Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Life and Freedom

So what are we going to say? Should we continue sinning so grace will multiply? Absolutely not! All of us died to sin. How can we still live in it? Or don’t you know that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life. If we were united together in a death like his, we will also be united together in a resurrection like his. This is what we know: the person that we used to be was crucified with him in order to get rid of the corpse that had been controlled by sin. That way we wouldn’t be slaves to sin anymore, because a person who has died has been freed from sin’s power. But if we died with Christ, we have faith that we will also live with him. We know that Christ has been raised from the dead and he will never die again. Death no longer has power over him. He died to sin once and for all with his death, but he lives for God with his life. In the same way, you also should consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus.

So then, don’t let sin rule your body, so that you do what it wants. Don’t offer parts of your body to sin, to be used as weapons to do wrong. Instead, present yourselves to God as people who have been brought back to life from the dead, and offer all the parts of your body to God to be used as weapons to do right. Sin will have no power over you, because you aren’t under Law but under grace. (Romans 6:1-14, CEB)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

The movie, “There Will Be Blood,” begins in the New Mexico wilderness in 1898. It is the story of silver miner and eventual oil tycoon Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, who gets his lucky strike when oil is discovered near Los Angeles. Plainview becomes a self-made tycoon, but, as his fortune grows, he falls further and further into alcoholism and moral bankruptcy.

In this scene, Plainview goes forward in an altar call in a local church. While it appears he is confessing, those in the congregation are unaware that he is, in fact, manipulating them to gain the trust of one of their members to complete a land purchase. Let’s watch.

Tonight, we’re talking about baptism. I chose this clip in part because it seemed so shocking to me in two ways. First, it seems shocking to me that Plainview would go to such lengths simply to build his empire. Second, and perhaps even more shocking to me, is the level of humiliation and shaming that happens in order to gain Plainview’s confession before his baptism.

Tonight we are talking about baptism. This clip raises many questions for me about what baptism is. I’m wondering if it raises any of the same challenges for you, as well.

In particular, if we watch the journey of this man to baptism, the public shame, the public humiliation, I have to wonder if this is truly what God intends. Irrespective of Plainview’s motivations, I have to ask the question if this is what God wants for us in baptism? 

Over these past weeks, we’ve been working our way through the elements of Luther’s Small Catechism. If you recall our first week, I mentioned that Luther re-ordered the elements of the catechism from the way they had been traditionally ordered. In 1522, in his preface to the Personal Prayer Book, which was a forerunner of the Small Catechism, Luther wrote about this change in order, comparing it to one’s recovery from illness. 

First, according to Luther, you receive the diagnosis (in the Ten Commandments), then you are told the source for healing (God’s grace as revealed in the Creed). You call the pharmacist to fill the prescription (the Lord’s Prayer). Finally, you take the prescription and begin the healing process (the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion).

In the Large Catechism, Luther reminded the reader of the same basic movement in the life of a Christian: our inability to fulfill the Ten Commandments, God’s mercy revealed in the creed, our cry for that very mercy in the Lord’s Prayer. And, then, receiving that mercy in the sacraments of baptism and communion. From law to gospel.

This basic principle of interpretation--moving from law to gospel--opens up Scripture for us. The distinction between the two was not intended to divide the Old and New Testaments. Instead, the distinction between law and gospel arises from a belief that God’s Word does something to us. Yes, the law provides order in our world and a guide to how to treat each other. But, more importantly, the law breaks down, strips bare, destroys, terrifies and puts to death by uncovering our desire to control God and our own salvation. By contrast, the gospel, which is God’s answer to our human predicament, builds up, clothes in righteousness, creates, comforts and brings new life by announcing God’s unconditional promise. 

In addition to the movement between law and gospel, the Small Catechism also helps us read the Bible in a third way. Early in his career, Luther developed what he called the “theology of the cross.” This term isn’t at all related to why Christ died on the cross. Instead, it reveals a God to us who shows up in the very last place we would think to look. And, even further, it reveals the true nature of God, a God revealed in Jesus Christ. A God who did not come in power, but in the least of places we could imagine.  In a manger. And on a cross. This is why the gospel is so very radical. 

So what does all of this have to do with baptism anyway? This conversation around the law and the gospel, around the theology of the cross.

Well, baptism is one place where we get a glimpse of this foolish, weak God of ours. It is in the Small Catechism where Luther asks the question, “How can water do such great things?” The answer? It is not the water, but the Word that is connected to the water. It is here in baptism, through the power of God’s Word, the power of Scripture, connected with the earthly element of water that God puts to death this old creature. This creature that is wracked by guilt and shame. And, it is in baptism, that God brings a new creature out of this water. A new creature freed from the guilt and shame of sin. 

As Paul writes in our text today, “we were buried together with Christ Jesus through baptism into his death.” And, if this is so, if our old selves are put to death through the power of God’s Word with the water, then we are also united together with Christ through the power of God’s Word with the water. This is baptism. It is where we are joined with Christ, both in his death and in his resurrection. It is where we shed this garment of sin and guilt and shame and where we are freed to live life fully. To live into the whole person God created each of us to be. 

And that’s where this portrayal of baptism in this movie clip is just wrong. It is just wrong.
The truth about the human condition is not that we need to be made to feel guilty, but that we already are guilty. We already are ashamed. More guilt and shame is not what God desires for us. 

What God desires for us is life. Life and freedom. And relationship. That we might be freed from the guilt and shame. That we might live into our relationship with God and with the community into which we are baptized. And that, together, we might share this life and freedom with the whole world.

