Posts Tagged ‘Vulnerability’

Epiphany 1-6-19

In this sermon for the day of Epiphany, based on Matthew 2:1-12, I explore the visit of the Maji, which starts off a season of texts in ways that Christ is revealed to the world.  In this story, we switch focus away from the Magi to the reaction of King Herod the Great. His action reveals truth about those who cling the illusion of power and authority in the world.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

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

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

You’ve probably heard me talk about some of the congregations that I’ve been connected to in the past…both large and small. I grew up in one about the same size as Underwood. I provided monthly pulpit supply at a tiny country church for a couple of years where a dozen people was a good Sunday…but on the flip side I’ve been at some pretty big ones too.

My internship congregation was about 1200 people…and for about a decade, my wife and I were members and staff at the largest congregation here in our Synod, which at its peak had nearly 2000 members. Now the thing about a congregation that size…there’s a lot kids…and therefore…there was a pretty good sized Confirmation program…and it took a lot of people to make that happen…small group leaders, prayer partners, mentors, and of course…teachers.

Now that church had 2 pastors on staff…but with the large number of kids and classes, they needed more than just the two pastors to teach…and so by the time I was about 25…they started asking me if I’d help out…but let me tell you…I resisted that like the plague…I never thought of myself as a teacher of any sort…and so I kept saying no.

This went on for about 3 years…until finally reaching the point where I knew I’d be going to seminary and becoming a pastor…and since teaching confirmation comes with the territory, I figured it was about time that I start saying yes.

And wouldn’t you know it…it became one of my favorite things to do. I love teaching…and as you might have seen I do so in a lot different ways and formats…but teaching confirmation is one of the most enjoyable…and not only that…but I’ve got a favorite lesson that’s grown over the years.  Of all the different subjects that we cover in the 2 year cycle of confirmation…hands down…my favorite one is the Birth of Jesus.

I love it…because over the course of the lesson we debunk a few traditional aspects of the story that aren’t actually present…for instance…many of you have heard me point out that there’s no donkey for Mary to ride anywhere in the story…but the other one that always comes out…ties us into today’s story.

Epiphany…a focal point that only pops up here in worship on rare occasions…its always the same day of the year…and so it is typically happening during the week…but every once in a while it lands on Sunday…and we get to hear today’s gospel.  Now…I can’t help but think that a moment ago as I was reading the lesson…that someone out there…at least one person, reacted to our story like this. (Pause) “THE MAGI?  Wait….Christmas was like 2 weeks ago…they’re just showing now?” (pause)  Yep (and nod).

There is a common misconception that the Magi or wise men or three kings, whatever we chose to call them…were part of the nativity…but…they…weren’t. And based on a few bits of info we’re given throughout the course of their story, the best guess is that they showed up anywhere from a couple months up to a couple years after Jesus was born.

Now…as much as I love the Magi…we really don’t know a ton about them.  We know they’re from the East…and tradition has filled in all kinds of possibilities about them that we really can’t confirm…including names and even ethnic varieties…but best guess…they were likely from Persia…the remnants of a once large and powerful empire…and their title of Magi indicates that they were likely the court magicians or astrologers…maybe even the “scientists” of the day…and in their work, they’ve witnessed the rising of a special star…an event that has told them of the birth of someone with incredible importance…and so they’ve come looking.

History does tell us that this sort of thing occurred…there are records of Magi visiting the Emperor of Rome at one point…but this time around they head into Jerusalem…apparently whatever sign was present in the heavens through this star…it only led them so far…and they needed some assistance. And so…they go right to the top…stopping off at the palace to inquire with King Herod about the one born king of the Jews.  You know how the rest of the story goes…they figure out Bethlehem…Herod tells them to go and find the baby and then come back to let him know so that he can go worship as well…wink wink…they go searching…the star pops up again, pointing them to the right house…in they go and there is Mary and Jesus…they kneel down….open up their gifts…worship him with joy…and angelic warning dream points them away from Herod and they depart…very likely into the sunset with a lone violin playing a poignant song…and other than one brief reference back to them a few verses later…their part of the story is done.

