Posts Tagged ‘Underwood Lutheran Church’

This Isn’t Up To You 6-17-18

In this sermon, based on Mark 4:26-34, I explore two brief but connected parables of Jesus aimed at the growth of seeds. Its a funny thing, how seeds grow isn’t it?

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/this-isnt-up-to-you-6-17-18

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

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

If we were to turn back the clock by about 8 years to 2010, my family was in a period of flux. I was about half way through my seminary work by that time, but still working on it remotely. My wife was coming up on 10 years in youth ministry at our old congregation up in Okoboji, and I was beginning to transition away from the job that I held at that time in the trucking industry.  We both felt like there was a change coming…and sure enough…early that fall she was offered a position in Faith Formation at a church in the Twin Cities, which itself gave me the opportunity to transition into full time school and shave some time off my expected seminary work…and so we made the decision that we would relocate to the Cities.

Now one of the steps that we needed to cover in this transition was selling the house that we owned there in Okoboji…and if you’ve ever tried to sell a house in the upper Midwest, you probably know that fall moving into winter is a really bad time to list it…and yet that’s what we did…hoping against hope that the house would sell and that everything would work out for our planned relocation at the very end of the year.

So when the house went on the market, which was roughly mid-October, I found myself trying to make it sell. Willing it to happen…thinking that if I just thought about it hard enough…or focused my attention deeply enough…or worried about it long enough…that I could make it happen…and this dominated my attention as October turned into November and then December.

I was stressing about it so much that it began to effect my normal mood, until one day when a co-worker who knew me pretty well at that point, came in my office and shut the door…he looked me straight in the eye and said “You aren’t you lately…talk.” So I told him what was dominating so much of my mental energy…and then he said “Scott…can you physically make this happen…do you really think that someone else making the decision to buy your house has ANYTHING AT ALL to do with you?” And as he presented me with these incredibly grounded questions I had to answer “No.”  And then he said “No…This isn’t up to you.” (pause)

Now I’d like to say that was the only time I’ve fallen into the trap of trying to control something that I can’t…but it wasn’t the first time it happened…and it wasn’t the last time either. But it serves as an important reminder of the ways that we try, at times SO HARD, to control things that we simply have zero influence over…and that’s where I’m connecting into the gospel for today.

2 brief parables, both aimed at seeds growing, perhaps expectantly in one case and unexpectantly in the other. Parables that, perhaps, make us wonder just what it is that Jesus wants us to understand…or perhaps that make us wonder what truth he was hoping to reveal to his audience on that particular day.

2 parables…One of them about a man who tossed out a bunch of seed in a wheat field…no lined up corn or bean rows, but thrown out all willy nilly, and then he goes about his business while the seeds get to work…and another about a mustard seed that starts off so tiny and ends up a giant bush big enough to provide shade for the birds.

Now full disclosure…every single time I bump into the parable of the mustard seed I grimace…because what Jesus describes does not line up with my experience with mustard. I know it as a weed…a prickly thorn that will spread like crazy and take over a field if you let it…but it doesn’t make a bush…it sure doesn’t grow into a tree like the other gospels describe it…and no one in their right mind would willingly plant it. I hear this parable and it just seems wrong.

So I thought to myself this week…maybe I’m hearing it wrong…maybe there was a different type of mustard plant back in 1st Century Palestine that a farmer would plant in his fields that grows up into some sort of great big bush…so big its almost tree-like…and pretty soon I found myself falling down the rabbit hole of just what Jesus…MIGHT…be talking about…and it dominated my attention so much that I realized I might be missing the point of the parable…

Now let’s shift gears and talk about parables for a moment. Many of you have heard me talk about parables before…about how they aren’t my favorite type of scripture to try to base a sermon on…and I’ve wrestled round and round with myself and have had several conversations with trusted individuals in order to try and figure out just why this is.

Maybe its because parables seem to be aimed pretty directly at us as individuals…posing the question “who am I in this story?” or “where do I connect?” or “what about this makes me uncomfortable” or maybe on the flipside “what gives me hope?” (Pause) These are all valid questions to ask when we encounter a parable…when we encounter a story, whether very brief or sometimes quite extensive, in which Jesus tells us that the kingdom of Heaven or the kingdom of God, or sometimes the age to come is like this…or its like that.  When he takes a concept or an idea or even a promise that represents something WAY too big or wide or complex or deep for us to grasp…and he compares it to something familiar…something that we recognize.

That’s what a parable is…in fact it literally means to “place alongside,” literally lining up two things that really have nothing to do with each other, and yet the comparison serves to reveal something to us. (pause)

Now its possible that I’ve struggled with parables because it can get tricky to try and tell others how they should interpret the stories that Jesus shares…and perhaps the safest thing to do is propose possibilities…that a particular parable might be pointing you this way, or maybe its pointing that way, depending on your own perspective and experience and even your current point in life…as these things can change from person to person or moment to moment. (pause)
I found myself pondering at great length this week on this tension that I feel regarding parables…and then I happened to read the last portion of this text at just the right time…With many such parables he spoke the word to them…as they were able to hear it. (pause) As they were able to hear it.

I don’t know if you want to call this a “eureka moment” for me…but in that instance, I found a freedom within the parables that I’d never experienced before. Maybe just maybe…the way that Jesus’ audience would have heard the parables on that day…namely if they would have thought about a great big bushy plant that grows from a teeny tiny seed…maybe that doesn’t matter for us today…and that my experience with mustard being compared with the kingdom of heaven…calling the kingdom of God something prickly and invasive that will take over once it gets a hold is equally valid.  And so is your experience…so what do you hear? What comes to mind when Jesus describes a person planting a mustard seed, which starts off so small you can barely see it, but that it grows up into the greatest of the plants in the garden? (pause)

Or what do you hear when he speaks of casting out a bunch of seed on the ground and letting it simply do what its supposed to do?  That first parable…it caught my attention more than the mustard seed to be perfectly honest…because having grown up on a farm….and having been around farmers for most of my life, I can’t help but think that the way Jesus describes the work of the man, or the lack there of in this case, doesn’t quite add up.

I can’t help but think that the title farmer indicates some of the hardest workers in the world…but not only that…I also think that farmers might just be the best example of hope that we can point to.  Because despite all the work…all the planning…all the effort of prepping the fields and spraying and fertilizing and everything else…once they put those seeds in the ground…how much control do any of us have?  And yet, year after year…in field after field…we see the farmers faithfully put the seed in the ground, hoping…TRUSTING…that its going do what its supposed to do…maybe thats what Jesus is talking about when he says the man sleeps at night and rises during the day…going about the activity of life while the growth happens on its own….the growth of that plant…it isn’t up to you is it? All we can do is plant the seed and trust it…and hope for it. (pause)

And maybe just maybe…this is a message for us here in the church today.  Things are not the same as they were a year ago…or 10 years ago, or 50…because things change…and God continues to invite the church, and all of reality for that matter, forward into new realities…time after time…and no matter how much we might worry…or think its completely dependent on our actions…its not. We plant the seed…whatever that looks like…

And yes…planting seeds takes on many different forms…and I’m not saying that we can all simply sit back on our laurels and watch the church grow grow grow…and so it is important that we ask ourselves the question here…what does it look like for me to plant a seed? Even if its something that I’ll never get to see bear fruit? That something to ponder on.