This is what baptism is. It is where we are reborn as people of God. Alive. Free. Together.

May God bless us through our baptisms. Amen.

Sunday, March 26, 2017


Over these past few weeks of Lent, almost all of our Gospels lessons have come from the Gospel of John. John is one of four gospels in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and, of course, John. We call Matthew, Mark and Luke the synoptic gospels. Mark was the first of the synoptic gospels, written around the year 70. Then, followed Matthew and then Luke. Most scholars believe the last of the synoptics, Luke, was written around 85 CE. These three, the synoptic gospels, are narratives. They tell stories from a first person viewpoint. Stories about the life of Jesus and his ministry on earth from those who were there. 

The Gospel of John was written much later, around the turn of the first century or even into the second. By this time, all of the apostles have died martyr’s deaths. John is the only one still alive. The early church had begun to lose hope, believing that Jesus would come again within their lifetimes. Many, in addition to the apostles, had been martyred. Others were nearing old age. Yet, no Jesus. Despair grows. And many begin to question who Jesus was. To ask whether Jesus really was God. 

It is in this context that John writes his Gospel. He writes it to offer hope to the church. To reassure them that Jesus is God. To point them to the divinity of Christ. To do this, he writes of seven miracles performed by Jesus. 

Now, in theory, there is nothing really earth-shattering about this. After all, we can find miracles in the other three gospels. 

Yet, there are two interesting things about John’s account. First, none of these seven miracles are found in the other gospels. None of them.

The second is that John never uses the Greek world for miracle when he writes about them. This is also different from the other three gospels. Instead, John uses the Greek word schmeia, which means signs. These seven signs are not simply something miraculous. Instead, they reveal the divine nature of Jesus and the divine nature of his mission. The signs point to Jesus’ identity. They point to Jesus’ mission. They point us to the presence of God in Jesus. To those who are open to seeing it.
So, why does this matter? Why is this important? Well, our lesson today--the story of the healing of the man blind from birth--is one of John’s seven signs. 

Our Holy Gospel today is according to John, the tenth chapter.
Glory to you, O Lord.

The Gospel of our Lord.
Praise to you, O Christ.

I guess if I were to make one point about this text, about this sign, this schmeia, it is all about the seeing, isn’t it? We have a man, who can’t see from birth. Who, eventually, is given his sight, his ability to see. 
The perfect interpretation of this text, it would seem, would be about the importance of seeing, or about having “spiritual sight” in order to recognize Jesus.

But, there’s something more than that here. Do you notice that the first thing that the blind man does is to listen. To hear Jesus’ voice. To hear Jesus’ command to go and wash the mud out of his eyes and then to respond.

The man hears Jesus before he sees Jesus. And, even though he immediately has sight of Jesus, it is a much more gradual process that he truly sees Jesus. Notice how he moves from seeing Jesus as “the man called Jesus” in verse 11, to addressing him as “Lord” and worshiping him in verse 38. In fact, in verse 37, Jesus himself refers to the importance of both sight and hearing when it comes to faith. “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is that one.”

Hearing and seeing. This dual aspect of faith is even further illustrated for us in the next chapter of John. John 10:1-21.

You see, Jesus doesn’t stop talking with the last verse of our today’s text today. Instead, he keeps speaking in the next chapter. It is here, in Jesus’ discourse, that Jesus interprets the meaning of the sign. This is a common pattern in John. Jesus performs a sign, a schmeia, which is followed by a dialogue and, then, a commentary from Jesus that gives us a framework through which to interpret the meaning of the sign.

If we stop with the last verse of our reading today, the last verse of chapter 10, we miss the explanation in the first 21 verses of chapter 10.  If we stop with only chapter 10, we miss the full impact of Jesus’ sign, of Jesus’ healing the man born blind.

It is in chapter 10, in Jesus’ discourse that he interprets the meaning of seeing and hearing and believing. That Jesus finds this man. At the beginning of the story in his blindness and, a second time, at the end, when he has been cast out of his community. That Jesus finds him and calls him. That the man first hears him. And, then, showered with grace, sees him. 

But, Jesus doesn’t just find him and call him and heal him. Jesus gives him a new identity as a disciple. Jesus calls him. This story about the blind man isn’t a healing story. It’s a call story. That the interpretation in chapter 10--those who know Jesus--his sheep--hear him and follow him. In John, knowing Jesus means having relationship with Jesus. It’s the same thing we’ve been talking about all through Lent. About being in relationship with God. About being in relationship with each other. About being in these relationships that begins with our baptisms.

Just as the blind man is called, so, too, in our baptisms, we are called. As Jesus calls the blind man, who hears and then sees, so, to, Jesus calls us so that we, too, hear and are given sight. But, this sight isn’t simply for our benefit. the blind man is called, hears and is given sight, so, too, we are called, hear, and are given sight. Grace upon grace upon grace. New identities. Called into discipleship with Jesus.

But, discipleship doesn’t stop here. It doesn’t mean that we are found and that’s the end of the story. No. We are to go out and, just as Jesus found us, we are to find others. To go into the world and invite the world to come and see. To find and invite especially those who have been forgotten and forsaken like the blind man, cast of our their communities, overlooked and abandoned, those who have been left to fend for themselves. 

To share grace. Grace upon grace upon grace. The same grace that we have received. With others.

That’s what is meant in our baptisms we are given a lighted candle and sent with these words, “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

So, this is for you today. A candle. To remind you of your baptism. But, mostly, to remind you of the light you are. The light you have been called to be. The light of Christ. Shining in the world. 

