Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christ was born for this…a sermon on John 1:1-14

A. Hanson 2009
Preached at First Lutheran Church, St Peter, MN, on Christmas Morning, 2013.  

Grace, peace and mercy are yours from the incarnate God.  Amen. 

With the words of Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth still echoing in this space,
this reading from John’s Gospel feels particularly jarring on Christmas morning. But this Gospel text is itself a birth narrative as well.  It is the story of the birth of all of creation. It is the story of the birth of an entirely new thing, a God who loves creation so much that this God would literally take on human flesh and live among us.   The Christmas story is NOT just the celebration of a birth of a baby.  It is the story of our God who became human, incarnate literally means the putting on of flesh, in order to save us from ourselves, sin, and death.  This is not a necessarily the warm and happy image that we want to associate with Christmas.  This is not the stuff of Christmas carols or quaint nativity scenes.  But we can’t have the joy of Christmas without reflecting upon the significance of what it means that God would take on flesh and live among us.

The Christmas story is not just pure sentimentality.  I think that somehow along the way, we have lost sight of just how RADICAL the incarnation is.  It is the story of God coming down to us, God living among us, with all the messiness that comes along with being fully human.  God was born of the womb of an unwed teenage mother.  In a shack, somewhere in Bethlehem.  And this chain of events was set into motion by a God who loves us so much that this God would choose live among us, knowing that we would ultimately kill Him.  The incarnation forever changes God’s relationship to humanity and humanity’s relationship to God.  The incarnation means that we can see, hear, and know God in ways never before possible.  It is the moment when the Holy and the Ordinary collide and God breaks into our world.  And none of us will ever be the same again.  But by living among us, it also means that God suffers, that God knows pain, and even that God can die. 

When we read this Gospel text from John in light of the events of Holy Week and Easter, not only Christmas morning, the vulnerability of God coming to us as an infant takes on a whole new meaning.  The story of the incarnation is that Christ not only LIVED among us, but that he would die as well, and go on to live again.  To become flesh is to know joy, pain, suffering, and loss.  It is to love, to grieve, and someday, to die.

I struggle with the heart of this text, and perhaps you do too. Our world is so painful at times, that wouldn’t it be great to just set all of that aside for one day and just focus on the joy of Christmas…the birth of an innocent baby. But our lives with all their grief and stress and pain keep marching on, regardless of the day on the calendar. 

I think the real hope in Christmas is in knowing that Christ dwells in all the mess of what it is to be human.  For all the people for whom Christmas is not joyful and family togetherness is non-existent, Christ was born for this.  For all the young adults that went away to college and are returning home for the first time, to realize they no longer belong in their own lives, Christ was born for this.  For all the people who are spending this holiday sober or without a beloved partner, Christ was born for this.  For the children who are shuttled between their divorced parents on this day, Christ was born for this. For all the nations for whom peace on earth seems impossible, Christ was born for this too, and will continue to live there until swords are beaten into plowshares.  Christ was born for this…Christ was born for this.

I don’t want a God who is far removed from me and only knows a sort of existence that is bright and shiny and happy.  I want a God who is not afraid to sit next to my dying family member in a hospital bed.  Or accompany me through dark nights of the soul when it seems like there is nothing but darkness ahead.  Or who is not afraid to spend time with those who live on the margins of society, the homeless, the poor, and the drug addicts.  This is what it means to say that God became flesh and lived among us.   To acknowledge that God has lived the fullness of human experience, who knows the light but also the darkness. 

I need to hear…we need to hear…about a God who brings light into the darkness of this world.  Who is the light that dispels darkness of all the parts of our lives and our world that threaten to overcome us.  As part of the training to become a pastor, all seminarians spend time working as chaplains, I worked in a hospital for a summer.  One of my patients in the ICU was a man named Daniel. He was a middle-aged man, a former used car salesman, now homeless, an alcoholic and a drug addict, and in his last few weeks of life.  He was what the hospital called an “unbefriended” patient.  He had no family and no friends.  I met him on the day that he was given a terminal diagnosis and regularly visited him until his death.  Daniel was living in darkness. He never wanted the shades open or the lights on and he was afraid of dying.  Although Daniel went to church as a child, he told me that he was pretty sure that God didn’t want anything to do with people like him.   He asked me what I thought, and I said that I was pretty sure that God was right there in the ICU with us, in that dark room, amid the sounds of the hospital.  He had no reason to believe that this was true, except that we were two people speaking honestly about God in a place where only life and death matters.  I will never forget how Daniel’s face visibly relaxed then, it was as if light had come into his world.  God was not far away, God was right there. Daniel died a couple days later, on a sunny Monday afternoon with me and a nurse at his bedside. According to John, it is the light of Christ that shines in the darkness, as it did for Daniel, so it does for us. 

Christ as Light of the World is a beacon of light in interminable darkness of a broken world.   And as the cry of the newborn Christ shattered the quiet of the night, so too was the distance between God and God’s people broken forever.  This is the good news of the incarnation.  Thanks be to God.    


