen. You’re likely familiar with it…we hear it every year at this time, just before the season of Lent kicks off.  Jesus decides to hike up a mountain…he takes the Big Three disciples, Peter and James and John and up they go…and while they are there…Jesus is transfigured.

Now just what that means, we don’t really know. All we hear within the different gospel accounts is that his face starts to glow like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white…honestly that’s not a lot to go on…but as I’ve pondered on this event over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that somehow, someway…the Big Three were given a glimpse at the truth that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine…and this man that they’ve known…this man that they’ve followed around without too much in the way of problems…somehow the divine nature comes blasting through the human.

Now this is not to say that in this moment he became fully divine…I think its safe to say that the divine had been there all along. By this point in the gospel he’s performed countless miracles…but for what ever reason…it is in this moment that the divinity of Christ…the God-ness if that’s what you want to call it…becomes visible for a brief moment.

Now that in itself is amazing enough…but to add fuel to the fire…we also hear that Moses and Elijah show up here on the mountain and they are hanging out jabbering with Jesus as well. Admittedly I don’t quite know how Peter James and John would have known that this was Moses and Elijah…as both of them lived centuries before Jesus and the disciples were walking around…who knows, maybe they were wearing nametags.

But what we do know is that this moment is so amazing…it is so GOOD…that Peter wants to capture it.  If it had happened today…he’d probably want to take a selfie and post it all over Instagram and Twitter and Facebook…and if he did, he’d probably end up with millions of likes. (pause) But truly, Peter wants to stay put doesn’t he? Lord…it is good that we are here…how about I build three tents, one for you and Moses and Elijah…and we can just stay here for a while.

Peter wants to stay in this amazing moment…he wants to stay in the good…to capture it…because I think Peter realizes the truth…that it won’t last…because Peter knows that there’s more coming…that there’s some stuff right around the corner that will be a polar opposite of the glory that he’s witnessing here on the mountain. (pause)
And that brings me around the point that I started off with…the story within the story…because if there was a New Testament Oscar for supporting actor…I think it would go to Peter…at least here in the gospels.

I don’t know about you…but I’ve always related to Peter. He’s present for much of what goes on throughout the gospel…and maybe this is intentional on the part of the authors of the gospels…but he seems to be portrayed as the MOST human out of any of them. He sees incredible things…and he marvels at them. He makes incredibly Spirit filled proclamations about the true identity of Jesus as the Messiah….but he’s also impulsive…and he’s a blabbermouth.  He doesn’t think things through.  He walked on water with Jesus, but then promptly sank.  He expressed faith, and then when Jesus revealed that he would be killed, Peter rebukes him and promptly gets called Satan.

Later on he’ll swear up one side and down the other that he’ll stay with Jesus even into death, only to wimp out and swear up one side and down the other that he doesn’t even know Jesus.

Maybe its just me…but I often think that we are supposed to see this stuff through the eyes of one that we can relate to…because this stuff all happened…and real people witnessed it…real people who lack the ability to describe these amazing things that occurred…and for Peter…right on the tail of this amazing moment that he is seeing…Jesus transfigured on the mountain…just as Peter makes the statement that he wants to hang out here where its good…where he’s happy and comfortable…things take a turn.

Suddenly out of nowhere, a bright cloud envelops them…cutting off their vision…and the voice of God booms out “THIS IS MY SON THE BELOVED. LISTEN TO HIM.” (pause) It’s not quite a “no” in response to Peter’s question of “should we stay here.” But in the very least, it reveals, once again…just who Jesus really is.

And Peter, along with James and John…all three of them freak out…because they have now realized that GOD…IS…HERE. And they are on the ground, flat on their faces because they are terrified….scared out of their wits…or to use a phrase made popular by Luke’s gospel in the King James Version…they are sore afraid, just like the Shepherds who hear about the birth of Jesus…not to mention the women who will experience the empty tomb at Easter and a couple of angels addressing them…they’re absolutely terrified as well…not to mention when the resurrected Jesus shows up and starts talking to them.

It seems, that when God shows up…that when something truly DIVINE happens…it is simply too much for us.  I don’t why…and even if I did I don’t know if I could articulate it.  The only conclusion that I can reach from these different moments in scripture…including this one at the Transfiguration…is that whatever God is…whatever the DIVINE is…words cannot adequately express it…we cannot truly describe it.

That’s why we only hear that Jesus starting glowing…that’s why Moses was unable to actually look at God back there on Mount Sinai but couldn’t look at the place where God had just been. Because God is simply too much. God is in someway bigger…or stronger…or greater than we are…and to be in the presence of the divine must make the individual feel every aspect of being smaller…of being less…of being inadequate.

When I think about the attempt to describe God, I can only realize that our language is insufficient, just as our human limitations are insufficient…however “big” we might describe God, its not enough…and the only thing that I have ever experienced that might just give me a glimpse of this is when I stand next to the ocean…because as I have stood there on a few different beaches over the years looking out at this endless expanse of water, it makes me feel very small…but admittedly that’s not the right word either. Language fails me both in that description as well as in trying to define God.

