Tag Archives: Sermon

The Call of Abraham – Sunday, September 14, 2014 (NL Week 2)

Sunday’s Readings:
Matthew 28:19-20
Genesis 12:1-9

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Last Sunday, our exploration of God’s story began with the great flood and the promise of God made visible by the sign of the rainbow. After the raging floodwaters subsided and the travelers aboard the ark were released from the confines of their floating sanctuary, God blessed Noah and his family and all the animals they had saved and gave them this command: be fruitful and multiply and fill the whole earth. It was God’s desire that the entire world be filled once again with the newness and energy of life – that those who had been blessed would go forth across the globe and partner with God once again in the work of stewarding creation. God sent humanity out with a remarkable promise: that God would sustain the world, that even if humanity failed to live up to their vocation at times, God would ensure that season would follow season and create the conditions for continued growth and flourishing. Unfortunately, just as Adam and Eve had fallen prey to the serpent’s deception and grasped for knowledge that would make them like God, the newly-released travelers chose not to heed God’s call to spread themselves across the globe.. Genesis 11 tells the tale of how they chose to gather in one spot and begin the world’s most ambitious building project: the great tower at a place that would come to be called Babel, a tower that the people hoped would stretch to heaven itself and cause those who built it to be remembered forever! Suddenly, the new creation was starting to look an awful lot like the old one, and God needed to act again to get humanity moving in the right direction, this time with a little bit of mischief. God scattered the people by baffling their language, short-circuiting their grand plans and forcing them to strike out and find new ways to build community in new places across the globe.

This morning we pick up centuries later with the story of Abram – whose more familiar name, Abraham, would be given to him by God later in life. Abram was a distant descendant of Noah whose father, Terah, had moved his whole family from Ur, a city in what is now south-eastern Iraq, to Harran, located in what is now south-eastern Turkey near the Syrian border. It was there that Abram first heard the voice of God and received this startling command: Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you! I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

Just as the story of flood and promise we heard last week represented the renewal of God’s creation, the story of Abram is the renewal of God’s call to humanity to be vehicles of God’s blessing in the world. Where those who gathered at Babel to make a name for themselves did so in defiance of God’s gracious invitation, Abram left behind everything he had ever known at Harran (a city whose name means crossroads), and struck out in a new direction in obedience to God, spurred on by the promise that God would be the one to make his name great through the gifts of descendants and land.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about this story is the fact that, unlike Noah, who was described in Scripture as righteous and whole-hearted, Abram doesn’t appear to be particularly noteworthy. Scripture doesn’t describe him as in individual at all – at least not yet. It gives no indication that Abram was special in any way. Yet the entire story of Scripture turns on his response to God’s command, and the unfolding of God’s plan to bring blessing to the world begins anew when the seventy-five-year-old packs up his entire life and sets out in search of the land that God had promised to show him.

That remarkable fact is really important for us to remember, because it says something about the God who calls Abram (and us, his descendants in the faith). Alongside all the stories in Scripture that tell of extraordinary people and their extraordinary obedience is this foundational story of God calling someone who is utterly ordinary – who by all accounts is “past his prime” – and promising blessing, guidance, and enduring presence without any previous track record of faithfulness. What’s more, the stories of Abram and his descendants are honest and realistic about what life lived in obedience to God looks like. Faithfulness does not insulate us from struggle or hardship. In the chapters and verses that follow today’s reading, Abram rescues his captured nephew from a rival tribe, questions, debates, and argues with God, and even persuades God to change God’s mind (at least temporarily). All that happens before God fulfills the promise that led Abram to strike out in the first place and results in his receiving the name we’re more familiar with: Abraham. Next week’s text – part of the story of Abraham’s great-grandson, Joseph – illustrates the hardship that God’s people can experience as a result of human pride, fear, and brokenness. All that is part of what makes Abraham’s story worth reading. Our ancestor in the faith strikes out from the crossroads, not knowing where he is going or whether the God who speaks to him is worthy of trust. Through all the hardship and struggle that he and his descendants would experience – and, perhaps even more surprisingly, despite his and others incredibly bad judgment – God does not abandon Abraham or his offspring.

Brothers and sisters, the story of the call of Abraham is the story of a God who calls us to radical trust and a man who stepped out of his comfort zone to face an uncertain future. Today, we are called to see our own stories in his story, to listen for God’s voice, to ponder how God might be calling us to leave behind what is familiar and safe for what is unknown and mysterious. Let us pray that God’s Spirit would inspire us to do just that, trusting not in our own strength or the power of our faith, but in the faithfulness of God in Christ, whose boundless love and grace has freed us from the power of sin and the fear of death and granted us the promise of God’s presence today and always, and may our lives resound with the words of this prayer:

Lord God, you have called us to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.* Thanks be to God. Amen.

*Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Augsburg Fortress (Minneapolis, MN: 2006), p. 304.

Flood and Promise – Sunday, September 7, 2014 (NL Week 1; “God’s Work. Our Hands” Sunday)

Sunday’s Readings:
Accompanying Text: Matthew 8:24-27
Preaching Text: Genesis 6:16-22; 9:8-15

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and everything was very good. That’s how the story of our faith gets started: human beings living in harmony with one another, with God, and with the rest of creation, and gifted with a calling to till the ground and steward everything God has made. It doesn’t take long for things to change. Adam and Eve succumb to temptation, trading intimacy with God for the knowledge of good and evil. Their son, Cain, allows jealousy to take hold, and he murders his brother Abel in cold blood. Things only go downhill from there. By the time Noah appears on the scene and receives his instructions, the situation is dire:

“YHWH* saw that great was humankind’s evildoing on earth and every form of their heart’s planning was only evil all the day. Then YHWH was sorry that he had made humankind on earth, and it pained his heart. YHWH said, “I will blot out humankind, whom I have created, from the face of the soil, from man to beast, to crawling thing and to the fowl of the heavens, for I am sorry that I made them.”**

Contrary to the picture that is often painted of God in the Old Testament, the tone here is not one of anger and wrath, but of disappointment, regret, longing for the kind of world that had existed in the beginning. God wishes that the grand experiment in creating human beings with free will had never been started. And yet, despite that regret, and despite God’s ability to make a complete break with creation and start things all over again with something completely new, that’s not what happens here. Though God is sorely grieved by the weight of human sinfulness and the brokenness of the creation that had been so good, God takes a chance on creation once again through Noah, his family, and the ragtag group of animals that they wrangled together,

There’s no sugar coating the devastation conveyed by the story of the flood. God intends that nothing left outside the ark survives. The judgment of the world is a serious matter, and the results of that judgment are difficult to comprehend. But in the face of that judgment, what shines through most clearly – what we are intended to find in this story – is God’s desire that life should continue, that despite the persistence of human sinfulness the world is worth preserving! That God would follow an event of such raw sadness with words of promise and a renewal of humanity’s calling speaks volumes not only about the character of our God, but of the important role that we humans continue to play in the unfolding of creation’s story.

