Monday, November 29, 2010

So Long, and Thanks For all the Fish, Douglas Adams

Well, I started Delmo Dorite Writes a little over five years ago whilst I was still working at Hinton Center, doing Spiritual Formation and Continuing Education, etc. Since then, I've been a parish pastor (Friedens ELCA, Gibsonville, NC) and the Assistant to the Bishop (Southeastern Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Atlanta, GA.) Through it all, being Delmo Dorite has helped keep me sane, and I have enjoyed it tremendously. But it's time for a change.

This is my last post here, BUT! the work goes on in a new format. The Rev'd Dr. John Fairless and I ("Two Bubbas and a Bible, Inc.") have long collaborated on projects and now we have a new one. It's called The Lectionary Lab. (You can access it at

It's a combination of textual comments, one-liners, illustrations and short sermons designed to help the parish pastor get started on the weekly task of preaching the Word. Brought to you by two working pastors who've been doing just that week after week, for a collective 50 years or so. I hope you'll check it out and let us know what you think. (It could also be a good Bible Study and devotional for anyone, preacher or not.)



Saturday, November 13, 2010

Nov. 14, 2010

Installation Sermon for Sally Fran Ross
Preached Nov. 14, 2010 at Luther's Chapel, Pulaski, Miss.

Texts: Malachi 4:1-2a; Psalm 98; 2 Thess. 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

It was during Lent, 25 years ago. I was the pastor of a very old Lutheran church north of Charlotte. North Carolina.

On the wall of the apse, above the altar, there was a stained glass window in the shape of a cross lit by light bulbs.

One Wednesday afternoon I was putzing around the altar getting things ready for mid-week service when I noticed that one of the bulbs had gone out.

I resolved to change it, but, as often happens with me, I got distracted and forgot about it until the middle of the pre-service Fellowship Meal.

I excused myself and went into the church and then upstairs and opened a little door in the hall, got down on my knees to change the bulb. This is when I saw Seth.

Seth wasn't a bad kid; he was just six, and mischievous, he got into things.

This night Seth had gone into the church alone and he was pulling the big, heavy pulpit chair over to the front of the altar.

The altar was set for Communion, with a plate full of wafers, a stack of trays and a cup of wine already set out under a shear, white veil.

In a moment I realized what Seth was doing; he wanted to get a look at that table, and I visualized him pulling everything down on his head and falling out of the chair, etc. etc.

So, without thinking I barked out; "Seth, get down from there, you're going to hurt yourself!"

I will never forget the look of pure terror that washed over Seth's face as he jerked his head up and looked into the face of Jesus staring down at him from above the Altar.

He started crying and yelling "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" and ran out of the room.

I left what I was doing and followed Seth out of the Church, across the parking lot into the Fellowship Hall, where he was weeping into his grandmother's large and welcoming lap.

Grandma, Grandma, Grandma; Jesus yelled at me. I want to go home NOW!

Most of the time, I find church to be a pleasant and happy place. A place where, like Seth, I feel safe and welcome and at home.

But every once in a while, church can become a frightening, indeed a scary place, a place I would just as soon not be.

Like today while I was reading that Gospel lesson.

That's pretty scary stuff. All that talk about war and destruction and earthquakes and famines and pestilence and terror and persecution.

Well, it scares me to death; and I'm like Seth; I'm ready to go screaming out of the room, looking for my Grandma's lap.

Before we go too far down this scary road, I think it important that we read this text carefully.

What Jesus is getting at here is something we all know both from history and personal experience: the world is indeed a scary and dangerous place; full of danger, trouble and heartache.

Jesus point throughout this text is to remind us where to look for our salvation, for grace, for hope, for love; when trouble inevitably comes.

We are not to look to big buildings and institutions, we are not to look to governments (nations and kingdoms) we are not to look to kings and governors and multinational corporations.

All these things will fail you; indeed will turn against you.

When trouble comes, the one thing you can count on is God.

The one group of people you can rely on is the community of Christ, the gathered people of God, the Church.

We are here today to talk about and celebrate and cement the basic connection that exists between what it means to be THE CHURCH and what it means to be A PASTOR

The two belong together: a church needs a pastor, and a pastor needs a church.

It's hard to have one without the other. To put it bluntly, being a Pastor is not a personal identity.

Being called to preach implies being called to preach to PEOPLE.

Nobody is called to preach to the trees or the woods or to themselves, People are called of God to preach to the church and to the world.

We have been called to preach and pastor because the world is a dangerous and difficult place, and people struggle with life and need both comfort and guidance.

Prof. Marty Saarinan told the following story to every Senior class at LTSS, Columbia, SC

Marty graduated from Seminary back in the early 1950s and went to his first call in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Pretty remote and rugged; then and now.

Not too long after Pastor Marty got there he learned of an elderly couple who lived way back in the woods and who seldom got to church anymore and he resolved to go visit them.

He was advised to borrow a jeep, which he did, and he drove the paved road and then the dirt road, and then two ruts, and then a creek bed, and then he parked the Jeep and climbed up a hill and through the wild bushes and found a cabin with a tiny wisp of smoke wafting into the sky from the chimney.

Pastor Marty walked onto the porch and knocked on the door and waited and waited and knocked again and waited and then he heard a noise and the door opened and a little old man stared at Marty for a long time and then he recognized the collar and turned around and shouted to his wife in her rocker: "Anna, God has not forgotten us!"

In our hectic, secular, modern world, in the midst of wars and natural disaster and economic uncertainty and the other more mundane trials and tribulations of ordinary life; it is hard for most of us to cling to an awareness of God's love and concern and presence.

The purpose of the Church and the purpose of the pastor, the purpose to which you, Sally Fran, have been called and are now set apart, is to be a constant reminder to the world of God's love.

In a few moments, Pastor Ross will stand before me and you all need to imagine yourselves standing beside her because what we are about is a wedding of sorts.

I will ask her questions and she will make promises to preach and teach and serve and then

I will ask questions of the congregation, the people of God assembled, and ya'll will promise to treat her as God's gift to you that she is and to work with her in serving a needy world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And then I will pronounce you united as Pastor and congregation.

And, as I usually say to couples during a wedding sermon, if you (all) will remember the promises you make here to each other, and do your best to fulfill those promises with honesty and integrity and Christian charity,

God will be able to bless your union, will fill your life together with joy and faith and loving service to each other and the world.

Amen and amen.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

PENTECOST 21 - Oct. 17, 2010

Texts: 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

A friend of mine sent me this in an email a few weeks ago:

Sign seen posted in the cafeteria of a Florida hospital:
NOTICE: Due to the current budget cutbacks,
the light at the end of the tunnel will be turned off
until further notice.

Today's Scripture lessons remind us to hang on to our faith, even when the light of God's love grows dim or even seems to have gone out.

August 5th of this year was an ordinary day in the life of 33 miners in Chile.

They got up early as usual, packed a lunch as usual, drove or rode to work as usual,
some kissed their wives and children goodbye that day; others left house with slammed doors and angry words; most of their mornings were somewhere in between.
Like I said; an ordinary day.

Then, sometime that day, everything changed.

Something happened, the mine collapsed, the 33 were trapped. For days they were presumed dead; then discovered alive; but how much hope was there? They were so deeply buried.

We have all been watching the news, paying attention to the story, know about their open space in the darkness, the small hole drilled to send them light and food,
the family members up top, keeping vigil, praying and hoping the drilling, drilling, drilling to find a way to get them out alive.

And this week, justice was done, hope was rewarded, the persistence of the miners,
and the families and the drillers paid off; the men were rescued, all is well.

I remind you of that story because it goes to the heart of the Biblical message for today.

The text from Jeremiah reminds us that God has promised that "the days are surely coming" when God's justice will fill the earth.

In 2 Timothy, the old Elder reminds the young preacher to "be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable," or as the old King James put it, "in season and out of season."

And our Gospel lesson is a story about not giving up in the face of difficult times.

This is a story about continuing to pray and trust God, even when you're getting no results; even when it feels like and looks like the windows of heaven are shut up tight and God either cannot or will not hear your plea.

Actually, preaching on this text is pretty easy. For once, Jesus told us what the parable meant before he told the story. Verse 1: "Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart."

The story uses courtrooms and bad judges and poor widows to teach us lessons about life and God and our need to pray without ceasing.

A judge in Israel was a powerful, powerful figure.

Biblical Scholar Raymond Bailey says,

In Israel, the judge was the final arbiter. There was no jury, no court of appeal. . . . . . The judge in the parable is a law unto himself, who has no sense of accountability to persons or God. He shirked his duty by not bothering to even hear the case . . . . . The widow throughout the Bible . . . . was a vulnerable victim . . . a symbol of helplessness.(The Lectionary Commentary, The Gospels, Eerdman's Press p. 429)

Jesus has set up for us a scene in which a poor, helpless person has nowhere else to turn but to the judge. And the judge appears not to care about her,
appears to be unwilling to help.

She has no money to bribe him,no power to coerce him, no important relatives to influence him; what is she to do?

Well; she has two choices:

1) she can quit, give up, crawl away in despair and frustration.

Or 2) she can continue to beat upon his door, accost him in the streets, stand in his yard with a sign demanding justice, tell his neighbors and friends about his unwillingness to help; in short she can refuse to go away.

And it worked: verse 5 " . . .because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming."
In other words, he gives her what she wants so she'll go away.

As I said, this story isn't really about courtrooms and judges and poor widows; it's about persistence in prayer and faithfulness in living.

God does not "grant us justice," to get rid of us, or because we disturb the divine repose, or to avoid embarrassment. God is not like the unfair judge in that way.

Jesus' point is that God works on a different time schedule than most of us and it is easy for us to get discouraged if the "days that are coming," that Jeremiah talked about seem never to come.

We do our best to live a good life, giving to God and neighbor generously, praying and attending worship and paying attention to our religious duties.

