Tag Archives: Sermon

Day of Pentecost – Sunday, June 8, 2014

Sunday’s Readings:

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23

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

“‘It will be in the last days,’ God says, ‘that I pour out my Spirit upon all people! Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams! 18Even upon my slaves, both male and female, I will pour out my Spirit, and they will prophesy!

I have a bad habit of staying up later than I should. With two kids under three in the house, you would think that I would take every opportunity I can to get sleep, but unfortunately I rarely find myself going to bed at a reasonable hour. One of the problems I have with staying up late is that I usually fill the time watching TV, and there is very little on TV that is worth watching after midnight. So when I get tired of watching sports highlights on a loop, I’ll sometimes flip over to that set of channels on our cable package that features Christian programming, and I’m sorry to say that I don’t often find what’s on that time of night on those channels compelling, either. I’ve frequently run into programs that talk about the fact that we are, as the prophet Joel above says, “in the ‘last days’”. What makes those programs so frustrating to watch is that this message about the last days is usually presented in the most frightening way possible. Current events are shoehorned into an end-times calendar that sounds like a horror show, with war and famine and pestilence and human sinfulness being presented as conclusive proof that the world as we know it is going to hell in a hand basket. Often, those determinations are made by comparing the events of today to the rosy picture painted of years gone by.

Lest you think this is an attitude that is prevalent only on late-night fundamentalist TV, I can assure you that this type of thinking is surprisingly mainstream. All of us have a tendency to look at the world around us and focus on all the ways it isn’t the way it used to be, usually with the implicit understanding that this is a terrible thing. I don’t say this to pick on anybody; I do the same thing when I’m talking to high school classmates or college friends, bemoaning the fact that those respective schools have gone downhill in just the last decade. I can only imagine how people can look at the massive changes over twenty, forty, sixty, or eighty years and long for the way things used to be.

As Christians, we pretty much universally believe that we are living in the last days, and many of our brothers and sisters marry that belief with resignation, convinced that we have nowhere to go but down. That resignation belies what the Bible says about the last days; namely that we are in them not because the world is more evil than it was during some imagined time of peace and harmony, but because the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus were the beginning of the end for the powers of sin, death, and the devil. The “last days” language is intended to be a source of strength for Christians, a reminder that the forces of evil are doing their worst because they know their days are numbered. So on this Day of Pentecost, as we reflect on these words from the prophet Joel and on the significance of the gift of the Holy Spirit, I’d like to invite us to think about these “last days” not with a spirit of fear and trembling, but with a different kind of Spirit. When Peter raised his voice on that first Pentecost and addressed the crowds, he invoked the prophetic image of the last days, not as a way of signaling decline or anxiety about the unknown, but as a way of describing the possibilities that lay before the Church as the Spirit of God descended upon the apostles and empowered them to boldly proclaim the mighty deeds of God. The “last days” were seen as a time of promise, in which visions and dreams would unfold as God’s Spirit caused the message about Jesus (and the presence of Jesus) to be spread abroad, capturing the imaginations and hearts of people from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. So often, we hear these stories and consign them to the past, imagining that only the apostles were heirs of such life-changing power. That just isn’t true! The gospel is exploding throughout the world. In South and Southeast Asia, throughout Africa, and in South and Central America, the Spirit’s power is being unleashed, and more and more people are being changed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In our own country, we have certainly seen dramatic decline in church participation, but it’s important to put the current trends in perspective. The “golden age of the church” to which so many of us look with longing was unprecedented in the history of the world or the church. We experienced levels of church attendance, participation, and commitment that have never been seen before anywhere! In fact, at present the percentage of people who attend church regularly in the United States is roughly the same as it was at the time of the American Revolution! What do we do with that kind of information? Do we see it as evidence of moral and spiritual decline in our society, or as an opportunity to renew and reinvigorate our proclamation of the gospel? Should we fall into the trap of hopelessly trying to recapture what once was, or should we look for evidence that the Spirit is leading us to dream big, to work together to cast a vision for the work of the church in our time and place?

As Lutheran Christians, claimed by Christ in the waters of Holy Baptism and filled with the same Holy Spirit that descended upon those first apostles, we have a great gift to give this world. In a culture that demands results and punishes failure with swift and unrelenting judgment, we have good news to share: that our worth is not dependent on our strength or skill or income or perceived value to society, but on the surpassing love of God who calls us holy, precious, honored, loved, and redeemed! In a society that thrives on fear, ignorance, and misunderstanding, we have good news to share: that our lives have been transformed by God’s amazing grace, and that this same grace is freely offered to all people, everywhere. In a world mired in despair and longing, we have good news to share: that the Spirit of God that hovered over the waters at creation is still moving in our world, transforming despair into hope, fear into friendship, and death into life. In a world where people hunger for lives of meaning and significance, we have good news to share: that God is calling us to pour ourselves out for the sake of our neighbors, friends, and families, bearing in our own bodies the love, peace, and joy of life with Christ.

