Archive for July, 2017

What Are We To Say 7-30-17

Mustard_plant

In this sermon, based on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52, I explore a batch of “mini-parables” from Jesus, wrapping up a 3 week stretch of sermons on the parables from chapter 13. Its an odd mix of teachings which reflects the craziness of the lives that we lead.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/what-are-we-to-say-7-30-17

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

We find ourselves today at the end of a three week long dive into the parables of Jesus…and we’ve heard a lot of different things.  We’ve heard how the kingdom of heaven is like seed sown on different types of soil…some of which seems wasted and some of which seems to flourish.

We’ve heard about a wheat field planted carefully, only to have an enemy come in on the sly and plant weeds that grow up right in with the good crop resulting in the good and the bad all mixed up together.

We know of plenty of other parables of Jesus as well…stories about prodigal sons, lost coins, and wayward sheep…stories about rich men and poor men and their experience in the afterlife…or an injured man who finds help from a Samaritan, the least likely of interaction.

And now today, we have 5 more…much shorter in length…but still offered up by Jesus as a glimpse into the kingdom…today we hear about mustard seeds growing into trees, a tiny amount of yeast mixed into a huge amount of flour…a guy stumbling across treasure in a field, and a guy going all out to collect a pearl, before finally wrapping it all up with a fisherman dragging a net through the water and pulling up all kinds of different fish. (pause)

And as we consider all of these different parables…and as we try to discern in our minds what it is that we as individuals learn from Jesus in the hearing of the different parables…maybe all we can really do is repeat the question that we heard from the Apostle Paul out of the Romans passage today…What then are we to say about these things? (pause)

Now for many of you out there…perhaps hearing me say that particular phrase strikes you as familiar…it should…it is a question that I pose within the opening of nearly every sermon that I preach in a funeral…In that context, I’m being honest about the confusing, painful, and emotional reactions that we tend to have in and around the event of a funeral, particularly when the individual was one that we were close to. (pause)
But today, I find myself asking that same question when faced with a whole lot of little bitty glimpses into what our Savior says that Kingdom of Heaven is like…because when I hear these particular passages, admittedly, I hear some pretty strange stuff. (pause)

Some guy goes out to plant mustard in his field…WHY? Mustard is a weed…and it’s a pretty nasty one…it spreads like crazy…the body of the plant is prickly and thorny, making it a pain to pull…if its left in a field it will utterly take over…and no farmer in their right mind would ever intentionally plant it…but even more strange…this comment from Jesus that it will grow up into a tree big enough for the birds to nest in. (pause) No it won’t. Mustard plants don’t do that…they don’t become trees…what Jesus is suggesting is not just unexpected…its impossible. (pause)

The kingdom is like a woman who outs a bit of yeast, or leaven in 3 measures of flour…this one requires a bit of translation…because the woman actually HIDES the leaven in the flour…and 3 measures is actually like 60 pounds. Now keep in mind that within Jesus time, talking about leaven was actually a reference to things of insidious nature…and so we start to question just why the woman chose to stick the leaven in the flour to begin with…but all that aside, putting yeast in with flour isn’t really going to do anything is it? You need water and heat and sugar for anything to actually happen…and so for a tiny bit of yeast, hidden in the midst of an incredible amount of flour shouldn’t do anything…and yet we hear that somehow, the unexpected happens once again. (pause)

Well now what about calling the kingdom like a random guy who stumbles across some random treasure in someone else’s field? Apparently whatever it is that he found seems so worthwhile that he runs off, sells everything he has, and pretty much defrauds the original landowner to buy the property, just so he can lay claim to this treasure that he apparently found while trespassing. (pause)

The pearl? Sort of the same deal…this guy is actually looking for pearls…he’s a collector…he’s got a business to run…but he finds one that is apparently…so wonderful that he, too runs off and sells all that he has…ALL THAT HE HAS…which would include his home…the clothes of his kid’s back…even his pearl business…all so he can buy this pearl and sit under a bridge somewhere staring at it. (Pause)

And finally the fisherman…he goes out in his boat and let’s his net down…and when he hauls it back up, he’s got all kinds of stuff in it….and so he sits down to separate the good from the bad…the desired fish from the undesired…he pulls out salmon…he pulls out tilapia…and walleye…probably some high grade ahi tuna to make sushi…maybe some tasty sea bass…and he throws all of them into a basket, where they will inevitably be eaten…and then he pulls out carp…and dogfish…maybe a gar, and I bet he had some nasty smelly bullheads and sheepheads too…all of which get thrown out to some unknown fate. (pause)

We hear all of this today…and so once more I ask the question…what are we to say about these things?  That the kingdom of heaven is prickly and invasive…or that it will result in what we consider to be impossible?  Or that its worth defrauding our neighbors for, or leaving our families and even ourselves destitute in order to achieve?

