Christmas Eve 2018
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus, the Christ-child we worship this day. Amen.
I’d like to begin with words that spoke deeply to my heart as I prepared for this year’s Christmas Eve sermon. Bishop Jon Anderson of the SW Minnesota Synod began his 2018 Christmas greeting with these words, “The Christmas Story invites us to watch for the surprising presence of God in our lives here and now even as we remember the coming of the Messiah in Bethlehem long ago.
We often look for God in the wrong places.” The Bishop wrote, “Today’s Gospel reminds us that God works in surprising ways and works in the midst of the most vulnerable of people and places.” [https://swmnelca.org/2018/12/18/christmas-message-2018/]
If you recall from the scripture we just heard and the songs we just sang and the lives you and I have lived over the past twelve months, Bishop Anderson’s words couldn’t ring more true. The Christmas story invites us to not just listen to it, but to live in it. To live in it, just like the Christmas story invited Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wisemen so long ago.
The Christmas story invites you and me into it today, and on every other day in our journey of faith, even when we think we don’t have time for it or that we aren’t good enough to deserve anything from God so why bother, the Christmas story invites us in.
God comes to you and to me in the birth of a baby named Jesus – the savior of the world. And even 2,000 or so years later, Jesus’ birth still makes all the difference. All the difference because God is here…for you, for me, and for every child of God who will ever live on this tiny, little speck of God’s good creation that we know as planet Earth. It’s easy for us to miss that. To miss God’s presence in our lives and the difference the birth of Jesus makes.
Earlier this year, Wendy and I hired a young, just getting started, contractor for a little backyard construction project. One evening as Kyle and his crew were finishing up work on a concrete pad that would serve as the foundation of the project, we struck up a conversation about a variety of things, not the least of which was theology. Kyle was raised and is still active in a Christian tradition a little different than the ELCA that Good Shepherd is part of. What we discovered through our conversation is that we are pretty different from one another in many things – theology definitely being one of them.
But our theological differences concerning things like the Sacrament of Holy Communion and who is really welcome at the Lord’s Table, didn’t get in the way as both of us recognizing the presence of God. The presence of God in a seemingly ordinary conversation about life and God and everything else, while enjoying a cold beer in my backyard on a beautiful fall evening after a long, hard day of working with concrete. It would have been very easy to miss God’s presence in that moment.
A few weeks ago I was in Minneapolis for some meetings and arrived at my hotel a little earlier than anticipated. I was pleasantly surprised to see that my hotel was right next door to one of the greatest men’s shoe stores in the known universe. Which of course is only my opinion. I just had to see if I could check in early and make a quick trip to the shoe store. After all, it would be the only opportunity I’d have on this trip.
The hotel was more than accommodating. I made my way quickly up to my room to drop off my bag, only to discover that my room wasn’t actually quite ready yet. A gentleman named Mark was still getting the room ready. I knocked on the door. Which startled Mark. Mark is a middle-aged, African American man who is probably on the severe end of the autistic spectrum.
He poked his head around the door and shouted at me that the room wasn’t ready, I needed to come back. I said that I just wanted to drop my bags and then I would leave. This further upset him. For the next several minutes I could hear him in the bathroom shouting with everything he had, “The room isn’t ready yet! The room isn’t ready yet! I’m not done! Go away! Come back later! The room isn’t ready yet!”
Mark didn’t know that I knew his name. I learned what it was from a flip chart on his cleaning cart outside the room. I knocked on the door again. And with my bags in hand, uninvited and all, I stepped into the room.
I greeted Mark by name and said that my name was Pastor Craig and that it looked like he was doing a great job at getting my room ready. I told him why I wanted to drop off my bags, asked him where would be a good place to put them so they wouldn’t be in his way, and assured him that I wouldn’t be back in the room until at least 10 o’clock that night, so he could take his time and didn’t have to rush getting the room ready. Almost immediately, his anxiety dropped and you could sense a new found calm in his demeanor.
He said, “Ok. Have fun at the shoe store.”
The next morning, I saw Mark in the hotel lobby. We smiled from across the lobby and waved at one another in a way that can only be described as a sharing of peace between two of God’s children.
Our gospel reading on this Christmas Eve says that Mary, “treasured all of these words and pondered them in her heart.” [Luke 2:19] Mary didn’t know everything that was happening to her or why it was happening, but I believe she knew it was sacred and holy. For a young, unwed mother who had just given birth, it would have been very easy to miss the presence of God in the chaos of a stinky, loud barn. Especially a barn with a bunch of uninvited guests who showed up long before the new baby’s room was ready.
It would have been very easy to miss the presence of God when a hotel room was not quite ready for a guest too. But as children of God named Mark and Craig met, for the first and maybe only time, God was most definitely present.
Just last week, Wendy and I and several hundred other people in our community attended a holiday band concert at Century High School. A public high school. Surely God isn’t present there too, is he?
The second half of the concert began without any formal introduction. The audience continued to engage in loud conversation and walk about freely in the auditorium. Almost no one noticed that the concert had once again begun as a simple melody floated out of the last row of the band from one solitary instrument.
