Archive for May, 2015

You Mean I’m Not In Trouble 5-31-15

This morning’s sermon is based on John 3:1-17. This is the night time encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. I explore the changing perspective of hearing this as a rebuke to an honest teaching exchange.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/you-mean-im-not-in-trouble-5-31-15

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
Is there any certain sight that you dread to see? Something that almost turns your stomach as soon as you spot it? (pause) I can certainly think of one that got me in my younger days…specifically between the ages of 16 and about 22. (pause) Red and Blue lights flashing in my rear view mirror. (pause)
I will state it for the record…that in my early years of driving…I was a little too familiar with those lights…because I got pulled over with a fair bit of regularity…until a letter from my insurance company warned me of my personal risk…of high risk insurance rates…at which time I developed a much lighter foot, coupled with a much stronger tendency to set the cruise control at a reasonable speed.
And for many years that has served me well…with just one exception, back in August of 2013 when I came up the entrance ramp down by Hy-Vee in Council Bluffs just a little too fast and met a police officer sitting in the median right there at the curve…you all know that spot don’t you? (pause) And sure enough…a moment later…there were the blue and red lights flashing right behind me.
And ever since then, I’ve been very careful to watch my speed as I come around the curve on I-80…knowing that the next time I let it creep up above 60…I’ll meet another officer sitting there waiting…and admittedly its affected me…and I see evidence of this every time another vehicle comes flying past me on that stretch and I utter the words over and over again. “LET THERE BE A COP THERE…LET THERE BE A COP THERE”
And then on the instances when there is an officer sitting there…the chant turns to “GET ‘EM….GET ‘EM…GET ‘EM.” And recently…just about a month or so ago…I got my wish when a speedy driver went flying past the officer sitting there in that spot…and I saw the officer swing his cruiser around and fly up behind that other car…and the lights…came…on. (pause…then big response) “YES!!!!!!” I don’t know just why it is…but ever since that day back in 2013 when I was pulled over at that spot, I’ve wanted to see someone else get it too…full disclosure…I’ve been fascinated with seeing someone else get busted….and maybe…just maybe…I’m not the only one. Because isn’t that human nature? We’re kind of fascinating with seeing someone ELSE…get into trouble aren’t we? (pause)
Now admittedly, this is the attitude that I have brought into today’s gospel story throughout the course of my history with it. Nicodemus…coming to visit Jesus at night…and in the midst of the encounter…Jesus seems to give him his come uppance…Nicodemus…one of the leaders of the Pharisees…one of the leaders of the religious bigwigs…sneaks off in the dead of night…in total secrecy…to try and wrap his head around just who this Jesus guy really is…but he has to be secretive…because he’s got a reputation…and who knows what would happen if all his cronies knew what he was up to. (pause)
So that’s the setting…this guy who by all rights should get all this stuff…should understand it…and should see the truth within it…goes all covert in the dead of night…and if you’ve heard me talk about John’s gospel before, you’ve likely heard me reference the importance of light and darkness…how light equals believe, and understanding…and even relationship…while darkness equals disbelief and sinfulness…and here’s Nick, operating under the cover of darkness…figures.
And you know what…within the context of John’s gospel we’ve got another example of someone doing bad stuff at night…perhaps you’ve heard of him…this Judas guy…who towards the end of the gospel goes out into the night to betray Jesus…and so knowing this…don’t we sort of expect the tense confrontation here between Jesus and Nicodemus?
Does anyone else approach this passage expecting a rebuke…expecting Jesus to really put Nick in his place…to rip him a new one? Or is that just me? (pause) I’ll own it…each and every time I’ve approached John chapter 3 in the past…I’ve gotten a little cynical…thinking to myself. “This guys gonna get it. Here it comes.” And then I read the back and forth as Jesus and Nicodemus debate and discuss…and in my mind they’re getting a little more heated with each statement and question and counter point…until finally Nick has heard enough and he utters the ultimate question “How can these things be?” (pause) And finally…finally…Jesus…turns on the flashing red and blue lights… “YOU ARE THE TEACHER OF ISRAEL…and even you don’t get it.” (pause…then big response) “YES!!!!!!” (pause) And just like I revel in seeing someone else get pulled over…I revel in seeing some uppity dude get fully owned by Jesus. (pause)
That is…until this week…until this time…because this time…I didn’t read it that way…and I’m not even sure why that is…but for some reason…this time…it came across a little differently…and instead of looking down my nose at Nick…I think I found myself relating to him…because what Jesus is talking about…its some pretty heady stuff.