Heard, seen, and called. Called into the presence of Christ. Called to bring that presence of Christ to others, by also hearing and seeing. And by witnessing to the grace upon grace upon grace that is our promise in Christ’s resurrection. A promise that we get to live out here and now. Together.


Preached March 26, 2017, at Grace and Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Readings: 1 Samual 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Praying From the Heart

Prayer. That’s what we’re talking about tonight. Prayer.

How’s your prayer life?

For a very long time, I thought I was a pretty bad pray-er. In the mornings, when I usually read my Bible or a devotion of some kind, I’ve always tried to come up with my own prayer to close. You know the kind. The ones that sound so grand and glorious, that have a lot of pretty language, that follow the ACTS pattern. Have you ever heard of it--the ACTS pattern? It’s a prayer pattern that starts with A (for adoration), continues with C (for confession) and with T (for thanksgiving) and finishing with S (for supplication). That was one pattern I learned and would try to follow, along with a few other prayer patterns.

But the problem I had was that nearly every time I tried to come up with such a pretty-sounding prayer, a prayer with a nice pattern, a prayer that sounded like someone with many years of ministry might pray, well, they always sounded a little stupid. They sounded a little like the one prayed by Ben Stiller who plays Greg in “Meet the Parents.

Yes, I was a lot like Greg was. I was a pretty bad pray-er.

Then, I took a class on Luther. Specifically, on Luther as a Pastor. This isn’t a role that we often hear very much about for Luther. We think of him much more as a theologian. But, when you read some of his writings, especially those directed to friends and other acquaintances, you really begin to see a pastoral side to him. You see how much of a pastor, a shepherd, he really was for his parishioners.

One of his writings was directed to a friend who was nearing death. In it, Luther shared some of his thoughts on prayer, including one that especially stuck with me. One way to think about prayer that I’d never really thought of before. Luther talked about prayer as communication. 

He wrote that one should consider what it is like to be in a relationship with another person. That our relationship with God is no different. He suggests that, just as a relationship with a spouse or significant other, or with a child or a parent requires constant communication, our relationship with God is no different. Yes, God commands us to pray. But, God deeply desires us to pray. Because God deeply desires to be in full relationship with us. 

A full, a good relationship, requires communication. Even when we don’t want to. Even when we’re angry at another person. Or even when we’re angry with God. As Luther writes in his preface to the Lord’s Prayer, “[God] wishes rather to draw us to himself so that we may humble ourselves before him, lament our misery and plight, and pray for grace and help.” 

This is the rich relationship God desires with us. It is a relationship where we might pour out everything that is on our hearts. It is a relationship where some of the things we say to God might not be pretty. They might not be nice. They might not be “Christian.”

God wants to know us in the deepest part of our hearts. God wants us to know God in the deepest part of God’s heart. It is okay to cry out to God in pain or grief. It is okay to cry out to God in anger or when you feel life has just been so crummy or unfair. It is okay to even express hatred to God--the hatred we might feel for another. God simply wants realness and honesty in our prayer. Realness and honesty in our heart. Realness and honesty in our relationship. However good or bad that realness and honesty may seem to us, God wants it in our prayer.

The movie, “Bruce Almighty,” is about Bruce Nolan, a television field reporter in Buffalo, NY, who is discontented with almost everything in his life despite his popularity and the love of his girlfriend, Grace. At the end of the worst day of his life--a day when he gets passed over for a promotion to the news anchor spot and also loses his job--Bruce angrily ridicules and rages against God. And God responds. God appears in human form and, giving Bruce divine powers, challenges Bruce to take on the big job to see if he can do it any better. 

In this scene, which is a monumental moment in the film, Bruce decides to finally surrender to God. The problem is that he performs this action in the middle of an interstate highway with a 40 foot truck bearing down on him. When Bruce opens his eyes, he’s in heaven face to face with the One to whom he has just sworn to trust with his life and his future.

Let’s watch.

God doesn’t want our flowery language. God doesn’t want us to pray in a specific pattern. God just wants us to talk deeply from our hearts. To share how we are feeling. To express our deepest desires. To do this with words or even, as Paul writes in Romans, with “sighs too deep for words.” 

God promises to answer our prayers. As Luther wrote, we have a “God who is able to give more than we understand or ask for. Even though we do not know what we should ask for and how, nevertheless the Spirit of God, who dwells in the hearts of the godly, sighs and groans for us within us with inexpressible groanings and also procures inexpressible and incomprehensible things.”

All through prayer. 

Thanks be to God!


Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Drink of Water

Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was making more disciples and baptizing more than John (although Jesus’ disciples were baptizing, not Jesus himself). Therefore, he left Judea and went back to Galilee.

Jesus had to go through Samaria. He came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, which was near the land Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there. Jesus was tired from his journey, so he sat down at the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” His disciples had gone into the city to buy him some food.

The Samaritan woman asked, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.)

Jesus responded, “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, you don’t have a bucket and the well is deep. Where would you get this living water? You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave this well to us, and he drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty and will never need to come here to draw water!”

Jesus said to her, “Go, get your husband, and come back here.”

The woman replied, “I don’t have a husband.”

“You are right to say, ‘I don’t have a husband,’” Jesus answered. “You’ve had five husbands, and the man you are with now isn’t your husband. You’ve spoken the truth.”

The woman said, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you and your people say that it is necessary to worship in Jerusalem.”

Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you and your people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You and your people worship what you don’t know; we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews. But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.”

The woman said, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one who is called the Christ. When he comes, he will teach everything to us.”

Jesus said to her, “I Am—the one who speaks with you.”

