Posts Tagged ‘sin’

Wrong Place Wrong Time 3-24-19

In this sermon, based on Luke 13:1-9, I explore Jesus brief but important teaching on the question of tragic deaths being the result of judgment on sin.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/wrong-place-wrong-time-3-24-19

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

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

Out of curiosity…how many of you have had the unfortunate experience of hitting a deer with your car? (pause) Anyone out there had it happen more than once? (pause) In my immediate family, my older brother holds the record…you won’t believe this but its true…he’s made contact with not one…not two…not five…but…12…12 different deer.  Honestly makes my number of 4 seem almost quaint. But that’s my number. In the roughly 25 years that I’ve been driving, 4 times I’ve smacked a deer.

But in addition to the 4 deer that I have hit…I know there have been quite a few close calls…times when one ran across the road in front of me…or it was in the ditch and it stayed put…and in addition to that…I sometimes wonder how many close calls I had that I wasn’t even aware of…like the ones I don’t see, but unwittingly drive right past…or the ones that crossed the road a minute before I got there…and if I’d left a minute earlier, I’d have hit it. It’s probably a weird thing to consider, but sometimes I think like that…the what-ifs. The disasters that were averted or avoided out of dumb luck.

Lord knows I’ve had my share of close calls…you might have heard the story of the wreck I experienced with three of my friends the summer after I graduated high school…how we rolled a car down the middle of the highway, but beyond a few pretty superficial cuts and scrapes, we were all ok…but if something had gone even slightly different any of us or all four of us could have died…but we didn’t.

When I think about moments like that…I can’t help but think of the flip side…those times when it didn’t go okay…and I know many of you have seen this type of thing before. We can call it a lot of things…bad luck…being in the wrong place at the wrong time…tragedies of one kind or another…and when they happen we begin to ask the question of why? Or how…what does it mean…or what are we supposed to think?

I’ve had that conversation with many of you over the past few years when tragic events have happened…like the death of a high school student in a car wreck last fall.  Or countless others in surrounding communities in the last few years.

I’ve heard the questions around the diagnosis of cancer…and in the death of those we lost to it…I’ve heard it in conversation about the mental decline of loved ones…when we see their personality disappear and the person we knew isn’t there anymore.

We ask it when we hear news of children fighting diseases…knowing they might not beat it.  Or when natural disasters rip through an area leaving devastation…you name it…these tragic events and moments happen all the time and they take many forms.

And that’s nothing new…because the same sort of thing happened during Jesus’ time as well…and we hear about it in today’s gospel lesson.  Two different events that resulted in tragic death. Now we don’t really know the details of either one of these events that Jesus references…those details have been lost to history…but we can make some assumptions.

The tower of Siloam…likely some sort of a watch tower or observation point along the wall that surrounded the city of Jersualem…we don’t know quite what happened beyond the tower collapsing…probably some sort of freak accident…but due to a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, 18 people died…either crushed under the collapse or perhaps inside the tower when it fell. A tragic accident.

The other one…well that one seems a little more devious.  Jesus is told about a batch of Galileans whose blood was mixed with their sacrifice.  Again…we don’t know the details, but we can make assumptions.  There was only one place where they’d be making sacrifices…and that’s in the temple there in Jerusalem…we don’t know why Pilate targets them…perhaps thinking they were involved with a treasonous plot…but for whatever reason…Pilate decides to put his cruelty and absolute authority on display by having them killed…in the midst of their act of worship.

And that’s the thing that makes this one sting even more than the other…this was act of terrorism…designed to instill fear in a group of people…in a culture…done so in a place and time of worship…the one place where no one should feel unsafe.

And that one hits close to home…because how many times have we seen it in recent memory?  More than I can count…acts of terrorism, perpetrated on people because they are different…because they look different or act different…because of a different race or different faith. We saw it cross racial boundaries when 9 people were killed during a Bible Study 4 years ago in Charleston.

We saw it cross faith boundaries when 11 were killed in a synagogue in Pittsburgh last fall…and we saw it when 50 people died in New Zealand, as they gathered to pray in 2 different mosques less than 10 days ago. (pause) I wish I could say these are the only examples…but we all know better…because evil has permeated our world with lies that say different is bad…or lies that say being a non-white non-Christian equals a death sentence…Now in hindsight, these lies are utterly absurd aren’t they? In fact they are stupid…and they are dangerous…and they result in tragedies like this.

But in the moment when these tragedies happen, there seems to be a question that surrounds these things…the question that begins “why?”  But then it seems that human nature tries to find a reason when there is none…and that question will usually find its way around to asking “Did they deserve it?” I believe its true now…and it was true in Jesus’ day…and we find that in his response.

Do you think that these Galileans suffered because they were worse sinners than all others?  Do you think that the 18 killed in the tower collapse were worse sinners than anyone else living there? Jesus offers a resounding No to both of these questions and I believe that he would offer the exact same response if he was here in the conversations that we’ve been having.

