Working Title 11-22-15

This sermon for Christ the King Sunday is taken from John 18:33-37.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

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

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

I’ve been preaching for a fair amount of time. My first time preaching was my senior year of college, shortly before graduation, so that’s going all the way back to early 2001. After that, there was a hiatus, but then I started preaching on occasion about 5 years later. Gradually it picked up and by 2008 I was preaching with a fair bit of regularity.

Now at that time, when I was preaching, it was typically at one of two places…either a small country church where I provided monthly pulpit supply…or at our old congregation in the Okoboji area. Now here’s the thing, at least at the Okoboji church…each and every time I was slated to preach, I would get hounded by the secretary to give her the title of my sermon so she could print it in the bulletin…and she liked to have the bulletins done early in the week.

Many of you have heard me talk about my writing process, and if so, you’re likely familiar with the fact that I very rarely write my sermon before Friday…so asking me for a title on Tuesday or Wednesday isn’t going to get you very far.

There were many times when I would get the message that she was looking for my sermon title and I would just tell her “Working Title.” (pause) I won’t lie…it always made me chuckle to see the irritated look on her face when she realized that I wasn’t going to give her anything substantial…and after a while she stopped asking me for it…side note…you’ll notice that there’s never a sermon title listed in our bulletins here either.

This is all for a simple reason…I can’t give a sermon a title before I know what I’m going to say…and many times, I can’t even name it then…many times it has to wait until I’ve already written it before I can assign a title…and so there are many weeks when I sit down at the computer…and at the top of the blank page I simply write out… “working title.”

I did that very thing this past Friday…and I stared at “Working Title” for quite a while before actually beginning to write anything…but the more I stared at it…the more I got to thinking that this time around…Working Title…is pretty much the perfect name to assign to this one. (pause)

Christ the King Sunday…the final week of the church year…the final week of the season of Pentecost…We started off 26 weeks ago and over the course of the past 6 or so months we have followed the ongoing theme of the life of the church, starting with the small group of disciples, moving through the past 2000 years, then looking ahead to the end times when Christ will sit on the throne of the new heaven and the new earth…and all of this existence as we know it will be different. (pause)

Now interestingly enough, today marks my third “Christ the King” Sunday here at Underwood, and with the way the lectionary works, this will cover the final base of the different gospel texts that we cover. In year A we hear Jesus words about the future judgment, as people will be divided up like sheep separated from goats…and we are given a glimpse of Jesus sitting in role of judge. Year C features Jesus hanging on the cross interacting with one of the two criminals who asks Lord remember me when you come into your kingdom…and so Jesus is presented as the king who sacrifices himself in order to overcome the sins of all people.

Today, the end of year B, we have this passage out of John…as Jesus stands trial before Pilate…and as we see in the lesson…Pilate just can’t seem to make heads or tails out of Jesus. (pause). It’s a fairly long section of scripture, stretching from about the midpoint of chapter 18 to the midpoint of chapter 19, and throughout all of this time, Pilate tries and tries and tries to make a connection…particularly considering the charges against Jesus that have brought him to Pilate in the first place. (pause)

And the funny part of all this is that no one really seems to know just what it is that Jesus has supposedly done. He’s first put on trial with the religious council before the high priest…and they seem to settle on blasphemy…because Jesus calls himself I Am, the name of God…and for them, that’s punishable by death…but in all honesty, it seems like they just want to get him out of the way because of the way that Jesus continues to defy the status quo…the very system that serves to benefit them.

And so they haul him off to Pilate, claiming that he is leading an uprising against Rome…that he is claiming to be the true king of Israel. (pause) And so, after quite a bit of arguing Pilate asks Jesus flat out…more than once…Are you the king of the Jews? And he certainly doesn’t get the answer that he’s looking for.

Rather than answering Pilate’s question with a simple yes or no…Jesus engages him in conversation…and while Jesus does make some statements about his kingdom…the kingdom of heaven…he never says one way or another if he is, in fact, a king.

And so when Pilate asks him the second time “So you are a king?” Jesus makes a pretty important statement… “YOU say…that I am king.” (pause) And with that statement…I think we need to stop and think about just what it is that Pilate is really trying to do. (pause)

Now Pilate says flat out…I’m not a Jew…I don’t understand this stuff that everyone is arguing about…and so, as he tries to make head’s or tails about the controversy surrounding Jesus…it seems like Pilate is simply trying to place Jesus into a category that he can understand.

Keep in mind who Pilate is…he’s a Roman governor. Fairly high up in the whole Roman government system…and as such he gets government…he’s familiar with it…he knows how to deal with other people in that realm…and so by identifying Jesus as a king…Pilate would know what to do…and that’s really the issue here…Pilate has no idea what to do with Jesus. But if Jesus admits to being the so-called “king of the Jews” well then I guess there would have been some truth to what everyone is saying about him…I guess he is trying to rise up against Rome…he is leading a revolt…and as such…we crucify him…plain and simple…open and shut. (pause)

But here’s the important thing…Jesus…he’s not going to accept a title…because he’s not going to accept the limitations placed upon a role that humanity has created and defined. We hear king…and we know what means…the leader of a nation…sovereign…holding power over those that they lead…as long as they continue to follow that is.

But Jesus…God…reigning over the kingdom of heaven, which exists both right now as well as becoming something new out there in the unknown future…what we need to realize in the here and now is that we cannot define that…we cannot label it…we cannot limit Jesus’ lordship with any sort of title or definition that exists here in our reality.

We can try…but it will always pale in comparison. Is Jesus a king? Yes…but he’s so much more than that. Is Jesus a servant? Yes….but he’s so much more than that. (pause) No matter what image we try to use in order to help us better understand God…the truth of the matter is that it goes so far beyond what we are capable of…capable of understanding…and capable of replicating. (pause) The take away…about this whole Christ the King thing is that whatever we picture…whatever we assign…its way bigger…its way better…and its WAY beyond us. (pause)

Now as I think about that…and I wonder just what the kingdom of Jesus will be like one day…I’m reminded of just how far we are from the mark in today’s world…something that Jesus points out to Pilate… “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” (pause) Think about that statement…Jesus is revealing a pretty major thing here. If the kingdom of Heaven were of our world today, in the face of violence, Jesus’ followers would respond with more violence…but the kingdom of heaven…and the one who sits on that throne…are NOT like that. (pause)

I’ve been thinking a lot about that in the past week…in light of terrorist attacks in various places around the world…and the anger I feel towards those who hate enough to set a bomb or pull a trigger…when news broke that France had retaliated and started bombing ISIS targets, my first response was “Good.” But then my wife, who is much smarter than I am, looked at me and asked “Really?”

And I thought about that…and I realized that my gut reaction was to repay hate with hate…violence with violence…and to jump off a theme here in John’s gospel…to repay darkness with darkness…but you know what…that can never work.

As I thought more about it, I came across the words of Maya Angelou that “Hate has caused a lot of problems in this world. But it hasn’t solved one yet.” And so we ask the question of what then can defeat the darkness that we see in this world…and the words of another great leader shed some light. Martin Luther King Jr once said “Darkness can never drive out darkness…only light can do that. And hate can never drive out hate…only love can do that.” Wise words from a wise man…one who witnessed first-hand some of the worst darkness that one individual can commit against another…and a man who would soon be struck down by that very darkness.

