Monday, December 8, 2008

Sermon Advent 2B

Repentance as Memory

One of my favorite subjects in school was English. I loved the reading and the writing. Yes I even enjoyed grammar. Today’s readings struck me as something that could be used to teach grammar, specifically how to understand tenses. Especially in Isaiah and the psalm we moved from past tense to present tense and future tense and back and forth very fluidly the ways that these tense changes happened almost denied the linear nature of time. I found myself wondering what this tense potpourri had to do with our advent experiences.
During advent we focus on the future coming of God in his world. We surround ourselves with biblical readings about the future, many of which are often connected to the end times, and connect them to our experience of the incarnation of God, God becoming a person and living among us. The focus is on the future, however in anticipation of God’s future we are also called to remember God’s past and live as God’s children in our todays. Last week I talked a little about forgetting what we know about God’s work in Jesus Christ and I do believe that we need to let God surprise and amaze us. But perhaps this doesn’t mean that memory can’t play a role in our preparations also.
I am reminded of the years that my family held the Rand family reunion for a few years at our place on the island. One of the things at least that us children would do is to watch the video from the previous year’s reunion, yes for a while we were one of those families who videotaped everything.
Watching the videotape did a few things for us, not the least of them was to remind us of those jokes that Uncle Lenny and Uncle Ed told year after year, we could impress them by knowing the punch lines of the jokes that seemed to never get old to those two.
In all seriousness watching the video reminded us of how fun and exciting these reunions were. We were than motivated to help my mother and father with the cleaning, cooking, and moving of furniture that it took to hold a Rand family Reunion. Without a reminder of how special the coming guests are we would never want to do the housework that these guests deserved and warranted. We were willing to invest ourselves when we were reminded how wonderful this day was going to be.
In today’s OT reading Isaiah reminds us what God has done while telling us of God’s coming. We are reminded that the God who is coming has already made himself known to the world. If we look at the lessons the things that are past are things like redemption and sin. God tells the prophet to remind Israel that she has served her term and the penalty ahs been paid. The author of today’s psalm writes of God “You have forgiven the iniquity of your people and blotted out all their sins”. We are called to remember our sins and that God has forgiven them. Waiting for God’s arrival in no way negate God’s past grace. But remembering that past grace can help us prepare for whatever God has in store now.
John the Baptist called for repentance as preparation. I believe that repentance is a kind of remembering, the same kind of remembering that was found in Isaiah and the Psalmist’s proclamation. I believe that John’s call to repentance was also the call of the Prophet’s and it the call we hear during Advent season; a call to confess our sins and remember them before God.

It is not fun or easy to remember our sinfulness. But I don’t think this the primary purpose of repentance. The end result of repentance isn’t us saying to God and others “look at me a poor miserable sinner I deserve nothing”. The end result of repentance is God saying to us and others “Look, you are my children and I have forgiven your sins and I will give you everything”. Brothers and sisters repentance, the memory that is called for during advent, is less about our sinfulness and more about the goodness of God.
John the Baptist’s call to repent doesn’t end with the confession or the absolution of sins; but the announcement of the one who is coming. Our confession of sins and words of absolution that recall the graciousness of God are bound up in the announcement of the coming of God’s anointed one. They are means of which the coming of the messiah is known and felt.
The amazing thing about repentance brothers and sisters is it is a kind of remembering that leads to a kind of forgetting. In our remembering our sins God decides to forget them, blot them out, like they never existed. In this holy forgetting we are called and empowered to live as Children of God, disciples of the coming Messiah.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


Today’s lessons seemed to me like a slap in the face. Especially after last week’s emphasis on standing in the grace of God and de-emphasis on doing as a way to find self worth I had to think long and hard about what to do with Jesus’ story of the two sons. But isn’t that what scripture is supposed to do; to challenge us and force us to reflect on our lives of faith.

