Archive for September, 2013

What’s in a Name

This sermon is based on Luke 16:1-13, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. I preached from the perspective of a baptism that was occurring at worship. That being said, I have to offer my apologies to the family of the boy being baptized. When writing the sermon I had the name Blake in my head rather than the correct name of Bryce, and in several points during the sermon, I called him Blake. After about the 4th time the congregation finally pointed it out to me…but you won’t hear that as this was actually pre-recorded.

Listen to the sermon here;
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/whats-in-a-name-9-29-13

Here is the text of the sermon. As usual, disregard the odd punctuation and indications to pause. I gotta remember to do this stuff somehow.

Grace and peace to you from God our father and our lord and savior Jesus Christ…Amen
Have you ever wondered what your name meant? Think about it for a second. The origin of names tends to be connected to some sort of meaning. In the Native American culture, this was very blatant. We only need to remember the popular 90’s movie Dances With Wolves to realize that. Likewise, the origin of family names is often connected back to an individuals vocation. Baker comes from the town cook. Smith from the town blacksmith and so on.
But in the end, what do our names really mean? I was thinking about that the other day and did a little bit of research. My given name is Scott Allen Dalen. Scott is a descriptor meaning literally from Scotland. Allen means either rock or handsome. And Dalen comes from Dale which is a clearing in the woods. So my name…Scott Allen Dalen means that I am a handsome rock in the midst of a clearing in the Scottish woods…Fascinating…If you’re curious about what your name might mean…a quick google search will tell you volumes.
As I was thinking about my name, I also got to thinking about the various nicknames that I’ve had over the years…and there have been a lot of them.
Growing up, my nickname with my dad’s extended family was Scooter. My mom’s side called me Scottsaroo. I was Scotty to a couple different summer staffs back in my college days. I was Dalen to everyone in high school, and I was Junior to all of my older brother’s friends. These days I commonly hear Dad from my kids. To my Godson Isaac, I’m G-dad. My wife has a couple of nicknames for me…but…you don’t get to hear them. And most recently, here in Underwood, I’ve taken on the name Pastor.
Interestingly enough as I thought about all those different nicknames, I realized the relationship implied by each and every one of them…and I realized that when I hear someone address my by one of those nicknames, instantly my mind connects with that relationship with that individual.
Speaking of names…did you notice anything interesting in today’s story? Jesus tells us another parable today…this time the parable of the rich man and Lazarus…the rich man…and Lazarus. Notice anything odd there?
On one hand, we’ve got Lazarus. We don’t know a ton about the guy. Only that he’s very poor…poor enough that he hopes to get a crack at the garbage thrown out from the rich man’s table.  We know that he’s somehow sick with some unknown affliction that has resulted in terrible sores all over his body…and that’s really about the extent of it.
Then we’ve got the rich guy…He’s obviously important. We hear that he wears purple, which at the time was the color of nobility. He feasts each and every day. He owns property…complete with a fence and a gate where we find Lazarus.
Beyond that, we don’t know much about these two guys…and we really don’t need to know much…but its interested to note that while we hear the name of Lazarus…we don’t learn the name of the rich man…but who knows…maybe the guy’s name isn’t all that important.
What’s important it what happens to the two guys here in Jesus’ story. They both die…apparently death doesn’t discriminate between the rich and the poor…and following their death they both end up on opposite sides of the afterlife…divided by an un-crossable chasm…the rich man in unending torturous agony…and Lazarus in the realm of the righteous…hanging out with none other than the father of righteousness himself…Abraham.
We don’t hear any more from Lazarus at this point, only that his suffering in life has given way to comfort in the afterlife…but we continue to hear from the rich man. He recognizes his torment and attempts to repent…but we see where that gets him…a whole lot of nowhere…and so in a fit of agony…he seeks relief…Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool these flames…as if water could do such a thing…as if a simple bit of water…could quench the fires of condemnation.
When Abraham denies this request, calling it impossible to bridge the chasm placed between paradise and torture…then the rich man appeals for his brothers…Send Lazarus to my brothers…if someone returns from the dead then they will repent before its too late…but no…Abraham denies that too…or perhaps we should say that Jesus denies it…Jesus himself…who we all know eventually rises from the dead…makes a point that many of us as believers struggle with…There are those who chose to ignore God…they chose to ignore Moses and the Prophets…aka the scriptures…and they chose to ignore the testimony of one that has risen from the dead…yes my friends, we all know those that refuse to accept the need for a savior…and it is those people that, find themselves on the wrong side of the chasm.
Admittedly, this is a hard teaching. Its hard to accept the thought that there are those that will not be saved. We ask the question why? Why is that? If God truly desires all to be saved then why are there some that don’t believe?  (pause)
I wish I could answer that question…because I’ve got some of those people in my life as well…some of those people that I don’t know which side of the chasm they’ll end up on…so I pray for them…and I try to share the gospel with them…the good news that despite our brokenness…despite our sinfulness…despite our own incapability to ensure our salvation from sin…Jesus chose to enter into our reality…into our brokenness to do that which we are incapable of doing on our own…so that one day we may be with him in paradise just as Lazarus was with Abraham in the story.
Did you notice the subtle difference between the two men? I hinted at it before, but never came out and said it. The rich man is not named…but Lazarus is. We know his name…and obviously…God knows his name… (pause)
There’s one more nickname that I have, and I probably put more stock in it than any other name that I can claim…that name is Child of God.  Because of what Jesus has done, I can cast aside my sinfulness…it doesn’t rule me any more…and I can claim to be a heir with Christ…I am a child of God…named and claimed in the waters of my baptism. (pause)
In a few minutes, Blake Edward Leaders will join in the ranks of those with that name…Beloved Child of God…in a few minutes…God will look down upon Blake…and through the water and word accepted in faith we believe that God will call Blake by name…and will call him by a new name…one which cannot be taken away…and we believe that the Holy Spirit comes in that baptism and will rest upon Blake…and together, his parents…and his sponsor…and we as a congregation will make a promise to raise him in faith…to expose him to the teachings of Jesus Christ…to give him the Word of God…to teach him the creed and the 10 commandments…and we hope…and we pray that in hearing that good news over and over again as he grows and matures that one day the Holy Spirit will work in his life to bring him to a saving faith in Jesus Christ…that is why we gather at the font…not as a ritual…not because it’s the right thing to do…or because tradition says we should…but rather because Christ himself tells us to do it…Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit…In a few minutes, we’ll do the baptizing and Blake will gain a new name…and it is my prayer that we all take the promise seriously to raise him as a disciple of Christ. (pause)
And young Blake isn’t the only one…we live in a world filled with people that do not know…or refuse to recognize the saving power of Jesus Christ…and in the Great Commision he sent each and every one of us out to them as well…and so I ask you today…do you really believe this? When we recite the words of the Apostles Creed…the faith in which we baptize do we really believe it?  And in a few minutes when I ask each and every one of you to denounce the powers of sin and the devil, will you really mean it…Do you cling to the identity found in the name Child of God? You were named and claimed by God in the waters of your baptism…and I believe that it is not something that we should take likely but that we should cling to that promise made by God as if our lives depended on it…because you know what…in the eternal sense, you better believe that it does.
And that knowledge of the saving grace of Jesus Christ…that promise that we receive in our baptism…that’s too good to hang out to for ourselves…that’s a message that needs to be shared with the world…that’s a message that comes from one that did rise from the dead…and he did it for each and every person in the world…not just those of us inside these 4 walls but for everyone…for God so loved THE WORLD…that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life and I believe that when we receive that promise in faith…that promise given to us in baptism…when we really receive it, then NOTHING in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. (pause)
So what’s in a name? Well, in the case of our salvation…the name Child of God…means everything…Blake receives that name today…and if you have been baptized then I invite you to claim it…it was given to you at your baptism and it is yours today…and if you’ve never been washed in the water and you find yourself wanting to receiving that promise of God…there’s nothing standing in your way. Believe and be baptized and you too are a beloved child of God. Amen.

