Archive for May, 2017

I Will Not Leave You Orphaned 5-21-17

In this sermon, based on John 14:15-21, I explore Jesus promise to his followers that he will not leave us orphaned. Just what does that really mean?

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/i-will-not-leave-you-orphaned-5-21-17

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 read a lot, and over the years I’ve slogged through many different stories…some great, some not so great. I’ve read a lot of different types of stories and followed along with many different characters. And it seems to me, that one of the types of stories that is always engaging has to do with a main character that’s an orphan. Someone who begins the story disconnected, with no sense of being part of anything.

Many of our classic stories, both old as well as new, fall in this category. Huckleberry Finn…Anne of Green Gables…Little Orphan Annie…Harry Potter…just to name a few…and if there’s one thing that these characters seem to have in common through their respective stories, it’s a search for connection…for belonging…the search to find the place where they belong.

Perhaps these various characters and their fictional stories are so engaging is because, deep down…I think its part of our very nature to seek this out for ourselves…connection…community…belonging.  Now there are many different places that we can find this sense…in fact our very understanding of socializing is based on it…we spend time with those we that we belong to…those who share a sense of commonality.

Many of the words that we would use to describe ourselves reflect this…and perhaps none more deeply than the connection that we hold with our family. Good bad or otherwise, so much of our identity is tied to our family of origin…and perhaps for many of us, maybe even all of us…our family offers us a sense of stability in terms of who we are.

Now perhaps, this is why a brief statement offered by Jesus in today’s reading seems so utterly significant. As Jesus sits at the table of the Last Supper with the disciples…with this small group of individuals that he has claimed as his own…this group of people who he has even come to call family…as he sits there with them, sharing a final time together, he knows that he’s saying goodbye…and maybe knowing this…he feels compelled to give them an assurance that they will not be left alone. And not only that…but his promise…I will not leave you orphaned. (pause)
I thought a lot about that this week…about what it must be like to be orphaned…about the sense of isolation that it must create…to be utterly disconnected from everyone. To have no sense of belonging…no one present who will care for you…no one that shares a common life with you…and I can only imagine just how isolating and terrifying that must be, not only for a child…but for anyone who has lost those family connections within their lives.

And as I thought along those lines, I found myself asking the opposite question…if Jesus will not leave his followers, either the 12 men sitting at the table with him…or any of the rest of his followers throughout the ages that have passed, including us of course…but what does it mean that he will not leave us orphaned? (pause)
If we are to answer that question…what is the opposite of being orphaned…it would seem to include connection…inclusion into something…to be cared for…to be claimed…in short…to belong with someone else….in short…family.

Now family is an interesting term…often we think of a connection by genetics…but I think the term family can certainly farther reaching than that…as it seems to imply a sense of closeness that exceeds all else…and this closeness is a sense that can create amazing joy and comfort…and at the same time, it can create an amazing sense of loss when that person that we claim as family is no longer around…and as we all know…separation is a reality.

It come in many forms…but none so final…none so utterly complete…than death. I can only imagine that was a sense that Jesus was experiencing at the Last Supper…knowing that he was going away…that he was going to a place where his friends…his family…could not go.

Many of us sitting here today have experiencing the pain and separation caused by death…and if you haven’t, just wait…it’ll find you sooner or later…because it is a reality in our existence…painful, but true. (pause)
But that being said…there’s a promise…one that we cling to as followers of Christ…one that he hints at today as he says “Because I live, you will live also.” We cling to the promise that there is more to our existence beyond the separation of death. We may not know just what it looks like…we may not know just how it works, but Christ has made us this promise…one that we often call eternal life…or heaven…or the afterlife…and it’s a promise that we cling to, one that gives us hope, especially when we look forward and see the reality of our own death.

