Sunday, October 18, 2020

Giving to God What Already Belongs to God

Goose River Lutheran Church, Hatton, ND

October 18, 2020 (Celebration of Ministry/Holy Closure)

Pentecost 20/Matthew 22:15-22

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

“Public figure accosted by rival groups of critics”

No, that’s not the latest newspaper headline in this wild and wooly political campaign of 2020!

It is, rather, a lens for exploring our gospel lesson from Matthew 22 which begins on this ominous note: “Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said…”

Not unlike nosy reporters or pushy political operatives in this autumn of 2020, the Pharisees want Jesus to go on record saying something that will come back to haunt him.  They were plotting how to trick Jesus into making himself look bad—just as he moves through the same fateful week in which He will face a treacherous betrayal, a crooked trial, and a brutal crucifixion

The Pharisees, in this case at least, had allies:  a rival Jewish group, known as the Herodians.

Normally these two Jewish “parties” were at odds with one another, especially over how they related to the Romans who had conquered their nation.  Eking out an existence under the harsh thumb of their far-off Roman emperor, the Pharisees tended to oppose the Romans, while the Herodians tended to collude with the Romans.

But what united these rival groups, in our gospel today, was their shared suspicion of Jesus, which is why they posed this ticking time bomb of a question to him:  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the [Roman] emperor or not?”  

Can a devout, God-fearing Jew pay the required “poll tax” demanded by the Roman emperor?

Seeing right through their ruse, Jesus asks his questioners why they’re “putting him to the test.”  And then he asks them to show him one of the Roman coins used to pay the poll tax—a tax that signified the Jews’ subjugation to Rome, a tax that raised revenue to support Rome’s oppressive government.

Jesus’ questioners were surprisingly quick to produce one of the denarius coins they used to meet their tax obligations to the Romans.  

But now it was Jesus who put his opponents under a microscope, by asking them to read  the inscription on the coin.  Archaeologists suggest the inscription may have read like this:   “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, majestic son of the majestic God.”

What’s too bad here is that all we have are the words Jesus uttered—with no hint of his tone of voice or any gestures he might have made.   

I picture Jesus holding up that Roman coin—to show how small and inconsequential it was!--as if to say:   “give to the emperor exactly what you owe—about a day’s wages, and not a penny more.”

Jesus acknowledges that Caesar has a rightful claim on all his subjects—to bear the cost of running his entirely earthly empire.   Give this little man his little bit!

And then I picture Jesus stretching out his arms as far as he could, as he goes on to say:  “And give to God—God the Maker of all, God the First and the Last---give to God what belongs to God!”

…which included, by the way, all those tiny coins destined for the emperor’s treasury--for the emperor’s poll tax was also part of God’s “everything!”

Well that shut them up—these Pharisees and the Herodians—who, “when they heard this…were amazed; and they left Jesus and went away.”

But I bet they were still pondering, still turning over in their minds how Jesus had responded to their “gotcha” question…..and I especially wonder how they might have reflected on that second question:    What did Jesus have in mind  when he commanded them to give to God what is God’s?

That, my dear friends, is the question I hope you and I will also take home with us today.

What is Jesus asking of us and everyone else, when he says: “Give to God what belongs to God?”

…to which the short, sweet answer is: “Everything!”

If (as it says in Psalm 24:1)…if ‘the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it’--then we are duty bound to give everything to God…

…and while that certainly includes lots of stuff, it also encompasses realities that, though intangible, matter more than all the things we can see, touch, or hold!

·      Give God all your loyalty…100% of your allegiance.

·      Give God all your love…every drop of devotion you can muster.

·      Give God all your gratitude…every last “thank you” that flows from your lips!

·      Give God your deepest trust and your most ardent faith!

·      Give God—and God alone!--all the glory and praise God deserves.

That’s a pretty tall order, though, isn’t it?

On our own, the very last thing we want to do is give God everything that belongs to God.    On our own we’d just as soon keep it all for ourselves—so self-centered, so  “curved in upon ourselves” that we are.

But God has not let us languish in such a sorry, selfish state!   God came to earth and walked among us in Jesus Christ to pry us loose from ourselves….to die for our selfish waywardness…and thus to open us up to live as the precious daughters and sons whom God created us to be.