This isn’t just hypothetical, either. There are so many stories that reveal how the Gospel is inspiring Christians and people of good will to partner with God in transforming the world around us that I can only begin to scratch the surface. Reminded of our communion with God’s people throughout the world, the ELCA and its partners are making real and tangible progress toward the goal of eradicating malaria in Africa. Renewed in our commitment to healing and wholeness, Lutherans continue to be at the forefront of efforts to provide medical care in places of desperate need, like the Augusta Victoria Hospital in the Palestinian Territories.  Compelled by our calling to serve our neighbors, our own Nebraska Synod has built a network of agencies and ministries that serves more people throughout our state than any other group! In these ways and so many more, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is speaking powerfully into the lives of people all over the world and transforming that world each and every day.

All of this isn’t to say, of course, that we don’t have any more work to do. Like the first apostles, we have been given the Spirit of the Living God, and we have a choice: will we become depressed and cynical because we’re trying to recapture those days gone by and settle for decrying the state of the world around us, or will we endeavor to see visions and dream dreams of Christ’s body using the many and varied gifts that we have been given to proclaim the good news of Jesus to a world that needs to hear of God’s love and grace? I don’t know about you, but I have the sense that the Spirit is on the move here at St. Paul’s, and that we are on the verge of something new and exciting as a congregation. I’m not sure what it is yet, but on this Day of Pentecost, as we join together in affirming the gift of baptism that has been poured out upon us as individuals and as a community, let us pray that God will grant us the grace and strength to imagine what’s possible for us as God’s people in the Falls City area. Let us continue asking how the Spirit is calling us to be Christ for the world in these last days. Let us trust in the power of the Spirit to guide us into a future filled with promise and hope. Let us give thanks for the joyful and holy task of being the church. The Spirit is here! Thanks be to God! Amen.

Ascension of Our Lord – Sunday, June 1, 2014

 Sunday’s Readings:

Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53

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

It’s never easy to say goodbye to the people we love. When someone comes to be such an important part of your life that you can’t imagine what things would be like without them, and then you are forced to reckon with their absence, there is always a void, even in those situations when you know their absence is temporary. Anyone who has ever had to endure the pain of absence knows this truth all too well. Today we gather for what I would call one of the most counter-intuitive festivals of the Christian year: the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord. Knowing what we know about the heartache of saying goodbye, it seems odd that we would set aside time to reflect on – and, in truth, to celebrate – the absence of Jesus.

Our readings walk the line between the two reactions that have characterized this observance: reverence, sadness, and fear at the departure of Jesus, as well as overwhelming joy and an outpouring of praise.  The first reaction seems obvious. The apostles and their company, the people who had walked alongside Jesus throughout his ministry of healing and teaching and preaching, who had seen their lives shattered at the sight of their Lord hanging on the cross, and who had been witnesses of the resurrected Christ, must have found it difficult to watch him leave them again. That seems to be the theme in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. There’s a reason those two angels needed to show up and bring the apostles back to reality: they were stuck, already yearning for Jesus even as he ascended from them, fearful that the commission that he had just given them would be too difficult for them to take on without his presence among them. They needed to hear the words of those heavenly messengers to move on: “Men of Galilee, what do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven!”

So that’s Acts, with its record of the apostles’ understandable reaction to the ascension of Jesus. But then we turn to Luke, and see something entirely different. The stage is set up exactly the same way: Jesus leads the apostles out of Jerusalem, instructs them to return to the Holy City and remain there until the Father’s promise is fulfilled, and then is carried up into heaven as he blesses his followers. Here, however, there is no mention of the disciples lingering in that spot, gazing into the heavens with heavy hearts. No, here the apostles head back to Jerusalem straightaway, with great joy, and they commit themselves to spending their days in the temple praising God for everything they had seen and heard! How do we explain the fact that Scripture contains two accounts of the ascension, written by the same author, recording two completely different reactions to the reality of Jesus’ absence?

Maybe we don’t need to. Each of these accounts represent an authentic response to the ascension of Jesus. The Church’s ancient prayer – Come, Lord Jesus – contains the longing we share for the bodily presence of Jesus to be restored to us, so that God’s will for the world might be fulfilled. At the same time, there is a long history in the Church of celebrating this festival with great enthusiasm and fervor. Why? What is there to celebrate about the Ascension of Jesus? What good could possibly come from the absence of God incarnate? Mark Oldenburg, professor of worship at Gettysburg Seminary, proposes the following theme for the observance of the Ascension: In his glory, we and Christ are together. That reality, it turns out, is good enough to totally justify every bit of that celebration and joy.