In reflecting upon this piece of music, the composer said that “I learned an amazing lesson before I began this piece. I consider myself to be a ‘good’ person. [One day,] I was outside a food store with my kids and there was a man outside asking for some food. I watched quite a few people walk by. Some actually said ‘sorry’ as they walked by, but most of them did not even look at him or acknowledge him when he spoke to them. Finally, I walked up to him and asked him if he was okay. He just needed something to drink and a little bit of food. I took him into the store with me and bought him something. His name is Bruce. He is 32 years old. He has 3 kids – 2 in elementary school and 1 in middle school. He acknowledged that he’s made plenty of mistakes in life, but that he is trying really hard to get back up on his feet and live in the area so he can be close to his kids.
As we were leaving, he held the door open for us and said thanks. ‘It’s hard when people ignore you all day long. Thanks for stopping.’’ [taken from the program notes of the musical score for “A Solitary Wish” by Brian Balmages]
This encounter in front of a grocery store inspired a composer to write a beautiful piece of music called “A Solitary Wish.” A piece of music in which all proceeds from the sale and performance of are now shared with homeless shelters and food pantries around the world.
Last week in Bismarck, a simple melody began the second half of a concert as an audience ignored it. This melody was passed from one musician to another throughout the band as it grew and faded and grew again. And as an audience received a 5-minute gift of music during a 45-minute holiday concert, God’s presence was felt. Yes, God is present, even in a public high school’s auditorium.
The Christmas story invites us in to the very presence of God. Brothers and sisters in Christ, God is here – in your life and in mine. God, who is not only found on holy nights like this, in holy worship spaces like the one we are sitting in now. God, who is walking with us in every time and in every place that we might find yourself in.
And so, as we return to our seemingly ordinary lives, with ordinary times and places beyond this holy night, may we join with Mary and Joseph, and all of the angels and shepherds and wise men, glorifying and praising God for all that we hear and see along the way. That’s the Christmas story after all.
Merry Christmas. Amen.
For additional resources on this series, visit – www.waytolead.org.
For more resources on this theme, visit – http://www.waytolead.org.
For additional resources on this series, visit – www.waytolead.org.
2 Corinthians 8:1-7 • November 18, 2018
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Savior and Lord, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
This is the final week in our worship series “Abundant Joy. Overflowing Generosity.” Our theme this week is “Giving to God our Income.”
I pray that this worship series has been a blessing to you and your family. And as we travel this journey of faith together, I pray that this series has challenged you at times, maybe even ticked you off a little bit.
Most importantly though, I pray this series has helped you grow more deeply and fully into what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and a steward of God. Helped you grow more deeply in your relationship with other brothers and sisters in Christ. I mean, come on…how can you not feel the Spirit’s presence as the prayers of our brothers and sisters hover over our heads as we worship.
The eighth chapter of the Apostle Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth has been our guide. As we conclude today, Paul invites us to live out our faith joyfully and generously “…their abundant joy” he writes, “and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” These words are a direct reflection of our worship together today. Because today, we will be invited to enter an intentional time that will allow us to prayerfully make a financial commitment before God to support the mission and ministry God is calling our congregation to live out in the world.
Our giving to God – whether it’s giving our time, our spiritual gifts, our prayer, or through our financial ability – can often become secondary to a million other things that occupy our attention, time, thoughts, and money. Sometimes our giving to God can become selective, inconsistent, impulsive, or something we do out of guilt way more than we do out of joy.
Paul invites the church in Corinth, and I believe the church of Good Shepherd today, to give joyfully and to give generously. God, and God alone makes it possible for each and every one of us to give in ways that overflow with joy and generosity. For some of us, that means two coins. For others, that means abundantly more than the spare change in our pocket today. Whichever side of that spectrum we find ourselves on, you and I have an opportunity today, and in every day of our life of faith, to give generously. Generously at levels of abundance that we may never have considered possible before.
There are ways in my own life of faith, ways far beyond anything my spouse or I could have imagined when God made it possible for us to give. To give in ways that bring us joy each and every day. To give in ways that allow us to experience God’s presence in our lives in ways we could never have imagined were possible.
I know first hand that many of you have experienced something similar in your faith life. Throughout this worship series, I’ve asked dozens of people who call Good Shepherd their faith home this question. “In what way(s) has generosity brought you joy as you live as a follower of Jesus?! Either through your own generosity or in someone else’s generosity toward you.”
One person said, “By giving to others, I believe I become a little closer to the person God created me to be.”
An 8-year only boy asked if he was going to get to fill out a commitment card again this year. Yes, someone is actually excited about this faith practice. This 8-year old boy has set aside money from his monthly allowance in the pastor year to give to the work God has done through Good Shepherd. It’s a faith practice he began last year after completing a commitment card during our fall stewardship worship series.
A young mother said that as she was generous she, “ experienced joy through the overwhelming freedom from her own sinfulness or shortcomings in that act or moment (control, greed, selfishness, perfectionism, entitlement, lack of trust etc.). As a receiver of generous giving,” she said, “the way I have experienced joy was through authentic humility and recognizing that I am loved by God so much that he would send his people to bless me.”
A retired couple in our congregation has experienced joy in generosity by helping a family who lives in poverty in our community have a blessed Christmas.
Other brothers and sisters in our congregation have experienced joy in generosity by serving at Heaven’s Helper’s Soup Cafe or Ministry on the Margins or leading worship at the North Dakota State Penitentiary. And still, others have experienced joy in generosity during service work in Houston, Texas or the Dominican Republic or Ethiopia or even at the Dakota Zoo, raking leaves.
A stewardship mentor once told me there are three kinds of giving: grudge giving, duty giving, and thanksgiving. Grudge giving says, “I have to.” Duty giving says, “I ought to.” Thanksgiving says, “I want to.” The first comes from constraint; the second from a sense of obligation; the third from a full heart.