This great good news—news we never tire of hearing—news that’s as essential as food, clothing and shelter—this great good news is why Goose River Lutheran Church, has existed for 136 years!

For you see, although each individual believer is precious in God’s sight…we individuals proclaim God’s surpassing goodness best by coming together.  

So when Steele County ND  was being settled by waves of Norwegian immigrants in the late 19th century, it was only natural that they banded together in congregations designed to become beacons of  God’s light  here on the ND prairie.

So your congregation was founded in 1884, when some of these new citizens of the USA gathered at the Halvor Berg farm and—in an act of profound faith in God--began meeting together in local country school houses until your first church building was erected in 1888.

Goose River Lutheran Church’s “birth story” is a powerful reminder that nearly all of our ND rural congregations existed as communities of people, long before they became identified with a building….or, in your case, a series of buildings—thanks to the tornado and the fire that destroyed your first two church buildings (!)

What led your forebears to establish this congregation was a profound act of faith, trusting that God deserves our “everything”—and that a living, breathing congregation is what best equips us to praise God, spread the gospel, raise our children in faith, serve our needy neighbors, and extend our Christian witness across the globe:  joyfully proclaiming that there is a God who has given us everything so that, in faith we might return that everything to the One who made us and in Jesus Christ remade us to be God’s people.

And now, if I may share with you a pastoral word as you approach the holy closure of your congregation:   I urge you to take this step in the confidence that bringing your corporate existence to conclusion is just as much of an act of  profound faith as was the establishing of your congregation back in 1884.

The reason I say that is that the Church, the eternal community of Jesus Christ is always being enfleshed in an ever-changing world. 

My dear friends, you don’t need me to remind you of how much has changed over the last 136 years. 

Looking at the demographics of this area, we notice that Steele County peaked in 1910 with a population of 7600 persons…and we also notice that today’s Steele County has a quarter of the population the county had in 1910.

Despite facts like population decline in rural areas, we may still struggle to acknowledge it’s time to bring the mission of this congregation to its conclusion.   We could even blame ourselves, imagining that if we had just believed a little harder or worked more energetically—we could restore this congregation to its original size , scope and level of energy.

As people who believe that God has given us everything, freeing us to give back to God our “everything,” we know that we’ll continue living out our Christian faith and witness, even after this congregation is dissolved and the doors of this precious building are closed.

It is an act of profound faith to do so:  an act of trust that the same God who has made everything will draw you into new circles of fellowship with other believers, so that you’ll continue to give back to God all your devotion, all your love for one another, and all your determination to keep sharing the Good News of Christ wherever you go, through whatever fresh faith community welcomes you into its fold.  

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Monday, August 17, 2020

An Open Watercourse for Divine Love


Eastern North Dakota Synod Assembly

Opening Worship on August 14, 2020

John 4:5-42


In the name of Jesus.  Amen


“Before” and “After” pictures are standard tools employed by advertisers—especially those who peddle weight-loss remedies, wrinkle-removers, and exercise equipment.    Google the phrase “before-and-after pictures” and about 4 billion “hits” will pop up—that’s 4 billion with a “B!”

I share this because, as I’ve been pondering this story from John 4, I’ve been wondering: “What might this Samaritan woman’s ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures have looked like?”

I imagine a “before” picture that depicts a woman with a downcast expression, eyes averted, trying to make herself as small and easy-to-ignore as possible.  

And the “after” picture?   I see this same woman, but now with bright shining eyes, gazing outward, her arms opened wide as if to embrace the whole world!

What a transformation—between these “before” and “after” pictures of this unnamed Samaritan woman…not because she had a facelift or lost 50 pounds…

…but because of a chance encounter she had with a total stranger beside Jacob’s Well, her village’s ancient water-source.

Here she was, going about her daily routine, lugging her water-bucket to the well at high noon—the best time of the day to avoid all the other townswomen with their buckets…

So imagine her dismay when, approaching the well, she sees that an unexpected Stranger was already there!

Tempted to turn on her heels and return home, the woman--for some mysterious reason--still felt drawn to her destination and that Stranger whom she noticed was both a man and a Jew.

