It is always a blessing to be invited to share a devotion with Prairie Faith Devotions. Check them out for an excellent daily devotion from pastors and deacons of the Western North Dakota Synod! https://www.facebook.com/prairiefaithdevos
In the days following my election to the Office of Bishop in July 2020, I felt like a wandering, lost soul in the desert. I spent several days in prayer and quiet meandering with my thoughts, feelings, and doubts. During that time, I heard the story in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 22, over and over again. If you haven’t read it in a while, I invite you to open up your Bible and check it out.
The story is a conversation between Jesus and a lawyer who tries to test the Savior. Jesus’ response to this testing has served as the primary compass for my first few months as Bishop. I believe more deeply with each new day that God has placed this prophetic teaching from Jesus on my heart for more than just my first few months serving in the Office of the Bishop. And I give God thanks for that truth.
Needless to say, I intended to write something different for this week’s blog post, but Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 22 called me down a different path.
Recent events unfolding before us are unlike any other…
… ongoing battles over coronavirus…
… unending killing of our fellow brothers and sisters on our city streets…
… the unimaginable movements in our own little piece of God’s creation that seem to have us spiraling out of control as a nation…
… the idolatress behavior toward any number of people and things that are in complete contradiction to following Jesus.
My heart aches.
My soul cries out.
And, yet, as the evil noise of the world seeks to overtake us, I hear Jesus say, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
I was thankful on the Feast of Epiphany to be invited into a time of worship and prayer at St. John Lutheran Church in Dickinson, ND. As I participated in their online community, this brief time of worship was like healing balm on a weary world and weary souls. As the Holy Spirit breathed through “A Time for Prayer,” Pastor Joe and Pastor Lisa never mentioned it, but Jesus’ words to “love your neighbor as yourself” echoed through my iPhone screen and into my very soul.
This worship service is still available and I invite you to join “A Time for Prayer” at this link:https://www.facebook.com/st.johnlutheranchurch.9/videos/874201820059883
My friend and brother in Christ, Pastor Brian Derrer of Christ the Savior Lutheran Church in Fischers, Ind., wrote a prayer of lament on Wednesday evening. With his permission, I share it today as a way for us to reflect upon Jesus’ command, regardless of how we feel about events of the past several days and months. After all, we are followers of the Savior of the world Jesus the Christ. A Savior who calls us to “love our neighbor as yourself” in all that we say and do.
May Pastor Brian’s prayer bring peace to you in these days and hope for the days that lie ahead.
“We need to lament.
How long O Lord?
How long will we turn from the way of loving our neighbors?
How long shall we choose fabricated narratives that foment hate instead of the way of truth that speaks life?
Turn us to You, O Lord.
Turn us away from violence, hate, false witness.
Help us listen well to one another, while holding fast to the way that Jesus makes known.
Have mercy on us, O Lord…
…on our nation…
…on our communities and congregations…
…on the countless fellow citizens who long for peace, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…
Turn our hearts and minds, O Lord, to You.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
It is the first day of a New Year!! And all God’s children say, “Thanks be to God!!” One of the scripture readings from the lectionary for the first day of this new year is the Aaronic Blessing or Priestly Benediction. It’s a fitting scripture for us to hear today. It’s comforting in ways I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about before. Comforting to know that the previous year is finally gone! Comforting to know that God is always with us!
To say that 2020 was difficult…is…well…an understatement. To say that 2020 was filled with fear and trembling doesn’t begin to describe the journey we just traveled. To say that 2020 revealed human behavior showcased through some of the most disgusting tendencies we’ve ever seen, behaviors that none of us should be okay with, was disheartening.
BUT – and this might surprise some of you – I am thankful for 2020.
“God bless you and keep you,
God smile on you and gift you,
God look you full in the face and make you prosper.”Numbers 6:24-26 (The Message)
I’m thankful that 2020 reminded me of the importance of family. 2020 forced my family to grieve deeply at the untimely death of my mother. COVID-19 is pure evil and leaves death and destruction in its wake. As a family, we experienced this death and destruction first-hand. Grieving the death of my mother has reminded me, and I believe everyone in my family, just how significant family is. Just how important and beautiful our relationship with God is as it is lived out through our family. Thank you 2020. I love you mom!
I’m thankful that 2020 gave Wendy and me an unexpected experience of the healing power of God’s touch. The holy work of God’s hands guiding the hands of doctors and nurses and medical staff we never dreamt we’d ever need has been a sacred time. Wendy continues to heal from her July 28th accident. It was an accident that will change her life, and mine, forever. God’s healing hands have been upon Wendy this year. And both of us have been changed as we’ve witnessed the healing power of those hands. Thank you 2020.
I’m thankful that 2020 revealed to me a deeper understanding of call. This was revealed to me most directly during the Western North Dakota Synod Assembly on July 17th. God has continued to reveal this to me as I have served as Bishop since September. The church is a big, beautiful reflection of God’s presence in the world, albeit far from perfect. Thank you 2020. May God continue to bless and keep Christ’s church!
Sisters and brothers in Christ, as we begin our journey into a new year, may God’s presence in our lives remind us just how much we are blessed and kept by the God of all creation. May God’s face shining upon us, bring grace upon grace in all we say and do. May God walking with us through whatever 2021 throws at us, give us peace beyond all understanding. Amen. Let it be so.
John 11:1-45 • March 31, 2020
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the risen Christ. Amen.
My guess is that you’ve heard the gospel reading for today before. You know a lot, or at least a little, about this story of Jesus’ friend Lazarus.
Lazarus is Mary and Martha’s brother. They are close friends of Jesus from the town of Bethany. They sent word to Jesus that their brother was sick. One would guess that they hoped Jesus would immediately drop what he was doing and head to Bethany to be with the family. After all, isn’t that what you and I would do for a close friend in need? But for two days, Jesus simply stays in the place he was. It wasn’t God’s time yet seems to be his rational.
Lazarus ends up dying by the time Jesus arrives. Mary and Martha seem to be a little perplexed as to why Jesus took so long to get there. If he had really cared about them and made it in time, maybe Lazarus wouldn’t have died. It wasn’t God’s time yet.
Fast forward to the end of the story, Jesus goes to Lazarus’ tomb and asks for the stone to be rolled away. It’s been several days since his death, surely opening the tomb wouldn’t have been a pleasant smell. Jesus cries out “Lazarus, come out!” And out of the tomb of death walks a man fully alive, still wrapped in the burial cloth of death. Now, it was God’s time.
And here’s the even more amazing part of this story – in order for God’s glory to be fully revealed through Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus tells the community who has just witnessed this miracle to unbind Lazarus and let him go. The community frees Lazarus from the bondage of death.
For children of God, hope always overcomes despair. Hope always overcomes fear. Hope always overcomes death. As followers of Jesus, we know that our Lenten journey is going to take us to Jesus on the cross of Good Friday. We know that Jesus will lie in a tomb for a few days. We also know and say that we believe, that Jesus didn’t stay on the cross, he didn’t stay in the tomb. In God’s time, Jesus rose from the dead and conquered any death that we will ever face. Our hope, in the God of all creation, is what unbinds us and sets us free.
What does this look like for you and me as brothers and sisters in a faith community called Good Shepherd Lutheran Church? What does all of this mean? What can God possibly be saying to us today through an ancient story from the gospel of Saint John about Jesus and his friends in Bethany? Especially as we continue to try and live in these days of COVID-19. A time when not being able to be together physically for worship is becoming the new normal. A time filled with moments that feel like we are trapped in a tomb of death and have no idea when the stone will be rolled away.
When will God’s time be in order for us to unbind each other and go forward with a life that makes more sense than the one we are living on the last Sunday of March 2020?
My dear friend and colleague, Pastor Taryn Montgomery offers a picture of what this might look like. Many of you might remember Pastor Taryn. She was a guest preacher a few years ago during a stewardship sermon series. She has an incredibly talented videographer at her church in Minnesota. And even though this video was produced for her congregation, I asked her if I could share it with all of you too. Because it speaks so directly to how you and I are the church in this time of COVID-19. How God is calling us to unbind one another with the hope that only God can provide.
Take a look…
In 1527, Germany was under siege from the bubonic plague. A fellow pastor asked Martin Luther how he was handling the situation. Luther’s response in one of the reasons why I feel blessed to be a Lutheran Christian some 500 years later.
“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.
If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me, and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others.
If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.” [Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague, Luther’s Works, Vol. 43, pg. 132]
We might not be living in the same time as the black plague of the middle ages, but we are definitely living in a unique time that none of us has ever experienced before. I’m offering today’s message from the Hillside Park shelter where we hold Worship in the Park each summer. It is one of the great ways Good Shepherd is church to our community during the year.
We are still the church brothers and sisters in Christ. You and I are still being called out to be the church. And I can think of no other time in the history of any of our lives when that is more important that right now. Be the church, because the world needs to see Jesus right now.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Those aren’t words for an ancient time. They are words for you today. For me today. And for every child of God who is struggling to feel alive during this time or any other time in their life along this journey of faith.
Stay well brothers and sisters. And until we are able to worship alongside one another in person again, be the church. May God continue to bless you. And may you feel God’s presence beside you, embracing you in love as only Christ Jesus can do. Amen.
Ash Wednesday • February 26, 2020
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
In Baptism our gracious heavenly Father frees us from sin and death by joining us to the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We are born children of a fallen humanity; through water and the Holy Spirit, we are reborn children of God and made members of the church, the Body of Christ. Living with Christ, and in the communion of the saints, we grow in faith, love, and obedience to the will of God.
Those words are offered at the beginning of every celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. We come to or are carried, to a baptismal font, or similar place of water. Words of promise are offered between families, individuals, a gathered faith community and God. Water flows freely and the breath of the Holy Spirit is felt as we hear “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
And in our Lutheran Christian faith tradition, our foreheads are marked with the cross of Christ as the words “Child of God, you have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever” are spoken.
Not just on the good days of our life. Not just on the days that we have everything figured out. Not just on the days when we actually take 30 seconds to pay attention to God’s presence in our life. Not just in the darkest, most difficult days of our life.
In the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, God claims us as God’s own child…forever.
Hopefully, by now, you know that today is Ash Wednesday. This day is one of the holiest and most important days of the year for those who claim to be followers of Jesus. It marks the beginning of a 40-day journey known as Lent which ultimately leads us into Holy Week and Christ’s betrayal, crucifixion, and death. And in the end, Lent concludes as we once again experience great worship celebrations of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday.
So today, on this Ash Wednesday, you and I join hundreds of millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world and begin one of the most sacred journeys our Christian faith knows.
May we not enter into this journey lightly.
And may the mark of the cross upon our foreheads, given to us as a gift in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, guide us along the way. Along the way, even as a cross of ash is placed on our foreheads today.
Each year in Lent, we are invited into more intentional and frequent times of worship as a faith community. Yes…we will continue to gather for weekly worship on Saturdays and Sundays. However, in addition to those times of worship, we are also invited into special times of worship that only happen during Lent. At Good Shepherd, Wednesday is the day we gather. Lent can be an intentional part of our faith journey. Let’s be honest, in order to fully live into the season of Lent, it requires us to be intentional about it. And to be intentional with our Lenten journey, God actually asks for more of our time to be dedicated to prayer and worship.
Our Lenten journey on Wednesdays this year will be wrapped around the theme “Our Journey to the Promised Land.” The core story of the Bible is the Exodus story. It’s a story of God’s people on a journey. It’s a story that has been, and continues to be, repeated as God’s children, people just like you and me, continue to walk through our life along this journey called faith.
Over the next six weeks, you and I will journey together through the Exodus story. It will help us see and hopefully discover in new ways, how this ancient story in an ancient collection of books called the Bible, still speaks to our own faith journey today.
A faith journey with times when we feel stuck and struggle to get anything accomplished. As we will discover, Moses and the Israelite people of the Exodus story experienced the same thing along the way.
At other times we are simply confused, not sure what is happening or why it’s happening or what any of it means for our journey. Moses and the Israelite people of the Exodus story had the same experiences along the way.
At times we long for things to be the way things used to be. The good old days as some of us like to call them. We long for things to be the way they used to be, when our journey made more sense and was far less chaotic and confusing. Moses and the Israelite people of the Exodus story, even without social media and the internet, experienced this same longing along their way too.
And still, at other times in our journey, we celebrate the possibilities and opportunities God is placing before us. Our journey into the future looks bright and we are excited to get things started. Moses and the Israelite people also experienced times of great potential as their journey ultimately led them to the Promised Land.
Our own journey to the Promised Land is our focus this year in Lent as a faith community. I believe it will be a blessing – in large part because we get to take this journey together through these additional and intentional times of worship every Wednesday during this holy season. It’s a journey that may only last for six weeks during a season we called Lent, but as we know from the promises God made to us in our baptism, this journey is far longer than six weeks. It’s forever.
As we come forward to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion on this Ash Wednesday our foreheads will be marked with the cross of Christ. Instead of water and oil as was used in our baptism, today our foreheads will be marked with black ash. And instead of hearing the words, “Child of God, you have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit”, today we will hear the words, “Child of God, remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, the materials used and the words shared may sound and feel differently, but they actually aren’t all that different. And both of them remind us that we are God’s children…not just on the day of our baptism, not just on a holy day called Ash Wednesday during a crazy church season called Lent…but forever.
