Archive for May, 2014

Hear It, Believe It 5-18-14

This week’s sermon comes from John 14:1-14. It is an early portion of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse to the disciples and includes the famous phrase “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

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 Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

This weekend, I’ve been finding myself a little nostalgic as the 2014 Luther Seminary graduation ceremony is occurring. I’ve been thinking back to my own graduation a year ago…and also looking back even farther than that…remembering fondly the times I spent at Luther…and the people that I’ve met…fellow students, faculty, and staff that come together to form the Luther community.

Now of course, as I think back, some of the names and faces stand out a little more than others…particularly in terms of the faculty. Some professors shaped me more than others due to the amount of interaction that I had through class work with them…and others stand out in my memory simply for who they are, and the almost tangible presence that they bring to the community…which can be felt when they leave. (pause)

Earlier this week, the official announcement was made that David Lose, one of those professors at who left a solid impact on me, will be leaving to become the new president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, one of the other ELCA seminaries scattered around the US.

I wasn’t completely surprised by this announcement, as an earlier press release a few weeks ago named him as the front runner for the position…but yet when I heard the news, I felt a little odd about it. Sad that he would be leaving Luther…and the tiniest bit upset that, even though I’m no longer a student there, that there will be a David Lose shaped hole in the Luther community…in short…the announcement of his future absence left my heart troubled.

And in pondering on that reality this week, I found something in common with the disciples. Today’s gospel lesson is a small portion of Jesus’ farewell discourse to the disciples in John’s gospel. It occurs at the Last Supper and directly precedes Jesus and the disciples heading out to the Garden where he will be arrested. The discourse begins just a few verses before this particular portion…when Jesus announces to them…I am with you only a little while longer. (pause)

I’m guessing that this was one of those moments when you could have heard a pin drop…because Jesus has just dropped a bomb on his closest friends…I know we’ve been together for awhile now…but its coming to a close, because very soon…I’ll be gone…cue the crickets chirping.

I can only imagine what the disciples must have been thinking in their minds and feeling in their hearts at that moment…though it seems that Jesus likely had a pretty good read on the situation…because he opens today’s passage…this particular portion of the farewell discourse with these words…Do not let your hearts be troubled. (pause)

WHAT? How can you say that Jesus? We’ve been following you for three years…and now you’re leaving? Why shouldn’t we be troubled? What are we going to do now? (pause) All valid questions…questions that we would likely share if we found ourselves in their shoes…questions perhaps that we do ask in similar situations…when an important figure in our lives announces their upcoming departure unexpectedly…or in an unexpected death…or the diagnosis of a terminal disease…or any other way that we learn of an important persons permanent absence.

And to top it all off…this is the absence of Jesus Christ that we’re talking about here…and so, when he announces Hey guys I’m taking off…and then follows it up with…but don’t worry about it…don’t let your hearts be troubled…well…understandably, the disciples don’t quite get it.

And that’s nothing new is it? Constantly throughout the gospel accounts we hear the disciples piping up that they just don’t understand what it is that Jesus is trying to tell them…and we see several more instances here. Peter has squawked just before the start of today’s text…good old Thomas the doubter chimes in…and we hear from Phillip…and I image that the rest of the crew were murmuring their concern as well.

But that doesn’t stop Jesus…and he lays some very important things…including…just where it is that he’s off to (pause). In my Father’s house are many dwelling places…If it were not so, would have told you? (pause) Well that’s all well and good Jesus…but why are you telling us? I’m telling you, because I am going to prepare a place for you…You know Dad’s house? It’s a big big house…with lots and lots of rooms…One of them is yours…and I have to leave now…because I have to go and get it ready for you.

