Sunday, March 29th, 2015 – Palm Sunday Sermon on Mark 11 and Zechariah 9

If I were to begin my sermon this morning by saying, “I have a dream!” Who would you think of? Martin Luther King, Jr. If I put my arms out and said, “I am not a crook.” Who would you think of? Richard Nixon. Or if I came to church this morning wearing a sparkling silver glove on my left hand, who would you think of? Michael Jackson.

When Jesus came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, the people there would’ve known exactly who to think of. The prophet Zechariah from the Old Testament.

Let me read for you a text from Zechariah: Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.

When Jesus comes on the donkey, they would have known what it symbolized.

And Jesus’ timing is significant. For Jesus, it was the beginning of the week of Passover – the most sacred week of the Jewish year. It was a time when Jews traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish people’s liberation from the empire of Egypt. Remember the story of when Moses says to the Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” They would celebrate that story – their freedom from slavery – in Jerusalem that week.

But what we often don’t hear is that during this festival of freedom from slavery, the government would always show up. On one of the side of the city, the governor, Pontius Pilate, would have a process into town. It was the empire’s procession. Alongside Pilate would be soldiers and drums, weapons and armor. This was the Roman military marching into town. Their one goal was to intimidate. They were there to make sure nothing gets out of control, because when a community of people within your empire has a celebration about being freed from an earlier empire, you have to remind the people that you are still the one in charge. It is to make sure there isn’t any trouble.

And now, at the same time, Jesus comes riding into the city on a donkey. And the people alongside Jesus were the peasant class, the poor. Into was a counter procession, an alternate parade. Roman Empire on one side; Jesus on the other.

Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey is political demonstration. Jesus is a protester here. Jesus is a troublemaker, becoming a wrench in the political system of a violent empire. And when Jesus rides in on a donkey, everyone would have known what it symbolized – a king who will bring peace. Jesus has come to bring peace to a world overrun by power and violence.

And we can actually get this from the story simply by listening to what the crowd is saying – “Hosanna! Hosanna!” It is a word that means “save us.” Save us. Suddenly it is a very different parade if you imagine the people on the streets reaching out to Jesus saying “Save us, Lord. Save us.”

Two parades today. Over here it is all about the Empire of Rome. It is all about the power of the Emperor of Rome, Caesar. Do you know what they used to call Caesar? Son of God. Lord and Savior. Which is to say, this is how God wants to save the world, through power, violence, and glory.

But Jesus over here says no. Jesus, the one we call Son of God, says that God will not save the world through violence, but through non-violence. Not through power, but through weakness.

Last week, we spoke about the Lord’s Prayer as how we pledge allegiance. We pledge our allegiance every week to God and God alone. In this march, and throughout Jesus’ life, we get to see where God pledges God’s allegiance. And God’s allegiance is not with the rich and powerful, but God’s allegiance is always with those who are weak and suffering.

This is who God is. This is how God wants to be known. That God stands alongside those who suffer. God suffers as human beings suffer. Which is to say that wherever and whenever you suffer in your life, God will meet you there.

The Roman empire says God will meet you in success and power and victory; Jesus says I will meet you among the poor and the suffering. As preacher David Lose said, “Jesus suffers, that is, so that when we are suffering we know God understands and cares for us. Jesus is utterly alone by the end of the story so that when we feel alone we know God understands and is with us. Jesus cries out in despair so that when we become convinced the whole world has conspired against us and feel ready to give up, we know that God understands and holds onto us. Jesus dies because so that we know God understands death and the fear of death and reminds us that death does not have the last word.”

And now we are invited to watch and see what happens when one stands on the side of the poor and the suffering. In the following readings you will hear Jesus eating at a leper’s house and defending a servant woman. You will hear him break bread with his friends, even though he knows they will betray him. You will hear as he is put on trial and mocked and beaten.

This is God’s story. Which means it is our story. And it is just the beginning. It is just the beginning of God’s reign of peace. It is just the beginning of the reign of God who suffers with us. It is just the beginning. At the suggestion of one of my favorite preachers, William Sloan Coffin, I urge you not to throw away your palm branches, these symbols of peace, once your leave here. Instead, during this Holy Week, put them in a prominent place in your home and spend a few minutes every day looking at your palm branch. Then ask yourself, “ For what kind of a God do I wave this symbol of peace?” Not a God who causes suffering, like the Roman Empire. But a God who enters into suffering, and who bears our suffering. Like Jesus. Amen.

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Wednesday, March 25th, 2015 – Deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen. – Sermon on the Lord’s Prayer

Romans 12:21
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Tonight, we conclude our focus on the Lord’s Prayer. Over these past six weeks, we have walked our way through the petitions of the Lord’s prayer. The first three petitions have to do with God. We pray that God would be like a parent to us and continue to be like a parent. We talked about how we pray that God’s kingdom and God’s will, and no one else’s, would be done and would come to earth. And that God’s will is that love and justice would prevails throughout the world. One way of putting this is that we are called to help bring heaven to earth.

