Archive for April, 2014

Its Okay to Doubt 4-27-14

In this sermon, based on the story of Doubting Thomas in John 20, I explore the tension of living with doubt. Thomas felt this for a week before Jesus appeared to him. Likewise, we experience it as well.

You can listen to 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 Risen Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen

One year ago…to the exact day…I woke up in Sioux City. As the single seminary graduate to be assigned to the Western Iowa Synod, I was present at synod assembly as a guest to be introduced. In addition, I was invited to sit in on assembly business in the plenary sessions for the duration of the assembly.

As the morning passed, we all walked into a ball room at the Sioux City convention center for lunch, and I was invited to sit at a table along with the synods other “first call pastors.” As we sat there conversing, we were joined by the ELCA’s big cheese. You may remember that a year ago, Western Iowa elected a new bishop, and as is the custom, the presiding Bishop of the ELCA is on hand for these elections…and so, in his wisdom, our former Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, a man I’ve had the privilege of meeting a few times…chose to sit with us.

Following lunch, the plan was for Emily and I to jump in the car and head south…because my interview with the call committee of Underwood Lutheran was scheduled for late that afternoon. Upon hearing this in conversation, Bishop Hanson made the joke “Oh, first call interview huh? Let’s grill him folks…get him ready for it.” (pause) What better way to prepare…while at the same time getting extraordinarily nervy…than to have the Presiding Bishop of the largest Lutheran church body in the United States give you a mock interview.

Be that as it may, Emily and I followed our plan for the day, and after lunch we headed this way…and we spent the next 2 hours in the car going back and forth, discussing various things…but both of us clearly exhibiting nervous energy. (pause) And perhaps this is not unexpected…after all, it was my first call interview…not just with Underwood, but anywhere. This was the only congregation that I was in conversation with…but it was in a relatively unknown corner of an area, that while I’m familiar with, I was completely foreign to this particular small town…might as well have been on the moon…because other than a destination on mapquest, and a final location on the gps, the only other exposure I’d had to Underwood Lutheran was a blurry picture on Google Earth…and a couple of phone conversations with Gary Leaders…not a lot to go on.

As the time passed in the car, its safe to say that we were both getting more and more nervous…and it escalated when we pulled off 680 up by Neola, and drove south the 6 or 7 miles on Railroad highway…the tension was palpable as we rounded the curve about a mile or so north of town…it got even worse as we caught the first glimpse of the church from about half a mile away…and peaked as we pulled into the parking lot.

We sat there for a brief moment, looking around…and surveying the cars in the parking lot…no doubt members of the call committee…and just as we were taking a deep breath before reaching for the door handles, I noticed…and joked that there was car on the south side of the church that supports Iowa State…Joyce Tiarks I’m guessing…while on the north side was Nancy Dose’s car…clearly a Hawkeye fan…and we saw that Underwood is a “community divided.” (pause) You never know what will break the tension do you? After that, we walked up the sidewalk, through the front doors where Gary Leader’s greeted us, and we headed down into the fellowship hall for my interview…the rest, as they say, is history.

But for a long time, both on that particular day as well as quite a bit of time leading up to it…we were living in the tension…the tension of unknowns…the tension of questions to which there were not yet answers. And it is in remembering this tension that I found a connection to today’s Gospel story.

Now in a bit of an odd situation, today’s Gospel story includes the passage of time. Typically, our daily lesson includes one particular story, which marks a single action in the story of Jesus…but today…time passes…did anyone catch that?

We start off on Easter Sunday…the day that Jesus has risen from the dead. Now directly before this passage, Jesus has appeared to Mary Magdalene, conversed with her for short amount of time, and then she has found the disciples to report what happened…that was in the morning…and now we pick up that evening…so if you would…imagine that we are a week ago…and the disciples…minus Judas who is gone by this point…and Thomas who is simply absent for reasons that we don’t know…They are gathered in a room behind locked doors out of fear…fear that they would share Jesus’ fate…and perhaps, due to Mary’s confession of the risen Lord, afraid that Jesus might not be overly happy with them…having abandoned him to his fate a few days prior.

And yet…Jesus is able to pass the locked doors, and is suddenly standing among them…quieting their fears…Peace be with you…you do not need to be afraid of me…I am neither angry with you, nor am I a ghost…look, see my hands and my side…I was dead…but I am dead longer…and with this he breathes upon them…and the Spirit of God…the Holy Spirit itself comes upon them.

But Thomas…dear old Thomas…missed the party…and though he hears about it…seemingly later that evening after Jesus has departed again…he falls short in believing the testimony given to him. And so Thomas gets saddled with the nickname that has stuck with him for 2000 years…Doubting Thomas. (pause)

Its almost funny for us now…2000 years later, knowing the story…knowing what we know…believing what we believe…its almost laughable to think that one of Jesus’ own disciples would fail to believe the testimony of both Mary Magdalene and the other disciples…and yet we hear his famous words…Unless I see the marks of the nails, put my finger in them, and put my hand in his side…I…WILL…NOT…BELIEVE.

And Thomas lives in that tension…that lack of knowledge…that lack of belief…with all the questions that come with it…for an entire week…and so, now, in the second half of today’s story, we’ve finally caught up with the timeline. The first part happened a week ago…but the second part…happens today…right now…because as we hear…a week later the disciples were again in the house…and Thomas was with them…when once again, Jesus passes through the locked doors with the same greeting. Peace be with you…don’t be afraid. (pause)

And then…Jesus…turns his eyes towards Thomas. (pause) Now think about Thomas for a moment…think about the tension that he’s been living in for the past week…perhaps you can relate to it. A week ago we gathered together and heard the proclamation…even shared in the proclamation that JESUS IS RISEN FROM THE DEAD! But…has anyone physically seen him? (pause)

Interesting…and in that my friends, you share something with Thomas the proverbial doubter…because Thomas had not yet seen Jesus, only heard that he was alive…what on earth must have been going through his head during those 7 days? (pause)

Maybe I missed my only chance to see the Lord…Maybe he’s unhappy with me which is why he appeared when I wasn’t there…Maybe I’m not worthy of him…or maybe…just maybe, the thought went through his mind that Jesus…didn’t really…rise from the dead after all.

