Posts Tagged ‘Community’

Celebrate 3-31-19

In this sermon, based on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, I explore the parable commonly known as the Prodigal Son, along with the two short parables partnered with it, that reveal a call to celebration over the lost being found.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/celebrate-3-31-19

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

May the grace and peace of our Triune God be yours, now and forever. Amen

Many of you have heard me share that Spring is my favorite season of the year…after the slog of winter, the warm fresh air, the beautiful sunshine…the birds singing and the signs of all the plant life perking up…all of that is just wonderful…and I always get a little charge out of the first time that these wonderful spring conditions allow me to walk over to the post office to get the mail.

Its an odd thing to notice and appreciate…but admittedly I do it…and I had that joy for the first time about a week and a half ago…and in the days since, I’ve had several more opportunities to repeat the process…including a couple of absolutely gorgeous days earlier this past week… and each time I made that brief excursion across town, it was wonderful and all was right and good in the world.

But then…as you may recall…the weather took a bit of a dip…getting cloudy and cooler, not to mention a little windy and drizzly here and there…and while it was still typical spring weather…it wasn’t QUITE as nice.  That, as you may recall…was the case on Friday…and yet…about 11 o’clock, I threw on my jacket and set out for the post office anyway.

Now when I stepped outside, I noticed it was cool and there a breeze…and while it was slightly uncomfortable, I didn’t think too much of it…until I left the post office and turned myself back towards the church…and it was only then that I realized that our gorgeous spring weather from earlier in the week, had in fact given way to 40 degrees, cloudy and nice blustery north wind slamming in the face. In that uncomfortable instant I said to myself…maybe this wasn’t too well thought out…You might say that I woke up…or that I came to myself….about the truth of my current situation.

Now granted…this wasn’t the end world…5 minutes later I was back in the church office none the worse for wear…but that moment of sudden realization of reality put me in mind of our gospel story today…and this parable that Jesus shares.

Now its worth noting that the setting of this whole deal is part of a bigger moment from Jesus, through the parable itself is long enough.  But Jesus, in a moment of interaction with the religious authorities of the time, is catching some flack…he’s being criticized for the company he keeps…for the fact that he is often found sharing a meal, or simply spending time in the company of “sinful folk.”

When Jesus hears their remarks…he responds with a series of parables…three to be exact…all of which fall under a pretty similar theme…We’ve got the parable of the lost sheep, in which the shepherd leaves behind the flock of 99 in order to search out and find 1 lost sheep…and once the lost sheep is found, he calls together his community so they can celebrate together…because the lost has been found.

Following that, Jesus tells a story of women with 10 coins, who suddenly realizes that one is missing and she searches HIGH and LOW, until finally finding it…and likewise, she calls together her neighbors, probably spending one if not more of her coins in order to celebrate that the lost has been found.

And then, in the story that we heard, Jesus shares a rather extensive narrative about a father and two sons…a parable that is pretty well-known…arguably one of the two most familiar parables in the gospels…and one that’s even become synonymous with individuals who wander off in one way or another before finding their way back home…the prodigal son.

This oddball idea that a younger son would demand his inheritance so he can traipse off and live out a crazy lifestyle, only to run out of money and face the consequences…then coming to his senses…and realizing the prosperity and even generosity of his father to the entire household…and with that, its time to go home…but he’s not without shame, and he plans to reveal himself, not as a wayward son, but simply as an individual willing to become a servant in order to be taken care of.

But that’s not what happens…and this amazing father, who has stood there day after day, looking for his son, when he finally sees him approaching…he runs to him in joy, for what was lost to him has now been found…and the son is restored…the fattened calf is slaughtered and prepared so that the entire community can celebrate, for what was lost and was as good as dead, has been found and is alive again. (pause)
But the story doesn’t stop there does it? And that’s why I’ve often thought that calling this the parable of the prodigal son does a disservice…because we’ve got the older brother too don’t we? The dutiful one…the one who stayed home, and to hear him talk, he has slaved away for all this time…doing what was expected of him…all without fanfare or recognition.

And when big brother learns about the celebration going on in the house…and discovers the reason…he’s angry…he’s upset…and he refuses to go in and participate…and so that same loving father, who looked every day for his wayward son, goes out in search of the other, because now, this older son, too…is missing.

We know how it ends…they go back and forth…the entitlement and perhaps victim complex of the older brother comes out in his complaint against the younger and against the father…and yet the assurance is there…you are always with me…all I have is yours…but we MUST CELEBRATE…for he who was lost is now found.

That’s how the parable ends…and in fact that’s how the whole passage ends…we don’t know if the older son comes in to join in the celebration…to join in the festivities…the party which is ongoing throughout this entire exchange over what’s right or wrong…over who’s deserving or not. (pause)

One long parable, part of a larger batch of three which all reveal the same thing…when someone or something of value is lost and then found…its worth celebrating…and not just by the one who found them…but with the whole community…everyone is invited.

And as I thought about all that…I went back to the setting in the first place…Jesus, like the father, has been criticized for how he responds to certain people…and then, there are those who seem to put their stock in appearances…in following the rules…have been blinded to the invitation into fellowship and celebration.

Is that’s what going on here in the big picture…that whatever it is that God is accomplishing through the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus…that it is worth celebrating…and that the invitation is universal…that somehow we are all part of the party whether we chose to act like it or not?

Is that’s what’s happening? Like the community that surrounded the father and the younger son and all the rest of the household who joined in the celebration…they lived that moment accepting that they are a part…or like the older brother, who is always with the father…and therefore is a part of the celebration as well…but chooses to act as if the opposite is true…is that what’s happening…as Jesus breaks bread and shares a meal and joyful fellowship with so-called “sinners?” Are they the ones accepting in the invitation and living out this moment as part of the celebration…and are the ones being so critical missing out on the fact that they are included too…and living out this moment in a way that reflects it? (pause)

I often wonder if that’s what’s going on with this whole Kingdom of Heaven thing that Jesus has assured us has come near.  We often talk about how the kingdom is both now and not yet…and that we catch little glimpses of it in this life…and how we are invited to live our lives as if the kingdom DOES exist now…and that maybe, just maybe that’s how God is at work to bring it into existence in the life to come…that Heavenly banquet…that heavenly celebration that God has promised us.

That’s the good news of this passage…that the invitation to join in the party has already been extended to all of us…for we are ALL a part of the community…and what joy to celebrate together all that has been lost, which is now found…to celebrate all that was dead and is now alive. (pause)
Now that being said…something had to happen in order for the celebration to begin within this parable…anyone catch it?  Before the party could start…the calf had to be killed…something had to die in order for this particular celebration to occur…and maybe, just maybe, that is a sober reminder of where we look for Jesus…because it was in the death and then subsequent resurrection of Jesus that the kingdom celebration became possible…that’s a sobering thought…but a timely one as we inch ever closer to Good Friday and the cross.

But thanks be to God that the cross isn’t the last word in this story…and that on Easter Christ rose from the grave…and somehow, someway, we have also been promised the same…that we have been made heirs of the same promise…and that we have each been claimed as beloved children…and that is what we are celebrating today…as Cameran and Dilyn will be brought to this font…where they will be washed in the waters of baptism…and the claim of God upon their lives…the invitation into the celebration, which has already been offered through Christ…will be made manifest in a physical way for them.