Wait a second Jesus…you’re saying that in God’s house, I’ve got a place to stay…there’s a place for me? (pause) You bet there is…but its not ready yet…and unless I take off now…it won’t be…so that’s where I’m going…but rest easy…Yes I’m leaving now…but I’m coming back…and I’m coming back for you…so I that where I am…you’ll be too…so that’s where I’m going. Okay? (pause)

Ummm…okay Lord…but? How do we get there again? We don’t know the way? (pause) Say what you will about Thomas…good old Doubting Thomas…but with this one seemingly foolish question, Thomas cues up Jesus with one of his most famous lines. I am the way…I am the truth…and I am the life. (pause)

Now we hear that line…and we know the history behind it don’t we? We have our own history with it and we bring that prior knowledge to the table…but imagine for a moment that you are hearing this for the first time…and maybe, just maybe for some of you sitting out there today this is the first time you’ve heard it.

I am the way the truth and the life? WHAT? The way to where? That’s what we’re trying to figure out Jesus…and the truth? The truth about what? And what do you mean the life? Aren’t we alive right now? What are you talking about?

All valid questions…questions that seemingly get an answer in Jesus next statement…no one comes to the Father except through me. (pause) And once again…I believe that we hear those words, and the way that we hear them is shaped by our own experience…but imagine that you have no prior experience with these words…or with the teachings of Jesus at all…and you hear that…how does it sound? Joyful? Or maybe judgmental?

In this famous phrase, we find ourselves in the midst of the divisive nature of the Gospel…because for believers…this is full of hope…that through Jesus Christ we see the way to the father…we hear the truth from the father…and we find the life with the father…but for those who have not heard the gospel…they hear exclusion…that there are those who are in and those who are out…and that’s a tough pill to swallow isn’t it?

But it’s the reality in the world today…and whether we realize it or not…even as believers in Christ…we experience doubts…we experience the lack of understanding of just what it is that Jesus is really talking about…just like the disciples express in today’s story…and if anyone should have gotten it, it was these guys…but their example shows us that the human condition leaves us unable to fully grasp the truth of what Jesus proclaims…the truth about the kingdom of heaven…and the truth that through his sacrifice we can be…and in fact are brought back into relationship with the father…we are lost…but through Jesus Christ, God comes to find us where we are.

The disciples may have thought that Jesus was being lost to them…that he was telling them he would be gone forever…but that’s not the case at all. (pause) That reminds me of something that happened a couple years back when we were still living in Minnesota. Emily had taken the kids to the library…but it was not the one we normally went to. As they looked around, Jack got separated…and being in an unfamiliar building…he got a little scared…but fortunately he knew enough to go to the front desk and ask for help.

And so as Emily was in the library…at this point starting to wonder where Jack had gotten off to, she heard an announcement…Would the lost mom come to the front desk…your son is here. (pause) Jack had told the lady behind the desk that “my mom is lost.” I’m guessing that disciples felt the same…Jesus would be lost, but that’s not the case…because Jesus and the Father are coming back…they are coming to where we are…they are not the ones who are lost, but us…and just as Emily was worried about Jack and went to him…God comes to us through Jesus Christ…who brings us to himself so that where he, we may be also.

And the place where he is…is not somewhere specific…it is not a location that we can plug into the gps to find…rather…it is a relationship…a relationship lived with God the Father…life lived with the Father made possible through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the Son.

This is what Jesus is talking about. I am the life…the life given to you to be in relationship with the father…I am the truth from the father given to you because I am one with the father…and I am the way to come back into relationship with him…and if you’re wondering how that’s possible…how that works…Jesus asks a simple question…Do you know me? Because if you know me…and I say to you that you do know me…then you know my father as well…because we are one.

And now here’s the important thing that might slip under the radar…Jesus tells us to believe it. Quite simply…but he doesn’t just tell us once…he tells us 6 times in this passage to believe it. And when Jesus repeats himself…its intentional…and when he repeats himself this much…you better believe it.

Believe in God…believe in me…Believe that I am in the father and the father is in me…Believe me that I am in the father but if not, believe me because of the works done by the father in me…and when you believe in the works that I have done…then you will do even greater works than these. Believe it.

And that final statement about the works…that’s important too. Jesus isn’t saying Believe that I’m God because I can turn water into wine…or because I heal the sick…rather…the works are the proclamation that through Christ we find the relationship with God.

