Archive for January, 2017

Its A Mystery 1-29-17

In this sermon, taken from the Old Testament book of Micah, chapter 6:1-8, I explore the reminder that God asks of us to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humble with our God.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Many of you know that I’m a pretty big fan of the fine arts…and that I was pretty active in a wide variety of the arts in my younger years. Band, Choir, Drama…and one of my favorites…speech.  I tried a lot of different styles, both large group and individual…but one of my favorites, one that I ended up doing all 4 years of high school was choral reading…about 15 of us…a scripted deal…on some sort of central theme…many voice all chiming in.

Now my freshman year, the very first time I participated…our message was called the Battle of the Sexes…and a pretty big part of it was aimed at how men and women just don’t understand each other very well…and there’s one part that I still chuckle at all these years later.  At one point…one of the girls says “I can’t handle this right now, I need to go to the bathroom.” And on cue…the rest of the girls all chime in “Me Too.” And they all shift off to the side together.  The guys stare at them as they leave…and then we hear one of the guys ask “Why do they always go in groups?” And then we hear… “It’s a mystery that will baffle men forever.” (Pause)

Now, while the mystery of group oriented bathroom visits isn’t overly earth-shattering in its importance…the fact of the matter is that there are certain things in life that we can’t explain…certain mysteries about the world around us…or the life that we live that are just that…mysteries. And yet our natural curiosity makes us wonder about them…we seek answers.

Now this in itself isn’t a bad thing at all. Human curiosity has led to countless advances and discoveries throughout our history. But at the same time, there are questions that don’t have good answers…mysteries that remain, well, mysterious for lack of a better word…and often times, throughout human history…religion has become the basis on which we try to arrive at understanding.

Now, one of the main mysteries that pretty much every religion attempts to answer is “where did all this come from?” And as we think along this lines it leads to the next question… “And who made it?” Now different faiths will answer this question in different ways, but when we are called upon to answer this question, we answer that God made it…we don’t know exactly how…but we trust that God, who is an entity or a power…or something much greater than we are…somehow, some way, pieced all of this together. (Pause)
Now with this in mind…as we consider that there is a power out there that is greater than we are…a power that’s capable of making everything including me, and that probably means that this power is also capable of UNMAKING me…then perhaps the biggest question of them all is “How do I keep them happy?” (pause)

What do you think? Is that a fair question? One that we still wrestle with today in the midst of our day to day lives? How do we keep God happy? How much is enough…is my offering enough…have I given enough of my time and talents at the local congregation? Have I crossed every t and dotted every i? (pause)

I can’t speak for you…but I know that I wrestle with that question on a pretty regular basis…and I can only assume that this doubt…this question…this fear…is a pretty normal human response…and as I think that…it gives me the tiniest bit of relief to know that this is not a new question…but it goes back a LONG way. (pause)

A brief history lesson…we find ourselves in the year 2017…Christianity…or followers of Christ…or even followers of “the way” as they were first called date all the way back to the period right after the death and resurrection of Jesus…right about the year 30…so about 2000 years, give or take…now this movement was an offshoot of the Jewish culture and religion…which itself dates all the way back to this random dude in the book of Genesis names Abraham who heard the voice of God and said “Okay…that all sounds good.” And that all happened, roughly 2000 years before Jesus was walking around…

Now, as this whole Jewish movement was growing…alongside their culture…things were getting a little hairy…and just like we have posed the question today…they asked the same thing…and so God gave them a little roadmap to help guide the path…this list carved out on some stone tablets called the 10 Commandments…and God told the people this is how you act…do this, and you’ll be honoring me and you’ll be living well together….and that worked out great…for about 5 minutes. (pause)
And this was a pattern that seems to exist all the way through the narrative of our scriptures. God delivers people out of some sort of oppression…and they’re grateful for a time…but then things go to pot as our human nature has the apparent need to screw up and turn away…and then after a while the people remember God and cry out again, and the process repeats itself.

That’s the history of the old testament…it starts off clear back at the beginning…before we had records or dates or anything of that nature…and eventually…God speaks through this low key prophet named Micah…just a normal guy going about his business about 700 years before Jesus would come on the scene…And God has a message for his people. It would seem that its time for a bit of a showdown.

But rather than being angry with the people…God poses a question. What have I done to you? Have I wearied you with displays of salvation and deliverance?  (pause) Time after time, God has shown mercy to his people…it almost seems like God is asking the people “What’s it going to take to get through to you?” (pause)
But here’s where things get kind of interesting…because in the midst of this back and forth between God and the people…it seems that the people finally express their confusion. “With what shall I come before the Lord?”

Keep in mind…that their customs of ritual sacrifice have been long established by the time of Micah…its all been dictated…but yet, no matter how often they attempt to atone for sinful behavior…it never feels like enough. And so…who ever it is that’s offering up the human voice…at least its honest.

HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH GOD?   Is it enough if I offer and entire calf?  Well what if I bring 1000 rams…or 10000 vats of oil…not enough to atone for my shortcomings? Okay…I’ll offer my firstborn kid? What’s it gonna take Lord? When is it enough to for me to know that I’m justified? (long pause)
I think we can relate to this question…to this frustration. We live in a world today where enough is never enough…and no matter how hard we try in the midst of this dog eat dog world…this rat race that we love to run so hard…no matter how hard we try…its never enough…and we give and we give and we give…or on the flipside we buy into the world’s hype and we take and take and take…and I find myself wondering…how’s that working for us? (pause)

And in the midst of thinking about that…I find myself wondering if God looked at all the sacrifices that had been offered up…all the things that people tried to use in order to be justified…or to atone for their shortcomings…and God sorta sees all that stuff like a white elephant gift….Like, Oh that’s nice but what am I going to do with it? (pause)
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate this honest look at the human condition…the honest question of how much do I need to give to be okay in your site Lord?  (pause)
But the truly amazing thing that we see today…is that God speaks through the prophet…and offers back a pretty eye opening answer…eye opening because of its simplicity. What is the Lord seeking from you?  That you do justice…love kindness…and walk humbly with your God. (pause) Now just what all that looks like…well we could debate that at length…but it seems to me that God is looking for us to look out for one another…and to treat one another like fellow people, worthy of love and respect…and then to recognize as we walk through this crazy thing called life that God is God and I am not. (pause) I am not God because I am human…and as such I fall short…I am broken and flawed…and I have thoughts that go through my head that aren’t overly loving…and I’m selfish…because when it gets right down to it…I break the 1st commandment…all…the…time…because my selfish sinful nature will place me on the pedestal with shocking regularity.  The 1st commandment is You shall have no other God’s before me…but when I look in the mirror, all too often I’m trying to place the face looking back at me in God’s place. (pause)

We can’t do it can we? And when we are honest with ourselves…when we humble ourselves before the one who made us. We recognize the truth about ourselves…and in doing so we realize just how futile of an effort it is for us to try and offer enough…or do enough…or say enough or think enough to justify ourselves. No matter how hard we try…we will let ourselves down…and we will let others down…its unavoidable.

But the wonderful thing about all this…is that God already knows that…and God has already done something about it. I heard a statement this week that I really like…Everyone else will let you down…but Jesus will never let you go. (pause)
Jesus…who is God in the flesh has done something that no burnt offering…no giant check written out to the local charity will ever do…Jesus has overcome the power of sin that we are powerless against…and Jesus has done this in order to prove to you that God loves you.

Now this raises a question…of just why does God love us so much? Well I can’t answer the question of why…but I do believe that its true…because God has claimed us…and we can see this in God’s actions of salvation and mercy throughout our history. We see it on full display in the cross of Christ…we saw it as God delivered his chosen people from slavery in Egypt…and interestingly enough, we can even see it both in today’s lesson, as well as in those 10 Commandments that I keep mentioning.

Walk humbly before the Lord YOUR God. That’s what Micah tells us…and clear back at the beginning of the 10 Commandments, before we get a list of what to do and what not do…we are given a reminder of WHOSE we are. I am the Lord your God. (pause) This is not a statement of humanity claiming God…but rather God claiming us…and that’s the key to the gospel right there…this is the key to every question that we ever ask of “how much is enough?” or “what does it take?”  Because salvation and mercy is not ever something we can obtain…and its about what God claims about us.

We are claimed as God’s people…because God has said so…simply because of his great unending love for each of us…so how might we live our lives today in this mind blowing promise? Well…I guess we need to do justice, love kindness…and walk humbly with our God. Amen.


We Are All Called 1-22-17

In this sermon, taken from Matthew 4:12-23, I explore the call of God to follow, and how this call has been extended to each of us, whether we realize it or not.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

You can follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

The other day I was standing in the office making some copies…and as I stood there waiting for the machine I found myself staring at the large picture frame that displays the various pastors of our congregation. Now I’ve looked at that display many times…but this particular time it struck me to notice the number. Since the construction of this sanctuary, completed back in 1948, almost 70 years ago, 14 of us have stood in this pulpit as called pastors.

Now admittedly, I don’t know much about those that came before. Other than a few interactions with my immediate predecessor, I’ve never met any of them. I don’t know their stories or what brought them to Underwood…some of you long-time members out there might just know some of those stories…but all I can speak to is my own experience.

The very first time I ever heard the name Underwood Lutheran was nearly 4 years ago. February of 2013. A day that seminary students have come to call draft day. If you are unfamiliar, the vast majority of seminary students here in the ELCA are assigned a specific area where they will serve their first call. We have some input, but when it gets right down to it our fate is in the hands of the bishops of the different synods…as they gather together to hash out who’s going where.

This information is revealed to the student in two steps. First we learn what region we are assigned to…and then we sit with that information for about a week until the different bishops from that region hammer out who’s going into each individual synod. Now the day that happened for me was a Friday…and I recall sitting in class that afternoon…and each one of us was constantly checking our phones…waiting to it to ring as our new bishop called us to inform us where we’d be heading.

