Posts Tagged ‘Gospel’

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

Advertisements

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.

I Gotta Share This 4-21-19

In this Easter sermon, I explore the unexplainable joy that we find in the resurrection of Jesus.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/i-gotta-share-this-4-21-19

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

May the grace and peace of our Risen Lord Jesus Christ be with you, now and forever. Amen.

Anyone remember the Beverly Hills Cop movies? There’s a little bit of dialogue that keeps popping up through the second one that I appreciate, as Eddie Murphy…a police officer mind you, continues to do little things that…MIGHT not be strictly legal…and every he time he does, he makes the same comment… “You know I wasn’t always a cop. I fractured an occasional law.”(pause) Over the past few years, I’ve found myself in similar moments…and in conversation over old stories of my former life…I’ve been quoted as saying “Well you know, I wasn’t always a pastor…”

Like anyone…I’ve got some stupid stuff in my past…and one in particular comes to mind today…a moment that happened when I was pretty young…maybe 10 or 11…when I tagged along with my older brother and one his friends, down the road about half a mile to the old farm place where my grandparents used to live…and where my dad had actually grown up.  Now we called this, quite simply, “the old place.” And on occasion we would go exploring through the old buildings that still stood there…and on this particular day…we ended up breaking windows. I don’t remember how it started, but it did. Not proud of it…but I was a part of it.

Now here’s the thing…I was the type of kid who was REALLY bad at keeping secrets…and so it wasn’t long before I spilled the beans about our little destructive escapade. I just couldn’t keep it in…now if you’re wondering…yes there were consequences…but those details aren’t really important…What is important, is that sense of needing to tell someone…of having news that you just can’t keep in…I want you to keep that in mind while we think about the amazing story of the resurrection that we are sharing today. (pause)
Now, as we know the story of the resurrection doesn’t really start on Sunday morning…it starts on Friday evening…with Jesus dead…his body taken down off the cross…wrapped in burial cloth and laid in the tomb with the entrance covered by a giant stone…all of this witnessed by a group of women who have been following Jesus throughout his ministry…right up to the point of his burial…long after he was deserted and left by the men who swore they would follow him, even to death…interesting to see who actually made good on that promise isn’t it? (pause)

Now all logic says that’s the end right. Jesus is dead. And death is it right? The end of the line…and even though these people have watched Jesus overcome death more than once as he raised 3 different people from the dead…they are still caught in grief…in pain…in mourning and loss and rightly so…because death is final…and everyone knows that.

And so, in the hopes of one final act of kindness and love for Jesus, the women prepare spices for anointing his body…and then as their Sabbath begins, they dutifully wait, until the first possible moment, here at dawn on the first day of the week…and they head to the tomb…to the place where they had watched as he was laid…in order to fulfill this last act.

But what happens next…defies…all…logic.  (pause) As the women approach the tomb, they see the stone rolled away…that’s weird…but okay…I guess that’s one thing they don’t have to do right? And so they poke their heads inside, fully expecting to see a body wrapped up in cloth…but its…not…there.  The tomb is empty except for the discarded burial shroud.

Confusing? Yep…Perplexing….you better believe it? And the women are just kind of looking at one another in their confusion when out of nowhere BOOM…there’s two angels standing there…and the women are so freaked out…so startled and so scared to be in the presence of these beings of heavenly origin that they hit the ground.

Now…we’ve heard stories like this before…when some heavenly being, whether God in some crazy weird form or an angel of some sort shows up…apparently its…freaky…I can imagine that the person is scared because that which is divine in nature has gotta be so much more than we can handle…and we hear this in the greeting of the heavenly being ALMOST every single time…as they begin with “Fear not” or “Do not be afraid” (pause) Except this time…they…don’t…say it.  Did you catch that?

The very first thing out of the angels…is a question of joyful origin.  Why do you look for the living among the dead?  (Pause) Now wait a sec…think about that question…think about what it implies.  The man who was dead…we watched him die…we watched as his body was placed…RIGHT…HERE…he…was…dead.  And now, he’s not.   WHAT?!?

I mean, that’s the message right? And it is SO GOOD…that the angels can’t be bothered with anything else…this has to be shared right away…just like that time when I was 10 years old and just couldn’t keep in the news that we had done something stupid…the angels can’t keep this amazing news quiet either.

Remember how he told you in Galilee…He would be betrayed…he would be crucified…but then on the 3rd day…he would…rise. (pause) Jesus TOLD THEM ALL THIS NEWS…and not just once…we’ve got details of at least 3 times when Jesus told his followers that THIS VERY THING was gonna happen.

And each and every time…it would seem that the news just didn’t sink in for any of them…not for the 12…and apparently not for the women numbered among his followers either…at least not until this moment…this moment when they find the tomb empty…and they hear the proclamation of the Risen Lord…and they…REMEMBERED…his words.

You know what we call that? We call that faith…that somehow as we hear the story…and we remember the words that JESUS HIMSELF shared…the Holy Spirit takes that and somehow makes this unbelievable thing…this event that defies all logic…and makes it believable.

THINK ABOUT IT…death, which is supposed to be the ultimate end of the line…isn’t anymore. WHAT?  How does that work? Well…I DON’T KNOW…but it does…that’s the promise…and through the power of that same Holy Spirit that was acting in the hearts and minds of the women works in us too…and you know what…it empowers us to do the exact same thing.