And what a joy it is for us…the community who surrounds them…to be here today, to join in THIS particular celebration…a celebration which has already begun…and a celebration which God has promised us will carry on in the life to come. Amen.

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I Will Drink to That 1-20-19

In this sermon for the Second Sunday After Epiphany, I explore the miraculous sign of water into wine at the wedding in Cana.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/i-will-drink-to-that-1-20-19

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

The Grace and Peace of our Triune God is yours, now and forever. Amen

I’ve noticed that people have the tendency to collect some odd stuff…though some are stranger than others.  Admittedly, I’ve never really collected anything overly out there…about the only thing that comes to mind was the period when I tried to collect the quarters minted with the different states on them…a collection which eventually ended up getting used to do laundry.

Some others though…they get a little stranger.  I remember one of the older brothers of a good friend of mine…during his college years he started collecting beer bottles of different types that he had sampled…and at some point…he actually ended up with 4 bottles of what I believe was Coors Light…and these 4 bottles were shaped like baseball bats…I’m not making this up…you can find them on google.

Now the really odd part of this whole deal…while the rest of his bottle collection were all empty…these baseball bat bottles of Coors Light were still sealed…and they sat on that shelf for a long time…probably a decade or longer…until one day, my friend’s mom insisted that the collection get cleaned out…and since a batch of us were all sitting there…it didn’t take long for one of us to ask the inevitable question…Should we drink it? (pause)

We learned something that day…10 year old beer is NOT something you want to drink…and I think its also safe to say that a bottle of beer is not intended to be a collectable…its meant to be enjoyed…but I got to thinking along those lines…and I think there are some who might disagree with me…if…the beverage in question is wine instead of beer.

There are some people out there who are wine collectors…and their wine cellars are truly something to behold…with hundreds of bottles just sitting there…and some will spend unbelievable amounts of money for the right bottle of wine…The most expensive bottle of white wine…$117,000…bottled in 1811…and on the red side…the 4 most expensive bottles…a 1787 worth $225,000…an 1869 at $230,000…a 1907 worth $275,000…and the most expensive bottle ever…a 1947 worth $304,375.

Can you imagine that? Paying that much for a bottle of wine…I’ve got to admit…just thinking about that raises the question “is it worth it?” And you know what…those people, who clearly have money to burn…will probably never know…because to pay THAT much for a bottle…that’s an investment…meant to be put on display…and never ever…to be opened. If they did…that wine better be good…it better be downright heavenly with an angelic choir singing behind you when you take that first sip.  But they’ll never know…and those ungodly expensive bottles will just sit there, year after year…never to be enjoyed. Might as well be a paperweight.  (pause)
Now I’m guessing you know where I’m going with this…it probably isn’t difficult to make the jump between super expensive wine and our gospel lesson for today…the first of Jesus’ signs at the wedding in Cana.

Now this story is interesting to be sure…wildly different that what we’ve already been encountering through the past couple weeks here in the season of Epiphany…as Jesus continues to be revealed to the world in different ways.

2 weeks ago we heard about the magi and their visit to the baby Jesus out of Matthew’s gospel…and we heard about how the very rumor of that baby’s eventual fate was enough to drive those in power crazy.

Last week we jumped into Luke’s gospel for the baptism of Jesus…and surprisingly, found Jesus to be pretty secondary…totally silent…and pretty passive in the action going on as the Heaven’s rip open, the Holy Spirit starts flying around and the big booming voice of God the father announces to the crowds that THIS IS MY SON.

And now…here we are in John…and for the first time this season…we see Jesus begin to take some ownership in the big reveal…but…even now…it seems like he needs a little coaxing doesn’t he? (pause)
On the 3 day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee…and Mary was there…and Jesus was there too…and he brought his entourage of ragtag followers with him…and for whatever reason…part way through the week-long celebration…the wine jars run empty…its worth noting that this is a HUGE blunder on the part of the hosts…it was expected that you would provide for this long celebration in its entirety…apparently open bars were all the rage back in 1st century Palestine…but somehow they’ve misjudged and the servants who go back in the kitchen looking for another pitcher to top off everyone’s glass…they come out empty handed.

At this point…for reasons that escape us…Mary…the mother of Jesus…jumps in…but she doesn’t run off to the store for a new barrel…no…she walks over to her son…and tells him “they have no wine.”  I can’t help but think that Jesus is a little snarky in his comeback as he pretty much says “so what? That’s not our problem?”

Now it would seem that Mary knows something no one else does because she turns back to the servants and says “If he tells you anything…do it.” And then I imagine she turned and looked at Jesus with an expression that says “Your up sparky…wha ‘cha gonna do now?”

We know how the rest goes don’t we…Jesus spots the 6 HUGE jars of water…simply there for the Jewish participants in this whole celebration to ceremonially wash up when needed…and he says…fill ‘em up with water…and when they do, he tells them to pull some out and take it to the steward…and somehow…someway…that water turns into wine…and not just any wine…the best wine…and not only that…but SO MUCH of it…those jars were enormous…like 4 or 5 feet high and wide…we can estimate that Jesus was producing somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000 bottles-worth of this mind-blowingly good wine.

Its so good that when the steward gets a sip he can’t believe his taste buds and he runs off to the groom…who by the way is utterly oblivious to this whole deal…and the steward…who is also oblivious to just what’s happening…spouts off about how a normal wedding would be serving nasty old swill by this point…but that this is the BEST wine.

That’s the story…and the only other thing we get is a bit of narration about how Jesus performed this sign…revealing his glory…and his disciples believed in him. (pause)

That’s the story…and it’s a great one…but admittedly, as I think about it…it raises way more questions than it answers.  Why did Mary get involved? (shrug)  Why did Jesus spout off like he did, talking about his hour not being here? (shrug)  Why water? Why not just miraculously refill all the wine containers? (shrug)  Why not tell the steward or the groom and the guests for that matter what happened? (shrug) Why so much wine? And why here…and why now? (shrug)

Admittedly…there are times when we take a look at scripture and the individual stories within and we can begin to notice things…and often times these things start to reveal a big picture…maybe an underlying point that the author of the gospel wants to make…and as I was working with the text in preparation for today I was trying really hard to find something like this…that subtle point that brings it all together…and I was getting nowhere…and this went on to the point where I reached out to one of my old professors, who’s PhD was actually on John’s gospel…and I bounced some theories off her before she finally asked me a pretty simple but important question.

What if the only thing going on here is Jesus making wine? (pause) Yes, there is a lot of stuff happening behind the scenes…questions that it raises of who or how or why?  But what do we know…Jesus was present at a wedding celebration…and that joyful celebration among people who must have loved being in one another’s company was in danger of ending prematurely…and so Jesus…who is God made flesh…who is the literal voice that spoke creation into being…acted in order to allow that celebration to continue.

Maybe that’s all that matters…and as Jesus reveals his glory in this way…maybe he’s simply showing us that in all of the divine glory of God, which goes far beyond our ability to comprehend…God desires that we enjoy the simple moments of being found in community with one another…in relationship with one another…and that God will act in a way to continue to make that possible.