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Confirmation Question Responses 9-22-13

Some more good questions came up both in confirmation class as well as through sermon notes last Sunday. I’ll do my best to address them here.

In class we talked about the Bible and the books that are included in the canon (or are considered to be “scripture”). We also discussed that the Catholic Bible is longer than the Protestant Bible and that the extra books in the Catholic Bible are called the Apocrypha. The question was, how many books are in the Apocrypha. The answer to that question is 16, which include the following: Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, Epistle of Jeremiah, Prayer of Azariah, Susanna, Bel, Maccabees 1-4, Esdras 1 and 4 (we don’t know what happened to 2-3), and the Prayer of Manasseh.  In addition, there are other writings that we have, particularly from the New Testament era that are not included in either the Bible or the Apocrypha. These include many different gospel accounts and epistles (letters).

The sermon, which you can read/hear here came from Luke 16:1-13, the parable of the dishonest manager. It raised the following questions from sermon notes:

-Why did Jesus teach the parable if no one understands it?
Great question, and one that many different Bible scholars have tried to answer. Different people make different interpretations of this passage, but it seems that everyone (at least everyone that I have read) agrees that it is very difficult to know what Jesus is really trying to accomplish with this parable.  That being said, we have other examples of parables that were unclear, and the audience asked for clarification. Matthew chapter 13 is a good example of this, and it also addresses why Jesus taught in parables. He used examples that people could understand, because he was relating the kingdom of God to everyday life. But since the kingdom of God goes way beyond our understanding, sometimes the audience still can’t grasp it and asked Jesus for clarification.  That could be what happened here as well and Luke simply doesn’t tell the rest of the story, or he doesn’t include Jesus’ explanation. Remember that the gospels give us a glimpse into the life of Jesus, but we don’t get every single detail.

-Why does God tell us to do one thing but then turn around and do another?
I’ll admit, I’m at a bit of a loss to answer this question, because I’m not quite sure what it is referring to. The context of the question would be helpful. But I guess if I was to fire from the hip on it I would say that God does some things that humanity is instructed not to simply because we are not God. God is the creator of everything and some of what God must do goes beyond what we are to do.  Admittedly, not the best answer, but that’s what I can offer.

-What was Jesus a teacher of?
In a nutshell, Jesus taught about God and God’s kingdom that was to come. I realize that might not really answer the question, and so I turn to John chapter 3, particularly verses 31-34. Jesus came teaching…or in this case testifying…about God and Heaven and he can do so truthfully because he has seen it. Find those verses in your Bible and read them. I think they sum it up pretty well.

I Don’t Get It 9-22-13

This sermon comes from Luke 16:1-13, the parable of the dishonest manager. In this sermon I tackle the difficult teaching of Jesus and acknowledge the fact that sometimes we just don’t understand.

Hear the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/i-dont-get-it-9-22-13

