Sunday, February 24th, 2013 – Sermon on Genesis 15:1-18

Genesis 15:1-18

The Lord brought Abraham outside and said, “Look toward the heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then God said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And Abraham believed the Lord.

When Lauren and I first moved here, we spent our first couple of nights out on the roads, exploring. We needed to find our way around this unknown town. So away we went, taking different roads, this way and that, just to see where we would end up. Along the way, we discovered wonderful things – like how beautiful the Owatonna Power Plant sign is against the summer sky and how it only takes about 3 minutes or so to get from our house all the way over to Blast Ice Cream. We also discovered strange things like how the fairgrounds seem to the Bermuda Triangle of Owatonna. No matter which way you turn, it always seems like you are entering the fairgrounds and you can never find a way out.

But one of our greatest discoveries was way out East on Rose street. If you drive out far enough, eventually you will leave behind all of the trees and houses and suddenly the sky opens up like a huge midnight blue canvas. And scattered across it as far and as deep as the eye can see is nothing but stars. We had forgotten what it was like to see a blanket of stars dancing up above you. There is something simply stunning about a diamond-studded sky in the middle of the open fields.

It was that very same image –a tapestry of stars – that God used to make a promise to Abraham so many years ago. Years earlier, God had come to Abraham and Sarah at the ripe and fertile ages of 75 and 65 to inform them that their long-awaited dreams were coming true – they would soon be parents and they would have their very own land on which to live.

The problem is it didn’t happen for Abraham and Sarah. Month after month, year after year, and they were still childless. Imagine the pain; imagine the heartbreak. Imagine how furious they would be with God for getting their hopes up like that. No wonder Abraham does not hesitate to confront God when God shows up again in our text for today. “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless.” These are bold words to take up with the Lord, but God doesn’t seem phased by them. God doesn’t even get angry at Abraham for being so angry at God. Instead, God simply takes the opportunity to re-promise to Abraham that he will have both descendants and land.

The Lord takes Abraham by the hand and leads him outside and simply says, “Look up. Count the stars. If you can. As many stars in the sky, so shall your descendants be.” And then, the story says, Abraham believed. Just like that. One field trip to the backyard and old-man Abraham believed God’s promises again.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Believing. God takes Abraham outside, points his eyes to the sky and suddenly Abraham is a believer? But is it really that easy?

Whenever I hear people talking about having faith and believing in God, it always sounds like a simple question with a simple answer: Either you believe in God or you don’t. Either you have faith or you don’t. It always sounds so decisive and certain. To say you believe in God sounds like you have to be certain about God. One of our confirmation students often asks, “How can I believe in God when I have never seen God?” How can I be certain?

And that question of faith: do you believe or not? can seem so threatening, can’t it? As Protestants, we are pretty good at using that word believe to hold power over people. It never ceases to amaze me at how often I will hear someone say, “God love is free, unconditional, it is a gift… long as you believe.” Well now, wait a minute. Suddenly that free gift doesn’t sound so free. In fact, it sounds like a lot of work. Because believing can be so hard some days.

It’s like that time Lauren and I received a notice in the mail telling us that we had won two free plane tickets to anywhere in the world. All we had to do is show up at the company’s office around 2pm on a Friday and sit in on a presentation. Naturally, it was a time-share company that proceeded to press us to buy and invest in their time-share. Suddenly, those free tickets weren’t so free.

As long as you believe, people say. God’s love is free, and unconditional as long as you believe. So, just believe. Just accept it. It’s as simple as that.

But faith is so much more complicated than that. Some days, I believe in God and Jesus the Christ so much, just about everything moves me to tears. Other days, I struggle to believe in myself, let alone God, and I just want to stay in bed. It’s hard to believe in God, isn’t it?

If we read a little further in our text, we’ll see that it was hard for Abraham too, even after confessing his belief in God and God’s promises. In Abraham’s very next breath, he is back interrogating God again. Doubting and wondering yet again about whether any of these promises are really true. “O Lord, how will I know that I really will possess this land that you promise me?” Abraham asks.

Abraham believed but the doubt returns. It seems that’s how faith is. Solid one minute; then like quick sand the next. One moment you feel strong and confident in your faith. The next, the questions and doubts weigh heavy on your shoulders.

Which makes me think that this word believe has become distorted over the years. At least in the world of faith and religion. Every week, we stand up and confess our faith in the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed. The word Creed comes from the latin word Credo – which means to believe. Yet, I know people, faithful, God-believing Christians who cross their fingers during certain parts of the creed. Why? Because they just can’t in good conscious say that they believe Jesus was born of a virgin. Or that he rose from the dead. In fact, I myself, in the past, have been lead to not say certain parts of the Creed because I just couldn’t say that I truly believed them. They didn’t make sense in my head. I couldn’t be certain they were true. They didn’t seem rational.

And that is where the problem lies. Since when did believing in something mean certainty? When did it mean knowing something to be absolutely true in your head? You see, to believe something isn’t to know for certain. It’s to trust it. Even when there is no evidence to prove it. That word Creed, Credo, is, as I said, usually translated to believe, but it can also mean to give one’s heart to. That is to say, I give my heart to this when my head can’t make any sense of it. I like that translation much better – I give my heart to God the Father, almighty Creator of heaven and earth. I give my heart to Jesus Christ. And I give my heart to the Holy Spirit.