And then the next four petitions have to do with human needs. The need for daily bread – basic necessities of life. We pray for forgiveness – that God will continue to be forgiving with us, so that we can be forgiving toward others. We pray that God would not lead us into temptation or that God would save us from times of trial and difficulty.

And tonight, we pray that God would deliver us from evil. Of course, as we’ve said many times, when we pray this prayer, we pray not only for ourselves, but for all people. Deliver us from evil.

Do you believe in evil? Or maybe I should say, do you believe in the devil? You know, with the horns, and the pitchfork, and the red suit. A sort of evil being that is tempting us and leading us in the wrong direction? For Jesus and his followers, they would have had no trouble believing in the devil and demons.

These days, people have differing opinions on the devil. Some would say they believe in the devil as a being. But other would say they believe in evil as more of a force, or a power in the world. Whatever you believe, I think most of us can agree that there is evil in the world. Things that go against God and that lead us in the wrong direction.

And the question that comes up in me is: so do I have an excuse or not? Is that the devil or evil forces or is it just me? Is it evil outside of me that it is causing me to do this? Or is it the evil within? Sometimes people will say, “That person is just evil.” Recently, Elliot has been getting into Star Wars and whenever he sees Darth Vader, he says, “Darth Vader is a bad man.” Where he learned that, I don’t know. But is that the case? Is Darth Vader a bad man, or is he influenced by evil that is larger and outside of him?

Which is it? I have no clue. I just know that evil is real. The temptation, the draw, to do things that serve myself rather than the needs of others.

In his book, Why Christian, Douglas John Hall writes about a conversation with college student who isn’t Christian but who wants to learn more about it. The two were talking about salvation and being saved. And the college student asked, “Yeah, but what do you need to be saved from?”

After thinking about it, Douglas John Hall said, “Myself. I need to be saved from myself. I need to be saved from my self-conscious pride. I need to be set free from worrying about myself, congratulating myself, examining myself, blaming myself, and so on.” He went on to say, “I really think that ‘salvation’, when it’s for real, must have something to do with freeing us from the burden of self-absorption, freeing us…for love.”

Remember that part of our Lutheran identity is built on the belief we are simultaneously saint and sinner. Simul Justus et peccator. 100% saint. 100% sinner. Which means there is always a struggle within us – doing what’s best for me or what God is calling me to do. And sometimes those are the same. Sometimes God does want you to care for yourself. But often other times, it isn’t what God wants. Save me from the way I put myself before others. Save me from the way I say things that I don’t mean, but because I know it will hurt. Save me from building walls around myself that protect me from being hurt but that also block out the opportunity for love. Save me from thinking and acting as if I am god.

Lord, deliver us from evil. Save us from ourselves. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever.

That closing part isn’t in Jesus’ original prayer. But the church added it over time. It is the way as the church we have claimed this as now our prayer. And as at the beginning of the Lord’s prayer, where we pray for God’s kingdom to come to earth, we are announcing where our allegiance lies – with God. And no one else. Which is kind of a treasonous act. In Jesus’ day, it was to say that we stand with kingdom of God, not the kingdom of Rome. In our day, it is to say we stand with the kingdom of God and not the kingdom of the United States. I have a friend who is a Christian and he does a lot of traveling around the world and giving talks. He’ll introduce himself by saying, “Hi, I’m so-and-so, and I’m from planet earth.” He doesn’t want to identify with any other nation or kingdom than God’s. He doesn’t want to put any borders on where he is from because in God’s kingdom there are no borders. We pledge our allegiance to the kingdom of God.

And what does God’s kingdom and glory and power look like? Well, this is where it gets really wild. It looks like Jesus on the cross. That’s what God’s glory looks like. Suffering and vulnerable love that is willing to die for love.

Some of you may have see the photo, but after 9/11, a photo emerged of a group of dusty firefighters carrying an older man in a chair away from the wreckage. As it turns out, it was the body of the chaplain for the New York Fire Department, Mychal Judge, and he was the first recorded casualty of 9/11. And when you look at that image and you know who it was, there is something profoundly sacred about it. I think it is because there is something of God in that picture. An image of one who was willing to enter a place of great suffering in love and willing to die for it. For you. And for me. That’s the way of God’s kingdom and God’s will and glory. The way of the cross.

Lord, deliver us from evil. Save us from ourselves. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Amen. It’s a Hebrew word that means, “So be it!” or “May it be so.” May it be so, Lord. That you would be our loving parent. That your kingdom and will would come to earth. That all would receive daily bread, and forgiveness, and be protected from temptation and evil. Forever. May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, March 22nd, 2015 – Sermon on John 12:20-33

John 12:20-33
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. 27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say–“Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

Just a couple of verses before our gospel reading, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. And now it is Passover week, a huge festival and celebration for the Jewish community (including Jesus, remember), and Jesus has made his entry into Jerusalem, what we know as Palm Sunday, which is next week.

And the Pharisees, watching Jesus enter into the city and the crowd following him, say to each other, “You see! You can do nothing! Look, the world has gone after him.”

The whole world is starting to follow Jesus. And then immediately after they say that, comes our first verse for today – Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. Meaning non-Jews. Gentiles. The other.