Ever had that thought? Even for a brief moment? Ever experienced the doubt that…since you haven’t physically seen him…maybe, just maybe the stories aren’t really true? (pause) If you answer those questions with a no…then I’m jealous…because the tension of the unknowns…the questions of “is it all real or just a nice story,” I think they catch of us at one time or another.

Doubt happens…and if you deny that…I’m calling you out on it…because its in our natures to want proof…we want physical evidence…just like Thomas…and you know what…I’m going on record right here and right now as saying…that’s not a bad thing. (pause)

Because it’s a human thing…and especially when we are looking at matters of faith…we all experience the occasional crisis of doubt…the experience of questions…we all do…and its not a bad thing to admit it…it doesn’t make you a bad person…it doesn’t make you less of a Christian…and it doesn’t make you unworthy to walk through these doors and come into worship with fellow believers. (pause)

Because in today’s lesson Jesus himself puts this to rest…In what may, at first glance, seem like a rebuke for Thomas, Jesus says these words “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (pause) And Jesus makes this statement in response to Thomas’ expression of faith…Thomas calls Jesus “My Lord and My God.” And he does so without actually touching him…Thomas doesn’t place his fingers in the holes or his hand in Jesus’ side…he merely experiences Jesus and declares him Lord, which you may recall from a few weeks ago is the name God gives Christ, the name above all other names…Lord.

Thomas…though he has lived in the tension and doubt for the last week, has come to faith and Jesus acknowledges it…just as Jesus acknowledges everyone else who comes to faith…calling them blessed…blessed are those who have come to believe…having not seen.

What I believe Jesus is really saying here is that there are a multitude of ways to come to faith in Christ as Lord. For some, its by seeing him…Thomas wasn’t the only one…the disciples and Mary all saw him before expressing their faith in him. Others believed because of what they heard proclaimed to them. (pause) Jesus isn’t rebuking Thomas here…he’s just acknowledging the blessing that we receive when we come to faith through hearing the proclamation…and that faith meets us in the midst of our doubts and questions.

And let me also go on record to say that faith doesn’t erase these questions…they still occur and I believe that God himself desires for us to ask them…he desires that we ask them of each other and that we ask them of him…and we are not condemned for this…we are only encouraged to believe that Jesus is Lord…and in that belief, even with the presence of questions, our sin is no more.

And so, we share in the mission given to the disciples when Jesus says that if you retain the sins of any they are retained. But make no mistake, Jesus isn’t placing the judgment of sins in our laps, because we aren’t worthy of that…rather, Jesus is instructing us to go out and proclaim that Jesus has risen from the dead, and because of his sacrifice our sin is no more…people can’t believe it if they don’t hear it…and Jesus is telling us that by failing to proclaim this amazing truth, we are holding them in sin.

And so today…a year after I walked into Underwood Lutheran for the first time…it is my hope and prayer that this is a place where we do not condemn questions…it is my hope and prayer that this is a place where together we can live in the tension and the questions and the doubt that is a life of faith in what we have heard, but what we have not ourselves…seen.

Thomas may have been a doubter…and you know what…I’ll claim that too…I’ll claim my doubts and my questions and my fears…and I’ll acknowledge yours…but I darn sure won’t condemn you for them…and it is my hope and prayer that you take the same stance…acknowledging your own doubts and questions…while at the same time rejoicing in your own belief in our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

He Is Not Dead (Easter Sunday) 4-20-14

This sermon comes from Matthew 28:1-10. This is the story of Jesus’ resurrection. You can listen to the sermon here:

You can follow along with the text of the sermon here. As usual, disregard the indicators to pause and the weird punctuation.

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

Just out of curiosity, how many people out there are Star Trek fans? (pause) Oh come on now…don’t be shy…embrace your geek status…who are the fans?

I have been a Star Trek fan for a long time…and there is A LOT to be a fan of in the Star Trek universe. First popularized on tv with the original series back in the 60’s. Rebooted with multiple different tv series…5 to be exact…continued on through 6 movies with the original crew, 1 cross over movie between two different series, 3 more movies with the new cast…and most recently, rebooted…yet again…with a new cast playing the same old characters.

And not only that…but characters just keep getting second chances as well. First Spock, everyone’s favorite Vulcan who was killed off in Star Trek 2 only to resurface and come back to life in Star Trek 3. The same sort of thing has happened with other minor or secondary characters throughout the various iterations…and most recently, even the famous Captain James…T…Kirk was killed off towards the end of the newest movie…only to be miraculously brought back to life in the closing moments of the film.

But with all these different ways of killing off characters and closing out various series or movie timelines within the Star Trek universe…I find myself reminded of everyone’s favorite science fiction physician…Doctor Leonard McCoy…and one of his famous catch phrases…Whenever there’s a medical emergency in the shows or the movies and some secondary character get’s sacrificed for the sake of drama…Dr McCoy, or Bones as he’s commonly called…takes a quick look at the victim, only to turn his head towards the captain and utter in his gruff growl…He’s dead Jim.

Now perhaps it’s a little strange to even begin to consider a fictional character from the 24th century here during worship…but honestly, ever since our Good Friday service, I’ve been picturing the characters from Star Trek showing up in Jerusalem 2000 years ago, and witnessing the events that led up to Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross. And in true Star Trek fashion, when Jesus was taken down off that cross, I’ve been picturing Bones walking up to his body, taking a quick look…and then confirming…He’s dead Jim.

Make no mistake…on Good Friday…while hanging on that cross…Jesus Christ…Jesus of Nazareth…the Beloved only Begotten Son of God the father…God Himself in human form…died. (pause) He died, and he was in the tomb…buried from late Friday afternoon, through the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday, through the night and to the dawn on Sunday…the first day of the week.