Just then, Jesus’ disciples arrived and were shocked that he was talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” The woman put down her water jar and went into the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done! Could this man be the Christ?” They left the city and were on their way to see Jesus.

In the meantime the disciples spoke to Jesus, saying, “Rabbi, eat.”

Jesus said to them, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.”

The disciples asked each other, “Has someone brought him food?”

Jesus said to them, “I am fed by doing the will of the one who sent me and by completing his work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘Four more months and then it’s time for harvest’? Look, I tell you: open your eyes and notice that the fields are already ripe for the harvest. Those who harvest are receiving their pay and gathering fruit for eternal life so that those who sow and those who harvest can celebrate together. This is a true saying, that one sows and another harvests. I have sent you to harvest what you didn’t work hard for; others worked hard, and you will share in their hard work.”

Many Samaritans in that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s word when she testified, “He told me everything I’ve ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. Many more believed because of his word, and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this one is truly the savior of the world.” (John 4:1-42, CEB)

Water. A drink of water. That’s how it all started. A drink of water. That’s it. One simple request for a drink of water. That’s how my life changed in a moment.

Has that ever happened to you? One day, as you’re going along and everything, finally, seems like it’s going well. And, then, something happens to change your life. Dramatically.

In the past, this has usually happened when my husband has announced that he’s divorcing me. This has happened to me five times. My existence as a woman in my world is precarious. My entire worth is wrapped around whether or not I can bear children. I’m unable to have children. Or, I’m barren, as they like to say. (I hate that word because it makes it sound as though I’m completely empty inside--like I am nothing because I can’t have a child.)  Five times my husbands have divorced me. Five times. 

As a single woman in my world, I am nothing. Even if I’d been widowed, I’d at least have some place in our society, some status. But, the fact that I’m female, divorced, and have no children, well that puts me at the bottom of our world. Abandoned property. Nothing. 

That day, the day my life changed, I had gone to the well to get water. I was there later than usual. I’d been busy doing things in my household. So, it was near midday and very hot when I finally got to the well, to Jacob’s Well. 

You remember that well, don’t you? It was the well where Jacob met Rachel. There’s a significance to this well and to all wells in my culture. It has traditionally been where we’ve been courted. A place where, especially as young girls collecting water, we’ve been able to meet men, potential suitors, future husbands. I’d met some of my husbands at a well.

That day, as I was preparing to draw water, a man came up to me at Jacob’s Well. By this time of day, most men would be working in the fields or tending animals. So, I didn’t expect to see any man there. And I certainly didn’t expect any man to speak to me, much less a Jew.

In my world this was not proper. A woman didn’t speak to a strange man. And a Samaritan woman, like I was, certainly never spoke to a Jewish man or the other way around. You see there was a long history between our people--the Israelites and the Samaritans. Even though we were both descended from Joseph, the Jews considered us half-breeds, below them. 

We had other differences, too. Perhaps, the biggest one was where to worship. The Jews insisted the only holy place to worship Yahweh was the temple in Jerusalem. We believed it was Mount Gerizim, the place where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac. 

So, when this man, this Jew, asked me, a Samaritan woman for a drink of water at the well, I was stunned. I probably should have gathered my bucket and run away. Instead, I spoke to him. I even surprised myself that I spoke to him. I asked him how he, a Jewish man, could ask me, a Samaritan woman, for something to drink. 

What he said back confused me. Living water? He said that if I recognized who was asking for water to drink that I would be asking for water. For living water. I was so confused. I asked him what he meant.

Then, he said something that was almost silly. He said that anyone who would drink the water from this well--from Jacob’s well--would be thirsty again. But that, if one would drink the water he gave--that living water--they would never thirst again. How ridiculous that was! To think that one would never again be thirsty. So, it was with some sarcasm that I said to him, “Give me some of that water. I never want to be thirsty again.”

He responded, telling me to go get my husband. I said I didn’t have one. I didn’t. I was not married to the man I was living with because we were unable to be married. Then, this man, this Jew, told me my own history--the history of my five husbands. And of my current situation. He knew who I was. And, then, I knew who he was.

He was a prophet. He had to be a prophet to know those things about me. So, then, I asked him a question about worship. About whether we, Samaritans, were right about where to worship. Or whether the Jews were right.

And, then, he told me about a future time. A time when we would not worship Yahweh on a mountain or in Jerusalem. But in spirit. In our hearts. In truth. That this time was coming near.

I thought he was talking about the promised Messiah. The one to come. The Christ. So, I said that to him--that when he, the Christ, comes, he will teach us everything. Everything we need to know.

Then, this man, this Jewish man, said, “I am.” 

I am. Do you remember those words? You know the Hebrew scriptures, don’t you? I am. Those were the words Yahweh said to Moses, when Moses asked who Yahweh was. I am.

“Could it be?” I thought. “Could it be that this man, this Jewish man, this prophet--could he be the Messiah? The Christ? Could it be?”

It was then that several men joined us. I know now they were his followers. I knew they were shocked that he was speaking to me. It was obvious on their faces. So, I put down my jar and I went back to my village. I thought that was the best thing to do. Besides, I wanted to tell others about this man I had met at the well, at our watering place. I wanted to tell them to come and see. That this man had told me everything that had happened in my life. That they needed to come and see--to see if this was the Christ, the promised One.

Many returned with me to the well. He and his followers were still there. So, we asked him to stay with us. To come with us back to our village. To tell us more. They did. They stayed with us two days.

And in that two days, we began to understand and to believe that this man was the Messiah. That he had come. To save us. To save all of us. The whole world.