Did they deserve it?  Why would they? Because they look different?  Because they worship differently?  Because their understanding of that which is divine is expressed differently?  Or because they’re bad people?   Do we hear how ridiculous that sounds? (pause)

Whenever stuff like this happens…whenever there are questions that have no good answers…or we find ourselves just a little bit off because of the way things are going…what do we do with that?  I wish I had a good answer…some little nugget of wisdom that I could pull out like a magic pill that would just solve everything, or tie it all up in a neat little package.

But the world doesn’t work like that…and sometimes that only thing we can say in face of tragedies that lead to questions with no answers is to acknowledge that the world is a broken place and it is filled with broken people.  Did those people die because they were sinners? Jesus says no…and in doing so Jesus reminds us that if death was the result of a person’s sinfulness then we would all be dead already.

But that’s not what Jesus says…he tells us to repent…and maybe, just maybe what he’s saying is that those people are dead and that is a tragedy….but you are still alive to hear this news…so repent. (pause)

None are righteous, not one…but God loves us anyway…and God gives the opportunity to turn away from the brokenness that has permeated our world and our relationships and even ourselves…and to turn back to the good existence that God desires for all of humanity. That’s what repentance means…to quite literally turn away from…and to turn back to something else.

Now this is not to say that we will be perfect and will in some way earn salvation or righteousness or God’s favor…this is to say that we recognize the brokenness as it is…and we turn to the one who is able to do something about it. Because as much as we shake our heads and ask what’s wrong with this world…we have a God who seems to do the very same thing…but this God is also capable of more…and through whatever it was that God was accomplishing through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus…God is bringing this broken and flawed reality towards something new.

We are not there yet…and that is painfully obvious more often than not…but in the act of repentance, which we are called to every day…we are also accepting the invitation of our Lord to join together in the work of reconciling this broken world back to the one who made it Good in the first place.

And that one is the only one who is righteous enough to say whether or not “they deserved it.” That’s not our place to say…whether we like it or not…but we are honest with ourselves, we place ourselves in that judgement seat don’t we?  Maybe, just maybe, that’s why we’re being called to repentance on this day, and in this time. (pause)

This is pretty heavy stuff…but maybe its exactly what we all need to hear now during this season of Lent…as we continue to look towards the cross…the cost of what Jesus will endure to begin this work of reconciling this broken world back to God. We’re all a part of it…but God has offered the solution to the world…let’s all turn ourselves back to that…remembering that in the face of death, whether it is our own…or someone that we care about…or some faceless stranger on the other side of the world…that death has not come to spite us because of our sin…sometimes we’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time…but the promise of the gospel…the promise that we cling to, is that God is bigger than death…and that no matter the circumstances, God will always get the last word. Amen.

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May We Be Changed 1-14-18

In this sermon, based on John 1:43-51, I explore the initial encounter between Jesus and the disciple Nathanael. While Nathanael’s initial reaction doesn’t seem great, the encounter brings a change upon him.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/may-we-be-changed-1-14-18

You can also follow along with the 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 someone ever got the idea to write a book about me, especially around my time here in Underwood…I’m pretty sure that I know 2 stories that will be included…both of which involve me effectively demonstrating foot-in-mouth syndrome.

One story centers around the first time I presided at a baptism…and the fact that, during the sermon, I REPEATEDLY, called the child by the wrong name…and only realized my folly when one of the confirmation students at that time called out “Wrong name pastor.” (pause)
Now the second story happened downstairs during education one day…it was early in my tenure, I’d been here less than a year at this point…and I was leading a discussion that centered around Jesus coming out of Nazareth and the idea that his home town was considered…backwater…and in the moment, I was wracking my brain to name a town that would serve as a good example…and since I was new to the area…the first community I came up with was Minden…and I no more than said it when I heard about 4 different people, all of whom live in Minden respond with a cynical “Hey.” (pause)
Now needless to say, this was innocent humor at work…but as I think back to that moment, I’m also reminded of the very same tendency from my youth.  It probably goes without saying that most communities or schools have a rival…and that disparaging remarks probably get made about those rivals on a pretty common basis…now in my hometown of Graettinger, the easiest target of this type of thing was a neighboring school district made up of the combined communities of Armstrong and Ringstead…we thought we were hilarious when we referred to “Armpit-ringworm.”

Again…innocent humor…no real animosity behind it…if nothing else…probably just evidence of the ignorance of youth at play…but…also reminiscent of something we find in today’s gospel lesson. (Pause)

Here in the season of Epiphany, we continue to focus in on Gospel stories that feature Jesus being revealed to the world in different ways…and in this case…we hear of his encounter with two of the earliest disciples…Philip and Nathanael.