And all Star Trek kidding aside, that is exactly where we pick up in today’s Gospel lesson…its dawn on Sunday…and we find Mary Magdalene and the other Mary…or Mary squared as I like to call them…heading towards the tomb with a heavy task in front of them…to complete the anointing of Jesus body which will remain in the tomb. There wasn’t time to do it before sundown on Friday when the Sabbath began…and it was forbidden during the Sabbath, so this was their first opportunity to do so.

Make no mistake…the two women weren’t expecting anything miraculous…because Jesus is dead. Its done…its over…but out of their love for him, they desire to honor him in death with a proper burial…they’ve waited…they’ve followed the rules…but now its time to complete the story of his life, by finishing up the details in his death…or so they think.

Now…let’s step away from the narrative for just a moment and think about this whole deal. Jesus is dead…no question about it…life has left his body…he is no more. And if that’s the case…then I could ask the question of just what are you doing here today? Sure he was a holy man…he was a great teacher…he was able to perform miraculous healings…even recalling people from death…but just like all the prophets before him…he died…period…end of story right? Jesus is dead…so what else is there to say? (pause)

But you know what…if that was case…then just what have people been talking about for the last 2000 years? Some holy man that had his 15 minutes of fame and then he died? Hardly seems worth the effort doesn’t it? Hardly seems like something of any passing interest within conversation…I mean, if he really is dead…right? (pause)

But is he? Coming back to the story it sure seems like it…it sure seems like he’s dead…right up until the point…where it doesn’t anymore. (pause) And as the two women approach the tomb…they experience and earthquake as an angel…bright as lighting splitting the sky on a dark night…appears and shoves the stone out of the way…even going so far as to sitting on it.

Surely this must have been terrifying to behold because the guards that are there, hit the ground like dead men…but not the women…as they stand trembling…trying to understand just what it is that they’re seeing…the angel speaks up with a statement that turns this whole dead Jesus thing right on its ear…I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified…come on Mr Angel…you might as well be saying I know you’re looking for a dead guy…BUT…He is not here. (pause)

Say what Mr Angel…what do you mean he’s not here…Jesus is dead…and this is where they laid him…we watched them push that big stone in front of the door and it hasn’t moved until just now when you shoved it over…so what you mean he’s not here. Where is he Mr Angel? (pause) Well ladies…that is an excellent question with a very simple answer…He is not here…for he…has…been…raised. (pause)

Jesus is not dead…hold on…can that really be? Jesus…is NOT…dead…he was dead…but now he’s not dead…well holy cow people…this is a big deal. Because like we said before…if Jesus is dead…then there just isn’t much to talk about is there? But if he’s not dead anymore…well that startles me…and it makes me want to perk up and pay attention…because you know what…if Jesus isn’t dead anymore, then that changes…everything. (pause)

But how can this be? Even if he predict it…He was dead…there’s no coming back from that…never has been before him…but it seems…that through Jesus…now there is…coming back from it…There is a way to come back from death…death it seems no longer has the last word…God does…So if Jesus isn’t dead anymore…well you know what…that really something…something worth talking about…something worth celebrating…something worth rejoicing in…and something worth telling other people about.

And that right there…is exactly what happens in the story. Did you notice that Mary squared never actually went in the tomb? Did you notice that? They stood there…looking at this lightning bolt of an angel…and listening to his words…Go quickly and tell his disciples that he…has…been…raised from the dead…and not only that…but tell them that he has gone on ahead of them to Galilee and THERE…you will see him.

Interesting command for the women isn’t it? They’ve just heard the news that Jesus isn’t dead anymore…they haven’t seen anything to confirm it…they’ve just heard the testimony that Jesus isn’t dead anymore…and they set off to tell people about it. (pause)

And then…only then…only when they’ve set off to follow the command to tell others very simply that Jesus isn’t dead…only then does Jesus pop up…only then, when they are on their way do they truly encounter the risen Lord…and he gives them the exact same command…Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee…there they will see me.

And you know what…we’re starting see a bit of a pattern here…because the women, after they worship Jesus for a moment…head on off and find the disciples…and they tell them exactly what the angel and what Jesus said to tell them…and the disciples…just a few verses after today’s reading…do exactly that…they follow the direction to go…and they head off to Galilee and there…just as promised…when they have gone on with nothing more than the proclamation that Jesus isn’t dead anymore…then they too encounter Jesus…and once more…he sends them on with another mission…Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Did you catch the pattern there? We hear the proclamation…the very simple and yet very profound proclamation that Jesus Christ is no longer dead…he was dead…but now he’s not…he is risen…and we are sent to tell others that simple fact…and when we follow that command to go and tell…that’s when we encounter Jesus…the risen Lord…who proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that we have a God who can…and does create new life out of death…and that is worth rejoicing.

And so today…on this most special day when Jesus is raised from the tomb…when Jesus…is no longer dead, but has been raised to new life, I ask you to search your own lives for signs of death…because we all carry them. Perhaps it is a disease…or a broken relationship…perhaps it is a lost job…or insufficient income to make ends meet…you know where there is death in your lives…you know it better than anyone…except for God…because he see’s the signs of death even before we do…but this same God has the ability to create new life out of death…and though it may occur in unexpected ways…it does occur…and just as a great earthquake shook the ground and opened the tomb…Jesus Christ lives as a testament to the radical, earthshattering ways that God can and does create new life…for each and every one us.

And so today…on this holiest of days…I say this…for our sake, last Friday, Jesus of Nazareth…God’s beloved Son willingly took the cross…taking upon himself every sin of every person across time…so that we no longer must fall victim to the truth that the wages of our sin equals our death…he paid that price for us…and make no mistake…Jesus was dead.

But now…today…Easter Sunday…Jesus…isn’t dead anymore. He is risen…He is risen indeed. Hallelujah. Amen.

It Is Time-Maundy Thursday 4-17-14

Tonight’s sermon came from John 13:1-12a, 31b-35. This is the traditional Maundy Thursday passage and highlights the last supper when Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment to love one another as he has first loved them.