Because this is amazing news isn’t it? Jesus was dead, but now he’s alive again…that’s too good to sit on…and apparently that’s how the women felt…that I can’t hold this in…I gotta share it…and who better to share it with than the men who were considered the closest friends of Jesus himself…and so they run off to the tell the disciples…and the disciples…blow it off.  Luke describes their reaction as hearing an “idle tail.” And since I wasn’t always a pastor, you probably know what OTHER 2 word phrase I would use to describe that…hint…it has to do with a male cow going the bathroom… (pause)

Isn’t that crazy…Jesus told these guys too…more than once…and now, hearing the proclamation…they promptly…do nothing…the only one who can even be bothered to get up and look is Peter, who goes and finds the empty tomb itself, still doesn’t believe it…none of these guys do until the resurrected Jesus actually appears before them later on that day…and even then they don’t quite grasp it until he picks up a piece of fish and eats it. (pause)
And you know…I always think that seems crazy…that not even THESE GURS could believe the gospel of the resurrection without physical proof…but that speaks to ludicrous nature of the gospel…the crazy news that Jesus was dead but is alive again. This gospel that we share…and that we profess as true.

So what is it…what was different about the women compared to men…because the ladies didn’t see Jesus…and yet the proclamation was enough to create faith in the resurrected Lord…and Jesus himself talks about this very thing in one of the other gospels as he addresses the disciples and says “You have believed because you have seen…but blessed are the ones who have NOT seen, and yet come to believe.”

Any idea just who Jesus might be talking about? (pause) HINT….LOOK AROUND YOU…AND IF YOU GOT A MIRROR LOOK IN THAT…BECAUSE YOU ARE THE PEOPLE HE’S TALKING ABOUT. (pause)  Folks…this faith thing is crazy…it doesn’t make any sense…but somehow it works…and whatever it is that the Holy Spirit is up to…somehow we are empowered and given the gift of faith…the gift of believing that he who was dead is alive again…and that through that same Spirit, we are made heirs of the same promise of the resurrection…and that somehow, someway…we have joined with him in a life like his…that one day each of one us will join with him in a death like his…but most importantly…we will also join with him in a resurrection like his.

This is what God has accomplished through the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus…to show us that there is NO length that God will not go in order to make it possible for us to be reunited with God…Now…that perfect love, while beyond our ability in this life…is possible…and even though our broken world killed him for it…God has shown us through that empty tomb…through the proclamation that Jesus was dead and now he’s alive again…God has shown us that Love is bigger than anything else…and that nothing…not even death gets the last word where we are concerned…God does…and now, empowered by the Holy Spirit, may each one of us carry this amazing news…news that takes us out of the place of death and into the joy of new life…and like the women who were the first preachers of the gospel…may we share this same amazing message with the world around us…so that they too, might come to believe this amazing news…this story that is SO GOOD…it leaves us with a sense…that I gotta share this. Amen.

Who Am I 12-23-18

In this sermon, I explore Mary’s visit to Elizabeth in Luke 1:39-55. In this brief passage, we are reminded of the reality of oppression and marginalization and the privilege that lies on the opposite side. And yet, the promise of the gospel is that God’s mercy and love puts us all on equal ground.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/who-am-i-12-23-18

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

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

Have you ever heard the expression “everyone is the hero of their own story?” (Pause) I think that’s a pretty accurate statement…and it speaks into how our existence…our life…our day to day is utterly shaped by our own experience…none of us tend to think of ourselves as the bad guy in any situation…but that we are simply doing the best that we can given the circumstances.

But sometimes I wonder if that’s always the case…and I think its safe to say that sometimes we all get caught up in the “poor me” mentality…that idea that things are everyone else’s fault…or that everyone else is being stubborn or narrow-minded.  I wonder, how many of us have ever been in a situation when we are listening to another person share their frustrations…their irritations…and we’ve thought to ourselves…or maybe we’ve just come out and asked the question “What’s your part in this?”  I think this is pretty universal…that we wear blinders to our part of things…to our responses or our statements…and we get caught up in the other persons stuff without considering what we can control…and I can think of no better way of saying this…of conveying this idea other than the phrase “Own your stuff.”  The good and the bad…I think we all fall in the trap of failing to own it don’t we? (pause)

In the interest of full disclosure…I’m gonna own some stuff right now…most of what I’m going to say will not be shocking…but I need to say it anyway.  I’m a guy…I’m nearing 40, and at this stage in my life I’m old enough to be taken seriously by the generations above me…and I’m still young enough to not be utterly blown off and disregarded by the generations coming up below me.

I am, as you may have noticed…white.  I am married with a couple of kids, and while that’s not a dead giveaway in every instance, it does point to the strong possibility that I’m straight…and I am. I hold a Master’s Degree making me pretty highly educated, and along with that I’m gainfully employed with a fair wage and organizationally required health insurance and retirement savings…and finally, the icing on the cake…I live in the US.  All of this adds up to the reality that I will fully own…I AM…one of the single LEAST marginalized people on the planet. (pause)
Now I can only imagine that you are wondering what this has to do with anything today…we find ourselves at the tail end of the season of Advent…the season of anticipation and longing for the coming Savior.  Today is of course December 23rd…Christmas Eve is tomorrow…and tomorrow night we’ll gather to celebrate the Nativity of Jesus…the birth of the savior…and as we know that’s a really big deal.