Hopefully he’d pretend she wasn’t there…but then it happened.  The man spoke to her:  Give me a drink…”

The Stranger at the well thus, in effect, said to her:“I see you!”

“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” the woman responds, saying in effect to the Stranger:  I see you!”

This brief opening exchange is the last bit of chit-chat we hear in this narrative…

…because, starting with the Stranger’s simple request, a whole wide-ranging conversation began...

…a conversation that quickly delved deeper and deeper into vital business—deep realities--that would soon mark this day as a decisive turning point for this woman, for all her neighbors and eventually for millions more, including now you and me.

First the woman learns that, though lacking his own bucket, this Stranger has water, Living Water, water that quenches all thirst forever, water that “gushes up to eternal life”…

Second, the woman discovers that even though they’ve never met before, thse Stranger knows her—reads her like a book—and is aware of everything about her—including all the stuff she tried to keep in the shadows—all the complicated, awkward, gossip-engendering parts of her story that she normally kept to herself! 

But there’s more!  This Stranger who already knows her through and through, doesn’t use his knowledge of her to belittle her….but instead, he responds to her searching faith questions…thus refreshing her parched thirsty soul.

Which brings us to the woman’s third discovery.  She realizes that this Stranger wants, not simply to satisfy her curiosity about holy things, but to expand her entire imagination about God…to point her to this God who isn’t tied down to any geographic location….but is wild and free and utterly present wherever seekers like her worship God, in spirit and in truth.

Throughout this narrative, the New Testament’s longest recorded conversation between Jesus and another human being--through it all they keep delving deeper and deeper until it dawns on the woman that this Stranger is a prophet, a messenger who speaks the truth not just about herself but about God…and doesn’t merely speak this truth but embodies it in his very being.   

Connecting all the dots, the woman suddenly realizes that this Stranger is the One she and everyone else have been waiting for—God’s anointed One, the Messiah…

….and when that dawns on her, she grasps—in a second!—that such longed-for, liberating truth simply has to be shared with others.

So leaving her empty bucket at the well--she runs full-tilt back to her village, breathlessly stammering the Best Good News she had ever heard:  “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

And then—miracle of miracles--this wall-flower woman boldly, jubilantly, arrestingly evangelized her whole town.  

This poor, misunderstood, ostracized woman—she, of all people!--opened the door for her neighbors themselves to meet the Stranger, to hear his Good News, and to become sharers of this Good News:  “It is no longer because of what [this woman] said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world!”

My beloved friends in Christ, this amazing story is not simply a “once upon a time” tale.

It is, rather, the Story of our lives, a Story meant to be heard and told and shared with others for as long as this old world keeps turning.

Even now, during this fearful pandemic--that seems to make a mockery of our assembly theme:   Living Well

Even now as we recognize and strive to address other threats in our world:  threats like economic depression, racial strife, and global climate change….

Even now, when the possibility of “Living Well” seems so remote…we  gather to reclaim the greatest truth of all:  that there is One who knows us better than we know ourselves….and despite our sin, does not hesitate to declare to each of us and to all our neighbors across the world: 

·      “I see you”

·      And “I love you with an everlasting, undefeatable love that has gone to the Cross and the Grave for you,”

·      And I choose to have my Living Water--My Holy Spirit—flow TO you and flow THROUGH you, all of you, now and forever!

Here’s how a great American Lutheran church leader once put it:

"All that we Christians are called upon to do, all we can do, is to be an open watercourse for…divine love.  We do not create [such love]…and we must not blockade it…[but] we are simply to reflect it, back to [God] and out to [God’s] world.  Our calling is to give it free flow…[and our prayer must always be:] Lord, keep the conduit that leads through me from being clogged!"[1]

That—all of that—is what’s happening here in John chapter 4.  If Luke’s gospel shows us Jesus telling the parable of a Good Samaritan man, John’s gospel shows us Jesus creating the miracle of this Good Samaritan woman!

As we begin this historic, all-digital synod assembly, we do so, trusting that our Lord’s Living Water is still flowing, to us and through us here in our Eastern ND Synod:  freeing us to declare that God intends for us and all people to live well, as we gather around Christ the Living Well who is the Savior of the world!