It’s that last point that looms large for us as we gather this weekend in observance of “God’s Work. Our Hands. Sunday”. In the story of Noah, the ark, the flood, and the promise that follows, God declares God’s intention to stay involved with this world, to identify with all creation, and to say once and for all that what God has made will never be destroyed by God’s hand. In fact, God’s decision never to destroy the earth again led to Jesus bearing the weight of our world’s brokenness on the cross for you and me and the whole creation! In Jesus Christ, the same God who spoke to Noah speaks anew to this and every generation, extending that gracious promise to us and to those who will follow. By the same token, this story of flood and promise reminds us that God’s will for creation is that it be fruitful and multiply and flourish, and that the primary responsibility for that flourishing is laid squarely at the feet of those creatures who bear the image of the creator: us. A quick survey of the news suggests that humanity continues to shirk that responsibility with alarming frequency and almost unfathomable consequences. People within and outside the church, even when we have the best of intentions, fall short of fulfilling that calling in ways too many to number. As members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, we acknowledge that fact, even as our church’s slogan – “God’s Work. Our Hands.” – signals that we endeavor to take our responsibility seriously. We who have been called by Christ in the waters of baptism, freed by the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, and fed at the Lord’s table with the bread of life and cup of salvation are sent out to partner with God in caring for the community of creation – not only our brothers and sisters and neighbors near and far, but also our fellow creatures and the home that we all share. We won’t always (or ever) do that perfectly, but we go out to do so with the confidence that the one who has called us to this work has also promised never to turn his back on us.

This weekend we will put our hands to work in service to God and our neighbors and enjoy the goodness of creation when we break bread together. As our congregation prepares for this time of service and fellowship, may the story of Noah and the symbol of the rainbow remind us of the grace God showers upon us and the whole creation, and may we be moved to respond to that grace with our whole lives. Thank you for your willingness to serve in all the ways you do each day, and thanks be to God for this calling to be church for the sake of the world. Amen.

YHWH is how many scholars reproduce the Hebrew text of God’s personal name. The pronunciation of this name is deemed too holy for many Hebrew speakers, and, in any case, we are unsure how it is truly pronounced. Most modern English translations render this name by substituting “the LORD”; older ones rendered it “Jehovah”.

** Genesis 6:5-7, Everett Fox, trans., The Five Books of Moses, Schocken Books (New York: 1995).

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 22) – Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sunday’s Readings:

Jeremiah 15:15-21
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

 Earlier this summer, I was listening to a soccer match on the radio while I was cooking dinner. It was the US Men’s National Soccer Team, playing a crucial match against Portugal in the World Cup, the biggest and most-watched sporting event on the planet. The US was ahead and closing in on a victory that would have clinched a berth in the next round. With the game pretty much in hand, I started talking to Katie and focusing more on dinner, when I suddenly noticed the announcers talking excitedly. The next thing I knew, a goal had been scored, and I threw my hands up, thinking that the US had gotten a second goal and sealed the win. Seconds later, however, I realized I was wrong. It was Portugal who had scored a late goal, tying the game and making things much more difficult for the US team going forward in the tournament. The fact that the US had given up that late goal was bad enough, but what made it worse for me was the fact that I had been so excited about what I thought had happened.

Take that feeling and multiply it 10, 20, or 100 times, and you might begin to approach how the disciples must have felt when they heard what Jesus had to say in this morning’s gospel reading. Just minutes before, as we heard in last week’s gospel, Jesus had congratulated Simon Peter for his bold confession that he believed his teacher to be the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God., and this knowledge surely excited the disciples to no end. They were following God’s Son! The time was finally coming for Israel to be delivered, for all their people’s suffering to be ended, for the Romans and any other powers that threatened God’s people to be defeated and sent packing. This was what they had all been waiting for, for as long as they could remember. Then, in an instant, Jesus dashed their hopes, trading their dreams of victory and peace for a harsh prediction of more suffering, more shame, and the death of their beloved teacher. It was too much for Simon to take.

Jesus has strong words for Simon after he is taken aside and scolded for his talk of what will happen to him in Jerusalem, and rightly so. But can we really blame Peter for his reaction? We, too, live in a world in which it seems that the forces of sin, death, and the devil are winning the fight. War continues to rage between nations and people, sometimes by those who twist and disfigure peaceful religions to suit their own quests for power and influence. Fear and mistrust continue to rear their ugly heads within our own nation, and calls for justice are met with overwhelming force. Disease ravages our brothers and sisters in West Africa, and even attempts to raise awareness and money to battle conditions like ALS – through campaigns like the Ice Bucket Challenge – are met with scorn and condescension. What so many of us crave is exactly the kind of divine intervention that Simon Peter and the disciples wanted from Jesus: swift, complete, and lasting victory that puts an end to everything that afflicts us and this world.

But we don’t worship that kind of God, the kind who sweeps down in anger and vengeance to strike violently and obliterate people who are often acting out of ignorance and fear. The God who came to live among us in the person of Jesus wields power in ways that are much more subtle, ways that allow for transformation and rebirth and renewal – see the centurion at the cross who participated in the crucifixion of Jesus before he realized that the man on the cross was truly God’s Son. We worship the God whose presence and power took on human form, and who willingly suffered death and rose again so that we might know that death doesn’t have the final word – see the disciples transformed by their encounters with the risen Christ. We worship the one who walked in our midst to show us what God’s love looks like in real life, love that risks vulnerability and the possibility of pain, love that doesn’t follow the rules for their own sake, love that breaks down barriers and changes lives – see the apostle Paul, who turned from persecutor of the church to proclaimer of Christ.

