“Like a Rat in a Maze, the Path Before Me Lies” – Simon and Garfunkel:​ A Sermon on Mark 2

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As another school year winds down, I am reminded we all need a certain amount of open time in the summer to allow space to plant new seeds in the fields of our life. Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is to sit back and watch the grass grow, taking a hike, walking along the river, going fishing, knitting. These little “sabbaths” are needed to replenish our bodies, and minds, and spirit.

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The full moon earlier in the week took me back to my childhood days when I was reminded how I could spend the entire day and night outside playing. Our work, when we are children, is to play. A healthy childhood involves play for the sake of play. One of our issues in our modern society is that we have lengthened the school day and shortened the number of time children has to play. When was the last time you saw children playing in the streets? Maybe you remember a time when children were free range, and as long as they were safe, life was good. Nowadays, children have to be protected and with what little free time they have, it is the usually structured activity which leaves little if any free time to discover a personal freedom and playing for the sake of playing.

This happens in part because of the parents and adults. Yes, we know the influence adults have on children. And our society has become so consumed with work and running a rat race, that we have almost entirely forsaken our own need to play. It’s sad really, we are teaching our youth to value work and being busy more than just being. We weren’t created to work all day, every day. Even God rested after created humans on the six-day, so why do we think we are smarter than the Creator? It’s just foolishness.

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Have you ever met anyone who has won the rat race? If the answer is no, then why do we feel like we must compete in an unwinnable race? Seems as if your human inclination is to consume more and more and we get sucked into a vicious cycle of the rat race to keep up the pace so that we feel good about ourselves, our existence, and purpose. Some people are motivated by their own need to feel like my people, so they run the rat race to buy beautiful clothes and fancy automobiles and toys. Fact is, there is no end. It’s an empty hole that is hard to dig your way out of. Only when you look back in self-examination, do you discover your motivation and purpose has been wrong? Heck, some people never examine themselves, and as a result, they become miserable because they are tired of running the rat race.

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See, the scriptures tell us there is a dichotomy between God’s order and order of this world which produces a strain on Christians. We all know that to live and buy stuff, you have to work, but the problem comes when all we know how to do is work and forget about the living part. Now I know there are worker justice issues and the real wages in this country have been stagnating for several decades, and the living wage is far higher than actual salaries paid. It’s a real issue for many people working three part-time jobs. The thing is, the system we find ourselves in is unsustainable. At some point, it will collapse. So, why put more effort into a system that only pays off in the short run? There has got to be a better way, right?

Actually, there is, it’s called a Sabbath. And the good news is that God commands us to take it. Hear these words of Jesus: “The Sabbath was made for humans., and not humans for the Sabbath.”

Some of us are better at taking sabbaths than others. We can all learn something for people who make the time for self-care and leisure. Who in your life is good at this? Talk to them and learn from them. I bet they are probably in pretty good mental, spiritual, and even physical health. They are more self-aware than the rest of us because they take time to care for themselves. Learn something from them, they have something to teach you and us.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a great Jewish thinker, writes: “The Sabbath as a day of rest is not to recover one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life.” If we are taking a sabbath rest, it should disrupt our lives in a right way. Setting aside time from busy daily life and allowing ourselves to just be alive, it gives us something to look forward too and can make us feel good about ourselves and our daily labors. If God can take a day of rest, you can too. Everyone can. Jobs, families, lovers, employers, and friends can exist one day a week without anyone of us, none of us are that important and if your ego permits you to admit, actually they could exist eternally in our absence.

I am always amazed at the energy I discover in my zeal for ministry when I set aside the time to take care of my own needs and step aside and remove myself from my vocation. It’s not that I’m trying to get out of my service, but it refreshes me to step out of the rat race of life, and let my mind wander into something new. It’s way refreshing and energizes me for newness and change. If we don’t step outside ourselves, we become dull. Our world becomes small, and we lose that sense of wonder for life.

