Posts Tagged ‘Fear’

Now I Have Heard Everything 7-29-18

In this sermon, based on John 6:1-21, I explore two miraculous signs of Jesus, and how they remind us that God is with us even in the midst of terrifying events.

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

My late grandfather had a habit, or maybe we can call it a ritual…one that started up about the time that he took on the status of “semi-retired farmer.”  About 10:30 every weekday morning, he’d head into town and pull up a chair with several of the other semi-retired farmers at the local watering hole. They’d each have a cold one and they’d share the news of the day…and once they’d solved all the world’s problems for another 24 hours…they’d trickle out and head home for lunch.

Now, maybe you’ve got a ritual kind of like this…a gathering place or even just a group of people that you swap the news with…those big stories that have caught your attention…those unexpected events that make you say “well now I’ve heard everything.”

I can’t help but think that with our 24 hour news cycle and the myriad of information available at our fingertips at any given moment, that’s probably a statement that we make with a fair bit of regularity…we hear something crazy…for instance I just read an article this week about a drug sniffing dog in Columbia that is so good at its job that the cartels have literally placed a bounty on its head…I can’t lie, I read that article and literally said it. “Now I’ve heard everything.” But I also know that in another day or two, something new and unexpected will happen…and I’ll probably say it again.

Now pondering along these lines…I find myself wondering if the same sort of conversations were happening about 2000 years ago around Israel…as people sat around talking about the events of the day…which I’m guessing they did…word of mouth conversations were the C-Span of the day after all…and so I wonder just what those conversations might have sounded like…

Hey man…you’re not gonna believe this. But I heard there was this wedding in Cana…and get this…part way through the wedding, they ran out of wine…and there was this random guy with a bunch of friends there…and his mom was there too…and when she heard they were out of wine, she went and told him…and he looked over at this huge water jars that they use for washing up, and he told them to take some out and give it to main dudes…and they did and it was wine…guy turned water into wine.  Woah…now I’ve heard everything.

But then like a week later they were talking again…Hey man, you know what I heard about that guy with the wine? I heard he’s been walking all over the place…like, healing diseases, and casting out demons, and I guess he was doing it down in Jerusalem during the Passover and he even threw a giant ruckus in the temple at one point. Woah…NOW I’ve heard everything.

Wouldn’t you know it…next time these guys get together…they start talking again. Hey man, you remember that guy we were talking about…get this…I heard he went up by the Sea of Galilee and SO MANY people followed him because of crazy stuff he’s doing…that like, they were all sitting around and it was late…and he told his buddies to get bread for the whole crowd…and get this, it was like 5,000 people…and you know his buddies, they just freaked out…thinking about how much it would cost to give everyone like a tiny bit of bread…well and another one spotted this kid who had a few loaves and a couple fish…but get this…the guy…yah the same one who’s been doing all the other crazy stuff…he took that tiny amount of food…and he said a prayer…and somehow…I don’t know how but somehow he managed to multiple it so that everyone ate…and there’s more…because after they ate…there was a ton of leftovers…I mean they started with hardly anything, but there was like 12 baskets left afterwards and he told them to pick it all up so the abundance wouldn’t get wasted.  Man…Now I’ve heard everything. (pause)

But wouldn’t you know it…the NEXT day…Get this, you remember the guy from yesterday…the bread and the fish and 5,000 people…dude there’s more…cuz last night, after that was all done…he went off up the mountain for a while, and his buddies, I think there’s like 12 of ‘em…they got in a boat and took off across the Sea for some reason…and one of those storms came up, you know like they do on the sea…and anyway, it was pretty rough and they were having a pretty hard time getting where they were trying to go…and you know they were freaked out right…I mean, I’ve been out on the sea when its rough too…comes out of nowhere and it can be scary, so I bet they were scared…but anyway out of nowhere…that same dude…he comes walking out to them…wait for it…ON THE WATER…You mean he wading in the water…NO MAN…HE WAS WALKING…ON THE WATER…You mean on top the water…Yah man…on top of the water…and his buddies were all kinds of freaked out…cuz, he’s on the water right…but he’s like…Dudes Its me, or maybe like I am or something like that…which isn’t that sorta like what God would say, but anyway, he told them not to be afraid…and then he was just with them in the storm while they were freaked out…can you believe that?  Man…Now I’ve heard…everything. (pause)

Here’s the funny thing about the gospel…and all these miracles or signs as John calls them…they keep happening don’t they? About the time we think we’ve heard it all, Jesus does something else unexpected…and blows our expectations out of the water…and maybe, just maybe as we consider all of these signs, including the two pretty impressive feats that Jesus pulls off in the lesson that we shared today…all we can is scratch our heads…and ponder on just who this guy is who can perform such awe-inspiring events.

Now interestingly enough…all over John’s gospel…scattered throughout the various interactions and miraculous signs and long periods of teachings…Jesus continues to remind us of just who he is…and he even said it today…I am.  Sometimes he uses this phrase as he compares himself to something else. I am the good shepherd…I am the vine…or even I am the bread of life…That particular one is coming right up just a few verses after where we leave off today…in fact the next 4 weeks will continue to feature the teaching of Jesus along with the interactions that this particular sign kicks off.

But sometimes Jesus simply calls himself I am…which happens right here in the midst of a storm as Jesus is walking on water. Now for the Jewish people…the name I am is a big deal…its synonymous with God…and the beginning of their culture all the way back in Exodus. Moses asks God what God’s name…and God says I am…if the people ask, tell them I am.