As disciples of Jesus, we are called by our Lord to bear the cross, to recognize that lives lived in pursuit of justice and peace and love are far from safe, but that they also have the potential to change the world. As we deny ourselves – laying aside the desire for more power, more influence, higher status, the need to be right – we make room in our lives for the kind of love that Paul talks about in our second reading. Let’s look back at that passage again:

9Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Pick just one of these examples of authentic love and imagine how it might transform one of your relationships! Think about how each one of them requires something in us to die, and how that death can bring forth new life. Remember that we are called to live this way, not so that God will love us more (as if that was possible), but so that others might recognize God’s presence and know that love for themselves. Ponder how this kind of love can make a difference in our community, our state, our nation, our world!

Brothers and sisters, today’s gospel reading may have dashed Simon’s expectations, but it also represents our hope and our calling in the world. As we go forth to live as disciples of Jesus this week, may God grant us the strength to follow the way of the cross and show genuine love to all, so that the grace of our Lord Jesus might be known in every place, and the reign of God might be revealed throughout the world. Amen.

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 19) – Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sunday’s Readings:
1 Kings 19:9-18
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. +

 You can’t blame the disciples for being at least a little freaked out. It’s true that at least a few of them were seasoned fishermen who were likely well acquainted with the sudden storms that swept across the Galilean lake from time to time. It’s also true that those fishermen were no strangers to being out on the water in the middle of the night, working late to try to bring in a big catch so that they could relax during the hotter daylight hours. Matthew even tells the tale of another instance in which the disciples were caught out in a boat on a rough sea and needed a little divine intervention to get them out of that difficult spot. This wouldn’t have been uncharted territory for the disciples if not for one crucial fact: during this late-night voyage, Jesus wasn’t in the boat. He wasn’t even in the neighborhood. For all they knew, Jesus was still miles away, and they were trapped on a boat that was being tossed around like a rag doll. In fact, the original Greek text seems to indicate that this was no ordinary storm; the words used to describe the plight of the disciples and their boat are the same ones used to describe the experience of people who are being tormented by demons or evil spirits. That’s the situation faced by these twelve men: in the darkest part of the night, sometime between 3am and 6am, they were being thrown about by a storm, when through the mist they spotted the faint outline of a figure walking across the water toward them. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I would have reacted much the same way that those disciples did: with fear and trembling.

The disciples had no way of knowing that the shadowy figure that was approaching them on the waves was Jesus. That is, of course, until Jesus addressed them: “Take heart! It’s me! Don’t be afraid!” It’s exactly the kind of thing you’d expect Jesus to say, and yet the circumstances were just too extreme to allow them to believe that it was really him. At least not without a test. So Peter opened up his big mouth and asked for a sign: Lord, if it really is you, order me to come to you on the water! Jesus indulged him: Come on, then! And he did. He stepped out of the boat, got a few steps into his walk toward Jesus, then remembered where he was and plummeted into the crashing waves. It’s a wonder he was able to say anything at all, but he somehow managed to sputter, Lord, save me! Wouldn’t you know it? Jesus did just that. He reached down, dragged him out of the water and into the boat, and then climbed in himself. It was only then that the wind ceased, the waves begin to calm, and the disciples could make their way back to land.

So often when this story is read it turns into a sort of object lesson: Be like Peter, but not too much! Take that first step out of the boat, but keep your eyes fixed on Jesus or you’re going ot be in real trouble! We read the Lord’s response to Peter’s flailing and sinking as accusatory: You of little faith, why did you doubt? And subconsciously we convince ourselves that the problems we face are somehow our own fault, as if having more faith would prevent us from being buffeted about by the storms that sweep into our own lives from time to time and knock us off our feet. I think I’ve even preached this text that way before! I’m not sure, however, that that’s a helpful way to read this story. Consider this: There was no relationship between the disciples’ faith and the storm that threatened to overwhelm them. They were simply following the command of their teacher when it hit, and they tried everything in their power to navigate on their own. The storm just happened. So is there anything to learn about faith from this story? I think so, but I think what we have to learn less about the quality of our own faith and more about the kind of God who calls us to trust. In that earlier story I mentioned, when the disciples needed Jesus to bail them out of another storm, they responded when he spoke to the waves by asking, “What kind of man is this that the wind and the waves obey him?” We might ask the same sort of questions today. What kind of man is this? What kind of God is this? Scripture testifies that the God who calls us to faith is a God who isn’t content to leave us alone in the midst of the chaos. This God is the one who strides across and through the waves to speak words of peace and strength to us: Take heart! It’s me! Don’t be afraid! This God is the one who came to live among us in the person of Jesus Christ, taking on our humanity and bearing our experience in all its heart-warming bliss and gut-wrenching sorrow into the very presence of God. This God is the one who suffered cross and grave and rose again so that we might be free to trust in God and not in ourselves.

Yes, we are called to faith. But our faith is often weak. We are tossed about by the changes and chances of life, by inexpressible joys and sighs too deep for words. Only one person in human history has demonstrated perfect obedience to the will of God, perfect faith in the one we call Father, and he did not escape this world’s brokenness any more than any of us have. That doesn’t mean that faith is irrelevant or insignificant, but that what makes our faith meaningful is not how much of it we have or don’t have. Instead, what makes our faith meaningful is remembering the object of our faith, the one to whom we have been joined, the one who claims us for lives of costly service and priceless love and grace. It is that we have been bound up with Christ, the one who meets us in our need and speaks, not with a voice that shatters mountains or shakes the earth, but with a voice that carries through the storm: Take heart. It’s me. Don’t be afraid.

Brothers and sisters, today we are gathered in the presence of the one who promises to meet us when the waves threaten and offers us peace unlike any that this world can give. As we go out this week into an uncertain world, may the song on our lips speak not of the weakness of our own faith, but of Jesus, who calls us to trust and grants us the faith to proclaim: On Christ, the solid rock, we stand; all other ground is sinking sand! Thanks be to God! Amen.

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost (Lectionary 17) – Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday’s Readings:
1 Kings 3:5-12
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

This morning our gospel reading contains a selection of short stories or sayings from Jesus called parables. These parables form a large part of the teaching of Jesus that is recorded in Scripture, and from the very beginning they have fascinated those who heard them, because in many ways they defy our attempts to explain them completely or universally. The whole point of the parable is to make us think, to force us to ponder it from different angles and perspectives, to mine it for truth over and over again. In most cases, they have different things to teach us about their subject: in this morning’s case, the kingdom of heaven, or “Heaven’s Reign”. Let’s look, for example, at the parable of the mustard seed that leads off today’s reading from Matthew:

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.

