Posts Tagged ‘Confirmation’

I Have Seen the Lord 4-28-19

In this sermon, based on John 20:19-31, I explore two of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. Thomas’ honest response to the proclamation of the Risen Lord reveals a desire to have the same experience for himself.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

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

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

Ever found yourself in the midst of situation where one person utterly surprises another? Now I don’t mean in the “SURPRISE!!” way, but like the “utterly mind blowing because you’re in a place where this person has no business being” kinda way?

Happened to me a few times…just last December, on our way home from vacation, we were sitting in the Houston airport, when I saw a couple that lives here in town…turns out they’d been in Texas for Iowa States’ bowl game and were on their way home as well. (pause)
I remember another time, we were out in Colorado for camp a few years back, when low and behold I came around a corner and there was an old friend and coworker from my year of Internship in Minnesota…and we were in the same spot at the same time, half way across the country. (pause)

I’ve been on the other end of this type of thing, too.  Clear back in 1999, during my junior year at Iowa State…I remember packing up my stuff to head home for the weekend…and as I was leaving…my roommate was busy playing some online game or another, networked in with the two guys that lived across the hall…I grabbed my stuff…told him to have a good weekend…and out the door I went…and then on Sunday, the weekend being almost over, I walked back into our room, saw him at his desk…the same game on his computer…and I just said “hey man.”

Now his response caught me off guard… “Hey…what you forget?”  “What?”  “What you forget? You must have forgotten something to be back already?”  In my confusion I responded “Dude, what are you talking about…its Sunday.”  And he stopped…turned and looked at me and said “It is?” And then he just kinda sat there blinking while his mind was catching up with reality.  Apparently, the game had been so engrossing that he had sat there all weekend long playing it…losing all sense of time…which is why it was so confusing for him when I walked back in the door 48 hours later.

Now this idea of encounters that defy what our minds tell us should be possible…that’s where we are connecting into the gospel for today. Today’s story is one that we share on this week every year…the second Sunday after Easter and the encounter that we’ve come to know as Doubting Thomas…which, for the record, isn’t an overly great name…and its worth noting that today’s passage includes not one but two different encounters with the resurrected Jesus.

Now I can’t help but think that today’s story includes a little bit of implied time travel.  Because the action picks up the evening of the Resurrection…and so we need to turn our minds backwards 7 days…to last Sunday night…we had all gathered together that morning to celebrate the Risen Jesus…we shared breakfast…everyone departed for their various family celebrations…I’m sure there were naps involved…but then, by late afternoon, early evening…everyone had settled in…back to normal…thinking about work the next day…but that’s our perspective.

For the ones there that day…things are little different.  If we back up ever so slightly in the passage itself…we have the testimony of Mary Magdalene…the first witness to the empty tomb…Mary alone encounters the Risen Jesus…now if you recall that account, she’s confused at who he is until he calls her by name…revealing the personal connection…and she recognizes him…and then reports back to the disciples “I have seen the Lord.”

It seems that none of them really know what to make of this…and they lock themselves away somewhere out of fear…when suddenly out of nowhere…defying all logic…in utterly mind-blowing fashion…Jesus is standing among them…and unlike my surprise appearance that freaked out my roommate after a fast weekend…and despite the fact that Jesus had told them repeatedly that he would be raised…and despite the earlier testimony of Mary…I can only imagine that this just didn’t compute.

JESUS WAS DEAD…AND THE DOOR IS LOCKED…DUDES! HOW IS HE HERE? These must have been the thoughts racing through their minds…and I imagine that Jesus knows it because not just once but twice he greets them with an offer of peace. Peace be with you…as he shows them the marks of the crucifixion that he still bears in his body…assuring them that he is in fact, the Risen Lord…and with that he breathes the Holy Spirit into them…empowering them with a mission. Just as the Father has sent me…so I send you.

And with this, the disciples are somehow changed.  And they are  empowered by the Spirit in order to share their testimony…their personal encounter that has revealed the good news of the Resurrected Jesus…and if you notice…when they bump in to Thomas, who was absent in this amazing moment…their testimony is pretty much identical to Mary’s from earlier that day. She says “I have seen the Lord.” They say “We have seen the Lord.” (pause)

Now here’s where things get little shady for good old Thomas.  We have no idea where he was this first time around…but he seems to know that he missed out on something special.  Unless I see the marks of the nails, put my finger in them, and stick my hand in the wound on his side, I can’t believe it. (pause)

What’s really going on here? Is Thomas just fickle?  Is he a skeptic…denying the possibility that Jesus was dead and now he isn’t? Or, does Thomas just hope to have the same experience as the others…is it simply his hope and desire to encounter the Risen Lord so he can make the same proclamation?  Is this doubt? Or is this revealing a longing that I think we all share…to somehow encounter the Risen Lord.  Don’t we all long to see Jesus?  Can you blame Thomas?

He’d spent the same amount of time following Jesus as the rest of them.  He abandoned Jesus just like the others…and they still got to see him…stands to reason that Thomas should too…and the whole “put my finger in the nail holes thing,” well Jesus had shown the others his hands and side…Thomas just wants to experience that too.  This isn’t doubt…this is a desire to experience it for himself. (pause)

As I think about that…I think of the wide variety of ways that the Resurrected Jesus is revealed throughout the scriptures.  He shows up on a mountaintop…to joyful and yet confused disciples and gives them the great commission.  He travels along with 2 followers on the road to Emmaus and is only revealed through the breaking of the bread.  He is revealed to Mary as he calls her by name.  He’s revealed to the disciples in an offer of peace…Thomas included, although a week later. He shows up on the road in a blinding light to the Apostle Paul.

In a different sense, John’s gospel itself testifies that Jesus is revealed through the written account of his many signs…and that begins to point us to something different…the importance of proclamation…that the Holy Spirit…mysterious as it might be, acts within us through the proclamation of the good news of the resurrection…and this has been ongoing over the course of the past 2000 years…this is vital for those of us who were not there to see the Resurrected Jesus for ourselves…for those of us who might wish to hear a word of peace from his mouth…who might wish to hear him call us by name…or to see with our own eyes the holes in his hands and feet…but for us and for countless individuals who have come before us…that’s not possible.

And yet…here we are today…gathered together to worship our Risen Lord and to give thanks for all that God has accomplished through his life death and resurrection…we are gathered because we have heard the proclamation and through the hearing of this good news the Spirit has created the gift of faith within us…the ability to believe that which is unbelievable…to trust in the truth of that which we have not seen for ourselves.

And that faith…that promise which is spoken over us in the waters of our baptism…this is what these three young people are affirming for themselves today. (pause) Now as many of you know…one of the last things I have our Confirmation Students do is write a statement, which I call their “I believe” Statements…no fluff…not telling me what they think I want to hear…but an honest reflection of what they believe at this point in their lives. And its never disappointing.

This year, there was a theme of the importance of others…of those who are part of this church, this community of believers, who have set examples and have built into the lives of these three young people…a theme of the way their faith has been shaped to this point…and in one of the statements, was something that seems very applicable as we consider the desire to see the resurrected Lord.

“Even though Jesus isn’t here physically I always know he is with me and watching over me.”  That’s the promise right there…and we profess that in the physical absence of Christ here in the world, we who are gathered and empowered and most importantly, connected by the Holy Spirit…we are the body of Christ on earth…and as we gather…and live out this life of faith in the midst of the crazy up and downs of the world…may we continue to reveal the presence of God to one another and this world that we share.

