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Dandelions and Confirmands: Abiding with Jesus: A Sermon For Confirmation, John 15:1-8
May 4, 2015, 1:00 pm
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Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

The other day, I was outside with our three year old. We had just finished at the playground and were going for a walk, looking for birds and exploring all that was greening in response to the warmth.

We were going to be visiting her grandparents, and she was really, really excited. She spotted one bright dandelion and ran over to it. She carefully picked the bright flower, declaring that she would present it to her granny. She watched over it through our whole walk, making sure it was still with us, and we hadn’t dropped it. Then she set it down in the car, and forgot about it until the next day.

When we got into the car again, she frantically looked for her flower. She couldn’t find it. After crawling around and looking under seats, I did. But it wasn’t bright yellow anymore. It had curled up in on itself. It had dried out and wilted. L-didn’t understand; it didn’t look anything like the flower she had picked as her gift of love.

When we pick a flower, it’s cut off from its roots, its branches, everything that supports and nourishes it. It can’t sustain itself and it dies. The flower needs the whole system in which it lives.

This life-giving connectedness is what Jesus is talking about when he names himself the vine and calls us his branches. He invites us to abide in him. This means being so connected to Jesus that we receive our life from him. Everything we do, everything we are, grows out of our relationship with Jesus.

Jesus’ invitation is matched by his promise, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” (John 15:4a).  Jesus is the one who has planted you in him. Jesus has formed and sustained the connection to you.

Today, six people affirm their faith. A-, D-, E-, K-, N-e, and N-, you’ve given extra time and effort into participating in the confirmation program. The whole church has nourished you as you’ve grown, explored, and developed relationships within this community. This program and this place have worked to pull away any strangling weeds and ensure that you have the light and water you need as Jesus continues to grow in you.

God attached you to Jesus the vine in your baptism. In this water and word, you were connected forever to the life-giving God. Jesus made you one with him. Since that day, you have shared in Jesus’ life. Today is a milestone to celebrate the shared identity you’ve had with Jesus and always will have. Jesus has made you a part of him, and you will never be cut off. Today isn’t the end, and it isn’t the beginning. It’s a marker of your growth. You’re transitioning from childhood into adulthood, exploring your beliefs, and beginning to make commitments and choices that will shape the rest of your lives.

As your church and as your family, we can be afraid that you’ll step away from church during this time in your life. We fear that you’ll end up like that shriveled dandelion if you cut yourself off from church, where faith is nourished. But Jesus is bigger than our fear. Jesus has attached himself to you more strongly than you can turn away.

To you, to all of you, Jesus has come. Jesus has come into our world, come into your lives, to abide: to live and to stay, to be- forever. Jesus sealed this promise by dying for you and entering death. In his own suffering, he proves that no amount of your turning away, no darkness of your current situation, no sin, would ever be so great as to make him abandon you. No matter what, Jesus is with you forever: the giver of life, constantly giving life to you, even after death. You have been brought into life, and sustained, by the Jesus who has claimed you forever.


Steadfast Love: A Sermon in the Covenant Series for Lent 4: 2 Samuel 7, Psalm 107, John 3
March 16, 2015, 11:20 am
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Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

Does anyone use the psalms frequently in their prayer lives? It might be a more common practice among those who pray the hours, using these texts over and over again throughout life to shape your prayer. Maybe some of you have memorized a psalm or two? Perhaps Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd…”

The Psalms were written as songs for worship, words that would be sung on everyone’s lips and form their picture of who God is and what God has done, is doing, and will do for them. If you were a person who prayed these songs regularly, you’d find that they become a part of your heart’s song. When something big happened in your life, you’d find a ready response from God in this prayer language.

As we continue to explore covenant this Lent, one line from our psalm expresses what we’re discovering: “God’s mercy endures forever.” (Psalm 107:1b ELW). Or, put another way, “God’s steadfast love endures forever.” (NRSV).

The whole point of using these six weeks of Lent to explore covenant is to discover how God starts and keeps covenant. God makes promises to specific groups of people. These promises form a relationship between promise giver and promise receiver, and they give an identity to the people so that they become God’s people. We’re spending these weeks trying to figure out if God’s steadfast love really does last forever, and how that steadfastness is expressed to us.

In the covenant to Noah and all creation, God promises to remember creation, and never again destroy it. In the covenant to Abraham, God promises to make a nation out of Abraham’s descendants, giving them a land and a new relationship as God’s people. In the Sinai Covenant, given to Moses and the Israelites freed from slavery in Egypt, God affirms the promise to be their God, giving them God’s vision of a freed, life-affirming society through the law.

Today we read from Second Samuel the Davidic Covenant. God promises David, in verse 16, “your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” God says that King David’s descendants will continue to be the kings and their kingdom will always be.

I’ve been using the word promise a lot as I describe God’s work in these covenants. I’m not sure if promise quite captures it. Remember, God’s speech has declarative power- what God says, is. Genesis 1 is God creating through speech. So when God speaks these covenants, it’s not a weak promise of “I’ll do my best to do this or that for you… if I can… if you’re really good.” What God promises, is.