These are my sisters (Katie in the middle and Melissa on the right).  This was taken at Christmas last year and I love them.  I am holding Katie's two dogs, Meeko and Molly, Katie is holding Mom's dog Annabelle, and Melissa is holding her own dog, Cruz.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


This is the window of the gathering space at my internship congregation.  Our holiday decorations are Moravian stars (several hundred of them) were folded by members of the congregation, and then hung them up with lights.  They look like falling snow.  The picture below is a larger version.  Both sides of the narthex are decorated and at night, it is absolutely breathtaking.

Monday, December 23, 2013


Credit Barb Regner for photograph
This is a picture from our church's Christmas Program  from last week.  There were some awesome shepherds.  As well as awesome angels, wise men, and the holy family.  This picture is missing a whole bunch of preschoolers dressed as animals.

Sunday, December 22, 2013


I think that animals are angels with fur.  They make us better people, they show unconditional love, and they remind us of what is important (loving your people, playing, eating well, and sleeping).

This is my friend Zacchaeus.  He is a Great Dane.  This picture was taken after he was so happy to see me that he literally danced around in a circle in the front yard. I love him.

Saturday, December 21, 2013


I am sometimes surprised and taken aback by unexpected gifts.  This gorgeous full moon was the first thing that I saw when I left confirmation class on Wednesday night.  It was also relatively warm (30 degrees) after weeks of single digit and sub-zero temps.  This was a very unexpected gift indeed.

Friday, December 20, 2013


So when I hear the word Proclaim, I think of preaching.  However, I do not have any pictures of myself preaching. So here is a picture that was taken after I preached last winter at HFASS.  This is some members of my Boulder, Colorado family, the Abelkis clan.  

Thursday, December 19, 2013


This is a cathedral in Paris. I was so incredibly struck by how the Light shone through these windows and danced across the ceiling.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Coffee from my french press in my bright and airy dining room in the Colorado Blvd apartment was my morning ritual to Awake.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


This picture was taken the day of Grandma Amy's funeral.  This is all the grandchildren (plus spouses, which equals 13), and three great-grandchildren.  There are now eight great-grandchildren.  

Growing up, we would often gather at Grandma Amy's house in Ronan, MT for Thanksgiving.  At those gatherings, and really any subsequent gathering where we were all together, her favorite thing to do was have us line up by age.

Monday, December 16, 2013


A lot of towns in Europe have these signs.  As you are entering a town or village, there is a white sign without a red slash.  As you are leaving, there is a red slash through the sign.

Back in 2007, my friend Kaija and I got lost while walking around the city of Salzburg.  We ended up walking quite a long distance outside the city limits and we still laugh about it.

