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Who Is This? 4-5-20

This morning’s Palm Sunday sermon. Jesus enters into Jerusalem for the final week of his life, causing quite the uproar. Many in the city ask the question “Who Is This?”

You can listen tot he audio of the sermon here.

Say What You Need to Say 3-1-17 Ash Wednesday

In this Ash Wednesday sermon, I explore 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10. We are reminded of death, a theme of this day, but must recognize that death does not get the last word.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

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

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

A couple days back, I was texting back and forth with a fellow pastor, jabbering about our respective sermons for tonight. She had already written hers, but she was worried that it was too short. I thought about it for a minute and then shared a bit of wisdom that my old preaching professor from seminary told us.

When you’re preaching, step into the pulpit, say what needs to be said, and then get the heck out of there. (pause) Now maybe this is a bit of a Lutheran notion…especially when compared with the preaching approaches in some different denominational bodies…where sermons can carry on for 30-40 minutes…but it’s a lesson that I’ve taken to heart, as most of you have probably figured out by now.

But that being said…there is one style that I just can’t wrap my head around…and that is the ongoing preaching in an old style revival. Now I’ve never been to a revival…but I’ve heard stories of the proverbial old school Baptist minister…getting up there and railing away for hours…eventually the suit coat comes off…the collar gets loosened…the shirt sleeves get rolled up…and when I’ve seen images on tv it always seems like its happening in mid-summer because everyone is all hot and sweaty…waving themselves with fans while the revival goes on and on and on. (pause)
Now, as I mentioned…I’ve never been to one…but I remember seeing a revival depicted on tv…on the classic show…the Waltons with John Boy and Mary Ellen and the rest of the Walton clan…Now, I remember seeing this episode as a kid, because my parents loved the show and watched it in syndication constantly…and not only that, but quite recently this particular episode was on in the background when I was visiting one of our members recently.

And the revival is depicted just as I described it a moment ago…as the visiting preacher rails on and on…focusing in on various individuals…and preaching fire and brimstone their direction…now one of the Walton boys catches an attack…and pretty quick he comes up to the front in a bit of an altar call…and later on in the episode he ends up in the river getting baptized…but then the preacher turns his attention to John Sr…who the show depicts as being pretty absent from worship most Sundays…and starts railing on him about the fires of hell…and John gets fed up…stands up…and walks out. (pause)

Now thinking about that whole scene reminds me of a portion of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, our featured passage for this evening…if there’s an overarching theme to this reading…and in fact to the entire letter of 2nd Corinthians in general…it’s the theme of reconciliation.  Somewhere in between Paul’s 1st letter to them and this one, the relationship has gotten strained…we don’t know what happened…but Paul is attempting to repair the breach…both for the sake of their own personal relationship and reconciliation, as well as for the sake of the gospel that he has taught them in the past.

Paul’s fear is that their irritation with him, whatever that might be about…will sour their opinion of the gospel that he had proclaimed…and so the theme of reconciliation…the need for it…particularly in terms of their relationship with God…and for a brief moment…I could almost imagine Paul as that Revival Preacher…NOW IS THE TIME…NOW IS THE DAY OF SALVATION. (pause) Whatever else Paul might be talking about…this small portion of the passage gives us a sense of urgency…that they must be reconciled now in this moment.

Now interestingly enough…Paul doesn’t get all fire and brimstoney on his audience…there’s no sense of trying to scare them into faith…no ultimatum of “Accept Christ or burn in hell.” And honestly I’m grateful for that…because I’ve never been partial to that style of proclamation…yes…Christ’s sacrifice frees us from the power of sin and death and condemnation…but if we are proclaiming Christ for the sole purpose of a get out of jail free card, then I think we are missing the point…for Christ desires that we be reconciled to God now…that we be in good relationship with God and our neighbor now…today…in this life. (pause)
But that being said…today is Ash Wednesday…today is one of the few days in the church year when we take an honest look at the end…and with that in mind…maybe, just maybe that sense of urgency isn’t a bad thing.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return. (pause) God formed humanity out of the dirt…God gives us life…but at some point…that life is over…and we return to the dirt that we came from in the first place. That’s what we’re talking about tonight…and when I look you in the eyes in a few more minutes, and I smear some ashes on your forehead and say those words to you, that’s what I’m saying. That at some point…you…will…die.

