Sunday, September 15, 2019

Sermon - Pentecost 14, Year C


Luke 15:1-10 
                                                                          Getting Lost 

I spoke briefly last week about my children – I have three.  They are all grown.  My baby, about whom I am going to tell you more this morning, is now 30.  The story about him I want to tell will horrify some – let me just assure you everything turned out just fine.  I don’t mean to let myself off light in this story, but the other principal character is Sue Rothmeyer, who was just elected the ELCA’s Secretary at the August Churchwide Assembly.

Caleb, my baby, was with me at the ELCA Youth Gathering in St Louis, I think it was 1995 or 96.  I was working the Gathering, so he was just sort of along for the ride.  We were in the Interaction Center, which is this area about the size of five Walmart’s.  There are hundreds of displays and activities; and thousands of kids running around.  Caleb was with Sue.  He was with Sue till he saw something shinny over there, and sort of wondered off.  Frantic; Sue searched.  She found me before she found Caleb.  “I have lost your son.” Was all she could say to me.

Our connections with folks higher up the authority ladder allowed us to gain access to the public address system.  Caleb did not hear the announcement, but some youth leader from Minnesota did.  She approached this little boy near her and asked, “Is your name Caleb?”  When she insisted he come with her, he was a bit indignant – still is to this day.  “I was in the middle of making this really cool shrinky-dink necklace.” he replied. 

The sheep which is lost in today’s Gospel reading was not a child.  But the significance of that sheep to the shepherd may need to be held in very high regard.  Shepherds were held accountable for the sheep under their charge.  Losing one could place the shepherd in peril.  Replacing the lost sheep (which was the common practice) might mean giving up the sheep intended to be his family’s food supply.

While I had some pretty strong assurances that my son would be found – he was after all in the company of 12,000 Lutheran Church Youth and youth leaders - shepherds in and around Jerusalem had little reason for such hope.  Countless ravines and crevices made searching impossible.  Jackals, and wolfs, and unemployed hungry shepherds were everywhere.  The search had to be undertaken; but it was most often futile.

The Gospel text has two such searches.  The other is of a woman who has lost a coin.  Commentators are split as to the relative importance of the one lost coin to this woman.  Is the lost coin 1/10th of her entire life savings?  Or does the fact she has 10 coins lying around, in a house which seems to own, suggest that she is abundantly blessed with many, but still treasures the one.

In both cases, there is a celebration with the lost is found.  And in both instances, the extravagance of the celebration may have exceeded the actual value of that which was initially lost.

In these stories, we are most often inclined to see God in the shepherd or the woman.  It is clear that the celebration is akin to heavenly rejoicing at the return of one who comes once more into the fellowship of God’s people.  This is the conclusion Jesus himself draws in the passage.  But every now and then we need to pause and examine how we are inclined to see things and ask if there is something more here for us to see.

One of the things I would like for us to see is the most common trait shared by my 7-year-old son at the youth gathering, the sheep and the coin.  None of these bear any responsibility for becoming lost.  The reason you hire a shepherd is because sheep have no homing device.  They move from the piece of grass they just ate to the next one they can see.  Coins can roll great distances before they lie flat on their side.  But they don’t jump off the counter on their own, or crawl out of a purse.

Appropriately, then, in these stories Jesus tells, there is no confession, or remorse, or repentance when the sheep or the coin are located.  It wasn’t their failing which had created the crisis.  

We need to be able to hear this truth.  Jesus’ parable needs to imprint on us a pattern of rejoicing when one who was lost is found.  The celebration of the shepherd and the woman have everything to do with their mistakes and no errors can be attributed to the little lamb or the shiny coin. 

This is a very difficult path to follow to its conclusion.  It is upsetting and even disturbing to suggest that if God is the woman who rejoices or the shepherd who carries the lamb back to the fold, then God may also need to be seen as the one who must absorb the guilt associated with their having become lost in the first place.  I am not following this very difficult path to its conclusion in order to blame God; but I do want to preach to who is here today, and those who are here today are more likely to be those whose role it is to receive back the one who was lost.  We need to learn to see them the way God sees them.  And we can never blame them, in the same way that Jesus’ story does not blame them.

And while I am at it – let me go ahead and tell you that I despise referring to persons as “lost”.  I almost have to use the designation in order to keep this sermon from being 45 minutes long.  But if we are going to refer to those who don’t come to church or don’t follow the way of Jesus as “lost”, then let’s make sure we understand they didn’t get that way without a tremendous amount of neglect and mistakes on our part.

The Lord, or God, has appointed shepherds because he knows how easily the sheep wander off.  The Lord, our God, has spoken of his heartbreak when the shepherds fall short.  He is the Good Shepherd.  He has also taught us how to shepherd.  And when we don’t do our job and he is the one who has to go out looking for one of his precious little lambs – heck yeah he hosts a celebration when the one who should have never been allowed to slip away is back where they belong.