But before we can get to the birth of the savior…that mind-blowing guy who is somehow both fully God and fully human, we have think about how the human aspect gets into the world…which is the same as any other human…he’s born, but before he can be born, there has to be a pregnancy.

And that’s where we find ourselves today…our story begins “in those days” and in those days, Mary the mother of Jesus has literally JUST been visited by the angel Gabriel and told that she’s going to be pregnant through the power of God’s Holy Spirit…and that the child will be the savior of the world…and not only that…but that her older relative Elizabeth, who has been barren her entire life and is well beyond child bearing, is also pregnant.

And so…with haste…Mary takes off and goes on a visit…and this is the focal point of today’s story…the amazing Spirit-filled initial encounter between these two women who are pregnant in what can only be considered miraculous circumstances.

Now Mary and Elizabeth have some things in common but they’ve got some pretty distinct differences as well.  Elizabeth is older, perhaps even considered elderly…Mary is young, probably not even in her teens yet.  Elizabeth is the wife of a priest that is periodically active in the Temple…they’ve got means…enough that they actually owned two different houses…in the fairly well to do region of Jerusalem and Bethany right outside the city.  Mary’s engaged to Joseph, but is not yet married…and she’s from a tiny backwater town where she’s grown up in a tiny mud walled hut built over a naturally occurring limestone cave alongside countless other so-called “houses.”

But the thing that they both have in common is this pregnancy…now culturally speaking, there’s a lot going on here. Scripture tells us that when Elizabeth’s barrenness is broken and she’s miraculously pregnant she goes into seclusion…tradition in Israel says that she was embarrassed to be pregnant around all the city girls so she runs off to the country house…and that’s where Mary comes to see her.

What we don’t know is why…why does Mary come…it could be a lot of reasons. Maybe she wants to connect with a relative in the same sort of boat and have some girl-chat.  Maybe she’s going to serve as a mid-wife to her relative in the later stages of her pregnancy.  Or maybe, since Mary was now pregnant in “questionable circumstances,” and she lives in the epitome of the small town…she’s trying to get away too…after all she would have faced the possibility of scorn and ridicule and even being stoned to death.

Both of these women are facing tough circumstances…and the culture of the day certainly didn’t help any. It may seem utterly foreign to us now…but in that time, women were property…marriages were arranged for financial reasons…and other than caring for the house…pretty much the sole reason for women to exist was to provide babies for her husband…and preferably boys because the guy needed an heir.  They couldn’t own property…they couldn’t embark on business transactions…they couldn’t do much.  In short…they were marginalized to start with…and now you put these odd ball circumstances into their lives…and I think its safe to say that Mary and Elizabeth fall under the category of the lowly…the downtrodden…the very people that Mary starts singing about in the Magnificat.

I think its safe to say that their experience is the polar opposite of my existence…and in the interest of full disclosure…I feel very very uneasy in trying to tell you how you should think or feel about this divinely inspired exchange between the two women…because this situation is so utterly out of my wheelhouse.

As I’ve considered it…I think about those of you who have struggled with fertility…because that’s a reality…and I wonder how you hear this story of God’s divine intervention in not just one but two pregnancies…two pregnancies that build off of a history of other Old Testament pregnancies of divine nature.  I wonder if this strikes you as painful to hear as you wait and hope and hope that one day it will be your turn.

On the flip side…we’re in a day and age where a women’s worth is not…or in the very should not be dictated by having children…and I know many women who live a fulfilled life with no desire for kids…and I wonder how this speak in their situation to hear scripture saying that they are blessed through having children.

We can go deeper than that and think about those who are marginalized for all kinds of different reasons…because if there’s one thing we’re good at its pushing people to the margins over really pointless stuff…race, economic status, sexual orientation, gender, age, just to name a few…and it happens, sometimes intentionally…and sometimes its happening despite our ignorance of it…and we are blissfully unaware. (pause)

Now what I cannot tell you…is where you fall on all this.  Some of you may be sitting out there today and this hits close to home…because of something beyond your control that pushes you aside…that says you are somehow less. (pause) But on the flip side some of you might be uncomfortable because this brings up the sense of how you’ve benefited from it.

And that’s where I find myself today…and as I consider my own privilege that honestly is no more than dumb luck to be born this way…I can’t help but hear a rebuke in Mary’s words…God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…he has brought the powerful down from their thrones…he has sent the rich away empty. (pause)

The crazy thing about scripture…about the gospel…is that in its very nature it brings comfort to the afflicted and affliction to the comfortable…and we see that on full display today…because God has looked with favor on the lowly…God has filled the hungry with good things.

Maybe just maybe what God is up to is evening the playing field…something we might call equality or justice…and in the midst of that…giving a reminder that when it comes to God’s mercy…when it comes to God’s favor…when it comes to God’s love for each of us…there is not a scarcity…but there is an abundance…that God offers it to each us in the same amount…and that the promises are that God will be found with those who are lowly…something evidenced in that God chose the lowest of the low…a young unwed mother in first century Palestine…a girl from a poor backwater town in the midst of controlled territory…she is the one who is chosen to bear the literal embodiment of the divine into this broken reality.

