Archive for October, 2017

Different is Shocking 10-29-17


In this Reformation Sunday sermon, I explore John 8:31-36 as Jesus reminds us that the boxes that we create for ourselves are insufficient for salvation.

You can listen 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

Patterns are a wonderful thing…and they bring a sense of familiarity and often, predictability along with them. An example is the tendency for certain people to show up here in the church at predictable times. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but one of the things that I’ve come to recognize is that on Thursday afternoons…usually right about the same time that I’m getting ready to head out and get my kids at school, our very own Julie Larson is going to show up for some light altar guild duties…namely…she’s here to tend to the altar candles. Sometimes we overlap, sometimes I’m already out the door…but it happens often enough that I hear the front door open as I’m sitting in my office and I know who it is…and that about 10 seconds after I hear the front door, Julie will poke her head around and say hi as she’s walking into the sanctuary.

This, of course, was the case this past Thursday. Julie walked in as I was wrapping up…and she was still in the process of candles when I left…and so…when I walked into the office on Friday morning…and did my customary glance through the Sanctuary windows…I did a double take…I was shocked to see the change from the green paraments over the red for today.

Now any time the paraments change it catches my attention…but this time its probably safe to say that it shocked me a little more than normal…because they haven’t changed in a really long time. We’ve been in the season on Pentecost…which features the color green…and is also the longest season of the church year…and so there’s been no change in color since the beginning of June…almost half a year has gone by…no wonder I did a double take when things looked differently in here…I said it a minute ago, and I think it’s a good way to describe my reaction to the change…shocking.

Now…today is of course…Reformation Sunday, that’s why everything is red…and its big one isn’t it. This year is 500 years…we celebrate today on the last Sunday of October as we always do…and the actually anniversary is in just a couple days…we’ve been talking about it all year…but really, its safe to say that our tradition gives the Reformation a lot of emphasis…we even named ourselves after the guy who started it with a hammer and nail and 95 ideas for reforming the church.

Now that event in itself, was shocking enough…and the ripples have spread across the world over the course of the past 5 centuries…now for us its old hat…old news…familiar…but just think about how shocking it must have been for those who were alive at that time…that this upstart professor from backwater Germany was pushing back against Rome and the pope…that he dared challenge the authority…that he challenged the way things have ALWAYS been done.

Interestingly enough…Luther’s experience…and perhaps, the basis for his important work…well it stemmed from a shocking experience as well…and no I don’t mean the fact that he was almost struck by lightning in his younger years, though that would certainly be shocking…pardon the pun…but rather…in his study of the scriptures…Luther’s mind was blown…his world was rocked…when he stumbled across the passage from Romans that we shared a moment ago…and the verse “the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”  His view of a judgmental God that was waiting to strike us all down for our sins was blown out of the water as he recognized the free gift of God’s grace through Christ…shocking for him to say the least…and something that I think served as his metaphorical, or perhaps, spiritual 2×4 upside the head.

Change is shocking isn’t it? A change in decorations or color like here in the sanctuary. A change in tradition like Luther instigated through the Reformation…and also, the apparent shock that comes around when Jesus challenges the thought process of his audience in today’s gospel. (pause)

Now this brief reading out of John 8 is featured every year on Reformation Sunday…as Jesus reminds us about the importance of continuing in his word…or sometimes we hear remaining…or abiding…a common theme in John’s gospel…one that we hear many different times and in different settings.

And interestingly enough…the setting of this exchange between Jesus and some of the Jewish elite is a perfect example…but we’ve got to back up to the beginning of chapter 7 for things to start making sense…and as we look back, we learn that Jesus is in Jerusalem in order to celebrate one of the Jewish festivals…something that they did multiple times a year in their tradition…and this particular time, its for the festival of booths.

The whole setting of this festival is interesting…it lasts 8 days…with a Sabbath day at the beginning as everyone collectively rests…and then there’s another big Sabbath day at the end…and throughout the course of the entire festival…everyone is living in a booth…or a little tent that they’ve constructed in and around the city. The purpose of this festival was two-fold…first to celebrate the harvest in the fall…not unlike our Harvest Festival in November…but then as with all of the Jewish festivals…there was a sense of remembering the past…and in this case, God had instructed the Jewish culture to have this celebration every year to remember the 40 years of wandering as their ancestors lived out these years living in their tents…and not only that…but to remember that during that entire time of wandering…God dwelled among them…God, abided in their midst.

This is the festival that has JUST happened prior to today’s reading. One night has passed and Jesus is still in the city…hanging out in the temple courts…teaching and preaching as he often does. And because of his words…because of the truth that he’s been laying out…we hear that many of the Jews in his audience have come to believe in him…and with that, we hear his instruction of abiding in his words…and how this truth will set them free.

Cue the shocked look on the faces of these brand new believers…Wait a sec Jesus…we WILL be free? We’re descendants of Abraham…we’ve never been servants to anyone…what do you mean we will be free? (pause)
Now I can’t help but chuckle at this, because apparently these individuals…who are all members of a culture that places ultimate value on their history and their cultural identity which is tied intimately into past events…they seem to have forgotten that the vast majority of their history found them conquered and controlled by one ultimate political power of the day…the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians and Greeks and Romans.