I have no interest in blaming God or finding fault with God over those who may have become lost.  I have a deep interest in asserting that those who were appointed to serve as God’s agents may bear some of the guilt and shame when the coin is misplaced.  God is great at taking into himself the failings of others.  The Church isn’t as good at it.  We – the community which bears the name and image of Jesus – are not always standing ready to celebrate the return of the lost sheep/coin.  In far too many instances, we stand and wait for them to acknowledge their transgressions and to confess their failings.  It really bothers me when I begin to think that any such expectations may be rooted in a desire for self-serving affirmation that we were the good child.

Are we that fragile in our relationship with God that we need a wounded and hungry returning sheep look up to us and assure us that we are exactly what Jesus wanted all along?  God forgive us.

You know someone who has become separated from the flock.  You can probably name half a dozen coins which have rolled and rolled and may still be rolling out of sight.  Hear the message in today’s gospel lesson for you.  It is teaching you about a God who takes responsibility for the vulnerable and for the lost.  The Gospel is all about a God who is extremely short on shame and guilt but overflowing with grace and welcome.  Make sure, in all of your interactions, that you model this behavior pattern lifted up by Jesus. 

Amen.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Sermon - Pentecost 13 - Year C


Luke 14:25-33           

                                                                         Gnaw on This
  
I am still trying to learn the culture of this place.  So tell me, is talking back to the preacher something you do here?  I don’t mean long paragraphs; but one or two or at most three word responses?

I would like to get a few responses this morning.  A few honest (short) responses to how you felt as I was reading Luke 14:25-33.  There are some pretty harsh words here.  Rebellious teenagers may rejoice at the suggestion of no longer living in passive compliance to the instructions of parents, but how do the rest of you feel?  “Whoever comes to me,” Jesus says, “and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

How do you feel, hearing these words of Jesus?

My undergraduate studies were in psychology.  I chose that field with at least the hint in my mind that I would seek professional work in the Church.  Which is to say I still think of psychological things as I share the Gospel.  We know that unless an emerging young adult does place the ways and believes of their parents on a shelf and construct their own belief system they will not have a faith sufficient to face the complexities of adult life.  They may return to many of the same confessions and affirmations, but unless this time of turning and rebuilding happens they will remain in the category of “borrowed belief.”  So, it would seem, Jesus knows his sociology.  Unless this developmental step is taken one can never be the self-guided, self-definitiated persons Jesus hopes us to become.   

But that doesn’t mean we won’t feel somewhat unsettled at Jesus’ words. 

Oh yeah, he also says, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Got your attention now – don’t I?  Unless you have already dismissed this as another one of those finger pointing sermons where some sucker in an angel’s robe stands in front of you and talks about something they know nothing about.  Give me just two more minutes of your attention before you dismiss me and move on.

I want to place all of this in the context of another verse of scripture; one that we all read – or sang.  Verse 2, in Psalm 1.  You can refer back to it in your bulletin – we sang it this morning in English.  If you want it in Hebrew, look at the sermon title.

Too often, we hear or allow one sentence or one phrase to stand alone.  It is called proof-texting.  This error is most common among those who have a legalistic way of approaching scripture.  Psalm 1:2 would have us approach scripture differently.  This verse reminds us that our relationship with God and God’s Word is to “meditate” on it; meditate “day and night.”

And if we did read Hebrew, we would realize the inadequacy of translation.  The Hebrew word translated “meditate” is hagah (haw-gaw).  In attempting to understand this word, “to muse” is among the options.  To muse is to think about something which leads to “meditate.”  But hagah also implies to “moan, growl, utter, speak.”  My favorite translation concluded with the encouragement to gnaw on scripture – to chew it repeatedly, perhaps because some sentences and phrases are tough and extremely difficult to swallow.

In too many instances, a verse or phrase is pulled out and set up as some sort of a proof-text.  Some will point to Luke 14 and say, “There!  This is what you must do if you are to be one of Jesus’ disciples.”  Give up your possessions; hate your brothers and sisters!

Hagah on Luke 14 and you start to ask yourself (honestly and privately) where you have placed your emphasis and where are your priorities.  It may be too extreme to ask Jesus’ people if they hate life itself.  But it is reasonable to ask whether we have allowed life to restrict our circle of concern.  Maybe we don’t have to give up all our possessions, but how much we spend on dining out could be held in tension with how much we have given to feed the hungry.

The two examples Jesus uses in this short exchange reinforce rational reasoning over emotional allegiance.  A builder and a king take stock of what they want to do and what resources they will devote to the project.  It is more than social humiliation which might lead to their calling a halt to a course of action.  They allow themselves to realize there is no reason to even try to go there.

