The Spirit Groans 5-20-18

*these two images are referenced in the sermon*

In this sermon for the Day of Pentecost, I explore the action of the Holy Spirit in the world, based on Acts 2:1-21 and Romans 8:22-27.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/the-spirit-groans-5-20-18

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

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

Earlier this week, I was chatting with a few of our High School students…and we got started talking about Pentecost.  And since its one of those pretty well known stories from the Bible, I thought I’d give them a little quiz and see what they remember from their Confirmation Days.

You guys remember Pentecost? Yah I think so.  Was that before or after Jesus died?  After…and its after the Resurrection and Ascension too. Okay…so Jesus is alive again but he’s not around anymore right? Right. Is it the Gospels? No its after the gospels…but right after the gospels. Umm…is that when the Holy Spirit shows up?  YES!!!!

Now at this point I was doing mental jumping jacks because it seemed like they remembered the story…and so I asked one more question.  Do you remember how the Spirit showed up? And after a moment of thought, one of them said.  Wasn’t it, like a big flaming bird? And one of the other kids said Ooo…like a Phoenix? And with that, our conversation went a little off the rails…but as I think back on the conversation…I realized that the kids were a little more on top of things than it might initially seem.

Because the Holy Spirit, while present in many different ways throughout the course of Scripture, only shows up twice in some sort of physical form…and it would seem that as we were talking, the kids just combined those two stories together.

Interestingly enough…we’ve got pictures or emblems or symbols, whatever you want to call them, right here in the sanctuary of these two times.  The first one is located at the back of the sanctuary, if you swing around and look you’ll see the large wood carving of the dove, representing the time when the Holy Spirit appeared in this form, coming from heaven and resting upon Jesus at his baptism.

And the second one is up here in the front…represented right up behind me and over my head in the red parament…depicting the tongues of fire that show up on the day of Pentecost….which is, of course, today. (pause)
Now the story of Pentecost is fascinating as all kinds of crazy stuff occurs…and we’ve been talking about this event off and on over the past couple of weeks as we’ve encountered some of the earliest situations faced by the church in the absence of Jesus…and it would seem that it all originates right here as the Spirit shows up in dramatically unexpected fashion.

Crazy violent wind…fire doing weird stuff…a bunch of random Galileans speaking in tongues…individuals from all over the known world hearing the proclamation of God’s deeds of power spoken in their native languages…accusations of public intoxication…Spirit inspired testimony from Peter which ultimately results in more than 3000 people becoming believers of the gospel…and as we hear everyone is amazed and perplexed asking the question “What does this mean?” (pause)

I can’t help but think that this sense of confusion…this wonder…this ultimate head scratcher is pretty telling when it comes to the action of the Holy Spirit in the world…and scripture goes a long way to show us the multitude of different things that Spirit is up to with different people in different situations at different times.

Today alone we have three different scripture lessons that reveal 3 different ways that the Spirit acts. We’ve got the empowerment of the believers to proclaim the gospel, not to mention the formation of new community across countless cultural boundaries here in the book of Acts.  The gospel lesson out of John reminds us of Jesus’ promise that the Spirit will continue to reveal God’s truth in the world. And then in Romans we hear how the Spirit intercedes for us, often in moments when we are unable to do so for ourselves…and its actually that passage that catches my attention today.

Here in the letter to the Romans, written 20 or 30 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are reminded of the brokenness of the world…and how every aspect of creation has been effected by the presence of sin and brokenness within our reality…that the whole creation is groaning…and so are we while we wait for the fulfillment of the promises made by God through Jesus Christ.

We wait…we hope…in the midst of our weakness…and God knows this…and we are reminded that God does not leave us alone in this weakness…for the Spirit helps us…interceding for us and WITH us in those moments when we don’t know what to say…when we don’t know what to think or feel…in those times when life doesn’t make sense…or when its too painful…or when our expectations and dreams reach a point of being beyond our ability to control…in those times when we look backwards and see the pain or struggles of our past, or we look forward and see a haze of the unknown. (pause)

Perhaps its fitting that today is graduation day…and for a few of you sitting out there today…this tension might hold a lot of credence. And I wonder what it is that you are praying for…or perhaps what it is that the spirit is praying on your behalf as you contemplate receiving your diploma in just a few hours…and the unknown that lies beyond it….or for your parents and grandparents who have raised you…who have struggled with the tension of being fully invested in you and yet not holding on too tightly…and they dream for you…they hope for you…and yet they are scared for you as you face this unknown future.

