The Man Born Blind

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

John 9:1-41

It’s that moment when you move from shadows to sunlight. That’s how it was for me. I was born blind. I had spent a lifetime in darkness. I didn’t even know what “light” looked like. Suddenly my brain was flooded with brightness.

At first I was dizzy. My eyes hurt. I was confused. I couldn’t yet distinguish distances or recognize faces. I staggered and stumbled.

But for the first time in my life, I could see!

Now those around me had trouble seeing clearly. For my whole life, I had been nothing but a helpless beggar. Many people had never even seen me standing up! Now I was walking—no stick, no beggar’s bowl, and no shame.

As my confusion cleared, the questions around me increased.

One person asked, “Isn’t this that blind beggar boy who used to sit near the Pool of Siloam? I stepped right over him many times!”

Another disagreed. “No, that can’t be him! That beggar has been blind from the day he was born! This fellow obviously can see. I must say, however, that the physical resemblance is striking.”

Back and forth they debated. Yes, he is! No, he’s not!

All the while I tried to get them to listen to me. “The man called Jesus made some mud. He spread it on my eyes. Then he told me to wash off the mud in the Pool of Siloam. I went and washed and received my sight.”

The moment I mentioned Jesus, I had their full attention. “Where is he?” they demanded. I had no idea. I used to be blind, remember?

Rough hands grabbed me and hauled me away. Suddenly I felt eight years old again. Cruel boys in our village grabbed me one day. They spun me around. Then they hit me. “Who hit you?” they demanded. If I guessed right, they would let me go. If not, they hit me again. It was a game the bullies played many times.

I got pretty good at guessing.

Now I was standing in front of a group of serious-looking men. “You were blind,” one of them barked. “How is it that now you can see?”

I told the story again—Jesus, mud, washing, sight. Why couldn’t they just believe me?

The men began to argue among themselves. “It’s the Sabbath!” said some. “This Jesus can’t be from God. He does nothing but break the rules!”

Others were not convinced. “A blind man now sees,” they said. How can such a thing happen without God’s help?” They debated for quite a while. I just pretended to be invisible as I had done with the bullies of my younger days.

As they continued to argue, I drifted back to synagogue school in my village. I remembered learning the words of Isaiah. That great prophet described a suffering servant sent from God. God said to the servant, “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind…”

I loved that prophetic promise. When I was a boy, I prayed every night for that suffering servant to come and to heal me. As I got older, I gave up on such prayers. It seemed that they did no good. But now I could see! Might this Jesus be the suffering servant Isaiah promised?

I was so lost in my thoughts that I didn’t even hear the question. “You there!” one of them shouted. “What do you say about him? After all, it was your eyes he opened!”

I spoke before I thought. “He is a prophet!” I declared. 

That was clearly not the right answer.

Because that was the wrong answer, the argument returned to my identity. Was I really that guy formerly known as the poor, blind beggar? They couldn’t get that settled. That’s when they found my parents and dragged them into the mess.

Truth be told, I didn’t have much connection with my folks. To them, I was an embarrassment. I was a sign of their failure. I was a source of deep shame. People were always whispering to each other. “What did those people do to deserve such punishment?” they would ask each other. “It must be some terrible secret they are hiding.

This is what everyone believed. Even Jesus’ disciples asked the question. “Rabbi,” I heard them say, “Who sinned—this man or his parents—that he was born blind?” I got ready for another load of theological garbage, another tirade about how terrible my family must have been.

Jesus, however, said something else. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned…” I know he said more. But at that moment I didn’t catch the rest of it. I was overwhelmed with gratitude and overcome with astonishment. This Jesus would not be my judge. His business was much bigger and better.

Mom and Dad, of course, didn’t hear Jesus. So they decided to play it safe. The word was out that supporting Jesus was a bad idea. Saying good things about him would get them nothing but grief. In fairness to them, they had dealt with this stuff my whole life. So they slid the problem back to me.

“Yes, this is our son,” they admitted. “And he used to be blind.”

He used to be blind. They said those words with almost no emotion. No joy. No celebration. No gratitude. They were just terrified. “We have no idea how this happened,” they whispered. “He’s a grown man. He can speak for himself. Ask him!”

Thanks, Mom and Dad. I was on my own again. They disappeared into the crowd.

“Give the credit to God!” the men demanded. “We know this Jesus is a sinner.”

I was so sick and tired of being bullied. A lifetime of rage and resentment ran away with my good sense. “Play your religious games with someone else!” I shouted. “What I know is very simple. I was blind. Now I see.”

I should have stopped there. But the years of abuse and bullying had equipped me with a smart mouth.

“After all,” I prodded, “why are you so interested? Do you want to become Jesus followers too?” The words were out before I could stop. Things went downhill fast from there. 

“How can you be so blind?” I finally shouted. “If Jesus weren’t from God, I’d still be blind, begging and broken. Do I look blind, begging and broken to you?” I had to run for my life after that one.

I hid in the shadows on the far side of the Temple. That’s where Jesus found me. “You know the promises of God’s healing,” he said. I nodded. “You know that God’s healing is a sign of God’s kingdom among us.” I nodded again. “Do you trust,” he asked, “in the Son of Man?”

I had spent years in the dark, waiting for God’s light to shine in my eyes and in my heart. “Who is this Son of Man?” I asked. “If he’s the one who gave me my sight, I will follow him anywhere.”

Jesus smiled. “You’re looking at him.” I fell dizzy back against the stone wall. All my hopes came rushing into that moment. This was about more than my eyes. This was about light for the whole world. “Lord, I trust you,” I said. I fell on my face at his feet.

By this time, some of the men had caught up to us. They overheard the conversation. Jesus described them as blind sinners. They made him pay for that in the end.

Later, they arrested him on charges of treason and blasphemy. He was sentenced to torture and death. Some of them blindfolded him as they taunted him. He was blind as I had been. And they played a cruel game. They hit him over and over. Each time they hit him, they said, “Prophesy! Tell us who hit you!”

When I heard that part of the story, I wept out loud. I remembered what that was like for me. Jesus was bullied and tortured just like me. His accusers were blinded by their fear and hatred. They saw him as an object of ridicule and rage. They were not unable to see. Instead they were unwilling to see.

And no amount of spit and mud can fix that sort of blindness.

The darkness, however, was not the last word. They killed him and buried him in a lightless tomb. They crucified him and wrapped him in a shroud of darkness. They drove him out of this world and on to a Roman cross.

But now I remember Jesus’ words to his disciples. “As long as I am in the world,” he told them, “I am the light of the world.” The darkness could not overwhelm him. Death could not hold him. Jesus is in the world now and forever. He is the light of the world. And he is the light of my life.

Now I tell my story as often as I can. One of the members of our little church even made a song about it. “Sleeper, awake” she sang, “Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!” It is my joy and my honor to walk in the light of the Lord every day. My prayer is that Jesus will continue to shine through me today and always.

Thank you for listening. And thank you for being willing to see.

Message for March 12, 2023

Going Platinum

Matthew 7:1-14

Matthew seven, verse one, should read something like this. “Don’t keep on condemning, so that you won’t keep on being condemned.” Condemning is more than judging. When I condemn someone, I judge them negatively. I declare them worthless and disposable.

Don’t keep on condemning others. Okay, Jesus – got it. The result, it seems, is that I will no longer be condemned. But, condemned by whom? God? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I think Jesus surfaces a deep reality about human life.

The degree to which we condemn others is a measure of how much we condemn ourselves. Jesus says this in Matthew seven, verse two. We will be condemned, Jesus says, according to our very own standards. The metric I apply to others will be the precise metric applied to me.

Is God doing all this measuring and condemning? I don’t think so. That would contradict everything so far in the Sermon on the Mount. No, God isn’t the one who is judging me. I’m the one who is judging me.

And I rarely measure up to my own standards.

The harder I am on myself, the harder I am on others. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Hurt people hurt people. It’s a pretty reliable psychological rule of thumb. In Twelve-step groups, that rule often goes like this. If you spot it, you got it. What I judge most harshly in others is typically the thing I hate most in myself.