We are faithful to our wives or husbands or significant other; our family members can rely on us to be there for them in time of need; we raise our children with gentleness, discipline and generosity; we pursue our work with both diligence and honesty;

and yet, and yet; sometimes things fall apart; sometimes the roof caves in, sometimes the light goes out; sometimes we find ourselves trapped in the darkness of our souls, with no sign of hope; with no glimmer of grace; with not even a whisper of love.

And when that happens; how do we hang on? How do we keep faith through the dark night of the soul?

How do we keep on praying when things keep getting worse instead of better?

How do we find the will to get up and go out each day trusting God to see us through when nothing we do seems to work?

How do we keep from having "itching ears," looking here and there and everywhere for solutions to our problems;

or, if not solutions, then others to blame for our difficulties?

What does it take for us to stay the course in difficult and perilous times?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently retired from public life. When I read of his retirement in the paper, I was reminded of an incident I heard retold by South African Methodist Bishop Peter Storey.

It was the early 1960's. Tutu was the General Secretary of the South Africa Council of Churches, Storey Was the President. Tutu is Black, Storey is White. They were working together to end Apartheid.

The government and many others were unhappy with them. Someone came to Tutu by night and said, "You have to stop, you have to back down. They will stop you, they will beat you, they will kill you."

Desmond Tutu smiled a little smile and said, "Come now, death isn't the worst thing that can happen to a Christian. I've got a resurrection Jesus, don't you?"

And that is indeed why we can and do persist in our faith and our prayers and our actions, even in the face of circumstances which oppose and seek to defeat us.

We have a resurrection Jesus. We know that no matter how many Good Fridays we face and live though, no matter the number of crosses we are given to carry, no matter how many times things grow difficult and dangerous,

We have a resurrection Jesus; Easter morning has come for Christ and will come for us.

Amen, Come Lord Jesus.

Friday, October 01, 2010

GOT FAITH? Pentecost 19, Oct 3, 2010

(A sermon preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Bristol, TN.)

Luke 17:5-10

In her autobiography, Broadway actress Helen Hayes tells about her first attempt to cook a Thanksgiving Turkey.

Before bringing it out of the kitchen to the Dining Room table, Hayes announced to her husband and son:

Now, you know this is the first turkey I've ever cooked. If it isn't any good, I don't want anybody to say a word. We'll just get up from the table WITHOUT COMMENT, and go to a restaurant to eat.

She then went back to the kitchen to get the tray. When she came into the dining room with the turkey; she found her husband and her son seated at the table with their coats, hats and gloves on; ready to go out to eat. They did not have much faith in Miss Hayes' ability to cook a turkey.

In our Gospel lesson for today the disciples are also suffering from a lack of faith, or so it seems.

After all, Jesus says to them, "If you had even the faith of a mustard seed. . . " and the seed of a mustard plant is very tiny indeed, like the head of a pin, really.

The message seems to be that the disciples just don't have enough faith. I don't think this is what Jesus meant. I think Jesus meant the disciples have all the faith they need. What they don't have is an understanding of what it means to have faith.

Let me explain. In verse 1-4, right before our text starts; Jesus has said to the disciples that they should forgive a sinner who repents. Then he says, And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says I repent, you must forgive.

No wonder the disciples cry out "INCREASE OUR FAITH!" How can Jesus expect any normal human being to forgive somebody for treating them badly that many times?

When I was a little kid, when I got caught being bad, I always said, with my head hung down and twisting my feet, about to cry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.

One time; my mother whacked me real good on the bottom and said, I know you're sorry. You're always sorry. What I want to know now is WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO STOP DOING IT?

Somebody sins against me, treats me badly, sticks it to me, seven times in a row and seven times in a row they say they're sorry and Jesus expects me to forgive the jerk every time? Really! I think I'm with Mama on this one. Enough's enough. I want to know when it's gonna stop!

And yet; Jesus says forgive. So the disciples cry out, "INCREASE OUR FAITH! WE CAN'T DO THIS." The gap between what Jesus asks us to do and our ability to do it is enormous.

And that is just the point of this lesson. We are thinking of faith as something human, something that we do, some especially intense sort of believing, or some really focused positive thinking that results in good things happening for us and ours.

We think of faith from the human point of view and Jesus thinks of faith from God's side of things. It only takes faith the size of a mustard seed to uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the ocean because: IT'S NOT THE FAITH THAT DOES IT; IT'S GOD!

The disciples are worried about their ability to forgive as much as Jesus demands. So they ask for an increase in faith so that they will be able to perform this superhuman feat of humility and generosity and compassion. And Jesus tells them they don't need a bigger faith. With the God of Israel just a little bit of faith is plenty because God does the work.

The disciples are fretting about the quality of their performance as disciples and followers of Jesus. They are worried about how Spiritual and Faithful and Religious they will appear to their LORD and not incidentally, to their community.

But Jesus carefully reminds them that in the life of faith it is not the believer who performs the act of power or receives the praise for it. Both the act and the credit belong to GOD.

This is the point of Jesus' parable about the master and the slave.To most of us, this story sounds pretty harsh. All that talk about not thanking the slave for a job well done, and not allowing the slave who has been working hard in the fields all day to eat until after the Master has been served; well, it just sounds wrong to us.

There is an important movie coming into the theatres right now. It's called WAITING FOR SUPERMAN. It is not a comedy or a drama; though it has elements of each. It is a documentary about the failure of America's public schools to educate our children.

In one sequence it shows that of the top 30 developed countries, school children from the US measure between 25th and 30th on every measure of ability in every subject but one; we finish #1 in confidence! We have taught our children to think highly of themselves in spite of any evidence to the contrary.

NT Scholar Charles Cousar says a similar thing has happened to us spiritually.

This story (granted in a sneaky way) reminds us of our place and shows how easy it is to exchange roles. God is God; we are God's creatures - no more, no less. But subtly the order can get reversed, as Adam and Eve discovered. Dominion over the earth is a heady challenge! Why stop there? The serpent asks, you will be like God!

We begin to think of Jesus as the one who washes feet, forgives sins, hears prayers, supplies needs. Jesus gives, we receive. Pretty soon we come to expect it.
(Texts for Preaching, A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV - Year C, WJK, p544)

Jesus point here is to remind us of the proper relationship between God and a person of Faith. If we perform our acts of love and service to God out of a desire to earn praise on earth in this life or a secure spot in heaven in the next; we are missing the point; not only of this parable but also of the life of faith.

There is nothing we can do to earn God's love. God's love has been ours since before we were born; it washes over us each day, unbidden and unearned. It fills our lives, melts our hearts, softens our eyes, tenderizes our spirits and turns us away from our preoccupation with ourselves to a fascination with loving and caring for Christ by loving and caring for those whom God has placed in our midst for us to love.

With this story, Jesus reminds us that the true KINGDOM AND POWER AND GLORY do indeed belong to God and to God alone, And any wishful thinking on our part that if we had more faith we could do more things for God misses the point entirely.

The reality is: We have all the faith we need to do great things for God. Or, to be more biblically and theologically correct; we have all the faith we need to allow God to do great things in, with and through us. Faith the size of a mustard seed is all that is necessary for God to put God's power to work in our lives and in our world.

Our calling today is to humbly ask God to increase, not our faith, but rather our willingness to be used by God, in any way God chooses.

Our calling today is to use what little faith we have to stay at the table; hat, coat and gloves off and put away; waiting patiently to dig in to whatever God has in store for us.

Amen and amen.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Pentecost 18, September 26, 2010

Text: Luke 16:19-31
(A sermon preached at the Installation of David Hood as transition pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Nashville, TN.)

I started my career as a pastor in three little churches in rural NC.

Wood-frame buildings on isolated dirt roads, a few dozen farmers and shop-owners and their children and grand-children who drove out on Sundays from the cities to visit the folks and go to church.

One weekday noon I went into a church member's place of business for lunch: Alvis Brigg's Bar-B-Q.

As I walked in, a Briggs grandchild, a boy about 4 years old, spotted me.

He stood up in the booth where he was sitting and yelled out, "Hello . . . " and then he was silent, because he couldn't remember where he knew me from.

He tried a couple more times, "HELLO . . . " then silence and meditation, "HELLO . . ." again, and more thoughtful silence.

By this time everyone in the room was quiet and looking back and forth between the boy and me.

Finally his face brightened and he shouted, HELLO CHURCH!

We are here today to talk about and celebrate and cement that basic connection between what it means to be PASTOR and what it means to be CHURCH and how the two are uniquely and inseparably entwined.

Particularly for us ELCA Lutherans, to be a minister of the Gospel, a pastor, requires a connection with a congregation.

While in many traditions, once you're ordained you are always a pastor no matter what you do for a living, this is not so for us. When people finish seminary, they are not ordained until a congregation calls them to be their pastor. If you want to be a Seminary teacher, or a Hospital chaplain, or a counselor, our church, the ELCA, requires that you first serve three years as a Parish Pastor, and after that, if you are not serving in a congregation, you must apply every year to the Bishop and Synod Council to maintain your status as a pastor, showing cause why you need to be ordained to do what you are doing.

In our church, to be a pastor is, by definition, connected to serving a community of God's people gathered around Word and Sacrament.To put it bluntly, being a Pastor is not a private, personal identity. It is a communal, relational, cooperative venture; rooted in the call and gift of God.

Many times I hear about such and such a pastor as being GIFTED. He has so many gifts for ministry; she is a gifted speaker, or musician, or counselor; he has the gift of leadership, etc. and I applaud and revel in their giftedness. So many people have so many gifts that I don't have and that I envy.

Singing, for instance. Not only do I wish I could sing; other people wish I could sing too. Being creative with Liturgy. Wow, I wish I could do that. I'm a setting One, Two or Three, pick three hymns kind of pastor. I don't have the gift of being creative with liturgy.

But it's important to remember why we pastors have been given our gifts for ministry.We have received these gifts not for ourselves, not for our own enjoyment and not so that we can be praised and lauded for having these gifts.

We have received these gifts for the benefit of the church, for serving God by serving the world, for preaching and teaching, for spreading the Good News of Christ to the world.

The difficulty of this task is revealed to us in our reading from Luke's Gospel, in the very last line, where Jesus tells the rich man in Hell, "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even someone rises from the dead."

Well someone did rise from the dead, and many are still quite unconvinced, and we, the pastors and the people of the church, still find ourselves talking to people so enamored of their stuff that they are unable to hear the word of truth.

The first part of our text, verses 19 through 26, is a familiar middle eastern folk tale.

In the modern world, we recycle jokes and urban legends. Names, professions, locations change but the point is always the same. In Jesus' world they recycled these folk stories, and when a good story teller started to tell one, everyone settled in to see how well he told it, what clever riffs he used. Here in Nashville, we might think of a singer making an old standard song her own by singing it in a unique way. Creativity grew out of the art of adapting the story, not in creating a totally new one. So as Jesus began the story, everyone knew where he was going, they just weren't sure how he was going to get there.

The rich man/poor man reversal in the afterlife was a familiar moralistic tale; often used to shame the rich into being more generous to the poor. So when the rich man sees Lazarus in the "bosom of Abraham," and cries out for mercy, everyone is ready for the discussion of the finality of Hell, the great chasm that has been established and can't be crossed, etc.

What they are not prepared for is the next part, New Testament Scholar NT Wright says,

"In the usual story, when someone asks permission to send a message back to the people who are still alive on earth, the permission is granted. Here, it isn't; and the sharp ending of the story points beyond itself to all sorts of questions. . . " (Luke for Everyone, p.200)

Jesus' story was aimed at some familiar targets: those who think that being rich is a reward from God and proof of their goodness and those who think that poverty is largely deserved and either divine punishment for evil or just desserts for those who seem able to work but aren't very successful at it.

These words are also aimed by Luke at the early church, the first tellers of the Good News of Jesus, to remind them of the difficulty of their task. The people of Israel had had Moses and the Prophets, revealed words from God, for a thousand years and many were still sinful and in need of repentance. Just adding the Resurrection of Jesus to the story didn't make it easier for people to accept, believe and live out; indeed, for most people it made it harder.

Our calling as a community of faith is to take the old, old familiar story of God and sin and rescue and rebellion and death and resurrection; a story that has been told so often that many no longer listen, or if they listen, they think they know what it means and how it's going to turn out.

We are called to take that story and like Jesus, tell it in new ways, with surprising endings.We are called to tell that story to this generation, to people in the 21st century.

We are called to aim the story at the spiritual needs of people living now, in this time of richness and poorness, in this age of technology and social networking and the collective national attention span of a gnat.

We are called to bring the great truths of Moses and the prophets to people on this side of the grave, so that they will hear the call to repent, to turn, to change, to bring their lives into alignment with God's will and God's way.

And David, your calling in this place, and for this time, is to lead these people in discovering their voice in telling that story.

It is your calling to help Holy Trinity find the unique and God-given talent they have for making God's love known in this community NOW.

David, you are called here to lead this congregation in realizing who they are and what they have to say and do in the world, so that when people see them coming, they will shout with their hearts if not with their lips, "Hello CHURCH!"

Amen and Amen.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

September 19

I am really late posting. it's been quite a week, from Atlanta, to Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi to Mobile, Alabama to Middle and then East Tennessee, 2000 miles, 9 churches in 8 days. And wrote two sermons along the way, whew!

Pentecost 17, Sept. 19, 2010
Resurrection Lutheran Church, Ooltewah, TN

Text: Luke 16:1-13

Almost fifteen years ago, when I was pastor at Holy Trinity in Nashville, Ellenita Zimmerman was the Director of Christian Education. She was over 70 and soon to retire.

Ellenita had a Master's degree in Bible and Education; she had been a missionary in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan; she had been on staff at Holy Trinity as DCE and Organist/Choir director for almost 30 years.

One night Ellenita and I were meeting with the Worship and Christian Education teams to plan a month's worth of coordinated worship services and Christian Education classes when this lesson came up as one of the Gospel lessons for the month.

I read it out loud and glanced around the group for ideas and nobody said anything; they just looked a little stunned. Finally Ellenita said,

Why don't we just skip it? I never did understand that story anyway.

Well, I kind of agree with Ellenita, though I'm not sure her son, a NT professor at the Lutheran Seminary in Hong Kong, would let her get away with skipping it!

It is a hard story to understand, isn't it? Or, to say it more honestly; it's a story we all understand; it's the way the world works and we all know it. It's what Jesus says about the story that's hard to take.

Look at the uproar about Derek Jeter of the Yankees. For those of you who don't follow baseball,
Jeter plays for New York and they are in a tight pennant race with Tampa Bay.

During a game this week, Jeter was at bat, the pitcher threw the ball, it bounced off Jeter's bat, and he started shaking his left arm and screwed up his face in pain, and grabbed his elbow and the umpire decided the ball had hit Jeter and awarded him first base.

Now, nobody but the home plate umpire thought Jeter had been hit, and after the game, when he was asked, Jeter admitted it, confessed that he had pulled a fast one on the umpire.

And, the newspapers and sports talk shows on TV and Radio had a field day, arguing if Jeter was a cheater or just smart ballplayer. (Yankee fan/Yankee hater?, how and when you learned to play baseball, etc? great argument.)

It seems to me that Jeter and the unjust office manager have a lot in common; both of them pulled a fast one, and the man in charge rewarded them for it.
The gospel lesson is a strange story. A business owner finds out that his office manager is guilty of mismanagement. He calls in the manager and says "You've got two weeks to get ready for an audit. Now get out of here."

The manager knows he's in deep trouble. Too proud to beg; too weak to work; what to do? What to do?

Suddenly, he has an idea. He calls in some of the company's biggest customers. "Have I got a deal for you?" he says. The plan is simple. He cuts their bills in half, destroys the paper trail and writes new invoices.

Now when the audit happens, no one can prove that he cheated and all the richest man in town will owe him a favor. His future is secure.

Of course, when the owner looks at the doctored books he knows what has happened but there is nothing he can do about it. He knows he has been conned.

And here's the surprise. He says to the man: I have to admit it, you were pretty smart. You got me. Now get out of here.

As I said, up to this point the story makes perfect sense to us; maybe even more so in these years after the Wall Street crash involving loan schemes that nobody understood, financial sleight of hand that caught everybody off guard.

What doesn't make sense to us is the fact that Jesus seems to join the owner in praising the manager for his dishonesty.

But a careful reading of the text shows that Jesus is NOT praising the man for being dishonest.

Rather, he is pointing to the man as an example of someone with single-minded devotion to a cause, which in this case, happens to be himself.

Jesus point here turns out to be pretty simple. Here, he says, is someone who knows how to give his entire heart mind and soul to the service of his god.

Hey, Jesus says, what if we, the citizens of the Kingdom of God, were to give such single-minded and complete devotion to the cause of the one and only true God!

Martin Luther, in the Small Catechism, says: that to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.

This story of the unjust steward confronts us with some serious questions we have to ask ourselves, the first one being WHAT REALLY IS MY GOD?

Is it my #1 concern in life to preach good News to the poor? To heal the sick? To give sight to the Blind?

How much of my valuable time do I spend each week in prayer and Bible Study? In visiting the sick and lonely?

How much of my time and money is given pursuing help and justice for the poor of the world?

These are the question Jesus is asking us in his story of the con-man office manager.

He's smart and devoted to serving his god; are we smart and devoted in serving ours?

We have this day talked a lot about Peace, the need for peace, God's desire for peace, our call to be peacemakers.

Building peace in this world begins on a small scale, not on a large one. It begins with each and every one of us resolving to give our complete and total selves to the service of the God of peace.

NT Scholar and Preaching professor Fred Craddock says:

The life of a disciple is one of faithful attention to the frequent and familiar tasks of each day, however small and insignificant they may seem.

The one faithful in today's nickels and dimes is the one to be trusted with the big account, but it is easy to be indifferent toward small obligations while quite sincerely believing oneself fully trustworthy in major matters.

The realism of these sayings is simply that life consists of a series of seemingly small opportunities.

Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with the queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake.

More likely the week will present no more than chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, and feed the neighbor's cat.
[LUKE Interpretation Commentaries pp. 191-192]

Our call to peacemaking is the call to a single-minded devotion to the Cause of Christ, who is, most of all, the Prince of Peace.

Our Call to Peacemaking is a call to making peace in all that we do, to making all that we do work toward the goal of a more peaceful and peace-filled world.

Our Call to Peacemaking is a call to see each person in this world as a precious child of God whom God has called us to make peace with in his name.

Amen and amen.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

For Sept. 12/Pentecost 16

(A sermon preached at Peace Lutheran Church, Memphis TN)

Luke 15:1-10

"Is God a grown-up or a parent?" That's the question Kathleen Chesto's five year old asked her one day.

Writing in the Catholic Digest, Chesto admits her own confusion, "I'm not sure what you mean. What's the difference between a grown-up and a parent?"

"Well," she said, "Grown-ups love you when you're good and parents love you anyway."

It's a good question, isn't it? Is God a grown-up or a parent?

Does God love only when you're good? Or does God love you anyway?

What is the nature of God's love? Is it really complete and total and unconditional? Really?

And, if that's the nature of God's love; what does that mean for us?

Do we have to love everybody too? Or, are there some people we're allowed to dislike because we're pretty certain God doesn't like them either?

In Luke's Gospel the Pharisees and Scribes are shown as grown-ups, as people who have spent a lot of time figuring out all the dos and don'ts of life; of good and bad behavior.

And they are real unhappy when Jesus acts more like a parent than a grown-up. Even though he knows that the people he is partying with are not acceptable and nice and "good" people; well, he's going to party with them anyway.

They can't stand it. They thought he was one of them, they thought he was on their side.

They thought because he knew so much Bible and because he talked so much about giving your all for the Kingdom and because he was so obviously such a good man,

Why, he must be a Pharisee or a Scribe or someone acceptable to Pharisees and Scribes and, . .
well, they just could not figure his behavior out.

What was he doing, eating with THOSE people?

Doesn't he know WHO they are, where they've been and what they've been doing?

The Pharisees and Scribes had decided that the people Jesus was hanging out with were Bad people who violated the rules of Good behavior and should be avoided and shunned and in general treated badly; both by God and by us good people.

Therefore, when they saw Jesus eating and drinking and partying with these "tax collectors and sinners," they were appalled and disgusted and decided that Jesus could possibly be the Good Person they had presumed him to be.

Jesus responded to their distress not with argument or protest, but by telling them stories; stories about who's in and who's out; who's hot and who's not; and how God treats those the world has decided are OUT.

These stories have two "God figures," people who, according to Jesus, act the way God would act.

One is a shepherd, the other is a woman. These are interesting choices for Jesus to make because Pharisees and Scribes considered both shepherds and women OUT.

Shepherds were nomads. They slept, bathed, ate and lived outdoors. Because of this they were unable to keep most of the Purity laws that were so important to the Pharisees.

And women were a problem for Pharisees, who preferred to neither see them nor speak to them any more than was absolutely necessary.

These stories each have the same two points:

FIRST: Just as a shepherd values his lost sheep enough to spare no effort in looking for it, just so, God values all people enough to spare no effort in looking for us. God values us the way the woman values her piece of money and God will ransack the universe getting us back the way the woman ransacked her house hunting that coin.

These are incarnational stories; stories about God coming into the world to seek out and save God's lost creation. Jesus is the Shepherd looking high and low for those not in the fold; Jesus is the woman sweeping through the house, turning over chairs and pulling out couch cushions, looking high and low for a valuable possession.

SECOND: In telling about the parties given by the Shepherd and the woman; Jesus is pointedly chastising the Pharisees and Scribes for their hard-heartedness in grouching about Jesus spending time with the so-called "sinners."

Look, Jesus says, God is real happy these people are interested in Spiritual Things. These people are thinking about God and their life and about what it means to be a good person.

This is cause for Celebration.

One of my Mother's childhood preachers in the Virginia Mountains said, "Instead of being happy they came in for a bath, those old sourpusses sat around complaining about the smell."

It seems clear that for Jesus, God is a parent, not a Grown-up. That is; God does not just love us when we're good, God loves us anyway.

The question for us today is do we know that God loves us anyway?

Dr. William McElvaney was president of the St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. One day he was driving to the airport to pick up a person who was giving a speech at the Seminary. To get there he had to drive across the Paseo Bridge over the Missouri River.

About a half mile from the bridge he got stuck in traffic. Nothing moved. After about fifteen minutes, traffic moved again. There was no indication of why traffic had stopped, no road work, no accident, nothing.

The next morning Dr. McElvaney read in his morning paper about a depressed man who stopped his car on the bridge, got out and crawled over the rail and got ready to jump. People saw him and called the police.

Officers leaned over the rail and talked to him, trying to get him to come back to safety. Meanwhile another officer fitted himself with a harness and a long rope. He secured the rope and crawled over the rail, inching toward the man.

Just when he got close enough to reach out and touch him, the man jumped off the bridge.

And the patrolman jumped after him, wrapping his arms and legs around him in a tight embrace.

They fell together until the rope was tight, and they swung above the river.

Up above, on the bridge, people could hear the policeman yelling in the ear of the jumper,

"If you go, I go! Because I'm going to hold onto you until hell freezes over!"
(Dr. Tex Sample, The Spectacle of Worship in a Wired World p. 117-118)

What is the gospel for us today?

Is God a Grown-up or a parent? Does God love us only when we're good, or does God loves us anyway, all the time, until Hell freezes over?

God has clearly been revealed in the life death and resurrection of Jesus as a loving parent who will never stop loving us, ever.

Christ left the safety of Heaven and leapt into the world to seek and save us.

Christ has grabbed onto our soul and has promised to hold onto us until the fires of Hell burn out,

"I am with you always," Jesus said.

And Christ calls us to bring others into the grip of God's love, a love that takes any of us, anyway we are.


Thursday, September 02, 2010

I'm not preaching this week, so instead of a sermon I am giving here some reflections on the Gospel text, Luke 14:25-33.

The text opens with Jesus speaking to a large crowd who had begun following him, hoping to see him perform a miracle. Here we see Jesus turning on the crowd to explain to them that this is serious business, not a carnival side show. Anyone unwilling to pay a high price in terms of commitment and sacrifice should turn back.

He uses three examples to make his point: family, business and the military.

Family: We are shook up by these words about hating father, mother, wife, children, brother, sister. Much of the church has staked out a large "family values" corner for the church. Many people in the pew will be waiting for, hoping for us to say something like, "Well, obviously, Jesus didn't mean this. He was just trying to get our attention."

Don't go there too fast. There is absolutely no indication in the text that Jesus meant anything other than what he said.

Though I am so not a language scholar, I spent some serious time looking for loopholes in the Greek text. And I found little help. The word used here is MISEO, which according to my Greek/English dictionary means hate, despise, disregard, be indifferent to.

The best I can conclude is that Jesus didn't command us to bear an emotional animosity toward our relatives; no more than when he commands us to "love one another," is he asking us to work up affection for people we don't like.

Jesus words here have to do with actions rather than feelings, priorities rather than emotions.

In this case, disregard and be indifferent to; not hate or despise.

Jesus knew the hold family has on us, all of us. It has first place in the average person's affections and behavior, first call on our loyalty, duty and commitment.

His point is that when the choice is between obedience to family or obedience to God, we must be willing to "disregard" or "be indifferent to," family and obey God.

This is not an easy call. Sorting out the "higher call," from the call to the others we love is a part of the cost of discipleship. Following God's call in our lives, while staying connected to those we love, who sometimes do not share or understand or appreciate our sense of call, is one of the prices to be paid.

And, here's another hard part, the rewards of obedience are neither immediate nor even this worldly. It is impossible to say to those around you, "Just wait, you'll see, following Jesus will pay in the end." For the end comes, in this world, just like it does to everyone else, with suffering and death.

That's where the business and military images come in; building a building and waging a war.

In both cases a lot of energy and money are expended before any rewards become evident. If you quit before it's over, you would have been better off not starting.

Here Jesus warns us, "This won't be easy and it won't be rewarding except in the sense of devoting yourself fully to God's will and God's way. Don't start if you don't intend to finish."

In his book Jesus in the Church's Gospels, Philadelphia Lutheran Seminary professor John Reumann writes:

In the cathedral church at Haderslev, Denmark, near the main entrance, in the south aisle, hangs an unusual painting. Seen from one angle, as you move down the aisle, it portrays the crucifixion. Move a bit and view it again, and this "perspective painting." Framed within its ornamental pilasters, has become a portrayal of the resurrection. The position and condition of Jesus have changed. The colors shift from somber blacks and grays to a more brilliant array. Even the audience changes; at least the figures in the resurrection scene are no longer bowed down in grief; they look upward in joy and awe.
The painter's trick perspective may strike art connoisseurs as just a step removed from those pictures of Jesus where his eyes follow the viewer across the room. But whatever the verdict on the technique, this Danish artist has captured a profound point in the New Testament's picture of Jesus Christ; cross and resurrection belong together.

(Fortress Press, 1968, p. 110)

This text calls us to avoid accepting, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's words, "cheap grace," for if we remove the cross from Christianity we have nothing worthy of the name left.

The resurrection does come, the empty tomb does come; but not before Good Friday; not for Christ, and not for us.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Pentecost 14/Lectionary 22

August 29, 2010
Proverbs 25:6-7, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

(A sermon preached at Crowell's Chapel Lutheran Church, Shelbyville, TN.)

The College Football season begins this week (MTSU vs. MN. - UT vs. UT-M)
I thought I'd start the sermon with a football story.

Shug Jordan was the long time coach at Auburn. He to asked a former player to scout a High School game.

One player said:, I'd love to help, but what kind of player are you looking for?

Coach: Mike, you know when you go to a game, there's always that fella that gets knocked down and stays down?

Mike: We don't want that fella, do we coach?

Coach: Naw, we don't want that fella. And Mike, you know there's that fella that gets knocked down and gets up and gets knocked down and gets up and then gets knocked down and stays down?

Mike: We don't want that fella either, do we coach?

Coach: No, we don't want that fella either Mike. Then there's that fella that always gets knocked down and gets up and gets knocked down and gets up and gets knocked down and gets up . . .

Mike: that's the Fella we want, ain't it coach?

Coach: No, we don't want that fella neither.

Mike: Well then coach, who do we want?

Coach: Mike we want the fella who's been knocking everybody down!

Today's Gospel lesson is about the question, "Which fellas do we want?"

At one level it's about what fellas do we want at our table, in our home, as our friends, on our social calendar.

On another level it's about what fellas does God want us to want, not only in our personal lives but also in our lives of faith.

Put another way, it's about who is included in God's love and therefore should be included in our love and in our community of faith.

First, let's look at verses 7-11:

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

This echoes our reading from Proverbs 25:

Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence
or stand in the place of the great;
for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here’,
than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.

In the book of Luke, in particular in chapters 13 through 15, Jesus turns our assumptions about God and goodness upside down and inside out.

Over and over again, Jesus proclaims that most of us are totally mistaken about who's in and who's out; who's acceptable and who's expendable; who's good and who's bad; who's a saint and who's a sinner, who's saved and who's damned.

Jesus teaches that what it means to be a "Child of God," has nothing to do with our pedigree and everything to do with God's gracious propensity for love.

Over and over again Jesus teaches us this; we are servants, not masters; we are to wash one another's feet; we are to take the last place, not the first; we are to see in the least and most despised the real face of Jesus our Lord, our Christ, and on and on.

It is only when we recognize that ALL places at GOD's table are places of honor that we become willing to accept and enjoy whatever place God has chosen as the right place for us.

We are all God's chosen people, serving God in the place where God has placed us.

If we sit around wishing we were someone else, doing something else, in some other place; we can miss the joy of being who we are, doing what we're doing, where we are.