Christ proclaimed this truth throughout the course of his ministry…but there were limited numbers of people that he could reach…but through the power of the holy spirit…which grants us faith…which gives us the ability to believe that Jesus is God and God is Jesus…we find the ability to proclaim the same gospel to those we encounter…this is the work of the body…this is the work of the church…the work that we share…to proclaim the gospel so that those who have never heard may hear…so that those who do not know, may come to know…so that those who have not seen Jesus may be found by him…and when they are found they too will hear that Jesus has prepared a place in the father’s house for them…because if it were not so…he would not have told you.

Do not let your hearts be troubled…hear it…and believe it. Amen.

I Am What I Am 5-11-14

Today’s sermon came from John 10:1-10. This is the opening portion of the text commonly known as the Good Shepherd parable, though I focus on the notion that in this portion of the passage, Jesus never calls himself that, rather calling himself the gate.

You can listen to the sermon here:

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here…though note, there are some deviations from the text.

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

Individuality is an interesting thing isn’t it? There are certain aspects that shared between individuals or groups. For instance, we are all fellow members of the human race. Likewise, we are all alive now, at this time, in the early 21st century, and together, we are all present in this place, right now, in this time.

But there are also things about an individual that cannot be matched by anyone else that is either alive right now or that has ever or will ever live. And those are the aspects about the individual that are shaped by their experience.

Science would look at this as the formation of neuron pathways within the individual’s brain. Their experience forms connections within their brain that will forever be present and will forever influence how that individual experiences the world from that time forward.

I see evidence of this type of thing all the time as I interact with my family. My daughter knows things about the realm of dance that I cannot even fathom, and that’s after taking a single week’s worth of dance camp a couple years ago. My son, the sports nut can tell you the most random and obscure details about certain baseball players from several seasons past, and I’m lucky if I can tell the difference between the second baseman and the shortstop. My wife has an instinct for cooking that could rival any chef that I can’t even begin to understand, though my stomach certainly benefits from it.

I on the other hand, have those things in my life that set me apart. For instance, there have been many times when we’ve been driving down the road and Emily will ask me what kind of bird is flying overhead…I can take a quick glance, pick out certain visible characteristics like size, shape, wing pattern, and flight characteristics to tell her that in fact that isn’t a chicken hawk…it’s a turkey vulture. As a former ecologist in training during college, I’ve learned to look for those sort of things.

Likewise, having grown up on the farm, I’ve developed a certain skill with my nose…on many instances, I have impressed my family by following a livestock trailer…taking a sniff…and being able to correctly identify the type of animal inside it, simply by their odor.

These are some of the things that make me who I am. And they are unique to me, but there are other things that I am as well. I am 6 feet tall. I am a runner. I am a father. I am a husband…the list goes on and on of things that identify me…of things that paint a picture of just who…or what…I am.

Now those two words…I am…I have to admit that they catch my attention…they are such simple words and yet they convey so many truths…and importantly, they convey a different set of truth about every individual that says them. Because what I am…is a completely different reality than the one described when you say the very same thing. (pause)

The author of John’s gospel seems to be very aware of this simple fact…although perhaps it would be better to say that Jesus himself is aware of it. The phrase “I am” is quite common throughout the entirety of John’s gospel, and each and every time it is stated, it is by Jesus. Now sometimes Jesus uses it to convey an idea, calling himself something abstract. For instance Jesus says “I am the light of the world” or “I am the vine.” At different times, Jesus simply identifies himself when people are looking for him…saying quite simply “I am.” (pause) And if your knowledge of Old Testament history is perking up there you’ll recognize that as the very same way that God identifies himself to Moses. I am what I am. (pause)