Nothing much is conveyed in grudge giving since the gift without the giver is bare. Something more happens in duty giving, but there is no joy in it. Thanksgiving is an open gate to the love of God. It is the “Amen” of giving. Thanksgiving is abundant joy and overflowing generosity.
It is my hope and prayer that thanksgiving is the kind of giving we have lifted up during this worship series. It’s the type of giving I believe most fully reflects God’s mission for Good Shepherd Lutheran Church “to share the Shepherd’s love with all of God’s children.”
The average church member in our denomination – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – gives about 2% of their annual income to God’s work through the church. I believe there are members who are part of Good Shepherd’s mission and ministry who give far more than 2% of their annual income – maybe even reaching to and beyond a tithe level of 10%. I also believe there are many other members who are part of Good Shepherd’s mission and ministry who, for whatever reason, choose not to give anywhere near 2% of their annual income. The fact of the matter is, about half of our membership households give nothing, 0% of their annual income, to financially support Good Shepherd’s mission and ministry.
The good news of God’s mission and ministry for the congregation we love and live out our faith through is that all the money and all the time and all the people that God needs to fulfill this mission is already here. All that God needs, we already have.
The hands, feet, and voices that strive for justice and peace and care for our neighbors in need are those who already call this church their faith home. Your pastors and staff do not have a secret collection of people to do the work God is calling us to do. You and I are those people God is calling into ministry. You and I are those people God relies on to do this work each day.
Hopefully, you know this, but if you don’t, I want you to know that there are no outside sources of financial support that enable Good Shepherd to exist in the world beyond our own financial generosity. Every penny that is given to our congregation is used to carry out God’s mission and ministry faithfully, joyfully and generously. Your pastors and staff do not have secret stashes of cash just in case we need it. You and I are the people God relies on to financially support the work God is calling us to do in the world today through this congregation.
Throughout this worship series, we have heard the Apostle Paul commended the Macedonian church for giving themselves first to the Lord. Because out of that act of faith, abundant joy and overflowing generosity was the result. Thanksgiving in never before seen ways.
Today, as we make financial commitments to Good Shepherd’s mission and ministry for the next year, we make those commitments by first giving ourselves to the Lord.
As one of your pastors, I implore us to give ourselves first to the Lord in all that we say and do.
I believe with everything I am, that when we do that, when we give ourselves first to the Lord, abundant joy and overflowing generosity will result.
Joy and generosity beyond anything we can begin to imagine possible today.
Joy and generosity that will be life-giving, to thousands of brothers and sisters in every corner of God’s creation.
Joy and generosity that are possible because God wants Good Shepherd Lutheran Church to be part of God’s work in the world today.
Joy and generosity that is a gift from God. May our giving always be thanksgiving. Amen.
2 Corinthians 8:1-7 • November 4, 2018
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Savior and Lord, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
This is the second week in our worship series “Abundant Joy. Overflowing Generosity.” Our theme this week is “Giving God our Worship.”
As many of you may, or may not know, my vocation in the church began in 2002 when I was hired to serve on Good Shepherd’s lay staff as Music & Worship Minister. Many years later…and a little blood, sweat, and tears through the candidacy process… I am now blessed to be ordained and serve as one of your called pastors. My roles may have changed over the years, but at the heart of everything I do as a child of God, worship remains central. In fact, I believe more strongly now than ever, that a Christian cannot exist without worship as an active and regular part of their faith journey.
I worry a bit that we have departed from that truth in recent years as followers of Jesus. Worship is important if we can fit it into the hundreds of other things clogging up our schedule. Worship is important as long as I like the music or liturgy being used and the preaching is not too long. Worship is important if it doesn’t take too much of my energy and time.
Thirty years ago, the average church member attended worship 1 out of every 2 weeks. Today, that average is once out of every 6 weeks.
I also worry that our lack of commitment to worship in communities of faith is having a negative impact on how we live out our faith. Don’t get me wrong, we still worship.
Unfortunately, the things we worship often don’t resemble much of the God we receive in Christ Jesus.
I was visiting recently with a local politician who is on the ballot this coming Tuesday. They were out knocking on neighborhood doors early one Sunday afternoon, meeting constituents. As the candidate was walking away from the doorstep of one house, the owner of the home drove into the driveway.
A friendly hello was shared and the homeowner made a joke that they had already given in the church offering. The candidate said that was good to hear since they had done the same. And even though this homeowner had yard signs of the candidate’s opponent, this particular candidate still wanted to meet some of their would be constituents.
The tone of the conversation quickly turned from friendly hellos. The homeowner said that he wishes he could line up a bunch of these candidates in his backyard – meaning candidates in the other political party – and just get rid of them. To actually cause physical harm to political candidates in the opposite party of the one he supports.
As shocking as that story is, not only because it happened just a few weeks ago. It happened in our own community too. Remember – both the political candidate and the homeowner claimed to have been in worship at their local church just a few hours earlier in the day. A few hours before that threatening statement was offered to another child of God.
How quickly we forget whom we worship. How quickly you and I can move into worshiping something or someone else that has no resemblance of the God we know through Jesus Christ. As a called and ordained pastor in the church of Jesus Christ, if you ever hear me say that it is ok to harm another child of God or destroy part of God’s good creation, please pull me aside and rebuke me of that sin.