Within the initial statement of hesitation…Jesus says “my hour has not yet come.” But do you know when his hour has come?  He tells us…and its right before his arrest and torture and death…which is a really strange way to think about Jesus being glorified…and yet we know what comes next…because he came back.

We profess that the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus was God’s way of making ultimate moments of relationship and community possible…especially the relationship between God and humanity…and that his divine favor rests upon each of us…that perfect favor…which I can only describe as being “the best.” (pause)

Apparently there are some really expensive bottles of wine out there…just taking up space…collecting dust in a cellar…might as well be a paperweight for all the good its doing…but you know what…a few days back I opened a bottle of Apothic Red…you can get it for about $12 bucks at Hy-vee.  I opened that bottle and poured a glass…which I sipped on while talking with my wife about her day.

I can’t tell you exactly what that wine tasted like…beyond the inkling that it was pretty good…but I can tell you how much I loved that moment…because of the time I spent with someone I love…we might go as far as to call that moment….glorious.

And we have a God who makes the conscious choice to reveal himself in a way that makes moments like that one possible…and maybe, just maybe…this is all that’s really going on in this mind blowing, miraculous moment when Jesus turned water into wine. I’ll drink to that.  Amen

To You 12-24-18

Candlelight

In this Christmas Eve sermon, based on Luke 2:1-20, I explore the importance of stories. Our common stories create a sense of shared community with one another and reveal important things about us and about what God is up to in the world.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/to-you-12-24-18

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

On this most special of nights, Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

I recently read a book that took an in-depth look at the history of human species…the various topics that came up covered pretty much all the bases that you might expect to find in a book like this…but one point came up that caught my attention…throughout the history of humanity…there is one thing that brings about unity and community more than any other…stories. (pause)
When we stop and think about it…a good story accomplishes all kinds of different stuff…and I can’t help but think that this is something that is built into the very fabric of our being…the ability to tell stories…and the bond that is created as we do so.

My wife often jokes with me that when I get together either with my old friends, or with my extended family…the same thing tends to happen…we all sit around, often times sipping on something tasty…and we tell the same…old…stories.  She’s right too…we don’t often do anything new together, just sit around talking about the old times…but by golly we have a good time.

This idea of story-telling…of reliving old memories together…it’s a good thing to do…and it’s a tactic that I often bring into different ministry moments.  As a congregation we’ve shared stories of how we see God active in our lives during the season of Lent. When I’m working with a couple in pre-marital counseling I ask them to tell me the story of their lives, both as individuals as well as their shared life together…and when I’m working with a family in preparation for a funeral I ask them to tell me stories of the person that they remember.

Telling stories…hearing stories…it serves a variety of purposes…but if I’ve noticed one thing time and time again…its that stories work. As we share them…we find ourselves reliving the sense of that earlier time…the community that was present between individuals…the joy of moments…the laughter than ensues as you start seeing tears leaking out the corner of one another’s eyes because you are overcome with laughter. The shared pain and sorrow that finds its way to the surface when we share stories of defining moments of a person that we’ve lost.

We tell stories in many different ways…whether sitting around a table reliving old times…or hearing a common cultural fable…or watching a movie, or hearing a song…truly, as people we are defined by the stories that we share…and something I love about it is the fact that stories do take on so many forms…and that whether or not they are factual…whether or not they are something that actually happened in history or if they are just a story that illustrates a particular idea or emotion…stories work to reveal a truth to us.

That’s the tactic that I often utilize when I’m exploring the scriptures as well…the stories that we find in both Testaments…stories that have long been debated as to if they “really happened” or not…but rather than getting bogged down into those details I just wonder…what truth can we find here? What does it reveal about the nature of God…or the nature of humanity? What does it tell us about ourselves? Or what does it reveal about the way that God’s working throughout this crazy thing we call life?  I believe with every part of me that this is what the scriptures do…they tell us stories that reveal aspects of these truths to us…and that includes the well-known story that we share tonight on Christmas Eve.

In those days the emperor of Rome had an idea…let’s count everyone…not because I care about all those millions of people out there in the far reaches of the empire…but because I want to know how many taxes I can raise…

Shifting gears, I can only imagine how THAT news was received in the tiny backwater town of Nazareth where a young carpenter named Joseph scratched out his day to day existence…alongside his super-pregnant fiancé Mary…when the decree went out that everyone had to go to their ancestral homes he must have let out a big sigh…and went to find Mary and say “well I don’t know what to tell you…but we’ve got to head down to Bethlehem.” Mary probably wasn’t too keen to make this 100 mile journey, bouncing around on the back of a donkey when she’s 9 months pregnant…and yet…off they go.

And wouldn’t you know it…things are so crowded by the time they get to Bethlehem that they get stuck in a corner…only available spot in whatever dwelling they ended up in was the place the animals typically inhabited…and then…wouldn’t you know it…it time to push…no hospital room…no epidural…no doctor telling you its going to be okay…but that’s the breaks I guess.

And in the end, Mary gives birth to a boy…they wrap him up in clothes and since Joseph didn’t think ahead to bring the pack and play, they lay him in a feed trough…and Mary tries to get some shut-eye.  But that doesn’t really happen for her…because at the same time that’s going on…there’s a batch of shepherds outside town…its nighttime and they’re just hanging out, keeping their ears open for the sounds of predators that might try to sneak in and grab their sheep.

I can’t imagine these guys were too excitable…but then in an instant…NO warning…BOOM here’s this angel and the whole area is lit up around them with divine glory…and as these random shepherds are trying to get their suddenly skyrocketed heart rates to slow back down while simultaneously picking their jaws up off the floor the Angel starts talking…probably in a voice that sounded like the “lets get ready to rumble” guy “Fear not…I bring you words of great joy…for behold…born TO YOU on THIS DAY in the city of David is a savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

And maybe just maybe one the guys was like “What?” and then Gabriel said it again… “Ok…for those of you in the back…to you is born this day a savior who is Christ the Lord.” And as the shepherds just sat there blinking he went on “Here’s the sign, you’ll find a baby wrapped in clothes and laying in a manger.” And then as an exclamation point a whole slug of other angels show up (singing) Gloria!…not to mention peace to the people whom God favors.

And then just like that…all the angels disappear…seemingly just as randomly as they appeared in the first place…and the shepherds stare at each other for a minute before one of them is like “Well, should we go check it out?” and another one’s like “I suppose so” and they all hightail into town and somehow manage to stumble into the right place and wouldn’t you know it…there’s Mary and there’s Joseph and there’s the baby….and Mary was probably like “Dudes, you stink, but yah here’s my kid.” And Joseph…well who knows what he was thinking at this point.

But then the shepherds start telling everyone what happened…and everything the angel told them…and I mean everything…like every single word up to and including “Born to you this day in the city of David is a savior who is Christ the Lord…and that we’d come here and we’d see you and we’d see him and here he is so HOLY COW…MAYBE ITS TRUE!”

