Archive for February, 2016

Lets Do Some Tending 2-28-16

In this sermon, based on Luke 13:1-9, I explore the odd parable of the fig tree. Jesus uses this parable to teach against the notion that tragic deaths are the result of sin, for we are all equally sinful.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/lets-do-some-tending-2-28-16

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

Growing up, I as quite the daredevil. I was constantly going too, jumping off things…swinging from trees…you name it I probably did it…and because of this, I have probably had way more “close calls” than I will ever realize.

But there are two instances in my life to this point that I certainly do recognize as being close calls. Many of you know about one, when I nearly drowned while swimming one summer day. The other one happened the summer after I graduated high school…as I, along with three of my friends were roadtripping from the Okoboji area up to Sioux Falls for the day, and due to a blown tire, we ended rolling our car a couple times down the middle of the high way.

Scary to be sure…but in hindsight the cost was pretty low. The car itself was totaled…no big surprise there…but in terms of injuries, one guy put his hand through a window needing some stiches…another guy ended up with a pretty good shiner from getting smacked in the face by something flying around in the car…the third guy got the back of his head scrapped up when the roof of the car caved in and hit him…and me…sitting in the passenger seat…well I suffered 2 small scratches on my knee…not even deep enough to draw blood.

All in all, we were really lucky…it could have been way worse…and many times in the years since, as I have talked about that day, I’ve often said “Somebody was watching over me that day.” (pause) But what if that wasn’t actually the case…what if it wasn’t some miracle of God’s hand protecting the 4 of us, and especially me, from all harm in that accident…what if it wasn’t the presence of anywhere from 1-4 guardian angels protecting us from danger…What if maybe…just maybe…we were simply…lucky? (pause) Any single change in circumstance could have made the outcome of that accident a whole lot worse…any us could have been drastically injured…or worse yet, any of us…or all of us could have been dead in an instant…no warning…alive and kicking one second, and gone in the next. (pause)

Last Thursday, it happened again…a troubled individual, for whatever reason, pulled out a gun and started shooting…4 people are dead…14 injured…countless more traumatized but physically unharmed…and there is no way to determine why each person received their personal outcome. Were some better people than the others…and so they were unharmed? Were others a little shady and so they were injured? And finally those who died? Did they deserve it? (pause)
This seems to be the question that Jesus faces in the opening portion of today’s gospel…when certain individuals bring up a recent tragedy from the local Jerusalem news…that a batch of Galileans were murdered by Herod while they were making sacrifices in the temple…and since this was such a horrific thing to happen…truly they must have deserved it right? Truly for God to allow this, they must have been sinners. (pause)
This is an old notion…that God will visit the sins of the ancestor upon the children of the 3rd and 4th generation…while turning his graciousness to the 1000th generation of those who love him. It was so culturally engrained into the Jewish people that Jesus has faced similar questions before…when faced with a man born blind, Jesus was asked “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born this way?”

This may have been a culturally acceptable way to think about things…but Jesus…isn’t…having it. Do you think that these men alone were sinners among all other Galileans? (pause) And then he throws out another one…when the tower of Siloam, an old landmark just outside of Jerusalem tumbled down unexpectedly, killing 18 people…do you think they were sinful and deserved more than anyone else who happened to come through that tragedy unscathed?

Jesus poses both of these questions…and answered it with a resounding NO. These poor souls were no more and no less sinful than anyone else…they simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time…and for them…in that instant…life in this flawed twisted broken reality…ended. (pause) And then, Jesus hits those he’s talking to with another major blow…unless you repent you will die as they did…maybe in a tragic way…or maybe in some other way…but unless you repent, you too will die. (pause)

Now here’s a weird thing about this…no sooner does Jesus make this bold statement…but without any sort of explanation, he switches gears and tells a parable about a landowner who gets ticked off at a fig tree that has failed to produce any fruit for several years…and he orders it cut down…Why should we waste the soil on this useless tree?

But the gardener speaks up…My master…give it one more year…let us till the soil around it…and fertilize it…and let’s see what happens. If again it produces nothing, cut it down, but if it does, how good will that be? (pause)

My first thought upon reading this passage earlier this week was that this was two different situations that were stuck together for no good reason at all…because at first glance it really seems like the parable has nothing to do with what Jesus was previously talking about…but then I got to thinking about what happens to a tree when you cut it down…it dies…and even though this tree has yet to produce any fruit, its only three years old…this tree is still young…and to cut it down now would be very similar to any one of those people who were unexpectedly cut down in the midst of their lives. (pause)
And if that’s the case, well then we better start asking the normal question of just what is this parable trying to tell us? On one hand, perhaps that our lives can be snatched from us at any moment, regardless of if we are bearing fruit or not…regardless of if we are a good person or not…life ends.

Perhaps a different question to ask then, based on this parable, is what is the fruit that the master is looking for? And as I thought about that question I was reminded of another statement from John the Baptist…Bear fruit worthy of repentance…and funny, isn’t that sort of what Jesus was saying before…that unless you repent you will die as they did? (pause)
Here’s the thing…before we can repent…we need to recognize the problem…call it whatever you will…sin…harming others…selfishness…we can cover the gambit…but we need to recognize the flaws within us before we can repent of them…before we can turn away from them…before we can fix our eyes on the one who is able to overcome our failings and flaws. In short…this fruit that I’m talking about…its faith…our faith grows within us…but not by anything we are doing…it is a gift…a gift that needs to be tended.