Jesus responded to the Pharisee’s question with a story and a few questions of his own. The story was relatively easy to follow, there are two sons one tells their father that he will go work in the field and never gets there the other one verbally refuses but later on decides he should and works in the field anyway.

However Jesus’ question and its implication is what I found myself thinking about throughout the week. He ends his latest parable with a question which one is doing the will of the father? Like his stories this question is more than it seems at first. He takes the answer that the Pharisees gave him and turns it right back on them. “Truly I tell you the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God ahead of you.” This strange turn of events causes one to ponder why are those who engage in behaviors that are blatantly sinful being praised by Jesus and compared to the son “who the will the father”. On one hand they are doing things that are wrong and that behavior needs to be condemned and cannot be accepted. But on the other hand we know that they are people who have been shunned by society and if we recall from last week Jesus tells us that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, yes we understand that Jesus loves those that society doesn’t. But what is the will of the father that Jesus is talking about here? It can’t be the work that prostitutes and tax collectors have typically engaged in, can it? And where do the Pharisees come in? What role do they play?

Throughout scripture the Pharisees as seen as Jesus’ opponents and we may be led to look at them in disdain. But in actuality they aren’t much different than many Christians today. They have made their life’s pursuit the pursuit of religion. By adhering to a strict set of laws and practices they chase after holiness. This chase after holiness they hope will ultimately end in becoming closer to God. When Jesus comes and challenges all they hold dear they hide behind manmade laws and traditions. In the end their way to holiness becomes a trap of self-righteousness. Sometimes as Christians we fall in the same trap, the religion we practice as a means to worship the God who has given us life eternal becomes a citadel, a fortress shielding us from the world that God loves. We become like the son who vows to the father to do the work the father calls him to do. But we don’t ever leave the comfort zone we have made for ourselves and do it.

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about a religionless Christianity; A Christianity in which disciples lived a life of worship. A Christianity in which disciples served the Gospel of Jesus Christ and word in deed out in the world; A Christianity in which a special set of rituals and language was not reserved for a compartmentalized faith. Faith isn’t supposed to be safe it calls us to grow and leave our comfort zones. It challenges us to serve God by loving what God loves. And it brings us to authentic repentance.

I believe that this is the will of the Father that Jesus calls talks about today. Through the preaching and baptism of John and the teachings of Jesus many people, including some tax collectors and others of disrepute, have come to realization that they are sinners loved by God who need the forgiveness and grace that god offers freely. This is where they differ from the Pharisees who hide behind their religion of self-righteousness and fail to see their need. The repentance that should characterize all of those who have heard the call of Christ is marked by an utter dependence on God in who we find our source of life. It is also marked by a love for life and the world that springs out of our trust in God. The religion of repentant disciples isn’t about hiding away in a citadel of rituals and norms; instead it is about being strengthened and nurtured to live out our faith in a sinful and fallen world.

Kathleen Norris writes about a little boy who wrote a poem called "The Monster Who Was Sorry." In the poem the boy explodes about how he hated it when his father yelled at him. In anger he threw his sister down the stairs, wrecked his room, and then destroyed an entire town. His poem concludes: "Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, 'I shouldn't have done all that.'"

The boy was indeed the Monster who was Sorry. He serves us as a model of repentance. Repentance begins with a liberating awareness that the mess is ours. This is liberating because once we realize the mess is ours we can turn to a God who has come to live in the midst of our mess. This makes possible finding our way amidst the mess cleaning up the shards of shameful memories and broken relationships on the way. Let’s leave church today not self-righteous Pharisees but sinners utterly dependent on the Grace of God to enter God’s kingdom.

Please pray with me.

Gracious God we come before you bearing our sins and our faults. We know we can’t live as we should without the gift of your son Jesus Christ. Thank you for the amazing gift of grace that makes a new day possible. As you cleanse Chloe in the waters of baptism cleanse us all in your love and grace.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sermon on Matthew 20 and Jonah

To Do or to Be That is the Question

One of the greatest spiritual theologians of the twentieth century Thomas Merton commented that “We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being. As a result, men are valued not for what they are but for what they do or what they have - for their usefulness.”