Funny enough…the first person to get the call that day was a fellow student skyping into class from Ohio…we all heard her phone go off over the computer…and her faced disappeared from the screen for a couple minutes before she came back on to share her news.

You can only image how intensely we were all looking at our phones from that moment on…various people getting calls here and there…but I waited…and waited…and waited.  Class got over, no call…I went home…no call. I saw postings on social media from classmates sharing their news…no call…and I could only think to myself…I didn’t get picked…perhaps you know the feeling if you’ve ever been the last one picked for a game at recess.

But…finally…about 8:30 that evening…my phone rang and I looked over to see “Storm Lake, IA” on the caller id…and our bishop shared the news with me, including the statement “And we’ve got this congregation in mind for you called Underwood.” (pause) It was wonderful news, once I finally got to that part…but the whole day leading up to it was horrible…because I wasn’t getting the call.

Now its this idea of receiving a call that takes me into the gospel today…for as we heard in the lesson, Jesus encounters the disciples for the first time…and Peter and Andrew and James and John, these two sets of brothers…this batch of fishermen…all hear the same call from Jesus…from God the son…come follow me…and as we hear, they drop everything and do just that.

Now interestingly enough, the confirmation class talked about this very story just a couple weeks back…and we talked about how Jesus was attracting a following here at the beginning of his ministry…and from that group of people that he attracted…somehow, someway…he tapped 12 of them to be “the disciples.” These 12 guys, 4 of which we hear about today along with 8 others…they are the ones that Jesus calls directly…and that’s a fascinating thing to consider.

But in the midst of that conversation during confirmation class, one of the students raised a pretty interesting question…(pause) Why did Jesus call these ones? (Pause) Why them and not someone else…especially considering the ongoing failures that we would see from this ragtag batch of guys. What was it that made Jesus look at them and say “you…I choose you.”

Now…its safe to say that we can’t answer that question…we don’t know the mind of God…we don’t know what was going through Jesus’ head…we don’t know what he knew about them…but yet, these are the ones he called…and as we see in the example of Peter and Andrew…and then immediately following James and John…they left everything behind to heed the call.

But here’s the really crazy part…they weren’t alone were they? There were other people around…particularly the 2nd time…James and John are sitting there in the boat, mending their nets…along with their father Zebedee…and along comes this rabbi with a couple of their fellow fishermen tagging along behind…and he looks at James and John…says come follow me…and they do.

Now imagine for a moment…that you’re Zebedee. We don’t know what’s going through his head at this point either. “MY BOYS? WHERE ARE YOU GOING?” or maybe “HEY, WE’VE GOT WORK TO DO HERE!” Or maybe, just maybe Zebedee was thinking “I want to go too.”

That’s been a strong thought in my head this week…what about the other people who were around…who encountered Jesus walking along…perhaps were even there when he offered the invitation…but for whatever reason, they are left behind. (pause) Why are some called and some aren’t?

Now we could argue, within the gospel anyway, that Jesus had a specific purpose in the early formation of the church that would take over as “the body” once his mission was over…and that the 12 that he picked were for a specific reason, even if we don’t know what it is. That’s a fair assumption.

But what about when we get farther down the line…maybe even to today….why does it seem that some are called and some aren’t? (pause) I wish I could answer that question…but I can’t…because I don’t know the mind of God…and I don’t understand why God does or doesn’t do things…and it would be incredibly arrogant for me to think otherwise.

But as we are thinking along those lines, I feel that it is important to dispel a common thought…that here in the church, only a few are “called” as the disciples were.  Admittedly, that’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, especially when we start talking about Pastors…that they are called…called to a congregation…called to be a pastor in the first place…because while that is true…they are not the only ones.

The amazing thing about the body of Christ is that we have all been called…we have all received the invitation to follow along after God…every…single…one of us.  (pause) The great reformer Martin Luther wrote about this 500 years ago when he said “I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him…but the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and kept me in truth faith.”

You are called…maybe not in the same way that Peter and Andrew and James and John were called…but make no mistake…God has called you through the Spirit…just as he has called and gathered the entire church throughout time…We are one body…each called to be a part of it. (pause)
Now that being said…perhaps the next big question is what are we to do now that we realize the truth of our call…and I believe that’s on display within today’s lesson as well…we are called to proclaim the gospel.  This lesson picks up at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He was baptized…the Spirit led him out into the wilderness where he endured 40 days of temptation at the hands of Satan…and then he got to work…and that’s where things pick up.

But here’s the important thing…we hear that John the Baptist has been arrested and put in prison…and because of this Jesus shifts his area of operation…but think about the message that Jesus is proclaiming…Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven has come near. (pause)

Have we heard that before? Does it sound familiar? It should…because that is precisely the message that John the Baptist proclaimed during his ministry. (pause) The messenger is new…the tactics are different because their gifts are different. John was good at baptizing…while Jesus was good at being God…but in the end…the message is the same because the gospel does not change.