Where is this joy we keep hearing about? A sermon for the third Sunday of Advent

Grace, peace and mercy are yours from the Triune God.  Amen.
This time of year is often joyful and festive.  Everything is covered with pure white snow, ice crystals glitter by day, holiday lights glitter in the gathering darkness.  Our homes are filled with Christmas trees and decorations.  Our days are filled with holiday parties and children’s Christmas programs. It’s easy to get swept up in the flurries of the Christmas season in preparation for the birth of Jesus.
However, this time of year it is also easy to feel lonely and anything but joyful. When it seems like everyone around us is filled with joy and we are facing the holidays without a beloved spouse for the first time…or wondering how to pay the mortgage AND the heating bill this month…or when the dark veil of depression threatens to swallow us in the shortest days of the year. We want to shout, “God!  Where are you?!  Where is this joy that we keep hearing about?!”  But in a season of preparation and festivities, these cries are lost like words whispered in a blizzard.
Culturally, we tend to pass value judgments on ourselves and others if we don’t feel “all in” with Christmas spirit…whatever that is!  Suddenly you become a holiday Grinch or a Scrooge.  Someone whose actions and attitudes drain the joy right out of everyone else.   We pass judgment on others but we save the worst judgment for ourselves. Asking, “what’s wrong with me?”  “Why am I not happier that it is Christmas time?  “Why does the breaking in of God into my life feels like it means nothing?”  There is tremendous pressure to keep up an appearance of happiness lest you ruin the magic of the holidays for someone else.   We keep all of this to ourselves because we do not want to let people know that we are hurting in what is supposed to be the happiest time of the year. I suspect that every single one of us has these feelings in one way or another, so let’s agree to collectively let our guard down. This morning, let us take the time to hear these parts of ourselves that don’t feel ready to sing “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come.”  And look at the parts of ourselves that we leave at home, because they aren’t nice enough to bring along with us to church.   Or the parts of us that are exhausted and over-committed, overwhelmed, and wanting nothing more than to take a very long nap because the month of December is exhausting! We are surrounded by demands of “be joyful”, “praise God” and “count your blessings!” because Christmas is coming, and WHY AREN’T YOU FEELING HAPPIER ABOUT THAT!?!
        At first glance, the words we hear from the prophet Isaiah in today’s reading seem to be part of this same set of demands.   God provides, so we must be appropriately joyful and thankful.  We hear about a God who brings joy and abundance to a dry and desolate landscape.  The regions mentioned in this text, the lands of Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon, were known for being among the most fertile and lush agricultural lands in the ancient world, and serve to show just how gracious God is and how the people should respond in praise.  The poet goes on to write, that streams of water will gush from the desert, burning sand will become a pool of cool water and the dry and desolate land of the scavengers will become a swamp overgrown with plants.  We hear these flowery words from the poetry of Isaiah and they might ring hollow for us because they sound like they belong anywhere else besides the real world.
        But it is a mistake to read this text from Isaiah at a superficial level , as merely a song of praise to God to celebrate the joy we anticipate with the coming birth of Jesus.  In fact, for any of us who are struggling with wanting to sing praise to God at all because we feel like we are living in hell, this text might come across as meaningless. However, there is a much deeper story behind this text and it merits deeper reflection.
If we look at this text from a historical perspective, it comes out of the first part of the book of Isaiah, which tells a story of political strife, war, and fear of the unknown.  The Israelites lived in fear of an invasion by the powerful kingdom of Assyria that would destroy their holy city, Jerusalem, and the stability of their kingdom, and separate them from everything they had known as they were thrown into exile. The chapter that we read today from Isaiah comes right in the middle of these accounts of war.   Fear was the norm, violence was a regular occurrence and hope was in short supply if not entirely non-existent.  The poem from Isaiah is NOT a song of praise for overwhelming blessings, but a description of who God is and a defiant statement of hope despite all evidence to the contrary.
To say that the desert would be like fertile land is to say that there is possibility for new life in the midst of what seems like a place where nothing grows at all.  Here in Minnesota, we certainly do not live in a desert, but we do know what it is like to be in a place that feels entirely devoid of life, the sub-zero temperatures of the last week have really made that clear for all of us.  But it is this imagery about the crocus that strikes me.  A crocus is a humble little flower, usually purple or yellow.  It is one of the first flowers that heralds the coming of spring and is often seen pushing through the snow.  It is a stubborn declaration of hope that says, “Something new is coming.”  When Isaiah uses this imagery of promise, it is a ray of life shining into a space of darkness and death.  It is a song of hope for the future.  
What does it look like to sing praise to God in the midst of what seems like overwhelming hopelessness? On July 20, 2012, a Friday, I was living in Denver, Colorado. So was a man who decided to bring a gun into a movie theater for the midnight showing of the newest Batman movie.  In the chaotic hours that followed the shooting, I would learn that several people that I knew were in that theater.  They were spared harm, but many others were not.  And in an instant, an entire city was forcefully thrown into the reality that violence is senseless, unpredictable, and can happen anywhere at any time.  We were scared, we were angry, we were not sure what to do with our overwhelming grief.
That evening my home congregation had a special event scheduled, Beer and Hymns, it’s where about 100 of us would cram into the basement of an Irish pub to…drink beer and sing hymns.  We debated for a time about whether or not to cancel this event.  Would it be disrespectful?  Would people be afraid to gather in a public place just hours after this tragedy?  After some discussion, we concluded that we would go on with Beer and Hymns as planned, because to change our plans would mean to give in to fear.  We also decided to close the night by singing Holden Evening Prayer together.  That night, the words of praise sung in the Magnificat, when we tell one another the story of the coming of Christ, took on a meaning of an entirely different level.  We sang them defiantly, in the face of fear.  In the face of grief.  In the face of darkness.  Stubborn hope. We were, and continue to be, a people who sing praise to God not as a way of saying, “Thank you God for allowing all these horrible things to happen, they sure test our faith and build our character” but rather a way of saying, “Evil does not have the last word.  God has the last word.”
Today’s text from Isaiah speaks that same sentiment into a time and place torn apart by violence and fear.  We have this text in Advent because it is a statement about who God is and what God does for us.  God comes into a broken world.  A world filled with fear and violence. We only need to turn on the news to get a sense of this. Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the devastating school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary and on Friday, horrific gun violence came once again to a school in Colorado.  This text from Isaiah is a statement of hope, saying, “Please God, let it be so.  We need you in this broken world.”

The fullness of the coming of the kingdom has nothing whatsoever to do with how we feel about it and if we are capable of summoning the right amount of enthusiasm.  This text tells us that there is hope and promise and new life in unimaginable grief and struggle.  That we are not in charge.  This is what it really means to confess that Jesus is Lord and is coming into our world. That God has the final word.  And when we hear these words with this spirit, we experience them as a statement about God’s activity in the world.  Like a crocus blooming in a barren desert, the hope that comes in Jesus for wholeness and life is stubborn and persistent. Evil does not have the last word.  Suffering does not have the last word.  Grief does not have the last word.  This is what we celebrate as we anticipate the birth of Christ. And THIS is the Gospel of our Lord.