And yet as you ponder…I don’t want you to hear this message today as some sort of moral imperative to live up to…because that’s not the case.  The truth of the gospel is that through Christ, whatever it is that God is up to has already been accomplished for you. You have already been claimed…and that seed, if we want to call it that…its already been planted and somehow God has grown that seed up into a beautiful life of faith…and perhaps that’s that the take away today…that when it comes to matters of faith or the church or the activity of God here in the world…its not up to us…and yet we are here today, a living breathing example of how the seed which is planted by another can and does grow within you. Isn’t it refreshing to hear that you aren’t responsible for spiritual growth…but that God will make that work in God’s own time…Does it give you a sense of peace to know…it isn’t up to you? But its been done for you out of God’s amazing love and God’s amazing grace for all people. Amen.

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The Spirit Groans 5-20-18

*these two images are referenced in the sermon*

In this sermon for the Day of Pentecost, I explore the action of the Holy Spirit in the world, based on Acts 2:1-21 and Romans 8:22-27.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/the-spirit-groans-5-20-18

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

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

Earlier this week, I was chatting with a few of our High School students…and we got started talking about Pentecost.  And since its one of those pretty well known stories from the Bible, I thought I’d give them a little quiz and see what they remember from their Confirmation Days.

You guys remember Pentecost? Yah I think so.  Was that before or after Jesus died?  After…and its after the Resurrection and Ascension too. Okay…so Jesus is alive again but he’s not around anymore right? Right. Is it the Gospels? No its after the gospels…but right after the gospels. Umm…is that when the Holy Spirit shows up?  YES!!!!

Now at this point I was doing mental jumping jacks because it seemed like they remembered the story…and so I asked one more question.  Do you remember how the Spirit showed up? And after a moment of thought, one of them said.  Wasn’t it, like a big flaming bird? And one of the other kids said Ooo…like a Phoenix? And with that, our conversation went a little off the rails…but as I think back on the conversation…I realized that the kids were a little more on top of things than it might initially seem.

Because the Holy Spirit, while present in many different ways throughout the course of Scripture, only shows up twice in some sort of physical form…and it would seem that as we were talking, the kids just combined those two stories together.

Interestingly enough…we’ve got pictures or emblems or symbols, whatever you want to call them, right here in the sanctuary of these two times.  The first one is located at the back of the sanctuary, if you swing around and look you’ll see the large wood carving of the dove, representing the time when the Holy Spirit appeared in this form, coming from heaven and resting upon Jesus at his baptism.

And the second one is up here in the front…represented right up behind me and over my head in the red parament…depicting the tongues of fire that show up on the day of Pentecost….which is, of course, today. (pause)
Now the story of Pentecost is fascinating as all kinds of crazy stuff occurs…and we’ve been talking about this event off and on over the past couple of weeks as we’ve encountered some of the earliest situations faced by the church in the absence of Jesus…and it would seem that it all originates right here as the Spirit shows up in dramatically unexpected fashion.

Crazy violent wind…fire doing weird stuff…a bunch of random Galileans speaking in tongues…individuals from all over the known world hearing the proclamation of God’s deeds of power spoken in their native languages…accusations of public intoxication…Spirit inspired testimony from Peter which ultimately results in more than 3000 people becoming believers of the gospel…and as we hear everyone is amazed and perplexed asking the question “What does this mean?” (pause)

I can’t help but think that this sense of confusion…this wonder…this ultimate head scratcher is pretty telling when it comes to the action of the Holy Spirit in the world…and scripture goes a long way to show us the multitude of different things that Spirit is up to with different people in different situations at different times.

Today alone we have three different scripture lessons that reveal 3 different ways that the Spirit acts. We’ve got the empowerment of the believers to proclaim the gospel, not to mention the formation of new community across countless cultural boundaries here in the book of Acts.  The gospel lesson out of John reminds us of Jesus’ promise that the Spirit will continue to reveal God’s truth in the world. And then in Romans we hear how the Spirit intercedes for us, often in moments when we are unable to do so for ourselves…and its actually that passage that catches my attention today.

Here in the letter to the Romans, written 20 or 30 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are reminded of the brokenness of the world…and how every aspect of creation has been effected by the presence of sin and brokenness within our reality…that the whole creation is groaning…and so are we while we wait for the fulfillment of the promises made by God through Jesus Christ.

We wait…we hope…in the midst of our weakness…and God knows this…and we are reminded that God does not leave us alone in this weakness…for the Spirit helps us…interceding for us and WITH us in those moments when we don’t know what to say…when we don’t know what to think or feel…in those times when life doesn’t make sense…or when its too painful…or when our expectations and dreams reach a point of being beyond our ability to control…in those times when we look backwards and see the pain or struggles of our past, or we look forward and see a haze of the unknown. (pause)

Perhaps its fitting that today is graduation day…and for a few of you sitting out there today…this tension might hold a lot of credence. And I wonder what it is that you are praying for…or perhaps what it is that the spirit is praying on your behalf as you contemplate receiving your diploma in just a few hours…and the unknown that lies beyond it….or for your parents and grandparents who have raised you…who have struggled with the tension of being fully invested in you and yet not holding on too tightly…and they dream for you…they hope for you…and yet they are scared for you as you face this unknown future.

I think that this is, perhaps, telling of the sense that many of us feel as we ponder on the world…as we think about the world that the next generation is inheriting…and the truth that no matter how much we care, there are forces at work that we just can’t protect you from.

This past Friday, once again, news broke of a school shooting, this time in the Houston area…and again, there are lives lost…there are families broken…and lives shattered…and as I heard that news Friday morning, I found myself unaware of what to think or do or say in the face of this evil…and I thought about how it could have been here…it could have been our young people…it could have been some of you…and I found myself at an utter loss of what to say…

But in the midst of this I began to see, in this moment, the truth of Paul’s words that all of creation is groaning…because there is something inherently wrong when we consider the truth of pain and brokenness and death…a reality that leaves us wondering “What are we to say about these things?”

Perhaps that question sounds familiar to you. I often use it to begin funeral sermons, and its found just a few verses after this reading from Romans 8.  And maybe just maybe the only thing that we can say as we lean on the presence of God who resides within us through the presence of the Holy Spirit…maybe the only thing we can do is remember that we’ve been given a promise that we have a God who will NEVER leave us alone…and that there is nothing in this world…nothing in this reality that can separate us from God…and that in this promise we find hope…and in hope we are saved.

