Posts Tagged ‘God’

I’m Glad That’s Over 8-18-19

In this sermon, based on Luke 12:49-56, I explore a difficult teaching of Jesus. He reminds us that his presence brings division not peace. While this is a tough pill to swallow, there is great truth there.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/august-18-2019

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

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

Cultural heritage is an interesting thing…and I know a lot of people take a great deal of interest in their cultural background. We talk about our ancestors and where they came from. Some of us wear that previous nationality as a badge of honor.

Now on my mom’s side, we’re something of a mix of Irish, German, and Norwegian…but on Dad’s side…we’re almost completed Norske’s…and let me tell you…my grandparents…Dad’s mom and dad…they LOVED it…and for me as a youngster…I think this became ultra apparent when I first started hearing a Norwegian comedy album playing at their house.

This particular entertainer revealed in all things Norwegian and though I don’t remember much of the content featured, there was one story he told that has always stuck with me…a right of passage for every young individual of Norwegian stock…the first time he was old enough to eat Lutefisk. (pause)

The story goes on and on…how he enters into the house, knowing what’s coming…counting down the minutes till the meal…smelling the tell-tale odor come wafting down the hallway from the kitchen…how his terror continued to build as he found himself sitting at the table next to one of his uncles…coming face to face with it…and looking around as each of his older families members dutifully dug in without hesitation…how he slowly built up his courage until in a mad rush he was able to gobble it down…and as he sat back…a bit proud of himself for accomplishing this right of passage…that stoic uncle leaned over with a grin and said…uff-da…I’m glad that’s over. (pause)

I’ve always chucked at the memory of hearing that song playing off the LP at my grandparents farm…and I can’t help but think that there’s a lesson to be learned there…one that the young man discovers…that we all have those things we dread…the things we know we need to do…that we need to muscle our way through…even though we don’t want to…and perhaps even more on the nose for the that youngster…his uncle’s comment reveals the truth…that we never grow out of that same sense of dread do we? (Pause)

This same sense…pending doom…looming dread…a longing for something to just be over and done with…we hear this in the opening portion of Jesus’ troublesome teaching for today…and it’s a doozy isn’t it?  We don’t get any warning…we don’t ease into it through narration…Jesus just drops the hammer.

I came to bring fire to the earth…and how I wish it were already kindled…I have a baptism with which to be baptized…and now here’s that sense…what stress I am under until it is completed…I just want it over with…I know what’s coming…we can even word “I’m stuck until whenever it all gets done.” (pause)
I kinda wonder if Jesus might need a Snicker’s bar or something…because he seems a touch on the hangry side here doesn’t he?  I want that fire burning…I didn’t bring peace…I brought division.  One generation against the next…Hypocrites!!!!  Why can’t you understand what’s happening?

Probably goes without saying that this passage is a little on the odd side right? Kinda blunt?  Kinda harsh…not overly reminiscent of the kind and peaceful Jesus that we’re used to…one that, perhaps, left you scratching your head wondering if there’s any good news in this good news?  I’ll be honest…as I sat down to work with this text I was struggling with those same questions…and my first thought was that I was just out of practice after being away for a couple of weeks.

But as I kept on reading it…it didn’t seem to get any better…and finally I just threw up my hands and lamented “Jesus what are you talking about here?” (pause)
Bringing fire…baptism to be baptized with…that seems to be the action that he’s pointing at…and I couldn’t help but think it sounds a little familiar…like we’ve heard it before…and then I realized we have…because John the Baptist rants about this very thing clear back at the beginning of Luke.

I baptize with water…but one is coming after me that is more powerful…he will baptize you with the holy spirit…and…with…fire. (pause) He goes on too…even now his winnowing fork is in his hand…and he will separate the grain from the chaff…the grain will be gathered…but the chaff will be burned in unquenchable fire.

That’s a touch on the daunting side isn’t it? A little unnerving?  And now we hear Jesus starting saying a whole bunch of stuff that sounds pretty similar…talking about a pending baptism…one that he wishes were already over…any idea what he’s talking about there?

Remember where he’s en route to?  We’ve been talking about that over the past couple months…Jesus is heading towards Jerusalem…and he’s got an intentionality about him…a sense aimed at what will accomplished there…and do you know what that is?   Death and resurrection. (pause) That’s what Jesus is sweating at this point…wishing it were already over…and that the fire that will be started by his death and resurrection was already burning…that the baptism of his crucifixion was already over.

And that right there…is strange…because we don’t often think of Jesus’ passion…his betrayal and arrest…his torture…his horrendous execution…followed up by 3 days of confused silence…only to be shattered by his glorious resurrection…we don’t often think of that in terms of baptism do we?

But maybe we should…because in the end…that’s what baptism is for us.  It’s a death and resurrection…it is the physical act that embodies the promise that God has made upon us…the claim that God places upon each of us…but in its very nature…baptism IS DEATH and resurrection…

For in the water of baptism…the sinful self is put to death…it drowns in the water and we emerge to new life…to the gift of justification by faith in the promise of God’s mercy made real for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. A gift of grace that we CANNOT earn…it can only be given to us…and it is only made possible through this baptism that Jesus was so concerned about as he moved towards its completion in Jerusalem.

And he did just that…willingly…but make no mistake…we are catching a glimpse of Jesus’ humanity on display…because he knew what was coming…he’d shared that truth with his disciples more than once…and I believe that he dreaded it…and yet…he also knew that it must happen…because this new life…this new reality…this kingdom of God that he was bringing into existence could not be until his death was accomplished on the cross.

And that was the goal…to bring about this new way of life…this new way of being…this way that overcomes every shortcoming…every aspect of brokenness…every sin…this way that reveals a new story to the world…one that no longer says might makes right….one that no longer says pull yourself up by your bootstraps…one that no longer relies on the idea that this way is the best…and you can join us or we’ll kill you.

This new kingdom in which we are invited to live in harmony with the one who made us and with on another…no longer needing to justify ourselves in the face of a world that doesn’t care…or in the face of others who are in the same boat as we are even if they can’t admit it.

But the crazy thing about this new way…this new kingdom…this new life made possible in Christ…is that it is a threat to the status quo…it’s a threat to those that hold a position with the illusion of power and authority…and this world…it will push back…it will do ANYTHING in its power to hold on to that illusion.

You think Christ came to bring peace?  Well then you’ve never challenged those privileged with authority have you?  (pause) The gospel…its divisive, Jesus flat out tells us that.  The gospel is offensive…its laughable…it makes no sense…but when it touches our lives…and changes the way we see this world…that we start to understand that we aren’t subject to those same old rules…well this world and those still stuck in that sensibility…they just can’t get passed that…and as we see, time after time…those stuck in the old patterns tend to lash out don’t they.

This manifests itself in SO many ways.  The ways we hoard resources instead of sharing them with those who lack.  The way a child is cast out of their family when they find the strength to be authentic about who they really are and their family can’t handle it.  The ways that those who’s cultural identity gives them a false sense of superiority, and so they go shoot up a church or a mall or nightclub…using terror in order to “keep them in their place.”