I was reminded of this quote as I read today’s lessons. I think the church often falls in this trap; looking at increased attendance as both a sign of faithfulness and assurance that we’re doing it right. And decreased attendance as an indication of unworthiness and lack of faith. . Never mind the fact that half of the churches in the ELCA worship fewer than a hundred and that small churches typically give more per member than bigger churches We talk about the churches that have embraced the moniker of “program church” as being vital because there is always something happening. Even though the father of mega churches Willow Creek has admitted to doing things wrong after a study showed their members do not maturie in their faith as disciples should. All these symptoms point to an institutional form of the human tendency to keep score. Today’s lessons remind us that we worship a God who does not keep score. A God who offers the same gift to all of us regardless to what we have done or what we have not done.

In the parable of the vineyard there is more in common between those who worked all day and those who were hired then we usually realize. But the big similarity that I want to bring your attention to is they all started out the day unemployed. The owner of the Vineyard offers them all a job. If we are to compare God with the Vineyard owner and ourselves with the workers; which is what Jesus does in his parables the first thing I want you to notice is that everybody needs what God offers; grace and relationship with him. There is no one who can be right with God without those things. There is nothing in today’s parable about the owner needing more workers but he hires them anyway.

This brings me to a second related point. We worship a God of abundance. The Vineyard owner hires the laborers even though they’re not needed because he has plenty of what they need. We live in a world that has a hard time understanding this reality. In a world where CEOs make so much more than those that work under them we fail to see the generosity that the Vineyard owner is showing the laborers by hiring them. In a world of limited resources we fail to see the hiring of workers at the end of a day and paying them a full days wage as generosity instead we see it as foolishness. But as we learned last week from Paul much of what God does looks foolish from our human perspective. And I don’t know about you but after looking around our world I am thankful that we belong to a God who doesn’t see things from a Human perspective.

Jesus when he is telling this parable finds it significant that the first group to be hired agrees to a daily wage. I think this is significant because it tells us that the issue isn’t about anybody being shorted what they had coming to them. In the end it isn’t at all about them but it’s about the generosity the landowner shows others. Occasionally we hear about professional athletes restructuring contracts to make room for their teammates. That isn’t what happened here. The landowner gave his workers what they had coming to them, and from what we know about this landlord it is safe to surmise that it wasn’t peanuts; but was probably way more than they earned or deserved.

This I think is important because the anger that we see from the workers isn’t even about them. Rather it is ultimately anger at the Landowner’s generosity towards others. I find this situation very similar to Jonah’s disdain that God would save even the Ninevites. I have a theory on this that I want you all to think about, for the full day workers or Jonah to see and acknowledge the generosity of the landowner or God for Jonah; they would have to acknowledge theat generosity toward themselves. In this is where Thomas Merton’s quote comes in.

We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being. As a result, men are valued not for what they are but for what they do or what they have - for their usefulness.”

This describes not only how we value others but how we value ourselves. If the workers admit that the Landowner hiring them and paying them so they can provide for the family is a gift then in their own eyes they become less worthy. For Jonah to appreciate God’s gift to the Ninevites his own righteousness becomes unclear and his position as a fellow sinner comes into focus. “If even those Ninevites are worthy of God’s grace how am I so different?” Somehow if others become more worthy we become less worthy.

Worth from a human perspective is wrapped up in doing and having. Thank God that God doesn’t have a human perspective. In God’s eyes our worth isn’t about what we do or what we have. It is about who we are as children of God.God claims us in baptism not because of what we have done, or even what our parents have done. But because what God has done in Jesus Christ.
As hard as we try this is not easy to understand. Centuries of preachers and theologians telling the church “you are justified by grace! It is a gift from God, you don’t have to earn it, you can’t earn it” and we still need to keep score. We still need to find ways to be more righteous than the other guys. We still find worth in denying the value of others. God’s words to Jonah are God’s word to us.

