Sunday, December 8th, 2013 – Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12

Matthew 3:1-12

1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ ” 4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Friends, today on this second week of Advent, we meet John the Baptist. And if you’ll notice, we always meet John the Baptist this week. John is always the subject of the gospel in the second week of Advent. And Advent is a time of preparation for the birth of Jesus. For the coming of God into this place, into this world, and into our lives.

And we hear that word from John in our gospel for today. Prepare. John the Baptist is the voice crying out in the wilderness…Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.”

While we are preparing to make room in our homes for more stuff. As we are preparing to make room under the tree. John is asking us to prepare room for God. To make room for God in our life. Remember how mother Mary and Joseph are traveling by night and the arrive at the inn and was there any room for them? No. So they had to go out to the stables. Where the animals stayed. Advent is time of preparation. It asks us, through the voice of John, to make room for God. To prepare the way of the Lord.

Isn’t it interesting that the gospels tells us that the Lord needs a way, a path, prepared in order to come to us? Isn’t it interesting that the Lord, God, needs something from us, God’s creation, in order to come to us in the way in which God would like.

Last week I spoke about how God is always coming to us. John even reminds us here, that the kingdom of God has come near. That we aren’t waiting for a second coming of Jesus, we are waiting for the billionth coming of Jesus, because God is always drawing near to us. But according to John the Baptist we can prevent God’s coming. We can block God’s entering into our life by not preparing a way for God.

Now, please hear me. I am not talking about eternal salvation here. I am not talking about needing to let God into your heart in order to spend eternity with God. God has already decided that. God has already claimed you as God’s very own and it is nothing of your doing. But I am talking about the way God functions in our life here to bring about a better life for the world.

It makes me think of people who have prepared the way for God in our life time. People who have made more room for God. I think of people like Martin Luther King Jr. Or Rosa Parks. Or Nelson Mandela, who recently died on Thursday. I think of the inequality that has been in this country and around the world with regards to race. Racism is a roadblock to the way of the Lord. Racism prevents us from being loving and compassionate and gracious to our neighbors. And if you ask our confirmation students who are neighbors are, they will tell  you: all people. All people. Racism prevents from being as God wants us to be which is as one body of humanity. One body that knows we need each other, like a hand needs an arm and a leg needs a heart and toes needs lungs. And so when people are valued based on their race, instead of their humanity, God is not present in the way God would like to be present. And so it is people like Martin Luther King Jr and Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela who prepared a way for the Lord, by working to dismantle racism in their land.

But those are such big examples. Let’s try a more ordinary example. I want to tell you about my mom. My mom is a person who prepared the way of the Lord in my life. My mom taught me something that to this day I am forever grateful for. She always reminded me that you never know what’s going on in someone’s life. You never know the kind of day, week, or year that they have had. They might be having the worst day of their life. And so whenever I wanted to be angry at someone for cutting me off on the road or for how they spoke to me at school or for how they treated me at school, she always reminded me…you never know what is going on in someone’s life that is leading them to act that way. Jesus says to love your enemies. But I wanted to hate my enemies. I wanted to get them back somehow. And that prevented the love of Jesus, the compassion of God  to get through to my heart. It was blocked. It is like if God were the blood flowing through my arteries, and my hatred and anger is the plaque that has built up and blocking the blood from flowing through. But when my mother would remind me of that crucial part – that I never know what is going on in someone’s life – suddenly, it was like this pathway opened up. It was like a stent was placed in my clogged artery. It was like a way had been prepared for God to come into my life, bringing the gifts of compassion and love and grace. So that I might love, and not hate, my neighbor, my enemy.

In a book that the mission committee is reading, there is a story about a congregation, Bethel Lutheran, that was putting together its guiding principles. It was deciding what would be the principles that they as a congregation felt God was calling them to live by. This is a lot like us coming up with our mission statement – Feeding Body, Mind, and Spirit with the love of Jesus. The principle that they came up with is Everyone is welcome and invited. Everyone is welcome and invited. The congregation voted unanimously 70 – 0 to make this their guiding principle. They printed this guiding principle up in the large letter and they hung it on the wall for all people to see. A couple of months later another local church that was involved in a ministry to the homeless where their church was actually a homeless shelter. But this church decided to do some remodeling, which meant for the time being they couldn’t be a homeless shelter. This churched asked Bethel if they would become the homeless shelter in town.

The council at Bethel was divided. Some people thought it was a good idea. Others thought it would bring smells and wear and tear on the church that no one would want. Others thought it would be dangerous to house people who were homeless. Debate dragged on and on, until one of the council members looked up saw the guiding principle that was printed large letters and framed on the wall. He said, “You know, it says right here that ‘Everyone is welcome and invited.’ It doesn’t say ‘except poor people.'” The room got quiet. The answer was literally written on the wall. Before that statement the pathway for God to come into the room was blocked. People were frightened and afraid, not wanting to let their neighbors in, until one person looked up and saw their guiding principle and suddenly a way was prepared for the Lord to come in that space. The council voted to house the homeless shelter.

Isn’t it interesting that we can prevent God from coming to us in the way that God wants to come. According to John, we have to prepare a way for the Lord to come.

Now, notice where this voice, this word of God, is coming from. The text says, a voice crying out in the wilderness. And it comes from a guy who looks kind of strange. He’s wearing camel’s hair for clothing, with a belt around his waist, and he eats bugs and honey for dinner. Not only is that strange to us, it would have been strange to the people back then too. It would have seemed out of place. If we trust this text, the word of God is not going to come from our churches and the pastors. It is not going to come from people like me. It is not going to come from our politicians or our celebrities or from all the other people we think are big deals.

The word of God is going to come from those in the wilderness. On the margins of society. From those you would least expect. It will come from people who might think are kind of strange. People society says is less than you. It is the voices in the wilderness that we are called to listen to. So if you want a word from God this Advent season, be alert to surprising messengers.[1]

In Washington, D.C., a soup kitchen the volunteers paused for a word of prayer, much like they do at Meals of Hope at Trinity in Owatonna. And the cook led the prayer. She said, “Lord, Jesus, give us eyes to see. Help us not to miss you when you come through the line today.”