I think that this is, perhaps, telling of the sense that many of us feel as we ponder on the world…as we think about the world that the next generation is inheriting…and the truth that no matter how much we care, there are forces at work that we just can’t protect you from.

This past Friday, once again, news broke of a school shooting, this time in the Houston area…and again, there are lives lost…there are families broken…and lives shattered…and as I heard that news Friday morning, I found myself unaware of what to think or do or say in the face of this evil…and I thought about how it could have been here…it could have been our young people…it could have been some of you…and I found myself at an utter loss of what to say…

But in the midst of this I began to see, in this moment, the truth of Paul’s words that all of creation is groaning…because there is something inherently wrong when we consider the truth of pain and brokenness and death…a reality that leaves us wondering “What are we to say about these things?”

Perhaps that question sounds familiar to you. I often use it to begin funeral sermons, and its found just a few verses after this reading from Romans 8.  And maybe just maybe the only thing that we can say as we lean on the presence of God who resides within us through the presence of the Holy Spirit…maybe the only thing we can do is remember that we’ve been given a promise that we have a God who will NEVER leave us alone…and that there is nothing in this world…nothing in this reality that can separate us from God…and that in this promise we find hope…and in hope we are saved.

We can not prove the promises of God to be true…because whatever it is that lies out there on the other side of this broken reality, we can’t see it yet…but we hope for it…and we look to one another for love and support in those times when we just can’t handle it alone…because one of the gifts of the Spirit is community…God has given us one another and together we are the body…when one is weak another is strong…when one falters, another is there to pick them up again…this is how we mirror the love of God which has been shown to us in Christ Jesus…and as we do this…let us hold on to words which end the 8th chapter of Romans…words that I hope will give you hope…words that I pray give you something to hang onto in these times when the Spirit groans within you and for you because you don’t know what to say or to think. (pause)
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…not even the powers of darkness that rage in this world. (pause)
I want draw your attention back to the two symbols of the Holy Spirit here in the sanctuary…the dove in the back and the flames here in the front…I actually like the separation between the two as it reminds us that the baptism of Jesus started at the beginning of the gospel…and the tongues of fire from Pentecost showed up at the end when the church was empowered to be the body of Christ…but if you look at both, you’ll see something that they have in common…both emblems have a cross don’t they?

Maybe these two symbols working together are actually the Spirit trying to remind us that both of these events are connected by what God did through the cross. (pause) Because in Christ, God tried to show the world that there was another way…and on the cross the world killed him for it…but the cross also reminds us that death doesn’t get the last word in all this…God does…and this is the promise that we cling to…even in those moments when we need the Spirit to utter some groans on our behalf, because trust me, we are not alone…and the Spirit groans. Amen

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Knower of Hearts 5-13-18

In this sermon, based on Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 I explore the appointment of Matthias as the 12th Apostle. This odd situation occurs in the significant pause between Ascension Day and the Day of Pentecost.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/knower-of-hearts-5-13-18

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

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

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to realize that in any given situation or interaction, there are different perspectives that lie on opposite sides…something I never considered in my younger days…and its only as my own life experience has begun to place me on the opposite side of these various interactions that I’ve started learning this crazy truth. A truth that is only revealed when you find yourself “sitting on the other side of the table.”