And what kills me…is the way I hear time after time…that this is done in the name of Christ…well let me say it…if you’re using Jesus to justify causing pain and exclusion to another…you’re doing it wrong and you best get the name Jesus out of your mouth.

White Nationalism…Racism…Homophobia…Isalmaphobia…Anti-semitism…Xenophobia…just to name a few…I for one am sick of hearing the name of Christ hijacked to justify these things that are demonic and sinful…whenever one person or group seeks to diminish or deny the basic humanity and dignity of another, they are acting contrary to the will of God…and I say this as an ordained minister of God’s church.

The gospel tells us that we have a God who sees us in suffering and comes along side us…a God who promises that this will not be the end…a God who desires ALL of humanity…ALL of creation…ALL THAT which is called Good within creation…God desires that all would flourish and find life abundant…and when the world pushes back against that we find this same God made flesh with his arms spread out wide and nailed to piece of wood in order to show us that there is NO length God will not go in order to overcome that which hinders…even death.

And the promise is that not even death can separate us from the love of the one who made us desires that we would flourish as well…both in this life and in the life to come.

In today’s story…that act which will accomplish this still lies before Jesus…and he knows what’s coming…but thanks be to God that when Jesus was hanging on that cross, he was able to say it is finished…and now…with the Resurrection of Jesus ALSO finished…we can join with Christ in saying “Uff-da…I’m glad that’s over.” And knowing that it is…we can follow the invitation to join in the work of proclaiming it to this world that hasn’t…realized it…yet. Amen

Amen

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Don’t Pick On Personality 7-21-19

In this sermon, based on Luke 10:38-42, I explore the odd little exchange that occurs between Jesus and the sisters, Mary and Martha.  When we did, just a little bit, we start to uncover some interesting insight.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/dont-pick-on-personality-7-21-19

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

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

In recent years, there has been an amazing emphasis placed on the exploration of different personality types and the ways that they manifest in the lives of individuals.  There are tons of different tests and surveys…countless different expressions and categories.

There’s Type A vs Type B.  There’s the enneagram scale.  There’s Strengthsfinders…just to name a few.  Now…I’ll fully admit that I haven’t done a ton of work in this realm…a lot of it goes over my head and I’m kinda lost in what each specific category is aimed at, and what the individual results within that category reveals.

But what I do know is these different things…personalities and tendencies and strengths, whatever we want to call them…they manifest themselves in a lot of different ways…and they differ greatly between individuals…and perhaps there is no-where that we begin to see this better expressed than within families.

We see drastic differences between siblings…we see them between parents and children…and we definitely see them between spouses…and I can confirm this from personal experience. My wife and I agree on a lot of things…but we have two VERY different personality types…something that becomes VERY apparent on Saturdays.

Now my wife would be called Type A…and one of her strengths is achievement…and this manifests itself in the fact that she has a very hard time sitting around all day doing nothing.  (Pause) Now me, on the other hand…I will happily lounge around on my keister all day without batting an eyelash…I suppose that makes me Type B…and yes…just like we find in today’s story…this can…and does…lead to tension. (pause)

Mary and Martha. Another story that has infiltrated our cultural awareness in the differences that lie between personality types.  We’ve got Mary, the laid back one…the one who casually sits at the feet of Jesus, just taking it all in…oblivious to what’s going on and the tasks of hospitality that linger in the house around her. (pause) And then we’ve got Martha…the proverbial busy-body…the one who can’t even think about sitting down because…THERE’S JUST SO MUCH TO DO!!!!!

Now, its my tendency to try and put myself in the headspace of the people that we hear about in the scriptures…and this one’s no different…so for starters…we’ve got Martha. (Pause) Oh…Jesus is here….goodness me…so much to do…I need to tidy up before he even comes inside. I bet he’s hungry and he’s got all those people with him…they all need to eat, better get in the kitchen…and all the neighborhood kids will be bugging them…I need to shoo them away…is it too stuffy in here, do I need to open a window…so much to do. (pause) And then there’s Mary…DUDE!!!!! Jesus is here…YES…I am totally just gonna sack out and listen…where’s my beanbag chair? (pause)

Now as we know…as this little scene progresses Martha gets continually annoyed with Mary…and it seems with Jesus too, because she snaps…at him…Jesus! Dude…don’t you care, that my sister…has left me to do all the work. Tell her to help me!

And then Jesus, finally speaking aloud for the first time calmly tries to grab Martha’s attention…and she’s in such a tizzy that he has to say her name twice…Martha…Martha…you are distracted and worried about many things…only one is needed. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be take away. (pause)

It seems…at first glance…that Mary is praised and Martha is condemned…and that Jesus is throwing some shade on the work that Martha is doing.  And if we limit things to the surface level, we walk away from this passage with yet another moral lesson that seems to say…Sabbath is important, don’t be so busy…take a load off.

And if that’s where we stop…we are doing an incredible disservice to Martha…Yes she’s distracted…yes she’s worried…but that’s what Jesus seems to be calling her away from…not the actual work that she’s doing.

Here’s the thing…and pay attention because this is important…in the original language…we hear that Martha is distracted by her many “services” or we can even say “ministries.” It’s the same word…and that should be eye opening for us here in the church. She’s so distracted by trying to do too many ministries all at the same time that she’s missing out on the one thing needed.

I don’t know what that one thing was…maybe all Jesus needed was a cloak picked up off a chair so he could sit down…she didn’t need to clean the whole house.  Maybe he was hungry for a chunk of bread…but she’s trying to prepare a lavish meal…I don’t know…but I’m pretty sure he’s not condemning her for attempting to be of service to her guests.  That’s Martha’s personality…that’s her tendency…she’s living into her authentic self by hosting…but Jesus seems to be pointing out that she’s going overboard and her distraction and worry is evidence of that.

Now that being said…the flipside is also worth paying attention to…Mary’s not being praised for sitting around doing nothing…because you know what…sometimes people are hungry and a meal needs to get made…sometimes the communion bread needs to be baked…or the scripture needs to get read, or Sunday School classes need to be taught.

So what’s different?  What do we take from this?  If its not the surface level lesson that we should ignore busy-ness so we can zero in on our guest…then what is Jesus calling us into here? What is this better part…this good portion that Mary has chosen that Jesus seems to acknowledge? (pause)

I think that’s a good question to ponder on…especially in light of our recent gospel stories over the course of the past few weeks…because honestly…if we take all of Luke Chapter 9 and 10 together…Jesus is giving us a lot of mixed messages.

We hear, early on that Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem…indicating intentionality about his mission and his ministry…an intentionality that is highlighted when a few would-be followers each ask for a touch of leeway, only to have Jesus hammer them for a lack of focus and commitment.

Then he sends out 70 people to proclaim the good news that the Kingdom has come near…which is apparently so important of a message that they can’t even turn aside to say hello to someone on the road…NO DISTRACTIONS…get right to it.

That’s followed up by a question about who’s my neighbor and the parable of the Good Samaritan that gives an impression…no you should be willing to turn aside…to offer mercy to those who need it…to get involved in the immediate need as opposed to that directive over there.

