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The Disciple's Reward

Proper 8 (13) - June 28, 2020
Jeremiah 28:5-9
- Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
- Romans 6:12-23
- Matthew 10:40-42
The Disciple's Reward

Can I get a refund?

Proper 7 (12) - June 21, 2020 
- Jeremiah 20:7-13
- Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18
- Romans 6:1b-11
- Matthew 10:24-39
Can I get a refund?
    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

    As I sat down to read today's gospel, the first thought which popped into my head, "Was Jesus ever scared?" "Did Jesus fear dying?"  That fear of dying has kept many of us safe and alive over the years.  I am afraid of getting run over so I walk on the sidewalk.  I am afraid of my parachute not opening so that is why I don't jump out of airplanes.  I am afraid of being ejected from my car in a car accident, so I always wear a seatbelt.  I am afraid of having a stroke or a heart attack, so I always take my heart pills every morning.  I am afraid of catching this virus and getting my kids sick, so I stay home as much as I can and always wear a mask out in public.  Fear is a great motivator to avoiding death as much as possible.  
    Yet, there are many who face death on a daily basis. We all face death on a daily basis, now more than ever.  Before, you could just be crossing the street and get hit by a bus.  Now, we have this invisible virus that you can't even see.  So, I really have to wonder, "Was Jesus ever scared?" "Did Jesus fear dying?"
    From the perspective of this pericope, we really have to wonder. Look at what Jesus is telling his disciples to expect discipleship to be like and how bold he is with his disciples:  
  • 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 
    • If Jesus is having to say these things in the dark, it is probably because they were not a popular belief.
  • 31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
    • But what if the government and the people around you do not value you more than the sparrow? What if you are but a number to the rest of the world...
  • 32 "Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
  • How many times have I, though, denied Jesus?  And before we go and think never, just remember that Peter did...
  • 34 "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
    • And just when you thought it was cool to be a follower of Jesus...but think about how many wars were started in the name of Jesus over the centuries. 
  • 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one's foes will be members of one's own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 
    • And we hear this on father’s day no less...a day when we honor fathers and father figures, we are told by Jesus that we may need to separate ourselves from our families
  • 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
This is all terrifying.  If this is what discipleship looks like, then it is no wonder why church numbers have been dwindling over the year.  In some ways, I wonder if our dwindling numbers is more of a reflection of people afraid of true discipleship because for a longtime, discipleship was a way to get a head in the country.  For example, politicians use to tout their membership at prestigious churches.  Now, that prestige matters less and less to voters.  Why go through with it if it doesn’t get you votes?

    Yet, there are probably 80-90 people participating in this liturgy, in this worship, right now and countless others who will watch this worship later on.  You all desire to be a disciple of Jesus.  The desire to be a disciple of Jesus remains with us.  Why is that?  Are all we all naive?  Why are you here?  Are you not afraid? Are you not afraid of separating yourself from your family because of your belief in Jesus Christ? Are you not afraid of the cross that awaits you? These are all important questions, but at the heart of these questions, lies this very simple question of our leader:  Was Jesus ever afraid of death?  For if we are to follow his example, then ultimately we must know if Jesus was afraid of death just like the rest of us. And I think the answer is, yes.
    Matthew 26: 38, 39, 42, 44
38Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ 39And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’…42Again he went away for the second time and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’… 44So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 
I, by all means, think Jesus was afraid of dying.  Begging God to take this cup away from him, that sounds like fear to me. Jesus knew full well the fate that awaited him. He saw others go on ahead of him and be hung to cross.  He saw the pain their eyes, the bruises on their body, Jesus knew exactly what awaited him and it terrified him.  And his beloved flocked, his friends, his disciples, they had no clue of the future that awaits them.

    “Jesus recognizes that fear will also cause the failure of discipleship. Jesus’ disciples courageously leave the security of their homes and families to follow him as they proclaim the advent of God’s reign, but they, too, will know and ultimately bow before the power of fear. Faithful proclamation and practice of the gospel inevitably puts disciples on a collision course with the powers of this world. So, as Jesus prepares his disciples for their mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he is starkly realistic about the threats they will face, at the same time he builds the case for why they should not let this fear master them or hinder their witness.” For on one hand, disciples of Jesus will be able to “to heal, exorcise demons, cleanse lepers, even to raise the dead.”  That is pretty extraordinary powers and gifts from our Lord. But our Lord also denies the disciples “money, pay, extra clothes, a staff for protection, even sandals. They are to undertake their mission in complete vulnerability and dependence on God (10:8-11), even knowing that they go as “sheep in the midst of wolves,” face arrests and beatings, opposition even from family members, and hatred and persecution (10:16-23).”  You get extraordinary  powers, but huge risks must be taken in order to use those power.  