We can not prove the promises of God to be true…because whatever it is that lies out there on the other side of this broken reality, we can’t see it yet…but we hope for it…and we look to one another for love and support in those times when we just can’t handle it alone…because one of the gifts of the Spirit is community…God has given us one another and together we are the body…when one is weak another is strong…when one falters, another is there to pick them up again…this is how we mirror the love of God which has been shown to us in Christ Jesus…and as we do this…let us hold on to words which end the 8th chapter of Romans…words that I hope will give you hope…words that I pray give you something to hang onto in these times when the Spirit groans within you and for you because you don’t know what to say or to think. (pause)
I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing…not even the powers of darkness that rage in this world. (pause)
I want draw your attention back to the two symbols of the Holy Spirit here in the sanctuary…the dove in the back and the flames here in the front…I actually like the separation between the two as it reminds us that the baptism of Jesus started at the beginning of the gospel…and the tongues of fire from Pentecost showed up at the end when the church was empowered to be the body of Christ…but if you look at both, you’ll see something that they have in common…both emblems have a cross don’t they?

Maybe these two symbols working together are actually the Spirit trying to remind us that both of these events are connected by what God did through the cross. (pause) Because in Christ, God tried to show the world that there was another way…and on the cross the world killed him for it…but the cross also reminds us that death doesn’t get the last word in all this…God does…and this is the promise that we cling to…even in those moments when we need the Spirit to utter some groans on our behalf, because trust me, we are not alone…and the Spirit groans. Amen

Just A Guy In A Hole 12-3-17

In this sermon from Mark 13:24-37, I explore several themes. We begin the season of Advent, and with it a change in our focus. And yet the passage and theme is still very close to what we’ve seen that past few weeks out of Matthew’s gospel. We live in the tension between anticipating the celebration of the coming Messiah at Christmas, and knowing that this event has already occurred.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/just-a-guy-in-a-hole-12-3-17
(note that at the time of recording, my voice was not in great shape)

You can also read 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

At some point in my elementary school days, I can’t tell you exactly when, but I know it happened…my class participated in a project similar to what you might find in a high school year book. We all worked together to decide who would receive each special title…titles like Most Likely to Succeed, or Class Clown. (pause)  My class voted me…wait for it…Most Likely to be Seen on the News Someday. (pause)

Funny enough…it happened, and I wasn’t even out of elementary yet. One day, early in the spring of my 5th grade year, I happened to be home from school as I was feeling a little under the weather…I remember it was a bright and clear spring day…and all of the sudden, my mom called me to one of the windows. She pointed out a column of smoke coming from the vicinity of town…a batch of smoke heavy enough that we could see it from almost 10 miles away.

A moment later the phone rang, and mom answered it…and a minute later we were in the car driving into town, because the fire was happening at our church…and in a short amount of time…the church where I was baptized was destroyed…and of course there were news cameras there to report…which is how I ended up on the news.

Admittedly, this really isn’t something that I should make jokes about, as it was a very serious blow to my home congregation…granted I was too young to really understand the depths of what was happening at that time…but I’m sure those in the generations that came before me felt like their entire world was being rocked in that moment.

Now I wish I could say that this is the only major catastrophe that has befallen my old congregation…but its not…and actually just last week, my small town home church was in the news again when it went public that their former financial officer has been embezzling funds for years…funds in the neighborhood of half a million dollars. And once more, the people there are reeling…trying to figure out how to move forward as their world has been rocked. When their church, and their community is in utter upheaval. (pause)

Today marks a change…as you can see from the Christmas decorations here in the sanctuary and out in the narthex…the presence of the blue paraments and banners…by the Advent Wreath right over there…we’ve entered into a new season…and with  it a new church year. We’ve moved from the year of focus on Matthew’s gospel into the year of Mark…and at the same time we switch our focus away from the long ongoing life cycle of the church through the season of Pentecost into the sense of waiting…the feeling of anticipation of the coming Messiah at Christmas.

But despite the new season and new church year…perhaps things still sound pretty familiar…perhaps it sounds like more of the same as we consider the gospel lesson out of Mark that we’ve shared today…and if it does sound familiar…if it seems pretty spot on with the various readings and themes that we’ve shared in recent weeks out of Matthew, it should…because honestly it’s the same exact setting.

Jesus and his followers are in and around Jerusalem for the pending Passover festival…its his final week of life before his death on the cross…and together, this small group of people has been in and out of the temple…and in one of their trips through the gates the disciples are marveling at the magnificence of the temple and its massive building stones, when Jesus tells them that there will come a day when not one stone will be left upon another…and this freaks them out so much that they ask him “what will be a sign that this is about to happen?”

Same story…and that same sort of result with today’s reading isn’t it? Apocalyptic…end times-ish. Daunting as Jesus gives the instruction to stay awake for no one knows the day or the hour. (pause) Admittedly, when I read this passage at the beginning of the week to begin preparing for today, it caught me off guard. Pentecost is over…its Advent now…we should be looking for the coming Christ child not freaking out over what the end times are going to look like right? And yet…here we are…apparently stuck in the tension between these two events…and I’ve asked myself over and over again…Lord what are we to say about this? (pause)

And pretty soon I found myself thinking about that original question that the disciples asked…which perhaps was not just about “the end times” but was maybe about the destruction of the temple that Jesus had been talking about.

Now the Jewish people are no stranger to cultural tragedy are they…and in Jesus’ day they knew this same reality.  A culture which truly began in slavery…a culture that spent decades wandering as aimless nomads…a culture that scrapped tooth and nail for a land of their own and held it for a matter of a couple generations before it started falling apart and the various superpowers of the day came in and took it over…and keep in mind that the Jewish people have REALLY good memories for history…its vital to their culture…but that’s not the only thing…for their faith is also a central aspect.

And for this people who’s culture is so completely wrapped up in their relationship with God…the temple is vital…the temple is where you go to worship…the temple is where God is…tucked clear inside behind a curtain…but who’s presence is there none the less…and they’ve lost the temple before…the first temple built by King Solomon had been destroyed…and now Jesus is telling them that there will come a day when the most important location in their entire culture will be destroyed again. No wonder his followers found this shocking. That reality would have been devastating for them to experience. (pause)

But you know what, there’s another aspect to consider. Mark’s gospel is the oldest of the 4…but it was recorded decades after the fact…the stories of Christ and his disciples handed down, told from person to person…and by the time Mark was actually recorded…Jesus’ prediction had already happened…and the temple was already gone…utterly demolished by Roman troops as they squashed a Jewish revolt about 40 years after Jesus. (pause)
So we’ve got all kinds of turmoil in the works here. Turmoil for Jesus’ disciples as they hear that the center of their whole worlds will be destroyed.  Turmoil for the original audience of the gospel as they were living in that reality…I can only imagine that for them…it literally seemed like the world was ending…and the Old Testament prophecies that Jesus shares about the powers of heaven being shaken probably wouldn’t have seemed out of line when the physical representation of your faith has been utterly wiped off the map.

