Thursday, July 16, 2009

Pentecost 7, Lectionary 16; July 19, 2009


(This one is not exactly old and not exactly new. it's half one old one, a dash of another old one and about 40 % new.)

A sermon preached at St. James Lutheran Church, Greeneville, Tennessee.

TEXTS: Mark 6:30-34, 53 -56

TITLE: He Had Compassion

I used to love watching the TV Show Evening Shade.
It starred Burt Reynolds as a small town football coach in Arkansas.

One night the coach's two small children were leaning out the upstairs window, looking at the stars.

Little boy: I'm glad I've got you guys. It sure would be lonely without you.

Little girl: Remember Sunday School.

Boy: Remember Sunday School? What do you mean by that? Oh, yeah. You mean how God is always here so we're never alone.

Girl: Yeah, that's what I mean.

Boy: Well, I know that's right, but sometimes I just need somebody with some skin on 'em.

I think most of us know how he feels. The world can be a difficult and dangerous and lonely place.

And as comforting as it is to believe in a God in Heaven who loves us and cares about us and has a plan for our lives; sometimes you just need somebody to talk to who will talk back.

That's why the people flocked to Jesus. Sure there were those who had heard about his miracles and just wanted to see a good show.

And there were those who were there just because everybody else was there. Friday Night football in Hayesville. Listen to women talk about church and teen-agers talk about who's dating whom.

One night the Methodist preacher told me where to sit. He said, "This is the section for the real fans. The other people are just here because everybody else in town is here."

So there were the thrill seekers and the crowd seekers, but there were also the God seekers, those who had heard about Jesus; had heard about his words and his actions and had come to catch a glimpse of the Holy.

Now, Jesus and the apostles had been really busy and really needed a break. So Jesus said, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while."

They were going on retreat, on vacation, on holiday.

But it was not to be. By the time they got where they were going, a crowd had gathered.

Jesus looked at them and weighed his own and his companions' weariness against something he saw in the faces turned up at him, in the eyes of the crowd.

What was it that swayed Jesus to give up the plan to rest? I think he looked at them and saw their hunger.

Not a hunger for food, but a hunger for companionship, a hunger for community, a hunger for love, a hunger for God.

Verse 34 says, "he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd."

Compassion literally means "to feel with."

Jesus felt compassion for them because he had felt what they were feeling.

After Jesus’ Baptism, the Spirit drove him into the Wilderness to be tempted by the Devil.

There he learned what it feels like to be abandoned, deserted, alone in the universe.

He also learned what one does and does not need in a time like that.

One of his temptations was to feed the world by turning stone into bread.

There in the wilderness, Jesus realized that fixing every human hurt was not to be his mission.

People didn't need a Superman jumping to their rescue.

People needed to know that God was in the world with them, not off in heaven above and beyond them.

People needed to know that God cared, and that God wanted them to care, and to act with caring as well.

So, there in the desert, Jesus came to a momentous decision; he would purposely withhold his power, restrain himself.

Throughout his ministry opportunities for healings came to Jesus, but he didn’t go looking for them. Every time he worked a miracle it happened because of those three little words:


It’s interesting to me how many people don’t believe that, don’t believe that God is love, that God is forgiving and kind and merciful.

Too many people in the world believe that God is anxious to send us all to Hell, that God has plans to send Holy Warriors to Earth in to wipe out the evil doers in a grand final battle.

And if you don’t think a lot of people believe that, check out the popularity of the Left Behind series of novels.

That HE HAD COMPASSION, is the most important thing we can say about Jesus, and about God.

In the midst of a world in which everyone is afraid of their own shadows, and, if they believe in God at all they believe God to be either remote and uncaring, or cruel and vindictive; we in the church have been called to witness to the fact that HE HAD COMPASSION.

Brothers and Sisters, we live today in a world full of fear and war. We are afraid of rising gas prices, we are afraid of failing health care systems, we are afraid of immigration and disease and forest fires and drought and drugs, and, and, and . . .

It has been a long time since I have seen this country, and indeed the world, so depressed and sad and frightened and on edge about the future.

And into this bog of sadness and sorrow, we the church are called to imitate our Lord and find ways to break into the cycle of fear and violence with words and acts of hope and assurance, words and acts of compassion and healing.

Now, that is a mighty tall order isn’t it? What can one little church do? What can one little Christian do? In the face of all this hurt and pain, who am I?

Those must have been the sorts of questions a little Albanian nun asked herself over 50 years ago when she found herself in Calcutta, one of the worst and most hopeless places in the world.

And what she decided to do was to do what Jesus did in our story, she had compassion on the ones right in front of her. She dealt with the need she was given and did what she could.