Sunday, December 15, 2013


When I hear of the word prophet I think of "a voice crying in the wilderness", the image of John the Baptist as a prophet.

This picture is from the Spearfish Canyon in South Dakota.  It is a spring-fed pool called the Devil's Bathtub. The wind whips through this canyon and howls like a voice crying in the wilderness.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


It's Advent. This is an Advent wreath.  I made it.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Good News

The day that gay marriage was passed in the state of Minnesota was such good news and overwhelmingly joyful. I spent the entire day with these clergy women and it was beautiful.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


I took this picture in downtown Denver while I was stuck in bumper to bumper traffic after an overnight shift.  Talk about expectant waiting.  I wanted nothing more than to go home and go to bed.  And instead, I was awaiting the moving of traffic.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


I am in my final year of seminary, and what an incredible journey it has been. My very first semester of grad school I spent hours upon hours studying Koine Greek.

The beginning of my seminary education started with Greek.  And it formed a foundation upon which the rest of my education has been built.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


 What is more joyful than bright yellow flowers?  I cannot think of anything.  Rejoice!

Monday, December 09, 2013

Awe and Wonder

This is my friend Francis.  She is the daughter of my friends Margaret and Eileen.

I believe that this picture epitomizes awe and wonder.   Everything is new and exciting when you are a toddler.

Sunday, December 08, 2013


This stunning wild rose was in my backyard in Denver.  It's pure white color on a bush of pink roses caught my attention, as well as the gentle raindrops on its petals.

Saturday, December 07, 2013


This mosaic was made for me by my best friend Cristina.  Cristina made this out of broken bits of glass from the neighborhood in Denver called Five Points.  This piece of art is intended to signify that something profoundly beautiful can come out of brokenness.  And life comes from brokenness too.

Friday, December 06, 2013


This was taken at the train station in the Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris.  This particular travel day involved me leaving Denver in the afternoon.  Flying to DC.  Flying overnight to Paris.  Meeting up with a friend in the airport.  Catching a train from the airport that took us through the French countryside and into Belgium.  Changing trains.  Getting on another train to Amsterdam.  Making our way from the city center train station to our hostel.  Then collapsing into bed.  I was awake for something like 40 hours straight.  What an epic journey.

Thursday, December 05, 2013


My friend Matt from College is one of the wisest people that I know.  This picture is from his ordination in January 2012.

Matt is wicked smart, a gifted preacher and skilled pastor.  We call each other for advice all the time.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013


Patience is not something that I am naturally gifted with. It is very difficult for me to wait for anything.

This past summer I was living in St Paul, MN waiting impatiently to start my internship.  I was working very long hours at the Luther Seminary campus coffee shop and biding my time until I could move on to the next thing.

I spent a lot of my evenings walking in the neighborhoods around the campus.  I guess this could be considered outdoor, long distance pacing.  I would walk laps as I waited for the summer to pass. This was a park  in the neighborhood.  I am not clear if it has a name, but every once in awhile I would stop here to catch my breath and have some of the impatience dissipate.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013


Peace to me is generally associated with being outdoors.  Denver's City Park has long been a place where I feel at peace.  This picture was taken while I was running in a gentle rain around the lake. I fit this run in before I went on a two day silent retreat.  What a time of peace.

Gentle warm rain.  The lake to myself.  Peace.

Monday, December 02, 2013


This picture continues to remain one of my absolute favorites from all my travels.  This is from a prayer chapel in the Notre Dame Cathedral, taken during my visit to Paris in 2009.

Sunday, December 01, 2013


When it comes to preparation, I think of food.  And I think of the holy preparation of food to serve others.  Hospitality is a sacred activity.

In this season of preparation, may we all extend hospitality and grace to one another.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Advent 2013

I stumbled across this the other day on Twitter.

Advent begins tomorrow.  I will do my very best to remember to post something each day on this blog. No guarantees.  But it will be good to note each day with intentionality.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Home is where you find it

One of my many homes.  Family cabin in Deadwood/Lead, SD
I have needed to complete some paperwork over the last couple months that required me listing all of my addresses for the last ten years.  It is really quite humorous to see.  I have moved way more than should be humanly possible.  I will be moving to some-as-yet to be determined location in August 2014.