Now here in John’s gospel, we find a strong theme of invitation at work when it comes to encounters with Jesus.  He is revealed, either through his own invitation to individuals, or through them following his example and extending an invitation of their own.  First John the Baptist points out Jesus to Andrew…he encounters the Lord, and then he goes to find Peter.  And now, we see the same sort of thing repeated…as Jesus encounters Philip…gives the invitation to “Follow me”…and as a result Philip goes out to extend the very same invitation as he finds his friend Nathanael. (pause)

Admittedly, we don’t know much about Nathanael…and about all that’s revealed here is a cynical view about the likelihood that the Messiah has actually shown up…and a pretty darn lousy view of the neighboring town of Nazareth. “Nathanael, we have found the one that Moses and the Prophets have written about…its Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth.”

Now keep in mind Nathanael is from Cana, another town in Galilee…and Galilee as a whole wasn’t very big…and it stands to reason that there would be a little bit of angst between the communities…just like me calling the neighboring school a lousy nickname, Nathanael seems to do the same as we hear “Nazareth, can ANYTHING GOOD come out of NAZARETH?” Sorta makes you wonder what other lousy remarks he might have made that aren’t recorded here. (pause)
But…despite this reaction, Philip does share the invitation to Come and See…come and experience him for yourself…almost like he’s telling Nathanael to reserve judgement until he actually meets the guy…and together they head off towards Jesus.

Now here’s the crazy part…Jesus sees them coming, and before he even meets Nathanael…before they’re even introduced Jesus shares this little ditty…Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is…no…deceit.” Sometimes we hear it “No Guile.” We might call him a straight shooter…or someone who says what he thinks…or he tells it like it is. (pause)

It never ceases to amaze me that Jesus has this response to a guy who has just insulted his hometown…this random guy who had the gall to insult an entire community without any basis whatsoever…in fact I hear this statement from Nathanael and tend to think he’s a judgmental jerk that deserves a verbal smack down from Jesus rather than apparent praise for his “honest lack of BS.”

I can’t help but think that this sounds familiar to recent news doesn’t it? Offhanded, unwarranted comments at the expense of another place…and I don’t know about you, but my immediate response to that news…just like my response to this comment from Nathanael is outrage and disgust and disappointment. (pause)
But then I stop and think back to my days as an immature high schooler…and then I start to feel convicted…and I realize that despite the lack of animosity…the lack of meaning behind my off-handed jokes…I was doing the exact same thing…degrading someone simply because of where they are from.

That’s the funny thing about sin…about the brokenness of the world…that we can see it in others…and then in an instant it starts to hold up the mirror to us as individuals and we find the exact same brokenness…the exact same sin lying within our lives…within our hearts and minds…within our thoughts and actions.

And I don’t know about you but when I think back to the stupid stuff that I have said and done in the ignorance of my younger years all I can think of is a line from the 25th Psalm….Lord, remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions. (pause) And not only that but I also realize that the very same brokenness that existed within me back then is still present now…it may manifest itself in different ways…but its still there…and I am every bit as capable of snap-judgments about other people or situations…because I am…human…just like everyone else.

Now this is perhaps, a bit of downer…this recognition of the flaws that exist within each of us as individuals as well as within all of us as humanity…but it is in recognizing and admitting to our brokenness that we open ourselves up to the glory and the gift of God’s grace for all of us.

You see that’s really what we find in the story of Nathanael today…because Jesus encounters Nathanael…the guy who has just talked smack about his hometown…the guy who has rather bluntly expressed doubt about the possibility that Jesus is in fact the Messiah…but then Nathanael encounters Christ…He encounters God in human form…the word made flesh…and somehow, someway through this personal encounter…Nathanael is…changed.

I wish I was a fly on the wall to have witnessed the full conversation…the full encounter that occurred between them that day…but unfortunately that’s the not case…and all we have to go on is the brief back and forth recorded here in John’s gospel…but whatever it was that went on between these two…whatever happened…it was utterly life altering.

And this is the amazing thing about the Gospel of Jesus Christ…first of all that the creator of the entire universe and everything in it would care enough about us, broken though we are, to enter into our reality as one of us…and then that the personal encounter between an individual and God, whether Christ in the flesh or the presence of the Holy Spirit within us…that individual is changed.

Nathanael goes from utter doubt and disbelief to the faithful expression of Jesus as the Son of God…and not only that…but Jesus promises that he will be a witness to amazing things. This is the life altering reality of the Good News…That God loves each of us so much that he meets us in our brokenness to make us into something new…and then he invites us to join together with him in the same work of invitation so that one day, all may encounter this same life-altering God.

The message is the same for me. It is the same for you. For Christ has said I am making all thing new. May we hear this good news today and like Nathanael, may we be changed by our encounter with the living Lord so that we might also go out into the world to share that same message of love and invitation with everyone in it. For truly all the world has been made by the loving hand of the father and everyone has been made bearing the divine image. And Christ has come to make that connection between heaven and earth a reality. To create the bridge that spans the separation. To make it possible for everyone to come and see. To experience connection and relationship with the God who has made them and who loves them just as they are. Amen

Caution Contents Are Hot 9-10-17

Contents HotIn this sermon, based on Matthew 18:15-20, I explore Jesus’ odd little teaching about how to deal with sin among believers. In the end, we need to remember that its not about punishment, its about reconciliation.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/caution-contents-are-hot-9-10-17

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:
(note that I post the manuscript, though sometimes I go off script, so there might be some differences with the audio)

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

I often joke that we should have three sacraments. Two of them are obvious as they actually are the sacraments, baptism and communion…but the third one…the one that I jokingly propose…is coffee.  Its wonderful…its one of those things that I cite as evidence that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

But that being said, I also believe that there are crimes that are, all too often, committed against coffee. I learned the first one at a young age…as I learned from my father…if you want a cup of cream and sugar, don’t ask for coffee.  We drink that stuff straight up. (pause)

Now the second crime has only come on the scene in the past few years…a travesty that you can find in any local coffee shop…(pained) Iced Coffee. I mean, what’s the point? Coffee is supposed to be hot…its supposed to be steamy and wonderful…you are supposed to pick up a hot mug of coffee and cup it in your hands on a cold morning just to warm them up…that is the nature of coffee…bitter and black and hot…as God intended it. (pause) And so that being said…you can about imagine my response every time a get a to-go cup and read “Caution, contents are hot.”  DUH!!!!!

It always strikes me as stupid…a waste of ink in the printing…a waste in production value just to print on the cup to watch out because the Coffee you ordered is hot…But that being said, most of you sitting out there probably know why its on there…because all we have to do is think back in the news about a dozen years to the story of the woman who went through the McDonalds drive thru, got a coffee…spilled it all over herself and then…successfully…sued McDonalds for not warning her that the coffee was hot. (Facepalm)

How many warning signs…or instructions are in place because of something like this? How many common sense things need to be spelled out because someone wasn’t paying attention? And perhaps the big question…what does this have to do with Jesus words out of Matthew for today? (pause)
I bring this up…because it seems that Jesus is actually offering a bit of instruction here…a how-to guide when they are faced with a situation within the assembly.  Now we could argue that this is a bit on the strange side, as the church that Jesus seems to be referencing didn’t really exist yet…but make no mistake…its referring to something that common sense should tell us is a no brainer…sin among the people. (pause)

Now I wonder…is this a familiar instruction to us? I mean, its laid out pretty nicely…step by step…Step 1…if your brother or sister sins against you, go speak to them in private…if they listen to you…if they repent, rejoice…for you have regained that one…and the instruction is complete.  If they do not…continue to step two. (pause)

Step two…take one or two others along with you, so that they may confirm the words that you say to your brother or sister. If they listen to you and your witnesses…if they repent, rejoice, for you have regained that one…and the instruction is complete. If they do not…continue to step three. (pause)
Step three…tell the church…make it public…if they repent, rejoice…for you have regained that one…and the instruction is complete. If they do not…continue to step 4…Step 4….treat them like a Gentile and tax collector. (pause) Hmmm…there is no step 5 is there? (pause)

I’m guessing you’ve heard this. In fact…this passage has the distinction of being included in just about every church constitution that has come and gone…and it deals with a very real thing…sinfulness…brokenness. In short…the reality of our flawed humanity…even within the church.

Now admittedly, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in our congregation’s constitution, and sure enough…Chapter 15, Discipline of Members and Adjudication…section 15.01…and I quote…Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted following Matthew 18:15-17. (pause)

It may have been odd that Jesus had to lay out step by step instructions for the event of sin occurring between his followers…but yet 2000 years later…we still follow those guidelines. (pause) And so I pose the question…how can this be?

This is the church…this is the body of Christ on earth, called…united…and empowered by the Holy Spirit…so why would we need to hear this…why would Jesus need call attention to it? (pause) Anyone remember why “Caution, contents are hot” is printed on a coffee cup? Its there to remind us of the reality of the world. Coffee is hot…and people sin against one another…even in the church…shocking though that might be.

But here’s the thing…often times when this passage gets thrown around…I fear its being used as a weapon…here’s what you do…talk to them first…but then get people on your side…and if you can’t shame them into repentance then kick them out. (pause) But if that’s how we hear this portion of scripture then I think we need to back up and reconsider.

Whoever was responsible to producing our current constitution that was ratified and adopted by our congregation in 2005 stated it pretty well…listen to these words again. Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted…Reconciliation is the key…and it is the goal.

We do not hear these words of Jesus and utilize them as a checklist that we have to go through in order to take revenge on someone who has wronged us…the whole point here is to be reconciled…and Jesus even says that…if your brother or sister listens to you…YOU HAVE REGAINED THAT ONE…and that, is worth celebrating.

In fact, Jesus has been talk about this very thing…chapter 18 is full of it…right before this brief portion…he tells a story about a shepherd with 100 sheep…and one goes missing…so he leaves the 99, defying logic…and he searches high and low till he finds the one that’s lost, and he brings it back…and why would he do this?  (pause) Because the flock isn’t full…its not complete…its not as it is intended to be without every single one of them accounted for and included. And when the one that is lost is returned…they celebrate. (pause)

The theme continues too…because right after this Peter asks how many times we need to forgive one who sins against us…even as many 7…and Jesus says no…but seven times seven…He might as well be telling Peter that you forgive him as many times as he repents…and there is no limit.

But if we think about his instructions…that if our brother or sister refuses to listen even to the entire church, then it almost seems like we’re supposed to kick them out right? Treat them like a Gentile and a tax collector? (pause)

But now consider who Jesus was often spending time with…consider the company that often drew criticism from the elite…people like Gentiles…people like Tax collectors? (pause) Maybe what Jesus is telling us here is that if an individual can’t even hear the truth from the church…then we need to start over with them…they need to be treated as one who has yet to hear the gospel…because the opportunity for repentance is not a nice tidy 4 step process that either works or is discarded. Its ongoing…because the brokenness that resides within each of us is ongoing as well…even as we live in peace with God through the gift of his grace, we know that each of us is simultaneously saint and sinner. Fully forgiven and yet fully broken…and because of this fully capable of harming one another…while also fully capable of offering the mercy which has been shown to us. (pause)

Here’s the thing…Jesus has told us that the kingdom of heaven has come near to us…even that it is among us…but when we see or feel or experience that brokenness that is also still present…we realize that there are things in our reality that are standing in the way of the kingdom of heaven coming into fruition now.

Because whatever it is that the kingdom of heaven is…or will be…I believe this about it…everything that is “in the kingdom” will exist in line with God’s will…whatever that looks like…and that which is outside of God’s will…which includes the brokenness and pain that exists within us and between us…that will somehow cease to be.  Now that’s not the case yet is it?

But we are given the opportunity to live in a way that reflects the reality of the kingdom in how we treat one another…how we act towards one another…how we act towards God…how we act towards this world that we have been given…We have been given the ability to mirror the love and grace and mercy of God right here right now….and even though brokenness still exists, we are invited to participate in the coming of the kingdom of heaven…every…single…moment.

Now to live in this reality is to seek out reconciliation. Because brokenness is still here…and pain is still a reality and we harm one another, even in the church…I think Jesus was well aware of that.

And so, as we hear, wherever two or three are gathered, Jesus is there among them…because wherever two or three are gathered…brokenness will follow…but with the presence of Christ…with the power of the Holy Spirit…the opportunity for reconciliation is also there.

That’s what Jesus came to do in the first place…In Jesus, God is reconciling all the world…all of the brokenness…all of the pain…all of the hurt…all of it. Now it might not be finished yet…but through Christ…God is inviting all of us to come along for the ride. And we are reminded, to be reconciled.  Today we are reminded that if another sins against us, we should seek to be reconciled…and earlier Jesus tells us the opposite…that if we have harmed another that we should seek to be reconciled.

So if he’s covering both sides of the reconciliation coin…I guess it doesn’t really matter who sinned against who…just be reconciled…for it is only when we are included…it is only when we are all present and accounted for…that the flock is how it is intended to be…and all the world will rejoice when that is finally a reality. Amen.

I Do Not Understand 3-12-17

In this sermon, taken from John 3:1-17, I explore the odd encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. A grammatical situation reveals the truth, that often we lack the ability to understand what God is up to.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/i-do-not-understand-3-12-17

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

Just out of curiosity, is anyone out there fluent in Spanish? I am not…I know just enough to be dangerous…and I truly discovered this fact during my final year of seminary as I spent two weeks in a congregation with a large Hispanic population.  Throughout the course of the time that my small group of classmates and I were in the congregation, we met with many different individuals for conversation…and that would always include one of the two pastors present for the purpose of translation…but we all attempted to communicate with one another directly in one another’s language, at least as much as we were able.

Now for me…my one year of Spanish my sophomore year of high school didn’t do a lot of good…and my ability to communicate in Español was pretty much limited to introductions. Time after time we would go around the table introducing ourselves…and each time I would say Mi llamo es Scott…which literally means “My name is Scott.”  Now, grammatically, there was nothing wrong with what I was saying…but after hearing several others from my group introduce themselves I started to pick up on the regular way for a person to say it. Soy Scott…now saying it this way literally means “I’m Scott.” (pause) Again, neither one is technically right or wrong…they are just two ways to say the same thing.

Now the polar opposite situations happens in today’s gospel lesson. Rather than hearing two different ways to say the same thing…we begin to discover one way of saying two different things…but first, let me set the stage.

We’ve moved into John’s gospel…where we’ll remain for the rest of the season of Lent…and perhaps that’s not a bad thing…maybe its fitting during this season we usually consider pretty dark as we move towards the cross…and if you’re familiar with the major theme here in John’s gospel it’s the idea of light and darkness…and the contrast between the two…we hear this theme all over John…as the narration of different stories continues to give us little clues about the state of things…telling us the time of day or that an encounter happens at night.  (pause) And in our story for today…that bit of narration is right out there.

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus…a leader of the Jews…He came to Jesus by night, calling him Rabbi…seeking something. Now this all happens in Jerusalem…and of course we’re pretty early in the whole story. Jesus has been baptized…he’s publically performed his first miracle…or sign as they’re called here in John…and he’s made his way into the capital city for the first of 3 Passover celebrations…he’s already caused a major stir in the temple when he started cracking a whip and throwing a bunch of tables around…and since then he’s just been around the temple…performing more signs and teaching. And this is where we pick up.

Nicodemus is one of the big wigs…not only is he a Pharisee, but he’s also a member of the Jewish ruling council.  He’s kind of a big deal…and if we were to compare him to a present day figure, we’d probably call him a Seminary professor with 3 or 4 different PhD’s. This guy…he knows his stuff…anything having to do with Jewish culture or their religion, or their faith, or their understanding of the law…he’s your guy…Nicodemus was the 1st Century Jewish equivalent of Google…if you had a question you went to him…not the other way around.

And perhaps this is why its so strange that we find him seeking out Jesus in the first place. Maybe the council sent him…or maybe he was just curious…but either way…here in the middle of night…in the midst of darkness…Nicodemus comes searching…calling Jesus Rabbi.

Now there’s a lot of back and forth in this story…as the teaching moment begins as a dialogue between the elite Pharisee and the traveling Rabbi…and the first thing that Jesus does is point out the error in the way that the council perceives him. We know that you are from God because no one can do the signs you do apart from him.

And Jesus response…you don’t get it. You can’t see the kingdom of God…you can’t perceive it unless you are born from above…and with this statement…Jesus and Nicodemus are off to the races…they engage in a lively debate around the idea of being born. (pause)
But here’s the problem…remember how I talked about 2 ways to same thing in Spanish…well here…we find 1 way to say 2 things…Jesus says “born from above.” But Nicodemus hears “born again.” (Pause) And it raises the question of just how that happens.  Well, funny enough it has to do with the original language…the very language that Jesus and Nicodemus would have been speaking to one another as they sat there debating…keep in mind they’re speaking the same language, but Greek gets funny right here…and the word that Jesus uses to say “from above” also means “again.”

Let me give you an example…desert…I say that and I might be talking about a delicious sugary post-meal treat…or I might be talking about leaving you high and dry in the midst of your need. Same word…two different meanings…and the same thing has happened between Jesus and Nicodemus.

Now the conversation goes back and forth…Jesus offering explanations…Nicodemus asking more questions…but seemingly getting nowhere as he tries to understand what Jesus is attempting to teach him.

But maybe that’s not so out line in the first place. Jesus talks about being born from above…whatever that means. Nicodemus is thinking more about the physical reality of what Jesus has said…and logically speaking…it just doesn’t work…to be born again? How can that happen…no one can enter the womb and be born a second time. I know how biology works…and that’s not how biology works.

And so after some back and forth Nicodemus finally throws up his hands and utters his final words of this story. “How can this be?” (Pause) You know there was another time when a person asked that very same thing…when an angel appeared to a young woman and said You will have a child…and this girl, maybe you’ve heard of her, she goes by Mary…asks How can this be, for I am a virgin?

In both cases…Mary and Nicodemus, they’re thinking about these things in terms of the physical…what can we see, what can explain…but the kingdom of God…this new reality that Jesus is bringing into the world…its not physical…its something else…something that we can’t quite put our finger on…and I’m guessing that often times as we consider what this book (hold up a Bible) has to say to us…we can’t quite put our fingers on it either…and like Nicodemus we end up asking “how can this be?”

Now Jesus seems to respond to that question today…offering up what I’ve long considered to be a rebuke…at least until quite recently. Nicodemus, you are a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things.” I always thought Jesus was coming down on him…but what if Jesus is simply making an observation…that even the most highly educated…even the one who by all human understanding should be the one to get this…even you CAN’T understand.  He goes on too…if you can’t fully grasp earthly things…how could you be expected to understand heavenly things?

Now a couple different things happen at this point…Jesus goes on teaching…and in the end offers up one of the most well-known passages of scripture…reminding us that because of God’s perfect sacrificial love for the ALL the world, he gave his son, not to condemn the world but to save it…all of it. (pause) Jesus lays out this vitally important, and very deep…DEEP truth…and Nicodemus has faded from the story. (pause)

Quick side note, remember when all this is going on?  Night time right? In the midst of darkness…and its still dark…and it would seem that Nicodemus remains in the dark…lacking understanding…not finding what he’s been looking for…for Nicodemus, the light bulb hasn’t gone off yet…Now I’ve long wondered if he ever “gets it.” Because here today…it looks like a no.

But his story isn’t over yet either…and he pops up 2 more times…the next time we see him…his kind of passive aggressively defending Jesus to the council…saying that its not lawful for them to condemn someone without a trial…not really picking a side…but cling to technicality.  But then the last time he pops up…at the cross…helping deal with the dead body of Christ…out there in the open…in the midst of the daylight for all to see. (pause)
Admittedly, Nicodemus is often criticized…because here at least…he just doesn’t get it…and he remains in darkness…in the lack of understanding…but I think its because he comes looking for Jesus instead of the other way around.

Maybe its because I’m Lutheran…but it seems to me that anytime we go looking for Jesus…when we go searching for God…we’re gonna miss the mark…because we look in the wrong places…and it is God who finds us. That’s what Jesus’ presence in our reality is all about…that’s why, out of his perfect sacrificial love for the world, God sent Jesus into the world…and that event…the whole aspect of Jesus’ in our reality…something they call the incarnation…that’s about God coming to find us where we are…in the midst of the darkness…not the other way around.

Now the amazing thing about the incarnation is that we need every aspect of it to even begin to makes heads or tails of this whole Kingdom of God thing. You’ve heard me talk about the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…and we need every aspect…his perfect life gets us nowhere without his cursed death on the cross…and we need the death, because you can’t have a resurrection without it.

And if the ongoing example of Nicodemus shows us anything…its that we need all aspects to even begin to understand. He didn’t get it until after the death of Christ…when he publically displayed that he was a follower of Christ…but even his closest followers, the disciples…even they failed to understand what was happening until the resurrected Jesus showed up again….and to be perfectly honest…even that was lacking.

Because here’s the thing about faith…we are clinging to the promises of that which we cannot see clearly. Scripture gives us tiny glimpses into the truth that Christ has brought into the world with him…but we cannot fully understand in this life.  The apostle Paul reminds us that now we see as in a mirror dimly…but one day we will see face to face.

One day…but, we’ve got to get through death before we reach that day…because it is only when we join with Christ in the resurrection…and we have put aside all these human limitations…only then will we truly comprehend the glory that Christ has made possible.

And so in the here and now…its okay for us to admit that we don’t understand…to ask the question How can this be? And then to realize that we probably won’t come up with a satisfactory answer…but rather to cling to the hope we find in the promise that because of God’s perfect love for us…we will not perish, but will have eternal life. Amen.

 

The Gospel is a Broken Record 2-12-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lets Do Some Tending 2-28-16

In this sermon, based on Luke 13:1-9, I explore the odd parable of the fig tree. Jesus uses this parable to teach against the notion that tragic deaths are the result of sin, for we are all equally sinful.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/lets-do-some-tending-2-28-16

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

Growing up, I as quite the daredevil. I was constantly going too, jumping off things…swinging from trees…you name it I probably did it…and because of this, I have probably had way more “close calls” than I will ever realize.

But there are two instances in my life to this point that I certainly do recognize as being close calls. Many of you know about one, when I nearly drowned while swimming one summer day. The other one happened the summer after I graduated high school…as I, along with three of my friends were roadtripping from the Okoboji area up to Sioux Falls for the day, and due to a blown tire, we ended rolling our car a couple times down the middle of the high way.

Scary to be sure…but in hindsight the cost was pretty low. The car itself was totaled…no big surprise there…but in terms of injuries, one guy put his hand through a window needing some stiches…another guy ended up with a pretty good shiner from getting smacked in the face by something flying around in the car…the third guy got the back of his head scrapped up when the roof of the car caved in and hit him…and me…sitting in the passenger seat…well I suffered 2 small scratches on my knee…not even deep enough to draw blood.

All in all, we were really lucky…it could have been way worse…and many times in the years since, as I have talked about that day, I’ve often said “Somebody was watching over me that day.” (pause) But what if that wasn’t actually the case…what if it wasn’t some miracle of God’s hand protecting the 4 of us, and especially me, from all harm in that accident…what if it wasn’t the presence of anywhere from 1-4 guardian angels protecting us from danger…What if maybe…just maybe…we were simply…lucky? (pause) Any single change in circumstance could have made the outcome of that accident a whole lot worse…any us could have been drastically injured…or worse yet, any of us…or all of us could have been dead in an instant…no warning…alive and kicking one second, and gone in the next. (pause)

Last Thursday, it happened again…a troubled individual, for whatever reason, pulled out a gun and started shooting…4 people are dead…14 injured…countless more traumatized but physically unharmed…and there is no way to determine why each person received their personal outcome. Were some better people than the others…and so they were unharmed? Were others a little shady and so they were injured? And finally those who died? Did they deserve it? (pause)
This seems to be the question that Jesus faces in the opening portion of today’s gospel…when certain individuals bring up a recent tragedy from the local Jerusalem news…that a batch of Galileans were murdered by Herod while they were making sacrifices in the temple…and since this was such a horrific thing to happen…truly they must have deserved it right? Truly for God to allow this, they must have been sinners. (pause)
This is an old notion…that God will visit the sins of the ancestor upon the children of the 3rd and 4th generation…while turning his graciousness to the 1000th generation of those who love him. It was so culturally engrained into the Jewish people that Jesus has faced similar questions before…when faced with a man born blind, Jesus was asked “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born this way?”

This may have been a culturally acceptable way to think about things…but Jesus…isn’t…having it. Do you think that these men alone were sinners among all other Galileans? (pause) And then he throws out another one…when the tower of Siloam, an old landmark just outside of Jerusalem tumbled down unexpectedly, killing 18 people…do you think they were sinful and deserved more than anyone else who happened to come through that tragedy unscathed?

Jesus poses both of these questions…and answered it with a resounding NO. These poor souls were no more and no less sinful than anyone else…they simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time…and for them…in that instant…life in this flawed twisted broken reality…ended. (pause) And then, Jesus hits those he’s talking to with another major blow…unless you repent you will die as they did…maybe in a tragic way…or maybe in some other way…but unless you repent, you too will die. (pause)

Now here’s a weird thing about this…no sooner does Jesus make this bold statement…but without any sort of explanation, he switches gears and tells a parable about a landowner who gets ticked off at a fig tree that has failed to produce any fruit for several years…and he orders it cut down…Why should we waste the soil on this useless tree?

But the gardener speaks up…My master…give it one more year…let us till the soil around it…and fertilize it…and let’s see what happens. If again it produces nothing, cut it down, but if it does, how good will that be? (pause)

My first thought upon reading this passage earlier this week was that this was two different situations that were stuck together for no good reason at all…because at first glance it really seems like the parable has nothing to do with what Jesus was previously talking about…but then I got to thinking about what happens to a tree when you cut it down…it dies…and even though this tree has yet to produce any fruit, its only three years old…this tree is still young…and to cut it down now would be very similar to any one of those people who were unexpectedly cut down in the midst of their lives. (pause)
And if that’s the case, well then we better start asking the normal question of just what is this parable trying to tell us? On one hand, perhaps that our lives can be snatched from us at any moment, regardless of if we are bearing fruit or not…regardless of if we are a good person or not…life ends.

Perhaps a different question to ask then, based on this parable, is what is the fruit that the master is looking for? And as I thought about that question I was reminded of another statement from John the Baptist…Bear fruit worthy of repentance…and funny, isn’t that sort of what Jesus was saying before…that unless you repent you will die as they did? (pause)
Here’s the thing…before we can repent…we need to recognize the problem…call it whatever you will…sin…harming others…selfishness…we can cover the gambit…but we need to recognize the flaws within us before we can repent of them…before we can turn away from them…before we can fix our eyes on the one who is able to overcome our failings and flaws. In short…this fruit that I’m talking about…its faith…our faith grows within us…but not by anything we are doing…it is a gift…a gift that needs to be tended.

That’s what the gardener is asking the Master for…give me a year to tend to this tree and let’s see what happens…It may work…it may not, but only time will tell. (pause) Now granted…if we’re talking about a fruit tree, its pretty easy to tell whether or not there is in fact, fruit there.

But when we are talking about the lives of an individual…well that can be a little harder to tell sometimes…because sometimes faith is a tiny voice inside their head that says “maybe Jesus is Lord, Lord save me.” And on the other end of the spectrum might be someone who wears their faith right out there for all to see…the fruit looks different, and sometimes we can’t even see it…but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.

And so it begs the question…just what does tending to faith really mean? And perhaps another question to ask, who are we? Are we the gardener who needs to do some tending? Or are we the tree that needs to be tended…and truthfully…I’m pretty sure we’re both at the same time.

Sometimes we need to be tended…and that can be as simple as being honest with ourselves and repenting…of admitting that I can’t do this alone and I have failed and I need my savior.

But other times, we’re called to tend to others…and Jesus gave us a pretty clear command on this. Go therefore and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the father and the son and the holy spirit…and in a few minutes we’ll do just that…as Henry Sampson is brought up to this font by his parents and his godparents…and together we will ALL make promises to help him be raised in a life of faith…His parents will make promises…his godparents will make promises…and together we, will make promises to tend to him…because in this moment, he’s not able to do that for himself is he? But we can do it for him.

Now here’s the thing…Jesus promises us that the holy spirit comes upon us in the waters of our baptism…and that the Father claims us as his beloved child…and that one day, after we experience our own physical death, that we will join with Christ in a resurrection like his. This is a wonderful promise…one that we proclaim at every baptism…when we recognize that God is the one doing the work here…but that he also invites us to join in it.

Today, we will make a promise to tend to the life of faith of Henry Sampson…we don’t know if it will bear fruit or not…that isn’t for us to know at this point…but despite our inability to see the outcome in the long run…its still a blessing to invited by God…to tend to this life…and so now…together…let’s sing a song…and then we’ll get to the important work…Let’s do some tending. 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:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/take-off-the-blinders-10-25-15

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

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.