Now here’s the thing…earlier this week I was having a conversation with an individual who’s health is not great…and though it now seems that she’s gonna be with us for a while longer, it WAS touch and go. (pause) Now as we sat and talked, she said “Well…I honestly didn’t know what to do. I wanted to go there (point upwards)…and I wanted to stay here.” When I asked her why that was she said “I’ve got family there…and I’ve got family here.” And after a moment of silence she said “Wouldn’t it be great to get the whole family back together.” (pause)
The depths of the love that this women feels for her family, both those still living and those who have died is amazing…and she recognizes the disconnect that is caused by death…the separation…the isolation. And as we all think about it today I think we would agree that its just…not…right.

And you know what…we aren’t the only ones. Because God recognizes this as well…and in fact…if scripture tells us anything…its that God is at work to rectify it…and this is where Jesus comes in…for Jesus God in the flesh…God entering into our reality and experiencing just as we do so that he may somehow, someway overcome that which is broken within it…that he might overcome the power of sin and death and the separation and isolation that comes with it.

And God is not simply doing this because we are part of the creation that he made and is proud of…but God is doing this because to God we…are…family. Throughout scripture we see time after time that God calls us his children. God has claimed us…repeatedly…calling us heirs….and in the Biblical sense…that’s what adoption is all about.

Jesus says we will not be orphaned…and by its very definition the opposite of being orphaned is being adopted…and in Jesus’ time, that meant that the owner of the household claimed you as their heir…they claimed you as their child…and I believe that God looks upon all of humanity in this way…and Jesus came into our reality in order to show us this…Jesus came into our reality in order to get the family back together for good. (pause)

Now interestingly enough…as we’ve said before…the redemptive work of God in Christ Jesus is already finished, even if it doesn’t feel like it yet…but the work of reconciling this world…of gathering this family back together…that work is still going on…and it happens under the power of the one that Jesus talks about today.

I am going away, but I will send another advocate…another helper…the Holy Spirit which will abide with you and in you…now here’s the thing about the Holy Spirit…the thing that all too often we here in the Lutheran church push to the back burner…the action of the Holy Spirit in the world is the action of God in the world.

We might not fully grasp just what Holy Spirit is…and that’s ok…but the Spirit is at work whether we recognize it or not. (pause) Now there are many places to look and see…and we profess several them every week here in worship. I believe in the Holy Spirit…the holy catholic church…the communion of saints…the forgiveness of sins….the resurrection of the body…and the life everlasting. (pause) Sound familiar?

Each of those statements, taken from the Apostles Creed, testify to the work of the Holy Spirit and the one that I think is THE MOST important, is also the first…the holy catholic church…which those of you who have been through confirmation with me know…catholic starts with a small c…and that means UNIVERSAL, not Roman.

Somehow, someway, the power of the Holy Spirit unites us all together as ONE CHURCH…ONE body here on the earth…together we make up the physical representation of Christ on Earth as he hangs out in heaven preparing a place for us. I can’t explain how it works…and often I’m quite discouraged by the bickering and the disagreement that occurs within different branches of this ONE body…but in the end if we can agree that Jesus is Lord and salvation comes through what he has done, then maybe, just maybe all that other stuff is just secondary…and we can focus on the thing that we have in common…the thing that unites us together…the thing that makes us…FAMILY.

There’s a song that I like a lot…it says “In Christ alone, my hope is found.” Today, may we all find that hope in his promise that we will not be left as orphans…but because the one who made us in the first place claims us as his children, and unites us together through the power of His Spirit…we will never be alone.

And so as we look around this room…seeing one another…may we see family…united together as beloved children of God…freed to love one another as Christ has first loved us…because we are united by something that is stronger than just genetics…we are united by blood…his blood…which was shed for you and for ALL people for the forgiveness of sins…so that we might be claimed as his own. Amen.

Advertisements

There Is No Ladder 5-14-17

In this sermon, based on John 14:1-14, Jesus says “I am the way.” I explore what he is saying here.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/there-is-no-ladder-5-14-17

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

If there was one thing that I discovered at a pretty young age while growing up on the farm, its this…farms have ladders everywhere. Everywhere you look is a ladder. Now some of them are actually intended as ladders…there are ladders in barns…there are ladders in corn cribs…there are ladders going up the side of a grain bin or a silo…there are ladders down into well pits.