And everyone was amazed and then the shepherds just took off again and headed back out of town and Mary treasured everything…which admittedly I sort of questioned…can’t help but think she was a little annoyed but at least with the shepherds gone all she has to deal with is a cow or a sheep or something trying to eat straw out from under Jesus.

(pause)

Crazy story isn’t it? But…it’s a good story…one that reveals SO much to us…honestly way more than I could even hope to unpack for you here tonight…and even if I tried to…honestly, how do we even begin to make sense of the story of God…the creator of the entire universe…the being or the force or the entity or whatever we want to call it…the thing that is so ultimately larger or greater or bigger than we are…the one who exists outside of our concept of reality and time and everything else…That one decides to enter into it…and not only that…but that huge big ultimate being who is all powerful and can do anything…enters in as a helpless baby born to unwed parents from an oppressed culture that are from a tiny backwater town in the middle of nowhere…and not only that…but he’s born in among a bunch of animals and strangers and is laid in a trough where, if a cow just happens to turn wrong he might end up getting bathed in something that would be really disgusting.

WHAT? (pause)

But that…is…the story. And as I hear this amazing story, year after year…amazingly something new jumps at me…every single time…and I wonder if that’s the same for you…I’m guessing it is…because every single Christmas we are hearing this story in light a different experience. Things have changed since the last time you heard this story…maybe things have changed for the better…maybe they’ve gotten harder…but regardless of the circumstances…know this…this story reveals a change.

It begins “in those days.” A past event…but when the Angel reveals the good news of great joy its this…Today is born to you a savior…Today.

Here’s the crazy thing about what God is up to through the birth of Jesus…something that goes way past my ability to understand or comprehend…God is taking a past event and SOMEHOW making it happen NOW as we hear it.

That seems to be the message that the angel shares…this good news which WILL BE for all people.  To you…for you…to you is born…THIS DAY…a savior. (pause) The mind blowing thing about God…whether we want to talk about the creator or the son or the Holy Spirit…the amazing thing about this good news…is that whenever we hear it…whether a batch of shepherds 2000 years ago in Israel…or us 2000 years later on just another Christmas Eve…or in any other situation…when we HEAR that good news…and I mean really hear it…we are drawn into that story and that story is drawn into us in a way that makes it real…right here…right now.

And the wonderful part about it…it happens to you…and it happens for you. That’s the gospel…that this is on your account…and that you get to be a part of it.

As I think about those words “for you” I can’t help but think they sound like communion…and this is fitting as we will celebrate communion together in just a few moments…the body and blood of Christ broken and shed for you…in order to bring you in community with the one who loves you and claims you…and not only that but also to bring us all into community with one another through this same shared experience…and this same shared story.

I don’t know how it all works…but I’m thankful that it does. Amen.

The Spirit Groans 5-20-18

*these two images are referenced in the sermon*

In this sermon for the Day of Pentecost, I explore the action of the Holy Spirit in the world, based on Acts 2:1-21 and Romans 8:22-27.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/the-spirit-groans-5-20-18

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 was chatting with a few of our High School students…and we got started talking about Pentecost.  And since its one of those pretty well known stories from the Bible, I thought I’d give them a little quiz and see what they remember from their Confirmation Days.

You guys remember Pentecost? Yah I think so.  Was that before or after Jesus died?  After…and its after the Resurrection and Ascension too. Okay…so Jesus is alive again but he’s not around anymore right? Right. Is it the Gospels? No its after the gospels…but right after the gospels. Umm…is that when the Holy Spirit shows up?  YES!!!!

Now at this point I was doing mental jumping jacks because it seemed like they remembered the story…and so I asked one more question.  Do you remember how the Spirit showed up? And after a moment of thought, one of them said.  Wasn’t it, like a big flaming bird? And one of the other kids said Ooo…like a Phoenix? And with that, our conversation went a little off the rails…but as I think back on the conversation…I realized that the kids were a little more on top of things than it might initially seem.

Because the Holy Spirit, while present in many different ways throughout the course of Scripture, only shows up twice in some sort of physical form…and it would seem that as we were talking, the kids just combined those two stories together.

Interestingly enough…we’ve got pictures or emblems or symbols, whatever you want to call them, right here in the sanctuary of these two times.  The first one is located at the back of the sanctuary, if you swing around and look you’ll see the large wood carving of the dove, representing the time when the Holy Spirit appeared in this form, coming from heaven and resting upon Jesus at his baptism.

And the second one is up here in the front…represented right up behind me and over my head in the red parament…depicting the tongues of fire that show up on the day of Pentecost….which is, of course, today. (pause)
Now the story of Pentecost is fascinating as all kinds of crazy stuff occurs…and we’ve been talking about this event off and on over the past couple of weeks as we’ve encountered some of the earliest situations faced by the church in the absence of Jesus…and it would seem that it all originates right here as the Spirit shows up in dramatically unexpected fashion.

Crazy violent wind…fire doing weird stuff…a bunch of random Galileans speaking in tongues…individuals from all over the known world hearing the proclamation of God’s deeds of power spoken in their native languages…accusations of public intoxication…Spirit inspired testimony from Peter which ultimately results in more than 3000 people becoming believers of the gospel…and as we hear everyone is amazed and perplexed asking the question “What does this mean?” (pause)

I can’t help but think that this sense of confusion…this wonder…this ultimate head scratcher is pretty telling when it comes to the action of the Holy Spirit in the world…and scripture goes a long way to show us the multitude of different things that Spirit is up to with different people in different situations at different times.

Today alone we have three different scripture lessons that reveal 3 different ways that the Spirit acts. We’ve got the empowerment of the believers to proclaim the gospel, not to mention the formation of new community across countless cultural boundaries here in the book of Acts.  The gospel lesson out of John reminds us of Jesus’ promise that the Spirit will continue to reveal God’s truth in the world. And then in Romans we hear how the Spirit intercedes for us, often in moments when we are unable to do so for ourselves…and its actually that passage that catches my attention today.

Here in the letter to the Romans, written 20 or 30 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are reminded of the brokenness of the world…and how every aspect of creation has been effected by the presence of sin and brokenness within our reality…that the whole creation is groaning…and so are we while we wait for the fulfillment of the promises made by God through Jesus Christ.

We wait…we hope…in the midst of our weakness…and God knows this…and we are reminded that God does not leave us alone in this weakness…for the Spirit helps us…interceding for us and WITH us in those moments when we don’t know what to say…when we don’t know what to think or feel…in those times when life doesn’t make sense…or when its too painful…or when our expectations and dreams reach a point of being beyond our ability to control…in those times when we look backwards and see the pain or struggles of our past, or we look forward and see a haze of the unknown. (pause)

Perhaps its fitting that today is graduation day…and for a few of you sitting out there today…this tension might hold a lot of credence. And I wonder what it is that you are praying for…or perhaps what it is that the spirit is praying on your behalf as you contemplate receiving your diploma in just a few hours…and the unknown that lies beyond it….or for your parents and grandparents who have raised you…who have struggled with the tension of being fully invested in you and yet not holding on too tightly…and they dream for you…they hope for you…and yet they are scared for you as you face this unknown future.

