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.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

For June 20, 2010 - Revised Common Lectionary Texts

I'm at AFFIRM, the SE Synod of the ELCA's summer time youth event so I'm not preaching tomorrow. But, for those late Saturday grazers for preaching texts and options, I have published here a sermon sent to me by my friend, The Rev. Dr. Mark Scott, ELCA Foundation Representative in South Carolina and weekly pulpit supply at Mount Pleasant ELCA.

Gas or Charcoal?

A sermon preached for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost on Luke 8:26-39
At Mt. Pleasant Lutheran Church
Saluda, SC
Mark Scott, Preacher

Since today is Father’s day, I thought I would begin with the burning question for fathers: Gas or Charcoal? A few years ago, my mother in law gave us money for Christmas to purchase a gas grill. We dutifully went to Sears and found one we liked, but when we realized how complicated it was to put together, we went back and paid them to assemble it for us.

That should have given us a clue about grilling. Having always been satisfied with charcoal, we thought that the experience of gas would be even better. For us, it wasn’t.

We kept running out of propane in the middle of the canister. Being absent-minded, I would often leave the grill running far longer than it needed to run. And, after about three years of staying outside, the gas grill corroded so badly that it could no longer be used. In the end, what the grill needed was a one way trip to the junk yard.

To solve the problem, we bought a small charcoal grill on sale for $17. It has corroded some too, but has lasted well for more than five years now.

The problem with charcoal though is getting it lighted. I have been using the fast lighting stuff, but it is so expensive. So we were very pleased a couple years ago, when we were visiting friends and discovered a new invention for lighting charcoal. (By the way, this is a rather longwinded explanation of the Gospel lesson.)

This invention is simply a pipe with a handle. You place the charcoal in the top of the pipe. In the bottom, you light newspapers. For about fifteen minutes, it appears that nothing is happening except that smoke is coming out of the top of the pipe. However, when you empty the contents after the fifteen minutes has passed, you have hot smoldering coals and you are almost ready to put your meat on the grill.

To me, the difference between gas grills and charcoal is the explanation to the Gospel lesson for this day. Jesus is again in a Gentile region. We know this because the swineherds are living there. Jews were forbidden by dietary laws from eating pork, so these people really don’t know a lot about the background of Jesus.

In other words, when it comes to the Holy Spirit, they are more likely to light up slowly. The “gas grill” people are paying attention though but as the story begins, they are somewhere else. Jesus leaves the boat on the Sea of Galilee and a naked demon-possessed man confronted him.

As the story progresses the fire of the Spirit slowly begins to light in the region, but the story indicates that the fire is often more smoldering than burning. Curiously, the demons inside the man recognize Jesus and offer him respect but they do not succumb immediately. The move into the swine. The economic catastrophe ensues as the swineherds lose their livelihood and the people of the village ask Jesus to leave. The only ember remaining is the man freed from demon-possession who goes around testifying to the mighty acts of God in Jesus.

When you think about it, this is an amazing story. But it is also a story of real life. Last week, the State newspaper carried an article about the governor’s race and religion. On the Democratic side, a Catholic has been nominated for the first time in South Carolina history. I suppose that for some Christians that is bad enough.

However, Nikki Haley is a real enigma. As far as many Christians are concerned, she is in about the same position of the demoniac. She grew up a Sikh. Her Indian name is difficult to pronounce. But now she says she is a Methodist. Unfortunately, it is still unclear how much she still espouses the Sikh religious experience.

But the problem of South Carolina politics is exactly the problem Jesus addresses in this Gospel lesson. By healing the demoniac man, Jesus shows that he is the Messiah for ALL people. Unfortunately, we often would prefer the gas grill instant answer type religious experience to the slow burn of the charcoal.

But notice that the charcoal produces a deeper, more intense and long-lasting heat. And essentially, when Jesus heals the man, he produces a slow burning and intense faith within him. To me, the most interesting thing that happens in this story must be what happens afterward. The man becomes a Gentile disciple. All the text tells us is that he proclaims the mighty works of God.

My guess however is that he becomes charcoal starter. His faith is so bright and intense that others come to believe even though Jesus is no longer in the region. And, while this story seems far removed from our world today, the intensity of the experience is really quite close to the experience we still need as disciples. While some might decry the multi-religious nature of the governor’s race, I think this provides us an opportunity to embrace the message all of us share.

In reality, both candidates will be explaining themselves during the coming weeks and months. But we should also be explaining ourselves as well—as disciples. This man who lives in the cemetery at the start of the lesson provides an image of living in faith for us at the end.