I feel better condemning the flaws, foibles, and faults of others than looking at myself. Jesus captures this in his “speck and log” metaphor. It’s more fun to squint at the speck in your eye. That distracts me from my own stuff. I may not be worth much according to my own standards. But at least I can pretend to be better than you.

“Pretending” is a key word in our text. I can’t BE better than you. I can only ACT like I am. That’s play-acting. So, I’m one of those “hypocrites” Jesus calls out in verse five.

In the ancient world, a “hypocrite” was a stage actor. That’s what we do when we judge ourselves better than others. We play a part. We perform a role. We pretend to be something we’re not.

All the time, we hide the truth about ourselves – and from ourselves. Voices inside me shout it constantly. You’re a fraud! You’re an imposter! You’re worthless! If others really knew you, no one would love you!

Is it any wonder we’re so hard on other people? We’ll do almost anything to drown out those voices for a while.

I think Jesus reminds us of another rule of human existence. What you feed is what will grow. The more time and energy we give to those judging voices, the louder they become.

So, Jesus says, stop feeding them. Stop handing your holy self to the dogs of despair. Stop throwing the pearls of your humanity to the pigs of hatred. If you keep feeding them, those voices will eat you alive. At some point, only the voices will remain.

Stop focusing on your flaws, Jesus says. Start trusting in God’s goodness, grace, and generosity. Ask, search, knock! God longs to give, reveal, and respond. This is God’s character. This is God’s heart. This is God’s desire – not to condemn, but to love.

“That can’t be right!” the voices shout. If God really knew me, God would discard me without a second thought. So, if God loves me, God must be a blind fool.

No, in fact, God is not a blind fool. I had a seminary professor who began every class with the same words. “Beloved in Christ,” he said with a half-smile, “God knows you better than you know yourself, and loves you anyway!”

That’s the good news Jesus always brings. Paul says it in Romans five. Here we are – weak, ungodly, enemies of God and all that is good. “But God proves God’s love for us,” Paul writes in verse eight, “in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Say that to yourself ten times a day this week. Then notice how the other voices fade to a whisper.

This is God’s “judgment” on you and me. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” we read in John 3:16. Too often, however, we don’t read verse seventeen. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Beloved in Christ, God knows you better than you know yourself, and loves you anyway!

Now we can have a fuller understanding of Matthew seven, verse twelve. It’s one of several places where Jesus offers “the Golden Rule.” People usually pull this verse out of its context. It shows up on hallway plaques and bumper stickers. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you,” Jesus says, “for this is the law and the prophets.

Let’s put that verse back into Matthew seven for a bit. Beloved in Christ, God knows you better than you know yourself and loves you anyway. God knows those others better than they know themselves and loves them anyway. God certainly knows those others better than you or I know them. And God calls us to love them anyway.

In the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule really becomes “the Platinum Rule.” In everything, do to others as Jesus has done to you. This is really the Law and the Prophets. This rule is the “narrow gate” Jesus describes in verse thirteen. This is the difficult road that leads to life.

Few enter that gate and travel that road because we’re so used to condemning ourselves and others. Condemning ourselves and others is the road to destruction. Doing to others as Jesus does for us is the road to life – life now and life forever. Ask for directions. Seek the path. Knock on the gate. God will answer with goodness, grace, and generosity.

Beloved in Christ, God knows you better than you know yourself and loves you anyway. God knows those others better than they know themselves and loves them anyway. God certainly knows those others better than you or I know them. And God calls us to love them anyway.

It should be clear by now in the Sermon on the Mount that this loving always means doing. Do to others as Jesus has done to you. One thing may not be so clear. All the “you’s” in our text are plural. Jesus isn’t talking just to you as an individual. Jesus is talking to us as a community of disciples. The “you’s” here are “you-all’s.”

As a society, we have told many stories that describe others as less than human. We have told many stories that describe others as unworthy of our love. In the Declaration of Independence, for example, we described Native Americans as “merciless Indian savages.” We used that story to feel good about exterminating ninety-five percent of them from this continent.

Some Christians used Old Testament stories to describe Africans as subhuman beasts. These stories declared that Black people were only good for manual labor and the benefit of white people. These stories allowed us to kidnap thirteen million black people from Africa.

For two centuries, we have told stories that blame poor people for their own poverty. We have said we are willing to help the “worthy poor.” Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to find any. These stories have allowed us to shift the blame away from our own desires to have more for ourselves.

Beloved in Christ, God knows you better than you know yourself and loves you anyway. God knows those others better than they know themselves and loves them anyway. God certainly knows those others better than you or I know them. And God calls us to love them anyway.

And loving them anyway means resisting and rejecting the stories that tell us they don’t deserve our love.

In everything, do to others as Jesus has done to you. This is really the Law and the Prophets. How will the Platinum Rule impact your life this week?

Let’s pray…

The Samaritan Woman, Lent 3

As I sit here in a Roman prison, I think about my life. The guards tell me that they will execute me by throwing me to the bottom of a well. That seems appropriate. There was a well at the beginning of my story too.

My mother’s favorite Bible verse came from the book of Proverbs. If my mother said it once, she said it a hundred times. “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without good sense.” She said it every time someone told me I was cute or pretty or attractive. Mother always said that she was afraid for me. She was afraid that men would take advantage of me. She was afraid that I would be proud of my beauty.

Sometimes I thought Mother was jealous. She had never been very pretty. Mostly, though, I was just angry. And it didn’t take long for me to show her just how powerful a woman’s beauty could be.

Twenty years, five husbands and a lover later, I was walking down the road toward Jacob’s well. The well was about a half mile from our little village of Sychar. I had a six gallon water jar on my head. I was on the lookout for anyone at the well. I preferred to go alone.

No, that’s not really true. I was alone because no other women would go with me. Decent women went in groups to the well in the early morning or early evening. I had no friends, and my family was ashamed to be seen with me in public. People thought I was guilty of adultery…or worse.

As I got closer to the well, I saw a man sitting there. “Great!” I thought to myself. “Will I get abused or insulted?” Those were my options.

“Give me something to drink!” he said. Typical man—expecting some woman to wait on him hand and foot. Then I realized he was a Galilean Jew. This could be really bad. Jews treated us Samaritans as traitors, as illegitimate children of Abraham, and as unclean. Usually the Jews passing this way just ignored us. But this time was different.

So I asked him. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” The Pharisees had a rule about Samaritan women. They said we were perpetually impure—from the cradle to the grave. I assumed that he would berate me or even beat me because I didn’t show enough respect. But what he said next was just confusing.

“If you knew what is really happening here,” he said with a smile, “you would be the one asking me for a drink. And I would give you the water that never runs out.” The water in Jacob’s well never rises to the top. We have to reach down eight feet or more to get to the water. That man had neither bucket nor rope. I figured he was just trying to hustle me for a good time.

I played along for the moment. “Sir, give me this water,” I purred, “so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” I called his bluff. And I waited for the rest of his come-on.

His next words threw me completely off balance. “Go, call your husband and come back.” Without even thinking, I shot back. “I have no husband.” I hung my head. The truth was out. I was completely alone and vulnerable. I just hoped this would be over quickly and that he wouldn’t kill me in the process.

“You are right,” he said quietly. “I know you’ve had five husbands. And you aren’t married to your current man. You have told me the truth about yourself. You are to be commended for that.”

How could he know this? People in the village knew all the dark details of my life. But why would some Jewish stranger know my story? Had he been here all morning? Had the other women gossiped about me as they came to fill their jars? For a moment I felt angry. Then I had another thought.

“Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. My people know about prophets. We worship the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. We know that the Messiah is coming. And when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” By this time I had figured out who my questioner was. He was Jesus of Nazareth, that Galilean prophet and miracle worker who came after John the Baptist. No wonder that he knew my story!