Perhaps its fitting that today we discuss Christ as King…here in John’s gospel…because it is John’s gospel that tells us that Jesus is the Light…and that light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it…many of you have heard me discuss that very passage before…I do hold it in high regard…and interestingly enough…a slightly different translation seems quite fitting today. Rather than saying that the darkness has not OVERCOME the light…we can also say that the darkness has not UNDERSTOOD the light. (pause)

And that is precisely what we see in today’s passage. Pilate cannot understand Jesus…he cannot place him in a role or assign a title that will adequately encompass who or what he is and what it is that he is doing. Because God WILL NOT be contained. And the wonderful thing about all of this is that the light of Christ IS here in the darkness of this world…and no matter how hard it tries the darkness cannot and will not win. That is the promise of the gospel…the hope that we cling to in the midst of difficult news…of the difficult events that we witness and those that we experience within our lives…in the end the darkness WILL not win…and the love of God expressed in Christ Jesus is present…here and now…for each and every one of us…it always has been…and it always will be…but most importantly…right now…right here…in this very moment…the love of God is present…and it is far greater than anything we can describe…and God is at work in ways that we cannot begin to recognize, much less to understand…but one day we will…and so in the meantime don’t try to limit God by our understanding…just recognize and accept that Christ as King…well…for the moment, it’s a pretty decent working title. Amen.

In It For the Long Haul 11-15-15

In this sermon, based on Mark 13:1-8, I explore the apocalyptic nature of Jesus’ teachings to his disciples about the end times. He assures us that dark times will occur, but that we do not need to be afraid.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

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

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

It goes without saying that to the best of my knowledge, I have never been pregnant…but, I have encountered many individuals who were, and inevitably, when in conversation with someone, particularly when they are nearing the end of their pregnancy, the question always comes up…When’s it gonna happen?

And the vast majority of the time, almost across the board, the answer is “I don’t know.” Because the birth of a baby pretty well happens unexpectedly…it can’t be predicted….for the most part. (pause)

In our family though…that wasn’t the case…Because my son prefers, at times anyway, to do things the hard way, he ended up being breach…resulting in a planned c-section birth. The closest we got to being surprised was a trip to a specialist in Sioux Falls towards the end of my wife’s pregnancy that COULD have resulted in Jack being born about a month early…something we found out the day before going to that appointment…and so we had the surprise of “this time tomorrow, you might just have a baby.” (pause) But as my story has already revealed, that wasn’t the case, and so on January 15th, 2004 we checked into the hospital at 6am…and by 7:45…we had a baby…Quick and easy…seriously…c-sections…I highly recommend it.

But, on the flip side…that’s not the norm is it? I found that out about 24 hours later. We were still in the hospital and would be for a couple more days yet…and so we were witnesses to the other happens in the OB department. It happened to be a fairly quiet period in that department…but, at 6am the day after Jack was born…another lady was induced…and her labor began…and she walked that hallway…up and down…up and down…over and over again…lap after lap…hour after hour.

As her labor progressed…as those labor pains came and went…that poor woman walked that hallway…husband in tow…for 25.5 hours…finally, according to the report of a nurse that filled us in…at 7:30am the NEXT day, she went into delivery, where she pushed for 2.5 more hours…until ultimately having to undergo and emergency c-section…and it was seeing this from the outskirts…just watching her walk the halls that I discovered just how extensive…how long term…labor can be…once it starts, trust me, you are in it for the long haul…and that first contraction…is just the beginning. (pause)
And now in a moment of full disclosure…I am FULLY aware that I have never, nor shall I ever…experience something like this for myself…Ladies…you are champions…and you are WAY tougher than us guys can ever hope to be. (pause)
Now…all that being said…it probably comes as no great shock that I connect this story in with Jesus’ closing words in today’s lesson…this is but the beginning of the birth pangs. An interesting analogy to be sure…especially considering that those involved in the conversation…Jesus, Peter, James, John, and Andrew…all happen to be members of the male persuasion and not a single one of them would have experienced those birth pangs for themselves…nor had any of them sat through it with a wife…as midwives were all the rage in Jesus time…and husbands got kicked out the house until it was all said and done. And yet…as Jesus is addressing the “end times” this is the analogy that he uses.

But before I get into that, I need to back up…perhaps share a little background…here we are towards the end of Mark’s gospel…and as in all of the gospels…we hear about the end times…these different apocalyptic messages within the final week of Jesus’ life…this is no different…though perhaps it’s a little more fitting that here in Mark…its chapter 13…lucky number 13 as we hear somewhat cryptic messages about what is to come at that unknown point somewhere out in the future. (pause)
But the funny part of all this…is what sparks off the conversation in the first place. After walking out of the temple for the last time here in Mark’s gospel…one of his disciples…we’re not sure which one, but one of them takes a gander at the incredible size of the buildings…and the individual stones that make them up…some of which were as large as 40 feet long and 20 high…and that disciple can’t help but marvel…at least for second…until Jesus rains on his parade by saying “there will come a day when all this will be gone. It’s all going to be destroyed.”

And its at that point, that Jesus gets the million dollar question. “When will this be? And what will be the sign that it is about to be accomplished?” (pause) Then Jesus takes a breath, and spends the remainder of the chapter 33 verses… 6 different sections…all aimed at the end times. (pause)

Now admittedly…apocalyptic texts always give me a little bit of pause…but at this time of year, each and every year in the lectionary…we get them. Earlier in the week, I was in conversation, and the individual that I was talking to reminded me just how much I tend to cringe at this type of text…that its one of my least favorite things to discuss…much less to preach on.

And it is…but I do have to say that this year, compared with last year, is a little easier. Last year, we got apocalyptic texts for about 4 weeks straight…but now this year…its just this one…just one week…just one text…and yet, it raises the exact same grimace for me.

But why is that? Good question. What is it about apocalyptic texts that tends to bug me so much? And the answer…the typical reaction of those who hear it…I’ll be honest, as a pastor there are certain types of scripture that illicit a pretty normal response no matter who it is that you are engaging with…and inevitably when we get started on this dire predictions for the unknown end times…I know I’m gonna get the question “What’s it gonna be like? When will it happen? Is it already going on?”

And the tricky part about this from my end of the discussion, is how many times can you say “I don’t know” before people start to wonder if you have any idea what you’re talking about…but the long and short of it is that we don’t know. (pause) Scripture gives us little glimpses…but there is no roadmap to when it will occur…there is no indication of if it will be short…or if will be long…if we’ll all know in an instant or if news will need to spread….the thing is…that we just don’t know.

And yet…we all want to don’t we…all of us…I think we all hear texts like this and wish that we had some indication of when its all going to happen…but despite an entire chapter devoted to recognizing the reality of the end times…that at some point that God the father has ordained, Jesus will come back and there WILL be a new heaven a new earth…and those who have died WILL join Jesus in the resurrection….despite all that…Jesus really doesn’t give us much to go on does he?