The Apostle Paul is encouraging the church in Corinth and the church of Good Shepherd today to give God our worship. To give God our worship in ways that look much different than the shocking story I just shared.
Paul proclaims, “Now as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you – so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.”
Paul doesn’t say that we should excel whenever we have time to make it to church; or when we think we have a few spare minutes to say a prayer for someone we love; or when we are around people who think and look the same as we do ideologically or politically or theologically; or when we feel like giving God the few extra dollars left over in our pocket.
Paul says that because of all that God has done and is doing for us through the savior of the world Jesus Christ, we are to excel in everything. Everything. Faith, speech, knowledge, eagerness, love. It’s a generous undertaking.
Since God has called us into this work, why wouldn’t we want to excel in it? I believe that is something followers of Jesus have wrestled with since Paul first offered this challenge to the church nearly 2,000 years ago.
Paul, in all truth, seems to be saying that since you and I excel in so many things, why not be generous? Be generous in everything and excel in them. By doing that, we are able to live in this world fully as the people who God is calling us to be – servants of Jesus and stewards of God’s creation.
Gathered together in worship at all times and in all places, focused entirely on the living God, we are reminded why God created us in the first place – to be in relationship with God and to be in relationship with each other. To be intentional as we live together in Christian community giving God our worship and praise – not just when we attend a church service, but in every second of every day.
Brothers and sisters, we are constantly being sent into a world in need of God’s healing touch and unconditional love. Sent as a people with a generous undertaking. A generous undertaking that is in opposition to much of what the world expects life to be. Sent because all of our life, as people who claim to be followers of Jesus, is an act of giving God our worship.
This weekend, we also celebrate All Saint’s Day. We remember and give thanks to the saints in our own congregation who have died in the faith. We also remember and give thanks for how God is calling us to be saints as we live in this world right now, giving God our worship.
Pastor, author and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a reflection called “A Great Cloud of Witnesses” several years ago. I believe it speaks beautifully to giving God our worship as we excel in everything on this festival day of all saints.
“What makes a saint?” Taylor writes,
Excessive love, flagrant mercy, radical affection,
exorbitant charity, immoderate faith, intemperate hope,
None of which is an achievement, a badge to be earned or a trophy to be sought;
all are secondary by products of the one thing that truly makes a saint,
which is the love of God,
which is membership in the body of Christ,
which is what all of us, living and dead, remembered and forgotten, great souls and small,
have in common.
Some of us may do more with that love than others
and may find ourselves able to reflect it in a way
that causes others to call us saints,
but the title is one that has been given to us all by virtue of our baptisms.
The moment we rose dripping from the holy water
we joined the communion of saints,
and we cannot go back
any more than we can give back our names or the blood in our veins.
(The great cloud of witnesses includes us all)
Clan made kin by Christ’s blood.
There are heroes and scoundrels at the party, beloved aunts and estranged cousins,
relatives we adore and those who plainly baffle us.
They are all ours, and we are all included.
…we worship amidst a great fluttering of wings,
with the whole host of heaven crowding the air above our heads.
Call their names and hear them answer “present.”
…they belong to us and we to them,
And as their ranks swell so do the possibilities that open up in our own lives.
Because of them
and because of one another
and because of the God who binds us all together
we can do more than any of us had dreamed to do alone.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us never forget to give God our worship always. God is the only one we worship. That’s what the children of God are called to do and to do it with abundant joy and overflowing generosity. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Mark 9:38-50 * September 30, 2018
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Savior and Lord, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
I returned just a few days ago from a time of vacation – or rather staycation I should say. It was good.
I had planned to do a lot of things. Nearly every one of my well thought out and well-intentioned plans for this staycation did not actually get done. I guess, once I entered into this time of rest, my body and the Holy Spirit had other plans for this time. It reminded me once again how important regular, intentional times of rest are for one’s body and soul.
Hopefully, I’ll keep that in mind in the coming days and won’t be quite as worn out at the beginning of my next staycation.
In our gospel reading today, the disciples discover that they are not the only ones doing the work of Jesus in the world. By the time the disciples discover this, the good news of Jesus had already extended far beyond the things that only 12 disciples were capable of doing. And they are upset about that. They tell Jesus that they tried to stop him because he’s not part of our group. Jesus doesn’t seem to share their disgust or to be too worried about this outsider’s work on Jesus’ behalf.
During my recent staycation, Jesus’ work through Good Shepherd continued in miraculous and amazing ways. This was another reminder for me that this work – God’s work through our congregation – is not only dependent upon me as the Senior Pastor. Or on any one person for that matter. I’ll be brutally honest, sometimes my ego has a problem with that. Jesus doesn’t seem to share that same problem that I have. A problem I have way more often than I care to actually admit.
So, rather than preaching about cutting off our limbs or plucking our eyes out, I felt the Holy Spirit calling me to focus a little attention on Jesus’ exchange with the disciples that led him into these shocking statements about losing body parts in the first place. Losing body parts to describe what should happen when people get in the way of God’s work unfolding in the world through other people.
I’m not all that concerned about losing an eyeball or a leg. As someone who claims to be a follower of Jesus, I’m far more concerned with the ways my own ministry and leadership as a pastor get in the way of God’s work happening through people like those I’ve met recently.