A drink of water. That’s how it started. A drink of living water. From that moment on, I was no longer on the outside of society. None of us were. That’s what happens when we receive the living water that Christ gives us. 

You have that living water here. In your baptism. With the water and with God’s Word, you are no longer on the outside, no longer alone. You are welcomed into relationship. Into relationship with God. Into relationship with each other. Into relationship with all believers so that you might invite all others into relationship. All those who, like I was, were on that edge of the world, on the margin of society. All those who are different from us, those with whom we disagree, those whom we hate, those who we think are less than we are. All others.

God--Yahweh--welcomes all of us into relationship. Here. Through this living water of baptism.

So, drink. Drink. Drink of this living water. Be filled. May your thirst be quenched forever. May your life be changed as mine was changed. Amen.

Preached March 19, 2017 at Grace and Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Third Sunday in Lent.
Readings: Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:1-42.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

All About the Story

I invite you tonight to open a Bible and turn with me to the book of Hebrews in the New Testament. We’ll be reading parts of chapter 11. 

This part of the letter to the Hebrews is what we often call the “roll call of saints.” I’ll begin with the first verse.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.” (Heb. 11:1-2). 

The chapter then continues with a list of the saints from our faith tradition, a tradition that comes out of the Hebrew tradition. As one reads through these verses, we’re reminded over and over God guided God’s people and how God’s people, through faith, acted even when the forces against them seemed enormous or there were no assurances that the path they chose in faith would have a good outcome. Noah. Abraham. Isaac. Sarah. On and on the list goes. Until we get to verse 13.

“All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” (Heb. 11:13-16)

And, concluding with verses 39 and 40. “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.” (Heb. 11:39-40)

Here ends our reading.

Grace and peace to you from God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Tonight, I opened our worship by saying we would be looking at the Creed. As you’ll recall, during these Wednesdays in Lent, we are looking at the parts of the Small Catechism, this small book that Luther wrote to help parents teach their children in their homes about their faith.

So, you might be wondering, or not, about why I chose this particular chapter in Hebrews for our text tonight. 

Well, I chose it because it’s all about story. This chapter is a story of the early ancestors of our faith. Those people--those unexpectedly imperfect people--in whom God chose to work and to attempt to form God’s own people. This chapter is the story of God’s people. Even more, it is the story--the historical story--of the faith of God’s people. Trusting God. Failing God. And God rescuing them. This is the story of God and of God’s faithfulness. 

It’s all about story. 

We live today in what is called a post-modern world. It’s a world of deconstructionism. There is a general contempt for any systems that seem to claim any form of absolute knowledge or truth. One simple way to illustrate this is to think about your television choices. Do you remember when there were only 1 or 2 channel choices? Not all of you may remember this, but I certainly do. Our news, the way in which we interpreted things that were happening in our world were funneled through the mouthpieces of these couple of television networks. Think, now, about the vast array of choices. No longer is truth expressed in 1 or 2 TV channels. But truth is expressed in hundreds, even perhaps thousands, of channels today. 

One of the things that often happens in a world like this is that there is attempt to deconstruct history. To go back and to look at history through different lenses. Say, perhaps, to look at history through the eyes of women. Or the eyes of people of color. Or the eyes of those who are gay. While this is incredibly important for us--to get a much broader and deeper view of history--it can also be very unsettling. Because it can often seem to us as though there is no truth that comes out of history. That truth depends on where you stand in history and your perspective on history. What often happens, then, is the loss of the grand story, the big picture. The loss of that broad narrative that connects us with the past and prepares us for the future.

On these Wednesday of Lent, we’ve been working our way through Luther’s Small Catechism. Last Wednesday, for example, we looked at the Ten Commandments. Tonight, we are looking at the Apostles’ Creed. One small piece of trivia that I have found incredibly important for my understanding of the catechism is that Luther ordered the catechism in a very specific way. Keep in mind that all of his learning came out of the Catholic church, which used a catechism very similar to that which Luther developed. The difference between Luther’s catechism and that of the Catholic church was the order of the elements.

In the Catholic church, the Creed and the sacraments come first, before the ten commandments. In Luther’s Small Catechism, he began with the Ten Commandments, followed by the Creed.

Why did he do this? Well, Luther wanted to tell a story. And, so, by ordering the parts of the catechism in a certain way, Luther was telling a certain story.

Last week, we looked at one way in which the Ten Commandments can be used. As a guide for us. A guide for daily living into our relationship with God and with each other. This way of looking at the Ten Commandments is what we call the third use. There are two other uses, a first and a second. It is primarily the second use of the Ten Commandments that led Luther to place them first in the Small Catechism. He wanted to tell a story.

That story begins with us. Why? Well, it’s because we like to be central in our own stories. It’s our nature. When something happens to us, we share it. We’re usually central in the stories we tell. So, Luther, began with us. He placed the Ten Commandments first in the story to show us who we are. To show us our brokenness. How we don’t place God first in our lives. And how we fail in our relationships with others.

Now, Luther could have stopped there. He could have left us there in despair. Hopeless. With no way in which for us to save ourselves. But, he didn’t. His placement of the Apostles Creed next was completely intentional in telling the story.

By putting the Creed after the Ten Commandments, after we have been shown the totality of our failure, Luther then tells of the in-breaking of God into our world in the Apostles Creed. In this Creed, we hear of God’s story.