“Jesus…when will this be? And what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (pause) Wars…nation against nation…earthquakes…famine. (pause) Come on Jesus, that’s not a ton to go on here…and perhaps we turn on the nightly news and it seems like this stuff is already going on…and you know what…it has been…because wars and natural disasters and hunger…that’s all been around since Jesus day…and so it seems that the disciples who heard his message that day…and everyone who has read it in the scriptures all the way up to us today…we pretty much all have the same thought that Jesus…you’re warnings…they don’t really reveal very much because we already live in that reality. (pause)

And it that’s the case…then I guess Jesus could come back any second couldn’t he? And I don’t know about you but there are plenty of times when I watch the news or hear the reports and think to myself that it would a whole lot easier if he would…Come on Jesus…enough is enough…let’s get this show on the road here. (pause)
And you know what…followers of Christ have had that reaction as long as there have been followers of Christ. His earliest followers…some of those who literally walked along with him…they thought he’d be back during their lifetime…and many of the other 1st century converts though the same thing…so much so that the Apostle Paul had to write the letter of 1st Thessalonians to ensure them that the death of believers was not a bad sign…and this notion has continued through countless dark times for the past 2000 years.

And in the midst of all this, Jesus reminds us…quite calmly…do not be alarmed…not when you hear of wars and disasters…Not when you hear of freak November tornadoes…or wildfires in Colorado…or earthquakes in California…or hurricanes in the southeast…or devastating storms in the north east…Jesus tells us that when you hear of these things…don’t be afraid…for they are only the beginning of the birth pangs.

Birth takes a long time…and for that woman in the midst of it…feeling those devastating labor pains wracking her body…it probably feels like an eternity. (pause) Likewise, Jesus tells us that we need to be in it for the long haul…because these devastating events…they’re only the beginning. (pause)
That’s what he told the disciples 2000 years ago…and that’s what he’s still telling us today…isn’t it something that we share the same reaction as Jesus’ own disciples when we start to think about the end times? But maybe it shouldn’t come as a shock to us…because its human nature…we want to know…we want to understand…even that stuff that’s beyond our ability.

But remember this…Jesus doesn’t seem interesting in determining when its going to happen…but rather, he wants us to be prepared. That’s what the vast majority of Mark chapter 13 is about…be prepared. Now that the gospel has found you…now that the Holy Spirit has worked within you…now that Christ’s work in our reality has brought you into faith…simply live each and every day hopeful in the promise that through Christ you have been given eternal life…whatever that looks like. Live today like Jesus is going to come back tomorrow…even if all signs point to the notion that it won’t happen during our lifetime.

As followers of Christ we have been given the promise that we don’t need to fear…not the disasters describes in the end times…not the trials and tribulations that we face in our day to day lives…and ultimately not even death…because God has claimed us in the here and now…and that promise goes right on through to eternity.

So when you start to think about the end times…try not to stress…because remember that God’s in this for the long haul…and he’s promised to bring you along for the ride. Amen.

We Do We Find God 11-8-15

This sermon is based on Mark 12:38-44 as Jesus points out a poor widow who gives her final means to a system that has failed to support her.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

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

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

Over the course of the nearly 15 years that Emily and I have been married, there have been quite a few places that we have called home…places where we have set up our residence. First there were 2 apartments, and then 2 houses that we owned, all of which were in the Okoboji area. Then there was a townhouse in the Twin Cities, before moving into the parsonage here in Underwood.

And with that many different places, there’s been a lot of moving. We’ve done it quite a few times, and I have a little ritual that has happened each and every time…the final walk through. I always end up doing it as we are walking out of the place for the last time, basically making sure that we got everything.

But of all the different moves that we’ve made, and the subsequent final walk-throughs that I have done, the two that stick out the most in my memory were the two houses.

Our first house, to date, remains the single location where we lived the longest…right at 5 years. Both kids were born while we lived there, and so it marks the change from simply a married couple to a family…and I can remember the day, quite clearly, as we moved the last of our stuff out of the house, and I made my walk through…checking for any missing items while also remembering all the joy from our time there…I remember being a little misty as I walked out the front door, and turned around to lock it for the last time, knowing that I would never step back into that house again. (pause)
Now the second house…well my final walk through was a little bit different…We had already emptied everything out…and in fact had already completed our move from Okoboji up to the Twin Cities…but an odd little situation brought me back to Okoboji just a couple of days later…and in my final walk through of that house…I was grabbing the left over garbage bag to put it out on the curb…chores…garbage…that was my final experience with that house. 2 very different memories to take with me as my last experience of an important location. (pause)
Now I bring all this up because today’s story marks a similar situation…this is Jesus’ final appearance in the temple…and it’s a little on the strange side isn’t it? (pause)

This passage occurs fairly late in Mark’s gospel…both in terms of the narrative as well as within the writing itself. In fact, everything from chapter 11 through the end of 16 occurs within Jesus’ final week of life…and a lot of it seems to take place within the temple…within God’s house…within the place where God makes his residence.

And, if we look back just a touch, most of Jesus interactions within the temple over the course of this week are pretty negative. Chapter 11 shows us the cleansing of the temple when he tosses around tables and starts cracking a whip. We also see quite a few different debates with the scribes…the experts in the law…those who know all the rules…inside and out…and for the most part…those debates have been pretty antagonistic on both sides of the coin.

And as the story picks up today, it would seem that Jesus has sorta had it…Beware the scribes…those dudes in the flowing robes who desire to be noticed…who take the highest seats of honor…those guys that like to stand up front and spout off long prayers, all for the sake of their status. (pause)

Strange to be sure…but really nothing new…we’ve seen this sort of thing from Jesus before…but what’s really strange in this…is the thing that happens next, just before Jesus goes walking out of the temple for the last time.

And we see Jesus, now sitting across from the treasury box…people watching…not an uncommon past time…but as he sits there, he take notice of a bunch of rich people dropping in heaping money bags…and thinking absolutely nothing of it…only to be followed up by a poor widow, who drops in two tiny coins…and this is what he takes notice of.

In fact, it seems to be so important to him that he calls the disciples to him in order to have a teaching moment. But…this whole situation raises the question of just what is Jesus trying to teach? (pause)
Now, considering the time of year we find ourselves in…late fall…the time when our Operations board is meeting to work on next year’s budget…just a week before our Harvest festival…perhaps we hear this passage and its absolutely engrained in us to hear…stewardship.

And without me even saying a word about it, I’m guessing that many of you are now thinking “the moral of this story is to give it all…be a cheerful giver…because Jesus acknowledges that this woman gives everything she has…and we should happily do the same.” (pause)

I probably wouldn’t be out of bounds to preach on that either…after all…we all know that ministry costs money…we need to pay the help…we need to keep the lights on…we need to maintain the building…and for the most part…that speaks to our understanding of stewardship doesn’t it? (pause)

I could go that direction…and as much as it makes people squirm in their seats to hear…not to mention making pastors squirm in the pulpit when we talk about money…in the end…I don’t think that is an accurate representation of what was actually on that day. (pause)

Jesus has just spent the past 2 chapters condemning the culture that has evolved within the temple…within the very place that Jewish culture goes to find God…the very dwelling place of God…a place that for countless years…for countless generations…has engrained it into the people that it is their cultural duty to support it…so much so, that this woman…this widow who LITERALLY…has NOTHING…she has no one and no way to support herself beyond these pitiful tiny coins…this woman feels utterly compelled to drop those coins into the box…condemning herself, quite literally to death by starvation unless someone happens to take pity on her. (pause)

Now we don’t know what becomes of the woman…perhaps Jesus engages with her…maybe someone else sees her and takes her in to care for her…or maybe on the flipside she wanders off, pitiful and alone and eventually dies…we don’t know.