Some people read this and focus on size: the mustard seed is tiny yet yields great results; in the same way, things that seem small and insignificant are capable of revealing God’s power and presence in unmistakable ways. Others think about the nature of mustard itself; one plant, left unchecked, will quickly take over a field, crowding out other, more desirable crops; in the same way, Heaven’s Reign is capable at any moment of spreading like a weed, engulfing the world with signs of God’s gracious will and abundant life. Still others, knowing something about the typical mustard plant, see the exaggeration Jesus uses as the main point; mustard doesn’t normally grow much larger than a medium-sized bush, so the image of a tree that can house all the birds of the air is intended to convey the idea that Heaven’s Reign surpasses our expectations, making the impossible possible. All that from a scant fifty-four words.

Besides all that, of course, what matters is not the mustard itself, but the reality that it points to: Heaven’s Reign, the rule of God that began to break into our world in the person of Jesus and continues to spread by the power of the Holy Spirit. So as we ponder this day what Heaven’s Reign looks like for us, I’d like to present two modern parables, informed by the experience I shared with those youth from our STSX3 group and the Nebraska Synod who “journeyed to Jersey” last week to accompany and serve victims of Hurricane Sandy, which struck the Atlantic Coast back in October 2012.

First, this one: The kingdom of heaven is like a postcard left on the doorstep of a home. Thousands of postcards, door-hangers, and brochures bearing this design were distributed by Nebraskans to homes throughout Ocean County, New Jersey. It wasn’t always the most interesting work. These youth often walked blocks without encountering anyone at home. They left thousands of these postcards at homes that suffered little or no damage in the storm, and hundreds at houses that had already been rebuilt completely. We slogged through heat and humidity to do it all, not knowing whether our work would make any difference at all; in truth, these cards could be easily mistaken for junk mail and thrown away with the coupons and store ads that also get dropped off on doorsteps all over that area. But friends, it did. After the first day, during which mission trip participants exhausted the entire supply of 5,000 door hangers we’d been given and left the Ocean County Long-Term Recovery Group scrambling for more literature for us to distribute, calls came flooding in from residents who had given up hope until they heard anew that message of hope: Help is here. We’re still moving forward together.

Or how about this one: The kingdom of heaven is like a familiar song being sung again and heard as if it had never been sung before. At the conclusion of our last work day, the whole Journey to Jersey crew – all 315 of us – gathered in red t-shirts (or other colored shirts bearing the fabled ‘Block N’ and marched down the boardwalk at Seaside Heights, NJ, holding signs with messages of support and singing:

Lean on me
when you’re not strong
and I’ll be your friend.
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘til I’m gonna need
somebody to lean on*

People stopped their shopping and swimming and stared as strangers sang of their commitment to share the load and lend a helping hand. It was a powerful experience to be a part of, but it was even more powerful to hear the stories that emerged of the impact that this song had on those who heard it. One of them involved an elderly couple who had come to visit the boardwalk that day, and who had just sat down on a bench with tears in their eyes. Their despair at feeling forgotten by the rest of the nation was overwhelming – until they saw the wave of red walking toward them and heard the strains of a song that told a different story. Suddenly, those tears were transformed, and hope that had been lost was renewed again.

Obviously, it would be all too easy to make this story about us and the work done by the youth of the Nebraska Synod and their leaders. Both of these stories, however, and both of the parables that came from them, point beyond the mere fact of our travel and work to the one who made all that possible. Those who traveled to New Jersey did so because they were called through the gospel to regard the interests of others as more important than their own. They heard the Scriptural teaching that love of God is bound up with the love of neighbors both near and far. The glimpses of the kingdom that we have experienced in our own lives – at the life-giving table of grace, in the renewing waters of baptism, in the word of forgiveness spoken and accepted, in the support given to one another as brothers and sisters – all these compelled us to go out and extend Heaven’s Reign to people who are still suffering, still recovering, still fighting the pain and struggle and loss unleashed upon them by that storm almost two years ago.

That Reign, of course, has not come in its fullness. When families in Central America are so desperate to find a safe place for their children at home that they send them hundreds of miles alone to seek safety in a foreign land, we know that Heaven’s Reign is not yet unopposed. When mistrust and prejudice and hatred lead people to exchange rocket fire instead of words, we know that sin’s grip on this world has not yet been relinquished for good. When the gap between rich and poor both in this country and around the world continues to grow, and lack of opportunity drives into people to lives of violence and crime, we know that the vision of harmony and abundance has not yet come to fruition. When disease continues to ravage families, communities, and entire nations, we know that life unending has not yet come to this broken world. And yet, in the midst of those realities – conflict and strife, hatred and war, injustice and poverty, disease and death – the Spirit of God is urging people to welcome the stranger, to raise the cry for peace alongside the wail of mourning, to bring an end to exploitation and increase opportunity for the poor and vulnerable, and to seek solutions and cures even as they pray for healing that surpasses understanding. Heaven’s Reign is at hand in the small and insignificant, in the invasive and sometimes undesirable, in those things that defy imagination and explanation and lead us to see the world in a new way.

Today, brothers and sisters, may we be inspired by these strange and beautiful stories of Heaven’s Reign to seek it above all else, and to pray not only that that reign would come to us, but also that God would make us partners in extending that reign to others. Thanks be to God for mustard seeds, postcards, and songs that remind us of the peace, hope, and joy that is God’s gift to us in Christ by the power of the Spirit. Amen.

* “Lean on Me”, lyrics by Bill Withers, 1971.

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost (Lectionary 15) – Sunday, July 15, 2014

Sunday’s Readings:

Isaiah 55:10-13
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Last Wednesday morning at the regular men’s coffee group that meets over in the Upper Room, the guys and I were talking about farming and weather and the unpredictability of the whole enterprise of being involved in agriculture. I probably don’t need to remind you that these kind of conversations are still relatively new to me; growing up in a city of over one million people miles from the nearest agricultural land doesn’t lend itself to a high level of awareness of the issues affecting communities like Falls City. You might be able to imagine my surprise, then, when they started talking about people who farm land that is located on a flood plain. It was just three years ago, in my first summer here in Southeast Nebraska, that our area dealt with extensive flooding that devastated communities and cut us off from our neighbors to the east for months. As the conversation went on this week, I found it difficult to understand the logic of planting crops in an area that has such a high probability of flooding. Why waste seed like that, knowing that there’s a good chance that you might suffer a devastating loss if the wrong conditions present themselves.