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

[1] Franklin Clark Fry, “The Source and the Flow,” a 1967 stewardship article.   Quoted in For All the Saints: A Prayer Book For and By the Church, Volume II, p. 354f (American Lutheran Publicity Bureau 1996)

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

More Than We Can Ask or Imagine

Installation of Deacon Tara Lee Ulrich

Tri-County Ministry, Red Willow Bible Camp, Binford, ND

Pentecost 9/August 2, 2020

Matthew 14:13-21


In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

This beloved story of the feeding of the 5,000 stands out in the Bible because it’s the only miracle of Jesus that appears in all four gospels:  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

That’s a tipoff that something noteworthy is going on.  This passage almost yells at us:  “Hey, you—pay attention!   Something big is happening here!

And what is happening here, anyway?

Some pretty weird arithmetic, I’d say…because on the surface of it, this text seems to point to a math formula that reads: 5 + 2 = 5,000

FIVE loaves of bread plus TWO fish equals enough food to feed more than 5,000 persons!!

Say what?

5 + 2 = FIVE THOUSAND???   In what universe does that add up?  

None that I can think of…

….and yet, what if there’s something’s missing from this math formula?    What if it really should be:  5 + 2 + 1 = 5,000?

Five loaves, plus two fish, plus one Jesus = dinner for 5,000 men “besides women and children” as Matthew reminds us!

Isn’t that amazing?  And yet, as astounding as this story is, there’s something  familiar about it….almost like an “echo in the room”….a reverberation of all those parables of “smallness” we’ve been hearing this summer….as we’ve taken a long slow walk through the 13th chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel.

Seems as though we’ve been reminded—again and again and again—about how it is that in God’s strange “economy” small things are forever producing huge outcomes.

So…God takes a solitary sower, a minuscule mustard seed, a puny pinch of yeast, and a measly little shore lunch…God takes all these small realities and produces amazing results from each of them.

For, you see, small is beautiful in God’s way of looking at things.  

The most inconsequential of events and things and persons…in the hands of that One whose name is Jesus…will make all the difference in the world.

 But what we dare not miss here is that this story of the feeding of the 5,000+ is not simply a tale about something that happened “once-upon-a-time”….

…rather, it’s an ever-repeating pattern for the life that is ours “under the glorious and gentle rule of [God’s] Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.”   (Prayer of the Day for Christ the King, LBW, p. 30)

There’s a pattern or better, there’s a paradigm here for how your seven congregations have served and continue to serve God’s mission through the Tri-County Ministry.

First, some unforeseen need emerges—often when our attention is focused elsewhere.

Here in this passage, Jesus is attempting to find some solitude…in order to pray and to mourn the death of his friend and cousin, John the Baptist.

But crowds of curious, needy folks find Jesus--eager to hear his teaching and receive his healing.

And this brings us to the second part of the paradigm for ministry that emerges from this story:  when Jesus sees the crowds he has compassion for them.   

In the original Greek version of this story, the word that’s translated “compassion” is splagnisthe—which is derived from the Greek word for intestines or “guts.”   

In other words:   Jesus hurts in his guts for the pain and need of his people.

But even when we, who trust in Jesus, encounter a person or problem that calls forth our own hurt-in-the-guts compassion….we often doubt our capacity to make a difference.

This brings us to the third part of the paradigm for ministry we see in our text.   It takes all day for Jesus to care for the needy crowds, and when the sun starts sinking in the sky, his “handlers” (the disciples!) urge Jesus to call it a day and send the crowds off to the local towns to buy food for themselves.

The disciples assume, you see, that Jesus has done all he can for the crowds….but Jesus turns the tables on them by telling them:   You give them something to eat!”

But the disciples (having already inventoried their meager food supply) respond with a classic line:   we have nothing here but…..we have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

This third part of our paradigm for ministry is an expression of scarcity in the face of overwhelming need.

And you and I know all about that.  Even though America is known for its great bounty and seemingly endless possibilities, we often assume scarcity, and we find it so easy to utter our own “we have nothing but ____” response.