That through her…all life, broken as it is…is somehow glorified because that which is divine dares to be found in the midst of it…and in the middle of all this God has made promises to each of us…that no matter what our circumstances…that divine love and acceptance…that divine favor is shown to us…that’s the promise of the gospel.

Elizabeth poses a question that seems quite fitting…at one point she says “why has this happened to me?”  Might as well be asking “why me” or “who am I?”  I can only imagine that Mary asked herself that same question…and its one that we probably ask as well… “Who am I that God would see me…that God would consider me…that God would look at me?”

Know this today…the promise which God has made through the life and the death and the resurrection of Christ…is that you are claimed and you are loved…and that God will be found with the least of us in order to show us how universal his love is for all the world…that’s the promise…whether we feel encouraged by it given our circumstances…or if we feel the need to repent of something based on our circumstances…the promise is the same…we need only believe it…and blessed is she who believed that there would be fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.  Blessed is the one who believes…and may we all find the hope present in this blessing as we anticipate the change which our Lord is bringing into the world. Amen.

This Is Not Normal 10-21-18

In this sermon, based on Mark 10:32-45, I explore Jesus’ final Passion Prediction and the strange way that the disciples continue to react to it. It shouldn’t be normal…and in light of a tragedy in our community, it seems quite fitting.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/this-is-not-normal-10-21-18

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

The grace and peace of the Triune God is yours, now and forever. Amen

Yesterday I spent I pretty big portion of the day in the car, as my family road tripped up to the central part of the state for the funeral of my wife’s aunt. As we were driving in the morning, both my wife and I commented that it was strange that there weren’t very many farmers out in the field yet…with the mild dry and breezy weather that we’ve had the past few days finally making harvest work a possibility.

But that was the case…very little activity in the fields as we traveled in the morning.  But then on the way home, it was the polar opposite. Combines in almost every field…the tell-tale presence of a large dust cloud as the crops are pulled out…and as we drove along, it crossed my mind “now that’s more like it….this is what I expect to see this time of year…this is normal.” Year after year of history all adds up for us to build these images of normal, as we witness or even experience those things that just end up being common.

Now that being said…I can’t help but think that today’s scripture reveals something else that is starting to become normal. Now, as I mentioned, I included an extra couple of verses in the reading today…because the setting is important.  For the third and final time, Jesus has shared the prediction of his pending passion…his betrayal and arrest…his persecution and torture…his death on the cross…and perhaps most importantly…the good news of the resurrection that he will also experience.

We’ve heard the other two predictions in recent weeks…as all three occur in a fairly brief portion of Mark’s gospel…now here’s the thing.  Jesus doesn’t deviate much in terms of the details that he shares each time…but the thing that’s starting to become familiar…that’s becoming…normal…is the reaction on the part of the disciples.

The first time Peter makes a proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah…and Jesus responds “You betcha…now here’s what that means.” And Peter oversteps his bounds…rebuking Jesus, likely due to an misplaced expectation of just what the earthly Messiah means.

The second time around…Jesus predicts it again…and this time the disciples sorta clam up in front of him, but as they continue walking along they start bickering about who’s the greatest among them…and Jesus has to stop and redirect them again.

And now today…he makes the same prediction for the third and final time…and this time, its James and John who come up to him with this off-the wall request…now…I can’t help but think that they know this probably isn’t the smartest thing to be asking for…so maybe, just maybe they have been paying attention to what happened the first two times…but they come up to Jesus and say “Teacher…we want you to give us whatever we ask of you.” And Jesus…who probably already has a pretty good idea of what’s coming, poses quite the question back at them…What do you want me to do for you?

And with that…we hear this request to hold the places of honor, at the right hand and the left hand of Jesus when he comes into his glory. (pause)
Seriously…its bad enough that the disciples never seem to fully grasp what’s going on…and not only in these three instances…but honestly throughout the course of the gospels it constantly seems like they lack any shred of comprehension…like their boneheaded responses are just the normal thing that we come to expect from them.

But you know what…it shouldn’t be.  These 12 guys…these men who follow Jesus around to witness the ministry first-hand…never seem to get it…and what’s worse…in two out of the three passion predictions…it’s the big 3…Jesus’ inner circle of Peter, James, and John…who misread things…and honestly…the gospel of Jesus Christ…the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near to us through the incarnate word of God made flesh in Jesus…that’s WAY to big to get brushed off with these boneheaded responses of the disciples…maybe we think its normal…but it shouldn’t be normal. (pause)

Now with this…I need to switch gears…Friday morning, I walked into the office with an expectation in mind…but I was a little off…because as I had taken my kids to school, I had seen and heard several patrol cars as well as the firetruck and ambulance go flying up the hill out of town…and for some reason, the thought went through my head…this is a big one.

Admittedly…I was already a little edgy going into the day…many of you sitting out there probably know the significance of October 19th here in our community…but I sat down at my desk and started working…only to get a message a few minutes later with some of the worst news we can get.