These people seem to forget all of that history because they are completely stuck in the connection that they hold as descendants of Abraham…and the promise of God’s covenant made so many years before. For them…this is the ultimate distinction…and the thing that they place all of their stock in…as if to say that there’s a box…and if you fall in that box you’re good to go…but if not then you’ll somehow be found lacking. (pause)
I can’t help but find this almost laughable…they’ve just been celebrating God abiding among his people in a spiritual sense…but yet they fail to fully recognize that God has chosen to abide among his people in the physical sense…and even more specifically, that this God in human form…this Word of God made flesh was standing right in front of them talking to them.

Because to fully recognize this…and to fully accept his word and his teaching is to say that the box they had created…the connection to Abraham…their culture…to recognize that this distinction isn’t good enough…that’s downright shocking…it seems to be a tripping point for them that they just can’t get past.

And as I consider this, I can only think that its serves as an example for us as well…that somehow, someway every single one of us will come face to face with a tripping point…with a stumbling block, at some point in our lives…even in the midst of our lives of faith…perhaps even because of it.

Jesus says if you abide in my word you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.  It seems that on that day, for these particular people…the truth that was revealed was that their cultural identity earned them zero points as far as justification goes. Their Jewish distinction got them nowhere…and it blew their minds to the point of being unable to continue following Jesus…which we hear if we continue on through the narrative.

And I find myself asking the same question…when we come face to face with the ultimate truth of God made flesh in Jesus Christ…what misconceptions…what falsehoods that we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking give us the edge, will be brought to light for us to see?

Will it be the distinction of our American freedom?  Will it be our upper European Lutheran heritage that we celebrate today on Reformation Sunday…that idea that we’ve got all this theology and tradition figured out and everyone else has it wrong? Will it be our insistance that we don’t actually need God and that we alone are in control?

What is it that is revealed with THE LIGHT shines in our darkness? (pause) I can only think that when we face whatever truth shocks our fragile illusions, we will be left as bare as those individuals who couldn’t get past their cultural identity.  And when we come face to face with a truth that shocks us beyond measure…our only hope is to cling to the words of Christ…to remain there…to abide there in the midst of the promises that he has made…and here’s the thing…he promises us that if the Son makes you free…you are free indeed…and that because of what God has done through the death and resurrection of Christ…because of the proclamation that He has claimed you as his beloved child…the promise is yours that you will abide in his house forever.  (pause)
Here in the Lutheran church…we’ve spent a lot of time looking backwards at the last 500 years…clinging to our culture and tradition…and this is not a bad thing…but we must learn the same lesson that Jesus revealed to the Jews who were stuck in the same state…that now things have changed, and let us seek out how to live into the unknown future as we cling to the hope of God’s promises for each of us…let us remember the importance of what God has said about us…as we move into the next 500. And not just that but as we move past the last 2000 years, and not only that but as we move past all the years that have come and gone since time began and remember that God’s promise is to love us and claim us today and tomorrow and forever. And that this is true for us despite the brokenness that we all feel, shocking though it might be…let us abide in that. Amen

Say It Plainly 10-22-17

In this sermon, based on Matthew 22:15-22, I explore an odd little encounter with Jesus and the elite over the subject of taxes. Jesus, as per usual, takes their trick and turns it on its ear.

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

Earlier this week I did some organizing in my office…I went through stacks of papers that had piled up…files that had accumulated…I moved some pictures and decorations around…and I took a look at many of the books that I’ve pulled into my ever-growing library. And I came across one book that I had to get very early on in my seminary career…The Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms…a “handy” little book with “Over 300 terms clearly & concisely defined.”


As I glanced through this book, I came across A great deal of fancy terminology…many of which I tend to call the big fancy 50-cent seminary words that perhaps don’t mean much…words like Eschatology…Hermeneutics….Paradigm, just to name a few…now when I was in school, I heard these words get thrown around a lot…and most of the time, I didn’t really know what they meant, and to be honest I didn’t really care.

But as I thought about it a little more I began to realize that here at the congregational level, we’ve got some fancy language of our own…words or names that are, perhaps, pretty foreign to anyone new that might come in our doors.  Words like…chancel…that’s the fancy name for the area up here in front of the altar…I could probably just say the front.  Or what about…Narthex…if you don’t know that one…it’s the area where we all gather out there…you know like the lobby…There’s another one that I kinda laugh at…Hymnal…its that green book with all the songs in it…someone might call it a song book…which wasn’t lost on whoever put together our supplemental red hymnal…go ahead, pull it out and look at the cover…its right there in the title…the Other…Song Book. At least they knew what was going on.