I think that this is, perhaps, telling of the sense that many of us feel as we ponder on the world…as we think about the world that the next generation is inheriting…and the truth that no matter how much we care, there are forces at work that we just can’t protect you from.

This past Friday, once again, news broke of a school shooting, this time in the Houston area…and again, there are lives lost…there are families broken…and lives shattered…and as I heard that news Friday morning, I found myself unaware of what to think or do or say in the face of this evil…and I thought about how it could have been here…it could have been our young people…it could have been some of you…and I found myself at an utter loss of what to say…

But in the midst of this I began to see, in this moment, the truth of Paul’s words that all of creation is groaning…because there is something inherently wrong when we consider the truth of pain and brokenness and death…a reality that leaves us wondering “What are we to say about these things?”

Perhaps that question sounds familiar to you. I often use it to begin funeral sermons, and its found just a few verses after this reading from Romans 8.  And maybe just maybe the only thing that we can say as we lean on the presence of God who resides within us through the presence of the Holy Spirit…maybe the only thing we can do is remember that we’ve been given a promise that we have a God who will NEVER leave us alone…and that there is nothing in this world…nothing in this reality that can separate us from God…and that in this promise we find hope…and in hope we are saved.

We can not prove the promises of God to be true…because whatever it is that lies out there on the other side of this broken reality, we can’t see it yet…but we hope for it…and we look to one another for love and support in those times when we just can’t handle it alone…because one of the gifts of the Spirit is community…God has given us one another and together we are the body…when one is weak another is strong…when one falters, another is there to pick them up again…this is how we mirror the love of God which has been shown to us in Christ Jesus…and as we do this…let us hold on to words which end the 8th chapter of Romans…words that I hope will give you hope…words that I pray give you something to hang onto in these times when the Spirit groans within you and for you because you don’t know what to say or to think. (pause)
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…not even the powers of darkness that rage in this world. (pause)
I want draw your attention back to the two symbols of the Holy Spirit here in the sanctuary…the dove in the back and the flames here in the front…I actually like the separation between the two as it reminds us that the baptism of Jesus started at the beginning of the gospel…and the tongues of fire from Pentecost showed up at the end when the church was empowered to be the body of Christ…but if you look at both, you’ll see something that they have in common…both emblems have a cross don’t they?

Maybe these two symbols working together are actually the Spirit trying to remind us that both of these events are connected by what God did through the cross. (pause) Because in Christ, God tried to show the world that there was another way…and on the cross the world killed him for it…but the cross also reminds us that death doesn’t get the last word in all this…God does…and this is the promise that we cling to…even in those moments when we need the Spirit to utter some groans on our behalf, because trust me, we are not alone…and the Spirit groans. Amen

Tell Your Story 3-26-17

This week’s sermon, taken from John 9:1-41, delves into the story of Jesus healing a man who had been blind from birth. Its a lengthy and rather odd story, where we find the man with a whole new life available to him, but the loss of community as he had known it before.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/tell-your-story-3-26-17

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

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

Back in 1984, the confirmation class here at Underwood included a guy that many of you will remember. Jeff Montgomery…now while Jeff’s been gone from Underwood for a while now, his parents Gaylen and Karen were very active here in our community until just about a year ago when they relocated to the Branson area…but its Jeff that I want to focus for a moment.

Following his Confirmation in 1984, Jeff would go on to be a summer councilor up north at Ingham Okoboji…at it was there, during a week of camp in the summer of 1991, that Jeff first encountered a crazy little blond spaz case. They didn’t interact much during that week of camp, but they did cross paths.

Fast forward a few more years, and Jeff was the On-Site Director of the Ingham location, and in early 1996, he has a conversation with the local lumberyard deliveryman, and Jeff inquires if he might know anyone that wants to run a lawn mower part-time through the summer.  The deliveryman, who’s name was Rick Dalen…said, yah I know somebody…and his, then 17 year old son went out to meet with Jeff and got the job…only to decide a month later not to do it, because this crazy high schooler wasn’t a big fan of God, or of church, and was WAY too worried about what his friends would think when they found our he was working at a Bible Camp.

But then a year later, that crazy soon to be high school graduate thought about it again, and went out to talk to Jeff a second time…Jeff gave him a look, asked the question “Are you actually gonna do it this time?” And when the crazy kid nodded, Jeff laughed and said okay lets do this.  The crazy kid started that summer riding a lawn mower, but made a lot of relationships with faithful people that influenced him greatly.

Fast forward 20 years…and that crazy kid is now a pastor, nearly 4 years into his first call at the very congregation where Jeff was confirmed in 1984, and that pastor is sitting at the supper table when his son asks the question “Dad, if you hadn’t worked at camp, do you think you would believe it God?”  (pause) We never know the circumstances that God will use to get our attention…and that is precisely where we meet today’s gospel lesson of the man born blind.

Now as a blind man, his regular day to day activities probably involved sitting alongside the road…just trying to stay out of the way…and hoping for the kindness of those around him as he would sit begging day after day. And this day was a day like any other…when an amazing interruption happened…unexpected and out of the blue…an interruption that changed his life forever. (pause) Because on this day…Jesus came walking by.

As I think about this scene I find myself wondering exactly what happened as Jesus and the disciples happened upon this blind stranger. We hear that Jesus notices him first, but that’s about it. But then we don’t know what happened. Did the man ask them for some money…or was he just sitting there silently? We really don’t know the full details…but apparently something about his situation caught the attention of the disciples…and they ask Jesus a question centered around an old understanding that physical ailments or impairments…his blindness in this case…is the result of sin. (pause) But that’s not what Jesus tells them is it?

And in a truly…odd situation, we find Jesus setting the disciples straight with a statement punctuated by hacking a loogy on the ground. (pause) Just imagine it…imagine Jesus calmly professing “I am the light of the world” (hack a loogy)…and then not only that, bending down, mixing up some mud with said loogy…and smearing it on this blind man’s eyes. (pause)  Think about how crazy that would look…and now think about how crazy it must have sounded to this random blind guy as he sits there listening…You hear conversation…you hear a slight rebuke…you hear a guy spitting, which unfortunately would be a sound that this man probably heard fairly regularly…But then you feel a set of hands smearing cool mud over your eyes…something that would have probably been very unwelcome for this blind man…until he hears a gentle voice tell him Go…wash your eyes in the pool…

And then the stranger stands up and walks away, taking his followers with him…leaving this blind man alone with mud all over his face. (pause). But then…imagine what it must have been like after he made his way to the pool…and washed his face clean…and for the first time ever, opened his eyes to see the world. (pause) It’s not enough to say that this was life changing for him…though it certainly was…but I’d say its safe to call this an earth-shattering thing…and the crazy part is…he have no idea who did this for him. (pause) Think about that for a moment…because that is exactly the situation that this guy is facing now. Blind his whole life…some random stranger comes by, smears some mud and leaves before the man can see who helped him.

And that is an interesting point right there…because for the next 27 verses…Jesus is gone…right in the middle of the gospel…which we usually expect to feature Jesus pretty heavily…right here we discover that the LORD HIMSELF…disappears…and this is precisely the time that the man, once blind but now able to see…could have used a little divine backup.

