Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
When I was in 7th Grade, 8th Grade, and the 9th Grade, the majority of my summer days were spent playing basketball down at the local Methodist church court. I spent plenty of time after this shooting hoops in my parents’ driveway. I watched plenty of basketball on TV hoping it would lead to me becoming a better player. I had some decent skills on the court; I was an unselfish passer, a decent shooter, and had a wide enough base to get position for rebounds. Yet I had certain physical traits that prevented me from being a great basketball player. Junior Varsity games were spent sitting on the bench, although to be fair, I wasn’t that effective when I was in there. I had a few pesky little things that held me back as a basketball player. I’m 5 foot 8 in shoes and that’s probably being generous. 5 foot 8 and flat footed is a bad combo as a basketball player. So as I sat on the bench or in the stands watching games, I kept wondering why I had to be so physically ungifted?
I figured if I was 6 feet tall, then I would have played quite a bit on the varsity. But what would have been even better if I was 6 foot 4. I figured no one could touch me on the low-blocks, I had all sorts of moves that I’d be able to use once I overcame my vertical challenge. I figured if I was 6 foot 4 that I would be the best player in the conference.
If I was 6 foot 4 then I would have a more striking presence whenever I walked into a room. Yet, as I await my 35th birthday in October, my potential growth spurt is looking ever less likely. I’ve heard the sad truth is that I’m more likely to grow shorter in the future. Yet perhaps there is a reason why I’m only 5 foot 8 other than to disturb my own sense of personal vanity.
Second story, when I was in seminary, I had a classmate named Brian. Brian had Cerebral Palsy. Whereas other students would just glide to class casually carrying on conversations, Brian struggled with every step that he needed to take. Brian’s speech was such that he could be difficult to understand. Tasks such as using his hands to eat which are routine for us, were quite difficult for Brian. Yet Brian had a passion as he confessed his faith that was second to none amongst the students at Luther Seminary. The thing about Brian is he could have very easily seen the world in a totally different way. He could go through his days angry at God for his burden, yet Brian found a sense of purpose in his affliction. Today, Brian is a Pastor at a church in Nebraska helping his synod with issues relating to disability. This all leads us to ask the question “Could God have a purpose in Brian’s Cerebral Palsy?”
Today’s Gospel lesson from John 9 provides insight to this issue. This is one of my favorite gospel stories as it speaks to the reality of God’s role in human suffering.
The Disciples encounter a man who had been born blind. The Disciples then proceed to ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” This type of thinking wasn’t really new associating individual sin with human suffering. In the Book of Job as Job loses his possessions, his children, and ultimately his health. Job reflected to his friends by asking “How could God act in such a way towards me?” All Job’s friends could fathom about Job’s situation was that Job’s afflictions must have been the result of some sin that Job had failed to confess.
As the Disciples ask Jesus “Who sinned this man or his parents that he was born blind?” The question is very interesting because it is naturally assumed that someone’s sin produced their suffering, the Disciples don’t even fathom asking Jesus whether this way of looking at the world is right. Nor, do the Disciples dare to ask whether one’s suffering is a permanent condition.
Jesus’ response to the Disciples most important of religious questions as to why this man was born blind was both simple and direct as he proclaimed “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed within him.”
This answer was quite interesting. An interesting thing about this Gospel story is unlike Jesus’ other famous healings such as the blind man Bartimeaus, or the Woman who had been bleeding for 12 years.
The Blind Man’s eventual healing is not associated with the Blind Man’s faith in the Blind Man doesn’t become a believer until the end of the story. As for the Blind Man’s Parents they were afraid of associating Jesus with their son’s healing for fear of being dismissed by their own neighbors.
So unlike Brian, who would give great testimonials regarding God’s work in his life because of his suffering, the Blind Man hadn’t gone through life in any sort of similar experience, the Blind Man would have previously viewed his blindness as nothing more than a curse brought forth by an unjust God.
So what was this work of God that Jesus proclaimed would be displayed within the Man born blind? This leads us to a big question this morning to consider in “How could God work a man’s blindness for good as Jesus proclaims happens here?”
Dr. Peter Kreeft who is a Catholic Philosopher summed it up thusly “Life without suffering would produce nothing but Spoiled Brats or Tyrants?” For example, when I was in college, I spent summers selling carpet at Menards on the East side of Saint Paul. For any of you that have ever worked with the public, especially in retail, you tend to encounter some difficult people. Yet what I remember from working those summers at Menards is the one group of people that I liked dealing with more than any others were the Hmongs.