Leaving aside things like crop insurance (and the fact that farming pretty much anywhere is an exercise in managing risk), I was struck by how similar questions popped up when I considered this morning’s gospel reading. Let’s take a look at the picture Jesus paints of the sower in the parable he tells those crowds gathered on the lakeshore. This guy walks out into his fields with a sack of seed slung over his shoulder, reaches into the sack, and flings the seed far and wide as he walks along. He apparently doesn’t care where the seed actually ends up, so it lands on all these different types of soil: hard-packed earth beaten down by countless footsteps; ground dotted with rocks and stones; soil overgrown with thick thorns and weeds; and good rich soil capable of bringing forth an abundant harvest. He might as well be throwing the seed into the flood plain with dark clouds gathered on the horizon; much of it, after all, seems destined to turn into a whole lot of nothing. Why? What’s the point in being so careless with the seed, which isn’t free, and won’t do anything if it lands on unfertile ground?

Well, as the guys explained to me last week, the point is precisely this: Sure, there will be some years that don’t amount to anything. Sometimes those storm clouds will drop a bunch of rain and the river will climb over its banks and the crops will be flooded out. But sometimes they won’t, and in those years the effort expended in sowing that seed will be more than worth it. The same thing goes for the parable Jesus tells. Sure, that message about the kingdom will sometimes fall on deaf ears. Sometimes, it will come to people when they can’t understand it, when circumstances conspire to distract them from hearing words of grace and life, when the cares of this world prevent that word from taking root and flourishing. Sometimes that word comes to people who have been yearning to hear it, who are ready to receive it, and it bears a thirty or sixty or hundred-fold harvest of renewal and strength and encouragement and abundant life. No matter what, though, the sower keeps going out to the fields, day after day, and casting the seed abroad without regard, knowing that, in the words of Isaiah, it will not return empty.

That is a word of grace for all of us, because despite the temptation to read ourselves into this parable as the good soil that bears an abundant harvest, we know the truth about ourselves. More often than we’d like to admit, that word encounters us and goes right over our heads. Sometimes, try as we might, we are unprepared to hear the message of the kingdom, and so we miss the word that God is trying to sow in our hearts. At other times, we hear a message from the Lord and get fired up to make changes in our lives, and then we realize how difficult making that change is and lose our enthusiasm. At still other times, we hear something that sounds really good but we’re too weighed down by everything else that’s going on to truly receive that word, and it gets choked off by all the different forces that vie for our time and attention. Then, miracle of miracles, we hear that word that takes root deep within and begins to blossom and grow until we can barely contain it, and we experience the overwhelming power of this message that finds us where we are and opens up new possibilities for the future and new dimensions in our relationship with that extravagant sower.

I don’t know what kind of soil you are today. Whether you’re feeling beaten down, rocky, thorny, or pretty good, hear this word from our teacher and Lord: Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself, the message of God’s reign is for you. The time has been fulfilled, and the reign of God is at hand. Grace and love and abundant life are yours this day, not because of anything that you have done, but because God in Christ offers it to you and to all people without reserve. Even more, that offer is always on the table, always available even to those who don’t know that they need it.

Wait, what? Even to people who don’t know that they need it? How does that make any sense. Look no further than the font in front of you. Kase and Cabe will approach that font in just a few minutes with their parents and sponsors. They, like all who come for the Holy Baptism, have different levels of understanding about what they are receiving and why. They, like many who have come before them, will rely on others to help them comprehend the promises that are shared and the commitments that will be made this day. Yet, despite the fact that they may not be able to explain their need for grace, God offers it to them in this holy sacrament, in these waters that bear the Word of new life and forgiveness. So it is with each of us. Whether we are prepared to receive it or indifferent to it, the message is still spoken, and it still has the power to transform our lives for the better.

So, brothers and sisters, as we prepare to witness the Word planted in the hearts of these beloved children of God, let us bless God for the message that is so recklessly sown for the sake of the whole world, and let us pray these words from the beautiful hymn by Handt Hanson:

Lord, let my heart be good soil,
open to the seed of your word.
Lord, let my heart be good soil,
where love can grow and peace is understood.
When my heart is hard, break the stone away.
When my heart is cold, warm it with the day.
When my heart is lost, lead me on your way.
Lord, let my heart be good soil.

May it be so among us today and always, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost (Lectionary 14) – Sunday, July 6, 2014

Sunday’s Readings:

Zechariah 9:9-12
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

One of the most infuriating things about being the father of a two-and-a-half-year-old kid is the realization that that kid is smart enough to know that she wants something, but not rational enough yet to figure out what it is and be consistent about it. Let me explain what I mean: The other day we told Evie that she needed to pick up some of her toys before she could play with the ones she wanted to use. She very politely asked if I could help her, which I was more than happy to do. As soon as I started picking up a toy to put away, however, she yelled at me to stop and told me that she could do it all by herself. Then, when I put down the toy so that she could do it alone, she yelled at me again for not helping her!

What is a person supposed to do when they’re confronted with the kind of situation in which nothing is good enough? In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is trying to figure that out. He’s found himself confronted by a generation of people who don’t seem to be satisfied with anything. God has sent two contrasting messengers to bring news about how the reign of God is breaking out, and neither of them is really getting through to anyone. John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, came preaching a harsh and demanding message: “Examine yourselves, prepare your hearts, turn your lives around for the coming of God’s chosen one! The axe is lying at the root of the tree; don’t get chopped down!” Some were receptive to that message, but most ignored John as a madman whose proclamation could be easily ignored. Jesus, on the other hand, came with an expansive and inclusive message: “The time is fulfilled, the reign of God is at hand! Blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the humble, the lowly, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the persecuted, everyone despised by the world!” A lot of people got behind that message too, but there were some who thought that Jesus was going too far, that he had let his standards slip when he said that anyone was welcome to follow him.

