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Going the Extra Mile Together: A Parish Celebration Sermon on Luke 10:1-9
November 21, 2010, 10:55 pm
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Grace and peace to you, my brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

Today we gather to celebrate the new relationship we have in Christ. Through Jesus Christ, God has made us sisters and brothers. God has called us into worshipping communities, and those communities: Redeemer, Our Savior, and Trinity are united in one parish. God also brings us into relationship with our Eastern North Dakota Synod, the ELCA, the Lutheran World Federation, and all God’s people of every time and place. We are all united in Jesus Christ.

 

We are part of ever-widening circles of relationships, made possible through Jesus. It can be difficult to really grasp this abstract idea of being in relationship with people we’ll never meet. It can seem even more abstract and heady when we read in our lesson from Colossians: “Jesus Christ himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together…and through him God was pleased to reconcile to Godself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (1:17, 20). Colossians goes even farther than talking about Jesus’ creating relationship between all believers to talking about Jesus as the center and redeemer of all things. Everything, and everyone, is held together in Jesus Christ. Nothing and no one is outside the circle Jesus creates. What this means for us is that we are never alone or disconnected. We are never too few. We always have someone else, and we always have Jesus.

 

We chose a special gospel text for this parish celebration. We read from Luke the story of Jesus sending out the 70 disciples. Jesus sent them out into the towns and villages to declare the coming of the kingdom of God. But Jesus didn’t send them alone, he sent them in pairs. Jesus understood that carrying out God’s mission is not an easy task. People are not always receptive to the good news. Sometimes we just don’t have the energy to persevere when things get difficult. If we are alone, we might just give up.

 

Jesus sent his followers out to do his work: not alone, but in pairs. Jesus works on the wisdom shared in Ecclesiastes, chapter 4: “9Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.”

When hard times came for these disciples, when the whole town was against them, when no one’s heart was softened by their message of God’s love, then each disciple had another by his or her side. In each other, these pairs of disciples had a source of encouragement, hope, and a reminder of their God-given mission.

 

Jesus sent them out in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. Jesus did not send them where he had no intention of going himself. They must have met resistance and found people who were inhospitable, or even violent. None of this hardship was something Jesus wanted to avoid, and so the disciples had the courage to face the possibility of failure. Jesus told them that if their message of peace didn’t stick, they were simply to kick the dust of that town off their feet, not dwelling on their failure but moving on.

 

Jesus sent those pairs of followers out with nothing: no purse, no bag, no sandals. They had to rely on the hospitality of strangers. They were dependent on the ones to whom they were preaching. They found that they were provided with all they needed.

 

We are sent by Jesus to do his work- but we are not alone- we are a parish- three congregations joined together to do the work of God. We have been united by Jesus Christ. Each of us is a gift to the other, as each paired disciple was a gift to the other. We experience the blessings of each other both individually and congregationally. Our Savior and Trinity have been a blessing to Redeemer for these past 10 years, as they welcomed Redeemer into their parish arrangement. Together, you have made it possible for you all to be served by a full time pastor, and now by two not-quite full time pastors. You have enjoyed other parish celebrations in years past. You have relationships with each other that may be based other than in this parish relationship, but you can look to each other when you need the wisdom, comfort, and good news that only another Christian is able to give.

 

As we look forward to the next 10 years together, continue to see each other as the other half of your pair. Jesus has given you each other as you join in God’s work. You have each other as a source of encouragement, hope, and a reminder of your God-given mission. When one congregation is struggling to see God at work with them, or to know the hope and joy that come from God, then it’s time for the other two congregations to be the fellow disciple and speak God’s good word. When you see a need in our world and hear God calling you to do something about it, you have each other to join in the mission.

 

God has a mission for us: to follow Jesus and the disciples before us in proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom at hand. To do this is to share God’s love and forgiveness with those who have never heard or who have forgotten. To share our resources with those in need. To work for the healing and wholeness.