For the Hmong’s history has been defined by suffering. As soon as the United States pulled out of Vietnam, the Hmong who had fought alongside the United States in the War saw enemy communist governments take over in their homelands of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The Hmong spent the resulting years being heavily persecuted as a result of their previous resistance. The Hmong were forced from their land and into refugee camps with barely a roof over their head and no possessions to their name. The Hmong, then immigrated to this country in large numbers. Some of my co-workers at Menards didn’t like dealing with the Hmong because of the difficulty they would have communicating in their non-native language. But in all my dealings with the Hmong from college summers to Seminary Cross-Cultural experiences to Substitute Teaching, I always had a tremendous respect for the way that the Hmong treated others. Many of the Hmong have experienced things in their lifetime that we couldn’t even begin to comprehend. Perhaps this explains why so many Hmong have converted to Christianity upon immigrating to the United States because they precisely understand the afflictions that from which we must be resurrected.
Yet as we consider these topics today we must remember the words from the Book of James that “God is not the author of evil”. God looked over all his creation and declared it to be “good”. So what brings forth such hardship?
Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of the church’s most significant thinkers described evil as coming into the world in one of two forms. The first form being Moral Evil, which is evil caused by human beings against each other, for Moral Evil would be the Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Adolf Hitler types of evil. This would be the type of evil that I would describe as being unable to take place apart from dark spiritual forces influencing it.
The second type of evil would be Natural Evil. Natural Evil strikes at us with no root cause in the form of cancer, birth defects such as blindness, Cerebral Palsy along with all sorts of undesired outcomes that affect our lives. Augustine and Luther believe that Natural Evil was not caused by the sins of any specific person such as the man born blind or his parents, but rather Natural Evil is caused by the entire human condition. Such evil cannot be blamed for the sins of one man, but rather must be blamed on the Sin of which we’re all guilty.
Yet we’re left to wonder if God is not the cause of all this, then why doesn’t he stop it?
For the question about “Why does God bestow upon us afflictions from the trivial of me not being 6 foot 4 to the important such as why this man was born blind for God’s own purposes were asked by Job as he pondered the loss of his possessions, his children, and his health.
Job is the only person in human history to ask God directly “Why did you allow me to suffer?” The interesting thing about God’s answer to Job is that Job is never given a direct answer to Job’s question. The reason for this is because Job couldn’t quite possibly have comprehended a direct answer. Job’s understanding along with our own of how the universe might work together, pales in comparison to God’s understanding of the same topic.
For it’s easy to look at situations like the Malaysian Plane Crash and wonder how a loving God can allow such tragedy. Yet it’s worth pointing out that this could be the means by which God chooses to bring his children into his presence. This could also be the means which serves as a reminder for many of the frailty of life and the need for answers that lie outside of us.
When God seeks to answer Job’s questions all he does is point him towards his care for all of creation, God seeks to remind Job that he was chosen as his child before even the foundation of the world. We will go through life with plenty of open questions. Yet we point towards the one thing that we do know about God with certainty was made known in the Resurrection. The Resurrection is where God assures Man that the grave has been triumphed over, things are promised to remain not the way that they have always been.
Those who encountered the man who had been born blind after receiving his sight, did not know what to make of him, they didn’t want to believe it was truly him! People couldn’t grasp the possibility of such a miracle. The Pharisees (the Religious Authorities) were most skeptical of all refusing to believe that if someone was really of God that they would heal on the Sabbath. The Blind Man came not to care that other folks considered him to be a liar because of his claims of sight. The Blind Man had received something far more important, he came to see the truth of God revealed before his very eyes. He had received the gift of faith and salvation. Amen
 John 9:2
 John 9:2
 Sloyan, Gerald S. John. John Knox Press. Atlanta.1988 taken from Robert Hoch in a March 30,2014 Commentary on Working Preacher.com
 John 9:3
 Kreeft, Peter and Ronald K. Tacelli. Handbook of Christian Apologetics. Intervarsity Press. Downer’s Grove, Il, 2003.
 James 1:15
 Genesis 1:31
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The year was 1996. The most famous preacher in the world Billy Graham was coming to Minneapolis to speak at the Metrodome for five straight nights. A man, who had met with every President since Harry Truman, a man who had popular television specials, Billy Graham coming to Minneapolis was the equivalent for the Protestants of the Pope visiting.
My Dad and I went down to the first night of the Crusade. Speakers gave personal testimonies of how their faith had changed their lives. George Beverly Shea sang “How Great Thou Art”. Graham then began to preach. Hearing Graham speak as a sixteen year old, boy, I could see why he was considered America’s greatest preacher. Billy Graham had a great speaking voice; you could listen to Billy Graham read the phone book and enjoy it. Billy Graham would tell antidotes and famous musicians regarding how even they felt empty in their lives that something was missing. Graham’s message was simple and scriptural. I can’t help not to look up to Billy Graham even today for how he puts a sermon together.