There’s been a car accident…and a student from the high school has been killed…now at this point it was only a rumor…but one that prompted me to reach out to the principal up the hill…and to quickly receive confirmation that yes…that’s what happened…and with that I jumped in the car to go be present and help out at the school in any way that I could.

When I arrived, the students were all in their classrooms…and they were being told what had happened…and as I sat there in the commons, talking with a few of the administration, I knew what I was going to see next.  I was going to see students come back out into the hallways crying…I was going to see them utterly devastated…clinging to one another in the shock…some would continue to walk around the school with that shocked look on their face…some would call their parents and go home…and over the course of the next couple of hours, the school day would continue on as many of them defaulted back into the familiar…upset and shaken…and yet trying their best to go on with things.

And that’s exactly what happened…now here’s the painful thing about this…I knew what to expect…because this isn’t the first time I’ve been at that school when something like this has happened. 3 times in the past 4 years our high school has experienced the tragedy of the death of a classmate…a life lost far too soon…and this should not be normal.

(pause) Now please don’t think that I’m trivializing this in anyway…its heart breaking…utterly devastating…and I know enough of those kids up the hill to feel the anguish of having been through this, not just once, and not twice, but now three times.  And to know that as devastating as it might be for the school and the community…that there is a family who has now experienced the nightmare that you don’t wish on anyone.

And if you have heard the news report about the accident…you know how bad this is without me needing to say it…and I’ve had conversations with several different people in the meantime…conversations that pretty much end up saying “this doesn’t make sense?” or “I want to know why?” And usually once they say that, they follow it up with “and I know I can’t know, and that’s not right.”

There’s a lot of truth in that…when a tragedy like this happens…something that we can’t make heads or tails of…it usually leaves us with a bitter taste in our mouths…and we’re either really sad or we’re really angry…and often we look for someone or something to aim that emotion at.

And as we consider that…maybe, just maybe…Jesus response to James and John is fitting today…what do you want me to do for you? The quick answer…is that we want God to take it away…to snap his fingers and make it just a bad dream that didn’t actually happen…but our broken reality has also shown us that this is not what’s going to happen…because Jesus did not come into our reality in order to serve as something of a magic lamp…to grant wishes to us…I can only think that Jesus had something much bigger and more profound in mind, not only as he predicted his passion…but as he actually experienced it.

Because in the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus…God was doing something about this broken reality that we live in…a reality that includes pain and suffering and death…whatever it was that Jesus was accomplishing…the promise of the gospel assures us that whenever death rears its ugly head…it doesn’t get the last word…God does…because God mourns this reality just like we do…and God knows that while it might feel normal…it shouldn’t.

This is the gospel…that while we were sinners, Christ died for us…and this is true whether we feel good about it or not.  I don’t know about you…but in light of this tragic death…just like the others like it that our community has experienced…sometimes these promises of the gospel feel kinda bitter…but the truth is that the promises don’t change based on how we feel. (pause)
Once more, our community has experienced a tragedy…and now together, we will all try our best to find the new normal going forward…and as we do, whether this feels trite right now in the moment, or if it is a comfort…we have a God who is walking this road with us…a God who has promised to never forsake us even in the times when we find ourselves hollering and screaming at him…God will take it…so if that’s what you need to do…if that’s what you need to feel…feel it, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

This is not normal…nor should it be…but regardless of how we find ourselves feeling right here, right now…know that God doesn’t think its normal either…and even if it doesn’t feel like it, God HAS already done something about it. Amen.

The Crazy Cycle 8-26-18

In this sermon, based on John 6:56-71, I explore the “hard teaching” of the gospel, and the amazing revelation that God chooses us, knowing that we will ultimately fail to chose God.

You can listen the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/the-crazy-cycle-8-26-18

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

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

Last Tuesday evening was back to school night at the elementary and junior high building here in Underwood…as countless families all brought their kids, and more importantly their kid’s bundles of school supplies, in order to drop things off and explore the important spots in the school for another year…class rooms, lockers, all that stuff.

And I was there too, bringing along stuff for my daughter who’s still matriculating there in the Jr High…and as we walked around the school…I overheard 2 different phrases that caught my attention.  The first one was “So 8:30 at my place for mimosas on Thursday.” (pause), No idea what that one was about…but the second phrase was one that I overheard MANY times over…and I’m pretty sure that I said it a time or two as well.  “Here we go again.”

Tuesday night was the beginning of another year…another cycle of school…and I’m guessing there were a few other things that happened on Thursday that come up in that cycle every year as well…things like rolling a sleeping kid out of bed at 6:30…and the groan that emerges from that bed when you turn the light on.  Or things like the annual posting of the first day pictures on Facebook…how many of you did that, or in the very least saw them?  And maybe, just maybe, a few of out there waited for that moment when your kiddo got out of the car and starting walking up towards the front door and in the sanctity of your car you cried out “FREEEEEDOOOOOM!!!!!”  (pause)

That first day of school is funny isn’t it…those little things that become routine….those things that happen every year at this time…those things that are just a little cog in the midst of that cycle that continues to repeat itself year after year…time after time. (Pause)

Now in light of things being cyclic…let’s pull our attention over to the scriptures…but not just the assigned texts for today…rather let’s think for a moment about the overarching narrative of the Bible.  Admittedly, I know everyone’s level of familiarity is different and that’s okay…but as I think back to a study that we worked through here in the congregation a few years back that really centered in on the overarching Biblical narrative, I remember a conversation that we kept on having…itself a bit of a cycle that repeated almost every time our study group got together…and that’s the crazy cycle that seems like it just keeps on repeating.