As I think about these things…all this fancy terminology…50-cent seminary words…insider church language, there are times when I think that it would be easier if we just said what we mean…if we just used plain language that everyone understands…if we would just…say it…plainly…and I can’t but think that today’s gospel features Jesus doing just that. (pause)
Now before we jump in, we need to review just a bit…over the course of the past 4 weeks-worth of Gospels, Jesus has been teaching in parables…which of course he did on a pretty regular basis…and while the intention of a parable is to illustrate some difficult idea or concept in a way that is familiar, we see that often times his audience fails to grasp what’s he’s trying to tell them and they ask him to explain…once even going so far as saying “Tell us plainly…”

I can’t help but think we’re starting to see this today with the encounter that Jesus has with the powers that be.  Now if you’re familiar with the narrative, Jesus is in Jerusalem…and over the course of about a week, following his arrival, he’s in and out of the temple teaching…and as we’ve heard over the past few weeks, continuously butting heads the big wigs, mostly the religious elite, but here today some of the political ones as well.

For the past 3 Sunday’s we’ve heard parables from Jesus that have pointed out the shortcomings of these individuals…the failures of those entrusted with the leadership of the Jewish people…the hypocrisy that seems to dominate their actions and words, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not…but yet still there.

But now…it seems that Jesus is ready to cut the parables…to stop using illustrations and metaphor…and start…speaking…plainly. And I can’t only think that it’s a bit of knee-jerk reaction when he hears some very thinly veiled flattery coming his way.

Now his opponents think they’re pretty crafty…and they’ve come up with a scheme that will surely create problems for Jesus. But they’ve got to lower his defenses before they spring their trap…and so we hear… (lay on the sarcasm) Teacher…we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality…

I can only imagine, but it stands to reason that just hearing this…Jesus’ hackles are probably up aren’t they? Because he catches on as they lay out the trick question…What do you think…is it lawful to pay the tax to Caesar or not? (pause)
Truly their craftiness is beyond measure…this will get him…You see, the Jewish people hated paying Romans taxes…it was a slap in the face that they had to pay to support the very people who were oppressing their culture…and so no self-respecting Jewish person liked these taxes…and so if Jesus says yes, he’ll lose credibility with the crowds…but if on the other hand…Jesus says no, that we should not pay the tax…well the Herodians, who represent Herod…who in turn really represents Rome…well then that’s gonna land Jesus in hot water from a legal standpoint.

But Jesus isn’t falling for it is he…and here’s the point where he switches from parables and illustrations to just calling a thing what it is…or in this case…calling them what they are. Hypocrites.

They don’t care about loyalty to Rome verses loyalty to the Jewish culture…and they sure as heck don’t care about the law, even as they pose the question…is it lawful. And we see this because Jesus points it out in a way that he seems REALLY good at doing in these different encounters that happen throughout the gospels.

Now the tax in question cost a coin…a denarius…a commonly used bit of currency in Jesus’ day…the normal payment for a day’s worth of labor…a coin that everyone there would have been familiar with…one that they all would have used…

Now we know what a denarius looks like…archeologists have found them, you can find pictures…and we know that the face on the coin was Caesar Tiberius…the son of the great Caesar Augustus…who the Romans understood to be divine…to be a god…and so the face of Tiberius was the face of the son of a god…and the inscription that is referenced says the very same thing. Son of the living god.

In short…this coin bears the image and wording of a god, small g, a false god…which is something the Jewish people would tend to call an idol…and something that the Jewish people would call breaking the first commandment….or more specifically, breaking “The Law.” (pause)

And here’s where it gets interesting. As Jesus is trying to make his point…he asks for a denarius…and where does he get one? The very people trying to trap him, reach into their pockets and pull out the coin…the image of idolatry. (pause) Hmm…seems like they’ve already made their peace with breaking “the Law” haven’t they?  Like they’ve fully accepted the rules of the human authority at the time. No wonder he calls them hypocrites as they try to trap him on something they are already doing. (pause)

But there’s something else at play here…something that is perhaps more important…because Jesus never just leaves things with straight up antagonism does he?  Doesn’t it seem like he always manages to reveal something else? Something good…something hopeful?

With his first statement and question revealing who the coin…who the tax belongs to…that being Caesar…he lays this little ditty out there…give that which is of Caesar to Caesar…Give that which is of God to God.

Now we could go round and round with just what that means but let’s keep it simple…that which belongs to Caesar..that which belongs to the realm of human authority…or government…or whatever we want to call it…it bears the image doesn’t it…the coin has his image on it…and Jesus says go a head and give it to him…quit worrying about all this petty human stuff…because when it comes to God, it’s a completely different playing field…Caesar’s stuff is down here (point low), but God’s stuff is clear up here (point high).

So the big question…what belongs to God…what’s created bearing God’s image…and to answer that question we need to take it clear back to the beginning and this cool little blurb from the book of Genesis.  Following the creation of everything else in the world…God says this. “Let us make humankind in our image…according to our likeness…and so God created humankind in his image, male and female he created them.”

Here’s the take away…often times I hear people talk about this passage…specifically this statement of Jesus about giving to Caesar and giving to God…and they use it to point towards the idea of the separation of church and state…or they talk about how its good that we do our part and pay our taxes, or they use it to highlight stewardship and giving to God…but I think the important thing for us to remember is that there are aspects of life that are just that…life…Jesus told them to pay the tax…it was the reality of the day. But he also reminds us that God claims a whole lot more than just taxes…because God places his image upon a whole lot of things. The coin was made bearing the image of Caesar…You are made bearing the image of God…and not only that…but I’m pretty sure that we hear in scripture that the Word was God, and through it ALL things were made…which seems to indicate that God’s concerned about, pretty well everything…and that includes the one which God deemed worthy of being made as a divine image bearer…that’s you.