To believe in something, to give your heart to something does not mean you can’t have doubts about it. In fact, faith and doubt go hand in hand, I think. A life of faith will produce questions of doubt. And questions of doubt will help produce a life of faith. Faith is not something you get once and then have forever. It is fluid and ever evolving. It changes throughout one’s life. Which is why we say the creed together and not individually. So that when one of us can’t believe part of it, someone else can and says it for us, believing it for us until we can believe it ourselves. Together, we say the Creeds for the littlest one’s among us, like Brady, one of the newest stars to appear in Abraham’s eye, until they can give their hearts to it themselves.

Abraham gave his heart to God, but he still had many questions. And God kept answering them by restating his promise to Abraham, over and over again, in different ways – you will have descendants and you will have land. At the end of the text, God responds to Abraham most recent question through a covenant ceremony. It is a ceremony that says, “If I don’t keep my promise, then let me be like these animals. Cut in half.” It is the ancient version of “Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.”[1] But the one who makes the promises was not Abraham. It was God, symbolized by a smoking pot and a flaming torch. God makes the promises to Abraham without requiring anything from Abraham in return. God crossed God’s heart and hoped to die if God did not keep these promises to Abraham. These promises of offspring and land. As it turns out, Abraham’s faith is not part of the equation. God makes the promises, seals the covenant. Abraham is simply the one to whom they are made.

It was many years later before Abraham finally had any children with Sarah. He continued to spend the long nights by the window, looking up and wondering, “How long, O Lord?” But, if Abraham were here today, I can guarantee that he would not be looking up. Instead, he would be looking out. Out at all of you. All of you stars from that nighttime sky thousands of years ago that have finally fallen right down to earth and into these very pews. He would see nothing but you, the descendants of Abraham, the very promises of God in flesh and blood.

And with a tear in his eye and a smile on his face, he would say, “Well, what do you know. The promises of God are true after all. Every one of them.” Amen.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Sermon “Sacramental Sky”,


Making Sense of the Cross:Portraits and Perspectives

Mark 14:32-52

Last week, I introduced our theme around making sense of the cross. That we are going to ask questions about the cross: what does it mean? what does it mean to us today? Because throughout Christianity, faithful Christians have not always agreed on what the cross means. Why? Because no one expected the cross. People thought the Messiah, the Savior, would come with power and might. No one imagined the Messiah dying on a cross.

In fact, this disagreement goes all the way back to the gospels. The four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – do not all agree on who Jesus is and what happened on the cross. That’s what I want to do tonight. I want to give us a snapshot of how each of the Gospels gives a slightly and sometimes drastically different picture of Jesus.

Let me ask this: if I asked my mother, my best friend, my wife, and a stranger to each paint a portrait of me…would they all look the same? Why not?  Because each of the knows me in a different way, right? Each has experienced me in different settings and situations. Would any of the portraits be wrong? No, they are just different. They simply say something different about me and together they create a fuller picture of who I am.

It is the same way with the gospels. As we come across differences in the gospels about who Jesus is and what Jesus did on the cross, the question shouldn’t be, “Who is right?” Instead, we should ask the question, “What is this gospel trying to say about Jesus?” While they are different stories, they all center around one thing – that a man named Jesus, who is said to be the long awaited Messiah, died on a cross. And now they are trying to make sense of that within their communities. Each Gospel is written to a specific community and thus is addressing the needs of the community. For example, if I were preaching at an inner city church on Sunday, I would preach a different sermon than I would preach to our rural churches. We are different communities, experiencing different things.

Look at all of the words we put on the cross last week – words describing what we think of when we see the cross. Love. Forgiveness. Execution. Salvation. These are all different words that mean different things but none of them are wrong.

So let’s dive into the gospels.

The Gospel of Mark. Mark is writing to a community that has recently gone through suffering and persecution. Fighting between the Romans and the Jews. Their temple has been destroyed and they are afraid for their future.

Listen to the way Mark describes Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane the night before he will die – He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. Jesus says that he is deeply grieved, even to death. Jesus is scared to death about what is about to happen. And then Jesus prays to God to take this cup from him, to get him out of this situation.

This is a very human image of Jesus. He’s afraid. He is distressed. He doesn’t want what coming to him. Remember, Jesus even cries out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Don’t you think Mark’s community could be saying the very same things? So, in some sense, Mark is supporting his community by letting them know that Jesus suffered too and understands what they’re going through. That on the cross Jesus is one who suffers with us.

And did you notice how the disciples are portrayed in Mark’s story? They fall asleep three times when Jesus specifically asks them not to. They completely fail during Jesus’ time of need. Why would Mark portray the disciples like that? I wonder if Mark’s community was feeling like failures. Here their temple is in ruins. Some of them have maybe even denied their faith out of fear of being persecuted. So maybe Mark is trying to emphasize that even Jesus’ disciples were failures, who become afraid, who aren’t very dependable, and who even deny their faith like Peter. Mark is saying to his people – you don’t have to be a hero to be a disciple; you don’t have to have it all together. And that God is found whenever people come alongside those who are suffering.

So that’s Mark. Now, Matthew. Matthew is very similar to Mark. Matthew wants to portray Jesus as one who suffers and is very human. Just as in Mark, Jesus also cries out in Matthew, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But Matthew is writing to a community that is primarily Jewish. But there is controversy in the community about whether he really is the Messiah or not. And it is likely that Matthew’s community is the minority. They are being told by the other Jews around them that Jesus is not the Messiah. So Matthew wants to reassure them and thus, in his telling of the story, emphasizes that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Jewish prophecies found in the Old Testament. In the scene at the Garden of Gethsemane, when the soldiers come to take him away, Jesus says two times that this is to fulfill the Scriptures, which is something that Mark does not have in his story. So for Matthew, Jesus is one who is very human, who suffers along with us, and that this really is to fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament.