Maybe its because today is Holy Trinity Sunday…the one Sunday every year when we focus on and celebrate all three aspects of the Triune God…Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…and if you’ve been downstairs in the discussions around the trinity…and specially around the Holy Spirit…you’ve heard me say that its…pretty darn confusing…and I’ll play the card of “that’s one of our divine mysteries that we Lutheran love so much” simply because we don’t have good explanation for how it all works…or what it all means.
And don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you right now with trying to offer any sort of explanation…because sometimes we just have to accept that what God’s up to in the world…and for that matter…God…is simply beyond us…and all we can do is admit that…and ask God to help us…and the really amazing thing about all this…is that I think Jesus FULLY realizes this.
Because Jesus doesn’t simply debate Nicodemus and then rip into him for not understanding…rather Jesus is trying to explain how the Spirit acts within the hearts and minds of individuals…making relationship possible…and making us heirs with Christ to the promise of eternal life. (pause)
You see…Nick came at this in the right way…regardless of his intentions or his sneaking around in the darkness of night…he comes to Jesus and calls him…rabbi…teacher…and in this one simple address, Nick admits that Jesus is one who’s authority is greater than his own…that Jesus is one that Nick can learn from…and then their debate simply shows us that Nick is trying to understand…but that this amazing truth is beyond him…and likewise it is beyond us…and Jesus admits it to us…
The wind blows where it chooses…and you hear the sound of it…but you DO NOT KNOW…where it comes from or where it goes…So it is with EVERYONE…who is born of the Spirit. (pause) And right after Jesus tells us this…he says the words that I no longer hear as a rebuke, but rather as evidence…You Nicodemus, you are a teacher of Israel, and this is beyond your ability to understand… (pause)
How many times have we read scripture and been confused by it? Or witnessed difficult things in life…disease and death…hardship and suffering…and we fail to understand it…and we wonder what is God up to in the world…what is going on? Just what is the Holy Spirit doing in all this? (pause) And we get nowhere with those questions.
And perhaps in those times…when we feel like we’re butting up against a wall…maybe, just maybe it feels like we’re in trouble…like God is mad at us…or that we’re not worthy of this amazing gift, because if we were we’d have it all figured out…and we sit there staring in our rear view mirror, shaking in our boots…and wondering just how much trouble we’re in…what we’re in store for…and expecting the worst.
That was my situation on that day back in August of 2013…knowing full well that I was driving too fast…and expecting a ticket…but then the officer came up to my window…having already run my plates and my driving record…and he gave me verbal warning…told me to go ahead but slow down….He might as well have been telling me to go forth and sin no more…not because of anything that I had done…but simply out of his good graces. (pause) and all I could think to myself is “You mean I’m not in trouble?” (pause)
And isn’t it wonderful that we have a God that loves us so much…that loves each and every one of us so much…a God that loves the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life…that whoever believes in him may not be punished…they are NOT in trouble.
This is what Jesus is telling us today…even those born of the Spirit…even those who believe that Jesus IS the son of God, lack understanding about just what God is up to…and that…is okay…because we don’t have to understand it…we don’t have to be able to explain it…because God has already done it…and the father sent the Son, not to condemn us…but to save us…
And so today, perhaps all we can do is thank God for the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives…here in the world…and through the power of the Holy Spirit we declare that Jesus is the son of God…sent by God in the world to redeem it out of love for us…and though we might not understand how it all works…and maybe it seems too good to be true…we can look to the Lord and say…You mean I’m not in trouble? And then we respond the only way we can…by saying thank you.
Amen.