So no wonder Peter freaked out…because God showed up…and if I was there, I’d say it’s a fair assumption to say I’d be facedown groveling in the dirt right next to him. (pause) But here’s the thing…this isn’t the end for Peter…and even though there’s still some dark junk that he’s going to experience between now and the cross of Christ…the message that he receives is one that we need to hear as well.

Listen to Jesus…and the next words that Jesus speaks are “Be risen and fear not.” Get up, and don’t be afraid because I am with you. (pause)  I love Peter’s story, especially today…because today his example shows us that we will experience the good and the terrifying.  Perhaps you’ve heard me say that the point of the sermon is to bring comfort to the afflicted and the bring affliction to the comfortable…and often times there are people on both sides of that coin sitting out there. But Peter’s example reminds us today that we will experience both in our lives…and sometimes we can go from one to the other just like that.

Peter went from absolute joy and wanting to bask in it, to absolute terror…and our lives reflect the same…but just as Peter was reminded to listen to Christ…we do the same…When we are comfortable and thinking that things are going well, let us look to Christ.  (pause) When we are terrified because what we are experiencing is simply too much for us…let us look to Christ.

Because if we are all doing that…regardless of the division that might be going on that separates the comfortable from the afflicted…well then maybe we can all begin to see what we have in common…a shared humanity redeemed by the one who allows us to approach the divine and not experience the holy terror that comes when our smallness butts up against the Lord’s bigness. (pause)
Truly, Peter’s journey through the gospel is a smaller story within the story…but if he shows us anything…its that he’s human, just like we are…and our limitations are on full display. (pause) And if today’s story of the Transfiguration shows us anything…its that we can’t really describe or understand just what it means when the divinity of Christ shines through the human…and you know what, that’s okay. Maybe we don’t need to know what it looked like…but we can be encouraged to know what the transfiguration means. That Christ bridges the gap…somehow, someway…and that he has assured us that we don’t have to be afraid. Amen.

Next Verse Same As the First 2-19-17

In this sermon, based on Matthew 5:38-48, I wrap up a series from a larger teaching of Jesus. After several weeks, it might seem redundant, but sometimes we need to hear the same thing over and over.

You can listen the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/next-verse-same-as-the-first-2-19-17

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

My oldest niece is 17…in the midst of her junior year of high school…and she’s got a boyfriend. As her uncle…I kinda obligated to hate this whole situation right? Isn’t that like the unwritten rule? (pause) All jokes aside…admittedly, I’ve never met the kid…and all reports from my sister is that he’s a pretty decent guy…so I guess I’ll begrudgingly allow it.

And to his credit…he tries hard. As they are both upperclassmen this year, they are eligible to go to prom…and as the trend has moved in recent years to include what’s known as “the big ask” he pulled out all the stops and put together a scavenger hunt around town…each clue leading to specific location, and another clue…and once they were all put together…the question was revealed…but she couldn’t miss any of the steps…each one leading somewhere specific…each one…inviting…her towards something different. (pause)

Now, what does this have to do with today’s gospel? Good question…why would I bring up a scavenger hunt, and each step serving as in invitation when we have a gospel lesson that sounds like a broken record?  If you’ve been around…this is now the 4th week in a row that our gospel lesson has come out of Matthew chapter 5…and as I mentioned a week ago…its starting to sound REALLY redundant.

We’ve heard Jesus talk about who is blessed in the kingdom of heaven…and it’s the unexpected person…the person who is the opposite of who the world would typically point out as “blessed.” Then, in the week’s following we heard Jesus give us a reminder that we are different in the world…and that we are called to be different…and then he starts talking about the law…and righteousness and justification…and we are given constant reminders of the way that sin has permeated every aspect of our existence…and that “the law” gets broken way more than we realize.

We’ve heard several week’s worth of statements from Jesus that I like to call the “yah but” statements.  By now the format has likely become quite familiar to you…you have heard it said this….yah, but I tell you its actually like this…and today’s lesson is more of the same.

You’ve heard it said and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say that if someone strikes you, don’t retaliate, turn the other cheek and give them a new target. (pause) You’ve heard it said to love your neighbor and hate your enemy….YAH…but you know what you need to love your enemy too…and not only that but pray for them. Someone wants your shirt…give them your coat too…someone makes you go one mile, double it. (pause)

I can’t help but wonder why? What is Jesus really telling us here…other than perhaps offering up continued examples of that first idea that we heard a few weeks back…that you are salt…so be salt…be different and make a difference in the world.

