Archive for March, 2014

Remember That You Are Dust 3-5-14

The sermon for Ash Wednesday comes from 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10. In this sermon I tackle the subject of death, a common theme on Ash Wednesday.

You can listen to the sermon here.

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here. As usual, disregard the indications to pause and the odd punctuation.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…Amen.
Remember that you are dust…and to dust you shall return. We are all familiar with these words aren’t we? We hear them at least once a year on Ash Wednesday and as expected…we’ll each hear those same words spoken directly to us as individuals in a few minutes.
Have you ever wondered exactly where that phrase came from? I’ve heard various people try to explain it over the years, each focusing on the same central theme. God made Adam from the dust of the earth, forming him into a human being and then breathed life into him. Okay…fair enough I suppose.
But for a long time, that basic explanation just didn’t quite sit right with me. But then, in my early seminary days, I made a bit of an astonishing connection in one of my classes. It happened about week or so into my study of the Hebrew language. No admittedly, I don’t remember a lot of Hebrew. I’ve kidded around with the confirmation students as well as the high school students that Hebrew pretty much looks like chicken scratches and sounds like you are clearing your throat and that’s about all I recall from it…but in truth I do remember a few words and one of them stems from this realization that I had a few years back.
One of the vocabulary terms from that first week was the word ah-dam. Sounds familiar right?  As well it should. Ah-dam is the Hebrew pronunciation of Adam. But the important thing to note here is the root of the word. Ah-dam is taken from the Hebrew word ah-da-mah. Any idea what the translation of that word is? (pause…) That’s right. It means ground or land.
YES!!! Humanity was literally formed from the dust of the ground. So much that God named the first man…“Ground.” Certainly this was a light bulb moment for me. So students, remember that if you are ever grumbling about homework. It does pay off.
So, now we know where the first part of the phrase comes from. “Remember that you are dust…”  What about the second part? “And to dust you shall return.” I would think that it is quite obvious. If the first part of the statement refers our origin or birth if you prefer…then clearly the second part must refer to death.
Now is it just me, or is death a bit of a taboo subject? Something that people shy away from talking about? I know I’ve had times in my life when I shied away from the conversation. But I wonder why we avoid it. I’ve known people that don’t even like to say the word, preferring to say that a loved one is “gone” or has “passed away.” Maybe we’re hesitant to talk about it, because in the end, we are all afraid of it. Have you noticed that often in life, people will hesitate to talk about those things that scare them? They’d rather keep the conversation away from the scary stuff…because that way they don’t have to really think about it.
Tonight, I’m going to invite you to think about it. I’m going to invite you to come face to face with it. I’m going to ask you to close your eyes, and I’m going to tell you a story. I want you to picture this in your mind.
Imagine that it is a bright sunny day, 85 degrees and wonderful. You are standing on the shoreline of a lake. It’s the 4th of July. As you look around, what do you see? Boats everywhere, people everywhere. There is a family playing in the water. One of many groups of people on this beach. They are having a good time. As you watch this family, you notice one of the men looking out from the shoreline, out into the lake. He is looking out to the buoys floating a hundred yards off shore, boats floating nearby. That’s not so far out right? It wasn’t so long ago that he would could swim out and back twice over…no problem. Or so he thinks. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the man dives into the water and starts swimming out towards one of the buoys. He didn’t notice from the shoreline, but with all the boat traffic on the water, it’s choppy. He’s fighting the waves as he’s swimming. He’s doing okay, but is starting to strain much sooner than he expected. By the time he makes it to out the buoy, he is exhausted. Treading water isn’t an option…he grabs a hold of the buoy, pulls it down, drapes over it and floats there…thinking that he’ll rest for a bit before swimming back into shore.
The water has a different idea.
A big wave knocks him off the buoy after a few seconds…far too short of a time for him to get the rest that he needs, but he begins swimming back towards shore…he’s moving slowly, fighting the waves. He rolls over on his back, trying to float and rest his arms and legs, but the waves keep rolling over him. He’s fighting to stay on top of the water…just barely succeeding…he can’t swim anymore…panic sets in…he looks to the shore, but it seems to be miles away…he looks around at the boats moored nearby…he starts crying for help, but the people on the boats can’t hear him…panic is really setting in now…he’s totally exhausted. The man see’s death staring him in the face…and he is terrified. (pause)