She began to pick up the dying beggars off the streets of Calcutta and to give them a decent place to die. That was it.

She washed their wounds and their bottoms, she cleaned their sheets and their latrines.

She fed them, and bathed them and turned them on their pallets when no one else would touch them.

She had compassion, one dying person at a time.

We are called to have compassion, to preach compassion, to teach compassion, to live compassion.

We are called to break whatever rules and taboos and cultural barriers necessary to let the world know

God is not harsh,

God is not out to get them,

God is not punishing them for their sins,

God is Love,

God is steadfast, everlasting, never-ending love.

God is reaching out into the midst of our fear of death with an offer of life, of life eternal.


He had compassion then, and he has compassion now.

Open up your hearts.

Let God love you.

Open up your arms.

And show God’s love to the world.


Tuesday, July 07, 2009


Pentecost 6, Lectionary 15
July 12, 2009
A sermon preached at the installation of the Rev. Janet Volk as pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Gatlinburg, TN

Texts: Amos 7: 7-15; Ephesians 1: 3-14; Mark 6:14-29

When I became an Assistant to the bishop, I realized that a lot of my preaching would be on ceremonial occasions; installations, dedications, anniversaries, etc.

I also realized that it would be possible, and easy, to write a really good generic sermon for each of those occasions; an installation sermon, a dedication sermon, etc.

But I perversely decided that I would not do that. I was determined to write a new sermon each week as I had been doing for over thirty years. I decided that whatever the occasion, if I was preaching on Sunday morning, I would preach on the appointed texts.

After reading the lessons for today, I almost changed my mind, for this week at least.

Pastor Volk; at first glance the lesson to be learned from Amos is: try to avoid getting run out of town, and the lesson from the Gospel is: try not to lose your head.

As I read these lessons a line from Mark's Gospel leapt out at me:

Verse 20: "When he (Herod) heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him."

That line reminded me of the installation service, where I ask the congregation if they will receive Pastor Volk as a "steward of the mysteries of God."

Perplexity and stewards of mysteries. It doesn't sound like normal Lutheran language does it.

We are the champions of Systematic Theology, of organizing our thoughts on the faith in clear statements that people can memorize and know.

Look in the back of the Evangelical Lutheran Worship book; there we have Theology for Children, the Small Catechism.

Look at this. This is Theology for Adults; this is the book of Lutheran Confessions, called the Book of Concord.

Seriously, if you want to be perplexed and mystified, just plunge into that one night over a hot cup of tea. Strong tea, I would suggest.

Now a lot of people get impatient with discussions of religion that plunge into mystery, that are somewhat perplexing and confusing.

We all hanker for things to be simple. I used to joke about writing a book called "Christianity for Dummies," until I saw one in a store. It was selling very well.

We want that "old time religion," which the songs says, was "good enough for Paul and Silas, so it's good enough for me."

Well, there was nothing simple about the "old time religion" of Paul. A serious look at the complex ideas and reasoning in our lesson from Ephesians will show us that.

(Read bits and pieces of Ephesians with quizzically raised eyebrows)

Part of the calling of the pastor is to risk inviting congregations out of their comfort zones,

to dare to share with them the whole counsel of God,

to ask them to grow up beyond a childish Sunday School Faith into a mature adult Faith.

Like Amos in our first lesson, Pastor Volk has been called by God to preach to God's people.

And like King Jeroboam, sometimes the things God calls her to say will not be to our liking.

And like King Jeroboam and his priest Amaziah, we might be tempted to claim the church as our place, not God's place, and claim the right to tell the preacher what to say.

For that is what happened to Amos. He spoke the truth and nobody wanted to hear it. So the priest told Amos to go way, and then, in verse 13 said this, "never again prophecy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is the temple of the kingdom."

We all have to be careful on this point. This is God's house, this is God's sanctuary, this is God's temple, this is God's church. It's not your church, it's not Pastor Volk's church, it's not my church, it's not Bishop Gordy's Church, it's not the ELCA's church; it is God's Church.

In a few minutes I'm going to ask Pastor Volk if she will promise to preach and teach according to the scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. You, people of God, are to hold her to that promise and to question her when you're not sure she's doing that.

But you are also to remember it is not her calling to tickle your ears with pleasant things you want to hear; it is her calling to rightly divide the word of truth and challenge you to grow in your faith and godly actions.

Which leads us to John the Baptist losing his head?

The reason John was in jail is mentioned in the text, but it's like trying to follow the story line of a soap opera. It can get a little confusing. So let me break it down for you.

King Herod here is not the same King Herod who was around when Jesus was born. That was his Daddy, Herod the Great. This is Herod Antipas.