And now the implication that mundane tasks aren’t the answer, but that we should just zero in on the guest…or at least maybe on Jesus.

So come on Jesus…seriously…what do we make of this? (pause)

I went round and round with that question…trying to make head’s or tails of the good news of this odd little exchange that all too often pits two sisters against each other and leaves people reeling when they see themselves in one or the other.

But what if this odd little passage reveals an invitation of Jesus to simply be honest and authentic about who we are?  What if Martha isn’t getting smacked for hosting…but rather is being called to be her best self at one thing.  And what if Mary isn’t getting praised for being lazy, but rather she’s being affirmed in her desire to engage with a guest. (pause)

It seems to me…over and over again in the scriptures…and especially in the gospels…and specifically here in Luke’s gospel…it seems like Jesus continues to extend an invitation to countless different individuals to be precisely who they are…and when they do…it seems like he takes joy in that…and he finds delight in the presence of their authentic self.

And when I think about that…I’m reminded of the truth that we find clear back in Genesis…that our existence begins from a place of joy and delight of the one that made us in the first place.  Think about that…God made you…and God has called you VERY GOOD…We have a God who made ALL of this out of a sense of divine goodness and joy…and the brokenness of the whole thing…that didn’t come around until chapter 3.

Admittedly…there are times when our Lutheran tendencies put a little too much emphasis on the brokenness of humanity and the world. I don’t dispute that this brokenness is a reality…far from it…but that’s not where our existence begins.

And maybe, just maybe, whatever it was that was being accomplished in the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus…maybe it was it making it possible for us to see that we are perfectly loved and accepted and claimed by the God who joyfully made us in the first place…and that this is true RIGHT NOW in this moment.

You don’t have to hide who you are…who you really are…in order for God to love you…and the gospel frees us to truly believe that…and to know that whatever brokenness does exist within us…there is grace for that…but that we don’t have hide our true selves away for God to give this love to us…that’s a ludicrous idea when we think about it…that the one who created this reality and everything in it by simply speaking it into being could ever be fooled into thinking that the false persona we present to the world is real. God knows you intimately…and God desires for you to be honest with yourself…and to be free in that…that’s the gospel…that’s the presence of the Kingdom of Heaven coming near to us…

And the other amazing thing about all this…is that we are also free to love one another in this same way…which, let’s be honest…is something that body of Christ really needs to work on. But praise be to God that there’s grace for the church too.  Yes she is broken…yes she is flawed…because she is made up of broken and flawed people…but thanks be to God…that the perfect, all in…completely encompassing grace-filled love of God continues, day after day, to overcome our shortcomings…and continues to invite us forward into that amazing freedom that we find when we realize that the kingdom HAS come near…and that we are already a part of it.  Amen

What Do You Read There 7-14-19

In this sermon, based on Luke 10:25-37, I explore the exchange between Jesus and a lawyer that leads to the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan. While the parable itself reveals some timely and important truth, the exchange itself reveals something important for each of our lives of faith.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/what-do-you-read-there-7-14-19

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

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

Every Christian denomination has a unique path towards ordination, or what we might call officially authorized pastoral ministry. In my opinion, here in the ELCA we’ve got one of the most intense processes…something called candidacy for ordination.  Its lengthy, typically beginning upwards of a year before the individual even begins seminary…and then it runs concurrently alongside seminary education through graduation and eventually ordination.

Now in the process, there are three separate interviews that the individual experiences…one at the beginning called Entrance…one at the end called Approval…and then one just a little past the halfway point called Endorsement, just prior to beginning their year of pastoral internship.  And of the three, I found Endorsement to be the least stressful…likely because while the first and last happen with a full committee of about a dozen people, Endorsement happens with two individuals from the candidacy committee and the students faculty advisor.

Now my Endorsement interview happened sometimes in the spring of 2011, so I don’t remember a whole lot about it…but I do recall one question…talk about how your theology has changed through your education up to this point…honestly I can’t remember much of my complete answer, but I do remember saying “Well, prior to beginning seminary I had no theology.”

Side note…theology is one of those big 50 cent seminary words…but it’s a combination of two Greek words that are squashed together that literally means “the study of God” or “the divine.” Just go ahead and tuck that in the back of your minds.

Now, regardless of whatever else I said in my answer…I remember, quite vividly my advisor laughing and saying “Scott…prior to seminary, had you ever read the Bible?” And when I said yes he said “Well then guess what, you had a theology…this process is just helping you refine it.”

I’ve thought a lot about that insight over the years…and I’ve also thought about the ways that seminary did serve to develop my theology…or my understanding of the divine and the scriptures…and while the classes and the lectures and the readings and the papers and everything else I endured through that 5 year process did do a lot…there was one other aspect that was absolutely vital…and I was reminded of that as I prepared for today’s message.

One of the last steps I do every week is reading…I read through a multitude of different commentaries written on the specific passage by a wide variety of individuals…one of which is produced online every week…and this particular week…I was excited to see the author…a professor in the Religion department of Valparaiso University in Indiana…known as the Rev. Dr. Amanda Brobst-Renaud…but who I have always known simply as Mandy.

When I made the transition from part-time distance learning to on-campus full time learning…Mandy was in several of my classes and small groups…and so she was one of the first people that I got to know pretty well from my larger class…and I can remember countless times between classes when we’d end up sitting in a lounge discussing something…a passage that we were working on for preaching class or an article assigned for lecture. And we’d just go back and forth…sharing insights…challenging interpretations…pointing out details that seemed significant. (pause) And as I think back to the entirety of my seminary education…that sense…that experience of sitting around with one or two other people probably helped shape me and my understanding of the word of God being living and active more than anything else. (pause)
Now when I say that…when I reference that bit of scripture…I think it is talking about the way that the scriptures themselves reveal widely different things to individuals based on their experience…and in the same way, the scriptures can reveal widely different things to an individual at different points in their lives…and because of this…I think its dangerous to assume that any passage, or individual book of the Bible or even the Bible as a whole has a single “correct interpretation.”

And I think we find evidence of this in today’s passage.  Now admittedly I’ve already been talking for a while without getting into today’s gospel…but as I read it…especially the opening narration about the back and forth that Jesus has with this lawyer…this expert in the Jewish Law code passed down from Moses back in the day…as I consider this exchange, I don’t envision some uppity dude looking down his nose at Jesus…thinking he’s got the education and credentials to put this upstart Galilean wanderer in his place.

I see a lively discussion, we might call it a debate…but I’m reminded of those times spent sitting on couches going back and forth over a passage…trying to get to the heart of it…trying to understand how its applicable into our lives as it is in this moment.

I don’t know what mental image you might have of this exchange…but I don’t think these two guys are butting heads…and I don’t think that either one of them are trying to set the other one straight…and we find this in a pretty simple…maybe even throw-away question from Jesus in the midst of the back and forth…see if you catch it.

Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?  What is written in the law, what do you read there?  Love God and love your neighbor.  You have answered rightly do this and live. (pause) Did you catch it?

