First Lesson: Genesis 22: 1-14
Responsive Reading: Psalm 13
Second Lesson: Romans 6: 12-23
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 10: 40-42
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The following is a modern re-telling of one of the Old Testament’s most confounding stories in the Story of Abraham and the near-sacrifice of his long awaited son Isaac.
I want to tell you the story of Mark and April. Mark and April met at the state university. They connected both being farm-kids with similar values. April was attracted to Mark’s brains and personal steadiness. Mark was attracted to April for being such a free-spirit, April was the life of the party wherever she went. Mark and April both graduated college, got married, and ended up with good paying jobs. They settled not in a town, not unlike this one. Mark worked as a Nuclear Engineer while April worked as a Fourth Grade Teacher. Mark and April soon then joined the local Lutheran church Saint Gerhard’s in town where they quickly became active. Mark and April seemed to have it all, they seemed to be an example of a perfect couple, but they wished for their family to be complete.
Mark and April tried to conceive a child for one year without nay luck. Mark and April then went to see a Doctor who would test for their fertility levels. April was discovered to be infertile. Mark and April spent nights trying to think about the next step. They prayed nightly as they considered their options. After months and emotional turmoil and soul-searching, they decided to begin pursuing the adoption process. Right when Mark and April began their paperwork, April wasn’t feeling right. April was constantly tired, and nauseous when she woke up in the morning. Mark and April went to the doctor to be checked out. A miracle had occurred! April was pregnant!
Mark and April were determined to be the best parents they could be. During the months of April’s pregnancy, they read every book that they possibly could. Nine months later a son was born. Mark and April named their son “Isaac” which means laughter. They named their son Isaac because of the long-odds of Isaac’s birth, remembering how the pregnancy announcement of the doctor caught April so off-guard that she laughed in a state of shock.
Isaac went through the next several years of his life as the apple of Mark and April’s eye. Isaac was a greatly spoiled child because of Mark and April’s means. Isaac was the All-American child with blonde hair, blue eyes, along with being a good student in school. Mark and April seemingly finally had it all!
Then one day Mark and April were put to a great test. One day when Isaac was out running around on the soccer field, he collapsed, Isaac was soon taken to the local discovered that Isaac had an enlarged heart. Isaac was going to need a heart transplant to live. The only problem with this scenario is that due to Isaac’s age it was going to be tough to find a donor heart for Isaac’s body. The doctors told Mark and April without a heart transplant they feared that Isaac only had weeks to live. Mark felt like his heart had been ripped in two at the moment of the doctor’s pronouncement.
Mark and April’s friends couldn’t help but look on at this whole affair with the belief that God was cruel taking a child so young. Isaac’s defect after Mark and April waited so long for his arrival was nothing more than God’s harshest jokes.
The next few weeks were a tremendous struggle for Mark and April were barely sleeping as they pondered all of the ifs about Isaac’s condition? They wondered why them? They wondered why faithful people such as them deserved this fate? Mark and April began to cope with the situation of Isaac’s illness differently.
Mark was furious at God. Mark vowed to stop going to church because of Isaac’s condition. Mark would spend the night shouting at God, cursing at God.
April’s response to Isaac’s diagnosis though was the exact opposite of Mark’s. April’s days were spent breaking down crying then praying. April would sneak out to the garage to cry when she thought Mark couldn’t stand to hear her cry anymore. On Sundays and Wednesday nights, April would stay around forever after church to just talk to whoever would listen about what her family and young Isaac were going through.
As April kept thinking about God’s role in this all, she had what would have seemed like a very strange feeling in the back of her head. April thought that God would work all things for good even if it led to the tragic loss of their son Isaac. April believed that even if Issac shall die before he gets a new heart then God shall be able to raise their son from the dead. April thought back to the times when God answered her and Mark’s prayer for a child of their own, even as their doctors deemed it to be impossible. April believed that God could bring a blessing in the midst of what seemed like the most unforgiving of curses. Through it all, April didn’t get angry with God, April didn’t argue with God, April didn’t seek out an explanation as to why God would seek to take Isaac’s life so soon. Whereas some people would look at April as an example of faith, just as many people would have dismissed April’s attitude as that of a crazy person.
The longer the test of Isaac’s illness went on, the more strain that it seemed to put on Mark and April’s marriage. Isaac had grown weary of seeing Mom and Dad fight as his body grew weaker and weaker. Isaac’s condition was growing scarier. Then one day a miracle happened. It was almost as if God shouted down from the heavens yelling out, “Do not harm this boy." A donor heart had been found to give to Isaac. The transplant took place. Isaac would go onto have kids, and grand-kids whose stories are worth telling another time.
Mark’s attitude about Isaac’s ordeal began to change after Isaac’s successful heart transplant. Mark understood that he would never know God’s angle in the whole thing. Mark could merely think back to his own relationship with his father from years before. Mark remembered getting so mad when his Dad would set boundaries upon Mark’s whims and wishes, yet it was only years later when Mark became a father on his own that his Dad’s words from a generation before made any sense. Mark realized he would never quite understand God’s challenges presented upon him in the form of Isaac. As Mark was at church one day, the preacher said something that made quite a bit of sense to Mark. The Preacher said “What the Resurrection ultimately proves is that God wants his people to live rather than die, regardless of whatever conflicting messages that this life might throw at them. How God wants to rescue people with his grace and mercy, rather than condemn them with fire and judgment. How we can never judge God’s angle through any one incident, we can merely judge him by what we know from the cross.