The Metrodome was hanging on every word that Billy Graham said with an intensity rarely captured in that building by either the Twins or the Vikings. Billy Graham started to speak about the Ten Commandments; he asked if we had broken any of them, because if we have, then we are standing before God like a prisoner awaiting our execution on death row.
Graham then began to hit people with the good stuff of God’s love for humanity. How each and every one of the 70,000 people there in Minneapolis wants to get to heaven. Yet there is only one way to get to heaven. Graham stressed how being baptized and confirmed wasn’t enough. Billy Graham tried to emphasize the believers uncertainty that they don’t know if they will live another day, so tonight was the night to get their faith right.
Graham emphasized there was only one way to be sure that we were going to be saved. We need to receive Jesus by faith and dedicate our whole lives to him. Graham was then going to present the sold-out Metrodome with a wonderful opportunity; they could come forward that night to do all these things. Half the audience moves forward to the front at this point as “Just as I Am” plays in the background. People were swept up by the moment.
My Dad and I go forward as Graham had exposed insecurity with our faith that it wasn’t what it should be. We talk to one of the Billy Graham Counselors who was a nice lady from the Saint Cloud Area, who wants to know what type of decision we’re going to make on that night. Whether we were brand new believers (which didn’t make sense considering we were both in church every Sunday) or whether we wanted to rededicate our lives to Jesus? Rededication or recommitment seemed to be the ticket for us. Stoke the spiritual inner-fire inside us with what seems to be missing.
Graham’s whole ministry was based on the premises that to be saved that we needed to be born again. This statement is certainly Biblical. Graham’s whole ministry put being born again in terms of our moral and religious level of commitment and dedication.
Yet, as time went on, I began to question some of the things that Graham said to me, on that night. Shortly after I figured that I needed to rededicate my life to Jesus. I was talking to a girl I went to school with that we will call Emily. Emily was talking about her religious walk when she made the statement that she has had to rededicate her life, several times after getting saved.
Emily’s statements didn’t make much sense to me as Emily was in church (every Wednesday and Sunday), Emily didn’t use foul language, and Emily didn’t smoke, drink, or sleep around. Emily probably didn’t watch R-Rated movies or listen to popular music. Emily didn’t do anything that good Christian girls weren’t supposed to do. Yet Emily would continually keep encountering brick walls where she felt that her faith wasn’t good enough. As I heard Emily speak about how she was continually not sure whether she was born-again, and if Emily couldn’t’ meet such lofty standards, maybe we don’t think about the meaning of what it meant to be “born-again” quite right.
Today’s Gospel lesson comes to us from John 3. It’s a story of Jesus and a man named Nicodemus who has a discussion regarding the meaning of being “born again”, a discussion regarding the reality of our personal spiritual transformation.
The key to understanding this passage is to understand the background of Nicodemus before he encountered Jesus. Nicodemus was no Atheist. Nicodemus was no moral delinquent. Nicodemus was one of the most religious men of the day that he lived. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin (the very religious body that would eventually convict Jesus of blaspheme sentencing him to death). The Pharisees were no religious softies, they constantly railed against the evil influences of how Greek Culture had crept into Israel. The Pharisees considered themselves to be the hardliners, the purists, the ultra-traditionalists, and the spiritual heirs of Moses. The Pharisees today would be denouncing the influences of Hollywood, and popular culture as being the cause of all society’s problems.
Jesus during his conversation with Nicodemus admits that Nicodemus was a renowned teacher of religion in his own right. Nicodemus knew the Old Testament backwards and forwards. Nicodemus was a paragon of virtue and knowledge, yet he came to Jesus as spiritually blind. Nicodemus comes to Jesus because he is intrigued after hearing about one of Jesus’ miracles. Nicodemus knew something from his own life was missing.
Yet as Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus about being born-again, Nicodemus just doesn’t get it. Nicodemus couldn’t understand “How can anyone be born after growing old?” Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and re-born? What Nicodemus failed to understand was the nature of our gospel.
Nicodemus had heard that Jesus could turn water into wine; he heard that he could open the eyes of the blind; he heard that he could make the lame to walk, yet Nicodemus didn’t believe a type of spiritual transformation was possible that he hadn’t already undergone. Nicodemus couldn’t believe as one of the most religious men of his day, how far into the muck of life that God could reach to bring forth salvation.
This week a famous religious figure named Fred Phelps died. Fred Phelps was a Pastor of The Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS. Westboro Baptist Church was famous for picketing events such as Military Funerals, Gay Pride Parades, and various political gatherings. Phelps would loudly proclaim that any bad event that happened in America was a result of God’s disapproval of homosexuality. Phelps was one of the least popular individuals in the entire country for a variety of reasons. People celebrated at his death, they proclaimed that they would soon dance on his grave.