God made you and God claimed you…period. You don’t need to be anything special…you don’t need to accomplish anything amazing…you don’t have to make yourself better…you don’t need to pass any test or batch of achievements to catch God’s attention. For God’s attention and love is already on you…that’s already done. You belong, now. You are seen now. You are loved…now…as you are…remarkably imperfect…and yet of priceless worth to the one who made you in the first place. God loves you now.  I can’t say it any more plainly. Amen.

Do We Expect the Spirit 10-15-17


In this sermon, based on Matthew 22:1-14, I explore the parable of the wedding banquet. Do we expect to be changed when we encounter God? Maybe we should.

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 are familiar with the fact that in my former life, or the time before I became a pastor…that I started off my career managing golf courses. During that season of my life, I was employed on the maintenance crew at 2 different courses…the first through my college years, and the second for about 2 years after graduating.

Now as is the case with most things…different golf courses are going to be managed in different ways. The first was larger with a bigger crew, the second had a smaller crew…and this became most evident on the weekends.  Pretty much every course that I am aware of works an abridge schedule on the weekends. It’s the busy time for the course, so the workers show up, perhaps a touch earlier than on a weekday…they do the bare minimum, which is usually mowing the greens and raking the bunkers…and then they get out of the way. This was actually the case at both of those courses. The difference emerged when we looked at when crew members were on weekend duty. The first course offered a rotation…and we were pretty much on duty every other weekend, both Saturday and Sunday…but the second was a little different. A couple guys worked Saturday morning, and a couple of us worked Sunday morning…me included.

Now my boss there knew that I was a church-goer…and given every possibility that I wanted to make it to worship…and typically that worked ok…we’d get done what we needed and I’d have to time to get home, get cleaned up and head to church.

But there was one time that things were a little different…and it happened to occur on the day that one of my nieces was going to be baptized a couple towns over. Long story short…the service would take place earlier than I normally needed to be at church…and we had some extra going on workwise…and I got out, with just enough time to make the mental decision about either stopping off at home to try and clean up…or to show up for the baptism in my grubby clothes. (pause) Long story short, that day I set the record for the fastest I’ve ever gotten ready. In the door, shower, dressed in a full suit, and out the door again in 6 minutes…Now I easily could have shown up for the baptismal service grubby, and no one probably would have cared…but I felt like I needed to be a little more presentable. (pause)

Now that very idea brings me around to the gospel. Another parable…another story told by Jesus to illustrate the importance of our response to the invitation of the Lord into the Kingdom of Heaven…and its an interesting one.

A king is throwing a banquet for his son’s wedding. The invitations have already gone out to the king’s chosen guest list…but for whatever reason…once everything is ready and the king sends his messengers off with the call to show up…everyone on the guest list declines…some offer excuses…some get riled up and literally killed the messengers…the king in turn…he gets all riled up as well, sends out his soldiers to kill the perpetrators and burn down their city…which is lovely to say the least. But then the king tells his servants, go out…and anyone you find, invite them in because this banquet honoring my son…it will be filled…and this is precisely what happens.  And you know its interesting…the king doesn’t discriminate does he…bring them in…the good and the bad. And the wedding is filled.

Now here’s the thing…how many of those people out walking the streets…or working in the fields…how many of them do you suppose were carrying a wedding robe at the time?  (pause) Think about it? Why would they…there’s no reason for them to think on this particular day that the king was going to invite them into a banquet…but if a representative of the king grabs you and says “come to his banquet” you go…period…right then and there…there would be no option of stopping off at home for a 6 minute clean up session so they could arrive with a suit on.

But apparently there are robes aren’t there? There must be…because, as we hear…there’s an issue on this basis…one we’ll talk a bit more about momentarily…and so…it raises the question of just where are they getting the robes?

It stands to reason that the host provides them…that as they come in…they follow social decorum…knowing they need to accept the robe…and the host knows he needs to provide them…and everyone follows decorum…and the party gets going…and the king does a walk through and everything is peachy…until the king lays eyes on this one guy…this guy who has the audacity to NOT…be wearing a wedding robe.

The king asks him why…he of course has no good answer and is standing there silenced out of his guilt in the face of the king and host…and as we hear…there are consequences. (pause)
Now I’ve run over this in my head time after time…and I’ve wondered…what’s up with this guy. He knows the expectations…he walked in with everyone else…he showed up at the party…but when he reached the door and one of the servants offered him the robe…I can only think that he looked at them…checked out his own attire and thought… “Nah…I’m good.” (pause) But considering what ultimately happens…it would seem that no, he’s not good as is…and the change was expected. (pause)
So what’s that mean for us today? What’s this robe? What’s this wedding banquet? What are these expectations that Jesus is trying to broadcast for us? (Pause) I’ve wrestled with these questions quite a bit…because to talk about banquet in the scriptures seems like a pretty obvious reference to the heavenly banquet that we’ve been invited to…and if we proclaim, over and over again…that God invites as we are…and yes I believe that to be true…then what are we supposed to learn from the guy who takes a look at the robe offered by the host and thinks “Nah I’m good.”