Despite the fact that Jesus is God, and though we claim that God is capable of anything, there is no story anywhere in Scripture of Jesus appearing in multiple places at once. When God walked among us in the person of Jesus, the presence of Jesus was limited to wherever Jesus happened to be at the time. When Jesus ascended to the right hand of God – as Paul asserts in the second reading from Ephesians and we affirm in the creeds of the Church – that presence was unleashed. No longer was it necessary to gather around the person of Jesus; instead, his power and presence are now available in every time and place.

Perhaps the more stunning thing about the ascension is that it makes the inverse true. That is, if we and Christ are together in his glory, then our humanity has now been bound up with God. Put another way, if the ascension means that there is nowhere that we can go where God isn’t present, it also means that the needs, yearnings, and longings of humanity are always known to God. In Jesus, God took on our nature, and by ascending that nature was also brought into the presence of God eternally. As Dr. Oldenburg so eloquently puts it:

The creature’s nature becomes part of the Creator’s.  No longer are human (or even creaturely) matters foreign to God.  They have become known, experienced, and important.  Again we see that there are no God-forsaken places or unGodly times, because God has experienced and taken into the very being of the Holy One all that makes humans hu­man –  from the shock of light at the end of the birth canal to the extin­guishing power of death.  Even despair and dereliction become a part of God. What we rejoice in at the Ascension is a culmination of God’s work of reconciliation, of at-one-ment.  With Jesus, the fully human one, where he belongs, we are no longer estranged from God.  God will no longer ask like the clueless angels at the tomb, “Why are you weeping?”  God comprehends.  And we may no longer play the victim’s trump card: “You don’t understand what it’s like.”  God comprehends.  Humani­ty has been given a place in the conversation of the Trinity.*

What a gift! What a comfort to know that the apparent absence of Jesus is in reality what makes possible our intimate connection with the triune God!

That gift makes itself known not only for us as individuals, but also for us as a church community.  The ascension unleashes the church to do its work in the world. While Jesus walked the earth, people were drawn to hear him, and any other voice that attempted to speak for him or on his behalf would always be judged lacking, seen as secondary to whatever Jesus himself might have said. Because of the ascension, the Church is free to carry out the commission given by Jesus himself: to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth! That doesn’t mean, of course, that the Church can say whatever it wants without criticism or complaint. That commission is always grounded in faithfulness and fidelity to the message that Jesus came to proclaim: That the kingdom of God has drawn near, and that God’s love for all the world has been demonstrated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for the sake of the whole creation. But the ascension of Jesus makes it possible for the Church to exist and to love out its calling to be – as Ephesians puts it – “the Body of Christ, the fullness of him who fills all in all”.

Brothers and sisters, today we celebrate an odd and wonderful festival. Even as we long for his return, we rejoice that, because of the ascension, Christ’s presence has now been unleashed for us and for the whole world. We marvel at the knowledge that Jesus bears our very nature to the presence of God so that we might be fully known and understood. We are humbled by the calling to be Christ’s witnesses in the world. On this Ascension Sunday, let us bless our God for the victory of our Lord Jesus, who died, rose, and ascended so that we might know his power and presence and be partners in extending it to a world in need. Thanks be to God! Amen!

*Mark W. Oldenburg, Here and Now: The Year in the Presence of the Resurrected Christ, (unpublished), p. 81.

Fifth Sunday of Easter – Sunday, May 18, 2014

Sunday’s Readings:

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

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

            I don’t travel by plane very often, but when I do I generally find myself in conversation with my fellow travelers, and a question that inevitably comes up is the “occupation” question: “What do you do for a living?” When I’ve told people that I’m a pastor (or, when I was in seminary, when I told them I was training to become a pastor), I’ve gotten many different responses, but in the vast majority of cases I’ve found that I generally receive one of the following two. The first is an awkward silence that indicates that this may have been the worst possible answer and that no further conversation will be happening. The second is an astonished look and something along the lines of “Wow! I don’t know how you do that. I would never be able to preach a sermon every week!” Having done just that for almost three years now, I’d like to share what I’ve found to be true about the challenge of preaching every Sunday: Most weeks the problem isn’t putting together a sermon to preach, but choosing the right one. You see, the Bible is fascinating! I’ll often sit down with these readings and find that I could go in twenty different directions if I had the time. My greatest fear when I’m trying to decide what to preach is that I’ll become enamored with a question that none of you is asking, and some weeks I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea to warn you in advance if I think I’m in danger of doing just that.