You can imagine the frustration that Jesus must have felt in seeing both of these messages going unheeded! God was reaching out, calling the people to recognize that something big was going on, and so many people were so convinced that they already knew what God was doing that they didn’t pay attention to the new thing that was happening right in front of them. As the Gospel goes on, Jesus becomes more and more aggravated, calling that generation perverse and wicked, evil and blind. It would be easy for us to smile and shake our heads at the people who didn’t get it, who had all the signs right in front of them and to understand the significance of Jesus’ ministry. It just so happens, however, that “this generation” is also this generation. If the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the sending of the Holy Spirit mean anything, they mean that God isn’t finished speaking, that the signs of God’s presence that were witnessed by the generation that walked with Jesus didn’t stop once he was no longer bodily present. In too many ways to number, we are still “this generation”, the kind of people who can become so secure in our knowledge of what God must be doing that we can’t see God working through things that don’t fit our expectations. Yet, somehow, God seems insistent on eluding our boxes and labels, being at once too conservative and too liberal for us, surprising us with a gospel that both demands our all and gives us everything as a pure gift. Truth be told, those are two difficult ideas to hold together, and most of us find ourselves clinging more closely to one of those things than the other. Some people see the Christian life as a quest to follow rules as closely as we can, and imagine God as the stern taskmaster or the dutiful accountant who keeps records of everything we do. Others find the idea of God’s grace so intoxicating that they think it’s OK to do whatever they want without consequence, and they imagine God as the indulgent grandfather who overlooks our screw-ups and failures. Neither of these does justice to the picture of God we get in Scripture, nor to the gospel message that we are accepted as we are but not left to be who we once were.

It’s that surprising gospel message that we hear in the last three verses of our reading from Matthew today. Those verses are much beloved by many: Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. As comforting as it is to skip right to the part about finding rest, we do well not to skip over the part about the yoke. Jesus isn’t calling us to cast off all our cares and burdens and responsibilities – as if that could even be possible. He uses the image of a yoke – not the kind of yoke that enables two or more animals to share the load and pull together, but the kind of yoke for a single person, laid across the shoulders to help manage a load individually. There is still something being laid upon us: this way of discipleship that offers us both freedom from the task of saving ourselves by our own words and deeds and the obligation to bear the cross and die to our selfish desires each day. The promise is not that discipleship will result in carefree living, but that the way of life Jesus offers to us will “wear well”, that those burdens and responsibilities will somehow be easier to bear as we follow our teacher and Lord. The path we’re walking in pursuit of Jesus is not an easy one, and yet it is a better road for us to walk than the one we create for ourselves when we’re convinced that we know the way forward on our own.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, today’s gospel reading calls us to beware the temptation to be “that generation” who creates God in our own image. May we be like infants, who receive the signs of God’s power and presence breaking out in our world with wonder and amazement. May we refuse to be people who are never satisfied with the ways God’s truth comes to us in Jesus by the power of the Spirit. May we willingly take on the yoke of our teacher, knowing that that yoke will not release us from our burdens, but enable us to carry them with God’s grace and Christ’s strength into the future that God is preparing for us. Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Peter and Paul, Apostles – Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sunday’s Readings:

Acts 12:1-11
Psalm 87:1-3, 5-7 (3)
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18
John 21:15-19

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

 Tradition tells us that it was on this day in the year 67 that two of the most important figures in the early church, the apostles Peter and Paul, were martyred in the city of Rome. Our building bears witness both to their significant ministries and to the manner of their deaths in stained glass images. Peter is represented here in the first window here on the east wall, with the combined symbols of crossed keys and the upside-down cross, said to be the instrument of his execution. Why an upside down cross? The story goes that Peter requested it himself, believing himself unworthy to die in the same manner as his Lord Jesus. Paul’s emblem is preserved in the window at the south end of the upper room, consisting of an open book with the words Spiritus Gladius, or “Sword of the Spirit” and a two-edged sword, the preferred method of executing Roman citizens like Paul. From very early on in the church’s history (at least as early as the year 258), the tradition regarding their deaths on the same day has led to their being remembered and celebrated together on June 29, but in another respect it is an odd thing that that they should share a day of celebration. After all, Peter and Paul found themselves opposed to one another fairly early in the church’s history. Acts recounts the story of the conflict as a disagreement about membership in the church, with Peter believing that Gentiles should be required to accept certain marks of Jewish identity to be considered Christian and Paul arguing that accepting the Gospel was the only condition for being welcomed into fellowship. The disagreement was bitter, and eventually led to a sort of stalemate: Peter would take charge of the mission to the Jewish people, while Paul would be responsible for the mission to the other nations of the world. Other parts of Scripture bear witness to the on-going feud, with Paul’s letters accusing Peter of hypocrisy regarding Gentile Christians and letters bearing Peter’s name panning the writings of Paul as too difficult to understand.

Clearly, despite their disagreement, these two figures were vitally important to the church’s growth during its earliest years. So what can we learn from these saints of God, whose lives bear witness to the power of the gospel?

First, we each need to be reminded that the central truth of their lives is also the central truth of our own: It is not our own power or ability that saves us, but the love of God in Christ that comes to us and establishes our relationship with God. Peter came from humble beginnings as a fisherman to be numbered among the foremost of the apostles, while Paul’s high status among the authorities in Jerusalem ultimately meant nothing when it came to his position before God.

Second, the lives of Peter and Paul remind us that the life of discipleship is costly. As much as we would like to think that following Jesus is the path to blissful, care-free living, Scripture teaches us otherwise. The apostles we remember today show us what it means to bear the cross, to pour ourselves out so that others might know the love and grace of God, to give without counting the cost. Though few – if any of us – will ever find ourselves in the position of facing death in service to the gospel, faithfulness may require us to take a stand before the powers-that-be, to speak a word of truth that might stir up division and conflict, to be willing to sacrifice our comfort or respectability for the sake of others. Because of the example of Peter and Paul, we know that this kind of discipleship is not only possible, but it is the kind of life that can change the world for good.

Third, the fact of their disagreement on an issue of vital importance to the early church demonstrates something about the church in the present: namely, that our unity is in Christ, and in our being joined to his crucified and risen life in the waters of baptism. The church in general (and our own ELCA in particular) is a body of unique individuals with widely varied understandings of significance parts of the life of faith, and yet our common identity as God’s people can transcend those disagreements, so that we see them as evidence of diversity to be celebrated rather than as obstacles to be overcome or eliminated.