That’s the story of the Magi…the story of Epiphany. Now Epiphany in itself is important…by its very definition it means a dramatic reveal or revelation about something…and that’s what we see. Jesus…the divine made flesh…is being revealed to the world…and as we move through the season of epiphany through the next several weeks we’ll continue to find stories of similar nature…as Jesus continues to be revealed. We see it in many different settings, with different types of people…some quite small and intimate…others on a much larger scale.

And that’s true today as well…because the story of the Magi following the star and stopping off for directions in Jerusalem points us to some intriguing facts about this big reveal.  Now remember, Bethlehem is only a couple miles away from Jerusalem…and even though Jerusalem was no longer the ultimate center of life in the region at this time…it was still important and the political and religious big wigs spent a lot of time there…so you’d think that by this time they’d have caught wind of the messiah’s birth…months, maybe even a couple years have passed…but based on their reaction to the Magi…it would seem that they are oblivious…

What we do hear…that with this news…with this inquiry about the one born King of the Jews…they loose their minds.  Some translations say Herod and the city were frightened…others say they were disturbed…but when we dig in we find that their reaction was earth shattering…the type of thing that you see in a fear filled mob…and to understand just why that is…we need to step away from the Magi and focus in on Herod…who might seem like just a secondary character…but who’s presence actually casts a really wide shadow over this whole deal.

Now when we hear the name Herod…it could mean a lot of people…the Herodian dynasty lasted the better part of a century…and included about 3 different generations of individuals who all went by the name and held various roles of leadership as granted by the Roman government…but in this case…we’re talking about the original…the OG Herod…Herod the Great.

History remembers him…as a strong leader…as a great builder…but also as a backstabbing, blood-thirsty tyrant. This was a guy who claimed power by marrying into an important family…finagling his way into the title of king by sucking up to the Roman authorities…and then promptly terrorizing anyone and everyone that might threaten his position…up to an including murdering several of his own kids…not to mention countless officials.

If you started to gain any popularity…or maybe gave an inkling of future plans…Herod would have you killed…because you can’t be a threat if you’re dead right? And honestly, this knew no bounds…because if we continued reading through Matthew chapter 2 we would see that once Herod realizes the Magi avoided him, he had every baby boy in Bethlehem 2 years and under killed…simply because of the rumor of a future king.

I can’t help but think that this reveals insecurity…and fear.  Even though he had been given pretty much the ultimate power in the region…I can only think that Herod was secretly terrified that someone would take that power away again. (pause)

Now I don’t know about you…but when I hear the name Herod…and when I think about this whole story and all the stuff he did…I just think…man, he’s just the worst. But then I stop and think about it…and I think it sounds pretty familiar.

We live in a world that is pretty constantly defined by might makes right…an idea that my way is the best…and I’m right…and you can join me as long as you agree with me…but if not I’ll destroy you.  We see it in our interactions…we see it in our conflicts…we see it between individuals, we see it between nations and political leaders.  We blame the other…we demonize…we shout them down…we threaten…we dig up dirt…we do whatever we can to destroy or discredit ANY opponent to get them out the way.

And what’s the motivation? It might be a lot of things but I think the base of it all is fear…fear that we have been given will be taken away…fear that the illusion of power and authority that we hold might crumble…fear that the things we’ve come to rely on will fail and we’ll suffer because of it.

Herod was guilty of this…all because some random guys from the east showed up asking for the one born to be king of the Jews…because if there is one born to be king…then that means Herod’s not…no wonder he reacted with turmoil and fear…lashing out to kill a helpless baby. (pause)

Now here’s the thing…you’ve all heard me say this before…but whatever it is that God is up to through the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus…whatever God is accomplishing by the divine becoming flesh and dwelling among us…it shows all the world that might makes right doesn’t cut it anymore.  God is showing us that there is a new authority…a new definition of power…but to those who hold to the world’s way of thinking…to the illusion of control…that’s a threat…and they’ll do anything to beat that down.