I’m going to stop at that point. Go ahead and open your eyes.
Death has entered this story hasn’t it?  That word that scares us so much. That word that we are often too scared to say out load. Well I’m going to say it again.
It’s real isn’t it?
Yes my friends, death is a reality that we must all face. At one time or another. From the moment that we enter this life as a baby, kicking and screaming we owe the universe 1 death. It’s unavoidable.  Death and taxes…the only two things that are sure in this world. My grandfather was fond of saying that very thing before his own death a few years ago.
So if it is a reality for each and every person…WHY ARE WE ALL SO AFRAID OF IT?
A few years ago, Max Lucado published a book called “Fearless.” In the book he shares a few quotations aimed at this very question. I’d like to share a few of them with you…Aristotle called death the thing to be feared most because it appears to be the end of everything. Jean-Paul Sartre asserted that death removes all meaning from life. Robert Green Ingersoll, an outspoken agnostic said life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities.
Certainly this paints a very bleak picture of the end of life doesn’t it. Unfortunately, in our scripture lesson for tonight the Apostle Paul doesn’t exactly paint an optimistic picture of life either. He discusses his life serving God as filled with afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, sleepless nights, and hunger.
However, Paul goes on. He doesn’t stop there. Listen to these words.  We are treated as imposters…AND YET ARE TRUE. As unknown…AND YET ARE WELL KNOWN. As dying…AND SEE WE ARE ALIVE.  As punished…AND YET NOT KILLED. As poor…YET MAKING MANY RICH. As having nothing…AND YET…POCESSESING EVERYTHING.
Yes, Paul speaks of hardships in life. He is even known to speak of death within the many books of the Bible that he is responsible for writing. But the difference between Paul and the “scholars” that Lucado quoted in his book is the eternal. Those men, each considered to be brilliant thinkers, failed to wrap their heads around one simple fact about death.
This life is not the only thing that is in store for you. Death…is not the stopping point of your existence. Paul knew it. He not only knew it he believed in it with every atom of his being…and he preached it everywhere he went. He said “Because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.”
Jesus was born…just like us…Jesus died…just as each and every one of us will one day do. BUT JESUS…CAME…BACK.
Where oh death, is your victory…Where, oh death, is your sting?
These are famous words, also written by Paul, highlight a crucial fact. Death is real…he doesn’t deny it. But he does tell us that we have nothing to fear in it.
When Jesus defeated death, He created the bridge for us. Jesus reaches across the void which we cannot cross, takes us by the hand, and brings us into eternity.
When we realize that Jesus lived and died for this purpose, we begin to understand the journey of Lent that we embark on tonight. Lent is a season of preparation.  Preparation for the death of Jesus. 40 days from now, it happens. But three days later…HE COMES BACK. Jesus…comes…back…for…us.
I’d like to return to the story that I began a few minutes ago. There was another character that I didn’t mention before. A second man swam out to the buoy as well. He was in better shape and had no trouble swimming out. When the wave knocked them both off the bouy, he swam back towards the shoreline unhindered. But when the first man began to flounder, he was still nearby.
If you’re wondering, this actually happened. I was the first man…the man that was floundering. But my brother in law was there too. When I was in trouble, I cried out, and he was there. He came back for me. He took me by the hand and brought me where I could not go alone…He brought me back to the shoreline and I was still alive.
I cannot think of this story without thinking of the story of Peter walking on the water. Do you remember that story. Everything was going fine for awhile, but then Peter started sinking. In his fear…in his panic…he did the only thing he could think to do. He cried out “LORD SAVE ME.” And at that moment, Jesus reached down, took him by the hand, and raised him up where he could not go alone.
It is true, that Peter was afraid. I was afraid too. In the Fearless book Lucado talks about accepting death without fear. He says that we can do so because we are assured in our salvation and eternal life in Jesus Christ. He knows that Jesus comes back for us.
As we travel through this season of Lent, remember that you are all swimming in the lake of sinfulness. At some point, the waves are going to start crashing over you and your arms and legs will be too tired to keep your head above water. You can cry out to Jesus. “Lord save me…save me from sin and eternal death.” This is the simple act of repentance. Crying out “I can’t do this on my own…Lord I need you to save me.”
Then know this…Jesus will take you by the hand, raise you up, and will bring you where you cannot go.
Remember that you are dust…and to dust you shall return…but remember…Jesus…comes…back…for you. Amen.