That is my prayer for the three of you today…that you will continue to experience this for yourselves…that you would continue to feel that urge…that desire to seek out the presence of the divine in your own lives…and that no matter what you will experience in the years to come…that your testimony will somehow be able to echo the testimony of those who have come before…that somehow, you can say, I have seen the Lord. Amen.

Connected 4-29-18

In this sermon, based on John 15:1-8, I explore Jesus’ statement “I am the vine, you are the branches.” This is a fitting text as today is also Confirmation Sunday, and I address 4 young people who are affirming the faith of their baptism.

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

When I was growing up on the farm, my older brother and I made forts everywhere. In a tree…in and around the farm equipment that was stored in the shed or the grove…you name it…we probably made a fort there.

I remember one time, when we decided that we were going to make a fort across the road, in the ditch right next to our mailbox. Now, typical of most ditches out in the country, the grass was uncut, so it grew up tall, and the ditch itself was pretty steep in this spot…so our fort pretty much consisted of a patch of grass getting matted down…and it served pretty much no other purpose than a spot for us to duck down and hide each time a vehicle drove past on the gravel road.

But at one point, we started thinking, always dangerous for young boys…but we wanted to be able to see across the road, and the tall grass was causing a problem…so we got some trimmers and cut down the tall grass, leaving a gap a couple of feet wide that we could look through…but now this created a new problem, because when a car came by, we no longer had the tall grass to hide behind…so we got creative and propped up the tall grass stems that we had cut off across the opening, using it as camouflage.

I know…we created a hole and then promptly covered it back up again…we were young and foolish, just go with it…we did, but the next day, we discovered the problem with our great plan as we came back out to our fort, only to discover that the camouflage was now dried up and brown…sticking out like a sore thumb alongside the rest of the tall bright green grass in the ditch.

I can remember a sense of confusion…I was flabbergasted by the fact that the bright grass that we had propped up had promptly dried up and died…and it would only come about as I got older that I began to understand the importance of a plant being connected to its roots.

And as many of you are familiar, eventually my fascination with plants led me to my college degree of horticulture…a study that greatly increased my knowledge and understanding of many different types of plants…including grapevines. (pause)

I am the vine, you are the branches…Sound familiar? Our lesson today is found in the midst of Jesus’ farewell discourse with his disciples at the Last Supper…and event we’ve heard about in recent memory…as Jesus takes on the role of servant, bending down and washing the feet of the disciples…announcing to them that they are clean…all before sitting back down and launching into this long teaching…this final time of encouragement before they’ll head out to the garden where he’ll be betrayed and arrested.

And in the middle of all this Jesus tosses out this metaphor about grape vines and branches and pruning and bearing fruit…not to mention branches getting cut off and burned up…and all the while, all the way through this we hear…repeatedly…abide…a word that we understand…to remain…to be connected.

Now, Jesus probably used this image of a grapevine because of the disciple’s familiarity. Trust me…you can’t throw a rock in the Holy Land without hitting a vineyard…grapevines are EVERYWHERE…and they’d be quite familiar with how grapes are grown…how the plants are tended…and how much work goes into it.

But I can’t help but think that this image, is perhaps a little foreign to us…but you’re in luck today…because I’ve got a degree in Horticulture…and I actually studied the process of grape growing. Now the vine itself, or what I would call the stem…it’s a perennial, meaning it stays alive and continues growing year after year, like a bush or a tree. And they’re planted along a trellis system…essentially a framework that is supporting tight wires that run down past a row of plants. And the framework is set at two levels, with a wire on the top and another one down below it.

And those wires provide support for the branches to grow…which they do, stretching out along those wires. But the branches are pretty wiley…and left unchecked, they grow like crazy…and so it takes a remarkable amount of work to maintain them…and it takes a long time too…because the branches don’t actually produce grapes until the 2nd year…and so the grower or the farmer, whatever you want to call them, they work to keep only the strongest branch growing out along one of the two wires during the first year, constantly cutting back the extra growth in order to keep the main branch strong as it stretches out from the main vine.

Then in the second year, when the clusters of fruit start forming, the grower is still hard at work, choosing the strongest bunches and removing the rest, in order that the grapes that do mature are as healthy as possible.

And then, once that second growing season is done, the entire branch is cut off from the vine, pulled away from the wire, and dumped in with all the rest of the material that had been pruned off through the year…it all dries up and is burned, just like we hear from Jesus today…and then the next year, the process starts all over again with new growth…with a new branch growing in the place of the old one…and the cycle repeats time after time…and the grower’s work is never done. (pause)

Now if that’s still confusing, let me tweak it just a little bit…Jesus says I am the cornstalk…you are the ear. Those that abide in me produce many kernels, but apart from me they produce nothing. Any ear that does not produce kernels is stripped off, baled up and thrown in the barn for bedding. (pause) That a little more clear?

So what do we make of all this? What do we make of stories about cut grass…and growing grapes or corn? Why does Jesus feel the need to share with his disciples the importance of remaining connected?

Well, why do plants need to stay connected? Because they need to be rooted. The roots give stability, but more importantly they provide nutrients and water from the soil…the stem…the roots…the vine…this is the source of life for the branches…and without this connection…without remaining attached to the source…the branches are dead…unable to sustain themselves…much less to produce anything. (pause)

Now isn’t it interesting that the same one who says “I am the vine” also said “I am the way, the truth…and the life.”(pause) Jesus Christ…God in human form…the word made flesh…the light shining in the darkness…he is the source of all life…and all life flows through him.

Now maybe this sorta seems like a no brainer for us to hear while we sit here in worship…but keep in mind the setting when this happened…the Last Supper…Jesus is just about to leave his disciples…he’s just about to cross that barrier into whatever it is that comes next through the resurrection…whatever it is that lies on the other side of death…and they’re going to be alone…the source of life…the vine, is about to be cut off from them.

And I can only imagine, in the midst of his perfect sacrificial love for these individuals…this has got to be hard for him…to being saying goodbye…because anyone who’s been through one knows…goodbye is hard when you love the person on the other side of it…knowing that the relationship that you hold is about to be different…cut off in some way.

Anyone who’s lost a parent or a sibling to death knows this…a child or a caretaker watching their parent lose ground to dementia knows this…parents dropping your oldest off at college a couple states away knows this…there are all kinds of examples of loving relationships that are somehow cut off…and Jesus was in the same boat.

And yet, out of his perfect love for his followers…and not just the disciples but for all of us…he has promised that he will not leave us alone…and if you remember, when the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples just a couple of days after this…he breathes the Holy Spirit into them…and through the power of the Spirit…the literal Spirit of God which dwells in them, they are still connected to one another…but more importantly they are connected to God, who is the source of all life.

Now this is important for us to remember, because in the waters of our baptism, we receive the gift of that same spirit…and so we too are connected into the one body of Christ…we are the church…His body here on Earth…gathered and empowered by the Spirit…connected to the vine. (pause)

Now while this is an important reminder for each of us to hear…I’m going to turn my attention to these 4 young people sitting in the front row today.  Today is a big day for you…for in just a moment, you’ll stand before this congregation and affirm the faith in which you were each baptized…today you are claiming the promises made on your behalf for yourselves…and one of those promises seems pretty fitting…to live among God’s faithful people.

