First Lesson: Genesis 37: 1-4, 12:28
Responsive Reading: Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b
Second Lesson: Romans 10: 5-15
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 14: 22-33
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Let me begin this morning with an apparent statement that families don’t always get along.
The most common tensions are related to money and possessions. For example, I had a great-aunt Bonnie Jean, who had a sister named Corrine. When their father Henry died, he left Bonnie Jean with over 900,000 dollars, while leaving Corrine without a penny. So these sisters never spoke the last thirty years plus years of their lives due to jealously.
The second cause of family conflict is power dynamics. For example, I have an Aunt in California who works as a psychologist who loves giving other people advice whether solicited or not. I have a Sister who is in law school who doesn’t like hearing what to do. So when my aunt contacts my sister let’s just say that the combo of Facebook, late-nights, natural combativeness, and wine tend to produce some contentious outcomes.
But a family not getting along isn’t anything new; Today’s Old Testament lesson comes from the Book of Genesis. There are more dysfunctional families in Genesis than an episode of The Jerry Springer Show.
The first family in the Bible was Adam and Eve. Boy was their family dysfunctional! Genesis 3:6 describes Adam and Eve falling into sin at the same time by eating the forbidden fruit together, but as soon as the Lord confronted Adam and Eve for their sins, Adam blamed Eve for all their problems.
As is the case with couples who are quick to blame each other, but never acknowledge their faults, the bickering would continue for years and years. As is often the case with dysfunctional parents (Adam and Eve), they tend to produce dysfunctional children (Cain and Abel). Cain killed his brother Abel over jealously because the Lord preferred Abel’s offering. Cain then tries to pass off any blame for his actions by declaring to the Lord “Am I my brother's keeper?”
Then you move further into Genesis to see the Patriarchs, the fathers of the nation of Israel only to see more family dysfunction.
Abraham marries Sarah. Sarah is unable to get pregnant. So Sarah encouraged Abraham to take a second wife (her handmaiden named Hagar). Abraham and Hagar have a son named Ishmael. Only for Abraham to later have a son with Sarah named Isaac. Plenty of family conflict followed. Ishmael and Isaac didn’t get along, so Sarah wanted and got Ishmael and Hagar kicked out of Abraham’s family out of anger.
But just as Abraham’s family was dysfunctional so was his son Isaac’s family. Isaac had two sons. Isaac’s favorite son the rugged hunter Esau and Rebekah’s favorite son the chef Jacob, it was the tale of the hunter versus the mama’s boy. Well, eventually momma and younger brother trick father and older brother out of dad’s inheritance. Feelings are so bad out of this that Jacob flees for twenty years fearing that his brother was going to take his life.
Now we come to the last major story of the Book of Genesis, the last story of family dysfunction. Today’s Old Testament lesson tells the story of Jacob’s most famous son Joseph.
The thing to know about this story is Joseph was hated by his brothers, on account of a couple different reasons.
The first reason was jealousy. His father absolutely adored Joseph. Joseph was the son of Jacob’s favorite wife the beautiful Rachel, whereas Jacob’s other children came from his ugly wife Leah or his slave-wives. So Joseph from the time of his birth was special to Jacob because of his mother. What had really gotten the brothers going was Joseph’s latest gift of a beautiful multi-color coat. The coat would have been the Ancient Canaanite equivalent of ten brothers walking to school while the younger brother gets a mustang to drive. Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him like anyone’s brothers would have been jealous of him.
Joseph’s brothers might not have hated him so much if it wasn’t for this fact, as can be summed up in the title of the sermon in that Joseph was an annoying little brat.
Joseph had a big mouth; he lacked common sense; he was arrogant, he was aloof and uncaring. Joseph was self-impressed and in love with himself. Joseph was the guy that we all know who was always bragging about his income, his or his kid’s athletic prowess, or his sake of genius. What Joseph’s brothers hated to hear him talk about were his dreams.
The first dream, Joseph bragged about was of eleven sheaves of wheat bowing down to Joseph in reverence. Joseph interpreted this dream to his brothers as telling him that a day would come when they all would bow down before him at his throne. Considering Joseph was the 11th of 12 brothers, the older brothers didn’t think much of baby-bro predicting a day when they kissed his feet.