Now back to Mark and April. They slowly began to work out their issues to the point of reconciliation to their differing grief over Issac’s situation. One night talking about Isaac’s illness they talked about how plenty of people had gone through what Mark and April had endured. Situations of the impossibly tragic; many people had wondered why their own seemingly innocent children have been taken away from them for no good reason. They discussed why God might have intervened in Isaac’s case, but not in the case of other children. Abraham had been made the father of a great nation on account of his trial; Mark and April were apparently rewarded with nothing more than life experience, if Mark and April’s ordeal were a test, they couldn’t know whether they passed or failed it. Mark apparently failed the test with his anger at both God and the church through Isaac’s ordeal. Whereas all April did to respond to test of faith was cry and cry some more, perhaps the reason that April kept with her faith in the midst of her tears was because her tears were a representation of April’s own powerlessness. The tears served as a reminder that April’s answers did not lie within herself. April before Isaac’s illness thought her faith was supposed to make her strong, yet as she worried about her baby boy, she would quickly discover that her faith made her anything but strong.
As April and Mark struggled with God’s role in Isaac’s illness, they were reminded that our Gospel never promises unto us that life shall never be a struggle. It is rare to come across a person whose life ends up exactly the way they wanted it. Perhaps the reason that we enter into our own Garden of Gethsemane as a way to prepare for being put to death on our eventual crosses is because this would seem to be the only path to redemption. As Mark and April looked back on the tale of Isaac’s trial the only thing, they could take from it was that God was present even at those moments when it seemed like he wasn’t. What Mark and April had gone through was the strangest of contradictions how through even the worst of times, they still saw God’s love operating on some level. God stood by April and Mark even as they were brought to the brink of destruction.
We cannot imagine what Abraham went through as he was asked to sacrifice his only son “Isaac” upon Mount Moriah. Where we can identify with Abraham is that each of us has undergone tests at points within our life. The testing might have come in the form of cancer, heart attack, grief, hunger, financial difficulties, or martial troubles. The thing about tests and the reason we dread them so much is because they seem to attack us at our weakest points whether they be greed, power, sex, pride, or gluttony. Perhaps what Abraham went through with Isaac hits us closer to home than we often imagine. What the ultimate point of the story of Abraham is at the moment when Abraham is crying over the impending death of his son, this is the time when God responds over the sorrow of his children. Hope would be revealed in the years between Abraham, Mark and April when God gave his own son for the sake of the world. How God felt pain, so that ours may one day go away. How even if Mark and April had lost Isaac there was always going to be a resurrection in their future. Amen
First Lesson: Genesis 21: 8-21
Responsive Reading: Jeremiah 20: 7-13
Second Lesson: Romans 6: 1-11
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 10: 24-39
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Today, I want to reflect on the quintessential American story. It’s a tale of humble beginnings, God-given athletic prowess, illness, healing, rising to the top of the world, rumors, innuendo, fall, and uncertain path to redemption. The quintessential American story is the story of cyclist Lance Armstrong. Armstrong grew up in Plano, Texas. Armstrong grew up without knowing his father. Armstrong as a young child developed an overwhelming force of will to try to prove himself. Armstrong began as a swimmer, then he became a triathlete, he soon realized that he was a good bike rider, so good that he eventually turned professional. Armstrong was initially considered more of a sprint cyclist rather than an endurance cyclist. Armstrong was still in position to make a good living as a cyclist even if he never won the world’s greatest race the Tour de France.
In 1996, Lance Armstrong’s world came crashing down. He received a diagnosis of stage three testicular cancer. Armstrong had ignored the symptoms, and the cancer had spread to his brain, lungs, and abdomen. Armstrong’s Urologist believed that he had no chance of survival. Lance Armstrong through experimental treatments and sheer force of will overcomes cancer.
Armstrong vowed to return to cycling better than ever, even if teams were only willing to pay him 20% of what he had been making previously. Armstrong was determined to overcome the longest of odds to win the Tour de France. 1999 comes and Armstrong shocks the world by winning the race. Armstrong quickly became a hero to millions. Armstrong founded an organization called “Livestrong Foundation” that raised over 500 million dollars for cancer research through the sale of yellow wristbands. Armstrong though didn’t just win one Tour de France; he kept winning Tour de France after Tour de France. Seven wins for Armstrong in all. He was the most decorated cyclist of all-time. Lance Armstrong was the definition of a modern-day “saint." His life seemed to be way too perfect; he was dating a beautiful rock star and a national hero.
The rumors started to spread. Armstrong had close ties with a controversial trainer known to bend the rules; former teammates started saying that Lance Armstrong had taken blood injections during his victories giving him his superhuman endurance in the French Pyrenees. Then in 2013, Armstrong gets interviewed by Oprah where he admits that the story of Lance Armstrong was all a big, fat lie.
We all know Lance Armstrong’s story. We know it when the local businessman faces accusations of cheating his customers. We know it when we find out that our neighbor has got caught with a “DUI." We know it when our children display the kind of morals that we wish that they didn’t display as adults. What Lance Armstrong’s public shame reminds us is that everyone at some point in their life will stumble and fall off the wagon. You only hope it’s not on display in front of the entire world.