That’s what the gardener is asking the Master for…give me a year to tend to this tree and let’s see what happens…It may work…it may not, but only time will tell. (pause) Now granted…if we’re talking about a fruit tree, its pretty easy to tell whether or not there is in fact, fruit there.

But when we are talking about the lives of an individual…well that can be a little harder to tell sometimes…because sometimes faith is a tiny voice inside their head that says “maybe Jesus is Lord, Lord save me.” And on the other end of the spectrum might be someone who wears their faith right out there for all to see…the fruit looks different, and sometimes we can’t even see it…but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.

And so it begs the question…just what does tending to faith really mean? And perhaps another question to ask, who are we? Are we the gardener who needs to do some tending? Or are we the tree that needs to be tended…and truthfully…I’m pretty sure we’re both at the same time.

Sometimes we need to be tended…and that can be as simple as being honest with ourselves and repenting…of admitting that I can’t do this alone and I have failed and I need my savior.

But other times, we’re called to tend to others…and Jesus gave us a pretty clear command on this. Go therefore and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the father and the son and the holy spirit…and in a few minutes we’ll do just that…as Henry Sampson is brought up to this font by his parents and his godparents…and together we will ALL make promises to help him be raised in a life of faith…His parents will make promises…his godparents will make promises…and together we, will make promises to tend to him…because in this moment, he’s not able to do that for himself is he? But we can do it for him.

Now here’s the thing…Jesus promises us that the holy spirit comes upon us in the waters of our baptism…and that the Father claims us as his beloved child…and that one day, after we experience our own physical death, that we will join with Christ in a resurrection like his. This is a wonderful promise…one that we proclaim at every baptism…when we recognize that God is the one doing the work here…but that he also invites us to join in it.

Today, we will make a promise to tend to the life of faith of Henry Sampson…we don’t know if it will bear fruit or not…that isn’t for us to know at this point…but despite our inability to see the outcome in the long run…its still a blessing to invited by God…to tend to this life…and so now…together…let’s sing a song…and then we’ll get to the important work…Let’s do some tending. Amen.

What Are You Afraid Of 2-21-16

In this sermon, based on Luke 13:31-35, I discuss the paralyzing nature of fear and pose the question of what is it that you as an individual, are afraid of?

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/what-are-you-afraid-of-2-21-16

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

To start…a disclaimer. It is never my intention to utilize this pulpit as a place to get political. Additionally, I have had conversations with many of you sitting out there today when I have expressed the utter distaste for politics in general…and especially politics during election years. Honestly, I don’t have a lot of patience for it, and more often than not, political candidates on both sides of the aisle irritate me when I listen to them.

That being said, I’m going to site a specific candidate, who’s actions and words this past week highlight a pretty important point that I want to address today. Please take note, that if this happens to be the candidate you support, I’m not trying to take a shot at you or your views…nor am I trying to sway anyone’s opinion here today…let me be clear…that is not…I repeat not…my intention.

Earlier this week, Pope Francis made a comment regarding foreign policy, and his belief that anyone who wants to build a wall on our border to keep people out can’t be considered a Christian. And though he didn’t name names, it was pretty clear that he had Donald Trump in mind. Trump didn’t take kindly to that and issued a statement at the Pope’s expense saying that without strong foreign policy, ISIS will eventually attack the Vatican.

Now maybe Trump knows something I don’t. That is certainly possible. But I bring this up because it really seems that he was making a wild accusatory statement intended only to cause alarm…to raise our fear level…and that right there, is the aspect of election year politics that irritates me to no end…this idea that all I have to do is make you afraid of the other option…raise your level of apprehension…appeal to that voice in the back of your head that speaks out of fear…because if I can you make you afraid of the other side or the other candidate and what they might just do to infringe on you and your fears…well then I can put your vote in my pocket…I’ll go on record today, my observation is that our political landscape is dominated by this tactic…betting on fear. (pause)
Now I bring this all up today, because fear tactics seem to be on display within the gospel lesson. Admittedly, this is a bit of an odd little passage…right in the midst of Jesus’ ministry…as he has set his face towards Jerusalem and the reality of his mission that will culminate there…Jesus encounters a handful of Pharisees…representatives of the very group that we typically consider to be his opponents…and they play the fear card.

Get away from here…for Herod wants to kill you. (pause) This passage is strange for a lot of reasons. First off, what’s up with these particular Pharisees…are they working for Herod…trying to get Jesus to back off…or on the flip side is this a legitimate warning, with Jesus’ best interests in mind? And we don’t know…only that we hear the warning. And so if we read between the lines just a bit, what’s really going on here? Jesus has stated multiple times that he’s heading towards Jerusalem…to the capital…the home of the temple…the very place where his opponents tend to hang out…in short…the single most dangerous place he could probably go…and so this cryptic warning from the Pharisees might as well be saying “Whatever you do…DO NOT…go to Jerusalem…or you are a dead man.” (pause)

And the fact of the matter is that they’re right aren’t they? We know that…we know what happens in Jerusalem don’t we? But in that moment…it hadn’t happened yet…and the only thing that we have to go on is this hint of danger from Herod’s direction…as well as Jesus’ own words about the danger for a prophet there in the city.