Yet when such language enters into our popular discourse this showcases how few of us really understand the meaning of being “born again”. Fred Phelps did not represent the best in organized religion. Fred Phelps openly celebrated God’s judgment, rather than hoping for God’s grace. Fred Phelps took occasions where people needed to be pointed towards the cross, and Fred Phelps proclaimed Death and Hell as the final word.
Yet we should never celebrate any man’s death, no matter how much we dislike them for any man’s death should serve as a reminder of what we ultimately deserve. When we stand on our self-righteous soap boxes and wish another man’s eternal man suffering, then we have truly failed to understand what it means to be born-again.
What being “born again” means is that Christ came to the place of our very death the lowest moment of our existence, and sought to take us to the place of re-birth. Whenever we wish for another man to rot in hell, we realize that we are ultimately no better than how low he sunk. We fail to recognize the vulnerable Children of God that our God might dare to save. Any fool can proclaim judgment upon other people, yet it takes someone being born again to really understand grace.
The struggle over what it meant to be born-again is one that Martin Luther struggled with for many years of his life. Luther looked in the mirror, and saw no differently than my sixteen year old self or Emily, all the ways that they failed to measure up to God in their daily existence. Yet Luther ultimately realized something very important about his faith that he expressed in the Catechism when he said.
“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith”.
Luther realized that his re-birth wasn’t about his actions in any way, any shape, or any form. The best translation of our passage from John 3 isn’t to say that Nicodemus was told that he must be born again; rather that Nicodemus was told that he must be born from above. This interprets the Nicodemus story in a whole new way. Luther realized that his salvation was not dependent a level of spiritual achievement that his weak and sinful nature ultimately did not possess.
My point this morning is not to bash Billy Graham. Billy Graham has clearly presented the Gospel to hundreds and thousands of people. What I will say is why I don’t like to describe myself as being born again because of all that goes with it. Born Again Christianity today is defined by what you do, rather than what God does within you.
The thing about Nicodemus is his problem was not lack of religious motivation. Nicodemus rather couldn’t believe that God could actually turn him young all over again. Nicodemus couldn’t grasp that we have a God who took one of the greatest persecutors of the church in Saul of Tarsus and blinded him on the Road to Damascus making him the church’s greatest evangelist. Saul was totally unaware of the spiritual transformation that was capable of hitting him until the moment that it happened. Nicodemus couldn’t grasp that we are as capable of choosing the time for our spiritual rebirth as we are choosing the time that we are physically born.
The hardest thing for a believer is to believe that he believes. Because of our weak and sinful nature, we will always struggle with our own sense of self-doubt. Satan exploits us in these moments, to convince us that our faith is insufficient, that we’re truly not born from above. The problem with getting swept up in the grand religious fervor of the moment like a Billy Graham crusade is that today’s religious experiences often encounter tomorrow’s reality (the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh).
The key emphasis in Lutheranism is not our personal commitment to Christ; it’s rather the depth of Christ’s love and commitment for us.
Nicodemus’ story has a nice ending. In the 19th chapter of John after Jesus died, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimetha in preparing Jesus’ corpse for burial. The fact that Nicodemus would be so much importance in Jesus’ burial that one needed to go through death to be brought back to life shows that Nicodemus finally did get the meaning of being born from above.
Being born from above is a symbol of a powerful miracle that takes place when faith is created inside us in spite of our every urge to resist it. The scriptures describe this just like Billy Graham says as standing before God dead in our sins, yet as the Apostle Paul says in the waters of Baptism we are given the Holy Spirit and given new life.
This can happen as an infant, or it can happen later in life upon hearing a powerful preacher like Billy Graham. Yet rest assured it is not our decision, it is not dependent upon our ability to transform ourselves, it is not dependent on our standing over and against our neighbor, and it is only dependent on being “born from above” as a result of God’s wonderful healing grace. Amen
 John 3:10
 John 3:4
 Luther’s explanation to the Apostles Creed found in the Small Catechism.
 Ephesians 2:1
 Titus 3:5-7
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The following story is inspired by Pastor Teber Hill whose legacy I hope to appreciate in some, small way today along with our Gospel lesson from John the 4th Chapter. This story is a retelling of how the story of the Woman at the Well in the town of Sychar might look if it were to take place today.
I want to tell you the story of a church not unlike one that you know that sat in a small, sleepy Minnesota town named Sundsvold.
A woman named Shelley had recently moved to town. Shelley was a single mom with an 8 year old son named Tucker. Shelley came to Sundsvold as a way to escape her past. Shelley had been previously married to Tucker’s Dad Craig who worked as an over the road truck driver.