Maybe the only conclusion that we can reach is that simply showing up at the banquet isn’t enough…maybe its insufficient to think that we can just be here and then walk out the same as when we walked in.

What are the “clothes” that we might need to change? What are the practices or understandings or ways of thinking that we might be called to set aside? What things might God ask us to take off and set down, so that we might emerge different than when we came in? (pause)

As I think along these lines, I find myself asking an important question…do we, as believers in Christ, enter into situations where God is present expecting to see change? What do we expect? Do we anticipate the Holy Spirit to be active…to blow through and change us? Or do we think that we can just be present for the event…whatever it is…and then walk away as if nothing significant has happened?

Now there are a lot of different events or situations that we could consider…but perhaps the easiest one to think about is worship…do we show up here at 10:15 on Sunday morning with the expectation that there will be something different about us when we walk out at 11:30? Because if we don’t, we are selling the Holy Spirit short in a big bad way. (pause)
There’s something that I do every week that perhaps you’ve noticed…and I’ve been asked about it before…at the end of worship, in the midst of the final hymn…once the acolyte walks out, I step out of my pew and stand in the front of the aisle for just a brief moment…and as I do I say a prayer thanking God for whatever the Spirit accomplished during this worship time…but there’s another thing I do that no one probably notices…at the beginning of worship, right after the organist makes eye contact with me and I’m about to walk up the aisle, I ask for the Spirit to show up…and we never know how that will happen do we?

Sometimes the Spirit shows up when a child asks the perfectly timed question during the children’s sermon…sometimes the Spirit shows up when I sing Jesus Loves Me and the music for offering happens to be the same song…sometimes the Spirit shows up when I’m sermonating about God talking to us in many ways and someone’s phone rings.

These are just a few ways that have happened in this sanctuary…and there are many others, some that are blatantly apparent and some that perhaps we fail to recognize…but I return to the question…what do we expect of the Spirit when we enter into a situation…and do we come with the expectation that we will be changed in the midst of it?

The apostle Paul tells us that if we are in Christ we are new creation…and this isn’t something that we merely pay lip service to…but we need to think of this in the same way that Paul does in the original language…because they way he writes it implies some pretty serious astonishment at play…if anyone is in Christ…NEW CREATION!!!!!!

And we can rest assured that is what the parable is trying to tell us…because throughout the New Testament we continue to hear imagery of clothing ourselves…to be clothed in righteousness…to be clothed in Christ…and my friends this is very sacramental when think about it…for to put on Christ happens in the waters of our baptism when we are empowered with the Holy Spirit…and we are joined together with the body of Christ. And interestingly enough, the last time I preached on this passage one of our blessed children was being baptized in this font.

But this is not to say that the “wedding robe” that we put on only happens once in our lives…but we must remember that every single day…each and every moment we are called to embody the reality of death and new life…something that is literally happening in our very bodies every moment. (pause)

Did you know that in your body…in any given moment about 300 million cells die…and in that same moment, your body gives rise to 300 million new ones to replace them? You are literally dying and rising again during every single instant of your lifetime…and even more amazing…you were intentionally made that way by the one who has made new life possible through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (pause)
God created us to quite literally, become new every moment…so let us live out every day, every moment, every situation in a way that reflects this…let us live our lives in a way that reflects the change that comes upon us through the presence of the Holy Spirit…the presence of God in us and around us.

We cannot expect to remain the same…for to try and remain the same is to deny the very being that God has made us in the first place. Amen.

Vineyards Darkness and Exile 10-8-17

In this sermon, which is based on Matthew 21:33-46, along with Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 8:7-15, I explore the imagery of a vineyard for God’s chosen people, and how the reality of exile occurs cyclically throughout history. This is light of the tragedy last week in Las Vegas reminds us of just how prominent darkness is in the world.

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 times when I realize that things I take for granted aren’t quite so obvious or well known to everyone else. I had this thought over the course of the week as I considered our batch of scripture passages for today.  How many people out there are familiar with how those various texts are chosen?

Have you ever wondered about that? About how we pick the various readings that the lector shares…the psalm that we read together…about the gospel lesson that I share…ever wondered about that?

Now some of you out there might know…but we’ve got this cool organizational tool called the Revised Common Lectionary. In its current form, established back in the mid-90’s the lectionary lays out the scripture passages that will be featured each week…its organized into a 3 year cycle, and while it doesn’t cover every passage from the Bible, it does feature a lot of them.

And so, each week as I sit down to prep the bulletin and start working on the sermon, I’m not just pulling these various readings out of thin air…20 plus years ago, a group of Biblical scholars from several different denominations worked together to specify what we, along with MANY other congregations in many parts of the world, will hear as scripture lessons.