    Jesus is very clear that humanity might have the ability to kill you.  “The right to kill is one of the chief props in the façade of human political power. Jesus admits that humans exercise this power, but notes that they have power only to kill the body, not the whole person. God alone can destroy both soul and body (10:28); God alone, therefore, is the one we should fear.” And this God, this God is special.  He is different from the other gods floating around at the time.  Our God is different.  Our God wants to be in a relationship with you.  Our God wants to know you, wants the very best for you, loves you even.  The Roman and Greek gods? They are annoying.  They sit off on some far off mountain completely separated from humanity and when they do interact with humanity, they are really annoying.  Our God is different.

    In Martin Luther’s explanation of the 1st article of the creed, he writes:
I believe that God has created me together with all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties. In addition, God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children, fields, livestock, and all property along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life. God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil. And all this is done out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all! For all of this I owe it to God to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.
Notice that line that says in addition…God cares about the shoes on your feet. You know who else cares about the shoes on my feet?  Nobody.  My wife doesn’t even care anymore.  She has given up on me.  God cares about the clothes I wear.  You know who cares about the clothes I wear?  Nobody.  God cares about the food I eat and drink.  The only one who cares about that is my cardiologist who yells at me every time I see him.  God cares about my house, my spouse and children, about my truck, and the other property own, along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life.  God cares more about me than anyone else in this world.  That is our God.  So, while the threat of violence and death are real concerns for the disciples, these threats are “no longer the determining force in their lives, for the one who has ultimate power over our whole being exercises that power with mercy and love.”  The one who cares about my shoes, my clothes, my spouse, my children, my truck, my house, everything about me—that God has my back.  And even though humanity thinks it can take my life, it can only really cannot one part of my life.  

    Discipleship is not suppose to be easy.  And maybe we had it a bit easy over the years where it seemed like churches were growing at an impressive rate.  Nowadays, it seems as though there are less and less, and churches are getting older and older.  We are a scared people, my brothers and sisters.  Yet, what it is our Lord’s name?  Emmanuel.  And what does that name mean? God with us.  And what are the very last words of Matthew’s Gospel? “And remember, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” The message of our Lord this day is that death this world might inflict upon us, death used by powerful people is just a façade.  It’s not the final word.  The answer to dealing with the fear of death is recognition, awareness, and deep appreciation that God is present in the world.  God is present in mercy and compassion.  God is with God’s holy people.  You and me.  These beloved faith communities we all call home.  God is with us and may we not forget what Jesus has said in Matthew 5: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.“

    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

Sent out 6 feet a part

Proper 6 (11) - June 14, 2020 
- Exodus 19:2-8a
- Psalm 100
- Romans 5:1-8
- Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)
Sent out 6 feet a part

Did he ever leave?

Trinity Sunday - June 7, 2020
- Genesis 1:1-2:4a
- Psalm 8
- 2 Corinthians 13:11-13
- Matthew 28:16-20
Did he ever really leave?
    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
    Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."  So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."  God said, "See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.  And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so.  God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. 
    Seems odd that we have the creation story paired with Holy Trinity Sunday.  The only Sunday of the church year where we do not celebrate an event in the life of Jesus, but a belief; a doctrine.  A belief that took over three centuries of thought, reason, and scripture to produce.  God in three persons.  A doctrine that is still disputed between the Western and Eastern churches. Does the spirt flow from the Father and the Son or just the Son.  A doctrine that some "christians" do not regard as truth.  A doctrine about relationship.  A doctrine concerned with how God exists and is experienced by the church.  A doctrine that is still in the making all these centuries later.  

    Yet Genesis was written and put together many, many years before Christ was even born.  How does this have anything to do with God?  Many astute readers have noticed in verse 26 God says, "Let us..." Even more shocking is the fact that us is actually in the original Hebrew.  It was not an addition made by some zealous monk trying to prove that the Trinity has existed all this time—we just didn't know what to call it.  I mean that is still entirely possible that someone could have done that, but highly unlikely as we have found some pretty old scrolls over the years.  "Let us" is in all of them.

    So, many have ponder this notion of God have a consersation with someone.  Is God speaking with the angels?  Possibly, just not likely.  Who exactly is the us?

    Some have thought that it is referencing some divine council.  This divine council can best be seen in the book of Job, where the Ha-Satan seems to meet with God once a week or so to talk about humanity and the world.  The Ha-Satan has been mistakenly seen as Satan because of the name Ha-Satan.  However, the Ha-Satan character in the book of Job is more like a prosecuting attorney and less about a guy in a red suit with pointy stick. The Ha-Satan is better translated as advisary, not Satan.  