This week happens to be one of those weeks. There is so much great stuff in this reading from John 14, but to be honest with you I keep getting held up by verse 6: Jesus said to Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” My problem with this verse is not that Jesus said it, of course, because I believe that he is absolutely right. The issue, at least in my mind, is how this verse has come to be used by Christians – not only in the present, but throughout history – who also read into it its opposite: That is, they believe that if it’s true that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus, then it is equally true that people who don’t acknowledge Jesus will never come to know God the Father. If you hold to that interpretation of this passage, you’re in good company, and there are many other passages of Scripture that you can marshal to support that claim. But I mentioned before that Scripture is fascinating, and one of the things that makes it so fascinating is that it contains such a wide range of opinions on really important and consequential questions like these: How does one come into relationship with God? Can people who don’t claim to be Christian nevertheless have real and true experiences of God? Is salvation limited to people who make public confession of Jesus? Is it possible to be a Christian and reject the idea that everyone who isn’t Christian is destined for hell? I think you should know me well enough by now to know that I don’t ask these questions out of a simple or naïve desire to accommodate culture or be perceived as nice. On the one hand, I ask them because of genuine concern for people I know and love who fully embrace other religious traditions (or none at all) and who live their lives with compassion and grace and integrity. On the other hand, I ask them because the way we answer them reveals a great deal about how we understand God’s purpose for us and for the whole creation. Put another way, these questions cut to the heart of what it means to be people who trust in the saving power of the cross and the life-giving power of the empty tomb. Is salvation primarily about us or about the God revealed in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit? As a way of tackling all of these questions, let’s look again at this passage, this time with an eye to the context in which it was written. Then, we’ll zoom out and take a broader view of Jesus, faith, and salvation.

Jesus uttered these famous words on the night that he shared his last meal with his disciples. Over the course of his extended body of teaching, which stretches across five full chapters of John’s gospel, Jesus had much to say to his followers about his death and what it would mean for them and the world. In a really important sense this was a discourse addressed to “insiders”, people who already knew that God was up to something in Jesus (though they didn’t fully understand what it was until later). Was this statement meant to establish a firm boundary between the followers of Jesus and those who didn’t believe in him, or was it intended to soothe the doubts and fears of those first disciples as they grappled with the fact that their teacher was making preparations to leave them? Later, John’s gospel circulated among people who had been forcibly removed from the community of faith in which they had be raised: the gatherings of the people of Israel in local synagogues. Was this statement meant to attack the people who threw them out, or to assure those who had experienced rejection that their faith in Jesus was not in vain? People might reasonably differ in their interpretations of this passage, but it seems to be in context that it was meant to be a word of comfort to people who were in danger of being overcome by their fear and loss. How (if at all) does that change how we read this passage today in a world in which we live and labor alongside people of many different faiths, and how does our interpretation fit in with the way we look at Jesus, faith, and salvation more broadly?

If we look at this passage as a word to people who already have faith, it seems misguided to use it as a bludgeon against people who don’t believe in Jesus. His concern in this passage was that his followers would know that their faith was not misplaced, that his relationship with God was so strong that it could extend beyond Jesus to those who trusted in him. That’s good news, to be sure! But when it comes to these bigger questions, John seems to hint at something bigger. Back in chapter twelve, Jesus is approached by his disciples, who bring a request from a group of travelers visiting Jerusalem. The strangers want to see Jesus, and in the course of his response to his disciples, he tells them that his impending death will lead to two world-changing things: Satan will be judged and found lacking, and all of humanity will be drawn to him! Later in the same chapter, he claims that his purpose for the world is liberation, not judgment. Those statements represent a vision of the significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that is incredibly expansive.

Now, because I take Scripture seriously, I also recognize that there are passages that speak of the vital importance of human response to God. In fact, whenever I’ve heard anyone talk about the idea that the cross brings salvation to all, and that even people who don’t believe in Jesus might be saved, the objection that arises almost immediately is, “Well, what’s the point of faith, then? Why go to church or read Scripture or try to live a godly life if it doesn’t matter in the end anyway?” I certainly don’t mean to minimize that concern. One possible answer to that objection lies in today’s reading as well, and it also leads us to think big about salvation. If – and this is a big if – salvation is just about what happens to me when I die, and God’s going to save everyone, then it really doesn’t matter. But if salvation is also about now – if God calls us to lives of faith, hope, and love right now – then all of this is essential! The Christian life isn’t just a life-long struggle to secure fire insurance. We don’t respond to the call of God in Christ simply because it carries the promise of “eternal life” somewhere down the road. In Jesus, God invites us to experience eternal life now, to find in him the embodiment of God’s gracious presence that is continually offered for the life of the world. In the waters of baptism we are cleansed and freed for abundant life now. In Holy Communion we receive a foretaste of the feast to come and strength for the journey now. In gathering and hearing the word and being sent out again, we are given the opportunity to be Christ for others, to speak the good news of God’s love for all people, to reveal that love through the way we give ourselves in service. If that’s not a reason to take our faith seriously, I don’t know what is, and if the call to live that kind of life isn’t good news, then I don’t know what good news is, either. As people God’s people, who confess wholeheartedly that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, let’s be bold in sharing the message of salvation in Christ, not by scaring people with the threat of hell, but by inviting them into the world-changing reality of life with God that is present even now – in the midst of brokenness and pain and disbelief – and that will continue into the age to come. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Fourth Sunday of Easter – Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sunday’s Readings:

Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

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

 Silence for thirty seconds.