A Significant Pause 5-17-15

This morning’s sermon came from Acts 1:15-17, 21-26. This is the single bit of scripture that sheds light on the pause between Jesus’ Ascension and the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The disciples appoint a replacement for Judas who had betrayed Jesus.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/a-significant-pause-5-17-15

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.
Before I dive in today…we need to do just a touch of housekeeping…I’m actually going to be gone on vacation over the course of the next week…and therefore I won’t be here next Sunday to lead worship and preach. (pause) Now I worked really hard trying to find a guest to come in and pick up the reigns for the week…leading and preaching…but unfortunately I wasn’t able to find anyone.
Admittedly I was feeling horrible about all this…until first thing this morning as I was looking over the text out of Acts…and I realized that God was providing the perfect answer to this mystery…the perfect example of how to proceed…by chance and casting lots. And so I grabbed a random bulletin…and drew a big star on the inside…right next to where it says Underwood Lutheran Church…so everyone grab your bulletin and open it up and take a look…
Who’s got the one with the star? (pause and wait for them to id themselves) Okay great…God has appoint you…you will be our worship leader and preacher next Sunday…so get prepared…clearly God thinks you’re capable. (pause)
Okay…clearly I’m kidding here…we would never leave something like that up to chance would we? (pause) What a crazy way to fill a position of leadership…and yet…isn’t that exactly what happens in the midst of today’s lesson? (pause) Now admittedly, I went out of the ordinary today…as it is certainly normal for me to base the sermon off of the gospel lesson assigned each week…but as today marks a transition in several different respects…I thought I’d switch things up just a bit.
Today is of course our final Sunday of regular programming and education…and in addition, today is also the final Sunday of the season of Easter. Next week marks Pentecost and the beginning of the longest stretch of a single church season for the year…and since we are looking towards the season where we will focus on the continued growth of the church…it seemed fitting today to focus on this transitional text out of Acts.
Now Acts itself is part of a two volume book, the first being the Gospel of Luke…both of which are written to the same individual as a way of telling the truth of Christ…first off his life and ministry, then his death and resurrection within the Gospel…and now here in Acts the transition of leadership over to the Apostles and then the steady growth of the early church.
And that being said, this first chapter of Acts really sets up the transition…as it opens with Jesus still present, but taking the remaining 11 disciples out a stones throw from Jerusalem where he flat out tells them that “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And literally as he’s saying this, he is taken up into Heaven…commonly known as the Ascension…and we know from the scriptures that this occurred 40 days after the resurrection…actually just this past week…just a couple days ago, we celebrated this day…and then we hear that the 11 disciples headed back into the city where Jesus had told them to stay until the Holy Spirit came upon them.
Now we know that happens at Pentecost…which we’ll celebrate next Sunday…but right now…in this moment…we find ourselves in the lull…in the break between the Ascension and Pentecost…between the presence of Jesus in the world…and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the world…something that can best be described as a Significant Pause in the work of God here within our reality…a brief moment…a tiny blip on the cosmic radar…10 days when the disciples are on their own…just waiting…and not really knowing what to do.
And today’s passage offers us the single bit of scripture that sheds any sort of light what so ever on the activity of the disciples during this time…during this significant pause in God’s work…and as we see…the main thing on their minds is the Judas situation…but if we think about it…can’t we boil that down to the issue of an open ministry position? (pause)
Isn’t it funny that even back then…administrative type issues were the first thing on the minds of church leadership…some things never change do they? (pause) And so…baring any other direction from the Lord in the mean time…they take matters in their own hands in order to keep moving forward…and they pretty much hold the single strangest election for a leadership role that I have ever seen….Let us cast lots to see who God has chosen.
And this essentially means that they stick two rocks in a jar…one with the name of Matthias…and one with the name of Justus…and they shake the jar until one of the rocks falls out…MATTHIAS!!!! We see that God has chosen you to take the place of Judas…and Justus…well sorry…we’ll give you the title of honorary patron saint for the silver medalist. (pause)
All jokes aside…isn’t that sort of telling of the human condition…even here in the church…that in the moments when God takes a break…in the moments of a significant pause, we feel the need to keep moving…to jump right away…to do what seems important to us at the time…rather than simply waiting for what God will reveal.