Now, let’s look at Luke. Luke is writing to a community that is mostly made up of Gentile Christians – meaning they weren’t Jewish and they probably aren’t as familiar with the Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures.

In Luke’s story at the garden of Gethsemane, the disciples fall asleep only once. Not three times. Which one is correct, Mark or Luke? Well, remember that isn’t the question to ask. Instead, what is Luke trying to say when he writes that they fell asleep only once. And unlike Mark, Luke gives an excuse for why they fell asleep – they were so upset at what was about to happen to Jesus. So Luke paints a more sympathetic view of the disciples. He shows them as decent people who are trying their hardest and sometimes succeeding. And maybe that is because Luke knows that his community is a group of new Christians, who don’t have the Jewish background, who are simply trying their hardest to be disciples.

Also, in Luke’s version, Jesus still comes across as very human, but he isn’t as afraid. In fact, he is shown to be more compassionate. Remember how in the garden scene, one of Jesus’ disciples cuts off the ear of one of the soldiers coming to get him? In Luke’s version of the story, Jesus heals that man’s ear. A man who is coming to arrest him and have him killed! And then when Jesus is on the cross, he says, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” So Jesus is shown as the compassionate, forgiving, healer who has come to forgive and to save the whole world, not just those who are Jewish, but also those who are Gentile. Not just those are good and well-behaved, but even those who kill Jesus on the cross. It is like Luke is saying to his people: Jesus is not just human, he is compassionate. Especially to those who are outside the Jewish circle. It’s okay that you are not Jewish – Jesus came for all people. And that God can be found whenever people are showing compassion and forgiveness towards one another.

Finally, the gospel of John. Like Mark and Matthew, John is writing to a primarily Jewish community that is going through a stressful and difficult time. You see it is likely John’s community has just been kicked out of their synagogue because they believed that Jesus was the Messiah. But John offers a different form of comfort to his people than Mark and Matthew do.

If you read this same story of Jesus at the garden of Gethsemane in the gospel of John, it will seem like a completely different story. In John’s story, Jesus does not cry out to God in fear to be removed from this situation. Instead, Jesus speaks confidently about it, saying, this is exactly what he is supposed to do. What he has been called to do.

In fact, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is portrayed as the one who is in complete control. He is strong and confident. When Judas and the soldiers come to get Jesus in the garden, John says that it was 600 people in all who came to get Jesus. Why? Because that’s how powerful Jesus is. So powerful that Judas needed 600 men to back him up.

In Mark, Matthew, and Luke, after Jesus has been beaten and tortured, Jesus needed another person, Simon of Cyrene, to carry his cross for him because he was so broken down. But not in John. In John, Jesus carries his own cross. Why? Because Jesus is that powerful and is in complete control.

Lastly, when Jesus is on the cross in the gospel of John, he does not cry out in anger at God, he does not forgive the people have done this to him. Instead, he tells his mother and his beloved disciple that they are family to one another. Jesus creates a new family. So maybe John is saying to his community that has just been kicked out of their synagogue because they believe in Jesus, that they are called to stick together as family that Jesus is creating a new family in them. And while life feels chaotic and out of control, hang tight and persevere because Jesus is strong and powerful and confident. And Jesus will bring them through their struggles.

These are the four unique pictures of Jesus that the four gospel paint. But for all of them, God is found most fully in the cross. To know God, to know who God is, we must continue to keep our eyes on the cross. Though each gospel interprets and understands the cross slightly different, together they create a fuller picture of Jesus on the cross. And each of them gives us a message that we will need to hear at some time in our life. And Mark and Matthew want us to know that God knows our suffering and pain and actually suffers with us. Luke wants us to know that God is compassionate and forgiving. And John wants us to know that Jesus is strong enough and powerful enough to bring us through whatever trials and struggles we might be facing. So thanks be to this God, who is found not in the clouds, but in this life, in flesh and blood and on the cross. Amen.

Note: This sermon is highly influenced by the second chapter of David Lose’s book Making Sense of the Cross.

Sunday, February 17th, 2013 – Sermon on Luke 4:1-18

Luke 4:1-18

A friend of mine plays trumpet professionally. Years ago, he was playing first trumpet with an orchestra over in Asia when the opening piece was Pictures at an Exhibition. Now, this is easily one of the most difficult pieces to perform for a first trumpet. The opening notes are the sound of the trumpet and only the trumpet. (hum the tune) It may sound easy, but it’s not. The whole rest of the performance rests on these opening notes.

The concert was held in a huge outdoor stadium. Large enough that there was a jumbotron for the people in the nose-bleeds seats. The conductor walks out. The audience applauds but then gets quiet. The conductor raises his baton and looks at my friend. And just as my friend takes a deep breath, ready to play, his stand partner leans over to him and whispers….”Man, if you mess this up…”

If you mess this up. If. It’s a small but powerful word. It puts everything that follows it into question. If you. If you mess this up. Which means…you could mess this up. There are no guarantees. It is a word that stirs up doubt.