What do we say to people whose life and the lives of their loved ones have ended up before the whole world as being nothing more than abject failures?
I think the path to proclamation comes in remembering the words of the Apostle Paul from Romans 7 when he says, ““So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.”
We remember that our stumbles are not the same as Lance Armstrong’s, yet they are still present. We are grateful that any path moving forward from our day of shame is ultimately not found within ourselves.
Second story involving a famous person this morning, recently one of the biggest music stars in the world Justin Bieber decided to get baptized. This baptism raised people’s eyebrows. You see Bieber is far from the type of role model that we would hope that kids emulate. Within the last year, Bieber got arrested twice once for getting a DUI while drag racing, and another time for assaulting a limo-driver. Bieber’s been caught on camera engaging in a relationship with a prostitute along with telling racially insensitive jokes. Bieber would in many ways be the last thing that a father would ever want to see her teenage daughter bring home.
Recently Justin Bieber goes out and gets baptized. Bieber then begins talking about God’s forgiveness. People were skeptical. They claimed this is all a publicity stunt. One Fox News commentator said, ““Bieber doesn’t care about the Bible; he only cares about Justin Bieber."
All of Justin Bieber’s haters get Christianity wrong. They get Christianity wrong not because they doubt that Justin Bieber will mess up again; I am sure that he will. Rather these people get Christianity wrong because they assume that God’s mercy and blessing are dependent on our motives. They act like it’s a bad thing that Bieber turned to God when he was at his lowest, when this is precisely the moment when people turn to God. The standards of skepticism that could be applied to Justin Bieber’s baptism could be used to question the effectiveness of anyone else’s baptism.
Plenty of people were skeptical of Saul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus, but Paul understood God’s grace better than perhaps anybody else in the early church. The reason that Paul understood God’s grace was because of the depths to which he had sunk. What we inevitability forget about Christianity is that Christianity is not about turning us into better people, Christianity is rather about a cross where bad people are forgiven and redeemed.
What I believe about Justin Bieber was best summed up by Martin Luther nearly 500 years ago when he described “the believer’s existence as being one of being both fully sinner and fully saint at the same time." We are fully sinners by our very nature, our very weakness in the face of temptation. We are fully saints because God has declared us to be his own in Christ Jesus.
Where as many people question Justin Bieber’s faith because they don’t like him. We receive a call to defend the undefendable because we believe that no one is too far gone to receive God’s grace.
This brings us all to our Gospel lesson for today from Matthew the 10th chapter. Our passage is one of the tougher lessons in our entire gospels. Jesus promises “He came not to bring peace to the earth, but rather a sword."
Jesus’ strongest words come in verses 38-39 when he says “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
This whole Gospel passage centers on speaking to the Disciples’ fears. There is no more common human emotion than fear. Lance Armstrong was a highly completive athlete, who feared that his cancer would wreck his career. Justin Bieber has everything at the world at his fingertips, yet fears for his own soul. We fear for our own lives and safety, we fear for our economy and our nation, we fear for loved ones.
Jesus is speaking to the Disciples’ fears because he knows that they will encounter all sorts of nasty slander, rejection, and persecution in the days ahead. Jesus knows that the Disciples are about to travel into hostile environments. Jesus knows that the Disciples were being asked to say things that were going to cause them to be rejected even by their own family members.
We misunderstand Jesus’ message when we water it down into nothing more than Jesus was “nice” and “loving”. If that message were all the Disciples were going to say, no one in Palestine would have hated them or given them two seconds worth of thought. Instead, the Disciples were being asked to engage in the muck and mud of life. The Disciples were being asked to bring forgiveness to the Lance Armstrongs and Justin Biebers of the world. The Disciples were being asked to reach out even to the worst sinners amongst it. The Disciples were being asked to engage people at their very lowest, and all the while ripping their own masks out of their eyes.
When Jesus told the Disciples to take up their cross and follow him, he was thinking back to the days of his childhood as Jesus would witness crosses being hung alongside the road. These crosses hung up for those who dared to think outside the box, those who dared to challenge the status quo of Roman rule, religious rule, and social rule. Jesus saw first hand how little value those around him placed on human life, so Jesus was going to challenge the disciples to place immeasurable value on human life as messy as it might be.
The message of the Gospel inevitability brings division. We always want to portray to others that we’re entirely in control of our future. We have a hard time coming to terms with the message that our own guilt and sin must be put to death to undergo a resurrection. We have difficulty wanting to believe the message that our God reaches us at the point of our brokenness. The message that God does not justify making excuses, or minimize our sin, rather the message that God instead forgives the sinner. We have the Truth, and the Truth shall set us free. (John 8:34).
What Jesus is seeking to remind the Disciples is that they can go forth with confidence because what can ultimately destroy the body cannot kill the soul, that those who bring death cannot stop the Holy Spirit, who brings faith.
Today, we have an important event in the life of our congregation as Hunter and Chase Dow receive their First Communion. Hunter is the most enthusiastic acolyte that we’ve maybe ever had here at Sychar. Hunter asked if he could acolyte with his big brother, Brandon, and sister, Tara, in 4th grade. Margaret Groethe and I figured any kid that wants to acolyte, we better get him a robe as soon as possible. Chase has such boundless energy; he’s one of the rare kids that have been able to tire me out.