I can’t help but think that this little batch of parables is supposed to be a little on the confusing side…and I find myself wondering if Jesus was joking around a little bit…and that when he poses the final question “have you understood all this?” He maybe even had a bit of mischievous grin on his face? Like maybe he was messing around with the disciples just a bit…but if, and take note I’m saying IF, that’s the case…well then it seems that the disciples are in on the joke because when Jesus asks if they understand, they reply yes.

And if that’s the case…if they do in fact get it…well then I’m a little jealous…because often times with parables…and especially with today’s batch of mini-parables…I hear Jesus ask the question “have you understood all this?” and my response is “Well, I think so…but at the same time…no.” (pause)
Now maybe I say that and you find it odd…maybe you find it shocking, or disappointing to hear a pastor admit to not knowing something about the interpretation of scripture. I know the very first time I answered a question downstairs in the confirmation/adult forum with “I don’t know” I saw several jaws drop open…but the truth of the matter is that sometimes whatever truth it is that Jesus, or the Bible, or in this case a combination of the two, whatever it is that God so desperately wants us to understand is just too out there for us to make heads or tails of.

But funny enough…maybe this whole situation is just a parable…or a metaphor for this life that we live. Today we’re posing the question about the individual parables of What are we to say about these things…and we can pose that same question to the multitude of different issues and situations that are dominating our collective consciousness these days.

We can’t turn on the news, or open up the computer, or log onto social media on our phones without being utterly slammed by one uproar after another…and lately it seems like the controversies are coming at us faster than ever…and in this life that we live together, we’ve got all kinds of stuff that we are just trying to make heads or tails of.

What’s the big stuff this week? Whether or not transgendered people are fit for the military?  Whether or not an aging Senator is a hero or a heel for voting against party lines? If healthcare is a right or a burden. Whether our president is a breath of fresh air who says it like it is and is cleaning house or a unpredictable sociopath who’s ruining our country. Whether black or blue lives matter more than the other…or whether guns are the problem or the solution…if a refugee is a terrorist or a victim….and who knows what controversies we’ll be talking about around the water cooler tomorrow or next week or next month.

What are we to say about these things…because these are all parts of the life that we are living these days…and there are times when I think about all this and I just wish Jesus would hurry up and come back already.

But the truth of the matter is…this is life in July of 2017…and its messy and it’s stressful and at times it makes no sense what so ever…and we ask the same question “What can we say about this?” And maybe, just maybe the only thing that we can say is that life is messy…its prickly and thorny and the problems might just grow up to take over everything…or maybe…just maybe…we remember that the kingdom of heaven is like this too…because the kingdom is present right here in the midst of all this craziness that threatens to take over our lives…whether we are looking for it or not. (pause)

Now if this was a funeral sermon, I’d start talking about baptism and the promise that God makes…that we are claimed by God and nothing overcomes that distinction…and I would wrap it up with the tail end of Romans 8…a passage that gives me hope in the midst of a lot crazy stuff….I am convinced, that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth nor ANYTHING ELSE in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Nothing…not the craziness of this life that we lead…not the pain that we feel…not the shortcomings that we experience…God’s love is made manifest for all the world…for every member of the human race…because God loves those made in the divine image, and that is EVERY single member of the human race by the way…and nothing in this crazy, warped, messed up reality that we live in can change that.

The only thing that does change…is how we react to it. How will we respond to this crazy invasive, sometimes wonderful and sometimes prickly love of God for each one of us?  Someone asked Jesus a question along those lines once. And his response…Love God and Love your neighbor…period. There is no fine print…there are no conditions. That’s it.

But you know what…that’s radical isn’t it? To love unconditionally…to love regardless of what it might cost us…regardless of what the world and the rules tell us is okay or not…Jesus did it…and it cost him his life…who knows…maybe he’s the guy in the parable willing to sell everything…to give up everything just to acquire a treasure…and if that’s the case, well maybe the treasure is you…maybe its me…maybe its all of us…including the ones that I don’t want to risk getting to know…or the ones that look different that I do…or the ones that talk different than I do….or the ones who voted differently than me.

Jesus says love God and love our neighbor…which seems to be pretty all encompassing…because everyone is your neighbor…everyone, whether we chose to believe it or not.   (pause)
What are we to say about these things? Maybe nothing, because maybe there’s nothing to say…maybe all we can do is live together in the midst of this prickly thing called life. Amen.

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What Did You Do 7-23-17

In this sermon, based on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, I explore the parable of the wheat and the weeds. We find that there is good and bad all mixed up together in this life, as well as within us as individuals. It is not our job to remove it, but simply to live our lives. We trust, even in the midst of questions, that God will act.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/what-did-you-do-7-23-17

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

There comes a time in the life of every young person, somewhere within the transitional years between childhood and adulthood, when they come face to face with an often times painful reality. If you cause a problem, then you’re responsible to help rectify it.