Blessings to you in your Lenten journey this year. And may God continue to richly bless your journey in faith. A journey that has no end. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Matthew 5:21-37 * February 16, 2020
What do you think of when you think of God? What picture or word comes to mind when you imagine what God is like?
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
So did today’s gospel reading align with your answer to the question what do you think of when you think of God? Or describe what you imagine God to be like? I’m guessing that there might be a slight difference. There is for me whenever I encounter this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel.
The way we often hear this teaching from Jesus, and yes, this is Jesus speaking, is one of judgment. Judgment and suffering descending upon us for breaking God’s rules. Judgment and suffering descending upon us as Jesus speaks to us directly about anger and murder, adultery and lust, divorce and oaths.
And unfortunately, our more common stance with teachings like this involves descending judgment upon our neighbor because of their bad life choices. Life choices that we think allow us to place our own judgment upon them directly. We don’t need Jesus to mediate that judgment, we can handle it all on our own. If you think gossip and infidelity are recent additions to the human condition, Jesus just proved that theory wrong in today’s gospel.
Unfortunately, though, this is where you and I most often stay. We stay in a place where we feel like we are the one being judged and we’ll never be good enough. Or we feel like we are the one who gets to do the judging of another child of God. And we get stuck in one of those places.
We get stuck believing that our relationship with God is based upon a transaction. If we are good, God will love us. If we don’t break the rules, we’ll get rewarded with riches beyond our wildest imagination. If we have good morals – whatever that may or may not mean to you – if we just live up to our expectation of morality than all will be right with my soul and Jesus will love me more than the person who doesn’t live up to the same moral standards I’ve established.
21st Century author and theologian Bob Goff recently said, “Our problem following Jesus is we’re trying to be a better version of us, rather than a more accurate reflection of Him.”
The Sermon on the Mount, which encompasses the fifth, sixth and seventh chapters of Matthew’s gospel, is Jesus showing us what our life following him is going to look like. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, everything we thought we knew about following Jesus is really quite different from what following Jesus is actually like.
Everything we think we can control, we really have no control over.
Every moral standard we think we can live up to far more successfully than our neighbor can, we actually can’t.
Every better version of ourselves that we create in our own image, has little to nothing to do with being a reflection of Jesus in the ways Jesus invites us to be as his disciples.
It’s important to remember, Jesus isn’t throwing the law out and saying it no longer matters. Instead, he is redefining the law as it has been interpreted by the Jewish leaders of his day. I think he’s also redefining the law for the ways it is often so poorly interpreted still today. Ways of using the law by religious and secular leaders that seek to divide God’s kingdom and destroy the possibility of you and I ever being able to have a healthy relationship with each other or with God.
There’s a rhythm to Jesus’ statements in this section of the Sermon on the Mount as he embarks on this redefining. It sounds like this “You have heard it said…but I say to you.” Jesus is being careful to show us that he does not abolish the law or that he is simply replacing it from any earlier version. He’s trying to show us that our relationship with God is now different because of him. That the law is now being fulfilled because of him.
And in this challenging section of Matthew’s gospel, maybe having this new picture of our relationship with God is all that Jesus is trying to show us.
Jesus is saying to us, “You have heard it said that you will never be good enough to live up to your parent’s or your bosses’ expectations, but I say to you, you are loved unconditionally.”
Jesus is saying to us, “You have heard it said that if you just live a moral life as determined by the society around you at the time, all will be ok, but I say to you, you are accepted where you are, as you are, because of whose you are.”
Jesus closing words to us in this section of the Sermon on the Mount help us go even deeper. Jesus says, “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than that comes from the evil one.”
One of the 20th century’s greatest church and cultural reformers was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was an outspoken Lutheran pastor in Germany who was killed in a Nazi concentration camp just a few months before the end of World War 2. He was thrown into prison for the stances he took against the Nazi regime in Germany. Stances against Naziism that were deeply shaped by his Christian faith.
In a 1938 confirmation sermon, Bonhoeffer preached on the gospel reading that’s before us today.
Note that this sermon and gospel reading were offered at a confirmation worship service.
Note the date of the sermon, 1938 – a short time before the start of the war.
And note the context – young people receiving the rite of confirmation, about to affirm their Christian faith and begin to live out that faith as adults in the eyes of the church.
Bonhoeffer proclaimed, “You have only one master now…But with this ‘yes’ to God belongs just as clear a ‘no.’ Your ‘yes’ to God,” Bonhoeffer said, “requires your ‘no’ to all injustice, to all evil, to all lies, to all oppression and violation of the weak and poor, to all ungodliness, and to all mockery of what is holy. Your ‘yes’ to God requires a ‘no’ to everything that tries to interfere with your serving God alone, even if that is your job, your possessions, your home, or your honor in the world. Belief means decision.” Bonhoeffer preached.
Remember, those words were part of a sermon to a congregation of young people about to affirm their Christian faith and begin their adult journey, living into the promises made in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. Young people who were about to face what we now know as a time when the world experienced the wrath of one of the most violent, lethal and evil regimes in the history of humankind. And remember, this didn’t happen 3,000 years ago. It happened just a few years ago.
I believe God’s proclamation through Dietrich Bonhoeffer continues to ring true today, just as it did in 1938. I also believe that our savior Jesus’ teachings continue to ring true today, just as they did 2,000 years ago on a mountaintop near the Sea of Galilee.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, there will be times in your life, I know for a fact there have been times in my life when it will be difficult to say no, so we can say yes to God.
There will be times when you and I will fall short of expectations – either our own expectations or the expectations others have of us or even the expectations God has for us.
There will be times when we will do something to another child of God that will cause pain to us or them without evening knowing we are causing pain.
There will be times when anger and poor decisions will break apart relationships to the point where they may never be repaired. At least not repaired in this lifetime.
And in all of those times, for those of us who seek to follow Jesus and do the best we can as we walk this faith journey each day, it is my hope and prayer that we never lose sight of the fact that our life in Christ is a shared relationship, not something we do alone. And in that shared relationship, let’s confidently say ‘yes’ to God…even as we live in the middle of a world filled with chaos that thinks we should say no.
So what was your picture of God when I asked you that question about 12 minutes ago?
500 years ago, students living with the great 16th-century church reformer Martin Luther asked him that exact same question. His response was, “When I think of God, I think of a man hanging on a tree.”
In the cross of Christ we see God’s love poured out for the whole world, God’s ‘yes’ to us.
The cross of Christ is a reminder that God will go to any and all lengths to show us just how much God loves us.
The cross of Christ shows us that God’s love has no boundaries no matter how many times and ways and places that we place boundaries in front of each other, no matter how many times we say ‘no’ to the God of all creation in order to fulfill our human egotistical desires.
The cross of Christ can’t be destroyed by any judgment we place on ourselves or our neighbor, because the cross of Christ always pushes us to more fully love one another.
May that same cross guide your journey and mine as we live out our Christian faith in the Lutheran tradition in a world deeply needing to know God is still here and that God is always with them in a savior named Jesus. May we never be afraid to say ‘yes’ to that truth. Amen.
My colleague was scheduled to preach on this day but needed to cancel at the last minute due to the stomach flu. I was called on to preach on short notice. Thus, no written manuscript to share on the blog and a bit of a wandering message. All in all, I’m ok with what God ended up doing with this sermon.
Be blessed in the ordinary,
Matthew 4:12-23 • Annual Meeting • January 26, 2020
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, the one who calls us into mission, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
The gospel reading we just received comes right after the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and right before the beginning of a major three-chapter teaching section from Jesus called the Sermon on the Mount. And you may have noticed that today’s gospel is closely related to all of the gospel readings that we have received thus far in the Epiphany season. A common theme that runs throughout Epiphany this year is that of call.
Last week, Pastor Bob referred to your call as the thing that makes your heart jump when you do it. The thing that you can’t help but do. The thing that is part of every aspect of your life. The thing that Jesus invites you to come and see and just like the brothers Peter and Andrew, James and John, when Jesus says “follow me” you immediately drop what you are doing and follow.
At Good Shepherd, we are called to immediately drop whatever we are doing and follow Jesus every time we try to live out our calling as a congregation, as a faith community, through God’s mission for us “to share the Shepherd’s love with all of God’s children.”
If you are a member of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, hopefully, you know that this weekend is the Annual Meeting. This meeting, unfortunately, is one of the most sparsely attended things we do together as a congregation. I always find that disheartening. Because a congregation’s Annual Meeting is one of the most important things we do together. It’s one of the most important ways we demonstrate our willingness to answer Jesus’ call to follow.
A congregation’s Annual Meeting is a time to make decisions about future leadership. A time to reflect upon the ways that Jesus has called us to follow in the last 12 months. And a time to celebrate the many ways we anticipate Jesus calling us to follow in the coming year.
If you can spare an hour of time, please attend the Annual Meeting on Sunday at 12:15 in the Lynne Center.
Together as a faith community, we see Jesus’ call to follow unfold as we live out our mission in community. In a sermon offered a few years ago by Deacon Beth Anderson, she said, “God calls us together into community so that we might be fed and nourished, and so that we might work together caring for all of God’s people and the rest of creation.”
At one of the recent Community Leader Gatherings hosted by Good Shepherd, one of our guests expressed his appreciation for Good Shepherd’s ministry of hospitality to organizations like Gambler’s Anonymous, Al-Anon, and Alcoholics Anonymous. This individual said that they first entered Good Shepherd’s doors in 1981 to attend their first AA meeting. Because of the welcome they experienced during that first visit to Good Shepherd, they believe they are still sober today.
And, an even more spectacular part of this story is that this individual has gone on to a lifetime serving thousands of other children of God through a career in behavioral health and addiction services. A journey of sobriety and a career in helping others that had its beginning because of a welcome received when this person entered Good Shepherd for a meeting in 1981.
Every Friday, there are about 120 home-schooled children and their families participating in activities at Good Shepherd through an organization called Catholic Schoolhouse. It is a Roman Catholic organization serving home-schooled families in Bismarck-Mandan. They too experience a warm welcome and gracious hospitality each week. This is yet another story of Good Shepherd listening to God’s call and then putting that call into action as Jesus invites us to follow.
In 2019, the offering of our hands, feet, voices and financial resources not only provided a safe and welcoming building for people to gather in. You and I, who call this congregation our faith home also provided nearly $240,000 in financial support to ministries taking place outside our building. Financial support that enabled these ministries to serve God’s children where they are – whether those individuals are located in downtown Bismarck or Watford City, North Dakota or Santa Ana, El Salvador.
Hopefully, it’s no secret to you that I believe with everything I am as one of your pastors that you and I are called by God to be together as members of this faith community. Our work together not only calls us to serve the neighbor outside of our congregation’s walls, but also those who are located inside the walls. Our mission “to share the Shepherd’s love with all of God’s children” empowers us to do both. To serve those who are members and not members. And to do both with excellence.
Each week, nearly 800 young people under the age of 18 gather for Church School, Confirmation, Bible study, devotional time and service work. It’s a staggering number of young people and their families that gather us together into a community larger than most towns in North Dakota.
In the past few years, many Church School classrooms are often overflowing with enthusiastic students – overflowing to the point where we struggle to fit an adult leader into the classroom. And our confirmation ministry has continued to grow to the point where we can no longer hold formal classes with all three grades of students on the same day or in the same room.
This fall, 69 young people will affirm their faith in the Rite of Confirmation.
One mother of two confirmation students recently told me that her kids, “crave coming to church and being part of what God is doing here. When one thing ends,” she said, “they are immediately talking about the next thing and looking forward to the ways they can be part of it.”
Thousands of service hours happen each year through our youth and family ministries. Service work in places like Good Shepherd or the Dakota Zoo or Heaven’s Helper’s Soup Café or on the streets of Denver, Colorado and Minneapolis, Minnesota or among our brothers and sisters served by the Good Heart Community Center on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
This past Thursday and this coming Monday we offer compassionate, Christ-centered care to families who are grieving the death of loved ones. During these times, this Sanctuary is filled with people grieving the death of someone they love and at the same time celebrating the promise of resurrection and life eternal that is a gift we are given in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. A sanctuary and fellowship area of the Lynne Center filled beyond capacity as we provide care for one another during this most important and difficult season of our faith journey.
A few years ago Good Shepherd’s endowment provided a grant to our congregation for use in a newly formed transportation ministry. If people in our congregation, or wider community for that matter, need help to get to church, appointments or other events, Good Shepherd can provide funds for a taxi, transit service, Uber or Lyft to get them safely where they need to go.
And finally, brothers and sisters in Christ, the images that are scrolling on the screens during worship today, illustrate hundreds of additional stories of Good Shepherd living out its mission from God. And our 2019 Annual Report lifts up even more. If you have yet to look at it, please take some time to open it up.
I share these stories with you today, not only because this week is our Annual Meeting, or because the Epiphany season focuses our attention so directly on our call as children of God. I share these stories with you today because these stories are ways in which you and I, as a faith community called Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, are answering Jesus’ invitation to follow.
These stories are living, breathing stories of the Shepherd’s love being shared. Our response to the invitation offered to us with each new day connects us with millions of other children of God since Peter, Andrew, James and John first answered Jesus call.
A call and an answer that ushered in the kingdom of God.