And as the disciples are in the boat, caught up in the wind and the waves, they might be crying out to God for deliverance…if you’ve ever been driving down the road when a giant rain storm comes blowing through, you’ve probably experienced that same sort of tension and terror…low and behold…in their fear…in this tension…in the midst of the frightening unknown…here comes Jesus doing something miraculous…something impossible…something that defies all logic. Something that can only be done by a being that is way more powerful than we are…

Now we’ve heard these stories before…perhaps we’ve heard them enough that we almost take them for granted…but imagine you were there…and you hadn’t heard them before…and there’s this man who is doing things that no human being can do.  And this man claims the name of God…

Could it be possible that God would be found in the human? That the divine…that which is so much bigger or larger or greater than we are would be found in a human body? Could it be? He performs these amazing miracles so maybe? (pause) Maybe, just maybe God would be found here among us…flawed and broken though we are. (pause)

But if that’s the case…I can’t help but think that it might raise some questions…or even some concerns for us as we hear these miraculous stories.  It would seem that Jesus performs miracle after miracle. Constantly doing things to better the lives of those he encounters…feeding them…healing them…and maybe, just maybe we start wonder why we don’t see the same sort of thing today.  We express faith in the same Lord right…in the same Jesus…and I wonder how many people might look at their own circumstance and wonder…where’s my miracle.

Diseases that go uncured.  Accidents that happen out of nowhere.  Jobs are lost…careers are destroyed.  Violence harms the innocent…we see all kinds of stuff like this every day don’t we…perhaps we even experience it…and maybe just maybe we wonder are those stories true.

And here’s the thing that ups the tension…we can’t prove that the miracles happened…I believe they did, let me be clear about that…but we can’t prove it…but we can still find something hopeful and reassuring if we pay attention to the little details.  That night on the water…as the disciples were straining against the oars…frightened out of their minds as a Galilee storm swept up the waves around them. Jesus miraculously came walking out ON the water…defying all logic…but what Jesus did not do in this case…was stop the storm.  He could have…we know he could have because we hear other stories when he does just that.

But this time…Jesus, the one they call the Christ…the Word of God made flesh…the divine in the human…the one who calls himself I am…he doesn’t stop the storm…he just appears to them in the midst of it.

So maybe the take away for us today…is not to be looking for a miraculous event to save us when things get lousy.  It might happen…but it might not either…and so maybe the only thing we can do is trust that we have God who is willing to be there with us in the midst of whatever storm is raging….because we have a God who loves humanity SO much…that the divine was willing to take on the flesh and dwell among us…to show us that the divine and human can and will be together…and in doing this God has made us a promise…that no matter what happens…no matter what storms start blowing…the one who can feed 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish and leave an abundance on the other side of it…the same one who has the power to walk on water…this same God will never ever forsake us…that’s the promise, whether we find ourselves in a moment when we can believe it, or whether our circumstances make us doubt it…the promise remains, and nothing will separate you from the love of the one who makes this promise to you.

And with that promise…when you’ve heard it in your mind and in your heart…then my friends…you’ve heard everything. Amen

The Story Within the Story 2-26-17

In this sermon, based on Matthew 17:1-9, I explore the Transfiguration of Jesus, which was both thrilling and terrifying for those who witnessed it.

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

If you happen to be a movie buff as I am, then today is an exciting day for you…because today, or more specifically, this evening is…the Oscars. One of countless award shows that goes on every year, but in the movie world, this is the big one…the most important.

Now my only complaint with the Oscars…is that it is really long…the typical runtime is usually way over 3 hours. Its long for different reasons…but one of them is the number of awards that are given out. There are a lot of them…and they are aimed a lot of different directions…but if I’m perfectly honest…I don’t really care about most of them…the only ones that I’m really excited about are Best Picture…which makes sense as that’s sorta the big one…and then the acting categories. Best Actor and Actress as well as Best Supporting Actor and Actress.

I think both sides are pretty important. In the lead category, you are looking at the actor or actress that carries the story…they are absolutely central…the supporting categories are aimed at performances that occur more in the background…important for the story…but not absolutely central…but that being said…I’ve often found that for those supporting characters…we could describe their role within the movie as “the story within the story.” (pause)
As I was working with this week’s text for the Transfiguration…and honestly as I was pondering on the gospel as a whole…I recognized that this idea of a story within the story seems to apply.  (pause) Now I don’t think any of us would argue that Jesus would fall in the leading actor category when it comes to the gospels.  Its kinda hard to have a Gospel of Jesus Christ without Jesus in it…and understandably, as we work our way through the different gospels…doesn’t matter which one…Jesus is at the center…and if the New Testament had its own Oscars ceremony, I think Jesus would take Best Actor every single year.

And maybe, just maybe, today’s story would win for best visual effects…because here at the Transfiguration some pretty amazing things happen. You’re likely familiar with it…we hear it every year at this time, just before the season of Lent kicks off.  Jesus decides to hike up a mountain…he takes the Big Three disciples, Peter and James and John and up they go…and while they are there…Jesus is transfigured.

Now just what that means, we don’t really know. All we hear within the different gospel accounts is that his face starts to glow like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white…honestly that’s not a lot to go on…but as I’ve pondered on this event over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that somehow, someway…the Big Three were given a glimpse at the truth that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine…and this man that they’ve known…this man that they’ve followed around without too much in the way of problems…somehow the divine nature comes blasting through the human.

Now this is not to say that in this moment he became fully divine…I think its safe to say that the divine had been there all along. By this point in the gospel he’s performed countless miracles…but for what ever reason…it is in this moment that the divinity of Christ…the God-ness if that’s what you want to call it…becomes visible for a brief moment.