For instance…When I was a kid, especially being the third kid in my family, I thought my folks had things pretty well figured out…but now I’ve learned that parenting does not come with a manual, and that about 99% of all parenting is simply making it up as you go along, regardless of which kid in the order you’re dealing with. (pause) I’ve discovered that while being interviewed can certainly be a little tedious…being the one that is conducting the interview is one of the most un-natural feelings ever. (pause) And finally, one that I learned about the time I was starting seminary and began helping out in my old congregation as one of the Confirmation teachers…when you are standing up in front of a class…you can see EVERYONE…including the ones who think they are being sneaky by looking at their phone under the table. (pause)
Now, on the flip side of the teaching thing…that does remind me of my various days as a student, particularly in college and later on, seminary…when we would all embody being creatures of habit, and sit in the same place time after time. I can only think it’s a common human trait to do this…and because of that common tendency, another perspective that I’ve gained since taking on the role of teacher is how easy it is to see when someone is gone because they aren’t sitting in their normal spot.  And it’s this idea of absence, or the lack of a person’s normal presence that shoots us over into the scripture for today.

Now we find ourselves in the midst of a brief portion of time in the church year…in the 10-day gap that lies between Ascension Day, when Jesus is taken up into heaven…which just occurred this past Thursday…and the day of Pentecost, when we celebrate the empowerment of the Church by the Holy Spirit with the great wind and tongues of fire resting on the believers, which is coming right up next Sunday.

Now I’ve heard this 10-day period called a significant pause in the life of the church…and I think that’s fitting. For we find ourselves…or perhaps its better to say that the earliest church found themselves in an unknown spot…taking a breath perhaps as they find themselves in the reality of a pretty major absence. The absence of Christ himself.

Now as the book of Acts picks up, we begin with Jesus taking the Apostles just outside Jerusalem. He gives them the task of being his witnesses radiating out from the city…and he tells them that they will be empowered from on high soon…and until then, they should just stay there and wait….with this, Jesus leaves their sight…ascending into Heaven.

And now, for the first time, these witnesses to the Christ event…those who seemingly have been around since John baptized Jesus in the Jordan…those who have traveled around with him…they’ve seen the miracles…they’ve heard the teaching…and now they’ve witnessed the mind-blowing reality of the death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus…and now…having seen all this…and having been utterly reliant on Jesus for direction…they find themselves on their own…this small rag-tag batch of believers…numbering about 120…about the size of our Sunday morning gatherings.  That was the entire church.

And I can only imagine…Jesus has disappeared, they’ve walked back into the city…and now they’re just sorta sitting there staring at each other…and it would seem that after a day or two, they starting asking the question. “What do we do now?”

Now keep in mind that Pentecost hasn’t happened yet…so no Holy Spirit yet…but it would seem that the church is getting impatient…and so they decide that its time that they take action…Jesus is gone, so I guess its up to us.

And as they look around…considering all that has happened…it would seem that a council election is in order…because there’s a hole left in the ranks of the apostles. Jesus said there was supposed to be 12…but look, Judas is gone. And so Peter hops up with an idea…GUYS…I totally think we need to pick someone to take his spot…and so they do…now they lay out some criteria…and it would seem that there are 2 guys that fit the bill…one guy with 3 names, Joseph or Barsabbas or Justus, whatever you want to call him…and Matthias.  And then in one of the strangest election situations I’ve ever heard of…they decide who God has chosen by essentially throwing dice…Matthias is chosen…he is now “numbered” with the other apostles…seemingly placed into a position of leadership among the 120, poor Justus gets shunted to the side…and then, (long pause) we literally never hear about either one of them again.

I can’t help but think of the possibility that the earliest church jumped the gun here. Jesus told them to wait until they were empowered…and that hadn’t happened yet. And maybe, just maybe, the fact that we never hear Matthias named again, or beforehand for that matter, maybe this serves a reminder that God wasn’t quite ready for them to start moving yet.

But that being said, I don’t mean to minimalize Matthias or Justus or any of the other members of the earliest church. In fact, I’m jealous of them…we hear that these are the people who followed Jesus. This group of 120 odd people were literally Jesus’ disciples…they were followers, even if only 12 of them were considered to be “THE” disciples.

It probably goes without saying that both of these two guys made important contributions in the life of the body of Christ here in the first days….and honestly the rest of the people probably did to. Its possible, probable even, that all 120 were included on Pentecost when the Spirit empowered them, not just the 12.  They were all present through the earliest days, meeting together…breaking bread together…being devoted to the apostles teachings, and encountering every new believer that was added to their ranks…they were all important.