If you’re like me at all, we often miss this point. We recite the Creed every Sunday. It becomes rote. We often don’t pay attention to the story it tells us. But, it does tell us a story. It tells us the story of God from the beginning--the one who creates the world and humankind and who is still creating every day. For us. And for all people. It tells the story of God in Jesus. A God who loved us so much that when we, once again, as usual, failed to live up to the promises, sent his Son, this God-man, to earth. To carry all of our sin and brokenness on his shoulders on the cross. And to restore us forever back into full relationship with God. And, it tells the story of God in the Holy Spirit. That person of the Godhead that has more feminine attributes. Nurturer. Comforter. The Holy Spirit, the Advocate. The person of God sent after Christ to be present in our world. Here. Now. And to work in our world, to form the church, so that the church might continue the work the Christ started--the work of building God’s kingdom. 

This is the story of the Creed. This is the story of God. This is also the story of the church. Of us.

Spotlight is a recent movie that is the true story of how writers from the Boston Globe uncovered the massive child molestation scandal and cover-up within a local Catholic diocese, a story that shook (and continues to shake) the Catholic church and the whole church. It is also the story of how the scandal shook the faith of these writers. Faith in God. Faith in the church. Let’s watch.

We are part of God’s story. This is my final and most important point. We are part of God’s story. The story is God’s. We simply play a part in this story. We often forget that. We often forget that this story is not about us, but it is about God. When we do, it is then that sin and darkness and chaos enter in. 

When that happens, then, once again, God breaks in--into the church and into our lives. Restoring joy out of sorrow. Wholeness out of brokenness. Order out of chaos. And life out of death. This is the promise of the Creed. It is this promise into which we are baptized and in which we believe and trust.  

May God grant you the same faith of our ancestors in that promise. Amen.

Preached at Grace and Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY on March 15, 2017.
Midweek Lenten Service - Week 2
Reading: Hebrews 11:1-2, 13-16, 39-40.

Sunday, March 12, 2017


There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”

Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”

Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”

“Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.  -John 3:1-17 (CEB)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

I love ritual. That sounds pretty boring, doesn’t it? But, I admit it. I love ritual. I’m a creature of habit.  Whether it’s my morning ritual that begins each day, hopefully, with a cup of coffee, or whether it’s our weekly pattern of worship, our ritual, that follows the order of the mass that comes down to us from the early church--whatever the ritual, I love it.

So, it’s probably no wonder that, in seminary, my favorite courses were those about the rituals of the church, especially those of the early church. For me, studying them has helped me better understand many of the rituals that we follow today--nearly all of which came out of the early church. Studying them also gives me a deeper understanding of Scripture and the beliefs of the early church, beliefs that arose out of the Hebrew scriptures and those, written by the apostles, that we call the New Testament.  

Last week, we began over these 40 days of Lent to take a look at our our ritual of baptism. We began to look at it, thinking that, if we better understand the promises made in this ritual, we might better become the baptismal people we profess to be. That we might better become the story we tell. 

We began last week with the three renunciations. Those three questions asked of every baptismal candidate--questions that we still ask today. Do you renounce the devil? Do you renounce the ways of the world? Do you renounce the ways of sin?

In the early church, before these three renunciations, the candidates would have been stripped of all clothing. Stripped of their jewelry. Stripped away of anything that might suggest their former life. They would then be led naked, down into the water. Into a river or a moving stream. It was here, waste-deep in water, that they would be turned to face west. West. The place of the setting sun. Of the beginning of darkness. Of night. Or, symbolically, the place of unbelief.

Facing west, they would speak the three renunciations, declaring their intent to renounce all those things that separate us from God. Then, the priest would blow three times into each candidate’s nostrils. This blowing or breath was a ritual intended to signify the coming of the Spirit. The in-breathing of the Holy Spirit. The entry of the breath of God. 

Next, although there are some variations in the early rituals, the candidates would then be anointed on the forehead and the chest with oil--an “Oil of Catechumens.” This anointing symbolized the need of each person for the help and strength of God to sever the bondage of the past and to overcome the opposition of the devil and the powers of darkness so that they might profess their faith, come to baptism, and be claimed as a child of God. 

Once this anointing with oil was concluded, the candidates were, once again, asked three questions. These questions, though, were unlike the previous renunciations. This time, the questions were about beliefs. They are the same questions we ask today.

“Do you believe in God the Father?”
“Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?”
“Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?”

Do you believe? 

Believing. That’s the point of our Gospel text today. The reason Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. In the dark. In unbelief. Seeking to believe.

Oh, perhaps, Nicodemus was on his way to believing. After all, he and the others had witnessed the signs--the miracles--Jesus did. And, they had decided that no one could do this things unless they were of God.

But seeing the signs is not enough. The kingdom of God can’t be seen with physical eyes. Rather it is a reality that can only be perceived through the eyes of the Spirit, after a person has been born “anew” or “from above.” The kingdom of God can only be seen by those who have experienced a spiritual rebirth. Who have been “born again.”

Now, being “born again” is not a re-commitment. It isn’t a decision we make once we’re past the age of consent. 

To be “born again” or to be “born from above” is a spiritual rebirth that is worked in us by God through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a spiritual rebirth into the family of God, where, just like a child, we recognize that our entire existence depends upon God. That we are fully dependent upon and trust in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. For everything we need. 

To be “born again” is to recognize that there is nothing we do to receive this new birth--that it is a call from God through the Holy Spirit to enter into full relationship with God. To come into the full presence of God and to find wholeness and new life.

To be “born again” is to know that God’s desire is that the whole world would come to be saved, to gain eternal life. God’s desire is not to judge the world, but to save the world. 