Admittedly, I often find myself chuckling at things like this…particularly here in the early chapters of the book of Acts…as this small ragtag batch of followers…people who have been traipsing along after Jesus for a few years take the reigns…and try their best…but some of these early stories are almost laughable…they throw dice to appoint a new apostle…then in a week the Holy Spirit shows up and they are accused of public intox…and people on both sides of the coin…followers of Jesus as well as his most ardent opponents…including this random guy named Saul who starts off by rounding up believers…it seems like every single thing that they do…crazy as it might seem…ends up getting used by God to move the kingdom forward. (pause)
But it doesn’t always happen in ways that we would expect does it? Take this whole appointment of Matthias thing…they put a whole bunch of stock in the need to fill the hole in the ministry left by Judas…a ministry that he had participated in…that he had shared…this ministry that Jesus told us included serving one another and serving the world…but now Judas is gone, so a game of rock paper scissors raises up a new guy…a different guy…someone with completely different skills and gifts and experiences…
And then…quite literally…we never hear about him again. Never once…Matthias is never named in the scriptures after this moment…sure he did important work for the kingdom…serving as a fellow witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ…but just what this work was? Well, we don’t know…because he has joined in the countless number of individuals to share the name Christian…as one of the fellow workers as members of the body of Christ.
Matthias was appointed…he stepped into a vacant role…and did his best…but then he died…and eventually someone else stepped into that role…a new individual with different talents and gifts and experiences…and so on…and so forth.
And when we think about it…isn’t that the exact same thing we have continued to do, down through more than 2000 years of Church history and right up to today…we have continued this same tradition of asking God to help us appoint someone new to fill the vacancies…and despite all of our failings…and all of our mistakes…God has continued to grow the church…to spread the good news of Jesus Christ…and half the time, if scripture is to be believed…the spread occurs in the midst of our best efforts to hinder it…intended or not.
And not even the odd examples of our limited human attempts to keep things moving in the midst of God’s significant pauses…the church has continued. (pause) And as we consider this truth…isn’t it a joy to realize that we have a God who not only cares enough about our reality…and about this crazy batch of lifeforms known as the human race to continue to work in and through us…but we have a God who cares enough to stop…to pause…and notice us as individuals…even though our lifetimes are simply a blip on that cosmic radar screen. (pause)
Others have come before us…and others will come along behind…and we have our moments here…in this life. For example…there have been 15 pastors of Underwood Lutheran church starting back in the 1920’s and leading up to me as number 16…and other than a couple of brief interactions with my immediate predecessor…I have no idea about those who have come before…whether they are alive or dead…what their interests are or were…I don’t know anything about them…and I’m guessing that at least for the first few…none of you know anything about them either…
It could almost be like they never existed…yet they did…and the church…not just Underwood Lutheran…but the church as a whole is different…is changed because of the work that God did through them…and likewise it is the same with each and every one us…We have a God who stops…who pauses and notices us…and not only that…but we have a God who delights in us…and choses to work through us each and every day…whether we realize it or not…
And as the years…and the decades…and even the centuries go by until that glorious day when Jesus returns from Heaven…the church will march on…and as one individual falls out of a role for whatever reason…another individual will step into it with new ideas and gifts and talents…and God will bless that…just as God has blessed all of those who have come before.
And while one day our names may be forgotten to those who come after us…we can rest assured that through the saving work of Jesus Christ…we will not be forgotten by our God…for to God…we are significant…each and every one of us. Amen.

So Simple and Yet Not 5-10-15

In this sermon based on John 15:9-17 I explore Jesus commandment to love one another and that this is how we abide in the love of God.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/so-simply-and-yet-not-5-10-15

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
We all have things in life that we are good at…things that take little to no effort to achieve…things where we excel…and for me, all the way through school…math was one of those things for me. I had a knack for it…I could pick up a lesson easily…and complete the daily assignment while others in the class were still listening to the teacher explaining the process for solving whatever type of problem it was that we were working on.