Here’s the sermon in text form. As usual, disregard the odd punctuation and indications to pause. I’ve gotta remember to do them somehow.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
One of the highlights of my day actually occurs twice. About 8am and about 3pm. It involves a walk of about ¾ of a mile to the school and back. First taking the kids to school and then bringing them home from school.  Right now, while the weather is nice, it’s a wonderful way to spend a few minutes with my kids. I never know what we’re going to talk about, but it’s a great way to have a couple of minutes of undivided attention.
Earlier this week, we were walking along when one of Underwood’s all black squirrels darted across the road in front of us. My daughter Ava, ever inquisitive with her 7-year old mind, asked the inevitable question… “What makes that squirrel black? They’re usually grey or brown.” (pause)
My first thought was that it was an excellent and very valid question. I thought about for a moment, and I was instantly transplanted back to my sophomore year of high school. The words chromosome, and genetic traits, and punit square flashed across my mind. You see, all through school, I was a math and science guy. I loved that stuff, and still do, and I knew…at least at a bachelor’s degree level, how a squirrel could be born with the genetic code to be black rather than the normal coloration.
But I knew that if I tried to explain all that to my daughter, she would simply stare at me with a slightly glazed expression that I see on some of your faces right now…and so I had to try to explain, carefully, how the mommy squirrel and the daddy squirrel each passed on a code for black, even if they weren’t that color. She told me that she understood, though I’m not 100% sure that she really did…and parents of youngsters out there, my apologies if I just opened a can of worms that you have to deal with later on today.
But isn’t that what teaching is all about? Trying to help someone understand a concept or an idea? Explaining it in a way that they can comprehend…even if it isn’t covering every single nuance and detail? It’s this very notion of teaching that causes me to fell massive amounts of respect for individuals that choose teaching as their profession. While I have the ability to understand a lot of scientific or mathematical stuff…I don’t always feel confident in my ability to simplify that understanding to help someone learn it for the first time…and sometimes I have to think REALLY hard about how to do it. Sometimes I pull it off…and other times…I just get the blank stares.
Sometimes I wonder about the mind of Jesus…he was a teacher…after all, countless people called him Rabbi, which literally means teacher. He had disciples that followed him around…crowds that pressed in on him hoping to learn something…and he had countless experiences with opposition that tried to test and trick him into teaching the wrong thing.
Jesus was…in every way…a teacher. And his classroom was very similar to the one that I was in earlier this week. Real life, just out walking around…that was Jesus’ classroom. And while he utilized many different teaching methods…one of the most common, especially here in Luke’s gospel…was the parable.
Now we’ve been hearing a lot of different parables lately…I preached on two different one’s last week alone. Truly, we can see from the gospels that Jesus was fond of this style. And to a certain extent, it makes sense. Take a concept, and give an illustration from regular life that helps to make that point…obviously I like it, if you’ve noticed I pretty much do that sort of thing every week. (pause)
But sometimes when I think about parables…I find myself thinking about the people that hear it…just like I often find myself thinking about how you will hear the words that I speak.  I think about them…the audience of Jesus…and I wonder if the parables always worked.
At first glance…maybe that’s a silly question. Jesus was God…he knew everything so of course his parables always worked right…he knew what the people needed to hear…but is that the way it worked out?  I’m don’t think so…not really.
Many different times we see that Jesus has to explain himself to the crowds…he has to explain what he’s talking about in the parable…and its not limited to the crowds, but even the disciples seem to miss out on his message and have to ask him what he’s talking about.
My guess is that Jesus was no stranger to blank stares…blank stares that indicate a total lack of understanding of what he’s talking about…and I wonder if that ever got frustrating for Jesus. He was fully human after all…certainly he felt the same emotions that we feel. Frustration…anger…sadness…and when I think about that I also ask myself…do you suppose Jesus was ever sarcastic? Do you think he ever got snarky?
Today’s story might just be an answer to that question. The parable of the dishonest manager…I’ll let you in on a little bit of a pastor secret. None of us really like this parable…because none of us can make any sense out of it…me included. I have read this parable many times in the past and this week, I read it countless times…and I kinda wish that I had set up a video camera to record myself because I think that my blank stare…my utterly confused reaction to the story…probably would have been hilarious to see.
I thought a lot about this parable…about this guy who is fired for being a poor manager…this guy who then proceeds to continue doing the exact same thing that he was fired for…poor management of his master’s property…this guy who is commended for being crafty and outsmarting other people to benefit himself…and I can’t make head’s or tails of it…and apparently neither can anyone else.
I read a lot of different commentaries on this passage and they pretty much all say the same thing. We hate this parable and we really don’t know what Jesus is saying here.
Who knows…maybe Jesus is being snarky…maybe he’s being sarcastic with this lesson…maybe he’s speaking tongue in cheek…but the more I read it…the more confused I get…and I’ve found myself asking over and over again “Lord…what are you trying to say?” (pause) and I find myself staring…with that blank stare.
I don’t know about you…but I find myself a little irritated by that…and maybe you find it a little frustrating too. After all…isn’t that why I went to seminary…to be able to interpret the Bible…to be able to understand what God is telling us through the scripture and then to be able to relate that on to others?  So what’s going on here? Am I just dropping the ball this week or what? (pause)
Or maybe…just maybe…God is intending a little different lesson this week. We have trouble understanding this passage…this particular teaching of Jesus…and you know what…this isn’t the other one. The Bible is chock full of stuff that I struggle to understand. Passages that are difficult…verses that seem to contradict each other. Stories that eat away at my conscience…the Bible…is a tough book…and the word of God, while wonderful…is also maddening at times isn’t it? (pause)
And I think when we are honest with ourselves…we find ourselves in the same boat as the individuals that were sitting there that day…listening to Jesus speak and wondering just what the heck he’s talking about. Even the 12 disciples experienced it.
They experienced the confusion because of 2 things…the first is that God goes WAY beyond our limited understanding. WAY BEYOND…God’s not unlike the game of golf in that respect…the second you think you’ve got something figured out…you don’t…and that frustrating truth is simply an symptom of the second reason that we get confused…because life…life as we know it…life tainted and warped by the sinful reality that we live in…is quite literally…one giant mess.
Life is messy. Because there are no rules to life. The second we think that there’s a rule to adheres to every aspect of life universally…we’re wrong. There are no certainties…although if you’re anything like me, when I say that your mind instantly goes to that old saying the only sure things in life are death and taxes. Well…sorry…not even those work. You don’t have to pay your taxes. It’s unwise not to…but you don’t have to…there’s always prison.  And death…well…the good news is…that Jesus changed that one too. (pause)
So my friends…I stand before you today…and I wish I had some miraculous insight into today’s story…some way to explain why Jesus tells this parable…about what it means…but I don’t. I find it just as confusing as you do…and if you have any insight then I’d love to hear it.
But I will tell you this…if you hear today’s story and you find yourself confused…staring blankly…well…you’re in good company…because even Jesus’ closest followers had to ask him what he was talking about pretty regularly.
And even though Jesus, in his full humanity…might have found himself frustrated with the lack of understanding…and maybe, just maybe got a little snarky from time to time…we can still take joy in knowing that God loves us enough to break into this messy reality we call life…and we can take joy in knowing that NOTHING in all creation can separate us from that amazing Love of God in Christ Jesus…even in those times when we don’t understand it. Amen.