But Jesus, points her out…and in doing so, I believe that Jesus is continuing the same trend of pointing out what is flawed about the system…how humanity has taken a place intended to be a point of worship for our Lord and through our warped sinful nature has twisted it into a guilt driven mindset that leads this poor woman to sacrifice her very life for it…this woman who should be protected by that system…this woman that should be cared for by the system…but instead, the system just takes her money to continue supporting itself.

And following this observation on the part of Jesus…he leaves the temple, never to return in Mark’s gospel…and knowing what we know about Jesus being God in human form…I guess we could say on this bummer of a note…God has left the building.

Isn’t that kinda strange? That this is the last thing that happens in the temple? That this, would be Jesus’ final encounter in this holy place?

It makes me wonder, just what was Jesus thinking as he walked out that day? Was he finally fed up with humanity? Had God finally reached the point where he had enough? (pause) Maybe so…because it seems, at least here in Mark’s gospel…that God cuts ties with the temple…and in fact, the only other two references to the temple at all are Jesus words right away in chapter 13 when he reveals that in a few short years the temple would be utterly destroyed…and then a couple chapters later when he died and the curtain that divides the inner sanctuary from the rest of the temple is torn in two and God is no longer restricted…but is freed…God is out in the world. (pause)

Now here’s the thing…if we really believe that God is out in the world…living and active…dwelling among us in the presence of the Holy Spirit here on earth…and if Jesus’ words to us that the kingdom of heaven is here now…then it raises the question of just where do we look for him?

And I think that’s why Jesus points out this widow in today’s story…because she represents the lowly…those with no power…with no status…with no voice…the very opposite of the uppity scribes that he calls out at the beginning of today’s lesson.

And Jesus himself tells us…he compels us to feed the hungry…to cloth the naked…the care for the sick and the orphaned….and not only that, but that when we do this…that is precisely where we will encounter Him. (pause)
And so, as we move this message to completion today, I’ll pose the question…where do you connect within this passage? What hits home…and perhaps, for some of you out there…what feels like a little bit of a dig?

Is it the notion that Jesus seems to condemn a system that exists only to perpetuate itself? It is the notion that the very house of God seemed to exist in order to bring in more money to continue to keep itself going at the expense of those that it should have been caring for? Or, on the flipside does it hit you with guilt that you don’t believe in something strongly enough to give absolutely everything you have to it?

I can’t tell you how this passage will hit you today…because the Spirit acts upon us all differently…and I’m not going to stand up here and tell you that because this woman gave her two pennies, you need to up your giving by 1%, or 5…or 10. (pause) And at the same time I’m not going to stand here and condemn the church for asking individuals to support the work that it does…I’ll let the Spirit lead you to the conclusion that you need today.

But what I will say is this…if Jesus’ final act…God in human form…if his final act within His house was to point out a widow…then maybe, just maybe we all need to rethink where it is that we look when we desire to see the face of God…in the lowly…in the broken…sometimes we’ll find that out on the street…and at the very same time…sometimes…we see that…when we look in the mirror…for we are all, flawed…broken…and the good news of the gospel is that Christ came for all…and sometimes we are the ones that need to hear that…and sometimes we are the ones that need to proclaim that. May it be our hope and our prayer…may it be our mission…that the people of Underwood Lutheran recognize both. Amen.

Own It 11-1-15

This week’s sermon for All Saints Sunday comes from John 11:32-44. I explore Jesus’ emotional response when faced with the death of someone he cares for, and what we can learn from that.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

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

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

It never ceases to amaze me how things intended to be entertainment have the ability to strike me on very deep levels…and its no single form that applies. It can be a song, or it can be a story, or a tv show, or a movie, and sometimes even a well-made commercial tugs at my heart strings.

But for any of you who have heard me preach before, it’ll come as no great shock that a good movie is usually the type of entertainment that gets me more often than not. And in recent memory, the Pixar movie Inside Out got me. If you haven’t seen it…you should. The movie is excellent and appeals to people of all ages.

The premise behind this movie is that each and every person has a tiny command center in their brains where the various emotions that we all have share the load of controlling our reactions to the outside world. And each emotion is a character in itself. The main character is a young girl named Riley…a delightful little girl who’s life has been dominated with happy memories…and as such…Joy…is the emotion that’s the boss within her mind…yet there are also aspects of sadness, and fear, and anger, and disgust…just a few of the many different emotions that we all experience within our own lives.

Over the course of the movie, changes happen in the young girls life, leading to various adventures both in the real world, as well as for the emotion-characters that live within her…and by the end of the film everyone learns that our lives cannot be dominated by joy alone, but that other emotions help shape who we are as well…and not only that, but that they are a natural reaction to the different experiences we encounter.

I think this movie resonated with me in such a powerful way because of two different reasons…the first one being that I am a parent, and part of helping my kids grow up is helping them learn this truth, that life is hard and its okay to experience the emotions that we experience…and that we aren’t always going to be joyful all the time. (pause) And of course, that doesn’t just apply to my interaction with my kids as a parent…but it also fits in very well with my work as a pastor, as I am invited into the many different aspects of life together with you. (pause)
Now I was thinking about that the other day…and I had a pretty important realization…in my younger years…I didn’t get this concept at all. I remember a time when I was in my late teens…probably about my senior year in high school…and I ended up in a conversation with an individual that I knew, but I not very well…but for whatever reason she was sharing some incredibly personal stuff with me…hard experiences that greatly upset her…and I just couldn’t handle it…and instead of just being there with her as she experienced the emotions that came along with the memories…I acted goofy to try and get her to smile and be happy…because I couldn’t handle it any other way. (pause) And so…full disclosure…I would have been a really lousy pastor at 18…good thing I waited till my mid-30’s right? (pause)

Now I bring all of this up to embrace the fact…to be honest with the notion that life is hard, its messy…and we are hardwired in ways that we don’t understand…to have emotional reactions to all aspects of life that run the gambit…and today is one of those days when we acknowledge what is perhaps the single most difficult aspect of life to deal with…and that is death.

All Saints Day…the day every year when we remember and acknowledge those who have gone on before us into the great unknown that is death…and I’ll be honest…this is kind of a hard day, because to honor those who have died is to first acknowledge, once again, their death…and then to instantly feel the sting of various emotions that happened when we faced their death in the first place. (pause)

One of the bits of advice that I offer families in those times is to not shy away from the emotions that they experience, but to let them happen…and I can remember many different conversations that I’ve had with different individuals, when they have expressed a wide variety of emotion…sadness…anger…fear…loneliness…just to name a few…and perhaps they can all be categorized together by saying that facing the death of a loved one is painful…and while there is no real way to explain just why we feel the way we do…perhaps it is simply because death causes a rift…it creates a space, a separation…a chasm that we can’t cross…and that person…that individual that we care so much about…is gone from our lives in a way that just…hurts. (pause)
This is our reality…death exists, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not…its there…and if I only ever teach you one thing about the Bible…let it be this…that the Bible is honest about our reality. (pause)

In today’s story, we hear of Jesus’ encounter with the death of someone he cares about…the death of Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha…a family that for whatever reason…is beloved of Jesus on the personal level…and while this story is not the only example that we have of Jesus raising some from the dead…it does have some important distinctions…in two other stories…we hear of Jesus’ compassion leading him to raise a young man from death in order to care for his widowed mother…and then Jesus’ raising a young girl back to life in response to the great faith of her father…but in both of those stories…there are two things lacking that we see in this story…an acknowledgement of our messy reality…and Jesus’ personal response to it. (pause)