Today they receive the gift of the presence of Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins for the first time. What makes this gift, so special is that we do not hold the keys to it. What makes salvation so wonderful is that it offers us something that is so valuable that we do not possess it on our own, or cannot ultimately control it.
We do not offer Communion today to Hunter or Chase because we believe that they will never get in trouble again at home or school. We don’t offer them Communion today because it’s magically going to transform them into perfect Christians. We rather invite them to the table today because our faith and salvation do not belong to us. We come to the table today because each and every one of us from Lance Armstrong to Justin Bieber to myself to Hunter to Chase desire’s God’s forgiveness.
We come to the table today because we eagerly anticipate the day when all human cynicism, skepticism, and anger will be put to death. A day where we inherit a world where he will be our “God”, and we shall be his children. We look forth to entering a world where our lives and beings will be so precious that all the hairs on our head will be numbered. These are the promises given to us today through Christ’s body and blood given to Hunter, Chase, and given to each and every one of us. Amen
 Romans 7:17-18
 Griswold, Alexander. “What Should We Make of Justin Bieber’s Baptism and Ours”. Juicy Ecumenism. 17.Jun.2014. Web. June.18.2014
 The following quote was made by Juan Williams taken from Griswold. “What Should We Make of Justin Bieber’s Baptism and Ours.”
 Griswold. “What Should We Make of Justin Bieber’s Baptism and Ours.”
 Griswold. “What Should We Make of Justin Bieber’s Baptism and Ours.””
First Lesson: Genesis 1:1-2:4
Responsive Reading: Psalm 8
Second Lesson: 2 Corinthians 13: 11-13
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 28: 16-20
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
A few years back there was a seminary student who was in the middle of an interview examining him for ordination. This student received a question from which he could draw nothing more than a blank answer. The question this student was asked to “explain the Trinity?” “Explain the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?” This student like plenty of other people was stumped even for one word to say. There is truth to the saying that trying to explain the Trinity to other people is like trying to explain one’s taxes.
So with this student’s story in mind what I want to talk about this morning is how we can make sense of the Trinity. The answer is to go back to the beginning of existence itself. The key to understanding the Trinity comes in understanding the creation of the world as described in our lesson from Genesis 1. The key to understanding the Trinity understands who was present at the time of the heavens and earth’s creation.
The very first two verses of the Bible place two members of the Trinity at the scene.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”- Genesis 1:1-2
The fact that multiple beings took part in the creation is acknowledged even later in the creation story which states in verse 26: “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.
For the second member of the Trinity, we look to the beginning of the Gospel of John.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
John’s Gospel begins with an even more impressive claim than a virgin birth. John’s Gospel begins by placing Christ at the scene of creation described in Genesis 1.
Our best understanding of the Trinity is that there has never been a time where neither the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit never existed, neither the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit had a day of non-existence.
Let me tell a story. The summer after my freshman year at Concordia, I worked as a Bible camp counselor. My first week on the job, a sixth grader comes up and asks me the following age old question “If God created the universe then who created God?”
All I could do to answer this young man was quote the words from the Book of Revelation that “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
Such a question of “Who created God?” forces us to confront a much more fundamental question of “What set the Universe in motion?” What was the cause for the subsequent effect?
On a philosophical level, the idea the Universe came into existence out of nothing requires an explanation for where the material to create out of nothing derived?
Even if one claims that this universe is the result of a black hole. They are still left trying to explain from “where the black hole came”?
They try to provide an answer to how the Universe has been able to operate with such precision for thousands of years if its being is pure chance? How if the gravitational constant was just a bit off, then life would cease to exist as we know it. How if one were to break down a 7-8 ounce human eye, you would see over 2 million working parts capable of processing 36,000 bits of information per hour.
Our answer to the question of “Who created God?” is either a confession of faith in a god who exists outside the limitations of space and time that brought our planet into being. The second possibility is life derived from nothingness that arose from the lowest of probability.
Let me tell another story as told Rev. Dr. James Kegel, there once was an old rabbi who was approached by a learned philosopher. The philosopher proceeded to tell the rabbi, he could not believe in God’s existence, rather he believed that the universe came into being through purely natural means.
The rabbi gave the philosopher no answer to his question on that day, but later returned to the philosopher carrying a beautiful poem written in the most exquisite of hand-writing. The philosopher couldn’t believe the beauty of the poem, so he wished to know who wrote it. The rabbi told him that there was no poet for this poem. The rabbi explained that all that had happened was that a piece of paper was lying on his desk when the cat came by to knock over the inkwell.
The philosopher was flabbergasted by this explanation; he stated that such a course of events sounded impossible that surely someone had written this beautiful poem.
To which the rabbi replied, “You said yourself that the universe, the world and life, which are more beautiful and wondrous than any poem, came into being by themselves, so why do you doubt the same for this simple, humble poem?”
The Earth was a formless void, yet soon was populated by living, breathing human being.
How do we make sense of this all? It seems like there are two options that are continually presented before us as either science or religion. The paradigm of science and religion inevitability clashing is wrong.