It is my hope, my prayer, and my intention, that every one of you will go home this afternoon and struggle with the place God and God’s Word has in your life.  I hope you will gnaw (Hagah) on what you have heard Jesus saying this morning.  And I would love to hear back from you the parts too tough to swallow.  I would also like to hear the benefits and delight which come from being dedicated enough to dig and dig till that morsel of flavor is exposed and enjoyed. 

There are plenty of places where Luke 14 is read and someone will say, “There you have it.”  Maybe you wish this place (and this sermon) was one such place.  As I said, I am still trying to learn the customs and ways of this expression of Jesus’ Church.  Forgive me when I give offense.  None is intended.

As I gnaw on Luke 14, I find myself agreeing with commentator Mitzi Smith when she writes, “I propose that Jesus does not refer to a hate toward family members in the sense of an absence of love.”  Rather, Jesus asks where we find our final security and identity. 

Perhaps like many of you, I took my babies to church when they were only a few weeks old and standing by the baptismal font I asked God to do for them what I could not do for them.  I asked God to guide them and teach them and to help them to experience and come to know the things I want them to learn.  In that exchange I acknowledged that my flesh stands in the way of making such eternal promises.  As I asked God to provide those things for my children I was directing my children to hear God’s Word and find in that Word assurances I am incapable of giving them.

I have gnawed on these verses for years.  And I am still embarrassed when I read the part about giving away possessions.  I bought a camper, just in case I might be able to get away to an occasional NASCAR race.  When I realized most campgrounds at NASCAR tracks don’t have electricity, I bought a 30 amp generator!  So I could have air conditioning!

But I will groan and growl some more this afternoon.  And I will ask myself whether I have come to love my stuff more than I love God. 

Their delight is in the law of the Lord,
And they meditate on God’s teaching day and night.

Amen.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Sermon - Pentecost 12 - First Sunday at St Michael


Luke 14:1, 7-14         

“On one occasion when Jesus went to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.”

Hummm..  Sounds a little too much like where we are this morning for any of us to be able to fully concentrate on where Jesus was on that Sabbath day.  I do not have a Christ complex – but I do sense that y’all are watching me – closely – this morning.  And you should.

Last week’s celebration of thirty-one years of service by Pastor Miles made such an impression on each of us that we are all keyed in this morning, and watching to see what is going to happen.  It doesn’t matter what you like or prefer – a part of each of us resists change.  And, is change coming.  I will not the instrument of that change, but I am likely to become the peg on which is hung each encounter with the change.  That’s okay.  This is my role; my call.  And this is the service I am prepared to offer St. Michael Lutheran Church.

“On one occasion when Jesus went to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.”

Let’s try to take ourselves back to the Sabbath being spoken of in these verses from Luke 14.

Most Lutherans have gotten out of the habit of carrying their Bibles.  This is one old habit which we should have never broken.  Put one on your phone – that allows you to check the scores of the Packers’ game while pretending you are looking up a bible verse.  Turn with me to Luke 14.

If the bible you are looking at has footnotes, you might learn that this is the third visit Jesus makes to the home of a Pharisee.  The other visits are in Luke 7:36-50 and Luke 11:37-43.  These frequent visits to the homes of Pharisees have led some to the conclusion that Jesus himself may have been a Pharisee.  There are a number of hints of this.  Not insignificant among them is the basic realization that the greatest divisions often emerge between those who were once very close.  As the community of Christ unfolds and emerges, there are many encounters in which the way of the Pharisees and the way of Jesus are set in opposition.

If Jesus was a Pharisee, or had at one time been among the Pharisees, but was beginning to split some fine hairs and illuminate other aspects of what it meant to be a child of God – then all eyes would have been on him.  And everyone would watch him closely.  Those who were opposed to any change would watch so that they might condemn him; those who were looking for something different - so they could jump on the bandwagon.

“On one occasion when Jesus went to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.”

We want to pretend that the way of Jesus and the ways of the Pharisees would have been easily distinguishable.  We like to tell ourselves that we would have no problem choosing between the direction Jesus moves and the way of those who are so often scorned in our scriptures.  But any ease in doing so may only be an illusion developed over 2,000 years of wagging a finger in the direction of the Pharisees. 

Got a pencil and a blank page in the bulletin?  Write the distinguishing characteristics of a Pharisee in the time of Jesus.  I don’t see pencils moving.  Difficult, isn’t it?  Pharisees, Sadducees, leaders of the synagogue – we have learned not to trust them, but we seldom know much about them and why what they were doing was so antithetical to the message and ministry of Jesus.

Yes, I am going tell you a little about the Pharisees.  Or at least give you my short list of what I have managed to remember about them.

The Pharisees were deeply committed members of the community.  They were not trained rabbis or professional staff.  In many ways they distrusted the teachers and paid staff.  (Remember in John 10 when Jesus said – “The hire hand does not care for the sheep”?) The Pharisees didn’t always trust the professional church leaders.  What the Pharisees did do was study the scriptures.  They would win every round of Bible Bingo.  They knew every rule and commandment found in the scriptures.  As a result, they were tithers.  They are the type of folks stewardship committees dream of.  They showed up on Thursdays to mow the grass, or on Friday to fill up backpacks. 

