The intro....

I've created this blog as a simple way of posting my sermons as I write them and possibly speak them. (occasionally I'll have recordings of the preaching of the sermon) I won't have sermons to preach every Sunday because I'm not going to write sermons that I don't have to preach, but I'll post what I do preach. Feel free to post comments/criticisms, I'm no pro and feedback is a great way to get better.


Transmogrification of our Lord and/or Peter and the rest of us

This sermon is about the story that is traditionally called Transfiguration of our Lord.  You will hopefully be able to see in the following story how accurate I find that title.  I had a lot of fun with this sermon and I preached it at the Apache Junction Campus which sits square in a suburban neighborhood with a bright, clear view of Superstition Mountain.
 The text is: Matthew 17:1-9 you can click to read it.

I am the child of two worlds…. Now you’re probably all thinking that I mean that in some really deep metaphorical way… maybe something like the world of light and the world of dark, or the world of heaven and the world of… the world… and while those might be actually true in some deep theological way, this time all I mean is that my Mom is from the Midwest, Missouri specifically, and my Dad is from Colorado. But truly, when you’re only 6 years old and it takes forever just to get to the grocery store and back, Missouri and Colorado with the 600 some miles between them really do feel worlds apart. Now, what the meant for me as a child was that, by the time I was about 6 I was pretty familiar with that stretch of I-70 between Denver and Kansas City and I got used to that feeling of hours and hours of flat, straight highway surrounded by fields of corn or wheat stretching on to the horizon. When I was a little older and driving myself to and from college in Decorah, IA I got used to that stretch of I-80 across Nebraska and Iowa, a whole new interstate, a whole new state, and the same old view…. Miles and miles of Eisenhower’s interstate system, straight enough to land the space shuttle on. And nothing against the fine states of Nebraska and Kansas, but there is not much to look at when you’re driving through them. Those long car trips were a test of my tolerance for consistency because there was a rhythm to those trips and it was easily to get in tune with it, the steady beat of the cracks in the road, the hum of the engine running so consistently, the steady drone of the wind running past the windows, the miles are like days, one after the other just rolling on by, different in small little ways, but mostly the same…. And then everything changes…
Everything changes because when you’re driving West on I-70, across Kansas, there is a point in the road where you climb a slow gentle hill and as you get toward the crest of that hill the road turns to the left, and if you started from Kansas city early in the morning wanting to avoid driving in the dark, then right as you make that left turn the world opens up in front of you and the whole glory of the Rocky Mountains is lit on fire by the sun setting right among them. It is a very dramatic point in any journey. Whether it is the first time your eyes have seen a mountain range, or just the first time in awhile, whether it was the symbol of new adventures and a new place to live, or just the sign that I was almost home.
When you’re talking about Mountains you don’t need to use metaphors because for anything you would want to say about them, a Mountain is probably the number one symbol to use. Mountains are immense, and powerful, and calm, and nurturing and eternal… And I don’t need to explain to you about that because here in this valley we are surrounded by mountains, and they might not rise as dramatically as the Rocky Mountains from the Great Plains but it is easy to look up at the Superstition Mountains and feel at once comforted by and in awe of how big and powerful and stirring they are.
This, then, is the stage for today’s Gospel. And this is not a coincidence or just a casual reference to Exodus. Today’s Gospel takes place on the mountain because the mountain is where these kinds of things happen. These kinds of revolutionary, transforming moments happen on mountains. You can see an example of that in today’s reading from Exodus, and you’ve been hearing these past weeks from the Sermon on the mount… the mountain is the place where God is met, where the steady rhythm of our daily lives is broken by the brilliant light of God’s immediate presence. And these don’t always have to be literal mountaintops. These experiences of the presence of God are not reserved for those that have had the particular opportunity to climb to the top of a mountain.

These experiences can happen at the top of any mountain, any place where something is achieved, a pinnacle of insight perhaps, the end (The ‘Summit’) of a period of struggle, even a moment that is unremarkable in any other way becomes a mountain when we are able to perceive God’s presence in the world in that moment.

So just like Peter does, we experience the wonder and brilliance of God. But the question I have for you today is this: what do you do when you have that experience? How do you react?

Peter’s reaction to his own moment is well-known. How often has his foolishness been mocked? Oh silly, Peter! You just don’t get it. The point is not to build a shelter so that Jesus can stay here in comfort… the ministry must continue down among the people! And perhaps we even roll our eyes at Peter and the disciples as they cower in fear, faces to the ground, terrified of the presence of God. And we might think to ourselves: “Come on you guys!” This is God, this is Jesus’ Dad, your buddy, you of all people should know that you don’t need to be afraid of this!