As we’ve looked through the covenants, we’ve discovered that the person receiving God’s promises doesn’t always get to see them fully in place. Abraham had to trust God’s promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars and would be a great nation. He waited a long time before he experienced the beginning of God’s work on the promise through the birth of Isaac.

The Davidic Covenant is so specific- one family- one kingship- forever- that its failure becomes glaringly obvious. There’s a big problem with God’s following through on this promise. The problem for the people of God in the generations after King David is that the kingdom is conquered. There is no unending line of kings ruling God’s people in peace, in their land. Rather, the people of God are conquered, some are taken into exile, later to return. Even then, they are still a conquered nation, without an independent king of their own. They remain under the authority of one or another foreign nation even through the time of Jesus and the early Christian church.

Imagine how it would be, if you were one of God’s people, living in exile, or living back in Jerusalem but with Roman forces in your streets. What would it mean to you to remember this covenant with David and also sing the psalm, “God’s steadfast love endures forever.” Would that prayer catch in your throat as you wondered what it means for God to be steadfast and faithful in God’s promises?

It’s one thing to wake up to a beautiful sunrise and have your heart sing, “God’s love endures forever.”

It’s a similar feeling when you hear from a good friend and your spirit is raised, “God’s love endures forever.”

Even at the close of a funeral of a beloved elder, after acknowledging all the ways God provided for and through her, setting her in the eternal embrace of God, “God’s love endures forever.”

But when everything is falling apart- from the news on TV to your job to the kids to the house and the bills and your heath, and maybe even the church— “God’s love endures forever?”

If this was a refrain to your life, some days it might be comforting, others joyous, and at others might be the cause for anger- where is God’s power and love for me right now, in the midst of my life?

What does it mean for God’s promises to be steadfast when it sure looks like God’s long forgotten that promise?

We have a unique vantage point in the Bible. We get to hear the stories of people who ask the hard questions of faith. Over the course of scripture, God remembers, God is faithful.

God’s fulfills the Davidic Covenant in Jesus. Jesus is the king in David’s line, but his kingdom is different than expected. Jesus is not the victorious king, returning from war or convening councils in great rooms. Jesus is the king who suffers with and dies for his people.

God’s faithfulness looks like Jesus: God enfleshed, God in the midst of our real junk, mocked as king, crowned with thorns, clothed in a royally colored rag, reigning from above the crowd, his throne a cross.

The encouraging witness of the exiles, of the conquered, is the sustained hope that keeps “God’s steadfast love endures forever” on their lips, even when God’s answer to this promise is so far away.

Maybe you’re in a place in which it’s easy to rejoice in God’s faithfulness. But if you’re not- if you’re having a difficult time seeing God’s faithfulness for you- you’re not alone. Other faithful people have been there and are there today. Jesus knows what it is to be left questioning God’s faithfulness, to find yourself deep in shame, grief, and abandonment. Jesus experienced all despair so that he could be with you in compassionate, steadfast love.

We gather together in this place because we need to know that God’s love and faithfulness is for us. God’s steadfast love is for us, individually and corporately.  It is for you- for those who gather alongside you at this church- and as John reminds us- for the whole world. Today you are not left to wonder if God has made real the promise of relationship, forgiveness, and life for you.

Be assured. Come and touch and taste and smell the elements that carry God’s promise and Jesus’ presence to you. In water, God washes the baptized and claims you in relationship for life forever.

In bread and wine, Jesus gives himself to you. God’s mercy and love are yours forever.

Jesus’ crowning on the cross is the antithesis of all we might image as God’s blessed king. Yet it is through the cross that Jesus opens the kingdom to all nations and breaks the power of all other rulers to oppress us. Jesus is raised from the dead so that we might glimpse the way in which God will fulfill all promises. God’s faithfulness gives us reason to hope for the future.

Salt of the Earth: A Sermon on Isaiah 58 and Matthew 5
February 13, 2014, 10:18 am
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Grace and peace to you, from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The first words we hear from Jesus in today’s gospel are “You are the salt of the earth.” We see a photo of large salt grains on our bulletin cover. As I prepared to preach today, I was trying to think about our modern relationship with salt and how that helps or hinders our ability to hear who Jesus is calling us to be.

I think what we most often hear about salt is that we shouldn’t consume too much of it. We’ve lost sight of how precious it has been to the generations before us. Salt preserves food, flavors it, and has healing and cleansing properties. It’s necessary for our bodies to work correctly.

To reclaim salt as an image for today’s sermon, think of the new trend in chocolates: sea salt. We’re selling fair trade chocolate bars with toffee and sea salt. I’ve enjoyed sea salt crusted chocolate fudge. Maybe you have your own favorite.

I try to make my children’s sermons more visual and tactile to form connections to the text and theme, but I think it’s a disservice to you adults that you are expected to only need to listen. So, you’ve received samples of chocolate and brownies with sea salt. I know this probably goes against everything you’ve been taught about how to behave in church, but if you’re up for it, I invite you to take a piece, put it in your mouth and slowly taste it. We’ll take a moment for all the rustling and tasting. Experience the surprise and the enhancement of the salt. It’s a noticeable flavor and it changes the chocolate.

Salt is salty. It changes whatever it is paired with. If the salt were not salty, it would cease to be what it is, it would no longer be useful, it would be trash.