Remember last week, we talked about John 3:16 – for God so loved the world. And now the Pharisees are saying that the whole world is following Jesus. And then in walks a group of non-Jews, Greek gentiles.

It is just perfect story-telling. It would be like if I spoke about how culturally diverse Owatonna is becoming and then in walks a family from Somalia.

It is just perfect timing.

Do you remember learning about foreshadowing? Foreshadowing is a literary device, a way that authors give a hint of what is to come. It would be like if someone was telling the story of the Titanic, and as someone walks on the ship, they say, “I just hope we don’t run into any problems on the trip.” That’s foreshadowing. Hinting at what is going to happen in the story.

The entrance of these Greeks hints at the fact that Jesus’ love is for the entire world. And that the church’s mission will be to include all people and not just some people.

So the Greeks arrive and they tell Philip and Andrew that they want to see Jesus. And then Jesus speaks these two quotable phrases. First, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

It’s perfect timing for this phrase for this season. Because our farmers and gardeners know this is true, right? When you plant you a seed in the ground, you don’t want the seed to remain a seed. But in fact, you want the seed to die. To break open, so as to plant itself and then grow and bear much fruit. Death must happen in order for there to be new life.

Or Jesus puts it another way, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

I think Jesus is saying this for two reason. First, he’s talking about his own death. Jesus could stop everything right now if he wanted to. He could take back all that he said the upset the authorities and return home and protect his own life from being destroyed. But he is unwilling to do that. Because he knows that his life is like the seed of love, that when it is planted in the ground and dies, it produces a harvest of love throughout the world.

But Jesus is also saying this because Philip and Andrew can’t be that happy about the Greeks showing up. I mean, these were the Gentiles. The ones they weren’t supposed to be seen with. The unclean. But in order to God to love the world and welcome all, it would mean that Philip and Andrew, and all of us, will have to let some of our own prejudices die and fall to the ground, so as to produce more room for love of others. This is death and resurrection. It is the way of Jesus. It is the way of discipleship.

Those who love their life. Those who seek to preserve their life will lose it. But those who are willing to give up their life, will find it and keep it.

I think we know this to be true. We just often learn it the hard way. No one really feels good when they spend their whole life focused on themselves. No one really feels good when the only person they look out for is themselves.

I just watched the movie The Wolf of Wall Street. It is a wild movie about Jordan Belfort, who after losing his job as a Wall Street broker, he starts working at brokerage firm selling penny stocks, small shares of public companies. Through this, he makes a small fortune, and starts his own business. He and his friends use a scheme to get rich by scamming other people out of their money. The goal of course was to get rich and live the high life. Well, he does get rich. And he does live the high life. But as the story goes on, you watch as his life slowly crumbles around him. Jordan does anything and everything to preserve his wealth and his lifestyle, even risking both his life and the lives of others.

Those who love their life above all else will lose it, Jesus says. But those who are willing to give up their life. Those who, like a seed, are willing to die, will gain their life and bear fruit.

Sometimes we want to protect our own life. But other times we want to protect others from giving up their life. Most notably between parents and their children. Parents want a successful and happy life for their child. And so parents will often to try prevent children from giving up their life.

There is a story about a well-know preacher, Will Willimon, who received a panicky phone call on Monday morning from a parishioner. The man said that his daughter Anne had just decided to drop out of pharmacy school. She had just come home for the weekend and, in fact, she had been to church just that Sunday. Everyone was shocked by her decision and so they ask the preacher to give her a call and “talk some sense into her.”

So he did. He called up Anne and reminded her about how hard she had worked to get to where she was and that she couldn’t just throw it all away. “What inspired this decision anyways?” he asked. “Well, it was your sermon,” she said.

She talked about how she realized she was only in school to meet her own selfish needs and his sermon on God calling all of us to do something important in this life shook something loose in her. She remembered how much joy she had in teaching migrant workers how to read one summer through a church program. She felt close to God then, and now she is leaving school because she wants to spend her life helping underprivileged children. “Now look, Anne,” the preacher said, “It was just a sermon…”[1]

Sometimes, we want to protect others from giving up their life for the sake of another.

Those who love their life above all else will lose it, Jesus says. But those who are willing to give up their life. Those who, like a seed, are willing to die, will gain their life and bear fruit.

So Jesus is welcoming and loving the whole world, and the way to do this demands letting some things die away, allowing other things to grow. Death and resurrection – it is the way of Jesus and it is the way of discipleship.

Now, I promise that I won’t spend the next 5 weeks talking about myself and me leaving, but in some ways it feels like we are in a death and resurrection time here with the upcoming transitions. And it’s really hard. Outside of our relationships and our mutual love for one another, this change simply causes some upheaval and real uncertainty for some of you. And it means that there is work to be done. And work that has come sooner than some had hoped.

But it isn’t the first time we’ve faced death and resurrection. We have physically lost people we love in our congregation through death. And yet now we’ve seen the youthfulness that young children bring back into the church. It’s death and resurrection.

Here at Trinity, we lost our volunteer organist of 65 years. And we learned to sing on our own. And now we have Debbie. And what life her music has brought back to our worship. It is death and resurrection.