A call and an answer that continues to unfold today as we teach in our churches and proclaim the good news of the kingdom in all we say and do as individuals … and … as members of faith communities like Good Shepherd.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus is calling, will you follow? Amen.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ-child we are here to worship on this holy day. Amen.
There is an ancient spiritual practice among Christians called Lectio Divina. It’s a way to read scripture slowly, repeatedly and prayerfully. In recent decades, the practice of reading and studying scripture like this has seen renewed interest. At Good Shepherd, we regularly practice something called Dwelling in the Word, which is a similar kind of prayerful scripture reading.
Both of these practices are an important part of my own faith journey. There isn’t a sermon I offer or a word I write that isn’t impacted by using lectio or dwelling in my study and preparation. Drop me an email or give me a call if you’d like to learn more about either of them. I promise they will positively impact your faith journey. Now, before I lose you completely because you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with Christmas or our worship today, stay with me.
Even if this is the first time in your life that you have been in a church for worship, I’m guessing you have heard Luke, chapter two before. You’ve probably heard about the baby Jesus before. You’ve heard about the shepherds and the angels. About Mary and Joseph. Maybe you’ve even heard this story as it is told by Linus from a Charlie Brown Christmas or heard it told through one of the thousands of Christmas movies that exist.
But, I ask every one of us gathered here today on this holiest of nights, have you really ever heard this story before?
In fact, I would challenge you after all the Christmas craziness is over and gone, I challenge you to sit down and read through Luke chapter two again. Read it slowly, quietly, prayerfully. It might surprise you what the Holy Spirit will reveal to you about Jesus and his birth and why any part of this story still matters for you.
Pastor Amy Redwine points us to why this story still matters and who it’s for, as she writes, “Of the four gospels, Luke’s is written for the most ordinary of us, including – maybe even especially – all those who have been pushed aside and marginalized: the young, the poor, the refugee, the laborer. Luke wants to make sure we know that this baby, who is nothing less than Emmanuel. God-with-us, came not for some but for all. Luke wants us to know, there are no extras in this story. Everyone belongs. [Amy Starr Redwine, Journal for Preachers, Vol. XLIII, #1, Advent 2019]
As I began preparing for this year’s Christmas Eve sermon several months ago, I began as I always do, by slowly, intentionally and prayerfully reading the scripture texts for the day. And, as we all know, and I’ve already shared, the scripture for today includes a story that we most often hear on Christmas. The story of Jesus’ birth as offered to us in the second chapter of Saint Luke’s gospel.
I’ve read this story hundreds, if not thousands of times before. I’ve written countless articles, blog posts, sermons and seminary papers about it. Surely, there is nothing new that I could hear from it. Surely I’ve uncovered all that the Holy Spirit wanted to reveal to me in a lifetime spent hearing and studying this story. Surely I know everyone who belongs, who is important in this story.
This year, though, the Holy Spirit decided that I needed to hear something new. Something I wasn’t expecting. Something I had never heard before.
In the nineteenth verse of the second chapter of Luke, I heard, as if for the very first time, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Mary pondered them in her heart. While everything around her was blowing up with shouts of joy from shepherds and angels and everything else in all creation, Mary was quiet. Mary pondered. Mary.
To be honest, I’ve never given Mary much thought before. Of course, I should have. She is, after all, the mother of the savior of the world. But it is so easy to focus on the excitement and noise and chaos of the Christmas story that I think I may have actually been missing part of the center of the Christmas story my entire life. An unwed, teenage woman, giving birth to the savior of the world, the Messiah, Emmanuel, God with us. A birth and a woman who’s experience on that holy night changes creation forever.
And in that moment, as Mary holds the baby Jesus and ponders in her heart what this might mean, she doesn’t send a tweet. She doesn’t rush to her Shutterfly account to change her Christmas card order before it ships. She’s not posting on Facebook all that she has seen and heard. She simply, quietly…ponders.
As Mary takes in all the events of Jesus’ birth, Luke tells us she “treasured” and “pondered” them in her heart. The word “pondered” here is the word symballo in Greek, which can also have stronger and more contentious meanings like “to engage in war with” and “to wrestle with.” Mary takes in, treasures, but she also wrestles deeply with the meaning of the experiences she is having because of Jesus birth.
Later in our worship today, we will sing “let every heart prepare him room.” Will our hearts have room to wage war with, wrestle with, to ponder what the birth of a savior named Jesus has to do with us as we seek to try and follow this savior beyond today?
I’m not going to pretend to know why you are here. I don’t know what you are feeling as I share this crazy discovery I’ve had with a scripture reading that we hear every year at Christmas. I don’t know if you’ve ever had an experience that felt like you were wrestling with God before. Or if you believe that the Holy Spirit has anything to do with our faith journey. I’m not going to judge you if this is your 1st or 500th time hearing the Christmas story as told from the gospel of Saint Luke.
I’m okay with wherever you may be.
As I’ve studied and wrestled with and pondered in preparation for this time of worship, I want you to know that I’m glad you are here today. I want you to know that I’m really glad you and I are able to experience the Christmas story together tonight. To ponder it a little more deeply.
I believe the people who are sitting near you today are glad that you are here as well, after all, they are part of this story too. They might even be wrestling with it just like you are.
And I believe with everything that I am as a Christian pastor that Jesus Christ, the savior of the world whose birth we celebrate tonight, is glad you are here too.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, as our journey of faith continues beyond this time in worship on this most sacred night called Christmas, take time to silence the chaos and noise of the world around you once in a while. Take time to wage war with the things that pull you away from your relationship with God. Take time to simply be with God. To make room in your heart for the Christ-child to live. To ponder a little in order to hear the quiet voice of God speaking to you by name. To wrestle with the fact that God has come to us in Jesus, and because of that truth, nothing in all creation will ever be the same again.
Merry Christmas brothers and sisters. Merry Christmas. Amen.
Matthew 11:2-19 • December 12, 2019
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ child who comes. Amen.
If you have been in a Christian worship service during the season of Advent – either this year or any other year before – chances are likely you have heard a little bit about Jesus’ cousin, John. John the Baptist or John the Baptizer as he is often called. John plays a pretty significant role in the story of Jesus. Most of the scripture that we hear during Advent, John is present in one way or another.
And most often, when we think of John, we think of this crazy man living in the wilderness, wearing clothing made of camel’s hair, and eating locusts and wild honey. A crazy man running around telling people to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” There’s more to that crazy story about John the Baptist in the third chapter of Matthew if you want to dig deeper.
In short, though, John is not only a crazy guy living in the wilderness or simply Jesus’ long lost cousin, John is also kind of a prophet. A prophet who is confident that the Messiah is coming. John is the one whom the prophet Isaiah said would be a voice crying out in the wilderness, declaring “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John is someone whom the Old Testament prophets proclaimed would be the strong, confident person who would tell us exactly when the Messiah had arrived. The person who would let us know when the Kingdom of God was being ushered in with the Savior’s arrival.
Just a few chapters after this image is painted for us of a confident and bold John, the writer of Matthew’s gospel gives us a very different vision of who John is.
Rather than being a crazy guy living in the wilderness calling us to repent.
Rather than a man filled with passion at the arrival of the Messiah.
This John is unsure.
This John has doubt.
He is sitting in a prison cell, knowing that his death is near. He’s no longer certain whether the Jesus he has known is actually the Messiah. Was the one he baptized really the one he, and the rest of creation, had been waiting for all along?
In John’s darkest moment, in his weakest day, he calls out to Jesus “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
How often do our lives of faith sound or look like John’s? Living life fully and adventurously. Partying it up, shopping until we drop, oblivious to the needs of others around us as we head toward Christmas at a frantic pace that leaves us exhausted and confused.
And then all of a sudden, we discover ourselves confined.
It might not be a prison cell as in John’s case. Maybe it’s burdensome debt in the aftermath of joyful Christmas shopping or simply a lifetime of irresponsible spending? Maybe it’s a relationship with someone we’ve loved deeply that is anything but loving and healthy right now? Maybe it’s unrealistic expectations you and I place upon a season like Christmas, expectations that only actually come true in Hallmark Christmas movies or greeting cards?
Wherever you may be today, I invite you to join John from whatever prison cell you are in and not be afraid to ask Jesus again “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus’ response to John’s question is not what John was expecting. John was expecting a Messiah that would be powerful in ways that would destroy evil people like King Herod, the very reason why he was in jail in the first place. John was expecting a Messiah who would destroy all that was wrong with the world in his eyes, and make it right.
But that’s not who Jesus is as the Messiah. By this point in time though, John is probably wondering if all that baptizing, wearing odd clothing, eating weird food, and preaching in the wilderness meant anything at all. After all, it certainly hasn’t made John’s life any better. Was all of his work done for nothing?
And then Jesus responds –
“Go and tell John what you hear and see; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” And then Jesus goes on to show the crowds further examples of what the Kingdom of God coming into the world through the Messiah looks like.
Brothers and sisters, in this Advent season, what are you seeing and hearing as you ask Jesus if he is the one? How are you experiencing the Kingdom of God coming into the world?
Is the Messiah you are seeking one who will rule the nations with military power and might? The Messiah who is coming into our world is the one standing next to you as you feed the hungry and help the poor in our community with your hands, feet, voices, and financial resources? Work that you and I do together as Good Shepherd each year by volunteering thousands of hours of time and hundreds of thousands of dollars to share Christ’s love with our brothers and sisters.
Is the Messiah you are seeking the one who can only be found in church buildings like the one we are sitting in right now? The Messiah who is coming into our world is the one who is walking beside all of God’s children, in every place and time. That might look an awful lot like a public school classroom or the state capital building or on the internet and social media sites you and I visit or among those living in refugee camps in parts of the world that we will never step foot or among fellow child of God who lives in our own state’s penitentiary.
John’s expectation of the coming Messiah needed to change. What he expected and what God actually sent are very different. How do our expectations of the coming Messiah need the same kind of change this Advent? Maybe for you, they need to change in ways you can’t even imagine while sitting here today? Maybe you have a bit of fear or anxiety about the change that needs to take place? I know my own expectations of the coming Messiah have been challenged and needed change recently.
For the past year or so, Good Shepherd has been part of a mission project with Luther Seminary and the Lily Foundation called Leadership for Faithful Innovation. A recently formed Guiding Team in our own congregation will continue to walk us through this project. In so many ways, this process may change how we see and hear the coming Messiah. At least, that is my hope as one of your spiritual leaders.
During Advent, our Guiding Team is inviting us to share God Moments with each other. To share times when we see the Messiah coming into the world in our everyday lives. These God Moments might simply be a photo that captures a moment or a brief reflection or a short story. It might be a life-changing experience or a simple encounter that caused you to stop for a few seconds and give God thanks.
What you and I are being invited to do is the exact same thing that Jesus tells John’s disciples to do – “Go and tell John what you hear and see.”
As our Advent journey continues this week, you and I will probably again ask Jesus the question “Are you the Messiah, or are we to wait for another?” In our journey of faith, as we ask that question, do not be afraid to tell others what you hear and see. It probably won’t look like a military takeover, but it might bring good news to the poor. It probably won’t immediately solve all of the hunger and homeless issues our communities face, but it might relieve the suffering of one child of God, or maybe even two.
A colleague, Pastor Dave Lose writes, “Because we believe Christ is coming to bring healing, peace, justice, and hope, we act now to make our congregations and communities, our country and the world more healthy, more peaceful, more just, more hopeful.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, may you be blessed in all of your God moments this Advent. I hope and pray that they are moments to show others what you hear and see, moments that prepare the way for Christ, moments that celebrate the Messiah who comes to us. And in the hope that each moment brings, I will continue to pray…Come Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.
Commitment Weekend • Christ the King • November 24, 2019
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord, Savior and King Jesus the Christ. Amen.
So, one appropriate greeting for today in the church is, Happy New Year! Because, this is, technically speaking, the last weekend of the year for the Christian church. Christ the King Day is our New Year’s Eve so to speak. It’s kind of interesting, isn’t it, that Lutheran Christians celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of another by hearing scripture readings about Jesus bloody and gruesome death on a cross. Doesn’t seem like much of a festive occasion, does it?
Today also marks one of the great celebration days in the life of our congregation. We celebrate all that God is doing and all that God will continue – hopefully – to do in our congregation over the next year. Today, we prayerfully make our financial commitments to our shared work.
Commitment weekend in the life of a congregation like Good Shepherd has nothing to do with your pastor standing before you and begging you for more of your hard-earned money. Commitment weekend has everything to do with celebrating the work God is already doing through the congregation we love and the ways God is inviting us to be part of that work through our financial gifts. Financial gifts that are God’s in the first place by the way.
At the heart of all this – one theologian asked a question this week that I’ve found absolutely spot on. They asked “Who is Jesus?” As you hear that question, what do you hear? If someone asked you this week, “You’re a Christian, aren’t you? Don’t you go to that crazy Lutheran church by the Y? Who is Jesus anyway? Why do you waste your time with all of that Jesus stuff?”
This theologian didn’t just ask the question “Who is Jesus?” and then stop. They tried to dig a little deeper into it, especially as it relates to the gospel reading before us today. A gospel reading that seems incredibly out of place given the time of the year and the fact that this week is Thanksgiving, and Advent and Christmas come immediately on the heels of the Thanksgiving holiday.