And to be “born again” is to know that in our baptism and every Sunday when we say the words of the Creed, “I believe,” we are saying that we trust. We trust in God the Father Almighty. We trust in Jesus Christ. We trust in the Holy Spirit. We trust. And, in trusting, we are doing much, much more than simply consenting to a belief in a particular Christian doctrine. We are giving witness of this relationship with God to the entire world.

That’s what Jesus was offering Nicodemus--to come into the same relationship and to exist in the presence of God. But, eventually, he did. And eventually it was he, along with others, who anointed and buried the body of Christ after his death on the cross.

Last week, I sent you home with a wilderness stone. It was something to keep in your pocket during the week to remind you that, when you are tested, Jesus has passed the test for you. 

This week, as we leave worship, I will be giving you a small bottle of anointing oil. May you use this during the week, perhaps by marking the sign of the cross on your forehead or by anointing your hands in service. May this be, as it was in the baptismal rituals of the early church--may this be a reminder to you that in your own rebirth, God has claimed you.  Claimed you to be God’s own child, claimed you to be in full relationship with God, and claimed you to be given new life in God’s kingdom. Forever and ever.

This is what we believe. This is what we trust.


Preached at Grace and Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Second Sunday in Lent.
Readings: Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Ten Words

Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness. Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you—the very word that is able to save you.

You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves.Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do.
If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless. True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us. James 1:19-27 (CEB). 


That’s what we’re going to talk about tonight.  Words.

Words are pretty powerful, aren’t they?  

They have the power to build people up. 

They have the power to tear people down. 

Words can create.  Words can destroy. 

Words have power. Words have the power to transform.  

God’s Word has the power to transform.  

We know of the power of God’s Word in creation.  With simple words, God transformed chaos into an ordered world.  With simple words, God created humankind in God’s very own image.

In the Hebrew scriptures, God’s spoken word calls Israel to live as his holy people.  God’s Word promises blessing and judgment.  Through God’s Word, God reaches out to his people and expresses his emotion toward them.  God teaches Israel, through the Word, about who God is and how to live in relationship--both with God and with each other.

This is the basic premise of the Ten Commandments--which in the time of Israel was known as God’s Ten Words.  It is in these Ten Words that God teaches Israel and us about what it means to live in a full and loving relationship with God and in relationship with one another.  The Ten Words aren’t about shaming us or tearing us down.  Instead, they lift us up, they encourage us to live into our relationship with God and with each other in the way God intends for us.  

But, mostly, the Ten Commandments--God’s Ten Words-- teach us about love.  
Remember the words of Jesus in Matthew as he summed them up: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

I am a regular listener of a weekly program on NPR called “On Being.” Krista Tippett is the host of this program and she regularly brings on guests who talk about many of the central questions of human life.  What does it mean to be human?  How do we want to live?

About a year ago, she had a guest on her program--Dr. James Doty.  Dr. Doty is a brain surgeon who teaches neurosurgery at Stanford University.  He’s also a researcher and is the founding director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.  

During the interview, Dr. Doty spoke at length about his research, which studies the physical connection between the brain and the heart, how each organ affects the other, and how powerful this connection is.  It’s amazing work.  

One thing they’ve discovered, for example, is what happens to the brain when one practices compassion, when one speaks and responds to others in a way that builds people up rather than tears them down.   

Each of our brains contains the amygdala, which is the very primitive, basic part of our brain that houses our tribal “fight or flight” instinct.  When we are threatened, this part of our brain sends a message--either to stay and fight or to flee.  

In their research, Dr. Doty and his colleagues have discovered that, when someone practices compassion with others, there is a physiological change in the brain.  The amygdala--this primitive part of our brain--begins to shrink.  And, as a result, we begin to see ourselves and the world with greater clarity.  And we begin to approach others and the world with a more open heart.  The more one practices compassion, the more the physical body changes and inclines one toward practicing even more compassion.  

What is even more amazing, though, is the work he has done with gang members--work of compassion and love that not only seems to transform these gang members, but, in the process, has transformed Dr. Doty as well.  

That is the gift of living into the Ten Commandments, God’s Ten Word. The more we love God and one another, the more we are all transformed. 

In the animated movie Despicable Me, Gru is a world class villain. But, his reputation has come under attack. And so, to maintain his reputation, Gru devises this elaborate scheme to steal the moon. In the process, he kidnaps and uses three young, orphan girls as pawns in his outrageous plan to steal the moon and assure his reputation as the biggest, baddest villain in the entire world.
As he carries out his plan, however, Gru unknowingly becomes affected by these three little girls and by the love they show him. In the process he is transformed.  In the process, they are all transformed.  

Let’s watch.

It is this work, the work of coming alongside other people, people who, just like us, are created in the image of is this work that, through Christ’s saving act on the cross, God has freed us to do.  

You see, being a believer isn't just about hearing God’s words. It is about doing God's word, about doing God’s Ten Words.

Have you ever noticed in scripture that with God’s Word there is always action connected to it?  God speaks and the world is created.  God pledges to deliver his people and rescues Israel from Egypt.  God promises through the prophets that he will send a Messiah and Mary gives birth to Jesus.  God’s Word is always connected to action.

It is to be the same with us.  With God’s Word and with the simple elements of the earth--the water, the bread and the wine--through these simple elements God acts to work faith in our hearts, through the power of the Holy Spirit.  And, through this gift of faith, God acts to transform us.  To free us.  To free us, then, to act. To become the righteous people that God already sees us to be. To free us to be transformed into vessels--the vessels of clay that Paul writes about in 2nd Corinthians. Vessels of God’s love. 