Because this encounter with Jesus…as much of a blessing as it must have been for this guy to go from being blind as a bat to being able to see and care for himself…as great as that must have been…things get a little rough for him.

As the man is walking back home, he begins to encounter his neighbors…people who have known him his entire life…but they can’t recognize him… “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” He looks familiar but that man was blind…this cannot be the same man…and we see a sort of isolation begin to occur around the newly healed individual…as those around him fail to see past one physical trait that has defined him throughout his lifetime…they just can’t see past it…despite his continued assurances “hey guys…really, its me.”

And as bad as that must have been for this man…to not even have the ability to celebrate with is neighbors…we see him essentially put on trial. “What happened?” (pause) I don’t know…this guy put mud on my eyes, told me to wash them, and I could see…but I don’t know who he was.”

And things escalate…and now the people are bickering and they ask him again “WHAT HAPPENED?” (Pause) Mud on my eyes, he told me to wash. I did, I could see…But they still aren’t convinced…and he’s taken before the Pharisees who look down their nose at the fact that this all happened on the Sabbath…WHAT? HE MADE MUD ON THE SABBATH…HE PERFORMED A HEALING ON THE SABBATH…Surely not…he must be a sinner…Quickly now…tell us how this happened.
And the guy has to explain…again. (Pause, take a breath) Mud, eyes, wash…not blind anymore…and they bicker amongst themselves…some being swayed and others not…and they ask him again…HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? (pause…take a deep annoyed breath). Blind, mud, eyes, wash, not blind…yes we got that but who is the man…he’s a prophet…can I go now?

But he can’t leave…because the elite aren’t satisfied…and they bring in his parents…and what happens there? Well, we see the man further isolated because of the fear his parents experience…they don’t want to be kicked out of the synagogue…and so all they’ll say is “well, yes that’s our son and he was blind…BUT WE DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT IT…ASK HIM!”

This is getting ridiculous for the man…first he’s healed, but he’s alone when it happens…then his neighbors and friends fail him…then the religious leaders fail him…then his family fails him…and then to top it all off the religious leaders haul him back in for a second round.

Tell us again…how did this happen? (pause) After the day this guy is having, perhaps its understandable that he gets a little snarky with them. HEY…I already told you…why do you want to hear it again…planning on learning from him or something? And low and behold, he’s kicked out of the synagogue because of his situation…and then…only then…do we finally see Jesus come back on the scene…and for the first time, the formerly blind man is able to look in the face of the one who offered him this great gift…but he doesn’t know it…until Jesus asks the right questions…and gradually opens the man’s understanding of the truth…that this is the Son of Man…and he… believes. (pause)

Now take a moment to think about all this that’s happened. In the midst of the normal routine of his day, Jesus utterly changes his life…and that change causes two completely different things to happen to the man…as we’ve seen, it creates a brand new isolation from him as he loses the relationship with his neighbors…and then with his parents…and finally with his “church.”

And that can happen…for some…the radical change brought upon them by encountering Jesus can cause the loss of old relationships…because the light of Christ shining in their lives drives away darkness…perhaps you’ve experienced that in your own life…but in the midst of this growing isolation…we also find a change coming over the man…and this change has to do with his testimony about Jesus.

First, he’s just the man that smeared mud on my eyes and told me to wash…but I don’t know who he is…but then, as the man continues to speak about the truth of his own experience…he calls Jesus a prophet…and then he starts getting really bold in his testimony. We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, so if he were not from God he could do nothing…Yes, this man comes from God…and then finally, he comes to know and believe that Jesus is the son of God…Lord I believe.

And Jesus gives this man a new found relationship in the face of the loss of his old relationships…and this is the relationship with God himself…the one that send Jesus into the world…and that is a reality that we all face.

In one way or another, we encounter Jesus Christ through our experience with the Gospel…one way or another we have each heard the good news that God loved us enough to overcome the sin that stands in the way of our relationship with him by willingly coming to Earth to live and die a brutal death on the cross…so that in the end, we will not face the consequences of our sin…

But sometimes…often I think…our encounter with Jesus Christ puts us on a path that causes rifts in our old relationships while at the same time granting us the courage to speak truthfully about our own experience with Christ…that’s all this man did…throughout all the trials and the hounding…this simple man spoke a simple truth of his own experience….in short…he shared his story of what God did…even if he didn’t know that it was God who did it…not to mention that he had no idea how it worked.  He simply shared the truth.

GIVE GLORY TO GOD, We know that this man is a sinner. (Pause) I do not know whether he is a sinner…I only know that I was blind and now I see. (pause) For this one many who lived and died all those years ago…his encounter with Jesus brought physical sight to blind eyes. But for us today…our encounter with Jesus illuminates our eyes, blinded by the darkness of sin…darkened by the lack of understanding of the truth…but praise be to God that he has sent his Son so that we may be freed of this blindness…and we too may have the courage to testify “Lord, I believe.” And then, as time goes on…the courage to share our own stories…This is what happened to me. I don’t know how it works or why, but this is what God has done. Amen

Barn Guy 7-31-16

In this sermon, based on Luke 12:13-21 I explore the parable of the barn guy, as Jesus warns us against greed and coveting.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/barn-guy-7-31-16

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
It is my hope and intention…that I never do anything foolish enough to land myself in prison….However…if, heaven forbid, I do ever end up there…I have often said that my plan would be to get myself put in solitary confinement…because I can just sit there and play various movies in my head…and not only that, but I can have meaningful conversation with myself…and therefore I could keep myself entertained…but of course…that’s just a joke…and the reality of this hypothetical situation is quite a bit different.

About midway through my seminary education, I took the first of two ethics courses…and one of the writing assignments that we had in that particular class was to identify a social issue and write on it from a theological standpoint. I ended up choosing the topic of solitary confinement and whether or not it is an ethical punishment from a theological standpoint.

I won’t bore you with the full extent of my theological or ethical conclusions…other than way back in the beginning, God himself said “it is not good for the man to be alone.” So let’s just say in the long run, IF I ever ended up in solitary confinement, I think its safe to say that this is not good. (pause)

Humanity is not intended to be alone…we crave relationship, we desire it within our very nature…and I believe that this is all because we bear the divine image of God…the divine image of the one who exists in three persons…father, son, and holy spirit…and yes this goes beyond our ability to comprehend…and yet we confess it to be true.

And our Lord…the triune God…the one who exists in relationship, desires this same sort of relationship, both with us…as well as for us…but since this crafty thing known as sin came into the picture and skewed our reality…hindering our ability to exist with one another in harmony…well then the 10 commandments came along…several of which are aimed at how we live in relationship with God, honoring and loving him…and the rest aimed at how we live in relationship with one another, honoring and loving our neighbors.

Now one of the 10 commandments…one of the things that God warns us about…is on display here in today’s gospel lesson…Teacher…tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me…a request that Jesus immediately sidesteps…Dude, who made me judge over you and your brother? (pause) What’s interesting is that this is one of only two times in Luke’s gospel when someone demands that Jesus intervene to make a judgement call…the other one, we heard it a few weeks ago when Martha told Jesus to step in and get Mary to pull her weight in the house work, and perhaps you recall how that one turned out for Martha…but now this random guy wants Jesus to use his apparent authority…in order to put some green in his pocket. (pause)

But as Jesus sidesteps this random request…he jumps into a teaching moment…be on your guard from all kinds of greed…Now granted, we don’t know what’s going on in this situation…we don’t know the details…maybe the random guy was actually justified in his request…but if Jesus’ statement shows us anything…its that this guy just wanted to improve his situation…and he didn’t care who got hurt in the process.