Sisters and brothers, don’t lose your zeal for life. Take the time to care for yourselves. It’s not only good, but it’s also a commandment! Your soul and spirit will become energized by the time you take away. Your soul is on a different timetable than your body. It doesn’t like to be rushed, so it is of utmost importance to remove yourself from the daily task for moments of contemplation and the dimension of our spiritual realities.  You will be a happier person because of it. Amen.

Three’s Company – A Sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday

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         How easy it is for adults to ignore, gloss over, or to block out some of the pressing questions of faith of youth?  Even to say “I don’t know” is so much better than some flippant or derisive answer.  Today is one of the weird Sunday’s in the church calendar known as ‘Holy Trinity” Sunday. It’s a Sunday in which we come face-to-face with a mystery; the mystery of Almighty God.  Like the children who are trying to wrap their young minds around the concept of God, we too have questions about the Trinity.  Who is God?  Where is God? What is God doing?

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Frederick Buechner, who always has something witty to say about the Christian faith, describes the Trinity in his classic book, “Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC” describes the trinity in this fashion: 

If the idea of God as both Three and One seems far-fetched and confusing, look in the mirror someday. There is (a) the interior life known only to yourself and those you choose to communicate it to (the Father). There is (b) the visible face which in some measure reflects that inner life (the Son). And there is (c) the invisible power you have in order to communicate that interior life in such a way that others do not merely know about it, but know it in the sense of its becoming part of who they are (the Holy Spirit). Yet what you are looking at in the mirror is clearly and invisibly the one and only you.”

          This is one the days in the church year to ask these questions.  Our appointed readings give us a sense of what God is like.  You might say a glimpse of the Trinity; for we see Jesus, the Son of god, speaking of his father and of the unseen power of the Holy Spirit.  For those who are interested in searching for God, John’s Gospel gives us an unusual perspective.

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         Meet Nicodemus.  You know this story well.  Nicodemus is a man whose questions may have been squashed at one time or another, but he is curious about God.  He has searched for God, and went to one person whom he thought could give him a couple of answers, (or most likely more questions!)  Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews go to talk about God to Jesus by night.  No one of his social significance would take the chance of being seen with a rebel teacher. But Nicodemus was curious, so he meets with Jesus in the dark of night.

         You’ll note in verse 2 of the reading Nicodemus says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.”  Nicodemus pointed to the signs that Jesus did as evidence of his identity.  Without even asking a question, Nicodemus heard an unexpected answer about entering the kingdom of God.  “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” Jesus tells Nicodemus. 

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         New birth is the entrance into the kingdom of God.  And if it’s the entrance into the Kingdom, it must be pretty significant. To Christians, especially Lutherans, baptism is essential.  God may have other ways of bringing people into the kingdom, but if God does, the Bible doesn’t say.  Someone has said, “God has bound us to baptism, but he has not bound himself to it.”

         What is this kingdom into which we are baptized?  We know it’s not a place.  You won’t find it on a roadmap.  There are no billboards or road signs.  This kingdom is instead a matter of your heart’s allegiance.  God’s kingdom is found in the soul of every believer.  Outwardly to the secular world, the reign of God doesn’t exist.  The domain is invisible.  But the people of the reign are everywhere.  We are gathered here this morning into what we call the church or the body of Christ.  Baptism is God’s new birth, and it changes us and makes us ready to respond to God’s will. It gives us a fresh start, a new beginning. 

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         You and I make all kinds of new beginnings.  New school, new jobs, new marriage, or merely a fresh start to an old way. None of these brings us into God’s kingdom.  Only that which God provides can do it.  The Bible calls it Baptism, by water and the Spirit of God, it is God’s means to enter the kingdom.

         And baptism lasts forever because it is the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the name of God in which we baptize. It is God’s grace that saves us- and that never wears thin.  No matter how old we are when it happens, in baptism, we come before the Trinity and receive grace upon grace.  God’s goodness comes to us, washes us clean, and saves us from death and the devil. Sometimes it’s helpful to think of the church has a large swimming pool with all kinds of kids floating around in the baptismal waters. 