They were more than casual observers.  In watching Jesus – closely – they knew the significance of each action he took and every word he spoke.  They knew that what he did and what he said was going to have an impact on them, on their lives, and the faith community which they so deeply loved.

“On one occasion when Jesus went to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.”

Jesus makes the most of the opportunity. 

On any other Sabbath, we would likely focus on Jesus’ observations and comments on seeking seats of honor at this afternoon luncheon.  The topic at hand and the subject matter is important, very important.  But on this particular Sabbath, it might behoove us to spend our time reflecting on the process.

Those good, God-fearing people who identified as Pharisees were intent in their observance of the Laws of Moses.  The verses omitted from today’s reading speak of an encounter much like the one from last week, wherein Jesus heals on a Sabbath and then dares anyone to tell him this is violation of the prohibition to do work on God’s holy day.  The good, God-fearing people who were made up the bulk of this dinner party were painfully aware of how often and in how many ways the Commandments were ignored or broken – by Jesus and by his followers. 

Did anyone use the downtime of my rambling to look at those other two visits of Jesus to the home of a Pharisee?  In Luke 7 Jesus allows himself to be defiled in accepting the anointing of his feet by a woman of ill repute.  In Luke 11, Jesus and his rowdy row friends sit down and start to eat without first observing the purification procedures so carefully laid out in God’s holy book.

Such were the Pharisees.  These were Jesus’ hosts, his friends, his fellow worshippers.  They weren’t bad people, and they certainly were not irreverent people.  I refuse to believe that Jesus was condemning them, even when he points out their desire to sit in the places of honor.  I think he is pleading with them, not to allow their dedication to the commands of God to cause them to forget the purpose for God’s instructions. 

On any other Sunday, we would talk about the poor, and the crippled, and the lame.  Today, I suggest we allow this reading to expose that even in Jesus’ day there was conflict as to what was the main thing.  It has always been a challenge to articulate what is our mission and purpose.  It was in Jesus’ day, and it is for us.

On this particular Sabbath, Luke 14 is an invitation for us to ask what is the main thing – for us.
  • Is the main thing observing all that is commanded? 
  • Is the main thing feeding the hungry and clothing the naked?
  • Is the main thing being right; having all the facts perfectly lined up?
  • Does the main thing involve saying “This is who we are, and you can decide if you want to join us”; or is the main thing inviting others to “come and discover with us who God is calling us to be”? 

These are not simple choices or right and wrong choices.  And they are the same choices faced by the communities of faith in our day.

Luke 14 does not depict a cosmic battle between the wise and the ill-informed.  Luke 14 reminds us that among those seeking to do God’s will there has always been various ways of getting to where we desire to be.  Lovingly, and humbly, and always with the awareness that everyone is one of God’s children, we acknowledge our understandings and wishes.  We offer our experiences and our voices.  And we watch closely our speaking out and speaking up does not offend or diminish the wishes and understandings of others.

“On one occasion when Jesus went to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.”

Amen.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Sermon - 7th Sunday after Pentecost - Farewell to UniLu


Luke 11:1-13

                                                            Jesus Loves Me – This I know

  
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me.  Yes, Jesus loves me.  Yes, Jesus loves me.
The Bible tells me so.

Was it a book?  Or a bumper sticker?  Or merely a moment of honest reflection which served to remind us all that “Everything I needed to know, I learned in kindergarten?”  How old were you when you learned the words to “Jesus Loves Me”?  I can’t remember not knowing this song.  It has been with me from the very beginning.  Everything I learned in seminary or from reading books has only served to reinforce the undeniable truths revealed in this simple children’s song.  Jesus loves me, this I know….

My hope and prayer for this final sermon I preach as your pastor, is that nothing else I have said or preached or taught has implied that anything is more important in understanding what it means to be a Christian.  Jesus loves us.  Loves us so deeply that he steps in and takes the pain and suffering upon himself which was intended for us.  The whole of what it means to be a follower of Jesus is to know that we are loved and loved this deeply.

I did not pick the lessons for this farewell sermon, but I could not have picked a better one.  Luke 11:1-13 is all about being loved.  The giving of The Lord’s Prayer and the content of The Lord’s Prayer reinforce an understanding of relationship built upon love.

The Lord’s Prayer is shared with the disciples when one of them comes to Jesus and says:  “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”  Jesus tells them to speak to God as they would speak to a loving parent.

We don’t know the style or content of the prayers that John taught his disciples.  We do know some of the things that John preached.  We would have to wonder whether the things he said in his sermons impacted his prayer life and his instructions on prayer. 