And strangely enough, the two are connected…For Herod is the “king” if we can call him that…he’s actually a Roman stooge…loyal to the empire, yet taking full advantage of the political benefit that he get’s from being in this position…and we do know that he’s got a least some power and prestige…he’s got status…he’s got influence…he’s got riches…in short…he’s got something to lose…and as strong as positions of power might initially seem at first glance…history has shown us that it doesn’t take much to lose all that.

Likewise…history also sheds some light on that odd ball comment Jesus makes about prophets dying in Jerusalem. For if we look back through Israel’s history…we see that the prophets really came to prominence about the same time that the nation started having kings…and the voice of God spoke through the prophets…often times at the expense of whatever guy was currently sitting on the throne…For if they failed to lead the people faithful in God’s eyes…God sent a prophet to tell them…and if the king didn’t really appreciate the message…the easiest way to close it down is to shoot the messenger…quite literally. And so throughout history we see the prophets come to an end in Jerusalem when they cross paths with the monarch.

Oddly enough Herod even has personal history with this…remember John the Baptist? Well he crossed Herod…calling him out about his unlawful marriage to Herodias, the wife of his own brother…and since neither Herod nor Herodias really appreciated John’s words…low and behold…he ended up dead. (pause)

Now all of this history serves to point us towards one thing…those in power want to keep it…and they don’t want anything threatening the status quo…much less a popular prophet or rabbi traveling around…attracting crowds…and changing up the way that people think about how things are supposed to work.

And isn’t that the very basis of Jesus message when he proclaims to us that the kingdom has come near…that the world is in the process of a great reversal…that those who are poor in spirit…or hungry or thirsty…or persecuted…they are the very ones who he calls blessed…and on the flip side that those in power are called out…told straight up that they are missing the point and failing the people. (pause)

And if that’s the case…and secretly Herod felt threatened…just like all the religious leaders who seemed to have it in for Jesus…then maybe it makes sense that they try to scare him off. To keep him out of Jerusalem…to keep him away from those who might witness first hand, the results of this great reversal…maybe it makes sense that they would do anything in their power to avoid that which they fear the most…losing the power that the world has granted them. (pause)

Fear is a funny thing…on one hand, it can be one heck of a motivator…and on the other hand…it can utterly paralyze us. So now I’m going to pose a question…What are you afraid of? What are those things in life that can paralyze you…can trip you up…can keep you from acting or speaking? (pause)

I can give you some examples across the spectrum. Often times here in worship, I’ll stop and give you some pastor commentary…those thoughts that go through my head…but I certainly don’t share everything going through my head…and believe me…my brain is going a mile up a minute up here.

The biggest fear I have while leading worship is that I’ll mess something up. That I’ll skip an important part of the liturgy…or that I’ll call someone the wrong name…or that my sermon will get misplaced between the start of worship and the time to preach and I’ll have to wing it. Sometimes I’m afraid that I said the wrong words during the Apostles Creed…or that I mess up the Words of Institution…or that I’ll slip up and use off colored language…or I’ll drop the chalice of wine…or heaven forbid, I walk up here and start talking only to have you all start laughing because unbeknownst to me, my fly is down. (pause)

I wish I could say that I was making this list up…but I’m not…I have these thoughts almost every single week while I’m up here. Now funny enough…some of these things have happened. The first time I had a baptism, I called the child by the wrong name during the sermon about 4 times…Once I skipped a line in the words of institution…just a couple weeks ago I was uninformed about an announcement and got red in the face when I was corrected from the congregation. These things happen…and sure I was embarrassed…but I didn’t die…and we all had a laugh…and we moved on. It wasn’t the end of the world.

But as a pastor I have bigger fears than just a snafu in worship. I fear letting you down as a congregation. I fear making mistakes in my teaching and preaching and leading someone astray. I fear dropping the ball by focusing on one thing and missing something that turns out to be more important…but worst of all…the biggest fear that I have is to be misunderstood…or worse yet, to be perceived as an uncaring jerk…and I have fears in my personal life as well. Fears that I will fail as a husband or father…fears that I will make foolish decisions that will cause hardship for my family…fears of being a failure…fears that I might get sick…or worse yet that someone I care about will get sick and there is nothing I can do about it.

In short…like everyone else…I experience a lot of fear…and so I’ll ask the question again…be honest with yourself…what are you afraid of? What is that paralyzes you…or on the flip side what is that you are so scared of that you work your tail off in order to make sure that it never happens? (pause)

Now what if I told you that in the end…you have zero control over any of it? Things will happen…or on the flip side things that you fear may not happen for you…won’t. Accidents occur…tragedies occur. Jobs are lost. People are hurt. Disasters happen…and in the midst of all that…the world keep on spinning.

This is the reality that we face…and it can often be a very scary place. I’m guessing the world was a pretty scary place for Jesus too…because he was human like us…and he knew what was coming in Jerusalem…he knew the lengths that people would go to in order to keep their illusion of power intact…he knew that it would cost him his life…but as scary as I’m guessing that was for him…Jesus also knew that this was precisely what he called to do…this is who he was meant to be…this was the path that needed to happen to him in order to bring about a change within this scary world.

