Archive for May, 2019

How Is God Revealed 5-26-19

In this sermon, based on John 14:23-39, I explore a bit of Jesus’ farewell to the disciples at the Last Supper. This is, perhaps, odd here in the Easter Season, but is still fitting.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/how-is-god-revealed-5-26-19

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

May the grace and peace of our Risen Lord and Savior be yours, now and forever. Amen

Every once in a while, we need to toot our own horns…we need to recognize something important, or even special about ourselves. This is good to do for our own mental health and wellness…and so I’m gonna toot my own horn for a sec.

I pride myself in being pretty sharp in most situations.  I’ve got a quick enough mind that I can usually make connections and figure things out pretty rapidly…and I’m proud of that fact. (pause) But…there are exceptions to every rule…and I wonder if anyone else can relate.

Have you ever had a situation where you were utterly slow on the uptake?  A time where you just couldn’t put the pieces together? Where something that should be obvious…for whatever reason, just wouldn’t click?  If so, you are in good company.

I’m thinking back to summer of 1998…my second summer on staff up at Ingham Lake Bible Camp…and a bit of relationship dynamics.  There was a good friend that I knew from the previous summer…and I knew that she had a new boyfriend…and I also knew that this mysterious new boyfriend was on staff for the summer over at the Okoboji site…but what I didn’t know was who he was.

Now, we cycled through the first few weeks of camp, along with the subsequent weekends of free time…and I had noticed this guy from Okoboji who had spent the weekends there at Ingham a couple of times…but I had no idea who this guy was…until finally…after WAY to long I realized…OH…that’s the new boyfriend…which caused pretty else on staff to reply “DUH!!!!”  Admittedly, not my smartest moment.

But you know what, I can’t help but think that I’m in good company…and this same sense of not quite being able to realize, or to recognize the truth of what’s right in front us…it seems like the disciples share it too…in fact, I can’t help but think that just about everyone who was walking around Israel in the time of Jesus was facing this exact same issue. (pause)
Now the passage that we have shared today is a small portion of Jesus’ final words to the disciples at the Last Supper.  Following this time, he’ll be arrested…and then killed…and then he’ll rise again and appear to his followers off and on for about 40 days until he’s taken back into Heaven on Ascension Day.

And this whole batch of teaching…this back and forth exchange with the disciples…it features a few questions.  You’d think that after 3 years together and all they had seen and heard and witnessed and experienced…that the disciples would be able to connect the dots…but instead…we find evidence of ongoing confusion.

It starts off with Peter…who’s listening to Jesus talk about the new commandment to love one another…by this everyone will know you are my disciples. (Slowly raise hand) Uh…Jesus…where are you going?
(facepalm) Ok Peter…let me explain…and Jesus goes on.

A minute later Jesus tells them “you know way to where I am going.”  And now its Thomas (slowly raise hand) Uh…Jesus…we don’t know where you’re going…how can we know the way? (facepalm)  Jesus goes on…talking about how they already know the Father, because they know him…and this time its Philip (slowly raise hand) Uh…Jesus…if you show us the Father, we’ll be satisfied. (facepalm)

Suppose Jesus is getting irritated yet?  This time he carries on for a little longer, before one more question from Judas…not that Judas…the other Judas…because Jesus has been reminding them of the connection that they share through him…and through him with the divine…and that as he departs, he will not leave them alone but will send the Holy Spirit…and that through the power of the Spirit, God will abide with them…and then he reminds them of the importance of love for one another…and that in the expression of love, that’s how God will be revealed…and with that, Judas (slowly raise hand) Uh…Jesus…why do you reveal yourself to us and not the world? (facepalm and pause).

I’ll be honest…I half expect Jesus to just blow up on these guys…throw his hands up and head out to find a new batch of followers who might figure things out before his arrest a few minutes later….but that’s not what happens…and instead, we have the subtle reminder from Jesus that we are to love God and love one another…and that this will be possible because of the presence of the Holy Spirit among us and within us…that is the promise.