And one thing that I always enjoyed was how the process of learning math was cumulative…one thing pretty much always relied on the previous lessons that we had learned…going all the way back to the simple equation that pretty much any kindergarten student can solve…that 1 + 1 = 2. This notion that if you have 1 thing…and you put it together with another thing…then you have 2 things…Simple right?
And yet as the years went by and the lessons continued…things got more complicated…additional and subtraction of single digits leads to multiplication…and then long division…and then onto to things like fractions…and least common denominators…and conversions of measurements…and we keep going into algebraic expressions…solving for the unknown…and then onto geometry…and writing out complex proofs using concepts like the prothagorian theorm…and while that was about the extent of where my mathematical education ended…I know that it goes far beyond my understanding to things like quantum mechanics…used to calculate the behavior of things as big as the universe and as tiny as sub-atomic particles.
And I’ve been thinking about this type of thing lately…this notion that in mathematics, everything continues to build on the lessons that have come before…because there are many days when I sit at the table with my son, helping him work through his math homework…and its been a good reminder for me to see how one lesson builds on the previous lesson…to remember why its so important to learn these various ideas and notions and processes…because understanding the next one is going to depend on you first understanding this one…and all of it…every single bit of it all the way up to that super complex stuff that we catch glimpses within the conversations on Big Bang Theory…trickles all the way back to that simple expression that I mentioned earlier…that if you have one thing…and you put it together with another thing…you have two things… 1+1=2.
Simple right…absolutely…until I drop the bomb that even between these two incredible simple numbers…1 and 2, there is an infinite amount of values…and infinite amount of numbers that lie between 1 and 2. (pause) So simple…and yet…not (pause) Mind blown? Yah…mine too. (pause)
Now I bring all this up for two reasons…First off…this idea that in math, one thing builds on the thing before…and even though they might seem very similar, you have to go through one before you can get to the other…and this is where I’m going to connect into the gospel lesson for today…John 15:9-17…which if you were here last week…probably sounds extremely familiar…and it should…because last week’s gospel was John 15:1-8…and pretty much everything about these two different lessons is pretty similar….same setting…same person talking…same audience…(pause) same subject matter.
Jesus talking to the disciples at the last supper…just before his arrest and death…talking about the notion of abiding. (pause) And so if you were sitting there a moment ago as I read the gospel thinking man this sounds familiar…it should…because there was no break in the action…Jesus was sitting there at supper with the disciples talking…and he probably didn’t even pause for a breathe between verse 8 and verse 9, even though for us today, a week has gone by between hearing “my father is glorified in this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” and “as the father has loved me, so I loved you.”
But here’s the big connection…last week we heard about abiding…about being in relationship…about remaining with God…being connected to God just as the branches of a grape are connected to the vine and to the roots…last week we talked a lot about that…about just what it means to be connected…to remain…why its important…and how we do it. (pause)
And now this week, Jesus moves forward…building on what we heard before and adding to it just a little bit more…for Jesus tells us to abide…in his love…the love that originated from the Father…that moves through the relationship between the father and the son…and likewise from the son to each one of us…abide in his love. (pause)
At first glance…it sounds pretty simple right? So simple that someone much smarter than me wrote a song that pretty much every preschool student in Sunday School can likely sing for you. (sing) Jesus loves me this I know…for the Bible tells me so…
And so we rest in the love of Jesus…the love of God that offered freely to each and one of us…easy right? Its so simple…except…not. (pause)
And here’s the second reason that I started off today by talking about math…because abiding in the love of God is both super easy…and super complicated all at the same time…just like math. (pause)
Because just what it mean? This statement…this order…this commandment of Jesus to abide in the love of God? What does it really mean? To be loved by the creator of the universe…to be the object of love and affection…to be the object of delight in the eyes of the one that made us? And how do we LIVE in that love? Is it simple enough to profess it…that yes, I am a beloved child of God?