I believe as people of faith we have to have a tremendous openness and respect for all of science’s findings and discoveries. I think what ultimately becomes helpful is making a distinction between science and religion is putting their roles in proper perspective. Science cannot answer the “why questions of life?” Science can not tell you “Why am I here?” “What happens after I die?” “Is there a God?” Science can not offer explanations to questions that we cannot observe within the natural world.. A telescope cannot tell you about human origins, not speak to the morality or immorality of someone’s actions.
When science claims to give answers beyond merely observable phenomena than it is no longer science but has instead become a religion. The idea that the recreation of human life in a lab with unlimited resources with the greatest marvels of human technology under the most ideal of conditions has proven to be nearly impossible makes a strong case that our life is not an accident. The idea that this same human life came about via chance seems to fail the principal of Occam’s Razor that the simplest explanation is often the best explanation.
We misunderstand science if one believes that it can provide an answer to the questions of whether there is a God. Science can merely evaluate properties, and behaviors. Science does overstep its bounds when it claims something as the Big Bang to be a fact for how life came into existence.
What separates religion from science is religion considers the question of whether there is a God, who operates outside observable nature in space and time. Religion oversteps its bounds when it blurs the line between what is an object of fact versus an article of faith.
So bringing it back to the story of creation from Genesis 1 how should we make sense of it?
Let me tell another story, a number of years ago I was working in a church when one day I went out for Pizza with a couple of my female co-workers. The first woman was named Joyce. Joyce was a youth director, and Joyce’s husband was a school teacher. Both Joyce and her husband considered their beliefs about God to be informed by both religion and science. Where as the other woman was named Lisa. Lisa was a church secretary. Joyce spent the lunch hour telling Lisa how she needed to believe in evolution. Lisa said she couldn't do it. Lisa proclaimed if it was proven to her that the world did not come into existence in six literal days that her faith would fall apart. In Lisa’s mind if one part of the Bible was determined to be untrue then the whole thing would fall apart.
While I understand Lisa’s opinion about the creation story, I think its best not to get bogged down in the time frame regarding the number of days or the age of the earth. For we’re not defending whether God could have created the earth in six days, we have no doubts that God could have created the earth in six days, six hours, six minutes, or even six seconds.
I think we want to caution upon insisting that a particular understanding of the Bible is always necessary for interpreting Science. For example in the 17th century, the scientist Galileo was branded a heretic for claiming that Earth revolved around the sun.
So when it comes to an issue like Evolution. We can acknowledge like Billy Graham or Pope John Paul II before us that Evolution does naturally occur. The DNA of a species does change overtime depending on the environment. For example Sparrows in the North will always be bigger than in the South, certain types of Mosquitos have developed a resistance for DDT, and Human beings are quite a bit bigger than 200 years ago due to different nutrition. And given enough years and mutations eventually new species will form. We can still be Christians and feel this is a method by which life comes into being. We can observe these things and not feel that our faith is a house of cards about to collapse.
The Trinity cannot be separated from the story of creation on one hand; the Trinity is ultimately defined by the story of salvation. Our Gospel lesson for this morning has Jesus giving the Disciples instructions on how to baptize. The instruction that Jesus gives has him invoke the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as equally integral in his command to baptize. “How does the Trinity work together?” The Trinity is God as three distinct persons all co-equal, and co-eternal working together with one unified purpose. The reason that we don’t understand the Trinity is we often compare it to human relationships for even the best of marriages don’t always see eye to eye. Whereas the Trinity is counter-intuitive due to its unity of character and being, take away the work of any member of the Trinity and our salvation is incomplete. Take away God’s acting to create the life out of nothing, to rise from the dead, or create faith than our existence would be nothing but a slow march towards death on account of our sins.
I think as we consider the relationship between religion and science where the rubber hits the road is when it comes to the concept of miracles. Any approach to the Christian Faith, which denies the miraculous is problematic.
Taking miracles out of Christianity makes it a fundamentally worthless religion. If the dead stay dead or everything has a natural or scientific explanation, there is no point in sitting here in Church Today. At the same time- Scientific miracles are extremely rare or else the Universe could not exist in an orderly fashion. For example, even though Jesus walked on water, I could not go walk on Lake Superior. The whole of the Christian Hope comes from the idea that we have a God, who can operate outside the laws of nature that we believe that he created, a God, who can speak creation into existence out of nothing, a God, who could overcome death. For where Science has its limits is in answering questions such as “why human beings ever feel shame for their actions if life is merely survival of the fittest?” Science can’t answer the questions of right or wrong, or explain man’s continual struggle with eternal separation. This is why we look towards the cross for our answers. This is why we hold out hope for miracles. This is why we celebrate the work of our God today through Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen
First Lesson: Acts 2: 1-21
Responsive Reading: Psalm 104: 24-35
Second Lesson: 1 Corinthians 12: 3-13
Gospel Lesson: John 20: 19-23
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
When I was in High School, I had a friend named Matt. Matt like a lot of kids didn’t like school. Matt would rather have spent his time playing golf, driving cars, and making money. When other kids were deciding upon where they were planning to attend college. Matt didn’t want to go. Matt had to struggle with the idea that going to college was what a person is supposed to do after high school. One of Matt’s high school teachers told Matt “That he would never make anything of himself until he went to college." Matt never went to college. Matt worked a variety of jobs, mostly in sales working towards developing his craft. Matt is eventually selling cars, and Matt has become quite good at it. Matt’s now a Sales Manager at a Kia dealership in Mankato. Matt developed his gifts apart from the traditional way of college. Matt developed his gifts, in a way, different from everyone else around them. For Matt, this non-traditional approach worked.