I’ll be honest…death is not one of my favorite subjects…and perhaps tonight more than any other Ash Wednesday that I’ve been a part of in the past…it seems particularly uncomfortable…There’s been too much of it in recent history…last fall our community and our congregation experienced several in a pretty short amount of time…some at the end of a long full life…and some shockingly early and unexpected.  And for me personally, it was all capped off with the death of my mentor in late November…a 57 year old man who was the pillar of health…unexpected to say the least…and wouldn’t you know it…I also got word this past weekend that one of my parents neighbors…a man that I’ve known since I was 3 years old suddenly died.

The thing about death…is that there’s no rhyme or reason to it…it comes out of the blue…and it catches us unaware…and if these unexpected deaths that have happened around all of us over the course of this past year have shown us anything…its that tomorrow is not guaranteed.

And while God may continue to display infinite patience with us in this life…it would seem that our death creates something of an expiration date…and so, Paul’s urgency…now is the acceptable time…now is the day of salvation…and yes maybe I sound a little fire and brimstoney here. Its not my normal style…but I can see today where Paul is coming from.

But here’s the thing…that salvation that he’s talking about…its already offered to you…its already been done for you…its already been accomplished for you. Christ did it at the cross…just how it works, I don’t know…just why it works, I don’t know…all I do know is that God loves us fully and completely…every single one of us…and God loves us so much that this blasted sin and the separation that it causes must be overcome and since we can’t pull it off on our own God stepped in through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and did something about it on our behalf…and this freedom…this salvation…whatever you want to call it is offered to you freely…now.

And the amazing thing about this…is that death…which has to be the worst part of our existence…both from the standpoint of having to watch it happen and experience the pain of loss that death causes for those still living…as well as the horrific reality of our own death, when our existence…our life as we know it ceases to be…and we cross into that great unknown that is lying on the other side of it…this horrific truth…this horrible thing…death, the worst thing that will happen to us…it is not the last thing that will happen to us.

If you’ve been to a funeral that I’ve led, you’ve likely heard me say that death comes for us all…but death doesn’t get the last word…God does…and we’re given a tiny little glimpse at that in the very last thing Paul says tonight…we are treated as having nothing…yet possessing everything.

You’ve all heard the saying “you can’t take it with you.” And its true. We come into this world with nothing…and we leave the same way…taking nothing with us…BUT…the promise of God assures us that we are made heirs of eternal life…WHATEVER that’s going to look like in the age to come…we are given that promise…it is spoken over us in the waters of our baptism…and it is spoken to us in the bread and wine of Communion.

Now in just a few minutes, I’ll look you in the eye and say words that refer to your death…but right after I say that to you, you will hear the words “the body of Christ broken for you…the blood of Christ shed for you.”  And this is done for the forgiveness of sin. Death is real, but the last words in the conversation belong to God. (pause)

Tonight we kick off the season of Lent…and we do it by acknowledging death…by recognizing our own limitations…and in about 40 days, Christ is going to be nailed to a cross where he’ll endure the true cost of our broken sinful reality…a cost that we can’t even begin to understand…he’ll endure it…or in actually he already has…because you have to go through death before you can get to the resurrection…but maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself there.

Tonight we remember that death comes for us all…and tonight we leave the conversation unfinished…which might seem strange…but I’ll make you a promise…or at least I’ll share God’s promise to you…this isn’t it…we’ll pick it up again at Easter with that tomb…is empty. Amen


Its A Mystery 1-29-17

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

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Vaya Con Dios My Friend


As we move through this funny thing called life, we become something to other people. There are words that describe the sense of the relationship that exists between us. I could use many different words to describe the relationship that I held with the man in this picture with me. Pastor, Teacher, Supervisor, just to name a few. Eventually, this shifted over to the notion of Mentor…and as the years went on we added Colleague to the mix.

But above all, the word that meant the most to me to describe this man…he was my friend.

Bob Vaage might have started off as my pastor, but over the years he became much more than that. Mine was one of many lives that Bob influenced, but looking back it is very apparent to me just how important he thought that this was. Bob recognized gifts and talents within individuals, and then he worked to find opportunities for that individual to put the gifts to work.