Jesus…the literal embodiment of the divine…the Word of God made flesh…the epitome of “the authority” on this subject…Jesus asks the guy…what do you read there?  How do you read it?  What’s your take? (pause)

Admittedly, I dig this little back and forth…its present in a couple of the other gospels…but Luke is unique in the way the exchange goes down…and this is the only one when Jesus poses that important question.

Now when the lawyer answers…Jesus seems to agree…yes dude…love God, love you neighbor…that’s it man…do this and you’ll live.  It seems that the two have reached an agreement…but then the lawyer…being a lawyer…being himself…being true to who he is…well, he wants to dig a little deeper…and so he asks another question…if the law can interpreted as loving our neighbors…let’s get specific Jesus…I need to know just how far this goes…who is my neighbor?

And this question prompts one of the most familiar parables in the scriptures…commonly known as the Good Samaritan…although I really think we should change the name to the parable of the dude who got beat up because nowhere in any language does Jesus ever say the Samaritan is good…but that’s just another side note for you. (Pause)

You know the parable…guys going down the road…robbers jump him…beat him up, leave him for dead.  The two guys who REALLY should know better, chose to ignore him and leave him laying when they walk by…then the Samaritan…the foreigner…the last person who should be hero…is the hero…a fact so shocking to this Jewish lawyer that he can’t even bring himself to say “Samaritan” when Jesus asks “who was the neighbor to the man?” And his answer reveals the reversal that is often present within a parable.  “The one to offer him mercy.”

Now here’s the next thing…the parable doesn’t answer the question “who do I have to be a neighbor to?”  It flips it around to address the issue that this particular guy can’t seem to get past…who can I not even fathom the possibility might be a neighbor to me?  (pause)

I don’t want to dive to deep into this…to be perfectly honest the parable itself doesn’t interest me that much…but if it catches your attention I’ll ask the question before I move on…who is it that you can’t fathom being a neighbor to you?  What identity would make you bristle at the idea of accepting help or mercy?  What differences?  Because that seems to be at the heart of this parable.  Is it racial?  Is it cultural? Economic?  Nationality? Legal status?  Sexual Orientation?   What’s your trigger?  (pause) If the parable itself catches your attention, then ponder on that…and the possibility that maybe just maybe the kingdom of God, and the Holy Spirit inspired gift of love and mercy and compassion shown on the part of the Samaritan might just be coming your way across that boundary that today you just can’t wrap your head around…and maybe the Spirit is calling you to offer that same compassion and mercy the opposite direction. (pause)

But now that being said…I want to circle back around. And pick back up with the way that this honest back and forth encounter with Jesus and the individual seems to reveal a tripping point in his faith…and the parable is simply an illustration tool that Jesus uses to reveal it to him.

I wonder if you’ve had moments like this in your life…and in your faith…moments when an honest back and forth with another person resulted in an ah-ha…or in a feeling of conviction…or in a moment of joy…I hope so…because in my experience, that’s where the real miraculous moments of faithful revelation happen.

As much as I love standing up here preaching every week…I do sometimes wonder how effective it is…but I’ve seen moments when the lightbulb turns on…when the Spirit reveals something and it clicks…and more often than not…it happens in honest back and forth conversation among 2 or 3 people.  That’s why the relationships that we form together are so important…that’s why I think small group study is so important…and that’s why I think that family conversations around matters of faith are so vital…because that’s where faithful learning happens…as we grow together and let our shared experience shape the growth that we go through over the course of our lives lived together.

Now today…we have a new individual who is taking a first step in this whole process…as Lindy is brought forward to the font by her parents…and she’ll be washed in the waters of baptism…claimed by God as a beloved child…and as I say every time, she’s going to be watching us…but soon she’ll also be engaging with us…learning from us and with us, and God willing, she’ll be teaching us…as the Spirit empowers her and every one of us to learn and share in the faith…we might even call it a shared study of the divine…which as you recall has a name…theology.

You all have it…you don’t need someone else to tell you how your experience shapes your encounter with the divine and the scriptures…and so, just as Jesus asked the lawyer that day…I’ll leave you with this simple question…when you ponder on the action and the presence of God in the world around you…and when you crack the Bible…what do you read there? Amen

One Plus One Equals One 6-2-19

In this sermon, based on John 17:20-26, I explore Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers, just prior to his betrayal.  This unity is not based on everyone being identical, but rather on our shared humanity.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/one-plus-one-equals-one-6-2-19

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

I like Math…I just do…because it always works. I’ve heard it said that Math is the universal language…because when it gets right down to it…1 plus 1 equals 2….or Uno y Uno es Does…I could continue in other languages but unfortunately those are the only two I know.  But it always works…if you have something…and you bring in one more thing…then you have two things. Period.

I love math…but…not everyone does…and in my observation, for anyone who isn’t a fan of math, story problems are the bane of their homework existence…I’ve seen it many times as I’ve helped my kids with math homework…and I can remember many of my classmates lamenting them during my school days.

Now personally I’ve never really had a problem with them…because for whatever reason, my brain connects well with the very linear method of thinking required to solve story problems…in order to solve the question, I need to find this, and in order to find that, I need to solve this, and in order to solve that, I need to do this particular process with these available numbers…one thing leads to the next thing, which leads to the next thing.

Now because my mind works pretty well to move through that linear pattern of problem solving, I was geared well to handle geometry during my sophomore year of high school…and in particular, writing geometric proofs…something that the vast majority of my classmates hated…and yet I could sit there and do them all day.

Because this is true, we know that this is also true…and because that is true, we can deduce that this is also true…and if that is true, then we know that this is also true…and so on and so forth…Admittedly, it probably makes me pretty nerdy…but its safe to say that I actually enjoyed the process of moving forward from what was given to end up at the desired result…from start to finish…always pushing forward despite any tricky roadblocks that might get in the way of where we were trying to get to. (pause)

Now today’s gospel lesson offers us something of a similar type of situation. We find ourselves today at the final Sunday of the Easter season…Ascension Day was last Thursday…and so, within our calendar we have passed the point where Jesus returned to Heaven…coming up next Sunday, one week from today, we hit the day of Pentecost when Jesus sends the Holy Spirit upon his followers, just as he promised…and with that, we will begin to see and remember the explosive growth of the early church which has led all the way up, across the last 2000 years to today…and which will continue on until the last days…when Jesus will return ushering in a new era…a new reality with a new heaven and a new earth where God dwells among us.

That’s the direction that this is all going…that’s the end game that God has in mind…and in fact, it seems to me that this has been the plan all along…when God sparked off creation, and somehow, someway made the world and everything in it, not to mention the great cosmos that exists out there…and everything in that too…and ever since that initial moment, whenever it was, when God spoke existence into creation…its all been moving forward…and despite your personal thoughts on creation…despite what you might think about the debates between science and religion…it seems to me, that creation…or reality…or whatever you want to call it, continues to move forward…with something of an energetic spark behind it…I happen to think that energetic spark is God…but that’s just me…

But regardless, as time marches on, this reality is moving forward towards something…and the scriptures give us glimpses into the various moments when God has acted directly here within our reality to continue this forward momentum…and now coming all the way back around to the gospel for today…we see Jesus engage in the same sort of forward movement within the context of a prayer.