In the waters of your baptism, you have been grafted into the one body of Christ…he is the vine and you are the branches…he is the source of life…and your life is evidence of it…and as your connection to the vine continues through your lifetime, may you continue to bear fruit.

Now what does that look like? And Jesus has an answer for us…to love one another. As I have you loved you, you are to love one another…this is how the world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. And as we do this, our love for one another reflects our love for the one who first loved us…the one who desires that we remain connected…the one who calls us to abide in Him.

Many of you know that in our last class time, I have the confirmands write a statement of belief…of where they are in their own walk of faith…and I’m always amazed with what I find. This year…there was a theme among the 4 statements…that God is always there…that somehow God is always present…and as I look at the 4 of you today, it is my hope that you will continue to feel this connection to the one who made you in the first place…that you would abide in His word…that you would remain connected with the body of Christ here on Earth…so that you may draw strength and life together with them…as collectively we all rely on the one who is the way the truth and the life.
May we all abide in the one who is the TRUE vine, until we each arrive at that moment when our time in this life is done…and we are pruned back to allow the cycle of life to begin again in our place. And as we consider that unknown reality that lies on the other side, may we remember the truth of the resurrection, and that we have a God who steps into every situation of death in order to bring new life out of it…and that the promises that the 4 of you claim today assure you that this new life in the resurrection, whatever it will look like…is for you. May you stay connected to that promise. Amen.

He Calls Them By Name 5-7-17

In this sermon, taken from John 10:1-10, I explore the promise of God given to us in baptism, that we are claimed as his children. This sermon, shorter than normal, is happening in the context of Confirmation Sunday in my congregation.

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

Full disclosure…as a preacher, I’m pulling double duty today. In addition to standing before you now, I’ll also be preaching this evening up at the high school for the annual Baccalaureate service. Now both situations have something in common…as they celebrate and honor a group of young people at the end of an educational experience. Baccalaureate, of course marks the end of high school for our graduating seniors…and Confirmation here this morning, which traditionally marks the close of religious education for our 8th graders…and because of the similarities between these two occasions…if you happen to be at the high school this evening, you may hear a similar theme…as I proclaim a message that, I hope and pray, will be moving and inspirational for those who hear it as they close one chapter of their lives and prepare to move into the next one.

That being said, earlier this week I was meeting with several other area pastors, discussing the gospel text for today, and the fact that it is Confirmation Sunday for at least a couple of us that were there, the conversation came around to a question that I have been thinking about all week.  What do you wish you had heard on your Confirmation Day?

I pondered on that question…thinking back over time to the day when I was confirmed…April 25th 1993 at Bethel Lutheran Church in Graettinger Iowa, under the guidance of Pastor Wilbur Holtz, just in case you were wondering…and as I think back to the message that was shared by that Pastor more than 24 years ago…I realized (long pause) that I can’t remember a darn thing…and realizing this, well it kinda took the pressure off for today…because 24 years from now, its pretty unlikely that the 8 of you sitting out there this morning will be able to remember what I had to say either.

But if my own history does teach me anything, its that you will very likely remember the people who were involved…those who invested in you to bring you to this point…many of whom are sitting out there in the congregation right now.  I myself remember that pastor…I remember the two other teachers who volunteered to lead my class through both 6th and 7th grade…and even if I don’t recall much about the lessons themselves that they taught me…I remember the interactions with those individuals…and the stern looks I got from that Pastor in class when I got a little too squirrely…which of course happened with fair bit of regularity…and I remember the statement he made years later when I ran into him at a Pastor’s conference… “Yah Scott, you were a handful, but I always had a feeling about you.” (pause) And let me state for the record that I’ve got a feeling about a couple of you 8th graders too. (pause)
Now, many of you sitting out there are familiar with something I do each year with the Confirmation class. During their very last time together, I have them write out a statement of faith…a personal creed…something that we call the “I believe” statements.  Before they write them, I always tell them “Don’t just tell me what you think I want to hear. Be honest…at this point in your lives, tell me what you think.” Year in and year out these statements are fascinating, and this year is no different.

What caught my attention this time around was how literal the 8th graders took the instruction to tell me what “I believe.”  Over the course of reading their 8 different statements, I found the phrase “I believe” 21 times…and the theme that emerged more than anything is that they believe in God…even going so far as to say that God is the greatest thing…EVER. (pause)

But now…lets come back around to it…what message do the 8 of you need to hear today…and to answer that question let me say this. You believe in God…Good…He believes in you too…and not only that…he loves you…and he claims you as his own.

Admittedly, this is gonna be a short message today…because sometimes you don’t have beat something to death to make a point. Within today’s gospel, Jesus is talking about shepherds and sheep and pens and gates and all kinds of things…a bunch of things that honestly can be a little difficult to wrap our heads around…but the main point that jumped out of Jesus’ words today.
He calls his sheep by name and leads them out…Whatever this pen is…whatever this abundant life is that he keeps talking about…I can only imagine that he’s talking about life lived in relationship, both with one another as fellow human beings and also, more importantly, a life lived in relationship with the Lord.

He calls you by name…because he is the shepherd…the one who is willing to lay down his life for you…and not only is he willing but he has already done it. Jesus Christ died on the cross…dying the most brutal death imaginable…and he did so in order to show YOU that there is nothing that God will not do in order to be with you.

Your name was on his mind…Your name was on his lips. Quinn. Taylor. Mason. Megan. Tommy. Blake. Brayden. Emma…and for everyone else sitting out there today, guess what…your name is in that list too.

But there’s one more point I need to make.  Not only does the Lord of this abundant life know you by your given name…but he has given you another one…Beloved Child of God. This is a name given to you in the waters of your baptism…a time when you were washed with water and the promise of God was spoken you…a promise that God has claimed you as his own…a promise which nothing can take away from you…and now today, in just a few moments, the 8 of you will stand up before this congregation…before this gathering of the body of Christ…and you will acknowledge that promise which God has made to you.

That’s what’s happening today…because the action is already done…God has already said this about you. God has already claimed you….whether you realize it or not. Nothing takes that name away from you…so own it…and not just today but every day…for Beloved Child of God, you have been marked with the cross of Christ in the waters of your baptism…and you have been sealed in his love forever. He calls his own by name and he leads them…whether they (Pause). Whether you…realize it or not.

That is what I believe…and it is my hope and my prayer that throughout the course of your lives, you believe it too. Amen.


The Same Old Story 5-1-16

In this sermon, taken from John 14:23-29, I explore Jesus’ promises that we will never be left alone. This happens in the context of Confirmation Sunday, when Jesus’ promises are particularly important for our young people.

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 from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

Most of you know that I’m pretty active with various types of social media…facebook, Instagram, and twitter being the main 3. They each do their own thing, and I use them in different ways, but one thing I like about my settings on Twitter, is that anytime someone directly interacts with me I get a text on my phone.

Friday morning…I was pacing around my office, my brain spinning round and round as I pondered on today’s sermon, when my phone chirped at me with a text…and sure enough, it was from Twitter, letting me know that some random person had liked one my old tweets from about a month ago…and the fact that it was an old tweet caught my attention…because I realized that the exact same person had liked that exact same tweet almost exactly 24 hours previously…a day apart…an old offhanded statement of mine got twitter love from the exact same source.