There are certain aspects of this story that always strike me as significant…the first being that when Jesus first hears that Lazarus is sick…which occurs in the first part of the chapter…he waits…so that by the time he gets there…Lazarus is dead…and has been 4 days…so much so that several times in the passage he is simply called “the dead man.” There can be no doubt that he…is…dead…So much so, that his sister Martha makes a statement that at first glance is kinda funny. Lord, he’s gonna smell…he’s been dead 4 days. Admittedly I always though that was a just a humorous throw away statement…but then I realized that it speaks to another truth….that not only is life messy…but so is death…both in the physical sense as well as in the emotional…and that leads me to my next point…Jesus’ response to all this. (pause)

As our story picks up today, Jesus already knows that Lazarus is dead…that’s made quite clear, particularly as he encounters Martha, prior to the start of today’s passage…and following her crabbing him out, he has a brief teaching moment for her, before encountering Mary…who repeats the crabbing…If you had been here he wouldn’t have died…and then, in response…something happens in John that turns everything on its head. (pause)
John’s gospel makes it very clear that Jesus invites us to come and see…he invites us to follow him…he invites us to experience relationship with him for ourselves…but in today’s story, that invitation is flipped.

Jesus asks…where have you laid him…and HE…is invited to come and see. Jesus…receives the invitation to come and experience it for himself…and remember that Jesus is God in human form…and so we see that God comes to experience something completely foreign to him…death…but the important part is that that God is experiencing death now…as one of us…fully human.

And Jesus has quite the reaction…twice in this passage we hear that he is “greatly disturbed.” But this is one of those lost in translation moments…because the original language indicates that Jesus get’s incredibly angry within himself. He’s seething…not just upset…but Jesus witnesses death…and he gets mad….but that’s not the only response…we also hear that Jesus wept…he felt sorrow at the death of one that he loves…and if Jesus experiences the gambit of emotion at the death of someone he cares about…emotions ranging from anger to sadness…then perhaps it comes as no great shock that we experience the same range of emotion when we are faced with the same situation…we are, after all…made in the image of God…so if God gets upset, maybe we need to give ourselves a pass to experience the emotions as they come…the anger, the sadness…the pain that occurs when someone we love crosses that barrier that we can’t cross with them…when that separation occurs…when the person that has been a part of our life in this reality, crosses over into something different…when they are lost into the abyss that is…death.(pause)

But there’s more to the story isn’t there? (pause) Because while we share the fully human emotional response to death that Jesus experienced…Jesus is able to do something about that which we are powerless against…and we see in the story today, that the stone is pulled back and Jesus cries out in a loud voice…the name of Lazarus…and wherever it is that Lazarus is…that void, that abyss…that place where dead people are…he hears his name called by God…and it brings him back from it. (pause)

God is able to do that…and this is just a glimpse of what is to come at some unknown point in the future…and our second lesson today, found in the book of Revelation gives us just a glimpse of this…when God ultimately does something to this reality as it is today.

God dwells among mortals…and he himself wipes away every tear from their eyes…death will be no more…mourning and crying and pain will be no more…for the first things have passed away. (pause) I love the way that passage opens…that we see the new heaven and the new earth and the old has passed away…but not only that…we hear that the sea is no more.

In Jewish culture…the sea was the abyss…it represents the unknown…the uncross able…the depths that we cannot penetrate…and I think we see today that this abyss applies to wherever it was that Lazarus had gone when death claimed him…yet God in human form was able to call him back from it…and on that glorious day whenever it will be…God will call the names of all those who have gone into the abyss…that will include those who have gone on before us now…and not only that, but it will also include each one of us…for like Lazarus…and like those we remember today, one day each and every one of us will also experience death for ourselves…and we too, will cross over that boundary into the abyss…into the unknown depths of death.

But Jesus makes a promise…one that we didn’t quite catch in our story today, but that I’ll share anyway…as Jesus is talking with Martha, he promises “I am the resurrection and the life…those who believe in me…THOUGH THEY DIE…WILL live…do you believe this?”

We have a God who recognizes all aspects of our reality…the messiness of life…the pain and emotion caused by death…and ultimately, we have a God who has experienced death for himself…and all of this in order to over come it…and that same God, who experiences the same gambit of emotions that we ourselves feel in these painful times, promises us…that there is more to come.

So don’t fear the emotions that you experience…don’t deny them…own them…let ‘em happen…because grief is something that you can’t ignore, you have to go through it…just as Jesus did when faced with the death of one he loves.

God mourns our reality, and shares our response to it…but cling to the hope we have in the promise that God has also done something about it…and one day, one glorious day we will hear our names called in a loud voice, bringing us back from that which can no longer hold us. Bringing each and every one of us back from the abyss…simply because he loves us enough to do it…he loves us just as much as he loved Lazarus…do you…believe this? It is my hope and my prayer that you do…because the promise is for you…Own it. Amen.

Take Off the Blinders 10-25-15

In this sermon for Reformation Sunday I explore the assigned text from each year in John 8:31-36. Jesus says that believing in him sets us free. I explore what we are freed from.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

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

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

I have never made any secret of my loathing for winter. It is the season that comes around every single year that makes me wonder why I never moved to Florida…and because winter comes right on the heels of fall…this time of year that most people absolutely love tends to rub me the wrong way.

I hear it in conversation on almost a daily basis this time of year…how wonderful it is…the cool weather…the lack of humidity…the ability to open up the windows to get fresh air in the house…the joy of sitting by a fire on a chilly evening. (pause) And of course…the beautiful colors…the colors, the colors, the colors. (pause)

This is of course…referring to the trees changing colors…which I know a lot of people love…but for me…it’s a bane of my existence…because those leaves…red, yellow, brown…they look nice for about 5 minutes…and then they drop all over my lawn…mocking me…telling me that its time to get out the rake or pull out the mower…they fall on the roof, ending up in the gutter…telling me its time to get out the ladder…and they drift up in the corners…sloppy and wet, where they’ll sitting come next spring when I really have to clean them up. (pause)
I hate the leaves…but, even I’ll admit it…for about 5 minutes away, until they start dropping…they are beautiful. (pause)
But each and every year, I can also guarantee another discussion that happens around the fall colors…the question of what causes the color change in the first place. I still get it from my daughter, though by now her older brother has it pretty well figured out… “Daddy, where does the pretty color come from?”

And the amazing thing about it…is that those colors were there all along…we just couldn’t see them. (pause) For those of you out there not as scientifically minded as I am, leaves are green because of the presence of chlorophyll…that amazing stuff found in plants that can take sunlight and somehow turn it into food for the plant…something that in the trees, or more specifically in the leaves…tends to dry up and disappear in the fall. But that chlorophyll is so bright…it is so overwhelmingly green…that it overpowers the natural color of the leaf itself…and its only when that chlorophyll dries up in the fall that we can finally see the leaf as it really is…red, orange, yellow, or brown. (pause) Throughout the rest of the growing season, the green merely blinds us to the true nature of the leaves.