I myself learned this lesson at about age 12, and it had to do with apples and broken windows in an abandoned farm house, but I’m not going to go into that today…rather I’d like to share the story that my dad told me of when he was just a couple years older…and he learned this same lesson first hand.

Now what you need to know about my dad, is that he’s the second of six kids, and his older brother Jim is about 3 years older. And shortly before this story takes place, my grandfather, their dad, had some pretty major reconstructive surgery on a bad hip…and so grandpa was pretty well laid up for most of this particular year…and so the bulk of the farming fell on Jim at about 17, and dad at 14.

No it goes without saying that in those days, probably far more so than now adays, the kids started in on the farm work pretty young, and so my uncle Jim had a pretty decent handle on how things needed to happen, even though he was still a high school student…and one morning, he’d mentioned to dad that the young corn shoots out in the field were due to be cultivated.

I’m pretty sure Jim was just mentioning that in passing, because at that point, Dad hadn’t tried cultivating yet…but as with any young whippersnapper…he was pretty sure he could pull it off…so dad got home from school, while Jim was still at football practice…and my 14 year old father hopped up on the tractor and started cultivating…and he’d made several passes back and forth across the field before Jim got home.

Now here’s the thing…dad was ever so slightly off in his placement over the rows…and while he didn’t uproot the corn…he was somehow managing to cover it up with soil…and you can imagine just how happy big brother was when he saw what dad was up to.

Dad saw his brother storming out towards the tractor…all red in the face…and while my uncle’s exact words are not very appropriate for me to repeat today…it can be best summed up “WHAT DID YOU DO?” (pause) Now dad learned that hard lesson of responsibility to clean up your mistakes by spending the next couple of hours uncovering each corn plant by hand, while Jim finished up the cultivating. (pause)
Now the idea of farming shouldn’t come as a great shock today as we consider yet another parable of Jesus…this time, the parable of the weeds in the wheat.

We hear of the master of the house going on to sow his field…and while the idea of sowing a wheat field might seem a little foreign to those of us who are used to seeing row upon row of corn or soybeans out in the field…its not that difficult to figure out…wheat is a grain, actually its in the grass family…and a wheat field is seeded just like a lawn…you just scatter the seeds out over the surface…and it all grows up like a carpet.

But as we hear…once the master has done the work of sowing the wheat seed…an enemy comes along in the night and plants weeds…actually something called tares in the original language…a plant that starts off its life looking an awful lot like the wheat that its in the midst of…and its only when both plants produce their seed later before harvest that you can actually tell the difference between the two.

The tares grow right up with the wheat…and since the individual plants…the individual stalks are grouped so closely together, the root system is all tangled up together…doesn’t matter if it’s a good plant or a bad plant…its all mixed up. (pause)

So that being said, in our parable today, once the plants have all sprouted…the wheat and the tares…some of the master’s sharp eyed servants do spot the problem…and they find themselves utterly confused…there’s tares in the wheat…how’d that happen…how’d that lousy seed get mixed in with the wheat…and then they think back to who sowed the field in the first place…the master…and they come to the obvious conclusion…He did this.

And so they march themselves into the house….Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? (pause) They might as well have been asking “What were you thinking?” or “What did you do?” or maybe “Why did you do this?” (pause)

Now I’m gonna stop right there…because I think that this is a pretty common theme…a pretty common question that comes up in the midst of our lives isn’t it? Stop and think about it for a moment. And place yourself in the position of the servants. Somethings going wrong, I think its instinct to blame the highest authority that we can isn’t it? (pause) We do that don’t we? And I’m pretty sure that its isn’t limited to some screw up out in the field is it? (pause)

Earlier this week, I found myself in that position…and it might seem a little odd, but its true. Thursday news broke of the death of a musician about my age…the lead singer of a band that I’ve listened to since my early college days…and it really threw me for a loop…and then a little later on the information came out that it was death by suicide.

And with that in mind I started asking a lot of the same old questions…questions of why and how…and yes I’ll admit it, even the question of Big Guns Upstairs of “why’d you do this? Why didn’t you step in? Why didn’t you stop this somehow?” (pause)

Those are the types of questions that tend to come out in conversation in and around tragic events…and here in our little community we’ve had more than enough events in the past few years that fall in this category…and I’ve heard those same questions from many of you…and while it is important that we recognize the truth that God did not cause these different tragedies to occur, I think it is perfectly acceptable, good even, to cast those questions and emotions and anger and sadness towards God, because God can take it…and if different parst of the Bible like Lamentations and quite a few of the Psalms teach us anything, its that blasting God with these raw emotions of grief is nothing new. (pause)
But at the same time…we also need to recognize that the parable doesn’t stop at that point does it? The servants of the master come at him with questions about the work that he had done, and the master points out the truth…an enemy has done this. (pause) An enemy.