Now I was thinking about the significance of this, because its something of a “same old story” type situation…and when I think along those lines, I’m reminded of the whole process of preaching in the first place. One of the statements that I hear with fair bit of regularity is “I don’t know how you can do that every week.” Well to be honest, I ask myself that same question quite a bit too…and most often when I find myself in a preaching situation aimed at specific day.

This happens when I encounter out of the ordinary situations like weddings or funerals…and it happens with certain holidays like Christmas or Easter or Pentecost…when the gospel is the same story, repeated year after year, or when the situation dictates the same sort of theme for the sermon.

Now when that happens, its pretty normal for me, while in the midst of my preparation, to go back and see just what I’ve said before…sometimes the message doesn’t really change much…while other times the significant events happening in that moment can drastically alter how the text will preach that time around…but the long and short of this whole situation…is that preaching, regardless of the text, regardless of the season and day, regardless of everything…still includes the gospel…which itself…doesn’t really change…and so the struggle for a preacher in these moments is asking the question “how do I say the same thing differently this time around.”

Today is one of those days…sort of anyway…confirmation Sunday…when a group of our young people stand up before the congregation and publically claim for themselves, the promises made by their parents and sponsors and congregation at the time of their baptism…a time when these young people publically claim their faith in which they were raised.

And, since this is one of those times that repeats year after year, I did my normal thing of looking back to see just what I had said before. This is confirmation day number 3 for me here at Underwood, and so I had a couple different confirmation sermons under my belt…but what caught my attention as I looked back at those two sermons was the realization that our tradition makes sure I’ve got drastically different gospel texts each time. Now this happens for a couple different reasons, but mainly it’s a combination of the fact that we always do Confirmation on the first Sunday of May, along with the fact that this is always during the season of Easter, but with the back and forth nature of Easter’s changing date, we never know which Sunday of the Easter Sunday this will be year to year…and because of that, the various gospel texts, while fitting in with an overarching theme…can and are…drastically different.

But now here’s the amazing thing about all this…as I read back over those two sermons from the past two years…as well as pondering on the text for today…I was amazed to realize that despite the wondrous variety of these three different gospel texts…and despite the vast difference in individuals between each of these three particular confirmation classes…a theme has emerged.

Each year, I’ve given the confirmation class an opportunity to reflect on what they have learned…the discussions and lessons that we have shared…and to write a statement of belief…a creed…an honest reflection of just what they have come to believe about this whole faith and gospel of Jesus Christ thing up to this point. And while each and every statement has been different…they have all reflected a similar theme that I have come to believe is pretty normal…an understanding that God is always present along with an honest bit of confusion about all of this stuff. (pause) I’ve seen it across the board, with both of my previous classes, as well as in all 5 statements written by this years class. (pause) And if today’s gospel is any indication…you 5 students are in good company.

Now this of course brings me into today’s gospel lesson, which admittedly I haven’t said much about yet…but here we are…rapidly approaching Ascension Day when Jesus will depart from our reality and return to Heaven…and our gospel for today, once more, is taken from Jesus final time of teaching his followers…a lengthy passage, several chapters long…most of which is Jesus talking…but with a few interjections of questions from his disciples…and in fact our opening verse today is in response to one of these questions…three times in fact, one of the disciples…a different one each time…seems to raise his hand and say “Uhhh…Jesus…I don’t get it.”

Aren’t these the very people that we would expect to get it? They’ve followed Jesus around, they’ve seen the miracles, they’ve heard the teachings…they’ve even been privy to direct explanations of some of Jesus’ more cryptic teaching moments…and yet, they still don’t get it.

Jesus stands there telling them…over and over again…I am leaving…you’ll look for me but won’t find me…for I am going to my father…but you know what do….UHHHH, excuse me Jesus…ummm…no we don’t…what are we supposed to do? (pause)

And so Jesus goes over things again and again…but as we know…as he says, he is leaving…and perhaps it seems that he’s leaving his followers to their own devises despite their doubt and fear and shortcomings. (pause) But in the midst of all this, Jesus reminds his disciples and us today, that we are not left alone.

Those that love me keep my word…they observe it, they honor it…they remember it…and the father and I will come to them and make our home with them…We remember the words of Christ and in that, God is dwelling with us…that’s the first promise…but Jesus goes beyond that as well…and he starts talking about the Holy Spirit…the helper…the advocate…what Jesus actually the Paraclete, or the one who comes along side us…to help us…to guide us…and to teach us.

Jesus promises us that even though he departs from the earth…even though he steps away from our plane of existence, he assures us that God does not leave us alone. We’ve got this crazy notion of a God who is three different people…Father Son and Holy Spirit…one God in three forms…One God in three people…and no one, and I mean no one can try to wrap their heads around just how that really works without experiencing a fair amount of confusion…but that’s okay…because Jesus promises us that its true…and not only do we have this God that exists in ways beyond our understanding…but this amazing God dwells with us…among us…along side us in every moment…whether we understand it or not. (pause)
Now as I look here in the front row at these 5 students affirming their baptism today, I am once again reminded of the theme that emerged from their belief statements…God is with us, even when we don’t understand it…and as Jesus tells us today, it is the Holy Spirit, continuing to teach us…continuing to remind us of that which we have already learned…even in the moments when it doesn’t make sense.

And here’s a little bit of insight that I think any one of the people who have come before you would agree with…there are a lot of moments when this stuff doesn’t make sense. Life is hard…and its messy…and the various statements of belief that we profess sometimes seem pretty crazy…and that’s…okay…because Faith does not mean having all the answers…far from it in fact…faith, this faith in which you were baptized and which you are claiming for yourselves today…simply means believing that somehow, someway, God will do what God says he will do…and that promise that God will do it…that gives us hope.

Hope and faith are connected, but they are not the same thing. Hope is that which we cling to in the midst of the hard stuff…in the midst of those moments where it seems like maybe the darkness is winning…hope, is the glimmer of light that we hold onto in the knowledge that there is more out there…and that God is with us in the midst of that very hard stuff.

This is something you’ve heard before. We’ve talked about in confirmation class many different times…you’ve heard me preach on it many different times…and perhaps it sounds like the same old story…all boiled down to the idea that God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

And I’ll say this…yes…it is the same old story…but it’s a good one…and it is my prayer that in the days and weeks and months and years and even decades to come…in the midst of every moment in that big unknown future that lies before you today…it is my hope that you will cling to those promises that God has made…that He has already claimed you as his own…that work is already done for you…that promises is already given to you…both in the moments when its easy to believe…and in the ones where it seems a little confusing…its already done for you…so cling to that hope…and believe in those promises…and remember that you…are never alone. Amen.


Just Abide Already 5-3-15

This morning’s sermon comes from John 15:1-8, which is the parable of the vine and branches. This sermon happens in the context of Confirmation Sunday.