One of the ways he did this was to encourage a 22 year old kid to take on the role of Council Secretary…an opportunity that would eventually provide the chance for a joke “Hey Scott, go to seminary.” It wasn’t long after that meeting, that Bob preached a sermon illustrating how we are all called to be “pastors.” We are all called to make a difference and live out the gospel in our day to day lives. That sermon had literal illustrations as well, as Bob walked around the sanctuary placing his stoles on different individuals.

I got the blue one if you’re wondering.

That moment stuck with me…and after several years of discernment, and many…MANY conversations with Bob, eventually I began seminary and the process towards ordained ministry. It was a long road with a lot of ups and downs. But eventually that chapter came to a close, and in addition to preaching the message at my ordination, Bob repeated the action of placing a stole around my neck…this time in a more official manner.


In the years since, Bob continued to be my guide. Whenever something came up that threw me for a loop, I’d call him. He had this knack for asking the right questions to help me talk my way through the situation.

In many different ways, and in many different situations, Bob modeled what it means to be a pastor. He has shown me how to be a caring leader. And as I sit here, it strikes me with a touch of irony that he taught me what to do in this situation…and yet my role today is not pastor…and so what Bob taught me doesn’t really apply. And so I sit here, confused and hurting…wondering just what I should be doing, and my first thought is “Call Bob.”

But I can’t call Bob anymore, and in realizing this I have to accept the painful truth, that death has claimed my mentor…death has claimed my friend. And that hurts and I can’t make heads or tails out of it…but Bob taught me that when you can’t make sense of a situation, preach the gospel. Get yourself out of the way to let the gospel be the gospel and let God be God.

And the gospel tells us that there is another name that applies to Bob…one that describes the relationship that he holds with the Lord…Beloved Child of God. This is a name given to him in the waters of his baptism…and that’s a name that death doesn’t beat. That name means that Bob joined with Christ in a baptism like his…and now Bob has joined with Christ in a death like his…but the promise tells us that Bob will join with Christ in a resurrection like his.  We might not understand how…but that doesn’t take away the truth…while we were sinners, Christ died for us…because of his great love for us.

The apostle Paul writes about this in Romans chapter 8. He opens up by asking the question “what then are we to say about these things?” I often ask myself that same question, and I pose it to begin most funeral sermons that I preach. I think its a good thing to ponder on…but the promise of the gospel is revealed in Paul’s words, and they apply here. “For 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 our Lord.”

Nothing separates us from the love of God…not one thing…not pain, not suffering…not anger or sadness or confusion…and most importantly, not even death.  And today I cling to the promise that God has given us, that is made real in the life and the death and the resurrection of Christ. That promise says that God will be with us and we will be with God and nothing will stand in the way of that. That’s what we say about these things.

That’s what we say, because that’s the gospel, even in moments when the pain we feel tries to hide it, it doesn’t change. And I cling to the hope that Bob is now in a place where he wants us to know that its true…I believe that Bob is held in the arms of his savior. He has now crossed a barrier, and we can no longer see him. But…we remember that death is not the end, because God’s love for us is bigger than that.

Painful as it is, we say goodbye to Bob…and as much as I hate the idea of moving forward without him in my corner, I know that I am a better person because of his influence on my life. I am proud to call him my friend, and I know that where ever it is that he has gone, that God is with him.

Vaya Con Dios my friend.


Its Not About Death But Life 11-20-16

In this sermon for Christ the King Sunday, taken from Luke 23:33-43, I explore the crucifixion of Jesus. This is an odd place to look for our king, yet we realize that the ultimate display of his power is the acceptable of weakness.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

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

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

Have you ever had a time when you happened to be standing in just the right spot in a restaurant or a store…and from where you were standing you could see the back side of the counter? (pause) Admittedly, I’ve always been fascinated by little things like this…to see the things that most people aren’t supposed to see…in short…to see behind the scenes, or from the opposite perspective.

I was thinking about this very notion last Friday as I walked into the Presbyterian church up in Shelby in order to lead a funeral. I spent a moment just scoping things out, getting familiar with the layout, including the backside of the pulpit…and in my head it was just one of those moments in a restaurant, seeing what most people don’t see.

Now its worth noting that this was the 6 funeral I’ve led in the past couple of months…and if this rather regular schedule has done anything, its given me something of sense of routine…and while every single funeral is, of course, different…there are things that I can pretty count on happening.