In verses 12-14 we move on to Jesus Second Parable; this one aimed at the Host of the dinner:

He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’

The importance of this story is not so much whom we are to have to our homes for dinner; though it wouldn't hurt most of us to invite some folks from outside our comfort zones once in a while.

Jesus is really addressing the issue of who is to be welcomed into the presence of God, the issue of who is to be considered acceptable in the church. Remember the person who wrote Luke also wrote Acts and it's all one book.

And in Acts we have the problem of whether or not the Gentiles, the unclean, can be in the church. Remember Peter's dream and his argument with Paul, etc.

This is a part of that larger story.

In Leviticus 21:17-20 it spells out the fact that those who "have a blemish" are not to "draw near" to God. No one who is "blind, or lame, or has a limb too long, or a hunchback or a dwarf, or an itching disease or scabs."

When Jesus is portrayed saying, "When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind," it is intended as a direct argument against the text from Leviticus.

The message is: this is a totally different community than you thought it was, and the standards for admission are completely the opposite of what you thought they were.

The question for us today is simple: Are we ready to follow Jesus' lead?

Are we ready to be humble servants and are we ready to be radically inclusive in admitting people to God's Church and to God's table?

These two sayings of Jesus are held together by the fact that all of us here are both HOSTS and GUESTS at the banquet of the LORD.

We are all of us the poor, the lame, the blind, the undeserving strangers and sinners whom God has invited in.

And we are also all of us the Hosts at this banquet; given the duty of inviting and welcoming the other strangers in the world to come to the feast.

Next weekend I'll be back here in Middle Tennessee as the Chaplain for a youth event, a Happening, at Trinity in Tullahoma. In preparation for this event, I looked over some notes and found this from a teen-ager's talk at a Happening 15 years ago.

Laura Pomeroy is now a Physician, but then she was a High Schooler in Birmingham, AL.

She told the other kids that she believed that, "The greatest joy any Christian will ever receive will be when we all sit together at God's great Messianic banquet and someone looks across the table at us and smiles and says, "Thank you for inviting me." AMEN AND AMEN.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


A sermon preached at Reformation Lutheran Church, Greeneville, TN.

Pentecost 13/Lectionary 21
Luke 13:10-17

Ravi Zacharias tells this story:

On his way to work every day, a man walked past a clockmaker’s store. Without fail, he would stop and reset his watch from the clock in the window, then proceed on to the factory.

The clockmaker observed this scene morning after morning. One day he stepped outside and asked the man what he did and why he set his watch every morning.

The man replied, “I’m the watchman at the factory, and it's part of my job to blow the 4:00 o’clock whistle for the end of the day. My watch is slow so I re-set it every morning.

The clockmaker laughed and said, “You won’t believe this. That clock in the window is fast, so I re-set it every afternoon by the factory whistle. Heaven only knows what time it really is.” (retold from The Real Face of Atheism,
BakerBooks, 2004, p. 52)

That story is about the search for a true, reliable standard by which to measure time. And about the problems that result when that standard is simply what others are doing.

Our Gospel lesson is about the search for a true and reliable standard by which to measure morality. And about the problems that result when the standard is anything other than love and compassion.

Jesus is at worship on the Sabbath day.

There is a woman present who has suffered for almost twenty years from a crippling disease.

Jesus responds to her illness with love and compassion; he reaches out and heals her.

And immediately, the leader of the synagogue attacks Jesus for having the wrong standard for moral behavior, for coloring outside the lines, for not following the exact letter of the law.

Jesus responds by pointing out that even the strictest interpretation of the Law, the most reliable eternal timepiece, allows people to untie their cows and horses and mules and lead them to water on the Sabbath in order to prevent unnecessary cruelty.

Jesus then asks the rhetorical question:

“Is not a woman’s unloosing from the suffering of disease as important as the unloosing of an animal from its thirst?

We will lose the point of this story FOR US if we dwelltoo long on the subject of Sabbath observance; that battle has already been won or lost, depending on your point of view.

Very few of us here would really hesitate to do anything on Sunday that we would do any other day of the week.

About the only thing that Jesus could have done in this situation that would have shocked us would have been to NOT heal the woman because it was the Sabbath.

For us to get the point FOR US: TODAY, in Greeneville, TN, in 2010, we must think outside the box and consider ways in which our understanding of religious rules and regulations could block us from showing genuine, heartfelt compassion to those in need.

HMMM. GEEE. I can’t think of any right off the top of my head.

Which is precisely the problem.

No one of us considers our self to be a cruel and unjust person.

Nobody here thinks that our way of being Christian gets in the way of being kind, caring and compassionate.

I'm sure the leader of the synagogue surely thought of himself as a kind man; and so did his neighbors. After all, they made him their leader.

He’s just a local working man, a fisherman or cobbler or farmer or tentmaker, who has taken on the volunteer leadership role. He’s doing his best to interpret and enforce the rules as he knows them.

He says,
There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, but not on the Sabbath Day.

I’m sure he never imagined that one day, 2000 years later, he would be held up in sermons to millions of people as an example of religious hypocrisy.

He would surely protest; But, But, I’m an unpaid leader of a tiny congregation. I spend countless hours aiding the poor and the widows and the sick in our community. All I was trying to do was keep order, make sure everybody followed the rules, after all, that’s my job.

Ken Callahan is a Church Consultant and a prolific writer of books on Church Management. In his book Dynamic Worship, he says;

Across the years I have frequently asked congregations what one thing they like best about their church.

Again and again the answer is: “We’re so friendly”

Virtually all congregations believe themselves to be a friendly group of people. (This is because) the only people who are not at that church are the people who did not find it friendly. They are somewhere else, somewhere that feels friendly to them.

What applies to friendliness also applies to the rest of our faith life; what it looks like to us may not be what it looks like to others; to someone looking in from the outside.

We may think we are friendly and caring and compassionate people, while other eyes may be the ones who see us more clearly as we are.

This is why we need Jesus to look at us and speak to us about ourselves.

Just as Jesus broke into the pat little world of first century Palestinian Judaism with a new set of eyes and a fresh voice; we need to let Jesus look US over and tell us what he sees.

We need to hear and heed the call of Christ to break out of our old comfortable way of seeing things and doing things; we need to look at the world with the fresh eyes of Jesus, we need to look at the world as a place filled with opportunities to bend the rules in the name of love.

We need to follow Jesus to the Cross, and there at the Cross, we need to take the risk of doing new things for an old reason, THE LOVE OF GOD.

In his book How Sweet the Sound, Billy Graham's long time songleader George Beverly Shea tells this story about one of Graham's classmates at Wheaton College:

Mr. Frizen, called Bert by his friends, was a talented and popular singer on campus, involved with several singing groups . . . .

He went on to serve in the military during World War II and was involved in the famous Battle of the Bulge . . . .

Bert was wounded during one of the attacks and lay on the battlefield, slipping in and out of consciousness.

At one point, with his eyes closed, he started singing his mother's favorite hymn as best he could, "Jesus Whispers Peace."

When he opened his eyes, he saw a German soldier standing over him with a drawn bayonet.

Bert understood enough German to know that the soldier was saying to him, "Sing it again; sing it again."

Bert continued; "There is a Name to me most dear, like sweetest music to my ear/And when my heart is troubled, filled with fear/Jesus whispers peace."
Soon he felt himself being gently lifted up in the arms of the enemy soldier, who carried him to a rock ledge nearby where the American medics found him a short time later, taking him to safety.

In the midst of war, one German soldier broke the rules in the name of love, in the name of compassion, in the name of Jesus.

Our challenge today is to set our spiritual clock by the unchanging rhythm of God’s love.

God calls us to look deep within and to find the courage and the faith to break the rules in the name of love, in the name of the love of God which is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen and amen.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Installation Sermon on John 21:15-17

If you preach the Lectionary, this won't help you much, or any, but if you are a pastor, or have a pastor, or are thinking of becoming a pastor, it's worth reading.

Installation: Christ the King ELCA, Cumming, GA
August 15, 2010, 4:00 PM

Text: John 21:15-17

Pastor John Ortberg tells this story in a recent book,

A man is being tailgated by a woman in a hurry. He comes to an intersection, and when the light turns yellow, he hits the brakes.

The woman behind him goes ballistic. She honks her horn at him; she yells her frustration in no uncertain terms; she rants and gestures.

While she is in mid-rant, someone taps on her window. She looks up and sees a policeman.

He invites her out of her car and takes her to the station where she is searched and fingerprinted and put in a cell.

After a couple of hours, she is released, and the arresting officer gives her personal effects, saying "I'm very sorry for the mistake, ma'am. I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, using bad gestures and bad language.

I noticed the WHAT WOULD JESUS DO bumper sticker, the CHOOSE LIFE license plate holder, the FOLLOW ME TO SUNDAY SCHOOL window sign, the fish emblem on your trunk, and I naturally assumed you had stolen the car.
(When the Game is Over, It all Goes Back in the Box, 2007, p. 115)

Today we have gathered to install Seyward Ask as one of the pastors at CTK, Cumming. To take on such a public position is to commit to live in a particular way in relationship to both this congregation and the world. And people are watching and people are judging.

There are probably as many opinions and ideas about how a pastor is "supposed to behave," and what a pastor "represents' in the church in the world as there are people in this room.

The word pastor comes from Latin and French and basically means "one who tends to sheep," or as we would say, a "Shepherd."

The shepherd was a powerful symbol in Israel. For much of their history they were a nomadic people dependent upon their sheep for their livelihood.

The King was often referred to as the SHEPHERD of Israel, harkening back to King David, a shepherd boy in his youth, who is the king by whom all kings are measured.

The ancient kings of Israel were different from the kings of the nations around them. The other kings were held up to be Gods on earth, divine beings in human form. The kings of Israel were not believed to be divine; they were known to be ordinary human beings who represented God on earth and ruled in God's name.The idea was that God had placed the responsibility for the nation in their hands. The kingdom was not theirs to do with as they pleased. The kingdom was God's and they were to take care of it and God's people in God's name and with God's help.