As we continue through this season of Lent, we grow ever closer to Jesus’ death on the cross…a death that had to happen in order to do something about that which is our greatest fear…and then on the third day his work is finished as he walks out of that tomb…having overcome the power of death…and by doing so making us a promise that we can count on…that in his death he draws all people to himself…he overcomes that which separates us from one another and from God…and he promises us that everything we are afraid of ultimately holds no power over us…but he shows us that God is the one who truly holds the power…and that this same God uses that power to overcome that which we fear.

Yes we still experience it…because we are still experiencing life in this broken world…but thanks be to God that he has also invited us into the action of reconciling it…and finally that he has promised us that even though we walk in dark scary valleys…even valleys that end in death…we are not alone…and somehow he has made it possible for us to come through it into his perfect light. Amen.

Will I Survive This 2-14-16

In this sermon, I explore the temptation of Jesus. This is the featured text for the first Sunday in Lent every year.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/will-i-survive-this-2-14-16

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.

Sometimes it floors me when I think back to the Millennium…and I realize just how long its been since we entered the 21st century…16 years ago…and things are vastly different than they were back then. One of the things that has changed so dramatically is the state of television…the bulk of tv shows, especially primetime shows were scripted back then…but in the year 2000, a new show came on that helped usher in the age of reality tv that we are so familiar with today…that show was Survivor…and the premise of this show, still running and just about to begin its 32nd season by the way…the premise, was quite simple…strand a bunch of people out in the middle of no where with hardly anything in terms of food and supplies…and see who can last the longest…and over the course of 40 days, let them gradually vote each other out of the game until there’s only one left and they are the sole survivor.

I was obsessed with this show for a while…I came into it a few years in and stuck with it up until just a couple years ago when I finally realized that every season is pretty much the same thing over and over again…but as obsessed as I was with it, I never tried out for it…I knew better…but I always wondered just what I would look like if I managed to go the full 40 days…and so for a long time, each every year when Lent kicked in…and different people would talk about giving something up…I always said I was giving up shaving just so I could see what 40 days of beard would look like…side note, I’ve never made it…16 days was longest I’ve ever managed…so I think its safe to say that if I can’t even make it 40 days without shaving…I certainly would fail to survive the actual experience…and some else would win the title of sole survivor.

That beings said…if there’s anyone who might just be able to endure the various hardships of 40 days in the middle of nowhere…with no supplies…no food…I guess today’s story shows us that Jesus might just make a pretty decent contestant.

Today, as we do on the first Sunday of Lent every year, we feature the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness…40 days…and Luke tells us that this wasn’t simply 40 days of fasting followed by 3 quick temptations…rather Luke tells us that the entire 40 days was filled with temptations…Jesus is out there alone for whatever reason…and Satan puts him through the ringer…and I’ve often wondered if there were moments during that time when Jesus asked the question “Will I survive this?”

I thought a lot about Luke’s emphasis on the 40 days of temptation that Jesus endured…wondering if the three temptations listed were it and those three lasted the 40 days…or if there were a lot of other temptations and these were simply the 3 that we hear about…I wonder if like Matthew tells us, that Jesus was out there fasting and Satan thought that hunger was a pretty powerful temptation to hit him with at the end of all that…and in short we don’t really know…only that these three temptations happen…but all I do know…is that it’s a good thing that it wasn’t me out there…because judging at how quickly my stomach starts growling on a daily basis…Satan probably could have tripped me up with that whole stones into bread thing by about noon on the first day…much less going 40 days without food. (pause)
But Jesus doesn’t go for it does he…nor does he fall to the other listed temptations. (pause) If you’re the son of God…turn these stones to bread. (pause) All the kingdoms of the world…I can give them to you…and all the glory that comes with it…if you’ll worship me. (pause) If you’re the son of God, throw yourself down from the temple…and he’ll send his angels to protect you. (pause)

We’re familiar with the 3 temptations aren’t we…we hear this story from the different gospels every year…we know how they go…and we know how Jesus resists…by quoting scripture…by throwing the word of God in Satan’s face…though interestingly enough…Satan uses the same tactic on him…he’s a crafty one that Satan. (pause)

But what interest me a little more is the way that things keep ramping up. With every passing temptation, Satan turns the screws a little bit more…taking up the intensity…and perhaps…the cost…Turn these stones into bread…You’re hungry…I can see that…in this first temptation…Satan uses physical need…something that we’ll all fall to…and as human Jesus was prone to this physical need as well…but the temptation is not in the hunger…the temptation is to use the power of God that lies with him…to twist God’s creation…that’s the cost here…it may seem minimal…it’ll only cost a couple of stones…and yet, what’s really happening would be Jesus deciding that these stones that God made to be stones, should be something else…that God’s creation isn’t good enough for him.