Now that in itself is amazing enough…but to add fuel to the fire…we also hear that Moses and Elijah show up here on the mountain and they are hanging out jabbering with Jesus as well. Admittedly I don’t quite know how Peter James and John would have known that this was Moses and Elijah…as both of them lived centuries before Jesus and the disciples were walking around…who knows, maybe they were wearing nametags.

But what we do know is that this moment is so amazing…it is so GOOD…that Peter wants to capture it.  If it had happened today…he’d probably want to take a selfie and post it all over Instagram and Twitter and Facebook…and if he did, he’d probably end up with millions of likes. (pause) But truly, Peter wants to stay put doesn’t he? Lord…it is good that we are here…how about I build three tents, one for you and Moses and Elijah…and we can just stay here for a while.

Peter wants to stay in this amazing moment…he wants to stay in the good…to capture it…because I think Peter realizes the truth…that it won’t last…because Peter knows that there’s more coming…that there’s some stuff right around the corner that will be a polar opposite of the glory that he’s witnessing here on the mountain. (pause)
And that brings me around the point that I started off with…the story within the story…because if there was a New Testament Oscar for supporting actor…I think it would go to Peter…at least here in the gospels.

I don’t know about you…but I’ve always related to Peter. He’s present for much of what goes on throughout the gospel…and maybe this is intentional on the part of the authors of the gospels…but he seems to be portrayed as the MOST human out of any of them. He sees incredible things…and he marvels at them. He makes incredibly Spirit filled proclamations about the true identity of Jesus as the Messiah….but he’s also impulsive…and he’s a blabbermouth.  He doesn’t think things through.  He walked on water with Jesus, but then promptly sank.  He expressed faith, and then when Jesus revealed that he would be killed, Peter rebukes him and promptly gets called Satan.

Later on he’ll swear up one side and down the other that he’ll stay with Jesus even into death, only to wimp out and swear up one side and down the other that he doesn’t even know Jesus.

Maybe its just me…but I often think that we are supposed to see this stuff through the eyes of one that we can relate to…because this stuff all happened…and real people witnessed it…real people who lack the ability to describe these amazing things that occurred…and for Peter…right on the tail of this amazing moment that he is seeing…Jesus transfigured on the mountain…just as Peter makes the statement that he wants to hang out here where its good…where he’s happy and comfortable…things take a turn.

Suddenly out of nowhere, a bright cloud envelops them…cutting off their vision…and the voice of God booms out “THIS IS MY SON THE BELOVED. LISTEN TO HIM.” (pause) It’s not quite a “no” in response to Peter’s question of “should we stay here.” But in the very least, it reveals, once again…just who Jesus really is.

And Peter, along with James and John…all three of them freak out…because they have now realized that GOD…IS…HERE. And they are on the ground, flat on their faces because they are terrified….scared out of their wits…or to use a phrase made popular by Luke’s gospel in the King James Version…they are sore afraid, just like the Shepherds who hear about the birth of Jesus…not to mention the women who will experience the empty tomb at Easter and a couple of angels addressing them…they’re absolutely terrified as well…not to mention when the resurrected Jesus shows up and starts talking to them.

It seems, that when God shows up…that when something truly DIVINE happens…it is simply too much for us.  I don’t why…and even if I did I don’t know if I could articulate it.  The only conclusion that I can reach from these different moments in scripture…including this one at the Transfiguration…is that whatever God is…whatever the DIVINE is…words cannot adequately express it…we cannot truly describe it.

That’s why we only hear that Jesus starting glowing…that’s why Moses was unable to actually look at God back there on Mount Sinai but couldn’t look at the place where God had just been. Because God is simply too much. God is in someway bigger…or stronger…or greater than we are…and to be in the presence of the divine must make the individual feel every aspect of being smaller…of being less…of being inadequate.

When I think about the attempt to describe God, I can only realize that our language is insufficient, just as our human limitations are insufficient…however “big” we might describe God, its not enough…and the only thing that I have ever experienced that might just give me a glimpse of this is when I stand next to the ocean…because as I have stood there on a few different beaches over the years looking out at this endless expanse of water, it makes me feel very small…but admittedly that’s not the right word either. Language fails me both in that description as well as in trying to define God.

So no wonder Peter freaked out…because God showed up…and if I was there, I’d say it’s a fair assumption to say I’d be facedown groveling in the dirt right next to him. (pause) But here’s the thing…this isn’t the end for Peter…and even though there’s still some dark junk that he’s going to experience between now and the cross of Christ…the message that he receives is one that we need to hear as well.

Listen to Jesus…and the next words that Jesus speaks are “Be risen and fear not.” Get up, and don’t be afraid because I am with you. (pause)  I love Peter’s story, especially today…because today his example shows us that we will experience the good and the terrifying.  Perhaps you’ve heard me say that the point of the sermon is to bring comfort to the afflicted and the bring affliction to the comfortable…and often times there are people on both sides of that coin sitting out there. But Peter’s example reminds us today that we will experience both in our lives…and sometimes we can go from one to the other just like that.

Peter went from absolute joy and wanting to bask in it, to absolute terror…and our lives reflect the same…but just as Peter was reminded to listen to Christ…we do the same…When we are comfortable and thinking that things are going well, let us look to Christ.  (pause) When we are terrified because what we are experiencing is simply too much for us…let us look to Christ.