When I said the word “Messiah,” he slowly stood up. I was afraid I had said something offensive. Instead, he said to me, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Now I had to sit down on the wall of the well. I felt a little dizzy. I was damaged goods. I was a scarlet woman. I had left a trail of destruction in my life. I was shrouded in shame and lost in loneliness. I spent my days trying to escape my past, seeking to deny my story.

And the Messiah, the Savior of the World chose to reveal himself to…me. To me! 

At that moment his disciples came back from the village. They had gone to the local market for some food. I could see the shocked disapproval on their faces. They knew what my mother knew. “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without good sense.” But they didn’t know that Jesus called me to be one who worships God in spirit and in truth.

In that conversation, Jesus changed me from an outsider to an insider. He transformed me from seducer to disciple. Jesus converted me from foe to family member. Jesus moved me from menace to missionary. 

Did you notice something? I didn’t think about this until later. Jesus called me “Woman.” This is neither a label nor an insult. Later, Jesus used the same title to address his mother from the cross! He made me part of his family. Me!

I didn’t wait for the disciples to say anything. I left my water jar behind at the well. I knew I was heading back home. I had to go to the village square to share the news. I usually avoided public places. The children shouted insults. The women hid their eyes in disgust. The men made lewd suggestions. Sometimes they threw garbage or even rocks at me.

But not on this day!

The jeering and insults started. “Wait,” I shouted. “Listen to me!” I don’t think they were interested in what I had to say. But they were shocked that I spoke out loud in public. “I just talked to Jesus of Nazareth. And he told me my whole story—everything I had ever done. He knew all the darkness and despair. He knew all the pain and shame. He knew all the fraud and failure. And it didn’t make any difference at all!”

“You mean that Jew didn’t care about another broken-down Samaritan woman?” one of the men shouted. “What’s the news in that?”

“No,” I said quietly. “I mean, he knew it all and loved me anyway. And somehow, that made all the difference. Look at me! My story hasn’t changed, but somehow I have been changed. Only the Messiah could do that! I believe he is the Savior of the World!”

Suddenly everyone was talking at the same time. “She’s finally lost it,” said one. “Come on,” said another, “what really happened there at the well?” Others were not so skeptical. “It’s easy enough to go and find out,” said one of my neighbors. “He’s still sitting there at the well eating lunch. If he talked to her, this Jesus will surely talk to us. Let’s go find out what he has to say about this.”

So they went to the well and listened to the Messiah. I went as well. He talked to them about their stories. He helped them to see how God’s kingdom was coming. And he made it clear that the kingdom was coming for all people—for Jews and Samaritans alike.

They were so impressed that they invited him to stay with us in the village. Jesus of Nazareth was the first Jew to sleep in our village in a hundred and fifty years! He continued to talk and teach. And soon, the others didn’t need to rely on my story. “We have heard for ourselves,” they told me, “and we know that this is truly the Savior of the World.”

Things changed for me. Jesus helped me to own my story—all of it. No longer do I feel like a gold ring in a pig’s snout. I moved out on my own and got my life together. I was in Jerusalem when they crucified our Lord. I thought for a few days that my world had ended. But then came Easter. And my life changed one more time.

I was baptized along with many of the other disciples. I was given the name, “Photina.” The name means, “Daughter of Light.” That’s when my real story began. I traveled to Turkey and to Carthage as a Christian missionary. I was honored to tell my story—the whole story—again and again. Then I was arrested by the Romans. 

Here I sit, waiting my turn to die for Jesus. Soon my real story will begin.

First Person Sermon: Nicodemus

The Second Sunday in Lent

John 3:1-17

(Nicodemus enters, stretching and rubbing a very sore back): A hundred pounds of spices! A hundred pounds—just lifting that load is enough to make my back ache. But I had to carry that bundle over a mile, in the dark, and on my own. I have not done that much physical work in many a year. But I certainly couldn’t have any of my servants carry it for me. 

All of it had to be done in secret and under the cover of darkness. After all, I certainly don’t want to end up like him…

I am Nicodemus. I am a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the chief legal body in Judea. For that reason, I am known as a ruler of the Jews. I have a reputation for being one of the chief teachers of our faith here in Jerusalem. I am quite certain now that I don’t deserve that reputation. 

Let me tell you why.

We have just laid Jesus’ body to rest. I am sure you have heard all about Jesus of Nazareth. Many of us had great hopes for him. My good friend, Joseph of Arimathea, had even become one of his disciples. Of course, Joseph could not be open about his allegiance. That might have been fatal for Joseph.

So Joseph went to the procurator, Pilate, in the middle of the night. He asked for Jesus’ body so that it would not hang on that cross to be defiled by the wild animals. Pilate agreed. My part in this little plot was to bring the linen cloths and the spices to prepare and preserve the body. Joseph has a family tomb in a secluded garden. No one saw us. We are safe.

Safe. That always seems to be my path.

My name in Greek means “conqueror of the people.” That sounds impressive, does it not? Conqueror of the people! Please do not be impressed. At most, I have conquered a difficult piece of Hebrew or a large jar of wine. My conquests extend no farther.

We buried Jesus in the dark. That is how I came to him the first time as well—under the cover of darkness and secrecy. 

It was just before Passover in Jerusalem. We were having our annual Sanhedrin conference. We debated the usual issues—taxes, purity laws, too many Gentiles in Jerusalem, and the upkeep of the Temple. As we discussed the Temple, a messenger burst into our session.

“Some lunatic is causing a riot in the Temple courtyard! He made a whip of cords and started beating the merchants and moneychangers. Tables are thrown all over. Money is scattered in every corner. The livestock is running wild in the streets. And he keeps shouting, ‘Stop making my Father’s house a market place!’”

 We all ran into the courtyard and saw him—Jesus of Nazareth. He was covered in sweat, gasping for breath. “What is the meaning of this?” the chief priest screamed. “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

Jesus raised his chin in defiance. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

“Are you mad?” the chief priest laughed. “It has taken Herod forty-six years to build the Temple, and it is not finished yet. How will you do the job in three days!” The Sanhedrin members were sure Jesus was a crazy fool. We went back to our debating.

His words, however, would not leave me. For some reason, I needed to know more. Many in the crowd shared that view and encouraged me to seek him out. I was unwilling to risk a public conversation. So I found out where he was staying. We met under the cover of darkness—secret, and safe.

I am a Pharisee. No matter what you might think, I was not opposed to Jesus. I want God’s kingdom to come as much as anyone. I heard about Jesus’ power and his teaching. Perhaps there was something to it all. I had to know. “Teacher,” I said with the greatest respect, “we know you have come from God. After all, no one can do these signs as you have apart from God’s presence.”

I treated Jesus with honor. In return, I received a challenge. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The word Jesus used was very complicated. Did he mean “born from above” or “born again” or “born anew”? It could have been any of those meanings. I didn’t understand him at all.

“How can these things be?” I asked. Jesus was blunt. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” I did not hear many of his words after that. I now know what he did. He used mysterious phrases because he didn’t know me. And he did not know my motives. For all Jesus knew, I might have come to trap him into an arrest. He evaded precisely such traps many times in his life.

What hurt the most was how right he was about me. “‘Very truly, I tell you,’ he said to me, ‘we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.’”

That was it. I did understand, but I did not like what I heard. Jesus talked about a whole new way of living in God’s kingdom. For centuries we had been trying to find our way to God. Now Jesus said that God was coming to us. And God was coming to us through him!

I came to Jesus in the darkness. And that was the problem. I did not hear many of his words, but these words have stuck with me. “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” I was safe in the dark. I was afraid to come into the light. I was afraid to change my mind.

After that, I left. But I was not the same.

Some months later, Jesus came to Jerusalem again. It was the Festival of Booths, the time when we Jews celebrate the gift of God’s law to Moses. In the middle of the festival, Jesus began teaching in the Temple. The crowd debated whether he was from God or not. He was persuading large numbers of people that he was right.

I was becoming more and more convinced.

The Sanhedrin debated the issue briefly. Then a vote was taken. The council sent the temple guard to arrest Jesus for blasphemy. The guards, however, took some time to listen to Jesus. They hesitated. They returned to the authorities empty-handed. 