An interesting story about Matt, I was talking to him on the phone this week. Matt married a girl who graduated from Saint Olaf. Matt and his wife Heidi attended her college reunion where had the opportunity to catch up with many of his Heidi’s friends from Saint Olaf. As Matt talked to the Oles about where they were in life all, he heard was complaining. “I don’t like my job”, “I have too much debt." Matt can not help to feel vindicated by his going against the grain decision to skip college years earlier. Matt pointed out something important as we were talking about this “The issue isn’t how much money they are or should be making, the real issue is living a purposeless existence where you’re not doing something that you see as valuable.”
What makes something that we do valuable? Matt’s story brings us to our lesson for today from 1st Corinthians.
Let me begin by giving a brief summary of 1st Corinthians. The Apostle Paul wrote this book as a way of addressing a church conflict amongst the earliest believers. The Corinthians met in individual homes out of fear for persecution. The Corinthians probably did not have many people in their house church at any one time. So the Corinthians got to know each other quite well. Perhaps the Corinthians got to know each other too-well as they encountered the non-saintly aspects of their fellow Christians’ lives from the sexual immortality to their own our sense of selfishness played out in everything from food squabbles to power struggles.
Paul wrote this chapter on Spiritual Gifts because the people in Corinth kept trying to create layers and artificial divisions amongst themselves based on what they thought they brought to the table.
The story in Corinth is not the story of a unique church. The story of Corinth is the story of every church. When you bring sinning sinners together, sparks are always going fly within the midst.
Paul wrote this letter to the Church in Corinth because he wanted to create a different type of religious culture. Paul wanted to unite the culture between the spiritual have and the have not, the athletic have and the have not, the intellectual have, and the have not, along with the financial haves and the have not. Paul wrote to the Corinthians as a way of trying to bring them together in the middle of their division that was threatening to devour them.
Paul understood that a miracle of sort was taking place in Corinth. The miracle wasn’t that more people weren’t leaving the church in Corinth. The miracle was that people were coming to the church in Corinth at all. The Corinthians had experienced pastoral turmoil, the Corinthians fought over Roman politics and the Corinthians had endured all sorts of rude treatment at the hands of their fellow members even including lawsuits being filed against their fellow believers, yet they still gathered.
The miracle was the Holy Spirit’s effectiveness as the Corinthians gathered together time after time to confess together that Jesus was their Lord and Savior. Paul wrote that the nature of the church is such that they were no longer a series of identities, but rather one identity brought together as the people of God in Christ Jesus.
As Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the identity of their spiritual gifts, what Paul was seeking to remind the Corinthians is that their spiritual gifts didn’t just belong to their preacher; their spiritual gifts belonged to each and every member of the Corinthian church.
What Paul is seeking to remind the Corinthians is their disputes are not between those who possess the Holy Spirit versus those who don’t. Rather we all serve together the same spirit, the same lord.
Right before starting in the Seminary, I was asked perhaps the most important question that I’ve ever been asked in my life, “How do I know that it’s God, not the devil calling me into the ministry?”
In being asked this question, I was forced to confront a struggle that we will all face as we seek to discern God’s direction for our life versus that of our own whims and wishes.
What we are left with is asking ourselves: “Do our actions build unity or disunity amongst God’s people?” and “Do our actions seek to bring a word of comfort and forgiveness to our neighbor?” and “Do our actions proclaim the Gospel?
We make excuses why these things with which Paul speaks don’t apply to us. People say that they might be too old to make a difference. People figure that what you are good at might not be that important.
Let me tell you a story. There was a woman’s group at a Lutheran Church that had the same 10-15 woman meeting month after month for what seemed to be decades. The oldest member of the group was a woman named Catherine. When these women bickered, Catherine would always interrupt with her kind and gracious demeanor to give perspective. When the church was in conflict, the members fighting amongst themselves, Catherine would seek to bring people together for a greater purpose. When woman would start to gossip, Catherine would try to change the conversation a different direction. Catherine at ninety some years old brought a wisdom and knowledge to that group that at times kept it from falling apart. Once Catherine moved away, a void was going to be felt at every single meeting. Once Catherine moved away, the meetings started to get a little testier. Catherine’s grace and leadership were invaluable to all that came across her; it didn’t matter one iota what her age.
“Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues – these are the gifts that Paul celebrates in our lesson for today. (1 Corinthians 12:8-10).
These gifts come to us in many forms; healing can come to us in the forms of doctors and nurses whether it seems obvious to them at the time or not. Prophecy involves the ability to interpret how the past, will play out in the future. Tongues come to us when people become convicted that one of God’s people needs their prayer in a particular moment. Tongues come when people are overwhelmed in an unexplainable fashion by God’s own spirit.
An important distinction for this morning is pointing out the difference between “ gift” versus “ talent” as it relates to our lesson.
This week, the NBA Finals began between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs. The Heat’s Lebron James is arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time. Lebron James has the type of raw talent when it comes to things like speed, strength, passing ability, and footwork that might not be equaled by any other human being on the planet for the next one-hundred years. Lebron James possess earth-shattering talent; Lebron James’ talent has led to him making more money then generations of his ancestors will know how to spend.