Shelley had met Craig in High School and Shelley was really taken in by Craig. Yet once Tucker was born, and being awaken at 3 in the morning became a common occurrence, Craig started to grow distant by spending more time on the road. Craig claimed it was for the money, but Shelley started to suspect something else was at work.
Shelley’s heart was broken as she eventually discovered that Craig was cheating on her when he was away from home. Shelley met other men after Craig left her life, men that she wanted to believe could actually love her, but once these men got what they wanted from Shelley then the phone calls stopped coming, and the men would quietly drift from Shelley and Tucker’s life.
Shelley was not raised in a real religious home. Her parents weren’t into what they deemed to be “god-stuff”. Shelley had only been to the occasional church service with her grandparents on Christmas or Easter.
Yet when Shelley moved to Sundsvold, Shelley wanted a fresh start for herself and Tucker. Shelley was fearful for Tucker’s future. Shelley dreaded more than anything that Tucker would end up like her in life.
Right down the block from where Shelley lived was Saint Martin’s Lutheran Church. Shelley didn’t know the difference between a Lutheran, a Methodist, a Baptist, or a Catholic.
Shelley saw that there seemed to be a lot of kids around Saint Martin’s Sunday school every week. So Shelley decided that she wanted Tucker to join Saint Martin’s Sunday school program. Shelley decided that she should also get involved down at Saint Martin’s.
Shelley was nervous about all this to be sure. Shelley didn’t really think that she would fit in. Most of the people who Shelley knew well weren’t really all that religious. All Shelley remembered from the few church services that she did attend was not being quite sure when to stand up and sit down.
Shelley decided that she wanted to put herself out there. Shelley didn’t know how the church crowd would respond to her as a single mom. Shelley ultimately decided to show up at Saint Martin’s because through all the issues in her life the pain, the trouble, the mistakes, and the heartache what she had been doing wasn’t working. Shelley was started to be convinced that nobody in the world really knew her, that anybody possessed the ability to really understand what Shelley was struggling with on a day to day basis.
So as Shelley stopped by Saint Martin’s one day, she saw a sign that read “Sunday School Teachers Needed”.
Shelley had never attended Sunday school as a child, she really had very little idea what Tucker might be learning, so Shelley figured if she signed up to teach Sunday school it could be beneficial for both her and Tucker.
Saint Martin’s Board of Education sat down one day to plan the upcoming school year. The Board was made up mostly of young mothers full of energy and new ideas. These woman had husbands with good jobs and well-behaved, honor roll students for kids. These were the type of young mothers that any church would love to have involved.
The one exception to the Board was an old lady named Emily who sat alone and quietly in the corner. Emily had been on the Board of Education for years and years. She had been the Sunday School Superintendent of Saint Martin’s for decades. Everyone would have just preferred that Emily stepped down from the board years ago. Emily would often be forgetful with projects, and was starting to have a struggle taking care of even herself.
Emily knew the scriptures like the back of her hands, yet the other women on the Board thought that Emily was incapable of understanding how today’s kids learn with all their tech gadgets as they thought Emily to be living in the past.
As the Board of Education met that August night they looked down at the names of signed up teachers where they saw Shelley’s. No one in the room really knew Shelley all that well. They had seen Shelley around town. Shelley on account of her youth and good looks seemed to be popular with the men around Sundsvold. Yet seeing Shelley around you would think she was anything but polished. Shelley’s breath would smell of cigarettes. Shelley’s wardrobe wasn’t always stylish or neat. Shelley’s job working as an aide down at the local nursing home barely allowed her to live check to check with Tucker.
The women on the Board of Education didn’t know if Shelley teaching would be a good idea. They feared what the people of Sundsvold would think about Saint Martin’s if they knew that this Shelley lady was teaching, only for Shelley to stumble home from the Bar some night with a sleazy gentleman.
Emily had tended not to say much at these meetings, as she felt her input would often go ignored. Yet as the Board of Education was discussing how they could allow Shelley to teach, Emily felt compelled to speak up.
Emily didn’t have any idea who this Shelley woman was that the women were describing, yet Emily knew that Jesus’ whole ministry was centered on reaching outsiders.
Jesus’ whole ministry was based on going outside the bounds of the type of people who were going to make good Sunday school teachers. Jesus reached out to sinful women like the woman caught in adultery in John 8, he reached out to the lepers that had been cut off from society, and he reached out to the Tax Collectors like Zaccaheaus who were hated by society.
Emily did not want to condemn Shelley, because she knew that Jesus had a very similar encounter in the Christian Gospels with a Woman at the Well in a town called Sychar.
The thing that really stood out to Emily about the story of Jesus and the Woman at the Well from the town of Sychar was that Jesus loved that woman in the midst of her great sinfulness and made her the biggest priority of his outreach once he encountered her.