John is the fiery preacher who warns everyone to repent.  He regularly greets those who come out to him with questions like “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  We do not know the style or content of the prayers taught by John, but we do know the style and content of the way Jesus says his followers should pray.

 “When you pray, say: ‘Our Father’…..”  And every petition which follows is an invitation and an instruction on what it means to have a God who loves us and cares about us and is attentive to the cares and concerns and celebrations of our lives.

“Our Father in heaven……”

Again, we don’t know the content of John’s prayers nor do we have the content of the prayers which would have been heard in weekly worship.  But we do have what Jesus says about the religious elite who liked to stand in public places and impress others with their long prayers and self-congratulatory expressions of piety.

This is not good, nor is it the model one ought to follow.  When you pray, you need not have lofty expressions of religious zibber-zabber.  Speak to God as you would speak to those whose love you have the opportunity to experience every day.

Look back at your bible, or the printed verses in your bulletin.  Luke follows the giving of the words of The Lord’s Prayer with instructions from Jesus on how this prayer might be lived out or experienced.  There is the story of the friend who has need – even in the middle of the night!  There is an acknowledgement of what earthly parents will do to provide for their children.  Luke then asks, “If you then, who are evil (perhaps a bit of an overstatement), know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Everything every preacher might want to say or attempt to say you have already learned.  You had it down pat, memorized, as soon as you could sing, Yes loves me, this is know…..

I don’t mean to take swats at paper tigers, but I would like to devote a few paragraphs to how easily this core affirmation is placed in peril.  It is way too simple.  And, as a result, there have been and will continue to be attempts to add just a little bit more or to pretend there is another side to the coin. 

“Jesus loves you – but do you love him back?”
“Jesus loves you – does your life reflect that love?
“Jesus love you – therefore he has to punish you when you fall short or back-slide.”

It is true and it is undeniable that when we know we are loved and when we receive the gift of love our lives are changed.  There ought to be a change or many alterations in the life of someone who is loved by God and experiences that love.  Now, it is possible (and does sometimes happen) that even when someone is loved, they are unable or unwilling to receive that love.  When love is not received, it is often possible to see the ill effects of that rejection in the life of the one for whom the love was intended.  But what the intended recipient of the love does has no effect or capacity to alter the love being offered or the lover who freely gives. 

God does not love us only if we love in return.  God does not punish us for failing to recognize the gift being extended to us.  It is a missed opportunity.  And those who live without the constant assurance that they are loved break the very heart of God.  Never do they anger God and result in God’s withdrawing that love.

At the core of this theological movement and tradition associated with the name of Martin Luther is that one simple message:  God’s grace is freely poured upon all the earth.  That grace will continue to come to us, regardless of how we receive or respond.


Jesus loves me. 

Another retiring preacher wrote: “As I grow older I believe fewer things, but I believe them more fervently.”  It is tempting to try to pour as much information and knowledge as possible into the hearts and minds of one’s fellow congregants.  But as with last week’s message to Martha, “Only one thing is needful.”  Know that you are loved. 

My hope and prayer for this farewell sermon is you will remember how deeply I have loved you and how grateful I am for your love of me and Laura and our family.

It is a gift, to be asked to serve as “Pastor.”  The gift is the opportunity to spend every day and every moment and every exchange basking in the ability of God’s love to change lives and to change the world which God has created.

Thank you for giving me this gift.  My hope and prayer is that my words my actions my work has made it possible for you to know…..

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me.  Yes, Jesus loves me.  Yes, Jesus loves me.
The Bible tells me so.

Amen.


Sunday, July 7, 2019

Sermon - 4th Sunday after Pentecost


Luke 10:1-11, 16-20                                                                                      

                                                                           70 Sharing

Attendance has been down, lately, here at University Lutheran.  There are a number of factors contributing to this.  Hopefully we don’t need to be concerned.  We simply need to pay attention, for now.  And keep an eye on where things go from here.  There were 66 at the early service last week; 81 at the 11:00 service.

That is plenty, actually.  Among the faith traditions with the greatest of staying power are those who never allow weekly gatherings to exceed 10 families.  10 families who tithe allow one of those families to be supported for fulltime ministry.  When the gathered become too many for a family’s living room, plans are started to split the group, allowing for two gatherings where that previously only been one.

I do believe, in the decades to come, this is likely to be the model for much of the Church.  The Church is not at its best when it brags of gatherings in the hundreds - let alone thousands.  The church is at its best when it is at that place where it is capable of knowing each other’s stories and bearing one another’s burdens.

Jesus is at such a place in today’s gospel reading.  He calls to himself 70 others, appoints them, and sends them out ahead of him - in pairs. 

If you were here last Sunday, you will remember that the gospel reading also included a sending.  Luke 9:52 does not tell us how many were send or whether they were sent alone or with a travel buddy.  Also important to note is that in Luke 9 the sending out is not met with the same result as is noted in Luke 10. 