You can listen to the sermon here:

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
My first foray into living on my own was May 1998. I was 19 years old, and I departed my parents’ house for the first time to live on my own…and let me tell you…I was really venturing out…to Bible Camp…10 minutes from home…and it was only for a few months (pause) Impressive right?
Now my second time moving out was a little more extensive. It was a little over a year later…August of 1999…I had graduated from community college, and I was heading off to Ames to finish up my Bachelor’s degree at the one and only Iowa State University. For the first time, I would out of my regular stomping grounds…3 hours away…on my own.
My plan as of the night before moving to Ames…was to load up my car, and my brother was going to load up the rest of my stuff in his truck…and he would then follow me down to Ames and help me move in…but keep in mind I was moving into a dorm room…so I didn’t need everything under the sun…And even though the piles and boxes looked pretty extensive sitting on my bedroom floor…when I got started packing the car…somehow it all fit…and I called up my brother to let him know “Hey…don’t need you this time…I got it all in the car.” His reply “Alrighty…guess you don’t need me…good luck bro.” And he hung up.
And I…got in my car…and started that three hour drive. Now here’s the thing. I knew where I was going…I knew where my dorm was, even where my room was…but I think I was counting on my big brother for something other than just help moving…I think I was counting on him to be that last cord of connection to home…and him being there as I moved into the dorm and got settled…but instead…I was on my own.
And the longer I drove…the closer I got to Ames…the more nervous I got…and as the minutes clicked by I got worse…and worse…and worse…thinking that I was in over my head…and that my safety net was too far away…and that I had no idea what I was really in for…and then after awhile I saw a road sign. Ames…26 miles…and the nerves went up to here (level at chest)…and then a couple minutes later…Ames…10 miles…and the nerves were here (level at eyes)…and then I saw Ames Exit (level above head)…and a couple minutes later I parked my car outside of Helser Hall…and walked up 4 flights of stairs…around a corner…and down my hallway…and the nerves…well by that point they were through the roof…and I was scared to death… (pause)
And now I’m gonna switch gears…over into the gospel…and perhaps you’re wondering just what the heck my first move to Ames has to do with Jesus being the vine…and that is a great question…the connection here today isn’t so much this brief passage about vines and branches…but instead it’s the setting. You see this passage takes place in the midst of Jesus’ farewell address to the disciples at the last supper…a long moment of teaching…one last time before they head out to the Garden where Jesus will be arrested…and then he’ll be crucified…and he’ll be dead…and so in order to take full advantage of the tiny amount of time that they have left together Jesus lays out his final teaching for these men that he loves so much.
And throughout the course of this entire section of scripture…Jesus continues to tell them things like “I am only with you a little while longer” or “Now you see me, but soon you will not see me any longer” and “Soon you will be scattered…each to your own home.” (pause)
Think about how that must have come across to the disciples…they’ve been together 3 years…following Jesus around…they’ve been in community…and yes, they’ve seen some amazing things…had some amazing experiences…but throughout this entire time Jesus has been with them…and now he’s saying that’s coming a close? (pause) How can that be? (pause)
Because remember…they don’t know what’s coming…We say Last Supper…and we know what that means…that 24 hours later Jesus is dead…and then a couple days after that he’s alive again…but just like me driving closer and closer to Ames and finally walking into that dorm for the first time…the disciples have NO IDEA what’s coming next…and to hear that Jesus is going to be gone…their teacher…their master…the one who was always there to help make sense of things…is no longer going to be there to bail them out…to act as their safety net…they are gonna be on their own. (pause)
Now I think that the common tendency for us today is to think that the disciples had it all together by this time…or if not…then when Jesus is resurrected and appears to them that explains everything and they’ve got everything under control. Isn’t that true? Don’t we tend to think that…and maybe not just about the disciples but about all those Biblical Bigwig names that we hear…Moses…and David…Solomon…Elijah…and Peter and Paul…And James and John….they were all Biblical super heroes right? (pause) Or were they? (pause)
This past year in our confirmation class…we explored the Biblical narrative as deeply as we could in the time allowed…we covered a lot of stories involving a lot of individuals…many of whom I just named…and as we continued through the year…lesson after lesson…story after story…character after character…there was a theme there…one that the students and adults came to expect…and that theme is this…that God always seems to use the least likely person…the person who doesn’t have everything figured out…the person who has issues…and questions…and concerns…and problems.
And as we talked about that theme, over and over again…we also talked about how that applies to our lives…that we are called into a life of following Christ, just as those 12 disciples did…and not only are we called into it…but we share the struggle of the unknown…the struggle of not have all the answers…the struggle of having questions…make no mistake…we are more closely connected to the disciples sitting there at the table listening to Jesus than we might realize. (pause)
Now speaking of confirmation…today is of course a very special day for these 8 young people sitting in the front pews today…a day when they will stand up in the front of this sanctuary…and together they will affirm the promises made for them by their parents in the waters of their baptism…they will stand before you as a congregation…and they will stand before God while they do this. (pause)
One of the last things that they did in preparation for this day was to write a statement of belief…a statement that takes an honest look at where they are in their lives of faith today…after 2 years of confirmation instruction…and 14 or so years of growing up in the church.
My one bit of instruction for the students before leaving them to write their statements was “do not try to impress me. I’m not interested in fluff that you think I want to hear. I’m interested in hearing an honest statement of what you think about all this stuff.” And I was fascinated to read what they had to say.
There was a theme of belief that God is real…and is present. There was another theme that we live this life…and then there is something more to come…but we don’t know what it will be like…there was a random theme that they like turtles…inside joke…and finally there was a common theme of questions that the kids still have…ambiguity about all this stuff…how it works, or why…acknowledging the sense of mystery that surrounds our lives of faith.
Now all 8 statements were very good…and very honest…and there was one that seemed to encompass this sense of the unknown…and I’d like to share just a portion of it. “I wonder why this dude would send his only begotten son to die on the cross for our sins…it just boggles my mind. The way that God chose that people that you wouldn’t think that he would choose.”
Truly this stuff is a mystery to understand…but isn’t it wonderful that we don’t have to understand it…yet God chooses us anyway…Jesus himself says this to the disciples during this time…You did not choose me…but I chose you…and just as He chose those men to be in relationship…likewise God has chosen you. (pause)
But now let’s come back around full circle…because admittedly I haven’t been talking much about our specific passage today…but there is a connection…a very great one…and we find it within the repetition of the passage. Abiding.
As Jesus prepares to leave these men…he tells them over and over again to abide…Abide in me and I abide in you. You are the branches…abide in the vine…abide and bear much fruit…abide abide abide…and since this isn’t a word that we really use all that much…perhaps you’re wondering just what it means…and it means to remain…or to live with…or to be in relationship with…essentially…just as the branches must remain connected to the grapevine in order to live and bear fruit…we too must remain connected to the source of life…and we hear today that this is Christ himself.
And perhaps this seems a little strange for Jesus to tell them to remain connected to him when he’s about to leave them…and likewise its confusing for us to hear the same thing knowing that Christ has long since returned to heaven. And so we wonder is Jesus making some sort of joke here?
And the answer is no…because through Christ we are given many ways to remain in relationship. He tells us that his word abides in us…and through the scriptures we see this is true…and through Christ we can approach our Father in heaven through prayer…we have direct access to God…and finally through the body of Christ here on earth…through one another, united by the power of the Holy Spirit we remain together…we live together…we abide together…connected to one another…but more importantly connected to Jesus…the one who calls himself I am.
And this connection…this life together…this abiding in one another…its not conditional…we don’t have pass a test…we don’t have to earn it…its offered freely to us…and in the waters of our baptisms we join in this community…we join in this life together…we join in this connection…and we are not alone…for in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit we are in relationship.
I want to go back to that story that I started in the beginning…You might recall that I was walking down the hallway of my dorm for the first time…scared out of my mind…but then as I approached my door, even before I stepped through it…I heard two familiar voices…two friends that I already knew…close friends who were now my roommates…and as I heard those voices, and I stepped around the corner and saw their faces I knew I wasn’t in this alone…but that we were in it together…even if we didn’t know what to expect. And at that moment, I knew…in spite of all the questions and fears and doubts…that it was gonna be okay.
As I look out there today, and see the 8 of you sitting there…wondering just what all this faith stuff is all about…and wondering just how it all works…rest easy in knowing that you are a part of something bigger than just you…you are connected to this community…you are connected to the church…the body of Christ on earth…and this is a place where you can live with your questions…where its okay that things don’t always make sense…so live in it…be connected to it…remain in it…Just abide already. Amen.