Jesus preaches, “you are the salt of the earth” to his disciples and the crowds below him on the mountain. These words echo through the centuries to us today. You are the salt of the earth- you have something life-preserving, life-giving, to share with the world. You have a flavor that is meant to alter the experience of living on this earth.

To get at what that flavor is, let’s explore our reading from Isaiah. The reading is a dialogue between God and the people with some interjections from the prophet’s own voice. The people have experienced the destruction of the holy city Jerusalem and of the temple. Now they long for restoration and rebuilding. They long for God’s protection and justice. So they have tried to do what they thought would make God happy. They’ve been fasting and praying to try to get God to do good for them again. But God doesn’t seem to be doing much for them.

When the people complain that they’ve been working so hard at trying to be holy people, pleasing God with their sacrifices, God quickly rebukes them. They’ve been trying to look good, with their signs of fasting, but all the while they haven’t been living a truly repentant life. They are ritually and symbolically turning to God and asking for justice, all while they are oppressing those over whom they have power. God declares this half-hearted fast won’t cut it.

This outward, half-hearted fasting is the same as being salt that has lost its saltiness. There is nothing flavorful, nothing transformative about it. Their hearts and their impact on the world aren’t being affected by this shallow fast.

God declares what a righteous fast, what a salty life looks like:

6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke? 
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 

God calls us to have an effect on the world around us. Our faithfulness is a reflection of God’s justice that has a real impact on our daily lives and our interactions with all creation. Our faithfulness is not meant to only change our Sunday morning. The light of Christ is not meant to be covered up and tightly held within our own hearts. It is meant to spill out into our actions so that the world can see them.

God declares:

If you remove the yoke from among you,
   the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
   and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
   and your gloom be like the noonday. 


God created you, God claimed you, God fills you with God’s own light, so that you can enter the places of darkness and gloom, where hope is lost, where poverty crushes, where oppression is strong. You are called to act as light, to act as salt, protecting, preserving, and restoring life.

Faith is not meant to be private, as if God wanted us to hold all of God’s love in our heart and not let it spill out in our words and actions. This was the problem of the people who listened to Isaiah- they thought they could show their repentance and be right with God through little signs of righteous penitence that affected no one but themselves. They thought these outward gestures would win them God’s favor.

God has come into your life to transform you. God doesn’t want your pious words, your perfect church attendance, or even memorization of the Small Catechism, if that holiness is only a veneer on your surface. God has sent the Holy Spirit to dwell within you: to transform you into salt that flavors the world, into light that brightens your surroundings. In whatever you do, you are meant to be aligned with God’s priorities and purposes: to care for the poor, feed the hungry, free the oppressed, and act for the well-being of all creation.

This comes about by your living as God has created you to be and the Spirit empowers you to live. As God spoke through Isaiah to say God didn’t want fasts for the sake of earning favor, neither does God want that kind of relationship from you. Rather, God calls you to action that arises from your identity as a beloved, saved, claimed child of God.

This is the new identity we welcome Colton into today. He is baptized and united with Jesus Christ forever. He will be a child of God, filled with the Holy Spirit, and sent into the world to act as Christ. The promises parents Jenny and Dave are about to take on, the promises of his sponsors     Sarah and Andy  and the promises you all will accept are promises to help Colton enter into the kind of relationship God wants with him. He will need to be nurtured in his new identity as salt and light, and helped to understand how to live as a baptized Christian. God is coming to Colton to form this life-transforming relationship with him. God needs each of you to live up to the promises you make today, so that Colton knows how to live out of God’s relationship with him, experiencing the joy of a full relationship that transforms deeper than a holy veneer.


The Christian life comes from Christ’s presence within us, transforming us to live as Christ lives. Our work for justice and peace, our care for the poor, our sharing of the gospel, does not arise from a desire within ourselves to somehow score points in God’s record of who’s been good. Rather, these works arise from Jesus’ presence within us. In Luther’s commentary on Galatians chapter 2, VERSE 20. But Christ liveth in me., Luther writes, “Good works are not the cause, but the fruit of righteousness. When we have become righteous, then first are we able and willing to do good. The tree makes the apple; the apple does not make the tree.” (

By uniting you with Christ in baptism, God makes you righteous. In Luther’s image, you are the righteous tree and the works of justice are the apples you produce because of who God has created you to be. Producing fruit is a natural growth of what it means to be a tree. This fruit is the salty flavor, the illuminating light, given to you by God for the sake of the world’s transformation. God has made you to be salt and light. Your works of bringing flavor and light to the world is simply your living out your God-given identity. Be who you have been claimed and created to be. In this way you will be joined with God’s life-giving and ever-loving mission. Thanks be to God for entrusting to us such an amazing joy and responsibility. 

Living Wet: A Sermon on John 1, touching on the occasion of the annual meeting

Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ,


Last week, we heard from the Gospel of Matthew an account of Jesus’ baptism. Today, we hear the event from John’s perspective. As we reflected together on the Matthew account, we considered what it means that, through our own baptism, we are united with Jesus and his baptism. Through baptism, God grants us many gifts: a new beginning, a life freed from sin and completely forgiven, a new identity as a child of God, a new family with Jesus and all the baptized, and a powerful promise of life that sustains us even after death. In our baptisms, God acts. God comes to us and gifts us abundantly.