But I’m not sure that we wouldn’t just act the same way. I’ll tell you a story about this: I spent 5 summers of my life working at Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp and in that time I spent many days hiking through the forests around streams and lakes, and up and down mountains. The very last summer I was there I was leading a group of kids up Eagle Peak along with a few fellow staff members. Now this was probably sometime in late July and if you know anything about Mountain weather, at least in this particular part of Colorado, you know that when Monsoon season rolls around, which is right about late July, the weather gets significantly more exciting and significantly less predictable. So we left camp at about 7:30 one late July morning and began the seven-mile, 5,000 ft elevation gain hike toward the peak of the mountain. The morning passed easily and we made our way up the mountain under a clear blue sky and bright warm sun. Then at sometime just before noon we got to tree-line and sat down for lunch. At this point the sun was still warm and the sky was only slightly more obscured than it had been and only by those innocuous white fluffy clouds. And so with our backs to the peak (and any approaching weather) we ate happily, thinking we had plenty of time to get to the peak before anything bad happened. There is a picture of us in that meadow just as we’re finishing lunch with the gathering clouds behind us and you can see the innocence in our faces… the blissful ignorance of what was happening. Because you see Monsoon season in Colorado brings moisture and when that warm late July sun heats the air, and heats the air, and heats the air all morning long …. The energy starts to build and it reaches a kind of tipping point where all of the sudden the sky can no longer hold the moisture and, in a matter of minutes, a blue sky full of white clouds turns into dark gray menacing power. And perhaps because we had done it so many times before, or perhaps because it was late in the summer, my fellow staff members and I just didn’t really notice those first signs of creeping gray and so as we packed up our lunch to continue up the mountain, away from the protection of the trees… I thought to myself… well it’s a little gray but it’ll probably be fine for a little while….
Well it was not fine for a little while… in a few short minutes the sky opened up with rain and hail and thunder all from clouds the seemed just barely above our heads. And I remember as I barked out orders to get the middle school aged youth back to the safety of the trees, being more than just a little afraid, and it wasn’t until I was two thousand feet lower, muddy, soaked to the bone and more than a little frazzled and after I had counted several times to make sure I had the same number of people that I had left camp with that morning , that I finally was able to relax and marvel in the tremendous power that I had just experienced.
God is powerful and the powers of God that we experience in the world can easily shake us to our core. It is no wonder that the disciples fell to their faces, trembling in fear, they were hearing the very voice of God, not just some silly little thunder storm.
But when we have some distance from the raw power that sparks our fears and we are able to appreciate how mighty is our God, isn’t it easy, too, to imagine that we would want to preserve that feeling. That we would want to remain there in the presence of that pure and Good power for as long as we possibly could? Of course… think about those times when you have been in the presence of that power… Maybe it was the birth of a child, or looking into the eyes of a loved one, maybe it was that time when all the world seemed to be moving just for you, maybe it was sitting on a mountain peak looking out over a wide, open valley, with the warm sun easily shining through the thin air and a brisk breeze flowing from a whole world away.
Of course we want this moment to last forever… we want to feel that sun on our backs all the time. But just as the light that shone in Jesus face dimmed slightly and Moses and Elijah faded away… so too must our mountaintops remain just distinct moments in our lives. They cannot extend to fill the empty spaces… because that is not the nature of mountaintops. Think of incredible and inspiring it is to stand on the top of a mountain and yet, how incredibly inhospitable it would be to try to live your life there… it just doesn’t work that way… And such is the nature of our world. We are blessed with long rolling plains of lives that are interrupted by the glory of a mountain rising in front of the setting sun, and we are further blessed with the chance to stand at the top of that mountain.
But… do not be disappointed; do not despair, because the glory and power of that mountain remains as long as the mountain does… and mountains measure their lives in ages and eras and millions and millions of years. That power will remain and if it has touched you… it has changed you… Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of all of us that have been moved by the power of God. Peter encountered that power just as you and I have in our own ways, but Peter didn’t know what to do about it… Peter for all his good intentions tried to hold on to the moment that changed him and he could not. But if we let our mountains change us than we will recognize that we are not changed so that we might sit forever on that mountain side but so that we might bring that brilliant light, that shining sun, that powerful hope… that light of the world… to all those who haven’t yet climbed their mountain… or have forgotten what it felt like. And so, just like that our Epiphany season is over… the light that shines in the darkness is now moving towards the cross… Do not forget about the light, do not let this mountain top pass by, Live as if you have seen the Glory of God, because as clearly as you can right now see Superstition Mountain in the morning sun… You have.

Back to this Business of Updating....

I've been more than a little negligent in updating this blog over the past few months, but things are starting to slow down a bit at church now with so many people heading back to the midwest for the summer so I'm back to it.

This is a sermon that I preached at the Gold Canyon campus.  The church in Gold Canyon is tucked very neatly away at the base of a couple of different hills/mountains of various heights.  It is a beautiful location and it is also very symbolically appropriate for a sermon about Jesus preaching from a mountain.

The Text for this Sunday was Matthew 5:13-20 which is a part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says "You are the Light of the World."  I love this passage.  It is a beautiful scripture and it, along with a song based off of it that we sang at my wedding, have long been among my favorites.  As I was preparing this sermon I realized that it was very important that the congregation take ownership of their own "LIGHTness" so along with preaching to that effect I also included a little litany at the beginning of the worship and then had them repeat it to close out the sermon.   That litany is as follows:

P:  You are the Light of the World.
C: So may we shine.
P:  You are a city on a hill
C: We cannot be hid
P: You are a candle in the dark
C: We will give light to the house
P: You are the Light of the World
C: So may we brightly shine

Sit Tight and Buckle your seatbelts, secure your belongs and hold on to your loved ones, because today we’re in for a bumpy ride. The wildest roller coaster you’ve ever been on doesn’t hold a candle to the ride that’s in store for today. Today we’re going to come face to face with the deepest darkness of our world and we’re going to find the light that breaks in and we’re going to find out who the real salt of the earth is. Because today Jesus rolls up his sleeves and looks at you to do the same, today Jesus gets into the down and dirty of life in this broken world of ours, but first let’s talk about the background story… let’s build the suspense, let’s paint the picture….

The background story is , basically, that there is a problem. We have a problem…. You’ve heard that before right? Tom Hanks said it in Apollo 13… “Houston, we have a problem” That’s such a great line. He just drops a bomb of a one liner… in that one little sentence you’ve got terror and suspense, doubt and drama, sadness and maybe even hope. And that’s got to be one of the most quoted lines in all of cinema, it seems like every other time or so that somebody realizes something isn’t as it should be…. “Houston, we have a problem”. Poor Houston, get’s brought up every time something goes wrong. Which is kind of a lot right? Cause here’s the other great thing about that line…. It has a lot of potential for use… because there’s a lot of things that go wrong in the world, and this brings me back around to the reason I brought up this bit in the first place: “We have a problem”

We have a problem that we have so many problems…. Our world is not perfect… not even close…. No, there’s a lot of pain and sadness and grief in the world… And you only have to look as far as our art to see that it’s true… Of course we could focus on our own realities to see it too, whether that’s on the news or in our personal lives… but one of the beauties of artistic expression is it gives us a way to talk, concretely, about those emotions without bringing up those events that have caused us pain and sadness.

So let’s take a quick tour of some art…
The first example I want to point to is one that I wish I could have a visual aid for but hopefully you’ve all seen the painting: “The Scream” by Edvard Munch. When you see the look of anguish on the face in that painting you can clearly see pain and a troubled soul … and darkness.

How about music? It’s not hard at all to think of songs that help paint this picture as well. For example there’s Frank Sinatra’s Summer Wind, in which he sings “And still the days, those lonely days – go on and on, And guess who sighs his lullabies – through nights that never end.” or In the wee small hours “she’d be yours if only she would call, and there’s Hank Williams singing “I’m so lonesome I could cry” which I’m not even going to try to quote to you because it just wouldn’t be fair for a sunny Sunday morning.