When we look at the troubles of our world, all those who are sick, struggling, hopeless, and oppressed, it can really feel overwhelming. What good can just you or I do? In that question we realize the joy in what God has done for us in giving us each other. When we are joined together as a congregation, we are joined by 10 or 40 or 100 more people with whom we can work. When we are joined as a parish, we are joined with 150 or 200 or more people. When we are joined as a synod, we are joined with 102,500 more people. Joined as the ELCA, we are joined with 4.5 million people, and the number keeps increasing as we consider all those circles of people united with Jesus as the center. Maybe we don’t have the time, resources, or skills as individuals, or individual congregations, but when we are united with our brothers and sisters in Christ, our joining in God’s work in our world can create miracles.

 

We don’t do this work alone. Jesus has already gone ahead of us. Jesus is already among the poor, the forgotten, and the lonely. We are not called to do what God is not willing to do. We are called to join our God who is already at work, healing the world. Jesus already has faced the greatest defeat for us: death. Jesus continued in his ministry even when it led him to danger, arrest, and death. Jesus has already given his very life away to be a part of God’s mission. That’s the path before us. We are called to give our selves and our lives away to join in God’s mission. It’s not a path that ends in fear and death. Jesus Christ died, but was raised from the dead. When we follow Jesus, we may encounter death, we may find ourselves sacrificing, and we may feel like we have been defeated. But because we follow Jesus, none of that is the end. We look forward to resurrection. In giving away our lives for Jesus’ sake, we will find life given to us that could never be taken away.

 

Jesus has called us, together as a parish, as a synod, as the ELCA, and as the whole global Church, to follow him together. We can do more together than apart. We have each other for encouragement. We have each other to multiply our efforts.   We are ready and equipped to be sent out to proclaim the kingdom of God. We can go the extra mile together.

 



Discipleship at the End of the Age: A Sermon on Luke 21:5–19
November 14, 2010, 8:24 am
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We’ve hit that disconcerting time when the church year ends and a new one begins. Now is the season we hear of the “end.” Persecution, destruction, famine, and death. This is the future Jesus foretells. What an uplifting gospel!

Jesus walks through the temple, and notices the peoples’ admiration of the great building. The temple is the place where God is met and worshipped. It’s the center of religious life, where all the sacrifices take place. It is a huge structure! There’s gold plating on the walls. There are expensive religious artifacts. It’s magnificent, and took years to complete.

Even so, Jesus declares that not one stone will be left on stone. It wouldn’t be the first time: the temple has been destroyed before. It was a difficult and dark time for Israel. The Babylonian Empire destroyed the temple, crushed the monarchy, and took many people, including important political and religious leaders, away into exile in Babylon. For a people who had been promised their own land and worshipped God who was present to them at a specific place, exile and the destruction of the temple were major traumas to the fabric of faith in that time.

Jesus doesn’t say what will happen to the temple, only that nothing of the current structure will remain. When the people ask for more details: when this destruction will occur, Jesus remains vague in his reply. He describes various other destructions that will take place. There will be plagues and famines, earthquakes, wars, portents and signs. Despite all these terrible things, the end will not be yet.

Jesus steps back to talk to his followers. He tells them they will face difficult times even before these signs hit the earth. They will be persecuted, arrested and charged by both the religious and political establishment. Rather than teaching his followers to avoid these trials, Jesus seems to rejoice in them, glad that they will provide an opportunity for the believers to witness to their faith.

The people who first received this gospel would experience the future Jesus spoke of. The early Jesus followers were cast out of their synagogues, arrested by authorities, rejected by family, and some were even killed. The occupying Roman forces would come into Jerusalem to put down a revolt and destroy the temple. Today, only a wall remains.

The book of Acts describes many of these events. Even as Jesus warned the disciples that life would become difficult for them, Jesus promised that he will give words to those who found had the opportunity to defend their faith. One story shows how those early believers took Jesus’ encouragement to heart, as they trusted in him for an opportunity to witness in the midst of their own persecution. This story begins in Acts 3. The disciples Peter and John are going to the temple to pray one day. On their way in, they notice the handicapped man who always lays outside, asking for money. He can’t walk, or even stand, so he isn’t able to get any work. His family and friends carry him to the temple every day so that he can receive money from generous worshippers. “When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. …

The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus. When they saw the man who had been cured standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition.