“God’s messengers are those who you least expect.”[2]

A voice cries out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

In order to prepare a way, to build a new path, a new road, something has to change. That’s what the word repent means – to change. To reorient. To reroute your life.

What part of your life needs changing? Where do you need Christ to enter in, so that there might be more room for him and the gifts of love and compassion and grace that he brings?

Stop and ask yourself what damaging your life might be doing, by the things you do or don’t do. The pain that you may have caused; the untruths you have lived. And then reroute your life. Prepare a new way. It may not be easy, but it just might be God’s way of getting to you.

This Advent season is about preparing a way in our life for God to come a bring much needed to change to this world. And the voices that call us to that kind of preparation, that kind of change, will be the unexpected voices.  It may come from the voices of that we want to silence. It may come from the silent protestors who won’t move to the back of the bus. It may come from the voices of those in prisoned. It might come from our family members. Or from council members.

Be alert for surprising messengers of God. And listen for the ways they call us to prepare the way of the Lord through change. The good news my friends is that God needs your help. God needs you to prepare a way. God can’t do it without you. Because if not you, then who?



Sunday, December 1st, 2013 – Sermon on Matthew 24:36-44 and Isaiah 2:1-5

Matthew 24:36-44

36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.


First Reading
Isaiah 2:1-5

1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

When I was a youth director over in Rochester, we had an intern pastor named Eric. And Eric loved to go running. Everyday, he would go for a run, but you never knew when. Eric’s office was right next to mine and he was always dressed in business casual – nice shoes and slacks and a collared shirt, etc.  But of course, those are not the kinds of clothes you would go running in. Naturally, before Eric went for a run, he would change in his office. But the thing is, Eric would never pick up his work clothes, and hang them off the back of his chair, or lay them folded nicely on his desk. No, he would just leave them on the floor in a heap. His shirt, on top of his pants, on top of his shoes. So, it wasn’t uncommon to leave your office and see Eric working hard and then ten minutes later, when you return, see an entire outfit in a heap on the floor, as if he had vanished into thin air. Whenever this happened, those of us in the office always wondered if the end times had come, and Eric had been chosen and we had been left behind.

Society often calls this moment the rapture. When “the end” is coming, when Jesus is coming back to take back all of the chosen people, and to leave behind all the rest. It is an image of the world going through a time of trials and tribulations from which the faithful and the chosen get an excused absence. And the idea of this comes from the gospel reading in Matthew that we just heard. “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

The rapture has for some time been a common fear in our society. Remember Y2K and the excitement around the year 2000. How afraid everyone was of what was going to happen? And then in the last couple of years, there has been prediction after prediction after prediction of the end of the world and, thankfully, none of them have come true. But people can be so certain about the rapture and where they fit into it all, that they will proclaim it through their bumper stickers. One bumper sticker says: Warning: In case of the rapture, the driver of this car will disappear. Another says: When the rapture comes, can I have your car?[1]

This is a hard text. It is how the season of Advent, the beginning of our new year always starts out. With a hard text like this and it almost always invokes fear in most of us. But I have to say, I think we have misunderstood it.

First off, the word rapture doesn’t even exist in the Bible. Secondly, much of this understanding of the rapture comes from a 19th century priest named John Nelson Darby. He uses this scripture, but I think it is a misreading of it. Too often, we forget the opening words of our text: But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Jesus says that no one knows. Not even Jesus! So, when anyone wants to tell you that they know when the world will end, you remind them of Jesus’ words – no one knows. Not even Jesus.

If that 19th Century priest misunderstood this text, so how do we understand it? First, we have to remember that when Jesus preaches throughout the gospels, Jesus says the kingdom of God is near. The reign of God is at hand. Not just in Jesus’ day, but even now. The kingdom of God has come to this place. It is within you. We can access it. Now. At the end of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, I am with you always. Always. Even now.

What we miss is that if the kingdom of God is near, then God is always coming. Not just a second time, but over and over and over again, God is coming here. All the time. And it is always unexpected. And Jesus says, you better keep awake so that you can see it.

And that’s what Jesus wants. Jesus wants us to see that it is true. That the kingdom of God is…near. It is here. Not somewhere else, but right here, right now. And when you can see that, your whole world changes.

It’s like that magic eye art. Where there is a patterned image on a page, but if you look at it just the right way, you’ll see this 3D image popping out at you. Do you know what I am talking about? I remember as a kid, it took me forever to figure those out. All of my friends could see the sailboat or the basketball or the earth in 3D hidden within the picture, but I couldn’t. It wasn’t until someone told me to stop looking at the picture and look through the picture. Behind it. That’s when the image that was hidden came into view.  And now, I can’t stop seeing the 3D image. Now that I’ve learned how to see it.

I think it is the same with our gospel text. This isn’t about being frightened of when Christ is coming again. It’s about seeing that Christ has already come again and again and again. It is about looking behind what is happening in this world and seeing that the kingdom of God is already near. Jesus says, “Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” “The moment you are aware of Christ’s presence in the world, it is as if you have stepped into a new world. It is like you have left where you were and stepped into a new world.” It is the same earth, but now you can see Christ’s presence in it. What if that is what this text is about? The two people are standing in the field, one person realizes and sees Christ’s presence in this world and suddenly it is like they are taken into an entirely new place and the other person is left there. The two people might still be standing next to each other, but they are living in entirely different world. One person can see Christ in the world and the other can’t. [2]

And that’s how it is. God is coming to this place, not a second time. But a third and a forth, and millions and billions of times. God is always come near to us. Always. And when you can see that, it is like you are taken up into an entirely new world. A world where God is always around us. When we are afraid of Jesus’ second coming, Jesus is saying I’m already here! That’s is what this season of Advent is about: God saying to us, I am always coming to you. I am always being incarnated in your world. And so the work of Advent for us is learning to see that.[3] To look through this world and to see God in the ordinariness of it.