    So, Yahweh is course on the council.  The Ha-Satan is another person.  Later on Christians would end up saying that this council is made up of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and I would never say that is wrong, but we just don’t have enough to say that was the original author’s intent by saying us.  Genesis 1 creates a lot more questions than answers but regardless of who the "us" is, one thing is clear in Genesis 1—we were created in the image of God.

    When I look at your face, I see the image of God.  When you look at my face, you see the image of God.  When we look around at each, we see the face the God.  And that is a bit terrifying.  Considering how I talk about my neighbors around me, that terrifies me.  Considering how we sometimes view and treat others, that really terrifies me.  Humanity has had a rough couple of weeks.  Watching a young, black man die before our very eyes.  Saying this young man's name brings up a whole range of emotions for many of us.  When we hear the name, "George Floyd" some feel angry, some feel attacked, some feel scared, some feel tired.  We all feel something as we should but we must also remember that George Floyd was created in the image of God just as you were created in the image of God.  

    God wants us to be in relationship with each other just like God is in relationship with God's own self—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Bishop Eaton in her sermon for today says, "We are part of this powerful, dynamic, living, giving, loving relationship, with God, in God, with creation, with each other. We are inextricably woven together. No one is alone. No one is beyond the fierce, tender love of God and God is not far off. God is present in creation, in each of us and in all of us. God is flesh and blood made visible in Jesus of Nazareth and in every human being. God is spirit, closer than our own breath. And this is how God as Trinity shows up today. God is creator. God created diversity, beautiful, vital, alive" because God is both the same and different all at the same time.  When I look into your face, I do not see the same image staring back at me.  I am not looking into a mirror.  I see the differences.  We are are suppose to see the differences.  We are suppose to notice the wrinkles.  We are suppose to notice the gray hairs.  We are suppose to notice the scares.  We are suppose to notice the color of each person’s skin.  We are not suppose to ignore these things because these differences make us who we are, created in the diverse image of God.  

    All week long, I have wondered what I might say to you all this day.  I have seen so much, heard so much, experienced so much just like you have.  There are so many of our brothers and sisters in our community who do not feel safe, who do not feel valued, who do not feel as though they are welcomed simply because they do not look like me—simply because of the color of their skin.  And that breaks my heart because it goes against everything we know and understand about God.  God loves diversity.  God created diversity because God is diverse and if we say we believe in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; if we say we will baptize people of All nations using God's name—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; if we believe that we are indeed created in the image of God—then we must do everything possible to tear down those things that divide us.  We must listen to our brothers and sisters.  We must stand with our brothers and sisters in this great, noble, and holy cause.

    And there will be people who refuse to stand with us, with you.  There will be people who will hurl rocks at you, threaten you, and possible even hurt you.  Yet, how does St. Matthew end his gospel? "And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."  Jesus doesn't float off into heaven in Matthew's gospel like he does in Luke's gospel. Jesus says, I will always be with you. The very last words from our Lord is a promise of his eternal presence.

    If we believe that God created the heavens and earth, filled the seas with all that is in it; created mountains and glaciers, all the animals of the earth; created all the creepy things that crawl on the earth; created all the trees and crops that dot our beautiful landscape; sent us Jesus Christ, Born of flesh, died on cross and rose from the dead; sent us the blessed Holy Spirit as our gift and ministry-enabler—if we believe that God did all these things and more, then we certainly must believe that Jesus will always be us, even to the end.  
  • Jesus was with George the day he lost his life.
  • Jesus was with the 100,000 people who have lost their lives to Covid19 in the US.  
  • Jesus is always with the outcasts of the world because that is who he spent his entire ministry preaching too.
And Jesus will be with you, wherever you go, and will always stand with you when you do this hard, but holy work.  

To close, I like to share this quote I heard a long time ago that has stayed with me for many years. "When you draw a line in the sand to say who is on the inside and who is on the outside of the kingdom of God, remember that Jesus is always on the other side of the line.  Jesus is always with the outsiders."  May we be careful where we draw the lines.  And may we always remember that we are all created in the beautiful, diverse image of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  

    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Stop and Listen to the Spirit

Day of Pentecost - May 31, 2020
- Acts 2:1-21
- Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
- 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
- John 20:19-23
Stop and Listen to the Spirit
 

You Almost Had Him

Ascension of the Lord - May 24, 2020 (Transfered from May 21 to Sunday)
- Acts 1:1-11
- Psalm 47 or Psalm 93
- Ephesians 1:15-23
- Luke 24:44-53
You almost had him...You gotta be quicker than that!
    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

    A few weeks ago, we heard the story of Jesus meeting two of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.  That lesson has stuck with me even since and I have been thinking about it a lot lately.  Maybe it was because I preached what could be described by some as a controversial sermon on this text, but I don't think so.  That story of the disciples meeting Jesus on the road has taken on a whole new means this year as the church has had to suspend in-person worship.  