I don’t know about you, but I have very few moments of true silence in a typical day. It seems that I am almost continually surrounded by noise, assailed by a chorus of voices and sounds that seems never-ending. I’m not talking about my interactions with people, which are the best part of this calling to ministry. I’m talking about the mindless chatter from people I’ll never see or meet that fills my consciousness almost every waking moment. Some of that is my own fault: I wake up in the morning and one of the first things I do is turn on the radio or the TV to catch up on the news. In the office I often have some kind of media playing on my computer, whether it’s the audio of a news report or a podcast or music. When I’m driving around town, I’ve always got the radio on. In a lot of circumstances, however, my encounter with that never-ending wall of sound is not my fault. Restaurants play the radio over their loudspeakers most of the day. The waiting room at the doctor’s office usually has the TV on, often turned to stations where news and opinion compete to see what can be loudest. In truth, there are very few places that allow us the opportunity to sit without our minds being tuned to someone’s thoughts.

Today on this Good Shepherd Sunday, Jesus is talking about the life of faith, and drawing on the imagery of his place and time to describe the relationship he has with his followers. Notice how he focuses on the importance of listening:

“I’m telling you the solemn truth: the one who doesn’t enter the sheep-pen through the gate, BUT climbs in some other way, is a thief and a bandit! 2The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has sent his own sheep out into the pasture, he goes out ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they recognize his voice! 5They will never follow a stranger. INSTEAD, they will run away from him because they don’t recognize the stranger’s voice!”

Jesus doesn’t identify himself as the shepherd until after this morning’s reading ends, but it’s pretty clear that this point that he’s already claiming that role. He tells us that we who have been called by name to follow him can have confidence that he is the one leading us, because we can listen for and recognize his voice. That would be an especially comforting thought if we lived in a world in which Jesus’ voice was the only one speaking. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that kind of world. Countless voices vie for our attention and our allegiance – some using the promise of greater happiness, others exploiting our fear of uncertainty – to gain our trust. Many of those voices come from our wider society – people who see everything as a threat or a conspiracy, people who relish conflict and hostility because they sell, people who claim to have quick fixes to our most vexing problems (for the right price, of course). A fair number of them come from within the church – people who confuse the gospel of grace with the promise of prosperity, people who feel the need to create links between specific instances of human sinfulness and natural disaster, people who claim that their way is the highway and that people who disagree aren’t welcome here. With all that and more crossing the airwaves, it’s not surprising that the voice of Jesus, though he is still speaking to a world in need, is often drowned out by the swelling tide of competing voices.

I’ve heard it said – quite profoundly, I think – that unless the good news is good news for everybody, it isn’t truly good news. As we sift through the swirling chaos of voices that offer their own versions of “good news”, how can we pick out the ones that speak genuine gospel? How can we listen more carefully for the voice of Jesus? The clue might just be at the end of this morning’s reading, where Jesus contrasts the goal of the “thieves and bandits” who threaten his sheep with his own mission:

“I’m telling you the solemn truth: I am the gate for the sheep! 8All those who came before me were thieves and bandits; SO the sheep didn’t listen to them. 9I AM the gate! If anyone enters through me, that person will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture! 10The thief comes for no reason except to steal and kill and destroy! I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.”

Too many of the voices that compete for our attention have hidden agendas: they claim that security can only be gained by force (when they’re the ones with all the power), that the pursuit of freedom is a zero-sum game that always requires someone to lose (when they’re the ones who seem to be winning), that people who don’t agree with us are deserving of our scorn and exclusion (while they are always on the inside looking out). In short, they offer us salvation that ultimately benefits them at the expense of others. Voices like these are decidedly human and worldly. They transcend political persuasion or nation or religion or any other category by which people can be defined, and all of them fall short of being “good news”.

By contrast, the good shepherd who calls out to his sheep (and, indeed, to all the world), desires nothing else than to gather all people into one flock, where they can enjoy abundant life. Put another way, in the immortal words of the 23rd psalm, he offers green pastures, still waters, restoration and renewal, guidance through death-like shadow, and a table laden with life-giving food and drink, all signs of his goodness and mercy. He offers these gifts to all, without reserve, because his will for the whole creation is that it would enjoy the fullness of God’s love and grace and be satisfied. So when you hear voices that hold up this vision for us and for all people, you may be hearing the echo of Jesus himself speaking “good news” to a broken world, calling the thieves to give up their quest for spoils, the bandits to relinquish their thirst for revenge, and the sheep to surrender their desire for false security. You may be hearing Jesus, who is both the Shepherd and the Gate. You may be hearing Jesus, the one whose embrace opens wide to gather all people together and remains securely fastened against the forces of sin, death, and the devil that are powerless against Him who sacrificed everything to break their power over this world forever.