Jesus will not allow such pinched, small-minded thinking, though.   He takes matters into his own hands—literally!—picking up the loaves and fishes, offering thanks for them, and boldly giving them to his disciples so that they, in turn, can distribute the food they have to the famished crowds.

And we know what happened next.  It’s the fourth part of our paradigm for ministry:   God’s abundance overwhelming our sense of scarcity.

Lo and behold that measly shore lunch is multiplied as it’s divided among the crowds….so much so that when everyone has eaten their fill, those “nothing but” disciples are able to gather up twelve baskets—twelve baskets of leftovers!

Such astounding abundance!    But there’s even more here than meets the eye.    Because the gospel writer Matthew helpfully concludes this story by observing:   And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.”

How enormous is the size of God’s abundance in this miracle story?   Well, let me put it this way:  we should probably stop calling this the “feeding of the 5,000” and start calling it: the “feeding of the 20,000” (to include all those uncounted women and children!)  

Isn’t it the case—as we think back over our own individual lives not to mention the stories of our congregations—isn’t it the case that the surprising abundance of God is always overwhelming the scarcity thinking we’re so accustomed to?

Deacon Tara, as we finally get you installed this morning (!), I want to commend to you….for your own ministry of Word and Service….the paradigm for ministry that unfolds in this miracle of the feeding of the 20,000.

First, be attuned to every fresh awareness of need or longing or hope that comes from members of this parish or the neighbors who live among us. 

You’ve been serving the church long enough to realize that ministry often happens in the midst of interruptions—some would even say that ministry is best called-forth by the interruptions that pop up in the midst of our well-laid plans.

Second, pay attention when your stomach churns or your heart aches—either of which could open the door to ministry to or with a member of your flock.   Again, because I know of your gifts for discernment and empathy, you don’t really need me to remind you of this.   Nevertheless, C.S. Lewis did get it right when he said that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains.”

Third, remember how easy it is to underestimate the resources at your disposal.    “Scarcity thinking” is so tempting, because it seems to be inspired by reason and common sense…even though it can prevent us from pondering what sorts of big plans God is already hatching!

Fourth, count on being regularly awestruck by God’s abundance.   The biblical lodestar that feeds my hope is found in Ephesians 3:20—“By the power at work within us [God] is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

So, in closing, thank you for inviting me to be with you today….and God bless you all—in partnership with Pastor Sherri and Deacon Tara--as you continue to serve this historic, innovative, cooperative ministry here in rural North Dakota. In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Turning Unbelievers Into Good-News-Speakers

Second Sunday of Easter/John 20:19-31
April 19, 2020

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

One of the things that lends authenticity to the Bible is that it has dirty laundry hanging out--all over it.  

God’s written Word proclaims good news in the same breath that it poses imponderable questions.   When we read or hear the Scriptures we catch glimpses that give us hope—while at the same time leaving us wondering what comes next.

The human writers who pieced God’s Word together could have been tidier—they could have smoothed over the rough spots and rounded off the jagged edges--but they didn’t.

The Bible tells the story of God and God’s people “warts and all”—with no apologies.  Nothing gets sanitized or swept under the rug--even episodes that don’t exactly put Jesus’ followers in the kindest light.

Episodes like our familiar gospel lesson for the Second Sunday of Easter.

Taken at face value, this starts out as a story about unbelievers....unbelievers who, because they’d been Jesus’ closest companions for years, should have known better.

This story begins with a bunch of bewildered disciples huddled together in a “safe house” on that first Easter evening.

Even though these guys had put on some mileage with Jesus…they still didn’t get it.

They thought that his crucifixion the preceding Friday had “done in” Jesus for good. 

So, fearful that Jesus’ fate might become their own, these  disciples pulled the shades, locked the doors, and hid.

But one of them was missing.    

For whatever reason Thomas was absent that first Easter evening.   Thomas missed all the hoopla when Jesus showed up three days after he’d been buried.   Thomas didn’t get to see the risen Christ with his own two eyes.

So when the others later told Thomas they had seen Jesus alive again…Thomas flat out declared he wasn’t going to believe it without receiving at least as much proof as they had gotten.

You’ve got to love Thomas. 