All of God’s promises and gifts are ours forever. Our standing before God has been made good by Jesus alone. If you think of our liturgy for baptism, or take a look at it, it begins on page 227, you’ll find that we focus on God’s action in baptism. You might hear this declaration:  “God…gives us a new birth into a living hope… delivers us from sin and death and raises us to new life. We are united with all the baptized…anointed with the…Spirit…and joined in God’s mission for the life of the world.”


Did you catch that last part? God takes us and brings us into “God’s mission for the life of the world.” God turns us into missionary workers. Don’t feel quite qualified? Think about this: we say these words most often in this church to infants. And we trust that God is using them- and is using us- in carrying out God’s mission to the world.


I think it’s fair to say you all trust this— after all, you’ve chosen to reflect this promise as Cross’ mission statement. We are “joyfully doing God’s work.” Today, following worship, we gather for our annual meeting. For some, having meetings or even any type of board meeting this makes them feel like church is a business. The weight of that responsibility can be quite heavy. Driving questions become blurred into the business world, leaving us focused on worries such as: how can we grow and expand and claim more market space and keep our loyal customers happy and become more profitable?



It can become a challenge to wrestle ourselves away from earthly standards and remember we are here to join in God’s work and all we do is done for the sake of God’s mission in the world. The freedom we gain in this challenge is the peace that comes when we entrust all that might worry us into God’s hands. This is God’s church. It is God’s work that is done here. It is God’s promises that sustain us. While we celebrate the many years this church has served God, we also remember that it is not eternal, it only exists for the time God has use for it, while God and God’s life-giving mission will last forever.

In our annual meeting, we will hear of the ways in which God is using us to further God’s life-giving mission to the whole world. We have experienced the grace of God and learned more about God’s love for us through the work of various committees and through participation in events of this church. We have stepped out of this congregation to serve our neighbors locally and globally. Even our budget speaks of our mission priorities. Our money goes beyond the business needs of keeping lights on and staff paid. Our money goes to the places outside us, where God is working to feed, clothe, and share the good news.


It is my hope that our meeting is a celebration of the ways we have “joyfully joined in God’s work” in this past year. Through this congregation and in whatever spaces your daily life takes you, God needs your work as a missionary. I think of this as “living wet.” We’re called to “live wet”- to live fresh from the promises God has made to us and the gifts God has given us in baptism. We also take on promises at baptism. These promises are meant to help us grow in faith, connect with the community of believers, and join in God’s work. The close of those promises asks us to “proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.”


John’s gospel is an example for us of what it might look like to “live wet” or to be a missionary. Consider the movement we see in the text this morning: first, proclamation- pointing to Jesus, exploring and discovering, then witnessing to what you have seen, then inviting others, and finally entering relationship more deeply or for the first time.


John the Baptist is out in the wilderness, waiting for God’s messiah and preparing others to welcome him. John encounters Jesus and recognizes that he is the one God has sent to be the messiah. John proclaims Jesus’ identity: he stands among other who do not know Jesus and points straight to Jesus as the one for whom they are waiting for. 



Two of those listening to John go to explore and see for themselves who Jesus is. Then they invite others to come to Jesus, declaring what they have already experienced in part for themselves. The example we hear is of one brother inviting another. It’s helpful for us to realize that the disciple’s first witness wasn’t to large crowds or to strangers, but to ones they knew and loved best.


Finally is a stage of deepening relationship, where those who first explored the truth of John’s proclamation and those who met Jesus because of their invitation, come to spend more time with Jesus and join in his ministry. 


This movement is a pattern you might find or cultivate in your own life as a baptized Christian. It shows an example of what it means to “live wet.” At the core is the continual pointing to Jesus and coming to Jesus. John points to Jesus and says, this is the guy! The first disciples point to Jesus and say, I also think this is the one! The lives of missionary discipleship they begin are going to be all about pointing to Jesus so that others would come to know him as well.


This is a movement that God carries. John fades out of focus; his is the initial preparation and pointing. Others take up the work of speaking about Jesus and inviting their friends and family. The growth of the discipleship community, the growth of the church, is not dependent on one person. God uses many different people, from all walks of life, to invite ever-widening circles of people into relationship with Jesus. 


This is good news for those of us who know the joy of being in relationship with Jesus, and for those who do not yet know this joy. God needs us to be missionaries, and yet we are not the only ones sent into the world, or into our social groups and families. Those who find themselves more hesitant about developing a connection with God will be invited into relationship. God works in hearts and lives in ways we may never know. 


God is blessing your lives with invitations to deeper relationship and greater responsibility as a missionary, joining God’s work. Wherever you find yourself this week, “live wet,” and take up the opportunity to point to Jesus through all you do. God has prepared you for this work by firmly claiming you as God’s own child, marking you with the cross of Christ forever, and filling you with the Holy Spirit. 