Likewise, we are called by God to share that same message…that same good news…in our own unique way…each and every one of us…we are all called to follow God…to go where God leads, recognizing that we are flawed, imperfect people who need a savior…and that we cling to the hope found in the promise of God through Jesus Christ that we are loved as we are…that we are called…as we are…and that we are to use the gifts that we have received from the spirit in our lives…right here right now…knowing that one day, our time as messenger will come to a close…but that others will come along behind us in order to share that same good news.  (pause)
Zebedee might have had to stay in the boat that day…but I like to think that at some point, that same call came for him as well…just as it has come to each of us. We are all called…now what are we going to do it with it? Amen

Its What You Do 1-15-17

In this sermon from John 1:29-42, I explore the invitation offered to different individuals to come and see. This is how we encounter Christ, and how we offer the invitation to others.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

I have come to the conclusion that if a company wants to make an impression on me, they should advertise with talking animals. This conclusion came to me in a moment when I was thinking about 2 different commercials, both made by the same company, that both feature this sort of thing…and at least in my mind, are unforgettable.

The company is Geico, and the first one features the Geico Gecko attempting to be dramatic as he talks about roadside assistance, and we “SOMEONE HELP ME I HAVE A FLAT TIRE!” The commercial is doing its job because I can instantly tell you both the company and the specific service that it is intended to sell me. (pause)
Now the second commercial, also for Geico, features 3 racoons, snooping around a batch of garbage cans…its mainly an exchange between 2 of the raccoons, with the nervous 3rd making occasional side comments. (pause)
“Woah this is awful…try it.” “Oh no that looks gross, what is that?” “You gotta try it, its terrible.” “I don’t want to try it if its terrible.” “Its like a combination of mango chutney and burnt hair.” “I’ve got a very sensitive pallet.” “JUST TRY IT.”  “Guys, I think we should hurry up.” “I can’t get the taste out of my mouth.” At this point we hear the tag line for the commercial come up…If you taste something bad, you want someone to try it…its what you do…before the raccoons get spooked by a bark and creep off into the night muttering “Dog…dog…dog.” (pause)
Now for those of you laughing out there…I see you share my infinity for Geico commercials…But interestingly enough…that single raccoon’s desire to share this amazingly bad taste with someone else is quite similar to what’s happening within today’s gospel lesson. (pause)
For those of you that were here last week and heard the story of Jesus baptism, then I’m guessing that a portion of this passage seems quite familiar…and that’s understandable. As we find ourselves here in the season of Epiphany, we continue to be reminded of the ways that Christ was revealed to the world.  Last week as we focused on the story of his baptism, the big reveal came straight from the source, as God the father made a big booming proclamation about the identity of Christ…the one who is God’s beloved Son.

But today we get the story from John’s gospel. As per usual here in the 4th gospel, this account of the story is a little different…as we see John the Baptist take the role of witness…bearing testimony to what he has seen and heard and experienced.

Now here in the 4th gospel, that’s how Jesus’ baptism is presented…its past tense…being recalled by John in addition to what God has revealed to him…that’s the thing about John…he knows who he is, and he knows who he isn’t. And we hear in different places that he has come to point the world towards the Messiah…and that God has somehow revealed to John that he would see the Holy Spirit descend upon a man…and the Spirit would abide within that man…and when John sees this, he will know that this is God’s messiah…this is the Lamb of God.

Now we’re familiar with the story of Jesus’ baptism…and we know that’s what happens…and that John was right there when it happened…and so now…as he stands before the crowds who have come out to hear him…and John see’s Jesus walking by…he shares his experience. (pause) BEHOLD…HERE IS THE LAMB OF GOD WHO TAKES AWAY THE SIN OF THE WORLD. (pause)
That’s John’s role…one that he takes quite seriously…to testify to his experience of the Messiah…to point him out to the world…and he does this by sharing what he has seen and heard…and John speaks this truth quite plainly. I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God. (pause)

Now, once John’s recollection and testimony about the baptism is over, the story jumps ahead 24 hours…though the scene sounds pretty similar. John is hanging around yet again…this time he’s got a couple of his followers along with him…when once more Jesus comes walking by…and John makes the very same statement. “BEHOLD…here is the lamb of God.”

Now we don’t know if these two guys had been there the day before or not…probably though we don’t know…but as disciples of John they were likely familiar with his message, so they’d likely heard his testimony about Jesus…and so as they’re standing there and hear John say “There he is!”  It must have been a pretty major moment for them. “THAT’S HIM?  THAT GUY RIGHT THERE?  Let’s follow him.” And they do, trailing along after Jesus. Now who knows why? Maybe they were a little starstruck…maybe they were geeking out…Lord’ knows I’ve had the same experience before…full disclosure, I geeked out on our former Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson once.  I can only imagine what it would be like to have the Savior of the World walk by…someone that your entire culture has been waiting on for centuries.