One is actually the way I chose to open pretty much every funeral sermon…by acknowledging the hard reality of the day, and by commenting on how those who gather look to one another for support, recognizing in one instant we can offer support to another, and in the next the pain of the day catches us and we in turn need to be supported. (pause)
And that builds on the next thing that I expect to see…I’ve got a pretty unique perspective, either from a chair or standing in the pulpit…and I’ve grown accustomed to seeing the emotion catch people…sadness and pain…evidenced by tears and often gasps or sobs…but what isn’t routine, and what often surprises me, is who that individual actually is…the person who is overcome by painful emotion.

The first experience I have with something of this nature actually occurred in a completely different setting…my older brother’s wedding. I remember it is a similar fashion though, because as his best man I was standing right up next to him facing out towards the congregation, and so the perspective of my observation was pretty similar to how it is now as the pastor…Now about midway through the service, my late grandfather was overcome by emotion and he broke down crying. I honestly don’t know what prompted it…but it happened…and that moment seared itself into my memory.

Now my grandfather died just a couple of years later…and due to circumstances, I wasn’t able to get to his memorial service…and a couple more years went by…and finally I traveled to Arizona to visit my grandma, and one of the things we did was go see Grandpa’s grave…and I had a very unexpected reaction…I looked at his gravestone, and I lost it…the pain and sorrow that I’d been feeling for more than 5 years at that point came rushing out…and I learned in that moment, just as I have seen in many different situations as pastor…pain, sorrow, emotion, weakness, whatever you want to call….it demands our attention…it demands to be felt. (pause)
Now this notion of weakness…and pain…this is where we jump into our gospel today.  Today is Christ the King Sunday…and strangely enough…as we have already heard, our gospel features the crucifixion of Jesus…a strange place to think about a king right? In the midst of torture and weakness?

Downstairs in the confirmation class we’ve been talking about the history of Israel…and in recent weeks we explored the establishment of the monarchy through their first three kings, Saul then David then Solomon…and how each of those these men managed to expand the kingdom, bringing more territory under their control…and we talked about just what that meant at the time…that as king, you could control as much area as you were strong enough to defend…and so the tougher you were, the more you had…but we’ve also seen the flip side…and that as soon as someone bigger and stronger comes in…you are out of luck…and if you happened to be the king of the conquered nation, chances are you’d end up dead…maybe even crucified at certain points in history. (pause)
And so, how strange is it to hear about the crucifixion of Jesus on the day when we celebrate him being king. Admittedly, it seems like total nonsense…like a total reversal of all logic…and yet that’s exactly where we find him.

Jesus is nailed to the cross…and he suffers…and throughout the entire time…he is continually mocked…and interestingly enough that mockery carries a theme…three different groups of people, all with a very similar message.

First the leaders…He saved others, let him save himself. (pause) But he doesn’t.  (pause) Then the soldiers start in…If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself. (pause) But he doesn’t. (pause) And then finally, one of the fellow condemned…one of the guys hanging right next to him…suffering the same fate…this guy throws it at him too, along with a little personal venom…Are you not the messiah? Save yourself…and us. (pause)

In addition, his opponent keep dredging up the past…he has saved others…he has performed miracles…he has even brought the dead back to life…SURELY he is able to save himself….so why…won’t…he…prove it.

I think in the end, that’s what they’re all looking for. They don’t really believe the claims that Jesus is the Messiah, nor do they understand what it means…and so as far as they can tell, if he can’t save himself from the cross…then all that stuff they’ve heard is nothing more than rumors…there’s no truth to it at all…and perhaps as they mock him….they are thinking to themselves “he’s going to be dead soon…and all this, will be over.” (pause)

But that, right there, that raises a pretty important point today…when our passage end, Jesus is still alive…we don’t hear about his death today, even if we know that it happens shortly after this…when we leave off, Jesus is alive…and so as we consider Christ as King, our entire context…the entire story given to us to try and understand this idea involves Jesus ALIVE on the cross. (pause)

Christ the King is found in the midst of ultimate weakness…in the midst of pain…in the midst of sorrow and suffering…and this is a very Lutheran idea…we don’t look for our king in the same way that the world looks…we find true strength in the midst of that weakness…when we acknowledge the truth of it…when we acknowledge that it exists…and that we are equally broken. (pause)

This is the important and yet subtle truth of the gospel…and the cross…its not about death, but life. (pause) The gospel doesn’t work simply because Jesus died on the cross…but rather because Jesus lived on the cross…Jesus suffered on the cross…Jesus endured the cross in the midst of ultimate weakness…and all the while, HE…DIDN’T…HAVE TO.