Now, it probably makes sense that Jesus would remind them of this…that he would continue to share it at this point…just before his death…but it also important for us to be reminded of these same words here at the end of the Easter season.  This Thursday is Ascension Day…the time when Jesus’ bodily form leaves earth, before the arrival of the Spirit 10 days later at Pentecost.

We can call this a lot of things…a goodbye…a parting shot…acknowledgement of the way things are going to change…but at the same time…while many things are changing…some things are staying the same…and one of those universal things…both in this back and forth between Jesus and the disciples, as well as the countless interactions that we’ve heard in recent weeks from different people who just want a straight answer about Jesus and his identity…not to mention 2000 years of history where the church has continued to wrestle with many of these same questions.

Who is this God? Who is this Jesus…What is the Holy Spirit?  What does it mean to love our neighbors? What does the peace of Jesus look like?  Seriously…how many questions can we raise just from this short little passage today?  Tons?  And when we consider all of scripture in its entirety…the list would probably be unending.

But you know what…that’s not a bad thing…Jesus doesn’t get upset with the disciples when they fail to connect the dots…he doesn’t get irritated when they come up short, lacking understanding…because I think Jesus knows that when it comes to faith…or the divine…or the action of God in the world…we’re just not capable of making all those connections…its bigger than we are…its beyond us…but…Jesus also welcomes the questions.

And I think that’s the take away today…that faith doesn’t mean everything is cut and dry…following Christ doesn’t mean that every question is answered and can be recited in some meme-worthy sound-bite.  Faith is hard…and making sense of Jesus’ words and the scriptures and the ongoing action of God in continually inviting our reality forward…its confusing.

But can this be a place where those questions are okay…where we can ask them confidently…and together we can explore where those questions might take us?  Is that what Jesus is talking about when he says that the Holy Spirit will teach us…and will remind us of his words? Is that the sense of peace that he’s going to leave us with? A peace in knowing that its okay to not know?  Maybe…I hope so. (pause)

Its funny…because this brief little passage is one that reveals the Holy Trinity to us. Jesus is speaking of the Father…and he is speaking of the Holy Spirit…all three…but we know how confusing that three in one God is don’t we?

That was a question that kept coming up in Confirmation this past year…because Jesus is God…we learn that in the opening verses of John’s Gospel…but if Jesus is God…who’s he praying to? And does that somehow mean that Jesus is his own dad?  And how’s the Spirit of God connect into this whole thing?  We went round and round with that question…and we never came up with a satisfactory answer…even if the truth was staring right in the face…but maybe we don’t have to.

Maybe the peace of Christ is the assurance that we don’t have to get all that stuff figured out in order for it to still be true…maybe all we have to do is remember the command that Jesus gives us over and over again…to love one another.

Because that’s how he answers Judas’ question. How will you be revealed to the world?  Jesus says, love one another…that’s how you keep my word…and in doing so my father and I will dwell among you. (pause)

You know love is hard…especially in those moments when our selfishness ramps up…and the love that Jesus keeps talking about…its Agape love…which is perfect, all in, sacrificial love…and we all know how hard that is…but maybe, just maybe, when we see or feel or experience those tiny little glimmers of that agape love in the midst of our brokenness…well then we get a tiny little glimmer of the presence of the divine dwelling among us.  (pause)
How is God revealed?  That my friends…is a good…question. Amen

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How Revolting 5-19-19

In this sermon, based on Acts 11:1-18, I explore the mind-blowing action of the Holy Spirit moving across cultural boundaries in the expansion of the church. This action is still going on as we are invited into deeper levels of inclusion.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/how-revolting-5-19-19

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

May the grace and peace of our Risen Lord be yours, now and forever. Amen

There is a scene from the movie Highlander that I love.  In a flashback to the mid-1500’s the main character, who is Scottish by the way…is trying to learn proper balance by standing up in a row boat…and when his mentor shakes the boat he cries out “You stupid haggis!”  “Haggis…what is haggis?”  “Sheep stomach stuffed with meat and barley.” “And what do you do with it?”  “You eat it.”  “How revolting.” (pause)

Its kind of a silly thing…but it reveals a certain truth. There are some things that might seem quite common to one person…but because of countless differences between individuals…that same thing might seem utterly crazy…disgusting…revolting even.