And so Andrew and this other unnamed guy start tailing Jesus…and somewhere along the way he notices…and turns around…not cranky…not suspicious…just Jesus being Jesus, asking the right question at the right time…something he seems to be pretty good at.  What are you looking for?”

Now we could go all kinds of places with that question…because honestly what are we looking for? Any of us? Love, acceptance…joy…respect…fulfillment…some small glimmer of light in the midst of the darkness that this world is constantly smacking us with…that’s a big question…and maybe these two guys were overwhelmed by it…because their response is a little odd. Teacher…where are you staying? Where are you abiding?

And Jesus…God in the flesh…offers a simple invitation….Come and see. (pause) Come and see. Come check it out…see for yourself…and you’ll abide with me where I’m abiding…we’ll hang out together…and they do. And then…having done just that…having spent time together…Andrew realizes the truth of John’s testimony…that there’s something about this guy…that yes…this is the Messiah…and he is compelled to share it…so he goes to find his brother…Yo…SIMON..DUDE…YOU GOTTA CHECK THIS OUT!!!! Because apparently when you find the messiah, you invite others to find him too…its what you do. (pause)
Now this isn’t the only case either…directly following this passage, Jesus bumps into Philip, and because of this encounter, Philip goes off to invite Nathanael…Dude…we found the Messiah…come check it out.

And the thing that every one of these individuals has in common is that they did in fact, come and see…they spent time with Jesus…they had their own experience and then pointed him out to others. (pause)
You know there’s a name for that sort of thing…one that gets thrown around in the church world pretty regularly…but one that can make us squirm just a touch…Evangelism.

You know that word…it conjures up images of street preachers…and door knocking…of uncomfortable conversations that sound like “If you died tonight would you go to heaven or hell?”

But what if evangelism was as simple as “come and see.” That’s what John the Baptist did. That’s what Andrew did…that’s what Philip did…later on down the road Peter would do it…and Paul would do it…and others would do it too…and at some point a couple thousand years later, someone did the same for you…otherwise what are you doing here today?

You can use whatever word or phrase that you’re comfortable with…but evangelism…or sharing the gospel…or sharing your faith is as simple as sharing your story…and while some are called to go halfway around the world…and others are called to stand up before giant crowds…most of us are called to share our stories with those right there in our backyards.

As I think about these first disciples of Jesus…that’s all they did. Andrew and Peter were brothers…we hear that Philip and Nathanael are from the same home town…these are probably 4 guys that grew up together…and sharing this news “We have found the Messiah” came as easily as “The Cubs won the World Series!” (pause)
You’ve likely heard me use the phrase Cross Generational ministry. Its something we’ve been throwing around quite a bit in the past year here at the church. And this is all it is. Sharing our experience…sharing how we’ve seen God active in the world and in our lives…and realizing that when God encounters us, our story becomes part of His story…and that he desires that we share it…that we embrace the glorious truth of the gospel, that we are seen and claimed by the one who makes us and who loves us…and that God desires everyone to experience the same joy that comes with it…and that God desires it so much that he was willing to become one of us…he was willing to live out life with all of its sorrows and all its joys, and ultimately he was willing to die in order to overcome every obstacle that stands in the way…and in the end…he did it for you….and as amazing as that is…he also did it for your neighbor that lives across the fence…and all God asks of you is that you share it…that you invite them to come and see.

We plant the seeds…that’s all we do…its up to God to give the growth in the lives of others…and I don’t know about you…but remember that really takes the pressure off. Its not up to you to save the world, God’s already done it…its not up to you to change the minds and lives of others…only the Holy Spirit can do that…all we are called to do is live out the truth that we have experienced…that I am loved…and I am accepted…and I am redeemed by the one they call Jesus. (pause)

If you taste something bad, you want someone to try it…its what you do. (pause) If you experience the joy of the Lord, you want to share it…its what you do. Amen

Here We Go Again 1-8-17

In this sermon, taken from Matthew 3:13-17, I explore the Baptism of Jesus and just why its so important for us.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

There are a few different things that I do that…admittedly, I start to get a little obsessed with. One of them is running, which I guess is a healthy activity, so maybe that’s not all bad…but over the years that I’ve been running, I’ve gotten more and more obsessed, and this has manifested in different ways.

First was just the running itself. I used to mix it in with several different types of exercise, but eventually the rest kind of phased out leaving me with the running by itself. Then after a while I wanted to know how much I was doing, so I started tracking my runs with an app on my phone…logging the miles and the minutes that I cover.  And eventually that led to yet another step…as the app I utilize offers various challenges to keep a person motivated.

Most recently, I participated in a challenge to cover 1000km over the course of 2016…and as we aren’t European, that translates out to about 620 miles if you’re curious.  And yes…I got obsessive over it…constantly checking and rechecking…doing the conversions and the calculations to see where I was at and how much I had left…and sure enough…I finished up my goal about a week and half before the end of the year.