And when the ordinariness of the world gets combined with the presence of God, then it becomes extraordinary. The story of Christmas, the story of Christ’s birth is the story of God coming to us hidden in the human.[4] So that we might be able to live our lives not in fear that Christ is going to come and sweep some of us away and leave some of us behind, but so that we might live our lives in joy and expectation of seeing that Christ has already come and continues to be present with us always. So that we might be able to see farmers in our fields working beside one another as extraordinary, or standing at the kitchen counter making lefse beside one another as extraordinary. Or can you go to Hy-Vee at 2pm on an afternoon and see it all for what it is: the theater of the glory of God.[5] That the kingdom of God has come near and it is extraordinary.

But you know while this sounds good, this isn’t always easy. This is why Jesus says, “If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.” If we know when God is coming to us, we will often times not let God in. Because when God comes, God changes everything. And God asks us to do hard things for the sake of a better world.

We heard about this in the Isaiah text. Isaiah speaks a word from God to the people: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” When God comes to you, God asks something of you. To beat your swords into plowshares and your spears into pruning hooks. Swords and spears are tools that bring violence. Plowshares and pruning hooks are tools that bring life. When you see the presence of God all around you in the ordinary, you’ll see that God asks you to do hard things – like turn the tools that bring violence in our culture into to tools that bring life. What are the tools of violence that we need to dismantle into tools that bring life?  As America Christians we should be dismantling our drones and turning them into water wells for those without clean drinking water. Maybe we should re-rig them to deliver bread to our enemies instead of bombs.

This is the Christian life, folks. And it is not always easy. This is the life that we are baptizing Foster into. This is a sacrament where something ordinary, like water, is combined with the promise-filled word of God and it becomes extraordinary. An event of God’s grace-filled presence.[6] We are baptizing Foster into world where Christ is always coming to him. But where Christ is also asking of him difficult things. Hard to do things for the sake of a better world. I wonder what will be the swords and the spears of Foster’s generation. And may we teach him not to be afraid of the second coming of Jesus, but rather teach him to trust that God is always coming to him. And may we teach him to be brave enough to follow God’s calling and to take tools of violence and turn them into tools of life.

Because this is not just Foster’s work, but ours as well. This is a life that we all are communing into when we take Holy Communion. This is a sacrament where some ordinary things, like bread and wine, are combined with the promise-filled word of God and it becomes extraordinary. An event of God’s grace-filled presence. We are communing into a life where Christ is always coming to us. But where Christ is also asking of us difficult things. Hard to do things for the sake of a better world. May we not be afraid of the second coming of Jesus, but rather to trust that God is always coming to us. And may we be brave enough to follow God’s calling and to take tools of violence and turn them into tools of life. Sounds like an ambitious but worthy goal for us in this new year. Happy new year, everyone. I look forward to it with you. Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven,pg. 110.

[2] I am indebted to Rev. John Van De Laar for this insight in his sermon from November 2010, found at

[3] Ibid.

[4] Alan Storey insight

[6] Daniel Erlander’s Let the Children Come, pg. 3.

Thanksgiving Eve 2013 – Sermon on John 6:25-35

John 6:25–35
25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ 26Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ 28Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ 29Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ 30So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’ 32Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ 34They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ 35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

In our gospel reading tonight, Jesus has just finished feeding the 5000 with just five loaves of bread and two fish. Exhausted and tired, he runs for the hills, seeking a break. Sometime alone. But the people won’t give him that. They want more of what he’s been giving out. More of that food that filled their bellies.

And so Jesus and the crowd go back and forth. The people demanding more bread and Jesus telling them that it’s not that simple. They said that Moses gave them bread from heaven, why can’t he? But then Jesus says that that was bread that would spoil and rot, and the kind of bread that Jesus gives is eternal and everlasting. He says it like this: “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

Jesus knows that it isn’t the hole in their stomachs they are trying to fill, but the hole in their hearts. They aren’t just looking for bread. They are looking for something that makes the whole world come to life.

And I don’t know about you, but I don’t think we are any different than this crowd. Sometimes, I am just hungry for something that will make the whole world come to life. Something that will move me; something that will break open my heart and let more of the world in.

If you keep reading John’s gospel, you’ll hear Jesus say things like, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me…I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.” It is this odd but beautiful poetry about Jesus and God being one and inside each other and then also inside us. And us in them. It is this dance of the divine and the human, the creator and the creation, when you can’t tell who is who and what is what. Which to me can only mean that God is so much more closely weaved into our ordinary daily lives and interaction with one another than we realize. That God is everywhere and on the loose giving this bread of life that gives life to the world.

And maybe sometimes it just takes looking for it and noticing it and pointing it out when we see it, in order for it to give us life. You know, so often it can seem like we live in a time that is governed by a sense of scarcity. We live in a culture that is so often focused on not having enough rather than abundance that we do have. And sometimes I’ll even hear from people about how the world just seems to be getting worse and worse. But I think there is this abundance of the bread of life that is out there giving life to the world and all it takes is just noticing it and giving a word of gratitude for it. And when you can see that bread of life, as Jesus says, you’ll never be hungry or thirsty again.

So tonight, I wanted to notice with you the abundance of God’s bread of life that I see. I wanted to simply share a couple of stories where I have experienced Jesus as the bread of life that leaves no one hungry and thirsty. And what amazes me is that when I am hungry for the bread of life just like the disciples. When I desperate for something to fill that hole in my heart that longs for something deeper and more meaningful, what never ceases to amaze me is that it comes in such ordinary packages.

First. As many of you know, my dad had a medical emergency this past September. After water skiing, a small vessel in his brain opened up and start to leak blood into his brain, causing him to be violently ill and confused and in need of intensive care. It was by far one of the scariest times of my life. It was a Saturday night and so I called Lisa with panic in my voice that I would not be at church the next day and to do whatever for worship. Over the next couple of hours and the next morning, as people learned what had happened, emails and texts and Facebook posts started coming in, saying how you were praying for my dad and for us. And how you hoped everything would be okay and how you would help us through whatever happened next.

And while my dad has made a full recovery and is doing quite well, even now, you continue to ask about him and how he is.