But here’s the question I want to pose.  Of that 120 people…how many do we know? How many can we identify…maybe 20 or so? The original 12…a handful of women who are named at various points…and now Matthias and Justus…and everyone else, is completely unknown to us.

And yet…they are the body…and as we mentioned these earliest believers…these members of the earliest church were vital…because without this entire group and the witness that each of them provided through their own gifts and stories…through their own encounters with others…the church as it exists today would be different.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the 100 that we don’t know…those individuals who now, 2000 years later, are nameless and faceless…its almost like they never existed. And there are COUNTLESS more brothers and sisters from across the centuries that fall in the same boat. Those individuals who each did their part for the body…which is one body with many members…and then once their small part of time was up, they faded from memory.

I think about how quickly this can happen…how fast our memory can fade from those we are known by…and I realize the truth of this when I think about how I can see everyone when I’m teaching.  Guess what…the same thing applies when I’m standing in this pulpit as well.

I look out at you all, week after week, and since we’re all creatures of habit, I know pretty much who I’m going to see depending on which direction I’m looking.  I know I’m going to see Phil if I look right here.  I know if I look back that direction I’m going to see Joyce…I know I’m going to see Arlon leaning against the wall right over there, and either Nancy or Judy sitting here in the front row next to the organ. And I pretty much know where the rest of you are sitting as well.

But today as I look around this sanctuary…I can also see the spots where someone’s missing. I look over there, where Jane Christiansen should be sitting.  Or I look up here where Bob and Marcia Hastings should be…or over there where Tom Emmi used to sit…and I note their absence…and I note quite a few others who are absent today as well.

But perhaps for some of you that are newer, I say those names and you don’t know who I’m talking about…because they’ve been gone longer than you’ve been a part of this particular community…and this is precisely the point I’m getting at.

Our time in this life is a blip in the cosmic sense…and while we are known and loved by those that we encounter as we live this life together, there will come a day when each of us fades from living memory.

But there is something in today’s passage, almost a throw away comment, that we need to recognize. When Peter proposes this lottery for a new Apostle, they pray…and our translation is just a little bit off…because they actually call on the Lord, who they describe as “the knower of every heart.”  God is the one that knows us far better than anyone else will ever know us.

God is the one who sees every aspect, who knows us better than we know ourselves…and who loves us unconditionally from the first moment of our existence…through every single breath of our life…God is the one who holds us through death…and brings us to new life in Christ, whatever that will look like in the promise of the resurrection.

God is the knower of hearts…God is the knower of souls…God is the knower of you…and long after your time in this life is done, and your memory has faded away from those still living…your place as a beloved member of the body of Christ will not be forgotten by the one who made you in the first place. Amen

Even These 5-6-18

In this sermon, based on Acts 10:44-48, I explore the utterly unexpected way that the Holy Spirit acts in bringing more and more marginalized people into fellowship.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/even-these-5-6-18

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

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

Ever heard the phrase “Truth is stranger than fiction?” There are times when this statement utterly spot-on.  Earlier this week I was scrolling through social media and found a picture of a book…And looking at the cover art may have temporarily broken my brain…Jesus, riding a rainbow unicorn, holding a machine gun in each hand, all while firing lasers out of his eyes.

It was like someone took My Little Pony, Superman, and Rambo…put it all in a blender…and then poured it on the gospels…and the biggest kicker was the name. The Bible, Part 2. (pause) I’m not making this up. Now, I don’t know what was actually in this book. I don’t know if it was satire, or a coloring book, or some weird comic…but it did get me wondering just what we would find if there actually was a sequel to the Bible. (pause)

Now, while we can’t answer that question, we can take a look at the theme of scriptural sequels and find some evidence…and that lies with the book of Acts…Now I can’t help but think that Acts, or Acts of the Apostles as its officially known, is one of the books of the Bible that tends to get glossed over more often than not…but when we take the time to really start digging into it, we find some pretty amazing, not to mention pretty mind blowing situations faced by the earliest church.

Now that right there…the earliest church, that’s what the book of Acts is really about. The 4 gospels highlight the Christ event…the story of God entering into our reality as a man named Jesus…his birth, his time in ministry…and of course his subsequent death and resurrection…all vital to the narrative of “THE GOSPEL” itself…and of course vital to our faith. But once the gospels are finished, it raises the question of what came next…and we find that in Luke’s second written volume of the Book of Acts.

