Posts Tagged ‘forgiveness’

Thought Word and Deed 10-1-17

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In this sermon, taken from Mathew 21:23-32, I explore a strange little parable in which 2 sons defy their father in different ways. We are reminded that our brokenness will manifest itself in different ways. Yet through the Cross, God has somehow overcome this brokenness.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/thought-word-and-deed-10-1-17

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

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

Today is, of course, the first of October, 2017. We have now reached an important month…as 30 days from now…October 31st, will mark 500 years since the event which sparked off the period of church history known as the Reformation.

Now when I say the word Reformation…there are many names that could come to mind as important…depending on your particular view of history…Names like Tynsdale…or Melanchthon…or Wesley or Zwingli…and of course…considering our denominational heritage…Martin Luther.

He started it all didn’t he? And in 30 days, we’ll remember his defiant act of nailing the famous 95 theses on the church door at Wittenburg Castle in Germany…and how his desire to reform the Catholic Church shaped the course of the past 500 years of history.

As Lutherans, we’ve been thinking about this for a long time…and collectively the various branches of the Lutheran Church have given a lot of emphasis on Luther and his teaching…on his writing and his theology. We’ve been doing it for the past year…and perhaps rightly so…500 years is a big anniversary.

But that being said…I’m going to share something with you that might be considered…unpopular…given our current setting. (Pause) I, Scott Dalen…ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America…am kind of over Martin Luther. (pause)
Don’t get me wrong…his theology is wonderful…his courageous action of standing up against the political and religious powers of the day were beyond commendable…and his views on the importance of simple faith in Christ where utterly life changing for me.

But, he wasn’t a saint by any stretch of the imagination.  Luther was considered arrogant…a bit of elitist. We can argue that in his younger years he utterly wasted the enormous cost of education that his parents had invested in him…and in his older years, he became quite bitter and much of the writings from late in his life were utterly anti-Semitic…long story short…as great as he was, a person could easily make an argument that Luther was kind of an A-1 jerk.

You know what though…Luther has good company…because if you take pretty much any person from the Bible…with the obvious exclusion of Jesus…it’s a fair assumption that you can probably make the same argument. Take any of the big names and they’ve got skeletons in the closet. Abraham tried to pawn off his wife as his sister to save his own skin. Moses was a murderer and whiner, and like to take credit for God’s actions.  Jacob was a schemer. Joseph was an arrogant trickster…David was an adulterer…the prophets all argued with God on a regular basis…and the folks from the New Testament weren’t really any better. But if there’s one lesson that I try to convey, its this…God uses imperfect people…God uses broken people…God uses A-1 jerks, and God does it with a fair bit of regularity.

Now what’s all this got to do with today’s gospel? Well…I can only think that Jesus shares a parable that might just illustrate this same point. A man goes out to his two sons…telling them both to go out and work in the vineyard.

The first son that the man approaches seems…a little snippy…doesn’t he? Son…I want you to go out and work in the vineyard today.  NO WAY DAD…NOTHING DOIN POPS…It ain’t happening…but then given a bit of time to think it over, he does in fact head out and gets to work.

In the meantime, dad has headed off to son #2 with the same instruction…You also, go out and work in the vineyard…and he hears the answer that he’s looking for. I will go sir…but then son #2 either spaces it off…or changes his mind…or more likely was just trying to keep dad happy with no intention of actually doing anything…and he fails to go do any work.

That’s the parable…and once Jesus has shared it…posing it in response the tension he’s experiencing with the religious elite…the big wigs from the temple…he poses them a question…which son did the will of the Father? (pause) Now the chief priests and the elders have an answer don’t they? They make a judgement call…even though they recognize that Jesus is wisely taking a pot-shot at them…they point out which one in the story is “the good son.” (pause)
But here’s the thing that catches my attention…as I think about these two brothers…I can’t help but think they’re both acting like jerks.  The first son disrespects his father in his words, even if his actions ultimately fall in line…and the second son disrespects his father by failing to follow through with his actions, even if his words show a false sense of honor.

And correct me if I’m wrong…but doesn’t the 4th commandment tell us that we’re supposed to honor our parents? In one way or another…in their thoughts or in their words or in their deeds…both sons fall short…now maybe we should keep that in mind when we…like the religious big-wigs that are butting heads with Jesus, start making a judgment call as to which one was good and which one wasn’t…because neither one of them are ultimately good are they?

Maybe that the subtle yet mind blowing point that Jesus is trying to make…it doesn’t really matter how we react…in one way or another, we are going to fail to measure up…our brokenness…the way we act towards one another will ultimately fail.

And I can’t help it…I’ve got to swing around to Brother Martin here…because he wrote about this when he said “Reflect on your place in life in light of the 10 commandments: whether you are father, mother, son, daughter…whether you have been disobedient, unfaithful, lazy, whether you have harmed anyone by word or deed.”

And in considering that rather on-the-nose comment written a few centuries back, perhaps we are reminded of the way that our traditions of worship are reflected when we say…each and every week…we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves…we have sinned against you in thought…word…and deed…by what we have done and by what we have left undone.

There are times when I think that the English language lacks the words to properly convey or articulate the depths of our brokenness…brokenness that we feel within ourselves…brokenness that manifests in the way we tear another done when we see them doing something that we could have done or should have done, and in feeling guilty we attempt to make ourselves feel better by making them feel worse.

Brokenness that has manifested in our ability to utterly ignore the needs of our neighbor on the opposite side of the backyard fence or across the street…brokenness that has manifested in our tendency to stare at a screen thinking that it is our connection to the world as we ignore the person sitting in the same room with us.

Brokenness that ultimate leaves us feel utterly devoid even to the point of what people describe as “dead inside,” all while still sitting there breathing.

This is the truth of our existence…and it seems dire…it seems lousy…it almost seems like there is no hope…we can call this a lot of different things…in the past I’ve used the phrase “little deaths.”  These things that keep us down…broken…isolated. And as I’ve pondered on this reality, I’m reminded that as Christians we live our lives in the midst of tension…and we are Saturday people….living in the tension between death on Good Friday and new life on Easter Sunday.

This describes our lives, and the difficulty that we often find in living with the garbage on one side and the new life which God has made possible in the resurrection of Christ. Make no mistake, what God has accomplished in the brutal death of Christ on the cross is not simply limited to the forgiveness of sins…vital though that might be…but what God has accomplished through the death of Christ is showing us that resurrection is possible…and that nothing in all creation will separate us from the love and delight of the one that made us in the first place…not any little death…and not even death itself. (pause)

500 years ago God touched the heart of an arrogant pompous know it all monk…and reminded him that the righteous will live by faith…which might be better said that those who are righteous believe what God will do…and that God has already done what God said he’ll do…and what God has said is the righteousness that can try so hard for and ultimately fail in our thoughts, words, and deeds, is already given to us because God calls us righteous when he claims us as his beloved children.

2000 years ago God took on flesh and dwelled among us…and then died…and then rose again to show us…not just to tell us but to literally show us that resurrection from that which harms…resurrection from that which destroys….resurrection from that which kills…IS POSSIBLE. (pause)

I can’t help but find it a little bit ironic that today I’m talking about this tension that we experience in our life lived between Good Friday and Easter Sunday…between death and new life…because Easter is literally 6 months away…we are far away from it as we can possibly be today…and yet Christ continues to remind us, each and every day…that we are new creation…may we find life…may we find hope…in that promise. Amen.

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Math Doesn’t Cut It 9-17-17

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In this sermon, based on Matthew 18:21-35, I explore the parable of the wicked slave. The lord forgives an astronomical debt, but the recipient is unable to show the same mercy.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/math-doesnt-cut-it-9-17-17

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

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

I think at one time or another, every single young person tells themselves that they won’t turn out like their parents.  That when the roll is reversed and they are the parent, they won’t act the same way, they won’t think the same way…and they sure won’t talk the same way…When I have kids…I’ll be different.