I Am What I Am 5-11-14

Today’s sermon came from John 10:1-10. This is the opening portion of the text commonly known as the Good Shepherd parable, though I focus on the notion that in this portion of the passage, Jesus never calls himself that, rather calling himself the gate.

You can listen to the sermon here:

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here…though note, there are some deviations from the text.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

Individuality is an interesting thing isn’t it? There are certain aspects that shared between individuals or groups. For instance, we are all fellow members of the human race. Likewise, we are all alive now, at this time, in the early 21st century, and together, we are all present in this place, right now, in this time.

But there are also things about an individual that cannot be matched by anyone else that is either alive right now or that has ever or will ever live. And those are the aspects about the individual that are shaped by their experience.

Science would look at this as the formation of neuron pathways within the individual’s brain. Their experience forms connections within their brain that will forever be present and will forever influence how that individual experiences the world from that time forward.

I see evidence of this type of thing all the time as I interact with my family. My daughter knows things about the realm of dance that I cannot even fathom, and that’s after taking a single week’s worth of dance camp a couple years ago. My son, the sports nut can tell you the most random and obscure details about certain baseball players from several seasons past, and I’m lucky if I can tell the difference between the second baseman and the shortstop. My wife has an instinct for cooking that could rival any chef that I can’t even begin to understand, though my stomach certainly benefits from it.

I on the other hand, have those things in my life that set me apart. For instance, there have been many times when we’ve been driving down the road and Emily will ask me what kind of bird is flying overhead…I can take a quick glance, pick out certain visible characteristics like size, shape, wing pattern, and flight characteristics to tell her that in fact that isn’t a chicken hawk…it’s a turkey vulture. As a former ecologist in training during college, I’ve learned to look for those sort of things.

Likewise, having grown up on the farm, I’ve developed a certain skill with my nose…on many instances, I have impressed my family by following a livestock trailer…taking a sniff…and being able to correctly identify the type of animal inside it, simply by their odor.

These are some of the things that make me who I am. And they are unique to me, but there are other things that I am as well. I am 6 feet tall. I am a runner. I am a father. I am a husband…the list goes on and on of things that identify me…of things that paint a picture of just who…or what…I am.

Now those two words…I am…I have to admit that they catch my attention…they are such simple words and yet they convey so many truths…and importantly, they convey a different set of truth about every individual that says them. Because what I am…is a completely different reality than the one described when you say the very same thing. (pause)

The author of John’s gospel seems to be very aware of this simple fact…although perhaps it would be better to say that Jesus himself is aware of it. The phrase “I am” is quite common throughout the entirety of John’s gospel, and each and every time it is stated, it is by Jesus. Now sometimes Jesus uses it to convey an idea, calling himself something abstract. For instance Jesus says “I am the light of the world” or “I am the vine.” At different times, Jesus simply identifies himself when people are looking for him…saying quite simply “I am.” (pause) And if your knowledge of Old Testament history is perking up there you’ll recognize that as the very same way that God identifies himself to Moses. I am what I am. (pause)

And it probably comes as no great surprise that we see another example of Jesus saying I am in today’s passage. Now, in a personal note, I cannot read this passage without my brain instantly screaming out “GOOD SHEPHERD…IT’S GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY!” And with good reason…the 4th Sunday of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday within the lectionary, and over the course of the three year cycle we hear this passage in its entirety…and perhaps if you are anything like me, you listen to the words I shared a moment ago from John’s gospel…words about the shepherd entering by the gate…and calling his own sheep by name…and sheep following because they know his voice…and because this is such a familiar passage your brain instantly goes to what is likely the most famous phrase from this entire parable…when Jesus makes yet another famous I am statement…the one that summarizes the entire story in one simple phrase…I am…the good shepherd. (pause)

Did your minds go there? (pause) I’m guessing so for many of you, if not all of you…but I’ll pose the question…should it? Because in our story today…John chapter 10 verses 1-10…does Jesus ever say it? (pause) Go ahead and look through the gospel text and see…go ahead…I’ll wait (pause).

Nowhere…Nowhere in the midst of all the talk about sheep and bandits and thieves and gatekeepers and shepherds and strangers and sheepfolds and gates and pastures…nowhere does Jesus actually say I am the good shepherd…we have to wait an entire year, and until verse 11…before we hear him say that.

Now admittedly, this is one of those weird moments in the lectionary, when the story cuts off at what seems to be the most important part…and believe me, as a preacher…that can be really frustrating at times…to have Jesus get cut off right about the time he’s going to make the point that straightens out all the ambiguity of the parable itself.

And parables are confusing aren’t they…we’ve seen that time and time again…Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of God, and in order to make things simple for his audience he uses a parable, something familiar that they’ll be able to relate to but that vast majority of the time…this one included, we hear that his audience fails to recognize just what he’s talking about…and you know what…I think that inability to really understand has come right on down the ages to us…because as we think about parables, we are supposed to listen to the story and figure out just who it is that we relate to…but in this story…I find that pretty hard to do, particularly in this first portion.

As I mentioned a moment ago we’ve got all kinds of things going on. Sheep hanging out in a pen, guarded by a gatekeeper of some sort…we’ve got random thieves and bandits trying to hop the fence to lead the sheep away…we’ve got a shepherd that comes through the gate and calls out to his sheep. (pause)

So who are we? And who is God? What about Jesus? Is Satan in there? Or false teachers? Maybe, sounds like it…but are we the sheep? Or are we the gatekeepers blocking others? Is God the shepherd, or is that Jesus? Or is God the gatekeeper and we’re the shepherd when we proclaim the gospel? (pause) No wonder the people listening got confused.

And so Jesus…tries again…and its at this point…the second half of today’s story that Jesus gets a little more blatant…You may have noticed about midway through, when Jesus tries again…he begins with the statement Very truly I tell you…but the actual language is truly truly I say to you…or as anyone has that has sat through confirmation class has heard me say…AMEN AMEN I say to you…and when the original language repeats itself…you better pay attention because its important.

And here…in today’s passage, Jesus actually does tell us just who he is in the story…and the amazing thing is…he is not…anyone…he is not a single character within the original parable…rather, this time when Jesus busts out those two simple words about himself. I am…we hear him say…I am…the gate…and not only that, but he says it twice…guess that means its important right? (pause)
I Am, the gate…and whoever enters the sheep pen by me shall be saved and will go in and come out and find pasture…and if that’s the case, well I guess we really are the sheep aren’t we…but then if we’re the sheep that enter and exit the pen through the gate, what exactly is this pasture that we find? (pause)

Well, think like a sheep for a second…pasture is where they find food…where they run and jump…where they flock together…quite simply pasture…is where the sheep finds life…and as Jesus himself tells us, he came to give us life and to give it ABUNDANTLY.