Because if we are all doing that…regardless of the division that might be going on that separates the comfortable from the afflicted…well then maybe we can all begin to see what we have in common…a shared humanity redeemed by the one who allows us to approach the divine and not experience the holy terror that comes when our smallness butts up against the Lord’s bigness. (pause)
Truly, Peter’s journey through the gospel is a smaller story within the story…but if he shows us anything…its that he’s human, just like we are…and our limitations are on full display. (pause) And if today’s story of the Transfiguration shows us anything…its that we can’t really describe or understand just what it means when the divinity of Christ shines through the human…and you know what, that’s okay. Maybe we don’t need to know what it looked like…but we can be encouraged to know what the transfiguration means. That Christ bridges the gap…somehow, someway…and that he has assured us that we don’t have to be afraid. Amen.

What Are You Afraid Of 2-21-16

In this sermon, based on Luke 13:31-35, I discuss the paralyzing nature of fear and pose the question of what is it that you as an individual, are afraid of?

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

To start…a disclaimer. It is never my intention to utilize this pulpit as a place to get political. Additionally, I have had conversations with many of you sitting out there today when I have expressed the utter distaste for politics in general…and especially politics during election years. Honestly, I don’t have a lot of patience for it, and more often than not, political candidates on both sides of the aisle irritate me when I listen to them.

That being said, I’m going to site a specific candidate, who’s actions and words this past week highlight a pretty important point that I want to address today. Please take note, that if this happens to be the candidate you support, I’m not trying to take a shot at you or your views…nor am I trying to sway anyone’s opinion here today…let me be clear…that is not…I repeat not…my intention.

Earlier this week, Pope Francis made a comment regarding foreign policy, and his belief that anyone who wants to build a wall on our border to keep people out can’t be considered a Christian. And though he didn’t name names, it was pretty clear that he had Donald Trump in mind. Trump didn’t take kindly to that and issued a statement at the Pope’s expense saying that without strong foreign policy, ISIS will eventually attack the Vatican.

Now maybe Trump knows something I don’t. That is certainly possible. But I bring this up because it really seems that he was making a wild accusatory statement intended only to cause alarm…to raise our fear level…and that right there, is the aspect of election year politics that irritates me to no end…this idea that all I have to do is make you afraid of the other option…raise your level of apprehension…appeal to that voice in the back of your head that speaks out of fear…because if I can you make you afraid of the other side or the other candidate and what they might just do to infringe on you and your fears…well then I can put your vote in my pocket…I’ll go on record today, my observation is that our political landscape is dominated by this tactic…betting on fear. (pause)
Now I bring this all up today, because fear tactics seem to be on display within the gospel lesson. Admittedly, this is a bit of an odd little passage…right in the midst of Jesus’ ministry…as he has set his face towards Jerusalem and the reality of his mission that will culminate there…Jesus encounters a handful of Pharisees…representatives of the very group that we typically consider to be his opponents…and they play the fear card.

Get away from here…for Herod wants to kill you. (pause) This passage is strange for a lot of reasons. First off, what’s up with these particular Pharisees…are they working for Herod…trying to get Jesus to back off…or on the flip side is this a legitimate warning, with Jesus’ best interests in mind? And we don’t know…only that we hear the warning. And so if we read between the lines just a bit, what’s really going on here? Jesus has stated multiple times that he’s heading towards Jerusalem…to the capital…the home of the temple…the very place where his opponents tend to hang out…in short…the single most dangerous place he could probably go…and so this cryptic warning from the Pharisees might as well be saying “Whatever you do…DO NOT…go to Jerusalem…or you are a dead man.” (pause)

And the fact of the matter is that they’re right aren’t they? We know that…we know what happens in Jerusalem don’t we? But in that moment…it hadn’t happened yet…and the only thing that we have to go on is this hint of danger from Herod’s direction…as well as Jesus’ own words about the danger for a prophet there in the city.

And strangely enough, the two are connected…For Herod is the “king” if we can call him that…he’s actually a Roman stooge…loyal to the empire, yet taking full advantage of the political benefit that he get’s from being in this position…and we do know that he’s got a least some power and prestige…he’s got status…he’s got influence…he’s got riches…in short…he’s got something to lose…and as strong as positions of power might initially seem at first glance…history has shown us that it doesn’t take much to lose all that.

Likewise…history also sheds some light on that odd ball comment Jesus makes about prophets dying in Jerusalem. For if we look back through Israel’s history…we see that the prophets really came to prominence about the same time that the nation started having kings…and the voice of God spoke through the prophets…often times at the expense of whatever guy was currently sitting on the throne…For if they failed to lead the people faithful in God’s eyes…God sent a prophet to tell them…and if the king didn’t really appreciate the message…the easiest way to close it down is to shoot the messenger…quite literally. And so throughout history we see the prophets come to an end in Jerusalem when they cross paths with the monarch.

Oddly enough Herod even has personal history with this…remember John the Baptist? Well he crossed Herod…calling him out about his unlawful marriage to Herodias, the wife of his own brother…and since neither Herod nor Herodias really appreciated John’s words…low and behold…he ended up dead. (pause)

Now all of this history serves to point us towards one thing…those in power want to keep it…and they don’t want anything threatening the status quo…much less a popular prophet or rabbi traveling around…attracting crowds…and changing up the way that people think about how things are supposed to work.

And isn’t that the very basis of Jesus message when he proclaims to us that the kingdom has come near…that the world is in the process of a great reversal…that those who are poor in spirit…or hungry or thirsty…or persecuted…they are the very ones who he calls blessed…and on the flip side that those in power are called out…told straight up that they are missing the point and failing the people. (pause)

And if that’s the case…and secretly Herod felt threatened…just like all the religious leaders who seemed to have it in for Jesus…then maybe it makes sense that they try to scare him off. To keep him out of Jerusalem…to keep him away from those who might witness first hand, the results of this great reversal…maybe it makes sense that they would do anything in their power to avoid that which they fear the most…losing the power that the world has granted them. (pause)

Fear is a funny thing…on one hand, it can be one heck of a motivator…and on the other hand…it can utterly paralyze us. So now I’m going to pose a question…What are you afraid of? What are those things in life that can paralyze you…can trip you up…can keep you from acting or speaking? (pause)

I can give you some examples across the spectrum. Often times here in worship, I’ll stop and give you some pastor commentary…those thoughts that go through my head…but I certainly don’t share everything going through my head…and believe me…my brain is going a mile up a minute up here.