I recently heard the story of a man with a teenage daughter. They had just had one of those “stormy father-daughter arguments.” He tells it like this, “It blew over quickly, resolving itself in tenderness and understanding. But at the height of the squall, I said to her…”Now you listen to me! If you’re my daughter you….” If you are my daughter? If you are my daughter? Flesh of my flesh, heart of my heart, my cherished and beloved daughter. I could hardly have used words more destructive than to raise doubts about her identity.”[1]

If you are my daughter. If. It’s a small but powerful word. It puts everything that follows it into question.

If. According to Luke, that is the devil’s word. He uses it to plant a seed of doubt in Jesus’ head about to whom Jesus belongs. “If you are the Son of God…” the devil hisses at Jesus. Just a chapter earlier, Jesus had been baptized. And as you might recall, the heavens opened up and a voice from heaven spoke to him – You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” See, that is the voice of God – it makes clear and claiming statements – you are.  You are my Son.

But the devil. The devil makes deceptive, destructive, and doubt-filled statements – if. If you are the Son of God…It pokes at one’s identity. If you are that person…I mean, maybe you are or maybe you aren’t.

The devils tests and tempts Jesus three times. If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread. If you are the Son of God, worship me, and I’ll give you authority over the whole world. If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the top of the temple and God’s angels will rescue you.

Each time, the devil is trying to poke holes into Jesus identity. To get him to doubt himself. To question who he really is. And that can be the worst kind of doubt there is – self-doubt. To wonder who you are and if you belong.

Corinne and Herb Chilstrom – the former Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, had a son Andrew, who was adopted. But Andrew was weighed down with a darkness that so many suffer from but is hard to see. One night, Andrew took his own life. In the middle of her panicked grief over the loss of her son, Corrine pounded her hands on the kitchen table and shouted – “Adoption! These kids never feel like they really belong in this world. Who will ever understand?”[2] She didn’t know where those words came from, but she later learned how prophetic they were. How many adopted children are haunted with questions about where they belong and to whom they belong. And who of us whether adopted or not struggle with where we come from and who we belong to.

The things the devil was tempting Jesus to do were not inherently bad things. More bread for a hungry world? Yes please. Jesus having authority over the world; God’s angels protecting and lifting up Jesus. These are not bad things.  (But Jesus is being asked to prove who he is. and Jesus knows his identity is already given in the voice at his baptism). But Jesus knows that we need more than bread from stones. Jesus knows we need more than power and authority. Jesus even knows we need more than being rescued and saved.

One cannot live on bread alone. One needs more than just power. One needs more than just being rescued. This is true. I learned this from some people who were homeless. Ironically, those who most need bread, and some power, and a little rescuing.

Years ago, there was a story in the Star Tribune on the topic of the people who are homeless in Minneapolis and who panhandle on the streets. In the article a handful of Minneapolis’ notorious homeless people were interviewed. They were the ones everyone knew.  The interviewer asked the typical questions – why are you homeless, do you want food or do you want money?  That sort of thing.  What was great about the story is that it seemed that the people were honest.  Some said they simply wanted money so that they could buy some alcohol.  Some said they needed the money so that they could buy their much needed insulin.  But the common thread that each of them mentioned was that when they are out on the streets asking for money, the only thing they are really looking for is for someone to look them in the eyes.  For someone to look him or her in the eyes as if to say, “I see you.  You exist.  You are not invisible to me.”  They said that you don’t have to give them money, but what they desperately want is to be noticed.

We need more than just bread. More than just power. More than just rescuing. Even homeless people. They are much more than their cardboard sign. They need to be seen. It’s a big deal to meet someone’s eye, especially a stranger’s eye. Don’t we all long to be seen? For someone to look us in the eyes. We need an identity. We need to know who we are. That we belong to some one. That we’ve been claimed. So, if you’ve ever wonder who the devil is, or what the devil is, or how the devil acts in this world…maybe the devil is anything that calls us to question our identity and the identity of those around us. To question whether we or they belong to God and if we or they are worthy of love.

If we begin to doubt who we really are, whether we are beautiful, if we belong, if we matter, if we’re lovable. If we begin to doubt that, than the devil is alive and well in the world. And if we treat people as if they are less than. If we treat others as if they don’t belong, as if they aren’t beautiful, as if they don’t matter, as if they aren’t loved, then the devil is alive and well in us.

We can “if” ourselves to death. Before we even get out of bed in the morning, we may have “iffed” the day away, worrying about measuring up, performing, keeping up appearances, achieving success, earning love, earning our keep.  But friends, Jesus is the one with the power to make us who we are, to claim us as God’s very own. Know this: You are named. You are claimed. You belong here and you are deeply loved. You are the beloved children of God. No ifs about it. Amen.


[1] Tom Long, Whispering the Lyrics, p. 21.

[2] Corrinne Chilstrom, Andrew, You Died Too Soon, p. 17.

Ash Wednesday, 2013 – Making Sense of the Cross: A Man Hanging on a Tree – Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:2

1 Corinthians 1:18-2:2

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul is writing to a church in conflict. They are divided. They are split. We could even say, they are broken into pieces. What’s the problem? Well, a bunch of things but at the center, they are arguing about who is the better preacher – Paul or Apollos. Which one knows more. Which one speaks with more confidence and poise. Who is wiser. To which Paul, essentially says to them, “Who cares! It doesn’t matter who is a better preacher or who uses more eloquent words. What matters is that the gospel found in the cross of Christ is preached.”