Confirmation Questions 3-2-14

The sermon from last Sunday came from Matthew 17:1-9 and was based on the Transfiguration of Jesus. You can find that sermon here.

The confirmation students raised several great questions on their sermon notes, that I will attempt to address here.

Note: this first question was actually not finished on the sheet turned in by the student, but I believe this is what was being asked.
-Why didn’t Jesus want the disciples [to tell anyone what had happened]?
This is a great question, and honestly one that I’ve pondered on many different times. It is very common, particularly in Mark’s Gospel, for Jesus to perform a healing for an individual and then instruct them not to tell anyone about it, but there’s never really a good indication of why. Different scholars speculate that Jesus didn’t want the crowds chasing him around simply to acquire healing from him, but rather that people would follow him because they desired to grow closer to God through him. Other notions are that by telling people not to say anything, he’s actually appealing to the human tendency to be bad at keeping secrets, and therefore they would go out and tell everyone what would happen. Regardless of what the scholars propose, the honest answer is that we just don’t know.  The only real clue that we get here is Jesus own statement not to tell anyone what had happened until after he had been raised from the dead.  Perhaps Jesus was still hesitant to reveal his divine nature to the world, I don’t really know. But it seems that he didn’t want people knowing about this moment until his true identity was revealed through his resurrection. Why that is, I can’t tell you.  And perhaps, this is why he only invited the three disciples to go with him, rather than allow all 12 men to see it.  Admittedly, I’ve thrown a lot of my own speculation your direction on this one now. I’ll wrap it up by stating again, this is a great question, and one that I’ve pondered on a great deal myself.
-What is Zion? (this question was raised based on the responsive reading from Psalm 99 earlier in the service)
Great question. Sometimes this word comes up in our readings and its easy to gloss over it without thinking about it. Zion is a name for the mountain (or at least large hill) that Jerusalem is built on. I’ve never been to the Holy Land, so I don’t know if the “mountains” around Jerusalem are like the Rockies, or maybe more like the Appalachians, or perhaps just big hills. But regardless of my lack of descriptors, that’s what Zion is. It is a holy mountain where Jerusalem stands, and is where David established the seat (capital) of the Jewish Kingdom. Next to Zion is the Mount of Olives, which is a common location to hear about in the Gospels, particularly in the later portions of each Gospel when Jesus is in Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives is literally right across a valley, only a mile or two away from the city.

Be Risen 3-2-14

Today’s sermon comes from Matthew 17:1-9, which is the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration on the mountain. In the sermon I tackle the notion that Jesus invites us into many different things, and usually they end up scary…but through all of the scary situations, Jesus is always with us and lifts us up, telling us not to be afraid.

You can listen to the sermon her.