During my staycation, I think learned something new about myself and my faith journey. Things that I hadn’t considered much before I began these few days away from my official duties as a pastor. I discovered once again, that God’s work in the world is not dependent only on me. There are nearly 4,000 brothers and sisters in Christ who are part of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church casting out demons and providing healing to hurting souls and doing miraculous acts of service in the name of Christ every single day.
In the past week or so, I was able to step away from the intensity of my daily work as a pastor and see that maybe I’m the one needing to receive a cup of water once in a while. Maybe I’m not the only one who is able to give someone else a cup of water.
In more ways, than I can begin to share with you today, I’ve been blessed to receive a cup of water from brothers and sisters.
I’ve received a cup of water from brothers and sisters who are part of our community of faith at Good Shepherd. A congregation who allows their pastors and staff time away for staycations and rest once in a while.
I’ve received a cup of water from brothers and sisters who are not part of our community of faith, yet warmly welcomed a stranger like me into their worship and fellowship. I’m thankful for God’s work happening through Saint George’s Memorial Episcopal Church.
I’ve received a cup of water from brothers and sisters who don’t believe in God and in a relationship with Jesus in the same way I do. Yet in spite of our theological and biblical interpretation differences, we share a common belief in the good of all humanity in God’s good creation.
The good of God’s creation even though wars rage on endlessly as we long for peace.
The good of God’s creation even though disagreements and death seem more important to us than respect and life.
The good of God’s creation even as we live in a time and place that is consumed by a seemingly endless barrage of political and personal and professional attacks and rhetoric that seek to destroy the very fabric of all God has created and is creating.
I’ve even received a cup of water from brothers and sisters, who frankly, I’m not sure if they are followers of Jesus at all. But I was blessed by them. I was blessed by them as they cast out demons I was holding on to, provided healing to things that were causing me pain, and quenched thirst deep down in my soul that freed me to live more fully into a much needed time of rest.
Whether any of the people I’ve encountered in the past few weeks during my staycation knew or not – they were doing the work of Jesus in the world. God’s work that was done by a variety of people in a variety of places with a variety of understanding on what they may have actually been doing. God’s work that was a blessing to someone just needing a cup of water.
Jesus said to his disciples some 2,000 years ago and to his disciples gathered together in worship today, “Truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, as children of God, who began bearing the name of Christ in the sacred words and holy waters of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, when have you not only given a cup of water to someone but received a cup of water from someone. Maybe even from someone whom you’ve attempted to stop while they were simply trying to do God’s work.
What if this is how our conversation with Jesus might take place today, instead of the way it happens in our gospel story today. What if this is what the disciples of today say to Jesus,
“We saw some people, Lord, who were casting out demons, working for justice, advocating for those who have lost their job and feel left behind, caring for veterans and single mothers, volunteering to feed the hungry and give money to those in need without anyone guilting them into doing so, and so much more, Lord, all in your name. They do not follow us, Lord. In fact, we really disagree with them on a lot of things. But we did not try to stop them, and they gave us a cup of cold water. And that was pretty cool.” [I give thanks for Pastor David Lose’s inspiration for this thought at http://www.inthemeantime.com]
Brothers and sisters in Christ, as you live out your faith in your work and your play this week, how are you receiving a cup of water from someone else. Take a minute to give God thanks when those holy moments happen. Amen.
John 6:59-71 • August 26, 2018
Brothers and sisters in Christ grace and peace to you from God our Father and Lord and Savior Jesus who is the Christ. Amen.
If you’ve been paying attention in worship over the last 5 weeks, you know that we have been firmly planted in the 6th chapter of the gospel of John. It is the largest, most concentrated time in one chapter of one gospel that we have together as the church. I wonder why that is. I don’t know maybe, just maybe, this chapter still has something important for us to hear as children of God who claim to be followers of Jesus.
BUT – every time I read the 6th chapter of John, I join the disciples who first heard these words from Jesus and shout out – with a bit of a whiney and complaining tone to my voice – “This teaching is difficult.” Anybody else relate? As we’ve received these gospel readings over the last month?
This teaching is difficult. Actually, if we study the Greek for the word translated in our pew bibles as “teaching,” we will discover that teaching may not be the best translation. A better and more accurate translation is “This Word is difficult.” Capital “W” on the word, Word. Which then brings us back to the opening of John’s gospel, doesn’t it? – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Word is Jesus. This Word is difficult.
John 6 is the midway point of Jesus ministry in the world. A point in time when Jesus is revealing that he is the one sent by God in flesh and blood. This is difficult for us to wrap our heads and hearts around. And for those of us today who already know the rest of the story, we know full well that it doesn’t get any less difficult from here. After all, there is a cross in Jesus’ future. And even more difficult to understand and believe than that, there’s a resurrection of a dead man coming soon too.
This teaching – this Word is difficult.
The Jesus we follow is not the latest and greatest self-help tool or fad diet. The Jesus we follow is the savior of the world. That was difficult for those who first heard him speak and followed him as he walked with them in this world. And it is difficult for you and me to grasp even as we sit in worship today.