Brothers and sisters, in a busy and broken world, filled with a thousand voices that claim to bring their own version of the Gospel, let us listen always for the voice of our Good Shepherd with confidence that it will continue to sound forth until all the sheep have been gathered together and the wolves are no more, and let us bless our crucified and risen Lord for love that leads us on and holds us fast today and every day. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Third Sunday of Easter – Sunday, May 5, 2014

Sunday’s Readings:

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

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

            On September 2, 2013, Katie and I were preparing to enjoy a lazy Labor Day with our little Evie when we heard some shocking news involving two of our friends. Rob and Hilary had worked multiple summers with us at Stony Lake, a Lutheran camp in West Michigan where Katie and I first met during our college years. The camp world is a close-knit community, especially when you work at a place like Stony that has a small staff and few places to go to get away. Hilary and I, in fact, had known each other since we had been campers at Stony during our confirmation years. You can imagine how disturbed we were, then, to receive the news that our friends, avid bicyclists who had recently moved to Florida to take advantage of the great weather and bike-friendly atmosphere, had been involved in a hit and run accident with a pick-up truck that morning. As more details trickled in, we were horrified to learn that Rob had died of his injuries that morning, and that Hilary had been placed in a medically-induced coma because of the severe trauma that she had sustained. Less than three weeks later, Hilary’s family made the difficult decision to remove life support, and she passed away on September 21. The man who hit them claimed to have blacked out on his way home from the third shift, realized what had happened when he woke up later that day and saw news reports, and turned himself into police. Two weeks ago, we learned that this man, who has since been confirmed to have been drinking in the hours before the crash by surveillance video, has pled guilty to two counts of “leaving the scene of an accident involving death”; he will be sentenced later this month to 11 years in prison as punishment for reckless actions that killed two beautiful, irreplaceable people.

This world is broken, and it can be a cruel place. Diseases ravage people and families. Natural disasters strike communities. Violence and hatred wrack nations and peoples. In the language of Scripture, the shroud of death hangs over the whole creation. All of us do our best not to become paralyzed by the brokenness of the world, to keep on moving in the midst of this reality, much the same way that Cleopas and his companion walked with heavy hearts and leaden feet on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus on that distant Sunday. As they made that seven-mile journey, they were joined by a mysterious traveler who forced them to confront the overwhelming loss of their teacher and Lord by telling their story. They laid their souls bare as they openly revealed the deep pain of their dashed hopes to this stranger, unable to contain their shock and surprise at everything that had taken place. Then, something incredible happened. That same stranger started to connect the dots for them, showing them that Scripture had revealed how the Messiah’s suffering would lead to glory. By the time the group reached Emmaus and the traveler prepared to move on alone, Cleopas was too intrigued to let him go. The two disciples invited their traveling companion to join them for dinner, and during the meal they come to a moment of realization. As the stranger took charge of the meal, giving thanks, breaking the bread, and passing it around, their eyes were opened to the identity of that traveler: it was Jesus himself! Though he vanished as soon as they recognized him, they couldn’t forget what they had seen, and they resumed their journey, this time to share what they had experienced with their friends back in Jerusalem.

Many pastors will tell you that this story is one of their favorites in all of Scripture, and I would be one of them. The reason for that is that it is a story that takes very seriously the journey that each us of walks as disciples. We travel in the midst of brokenness and pain, often so consumed by that brokenness that it comes to dominate the story of our lives. But we don’t walk that road by ourselves. We gather together with other disciples, named and unknown to us, and in so doing, we find comfort and strength in one another. As we gather, we bring our stories and, in opening Scripture, find those stories reflected in the larger story of the community of faith. Then we come to the table, taking bread and wine and finding nourishment for our bodies and souls. Finally, we are sent out to tell others what we have experienced, not as people who have been completely healed of our hurts, not as those who are immune from future pain or loss, but as people whose stories have been heard, honored, and transformed by words of love and grace. All of this is made possible, of course, not simply because we do what we do, but because in gathering together, in reflecting on the word of Scripture, in sharing a holy meal, and in being sent out, we encounter the risen Christ himself. It is his presence that causes our hearts to burn within us and our eyes to be opened to the reality that God has entered our stories, and that in every pain, every grief, every loss, every struggle, Jesus is walking alongside us.

This isn’t just wishful thinking, either. We don’t recall the stories of faith, like the story of that journey to Emmaus, because they’re nice but made-up tales that make us feel better. We recall those stories because they continue to ring true, because they are stories grounded in experiences like ours. In the weeks following Rob and Hilary’s accident, even as the grief we experienced deepened with the realization that we would never see our friends again in this life, we also experienced the presence of Christ. Those of us who joined in the journey of grieving that senseless tragedy grew closer to one another. We called to mind all the times that Christ’s love and grace were made known through the ministry of our beloved friends. We shared words of encouragement, memories that brought laughter amid the tears, and, as we said goodbye to both of them, called to mind the promise of Scripture, the promise of Easter, the promise of life conquering death even when death seems strongest.