God is revealed to the people in one way or another…typically through some miraculous or divine event…and the people pledge themselves to following God…and things go pretty well…for a while…but people have short memories…and after a few years or a generation or two goes by…the people turn away from God…and things start going lousy…and then after a while…they remember God and turn back…and this story, in one form or another…repeats itself over and over again…often times with very similar details.

Now we actually catch just a glimpse of this from the Old Testament reading of Joshua that we heard a moment ago…when Joshua is addressing the people, who by this point are pretty strongly established in the Promised Land…and he tells them in the midst of an address to the entire assembled nation “Choose this day who you will serve….the gods of the people in whose land you are living…or if you will serve the Lord.”

What’s really interesting about this is that Joshua is pretty much mirroring his mentor from a generation earlier…maybe you remember the story when Moses stood before the people…and said something pretty similar “Choose life.”

I always chuckle when I read these different passages…and there are plenty more like them…and I picture the people standing there listening…and then they nod their heads….Oh yes…we will serve the Lord…for about 5 minutes…and then the crazy cycle kicks in again.  We see it over and over again…and let’s be honest with ourselves…we still see it today as we look around don’t we…especially when we are looking in the mirror.

If there’s one constant throughout the scriptures, I suspect it might be this.  God…the Lord, Yahweh, the great I Am, whatever name we want to assign…continues to stand before us in one form or another saying “Choose me.”

And it seems SO simple doesn’t it?  The SIMPLE choice to choose God…to walk the righteous path…to follow the rules and do what’s right? But how’s that working for us?  I can’t speak for any of you…but I know me, and I know just how often that doesn’t seem to be the way it plays out. (pause)

The crazy cycle of this life…this existence…its flawed in so many ways…the brokenness of our reality…the brokenness that lies within people as a whole…cultures or communities or groups…and the brokenness that lies within each of us as individuals…you might call systemic…you might call it a lot of things…but I don’t think any of us can honestly deny that its real…and every single time…that brokenness that lies within us will win out…as we place ourselves in the driver’s seat…as we place our own needs or desires above something else…as we essentially turn ourselves into an idol.

God continues to say “Choose me” knowing full well if it’s left up to us and our own devices…then God might as well be saying “You will always fail to chose me.” (pause) Now that’s sorta dark right…bit of a downer…but I think it’s a pretty accurate description of the human condition…because each and every one of us has within our very nature the incredibly strong ability to destroy…the capability for selfishness…the capability to inflict pain both on others as well as ourselves…and God knows this.

But God knows something else…because God takes a look at every single member of the human race, lovingly and joyfully made bearing the divine image of God, and that divine image bears an equally strong ability for love and joy and peace….and God calls this good. God sees you and takes delight in you, knowing that if its left up to you, you will somehow turn away…and so God takes on flesh…that very flesh that is broken within us…that sinful selfish nature…God takes it on and becomes human…abiding among us…dwelling in our midst…not just with us…but as one of us.

And that God made flesh…that divine word dwelling among us…makes us a promise, that even though the gospel is hard to grasp…even though the love of God, which is freely offered to every single member of the human race, just doesn’t seem to add up or make sense…and that this good news of our God that willingly claims us is a hard teaching…that same God choses us over and over again…and we hear this straight from the mouth of Jesus as he asks the 12 “Have I not chosen you.” (pause)
Now admittedly, there’s some tension here…because that wonderful phrase from Jesus follows a whole slug of other followers deciding that they just couldn’t follow him anymore…and who knows why…I’m sure there were a variety of reasons that those individuals turned away, just as there are a variety of reasons that people turn away today.

I’ve found myself in this tension quite a bit lately…and I’ve been a part of several different discussions on just how all this works. Can people turn away from the good news of Jesus?  Well it seems like it.  And all we have to do is look around in the midst of our day to day lives and we can see people who have separated themselves from the peace and joy that comes from living THIS life RIGHT here, secure in the claim that God has laid upon them.  We see it don’t we…maybe we even feel it ourselves.

But…I wonder…does our choice supersede the ultimate eternal promise that God has spoken over the life of an individual when we hear Christ say “I have chosen you.”  This is a big question…one that countless people across the centuries have wrestled with. Denominations have risen up or have split apart based on different understandings on this very question…and I’m not going to propose an answer.

But what I will say is this…the promise is offered freely…and maybe just maybe the grace of God which is made manifest in the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ…maybe that grace of God is big enough to lay that claim upon us even when we have turned our backs on it.

Because if the grace of God is big enough to overcome any sin…then maybe, just maybe it can overcome that promise which we attempt to break on God’s behalf. That’s the crazy…almost offensive nature of God’s grace…that if its big enough for me…then I have to let it be big enough for you too…even if I don’t want to. And that grace is the basis of the claim that God places upon each of us as a beloved child who is ultimately invited into the heavenly banquet…and that grace is just crazy enough that I might find myself sitting at that table alongside the ones that I think are unworthy of it.