Here is the line-up: (multiple citations in the same city mean that I moved to a different house or apartment)

1. St Peter, MN
2. St Paul, MN
3. Denver, CO
4. Denver, CO
5. Boulder, CO
6. Fort Collins, CO
7. Fort Collins, CO
8. Pueblo, CO
9. Bozeman, MT
10. Helena, MT
11. Fort Collins, CO
12. Denver, CO
13. Denver, CO
14. Lakeside, MT
15. Sioux Falls, SD
16. Lakeside, MT
17. Sioux Falls, SD
18. Deadwood/Lead, SD
19. Sioux Falls, SD

What I have learned in this crazy moving around process…

a. You don't need nearly as much junk as you think you do.  I have gotten the moving process down to a science.  When I moved to Minnesota last January I got rid of most of my belongings and all of my furniture.  That was awesome.  I sort of regret the day when I need to buy a bed again.

b. Home is not solely a place where you keep your stuff.  Home is a state of mind.  Home is people and community.  Home is wherever you happen to find yourself at any given point in time.

c. I feel blessed to meet SO MANY people from all over the world in all of this crazy moving around.  And many of my circles of people have started to overlap, which is really awesome to see.

d. For better or worse, I have gotten fairly good at saying goodbye.  I have also been around the block enough to know that people end up back in your life for all sorts of crazy reasons, so "goodbye" is usually "see you later."

e. It's sort of a chicken and egg situation.  I am not sure if wanderlust spawned this moving around, or if the moving around spawned the wanderlust, but I have kind of an insatiable desire to see new places.

f. I have had to start over in new cities so many times that I have been forced to develop self-confidence and an extroverted self, that I don't ever doubt now that I will be just fine wherever I end up.

Backyard of my Madison Street house in Denver

Monday, November 25, 2013

What kind of king is this? A sermon on Luke 23:33-43

Grace, peace and mercy are yours, from the Triune God.  Amen.

As I prepare sermons, I often find that bits and pieces of music stay with me.  A scripture text will often remind me of a song, and that music becomes the accompaniment for my writing.  As I prepared to write this sermon for Christ the King Sunday, I was accompanied by the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.  Some of the words of this magnificent piece are, “King of Kings, forever and ever” and “he shall reign forever and ever” and perhaps most profoundly, “the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.”  But the majesty and beauty conveyed in this stunning composition seems downright bizarre when compared to what we hear from Luke’s Gospel today.
This Gospel text seems more suited to something we would hear on Good Friday.  It seems to belong more with the scripture texts of Holy Week than on the last Sunday of the church year, this day that we call Christ the King Sunday.  To call Jesus a king when we hear a text like this seems more like a brutal farce than it does a confession of truth.  The Jesus described in today’s Gospel text is not the sort of king that we would choose, given the opportunity.
Our idea of a king is triumphant.  Someone who demands respect from those around him. Someone who is not going to be humiliated.  Someone who hates all the same people that we do and someone that we can call upon to do battle against all the things that we find to be cruel and unjust.  This King would not keep company with undesirable people and would silence those who would stand against us, using power and might.  We come from a culture without a history of royalty, but we make other things into our kings.  We make political parties the ultimate mediators of what is right or wrong, good or bad.  We place general principles and ideals above individual people and situations.  We see money and property and possessions as the ultimate security in this life.  A king is anything in which we might put our trust to protect and defend us.
In this way, we are really no different from the crowd surrounding the cross. This crowd, probably composed of curious onlookers, along with some of Jesus’ faithful followers, and other Jewish folks, had lived with a story their entire lives of a Messiah who would come to earth to save them.  This Messiah would be regal and wise, like King David, and would be strong enough to defeat their enemies.  This Messiah would avenge generations of injustice.   This Messiah would protect and defend.
With all this in mind, today’s Gospel text from Luke is terribly painful to hear.  It sounds like a story of brutal defeat. Jesus Christ, the savior of the world, hangs on a cross, among convicted criminals.  Not only has he failed to save the people, he cannot even save himself. He is mocked and tormented by Roman soldiers. Jesus speaks only twice and in ways that seem shockingly absurd given what is happening to him.  He says of those crucifying him, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” and the last words spoken before his death are uttered to a criminal executed on the cross next to him, “Truly I tell you, you will be with me in paradise.”  While the soldiers and the crowd mockingly call Jesus a King and taunt him with calls to “save yourself!”, the only person who actually sees Jesus for who he is a criminal sentenced to death.  We do not hear the crimes for which these two men are convicted, but we do hear that they have been justly sentenced.   This scene at the time of Jesus’ death is a reflection of his entire ministry.
Throughout his life, Jesus kept company with people who live on the margins of  “nice” society.  And in his death, he is not surrounded by family and friends at a quiet bedside, but rather criminals as he hangs on a cross, above a jeering crowd. And it is to these marginalized folks, people with nowhere else to go and no one to turn to, that Christ is everything.  That he is truly the King.  The criminal on the cross next to Jesus had nothing to lose by asking Jesus to see him and forgive him.  And Jesus sees him and hears him, and invites him into heaven.  This is profoundly hopeful for me…for all of us…and this is the essence of what it means to call Christ a King. 
In the midst of a situation that seems desperate, at a place called “the skull”, in the middle of death by crucifixion, Jesus is still extending words of overwhelming grace. To those who torment him, and those who suffer alongside him.  Literally with his dying breath he is saying, “You will never be separated from the love of God.”  No matter what you have done, or failed to do, you will still be with me in paradise.  THIS is the kind of King that we need.  This king protects and defends us from all the things of this world that would separate us from God. God in Christ is continually noticing, forgiving, and making new all sorts of hopeless situations, people, and places.
Christ knows suffering.  Christ knows what it means to be in unimaginable, excruciating pain.  He knows death. To me this is infinitely more hopeful than any king that would defend or protect with brute force, wealth, or political power.  Because of who Christ is and what Christ does, we are never separated from God. For all of us who feel like we are put on trial and convicted over and over again for not being good enough, wealthy enough, successful enough, Christ says, “You will never be separated from the love of God.”  For all of us who struggle with the painful realities of addiction, depression, and broken relationships, Christ says, “You will never be separated from the love of God. For I have endured suffering and death and triumphed over all these things for your sake. “  He shall reign forever and ever. 
I have been thinking a lot about why we have this text at the end of the liturgical year. We start each church year on the first Sunday of Advent, with texts that tell of the coming of the Messiah.  We move into the season of Christmas and tell the story of the birth of Christ, and then comes Epiphany.  We move into Lent.  We hear the story of the last week of Jesus’ life and his triumph over death during Holy Week.  Pentecost is the celebration of the giving of the Holy Spirit to all the people of the world.  Then, in the time after Pentecost we tell the stories of the life of Jesus.  This final Sunday of the liturgical year is a statement about the person of Jesus Christ and God’s ongoing work in the world.  The kingdom of God is now, not some far away time or place, and Christ shall reign forever and ever.  Hallelujah.  Hallelujah.  Hallelujah.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A week in the life of an intern pastor