Once I reached that point I thought to myself “Ahh…now I can relax…just go back to regular running, regular distances…and I don’t have obsess anymore.”  Well that lasted about a week…and then I noticed that 2017…has the very…same…challenge. (Pause) Here we go…again. (pause)
The repetition strikes me as funny…but the notion of doing the very same thing this year as I did last year put me in mind of the church year…and the repeating cycle that we go through as one season leads into the next…and into the next…and we see the same holidays repeated every year…we hear some of the same stories repeated every year…Christmas and Easter are the big two…but also other ones like Pentecost and today’s story…the baptism of Jesus. (pause) Now if you’ve been tracking the church calendar, you know what I’m talking about. We celebrated Christmas 2 weeks ago…and following the proverbial 12 days, we hit Epiphany just two days ago…as the church celebrates the arrival of the magi to worship the baby Jesus…and as that kicks off the season of Epiphany…the time that we continue to recognize how Jesus, as the Messiah, is revealed to the world, we come around to his Baptism, always recognized here on the 1st Sunday of Epiphany. (pause)
Now maybe, you hear this story…and you recognize the way it repeats…and you think to yourself…Here we go again…and like some of those other common stories, this is one that we can list off the details pretty easily. Jesus is about 30 now…and his cousin John the Baptist is out in the wilderness along the Jordan river, living up to his name…as he is of course baptizing…and he’s calling out the brood of vipers and warning of the one coming along after him who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire…and low and behold, here comes Jesus…John is like “Dude…hold on, you need to baptize me.” But Jesus assures him that no, this is all good…let’s do this. (Pause) And Jesus is baptized and the instant that he comes back up above water the heavens rip open…and the Holy Spirit comes fluttering down in full-on bird form, landing on Jesus…and the big booming God voice breaks out “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” (pause)

That’s the story…pretty simple isn’t it? Sort of makes you wonder why we need to hear it so often doesn’t it? And honestly…I think there are times that the baptism of Jesus raises more questions that it answers…like why does Jesus need to be baptized in the first place? He’s God right? And we all know that he is without sin…and if baptism, as we understand it, is a cleansing from our sins, then why the heck did Jesus need to do it? (pause) These are good questions…honest questions…questions that many people have wrestled with…and while some of them will try to offer you answers to these questions…and try to explain away everything that’s going on here with the baptism of Jesus…I’m not going to do that…because honestly, I don’t have any good answers to why Jesus had to do it…and what the “fulfillment of all righteousness” that he mentions to John is all about. I honestly don’t know. (Pause)
But I do know that there’s some cool stuff going on here…and Jesus, who is God, is taking something old and making something new out of it. (pause) Maybe you’ve heard me talk about the notion of baptism before…its actually not some newfangled thing that Christians came up with…and for that matter, its not something that John the Baptist came up with either.  The practice of baptism had already been around by the time John came on the scene.

It was a ritual of purification, stemming from an ancient practice that the Jewish people would do when they took spoils of war. They had to purify it. If it could take it, they would put the thing through fire…if not, then water…and since human flesh doesn’t stand up to fire overly well, when the ritual started being used for Jewish converts to symbolize a purifying from their old gentile ways…water.

So by the time Jesus takes a dip in the Jordan and the heavens tear in half so a spirit bird can come fluttering down…this was old news…but we have a God who does some amazing things don’t we?  And for the first time ever, a person is baptized and God…shows…up…in a big way.

Actually, all three members of the trinity are on display here aren’t they? Jesus, the son…he’s of course there…the Holy Spirit shows up…and the voice of the Father…all three here together…and you know what, there’s only one other time that this happens…and its at the tail end of Matthew…in something called the Great Commission…when Jesus instructs the disciples…and us…to go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Now that in itself is amazing enough…but there’s another point to bring up…the Great Commission is the last thing in Matthew’s gospel…and therefore it’s the last thing that Jesus says…but the very first thing that Jesus says here in Matthew’s gospel, is his exchange with John about baptism.

I don’t know about you, but that seems like a pretty big deal to me…that the very first and the very last thing that Jesus talks about is baptism…no wonder we make a big deal out of it…but then, it is a sacrament isn’t it? A time when God comes to us through the simple element of water along with the promise that God makes on our behalf.

A promise that we actually share with Jesus. For in his baptism, the Spirit comes upon him, empowering him, and God claims him as his beloved child…and we profess the very same thing in our own baptism…that we are empowered with the Spirit, and God claims us as his children.  And that’s the spectacular thing…that its all about what God does…what God says, both for us and about us…its NOT about what we do or think or say.  The promises of God are for you…and through the waters of our baptism this promise is given to you and you are brought into the body of Christ. (pause)

Now that’s wonderful…but it raises a question…what comes next? Jesus tells his followers to make disciples and baptize them, but just what does it mean to be a disciple? What does it mean for us to be a follower of Christ? (pause) I often wrestle with this question…and I wish there was a road map…check points that we can achieve and mark off to show ourselves that we are making progress…that we are becoming more Christ-like.