And then Paul goes on to say, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The cross. It’s foolishness, Paul says. Who cares which preacher has more wisdom or a better speaking style. We live by a different kind of wisdom. The wisdom of the cross- which looks crazy to everyone else.

Paul calls the cross foolishness. In fact, he calls it God’s foolishness. That the cross is kind of a ridiculous idea. And this is Paul we are talking about here – likely the most influential Christian missionary and leader of the early Christians. The cross is foolish? Ridiculous? That kind of stings – with all the crosses we have hanging around. Dangling crosses around our necks. Stoney crosses in cemeteries. Watery crosses on a baby’s brow. Shadowy crosses on our foreheads.

The cross is at the center of our faith and yet Paul calls it foolishness. Why? And what is foolish about it? In order to discover that, maybe we need to ask – What is the cross? Why is it so important to Christians and what does it mean for everyday people in everyday lives? What does it say about Jesus? What does it say God?

These are the questions we are going to be wrestling with over the next couple of weeks. Some of you might be thinking, why should we ask questions about the cross? Can’t you just leave the cross alone? Why ask questions about it?

The truth is, sometimes the things that are most familiar to us, those things right in front of us are the things we know the least about. And then we can feel embarrassed asking questions about them because we think we should know a lot about them already.

So, what is the cross? What is it a symbol of? Sometimes I think the cross has become simply a symbol for God and for being a nice person. That’s why you see so many people who you know haven’t darkened the door of a church in years wearing crosses. It’s their way of saying, “I believe in God. I’m a good person. I just don’t like church that much.”

But the cross is so much more than that. What does the cross mean for you? Is the cross about forgiveness? Is it about sacrifice? Did Christ die on the cross as payment to the devil for your sins or is Christ punished on the cross by a god who is angry about your sins? Is the cross a sign of God’s love for you? If it is, if it is all about love, then why is it so violent? Why does someone have to die in order for me to be loved? What does that say about God, if God would kill God’s own son? Did Jesus have to die? And how does one person dying take away my sin – even the sins I haven’t committed yet?

These are the big questions about the cross. And truth be told, not everyone has always agreed on what the cross means.

For example, have you ever noticed that the four gospels tell the story of Jesus’ death on the cross differently? Jesus says and experiences different things in each gospel. In Mark and Matthew, Jesus cries out in pain and grief, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But in Luke, Jesus doesn’t say that. He says, “Father, forgive these people, for they don’t know what they are doing.” And in John, Jesus says to his mother and his disciple, who are at the foot of the cross, “Woman, here is your son.” And to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” Even Paul speaks of the cross differently than the gospels do.

Faithful Christians have been asking questions about the cross for the past two thousand years. And here’s why: no one expected it. No one saw the cross coming.

When the people of Israel talked about God sending a Messiah to rescue and restore them, they imagined this Messiah coming like a warrior. With power. And might. But instead they get Jesus – this mild-mannered Jewish rabbi who came teaching and preaching the kingdom of God, had compassion for people, healed people. And he ended up offending the religious and political authorities and he was crucified.

A Messiah who dies? A God who comes in suffering and death, not power and strength? Not only did Jesus die, he died as a common criminal. The cross was the Roman death penalty reserved for criminals they wanted to make a public example of.

But then, when Jesus’ followers experienced and heard about the resurrected Jesus, their whole world was turned upside down and they wondered if God was up to something on the cross that they never expected. Soon enough, everyone began to wonder what it meant that God would be found in a man hanging on a tree.

We often think of God as all-powerful, all-knowing, all-just. I don’t know about you, but that god seems hard to relate to. A god that is distant and cold. I mean, it is that image of god – a god that is all-powerful and all-loving – which people are angry at right now at Michaelson’s funeral home as they walk beside an 18-year olds casket. But a god who dies? On a cross? A god who experiences tragedy, and pain, and death? It sounds like a god no one expects. And no wonder Paul calls it foolish. But maybe that is a god we can relate to and even believe in – since we too know of tragedy, pain, and death.

That is what tonight is about. Recognizing the painful truth about our lives. We are a sinful and broken people in a sinful and broken world where there is tragedy, there is pain, and there is death. And we all experience it. You are dust. And to dust you shall return. How vulnerable we all are.

But this God. This God found in a man nailed to a tree is also vulnerable. I know, it sounds foolish. But a god that is vulnerable rather than powerful, suddenly becomes a god that is approachable rather than distant. Which means maybe we can count on that kind of god, one who knows first hand what we experience, to give us mercy and grace rather than judgment and punishment. This is what Martin Luther calls a theology of the cross – which means in order to know who God is and what God is like, we must first cast our gaze to the man on the cross.

Over the next couple of weeks, we are going to be exploring how the meaning of the cross has developed over the centuries and how it might still be meaningful for us today.

Each week will not be tidied up into a nice little gift wrapped box that contains all of the answers in it. Instead, they are going to be open ended. Inconclusive. But if you come along and take the journey seriously, you just might discover a path in the woods of faith you’ve never seen before. Or you just might realize the path that you have always been on.