The biggest fear I have while leading worship is that I’ll mess something up. That I’ll skip an important part of the liturgy…or that I’ll call someone the wrong name…or that my sermon will get misplaced between the start of worship and the time to preach and I’ll have to wing it. Sometimes I’m afraid that I said the wrong words during the Apostles Creed…or that I mess up the Words of Institution…or that I’ll slip up and use off colored language…or I’ll drop the chalice of wine…or heaven forbid, I walk up here and start talking only to have you all start laughing because unbeknownst to me, my fly is down. (pause)

I wish I could say that I was making this list up…but I’m not…I have these thoughts almost every single week while I’m up here. Now funny enough…some of these things have happened. The first time I had a baptism, I called the child by the wrong name during the sermon about 4 times…Once I skipped a line in the words of institution…just a couple weeks ago I was uninformed about an announcement and got red in the face when I was corrected from the congregation. These things happen…and sure I was embarrassed…but I didn’t die…and we all had a laugh…and we moved on. It wasn’t the end of the world.

But as a pastor I have bigger fears than just a snafu in worship. I fear letting you down as a congregation. I fear making mistakes in my teaching and preaching and leading someone astray. I fear dropping the ball by focusing on one thing and missing something that turns out to be more important…but worst of all…the biggest fear that I have is to be misunderstood…or worse yet, to be perceived as an uncaring jerk…and I have fears in my personal life as well. Fears that I will fail as a husband or father…fears that I will make foolish decisions that will cause hardship for my family…fears of being a failure…fears that I might get sick…or worse yet that someone I care about will get sick and there is nothing I can do about it.

In short…like everyone else…I experience a lot of fear…and so I’ll ask the question again…be honest with yourself…what are you afraid of? What is that paralyzes you…or on the flip side what is that you are so scared of that you work your tail off in order to make sure that it never happens? (pause)

Now what if I told you that in the end…you have zero control over any of it? Things will happen…or on the flip side things that you fear may not happen for you…won’t. Accidents occur…tragedies occur. Jobs are lost. People are hurt. Disasters happen…and in the midst of all that…the world keep on spinning.

This is the reality that we face…and it can often be a very scary place. I’m guessing the world was a pretty scary place for Jesus too…because he was human like us…and he knew what was coming in Jerusalem…he knew the lengths that people would go to in order to keep their illusion of power intact…he knew that it would cost him his life…but as scary as I’m guessing that was for him…Jesus also knew that this was precisely what he called to do…this is who he was meant to be…this was the path that needed to happen to him in order to bring about a change within this scary world.

As we continue through this season of Lent, we grow ever closer to Jesus’ death on the cross…a death that had to happen in order to do something about that which is our greatest fear…and then on the third day his work is finished as he walks out of that tomb…having overcome the power of death…and by doing so making us a promise that we can count on…that in his death he draws all people to himself…he overcomes that which separates us from one another and from God…and he promises us that everything we are afraid of ultimately holds no power over us…but he shows us that God is the one who truly holds the power…and that this same God uses that power to overcome that which we fear.

Yes we still experience it…because we are still experiencing life in this broken world…but thanks be to God that he has also invited us into the action of reconciling it…and finally that he has promised us that even though we walk in dark scary valleys…even valleys that end in death…we are not alone…and somehow he has made it possible for us to come through it into his perfect light. Amen.

Its Okay to Doubt 4-27-14

In this sermon, based on the story of Doubting Thomas in John 20, I explore the tension of living with doubt. Thomas felt this for a week before Jesus appeared to him. Likewise, we experience it as well.

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 Risen Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen

One year ago…to the exact day…I woke up in Sioux City. As the single seminary graduate to be assigned to the Western Iowa Synod, I was present at synod assembly as a guest to be introduced. In addition, I was invited to sit in on assembly business in the plenary sessions for the duration of the assembly.

As the morning passed, we all walked into a ball room at the Sioux City convention center for lunch, and I was invited to sit at a table along with the synods other “first call pastors.” As we sat there conversing, we were joined by the ELCA’s big cheese. You may remember that a year ago, Western Iowa elected a new bishop, and as is the custom, the presiding Bishop of the ELCA is on hand for these elections…and so, in his wisdom, our former Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, a man I’ve had the privilege of meeting a few times…chose to sit with us.

Following lunch, the plan was for Emily and I to jump in the car and head south…because my interview with the call committee of Underwood Lutheran was scheduled for late that afternoon. Upon hearing this in conversation, Bishop Hanson made the joke “Oh, first call interview huh? Let’s grill him folks…get him ready for it.” (pause) What better way to prepare…while at the same time getting extraordinarily nervy…than to have the Presiding Bishop of the largest Lutheran church body in the United States give you a mock interview.

Be that as it may, Emily and I followed our plan for the day, and after lunch we headed this way…and we spent the next 2 hours in the car going back and forth, discussing various things…but both of us clearly exhibiting nervous energy. (pause) And perhaps this is not unexpected…after all, it was my first call interview…not just with Underwood, but anywhere. This was the only congregation that I was in conversation with…but it was in a relatively unknown corner of an area, that while I’m familiar with, I was completely foreign to this particular small town…might as well have been on the moon…because other than a destination on mapquest, and a final location on the gps, the only other exposure I’d had to Underwood Lutheran was a blurry picture on Google Earth…and a couple of phone conversations with Gary Leaders…not a lot to go on.