“Why did you not arrest him?” the authorities demanded. 

“Never has anyone spoken like this!” the officers of the guard replied. The authorities scoffed. They described the crowd as ignorant of the law and cursed by God. I was not ready to take a public stand on Jesus. But I could not let this terrible process continue. 

I stood up before the council and raised a point of order. “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” I asked. 

The president of the council responded with an insult. “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you?” he sneered. “Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” 

I was publicly humiliated. But at least I bought Jesus some time. He was gone before they could send the guards back to the temple.

This last time, however, he did not escape. He came once again for the Passover. This time the chief priests had an inside contact. They bought off one of his disciples. They arrested him in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

The trial was quick—merely a formality. I could have spoken in his defense, but it would have made no difference. All that would have happened is that I would have ended up dead alongside him. And courage is not my strong suit, remember?

The Romans crucified him at the Place of the Skull. He was one more failed messiah, humiliated and broken by the might of the Roman eagle.

Joseph decided that Jesus had endured enough. That is when he asked to be allowed to bury the body. I may be short on courage, but I have plenty of money. So I bought the spices and the sheets. If only a strong backbone could be so easily purchased.

I sought him out in the dark. But I know that I cannot remain in that darkness. I remember now some of his words from that first encounter. “But those who do what is true come to the light,” he said, and he looked closely at me, “so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

I have lived in the darkness long enough. Now he is buried with respect and honor. Tomorrow is the Sabbath. On the third, I will go to the Sanhedrin speak the truth that I have heard from him. That will be the first day of the week. 

Who knows what might happen after sunrise that day!

Sermon for Matthew 5:11-20

5 Epiphany A, 2023

In our worship, we read the Bible in bits and pieces. The technical name for one of those bits and pieces is a “pericope.” The word literally means “to cut around” something.

A pericope is a section cut out from a larger book. Each week we cut pieces out of three Biblical books: an Old Testament book, a New Testament letter, and one of the four gospels. That’s what we read aloud during our time together.

We don’t sit down and read a whole book of the Bible every Sunday. That’s the good part about pericopes. And the bad part about pericopes is this. We don’t sit down and read a whole book of the Bible every Sunday. In our worship, we read the Bible in bits and pieces.

The bad part about pericopes is that we don’t get the whole story. We read and hear a few verses. Maybe we look for the point in those verses. But we always risk missing the point. We hear these verses in isolation. It’s hard to put them back into the bigger story.

We are reading through Matthew’s gospel this year. We won’t read every verse of that gospel in worship. But we’ll hear most of them. And, for the most part, we’ll hear them in order.

That helps, but it’s not enough. Every so often we have to review where we’re at in the story.

Jesus is “God with us.” That’s how the story begins. That’s how Matthew celebrates Christmas. Jesus is God with us to save God’s people from their sins. That mission attracts attention from the Gentile world. The Magi come to the manger.

Jesus’ mission also attracts the attention of the powers of this world. Jesus is worshipped as the King of the Jews. For that reason, he is a threat to and threatened by the powers of this world. The shadow of the cross falls over the manger in Bethlehem.

Jesus is son of Abraham, son of David, son of Joseph, and son of God. That identity is confirmed and amplified in his baptism. Satan works to derail Jesus’ mission. Satan fails and Jesus moves from personal identity to public ministry.

Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus proclaims. He calls disciples. Through the disciples, Jesus will carry out his mission. It’s a nondescript bunch. It’s the core of a larger nondescript bunch called “The Church.”

Jesus teaches and heals and frees people throughout Galilee. The movement is launched. Then Jesus preaches a whopper of a sermon.

The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ mission manifesto. The Sermon on the Mount is a discipleship manual. We get a description of the Kingdom of God in the Beatitudes.

Jesus announces the Great Reversal of the Kingdom. He describes what that Reversal looks like for disciples. He acknowledges how the powers of this world will react to and reject that Reversal.

That summary gets us up to date. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account,” Jesus tells the disciples. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

When we get the mission right, we’ll know. When we move the margins, the center reacts. When we embrace the disposables, we join them in their struggles. When we do that, we can rejoice and be glad, Jesus says. We’ll be in very good company.

Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me. We heard that message a few weeks ago. Today that message gets magnified. Jesus chooses to change the world through you and me. “You are the salt of the earth,” he declares to the disciples. “You are the light of the world.”

Salt and light change things by making them better. Think, for example, about snow and ice on your driveway. Even when the thermometer is below freezing, sunshine will melt the snow. Salt will thaw the ice. Our front stoop is no longer a death trap for the delivery people. And it’s possible to get in the garage without sliding around.

Salt and light change things by making them better. Think, for example, about cooking and cleaning. A little bit of salt improves the flavor of lots of things. Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Jesus uses these everyday images to make a powerful point. Jesus chooses to change the world through you and me.

And Jesus uses us to change things for the better. I think that’s the main thought for today. Jesus uses us to change things for the better.

Before we go on, I want to point out the good news in that main thought. Jesus says you are salt and light, right here and right now. That’s not something you work your way into. That’s not something you earn. This call to be disciples is God’s gift of grace. It’s what happens when God is with us in Jesus. It’s what happens when God makes us beloved children in Jesus.

We are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. Not “we might be.” Not “we will be.” We are.

Think about what happens in Holy Communion. You receive the Body and Blood of Christ. You hear the words, “given and shed for you.” Not might be. Not will be. Given and shed for you right here and right now. The living presence of Jesus for you is God’s gift of grace. Right here. Right now.

Through that gift of grace, Jesus changes us for the better. Jesus makes us what God created us to be. That’s the good news. That’s such good news that it changes our hearts. It fills us with joy and peace, hope and encouragement. But that’s not the end of the story.

Jesus changes us for the better so we can be part of his mission of life. That’s what it means to be disciples. Jesus uses us to change things for the better. That gets us to verse sixteen: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

If that verse rings a bell, I’m glad. We use it to remind ourselves of what baptism looks like in the life of a believer. And this is God’s story all through the Bible.

Our first reading reminds us of Isaiah’s ancient words. God wants to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to feed the hungry, to shelter the unhoused, to cover the naked. “Then,” Isaiah declares, “your light shall break forth like the dawn…

Faith is fulfilled in doing. I’m taking a risk today and offering a second main point. “For I tell you,” Jesus declares, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Here’s what he means.

In Matthew twenty-three, verses two and three, Jesus goes after the scribes and Pharisees. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat,” Jesus proclaims, “therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” Disciples don’t just talk the talk. We walk the walk.

Faith is fulfilled in doing. This isn’t an anti-Jewish critique. Jesus is talking about Christians who like being forgiven but don’t like acting that way. Jesus uses us to change things for the better. Faith is fulfilled in doing.

In next few weeks, Jesus will give us examples of what changing things for the better looks like. Jesus will show us the ways our faith is fulfilled in doing. You can prepare for those readings by thinking about your daily life.

Think and pray about these questions. How is Jesus using you personally to change things for the better? How is Jesus using Mamrelund Lutheran Church to change things for the better?

I know you can come up with an awesome list of answers. As you come up with them, maybe you’ll post some of them on our church Facebook page. Others might find encouragement and inspiration in your answers.

Changing things for the better isn’t easy. It means doing things in new ways. Jesus uses us to change things for the better. Faith is fulfilled in doing.

Let’s pray…

Sermon for January 29, 2023

4 Epiphany C

Matthew 4:23-5:12

Jesus says there are no disposable people. That’s today’s main thought. And that’s the main thought in Matthew’s gospel for the next twenty chapters. So, hang on to that thought from now to November. Use that thought to understand every gospel reading this year.

Jesus says there are no disposable people.

At this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has started his public ministry. “Repent,” Jesus declares, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Change how you see the world. Seek a different story to make sense of life. Adjust your thinking to make room for God.

That’s what it means to repent.

Jesus announces the change. Jesus then recruits the changers. The changers are the disciples. Remember – Jesus chooses to change the world through us. Then, Jesus gets to work.