Parents…how’s that working for you? (pause) I think its inevitable that certain patterns are going to emerge, because we have been shaped by those who came before us…and I recently realized this in conversation with my kids over the subject of homework…and specifically math…because I have heard from both of them “I hate math…I wish I didn’t have to do it.”

And just like every other parent that has come before…not to mention every math teacher who has taught…we say the same thing “You need to learn it, because you’ll use math everyday.” (pause) Now the old adage is true…math is everywhere…but…up until this point, I never really needed to worry about using math here in the context of preaching, (long pause) until….now.

Jesus is teaching his followers about forgiveness…reminding them of how important it is…how vital it is…especially among believers within the church. There is sin and brokenness…and there is repentance…and there is forgiveness…all of it aimed at the ongoing reconciliation that can and must occur among individuals.

Now as this conversation is going…Peter raises his hand…and I can’t help but picture Peter as the kid who squawks in math class saying “I’m never gonna need this.” (pause) Well actually Peter raises a more direct question…because Jesus has just told them that fellow believers…that other people are going to sin against them…and since Jesus has also given instructions on how to go about seeking reconciliation…I think Peter wants to clarify just how far we need to take this whole forgiveness thing.  “Lord…if a brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive?” He goes on a bit too, and actually Peter has probably given this a bit of thought because he doesn’t just pull a random number out of the air when he proposes a cap on the forgiveness scale…he says 7 times…and 7 happens to be the number of completion as far as the Jewish culture goes…after all, God created the world in 6 days, and on the 7th established the Sabbath…and Peter knows this…and so…to offer forgiveness to the same person 7 times…that should bring the matter to completion right?

But that’s not quite what Jesus has in mind is it…and here it is…math in the gospel. “Peter…dude! Not 7…but seventy times seven.” (pause) With this Jesus gives us a tiny little glimpse of the ongoing nature of forgiveness and reconciliation…when we think we’ve completed it…we’re just getting started. (pause) But as we see today, Jesus is just getting started…and following this little mathematical tidbit…he jumps into a parable to illustrate his point. And wouldn’t you know it…we have the opportunity for some more math in the midst of it.

The kingdom of heaven is like a king who’s ready to settle debts…so he starts calling in his markers…and low and behold…in walks one of the high rollers…a guy with a debt that goes beyond our imagination…10,000 talents. Now 10,000 of anything seems like a lot…but if we do a quick bit of math we begin to see just how astronomical his debt really is. A talent is equal to 15 years’ worth of daily wages for a laborer…15 years per talent…so this guy has got a bill worth 150,000 years of salary.

Now the second guy, he’s got a debt too…and here’s the last bit of math…100 denarii…which figures out to about 3-4 months of daily wages. Still a decent amount…but nothing compared to the first guy. This second slave…he can probably do something about it, but the first guy…not a chance…and yet…they both answer the same exact way. “Be patient with me and I will pay you everything.”

They are both buying a myth…regardless of the cost…we like to think that we can solve it don’t we? We like to think that given enough work…given enough time…given enough effort…we can earn our way back to even…like we’re playing Jeopardy and we’re in the hole because of answering too many questions wrong…but if we start answering them correctly we can get ourselves out of that hole.

And here’s the thing…at first…it seems that the king is buying into this system as well. Because he knows that there is no way that the slave is going to be able to repay that debt…and maybe just maybe, the king realized that he was kind of stupid to allow a debt that large in the first place…and so in order to soften the blow, the king follows the system and orders that the man and his wife and his kids all be sold…so in the very least he gets a tiny bit of value back. That may seem a little barbaric to us…but that’s the way things worked back in Jesus’ day.

Now when faced with the reality the slave begs for patience…and not only does he receive it…the king cancels the debt completely. Its done…its gone…the man is free from it…because the king chose to step away from the old system. Now by rights, this should just trickle down past the slave himself…this gift…this forgiveness of what he owes should benefit everyone else that’s a part of the system as well.

Consider this…for the slave to have this much of a financial burden to the king…he’s gotta be pretty high up in the whole system…with a lot of layers underneath him…a lot of different moving parts and people that all add up to an enormous financial responsibility…and so, if the king is still going to demand payment, then this slave needs to turn the cranks on everything and everyone below him in order to bring in what he’s response for.

But, on the flips side…if the king forgives the debt…if he erases it…which we know is exactly what he’s done…then this freedom…this blessing…it should trickle down through all those different layers as well…isn’t that amazing…that the act of mercy for one person, would affect the lives of so many others? (pause)
But what actually happens? Does the first slave make good on this wide spread blessing? Is he changed by it? Or does he keep playing by the same set of rules…by the same system that got him here in the first place?  (pause) We hear that he goes out and finds one of the slaves that owes him money…a tiny portion of the astronomical sum that was just removed from his responsibility…and rather than letting the blessing flow downward and outward…the first man keeps playing the game.

Give me what you owe…the second man responds in the very same way…word for word…be patient with me and I will repay everything…but he refused…and as we see, when news of his wickedness reaches the ears of the king, he’s punished…and the judgment which the first slave passed on, is the judgement that he in turn receives.  (pause)

Now here’s the thing…I’ve been talking about math and money…and debt and repayment…a lot of things that we’re familiar with…things that can be quantified…things that we can assign a specific value to…even if some of those values are so amazing huge that they go beyond our ability to really comprehend.

But what if there is no value…what if there is no scoreboard…and all we can really say about this whole parable is that the mercy of the king…who’s God just in case you were wondering…is beyond measure. No slave is ever going to earn 150,000 years of wages…you might as well call it a million years…or infinite…there is no amount that we can assign, nor should we…because when we fall in the trap of assigning a specific value or amount, then we’re still stuck in the same old system.

The system that says you’ve got to do this…or you have to avoid that…that you have to earn it…or even, that the mercy of God…the grace of God…the forgiveness of God is something that you can lose. (pause) The first man was forgiven and it should have affected every single relationship that he has. His family is safe from condemnation…and every other person that’s beholden to him in the system should be freed from it.

This is what the grace of God does when it truly lands within the heart and mind of the individual…because we realize in that moment that living in the reality of the kingdom of heaven right here, right now…it frees us from the burden of the system. And in turn we are freed to pass that same mercy…that same grace…that same freedom on to every other person that we are relationship with…whatever that relationship looks like.

But the guy in the parable couldn’t do it. Because the gift of the king never reached his heart…and his own brokenness…whether greed, or fear, or whatever it was that he was clinging to kept him trapped…and that’s why he was unable to show the same mercy to the second slave…and the result…torment…he found himself outside of the grace-filled gift of his Lord. (pause)
Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven has come near…and I believe that we are given the opportunity to live our lives each and every day in a way that reflects the kingdom that will be. Yes we are still broken and flawed…and yes we do still harm one another…but we also live in the freedom from the old system that requires us to earn it.  That’s the freedom that the man in the parable misses out on…he finds himself imprisoned…because he was never really free in the first place.

Truly…the grace of God…the forgiveness of our sins is beyond measure…and its foolish for us to even begin an attempt to quantify it. Because math just doesn’t cut it when we’re talking about the gospel…it is so utterly other to our limited minds…but the amazing thing about it…is that the freedom that we find within it…it already offered to you…the king has already canceled any and all debts…so let us live our lives in that freedom…and let us mirror that to all those around us…so that they too might encounter and embrace the same freedom that is so freely given through Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Gospel is a Broken Record 2-12-17

In this sermon, based on Matthew 5:21-37, I explore a portion of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus reveals the depth of sin. It results in broken relationships, yet we are reminded to be reconciled.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/the-gospel-is-a-broken-record-2-12-17

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

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

This past Tuesday evening, the adult Bible Study gathered downstairs and spent about an hour discussing the 4th chapter of Romans. Now within that chapter, the Apostle Paul focuses quite heavily on the example of the Old Testament figure Abraham…and how he stands as an example of faith…Abraham fits this bill because for years he believed the promise of God, that he would have many descendants…even while he remained childless, until finally God makes good on the promise and Abraham has his beloved son.