Here’s what they wrote – “Jesus’ true identity seems to remain a mystery for most of the disciples. Jesus can teach, preach, heal, cast out demons, challenge authority and more, but still they do not comprehend. You might say it is a case of mistaken identity as the disciples and other followers seem to be hoping to discover something very different from the real Jesus. It is the criminal executed with Jesus who in his dying desperation says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Clearly, the criminal has no other hope, still in this moment he acknowledges Jesus’ true identity.”
They concluded their thought by bringing this question of Jesus identity to today, “Modern followers of Jesus,” they wrote, “resemble those ancient followers in many ways. Everyone has their own image of Jesus, the gifts we want Jesus to bring us, the ways we want Jesus to fix those things in our lives that cause pain or suffering. In our anxiety we want Jesus to be our magical everything in an instant.” [THANK YOU to the writers of the sermon illustration section of www.sundaysandseasons.com for this wonderful insight on which this sermon is built]
Hanging on a cross, brothers and sisters, Jesus isn’t a genie in a bottle waiting to grant you your next week. But Jesus is the King, the savior of the world, preparing the way for you. For me. And for everyone who ever has or ever will claim to be a follower of this King.
The simple question – “who is Jesus?” – is why I believe we intentionally set aside a day in the church year to celebrate Christ as King. And asking each other the question “Who is Jesus?” is why I believe making a prayerful financial commitment to the congregation that we are members of each year is such an important act of discipleship.
I spent about 30 hours in Chicago this week. Around 8 of those hours were in Chicago’s O’Hare International airport. As I sat in the airport, I couldn’t help but look around and ask “I wonder who these folks, running frantically through the airport, think Jesus is? Do they know? Have they ever experienced Jesus before? Especially this Jesus hanging on a cross. Jesus who says to a scumbag criminal hanging next to him “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Would they financially support or give of their time for the work of that Jesus? I kept thinking, am I – even while wearing a clerical collar in one of the largest airports in the world – showing anyone around me a little bit of who Jesus is?
In a few minutes, you and I will be invited to share our weekly tithes and offerings. Tithes and offerings are Good Shepherd’s only source of financial support for the work God is doing here. We will also be invited today to prayerfully consider what our financial commitment to this work might look like over the next year. Both – our weekly offerings and tithes; and the yearly financial promise we make before God – are among the most significant ways we live out our faith as disciples of Jesus as our answers to the question “who is Jesus?” take shape.
Since I started serving at Good Shepherd in 2002, the annual ministry financial plan, or church budget, of Good Shepherd seems to always work itself out by the end of the year. I trust that the Holy Spirit is part of the reason why that happens.
At the same time, I struggle with the way it happens. I struggle that folks wait to give anything to God’s work through their church until the last minute. As if God isn’t blessing them in March or June. They wait to see if they need to give anything at all or if the church budget can be balanced without their giving and they can just keep it all to themselves.
I struggle with this because I see first-hand, literally hundreds of missed mission and ministry opportunities God places before us each year that we can’t do because we can’t financially support them at the time God presents them to us during the year. I can’t help but imagine what it would look like if a congregation like Good Shepherd – or any other Christian community for that matter – fully embraced the incredible potential that God places before us to show others who Jesus is. Especially if our giving was a reflection of the abundance God has blessed us with and not just because the church needs to make a budget.
Think about it this way. There’s been a chart in your bulletin throughout November that highlights what I believe the Spirit is trying to say to us today. There are a little over 1,600 households who consider themselves members of Good Shepherd. About half of those households give less than $1 per year to support God’s work through our congregation. If every one of those 1,600 households increased their giving by just $5 per week – about the cost of a cup of coffee or a cheap glass of wine – we would see an increase in our potential to grow our mission and ministry by nearly $400,000. Just imagine the impact an additional $400,000 a year could have on God’s children. God’s children, who maybe for the first time in their life, would be able to experience who Jesus is, simply because you and I made a decision to forego one cup of coffee a week over the next year.
A few months ago I wrote an article called the 4 Gs of Discipleship. This was something first introduced to me by Pastor Tim Johnson. You might remember Pastor Tim when he did an Intentional Interim here. Over 40+ years of serving in pastoral ministry he shared these four truths of discipleship with every new member he ever had the privilege of meeting.
He would start by stating that if their only role in joining the church was to take up space, he didn’t believe they actually wanted to become members of the church or live as disciples of Jesus. His four Gs of discipleship are that disciples of Jesus – gather together as a community of faith in many times and places; they grow alongside their brothers and sisters in Christ throughout their journey of faith, they don’t just grow until Confirmation is finally over; they go into the world to show everyone they meet who Jesus is; AND, they give to support the ministry and mission God is calling the congregation they are joining to live out in the world.
On this Christ the King and Commitment weekend, we are reminded that all four Gs of discipleship – gather, grow, give, and go – are central to our life of faith. After all, we are disciples of Jesus who not only ask ourselves “Who is Jesus?”, but we also try to live our answer to that question in ways that demonstrate who Jesus is for us in all that we say and do.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, I believe that is what’s before us today as a congregation. Who is Jesus? How do the gifts of our hands, feet, voices and financial resources demonstrate that we know who is Jesus is, that we’re seeking to more deeply experience what it means to know Jesus every day and that we are willing to share who Jesus is with everyone God places along our path? Who is Jesus for you? Amen.
Luke 14:25-33 • September 8, 2019
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Our gospel text today begins by informing us that large crowds are traveling with Jesus by this point in his ministry. I wonder how large the crowds were after Jesus offers this teaching to them about discipleship. About what it looks like to actually be a disciple.
In my own faith journey, if I read Jesus instruction in today’s gospel in a black and white literal way, I can’t help believe that I’d be one of those in the crowd who walks away at this point. Following this Jesus is just going to be WAY too hard.
Hate my family? Are you kidding me Jesus? Yes, they drive me nuts some times, but hate them? I couldn’t possibly do that.
Carry the cross? Oh that’s easy. I’m carrying all kinds of crosses all the time Jesus, which one do you want me to carry now?
Or maybe the one that seems to sting the most, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
Many of you know that I own a few guitars. How many, you ask? Well…more than I probably should, but definitely one less than too many. My guitars are part of my very being. Simply put, I believe that I can no more be a good husband, father, pastor, son or anything else God calls me to be without the presence of my guitars. Music ebbs and flows through everything that I am or am called to do or be as a child of God, a disciple of Jesus. I don’t see my guitars as possessions but as extensions of who I am.
I’ve been shopping for a new addition to the family lately. This past Monday, I was able to make a deal on a guitar that I’d been looking at for a few weeks. It’s actually the one that’s on the screen today – and soon, with the help of FedEx, after making a deal on it this past Labor Day Monday, this guitar will become part of our family. And I’m very grateful for that.
Shortly after this exciting purchase and sharing the good news with my wife, I sat down to do a few minutes of sermon study before we had to leave for a brunch that we were invited to attend. As I came to the last verse of our gospel reading, my heart sank. I was still basking in the joy of a new guitar as I heard Jesus say to me “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
Of the four gospels, Luke is the gospel that speaks about wealth the most. Luke points to the way wealth gets in the way of being able to follow Jesus. Being able to be a disciple.
All of the scripture and themes that are before us on this Rally Day – the kick-off to Good Shepherd’s fall ministry and mission – all center us again on discipleship. And what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. This couldn’t be a more perfect theme for this day. Because all too often, the way we live our life each day actually pulls us away from being a disciple of Jesus.
So, let’s take a few minutes and dig a little deeper into this. What does it mean to be a disciple? What is a disciple? Are disciples only the 12 men that Jesus chose to follow him at the beginning of the gospel story? Or are you and I also disciples as the gospel story continues to be told and written in our day and time?
One description for a disciple that I’ve found helpful over the years is this. “A (disciple is a) person who follows Jesus, who is, of course, pursuing us. Being a disciple is always to know that Jesus is on a mission to us – to love us, to save us, and to bless us. And being a disciple is always to know that we follow Jesus on this mission and that Jesus is on a mission through us – to love through us, to save through us, and to bless through us.” [Crazy Talk, Rev. Dr. Rolf Jacobson, pg. 53-54]
Being a disciple of Jesus is not something we initiate, it’s something God initiates through Jesus for us. Being a disciple is not about worrying that we’ll get caught if we don’t obey a prescribed set of rules.
Being a disciple is a way of living that shows others who Jesus is through you. If you are a disciple of Jesus, people around you should know it and experience Jesus in all that you say and do.
How do people in your life right now experience Jesus through you as you participate in worship? Are you just sitting there? Or are you actively engaged and participating?
How will people in your life experience Jesus through you on Tuesday or another time when you are not in a formal church worship service?
At the end of our worship today we will participate in a blessing of our vocations. On this Rally Day, it’s a way that sends us out into the world knowing that everything we say and do in our life, is a reflection of Jesus working through us. The word we use to describe this is our vocation. Whatever vocation you are being called to live out this week, it is Jesus working through you that enables that vocation to exist in the first place.
Jesus is on a mission to you that is being lived out in the world through you, right now.
May the vocations God calls you and me into being a reflection of this truth for all the world to see.
The truth of what a disciple looks like today.
Another description of a disciple that I like is this – “To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a student, learner, or apprentice in a community of mutual growth in love.” [The Agile Church, Dwight Zscheile, pg. 10]
I’ve always seen myself as a student and learner. I’m constantly trying to understand more deeply what it means to be a disciple, what it means to live my life as a disciple. I’m constantly reading, studying scripture, taking classes, and having conversations with brothers and sisters in Christ about faith and life.
All of us who call Good Shepherd our faith home has countless opportunities outside of weekly worship to be students. To be life-long learners of the faith in a community of faith that loves us deeply.
I invite you to get involved over the next few months in at least one of the wide variety of ministry programs and events offered at Good Shepherd. I believe they will challenge you to grow deeper in what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
And maybe the most pointed description of being a disciple I’ve ever come across is from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic book The Cost of Discipleship. Shortly before Bonhoeffer was executed in a Nazi concentration camp in April 1945, he wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.”
When Jesus calls you to be his disciple, he calls you to come and die.
For us, as Lutheran Christians, this call to come and die is exactly what we are talking about when we begin the celebration of the sacrament of Holy Baptism with the words “In baptism our gracious heavenly Father frees us from sin and death by joining us to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
You see, baptism is not a five-minute liturgy during a worship service with a bunch of words and promises that have no bearing on the rest of our lives. Baptism joins us to the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus. In baptism, we are called to be disciples.
Jesus knows there are many things that will compete for our attention. Many things. Way too many things.
What Jesus asks of us as God’s children who are called to be his disciples, is that we put all of the things that compete for our attention aside and focus only on him and the cross which ultimately gives us life?
Discipleship calls us to come and die. Because it is only in a death like this that we will ever be joined to life with Jesus.
Several times a year, I’m invited to offer an opening prayer or invocation for local events or conventions in town. Often times, a presentation of the colors followed by the pledge of allegiance or singing of the national anthem happens at the same time. At one of these events, the color guard and the pledge of allegiance came before the prayer. This was the first, and only time as far as I can remember, that it has ever happened in this order. I honestly didn’t think much of it. Someone forgot to tell the MC what the agenda for the day was going to be.
After I finished the prayer and left the stage, I was met by the commander of the color guard. He waited for me because he wanted to offer an apology. He said, “I’m very sorry Reverend. Something got messed up in the schedule and I’m very sorry it happened. You have my word that it will not happen again.”
I asked him what was wrong. I thought everything went just fine.
He said, “It didn’t go fine pastor. We are not supposed to present the colors before the prayer. It is always God before country. Always. I’m very sorry.”
Now, I’m far from an expert on this. And I’m not sure there is a steadfast, black and white rule on this. I’ve actually researched it a little and what I’ve found is that it varies a little depending on the type of event or location of the event or who’s at the event. The order is even different between the chambers of the United States Congress – one way in the Senate, a different way in the House.
What struck me in that brief conversation and apology from the commander was not so much the order of things at this event, but the heart of things expressed by a disciple of Jesus. The heart of this decorated veteran now serving proudly and faithfully as a commander of a local color guard reminding me, the pastor, as he said “It’s God before country pastor. It’s always supposed to be God before country.”
“Why yes, sir. Yes. Yes it is,” was the only reply I could offer. And I thanked him for reminding me of that truth.
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, on this Rally Day, in the life of our congregation, I believe that’s all Jesus is trying to say to his disciples – to you and me – again today.
Above your relationship with your father or mother; wife or children; brothers or sisters, your relationship with God is most important and always comes first. Frankly, I do not believe you can have a healthy relationship with anyone else if you don’t have a healthy relationship with God.
And may our possessions never become things that possess us and take control of our lives if we truly want to be disciples of Jesus. Yes, I am looking forward to that new guitar arriving soon, I’m not going to lie about that. But that guitar, or any other guitar I own, will never get in the way of how I respond to Jesus calling me to serve as one of his disciples.
Finally, as our vocations are blessed today, I hope and pray that we enter this new day and a new week, and a new season of the church’s year, by confidently taking up our cross and following Jesus wherever he may lead. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Luke 13:10-17 • August 25, 2019
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord of all healing and savior of the world Jesus the Christ. Amen.