In Luke 9, at least one of the places they go to is not willing to receive Jesus.  In Luke 10, upon the return of the 70, Jesus celebrates their positive impact on the world with which they share the good news.  Verse 17 –The seventy returned with joy, saying “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!”

There is nothing in the verses of Luke 9 & 10 which explain to us the reason for this differing result.  We are left to put the pieces together for ourselves.

At least one of the reasons for things going better could be because there are “70” of them.  We are not given a number in Luke 9, but the assumptions most often made are that Jesus had only sent the 12.  When 70 are sent, there is a different result. 

I want to return to those attendance numbers for us, for last week.  Both services were eerily close to 70.  I said the number ought not be a concern.  Now I will say that it might be cause for celebration.  Maybe this community is at the place, and just the right size, to understand ourselves as those being sent out as “laborers into (the Lord’s) harvest.”  Perhaps we are at precisely the right place to respond to our Messiah’s call and engage in our Lord’s mission.

When you have hundreds or thousands, it isn’t as easy to look each person in the eye and convince them that every Sunday gatherings is a celebration of how God has brought us safely through the previous week in order that we might share the good news with others in the week that begins now.

How many do we have with us today?  Think of how different the world will look next Sunday if each of us leave here today with the charge from Jesus to “cure the sick … and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’”.  The 70 or so of us here, now, can bring unimaginable gifts to the sick and dis-eased and hurting and forgotten.  I want to avoid making this trivial by even allowing a hint of this as a back-handed tool for congregational growth.  Our 70 are plenty.  The 70 of us can change the world by making the world aware of the grace and mercy of God. 

All this, accomplished by simply repeating the promise of Jesus.  Say it with me – “The kingdom of God has come near you.”
“The Kingdom of God has come near you.”

There is another reason why these 70 might have met with such tremendous results.  Jesus sends them out, it pairs.  They don’t go alone.  They are never alone.  And they are aware that the person by their side is there out of obedience to Jesus’ instructions.  I don’t mean obedience in the sense of having no choice; I mean obedience out of appreciation for the good which following Jesus has brought into their lives.  Someone is there to help them remember what they know to be true.

Who is your partner?  With whom has God paired you?  If you have no answer to this question, please allow one of your pastors to help you identify your companion and form a closer bond with them.

Perhaps there is someone, with whom you have entered into such a shared sense of mission and purpose.  But over the years and after many missions already completed you have stopped naming your partnership for what it is.  There is often talk of renewing one’s vows;  the renewal which is the most significant is the one in which you covenant to love, cherish, build up, and pray for one another.

The power of 1 such a pairing is sufficient to result in Satan falling from heaven like a flash of lightening.

My years among you have allowed me to observe the impact a few such pairs can make.  It is not the big numbers nor the expansive programs which bring hope and promise to the world.  It is the confidence of few, that God is with us and among us and acting through us.

I am grateful, for the opportunity and the ability to look each of you in the eye this morning.  In this place and through this ministry we have experienced the grace of God.  Our gathering this morning is a celebration of how that grace has carried us through the week which is ending.  Our departure from this gathering is our opportunity to share that which has been given to us.

Do so.  And next week we will gather once more to celebrate how the sharing of God’s grace rids the heavens and the world around us of any who would detract from God’s promise.

Amen.


Sunday, June 30, 2019

Sermon - 3rd Sunday after Pentecost


Luke 9:51-62                                                    

                                                           That to Which our Heart Clings

This is a busy morning for us.  Following both services, we invite you to have a look at the displays in the narthex.  Three of our LCM students will be heading off for a year of global mission work.  Yes – I said three, two have determined this is not the best for them at this time.  More about that as this sermon progresses.

We are also awarding the LCM Alumni Academic Scholarship this morning.  This year’s recipient will be leaving soon for a semester of study in South Korea.  We wanted to send Sammi Brinson off with our blessings; and to call attention to the never ending efforts of this ministry to support students in their academic pursuits and vocational journey.

Yes, a busy morning.  A morning in which we speak of serious life choices. 

The serious life choices being made by these young adults brings home to each of us the serious life choices we have made.  It also prompts us to consider the serious life choices which remain before us.  Those don’t end with a college degree (or two), nor do these cease after a mortgage is signed or a marriage begun.  Every day of our lives we are all faced with serious life choices.  Most of the days of our lives we can look past them or pretend they are not before us.  But not today.

Today, the events on our congregational calendar align with the appointed readings from scripture in order to remind us that serious life choices must be made.

Luke 9:51 tells us that the time is drawing near for Jesus to be taken up.  “Taken up”?  Is that code for something else?  We all know the sequence of events by which he will be taken.  “Up” – as in to the heavens - may eventually come.  But first he will be taken up the hill to the barracks of the guards and beaten.  Then he will be taken up to Golgotha and placed up upon a cross.  Serious life events are about to come his way.