Whether we recognize it or not…there are forces at work in our world that go far beyond our ability to comprehend or see or recognize…and those forces are at work in opposition of the work that God is up to in our reality. God has sown good seed in the field…so these enemies come along stirring up trouble.

Now we can call these enemies a lot of different things…Jesus calls it the devil at one point…but it seems that the powers of darkness and sin and death also fall under that category…they are present in our reality whether we chose to recognize them or not…these powers are here with us…entwined within us…rooted among us.

And perhaps upon recognizing this our reaction is the same as the servants…should we go pull them out? Should we remove that which is evil…that which is bad? (pause) But the master says no…the master tell us to leave it alone…and I think for a couple of different reasons.

Keep in mind…wheat and tares…hard to tell apart…so maybe when Jesus tells us no, he’s posing the question “are you able to judge what good and what’s bad? That’s not your place.”

But secondly…its all mixed up together…and so if you try to remove that which is bad…that which is evil…that which is toxic…you’re going to pull up a bunch of the good shoots as well. (pause) Now admittedly, when I’m in my garden pulling weeds, I don’t bat an eyelash if one of the good plants gets uprooted in the process.  But God?  God won’t risk so much as a single solitary life of that which he has called good…not one.

Why did you do this? (Pause) A common question that we throw God’s direction when this stuff happens…and yet today, perhaps we are receiving a very gentle rebuke as we are reminded that it is not the master who has done this…but at the same time, we are also assured that in the end, the separation of that which God has called good and that which is bad will occur…but its not our job to make it happen…we’re not called to clean the field…we’re called to live in it…or maybe, just maybe, to recognize that we ourselves…ARE…the field.

We profess ourselves to be simultaneously saints and sinners…both at the same time…not 50/50, but 100/100. Fully forgiven and justified saint, and fully twisted and broken and sinful and rebellious…we are both the wheat and the weed…and so maybe just maybe, when Jesus tells us that in the end, that which is considered bad…that which is broken within us will be bound and burned away with fire, leaving behind that which is good and valued and loved by God…and I don’t know exactly how that’s gonna work…but I do remember John the Baptist saying something about Jesus baptizing us with fire…maybe this was what he was talking about.

Now if that’s the case…that’s good news, but its sure not safe news is it? It sounds invasive…harsh…painful even…in short…it sounds a lot like life…and life’s not safe is it? But that doesn’t mean it’s not good.

And so, if you find yourself in a period of life that doesn’t make any sense…when you are asking those big question of Why God, don’t beat yourself up…because sometimes life deals us some pretty lousy cards, and it’s a choice between lousy and lousier…and its in our nature to question it…to react to it…maybe even get mad about it…so we own that…and then we find some grace in it…because the good news tells us that we are not alone it…and throughout all of it…God calls us good.

Amen.

The kingdom Of Heaven Is Like 7-16-17

In this sermon, I explore Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23. Jesus shares the parable of the sower, although I focus more heavily on why Jesus used parables in the first place.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/the-kingdom-of-heaven-is-like-7-16-17

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

As we all walked into the church this morning, through the entry way and the narthex and here into the sanctuary…all we have to do is look and see the various decorations to know that something special was happening this week…More than 50 children were on hand Monday through Thursday to hear about Jesus in our annual Vacation Bible School.

Now VBS week is, admittedly, one of my favorite weeks of the year. It is fun and wild and crazy…and the church is filled with an energy that just cannot be matched at any other time throughout the year. The joy and craziness of so many of our young people, both from our congregation as well as those from the community gathering together to learn about Jesus creates a feeling and an energy in the church that can only be described as wonderful.

Now in addition to witnessing this amazing joyful energy…there’s something else that I experienced this week as well…HOLY…NOISE. Those kiddos are loud…and now I don’t mean that in a bad way…far from it…but there were many times as I sat in my office, picking away at various thing, that I was utterly distracted by the sound of singing and shouting and clapping and laughter, all of it mixed up together and seeming to originate from every single corner of the church building.

And if there was one lesson that I kept learning over and over again…its that when it comes to VBS, the joyfully loud voices of children will not be ignored. (pause) But again, I’m not complaining at all, because its wonderful…and one of the coolest moments that I got to be a part of this week happened when a couple of the high school helpers popped into my office and asked “Hey Pastor, can you come downstairs and explain the Holy Trinity?”

Apparently one of the groups had gotten on the subject of the Trinity, and they were having some trouble wrapping their heads around how we have a 3 in 1 God…and so I went downstairs and tried, to the best of my ability to explain this crazy concept that we express…but that perhaps every single one of us struggles to really understand. I told them…well it’s a mystery…and we don’t really get it…but 1 God, 3 persons is like this… (pause)

Now I won’t go into the explanation that I offered the kids on the trinity…but in thinking about that moment I realized two things…the first thing is just how hard it is to really understand that whole thing and how we really only scratch the surface…and the second…is how I kind of ended up using a parable to help them gain a little bit of understanding.