Because isn’t that what greed does? It sets us up as number one…I want more…more…more…I want this, I want that.  And this need for more consumes us…and we don’t care who gets hurt in the process because our focus has turned inwards.

And I find myself thinking…isn’t that what it means to covet? We’ve got 2 commandments about this…don’t covet your neighbors house…and don’t covet his wife or servants or animals…pretty well covers the bases…don’t covet that which is your neighbors…because if you do, then you are falling in the greed trap…seeing yourself as more deserving of it than your neighbor…in short…greed…or coveting…like pretty much every single one of the commandments…places us on the pedestal…and embodies that old saying “Look out for number 1.” And in doing do…aren’t we creating an idol? Something that we are putting all of our stock in…something that commands our attention…

Idols take a lot of forms…and in this case…when greed rears its ugly head…well then the idol takes the form of the face looking back in the mirror. (pause)
And you know what…sometimes that face looking back at us from the mirror…sometimes he really seems to know what he’s talking about…You ever have that conversation with yourself…talking yourself into something…or maybe out of something…listening to that voice…listening only to that voice?
That’s what happens in the parable…and I gotta say, as parables go, this is a pretty good one…pretty well known…one that I’ve heard call the parable of the barn guy.  Here’s this rich farmer…who has a particularly good year…so much so that his, normally adequate barns and storehouses aren’t gonna cut it…What to do? What to do? What to do?

That’s the question…and rather than seeking advice…barn guy looks in the mirror…first with the question “What will I do?” And then with quite the plan.  This is what I will do. I…will pull down my barns…and I…will build bigger ones…and there I…will store my grain and my goods…and once I…have done this I…will tell myself….SELF…you are good to go…you have done all this work and now you will reap the rewards…Rest…eat…drink…and be merry.”

Sounds like barn guy is having quite the lively conversation with himself…going back and forth…talking to the guy in the mirror…but here’s the tripping point…all the while, he is only thinking of himself…that’s the tension about this parable…all too often its seen as a critique of wealth…as taking a shot at the rich…and it makes us question the way we go about things in our society today…should I save for the future? Or is this asking me to just give it all away.

But that’s not really the case here…the problem is that greed…the desire for more…and the faith that barn guy finds in having accounted for the future…it all stops right there…and because of this…he is completely self centered…there is no thought of anyone else…no one else’s voice in the conversation…the entire world of barn guy is population 1…just him. (pause)
Now I’ve had this thought before…this isn’t the first time I’ve come across this passage after all…and I’ll be honest…when I read it…it hits close to home…Barn guy seems to be asking the question of How can I take advantage of this windfall? How do I look out for the future? But maybe we can boil it down to the question of “how much is enough?” And I don’t know about you, but I fall in that trap with a fair bit of regularity.

But as I was reading through it this time around, something caught my attention…and its God’s response to the man…You know how it goes. Just when he thinks he’s got it all figured out…God calls him on the carpet. You FOOL…tonight you die…and who will have all that you have prepared for yourself?”

Now every other time I’ve read this passage, I took that as God saying that “someone else will have the fruits of all your work and scheming.” And while that might be true…this time around I was struck by the isolated nature of the man…his greed has isolated him to the point where there is no one around him…he can’t even pass on all of his accumulated goods to anyone else…because there’s no one there.

And so it seems that his barns are going to rot and fall to pieces…and all his grain will spoil…and no one…absolutely no one…will benefit from all this. (pause)

It is not good to be alone. God said this at the beginning of humanities existence…but because of the isolating nature of sin in our lives…we end up alone…but thanks be to God that through Jesus Christ, God has overcome that which isolates us…sin is overcome…relationship with God and with one another IS possible…despite our failings and the ongoing presence of sin in this flawed reality.

Now there are many signs of community and relationship within our lives…families, friends, neighbors, communities, schools, workplaces…and on and on and on…but one of the most important communities that God has given us is a community of faith.

When we gather here for worship, we join together, not only with one another, but with fellow believers all over the world…and across time…together we make up the one body…but we are also reminded that individuals parts of the body can, and will, become isolated…it still happens. We see it as individual people…and we see it within congregations.

And perhaps it is there that we find a touch of critique from this parable…I’m guessing I’m not the only one who hears this passage and feels that slight twinge of discomfort because we recognize that it hits close to home.

And I fear that we as a congregation need to listen to this word of critique…for we have been blessed beyond measure…and we reap the ongoing benefits of this blessing…yet this does not give us an excuse to simply eat, drink, and be merry…resting on our laurels because of the financial surplus that we are experiencing.

Rather it seems that the lesson today is reminding us of the need to look outwards…our needs are meet for today…so who can we help…who else can benefit from the excess that we have blessed with…this is an ongoing question…one that we’ve discussed before…and a discussion that continues to be ongoing. May our collective eyes and ears be open to the voices of those outside our walls. (pause)

There’s a saying in my house…something have reminded ourselves of when faced with questions like this…4 walls and roof.  Today we have 4 walls around us and roof over our heads…today we have food in our stomach and clothes on our back…and today, that’s enough…and we will worry about tomorrow when tomorrow comes.

May we as a community of faith trust that our Lord will continue to provide for us in the future…and so in the present may we do our best to look outwards…to not allow ourselves to become isolated by the blessings that allow us to be comfortable today.

And above all…may we remember why we are a church in the first place…we exist to be the body of Christ in the world…to declare the good news of Jesus Christ in the world…and to care for those that we encounter…may we cling to that mission, so that one day…if heaven forbid…the life of this congregation is demanded of it…there will be someone else out there to benefit from the true treasure that we possess…the freedom which has been granted to us in Jesus Christ. Amen.