In Luke 9:51, these code words remind us that events are not as essential as outcomes.  Luke 9:51 encourages us to remember what Jesus is setting out to accomplish.  And they are our invitation to remain focused on those same ends.

As he sets out on this mission, everyone around him either gets on board with him or is repelled by his laser focus.

See the line in which James and John asked about calling down fire to destroy the inhabitants of this Samaritan village?  Notice that Jesus rebukes them.  Jesus knows what the gospel writer wants all of us to notice – that the villagers could not receive him.  Why?  First line, and fourth line - repeated twice.  Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem.  These villagers were not going to get on board.  Jesus’ rebuke is for James and John, not those as of yet unprepared to share his unwavering commitment to the kingdom of God.

This exchange is terribly important as we face our own serous life choices.  Too often we are threatened with a fire raining down from above.  In too many instances we are warned not to be found among those not receiving.  This exchange reinforces both the enormity of Jesus’ mission AND his unwavering care for the least among us.  “The least” surely includes those so frightened and overwhelmed that they cannot muster the ability to climb on board.

This exchange exposes the heart and mind of the One who came to care for this sick.  The one who reminded his listeners that those who are well have no need for a doctor.

This exchange reinforces his compassion for the crowds, harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.

This exchange makes it clear that Jesus will do what none of them are capable of doing.  He will accomplish what we, left on our own, cannot.

The way will not be easy.  Jesus is less concerned with not being received than he is with those who follow him knowing what lies ahead.  Foxes have holes, birds have nests.  Not us.  The dead bodies will pile up.  It is not our role to bury them.

If you are waiting for me to get to the last line, that moment has come.  If you were reading from one of those bibles with red lettering, this one would jump out at you:  “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” 

This may have been a summary condemnation of the one who met them on the road and the one who wanted to bury his father.  Or, it may be a reference to the opening exchange in which Jesus has no rebuke for those who do not share the focus set on his face and in his life.  Perhaps the message in this sentence is to see the serous life choice when it is presented to us and to be prepared to live up to and in to the commitment we make.

Gabby and Cole have decided not to go to England with YAGM.  I am disappointed.  But by grace of God I had the capacity to reply to their notes to me with graciousness and compassion.  I know that YAGM is a life-changing opportunity.  But it isn’t the only one. 

It was one of our LCM alumni who approached me about an academic scholarship.  The prime donor shared their experience of this ministry’s commitment to helping students get their degrees and discover the many and various ways in which God is served.  Sammi is but the latest helping all of us discover how to live the life of a disciple in the world.

There are many ways in which we may fit into the proclamation of the kingdom of God.  The serious life choice is seeking that way with the start of each new day.

Jesus does what none of us are able to do.  Jesus protects us when some of Jesus’ other disciples want to distract us with talk of fire and brimstone.  Without such interruptions, we can see our way to share the grace and compassion and care which oozed forth from every encounter Jesus has with those whom he came to save.

Amen.


Sunday, June 9, 2019

Sermon - Pentecost Sunday


Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-17          

How Did They Understand?

When you are called upon to serve as a Lector you might think that your first response should be to go to the calendar hanging on your kitchen wall and determine whether or not you will indeed be in town and in church on the particular Sunday in question.  You might think that the most important piece of information is whether or not you have something else scheduled for that weekend or that day.  But no-o-o!  You shouldn’t consult the appointment book, what you ought to look at is the Liturgical Calendar.  You need to make sure that the day you agree to be the lector isn’t Pentecost Sunday - the Sunday on which you will have to try and pronounce every little village and town in the ancient near east.  I think (---------/--------) did a commendable job this morning.  Let’s give her/him a round of applause for her/his efforts.

Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia... the list is a killer.  The miracle on that first Pentecost was that residents from all these places could understand the words being spoken by the disciples.  The miracle on each subsequent Pentecost is that anyone can understand us as we try to pronounce all those names. 

It was quite a collection of vastly differing national, ethnic, and racial clans.  The persons who were milling about in the streets of Jerusalem did not share a common language.  They did not share a common worldview or history.  They came from diverse cities and villages.  They were as different as different could be.  And yet, we are told, each one understood as the disciples emerged from their upper room and began to tell what had just happened to them. 

How could this occur?

The text is a bit confusing as to the exact mechanics by which this happens.  At one point it says the disciples begin to speak in other languages, suggesting that the miracle was the ability to speak a previously unknown tongue.  But the verses which follow suggest that the miracle might have happened in the ears of these out-of-town guests.  Luke writes:  each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.  So, was the miracle in the sounds produced by the voice boxes?  Or was it the interpretation of the reverberations which flooded the ear canals? 

I would like to suggest a third option.  And I want to suggest this option particularly because we are drawing close to the last time I will stand among you and speak.  I want to suggest that the reason everyone is able to understand might have less to do with the mechanics of speaking or hearing and more to do with the Truth of that which is being communicated. 