    I have often wondered why these two disciples left the others in the first place.  Mary comes back and tells them, "I have seen the Lord" and the first thing they do is run away? Luke doesn't tell us why they left probably because it is not important to the story, but my biblical imagination has always wondered why.  I have come up with many scenarios over the years.  Maybe these two had a job lined up in Emmaus.  Maybe these two had family in Emmaus that they needed to see.  Maybe they had a time share that was already paid for in Emmaus.  Maybe they just needed to get away.  

    Or maybe, maybe (and when I say maybe...I think this really the reason), maybe they were scared that Jesus was coming back to get them.  I am really suspicious because of how Luke recalls the names of the two.  First, we are not told who is on the road, only at the very end of the story after the two run back to the other.  And only the name of one of the two disciples is given: Simon—Peter.  What did Peter do the night before Jesus' death?  He denied knowing him three times.  Was Jesus coming back to seek revenge on his disciples who abandoned him at the hour of his greatest need?  

    If I were Peter, I might have run too.  Run as far as I could away from the place were the others had been staying.  Because notice what Jesus says to the entire group after Peter and the other disciple return from Emmaus:  "Peace be with you." Why speak these words if there wasn't some kind turmoil brewing among the gathered church that first Easter. Why speak these words if everyone is happy?  Why speak these words if there is no issues?  Why speak them at all?  Because the gathered church was scared.  They were terrified.  They didn't know what it meant to have Jesus back.  They didn't understand that a man could be raised from the dead.  They have never seen this happen before.  There were many unanswered questions and if this pandemic has taught me only one thing, it is that unanswered questions create fear and fear causes us to lose our minds.  So in the midst of this fear, in the midst of their uncertainty, our Lord comes into their locked rooms, locked homes, closed up and boarded buildings and says, "peace be with you."  And that peace remained with the group for forty days: the peace that surpasses all human understanding, the peace that guards all our hearts and minds, the peace that guards us in true faith, the peace that guards us until life everlasting—that peace remained with the church until that day when our Lord ascended into heaven.  The peace checked out and left the building...
    The Ascension event appears two times in the new testament and only in one of the gospel—Luke.  Matthew doesn't have it—Matthew has the great commission (a text that we will hear in two weeks on Holy Trinity Sunday.  Mark doesn't have time for the Ascension—Mark leaves us hanging at the tomb.  John doesn't seem to care about the ascension but instead, focuses on the role of the church in these days in the post-Easter-event...you can't go back to fishing!  Luke is the only one that records the Ascension and he records in both Part 1 (the gospel) and in part 2 (the book of Acts).

    And there are very subtle differences between the two stories, but the differences are important to note.  I believe Pastor Diane talked about the dating of book of Acts.  We think it was written soon after the gospel of Luke was written.  Maybe a year or a month after the gospel.  I am going to say 5 years because that is a nice round number and I don't do numbers real well.  If I did numbers, I would be an accountant and not a pastor.  So let's says 85 for the gospel of Luke and 90 for the book of Acts.  Some time has past since Luke penned his first volume of his book and I can almost imagine Luke having make some edits to the story to accommodate a problem facing the church.  A problem that the church has faced many, many times over.  There had to be a problem because it costs money to include the same story twice.  Parchment cost money. A scribe cost money.  There had to be a problem and I think that problem was and still remains—the church forgets.  We lose our institutional memory and instead, replace our hope with fear.  We do it all the time and since my sermon is already on page 4 of what should be a 6 page sermon (it’s not...), I am not going to spend much time on the many different ways we continue to do to replace hope with fear..  Thomas wants lunch at a decent hour.  Rather, I want to focus on what I think was happening in the year 90 and continues to happen today.

    How many times have we all heard, "Well back in my day, we use to have line up folding chairs in the church...and the Sunday school was overflowing, we had so many people we had to have people sit in the hall." "And the fish was literally this big."