Now I can’t tell you why certain passages end up partnered up together for a specific week in the cycle…but typically there is some sort of connection among them…but this week…the connection is pretty blatant across 3 of the 4 different texts…Vineyards. We hear about a vineyard in Isaiah…we hear about another one in the Psalm…the snippet of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is the exception here…but then we heard about it again in this parable of Jesus, taken out of Matthew’s gospel…the third in a series of parables that Jesus has offered as he continues to engage in a back and forth verbal sparring match with the religious elite of the priests and Pharisees…the who’s who of the Jewish culture at the time…the ones who have been charged with leading and guiding the rest of the culture in all matters of religious faith. (pause)
But what’s this all got to do with a vineyard? That is, perhaps the big question that we’re posing at the moment…and in short, the vineyard in question…it’s the nation of Israel…the Jewish culture…this mass of people who were chosen to be the people of God…a nation of priests…and it happened generations before Jesus came on the scene.

Now I can’t tell you just why the ancient Jewish culture chose the image of vines or grapes or wine or in this case, the vineyard to represent themselves…likely because of the prominence of this crop at the time…but yet here it is…and we see it from the get-go as we hear a bit of a love song from God in the prophetic words given to Isaiah. “Let me sing for my beloved, my love-song concerning his vineyard.” We hear that he went through the work of establishing it…clearing it out, planting the vines, building a watch tower…and then waited for the fruit of his labor to arrive.”  But what God has hoped for has not come to fruition…and we hear of a harsh promise that the wall and the hedge that protects the vineyard will be torn down…the fruit and the plants will be devoured and trampled upon…the vineyard…will be destroyed… even though the Lord loves his people, the fruit is not what God had in mind…and the vineyard will be taken away. (Pause)

Now think about the Psalm that we shared earlier in our worship service today. It would seem that this story…this illustration of the vineyard has now moved forward…and the promise that the vineyard will be taken away from the people has come to fruition…but we are also reminded of what God has done.

You have brought a vine out of Egypt and planted it. Because of what you have done o Lord, it has taken root and filled the land…you stretched out its tendrils to the sea and to the river.  It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that the psalmist is asking God to remember what he has done to establish the nation…but then…as we hear, the psalmist begins to question…to lament.

Why have you broken down its wall? Those that pass by pluck the grapes…the beasts graze upon it and trample it down…the vineyard is lost…it has been taken away…and the psalm concludes as the psalmist pleads with God to turn his favor back to the nation…Turn now O God of Hosts…look down from heaven…behold and tend this vine that your hand has planted. (pause)

Are you finding the trend so far? The vineyard will be taken away…and then the vineyard has been taken away…and with that, we find ourselves in Matthew, as Jesus shares a parable that, I hope by now, is starting to become a little more clear.

The master creates a vineyard…he plants it, clearing the ground…he builds a wall around it for protection, digs the wine press and builds the tower…and then the master entrusts its care to others. When its time for the harvest, the master sends his servants looking for the fruit…but instead of doing what’s asked of them…they rebel, roughing up the servants or killing them…several times over…even going so far as to catching hold of the master’s son…the heir…and killing him in an attempt to steal his inheritance. And as we hear…the future promise within the parable…identified by the audience of Jesus…judgement passed by the very people he’s critiquing…the vineyard will be taken away from those wicked tenants and given to others. (pause)

It’s a cycle isn’t it? The vineyard will be taken away…the vineyard has been taken away…once its restored…it will be taken away yet again. That’s what we see as we bring these three different readings together…each of them from a drastically different period in the history of the Jewish culture…the ongoing, overarching story of how God’s favor is shown, then taken for granted, and because of this that which has been promised is taken away.

There’s a word for this…something that the Jewish culture knows quite well…Exile…when the culture, or at least individuals within the culture are taken away from their homeland…when they are held in oppression at the mercy of a culture that is larger and more powerful than they are.

We see it over and over again through the scriptures…beginning with slavery in Egypt…wandering in the desert…struggling to settle the promise land with the natives…the conquering Assyrian Empire…the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans…over and over again, we see that the vineyard…the physical representation of God’s promise is removed from the people…truly they are a culture who has known hardship and oppression. (pause)
But there is another sense, perhaps hiding within the psalm today that serves as an important reminder for us. Even in the midst of exile…even when the individual is wallowing in the despair of the vineyard having been taken away…the presence of God is with them…and the cry goes out “Turn now, o God of hosts….preserve what your right hand has planted.”

The promise of God for his people…beginning all the way back in the covenant made with Abraham and tracking all the way across the ages to today…is that God is always present with those that he loves…even in the midst of turmoil…even in the midst of exile. God hears the cries of his people and the promise is real…that he will not leave us stranded…that the vineyard will be restored. (pause)
Now something tells me that when I bring up the subject of exile, or oppression, or perhaps, darkness…we don’t have to try very hard to imagine just what that’s like do we? All too often we are reminded of just how dark this world is…how broken it is…and even though God has begun his redemptive work of the world through Jesus Christ we still feel the effects of this broken down, messed up world…and we see this same brokenness within ourselves don’t we?

Perhaps we too find ourselves crying out in lament just like the psalmist…Restore us O God of hosts…let your face shine upon us and we shall be saved…and as we wait for this promise we ask the question posed in the previous psalm “How long o Lord?”