Now our clay may be weak and our vessel may be a little broken, yet God, through Christ, uses that brokenness and our weakness and turns us into doers of God’s Ten Words. Doers of love. Doers of God’s transforming love.  

“You must be doers of the word and not hearers only...”

May we all begin to see the Ten Commandments as that guide to our relationships--to our relationship with God and with all others. And to be more than simply hearers of those Ten Words, but doers also. God grant it. Amen. 

Preached March 8, 2017, at Grace and Glory Lutheran Church
First in a series of five sermons on Luther's Small Catechism, Midweek Lenten Service 1
Readings: Exodus 34:27-28, James 1:19-27

Sunday, March 5, 2017

I Pledge Allegiance

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Sound familiar? For some of us it brings back distant memories from childhood, standing at the start of each school day, hand to heart, pledging allegiance to the flag of our country and all that that means.

For some of us, it may reflect what we do every day, in school as a student or teacher, as a scout leader or any other vocation where we regularly pledge allegiance to our country.

Pledging allegiance. This is the topic of our text today. Pledging allegiance.

Now I know that, so often, as we’ve heard this story of Jesus being tempted (or tested, which is another translation of the word), so much of our focus has been on sin and on the devil. On resisting temptation and the forces of evil.  

Traditionally, this text has always come during Lent, those 40 days when we are so focused on giving up our vices. Whether it’s chocolate, Facebook, failing to work out. Whatever it is. Lent is the time it seems to try to give something up, to deprive ourselves.  And a time, if you’re like me, when we fail. Inevitably.

I think we’ve really misunderstood and, perhaps, even misused this text as an example from Jesus of how to resist temptation. How to resist sin. (As though this is something we can even do.)

No, instead, I think this text speaks to us about allegiance. About pledging allegiance. About to whom or to what we pledge our allegiance.

So, let’s look at it. 

During the past season of Epiphany we’ve jumped around a bit in our Matthew gospel. We moved from Jesus’ baptism and fast forwarded to his ministry of healing and teaching and proclaiming the coming of God’s kingdom. We ended last Sunday on the mountaintop and witnessed God affirming both Jesus as God’s Son and the path chosen for him.

Today’s text pushes us backwards in time, to the period just after Jesus’ baptism. The Holy Spirit has led Jesus into the wilderness to be tested. To see if he is ready for the task that God has sent him for. Jesus has fasted - a widespread and valued act of devotion in his time. He has done this over 40 days (Hmmm. Does that number sound familiar?) And now Jesus is ready to face the Devil. 

It is no accident that Jesus is here. He is not lost. He is not being punished for something wrong he has done.

No, Jesus, has been led by the Holy Spirit to this very place for a purpose. To be tested. The debate he is about to enter into with the Devil, or Diabolos in the Greek, is really an assessment tool. A threefold test, or more rather, proof, of his readiness as God’s beloved Son for the mission that God has entrusted to him.

This past Wednesday, we talked briefly about the history of the 40 days of Lent. Traditionally, it was a time of learning for those newer to the faith. A time to devote themselves to the traditional disciplines of Lent-- caring for the poor, fasting, and immersion in Scripture and prayer. It was 40 days of devotion and fasting - very much like Jesus’ period of 40 days in the wilderness. And, also, like that of Jesus, it was a time of preparation for their own test, the assessment of their own readiness to embark upon the mission that God had called them to and entrusted them with. 

That test, for these early believers, would come on the eve of Easter, at the Easter Vigil, when they would be baptized. Early in the baptismal rite, they would be asked three questions. Tests, really. Just as the Devil tested Jesus with three questions, so, too, these new believers would be tested, or questioned, as part of their baptism. 

We take the same test. The same assessment. The same pledge of allegiance. If you open your hymnals to page 229 you will see these three questions. We call them the three renunciations:

Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?
Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?

These three questions are the same ones that have been asked for thousands of years in the church. These are the same questions asked of Jesus in the wilderness. To whom will you pledge allegiance? Who will you follow? In whom will you put your trust?

Will you pledge allegiance to the forces of darkness that defy God? Will you follow the powers of this world or of our culture that rebel from and seek to deny God? Will you trust yourself instead of putting your trust in God?

Like Jesus in the wilderness, we take the test. And in our baptisms we pledge our allegiance to God. To follow God. To trust God.

Yet, unlike Jesus, we have miserably failed in our own pledge of allegiance to God. Our pledge to follow God. To trust God. 

And, yet, this is the promise of the Gospel: God with us. Jesus has gone before us, even to the most forsaken places of the wilderness. He meets us in the most difficult tests of our lives. There is no place so desolate, so distant, so challenging, the Jesus has not already been there. There is no test so great that Jesus has not overcome it. 

All of this, Jesus has done for us. So that, even in our failure, we pass the test.

Over these next 40 days, we will be looking at our baptismal promises. We will be studying them, what they mean for us as individuals and what they mean for us as a community. We tell this amazing story of how God is with us in Jesus--the one who passed the test for us. As we look more deeply at our baptismal promises, I pray that we will become more of that story that we tell. That we will become the story we tell so we may more fully share that story in word and deed.

And, so, during these 40 days of Lent, I have a reminder of this for you. It is a wilderness stone, of sorts. A stone for you to carry with you each day. 

When those moments come when you are tested, you might hold it in your hand and remember that Jesus has passed the test for you and for me. That Jesus knows all of the difficulties and the heartaches and the challenges we face. And that, in Jesus, God has promised to be with us as we go about our work of sharing this Good News in the work we do and in the words we say…

”I pledge allegiance to my God.”

May God help us to all live more fully into this pledge. Amen.