Confirmation Question Responses 9-15-13

Last Sunday, I preached on the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. See that posting here.

This was the first Sunday that my confirmation students have been working on sermon notes, and several of them asked questions. I will do my best to field those questions here.

Why would a person leave 99 sheep to find 1 that might be dead?
Excellent question…and that’s exactly the point of Jesus’ parable. You might remember that I said that when Jesus calls something “lost” in this passage, it means destroyed or dead…and so we can assume that the lost is in fact dead.  Now remember that Jesus isn’t trying to be literal here, he’s not actually talking about lost or dead sheep. Rather, he is talking about us. In the book of Romans we hear that the wages of sin is death and since we are all sinful, we know that we are dead in sin. Jesus is the shepherd going in search of the lost (or dead). For us, it is impossible to find something that is destroyed or dead and bring it back, but God is able to accomplish the impossible.

Will God always find us, or will there be times that he won’t?Another great question, and one that I personally struggle with. Unfortunately, there are individuals that never receive the Holy Spirit and the saving grace of Jesus Christ. I don’t know why that is, but it does seem to be the case, but it is not God’s intention that there be anyone that is not found. John 3:16 tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” I wish I could answer the question of why some people are not saved, but I can’t. But the one thing I can cling to is that when we are found by God, nothing can take that away. Romans 8:38-39 tells us “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” So once he’s got you…he’s got you for good.

Why does God make us lost if he is just going to leave everything else and look?
Another good one. To start, God does not create us lost…but rather we become lost (dead) due to our sinful nature. Sin has warped God’s creation and caused death. It’s not quite accurate to say that God leaves everything to go searching for us, though admittedly that’s what the parable sounds like. Remember though that it is a parable. It’s a metaphor. What its actually pointing at is that God entered into our reality…the reality where we were lost in sin and death. Jesus (God the son) entered that reality to bring back the lost (us).

Will God always be there for me, even if I do something bad?
You better believe it. This is precisely what the parable is talking about. There is rejoicing in Heaven over every sinner that repents. We all do bad stuff…every single one of us. That’s sin, try as we might, we make mistakes all the time. But God tells us that if we repent…if we confess what we did and are truly sorry, then Jesus washes those sins away. It’s like they never happened. That’s what happens when God finds us.

How does God know where you are?
Great question. Simple answer, God knows everything and he sees everything. But what’s important to note here is that the parable is not talking about being physically lost (like the sheep in the story). Rather, its about being lost (destroyed or dead) in our sinfulness. That’s not a physical place, but its a state of being…like saying its “what” we are, not “where” we are. Jesus (God the son) saves us from what we are…dead in sin.

Thanks for all the great questions from the students. I hope this is helpful in clearing them up for you.

 

I Once Was Lost

In this sermon I discuss the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin from Luke 15:1-10. I explore the notion of what it means to be lost and just what it means to be found.  You can hear the sound file here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/i-once-was-lost-9-15-13