You can listen to the sermon here:

You can 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
In my house, we watch a lot of animated movies…having two kids 10 and under, I see the vast majority of this genre of movies that come down the pipe. Some are really well done, and some aren’t quite so great…but everyone once in a while, an animated movie comes along that stands the test of time, because its just that good.
One of these great movies…one that stands the test of time actually predates my kids. It came out in the 90’s, while I was still young enough to be living at home on the farm…the movie is the Lion King. (pause)
Now there are all kinds of things that are great about that movie…but in my opinion the best part happens right away…right at the beginning.
The movie starts with a black screen, and the distant sound of birds chirping as you often here just before sunrise…and then out of nowhere…you hear a burst of native song (Sing the opening line)…and at the same instant that this song begins, the sun bursts forth over the horizon, brightening up the screen…then the scene progresses…and we see countless animals making their way through rivers and across the grasslands…all while am uplifting Elton John song plays in the background.
Gradually the animals all make their way towards a large stand of rocks, one of which juts out at an extremely grand angle…then the animals part, and a wise old baboon named Rafiki walks through…up to the king of the sarengeti…where he bows, and then takes a new born lion cub in his arms…walking up the rock to hold the cub…the future king at arm’s length before his future subjects…Now this all makes for a wonderful scene and a great opening to the film…but it also serves a second purpose…this scene at the beginning of the movie, foreshadows something that will happen at the end of the film.
Because following the various events of the movie…the newborn cub…Simba…now fully grown returns to this very same spot…pride rock…where he greets Rafiki, yet again…and the wise old baboon informs him that… “IT IS TIME.” And Simba walks up the rock, once again, before his new subjects and with a mighty roar, declares himself king…credits. (pause)
It is time. I find myself reminded of that very line as I read the gospel story for this evening…and this is a special evening isn’t it? Maundy Thursday…the night of the last supper…the night when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples…the night when Jesus goes to the garden to pray fervently that the cup will pass from his lips…and the night, in which he was betrayed. (pause)
Oh what a night this is…and as we gather here this evening, and as we heard in the opening verses of the passion narrative a moment ago. Jesus knew that finally…It is time. (pause) But time for what? So often through the entire gospel of John we hear that it was not yet time…until now… (pause)
I can only imagine the conversation that must have been going on between Jesus and the Father…one that had started long before tonight…long before the time that Jesus walked the earth…long before the fall of humanity…and long before the creation of the earth…as God the Father and the will of God that would one day become human sat in conversation…
You know…we’re going to make something pretty amazing…Yah we are…but you know, its not going to turn out perfectly at first…yah, that’s true dad…and those beings that we’re gonna make in our image…the humans…they’re gonna mess up, and they’re gonna mess up big…yah Dad they are, big enough to break the relationship that we desire to have with them…That’s right Son, they are…and the time is gonna come that I send you into their reality to do something about it. But it’s gonna be tough. Yah Dad…I know…but its what we need to do…and I’ll do it. (pause)
And now, tonight, finally the time has come…the word has become flesh…the word has dwelled among as one of us…and now…tonight…the final steps of his ministry begin…the steps that will take him from this simple supper with his friends to torture…and death…steps that will take him to the tomb…and beyond. (pause)
Perhaps this seems difficult to wrap our heads around…that God has chosen to do this. What could possibly make him do such a thing for someone else?  Love…love is the answer to that question…love for each and every member of the human race across time…and Jesus Christ chose this night to show those closest to him just how deep that love flows for them as individuals.
Jesus Christ, the master…the great teacher…God in human form willingly took the most humble role that he could take, that of a slave who knelt at the feet of his disciples and washed them…make no mistake, this is a very big deal.
Think about it for a moment. In this day and age, people were either barefoot or they wore flimsy sandals…and they walked everywhere…but human beings weren’t the only creatures on the road…they shared it with animals of all shapes and sizes…animals who very likely left little…gifts…on the road to be stepped in…and so as individuals walked from place to place, their feet got pretty dirty.
And so upon entering a house, it was customary for the feet of the visitor to be washed, either by themselves, or by a slave…the master of the house would never be humble enough to do so…but that is exactly what Jesus chose to do for his friends…this is exactly how Jesus chose to show his love for humanity…by stooping down and washing the dirt and the dust and the filth from their sweaty stinky feet.
And the disciples being…well, the disciples…just didn’t get it…Peter especially as he attempted to stop Jesus…and then as he asked Jesus to go above and beyond what was needed…Good old Peter…the prime example of humanity…once more missing the point of just what God was up to.
Because you see, this wasn’t just about cleaning the feet of the men sitting at the table that night…this was about God showing us that there is no length he will not go to for us because of the totality of his love for us.
Washing their feet was just a precursor to what is coming tomorrow…when Jesus willingly goes to the cross…allows himself to be nailed upon it, and raised up in the air…all the while innocent of any crime…innocent of any sin…yet taking the punishment for those that he loves…and our passage tonight tells us that Jesus has loved his own who were in the world and having loved them, he loved them to the end. (pause)
Well you know what…tonight is not the end…and Jesus love for his own in the world continues…and that is a love that is offered to each and every member of the human race…and that…includes…you.
And not only that…but that includes you as you are today…not the perfect you…not the ideal you…but the you with every blemish…with every fault…with every flaw…because you are a beloved child of God…and God seeks to come back into relationship with you…the relationship as it is intended…untarnished…unhindered by sin…but in our condition we CANNOT have this perfect relationship because of the presence of sin in our lives and sin in the world.
But God does not give up on us…and to say that raises an interesting point…think about the word “us.”  Not in the context of this particular group of people gathered together tonight…but rather…I want you to think about the word “us” as it applies to you and someone else…I want you to think of us as me and God…God and me…the two of us…in relationship…because when I say that God does not give up on us, that’s what I’m talking about….God will go to any length to create once more, this perfect relationship between Himself and every single individual member of the human race.
And this is true whether we realize it or not…just like Peter…just like the disciples there are times in our lives when we fail to realize the lengths that God’s love reaches on our account…and just as Jesus told his disciples…you do not know now what I am doing, but you later you will understand…The disciples did not realize that in washing their feet he was merely demonstrating the incredible lengths that he himself would go to out of love for them…but a day later, they would see him hanging on that cross…they would see God himself spread out upon that cross…suffering an agony beyond comprehension…and doing it on their account…
And in the same moment, God himself did this on your account…proving for all time that there is NOTHING that he will not do for you because he loves you too much not to. (pause)
This horrific tragedy, done on your account, begins tonight…it continues tomorrow and it ends in death…the death of God himself…a death that he willingly took for you…and so dwell on that, knowing that this has been God’s plan since the beginning…It…Is…Time.  Amen.