Jesus travels the length and breadth of Galilee. Galilee isn’t a power center. Galilee is the backwoods, the hinterland, the territory of the forgotten and abandoned. And this is where Jesus launches his campaign.

Jesus heals every sick person they bring to him. He cures the demon-possessed, the epileptics, the paralyzed. These people are primary examples of the cursed and ignored. They are case studies of the alienated and isolated. They are regarded as disposable people.

This is where Jesus starts.

Jesus says there are no disposable people. People crave this message. In no time at all, Jesus attracts crowds from a fifty-mile radius. Those crowds include Jews and Greeks, rabbis and soldiers, rich and poor. Because everyone feels disposable in one way or another.

Here’s an important point. It comes from John Swinton, a marvelous theologian and writer. “Jesus did not sit with those on the margins of society,” Swinton writes, “Rather, he moved the margins.”

That idea unlocks the mystery of today’s gospel reading. I want you to chew on that idea this morning. Jesus moves the margins.

In Matthew five, Jesus starts the Sermon on the Mount. The first twelve verses are often called “The Beatitudes.” That title comes from the Latin word for “blessed.” These verses begin with that word. That’s where we get the title.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus tells a “counter-story.” A counter-story pushes against the story everybody accepts as true. More than that, a counter-story usually comes from a different perspective. A counter-story usually comes from the edges of society, not the center.

Jesus tells a counter-story. In that story, Jesus moves the margins. But what is the story Jesus is “countering”?

The regular story blames the poor for their poverty. In the end, the poor get nothing.

The regular story tells the grieving to get over it. In the end, we just suck it up and move on.

The regular story says that gentleness is for suckers. Only the strong survive.

The regular story says that only fools think things will get better. Instead, you should just get yours while you have the chance.

The regular story says people are selfish. Life is a war of all against all. God doesn’t care. Get over it. The regular story is how most people see the world. The regular story supports the regular system. In the regular system the few get the goodies and the many get the shaft.

The regular story says that power, privilege, property, and pleasure are the prize. And people are disposable.

Jesus doesn’t buy the regular story. Jesus moves the margin. Jesus says there are no disposable people.

You might think this has nothing to do with you. You’re not poor or grieving or powerless or raging for justice. Too bad for the others. But you’re not one of the disposables.

That’s all right. Just keep telling yourself that.

Or…you can look a little deeper. That regular story lives inside of me. I’ll never really be good enough for anyone. I’ll never really have enough stuff to cure my poverty of spirit. I can’t get over my grief, so I just bury it under busyness. I can’t make the world right. So, I stop trying and just numb the pain.

I’m pretty sure I’m disposable too.

I suspect the regular story works for somebody. I suspect there are normal people somewhere. I’m also sure the story doesn’t work for me. I’m also sure I’m not one of those normal people.

I’m guessing that, whether you admit it or not, you’re with me on this. I’m not normal. I’m not worthwhile. I’m certainly not blessed. Most of the time, I’m pretty disposable.

Jesus says there are no disposable people. The regular story is not God’s story. The regular story is wrong. Jesus calls us to reject the regular story. Jesus calls us to live in God’s story. That’s what it means to repent.

Here’s God’s story. Jesus moves the margins. Jesus claims us disposables for the kingdom of God. Jesus names us blessed and worthy and greatly honored. Jesus comes to heal the sick, not to congratulate the healthy. Jesus comes to call not the righteous bus sinners.

Jesus will go anywhere to claim us disposables. Jesus joins us despised and disposable people on a Roman cross. That’s the final tool and symbol of the regular story. But not even death can dispose of Jesus.

God raises Jesus from the dead. God moves the margins of life. The regular story says death wins in the end. The regular story says we all get disposed of in the dirt. The regular story is wrong.

Jesus says there are no disposable people.

Jesus turns the regular story inside out and upside down. This makes no sense to the regular story people. But we aren’t regular story people. We follow Jesus. We trust that Jesus is, as Paul writes, “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” We are blessed to live in that power and by that wisdom.

Now we can read the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are a poem. The first stanza is verses three through six. In that first stanza, Jesus reverses the regular story. In God’s kingdom, the disposable people are greatly honored. Jesus moves the margins to the center.

The regular story has an expiration date. That expiration date is the first Easter Sunday.

The second stanza is verses seven through ten. The Church says there are no disposable people. We are called to be margin-movers. We do that through gentleness. We do that through peace-building. We do that by challenging the systems designed to dispose of people daily.

The second stanza is a job-description for world-changers. Jesus calls us world-changers disciples.

Maybe this sounds a bit airy-fairy to you. So, let me give an example. I’m honored to visit homebound members of our congregation. I pray with them and bring them communion. We spend time in small talk. Some might think this is a waste of time. But I go because Jesus says there are no disposable people.

Have you ever been stuck at home because of an illness or injury? Think about how quickly you disappeared from other people’s social radar screens. Perhaps you got a taste of that during the COVID lockdowns. It doesn’t take long to wonder if we matter much. It’s no surprise that loneliness and depression were the most common results of the lockdowns.

Jesus says there are no disposable people. In November, we’ll get to Matthew twenty-five – the bookend for today’s gospel. In that chapter, we’ll get a list of people discarded by the regular story. We’ll meet the hungry and thirsty, the unwelcome and unhoused, the ill and imprisoned. This is an inventory of folks who drop off our radar screens. These are some of the disposable people in the regular story.

Jesus moves the margins. Jesus puts the hungry and thirsty, the unwelcome and the unhoused, the ill and the imprisoned in the center of God’s story. Jesus calls us margin-movers to do that daily.

Moving the margins was easier for Matthew’s community. Most of them were on the edge already. They didn’t have inherited power, privilege, and property. Most were illiterate. Many were enslaved people. Matthew’s folks didn’t have to find the disposables. They were the disposables.

It’s harder for us. We have power, privilege, and property. We have education and influence. We can determine our own destinies. Most of us here are not among the social disposables.

Don’t feel bad about that. You and I can leverage our privilege for those who have less. You and I can use our wealth to benefit the impoverished. You and I can use our influence to move the margins. You and I can resist the regular story by living the Jesus story.

When we get that right, we’ll know. Now we come to verses eleven and twelve. When we move the margins, the center reacts. When we embrace the disposables, we join them in their struggles. When we do that, we can rejoice and be glad, Jesus says. We’ll be in very good company.

Jesus says there are no disposable people. Is that how we’ll live this week?

Let’s pray…

Sermon for 01/22/2023

Matthew 4:12-25

In today’s gospel, Jesus calls the first four disciples. So, I want to talk about being called.

(Slide 54) Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me. I invite you to think and pray this week about that promise. Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me.

First, Jesus chooses to work this way. He announces the Good News. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This isn’t about feeling sorry for our sins.

This is about seeing the world in a whole new way. This is about seeing the world as the place where God is in charge. This is about seeing the world as a place of hope and healing, of possibility and promise, of peace and justice.

Jesus could do this all by himself. But God made us to be partners in life and creation. Sin, death, and the devil disrupt that partnership. When we are God’s partners, that’s when we are most fully human. That’s when we are once again the image and likeness of God. Jesus chooses to work through you and me because that’s what God has always wanted.

Jesus chooses to work in the world. He sets up housekeeping in Capernaum – an out of the way village alongside the Galilean lake. He starts in territory that has been a spiritual wasteland for centuries. He calls some pretty ordinary folks to do some pretty extraordinary things. He heals everyone who comes his way. His fame spreads throughout the land.

Jesus chooses to work in the real world. He doesn’t travel to a distant country. He starts at home. That’s where our calling starts too.

Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me. Jesus calls each of us to mission and service. You were called in your baptism to let your light shine before others. When others see your good works in the name of Jesus, they will glorify God.

Jesus starts with what the first disciples know – fishing. And he starts with what you know and where you are. No one else can answer your call, or mine.

Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me.