Based on that example…we’re probably thinking of odd or exotic foods…like haggis…or lutefisk for us Scandanavians…but this idea can certainly expand into a lot of different realms as well…like jobs or tasks that an individual might take on…even be used to it…but to someone who is unfamiliar it turns the stomach…like someone who works in a sewer treatment plant…or a caretaker in a big industrial chicken farm…or the poor guy who has to drive the rendering truck around and pick up dead animals. (pause) I’m sure we can all think of those types of things…something that just seems utterly wrong…so wrong that our reaction is revulsion. (pause)

Now “revulsion,” that’s a strong word isn’t it? One that we probably don’t really use that often…but it’s a good one…and I think it expresses an extreme reaction…not just dislike…but the sense of being completely repulsed by something…or even someone.

And that sense right there…I want you to hold onto that…because this very sense helps explain the mentality that Peter was facing in today’s story that we heard out of Acts. (pause)

Now at this point…the Jesus movement…or the way of Christ, or the church, or Christianity…whatever we want to call it…its pretty well been limited within the confines of the Jewish faith up to this point.  Jesus’ own action and ministry, with a few notable exceptions, has been aimed at the lost sheep of Israel.

Following his ascension right at the beginning of Acts, the tiny group of his followers are empowered by the Holy Spirit during the festival of Pentecost…and following an impassioned sermon from Peter, 3000 Jewish people became believers.  A couple chapters later we hear about 5000 more…but up to this point…we’ve yet to see the Gospel REALLY cross those cultural boundaries and reach the Gentiles…

That is, until Acts chapter 10…when Peter has a vision regarding Jewish dietary restrictions that repeats itself a few times until he starts to get the bigger picture…and then he’s summoned off to Caesarea and the home of Cornelius…a Gentile and Centurion in the Roman Army…Peter enters his home…having learned in his repeating vision that God shows no partiality and that the “unclean nature” of Gentiles should not stop him…he shares the gospel…the entire household believes…the Holy Spirit shows up just as it did to the disciples at Pentecost…and moved by the Spirit, Peter baptizes the entire household…all that happens in chapter 10.

But hold on a sec. Look back at your bulletins…doesn’t it also happen in chapter 11?  Didn’t we read pretty much that exact thing in chapter 11? Yah we did…so why the repeat?  Why, when Luke was putting all this together did he feel the need to tell the story, and then have Peter turn around and tell it again? Why the repeat? (pause)

Well…when someone repeats themselves in scripture, its usually important right? And as we hear today…Peter is telling this story to the believers in Jerusalem…and especially to his critics…who we hear are the circumcised believers. (pause)

Let’s take a second here.  Circumcise believers…Jewish believers…those who follow the Law…those who cling to the idea that followers of Christ, must be Jewish…that its open to anyone, as long as they’ve first fulfilled the law…and you know what part of that Law says?  That you should not break bread with Gentiles…you should not even enter their house…because to do so makes YOU unclean…and therefore unfit to come before God. (pause)  And did you notice…that’s their complaint…as Peter shares the news of this AMAZING new development empowered by the Holy Spirit and the shared gift of the Spirit beyond cultural boundaries…the only thing they pick up on is the revolting reality that Peter entered the house of a Gentile.  (pause)
Can you believe that…that these guys are SO caught up in “the rules” and proper order or whatever we want to call it that they seem to completely miss the enormity of what Peter is telling them.

But you know what…its not just “the rules.” It seems to go deeper than that…these guys seem to be utterly disgusted…revolted at the very idea of sharing space and time and food with Gentiles…it just does not compute as even being possible…and yet…as Peter shares his experience…as he shares what he witnessed…how the hearing of the good news of Christ brought the Spirit and the gift of faith upon this household, regardless of their culture or nationality…regardless of their background…and Peter shares the mind-blowing insight that he has learned…I know that God shows no partiality.