There are other things that, for a rambunctious kid that likes to climb, will serve as ladders. I climbed the wooded structural braces on the inside of a Morton building. I climbed gates in fences. I climbed fence posts to get on top of buildings…I climbed trees to get on the roof of the house.  I was always ready to climb. And my dad figured this out pretty early on in my memory…probably because I was the youngest and he had witnessed this type of climbing behavior in my brother and sister…but because of this, Dad was always very clear about the things I should not climb…most specifically the tall ladder going up to the top of the bins in the corn crib…bins with no safety rails to prevent a nice 40 foot drop…and then the ladder on the side of the silo, which didn’t even start until 10 feet off the ground…not that I would be prevented…because as soon as Dad’s back was turned…I climbed those ladders just like all the rest of them.

I guess you could say that I just liked getting up high…up to those places where I wasn’t supposed to be…those places where I wasn’t mean to go…but one of those times when Dad had told me to stay off some of those particularly high and, honestly, quite dangerous spots…I remember quite vividly asking myself the question “Well if you’re not supposed to go there…why’d they build a ladder? (Pause) Why’d they make a way in the first place?” (pause)

Now fortunately, even with all of my climbing, I never fell…but I did have a few close calls…times when I missed my footing and slid down a rung or two before catching myself. I’m probably just lucky in that regard, because like most kids do, I never really used those ladders like you’re supposed to.

Ladders, by their very design, are pretty useful when it comes to getting somewhere that’s out of reach. Climb up rung by rung…and you get higher…those out of reach locations start to become more accessible…and vice versa…climb down a rung at a time, or heaven forbid, slip and miss the rungs altogether, and you find yourself back down on the ground where you started in the first place. They are a way to get from here to there…at least when here to there involves a change in elevation. (pause)
Now this idea of a change in elevation brings up an old notion that’s called the 3 tiers of reality.  The earth is here…in the middle…and that’s where we are…now heaven is up above us…we’re not exactly sure where…but its up there somewhere…and hell, well that’s down below…its probably easiest to understand this like a house. We’re on the main floor. Heaven is upstairs, and hell is down in the basement….and this is the way that people thought about things…and in many cases, that people still think about them.

And if we think about the relation of earth and heaven and hell in this way…then the question will eventually come around to how we get from one to another…Sure we probably ignore the idea of heading down into the basement of hell, because none of us really want to go there…but it is pretty common to sit around and wonder just how we manage to get ourselves upstairs into Heaven.

And if my childhood on the farm taught me anything…if you want to go up…you need a ladder…and that right there…this idea that somehow, some way we can manage to climb our way high enough…that we can manage to get ourselves up to heaven where God is…this idea has permeated our society in a lot of ways…I fear, most destructively, with the idea that faith, or religion, or spirituality, or whatever you want to call it gets boiled down into some sort of cosmic ladder.

Ever thought about it that way? I think we probably all have at one point or another…especially when we start talking about the things that are morally right or wrong…and there’s this myth…this idea in the back of our minds that if we do enough right things, we’ll keep climbing up the rungs of that ladder…and as long as we avoid enough bad things in our lives that we won’t slip back down…like life is just a giant game of shoots and ladders…with the final end goal of climbing that cosmic ladder up high enough to get to where God is.

Well let me say this…there is no ladder…that’s not how all this works…and it was never supposed to…and all these rules and regulations and statues or whatever you want to call them…all these ideas of what we should or shouldn’t be doing…while perhaps good for the purpose of life…they don’t get us anywhere on the eternal scale…there is no ladder to climb…and there is no cosmic score board that God looks at to see if our good score is higher than our bad score.  That’s not how this goes. (pause)
Now what’s all this got to do with today’s gospel?  Why would Jesus be sharing this with his disciples?  It is a bit of a strange situation…actually this passage is found in the Last Supper…Jesus final bit of teaching for his disciples as he’s telling them goodbye…because right after this, he’s betrayed and killed. Just before this, he’s told them about the betrayal…he’s had his encounter with Judas who prompted fled the house…he’s told Peter about the pending denial…and above all he’s told them that he’s about to die. No wonder he starts off today “do not let your hearts be troubled.” I don’t know about you but I’m guessing it was a troubling state to be in.