In Jesus God was showing us the new way…a way of humility…of love and humbleness…a way of care for our neighbor…and harmony with one another…and the world…the apparent powers that be…killed him for it.

But if the Christ event taught us anything…its that this tiny baby…would grow up…would continue to show us that that the old way of thinking…the old way of being…the old notions of power and authority can’t win…they might of killed him…but not even death can shut this news up…and three days later he walked out of the tomb…overcoming that which should be the last word.

And that should make us sit up and pay attention.  We don’t have to look very hard to find present day Herod’s…and if we are honest with ourselves, we probably even see him when we look in the mirror…I know I do more often than I care to admit…and maybe, just maybe that’s why we hear this story and we think about the atrocities that he committed and we think “he’s the worst.” Because then we don’t have to feel so bad about ourselves…but those same tendencies are alive and active today. (pause)

But…the promise also remains that somehow God has already overcome those powers…even if it doesn’t seem like it when we turn on the news…see the junk that’s going on…and hear our “authorities” screaming about who’s to blame for it.

The promise remains that in the end…God wins…and no matter how messed up the world might be…and no matter how hard we ourselves crash and burn as we try to live out our lives…the love of God will never be taken from us…and that true power lies in vulnerability…something God showed us by bringing ultimate power into the world in that which is ultimately vulnerable…a tiny baby who’s very birth threatened those the world called powerful.

And that promise…that’s earth shattering…it’s a revelation…and when we hear it…and I mean really hear it…we might even call that an epiphany. Amen.

Be Welcomed 7-2-17

In this sermon, based on Matthew 10:40-42, I explore Jesus seemingly odd connection between welcome and reward, which wraps up his teaching to the disciples as they prepare to go out and do ministry.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

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

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen
Its been my observation, that as kids go through their formative years, beginning around junior high and going through high school and college, they bond with a core group of friends…and typically within that group, their ends up being 1 house that becomes the go-to hangout…I can remember exactly where that place is within my own history…the home where two of the guys who happened to be brothers, grew up.

Now maybe you had a place like this in your history…and you were around so much that the parents of your friends pretty much become like a second set of parents to you…so much so that even years later you still call them Mom and Dad.

This house was that place for me, as well as the rest of our crew. They had a room in the basement which was our typical hangout spot…it served as home base for the various things we did together…and our presence was so common there, that it became one of those places that you don’t even have to knock before you walk in.

I can remember countless times of parking out in the street and walking up the driveway towards the garage…and as I approached the door I could look in through the front window into the living room and see Mom and Dad sitting there watching tv…and they’d just wave. Maybe you know that wave…that wave that says hello…it says come on in…don’t bother knocking, the boys are downstairs…and even now, decades later…on those rare occasions when I make it into my hometown I know I better stop in to say hi to mom and dad…and as I walk up the driveway I’ll see that wave that tells my I’m welcome…that wave that tells me I’m known. (pause)

Now the theme of welcome should be familiar and I’m guessing that it comes as no great shock that I bring it up considering our brief gospel passage for today…the theme of welcome is all over these three verses…but what’s interesting is just where we’re at in this passage.

Today’s lesson marks the end of what has become something of a sermon series. Those of you familiar with my style know that’s not really the type of thing I tend to engage in as I preach week to week, but on occasion we’ll see the ongoing narrative bring us through a larger story that is all connected, and this is, of course the case today.

If you’ve been following along over the past few weeks, we’ve been in a larger story of Jesus preparing to send his disciples out…fully empowered to join in the work of ministry that Jesus himself is already doing. 2 weeks ago we heard of his compassion for the great crowds, that the way that he grants the disciples the authority to proclaim the good news of the kingdom as well as authority over demons and diseases and even death…in short, to join with him in the same work that he’s already up to.