Or does it go beyond that? To the point that we have to understand it…that we have to know where it comes from…or why? Or How? Is that a requirement…a prerequisite to abiding in the love of God expressed through Jesus Christ? (pause)
Or on the flip side…is it really as easy as it sounds? Yes Jesus loves me. (pause) It can’t be that simple can it? It has to be way more complicated than that right? (pause) I’ve posed that question before…and actually many times downstairs during education time as we’ve explored the scriptures together…can it really be that simple…can it really boil all the way down to that simple notion that God loves me? (pause)
Because if that’s really the case…then why the heck is this book (hold up the Bible) so darn thick? (pause) Why are there so many stories…and rules…and prophecies…why are there so many examples of God’s judgement…and of people going to war…of oppression and pain and suffering all within this one big thing often times called “The Good Book.” How can that be? (pause) And can we really boil it all down to the simple notion of God loves me? (pause)
And here’s the kicker…here’s how I answer that question whenever I encounter it…either from someone else…or when it pops up within my own head…yes and no. (pause) And yes you heard correctly…can we boil down all of scripture and faith and the church and the questions and answers and theology and dogma and liturgy and sacraments and everything in between to God loves me…yes…and…no.
Because faith is both incredibly easy….while simultaneously being the most mind blowingly complicated thing that I have ever encountered. (pause) But I think Jesus knew that…when he was addressing the disciples…because as he starts talking about abiding in the love of God, he gives us something that actually seems to serve as a pretty straightforward command…instructions that aren’t really that difficult to understand…and in true Jesus fashion…he repeats himself a couple times. Keep my commandments…and you will abide in my love…and this is the commandment…love each other. Period. (pause)
Simple right…and yet…not. (pause) Simple because at first glance love seems easy…and when we are in a situation where there is mutual love…well then it is simple…because its easy to return love for love…but Jesus talks about more than that…and Jesus tells us that we are to love everyone…even those that hate us…and the amazing thing about it is that we see Jesus boil down all of that stuff…theology and doctrine and rules and regulations in one simple statement…Lord, what is the most important commandment…Love God…and then love your neighbor as yourself…period. (pause)
Its not conditional…its not contingent…Jesus simply instructs us to love each other…that’s how we abide…and that is how the world will see that we are something different…that we are something new…that the love of God expressed in Christ Jesus within our lives as believers has made us into something other than what we were before…that we love where the world hates and schemes and plots…that the light of Christ does shine in our lives…in and through the darkness that we all experience and at times…embody.
And in the midst of all this…that our joy…that joy we find in knowing that there is more than what we can see now…that there is hope for the life to come…that we are not alone in the midst of the pain and sorrow that we experience in this life…that this joy is just another sign that we are abiding in the love of God…and finally this joy in knowing that all of this…is not up to us in the first place.
Jesus tells us that we do NOT choose him…but he has chosen us…he has loved US first…and asks only that we mirror that love outwards…that we reflect the love of God for us…so that this world of darkness may see His light…may witness His love…and one glorious day ALL the world may come to know that this love we reflect…this love we abide in…this love of God that we claim…is intended for all the world…each and every one individual…because we are each fearfully and wonderfully made by the one that delights in us…
That’s faith…that’s abiding…both incredibly easy and incredibly difficult all at the same time…but praise be to God that we don’t have to understand it to make it true…we just have to live in it…regardless of if we think its simple…or not…Amen.

Just Abide Already 5-3-15

This morning’s sermon comes from John 15:1-8, which is the parable of the vine and branches. This sermon happens in the context of Confirmation Sunday.

You can listen to the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/just-abide-already-5-3-15

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
My first foray into living on my own was May 1998. I was 19 years old, and I departed my parents’ house for the first time to live on my own…and let me tell you…I was really venturing out…to Bible Camp…10 minutes from home…and it was only for a few months (pause) Impressive right?
Now my second time moving out was a little more extensive. It was a little over a year later…August of 1999…I had graduated from community college, and I was heading off to Ames to finish up my Bachelor’s degree at the one and only Iowa State University. For the first time, I would out of my regular stomping grounds…3 hours away…on my own.