I don’t know if you know just how powerful that was for us. It may have seemed really ordinary and insignificant for you. I know it does for me when I try to offer words of comfort when there are no words of comfort. But those words of love and support were the bread of life that only God can give and it filled us with life during a very scary time. So thank you for that. You have no idea what a gift it was.

Second. This past Sunday night, after the Oyster/Chili supper, our son Elliot started burning up and not feeling well. When we took his temperature around 11:30pm, it was 102.7. But since we took his temp under his arm, and the people who know things say that you should add a degree when you do that, that meant his temperature was 103.7. Lauren and I started to freak out. We moved into that high gear, where you are quick but cautious, that only an endangered loved one can provoke. We rushed him to the ER and, thankfully, it was only a double ear infection and it was completely treatable with some vending machine amoxicillin. But the most beautiful powerful part of that evening wasn’t what happened in the ER room. It was happened in the ER lobby. When Lauren and I walked in, we looked as you would expect two frightened first time parents would look at a quarter past midnight and standing in the emergency room. And this 18-year old, Pete, who was working behind the front desk saw how frightened we were. And with a wisdom that seemed beyond his years, he looked at both of us with tenderness and compassion and he said, “You know, we are going to take really good care of you guys.” And almost immediately, all of our fear melted away, and it felt like we were being held by a divine love that was beyond explaining. Pete probably has no idea what those words meant to both Lauren and I. In fact, he probably doesn’t even remember saying them. But those words were the bread of life that only God can give. And it brought our whole world back to life.

Lastly, as many of you know, we accompanied and carried Gladys Thurnau to her final place of rest this morning. What you might not know, is that Gladys has a son, Dwayne, who is gay and has a life partner named Michael. On Monday afternoon, I had the great joy of sitting down with Gladys’ family to hear stories and details about her life that made us all laugh and cry. Michael had a story that stood out. He talked about how scared to death he was to meet Dwayne’s family. He said, as a gay man, it was not easy meeting your partners Midwestern, conservative, farming family for the first time. He was terrified. But from the moment Gladys met him, she welcomed him into the family with nothing but love and open arms. But then Michael went on. He started to talk about the time when his own mother had died. He even lost control of his voice a little bit, like you do when you are profoundly moved by emotion. He said he would never forget the day when his mother died. When he walked out of the hospital, Gladys came up to him, put her hands on his face like only a mother can do and she kissed him on the cheek. And she said, “I love you so much.” Here is this man. Who is probably not what she had imagined or dreamed for her son’s life but that’s just how it was. And when he was hurting from the death of his mom, she gives this beautiful expression of love and compassion. People walking by that day probably don’t remember what they witnessed. But it was the bread of life coming down from heaven. And it brought Michael’s whole world back to life.

Friends, those are just a few stories of the ordinariness of life that I have experienced recently that is also the bread of life that only God can give. That’s the food that is eternal and everlasting. That’s the kind of food that will bring the whole world to life.

When you believe that God is on the loose. That God is out and active in this world then you will never be hungry and thirsty again because there is more than enough bread out there to bring this world to life. Sometimes, it just takes noticing. Perhaps you have your own story. If so, share it with someone sometime. Because by simply noticing them, they seem to bless us again and again. AMEN

Sunday, November 24th, 2013 – Sermon on Luke 23:33-43

Luke 23:33-43
33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 [Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Well, friends, as I said before, “Happy New Year’s eve.” Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in our Christian calendar.

And the end of our year does not end with a big ball dropping in Times Square, or a big party with wine and streamers. Our year ends with a proclamation that Christ is King.

Last year, on Christ the King Sunday, I began talking about who the kings are out in our society. I mentioned that Justin Bieber had gotten a crown tattooed on his chest and he had just won a whole slew of American Music Awards. So I asked the question: Is Justin Bieber king? That afternoon, on Facebook, one of our parishioners wrote, “Today, at church I learned that Justin Bieber is king.”

Let me be very clear: Justin Bieber is not king. Perhaps he thought he was king, but if you watch the news, you’ll see how seemingly out of control Justin Bieber’s life is becoming and how powerless he really is. And it is quite sad, really.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, but what does it mean to claim Jesus as King?

We don’t refer to many things as kings anymore. Perhaps it is an image that has fallen out of societal understanding. But I think we can still get the metaphor. Kings have power. Kings have control. Kings are at the top of the top. To claim anything or anyone as your king is to say it is the one who rules your life. It is the compass inside you that gives you direction. In the hard form, you might say that your king is the boss of you. The one who tells you what to do. In a softer form, you might say that your king is your mentor. The one who gives you direction and meaning and purpose, the one who nudges and encourages, but also challenges.

So today is the perfect day to ask yourself: who is your king? Who or what is your compass that guides your life?

You know for some people, it is tradition. Tradition is their guide. I’ll ask someone as question about why they believe what they believe and they’ll say, “Well, that’s just how I was raised.” So how someone was raised, what they were taught as a child becomes their compass. Tradition is their king. But the question is: does Jesus Christ ever challenge how we were raised?

For others of us, our politics is our King. Whatever political party we ascribe to – liberal or conservative – can be our King. Sometimes, when I’m talking with someone about a particular issue, I’ll ask them, “What do you think?” And if they don’t know what they think or haven’t thought about it, they will say, “I don’t know, whatever the liberal answer is.” Or whatever the Conservative answer is. They don’t even know what they believe but they know who to align with. The liberals or conservatives. But the question is: does Jesus Christ ever challenge our politics? Interestingly enough, I’ve never heard anyone say, “Whatever the Christian answer is.”

Or lastly, sometimes whatever is trendy is king. Whatever the new thing is. Whatever garners that person the most attention for being aligned with. Your king is whatever makes you look best at this particular moment. But the question is: does Jesus Christ ever challenge what is trendy?

Christ the King Sunday was started in 1925. It was after World War 1. And it has been said that it was a protest against what people were seeing happening in the world. When nations seemed to be more concerned about themselves than about others. When people were abusing powers. And so this Sunday was to remind everyone that Christ and Christ alone is King. That Christ is our compass and no one else.