But then, over the course of the next rather large section of gospel, Jesus begins to lay out that rather dire look of just what they can expect as they go out empowered to do this work…and we heard about that last week…and boy, its not a pretty picture…opposition…legal troubles…condemnation…division…you name it. (pause)
But now…finally, Jesus wraps it up with this very brief portion…and as he doesn’t I can’t help but think he sounds a little bit like a broken record…saying pretty much the same thing over and over again. Welcome welcome welcome welcome…and reward reward reward reward. (pause)
Now at first glance, one of these things gets me pretty excited…and the other one, well it makes me a little nervous…can you guess which one is which? (pause) The idea of welcome…well this one that I hope we’re all familiar with…the idea of hospitality…the idea of bringing in the stranger, of making them feel at home.  We hope that we as individuals are welcoming to those around us…we hope that our communities and especially our congregations are a place of welcome, where someone new can come in and immediately feel right at home.

We embody this with our greeters every Sunday…with our invitation to shake hands and greet one another…with the language at the beginning of worship that whenever we are in our Father’s house we are home…we go out of our way to try and be welcoming…and that’s a good thing.

But funny enough…I don’t think that’s quite what Jesus is talking about as he instructs his disciples on what to expect as they carry the gospel out into the world. Jesus isn’t telling them to be welcoming…rather, he’s telling them to go be welcomed. Go out and do ministry…at the mercy of those you are ministering to…and you know what, that’s pretty daunting…that’s really putting yourself out there…

To do this very thing…is to make yourself vulnerable…and that’s something in our individualistic, dog eat dog world that we just aren’t that good at are we?  Because to be vulnerable is to open ourselves up to the very things that Jesus was warning us about last week.  Make yourself vulnerable, you risk rejection. You risk ridicule…you risk opposition or even in extreme cases…retaliation.

But here’s the thing…as we consider the context in which Jesus shares these words, we remember that we are doing the exact same thing he is…and that the results that we experience are the same as his…and in realizing this…maybe just maybe we start to see that in the life of Jesus…in the ministry of Jesus…or maybe we can say in the event of Jesus, God becomes vulnerable…In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God risks rejection…God risks ridicule…and as we see, God risks…God flat out experiences violent retaliation.

And so perhaps realizing this we ask the question of just why would God do that in the first place…why would God willingly enter into our broken reality, becoming fully vulnerable…knowing full well that it would end up like it did….WHY GOD? (pause) Why would you risk it…and why do you ask us to risk the same? (pause)

Now maybe in order to answer that question…we need to take a look at the second theme of today’s brief lesson that makes us good Lutherans a little uneasy…Reward. Jesus talks about the reward several times…a prophet’s reward…the reward of the righteous…the reward of the one to welcome one of his little ones.

And I don’t know about you, but I hear reward…and my brain instantly goes to the idea that we have to earn it…and the Lutheran theologian in me goes into red alert…because we know we can’t earn it right? That’s not how this whole deal works…God’s grace is free right? It has to be or its not grace. So just what is this reward that Jesus is talking about?

I went round and round and round with this one…trying to put my finger on just what he’s talking about…and as I thought about reward or treasure…or wages…things that we put a lot of stock in…and suddenly I was reminded of something that the Apostle Paul says in one his letters…he lists off all these human accomplishments…and then he says I count it all rubbish…trash…or something a little bit stronger language-wise…when compared with knowing Christ my Lord….for Paul, it seems that the reward…the ultimate goal is knowing Christ…is being known by Christ…in short being in relationship with Christ.

And that right there…is where I finally found a connection between the idea of being welcomed and reward…because maybe, just maybe the reward is being in relationship…something that is engrained with us…it’s a desire that is some deeply rooted within our very being…and if we stop and think about it…we can’t be in relationship without the presense of welcome on one side or another.  Because what else is the idea of welcome or receiving another, besides inviting them into a relationship, whether for a moment that is only long enough to offer a smile, or a drink of water…or for a season of life…or for a lifetime…we welcome…and we are welcomed…and the life we share together in that moment of time is our reward.