As the time passed in the car, its safe to say that we were both getting more and more nervous…and it escalated when we pulled off 680 up by Neola, and drove south the 6 or 7 miles on Railroad highway…the tension was palpable as we rounded the curve about a mile or so north of town…it got even worse as we caught the first glimpse of the church from about half a mile away…and peaked as we pulled into the parking lot.

We sat there for a brief moment, looking around…and surveying the cars in the parking lot…no doubt members of the call committee…and just as we were taking a deep breath before reaching for the door handles, I noticed…and joked that there was car on the south side of the church that supports Iowa State…Joyce Tiarks I’m guessing…while on the north side was Nancy Dose’s car…clearly a Hawkeye fan…and we saw that Underwood is a “community divided.” (pause) You never know what will break the tension do you? After that, we walked up the sidewalk, through the front doors where Gary Leader’s greeted us, and we headed down into the fellowship hall for my interview…the rest, as they say, is history.

But for a long time, both on that particular day as well as quite a bit of time leading up to it…we were living in the tension…the tension of unknowns…the tension of questions to which there were not yet answers. And it is in remembering this tension that I found a connection to today’s Gospel story.

Now in a bit of an odd situation, today’s Gospel story includes the passage of time. Typically, our daily lesson includes one particular story, which marks a single action in the story of Jesus…but today…time passes…did anyone catch that?

We start off on Easter Sunday…the day that Jesus has risen from the dead. Now directly before this passage, Jesus has appeared to Mary Magdalene, conversed with her for short amount of time, and then she has found the disciples to report what happened…that was in the morning…and now we pick up that evening…so if you would…imagine that we are a week ago…and the disciples…minus Judas who is gone by this point…and Thomas who is simply absent for reasons that we don’t know…They are gathered in a room behind locked doors out of fear…fear that they would share Jesus’ fate…and perhaps, due to Mary’s confession of the risen Lord, afraid that Jesus might not be overly happy with them…having abandoned him to his fate a few days prior.

And yet…Jesus is able to pass the locked doors, and is suddenly standing among them…quieting their fears…Peace be with you…you do not need to be afraid of me…I am neither angry with you, nor am I a ghost…look, see my hands and my side…I was dead…but I am dead longer…and with this he breathes upon them…and the Spirit of God…the Holy Spirit itself comes upon them.

But Thomas…dear old Thomas…missed the party…and though he hears about it…seemingly later that evening after Jesus has departed again…he falls short in believing the testimony given to him. And so Thomas gets saddled with the nickname that has stuck with him for 2000 years…Doubting Thomas. (pause)

Its almost funny for us now…2000 years later, knowing the story…knowing what we know…believing what we believe…its almost laughable to think that one of Jesus’ own disciples would fail to believe the testimony of both Mary Magdalene and the other disciples…and yet we hear his famous words…Unless I see the marks of the nails, put my finger in them, and put my hand in his side…I…WILL…NOT…BELIEVE.

And Thomas lives in that tension…that lack of knowledge…that lack of belief…with all the questions that come with it…for an entire week…and so, now, in the second half of today’s story, we’ve finally caught up with the timeline. The first part happened a week ago…but the second part…happens today…right now…because as we hear…a week later the disciples were again in the house…and Thomas was with them…when once again, Jesus passes through the locked doors with the same greeting. Peace be with you…don’t be afraid. (pause)

And then…Jesus…turns his eyes towards Thomas. (pause) Now think about Thomas for a moment…think about the tension that he’s been living in for the past week…perhaps you can relate to it. A week ago we gathered together and heard the proclamation…even shared in the proclamation that JESUS IS RISEN FROM THE DEAD! But…has anyone physically seen him? (pause)

Interesting…and in that my friends, you share something with Thomas the proverbial doubter…because Thomas had not yet seen Jesus, only heard that he was alive…what on earth must have been going through his head during those 7 days? (pause)

Maybe I missed my only chance to see the Lord…Maybe he’s unhappy with me which is why he appeared when I wasn’t there…Maybe I’m not worthy of him…or maybe…just maybe, the thought went through his mind that Jesus…didn’t really…rise from the dead after all.

Ever had that thought? Even for a brief moment? Ever experienced the doubt that…since you haven’t physically seen him…maybe, just maybe the stories aren’t really true? (pause) If you answer those questions with a no…then I’m jealous…because the tension of the unknowns…the questions of “is it all real or just a nice story,” I think they catch of us at one time or another.

Doubt happens…and if you deny that…I’m calling you out on it…because its in our natures to want proof…we want physical evidence…just like Thomas…and you know what…I’m going on record right here and right now as saying…that’s not a bad thing. (pause)

Because it’s a human thing…and especially when we are looking at matters of faith…we all experience the occasional crisis of doubt…the experience of questions…we all do…and its not a bad thing to admit it…it doesn’t make you a bad person…it doesn’t make you less of a Christian…and it doesn’t make you unworthy to walk through these doors and come into worship with fellow believers. (pause)

Because in today’s lesson Jesus himself puts this to rest…In what may, at first glance, seem like a rebuke for Thomas, Jesus says these words “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (pause) And Jesus makes this statement in response to Thomas’ expression of faith…Thomas calls Jesus “My Lord and My God.” And he does so without actually touching him…Thomas doesn’t place his fingers in the holes or his hand in Jesus’ side…he merely experiences Jesus and declares him Lord, which you may recall from a few weeks ago is the name God gives Christ, the name above all other names…Lord.