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         Because every ministry we do in the name of Christ, we do from the waters of our baptism.  And our baptism isn’t a spectacle.  It is a sacrament featuring God – the Holy Trinity.  That means the spotlight is on God’s love and grace for us, each and every time.  And each of us can be part of the lighting crew that shines forth God’s love. Thanks be to God.

        

Congregational Positioning for Ministry with Seniors – Powerpoint Presentation May 20th, 2018 Zion Lutheran Church

As part of my congregation’s visioning process, I created a powerpoint presentation about some of the implications of an aging population in the U.S. and the implications on congregational life.

On Sunday, May 20th, I  shared a vibrant conversation about ways older adults contribute to the life of the congregation. The focus of the discussion was about what spiritual needs exist in the lives of older adults and discovering the value of ministry with the older adults in the congregation.

I included slides from my powerpoint presentation in this post. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to link the embedded videos into the slideshow.

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Welcoming Vicar Liz Koerner

 

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I am excited to work with my third pastoral intern who starts with our congregation in July 2018.

Vicar Liz Koerner, from New Britain, Connecticut, is a seminary student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.  Liz is a graduate of Thiel College ( a Lutheran College) in Greenville, Pennsylvania. She shares she is excited about her journey toward ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and looking forward to her year-long internship in Muscatine.

She loves to craft, read, hanging out with her friends, and LOVES tie-dyed and rainbow and the combination of the two!

 

Know When to Hold Em, When to Fold Em, and When to Just Walk Away- John 15

[Jesus said:] 1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
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Tools to prune branches.

I didn’t think that the yard work I did last Monday would turn into the subject of a sermon, but it fits perfectly with Jesus metaphor of vines and branches. My lilac shrub and this vine plant that I can barely stand needed to a cut, so with the beautiful weather, I didn’t want to miss my chance to trim a little of the plants. Here is a piece of the branch that I cut.

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What Jesus is talking about as fruit is faith. We can be confident he is talking about faith because he gives a clue. He says that those who are not bringing forth fruit will have to be pruned and thrown away. This is because they apparently are not drawing their life from Christ who is the Vine. They are cut off from Christ. Consequently, they are cut off from life. Their lives are fruitless and dead. They must be pruned and taken away and ultimately thrown into the fire. On the other hand, Jesus says to his disciples, “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.” This is to say that Jesus has already cleansed, pruned, and trimmed his disciples that they might be able to yield the proper fruit. This is an essential point in the text…. They did not cleanse themselves. They did not make themselves fit branches for bearing fruit. Jesus himself furnished them with the righteousness to produce their fruit acceptable to the Divine Vinedresser.

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The point of all this pruning work is so that we “abide” in God. Really, the heart of John’s gospel message is to abide in Christ love.

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So, this week, I want us to think about the fruits of our faith. Jesus says it like this, a good tree bears good fruit. And in our text, Jesus is the vine. God is the vine grower. We are the branches and expected to bear fruit. We cannot do so unless we abide in the vine.

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Like the shrubs I trimmed, God removes branches that don’t bear fruit. God prunes those that do. God is glorified when we become disciples and bear fruit. And what this fruit is not spelled out.

But, we might take a cue from Paul, who wrote about bearing fruit long before John wrote his gospel: The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…”(Galatians 5:22) If we consider this interpretation of fruit, love, peace, joy and such as the fruit, then John is saying we find these by dwelling in Christ.

Here’s this morning’s take away – the branches (disciples) cannot bear fruit (good works) apart from the vine. Our good deeds come from God. And if the branch tries to bear fruit apart from the vine, it will wither. Focus in abiding in Christ first, and the branch will eventually bear fruit.

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Being connected to Christ is the only way we can honestly know we are connected to the source which provides life.

It seems to me that in every parish I have served, there are a some who worked their fingers to the bone trying to do good at some point they flamed out. They weren’t connected to the vine. It’s our only source of energy, and we need reminding that we have to stay connected to Christ, the source of life. Some of us, rather than discerning God’s direction, operate frantically. Worship and prayer were secondary to some. I’m all for helping people, but without the spiritual food and drink, we will all eventually run out of gas.