Well what about temptation number two? Satan shows off the kingdoms of the world…and reveals that, for the time being anyway, he holds dominion in this world…and he can give the power to anyone he chooses…and all Jesus has to do is ask. (Pause) So what’s the temptation here? Seems to be the desire for power…or advancement or glory here on earth…and we can probably relate to that can’t we? But then what’s the cost here? Well once again, it seems to be the notion that what God intended us to be, isn’t good enough…that want more than what we already have…that our pride craves the power that this world can offer…instead of being content with what we are given. (pause)

Well now what about number 3? When Satan hauls Jesus off to Jerusalem and sets him on the top of the temple…Hey son of God…jump off…because if you are REALLY who you say you are…then God’s not let anything happen to you…If he REALLY loves you like you say, then he’ll protect you…go ahead…prove it.

And once again, what’s the cost here? Seems to be forcing God’s hand…demanding divine intervention to prove something…and ironically, it would simply be proving something that not only Jesus already knows…but that Satan already knows as well…and so what good would that do? (pause)

These are the temptations that Jesus faces while he’s in the wilderness, just trying to physically survive…and its funny how Satan targets us when we’re weak just as Jesus was weak with hunger…but then he hits us when we’re strong…like when Jesus resisted the previous temptation…because as I said, that Satan…he’s a crafty one…so crafty in fact that he doesn’t just tempt us when we seem susceptible…he’s tempting us all the time…and if we look at the rest of Jesus’ ministry…the rest of the story right up until his death…the temptation continues…its even in the same form…it just comes from a slightly different source.

Turn these stones into bread…meet the physical need that humanity shares…temptation number 1…now think of what happened after Jesus fed a crowd of 5000 people with a few loaves and fish…they kept hounding him…so much so that he scolded them saying “you’re not following because of the sign…but because you ate your fill and now you’re hungry again…Jesus…meet our need. (pause)

All the kingdoms of the world I will give to you…take the power of the world…temptation number 2…and now think of the Jewish notion of the Messiah…the great earthly ruler who would reestablish the throne of Israel…who would cast out the Romans and place Judah at the head of all nations…Jesus…take power…and elevate us with you. (pause)

If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down…use your divine influence to save yourself…temptation number 3…which if you recall, happens in Jerusalem…the same place where Jesus hangs from a cross and hears the taunts “If you are the Messiah save yourself…come down from there…if you are able.” (pause)

Some scholars have suggested that these three temptations were only foreshadowing to the temptations that Jesus would constantly face during his ministry…right up to the moment when he dies on the cross…and there might just be some merit to that if we consider it…what’s a little odd about this suggestion, is that it seems to turn the temptation of Christ into a parable of sorts…and while I don’t think that the 40 days in the wilderness was a made up story to prove a point, the notion does give us something to think about.

Because if it was a parable…then we need to ask ourselves the normal parable question of who are we? Initially, we might think that we fit in with Jesus…because in our day to day lives we face temptation…but then as we see Jesus overcome temptation after temptation…and we know that we would never survive it…I think that rules us out of the Jesus connection pretty quickly…

And so…who’s left? Who’s the only other character there during the 40 days? (pause) Satan…but if we’re somehow connected with Satan, then just what is that telling us? Well, maybe on one hand it reminds us that we can be the source of temptation, both for others as well as for ourselves…and maybe in anther manner of thinking we’re just like those who tempted Jesus during his ministry…feed us…take the earthly power and share it with us…or prove to us that you are God. Prove to us that you are who you say you are. (pause)
And so maybe, just maybe there’s a little bit of truth here…and if so then maybe we see that the one that Jesus had to overcome is us…and while that might give us just a bit of pause when we start thinking about…isn’t it true that God became human and entered into our flawed reality to overcome that which we are powerless to overcome on our own?

Didn’t Jesus live and die and rise again to overcome the power of sin and death that reside within each and every one of us? Didn’t Jesus come to overpower that which we are unable to survive on our own? That darkness that resides right here…that darkness that we love and cling to…and yet hate it and hide it at the same time…we tuck it away, down deep inside us where no one can see it…well no one except God…but we cling to it so tightly that we cannot be honest with ourselves…much less can we be in relationship with the one who made us in the first place.

That is what Jesus came to overcome…that darkness that will continue to gather through this season of Lent…amazingly enough centering around Jesus until the moment that our darkness kills him. But the amazing thing about all this is not that we blame ourselves…or that we hate ourselves…or that we get this image of an angry God who is so mad at us that he has to kill his own kid.

Rather, we walk through this dark season right up to the cross, recognizing that Jesus could have saved himself…he could have let this cup pass…that he could have ended it…but that he loves us so much that he did it anyway…even though our temptations are too much for him to survive…because sin…brings…death.

But God…goes…farther…Yes Jesus WILL die on Good Friday…or at least we’ll remember, once again…that he did…because that work of God…that work of Christ…it is already finished…and Easter has already happened…and Christ has already walked out that tomb…it has already happened…and the good news that we find on this dark day, here at the beginning of this dark season…is that the temptations that Satan throws our direction now…has already been overcome. Yes we still feel it…and yes we need to acknowledge it…that’s what this season is about…about recognizing that temptation is not something that I will survive…but thanks to the love of God, shown for each us through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that temptation, has already been overcome.

I may be the problem…but God, has already given the solution. Amen.