I didn’t share this thought during Bible Study…but I was reminded of an old comedy routine…one that focuses in on this very idea.  For God came upon Abraham and asked Abraham do you love me…and Abraham said YES! And God said GOOD…now go in the kitchen…get a knife…and kill your own kid. And Abraham responded….Ummm, let me see if I got this….Could I not merely punch the lad to show my devotion? (pause)

It’s a bit cheesy, I realize that…but its interesting to consider that God asked for a pretty extreme display of faith…and all jokes aside, that situation happened back in Genesis. But coming all the way around, I thought this same sort of idea was on display here within our gospel lesson today…a situation where the punishment really seems to defy the severity of the crime. Where the result seems pretty extreme. (pause)
Admittedly, today’s story may seem like a bit of a broken record…like something we just heard…and rightly so. We’ve been here in Matthew chapter 5 for 3 weeks in a row…and if you were here last week you might remember that our lesson ended with the same verse that I started on today.  Its going to continue as well…and next week we’ll finish up chapter 5…and admittedly it will sound like more of the same.

And the ongoing theme…that which started off last week and continues right on through this week’s portion of the chapter…the law…only here Jesus seems to be explore the depths…and how the presence of sin in our reality goes far deeper than we realize.

Because that’s what the broken law is right? Sin? The failure to live out our day to day lives in a way that God approves of…in the way dictated so many centuries ago through the 10 commandments and the rest of the law…the “procedures” that God’s chosen people were supposed to follow, first of all to live in harmony with God and with each other…and then…if and when the law was broken…the procedure to go about atoning for it…the sacrifices to make, the prayers to pray.

Sound familiar? That’s what I talked about last week…and that Jesus raises up the example of the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees to make that point…but sometimes, Jesus’ audience can be a little slow on the uptake right?  And its not enough for him to make the point once…but he needs to dive a little deeper…bringing in things that they would understand….and that’s precisely what’s going on here today.

Think for a moment, that you are a Jewish person…just living out your day to day life…and this traveling Rabbi comes around and starts quoting your cultural rules your way…you’d pick up on it right away wouldn’t you.

You’ve heard it said to those in ancient times…you shall not commit murder…and those who commit murder will be liable to judgment. (pause) Well duh. That’s a no brainer Jesus…its right there in the 10 commandments…we don’t have to dig very deep to find that one do we?

And that’s true…we don’t need to dig very deep in our day in age either do we? Murder is bad…I don’t think anyone would disagree with us, whether they claim to be a Christian or Jewish or any other religious standing. Murder is morally horrible…so of course you’re liable to judgment.

But here’s where it gets tricky…because Jesus starts to take things deeper than face value.  Because if you get angry with your brother or sister, you’re liable to judgment…and if you go one step farther and insult them, you’re liable to the council…and if you call them a fool, you’re liable to the fires of hell. (pause)

Is it just me…or does that seem to be going the wrong direction in terms of the severity of the offense?  It would seem, based on the escalation of judgment for murder all the way up to burning in hell for calling someone a fool…is that logical? Does it make any sense at all? (pause)

But maybe that’s the point…because maybe sin doesn’t make any sense…but if we are trying to make heads or tails of it, let’s take just a look at the rest of the examples that Jesus offers us today. Come to terms with your accuser or risk jail. Don’t commit adultery…good at face value, but apparently a lingering look at someone is just as damaging…and divorce is bad all around, regardless of what the law has to say about it…and then he wraps up this part with making oaths and not sticking to them… (pause)
Now of course, there are some other statements in there too…but when it gets right down to it…isn’t each one of those situations telling of a relationship that is in the very least damaged…and in the extreme is utterly destroyed? It seems so…and if we get right down to brass-tax, it seems to me that this is what sin does. It damages relationships.

Can’t we boil it all down to that…sin hurts…and it doesn’t matter who is the recipient of it…it doesn’t matter who is on the receiving end…because in the end…sin destroys. God made paradise, and he put two people in it who existed in unbroken harmony both together and with God…and then sin destroyed that…and we are still living the very same situation now…with our actions, with our words, with our intentions…we are flawed and the result is fractures in the relationships we have with those around us…and whether we realize it or not with God.

The 10 commandments weren’t just a batch of rules handed down by some cosmic policeman, but they were instructions for how to honor God and those around us…to exist within good relationship…and humanity has broken them, over and over again…and this all serves to support the very same statement that I made last week…I may sound like a broken record, but the truth is that we can’t do it.

The righteousness…which is simply being “right with God” is not possible out of anything we do or don’t do…and no batch of rules to follow…procedures to go through when the commandments are broken are going to atone for that. Righteousness through works of the law does…not…work. (pause)
And so, once again, as we heard last week…Jesus came to fulfill the law on our behalf. We can’t do it…so through the life death and resurrection of Christ God does it for us….its done…completed…fulfilled…period.

And you know what, that’s good news…that while we were sinners Christ died for us…and because of this, even if we don’t understand how or why…its done…and we are able to live in the freedom that Christ has given us…freedom from having to accomplish enough, or avoid enough…freedom to be back in relationship both with God and with each other.

But here’s the part where I get all Lutheran on you…and I throw out something that Martin Luther was found of saying. We are, at the same time, saints and sinners…we are forgiven of the sin that entangles us, and yet we are not perfect and we feel the effects of sin and brokenness…and of course, of broken relationship all the time.

Now maybe those of us sitting here in this room realize this…or maybe we don’t. Maybe we recognize that this is why we share in the brief order of confession and forgiveness every single week…because we need to continue to hear the words of forgiveness offered back to us…because even though we are saved…even though we are redeemed, we are still broken…and our relationships suffer…and being a follower of Christ does not excuse us from that…in fact it has the tendency make us more aware of it…and Jesus addresses that very thing today.

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and god…first be reconciled to your brother or sister and then come and offer your gift.

Jesus wasn’t just talking to his Jewish audience who would go to the altar bearing a lamb to sacrifice…he was talking to us…knowing full well that we gather here in worship as forgiven people…and yet people who still harm one another…and as nice and civil as our congregation is…guess what people…we still hurt each other. I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced it…and I’m pretty sure that I’ve done it.

The gospel might seem like a broken record at times, repeating itself over and over again. Maybe there are times when my sermons sound like the same thing…maybe there are times when the scripture seems to be saying the same thing…and you know…its probably true, because regardless of the changing circumstances, the gospel doesn’t change. While we were sinners, Christ died for us. (Pause) And now, even if we are forgiven of sin, we are still called to reconcile ourselves to one another when our brokenness rears up and harms another.

And you know…there’s actually an old custom that’s built into traditional liturgy…and while we don’t do it here overly often, its probably something we should do…its called the passing of the peace…or the sharing of the peace….and while in many places it has morphed into a chance to shake hands and say good morning to each other, it should actually look like what Jesus describes today. Being reconciled to those we have wronged.

And so now, rather than doing my normal wrap up of saying amen and walking out to sit down before the organ fires up with the hymn of the day, I’m going to invite you to rise… (let them stand up)

May the peace of the Lord we be with you (and also with you). Let us share a sign of God’s peace with one another.

Normal is Out the Window 4-10-16

In this sermon, based on John 21:1-19, I explore the reality of God’s grace and how it utterly changes us. There is no going back to “normal.”