Confirmation Questions 4-13-14

The sermon from Sunday was based on Philippians 2:1-11 along with a smattering of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. You can find that sermon here.

The confirmation students posed some excellent questions on their sermon notes, and I will attempt to address them here.

-How can you (or in this case Jesus) be human yet still be God? Is it a 50/50 situation or something else?
This is an absolutely spectacular question, and one that has been hotly debated in scholarly circles since the first century. In fact, it was even being debated while Jesus was still alive. This is why the religious leaders of the day took such offense with Jesus, because he claimed to be God (particularly in John’s Gospel where Jesus repeatedly called himself “I am,” or often translated in English as “I am he.” This is the name of God given to Moses in Exodus).  To answer the second question, it is not a 50/50 situation. Jesus is fully God and fully human. Now just how this works is a great question. Admittedly, I’ll claim the divine mystery answer here. But this passage from Philippians does offer us a glimpse of an explanation. Jesus himself, who was equal with God…fully divine…chose to empty himself of that equality and become human. So during his time on Earth, we could possibly say that Jesus was less than God, because he was obedient to the Father…but I believe this is a mistake to say. I’ve heard it explained that Jesus was fully human “in time” (or while in our present reality) and he is fully God “outside of time” (meaning in the realm where God exists). That being said, I don’t really like that explanation.  I find it most helpful to consider the notion that as a human, Jesus suffered from self preservation and did not want to experience his passion (trial and death on the cross). We see this in the anguish he feels while praying in the garden. Yet, Jesus was obedient to the will of God the Father…a will that Jesus shared…and so he put aside his own desire for self preservation in order to accomplish the will of the Father, which reconciled mankind to God.

-What causes God to love us so much, because He doesn’t have to?
This is another great question…and honestly I don’t have a good answer for it. I can only say that I am humbled by God’s love for me…because He certainly doesn’t have to. Nothing that I (or anyone else) does can earn God’s love…that’s why His gift of forgiveness is grace, its a free gift. But while acknowledging that, I also recognize the incredible blessing that is God’s unconditional love offered to us anyway.

Who Is This 4-13-14

In this sermon, which occurred in the context of Palm Sunday, I explore Jesus’ obedience to the will of God and how his obedience, through his death and resurrection, connects us to him through our baptism.

You can hear the sermon here:

You can follow along with the sermon text here. As usual, disregard the indications to pause and the odd punctuation.
The last time I preached on Palm Sunday was two years ago…I was in the midst of my year of internship in a large congregation in Eden Prairie, MN…and in a bit of a “training exercise” my supervising pastor thought it would be good practice for me to do 2 sermons in rapid succession, and so he had me preach Palm Sunday, directly followed up by preaching again on Maundy Thursday…if nothing else, it was good practice…and we’ll find out if I’ve really gotten the knack for it this week as I’ll preach three separate sermons over the course of 7 days.
But looking back at that Palm Sunday, 2 years ago…I had a little different tactic come into play. First of all, it was a different gospel account. I utilized Luke’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, kicking off the final week of his life, and all of the vast experiences that he had during that week.  And Luke’s account, while similar to Matthew’s, does pose some differences. It is a little more confrontational than Matthew, and there is a really strong division between those cheering for Jesus and those centered around the Pharisees who attempted to silence the celebration.
I was pretty proud of myself…that Palm Sunday sermon…proud enough in fact that I utilized it in my approval essay…a very long multi-section piece of writing that helped some of the faculty at Luther Seminary as well as a batch of pastors and lay people from the Western Iowa Synod to approve me for ordination.  Some of you might have even heard this particular sermon before as well, because if memory serves me correctly, I included it along with a few others in an email to Gary Leaders about a year ago as the congregation here at Underwood and I flirted with the notion of me becoming your pastor.
But that was then…and this is now…and this year, we heard Matthew’s account, much less confrontational…and focusing much more on the celebration that was Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem. There are no nay-sayers…though we do hear that there is a bit of confusion as many from the city, unfamiliar with just who this random donkey rider is ask the question… “Who is this?” (Pause)
Who is this? (pause) That’s quite a question isn’t it? Who is this guy that lived 2000 odd years ago that has touched so many lives? (pause) Great question.
Now some of you might be wondering just why we switched up the readings today. Most of you are probably used to the regular format…someone else steps into the lectern…reads from the Old Testament…and then a reading from the New Testament…and then I walk up here and read out of one of the Gospels…and so you’re probably a little confused as to why Tonya read the gospel account a moment ago, and I wrapped it all up by reading from Philippians.
Well…I did so because I think the Philippians reading really gets to the heart of the question posed by those in Jerusalem…who is this? Who is this Jesus guy?  This great prophet…this amazing teacher…who is this man that healed the sick…who is this man that challenged the religious elite…who is this man that raised Lazarus from the dead? Who…is this man…that acts…as if he were God? (pause)
He does so many amazing things…surely he must be someone great…perhaps it is even as they say…perhaps he really is…God. But how can that be? How can anyone be both man and God at the same time…and that my friends…is the million dollar question right there isn’t it?
Do we believe that its true? Can it really be true…that God…the amazingly incomprehensible creator and sustainer of the universe and everything in it…was found in this simple Jewish carpenter that sat on the back of a donkey as it came riding into town? Really? (pause) And to that question I say yes.
But how can that really be? (pause) Well, because in the beginning was the word…it was there long before any of this happened…long before there was even a world to come into…He was in the form of God…and why? Well quite simply because he was God…but he became something else…humbling himself and taking on humanity. Jesus Christ, who was, is, and forever shall be God…took a look at himself…recognized equality with the Father…recognized that he was ONE with the Father…and put that equality on the shelf…Jesus, emptied himself…he voided himself of that equality because he recognized that divinity was not sometime to be exploited…Jesus Christ…God himself in human form…took on humility instead…because he was obedient to the will of the Father…the will that wanted to do something about the human condition. (pause)
And now that whole human condition…that’s really something isn’t it? Humanity…created by God…in the image of God…created to be in relationship and blessed harmony with God…but flawed…corrupted…voided of our relationship due to the presence of sin in our lives…and twisted because of it…in constant conflict with each other and within ourselves.
You see, humanity has this amazing ability to reflect God…and we find that in an absolutely beautiful capability of love and compassion for one another…and yet simultaneous, we each possess and equally strong capability to hate and destroy…and that unfortunately is what we tend to hear about more often than not don’t we.
Yet again this week…the news broke of a young man, who for reasons beyond our ability to comprehend…pulled out a couple kitchen knives in a school and started cutting…and stabbing…and yet again…lives were shattered…and while I wish we could call this an isolated incident…we all know better don’t we…because this is the reality of humanity. (pause)
But…God did something about it…in the only way that would actually work…God got his hands dirty by becoming one of us…through Jesus Christ, casting aside equality with God…he took the same form that we posess…remaining obedient even to the cross…and because of his obedience God gave him the name that is above every name…so that one day, every tongue will confess that name together…calling Jesus Christ…Lord. (pause)
And while this name for Christ reveals his divinity…and his mastery…we also know that God gave Jesus another name…when the heavens were ripped open…and the Holy Spirit came down like a dove and God himself called Jesus…my SON…THIS IS MY SON…THE BELOVED…and it all happened on the day when Jesus himself was baptized.
And that my friends is a name, given by God, that we, the fellow baptized also share.  In a few moments, Avery Taylor will come to this font, presented by her parents and God-parents…she will be washed in the water…and we will declare that she has a new name…one shared by Jesus Christ himself…beloved child of God.
And we believe that in that act of baptism…the sinful self that currently resides in this precious little child will die…drowned in the water…but she will rise again a new creation…named and claimed by God…to take her place among God’s people. (pause)
And so, in the future when someone takes a look at her and asks “Who is this?” There will be two answers that can be given. The obvious answer is Avery Taylor…but perhaps the more important answer is beloved Child of God…and that is an answer that each and every one of us share…because it was granted to us in our own baptisms…and perhaps in those moments, if we call Avery…or any other precious child of any age…child of God…the person we are talking to might just say…Oh yah…just like Jesus right? (pause)
And yes, that is right…because, in our baptism, we join with him in a death like his, and by doing so we also join in resurrection like his…and because of his amazing sacrifice…because of his obedience to the will of God…because of his humbleness even unto death on the cross, which we will experience along with him through this coming week…we are able to join with him in everlasting life, cleansed of our sin and all the junk that comes along with it…where forever we will declare in one voice that Jesus is Lord…and that…is worth celebrating.
Hosanna in the highest heaven…and blessed…is the one who comes in the name of the Lord… (pause)  And who is this? (pause) Well Its you…child of God.  Amen

Lenten Monologue-The Woman Who Suffered From Bleeding

Last night’s monologue was the character of the woman who suffered from bleeding for 12 years and was based on Luke 8:42b-48. It featured the question “Who touched me?”

This is the fifth and final in Underwood Lutheran’s series of Lenten worship services held on Wednesday evenings through the season. The overarching theme for Lent is the questions of Jesus. Each week we heard a reading by a different Biblical character who was questioned by Jesus in their encounter.