And not only that, but perhaps for us today, hearing this 5 weeks AFTER Easter, perhaps it’s a little troubling for us as well…Why do we hear this now? Well, if the resurrection has already happened…and we’ll recognize the Ascension of Jesus back into Heaven quite soon…and in our reality today Jesus has already returned to Heaven…maybe as we consider all of that…the Last Supper is a little troubling for us too…because what does it mean to believe in Christ…what does it mean to be a follower of Christ, when the one that we follow has gone to a place where we can’t go?

That’s the question that comes up in the back and forth with the disciples.  Jesus assures them that he has gone to the dwelling place of the Father…what we call Heaven…and he has done so in order to prepare dwelling places for each of us…and here’s the kicker…he says “Where I am going, you know the way.”

And then a hand goes up…Ummm Jesus, we don’t know where you’re going, how can we know the way?  And Jesus throws it all out there. I Am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me…

Certainly, this is a familiar passage of scripture…one that gets thrown around a lot…and I fear…one that gets used in a way that serves to exclude individuals…and because of this history, this passage is often heard by non-believers as judgmental…exclusive…like a warning that you better believe this or you’re going to hell…and not only that but if you do believe it then you better shape up and start acting like it. (Pause) You better start doing all the right stuff…and land yourself on that mythical magic ladder so you can climb up high enough that God will notice you…and then you can be where he is.

Ever heard that sort of thing before…or felt like that…or wondered if that’s what all this church stuff is really all about. If so, just know this…you aren’t the only one…if Thomas’ question today shows us anything…its that even Jesus’ disciples thought this way…like Jesus was physically going somewhere and if they just look in the right spot they can figure out the way to get there too.

But there is no physical way to get to Heaven…there is no way for us to go there…we can’t get there…we’ve never been able to get there…and God knows it…God has always known it…and God has done something about it…God has come to where we are through Jesus Christ to create a way.

All too often I fear that the world hears Jesus say I am the way…and it sounds like “This is the only way.” And worse yet when someone shares that with them it sounds like “I’m right and you’re wrong.”  But what if what Jesus is really saying is “Now there IS…a way.” (pause)

Growing up on the farm, when Dad would tell me, you aren’t supposed to be up there…I always wondered…if you don’t want me there, why is there a way?   Jesus has gone away…but he has done this so that that now, there is a way for us to be there too. Its not about being good enough, or smart enough…its not about following all the rules and climbing high enough up the ladder…Jesus is telling us…he is showing us that God has already come to us where we are…and because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus…now somehow, someway…there IS…a way.  Amen.

 

He Calls Them By Name 5-7-17

In this sermon, taken from John 10:1-10, I explore the promise of God given to us in baptism, that we are claimed as his children. This sermon, shorter than normal, is happening in the context of Confirmation Sunday in my congregation.

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

Full disclosure…as a preacher, I’m pulling double duty today. In addition to standing before you now, I’ll also be preaching this evening up at the high school for the annual Baccalaureate service. Now both situations have something in common…as they celebrate and honor a group of young people at the end of an educational experience. Baccalaureate, of course marks the end of high school for our graduating seniors…and Confirmation here this morning, which traditionally marks the close of religious education for our 8th graders…and because of the similarities between these two occasions…if you happen to be at the high school this evening, you may hear a similar theme…as I proclaim a message that, I hope and pray, will be moving and inspirational for those who hear it as they close one chapter of their lives and prepare to move into the next one.

That being said, earlier this week I was meeting with several other area pastors, discussing the gospel text for today, and the fact that it is Confirmation Sunday for at least a couple of us that were there, the conversation came around to a question that I have been thinking about all week.  What do you wish you had heard on your Confirmation Day?