Now Acts picks up with a tiny little overlap with the ending of Luke’s gospel…as the resurrected Jesus leads the apostles outside the city of Jerusalem. He tells them that they will be his witnesses, empowered by the Holy Spirit which will come upon them, and carrying the good news of the kingdom of Heaven…beginning in Jerusalem, then Samaria, and even to the ends of the Earth. With that, Jesus is taken up into heaven in the Ascension…an event which we’ll actually celebrate this coming Thursday…and with that the apostles head back into the city of Jerusalem where they hang out for 10 days…before the utterly mind-blowing event of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit come blowing in and empowered the apostles to speak in various tongues, proclaiming the greatness of God in the languages of countless Jewish people there for a festival…and with it, we begin to see the explosive growth of the early church…of the body of Christ, connected and empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

This is really what the book of Acts entails. Early on we hear of the various exploits of the original Apostles…the places they end up, the people that they encounter and the miraculous events that occur, and then in the back half of the book we hear about the Apostle Paul, his conversion, his interactions with the original apostles and his subsequent ministry throughout much of the known world…as the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of the kingdom of Heaven continues moving outward, just like Jesus had said at the beginning, before Acts comes to a close by telling us that the gospel is being proclaimed in the world boldly and unhindered. (pause)

Jesus came into our reality to change it…to overcome the powers of sin and death and brokenness…and then he empowered his followers to carry that message forward…and that’s where we pick up today. With Peter…arguably the most relatable of the apostles because he’s just so human isn’t he?  He’s the one who constantly puts his foot in his mouth…the one who boldly makes divine proclamations about Jesus in one moment, and turns around and denies him in the next. And yet, he is the one who Jesus calls the rock.

Now Acts chapter 10 as a whole marks a transition for the church, and Peter is right at the heart of it.  Up to this point, while there has been explosive growth in the number of believers…its pretty well been limited to Jewish Christians…so much so that the earliest church was considered to be a Jewish sect…an offshoot of the same faith.

And because of this fact…this distinction, these earliest believers would have been followers of Jewish law…they would have been shaped by this cultural identity and with all of the rules and regulations that came along with it.  But now things are about to get shaky.

And it all starts as two different guys have visions. Now one of them is Peter and the other one is this random Gentile named Cornelius…a Roman centurion…and officer in their army, known and respected by the Jewish people around the city of Caesarea…one who even knows and fears God…but still a Gentile…and now he has a vision instructing him to send for Peter who’s hanging out in a nearby city…and so he does.

Now at the same time, Peter’s sitting on a rooftop having a vision of his own…as he sees a sheet descend from heaven, carrying pretty much every type of unclean animal…animals that Jewish law prevents them from eating…and as Peter sees all this he hears a voice saying “get up, kill and eat.”

Now in his vision Peter kinda freaks out, because he follows the dietary rules and always has…he won’t break them…he follows what can called ceremonial law…and he says “by no means, for I have never eaten anything profane.” And then the voice says “What God has called clean you are not to call profane.”

Now if the story stopped right there we could be thankful, because it allows us the joy of eating bacon, which I do believe is a gift from God…but joking aside that’s not where it stops…and Peter is told that there are Gentiles coming to find him and that he should go with them.

Now this leads Peter to the home of Cornelius, and he’s not alone…as we hear that there are circumcised believers with him…Jewish believers…probably numbering among the 3000 that were present and witnessed the Holy Spirit’s activity empowering the apostles at Pentecost….they’ve come along as well to see just what’s going on here.

Now as this group enters the home of Cornelius, he explains why he summoned them…and that in his vision he was instructed to listen to Peter and that his whole household is ready for Peter’s message., whatever it will be.