And just what is an abundant life? One free of sin and death…and that my friends is the life that is granted to us by Christ himself…for not only is he the gate…but he also says that I am the way, the truth, and the life…no one comes to the father except through me…and so we see that our abundant life is one that we live in relationship with the Father…and there is no other way to get there then to follow the one that leads the sheep…the one that calls them by name.

And that’s an important point right there…that we are called by name…and you’ve heard me preach on this before…that the name which we are called by is beloved child of God…a name granted to each and every one us in the waters of our baptism…when we hear the promises of God that through Jesus Christ our sin is forgiven and we are no longer subject to the power of death…because in our baptism we join with Jesus in a death like his so that we might also join with him in a life like his…a life that he has promised to be abundant.

Today, Julie Hedegaard will affirm the promises made for her in her baptism…just as a week ago 5 of her peers did the very same thing…today, Julie will affirm the fact that she is a beloved child of God, named and claimed by her Father in Heaven. Today…she will declare for herself…that I am…a child of God…a distinction given to her through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ….and one given to you all.

Because He is the gate…and whoever approaches the pen, which I believe to be the kingdom of heaven, which is present here and now, present when we live our lives in relationship with the father…then we are living the promise that Jesus has made that whoever enters through him will be saved. And so I ask you today, who is a child of God, it is my hope and prayer that you will raise your hand…and declare with confidence…I AM. Amen.


We Are Not Alone 5-4-14

Today’s sermon is based on Luke 24:13-35, the well known passage of the Road to Emmaus. You can listen to the sermon here:

This sermon combines not only the notion that God meets us on the road between the cross which is behind us and regular life that is before us. This sermon also brings in the notion of Confirmation, which we celebrated with 5 young people during worship.

You can follow along with the sermon text here….though note that there are a few differences between the text and what I actually said.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

I do not often travel alone. In the rare instances when I go somewhere for more than a few hours, I’m usually with someone. Perhaps this comes as no great surprise to you. I’m married with two school aged kids…and as we all know, in most instances, families go along for the ride.

But not this weekend…this time around we were pulled in two different directions. You may notice that my family isn’t here this morning, because they have spent the weekend, and are still there right now, in Decorah helping my niece and God-daughter celebrate her first communion. But I, on the other hand, obviously didn’t head that direction, both because I needed to be here with you this morning, but also because of a prior engagement up in Sioux City…the Western Iowa Synod Assembly which has been in session since Friday, and will be wrapping up here quite shortly. As the pastor, attendance is pretty much mandatory, and so there was no skipping out to head to a family function.

And so last Friday I headed up to Sioux City, and I spent the night at a hotel…following the evening’s activities for assembly, I settled myself into my room, watched some tv…and one of the last thoughts that went through my head before I fell asleep was “Man it’s weird being here alone…its just weird…its weird traveling alone…” And then I konked out.

Early the next morning…6am to be exact…much too early for this self-professed night owl…I found out just how wrong I was to think that. I might have been the only person in the hotel room…but it quickly became clear that I was not…isolated.

The first thing I heard was water coming down through the pipes from upstairs…someone above me was either taking a shower, or flushing the toilet. (pause) Next, as I laid there trying to go back to sleep again, I realized just how thin the tissue paper walls were in my hotel, when my neighbor in the next room shut his door and walked past my room…I swear it sounded like he was walking right past the bed…And so between hearing things in the hallway and continuing to hear water in the pipes…and even the elevators 50 feet down the hallway…I realized that I was not…alone…Sometimes our perceptions are wrong aren’t they? I thought I was by myself…but I was…incorrect.

And that is precisely the situation that we find in today’s story. (pause) Here we are…the third week of Easter…in our reckoning Jesus was raised from the dead 14 days ago…but in today’s story, its still Easter Sunday…and truly, Easter has been a busy day…you know everything that’s happened…The women found the tomb empty…they heard from the angel…then Peter went and checked things out…and in the midst of all that, these two guys…Cleopas and his unnamed companion decide that its time to skip town.

We’re not exactly sure what has set them on their way, it could be fear as fellow disciples of Jesus that they might be caught and killed…it could also be quite simply because the Sabbath is over and they are free to walk the long distance home.

But regardless of the motivation that put them on the road, that is exactly where we find them…walking along the road, discussing the events that have been happening around Jesus…and it is quite depressing for them…and understandably so…they’ve been following Jesus…and now he’s dead…and even if the women have found the tomb empty, they themselves haven’t seen him…and as far as they know…its all over…everything they’ve been hoping for…everything they’ve been expecting is out the window.

And so they trudge along…and they are joined by a stranger who falls in with them and engages them in conversation….asking them just what’s got them so down in the dumps. (pause) Now we know who this stranger is don’t we? Jesus himself…but for whatever reason they don’t recognize him…we don’t know if their eyes are closed due to divine intervention…or because of the lack of evidence of his resurrection…or because Jesus looked different in his resurrected form…we just don’t know what causes it, but the reality of the situation is, Jesus meets them on the road…and he walks along with them…they are not alone, because God refuses to leave them alone. (pause)

This is a road that all walk…the road between Jerusalem and Emmaus…the road between the cross and our regular lives…that’s all Cleopus and the other guy were doing, moving from the cross of Jesus to their day to day lives, and God comes along side them…it doesn’t matter if they recognize him or not…because he’s there…walking with them…engaging them as they try to make sense of the cross…and as the try to understand how this new reality…this reality of a crucified Christ will affect their day to day life. (pause)

In preparation for today, which is of course a very special day in the lives of these 5 young people sitting in the front row…I gave them a task…to sit and think about their faith…to think about God and Jesus, and the commandments and the creed…to think about all the things that we’ve discussed this past year, and all the things that they’ve learned throughout the course of their lives…and then, I invited them to write about it…to create their own creed…their own statement of belief. (pause)

As I read through them, I was amazed by a trend that emerged, across the board…and that trend…that theme was the recognition that God is always with them…and that God will always be with them….not only in the times when they recognize his presence…but also when they aren’t looking…just like the two disciples in today’s story, God is walking along the road…the road between the cross and regular life with our Confirmands…and not just them…but for each and every one of us.

The day of confirmation is truly wonderful…when an individual stands before the congregation and more importantly before God to affirm the faith in which they were baptized…and I love the connection between the two…today, you will continuing the promises that were made on your behalf in your own baptism…and if you compare the two services, you’ll hear a lot of the same things. (pause)
Go ahead and pull out the insert for the service of confirmation…open it up and take a look at the promises listed there…and while you’re looking at that, listen to these words taken from the service of baptism… As you bring your child to receive the gift of baptism, you are entrusted with responsibilities: To live with them among God’s faithful people, bring them to the word of God and the holy supper, teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, place in their hands the holy scriptures, and nurture them in faith and prayer, so that your child may learn to trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace. (pause) Sound familiar? It should.

These are the promises made by parents during baptism…your parents made the same promises for you…and if you remember, the congregation joins together in those promises as well…and the within the congregation we find the fellowship modeled in today’s story…once everything has taken place, the walk with Jesus, his interpretation of the scriptures…and the sharing of the meal when their eyes are opened to recognize Jesus for who he really is…the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ…the two disciples go into fellowship with each other…and this is precisely what we are to do as well.