This week gives me an opportunity to remind everyone in worship that your pastors, in fact, do not select the scripture readings we receive each week in worship. And thanks be to God for that truth. You see, if your pastors were the ones who decided which scripture readings we would use, I firmly believe the list of those readings would be quite short and the readings before us today – especially the gospel reading – would probably not be on that list.
Good Shepherd, and the majority of congregations in our denomination of the ELCA and dozens of our sister Christian denominations around the world, follow something known as the Revised Common Lectionary. The Revised Common Lectionary was first developed in the late 1960’s.
It’s a 3-year sequence of readings that walk us through the bulk of the Bible as one Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament, and Gospel reading are assigned for each Sunday and festival day of the church year.
The gospel reading from Saint Luke that is before us today is a story of Jesus teaching in the synagogue. This particular story is only found in Luke’s gospel. Even though it is unique to Luke’s gospel, it is not unique to the overarching picture that all four gospels are trying to show us regarding who Jesus is and what Jesus has come into the world to do.
There are three prominent themes in this text – Sabbath and what the practice of Sabbath may or may not mean; healing or exorcism of a woman suffering from the bondage of none other than Satan himself; and, a conflict that breaks out between Jesus and the religious leaders of the synagogue.
The Sabbath. I hope that most of us know that keeping Sabbath is one of the 10 Commandments. It’s the third commandment actually – “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” And in our Catechism we learn the meaning of this commandment that “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn it.”
The challenge with the Sabbath is that culture, over thousands of years of human arrogance and sin, has driven you and me away from what I believe God actually intended the Sabbath to be.
Now, If you didn’t know that insight about the third commandment and Sabbath, maybe you recall the origination of Sabbath as it’s found within the seven days of creation in Genesis, the second chapter of the first book of the Bible. In that chapter, we hear “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day, God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day and hallowed it because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.”
Now, for some faith traditions, the Sabbath is to be observed on Saturday, for others it’s Sunday. And for many of my pastoral colleagues, it’s a different day of the week entirely.
First of all, it’s impossible for us to think about the seven days of creation as seven 24-hour days like we have today. Our seven 24-hour days in a week system of time has only existed for 4,000-5,000 years or so. And regardless of how old you think creation is, the way we have kept time over the past 5,000 or so years is far different than the way time was kept at the beginning of creation. Or even the way I think the time is kept today by God.
What I’m trying to get at is this, if Sabbath-keeping for you is only about a prescribed time of the week or a particular day or certain practices that you must follow using a prescribed set of rules, you might be getting caught up in things which actually have nothing to do with what Sabbath-keeping is all about. I think this is at the heart of what Jesus is showing us in today’s gospel reading. And I do think it’s the reason why the religious leader is so upset by Jesus healing on the Sabbath.
On my calendar, Mondays are blocked off as my Sabbath day. Of the 52 Mondays in 2019, I’m hoping for about 15 of them to be actual Sabbath days. When my phone rings or I get a late-night text message or email, I do my best to answer. And often those calls to serve God’s children just so happen to fall on what is scheduled to be my Sabbath day.
Just because I fail to keep Monday sacred and set aside from any form of work more often than not, does not mean that I’m ignoring the Sabbath. If I was in fact blatantly ignoring Sabbath, I couldn’t stand before you today as one of your pastors and a fellow child of God claiming to follow this Jesus. Very simply and directly put, I do not believe that one can be a follower of Jesus and intentionally ignore God’s command to remember the Sabbath.
One theologian’s thoughts on Sabbath were helpful for me to hear again this week – “Maybe ‘Remember the Sabbath’ is being too polite about it.” He said. “There’s no ‘thou shalt’ or ‘thou shalt not.’ Perhaps a rewording is in order. Something like: (God saying to us…) ‘Hey, … ! What is wrong with you people? 168 hours in a week is not enough for you? I ask you to set aside just one day so that you can rest up long enough to be renewed for the coming week, and what do you do? Double overtime, 80-hour workweeks, and supercenters open 24/7! How are you ever going to slow down long enough so that you can gather together in Christian worship and sit still long enough to hear the Word that I have to share with you? Stop! Listen!” [Crazy Talk, Rolf Jacobson, pg. 150]
When God entered the seventh day of creation, he didn’t simply push it aside and ignore all he had created in order to make sure he had time to take a nap. God hallowed what had been created. Hallow – another one of those crazy church words. It means to make holy or to set apart.
In other words, the Sabbath is not about being lazy and making sure you can selfishly take a nap. The Sabbath is about time you intentionally set aside in order to see what is already holy before you. In order to be drawn closer to God.
I gravitate quite freely and am getting better at openly admitting that I’m a bit of a workaholic. Having this tendency, and being called to serve in the vocation of pastor where the opportunity to work is always before me, there are more times than I care to admit when Sabbath-keeping is challenging. The reality is today’s gospel reading should be on my shortlist of scripture. It might help remind me of the many times hypocrisy enters into my speech, especially when I’m tired because I’ve been working too many hours; times when Satan cripples my ability to see God’s beauty in all of God’s good creation and all of God’s children; times when I need to let Jesus touch me, without even asking him to touch me, in order to be healed, so my heart can be opened and my spirit can be renewed in the regular rhythm of remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy.
In our gospel reading today, in one sense Jesus is breaking the Sabbath in the present moment. Disregarding all of the rules that one is supposed to follow for proper Sabbath observation. In Jesus’ opinion, this woman’s suffering has gone on long enough and she simply cannot wait another day for healing to take place. Her future begins now. And it begins with great joy as healing happens on the Sabbath.
In another sense, Jesus is not breaking, but fulfilling the commandment of Sabbath. Fulfilling the commandment of the Sabbath in ways that the religious leaders in Jesus’ day didn’t understand because they were trying to hold on as tightly as they could to the rules and regulations of the past. Rules and regulations that Jesus, the savior of the world, came to fulfill. Imagine the relief that the woman in our gospel reading must have felt after 18 long agonizing years of being crippled by Satan.
What does Sabbath look like for you today?
Where in your life is Satan overpowering you?
Where in your life is the chaos and noise of this world blocking your ability to hear Jesus say to you “you are set free from your ailment?”
Where in your life are the rules and regulations you’re hanging onto so tightly destroying your very soul and causing your heart to be closed to the new thing God is doing in your life, in our community, in our world?
Brothers and sisters in Christ, this “is what God has given us in the Sabbath – the gift of reconnecting with our soul, the gift of reconnecting with God, the gift of once again realizing what freedom of life means. It is the chance to once again stand up straight and praise God for all that we are and all that we will become. It is the freedom to be what God intended us to be.” [https://journeytopenuel.com/2016/08/14/proper-16c-the-sabbath-is-calling/]
Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Amen.
Luke 12:49-56 * August 18, 2019
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Savior and refining fire Jesus the Christ. Amen.
If you remember the gospel reading from last week as we began this journey through the twelfth chapter of the gospel of Saint Luke, you may recall the tone of that teaching from Jesus to be a bit more gentle. And I would argue with Pastor Julie’s thesis that mathematics is God’s language. I do not believe that. I guess we’d be divided on that thesis.
And you know what, that’s ok. After all, we are church.
I have a dear mentor and friend, a former Bishop in our denomination, who has his own theory about math and the church. He’s told me many times over the years that he believes Lutherans are bad at math. “We spend way to much time focused on subtraction and division,” he’d say, “rather than addition and multiplication.” The longer I am called to serve as a Lutheran pastor, the more prophetic and true I think this retired Bishop’s thoughts on mathematics and the church are. But we are still called to be church.
500 years ago, in essence, there was one Lutheran denomination that emerged out of the Reformation – whether Martin Luther wanted a new church to come out of the Reformation or not is beside the point. Today, as far as I can figure out – remember I’m not much of a math person – there are more than 150 Christian denominations around the world who identify themselves as Lutheran. More than 150 different kinds of Lutheran denominations. We are church?
I don’t believe the division we’ve seen in the Lutheran Christian movement over the past five centuries is the kind of division Jesus is speaking of in the gospel of Luke. It’s not the same thing. But I do believe with everything I am as a follower of Jesus, that the division we continue to see in the Lutheran world, and really all of Christian world, breaks God’s heart. I do not believe this is what God hoped would happen in our world when he sent Jesus into it. I do not believe that the divided church today is what Jesus intended to have happen. We are church.
If you’re only image of Jesus is that of a gentle, shepherd with a quiet voice, someone who is kind of a pushover, I invite you to spend some time re-reading the gospel text that’s in front of us today.
Jesus saying “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Doesn’t exactly give us a picture of a gentle Jesus.
Jesus saying, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Doesn’t exactly plant in my mind a gentle shepherd sitting by a lakeshore sharing stories that are easy to understand and apply to my life in ways that I can control. Ways that I’ll then apply to my life as I see the need. Ways that I can choose to do or not do in three easy steps from the comfort of my living room couch.
Jesus calling us “hypocrites” doesn’t exactly speak to unconditional love and acceptance and encouragement to continue destroying each other and sinning without thought of how it hurts us and our neighbors. We are church.
Today’s gospel reading is one of the only times where I think Jesus is actually a bit ticked off. He doesn’t like the way things are and the way they seem to continue to be. Remember, Jesus didn’t come in to the world to start a new church or religious denomination because he disagreed with the one that was already here. He came because God knew that we needed a savior. God knew that we were going to screw things up and it was only because of a savior that we were ever going to be able to start getting any of this right. We are church.
Jesus wasn’t talking about division in the ways we think about it today. I mean, come on, if I just say the word division, every one of you immediately has a picture in your mind of what that looks like for you in our world today. Our sin-filled world continues to be fed by division and it seems to get more and more divided with each passing day. Our unquenchable thirst and appetite for division didn’t surprise God 2,000 years ago. And I don’t believe it surprises God today.
Which is why Jesus is so eager to light a fire. Because it’s a fire of change. A fire of God’s goodness and activity in the world. A fire that will bring about God’s kingdom now. No wonder why Jesus is so excited to get this thing started. It’s really too bad that we still miss that today. After all, we are church.
I just returned from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Churchwide Assembly. This Assembly meets every three years and is the highest legislative and policy-making body of our church. I was not a voting member. However, this was my fourth Churchwide Assembly. I participate as part of the worship leadership team. I’m grateful for the invitation to help with leading worship each day of the Assembly.
And I’m grateful that we have something called a Churchwide Assembly in our denomination – they do a lot of good things. They also do a lot of things that leave me scratching my head for a long time after the dust of a Churchwide Assembly has settled.
The theme of this year’s Churchwide Assembly was simply “We are Church.”
There are policy decisions that were made at this year’s Churchwide Assembly that I’m not sure I will ever agree on, but I am thankful that the we in “We are Church” still includes me. Maybe that uncomfortable feeling I have in cases of decisions made that I don’t agree with is a little of the fire that Jesus is speaking of in today’s gospel reading. Fire that is challenging me to rethink my theological understanding of something. Challenging me to be open to a new way of doing something. Challenging me to stay connected to my brothers and sisters in the body of Christ that we call the church even as I struggle with my own belief.
There are also decisions that were made at this year’s Churchwide Assembly that I celebrate and cheer. But I know in the shadow of my celebration, there is someone who is grieving or even angry at the same time. Sin calls me to just push them aside. Jesus calls me to not be a hypocrite and to interpret the present time as an opportunity to offer care for the one I may have already pushed away. We are church.
Pastor Debbie Thomas wrote this week that, “If ‘tender Jesus, meek and mild’ is what we prefer, then this week’s text is not for us. If feel-good religion is the comfort zone we refuse to leave, then we’re missing out, because the peace of God is about so much more than good feelings. Or to put it differently, if neither you nor anyone within your sphere of influence has ever been provoked, disturbed, surprised, or challenged by your life of faith, then things are not okay in your life of faith.” We are church.
By the end of the Churchwide Assembly week, aside from being exhausted mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, I was also very grateful. Grateful to have discovered anew how holy and beautiful the theme “We are Church” is. And how grateful I am to be able to be part of this thing called church. I am a long way from agreeing with everything we do together as a denomination or everything we do together as the congregation of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church for that matter, but in everything you and I do together as followers of the risen savior of Jesus … “We are Church.”
I hope and pray that God continues to want us to be church for a long time to come. And I hope and pray that Jesus lights a fire in each one of us in ways that inspire us to get better at math – math that involves addition and multiplication rather than subtraction and division. Because we are church. Amen.
Luke 11:1-13 • July 28, 2019
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
A young boy – fourth or fifth grade – was kneeling beside his bed one evening, offering his bedtime prayers. His mother overheard part of the prayer as she stood outside the bedroom. Part of his passionate and persistent prayer included, “Let it be Tokyo! Please dear God, let it be Tokyo!”
Mom walked into the room for a goodnight kiss when he had finished. She asked him, “What did you mean, ‘Let it be Tokyo’?”
The boy said, “We had a geography test today and I was praying to God that God would make Tokyo the capital of France.”
Does that sound like any of your prayers? Or at least familiar to some of them? I know it sounds a bit like some of my prayers.
What’s your earliest memory of prayer?
Who taught you how to pray?
This may surprise some of you, but I don’t remember ever receiving formal training on prayer or how to pray. At least not in the way that this unnamed disciple is asking Jesus to do for him in our gospel reading today.
I think my first memory of prayer is probably this bedtime prayer. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord, my soul, to take.”