And then there’s our movies… now movies are an interesting case because they tell a story, and very often they have enough time to tell a pretty complex story, not like a song that just has enough time to convey the basics…. In this way movies are more like books, or short stories at least. And what this means is that there’s a kind of journey that often happens in a movie, so whereas “The Scream” or one these songs is really just capturing a single moment, a movie gives us the chance to see how we got to that moment and where we go from it. In some cases that journey tells a sad story and the credits start rolling in the midst of that sadness and that’s just how it is… a good example of this would be any of the movie versions of “Hamlet” or “Romeo and Juliet” the movies end when everybody’s dead and we are left to lament terrible circumstances and twisted fate. But then there’s those movies that end triumphantly but go through a period of sadness along the way. Just about every Romantic Comedy you will ever see follows that formula… there’s always the point, about 2/3 - ¾ of the way through when everything’s been going great but something terrible happens, some secret gets discovered and now we’re not sure if they’re really going to end up together. But it doesn’t have to be just Romantic Comedies… many of the dramas that we watch go through a low point for the main character, the protagonist get’s beat down, and our doubts are cast… lot’s of movies have these moments, and lot’s of books do to but there’s a reason we’re talking about movies.

Talking about movies in these instances makes it really easy to address a particular stylistic point. Movie producers like to use all the elements of a scene to guide you through the story and this includes things like the music, and the shot angles, and the …. Lighting… If you notice when the protagonist goes through that trial the moment of doubt, the sadness, the scene goes slightly dimmer, the lighting is darker and there are less bright colors…. There is darkness in the movie… just like there is darkness in our world…

There is darkness…. And then what happens? Now in this situation my normal inclination is to give you an example, some specific instance that illustrates exactly the point I’m trying to make… but this time I’m not going to do that because I want you to watch for it…. Next time you watch a movie where there is sadness and darkness watch for what happens when that single element of hope is introduced, it doesn’t always happen because not all producers use lighting elements in their movies, but watch for it… because if it’s there, you can literally see it happen.

In the midst of the darkness whatever character or item represents the hope will enter in light… it may be a person dressed in white or standing in the bright sun, or maybe the lights just rise slightly when they enter, but if it’s there you’ll see how they literally light up the screen….

Okay, so we can that the world is broken… there is darkness in the world, you know that it’s true and you can see it reflected in our art. But we have this sense, don’t we? that our pain is not without relief, that our suffering is not without hope, that our sadness is not without the prospect of joy… that our darkness is not without the promise of light.

Maybe you’re saying to yourself right now… “Oh I think I see where this is going…. This is the part where DC tells us that Jesus offers us hope for our sadness and relief for our suffering…. Right?... right?”

Well… Jesus does offer those things… But that’s not really what the Gospel is talking about today… In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks up and he says nothing about himself he turns to those around him and says: “You are the light of world….”

Okay maybe now you’re thinking “But… why would he say that… isn’t Jesus the light, the savior, the messiah”

Well… he sure is a light… and perhaps THE light. BUT, Jesus tells you…. YOU are the light of the world… I want you to all picture this because we have a unique opportunity here in Gold Canyon to picture the scene here…. Imagine Jesus is right out that door… across the road and up on that little mountain… because that’s probably about what it looked like… And Jesus is sitting up there talking to you, and sharing his blessings… and then he tells you that, You are a city on a hill…. You are a candle in the dark… You are the lamp that is placed on the stand to give light to the house, the house that would otherwise be mired in darkness. You are the light that shines to give glory to God. You are the hope breaks into the pain and the sadness and the suffering…..

My friends, today Jesus is telling you to roll up your sleeves because it turns out that this journey is not like a tour bus where we get to just watch the sights roll by. This is a trek, a marathon, a pilgrimage, this is where Jesus tells us that he wants our help. Jesus wants our help because we have the opportunity to continue the ministry that he worked for…

You see, one thing that I maybe didn’t make clear when we were talking about those movies is that when that person comes in all dressed in white, or bathed in light… we’re not talking about a superhero , or an angel, or Jesus himself . We’re talking about you… plain regular, standard, glorious, compassionate, blessed You.

We can absolutely be that person that changes the whole movie… that sets the resolution in motion. Because the light of the Holy Spirit is here and alive in the world and it spreads when we let our lights shine. You know what the love of Christ is like, what the grace of God is all about because you’ve been here under this roof and you’ve felt it as you’ve shared in worship together, and now you can be the hands and feet of Christ that help your neighbors and friends, and anyone else, feel that Love and Grace as real tangible things in the world. You can live your life out of concern for those around you, you can be present in people’s lives and be in community with them, so that no matter who they are or what they are going through, they may feel, in a very real way, the love of God.

That is the light that you are, the Light that shines the love of God into the lives of everyone around you, the Light that loves recklessly and without fear of judgment or hurt. Because God has given you your identity, God has named you as God’s very own, and God as set you free to shine, brightly that light out into the world.

Now I know I’m being a little vague about what exactly it is that God is calling us to do in the world, but you see that’s the point… it’s not about this one specific action or another… this isn’t about converting the non-Christians or preaching on the street corners or anything else… this is about living a life that reflects the Light of the world that you are… this is about living your life, not as battle to protect your own interests but as a mission to live in community, to care for your neighbor, to have compassion for those who are dealing with their own personal darkness.

Now I know I’m giving you a pretty steep challenge today, but I want you to stay with me because there’s something really cool about how this works… you see there are… what 150-200 people in this room… ? now if every one of you lived your life watching out for and caring for those around you, every single one of you will have 150-200 people caring for you… instead of if every single person just looks out for themselves and then there’s only 1 person looking out for each of us. Now imagine if we expand that to all three campuses… or the whole Synod… or the whole ELCA… or the whole country… or the whole world. This is the heart of God’s call for you today… to live your life for others so that they may live their lives for you…. Because just as you, individual you, are the Light of the World… so is the person sitting next to you… and on the other side of you… and in front of you…. And behind you…. And diagonally to the front… and…. Well you get that idea…. You are all the light of the world and when you shine in the lives of those around you… living your life with compassion for them… you will find that their light shines just as brightly back to you. And when everyone is shining their light to all others then we are all bathed in the light of Christ that shine through us and truly the kingdom of God has arrived here on earth.