    And I am not saying that this might not have been reality, but rarely does nostalgia match up to reality. Notice what the angels say to the disciples gathered on the hill--"‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’"  How many of us are doing this all the time?  We keep looking up in the sky wondering, 
"Is that Jesus?" 
"Can you still see him?"  
"I swear he was just right there a minute ago."  
My brothers and sisters, we do this all the time.  I do this all the time.  I dream of a church that is packed to the gills, a Sunday school that filled, no conflicts what-so-ever, a budget that is massive, no money problems.  I mean, at this point, I would give any thing to just go back to the old days of preaching to live, studio audience; where the sanctuary was filled with people and not A/V equipment.   I would give anything to feel some kind of certainty, but the only certainty we seem to have these days is uncertainty.  
    Pastor Otis Moss preached a powerful sermon this week at the online version of Festival of Homiletics titled, "Living with the certainty of uncertainty." Life, at the moment in time, has very few certainties outside of the certainty that uncertainties is the new norm. We are so uncertain about the future that we are certain that it will not be the same.  But let's be honest.  There have been very few certainties in life before this pandemic other than death and taxes.  We were just really good at putting lipstick on the pig. But the pig got out control and there ain't no amount of lipstick to turn this pig into our prince charming who will save the day.  

    I feel like we are in this constant mode of looking up into the sky pining, longing, wishing for what use to be, but Easter teaches us that life can never go back to the way things use to be.  What we need most right now is for an angel or two to tell us to stop looking into the past and see the glorious new future that awaits us.  And that future is terrifying.  It was terrifying for all those on the mountain as they starred into the sky.  All of them, except John according to tradition, died for their faith.  It is no secret that many would give their lives in the name of the gospel.  Being a Christians means living with the certainty of being uncertain; having to fully trusting that the Holy Spirit speaks through the chaos, speaks through the fear, speaks through the worry and acts decisively.  

    There are many who think that over the past 10 weeks that the church has been closed.  We haven't been closed.  We closed our church doors but the church has never been about the building.  The Augsburg Confession defines the church as three things:
  1. The word is proclaimed,
  2. The sacraments are administered rightly,
  3. and the Saints of God can gather together.    
I think we have showed the world during these last 10 or so weeks that the church has never been about the building.  Don't get me wrong, the building makes doing ministry easier, but it is not impossible to do ministry.  The devil wants us to think the church is the building.  That would make the devil so happy if we would put all our trust and hope into a pile of bricks and drywall.  That would make the devil shout with joy.  But we know the truth—The church is the place where the gospel is preached and we have preached that word here on facebook live, on youtube live, on vimeo, on zoom, on freeconferencecall.com, and even in the back of pickup trucks.  The Holy Spirit has not allowed us to sit around and twiddle our thumbs during this pandemic.  The angels and the Holy Spirit have not allowed us to stay silent and even though we have gathered in our homes, we still gather as the people of God.  

    The Ascension, on the surface anyways, might cause us to be sad.  The only ounce of certainty the church has ever, Jesus Christ, decided it was time for him to start working from home.  It would make sense that instead of celebrating the Ascension, we should instead mourn the Ascension. And I think, at some point in the early church, the church did mourn and Luke had to clarify the Ascension story in volume 2 as he adds the angels meeting the church and telling them to stop looking into the sky and start looking at the mission field that awaits them.  

    My brothers and sisters, we have a whole new mission field, with new tools to spread the gospel at our very finger tips.   We do not mourn the loss of our savior because Jesus never left us.  Jesus was with the disciples even though they didn't recognize him on the road to Emmaus.  How many times has Jesus met us on our way and we never recognized him?  Jesus has been with us this entire time even though we might not have recognized him.  But the time is coming, my brothers and sisters, the time is coming when we will see our Lord face-to-face and we will see him come in the same way as the church saw him go into heaven. Our Lord might be working from home, but that home is not that far away.

    So for one last time this year, let us faithfully and boldly proclaim: Alleluia. Christ is Risen.  He is risen indeed Alleluia, and he will come again!  Alleluia. Alleluia.

    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Knowing the Unknown God

Sixth Sunday of Easter - May 17, 2020
- Acts 17:22-31
- Psalm 66:8-20
- 1 Peter 3:13-22
- John 14:15-21
Knowing the Unknown God

The office of deacon

Fifth Sunday of Easter - May 10, 2020
- Acts 7:55-60
- Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
- 1 Peter 2:2-10
- John 14:1-14
The office of Deacon
    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
    The church had a problem.  A crisis. There was trouble in paradise. Last week, Pastor Diane talked about this idyllic scene that Luke describes of the early church.  

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers...All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Whenever we have this reading from Acts, I feel like the church finds itself dreaming of the good, old days. The days where we faced no problems, where growth required no work on our part, where everyone seemed so happy and there was no conflict, and when we could safely gather together with no restrictions. The problem with reading Acts 2 in this idyllic way is that it does not take into account that problems, yes problems and conflicts existed in the church.  Ideally, we should read this that the church existed and did its work, experienced God’s blessings and growth all while dealing with problems, conflicts, and challenges.  In many ways, this better describes what we face each and every day as the church in this post-Christian/post-Christendom world—the church still can do its work, feel and experience God’s blessing, all while dealing with problems and conflicts.  Ministry is not void of conflicts or problems, however, sometimes ministry is void of leaders who are willing and or able to deal with the conflicts presented today.