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/normal-is-out-the-window-4-10-16

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

By now, I think most of you are used to my normal way of opening a sermon. I talk about a movie or a tv show or a song or a conversation or an event from my past that, at least in my mind, somehow connects with the gospel story…and once I explain the applicable anecdote its normal for me to say something along the lines of “and that’s where I connect with today’s gospel lesson.” (pause)

But today, normal is going out the window…and I’m going to start things off with a thought about creation…all the way back in Genesis 1…somewhere between the lines of the 4th day as God is making the various animals that walk the earth…because in the midst of everything…God said “Let there be dog,” and there was dog…and God saw that dog was good…and God said “Who’s a good dog? You’re a good dog.” (pause)

Full disclosure…that has nothing to do with ANYTHING today…but I saw it pop up on Facebook as I was pondering on this sermon and it made me laugh…because its so random…and telling a completely unrelated random joke, though not out of the ordinary for me in other settings…is so COMPLETELY out of the norm for me, it seemed like the perfect way to start off this sermon. (pause) Because as I mentioned…today, normal is right out the window…but not for lack of trying.

For today, as we find ourselves a few weeks out from the resurrection…and the reality that the tomb is empty has sorta begun to sink in for the disciples…and they seem to have accepted that the Risen Jesus is still out there walking around somewhere…popping into view from time to time…a group of the them are sitting around…a little over half of the remaining 11 disciples…and all I can think is…they’re getting bored. (pause)

Ever have a time like that…just sitting around…with nothing really going on…and out of the blue, someone has a random idea that they just decide to run with…that’s what happens…as these 7 guys are sitting there, wondering what’s next…Peter has a spark of an idea. “DUDES!!!! I’m going fishin.” I can only imagine the other 6 guys blinking at one another for a moment, only to chime in “Yah, that sounds good…let’s do that.” (pause)

But this is no random notion of a leisurely way to kill an afternoon…I think Peter has something else in mind all together. Because as we hear…this all occurs on the Sea of Tiberius…or as its more commonly known, the Sea of Galilee…and so it seems that Peter is heading home to his old stomping grounds…that’s where he’s from…that’s where he grew up…and fishing on the sea of Galilee…that’s how he made his living before that fateful day 3 years earlier when a random rabbi found him on the beach…and he’s not alone either…for also in the group are the sons of Zebedee…aka James and John…as well as a couple of unidentified disciples…one of which is likely Peter’s brother Andrew…and if you recall, those 4 dudes were partners…they worked together in the boats, with their nets…night after night…bringing in fish. (pause)
And now…it appears that they are going right back to it….almost like nothing had ever happened…like the past 3 years of their lives hadn’t occurred…that they hadn’t been called to follow Jesus…and wandered around with him…watching the healings…listening to the teaching…seeing the opposition…and that they hadn’t ended up in Jerusalem for the Passover…and shared a meal with Jesus when he washed their feet and told them to love one another…only to see him betrayed by his friend…and arrested, and tortured…and hung on a cross where he died…like they hadn’t seen the empty tomb, and then stood there in astonishment when the risen Lord appeared in their midst on multiple occasions. (pause)
Think about it…how could Peter have witnessed all of this stuff…and then shrugged his shoulders…and thought “Well, I guess this is done…I’ll just go back to normal.” (pause) Isn’t that what he’s doing here? Jumping right back into life like he knew it before? Seems like it…right on down to the events that occurred just before Jesus showed up in the first place.

We hear early on in Luke’s gospel, that Jesus shows up on the shore to find Peter and James and John and Andrew coming off an unproductive night’s worth of fishing…and he jumps in the boat with them, tells them to head back out…and throw the net off the wrong side of the boat…and low and behold…a miraculous catch of fish.

And now…here at the end…as they’ve attempted to get back to normal…they hear a voice from shore. “Children, have you no fish? (pause) Throw your net on the other side.” (pause) And once more…an amazing catch of fish…an abundant gift, miraculously provided by the Lord…and in this…they realize who it is that is calling out to them from the shore…and Peter…ever the impulsive one…promptly dives into the water to swim up to shore…leaving everyone else to haul in the amazing catch.

But what Peter finds when he makes it to shore seems to stop him up in a hurry doesn’t it? A charcoal fire burning…just like the one that had been burning in the courtyard of the temple…a fire just like the one where Peter warmed himself in the cold of night…when others stood there asking him “aren’t you one of his disciples…aren’t you one of his followers?” And three times at that fire…Peter…says…no. (pause)

And so as he comes up to shore, I can only imagine that previous moment…that previous failure…those three denials…were playing out in his mind…but the Lord, well he’s not thinking about that…he just invites his friends to breakfast…come on guys…let’s have a sandwich together. (pause)

Now here’s the thing…here in John’s gospel…this is it…this is the last story…there’s only a few more verses that follow what we read today before John comes to a close…and so as far John is concerned…this is the last encounter that the disciples will have with Jesus…and what do they do? Pretty much the same thing that Jesus always seems to do with those he encounters…they hang out…they share a meal…and have a conversation.

I get the sense that this was the key to Jesus…time spent with one another…abiding together…just being in the moment and enjoying the company…the relationship…but in this moment, Jesus also realizes that there’s something in the way for Peter…and that Peter’s thoughts are still caught up in his failure at that first charcoal fire…and maybe, just maybe, Jesus also realizes that Peter is living in denial of everything, as he has tried to go back to normal life…life like it was before…But Jesus knows better…and he reaches out to Peter, meeting him in the midst of the pain that he’s feeling in his failure.

Peter…do you love me? (hold up 1 finger). Yes Lord I love you…Okay…feed my lambs. (pause) Peter…do you love me (Hold up 2 fingers). Yes Lord, I love you…Okay…tend my sheep. Peter…do you love me (hold up 3 fingers). Yes Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you…Okay, Feed my sheep.

We hear that Peter is hurt at this three-fold question…but perhaps its simply because it reveals the depth of his betrayal and the shame that he feels at not being able to live up to what he had promised. (pause)

I’ve often found that life has this funny way of pointing out our failures and shortcomings to us doesn’t it? Maybe its our conscious, or maybe its that voice of the liar in the back of our minds that loves to make us feel lousy about ourselves…but I think its safe to say that no one recognizes our failings quite as well as we do about ourselves…and yet…God meets us right there.

That’s the amazing thing about the grace of God. This free gift of forgiveness and salvation…and a life eternal, spent abiding with God…both in the here and now as well as in the age to come…that’s the promise of God’s grace…that we don’t have to earn it…or avoid something in order to keep from loosing it…but rather that there is nothing we can do to make God love us any more or any less and that his love for us is already here…and the promise is already made and it is offered to us each and every day…each and every time we need it.

3 times Peter denied being Jesus’ follower…and so Jesus gives him 3 chances to renew the relationship…and then he gives him a task. (pause) Sin…repent…receive God’s grace already given…and get back to work.

That’s the amazing thing about this gift of God…this promise made to us…that once we receive it…normal goes right out the window…and life is not the same. When the grace of God hits you…and the Holy Spirit gives you that metaphorical 2×4 upside the head…there is no going back to the way things were…sure our day to day activities may continue…but the grace of God and his promises for us come along for the ride and that cannot be denied.