Peter and John felt in this instance God’s power at work within them: giving them words and courage to witness boldly to their faith. It might have seemed safer to keep quiet, to walk past the man, to avoid making a scene. But the Holy Spirit is at work among them, pushing them out of their comfort zone, getting the work of God done. Jesus’ promise is made true in their lives. They faced persecution, and yet God filled them with the words and courage to give a testimony that may have started a change of heart and faith in many others. We know that later, Peter was killed because of his faith. Jesus who was faithful in giving Peter the words he needed surely has also been faithful in ensuring that Peter has gained life even though he died.

Today, we live in a very different world than those who first followed Jesus. Yet, as we hear Jesus talking about trials and destruction, we might wonder if Jesus had our time in mind. The impulse to find ourselves in these “end” times has been real for every generation. Wars, famines, persecution: they have been present throughout each age, and who doesn’t want to see that difficult reality as a sign from God that the final moment of God’s decisive victory is about to come?

I do think we are at the edge of an end of sorts. Not the kind of cosmic end that inspired the Left Behind and Armageddon craze of a decade ago. I think we are facing an end to the way the church has been for generations. Ever since Emperor Constantine decreed that Christianity was the official and protected religion, the shape of Christianity has been shaped by the structures of power and privilege. I think of that great temple in Jerusalem, shining with wealth, inspiring because of its majesty. Jesus says that temple will be utterly destroyed. And then I think of Jesus, whose achievement of glory was at the moment of his least powerful and most shameful, as he died on he cross. This Jesus, God raised from the dead. It’s through Jesus’ identification with the suffering, poor, sinful, outcast, that he wins for us the title of beloved children of God. It’s not the symbol of religious establishment and power, but the emptying of power from our incarnate Jesus Christ, that is the center of our faith.

Today we in the West are said to be at the end of this connection between Christianity and power, at the end of the era assuming everyone is Christian, or knows about Christianity, and at the end of the assumption that the society and government should help people be Christians. People call this Post-Christendom. I don’t think it’s really come to us here in North Dakota yet. But it’s worth thinking about as we consider where we are in this gospel from Luke.

Can you imagine what it would be like if your following Jesus went against the grain, if it was difficult and even dangerous? What if you had to choose between your family’s wishes and following God? What if you lost money, lost your job, lost your standing in the community, all because of your faith?

These are the risks those first disciples faced, and today, we may soon find ourselves needing to choose between faith that’s committed even through persecution and difficulty, or falling away because we judge the costs are too high. Right now, most people around here tend to think that being a member of one church or another is just what good people do. We expect the school calendar to respect our religious holidays and typical days for Christian worship and education. We’ve long used membership language to describe how we relate to a worshipping community. But the time may soon be here when we need to step away from seeing the church as an ever-present institution that serves us when we feel the need for spirituality in our lives, and move towards a more radical life of faith that doesn’t expect faith to make life easier or more peaceful, but looks forward to sacrifice as an opportunity for witness.

At Our Savior this morning, we’re going to baptize little Shelby Overland. I don’t think her family and sponsors are bringing her to the font because they want to make her life difficult, or put her in any danger. It’s the promise of God that draws us towards the font. There God claims us as children, marks us with the cross of Christ, and gives us the gift of life forever. We receive great promise at the font. Yet we are also transformed and set out on a new life path. We are reoriented towards living for Christ. That’s what our baptismal promises are all about: we promise, either as the one being baptized, or on behalf of that one, to put ourselves in places and communities where we will be formed into people of God, and we promise to work for the good of our neighbor. When we entrust ourselves to God so completely that we’re willing to be put under water, we’ve set out on a life of trusting God to lead us wherever God wills.

That life may be easy or difficult. There may be times where faith and faithful living seems too difficult and unrewarded. But we’re in this for the long term. The horizon of God’s decisive action to heal and restore the world has been before God’s people for many generations. We are only called to follow faithfully at our own time. But we do not follow blindly. Through any persecution, trials, or suffering, Jesus has already gone before us. True to his faithfulness, Jesus died for us. We never need to fear that we are alone, when we stand up for our faith. Jesus is always with us. The world may change and we may perceive the church and the community of believers dwindling, yet God is still active among us. Even though the temple crumbles, God is still in the midst of God’s people.



Blessed are the Mourning Saints: A sermon on Luke 6:20-31
November 7, 2010, 8:35 pm
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Grace and peace to you, saints of God, from our risen savior, Jesus Christ.