Now the pieces are starting to click into place for Peter, and he begins by acknowledging something vital…I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him…and with this, Peter begins sharing the story…the message, the good news of Jesus Christ with all those who are present. (pause)
Now here’s the funny thing…as the lesson picks up today, we hear that the Holy Spirit interrupts Peter. Apparently his sermon is getting a little long winded and the Spirit doesn’t want to wait anymore…for “while Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word…and these Gentiles…these non-Jewish people….these individuals who are not members of God’s chosen people, begin speaking in tongues and exalting God…which if memory serves me correctly is the EXACT SAME THING that happened to the apostles at Pentecost. And seeing that the Spirit had truly come upon them, Peter insists that they be baptized.

Now this event is not without repercussions…and as the narrative continues Peter starts catching some flack and has to explain himself…funny enough, not because he baptized these Gentile believers…but because he dared enter into the house of a Gentile.

And that right there…that’s telling of the problem that the early church was facing in this moment…because they all seemed to be stuck in that sense of ceremonial law that we mentioned earlier…that there are rules to admission…that you’ve gotta become Jewish…aka get circumcised, before you can become a Christ-follower.  Peter catches flack over this…later on Paul will butt heads over this…Paul even wrote the letter to the Galatians because of this exact situation.

Now its sorta funny. We read this today and think it’s a no-brainer…of course the gospel is for the Gentiles…it has to be or we wouldn’t be here would we? We’re not Jewish…so clearly that boundary was overcome…that line in the sand was crossed…and its because of this event involved Peter and Cornelius.

It’s a no-brainer for us…but at that time it was shocking…it was scandalous…offensive even…and we hear this if we pay attention to the astonished reaction of the Jewish believers who accompanied Peter…as they were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit, had been poured out…EVEN ON the Gentiles. (pause)

That simple little statement speaks volumes.  Its shocking to them that God would show favor to GENTILES…who’s next? Samaritans? Oh wait, Didn’t Jesus already do that? Well at least they’re half-Jewish…but Gentiles? No…surely not? But Jesus has already broken that barrier too hasn’t he?  And remember his instruction to the earliest church, that tiny handful of disciples. You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth.

Now I can’t help but think, the ends of the earth seems pretty all-encompassing doesn’t it? (pause)  It seems to be pretty inclusive…and that maybe, this whole situation…Jesus’ words mixed in with Peter’s vision, and the reality of the Holy Spirit coming upon these Gentiles serves to show us that when it comes to the Gospel, we can’t think its “us or them.” But rather it’s a question of “we.” Namely, humanity….because we have each been made bearing the divine image of God…we have each been called good by the one who made it…and we are all included when we hear that God so loved the world.

And so I pose the question today…who are those that fall on the other side of the line?  Who are those who tradition or society or whatever have pushed to the margins? Who are those that fail to follow the ceremonial law that we are all stuck in, whether we realize it or not…who are those that do things differently or think differently or talk differently or act differently than we do?

If the earliest believers struggled with anything here its that “the rules” that they had followed didn’t seem to apply where these newest believers were concerned…or perhaps more specifically they don’t apply where the Holy Spirit was concerned.

As members of the human race we are all really good at creating boundaries…now maybe we do so out of nefarious reasons or maybe we do so in order to give ourselves reassurance that we are, in fact, ok…but regardless, the scriptures show us time and time again that God seems to side with the marginalized…the ones pushed to other side of that line.

And so I ask the question…who are those that we have placed on the other side of the line? Who are the ones that our ceremonial law deems unacceptable that maybe just maybe the Holy Spirit is falling on anyway, whether we like it or not?

This is an important question that we in the church need to be asking ourselves…because if the gospel shows us anything…its that the grace of God is big enough…it is generous enough…it is so full of mercy, that it can overcome my brokenness (pause)…and it is given to me because of God’s perfect all-encompassing sacrificial love for me because I am made bearing the divine image. And the same is true for you. God’s grace is given to you because you are made bearing that same divine image. And if that’s the case then we better believe that same grace is given to everyone else bearing it too.

So ask yourselves…who is it? Who are you shocked to discover that the Holy Spirit has been poured out…even on these?  Amen

Connected 4-29-18

In this sermon, based on John 15:1-8, I explore Jesus’ statement “I am the vine, you are the branches.” This is a fitting text as today is also Confirmation Sunday, and I address 4 young people who are affirming the faith of their baptism.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/connected-4-29-18

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

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

When I was growing up on the farm, my older brother and I made forts everywhere. In a tree…in and around the farm equipment that was stored in the shed or the grove…you name it…we probably made a fort there.