    So, what is the problem?  No, it is not that Stephen was Martyred.  That is unfortunate, but it should not come as a surprise.  I mean, Jesus was killed while saying almost exactly the same things that Stephen said.  The problem starts in chapter 6 of Acts.  

Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. 3Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’ 5What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 

The problem was that the disciples/apostles are busy.  They need to devote themselves to the word and this conflict of division is keeping them from this holy task.  The people are dividing themselves into two different groups.  The Hebrews, who are Jewish/Christian converts and the Hellenists who are also Jewish but share a different language and culture.  And if you are keeping track, this is a common problem that the church has faced throughout its entire history—problems of race, ethnicity and gender…but that is another sermon for another time.  

    So the church has this problem, the disciples cannot devote themselves to the their work so they appoint seven individual to do the work of the deacon and make sure the divisions between the hellenist and the Hebrews are resolved through proper administration of food and in doing so, the church has its second office of ministry known as the deacon.  The name deacon or in ancient Greek diákonos (διάκονος) is typically translated “servant.” These individuals were suppose to only be in charge of waiting tables.  The study and preaching of the word was to be left to the Apostles, but here is the thing about the Word—the word of God does it own thing.  The reason the church is booming is not because Peter is a fantastic preacher.  It is not because they have a fantastic website.  It is not because they have the best VBS program in all the land. It is not because they have a coffee bar that makes Starbucks look like cheap.  The creative force behind church’s growth is the word of God.  The force behind the entire narrative thus far has and will always be, the word of God. But the narrator of Acts sees something about the word.  Luke realizes that it is not just the number of new converts that grow, but the word that grows as well.  Luke realizes this in part one of his two part series, in Luke 8:4-15 in the parable of the sower where he links the sower growing seed to represent the word of God.  “This metaphor becomes a vehicle for understanding the word of God as an active force in the world, full of its own vitality.  It is not just a human report of God’s activities but the way in which God continues to act in fulfilling the divine purpose.” 

    So, the apostles come up with the idea of appointing table servants, deacons, to care for the needs of the people so that the apostles can do their work of study, preaching and administration of the sacraments.  The Holy Spirit apparently likes this idea because Luke writes: “The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” But the Holy Spirit is not okay with these deacons just being table servants.  The word of God sees their work as an opportunity to move and act in a whole new way for the world.  

    Immediately following the appointment of this new office of ministry in Acts 6, we hear how Stephen takes his role of deacon to a new level.  Luke writes that a deacon is full of the spirit and wisdom. Stephen is one of those people. That sounds very familiar.  Do you all remember back in December, we heard Luke 2:40,52, and Jesus is described in a similar way:  
  • The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom (sophia); and the favour of God was upon him.
  • And Jesus increased in wisdom (sophia) and in years, and in divine and human favour.  
Philip and the other deacons are also described this way as well.  A deacon is someone who is filled with  wisdom, grace, power, and the Holy Spirit.  But it seems Stephen’s wisdom and relatively good looks (his face is described similarly to that of Moses too…) get him in trouble with the the religious leaders.  They claim, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.’”  With this charge, Stephen is arrested and brought before the council. Once before the council, he lays out his defense.  

    However, it is not really a defense.  His defense gets him out of trouble.  His testimony pretty much seal his fate.  His speech takes up an entire chapter of Acts. He is not defending himself.  He is retelling the scriptural story of Israel from Abraham to Solomon.  “Stephen is not citing Old Testament prophecies of Jesus; he is retelling Israel’s story, step by step.”    He only refers to Jesus once in the entire speech (7:52) and even then, does not refer to him by name.  Stephen’s speech does him no favors.  Verse 54 says, "When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.” Notice what is happening though.  The people are angry and pickup stones but what does Stephen see in verse 55?  “…filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”  He tells them about his vision but they ignore him.  They stoned him and then a new character appears in the story - Saul.  

    Stephen was not suppose to be out in the world doing what he was doing.  He was suppose to be waiting tables, but that is not how the word of God works.  The word is not just reserved to the office of pastor.  It is for the deacon as well and I think, and that we all share a part in the word’s proclamation.    Preaching God’s word is not for the faint of heart. It ticks off people. It causes conflicts.  It very well might lead you to death.  But it is has power. It has the power to change the world and the people around you.  It is not dependent on us, but has the ability to work through us and reveal to the world God’s new plan and hope for the world.  And God’s word also teaches us that it should be front and center in all our conflicts and disagreement.  Because when we put God’s word into the mix, God does amazing and wonderful things for the church, for the world, for our community, for you.  