As Paul was writing to the Corinthians he wanted to let them know that a spiritual gift was even more valuable than talent. The thing about talent is that it only serves to better yourself, whereas a spiritual gift serves to better the whole community around you.
Paul makes this distinction as the people of Corinth were infighting amongst themselves that their ministry needed to be focused inward, rather than outward for the sake of their own survival. Christ is not seen necessarily in one’s talents, whereas Christ can be seen through one’s gifts.
To further illustrate the distinction between talents and gifts, I want to close this morning with the story of Alice the Maid, otherwise known as Alice from the TV Show The Brady Bunch.
Alice was played by the actress Ann B. Davis. Ann B. Davis died last weekend. If you only know Ann. B. Davis as Alice the Maid you are missing a fascinating story. Right as the Brady Bunch drew to a close, Ann B. Davis became a born again Episcopalian. While doing a play in Denver, Co, Davis would become close friends with an Episcopalian Bishop William Frey.
Davis then slowly transitions out of show-business by moving into a religious commune with twenty other people. When Davis got calls about job offers in Hollywood, she would often pass saying that she found something better. Davis spent the last years of her life traveling around the country speaking at various churches, singing in the church choir, taking seminary classes in her free-time while also doing laundry for an area homeless shelter. Reading a tribute of hers this week, someone said they never saw joy on her face like when Ann B. Davis would reunite stray socks while folding a load of laundry at a homeless shelter.
What made Davis’s life so different from that of her fellow Brady Bunch cast members is that she found meaning in life for something much greater than chemical addiction, or illicit sexual liaisons. Davis found her meaning in life from how she served others in her own unique way.
The message for Pentecost is that ministry doesn’t have to look a certain way. My friend Matt didn’t have to go to College to find success in life. If you lie awake in terror at the thought of public speaking, you don’t need to be a preacher. If you can’t boil water, you don’t need to work in the Kitchen. My point is not to make your life look like Alice the Maid’s. My point is rather to cultivate your own spiritual gifts. The more people and the more ways that we reach out, the more and more ideas that are brought to the table, the stronger we are as a faith community.
My point is to consider the extent of the mission field that lies before you. How we live out our spiritual gifts cannot be separated from the Christian freedom won for us on the Cross. We are not defined by God because our lives look a certain way. We are instead claimed directly by God so that our lives may be given new meaning from the day of our Baptism forward. In Baptism we are reminded that our lives from every day forward are ultimately not about us anymore, but rather the one that we are called to serve.
As we celebrate Pentecost today. We reflect on the meaning of our own spiritual gifts: diverse and varied. We possess gifts that God gives us to reach the world around us, gifts that God gives us to bring us together as the body of Christ. These were the gifts that were given to Jesus’ earliest of followers, the gifts that have been given to those before us to bring us to this place today. Amen .
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Today’s Gospel lesson comes to us from Luke the 24th Chapter. It’s the tale of Jesus and the Disciples saying their final goodbyes to each other as Jesus sought to leave the disciples with a word of promise, right before Jesus ascended out of the Disciples sight to never be seen in the flesh by them again. Crucifixion then Resurrection then Ascension, we spend almost all of Lent getting ready for the Crucifixion, we then spend almost all of Spring then celebrating Easter, whereas the Ascension of Jesus is the least talked about of these three big events. This morning’s sermon is the first that I have ever given on the Ascension. If Easter is the day where Christ achieved his victory over sin and the grave, then the Festival of Ascension is the day where Christ returned to his throne.
Ascension Sunday raises an interesting question for us of “Where exactly Jesus went when he left the Earth?” The Common way of thinking of the world even amongst Christian people has been the three-tiered universe which we could also know as the three-tiered planet.
Heaven is up above us. Popular culture often portrays Heaven as existing up in the clouds. Heaven is the place where your loved ones even the rascals go when they die.
Down below us underneath the ground is Hell or the Underworld, Hell is where apparently Satan pokes and prods people that have been naughty. Hell is where your neighbor who doesn’t clean up after his dog, and makes a lot of noises late at night or early in the morning tends to end up. Hell is the domain of people we don’t like.
Right in between this is all is where we live in the here and the now. Heaven, Hell, and Planet Earth all contained between the North and South Pole is the traditional understanding of the three-tiered universe.
The question for this morning would be “Is this understanding, right?”
When Jesus is proclaiming his message of salvation to the people of Capernaum in Matthew 11 he says the following: “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to Heaven? You will be brought down to Hades.”
When Jesus speaks to this belief of Heaven being above us, and Hell being below us he is merely reinforcing the beginning of the Book of Genesis which states:
6 And God said, “Let there be an expanse[a] in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 And God made[b] the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. 8 And God called the expanse Heaven.[c] And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.”
The waters that are spoken about in the creation story as being above the Earth are thought to be the waters that separate God from his people. So the actual creation story itself points to the sky as the dividing barrier between God and his people. The creation story doesn’t go into details as to where exactly God nor the Heavens exist at the present time.
This all brings forth an interesting point about the location of Heaven. Either the location of Heaven is somewhere in the clouds that ultimately we cannot see, or Heaven ultimately resides in a place that we cannot find on a map or any GPS?