We see despair…we see destruction…we see oppression and pain…and we see darkness. Our nation…once more…was reminded of the presence of darkness 1 week ago…when the peace and joy of a music festival in Las Vegas was broken by a mad-man who opened fire…wounding hundreds…and killing more than 50 people…and the truly troubling part of this is that we can’t call it isolated…but in recent years we’ve heard these reports with WAY too much regularity.

Once more…children must live without their parents. Fathers without their sons. Mothers without their daughter…people without spouses…individuals without friends…it makes no sense and to simply call it the darkness of the world…while perhaps accurate…is insufficient to express the pain and the outrage that we should feel.

But I fear that in this case…like in every other case that didn’t happen in our backyard…we have the tendency to throw out the typical social media comment about thoughts and prayers…and we hug our family and friends tight for a day or two…and then we all go back to business as usual…numb to the reality that the vineyard has been ripped away from the families of 59 people…and that hundreds more will feel the effects of this madness for years to come.

I think about this situation…and my own tendency to get over it too quickly…and I’m not okay with it. I think that this time that old slogan that we all know is wrong…what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas…because if we just ignore this kind of thing time after time then the darkness continues to loom…and I for one am not okay with that.

We are told in the opening verses of the Gospel of John that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it…and I’ve thought long and hard this week about how we as individuals and how we as a community of faith can in one way shape or form begin to reflect that perfect light of God shining in the darkness…how can we…as heirs of the promise made real in Jesus Christ begin to live in the reality that the kingdom has come near right here right now in the middle of all this darkness…in the middle of what often feels like exile from that which is good and beautiful in the world.

I can’t answer this question for you…but I will say this…be the change that you want to see in the world.  Its going to take a miracle to turn this all around…but you know what, Jesus is that miracle…and he invites us to take part in it…You…go be the miracle…and don’t get stuck in the same old excuse that we all like to run in our heads of “What can I do?” Because opportunities exist everywhere. (pause)
Jesus reminds us that the commandments can all be summed up when we love God and love our neighbor…and maybe changing the world means making a tiny difference in the life of one person.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the man walking along the seashore at low tide…and as he walks he’s amazed at the immeasurable number of star fish left out on the beach to dry out and die in the sun…and as he continues he sees a young girl picking up star fish to throw them back in the water…one after another after another…and the man says “Little girl…what are you trying to do? There are so many…how can you possibly make a difference?”  The little girl bent down, picked up another star fish and threw it into the ocean. “I just made a difference for that one didn’t I?”

This world isn’t perfect…we all know that…pain and brokenness and death and darkness are all around us…and at times its easy to feel lost in the midst of it…but remember that we have a God who has promised us…repeatedly…that we are never alone in the midst of this darkness…and that this God shines a light for us…and invites us to reflect that same light…that same hope in the midst of despair, in the midst of darkness…in the midst of exile to those experiencing it right alongside us. May we reflect that light so that they might see it. Amen.

Thought Word and Deed 10-1-17


In this sermon, taken from Mathew 21:23-32, I explore a strange little parable in which 2 sons defy their father in different ways. We are reminded that our brokenness will manifest itself in different ways. Yet through the Cross, God has somehow overcome this brokenness.

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

Today is, of course, the first of October, 2017. We have now reached an important month…as 30 days from now…October 31st, will mark 500 years since the event which sparked off the period of church history known as the Reformation.

Now when I say the word Reformation…there are many names that could come to mind as important…depending on your particular view of history…Names like Tynsdale…or Melanchthon…or Wesley or Zwingli…and of course…considering our denominational heritage…Martin Luther.

He started it all didn’t he? And in 30 days, we’ll remember his defiant act of nailing the famous 95 theses on the church door at Wittenburg Castle in Germany…and how his desire to reform the Catholic Church shaped the course of the past 500 years of history.

As Lutherans, we’ve been thinking about this for a long time…and collectively the various branches of the Lutheran Church have given a lot of emphasis on Luther and his teaching…on his writing and his theology. We’ve been doing it for the past year…and perhaps rightly so…500 years is a big anniversary.

But that being said…I’m going to share something with you that might be considered…unpopular…given our current setting. (Pause) I, Scott Dalen…ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America…am kind of over Martin Luther. (pause)
Don’t get me wrong…his theology is wonderful…his courageous action of standing up against the political and religious powers of the day were beyond commendable…and his views on the importance of simple faith in Christ where utterly life changing for me.

But, he wasn’t a saint by any stretch of the imagination.  Luther was considered arrogant…a bit of elitist. We can argue that in his younger years he utterly wasted the enormous cost of education that his parents had invested in him…and in his older years, he became quite bitter and much of the writings from late in his life were utterly anti-Semitic…long story short…as great as he was, a person could easily make an argument that Luther was kind of an A-1 jerk.

You know what though…Luther has good company…because if you take pretty much any person from the Bible…with the obvious exclusion of Jesus…it’s a fair assumption that you can probably make the same argument. Take any of the big names and they’ve got skeletons in the closet. Abraham tried to pawn off his wife as his sister to save his own skin. Moses was a murderer and whiner, and like to take credit for God’s actions.  Jacob was a schemer. Joseph was an arrogant trickster…David was an adulterer…the prophets all argued with God on a regular basis…and the folks from the New Testament weren’t really any better. But if there’s one lesson that I try to convey, its this…God uses imperfect people…God uses broken people…God uses A-1 jerks, and God does it with a fair bit of regularity.