Our spiritual lives are the food we need for a life of ministry, a life of walking the way of the cross. We can’t get there on our own. We need the energy from the vine to keep up going. So many of us take on too much and eventually we wither, like the seed that fell in rocky soil and then was withered by the sun because it didn’t have the depth of root. Even though some folks meant well, they got crispy from not receiving nourishment and fade away.  

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What are the things in my life that God calls me to Hold, Fold or Grow in my walk with Christ? Maybe I need to think about rearranging some of the priorities and values I profess to have??? Perhaps I need to do something more?  Possibly I need to cut back???   Pray about it and remember through your baptism your connection to the source of life.

And this week I want you to consider what you immerse yourself. What would it be like to immerse yourself in love? Specifically, what would it be like to immerse yourself in the love of Christ – to love as Christ loved?

Let us pray…. Amen.

Life Interrupted: A Bad Thing?

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         Mystic Meister Eckhard once said, “To Grasp God in all things – this is the sign of your new birth.” Being in love with the ordinary and the sameness is the challenge to see God present in each and every moment. Each morning in the same place watching the rising of the son from the same house, hearing the same birds awaken, and to realize how inexhaustibly rich and different each moment is. That is the challenge that Eckhard speaks of; the problem to see God in the most ordinary moments, not in the moments of the magnitude of emotions.

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Martin Luther in his theology of vocation, to points at encountering the divine through our labors and occupations. Where we are called to serve and earn our living is the place where God meets us. It is our duty and delight..” so says the Eucharistic liturgy we seek to glorify God through both our household duties, work in the fields, and the humming of a song in our head. When we invite God into our labor, we begin to see how the most ordinary of job or task is actually serving others. Farmers in the combine all day are not just collect a check or harvesting corn when we grasp to understand this, we realize we are helping our neighbors by providing food and substance to a hungry world.

But we must recognize what we are doing at the moment. Otherwise, we will have faith to see God at work in all things. It’s so easy for us to miss as we are all distracted and unencouraged to look for God at work. But God is there.

That is the holy disruption that faced the disciples as they were trying to make sense of what happened to their teacher and Lord. The Living Lord disrupts them as they were huddled in fear and doubt to transform the moment. “Touch and See,” Jesus invites them to make this moment real. They want validation of what God has done and is doing through Jesus in spite of the world’s attempt to crush the power of the divine.

Lutheran Theologian and pastor in Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writes in his seminal novel, “Life Together”[1]

“We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.

God will constantly be crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass themby, preoccupied with our more important tasks. . . . It is a strange fact that Christians and even ministers frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them.

They think they are doing God a service in this, but actually, they are disdaining God’s “crooked yet straight path.”

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And in the gospel, as the disciples stood in wonder at the Holy Disruption of Jesus dwelling and dining with them, that that is when they started to make sense of it. Jesus sets them straight on the law of Moses and the understanding of scripture and makes them the witness of God.

Isn’t it just like God to show up an unknown time and only after reflecting on the scriptures and the Word of God then we realize, like the disciples how God was working in our life? Discernment is a practice of discovery and it’s a practice that is done by having spiritual conversations with other people. Wondering what God’s call for my life is? Ask someone and share a conversation with them about what you believe you are being called into and then prepare for Jesus to be present in the conversation just like he was with the disciples following that first Easter.

We are a distracted people. If we are not thinking about God at work in the world, in our busy-ness, we will surely miss the moving of the Holy Spirit among us. But let me pose this question to you this morning.  What if, instead, of our spiritual lives becoming what amounts to just another thing we should do, what if what we learned to experience as a disruption is actually the Holy Spirit trying to grab our attention? Rather than viewing all outside interruption as the enemy of productivity and creativity, what if we considered our lives as expansive containers for the sake of the other? If we open ourselves to holy interruption, we may usher in newness, revelation, enlightenment, and story to inform our work and life in ways that otherwise would just not be possible.

Interruption Is God’s Invitation | Desiring God, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/interruption-is-god-s-invitation (accessed April 16, 2018).