P:  You are the Light of the World.
C: So may we shine.
P:  You are a city on a hill
C: We cannot be hid
P: You are a candle in the dark
C: We will give light to the house
P: You are the Light of the World
C: So may we brightly shine


Light, Determinism, and Wile E Coyote Part II... This time it's Audio...

For all my followers who prefer to listen to the soothing sounds of my preaching voice.

Light, Determinism, and Wile E Coyote

This one was another one that was a lot of fun to write.  I got to take a little trip into my philosophy background and try to relate a discussion about determinism into a message of hope and meaning.  The textual connection here is a little less defined but it turns out I would've needed to preach for about an hour to say everything I wanted to say so I couldn't take the time to really explain out that connection.
The text is Matthew 4:12-23

Today is a very special day. Well to be quite truthful every day is special in some way so specialness is not just reserved for today, but nevertheless today is special. Today is special because today a certain character gets introduced into our Gospel story. Any guesses about who I’m talking about.? It’s a character that you’re very familiar with; one who I trust you know quite well. You have probably had a few conversations with this character, maybe you’ve given them a pat on the back… maybe you’ve argued with them… Maybe you’ve been just beside yourself struggling to understand why this person did certain things…. but no matter how frustrated you get every night you make your Peace with this person.
Any ideas yet?
Okay everybody on three point to who you think it is …. 1…. 2…. 3….. Point!
Who are you pointing at? If you know where I’m going with this, which I can’t imagine that you would already… but I’m not going to rule it out… then you’re finger is pointing right back at it’s owner… Yep… you should be pointing at yourself…
Why? You may ask…. Well…. Today’s Gospel is the part where you come into the story. Now of course you know that these Gospels are always ABOUT you… the life and times of Jesus Christ is the story of God’s relationship with you… but today is a little different than the usual story where Jesus does something and then we talk about what it means for us. Today you’re in the story. Today you’re a lead character. Because today Jesus walks down to the water and calls you. You may have heard me read that Gospel the first time and think that Jesus was only talking to a couple of fisherman but, well let me just tell you, that he wasn’t. He was talking to every one of you, and me. Jesus acknowledged that you are a beloved child of God and he gave you something that only really special people get….. he gave you a calling.
Now I COULD stand up here and tell you what that calling is… and what you should do about it when you walk out of this building today, but I think I’ll save that for the next time this text come around (which means you’ll all have to come track me down in three years if you want to hear that… sorry) Instead I think that it’s important that we spend sometime today talking about what it means for Jesus to be giving you this call…. Why it’s so important…. And why you should be deeply honored and proud that he’s done it. So I’m going to do this… but the thing is I’m going to need some help…. So I’m going to enlist some additional illustrational support… and for that support I’m going to turn to Mr. Wile E Coyote…. That’s right Wile E Coyote of Looney Tunes Fame, the one that chases the roadrunner all through the desert encountering frustration and calamity at every turn.
I would like to pause right now and just say that I’m tremendously curious to know what is going through your minds right now…. I’m guessing it’s something to the effect of… “How’s he going to pull this one off?” Let me tell you, I’m kind of asking that one myself.

Well… let me start by saying that I got the idea of this by listening to a radio program. Now I’m not normally one to give any plugs up here but I do want to give credit where credit is due. So… if you’re an NPR listener you may have heard, or at least heard of ‘Radiolab’ This is a show where the producers put together different stories that all speak to one particular theme and each show gets a different theme. This is a fairly common practice in radio today so this isn’t the only program that is structured this way… but it is a good one. The producers do a fantastic job of putting together entertaining and inspiring audio shows. So I was listening to one of their internet-only ‘Shorts’ this week and they were talking about a persons’ individual relationship with the universe… and they brought up Wile E Coyote.

So Wile E Coyote is one of two characters in one of Looney Tunes’ most famous recurring cartoons. These cartoons depict the Coyote chasing a Road Runner up and down desert highways trying to catch him… I presume as a snack… The problem for the Coyote is that he is hopelessly slower than the Roadrunner, who could move so fast as to be just a blur of blue feathers streaking down the highway. In hopes of accounting for this vast difference in footspeed the Coyote turns to his mind in one attempt after another to somehow outsmart, outmaneuver, trick, or trap the roadrunner and finally claim his prize. The rest… as they say is history, and many years of entertaining cartoons were borne out of this formula.
I should say that this is not the only example of a ‘chase’ cartoon. The other famous example is Tom and Jerry and there are others as well where one character endlessly chases the other, it turns out that this chase formula was quite common. But the Coyote and the Roadrunner are different. They don’t quite follow the formula. If you watch an episode of Tom and Jerry you see that Jerry is always faster or smarter or cleverer than Tom and so always escapes his grasp and runs into the hole in the wall to live another day. But Wile E. Coyote is never outsmarted by the roadrunner… if we think of this as a competition he’s never really beat by the Roadrunner at all. The Coyote is beat by something else entirely…. And that something is more like the universe itself.

Every time Coyote comes up with some brilliant plan to trap the roadrunner something always goes wrong. Sometimes it’s something as simple a mechanical malfunction that causes the net to fail to spring until the Coyote is stomping in frustration on the bullseye, or it might be the rocket powered roller skates that work great until the road turns and the coyote doesn’t, and then there is perhaps the definitive disaster for the Coyote. He has the brilliant plan to put a painting of a road going off into the horizon in front of a giant cliff so that the Road Runner will run through the painting and fall to the desert floor below where the Coyote will surely be able to scoop him up. So he gets the painting in place, goes off to hide behind a rock and waits. It isn’t too long before the Roadrunner comes screaming by, down the road, up to the painting AND….. straight on INTO the painting… continuing on towards the horizon as if the painting had become the reality…. The poor Coyote then takes off to chase him only to break the through the painting and fly out over the cliff face and hang in the air for a brief moment before plummeting to the desert floor some 2…3…4…hundred feet below.

It some of these disasters some mechanical malfunction or other ruins the Coyote’s plan but in a lot of these situations just like this last one I’ve described, it seems that the very laws of physics have turned against him, the universe itself is foiling his plan and spoiling his day.