Like many that have come before me, and maybe that came after me, history does not remember my name. I am one of countless individuals who have lived and died, and for the most part, the story of my life has been lost to the ages. But history does remember one aspect of my life…one instance out of a lifetime of experiences…this one aspect which changed my life forever.
So much of my life was controlled and dictated by my circumstances. I was a Jewish woman…bound by the law. I lacked any rights, and though I was cared for my family, I was still considered something of an outcast for a long time.
You see, long ago a sickness attacked my body…and for reasons that I couldn’t understand, I developed sores that would not heal…sores that slowly oozed blood…and that affected me in many different ways.  First was the physical toll that it took on my body. The blood that I lost was never enough to kill me…so that wasn’t a concern…but it did weaken me…the human body is not made to lose blood constantly, and so over time, I grew weaker and weaker.
But the bleeding didn’t just affect me physically…as a Jewish person, I am bound to the law…the law given to Moses by God…and the law states that if a person is bleeding they are considered unclean…and in my culture, that posed serious problems. An unclean person was not supposed to be in settlements, and so I had to stay outside the town…sleeping in a tent. An unclean person cannot touch a clean person, or their uncleanness will pass on…and so whenever someone would approach me I had to speak to them in a loud voice, announcing that I am unclean so they could avoid me.
And so, here I was, suffering from some unexplained condition, unable to be in the shelter of a house, and unable to come into contact with other people, unless they took enough pity on me to approach me…this is bad enough for a short amount of time…and I hoped when this all started that it would not take long for my body to heal so that I could present myself to the priest at the temple and be declared clean once more…but that’s not what happened…days turned into weeks…and weeks became months…and soon months became years…12 long years I suffered…I was lonely and weak and isolated…12 long years.
During this time I did everything that I could do to try and get better. When my family members would come to bring me food, they would also bring me news of physicians in the area…I would ask them to inquire with the physicians…if they would be willing to try and help me…some would refuse, not wanting to be made unclean themselves…but others would take pity on me…and so I would come into the town…all the while announcing my uncleanliness so people could avoid me…other times I would have to travel to a nearby town…and I would do so…but travel made me even weaker…and try as I might…it never helped…the bleeding never stopped.
After a while, I accepted my fate…that the bleeding would never stop and that I would be sick for the rest of my life…but I never gave up hope…and day after day I would pray to God to take my sickness away from me…but for 12 long years I received no answer…and so I simply survived each day…hoping for a miracle…and trying my best to learn what was going on in the world that I was isolated from.
As time went on, I began to hear about a man, walking around the countryside…a man that some thought might just be the long awaited messiah…no one knew exactly what to make of him…some believed in him while others didn’t…but no one could explain away the miracles that it seemed he was performing. I heard rumors that he had turned water into wine…and that somehow he had managed to feed thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread and fish…but the thing that intrigued me the most was hearing that he had healed people.
What I wouldn’t give by that point to be healed…if only he would come my way…and then one day…it happened. I was near town, having visited yet another physician who could neither tell me what caused my sickness, nor do anything to heal it…and I crept along slowly, my body in its weakened state, crowds of people started to pass me by. As usual, I cried out Unclean…unclean…but most of the people just ignored me and walked around me.
But as more and more people passed me by I heard his name…Jesus…Jesus of Nazareth was coming…and not only that, they told me he was on his way to heal the child of some important man in town…He was coming…and he was healing…perhaps this was the answer that I had waited so long for…perhaps God was finally answering my prayers.
I waited by the road…watching…straining my eyes to see this man…this man that could heal me…and I believed…something within me whispered that this was not only a holy man…this was the Messiah…and he had the power to end my suffering…I believed that small voice with every part of me…I believed it so much that I wouldn’t even need to ask him…he wouldn’t even need to touch me…I believed that all I would need to do was touch the hem of his cloak, and the power of God…the power to heal that I had prayed for day after day would come upon me and heal me.
Soon the crowd grew even bigger…and as they pressed past me…I caught a glimpse of him…I saw Jesus…no one had to tell me who he was, for the power of God shone through him…I knew that this was my one chance…this was the answer to my prayers…and so I risked everything…I ducked my head and pushed through the crowd…not caring who I touched or who I was making unclean…I didn’t say a word, but kept pushing…inching nearer and nearer to Jesus until finally I was close enough.
I reached out my fingers…and lightly brushed the edge of his cloak as he walked past me…and the instant I touched him…I felt my body heal…I felt whole again…the weakness left my body and I was able to slip away…back into the crowd…it had worked…God had answered my prayer.
But that’s when everything stopped…because Jesus had stopped. He was looking around the crowd…studying face after face…and I knew that he had felt me touch him.  His followers seemed confused and asked him why he had stopped. I turned and saw his face as he asked the question. Who touched me?
One of his followers laughed and said “Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.” But Jesus just looked at him and said “Someone touched me, for I felt the power go out of me.” Jesus continued to look at every person…individual after individual. He didn’t ask them anything, but merely looked in their faces, and would shake his head…I could tell…he knew they were not the one simply by looking at them.
And now I was afraid…for I had been healed…and though I was kept outside the town, the people still knew me…and as they watched Jesus, they would recognize me when he looked at me…I was trapped…I couldn’t hide from him…because it had happened…he had healed me…and so once again…I summoned my courage, and pressed through the crowd…falling on my knees before him…I cried out “Master…I am the one…I touched you…for I have suffered for years and knew that God would grant me healing if I could only touch you…and it happened…please have mercy on me…and forgive me.”
In that moment, as I looked up at him…I saw love on his face, and joy…why would he be joyful…I had not asked permission…I had been too bold…but that is not what I saw…he did not condemn me…for he recognized the need in my life for his healing power…and he recognized the faith that I had in seeking the healing that only God could provide.
And so, rather than condemn me…he simply said “Daughter, your faith has made you well…go in peace.”  And from that moment on, my life has been changed…No longer must I stay on the fringes…no longer must I announce my condition to keep people away…once again…for the first time in years, I was acceptable again…and it is all through the power of Jesus Christ…
I needed his power…and his power alone…and God gave me the courage to seek it…for when I touched the cloak of Jesus, his saving grace touched me as well…healing not only my body, but also my soul…and he offers this same saving grace to you…you need only believe that he has the power to change you…to change your circumstances…and he will not deny you, he will accept you…just as he accepted me.

Don’t Make It Conditional 4-6-14

Today’s sermon came from John 11:1-45. This is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

You can listen to the sermon here:

You can also follow along with the sermon text 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
Don’t make it conditional…that phrase is a bit of a running joke at my house. Often times Emily and I will throw this around just to take a little dig at each other. Perhaps you have had similar exchanges in your own lives…If you loved me, you’d run out to the gas station and get me a candy bar…Hey…don’t make it conditional. (pause) If you loved me you’d dish me up some ice cream…HEY…don’t make it conditional. (pause) If you loved me you’d come over here and reach this bowl on the top shelf for me…HEY…DON’T MAKE IT CONDITIONAL.
Now while these exchanges are good natured ribbing, perhaps it raises a bit of a mirror up to some of the interactions that we have in life. I you respect your boss and your coworkers, you’ll show up on time. (pause) If you support our children, you’ll sign up to run the concession stand. (pause) or perhaps a popular one these days…if you support the troops you’ll buy a bumper sticker. (pause)
We have the tendency to make things conditional don’t we…to needle just a little bit…to lay on a guilt trip…often times without meaning to…but yet it happens…and why? Well, because it works doesn’t it? I think we learn from a pretty young age how to manipulate, ever so subtly…to get the response we are looking for…Oh yes…it works.
Film makers do it, ramping up the emotional punch of heartfelt scene by inserting sweeping orchestral music behind the action…advertisers do it by carefully appealing to your ego and how great it will make you feel to have their product…even organizations that benefit homeless animals do it by showing images of starving wide-eyed kittens and puppies, all while playing a sad Sarah MacLauchlan song. Oh yes…it works.
And we see a similar situation in today’s gospel lesson…when people start to toy with emotions…laying on guilt trips…and making love conditional…We hear the basis for this entire story in the very first verse. A certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany…Lazurus…the one that Jesus loved…a man with two sisters…Mary and Martha…who Jesus loved just as much…Now we don’t know what it is about this family that appeals so much to Jesus…but he comes here fairly regularly…and we know that he’s close with this particular set of siblings…and just to be clear…they know it too.
As Jesus is hanging out aways away…off in the wilderness around the Jordan river somewhere…Lazarus falls sick…and something tells me that this is no simple head cold…no, this is obviously something pretty serious…something they don’t expect him to bounce back from…and what do they do? Well, they send word to Jesus…they know the guy, they know about the healing’s he’s been doing…if anyone can help out Lazarus, it’s Jesus…send word to him…oh, and twist the screws on him just a little bit, make sure he knows who’s asking… (pause)
Lord, the one YOU LOVE…is sick. (pause) Its not, Hey Jesus can you come check this out…or if you’re nearby and could swing in that would be great…but it’s a guilt trip isn’t it? The one you love is sick…so you better get yourself right on over here. (pause)
And now in a bit of a funny side note, we see confirmation of the love that Jesus feels for this family…but despite the fact that Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus…he gets the news…and sits on his tail for 2 more days…Yah I love you…but I’m comfy here…just sit tight…but then after a couple days, Jesus decides maybe it is high time that they skedaddle down to Bethany and check things out…if for no other reason that to show a great sign to the disciples so that they might believe…you know through this discourse with the disciples it almost seems like Jesus is doing all of this intentionally…and who knows, maybe he did…but despite his motivation for the delay, we know that in the meantime…Lazarus dies…Jesus doesn’t get there soon enough…and Lazarus is in the tomb.
And boy…Martha’s not too happy about it is she?  When she finds out that Jesus FINALLY makes it into town she runs to the outskirts and really lays into him…Lord, if you had been here he wouldn’t be dead…she might as well be saying “I guess we see how much you REALLY care don’t we?”  (pause) And then she turns the screws even more…But even now, I know that God will give you what you ask him.
(pause…cough) hint hint Jesus. (pause)
As the story goes on, we find out that these conditional guilt trips seem to run in the family…as the younger sister Mary finally comes out of the house to find Jesus…and lays the exact same thing on him…Lord if you’d been here he wouldn’t have died…we might read between the lines a bit and hear her accuse him…you knew about it…but you waited…you didn’t come…I guess you didn’t really love him after all did you? (pause)
At this, we hear that Jesus is distraught, and not only that but that he begins to weep at the thought of his beloved friend Lazarus dead and in the tomb…so perhaps we could say that the dual sided guilt trip the sisters are laying on him is working…but even the random Jews in the crowd seem to get in on it…Oh look at him crying…see how he loved him…BUT…this guy healed a blind man…SURELY he could have stopped Lazarus from dying. (pause)
Does that sound familiar? Think about it…ever had a conversation with God like that? (pause) If you loved him, you’d have done something about it. If you loved me, you’d do something about this.  If you loved me…if you loved me…if you REALLY loved me, you’ll do what I want.
Ever tried to bargin with God…or as the case may be…try to guilt trip God and make his love for you conditional?  I think we all do it don’t we. In those moments when hope seems lost, we start the bargin…but it raises the question of just who’s love is conditional doesn’t it?
Think about that for a moment…trying to bargin with God with a guilt trip isn’t really about testing God’s unconditional love for you…its really sending a message that your love for God has the condition attached…might as well be saying “if you do this for me, then I’ll offer my love back to you.” “Do this for me, and I’ll do something for you.” (pause)
As I’ve thought about this long passage this week, that’s the perspective that emerged…not that Lazarus and Martha and Mary are these three super siblings that radiate love for each other and for everyone else…Jesus included…but that these two sisters feel as if they have sway over Jesus because of a pre-existing relationship and they are using it to get what they want…Jesus, we are alone now…you have the power to bring him back so if you really love us…you’ll do it. (pause)
But now here’s an interesting point…despite the guilt trip…despite the sorrow that he was feeling in the death of his friend…he gives them what they ask for…Jesus raises the one that he loves from death…calling a dead man…a guy that’s been in the tomb 4 days…long enough to start stinking, back from death…Jesus calls him out of the tomb…and back into life…and in a major foreshadow of his own death, burial, and resurrection that we’ll hear about in a couple of weeks, Jesus shows his love by bringing someone back from the dead. (pause)
And the really interesting point is that it has nothing to do with the statements made by Mary and Martha…it has nothing to do with who Lazarus is…but it has everything to do with the truth uttered by the sisters unknowingly…that the unconditional love of Jesus for the individual is enough for him to call the individual out of the tomb.
Jesus tells us, I AM the resurrection and the life…its not limited to the last days…but its here now…in Jesus…and if we skip ahead just a little ways in the narrative we catch a glimpse of what the resurrection looks like…because we see Lazarus, alive again…reclining at a table…hanging out with Jesus…and so it seems that the resurrection…the life everlasting has little to do with our physical death…and everything to do with being in relationship with Christ. (pause) and now I ask you…do you believe it?
That’s another theme that echoes throughout the entirety of this passage…Jesus tells his disciples “I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you may believe.” Then he tells Martha “Those who believe in me, though they die will live…Do you believe it?” And she does…and then he tells her again “If you believe you WILL see the glory of God” and then while praying he asks God that those present will believe and in the end we see that many of them do.
We’ve heard this theme before…that in John’s gospel we are simply called to believe that Christ is God and that he will grant us eternal life…there are no conditions…we don’t have to guilt trip him for it…and we don’t have to play “if you loved me” card…because he DOES love you…each and every one of you…and he’ll prove it in a couple weeks time…hanging there on that cross to show you that there is NOTHING that will stand in the way of his love for you…a love that is in no way…conditional…believe it. Amen