Pastor, author, teacher Eugene Peterson reminds us that “This is still the way Jesus is God among us. And this is what is still so hard to believe. It is hard to believe that this marvelous work of salvation is presently taking place in our neighborhoods, in our families, in our governments, in our schools and businesses, in our hospitals, on the roads we drive and down the corridors we walk, among people whose names we know. The ordinariness of Jesus was a huge roadblock to belief in his identity and work in the ‘days of the flesh.’ It is still a roadblock.” Peterson believes. I tend to agree with his insight. [Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eugene H. Peterson, pg. 34-35]
In the sixth chapter of John we witness some of Jesus greatest miracles – Jesus feeding 5,000 people in the middle of nowhere with a couple fish and a few loaves of bread. Followed by Jesus walking on water. And the response to these miracles after all have eaten more than their fill and storms have been calmed … was to complain. To complain that this teaching is too difficult. To complain that you wanted chicken instead of fish. To complain that Jesus isn’t the all-powerful king that will overturn the oppressive rulers of the day. But you and I know better, right? We never complain, do we?
The truth of the matter is that we often do far more than complain, don’t we. More often than we care to admit, when we don’t get what we think we should be getting from this Jesus, we complain a little and then simply turn our back and no longer go with Jesus. Just like so many of his first followers did.
Instead of following Jesus, God’s gift of grace, we follow our own glory thinking that our greatness is because of us, not God working through us.
Instead of following Jesus, God’s abundant and unending joy, we work ourselves to death in order to buy one more toy for our garage that we believe will finally make us happy.
Instead of following Jesus, God’s unconditional love poured out for us in the flesh and blood of the savior of the world, we turn away and follow the next great thing that flashes on our smartphone or across our television or computer screens promising to love us more.
You see, Judas might be the one in the gospels who gets a bad wrap for walking away, for betraying Jesus. But as we heard again in today’s gospel, he isn’t the only one to walk away. Many other disciples did too. That’s still true today.
Eugene Peterson illustrates this by saying, “When it comes to dealing with God, most of us spend considerable time trying our own hands at either being or making gods. Jesus blocks the way. Jesus is not a god of our own making and he is certainly not a god designed to win popularity contests.” [Ibid. pg. 36]
What Jesus is inviting us into is different. It’s not life-based upon wealth or popularity or success or fame or power over others.
It’s life much different from any of those things that lure us away from a relationship with God through Jesus.
As a pastor colleague reminded me this week, “God calls us to a new kind of living.” He said. “To be a Christian means to be grounded in grace, and surrounded by God’s love. It also means to be willing to give of ourselves for the world around us. It means refusing to focus on what’s best for me and my own, but instead on how I might live sacrificially, so that others might come to know God’s love. It means not asking what I have to gain from this faith, but asking instead what I am able to give. It means wrestling with challenging beliefs and concepts – often times being called to stand in direct opposition to the world that surrounds us.” [Pastor David J. Risendal, http://www.onlelittleword.org]
Of the 100’s of volumes and 100’s of thousands of words written and spoken by the 16th century reformer Martin Luther, few ring as true to me and have had as much impact on my faith journey as Luther’s explanation for the third article of the Apostle’s Creed. We’ll share the creed together in a few minutes, but just to make sure we’re all in the same place at this point in the sermon, the third article of the Apostle’s Creed is… “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”
If you’ve been paying attention over the last month, hopefully you notice that those words echo a lot of what Jesus is talking about in John six.
And Luther’s explanation, points to that even more as he wrote this explanation of the third article of the creed for the Small Catechism. A document that still serves to guide us in our faith journey today. “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith. Daily in this Christian church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins – mine and those of all believers. On the last day the Holy Spirit will raise me and all the dead and will give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.” [Luther’s Small Catechism]
In today’s gospel reading, Peter confesses Jesus as the Holy One of God. Way too often, our confession is “Jesus, this teaching is difficult” rather than “Jesus, you are the Holy One of God.” In every one of those times. Times that may cause us to want to turn away from God, you and I need to hear Jesus say to us again, “Did I not choose you?” Because, that is most certainly true.
Following Jesus is not always easy.
And it’s often different from what we think it is.
Let’s face it, as we walk this journey of faith we are going to frequently complain or may even turn away from what Jesus might be calling us into or inviting us to become.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, if we can learn anything from the sixth chapter of John, maybe it’s a little something like this –John, chapter 6, reminds us of the depth and length and breadth that God will go to be in relationship with us. After all, the bread of life…the Word…the Savior of the world…has come down from heaven, for you, for me, for all of God’s children. God is doing all of this, for us, so we can have life. Have life abundantly here and now. Have life eternally as God’s kingdom continues to come. Amen.
Brothers and sisters in Christ grace and peace to you from God our Father and Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Over the last 12 weeks, you and I have been invited into a journey through 16th Century events known today as the Reformation. We explored many of the figures and important themes of this time. Not only important to the history of the Christian movement but also the history of western civilization. Many historians see the reformer Martin Luther as one of the most important figures in the history of humanity. And there is little doubt in my mind that he is still impacting history today.
In the first sermon, we heard at the start our summer worship series I quoted Luther Seminary Professor the Rev. Dr. Rolf Jacobson. As defined by Professor Jacobson, Reformation is “A revolution within Christianity that started in 1517 and is either still happening or needs to happen again, depending on whom you talk to.”
(Crazy Talk: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Theological Terms, pg. 140)
In the words of 17th-century theologian George Gillespie – “Reformation ends not in contemplation, but in action.” (George Gillespie 1613-1648)
Which speaks to just one reason why I believe the Reformation is still happening today.
Because of what God has done for you and for me in the action and saving grace of Jesus, God’s mission and ministry for the church is one of constant reform. Always unfolding. Daily being made new.
The scripture readings that are part of our worship today were among the most important verses in the Reformation. As we think about what it means to be a reformer today, I think these ancient verses continue to shape our lives of faith, just as they did for leaders In the reformation movement 500 years ago.