Now perhaps you’re wondering just what in the heck leaves and fall colors have to do with things today…particularly here on Reformation Day when we jump away from Mark’s gospel and hit a familiar passage out of John…one featured each and every year.

Abide in my word…know the truth…and it will make you free. (pause) Hold on a sec Jesus…Abraham, we’re already free…its all good…what are you talking about? (pause) You all know the passage don’t you? A bunch of fellow Jewish people are in the temple listening to Jesus…his words resonate and they believe…only to have him drop this little bomb on them…a statement which perhaps sounds like good news to us…and it trips them up…leading to a massive argument…a bunch of name calling…accusations of demon possession…and threats of stoning due to blasphemy. (pause) Seriously…John chapter 8 is a rollercoaster of reaction isn’t it?

It interesting to me…intriguing even…to hear about this reaction of individuals who have just begun to believe in Jesus…only to turn right around and change their mind. (pause) But it catches my attention simply because of the important nature of belief here in John’s gospel.

Throughout the course of the gospel, Jesus is constantly inviting individuals, as well as us as readers to believe in him…and not only that but to abide…to remain, to stay with him…we hear it today…abide in my word…stay in my word and my teaching…believe in me.

And just what are we supposed to believe? Well, the author of John addresses that towards the end…telling us that all of these things have been written down so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and through believing you might have life in his name. (pause)

And so…it would seem that this random group of Jewish people, in Jerusalem like good Jewish people…observing their traditions that dictate the proper way to honor God, begin to believe what Jesus has to say…seemingly, starting to believe that Jesus is in fact who he says he is…until the truth of just what this means starts to come to the surface. (pause)
Isn’t it interesting, what trips them up? This notion that faith in Christ brings freedom? They can’t get past it can they? And I wonder why…is it simply because to acknowledge that God became human is to begin to understand why he did so in the first place? (pause) To acknowledge that humanity is enslaved by a power greater than themselves…that we as individuals lack freedom. (pause)

Perhaps I say that, and it is a difficult thing to acknowledge…to understand…after all, one of the things that we pride ourselves in here in our country is our freedom…the notion that nothing holds sway over us…but think about it for a moment…is that really true? Or do we all have things that have their hooks in us…I think we do.

Now some of these things are easy to recognize…other’s not so much, and I think that’s the case that we see in the story today…the people that Jesus was addressing were unable to recognize that they were enslaved to sin…to a power that exists in our reality that goes far beyond our ability to understand or comprehend, much less overcome.

And this power is entrenched so deeply within our very existence that it blinds us to this truth…it blinds us from the ability the recognize that its even there…it blinds us from seeing things as they actually are. (pause) That’s what sin does…it warps things…hides some truths from us and whispers lies about other things…but in the end, the power of sin blinds us from the truth that we have a God that made us and loves us.

And you know what…I think sin tells us one more lie as well…and that is the lie that we can even begin to understand God and just what God is up to in the world. (pause)

It seems as if the people listening to Jesus that day, whoever they were, were so set in their ways, were so firmly convinced that their ancestry was all that mattered to God, that they were blinded to the life altering truth that God was standing before them, offering them freedom from the very thing that blinded them in the first place…their pride as descendants of Abraham…the very thing that they thought was their salvation…was the thing standing in the way of it.

And I think we fall into the same trap…we all have blinders that we wear…and all too often I fear that the very thing blinding us to our need for Jesus is the notion that we have it right. (pause)

Perhaps its fitting that we cover this text on Reformation Day…on the day every year when we celebrate the beginning of a major change within the body of Christ…a time when the church began to recognize that there are differences…and that no one individual has it all figured out…because the church, as it is, is made of people and every single one of us is flawed…none of us is perfect…none of us has perfect understanding…because none of us are God. (pause)
If you need evidence to support this…look at all the different denominations…there are countless…even within the Lutheran branch…and we each define ourselves by different traditions and practices…different understandings…different interpretations.

And I fear, one of the traps that we fall into, both as individuals as well as denominations…is the notion that we have it right and everyone else is wrong….that our denomination heritage and personal interpretation of the Bible is 100% accurate…or worse yet…that God thinks exactly the same way we do.

News flash!!!! He doesn’t…and I for one am pretty glad about that, because if God thought the same way I do then we’d all be in trouble…but that isn’t the case.

Because God doesn’t think the same way we do…God doesn’t love the same we do…God doesn’t exist the same way we do…and the freedom that is offered to us through Jesus Christ is freedom from the notion that we have to get it all figured out before its accessible…Jesus frees us from that which blinds us from the truth…even those blinders that we think ARE truth. (pause)

So here’s the thing…we aren’t perfect. We never were, and in this life we never will be. But the good news in Jesus Christ is that we don’t have to be…and truth that Jesus is trying desperately to show us is that his action…God’s action in our reality…makes us okay anyway.

The gospel is not a bunch of rules of what you have to do, and what you have to avoid in order to make God happy with you. It’s not a cultural requirement, it’s not a financial bench mark. Because none of that will make us right with God…none of that will overcome the power of sin in this reality…the power that exists far beyond our understanding and breaks the relationship with God because God cannot tolerate that which is against his will…but the wonderful thing is that God WILL not tolerate being separated from us and that is why the word became flesh…to somehow…someway take on the power of sin which results in death, and by dying and coming back God overcomes it…we don’t have to understand it…we don’t have to explain it…we just believe it through the power of the Holy Spirit acting within us.

And so, each and every day, we ask God to remove the blinders…to remove that which stands in the way of us recognizing that we need a savior and he exists as God made flesh dwelling among us…and simply because HE chooses to…he makes us free from all that blinds us…because HE chooses to…our blinders are removed…and once again, that relationship with God, flawed by the presence of sin in our reality today, will one day be perfected whether we understand it or not. Amen.

Don’t Get Distracted 10-18-15

In this sermon, based on Mark 20:32-45 I explore Jesus’ response to James and John asking for an honor that is not intended for them. Jesus reminds us to be who we are called to be, nothing more and nothing less.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

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

Mark 10:35-45 (also including 32-34)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

There’s a type of character that commonly pops up in movies aimed at young viewers…and this is particularly evident within animated movies from Pixar. The character type…the goofy sidekick. That unexpected character that pops up part way through the movie and comes alongside the main character, often times serving as comic relief within the story line…and in my opinion…more often than not, that character makes the movie.

Where would Shrek be without Donkey cracking jokes? Who can forget Olaf, the living snowman that traipses along beside Anna and Elsa…Aladdin’s furry little friend Abu…or my personal favorite…Dug, the talking dog from Up.

I love Dug…and in my opinion, the best scene is his introduction as he meets the main characters and displays his mechanically wonderful collar that allows his thoughts to be heard.

Its an amazing scene, as Doug acts like any friendly dog…jumping up on the chest of the main character to express his instant affection… “HI THERE…My name is Doug…I have just met you…and I love you….SQUIRREL!!!!!” (pause)
That’s my favorite spot right there…as Doug is distracted by a squirrel…something any dog would do…and yet…it makes the scene unforgettable…so much so that in recent years the word “SQUIRREL” has become synonymous for someone being easily distracted…and that’s where I’m jumping into the gospel lesson for today. (pause)
Now as I mentioned…I included a few extra verses at the beginning of today’s gospel lesson…and those verses included Jesus’ third and final passion prediction here in Mark. We heard the first two out of chapters 8 and 9 a few weeks back…and now, as Jesus and the disciples are finally nearing Jerusalem…Jesus shares the same message for the third time. Its not any different from the previous two…and he shares, quite clearly…the Son of man will be handed over and will be condemned to death…he’ll flogged…and beaten…and mocked…and he will be killed…and after three days he will rise again. (pause)
And immediately…right on the heels of this…James and John come trotting up to Jesus with this bold request. And I can only wonder…were they just listening? Or were they completely caught up in something different…utterly distracted…Honestly…I kinda hope so…it would explain quite a bit.