Party with the Father: A Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 “The Prodigal Son”
April 2, 2013, 9:07 am
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Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

Today we hear one of Jesus’ more famous parables, the Prodigal Son. On the surface, it comes to us as a portrait of a family with broken relationships. Whether or not they are in our family, most of us know what it is to have relationships strained and severed. Jesus uses our ability to relate with that portrait to answer the questioning religious leaders and reveal to them, and to us the great depth of God’s love.

The beginning of the chapter sets the scene: wherever Jesus is teaching, society’s undesirables are following. It’s not only the good religious people, but the people who have done everything wrong whom Jesus welcomes. This has made the good religious people uncomfortable. So, Jesus launches his teaching with a number of parables that show God’s longing and desire to search for and welcome back those who have never known God, or have turned away.

Whether you’ve heard this parable once, or many times before, you may not have noticed some details, so we’re going to look a little deeper at the text. These details have to do with the timing and order of thoughts and events. The first has to do with the prodigal son. He’s feeding the pigs in a foreign country and starving, not being allowed to even eat the pigs’ food. In this miserable state, the text says “But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!’” The part our minds tend to focus on is his second thought, “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”

We tend to hear that the horrible situation the son found himself in was enough to make him repent, realize his primary sin of selfishly breaking relationship, and desire to work towards the restoration of that relationship. If we read too quickly we can miss the sense that he’s not primarily worried about his relationship with his father, he’s focused on himself. His question is, how can I get myself to a better place, where I’m not starving, and what do I have to say in order to get it? He’s still stuck on himself. What we might consider his repentance speech: “Father, I have sinned” may not be quite as sincere as I’ve always considered it, after all, he isn’t first saying to himself “I have sinned,” but only saying it in the context of his plan to get what he wants from his father once again. Because he isn’t aware of his primary sin, he isn’t looking for healing there, he isn’t even considering that his Father may be more faithful to the relationship than expected. The son isn’t seeking to become a member of the family again. He may not even see restoration into his role as son as an option. Hungry, he heads for home, rehearsing this speech.

The second detail to note is the timing of the father’s decision to embrace his child. The text reads, “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (20b).

We might imagine that the father has not seen nor heard from this son from the day he left. On that day, the son irrevocably declared that his father was dead to him by demanding his inheritance and severing their relationship. Now he comes back filthy and starving, stinking of the ways he has wasted his father’s money. The son hasn’t had a chance to give his speech, there are no apologies. The father simply sees an opening, an opportunity to take his son back, and he runs for it.

It makes me wonder what this father has been doing in the intervening years. I think of families whose children have run away, or have become so estranged that news is no longer shared. I think of the improbability that this landowning father would have recognized his son from far away when one would expect his concentration is focused on tending the estate. Since he did see the son from afar, I can imagine the tension of hope that has been this father’s constant companion. How often he must have been looking up the road for the years since his son left- haunted by a vision of his son’s back and longing for one of his return? Has he planned how he will welcome him back, how he will protect him from the anger of the rest of the family and neighbors who also know the depth of the insult his demand for the inheritance had been?

The joyful celebration following the welcome of the first son can leave us forgetting the second son. He remained with his family, working hard to run the farm and continue to support the family. But he was in the field, doing what he was supposed to be doing, when the other son returned and the party began. When he learns what has happened, “he became angry and refused to go in.” He is not left in his anger, “His father came out and began to plead with him.” The father invites this son to let go of wanting exclusive rewards for his good work, and to join the party to welcome the restoration of the one who was lost.

Jesus tells parables so that those listening would hear themselves into an encounter with God. In our Bible, Jesus tells this story to Pharisees and scribes, good religious people, who are angry that religious Jesus would welcome and eat with sinners. Jesus has come from God to bring the kingdom of God, and so his parables, and his life, show what this kingdom is like. The prodigal son is the sinners, who, even though they remain in sin, and continue to do things that turn them away from God, are so loved by God that God runs to them, even before they change their ways. The righteous, resentful brother is the religious, who have become so wrapped up in their work to be holy that they have put boundaries around God. They expect God to restrict God’s love and blessing to those who do what God wants, and when Jesus shatters their expectation by bringing sinners into the celebration, they are resentful of God and their hard work or perhaps simply confused by this new, unexpected welcome for all.
Jesus tells parables so that we would hear ourselves into an encounter with God today. It’s a blessing to be beginning a new ministry here with you all, but it’s always difficult to preach to a new group of people and a new congregation. I don’t know where each of you find yourselves in this story, or how our congregation might fit in. Are you feeling overwhelmed in a difficult situation that you’re all too aware you’ve created for yourself? Are you discouraged over broken relationships you’re not sure will ever heal? Are you frustrated that you work hard to do good and yet so many others seem to be rewarded for working only for themselves? Or maybe you find yourselves like me, some days sitting with the pigs, realizing that you’re not getting where you hoped by acting alone. And other days, pouting outside the party, because you weren’t recognized for your work.

If the father was to stand for any of us, maybe he would not have known what his reaction would be until he saw the son coming. Maybe he would have intended to chase him away if he ever had the audacity to show his face again. Maybe, only on a good day, that moment of recognition would have changed his heart to mercy.