So where is Heaven located then? The question was not one that I ever previously sought to form an answer. Although a while back, I was having Pizza over at Jimmy’s with Pastor Brostrom from Faith Lutheran, who put forth an interesting idea that “Heaven does not exist within the traditional confines of the Earth, rather Heaven is located possibly in an alternative dimension."
I realize that such a suggestion sounds quite odd talking about alternative dimensions and Twilight Zone stuff. There are a few points about all this for us to consider this morning.
Within the last twenty-five years as scientists keep discovering more and more about the Universe what can conclude is that there is a lot out there that we don’t know definitive answers. For example, ninety-five percent of all matter within the universe would be dark matter, or matter that cannot be seen with a telescope because it does not emit light or any measurable magnetic pull. So to claim that we have all the answers to how the Universe works or what exists within it with five percent of the relevant material would be a proclamation of foolishness.
Even defining what we know about the Universe proves that our knowledge is limited. The Universe has been thought of as possessing four dimensions (length, width, height, and space- time) since the initial work of Albert Einstein on Relativity Theory. Einstein's work has been expanded upon for our understanding of the planet in recent years. Quantum Physics a science that studies the behavior of subatomic particles suggests that there beyond the four observable dimensions of which Einstein spoke that there exists the possibility of several additional dimensions that cannot be directly detected. The most popular theory “M-Theory” regarding the behavior of subatomic particles suggests eleven possible dimensions.
What this means for us this morning as we consider the location of heaven is that we can’t say whether God created an invisible spiritual dimension that operates outside the space-time continuum of this world. What we can say is that the Universe in all probability possesses dimensions that can’t be physically inhabited by us in our present condition.
We must not view Religion and Science as at odds with each other. What Science is revealing to us is patterns of behavior of even the tiniest sub-atomic particles that go way beyond human understanding. We can’t understand the ability to control time, let alone understand the possibility nor inner-workings of alternative dimensions.
Turning this discussion back biblically, one of the big themes of the Book of Revelation is the distinction that it makes it in the constant switch in the two scenes between Earth and Heaven. The whole point of Revelation is that things of the spiritual world are gradually becoming made known to the Apostle John. When Revelation makes such a sharp distinction between Heaven and Earth what it seems to be indicating is that Heaven is not merely a part of the Earth rather Heaven is a completely separate reality from Earth. The whole point of the Book of Revelation in John’s letter to seven persecuted churches is to give believers confidence that their earthly persecution and situation will not last.
Perhaps our greatest misunderstanding of Heaven and Earth is laid out in Revelation 21:2 which states: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
Perhaps the way for us to think about the Afterlife isn’t so much in terms of us ascending into Heaven but rather in terms of God coming down to Earth. The exact location of the New Heaven or it’s connection with the New Earth isn’t what is ultimately important, but what is important is that God promises to come yet again for his people. The language that surrounds our Gospel is important. The key thing about Jesus’ ascension into heaven isn’t whether Heaven is located physically above us as we point towards the sky. Rather the key thing about the Ascension is that it turned his death and resurrection into a present reality for not only the Disciples, but all those who believed in it.
So how does Jesus conclude the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension before he says goodbye to the disciples until the day of their own resurrection. Jesus leaves the earth behind with a word of promise “Behold; I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Last week, we had our Pastors meeting down in Duluth. I was talking to a Pastor Paul Reiff from down in the Moose Lake Area, who had recently done a funeral for a sixteen year old boy who committed suicide. This boy was having issues with his girlfriend. They were communicating on what is called “Snap Chat." Snap Chat is a way for kids to communicate over the phone that communicates quickly without leaving behind any evidence. This boy’s Girlfriend used Snap Chat to flick him off as a way of telling him that their relationship was no more. The Boy’s response was then to take a gun to himself, shoot a video of him ending his own life that would be sent immediately received by everyone that he communicated with on a frequent basis. What makes this story so sad is this young man’s warped sense of self-worth, how he saw his value in life coming merely from the affirmation of a sixteen year old girl. What makes this story so important is there are infinite people out there who feel the way this kid does.
What I like to believe is the promise that Jesus is giving to the Disciples as he ascends from their presence is that in the moments when we want more than anything to see his presence, he is not absent. Jesus understood that as he left the disciples, the great human fear of being alone.
Pope Francis said a while back that “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.”
These statements initially struck me as missing the mark, but perhaps these things are merely expressions of the present human condition. Where the Ascension story comes to us today is that proclaims that Jesus does, in fact, live on for those who most need to hear during the struggles of their everyday existence.
The Disciples’ response to Jesus’ departure was quite a bit different than their response to his crucifixion that occurred several weeks earlier. Where as the Disciples had fled from the scene out of great fear at the time of Jesus’ arrest, the Disciples looked onto Jesus’ departure with a confidence that in spite of Jesus being removed from them that they would be all right. Maybe these feelings were a result of the promise of the coming or Holy Spirit, or maybe it had to do with Christ was not going to be that far gone.
As we reflect upon our lesson for this morning we remember Jesus’ final words from the Book of Revelation, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen-Revelation 22:20
I think it’s important as we consider questions regarding the possible location of Heaven within the universe that while these questions are fascinating, they are ultimately what’s not important. What’s important is that Jesus’ presence in our lives is not confined to any single place or any single time, nor is Jesus going to be gone for good. Amen
Pastor Stew Carlson
These are all Sunday sermon's written by Pastor Stew.