My plan as of the night before moving to Ames…was to load up my car, and my brother was going to load up the rest of my stuff in his truck…and he would then follow me down to Ames and help me move in…but keep in mind I was moving into a dorm room…so I didn’t need everything under the sun…And even though the piles and boxes looked pretty extensive sitting on my bedroom floor…when I got started packing the car…somehow it all fit…and I called up my brother to let him know “Hey…don’t need you this time…I got it all in the car.” His reply “Alrighty…guess you don’t need me…good luck bro.” And he hung up.
And I…got in my car…and started that three hour drive. Now here’s the thing. I knew where I was going…I knew where my dorm was, even where my room was…but I think I was counting on my big brother for something other than just help moving…I think I was counting on him to be that last cord of connection to home…and him being there as I moved into the dorm and got settled…but instead…I was on my own.
And the longer I drove…the closer I got to Ames…the more nervous I got…and as the minutes clicked by I got worse…and worse…and worse…thinking that I was in over my head…and that my safety net was too far away…and that I had no idea what I was really in for…and then after awhile I saw a road sign. Ames…26 miles…and the nerves went up to here (level at chest)…and then a couple minutes later…Ames…10 miles…and the nerves were here (level at eyes)…and then I saw Ames Exit (level above head)…and a couple minutes later I parked my car outside of Helser Hall…and walked up 4 flights of stairs…around a corner…and down my hallway…and the nerves…well by that point they were through the roof…and I was scared to death… (pause)
And now I’m gonna switch gears…over into the gospel…and perhaps you’re wondering just what the heck my first move to Ames has to do with Jesus being the vine…and that is a great question…the connection here today isn’t so much this brief passage about vines and branches…but instead it’s the setting. You see this passage takes place in the midst of Jesus’ farewell address to the disciples at the last supper…a long moment of teaching…one last time before they head out to the Garden where Jesus will be arrested…and then he’ll be crucified…and he’ll be dead…and so in order to take full advantage of the tiny amount of time that they have left together Jesus lays out his final teaching for these men that he loves so much.
And throughout the course of this entire section of scripture…Jesus continues to tell them things like “I am only with you a little while longer” or “Now you see me, but soon you will not see me any longer” and “Soon you will be scattered…each to your own home.” (pause)
Think about how that must have come across to the disciples…they’ve been together 3 years…following Jesus around…they’ve been in community…and yes, they’ve seen some amazing things…had some amazing experiences…but throughout this entire time Jesus has been with them…and now he’s saying that’s coming a close? (pause) How can that be? (pause)
Because remember…they don’t know what’s coming…We say Last Supper…and we know what that means…that 24 hours later Jesus is dead…and then a couple days after that he’s alive again…but just like me driving closer and closer to Ames and finally walking into that dorm for the first time…the disciples have NO IDEA what’s coming next…and to hear that Jesus is going to be gone…their teacher…their master…the one who was always there to help make sense of things…is no longer going to be there to bail them out…to act as their safety net…they are gonna be on their own. (pause)
Now I think that the common tendency for us today is to think that the disciples had it all together by this time…or if not…then when Jesus is resurrected and appears to them that explains everything and they’ve got everything under control. Isn’t that true? Don’t we tend to think that…and maybe not just about the disciples but about all those Biblical Bigwig names that we hear…Moses…and David…Solomon…Elijah…and Peter and Paul…And James and John….they were all Biblical super heroes right? (pause) Or were they? (pause)
This past year in our confirmation class…we explored the Biblical narrative as deeply as we could in the time allowed…we covered a lot of stories involving a lot of individuals…many of whom I just named…and as we continued through the year…lesson after lesson…story after story…character after character…there was a theme there…one that the students and adults came to expect…and that theme is this…that God always seems to use the least likely person…the person who doesn’t have everything figured out…the person who has issues…and questions…and concerns…and problems.