If you are the Messiah, save yourself…and he could have. At any time, Jesus could have come down off that cross, healed his wounds, and passed through the people, ensuring his own safety…but Jesus wasn’t up there for himself…and his example opens our eyes to the truth…

Jesus was mocked for not saving himself…and in doing so we realize that we are not able to save ourselves…and so, just as the people stood by watching…we stand by as well, watching the one who lived on the cross…who lived in the pain…because we recognize that in our brokenness, pain and sorrow demands our attention…we cannot deny it, because it is our reality.

But the glory of the gospel, is that while we were sinners Christ died for us…we don’t have to clean all our junk out before it becomes true…its already true…its already done…Christ has already lived the pain of the cross…that penalty, that wage of sin, whatever you want to call it…has already been experienced for us. (pause) And by Jesus living on the cross, we are saved from it.

Here’s the thing…all too often we think of Christianity…or faith, or religion as the idea that I’m switching away from doing all the bad stuff to now only doing the good stuff…this isn’t some social club where we’ve got a list of moral attributes that we have to achieve…rather, living by faith is recognizing that Christ did all that in order to save us from that which causes our pain and suffering in the first place…broken relationship and the mental anguish that it causes us.

We are broken people, living a broken life, in a broken reality…one that is so broken that the good relationship…the good interaction that happened between God and Humanity way back in the garden can no longer occur…and yet in the midst of this, God does something about it.

That’s what the cross is all about…its God’s way of showing us “There is nothing I will not do to prove to you how much I love you, and to show you that I claim you as my own, even if the world refuses to acknowledge you.” (pause)
Luke’s account of the crucifixion is unique, as we hear about the one I’ve come to call the “good criminal.”  At the mocking of the other man, he cries out “Do you not fear God, since we are under the same sentence? We deserve what we receive but not him.”  With this first statement, the good criminal acknowledges the truth of his existence, that he is rightly condemned…sorta sounds like confession right? (pause) But then after that, he recognizes the Lordship of Jesus…Jesus, when you come into your kingdom, remember me.

This man sees the king in the midst of the pain…he sees the true display of Christ’s power in the midst of the weakness…and that power is on full display as Jesus answers. You ask me to remember you, I’m going one giant step farther…for today you’ll be with me in paradise. (pause)
Now paradise is an interesting word. We usually think of it as heaven…or eternal life…but remember that paradise is the word that was given to the garden, when Humanity was able to walk and talk with God directly…and so perhaps through all this, we see that the cross of Christ is not about death, but life…the good life with God that Jesus has made possible…and not just out there in some unknown future, but the hope we find in this truth…allows us to live in the joy of the kingdom today. (pause)

Jesus wasn’t dead when this story stopped today…because the kingdom isn’t about death, its about life…and the glory of God…the power of Christ…the Lordship of Jesus is something that we discover in the midst of our brokenness and pain, because it demands to be felt.  It commands our attention and pulls us away from any false notion of strength that we posses, and turns our attention to the one who was powerful enough…NOT to act…He was strong enough to NOT…save himself…because in his weakness, he was too busy saving us. Amen.

A Broken Hallelujah 10-23-16

In this sermon, based loosely on Luke 18:9-14, I explore the unchanging nature of the gospel in light of difficult events happening in my community.

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 of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

If today is the first time you hear me preach, I’m going to give you some insight. If you’ve heard me before, you already know this. I’ve got a pretty distinct style in my sermons.  I open with a story…usually something that has happened in my day to day life or some applicable pop culture reference. I’ve got different reasons for doing this. Mainly because I’m a story teller and I find connections between understanding scripture and regular life…but I also typically use a little bit of humor to try and get you to laugh just a little bit. I guess you could call that something of an icebreaker if you wanted to. (pause)
But today I don’t have a story…today’s different…because today humor doesn’t feel okay, and I don’t know about you, but today I don’t feel like laughing.  In about 2 hours I’ll be at a funeral home for a visitation, and in about 24 hours I’ll be leading a funeral for a 15 year old boy who killed himself.  This may come as a shock if you haven’t heard the news, but this is a small town, so I’m guessing that most of you sitting out there today already know this…and I’m guessing that most of you don’t feel like laughing today either. (pause)

So what do we do?  What do we think? What do I say? (pause) Normally this is the part when I start talking about the gospel lesson. I unpack what’s happening. I look at what the characters are up to…and I attempt, over the course of a few minutes time, to find a nugget of truth and hope within the gospel narrative…and I also try to bring in real world examples…moments that perhaps you are experiencing in your life so that in the end, the gospel…the good news will be something that you can cling to moving forward…because the sermon has done its job.