I am sometimes amazed at the sheer variety of what goes into this job.  So here is a week in the life…

Monday: Weekly morning prayer and adult bible study on the Prophetic Literature.  Spent time preparing devotions for wednesday's staff meeting and evening Vespers. Afternoon was spent doing exegesis for my sermon while working at home.

Tuesday: Morning was a 45 minute drive each way to the Minnesota Valley Conference in Glencoe, MN.  This was a meeting with other ELCA pastors and Synod staff.  Afternoon was spent doing exegesis for my sermon while working at home.  Received a call that there had been a death and I needed to contact the funeral home to arrange a time to meet with the family.  A short dinner break, then back to Church for a council meeting.

Wednesday: Morning was a 1.5 hour staff meeting in which I led a discussion of what had been talked about the night before in the council meeting.  Some time spent finalizing confirmation lesson including making a burning bush prop.  Lunch in my car while heading to the funeral home. Nearly two hours spent at the funeral home. Back to the office to communicate all the necessary information to all the right people about the funeral.  Start looking for a song sheet for a hymn not in our worship book. Brief dinner break.  Evening Vespers, then teaching confirmation to 7th and 8th graders.

Thursday: Morning office hours at the local coffee shop.  Have conversations with a few parishioners there.  Bring communion to some members living in a nursing home.  Call a parishioner to pray over the phone in preparation for surgery she is having in a week. Still working on funeral stuff. Now attempting to find a sign language interpreter for this particular funeral.  Clean up and put away stuff from confirmation the night before. Afternoon text study.

Friday: Much needed sabbath because I am exhausted and woke up not feeling great.

Saturday: Time to start writing the sermon. Frustrating process.  Take a nap.  Work some more.  Clean my kitchen.  Take a walk in the frigid sunset cold to clear my head.  Finish sermon about 8:30pm.

Sunday: At church by 7:15am.  First service at 8:15am.  Second worship service at 10:30am.  Home by 12:00pm.  Blessed Sunday afternoon nap time.

And it starts all over again tomorrow morning...