And what is particularly interesting about that is that it makes the coyote somebody we can relate to. It makes him seem more human because even though he walks up on two legs and has such human features and facial expressions… it is his terrible luck and the feeling that everything is conspiring against him that we can all relate to. How often do we feel as though we just can’t catch a break and sometimes it gets so bad that we feel like the very nature of the whole universe is such that things will never just go smoothly our way. And so we watch the Coyote and we feel sympathy for him… and empathy for him because we know what that feels like….

But we don’t JUST feel sorry for him…. I think there’s something else that we feel in those times when the whole world seems against us…. And I think that that thing that we feel is…. Kind of Flattered….. I know it may sound crazy but Yeah… flattered

Flattered, because even though things aren’t going so well for him…. Those things are paying attention to him…. The laws of physics, it seems, are paying special attention to Coyote… and even though they are mischievously making his life that much more difficult…. In the whole universe, all of creation they’re paying special to him…. And it is the same for us…. Coyote looks up to the heavens and thinks why are you doing this to me? He may be tremendously frustrated but that frustration is directed toward the universe…. How much worse would it be if he had no direction for that frustration… if he just felt alone and things still weren’t going his way.

So…. That’s the story of Wile E. Coyote… I want to be very clear that I’m not going to try to convince you that the whole universe is out to get you the way it’s out to get him or even that you should be grateful for bad things happening because at least some thing is happening to you…. All I’m trying to do is show you an example of one character who is special because the whole universe is paying special attention to him…. Even something as fundamental as gravity is operating according to how it will individually affect this one particular furry little guy.

Ok… think of it like this…. Imagine that everything that has ever happened in the world, from the beginning of time up until this very moment… and everything that ever will happen on until the end of time… happens because something, or some things, cause it to happen. So… if I drop this pen… The pen drops because my hand opens, and my hand opens because my brain tells it to, and my brain tells it to because it wants to make an illustration for you… This is how the world works… nothing just happens on it’s own… Everything is the result of something else… it’s very simple cause and effect… Now what’s really cool about this is that what that means for the Coyote and for you is that the wholeness of time is arranged in such a way that a whole chain of events leads from creation down to that one curve in the road…

And what’s REALLY cool about all of this is that that whole chain of events leading down through history from the beginning of time leads to YOU… At the very beginning of time God sat down at looked at the world that was to be created and God could see You and he could see everything you would ever be and everything you would ever do… and God chose to create… God chose to create every single one of you.
and so today… When we sit on that beach and Jesus comes up to us and says “Follow me” when God says: “I choose you”… “ I CALL YOU” All of time and the universe conspired to make that happen. The whole of the universe pays special attention to you because you were created and Jesus came to earth… and you were called….

And when God could look back on all of time and see YOU, all that you’ve ever been and all that you ever will be… and God not only created you but then looked back at you and said…. “This is Good”
How could you not feel special? How could you not feel valuable, How could you not feel important when you are a part of all of creation and all of time?
Because first the universe was created, then God said it was good, then God walked on the earth, and God said I am well pleased, and then that incarnate God who knows every bit of you, looks at you and calls you good, and says… come with me… for we have work to do….
What are we waiting for?

More Christmas themes

This is a sermon I had quite a bit of fun with.  The text was the very well known intro to John, and I played around with what the metaphor/symbol of 'word' might mean.  I preached this sermon at the Apache Junction/Epiphany Campus
The text is John 1:1-18

Some of you may already know this but I am currently a student at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. This internship year is the third of my four years there. When someone goes to seminary in our ELCA this is pretty typical. They start with two years of class… go on internship for a year… and then come back to finish their classwork. If one of you were to go to seminary at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary you would show up with a pretty set schedule for your first semester, and then you’d get a little more freedom in the semester after that to choose what classes to take. So just like at most any college or university you’d get to have some flexibility with which classes you take and when you take them. There are, however, a few classes that you have to take before you are allowed to go on internship, that’s to ensure that us interns might actually be good for something when we get out here in the world. One of those required classes is Preaching. Preaching class at PLTS is a really fun class and if you were to take it you would probably get a lot out of it. You would get the chance to talk about interpreting Bible texts, ( a very important part of sermon writing) you would get to listen to your classmates preach, you would learn and talk about the relationship between the preacher and the hearer, and you would talk about some specific ways, or methods, or recipes of crafting a sermon that would hook and keep your hearers’ attention and also communicate your message effectively. One of the recipes you would probably learn about is called Lowry’s Loop. Lowry because the guy who wrote the book that talks about it is named Lowry and Loop because when you diagram the method it looks like a loop. If you were to learn about Lowry’s Loop you would probably then be able to identify the fact that most of sermons follow that structure… more or less… there’s an identification of a problem and then a rising in tension, then there’s a shift followed by an exploration of the solution to the problem and eventually some kind of resolution. This is how I normally write my sermons… it is a very literary form, and I have a strong literature background so it feels comfortable to me and I think it works.
I’ve told you all this now in order to say that today I’m not going to preach this way….
I’m not going to identify a problem in the world that this Gospel addresses and I’m not going to do that dramatic shift.
The reason I’m not going to do this is not because I got tired of preaching that way, it’s not because we’re in 2011 and Lowry’s Loop is no good in odd years, and it’s certainly not because I couldn’t think of any problems in the world that this Gospel could speak to.
I’m choosing not to preach the way I normally do today because I think today’s Gospel is too important and too special to just do the same old thing. So I’m going to stand up here today and I’m going to talk to you about Why today’s Gospel is so special and why it’s so important.