Today isn’t really about being called into public Church ministry. Today isn’t really about being called to be a pastor or a deacon. Except, sometimes it is. I stand before you as living proof that Jesus can use the least qualified, the least interested person in the world, to do ministry. If God can use me, trust me, God can use anyone.

So, I do want to talk about the call to public Church ministry. Next Sunday at our annual meeting we will put in place a “Call Committee.” That’s another step in what we often refer to as “The Call Process.” But that process is probably not quite what you think it is.

What is the first thing a call committee does? You might think they will get right down to hiring a new pastor. That’s not the first thing. The first thing the call committee does is to discern the call of this congregation.

Remember, Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me.

The first thing the call committee does is to discern the call of this congregation. If the call committee gets that right, the rest of the call process goes pretty smoothly. If the call committee skimps on that first step, the rest of the call process does not go well.

I know this because I’ve been the pastor who gets called. I know this because I’ve helped congregations call a pastor or deacon. Most of all, I know this because I understand and appreciate how we ELCA folks understand what a call to ministry really is.

You might think this is an unnecessary delay. You might think this is a waste of time. But I want you to think about how people get hired for jobs.

Sometimes, we have a job opening, and we just fill it with the next person. We can do that because we already know what the job is. We already know what the job is because we know the goals and mission of the business. We know the goals and mission of the business because that’s usually pretty clear. Or at least we think it is.

Sometimes we make a bad hire. We get a mismatch between what the job needs and what the person brings to the job. When that happens, we can blame the new hire. We move that person on and try again. If we do that, we’ll probably just get another bad hire.

Or we can take some time to assess where we’re at in the business. What’s our mission? What are our goals? Is this the same job it was five years ago or ten years ago or forty years ago? Are we the same company and the same people? What do we imagine we’ll be in the next five or ten or fifteen years?

A business that asks these questions makes fewer bad hires. More important, that business is better prepared to get the most out of the new employee. Most important, that business is better prepared for the future.

Calling new pastoral leadership isn’t exactly like hiring a new employee. I could preach a whole other sermon on the differences. However, the analogy is close enough for today. Bishop Halaas and your church council have asked me to assist the Call Committee here in their work. I’m honored by that request. And I’m glad to help.

Calling a leader is not about hiring a pastor or deacon. It’s about discerning the mission and ministry of a congregation. Remember, Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me.

The first task for the call committee is to complete what’s called a Ministry Site Profile. Usually, we refer to that document as the MSP.

The MSP is a detailed and discerning description of the mission of the congregation now and into the future. That’s the first task because the Call Process discerns the call of this congregation first. Then the Call Process focuses on calling new pastoral leadership.

Think back to Paul’s words to the Corinthian church. People at Corinth are having a church fight. Some of them claim allegiance to Paul. Others claim allegiance to Apollos or to Cephas. Some of them say they claim allegiance to Christ and reject all human leadership.

Paul says this church fight dismembers Jesus – that it tears Jesus apart. That Corinthian congregation puts personalities before purpose. That Corinthian congregation puts fame ahead of fellowship. That Corinthian congregation puts hiring ahead of ministry and mission.

That’s why Paul calls them back to their theology. Paul calls them to discern their unity and purpose as a congregation. The word of the cross is the power of God. When the Corinthians focus on that word, questions about leadership will be easier to resolve.

Paul offers this encouragement in 1 Corinthians 1, verse 9 – “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” The first call we discern is the call of the congregation.

Remember, Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me.

You should expect members of the call committee to ask you questions in the coming weeks and months. That’s part of their task. But don’t expect them to ask you what kind of pastor you want. That’s not the first question.

The first questions go more like this. What makes us a healthy and vital congregation? And how is God calling us to use that health and vitality for mission and service now and in the future?

Those are the questions I ask you to reflect on and pray about in the coming weeks and months. If we discern those questions properly, calling new pastoral leadership will go much better.

I invite you also to reflect and pray on your own sense of call to mission and service. When congregational members do that, a call process goes much better. This is about the call of the congregation, not just the call of an individual.

How is Jesus choosing to work in the world through you right now? How will Jesus choose to work in the world through you in the coming months and years? Maybe the answer is the same as it’s been for years. Or maybe Jesus has something new in mind for you. Now is a good time to ask the questions.

It’s always possible that someone here is being called to public ministry in the Church. New pastors and deacons come from somewhere – why not from Mamrelund Lutheran Church? If you’ve ever wondered about becoming a public leader in the Church, I’d love to talk to you. Talking is not the same as doing. We can just see where it goes.

Jesus chooses to work in the world through you and me. How is Jesus calling you today?

Let’s pray…

Sermon for January 15, 2023

Matthew 4:1-11

On Thursday, January twelfth, 2010, at 3:53 p.m. Central Standard Time, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the island nation of Haiti. I didn’t know that was the first day of the worst year of my life.

The next morning, I sat in my office in Lincoln. I had just gotten off the phone with a producer from CNN. She wanted to know if I would go on the air with any comments on the possible death of Ben Larson in that earthquake.

I referred her to Ben’s family. I had no business saying anything about Ben’s death at that point. And I was pretty sure that all I would do on air was weep uncontrollably.

Ben Larson had been my pastoral intern the year before. His wife, Renee, had been the intern with Lutheran Campus Ministry at UNL. I had known Ben’s parents, Pastors April and Judd Ullring Larson, for years.

But I didn’t meet Ben until just before his internship. That is, unless you count the couple of times I talked to his mom when she was eight months pregnant with him.

In some ways, Ben became like a third son to me during that internship. So, his sudden death landed on me hard. But Ben’s death turned out to be only the beginning.

Two years earlier, I had presided over the wedding of one of my favorite young couples. I rejoiced just to be a small part of their new life together. They gave birth to a beautiful little girl. I was honored to baptize her at worship.

But soon, it was clear that something was wrong. The baby suffered from an incurable condition. It was a genetic abnormality, unwittingly passed on to her by her parents. She lived for six months. Then I presided at her funeral.

I started to unravel after that. I left parish ministry and got a job as a nursing home chaplain. That seemed like a way forward for me. A week after I started that new job, I took my wife to the emergency room at Bryan Hospital. Twelve days later, at 1:32 a.m., she died in our downstairs family room.

And I came completely undone.

I’m not telling you this to be dramatic or to garner your sympathy. I’ve had years to deal with all of this. Some of you have been through as much and worse.

You know what it’s like to enter a wilderness. You know what it’s like to get lost in the wastelands of despair and death. You know what it’s like to ask, “What’s the plan?” you know what it’s like to ask, “What’s the point?”

So does Jesus.

Last week we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism. As Jesus came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit came down to meet him. God announced for all the world to hear, “This is my Son, the Beloved, the one with whom I’m delighted!”

We rejoiced to remember whose we are in in our baptisms. In Jesus, we are God’s beloved children, with whom God is delighted.

In the next sentence – the very next sentence – the Holy Spirit carries Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. Would it have been too much to ask for just a few days to enjoy the moment?

But this is so often how it goes, doesn’t it? Just when things are going so well, it all goes to…well, you know.

It’s tempting to think that Jesus had it all figured out in advance. You know, because of the whole Son of God thing and all. But that’s not what the Bible really tells us.

In Hebrews four, verse fifteen, for example, you can read these words. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathized with our weakness, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (my emphasis).

When Jesus is tested in the wilderness, he’s not play-acting. He’s not staging a “pretending to be human” performance for our benefit. Jesus, the devil says, if you really are who God says you are, why are you suffering? Why has everything apparently gone to…well, you know? What’s the plan? What’s the point?

Most of all, Jesus – how do we get through this?

I have kept a series of rough journals since 2007. I wrote this for January 29, 2010. During Lent of 2009, Ben Larson had preached a sermon on Psalm 77. That’s a lament psalm. It’s the complaint of someone who’s life has apparently gone to…well, you know.

So, it’s not on most people’s top ten psalms list. The Psalmist cries out to a God who seems to be deaf and mute. The Psalmist complains to a God who seems to have stopped caring. “Has the LORD’s steadfast love ceased forever?” the Psalmist asks. “Are the LORD’s promises at an end for all time?” the Psalmist wonders.