And that put me in mind of the gospel for today…a pretty well-known parable of the sower who tosses seed all over the place on many different types of soil…and that each spot had very different results. But here’s the thing…I actually think that parable stands pretty well on its own without a whole lot of explanation…and as we’re going to having parables featured in our gospel texts for the next couple of weeks as well…I really zeroed in on a tiny bit of the narration that opens up this passage. (pause) We hear that Jesus…told the crowds “many things in parables.” And as I thought about the fact that Jesus really does use parables a lot through the different gospels, I started asking myself another question…and then I happened to glance at the first verse that we skipped over today…and I discovered that the disciples were wondering the very…same…thing. (pause) Jesus…why do you speak to them in parables?

Now those of you who are familiar know that preaching on parables isn’t really my favorite thing to do….and I’ve often pondered on just why that is…and perhaps the best reason that I can come up with is that parables really don’t need to be interpreted do they? Think about what a parable is…it’s a story, intended to make a point…a story that is intended to reveal some sort of insight or truth about a different subject…it’s a metaphor isn’t it…and in fact that word parable…or parabaley in the Greek literally means to put along side.

And that’s exactly what Jesus does…the kingdom of heaven…big right…hard to put our fingers on…hard to straighten out in our heads…confusing even…so Jesus places it alongside something that’s more familiar to those that hear…

In today’s example…the kingdom is like seed landing on different types of soil…its gonna grow in some spots…its not gonna fair so well in other spots…that’s the basic gist of this one…and its true right? Some hear the gospel and it grows…others hear it and it doesn’t. (pause)
But this is just one of the countless parables that Jesus shares isn’t it? And each one has a different purpose…a different message…a different truth that is revealed as we hear it…but there are as many ways to interpret any single parable as there are different people who hear it…and we’ve been hearing these same stories from Jesus for centuries haven’t we?

And as I think about all of this stuff…and I know I’ve said a lot different things already today…I wonder just why it often seems to be that parables, and not just that…but this whole kingdom of heaven thing is so difficult for us to put our fingers on. Why can’t we get there? Why does it stay so mysterious…hazy at best? (pause)

And the only thing that I can come up with, is that when we consider the kingdom of heaven and what it is…its simply too big for us…much like God, we can only scratch the surface and no matter how big or great or wonderful or deep or any other descriptor that we might try to use, its insufficient.

But you know what, that’s okay…because if Jesus’ many parables tell us anything, its that the kingdom is there, sometimes visible, sometimes in the background…whether we can put our fingers on it or not. And maybe we need to be okay with mystery. When I was trying to explain the Holy Trinity to the kids, I went into my default…that there are some mysteries that we just can’t nail down…but when we are talking about God, that’s probably not a bad thing.

But at the same time, the amazing thing about this God that we serve…this God who has claimed us as his own…this God who chose to take on flesh and live as one of us…this God who’s spirit is constantly at work…the amazing thing is the way that God can take a simple story and reveal amazing things to you…just by your hearing it.

I can’t tell you what you should hear…what truth you should recognize when you hear a parable. It would be really arrogant for me to ever think that I’ve got it all figured out…because the Spirit might reveal something to me, but something completely different to you…and yet, both revelations…both glimpses into the truth of the kingdom are valid…that’s the amazing power of God’s spirit at work through story and experience and this amazing world that God has given us in the first place.

And so today, allow me to share a few parables…and allow the Spirit to reveal what it will as you hear them. (pause)
The kingdom of heaven is like a man who walks along a path…as he was walks he takes big deep breaths…and he encounters many different smells…first he walks by fragrant rose bushes and their pleasant aroma…but then he walks by a hog lot and the foul stench of the sewage pit…yet every breath that reveals an odor also gives him the air he needs to live. (pause)

The kingdom of heaven is like two little boys fighting over a basketball, who throw angry words at each other in one instant, and then give each other high fives in the next. (pause)

The kingdom of heaven is like the office supply salesman who calls, or emails, or stops by like clockwork, and yet always shows up when you’re not looking for him. (pause)

The kingdom of heaven is like having a meal with good friends…and you find that the joy of sitting at the table lasts way longer than the food. (pause)

Parables are funny…and they’re quirky, and sometimes confusing…but at the same time, there is great truth there. And so today, perhaps we just need to take a moment and realize that the truth that Jesus hopes to reveal to us is that the kingdom of heaven is here and in little ways here and in big way there, it will be revealed…and just like the lesson I learned during VBS this week…the kingdom of heaven is like the joyful loud voices of children. It will not be ignored. Amen.

