Category Archives: Recent Sermons

“What 1 Thing Keeps You Awake?” 02.16.2019 Sermon

Luke 6:17-26 • February 17, 2019

       Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

I was blessed to spend a few days this past week with several other pastors in our synod doing a little wondering and learning within the Leadership for Faithful Innovation mission project that Good Shepherd is part of. I think much of what we tried to learn together on Monday and Tuesday is a reflection of our gospel reading today.

One of the key learnings I’ve had with this gathering of fellow pastors in the first six months of our time together is learning how to listen better. To listen more deeply to myself, to others, to the congregation members we are called to serve, to the communities around us that our congregations are called to serve, to God.

It’s been good.

Because people who are not pastors assume that people who are pastors are good listeners. Which I’m here to share with you is not always the case.

As pastoral colleagues from across our synod, we spent a considerable amount of time listening to each other as our coaches challenged us with questions like – What are people in our congregations feeling?

What are people in our congregations spending the majority of their time doing?

What are people in our congregation’s yearning for?

What are some of the challenges they’re are facing?

Image result for keeping you awake       And maybe the most difficult question presented to us was this – what is one thing that keeps you up at night?

Think about that for a minute. What is the one thing, as you sit in this worship space today on this cold North Dakota day, what is the one thing that is keeping you awake at night?

I would guess that the disciples and the other people who gathered around Jesus in today’s gospel may have had some interesting answers to that question.

As long as I am alive, it will never cease to amaze me how God is present in the ordinary, everyday people and places along our path. These are times of blessing I say to myself. Or are they woes? Or maybe they’re a blessing at some times and woes at other times?

This section of the gospel according to Saint Luke is one of the longest teaching sections in this gospel. It’s called the Sermon on the Plain. In Matthew’s gospel, this teaching is called the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is on a mountain in Matthew talking largely to what we would think of as church people today – pastors, so to speak.

In Luke, Jesus is on level ground teaching to his disciples and ordinary people who have seen the miraculous healing power of Jesus first hand.

In Matthew, there are nine beatitudes or blessings. Many of them are philosophical or spiritual in nature, blessed are the poor…in spirit.

In Luke, there are four beatitudes or blessings followed by four woes. Luke eventually gets to the other blessings in his gospel. He just doesn’t lift all of them up in this section of the gospel.

Luke’s blessings and woes are a bit more direct than Matthew’s. Rather than just being offered in a spiritual sense, they point directly to you and to me – blessed are you who are poor. Woe to you who are rich.

If you have ever been told by someone that following Jesus is easy, I question how much time that person has actually spent studying the teaching and life of this savior Jesus.

You and I don’t exist in this world alone.

You and I don’t live out our faith alone. We don’t live in a faith bubble all by ourselves.

Everything we do as children of God reminds us of that.

Jesus teaching of the blessings in Matthew and the blessings and woes in Luke are saying just that. And this teaching and this way of life is anything but easy.

Martin Luther – the 16th century church reformer who happens to be the reason why we are called Lutherans today, said – “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.”

Pastor Shane Claiborne was speaking at a youth worship event that I was at a few years ago. He talked about his faith journey and call into Christian leadership. I don’t remember all of the details of his testimony, but I do remember this. He said that before he started following Jesus he had everything in his life together. Everything made sense. And everything was under his control. And then he met Jesus, and everything in his life got messed up. He didn’t think about helping people or loving people unconditionally or serving people before he met Jesus.

After he met Jesus he began to think constantly and live his life in ways that help him discover every day how he can serve the poor, feed the hungry, speak out against things that oppress people, and love his neighbor unconditionally.

Jesus showed him those things.

And Jesus continues to show him that path of faith.

Image result for faith with others       One of the key purposes of Pastor Claiborne’s ministry today is building movements of Christians that look like Jesus again. Christians that take Luther’s quote seriously and seek to make something beautiful and life-giving out of something that many who are not Christian see as being worth nothing.

Christians that care deeply for one another and the world God continues to create.

French philosopher Jacques Ellul said, “Christians were never meant to be normal. We’ve always been holy troublemakers, we’ve always been creators of uncertainty, agents of dimension that’s incompatible with the status quo; we do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way that God wants it to be. And the kingdom of God is different from the patterns of this world.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Ellul?wprov=sfti1]

Brothers and sisters in Christ, the blessings and woes that we receive from the 6th chapter of the gospel of Luke today may seem like a burden we can’t possibly carry. A burden that keeps us awake at night.

God knows that. If God didn’t know that, why would God have sent us a savior?

And that savior, Jesus, says to us “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30)

Jesus knows that we aren’t always going to get it right. We aren’t always going to be perfect examples of the body of Christ alive in the world today. Yet, Jesus still comes to you and to me. Stands on level ground. Holy ground. Ground that looks an awful lot like the ground we are standing on right now. And that Jesus, offers healing and hope to everything that’s keeping us awake at night.

IMG_1888       In the narthex today there is a large poster on the wall asking the question “What one thing keeps you awake at night?” I invite you to stop by this poster and take 20 seconds of time before you leave the building today. Write your answer to that question. Because I am certain that I’m not the only one who has an answer for that question. And as we share our answers to that question with one another as a community of faith, maybe they won’t keep us awake at night quite as much. Because we’ll be reminded once again that we are not alone along this journey of faith.

And for that truth, all God’s children say…Amen.

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2018 Christmas Sermon

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.

IMG_1762We 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.

download (1)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.

downloadA 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.

IMG_1763Just 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.

IMG_1769The 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.