Brothers and sisters, sometimes like Cleopas and his companion, we find ourselves weighed down by the cares of this world, by the trials of life lived in brokenness and pain, and the message of Easter seems unrealistic. Remember that it has always seemed that way, and that as we continue to walk the road of faith, we will doubtless have moments when we wonder if resurrection can truly be possible. In those moments, may we be reminded of the stories of our faith, stories that take our doubts and questions seriously, stories that mirror our own because they are ours. May we continue to find strength in gathering, listening, eating, and going forth in the presence of the one whose death for our sake has broken death’s grip on creation. May we find ourselves surprised over and over by the hope of resurrection, new life, and new possibility. May our hearts burn within us, and may our eyes be opened to what God is doing in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ is risen indeed! Thanks be to God! Amen.

Second Sunday of Easter – Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sunday’s Readings:

Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

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

            Last week, we heard the story of the first resurrection appearances from Matthew’s gospel: two women named Mary head to the tomb of Jesus early in the morning, an earthquake happens when an angel of the Lord descends and rolls the big stone away from the tomb’s entrance, and that angel tells the two women to go and tell the disciples to head to Galilee, where they’ll get to see Jesus. Presumably, the disciples don’t question the women at all, because Matthew’s Gospel ends with all of them gathered on a hilltop in Galilee watching Jesus ascend into heaven.

This morning, we switch gears, and hear about what happens after the resurrection from a different perspective: John’s. Now, Matthew has a great account of that first Easter morning, but it seems to me that if we’re going to understand what’s happening with Thomas and the disciples in John’s story, we’re going to need to review what happened that morning as John records it. So here it is, from John 20:

Early on Sunday morning,while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. 2She ran and found Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. She said, “They have taken the Lord’s body out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

3Peter and the other disciple started out for the tomb. 4They were both running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He stooped and looked in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he didn’t go in. 6Then Simon Peter arrived and went inside. He also noticed the linen wrappings lying there, 7while the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head was folded up and lying apart from the other wrappings. 8Then the disciple who had reached the tomb first also went in, and he saw and believed — 9for until then they still hadn’t understood the Scriptures that said Jesus must rise from the dead. 10Then they went home.

11Mary was standing outside the tomb crying, and as she wept, she stooped and looked in. 12She saw two white-robed angels, one sitting at the head and the other at the foot of the place where the body of Jesus had been lying. 13“Dear woman, why are you crying?” the angels asked her. “Because they have taken away my Lord,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14She turned to leave and saw someone standing there. It was Jesus, but she didn’t recognize him. 15“Dear woman, why are you crying?” Jesus asked her. “Who are you looking for?” She thought he was the gardener. “Sir,” she said, “if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him.” 16“Mary!” Jesus said. She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!” (which is Hebrew for “Teacher” ). 17“Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go find my brothers and tell them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” 18Mary Magdalene found the disciples and told them, “I have seen the Lord!” Then she gave them his message.

Do you see what happened there? Mary goes to the tomb, sees it empty, and runs to get the disciples. They see the empty tomb, and, despite everything Jesus had told them about what was going to happen to him, went back home as sad and fearful as ever. Mary then runs into two angels and doesn’t catch on until she meets Jesus face to face and hears him call her name. She rushes home to tell the disciples again, and…

Nothing. At least, it seems that way, because when we pick up the story today in verse 19, they’re still locked up for fear of the authorities, apparently unchanged by what Mary announces to them. All of a sudden, Jesus appears in their midst, speaks to them, and assures them of his risen presence. And you know what? They trust him! They can’t stop telling Thomas, who wasn’t there, all about what they’d seen. Thomas gets all the attention for his disbelief, but he’s in the same boat that Mary and the disciples were in, and all he wants is the same thing they got: a sign that the crushing blow they had all received on that terrible Friday afternoon hadn’t been the whole story. Of course, Jesus doesn’t disappoint: eight days later, they’re all together again, and he shows up once more, giving Thomas the proof he had so desperately wanted and needed.