The word file is here. As usual, disregard the odd punctuation and indications to pause. I gotta remember to do those things somehow.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
January…2009. St Paul Minnesota. The 2nd evening of my first stint on campus at Luther Seminary. Earlier in the evening, we had met with the dean of students. She had given us the normal spiel…enjoy yourselves while you are here. Enjoy the community and the school…enjoy your classmates…but make wise decisions while you are here…because if you do something stupid…I’m the one that gets the phone call…I don’t want to get that phone call…and you…DON’T WANT…me to get that phone call.
We laughed at that statement…and we were supposed to. After all…we were all adults…ranging in age from mid-twenties up to late-fifties…and not only that but we were seminary students. While the dean was serious in her warning…I doubt that she thought she was actually going to get one of “those” phone calls.
After the meeting was done with the dean, my classmates and I were all milling around…trying to decide what to do. Some were heading back to their rooms to hit the books. Others were talking about grabbing a bite to eat…and one guy…a guy that happened to be from Texas with no car on campus…was asking for a ride to Target. He needed some provisions for the 2-week stay. I heard the request and realized I needed to pick up a couple things as well…and so I volunteered to drive my truck to the store.
We made it to Target just fine…spent some time shopping…and proceeded to fill the back seat of my truck with shopping bags. Apparently my friends “provision list” was pretty extensive. As we were heading back towards campus, my friend mentioned one other type of provision that he wanted to pick up…the “cold one” variety…and so we swung through another store so he could pick up what he wanted…and a few minutes later a large case of “cold ones” went into the only available storage spot left in my truck…the back end…and we continued back towards our dorm. (pause)
Now here’s where things get a little shaky. Remember that this is my first time at school…and I was very unfamiliar with the area…and its winter…and its dark…and I don’t have a gps…you can see where this is going can’t you? I got…lost…totally. I missed the turn that would have taken me straight back to campus and so I ended up completely turned around in the midst of St Paul…just trying to spot something…anything…that looked familiar.
We drove around for a few minutes, and I was just trying to find one of the main roads so I could get some idea of where I was at, and then find my way back to campus when all of the sudden…there’s blue and red lights flashing behind me…and now I’m freaking out. I had no idea why I was being pulled over…but sure enough…I was.
I sat there, and through my mirror watched the policeman get out of his car, flashlight on…and start walking up past my truck…and as he’s walking past the back of the truck…I saw that flashlight flip over and stop on that case of beer…and I thought to myself. “I’m going to jail.” And even worse than that…when he finds out I’m from the seminary, then the dean…is gonna get “that” phone call…and I’m gonna get kicked out of school.  I was stuck…under the spotlight…everything was lost…and I was about to be found out.
Sound familiar? The notion of being lost? Sounds a lot like today’s story doesn’t it? Once again, we find Jesus in the hot seat with the political bigwigs. The Pharisees and the scribes are, yet again, giving him static because of the people that he attracts…we are reminded…yet again…that these guys don’t approve of sinners and tax collectors showing up at Jesus’ party…and yet again…they’re grumbling about it.
And Jesus…in his typical fashion…tosses a story or two their direction in order to set them straight…and today we hear two, very familiar parables…the lost sheep and the lost coin.  Which one of you, having 100 sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the 99 and go after the one that is lost until he finds it. Or what woman that has 10 coins and loses one, does not light a lamp and sweep the house until she find it?
Here we are…the lost…but just what does that really mean? To be lost? What is Jesus talking about with the sheep and the coin here today? We can assume that he’s being metaphorical because that’s what parable are…making a point with something a little more familiar and plain. But again, what does it mean to be lost?
Earlier this week I was doing a language study. I won’t bore you with the details, but I discovered that when Jesus uses the word “lost” in these stories, the word is normally translated as “utterly destroyed” or “to perish.” And so perhaps to say that the subject is lost is fitting. If something has been destroyed…or if someone has died than truly they are lost to us aren’t they.
But then what does that say about the sheep or the coin? If they are utterly lost…then it would seem that there is no reason whatsoever to go looking for them is there?  Think about it for a moment…what’s the point of searching…its destroyed…its gone…there is no hope so why on earth would the shepherd chose to leave 99 healthy sheep to go in search for something that’s as good as dead already?
Logic alone tells us that this is foolish…it makes no sense whatsoever for the shepherd to make this choice…and you know what…its even more crazy than we first think. Look at where the story tells us that the 99 sheep are left…out in the wilderness…THE GUY LEFT 99% OF HIS FLOCK OUT IN THE DESERT…the wilderness…at the mercy of the blazing hot, dry conditions…at the mercy of whatever wild predators might be roaming around…at the mercy of any other shepherd that might be in the area just waiting to scoop up a bunch of unattended livestock.  (pause) What would make this guy go out in search of the one that’s already lost? Let’s put a pin in that question for moment…we’ll come back in a sec.
Perhaps you’ve already made the metaphorical connection that Jesus implies with this story. Probably so…its pretty obvious isn’t it?  Humans are the sheep…Jesus or God…is the shepherd. The human gets lost and God goes to find them. End of story right?  Oh, bonus points if you recognize that the individual is lost because they are sinful.  (pause) Yep, that’s it…that’s the story in the nutshell…but now let’s back up to that question from a moment ago. What would possess God to leave the 99 and go in search of the one? Concern? Love? You betcha.
God chooses to leave the 99 in the wilderness to go seeking the one that’s lost…the one that’s utterly lost…the one that has perished…the one that has perished in their sinfulness…the wages of Sin is death…we hear that from the Apostle Paul in Roman…and so if we are lost in sin…if we are dead in sin then it seems like God is going on a mission that’s impossible.
God is going in search of the one that cannot be found…and worse yet, God leaves 99 alone to do it. And let’s think about that for a second…the 99 are left in the Wilderness…Is God being careless here? It sure seems like it…but is he? Is he really?  (pause) Remember someone else that went “into the wilderness?” Maybe, right after his baptism?  (pause) Jesus himself went into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan for 40 days…the wilderness…is the place of temptation…the wilderness…sounds an awful lot like life…and the difference between Jesus temptation and our temptation is that Jesus could beat it…but we can’t. Try as we might…we CANNOT do it.
So maybe what this story is telling us here is that the 99…alone in the wilderness…are actually the one…the one that is lost…each and every member of humanity is the one at one time or another…lost…perished…destroyed by our own sinful natures…we are stuck…alone…with no hope…
But despite all that…the shepherd goes in search of the lost…in search of the lost cause…in search of that which has no way of being found on their own. (pause)
Look at the stories again…both the sheep and the coin do nothing…absolutely nothing…to be found.  They are completely passive in this situation…just sitting there…doing nothing…but the shepherd and women both…look, and look, and look. They seek and never cease…until the lost is found. (pause)
And that my friends, is the reality that we find ourselves in. Utterly lost…dead in sin…utterly destroyed with no capability of getting ourselves found. We need another…we need help…we need the salvation from certain death and destruction…and that’s what God chooses to do for each and every single one of us. (pause)
But when we stop and think about it…that can be pretty tough to accept. That God…even God…would love me so much that He would seek for me in my own wilderness…the wilderness of my reality…in the darkness of my life…in the muck and mire that bogs me down…that sinful, horrible, awful reality that is my life…If God really knew…and really saw me…he wouldn’t…I’m too far gone…I am utterly destroyed…I am utterly lost…and if God really knew…he wouldn’t want to find me…I don’t want be found…I don’t want to be found out… (pause) I don’t want to be found out.
Maybe…deep down…that’s the fear that many of us face…that fear that if God really knew…or if the people at church…REALLY knew the truth about me…then I wouldn’t be accepted…I’d be cast out…or worse yet…left out to die…
But you know what…that’s exactly the lost cause that Jesus came to earth to solve.  God truly loves each and every one of us so much, that he was willing to get into it…head first…no holding back…Jesus lived it…he lived the darkness…he lived the temptation…he died for it…but then…he came back…and you know what…he chooses to bring each and every one of us back with him.
Friends in Christ you are that sheep…utterly lost…utterly destroyed…but Jesus waded into the darkness…and kept on searching until he found you…you didn’t do it on your own…but he kept looking until he found you…and that my friends is a reality worth celebrating… (pause)
Maybe you’ve heard this before…and maybe this strikes you as good news…and maybe you hear this and you find joy in remembering that moment when Jesus found you in the wilderness…and if you praise God…but maybe…just maybe…this is new for some of you sitting out there…maybe you’ve never heard this before…or maybe its never really sunk in for you before…this idea that God is willing to do the impossible with no help from you…FOR you…and if you are hearing this…and I mean really hearing it for the first time today then PRAISE GOD because he’s seeking you out right now….and HE WILL FIND YOU. (pause)
Remember where we left our story before? I was pulled over in St Paul, seconds away from a police officer coming to my window…shaking like a leaf because I was afraid that I was about to be found out.
When the officer came to the window, he asked me the normal question. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” I answered no, and he said “Well, you pulled a little past a stop sign back there before you stopped, and I saw your Iowa license plates, and I saw you looking around…I could tell you were lost. Where are you trying to get to?”
I told him Luther Seminary…and he snickered…and he then he laughed…and then he got me where I couldn’t get on my own…I once was lost, but now, am found…may we all find the joy…in truly knowing that God, found us.  Amen.