I’ve heard it said that the job of a sermon is to bring affliction to the comfortable, and to bring comfort to the afflicted…and I’ve often told myself that in any given moment, both will be sitting in the pews. Some will be comfortable, and some will be afflicted.  But today I can’t help but think that none of us are really comfortable…me included…and so I continue to struggle with the question, what do I say? (pause)

How do I offer a word of hope or comfort, from the perspective of the gospel…from the perspective of Good News…when I find myself in a state of not really buying it myself?  Let’s be perfectly frank…in times like this….times when our community is shocked by a tragedy…every single conversation that I have seems to reveal the same thing…we are all asking Why or How and we all know that we can’t and won’t get answers to those questions…and it either makes us really sad…or it makes us really angry.

I’ve been in that state for the past few days…and it really struck me on Thursday afternoon. I had just received the phone call asking if I would lead Caleb’s funeral, and I sat down at my desk and stared at my computer for a moment, and all I could think was “How am I going to do this? How can I proclaim the gospel when I can’t even see it?” And never have I felt such a feeling of inadequacy. (pause) I don’t bring this up to say poor me…I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I bring it up because it is the truth…and as I thought about having to sit there with a family who has just experienced the worst thing that could ever happen, and the call to try and speak a word of hope and comfort into it…the “GOOD NEWS” seemed really bitter. And I suspect that for many of you sitting out there today, perhaps even all of you, it feels the exact same way.

And if that’s the case then maybe today what we need to be talking about is the truth of the gospel. Just what is it…and can we find it in the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector? And if there’s only one thing that I can pull out of that story that seems to be the least bit applicable today, its this…Jesus calls the tax collector justified rather than the Pharisee.

The Pharisee might do all the righteous things…but within his life, or in the very least within his prayer, He is the focus. Lord I thank you that I am not like other people. I do all the right things, and I refrain from the bad things…But the tax collector places the focus on God.  Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.  We don’t know anything about the guy other than his job. We can figure that he’s probably a cheat and a swindler, they usually were…and he made his living at the expense of his fellow countrymen…and following this moment of humble confession, he went home, very likely to continue the very same behavior, and perhaps returning to the temple a week later with the same exact prayer.

But again…he is justified because he appeals to the one who is actually capable of doing something. God, have mercy on me a sinner.  (pause) If nothing else, the tax collector recognizes the truth about who he is…and he also recognizes that there is nothing that he is capable of doing about it.

Salvation…justification…righteousness…whatever we want to call it…is not possible for us. We simply can’t do it…but God can…and not only that but God does…and through Christ it is already done for you.

That’s the gospel…that’s the good news…and what I have to continue reminding myself this week is that doesn’t change….whether I feel good about it or not…and to be perfectly honest today, I don’t feel overly great about it…and if I’m to utter the word Hallelujah today it feels pretty bitter.

But sometimes that bitter Hallelujah…that cold and broken Hallelujah is exactly what we need to say…because it is in the midst of our brokenness and our pain that God is up to something. Its in the midst of the honest realization that I just can’t do this that we finally get ourselves out of the way to let the gospel be the gospel and to let God be God.

If the gospel tells us anything, over and over again…its that God is God and I am not…and salvation from sin…the healing of this broken down messed up reality is not something that I can achieve…only God can do that.

And whether I want to feel good about it in this exact moment when I’m too pissed off at God to want to hear it, much less talk about it…the gospel does not change. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Even if it doesn’t make sense, Christ died for us…Even if it sounds too good to be true, Christ died for us. Even if I’m busy yelling at God to listen…Christ died for us.

And if we feel the need to react to all this stuff in that way, God will take it. Because God has broad shoulders…shoulders broad enough to handle all the sin in all the world…and not only to handle it, but to overcome it. (pause) You want to be mad, you be mad. You want to be sad, you be sad…and by all means direct that towards the one who can do something about it…who has already done something about it.