What’s amazing about all of this is that if you look at our gospel text for today, nothing about Jesus looks like our understanding of King. Remember, we said kings have power, kings have control, kings are at the top of the top. And Jesus is in the exact opposite position: Jesus is nailed to a tree. He can’t move, he is weak, and beaten. His body is exposed as his clothes have been torn off him. He is being punished as a criminal. And not only does he not look like a king, but he is mocked as a king. The leaders who are killing him say, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God!” “If you are king of the Jews, save yourself.”

Kings have power and kings have control and so according to those mocking Jesus, if you are the king of the Jews, than save yourself. Ahh, which means we forgot one detail about kings. Kings save themselves. Kings do everything they can, in their power, to save themselves and their kingdom. Powerful people will do just about anything to save themselves, to remain in power. We see this in politics all the time – politicians doing and saying whatever they need to in order to get reelected.

The people mocking Jesus tell him to save himself. Because that’s what kings do. And what does Jesus do instead? “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” What a are very un-King-like thing to do. Jesus turns the whole notion of what it means to be a king upside down. He isn’t powerful, he’s vulnerable. He isn’t the one with all the control, he is the one forgiving those who had control over him. He isn’t at the top of the top, he is on the cross, with all the other common criminals.

Which is what makes today such a radical statement in the church. To claim Christ as our king is to claim vulnerability, forgiveness, and shared-suffering as that which guides our life. That where we find life to be most meaningful and most worth living is when we ourselves can be vulnerable, instead of trying to be the most powerful. When we can be forgiving instead of revengeful. When we can share in people’s suffering rather than cause and mock people’s suffering.

You see when you claim Christ as your king, you declaring an allegiance but also a new direction. You declare who gives you direction, who you answer to. It is to live by an entirely different compass than world lives by.

Pastor Paul Hoffman was the speaker at a pastor’s conference this past week out in Washington. My friend was at it and he told me the story that Pastor Hoffman shared. This pastor had a new couple show up at church, Robert and Maria. They were children of the congregation but they hadn’t been back in awhile and now they have their own child, Jared. And they wanted Jared to be baptized. So they joined the baptism class that Pastor Hoffman offered. It began in the fall and ended with the child being baptized at the Easter Vigil service. Midway through the class there is a signing ceremony in which the participants stand around the font and the sign of the cross is made all over their body as the participants are reminded that our entire lives belong to God.

Not long after that, Robert asked to meet with the pastor. “We’ve never really talked much about my work, pastor.” Robert began. “But through the ceremony and the Bible studies and conversations with in the baptism class, I realize I can’t continue to keep working where I work. You see I am the manager of a downtown club. Actually, it’s a strip club, and as I participate and realize how God loves and values all people, I can’t continue in a work that exploits women.” Robert quit his job. His family had to move and sell their house because of the new degree he decided to get – in physical therapy. Because of what Robert learned in baptism class for his son, his entire life and work changed. It went from one that objectified the body to one that honored and cared for it.

It’s not easy to call Christ your king. Because when you do, everything gets turned upside down. Maybe even your entire life, like Robert. So what does it mean to claim Christ as king? It means to place vulnerability and forgiveness and shared-suffering as more valuable than any other way of life. And this way of life is not always easy. And it is not always safe. In fact, it might mean we end up on a cross some day like Jesus. Thought it is risky, this way of Jesus, this way of the cross, is the only thing that sets us from to live and die lovingly. And it is the only way to real fullness of life.

So, may we have the courage to claim Christ our king today and in the year ahead. Amen.

Sunday, November 17th, 2013 – Sermon on Luke 21(5-19)

Luke 21:5-19

5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and, “The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9 “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12 “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.

And Jesus says to his disciples, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down….When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately…Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs of heaven.”

But Jesus doesn’t stop there.

“They will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.”

(Sigh) Welcome to church. As I look out, I’ll be honest, I am glad that I see so few visitors, because if this were the text on my first Sunday at a church, I don’t know that I would return. Nothing like a little holy war and famines and plagues to really kick start your faith. In fact, I have friends and family members who would scoff at hearing this text in church, proclaiming, “Ugh! It’s so dark. Why do we have to read that anyways?”

That is the way we seem to describe anything or anyone or any topic that is not happy and joyful and inspiring. It’s so dark, we say. Whether it is a movie about being enslaved for 12 years, or new music about death and mortality, or a person whose personality gives us the willies, so often we describe these things as dark. That movie is pretty dark. That music sounds dark. That person has a dark personality.

We seemed to have demonized darkness. Light equals good and darkness equals bad. I mean think about it, we are told not to walk alone in the dark, because in the dark is where bad things happen. School teachers and psychologist become alarmed when a child only wants to color and draw with that dark black crayon. Some us leave the lights on at home even when we are not there, just so that we won’t come home to darkness. It seems darkness has become something we ought to avoid.

The church hasn’t done us any favors in that area either. So often the church has paired light against darkness. Jesus is the light of the world, and if Jesus is light then darkness must be…whatever the opposite of Jesus is. In the first chapter of 1 John it says that “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” No wonder people who have come close to death always talk about seeing “the light”, and never about seeing “the darkness.” And if they did see “the darkness” they probably wouldn’t tell anyone about it. In fact, we are just two weeks away from the season of Advent, where one of the major themes is “A light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” It seems darkness has become something we ought to avoid. Even in the church.

How do you think those of us with dark colored skin hear that kind of language about light and darkness? It amazes me that the United States that spends $12 billion a year on tanning products to make our skin darker is the same country that not so long ago viewed those with dark skin as only 3/5 human.[1]

Light equals good and darkness equals bad? Maybe not. Perhaps that isn’t the whole story about darkness. We forget that we need the dark in order to see the light. And just think, why are candlelight midnight services so popular on Christmas Eve. There is something about coming to church in the dark that deepens and feeds our souls with the nutrients of God that coming to church in broad daylight simply can’t do.

When Lauren and I lived in St. Paul, we used to love to look at the cities lights. But when we moved here, Lauren exclaimed on one of our first night time drives, “I can see the stars here!” We had traded in the city lights for those celestial lights, and we couldn’t be happier. And it is all because of the absence of light, because of the darkness that rural life offers the evening sky. We need the dark in order to see the light.