Then the LORD said, "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.

11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"

Or the landowner to the laborer

Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you.

15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?'

16 So the last will be first, and the first last."

The good news is this, the God of abundance and generosity that we worship doesn’t ever stand over us keeping score. We don’t always have to be as righteous as Jonah thought he was or as deserving as the laborers thought they were but in our 11th hour moments and our Ninevite days we’re found worthy by God; worthy enough to be recipients of this amazing gift of grace. Please pray with me

Lord God, we thank you for not keeping score. May we remember that our worth doesn’t come in any tangible ways but only because who we are in you. In Jesus’ name.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Fair Weather Disciple; God Through Snow Sleet and Hail

I'm back. My hope is to post weekly sermons. Here is mine for August 31 the 16th Sunday after Pentecost. Enjoy!

Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Fair Weather Disciple; God Through Snow Sleet and Hail

I remember growing up we had an expression: “It’s Maine; if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute”. I thought we were pretty clever to come up with a statement like that. Then I moved to Chicago to start seminary and I heard many Chicagoans say “It’s Chicago, if you don’t like the weather wait a minute” I started wondering if Mainers even came up with that saying. And then we came to Iowa for first call and needless to say on several occasions I have heard people say “It’s Iowa if you don’t like the weather wait a minute”. Finally it struck me that this saying wasn’t about the uniqueness and creativeness of Maine. But instead it was about the universal fluctuating nature of weather. I think that weather is far from the only inconsistent thing that we humans deal with.

Once again Peter shows us that the human faith of even the most steadfast and rock hard disciples is as fickle as the weather. One week ago Peter boldly proclaimed “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” and was praised for his faithfulness. Here we are one week later, a few moments later for the disciples, a few verses in the Gospel; and the Rock sinks, he rebukes his Messiah’s claim that he must die and is chastised for his lack of faith. You are the Messiah Jesus and let me tell you what that means. …

No Peter, it doesn’t work that way, you can’t have the messiah and expect him to fall in step behind you. You can’t claim to know the messiah and than be his savior. If we knew how God needed to be God chances are we wouldn’t need God.

My intent here is not to dump on Peter. Ultimately he was a very faithful disciple and an extremely important apostle in the early church. But my hope is that in thinking about Peter’s roller coaster faith we can understand our relationships with God just a little bit better. Because even the most faithful of us will have times when Jesus needs to say “Get behind me, you’re thinking of human things”. Thankfully the faith of Jesus Christ and the love of God never waver even in the midst of our worse disciple moments. Sometimes it seems that the worse we are as disciples the more great our God is.

I am reminded of the stories about the Gauls. The Gauls were the ancestors of the French. They were nature worshippers and very warrior like. When Christianity had found its way to their lands they were being baptized in mass. The stories go that many Gauls as they were being baptized held one arm up high out of the water as the rest of their bodies were being immersed in the river. Apparently when the next battle broke out Gallic warriors would blurt out “This arm isn’t baptized!” and continue to slay their enemies in barbaric ways that were very contradictory to the faith that they had claimed to adopt. It is possible that Peter also withheld a part of him from this new identity he was given, his reason. His rebuke of Jesus was a product of him trying to understand and define the work of the messiah through mere Human eyes and imagination. It seems silly that the Gauls or Peter could keep a piece of their person from their Lord and Savior. But the truth is we all do it. There are aspects in all our lives that haven’t been given over to God and I’m sure if I asked you this morning what is one thing in your life that Jesus isn’t Lord of you could come up with an answer… After all this is why we begin each Sunday with confession and absolution because we know where those areas are and as hard as we try it’ll always be a struggle. I have heard it said that the Christian faith is like a buffet and Christians go from one table to the next eating what they want. My friends maybe this makes sense when speaking of the Church but not of our Faith. We can’t have a plate of resurrection without having a helping of crucifixion; thankfully not ours.