Counting the Cost

In this sermon, I explore the difficult teaching of Jesus regarding the cost of discipleship. Salvation from sin is free by the grace of God…but discipleship of Jesus does cost you something. 

Hear the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/counting-the-cost-9-8-13

And here is the text file of the sermon. As usual, disregard the odd punctuation and indications to pause. I gotta remember them somehow.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…Amen
Guilty pleasures. We all have them don’t we.  Be honest, you know you do. Most of the time, I think they are pretty innocent, but a guilty pleasure is something that can really rope you in. One of mine, and yes I do have several…is puzzles. Another is ice cream, but that’s neither here nor there.
I love puzzles, and not any one kind…but a lot of different kinds. And there are a ton of different types of puzzles aren’t there? Think about it. There are table top puzzles ranging from innocent little 10 piecers for small children up to 5 or 10,000 piece monstrosities that can take weeks or months to complete.  There are number puzzles like soduko. Mental puzzles like crosswords. Many different video games involve puzzles…some simple and as any gamer can tell you, some huge intricate and almost most impossible.
While I do some of these more than others, I do love a good puzzle and the challenge that comes along with it. Most recently I’ve gotten hooked on a specific puzzle game. It’s an app available for free on smart phones and you can play it through Facebook as well. Perhaps you’ve heard of it, or like me, have gotten utterly and completely addicted to it.  Candy Crush. (pause)  Anyone else out there want to fess up?  You know you love it.
Like any good puzzle, it’s rewarding…and its also wildly irritating. The first few levels are easy. They always are. That’s how they hook you.  But then as time goes on, the levels get more and more difficult. Candy Crush isn’t the only game of this nature. There are countless titles with the same sort of premise. Angry Birds is another popular example.
If you’ve ever played this sort of game you know how it works. You’re given a puzzle and by swapping different candy pieces around, you gradually work through the puzzle to beat the level. But as the levels get harder…and trust me…they get harder…there are times when it feels like you will never beat it. You try over and over again…sometimes getting it down to a single piece left to clear and then you run out of moves…or your run out of lives and you have to ask for help. Candy Crush is a social game after all…but as you make attempt after attempt…and achieve nothing but failure after failure…you feel like your head is going to explode and you cry out in anguish. “TRY AS I MIGHT…I AM NEVER GOING TO BEAT THIS LEVEL!!!!”
But then…every once in a while…the pieces all fall together…given enough time…given enough effort…it all comes together and you emerge…triumphant…at least until you try the next level.
In a lot of ways, that’s a good life lesson isn’t it? Keep trying. Don’t lose hope. Persevere. Eventually, everything comes together. YOU CAN DO IT!
But does that attitude…that never say die…keep on pushing through attitude really apply to everything?  (pause)
That’s the question that’s been rattling around in my head this week as I’ve pondered on today’s scripture lesson…it’s a bit of a doosy this week isn’t it? Jesus…our Savior and Lord…God himself in human form…seems to be a bit of buzzkill this week doesn’t he?
Here’s the scene. Jesus is traveling around the countryside. He’s been gradually making his way towards Jerusalem for a while now. Luke’s gospel makes a pretty big deal in about chapter 9 when Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem…and we all know what’s going to happen in Jerusalem don’t we? We know where this story is headed…the eventual betrayal at the hands of his own disciple…his arrest…his trial…his crucifixion. (pause)
In today’s story…we’re about half way there. We’re getting there…but Jesus still has about 6 more chapters to walk through before he makes it to the city…but as we see at the beginning today…he’s already making waves.  Like any good public figure…he’s developed a following…and we see that large crowds are following him around.
Perhaps it comes as no great shock. Look at some of the stuff that he’s pulled off so far…countless healings of the sick and lame…the feeding of the 5000….he’s cast out demons…he’s even managed to bring a couple of people back from the dead.  No wonder he’s got giant crowds traipsing along behind him. Wouldn’t you be interested to see what this guy…this Jesus guy…is gonna do next?
That seems to be the case with this giant crowd…this mixed bag of people. Who knows what different types of people were there but we can assume that it involved all different sorts. Poor, rich…Jews, Gentiles…religious leaders, roman officials…at different times in Luke’s Gospel we hear about all of these people and other’s as well.  Certainly, Jesus attracted all kinds of people to follow him wherever he went.
But today…Jesus seems like he wants to thin the crowds out a little bit…and he makes some pretty shocking statements…three of them that seem to cover different situations…but all three with the same apparent result.
Whoever comes to me and does not hate their families…cannot be my disciple. (Pause)  Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me…cannot be my disciple. (pause) Whoever does not give up all your possessions…cannot be my disciple. (pause)
Can you imagine? Jesus himself…this pillar of love and acceptance…this man who welcomes sinners and cripples…this man who teaches about the love of God for all humanity…this amazing man that everyone wants a piece of…denying people…how can that be? (pause) Its shocking isn’t it? Jesus denying people.
Or is he? (pause)
Is Jesus denying anyone from following him?  Or is he simply issuing a realistic warning?  A warning about the TRUE cost…of discipleship? The TRUE cost…of being a believer…the TRUE cost of following Christ. (pause)
Perhaps you hear me say the word cost…and it makes you a little uncomfortable.  Cost? I thought that Christianity was free…I thought that our salvation from sin and death is a free gift…only by the grace of God…so what’s this cost that you’re talking about?