I remember one time, when we decided that we were going to make a fort across the road, in the ditch right next to our mailbox. Now, typical of most ditches out in the country, the grass was uncut, so it grew up tall, and the ditch itself was pretty steep in this spot…so our fort pretty much consisted of a patch of grass getting matted down…and it served pretty much no other purpose than a spot for us to duck down and hide each time a vehicle drove past on the gravel road.

But at one point, we started thinking, always dangerous for young boys…but we wanted to be able to see across the road, and the tall grass was causing a problem…so we got some trimmers and cut down the tall grass, leaving a gap a couple of feet wide that we could look through…but now this created a new problem, because when a car came by, we no longer had the tall grass to hide behind…so we got creative and propped up the tall grass stems that we had cut off across the opening, using it as camouflage.

I know…we created a hole and then promptly covered it back up again…we were young and foolish, just go with it…we did, but the next day, we discovered the problem with our great plan as we came back out to our fort, only to discover that the camouflage was now dried up and brown…sticking out like a sore thumb alongside the rest of the tall bright green grass in the ditch.

I can remember a sense of confusion…I was flabbergasted by the fact that the bright grass that we had propped up had promptly dried up and died…and it would only come about as I got older that I began to understand the importance of a plant being connected to its roots.

And as many of you are familiar, eventually my fascination with plants led me to my college degree of horticulture…a study that greatly increased my knowledge and understanding of many different types of plants…including grapevines. (pause)

I am the vine, you are the branches…Sound familiar? Our lesson today is found in the midst of Jesus’ farewell discourse with his disciples at the Last Supper…and event we’ve heard about in recent memory…as Jesus takes on the role of servant, bending down and washing the feet of the disciples…announcing to them that they are clean…all before sitting back down and launching into this long teaching…this final time of encouragement before they’ll head out to the garden where he’ll be betrayed and arrested.

And in the middle of all this Jesus tosses out this metaphor about grape vines and branches and pruning and bearing fruit…not to mention branches getting cut off and burned up…and all the while, all the way through this we hear…repeatedly…abide…a word that we understand…to remain…to be connected.

Now, Jesus probably used this image of a grapevine because of the disciple’s familiarity. Trust me…you can’t throw a rock in the Holy Land without hitting a vineyard…grapevines are EVERYWHERE…and they’d be quite familiar with how grapes are grown…how the plants are tended…and how much work goes into it.

But I can’t help but think that this image, is perhaps a little foreign to us…but you’re in luck today…because I’ve got a degree in Horticulture…and I actually studied the process of grape growing. Now the vine itself, or what I would call the stem…it’s a perennial, meaning it stays alive and continues growing year after year, like a bush or a tree. And they’re planted along a trellis system…essentially a framework that is supporting tight wires that run down past a row of plants. And the framework is set at two levels, with a wire on the top and another one down below it.

And those wires provide support for the branches to grow…which they do, stretching out along those wires. But the branches are pretty wiley…and left unchecked, they grow like crazy…and so it takes a remarkable amount of work to maintain them…and it takes a long time too…because the branches don’t actually produce grapes until the 2nd year…and so the grower or the farmer, whatever you want to call them, they work to keep only the strongest branch growing out along one of the two wires during the first year, constantly cutting back the extra growth in order to keep the main branch strong as it stretches out from the main vine.

Then in the second year, when the clusters of fruit start forming, the grower is still hard at work, choosing the strongest bunches and removing the rest, in order that the grapes that do mature are as healthy as possible.

And then, once that second growing season is done, the entire branch is cut off from the vine, pulled away from the wire, and dumped in with all the rest of the material that had been pruned off through the year…it all dries up and is burned, just like we hear from Jesus today…and then the next year, the process starts all over again with new growth…with a new branch growing in the place of the old one…and the cycle repeats time after time…and the grower’s work is never done. (pause)

Now if that’s still confusing, let me tweak it just a little bit…Jesus says I am the cornstalk…you are the ear. Those that abide in me produce many kernels, but apart from me they produce nothing. Any ear that does not produce kernels is stripped off, baled up and thrown in the barn for bedding. (pause) That a little more clear?