And even great King David failed to do it right all the time. Between David and Jesus there were many years and many kings, and all the kings of Israel failed in one way or another. None of them lived up to the image of the Good, the True, the Real Shepherd of Israel, especially not the Emperor in Rome or his puppet King Herod.

Elsewhere in John's Gospel, especially in Chapter 10, the writer makes much of the idea that Jesus is the Good Shepherd of Israel, the one to whom God has given the responsibility for taking care of God's beloved people.

Now, in this last chapter of John, here is Jesus, after the resurrection but before the Ascension, handing off this "pastoral" duty. Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me?" Jesus poses this question not once but three times. The number is not by accident. Jesus is rewinding the clock, turning back time. Peter denied Jesus three times on the night he was betrayed. Now, in the early morning light, three times he swears he loves Jesus. And each time, Jesus calls on him to take care of his “sheep.” Twice his says "feed them," once he says "tend them;"

I don't often insert dictionary definitions into sermons, but this one is just too interesting. In Webster's Seventh New Collegiate, (Yes, I know it's old, it was a HS graduation gift almost 40 years ago!) the etymology line of the word pastor jumped out at me. Etymology is the history of the word, what language it came from; the definition is what it means now. The Etymological root of pastor is tied to the past participle of an old French word that means "to feed." That is; the shepherd, the pastor, is the one who feeds the flock.

Now, unlike most people these days, I grew up on a farm and Seyward, I want to tell you something important; feeding and tending sheep isn’t all that exciting or spectacular; it is repetitive and boring and tedious and normal, and oh so necessary.

To change analogies, washing dishes and cooking meals and doing laundry and mowing grass and cleaning house and changing diapers and paying bills and driving kids to school and going to work and drawing a check and sitting up all night when somebody’s sick are nowhere near as interesting as being in love and going on dates but is much more like being married.

Just so, being a pastor; tending God's sheep, feeding God's flock, taking care of the Body of Christ, seeing to the needs of God's one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is seldom exciting or spectacular. It is much more often ordinary and mundane, a matter of planning programs and going to meetings and visiting hospitals and talking to kids and listening to parents and, and, and . . . .

And, sometime after the new wears off, every pastor worth a ----darn begins to chaff at all this ordinariness and to wonder if this is really what God had in mind; both in starting the church and in calling your truly to the ministry.

When those moments come to me, as they still do, I am comforted to remember a story told to every Senior class at Lutheran Southern Seminary by Professor Marty Saarinen.

Pastor Marty graduated from Seminary back in the early 1950s and went to his first call in the UP of Michigan. Pretty remote and rugged now, much less then. Not too long after Pastor Marty got there he learned of an elderly couple who lived way back in the woods and who seldom got to church anymore and he resolved to go visit them.

He was advised to borrow a jeep, which he did, and he drove the paved road and then the dirt road, and then two ruts, and then a creek bed, and then he parked the jeep and climbed up a hill and through the wild bushes and found a cabin with a tiny wisp of smoke wafting into the sky from the chimney.

Pastor Marty walked onto the porch and knocked on the door and waited and waited and knocked again and waited and then he heard a noise and the door opened and a little old man stared at him for a long time and then he spotted the pastor's collar and turned around and shouted to a woman sitting in front of the fire in a rocker,

"Hallelujah, God has not forgotten us."

Seyward, God has called you to be a pastor of this particular flock. And that calling is primarily one of tending and feeding God's people in such a way that they will know that God has not forgotten them nor the world in which they live.

Amen and amen.

Friday, August 06, 2010

And now for something totally (well somewhat) different

I'm not preaching this week. I wrote this for the Synod blog. It might get a prime a pump or two. Delmo

Thursday, August 5, 2010

As an Assistant to the Bishop I spend a lot of time on the road. Although my personal preference is the "scenic route," the pressures of time and distance dictate that I spend most of that time on the large network of interstates that crisscross our synod. Sometime during a marathon seven city, four state, 1500 mile road trip, I began thinking about the church and how it works. It was an alternative to saying things a man in a minister's collar shouldn't think, much less say.

One thing that I spent a long time thinking about was the "two lanes, three types of driver," problem. It is my opinion that there are three broad categories of interstate drivers: 1) Go as fast as you can, 2) go 5-10 miles over the speed limit, 3) speed limit or below. This is fine when there are three or more lanes. Slow to the right, fast to the left; everybody else in the middle. Traffic flows, people find their spot, things work. Now; put those three styles of driving on two lanes and let traffic get a little heavy, and; oh my! The really fast people are trying to share the left lane with the moderately fast people and getting frustrated; a "go the speed limit" driver thinks the right lane is for people going slower than the speed limit and moves left, or a "5-10 over" is trying to drive in the right lane to get out of the way of the "real speeders," and gets frustrated by the slowness of the "go the speed limit" people, and so it goes.

I will not identify my driving type, but I started thinking about how sometimes the church is like that; we have people with a lot of different "spiritual speeds," and we try to force them into two lanes, or worse, one lane. We try to make everyone think alike or grow spiritually in the same way and at the same speed and then we leaders tend to get frustrated when our envisioned "mighty army of God," marching forward with precision and purpose turns out to be a bit of a motley crew; a ragtag army at best.

Just as it is is sometimes difficult for us to accept other people's driving styles, (an editorial page quip in the Seattle Times noted, "Why is it that everyone who drives slower than me is an idiot and everyone who drives faster is a maniac?") it is also often hard for us to accept the spiritual, theological style of others. When people aren't at the same place we are, too many of us are way too quick to point fingers and call names. It is important for us to do all we can to give each other room to move within the faith, within the church.

The key to that is not only accepting others, but also accepting the fact that God is in charge and we are not. Too much effort on our part to control the outcome of today's theological battles is akin to the person who tries too hard to get the other drivers to drive the "right way." It's not going to happen. What one must do is drive as carefully and as politely as one can and trust things to unfold safely. The same is true for the church. We must all move through our church life as faithfully and as politely as we can, trusting that God is in control and others are doing their best to be faithful as well

Friday, July 30, 2010


Pentecost 10, Lectionary 18,

TEXTS: Luke 12:13-21

"Who is the Rich Man?"

My father liked the story of the pastor who had one particular church member who was, how can I say it?, a less than "model" Christian.

After a while, the pastor began to put pointed remarks in his sermons, aimed directly at this particular man's faults and failures.

And every Sunday the man would come out of the church with a big smile on his face and he shake the pastor's hand and say, "Boy, Reverend, you sure told'em this morning."

And the pastor grew more and more frustrated until one Sunday in the dead of winter when there was a huge snow storm and only he and the man showed up for church. At first the pastor thought of canceling service but then he realized, "Hey, this morning he'll have to know who I'm talking about."

And so he unloaded, with both barrels, all the accumulated points he had been making about this particular sinner's sins, shortcomings and all-around general sorriness.

And the man came out the door; shook his hand with a big grin and said, "Boy, you sure told'em this morning Preacher. Too bad they weren't here to hear it!"

It is a problem, a spiritual disease, a theological fallacy we all fall victim to on occasion; the failure to recognize ourselves in the mirror of God's Word

For example, our Gospel lesson this morning.

How many of us thought that the words aimed at the rich man were aimed at us?

How many of us think of ourselves as rich?

Not I, and not many of you either, I'm sure. It's hard to think of ourselves as rich in this country right now.

I got my quarterly pension statement this week; I've lost money again, It's still not back to where it was two years ago; and that retirement date is within sight for me now. And I'm making a lot less money than I was two years ago too

Some years ago Economist Robert Heilbroner came up with a little mental exercise to help us see what life is like for one and a half billion people in the world; one and a half BILLION, that's a 1,500 million of God's beloved children living in what the World Bank calls "extreme poverty."

1 - Take all the furniture out of your home, except one table and a couple of chairs. Use a blanket and pads for a bed.

2 - Take away all of clothing except each person's oldest dress, pants, shirt, blouse, and coat. Only one pair of shoes per person.

3 -- Empty the pantry, the refrigerator and the freezer of all food except for a small bag of flour, some sugar and salt, and a few potatoes, some onions and some dried beans.

4 - Dismantle the bathroom, shut off the running water, and remove all the electrical wiring in your house.

5 - Take away the house itself and move the family into the tool shed.

6 - Move out of your neighborhood into a ghetto of makeshift buildings and mud streets.

7 - Cancel all subscriptions to newspapers and magazines and get rid of all your books. This is no great loss, since none of you can read anyway.

8 - Get rid of TVs, cell phones, computers and all other electronic gizmos. Leave one radio for the entire community.

9 - Move the nearest hospital or clinic to a day's walk away. Replace the doctor with a midwife.

10 - Throw away all your bankbooks, stock certificates, pension plans, and insurance policies. Your family has $10 of cash hidden in a coffee can.

11 -Give yourselves a few acres to grow crops on which you earn $500 a year. Pay a third of that in rent and 10% to loan sharks.

12 - Lop 25 years off your life expectancy.
(Robert Heilbroner, The Great Ascent, Chapter 2, numbers updated for inflation by me)

Let's be quiet and think about this for a minute. One and a half BILLION people in the world live like that.

All of us in this room and most of us in this country are the rich people in the world, and it is as rich people that we must listen to Jesus today.

As the text begins, Jesus is out and about, teaching and preaching. Someone in the crowd calls out and asks him to settle a family dispute about inheritance.

Well, actually, he doesn't ask him; he tells Jesus what he wants him to do and what he wants him to say.

"Hey Jesus, Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!"
He wants to use Jesus to give religious credibility to his own greediness.

Jesus refuses to be drawn into this family matter and instead warns the man and the crowd (and us), against the dangers of desire, the menace of materialism:

"One's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."

Then Jesus tells the story of the Rich Man who just keeps on getting richer.

He already has barns, and his barns are already full, and now he has all this other grain. What is he to do with it? He has more than most people, more than he needs. What to do?