As we walk the road to Emmaus…the road between the cross and regular life, we can rest easy in the knowledge that Jesus himself walks with us, even in those times when we fail to recognize him…and at the same time, Jesus gives us an example of life together in fellowship. They read the scriptures, he interprets it, and they share a meal…through in a couple songs and offering and you’ve got worship don’t you?

In the breaking of the bread, Jesus identity is revealed…but he’s been there the whole time…even if they couldn’t see it. Likewise in our lives, lived together in fellowship with one another, we share in all these things…and just as the two men were compelled by the recognition of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ…we are also called to come together and proclaim our experience with those we encounter…and we never know just where it will be that we will encounter him as we walk that road…but we do…because he’s there.

And so today, on this special day, I want to share a story with you…perhaps you’ve heard it before…it is, after all very common…the story is called footprints in the sand.*

One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to my Lord.

After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.

This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
“Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
You’d walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.”

He whispered, “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you.”

Today is simply one day…one step along the road between the cross and your lives…but as you walk through this day, know this…whether you recognize him or not…he’s there…and you are not alone. Amen.


*Story by Margaret Fishback Powers

Confirmation Questions 4-13-14

The sermon from Sunday was based on Philippians 2:1-11 along with a smattering of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. You can find that sermon here.

The confirmation students posed some excellent questions on their sermon notes, and I will attempt to address them here.

-How can you (or in this case Jesus) be human yet still be God? Is it a 50/50 situation or something else?
This is an absolutely spectacular question, and one that has been hotly debated in scholarly circles since the first century. In fact, it was even being debated while Jesus was still alive. This is why the religious leaders of the day took such offense with Jesus, because he claimed to be God (particularly in John’s Gospel where Jesus repeatedly called himself “I am,” or often translated in English as “I am he.” This is the name of God given to Moses in Exodus).  To answer the second question, it is not a 50/50 situation. Jesus is fully God and fully human. Now just how this works is a great question. Admittedly, I’ll claim the divine mystery answer here. But this passage from Philippians does offer us a glimpse of an explanation. Jesus himself, who was equal with God…fully divine…chose to empty himself of that equality and become human. So during his time on Earth, we could possibly say that Jesus was less than God, because he was obedient to the Father…but I believe this is a mistake to say. I’ve heard it explained that Jesus was fully human “in time” (or while in our present reality) and he is fully God “outside of time” (meaning in the realm where God exists). That being said, I don’t really like that explanation.  I find it most helpful to consider the notion that as a human, Jesus suffered from self preservation and did not want to experience his passion (trial and death on the cross). We see this in the anguish he feels while praying in the garden. Yet, Jesus was obedient to the will of God the Father…a will that Jesus shared…and so he put aside his own desire for self preservation in order to accomplish the will of the Father, which reconciled mankind to God.

-What causes God to love us so much, because He doesn’t have to?
This is another great question…and honestly I don’t have a good answer for it. I can only say that I am humbled by God’s love for me…because He certainly doesn’t have to. Nothing that I (or anyone else) does can earn God’s love…that’s why His gift of forgiveness is grace, its a free gift. But while acknowledging that, I also recognize the incredible blessing that is God’s unconditional love offered to us anyway.

Confirmation Questions 3-2-14

The sermon from last Sunday came from Matthew 17:1-9 and was based on the Transfiguration of Jesus. You can find that sermon here.

The confirmation students raised several great questions on their sermon notes, that I will attempt to address here.

Note: this first question was actually not finished on the sheet turned in by the student, but I believe this is what was being asked.
-Why didn’t Jesus want the disciples [to tell anyone what had happened]?
This is a great question, and honestly one that I’ve pondered on many different times. It is very common, particularly in Mark’s Gospel, for Jesus to perform a healing for an individual and then instruct them not to tell anyone about it, but there’s never really a good indication of why. Different scholars speculate that Jesus didn’t want the crowds chasing him around simply to acquire healing from him, but rather that people would follow him because they desired to grow closer to God through him. Other notions are that by telling people not to say anything, he’s actually appealing to the human tendency to be bad at keeping secrets, and therefore they would go out and tell everyone what would happen. Regardless of what the scholars propose, the honest answer is that we just don’t know.  The only real clue that we get here is Jesus own statement not to tell anyone what had happened until after he had been raised from the dead.  Perhaps Jesus was still hesitant to reveal his divine nature to the world, I don’t really know. But it seems that he didn’t want people knowing about this moment until his true identity was revealed through his resurrection. Why that is, I can’t tell you.  And perhaps, this is why he only invited the three disciples to go with him, rather than allow all 12 men to see it.  Admittedly, I’ve thrown a lot of my own speculation your direction on this one now. I’ll wrap it up by stating again, this is a great question, and one that I’ve pondered on a great deal myself.
-What is Zion? (this question was raised based on the responsive reading from Psalm 99 earlier in the service)
Great question. Sometimes this word comes up in our readings and its easy to gloss over it without thinking about it. Zion is a name for the mountain (or at least large hill) that Jerusalem is built on. I’ve never been to the Holy Land, so I don’t know if the “mountains” around Jerusalem are like the Rockies, or maybe more like the Appalachians, or perhaps just big hills. But regardless of my lack of descriptors, that’s what Zion is. It is a holy mountain where Jerusalem stands, and is where David established the seat (capital) of the Jewish Kingdom. Next to Zion is the Mount of Olives, which is a common location to hear about in the Gospels, particularly in the later portions of each Gospel when Jesus is in Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives is literally right across a valley, only a mile or two away from the city.

Confirmation Questions 2-23-14

Last Sunday’s sermon came from Matthew 5:38-48. In it I tried to wrap up 4 weeks worth of Sermon on the Mount focus as well as discussing the notion that we are able to join with God in the work that God is doing in the world. You can find that sermon here.

The confirmation students posed the following questions on their sermon notes. I’ll attempt to answer them.

-Why would Jesus tell a person to give up more (in the context of giving someone asking for your shirt both your shirt and your cloak)?
This is a great question…and honestly one that doesn’t make a great deal of sense, especially at face value. It is strange to wonder why Jesus tells us to go above and beyond what is being asked of us. In this context, its also important to note that the language of the text indicates that if someone is suing you for your shirt…a strange notion to us, but it implies the idea of property…Perhaps what Jesus is saying here is that if someone takes legal action against you, don’t give them the minimum, but go above and beyond. Make sure that you are not shorting them in how you respond. A difficult teaching to be sure, and honestly one that leaves me scratching my head as well. Perhaps, in the end, Jesus’ main point here is that we are always to go above and beyond for the sake of our neighbor, even those who are acting in a negative way towards us. For Jesus, this took him all the way to the cross…because he was so self-sacrificial…everything he did was for the benefit of others. We are called to mirror this attitude.
-Why does Jesus constantly fail to make sense with some things that he says?
This is another great question…and one that I tend to ask myself often, particularly in situations where I’m trying to figure out how to preach on a difficult text. My first thought on this question is that our failure to really understand either what he’s saying or why he’s saying it speaks to the utterly drastic change that Jesus has brought into our reality. The kingdom of heaven is so radically different that we simply cannot always understand it. And Jesus knows that…Sometimes we get the benefit of his explanation into what he’s talking about, but we really have that in this particular instance.  Sometimes in moments like this, when we find ourselves confused by Jesus’ teaching, we can only pray for understanding and ask for forgiveness when we fail to follow what he says. And then one day, when we encounter Christ, then we can ask him what he was talking about.