Not only that, we need darkness to live in the light too. Hardly a night goes by that Lauren doesn’t ask me to turn down the lamp on my nightstand, so that she can get some sleep. In the dark.

I have watched as farmers have tilled up the harvested cornfields, unearthing that dark, rich soil that was beneath those corn stalks, feeding and growing that fruit of the earth that now feeds and grows us. I have watched as farmers have spread that fragrant, creamy dark, nutrient-rich manure on the empty fields, all so that it might replenish the earth for the sake of next years harvest.

Light equals good and darkness equals bad? Maybe not. Especially not for the deer this season. For it is the onset of darkness, the dimming of the sky lights that means they will live to see another day. “Thank God for the darkness,” says the deer who still has time to get away.

The truth is we, all the creatures of the creation, need darkness as much as we need light.

Which means maybe this gospel text which is so dark is not so much something that should scare us and send us running for cover, but instead is something that we need to hear. You see, when Luke wrote down this gospel story, that temple in Jerusalem that the disciples drooled over for all of its beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God. That temple that was said to house the very presence of God. That temple…had already fallen down. By the time Luke wrote down his gospel story, the Roman Empire had already entered the city and destroyed that sacred place. Which means those readers of the very first edition of Luke’s gospel knew that Jesus was right. All will be thrown down because it already had been. Their precious church, life as they knew it had been thrown down. Which means these words in Luke are not meant to scare us. They are not a prediction of the end of the world that ought to alarm us. Rather these are words of comfort and courage to a community that is already living in darkness.

Many of us fear that the Christian church might be entering its own time of darkness. We are afraid that the sun is setting on the church and death is looming. We fear that we are living in a time when our churches are falling down literally and metaphorically. Lets face it, this is an uncertain time for the church. Much likes Jesus’ disciples, we are wondering, will the church finally collapse? And if so, when? Because maybe we don’t want to be in it when it does.

Over the years, many churches have tried to fight off this looming darkness with good business strategy that will excite people for mission and ministry and then pad the offering plate too. But, I’ll be honest, I don’t know that it will work.

Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor offers a different take.  She says that perhaps as the church, we have become too dependent on artificial light.[2] On light we have created and no longer on the light of God. She says that rather than panic and abandon our churches. Or rather than trying to prop our churches up on the wall jacks of corporate business strategy and effective fundraisers. perhaps, Taylor, we will need to learn to walk in the dark. And by learning to walk in the dark, we will have to figure out how to get around using only the things that God has given us – the moon, the stars, and our five senses.

There was a theologian who once said that some days he wished that a great big tidal wave would come along and wash away everything that the church has built up. Because then all we would have left is what we had in the beginning: ourselves and Jesus. What do you think it would be like to start to the Christian faith over again with nothing but ourselves and Jesus? No churches or cathedrals, no hymnals, no set worship liturgies, no pews. I can’t help but wonder if we might be due for a reboot.

Or maybe you don’t have the luxury of worrying about the future of the church because you are too frightfully worried about your own life and the darkness that seems to be overcoming it. Whether it is the loss of a job and bills that will not pay themselves. Or the end of a relationship that you thought was the one. Or perhaps despair over a recent diagnosis that could change all the plans you had for your life. Maybe it isn’t the darkening of the church’s path that scares you, but the darkening of your own?

Sometimes, I think, the most transformative time in our life will be when we feel like we are in darkness. When we are lost. When we are wondering what this life is for and why we are living it. Remember it was Jacob who wrestled with God in the darkness throughout the night and who, in the end, came out limping, yes, but also blessed and with a new name. It is those times in the darkness that can change our life and transform our heart into something that is much more life-giving than when our life seemed like it was bright and the path was well lit. So often it can be transformative because it is during the dark times that we have nothing left to rely on but something that is outside of ourselves. It is those times when we can no longer be our own saviors. We can no longer be the experts on our own life. Rather those dark nights, when we have nothing left to give, when we are all worn out, those are the times when we can do nothing else except open up our hands and give our life over into the hands of God.

Light equals good and darkness equals bad? Maybe not. The only question is: are you afraid of the dark? Jesus says do not be afraid. For not one single hair on your head will perish. And by enduring the hard work of learning to walk in the dark, you will gain your souls. May it be so. Amen.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, lecture given at the Festival of Homiletics, 2013.

Sunday, November 3, 2013 – All Saints’ Day Sermon on Luke 6(20-31)

Luke 6:20-31
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. 27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Today, we gather to remember the saints in our life. So often we think of saints as those people of the past who seem to have been especially blessed by God that they were then a blessing to those around them. That with so many gifts and talents, their influence continues to leak into these future days long after they’ve gone. But, you know, it took a friend of mine a couple of weeks ago to remind me that today is not “Some Saint’s Sunday” but rather is, in fact, “All Saints Sunday.” Which means today we don’t simply remember and celebrate those blessed folks who have gifted us with their grace and their wisdom and who have since past away. No, today, we celebrate and remember even those saints still living, those whose hearts continue to beat out light that scatters around us and guides our lives for the better.

The problem with this is that so often we can get mixed up around what it means to be blessed. Just the other day, a friend, who had recently given birth, said that her family had been really blessed because of all the meals people brought over to them. Or last Sunday, at the Grandparents for Education breakfast, when the name of winner for the TV drawing was announced, you could hear this subtle groan from the people. There was this sense that this man had already been blessed with so much in his life. Why did he get even more? It seems like to be considered blessed is to have enough in this life. Enough food. Enough shelter. Enough love. Enough…well, you get the point. Any time something good happens to us, we seem to call it being blessed. Which is why I honestly struggle to pray before a meal. Did God bless me with this meal? What about those who don’t have a meal this night? Did God not bless them with a meal?

So often the people we label as blessed or as saints are those who have done good to us and to the world or those who seems to have been given so much in this world that they must have done something to deserve it. Take for example the Roman Catholic tradition of becoming a saint. In order to receive that halo around your head, one most show proof of a good and pious life, confirmed by evidence of at least three miracles after death. Needless to say, I’m not going to hold my breath on my chances at that, and I wouldn’t recommend that you do either.