And if you find yourself wondering just where this deep seeded need for relationship and community comes from, you just need to look back at Genesis 1 and remember that when God was getting ready to create humanity God said “Let us create humankind in OUR image” and it was so. The God that made us in the first place already exists in relationship between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit…all of which were in some way present in the beginning…and we were made bearing the divine image of God and I believe that is why we need relationship…that is why we are willing to risk being vulnerable with one another…of being fully present with one another…of opening ourselves up to the possibility of pain and rejection at the hands of another…not because we chose to be…but because that’s how we were created to be.

That’s why we form relationships, because its in our very nature…our nature that reflects the nature of God, who desires community not only within the Trinity, but with us as well…and that is why the divine word of God became flesh…to show us that it is possible for the divine and the human to exist together…and to invite us into the vital work of sharing that truth with the rest of the world.

May we be a people that welcome without question…without pretense…without restriction…and may we be vulnerable enough to go out and be welcomed in the same way…knowing that we bear the image of the one who will never turn us away…the one who became one of us to show us we’re welcome…to show us we are known. Amen.

Where Is The King? 11-23-14

This morning’s sermon for Christ the King Sunday comes from Matthew 25:31-46. In the sermon I explore where we find Christ, and more importantly where he finds us.

You can listen to the sermon here:

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

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

If the church year followed the calendar, we’d be in the gap between Christmas and New Year’s…just about to put the finishing touches on another year, and spouting off our resolutions for the new one.

But the church year doesn’t follow the calendar, and because of that, we’re already on the verge of starting over. Next Sunday begins the new church year, and with it, the short season of Advent. (pause) Now the church calendar, with its many different liturgical seasons runs in a cyclic pattern doesn’t it…and rightly so. Just as the 4 seasons of the year bring their own expectations…cold blustery winters, rainy transitional spring, hot dry summer, and cool dusty fall…the church seasons have their own expectations.

Advent finds us eagerly awaiting the coming messiah…at Christmas we celebrate his entry into our reality as a helpless baby…Epiphany reveals his presence to the world…then comes Lent as things get darkest…right before the new dawn of Easter when death is defeated…and then comes Pentecost where we track the growth and direction of the church from its infancy with the disciples and a few other people up through the descriptions of the end times and the call to be watching out…because at some unknown point in the future, Christ is coming back around for the second time and his heavenly kingdom will be established.

If you’ve been paying attention for the past month or so…that’s exactly where we’ve been…hearing week after week about the apocalyptic nature of what is to come…that we will eventually reach that unknown point…and Christ is coming back…and as we hear at the beginning of today’s text…that he will be in all of his glory and he will sit on that glorious throne…a throne…which is exactly the place that we expect to find a king…and perhaps this is fitting today as we celebrate Christ the King…and with today’s text, we hear, once again…that we need to be prepared because eventually…judgment is coming. (pause)

And today, I find myself wondering if any of you are as sick and tired of hearing about the end times as I am…if you are a little fed up with the repeated call to BE PREPARED…or to BE WATCHFUL…or in today’s case…if you’re tired of being told how you should be acting in preparation. (pause) Are you there too? Or is it just me?

I dunno, maybe its just seasonal burn out…perhaps I’ve just grown weary of the same topic time after time…week after week…but at times I find myself incredibly weary of trying to account every second for that unknown day in the future when Jesus will be sitting on the throne. (pause)

Now, before you all take a couple of steps back…perhaps trying to distance yourself from me just in case I’m suddenly struck down with lightning or fire for having uttered such things…hear me out. (pause) I grow weary of looking for Christ sitting on the throne out in the future…because if I recall correctly, the kingdom of heaven doesn’t really fall in the “not yet” category that we Lutherans like to talk about…on the contrary…I’m pretty sure that the kingdom of heaven is already here. (pause)

