Posts Tagged ‘Peter’

The Story Within the Story 2-26-17

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

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/the-story-within-the-story-2-26-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never Underestimate 5-15-16

In this sermon for Pentecost Sunday, I explore Acts 2:1-21 as the Holy Spirit comes upon the members of the early church in incredible ways.

You can follow along with the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/do-not-underestimate-5-15-16

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

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen

Never underestimate. Words of advice that I heard years ago…long enough that I can’t even remember who told me…but this advice applies to situations both positive and negative.  Never underestimate the ability of an individual to do or say something utterly remarkable …and at the same time, never underestimate the ability of an individual, perhaps the very same individual, to do something…REALLY stupid. (pause)

Summer of 1999…late May or perhaps early June. I’d been working on the maintenance crew at Brooks Golf Course in Okoboji for a very brief period of time, just a few weeks…pretty much long enough to get the very basics, including how to operate the various types of mowers on my own without supervision…and also, it should be noted, the summer when a brand new hole was in the late process of becoming established on the course…a new hole, with a new green.

Now, everything about this new hole was good to go…the tee and the fairway and the rough…all were grown in and established…but when I first started, the green was not yet in play…and this is because of the extreme nature of golf greens. They are cut extremely short, every single day…typically at lengths of less than a 10th of an inch…and because of this, you have to use a special type of grass that is bred to withstand, and even thrive, under these extreme conditions…but before that species of grass can thrive, or even survive under these conditions, it needs to get established and produce a very solid root base…and in order for this to happen, you first let it grow pretty long.

Okay, so all that being said, this day, early in the season, and early in my turf maintenance career…I was assigned the task of mowing a specific set of greens…in a rotation that had just been established and posted by the head guy that day…and of course, my set of greens included that new green…and I’m sure you can see where this is going.

I got to this new green, and even though I could tell the grass was really long…and I questioned myself several times before starting…I concluded that since my boss had put it on the rotation assignment…that he must want me to cut it…so I did…at least I did about 90% of it before he saw me and came flying over with a look on his face that made me think “that’s it…I’m fired.” (pause) I had clearly made the wrong call…I had made a decision that I was in no way qualified to make…a call that under most circumstances would have resulted in the utter destruction of that green…and the need to start completely over again with its establishment.

But…I think God was on my side…because that particular day happened to be very cool…completely overcast…and it actually started a very gentle rain about an hour after this whole deal happened…a rain that lasted the rest of the day…and I happened to overhear about a day later, one of the other bigwigs told my boss “You know, we couldn’t have picked a better day to start cutting that green.” (pause) It shouldn’t have worked out…but it did.

Now all of that being said, today we see evidence of the same sort of thing happening. Here we are, Pentecost Sunday…one of my favorites…and the one day in the church year when the Holy Spirit is REALLY on display…because today is the day that we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples in Jerusalem…an event marked by a great rushing wind…one of the only two appearances of the spirit in some sort of physical form…uneducated backwater guys suddenly empowered to speak different languages…and of course the snarky back and forth between Peter and their opponents over this event being prompted by overdoing it at the bar. (pause)

We’ve been moving towards this day for several weeks now. Perhaps you’ve noticed an ongoing theme of the coming Holy Spirit within our gospel lessons as we moved through the tail end of the Easter Season…but now…BOOM!!!!! Here we are…and as such all of our scripture lessons feature the Holy Spirit…and interestingly enough…all of them aimed at something just a little bit different.

Within the Psalm that we shared earlier we hear…You have sent forth your Spirit, and they are created…And so we see that the Spirit was present within Creation…The brief reading from Romans highlights how the Spirit is active in God’s claim upon us as his children…we are given the spirit of adoption…that it is through the power of the spirit that we are claimed in the first place….the gospel lesson features Jesus’ own words and promise that the Spirit will come upon his followers…the advocate…who will teach us and remind us of his words…there are countless more passages throughout the scripture, both old and new testament, that testify to the Spirit, telling us different things that the Spirit will do both for us and within us…

And then of course, we have our normal reading for today from Acts 2, when the Promised Spirit comes upon the disciples, empowering them to do things that they had no way of doing on their own.