And, like my charcoal, we should be long-burning with the fire of the Gospel message in our lives and hearts. You have a mission to serve in this place. You are the ones our Lord has called to a life-long commitment to discipleship. And as God’s people your witness and power is a vital ingredient in shaping the lives of others around you no matter what background they come from.

Still, while corrosion is possible, it is most regrettable. As St. Paul notes we are not the beneficiaries of a spirit of timidity. Instead, our Lord calls us like the man in the story to live in the message each day as we testify to the mighty works that God has used to shape our lives.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Going and Comingstories and sermons

Someone asked me about sermon ideas and stories for farewell sermons and "HI, I'm your new pastor" sermons, so I looked over the last few years for what I had said on those occasions and here are some things. The first bit of material is a collection of stories from a beginning sermon that rtried to set the tone of: What is the church? What sort of church life do I envision?

The last piece is a farewell Sermon I preached a little over two years ago.

I hope this helps any of ya'll who read this and are currently in transition.

I am a big fan of Church Signs. Oak Forest Methodist Church in Hayesville, NC had a message up for a week that said,


Sounds like good advice to me.

Across the street from Tennessee State University in Nashville there is a Church which has the longest Church name I’ve ever seen on a sign.
I pulled in the parking lot to copy it down:

The House of the Lord,
Which is the Church of the Living God,
The Pillar and Ground of the Truth,
Without Controversy, Incorporated.

Without controversy. Whoever heard of a church without controversy?

Today’s Scripture lessons are all about controversy.

This section of Jeremiah has a heading in the American Bible Society’s Version that says “Jeremiah’s life threatened.”

And that’s exactly what is going on here. He is the lamb led to the slaughter, the tree destroyed with its fruits, Jeremiah is the one they want to cut off from the living.

From the OT, through the NT, through most of Church History,
the Community of faith has often been caught up
in dispute and disagreement about
what it means to be a true believer.

In light of religion’s history of fighting, instead of the Nashville church’s claim to be “Without Controversy,” perhaps a church sign I saw in Atlanta is more to the point. It read:


Now I know they meant their name to convey a religious truth,
that the Grace, Love and Forgiveness of God are “free for all.”

But, when I saw the sign, all I could think of is how we call a small riot, a bar fight, a baseball fracas, any kind of wild, no rules confrontation,
a “free for all.” And every time I drove by that church, I imagined 65-year-old deacons in their Sunday suits, wrestling and throwing Bibles at each other.

The truth is, the people of God have always been, and probably always will be, a contentious lot, given to fussing with each other about all sorts of things, some of which matter and most of which don’t

GK Chesterton is one of my favorite writers. He wrote and was famous in England from about 1900 into the 1930's. He wrote mystery stories and religious biographies and books of theology, etc. etc.

He was a very eccentric man, over 6 feet, 350 pounds plus, wearing a cape and a black broad brimmed hat everywhere he went.

One time he was on a radio talk show. They had a panel of important people talking about religion and literature. The moderator asked this question:

If you were on a desert island, what one book would you want to have?

George Bernard Shaw said the Complete Works of Shakespeare.
The President of the Baptist Union said Pilgrim’s Progress
The Moderator of the Methodist Church said The Bible
The Anglican Bishop of London said, The Book of Common Prayer
Chesterton pursed his lips and said nothing. The Moderator prompted him: Mr. Chesterton, what book on a desert island?
Chesterton: I believe Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding

I believe that in today’s Gospel Lesson, Jesus has provided us with the key to Practical Soul-Building and to Practical Church Building

Farewell Sermon
Text: John 14:15-21

Title: Are We Done?

Many of you know that before I came to Friedens, I worked at a Methodist Retreat Center in the NC mountains. You might not know that for two of the four years I was there I also pastored a tiny house church in Highlands, NC called the Church of the Holy Family.

Holy Family worshipped in a house, in a two car garage which had been nicely fixed up as a Chapel. There was a pulpit and an Altar and a piano and three rows of folding chairs. It was a tight space. Nong sat with his family in the back row. Nong was 4 years old; he had been adopted from Thailand. During the service, Nong usually sat in the floor and played with his dinosaurs.

And every Sunday, after Communion, when everyone stood up for the Post-Communion Blessing, in that brief of moment of silence before the Pastor speaks, Nong would loudly ask his mother, “Are we done?”

It’s a good question for us here, today. Are we done? And the answer, in good, Lutheran, waffling, dialectical, tradition is; well, yes . . . and no?

This “are we done?” question was on the minds of Jesus’ disciples in our Gospel lesson. This text is a part of Jesus’ long sermon/conversation in the Upper Room after the Last Supper. It starts right after Judas leaves to go to the temple to betray Jesus and continues for four chapters.

And, the bottom line is that the disciples are trying to figure out, “Are we done?” “Is it all over?” “What happens next?” “What about us?”