Why Is Everything So Heavy 7-9-17

In this sermon, based on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30, I explore what appears to be a somewhat irritated Jesus making a familiar statement “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/why-is-everything-so-heavy-7-9-17

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’ve talked about hiking before…and how it’s a pretty normal thing that I do when we are out in the mountains of Colorado. One could argue that I do a little bit around here too, although its probably safer to just call that walking.

But if there’s one thing in common about the various hikes that I’ve done over the years, they’ve all been short enough to do in less than a day…and even on some of the longer ones…hikes that last long enough that I need to bring along a few supplies in a backpack, its pretty well been limited to a jacket and raingear, and a sack lunch and water bottle…nothing too drastic.

But there’s a lot of hikers out there who are way more extreme than I will ever hope to be…and they’ll go on hikes that will last for days, or weeks…and in the case of some truly amazing people…even hikes that will last for months…and for these people…they need to bring along everything that they’ll need to sustain themselves…tents, sleeping bags, days-worth of food and water, cooking supplies, first aid kits, and the list goes on and on…and honestly, when I even think about I get tired…because you’ve got to cram all of that stuff in a pack…and you’ve got to lug it along over every single step that you take. I can only imagine just how that load must feel. Because when you combine it all, it has got to be so heavy.

The strength and the endurance of these extreme hikers amazes me…and I think it would be safe to use that old expression that they are strong as an ox. (pause) That’s an interesting saying isn’t it…one that, if we think about it…is pretty dated isn’t it? Oxen were the tractors or the heavy duty trucks of the past weren’t they…stocky, strong…able to move heavy burdens for extended periods of time…as they were latched into a yoke that was attached to a heavy wagon or to drag a plow through the field.

It’s an image of a by-gone era to think about a pair of oxen yoked together isn’t it? But its an image that, perhaps comes to mind today as we consider an odd little batch of teaching from Jesus…teachings that include what I imagine to be a pretty familiar bit of scripture to many of you…come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest…and then the kicker…take my yoke upon you…for my yoke is easy and my burden light. (pause)
Now I don’t know about you…but when I hear the word yoke…I don’t think of anything easy or light…maybe it’s the farm kid that lives in my brain, but to hear yoke is to envision those oxen straining against the old wooden yoke for hours on end…and so to consider Jesus’ odd little teaching here at the end of this passage about squabbling children, and  his thinly veiled irritation at the fickle ways that many in his audience have criticized the ministry of both Jesus and John before him…maybe, this whole thing mixed in together just comes across as confusing. (pause)

And so as we think about all this stuff today, its important to back up and think about just why Jesus says what he says today…and in the larger narrative around this passage, we hear about the opposition that Jesus is finding in his ongoing ministry…and the ways that he is criticized for his approach…and how it mirrors the criticism that John faced before him, even though John’s ministry was drastically different. But yet…there was a common thread between the two…the kingdom of heaven has come near…and if that’s the message, then I find myself wondering just what their opponents really took issue with…That the kingdom would come near to us…that God would willingly near to us? Or that the behavior of both of them fails to match up to the Pharisees perceived notion of what a faithful life looks like…or how to get there. (pause)
But before we start jumping on the Pharisees case, we should stop and realize that its human nature to think that we have to do something, or maybe that we have to do a lot of things in order for the kingdom of heaven to come around to the point where we can access it.

Think of the common questions that we face…what must I do? How do I achieve that…isn’t it up to me? I don’t know why it is, but it seems to be deeply rooted within us to think that we’ve got to earn it…whether by works of the law…or by being sorry enough for the bad things we do…or by praying enough…or by reading our Bible enough, or by giving enough offering…or any other achievement that our fickle minds might come up with…and while we might start to get down on ourselves when we think this way…its nothing new.

If we look way back in history…and the human perception of the divine…its that gods were distant and cruel…and they were in control of everything…and if you wanted to live and prosper you needed to stay on the good side of the gods…and you accomplished that by living a certain way and by making offerings…but the thing was that you never really knew how you stood with them…unless things went really badly and then you realized that the gods were mad at you just before you starved to death because your crops didn’t grow…but if on the other hand things were going pretty well you had to do all these other things to show the gods just how thankful you were and you never knew if you had done enough to stay on their good side. Crazy huh?  Do you see how futile…how frustrating that must be…to never know where you really stood? (pause) Think of how heavy of a burden that would be to carry around with you every single day…of never knowing if you’ve done enough to keep the powers that be happy with you. (pause)

But what if that wasn’t the case?  What if, our God…one that has made all of this out delight and joy…including us…what if that God takes joy…takes pleasure in revealing the truth to his beloved children that they are good enough…that they are loved and accepted as they are…and that no amount of sacrifice or duty or obligation is ever required in order to gain his favor…that the divine comes near to us simply because of God’s delight in us…because when John or when Jesus says the kingdom of heaven has come near…maybe that’s what they’re talking about. (pause)
But on the other hand…if you’ve been taught your entire life that you are only acceptable to the divine if you follow the rules and make all the right sacrifices and pray all the right prayers…and then you find some random person attracting a following by throwing that old notion out the window…I can see why they would try to find something to criticize…something to discredit the message of this guy…because your rules and regulations are safe…and if you follow them out of obligation and fear of what will happen if you don’t.