Finally, we can draw strength from Scripture’s insistence that the one who calls us to share and serve is faithful, and that even our moments of greatest weakness are not enough to prevent God’s will from being done through us. Peter, of course, might best be remembered for his denial of Jesus on the night of his betrayal, an act of cowardice and self-preservation that could have derailed his ministry forever. Paul, on the other hand, witnesses with approval the execution of Stephen, the church’s first martyr, and was regarded as one of the foremost enemies of the church. God, however, would not allow either of them to be defined by their failures. Instead, each of them was changed by the grace of God and freed from their shame so that they could become powerful witnesses to the good news of Jesus. Today’s Gospel reading, for example, represents the undoing of Peter’s denial of Jesus: for each instance of betrayal on that fateful night, Peter is given an opportunity to profess his love for Jesus and a command to serve his brothers and sisters. In the same way, the second reading represents Paul’s testimony about his calling to preach the gospel and his confidence that God would strengthen him for the work of proclaiming the good news to the world. So it is with us. Each of us have been called to share the gospel in word and deed, and each of us struggles to overcome all the obstacles to that calling – like pride, fear, anxiety, shame, or doubt. Like Peter and Paul, we have also been united with Christ and assured of his presence with us, and so we can go out with good courage as they did, knowing that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Brothers and sisters, with the whole church we celebrate the example of our forerunners in the faith, the apostles Peter and Paul. May we be inspired by that example to bear the good news in everything we say and do, so that all the world might come to know God’s grace and life. For the lives of Peter and Paul and all the saints, and for divine love made flesh in Jesus Christ that frees us to love others in return: Thanks be to God! Amen.

Second Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 12) – Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sunday’s Readings:

Jeremiah 20:7-13
Psalm 69:7-10 [11-15] 16-18 (16)
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

 This morning marks the beginning of the “Time after Pentecost”, that long stretch of time following the celebration of Easter and Pentecost in which the church reflects on the gift and challenge of life lived in light of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Throughout this time we’ll be asking, in one form or another, a crucial question: What does discipleship look like? Our readings for today, especially that gospel reading from Matthew, make it clear that the answer to that question is neither easy nor readily apparent. Listen again to part of the challenge that Jesus lays before his disciples (and us):

34Don’t suppose that I came to scatter peace upon the earth. I didn’t come to scatter peace, but to wield a sword! 35Indeed, I’ve come to separate a man from his father, a daughter from her mother, and a daughter-in-law from her mother-in-law. 36A person’s enemies will live within their own household! 37The one who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and the one who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38The one who doesn’t take up his or her cross and follow after me is also not worthy of me. 39The one who finds his life will lose it; the one who loses her life for my sake will find it.

If you think these words sound out of character for Jesus, you’re not alone. It’s difficult to reconcile sayings like these with others that are recorded elsewhere in Matthew. How can Jesus say “Blessed are the peacemakers” and then turn around and claim that he came to bring sword and division? How can the one who urges us to love our enemies caution us against loving our families too much? What was Jesus trying to teach those first disciples, and what word is he speaking to us, his present-day disciples?

Let’s start with the first part of that question. Jesus lived and preached in a society in which one’s primary identity was bound up with family. One’s place in society was determined almost exclusively by one’s family of origin, and bringing honor to one’s family was considered the highest possible social good. Obedience to God was undoubtedly important, but it was difficult for most people to imagine a scenario in which obedience to God and allegiance to family would have conflicted with one another. Jesus, of course, demonstrated the potential conflict at an early age. Matthew tells the story of Jesus and his family traveling to Jerusalem for one of the annual pilgrim festivals. The family does their religious duty, and at the end of the festival turns around and heads for home. About a day into the trip, Jesus’ parents realize that something’s not right: the boy isn’t with their traveling party! They frantically return to the holy city and search for their son, eventually finding him engaged in conversation and debate over the meaning of Scripture with the elders and legal scholars who gathered in the temple. When confronted with his parents’ anger at his disobedience, he responded by questioning them: “Didn’t you know that I needed to be about my Father’s business?” In a society that took for granted the easy identification between obedience to parents and God, Jesus’ teaching is a shocking word. The problem, of course, wasn’t that family was a bad thing; in fact, elsewhere in Matthew Jesus calls people to task for not honoring their commitments to family out of selfishness. The problem was that it was all too easy for people to make decisions based on what would honor one’s family rather than on what would demonstrate trust in Jesus. For those first disciples, there was a very real possibility that a disciple would have to make a choice between family and discipleship, and Jesus makes clear that allegiance to him needed to take priority.

So what are we to make of Jesus’ words today? Is Jesus telling us that we should expect the Gospel to cause conflict in our families? I don’t think so. Generally speaking, we don’t have to make a choice between loving our families and following Jesus. For the vast majority of us, putting those things in opposition represents a false choice, though it’s perhaps not difficult to imagine a scenario in which we might need to choose. More likely, however, we’ll need to think differently about the challenge that Jesus lays before us as present-day disciples. If family was the highest good in the first century, what might be the equivalent for us as twenty-first century American Christians? What sorts of things are vying for our attention or our allegiance as we think about the kind of costly discipleship Jesus is calling us to embrace? What would Jesus’ teaching sound like in our context? Whoever loves their individual freedom more than me is not worthy of me? Whoever loves their wealth more than me? Whoever loves their political ideology or party affiliation more than me? Whoever loves their reputation more than me? Whoever loves their country more than me? Again, the problem isn’t that these things are bad in themselves, but that they are often valued so highly that honoring them might create conflict with the call to follow Jesus Christ. However you might fill in the blank, Jesus’ call for us to take up the cross is the call for us to set aside anything else that might rival our allegiance to him.

Alongside the challenge laid down by Jesus in Matthew is the reality that Paul writes about in our second reading from Romans. He writes, “Don’t you know that those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have also been baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried together with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, thus we might also walk in a new kind of life. 5For since we have become one with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also become one with him in his resurrection.” We who follow Jesus are called to live cross-shaped lives, lives that bear witness to the truth that in Christ we have died to everything that keeps us from relationship with God. Later, Paul writes that we no longer live independently; instead, our lives are bound up with Christ, who loves us and lives in us every moment of every day. The challenge for us, then, is not to jettison everything else we love, but to place everything else in the proper relationship to the one who dwells within us by the power of the Holy Spirit. To go back to our earlier examples, we are called, not to reject everything that isn’t Jesus, but to ask ourselves “How is Christ calling me to be obedient in relationship to everything?” How does following Jesus change how I exercise my individual freedom? How does following Jesus change how I think about and use my income or wealth? In what ways do I value being accepted by others more than faithfulness to God in Christ? What difference does it make to think of myself as a Christian first and an American second? Each of us may need to ask a different set of questions, but all of us will have to think deeply about the challenge of discipleship.