The problem with these categories of what it means to be blessed is that they are entirely different from Jesus’ categories of blessedness. In fact, Jesus’ understanding of who is blessed turns our understanding upside down. You just heard it from the man himself in the gospel reading from Luke. Jesus says to his disciples, “Blessed are you…who are poor. For yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry. Blessed are you who weep now. Blessed are you when people hate you.”

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He turns to those we traditionally view as blessed, and delivers a hard word – “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you whose bellies are full now, because you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing, for you will weep and mourn. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for they used to speak well of the false prophets too.”

And then, like someone who’s been tossed around by a big ocean wave, those listening to Jesus suddenly didn’t know which way was up. Everything had been turned upside down and inside out. Blessed are those without any food on the table. And woe to the one whose stomach is full. Blessed are those who have lost their job. And woe to those who fired them. Blessed are those who weep over the death of a loved one and woe to those who sit in a full house of relatives, laughing.

Everything is backwards. Jesus might as well be saying, “Blessed are the losers, and woe to those of you who win.” Or perhaps a little more personally, blessed are the Mayo Spartans and Blooming Prairie Awesome Blossoms. And woe to the Owatonna Huskies.

What I love and hate about this passage is that it seems to be yet another of Jesus’ equations of sacredness that when mapped out, doesn’t make any sense to our human minds. For example, you have heard Jesus say, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” It is a great and wonderful phrase. It comforts those who are afflicted by being last in life, and it afflicts those who are comfortable being first in life. But when you think it through, if the first will be last and the last will be first, then what happens when the last are the new firsts and suddenly they have to be last again? It starts to get confusing.

It is the same way with Jesus’ sermon on blessedness. If Jesus says blessed are the poor, for they will inherit the kingdom of God, but then Jesus says woe to those who are rich for they will become poor…won’t the rich then be in the category of the poor who will inherit the kingdom? Or if Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are hungry for you will be filled,” but then Jesus says, “Woe to you who are full, for you will be hungry.” Won’t the hungry who are being filled eventually become those who are full, who Jesus warns? And won’t those who are full become those who are hungry, who are blessed?

It’s very confusing because after awhile you don’t know who is first and who is last; who is blessed and who is warned. When you think about it, Jesus’ blessing and Jesus’ warning eventually falls on all those who are listening. Which is maybe exactly Jesus’ point. Perhaps Jesus is diluting and dissolving any categories that we might divide us as a community. In fact, what Jesus seems to be doing is leveling the playing field. He lifting up the lowly and bringing down the mighty. Everyone is being turned upside down and right side up. But truth be told, he is only doing with his words what he has already just done with this feet.

Listen to the verses just before our reading:

Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.

Jesus’ words match the landscape. He brought them to a level place. A place filled with people from Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. Jesus is bringing all people to the same level.

In a world where so much of life seems to be about what you can achieve on your own and how successful you were or could be. In a country where anti-depressant prescriptions have sky-rocketed and poverty only seems to be growing. In a life that can seem an awful lot like one big game of king of the hill, for Jesus to gather together everyone on a level place by lifting up the lowly and bringing down the mighty is is like being given an entirely new understanding by which to live. It is to ignite above all of our heads a ring of light that can only mean one thing: blessed. Sainted. No matter what.

When we think of saints we often think of those who have been good to us or good to this church. And that’s true. But when Jesus gives us a snap shot of all the saints, he uses a much wider lens. “Jesus’ (sermon) invites us to stretch our imaginations concerning the saints, those persons who are blessed by God. The “saints” include not only those spiritual superstars who attain exceptional virtue. The saints include people who are vulnerable, those society routinely forgets about – or worse, takes advantage of.” (On Scripture)

Which means, that according to Jesus, there is halo above the head of the 28 year-old man standing outside on the sidewalk, smoking and leaning on his cane, who I barely even looked at this past week. There is a halo over the head of the man with disabilities who grunted uncontrollably down the aisles of Wal-Mart, leaving most of us uncomfortable and unsure of what to do.

On a day like today, when we speak the names of those who have died in the last year, and when we light candles for our loved ones, it is not hard to see how level the playing field really is. Rich or poor, hungry or filled up, loved or hated, death will greet us all. Some day, someone will light a candle for us. It’s a level playing field, folks. The difference is that Jesus invites us to live that way not just today, but tomorrow too.

So when you walk around Target or when you stop at the gas station, when you go to work, or when you walk to lunch, can you see that ring of light hovering just a couple of inches above the heads of the people you meet. It’s there. The question is, can you see it? Because if you can see theirs, they just might able to see yours as well. AMEN

Sunday, October 27, 2013 – Reformation Sunday – Sermon on Romans 3(19-28)

Romans 3:19-28

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

As many of you know, today is Reformation Sunday. But what is Reformation Sunday? The worship committee asked that we take some time this morning to wrestle with what the Reformation is and why we celebrate it.

First off, perhaps we need to be a little more specific. Today, we remember the Protestant Reformation. We, as Lutherans, along with Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptists, and UCC churches, fall under the category of Protestant. While we are Lutheran, we are also Protestant.

And built into that word – Protestant – is the word protest. These churches are the result of the people who 500 years ago protested against the Roman Catholic Church. 500 years ago, these protestors split from the Catholic church, starting all of these other denominations.

Now, while this split, this thing called the Reformation, took many years, it is widely believed to have been sparked by Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.

It in order to understand this event that sparked an entire reforming of the Christian church, we should probably back up a little bit and get some background on Martin Luther.

Martin Luther was born in 1483 and his father had a dream for him – that he would someday become a lawyer. So, naturally, this father sent his son to Law School. But one night, when Luther was walking back to school, he got caught in a nasty thunderstorm. Terrified of dying and even more terrified that this storm was God’s judgment on him, Martin Luther started to pray. And he prayed to St. Anne, who is believed to be the grandmother of Jesus. And basically, what Luther prayed was that if he was protected during this storm, if he made it through, he would become a monk.