But the father in the story stands for Jesus, and God’s work to build the kingdom through Jesus. Even if you can’t quite relate to one or the other of the sons, the important thing is to hear and wonder at God’s awesome grace. All three of these parables in chapter 15 are meant to proclaim that God expends infinite energy to find and welcome even one person. Jesus lives out this parable, running to all the children of the world as he runs to the cross. There he embraces all suffering, so that he might draw all people through death into life and joy with him.

This good news is for you, daughters and sons of God. You don’t have to worry and wonder what God’s reaction will be when he recognizes you, broken and distant. Jesus runs to you, embracing you, allowing the dirt accumulated from the places you have been to touch him and stick to him. If you don’t relate to the first son, perhaps you hear in the second son your own righteousness. Jesus says to you that you are also most dearly beloved and God is drawing you into the celebration as well. You can live your lives in the painful state of both these sons, never acknowledging the gifts of the Father, and yet God continues to come to you, to welcome you, to forgive and love you. The party begins here today, as all of us sinners and saints are brought together into one community of joy. This party continues into eternity, when we will be hesitant in our celebration no longer, but will fully experience the welcome of God.

My Bags are Packed… A Sermon on Mark 6
July 8, 2012, 4:37 pm
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In our Gospel story this morning, Jesus sends his disciples out into different towns, so they can work by loving and healing people and telling them to return to God. Instead of telling the disciples to bring lots of stuff, Jesus tells them to go with just the clothes they are wearing and a walking stick. 


That’s not the way I travel. That doesn’t sound very prepared. Where’s the map, the to-do list of must-see-sights, the emergency contacts, and the snacks? Where’s the credit card and the cash and the money belt for safe-keeping? 


What is Jesus doing, sending the disciples off like that? I’ve been reading and re-reading all the “Adult Leader” information for the Youth Gathering and I’ve got plenty of packing information for Autumn and Mackenzie. I have lists of instructions and things to remember. The only thing my instructions have in common with Jesus’ is the reminder to always stay in groups! 


In comparison to my multiple emails, my lists, my permission forms, my webinars and workshops, Jesus’ instruction seem very short and simple. How can those disciples possibly be prepared to do the work Jesus has sent them out to do? 


In one sense, they are not prepared at all, and in another, they are very well prepared. 


They are not prepared, because, as I’ve pointed out, they have brought practically nothing for their journey. What they are missing is everything necessary to take care of themselves.  (That means no backpack with granola bars, water bottles, and first aid supplies.) They are missing anything that might help them look more credible. (No ordained pastor ID card.) Nothing about them speaks of a successful lifestyle. (No cash and no parade of followers.) The one tool they have, the staff, is a mark of one who is journeying a long way. The one companion they have is the only one who can help to remember Jesus’ teachings and encourage the other if things get tough. 


In order to survive, these pairs of disciples will have to depend on the hospitality of others. People back then may have been more used to hosting travelers than we are today. But, I still don’t think it would have been easy to enter a town, preach, and hold your breath as nightfall approached and you waited for an invitation into a household. The disciples would have to accept whatever accommodations were offered to them. They would have to eat whatever was put before them. They might be have to risk being kicked out to the street if something they taught offended their hosts. 


Jesus sends the disciples out into the villages, unprepared to recommend themselves or care for themselves by anything they have carried. They are traveling light.


The paired disciples are very well prepared, however, for the mission at hand. Jesus sends them to continue his work. They have been following Jesus. They have witnessed, firsthand, the power of God shown in Jesus, and the present kingdom of God. They have grown in their understanding of God and of the Holy Scriptures. As Jesus sends the disciples out, he is inviting them to follow in his footsteps. He does not ask them to do more than they have seen him do, or more than he is willing to do. Jesus calls them to rely on him and the preparation that has occurred through their formation as disciples: following, witnessing, and learning from Jesus every day. 


They’ve been prepared for this mission by watching Jesus. They’ve seen not only his power and the crowd’s faithful reception, but have also seen Jesus face rejection. 


We hear this curious story directly before the disciples are sent out. Jesus is back in his hometown, and as the crowd begins to listen to him, they also begin to remember who Jesus is. It seems that they aren’t happy that Jesus doesn’t seem to remember who he is. Jesus has become “too big for his britches”- moving from his status as a simple carpenter of questionable origins to a famous religious teacher and healer. 


The hometown folk are first amazed by Jesus’ teaching, then scornful. Jesus finds he can do no works of power and only a little healing. Jesus meets hostility instead of eager reception and trust.


Maybe it’s this rejection that reminds Jesus to prepare the disciples for their own. Before he sends them out, Jesus says, “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them” (11). Jesus acknowledges that working in his name is not always going to be met with success. 


That’s not quite the message we often want to proclaim. When Autumn and Mackenzie and I join 11,000 other disciples to go out into New Orleans and serve on our Practice Justice Day, I don’t imagine that our orientation leader will stand up before us and say, “Well, you’re going to spend your day cleaning, painting, listening, loving, and working with some wonderful people and community organizations. But, some people might not appreciate your help. In fact, they might laugh at you, tell you to go away, or spit at you. That’ll be too bad, but it’s what happened to Jesus.” That might be true, but it doesn’t quite get the enthusiasm flowing!