Ben wrote these words as he reflected on the Psalmist’s questions. “Whenever we go to dark, chaotic places, we are not called to alter the truth. We are not called to pretend that everything is all right. We are not called,” Ben continued, “to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We are invited by God to recall God’s deeds of the past.”

Ben was reading the words of the Psalmist again. “I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD,” the Psalmist declares. “I will remember your wonders of old. I will meditate on your work,” the Psalmist continues, “and muse on your mighty deeds” (verses 11 and 12).

Jesus lives out the words of the Psalmist in his wilderness testing. God is the one who produced the manna in the wilderness. Why would Jesus do a magic trick just to keep his tummy from rumbling?

God is the one who rescued Israel from bondage and death. Why would Jesus dive off the Temple like some Hollywood stunt performer? God is the one who rules over all human authority. Why would Jesus need to reclaim an authority that was already his?

Remember who God is and whose you are. That’s how Jesus deals with the wilderness testing. Jesus remembers that he is God’s beloved Son. Jesus remembers that God is tickled pink with him. The Devil can’t make that any more or less true, no matter how many tests are involved.

Remember who God is and whose you are. In his Lenten sermon, Ben Larson continued with these words. “We remember our baptisms where we become part of the death and resurrection of Christ. We remember our baptisms,” he continued, “where God looked at the most powerful force of chaos – death – and it tumbled and was defeated.”

Remember who God is and whose you are. Less than a year later, Ben confronted that chaos. Ben and Renee, and Ben’s cousin Jon, were in a building that collapsed during the earthquake. Renee and Jon were in a space that let them live. Ben was crushed by large stones in the center of the building.

Ben was growing into one of the finest young preachers of his generation. He was also a gifted musician. No one was surprised to hear that he died singing praise to God. Renee crawled through the rubble to find him when the shaking stopped. She heard him sing his last breath: “Give us peace, O God, we pray.”

Remember who God is and whose you are. I would like to say that Ben’s words and witness carried me triumphantly through that worst year of my life. I’d like to say that. And sometimes that would be true. But more often, it wasn’t true. Jesus didn’t go directly from baptism to beating down the devil. There was a lot of wilderness wandering in between.

But when I forgot Jesus, Jesus remembered me. Even when I cursed God, God blessed me. Even when my spirit drained to nothing. The Holy Spirit kept filling me. It wasn’t all one thing or another. But angels waited on me whether I realized it or not.

I got through it in part because of the Church. The church reminded me of my baptism. The church spoke God’s word to me when God seemed silent everywhere else. The church fed me with bread and wine so I could remember God’s grace and mercy.

Remember who God is and whose you are. That’s what we do here every week.

Ben gave me one more gift I treasure. I wasn’t a fan of the new red hymnal until Ben came along. He taught us a song that is worth the price of the book all by itself. It’s number 808 in the ELW. It’s called “Lord Jesus, You Shall be My Song.” I’ll share a few verses as my prayer for us today. It helps me remember.

Lord Jesus, you shall be my song as I journey;

I’ll tell ev’rybody about you wherever I go:

you alone are our life and our peace and our love.

Lord Jesus, you shall be my song as I journey.

I fear in the dark and the doubt of my journey;

but courage will come with the sound of your steps by my side.

And with all of the family you saved by your love,

we’ll sing to your dawn at the end of our journey.


Message for January 8 2023

Baptism of Our Lord, 2023

Matthew 3:1-17

“Identity Matters”

 (slide 43) Identity Matters

Baptism of Our Lord 2023

Matthew 3:1-17

(slide 44) Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis on April 5th, 1945. He was executed at the Flossenburg concentration camp in southwest Germany. He died fourteen days before Allied forces liberated the camp.  Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor, seminary professor, author, and a member of the German resistance to Hitler. He was thirty-nine when he was murdered for that resistance.

Many of you know about Bonhoeffer. He is probably as close to an “official” Lutheran saint as we can get. Bonhoeffer is an icon, an example, and an inspiration to many of us. Yet, he didn’t see himself that way.

Bonhoeffer wrote poetry as well as sermons, books, and bible studies. One of his best-known poems is called “Who Am I.” He wrote this poem while he was imprisoned. It goes like this:

(slide 45) Who am I? They often tell me

I would step from my cell’s confinement

calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

like a squire from his country-house.

(slide 46) Who am I? They often tell me

I would talk to my warders

freely and friendly and clearly,

as though it were mine to command.

(slide 47) Who am I? They also tell me

I would bear the days of misfortune

equably, smilingly, proudly,

like one accustomed to win.

(Slide 48) Am I then really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I know of myself,

restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,

(Slide 49) yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,

trembling with anger at despotism and petty humiliation,

tossing in expectation of great events,

(Slide 50) powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

(Slide 51) Who am I? This or the other?

Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

(Slide 52) Or is something within me still like a beaten army,

fleeing in disorder from a victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.

“Whoever I am,” Bonhoeffer confesses, “thou knowest, O God, I am thine.” Bonhoeffer knew the truth of today’s gospel.

(Slide 53) The most important thing is not “who” I am. The most important thing is “whose” I am.

People these days make immense investments in identity. People choose an identity and then carefully curate that personal exhibit. People carefully select which elements of themselves they want to display to the public. They arrange those chosen items for best effect. They put the unwanted and unattractive bits in their emotional basements for long-term storage.

(Slide 54) In fact, people today don’t have “identities.” We have “profiles.” We trim and manicure and polish those profiles for public consumption. We have different profiles for different audiences and different goals. And after a while, like Bonhoeffer, we get very anxious about who we are.

Bonhoeffer knew that he put on a brave front. He did that for his family and friends, and for his fellow inmates. Bonhoeffer spoke with confidence to his captors rather than surrendering to their bullying and abuse. He talked about when he would be released and what he would do when he got out. This comforted those who loved him. And perhaps sometimes he half-believed it himself.

But underneath it all was the truth. “Restless and longing and sick,” he wrote, “like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath…” When have you felt that way underneath it all? When have I felt that way underneath it all? Well, what time is it?

Who am I? Am I one or the other? Am I both at once? How many selves are struggling to control me and failing at every moment? You don’t have to be on a Nazi death row to wrestle with these questions.

(Slide 55) Jesus gets baptized. He does that to identify with us as we strive to fulfill all righteousness. As he comes up out of the water, something else happens. The heavens open. The Spirit of God lands on him like a gentle dove. The very voice of God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I take delight.” The most important thing is not “who” Jesus is. The most important thing is “whose” Jesus is.

As we begin the season of Epiphany in the Church, we remember Jesus’ baptism. As we remember Jesus’ baptism, we remember our own baptisms. We are baptized in Christ Jesus. In that baptism, the most important thing is not “who” I am. The most important thing is “whose” I am. “Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.”

(Slide 56) That’s what I hope you will take with you today. In Jesus, you are God’s child. You are God’s beloved child. You are God’s beloved child, and God is just tickled pink about you. That’s who you are. But more important, that’s whose you are.

(Slide 57) During the season of Epiphany, we’re going to do two things in worship to remind ourselves of all that. Each week we will begin our worship with a “Thanksgiving for Baptism.” You probably noticed that at the beginning of our worship today. And when we confess our faith in the Creed, we will make renew our commitments to our baptismal covenants.

(Slide 58) What does that second part mean? When you belong to someone, that affects your identity. For example, how do you show people which sports teams you support? [Ask for suggestions]. You might wear a jersey for that team. Maybe you have a bumper sticker or a pennant or a poster. You probably watch your team on TV. You might attend some of the games. You may trash talk family and friends about their terrible taste in teams.

When you belong to someone, that affects your identity. That’s especially true when we belong to Jesus. But our belonging shows up in our behavior, not just in our wardrobe.

Belonging to Jesus shows up in five actions. Those actions are listed in our commitments. First, I will ask you a question. Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism? God has made that covenant with you in the name of Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Is that something you want to stick with?