When Jesus hung on that cross and said it is finished…he wasn’t being metaphorical. This is already done…this flawed broken reality that we live in has already been redeemed…even if it doesn’t feel like it.

And this has all been done by God through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ in the world…even if it doesn’t feel like it right now. And that, my friends is the gospel, whether we like it or not in this moment. And the glory of the gospel is that it doesn’t change. This is truth now, in the midst of all this junk. And it will be true tomorrow…and it will be true the day after…and the day after and the day after. And it will still be true when we find ourselves back in a headspace that is capable of hearing it with joy. (pause)
And so today we offer up what may feel like a broken hallelujah…may we cling to the tiny bit of hope, even if it might feel bitter…than one day soon, our hallelujah is a joyful one. Amen.

Grace Requires No Persistence 10-16-16

In this sermon, based on Luke 18:1-8, I explore the parable of the persistent widow and the unrighteous judge. At first glance, it seems like its just about praying a lot. But there’s more going on here.

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

Have you ever heard the expression…10,000 hours will make you an master at anything. (pause) I like that expression…because it implies the importance of hard work and perseverance…that if you are driven and persistent…sticking with anything long enough, then the practice will allow you to master it. I’ve heard it applied to all kinds of different things like drawing or learning to play an instrument just to name a couple.

I was thinking about this whole idea earlier this week, and I found myself wondering…just how long is 10,000 hours? So I did some math…and I did some research…If we started right now…on October 16th, 2016 at about 10:30 in the morning…10,000 hours would be up on Dec 7th, 2017 at about 2:30am.  416 days and 16 hours…of non…stop…work.

That’s a lot time…you can do a lot in that amount of time…and to give you some reference…in that amount of time, you could watch the entire Harry Potter movie saga…8 movies…508 times over.  You could also watch the Star Wars sage, currently at 7 movies…645 times.

Or, given our current activity…considering that my sermons are typically in the neighborhood of about 13 minutes, you could hear me preach 45,153 sermons…which if you’re wondering is about 868 years’ worth of sermons. (pause) I call that, persistence.

Now the notion of persistence is on display today as we hear the parable of the persistent widow and the unrighteous judge…which is a really long title for a really short parable…its only 4 verses long after all…and it can be summed up pretty easily.

There’s this widow in the city…and she comes into the judge’s courtroom day after day…making the same request time after time…looking for justice…looking for vindication over her opponent in what is some unknown grievance.

Now the judge ignores her pleas for a while…and interestingly enough, despite anything else that might be going on here…from a legal standpoint, he’s not actually doing anything wrong.  Keep in mind that in Jesus day, women had no legal baring…so she would have needed a man to come into the courtroom with her…not a lawyer per say, but someone to speak for her…different times, different customs. But this lady, being a widow…didn’t have anyone…and so the only things she’s got working for her is a stubborn streak that would rival any 2 year old who has just learned the word “no” and is faced with broccoli at dinner…and as we hear…she just keeps coming. (pause)

And then there’s the judge…and he’s a real winner isn’t he? Despite the legal precedent that I mentioned, it would seem that this guy is pretty much just a jerk. He’s in a position of power…and it seems likely that he abuses it…we don’t know that for sure, of course…but we do hear, more than once, that he has no fear of God and no respect for other people…we even hear him acknowledge this about himself…so there can be no doubt…he’s an A-1 creep…and as such he continues to ignore the widow, day after day, time after time…but after a good long while, her persistence pays off…and he says to himself…even though I don’t care…she won’t leave me alone…and as the old saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease…and so finally he grants her justice…he finds in her favor. (pause)

That’s the parable…that’s the story that Jesus shares in order to illustrate a point…and interestingly enough…it seems as if Jesus is even telling us what the point of this parable is…something that I appreciate, as it makes interpretation of this parable that much easier.

Listen to the two statements which set up, and then wrap up the story.  “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.”  Then we hear the parable, and then we hear Jesus say directly “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant his chosen ones justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night.” (pause)
Seems like a no-brainer.  Pray more!  HALLELUJAH!!!! That answers the question…I guess I’ll say Amen and go sit down. (pause)

All too often, that’s the take away from this parable…that’s what people hear…that if you want something…all you have to do is pray really hard…over and over again…and eventually you’ll wear God down and he’ll give you what you want. (pause)
There’s a name for this sort of thing…its called Prosperity Gospel…and it’s a simple notion…if your faith is strong enough…if its, BIG enough…well then God will bless you…and God will bless you in ways beyond measure…AKA you’ll be rich and have a lot of stuff…but only if your faith is strong enough.