 

This morning, as we worship, we are surrounded by the saints. It’s really the case every Sunday, but on this day, we’ve made a special effort to make visible a portion of the great cloud of witnesses. We’ve brought in pictures of deceased loved ones, in thanksgiving for the faithful encouragement they have given us during their lives. We’ll walk by these photos as we come to the table for the Lord’s Supper. There we remember that Jesus gives himself so that we would all have life. We eat a morsel of bread as a taste of the eternal banquet at which we will join all the saints who have gone before us, and the saints who are yet to come.

 

As we gathered this morning, we were met with the signs of our entrance into sainthood. In font and water, word and promise, we were united with Jesus Christ. At our baptism, we put on Christ, we were clothed with the righteousness that belongs to Jesus. We were made saints, claimed as people of God, and joined the whole communion, the great host, of saints.

 

Many of you were made saints long before you could walk or talk, and no matter where you’ve gone or what you’ve said since then, you’re still a saint today. This may be the one day of the year when anyone calls you a saint. If tomorrow over coffee, you start telling your friends all about how you are one of the blessed saints of God, you’re more likely to elicit laughter and embarrassing stories than a hearty “amen.”

 

What is it about our God that God calls us “saints” when surely God knows we hardly deserve such a title? Does God not know that we really deserve no title but “sinners?” Even the precious little babies we baptize, although we tend to call them innocent, really are the best examples of the sin to which we are all born. Their only concern is for themselves, and they loudly demand that their needs are met, and quickly. This self-centeredness is the root of sin that continues to plague us our whole lives. And yet, from our earliest absorption in ourselves, God comes to us to name us, not sinners as we deserve, but saints.

 

Jesus does this same strange naming of opposites as he preaches to the crowds of disciples on the plain. We hear in the Gospel of Luke Jesus blessing groups of disciples. Jesus declares, “Blessed are you poor people, blessed are you hungry people, blessed are you mourning people, and blessed are you hated people.” Jesus tells people that they are blessed, right now, as they struggle with poverty, hunger, grief, and ridicule.

 

They are blessed now, and will receive a future where their circumstances are reversed. The poor will inherit a whole kingdom, the hungry will be filled, the mourners will laugh with joy, and the scorned will be rewarded. As is typical for the Gospel of Luke, good news for one group of people often means bad news for another. The reversal that flips the downtrodden up, drops the well-off and comfortable down. These reversals remind us that our trust in God leads us to look forward to even better things than we experience now. Our daily working for money, food, joy, and social standing need to be put into God’s perspective. As saints of God, our lives, our daily struggles, are met with God’s blessing that extends beyond this earthly life. We are blessed with God’s promise of good things to heal the pain of today.

 

Today, as we give thanks for the lives of all the saints, we fear what the next year will bring: who will struggle with illness, whose names might we be reading in remembrance. Many here have reason to mourn today. We have a long list of those who have died in the past year. Many of you have a special person in your lives you are thinking of today. We are surrounded by pictures of those we wish could have been with us longer. On this day, we celebrate them with thanksgiving, but we cannot deny that many are also grieving.

 

We who mourn, Jesus calls blessed. This is the kind of foolishness that the Apostle Paul calls a stumbling block: to those who don’t know Jesus, it doesn’t make any sense. What sign is there that would prove there is life after the reality of death? Why should we hope for more than what we can see? Why would there be joy alongside our mourning?

 

Jesus Christ makes possible a reality that turns upside down our reality and our expectations. We witness to this blessedness at every funeral and burial. What makes a Christian funeral different is that it’s not all about the person who died. The point isn’t to say nice things about the deceased, to attempt to solidify them in our memory, as if that were the only place they would now exist. The focus is on Jesus, through whom the reality of death is reversed. The sign that inspires our hope and trust is the empty cross and tomb. Jesus Christ died for each one of us, and God raised him from the dead. While we mourn the deaths of those we love, we also trust that God is faithful to each of them, and will raise them from the dead just as God raised Jesus.

 

God makes a new reality that turns what we perceive on its head. Any cause for despair, hopelessness, meaninglessness, God answers. God has a future with hope. God has already named and claimed us in that hope. We who are mourners, God makes joyful. We who are sinners, God makes saints. In God’s gracious promise, we are indeed blessed.