You can also read along with the text of the sermon here. As usual, disregard the indications to pause and the odd punctuations. There are also a few spots where I went off script, but don’t worry, I come back in pretty quick.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father…and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…Amen.
Being a farm kid, I’ve seen countless examples of some random item serving more than one purpose. Whenever something would break, my dad would rig up something to fix it…One example that really comes to mind was a time when the handle on our lawn mower broke. Dad took one look at it, walked into the shed, found a short length of iron pipe…and the next thing I knew…he had somehow fashioned that old water pipe into a connection for the handle of the lawn mower…and rather than have to go to the store and buy a new one, he pointed me back towards the lawn and said…Go on…finish up.
Have you ever seen something like that? Some random things that ends up serving more than one purpose…some random thing that ends up filling a role that you never expected or realized? (pause)
I can think of another one too…one that’s a little more current than a broken lawn mower 20 years ago…and its right across the parking lot. In the kitchen over in the parsonage, the refrigerator serves 2 important functions. The first is obvious…to keep food cold…but the second one is a little different. You see, in my house, the fridge is a communication center…It is littered with all kinds of important information. This information includes class information for the two kids, various photographs, weekly spelling lists, hand drawn masterpieces, and most recently…a wedding invitation for one of my colleagues who was just married yesterday.
There’s something special about being invited…isn’t there? It implies that the other person desires your company…they want you to be with them…to accompany them in some special experience…an experience that is so special, it needs to be shared.
There is an invitation in our Gospel for today. Jesus has invited Peter, James, and John to accompany him up the mountain. That raises the question…Did Jesus know what was about to happen? Perhaps…most likely even, but I’m guessing that the disciples were very likely unaware of what they were about to experience as they accepted the invitation and followed Jesus up the mountain that day.
Now this is a common theme within Matthew’s Gospel…particularly in terms of these three disciples. Jesus invites, they follow. For example, think back to the initial call of these three guys. Simple fishermen, just hanging out on the shores of the sea, when along comes Jesus who simply asks them “Follow me.” A simple invitation, and these three men along with Peter’s brother Andrew, accept the invitation. Do you think they really knew what they were getting into that day? (pause)
If we fast forward through Matthew, we see another situation. In this case, the disciples are in the boat in the middle of the night rowing across the sea…and we know its kind of stormy. In the midst of everything, Jesus comes towards them…walking across the water. Now, Peter…ever the excited or downright impulsive one…asks if he can come to Jesus…and Jesus, once again, extends an invitation. “Come.”
Now Peter thinks this is going to be amazing. He steps out of the boat…He’s doing it…he’s walking on the water…but all of the sudden, the truth of his situation dawns on him…fear creeps in along with doubt…the reality is terrifying and he starts to sink…but Jesus is there to lift him up again. Jesus is there.
Later on, towards the end of Matthew’s Gospel…Jesus offers an invitation to the same three disciples once again. Peter…James…John…come with me into the garden…Pray with me this night. They accept…not thinking that there will be any trouble…not realizing that Jesus has spoken of this time…that his passion is about to begin…and they follow along, so unaware of anything unexpected happening that they all three konk out…but once again…reality becomes much scarier than they had anticipated…and in the face of opposition, they run away from Jesus, who has been there with them the whole time.
Over and over again, we see examples of Jesus offering an invitation. Each and every time, the disciples accept the invitation. Now, perhaps they have expectations of what may happen each time Jesus invites them…maybe each time Peter pulls out the daily disciple itinerary and checks to see what God’s got up his sleeve…Let’s see Thursday evening…accompany Jesus to the garden for a time of prayer…encounter Judas and whole crowd of soldiers…Jesus arrested and soon to be killed…check…sounds good Jesus, let’s go.
Or perhaps not. Maybe these guys are just content to go along for the ride with Jesus. But regardless of what they may or may not expect…the reality is never what they expected. It’s a whole lot scarier.
We see this again in our lesson for today. The three men follow Jesus up the mountain and something extraordinary happens. Jesus is transfigured. Now, exactly what that means, we don’t really know, but it would seem that his divine nature is shining through the human nature. At this moment, both aspects of Jesus are visually present.
At first, the men seem to reveal in this vision. Peter, again the impulsive one, cannot hold his excitement and blurts out. “Jesus, this is wonderful…can we stay with you.” (pause) But then God…shows…up.
Peter, James, and John…good Jewish men that they were…finally recognized the significance. God is here…they are in the presence of the great I Am…like Moses did before them, they fell on their faces on the ground…terrified to the point of death.