Monday, October 28, 2013's not just something that happened 500 years ago

Grace, peace and mercy are yours from the Triune God.  Amen

Brothers and Sisters, as you know, today we celebrate Reformation Sunday.  This Sunday is set aside to mark the occasion of October 31st, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg Church.  Luther’s theology was (and continues to be) radical stuff. To think that you were saved by the grace of God, as a free gift, rather than doing anything to merit your own salvation...well...that’s hard to wrap your brain around. It’s freedom, but it’s the kind of freedom so real and so raw that it hurts.  Because we do not know how much we need it until we have exhausted all other options.
In today’s Gospel we have Jesus speaking to a group of his followers.    Our text picks up just after Jesus has foretold his own death.  Jesus proclaims that those who “continue in his word” will be free, but those listening miss the point that he is trying to make.  They feel like they are completely free and completely capable of handling things for themselves.  They say, “we have never been slaves to anyone” and seem pretty self-assured that they have this whole salvation thing figured out. They just have to avoid sinning.  Easy enough, right? 
 How easy it is for us to fall into the same trap. We want to think of ourselves as fundamentally good people.  We want to think of ourselves as the sort of people that KNOW we are justified by faith as a gift from God, but deep down, hope that the fact that we are nice and helpful to our neighbors might earn us a few extra points. We decidedly do not appreciate the fact that mean people, or on a different level, those who commit heinous crimes, might get that same freedom in Christ. Because after all, they don’t deserve it! The sin of the drunk driver or thief or person who commits adultery is so visible, that we invite ourselves to judge them.  We would certainly never do such a thing. Our sins are of a different caliber. As long as we manage to avoid the REALLY BAD sins, we like to think that we will be okay.
We heard in the second reading from Romans, “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed...the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.  For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”’s not actually the bad things that we do to one another.  It is a separation from God, it is a state of being.  It is our human nature and compulsive self-reliance telling us that we ought to try harder next time.  We should have known better.  If we would just follow the right path, then we will be okay.   
All of these “ought’s” and “should’s” and contingencies convict us over and over again.  We feel like it is completely possible to save ourselves, until we try and discover that we can’t. We have been enslaved by the things of this world.  With regards to sin, we are anything but free.  Left to our own devices, we are bound to keep doing the same things over and over again and not getting any closer to salvation.  We need a God who comes to us in the midst of all of this earthly mess to free us from the bondage that we live in.  The Gospel reading today talks about freedom.  We as Americans tend to equate freedom with the ability to do whatever we want all of the time.  Freedom of expression.  Freedom of the press.  Freedom of religion.  Freedom of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  And often, nothing makes us happier than being in charge of our own destiny.   
But this isn’t the sort of freedom that Jesus Christ brings. Through Christ, we are freed from having to justify ourselves, but this comes at the cost of the death of the old self.  We are given salvation as pure gift through faith and the overwhelming grace of a God who wants nothing more than to love us into wholeness.  We will experience this firsthand today in just a few moments when we celebrate the baptism of baby Eleanora.
John’s Gospel is unique in that from the very beginning, it is made clear that Jesus is the Son of God.  God is in the world doing a new thing, God became flesh and lived among us so that we might never have to be separates from God again.  Jesus goes on to say that “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin, and slaves have no freedom, but the son of the father is free forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” 
So where does that leave us? 
Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “they are NOW justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  Now is an important word here, it signifies that something radical and new has taken place. God is a reformer. What if the Reformation is not the celebration of the historical event that gave birth to Protestantism, but rather a celebration of the reforming nature of God?                       
When we treat the Reformation as merely a historical event that was set into motion by Martin Luther, not only do we make it yet again about our own abilities as human beings, but we neglect to see how God is continually active as a Reformer in our world.  We are constantly being formed and re-formed into a new creation by the actions of a loving God. The Reformation is not just something that happened 500 years ago and it’s not merely a chance to drag out the red paraments and sing “A Mighty Fortress”, it is a confession of the very nature of God and what it means to be people of faith.  So I leave you with a story and a of couple questions to ponder. 
            A week ago Saturday I returned from five days in Chicago as part of an urban immersion for people who are interested in becoming mission developers, or people who start new churches.  Our group was hosted by a Lutheran Church called Shekinah Chapel in the deeply impoverished suburb of Riverdale, which has a population of 12,000 people, about the same as St Peter.  Shekinah Chapel is the new congregation that started after a very old Lutheran Church, Our Savior’s, closed its doors in the neighborhood.  Shekinah is doing incredible things to organize their neighborhood for real change.  They have after school programs for at-risk youth, they lobby officials to pass laws to protect the safety of their people from the rampant gun violence in Chicago, Riverdale is home to the gun shop that sells 40% of the guns recovered in violent crimes in Chicago, and they provide a Lutheran church home to a whole bunch of people who wouldn’t normally find themselves in a church at all, let alone a Lutheran one. Shekinah let me be a part of their community for a short time, and I came away changed. Their worship does not look like ours, and the people who make up their community do not look like us, but we are part of the incredible body of Christ together.  God’s work, our hands. This is an example of God always making things new in our church and in our world. Change is scary, reformation is not without anxiety, but there is something really beautiful on the other side. A new creation.  That is the promise of the Gospel and the promise of the Reformation.

So….Your homework for this week is to consider a couple questions:

First, where are you being reformed by God?  

Second, where are we being reformed as a congregation and as the ELCA?