Over the years, we’ve seen long time, significant members leave the church for other churches. And yet we’ve also seen the gifts that new members can bring into a church too.

And you know, even in the past week, I’ve seen little flickers of resurrection begin to sprout, as I hear from members of the mission committee who do not want to stop meeting, but who want to start making plans for the future. As I see councils dreaming up plans for the 50th Anniversary of the Diner and the 140th year for Trinity. It is death and resurrection.

And this just happened this week too, but Kim Wilder, Jace Hendricks, and Payton Terpstra have all been nominated to be voting members for our synod at the ELCA Churchwide assembly in New Orleans in 2016.

There is a future here. God is doing something here. There are already new leaders and new ministries emerging. God will stir up the Holy Spirit and will send a new pastor your way who will walk with you and who will bring you new life in ways maybe you can’t see yet.

Death and resurrection. It’s the way of Jesus. It’s the way of discipleship. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

The Greeks want to see Jesus. We want to see Jesus. But the way of Jesus is one of death and resurrection. Of giving your life away in love. May we all be so courageous and full of hope so as to enter into this way of death and resurrection, trusting that it is the Divine Pattern. It is the heartbeat of our lives, the core of our message, and it is the way to new life. May this be so. Amen.

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015 – Lead us not into temptation – Sermon on the Lord’s Prayer

James 1:13-16
No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved.

For those of you who have been here each week, you may be getting tired of this quick review, but for those of you who haven’t been here each week, we have been walking through the Lord’s Prayer and trying to deepen its meaning for us and for our lives.

We have talked about how God is like a loving parent to us. We talked about how we pray that God’s kingdom and God’s will, and no one else’s, would be done and would come to earth. And what is God’s will? That love and justice for all prevails throughout the world. And that is our work together – bringing about love and justice in our lives and community. One way of putting this is that we are called to help bring heaven to earth.

We pray that everyone would receive daily bread – their basic needs for life. And we pray that God will continue to be forgiving with us, so that we can be forgiving toward others.

And finally, this is a prayer that we pray not only on our behalf, but on the behalf of others. Our Father. Give us our daily bread. Forgive us. And finally, tonight – lead us not into temptation.

Not only do we pray that we are not tempted, but we pray that others are not tempted either. Because if others are tempted to do something against God’s will, that could end up hurting the whole group. And as I say this I realize that maybe there are times when we can be the source of temptation. And so when we pray against temptation, maybe in some ways we are even praying against ourselves – that we wouldn’t do things that tempt others. It makes me think of peer pressure. C’mon, everyone’s doing it.

So, what tempts people? What are the temptations of life? There are the small ones, right? Ice cream. Chocolate.

But what are the big temptations in life? What are the things that really whisper in our ears and lure us to do things we do not want to do?

Money. Power. Fame. I also think we are tempted to do things because we think it means we will finally be loved. Or we will finally belong.

When we pray this petition, we are praying that those things would have no power over us, and no power over anyone, so as to lead us to do things that we will later regret.

But the phrasing is problematic. Lord, lead us not into temptation. And it begs the question, does God lead us into temptation? Is God partially responsible if you give in to temptation? You know, it’s like if a friend is trying to stop drinking, others will often not drink around them because they wouldn’t want to tempt them. But does God lead us into temptation? Is God testing us when we feel tempted?

Good question. Scripture isn’t entirely clear on that. This prayer seems to say so, but the newer translation of this prayer implies otherwise. The newer version says save us from the time of trial. Implying that God is not the one who tempts, but the one who saves. Plus, our Scripture from James said, “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it.”

So Scripture leaves that question open a bit. But whatever it is, we pray that God would protect us from it. And if we trust God to be a loving parent, I would hope that God isn’t the one tempting us, but rather is the one forgiving us when we give in.

Now, I couldn’t help but feel slightly on the spot tonight when I realized that we would be talking about temptation. One of the things many of you have said is congratulations on this promotion. Or it must be a bigger church.

And it raises the question – was I tempted into this new calling? Was I seeking those things we mentioned – more money, power, or fame? Something bigger and better?

You know, I hope not. And I trust that I wasn’t. I trust that it is not a temptation, but that it really is a calling from God. Our former Bishop, Harold Usgaard, said whenever you take a new call, be honest with your people on why you are taking it. So, here is my truth: I don’t view it as a promotion. I’m not getting paid more. I’m not stepping up to a more powerful position in the church.

So why the change then? On the one hand, I think this church has been looking for a long time for a pastor with the gifts that I have to offer. And it also offers me the opportunity to learn some new skills under the leadership of a senior pastor.

On the other hand, I don’t know that I am build for solo ministry. These past almost four years have been such a blessing in my life. As I said in my letter, you have helped me learn what it means to be a pastor. And you have done that with grace and patience and understanding. You have forever changed for the better the way I view and do ministry. I have fallen in love with you. I have fallen in love with the gift that rural churches and a rural community has to offer.

And the past four years have been really hard at times. Not because of you, but because of the nature of solo ministry and working on your own. Some pastors thrive and get energy working on there own, and I am just not certain I am one of them.