Now, lets be honest.  That doesn’t compute does it? If that’s the case…it doesn’t seem fair…and here is where we experience the tension that lies between the knowledge that we will ultimately fail to choose God and the proclamation that he has chosen us anyway…do you feel that tension? Do you like it? Because I don’t. Its something that I can’t reconcile…that we seem to be given the ability to turn away from the loving arms of God, and that same God will still stand there with open arms. Sometimes it makes me wonder what the point of all this is…and I know that many of you sitting out there wrestle with this same tension…this same question…and I don’t have a good answer for you.

But what I’ll say is this…there is freedom…there is joy and there is hope found in our faith…in believing that the promises which God has spoken over you are in fact for you…and that they are true.  Words cannot adequately express this freedom…and this joy, but they are real and we find them as we abide with the one who claims us…right here right now…and not just for the sake of some cosmic get out of jail free card that we’ll cash in when our time in this life is done…but because the same God who took on flesh…the man who is also divine has come to give us life and to give it abundantly…right here…right now

And so as we live in the tension of the unknown…and we experience that crazy cycle, both in those who surround us as well as within ourselves…may we find hope in hearing those words from Jesus…have I not chosen you?  You…are…mine. Amen.

Drama 7-15-18

In this sermon, based on Mark 6:14-29, I explore the story of John the Baptist’s death. This is an oddball gospel, both in terms of its location within the narrative as well as the absence of Jesus within it.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/drama-7-15-18

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

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

All we have to do is take a quick glance around the sanctuary to see the decorations, and we can tell that it was VBS week.  I love VBS week…it is wonderful…Each day, somewhere between 35-40 kids, another dozen or so jr high and high school helpers, a handful of adults, and 5 camp staff flocked into the church…and the energy level is off the charts.

Its loud…its crazy…its exciting…and I love it. There is just nothing else like it throughout the course of the year. Now, I spent some time trying to come up with the perfect words to describe the atmosphere here in the church during VBS…and in the end, the one that seemed the most fitting was simply…dramatic.

Now when I call it dramatic, I don’t mean to say that there was a lot of angsty drama going on, the likes of which we see on various reality tv shows…quite the opposite in fact…but the stark difference between a normal week here in the church building and the week of VBS is…well…dramatic…its what we might call epic craziness. (pause)

And speaking of epic craziness…let’s talk about the Herod’s for a moment shall we? (pause) Interestingly enough…the Herod family is smack dab at the heart of today’s gospel lesson…and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say, this is an odd one. Because while we typically refer to this story as the death of John the Baptist…we could make the argument that even John is somewhat secondary in this passage.

But to begin to make sense of it, we need some background…as the passage kicks off today, the very first name we hear is Herod…and honestly, Herod is kind of a common name throughout the gospel isn’t it? But when you hear the name Herod, you need to remember that its not just one guy…in fact its an entire family.  They all stem from Herod the Great. He was actually the big wig at the start of the gospels.

He’d come to prominence about 30BC, and had found enough favor with the Roman Senate to get the old “king” in Israel kicked out, and to get himself established in this role throughout much of the region. He was brilliant but cruel…and he was excessively paranoid that someone would usurp his power just like he had done…he was so paranoid in fact that he actually had many of his own family executed if he thought they posed a threat.

Speaking of family, Herod the Great had a ton of wives, and countless sons and daughters…and once he found himself in the twilight of his life, he did start passing along authority…establishing 4 of his sons as something called a tetrarch…not really a king…not really a governor…but somewhere along those lines…and then once he died, all four of these sons who now had a little power for themselves, started jockeying for position and greater authority…and that includes Herod Antipas, also known as King Herod here in today’s story.

Now remember, he wasn’t a king, and in fact when he asked the Romans for the same title given to his father they just sorta laughed at him…He had authority…he had power…but it wasn’t as absolute as he liked to think it was. And so he was constantly scheming, just like the rest of his family…trying to make deals, and broker arrangements to better his position. They’d ALL learned it from Herod the Great, and from what information we can find from history, the whole family, which carried on in prominence over the course of about 4 generations, was just as guilty.

Take for instance, Herodias. By this point, she’s married to Herod Antipas…but previously, she’d been married to his half-brother Philip, another tetrarch.  Herodias divorced Philip and married Antipas at some point.  Even stranger, she was already a Herod…thought to be a generation younger…a niece to both Antipas and Philip…the daughter of yet another brother. And she doesn’t seem like an overly nice person either…holding grudges against people who speak out against her and her apparent opportunistic nature…people like John who is imprisoned over this type of thing.

Now we’ve got more junk going on to…because Herod throws himself a party…he invites ALL the bigwigs from Galilee, the region he controlled…and as they are at this party…something kinda disturbing happens.

We hear that the daughter of Herodias comes in and dances…and that her dancing “pleases” Herod and the guests. We don’t know exactly what’s going on here. We don’t know if she’s a young girl, or if she’s older….we don’t know if she’s a willing participant in this whole deal or if she’s being coerced. We also don’t know exactly what the dynamic is between these two. She might be Herod’s daughter…although she’s probably his step-daughter.  Regardless, the odd-ball language really seems to be some thinly veiled indications that there’s some pretty major inappropriateness going on here…and I’ll let you fill in the blanks yourself on that one…and if that is in fact the case, I can only think that this whole family dynamic is utterly depraved. They’re power-hungry. They’re opportunistic…they’re wildly inappropriate. (pause) You think you’ve got family drama…your family’s got nothing on the Herods.

