Posts Tagged ‘salvation’

There Is No Ladder 5-14-17

In this sermon, based on John 14:1-14, Jesus says “I am the way.” I explore what he is saying here.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

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

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

If there was one thing that I discovered at a pretty young age while growing up on the farm, its this…farms have ladders everywhere. Everywhere you look is a ladder. Now some of them are actually intended as ladders…there are ladders in barns…there are ladders in corn cribs…there are ladders going up the side of a grain bin or a silo…there are ladders down into well pits.

There are other things that, for a rambunctious kid that likes to climb, will serve as ladders. I climbed the wooded structural braces on the inside of a Morton building. I climbed gates in fences. I climbed fence posts to get on top of buildings…I climbed trees to get on the roof of the house.  I was always ready to climb. And my dad figured this out pretty early on in my memory…probably because I was the youngest and he had witnessed this type of climbing behavior in my brother and sister…but because of this, Dad was always very clear about the things I should not climb…most specifically the tall ladder going up to the top of the bins in the corn crib…bins with no safety rails to prevent a nice 40 foot drop…and then the ladder on the side of the silo, which didn’t even start until 10 feet off the ground…not that I would be prevented…because as soon as Dad’s back was turned…I climbed those ladders just like all the rest of them.

I guess you could say that I just liked getting up high…up to those places where I wasn’t supposed to be…those places where I wasn’t mean to go…but one of those times when Dad had told me to stay off some of those particularly high and, honestly, quite dangerous spots…I remember quite vividly asking myself the question “Well if you’re not supposed to go there…why’d they build a ladder? (Pause) Why’d they make a way in the first place?” (pause)

Now fortunately, even with all of my climbing, I never fell…but I did have a few close calls…times when I missed my footing and slid down a rung or two before catching myself. I’m probably just lucky in that regard, because like most kids do, I never really used those ladders like you’re supposed to.

Ladders, by their very design, are pretty useful when it comes to getting somewhere that’s out of reach. Climb up rung by rung…and you get higher…those out of reach locations start to become more accessible…and vice versa…climb down a rung at a time, or heaven forbid, slip and miss the rungs altogether, and you find yourself back down on the ground where you started in the first place. They are a way to get from here to there…at least when here to there involves a change in elevation. (pause)
Now this idea of a change in elevation brings up an old notion that’s called the 3 tiers of reality.  The earth is here…in the middle…and that’s where we are…now heaven is up above us…we’re not exactly sure where…but its up there somewhere…and hell, well that’s down below…its probably easiest to understand this like a house. We’re on the main floor. Heaven is upstairs, and hell is down in the basement….and this is the way that people thought about things…and in many cases, that people still think about them.

And if we think about the relation of earth and heaven and hell in this way…then the question will eventually come around to how we get from one to another…Sure we probably ignore the idea of heading down into the basement of hell, because none of us really want to go there…but it is pretty common to sit around and wonder just how we manage to get ourselves upstairs into Heaven.

And if my childhood on the farm taught me anything…if you want to go up…you need a ladder…and that right there…this idea that somehow, some way we can manage to climb our way high enough…that we can manage to get ourselves up to heaven where God is…this idea has permeated our society in a lot of ways…I fear, most destructively, with the idea that faith, or religion, or spirituality, or whatever you want to call it gets boiled down into some sort of cosmic ladder.

Ever thought about it that way? I think we probably all have at one point or another…especially when we start talking about the things that are morally right or wrong…and there’s this myth…this idea in the back of our minds that if we do enough right things, we’ll keep climbing up the rungs of that ladder…and as long as we avoid enough bad things in our lives that we won’t slip back down…like life is just a giant game of shoots and ladders…with the final end goal of climbing that cosmic ladder up high enough to get to where God is.

Well let me say this…there is no ladder…that’s not how all this works…and it was never supposed to…and all these rules and regulations and statues or whatever you want to call them…all these ideas of what we should or shouldn’t be doing…while perhaps good for the purpose of life…they don’t get us anywhere on the eternal scale…there is no ladder to climb…and there is no cosmic score board that God looks at to see if our good score is higher than our bad score.  That’s not how this goes. (pause)
Now what’s all this got to do with today’s gospel?  Why would Jesus be sharing this with his disciples?  It is a bit of a strange situation…actually this passage is found in the Last Supper…Jesus final bit of teaching for his disciples as he’s telling them goodbye…because right after this, he’s betrayed and killed. Just before this, he’s told them about the betrayal…he’s had his encounter with Judas who prompted fled the house…he’s told Peter about the pending denial…and above all he’s told them that he’s about to die. No wonder he starts off today “do not let your hearts be troubled.” I don’t know about you but I’m guessing it was a troubling state to be in.

And not only that, but perhaps for us today, hearing this 5 weeks AFTER Easter, perhaps it’s a little troubling for us as well…Why do we hear this now? Well, if the resurrection has already happened…and we’ll recognize the Ascension of Jesus back into Heaven quite soon…and in our reality today Jesus has already returned to Heaven…maybe as we consider all of that…the Last Supper is a little troubling for us too…because what does it mean to believe in Christ…what does it mean to be a follower of Christ, when the one that we follow has gone to a place where we can’t go?

That’s the question that comes up in the back and forth with the disciples.  Jesus assures them that he has gone to the dwelling place of the Father…what we call Heaven…and he has done so in order to prepare dwelling places for each of us…and here’s the kicker…he says “Where I am going, you know the way.”