Granted, we do have rituals in the church that sorta of point this direction.  We typically baptize as a baby…and then about 4 years old the child starts Sunday School…and eventually moves into Confirmation and then at the end of 8th grade they stand up front, say a couple things, receive a prayer…and that’s kind of it.

I don’t know about you, but I find that model lacking…and while I don’t know exactly how else to propose that we “map out” the life of a disciple, I do know this…we are called through our Baptism…we are joined with the one body of Christ…we are empowered by the Holy Spirit, and we are all ministers…called to proclaim what Christ has done in our lives…and to live out the truth that while we were sinners, Christ died for us.

And the thing about it…is that we do this…in the grind of life…in the routine…in the stuff that happens over and over again…because that’s where God meets us…and there are times when that might seem kinda daunting. (pause)
I mentioned earlier, that I no more than finished 1000km a couple weeks ago, and then I found myself at the beginning of another challenge…this time, its 1017…and as I face the vast majority of that challenge still ahead of me, I keep thinking “here we go again.” But that’s life…that’s the life we lead…and though at times it might seem repetitious…or boring…that is the path we walk…and what a blessing to realize that God walks it as well…That’s why Jesus entered our reality…that’s why he became one of us…to experience life as we do…and not only that…but to meet us there…and to come along side us as we move through this life as disciples…with no roadmap in front of us…only the knowledge that God is constantly inviting us forward, out of the old, and into something new…and this is true, even in the times when everything might feel the same.

Here we go again. (pause) Yep…but you know what, God’s right here with us. Amen.

Power or Weakness 1-1-17

In this sermon, taken from Matthew 2:13-23, I explore the illusion of power within the world, and just why God entered the world in a powerless fashion.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Considering that my college degree is Horticulture, you’d think that I’d have a lot more plants around than I actually do…at least inside plants. But the fact of the matter is, I don’t have a lot. We have a couple house plants that sit in our front window at the house…and currently, I have one small plant sitting in my office window. And that’s it.

But that being said, the other day I was standing in the kitchen over at the house, looking out over the parking lot, and I could see my plant sitting in the windowsill in the office, just soaking up the sunshine. And in that instant, I got to thinking about just how amazing plants really are.

Plants are pretty much the most passive life that exists on this planet. They are rooted into the ground…meaning they stay put…not a lot of movement in plants…and through the amazing process of photosynthesis, they are able to just soak up the sunshine and somehow get energy…their power…comes from sunlight.  (pause)
Now admittedly, the idea of energy within a plant is a very different meaning than we usually associate with the word power. Power is typically understood as strength or force, or perhaps authority. But yet as I thought about a plant passively living its life, and the power of the sun feeding it…I somehow came around to thinking about today’s gospel story. (pause)
Now admittedly…as we find ourselves 1 week after Christmas Day…still in the midst of the season of Christmas…still in the process of celebrating the savior…the messiah…coming into the world…today’s gospel lesson likely comes across downright shocking doesn’t it? A story known as the slaughter of the innocents…Not exactly something that gives us a lot of warm fuzzy feelings as we are still riding high from the holiday celebrations. (pause)

Now admittedly, chapter 2 of Matthew’s gospel is really the story of Herod the Great. He’s an interesting character…he’s the king of Israel…appointed and authorized by the Roman emperor…a man who literally fought tooth and nail to get himself into this position of authority within Israel…a man who is so obsessed with his own political standing that he literally kills 2 of his own kids and one of his wives who he suspects is conspiring against him…not only, he’s so obsessed with his standings when viewed by the rest of the known world that he commonly bankrupted the nation with his expansive building projects.  Certainly…this is a man consumed and obsessed with his apparent political power.

Matthew chapter 2 starts off with the arrival of the wise men…so yes, today’s story is slightly out of order as we typically celebrate the wise men at Epiphany coming up in a few more days…but we see them arrive in Jerusalem, looking for a newly born king…as they have discerned from a star…and they quite literally end up on Herod’s door step.

Needless to say, this comes as a great shock to him when these foreigners come asking about a new king. (Pause) A NEW KING? I’M THE KING!  And Herod’s alarms are going off…but through some quick thinking, he conspires to use the Wise Men to find this supposed new king…and kill him. That was his MO…if there’s even a slight chance that someone is going to oppose his power…kill him…because they can’t challenge you if they’re dead.

Now this is where the story picks up today…the wise men get an angelic warning…something that is apparently pretty common right about this time…and they avoid Herod…but he’s still on the warpath and goes after the baby king anyway…and using the information that he’s gathered, he sends his soldiers off to the Bethlehem to kill all the baby boys younger than 2. (pause)
Shocking isn’t it…this abuse of power…that those innocent children would get caught in the middle of one man’s quest to hold on to his power.  It’s a sad reality…that those innocent lives were lost…that those families were shattered by the event…and honestly it raises the question of just why Herod was so paranoid in the first place.