He was nobody’s chump. 

Every church council needs at least one Thomas on it:  someone who doesn’t immediately buy every hair-brained idea that comes along.

We’ve hung a nickname around his neck, calling him Doubting Thomas, as if for Thomas faith was elusive, hard to muster up.

But is that really fair?  

What if Thomas was actually like his fellow disciples—only more so?  What if Thomas’s motto was “seeing is believing?”  What if for Thomas faith and doubt lived, side by side?

At any rate, we see Thomas here in John chapter 20, Thomas in all his skeptical glory--demanding visual, “touchable” evidence that Jesus was really alive again.

And don’t you just love it—that Thomas’s story didn’t get edited out of the Scriptures? 

Is that not good news for the skeptics and doubters inside each of us?

Because there’s room in our Bible for Thomas, there’s room in God’s story for you and me, too! 

For, truth be told, we all carry around our own bulging bags of questions, fears and even doubts.  

Isn’t that particularly true right now, in these endless days of the global coronavirus pandemic?

Every day we’re bombarded by facts and figures and sobering projections about how many people are catching the virus, with a mounting death toll in its wake.

Do we not wonder at times whether God’s really going to pull us through this global mess?   

As people plagued by our own questions, wonderings and doubts we find that Thomas fits us like a glove. 

Thomas is you and me.  And the Bible--miracle of miracles!--does not shrink from telling his story.

The Bible, though, doesn’t simply make us feel at home with all our questions and doubts.  God’s Word doesn’t aim simply to make us into more healthy, well-adjusted unbelievers.         No….but rather the Bible also tells us what God does with unbelievers, how God deals with doubters, how God turns unbelievers into good news-speakers.

It is God’s specialty to transform doubters into shouters.

That, too, is the story--the real story--of this gospel text.

First Jesus wondrously shows up in that locked room with his followers on that first Easter evening. 

The Risen Christ appears to them—not to deliver a stern lecture about the dangers of unbelief—but to proclaim a word of gentle peace.

“Shalom!” is the first word out of Jesus’ mouth.

Shalom!  —which means “Peace to the nth degree.”

That’s what Jesus says to his unbelieving followers…and then, so they’ll know him as it dawns on them that Jesus now has death behind him, he shows them the scars of his crucifixion.

How curious—that rather than scientifically proving to them that he’s ALIVE—the Risen and living Lord Jesus proves that he was really dead.

Then, and only then, do the disciples rejoice, in giddy recognition of their risen Lord.

Next, without wasting a second, Jesus gives these unbelievers work to do, along with the power to do it--all in one breath (literally--all in one breath!) when Jesus breathes new life into them and says:  “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”(v. 22-23)

What does Jesus do with this tiny band of shivering, knee-knocking unbelievers?  He drafts them for his service, makes them his ambassadors, catches them up in his own work of piecing back together the whole creation--one shattered relationship, one jaded unbeliever, one repentant sinner at a time.

And Thomas?  What does Jesus do for Thomas?

A week after the first Easter Jesus does for Thomas exactly what Thomas needed him to do.  Jesus graciously, lavishly gives Thomas the grounds he needs to become a believer.  “Put your finger here, Thomas...Reach out your hand and put it in my side.   Do whatever you need to with me in order to have faith.  Do not doubt but believe.” (v. 27)

What does Jesus do for Thomas?  He transforms Thomas the doubter into Thomas the shouter, as he exclaims:  My Lord and my God!”(v. 28)

And so may we also declare that Jesus who was crucified, has been raised to new life—nevermore to die again!

May Thomas’s good confession find its way to our lips, too.

The proof in the pudding, you see, isn’t just that Thomas and the other disciples believed in Jesus….but that you and I believe, through their powerful witness.

It is for us that the Bible lets the dirty laundry hang out all over.  Or as John the gospel writer puts it: “These are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (v. 31)

There’s the pay off!  It is for you and me that the Bible allows the stories of skeptics like Thomas to be told....for only in so telling do we also come to behold what God does with the “show me” guys, the doubters who dot the pages of the Bible.

And what God does with them is to turn unbelievers—like you and me!--into gospel-speakers and gospel-enactors!