One Big Wilderness 2-22-15

This morning’s sermon is based on Mark 1:9-15, and features the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness…always the featured story for the first Sunday of Lent. I explore the temptation and what it means for us.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/one-big-wilderness-2-22-15

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
This past week holds an interesting distinction for me…this week I had the opportunity to write 2 different sermons at home. First my sermon for Ash Wednesday which I wrote on Monday…and then since the kids were out of school on Friday, I wrote this one at home as well.
And as can sometimes be the case…I was stuck on this one for a pretty good chunk of the day…and so finally at one point I asked the kids “Hey guys…what should I preach about on Sunday?” Jack suggested that I just not do it…which was sort of tempting…but then Ava piped up with her idea… “Kittens.” (pause)
Now here’s the crazy thing…we never know what God is going to use to spark off an idea…but in this case…kittens was the spark. Because as I sat there thinking about the domesticated cat and their offspring, I was reminded of many instances where cats show their wild side. There have been the recent “dear kitten” commercials produced by Friskies…one of which involves the cat going all ninja crazy town on the dog…this in turn makes me think of our cat and her odd tendency to simply go off on Emily…you may pet me 3 time…no more…or I will bite you. (pause)
But finally, this got me thinking about an article that I had read not so long ago that named house cats…yes…house cats…as the single most dangerous, diverse, equal opportunity hunter in the world. Cats are responsible for the deaths of more birds and small animals than any other predator out there. (pause) And when I remembered that I realized that cats are the best representative of what today’s gospel lesson calls the wild beasts. (pause)
Now if today’s story sounds somewhat familiar, it should…this particular passage in Mark is highlighted three separate times within the first few months of the lectionary this year. We heard the first portion at the baptism of Jesus back in January…and we heard the final portion when Jesus proclaims that the kingdom has come near shortly after that when Jesus calls the first disciples…and now we hear it all again…simply because it also includes the temptation of Jesus…as this story happens to be the featured lesson for the first Sunday of Lent each and every year.
And why is that you ask? Is it because Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness and Lent is 40 days? Maybe. Is it a reminder that even Jesus endured dark times which serves as a reminder for this dark season? Again, maybe. Or maybe, in the long run there isn’t really a good explanation and we simply accept that every year at this time we’re going to hear the story of the temptation.
But now here’s the kicker…Mark, as we’ve discussed before is kind of stickler when it comes to detail…he just doesn’t include much of anything does he? And because of this…maybe that’s why we get the overlap of two other stories that we’ve already heard and focused on in the past 6 weeks…simply because the lectionary needed to add a little filler into the gospel lesson for the week.
In all honesty, if this week is supposed to cover the temptation in the wilderness…we could have stuck with the two verses in the middle…And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him…period…end of story. (pause)
That’s it? Really? Come on Mark…you gotta give us something…no details about the 3 temptations themselves…no back and forth verbal sparing with Satan…Jesus doesn’t endure and then bark an order to “Depart from me Satan!” (pause)
Seriously…the lack of anything even remotely resembling details of just what’s happening out there in the wilderness is devastating…once again we’ve got nothing to go on…All we know is that Satan’s there…and animals are there…and Jesus is there…and it was the prompting of the Spirit that got him there in the first place. (pause)
Oh hold on now…just a second here…anyone remember the last time we bumped something like this? I actually think it was the story of Jesus’ baptism a few weeks back…and in that instance it seems like I mentioned that since Mark says so little, we REALLY need to pay attention to what he does say.
And Mark tells us that immediately following his baptism…the Holy Spirit DROVE him into the wilderness…we could also say that the Spirit CAST HIM OUT into the wilderness…and I don’t know about you…but that seems pretty harsh…that the spirit of God got a little physical with Jesus, just as he himself would later get physical with demons…not to mention all the merchants and money changers in the temple…same deal…the Spirit…almost violently takes Jesus out of civilization and out into the wilderness.
And he’s not alone…because Satan’s there…instantly…right away…immediately following his baptism Jesus comes under fire…Jesus is subject to temptation…and its not limited to 3 different temptations…we don’t hear of three isolated things that Satan smacks ol’ JC with…no, Mark tells us that he is tempted for 40 days…apparently non-stop…and in the midst of all that…there’s dangerous animals around…this is no pleasant setting that Jesus finds himself in.
He’s in physical danger…and he’s in spiritual danger…and all of this at the whim of the Holy Spirit. (pause) And when we realize all that, perhaps it gives us a moment of pause…and the question creeps into our mind…wait a sec, the Spirit drove him out to where he was going to tempted…does that mean that God wanted Jesus tempted? And if so…does that mean that God wants us to be tempted? (pause)
Did anyone else go there? Or was it just me? Does anyone else hear this and squirm just a little bit…wondering just what in the heck we are supposed to take from this? (pause) Because surely we can start to see a lot of similarities here. Jesus was baptized…Jesus was tempted…and Jesus was in the wilderness…and in our lives…we experience a lot of the same stuff…because we live our lives in the midst of wilderness…perhaps not a physical one…but we certainly find ourselves in the midst of a spiritual wilderness within our regular lives don’t we? Times when we feel alone…or times when we feel surrounded by enemies…times when it feels like everything and everyone is a predator just waiting…stalking us…seeking to move in for the kill. (pause)
Does that sound familiar to anyone out there? I imagine so, because for many of you, I’m familiar with your stories…I know some of the things that you’re experiencing…some of the things that you are walking through…and perhaps it seems like there is no end in sight. (pause)
Now Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days…a month plus…and I’m guessing that in the midst of the temptations…in the midst of the testing that he endured at the hands of Satan, it probably seemed like there was no end in sight for him too. (pause)
And so once more, I beg the question…was this the will of God…for Jesus to be alone out there…for Jesus to be subject to the attacks of Satan…and if it was, does God intend the same for us? (pause) And my answer to that question…is no…because Jesus wasn’t alone was he?
And I’m not just talking about Satan or the animals…but I’m talking about the angels…throughout this entire ordeal, Jesus was…not…alone…and neither are we. (pause)
Now at this point I could say that we aren’t alone simply because Jesus faced temptation…not only facing it but overcoming it…and because of that we have a God who has experienced the same temptations we do…and while I believe that is true…that’s not what prompts me to say that we are not alone…
And its also not because Jesus had angels with him…because when we are in the midst of temptation…I’ve never looked around and seen a glimmering dude with wings and a halo backing me up…but yet I will still say it…we are not alone.
And I say this because of the mission of Jesus Christ…not just to endure temptation…not just to live and perform miracles…not to gain a following and then die on a cross…but the mission of Jesus Christ was to enable relationship. Remember that all of this happened at the prodding of the Spirit which had entered into him at his baptism…the Spirit of God was with Jesus throughout this ordeal…because in the Father Son and Holy Spirit we see that even God is in relationship and we remember that God desires us to be in that relationship as well…and not just between himself and us as individuals…but between us as fellow believers as well.
Not only did Jesus’ death and resurrection enable us to once again be in relationship with our heavenly father…the one who calls us his beloved child just as he called Jesus the beloved…but his death and resurrection also made it possible for us as sinful people to forgive the hurts that we cause one another and come into blessed relationship with one another.
This is fellowship…this is community…this is togetherness and remember even in the midst of the wilderness and temptation at the hands of Satan…Jesus experienced community. And take heart in knowing that this community is where we seek aid…where we seek support in those instances when we experience our own temptations in the midst of our day to day wilderness. (pause)
And so I’ll ask it one more time…does God intend for us to experience temptation in our wilderness? And I believe the answer to that question is no…but God is aware that we will experience it…and so He has provided us with the means to endure it…and in those times when we do fail…when we fall to temptation…he has also given us the means to hear the words of forgiveness…to hear the words of grace made possible through Jesus Christ…to know that our sin no longer holds sway over us…
And so…during this season of Lent…these 40 dark days that mirror the 40 days of darkness that Jesus endured in the wilderness…let us join together as a community…let us support one another and pray for one another…so that we too might be sustained…just as the angels sustained Jesus…and at the end of those 40 days, we will emerge into the glory of the resurrected Christ…who has made it possible for us to join in his victory over Satan. Amen.