I can only imagine that for everyone that hears these words of Jesus…it hits home…living in the midst of events so drastic…so dire…so earth shattering that maybe we ask ourselves “is this the end?” And we shake our heads in disbelief with the feeling that there’s no hope…there’s no light…its all darkness. (pause0
I wonder if that sounds familiar? If you are experiencing something like this that has you shaken to your core…and all hope is gone.  I can’t help but think that if that’s not the case for you…then it is certainly the case for someone you know.

We can hardly turn on the news or open a newspaper or click into our internet browser without hearing about something. Shootings…bombings. Genocide. Tension between nuclear powers. Pain, hunger, sickness. Countless stories and accusations coming to light of public figures who have abused their position of authority for their own gratification at the expense of another person. Storms, fires, we have chaos all over the planet…and often in conversation with other people I hear them say “I think the end times are already here.”

And you know what, maybe they are…maybe they aren’t…but the only thing that we can say is that at some point for some person…the world is rocking them to their core and they feel lost…hopeless…abandoned…and if they look to the heavens and think that there’s some cosmic force out there looking down maybe they place the blame right there…or maybe they just get angry or discouraged and wonder if a word will ever come from on high. (pause)
This is the state that the nation of Israel found themselves in…the prophets had been silent for centuries…the temple system was corrupt…the government were puppets of the Romans…and yet they looked forward to the coming of the Messiah…they longed for the day when God would, once again…dwell among his chosen people…they waited, perhaps in agony…living in the tension of wondering if it would ever come to fruition.

We live in this same tension now today…as the church begins to look forward to the celebration of the Christ child at Christmas…an event that we celebrate and look forward to, but also one that we remember has ALREADY happened. Yes we look forward in Advent but the event which we look to is in the rearview mirror…Christ has already come and when he did he has utterly changed this reality.

But its not perfect yet…and perhaps for those of us experiencing those dark nights of the soul…those moments when hope is lost and we are stuck…it just feels like we are caught. (long pause)

A man is walking down the street and falls in a hole…and the sides are so steep, and that hole is so deep that the man can’t get out…he tries and tries and tries on his own but he’s stuck.  Low and behold, a doctor comes walking by. The man yells up Hey Doc can you get me out of here? The doctor writes a prescription and tosses it down in the hole and he walks away.  Then pretty soon an architect walks by. The man yells up Hey can you help me out? The architect draws up a schematic and tosses it in the hole and he walks away. But then the guys friend walks by…and he yells up Hey its me…can you help me out…and the friend jumps down into the hole next to him.  The guy says What are you doing, now we’re stuck in here together. But the friend says I know…but I’ve been in this hole before, and I know the way out. (pause)

Ever heard the song What a Friend We Have In Jesus? (pause) Life is messy…its hard and it knocks us around…sometimes so much that we can’t see anyway forward…but we have a God who has come to us…where we are…even in the bottom of a hole to show us that there is a way out…there is a way forward…if we can simply believe that there is a God out there who loves us enough to claim us as His own even in the midst of our turmoil.

And God has gone one step beyond that too…and God has given us to one another…because together we are the body of Christ…and so maybe, just maybe, the friend that you’ll find willing to jump down and guide you is sitting right across the aisle right now…just waiting for you to call out of the hole. Amen

We Are Looking At Now Now 11-19-17

now

This sermon is based on Matthew 25:14-30. This is the parable of the talents, as Jesus reminds us with one lesson (that’s part of a larger teaching) to live our lives today in a way that reflects the coming of the kingdom of heaven.

Note that the overarching theme of this sermon is based on a scene from Spaceballs.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/we-are-looking-at-now-now-11-19-17

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

As a person who tries pretty hard to avoid taking things too seriously, I appreciate a good joke…especially when the target is good natured enough to take it. On that note, it probably is no shock to hear that I’m a fan of movies that do this. In my younger years there was a popular movie genre known as spoofs…whole movies that were made to poke fun…to make jokes about existing…and typically quite popular movies.

Now in my opinion, there is no greater example of the spoof movie than Spaceballs…a Mel Brooks classic that pokes fun at the first few Star Wars movies. The whole movie is great, but there is one scene that never fails to make me laugh.

About half through, the bad guys are trying to track down the good guys…but they can’t find them on radar…and so they try searching the home video of the movie itself. Apparently a new technology allows the release of films before they’re even done making them…that’s the first joke.

So they pop in the VHS copy of the movie and pull it up on the monitor and one of the characters is surprised to see themselves projected. They are looking at themselves in that exact instant…and in his surprise we hear this back and forth banter…

What am I looking at? When does this happen in the movie? Now…you’re looking at now sir. Everything that happens now is happening now.  What happened to then? We passed it. When? Just now. We’re at now now. Go back to then. I can’t. Why? We missed it. When? Just now. When will then be now? …Soon.   (pause)

Maybe its silly…but as I think about the overarching setting of today’s gospel lesson, I’m reminded of this scene. If you were here last week, we talked about this…about how Jesus’ words today are part of a larger teaching through 2 chapters of Matthew’s gospel…a long batch of teaching that is a response to the disciples asking the question of when they can expect the end times….what will be the sign of your coming? They might as well be asking that same question…when will then…be now?

Jesus response could have been limited to the very simple statement…no one knows the day or the hour…but instead Jesus gives us A LOT to go on…several separate and yet connected teachings about the unexpected time of his Glorious Reappearing…that the End Times…the Last Days…whatever we want to call it…that’s its going to happen…but it will occur unexpectedly.

This long teaching includes today’s gospel…the parable of the talents. The master is going off on a journey…but before he leaves he calls in three slaves and hands off to each of them something of enormous worth. The parable calls them talents in various amounts…one gets 5…one gets 2…the last gets 1…each according to their ability. Keep in mind that a talent as Jesus is using it, refers to 15 years’ worth of wages for a regular worker. And so all three of these slaves are being handed something incredibly valuable. Interestingly enough the master gives no indication of what to do with it…no instruction…no warning that he’ll be back looking for anything…he simply hands them off and goes on his merry way.

Now you know the story…the first two slaves put their talents to work…we don’t know exactly how…but somehow, they both manage to double the money…the one with 5 makes 5 more, the one with 2, 2 more. Call it what you will…good business…wise investing, whatever…but it seems that they thought it was worth the risk of their master’s property…and through whatever events transpired through the unknown amount of time that the master was away, they each end up with more.

