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.