The entirety of chapter 17 of John’s gospel is a prayer…Jesus has wrapped up his final time of teaching…and just before they head out to the garden to kick off this whole death and resurrection thing…Jesus takes the time to pray.

Now this is a unique situation…because the majority of the time in the gospels we don’t get to hear just what Jesus is praying for. There are brief moments, but they’re pretty rare…but here we have the entirety…and the amazing thing, as we see in the verses just before this one, and then throughout these verses as well…is the fact that Jesus is praying directly for his followers…and remember that they are sitting there at the table with him…think about that.

What does it feel like when someone takes the time to pray for you…and you are there, privy to what’s on their heart for you…it’s a pretty amazing thing…and in this situation…its Jesus…God in human form…God the son…The word of God made flesh…praying for his followers…and newsflash…YOU are a part of that…You…are included as a recipient of Jesus’ prayer…YOU are on his mind.

Father I ask not only on behalf of these who are sitting here, but also on behalf of those who will believe because of their words. (pause). Without a doubt…we are included in that number…because 2000 years after Jesus lived died and rose again…the life altering gospel has reached our ears, and that has brought us here today.

So let that sink in for just a moment. At the Last Supper…just before Jesus endured the most horrific fate that we can imagine…he prayed…for…you. (pause)

Now the basic theme of this prayer…unity. Father, you and I are one.  So let them be one…and all those who will believe later…yah let them be one too…and why? Well so the world will believe that you sent me…and if they believe it, then we dwell with them…and they with us…and we’re all one…and if we’re unified, then they’ll see my glory, and my glory is your glory, and if they see it, then we’ll glorify them too…so let them be one…because we are one, and we want to be one with them…because we love them. (pause)

But the really interesting thing about all of this, is that Jesus’ prayer is almost structured like one of those geometry proofs that I loved so much in high school…and its because of the presence of a single word that is repeated over and over again.  In the Greek, it’s a word called Hina…and its best translated “in order that.” And in these 7 verses, it happens 9 times.

Just like those proofs…since this is true, then we know this is true…and it happens here too. Father I pray for them, IN ORDER THAT they be one…that they be unified, IN ORDER THAT we may be with them and they with us, IN ORDER THAT the world may come to know that you sent me. And they will believe that you sent me IN ORDER THAT your glory may be in them, and if your glory is in them, then your name is glorified in them IN ORDER THAT your love is in them, IN ORDER THAT the world may know your love. (pause)

Its all moving forward…its all moving towards something…and in the end, it seems like God is working in the world, which has been redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the end result of this work, which we have not yet reached…is unity…that we may be unified as the one body of Christ, and that the one body of Christ may be unified with God…and as Jesus says…so that where we are, they may be also…that’s where this is all going…and Jesus desires it…not only for those guys sitting at the table that night, but for you and me…and everyone that has come before us and everyone that will come after…that in the end, we may all be unified…that we may all be one. (pause)
Now, how does all this work? Well, I have no idea…but I do know that it involves the power of the Holy Spirit…which Jesus is about to send our direction at Pentecost…the Spirit of God which flows through the world…empowering the church…and empowering us as individuals to join with God in this work of unification.

And what I do know is this…it is only possible because of the hand of God at work…because there are way too many different forces at work here in the world that are trying to push back against God’s invitation forward towards unity…the powers of sin and death…the powers of darkness and destruction…powers that we see first-hand on a regular basis…because pretty much every time we open up the obituaries…there’s another one in there…and death is only one of the forces that work against the unity that God desires for us and with us.

All we need to do is turn on the news and we witness more…anytime the world…which unfortunately includes us as well…tries to throw up some sort of barrier…whatever that barrier is…division based on race, or gender, or economic status, or age, or orientation…and even here within the realm of the church…divisions and judgements based on denomination or Biblical interpretation or tradition.

We create barriers to unity all the time…but praise be to God that no matter what we throw at it…the world…this realty…this creation that we live in…God is moving it forward whether we like it or not…whether we come on board or not…whether we take God’s invitation to join in this work of reconciliation or not…its happening. (pause)

You know interestingly enough, I sat down with several of our members throughout this week, talking about this very subject…and right after one of those conversations, I had the radio playing in the background…and one of those really catchy songs came on…you know the type…the ones that even if you don’t like them, you hear it and it catches your attention.

And this song that came on the radio was Taylor Swift… (sing it) We…are never ever ever…getting back together. (pause) And the more I thought about that blasted song the more it seemed fitting.  Because all that dark stuff within our reality…whatever it is…its trying tooth and nail to keep us apart…to keep us separated…and the world and all the divisions that we create might tell us “We’re never getting back together…its too far gone…never gonna happen.” But God says…Oh yah…you just wait and see.

We may not get it now…because God works in ways that go far beyond our ability to see or do or understand…and what God’s up to doesn’t always make sense to us…in fact the work of God often times to be the polar opposite of what logic says should happen.

And as much as I might love math…and the way that it always works…the unity that God is working towards even throws that for a loop…because math may tell us that 1 plus 1 equals 2…but it seems to me that Jesus is saying that 1 plus 1 equals 1…at least it will when its all said and done. Amen

How Is God Revealed 5-26-19

In this sermon, based on John 14:23-39, I explore a bit of Jesus’ farewell to the disciples at the Last Supper. This is, perhaps, odd here in the Easter Season, but is still fitting.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/how-is-god-revealed-5-26-19

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

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

Every once in a while, we need to toot our own horns…we need to recognize something important, or even special about ourselves. This is good to do for our own mental health and wellness…and so I’m gonna toot my own horn for a sec.

I pride myself in being pretty sharp in most situations.  I’ve got a quick enough mind that I can usually make connections and figure things out pretty rapidly…and I’m proud of that fact. (pause) But…there are exceptions to every rule…and I wonder if anyone else can relate.

Have you ever had a situation where you were utterly slow on the uptake?  A time where you just couldn’t put the pieces together? Where something that should be obvious…for whatever reason, just wouldn’t click?  If so, you are in good company.

I’m thinking back to summer of 1998…my second summer on staff up at Ingham Lake Bible Camp…and a bit of relationship dynamics.  There was a good friend that I knew from the previous summer…and I knew that she had a new boyfriend…and I also knew that this mysterious new boyfriend was on staff for the summer over at the Okoboji site…but what I didn’t know was who he was.

Now, we cycled through the first few weeks of camp, along with the subsequent weekends of free time…and I had noticed this guy from Okoboji who had spent the weekends there at Ingham a couple of times…but I had no idea who this guy was…until finally…after WAY to long I realized…OH…that’s the new boyfriend…which caused pretty else on staff to reply “DUH!!!!”  Admittedly, not my smartest moment.

But you know what, I can’t help but think that I’m in good company…and this same sense of not quite being able to realize, or to recognize the truth of what’s right in front us…it seems like the disciples share it too…in fact, I can’t help but think that just about everyone who was walking around Israel in the time of Jesus was facing this exact same issue. (pause)
Now the passage that we have shared today is a small portion of Jesus’ final words to the disciples at the Last Supper.  Following this time, he’ll be arrested…and then killed…and then he’ll rise again and appear to his followers off and on for about 40 days until he’s taken back into Heaven on Ascension Day.