    I began today talking about how the church dealt with a conflict, an issue, a problem.  We see that this idyllic world pictured in Acts 2 was not as idyllic as it might have seemed.  “This will not be the last internal church problem noted by the narrator. Threats from internal corruption, suspicion, ands conflict continue appear.  These problems do not dominate the narrative, however, for in each case, the problem is address and a solution is found.  The early church had problems but, according to Acts, it also had leaders who moved swiftly to ward off corruption and find solutions to internal conflicts, supported by the people who listen to each other with open minds and responded with good will.”  

    The church will continue to have problems and issues just as the church has always had these issue. Will we will put the word of God front and center in how we address these issues?  Will we be willing to accept that God has acted? Will we be willing to stick around see through the conflict and resolution?  The church has never been perfect, yet God has still used it as a vehicle for bringing the word to the world.  But realize, the church cannot always be a safe, shelter for you to hide.  The time will come when you are called on to give a speech like Stephen gave and they might stone you.  They might stone your children.  Your grandchildren.  But we are not alone. You are not alone.  God has been with God’s church for all these years and promises that not even the gates of hades will prevail against us. And in this day and age, even before this pandemic, the church has been trying to figure out how to “do church” in this new age.  And now, we are challenged even further to “do church” in ways that none of us could have imagined three or four months ago.  But this is what we do as the church.  We are presented with a problem and we solve it.  We work through it.  And yes, we make mistakes, but God’s word is more powerful than we will ever know. During a conflict, or issue, or pandemic may we not turn to the latest and greatest fade but may we turn to the word of God as the church did in the book of Acts.  We look at God’s word, may we trust God’s spirit to lead us and surprise us.  May you, my brothers and sisters, have the kind of trust that Stephen had in the word of God and may you have this trust even when the rest of us are holding stones in our hands.  

    In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

A Giant Yard Sale

Fourth Sunday of Easter - May 3, 2020
- Acts 2:42-47
- Psalm 23
- 1 Peter 2:19-25
- John 10:1-10
A Giant Yard Sale

How we deny Jesus to others

Third Sunday of Easter - April 26, 2020
- Acts 2:14a, 36-41
- Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
- 1 Peter 1:17-23
- Luke 24:13-35
How we deny Jesus to others.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

It was revealed to the disciples, during the breaking of the bread, that the person who walked with them this entire time was the Lord, Jesus Christ.  Alleluia.  Christ is Risen.  

This story from Luke holds significant value for the church.  One can almost imagine someone coming up to Pastor Luke and asking him, “Why do we read the gospel first, have a sermon, and then share the meal?  Where did this form, this structure come from?”  And Pastor Luke probably responded by retelling this story of Jesus meeting his disciples on the Road to Emmamus.  

I remember the first time that I realized this Road to Emmamus story resembled our Sunday Morning liturgy.  I was in college, preparing my entrance essay for candidacy so that I could enter seminary.  I don't know why I was reading the gospel of Luke, but I read this passage and it was like a light bulb went off in my head.  That is why we do what we do.  First we start with the word—Peter and another disciple tell this stranger all that has happened in Jerusalem.  Then, we move to a deeper explanation of the events that took place—Jesus interprets all that had been written by Moses and the prophets.  Then, in the moment of the breaking the bread, we realize that Jesus had been with us all along the way.  For 2000 years, we have done this exact same thing.  We gather for the word, expand upon it in a sermon, and then we see Christ in the breaking of the bread.  

Yet, when we talk about communion these days, it is often around frequency, the specialness of the meal, and in these times—whether or not we can celebrate it over the internet.  I am not going to go into virtual communion debate today but I will say this:  During WWI, the radio was one of the most important tools on the battlefield.  There was a debate at the time whether troops could gather bread and wine and then have a priest say the words over the radio.  The church deemed that this practice was too far from the standard and norm of communion being done within the community of faith. If we decided that the troops, who were risking their lives could not do this, then we should also avoid such actions.  The internet is no different than the radio.  

Outside of this self-isolation time, I often hear that if we celebrate communion too often, it will not be as special.  If we do it too much, it will be too much work for our volunteers.   That if we share this meal every week, church will be too long.  However, rarely do I hear conversations around the benefits of eating this most holy meal and truth be told, I never really experience the importance of such a meal until this past summer.  