As we do so, let us remember that challenge is always accompanied by promise. In Romans, we are reminded of the hope that sustains us as we do the difficult work of bearing the cross, or, as Luther puts, the work of dying to self each day. That hope is this: that we who have been united with Jesus in his death will also be united with him in his resurrection, that God is drawing us from death into life that matters now and lasts into eternity. In Matthew, alongside the hard saying about bearing the cross is that wonderful declaration: that God the Father has numbered the hairs on our heads and cares for us deeply and passionately, that none of the pain or failure we experience is unknown or unimportant to God. Above all, brothers and sisters, Scripture proclaims the profound truth that we are not alone as we ponder our priorities. Jesus goes ahead of us, giving us the guidance and the grace to take up the cross that calls for an end to business as usual, even as he dwells within us, showing us the way through that death into real and abundant life. Thanks be to God! Amen.

The Holy Trinity – Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sunday’s Readings:

Genesis 1:1—2:4a
Psalm 8 (1)
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Almost exactly three years ago today, on June 19, 2011, I was sitting in the pews of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Southfield, Michigan, the congregation where I grew up and was raised in the Christian faith. That Sunday morning, I had the joy of worshipping with the people who had supported me during the first eighteen years of my journey, and that afternoon I was privileged to be ordained into the ministry of Word and Sacrament as those same people surrounded me with their prayers. One of the most interesting things about that day was that, like this weekend, the church was celebrating both Father’s Day and Holy Trinity Sunday, which for me was either an incredible coincidence or evidence that God might just be behind this whole pastor thing after all. You see, though I rarely missed a Sunday at Emmanuel and had great pastors throughout all those years of growing in the faith, it was my dad who first got me thinking about the doctrine of the Trinity as something that really mattered. My memory is a little fuzzy on the details of how that happened – I seem to recall my dad had been approached by a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, though I can’t be sure about that – but I am absolutely clear on what my dad said about how he had ended the conversation. He said very matter-of-factly that because the person he was talking to didn’t believe in the Trinity, there was very little else for them to talk about. I don’t think my dad was being rude. I think that there was something so essential about this point of the Christian faith – that, as one of the ancient creeds of the church states, “we worship one God in Trinity, and the Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the divine being” – that he simply had no interest in compromising that belief, even if there might have been agreement about other important matters of the faith.

Back then, of course, I didn’t really understand what the big deal was. Sure, I’d been professing my own belief in God as Trinity my whole life. I don’t suppose I was as aware of it as I am now, but looking back it’s easy to see that references to the three persons of God permeated our worship services each Sunday, even as they do for us today:

  • The beginning of the order of confession and forgiveness invokes the Holy Trinity.
  • The Apostolic Greeting, which is taken from today’s second reading from Second Corinthians, evokes the Trinity in referring to “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.”
  • The Prayer of the Day often ends with references to all three persons of the Trinity.
  • The Creeds each lead us to proclaim our faith in the God who exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Despite all that, I just can’t say that I ever considered this belief to be important until my dad talked so bluntly about his insistence on the truth of that teaching.

As we gather this weekend to reflect on the Holy Trinity, this mystery that has confounded all attempts to explain it from the very beginning, perhaps you’re like me, and you wonder if this whole Trinity thing is really all that important. After all, the word Trinity doesn’t actually appear anywhere in the Bible. There is no single place in Scripture in which this doctrine is present in any concrete way. One of the criticisms of this belief is the idea that it developed relatively late in the life of the church, a claim that is partially true; in fact, it wasn’t until the year 381 that the vast majority of the Christian Church agreed that this belief would be part of their profession of faith. So let’s go back to the question from the younger me: What’s the big deal?

To answer that, let’s take a brief look at our Gospel reading from Matthew. Jesus and his disciples are gathered on a mountain in Galilee, where he commanded them to go after the resurrection. On that mountain, Jesus gives what has come to be referred to by the church as “the Great Commission”, the last set of marching orders received from Jesus before he ascended to the right hand of God: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” You can probably guess where we’re going. Jesus commands his disciples (and all those who would come to believe because of their testimony) to go out into the world and, through baptism, join people to the community of faith that has formed under the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

In his reflection on this passage, Pastor Steven Eason invites us to consider the significance of this baptism into the Triune God by asking the following: What if we baptized people only in the name of the Father? Or only in the name of the Son? Or only in the name of the Holy Spirit? Eason argues that Scripture testifies to the experience of God in each of these persons. We experience God as Father when we reflect on the fact of our createdness, when we wonder at the mystery of creation and the vastness of God’s majesty and glory. We experience God as Son when we reflect on the story of Christ, when we marvel at the fact that God became human in the person of Jesus, taking on our humanity, showing us the love of God by his obedient suffering and death for our sake, and revealing God’s power and victory in his resurrection and ascension. We experience God as Holy Spirit when we reflect on the ways that God continues to be present to us now, inspiring us to new ways of thinking and doing as the people of God, surrounding us with comfort and peace in times of anxiety and trouble, and dwelling within us to assure us of God’s concern for us every moment. Each person of the Trinity is fully involved in all of this work, but this language gives us handles for wrapping our minds around all the different ways that we experience the power and presence of God in our lives.

In the end, the big deal about the Trinity is that it is our best guess at explaining how God has acted in history to create, redeem, and save us and the world. So we continue to name God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to invite people into relationship with that God, because the truth of our life lived in that relationship is powerful, even if our way of describing it is impossible to fully understand. This weekend, we rejoice as we continue to fulfill the commission that Jesus gave us: the calling to go, make disciples, baptize, and teach. We celebrate with Helen as she receives the gift of baptism, declaring her desire to be joined to this community of faith that, in the words of Pastor David Lose, has been “called and sent by the Holy Spirit to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed for the sake of the world God created and loves so much.”* Most of all, we give thanks for the many ways that we continue to be invited into the life of the Triune God, surrounded with divine love and grace, and sent out to make that love and grace known each new day. All praise to you, blessed and Holy Trinity, today and always. Amen!

*David Lose, “Trinitarian Congregations”, Dear Working Preacher, June 9, 2014.