That’s the yoke of the Pharisees…that’s the yoke of a bunch of rules listed out that with the tagline of do this and your good, don’t and you’ll burn. (pause) Can you see how much of a burden that would be? To never know if you’ve covered the bases…to never know where you stand?

But Jesus says it is finished…there is no checklist…there is no minimum level of achievement because God has already claimed you…and when Jesus says his yoke is easy…I think this is what he’s talking about…and that is something that we can rest easy in…because in the end its not about what we do or say or think…its about what God has already said about us…and God looks at you and says you are mine….its not up to you…and its certainly not up to anyone else to make that judgement call where you are concerned. (pause)
Now I say all this…and yet I know that life is heavy…and we are really good and filling up our proverbial backpack with all kinds of burdens and we tell ourselves I’ve got to carry this. I won’t even try to tell you what your burdens are…but you know.  Life is hard, and I believe that God knows that, because through Christ, the God that takes delight in us, has experienced life as one of us, with all the burdens that come with it.

But yet, when Jesus says my yoke is easy and my burden light, I believe that he is assuring us that the one thing we don’t have to carry…the one thing we don’t have to stress ourselves out about…the one thing that we don’t have to worry about is whether or not we are good enough for God….because in Jesus Christ he has already come near to you…not because of anything that you have done, not because of anything that you strive to be…but simply because our God takes delight in you. (pause)
May we hear this news with joy…and find peace and solace in the promise that we have each been claimed by God, and that God delights in us as we are, right here, right now.  We may be burdened, and in fact its probably safe to say that we are…but the question of where you stand with God is not something to weigh yourself down with. (pause)
Why is everything so heavy? I don’t know. I really don’t…but this is one burden that you don’t have to carry. Amen.

 

(This sermon’s title and background is credited to Linkin Park and their song “Heavy.” You can see the video for this song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dmQ3QWpy1Q)

 

Be Welcomed 7-2-17

In this sermon, based on Matthew 10:40-42, I explore Jesus seemingly odd connection between welcome and reward, which wraps up his teaching to the disciples as they prepare to go out and do ministry.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/be-welcomed-7-2-17

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
Its been my observation, that as kids go through their formative years, beginning around junior high and going through high school and college, they bond with a core group of friends…and typically within that group, their ends up being 1 house that becomes the go-to hangout…I can remember exactly where that place is within my own history…the home where two of the guys who happened to be brothers, grew up.

Now maybe you had a place like this in your history…and you were around so much that the parents of your friends pretty much become like a second set of parents to you…so much so that even years later you still call them Mom and Dad.

This house was that place for me, as well as the rest of our crew. They had a room in the basement which was our typical hangout spot…it served as home base for the various things we did together…and our presence was so common there, that it became one of those places that you don’t even have to knock before you walk in.

I can remember countless times of parking out in the street and walking up the driveway towards the garage…and as I approached the door I could look in through the front window into the living room and see Mom and Dad sitting there watching tv…and they’d just wave. Maybe you know that wave…that wave that says hello…it says come on in…don’t bother knocking, the boys are downstairs…and even now, decades later…on those rare occasions when I make it into my hometown I know I better stop in to say hi to mom and dad…and as I walk up the driveway I’ll see that wave that tells my I’m welcome…that wave that tells me I’m known. (pause)

Now the theme of welcome should be familiar and I’m guessing that it comes as no great shock that I bring it up considering our brief gospel passage for today…the theme of welcome is all over these three verses…but what’s interesting is just where we’re at in this passage.

Today’s lesson marks the end of what has become something of a sermon series. Those of you familiar with my style know that’s not really the type of thing I tend to engage in as I preach week to week, but on occasion we’ll see the ongoing narrative bring us through a larger story that is all connected, and this is, of course the case today.

If you’ve been following along over the past few weeks, we’ve been in a larger story of Jesus preparing to send his disciples out…fully empowered to join in the work of ministry that Jesus himself is already doing. 2 weeks ago we heard of his compassion for the great crowds, that the way that he grants the disciples the authority to proclaim the good news of the kingdom as well as authority over demons and diseases and even death…in short, to join with him in the same work that he’s already up to.