Back in July, my dad was watching Thomas.  They went out for a drive and while they were out, Thomas got sick.  He threw up all over himself in the carseat and was unresponsive.  My dad called me and asked what he wanted me to do.  They were close to the hospital so I said go straight to hospital.  I tried to call Diane.  The call didn't go through.  I tried again. Still nothing.  I tried a third time and she picks up.  I told her what happened and she drops everything, and heads over the hospital.  Then there was me.  I had no car. It was at the car dealing getting service.  I was freaking out.  I didn't know what to do.  I actually considered walking out into the middle of King street, stopping a car and telling them to either get out or take me to the hospital.  Luckily, Martha came in the room and told me to take her car.  I run to her car and start driving.  I just got out of Martinsburg when Diane called me and said, "he was okay." In fact, he was so okay, that when he saw Diane walk into the waiting room, he immediately walked over to her, opened her purse, and grabbed a bag of yogurt bites because he was hungry. They get him home and cleaned up.  I get a ride to the dealer and get my car.  I drive home.  I kiss him and we put him down for a nap.  I thought I would just take the rest of the day off, but my nerves were shoot.  I couldn't sit at home.  I had to get out and do something or I was going to lose my mind.  I decided to drive down and see Frances Castlemen.  She is a shut-in at St. John's.  If you don't know her, you should really get to know her.  She was home and welcomed me in to her house.  I was still pretty shook up and was not in a good place to be Pastor Matt.  Instead, Francis ministered to me.  She listened to me.  She let me show her all the pictures I have of Thomas.  Then it came time to go and I asked I could have communion with her as was our typical practice.  I have never needed communion so much in my life but I didn't realize it until I took the host and said to myself, "The Body of CHrist given for you."  In that moment, I realized that my Lord had been with me this entire day.  He was with me as I received that panic phone call. He was with me as Martha came in the room and offered me her car.  My Lord was with me as I drove home.  And I fully saw him in that moment of the breaking of the bread.  

Communion has benefits that we often forgot.  In Luther's Small Catechism, he writes that “The words “given for you” and “shed for you for the forgiveness of sin” show us that forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation are given to us in the sacrament through these words, because where there is forgiveness of sin, there is also life and salvation."  Communion is not just a snack we get in church.  It brings forgiveness of sin, life and salvation.  We see Jesus in the breaking of the bread.  I never understood that until this summer when I sat in Frances' living room.  I felt my sins forgiven.  I felt life restored.  I felt salvation.  I saw the risen Lord.

This is a powerful gift that our Lord gave to us.  It is gift that we, as baptized Christians, are able to participate in.  It is special because it is connected to God's word. God's word is holy unto itself and when we put God's word to these simple elements of bread and wine, forgiveness of sin, life and salvation are possible.  We cannot use the argument, "Communion will become less special the more we do it."  Jesus is revealed in this meal.  Would any of us ever say, “I really am not in the mood to see Jesus this week.” No.  Communion does not become less special because in this meal, we realize that our Lord has been with us all along.  We get to hold our Lord's body in the palm of our hands.  And when we eat this bread and drink this cup, it does something for us.  It is not mere busywork for us.  It has benefits.

It is important that we participate and not just watch it at home or from the pews.  Luther says, "a person who has faith in these words, “given for you” and “shed for you for the forgiveness of sin,” is really worthy and well prepared." At the time of Luther, while the Eucharist was celebrate every day, very few Christians partook in the sacrament because they did not feel worthy.  There was a whole ordeal that went into preparation for taking the sacrament which included fasting and confession.  Most Christians just abstained from receiving it.  But that did mean they didn’t come and watch it. In fact, there are reports of stampedes on Sunday mornings in towns caused by Christians running from one church to another just to witness the priest consecrate the elements.  As soon as they saw it, they ran out the church and went to the next.  For Luther, it was more important that we eat it and drink it because otherwise, we receive no benefit.  We do not receive forgiveness of sin, life and salvation unless we take it.  Lutherans do not hold to the theology of spiritual communion.  We do as our Lord commanded—we eat it and we drink it.

When this is all over, and it will be over, may we look hard at our Eucharist practices. May we ask questions as to why do the things we do. May we explore better ways to bring the sacrament to the people.  May we get past the phrases like: 

  • "We have never done it that way before." 
  • “It will be less special if we celebrate it every week.” 
  • “We don’t want to burden our volunteers with setting up the meal every week.”
  • “Worship will be too long with it every week.” 

The sacrament does something for us and this time away from the sacrament has been difficult, and it has made me question the status quo— i.e. the way we do the sacraments as a church. It is time we all have a serious, theological discussion around our communion practices.  When this is all over and we are able to safely gather back together, I hope we will see the sacrament for what it true is.  The body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ and it is our job to reveal our risen Lord to the people.  (ENDING) We are to be like the two disciples and run back to the others and tell the others, “we have seen the Lord.”  Alleluia.  Christ is Risen.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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