Thomas…though he has lived in the tension and doubt for the last week, has come to faith and Jesus acknowledges it…just as Jesus acknowledges everyone else who comes to faith…calling them blessed…blessed are those who have come to believe…having not seen.

What I believe Jesus is really saying here is that there are a multitude of ways to come to faith in Christ as Lord. For some, its by seeing him…Thomas wasn’t the only one…the disciples and Mary all saw him before expressing their faith in him. Others believed because of what they heard proclaimed to them. (pause) Jesus isn’t rebuking Thomas here…he’s just acknowledging the blessing that we receive when we come to faith through hearing the proclamation…and that faith meets us in the midst of our doubts and questions.

And let me also go on record to say that faith doesn’t erase these questions…they still occur and I believe that God himself desires for us to ask them…he desires that we ask them of each other and that we ask them of him…and we are not condemned for this…we are only encouraged to believe that Jesus is Lord…and in that belief, even with the presence of questions, our sin is no more.

And so, we share in the mission given to the disciples when Jesus says that if you retain the sins of any they are retained. But make no mistake, Jesus isn’t placing the judgment of sins in our laps, because we aren’t worthy of that…rather, Jesus is instructing us to go out and proclaim that Jesus has risen from the dead, and because of his sacrifice our sin is no more…people can’t believe it if they don’t hear it…and Jesus is telling us that by failing to proclaim this amazing truth, we are holding them in sin.

And so today…a year after I walked into Underwood Lutheran for the first time…it is my hope and prayer that this is a place where we do not condemn questions…it is my hope and prayer that this is a place where together we can live in the tension and the questions and the doubt that is a life of faith in what we have heard, but what we have not ourselves…seen.

Thomas may have been a doubter…and you know what…I’ll claim that too…I’ll claim my doubts and my questions and my fears…and I’ll acknowledge yours…but I darn sure won’t condemn you for them…and it is my hope and prayer that you take the same stance…acknowledging your own doubts and questions…while at the same time rejoicing in your own belief in our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Be Risen 3-2-14

Today’s sermon comes from Matthew 17:1-9, which is the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration on the mountain. In the sermon I tackle the notion that Jesus invites us into many different things, and usually they end up scary…but through all of the scary situations, Jesus is always with us and lifts us up, telling us not to be afraid.

You can listen to the sermon her.