And the wonderful thing about all this…is that we have signs of this promise…something that we do, that God has given us, when these promises are made real in a tangible way…and we call this the sacraments…when we come to this font…or to any other font…or any other body of water period…and we hear the words that you are baptized in the name of the father and of the son and of the holy spirit, then you are a new creation…and you are claimed by God as his beloved child, and those promises are yours. Not because of anything that you have done or said or thought…not by anything you have earned, or problems you have avoided…but simply because God has spoken this promise for you…and in just a few moments Rylan Pedersen will be brought to this font where the promises of God will be proclaimed for him…just as they are freely offered and proclaimed for each of you. Receive it today…and know that because of what God has already done…whatever normal has dominated your existence up until this point…its right out the window…because you are God’s beloved child, named and claimed…and nothing can take that away. Amen

Angry Jesus 3-8-15

In this sermon I explore the cleansing of the temple in John’s gospel, and I also address a local situation that has reminded us that the darkness of the world is still very real.
You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/angry-jesus-3-8-15

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
There is a picture hanging up in my office that I received as a gift on my ordination day from some very close friends…at first glance, it appears to be a pencil sketch of Jesus looking up to heaven praying. No coloration, just various degrees of shading…and that’s all well and good, but what I really like about this picture is what is revealed when you get right up close to it…and you realize that the entire picture is actually made up of words of the entire gospel of John.
For most of you, it comes as no great shock to hear me say that John’s gospel is my favorite of the 4. I make no secret of this…and I’ve often been asked in the past as to just why this is the case…and you know what, there’s no one simple reason why…but if I was to put it in a nutshell I think it’s because John is just so different. John’s gospel is unique in its narrative and details…offering a much different picture of the life and ministry of Jesus than we get from the other three gospels.
Certainly stories take place in different ways…the order of things gets changed around…all sorts of things are different…and considering that I’m an individual who embraces being a little “different,” its probably fitting that I like John. (pause)
Now I bring this up for a specific reason, because today we have shared in a story where a lot of this applies. The cleansing of the temple…a story that is actually found in all four gospels…but in true John fashion, he switches some stuff up…most notably…the location and time when it happened. Matthew, Mark, and Luke place this story in the final week of Jesus’ life…directly following his triumphal entry on Palm Sunday…he heads on into the temple to find the proverbial den of robbers. (pause)
But perhaps you noticed…that we’re only in chapter 2 of John’s gospel. We are early in the story…so far all John has told us is that the light is shining in the darkness…Jesus has invited a few people to follow him…and he headed off to a wedding in Cana where he kept the party going by turning water into wine…and now…right away…we hear this story…the one that can best be described as…Angry Jesus. (pause)
I heard that somewhere this week…honestly I can’t even tell you where I heard it, but I liked it…because it describes something that I’ve actually witnessed before…back in my days of working at camp…we used to do a long drama for the kids called the Christ walk…moving through various scenes from the gospels…including this one.
I’ll never forget the very first time we did it…I was on stage…making a big racket as one of the people in the temple…when all of the sudden the guy playing Jesus…who was himself a pretty lowkey calm guy…came flying in and sent a table flying 30 feet across the stage as he screamed at us…needless to say…my reaction was genuine…because it shocked me. (pause)
And perhaps this notion of Angry Jesus is a little shocking to you as well. All too often we tend to think of Jesus as mild mannered…calm…and quiet…and serene…but this story gives us one heck of a wake up call.
Jesus witnesses all this madness going on in the temple courts…and he…goes…postal…making a whip…throwing over tables…screaming at people…this is not a quiet lamb waiting for slaughter…this is the epitome of being “fired up.” (pause)
And so today, we ask the question of why? What was it that got Jesus so riled up in the first place? What was it that made Jesus go off…why did he feel the need to cleanse the temple in the first place? (pause) And we begin to catch just a little bit of insight when we explore the differences in John compared to the other gospels…In Matthew, Mark, and Luke…we hear Jesus scream out against making the temple into a den of robbers…but here in John…it’s a marketplace that Jesus opposes. (pause)
But why? What is it that’s so shocking to Jesus about this? (pause) Because for the Jewish people…the marketplace…particularly during a big festival like Passover…is necessary…In order to follow the rules…in order to make atonement for the sins that they committed…the people needed to make a sacrifice in the temple…and this is where the oxen or the sheep or the doves come in…because those were the animals that needed to be sacrificed.
But at the big festivals…there would be Jewish people coming from all over the known world…some traveling great distances…and those individuals would often times purchase the sacrificial animal there in Jerusalem rather than trying to bring it along with them…and then the money changers? Well, they had a similar situation…as the individuals would need to exchange their common currency for that which was acceptable to offer at the temple. (pause)
And so, in order for the people to follow the rules…to worship correctly…to be in good order…this marketplace would have been helpful…this marketplace would have been a good thing…and so, once more…I’ll present the question…what was it about this that God Jesus so riled up in the first place? Was it that the merchants and the money changers were swindling the people…overcharging for their goods or services? Well maybe…but I think its actually more than that…
You see…Jesus wasn’t just throwing some tables around…he was tearing the whole system down…the people didn’t need to go to the temple anymore…they didn’t need to go there and make sacrifices…they didn’t have to go there to find God because…in Jesus…God was already among them…God was no longer limited to one place…God has dwelled among us…God…has put on flesh and is out in the world… (pause)
In short…we see in Jesus Christ…the one who calls himself I Am…that God is now human…and being fully human God experiences emotion…and when God see’s something in the world that is an error…or an injustice…God…gets…mad. (pause) And today…we see it…today…we see that Jesus…God in human form…God in the flesh…Jesus…gets mad…because he wouldn’t be human if he didn’t. Jesus shares this same trait with us…this trait of unpredictable emotion in the face of something…Jesus gets angry…and so do we. (pause)
Last Sunday, my sermon centered around our human tendency to ignore bad news when it doesn’t directly affect us…and those lies that Satan tells us…that these things don’t really matter…well here in Underwood…news broke this week…that we just couldn’t ignore. (pause)
Most of you sitting here today already know what I’m talking about…but if you are visiting, or if you haven’t heard…a former teacher and coach from our middle school…an individual that has been a respected part of our community for 20 years…got caught up in something that he had no business doing…and on Monday, the news went public about a long term, wildly inappropriate relationship that had been going on between this individual and an underage student for several…years. (pause)
Admittedly, I had known about it before in a small capacity…I think many of us here in the community were aware…but when I read the full news report…I was shocked…and I was saddened. (pause) That was my initial reaction…sadness that now this individual’s life is pretty much ruined…and not only that…but his family will bear the brunt…and not only that, but the young girl that was involved and her family…because that’s the nature of sin…it doesn’t just effect the individual…sin radiates out in those that it harms. (pause)
Now I need to pause for just a second…because everything that I’ve been saying up to this point likely sounds like its coming from a pastor…and perhaps you look up here and you see the collar in the black shirt…and that seems fitting. (pause…take off/unbutton the collar)…but right now I don’t want to talk to you as a pastor. (pause)
Because later on that day…I was sitting in a Bible Study with a group of other pastors…and somehow this situation came up…and as we talked about it more and more and more…I started getting emotional about it…it wasn’t sadness any longer…I think its safe to say that my emotional state was a little bit more fiery.
Because I realized…this guy didn’t just hurt himself and a couple of families…this guy betrayed the trust of an entire community…he betrayed the trust that we place in him as an authority figure…as someone that we trusted our children with…and when it occurred to me that I had trusted this guy as a coach to my son…I…got…mad. (pause)
Needless to say…I was not feeling very pastoral in that moment…and the longer it went on…the worse it got…to the point that I had to get up and walk out of that room…I had to remove myself from the conversation in order to regain my composure…because the anger that felt…the emotion that I was feeling at this situation, which can best be described as a travesty…was that strong. (pause)
And I know that some of you…perhaps all of you that are familiar with this situation…have had equally strong emotional reactions…over the course of this week I’ve shared in many conversations with individuals who are saddened…who are hurt…who are angry and confused…some all at once…and I think we are all asking ourselves the question right now of where do we go from here…what do we do with this…How are we supposed to react when we witness first hand…the presence of darkness right here in the midst of our little community? (long pause)
How are we supposed to react to something that is so dark…so horrible, painful and infuriating? (pause) Admittedly, I’ve been wrestling with that all week long…trying to come up with something good to share…something that speaks into this situation…something that would calm the fury…the emotion…that I’ve been feeling all week long. (pause)
And the only thing that I can think of…it to remember why Jesus cleared out the temple in the first place…because God’s out here…in the middle of all this stuff…whether we realize it or not. (pause) On Tuesday, when I walked out of the Bible Study with the other pastors…I ended up walking into the sanctuary at St John’s down in Council Bluffs…it was dark…all the lights were off…and I went in and just sat in a pew for a few minutes…stewing…when all of the sudden I looked up…and I saw the Christ candle burning away…a small dim light…that was just shining away…in the midst of the darkness of that room…I was reminded that the light shines in the darkness…and the darkness HAS NOT…overcome it. (pause)
The light IS still shining….and the word IS still dwelling among us…God is still here…because we have a God who will NOT be contained…not by a temple…and not by the darkness that is still fighting tooth and nail to keep our attention…to cloud our vision…the same God who took on flesh and got angry at the injustice that He witnessed in the temple is still with us today, even in the midst of this situation. (pause…rebutton collar and put tab back in)
And now here’s the really crazy thing about all of this…one last difference in John’s account of the story…Here in John, when Jesus makes the whip…he drives out the oxen and the sheep…and while he’s ripping into the people…setting them straight in the midst of his divine anger…he doesn’t drive the people out…the people remain…even in the midst of rebuke…and there’s a lesson for us in the midst of that too.
Because for all of the anger and hurt that we are feeling towards this individual who’s boneheaded actions rocked the world of Underwood Iowa…we MUST remember that the grace of God is also offered to him…and I have put my collar back on now to remind us all that I am both Scott Dalen and Pastor Scott Dalen…and that in the midst of our lives…we are called to proclaim the grace of God made possible through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ…by which our Father in Heaven showed his love, grace, and mercy for the ENTIRE WORLD. (pause)
I am not saying that we excuse the actions of this man…because our actions do have consequences…but we MUST remember that just as we receive the grace of God…the forgiveness of God for our sin through the blood of Jesus Christ…we also remember that God has forgiven this man…that is the nature of the Gospel…and that’s how far the love of God will go…far beyond our capacity…far beyond our ability to even comprehend…but praise be to God that its not dependent upon us. (pause)
And so today, as we try to figure out where to go from here…remember this…it is not bad that you have an emotional response to this situation…Angry Jesus shows us that today…that’s part of being human…and so in these moments we look to one another for love and support…and in doing so we follow Jesus’ command to love our neighbors…and we remember in the midst of all of this that the light is still shining…and no matter how hard the darkness of the world might try…it will not overcome it…God is here among us…and Jesus was willing to die in order to prove it…so that by the grace of God…we might just believe it. Amen.