When you think about it, tonight is kind of foolish. We come together to begin the sad and dark season of Lent by smudging black, dusty ash crosses on our foreheads. And later we will feverishly wash it off in the bathroom or dab at it with a tissue in the car before anyone outside the church sees us. It’s kind of foolish. A friend of mine invited her Confirmation students to come to the Ash Wednesday service, and to receive a cross of ashes on their foreheads. One student who had never really been exposed to church growing up, looked up at her terrified and said, “Who’s ashes are they??” It’s kind of foolish, isn’t it? Which is why Ash Wednesday is the only major day of the Church season that Hallmark and Hersheys hasn’t gotten their hands on. Ash Wednesday hasn’t been commercialized yet. You don’t see any commercial on TV saying, “Only 11 days until Ash Wednesday. Have you got your shopping done yet?” There are no non-toxic packets of ashes being sold in the children’s section at Target. You know, to play Ash Wednesday on a play date or something. No, Ash Wednesday has not become commercialized and it never will be because who wants to talk about death. And it all seems a bit strange and foolish.

And maybe that’s true. Maybe to the world, it is foolish. But it is also real. Because tonight is about naming our mortality. That we live in a fragile world. Tonight we name the truth. As earthy ash is scraped into our skin, we remember that death will come to us all. But we remember it in the form of a cross. A baptismal cross, long dabbed and dried into invisibility, that is sketched once again in a shadow across each of our foreheads reminding us that this God found in the vulnerable cross promises to be near to each and every one of us, even in our death and that which is beyond death. May this be a promise to which we can cling. Amen.


Note: Much of this sermon is based on the first chapter of David Lose’s book – Making Sense of the Cross

Sunday, February 10th, 2013 – Sermon on Luke 9:28-43

Luke 9:28-43

I’ll be honest, I have never liked this text. This story of Jesus’ Transfiguration. First, I have no idea what it is about. The only thing I get is that I don’t get it. But it also seems so out of this world. It seems like it launches off the face of this earth to another land where magic and angels glow like the sun and old dead guys come back. And too often, I think religion does enough of that. Causing us to want to leave and abandon this world for some other pristine, cleaner, easier world, which we have labeled heaven.

So often we have been taught to seek God not in the sinful world out there, but in the sacred sanctuary right here –through prayer, scripture, and sacraments. Too often we’re told the work of God in here is meant to protect us like laminant from the work of the devil out there. And this story of Jesus’ transfiguration, where he glows like the Las Vegas strip on the top of a mountain, only reinforces that idea. It seems so out of this world and disconnected from any real part of my life that I have never liked it, let alone preaching on it.


But then I took a second look at this text. And those words, in verse 36 – and they kept silent – lept off the page like gospel medicine.








How I long for silence in my life. And how I am my worst enemy.



Do you find yourself in silence much anymore? For a couple of us, I imagine silence is too often a constant companion. But for most of us, silence is an endangered species. Hard to find. With all of the touching of our ipod touches and our singing cellphones, talking tvs, winding wind farms, and sports practices. Silence. We’re losing it.

I may long for silence, but I avoid it like the plague. You can ask Lauren – I constantly make noise at home. I’m either drumming my hands on the coffee table, or making up songs with Elliot or yawning really loudly. Most mornings, when I get ready for the day, I always have some sort of noise in the background, whether it is the news, one of my friend’s sermons, or the melodies of Eddie Vedder. One day last week, Lauren challenged me to get ready in silence. At first, it felt like she was taking all of my toys away and forcing me into a time out. But I did it. And all I know is that afterwards, my shoulders weren’t so tight and that constant dull ache in my head had melted away.

Silence. The way Peter, James, and John finally found silence in their life was on that mountain with Jesus when they came face to face with the very presence of God. That’s what can happen when you have an encounter with God in your life- you’re moved to silence. But did you notice? Even Peter avoided the onset of that silence at first too.

Peter was more interested in capturing and keeping the glory of God seen on that top of that mountain than actually experiencing it. While Jesus was glowing with light and meeting with Moses and Elijah, Peter had his face deep in blueprints to build a tent there so that they might never leave. Peter was too busy trying to make this holy moment permanent, that he was missing the holy moment itself.

We do the same, don’t we? We want to hold on to moments and make them permanent that we end up missing them. Sometimes I think digital cameras are a detriment to our society. No longer do we simply stand in awe and silence of the glory of God we see around us. Instead, we rush to grab a camera out of our pockets and purses, only to discover that we were too slow and we’ve missed it. And as a result, it seems we no longer capture memorable moments, we create and craft fabricated ones.

As new parents, Lauren and I love to take pictures of Elliot. We always want to catch that cute face or that funny laugh. But then when we miss it, what do we do? We recreate it. A couple of weeks ago, Elliot was being really funny because he had a bunch of food on his face. But by the time we grabbed the camera to capture the moment, he had already licked it off. So what do Lauren and I do? Dip our fingers in his food, and reapply it to his face so that we can get a picture of it. And suddenly, you step back realize how ridiculous that is.

When my parents gave me my first digital camera for Christmas, about 10 years ago now, I’ll never forget what my dad said to me: Don’t spend so much time behind the camera that you miss what you came to see. That’s guidance for life, right there. Don’t spend so much time trying to capture the moment that you miss the moment itself.

We want to capture moments. We want to hold on to them. Claim them as our own, post them on facebook and hope they get a lot of ‘likes’. Peter was kind of like that. He was so ready to capture this moment with Jesus, God, Elijah and Moses that he was measuring angles on A-frame tents instead of letting the full glory of Jesus shining in front of him sink deep into his retinas.