Friday, October 04, 2013

Where are YOU participating in the life giving and life changing work of God? A sermon on Luke 16:19-31

Jesus the masterful storyteller strikes again.  We have been in the middle of quite a few weeks in a row of parables from Luke’s Gospel.  We have heard stories of banquets and lost sheep and coins and dishonest managers.  Today we hear a parable of wealth and poverty and life and death.  In the parable that we hear in today’s Gospel, Jesus is making his way ever closer to Jerusalem and on the way, stops to tell a story to some Pharisees.  We hear that this parable is directed to “lovers of money” and these are some of the harshest words in all of scripture.  Let us set the scene for this parable as if we are preparing to watch a play…the lights go up and the curtain rises…
We see a rich man who is dressed in purple and fine linen, and who feasted sumptuously every single day.  This man has a ridiculous abundance of food surrounding him at all times. His table is set with silver cups and overflowing plates of fruit. He never wanted for anything.  He lives in a fine home with a gate to keep out the undesirable people. But our scene cuts to the drama just outside the rich man’s gate.  We also see the poor man Lazarus on the ground, covered in sores and dressed in tattered rags, his only comfort being the stray dogs who surround him, and is so hungry that he hopes for just the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table.  Death the great equalizer comes, and both men die.  The rich man is buried and Lazarus is carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.  
Then in the sort of reversal that we see so often in Luke’s Gospel, Lazarus is comforted by Abraham after death and we hear about the rich man in agony as he cries out for Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him cool water in the midst of flames that threaten to consume him.  Abraham refuses, saying that the rich man received all his good things in life and besides, a great canyon has been fixed between the two men that cannot be crossed.  It’s as if Abraham was saying, “Too late, sorry.  You have already used up your allotment of good things, now it is your turn to suffer.”  And in his only act of compassion in the parable, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to the world to warn his five brothers to change how they live so that they might not end up in this same place of torment. Abraham refuses, saying that those on earth have Moses and the prophets and their writings, the law, from which to learn.  And the rich man pleads, saying, “They will repent if someone comes back from the dead.”  Abraham ends the conversation by saying, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone rises from the dead.”  And like a great drama on a stage, the lights go dark and the curtain drops and the crowd is left in silence to ponder what they have just heard and seen.   
This parable seems to be tailor-made to preach about what we SHOULD be doing. There is a villain, the rich man; an underdog hero, the poor man Lazarus; a plot line, plenty of drama and a seemingly obvious moral of the story: Do good in this life and you will be rewarded in the afterlife.  Do evil things in this life and you will be punished in the next life.  So be good and pay attention and you will be saved. This is the clearest example of how good intentions and expectations convict us that I have ever seen.  This is the law, because no matter how much we wish it was not so, we cannot save ourselves despite our best efforts.
Furthermore, this scripture text from Luke sounds painfully familiar.  In today’s gospel we hear about an insurmountable chasm between the rich man and the poor man.  Between the haves and the have-nots.  Between those who have their needs comfortably met and those who do not.  The reason this story sounds familiar is that we hear it all the time in the news. Just last week I read a news article, which outlined how the chasm between the wealthiest Americans and the poorest Americans is the largest that it has been since before the Great Depression. How disparities in education, healthcare, and employment have caused this chasm to be nearly insurmountable.   It feels impossible, it feels hopeless.  The problems seem so big and we seem so small.  And it doesn’t seem like there is anything that we can do to fix it, so we often keep living life behind our own gates oblivious to what, or who, lies just outside them.  
But what if the story does not end with someone rising from the dead, but rather starts from that promise?  And it has nothing whatsoever to do with our ability or decision to believe it in order to be saved?  Jesus died on a cross and rose from the dead and took all of that decision making right out of our hands.  When we start from that promise of freedom, where might we go?
When we are freed from the bondage of sin and self, what Luther calls “incurvatus se” or a turning in on one’s self, we are naturally turned outwards to see our neighbor.  Without the promise of Christ on the cross we might only hear this story as a command to do good works to avoid suffering in the afterlife.  But with this promise made for each of us, we are freed. Martin Luther writes that God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does. So we are indeed commanded to serve our neighbor, but this is out of pure love for the Christ in each one of us.
But the reality is that this is very hard.  The problems seem insurmountable, the chasm cannot be crossed.  It is sometimes painful and it definitely puts us outside our comfort zones.  In today’s Gospel text the rich man isn’t evil, he is just oblivious.  He fails to NOTICE Lazarus outside the gate. Many of you know that before I started seminary I spent several years in human services work.  I entered ministry because I wanted to be able to offer hope in the midst of suffering by way of the Gospel, and be a part of a collective whole working for good in this broken world.  In my work, what I heard over and over again, from men and women just like Lazarus, was that the greatest pain they experienced was feeling invisible.  Eye contact and a simple greeting made a world of difference.  So who lies just outside your gate and how can you begin to notice them? 
And where do we start in bridging this chasm? We start by proclaiming the Gospel truth that God in Christ rose from the dead and continues to be active in our broken and beautiful world. God is already among us working to lessen that great chasm between rich and poor.  We acknowledge that our world is broken, but we also proclaim that God lives among us and continually redeems us.  God is already working to overcome these divisions between us, between rich and poor, old and new.  We live in the old world now, and eagerly await the coming of the new.  Three weeks ago we marked the 25th anniversary of the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with a day of service that fulfills our denomination’s mission statement, “God’s Work, Our Hands.”  I cannot think of a better analogy for our lives as Christians.  So where are you participating in the life-giving and life-changing work of God?