How Are We Supposed to Prepare Ourselves 11-9-14

This morning’s sermon is based on Matthew 25:1-13, the parable of the 10 Bridesmaids. Jesus instructs us to be prepared, and I explore just what that means for us.

You can listen to the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/how-are-we-supposed-to-prepare-ourselves-11-9-14

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

Over the course of this week, I found myself reflecting back on the process that prepared me for pastoral ministry…namely the process of candidacy through the Synod office, which I began in the fall of 2007…including 3 separate steps which were completed at different stages alongside the process of my seminary education.

Both candidacy and seminary included a lot of milestone moments…each defined by a specific portion of time and effort…there were papers to write, interviews to endure, work to do…and in many instances, I found myself in a big hurry to finish some specific requirement by a deadline…only to find myself then in the process of waiting for that next step to occur…but one trend emerged throughout all that time and all those steps…for each and every one of them, I had to be prepared, even those that I really didn’t know what to be prepared for.

As I look back at all those different steps, I think my favorite one was my year of internship, fairly late in the whole process…a time when I was able to start putting all the theory into practice…experiencing ministry by doing it in a congregational setting…and while the year of internship had its fair share of times that I had to be prepared in one way or another…there is a specific instance that really stands out in my memory.

Fairly late in the year I had the opportunity to go along for a week in Green Bay, WI on a Junior High mission trip. Admittedly I was pretty excited about this whole deal. I’d been teaching the jr high confirmation class all year and had a pretty good relationship with most of the kids…I did, and still do, claim to be on the same mental level with jr high students so it promised to be a good time.

During the week in Green Bay, we had one evening of “free time” and the plan as the group, including about 40 kids and 5 adults…to head off to a small amusement park. We divided up into groups, and I found myself surrounded by about 6 or 7 8th grade boys…and we joked around as we headed off to our first destination…the roller coaster.

Now this particular roller coaster was an old time wooden coaster…and if you’ve ever ridden of those, you know that the safety system that keeps you in the cart…while certainly functional…isn’t exactly the most comfortable situation…2 people to a car, with a big metal bar that locks down over your lap. It keeps you there, but there’s a lot of sliding back and forth as you go around curves…not to mention a certain amount of bouncing up and down when you go over to top of hills.

Now as this group of young gentlemen and I took on the coaster for the first time we were all surprised at a certain point towards the end of the ride when a very quick hump lifted us up before immediately yanking us right back downwards again…and with the loose safety bar situation…you can imagine the reaction when we unexpected made contact with that bar locked down across our laps.

Interestingly enough, being jr high boys…and one adult leader on the same mental level…we all got quite the charge out of that…and it was certainly the immediate topic of conversation as we exited the coaster…and it took us all about 5 seconds to decide that we needed to go again.

Now on our second time around…as we approached this certain spot on the coaster…all of us anticipating the shock that we would once again experience…I yelled out the boys. “PREPARE YOURSELVES!!!!” and heard laughter from the whole crew for a brief second until everyone…once again…reacted to meeting with the cross bar…Now let me tell you…this whole group got such a kick out of the whole situation, that we actually named that portion of the roller coaster “prepare yourselves” and we spent the next hour standing alongside the coaster itself, just so we could laugh at the reaction of every single guy that went over it. (pause) Was it wise on our parts, probably not…was it foolish? Most likely…prepare yourselves.

This notion of being wise or foolish regarding being prepared pulls us right into the gospel lesson today…the parable of the 10 bridesmaids…a well-known tale that cautions us to “be prepared.” (pause) Now if we stop for a moment and think about just where we are in the church year, perhaps this passage starts to make a little more sense. It’s November, and we find ourselves rapidly approaching the end of the season of Pentecost…just a couple more weeks from now…and the season of Pentecost is one where we as the church take a long look at the ongoing history of the church itself…beginning with the acts of the apostles shortly after Jesus ascension…and culminating now as the church looks forward to the end times.

And this is exactly where our passage occurs today. In the chapter just before this passage, Jesus has been talking about the last days…speaking very apocalyptically to his followers about what will happen…about what to expect when all of this comes winding down to a close before Jesus returns…Matthew’s gospel is certainly keen on this notion as well…often times we catch glimpses of what is to come…of the trials and tribulations…of the final judgment to come…and today’s story does more of the same.

The bridegroom is coming…but when? That’s the real question…both the question for us today as we think about Christ…the ultimate bridegroom coming back for his bride…the church…as well as for the proverbial bridesmaids in the parable.

Now speaking of these 10 bridesmaids…we can raise the question of just what exactly were they doing? I wish I could give you some sort of perspective, but in all honesty I don’t really know that much about 1st century wedding customs to know what they were up to…all I know is that the groom goes and fetches his bride…and brings her to the wedding feast…and apparently the bridesmaids are tasked with bringing along a lamp and escorting them as they go.