When God shows up, it’s a scary deal. And maybe for these three guys on this day its even scarier than normal…because in this moment, having seen the divine nature of Jesus…in realizing the truth about just who he is…maybe they’re realizing that the guy they’ve been following isn’t just the son of God…but this…is…God…this is the one that Moses cowered in fear from…this is the one that drives them to ground in terror…and they’ve been casually walking around with him…joking with him…interacting with him.
And that’s a scary notion…to realize that God…the unfathomable God…this great being who is so far beyond our understanding or even capability to understand has become human…that the God who could in any moment snap his fingers and end our existence if he chose to was right here with you…as one of you…that’s a scary realization when you realize that the maker of the entire universe and everything in it is standing right next to you. (pause)
Have you ever had an experience like this? As I look around the room, I would expect some of you to say yes. Think about it…think about the time when you realized that God truly became a man…not some myth…not a burning bush…not just a voice booming out of the clouds…but that God became a person…and walked around…and not only that, but that this person…this Jesus…this tangible form of God…has invited you into something. (pause)
Now Jesus invites us into a lot of things…first of all, he’s inviting us into relationship…relationship with him…and through him, remembering that we are in relationship with God.  But the invitation of Jesus isn’t limited to that…sometimes…probably more often than we realize…Jesus invites us into some sort of specific experience…and while we might think we know what to expect…just like Peter, James, and John, we quickly discover that God’s got much bigger expectations than we do…and it often gets scary.
Now, for some of you sitting out there today…I know that you are facing some scary situations…that God is inviting you into a situation and you don’t know quite what will happen when He shows up…for some it might be the potential for a job change and the unknowns that come along with it…for others, its to walk the unknown road that follows a tough diagnosis when the ending sounds pretty bleak…and for others of you, most likely all of you…God is inviting you into something that might turn out pretty scary at times…because we all go through that.
And we don’t just go through it as individuals…but the church is going through it too…individual congregations go through it and the entire church is going through it. God is inviting the church as a whole, and our church of Underwood Lutheran to join him in becoming something new in our present reality…the church has been walking this road for a long time now…and we are here on the road as well.
Now I won’t stand up before you today pretending to know what God’s really got planned…that would incredibly arrogant for me say, but I do believe that God is leading us into becoming something new…the church is going to look different in the future…because the ways of spreading information are changing dramatically every day…but the message remains the same…
The church is the place where the gospel is proclaimed, the sacraments are shared, and absolution is offered…that’s the church…but I think we all know that old environment in which those three things were done is changing…and the audience for the gospel is changing…and the method of reaching the audience is changing…the church, contrary to popular belief…isn’t dying…like Jesus being transfigured on the mountain, its simply becoming something new.
But that’s scary to think about isn’t it?  Its scary to realize that God is inviting us to become something new…especially because we really don’t know what that looks like…we only know that we are here now…and that we have a God who is too amazing to hold onto…and that we have a God who will not be confined within these four walls…and that we have a God who is already out there…inviting us to come along on the journey.
It is my hope that we each accepted that invitation…and if you are anything like me…if your experience is anything like mine…Jesus…God… is scaring your socks off. Sometimes he leads us into places that we don’t want to go…we may think that we do, but once we are there…once we are in the midst and God shows up…the realty is terrifying for us.
But that being said…there’s one more part of our gospel story. Peter, James, and John are lying on the ground…terrified that they are about to die…but Jesus is with them. Throughout every terrifying experience that they have had…Jesus is with them…God…is with them. Perhaps this is why Matthew calls Jesus Emmanuel…God with us…because in each and every situation…terrifying though it may be…He is there…Jesus will touch you on the shoulder and tell you…Rise Up…and Do Not Fear.
And you know what…that word Rise up…Get Up…Be Resurrected…its not something that we do ourselves…Jesus lifted those three men up when he touch them…he gave them the courage to be raised from their fear…just as he himself was raised from the dead…it’s the same word…and we share it…in the midst of our fear, both the fears that we realize right now and the fear that will show up as we walk the road that God invites us on…God tells us to BE RAISED UP…resurrect as something new…We are not alone…scary though it may be to walk the unknown road into the unknown future, we have a God who has already been here…and who is still here…who lifts us up…So do not fear…Amen