(Slide 59) Before you answer too quickly, I list the details of that sticking with. You’re entitled to know what you’re getting into. Continuing in that baptismal covenant means:

  • to live among God’s faithful people,
  • to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,
  • to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,
  • to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,
  • and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?

If I belong to Jesus, I’m a person who does these things. I don’t do them to impress God. I don’t do them to get a reward. You and I can disagree about the details of the doing. But we don’t do them to win some sort of Christian competition. I do them because I belong to Jesus. Belonging to Jesus tells me who I am – and whose I am.

Remember, in Jesus, you are God’s child. You are God’s beloved child. You are God’s beloved child, and God is just tickled pink about you. That’s who you are. But more important, that’s whose you are.

(Slide 60) And that’s who we are together. So, here’s your homework assignment. This week, tell at least three Jesus followers that they are God’s child; that they are God’s beloved child; that they are God’s beloved child, and God is just tickled pink about you. If you get the chance, let me know how that goes. Let’s pray…

Message for November 27, 2022

Read Matthew 1:1-17 (see also the previous post with “Matthew’s Begats.”

Note: This message is for a baptismal worship service. Where names have been elided, that is to protect the privacy of the family.

Well, that was a weird reading, right? No matter how much fun Andrew Peterson’s song was, it’s still a strange text for today. Dry and dusty history from three thousand years past. Names that are foreign to our ears and challenging for our tongues.

It’s like looking at someone else’s family pictures. You do your best to appear politely interested. All the time you’re thinking to yourself, “Who are these people?”

And yet, these days, genealogies are big business. All of us baby boomers are afraid we’re going to die, and no one will remember us. We have accounts. We’ve spit in a tube and waited for our genetic profiles. We watch celebrities in shock as they discover some hidden branch of their family tree.

I’ll bet a quarter of the phone calls we get at the church office start out like this. “I’m doing some research on my genealogy. Do you have any records on my relatives?”

Where do I come from? Who are my people? What’s my story? Am I part of a bigger story?

These questions matter to people. The answers help tell us who we are. The answers tell us where we belong. And the answers might give us some clues about where we’re headed.

It’s interesting to read a genealogy on a baptism day. … is the newest addition to your family trees. He carries the history and hopes, not only of his parents, but of generations of ancestors.

As he grows, you’ll probably tell him some of those stories. They will help him know who he is. And they will help him imagine who he might become.

I think of those stories in my family tree. A couple of my ancestors lived in one of the first sod houses in western Plymouth County. A young mother, six months pregnant, snared and slaughtered a hog to feed her children. She did that because her husband had stayed too long in town with his drinking buddies.

A young man left Germany to escape the gathering clouds of war. He became a Lutheran school teacher in my home church. Another young man couldn’t obey the rules. So, he became a farmer instead of a preacher. I often wonder how that story has shaped my own relationship being a preacher.

My family tree has its heroes and saints. My family tree also has its rogues and sinners. So does every family tree. My family tree has a large number of rebels and skeptics, investigators and inquirers, and no small portion of atheists. All of that explains a lot of who I am now.

Now my grandchildren are the leading edge of that larger story. … is the leading edge of the larger story in his family. I suspect that his family will spend some time today telling that story. That’s what happens when families gather.

Genealogy is about beginnings. It’s about origin stories. Matthew launches his gospel with Jesus’ origin story. “The book of the Genesis of Jesus, the Messiah,” Matthew writes in verse one, “son of David, son of Abraham.”

I know that’s not how the NRSV translates it. But that’s what it says.

That word, “genesis,” means “beginnings.” If you connect Matthew’s sentence to the first book of the Bible, give yourself a gold star! That first book is named “Genesis” because it’s about beginnings. It’s about the beginning of Creation, the beginning of humanity, the beginning of Israel.

Matthew wants us to hear Jesus’ story as part of that great big story.

Jesus’ family tree has heroes and saints. But Jesus’ family tree leans heavily toward rogues and sinners. Abraham plays fast and loose with the truth. Jacob is a trickster and thief. David is more like a mob boss than a wise king. Jesus’ family tree has cowards and cheats, frauds and fools, liars and losers.

We find a few heroes in the list. But they are the exceptions.

A close look at any genealogy produces humility. We like to highlight the heroes and saints. We brag up our successful and prominent ancestors. We try to claim a bit of their past glory for ourselves.

But for every hero or saint on the list, I have five stinkers slinking in the background. The genesis of Jesus makes me feel a bit better about my own ancestral line.

Maybe you noticed the women in that list of male ancestors. The women make the list even weirder. Not because the women are weird. But ancient family trees hardly ever mentioned the mothers. So, mentioning the women means something. Matthew has a trick up his theological sleeve here.

You may not recognize these women. Maybe you’ll check them out this week. The women are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. These four are outsiders. They’re not Israelites. They don’t have respectable jobs. The men in their lives use and abuse them, neglect and abandon them.

They’re on the list because these women are smart, courageous, desperate, and persistent.

So, watch Matthew’s story for outsiders. Watch Matthew’s story for those who have to buck and battle the system. Watch Matthew’s story for those threatened by the powerful. Watch Matthew’s story for those who threaten the powerful. Watch Matthew’s story for those who won’t take no for an answer.

These are the heroes and saints in Matthew’s story. These are the heroes and saints in Jesus’ story.

The real hero, after all, is Jesus. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham, the Son of God. The genealogy begins with Jesus. The genealogy ends with Jesus. The story goes from blessing Abraham to crowning David. It goes from the triumph of Solomon to the tragedy of the Exile. It goes from the depths of despair to the hoped-for Messiah.

But what about those numbers? Does Matthew have a side-hustle as an accountant? If so, he’s not very good. Abraham to David – fourteen generations. David to Deportation – fourteen generations. Deportation to Joseph – thirteen generations. Did Matthew miscount?

No, Jesus is the fourteenth, the fulfillment, the completion, the goal. This is Matthew’s story. God’s people have waited for that final name. That final name is Jesus.

Today, … becomes part of that big story. Today … is baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah. Today … is baptized into the love story of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Today … is named Child of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit. Today … is marked forever with the cross of the Messiah.

Today is the beginning of that new life for …. Today is his “genesis day.”

As … grows, his family will tell him stories about his bigger story. And we – parents, sponsors, congregation – we promise to tell him the biggest story of all. We promise to tell him God’s story of salvation in Jesus.

You heard and made those promises a few moments ago. We promise to walk with … as he learns God’s story of salvation. We promise to sit with him in worship as we celebrate that story.

We promise to put the Bible in his hands and teach him to make that story his own. We promise to teach him the faith in the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Commandments. We promise to help … love his place in God’s story of salvation.

That’s why this congregation has Sunday School, Bible School, and confirmation instruction. That’s why we do preschool and youth activities and Christmas programs and music. Because we promised.

Because we promised to help each and all of our children to love their places in God’s story of salvation. So, we volunteer as teachers and helpers and sponsors. We support ministries of nurture and education. We offer these gifts to anyone’s children – because they are all God’s children.

God’s big story has a goal. And it produces results. We carry out these promises so … can fulfill his baptismal calling. That calling is to let his light so shine before others that they may see his good works and give glory to his Father in heaven. We all have that calling – to live in such a way that the world will know God’s big story of salvation and our part in that story.

Our part is to trust God in all things. Our part is to tell the big story in what we say and do. Our part is to care for all God’s kids and the world where they live. Our part is to work through the story so that no one is left out or left behind. When we do our part, we help …, and all of our children, grow in faith and life.

Today is a day of beginnings. It’s the beginning  of a new church year. It’s the beginning of a new church season. It’s the beginning of our journey through Matthew’s story. It’s the beginning of …’s part in God’s big story of salvation in Jesus.

So, today is not about endings. Baptism is a launch pad, not a landing spot. Our place in the big story lasts a lifetime.

Parents, thank you for allowing us to be part of …’s beginning. Thank you for bringing him into God’s story and God’s family. Thank you for your promises of love and faith. We promise to continue what we’ve begun together. Let’s pray…