Maybe…just maybe, while Jesus is talking to the disciples about this tragedy that is coming right up…James and John are having a little side conversation because they are already planning on asking Jesus this…important question.

Psst…James….you ask him…no John, you ask him…well, maybe we should ask him together…I dunno…you think we should pull him aside…something tells me the other’s aren’t going to like this very much. (pause) SQUIRREL!!!! (pause)

I’d like to think that’s what happened…that they were simply so caught up in what they were about to ask Jesus that they completely missed what he was saying…because Jesus’ predictions about his suffering and death seem WAY too momentous to simply ignore right? But isn’t that what seems to happen?

I’m going to die and rise again…Hey Jesus…in your glory can we sit beside you? (pause) WHAT? They couldn’t have heard him could they? I mean, seriously. (pause) But what if they did? And what if this response is simply more evidence of the incredibly blatant point that Mark likes to make…that the disciples JUST…DON’T…GET IT.

We’ve seen this theme a lot haven’t we? They are constantly failing to understand Jesus’ teaching…or his miracles…or his healings…and when he comes around to teaching them…directly and plainly…about his death and resurrection…its more of the same. The first time, Peter rebukes him and gets called Satan….the second, we plainly hear that they don’t understand and promptly start bickering about who’s the greatest among them…and now…James and John…two brothers who likely have the normal sibling tendency to think alike hit him up with “Hey Jesus, let us sit in the places of honor beside you in your glory.”

I can only imagine the epic facepalm that Jesus gave them when he heard it. (facepalm) “Guys…really? You really think you deserve that?” And then we hear questions of cups and baptisms…and man aren’t the sons of Zebedee sure of themselves? Oh yes Jesus…we are able to do what you’re going to do. (pause)

Now granted…this whole exchange between Jesus and the brothers is a little odd…there’s a lot of debate about just what they’re really talking about here…is the cup Jesus’ death? Perhaps…and if so is he telling them that they will be killed? Its hard to say in the long run…because James was eventually martyred…but he wasn’t crucified…and John, well, he’s the one disciple who actually lived long enough to die of natural causes…so who knows what the cup is all about…and the baptism, well, that could be a lot of things…but regardless of that…Jesus makes the main point that to be the ones at his right and left hand is not what’s in store for James and John…that “honor” is prepared for different people. (pause)

Once again…when faced with the notion of Jesus dying, the disciples seem compelled to establish a pecking order…over and over again we see this…and today’s story is no different…they are so distracted by their petty human desire to be top-dog that they forget what Jesus has taught them over and over again…and so he reminds them once more…its not about trying to be great…serve one another…follow my example because the son of man came not to be served, but to be a servant of all…to give his life as a ransom for many.

And with that, we see the disciples finally shut up and listen. (pause) Over and over again Jesus has been telling these men that to be a follower of Christ…to be a disciple means a life of serving others…and yet it never sinks in…but this time, Jesus tells us that his life, which is about to be taken…will serve as a ransom…as a payment…because that’s what a ransom is…a payment to grant the freedom of someone that has been taken captive. (pause)
Maybe…just maybe…for the first time the disciples are starting to get it…even just for a moment…perhaps they are starting to see past their own petty distractions about what the Messiah is supposed to be…to see what the Messiah actually is…and where his glory truly lies. (pause)
All to often it seems like the disciples are focused on this amazing kingdom that Jesus is going to establish…and even more so…their place of prominence within it…and I fear that we get caught up in the same distraction…constantly asking the question of just what following God is going to get me. (pause)

But Jesus is revealing the point of his glory…and where it will be found…not in a kingdom…not in miracles or teachings or healings…but the glory of Jesus is found as he hangs on that cross…as he embraces a cursed death…taking on the curse of sin for all of humanity…paying the ransom to free us from that which holds us captive. (pause)
Maybe this is why the disciples seem to clam up after this third and final prediction…and why James and John don’t push the issue anymore…perhaps they are finally beginning to understand, if only for a moment…the true reality of what Jesus is talking about as he predicts his death.

James…John…you want to be beside me in my glory…you can’t…its not prepared for you…Maybe Jesus is predicting that they will all run away and abandon him…which we know they do…but…when Jesus is hanging in excruciating and degradation pain on that cross…he’s not alone…and this is why we say that he is in his glory…because the only time in all four gospels when anyone is described at his right and at his left…its two criminals…hanging up on crosses on either side. (pause)

This is the utterly unbelievable aspect of the gospel…that God would die…and not only that, but that God would willingly endure the most painful, humiliating, cursed death imaginable…and that he would do it surrounded…not by his friends…but by condemned criminals…revolutionaries…the lowest of the low…and that God would do this willingly to ransom us from the powers of sin and darkness that are so present in this world…holding us captive…and not only that…but that God would do all this for individuals that are often too distracted to notice…too distracted with worry…or with ambition…with anger…or with fear. (pause)
I can’t tell you what it is that distracts you from recognizing the incredible act that Jesus accomplishes on that cross…but I know that we all have those distractions in our lives…and yet, Jesus willingly does this for us anyway…and in the midst of all this…his words to James and John, as well as the other disciples, serve as an important reminder for us as well.

One day we all drink from the cup of death…the same cup that Jesus himself asked the Father to remove…and likewise…we share in the same baptism as Jesus…washed in the water and gifted with the holy spirit…and throughout all of that, we are not called to be anything more than what God intends for us…the places of honor…to be at the right and left of Jesus in his glory were prepared for two specific people…and God has prepared something specific for you.

And so, as we leave this place today, reminded of the incredible cost willingly paid by God on our behalf…remember…do what God has called you to do…be who God has called you to be…and while that looks different for everyone…there is something that we all have in common…that God has called us his beloved children and nothing can take that away. Amen.

Not Just Difficult But Impossible 10-11-15

In this sermon, based on Mark 10:17-31, I explore the story of the rich man’s encounter with Jesus. This leads to the impossible nature of salvation based on anything that we do, as well as the impossible nature of the love of God expressed in Jesus Christ.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

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

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

There is a franchise in Hollywood that I’m a pretty big fan of. It goes all the way back to 1966. Mission Impossible. The original tv series ran until 1973. A rebooted tv series ran from 1988 to 1990. This finally led into a series of movies starring Tom Cruise starting back in 1996 that is still going on as the 5th film in the series hit theatres earlier this year.

The whole premise of Mission Impossible is right there in the title. During each episode or movie, the team facing seemingly insurmountable odds and obstacles to accomplish the given mission…but given enough training and know-how…throw in enough techno-gadgets…and in the end…they always seem to accomplish what they set out to do. However crazy their objectives are…they always manage to do the impossible. The name of their organization is even a wink at this…the IMF, or Impossible Mission Force.