And this whole batch of teaching…this back and forth exchange with the disciples…it features a few questions.  You’d think that after 3 years together and all they had seen and heard and witnessed and experienced…that the disciples would be able to connect the dots…but instead…we find evidence of ongoing confusion.

It starts off with Peter…who’s listening to Jesus talk about the new commandment to love one another…by this everyone will know you are my disciples. (Slowly raise hand) Uh…Jesus…where are you going?
(facepalm) Ok Peter…let me explain…and Jesus goes on.

A minute later Jesus tells them “you know way to where I am going.”  And now its Thomas (slowly raise hand) Uh…Jesus…we don’t know where you’re going…how can we know the way? (facepalm)  Jesus goes on…talking about how they already know the Father, because they know him…and this time its Philip (slowly raise hand) Uh…Jesus…if you show us the Father, we’ll be satisfied. (facepalm)

Suppose Jesus is getting irritated yet?  This time he carries on for a little longer, before one more question from Judas…not that Judas…the other Judas…because Jesus has been reminding them of the connection that they share through him…and through him with the divine…and that as he departs, he will not leave them alone but will send the Holy Spirit…and that through the power of the Spirit, God will abide with them…and then he reminds them of the importance of love for one another…and that in the expression of love, that’s how God will be revealed…and with that, Judas (slowly raise hand) Uh…Jesus…why do you reveal yourself to us and not the world? (facepalm and pause).

I’ll be honest…I half expect Jesus to just blow up on these guys…throw his hands up and head out to find a new batch of followers who might figure things out before his arrest a few minutes later….but that’s not what happens…and instead, we have the subtle reminder from Jesus that we are to love God and love one another…and that this will be possible because of the presence of the Holy Spirit among us and within us…that is the promise.

Now, it probably makes sense that Jesus would remind them of this…that he would continue to share it at this point…just before his death…but it also important for us to be reminded of these same words here at the end of the Easter season.  This Thursday is Ascension Day…the time when Jesus’ bodily form leaves earth, before the arrival of the Spirit 10 days later at Pentecost.

We can call this a lot of things…a goodbye…a parting shot…acknowledgement of the way things are going to change…but at the same time…while many things are changing…some things are staying the same…and one of those universal things…both in this back and forth between Jesus and the disciples, as well as the countless interactions that we’ve heard in recent weeks from different people who just want a straight answer about Jesus and his identity…not to mention 2000 years of history where the church has continued to wrestle with many of these same questions.

Who is this God? Who is this Jesus…What is the Holy Spirit?  What does it mean to love our neighbors? What does the peace of Jesus look like?  Seriously…how many questions can we raise just from this short little passage today?  Tons?  And when we consider all of scripture in its entirety…the list would probably be unending.

But you know what…that’s not a bad thing…Jesus doesn’t get upset with the disciples when they fail to connect the dots…he doesn’t get irritated when they come up short, lacking understanding…because I think Jesus knows that when it comes to faith…or the divine…or the action of God in the world…we’re just not capable of making all those connections…its bigger than we are…its beyond us…but…Jesus also welcomes the questions.

And I think that’s the take away today…that faith doesn’t mean everything is cut and dry…following Christ doesn’t mean that every question is answered and can be recited in some meme-worthy sound-bite.  Faith is hard…and making sense of Jesus’ words and the scriptures and the ongoing action of God in continually inviting our reality forward…its confusing.

But can this be a place where those questions are okay…where we can ask them confidently…and together we can explore where those questions might take us?  Is that what Jesus is talking about when he says that the Holy Spirit will teach us…and will remind us of his words? Is that the sense of peace that he’s going to leave us with? A peace in knowing that its okay to not know?  Maybe…I hope so. (pause)

Its funny…because this brief little passage is one that reveals the Holy Trinity to us. Jesus is speaking of the Father…and he is speaking of the Holy Spirit…all three…but we know how confusing that three in one God is don’t we?

That was a question that kept coming up in Confirmation this past year…because Jesus is God…we learn that in the opening verses of John’s Gospel…but if Jesus is God…who’s he praying to? And does that somehow mean that Jesus is his own dad?  And how’s the Spirit of God connect into this whole thing?  We went round and round with that question…and we never came up with a satisfactory answer…even if the truth was staring right in the face…but maybe we don’t have to.

Maybe the peace of Christ is the assurance that we don’t have to get all that stuff figured out in order for it to still be true…maybe all we have to do is remember the command that Jesus gives us over and over again…to love one another.

Because that’s how he answers Judas’ question. How will you be revealed to the world?  Jesus says, love one another…that’s how you keep my word…and in doing so my father and I will dwell among you. (pause)

You know love is hard…especially in those moments when our selfishness ramps up…and the love that Jesus keeps talking about…its Agape love…which is perfect, all in, sacrificial love…and we all know how hard that is…but maybe, just maybe, when we see or feel or experience those tiny little glimmers of that agape love in the midst of our brokenness…well then we get a tiny little glimmer of the presence of the divine dwelling among us.  (pause)
How is God revealed?  That my friends…is a good…question. Amen

How Revolting 5-19-19

In this sermon, based on Acts 11:1-18, I explore the mind-blowing action of the Holy Spirit moving across cultural boundaries in the expansion of the church. This action is still going on as we are invited into deeper levels of inclusion.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/how-revolting-5-19-19

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

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

There is a scene from the movie Highlander that I love.  In a flashback to the mid-1500’s the main character, who is Scottish by the way…is trying to learn proper balance by standing up in a row boat…and when his mentor shakes the boat he cries out “You stupid haggis!”  “Haggis…what is haggis?”  “Sheep stomach stuffed with meat and barley.” “And what do you do with it?”  “You eat it.”  “How revolting.” (pause)

Its kind of a silly thing…but it reveals a certain truth. There are some things that might seem quite common to one person…but because of countless differences between individuals…that same thing might seem utterly crazy…disgusting…revolting even.

Based on that example…we’re probably thinking of odd or exotic foods…like haggis…or lutefisk for us Scandanavians…but this idea can certainly expand into a lot of different realms as well…like jobs or tasks that an individual might take on…even be used to it…but to someone who is unfamiliar it turns the stomach…like someone who works in a sewer treatment plant…or a caretaker in a big industrial chicken farm…or the poor guy who has to drive the rendering truck around and pick up dead animals. (pause) I’m sure we can all think of those types of things…something that just seems utterly wrong…so wrong that our reaction is revulsion. (pause)

Now “revulsion,” that’s a strong word isn’t it? One that we probably don’t really use that often…but it’s a good one…and I think it expresses an extreme reaction…not just dislike…but the sense of being completely repulsed by something…or even someone.

And that sense right there…I want you to hold onto that…because this very sense helps explain the mentality that Peter was facing in today’s story that we heard out of Acts. (pause)

Now at this point…the Jesus movement…or the way of Christ, or the church, or Christianity…whatever we want to call it…its pretty well been limited within the confines of the Jewish faith up to this point.  Jesus’ own action and ministry, with a few notable exceptions, has been aimed at the lost sheep of Israel.