Let’s look at just a few of them.
From the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (2:8-9)
The question many of us ask as we hear these words from the Apostle Paul is, just what is the grace of God? I turn to own Lutheran Study Bible to provide a little insight. “God always takes the initiative in forgiving and recreating us.” the commentary for these verses offers. “It is not our social status, the color of our skin, gender, citizenship, age, or good deeds that make us worthy before God. The Holy Spirit is the first missionary who grants us salvation freely based solely on God’s love. This powerful discovery led Luther to add a word in his translation of this verse into German. “For by grace alone you have been saved…” Luther translated. [pg. 1923]
This truth of God’s saving grace so boldly revealed during the Reformation is something we struggle with still today. The gift of grace through faith that we have already received – is not of our own doing. And because of this gift, we are free to share God’s love with others in all that we say and in all that we do. If proclamations of God’s grace for all of God’s creation filled our streets today, I’m guessing the news of the day and the way we treat one another might be significantly different.
Take a look at this recent news story for example.
So often when we think of the Reformation we think of grandiose events. The 95 theses, thunder storms and lighting bolts, bold defenses against the highest authorities of the church and world as Luther announces “Here I stand. I can do no other, so help me God.”
The burden of feeling like we aren’t strong enough or smart enough to be a reformer can seem a bit overwhelming. “What am I supposed to do? I can’t possibly be a reformer?” “There is no way God can do anything good or amazing through me.”
It’s one of the reasons why I find comfort and strength nearly every day in the words we heard from Matthew’s gospel. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Brothers and sisters in Christ, don’t miss, or try to ignore, what God is doing in and through you. Because it is truly beautiful. It is transformational for you and those God places along your path. It truly is life-giving in every way, shape, and form.
Professor Christopher Gehrz believes that “If we Protestants are ‘reformed and always reforming,’ then commemorating the Reformation should cause us not so much to celebrate the past as to renew our mission and ministry in the present.”
Over the past 12 weeks, we have reflected upon teachings, events, theology, and people of the Reformation – a movement in the Christian church that began nearly 500 years ago. In the present, today, 2017, it is my hope and prayer that you and I reflect upon the many ways that God’s mission and ministry is being lived out. And as Jesus reminds us in Matthew’s gospel, God’s mission and ministry is something never done alone – Jesus is with us in every breath. In every step. Making the yoke lighter.
At Good Shepherd, we believe God’s mission and ministry is “to share the Shepherd’s love with all of God’s children.” I invite you to take time each day this week to celebrate how God is using you to fulfill God’s mission and ministry to bless and serve the world today. Rejoice in every opportunity you will have this week to be a reformer that shares the Shepherd’s love.
For the church, for children of God who follow the savior of the world Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Good Shepherd, the reformation has no end. Thanks be to God. Amen.
I am grateful to my colleague, Rev. Nadine Lehr. The bulk of this sermon is from a teaching sermon that she offered to her congregation, Lord of Life Lutheran Church, during a 2017 Lenten worship series.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ who teaches us to pray. Amen.
This weekend, we dive into the third part of the Small Catechism – The Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is so familiar to most of us that we often just pray it by rote and hardly pay attention to what we are actually saying. Martin Luther considered this mindless repetition an abuse of the second commandment to not take the name of the Lord in vain.He said: “What a great pity that the prayer of such a master as Jesus is prattled and chattered so irreverently all over the world!…In a word, the Lord’s Prayer is the greatest martyr on earth… everybody tortures and abuses it; few take comfort and joy in its proper use.”
He said: “What a great pity that the prayer of such a master as Jesus is prattled and chattered so irreverently all over the world!…In a word, the Lord’s Prayer is the greatest martyr on earth… everybody tortures and abuses it; few take comfort and joy in its proper use.”
So, let’s unpack the Lord’s Prayer a little in order to better understand the comfort and joy that God offers to us through this prayer. The Small Catechism is the cover of your bulletin again today.
First – the introduction or invocation: “Our Father…” In the ancient world of Jesus’ day, people did not have the right to address a superior whenever they felt like it. They first had to ask for permission. And if they didn’t ask with formality and respect, they could be killed. When Jesus tells us to call on God as Father, all of the formality is thrown out the window. Our relationship with God is a safe and intimate one.
“…Who art in heaven.”
In heaven is not God’s address. It is simply a description of God’s perfection. God is the perfect Father. Note also that we pray our Father, not my Father. Showing us that our connection to God’s creation is not an individual pursuit, but one that involves the community.
After the invocation, we enter into the many petitions – or requests – found in this prayer. Initially, petitions about God.
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done.
It kind of sounds like we might be praying for God. But that’s not what we are doing. As Luther reminds us, God’s name will be hallowed. God’s kingdom will come. And God’s will shall be done. Our prayers do not make these things happen. Rather, when we pray for these things, we are asking God to help us recognize and embrace the name, the kingdom and the will of God when we experience them at work in the world.
In Luther’s explanation of the first petition, we can see the connection between God our Father and hallowing God’s name. Simply stated, when we know God as our beloved Father, we want God to be honored. And when we know that God is our Father, we simply will not tolerate someone who dishonors God’s name. And we pray that we will never be guilty of dishonoring God’s name. Then we pray, “Thy kingdom come…”
Then we pray, “Thy kingdom come…”
Especially as citizens of the United States in 2017, how can we truly understand the word kingdom? Isn’t that one of the things we fought for independence from a few hundred years ago. Luther makes it clear that God’s kingdom is not a geographical place. And Luther says that God’s kingdom will come on its own without our prayers. In this petition, we pray that it will come to us. The kingdom actually comes, when the Holy Spirit gives us the gift of faith and plants in us the desire to obey God’s commandments.