It might be that, after a long day, we might need to reflect on Jesus’ failures. For our group at the Youth Gathering, after spending hours raking or painting or gardening, with blisters and sunburn throbbing, we might wonder if any of the work we did made any difference. A windstorm will blow more leaves, there are more homes we didn’t work on, and those pesky weeds will just grow right back. We might not hear reassuring words that someone watching saw the love and power of God through our faithful work. 


Then we might find comfort in Jesus’ rejection at his home synagogue. And we might be drawn into the story of Jesus’ great rejection: when a friend betrayed him to authorities who wanted to kill him, when the crowd called for his crucifixion, when those who led him to his death mocked him. We might remember those nights, as Jesus’ body lay in the tomb, and all his promises of life and God’s power seemed to mean nothing. And then, we, with our deflated spirits, would come to the tomb on that early morning. There we see that all apparent failure has been overcome by God’s power. Jesus has risen to new life, the first of all creation to be restored and resurrected to wholeness, healing, and life. 


You each are on your own missionary journey. In these waters of baptism, you were united with Jesus for life. You were joined with Jesus in his mission. Jesus is sending you out, to proclaim the good news of God’s love and gift of life for all, to invite people into a relationship of praise to God, and to work for justice and peace in all the world. 


You are being prepared here, as we join in worship, as we experience God’s grace in the sacraments, and as we are formed into a community who supports one another in this holy calling. Jesus has given you what you need. 


I know that it comes quickly to many of you that the reason you put money in the offering plate is so that someone else, like me, can do the God talk stuff. Somehow, some of you think that you aren’t called or well prepared enough to be sent on Jesus’ behalf, to welcome others into faith. The explanation I hear most often resonates with Jesus’ experience in his home synagogue. 


People say to me, “I can’t talk to my neighbor, I can’t invite him to church or say I wish he would come more often, because he knows me.” My neighbor knows what I did as I was growing up, my neighbor knows where I was on Friday night, my neighbor surely knows how unqualified I am to talk about God. 


Jesus found out that this situation can be a real problem. Too many people in his hometown had their own ideas about Jesus, and couldn’t accept that he could be other than they had always thought of him. They couldn’t allow Jesus to speak to them about God. Jesus did what little healing he was able to accomplish, and went on his way. 


Now, before you throw that back at me, and say, see, even Jesus couldn’t help his neighbors know God, I never could… let’s look to Jesus again.


In accepting weakness, Jesus showed us the power of God. When we join in Jesus’ mission, we never know what results we will see. You might come away from your courageous sharing of the gospel, or your compassionate service, feeling that it had no impact on the one whom you met. You might feel your words floundered or the other was hostile. There’s a reason the ELCA uses the tagline: God’s Work, Our Hands. We join in God’s work. That means whatever we do with our hands, or our speech, as we join God’s mission, we are joining into something greater than us, something ultimately in God’s control. On this side of the resurrection, we don’t always get the joy of seeing how God will use that one moment we spent sharing about God with someone to grow over a lifetime into faith. We are simply called to join in God’s mission, and to trust God’s promise that God will work good through us. 


Jesus has prepared you for faithful witness. Jesus gives you more than a detailed packing list or instruction book. Jesus gives you himself. Jesus travels with you. Jesus works through you. Your particular life, with all the secrets your neighbor may or may not know, is precisely what Jesus is prepared to use to share the gospel. You are called. You are well-prepared. God has great joy in welcoming you into the mission field. 


Breaking Assumptions, Loving Beyond: A sermon on Acts 10:44–48
May 13, 2012, 6:11 am
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Our daughter, Laila, is almost 11 months old. Every once in a while, I scroll through photos of her, on our computer. I watch as she transforms from screaming freshly born baby on the weighing scale with arms and legs extended, to her first smiles, easy to come as she woke in the morning, to being able to sit and pick up objects, to her first tastes of food, and now with her growing independence as she scoots across the floor. I wonder how much we’ve already shaped her life, by what we’ve exposed her to, by what we’ve encouraged her to do or not do. Will she be a musician but not an artist, since she sings with her daddy, but we’ve yet to give her a crayon? Will she feel safe in the wide openness of the Dakota plains, but claustrophobic in the woods of my homeland? Will she call snacktime lunch and roll her eyes when her daddy tries to call dinner lunch? Will she fear people of different skin tones and cultures, because her community is fairly homogeneous and white?


We all are shaped by our communities, taught to expect one thing and not another, taught to welcome one person and not another. We are formed by our experiences, learning what to avoid and what to touch. The voices of those we listen to on TV or radio shape our own thoughts. Teachers guide us towards the correct answer. 


Every day, we pick up messages and signals that form us into who we are: people with expectations about how the world works, what and who is valued, and how we are to interact with others. We combine all of this, without conscious effort, into our worldview, which directs how we act and react in our daily lives. The thing is, we don’t often question all these things which have formed our assumptions. It’s become who we are, and often supported by those around us. 


The people whose stories are recorded in the Bible were much like us in this respect: they were imbued with their culture. The book of Acts tells of Jesus’ disciples as they encounter the Holy Spirit and witness the spread of the good news of God’s love shown through Jesus. 