Or I remember a meal prayer from the Catholic tradition of my childhood – “Bless us, oh Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.” I actually remember offering that prayer once as the table prayer for an event here. I invited everyone to join me in saying it. At the end of the prayer, all I saw was the blank stares of a whole lot of Lutherans who had no idea what prayer I had just offered.
I also have fond memories of watching my German-Russian immigrant grandparents pray the rosary at St. Phillip Neri Catholic Church in Napoleon, ND. Sometimes prayed in German. Sometimes in English. Often some hybrid combination of the two languages. Even though my grandfather arrived in the United States as a young man, his first language was German until the day he died. He did learn English in order to survive in the US, but I do not believe it ever became his primary language.
Over my lifetime, I’ve read hundreds of articles and books on prayer, attended conferences and spiritual retreats that have impacted my prayer life deeply, and I even have two hours of every day blocked off on my calendar specifically for prayer.
I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that I don’t recall ever asking someone to, “teach me how to pray.” like this disciple asks Jesus to do. And to be honest, I think prayer, has been, and continues to be, a journey for me. A deep and sacred journey that we call faith that will one day culminate in meeting Jesus face to face. Until then, I continue along the way. And some days are better than others when it comes to prayer.
I’ve referenced the book “Help. Thanks. Wow. The Three Essential Prayers.” in many places in recent years. I continue to see it as one of the better books on prayer that I’ve come across in the last decade or so. Anne Lamott is the author. She has a way of expressing faith and the spiritual journey that really connects with me. Her simple, yet profound, 102 page book is a brilliant exploration of prayer.
She opens the book with a chapter called Prayer 101 and says, “I do not know much about God and prayer, but I have come to believe,…, there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple.” [pg. 1]
“Prayer means that, in some unique way, we believe we’re invited into a relationship with someone who hears us when we speak in silence.” [pg. 4]
“Prayer can be motion and stillness and energy – all at the same time.” [pg. 5]
“Prayer is talking to someone or anything with which we seek union, even if we are bitter or insane or broken. Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up.” [pg. 5-6]
Lamott concludes the Prayer 101 chapter by saying, “…prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light. It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold.” [pg. 7]
For my own faith journey, what I think I see prayer becoming more and more each day, is less a prescribed format that we must follow in order for God to hear our prayers and more as a way of life in which prayer is constantly unfolding in every part of my life.
Prayer is less about an activity that I carve out of my busy schedule and more of a rhythm that is simply part of my everyday journey.
Every conversation I have is prayer.
Every thought I have is prayer.
Every move I make is prayer.
Everything I touch is prayer.
I believe it is beautiful and holy and sacred, the many times we pray during a worship service – the confession and prayer of the day, the Prayers of God’s People, our songs and hymns, the Lord’s Prayer.
My hope though, as one of your pastors, is that the prayer we share as a community when we gather for worship is not the only time you and I think about praying. My hope is that the prayer we offer when we gather as a community of faith sends us into the world to live all of our lives as living examples of prayer.
The great 20th Century theologian CS Lewis, once said, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”
I believe Lewis’ insight is central to what Jesus teaches us about prayer in the gospels. Jesus is trying to show us how prayer is actually lived out along our faith journey. Frankly, if all we believe about prayer is that it’s about getting what we want when we want it, and how we want it, we might be missing the point of what prayer is all together – at least according to what Jesus teaches us about prayer.
Or as another theologian asked this week, “Does prayer make things happen, or change my perceptions of what ‘is’ already?” [www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-06/july-24-17th-Sunday-ordinary-time]
What I believe Jesus says about prayer, is that prayer re-centers us on the fact that the Holy Spirit is already present.
That the Holy Spirit is already with us and is a gift from God.
That our prayer life – and our persistence in our prayer life – encompasses all that we say and do.
And that this prayer life is already bringing us closer and closer into relationship with each other and in relationship with God through our savior Jesus.
In other words, maybe the answer to our prayer is the fact that God is already with us.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, prayer isn’t only something we are supposed to set aside time to do, that is if we are ever actually able to fit it into our already over-scheduled lives.
It’s not something we should do only when we need something from God or want God to do something for us.
Prayer isn’t simply about memorization and then making sure we are using those memorized prayers at the correct time and in the correct way.
Prayer is how we live out our lives of faith as the Holy Spirit breathes through us.
May you and I be blessed as we live out our lives of faith.
Lives of faith that begin and end in prayer. And all God’s children say.., Amen.
Luke 10:25-37 • July 14, 2019
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
A pastor, not this pastor, by the way, decided to skip church one Sunday morning and go play golf.
He called his Associate Pastor early in the day and told them he wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be at worship. His plan was coming together perfectly. And to make it even more perfect, he drove to a golf course in another city, so nobody would know him.
He teed off on the first hole. Just as his club hit the golf ball perfectly, a huge gust of wind caught the ball, carried it an extra 175 yards and dropped it right in the hole. A 452-yard hole in one.
An angel looked at God and said: “What’d you do that for?”
God smiled and said, “Who’s he going to tell?”
Someone shared that story with me recently on one of my social media sites. And since many of you are not connected with my pastoral ministry online, I thought it’d be a cute story to share today. Honestly, I’m not sure if it has anything to do with today’s gospel at all.
Today’s gospel and the themes weaving throughout our worship together this week are probably familiar to you. Or at least a little familiar. After all, the parable that we know and love as the Good Samaritan is one that extends far beyond the reach of Christianity.
Entire organizations in our society are built around this parable of Jesus – think the Good Samaritan Society that seeks to provide care to some of the most vulnerable in our communities.
United States Presidents and other world leaders have used this parable as an example of national pride and concern for fellow citizens over countless centuries.
And faith communities like our very own congregation often model their mission and ministry out of this parable. How else can we explain the Good Samaritan fund in Good Shepherd’s annual ministry financial plan? Or the fact that even our mission statement echoes its truth. We believe that, as a congregation, we are called “to share the Shepherd’s love with all of God’s children.” In all that we say and do together as a church, this parable is at least part of our work together. Our mission statement doesn’t just say that we should share God’s love only with people from Bismarck who are members of Good Shepherd or only with people whom we deem worthy of God’s love or only with Christians who are also Lutheran or only with people who are citizens of the United States.
All means all for Jesus throughout the gospels and this parable states that truth very directly.
And so we try, as Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, to the best of our God-given ability to live up to that “all” in the mission God has called our congregation, and congregations like us around to the world, to live out in God’s creation.
Brothers and sisters, this is good. Very good. It’s no wonder why this parable is called good. It’s no wonder why this parable has been a blessing to God’s people for 2,000 years.
But here’s something to note. Did you catch that Jesus never says anything about “good” in this parable? He doesn’t call the Samaritan good. Not even once. And he doesn’t say the lawyer or the priest or the Levite are bad either. Or good.
Pastor Eugene Peterson believes that the parables of Jesus are narrative time bombs designed to explode people into new awareness.
Maybe that’s why this parable has become known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan over the last 2,000 years or so. Once in awhile, God’s children need something that causes us to explode a little in order to be moved into a new awareness as it relates to our faith life.
The parable before us today is not simply about doing good when you feel like it, it’s about taking care of your neighbor. Treating everyone as the beloved children of God that they are, wherever they are, whoever they may be.
I’m guessing that you all are a lot like me. We all think we are or at least want to be the Samaritan in this story. It’s a lot better to see ourselves in that role and gives us another opportunity to make fun of and judge the behavior of the lawyer or the priest or the Levite.
Truth be told though, you and I often act more like the lawyer, asking Jesus who really is our neighbor. God can’t possibly love everyone, can he? We need clarification about just who our neighbor actually is before we are going to even think about doing anything for someone else.
Or, we are like the priest, afraid to get our hands dirty to do something good for someone we do not know. Someone different from us. Someone who’s not Lutheran. Or maybe even not Christian. We go out of our way to go around that neighbor in need. Someone who actually knows them can help. Someone who’s part of their community. At least that’s what we often think or say.
Or we are like the Levite, and simply walk by, because the one who needs our help doesn’t actually deserve our help. Why can’t they just pick themselves up and get a job, help themselves for a change?
Let’s take another look at the gospel before us today. And in the spirit of Eugene Peterson’s language, I’ll put a little more fuel on the fire for the narrative time bomb this parable gives us today, shifting us into a new awareness.
A man fell into a pit and couldn’t get himself out.
A subjective person came along and said, “I feel for you down there.”
An objective person came along and said, “It’s logical that someone would fall down there.”
A Pharisee said, “Only bad people fall into a pit.”
A mathematician calculated how he fell into the pit in the first place.
A news reporter wanted an exclusive story on his pit.
A fundamentalist said, “You deserve your pit.”
An IRS man asked if he was paying taxes on the pit.
A self-pitying woman said, “You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen my pit.”
A charismatic said, “Just confess that you’re not in a pit.”
An optimist said, “Things could be worse.”
A pessimist said, “Things will get worse.”
Jesus, seeing the man in the pit, took him by the hand and lifted him out. (from Barbara Johnson, Ecunet, Homiletics, July-September 1995)
At the beginning of today’s gospel reading, a man, who is identified by Luke as a lawyer, asks Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The lawyer offers a list – “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
The lawyer then asks Jesus what I believe is a genuine and faithful question – “And who is my neighbor?” The Parable of the Good Samaritan is how Jesus addresses the lawyer’s follow-up question. A follow-up question that may be the heart of what I believe the Spirit is trying to say through this sermon today.
Jesus shares the parable and then answers the lawyer’s follow up question with another question. “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer, and you and I say, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus says to the lawyer, and to every child of God who has ever claimed to be a follower of Jesus since that day, “Go and do likewise.”
In her 2004 Christmas message, Queen Elizabeth II refers to this parable as being a story about “tolerance and respecting others.” She summarizes it in this way. “Everyone is our neighbor, no matter what race, creed or colour. The need to look after a fellow human being is far more important than any cultural or religious differences.” [Short Stories by Jesus, by Amy Jill-Levine, pg. 79]
Maybe God – through our savior Jesus – is coming to you today as the one who is in the ditch; or maybe God is coming to you and inviting you to be the one who shows compassion and mercy; or maybe God is even coming to you and me today as children of God who need to be reminded who our neighbor is in the first place, so we’ll finally stop beating them up. Or worse yet, walking by and ignoring them, leaving them on the side of the road to die alone.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, as we see our neighbors along this journey we call faith, I hope and pray that we are bold enough to respond to Jesus’ call for mercy. To “go and do likewise.” Because that indeed is good, good news. As Martin Luther instructed us about five centuries ago, “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.”
And, oh yea, if I ever do get a 452-yard hole in one – I guarantee you, that I will share that good news with you too! Even if it happens on a Sunday morning.
Luke 8:26-39 • June 23, 2019
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
In our gospel reading today from the eighth chapter of the gospel according to Saint Luke, we hear a story that I’m guessing is familiar to many of us. The demons and the pigs.
In the story we have a naked man with a bit of a problem – he’s possessed by demons. Not just one demon either. A Legion of demons. Like thousands of demons.
The community has tried to get rid of him. They’ve chained him up, which doesn’t keep him under control. They finally think they have a plan, we’ll isolate him away from the community, in the cemetery, among the tombs. FAAAAR away from any of the normal people in the community.
And, now, as far as all the normal and good people in the community are concerned, this man is as good as dead. Note that the community hasn’t really solved anything, but the problem of this naked, demon-possessed man is at least far enough away to no longer be a nuisance to them.
In a reflection on today’s gospel reading, now retired Wartburg College biblical studies professor Judith Jones said, “Jesus comes to challenge and cast out every power that prevents us from living fully and freely as human beings created in God’s image. Jesus claims sovereignty not just over our soul, but over our lives here on earth. Many among us resist that news, finding deliverance from Legion too frightening, too demanding, too costly. But those whom Jesus has healed and freed know that his liberating love is indeed good news, the gospel that he commands us to proclaim throughout our cities and towns. Still today God is at work in Jesus, bringing God’s kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.” [www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4108]
Did you hear that? “Jesus comes to challenge and cast out every power that prevents us from living fully and freely as human beings created in God’s image. Still today,” Professor Jones believes, “God is at work in Jesus, bringing God’s kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.”
What I believe Jones’ is saying is that today’s gospel reading is not just a quaint little Bible story about a naked man and some pigs. It’s not a story we can ignore because we think it’s not about us anyway. I mean, how many naked men possessed by demons have you ever seen running through the streets of Bismarck? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that.
What Professor Jones is saying though, is that this story is in fact about you. It’s about me. It’s about communities that we know and love like Bismarck or Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.
The gospel of Luke was written around the year 80 a.d. In that time of human history, demons and unclean spirits were not just something that possessed someone and caused them to run around town naked saying strange things. Demons and unclean spirits were things that separated people from being in relationship with other people. And they didn’t just involve demons like a bad horror movie. It also included other kinds of illnesses – think of some of the other healing stories in the gospels like the hemorrhaging woman or the blind man or Jairus’ 12-year old daughter, which is the story that comes immediately after today’s story.
What’s maybe most amazing about the healing stories of Jesus is not just the healing. It’s also the restoration of relationships. And the freedom that restoring those relationships brings to someone’s life and to the community in which they live.