Jesus responded to Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah by explaining to his trusted disciples what that means. ALL that it means, suffering, death, AND resurrection but Peter in his all too human mind couldn’t get past the first two. The truth is none of us can without the work of God’s salvation. Our inability to see beyond the cross and the violence it brings doesn’t keep the faithful Jesus from the cross but it also doesn’t keep him on the cross. Jesus stuck to his word even when Peter’s confession fell flat the Messiah took us through suffering and death to life.

This life that is offered to God’s people in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is unlike any life we could imagine without it and I believe that today both St. Paul and Jesus Christ are encouraging us to embrace this life wholeheartedly, not withholding an arm for the battlefield or our intellect for the classroom. Jesus tells us to lose our life in order to live the life that God calls us to. And Paul instructs to live in ways that glorify God and show compassion to God’s creation. Both these lessons make it sound hard, but brothers and sisters, God has promised us a good life and eternal life with God. God never promised an easy life. Too many times we mistake easy lives for joyful lives. Much of contemporary Christianity perpetuates this, bestselling Christian Authors preach a Gospel of material abundance. They teach that faith in God leads to earthly wealth and problem free lives. If we only pray enough all our problems will go away, and if they don’t we must not be praying enough. This makes a mockery of the multitudes that are faithful Christians living in poverty and is a distorted way to look at the world.

That is not what the work of the cross is about and treating God like a vending machine is rarely an act of faith. My friends Jesus doesn’t lift us from the quagmire without first getting extremely muddy himself. It’s not about wishing away the difficult parts of our lives it is about knowing the God who knows life is difficult and has become man to experience it with us. And in the end to show us that there is a new life waiting on the other side of the mire. Peter isn’t a horrible disciple, at least he is no more horrible of a disciple that we would be if we confronted Jesus’ cross the way Peter did. I would like to read you a quote from Jorgen Moltman’s Crucified God.

The cross is not and cannot be loved. Yet only the crucified Christ can bring the freedom that changes the world because it is no longer afraid of death. In his time the crucified Christ was regarded as a scandal and foolishness. Today, too, it is considered old-fashioned to put him in the centre of Christian faith and theology. Yet only when people are reminded of him, however untimely this may be, can they be set free from the power of the facts of the present time, and from the laws and compulsions of history, and be offered a future that will never be dark again..

No, Peter didn’t love the cross, we shouldn’t either it was a painful and shameful way to die. But we love and worship the God who went all the way to the cross for us. Because brothers and sisters there is no Easter without lent, or resurrection without crucifixion. And this is where we are called to follow Jesus to; through ,not around, our struggles, through, not around, God’s cross and right on to eternal life.

Monday, April 28, 2008

New Blog Title

was Christum treibet?
What drives Christ? This was Luther's primary criteria for the authority of scripture. Tim Wengert also says it should be the question that is asked of our ministry and proclamation. I have decided to use it as my title because hopefully at least some of what i begin to do here drives Christ but also to serve as a reminder for me on what my call is about.
was Christum treibet?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sunday April 20th Sermon