But the more I think about that…the more I realize that the power that Herod possessed…was nothing more than an illusion. (pause) Think about it…because I think we often end up falling into the very same trap don’t we? The illusion of power…of control…this idea that we are in charge.

Maybe it’s a cultural thing for us in this day and age…but we like to be in control don’t we? We like to think that we’ve got everything figured out…and that we can direct the outcome of what’s going to happen. (pause) But let’s be honest for a second…can we?  Despite all the planning…all the prep work that we like to do…all the worrying about what may or may not happen…how much do we actually control? (pause)

I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently…and I’ve had conversations with many of you along the same lines…and I think we can agree that this past year has been rough, especially the past few months…a lot of death…a lot hardships and heartaches.

Now I’ve never been one to say that God does this to us intentionally…or that these things that happen are God’s doing…because I don’t believe that…but hardships do happen…they are a reality…and they do provide us with opportunity to learn and to grow…and if these past few months…have taught me anything…it’s the sober reminder that tomorrow is not guaranteed. We expect it…we plan for it…but the truth of the matter is that we are finite beings and tomorrow may not happen for us.  And no matter how hard we try to fool ourselves into believing the opposite…we are powerless against it. (pause)

And this…is exactly where the Christmas story becomes so vital…because God…the creator of the universe…the absolute epitome of power…enters our reality as one of us…the ultimate power, who comes simply in order to overcome the forces of sin and death and darkness in our reality…does so in utter-powerless-ness. (pause)
Let me say that again. God gives up all power when he enters our world as a helpless baby.

This is on display in today’s story…Herod, the political bigwig…is so threatened by the mere notion of the Messiah, who had traditionally been the one anointed to be the future king…that’s literally what Messiah means…Herod is so paranoid that he tries to kill him…Herod tries to kill a helpless baby.

Now through some angelic intervention, Joseph heads off into Egypt with baby Jesus and Mary in tow…and here’s the thing that I find kinda funny. Several times in this short passage, we hear of Joseph acting, and bringing along “the child and his mother.” 4 times in 10 verses we hear that phrase…and through the repetition, we are reminded that Jesus was utterly passive in this moment…he was helpless…a very small child…utterly dependent…period. The ultimate power in everything…God…was in the world in an utterly dependent powerless fashion. A baby, cared for by political refugee parents, moved around from place to place to avoid death at the hands of those who were threatened by his very existence.

And the funny thing about all this…is that it worked. Herod…died, and Jesus was still alive. Later on, Herod’s decedents would still go after him. And not only that, but the religious power would one day go after Jesus too…because he was a threat to their authority.

It seems that Herod, and later on the Pharisees and Sadducees put too much stock in the authority that was granted to them by other people. Because that’s all this illusion of power is…that other people respect it. When it gets right down to it…power as we like to think of it…is nothing more than another person giving in to you. (pause)
And in contrast, God choses to be revealed to us in the physical sense in utter powerlessness…and why? (pause) Because that is where we are. Maybe you’ve noticed in your own lives…it almost always seems that God is revealed within the absolute worst moments in our lives…in those times when we realize just how powerless we really are…how broken we really are….when the world seems to be throwing absolutely everything at is and we know there’s nothing we can do about it.  It’s in these times that God seems to show up in our lives…though often times in the way we least expect.  (pause)
No one expected the Messiah to be a helpless baby, and yet somehow, some way, that baby defied the power hungry tyrant. (Pause) No one expected the savior of the world to die on a cross…and even more so, once he was dead, no one expected him to be raised up again…but it happened. (pause)

And I’m guessing, that when 2016 started, 1 year ago today…none of us expected that our community…that so many of our families…would be rocked by the loss of loved ones…and yet through each of those deaths…our community gathered around one another…bearing the burdens of one another…and in doing so, shining the light of God into the darkness that is still fighting tooth and nail against his divine light.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it…but not for lack of trying. Just as Herod fought tooth and nail to hold on to his political power….just as the religious elite fought tooth and nail to hold on to their cultural authority…and just like countless different examples of stuff in the world today…the darkness fights tooth and nail to hold on to its power here in our reality…but the glorious truth is that when Light shows up, darkness loses.

Our faith gives us hope to cling to in these times when the darkness looms…and we know that it does…and the amazing thing about the Bible is that it doesn’t sugar coat this. The darkness exists, and we don’t have look very hard to know that’s true…because we see just as much shocking stuff in the world…and on the news, and even right here in our community…shocking events that are right on par with a 1st century tyrant ordering the deaths of innocent babies.

In our weakness there is power…but it not our own…and God in the flesh…a helpless baby, hauled off into political exile in order to save his life against the apparent authority in the world…this is how God reminds us that he is with us always…in the good and the bad…in the triumphs and the struggles…and that this helpless baby would grow up and then be willing to undergo that same powerlessness on the cross in order to prove it…and that’s where God meets us. Amen.