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What if we learned to understand that when God wants to break through and speak to our lives, but we are too busy, we acknowledge the moments of spiritual interruption and take the time to deepen our relationship. What I am suggesting is those holy interruptions are God’s invitation. God is inviting us to see him all around us, in the lives of others, in our conversations, in our serving those in need. Interruption is not merely a matter of our heart developing patience; it’s about experiencing real life. It is one of God’s ways of waking us up to what’s around us to see there’s more to be done than our self-appointed tasks for the day, as important as they may seem.

And there are many ways God might interrupt our lives. God might disrupt our life when we are called to share a portion of our time and resources with Christ’s church, or showing up to worship Christ in his church. Not for necessarily my own sake, but maybe my presence in worship will bring someone joy. God might interrupt our life by speaking up for what we believe and offering up testimony by how we live life and what values we hold. There are so many ways that God interrupts life and tries to capture our attention. Unfortunately, often times, so many brushes off the interruption and move along.

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Interruption is God’s enhancement of our craft and our work, and his tender way of encouraging his creatures to be a part of the kingdom come. Welcome the One who stood among the disciples and invited peace to be among them and be a witness for God interruption. Disciple our trying to tune out the call, God will keep interrupting each of our lives. What might God be trying to tell you?

Amen.  

[1]Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John W Doberstein, Life together: the classic exploration of Christian community, 2009.P. 23.

The Beauty of Believing without ‘Seeing’

The scriptures tell us the evening on the first Easter Sunday; the disciples gathered behind locked doors to make sense of all the events that had transpired. From entering Jerusalem in an exciting display of heroic welcome to the last meal they shared to Jesus, to their brother, Judas betraying Jesus, to his passion and death, and then there was Peter- Jesus’ “Rock” who was a leader among them.  What on earth could have just happened?  What did it all mean?  Who would sort out for them so they could process all the events?

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Amidst all the commotion of the previous week events, one disciple, Thomas shows up late- for reasons not known –  and seems to miss out on the discussion.  What the disciples reported to their fellow disciple Thomas they had seen seemed unbelievable. And Thomas didn’t believe it! They said they saw Jesus alive. Well, Thomas saw him alive until late the previous Friday afternoon when Thomas saw him dead. It was now Sunday afternoon — and to what they said they saw, Thomas’ response was, “Seeing is believing,” and until I see something different from what I have already seen, I will not believe a word of what you say.

And for that little exchange, Thomas has gone down in history, not as the disciple Thomas, but as “doubting Thomas” — with his entry in my desk dictionary! I looked it up., a “doubting Thomas” as defined by Webster’s dictionary is “a habitually doubtful person.  And not just about Jesus. About anything. A “doubting Thomas” is one who when presented with the facts, stresses his or her right to raise questions, and demand proof, and doesn’t believe it until they get proof.

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Thomas wanted tangible, touchable proof that Jesus’ was still around.  He did not need further proof of Jesus’ death.  Thomas was there.  He saw with his own eyes that the Christ had been crucified.  He wanted the same proof that Jesus, whom he had witnessed beat to death, wanted evidence that he was alive and has been seen by the other disciples.  For Thomas, there was no doubt that Jesus was dead, and every reason under the sun to doubt that Christ was alive.  For his honesty, he has gone down in history as “doubting Thomas” — the man who doubted the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And the term “doubting Thomas” has negative connotations to this day.

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But it shouldn’t.  Because Thomas isn’t alone, even in this Sanctuary.  And Jesus said not one negative word or comment about him.  From the very beginning, on the eve of the first Easter, doubt was a part of the risen Christ.  We say Christ is risen, we even sing it together in our worship, but do we act like it’s accurate?  Do we sincerely believe Christ was raised from the dead?  Or down deep do we, like Thomas, tend to doubt the story of Easter?

Jesus says to him, “Do not doubt, but believe.”  Don’t doubt, start believing.   Doubting has to do with debating the facts; while believing would have put our trust in something or someone.  One involves my intellect; the other my whole life.  One involves accepting something as true; the other is that I am already accepted by the one who calls himself “the truth, the way, and the life.”