I pondered on that question…thinking back over time to the day when I was confirmed…April 25th 1993 at Bethel Lutheran Church in Graettinger Iowa, under the guidance of Pastor Wilbur Holtz, just in case you were wondering…and as I think back to the message that was shared by that Pastor more than 24 years ago…I realized (long pause) that I can’t remember a darn thing…and realizing this, well it kinda took the pressure off for today…because 24 years from now, its pretty unlikely that the 8 of you sitting out there this morning will be able to remember what I had to say either.

But if my own history does teach me anything, its that you will very likely remember the people who were involved…those who invested in you to bring you to this point…many of whom are sitting out there in the congregation right now.  I myself remember that pastor…I remember the two other teachers who volunteered to lead my class through both 6th and 7th grade…and even if I don’t recall much about the lessons themselves that they taught me…I remember the interactions with those individuals…and the stern looks I got from that Pastor in class when I got a little too squirrely…which of course happened with fair bit of regularity…and I remember the statement he made years later when I ran into him at a Pastor’s conference… “Yah Scott, you were a handful, but I always had a feeling about you.” (pause) And let me state for the record that I’ve got a feeling about a couple of you 8th graders too. (pause)
Now, many of you sitting out there are familiar with something I do each year with the Confirmation class. During their very last time together, I have them write out a statement of faith…a personal creed…something that we call the “I believe” statements.  Before they write them, I always tell them “Don’t just tell me what you think I want to hear. Be honest…at this point in your lives, tell me what you think.” Year in and year out these statements are fascinating, and this year is no different.

What caught my attention this time around was how literal the 8th graders took the instruction to tell me what “I believe.”  Over the course of reading their 8 different statements, I found the phrase “I believe” 21 times…and the theme that emerged more than anything is that they believe in God…even going so far as to say that God is the greatest thing…EVER. (pause)

But now…lets come back around to it…what message do the 8 of you need to hear today…and to answer that question let me say this. You believe in God…Good…He believes in you too…and not only that…he loves you…and he claims you as his own.

Admittedly, this is gonna be a short message today…because sometimes you don’t have beat something to death to make a point. Within today’s gospel, Jesus is talking about shepherds and sheep and pens and gates and all kinds of things…a bunch of things that honestly can be a little difficult to wrap our heads around…but the main point that jumped out of Jesus’ words today.
He calls his sheep by name and leads them out…Whatever this pen is…whatever this abundant life is that he keeps talking about…I can only imagine that he’s talking about life lived in relationship, both with one another as fellow human beings and also, more importantly, a life lived in relationship with the Lord.

He calls you by name…because he is the shepherd…the one who is willing to lay down his life for you…and not only is he willing but he has already done it. Jesus Christ died on the cross…dying the most brutal death imaginable…and he did so in order to show YOU that there is nothing that God will not do in order to be with you.

Your name was on his mind…Your name was on his lips. Quinn. Taylor. Mason. Megan. Tommy. Blake. Brayden. Emma…and for everyone else sitting out there today, guess what…your name is in that list too.

But there’s one more point I need to make.  Not only does the Lord of this abundant life know you by your given name…but he has given you another one…Beloved Child of God. This is a name given to you in the waters of your baptism…a time when you were washed with water and the promise of God was spoken you…a promise that God has claimed you as his own…a promise which nothing can take away from you…and now today, in just a few moments, the 8 of you will stand up before this congregation…before this gathering of the body of Christ…and you will acknowledge that promise which God has made to you.

That’s what’s happening today…because the action is already done…God has already said this about you. God has already claimed you….whether you realize it or not. Nothing takes that name away from you…so own it…and not just today but every day…for Beloved Child of God, you have been marked with the cross of Christ in the waters of your baptism…and you have been sealed in his love forever. He calls his own by name and he leads them…whether they (Pause). Whether you…realize it or not.

That is what I believe…and it is my hope and my prayer that throughout the course of your lives, you believe it too. Amen.