God transforms us doubters into shouters who never tire of proclaiming Thomas’s greatest line: “My Lord and My God!”

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Aftershocks of Easter

Easter Sunday/April 12, 2020
Matthew 28:1-10

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

In St Matthew’s version of the Resurrection of our Lord…the first Easter morning began with an earthquake.

Now I’ve never been in one of those—thank heavens!—and we don’t exactly live in an earthquake zone.  But I bet at least some of you HAVE experienced an earthquake, somewhere!

There’s a famous firsthand account of an earthquake written by the great American author Mark Twain when he was visiting San Francisco in October of 1865.

Twain writes:  It was just after noon, on a bright October day…[and] all  was solitude and a Sabbath stillness.

As I turned the corner, around a frame house, there was a great rattle and jar…[and then]there came a terrific shock; the ground seemed to roll under me in waves, interrupted by a violent joggling up and down, and there was a heavy grinding noise as of brick houses rubbing together….and as I reeled about on the pavement trying to keep my footing, I saw…the entire front of a tall four-story brick building on Third Street sprung outward like a door and fell sprawling across the street, raising a great dust-like volume of smoke!

And [then]…every door, of every house, as far as the eye could reach, was vomiting a stream of human beings; and…there was a massed multitude of people stretching in endless procession down every street my position commanded. Never was a solemn solitude turned into teeming life quicker. [1]

I especially like that last line of Mark Twain’s account:  Never was a solemn solitude turned into teeming life quicker.

Well Mr. Twain, maybe there was another time when that happened—when a “solemn solitude turned into teeming life!”

It happened at a garden tomb, just outside Jerusalem, on the first Easter morning.  Soldiers were snoozing by a carefully-sealed grave.   Those guards had been posted there by the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate in order to thwart anyone outside Jesus’ grave from trying to break into Jesus’ grave.

But what those Roman soldiers failed to realize was that the biggest danger they faced wasn’t any grave robber on the outside trying to get in.

No, the biggest danger was the Grave-Robber who was already inside that sealed-up tomb!

This Grave-Robber had for three days been dead-as-a-doornail. 

But he didn’t stay dead!  God saw to that!   Jesus—having experienced the “extreme makeover” of death—came back to “rob the grave,” to deprive death from ever again having the power it once enjoyed!

And that event, that world-turning, ground-pounding event could only be accompanied by an earthquake--measuring over 10 on the Richter Scale (a scientific scale, mind you, that only goes up to 9!)

When Jesus arose, the earth shook because death was losing its grip on us, once and for all.

But that’s not all:   because that Easter morning earthquake was itself an aftershock of an earlier earthquake—described only in Matthew’s gospel.

The Easter morning earthquake was a reverberation of the Good Friday earthquake—a cataclysm that struck the moment God’s Son breathed his last.   Then, too, the ground rumbled—powerfully enough, Matthew tells us, to “wake the dead!” (Mt. 27:51-53)

When Jesus died, the earth shook because sin and the devil were being displaced—set aside—defeated for good.

Two earthquakes within three days—and here’s the kicker:  Unlike every other earthquake this old world has ever known, the after-shocks from these two quakes have yet to end.

The after-shocks of Jesus death and resurrection are still rolling across the landscape of human history.   The tremors are still being experienced by ordinary persons like you and me.  

Even in this week when another world-turning event has been unfolding….when a global coronavirus pandemic has stricken over 1.5 million human beings, killing over 100,000 of them, while terrifying everyone else.

Even during this awful time we’re experiencing here on planet earth….the reverberations of the first Good Friday and Easter Sunday earthquakes have not faded away.

  • For whenever Jesus’ saving death sets one more sinner free—the earth continues to roll beneath our feet.  
  • And whenever someone finally “gets it” that the Devil’s reign of terror is over—a seismograph needle bounces wildly! 
  • And whenever Jesus’ grave-robbing resurrection frees up some sufferer to laugh in the face of death—the earth keeps rumbling beneath us.   
  • And whenever we make our own way to a cemetery to bury a loved one—whenever we stare down into that black hole in the ground and shout the Apostles Creed into that fierce darkness—another aftershock of Easter rearranges our whole landscape!