Emily then asked the Board of Ed. what Jesus might do if she came across this Shelley?
Emily pointed out that Jesus would seek to free her, forgive her, and ultimately change her existence. Jesus would have offered Shelley living water from which she could receive nowhere else.
Emily knew and admitted that there were probably things in Shelley’s past that could have justified her fellow board members in being harsh with Shelley, yet she knew this wouldn’t have been Jesus’ approach.
Emily knew that what they were going to discuss that night at the Board of Education was much more important then what other people might think of Saint Martin’s Lutheran Church, Emily was rather fighting for the soul and character of Saint Martin’s which was the soul of the Gospel.
Emily pointed out at that meeting that:
A church that doesn’t risk being embarrassed really isn’t much of a church at all. How she would rather that Saint Martin’s gets burned by being too gracious to those in the community, to be the type of church that gives out money even when they know they might not be paid back, rather then the type of church who is completely jaded by the possibility of God’s grace coming through to other people.
Taking in Shelley as a Sunday School Teacher could lead to a Scandal, no different then Jesus asking a Samaritan woman for a drink could lead to a scandal.
Yet Jesus had been a much higher priority then caring what people might say as he interacted with the Jews’ natural enemies. Jesus instead cared about offering living water to the most hurting of individuals.
Shelley was going to be wanted by Saint Martin’s because Jesus would have reached out to Shelley were she was at this point in her life, not where the religious crowd thought she should be. Jesus would have promised to Shelley the type of water that would leave her never thirsty again.
The reason why the story of the woman at the well in the town called Sychar was so important to Emily is because the Sychar Woman’s story is the story of most of us. The reason this story of the woman at the well is included in John’s Gospel is because John knew that living water could be offered in not only the midst of the Woman at the Well’s pain, not only in the midst of Shelley’s pain, but rather all of our pain.
As the rest of the woman on the Board of Education heard Emily speak they knew that Emily had won the argument. As they heard Emily speak, they were reminded about all of the things in their own life that they feared being exposed in the light of the day. They then understood that Shelley was really no different from any of them.
Shelley ended up teaching Sunday school that year and the year after then the year after that. Shelley and Tucker would start attending church more frequently, and eventually get baptized together. Shelley came to believe that the “living water” of forgiveness of which Jesus spoke was really for her.
The women who were initially skeptical of having Shelley teach Sunday school were changed overtime in their perspective. Shelley was outgoing, funny, and the kids loved having her as their teacher. Shelley was eventually taken in by Saint Martin’s as one of their own. This meant the world to Shelley. Shelley would come to become as valuable as any member of Saint Martin’s Lutheran Church.
Shelley ran in a different circle then the typical church crowd. Shelley started talking to her co-workers about her faith and what a change it led to in her life. Shelley had morphed from someone who knew very little about the church to its most effective evangelist. What made Shelley so effective was that she had come to Saint Martin’s from within the midst of a deep burden helping her relate to others that were going through their own issues.
As Shelley became more involved in Saint Martin’s, she started reaching out to other people in the pews. People who were going through more in their life then they care to admit to their fellow church members or their Pastor. People would open up to Shelley like nobody else, because Shelley got those people because she had been where they were.
Shelley had no religious training. Shelley’s life had been transformed. The Living Water that she had received from Saint Martin’s had opened her eyes, and began to heal her wounds.
Shelley had only walked through Saint Martin’s doors because her life up to that point had been so screwed up; she wanted something better for Tucker.
Yet in the midst of all the brokenness of the Board of Education, Shelley had received grace. Shelley had received this word of grace at the very moment when she most needed it. This led to Shelley having an enthusiasm about her faith that was so rare it almost became contagious. Many people would come to believe because of Shelley.
As for Emily, she would not be long for this world. Emily worried greatly about the future of Saint Martin’s Lutheran Church. Perhaps that was why she spoke so forcefully in Shelley’s defense. Emily and Shelley had never met before that Board of Education meeting. Yet they soon met and became fast friends. Shelley looking up to Emily’s grace, and knowledge and Emily being taken in by Shelley’s youthful energy and empathy. Saint Martin’s was richly blessed because God had led both Emily and Shelley into their midst.
Perhaps you know a town like Sundsvold. Perhaps you know a church like Saint Martin’s. Perhaps you know a lady like Shelley. Yet what you don’t know is where living water might spring, just as it sprung up for the Woman at the Well of Sychar. Amen
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Today’s Gospel lesson comes to us from the 4th chapter of Matthew. In our lesson, Jesus is led out into the wilderness to endure the Devil’s temptations for a period of 40 days. The Devil proceeds to try to break Jesus by presenting three attractive offers.