And as we talked about that theme, over and over again…we also talked about how that applies to our lives…that we are called into a life of following Christ, just as those 12 disciples did…and not only are we called into it…but we share the struggle of the unknown…the struggle of not have all the answers…the struggle of having questions…make no mistake…we are more closely connected to the disciples sitting there at the table listening to Jesus than we might realize. (pause)
Now speaking of confirmation…today is of course a very special day for these 8 young people sitting in the front pews today…a day when they will stand up in the front of this sanctuary…and together they will affirm the promises made for them by their parents in the waters of their baptism…they will stand before you as a congregation…and they will stand before God while they do this. (pause)
One of the last things that they did in preparation for this day was to write a statement of belief…a statement that takes an honest look at where they are in their lives of faith today…after 2 years of confirmation instruction…and 14 or so years of growing up in the church.
My one bit of instruction for the students before leaving them to write their statements was “do not try to impress me. I’m not interested in fluff that you think I want to hear. I’m interested in hearing an honest statement of what you think about all this stuff.” And I was fascinated to read what they had to say.
There was a theme of belief that God is real…and is present. There was another theme that we live this life…and then there is something more to come…but we don’t know what it will be like…there was a random theme that they like turtles…inside joke…and finally there was a common theme of questions that the kids still have…ambiguity about all this stuff…how it works, or why…acknowledging the sense of mystery that surrounds our lives of faith.
Now all 8 statements were very good…and very honest…and there was one that seemed to encompass this sense of the unknown…and I’d like to share just a portion of it. “I wonder why this dude would send his only begotten son to die on the cross for our sins…it just boggles my mind. The way that God chose that people that you wouldn’t think that he would choose.”
Truly this stuff is a mystery to understand…but isn’t it wonderful that we don’t have to understand it…yet God chooses us anyway…Jesus himself says this to the disciples during this time…You did not choose me…but I chose you…and just as He chose those men to be in relationship…likewise God has chosen you. (pause)
But now let’s come back around full circle…because admittedly I haven’t been talking much about our specific passage today…but there is a connection…a very great one…and we find it within the repetition of the passage. Abiding.
As Jesus prepares to leave these men…he tells them over and over again to abide…Abide in me and I abide in you. You are the branches…abide in the vine…abide and bear much fruit…abide abide abide…and since this isn’t a word that we really use all that much…perhaps you’re wondering just what it means…and it means to remain…or to live with…or to be in relationship with…essentially…just as the branches must remain connected to the grapevine in order to live and bear fruit…we too must remain connected to the source of life…and we hear today that this is Christ himself.
And perhaps this seems a little strange for Jesus to tell them to remain connected to him when he’s about to leave them…and likewise its confusing for us to hear the same thing knowing that Christ has long since returned to heaven. And so we wonder is Jesus making some sort of joke here?
And the answer is no…because through Christ we are given many ways to remain in relationship. He tells us that his word abides in us…and through the scriptures we see this is true…and through Christ we can approach our Father in heaven through prayer…we have direct access to God…and finally through the body of Christ here on earth…through one another, united by the power of the Holy Spirit we remain together…we live together…we abide together…connected to one another…but more importantly connected to Jesus…the one who calls himself I am.
And this connection…this life together…this abiding in one another…its not conditional…we don’t have pass a test…we don’t have to earn it…its offered freely to us…and in the waters of our baptisms we join in this community…we join in this life together…we join in this connection…and we are not alone…for in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit we are in relationship.
I want to go back to that story that I started in the beginning…You might recall that I was walking down the hallway of my dorm for the first time…scared out of my mind…but then as I approached my door, even before I stepped through it…I heard two familiar voices…two friends that I already knew…close friends who were now my roommates…and as I heard those voices, and I stepped around the corner and saw their faces I knew I wasn’t in this alone…but that we were in it together…even if we didn’t know what to expect. And at that moment, I knew…in spite of all the questions and fears and doubts…that it was gonna be okay.
As I look out there today, and see the 8 of you sitting there…wondering just what all this faith stuff is all about…and wondering just how it all works…rest easy in knowing that you are a part of something bigger than just you…you are connected to this community…you are connected to the church…the body of Christ on earth…and this is a place where you can live with your questions…where its okay that things don’t always make sense…so live in it…be connected to it…remain in it…Just abide already. Amen.