Well, he decides to build more barns. He decides to stake his future on the accumulation of more stuff. By tearing down his old barns and cashing in his CDs, he refinances and builds new and bigger barns and now he is set!

NT Professor Wm. Barclay says: For the rich man, it's all about me. Listen to the pronouns in vs. 17-19. (Read) I, I, my, I, I, my, I, my, I, my. The Greek for I is ego. Ego, ego, my, ego, ego, my, ego, my, ego, my. (The Daily Study Bible)

The Rich man thinks he's got it made, then God comes to him and says,

‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’

The old comedian Jack Benny established a character who was famously tight and cheap. He had a routine where he is held up by a robber demanding, "Your money or your life."

Benny stands there, arms folded, fingers drumming his cheek, for several seconds.

The robber demands, "I said your money or your life; well?

Benny puts his arms out in exasperation, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking."

Sometimes we are like that. We seem caught between the demands of our money or our life, our eternal life.

Jesus repeatedly told us you can't serve both; but one can serve God through the use of one's money.

Everything we have, right down to the last breath we take, God has given to us. And God's judgment of us will have little to do with what we have and everything to do with what we have done with it.

God has given us what we have, not for ourselves, but for the benefit of the community and for hospitality to strangers.

This is true, whether we are talking about our personal, individual goods, or the goods we hold in common as a congregation, as the church.

In his parable, Jesus reminds us that we shall all die someday; it is not a question of if, only of when and how.

And at the inevitable moment of our death, all of our accumulated possessions will be worthless to us.

As Billy Graham once said, "I have never seen a hearse with a U-Haul behind it."

As a matter of fact, our possessions could be worse than worthless to us.

If the care and maintenance of our stuff has diverted us from the care and maintenance of our souls, the very things we cherish in this life will have been that which has ruined us for eternity.

As Jesus said, "So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

God has made us a part of the rich people of this world. God has placed in our hands all that we are and all that we have.

And the question for us today is essentially the same one the robber posed to Jack Benny:

"Your money or your life." Your eternal life, your soul life, your life with God.

Another way to put it is this: Will you serve God by serving the poor, or will you serve yourself?

Amen and amen.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

July 25, Pentecost 9, Lectionary 17

July 25, 2010, Pentecost 9, Lectionary 17

(A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Johnson City, TN)

Luke 11:1-13

True story. Heard it on the Paul Harvey radio show a few years ago.

Three year old goes with his mother to the grocery store. As they started in the door, Mom says to son, “Now, you’re not going to get any chocolate chip cookies, so don’t even ask."

She puts him in the child’s seat and off they go up and down the aisles. He's doing just fine until they get to the cookie session. When he saw the familiar packages, he says, “Mom, can I have some chocolate chip cookies?

I told you not to even ask.

They continue up and down the aisles, but, like always, they backtrack looking for a few things and wind up in the cookie aisle again.

Mom, can I have some Chocolate Chip cookies?

Finally, they arrive at the checkout. Junior is an experienced shopper. He knows this is his last chance. He stands up in the seat and shouts.

Everyone in the checkout area stares, then laughs, then applauds. And then, while Mom watches with mouth agape, 23 shoppers go and buy her little boy his Chocolate Chip cookies, 23 boxes of them.

What was it Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given?”

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is talking with his followers about prayer.

First he teaches them what we call the LORD’S PRAYER.

Then he tells them a weird story about bothering your neighbors in the middle of the night.

He finishes up by urging them to keep at it with prayer; to search, to knock, to ask!

As the story begins, Jesus has been praying while the disciples wait for him. When he has finished, they ask him to teach them to pray.

They have noticed that John the Baptist has taught his disciples to pray, and they want Jesus to get with the program and to teach them this secret knowledge as well. And so he does. But the prayer he taught them is probably not exactly what they had in mind.

Of course, it is impossible for us to get inside their heads and know for sure, but they probably wanted to learn the secrets to POWERFUL prayer, the kind of prayer that changes things, fixes things, gets you things you want, like Chocolate Chip Cookies.

But instead of getting a prayer that changes things OUT THERE, in the external world which they hoped to control with God’s help;

Jesus teaches them a prayer that changes things IN HERE, inside our hearts and minds and souls.

Martin Luther once said that to be a SINNER is to be BENT, to be CROOKED, to be TWISTED in upon ourselves.

The root of sinfulness begins in selfishness; in looking at the world as a place to get MY needs met, MY life straightened out, MY career, MY enjoyment, MY fulfillment, MY future, MY happiness.

But the prayer Jesus teaches us to pray is not MY prayer, it is OUR prayer, directed to OUR father, and it is not a prayer aimed at getting what I want.

Instead, it is designed to turn us away from our wants toward what GOD wants.

It is in praying this prayer that we become the people God made us to be, wants us to be in Jesus Christ.

The Lord’s Prayer is a powerful prayer, and it’s power lies in its ability to mold us into a Christlike shape.

As we pray and meditate upon this prayer throughout our lives, we discover that it constantly pulls us away from our focus upon ourselves and then bends us in a new direction; in the direction of loving God and serving others.

Having taught his disciples a basic prayer, Jesus drives home its lesson with the story about the grouchy neighbor and the noisy friend.

Remember; a parable does not operate on a one-to-one, this represents that, basis.

The neighbor is not God and beating on doors in the middle of the night is not prayer.

Jesus’ point is to be persistent in prayer; you’re not afraid of your friends, don’t be afraid of God. Ask for what you want.

Remember, Jesus didn’t say anything about going to a stranger in the middle of the night to ask for food.

He said to go to a neighbor, a friend, someone with whom you have a relationship; someone you know and who knows you!

The point of prayer is to talk with God, to be in relationship with God, to move your heart and mind and soul into cooperation with God in loving and serving the world.

The Rev. Leslie Weatherhead was a famous British Methodist preacher of about 50 years ago. He used to tell the story of his neighbor’s children, Tommy and Suzy.

They lived in the English countryside, and Tommy loved to trap rabbits. Suzy was very unhappy about this and every day begged her big brother to stop being so cruel to the rabbits, but Tommy laughed her off and continued to run proudly into the kitchen with his trapped and skinned rabbits held high.

One night, their mother heard Suzy praying:Dear God, please stop Tommy from trapping rabbits. Please don’t let them get trapped. They can’t They Won’t! Amen.

Mom was a little worried about this prayer. She was afraid her little girl would be disappointed when God didn’t stop Tommy’s traps from working. She was afraid of her daughter losing faith because of unanswered prayer. She said to Suzy,How can you be so sure that God won’t let the rabbits be trapped?


Jesus’ teaching on prayer is that we should pray so often, and so regularly, and so persistently that we become as familiar with God as we are our neighbors and friends.

And it is within that relationship and familiarity that God changes our lives, unbends us from selfishness and evil and turns us in the direction of love and goodness.

And as a result of having our lives changed by God, we find ourselves empowered to change the world.

We embrace Christ as the way of salvation for ourselves and discover that we have become a part of the way of salvation for those around us.


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Pentecost 7, July 11, 2020

(A sermon preached at Christus Victor Lutheran Church Ocean Springs, Mississippi)
Luke 10:25-37

A few years ago I heard Pastor Jack Hayford of the Church of the Way in Van Nuys CA tell a story about his grandson Kyle. At the time Kyle was 9 years old.

Kyle had recently lost a baby tooth. In the Hayford household, the tooth fairy pays a dollar per tooth.

That night, when the Tooth Fairy reached under Kyle’s pillow to recover the tooth and leave a dollar, he found not the tooth but a note from Kyle. The note read:

Dear Tooth Fairy,
I am holding my tooth for ransom.
The fee will be $20. I am doing this for three reasons:
1) I have had this tooth longer than any other and I am very fond of it.
2) It is bigger than the other teeth.
3) It has silver in it.
Signed Kyle

In the morning Kyle found underneath his pillow, not a $20 bill, but this note:

Dear Kyle, Enjoy your tooth. Signed, The Tooth Fairy.

I thought of this story when I read verse 29 in our Gospel Lesson, "but wanting to justify himself, he (the lawyer) . . ."

Since my son is beginning his first year at UNC law School in about a month, I'll go easier on the lawyer than I usually do when this text comes up and admit that self-justification is not a technique unique to lawyers, we all do it, don't we?

We twist and turn and reason and opine and try to find a way to make what we want to be the truth look for all the world like the truth. We seek, over and over again, with each other and with God, to justify ourselves.

We treat the almighty like some Supreme Tooth Fairy in the sky and then we attempt to convince this Supreme Tooth Fairy that we deserve whatever good treatment we are asking for.

And the Gospel is none of it works and none of it is necessary. God loves us just the way we are. God also loves us too much to let us stay that way. And God wants to use each of us as Divine agents of Holy Love, reaching out to the world with open hands and generous spirits. That is the Gospel; which does not include either service area limitations or a negotiation of terms.

In our Gospel the lawyer asked Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?"

What he wanted to know was, "What are the legal and ethical limits on my charity? Who does God expect me to help when I see them in trouble?"

But Jesus turns the lawyer's question upside down with the story of the Good Samaritan.

Instead of who am I required to help? Jesus answers with a story that says, "God's help and love for you will come from unexpected, and often unwelcome, sources."

I think we all get the fact that Jesus' first Century Jewish listeners would have expected the Priest and the Levite, (or the Pastor and the Deacon in modern church terms), to help the man in the ditch and were disappointed when they didn't.

What I am afraid we often don't grasp is what a shock it was for the rescuer to turn out to be a Samaritan. This story has made the word Samaritan into symbol of selfless generosity and care for the stranger. We have Samaritan hospitals, and if you travel the roads as much as I do, you will often see stickers on RV's proclaiming the driver to be a member of "The Good Sam Club," pledged to help other travelers on their journeys.

But to Jesus' listeners, a Samaritan was none of these things. He was a hated enemy, an apostate, a heretic, a foul worshiper of the wrong God, an unclean person. When Jesus introduces him to the story you should think "Snidely Whiplash," with long mustache, top hat and cape, the stereotypical villain whom the crowd boos and hisses when he comes on stage. That's how they felt about Samaritans. And this hated, evil, despised person is the hero of Jesus' story.