And so maybe it is time for my gifts to be put to work in a new setting. And maybe it is time for you to benefit from the gifts of another pastor that I cannot offer you. And maybe it is time that another pastor get to benefit from all of the gifts you have to offer. And whoever that next person is – they are in for a real treat. And I hope you know that.

We will all face temptations in our life that, in both big and little ways, will lead us away from the way of God. May we all be faithful in listening for God’s voice in our life, and praying for protection from those other voices. And when the times comes that we will inevitably fail and give in, may we put our trust in the God who is our father and mother, offering us all grace and forgiveness in return. Amen.

Sunday, March 15th, 2015 – Sermon on John 3:14-21

John 3:14-21
14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

John 3:16. – For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Arguably the most well-known and famous bible verses of all time. People will hang it on the wall, put it on a bumper sticker, and (most famously) hold it up on a big sign at a sporting event.

When you see someone with that sign, how do you experience it? What do you think of that guy holding up the sign? Is it a sign of love and invitation or is it more a sign of judgment? Do you sense that this person is trying to spread God’s love or trying to condemn those who don’t love God?

It would be nice if they had the text written out with part of it underlined, so we could know what their point is. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. Or For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Which always makes me wonder a little bit. What does that guy holding the sign think is going to happen?

If he thinks it is going to change people’s heart, he likely to be disappointed. You see, my sense is that most people experience it as a judgment. Most people hear it as a message of exclusion, rather than inclusion. Who’s in and who’s out. A couple of years ago, Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber asked people on Facebook what John 3:16 makes them think about. What surprised her was how many people have negative experiences with this verse. Here is what some of them said:

John 3:16 is a message of exclusion – as in we are the ones who will be saved – clearly not you, another person said :The way some Christians talk, God has it out for the world, and another: this verse is thrown in people’s face in a violent-feeling manner; as if aggression will get someone to believe, and finally (her) friend Brad just simply said that John 3:16 makes him think of Weirdos and Violence.[1]

What have we done when the most famous bible verse in the world has become one that seems to slam the doors of the church in people’s face instead of opening the doors of the church to welcome them in? In fact, Nadia says that we seem to have changed this verse to say, “Christ came to condemn the world but some of the world might be saved through our belief.”

We’ve done something wrong if this text has become a text of judgment instead of one of love and welcome. You see, as is so often the case, we have taken this scripture out of context. And so many of us know, when our words are taken out of context, the meaning of our words can become distorted. And so let’s put it back into its context and see what we can learn.

When Jesus says these famous words, he is speaking to Nicodemus. Now, Nicodemus is a Pharisee and a leader in the Jewish community. Nicodemus’ form of religion was completely centered on who was in and who was out. Insiders and outsiders. Because of this, Nicodemus and his religious community were both threatened and opposed to Jesus and his followers, because Jesus completely upsets the whole idea of who is in and who is out. In fact, Jesus won’t allow for any insiders and outsiders, but rather Jesus tears down any walls that would divide us. And now in our story, Nicodemus has come to speak to Jesus, and he comes to Jesus at night.

Now, why would you think Nicodemus came to Jesus at night?

Because he didn’t want to be seen. Because he didn’t want anyone to know he was there. You see, Jesus and his disciples, his followers are the outsiders. They are the ones persecuted by the Pharisees. And what Jesus has to say to him, is “Don’t you see, Nicodemus? God loves the world. Not just you and your people. But the entire world.”

In fact, in the very next chapter, Jesus takes the disciples to the world that God loves so much. To Samaria.[2] Which is that other place. The place you weren’t supposed to go. Jews were never supposed to go there because it was where the gentiles were. It was unclean to go there. It would be like Jesus taking Vikings fans to Lambeau field, and saying, See God is here too. And God loves packer fans too. Or God taking liberals across the aisle to conservatives saying, See God is here too.

God so loved the world, Jesus says to Nicodemus. And “the world” maybe the last place and the last person you would think it would be.

Too often we stop at verse 16. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. And most people hear it as exclusive judgment. But how many of us know verse 17? Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Maybe that is a more important message these days. That this is not a condemning statement, but a welcoming statement. A statement that God loves the world. Maybe someone should go to a sporting event with “John 3:17” on a sign. In fact, I’ll put my money where my mouth is. I’ll give $20 bucks to the first person who can send me a picture of them at a sporting event holding up a sign that says, “John 3:17 – God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world.”

Now, if you are paying attention, then you might say, “Oh yeah, pastor, well what about John 3:18.” Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

Jesus says those who don’t believe are already condemn. So it sounds like it does have to do with our belief. That you have to believe in order to have God’s love. Is that what Jesus is saying? No. Jesus isn’t setting up a condition. What Jesus is saying is that yes, God loves the world. But the gospel of God’s unconditional love for you does you no good unless you believe it.

I once knew this person who just could not accept that his family loved him. They would tell him and tell him and tell him, but he just couldn’t believe it. Now, that doesn’t mean the family stopped loving him. It simply means he missed out on a life of knowing he mattered and was loved. The family doesn’t condemn him. But in a way, he condemned himself. So maybe the same is true with God. Maybe God doesn’t condemn us when we don’t accept God’s love. But maybe we simply condemn ourselves. When we cannot see that God’s love is wider than we can imagine and that it even includes us, then we’ve condemn our own life and we miss out on the joy of the freedom of knowing you are loved unconditionally.

Martin Luther says that John 3:16 is the gospel in a nutshell. The gospel, meaning good news. When the gospel in a nutshell no longer sounds like good news to majority of people out there, then it’s not good news. We’ve still got work to do. Because God’s mission is not just to love and save you and I, but rather the entire world. Amen.

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/1059823-sermon-on-john-3-16-weirdos-and-violence

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3550

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015 – Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us – Sermon on the Lord’s Prayer

Matthew 18:21-22

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

We continue with our series on the Lord’s Prayer, and tonight we focus on the human need of forgiveness. Lord, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Now, of course, we are used to saying “trespasses”, which always makes me think of a “no trespassing” sign in people’s yard. I always wonder if people with those in their yard are Christian, and whether they forgive those who do trespass in their yard.

Or sometimes you’ll hear the word debts. All of it is to say forgive us of the ways we have wronged as we forgive others who have wronged us.

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Once again, we have that word “us.” We are just praying that our sins are forgiven, but that the sins of others are forgiven as well. We include our neighbor’s sins in our prayer. And the prayer assumes that we are also striving for forgiveness.

So I’m curious, what does forgiveness mean to you? How would you define forgiveness?

Whatever it is, forgiveness isn’t to justify someone’s actions. It doesn’t deny the fact that their actions hurt you.

As I have been thinking about forgiveness the past couple of days, I’ve come to realize how complicated forgiveness is. And what I’ve learned is that we all need it. And we all struggle to give it to others.

We all need it. Have you ever done something where you were in need of real forgiveness? Not the tiny stuff, like you forgot to do something, or you accidentally stepped on someone’s foot. But the real deep cutting things of life – where you’ve done something or said something that really hurt someone? Have you ever just full on lost it with someone? Where they didn’t deserve what you gave them?

Mary Gordon once wrote an essay on the sin of anger, and how familiar she was with it. “One hot August afternoon, she wrote, she was in the kitchen preparing dinner for ten (people). Although the house was full of people, no one offered to help her chop, stir, or set the table. She was stewing in her own juices, she said, when her seventy-eight-year-old mother and her two small children insisted that she stop what she was doing and take them swimming. They positioned themselves in the car, she said, leaning on the horn and shouting her name out the window so all the neighbors could hear them, loudly reminding her that she had promised to take them to the pond. That, Gordon said, was when she lost it. She flew outside and jumped on the hood of the car. She pounded on the windshield. She told her mother and her children that she was never, ever going to take any of them anywhere and none of them was ever going to have one friend in any house of her until the hour of their death – which, she said, she hoped was soon.” Then the frightening thing happened. “I became a huge bird,” she said. “A carrion crow. My legs became hard stalks, my eyes were sharp and vicious. I developed a murderous beak. Greasy black feathers took the place of arms. I flapped and flapped.”

After someone had to drag her off the hood of the car, it took awhile before she could calm down. And when she did, she was appalled, because she had really frightened her children. Her son said, ”I was scared because I didn’t know who you were.”

“Sin makes the sinner unrecognizable,” Mary Gordon concluded. And the only antidote is forgiveness.[1]

Have you ever felt unrecognizable to yourself, because of something you’ve done? And you know, the one thing you desperately need is forgiveness from those you’ve hurt.

We all need it. But it can also be really hard to forgive people. So why is it so hard to give, when we are the ones who have been hurt?

There are those phrases out there, “I will forgive, but I will never forget.” Which never sounds like forgiveness to me. Or there is, “Don’t get mad, get even.” Right, an eye for an eye. You hurt me, I’m gonna hurt you. And sometimes the way we hurt people back is through not forgiving them. By holding the grudge.

I handed out blank slips of paper. I invite you to write on there the name of someone or some situation that you have been struggling to forgive.

Why is it so hard to forgive that person? Maybe it’s hard to forgive because it is something that keeps happening over and over again. And so, we, like Peter, wonder…how long are we supposed to forgive someone? 7 times? And Jesus says, “No, 70 times 7” – which is to say, an endless number of times. You shouldn’t even be counting the number of times you forgive someone or else it isn’t really forgiveness.

Which is hard, right? Especially if someone keeps hurting you. Which is why I think that whatever forgiveness is, it isn’t tolerating wrong or letting people get away with something.

Someone once said that staying angry with someone is how we protect ourselves from them. The problem with not forgiving is that it can be like a boomerang, where it comes back at us, only hurting us again. Not forgiving someone, holding onto a grudge quickly leads to resentment and bitterness. And resentment and bitterness are like the cholesterol that clog up the arteries of life. If you have ever met someone who is bitter and resentful, it has this way of ruining their whole life.

I’m certain you’ve experienced it where you were mad at someone, but then you took it out on someone else? And so it can be this contagious dis-ease that gets passed from person to the next. And the only anti-dote is forgiveness itself.