Funny enough…that part of the story, while seemingly positive…is really boring and repetitious…did you notice that? The only thing that changes in the language of that part of the story is the number of talents. Likewise with the master’s response to them in his return. Then the one with 5 talents came forward, bringing 5 more talents saying “master you handed over to me five talents, see I have made five more talents.” His master said to him “Well done good and faithful slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things I will put you in charge of many things; enter in the joy of your master.” And then we hear the EXACT same thing from 2-talent man. Its almost laughable…and its almost boring.

I can’t help but think that we’re really supposed to zero on in 1-talent man…you know 1-talent man. He’s the one who’s scared…the one who’s so paralyzed out of fear…he’s caught up in how he perceives the master…and so he goes out and digs a hole…he hides the talent so that when the master comes around again, he can present it back to him…nothing ventured…nothing gained…but nothing lost.

The back and forth between the slave and the master is telling though isn’t it? I know that you are a harsh man…taking what isn’t yours…helping yourself to that which you did not earn…and low and behold…his judgement of the master is pretty spot on to the judgement that he receives. You wicked and lazy slave.  Take it away from him and give it to the other…and cast him out into suffering. (pause)
That’s the story…and as per usual, we’re faced with the question of interpretation…we’re left trying to make heads or tails of the message that we’re supposed to receive. (pause)

Now admittedly, we could hear a lot things in this passage. Its stewardship time here in the church…and we hear the word “Talent.” So maybe we think about the gifts and talents that we’ve been given in our lives and how we are called to share them in the church and in the world. Ok.   Maybe we hear talents and think about it from a financial standpoint and think its about giving to the church, about making solid financial moves with what we’ve been given, so that when the master returns we’ve got something to show for it. Ok. I don’t think these are wrong…but I think there’s more going on here than what we might pick up at face value.

And on the flip side I fear that there’s interpretations that can get into trouble as well.  We hear that 5-talent guy and 2-talent guy doubled their money and that’s what got them into the good graces of the master…that they had to earn it…that they had to somehow “buy” their way into whatever he’s talking about when he says “enter in the joy of your master.” And since, on the other hand, 1-talent guy didn’t produce anything, he’s cast out.

Make no mistake…we cannot hear this story and think that Jesus is telling us we’ve got earn God’s favor…there is no checklist…there is no scoreboard…there is no money tally…let me be clear. THAT’S NOT HOW THIS WORKS.  This parable is not about anything that we say or think or do or earn that somehow guarantees us a spot in the kingdom of heaven whenever it comes to fruition. (pause)

But saying that raises an important point…remember that Jesus is still teaching his followers that they SHOULD NOT be concerned with the end times…that they should not get all wrapped up in when it happen. We could even stick this into that Spaceballs scene….Jesus when will the end happen? When will then be now?   Soon. (long pause) BUT…NOT…YET.

We hear over and over again, Jesus tells us to be prepared…live right now in a way that reflects the coming of the kingdom…and remember that we have this sense that the kingdom is both now and not yet. That the promises of God are given to us now, even if they haven’t come to completion yet. That we are called to live out the reality of God’s love right here right now…and not only that but that we are called to share that same love with everyone around us…That we are called to risk it…we are called to do something. Not because we have to earn the master’s favor but because the master has already given it to us and we show our gratitude by sharing it with others.

God’s love and God’s favor and God’s grace are for everyone…period. That’s why Jesus said to love God and love your neighbor…and he tells us to do it now.  This theme is all over Jesus’ teachings here in Matthew’s gospel.

You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth.  So be salty…be light…now…not just when we you think that someone’s watching and it gets you somewhere. Jesus also tells us don’t worry about tomorrow, today has enough cares of its own.  What do you think he’s saying there? Maybe he’s saying that if you’re wondering when is the right time to follow that little nudge in the back of your mind that tells you “I know what I’m supposed to do or say or offer to this other person.” That if you’re wondering when to do that…today…now.

Because God is going to show up unexpectedly…2 chapters of Matthew’s gospel tell us this over and over again…and maybe just maybe we need to stop looking for Jesus shining in the clouds and huge booming trumpets and angels singing all over the place and realize that God shows up in the face of the hungry…of the sick…of the lonely…that the king that we’re all waiting for and that we’ll celebrate next Sunday on Christ the King…he shows up as we face the reality that I was hungry and you gave me some food, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was in prison and you visited me…for just as you have done to the least of these you have done to me.

God shows up unexpectedly…every…single…day. So are you going to live your lives stuck in the future expectation, wondering how you can be ready…essentially living in the fear that you’ll be turned away? Or are you going to live in the reality that its now….live in the now…and live your life in a way that reflects the glory of the gospel…that God has already claimed you…that the promise is already yours…and that you are a beloved child of God? (pause)
That’s the gospel…and its WAY too good to sit on…or to throw in a hole.  If we learn nothing else let it be this…1-talent guy sat on it…this thing of immeasurable value…because he was too scared to run any risk. (pause)
What are you willing to risk? You’ve been given the best news in the world…that you are loved by the one who made you…are you willing to share that same love with another…are you willing to risk loving the one that’s different…the one who thinks different, or talks different, or looks different…or even the one who we might think isn’t deserving of that same love of God? Are you going to sit on it, or are you going to do something with it? (pause) We don’t act to earn ourselves anything, because we’ve already been given everything by the one who made us and loves us…and not only that, but the one who has invited us to share this same gift with the world…that is why we act…that is why we risk…because at some point the end times are coming…When will then be now? Soon…but not yet. Not until we all do our part to make it happen…not until we live out this moment in a way that reflects the realty of the kingdom…and maybe just maybe when we do that, then ALL the world will experience the joy of our master who loves and adores and treasures every single one of us. Amen.

2 Sides to the Same Coin 11-5-17

In this sermon for All Saints Sunday, taken from 1 John 3:1-3, I explore the promise made by God, through Christ, that have been claimed as God’s children now. One day we will see what this means for us in the eternal sense, but we cling to the hope now.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/2-sides-to-the-same-coin-11-5-17

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

I’ve often found that scientific concepts can be explained in one of 2 ways…the really technical way that is difficult to understand…also known as the hard way…and then…the easy way.  An example…Newton’s third law of motion states “all forces between two objects exist in equal magnitude and opposite direction.” The hard way…now the easy way…every action has an opposite reaction…I think I like the easy way better.

As I think about this…it points me in the direction of thinking about how there are a lot of opposites in the world…a lot of things that seem to have a counter-part on the other side of the line…almost like saying that there are two sides to every coin.

I think this is the case, not only in the world…but in life too…that there are events or situations that happen in life that that seem to have an opposite counterpart…some of which are celebrated here in the church…and perhaps the most fitting pair of opposites that comes to mind is how we celebrate both new life, particularly in terms of the baptism of an infant here in the font, and we also recognize the end of life through funerals.

Now this idea certainly ties in with the theme of the day…All Saints Sunday…when we take the time to stop and remember the individuals who have died over the course of the past year…as we consider those who have come before us in life, and gone on ahead of us into whatever it is that lies on the other side of death.

Now death is an odd aspect of our existence…one that we acknowledge…but that admittedly we don’t give a whole lot of focus within the church year.  Out of the countless worships services that we share every year, week in and week out, not to mention the special services on certain holidays…there are only 3 that really zero in on death.  Ash Wednesday when we are reminded of our own mortality. Good Friday when we remember the death of our Lord Jesus.  And today…All Saints Sunday. (pause)

Now to consider death is also to consider funerals…the worship services we have to commend the individual into the care of the Lord…and many of you sitting out there today have likely had the opportunity to hear me preach at a funeral before…but if you haven’t, you should know that there’s a question that I pose each time. Why are we here?

I pause for a moment and then I answer the question with a two-fold answer…an answer that probably seems to come off as 2 sides of the same coin. We gather at funerals to mourn the death while at the same time to celebrate the life of the individual.

Now as we think about that, perhaps we begin to see that those two aspects of a funeral each have their place within the context of those different “death oriented days” in the church year.  Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, we tend to be pretty focused on the mourning part…while the general idea of All Saints Sunday is to celebrate the life and the witness of those who have come before us, and now have gone on ahead of us past that great unknown barrier known as death. (pause)

This is now the 5th time I’ve celebrated All Saints Sunday with you here at Underwood…and as I think back over the years, I remember the names that have been read as the candles were lit. 19 people over the course of the past 5 years…and as I think about those names, I remember the relationships that center around each of them…and I think about the way things felt around their death…and I imagine that it goes without saying that each one of them is a little different.image1

Take for instance…Gladys Carrigan…she’s the first candle over there today…I think about her death, one year ago today actually…and the circumstances that surrounded that wonderful 104 year old woman. Several people asked me how she died, and I could only respond…well she was 104.  Her funeral was a wonderful celebration of her life, I think any who were there would agree. But hers is not the only candle there today. (pause) There are 5 others. I look at them, I think about the names that will be read when we reach that part of our service in a few more minutes. (pause)

And then I look at the final candle, the one that we will light as we share the name Marcia Hastings…Marcia died just last week…with the news slowly trickling out…news which is painful to consider. News that some of you know, but that I fear will catch many of you by surprise to hear that Marcia took her own life…and it is in this shocking and painful news that we remember the truth about death.  That no matter how it happens…no matter what the circumstances…death just feels…somehow…wrong.  (pause)

If there is one truth that unites every instance of death…a truth that perhaps compounds this sense of wrongness…it is that death somehow creates a barrier…a separation between those of us still in this life, and those who have gone on to whatever it is that lies on the other side. (pause)

We never know how or when this painful truth will strike us…as those of us still in this life feel the sting of absence…even as we cherish the memory of those we have loved and lost…and yet this is our reality…one that goes beyond our ability to comprehend. (pause)

But as we must do…when we come face to face with death, we cling to the promise of new life made possible by God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ…a promise which is given to us right here, right now…a promise that grants us hope in the midst of the lives that we live…and a promise which be made new in whatever lies beyond the barrier of death…yet to be revealed to us.

This is the hopeful promise that is given to us repeatedly in the short reading from 1 John today…an assurance of who we are now…or perhaps more importantly, Who’s we are today.  (pause) We are reminded that out of God’s great love for us…out of God’s delight, we are claimed…and we are called children of God…and that is what we are.  And if we didn’t quite catch it the first time, John repeats it for us…Beloved…we ARE God’s children NOW.  This is the promise made real for us in Jesus Christ, that through him we are made heirs of the promise…we are claimed and given this same birthright.

The only question is what that’s going to look like in the life to come…and the author recognizes this ambiguity…we are God’s children now…what we will be…has not…yet…been…revealed…but when it is revealed…we will be like God, for we will see him as he is…We won’t BE God…but we will be like him, for the broken parts of us will be stripped away and we shall see that we are all truly made bearing God’s divine image. (pause)

The promise of the life to come, whatever its going to look like gives us hope to live our lives today, on this side of death…in a way that reflects the joy and the love of God in each one of us. And this is what we must cling to in the face of pain and brokenness and death…because of the assurance that somehow, someway…through Jesus Christ and his perfect love for each us…God has overcome that which is so WRONG about death. (pause)

Today we acknowledge those who have come before us…we remember those who lived their lives in the hope of God’s promise…and we remember those who now have crossed over into whatever it is that we can’t see yet.  We acknowledge the joy of their memory…we acknowledge the pain of their absence…and above all…we cling to the hope given to us now…that through Christ, we will one day experience what they already know to be true. Amen.

Different is Shocking 10-29-17

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In this Reformation Sunday sermon, I explore John 8:31-36 as Jesus reminds us that the boxes that we create for ourselves are insufficient for salvation.

You can listen the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/different-is-shocking-10-29-17

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

Patterns are a wonderful thing…and they bring a sense of familiarity and often, predictability along with them. An example is the tendency for certain people to show up here in the church at predictable times. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but one of the things that I’ve come to recognize is that on Thursday afternoons…usually right about the same time that I’m getting ready to head out and get my kids at school, our very own Julie Larson is going to show up for some light altar guild duties…namely…she’s here to tend to the altar candles. Sometimes we overlap, sometimes I’m already out the door…but it happens often enough that I hear the front door open as I’m sitting in my office and I know who it is…and that about 10 seconds after I hear the front door, Julie will poke her head around and say hi as she’s walking into the sanctuary.

This, of course, was the case this past Thursday. Julie walked in as I was wrapping up…and she was still in the process of candles when I left…and so…when I walked into the office on Friday morning…and did my customary glance through the Sanctuary windows…I did a double take…I was shocked to see the change from the green paraments over the red for today.

Now any time the paraments change it catches my attention…but this time its probably safe to say that it shocked me a little more than normal…because they haven’t changed in a really long time. We’ve been in the season on Pentecost…which features the color green…and is also the longest season of the church year…and so there’s been no change in color since the beginning of June…almost half a year has gone by…no wonder I did a double take when things looked differently in here…I said it a minute ago, and I think it’s a good way to describe my reaction to the change…shocking.

Now…today is of course…Reformation Sunday, that’s why everything is red…and its big one isn’t it. This year is 500 years…we celebrate today on the last Sunday of October as we always do…and the actually anniversary is in just a couple days…we’ve been talking about it all year…but really, its safe to say that our tradition gives the Reformation a lot of emphasis…we even named ourselves after the guy who started it with a hammer and nail and 95 ideas for reforming the church.

Now that event in itself, was shocking enough…and the ripples have spread across the world over the course of the past 5 centuries…now for us its old hat…old news…familiar…but just think about how shocking it must have been for those who were alive at that time…that this upstart professor from backwater Germany was pushing back against Rome and the pope…that he dared challenge the authority…that he challenged the way things have ALWAYS been done.

Interestingly enough…Luther’s experience…and perhaps, the basis for his important work…well it stemmed from a shocking experience as well…and no I don’t mean the fact that he was almost struck by lightning in his younger years, though that would certainly be shocking…pardon the pun…but rather…in his study of the scriptures…Luther’s mind was blown…his world was rocked…when he stumbled across the passage from Romans that we shared a moment ago…and the verse “the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”  His view of a judgmental God that was waiting to strike us all down for our sins was blown out of the water as he recognized the free gift of God’s grace through Christ…shocking for him to say the least…and something that I think served as his metaphorical, or perhaps, spiritual 2×4 upside the head.

Change is shocking isn’t it? A change in decorations or color like here in the sanctuary. A change in tradition like Luther instigated through the Reformation…and also, the apparent shock that comes around when Jesus challenges the thought process of his audience in today’s gospel. (pause)

Now this brief reading out of John 8 is featured every year on Reformation Sunday…as Jesus reminds us about the importance of continuing in his word…or sometimes we hear remaining…or abiding…a common theme in John’s gospel…one that we hear many different times and in different settings.

And interestingly enough…the setting of this exchange between Jesus and some of the Jewish elite is a perfect example…but we’ve got to back up to the beginning of chapter 7 for things to start making sense…and as we look back, we learn that Jesus is in Jerusalem in order to celebrate one of the Jewish festivals…something that they did multiple times a year in their tradition…and this particular time, its for the festival of booths.

The whole setting of this festival is interesting…it lasts 8 days…with a Sabbath day at the beginning as everyone collectively rests…and then there’s another big Sabbath day at the end…and throughout the course of the entire festival…everyone is living in a booth…or a little tent that they’ve constructed in and around the city. The purpose of this festival was two-fold…first to celebrate the harvest in the fall…not unlike our Harvest Festival in November…but then as with all of the Jewish festivals…there was a sense of remembering the past…and in this case, God had instructed the Jewish culture to have this celebration every year to remember the 40 years of wandering as their ancestors lived out these years living in their tents…and not only that…but to remember that during that entire time of wandering…God dwelled among them…God, abided in their midst.

This is the festival that has JUST happened prior to today’s reading. One night has passed and Jesus is still in the city…hanging out in the temple courts…teaching and preaching as he often does. And because of his words…because of the truth that he’s been laying out…we hear that many of the Jews in his audience have come to believe in him…and with that, we hear his instruction of abiding in his words…and how this truth will set them free.

Cue the shocked look on the faces of these brand new believers…Wait a sec Jesus…we WILL be free? We’re descendants of Abraham…we’ve never been servants to anyone…what do you mean we will be free? (pause)
Now I can’t help but chuckle at this, because apparently these individuals…who are all members of a culture that places ultimate value on their history and their cultural identity which is tied intimately into past events…they seem to have forgotten that the vast majority of their history found them conquered and controlled by one ultimate political power of the day…the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians and Greeks and Romans.

These people seem to forget all of that history because they are completely stuck in the connection that they hold as descendants of Abraham…and the promise of God’s covenant made so many years before. For them…this is the ultimate distinction…and the thing that they place all of their stock in…as if to say that there’s a box…and if you fall in that box you’re good to go…but if not then you’ll somehow be found lacking. (pause)
I can’t help but find this almost laughable…they’ve just been celebrating God abiding among his people in a spiritual sense…but yet they fail to fully recognize that God has chosen to abide among his people in the physical sense…and even more specifically, that this God in human form…this Word of God made flesh was standing right in front of them talking to them.

Because to fully recognize this…and to fully accept his word and his teaching is to say that the box they had created…the connection to Abraham…their culture…to recognize that this distinction isn’t good enough…that’s downright shocking…it seems to be a tripping point for them that they just can’t get past.

And as I consider this, I can only think that its serves as an example for us as well…that somehow, someway every single one of us will come face to face with a tripping point…with a stumbling block, at some point in our lives…even in the midst of our lives of faith…perhaps even because of it.

Jesus says if you abide in my word you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.  It seems that on that day, for these particular people…the truth that was revealed was that their cultural identity earned them zero points as far as justification goes. Their Jewish distinction got them nowhere…and it blew their minds to the point of being unable to continue following Jesus…which we hear if we continue on through the narrative.

And I find myself asking the same question…when we come face to face with the ultimate truth of God made flesh in Jesus Christ…what misconceptions…what falsehoods that we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking give us the edge, will be brought to light for us to see?

Will it be the distinction of our American freedom?  Will it be our upper European Lutheran heritage that we celebrate today on Reformation Sunday…that idea that we’ve got all this theology and tradition figured out and everyone else has it wrong? Will it be our insistance that we don’t actually need God and that we alone are in control?

What is it that is revealed with THE LIGHT shines in our darkness? (pause) I can only think that when we face whatever truth shocks our fragile illusions, we will be left as bare as those individuals who couldn’t get past their cultural identity.  And when we come face to face with a truth that shocks us beyond measure…our only hope is to cling to the words of Christ…to remain there…to abide there in the midst of the promises that he has made…and here’s the thing…he promises us that if the Son makes you free…you are free indeed…and that because of what God has done through the death and resurrection of Christ…because of the proclamation that He has claimed you as his beloved child…the promise is yours that you will abide in his house forever.  (pause)
Here in the Lutheran church…we’ve spent a lot of time looking backwards at the last 500 years…clinging to our culture and tradition…and this is not a bad thing…but we must learn the same lesson that Jesus revealed to the Jews who were stuck in the same state…that now things have changed, and let us seek out how to live into the unknown future as we cling to the hope of God’s promises for each of us…let us remember the importance of what God has said about us…as we move into the next 500. And not just that but as we move past the last 2000 years, and not only that but as we move past all the years that have come and gone since time began and remember that God’s promise is to love us and claim us today and tomorrow and forever. And that this is true for us despite the brokenness that we all feel, shocking though it might be…let us abide in that. Amen

Say It Plainly 10-22-17

In this sermon, based on Matthew 22:15-22, I explore an odd little encounter with Jesus and the elite over the subject of taxes. Jesus, as per usual, takes their trick and turns it on its ear.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/say-it-plainly-10-22-17

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

Earlier this week I did some organizing in my office…I went through stacks of papers that had piled up…files that had accumulated…I moved some pictures and decorations around…and I took a look at many of the books that I’ve pulled into my ever-growing library. And I came across one book that I had to get very early on in my seminary career…The Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms…a “handy” little book with “Over 300 terms clearly & concisely defined.”

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As I glanced through this book, I came across A great deal of fancy terminology…many of which I tend to call the big fancy 50-cent seminary words that perhaps don’t mean much…words like Eschatology…Hermeneutics….Paradigm, just to name a few…now when I was in school, I heard these words get thrown around a lot…and most of the time, I didn’t really know what they meant, and to be honest I didn’t really care.

But as I thought about it a little more I began to realize that here at the congregational level, we’ve got some fancy language of our own…words or names that are, perhaps, pretty foreign to anyone new that might come in our doors.  Words like…chancel…that’s the fancy name for the area up here in front of the altar…I could probably just say the front.  Or what about…Narthex…if you don’t know that one…it’s the area where we all gather out there…you know like the lobby…There’s another one that I kinda laugh at…Hymnal…its that green book with all the songs in it…someone might call it a song book…which wasn’t lost on whoever put together our supplemental red hymnal…go ahead, pull it out and look at the cover…its right there in the title…the Other…Song Book. At least they knew what was going on.

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As I think about these things…all this fancy terminology…50-cent seminary words…insider church language, there are times when I think that it would be easier if we just said what we mean…if we just used plain language that everyone understands…if we would just…say it…plainly…and I can’t but think that today’s gospel features Jesus doing just that. (pause)
Now before we jump in, we need to review just a bit…over the course of the past 4 weeks-worth of Gospels, Jesus has been teaching in parables…which of course he did on a pretty regular basis…and while the intention of a parable is to illustrate some difficult idea or concept in a way that is familiar, we see that often times his audience fails to grasp what’s he’s trying to tell them and they ask him to explain…once even going so far as saying “Tell us plainly…”

I can’t help but think we’re starting to see this today with the encounter that Jesus has with the powers that be.  Now if you’re familiar with the narrative, Jesus is in Jerusalem…and over the course of about a week, following his arrival, he’s in and out of the temple teaching…and as we’ve heard over the past few weeks, continuously butting heads the big wigs, mostly the religious elite, but here today some of the political ones as well.

For the past 3 Sunday’s we’ve heard parables from Jesus that have pointed out the shortcomings of these individuals…the failures of those entrusted with the leadership of the Jewish people…the hypocrisy that seems to dominate their actions and words, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not…but yet still there.

But now…it seems that Jesus is ready to cut the parables…to stop using illustrations and metaphor…and start…speaking…plainly. And I can’t only think that it’s a bit of knee-jerk reaction when he hears some very thinly veiled flattery coming his way.

Now his opponents think they’re pretty crafty…and they’ve come up with a scheme that will surely create problems for Jesus. But they’ve got to lower his defenses before they spring their trap…and so we hear… (lay on the sarcasm) Teacher…we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality…

I can only imagine, but it stands to reason that just hearing this…Jesus’ hackles are probably up aren’t they? Because he catches on as they lay out the trick question…What do you think…is it lawful to pay the tax to Caesar or not? (pause)
Truly their craftiness is beyond measure…this will get him…You see, the Jewish people hated paying Romans taxes…it was a slap in the face that they had to pay to support the very people who were oppressing their culture…and so no self-respecting Jewish person liked these taxes…and so if Jesus says yes, he’ll lose credibility with the crowds…but if on the other hand…Jesus says no, that we should not pay the tax…well the Herodians, who represent Herod…who in turn really represents Rome…well then that’s gonna land Jesus in hot water from a legal standpoint.

But Jesus isn’t falling for it is he…and here’s the point where he switches from parables and illustrations to just calling a thing what it is…or in this case…calling them what they are. Hypocrites.

They don’t care about loyalty to Rome verses loyalty to the Jewish culture…and they sure as heck don’t care about the law, even as they pose the question…is it lawful. And we see this because Jesus points it out in a way that he seems REALLY good at doing in these different encounters that happen throughout the gospels.

Now the tax in question cost a coin…a denarius…a commonly used bit of currency in Jesus’ day…the normal payment for a day’s worth of labor…a coin that everyone there would have been familiar with…one that they all would have used…

Now we know what a denarius looks like…archeologists have found them, you can find pictures…and we know that the face on the coin was Caesar Tiberius…the son of the great Caesar Augustus…who the Romans understood to be divine…to be a god…and so the face of Tiberius was the face of the son of a god…and the inscription that is referenced says the very same thing. Son of the living god.

In short…this coin bears the image and wording of a god, small g, a false god…which is something the Jewish people would tend to call an idol…and something that the Jewish people would call breaking the first commandment….or more specifically, breaking “The Law.” (pause)

And here’s where it gets interesting. As Jesus is trying to make his point…he asks for a denarius…and where does he get one? The very people trying to trap him, reach into their pockets and pull out the coin…the image of idolatry. (pause) Hmm…seems like they’ve already made their peace with breaking “the Law” haven’t they?  Like they’ve fully accepted the rules of the human authority at the time. No wonder he calls them hypocrites as they try to trap him on something they are already doing. (pause)

But there’s something else at play here…something that is perhaps more important…because Jesus never just leaves things with straight up antagonism does he?  Doesn’t it seem like he always manages to reveal something else? Something good…something hopeful?

With his first statement and question revealing who the coin…who the tax belongs to…that being Caesar…he lays this little ditty out there…give that which is of Caesar to Caesar…Give that which is of God to God.

Now we could go round and round with just what that means but let’s keep it simple…that which belongs to Caesar..that which belongs to the realm of human authority…or government…or whatever we want to call it…it bears the image doesn’t it…the coin has his image on it…and Jesus says go a head and give it to him…quit worrying about all this petty human stuff…because when it comes to God, it’s a completely different playing field…Caesar’s stuff is down here (point low), but God’s stuff is clear up here (point high).

So the big question…what belongs to God…what’s created bearing God’s image…and to answer that question we need to take it clear back to the beginning and this cool little blurb from the book of Genesis.  Following the creation of everything else in the world…God says this. “Let us make humankind in our image…according to our likeness…and so God created humankind in his image, male and female he created them.”

Here’s the take away…often times I hear people talk about this passage…specifically this statement of Jesus about giving to Caesar and giving to God…and they use it to point towards the idea of the separation of church and state…or they talk about how its good that we do our part and pay our taxes, or they use it to highlight stewardship and giving to God…but I think the important thing for us to remember is that there are aspects of life that are just that…life…Jesus told them to pay the tax…it was the reality of the day. But he also reminds us that God claims a whole lot more than just taxes…because God places his image upon a whole lot of things. The coin was made bearing the image of Caesar…You are made bearing the image of God…and not only that…but I’m pretty sure that we hear in scripture that the Word was God, and through it ALL things were made…which seems to indicate that God’s concerned about, pretty well everything…and that includes the one which God deemed worthy of being made as a divine image bearer…that’s you.

God made you and God claimed you…period. You don’t need to be anything special…you don’t need to accomplish anything amazing…you don’t have to make yourself better…you don’t need to pass any test or batch of achievements to catch God’s attention. For God’s attention and love is already on you…that’s already done. You belong, now. You are seen now. You are loved…now…as you are…remarkably imperfect…and yet of priceless worth to the one who made you in the first place. God loves you now.  I can’t say it any more plainly. Amen.