Instead of telling the Lawyer whom he had to help, Jesus shook things up by telling him that his true neighbor, the one who would help him, could be the person he least expected it from.

When the lawyer asked Jesus who his neighbor was, he was trying to define, to negotiate, the limits of his own love toward others.

Jesus turned this backwards by establishing a love ethic that has no limits, and that does not play by our rules of who's in and who's out.

This story goes beyond our relationships with each other, beyond who we are to help and from whom we can expect help. It moves past all that into our relationship with God.

The man in the ditch had acted foolishly by traveling alone on a dangerous road. He did not deserve help.

If he could have chosen his helper, he would have chosen either the priest or the Levite, people who had a duty to help him.

But no, he was helped by a Samaritan, who helped him willingly, freely, graciously, lovingly, without judgment or any expectation of pay back.

We, you and I, we are the person in the ditch, and God is the Good Samaritan.

About 20 years ago the New York Times ran a story about a man who went to Times Square with two $60 tickets for the play "The Real Thing."

His wife was sick and he couldn't go so he stood outside the box office trying to give them away to people in line to buy tickets. No takers.

After a warm cup of coffee and some meditation, he came back, offered them for $100 apiece and sold them immediately.

We are like that with God. Deep down, most of us don't want God's hand-out of love, we don't want God's generous offer. We want to deserve it, we want to earn it, but the truth is, we can't. We really can't. We are the one in the ditch. We are the wounded and foolish one, the one helpless and in need of help and healing.

The question, "Who is my neighbor?" is really the second question the Lawyer posed in this lesson. The first was, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus responded by pointing him to the Scriptures and the man gave the right answer, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind soul and strength; and your neighbor as yourself."

And Jesus said, "That's right, you got it."

And right here is where the lawyer fell in the ditch.

See, he didn't blink an eye at the monumental idea of devoting his entire existence to loving God. Isn't that what "all your heart, soul, strength and mind," implies; total and complete commitment.

If you give all that over to God, there isn't much room left for TV or baseball of gardening or dating or whatever. But, apparently, the lawyer was okay with that demand. My all; for God!

It's the neighbor business that bothers the lawyer. Perhaps this is because it is easier to get caught not loving your neighbor than it is to get caught not loving God.

It's pretty obvious to everyone if you fail to feed the hungry or clothe the naked; but who's going to notice if you don't pray or read your Bible enough?

The man is guilty of the companion sins of pride and ingratitude. He believes he is capable of pleasing God through his own actions and he is therefore not grateful to God for God's love and grace.

He does not admit either his own need or God's action to save, and so he has the audacity to raise the question, "About whom am I required to care?"

The Gospel is; if you get part one: God has loved me so much and so freely that all I can do is love him in return,

Then part two: the way to show my love to God is to love everybody else the way God has loved me; comes naturally. So, what is the answer to the question:

"What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Simple: Swallow your pride and realize: God has already given eternal life to you.

Our calling today is to live in that love, to reach out to others with that love, to be that love in the world for the sake of Jesus the Christ who gave himself for us.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pentecost 5, June 27, 2010

A Sermon preached at Messiah Korean Lutheran Church, Norcross, GA (Greater Atlanta)
Pentecost 5
June 27, 2010

Text: Luke 9:51-62

This week people from all over the world have traveled to South Africa for the World Cup. In a few weeks, my wife and I will fly from Atlanta to Seattle to spend a week with our son who works for Microsoft, a distance of over 2000 miles. This long distance traveling seems very natural and ordinary to most of us in this room, but it was not always so.

New Testament Professor Tom Wright says that "in most of the world for most of human history, most people didn't travel at all. . . .they stayed in their local neighborhood all their lives." (Luke for Everyone, p. 117)

The main exception to this staying on home was going "on pilgrimage," taking a religious trip to a special site; a temple or a shrine. Indeed, in English the word for special days of observance is HOLIDAY, which was originally HOLY DAY.

In the British Isles, what we in the United States call "taking a vacation," is referred to as "going on holiday." For the Jewish people of Jesus' time, going on pilgrimage usually meant going to Jerusalem, to the Temple, like Jesus' family did when he was a twelve year old boy. (Luke 2:41-51)

In our Gospel Lesson for today, Jesus sets out on a pilgrimage;
he goes "on holy-day" in the true sense of the term;
he sets out on a mission from God and for God,
he goes to a holy place to do a holy thing.

In verses 51 and 53 of chapter 9, Luke says that Jesus "set his face for Jerusalem."

This phrase means something like, "he was determined to go and would not let anything stop him."

Luke wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the book of the Acts of the Apostles.
In Luke we see in Jesus the fact that obedience to God the Father's call on his life required him to travel to Jerusalem.
In Acts, we read about Paul and Barnabas and Silas and John Mark many others for whom the life of the Christian is a journey of following Jesus along the way of the cross.

In my work for the synod I do a lot of traveling. We're a large Synod, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Blue Ridge Mountains, from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean.

One of the hardest things to do is to pack right for the trip. What clothes do I need? What stuff, what things do I need? What ministry resources and workbooks for various workshops and what extension cords and phone chargers and computer attachments and other electronics and then there's the prescription medicines and the other medicines, and, well, it gets very complex and confusing.
What should I take? What should I leave behind?

Lucky for me I'm a bad dresser and only have to worry about one pair of shoes.

Today's Gospel lesson was written to teach the first Christians what it meant to be on their journey with Jesus, about how to prepare for the trip, about what to take and what to leave behind, it's a lesson in spiritual packing.

The story the Bible tells us is pretty simple, it's like a scene out of a movie or a musical play.

Imagine Jesus striding down the road, with a crowd on either side of him and the disciples following behind him, music playing in the background.

As he walks along, people come out of the crowd and he has conversation with them about what it means to be on the Way to the Holy City.

In this story, there are four encounters and several lessons about what to take and what not to take on this journey.

Part 1) The first encounter involves the village of the Samaritans, (verses 52 through 56). Jesus sent messengers to the village to let them know he was coming and the people sent back word asking him not to stop in their village, they didn't want him there.

We don't really know why not except that the Bible says it was, "because his face was set toward Jerusalem." Does that mean they were opposed to the ministry and message of Jesus? Or does it mean that since they were Samaritans they were already hated by the leaders in Jerusalem and didn't want any more trouble? We don't know.

What we do know is that two of Jesus' disciples, James and John, got angry and wanted to call down destruction from heaven, wanted to ask God to destroy this little village the way God destroyed Sodom in the time of Abraham and Lot.
And Jesus said no, leave them alone.

What can we learn about "spiritual packing" from this part of the story?

Any where we go; God has been there before us. Any where we go, God is there with us. Any where we go; God will still be there when we leave.

Just as messengers went in front of Jesus on his journey, anywhere we go with the Gospel, God has already been working.

Sometimes the people are ready, sometimes they are not.

Sometimes they receive us with open arms; sometimes they turn their backs.

But that is not our concern, we neither condemn nor punish those who aren't ready; nor do we take credit when we and the Gospel are received.

As the saying goes, "it's not about us, it's about God."

So, this part of the story teaches us that when we pack for the journey with Jesus, we leave out our egos, our pride, our anger and judgment of others.

We put in our pack humility and love, gentleness and kindness and a deep awareness that God is with us, all the way, all the time, and what happens is in holy hands and is NOT ours to control.

Part 2) In the last part of the story, people come out of the crowd to talk with Jesus as he walks along past the village. All the encounters have to do with excuses, or reasons, people think they don't have time to follow Jesus.
Verse 57 - A man says "I'll follow you anywhere."

Verse 58 - Jesus responds by warning him it's a life without a permanent home.

Verse 59 - Jesus invites a man to follow, but the man says he has to bury his father first. It's important to know his father is very much alive. What he means is, "Let me fulfill all my family obligations, then I'll follow you."

Verse 60 - Jesus tells him "Let the dead bury the dead." That is, "If you're going to follow the Kingdom of God, you have to let go of that duty in order to take up a new duty, the duty to proclaim the Good News."

Verse 61 - a person says, "Let me first go home and say good bye."

And in Verse 62 - Jesus says those words about looking back while plowing. A more modern, urban analogy is, "Don't try to drive around I- 285 while looking in the rear-view mirror; you'll have a wreck!"

In these three encounters, Jesus is calling us to leave behind one set of obligations and duties in order to take on a different set.

He asks us, no calls us, to unpack and leave behind Nationalism and Racism and social propriety in order to embrace a Kingdom that includes all people of all races and colors and languages from all over the world.

He invites us to leave behind selfish and narrow and localized devotion in order to put in our pack a sense of love and duty for the salvation of the entire world, not just our little corner of it.

When Jesus set his face to Jerusalem, he turned his back on Nazareth, on the land around the Sea of Galilee, on his life as a carpenter and small town teacher and preacher.

When Jesus set his face for Jerusalem, he knew he was going to his death, he knew he was, from that very moment, walking to the cross.

And he invites us to go with him. He invites us, calls us to follow him to Jerusalem, to the Cross. He invites us to unpack all the small but heavy and burdensome things that keep us from loving God and each other completely and fully and passionately.

Jesus invites us to drop the burdens that weigh us down, to throw aside the cares and concerns that hold us back, to cast away the judgments and hatreds that turn us away from God and toward the world.

Jesus invites us to empty our hands of all that so that we can take up our cross and gladly follow him.

When we have empty hands, we can reach out to others.

When we remove the hate from our hearts, we have room for love.

When we take the judgment out of our eyes, we then see others as God sees them, as precious children in need of love and forgiveness.

The way of the cross is not easy, but it is the way we have been called to follow.

Can you hear Christ calling you now? Saying in the still quiet of your heart; "Drop everything that is holding you back and follow, follow me to Jerusalem, follow me to Love."

Amen and amen.