I can only imagine how amazing this was for Peter and the fellow believers who were with him…for the gift of the Holy Spirit comes upon Cornelius and his family in exactly the same way as it had for Peter and the others…no differences…we find that in the first account of this story…and in his own joyous astonishment, Peter says “If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God.” (pause)

Who are we to hinder that which God is up to? (pause) I think that’s a question that we all need to be asking ourselves…because the Spirit blows where it will…bringing the gift of faith into countless places and people that we think are lost causes…over and over again we hear in the scriptures…and sometimes we see with our own eyes…the way that God shows up where we least expect it…even among those who we think are unworthy…even those who we have no desire to associate with…even those who we might find revolting if we are honest with ourselves. (pause)

So who is that?  Who might the Holy Spirit be working among…having brought the gift of faith…who might God be calling even if we think it breaks the rules?  That’s a question that the church has long wrestled with in countless different situations…some of which seem to have settled…and some of which are still ongoing.

Here in the Lutheran church…or at least our branch of it…we’ve been ordaining women for almost 50 years…and that’s a good thing…because they are called and they are empowered by that same Spirit…and yet there are many, both individuals and groups, who still deny their legitimacy…who try to make them somehow less because of their gender. And what’s worse, they use scripture as a weapon to do it.

That’s just one example…there are countless more…and I can only think that when we fall in this trap, we are somehow denying the very personhood…the true identity of the individual…denying their mutual humanity and the truth that they are bearers of the divine image.

Who is God calling that we don’t agree with?  Who is God empowering that we just can’t wrap our heads around…because its been drilled into us by tradition that “it doesn’t work that way.” Or because our own personal prejudice or more often fear of the unknown whispers a lie in our ear to make us believe that they are somehow less…or unacceptable…or maybe Christianity’s favorite trope…that they are too sinful. (pause)

Over and over again, the story of scripture reveals mind-blowing ways that God continues to invite us forward…and this tends to reveal itself with ever increases examples of inclusion that crosses the boundaries created by society…and each and every time a line is drawn in the sand about who is in and who is out…we find Jesus on the other side. (pause)

Peter says “who am I that I could hinder God?” God will not be hindered…the Holy Spirit will not be limited because of our narrowmindedness, whether we like it or not…because the Gospel of Christ is WAY TOO big for our petty limitations to keep under control, and we find this in the very end of the book of Acts, as the Gospel of Christ and the kingdom of God is proclaimed with all boldness and WITHOUT…HINDRANCE.

Here’s the thing folks…the Spirit’s not done yet either…whatever was going on when Peter interacted with Cornelius…you better believe it was mind-blowing…Peter himself had to experience this vision 3 different times before he finally started opening up to it.  Then his critics in Jerusalem had to hear evidence, not only from him, but from 6 other people that the Spirit had in fact acted across racial and cultural boundaries before they could accept it…this was no easy thing…and I’m guessing it wasn’t just cut and dry…easy peasy…for any of them.

But that’s the radical nature of God’s amazing Grace made manifest through Jesus Christ…it goes beyond all logic…it goes beyond all understanding…and it breaks EVERY barrier…it has to, or its not grace.

So who might be our Cornelius?  Who might God be calling US into faithful relationship with…into shared communion…into this ONE body of Christ on earth?  That’s something we always need to be paying attention to…because the moment we wrap our heads around one mind-blowing situation on inclusion, God’s probably starting to prep the next one for us.

And you know what, that’s a good thing…because if God’s grace is really THAT big…well that means that its big enough for me…no matter how revolting that might have been for someone else, that God would chose to love me. That’s the amazing grace of God folks…and it really is THAT big.   Amen.