He was, by all accounts, not much of a man or a ruler. And this royal family's bedding and marrying habits were unconventional and messy to say the least. It really was a soap opera.

Herod Antipas had married his brother's wife. This wouldn't have been so bad, except that his brother was still living and Herod forced him to divorce Herodias so he could marry her.

And the daughter who does the dancing? Jewish historian Josephus tells us her name was Salome. She was the Herod's niece and his wife's daughter and she ended up marrying his brother, her uncle. Sounds like a bad redneck joke, doesn't it.

Into the midst of this comes John the Baptist. He surveys the whole mess and calls Herod out on issues of morality and leadership. He points out to Herod where he has failed to be a good leader to the people, both politically and in his personal life.

Herod's reaction is interesting. He has John arrested and put in jail; but protects him from his wife's revenge. She is really mad and wants John dead; but Herod is a little afraid of him.

What if he is Elijah? What if Herod does need to repent? What if God is displeased with the way Herod is leading his life?

Herod is a perplexed seeker, a dabbler in the mysteries of God. He believes just enough to keep him awake at night but not enough to change his way of living.

All too often, we are like Herod. We keep holy things in the basement of our lives; we're not willing to throw them out, but we're not really sure what to do with them. We live our lives without paying a lot of attention to the holy, to the call of God on our lives because we are perplexed as to how taking that stuff seriously might challenge us to be different than we are.

And truth be told, most of us are happy with the way we are and don't want to change; because if we really wanted to, we would.

It is Pastor Volk's calling among us to so proclaim to us the good news of Jesus Christ that we are inspired to bring our holy things up out of the basement and place them in the center of our living space.

It is her calling to speak to us the wonderful love of God in Jesus the Christ that we will repent and turn and seek to follow God's way with our entire body, mind and spirit.

It is her calling to show us in word and deed what it means to live a life centered on the Kingdom of God and not the Kingdom of self.

And it is our calling to support her in her efforts; to pray for her, to listen to her, to talk with her, to work with her, to the end that God's church, God's temple, God's sanctuary may show to all of Gatlinburg God's unending love in Christ.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, July 02, 2009


July 5, 2009

A Sermon preached at the Installation of the Rev. Sandy Niiler as transition pastor at Christ Lutheran Church, Cullman, AL.

TEXTS: Ezekiel 2:1-5, II Cor. 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-13

TITLE: When is a Loss a Win?

My younger son is an athlete. He played a lot of ball on a lot of teams in the last 20 years. T-Ball and baseball, soccer and football. And basketball; lots and lots of basketball.

He played on some good teams and some bad teams. He played on a High School State Champion and for a team that won only four games. Sometimes he was an All-Star; just as often he was all bench.

I learned my most important lesson as a "sports Dad" when Joseph was still playing coach pitch baseball. They weren't a very good team, losing a lot more often than they won.

They were seven years old, and most of them had the attention span of a gnat. They spent more time jostling and picking on each other than paying attention to what was happening on the field.

After the game was over, as they lined up to shake hands with the other team, I would hear the boys ask the coach, "Did we win? Did we win?"

If the coach said YES they would cheer, if the coach said NO they would kick the ground. And after that they would ask, "What's for snack?"

As a society, as adults, we are obsessed with winning and losing, with success and failure, with bottom lines and final scores. Our attitude was summed up years ago by football Coach Vince Lombardi when he said, "Winning isn't the most important thing, it's the only thing!"

This is Alabama. You know what I'm talking about. Football coaches had better be the best and win the most or they're history. In North Carolina, it's all about basketball but it's the same way; win big or be gone!

As a nation, we have returned to the days of the gladiators, except in a more humane form; we don't kill the losers on American Idol and a host of other competitive "reality shows."

Sometimes, in this age of Political Correctness, we try to deal with this problem by eliminating the concept of competition and the rating of performance.

A few years ago the KUDZU comic strip had a cartoon on church league Softball.
The Rev., pastor of Bypass Baptist, tells his teen-age protégé, "I hate playing the Unitarians. They want to change the rules."

"Which ones, Rev."

"Well, for example, instead of three strikes and you're out they want to make it three strikes and you're special!"

When my older son was in Cub Scouts, he participated in the Pine Box Derby.
At the contest they crowned one champion. The district director told the boys,
"Don't forget, you're all winners."

On the way home David looked at me and said, "If we're all winners why don't we all get to go to the state contest? And why didn't we all get a big trophy instead of this stupid ribbon?" Good questions. Kids know the difference between winning and losing. They just don't think it's the end of the world like we adults do.

We can't deal with the issues of winning or losing, success or failure, by pretending it doesn't matter or by redefining the rules so that nobody loses.