All of this leads to the really important line from today’s gospel reading, the one that is aimed directly at you and me. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had the benefit of seeing the resurrected Jesus Christ appear in human form. I think it’s pretty safe to say that the experience of those first disciples was qualitatively different than the experience of 21st century Christians. We haven’t seen Jesus in the same way they did. But Jesus has a word just for us: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe!” Jesus doesn’t spend a whole lot of time blessing people in John’s gospel. Yet here, as we near the end, this word of blessing is spoken to all those who would not have the chance to see Jesus in the flesh: Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

That’s an especially important word as we gather this day to celebrate as three young men affirm their faith and their baptism. On days like this, we’re reminded of something that is repeated so often it has become a cliché: Confirmation is not the end of a journey, but the beginning of one. Shane, Zach, and Dylan are remarkable young people who (most weeks at least) embraced the challenge of thinking deeply about the life of faith, about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and about how all this stuff about God can make a difference in their daily lives. They probably come to this moment with more questions than they had at the start of their confirmation experiences, and I couldn’t be prouder of them. After all, if the people who spent years walking around with Jesus himself had questions and doubts and fears and longings, then those of us who bear his name today shouldn’t expect to be any different. My message to you three today is the same that I have for everyone else who can hear my voice: Don’t be ashamed of doubt. Don’t be frightened by your questions. Embrace the Thomas within you, the part that seeks after God and won’t rest until the presence of Jesus is revealed, and always remember where Jesus promises to meet us: in our gathering together, in the word of forgiveness and grace, in the breaking of bread, in the water of baptism that is offered freely to all, in the encouragement we give to one another. We haven’t seen Jesus face-to-face, brothers and sisters, but we are surely blessed. May we remember that blessing as we go out into the world to serve as Christ has served, confident that our risen Lord goes ahead of us, follows behind us, and walks beside us – all of us, with everything we have – into new and abundant life today and every day. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Resurrection of Our Lord – Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sunday’s Readings:

Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Colossians 3:1-4
Matthew 28:1-10

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

The sun rose clear and bright that Sunday morn
as Mary and the other Mary went
with voices hushed and faces looking worn
by memories of their Teacher’s fierce torment.

To them, it must have seemed a cruel joke
to feel the touch of springtime’s gentle breeze
while hastening to his tomb whose grey stone spoke
a haunting truth that brought them to their knees:

The Savior of the World was truly gone.
His body lay in death, his grave was sealed,
the hope they’d staked their very lives upon
crushed by the weight of human sin revealed.

Arriving at the tomb, they saw the guard
placed there to keep the high priest’s mind at rest.
On Friday he’d been loath to disregard
the brazen boast that Jesus had expressed:

“Tear down this temple, knock it to the ground!
In three short days I’ll raise it up once more!”
To leave that claim unchallenged would compound
the blasphemy the crowds had fallen for.

The world was still when Mary reached the grave.
The soldiers kept their watch without a word.
Then, suddenly, the ground began to cave,
the very soil before them swelled and stirred.

At once, those guarding Jesus shook in fear,
for trembling ground was nothing when compared
with dazzling light from heaven, sharp and clear,
and God’s own brilliant glory brightly bared!

The stone that sealed the entrance rolled aside,
and on it sat a figure robed in white:
It was an angel of the Lord, who cried:
“Fear not; I bring a word of great delight!

You’re seeking Jesus, who was crucified!
He isn’t here! He’s risen from the dead!
Come closer to the tomb and look inside!
Remember what your Lord and Teacher said!

‘Jerusalem is where the Son of Man
must go to face rejection, scorn, and shame.
They’ll lift me up, but I will thwart their plan
by rising up to glorify God’s name!’

Now go and tell your brothers what you’ve heard.
The tomb stands empty! Jesus is alive!
To all of his disciples he sends word:
I’ll wait in Galilee ‘til you arrive!”

The women turned and went at his command
as fear and awe filled each one’s brimming heart,
when Jesus stood before them, raised his hand,
and bade that weekend’s sorrow now depart!

They fell down at his feet and clutched him tight,
their voices raised in songs of praise and prayer.
He urged them, “Tell my brothers all is right!
Go on to Galilee! I’ll meet you there!”

And so they did! They sprinted to proclaim
the news that Christ had conquered death and hell!
Today, my friends, as those who bear his name,
we celebrate that gospel truth as well.

We come, with all our scars and doubts and fears,
our pain and grief, our struggles and our strife.
We come, as Mary did, and through our tears
see him who grants us all abundant life!

He meets us in the word of love and grace,
in gifts of bread and wine we bless and share,
in brother’s, sister’s, friend’s, and neighbor’s face.
Wherever we might gather, he is there.

Because the Lord has risen, we have hope.
We need not face the trials that come alone,
for Christ our brother knows the depth and scope
of every wound and bears them as his own.

But more than that, the empty tomb reveals
that sorrow does not have the final word!
In Jesus’ resurrection, love that heals
earth’s deepest pain will surely be conferred!

Rejoice and sing! Christ Jesus lives today,
and in him we have life that never ends!
May we, with Christians everywhere, display
the love for all our gracious God extends.

This Easter, let us bless our God for love
that crosses every boundary, even death,
so we might know the presence from above
that dwells within us, closer than our breath.

Christ is risen! Thanks be to God!