And it probably comes as no great surprise that we see another example of Jesus saying I am in today’s passage. Now, in a personal note, I cannot read this passage without my brain instantly screaming out “GOOD SHEPHERD…IT’S GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY!” And with good reason…the 4th Sunday of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday within the lectionary, and over the course of the three year cycle we hear this passage in its entirety…and perhaps if you are anything like me, you listen to the words I shared a moment ago from John’s gospel…words about the shepherd entering by the gate…and calling his own sheep by name…and sheep following because they know his voice…and because this is such a familiar passage your brain instantly goes to what is likely the most famous phrase from this entire parable…when Jesus makes yet another famous I am statement…the one that summarizes the entire story in one simple phrase…I am…the good shepherd. (pause)

Did your minds go there? (pause) I’m guessing so for many of you, if not all of you…but I’ll pose the question…should it? Because in our story today…John chapter 10 verses 1-10…does Jesus ever say it? (pause) Go ahead and look through the gospel text and see…go ahead…I’ll wait (pause).

Nowhere…Nowhere in the midst of all the talk about sheep and bandits and thieves and gatekeepers and shepherds and strangers and sheepfolds and gates and pastures…nowhere does Jesus actually say I am the good shepherd…we have to wait an entire year, and until verse 11…before we hear him say that.

Now admittedly, this is one of those weird moments in the lectionary, when the story cuts off at what seems to be the most important part…and believe me, as a preacher…that can be really frustrating at times…to have Jesus get cut off right about the time he’s going to make the point that straightens out all the ambiguity of the parable itself.

And parables are confusing aren’t they…we’ve seen that time and time again…Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of God, and in order to make things simple for his audience he uses a parable, something familiar that they’ll be able to relate to but that vast majority of the time…this one included, we hear that his audience fails to recognize just what he’s talking about…and you know what…I think that inability to really understand has come right on down the ages to us…because as we think about parables, we are supposed to listen to the story and figure out just who it is that we relate to…but in this story…I find that pretty hard to do, particularly in this first portion.

As I mentioned a moment ago we’ve got all kinds of things going on. Sheep hanging out in a pen, guarded by a gatekeeper of some sort…we’ve got random thieves and bandits trying to hop the fence to lead the sheep away…we’ve got a shepherd that comes through the gate and calls out to his sheep. (pause)

So who are we? And who is God? What about Jesus? Is Satan in there? Or false teachers? Maybe, sounds like it…but are we the sheep? Or are we the gatekeepers blocking others? Is God the shepherd, or is that Jesus? Or is God the gatekeeper and we’re the shepherd when we proclaim the gospel? (pause) No wonder the people listening got confused.

And so Jesus…tries again…and its at this point…the second half of today’s story that Jesus gets a little more blatant…You may have noticed about midway through, when Jesus tries again…he begins with the statement Very truly I tell you…but the actual language is truly truly I say to you…or as anyone has that has sat through confirmation class has heard me say…AMEN AMEN I say to you…and when the original language repeats itself…you better pay attention because its important.

And here…in today’s passage, Jesus actually does tell us just who he is in the story…and the amazing thing is…he is not…anyone…he is not a single character within the original parable…rather, this time when Jesus busts out those two simple words about himself. I am…we hear him say…I am…the gate…and not only that, but he says it twice…guess that means its important right? (pause)
I Am, the gate…and whoever enters the sheep pen by me shall be saved and will go in and come out and find pasture…and if that’s the case, well I guess we really are the sheep aren’t we…but then if we’re the sheep that enter and exit the pen through the gate, what exactly is this pasture that we find? (pause)

Well, think like a sheep for a second…pasture is where they find food…where they run and jump…where they flock together…quite simply pasture…is where the sheep finds life…and as Jesus himself tells us, he came to give us life and to give it ABUNDANTLY.

And just what is an abundant life? One free of sin and death…and that my friends is the life that is granted to us by Christ himself…for not only is he the gate…but he also says that I am the way, the truth, and the life…no one comes to the father except through me…and so we see that our abundant life is one that we live in relationship with the Father…and there is no other way to get there then to follow the one that leads the sheep…the one that calls them by name.