It’s not really up to us to factually proof the resurrection the way the world demands facts and figures, but that we believe in the power of the creator that God’s love is naturally stronger than the power of death.  And consider what it means for you and me.

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Thomas insists that the risen Christ cannot be separated from the crucified Jesus.  And in these after Resurrection Sunday, when the altar lilies are beginning to fade, when the pretty Easter eggs are gone, and the bad news headlines are personal grief’s threatening to overshadow the good news of Easter, we need Thomas and his example of the persistent desire to see Jesus.  And grow in our understanding that doubting is part of our journey of faith.

As tender as it is to admit, we all have our doubts.  Doubting is not the opposite of faith, but are incorporated into our active life of faith, and our faith in Christ need not be perfected in this life.  There’s no way we can discover all that God wants to reveal to us in the waters of our baptism.  There is more to have revealed to us.  Jesus himself showed up with battered hands and scarred up fee, and that’s how the disciples recognized him.  That is the reality of our discipleship.

You are and doubt but are encouraged never to lose our faith.  His doubts lead Thomas to an encounter with Jesus.  For us, it might mean we seek a life of faith that serves us better as we mature, once we examine and let go some of the thoughts that formed our childhood faith as we discover a more profound richness to our adult lives.  Unpacking our doubts can indeed be frightening, going to the liminal place where transformation can happen, but much encouragement and understanding comes from those times when we face our misgivings head on and seek a deeper understanding of our lives in Christ.

Jesus did not blame Thomas for his questions and for seeking a new reality.  So often, we interpret our doubts to mean disbelief, but in the risen Christ there is no condemnation, not for Thomas nor for you and me.  Growing in our faith begins with curiosity, and faith being a living active thing, as Luther aptly describes it, must be fed for it to produce.  So what are you feeding your walk of faith in our Lord, Jesus Christ?

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May we learn a lesson from the life of the Apostle, Thomas, that there are things in life that will never be proven.  Jesus says, “Thomas, you have believed because you have seen.  But, blessed are those who have not seen yet still believe.”  With these words, Jesus is describing you and me.  We ’ll never see the crucified Jesus in this life, you and I will not have the opportunity to place my hands on his wounded side and my fingers into his scars.  It will never be proven to you and me that he was indeed raised from the dead.

There will be times when we encounter the darkness of doubt in our souls and will face our doubts about our faith in the risen Christ.  We might even equate this feeling of gloom and believe we are losing our faith.  Remember in the light; God reveals the glory of the resurrection.  In the moments of life, God has told you that God will not desert you.  In the moments of light, God had said to you that the resurrection is the reality.  Don’t let the darkness cause you to doubt.  Don’t doubt, but believe.  And if you question, know that that it’s ok.  God meets us just where we are.  Thanks be to God.  Amen!

The Shocking News – An Easter Sermon

Late last year, I received a message from someone I didn’t know on Facebook informing that I had lost something that carries a lot of meaning in my life. I didn’t think the item the person claimed was missing and believed I was being baited, so I chose to ignore the message. Later, I received a second attempt through another means of communication from the same person who was attempting to reach me because she believed her husband found something of value that belonged to me. Again, I chose to ignore the message and brushed it aside.

Finally, on the night of New Year’s Eve, I revisited the message from a woman who lived in Wisconsin. She informed me that her husband works in a recycling center and that a class ring was found in the recycling with my name on it. She asked me if I could identify the ring. I was baffled. I take good care of my items and couldn’t imagine how this person could contact me about a personal class ring from my college I received in 1998. So, I went to the place where I kept my jewelry and discovered that the class ring I wear from time-to-time was indeed missing. My heart tightened, and different scenarios began running through my mind. The brain thinks strange thoughts when it is surprised, and reactions are not rational. So, I stepped back and thought, “How can this be?” What on Earth? I had no idea my ring was even missing.

I contacted the person and described the ring. She then sent me a picture of what was indeed my class ring. I just couldn’t believe what was happening. And quite honestly, I am still baffled by this. Somehow my class ring wound up in the recycling either at my home or here at church in the office. I can’t say for sure because I hadn’t any clue it was even missing. From the recycling, it made its way to a recycling center in Beloit, Wisconsin, and Billie Jo’s husband found it while he was cleaning out the box where all the foreign objects went when he discovered it.

What I learned is that trash from seven different states are shipped to this location, and the probability of having something of personal value found is improbable. Billie Jo went on to say that her husband lost his class ring over 20 years ago and they were devastated when they realized it was gone. She found my name on the inside of the ring, did a quick google search and discovered I was a pastor and found my website and reached out to me. Less than a week later, I received a package with my ring inside. I couldn’t repay Billie Jo and her husband despite trying to mail a check or a finder’s reward. Her only request of me was to share the story in one of my sermon’s. How there are still good people out there, who are watching and caring for each other. She and I agreed that somehow God was at work through this encounter and the lesson for her (and for me) is that we need to do right by others.

Sisters and brothers – life is full of surprises. We never know when we will be surprised by the sudden news. That’s the reality of life – we are shocked by some story that makes us anxious or afraid. Some of us live in fear of what could happen. This fear can sometimes paralyze us because we are so scared of what might happen.

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Perhaps that was the feeling of Mary Magdalene when she went to the tomb expecting to anoint the body of Jesus, but all she found was an empty shell. Her surprising message left her confused and afraid. After all, the tomb was empty. Nothing in all of the scriptures points to the fact that Mary Magdalene ever expected the body of Jesus to be missing. She showed up early to visit her Lord and Teacher. Little did she know what she would find.

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You and I get the privilege of getting excited about the empty tomb. It gives us a great hope that Christ has Risen…. But Mary Magdalene was devastated and shocked. She had lost a mentor who had great value for her.  The one to whom Mary had given much glory and devotion had been brutally put to death just three days prior, and now his remains were missing. She had no clue early that Easter morning that Jesus was missing and had risen from the dead. Could it be that someone stole the body? After the betrayal and everything that Jesus had been put through, it would have been heart-breaking for her to discover that someone had desecrated his dead body.

That is not what the Bible says. The Bible says Mary ran to get Simon Peter and another disciple, presumably John, the gospel writer, who ran to the tomb together to see what was going on. Inside the tomb, all that was left was the linen cloth that the body which wrapped the body. 

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The bible isn’t clear why the disciples still did not comprehend what was happening; it merely says the two disciples returned home leaving Mary Magdalene alone at the tomb. When two angels of the Lord appear where Jesus lay and question why Mary is weeping, she turns around and encounters the risen Jesus, whom she mistakes as the gardener. Jesus instructs Mary to go and tell the disciples that Jesus is alive and has not yet ascended to the Father. So, Mary goes as Jesus directs and shares the Good News.

And what does this all mean?   No one had, no has ever been, raised from the dead, and then set loose back in the world. What does that mean: “He is raised?” 

Just for this morning, let me say to you that it just means this; although we are all frail, mortal, finite human beings and are wholly inadequate in our words and our deeds in the face of death-  God – the one who creates and gives us life is determined to be the creator and the giver of life even in death.

Because Jesus is raised, we are bold to believe that we also shall be raised. The end of life is one problem that we can never solve. We can prolong life, but not bring life eternal on our own. We may have been successful in overcoming many of our daily problems. But death is one problem we cannot solve on our own.

And the good news of this day is that we don’t have to solve this deadly problem. Our culture tries it’s best to avoid death and aging, but it’s merely a false reality and message. Here is good news. Here is the best good news you will ever hear: “He has risen!” Do not fear death doesn’t get the last word. God does.

Easter carries with its fear. The Bible says that it is a “fearful thing to fall into the hand of a living God.”  And today, we and all our fears have fallen into the everlasting arms of a living God. God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves:  God triumphs for us in what St. Paul calls our “final enemy” – death. God does do something about our death problem.

So, whether it be fear, doubt, joy, whatever you feel, you can drop whatever it is you are doing and run, tell this Easter message: “He has risen!”  Because this day we can be like Mary Magdalene and my friend, Billie Jo who announced the good news of something that was lost and of value to me is not gone but has been found! Despite our fear and concerns of rejection to tell anyone who will listen in our culture of disbelieving: “He has Risen!  He is risen, indeed.”  Alleluia. To God be the Glory. Amen.

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Ash Wednesday – February 14, 2018

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Increasing as I age, I become more aware of my sinful nature. It’s not as if I’m a terrible person, but I realize the powerful effect sin has on my life and the world God loves. Perhaps it is the realization I have that I have the power to destroy and great potential to create distress and havoc. Not that I would ever wish to access my ability to create harm and hurt others, but I am aware of my power and limitations.

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St. Ignatius described sin as putting our hope in the wrong things. From this perspective, I can see how far off my inner drive and thoughts are from the will of God. I think for some it would be just easier to give into sin and live a life without any internal examination to discover the beauty of one’s self. In other words, it is so tempting to live life in these times of transition with the motto, “Do whatever you want as long as you don’t harm anyone.” After all, it is the beginning of the age of authenticity. The point in time where our own experience directs our life and if we don’t like doing something we might as well quit the practice because the cost of missing out on something else is too significant.

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The world is getting smaller every day and more focus on the self. Losing sight of the inner relatedness of life is easy.

As Dr. King taught, “all people see in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

In other words, what affects one person impacts us all. We might not consciously be aware of, but we are all, as Dr. King suggests, woven together into one fabric of life.

Moving away from our self-centered way of living to a concern for the Commonwealth of all people was Dr. King’s vision of what he called the “Beloved community” in which he meant the Body of Christ dwelling together under the Reign of God. The sin manifests itself when we divide the world into the “good” and the “bad.” Of course, we are always the good ones; the others are bad. The ones who have a problem are still outside of us, and therefore we tell ourselves we must struggle against those outside our group.

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But a real community is different because of the realization that the evil is inside of us – not just inside the community or group, but inside of me. Jesus talks about this as thinking about the need to remove the speck of dust from my neighbor’s eye but overlooking the log that dwells within my eye. Sin dwells within me. Warfare is within me, within my community. We confess that we aren’t living the life God desires for us and that we place our hope in things that do not create an experience for all.

Jesus calls us into living a different vision for life. A life where, through our baptism into Christ’s death, we too are called to live a different narrative. A narrative where we are called to be agents of peace amidst the violent nature of the world while recognizing the warfare that is going on inside of me.

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Jesus calls us to seek the wholeness, in that our souls are restless until they abide with God. Nothing else will satisfy this longing. Many will attempt to fill their spiritual needs with things that are not spiritual, and as a result, they can never find that inner peace as they continuously battle their own self.

Jesus gives us words of great hope this Ash Wednesday. He tells us that he is God’s “Way, Truth, and Life.” There is a need in all of our souls that we cannot meet. It’s impossible for a human to be completely satisfied on our own. We seek for meaning and life outside ourselves.

This is the day we remember how we have placed our hope in those things that are not God. That we have all wondered from the Truth, Way, and Life that God desires for us. This is the day we remember that we are not at peace. We wrestle with far more matters of life than we care to admit. This is the day where we remember that we have neglected God’s call to live peacefully in community with the world God loves. And because of all this, one day our life on earth will eventually come to an end.

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This is a heavy day. But there is hope. Hope is found in the alternative vision Jesus offers in which there are many places to dwell in God’s house. In Jesus, there are many kinds of people who stay and live out what Dr. King called a “beloved community.”

This Lent, we will dig deeper what it means that Jesus is the “Way.” Not “one way” or “a way” but “The Way.” Jesus words in the Gospel speak to us in ways that our culture cannot and will not talk. So, remember to listen to his words as if you were hearing them for the first time. Think about what you are seeing in your life and what God wants to show you. For God is there, ready to receive us and forgive us even in spite of ourselves.

Hear his invitation to repentance and the possibility of growth in your faith again. Trust that where Jesus is, there we may also be. Amen.

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