First, the tempter came to him with an offer of bread. An offer to meet all of his material needs, yet Jesus rejects this first offer. As he proclaimed “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Second, the Devil seeks to challenge Jesus’ faith in his purpose. He commanded that Jesus throw himself down from the highest point of the Temple. Satan was appealing to the need of many people to see what they think are miracles, or see great transformations in their own life to satisfy their own doubts to be able to confront any struggles that they shall face.
The third offer and final offer that Satan makes is he seeks to tempt Jesus with an offer of fame, glory, and power. Satan offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. Satan offered Jesus the chance to be praised by everyman, yet Jesus rejects this most tempting of offers for the sake of his ministry.
So our Gospel lesson highlights Satan’s effectiveness in tempting Jesus. Satan attacks Jesus in three effective ways; by appealing to one’s poverty, by appealing to one’s sense of doubt, and by appealing to one’s powerlessness. Jesus never gives in to Satan’s temptations, yet our Gospel lesson highlights Satan’s power in the world.
Now many people would rather not spend any time during the course of their week considering Satan. When people come to church they like to hear about Jesus, love, forgiveness, and maybe drink some coffee and eat some treats. Whether there is an actual devil out there is a question that many people would rather not consider?
I must admit though that as much as I believe there is a God, I believe there is a devil, whom along with his minions, are continually actively threatening and seeking to bring harm to Christian people.
The best proof of the Devil’s existence comes in the history of the 20th century. As my mentor Dr. Roy Harrisville points out you look at the impact of men like Mao, Stalin, and Hitler. You look at the way they were convinced they were serving the greater good and it’s hard to deny that Satan has power. Perhaps the greatest evidence of Satan’s power lies not in these men as individuals, but rather the fact that these men were able to get whole nations behind them. One person can always be a nut or an oddball, when a whole country goes along with it then something more sinister must be at work.
Satan strikes at us with all the venom of a serpent, and Satan strikes so subtlety we often fail to notice that we’ve been bit until it’s too late.
A while back, I knew a guy named Dick. Dick was one of the kindest, sweetest old gentlemen in town. Dick one day got the most heartbreaking of phone-calls. Dick heard that his grandson had committed suicide. I’m visiting with Dick one day being asked to make sense of this all.
Trying to answer the question of “Why his Grandson did it?” and I said because Satan is powerful. Satan is able to convince people that there is possibly no other way out from the depths of people’s suffering.
For Satan’s power lies in being able to make the ugly become beautiful and the beautiful become ugly. This is something that I want to talk about today. I want to talk about one of the most controversial, contentious, and uncomfortable issues within the Christian church in the issue of suicide and Satan’s role within it.
Suicide raises the question of “How can a believer decide that suicide is the answer?”
For many years, those who committed suicide were unable to have funerals within the church or be buried within a church’s cemetery. Suicide was considered to be an “unforgivable sin”. This issue hits close to home from me.
Suicide is something that my family’s gone through first-hand. In 1974, my grandpa Kermit had been married nearly 30 years, was successful in the insurance and real estate business, had a house on the lake, served on the Call Committee at church, was considered the life of the party wherever he went, and was serving as the Mayor of Lindstrom. Yet one night, my Grandpa Kermit went out in the boat, pulled out a gun and took his own life.
Such an event is devastating for one’s family. My Grandma as a coping mechanism turned to the bottle.
Her alcoholism wasn’t just having a few too many drinks on a Friday or Saturday night, it was rather a very dangerous type of alcoholism. She had 4 DUIs, numerous violent outbursts, trips to rehab and hospital stays to sober up. She was one time hospitalized with a blood alcohol content of .39 which in many cases will kill a person. The alcoholism got so extreme at times that she was incapable of hangovers.
I remember being about 12 years old and encountering my Grandma in one of her drunken states as she brought up my Grandpa’s suicide I can hear her words more clearly than nearly any other words from my life as she described her husband’s suicide as “the ultimate form of rejection”.
Family dynamics though went way beyond my Grandmother’s drinking. My Dad who was 25 at the time along with each of his brothers and sisters went through some pretty severe depression brought on by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
My Aunt who was the youngest child and 14 at the time has had perhaps the most difficult lot in life growing up at times without any parents creating a deep cynicism regarding all human relationships.
You never get over the suicide of a loved one. The consequences of suicide are devastating for families for years and years after they take place.
I truly believe suicide cannot be separated from Satan’s influence in the world. Satan’s ability to make one question themselves, doubt themselves, and despise themselves to the point of taking their own life. Satan’s ability to convince someone that suicide is the only solution to their problems, Satan’s ability to convince someone that there is no hope of grace in their situation, Satan’s ability to convince that this is the best way forward.
When I was on vacation in California a few years back, my Grandma and my Aunt were talking about my Grandpa’s suicide. When my Grandma stated she believed that Kermit before he pulled the trigger asked God for forgiveness. This caused my Aunt (a Psychologist) to get mad saying there’s nothing to be forgiven for since suicide is brought on by mental illness no different from a malfunction of any other bodily organ such as the heart.
So is suicide a sin or a decision brought on by mental illness? The Bible gives either 6 or 7 examples of suicide. None of the Bible characters who commit suicide are ever portrayed in a positive light. This is why the church for years and years didn’t bury suicide victims.
The most well-known example of a suicide in the Bible would be Judas Iscariot who was driven to suicide over his guilt at betraying Jesus. In every Bible story dealing with suicide, suicide is portrayed as a lack of faith, a hopelessness and despair over one’s life situation.
Yet suicide goes beyond a lack of faith. When I was in seminary, I had a classmate who was kind, sweet, generous, and sincere in her faith that ended up hanging herself one night. Reminding us that human depression is such a powerful force that it often can’t be stopped even unto the point of death.
When we wonder what could ever possess a seminary student to act this way? The answer is simpler then we want to admit because they were in misery, because they were broken. We often can’t accept this answer because we wish there was a quick and easy fix to the problem. What suicide reminds us is that if we’re not dealing with the incredible ugliness of the human condition, we cannot begin to understand God, Grace, and the Cross. Suicide leads us to the realization that the only hope we have in this life rests outside of ourselves.
It would be irresponsible to just dismiss Dick’s Grandson, my Grandpa Kermit’s, or Sarah from Seminary’s psychological struggles as a lack of faith. Especially when they’re under attack from spiritual forces they often cannot name.
When people ask, “Is suicide a sin?” a two part answer has to be given.
Suicide is a sin in that it’s not what God intends for his creation. If there was no sin in the world, there would be no suicide. Suicide is a sin because it’s ultimately the most selfish of acts a person can commit
At the same time, we believe the issues with suicide often go deeper. Suicide is often brought on by emotional crises or psychological issues. We cannot ultimately judge anyone’s faith. Yet it’s important to note that it’s not any actions or poor choices that thankfully condemn us, but rather only unbelief. We don’t take hope because we’ve lived perfect lives, but rather because Our Lord and Savior died then rose again.
The Luther movie (2003) had a great scene about the impact of suicide and grace. In this scene, a young abused child is driven to such a state of despair that he takes his own life. The Boy is then refused a Christian burial by one of Luther’s fellow Monks.
Luther upon hearing this, sent for the boy’s parents and the boy’s body with the following command:
“Tell him: Some people say that according to God’s justice, this boy is damned because he took his life. I say it was overcome by the devil. Is this child any more to blame for the despair that overtook him than an innocent man who is murdered by a robber in the woods? God must be mercy. God IS mercy.”
Luther then personally buries the child in front of the child’s parents, and prays”
“He is yours. Save him”.
For the key point in talking about suicide from a religious point of view is where as suicide is nothing we would ever celebrate or portray as a positive course of action for the pain it causes, we would never say that suicide isn’t a sin that can’t be forgiven.
For earlier, I was talking about mentions of suicide within the Bible always being negative, yet if one is to truly appreciate a biblical perspective though on this issue. It should be noted that both Elijah and Job who were both considered to be heroes of the Christian faith pleaded with God to take their life during their darkest hours. Their stories remind us that we cannot begin to comprehend in a fallen world the depths that Christians might sink.
For the struggles people go through in life are often much more complicated than can be fixed by just hurling a few Bible verses their way. For being a Christian is never a promise to avoid all anxiety and always be giddy. Being a Christian doesn’t mean that Satan will never make the “hideously ugly” look beautiful in one’s life.
Being a Christian means you have a God who embraces you in your emotional struggles. A God who in today’s Gospel Lesson went through temptation, yet a God who never abandons you. Being a Christian means having a source of hope through the Cross, when all the world and your own life throws at you is hopelessness.
For Today’s Gospel lesson and the nightly news illustrate that Satan has power in this world. Yet, Today’s Gospel also illustrates that there is nothing that Satan can throw at us that stands in the way of the love of Our Lord and Savior. Amen
 Matthew 4:4b
 Matthew 4:5-6
 Matthew 4:8
 Beautiful analysis of this issue is given by Stampdawg. “Killed by a Robber”. Mockingbird. Christ Episcopal Church. Charlottesville, VA. 29. Apr. 2010. Web. Feb.25.2014.
 Clauss, Dennis A. (Producer) & Till, Eric (Director). Luther.2003. Motion Picture. United States. RS Entertainment. This scene is based on a similar quotation from Luther’s Works [Vol 54:29] based on one of his Table Talks.
 1 Kings 19
 Job 7