Isn’t that what all these statements seem to be saying? Over and over and over again?  Honestly…as I think back over the past few weeks’ worth of lessons and sermons its starting to seem like that old repeating song about Henry the 8th. (Sing) I’m Henry the 8th I am, Henry the 8th I am I am…I got married to the widow next door, she’s been married 7 times before and everyone was a Henry HENRY. Henry the 8th I am…next verse, same as the first….and it repeats over and over again. (pause)

Just what is Jesus up to here? I pose that question, because after today, we are stepping away from the Sermon on the Mount…but the sermon itself does go on…there are 2 more chapters of this continued theme from Jesus…and the big question is why? Why does Jesus think that this is so important? Why…are we called to be different? Why does he continue to extend this invitation for us to move away from the status quo and to be something different? (pause)
But before I really dive into an attempt to answer that question, I’ll pose another one…is this something new? (pause) Interestingly enough…this is really just one more step in a long history of God inviting humanity forward into something new…a new way of acting…a new way of thinking…a new way of interacting with one another…and we see that very thing on display if we back up to the very statements that Jesus keeps referencing as coming from ancient times.

Our first reading came out of Leviticus today…and it represents just a small portion of “the law” that God gave to Moses…a code for how the Israelites were to treat one another and not only that but how they were to treat other cultures that they came into contact with…Now most of what we heard from Leviticus today was aimed at those interactions within the community of the Israelites…and we don’t actually hear the direct statements that Jesus would reference…but rest assured those statements were in there too.

As Jesus reminds us…you have heard it said to those in ancient times, and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth…and while that might seems a little on the barbaric side to consider yanking another person’s eye out…it was actually revolutionary at the time…if someone harms you…don’t seek ultimate retaliation…but let the punishment fit the crime.  God was inviting the people to recognize that punishment did not need to be an escalation of violence…and at the time…that was a huge step forward.

Now fast forward several thousand years to Jesus day…and that old saying switches to something new…and why? Because through Christ, the kingdom is here now and with that change, once more God is inviting us into something new…a new way of thinking…a new way of responding…because its no longer an eye for eye…but if someone takes a swing at you…offer up the other cheek as well. (pause)

Even today, 2000 years after Jesus posed this teaching…its hard…because every single atom of our being wants to strike back…that’s just the way we are wired isn’t it? If someone hurts us, we want to hurt them back…and all too often…we have the tendency to ramp things up…you hurt me, I’ll hurt you more so you’ll never try to hurt me again.

I can’t think about that without thinking about the last 15 years of conflict that our country has been involved in following 9-11…they hurt us, so we’ve been trying to strike back at them so hard that they’ll never dare raise a finger towards us again…and how’s that been working…we’re on our 3rd administration since that whole deal kicked off…and from where I’m standing there’s no end in site…and that’s not me being political…that’s me making an observation.

We’ve used violence to strike back against violence that was used to strike back against violence…and the cycle keep spiraling backwards through history…but it will never work…because violence can never drive out violence, only love can do that.

And maybe that’s precisely why Jesus gave us the moral imperative 2000 years back to try something different. The kingdom of Heaven is here now…but the world still looks pretty much the same because we can’t break ourselves of the habit of an eye for eye.

But Jesus told us to be salt…to be something that makes an actual difference in its environment…someone attacks you, don’t strike back…it might hurt…but it will sure as heck throw them off their game won’t it? And maybe…just maybe, our example which can only be inspired by the presence of the Holy Spirit within us…maybe it’ll make a difference in the life of one person.

The world is ripe with individuals who are literally hurting for the gospel…they are hungry for a change in the ugliness of this world and how we treat one another…and sometimes…sometimes, all it takes is one small step to make a difference…that one small step can be the thing that opens their eyes and hearts to see the invitation that God is offering their direction through the life changing…earth shattering promise of the gospel…and that one small step can lead to the next thing, which can lead to the next thing…which can lead to the next thing…and the next thing you know…a life has change…and a heart has opened up…and I’ve seen it.

Last Tuesday night…a group of us were gathered downstairs in Bible Study…and we’ve been blessed over the past few weeks to have a new individual with us…a young woman named Brandy who’s been coming to church for a couple months now…drawn in because of a tragedy that our community experienced last fall. And as we sat there, having a discussion about sin and grace and brokenness and the love of God, something was at work in her…and as our discussion continued, focusing in on the truth that while we were sinners Christ died for us…Brandy got what I’ve called the spiritual 2×4 upside the head…and it clicked.  The glory of the gospel which seems like utter nonsense…right up until the moment that it doesn’t…caught her…and in that moment God invited her forward into something new…but it could not have happened if those different individuals that she’s been encountering since last fall hadn’t been doing something different…that’s why Jesus tells us to be different…to be salt…to go beyond what the world expects of us and to be something else…because Jesus knows that this world is not going change if we keep on doing the same old thing over and over again.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…the story of the gospel can be broken down into 4 sections. God made it, humanity messed it up, Jesus redeemed it, and we are invited into the work of reconciling the world back to God.  That’s the work that the body of Christ is charged with. He’s in heaven now…but we are here and we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be different…so that others may see the change that Christ has made in our lives…and maybe, just maybe they’ll start taking those steps forward as well…that’s how this world is going to change…not by continuing the same old thing…not by sitting around sitting on our hands waiting for Christ to come back, but by actually getting up, and following the invitation to BE Christ in the world…because if we’re willing to do that…who knows what might happen? Anyone want to find out? Amen