In the story before us today, the demon-possessed naked man is not the one who freed himself, nor is it the community, is it? In Jesus’ healing stories, people are healed because of their encounter with Jesus. It might be a dramatic encounter like the story we heard today with thousands of demons being cast into a herd of pigs that then run off a cliff and drown in the sea. It might also be someone reaching out and simply touching Jesus cloak as he walks by, as is the case with the woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years.
In whatever way these healings happen, they happen because of an experience the person has with the Savior Jesus. And they happen in ways that no one is expecting them to happen.
I’ll be honest, sometimes the miraculous healing stories we hear in the gospels are hard for me to wrap my head and heart around.
I’ve presided at way too many funerals of people who have endured evil journeys with the demons of cancer only to be taken from their loved ones in an untimely death.
I’ve sat with way too many people trying to stay sober in a world that makes it incredibly easy for the demons of alcohol, sex, and drugs to exist.
I’ve walked with way too many people who are on the receiving end of people possessed by unclean spirits. Unclean spirits that project racism and bigotry on other children of God. Beloved children of God who find it nearly impossible to find a safe place to live or be employed simply because of their skin color or sexuality. Even in a community like ours with an almost non-existent unemployment rate.
It’d be easy for me, to be very cynical and simply push aside the healing stories in scripture. These are just made up ancient stories anyway, that have no relevance to my life or the world in which I live today.
It’d be very easy for me, to simply ignore the reality of how I’m part of the healing stories and how they are trying to show me what it looks like to live as a faithful follower of Jesus.
I have to admit, I spend a fair amount of time each week yelling at God and asking where in the heck God is and why God doesn’t heal anymore.
And in every one of those times, if I actually stop yelling and simply listen a little, I often hear Jesus say something to me like he said to the woman who’s hemorrhaging stopped simply by touching his cloak, “your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
Or I hear Jesus saying, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” just like Jesus said to us in this very worship space a few weeks ago on Pentecost.
Or I hear something like the time Jesus said to the demon-possessed naked man after he was healed … “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”
Shortly after he was freed from years of unjust imprisonment in South Africa simply because of the color of his skin, Nelson Mandela said, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects, and enhances the freedom of others.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, return to your home and declare how much God has done so that children of God who are possessed by demons like cancer can be reassured of the promise of eternal life simply because of your presence and healing touch. A presence and touch that sets people free.
Return to your home, and declare how much God has done so that children of God who are possessed by unclean spirits that allow poverty, hunger, addiction, and homelessness to still exist can be set free from those chains through your bold acts of compassion.
Bold acts of compassion as you and I support ministries like World Hunger, local homeless shelters and affordable housing projects, or even through a simple wooden box called the Little Free Pantry on the north side of Good Shepherd’s property. Bold acts of compassion that set people free.
As children of God, claimed, named, forgiven and set free in our baptism, you and I are followers of Jesus who are sent into the world with the power of the Holy Spirit to cast out demons and break the chains of bondage because God is at work in us and through us right now, today.
So you know what, if you haven’t realized it yet, maybe you do now. Today’s gospel is about us. Thanks be to God that it is. Never stop declaring how much God has done for and continues to do through you to bless the world in which we live right now. God is at work in Jesus, bringing God’s kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.
We celebrate one of the great festival days of the church this week. As important as Christmas and Easter without the shopping, credit card debt, and Easter bunnies.
Today…we celebrate Pentecost.
Pentecost is a celebration of the breath of the Spirit of God being received upon the first followers of Jesus. It is the start of what we now know as the church. The beginning of the Jesus movement so to speak.
Every year on this day we hear two readings from scripture – the first is from the book of Acts. A reading of nations and names that gives even the most experienced reader of scripture a little anxiety when they are asked to serve as a liturgical reader in church on this day.
The second is always from the gospel of John. Although the text varies from year to year, the readings from John are all highlighting times when Jesus is trying to explain, again and again, that God will send someone else to be with the disciples – the Advocate or the Holy Spirit –after he has returned to the Father. This is a teaching and a truth that I think disciples like you and me still struggle to believe or understand today.
And I don’t think we are struggling to understand these stories and our place in them today just because we heard it for the first time today in Pastor Selva’s native language of Tamil rather than English.
I’m guessing, there is a distinct possibility, that many who are gathered here today did not follow much of what was being said in either of today’s scripture readings. Either because you didn’t understand the language being spoken or you don’t have any idea what the difference is between the Parthians and the people who live in Cappadocia. Well, brothers and sisters, you’re not alone if you feel this way.
Those who witnessed the day of Pentecost as told to us from the book of Acts and those who had been following Jesus for nearly three years by the time the story in John’s gospel takes place, they didn’t get it either.
It’s ok if we feel like we need to join them and say “What does this mean?”
What does this mean? for those who were gathered in that house and experienced the Spirit descending upon them as tongues of fire. Well, for one thing, it meant a new life. Life as they knew it before that event and life after that event was different. A sudden and new way of being that would send them out of the confines of the house they were gathered in and into every house, on every corner, in every part of God’s creation. Truth be told, if Pentecost didn’t happen, nobody outside of this small little circle of friends would have heard of the story of Jesus or what impact this Jesus might have on them or on the world.
What does this mean? Well, for Lutheran Christians, you and I believe that we receive the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. And because of that truth, the Holy Spirit is alive in us…right now. We are being sent every second of every day to proclaim and share the good news of Jesus wherever we are with whomever we are with. As part of the faith community known as Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, you and I do this in some pretty amazing ways and places.
Within the membership of our congregation, we share the peace of Christ with one another by actively welcoming people who gather for worship; or by hosting Day Camp with our bible camp, Camp of the Cross; or by providing compassionate care for families following the death of loved ones.
You and I also do the Spirit’s work through our financial and physical support of local ministries like Ministry on the Margins, Heaven’s Helpers Soup Café, and Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota.
The Holy Spirit also works through us as a Cornerstone Congregation of Lutheran World Relief helping sustain coffee farming committees in Nicaragua or through our shared ministry with our sister church, Cristo Rey Lutheran Church, in Santa Ana, El Salvador or across the countries of the Central African Republic, Cameroon, and Madagascar.
The language of the Spirit’s work may sound one way as dozens of Day Camp kids run through the hallways of our church joyfully celebrating Jesus’ love for them, and sound completely different as people gather over the casket of a deceased loved one at the beginning of a funeral worship service. Both of these sounds of the Spirit were heard in our congregation this past week.
In every person, it’s the same Spirit.
The same Spirit that is calling you and me into this work as Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.
The language of the Spirit’s work may sound one way through Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota as we provide more than 1,000 units of quality, affordable housing to brothers and sisters in every corner of our state. Brothers and sisters who would otherwise not have a place to call home if it wasn’t for the Spirit’s work through us. And the Spirit’s voice may sound completely different as Cristo Rey Lutheran Church provides a sanctuary of peace on gang and drug infested Salvadoran streets. Streets where the smell of poverty is often overcome by the smell of gunfire and blood.
In every place, it’s the same Spirit.
The same Spirit that is calling you and me into this work as Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.
The language may sound and look different from one place to another, or one person to another, but it’s the same Spirit at work, bringing peace and wholeness in a world filled way to full with division and brokenness.
One theologian offered this insight on Pentecost that further illustrates what I believe God is trying to say to us through the sermon this week.
“The writer of John’s gospel describes it this way – the Advocate, the one whom the Father will send, will teach the disciples everything they need to know. God is not yet finished revealing who God is, and the disciples are not yet finished learning. Through the Spirit of truth, the disciples will do the work of Jesus, and his life will continue through them.
In holy baptism, the Spirit rests on the heads of young and old alike. Filled with the Holy Spirit, the baptized have an old, old story to tell of Jesus and his love – and a new, new story of how God is birthing sudden, surprising, and unmerited life all around us, every day. God is at work, here, now in the world through the lives of everyday Christians. Jesus’ work continues through the lives of all the baptized. We discover meaning from this Pentecost story today, not only for our own sake but for the sake of the world that so hungers for this life.” [www.sundaysandseasons.com]
Brothers and sisters in Christ, the Spirit’s work in you doesn’t mean that you have to run off to Nicaragua or serve on the summer staff at bible camp or even agree with all of the work that God calls us to do together through Good Shepherd or the other 151 congregations of the western North Dakota Synod or through partner ministries like Lutheran Social Services or within our denomination of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The fact remains that God is calling us to do God’s work. That the Spirit is at work through you, and through me. Period. That’s what Pentecost is all about. That’s what Pentecost means. That’s why Pentecost is so important for those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus.
Let me leave you with one simple way that we can demonstrate the Spirit’s work and presence in our lives even before we leave worship today. As you look around this sanctuary, I’m guessing you’ll see someone you do not know. I invite you to reach out to that person with a greeting of Christ’s peace when we come to that time in our worship service. In other words, don’t just greet those you already know when you share the peace of Christ today.
That simple act of sharing Christ’s peace with someone you don’t know, may be a great blessing to the one receiving Christ’s peace from you. It may bring peace to someone whose life may not be very peaceful today. It’s one simple way that the Spirit’s work through us is bringing us one step closer to that day when everyone will call upon the name of the Lord. Come Holy Spirit, come. Amen.
Easter 2019 * Luke 24:1-12
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our risen Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
A friend of mine who serves a fantastic church in Texas shared with me some exciting news about a recent discovery in biblical archaeology. A new fragment of our gospel reading has been discovered. For nearly 2,000 years, there has been a missing verse between verse 12 and 13 in the 24th chapter of Luke.
Peter returns home in verse 12 “wondering to himself what had happened” or “amazed at what had happened” as another translation says. Remember, Peter has gone to the tomb because several of the women had just told him about the empty tomb. He didn’t believe them. He had to see for himself.
The newly discovered verse that follows verse 12 says this. “When Peter returned from the empty tomb, the women looked at him and said, ‘So, what did you find?’ Peter replied, ‘He is not there. You were right, I was wrong.” Mary Magdalene and the other women leaned in and asked, ‘What did you say?’ And Peter, now looking at his feet, said, ‘You were right, I was wrong.’ The women returned to their homes rejoicing for all they had seen and heard!”
Luke’s gospel continues on from there.
In all seriousness though, isn’t it interesting that the men are the ones in all four gospels who have the most difficulty believing the resurrection. Trying to understand what has happened. It’s the women who step up to the plate in all four gospels and proclaim the good news of the resurrection.
Mary Magdalene is one of my favorite characters in the gospels. In so many ways, I think she is a much better example of being a disciple of Jesus than any of the 12 men whom Jesus supposedly chose.
Mary is the woman in all four gospels who is at the foot of the cross on Good Friday and at the tomb early on the first day of the week. Even though Mary Magdalene seemingly disappears from the story after the resurrection, never to be mentioned again in the New Testament, one can’t help but be drawn into just how important she is to the story. After all, she is the one to show us the significance of Jesus’ resurrection and what following this Jesus might look like.
Just like Mary Magdalene, you and I are called by name.
Just like Mary Magdalene, you and I can bring all of our failures and doubts to the cross.
Just like Mary Magdalene, you and I are invited to experience an intimate encounter with the risen Christ with each new day, with every breathe we take. And as we are transformed by those encounters, we take up our cross and live a life of resurrection here and now as God lives and breathes through us.
You see, brothers and sisters in Christ, the resurrection is not only about a historical event that we are asked to try and wrap our heads around in order to believe it actually happened 2,000 years ago. The resurrection is not only about some future event that will happen when we die or at the second coming of Jesus. The resurrection is happening right now. All around us.
Can you see it? Can you hear it? Can you smell it? Can you feel it?
Mary Magdalene and the other women on that first day of the week did. And as the story continues throughout the New Testament, Peter and the other disciples eventually do too.
Clarence Jordan, one of the founding fathers of Koinonia Farms which became what we know today as Habitat for Humanity once said, “The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.” [www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/03/practice-resurrection-progressive-theology-for-Easter/]
As I close my morning prayer practice each day, I do so with the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, and I ask myself almost daily, do I believe this?
Do I believe in the resurrection of the body as I claim to believe it when I recite the third article of the creed?
Do I live my life in ways that demonstrate God’s kingdom coming, God’s will being done on earth as in heaven as I pray the second and third petitions of the Lord’s prayer?
This year on Easter Sunday, I’m not wrestling with whether or not I believe in the resurrection as much as I’m wrestling with how am I living the resurrection? How am I practicing the resurrection right now? Because that’s what I think is happening in the resurrection story that is in front of us today in the 24th chapter of the gospel according to Saint Luke.
In a wonderful little book called Just This, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr illustrates much of what I’m trying to offer in this Easter sermon. He writes, “Your life is not about you; you are about Life. You are an instance of a universal, and even eternal, pattern. The One Life that many of us call “God” is living itself in you, and through you, and as you! … All you can really do is agree to joyously participate! Life in the Spirit will feel like being caught much more than being taught about any particular doctrine.”
In other words, Easter is not so much what you believe about the resurrection or whether or not you believe it at all. Easter is about living in the resurrection and practicing it in your life now because your life is not about you, your life is already part of the source of all life, the God of all creation. Whether you like it or not, God has already claimed you as his own child and wants you to be part of this journey called the resurrection that begins now!