But then, over the course of the next rather large section of gospel, Jesus begins to lay out that rather dire look of just what they can expect as they go out empowered to do this work…and we heard about that last week…and boy, its not a pretty picture…opposition…legal troubles…condemnation…division…you name it. (pause)
But now…finally, Jesus wraps it up with this very brief portion…and as he doesn’t I can’t help but think he sounds a little bit like a broken record…saying pretty much the same thing over and over again. Welcome welcome welcome welcome…and reward reward reward reward. (pause)
Now at first glance, one of these things gets me pretty excited…and the other one, well it makes me a little nervous…can you guess which one is which? (pause) The idea of welcome…well this one that I hope we’re all familiar with…the idea of hospitality…the idea of bringing in the stranger, of making them feel at home.  We hope that we as individuals are welcoming to those around us…we hope that our communities and especially our congregations are a place of welcome, where someone new can come in and immediately feel right at home.

We embody this with our greeters every Sunday…with our invitation to shake hands and greet one another…with the language at the beginning of worship that whenever we are in our Father’s house we are home…we go out of our way to try and be welcoming…and that’s a good thing.

But funny enough…I don’t think that’s quite what Jesus is talking about as he instructs his disciples on what to expect as they carry the gospel out into the world. Jesus isn’t telling them to be welcoming…rather, he’s telling them to go be welcomed. Go out and do ministry…at the mercy of those you are ministering to…and you know what, that’s pretty daunting…that’s really putting yourself out there…

To do this very thing…is to make yourself vulnerable…and that’s something in our individualistic, dog eat dog world that we just aren’t that good at are we?  Because to be vulnerable is to open ourselves up to the very things that Jesus was warning us about last week.  Make yourself vulnerable, you risk rejection. You risk ridicule…you risk opposition or even in extreme cases…retaliation.

But here’s the thing…as we consider the context in which Jesus shares these words, we remember that we are doing the exact same thing he is…and that the results that we experience are the same as his…and in realizing this…maybe just maybe we start to see that in the life of Jesus…in the ministry of Jesus…or maybe we can say in the event of Jesus, God becomes vulnerable…In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God risks rejection…God risks ridicule…and as we see, God risks…God flat out experiences violent retaliation.

And so perhaps realizing this we ask the question of just why would God do that in the first place…why would God willingly enter into our broken reality, becoming fully vulnerable…knowing full well that it would end up like it did….WHY GOD? (pause) Why would you risk it…and why do you ask us to risk the same? (pause)

Now maybe in order to answer that question…we need to take a look at the second theme of today’s brief lesson that makes us good Lutherans a little uneasy…Reward. Jesus talks about the reward several times…a prophet’s reward…the reward of the righteous…the reward of the one to welcome one of his little ones.

And I don’t know about you, but I hear reward…and my brain instantly goes to the idea that we have to earn it…and the Lutheran theologian in me goes into red alert…because we know we can’t earn it right? That’s not how this whole deal works…God’s grace is free right? It has to be or its not grace. So just what is this reward that Jesus is talking about?

I went round and round and round with this one…trying to put my finger on just what he’s talking about…and as I thought about reward or treasure…or wages…things that we put a lot of stock in…and suddenly I was reminded of something that the Apostle Paul says in one his letters…he lists off all these human accomplishments…and then he says I count it all rubbish…trash…or something a little bit stronger language-wise…when compared with knowing Christ my Lord….for Paul, it seems that the reward…the ultimate goal is knowing Christ…is being known by Christ…in short being in relationship with Christ.

And that right there…is where I finally found a connection between the idea of being welcomed and reward…because maybe, just maybe the reward is being in relationship…something that is engrained with us…it’s a desire that is some deeply rooted within our very being…and if we stop and think about it…we can’t be in relationship without the presense of welcome on one side or another.  Because what else is the idea of welcome or receiving another, besides inviting them into a relationship, whether for a moment that is only long enough to offer a smile, or a drink of water…or for a season of life…or for a lifetime…we welcome…and we are welcomed…and the life we share together in that moment of time is our reward.

And if you find yourself wondering just where this deep seeded need for relationship and community comes from, you just need to look back at Genesis 1 and remember that when God was getting ready to create humanity God said “Let us create humankind in OUR image” and it was so. The God that made us in the first place already exists in relationship between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit…all of which were in some way present in the beginning…and we were made bearing the divine image of God and I believe that is why we need relationship…that is why we are willing to risk being vulnerable with one another…of being fully present with one another…of opening ourselves up to the possibility of pain and rejection at the hands of another…not because we chose to be…but because that’s how we were created to be.

That’s why we form relationships, because its in our very nature…our nature that reflects the nature of God, who desires community not only within the Trinity, but with us as well…and that is why the divine word of God became flesh…to show us that it is possible for the divine and the human to exist together…and to invite us into the vital work of sharing that truth with the rest of the world.

May we be a people that welcome without question…without pretense…without restriction…and may we be vulnerable enough to go out and be welcomed in the same way…knowing that we bear the image of the one who will never turn us away…the one who became one of us to show us we’re welcome…to show us we are known. Amen.