It’s happening right here.  Jesus the Risen One is among us even now.   Can you detect the aftershocks of his death-defying love?   

And can you feel your own knees knocking—as the same God who raised up his Crucified Son, is resurrecting you into new life, boundless hope, and undefeatable love?

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

[1] Excerpted from Mark Twain's book, Roughing It (Hartford:  American Publishing Company, 1872).   Accessed on 4/8/2020 at

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Saved to Be Sent

Devotional Reflection for the Sunday of the Passion (4/5/2020)

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the Communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Let us pray:  “Sovereign God, you have established your rule in the human heart through the servanthood of Jesus Christ.  By your Spirit, keep us in the joyful procession of those who with their tongues confess Jesus as Lord and with their lives praise him as Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”

A reading from St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, chapter 2: 
5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.

Have you ever found yourself driving in the wrong direction on a one-way highway?

I have--and it was one of the most frightening, disorienting experiences of my life!!

Early on we all learn to “go with the flow”—to follow the crowd and head in the same direction everyone else is going.

In Genesis chapter 3 we learn how our first parents were tempted to believe that their path should involve leaving the earth and climbing up, up, up to God.   “You will not die,” their Tempter told them…”if you eat the fruit God told you not to eat, you will not die but you will become like God!”

That’s what all pick up on, early in life….that we’re traveling a one-way road that takes us upward, ever upward, up to God, up to grab a hold of the godlike powers we long for.

Here in our reading from Philippians 2, though, we witness a different road-- a stark reversal of what the Tempter told our first parents in Genesis 3.

What’s revealed to us here in Philippians 2 is another path, a path that reverses all the arrows, a path that shuns grabbing and hanging on to whatever we lay our hands on….

This alternative route is a path of letting go, emptying ourselves, and traveling downward….down to creaturely life, down to service, down to giving ourselves away in caring for others and for this good earth.

On Passion Sunday we behold how this alternative route, this path of“downward mobility” is precisely the way our Suffering Savior traveled, going against the grain for us, setting aside all his divine prerogatives for us, pouring himself out for us and for all creation.

This One saves us and redeems the whole creation….this Jesus saves us in order to send us back into the world, walking along his amazing road of “downward mobility” which we come to realize is the life we were always meant to live.

My friends, as we live into this global pandemic—we desperately need to hear of this alternative road, this Jesus road, which is our only hope.

Jesus saves us, you see, in order to send us--to send us in service to our neighbors and in tender care for this good earth.   Jesus saves us in order to send us (in the words of Martin Luther) to send us as “little Christs” in our troubled, threatened world.

Now, I realize that that might seem to go against the grain of what we’re hearing these days.   We’re asked to live apart from one another in order to defeat the coronavirus—so how can we go down, down, down to serve our neighbors?

Well, it’s happening, my friends, despite our need to practice physical distancing from one another…we still see people like us serving one another.  

Pay attention to the news and to social media, and you’ll catch glimpses of Christ still moving down to those in deepest need….

You’ll see little Christs sewing face masks in the homes of people “sheltering in place”

You’ll see little Christs writing out checks or making online donations to the local homeless shelter or soup kitchen or nursing home.

You’ll hear little Christs on the telephone, calling up friends, checking in with neighbors, especially those who live alone….

And you’ll witness little Christs kneeling six feet apart from one another in a hospital parking lot—medical personnel, praying for the strength and protection they need to keep fighting the coronavirus.

Our Lord Jesus Christ is still saving and sending us all, even now when we feel stuck and useless at home….Our Lord Jesus transcends the rules of quarantine under which we must live for a season….now, even now, Christ is still at work through all his “little Christs” like you and like me.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.    

Please pray with me:   “Gracious God, shake us up in this time when we need to live apart from one another.  Show us how even behind the doors of our homes you are still calling us to be your little Christs in this hurting world.   Heal those who are ill and comfort those who are grieving.  Guide, protect and defend all the front-line soldiers in our war against the coronavirus….and use us to be your hands, feet and voice in this aching world.    All these things—and whatever else you see that we need—we ask for, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord who saves us to send us.  Amen."