Well, that’s a good question…because on one hand you’d be right to pose it. It is true that we are saved from our sinful nature…rescued from the power of sin and death only by the grace of God. It is a free gift…offered freely to each and every one of us through Jesus death on the cross.
But discipleship still comes with a cost. Anyone how does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even life itself…cannot be my disciple.  (pause) Has Jesus ever come between you and someone you care about? Think about it…think back over your life as a believer…has someone ever opposed you…or have you butted heads with someone…disagreed over your behavior or your attitude or your opinion because it has been shaped by Christ?
Believe me, it happens…and sometimes those we care about most in the world…hinder us to following Christ…but he asks us to put them aside. Can we really do that or will we deny him? (pause)
Discipleship comes with a cost.  Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me…cannot be my disciple. (pause) In Jesus day, crucifixion was common…painfully common…and the sight of some condemned criminal, carrying their own cross to the place of their execution happened all the time…but times have changed right? We don’t see that sort of thing…so what does this mean for us today?
Well, crucifixion was a civil punishment…handed out by the government…So is Jesus telling us that we can expect legal troubles simply for being a believer? Maybe so…perhaps this is a difficult thing to understand today. After all, we live in a country where we can express religious freedom…and following Christ isn’t illegal…but unfortunately that’s not the case everywhere…and in countless places around the globe believers are arrested, imprisoned, and still today, killed for their beliefs…are we ready to do that…to endure that? Or will we deny him? (pause)
If you do not give up your possessions…everything that you have…even your very life…you cannot be my disciple. (pause) This one is pretty obvious…Jesus is asking us to give up everything…EVERYTHING. Our material possessions…our homes…our health…our families…our lives…everything becomes secondary to following Christ. Can we do that? Are we willing to sacrifice absolutely everything to follow this man?  Or will we deny him? (pause)
I have found myself wondering this week, how the people in the crowd…that mixed batch of people from every walk of life…responded when they heard this.  Had they counted the cost…the true cost of discipleship?  Or were they just following him around, hoping to be receive some miracle?
It kinda makes you wonder how many people left…and how if there were any crowds left by the time they made it to Jerusalem, Jesus’ final destination…and actually, we can answer that question…A careful look at the original language in the story of the Triumphal Entry shows us that only a select handful of people…those that were familiar with Jesus, were still with him. This is very likely limited to the 12 disciples and a few select others that remained by his side.
And so now we ask ourselves…have we counted the cost…are we willing to sacrifice everything for Christ? Are we really willing to do that? Family…liberty…possessions…Everything? I don’t know about you…but that seems pretty daunting…in fact…as I sit here thinking about it…it seems downright impossible…impossible to deny all of that…all the time…for Christ.
And when we think about that, perhaps it comes as no great shock that the crowds abandoned him. Perhaps its no great shock that the multitudes were pared down a select few…the disciples and a couple extra people. (pause)
But it doesn’t stop there…because the disciples…his closest friends…individuals that Jesus considered closer than his own mother and brothers…they left him too…But what if we go even farther than that…what if we take it down to the leader…what about Peter…you remember him…the chief disciple…when we read between the lines we know he was really the head guy of Jesus’ crew right?  Think about Jesus’ own words. You will be called Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. 
Peter…the first pope for crying out loud…at least he made the hard choice right? Of course…Peter even said it. “Lord I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” (pause) Peter expresses faith…at least he thinks he does…but how does Jesus respond? (pause) “Peter, the rooster will not crow this day until you have denied me three times”
And we all know that its true…Peter denies Christ three times…3 times he turns his back on Christ…Peter himself…the greatest of the disciples…even he can’t do it.
So what are we supposed to do? Is there anything we can do? Can we truly pay the cost of being a disciple of Christ? Can we work out that puzzle…if we try hard enough…give it enough effort…if we’re just patient enough, will all the pieces fall into place?
Well, no. It would seem that its impossible for us…and you know what…it is. Even Jesus says so…when we cry out Lord this is impossible? Who can be saved? Jesus replies “What is impossible for mortals…is possible…for God.”
But rest assured…when God does the impossible in your life…you will be changed…the old you will be no more…and with that new reality…a reality freed from the powers of sin and death comes difficulties…and sometimes those difficult times mean sacrifice on our part…and sacrifice is never easy. I won’t give you false hope that it is.
So know this…if you’re gonna be a disciple of Christ then you better want it…and you’ve got to want it bad…because while salvation is free, it does come with a cost…
And I can’t stand up here today and tell you what that cost is going to be…because God leads us all down a different path…and God asks different things of all of us…and we all face different opposition but I will tell you this…its gonna happen. Ready or not…following Christ will cost you…but rest assured that one day…one glorious day…Jesus will be standing before you…and he will look you in the eye…wrap you in his arms that were once stretched out over a cross for you…and he will say to you… today, you will be with me in paradise. Amen