Following his ascension right at the beginning of Acts, the tiny group of his followers are empowered by the Holy Spirit during the festival of Pentecost…and following an impassioned sermon from Peter, 3000 Jewish people became believers.  A couple chapters later we hear about 5000 more…but up to this point…we’ve yet to see the Gospel REALLY cross those cultural boundaries and reach the Gentiles…

That is, until Acts chapter 10…when Peter has a vision regarding Jewish dietary restrictions that repeats itself a few times until he starts to get the bigger picture…and then he’s summoned off to Caesarea and the home of Cornelius…a Gentile and Centurion in the Roman Army…Peter enters his home…having learned in his repeating vision that God shows no partiality and that the “unclean nature” of Gentiles should not stop him…he shares the gospel…the entire household believes…the Holy Spirit shows up just as it did to the disciples at Pentecost…and moved by the Spirit, Peter baptizes the entire household…all that happens in chapter 10.

But hold on a sec. Look back at your bulletins…doesn’t it also happen in chapter 11?  Didn’t we read pretty much that exact thing in chapter 11? Yah we did…so why the repeat?  Why, when Luke was putting all this together did he feel the need to tell the story, and then have Peter turn around and tell it again? Why the repeat? (pause)

Well…when someone repeats themselves in scripture, its usually important right? And as we hear today…Peter is telling this story to the believers in Jerusalem…and especially to his critics…who we hear are the circumcised believers. (pause)

Let’s take a second here.  Circumcise believers…Jewish believers…those who follow the Law…those who cling to the idea that followers of Christ, must be Jewish…that its open to anyone, as long as they’ve first fulfilled the law…and you know what part of that Law says?  That you should not break bread with Gentiles…you should not even enter their house…because to do so makes YOU unclean…and therefore unfit to come before God. (pause)  And did you notice…that’s their complaint…as Peter shares the news of this AMAZING new development empowered by the Holy Spirit and the shared gift of the Spirit beyond cultural boundaries…the only thing they pick up on is the revolting reality that Peter entered the house of a Gentile.  (pause)
Can you believe that…that these guys are SO caught up in “the rules” and proper order or whatever we want to call it that they seem to completely miss the enormity of what Peter is telling them.

But you know what…its not just “the rules.” It seems to go deeper than that…these guys seem to be utterly disgusted…revolted at the very idea of sharing space and time and food with Gentiles…it just does not compute as even being possible…and yet…as Peter shares his experience…as he shares what he witnessed…how the hearing of the good news of Christ brought the Spirit and the gift of faith upon this household, regardless of their culture or nationality…regardless of their background…and Peter shares the mind-blowing insight that he has learned…I know that God shows no partiality.

I can only imagine how amazing this was for Peter and the fellow believers who were with him…for the gift of the Holy Spirit comes upon Cornelius and his family in exactly the same way as it had for Peter and the others…no differences…we find that in the first account of this story…and in his own joyous astonishment, Peter says “If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God.” (pause)

Who are we to hinder that which God is up to? (pause) I think that’s a question that we all need to be asking ourselves…because the Spirit blows where it will…bringing the gift of faith into countless places and people that we think are lost causes…over and over again we hear in the scriptures…and sometimes we see with our own eyes…the way that God shows up where we least expect it…even among those who we think are unworthy…even those who we have no desire to associate with…even those who we might find revolting if we are honest with ourselves. (pause)

So who is that?  Who might the Holy Spirit be working among…having brought the gift of faith…who might God be calling even if we think it breaks the rules?  That’s a question that the church has long wrestled with in countless different situations…some of which seem to have settled…and some of which are still ongoing.

Here in the Lutheran church…or at least our branch of it…we’ve been ordaining women for almost 50 years…and that’s a good thing…because they are called and they are empowered by that same Spirit…and yet there are many, both individuals and groups, who still deny their legitimacy…who try to make them somehow less because of their gender. And what’s worse, they use scripture as a weapon to do it.

That’s just one example…there are countless more…and I can only think that when we fall in this trap, we are somehow denying the very personhood…the true identity of the individual…denying their mutual humanity and the truth that they are bearers of the divine image.

Who is God calling that we don’t agree with?  Who is God empowering that we just can’t wrap our heads around…because its been drilled into us by tradition that “it doesn’t work that way.” Or because our own personal prejudice or more often fear of the unknown whispers a lie in our ear to make us believe that they are somehow less…or unacceptable…or maybe Christianity’s favorite trope…that they are too sinful. (pause)

Over and over again, the story of scripture reveals mind-blowing ways that God continues to invite us forward…and this tends to reveal itself with ever increases examples of inclusion that crosses the boundaries created by society…and each and every time a line is drawn in the sand about who is in and who is out…we find Jesus on the other side. (pause)

Peter says “who am I that I could hinder God?” God will not be hindered…the Holy Spirit will not be limited because of our narrowmindedness, whether we like it or not…because the Gospel of Christ is WAY TOO big for our petty limitations to keep under control, and we find this in the very end of the book of Acts, as the Gospel of Christ and the kingdom of God is proclaimed with all boldness and WITHOUT…HINDRANCE.

Here’s the thing folks…the Spirit’s not done yet either…whatever was going on when Peter interacted with Cornelius…you better believe it was mind-blowing…Peter himself had to experience this vision 3 different times before he finally started opening up to it.  Then his critics in Jerusalem had to hear evidence, not only from him, but from 6 other people that the Spirit had in fact acted across racial and cultural boundaries before they could accept it…this was no easy thing…and I’m guessing it wasn’t just cut and dry…easy peasy…for any of them.

But that’s the radical nature of God’s amazing Grace made manifest through Jesus Christ…it goes beyond all logic…it goes beyond all understanding…and it breaks EVERY barrier…it has to, or its not grace.

So who might be our Cornelius?  Who might God be calling US into faithful relationship with…into shared communion…into this ONE body of Christ on earth?  That’s something we always need to be paying attention to…because the moment we wrap our heads around one mind-blowing situation on inclusion, God’s probably starting to prep the next one for us.

And you know what, that’s a good thing…because if God’s grace is really THAT big…well that means that its big enough for me…no matter how revolting that might have been for someone else, that God would chose to love me. That’s the amazing grace of God folks…and it really is THAT big.   Amen.

Tell Us Plainly 5-12-19

In this sermon, based on John 10:22-30, I explore the urgent request of Jesus’ opponents to “tell us plainly” if he is the Messiah. But to understand the work of God through Jesus, and to hear the voice of God through it can be difficult. But to be known by God, is a reassuring sense.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/tell-us-plainly-5-12-19

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

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

About a dozen or so years back…as I was in the process of discerning my call into ministry…I participated in an ongoing class aimed at leadership development…and one of the processes that we went through was an exploration of our inherent strengths…we did this through an assessment test known as Strengthsfinders…some of you might be familiar with it.