You have probably had an experience in which someone tried to talk to you in a language that you did not understand.  If you have had that type of an experience, I hope you have had the follow-up experience of remaining in the conversation until you reached a point in that exchange in which you did begin to understand; understanding what they were communicating, even if you could not interpret their words.  That is what I want to suggest might have happened on that first Pentecost. 

In no way should such an interpretation lessen our appreciation for the miracle which occurred on that day.  But it does place the emphasis of the miracle solidly where it belongs.  It wasn’t the mechanics of speaking or hearing which enabled those Phrygia and Pamphylia to understand.  It was the importance and urgency of that which begged to be communicated.

I was involved in such an encounter yesterday morning.  I was out for a walk when a young man path fell parallel to my own.  Sensing that he might be an international graduate student, I struck up a conversation.  He was.  A civil engineering PhD, from Nepal.  I speak no Nepalese, and his English was quite good, but as is often the case we lacked the precise words to speak of the things we were discussing.  It didn’t matter.  The short exchange affirmed our shared wonder of the world’s beauties and our appreciation for the unique offerings of each tribe and clan.  At least, that is what I felt, deep in my soul, as we parted.  

On the Day of Pentecost, the disciples burst forth from their upper room and they began to speak of the wonderful thing which had happened to them.  The travelers who had gathered in the streets understood because of the power and truth of message contained in the words spoken by those disciples.

This is what I want I want all of you to remember hearing me say:  That the message of the first disciples and every disciple since is a wonderful message, a message so fantastic that it hardly needs words at all. 

The hope of hearing such a message is what had brought all those folks to Jerusalem in the first place.  They are described as “devout Jews from every nation.”  They were converts to the religious system of the Hebrews.  They had devoted themselves to the teachings and instructions of Moses because in these writings they had found an answer to that which was lacking in their lives.  They did not come to Jerusalem in order to avoid some unforeseen and future punishment, they came because they wanted to experience the shalom (the peace) promised to the followers of Yahweh.  They came because they had become convinced that living in accordance to the teaching of the Rabbi’s would make their lives fuller and richer and more meaningful.  They came because they wanted to be filled and fulfilled and they were hopeful that the God of the Hebrews would respond favorably to their request.

They came because they wanted to be blessed.  And as they are milling about the streets they are encountered by this group of hysterical men (perhaps with those tongues of fire still burning on each.)  And these men are letting it be known that their greatest expectations had been met and were indeed being surpassed.  Powerfully aware of God’s presence, these disciples of Jesus were speaking of all that God had done for them.

Here is what I want you remember hearing me say to you: the disciples were filled with joy and excitement.  Their cup was over flowing with expectation as a result of all that God was doing in their lives.  God had come into their lives to give them everything they needed, everything they wanted.  The Truth they communicated is the availability of these gifts to all those willing and able to listen. 

This is the story told in every expression of the Christian Church, not merely the Lutheran Church.  But, as Lutherans, we have something very important to offer the rest of Christendom.  The personal history of Martin Luther goes a long way in explaining why it is that we continue to be a separate denomination.

In his youth, Martin thought that the task of a Christian was to avoid the punishment of God.  He obeyed every rule he could find and he spent hours upon hours confessing his transgressions of those rules.  He tried hard, very hard.  But he realized it was a losing battle.  He could never live up to the line of scripture which says, be ye perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.  He just couldn’t do it.  Not only was this beyond his capabilities, he realized it is beyond any human effort.  Martin Luther was a teacher of the bible, a religion professor at the university in Wittenberg.  In reading his bible, and setting aside the popular interpretations of his day, he was able to return to the Bible’s central message.  He was able to reaffirm what Jesus had said and Paul had written.  God was not seeking strict obedience to rules and commands (God already had that in the form of the Pharisees).  God was in search of persons who would love God and who would allow God to love them.  And so Luther began to preach of the love of God and the desire of God that we would accept his gift of forgiving grace.

What I want you most to remember about my years among you, is that being a Christian has little to do with the keeping of those rules and a lot to do with the acceptance of God’s grace. 

What is it that you most need in your life?  What is it that you want?  God supplied the disciples with the assurance that He would always be with them.  God assured them that they would never travel along, that there would always be another believer at their side ready to lift them up when they were down, ready to support them when they were weak.  God told the disciples that He would come and make His home with them and fill them with His joy - a joy that is not dependent upon the waxing and waning of human circumstance but is built upon the solid rock of Christ’s love.  God sent the disciples His assurance that they would always have a home, with Him, and that home would be there for them throughout all of eternity.

We are Christians because being a Christian makes our lives full and rich and meaningful.  We affirm our faith in God because it is through that faith that we receive the things we need and that which we want.  The miracle is not in the speaking or in the hearing.  The miracle lies in the tremendous truth contained in the message.

Amen.