There’s actually a pretty telling moment in the second film, which came out back in 2000…when Tom Cruise sits in a meeting with the director, who is outlining the mission at hand…part of which is to find and convince a wanted jewel thief to join the team and help with the mission. The director asks “Can you do it?” Cruise responds… “It will be…difficult.” And then in a nod to the audience, the director says “Well this isn’t Mission Difficult…its Mission Impossible…Difficult should be a walk in the park for you.” (pause)
As cheesy or silly as the tv shows and movies can be, there is a nugget of truth here. As a species, we humans are pretty good at overcoming some pretty insurmountable odds aren’t we? Look at some of the things that we have accomplished…simply because we set our minds to it…accomplishments that at first glance seem like they would be utterly impossible. (pause)
We have figured out how to leave the earth behind and fly…in an airplane anyway. We decided to explore space…worked at it, launched satellites and eventually people into orbit…we even sent people to the moon, simply because we decided to go there.

We’ve built 100+ story skyscrapers, we’ve explored the rainforests, and climbed mount Everest…simply because we as a species decided to work hard enough to figure out how to do it. We’ve done it as a species…and we do the same sort of thing as individuals…I remember October 17th 2011…It was my wife’s birthday and I decided that day I was going to go to the gym with her…and that day I ran 1 mile…and I thought I was gonna die. But I kept working at it…with an eventual goal in mind…and in February of 2014, I spent 5 hours and 5 minutes on a treadmill in my basement covering 26.2 miles…accomplishing a marathon…simply because I decided to do the work, to do the training and preparing that it would take to pull it off.

Its true…we as humans seem to be able to accomplish anything that we put our minds too…so much that we have a common phrase “you’ve done the impossible.” (pause) But I find myself wondering…is that…well, for lack of a better word…possible? (pause)

The definition of “impossible” is this…not able to occur, exist, or be done. (pause) Not just difficult, but not able. And so to say that we have accomplished the impossible, by definition…must be a lie. Certainly we can and do accomplish amazing things…things that take extraordinary amounts of effort…but if we do it…then it isn’t impossible. (pause)

I’m sure by now you see where I’m going with this…for in today’s gospel lesson we hear an astonished, likely exasperated question from the disciples asking the important question…Who can be saved? And the honest, if daunting reply from Jesus…for mortals it is…impossible.

But before we explore that any further, we need to back up and take a look at the situation that prompted this exchange in the first place…the encounter between Jesus and the rich man who asks the familiar question…what must I do to inherit eternal life? (pause)

I think many of us are familiar with this story…I even referenced it last week…this random man comes up to Jesus…kneels before him, which is worth noting…this guy pays the proper respect to Jesus and so his question seems to be quite sincere…It seems that his heart is heavy because despite all that he has done throughout his life…he lacks the assurance that eternal life has been given to him…and so the question to Jesus…what must I do?

Jesus response…well, it’s a bit odd this time around isn’t it…You know the commandments…and he lists off a batch of them…and the man’s response…I have done all these things since I was young…which is likely true…we have no reason to think that this man has failed to follow the listed commandments to the letter.

There’s something interesting that we need to notice though…even before Jesus jumps in to point out the one thing lacking for this guy…we need to stop and think about the commandments and who they are aimed at. Commandments 4-10 are aimed at how we treat other people…and each commandment that Jesus listed off to the guy falls in that category…but what Jesus did not list off for this guy are #1-3, which are aimed at our relationship with God. (pause)

Now remember that Jesus didn’t dispute the man saying he’s followed the listed commandments…but he does point out something pretty specific…that the man needs to go off, sell everything he has and give it to the poor before finally coming to follow Jesus.

And we see…in this instant, that the man can’t do it…he goes away crestfallen…saddened…downright gloomy…and then, only then do we hear that he has many possessions…Possessions which he places all value upon…possessions and wealth that he places his trust in…so much so that he can do what Jesus asks…and this makes me think that this man’s wealth is the idol that is standing in the way of his relationship with God.

Remember that command that I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me? (pause) For this guy…its his wealth…and as we see in the story today, its too much for him to give up at this point…and Jesus’ call to discipleship for this guy…the invitation to come and follow me…goes unanswered. (pause)
I kept coming around to this part of the story this week…over and over again…wrestling with the question of if Jesus is taking a pot-shot at wealth in general…or if it is simply the specific hurdle that makes this specific guy fail in his relationship with God…and there’s a lot of debate about that…perhaps because we as individuals are pretty attracted to the ever present dollar sign in our lives as well. (pause)

But in the end…Jesus seems to point out the important point here…he actually says it twice to his disciples after this guy walks away. How hard it is to enter the kingdom of heaven…how hard it is…children…to enter into the kingdom. (pause)

Well now wait a second…Jesus just called the disciples…those who are following him despite their flaws and shortcomings…children…haven’t we heard lately…from Jesus himself…that it is children who receive the kingdom? (pause) Well now that’s interesting isn’t it?

To be a follower of Christ is to be called a child…and that’s not all bad…because children are loved despite their flaws…despite their shortcomings…and we see this in Jesus’ call to the rich man today. Even before pointing out the insurmountable hurdle in this man’s existence, Jesus looks at him…and loves him…

The love of God in Christ Jesus for all of humanity exists long before we recognize our sin…long before we recognize the futility of our attempts to earn out own salvation…and long before we realize just how impossible it is for us to inherit eternal life.

That was the man’s question way back at the beginning of the story…what must I do to inherit eternal life…and now think about how you inherit anything…do you do anything? Or do you wait for someone to die? (pause)
Jesus assures each of us, that we are incapable of fulfilling the law…and as such the law can never bring us salvation…this is what he calls impossible for mortals…yet his love for us is already present…and he proved it by going to Jerusalem…and taking on that cross…dying…so that the inheritance of eternal life might be possible…

In order to inherit anything the owner of it must die…and wouldn’t you know it…the one who holds eternal life in his hands has already done so…and not only that…but knowing us fully…all that which is good and all that which is lacking within us…he loves us enough to offer it to us freely. (pause)
Now all that being said I need to come back around to the disciples…those 12 poor schmucks following Jesus around and seemingly failing at every possible opportunity to show what they are learning…for as Jesus talks about this situation…explaining it to them, all they can say is “Who then can be saved?”

Perhaps we hear that and think they are throwing their hands up in disgust…Jeepers Jesus, we’ve been following you around and we have no idea how to do it…how can anyone else? Or maybe they were exasperated at the fact that, once again…Jesus is showing love to someone that they think is unworthy of it…someone unwilling to give up everything as they have…in order to follow along behind.

Either way…I think it speaks to the impossible nature of the Gospel…on both sides of the coin. Its impossible for anyone to ever do enough or be enough or say enough to earn salvation…just as its impossible to ever love another person enough to offer them freely that which they cannot provide.

Our sin stands it the way of our relationship with God because we constantly put something else in front of Him. We have idols everywhere…whether we realize it or not and so perhaps as we cry out about the impossible nature of all this maybe we’re being honest with our selves thinking that its impossible that anyone could love ME…that much.

And yet…God does…for what is impossible with mortals is possible for God. (pause)

God knows us…and despite that which stands in the way, he loves us…and he loves us so much that he has died in order for us to inherit that which we cannot achieve on our own…eternal life in the age to come…whatever that looks like…and in the meantime…he extends us the invitation to come and follow…where ever that might take us. Amen.


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