But finally, the experience of God got so intense that Peter couldn’t ignore it anymore. He couldn’t help but put down his blueprints, his camera, his to-do list, his iPhone, or whatever else we use to distract ourselves – and finally, not only could he see light of God, he could feel it like a rushing wind across his cheek. And he could hear it like a voice right beside him. God did not show up on that mountain in things that were out of this world, but in things of this world. Peter, James, and John were moved to silence because for the first time they saw the world itself, in all of its glory and light, as the very place where God comes. Like on dirt and rocks that build a mountain to climb. In simple things like light and wind and spoken words.  No ones’ feet ever left the ground in this story. No one was lifted up in the air. Not even Jesus. Even Moses and Elijah came as men, with flesh and bones, not as feel-good ghosts. The glory and grace of God is rooted right here. The light of Christ shines in this world, if we stop long enough to look for it in the very people and places around us.

For it is after this encounter with God that Jesus leads Peter, James, and John back down the mountain. To the messiest parts of the world where God promises to find us. To a world where children have seizures and foam at the mouth and panicked parents plead for help. To a world where 18-year-olds die much too young from asthma attacks. It doesn’t get much messier than that.

If there is good news to be found in this text it is that the light and glory of God found in Jesus continues to shines despite our sleepy eyes and distracted plans. Too often religion seems to want to take us out of this world, but Jesus and the God won’t let that happen. If anything, they send us deeper into this messed up world – to the places where the light of God glows. It glows when we are sent to our neighbor’s house with a pizza bake because life has just delivered cancer right to her doorstep with no return address. It glows when the unlikely Good Samaritan who lives across the street, who seems so suspicious and scary, dusts ice salt on your driveway so you and your family don’t slip. It glows when high school students who knew and didn’t know Colin light up Facebook with prayers for him and his family. Jesus doesn’t want you to leave this world, he wants to put roots down into it. Anchoring you here, where God needs you to be.

That glory and light of God seen by Peter, James, and John that day is all around you. You receive it. You give it. Don’t try to preserve it or bottle it up. Don’t try to save it to your hard drive. Just watch for it. And if we can do that, if we can look up long enough…then we will find ourselves moved to sacred silence, for the glory of God has come near.

A couple of weeks ago, after the story of the wise men who went home another way after visiting baby Jesus, I invited all of you to live out your faith by going home another way.

In the same idea, as a way of living out your faith, I invite you to go home in sacred silence. When the whole family piles into the car, no one say a word for the six minutes it takes to get home. Or if you came solo, quiet your mind of whatever chatter is going on inside that brain of yours. Just for that time, see what it’s like. Maybe it will be a witness to the hope that you have just encountered God somewhere in the last hour of your life. Whether it be in the melody of the music or the warm welcome of a neighbor or in the praying for precious people.

It is a feeble attempt at the hope that if experiencing the very real presence of God leads us to sheer silence. Then maybe the opposite is true. Giving ourselves some silence might help us to see the very real presence of God that stands before us. May this be so.

Sunday, February 3, 2013 – Sermon on Luke 4(14-21)

Luke 4(14-21)

Do you remember slap bracelets? They were those bracelets that would roll out into a ruler-like thing, but when you slapped it against your wrist, the band would curl around and be like a bracelet. Very, very cool, but also very, very, dangerous.  You see, inside was a thin piece of metal, and at the peak of their popularity, there were all kinds of injuries that occurred because the metal of the bracelet broke through the fabric and cut children’s wrists. After a while, they were banned from schools. Banned. As in illegal. Not allowed. All because they put the person wearing the bracelet at risk of being harmed.

But what amazes me is those were the bracelets that were considered dangerous. Meanwhile, another popular bracelet back then was not considered dangerous at all. In fact, people were encouraged to wear them. Do you remember WWJD bracelets? What would Jesus do? What would Jesus do bracelets. They were handed out by churches to children by the millions. They were everywhere. And they were viewed as so…nice. Sort of, morally up right. You were a good Christian if you wore one. They were meant to keep kids in line – from being mean to their sister or swearing too much. But no one ever banned them from schools. Ever.

I can’t figure that out. Because if we take Jesus seriously and we take what we just heard in the gospel of Luke seriously – where Jesus almost gets thrown off a cliff because of the sermon he preached- then a WWJD bracelet is the most dangerous bracelet in the world. Because Jesus has a tendency to do things and say things that make people want to kill him.  What would Jesus do? According to Luke, something that might put your life at risk. But no one ever thought that wearing a WWJD bracelet would ever put our life at risk, or else schools would have banned them too.

Most Sundays, you all listen to me stand up here for ten, maybe fifteen minutes, and preach on the Scriptures. And you are usually quite kind. You make good eye contact. You give a helpful nod every once in a while, showing me that you understand and you are following along. Some of you will even sometimes give a reflective facial reaction, indicating that you really get what I am saying. And then afterwards, you all shake my hand and sometimes you say, “Nice sermon, pastor,” or “That was interesting, thanks.” But never once have any of you ever tried to throw me off a cliff for something I preached.

Now on my drive home, I am usually appreciative of that fact. But in light of today’s gospel reading, I’m having second thoughts.

Jesus has just returned home. And he is preaching his first sermon at his home church. That can be pretty intimidating, right Jimmy? Anytime a hometown hero returns, it gets everyone’s attention. I mean, it’s like when the musician Owl City comes back to Owatonna. He is on the front page of the paper and everyone is talking about it.

So you can imagine that the temple was packed that day because Jesus, Joseph’s boy, was back in town, and didn’t you hear? He’s gonna be preaching the sermon on Sunday. So everyone crowds in, his old neighbors, his former basketball teammates, his old Sunday school teachers… everyone is there. People who never in their life thought that that pain in the neck of a kid would have amounted to anything, let alone a preacher.