Who Is the Church For

Here is my sermon for Sunday September 1st in both text and audio form. The gospel lesson for the week is Luke 14: 1,7-14. Jesus instructs us to invite those that have no way of repaying us.

Hear the sermon here:
http://soundcloud.com/revdalen/who-is-church-for-9-1-13

Here is the text file. As usual, disregard the strange punctuation and the indications to pause. I’ve gotta remind myself of that somehow.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…Amen
Several different times over the course of the past two months, I’ve had the opportunity to show people around the church…most recently, just last Sunday when Bishop Prois from the Western Iowa Synod was here to preach and preside over my installation as pastor.
Each and every time I’ve shown people around, they have expressed wonder at the beauty of our church, and particularly our sanctuary. Go ahead, take a look around. (pause) The walls are nicely painted, the plush carpet and pew cushions add color. The ceiling is wonderfully stained woodwork. We have very fine examples of wood carving along the walls. The alter is beautiful…truly, we have a sanctuary worth being proud of…worth inviting people in to see.
Our church is a place that we are excited to show off. We love to invite people in…and we love to play host to them…well, most of the time anyway.
A week ago, I bumped into one of those times where I wasn’t quite so excited to be the host…and the invitation, felt a little forced.  A week ago Friday, I got the phone call that I was dreading. The phone call that I knew was going to happen sooner or later.
I was sitting in my office, and when I picked up the phone, I was greeted, very enthusiastically, by an individual that was stranded in Underwood along with his wife…and he was looking for help. As he explained his situation to me over the phone…I experienced a single emotion…panic…
How could I help this guy? What could I do? (pause) On one hand, I felt like I needed to offer some sort of assistance, but on the other hand, we know that we need to be careful in situations such as this, and I was hesitant to involve the church…and in what was likely the first of many epic fails in my ministry…I stalled. I had the guy’s phone number and I told him I would call him back.
I spent the next hour or so trying to contact community service organizations…thinking that if I could just find the right contact person, I could call him back with a phone number…and I could pull myself out of the situation having helped…but without having to do very much.
It didn’t work…try as I might I couldn’t connect with anyone that could offer this guy the help he needed…and I knew that after he ate the lunch that a kindly stranger had been nice enough to buy, that he and his wife would be walking over to the church, hoping that I would be able to help them out in some way.
In the end, that’s exactly what happened. They came to the church…they came in my office…told me their story once again…and when it got right down to it, I couldn’t turn them away. I gave them a ride out to the Underwood Motel next to I-80, and I paid for a room for them for the night.
We ended up in the office of the motel, having a conversation with the manager, and in the midst of that conversation, the man said to me. “Well pastor, I know where your church is now. If we’re ever coming through here on a Sunday, I’ll swing in for worship.” That was the end of the conversation, and he walked out of the office to his room. As I was driving back into town, I found myself praying for the man. Praying that the ride that was supposed to be coming his way the next morning would make it…and in my second epic pastor fail, praying that he wouldn’t still be around, come Sunday morning.
I found myself wondering what the response would be from all of us if he and his wife walked into the church for worship in their unwashed clothes and slightly uncivilized manor…and I found myself wondering what the Bishop would think, and if it would mess up his first impression of our church.
Admittedly, not my finest moment, and as your pastor I ask for your forgiveness for harboring a very non-pastoral attitude, even if I didn’t express that attitude in the face of man.
But regardless of how that situation played out, it does raise the question…just who are we willing to invite into our church? That seems to be the question that Jesus is discussing in today’s Gospel lesson…and it’s a question that I’ve been pondering on a lot in the last week…Just who is church really for?
One of the activities that has been going on recently has been cottage meetings. I’ve met with quite a few of you already, and one of the things that we’ve talked about has been how you as individuals came to Underwood Lutheran in the first place.  Many of you were born and raised here…but many of you also came into the church as an outsider and almost unanimously I’ve heard these individuals comment that they were enthusiastically welcomed into the church…welcomed into worship…and welcomed into the congregation…As a newcomer myself, I can also offer that reaction.
But what if I was a different person? What if I wasn’t Pastor Scott…and I didn’t have a suit on? What if I was homeless…and hadn’t had a bath in awhile…what if I was scruffy…and my clothes were rumbled and dirty from constant wear without being cleaned? Would I still be welcomed? Would I still be fawned over?  Would I have been invited, last Sunday following worship, to walk downstairs and share in the fabulous meal put on by several of our church ladies? Would church…be for me then?
In today’s story, Jesus is sitting at a banquet…he’s a guest…but the way he takes over the scene, leading the conversation…you’d think he was the host of the gathering…but then, that’s how Jesus tends to operate. Especially in Luke’s gospel, we often see Jesus, gathering around a table to eat and drink and be merry with the people that he’s interacting with…and it irritates some people.
Jesus is called a glutton and a drunkard…apparently when he hits the tailgate party…he likes to eat a lot and have a few cold ones…hmmm, I’ve got those same tendencies myself…anyone else?
But apparently that’s not Jesus’ only problem when it comes to hosting a party. His guest list also seems to be suspect. He eats with sinners…he welcomes the unwelcomed…and here in today’s story, he tells us to do the exact same thing.
“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you.” Perhaps at first glance, this seems easy to absorb. Of course, Jesus is telling us to care for the poor. That’s a no brainer…until we think about it…or until we’re faced with it…and in situations just like I faced last week…how often to do we follow through with the invitation…how often do we really care for these people that Jesus himself cares so passionately about?
Well perhaps we fool ourselves into thinking that it doesn’t really apply to us. Maybe we are helpful when faced with a situation of someone in need…but we don’t go looking for it when we aren’t faced with it. Does that count? Is our attitude good enough. Well, it would seem here, that Jesus is telling us no…its not good enough.
Because Jesus instructs us to go out and invite the undesirables…the ones that have nothing to offer back to us. (pause)
And so I pose this question to you. Who are the undesirables? Who is the church for? (pause)
Perhaps its easy to sit and think…us…its for all of us…well no…sorry…the church is not here for you…because when we think about it for a moment, we remember that we ARE the church. WE ARE the body of Christ on Earth…and as such, we have something to offer. And that thing that we have to offer is the invitation to the other that Jesus is talking about.
Each and every one of us as a member of the body of Christ is called to go out into the world and invite those that have nothing to offer, just as we were once invited…because you know what…at one time or another, you were the outsider…you were the other who had nothing to offer the host of the banquet…and I’m not talking about some fancy dinner party here…but rather I’m talking about the host of the heavenly banquet. God himself.
We have been invited, by God himself, into eternity…into life ever lasting…into the heavenly party that is beyond all of our understanding…but we have no way of paying the entry fee…none of us do…but God invited us anyway. Broken as we are, dirty as we may be…sinful as we are, with nothing to offer our host beyond our gratitude were still invited by Jesus Christ into that banquet. Each and every one of you, when you were named and claimed by God in baptism was invited….You were the poor….you were the crippled…you were the lame…and you were the blind…but you were still invited.
And that, my friends, is what we are called to do. Not only to, quite literally, invite everyone to come and see…to come and hear this good news of Jesus Christ…but also to be the hands and feet of our Lord here on Earth. We are the body of Christ….WE…ARE…THE CHURCH. It’s not here for us…It IS…US.
But as I raise that point I also feel the question coming on, “So what do we do with that?” Do we need to go out and find the homeless and bring them to Underwood Lutheran? Do we need to empty the church bank accounts to feed the hungry or stock the local food banks? Is that what we’re supposed to do?
Well, to be perfectly honest…I don’t know? I don’t know what God is calling each of you to do…but I do know this…God’s going to bring the uninvited into your path…so how are you going to respond to that situation?
Are you going to brush it off…or are you going to take a long look at that person…and see them as God sees them…a beloved child of God…and someone who, just like you, has no way to repay our Heavenly Host for the banquet that has invited us all…into?  Amen