We can only deal with winning and losing by putting success and failure into perspective and redefining the after the fact importance of our wins and losses.

We must learn to discern WHEN A LOSS IS A WIN.

Each of the lessons we read from the Bible deals with someone in the midst of a losing situation. We encounter these people at a time of very real and painful failure in their lives.

And their losses, their failures, go beyond competition and games.
Their failures are failures at life, failures at their vocation, failures in health, and failures in faith.

EZEKIEL: the prophet to whom no one would listen.

PAUL THE APOSTLE: the healer who could not heal himself.

JESUS: Hometown Miracle Man who could work no miracles at home.

Each of them learned a valuable lesson from their failure.

Each of them learned how to know WHEN A LOSS IS A WIN.

EZEKIEL - Ezekiel's story begins like all good prophet stories:
- the people are acting like total pagans
- they have turned their backs on God and Godly ways
- God decides to send a prophet to straighten them out
- Chapter 1 - Ezekiel has a vision
- Chapter 2 - God begins to speak to Ezekiel
Vs. 1 and 2 - Listen up, I want to talk to you
Vs. 3 and 4 - my people are rebellious, I want you to tell them

SO FAR SO GOOD, AND SO NORMAL. This is how it works with God and
prophets and the people of Israel in the Bible.

- then, in verse 5 - God says a strange thing: "Whether you succeed or not, win or lose, is not the issue. The important thing is that they hear the truth; that they know that "there has been a prophet among them."

As it happens, the people didn't listen, and God sent them into exile, and the people rewarded Ezekiel for this preaching by treating him very shabbily.
By all external measures, Ezekiel failed and failed miserably. But Ezekiel's loss was a win; because he a faithful to the truth. When Ezekiel was finished, the people knew there had been a prophet among them.

PAUL - Nobody knows what Paul's "thorn in the flesh was," but that is not important. What really matters is that Paul prayed very hard and very long and very faithfully for this thorn to be removed and it wasn't.

Paul lost the struggle for victory over a physical problem, and this loss created for him a spiritual problem, a crisis of faith.

This failure to pray himself out of this physical problem led him to question his faith. It was an experience that could have shattered his trust in God, but instead it humbled him and strengthened his faith in God. Paul's thorn in the flesh was a LOSS THAT TURNED INTO A WIN.

The paradoxical nature of Christianity is that:
- faith does not remove obstacles; it sustains us as we climb them,
- faith does not protect us from pain; it teaches us to live with it,
- faith does not eliminate Death; it teaches us not to fear it.

A LOSS IS A WIN if our faith is deepened and our ability to survive adversity is strengthened and we learn to trust more completely in the grace and love of God.

JESUS - The story of Jesus returning home to preach occurs early in his ministry.
Up until now, Jesus' version of Brother Love's Traveling Salvation show and Tent Revival had been a roaring success.

Immediately before this he had raised Jairus' daughter from the dead and healed the woman with the flow of blood.

The first five chapters of Mark are filled with healing stories and reports of huge crowds of people coming to hear Jesus preach.

So, he takes it on home to Nazareth; and falls flat on his face.

Verse 3 - They didn't just not like him; they "took offense at him."

Verse 5 - and somehow, their resentment resulted in his inability to perform
miracles and other healings.

Verse 6 - contains one of the most human portraits of Jesus in the Gospels;
"He was amazed at their unbelief." Jesus just couldn't believe their lack
of belief. He was stunned, left with his mouth hanging open.

Jesus learned a hard lesson; that there was a limit to his power; it was limited by the people's unwillingness to receive it.

Thirty-two years ago I served my first year as a pastor in a tiny Methodist Church in the North Carolina countryside. I was not very successful. My supervising Pastor, Dr. Nick Grant, told me, "Son, you can't minister to people who don't want to be ministered to."

That day in Nazareth, Jesus had a LOSS THAT WAS A WIN. From it he learned the limits to his power.

He learned you can control what you say, you cannot control what people hear.
He learned you can control what you do, you cannot control how people respond.
He learned you can control how you show your love,
you cannot control how people receive it.

Pastor Niiler, as you assume your duties here today, please remember that like Ezekiel, you have been called here to speak the truth. When you do that, it is a win.

Pastor Niiler, please remember that like Paul, you have been called here to do your best and to let God do the rest.

Pastor Niiler, please remember that even Jesus had his bad days, and you will too, and that you are called here to love these people, not to fix them.

And people of God, it is your calling to learn from your recent past about the limits of human ability to control the way things turn out. Your call today is face the future with confidence, trusting God to lead you through. AMEN AND AMEN