So what do we make of all this? What do we make of stories about cut grass…and growing grapes or corn? Why does Jesus feel the need to share with his disciples the importance of remaining connected?

Well, why do plants need to stay connected? Because they need to be rooted. The roots give stability, but more importantly they provide nutrients and water from the soil…the stem…the roots…the vine…this is the source of life for the branches…and without this connection…without remaining attached to the source…the branches are dead…unable to sustain themselves…much less to produce anything. (pause)

Now isn’t it interesting that the same one who says “I am the vine” also said “I am the way, the truth…and the life.”(pause) Jesus Christ…God in human form…the word made flesh…the light shining in the darkness…he is the source of all life…and all life flows through him.

Now maybe this sorta seems like a no brainer for us to hear while we sit here in worship…but keep in mind the setting when this happened…the Last Supper…Jesus is just about to leave his disciples…he’s just about to cross that barrier into whatever it is that comes next through the resurrection…whatever it is that lies on the other side of death…and they’re going to be alone…the source of life…the vine, is about to be cut off from them.

And I can only imagine, in the midst of his perfect sacrificial love for these individuals…this has got to be hard for him…to being saying goodbye…because anyone who’s been through one knows…goodbye is hard when you love the person on the other side of it…knowing that the relationship that you hold is about to be different…cut off in some way.

Anyone who’s lost a parent or a sibling to death knows this…a child or a caretaker watching their parent lose ground to dementia knows this…parents dropping your oldest off at college a couple states away knows this…there are all kinds of examples of loving relationships that are somehow cut off…and Jesus was in the same boat.

And yet, out of his perfect love for his followers…and not just the disciples but for all of us…he has promised that he will not leave us alone…and if you remember, when the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples just a couple of days after this…he breathes the Holy Spirit into them…and through the power of the Spirit…the literal Spirit of God which dwells in them, they are still connected to one another…but more importantly they are connected to God, who is the source of all life.

Now this is important for us to remember, because in the waters of our baptism, we receive the gift of that same spirit…and so we too are connected into the one body of Christ…we are the church…His body here on Earth…gathered and empowered by the Spirit…connected to the vine. (pause)

Now while this is an important reminder for each of us to hear…I’m going to turn my attention to these 4 young people sitting in the front row today.  Today is a big day for you…for in just a moment, you’ll stand before this congregation and affirm the faith in which you were each baptized…today you are claiming the promises made on your behalf for yourselves…and one of those promises seems pretty fitting…to live among God’s faithful people.

In the waters of your baptism, you have been grafted into the one body of Christ…he is the vine and you are the branches…he is the source of life…and your life is evidence of it…and as your connection to the vine continues through your lifetime, may you continue to bear fruit.

Now what does that look like? And Jesus has an answer for us…to love one another. As I have you loved you, you are to love one another…this is how the world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. And as we do this, our love for one another reflects our love for the one who first loved us…the one who desires that we remain connected…the one who calls us to abide in Him.

Many of you know that in our last class time, I have the confirmands write a statement of belief…of where they are in their own walk of faith…and I’m always amazed with what I find. This year…there was a theme among the 4 statements…that God is always there…that somehow God is always present…and as I look at the 4 of you today, it is my hope that you will continue to feel this connection to the one who made you in the first place…that you would abide in His word…that you would remain connected with the body of Christ here on Earth…so that you may draw strength and life together with them…as collectively we all rely on the one who is the way the truth and the life.
May we all abide in the one who is the TRUE vine, until we each arrive at that moment when our time in this life is done…and we are pruned back to allow the cycle of life to begin again in our place. And as we consider that unknown reality that lies on the other side, may we remember the truth of the resurrection, and that we have a God who steps into every situation of death in order to bring new life out of it…and that the promises that the 4 of you claim today assure you that this new life in the resurrection, whatever it will look like…is for you. May you stay connected to that promise. Amen.

Being Known 4-22-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Is What I Have Witnessed 4-15-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Locked Door 4-8-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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