Finally, the last petition about God – “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”
This is similar to the first two. However, here we ask God to destroy whatever stands in the way of God’s work. And we ask God to keep us steadfast in God’s Word so that we can celebrate the work God is doing.
After these first 3 petitions about God, we come to 4 petitions about ourselves. Notice how the tone of the prayer changes and we plead for ourselves.
“Give us this day our daily bread.”
At first, you may think this is just about food. And it is, but food is not all there is to this petition. Luther said we are all beggars before God. We do not create anything in this world. All that we have or that is created comes from God’s hand. We are to see God as the giver and to admit our complete dependence upon God.
And notice that we do not pray for all days. We do not worry about tomorrow. And let’s face it, in our culture, there is a great deal of attention given to worrying about tomorrow. Anyone have a savings account or rainy day fund? How about a retirement account? Jesus teaches us to believe, not in scarcity – the possibility of not having enough – but to believe in God’s abundance. To trust in God’s provision. Thus, we pray for today, not tomorrow. In the middle of this summer’s drought or if you struggle each week to make ends meet, that’s a difficult thing to do, isn’t it?
Forgiveness is next – “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
The word trespass can be tricky. Trespass means to cross a boundary. We cross a boundary when we overstep and go where we should not go. Brothers and sisters, that’s what sin is. We overstep a boundary. Ans frankly, I believe the root of all sin is the desire to be our own God. To do what we want, when we want to do it. Who cares about God’s will for our lives. In this petition, we ask God to forgive us for that foolishness. Or as Luther offers in his explanation – we ask God not to hold our sins against us.
One word of special note in this petition is the word “as.” The word as is also in the third petition. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
One way we might interpret this is “in proportion to.” With that in mind, we are asking God to forgive us in proportion to how much we forgive others. I don’t know about you, but that’s kind of a scary thought. If God forgives me only in as much as I am willing to forgive others, I’m in BIG trouble. And I assume you are all in just as much trouble as I am.
Or, we interpret the word “as” to mean a progression. First, we forgive others. Then God will forgive us. I’m sorry, but that’s just as scary as the first interpretation. The good news here is that neither one of these interpretations is correct. God puts no conditions on our forgiveness. Period. In the Lord’s Prayer, the word “as” simply means at the same time or in the same manner. We are asking God that as God forgives us, God’s forgiveness will flow through us and out to our neighbors. We are asking that when we experience God’s forgiveness, we will be given the desire to forgive others.
In the Lord’s Prayer, the word “as” simply means at the same time or in the same manner. We are asking God that as God forgives us, God’s forgiveness will flow through us and out to our neighbors. We are asking that when we experience God’s forgiveness, we will be given the desire to forgive others.
“Lead us not into temptation.”
Temptations and trials are empty promises intended to deceive us and lead us into false belief. For example, we hear a commercial that if we just buy a certain type of lotion, all of our wrinkles will go away. So we fork over $100 on something that we know cannot and will never be able to make us young again. We believed in an empty promise. Temptations always come with empty promises. And so in Luther’s explanation to this petition, he says that we are asking God to preserve us and keep us. Just as Jesus fought temptations in the wilderness by remembering God’s promises, God preserves and keeps us in the same way. “But deliver us from evil.”
Temptations always come with empty promises. And so in Luther’s explanation to this petition, he says that we are asking God to preserve us and keep us. Just as Jesus fought temptations in the wilderness by remembering God’s promises, God preserves and keeps us in the same way. “But deliver us from evil.”
This can best be seen as a summary statement. We ask God to protect us, to preserve our faith and to deliver us completely from everything that opposes God and our safety. Because one day our struggle will be over. Sin will be no more. We will no longer need to fight evil because it will cease to exist.
This petition is a bit circular in nature. If God delivers us from evil, everything in the Lord’s Prayer can happen. But in order for God to deliver us from evil, the rest of the prayer must happen. In other words, we end where we began – asking God to bring our petitions – our requests – to fulfillment. Asking God to deliver on the promises God has made.
The final section of the Lord’s Prayer is called the doxology or words of praise. For thine is the kingdom and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. We say THINE is the kingdom, the power, and the glory. Not MINE – THINE. God’s. At the end of the prayer, we surrender. We die to ourselves and place every part of our very being under God’s rule. Luther said “Amen, amen” means “yes, yes, it is going to come about just like this.'”
Luther said “Amen, amen” means “yes, yes, it is going to come about just like this.'”
We confess that God’s name will be hallowed, God’s kingdom will come, God’s will shall be done, our bread will be given, our forgiveness is secured, our trials and temptations will end, all evil will be destroyed.
And none of this comes about because we make it happen. It comes about because God makes it happen. The doxology of the Lord’s Prayer commits us to these promises – the promises of God – and it commits us to watch for their fulfillment in our lives, to recognize them and to embrace them.
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, when you pray, pray like this. Pray each word, trusting that beneath each petition, God is giving you a promise. And may the Lord’s Prayer help you to never forget that when God makes a promise, it shall be so.
And all God’s children say, “Amen.”