Why Are We Doing This Again 2-10-16

In this sermon for Ash Wednesday, I explore Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21. In this passage Jesus warns us against public displays of piety, which is ironic considering this is a day when we are doing just that.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/why-are-we-doing-this-again-2-10-16

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

Ash Wednesday…the day, or in this case the evening, that starts off the season of Lent. In a moment of disclosure, I first started thinking about Lent as a whole back about Christmas time…as I started to mull over possible themes and characters that would take us through the season. But on thing that I didn’t really have to think about much was tonight…Ash Wednesday as a whole is pretty well set in terms of worship and liturgy by this point…and so about the only thing I needed to do was pick out what scripture lesson I would utilize for the sermon. This happens to be one of the days in the church year that uses the same set of lessons every year, and so in order to keep some variety, I made the overarching decision a couple years back that I would rotate the lessons.

So my first Ash Wednesday, I used the reading assigned out of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Last year, the old testament reading from the prophet Joel seemed to be in order and so, a month and a half ago when I started looking at stuff for tonight, it seemed like a no-brainer…go ahead and use the gospel reading from Matthew. I made the decision, marked it in my files for prep work, and moved on to other things.

Then about a week ago, as I knew that Ash Wednesday was pending, I figured it was high time that I start thinking about it…about this day…which is sort of the one time in the Lutheran church when we gather together to recognize our limitations and our sinfulness and the reality of death in our world…and as part of the whole deal, we receive the sign of the cross, in ashes, on our foreheads…in short…we display a sign of our faith…something that one might call a public display of piety.

And I was thinking about that very notion…this public display of piety…I opened up to Matthew 6 only to find…Jesus warning us against public displays of piety…this resulted in the most epic facepalm that I have ever endured…and my first question, was what in the world am I going to do with this one? (pause) Adding to the ironic nature of this whole deal, in the study Bible that sits on my desk…the one I utilize most often in my work…I had previously highlighted the final verse of Matthew chapter 5, which seemed to add insult to injury, as Jesus tells his audience “Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.”

That highlighted verse seemed to taunt me throughout this past week as I considered the notion that here on Ash Wednesday we are actively reminding ourselves of how much we are NOT PERFECT …of how much we ARE NOT…like our heavenly father…needless to say, this one has given me the feeling of being behind the 8-ball from the get-go.

But yet, here we are tonight…gathered together, to do all of this…to acknowledge our shortcomings…to remember that one day we will return to the dust that God formed us from back in in the beginning…and in the end to quite literally bear that truth right there on our faces.

And in the midst of it, Jesus gives us 3 different warnings…and if we are paying attention…all three really narrow down to the same thing. When you practice your piety…don’t be like the hypocrites who go out of their way to call public attention to it…because that attention is their reward…but when you do it, do it quietly and your Father in Heaven will see it. (pause) That’s the gist of all three warnings…and after Jesus has made each of these three individual warnings…he sums it all up…Do not store up treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in to steal.

Now I thought about that statement for quite a while…wondering just what this earthly treasure is that Jesus is talking about…and if we think about it generically, I guess it makes sense…don’t put all your stock in things that won’t last…clothes wear out…money can be lost or stolen…nothing in this world is permanent, no matter how much we might like to think it is…but what about when we start talking about this lesson…and these warnings against piety done for the purpose of public opinion? When we think along those lines, maybe this all starts to make a little more sense…because if we are giving alms…or praying…or fasting…and shining a spotlight on ourselves just to make sure everyone else knows what we’re up to…well then we pretty quickly fall into the trap of politicians…doing it all for the purpose of public opinion…and we all know how fleeting that is don’t we? And just like things wearing out…people’s opinion of us can be taken away pretty quickly, leaving us with a whole lot of nothing. (pause)
And so, on the flip side, Jesus tells us to store up treasure in heaven, treasure that will not spoil and cannot be taken away from us…but I found myself wondering…just what is this heavenly treasure? (pause) Certainly we could say that its eternal life…that’s what we’re after…or God’s favor and that’s true too…but I don’t think we should limit to just that…because if all of this stuff that we’re doing here…all of these things that we say and do…if its all just for the sake of building up some eternal life insurance policy…well then I think we’re missing the point of why Jesus entered into our reality in the first place…those things are part of it…but Jesus also came that we might have life and have abundantly…life, in the here and now…a life that’s fulfilling…a life that’s complete…because it is a life IN RELATIONSHIP with our maker….with the one that formed us from the dust in the first place….that’s a heavenly treasure.

But all that being said…I’m not suggesting that public displays of piety are a bad thing…Jesus isn’t really saying that either…he doesn’t tell the people to stop doing them…rather, he’s telling us that we better make darn sure to question our motives for it…what’s our reason for doing it…because if we’re doing it just to be seen…well then there you go…you’ve been seen…and having been seen by others…maybe praised…maybe scorned, who knows…but having been seen, I’ll ask the question…is that enough for you? Does it make you feel whole…good…complete…perfect even? (pause)

We can’t achieve perfect can we? And so I’ve often wondered just what Jesus was talking about with that passage…be perfect as your Heavenly father is perfect…but then I did a little digging, and I realized that this is a pretty awful and inaccurate translation. A better way to say is to be complete…be fulfilled…be ENOUGH…as your heavenly father is enough.

And God is enough…He really is perfect, even if that goes beyond our ability to understand…but the amazing thing about this…is that our perfect God…the one who made us in the first place…HE calls us enough…He calls us Good…and this is something that is utterly different than the notion of perfection…the notion of the ideal…the thing that we SHOULD strive for.