And when we take a look at these 10 girls…all 10 were ready to do that…all 10 picked their lamps…and stepped out into the street to wait…ready to do their duty…and what happens? Well…for whatever reason…the groom doesn’t show up when he’s supposed to…and darkness falls…and still they’re waiting…and as none of them had a smart phone to mess around with while they stood around…they got bored…and they got tired…and all 10 of them konked out. All 10…wise and foolish alike…and then, in the middle of the night when things are at their darkest…they are jolted awake when suddenly he decides to show up.

Now at this point all 10 discover that their lamps are out of oil…and here’s where the division starts…5 had thought ahead and brought a flask of extra oil…and 5 hadn’t. 5 were ready for this unseen delay…and 5 weren’t…all 10 were ready for their duty in the evening…but only 5 were prepared to wait.

And that’s the kicker right there…these 10 girls found themselves in a situation where they needed to be prepared to wait…but they didn’t know it until they were faced with the reality.

And so I pose to the question today, how are we supposed to be prepared for every unforeseen situation? (pause) Think about it…were those 5 wise bridesmaids simply type A personalities who thought about every single contingency? Perhaps…and maybe the 5 foolish ones were simply more reactive…getting themselves ready for the task at hand and never thinking that it might go beyond that.

And so think about that for a second…since parables are aimed at pointing out the truth of our situations to us, which side do you fall on? Wise…or foolish…oil or no oil…prepared or reactionary? (pause) Does one side resonate with you? Or maybe, just maybe can you see yourself in both groups at one time or another? I know I’m guilty of that.

There have been certainly situations in my life where I have “carried extra oil.” One simple example involves packing for our yearly trip to Colorado. Knowing that we experience hot and cold…back and forth…each and every day I have the tendency to fill a suitcase with all kinds of clothes…and honestly, way more than I need…all I’m really accomplishing is taking up unneeded trunk space…but hey, I’m prepared…but on the other hand…I have the tendency to be very reactive…particularly in ministry situations…long range planning…not one of my gifts…but if there’s a confirmation class pending in a day or two, I can write you a lesson. (pause)

Think about it…isn’t that our situation…completely back and forth between these two groups…ready one hand and caught totally off guard on the other? (pause) I think so…but if that’s the case for most of us…if not all of us…then just how are we supposed to be prepared in that unknown day and hour when the Father finally looks at the Son and says “Okay…time to head on back.”

No one knows the day or the hour when Jesus is coming back…and despite claims in recent years by individuals who have “cracked the code” and predicted when it’ll be…the reality of the situation is Jesus is coming back…sometime…but we don’t know when…and yet he tells us that we must be prepared.

The 5 foolish bridesmaids were caught off guard, while the 5 wise ones lucked into their situation…blind luck…that’s really all it was…because what if the groom had waited till morning…it would have been light outside and the lamps would have been useless…and all 10 girls would have walked through that door with him. (pause)
No one knows the day or the hour…so live your lives in a way that is prepared…because while Jesus might not come back in our lifetime…he might come back this afternoon…we just don’t know…and since we don’t know…we ask the question again…how can we be prepared? How do we live our lives as if he’s coming back in a moment, when history and our gut instinct tells us that we likely will not live to see it for ourselves?

This is the pickle that we find ourselves in…caught in the tension of living as if Jesus is coming back now, even if he doesn’t…of trying to balance out our own interests and endeavors while still living for him….this is the pickle…this is the Christian condition…living with the knowledge that the promises of God are both now and not yet…How are we supposed to do that? (pause)

You know what…I think Jesus himself actually gave us that answer…because there was a time when he was sitting there and someone asked the question “what’s the most important commandment?” That random stranger might as well have been asking the question “how are we supposed to live to keep God happy?” (pause) And Jesus responded…really quite simply…Love God…and then love your neighbor. (pause) Yah but that can’t be it can it…there has to be more to it than that right? Love God…and then love your neighbor.

Well what about those times when we mess it up? Because those times happen don’t they? If the answer is really Love God and Love your neighbor then hallelujah…because we have moments when we fall into the wise category…(pause) But…we also have moments when we screw that up don’t we?

And so, as a community of faith…as a community of believers, we offer a word of grace and forgiveness to one another…that’s one of the reasons that we gather here for worship…to hear a word of forgiveness for those times when we are unprepared…when we are foolish…and we praise God in the promise that right now…today…the door to the celebration is still wide open…and that God desires for you to walk through it.

And so today if you find yourself longing to walk through that door…and you are wondering if in fact you are worthy…if you are acceptable…if the door will be open for you, then know this…through the power of Jesus Christ, made real through his life death and resurrection you are cleansed from your sin…and to hear this and believe it to be true is to believe the promise of God to be true and clinging to that promise is what makes you prepared. (pause)

Love God…and love your neighbor…have you messed that up lately? Yah? Okay, own it…and by doing so you are repenting of it…and God promises that when you do that, you are a new creation through Jesus Christ…and if that’s good news, then hold onto it…because tomorrow, you might need to say it to someone else…That’s why we come together in fellowship. I say it to you…and tomorrow you say it to me…and together, we are prepared to wait. Amen.

Quality Not Quantity 9-14-14

Today’s sermon is based on Matthew 18:21-35. Within the text Peter asks Jesus to clarify how many time we are called to forgive someone who sins against us. Jesus responds far beyond Peter’s expectations, and shares the parable of the unforgiving slave. Within the sermon I explore Jesus’ response and just how we are to respond within our own lives.

https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/quality-not-quantity-9-14-14

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

Last Tuesday afternoon I ended up in Neola at the community center, cranking out a pint of blood for the Red Cross. As I sat there with my feet up chatting with the nurse, I was transported through a montage of my childhood…because playing in the background was an extended playlist of 80’s music. I heard Madonna and Tears for Fears and Prince just to name a few.

The nurse and I were joking around about it, both being children of the 80’s and the next I knew we were talking movies…and perhaps I’m biased…but I tend to think that the 80’s produced the best batch of “classic movies” out of any decade…and one in particular comes to mind. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off…arguably the pinnacle of John Hughes’ career.

If you’re unfamiliar, Ferris Bueller, a high school senior from Chicago decides that he needs one last day off from school before he graduates…and not only does he pull it off with his parents, but crazy hijinks ensue while the whole day, his principal tries to bust him…starting off with a phone call to Ferris’ mother.

Mrs. Bueller, are you aware that your son is not in school today? Do you know how many days he’s missed this year? Oh I don’t know 3 or 4? 9 times…9 times? NIIINNNNEEE TIIIMES? (pause). Within this conversation, the principal is very intentional about quantifying the number of absences of our hero…Mr Bueller.

And its this notion of quantity…of assigning a number that draws me into todays gospel lesson…Directly following last week’s passage, when Jesus gives guidelines for being reconciled with a brother or sister that has sinned against, Peter…ever the impulsive one, asks a question of clarification of Jesus…and I can about imagine just how that conversation really went. (pause)

“So, Jesus, just how many times should I forgive? Like, seven?” (thumbs up, gesturing up) “More than that, my friend.” (pause) “Ok, like seventeen?” “Not even close.” (pause)“Wait, like twenty-seven?” “Keep going.” (pause) “You’re kidding, right? Thirty-seven?” “Try seventy-seven times.” (pause) “But that’s ridiculous! Impossible![1] Seventy-Seven times?” “SEVVVEEEENTYYYY SEEEEVVVVINNNN TIIIIMES.” (pause)

Now clearly this is a shocking number for Peter, regardless of if we read it as 77 or 70 times 7…either of which are valid translations of Jesus’ response…but as we think about it, perhaps we begin by questioning Peter’s motive for his question in the first place. Jesus is talking about forgiveness…and he has told us to offer it…to be reconciled…seems pretty open and shut so just why does Peter ask in the first place?