Tell Us Plainly 5-12-19

In this sermon, based on John 10:22-30, I explore the urgent request of Jesus’ opponents to “tell us plainly” if he is the Messiah. But to understand the work of God through Jesus, and to hear the voice of God through it can be difficult. But to be known by God, is a reassuring sense.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/tell-us-plainly-5-12-19

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

May the grace and peace of our Risen Lord be yours, now and forever. Amen

About a dozen or so years back…as I was in the process of discerning my call into ministry…I participated in an ongoing class aimed at leadership development…and one of the processes that we went through was an exploration of our inherent strengths…we did this through an assessment test known as Strengthsfinders…some of you might be familiar with it.

The point is kinda right there in the name…as the results of this assessment identify your top 5 natural leadership abilities out of a listing of about 30 or so possibilities. Now as I reviewed my own personal results, I discovered that Communication was one of my top 5, and with that I began to understand some of my own personal tendencies.  I hate being misunderstood…I absolutely hate it…and this manifests in my tendency to OVER-communicate…especially in written forms of communication.  Any of you parents who have gotten informational emails about confirmation have seen this first hand…and I’m almost ashamed to admit how utterly long and complicated my “helpful information” is when someone new is going to visit and provide pulpit supply.  I am the epitome of “too much information.”

Now, the longer I’ve been doing this, the more aware I’ve become of this tendency, and I have tried to take steps to simplify things and just “tell it plainly.” And maybe, just maybe this falls in line with the exasperated statement we hear from the opponents of Jesus in today’s story as they say “If you are the messiah, tell us plainly.”

Come on Jesus…don’t beat around the bush…don’t be so cryptic…are you…or aren’t you? (pause) That seems to the be sense behind their words. And maybe that strikes us as a little odd…why wouldn’t they know? Isn’t it a no-brainer? Of course Jesus is the Messiah…and they should all know that right?  Or should they?

By this point Jesus has been on the scene for a while. He’s gathered a following…the disciples are trailing along behind him. He’s been performing miraculous signs, both for individuals as well as for the crowds…he’s been teaching and debating and all that kind of stuff…and yet…the people can’t quite make up their mind about him…some of think he is the long awaited Messiah…some of them think he’s just some backwater Galilean quack…and some just don’t know. (pause)

For us, it’s a no brainer…but keep in mind that the people were in the midst of the story at that time…they didn’t have 2000 years of hindsight…and its very seldom that anything…especially matters of faith, are nice and neat…real life tends to be a little messier…and the messages that come from God are only apparent as we look back at them after the fact.

And, to the credit of the individuals who are asking him…Jesus hasn’t been overly forthright with this information either…in fact, to this point, he’s only come out and told 1 person that he’s the Messiah…1. The Samaritan Woman at the well. Many have suspected it…many have even made up their minds about it…but beyond that one instance for an audience of 1…Jesus has been pretty quiet on the subject. Jesus…tell us plainly… (pause)

But I wonder…why now? Why do they chose this particular instance to ask Jesus about it? He’s spent plenty of time in the temple…he hasn’t exactly been incognito…so why, here in the Festival of the Dedication, are these particular religious leaders so intent on Jesus’ messianic identity?

And to get to the heart of that question, a little history.  The festival of the dedication, which as we hear happens in mid-winter…has another name that you might be more familiar with…the festival of lights…or Hanukah…and it dates back to a period about 150 years before the birth of Jesus…and a bit of Jewish history known as the Maccabean revolution.  At that moment in history, Israel was under the control of the Seleucid empire…and the top dog came into the temple and desecrated it by sacrificing to his particular god…and this angered the Jewish people so much that a revolt started up under a guy named Judas Maccabeus…a revolt that succeeded in throwing out the Seleucids and for one brief period in Israel’s history…they were self-governed.  And they needed to rededicate the temple to God, which involved burning a candle that must never go out…and it burns special consecrated oil, and they only had enough for a day, but miraculously it kept burning for 8 days until more oil was available…that’s the whole point behind the festival of the dedication or Hanukah.