You can also read along with the text of the sermon here. As usual, disregard the indications to pause and the odd punctuations. There are also a few spots where I went off script, but don’t worry, I come back in pretty quick.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father…and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…Amen.
Being a farm kid, I’ve seen countless examples of some random item serving more than one purpose. Whenever something would break, my dad would rig up something to fix it…One example that really comes to mind was a time when the handle on our lawn mower broke. Dad took one look at it, walked into the shed, found a short length of iron pipe…and the next thing I knew…he had somehow fashioned that old water pipe into a connection for the handle of the lawn mower…and rather than have to go to the store and buy a new one, he pointed me back towards the lawn and said…Go on…finish up.
Have you ever seen something like that? Some random things that ends up serving more than one purpose…some random thing that ends up filling a role that you never expected or realized? (pause)
I can think of another one too…one that’s a little more current than a broken lawn mower 20 years ago…and its right across the parking lot. In the kitchen over in the parsonage, the refrigerator serves 2 important functions. The first is obvious…to keep food cold…but the second one is a little different. You see, in my house, the fridge is a communication center…It is littered with all kinds of important information. This information includes class information for the two kids, various photographs, weekly spelling lists, hand drawn masterpieces, and most recently…a wedding invitation for one of my colleagues who was just married yesterday.
There’s something special about being invited…isn’t there? It implies that the other person desires your company…they want you to be with them…to accompany them in some special experience…an experience that is so special, it needs to be shared.
There is an invitation in our Gospel for today. Jesus has invited Peter, James, and John to accompany him up the mountain. That raises the question…Did Jesus know what was about to happen? Perhaps…most likely even, but I’m guessing that the disciples were very likely unaware of what they were about to experience as they accepted the invitation and followed Jesus up the mountain that day.
Now this is a common theme within Matthew’s Gospel…particularly in terms of these three disciples. Jesus invites, they follow. For example, think back to the initial call of these three guys. Simple fishermen, just hanging out on the shores of the sea, when along comes Jesus who simply asks them “Follow me.” A simple invitation, and these three men along with Peter’s brother Andrew, accept the invitation. Do you think they really knew what they were getting into that day? (pause)
If we fast forward through Matthew, we see another situation. In this case, the disciples are in the boat in the middle of the night rowing across the sea…and we know its kind of stormy. In the midst of everything, Jesus comes towards them…walking across the water. Now, Peter…ever the excited or downright impulsive one…asks if he can come to Jesus…and Jesus, once again, extends an invitation. “Come.”
Now Peter thinks this is going to be amazing. He steps out of the boat…He’s doing it…he’s walking on the water…but all of the sudden, the truth of his situation dawns on him…fear creeps in along with doubt…the reality is terrifying and he starts to sink…but Jesus is there to lift him up again. Jesus is there.
Later on, towards the end of Matthew’s Gospel…Jesus offers an invitation to the same three disciples once again. Peter…James…John…come with me into the garden…Pray with me this night. They accept…not thinking that there will be any trouble…not realizing that Jesus has spoken of this time…that his passion is about to begin…and they follow along, so unaware of anything unexpected happening that they all three konk out…but once again…reality becomes much scarier than they had anticipated…and in the face of opposition, they run away from Jesus, who has been there with them the whole time.
Over and over again, we see examples of Jesus offering an invitation. Each and every time, the disciples accept the invitation. Now, perhaps they have expectations of what may happen each time Jesus invites them…maybe each time Peter pulls out the daily disciple itinerary and checks to see what God’s got up his sleeve…Let’s see Thursday evening…accompany Jesus to the garden for a time of prayer…encounter Judas and whole crowd of soldiers…Jesus arrested and soon to be killed…check…sounds good Jesus, let’s go.
Or perhaps not. Maybe these guys are just content to go along for the ride with Jesus. But regardless of what they may or may not expect…the reality is never what they expected. It’s a whole lot scarier.
We see this again in our lesson for today. The three men follow Jesus up the mountain and something extraordinary happens. Jesus is transfigured. Now, exactly what that means, we don’t really know, but it would seem that his divine nature is shining through the human nature. At this moment, both aspects of Jesus are visually present.
At first, the men seem to reveal in this vision. Peter, again the impulsive one, cannot hold his excitement and blurts out. “Jesus, this is wonderful…can we stay with you.” (pause) But then God…shows…up.
Peter, James, and John…good Jewish men that they were…finally recognized the significance. God is here…they are in the presence of the great I Am…like Moses did before them, they fell on their faces on the ground…terrified to the point of death.
When God shows up, it’s a scary deal. And maybe for these three guys on this day its even scarier than normal…because in this moment, having seen the divine nature of Jesus…in realizing the truth about just who he is…maybe they’re realizing that the guy they’ve been following isn’t just the son of God…but this…is…God…this is the one that Moses cowered in fear from…this is the one that drives them to ground in terror…and they’ve been casually walking around with him…joking with him…interacting with him.
And that’s a scary notion…to realize that God…the unfathomable God…this great being who is so far beyond our understanding or even capability to understand has become human…that the God who could in any moment snap his fingers and end our existence if he chose to was right here with you…as one of you…that’s a scary realization when you realize that the maker of the entire universe and everything in it is standing right next to you. (pause)
Have you ever had an experience like this? As I look around the room, I would expect some of you to say yes. Think about it…think about the time when you realized that God truly became a man…not some myth…not a burning bush…not just a voice booming out of the clouds…but that God became a person…and walked around…and not only that, but that this person…this Jesus…this tangible form of God…has invited you into something. (pause)
Now Jesus invites us into a lot of things…first of all, he’s inviting us into relationship…relationship with him…and through him, remembering that we are in relationship with God.  But the invitation of Jesus isn’t limited to that…sometimes…probably more often than we realize…Jesus invites us into some sort of specific experience…and while we might think we know what to expect…just like Peter, James, and John, we quickly discover that God’s got much bigger expectations than we do…and it often gets scary.
Now, for some of you sitting out there today…I know that you are facing some scary situations…that God is inviting you into a situation and you don’t know quite what will happen when He shows up…for some it might be the potential for a job change and the unknowns that come along with it…for others, its to walk the unknown road that follows a tough diagnosis when the ending sounds pretty bleak…and for others of you, most likely all of you…God is inviting you into something that might turn out pretty scary at times…because we all go through that.
And we don’t just go through it as individuals…but the church is going through it too…individual congregations go through it and the entire church is going through it. God is inviting the church as a whole, and our church of Underwood Lutheran to join him in becoming something new in our present reality…the church has been walking this road for a long time now…and we are here on the road as well.
Now I won’t stand up before you today pretending to know what God’s really got planned…that would incredibly arrogant for me say, but I do believe that God is leading us into becoming something new…the church is going to look different in the future…because the ways of spreading information are changing dramatically every day…but the message remains the same…
The church is the place where the gospel is proclaimed, the sacraments are shared, and absolution is offered…that’s the church…but I think we all know that old environment in which those three things were done is changing…and the audience for the gospel is changing…and the method of reaching the audience is changing…the church, contrary to popular belief…isn’t dying…like Jesus being transfigured on the mountain, its simply becoming something new.
But that’s scary to think about isn’t it?  Its scary to realize that God is inviting us to become something new…especially because we really don’t know what that looks like…we only know that we are here now…and that we have a God who is too amazing to hold onto…and that we have a God who will not be confined within these four walls…and that we have a God who is already out there…inviting us to come along on the journey.
It is my hope that we each accepted that invitation…and if you are anything like me…if your experience is anything like mine…Jesus…God… is scaring your socks off. Sometimes he leads us into places that we don’t want to go…we may think that we do, but once we are there…once we are in the midst and God shows up…the realty is terrifying for us.
But that being said…there’s one more part of our gospel story. Peter, James, and John are lying on the ground…terrified that they are about to die…but Jesus is with them. Throughout every terrifying experience that they have had…Jesus is with them…God…is with them. Perhaps this is why Matthew calls Jesus Emmanuel…God with us…because in each and every situation…terrifying though it may be…He is there…Jesus will touch you on the shoulder and tell you…Rise Up…and Do Not Fear.
And you know what…that word Rise up…Get Up…Be Resurrected…its not something that we do ourselves…Jesus lifted those three men up when he touch them…he gave them the courage to be raised from their fear…just as he himself was raised from the dead…it’s the same word…and we share it…in the midst of our fear, both the fears that we realize right now and the fear that will show up as we walk the road that God invites us on…God tells us to BE RAISED UP…resurrect as something new…We are not alone…scary though it may be to walk the unknown road into the unknown future, we have a God who has already been here…and who is still here…who lifts us up…So do not fear…Amen