To begin with I think it’s important to say that these first verses of John are unique… they are unique because for one thing they are the words of a sort of hymn, and when John begins his Gospel this way it’s like he’s beginning with the words of a song, and his audience would have heard these words as poetic and lyrical and meaningful and mystical. That style is important because it highlights what these first words are saying and if you listen to them carefully those lyrical lines are giving you what is perhaps the most eloquent, most concise, and most clear summary of the entire Gospel. And when I say that these words are a summary of the Gospel, I’m not talking about the little-g Gospel that is what we call the excerpt we read each Sunday or even the middle-sized-g Gospel that refers to one of the first four books of the New Testament. This is the big-G Gospel. This is THE GOSPEL. The entire message communicated to you by God, the message of hope, of salvation, of grace and of love. So if you read nothing else, if you pay attention to nothing else in the whole Bible… read these words of John. These words about The Word, and about a Light in the Darkness that is not overcome. This is what this whole business of being a Christian is all about.
The question that follows from this, at least for me, is that: what are these verses saying… exactly? Because if they are really the Gospel in a nutshell it seems important that we really understand them, it seems important that we would be able to crack open that nutshell. So there’s two important things going on here that really tell us a lot about the Gospel.…
The first can be summarized with verse 5 “The light shines in the darkness… and the darkness did not overcome it” Now I could preach a whole sermon about that one verse. And you know, I bet a lot of you could too. You could stand up here and you could tell us all how powerful a message this is, because the light shining in the darkness is the light of hope in a weary and broken world, and anyone that has felt the love of God in the midst of sadness and pain knows all about the light shining in the darkness.
The second important thing is probably not something that’s so widely understood. It’s the simple fact that Jesus is referred to in these verses as The Word. The question then I have for us today is two-fold, or possibly it’s two parts of the same question: why is Jesus referred to as The Word, and what does it mean for us the Jesus is referred to as the Word.
Now some of you may have thought about why Jesus is called the Word, some of you may have studied about it, or read about it, or taken a class and learned about it, some of you might never have thought twice about it. But if you’ve only ever thought about it just a little bit you might have figured that it probably has something to do with the “Word of God” which is what we sometimes call our scripture, and you might have concluded that basically John is saying that Jesus is the way that God communicates with the world… well… that’s kind of true. It’s not false, anyway. The problem with that answer is that, on the surface, it would just boil down to Jesus being a prophet. Again… that’s not really untrue, but Remember a couple of weeks ago and our Advent story about John the Baptist in Prison and he asks Jesus (through his disciples) if he’s the Messiah, and then Jesus is talking to the crowds and he asks them “What did you go out into the Wilderness to see?” He says: “A reed shaken by the wind…” No “Someone in soft robes….” Definitely not “A prophet.. Yes…” Oh okay… they went out into the wilderness to see Jesus right and here Jesus says they went out to see a prophet so he must be calling himself a prophet…. Oh wait I forgot what it says after that…. “and MORE than a prophet” So… Jesus is not just any prophet… if you’re looking for a prophet you can go to Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Malachi, or Micah… or any of the other books in the last part of the Old Testament…. Or Elijah, Or Elisha…. Or Moses. But this Jesus is more than just a prophet.
So it must be that “the word” means more than just God communicating with his people. But how much more? Well, this is a kind of Metaphor, right? Jesus is being called ‘the Word’, yeah that’s basically a Metaphor. Maybe to understand this metaphor we should think about what a Word is…. So What is a word?
Well a word is a collection of Letters right? Go to the alphabet pick out a few of your favorites, throw them together and you basically have a word… but that doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus. What else is a word….? Well let’s not think about the written word. Let’s think about the spoken word. Now again I ask… what is a word?

A word is that thing that you speak that turns some idea in your head into something that is out in the world. So, if you have an idea in your head, and say it’s red and shiny and about the size of a baseball and smells and tastes sweet…. then you say the word “Apple” and now we all have the same picture in our heads. So that idea has become real and alive and active in the world because of your using …. THE WORD. A word makes an idea real and alive and active in the world.
Now think about what that metaphor means. To say that Jesus is the Word is to say that Jesus is not just a prophet, he’s not just a nice guy, he’s not just the Son of God…. Jesus is God coming to be real and active and alive in the world. Jesus is God in a way that we can understand and interact with, he is God in a form that we can perceive. Jesus is the hope, and the salvation, and the grace and the love of and from God here among us. Jesus is Emmanuel, and Emmanuel means God with Us. God is with us because Jesus was born and God was spoken into the world.

This is why today’s Gospel is so special, because it’s the Gospel that tells us with one word that God has come into the world, that God is alive. And just like in your loneliness how the words of a friend or a loved one can pierce through the quiet and isolation. The Word of God, Jesus the Christ, breaks through the isolation and the darkness of our pain and sadness and becomes alive in the world so that, no matter how lonely and sad you might sometimes feel, you well never truly be alone.

And that is what today’s Gospel is about… it is about hope and salvation, grace and love all in that one single word.

Audio, Audi...ay??

Here... finally... is the audio for that Christmas day/day after Christmas sermon.
Text = Matthew 2:13-23


Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas!
My Christmas gift from the Revised Common Lectionary Fairy this year was that I had to preach this sermon on Christmas Day.  The reason that was kind of a bummer is that the text for this Sunday was Matthew 2:13-23, and that's a bummer because, as you can see if you go read it, it's not a very happy text. As I was researching this text, and talking to other Pastors I found that a lot of people don't preach on this text when it comes up on Christmas. They just pick a different one or preach on something else. I decided to take on the challenge though and this is what I came up with:

I would like to begin my time up here at the pulpit today with a story. I thought that would be appropriate because it is Christmas after-all and stories are so much a part of our Christmas traditions. We’ve got books like “Twas the night before Christmas”, and “How The Grinch Stole Christmas”, movies like “Christmas Vacation”, “A Christmas Story”, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, “Elf”… any of the billion versions of “A Christmas Carol” (the muppet version is my Christmas Carol of choice), and how often at Christmas time do we sit around with our families, after the presents are open and while the food is digesting and tell stories of all the years gone by, the funny stories and tender moments that have defined all the years leading up to this one.

Well this is a story about a boy. He was a pretty average boy: he liked to run and play outside and he also liked to play plenty of video games, he liked to watch football with his Dad and watch baseball with his Mom and he absolutely loved Christmas time. Every year, sometime in November it would occur to this little boy that Christmas time wasn’t so far away, that the air was starting to get colder with that little bite to it, maybe it would snow a time or two, the radio stations slowly started increasing their frequency of Christmas songs, the stores were starting to get more and more full of red and green, gold and silver, bells, stars, candles, reindeer, Santas, and even the occasional Baby Jesus in Mary’s arms, and of course they started lighting the Advent wreath at church.