But then, if you know your history…it wasn’t long before the Roman Empire came to power, and spread through the region of Israel…and with that fall to foreign power once again…a condition so familiar to the Jewish people throughout their history…don’t you think they’d be looking for another great leader…one anointed by God to lead the people…to reestablish the glory of the past…and if this random guy that some say might just be the one…if he felt like making it official and declaring himself…wouldn’t the festival that originated with a successful Jewish revolt against foreign oppressors be the PERFECT opportunity? Seems logical…so Jesus…if you are the Messiah…tell…us…plainly. (pause)

But instead of finding himself a podium with some historic backdrop and getting a bunch of news cameras and a photo-op to declare his campaign like we tend to see these days…Jesus just says “I have told you and you do not believe…the signs that I do testify to me…you do not believe…because you do not belong to my sheep…My sheep hear my voice.  I KNOW THEM…and they follow me.” (pause)

Now there is a lot going on in that statement…but I think one way to understand it is to say that to be one of the sheep that belongs to the one who calls himself the good shepherd is to believe…and to believe is to belong…and to belong is to be known. (pause)

This implies a sense of utter familiarity…to be known and to know one another…the original language implies utter intimacy…to be known completely…and maybe you know that sense.  Like the way you can pick your kid out of the crowd on the football field, even covered up in full pads.  Or the way that can see the look on your mom or dad’s face and know that you’ve crossed a line.  Or the way you can hear a voice and know exactly who it is.

I was joking around last week with a few people…and commented about I can sit at my desk and can identify certain individuals just by listening to their footsteps as they walk towards my door.  You know what I mean…that total and complete sense of familiarity with one another.

That’s what Jesus is talking about…a sense that makes us pay attention because of how closely connected we are…even within moments when everything else is struggling to pull our attention away.  There are times when that still small voice of God is speaking…but it can be so hard to hear because of the countless distractions…

And on the flip side there are also times when the voice of God is silent…and we have the tendency to fill in the blanks with all kinds of stuff…things that make us feel like we’re still on the right track…things like rituals…or traditions that have gone beyond their intended purpose and have become the rule that must be followed…and I can’t help but think that was the very thing that God wanted to free us from in the person of Jesus Christ…the myth or the lie that only through what we do or what we refrain from doing will make us good enough to hear that quiet voice speaking.

That seemed to be the mission of Christ during his ministry…as we continually see him crossing the boundaries of who’s in and who’s out…those lines drawn by society, or by religion, or by culture that say “you’re not good enough.” Over and over again we see Jesus standing on the OTHER side of that line…sometimes quietly and sometimes quite forcefully…as the one who is also God tries SO HARD to show us that we are already loved and claimed by the one who lovingly made us in the first place.

There is no test to pass…there is no magic words to utter…there’s no perfect liturgy to recite or attendance record to make or dress code to follow or benchmark to achieve…right now…as you are…you are claimed by the one who calls to you…and this God who calls out to you does so in the form of a human being…this God who took on flesh and dwelled among us to show us…quite literally, that there is no length that God will not go to in order to be with you…and then…having claimed you through that familiar voice which lovingly says “you are mine,” we are called simply to follow.

That catches my attention today…as Jesus says “my sheep hear my voice. I know them…and they follow me.”  These are also the final words spoken by Jesus here in John’s gospel…following his resurrection as he appears to some of the disciples and finally tells Peter, quite simply…follow me.

We don’t know what comes after…because John cuts things off…but we do know that it wasn’t the end of the line…and this isn’t the end of the line for us either.

Admittedly, there are times in our lives when we want to yell at God…those moments of confusion or heartache when we long to scream “JUST TELL US PLAINLY!” And know that if you need to do so, that’s ok…God will take that.

And there are also times when it all seems so apparent…and let us rejoice in those moments.  (Pause) So regardless of where we find ourselves today…Let each of us listen for that still small voice which calls out to us…let us recognize it as the voice of the one who knows us and loves us…and let us follow where He leads. Amen.