Our Place Has Been Prepared

Back in my days as a camp counselor and director I would often take my campers on an in-depth tour of the church building. We would often begin and end at the dated cornerstone of the building; I would use this as an opportunity to share a few stories from the history of the congregation. This practice of mine expanded and I acquired an interest, some would say a strange fascination with church cornerstones. As I began new ministries in varied congregations I would familiarize myself with the simple but important cornerstone. For me it serves as a reminder that my participation in the life of this congregation doesn’t exist in a vacuum all by itself, but it is part of a greater narrative, it is merely a chapter in a story. This reminder would both be humbling and exhilarating. Yes indeed history is important.
I have had different opportunities to see how important history is to the people of St. Matthew Lutheran Church this year. Our first Sunday happened to be the Sunday that you all celebrated the centennial of St. Matthew. Bishop Ullestead was here to mark the remembrance of 100 years of ministry and the story of St. Matthew’s was put into a video entitled, Look Back, look Forward and Look Up. And the last two Sundays I have had the privilege to sit in on the adult Sunday school forums in which I have heard a regard for the past inform our hopes for the future. Yes brothers and sisters history is important and it’s a part of what makes us who we are.
Today’s readings remind us however that our history as believers doesn’t begin with a church building. Our history doesn’t even begin with our denominational roots in the protestant reformation. Our history as Christians, your history as St. Matthew Lutheran Church finds it’s beginning in the incarnate God who reminds us today that He is the way, the truth and the life who has prepared a place for each and everyone of us.
In our second reading from 1st Peter we are told that Jesus Christ is the cornerstone that the church is built on; the foundation upon which our faith as children of God solely rests. Friends in Christ this doesn’t just tell us about who Christ is but it says something radical about whom we once were and who we’re called to be. To use Peter’s words.

1 Peter 2:9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 1 Peter 2:10 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Yes friends our identities are defined by the God who became man for us, we find our worth in the relationship that that God calls us to and we find our hope in the resurrection that that God has promised us.
It’s so easy to look for our salvation in the newest programs, or find despair in declining membership and financial struggles especially in the age of the mega churches and televangelists. We just need to turn on our TV screens and we see full sanctuaries and celebrity clergy, we begin to believe bigger is better and that is how church should be. But numbers and programs aren’t the marks of communities of people who self identify as disciples and see their future as God’s promised future. The marks of a faithful community of Christians are that God is worshipped and proclaimed and people are empowered to become who God calls them to be.
I really enjoyed opening my new member bag last week and seeing a copy of the DVD that was created for the centennial. I enjoyed it the first time I watched it and will enjoy it again. The best part of the whole DVD is that is just a part of St. Matthew’s story, it’s merely a glimpse of the faith narrative of all of us in this sanctuary and those who have been here before us. Because St. Matthew’s story is a part of the greatest story ever told, and there is nothing insignificant about the part we play in that story.
I am always amazed about how the bible takes what seems insignificant and shows us how integral to God’s story it really is. Today’s reading from the seventh chapter of Acts is an excellent example. Stephen is a man who we’ve never met before this point. He isn’t one of the apostles who travel the countryside proclaiming the Gospel and performing miracles in the name of Jesus Christ. As a matter of fact the only reason he is in the picture today is he was selected as one of seven men who would feed the hungry so the apostles can continue their work. While the apostles served up the Word of God Stephen served the food. But the story doesn’t stop there Stephen answers his call in that place and in both his life and death he provides an amazing witness to the love of God. In his speech to the High Priests when he was questioned, which comes right before what we read today, he exhorts all his hearers to look beyond the laws and structures made by human hands and human minds to find God as the author and source of all life.

Acts 7:47-50 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says, 49 'Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50 Did not my hand make all these things?'

Yes friends, God who has created all that is and redeemed you and me had prepared a place for Stephen. Stephen who lived out his faith by feeding widows and orphans and proclaimed the Gospel of Christ with boldness and power that no one expected from him.
This God my friends is the cornerstone, the starting point of all we do at St. Matthew Lutheran. Stephen’s final words began with “Lord receive my spirit” we also hear similar words in the psalm for today. In Stephen we not only meet someone who gives his own spirit to God but also receives God’s spirit in abundance. God who has come to us in the form of Jesus Christ is the way, truth, and the life and has prepared a place for each and every one of us; we don’t need to wait until our last fleeting breath to experience what has already been given us. We can experience it in the smile of a child, a rainbow after a torrential rain, the first sign of a plentiful harvest, and in relationship with each other. These things my friends are sure signs of the God of the resurrection.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

New Blog

Hello friends and family. As first call approaches I wanted to create a new blog through which I can keep everybody updated. I'll also include sermons as I write them and other entries as I reflect on God's activity in my life. Feel free to ccheck back for updates. God bless you all!!