The point is kinda right there in the name…as the results of this assessment identify your top 5 natural leadership abilities out of a listing of about 30 or so possibilities. Now as I reviewed my own personal results, I discovered that Communication was one of my top 5, and with that I began to understand some of my own personal tendencies.  I hate being misunderstood…I absolutely hate it…and this manifests in my tendency to OVER-communicate…especially in written forms of communication.  Any of you parents who have gotten informational emails about confirmation have seen this first hand…and I’m almost ashamed to admit how utterly long and complicated my “helpful information” is when someone new is going to visit and provide pulpit supply.  I am the epitome of “too much information.”

Now, the longer I’ve been doing this, the more aware I’ve become of this tendency, and I have tried to take steps to simplify things and just “tell it plainly.” And maybe, just maybe this falls in line with the exasperated statement we hear from the opponents of Jesus in today’s story as they say “If you are the messiah, tell us plainly.”

Come on Jesus…don’t beat around the bush…don’t be so cryptic…are you…or aren’t you? (pause) That seems to the be sense behind their words. And maybe that strikes us as a little odd…why wouldn’t they know? Isn’t it a no-brainer? Of course Jesus is the Messiah…and they should all know that right?  Or should they?

By this point Jesus has been on the scene for a while. He’s gathered a following…the disciples are trailing along behind him. He’s been performing miraculous signs, both for individuals as well as for the crowds…he’s been teaching and debating and all that kind of stuff…and yet…the people can’t quite make up their mind about him…some of think he is the long awaited Messiah…some of them think he’s just some backwater Galilean quack…and some just don’t know. (pause)

For us, it’s a no brainer…but keep in mind that the people were in the midst of the story at that time…they didn’t have 2000 years of hindsight…and its very seldom that anything…especially matters of faith, are nice and neat…real life tends to be a little messier…and the messages that come from God are only apparent as we look back at them after the fact.

And, to the credit of the individuals who are asking him…Jesus hasn’t been overly forthright with this information either…in fact, to this point, he’s only come out and told 1 person that he’s the Messiah…1. The Samaritan Woman at the well. Many have suspected it…many have even made up their minds about it…but beyond that one instance for an audience of 1…Jesus has been pretty quiet on the subject. Jesus…tell us plainly… (pause)

But I wonder…why now? Why do they chose this particular instance to ask Jesus about it? He’s spent plenty of time in the temple…he hasn’t exactly been incognito…so why, here in the Festival of the Dedication, are these particular religious leaders so intent on Jesus’ messianic identity?

And to get to the heart of that question, a little history.  The festival of the dedication, which as we hear happens in mid-winter…has another name that you might be more familiar with…the festival of lights…or Hanukah…and it dates back to a period about 150 years before the birth of Jesus…and a bit of Jewish history known as the Maccabean revolution.  At that moment in history, Israel was under the control of the Seleucid empire…and the top dog came into the temple and desecrated it by sacrificing to his particular god…and this angered the Jewish people so much that a revolt started up under a guy named Judas Maccabeus…a revolt that succeeded in throwing out the Seleucids and for one brief period in Israel’s history…they were self-governed.  And they needed to rededicate the temple to God, which involved burning a candle that must never go out…and it burns special consecrated oil, and they only had enough for a day, but miraculously it kept burning for 8 days until more oil was available…that’s the whole point behind the festival of the dedication or Hanukah.

But then, if you know your history…it wasn’t long before the Roman Empire came to power, and spread through the region of Israel…and with that fall to foreign power once again…a condition so familiar to the Jewish people throughout their history…don’t you think they’d be looking for another great leader…one anointed by God to lead the people…to reestablish the glory of the past…and if this random guy that some say might just be the one…if he felt like making it official and declaring himself…wouldn’t the festival that originated with a successful Jewish revolt against foreign oppressors be the PERFECT opportunity? Seems logical…so Jesus…if you are the Messiah…tell…us…plainly. (pause)

But instead of finding himself a podium with some historic backdrop and getting a bunch of news cameras and a photo-op to declare his campaign like we tend to see these days…Jesus just says “I have told you and you do not believe…the signs that I do testify to me…you do not believe…because you do not belong to my sheep…My sheep hear my voice.  I KNOW THEM…and they follow me.” (pause)

Now there is a lot going on in that statement…but I think one way to understand it is to say that to be one of the sheep that belongs to the one who calls himself the good shepherd is to believe…and to believe is to belong…and to belong is to be known. (pause)

This implies a sense of utter familiarity…to be known and to know one another…the original language implies utter intimacy…to be known completely…and maybe you know that sense.  Like the way you can pick your kid out of the crowd on the football field, even covered up in full pads.  Or the way that can see the look on your mom or dad’s face and know that you’ve crossed a line.  Or the way you can hear a voice and know exactly who it is.

I was joking around last week with a few people…and commented about I can sit at my desk and can identify certain individuals just by listening to their footsteps as they walk towards my door.  You know what I mean…that total and complete sense of familiarity with one another.

That’s what Jesus is talking about…a sense that makes us pay attention because of how closely connected we are…even within moments when everything else is struggling to pull our attention away.  There are times when that still small voice of God is speaking…but it can be so hard to hear because of the countless distractions…

And on the flip side there are also times when the voice of God is silent…and we have the tendency to fill in the blanks with all kinds of stuff…things that make us feel like we’re still on the right track…things like rituals…or traditions that have gone beyond their intended purpose and have become the rule that must be followed…and I can’t help but think that was the very thing that God wanted to free us from in the person of Jesus Christ…the myth or the lie that only through what we do or what we refrain from doing will make us good enough to hear that quiet voice speaking.

That seemed to be the mission of Christ during his ministry…as we continually see him crossing the boundaries of who’s in and who’s out…those lines drawn by society, or by religion, or by culture that say “you’re not good enough.” Over and over again we see Jesus standing on the OTHER side of that line…sometimes quietly and sometimes quite forcefully…as the one who is also God tries SO HARD to show us that we are already loved and claimed by the one who lovingly made us in the first place.

There is no test to pass…there is no magic words to utter…there’s no perfect liturgy to recite or attendance record to make or dress code to follow or benchmark to achieve…right now…as you are…you are claimed by the one who calls to you…and this God who calls out to you does so in the form of a human being…this God who took on flesh and dwelled among us to show us…quite literally, that there is no length that God will not go to in order to be with you…and then…having claimed you through that familiar voice which lovingly says “you are mine,” we are called simply to follow.

That catches my attention today…as Jesus says “my sheep hear my voice. I know them…and they follow me.”  These are also the final words spoken by Jesus here in John’s gospel…following his resurrection as he appears to some of the disciples and finally tells Peter, quite simply…follow me.

We don’t know what comes after…because John cuts things off…but we do know that it wasn’t the end of the line…and this isn’t the end of the line for us either.

Admittedly, there are times in our lives when we want to yell at God…those moments of confusion or heartache when we long to scream “JUST TELL US PLAINLY!” And know that if you need to do so, that’s ok…God will take that.

And there are also times when it all seems so apparent…and let us rejoice in those moments.  (Pause) So regardless of where we find ourselves today…Let each of us listen for that still small voice which calls out to us…let us recognize it as the voice of the one who knows us and loves us…and let us follow where He leads. Amen.