Let me tell a brief story, when I was working as a substitute teacher I had a student who was a short, stocky little redheaded ninth grader who could not be quiet in class. Every two seconds were a disruptive comment, so I eventually sent him out into the hall to carry out in the classroom proceedings in peace. Only for me to be told that sending this kid into the hall was a terrible idea, when I inquired as to why “I was told that he would run his mouth to the seniors then they would beat him up”. I had a hard time comprehending that such a small kid would do such a reckless and foolish thing. As soon as I opened the door, I saw this kid shooting off his mouth to kids’ way, way bigger than him. This kid reminds me of Joseph in that he just couldn’t stop his mouth from moving.
So the question is not why Joseph’s brothers did try to get rid of him, rather the question is what took Joseph’s brothers so long to try to get rid of him?
So the brothers then began to consider their options for the next time they were alone with Joseph in their father’s fields. They were debating between killing Joseph or just throwing him into an empty well. They decided the best option would be to make a little money in the process, so they encounter some Egyptian slave traders passing through, saw an opportunity to make twenty pieces of silver along with never seeing their obnoxious, big-mouthed brother ever again.
The brothers then as a way of covering their tracks, took his multi-colored coat dipped it in Goat’s blood and told their father Jacob that his most-beloved son was alive no more. Jacob’s grief was such that he would never recover.
But the story of Joseph was by no means finished. Once Joseph arrived in Egypt, he was purchased by one of Pharaoh’s officials, a man named Potiphar. Joseph initially was a highly valuable worker to Potiphar. But soon Joseph would become embroiled in scandal as Potiphar’s wife attempted to seduce Joseph as he was “handsome” and “well-built”. Joseph turned down her advances on account of his morals, so Potiphar’s wife became angry enough and bitter enough at Joseph to accuse him of attempting to seduce her and away to prison Joseph went.
Once Joseph went to prison, he ended up meeting two men who had been sent there by Pharaoh himself in a Butler and a Baker. Now both of these men were deeply troubled as they had dreams of which they could not figure out their meaning. Joseph figured he had a knack for interpreting dreams, so he went about revealing the Butler and Baker’s future. Joseph predicted the Butler to be set free and return to working for Pharaoh within three days, whereas Joseph predicted the Baker’s dream to have a less happy ending as he was going to hang within three days. On the third day, Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams was proven to be right on the money. As the Butler goes free from prison, Joseph’s only request for the Butler was to remember him in Pharaoh’s presence.
Around this time, the Pharaoh of Egypt began having dreams that made no sense. Pharaoh saw seven healthy cows standing next to seven sickly cows, along with seven healthy heads of grain, standing next to seven sickly heads of grain. Eventually, cows began to eating cows, and grain began eating grain. Pharaoh had no clue what to make of any of it. So Pharaoh started asking anyone who would listen to make sense of his dreams, Pharaoh was getting nowhere until he encounters the same Butler who encountered Joseph in prison. Joseph appears before Pharaoh’s presence where he interpreted the dreams to mean that Egypt would have seven years of plenty during the harvest followed by seven years of famine.
Joseph’s prediction was right on the money. So not only was Joseph set free from prison after two years, he became the manager of all of Egypt’s agriculture (second in command to Pharaoh himself).
Joseph was the complete story of rags to riches as he had all the clothes, gold, or feasts that he could ever want. Egypt was thriving being the only nation in the world that saved its grain during bountiful harvests, so that they made a ton of money during the famine as the only country in the world with food to distribute.
The situation at this time wasn’t good at all for Joseph’s brothers as famine plagued their land. They eventually had to leave their Canaan home behind and travel to Egypt bowing down before their brother begging for grain. Joseph’s dreams had come true. As Joseph’s brothers walked into his presence, they did not recognize him. Soon Joseph’s brothers would be given a very strange request; Joseph would give them enough grain to tie them over, but for more grain, Joseph needed to see their youngest half-brother Benjamin. Benjamin was Joseph’s only full-blood brother.
Upon hearing this unknown man’s offer, father Jacob would have rather starve then see anything happen to Benjamin in Egypt. Jacob had already lost Rachel’s older son; he was going to make sure that nothing happened to her youngest. Jacob eventually relented as the famine became a matter of survival not only for himself, but everyone around him including Benjamin.
Joseph was moved upon seeing Benjamin. For Benjamin was many years younger than Joseph and merely a young child at the time that Joseph entered into slavery. Joseph wished to reunite with his brothers, but was worried that they were the same backstabbers that had always been. So Joseph came up with a plan to try to determine if his brothers were who he thought they were. Joseph was going to frame Benjamin with stealing a silver cup to see how his brothers would react. So after his brothers received their grain, and began their journey back home, Joseph sent his guards after them with instructions to find his missing silver cup.