In our gospel reading for this Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene encounters a couple of angels at the tomb who help her remember everything that Jesus had said to her about his death and resurrection. The resurrection didn’t cause them to simply remember the things that had happened, like remembering where you left your car keys. The resurrection caused them to live and breath differently. And that mattered 2,000 years ago. And 2,000 years later, it still matters. What you and I do today matters. Because resurrection matters.
In another book by Richard Rohr called Immortal Diamond [page 211-212], he offers a list that he calls twelve ways to practice resurrection now. I won’t give you the entire list, but here are a few that stood out for me in light of our worship together today and the gospel text that’s before us –
Practice resurrection now by refusing to identify with negative, blaming, antagonistic, or fearful thoughts. You can’t stop having them, but don’t give in to them. Leave them at the foot of the cross.
Practice resurrection now by apologizing when you hurt another person or situation.
Practice resurrection now by undoing your mistakes with positive actions toward the offended persons or situations.
Practice resurrection now by always seeking to change yourself before trying to change others.
Practice resurrection now by choosing, as much as possible, to serve rather than be served.
Finally, practice resurrection now by never doubting that it is all about love in the end.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, don’t just believe in resurrection – practice resurrection! Because in the end, that’s really what Easter is all about. Amen.
John 12:1-8 • April 7, 2019
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
If you are visiting Good Shepherd this weekend, please know that not all of our pastors can rock the color-wheel of hair like this. And be assured that this is only a temporary adjustment to what is normal. For three years now, I’ve changed my hair color dramatically in the spring which quickly follows with the shedding of this colorful masterpiece at an event called Brave the Shave. Come back next week to see what I’m talking about!
And to everyone who has supported my efforts and hundreds of other people’s efforts for this year’s Brave the Shave, I say thank you! This event, and other events like it this month in our community such as the Great American Bike Race, are a gift to our community.
They are ways in which we live out the extravagant love God has for us by loving others in our community with similar extravagance.
I’d like to highlight a few things about today’s extravagant gospel reading on this last Sunday in Lent.
It’s important to notice that this story of Mary washing Jesus is offered in all four gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke differ from John’s version – the head, not the feet; an unnamed woman rather than a woman named Mary who has a deep and loving relationship with Jesus.
In Mark’s version, Jesus praises the anointing as a “beautiful thing.”
I’ve always liked that image for this story.
Even though Mark is the only gospel that says that directly, I think they all share in the beauty of Mary’s expression of love toward Jesus. And so, Jesus might not be saying this directly in John’s gospel, but we can’t help read the text in any other way. When he says “Leave her alone.” he’s lifting up the beauty of what Mary has done for him.
This is a beautiful thing that she has done for Jesus.
And so, yes, the story might be a little different in each gospel, but I think the message is the same. And it is a beautiful thing.
In the gospel of Saint John, Mary’s act of discipleship in the 12th chapter sets the stage for Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet in the 13th chapter.
Both events of washing and anointing take place in a private home, not a large public space. As far as we know, there were no pictures of these events posted to Instagram and Twitter.
Both events of washing and anointing involve a meal. A meal served by Martha in today’s gospel and a meal the disciples will celebrate on a day in Holy Week that we now know as Maundy Thursday. A meal we remember as the Last Supper. A meal that is one of the reasons why the sacrament of Holy Communion is central to our faith.
Both events have people who don’t like all of this washing and anointing going on. Judas complaining about the wasteful use of expensive perfume in today’s story. Peter insists that he be the one to wash feet, not Jesus as the story is told in chapter 13.
Both events, point us to future events that will soon unfold. Events that will change the world forever.
One theologian reminded me this week that “God loves to do the unexpected with, for, and through unexpected people.” [Rev. Dr. David Lose, www.davidlose.net/2016/03/lent-5-c-the-unexpected-god/]
It’s a statement that can serve to ground us in our gospel reading this week. God loves to do the unexpected with, for, and through unexpected people.
Mary, maybe even without knowing that she was doing it, was preparing Jesus for the events soon to come. Namely his journey to Jerusalem. A journey that will begin with a triumphant entry on a day we now celebrate as Palm Sunday and end a few short days later with a cross of death on a Friday that we dare call good.
God was doing something unexpected and beautiful through a woman named Mary just six days before the Passover. She was demonstrating extravagant love for God, love for the disciples, and love for us.
How do we receive this call to be a disciple of Jesus in the extravagant, loving ways Mary shows us?
I believe with everything that I am as a child of God that God is doing something unexpected, still today, through all of us un-expecting people.
Because our relationship with God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus always grounds us in the present moment and at the same time pulls us extravagantly into the future. God is not standing behind us, hoping we won’t mess things up again. God is standing with us, doing extravagant and beautiful things in, with and through us along every step of this journey called faith. A journey of faith that is anointed and holy.
We began our Lenten journey a few weeks ago in much the same way followers of Jesus have done every spring for centuries. On Ash Wednesday, we celebrated a meal together and received the mark of a cross on our foreheads with ashes. It is a dramatic and ancient ritual of faith that reminds us of our mortality, but that’s not all.
You see, by honestly facing the reality of our earthly death, we are more fully able to live honoring our own vulnerability and the humanity of others. Our lives are to be lived with extravagant gratefulness for all that God has done and is doing for us through Jesus.
Lent, then, isn’t just a season of the church that we hope we will be able to endure again this year because we gave up chocolate.
Lent invites us into a journey with the savior of the world who shows us, again and again, the extravagant love God has for you, for me, and for all of God’s good creation.
Ash Wednesday doesn’t just highlight our mortality in a morbid depressing way. And Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet is not just preparing Jesus for the gruesome death he would soon subject himself to.
Ash Wednesday and Mary’s anointing help remind us whose we are. What a beautiful thing it is that this year they are the bookends that hold our Lenten journey together.
Whose we are, as we’re claimed as God’s children in the sacred and holy waters and promises made in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. A sacrament in which we are anointed and marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever.
In an awesome little book called Baptized We Live, Pastor Dan Erlander wrote, “Following Jesus in his death and resurrection means our baptism becomes the overpowering event in our lives, the event which tells us who we are and how we are to live.”
Just like Mary, Judas, Jesus, Martha, Lazarus and the others in our gospel reading today, you and I will share a meal together. And during that meal, we’re also going to have an opportunity to be anointed. Anointed as we were in our baptism. Anointed in order for us to not only remember our baptism in these remaining days of our Lenten journey, but also to renew our lives as disciples of Jesus today, knowing whose we are and the ways we are called to live each new day out the extravagant love God has for us.
So brothers and sisters in Christ, as you and I share in the sacramental meal of Holy Communion, our foreheads will be anointed with oil today and we will once again hear the words “You have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit, forever.” May that truth walk with us in all that we say and do – not just during Lent, but in every day of our life of faith.
In every crazy day with dyed hair.
In every community event like Brave the Shave and the Great American Bike Race.
In every way that an ancient story about expensive perfume poured over dirty feet still speaks to us, and still calls us deeper into a life of discipleship.
May we join Jesus in seeing just how beautiful all of this truly is. Amen.
Luke 4:1-13 • March 10, 2019
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent. Notice that I said “in” not “of.” A colleague and friend of mine used to always remind me, “Words shape faith.” She’d look me directly in the eyes and say. “Be careful with the words you use and how you use them as a pastor.” I hear her words of wisdom nearly every time I open my mouth or write something or preach a sermon.
Words are important. How they are used in relation to our faith is important. The 40 days of Lent do not include the six Sundays. Sunday is always a celebration of Easter, even in Lent.
I’ll try to explain…The Sundays in Lent are both happening within this season called Lent – which ultimately takes us to the cross of Good Friday and Jesus’ death. But that’s not all. The Sundays in Lent also welcome us into celebrations of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead a few days after Good Friday. And since we live in the time after the resurrection, we also live in a time beyond this season that we call Lent. Therefore, today is the first Sunday in Lent.
Another piece of theological trivia that’s helpful on this first Sunday in Lent is the significance of the number 40 to our faith journey and many of the stories we are connected to in scripture that involve the number 40. A few examples are – Moses on Mount Sinai for 40 days; Elijah’s 40-day journey to Mount Horeb; 40 is the number connected to Noah and the flood; 40 is the time Israel wanders in the wilderness; 40 is the length of the reign of King David. And as we just heard in the gospel reading from Saint Luke today, 40 is also the length of time Jesus is in the wilderness at the very beginning of his public ministry.
As I’ve already shared, every Sunday as a little bit of Easter, we don’t count Sundays as part of our Lenten journey. Which is how we come up with the 40 days of Lent. So, believe it or not, the 40 days of Lent are not a made up number. They are holy and sacred days. A holy and sacred time that connects us to other children of God spanning several thousand years of time. And for children of God like you and me, who live on this side of the resurrection, the beginning of each year’s 40-day journey places us with Jesus in the wilderness and invites us to face our own temptations right up front.
So, we begin where we always begin in Lent, and maybe for good reason, with Jesus in the wilderness. For 40 days and 40 nights, Jesus has fasted and prayed. And at the end of this time, he is tempted, or tested is probably a better translation for the Greek word here. Tested by none other than the devil.
Isn’t that always the way it happens. When you are least ready to tackle a tough issue or conversation or project, something or someone evil shows up and throws the whole thing off track.
Just like you and me, Jesus was human. He faced temptations, just like you and I face. Unlike you and me, Jesus was also divine. The Son of God, who was able to overcome temptations in ways that we can’t possibly do. Thanks be to God for that truth!
Andy Doyle, an Episcopal bishop in Texas says that, “Perhaps in our beginning of Lent we might not simply see our journey with Jesus in a desert or wilderness as a time to grow close to God, but rather a time to test our faith in God by stepping boldly forward into ministry and mission.” [www.hitchhikingthebible.blogspot.com]
It’s that kind of ministry and mission, brothers and sisters, that we are called into the very second we are baptized. The very second we are claimed, forgiven and freed in the words of promise from God and a gathered faith community. The very second that sacred waters pour over us washing all sin and sickness and temptation and death from our being, forever.
For several centuries, whenever a baptism has been held in a Lutheran Christian tradition, we hear this question from the pastor presiding at the baptism – Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
That question is asked to the entire faith community who has gathered to witness this sacred and holy time of Baptism. It’s not just a question for the one being baptized or the parents or Godparents. It’s a question for everyone! In my experiences as a pastor, on a rare occasion, I will hear a loud and confident “I do!” or “I renounce them!” But more often than I care to admit, the answer to the question “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?” sounds more like, “eh”, “sure”, “I suppose”, or, “I don’t know, what difference does it make.”
Stay with me here…our baptism does not mean we won’t have experiences that I believe are the very devil himself at work in our lives and in the world still today. As we discover again in today’s gospel reading, even Jesus wasn’t immune to such experiences.
However, when we are baptized into Christ Jesus, we are given an identity that can help us endure the temptations and challenges that our lives are bound to include. In our baptism, God gives us the confidence to trust that our identity is always and only defined by our relationship to God, and not by or to anything or anyone else.
Carrying that baptismal confidence with us throughout our life of faith, we can accept our failures and shortcomings, and live boldly in a manner that seeks to follow Christ’s own life. Which hopefully affects how we respond to the question “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?” whenever we participate in a baptism or remember our own baptism. [www.sundaysandseasons.com]
One of my favorite theologians argues that “temptation is not so often temptation toward something – usually portrayed as doing something you shouldn’t – but rather is usually the temptation away from something – namely, our relationship with God and the identity we receive in and through that relationship.” A relationship that, for us as Lutheran Christians, begins in baptism.
This theologian goes on to say that, “Too often Christians have focused on all the things we shouldn’t do, instead of pointing us to the gift and grace of our identity as children of God.”
Martin Luther wrote a lot about temptation. Like thousands and thousands of words about it. Of all the things Luther ever wrote about temptation, one of my favorite quotes is this – “God delights in our temptations and yet hates them. He delights in them when they drive us to prayer; he hates them when they drive us to despair.”
Whenever Luther was tested by the devil, in the face of temptation, he would say, “I am baptized. I am baptized. I am baptized.” Luther knew whose he was. And that his identity was always in Christ Jesus.
I have a friend who drives by the youth baseball diamonds on Century Avenue at least twice a day, every day. One day last summer he decided to stop and check out a game. He sat down in the bleachers next to a young boy who was playing for the team that was in the field. He asked the kid what the score was.
The boy said, “We’re down 14 to nothing.”
“Really,” my friend replied. “That’s too bad. But you don’t look very upset about that.”
“Why?” the boy offered quickly. “Why should we be upset? We haven’t been up to bat yet.”
There are going to be hundreds of thousands of times in your life of faith when you will step up to bat and face the challenge of temptation or testing. There will be hundreds, if not thousands of times when that will happen to you and me during these 40 holy days of Lent. As children of God whose very identity rests in the crucified and risen savior of the world, don’t let anxiety or despair or doubt from the devil control you.
When it’s your turn to bat, step up to the plate confidently, and swing for the fence with everything you’ve got knowing that you are loved unconditionally by the God of all creation. A God, who sent his own Son to take on our sin and life, to suffer the same temptations and wants, to be rejected just like we so often feel rejected and to die as we will die. All done so you and I may live because God is for us and with us forever.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, on this first Sunday in Lent, you and I are invited to live our lives confident that the life God offers us is more powerful than any test or temptation or death we will ever face.
May God’s blessing, peace, and strength be upon you in your Lenten journey this year. Amen.