Well, perhaps its his Jewish heritage…obviously Peter as well as the other disciples would be familiar with the law…they had the 10 commandments not to mention the rest of the over 400 laws handed down in the Old Testament…so perhaps Peter is just trying to get the specifics…making sure he’s got his bases covered…and so he offers a legitimate question of quantity…how many times must I forgive Lord? Even as many as 7 times? (pause) And interestingly enough, I think Peter is actually considering this to be a pretty generous amount…Seriously Jesus…if my brother wrongs me 7 times and I forgive him, that outa be enough right? (pause)

But Jesus, in his divine wisdom, reacts in much the same way he usually reacts to a question of this nature…but tossing it right back at the individual in a way that tends to blow their understanding right out of the water. No Peter…77 times…or 70 x’s 7…either way its an enormous amount…and think about it…are we really going to forgive someone that much? Do we have that capability…or is Jesus just throwing out some astronomical number to get us to think WAY bigger. (pause)

Now before you come up with an answer in your mind on that question…or before I try to offer you one…let’s switch gears…just like Jesus does…because for Jesus…the question of forgiveness doesn’t get a quantity. (pause)

And so Jesus switches into a parable…which he’s known to do, because he knows that we have a REALLY hard time getting past our own limitations…and in his normal style…he tells a story…a story about a king…and two servants…each who owes a debt.

And let me offer you a little perspective here…about just how different these two debts are that we hear in the story. The first servant…owning a debt to the king…that Jesus says is ten thousand talents…and the second guy, well he owes the first guy 100 denarii…and now perhaps you’re thinking “that’s all well and good pastor, but we don’t know what those values add up to.” And so…perspective…

The federal minimum wage is current $7.25/hour. Now a talent…that’s the equivalent of 15 years worth of wages…and this guy owes the king ten-thousand of them…and at $7.25/hour, 1 talent equals about $226,000 dollars…and if you multiply that by 10,000, we find the first guys debt at a little over…2…BILLION…dollars…let that sink in for just a minute. (pause) OK, and now the second guy, well he owes 100 denarii, which is the equivalent to a day’s wage…1 day…so his total debt is roughly…$6,000. No laughing matter of course…but something that’s doable…something that he could…given enough work…pay off. (pause)

That’s what we’re looking at…and interesting enough…when faced with judgment day…when faced with their debt being called in…these two men…respond the exact…same…way.

BE PATIENT WITH ME…AND I WILL PAY YOU EVERYTHING… (pause) Now the guy who 6 grand…maybe that’s not surprising…he probably could…but the other guy…roughly 6 billion in debt…yah right? Unless he’s on good terms with Warren Buffet, I kind doubt it…but yet these guys both seem to think that somehow…some way…they can pay it off themselves…that they can somehow free themselves of this cost…of this burden…

And isn’t that our normal tendancy….it must be part of the human condition…to think that somehow…someway…if we just work hard enough…or if we just say the right thing…or sway our reality with enough force that somehow, we can manage to overcome…we think it in moments when it might actually be possible…and we think it when the reality is so far beyond impossible that its not even funny…And that is the response of both of these guys today.

But what’s really interesting to note in Jesus’ story…is the response of the king…He recognizes the impossibility of the first servant ever managing to even put a dent in it…and he…forgives it…completely…its like the debt never existed in the first place…and yet despite that…this man…newly freed…cannot do the same with even a tiny amount…he can’t show the same mercy….and because of that…because of this inability to mirror the mercy first shown to him…he is punished…and Jesus tells us…that we face the same choice. (pause)

This story is all about forgiveness…but for Jesus…for God…forgiveness is not about quantity no matter how much our limited human understanding wants to make it that way. Jesus tells us, that there is no limit to the forgiveness and mercy that we are to offer our brothers and sisters…no limit…but rather that we are simply to mirror the grace offered by God when HE forgave our unpayable debt. (pause)

The apostle Paul tells us in the book of Romans that the wages of sin is death…this is the cost…the debt…the burden that we bear because of the presence of sin within our own existence…and just like that first servant…there is no way that we can do it…we are completely unable do anything about it…and not just because it is some astronomical amount of money…but because the ability to atone for sin is beyond our human ability…and so in His unfathomable mercy…God showed us grace and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our immeasurable debt is paid…and we are called to mirror that same mercy…that same grace for others. (pause)

But as I say all that…I’m struck by the truth of the situation…by the truth of forgiveness…and I fully realize that there are situations in our warped reality where forgiveness…is REALLY hard…and it may even seem impossible.

Sometimes it might be easy to offer…and that’s great…but what about those other times? (Pause) A few days ago was September 11th…when we as a nation remember the horror of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers…when a force of unknown individuals broke the tranquility of our lives…and when thousands of lives were needlessly lost…and imagine if you were a family member of one of those people…and you were trying to forgive the horror of their death…that’s just one example. What about a murder of a loved one…or a betrayal of trust…or the destruction of a marriage…there are countless ways that we as individuals can do what might seem to be utterly un-forgivable to one another.

So what do we do with that? (pause) Valid question…because I think…at one time or another…we all face this reality on one side of the table…or the other…and in all likelihood, we face it from both side of the table at one time or another…I know I have.

For me…it was the inexcusable loss of a winter job…when my old boss knew full well of my intentions of working for him through the season before returning to my summer job…I had made no secret of that…and yet, out of the blue, he fired me…and I fumed over that situation for years…I always said I was over it…but anytime it came up in conversation…the person I was talking to could tell I wasn’t over it…and I hadn’t forgiven him…and even now today, as I stand before you and think about it…it still gives me pause…and I still get a bitter taste in my mouth over it. (pause) And likewise, I know that I done equally hurtful things to other people…and I know that they have struggled to let go…and to forgive…and in recognizing my own faults…my own failings…I too struggle to offer myself forgiveness…and perhaps you can understand…perhaps you face similar situations in your own lives…and so together we wonder just how to go about this whole forgiveness thing that Jesus is talking about.

And I don’t want to stand here before you today…looking down on you…and telling you that if you just believe enough it should be easy…because it’s not easy…and there is no surefire way…no amount of faith that is big enough to overcome our inability to heal and let go of the past…because even though the phrase is forgive and forget…we have a really hard time with that whole “forget” thing don’t we? (pause)

But maybe…just maybe…in order to begin the process…we must first acknowledge the pain and hurt caused between us…I read this week that forgiveness can be defined when we acknowledge that the past…hurtful as it may be…cannot be changed…when we acknowledge the reality of what has happened and that it will be forever a part of our history…and only then can we even begin to move forward.

And perhaps…the reason that Jesus tells us that we are to forgive 77 times is because we need to forgive the same thing over and over again…and maybe…just maybe…today if you have something eating at you…a past hurt…you need to simply say “Today I acknowledge it…and right now I’m gonna let it go.” And maybe it will come back in 5 minutes…or in a day…or in a month…or a year or a decade…and in that instant…when you recognize it again…and realize that we can’t change it…we let it go again…and maybe Jesus is telling us that we have to forgive the same thing over and over again…

And perhaps on the flip side, when we were the ones in the wrong…and we struggle to offer ourselves forgiveness, we need to do the very same thing…admit that we can’t change it, but repent of it and let it go…and remember that we must do the same the next time it comes up again.

Maybe forgiveness really is an ongoing process simply because we are flawed and we lack the ability to ever really let something go…but find hope in the fact that God can…and not only can he…He already…HAS…and you better believe it…because Jesus himself said. IT IS FINISHED…and you know what? There’s hope in that…but even in those times when we fail to see that hope…well…Jesus forgives that too…because that’s the quality of God’s forgiveness…for you. Amen

[1] Credit for this little exchange belongs to Karoline Lewis in her commentary on the Working Preacher website
http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3322