Today, we hear the closing scene of a story in which Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, was pushed beyond his comfort and expectations. Peter, like Jesus and all the other disciples, was a Jew. He saw himself as part of a small group of people who believed in the one true God, lived a Godly life, and followed God’s commands. People who were not part of this group were to be avoided, because they had a polluting influence on those who were called to be pure before God. 


One day, while Peter was praying, he had a vision in which God called him to eat meats that God had commanded should not be eaten. Peter is faithful to what the Bible says and to God’s commandments, so he declares that he will not eat. But, God is doing a new thing, and declaring what was once unclean, clean. God calls Peter to eat. This is Peter’s preparation for the work God is doing among the people of the world, work God wants Peter to be a part of. 



There is a non-Jewish man, named Cornelius, who has been seeking to know and serve God. God answers his prayers by sending Peter to him. Peter enters the home of this Gentile, a person he had always thought God would want him to avoid. Peter proclaims the good news about Jesus to Cornelius and all his family. 


Peter had probably never expected God to send him to an outsider, to teach about God’s work through Jesus. Even Jesus’ unexpected welcoming of outsiders hadn’t prepared him to do this work himself. But it’s what happens next that really surprises him. 


Suddenly, while Peter’s trying to teach, there is evidence that the Holy Spirit is already at work among these outsiders. Cornelius and his household begin speaking in tongues and praising God, common practices for those who were filled with God the Holy Spirit. 


Now, Peter hasn’t come to Cornelius’ home alone. He’s accompanied by those the text names as “circumcised believers.” That adjective underscores the division between them and the “Gentiles:” Cornelius and his household. Circumcision was a sign between God and God’s people, and a commandment of God that all men were to follow. It was a practice that repulsed the Gentiles. The question of whether every man who chose to follow Jesus would also have to follow God’s command to be circumcised caused great division and debate in the early church. 


In this scene from Acts, expectations are being shattered and worldviews shaken! God has shown Godself to be active among people who have not followed correct practice, have not followed God’s law, and do not belong to the right group. Not only Peter, but all the circumcised believers with him, are forced to realize that God might work in ways they have not been prepared to accept. Peter, perhaps better prepared than the others from his “eat this forbidden food” vision from God, quickly responds with rejoicing, gets on board with God in this act of welcoming outsiders, and calls for water to baptize these Gentiles who have already received the gift of the Holy Spirit. 


On this day when we at Trinity celebrate young ones receiving communion for the first time and Wyatt being confirmed, I hear a caution from Acts. We have tried to teach these young people some basic Christian teachings, so that they would know what is true, and how God works in our world. We have done this in good faith, wanting to prepare them to receive the sacraments rightly, and live Godly lives. Yet I fear that we can be too zealous to pass on the faith, too eager to form our children, and hold too tightly onto the power of determining correct practice, so that we do not prepare them and ourselves for the beautiful and overwhelming grace of God. God gifts life and love in places and ways and to people we would not expect, beyond the boundaries we have drawn. 




Peter, and the other circumcised believers, thought they understood how God acts in our world. They were surprised with the beautiful reality that God breaks out of the boxes we place around God. God works where we do not expect. God acts outside of our control. God’s love is always wider, forgiveness always more abundant, and life more powerful than we imagine. Peter and the other circumcised believers were pushed out of their comfort zone and met God working where they had been sure God would never be.


We have soaked up prejudices that need to be wiped away. Throughout our lives, we may find that much of what we think we know needs to be edited and adjusted to match the reality in which we live. God may need to break open our expectations, and confront us with our cultural assumptions. God is often at work in ways we cannot see because we cannot accept that God might be giving life, love, and forgiveness to those outside our communities. 


<<  Graduates, you are about to enter a new phase in your life. You are about to leave the education system you have known. Some of you will be leaving the community you have known. What comes next will be different. You may meet people, learn things, and have experiences that uncover the assumptions you have about the world. It can be scary to leave what you have always known. It can be scary to think that what you’ve always thought was true about the world might not be. God walks with you through this new adventure. In all your sifting and sorting of experiences and education, God is with you, to give you strength to test assumptions.>>


Of all that we tell ourselves about our identity and our place in the world, there is one thing that will always be true. God loves you. You have worth in God’s eyes. It’s not easy to see proof of this beautiful truth. In fact, the world around us, and even the communities closest to us, can often bear messages of our lack of worth, our brokenness, our imperfection. That is why we need Christian community, and why we need to be in church, where we receive the sacraments. 


This community is called to be a place where the promise of God’s loving and life-giving presence is declared so often that it becomes our central mark. The one message about ourselves and our world that will always be true is God’s love. This love has been freely given, proved by Jesus, in his willingness to suffer, in his death and resurrection. This one truth, and our intention to be formed by it, is the reason we gather around the sacraments of baptism and communion. There we hear, taste, smell, and feel God’s promises. There we receive life, love, and forgiveness from the very hand of God. This community is shaped by these central gifts of God. 


My prayer for my daughter, and for each of you, is that you continue to grow into your identity as a beloved child of God. Through baptism, you are set free from the world’s judgements and welcomed into God’s community on the merit of Jesus’ righteousness. You are loved by a God who loves with reckless abandon, loving beyond expectation and past all boundaries.