Now what’s all this got to do with today’s gospel? Well…I can only think that Jesus shares a parable that might just illustrate this same point. A man goes out to his two sons…telling them both to go out and work in the vineyard.

The first son that the man approaches seems…a little snippy…doesn’t he? Son…I want you to go out and work in the vineyard today.  NO WAY DAD…NOTHING DOIN POPS…It ain’t happening…but then given a bit of time to think it over, he does in fact head out and gets to work.

In the meantime, dad has headed off to son #2 with the same instruction…You also, go out and work in the vineyard…and he hears the answer that he’s looking for. I will go sir…but then son #2 either spaces it off…or changes his mind…or more likely was just trying to keep dad happy with no intention of actually doing anything…and he fails to go do any work.

That’s the parable…and once Jesus has shared it…posing it in response the tension he’s experiencing with the religious elite…the big wigs from the temple…he poses them a question…which son did the will of the Father? (pause) Now the chief priests and the elders have an answer don’t they? They make a judgement call…even though they recognize that Jesus is wisely taking a pot-shot at them…they point out which one in the story is “the good son.” (pause)
But here’s the thing that catches my attention…as I think about these two brothers…I can’t help but think they’re both acting like jerks.  The first son disrespects his father in his words, even if his actions ultimately fall in line…and the second son disrespects his father by failing to follow through with his actions, even if his words show a false sense of honor.

And correct me if I’m wrong…but doesn’t the 4th commandment tell us that we’re supposed to honor our parents? In one way or another…in their thoughts or in their words or in their deeds…both sons fall short…now maybe we should keep that in mind when we…like the religious big-wigs that are butting heads with Jesus, start making a judgment call as to which one was good and which one wasn’t…because neither one of them are ultimately good are they?

Maybe that the subtle yet mind blowing point that Jesus is trying to make…it doesn’t really matter how we react…in one way or another, we are going to fail to measure up…our brokenness…the way we act towards one another will ultimately fail.

And I can’t help it…I’ve got to swing around to Brother Martin here…because he wrote about this when he said “Reflect on your place in life in light of the 10 commandments: whether you are father, mother, son, daughter…whether you have been disobedient, unfaithful, lazy, whether you have harmed anyone by word or deed.”

And in considering that rather on-the-nose comment written a few centuries back, perhaps we are reminded of the way that our traditions of worship are reflected when we say…each and every week…we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves…we have sinned against you in thought…word…and deed…by what we have done and by what we have left undone.

There are times when I think that the English language lacks the words to properly convey or articulate the depths of our brokenness…brokenness that we feel within ourselves…brokenness that manifests in the way we tear another done when we see them doing something that we could have done or should have done, and in feeling guilty we attempt to make ourselves feel better by making them feel worse.

Brokenness that has manifested in our ability to utterly ignore the needs of our neighbor on the opposite side of the backyard fence or across the street…brokenness that has manifested in our tendency to stare at a screen thinking that it is our connection to the world as we ignore the person sitting in the same room with us.

Brokenness that ultimate leaves us feel utterly devoid even to the point of what people describe as “dead inside,” all while still sitting there breathing.

This is the truth of our existence…and it seems dire…it seems lousy…it almost seems like there is no hope…we can call this a lot of different things…in the past I’ve used the phrase “little deaths.”  These things that keep us down…broken…isolated. And as I’ve pondered on this reality, I’m reminded that as Christians we live our lives in the midst of tension…and we are Saturday people….living in the tension between death on Good Friday and new life on Easter Sunday.

This describes our lives, and the difficulty that we often find in living with the garbage on one side and the new life which God has made possible in the resurrection of Christ. Make no mistake, what God has accomplished in the brutal death of Christ on the cross is not simply limited to the forgiveness of sins…vital though that might be…but what God has accomplished through the death of Christ is showing us that resurrection is possible…and that nothing in all creation will separate us from the love and delight of the one that made us in the first place…not any little death…and not even death itself. (pause)

500 years ago God touched the heart of an arrogant pompous know it all monk…and reminded him that the righteous will live by faith…which might be better said that those who are righteous believe what God will do…and that God has already done what God said he’ll do…and what God has said is the righteousness that can try so hard for and ultimately fail in our thoughts, words, and deeds, is already given to us because God calls us righteous when he claims us as his beloved children.

2000 years ago God took on flesh and dwelled among us…and then died…and then rose again to show us…not just to tell us but to literally show us that resurrection from that which harms…resurrection from that which destroys….resurrection from that which kills…IS POSSIBLE. (pause)

I can’t help but find it a little bit ironic that today I’m talking about this tension that we experience in our life lived between Good Friday and Easter Sunday…between death and new life…because Easter is literally 6 months away…we are far away from it as we can possibly be today…and yet Christ continues to remind us, each and every day…that we are new creation…may we find life…may we find hope…in that promise. Amen.