And that’s an important point right there…that we are called by name…and you’ve heard me preach on this before…that the name which we are called by is beloved child of God…a name granted to each and every one us in the waters of our baptism…when we hear the promises of God that through Jesus Christ our sin is forgiven and we are no longer subject to the power of death…because in our baptism we join with Jesus in a death like his so that we might also join with him in a life like his…a life that he has promised to be abundant.

Today, Julie Hedegaard will affirm the promises made for her in her baptism…just as a week ago 5 of her peers did the very same thing…today, Julie will affirm the fact that she is a beloved child of God, named and claimed by her Father in Heaven. Today…she will declare for herself…that I am…a child of God…a distinction given to her through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ….and one given to you all.

Because He is the gate…and whoever approaches the pen, which I believe to be the kingdom of heaven, which is present here and now, present when we live our lives in relationship with the father…then we are living the promise that Jesus has made that whoever enters through him will be saved. And so I ask you today, who is a child of God, it is my hope and prayer that you will raise your hand…and declare with confidence…I AM. Amen.


We Are Not Alone 5-4-14

Today’s sermon is based on Luke 24:13-35, the well known passage of the Road to Emmaus. You can listen to the sermon here:

This sermon combines not only the notion that God meets us on the road between the cross which is behind us and regular life that is before us. This sermon also brings in the notion of Confirmation, which we celebrated with 5 young people during worship.

You can follow along with the sermon text here….though note that there are a few differences between the text and what I actually said.

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

I do not often travel alone. In the rare instances when I go somewhere for more than a few hours, I’m usually with someone. Perhaps this comes as no great surprise to you. I’m married with two school aged kids…and as we all know, in most instances, families go along for the ride.

But not this weekend…this time around we were pulled in two different directions. You may notice that my family isn’t here this morning, because they have spent the weekend, and are still there right now, in Decorah helping my niece and God-daughter celebrate her first communion. But I, on the other hand, obviously didn’t head that direction, both because I needed to be here with you this morning, but also because of a prior engagement up in Sioux City…the Western Iowa Synod Assembly which has been in session since Friday, and will be wrapping up here quite shortly. As the pastor, attendance is pretty much mandatory, and so there was no skipping out to head to a family function.

And so last Friday I headed up to Sioux City, and I spent the night at a hotel…following the evening’s activities for assembly, I settled myself into my room, watched some tv…and one of the last thoughts that went through my head before I fell asleep was “Man it’s weird being here alone…its just weird…its weird traveling alone…” And then I konked out.

Early the next morning…6am to be exact…much too early for this self-professed night owl…I found out just how wrong I was to think that. I might have been the only person in the hotel room…but it quickly became clear that I was not…isolated.

The first thing I heard was water coming down through the pipes from upstairs…someone above me was either taking a shower, or flushing the toilet. (pause) Next, as I laid there trying to go back to sleep again, I realized just how thin the tissue paper walls were in my hotel, when my neighbor in the next room shut his door and walked past my room…I swear it sounded like he was walking right past the bed…And so between hearing things in the hallway and continuing to hear water in the pipes…and even the elevators 50 feet down the hallway…I realized that I was not…alone…Sometimes our perceptions are wrong aren’t they? I thought I was by myself…but I was…incorrect.

And that is precisely the situation that we find in today’s story. (pause) Here we are…the third week of Easter…in our reckoning Jesus was raised from the dead 14 days ago…but in today’s story, its still Easter Sunday…and truly, Easter has been a busy day…you know everything that’s happened…The women found the tomb empty…they heard from the angel…then Peter went and checked things out…and in the midst of all that, these two guys…Cleopas and his unnamed companion decide that its time to skip town.

We’re not exactly sure what has set them on their way, it could be fear as fellow disciples of Jesus that they might be caught and killed…it could also be quite simply because the Sabbath is over and they are free to walk the long distance home.

But regardless of the motivation that put them on the road, that is exactly where we find them…walking along the road, discussing the events that have been happening around Jesus…and it is quite depressing for them…and understandably so…they’ve been following Jesus…and now he’s dead…and even if the women have found the tomb empty, they themselves haven’t seen him…and as far as they know…its all over…everything they’ve been hoping for…everything they’ve been expecting is out the window.