Still, what is forgiveness? I’m not entirely sure, but it is what gives us the chance to live free again – free from bitterness and resentment. Both towards ourselves and towards others. It is the way to bring life out of a moment of death.

Recently, Brian Fitch Sr. was convicted for the murder of Mendota Heights police officer Scott Patrick. He is condemned to life in prison without parole. The police officer was shot during a routine traffic stop in West St. Paul last summer. As Fitch was led from the courtroom, he shouted obscenities, blaming others for his sentence. In the midst of his diatribe, Officer Patrick’s widow, Michelle, said “God bless Fitch.” Speaking slowly and between sobs, she continued: “I hope he can come to a realization of what he has done. He has taken so much from us. He didn’t need to. I just want to bless him and hope that he realizes what he has done. Amen to him.”

The truth, I think, is that we are all in debt to one another. We all have done things that have hurt others and so we owe them something. But we all have also been hurt by others, and they are in debt to us. And, here’s the thing, none of us can pay that debt. None of us can fully payback all the wrongs we’ve committed. And no one can fully pay us back for the wrongs committed against us. And so it seems like the only thing we can do is wipe the slate clean and start again.

Which is really hard. And that is why we pray for God’s help. God, you keep on forgiving us and we’ll keep on forgiving others because that’s the only thing that makes sense in a broken world.” In the end, it is God who creates the miracle of forgiveness, whenever it may come. It is God who transforms us and our hearts so that we can live free again.

So, what ever you wrote on that piece of paper, I invite you to put it in your pocket and place it in your car, or on your mirror at home, or in your sock drawer. Whenever you stumble across it, I invite you to pray to God to help you forgive that person. And over time, maybe that is exactly what God will help you to do. To loosen your grip on them so that they and you can once again be free.

Lord, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. May it be so. Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, pg. 12-13.

Sunday, March 8th, 2015 – Sermon on Exodus 20:1-17

Exodus 20:1-17

1 Then God spoke all these words: 2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work–you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. 12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13 You shall not murder. 14 You shall not commit adultery. 15 You shall not steal. 16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

The past couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about God’s covenants with God’s people. Two weeks ago we were reminded of God’s covenant with Noah and all of creation, promising to never again respond to human sin through violence. God hangs up God’s bow.

Last week we were reminded of God’s covenant with Sarah and Abraham, promising that they will have offspring and that their descendants will be as numerous as the stars. And their descendants will be a blessing to the world. This is the vocation, the calling of God’s people – to be a blessing to the world.

Today, we move to God’s covenant with Israel, which comes through the 10 Commandments. Now that God has promised to be our God and we God’s people, now God gives us the gift what it looks like to be God’s people. How shall we live?

Now, what do you think of when you hear the phrase The 10 Commandments? Or when you see an image of Moses carrying down the stone tablets? What comes to mind?

For many of us, I imagine Confirmation comes to mind and needing to memorize them. And I certain you all just loved that. Maybe you think of Charlton Heston in the movie. I don’t know about you, but I hear them as rules. As laws that have to be followed.

In 2001, Roy Moore, a chief justice of the Alabama supreme court, had a 5,280 pound granite rock statue of the 10 Commandments installed in Alabama State Judicial building. Of course, quickly after that, there was a federal lawsuit against Roy and his statue, because it broke the law of separation of church and state. When Roy refused to remove the statue, he was removed from office. And he and his statue of the 10 Commandments went on a nationwide tour.

But the statue was so heavy, that Roy had to drag along a 23-foot crane on a flatbed trailer just to move the statue from place to place.

And this 5,280 pound granite rock statue of the 10 Commandments is a pretty good representation of how I tend to feel about the 10 Commandments.

I don’t really have a happy feeling, when I think about the 10 Commandments. And it isn’t a bad feeling either. But they just seem so heavy. And intimidating. They just sort of feel like God’s rule book. The Law of God – follow it or else!

Which is entirely different from how the Psalm described the law of God. I don’t know if you caught it or not, but Psalm 19 said the law of God is perfect, and it revives the soul. The psalmist even says that the law of God is more desirable than gold, even fine gold. And it is sweeter than honey.

Have you ever felt like the law of God revived your soul? Or that it was more desirable than gold? I haven’t.

So, maybe I need to take another look at the 10 Commandments because maybe I’m missing something.

If we begin at verse 1, notice what it says, “Then God spoke all these words.” It doesn’t say commandments. These are words, statements. They are not threats. And God’s first word is – I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The first word is God reminds the people of their already existing relationship with God. I am your God, God says. And I freed you from slavery.

You see the Israelites lived in slavery in Egypt for over 400 years. They didn’t know what it was like to live as a free people. They didn’t know how to live period. And so God, who freed them, says, “Let me teach you how to live- and it will look nothing like being enslaved in Egypt.”

But before God can teach them, God first reminds them of the relationship.

When I was in high school, my sophomore year was quite difficult. You see, some of my friends decided that they didn’t really want to be friends with me anymore. They stopped calling. They stopped inviting me to things. So, I asked a friend what was going on. Why was this happening?