And interestingly enough…when we start thinking about creation…God never intended perfection in the first place…that’s a Greek idea…a philosophy…a way of thinking that came around WAY after the world was made…this is why when we see Greek sculptures and paintings from Jesus’ time, they all feature humanity in its perfect form…something that we certainly never see when we look in the mirror…but they thought that with enough work and training and study we can continue to better ourselves to the point of perfection…but reality…especially the reality made by God back in the beginning…well God had a different word for it…In the Hebrew, it’s the word TOV…kind of a fun word…and TOV…it means…Good.

During creation, we hear it over and over again…God makes something…and he looks at it…and its TOV…its GOOD…and then God makes humanity…he bends down and grabs a bunch of dirt…and he forms it into an image that mirrors God himself…and he breathes life into it…and there’s a man…and then he takes out a rib from the man and God makes a woman…2 parts that equally mirror the image of God…and God says…that’s TOV…and not just that…its REALLY TOV…its VERY TOV…its UBER TOV.

God makes us…and God call us Good…and this is before the fall and the presence of sin entering the world…the world…and humanity was not made perfect and God never intended it…but God calls us Good…just as we are…but then when sin did enter in…and twist around this Good reality that God had made…and it separated us from being in relationship with God like he intended…well he still thought we were good enough…that we were enough for him to do something about it…and that’s why Jesus came into this reality in the first place…not to perfect us…but to bring us back into relationship with God…the one who calls us…TOV. (pause)

And so tonight…as we have gathered…one by one we will hear the words…remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return…and one by one we’ll have ashes spread on our heads…and we’ll display publically our acceptance of our limitations within this world…and as we do…may we remember that we are not doing it to be seen by one another…we are not doing it to earn the praise and admiration of other people…but rather we are simply acknowledging the truth of our existence…flawed though it is…but that in our flawed reality our God calls us Good…He calls us Enough…and worthwhile…God calls us…TOV. And if God believes we’re good enough…then maybe, just maybe, we are freed to believe it about ourselves. Amen.

What Are We Sleeping Through 2-7-16

This sermon is based on Luke 9:28-36, the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/what-are-you-sleeping-through-2-7-16

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

One of my most vivid memories of my time working at Bible Camp back in my college days was when lightning hit a tree on site. I was in a building about 100 yards away when the strike occurred…and in a split second, a lot of different things happened. The tree that was hit literally exploded, sending off wooden shrapnel in every direction as far as 3 or 4 football fields. Also, the enormous surge in electrical power blew out the light bulb in the room I was standing in. The boom of thunder was deafening and instantaneous…but most striking was how bright it was…unbelievable and words can’t even describe it.

The power in a bolt of lightning is beyond my ability to comprehend. Some estimate that a bolt carries upwards of 10 BILLION watts…and reaches temperatures roughly 9 times hotter than the sun…and while I can’t really wrap my head around the reality of those values, having witnessed the awesome power first hand, I certainly believe it…but the thing I remember the most about that instance was the unbelievably bright flash…and that’s where I connect into today’s gospel.

Today is Transfiguration Sunday…and as such our gospel features the story when Jesus is somehow changed…transfigured…and we hear of the unbelievable brightness of his clothing…so much so that the translation is literally that his clothes became white like a flash of lightning.

There is so much to love about this story…and yet, just as we lack the ability to really wrap our heads around the true amount of power found in a bolt of lightning…the transfiguration is one of those instances in scripture that is amazingly huge…so much so, that perhaps we lack the ability to comprehend just what has really occurred.

Perhaps part of the problem stems from the lack of detail that the different gospels give us regarding the transfiguration itself. This story appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so we get a different accounting each respective year…but overall the details about the change that comes upon Jesus in this moment…well they are pretty lacking. We hear that the appearance of his face changes…and his clothes become uber-bright…and that’s about it.

But fortunately…Jesus must have had a little bit of foresight about this…and lucky for us…he brought along some witnesses…Peter, James, and John…3 out of 4 of Jesus first disciples…the Big 3 as I like to call them…the 3 guys who for whatever reason…always seem to be the ones that Jesus chooses to witness the really big events. All throughout the gospels we hear of different situations that Jesus head’s off to deal with…and he separates off the big 3 to come along with him. We don’t know why its these three and not some of the others…but time and time again we see it…and this time, is no exception.

And wow…what a thing to witness this time around…beyond the obvious, if ambiguous situation of the transfiguration itself…amazing though that must have been for them…there’s a whole lot else that they are privy to in this instance…Jesus invites them to come away…on up the mountain…for some private prayer time…then Jesus’ divine nature comes blazing through his human form…and low and behold…Moses and Elijah show up talking with Jesus…and then Peter decides that this is worthy of a long term camping trip, so he suggests building some shelters for the Messiah, the representative of the Law, and the Representative of the prophets…3 pretty important aspects of scripture mind you…but then as he’s uttering this, for lack of anything better to say…a giant cloud comes rolling in, scaring the pants off the big 3…and then the voice of God booms down around them…reminding them of what they’ve heard before…that THIS is God’s Son…the one he has chosen and they better listen up…and as soon as they receive this divine instruction to pay attention…the cloud disappears…Moses and Elijah are gone…and there’s only Jesus, standing there along with the three of them…and because they are so confused…and probably still scared…and most likely overwhelmed by this entire experience…they traipse back down the mountain in silence, and didn’t tell anyone what had happened for a good long while. (pause)

That’s the story…that’s the transfiguration…this moment that we feature each and every year, here in the last week of Epiphany, just before the start of Lent…just before we begin that dark journey together…a season that grows steadily darker until we reach holy week…and it culminates with the death of Jesus…in a time when it is both figuratively as dark as it can get, as well as a moment when it literally grows dark.

Now often times, people think of the transfiguration as the ultimate “mountain top experience.” A time when God’s glory literally shines and its literally on top of a mountain…but to limit this story to just a feel good experience that we compare with the high notes in our own spiritual lives…to do this misses the point…but it is good to recognize that this is simply the first mountain top…for on the other side of the dark valley of Lent, Jesus is found on another mountaintop…this time just outside of Jerusalem…as he hangs on a cross…dying in the literal and figurative darkness.

That’s what we are kicking off today…as we join Jesus and the big 3 on top of this mountain, before traveling back down with them into the valley that lies before the next mountain…and the cross that marks the fulfillment of Jesus’ true work on Earth…the fulfillment that Moses and Elijah are discussing with him when they appear.

I love Luke’s account of the transfiguration because he includes a few little details that are lacking in Matthew and Mark…and this is one of them…the subject of the conversation that is going on between these 3 vital Biblical figures…Jesus, Moses, and Elijah…talking about his departure from this world…both in his death, but also in his ascension back to heaven following his resurrection…and interestingly enough…another little detail here in Luke is revealed when we remember the Father’s words. This is my son…listen to him. (pause)
Now when I think of that command…I’m reminded of when I tell my kids to listen up…it usually happens for 1 of two reasons…either I’ve just said something important that they missed…or on the flip side I’m about to say something that they need to hear…and in the case of God saying this to the Big 3…both sides of the coin are in effect.

If we look backwards…the last thing that Jesus has talked about was the fact that the Son of Man must undergo suffering and rejection and he will be killed before being raised 3 days later…some pretty healthy foreshadowing…and on the flip side, if we look ahead…his next words are “how much longer must I be with you?” (pause) God tells them to listen up and in both instances Jesus is talking about his departure from this world…something that will happen in Jerusalem…the very conversation that Peter, James, and John have just witnessed at the top of this mountain.

Now this is all big stuff…but there’s one more little detail that Luke includes here that really catches my attention…and that is the fact that Peter, James, and John…almost sleep right through this whole episode…did you catch that…they were weighed down with sleep…and perhaps understandably so…they’d just climbed a mountain after all…and that’s hard work…I’ve done that and it wipes you out…and their weariness…their desire to rest and sleep is simple evidence of the weak state of our frail human bodies…we have needs…we need rest, we need nourishment…and these needs often command out attention…so much so, that for these three guys…their need to rest almost caused them to sleep through this amazing situation…they almost missed it…and funny enough…this isn’t the only time that happens.

Because there’s another time when Jesus brings the disciples along…and then invites the big 3 to remain close to him…and this time its not on a mountain…its in a garden…just before Jesus is betrayed…and he’s praying to his father that the cup will pass from his lips…and when he turns around to face Peter, James, and John…having literally been sweating blood from his intense anxiety…he finds them asleep…because it’s the middle of the night…and they’ve been celebrating the Passover all week…and their bodies, their frail weak bodies…require the rest.

What else have these guys slept through…they’ve walked around with Jesus for 3 years…all this time while Jesus has performed countless miracles…when unbelievable moments of the divine have occurred and I wonder just how many they missed.

And I also wonder…how many, do WE…miss…what are…WE…sleeping through…what is God up to over here (hand up behind me) while our weakness has our attention over here (hand up in front me of)? There can be little doubt that God is up to something in the world…and just like the big 3, we are invited to experience it…to witness it…and then to go on share that experience…but I fear that all too often we miss it because something else is going on.

Because life happens it…sometimes the good things…but often times it’s the hard things…diseases…accidents…the phone call that rocks your world with bad news…death…pain…sadness caused by countless different sources…all of these things can get in the way…all of these things remind us of the dark valleys that we walk through…those dark valleys just like the one that we are about to entire…this dark of season of Lent…with the brightness of the transfiguration behind us…and the utter despair of the cross before us.

We live in this valley don’t we? This place of life with all its unpredictable nature…but the good news is that we don’t walk that valley alone. You all know Psalm 23…the one that we hear at pretty much every funeral…Even though I walk through the darkest valley…YOU..ARE…WITH ME. (pause) Jesus walked down that mountain of the transfiguration along with the disciples…he was there as they went on to Jerusalem…and then he walked the road to the cross alone…he took those steps that we are unable to walk…He braved the darkness so that we don’t have to do it on our own.

And perhaps the good news of all this…is that in those moments when our weakness…when our frailty…when those things command our attention over here…the amazing “God-thing” that we are missing back here is simply that He is still here beside us in that weakness…and that he will help us bear that burden…and that one day…somehow, someway, we will walk out the other side of this dark valley, and into the glorious light that God has intended for us. Amen