And things start off well enough. He reads from the book of Isaiah. And everyone is just delighted with him. “Look at how well he reads the scripture!” They say. “Look at how nice he looks in his Sunday best.” But then by the end of the story, everyone is enraged. I mean, they are really, really, angry and they end up chasing Jesus out of town to throw him off a cliff. Now either it was a really bad sermon…or the deeper truth about this text is that when the gospel of God is truly preached, when it is really spoken, people will want to kill you. You see we don’t like it when people tell us the truth about ourselves. We tell our children to tell the truth all the time. But then as adults, we aren’t so fond of the truth. We don’t like people knowing or pointing out the truth about us. But that’s what Jesus does in his preaching. He tells the truth.

So I’m having second thoughts. Because if I am really preaching the gospel, if I am really speaking the truth, if I am really saying what Jesus would say, you should be mad at me each Sunday. So enraged that you want to silence me. You should maybe even want to throw me off a cliff afterwards. Jimmy, you know what I’m talking about. You just preached your first sermon here a couple of weeks ago. Did anyone want to throw you off a cliff? No? Which means maybe you and I are not good preachers. Or maybe we are not Christ-like preachers.

So what was it? What truth did Jesus proclaim that got the folks in Nazareth so riled up, so offended that they wanted to destroy Jesus?

Well, Jesus told the truth about God’s love. But to the people, to his people, he became a traitor that morning. Right there in his hometown pulpit. Jesus spoke of God’s love not for the people in the pews, but for their enemies.

Jesus does this by telling them two stories. Now, the people at church must not have known their Bibles very well because these stories weren’t new. They came right from their own Bibles. He tells them how Elijah, their prophet, a prophet from Israel, skipped over the starving widows in their land, to bring food to a widow in Sidon. A woman who was a gentile and a foreigner. An ‘illegal alien’ if you will. Then Jesus reminds them that while there were many lepers in Israel, Elisha, another prophet from Israel, went and healed Naaman, a leper from Syria. Another foreigner. These are stories about God’s healing love going to someone who was outside. Someone who was not part of “the chosen people.”

A widow from Sidon and a leper from Syria. These were enemies of Israel who were healed by the God of Israel. Do you see what Jesus has done? Not only has he told the truth about God’s love, but he’s also told them the truth about themselves.  He’s exposed their prejudice. That they only want God’s love for themselves and no one else. He has said, “You are only concerned for yourselves. You only worry about your country and your people. But God doesn’t work that way. God doesn’t play favorites.”

While he was a traitor to them, he was a truth-teller for God. Jesus tells them a truth about God they didn’t want to hear. About how God’s love stretches farther and wider than Israel. And what do they do? They try to kill him for it. That’s what we do to truth tellers.

I want to tell you a story about a man who is considered a traitor in this country. A man who told the truth for God, I think, and is being punished dearly for it. In late 2009, or early 2010, Bradley Manning, a young man in his twenties who was serving in Iraq, came across a video that he should have never seen.  He discovered a classified video that showed an American army helicopter fire at and kill unarmed civilians and two journalists in Iraq.  Then when people came to retrieve their bodies, they shot at them too.  Even children were hurt in the midst of all of this violence.

Bradley Manning decided to leak the video through a website called WikiLeaks.  To reveal the truth about the awful things that our country was doing. The sacredness of human beings were being damaged and destroyed.  And then he was arrested.  Put in solitary confinement for 10 months.  He was denied social interaction, sunlight, and sometimes he was denied the dignity of wearing clothes. He has been in jail for 981 days.   To this very day, he still sits in a prison cell in this country and will soon be on trial with the possibility of life in prison.  All because he discovered how human beings were being destroyed by the actions of our government.  Children were being hurt! No wonder this was classified information.  If the American public knew this, we would be outraged.  And so Bradley Manning revealed to us the truth. And we should be outraged. Yet Bradley continues to spend each night in jail, perhaps for the rest of his life.

Before leaking this information, Bradley Manning asked someone online, “If you had free reign over classified networks… and you saw incredible things, awful things… what would you do?” Maybe we should also ask, What would Jesus do? Would Jesus leak the video? Or would he ignore it?

We don’t like it when the truth about our lives is revealed. The hard truth. The life-threatening truth of today’s gospel is that God’s healing love extends far beyond whomever we would think is in or out. It reaches even into enemy territory. And that truth almost gets Jesus killed. In a couple of weeks, we will learn that in the end, that truth does get Jesus killed on the cross.

In the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, while God is possessive, God is not possessed. We cannot control God or tell God who to care for and who not to care for. God goes where God chooses. This affection and care that God has for this world -it is a crazy and wild, uncontainable kind of love. It’s wrapped itself around you and your shoulders like a prayer shawl knit together by loving, church ladies. But this love is also like a drape that has blanketed the earth, reaching far beyond where your mind and body have ever been. Reaching out and grabbing a hold of the foreigner thousands of miles away and the enemy who lives next door. This beautifully broad love of God will not be possessed. It will not be contained. It belongs to no one. But is given for all. That is Jesus’ truth.

Will we speak that truth? We just might be called a traitor if we do and we know what happens to traitors. But we might also be a truth-teller for God. What would Jesus do? Amen.

To find out more about Bradley Manning: