Tuesday, April 12, 2016

"Welcome into the Temple" - a sermon for the community of Zion Lutheran Church

Greetings, friends - 

I hope this post finds you well! Life has been full in Pelican Rapids lately - I'm busy working on my final evaluation for internship, preaching, as well as the regular weekly goings-on in our parish. We're having our last confirmation evening this Wednesday, where we'll wrap up the year with a discussion about what the students enjoyed, what could be changed, etc. A group of 15 parishioners got together this past Sunday to bake bread for our local food shelf, and we had some great conversation about the church and society - what can the older generations do to be more inclusive of our youth, what can we do that impresses the importance of faith to them - some really great questions were raised. 

What follows is my sermon manuscript from this past Sunday, the 10th - the text was Acts 3:1-10 where Peter and John encounter and heal a man crippled from birth and welcome him into the temple. I encouraged parishioners to notice resurrection life in their everyday lives - asking them what God is up to. 

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Creator and God’s Son Jesus the Christ. Amen.

            It was a surreal experience. For most of 2012, I had spent the year living in a remote mountain community – not privy, by and large, to what was happening “on the outside”, or in the real world. Going down the mountains and on the boat and into a town with stop signs and stoplights as I waited to get on the train for a three day’s trip home was disconcerting and unfamiliar. I remember getting off the train in Minneapolis, meeting my parents and going home to Cannon Falls – the first time I had been home in over 9 months. It was February. My grandfather was having heart surgery that day, a bypass and stints, and so I wasn’t home more than a few hours before we continued on to Mayo Clinic in Rochester. My dad, brothers, grandmother, and I were able to be there as he came out of surgery, and after months of living with shortness of breath and other complications, we had hopes that this would do the trick.
            I was home for a month, and during that month it was hard to watch my grandpa – knocked out from surgery and not at all himself. I took the train west where I went back into the mountains to cook and bake, and continued to receive updates on him from my family and other loved ones as the months sailed on – slowly but surely, he was getting better. It was, in a few words, resurrection brought into reality, into the tangible, into the here and now.
            We find ourselves facing the same narrative in our New Testament text for today – a story from the early church where a man crippled from birth is given new life in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. The disciples have been tasked with doing what Jesus embodied while on earth – showing resurrection life in its various forms and declaring God’s intentions of salvation for the world. In doing so, the man is commanded to stand and walk as he enters the temple with Peter and John. This is an interesting switch in our story, and I believe an important implication in our life together. As the crippled man experiences one dynamic of the resurrection, the individual experience becomes communal. The man is invited from a solitary life to come into the temple leaping and jumping and praising God. A man on the margins has been brought into the center. Isolation has been turned into ecstatic joy.
            This invites us even deeper into the question of “What does resurrection life look like?”, especially now that we have celebrated Easter. As we celebrate Christ’s risen life and the implications that has for our world, how do you find the promises of new life and resurrection being lived out in your own life? Where do you see things being made new? Where do you notice yourselves and others being welcomed into life-giving community? In resurrection, where do you find healing and hope?

            What the crippled man experienced is only one form of resurrection. We also experience new life when we renew or rekindle relationships, when we become more fully ourselves, when we feed the hungry and clothe the naked and stand in solidarity with those who the world deems to be other. We experience God’s resurrection life in a myriad of ways every day, and it is important to note that not everyone’s identification of God’s work in their lives will be the same. One thing, however, is constant – that where we see God working in our lives is a sure sign of God’s hope and promise of what is to come. The good that we see in our lives, in whatever form that takes, reminds us that the kingdom of God is here but is also yet to be. We see partially now, we get glimpses. We see people healed, made joyful, and renewed, but we also experience death, loss, and grief. My grandpa experienced resurrection life in one way, and I would love to know what your stories are, in the totality of hope or despair, wherever God is meeting you now. Friends, go forth this day knowing that the promises of resurrection are for every single one of us – may we go forth beyond the Gate and into the temple, filled with wonder and amazement and awe. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Intern Pastor Dean 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Journeying to the Cross - a collection of sermons for Zion Lutheran Church

Greetings, friends -

I hope this post finds you well. I apologize that it's been almost a month since I've last put something in this space - Lent has taken up a lot of time and energy, Hebrew class is in full swing, and we've had a funeral as well. Life is always "full" in the parish! :)

I preached several times this past week - Wednesday night at our last midweek Lenten prayer and song service, Saturday morning at a beloved parishioner's funeral, and this Palm Sunday morning. For kicks and giggles, I'll post all three manuscripts!

Wednesday Night, Zion's Prayer Around the Cross: 

           When I was little, I remember some long summer days at my great-grandma’s lake home just west of Cannon Falls. She was in her eighties at the time, and would watch my mother and my brothers and I from the bay window in her living room. After a long day of swimming and cooling off from summer’s heat, we’d always go up to the house and my mom would visit with her grandmother. We had family gatherings there on the lake, until one year we didn’t – when she started getting ill and later left her home, moving in with one of her daughters. She died at the age of ninety-six, and all of us great-grandchildren sang at her funeral. I remember the days afterward – my mother’s tears, attempting to provide some sort of comfort, while knowing at the same time grief needed to take it’s own time. I realize, that in my short twenty-six year existence so far on this earth, that I have been extraordinarily fortunate. In my childhood years, I only lost two close family members that I can remember – both of my great-grandmothers – and, since then, my life has been relatively untouched by death, something that some families and members of our congregation know all too well. That being said, I’ve nonetheless experienced the price of having loved – grief and pain itself at the loss of a loved dear one. Having experienced suffering and death, it has taught me the importance of relying upon the promises of God’s grace and love.
            We’ve spent the past five weeks wandering and journeying together through Lent – a walk that ultimately arrives at the foot of Christ’s cross on Good Friday in anticipation of the Easter resurrection celebration. In our contemplation, remembrance, and prayers the past five weeks, we have given thanks for all that God does among us – while at the same time remembering the very reality of Christ’s sacrifice for our sakes. I hope this has done your soul well – as it has mine – to have time intentionally set aside to ponder God’s work in the midst of life and all that it entails – all of the joy, all of the grief, all of the exuberance, all of the suffering – and to know that even when we face times of death physically and otherwise, God is working for new life.
            This new life, however, can’t happen without death. We can’t celebrate Easter before sitting in the somber reality of Good Friday where we hear Jesus proclaim “It is finished”, and “Father, Father, why have you forsaken me?” – words of finality and finitude spoken against a world that had rejected Christ and his teachings to overthrow ecclesial and political understandings. On Good Friday until early Easter morning, we will experience what it is like to not have Christ in our midst – where he lays in a tomb, and when most people thought they had taken care of the root of the problem. Not so, however, as we know that God has other plans.

            That is what makes Easter so important – that in the face of death, we know that death ultimately doesn’t win. Rather, God shows us that God has the final word, the final say, on bringing about new life and resurrection. Because of God’s promises in our lives, on our own Good Fridays we get to look forward to our own Easters, living always as people of the cross and resurrection. On Easter, we see Christ risen and for each and every one of us, proclaiming our salvation for the sake of God’s reign brought about here and now. Take these words this night, my brothers and sisters – when we walk through our own journeys of suffering and death, know that you are not alone – that God is absolutely with you in your grieving and mourning and questions and shouting. Even though we face our Good Fridays, we always can look forward with expectant hope to the promises of the resurrection, given to you and given to me. Friends, we’ve been given a lot to contemplate over this season of Lent – may you continue this day and always to ponder God’s work anew, bringing resurrection out of death in God’s love for God’s creation. Thanks be to God. Amen.  

Saturday Morning, Funeral:

           Today we gather to celebrate the life of a truly amazing woman, a beloved child of God, Deloris Soland. Her life’s story is one of hard work, dedication, and faithfulness in everything she did. She adored her family, always making time to have coffee, watch her grandchildren, go fishing with them, play bocce ball or croquet, a round of cards, and always made a point to attend family reunions. Deloris was a woman of deep faith, and a longstanding member here at Zion Lutheran Church – confirmed here in 1944, and married at the parsonage of the church in 1948. Growing up she cut wood with her dad. She worked at the Pelican Rapids turkey plant for 16 years, and then also at a resort cleaning cabins and fixing up boats. She was a baker of bread, canned produce, and loved to garden. I believe her motto was something along the lines of “the dishes can wait” – Deloris would always rather be outside than be inside doing housework – she fished and hunted deer well into her 60s. She baked over 300 angel food cakes during the course of her life, for family birthdays and gatherings, oftentimes making two because if one didn’t turn out, she had to perfect it – that was just the kind of woman she was – always wanting the best for those around her.
            In sharing stories and in visiting with Deloris, it was made readily apparent that in living what most would consider an ordinary life, she turned it into something extraordinary. Everything she did was out of love for others, and I firmly believe that she embodied the love of God to all she met and cared for and cherished. Now, after 87 years of hard work, of giving love to others and seeing that love reciprocated and multiplied, her sojourn on this earth is completed. Deloris has fought the good fight and ran her race with perseverance and is now rejoicing in the love of God and the fulfillment of God’s promises to her.
            It is appropriate that the Soland family chose today to hold Deloris’ funeral – because tomorrow we begin Holy Week, a week-long journey as we follow Jesus to the cross on Good Friday and then ultimately to Easter, a day of celebrating resurrection and new life and the stomping of death underfoot, when Christ conquered the world for our very salvation. This is exactly what Deloris is living into in this very moment. It’s not excusing the fact, however, that there is grief. There are holy tears today in this sanctuary and there will be in the days, weeks, and months ahead as we mourn the acute loss of this amazing mother, grandmother, child of God. There are tears, but these tears are grief, which is the price of having loved deeply and truly and authentically – and what a treasure it is to have experienced such love. Deloris loved well, and I know that she was loved in return by all those she encountered.
            “Death has been swallowed up in victory – where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” – we hear these words from 1st Corinthians and we are reminded that even as we mourn, we know that death is not the end. In Christ, God has conquered the world so that all will experience new life and God’s saving grace. One day, when the world is reconciled unto God, all will be as it should be. Deloris is living into that new life as we speak – free of pain, free of sickness, free of all of the things in this life that weighed upon her. Deloris has traded mortality for immortality, a perishable body for an imperishable one. She has been made whole, and is celebrating in Christ’s love for her. I firmly believe she heard the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant”, because that is what Deloris was – a loving and faithful servant to others in the ways she lived her life.
            Friends, today we give thanks and celebrate Deloris’ life, a life fully and richly lived. But we also mourn – and know that God is with us in that. As we mourn, so also does God grieve. In our times of sorrow, God is with us to meet us where we are, because the God who encounters us is one of extravagant love for each of us called and claimed and marked with the Spirit forever. Go this day knowing that the promises of God are ours forever, from now until we see Deloris again. As Deloris would say, “So be it.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday Morning, Palm Sunday: 

            But wait just a second. I thought just a few moments ago we gave thanks to God with a triumphal procession with palms as Jesus comes into Jerusalem – I thought he had been lauded and that shouts of hosanna had rang out in a city that was expecting him. In this scene in Jerusalem Jesus is greeted as the Davidic king, the fulfillment of God’s promises brought into hand. The arrival into Jerusalem is triumphant, jubilant, and joyful. Jesus comes into town, cleanses the temple, and continues to teach his disciples, followers, and crowds around him for the next week. Jesus started off in Jerusalem so well. And then it comes to this, what we just finished reading – his crucifixion. What is going on? In the span of a week, Jesus is welcomed and then killed. Rejoiced over and then buried in a tomb.
            Throughout the week, chief priests, leaders and officials have been looking for a way to stop Jesus, a role given to Judas Iscariot who betrays his teacher with a kiss in the garden. Finally, the time has come, and the Son of Man is delivered to be betrayed into the hands of sinners. Our passion narrative for today recounts the events after that moment of betrayal – Jesus mocked by soldiers in word and in dress, his crucifixion at nine o’clock in the morning, his death at three o’clock that afternoon as he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, and then his burial in the tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. The scene closes with Mary Magdalene and Mary mother of Joses finding out where the body is laid.
            This day we celebrate Palm Sunday, which in its totality is sort of a mixed bag, so to speak – we begin with a joyful triumphal entry and end with a burial. We experience all of the emotions present in these stories, in this last week of Christ’s earthly existence – and we see the fulfillment of Christ’s mission and work among us come into hand at his death when the curtain is torn in two and the barrier between man and God is removed. We are reminded that in the midst of suffering and death there come new life and renewal.
            How much of life is like that, though? A mixed bag, with hardships and good times, with joy and sorrow? I think it’s worth asking as we walk this last week, this Holy Week, with Christ from the entry into Jerusalem unto his death at the cross – how do our very lives mirror this movement from joy and elation to sorrow and grief? Where, in those experiences and moments and emotions, do we place our hope and trust? We see in Palm Sunday a God who is about to bring something to completion – the ministry of Christ – in order to make a world changing revolution happen – the possibility and realization of salvation won for each and every one of us – and that in our own lives, as we encounter the ups and downs of our own Holy Weeks, we can place our trust and faith in God’s promises that are never ending. The entry into Jerusalem on the colt was just the beginning. The cross, in all of its finality, was truly only the beginning. What we celebrate on Palm Sunday is an entry into new life – new life in Christ that was made complete in his death.
            My friends, as we enter into Holy Week, I invite you to continue your process of reflection, contemplation, and discernment. To what is God calling you in your time and your space? Where do you notice Christ in your midst – working in you, in loved ones, in your neighbors? How, as we move towards Good Friday and prepare to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, might we continually find ways to live into our lives as Easter people together? Sisters and brothers, celebrating the triumphal entry with palms is really the invitation to a much greater call – to praise God for the work of God’s Son among us, and to live in his service. Let us sing hosanna in the highest. Amen.

I hope this Holy Week finds you well, friends. 
From Pelican Rapids - 

Monday, February 22, 2016

"How Do You See?" - a sermon for the community of Zion Lutheran Church

Hello friends -

I hope this post finds you well! It's been a busy few weeks here in Pelican Rapids - this past weekend my aunt, mom, cousin, and grandmother made the trek to PR to spend a few days in town - and it was a blast! We got to get out on a hike at a nearby state park, look around Pelican Rapids, eat at our beloved local Cornfield Cafe, and attend church Sunday morning at Zion. Here's the manuscript from this Sunday's sermon:

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Creator and the Son of David our Healer. Amen.

One summer day, after I had just finished my fifth grade year in elementary school, my dad decided that he wanted he, my brothers, and myself, to go to our local barber and get a flat top haircut – where the hair is simply buzzed flat at the top of your head. My dad thought it would be neat if we all looked the same.

Well, I tell you what. I came out of that barbershop that hot summer afternoon looking like a total fool. I had large glasses to boot and looked pretty ridiculous, while my dad stood beaming at his three sons whose haircuts all matched. “Isn’t this cool, guys?” he asked. “This is awesome.” Well, at least, he thought so. The way we saw things, the way we perceived things in this situation was a night and day difference.

We encounter this same dynamic in our gospel text for today – Jesus is working in a situation where different people have different opinions and they see things differently from person to person. Jesus is in his last days of public ministry, for soon he will be going to Jerusalem, participating in the Triumphal Entry into the city, and a week later be handed over to the Roman government at the call of the Jewish people to be flogged and hang on a cross and die. He has told his disciples two times already that this must come to pass, forewarning them of his death and resurrection. There’s an interesting response from the James and John, two of the disciples, here: “Teacher, we want for you to do for us whatever we ask of you” – and what they want is an increase in status, an increase in favor from the rest of his followers.

The disciples have a hard time understanding and seeing what Jesus has been trying to teach them – and this gets at the core of our text for today. While the disciples want to sit in glory and drink the same cup of suffering that Christ has been given, they don’t understand that Christ has a radically different message. The way of following Jesus is not looking for prestige or power, but rather living a life of servanthood, a life committed to mercy and grace. As Jesus instructs his disciples, “but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” – Jesus does this to remind his disciples, and even us today in the pews – that living a life of importance or status does not rest in claiming glory in religious terms or expectations, but in how you serve and live for others in a broken world yearning for wholeness.

This comes to fruition in the story at the end of our passage for today – the disciples perceptions of prestige and power are totally turned over by a blind man named Bartimaeus. This blind man, a beggar to boot, gets it. He understands, calling Jesus the Son of David and asks for mercy, for him to heal his blindness – “My teacher, let me see again.” The disciples – who want their status elevated, are face-to-face with Bartimaeus, who wants his status erased. There’s a disconnect here. The disciples cannot see in terms of faith, while Bartimaeus cannot physically see. Immediately Jesus heals him, and sends Bartimaeus into the world as a man who can see clearly.

In the story of Bartimaeus, we see the kingdom as it should be. The last, a blind man and a beggar, are made first. The disciples, who desire power, are left to question their motives and wants. This is just as true in our society today – different churches, class structures, and people of God have vastly different opinions on what it means to be a person of faith, and everyone interprets faith with a different understanding. Today, we baptize Lydia Andrienne Gilbert as a child of God, called by the Spirit, and welcomed into the faith journey that some days she will see clearly, while others there will be struggles and questions. It’s difficult wrestling, but extraordinarily meaningful, as we ponder what it means to see Jesus and his work among us.

This begs the question, then, my friends. Who are you? Do you see yourself in James or John, who desire power and glory for the sake of importance? Or are you more like a Bartimaeus, who sees clearly what a life of faith should be like? We are all disciples, yes, but the way that we look out into the world after hearing the Gospel is so incredibly important. How do you respond to what God is doing in your life? The Spirit is moving, each and every moment. How do you see? Amen. 
God's peace, friends - 

Monday, February 1, 2016

"What is the Price for Witnessing to the Reign of God?" - a sermon for the community of Zion Lutheran Church

Hello friends -

I hope this finds you well! My supervisor is on vacation to sunny, warm, Arizona - so I've been solo pastoring for the past week and a half - and all's gone well, so far! Dale will return February 8th - we're awaiting his arrival back to northwest Minnesota. Here's the sermon from this past Sunday - talking about following the reign of God amidst disbelief, rejection, and death:

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Creator and God’s Son Jesus the Christ. Amen.

            Friends, I’ll be honest with you. I struggle with this text. I struggle with what to say – both this time around and the first time I preached on this passage from Mark back in July at another congregation I served in. The 6th chapter of Mark is not the promise-filled message of reconciliation that we are most often used to hearing. Instead, there’s this. There’s rejection in a small hometown village. There’s people being sent out two by two with almost nothing to their name and relying on total strangers to provide complete hospitality and there’s wiping dust off of feet if the message isn’t heard. There’s a beheading in a musty prison and conniving behavior in the royal palace. There’s a lot going on in this passage, and I struggle often with locating where the Gospel is found in the face of rejection. What do we do when the communities we spend time in spreading the Gospel don’t respond as we’d hoped? What is the price for witnessing to the reign of God? They pay the price like this: Jesus leaves his hometown. The disciples clean off their sandals and carry on. John the Baptist ends up dead.

            The characters in our story for today were really only being human, as best they know how. When Jesus pulls into his hometown of Nazarath with his disciples and begins to teach in the synagogue and is expecting belief and adherence and instead what he gets is “You’re just a simple carpenter”, “You’re just the son of plain Mary”, “Where did you get this wisdom and power, Jesus?” The people know him, you see – they’ve watched him grow up, advancing in both wisdom and years – and he went off for a while to begin his ministry, but now he’s returned and all the old perceptions and understandings of this once-child are back again. They can’t get past his family; his occupation. To expect full belief in the fact that Jesus was the Son of God would be too much right now – so Jesus heals a few people and leaves town. The price of witnessing to the reign of God is disbelief.

Jesus soon sends his disciples on the way ahead of him, giving them power to do his work of casting out demons and healing the sick. The way Jesus does this, though, is limiting – they are to travel lightly, with almost nothing on their person, which requires the disciples to depend fully on the hospitality of others. Their message may or may not be received. This is “How to Be like Jesus 101” – just as Jesus depends on his word being spread through the Spirit’s help in acceptance of teaching and genuine hospitality, so he requires the disciples to do the same. Jesus’ life and ministry was always risky – there is always a chance of being caught, always a chance of not being welcomed – and he wants the disciples to experience this. In case you aren’t received, wipe the dust off your feet and carry on. The price of witnessing to the reign of God is rejection.

Then we turn to John the Baptist in the prison cell. Faithfully proclaiming Christ’s coming and work for years, baptizing people into the promises of God, here he sits – soon to be beheaded due to a scheming palace royalty who wants nothing more than the forerunner of Christ dead. King Herod tries to defend John – he likes the man, you see, but is perplexed by all his talk about the law and Christ and the Gospel – but ultimately, after promising Herodias anything she desires, has to follow through with the execution orders. The head of John the Baptist arrives in the banquet hall on a platter, and the scene ends with the disciples taking John’s body away to a tomb. The price of witnessing to the reign of God is death.

            The price of witnessing to the reign of God, of proclaiming the way life should be here and now, is disbelief, rejection, and death. It’s powerful, scary stuff, for you in the pews and for this guy up here in the pulpit. Jesus knew this – he prayed that his cup might be taken from him if it be God’s will. Yet, Jesus proclaimed the Gospel all the way to the cross where he bore all the sins of humanity for our sake so that we might not only life in abundance here and now but also life eternal in the new heaven and new earth when all things are made new. If we have Jesus as our model, if we have Jesus who we profess to follow, then too many times over in our churches and communities we’ve been afraid of rejection because of our faith. Because in the face of the world telling us that disbelief, rejection, and death are normative and the order of the day, we have a God who is working for belief – whether it comes in the form of Christianity, whether it takes beyond this lifetime. We have a God who is working for acceptance – of all people from all nations and all creeds, and above all, a God who is working for resurrection and new life that will once and for all silence sin and death. And God’s not doing it alone – God is using us – every one of you – to participate in this world-changing revolution. The Spirit is moving. How will you respond? Amen. 


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Living as Resurrection People

Hello friends - 

I hope this finds you well! I wanted to share with you what Zion's community will be doing for midweek Lenten services. If you find yourselves in the Pelican Rapids area from February 17th - March 23rd, here's a shameless plug to join in our journey to the cross! What follows is my February newsletter article: 

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Creator and God’s Son Jesus the Christ. Amen.
It’s difficult to believe that Christmas was just a short while ago and now we’re looking on to Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Easter – the cycle and seasons of the church life and calendar are continuing on! I wanted to use this space this month to take some time to share with you what I’m hoping for midweek Lenten services, as they are just a few weeks away – Ash Wednesday is February 10th!

This year, for the six weeks in between Ash Wednesday and Easter, together we will journey to the cross. We will be having Wednesday night services of prayer and song, contemplation and silence. We will be hearing from members of our community who will be sharing pieces of their faith story. We will light candles and gather in the darkness of winter’s nights as we hear about Christ’s good news lived among us, his death suffered on the cross, and as we await the joyful good news of the resurrection of Christ, defeating sin and silencing death forever.

To do this, we will be using music from the Taize community, an ecumenical faith community who utilizes short chants for their services. We will gather in darkness and silence. There will be some readings from Scripture and other sources to invoke prayer. The music we will be singing is easily and quickly learned, and you will be invited to join in as you feel comfortable. You will be welcomed to the cross to pray and to light a candle as a sign of your prayer. If you wish to have others join you in prayer, you are welcome to do that, as well. If you would rather sit in the darkness and pray from the pew, please do so. After our time of prayer has come to its conclusion, the lights will be drawn just a bit, and we will hear a short message from our faith community members.

I invite you to join us for Lenten services. I invite you to take these next few weeks to consider the journey to the cross – as Christ was ministering among the people and traveling and healing, he knew that ultimately the cross awaited him – but what he finished upon the cross perfected salvation for each and every one of us. It is this that we remember, it for this that we pray and wait in silence.

Brothers and sisters, I can’t wait to celebrate Lent with you. With you, Dale and I anticipate the journey to the cross. We anticipate Christ’s death, and we live as resurrection people – today and always.

Welcome to Lent.

In the love of Christ and for God’s sake –

Intern Pastor Dean

Monday, January 18, 2016

"Sipping Diet Pepsi and Pondering Eternal Life" - a sermon for the community of Zion Lutheran Church

Hello everyone -

I hope this finds you well! Here's the text from my sermon two weekends ago (the 10th) at Zion.

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Creator and Jesus our Salvation. Amen.

It was early on in my chaplaincy experience at Unity Hospital in Fridley, Minnesota – I’d been there about a month, visiting with patients who had spiritual or religious concerns, or many times I went around doing cold-calls and knocking on doors. On the orthopedic/extra medical floor that took care of mostly knee replacements and other non-life-threatening concerns, the need for spiritual care wasn’t as prevalent as, say, the emergency room or the cardiovascular unit. That being said, many wonderful conversations about God and suffering and life were still to be had, there is no doubt about that. The people I talked to were curious; questioners.

I was still wet behind the ears as a chaplain when I met a woman named Bernice. She was in her mid-fifties, and had an evident Texan drawl. She was in for knee surgery, she said, but there was more going on with her. Cancer. She told me she had a year left to live, that the prognosis wasn’t good. She was a Minnesota transplant from Texas, with a son and a daughter of her own and two grandchildren, both boys, who were sometimes troublemakers she said but you know that really they love their parents. Bernice told me she would call her grandchildren often, and tell them to be good, “but it’s hard to be away from them. I try to teach them. Now I have to teach them how to be without me.”

She and her husband, who stopped in often, had just bought a farmhouse in the Texas countryside. She wanted to go to Texas this last year of her life and live in her farmhouse with her husband and be surrounded by her children and grandchildren. She wanted to plant a garden one last time and sip Diet Pepsi and watch one last summer’s sunsets. She wanted to cook some more and read some more all the while planning her funeral and thinking about eternal life. “I know God loves me,” she said, as tears formed around her eyes, “but sometimes it’s really difficult to see.”

We visited five more times together while she was at Unity. Bernice left the hospital after a week but three weeks later she came back, at the urging of the doctors, when managing pain became too much. “It was too much for my husband to take care of me”, she said, “So I’m back for a while. We’re still planning on Texas.”

This is, sadly, where our paths diverged. After she left for the second time, I don’t know what happened to Bernice. I pray she made it to Texas, and that she got to spend time with her family and plant her garden and teach her grandchildren a thing or two about kindness. Through Bernice, Christ was in our midst. A dying woman came into my life and taught me a thing or two about grace, about shattered expectations, about doing something new. A dying woman wanted to plant a garden and design her funeral, to love the people around her and also show them life without her. When I thought she would be so preoccupied with questions, with fear, with doubt – she shattered my expectations and proved the exact opposite. In the face of death, she was living.

This story illustrates today’s Gospel. Jesus comes to teach, heal, and eat – but to the Pharisees and scribes and people who think they know better, he’s doing these things with all of the wrong people. Jesus heals a paralytic, a man lowered through the roof, and shatters expectations. Jesus calls Levi, a tax collector and sinner in good company, and destroys convention. Jesus eats with sinners and is called out as going against the order of things. Jesus calls you and me and Bernice, and starts doing something new. Christ, through his life, death, and resurrection, is calling each of us to defy the expectations of this world and to lean into our Christian life as we have been claimed children of God. I was taught this by Bernice, and I have been taught this by you all. We have a whole world out there to surprise. Let’s start by walking out the door. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Monday, December 28, 2015

"God Started Doing Something New" - a Christmas Eve sermon for the community of Zion Lutheran Church

Good morning, friends - 

I hope you all had fantastic Christmases and are looking forward to 2016 right around the corner! On internship I was able to preach Christmas Eve at all three of our candlelight services - it was a beautiful afternoon and evening. Here's the sermon! :) The text was Luke 1:1-20. 

Sisters and Brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Creator and the Savior of the World Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Let me begin by saying that I absolutely love this story. The way that the Gospel of Luke records the birth story of the Christ child is probably among my favorite passages of Scripture. This account has so much to offer to us as hearers and listeners. We begin by meeting people on the road who are traveling back to their cities of origin to be registered and accounted for due to a decree from Emperor Augustus. On the scene are indeed Mary and Joseph, who are going back from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We have Mary, carrying the son of God, an impoverished young woman with a common name, and Joseph, a carpenter. Neither of them have much, and neither of them hail from the upper classes of Nazarene and Galilean society. They make the 90-some-mile trip into Bethlehem and upon arrival, are ultimately unable to find a place to stay – there are no relatives in town or Jewish families with an open room or home – so they seek refuge elsewhere. The story tells us in an inn. While there, during the time the couple was in Bethlehem being registered, Mary gives birth to her first born son, wraps him in bands of cloth, and lays him in an animal’s feeding trough.

When I read through the text, the only thing I can think of is, “Wow. What a beginning.” What a totally opposite experience from what was expected of the Savior of the world. The Jewish culture at the time was expecting a savior king coming in splendor with a mighty arm to save the world and redeem it to God’s reign. Someone that acted like and resembled a Messiah; a leader for their cause. Instead, a baby is born.

A baby is born to Mary, a poor teenaged mother. A baby is born to a couple who cannot find a place to stay, who seek refuge in an inn and lay their newborn in a manger. A baby is born to Joseph, who questioned whether or not to leave Mary after finding out she was with child. A baby was born in the darkness, in the still quiet of a Bethlehem night. At this moment, as his cry pierced through the silence, the world was all but turned over. God, who for thousands of years had been active in human history and narrative through chosen and individual prophets, who set the Spirit ablaze in called and claimed communities and cast judgments and fulfilled promises, has now come down from heaven to earth – when we hear the words, “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”, and “a little child shall lead them”, it explicitly means Christ incarnate. In this baby, in the Christ child, we have God drawing near to us – God chooses to dwell among us, be with us, and be for us in the body and mission of Jesus Christ. The very magnitude of this event cannot be kept silent, and it isn’t kept silent.

The second part of this narrative continues – we look out beyond Mary and Joseph and travel to the fields where the shepherds, who were akin in that culture to prostitutes, tax collectors, and others as dirty and scummy and sinful, were watching their flocks. Angels appear before them and the shepherds are terrified. Who are these beings coming to speak with us? I can imagine them asking. The angels tell them of the birth of the baby boy, and give the shepherds signs of what to look for. The angels tell them that through this God is glorified and there will be peace bestowed upon the earth.

It’s no coincidence that the first people chosen to hear about this miraculous news are those on the outskirts of society, those who are marginalized, and those on the fringe. We have a baby born to take away the sins of the world, and the first to hear of it are those who God chooses to dwell among. God, in this story, doesn’t come to the rich and wealthy and powerful who were expecting a savior to be someone else. God tells shepherds who are keeping their sheep on the hills that to them this night a baby has been born for them who will be the cause of joy for all people – and what better news is there than this? The shepherds go, the wise men appear, and soon the world ‘round begins to hear of this miraculous event that has taken place. The Christ child has been born, God has become flesh, and the world is turned upside down. Here, we hear the story of a God who deliberately chooses to be with those who are ultimately other – with those who we so often regard as different or unworthy or bad. The same rings true today – we hear and see of God moving for the marginalized and outcast. We as hearers and listeners of this story now suddenly have a great responsibility. Because God has come to dwell with all of humanity beginning with the birth of Christ, we now need to go and proclaim it to the people who need to hear these words of hope and promise. We need to proclaim this to people who have lost hope, who doubt, who question, who wonder. How many of us in the pews tonight have had seasons in our lives where we have been lonely, felt oppressed, lost hope, and questioned the mystery of this faith we have been called to? I know I have!

This is why this story is so important. This is the turning moment when God breaks in to human history in the form of a little baby boy, who came to give faith and saving grace to you and to me and to your neighbor. Like the shepherds, we cannot keep silent, we cannot be still – we must go and see this for ourselves, and even today we have the responsibility of bearing this word to the whole of the cosmos. We, as participants in this community of faith where the ancient meets the future, have been brought into the everlasting love of God and into the communion of the saints in light. And to think – it all began with a baby boy born to the least expected people.

Friends, go this night in the hope, promise, and light of the Christ child. Many years ago, a newborn’s cry first pierced the darkness, and as Mary and Joseph gazed over their child God started doing something new for all people in all times and spaces. Go this night, knowing that Christ is for us, with us, and among us. There is no better news than this. Thanks be to God. Amen.

God's Peace -