Truly today is Holy Spirit day…but funny enough…I’m reminded each and every year about how ambiguous the Holy Spirit really is…and its been my observation that here in the Lutheran tradition especially, we are pretty good and shoving the Spirit off to the side…We get the Father and Creator…We get the Son who lived, died, and was resurrected…but we don’t really get the Spirit do we? (pause)
Even if we think about the Apostles Creed…our main statement of belief that we share together each and every Sunday…the portion attributed to the Holy Spirit doesn’t shed much light…I believe in the Holy Spirit…okay good so far…the holy catholic church…umm, because the Spirit united us all into the one universal church…okay…the communion of saints…ummm, the forgiveness of sins…yah…the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. (pause) Is it just me…or does that get a little confusing about just what the Spirit is…or what the Spirit does? (pause) Or maybe, is that just a glimpse at the multitude of things that Spirit is up to right here, right now, in the midst of our present reality, whether we can place our finger on it or not…maybe that random 16th century monk knew what he was talking about when he wrote I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Christ Jesus my Lord or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts and sanctified me. (pause)

Truly the Holy Spirit is up to a lot within the world…because God is still up to a lot in the world and whether we have the tendency to gloss over it or not…the Spirit…IS…GOD…and as such one of the many things that God is up to through the Spirit is to empower us as followers of Christ to do things that we are in no way shape or form capable of on our own.

The perfect example of this is Peter…because think about Peter…think about his history…He’s a fishermen…and honestly I sort of wonder if he’s even any good at that…the only two times we hear about him actually fishing, he needs Jesus to perform a miracle in order for him to catch any fish…he’s a bonehead who chooses to jump out of a perfect good boat in the midst of a storm to try and walk on water…He constantly spouts off out of confusion…trying to break the silence that occurs…and when it comes to failures…isn’t he the poster boy for Discipleship Fails? (pause) Even if all others fall away Lord, I will follow you, even to death…Yah, no you won’t Peter…they’re all gonna run away, sure…but you’re actually gonna deny me 3 times…not once…but 3. (pause)

Peter should be the absolute worst choice. He’s an uneducated, possibly subpar fisherman who not only doesn’t understand, but he flat out fails to grasp what Jesus is saying or what Jesus is really up to…(pause) And yet…

When the disciples have been empowered by the Spirit and begin proclaiming the greatness of God in foreign languages…spreading the gospel to individuals who will then take it with them back to every nation under the heavens…and in the midst of this…opposition occurs…this backwater dude, who has no business taking the reigns, and certainly no experience with large scale public speaking…stands up, empowered, emboldened…and led by the Holy Spirit…and proceeds to share his experience of the risen Lord Jesus Christ…and after a rather lengthy sermon…we see that the Spirit uses him…and his words, such as they are…and the Spirit prompts the question within the crowd…What do we do? And Peter responds, repent and be baptized.

And 3000 people came to Christ that day…3000 people that would take the message out into the world…to the ends of the earth. (pause) It never should have worked…but it did…because the Spirit was doing one of the many things that the Spirit does…it empowers us…now of course, this looks different for everyone…because as we hear, there is one Spirit but many gifts here in the one body of Christ.

And what a blessing…what reassurance to see in today’s story that God can and does use us, despite our failings…despite our shortcomings…and sometimes, its those very failings that the Spirit uses to advance the kingdom…Just like me messing up and mowing that green when I had no business doing it…the weather just happened to cooperate and the green went into play 2 weeks earlier than expected…and likewise…The Spirit used Peter, a knucklehead fisherman who had proven time and again that he had no idea what he was talking about, and increased the size of the church 25 times over. (pause)

We are flawed…we are broken…we feel unqualified and ill-prepared…and no one knows that better than we know for ourselves…and yet the Spirit empowers us and uses us…often times within the midst of those very shortcomings that we recognize within ourselves. This has been true since the beginning…it was true in the days of Jesus and the disciples…it is true today…and will continue to be true in the future.

Truly we must never underestimate anything…not our ability to do something incredibly stupid…Lord knows I’m capable of that on a pretty constant basis…but also, we must not underestimate what the Spirit can and does accomplish in the midst of it. Amen.

Normal is Out the Window 4-10-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human Moments 9-13-15

In this sermon, based on Mark 8:27-38, I explore an example where the Apostle Peter displays typical human tendency. It gives us a good reminder of the human condition that we all share.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/human-moments-9-13-15

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

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

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to notice a new tendency…when I get together with my friends…we very rarely create new memories…mostly, we just sit around and talk about our old memories…we share stories…often times punctuated with great laughter, about the old times…the silly things that we did in our younger years.

I’ve been noticing this for several years now…and it happened again quite recently as I got together with an old friend for lunch. Now this particular friend hails from this area, but we got to know each other in college, meeting during our first year at the community college close to where I grew up, growing close through those first two years before transferring to Iowa State together and even spending one year as roommates before life started taking us in different directions.

Sure enough though, life has brought us back together here…as he lives with his family in Council Bluffs and I am here in Underwood…and so periodically we’ll get together and reminisce about the old times. Inevitably…each and every time we do that…two inside jokes come up that we still get a kick out of. One of which shines a light on the positive side of our nature, and the other one…well not so much.

First off, the negative one…We both hated our first year college English class. We just hated it…and so as we always joked around about how we wanted to act out. To be sitting there during lecture…and without warning…completely out of nowhere…stand up, throw the table over…and storm out the door…only to step back in a moment later to sheepishly say “Sorry, I forgot my books.” Needless to say, we never acted on that impulse…but we still laugh about it.

But on the other hand…the second joke that we share certainly reflects a little bit better on us as individuals…and its actually a touch of advice that I pass on to students from time to time…I’ll be honest, I can’t remember where I first hear this…but if you ever want to score points with a teacher when you are sitting in a really boring lecture…simply make eye contact with them as they are making a point…then when they pause…nod your head…say “Nice”…and then act like you are writing down some notes based on what they were saying. (pause) We tried it once in Biology…works like a charm.

Two old jokes…two different situations that reveal opposite sides of human nature…and specifically MY nature…that I can ponder on being super respectful and attentive…and at the same time I can ponder on being an unruly menace.(pause) But…isn’t that human nature? (pause)
That we can have big victories one moment, and turn into complete boneheads in the next.

And if we were to try and identify a character from the Bible that best embodies this back and forth tendency…it would have to be Peter. (pause) Perhaps I’m the only person that thinks so…but I’ll stick by it…perhaps only because I relate to Peter so much…I see so much of myself in how Peter is portrayed throughout the gospels…the top of the class one minute and getting crabbed out for being stupid in the next.

We certainly see that very thing in today’s lesson don’t we? As Peter, in one spirit-filled moment, with no prompting what so ever…correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah…the one anointed by God…or more specifically in Jesus’ case, anointed by the Spirit…to usher in a new era…an era where the kingdom of Heaven has come near to us all.

And then…seemingly a moment later…having heard Jesus discuss just what the reality of being the Messiah truly means…Peter spouts off…and rips into Jesus…Peter tries to teach the teacher…Peter tries to master the master…in short…Peter doesn’t think…or perhaps one could argue that Peter thinks too much…and Jesus immediately cuts him down to size.

But certainly this isn’t the only time that we see Peter display the polar opposite of human tendency is it? Peter is the one who displays enough faith in Christ to literally walk on water in one instant…only to be way-laid by fear, and nearly drown because of it.

Or in another instance…Peter pulls a sword to attack those who are arresting Jesus in the garden…only to tuck tail and run away, before ultimately denying Jesus 3 times in a row.

Peter is always the one to spout off impulsively because he doesn’t know what else to say…and yet Peter is the rock on which Christ builds his church. (pause)
I thought a lot about that very fact this week…not just this one instance when Peter rips Jesus a new one only to have Jesus turn around and school him in the art of rebuking…but the fact that we have so many instances…so many stories where we see both sides of Peter…the triumphs and the failures…the faithful moment as well as the faithless ones.

And as I thought about those…I realized that recognizing these moments about Peter…these honest moments in the scripture begins to reveal a great deal about that same human nature…those same back and forth tendencies that we all share.

And we do don’t we? (pause) Because life is messy…and faith is messy…and sometimes we get it…sometimes the Holy Spirit shows us something so clearly in one moment…but it’s not long before life gets in the way…life with all its imperfections…and not only that but our warped sinful reality gets in the way and what was once so clear now seems so unlikely…so muddled…perhaps even impossible. (pause)
But now here’s the thing…if that was the end of the story…and all we had to learn today was that human nature is fickle…then I think the gospel would have ended right there…but it doesn’t? (pause) Because Jesus goes one doesn’t he? And we hear that he calls the crowds together…not just addressing Peter currently sitting in bonehead mode…not just the 12 disciples reeling from the fact that Jesus has called Peter Satan…but Jesus calls everyone together…and publicly talks about what it means to be his follower.

Words about denying ourselves…and picking up our crosses…and why? Well, because the cross is pretty much the end all-be all for us isn’t it? And when we stop and think about it…the cross is a pretty ugly deal…and no matter how much we might try to polish up the image, the truth about the cross is bloody and brutal.

The cross…crucifixion…was torture to the nth degree…a method of drawn out death that the Romans perfected as a warning to everyone that if you step out of line, this is what happens…and in the midst of this brutal death…God meets us. (pause)
And so…Jesus seems to be showing us here that to be his follower means that we need to honest and realistic about things. We need to call it like it is…and sometimes this brutal honesty means we need to be honest with ourselves. (pause)

And perhaps Peter is getting the short end of the stick here…as he often times seems to throughout scripture…but when we’re honest about our own existence…I think we realize that we all experience the same ups and downs…We all experience moments where it feels like we can do no wrong, only to have that pedestal that we have placed ourselves on knocked right out from under us. (pause)
But as we sit here…perhaps stewing in our own juices that being honest about our experience…about our own reality means owning our own imperfections…as horrific as they might be…there’s another point that I need to make. (pause)

Because we are given another example of just what it means to be human…and that example…is Jesus Christ himself. (pause) Jesus…the one who rebukes Peter in this instance…telling him that he needs to set his mind on divine things will soon find himself in the middle of a dark garden at night…in the midst of such excruciating stress that he’s sweating blood…and asking the Father to take this cup away from my lips…and yet…Jesus also utters these words…Not MY will…but your will.

Jesus, while being fully God…was also fully human…and as a human being he DID NOT…want to experience the torture that awaited him…just as we do not want to experience those moments when our human nature leaves us looking foolish, or silly, or stupid…or worse. (pause)
In today’s story, Jesus asks an important question, one that we all need to answer…Just who is he? Is he the Son of God…the one who came into our reality to bring the kingdom of heaven near? The one who eats with sinners…the one who takes the cross to conquer death? Or is he just a man that lived and died?

Sometimes when we are honest with ourselves…the answer that we give to that question is the logical one…that there is no way that this can be true…but on the other hand…sometimes we answer that question empowered by the Holy Spirit, who gives us the gift to believe that which cannot be proven…we answer through the power of faith…

And depending on who’s paying attention…either one of these answers can seem to be either really smart…or really stupid…and that’s part of the human condition as well…that the work of redemption that God is up to through Jesus Christ isn’t completed yet…and because of that people will respond differently in any given situation…just as we ourselves respond differently…because that is part of what makes us human…that we are flawed…that we are wishy washy…and yet praise be to God that he accepts us anyway…no matter how we respond. Amen.

What Are You Known For 8-23-15

In this sermon, based on John 6:56-69, I explore the “hard teaching” of Jesus that causes many of his disciples to turn away. What is this teaching, and why is it so offensive, even at times, to those of us who follow Christ?

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/what-are-you-known-for-8-23-15

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

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

We all have something that we’re known for…something that people always associate with us…typically, its something from our past…some memorable event or activity that we will be forever tied to…and for those who are familiar with this situation, its never ending.

Granted, I’ve got a lot of these in my history…different situations that define me within different groups and circles….here in town, its probably the fact that I’m a pastor…when I was in seminary, I became known as the guy in the orange hat…my senior year at Iowa State, the entire Horticulture department called me Red because of a certain episode with some hair dye…my group of close friends dating all the way back to Jr High have a multitude of inside jokes that they can pull out at my expense to make me cringe…but in all likelihood, the one that goes back the farthest…the story that has defined me the longest, well it exists in the context of my extended family on my dad’s side.

April of 1988…exactly one week after my 9th birthday…the wedding day of my dad’s youngest sister…and a time when personal video cameras were pretty new…and were unbelievably intriguing to 9 year olds. (pause) After the ceremony was over, the camera operator set up the tripod to record the recession line, as the multitude of guest filed out the sanctuary to greet the wedding party…as is the custom…and low and behold…this little 9 year old spaz case…kept popping up in frame…looking at the camera…turning around to look at the people filing by…turning back around to look at the camera…over and over again. Throughout the course of the entire video…I kept popping into frame…not realizing just how weird it was…nor the lasting effect it would have on my reputation within my extended family.

To this day…people still mock me on that one…anytime there is any sort of event…and there’s a camera present…someone is going to recreate that moment…and everyone laughs…it is…what I am known for. (pause) It is…a vital part of my history.

But isn’t that always the case? And as time marches on…these little aspects of a person’s history really become the defining factor for them…and we have the tendency to gloss over everything else…sometimes in a good way, and sometimes in a bad way.

Think about George Washington…the first president of the United States…remembered fondly…while we forget that he was also a slave-owner and general that nearly starved his own troops to death…Or Henry Ford…father of the American automobile, credited (incorrectly mind you) with pioneering the assembly line…but we forget that he was also a published anti-semite.

This same tendency has carried into how we tend to remember Biblical figures as well…and this has sparked quite a bit of conversation within our current study of The Story as we’ve discussed various Old Testament figures…for instance Abraham…the shining example of faith…was a trickster who tried to pawn off his beloved wife as his sister not just once but twice…and Moses…the great deliverer of the Old Testament…who was also a liar and a murderer who tried his best to weasel out of God’s calling at every turn…or the great king David, an adulterer who was involved with conspiracy to murder.

We find the same thing in the new testament as well, for who can forget Thomas…defined for all time by his doubt…or Peter…ever the one who would deny Christ…or Nathanael who questions anyone that comes out of Nazareth.

But perhaps the one most strongly identified with a single defining moment would have to be…Judas Iscariot…forever known as the one who would betray Jesus…so much so, that within today’s gospel lesson, we find the first introduction to Judas found in John’s Gospel…and we see that he is not even initially called by name…but that he is identified as the one who would betray Jesus…something that he hadn’t even done yet…something that is ultimately motivated by the presence of evil with him…and yet…as we see…it serves as the single defining characteristic that Judas, for all time…will be saddled with…and I find myself wondering…is that fair? (pause)

Is it fair to Judas that history always associates him with betrayal…with the apparent backstabbing that he hands off Jesus’ direction in the closing chapters of the gospel…should that be his one defining moment? Or would it be better for us to lump him in with a different group out of today’s story…that unknown batch of disciples who have been following Jesus…but having sat and listened to this hard teaching…they decide that it’s time to tuck tail and run. (pause)

Because…as we hear…Jesus knew from the start those who would not believe…just as HE knew from the start…that Judas would ultimately be the one to lead the authorities out to the garden…and yet…at the beginning of John chapter 6…in the initial miracle that began this long debate that has raged on throughout the entire chapter…not to mention the past 5 weeks of gospel lessons…when Jesus fed the 5000…guess who was sitting in that crowd…those disciples who turned away…and Judas was sitting there too. (pause)

Now we have the tendency to forget that when John talks about the disciples…its not just the 12 that he’s talking about…in fact…prior to this specific passage…this one point after all those other people turn their backs and walk away…we never even hear about the 12 disciples…they are never set apart…until now…when everyone else has decided that Jesus is asking just a little bit too much of them…that this new teaching is just too much to swallow…its true…up until now…those 12 guys that we tend to put a whole bunch of stock into…they were just a few of a much larger crowd…all of whom…were fed by Jesus…all of whom were in relationship with Jesus…all of whom…at least until now…have liked what Jesus had to say and willingly followed him…willingly found themselves in relationship with him…until now. (pause)
So just what is it about THIS teaching that is SO hard for them? What is it that in the end offends them…makes them lose faith in this man that they’ve been following? (pause)
Is it all the talk of body and blood as food and drink? Maybe…but I kinda don’t think so. In the end, what it seems to be is the truth that is slowly being revealed about the identity of Jesus…that maybe, just maybe this guy really is who he says he is…but if that’s true…and Jesus really is the Son of God…and not just that but that Jesus really is God…well then what does that have to say about the God that they have always known…the God that they were taught about. (pause)

Because what Jesus has to say is going WAY past anything that they can begin to wrap their heads around…way beyond anything that they can justify as being “From God.” First of all…this guy who claims to be God seems to be telling them…not just suggesting it, but flat out instructing them to break their dietary laws…God wouldn’t do that.

And this is the same guy who told them that they needed to treat their neighbors as themselves…even going so far as to naming Samaritans as their neighbors…which might not seem that crazy to us…but it’s the equivalent of telling us that the very people we need to treat as our neighbors includes Muslims….individuals who claim to follow God, but in a radically different way than we do…so different in fact that countless wars have continuously raged through the ages as to who’s right.

This is the guy, who seems to break every single rule that they have held dear throughout the entirety of their lives with the simple goal of being in relationship with the very individuals that those rules state are unacceptable. (pause) Yes Lord…this is a hard teaching…no wonder they walked away.

But remember this…even knowing what we know now…knowing that these individuals would eventually tuck tail and run…even knowing that Judas would eventually betray him…Jesus not only accepts them…but we hear in the verse immediately following today’s passage, Jesus assuring them “Did I not choose you?” (pause)

Jesus willingly choses to be in relationship with those who he knows aren’t going to go the distance…He choses to feed those who will not reciprocate…and in the end…He will even go so far as to wash the feet of this one that will ultimately betray him. (pause)

And while we ponder on that…its also important to remember that even the ones that seemingly got it…even Peter…the very one to make this marvelous statement “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Even these men who have come to believe and know that Jesus is the holy one of God…will eventually abandon him. Peter himself, who makes this faith filled statement, will eventually deny the relationship with Christ…Peter…is also the one to cry out “I DON’T KNOW HIM.” (pause)
What is it about Jesus that causes so many of us…all of us in fact…at one time or another…what is it that causes us to stumble…what is it that offends us so much? Is it, perhaps the notion that salvation is in fact…offered to the entire world…even to those who we deem in the back of our minds as unworthy…as unfaithful…could it be the fact that Jesus invited each and every one of us into relationship with him despite knowing the eventual outcome of that relationship…even knowing that like the disciples we each have those times when we turn and walk away? (pause)

This is a hard teaching…that the relationship between God and us as individuals…ultimately…isn’t up to us…that in the end, its not about what we think of God…but its what God thinks of us…and in our moments of piety…when we forget that its not what God thinks of those that we think are out…and yet God calls them in. (pause)

I can see how the individuals there that day would have been offended by this teaching…that all of the rules don’t matter…that all the checks and balances don’t matter…that all of our accomplishments mean absolutely nothing…and that we are just as dependent upon the invitation as everyone else.

Do you suppose that hearing Jesus make these bold statements was enough to make them question whether or not this is really God talking? Because in the end, that’s what sin is here in John’s gospel…not believing that Jesus is in fact, who he says he is…whether that meets us with our expectations or not.

This is why Jesus asks them if they are offended…if it makes them stumble…or as the actual translation stated “Does this cause you to stop believing?” (pause)

The gospel is hard…not because we have to do anything to accomplish it…but precisely because the gospel is without prejudice…and no matter what rules we try to apply to who’s got it and who doesn’t God ultimately doesn’t really care about our rules…and God will NOT be hindered by them. God will invite whoever God choses to be in relationship…and the only thing that we can do about it is recognize it…and then we need to be grateful…because to truly hear the gospel is to recognize our own need for it…

To recognize that yes…I am sinful…to recognize that no, there is nothing that I can do about it…and even though humanity might define me by the horrible things in my life…the sin that resides right here…the sinful things that I have done…and then finally to realize that the arms of Jesus are opened to me anyway…and that he accepts me, not as I would like to be or hope to be…not as someone else thinks I need to be…but simply that Jesus accepts me as I am, right here, right now…and there is no power on Earth that can change that.

My past doesn’t define me…not the mistakes I’ve made…not the triumphs I’ve accomplished…not the red hair in college, or the orange hat in seminary…not the old video of me bouncing up and down at my aunt’s wedding. I am defined by how God see’s me…as his beloved child.

And the beauty of the gospel…is that this is true for all of us…YOU…are a beloved child of God…and for all eternity, THAT is what you are known for. Amen.

Just Get Behind Me 3-1-15

This morning’s sermon is based on Mark 8:31-38. I explore the famous exchange between Jesus and Peter where we hear “Get behind me Satan.”

You can listen to audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/just-get-behind-me-3-1-15

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:
Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
Friday dawned as one of those perfect late winter days. It was cold to be sure, but there was no wind and the sky was clear. As the morning went on the sun got up in the air I found myself standing at various windows…just soaking up the sunshine.
Most of you have heard me express my extreme dislike for the winter season, but days like that almost make it okay…and the sunshine helps give me hope for spring which is right around the corner. (pause)
But…in what seems to be a trend…those beautiful sunny days always seem like they get interrupted by bad news…and the darkness of the world creeps into the glorious brightness of the day. (pause)
That happened Friday…right at lunch time…when social media broke the news that rocked the world for every single science fiction fan out there…Leonard Nimoy…the actor best known for playing the Vulcan Spock in Star Trek…was dead. (pause) Its weird…that the death of someone that I’ve never met…someone that I didn’t really know at all…would smack me like it did…and as I sat there thinking about the fact that Spock is dead…I admittedly starting thinking about the storyline of the character through the original television series as well as the 6 movies that featured the original cast.
And anyone out there that is a Star Trek fan knows that Spock is truly the Christ figure…both figuratively as well as literally in one case…for at the end of Star Trek 2, Spock makes a decision to sacrifice himself in order to repair the Enterprise and allow it to escape destruction…therefore saving all of his friends at the expense of his own life…but then, in order to complete the Christ comparison…in Star Trek 3…Spock is resurrected…alive once more. (pause)
But that’s a character…a fictitious alien in a popular, but equally fictitious story. Spock is not dead…because he was never real…the reality of this situation…saddening though it was for the science fiction realm…is that an actor lived a full life…and at the age of 83 died of complications resulting from COPD. A loss to be sure…but certainly not unexpected…and certainly not tragic. (pause)
And in a personal note…what gives me pause in this whole situation…was that I was more effected by this news than I was by some actual tragic news that broke earlier that morning…the news that an unidentified individual went on a killing spree across several communities in southern Missouri, before turning the gun on himself…resulting in the deaths of 9 people. (pause) Sure I was saddened when I read that news…and I said a quick prayer for those that were affected by it…but then I put that in the back of my mind and went on about my day…only to feel a stronger feeling of loss and sadness at the death of an actor a few hours later. (pause)
Now I’ll be the first to admit that my personal reaction to these two different bits of news that center around death was misguided. I pretty much disregarded the important one…and I dwelled on the understandable one…and the only sense I can make of my misguided reaction is to embrace the fact that I’m human…and I’m not perfect. (pause) And I share that trait with a certain character in today’s gospel lesson…Peter…ever the impulsive one…ever the one opening his mouth and promptly sticking his foot in it…ever the one making the bonehead comment.
And today is no different…in our story, which is a direct continuation of the story when Peter makes the ultimate confession of Jesus’ identity as messiah…he proceeds to spout off yet again. (pause) Now we don’t hear what Peter has to say…only that he’s listening to Jesus explain just what it truly means to be the Messiah…and Peter…is apparently flabbergasted.
It would seem that Peter’s got some preconceived notions about the Messiah…and understandably so. Because his perception is shaped by his history and by his culture…and there have been messiahs before…because in the Jewish culture…Messiah in the Hebrew, or Christ in the Greek simply means the anointed one of God…and they’ve got at least two major ones in their history…the first two kings of Israel…Saul and then David…both of these men were anointed…and the ongoing expectation for the people…Peter included…was that the long awaited Messiah was going to follow that same line…
They thought he’d come on the scene…and kick out whatever oppressive culture was in charge at the time…reestablish the throne of David and everything would be good to go. That’s what they thought…but now things are a little different…because Peter’s been following Jesus around for awhile.
And in the midst of this…Peter has seen just what old JC is capable of…he’s seen the miracles…he’s seen the healings…he’s seen the exorcisms…and Peter knows that Jesus has the power of God on his side…and so it would seem that Peter’s got this notion in his head that Jesus is gonna use that supernatural power and throw his proverbial beat down on the Romans…miraculously kicking their keisters right on outa here. (pause)
And now Jesus is teaching them something that seems to blow Peter’s expectations right out the window…and Peter’s not having it…period, end of story…and he thinks he justified to pull Jesus aside and set him straight…Peter…tries to tell Jesus what’s gonna happen…Peter…tries to take control of the situation…Peter, even though he means well…is trying to take over. (pause)
And now its Jesus who’s not having it… “Get…behind me Satan.” (pause) Woah. That’s pretty harsh isn’t it? Calling the one that would eventually take over as the head guy Satan…that seems a little extreme doesn’t it? (pause) Or is it precisely what needs to happen? (pause)
Because Peter’s got human ideas in mind…human notions that can be…and in all likelihood were shaped by selfish human desires…desires that can be…and in all likelihood were twisted by the lies of Satan to trip up Peter…and maybe…just maybe if Satan got really lucky…it would even trip up Jesus as well.
But Jesus doesn’t let that happen…because he’s got a bigger picture in mind…Jesus knows the truth of what it means to be God’s Messiah…he’s no ordinary king or prophet…he’s not just some great military leader that’s eventually going to throw a Biblical beat down on the Romans…the Messiah is here to establish something entirely different.
And so with this harsh statement to get behind me…Jesus isn’t just shutting down the lies of the enemy…but he’s also saving Peter from his error…he’s saving him from himself…and in the end…isn’t that really what he was here to do in the first place? (pause) Isn’t that where all of this is going? As we move through this dark season, we know where it ends…it ends with Jesus hanging on a cross…utterly forsaken…and ultimately…dead.
But here’s the difference between us and Peter…we know that there’s more to the story…we’ve got the benefit of hindsight…Peter didn’t…and so perhaps it comes as no great shock that as Jesus shares just what it truly means that he IS the Messiah…that this truth utterly blows Peter’s mind. (pause)
This truth, begins to show Peter just a little bit about the work that God was actually up to…the saving work through Jesus Christ…that ultimately will serve to save us from ourselves…and this is where we once again recognize our connection to Peter and the rest of the disciples…when we recognize our own limited understanding of just what’s really going on in the world…much less our understanding of what God is up to as he seeks to rectify it. (pause)
So maybe that statement…Get behind me…which at first glance seems so harsh…and so negative…maybe just maybe that statement is actually one uttered out of love…love for one that Jesus is trying to protect. This is the man that will take the cross for Peter…This is the man who will step out of the garden and be arrested in order to protect his followers…This is the man who calls himself the good shepherd…the one who will protect his flock…even from themselves.
This is the man who makes the ultimate sacrifice for someone else…even though we can’t begin to fathom what he’s really up to in the midst of it.
The world is a messed up place…there can be doubt of that…and on almost a daily occurrence we hear bad news…disasters…sickness…death…storms and earthquakes, tension and battles…bad news followed by bad news followed by bad news. We hear so much of it that perhaps, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re becoming immune to it…just as I was hardly effected by the horrific news in Missouri on Friday…and I listened to the lie in the back of my mind that it didn’t affect me and so it didn’t really matter…well maybe, just maybe God wanted to save us from those lies too…to save us from ourselves.
And that’s what Jesus was really up to…that’s what being the Messiah really means…not that we should be subject to him…or that we need to get behind him out of some ambition on Jesus’ part…but we get behind him so that he can protect us…so that he can protect us from everything…even from ourselves…even, from those lies that we tell ourselves…those lies that say that death doesn’t matter…that suffering doesn’t matter…that the darkness in the world doesn’t matter as long as we’re okay at the moment.
And I believe that Jesus saves us from this because God knows that all that stuff does matter…and throughout all the darkness in the world, that which we recognize and that which we gloss over and forget about…the first being to mourn this reality is God…and through Jesus, God…is truly…doing something about it. (pause)
But…it doesn’t come without cost…and its going to cost Jesus his life…and as we see today…Peter is offended by this…he’s offended by the notion that the Lord would have to die…and maybe just maybe he’s offended by the idea that our perfect Lord would willingly die for someone that’s unworthy…but the remarkable thing about the gospel is that this is exactly what God choses to do…to die for the unworthy…because we’re unworthy, and yet in the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ God proves that he is will to do that which we find offensive in order to repair the breach between God and all of humankind…and it IS freely offered to EVERYONE, whether we like it or not…the remarkable yet utterly offensive nature of the gospel is that everyone gets it…even that troubled man that took lives on Friday…Jesus was willing to die for him…so that he could be protected from the darkness inside of him…
And if Jesus was willing to die for him…well then maybe…just maybe…he was willing to die for me…in order to protect me too. Amen.

Quality Not Quantity 9-14-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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