And so they trudge along…and they are joined by a stranger who falls in with them and engages them in conversation….asking them just what’s got them so down in the dumps. (pause) Now we know who this stranger is don’t we? Jesus himself…but for whatever reason they don’t recognize him…we don’t know if their eyes are closed due to divine intervention…or because of the lack of evidence of his resurrection…or because Jesus looked different in his resurrected form…we just don’t know what causes it, but the reality of the situation is, Jesus meets them on the road…and he walks along with them…they are not alone, because God refuses to leave them alone. (pause)

This is a road that all walk…the road between Jerusalem and Emmaus…the road between the cross and our regular lives…that’s all Cleopus and the other guy were doing, moving from the cross of Jesus to their day to day lives, and God comes along side them…it doesn’t matter if they recognize him or not…because he’s there…walking with them…engaging them as they try to make sense of the cross…and as the try to understand how this new reality…this reality of a crucified Christ will affect their day to day life. (pause)

In preparation for today, which is of course a very special day in the lives of these 5 young people sitting in the front row…I gave them a task…to sit and think about their faith…to think about God and Jesus, and the commandments and the creed…to think about all the things that we’ve discussed this past year, and all the things that they’ve learned throughout the course of their lives…and then, I invited them to write about it…to create their own creed…their own statement of belief. (pause)

As I read through them, I was amazed by a trend that emerged, across the board…and that trend…that theme was the recognition that God is always with them…and that God will always be with them….not only in the times when they recognize his presence…but also when they aren’t looking…just like the two disciples in today’s story, God is walking along the road…the road between the cross and regular life with our Confirmands…and not just them…but for each and every one of us.

The day of confirmation is truly wonderful…when an individual stands before the congregation and more importantly before God to affirm the faith in which they were baptized…and I love the connection between the two…today, you will continuing the promises that were made on your behalf in your own baptism…and if you compare the two services, you’ll hear a lot of the same things. (pause)
Go ahead and pull out the insert for the service of confirmation…open it up and take a look at the promises listed there…and while you’re looking at that, listen to these words taken from the service of baptism… As you bring your child to receive the gift of baptism, you are entrusted with responsibilities: To live with them among God’s faithful people, bring them to the word of God and the holy supper, teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, place in their hands the holy scriptures, and nurture them in faith and prayer, so that your child may learn to trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace. (pause) Sound familiar? It should.

These are the promises made by parents during baptism…your parents made the same promises for you…and if you remember, the congregation joins together in those promises as well…and the within the congregation we find the fellowship modeled in today’s story…once everything has taken place, the walk with Jesus, his interpretation of the scriptures…and the sharing of the meal when their eyes are opened to recognize Jesus for who he really is…the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ…the two disciples go into fellowship with each other…and this is precisely what we are to do as well.

As we walk the road to Emmaus…the road between the cross and regular life, we can rest easy in the knowledge that Jesus himself walks with us, even in those times when we fail to recognize him…and at the same time, Jesus gives us an example of life together in fellowship. They read the scriptures, he interprets it, and they share a meal…through in a couple songs and offering and you’ve got worship don’t you?

In the breaking of the bread, Jesus identity is revealed…but he’s been there the whole time…even if they couldn’t see it. Likewise in our lives, lived together in fellowship with one another, we share in all these things…and just as the two men were compelled by the recognition of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ…we are also called to come together and proclaim our experience with those we encounter…and we never know just where it will be that we will encounter him as we walk that road…but we do…because he’s there.

And so today, on this special day, I want to share a story with you…perhaps you’ve heard it before…it is, after all very common…the story is called footprints in the sand.*

One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to my Lord.

After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.

This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
“Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
You’d walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.”

He whispered, “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you.”

Today is simply one day…one step along the road between the cross and your lives…but as you walk through this day, know this…whether you recognize him or not…he’s there…and you are not alone. Amen.


*Story by Margaret Fishback Powers