All of these were the signs that Christmas was coming and they were reasons for the boy to get more and more excited… because he loved Christmas. When he was very young he loved Christmas for all the presents… but then he started to remember that only the very special cookies were baked at Christmas time, and food was always a little more special, and his grandparents came into town, and music was always playing in the house. And then as he got older still he noticed that often people were nicer around Christmas time… they would wish each other Merry Christmas when during other times of the year they would hardly even look at each other, and this boy also learned to enjoy the peacefulness of the season: of sitting by the tree when all the other lights were off and soft music was playing somewhere in the background.

So yes this boy really loved Christmas. And he still does, but one year… something terrible happened… in the middle of all the excitement leading up to Christmas one year, somebody told this boy that he was going to have to preach a sermon on Christmas day and the day after Christmas about Herod’s murder of the little children and Jesus being forced to flee to Egypt.

So… in case you haven’t figured it out yet… I’m doing that thing where I pretend to tell a story about somebody else but really it’s a story about me. …. I know it’s a corny device, and I’m sorry… but It’s true…. I am the little boy….and I really do love Christmas. It’s such a wonderful time of year… It’s Idyllic, it’s a time for joy, peace, love and hope; all such positive and wonderful emotions, and even now as a, mostly, grown man, I love the holiday season. But this year I didn’t get to enjoy the joy quite as much because this past week I have been obsessed with this story about Herod ordering a bunch of little boys to be executed, murdered really… all because he’s afraid of this little baby Jesus.

I have been obsessed with it because it’s just not the kind of story that we expect or want, AT ALL, for Christmas, we don’t want to think about this kind of awful stuff happening when we’re basking in the glow of the halo around the Little Baby Jesus’ head. I have been obsessed because Christmas is supposed to be all cozy and warm and wonderful, not bleak and filled with the grief of even one lost child, let alone an entire generation of Bethlehem.

But see… what happens when I’m obsessing about a gospel text is that things start creeping into my head and little things start happening and they make me think about this particular Gospel even though they would just be random meaningless thoughts and events if I wasn’t in the middle of planning a sermon. One of the things that happened is that, as I was driving in my car, the song “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas” came on the radio… and it was a version with the original lyrics: the “In a year we all will be together…. Until then we’ll just have to muddle through somehow”

Now… I don’t know if you’ve ever really listened to that song but sometime you should, and while you’re at it you should really listen to “I’ll be home for Christmas” …. And there’s a couple others out there too. Like, “Merry Christmas Darling” by the Carpenters which was a holiday mainstay at our house growing up. I say that you should listen to them because I think you’ll be surprised to notice, if you haven’t before, that they’re kind of sad songs. All three of the songs that I mentioned are about being apart from your loved ones… and these three aren’t the only ones in the Christmas rotation that have a bit of a bit of sadness in them. It seems as though, when people aren’t singing about Jesus as a conquering king, they’re often singing about the joy of Christmas that is tempered by the realities of the world that we live in. And they are beautiful songs to be sure but there’s a sort of melancholy in these songs and in a lot of our Christmas Music, and even in the triumphant and glorious songs of the arrival of a conquering king there is an implicit admission that we’re the kind of people living in the kind of world where we need a conquering king.

And what really got me thinking and obsessing is that there must be a reason for our songs to be this way. Music is art and art tends to show us a little bit about ourselves. So if our Christmas songs have some sadness in them there must be some sadness. But that doesn’t really fit with my childhood picture of Christmas. I have liked Christmas my whole life because of the happiness, and even though there were different things making me happy, whether they were presents, or cookies, or music, or family, or friendliness, or enjoying the first Christmas morning with my lovely wife, there was still the persistent feeling that Christmas is happy.

But here’s the rub… if Christmas is happy, and Christmas makes everything all better. Why do we read today about these terrible events? And why do we still need to have our beautifully sad Christmas music.

Well the ugly truth is…. That Christmas doesn’t fix everything. It makes us feel better for a little while and helps us to remember the good in the world but it doesn’t make all our troubles go away. And the real bummer is that no matter how badly we want Christmas to take away all the evil in the world… for Good… that just isn’t how it works. That kind of Christmas is the one that John the Baptist was waiting for. Remember a couple of weeks ago, we were in the middle of Advent and JTB, (that’s John the Baptist) asked if Jesus was really the Messiah. “Are you the one that is to come, or should we wait for another?” John wanted Christmas to take all the evil away, that’s why he quotes Isaiah: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight.” But that isn’t the way Jesus arrived, Jesus showed up as an infant, just like we all do and he didn’t conquer anybody. That isn’t how Christmas works.

Realizing this is… unpleasant at best… but when you do you have three options the first is to just throw Christmas out the window and go live in a cabin out in the woods because there’s no hope (let’s just go ahead and throw that one out immediately) the second option we have is to pretend that Christmas does make everything all better and to ignore, if only for a day, all the problems that are still out in the world, this is the option that we might see some people taking, for example that line in “Have yourself a Merry little Christmas” that goes: “Until then we’ll just have to muddle through somehow….” Get’s changed to: “Hang a shining star upon the highest bow” There’s just a slight difference in mood there. And you know there really isn’t anything wrong with that change. It works for some people to just focus on that triumphant line, it may work for some of you, and you may be just as happy to ignore the sadness that Christmas doesn’t take away.

But there’s still sadness out there and for some of us it doesn’t work to just ignore it. We might try to, but it just comes creeping back in all at once or a little bit at a time, and if we don’t have a better understanding of Christmas we might get confused and frustrated…. And sad…. And obsessed.

I told you earlier that I was obsessing about this… about the sadness that is still in the world and about the fact that our Christmas story for today is about infanticide. And then remember I said that two things happened while I was obsessing: the first was about the songs, and the second is where we get our good news and our hope for today. Somebody else who was thinking about this same Gospel text asked me “What good is Christmas?” That’s a fair question right? And really it’s the same question I was asking, I just hadn’t stated it so clearly. If Christmas doesn’t fix everything, well then about Christmas makes me happy? In light of everything that still goes on in the world and in light of this terrible crime that is committed by Herod today, and in light of the fact that Jesus and Mary and Joseph had to run for his life, and then couldn’t even come back to their home but had to live in a different part of Israel, what should make us happy about Christmas?