And Jesus is trying to give them a “Yes . . . and No” answer, which they really aren’t buying.

The “Yes” part of the answer is that he is indeed leaving, it is indeed over. He tries to get them to understand what the next three days will be about for Him: death, hell, resurrection, time spent with the disciples, then Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit;

but, frankly, it’s all just too weird and confusing and frightening, and they don’t really get it.

“Where are you going?” “No, we can’t come if we don’t know the way?” “”Why don’t you speak plainly?” they ask him. “Why does he mean by that?” they ask each other. No, they really don’t get it. Why is he leaving, now, so soon? Is it really over? And Jesus’ answer is Yes . . . and No.

Yes, in that the way it’s been for the last few years is over. This close, intimate, personal relationship between me and all of you is over, Jesus says, and it can never be repeated. My time on earth is done.

But, NO, in that the community of love we started together is not over. And will never be over. It has begun in us and will continue in you all forever. Because, when I leave, I will send into your midst the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, to hold you together and to lead you forward.

So, NO, it isn’t over. We aren’t done. In reality, we’ve only just now gotten started.

And the mark of this ongoing Jesus Movement/Christ Community is LOVE. Which is simple to say and hard to do.

I know I’ve said this here before, but my favorite line from GK Chesterfield bears repeating:

In one place in the Bible, Jesus commands us to love our neighbors. In another place he tells us to love our enemies. This is because, generally speaking, they are the same people.

Love is hard, particularly the sort of love Jesus is talking about here, AGAPE, self-giving, sacrificial love which seeks nothing for itself but instead seeks only to aid and help the other. Again, love is hard, especially when we are invited by Jesus to love people we don’t really like.

And of course, this is not the only place Jesus calls upon us to love each other in this way.

The text says, “If you love me, you WILL keep my commandments.”

And what are Jesus’ commandments? Well didn’t he say they were all about loving God and each other?

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind; and the second is like unto it – you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

In another place he says:

Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

Over in the 21st chapter of John, after his death and resurrection, Jesus has a dialog with Peter on the beach:

Peter, do you love me? Feed my lambs.
Peter, do you love me, Tend my sheep.
Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep.

So it is clear that Jesus wants us to love one another. The problem is, loving each other is very hard business. Loving people you like is difficult enough; how can Jesus’ order us, command us to love even those we don’t like?

What are we to do? How do we begin to love others in the way Our Lord loved us?
There are two hints to the how of this in our Gospel lesson.

The first is buried within verse 15, the first line of our text:

If you love me, you WILL keep my commandments.

It is a part of our basic human nature that we hear these words as LAW, as a RULE, as a COMMAND to be OBEYED, as a WORK to be ACHIEVED.

Our ears hear Jesus saying something he didn’t say. We hear:

If you want to prove to the world and to God that you love me, then you will have to show it by loving one another.

That’s what we hear; but that’s not what Jesus said.

Jesus gave us a word of GOSPEL, not LAW;
a word of PROMISE, not JUDGMENT.


If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

If you are an apple tree, you will bear apples.

If you are a child of God, you will act like one.

If you are connected to the Christ, you will bear the Christian fruit of love.

Jesus’ point is that the capacity to love people is not something we develop or achieve; it is rather the gift of God received in our relationship of love with the Christ.

“If you love me you will keep my commandments,” is a gospel promise that being in relationship with the living Lord is a life-changing, transforming experience.

As Christ begins to live more and more within us, as we open our lives more and more to Christ’s leading, we find ourselves more and more able to treat others in a loving and respectful manner.

The loving relationship we have with Christ begins to spill over into loving relationships with those around us.

And, Jesus implies, though I am leaving, the love community we have created will continue to live and grow into the future.

The Second Key is found in verse 16:

And I will ask the Father, and he will send you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of Truth . . .”

This advocate, this counselor, this Spirit of Truth; is in us, with us at all times. The Holy Spirit is available to nurture us; to lead and guide us in loving others as Christ has loved us.

Jesus says, “Yes, we’re done with me being with you. But I will not leave you orphaned, alone, unloved and uncared for. No, you’re not done with the life of loving one another with the love of God. I will send the Spirit to carry you along the rest of the way.”

Jesus comes to us today to assure us that in the midst of life’s surprising twists and turns and comings and goings; he will never be done with loving us.

Our calling today is to respond to that promise and that love by loving one another.

Are we done? Yes, if you mean are we done in our relationship of Pastor and congregation? That ends Wednesday night.

Are we done? No, if you mean are we done loving one another in the spirit and presence of the risen Christ. We will never be done with that, for Christ will never be done with us, not in a million years.

Amen and amen.