The theme song for this might as well be (sing) I BELIEVE I CAN FLY…the lyrics include “if I just believe it, then I can do it…there’s nothing to do it.” (pause) Needless to say, this notion doesn’t really sit well with me…and neither does the understanding of today’s parable that all I have to do is pray often enough and I’ll get what I want.

Because we’ve seen evidence to the contrary haven’t we? Haven’t we all?  Think about it…in this life, you will have trouble…Christ himself tells us that…and its true…faith doesn’t excuse us from troubles…often times it almost seems to be the opposite.

But I’ve seen it time and time again with countless individuals who encounter a situation that is totally beyond them, and they pray, and they pray and they pray…and it doesn’t work. I’ve seen families praying for their loved battling disease, and they don’t get better.  I’ve seen people praying that the company they work for will stay open but it doesn’t and they lose their job. I’ve seen couples pray for healing in their marriage and they end up divorced….and I’ve heard the question many times…where was my miracle…where was God on that one? (pause)

It’s a fair question…if all it takes is persistence in prayer then why didn’t I get an answer to my prayer…if the widow received justice then why didn’t I? Isn’t God the judge in that parable? Can’t we wear him down like the widow did? And the answer…even though we might not want to hear it…is No…you can’t wear God down. (pause)
But what if that’s not what this parable is really about? What if the thing that we’re really supposed to be hearing in this parable about prayer is the other thing that Jesus opens with…not losing heart. (pause) Well if that’s the case, then what’s he talking about in this parable that is still about prayer? (pause)
Maybe we need to be asking ourselves what it is that we’re praying for.  I heard someone say this week that when it comes to prayer, venturing too far away from the Lord’s prayer has the tendency to get us in trouble…and as I thought about that, I thought about the teaching that our great reformer Martin Luther wrote in the small catechism on the Lord’s Prayer, something which we study together in confirmation class…something that many of you sitting out there have likely read at one time or another.

Our father, who are in heaven, hallowed be thy name. None of this becomes true by us saying it, but it is true…Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done. And as Luther says “God’s kingdom comes indeed without our praying for it, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us…and the good and gracious will of God is surely done without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may be done also among us.”

In moments like this, I think its important to remember who taught us that prayer in the first place…Christ, who rest assured, knows what he’s talking about. (pause) Is it our prayer to give praise to the Lord for who he is…and then to pray for the coming of his kingdom and will here in our lives?

Because Jesus tells us, here in today’s story, that when we pray for this God does it. Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, He will quickly grant justice to them.”

Now this is not to say that God grants us whatever we claim as justice…God does not bow to our judgment in any situation…but rather, we need to remember what justice is…and so allow me to reword it. He will grant justification to those that cry out to him.

The presence of the kingdom, which we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer does not equal God giving us whatever our fickle heart desires. Rather, it is the presence of God’s grace justifying us. The kingdom comes to us through God’s actions, and words, and promises to us…all on the basis of his love for us…God’s grace, which justifies us through the saving act of Christ’s death and resurrection, is not dependent on us praying enough, or doing anything else for that matter. God’s grace requires no persistence on our part. God’s grace simply is…and it is already given to you. (pause)
Now all that being said…is there anything that we can learn from the parable today? And I think the answer is yes…and ironically, we learn it from the bad guy…the unrighteous judge…You’ve likely heard me say that when something is repeated in the scripture, its usually important…and the thing that’s repeated today is the judges attitude. He does not fear God, and he doesn’t respect other people…and he’s unrighteous…which might as well be called unjustified…aka, he hasn’t received God’s grace.

I bring this up to remind us of the importance of Jesus’ teachings in another part of the gospel, for when asked what is the most important commandment, Jesus says “love God and love your neighbor.” Not in order to earn anything, but out of gratitude for the free gift already given to you…allow your life, flawed though it may be, to reflect gratitude for the amazing gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.

And so, if we are going to be persistent in anything, let it be this…reflecting the love of God for us as individuals back to him, and outwards to those that we encounter. And if we can persist in that…who knows that the world might look like.  Amen.