Now in the middle of this, some more trickery happens, and Herodias takes full advantage of this drunken oath made by her husband towards her daughter, and uses it to silence the critic who has spoken out against her…as she instructs her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist.  To add to the whole deal, the daughter ups it a notch as well, giving it a flair of the dramatic, by asking for his head on a platter.

And here’s where things get really dicey. Herod doesn’t want to do it. Granted he’s had John arrested…and he probably didn’t like the criticisms any more than his wife did…but apparently he also enjoyed having John around…but when those who think they have power foolishly flaunt it, often it bites them doesn’t it? And that’s what happens here.

Herod has a choice to save face with the people he needs to impress, or he can do the right thing and deny the execution of an innocent man…and we see what happens…and the innocent…the one who lacks power in this particular case, suffers at the hands of the powerful. (pause)

Here’s the thing.  As we’ve already mentioned…this passage is known as the death of John the Baptist…and rightly so.  But did you notice that this entire thing is basically a narrative side-note…this whole account is simply the apparent thought process behind Herod Antipas remembering that he had John killed…an event that had happened quite a bit before where we find the story in Mark’s gospel…we’re about half way through the whole deal…but we actually heard that John was arrested back in chapter 1…clear back at the beginning…so why don’t we hear about his death until now…why on earth did Mark think it was fitting to interrupt the flow of the gospel narrative for Herod to hear some current events and then justify it by remembering a utterly crazy situation that had happened a year or two earlier? Think about that.

And as you think about it…I want to back up to VBS…Monday through Thursday of this past week…the church was crazy…good crazy…but crazy. But then as I sat in my office on Friday…the silence was deafening.

You’ve heard that phrase before right…a deafening silence…its weird but somehow fitting…that once your ears have grown accustomed to the noise…silence seems to be somehow “louder.” (pause) I bring this up…because in the midst of the craziness of this story in and around John and the Herods…there is a silence that is equally deafening. A profound silence when we recognize it.

Keep in mind…this is the gospel lesson right. Now is there someone we haven’t heard from? A name…a person…that we tend to think of whenever we think about stories from the gospels? (pause) This passage has the RARE distinction…of never mentioning Jesus. He’s not here…granted…this story happens because Herod hears about him…and as soon as this gospel side-note wraps up, Jesus pops up to feed the 5000…so he’s around…but he’s not here is he?

Where’s Jesus…or perhaps, we might ask the broader question…Where’s God in the midst of this story.  The powerful, preying on the weak…where’s God?   Family members stabbing each other in the back to better their own position or authority….where’s God?  Horribly inappropriate actions going on between a girl and her step-father, not to mention being manipulated by her mother…where’s God? (pause)

It’s a little disturbing isn’t it? Shocking even…to notice the apparent absence of God here. And I can’t help but wonder if that’s often the interpretation when we see the brokenness in the world.  Where’s God when innocent people get caught in the crossfire…when students are gunned down in their classrooms…when young women and even small children are trafficked…or pulled from their parents.  When there is famine, or pollution…or disease…or accidents…where’s God then?

I hear these questions constantly…or I hear something similar…what does your Bible have to say about this stuff? (pause) Here’s the thing…if you read the Bible…and not just to cherry-pick feel good verses, or something to smack the other side of the political line with…but if you really read it…you’ll find that narrative of the Bible is just as much about the apparent absence of God’s presence as it is about God being among us.  And that can be a tough pill to swallow if we take it at face value.

But here’s the thing about the scriptures…they aren’t intended to be taken one verse or one story at a time…the scriptures, even though they were written over the course of thousands of years in several different languages by people of multiple cultures and faith traditions who lived on different continents….somehow the Holy Spirit has shaped them into a narrative that all fits together…a narrative intended to reveal that even in those instances when it seems like God is far away or worse yet that God hates me…or even worse yet, that these is no God…even in these times…somehow someway God is still work behind the scenes, whether we see God’s presence or not.

Jesus isn’t named in this story…and yet Mark tells us this past-tense recollection of a previous event here…in the midst of Jesus’ ministry…in the middle of the physical presence of God in our reality…in whatever it is that God is up to, bringing about the kingdom of heaven in the midst of this brokendown messed up reality…this is where Mark tells this story.

Because Jesus came into our realty…the one where it often seems like God is far away or just non-existent…and Jesus has done something about it…and not only that, but Jesus has given us a promise that despite the brokenness that all too often rears its ugly head…and makes those without power or influence feel even less so…that this is not the end…and that there is somehow more.  And so we hope for that amazing, mindblowing promise…of which we’ve only been given a glimmer…we hope for it…and because this promise is given by the man who is also God we trust it.

And we live our lives in a way that reflects it.  That’s what a life of faith is.  We live out our faith as we trust in that which we can only hope for.  We live in a confidence that no matter how bad things might be….this is not the end…and that the last word will belong to God, whether we can find God’s presence in this moment or not. That’s faith…when we can still hope, even in the midst of drama. Amen.