Well… I will first say this… we SHOULD be happy about Christmas…. Christmas is every bit as glorious and triumphant of a day as you and I always thought it was. It may not be because Christmas makes all the evil go away, but that’s not what Christmas promised to do. Christmas only every promised us the little baby Jesus, but before you go thinking that there’s any reason for disappointment let’s talk about what that means.

When Jesus was born on that first Christmas… something really truly remarkable happened. God became absolutely and fully a part of this world. God made a sort of bridge connecting this world of ours with God. That’s all a bit of theological magic that means something very simple. It means that God did not give up on us. It means that everything that ever happened to you is a part of something because God chose to make this world part of God and to make himself part of this world. So whenever you feel sad and alone, or afraid, or angry, or happy, or even just OK it is all a part of a world that is intimately connected with its creator.
You are not feeling anything in isolation, you are a part of something much bigger than yourself and that means that there is something much bigger than all those feelings of sadness. Jesus was the whole universe, all of creation, in one man… and he became forever a part of this world because he was born into it just like the rest of us. And there may not be a purpose for the evil in the world and we may not be able to find a greater good out of the evil, but if God was so invested in this that He was willing to become that invested in us than we can believe with absolute certainty that our lives are not just some tragic accident, lived alone.
So remember this tonight when the stars are out. Walk outside… look up into the depths of the night, find the moon or a star and watch it… And remember that God came into the world on this Christmas day as a human just like any of us, and remember that because of that, you are a part of that universe and you are connected to it just as it is part of you. And as long we still have that promise of Christmas we will always have a reason to hope and a reason to be happy.
So please….remember that Jesus has been born so that you will never have to suffer or rejoice alone… and most of all “Have yourself a merry little Christmas…” From now until “all our trouble are miles away…”

Advent Wednesdays

This sermon was a lot of fun.  I got the chance to preach at one of the Wednesday evening Advent services at my wife's church, Desert Cross Lutheran in Tempe.  It was really great to lead worship together.

The text for this little sermonette was Isaiah 40:3-9 (you can click on that to read those verses online)
Also you should know that I was holding an Apple in my hand as I was preaching this.

I have something here in my hand… and it is something that I’m sure you recognize. You’ve seen one just like this before, you’ve probably tasted one, smelled one, held one in you hand. You probably also have a word for this thing…. Don’t you. Even now as I’m talking to you that word is floating around in your head… it is at the tip of your tongue and it is projected on that screen just behind your eyes. You can see that word because you know it so well and, to you, and to me, this thing in my hand does not exist without that word. The word is the thing. The word is APPLE and this thing IS an Apple.
But I want you to try for a minute to think of this thing without the word. I want you to look at it and just know what it is without using the word. When I ask myself to do this… my reaction is to think of all the other words that describe this thing. So…. If I can’t use its name, I’ll use its characteristics. Words like red, round, smooth, sweet, juicy. Now at least with all of these words I can build a pretty good picture of this thing and I can even tell someone else what it would be like… so much so that they might even be able to identify it as an Apple.
But what if I ask you to think about this Apple without the word Apple and now without the words round and red and sweet and smooth. What if I just ask you to think about this thing without using words at all. It’s not very easy is it? To begin with, this is a hard thing to even wrap our head around: “what does it even mean to think about this apple without using words?” and then even if you can go along with it, it’s really hard to find meaning without using these words. Now think about how hard it would be to think about something less concrete without using words…. Something like hope, or love, or peace?
You see, a word is not just a collection of letters that makes it easier for us to communicate… a word is a symbol. It is a way that we can make meaning from some concept that is outside of ourselves. So we see the roundness of this Apple and we can understand it because of the word round…. We taste the juiciness of it and we understand it because of the word juicy. In this same way we can talk about feelings like hope and love because we have these words to identify them, and relate to them, and remember when we felt them.
Now I want you to go back with me to that feeling when I told you to try not to use any words…. Imagine that frustration and difficulty. It is more than a little upsetting to have these concepts and be able to communicate them. Now imagine if you had never been taught any language, imagine the desolation that your life would be if you had no way of giving any meaning to things like sweet, soft, smooth… love, peace, hope… I will tell you that the desolation would be very deep indeed. You see without your sense of meaning and significance the world is a very plain and simple place…. It is nothing more than images of hot and cold, dark and light, rock and ice, green, red, blue, yellow…. And you would be nothing more than a casual observer just perceiving the world around you and watching it pass by.
The book of Isaiah from which we read tonight is a book about a prophet speaking to God’s people… Last week you may remember that Valerie told you that Isaiah is a ‘prophet’ not because he foretells the future but because he points a people to the ways that God is active in the world. So then we have a prophet speaking to a whole community of people who are in exile and telling them about the ways that God is speaking to them and acting in their lives.. They are living their lives in persecution and oppression because they have been removed from their homes and their homeland and are in the midst of the despair and desolation and their prophet is speaking words of hope to them.
Okay… so do you remember all that stuff about words and meaning? Now when I asked you to imagine what it would be like to live in a world without those words, you may have pictured the world that I described which is a world of desolation and a world removed from meaning. This is in many ways similar to the life of exile, it is a life lived apart from that which gives your life meaning. For the people of Israel their land and their temple was the way that they had understand their life to have meaning and importance. Without that they were lost and directionless.
And into that darkness and into that desolation Isaiah speaks these Words. They are WORDS. Words of comfort and WORDS of hope, and these WORDS have the power to give comfort and to give hope because they are the WORDS of God. They are the words that speak hope and comfort and identify that it is God that is speaking hope and comfort to these people.
In this wilderness of desolation and despair when all hope and meaning is lost. God says the WORD of the Lord will stand forever. And even though the things of this world fade and wither, like the Grass and the Flower, the Word of God endures.
And so here in on our Advent this night… as we reach out to God in the midst of our pain and sadness, when our suffering and sickness leave us feeling as though we are alone in the wilderness… We remember that into that wilderness the way of the Lord is prepared. The WORD of the Lord is spoken into our stark silence and we are again reminded that God is coming a little bit at a time, day by day, to bring meaning, and value, and joy and hope to our lives. And we remember in the Dark night… that in the beginning was the WORD and the WORD was with God and the WORD was God… and as every word we speak brings meaning into our Chaotic world…. Into this dark night a baby is born….