He said, “Okay, I’ll tell you. But you need to know this first – you and I are okay. We are still friends.” And then he went on to tell me the reasons why some of my friends didn’t want to hang out anymore. And they became like little 10 commandments for me. Thou shalt not ask people what they got on their math test, because it just looks like you are comparing scores. Thou shalt not stick your nose in other people’s business because no one likes that. Those we hard things to hear. And I’m sure they were hard for him to say. But my friend knew that before I could ever hear those guiding words, he first had to assure me of the relationship. You and I are okay. To this day, he is still one of the most important people in my life, because he told me the truth.

Have you ever needed to learn a new way of life? Have you ever needed to change part of your life so that your life might be better? And maybe you had a mentor or someone you looked up to who helped you through that? Their words of guidance, helping you to live differently, don’t sound like rules. They sound like wisdom and gift.

That’s how it is with God and the Israelites. God is teaching them how to live because they do not know how to live. These 10 commandments are God’s guiding wisdom for the people God loves so much. These aren’t just a rulebook handed down from a judge.

That’s the first thing God does before giving the 10 Commandments. God reminds them of the relationship – I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

But that’s not how we typically view the 10 Commandments. We tend to isolate the 10 Commandments, to carve them into stone and plop them down in front of a courthouse like a rulebook. But we forget that the 10 commandments are first and foremost carved into God’s story of undying love for God’s people. And we are called to live into them – why? Because it’s what a free life looks like. And God wants nothing more for God’s people than for them to live in freedom.

Another thing to note is that there is no punishment listed with these commandments. There is no “Do this or else…” So, what are the 10 Commandments then? Well, they aren’t exactly rules, because they don’t list any consequences for not following them. I’ll often refer to them as the 10 suggestions for a good life.

The first three have everything to do with loving God.

  • You shall have no other gods. Do not put trust in anything above God – not money, not power, not fame…those things can’t save you. And in fact when you center your life on those things, it will hurt others around you.
  • You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain – You shall call upon God’s name and use it properly
  • You shall honor the Sabbath and keep it holy – Every seven days, you shall take one day of rest. Why? Because when you were enslaved in Egypt, there were no days of rest, and so every one gets a day off once a week, because God’s grace is not a one-time event. But it continues to happen every week.

The rest of the commandments – the other seven – have everything to do with loving your neighbor. Honor your parents, do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not covet your neighbor’s house or wife or anything that belongs to the neighbor.

What I want you to notice is that they don’t exist for our own good. They don’t exist to shine up Christians for holy living. They exist for healthy living. “They actually prepare us to love others.  They propel us toward other people.  They exist so that others can live freely, not just us.  They exist to protect our neighbor.”[1]

This is what it looks like to love God and love your neighbor. Which was an entirely new way of living. They didn’t learn this way of living in Egypt. To be primarily concerned about what is best for my neighbor. To ask – what will help my neighbor have their best life now? The Christian vocation is to be oriented towards the needs of the neighbor. And while you are looking out for them, you’ll trust that they are looking out for you.

Now, if you want to hear something really wild, listen to this – the 10 Commandments change in the Bible. Today we read them from Exodus 20, but they are also listed in Deuteronomy 5. And when you read the 10 Commandments from Deuteronomy, you’ll notice that one commandment has been promoted. Given higher priority than it has in Exodus 20. In Exodus 20, the wife – the neighbor’s wife – is part of a list of property and is listed after the neighbor’s house. But then in Deuteronomy 5, the wife list above the house and given her own commandment. This might reflect a change in the role of women in that culture.[2] So we learn that the 10 Commandments were never meant to be etched in stone forever, but rather that they made space for adaption and change depending new times and places.

We might ask, what changes might we make to the 10 Commandments in light of today? Maybe there should be a covenant of “You shall not covet your neighbor’s husband.” What commandments might you add?

What’s the point? The point is that the 10 Commandments are to be viewed as a gift given by God out of love for God’s people. God has set the people free and God wants them to remain free, so God says, “Here – this is what a free life looks like. Live this way.” The 10 Commandments are not meant to be a heavy, burdensome threat that hangs over our heads, like a 5,000 pound stone – Obey me or else. But rather they are given to bring life and health to the community – which you have a very important role in. There are to give us purpose. This is what it looks like to live as God’s people. Remember our calling as God’s people – our purpose – is to be a blessing to the world. God’s says this is how you will be a blessing to the world – when you commit to one partner and don’t commit adultery, when you do not use our words to hurt others.

They are more about God’s relationship with God’s people and God’s hope for their life rather than God’s requirements for God’s people. If we experience them as confining or limiting or restricting, then we have forgotten that they are the gift from God who has already freed us, and they are what a free life looks like.

God gives you these commandments out of God’s great love for you. And out of God’s great trust in you to go and care for your neighbor, God’s people, with the kind of love that has been given to you. It’s how you be the blessing to the world that God calls you to be.

And that’s incredible news. In fact, that kind of news is more valuable than gold. And it can revive your soul. May it be so. Amen.

[1] Laura Aase Sermon on the 10 Commandments, http://riverofhopehutchinson.org/god-said/#more-1570

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2368