Way back in Matthew chapter 3…following nothing except a genealogy and King Herod trying to exploit the wise men…we hear John the Baptist declare to the world that the kingdom of heaven has come near…Its already here…and why? Because God made a choice to enter into our reality…In short…the word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood and with that…in that instant…the kingdom…became…reality. (pause)

And this whole time…throughout the course of the whole year…we’ve been hearing story after story…instance after instance of Jesus…of God in the flesh…walking around…encountering people…and today, in our story…we hear that reality of God encountering people never stopped…even when Jesus stood on a mountaintop…tipped his cap to the disciples…and ventured off into the clouds. (pause)

Today’s story features a division that apparently will happen at some unknown point in the future, when Jesus takes the judgment seat and divides the people…but I’m not really concerned about the division today…I’m more concerned with the response that everyone shares when Jesus addresses them.

I was hungry…I was thirsty…I was a stranger …naked, sick, and in prison. (pause) Everyone hears these words…and everyone responds in the exact…same…way…Lord, when did we see you? (pause) And Jesus response? When did you see me…More often than you think. (pause) You just weren’t looking for me.

That’s the crazy nature of this whole idea that Christ is the king of a kingdom that we don’t really recognize…its all around us…we just aren’t looking for it…but trust me…its there. (pause)

The kingdom is present when we help pay for supplies at the local food back…its there when we fill up a water bottle for a homeless man walking by Underwood on his way from Wisconsin to Oklahoma…and when we spend a few minutes talking with him even though he’s a stranger…the kingdom is present when we give clothing to Goodwill, or when we sit with a friend in the hospital…and its there when we take a moment to spend with the social outcast. (pause)

And if the kingdom is present…then you better believe that the king is present…and he tells us that today…whatever you did to the least of these…you have done it to me. (pause)

We have a God who made the choice…the conscious effort to put on flesh and experience this life…this life with all of its joys and with all of its hardships…and because of this, we have a God who is present in these times, good and bad…and so that’s where we look to find Jesus…we find Jesus in vulnerability…whether that vulnerability is our own…or someone else’s…that’s where Jesus is found…not because we’re looking for him…but simply because God is present in those circumstances.

We see evidence of this all over Matthew’s gospel…whether during Jesus first major address to the multitudes when he assured us that blessed are poor in spirit…and those who mourn…and the meek, and those who hunger and thirst…or when he reaches out to heal the sick and the lame, the foreigner and the unclean…for where they are…God is there also…and he tells us that he will remain with us, even to the end of the age…and you better believe that when God makes a promise, you can take it to the bank.

And today, we know especially that this is true…not only because God chose to put on flesh and dwell among us…but because Jesus was about to become the embodiment of the vulnerability that he talks about in today’s lesson. As far as the story goes, this is it…right after this, it’s go time…and the crucifixion train is off and running. (pause)

And in that, we see that God…is imprisoned…and stripped naked…he is the stranger on trial with the Romans…he hungers and he thirsts while he hangs on the cross…Jesus Christ…God in flesh becomes the physical embodiment of vulnerability…and he does so in order to share the experience with you. (pause)

We have a God who experienced every facet of life, so that he can meet us in those moments when we are most vulnerable…and through his example we learn that we are to meet him there as well…even in those times when we encounter the vulnerability of others.

Lord, when did we see you? More often than you think…because the kingdom of Heaven is here now…and we have a king that is with us always…even to the end of the age…even when we don’t recognize him. (pause)

And certainly there are many times in our lives when we fail to recognize Jesus being present in vulnerability…but in a short amount of time, he’ll prove it once more…Next week we enter Advent as the world waits in anticipation for the coming Messiah…as the world waits for its king…and that king comes into the world in the most vulnerable way possible…as a helpless baby…utterly dependent on others…just as we…utterly depend upon him.

Behold, the kingdom of heaven is here now…even if we fail to look for it…and if the kingdom is here…you better believe that the king is here too…and he promises to remain…even to the end of the age. Amen.