The storm ends, Luther survives, and two weeks later, he quits Law school and becomes a monk, leaving behind a very disappointed father.

As a monk, Luther did everything he could to live a totally pure and pious life. He tried to be as sinless and as holy as he could be. In fact, he even practiced self-flagellation, meaning he would use a whip of sorts to punish himself for the sins that he had committed.

You see, the reason Luther would do this is because the message that the church was teaching then was that our salvation relied entirely upon us. That one must do enough good works, be holy enough, faithful enough, pure enough to God to earn their way up to heaven. It was like climbing a spiritual ladder. Every good thing you did moved you up and every bad thing you did moved you down. The idea was that you had to pull yourself up by your own spiritual bootstraps, so that you could be good enough for God.

And so that is what Luther tried to do. He tried to be a good monk. He tried and he tried and he tried, only to realize that he could never get pure enough. Never be sinless enough to be worthy of God. He felt that he could never be worthy of God’s grace and forgiveness. And on top of that, he realized that his obsession with becoming good enough and holy enough for God was selfish as well. There were many people in need that he was not helping as he was only focused on himself and his desire to save himself. He was a navel gazer. Only focused on himself. On the outside, Luther succeeded greatly. On the inside, he suffered greatly. He was living a tormented life.

At this point, Luther was asked to get his doctorate and to become a professor. And he hated the idea. But he did it. And it was during this time of study and searching that Luther made a startling discovery. Throughout Scripture, Luther began to see that “the gospel”, the good news of God’s love and forgiveness was separate from the law, from doing good works and being pure. We can see this is in our reading from Romans today – Paul writes, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” This was the profound realization for Luther that God’s saving grace and forgiveness is not earned. You don’t win it by being a good person. You don’t receive it as a reward for the being the best person. Luther knew that if anything about his salvation rested on himself -his ability, character, or faith- he was out of luck. He knew that there is no way God’s grace could be earned and deserved. But rather it is a free gift from God to all of us, because all of us fall short. Look at vs. 23 – 24 in Romans, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift.” Luther’s realized that we are not loved and saved and forgiven by God because of the things we do, but rather because it is simply a free gift of grace given by God to us sinners.

So, with this new revelation in mind, Luther started looking at the Catholic Church around him, and he saw that the Catholic church was teaching basically the exact opposite of that.

It was all about good works. It was all about performing a certain number of good deeds so that you could slowly climb that ladder and make your way into God’s good graces and get into heaven.

Now, according to the Catholic church at that time, if you didn’t do enough good things to get into heaven, the teaching was that you would go to purgatory. Purgatory is like the world’s worst waiting room. After death, it is where you would wait in order to be purified of your sins so that you can eventually get into heaven. However, family and friends could do something to reduce your time in purgatory – they could purchase indulgences for you. These indulgences would forgive any of those remaining bad things that you did in your life that held you captive in purgatory.

Interestingly enough, the money from these indulgences, the money that people would give to get their poor, suffering loved one into heaven. It was used to balance the church budget. Oh, and update and finish St. Peter’s Cathedral in Vatican City, so that the Pope could show off his stupendous building to all his friends.

Suddenly, this free gift from God. The gift of grace, and love, and forgivness…was not free. Not even close. The Roman Catholic church had put a price tag on the free gift. They were selling forgiveness for their own benefit. And this enraged Luther.

And it is at this point in the story, where Martin Luther, on October 31, 1517, nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. And when he posted these 95 statements, what he was doing was protesting against the sale of indulgences. Luther’s hope in doing so was to reform the Catholic Church.  A church he dearly loved.  But we know this was the act that sparked the split of the Roman Catholic Church, forming what we now know as Protestant churches.

There is much more to the story. For example the Pope told Luther to stop his writing and protesting or else he would be excommunicated and kicked out of the church. He didn’t stop and so he was kicked out. Luther eventually went as far as to call the Pope the anti-Christ.

It is also worth noting that Martin Luther never wanted to start a new church. And he never wanted a church named after him. He wanted to change the Roman Catholic Church from within. But it wouldn’t listen.

And so here we are almost 500 years later. And we celebrate this Reformation day with the color of red, the symbol of the moving of Holy Spirit, because, one, we trust that 500 years ago, God rescued and reoriented the church from having become corrupt. God bought back a church that had been pawned off to the devil for the sake of it’s own gain.

But secondly, because we as Protestants traditionally believe that God always reforming the church. It is not just the Roman Catholic Church 500 years ago, but the Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian, UCC, and Catholics of today. That all these churches are always needing to be reformed. Because, let’s be honest, if we all fall short of the glory of God, then the church will too.  All of these churches continue to fall short. And we all drift away from God’s dream for this earth. We don’t always live out a life that reflects the free gift of grace that is from God and for all. In fact, sometimes the church can still look like a place that is trying to sell the love and forgiveness of God. We at times can continue to communicate to the world that you have to be good enough to receive God’s grace. That you have to earn it in your life time and if you don’t, then watch out. Seriously, sometimes it can seem like we’ve abandon the grace of God all together.

Of course, it is sometimes easier to recognize the failures of the church in a previous century than it is to see such failures in our own time.  We don’t like to look at our own mistakes. But there is no one who is righteous, not even one. All have fallen short, the Apostle Paul tells us today. So no matter how hard we try to perfect our life and to always be right, to always have the right answer, to always do what is right, we will fail. And the church will fail too.

And so today begs the question: in what ways does the Church – whether Lutheran or otherwise – still need reforming, even today? For example, Sunday morning continues to be the most segregated day of the week. What are we going to do about that? What do you think God wants us to do about that? Also, when I go to churches, I almost never see people with mental or physical disabilities. I wonder if God’s church feels like a place that is welcoming to all people. What are we going to do about that? What do you think God wants us to do about that?

“We, as the people of God, lose our way. To say that the church is always being reformed is to say that God is still paying attention and paying the price to redeem our communities from all the ways we sell out to sin, death, and the power of the devil. (And the good news of today, Reformation Day, is that we can trust that even today,) God is still buying us back for something better.”[1] Thanks be to God. Amen.