And then a hand goes up…Ummm Jesus, we don’t know where you’re going, how can we know the way?  And Jesus throws it all out there. I Am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me…

Certainly, this is a familiar passage of scripture…one that gets thrown around a lot…and I fear…one that gets used in a way that serves to exclude individuals…and because of this history, this passage is often heard by non-believers as judgmental…exclusive…like a warning that you better believe this or you’re going to hell…and not only that but if you do believe it then you better shape up and start acting like it. (Pause) You better start doing all the right stuff…and land yourself on that mythical magic ladder so you can climb up high enough that God will notice you…and then you can be where he is.

Ever heard that sort of thing before…or felt like that…or wondered if that’s what all this church stuff is really all about. If so, just know this…you aren’t the only one…if Thomas’ question today shows us anything…its that even Jesus’ disciples thought this way…like Jesus was physically going somewhere and if they just look in the right spot they can figure out the way to get there too.

But there is no physical way to get to Heaven…there is no way for us to go there…we can’t get there…we’ve never been able to get there…and God knows it…God has always known it…and God has done something about it…God has come to where we are through Jesus Christ to create a way.

All too often I fear that the world hears Jesus say I am the way…and it sounds like “This is the only way.” And worse yet when someone shares that with them it sounds like “I’m right and you’re wrong.”  But what if what Jesus is really saying is “Now there IS…a way.” (pause)

Growing up on the farm, when Dad would tell me, you aren’t supposed to be up there…I always wondered…if you don’t want me there, why is there a way?   Jesus has gone away…but he has done this so that that now, there is a way for us to be there too. Its not about being good enough, or smart enough…its not about following all the rules and climbing high enough up the ladder…Jesus is telling us…he is showing us that God has already come to us where we are…and because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus…now somehow, someway…there IS…a way.  Amen.


Say What You Need to Say 3-1-17 Ash Wednesday

In this Ash Wednesday sermon, I explore 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10. We are reminded of death, a theme of this day, but must recognize that death does not get the last word.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

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

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

A couple days back, I was texting back and forth with a fellow pastor, jabbering about our respective sermons for tonight. She had already written hers, but she was worried that it was too short. I thought about it for a minute and then shared a bit of wisdom that my old preaching professor from seminary told us.

When you’re preaching, step into the pulpit, say what needs to be said, and then get the heck out of there. (pause) Now maybe this is a bit of a Lutheran notion…especially when compared with the preaching approaches in some different denominational bodies…where sermons can carry on for 30-40 minutes…but it’s a lesson that I’ve taken to heart, as most of you have probably figured out by now.

But that being said…there is one style that I just can’t wrap my head around…and that is the ongoing preaching in an old style revival. Now I’ve never been to a revival…but I’ve heard stories of the proverbial old school Baptist minister…getting up there and railing away for hours…eventually the suit coat comes off…the collar gets loosened…the shirt sleeves get rolled up…and when I’ve seen images on tv it always seems like its happening in mid-summer because everyone is all hot and sweaty…waving themselves with fans while the revival goes on and on and on. (pause)
Now, as I mentioned…I’ve never been to one…but I remember seeing a revival depicted on tv…on the classic show…the Waltons with John Boy and Mary Ellen and the rest of the Walton clan…Now, I remember seeing this episode as a kid, because my parents loved the show and watched it in syndication constantly…and not only that, but quite recently this particular episode was on in the background when I was visiting one of our members recently.

And the revival is depicted just as I described it a moment ago…as the visiting preacher rails on and on…focusing in on various individuals…and preaching fire and brimstone their direction…now one of the Walton boys catches an attack…and pretty quick he comes up to the front in a bit of an altar call…and later on in the episode he ends up in the river getting baptized…but then the preacher turns his attention to John Sr…who the show depicts as being pretty absent from worship most Sundays…and starts railing on him about the fires of hell…and John gets fed up…stands up…and walks out. (pause)

Now thinking about that whole scene reminds me of a portion of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, our featured passage for this evening…if there’s an overarching theme to this reading…and in fact to the entire letter of 2nd Corinthians in general…it’s the theme of reconciliation.  Somewhere in between Paul’s 1st letter to them and this one, the relationship has gotten strained…we don’t know what happened…but Paul is attempting to repair the breach…both for the sake of their own personal relationship and reconciliation, as well as for the sake of the gospel that he has taught them in the past.

Paul’s fear is that their irritation with him, whatever that might be about…will sour their opinion of the gospel that he had proclaimed…and so the theme of reconciliation…the need for it…particularly in terms of their relationship with God…and for a brief moment…I could almost imagine Paul as that Revival Preacher…NOW IS THE TIME…NOW IS THE DAY OF SALVATION. (pause) Whatever else Paul might be talking about…this small portion of the passage gives us a sense of urgency…that they must be reconciled now in this moment.

Now interestingly enough…Paul doesn’t get all fire and brimstoney on his audience…there’s no sense of trying to scare them into faith…no ultimatum of “Accept Christ or burn in hell.” And honestly I’m grateful for that…because I’ve never been partial to that style of proclamation…yes…Christ’s sacrifice frees us from the power of sin and death and condemnation…but if we are proclaiming Christ for the sole purpose of a get out of jail free card, then I think we are missing the point…for Christ desires that we be reconciled to God now…that we be in good relationship with God and our neighbor now…today…in this life. (pause)
But that being said…today is Ash Wednesday…today is one of the few days in the church year when we take an honest look at the end…and with that in mind…maybe, just maybe that sense of urgency isn’t a bad thing.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return. (pause) God formed humanity out of the dirt…God gives us life…but at some point…that life is over…and we return to the dirt that we came from in the first place. That’s what we’re talking about tonight…and when I look you in the eyes in a few more minutes, and I smear some ashes on your forehead and say those words to you, that’s what I’m saying. That at some point…you…will…die.

I’ll be honest…death is not one of my favorite subjects…and perhaps tonight more than any other Ash Wednesday that I’ve been a part of in the past…it seems particularly uncomfortable…There’s been too much of it in recent history…last fall our community and our congregation experienced several in a pretty short amount of time…some at the end of a long full life…and some shockingly early and unexpected.  And for me personally, it was all capped off with the death of my mentor in late November…a 57 year old man who was the pillar of health…unexpected to say the least…and wouldn’t you know it…I also got word this past weekend that one of my parents neighbors…a man that I’ve known since I was 3 years old suddenly died.

The thing about death…is that there’s no rhyme or reason to it…it comes out of the blue…and it catches us unaware…and if these unexpected deaths that have happened around all of us over the course of this past year have shown us anything…its that tomorrow is not guaranteed.

And while God may continue to display infinite patience with us in this life…it would seem that our death creates something of an expiration date…and so, Paul’s urgency…now is the acceptable time…now is the day of salvation…and yes maybe I sound a little fire and brimstoney here. Its not my normal style…but I can see today where Paul is coming from.

But here’s the thing…that salvation that he’s talking about…its already offered to you…its already been done for you…its already been accomplished for you. Christ did it at the cross…just how it works, I don’t know…just why it works, I don’t know…all I do know is that God loves us fully and completely…every single one of us…and God loves us so much that this blasted sin and the separation that it causes must be overcome and since we can’t pull it off on our own God stepped in through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and did something about it on our behalf…and this freedom…this salvation…whatever you want to call it is offered to you freely…now.

And the amazing thing about this…is that death…which has to be the worst part of our existence…both from the standpoint of having to watch it happen and experience the pain of loss that death causes for those still living…as well as the horrific reality of our own death, when our existence…our life as we know it ceases to be…and we cross into that great unknown that is lying on the other side of it…this horrific truth…this horrible thing…death, the worst thing that will happen to us…it is not the last thing that will happen to us.

If you’ve been to a funeral that I’ve led, you’ve likely heard me say that death comes for us all…but death doesn’t get the last word…God does…and we’re given a tiny little glimpse at that in the very last thing Paul says tonight…we are treated as having nothing…yet possessing everything.

You’ve all heard the saying “you can’t take it with you.” And its true. We come into this world with nothing…and we leave the same way…taking nothing with us…BUT…the promise of God assures us that we are made heirs of eternal life…WHATEVER that’s going to look like in the age to come…we are given that promise…it is spoken over us in the waters of our baptism…and it is spoken to us in the bread and wine of Communion.

Now in just a few minutes, I’ll look you in the eye and say words that refer to your death…but right after I say that to you, you will hear the words “the body of Christ broken for you…the blood of Christ shed for you.”  And this is done for the forgiveness of sin. Death is real, but the last words in the conversation belong to God. (pause)

Tonight we kick off the season of Lent…and we do it by acknowledging death…by recognizing our own limitations…and in about 40 days, Christ is going to be nailed to a cross where he’ll endure the true cost of our broken sinful reality…a cost that we can’t even begin to understand…he’ll endure it…or in actually he already has…because you have to go through death before you can get to the resurrection…but maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself there.

Tonight we remember that death comes for us all…and tonight we leave the conversation unfinished…which might seem strange…but I’ll make you a promise…or at least I’ll share God’s promise to you…this isn’t it…we’ll pick it up again at Easter with that tomb…is empty. Amen


A Broken Hallelujah 10-23-16

In this sermon, based loosely on Luke 18:9-14, I explore the unchanging nature of the gospel in light of difficult events happening in my community.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

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

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

If today is the first time you hear me preach, I’m going to give you some insight. If you’ve heard me before, you already know this. I’ve got a pretty distinct style in my sermons.  I open with a story…usually something that has happened in my day to day life or some applicable pop culture reference. I’ve got different reasons for doing this. Mainly because I’m a story teller and I find connections between understanding scripture and regular life…but I also typically use a little bit of humor to try and get you to laugh just a little bit. I guess you could call that something of an icebreaker if you wanted to. (pause)
But today I don’t have a story…today’s different…because today humor doesn’t feel okay, and I don’t know about you, but today I don’t feel like laughing.  In about 2 hours I’ll be at a funeral home for a visitation, and in about 24 hours I’ll be leading a funeral for a 15 year old boy who killed himself.  This may come as a shock if you haven’t heard the news, but this is a small town, so I’m guessing that most of you sitting out there today already know this…and I’m guessing that most of you don’t feel like laughing today either. (pause)

So what do we do?  What do we think? What do I say? (pause) Normally this is the part when I start talking about the gospel lesson. I unpack what’s happening. I look at what the characters are up to…and I attempt, over the course of a few minutes time, to find a nugget of truth and hope within the gospel narrative…and I also try to bring in real world examples…moments that perhaps you are experiencing in your life so that in the end, the gospel…the good news will be something that you can cling to moving forward…because the sermon has done its job.

I’ve heard it said that the job of a sermon is to bring affliction to the comfortable, and to bring comfort to the afflicted…and I’ve often told myself that in any given moment, both will be sitting in the pews. Some will be comfortable, and some will be afflicted.  But today I can’t help but think that none of us are really comfortable…me included…and so I continue to struggle with the question, what do I say? (pause)

How do I offer a word of hope or comfort, from the perspective of the gospel…from the perspective of Good News…when I find myself in a state of not really buying it myself?  Let’s be perfectly frank…in times like this….times when our community is shocked by a tragedy…every single conversation that I have seems to reveal the same thing…we are all asking Why or How and we all know that we can’t and won’t get answers to those questions…and it either makes us really sad…or it makes us really angry.

I’ve been in that state for the past few days…and it really struck me on Thursday afternoon. I had just received the phone call asking if I would lead Caleb’s funeral, and I sat down at my desk and stared at my computer for a moment, and all I could think was “How am I going to do this? How can I proclaim the gospel when I can’t even see it?” And never have I felt such a feeling of inadequacy. (pause) I don’t bring this up to say poor me…I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I bring it up because it is the truth…and as I thought about having to sit there with a family who has just experienced the worst thing that could ever happen, and the call to try and speak a word of hope and comfort into it…the “GOOD NEWS” seemed really bitter. And I suspect that for many of you sitting out there today, perhaps even all of you, it feels the exact same way.

And if that’s the case then maybe today what we need to be talking about is the truth of the gospel. Just what is it…and can we find it in the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector? And if there’s only one thing that I can pull out of that story that seems to be the least bit applicable today, its this…Jesus calls the tax collector justified rather than the Pharisee.

The Pharisee might do all the righteous things…but within his life, or in the very least within his prayer, He is the focus. Lord I thank you that I am not like other people. I do all the right things, and I refrain from the bad things…But the tax collector places the focus on God.  Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.  We don’t know anything about the guy other than his job. We can figure that he’s probably a cheat and a swindler, they usually were…and he made his living at the expense of his fellow countrymen…and following this moment of humble confession, he went home, very likely to continue the very same behavior, and perhaps returning to the temple a week later with the same exact prayer.

But again…he is justified because he appeals to the one who is actually capable of doing something. God, have mercy on me a sinner.  (pause) If nothing else, the tax collector recognizes the truth about who he is…and he also recognizes that there is nothing that he is capable of doing about it.

Salvation…justification…righteousness…whatever we want to call it…is not possible for us. We simply can’t do it…but God can…and not only that but God does…and through Christ it is already done for you.

That’s the gospel…that’s the good news…and what I have to continue reminding myself this week is that doesn’t change….whether I feel good about it or not…and to be perfectly honest today, I don’t feel overly great about it…and if I’m to utter the word Hallelujah today it feels pretty bitter.

But sometimes that bitter Hallelujah…that cold and broken Hallelujah is exactly what we need to say…because it is in the midst of our brokenness and our pain that God is up to something. Its in the midst of the honest realization that I just can’t do this that we finally get ourselves out of the way to let the gospel be the gospel and to let God be God.

If the gospel tells us anything, over and over again…its that God is God and I am not…and salvation from sin…the healing of this broken down messed up reality is not something that I can achieve…only God can do that.

And whether I want to feel good about it in this exact moment when I’m too pissed off at God to want to hear it, much less talk about it…the gospel does not change. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Even if it doesn’t make sense, Christ died for us…Even if it sounds too good to be true, Christ died for us. Even if I’m busy yelling at God to listen…Christ died for us.

And if we feel the need to react to all this stuff in that way, God will take it. Because God has broad shoulders…shoulders broad enough to handle all the sin in all the world…and not only to handle it, but to overcome it. (pause) You want to be mad, you be mad. You want to be sad, you be sad…and by all means direct that towards the one who can do something about it…who has already done something about it.

When Jesus hung on that cross and said it is finished…he wasn’t being metaphorical. This is already done…this flawed broken reality that we live in has already been redeemed…even if it doesn’t feel like it.

And this has all been done by God through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ in the world…even if it doesn’t feel like it right now. And that, my friends is the gospel, whether we like it or not in this moment. And the glory of the gospel is that it doesn’t change. This is truth now, in the midst of all this junk. And it will be true tomorrow…and it will be true the day after…and the day after and the day after. And it will still be true when we find ourselves back in a headspace that is capable of hearing it with joy. (pause)
And so today we offer up what may feel like a broken hallelujah…may we cling to the tiny bit of hope, even if it might feel bitter…than one day soon, our hallelujah is a joyful one. Amen.

Take Off the Blinders 10-25-15

In this sermon for Reformation Sunday I explore the assigned text from each year in John 8:31-36. Jesus says that believing in him sets us free. I explore what we are freed from.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

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

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

I have never made any secret of my loathing for winter. It is the season that comes around every single year that makes me wonder why I never moved to Florida…and because winter comes right on the heels of fall…this time of year that most people absolutely love tends to rub me the wrong way.

I hear it in conversation on almost a daily basis this time of year…how wonderful it is…the cool weather…the lack of humidity…the ability to open up the windows to get fresh air in the house…the joy of sitting by a fire on a chilly evening. (pause) And of course…the beautiful colors…the colors, the colors, the colors. (pause)

This is of course…referring to the trees changing colors…which I know a lot of people love…but for me…it’s a bane of my existence…because those leaves…red, yellow, brown…they look nice for about 5 minutes…and then they drop all over my lawn…mocking me…telling me that its time to get out the rake or pull out the mower…they fall on the roof, ending up in the gutter…telling me its time to get out the ladder…and they drift up in the corners…sloppy and wet, where they’ll sitting come next spring when I really have to clean them up. (pause)
I hate the leaves…but, even I’ll admit it…for about 5 minutes away, until they start dropping…they are beautiful. (pause)
But each and every year, I can also guarantee another discussion that happens around the fall colors…the question of what causes the color change in the first place. I still get it from my daughter, though by now her older brother has it pretty well figured out… “Daddy, where does the pretty color come from?”

And the amazing thing about it…is that those colors were there all along…we just couldn’t see them. (pause) For those of you out there not as scientifically minded as I am, leaves are green because of the presence of chlorophyll…that amazing stuff found in plants that can take sunlight and somehow turn it into food for the plant…something that in the trees, or more specifically in the leaves…tends to dry up and disappear in the fall. But that chlorophyll is so bright…it is so overwhelmingly green…that it overpowers the natural color of the leaf itself…and its only when that chlorophyll dries up in the fall that we can finally see the leaf as it really is…red, orange, yellow, or brown. (pause) Throughout the rest of the growing season, the green merely blinds us to the true nature of the leaves.

Now perhaps you’re wondering just what in the heck leaves and fall colors have to do with things today…particularly here on Reformation Day when we jump away from Mark’s gospel and hit a familiar passage out of John…one featured each and every year.

Abide in my word…know the truth…and it will make you free. (pause) Hold on a sec Jesus…Abraham, we’re already free…its all good…what are you talking about? (pause) You all know the passage don’t you? A bunch of fellow Jewish people are in the temple listening to Jesus…his words resonate and they believe…only to have him drop this little bomb on them…a statement which perhaps sounds like good news to us…and it trips them up…leading to a massive argument…a bunch of name calling…accusations of demon possession…and threats of stoning due to blasphemy. (pause) Seriously…John chapter 8 is a rollercoaster of reaction isn’t it?

It interesting to me…intriguing even…to hear about this reaction of individuals who have just begun to believe in Jesus…only to turn right around and change their mind. (pause) But it catches my attention simply because of the important nature of belief here in John’s gospel.

Throughout the course of the gospel, Jesus is constantly inviting individuals, as well as us as readers to believe in him…and not only that but to abide…to remain, to stay with him…we hear it today…abide in my word…stay in my word and my teaching…believe in me.

And just what are we supposed to believe? Well, the author of John addresses that towards the end…telling us that all of these things have been written down so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and through believing you might have life in his name. (pause)

And so…it would seem that this random group of Jewish people, in Jerusalem like good Jewish people…observing their traditions that dictate the proper way to honor God, begin to believe what Jesus has to say…seemingly, starting to believe that Jesus is in fact who he says he is…until the truth of just what this means starts to come to the surface. (pause)
Isn’t it interesting, what trips them up? This notion that faith in Christ brings freedom? They can’t get past it can they? And I wonder why…is it simply because to acknowledge that God became human is to begin to understand why he did so in the first place? (pause) To acknowledge that humanity is enslaved by a power greater than themselves…that we as individuals lack freedom. (pause)

Perhaps I say that, and it is a difficult thing to acknowledge…to understand…after all, one of the things that we pride ourselves in here in our country is our freedom…the notion that nothing holds sway over us…but think about it for a moment…is that really true? Or do we all have things that have their hooks in us…I think we do.

Now some of these things are easy to recognize…other’s not so much, and I think that’s the case that we see in the story today…the people that Jesus was addressing were unable to recognize that they were enslaved to sin…to a power that exists in our reality that goes far beyond our ability to understand or comprehend, much less overcome.

And this power is entrenched so deeply within our very existence that it blinds us to this truth…it blinds us from the ability the recognize that its even there…it blinds us from seeing things as they actually are. (pause) That’s what sin does…it warps things…hides some truths from us and whispers lies about other things…but in the end, the power of sin blinds us from the truth that we have a God that made us and loves us.

And you know what…I think sin tells us one more lie as well…and that is the lie that we can even begin to understand God and just what God is up to in the world. (pause)

It seems as if the people listening to Jesus that day, whoever they were, were so set in their ways, were so firmly convinced that their ancestry was all that mattered to God, that they were blinded to the life altering truth that God was standing before them, offering them freedom from the very thing that blinded them in the first place…their pride as descendants of Abraham…the very thing that they thought was their salvation…was the thing standing in the way of it.

And I think we fall into the same trap…we all have blinders that we wear…and all too often I fear that the very thing blinding us to our need for Jesus is the notion that we have it right. (pause)

Perhaps its fitting that we cover this text on Reformation Day…on the day every year when we celebrate the beginning of a major change within the body of Christ…a time when the church began to recognize that there are differences…and that no one individual has it all figured out…because the church, as it is, is made of people and every single one of us is flawed…none of us is perfect…none of us has perfect understanding…because none of us are God. (pause)
If you need evidence to support this…look at all the different denominations…there are countless…even within the Lutheran branch…and we each define ourselves by different traditions and practices…different understandings…different interpretations.

And I fear, one of the traps that we fall into, both as individuals as well as denominations…is the notion that we have it right and everyone else is wrong….that our denomination heritage and personal interpretation of the Bible is 100% accurate…or worse yet…that God thinks exactly the same way we do.

News flash!!!! He doesn’t…and I for one am pretty glad about that, because if God thought the same way I do then we’d all be in trouble…but that isn’t the case.

Because God doesn’t think the same way we do…God doesn’t love the same we do…God doesn’t exist the same way we do…and the freedom that is offered to us through Jesus Christ is freedom from the notion that we have to get it all figured out before its accessible…Jesus frees us from that which blinds us from the truth…even those blinders that we think ARE truth. (pause)

So here’s the thing…we aren’t perfect. We never were, and in this life we never will be. But the good news in Jesus Christ is that we don’t have to be…and truth that Jesus is trying desperately to show us is that his action…God’s action in our reality…makes us okay anyway.

The gospel is not a bunch of rules of what you have to do, and what you have to avoid in order to make God happy with you. It’s not a cultural requirement, it’s not a financial bench mark. Because none of that will make us right with God…none of that will overcome the power of sin in this reality…the power that exists far beyond our understanding and breaks the relationship with God because God cannot tolerate that which is against his will…but the wonderful thing is that God WILL not tolerate being separated from us and that is why the word became flesh…to somehow…someway take on the power of sin which results in death, and by dying and coming back God overcomes it…we don’t have to understand it…we don’t have to explain it…we just believe it through the power of the Holy Spirit acting within us.

And so, each and every day, we ask God to remove the blinders…to remove that which stands in the way of us recognizing that we need a savior and he exists as God made flesh dwelling among us…and simply because HE chooses to…he makes us free from all that blinds us…because HE chooses to…our blinders are removed…and once again, that relationship with God, flawed by the presence of sin in our reality today, will one day be perfected whether we understand it or not. Amen.

The Rules Are Not Enough 10-4-15

This sermon is based on Mark 10:2-16, as Jesus tackles an uncomfortable topic in divorce. But what catches us more importantly is the notion that rules are never going to define righteousness.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

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

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

My Sunday morning outfit never really changes much does it? Dress shoes, nice pants, and a suit coat over my clerical shirt. Occasionally I put on my robe and stole, but that doesn’t happen very often anymore…and so for individuals walking through the doors, about the one outward sign that I’m the pastor is my clerical shirt.

More often than not, I wear a black cleric right? About the only time you’ve seen me in anything different is the two occasions during the liturgical year when I wear my red shirt…Reformation Sunday and Pentecost…however…there are a multitude of different colors of clerics available for purchase.

I found that out a few years back as I was nearing my ordination…and I thought that I would attempt to secure a different shirt for each color represented in our liturgical calendar. Green for the season of Pentecost, red as I mentioned a moment ago, black which I obviously managed, dark blue for Advent, white for Christmas and Easter, and purple for Lent. And so I went online to a supplier to attempt to get as many of those as I could find…but they came up a little short on selection…and so I ended up with black, red, light gray, light blue…and purple.

And then about a week or so later…I was sitting down with a fellow pastor, and we ended up talking about this particular order…and when I mentioned purple…he just sort of looked at me funny for a moment before asking me a simple question, “Scott…in the Lutheran church…who wears purple?” (pause)

If you’re unaware, there’s something of an unwritten rule here in the ELCA that only bishops wear purple…as far as I know its not actually recorded anywhere officially…but its one of those things that you just don’t do…and so I panicked and called the supplier right away. Fortunately it was a small one man operation in terms of order processing, and the guy on the phone actually informed me that the purple shirt that I had ordered was actually on backorder…and so he said he would process everything else and cancel that one.

I breathed a sigh of relief…only to have the back ordered purple clerical shirt show up about 2 months later. So I called him back and he made the joke of “well, after talking to you on the phone I figured you would be a bishop by now, so I sent it anyway.” (pause) But as we all know, I am not a bishop…and that “unwritten” rule against wearing purple is not one that I plan on breaking anytime soon.

Now I bring this all up because today’s gospel features pretty heavily on this notion of rules. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a squirmy subject today, as the Pharisees attempt to utilize a long standing rule…one going all the way back to Deuteronomy and Moses…in order to try and trip up Jesus.

And considering the ongoing tendency of the religious leaders to try and use various religious law to discredit him, it would seem that the subject they breech must have been every bit as uncomfortable then as it is now…divorce…and make no mistake…reading this passage in this day and age where over 50% of marriages end in divorce and then hearing Jesus’ words on the subject…its uncomfortable.

I discussed this passage in a few different settings with a few different people this week, and each and every time we agreed…yah…that’s tough…and a couple of the high school boys were blunt enough to make the statement that I wish I could make “Glad I’m not preaching on it.”

But here we are…faced with a situation where individuals try to trap Jesus by using the rules…and in all honesty…I’m drawn more to that fact than I am to Jesus blunt words about divorce and adultery. (pause) And so for the sake of covering our bases today can we simply agree that divorce is bad…and while there are times when it may be the best thing, its never a good thing? I hope so…if you want to hear more, I preached on this about a year and a half ago…hit me up and I’ll send you the sound file for it. (pause)

But in the end…I’m struck a little more firmly by yet another example of individuals trying to play the rule card with Jesus. (pause) How often do we see this sort of thing in the gospels? Over and over again. (pause) We’ve heard “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” We’ve heard the disciples arguing about how to be great in the kingdom of Heaven. We’ve heard the question of how many times do I need to forgive my brother? Or why do your followers eat with defiled hands?

Today…the question…Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? (pause) Over and over again people get caught up with the rules. The checklists…the notion of salvation being granted by what we accomplish or what we successfully avoid….this notion that if I can mark enough checkboxes then I’ll be covered…and if I can avoid a list of bad stuff I won’t lose it. (pause)
Isn’t that telling of our society today though? We have rules about everything…bench marks that we need to achieve…negative things that we need to avoid. (pause)

Look at sporting events…collectively we do such a bad job of following the rules that we have guidelines for the various penalties of breaking them. And if you need a visual example…just watch a football game and look for those yellow flags getting thrown all over the place.

Additionally…we have those unwritten rules in society of how to treat one another…when its okay to speak out about something and when we should just bite our tongue.

Rules rules rules…we have rules everywhere…and I wonder…how’s that working out for everyone? (pause) I’m going to run the risk of sounding political for just a moment here…but rest assured that’s not my intention…here in our country…we have laws about firearms. Some will argue that they are too strict…others that they aren’t strict enough…but regardless of your personal opinion on guns in our country…10 people died last Thursday when yet another nutjob opened fire at a community college in Oregon.

Now I know it doesn’t sound very loving for me to call the shooter names…but like all of you, I’m sick of hearing this news every few months…that it happened again…that once again…someone breaks the law…and a bunch of people die. (pause)

People die…because the law…can’t protect them…it can’t save them. (pause) And that right there is the truth of our reality…the reason that Jesus always had something to say whenever he faced the question of how to interpret some law…how much is enough, or what is considered going too far.

The law…the rules…the guidelines are never going to do enough or be enough to save us…because our reality is too flawed…flawed by sin…flawed by that which breaks down our relationships in the first place.

Think about it for a moment…the original law…the 10 Commandments were given to the people of God as a gift in order to show them how they can live in harmony with God and with one another…how they can live in relationship with God and with one another…but as we have seen throughout the course of Old Testament history…and perhaps more specifically through the teachings of Jesus during his ministry, we CANNOT do it…we cannot fulfill the law. No matter how hard we try, its not enough…and the relationships always suffer because of it.

Maybe that’s why Jesus speaks out against divorce in today’s passage…because divorce at its very core is the ending of a relationship…and if our relationships are destroyed by the power of sin in our reality, then I suppose we have to say that divorce is sinful…just as the destruction of any relationship for any reason is the result of sin.

Now once again…I’m not trying to call out divorce right now…I’m really not…rather I’m being realistic…realistic about the fact that our reality…our very existence as it is today is contrary to how we were created in the first place. (pause) Think about the story of creation…we know there are two accounts at the beginning of Genesis and we heard a portion of one in our first lesson…but we see when God decides to create humanity in the first place…God says “Let us create humankind in OUR image.” Let me say that one more time…in OUR image.

We see in Genesis chapter 1…from the beginning God is in relationship…our Triune God…one God-3 parts…confusing as that might be…was in relationship before our reality began…and then we were made in that image…we were made to be in relationship as well…first off relationship with God…and then as we see our first lesson, equal relationship with one another as well. (pause)
We live in a reality, created by God in order to be with one another…and sin breaks that down…period…and there is nothing that we can do about it. There is no magic set of rules…no checklist…no batch of things to avoid that is going to take sin out of our existence…its dug in too deep.

That is why Jesus always seems able to counter the questions of those looking to trip him up with just the right thing to point out to that individual how deep sin runs in their existence…and because it runs so deep…that’s why Jesus came in the first place.

Since we are unable to repair the breach in our relationships caused by the presence of sin…the only being able to do anything about it…did…that is why God entered into our reality…not in order to establish some new set of rules and guidelines that we would turn around and fail at…but in order to bring the kingdom of heaven here.

We can’t get there…so he comes here…and he pays the price of sin…the wages of sin is death…and now through Jesus Christ that debt has been paid…because through Jesus Christ…God takes our messes…our screw-ups…our weaknesses…and God makes them into miracles. (pause)

And so…to wrap this all up today…yes…today Jesus presents us with a hard teaching…one that we’re all uncomfortable with…because there is no good answer to either the question of divorce…nor is there a good answer to the bigger question of “Well Lord…how much is enough?” Because the rules…can never…and will never…be enough…Only God is enough…and praise BE to God…that through the work of Christ, He makes us enough too. Amen.

Confirmation Questions 12-15-13

Last Sunday I preached on Matthew 11:2-11 and focused on John the Baptist’s doubt that Jesus was truly the Messiah. You can find that sermon here.

The confirmation students presented some great questions on their sermon notes, which I will attempt to address here.

-If you had the chance to be perfect, would you?
This is an excellent question, and it really points towards the nature of sin and the human condition. If perfection was possible by our own actions or will, then there would have been no reason for God to come to earth. Jesus would not have had to enter into our sinful reality to overcome it. This poses a difficult notion for me on a personal level. On one hand, it would be absolutely wonderful to be perfect, to never disappoint God or anyone else. But on the other hand, my own experience of extreme gratitude for the grace of God, the free gift of salvation from my sinful nature made possible through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ defines me. I hesitate to think about what my life would be like if that wasn’t present…or more specifically, if there was no need for it.

-How is the least in the kingdom better than John?This is another great question. Jesus makes this statement right after he credits John with being the greatest of the prophets. I believe what Jesus is trying to say here is that at this moment of doubt for John…or perhaps it is better to say the disbelief of John…in this moment, John does not have salvation from sin. He lacks faith at this moment because he is questioning if Jesus is the Messiah. He doesn’t believe it.  And so when Jesus says that the least IN the kingdom…that is to say anyone that has a saving faith in Jesus…is ahead of John in this moment.  Now that is not to say that John is excluded from salvation in the long run, because I don’t believe that is the case. Rather, Jesus is making a point about belief. It needs to be there. Belief in Christ for the salvation from our sinful nature.

Salvation is for All…But What Does That Mean

Today’s lectionary reading comes from Romans 10:5-10. This is a portion of what has been called the “Romans Road” in some circles. This title is based on the notion that Romans presents Paul’s strongest argument or message of the Gospel of Christ. While I question whether or not this is actually the case, I do agree that Romans is a great book. This portion is not exception. That being said, it does add fuel to the fire that rages in my own mind as I struggle with the idea of the universality of Christ’s sacrifice. More on that in a bit.

Within this portion of Romans, Paul is making a comparison between the law and faith in Christ. Moses comes into the argument, though briefly. In short, it is very apparent in these 5 verses (and particularly in about 2 of them) that Paul places all his eggs in the Jesus basket. As I go back and reread this section of scripture again, I notice that Paul seems to strike down the act of questioning within the realm of final judgement.Interestingly enough that relates to my question of universality, so maybe this is a beneficial road for me to go down as well. Let’s see where it takes us.

First Paul lays out the questions that all too often come to mind for us…”Who will go to heaven” and “who will go to hell” (verses 6-7). Speaking as a confirmation teacher to junior high students, I know that this is a common question. I think many people face this same question at many different times in their lives. Obviously I’m still dealing with it as well. In a nutshell, I think this question of “which direction will that person go?” falls into the category of judgement. The danger of asking ourselves this question (and worse yet trying to answer it) places us in the judgement seat…and that is a seat that none of us have any business sitting in. Christ himself will sit there at the proper time…for reference, remember the Apostles Creed, second article…He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

So that being said, I begin to see what Paul is saying when he tells us “righteousness that comes from faith says ‘Do not say in your heard who will ascend into heaven…or who will descend into the abyss…” Namely, he’s saying that if our faith is sincere, we don’t even need to consider these questions. We realize that our own salvation is found in faith and we are in no place to pass judgement on others. Now at this point, Paul goes on to explain faith a little closer. “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (verse 9). He goes on as well…hitting the point a little harder in verse 10. “For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.”

Now, hiding here in these two verses, and specifically in verse 9 lies the key to why we cannot be the judge. First he says that we must confess Jesus as Lord…well yes, I agree, this is crucial…but anyone can say the words. In my opinion the “confession” is not the key because we have the ability to say anything….simply saying it doesn’t make it true.  But now the next part is a little harder…believe in your heart. Here’s the real key. Do you actually believe it? Only you know for sure…well you and the one that can actually look into your heart…God himself. Only God has the ability to judge what is truly in our hearts. We, as humans, do not have the ability to make that call for someone else…period…end of story.

Now Paul does go on with further explanation of this concept in the following verses, and so I invite you to read on for further clarification if this is still unclear.

I on the other hand am going to circle back around to the notion of universality. Now, you should note that I do this carefully. The idea earned Rob Bell a lot of criticism when he released his book Love Wins a year or so ago. But it is a question that I struggle with. If Christ came to save the world (John 1), but Romans tells us that we must believe in our heart and confess it, then is there a condition? I’ll clarify…by condition I don’t mean to indicate that we have anything to do with our salvation…I’m way too Lutheran in my thinking to go there. Rather, I go back to the idea that faith comes from the Holy Spirit. Specifically that it is the word of God within us that allows us to understand and thus have faith in Christ.

There’s the tricky part for me…or more so the question…If faith comes from God, then why do some have it and some don’t? If God wants all to be saved (John 1 again)…then why does the Spirit only “place” faith in certain people? Do we have the ability to resist? The whole notion of free will certainly plays into this personal mental argument that I find myself in.

In short, I don’t have the answer and that’s why I’m still wrestling with this topic.  Today, as I read Romans 10, I take a little bit of solace in the notion that I know the truth that’s in my own heart and is confessed on my lips. Jesus is Lord and he died for the salvation of my sins.  I can rest in that…and I can pray that when I confess it, the Holy Spirit will use it to stir the heart of someone else. I can’t make it happen, but I can hope for it. Today that’s enough.

Paul’s Talking Trash

Once again, I must apologize for my lack of recent posts. After doing this little project for a few weeks now, I’m finding myself enjoying the practice of the reflections greatly, but admittedly, sometimes other distractions get in the way and I don’t get to it. That’s been the case over the course of the past week or so…busy times which has equaled no postings.

Today’s lectionary reading comes from Philippians 3:7-11. These particular verses follow a sort of resume written by Paul. In verses 4-6, he lists the various attributes that he has going for him in terms of Jewish zeal. While I obviously wasn’t alive at this time to know for sure, something tells me that this practice was likely common through pious Jews.

Here’s what I like about verses 7-11, and particularly 8. Paul regards all these attributes…or plusses or bonuses or whatever you want to call them…as loss in the face of knowing Christ and being assured of salvation through Christ. How amazing is that? Yesterday I had a conversation with a couple of parishioners regarding the materialistic attitude that is so prevalent in the United States today. Truly we are a privileged people that put a lot of stock in ourselves. Call it entitlement or justification or whatever you want to call it, but our society certainly places a lot of stock in these type of qualities.

But now here’s the part that really makes me smile. Paul goes on to say that not only does he count them as loss…he call them rubbish.  At least that’s what the NRSV says…”rubbish.” The original language…not quite so polite. If we take a look at the Greek, we see the work “skubalon.” Now I often say that if you want to read an English translation that is as close to Greek as possible, read the King James…I just took a look at the NKJ and see that Paul calls it “dung.”  We’re getting closer to reality here…just in a polite matter.

Perhaps you’re picking up what I’m putting down here.  (Moment of foul language warning) Paul is calling all these attributes shit…plain and simple. I count them as shit in order to gain Christ.

Good to see that Paul called things like they are right?

In short, I tend to think that Paul is really pushing at the Lutheran notion of grace alone here.  There is NOTHING we can do…nothing within us…that will earn our salvation from our own sinful nature. Regardless of our “religious boy-scout medals” we get nowhere on our own power. It is only through the grace of God in Jesus Christ that we are saved.  Paul really throws this point down in verse 9. “Not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ.”

Now that being said, Paul makes another interesting point in verse 10 as he talks about knowing Christ and sharing in his sufferings.  This point could certainly point towards Luther’s concept of theology of the cross…that salvation is achieved only through the mockery/suffering that occurred on the cross. It is folly to normal understanding, but it is truth none the less. Paul seeks to join in Christ’s suffering “by becoming like him in his death.” Truly, Paul seeks to follow Jesus through suffering and death, and marks those things as blessings as they connect him to Christ. It is important to note that he’s not saying that his suffering and (eventual) death earn his salvation. Rather, he is saying that they are signs of the salvation that Christ has already achieved for him.

This is a good reminder as we face our own sufferings in this world. Rest assured, suffering is a reality. We all suffer trials of some kind. But keep in mind that Christ has shared those sufferings. I recently taught my junior high confirmation students about the importance of Christ experiencing every aspect of life from birth through death. He experienced it so that he might overcome it. Life is sinful, we can’t get past that. But Christ did on our behalf. God has experienced the same sufferings that we do. He has walked that road so that one day, we will walk with him in paradise.

It’s all about Christ, not us. That’s why Paul is so quick to talk trash about himself.