When the guards found the cup in Benjamin’s bag, the brothers were forced to head back to Egypt fearing for their life. They began to figure that this was God punishing them for all they had done against Joseph years before. As the brothers stood in Joseph’s presence, they confessed their sins against their brother Joseph from years before unaware that it was their brother hearing their confession. His brothers’ repentance shocked Joseph causing him to send everyone else out of the room.
It was at this moment that Joseph revealed “who he was” to his brothers. The one that thought might have been dead; Joseph was alive and stood before them. Finally, Joseph asked the question he had been waiting for years to receive an answer to as he said “Is my father still alive?” The family would soon reunite, a reunion that would have seemed impossible years before.
Joseph’s story has the happiness of endings. But what is the point of this tale?
Joseph summarizes the story quite well in Genesis 50:20 when he says “What you (his brothers) meant for evil, God meant for good.”
On the surface, this line spoken by Joseph seems ridiculous. We often have encounters in our daily life from which we think that no good could arise out. The idea that God can bring forth good from disaster seems incomprehensible.
As Joseph mouths these words, this is the part of the story where Joseph’s story becomes our story. God uses Joseph’s weaknesses to bring him to Egypt to save multiple nations. God took Joseph’s pride and arrogance to lead to one day reunite with his family. God’s plan for Joseph and his brothers probably didn’t seem real obvious at the time, as Joseph’s situation took years and years to play out towards a resolution. At the moment that Joseph got sold into slavery it merely got the ball rolling on this tale.
For today’s lesson reminds us of some very famous words from Romans the 8th chapter which say “And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
We hear on this day that God works through dysfunctional families; God works through undesirable jobs, and God even might work through personal pain and tragedy. We remember that God is with us today through the pits of our lives and that God sees resolution even when we cannot. Our answer to the will of God is ultimately found for us on the cross.
For my good friend, Pastor Donovan Riley said explaining how God can work all things for good “God keeps the church impoverished and struggling, so we don't worship and preach the church. God keeps the pastor a broken, feeble man so we don't worship and preach the pastor. God keeps the Christian weak and needy so we don't worship and preach the Christian. God raised Jesus from the dead and made His the Name above all names so that at the name of Jesus every knee bows [in worship]; those in heaven, on earth and below the earth.” Amen
 Genesis 4:9
 Genesis 16:1
 Genesis 16:3
 Genesis 16:11-16
 Genesis 21:2
 Genesis 21:9
 Genesis 21:10-12
 Genesis 25:27
 Genesis 25:29-34, Genesis 27
 Genesis 27:41
 Genesis 35:23
 Genesis 37:3
 Genesis 37:5-8
 Genesis 37:18-24
 Genesis 37:28
 Genesis 37:31
 Genesis 37:35
 Genesis 39:1
 Genesis 39:2-6
 Genesis 39:6-7
 Genesis 39:8
 Genesis 39:11-20
 This story appears in Genesis 40
 Genesis 41:1-36
 Genesis 41:37-57
 Genesis 42:1-8
 Genesis 42:8-9
 Genesis 42:34-38
 Genesis 43:13
 Genesis 43:30
 Genesis 44 contains this tale.
 Genesis 44:13
 Genesis 45:1
 Genesis 45:2
 Genesis 45:3
 Genesis 46:28-34
 McDavid, Will. “Hopelessly Devoted: Genesis Chapter Thirty Seven Verses Three Through Seven”. Mockingbird. Christ Episcopal Church. Charlottesville, VA. 14. Jan. 2014. Web. Aug.4.2014.
 Romans 8:28
 McDavid, Will. “Hopelessly Devoted: Genesis Chapter Thirty Seven Verses Three Through Seven”.
 This is a quote from a 2011 Facebook post from Pastor Riley.
First Lesson: Genesis 32: 22-31
Responsive Reading: Isaiah 55: 1-5
Second Lesson: Romans 9: 1-5
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 14: 13-21
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
When I was young, I was a huge fan of professional wrestling. One of the great thrills of my childhood was attending matches at the Target Center where I got to stand about three feet away from Hulk Hogan as he marched to the ring to Rick Derringer’s “Real American." There was no more exciting thing in the world when you were 11 years old than when Hulk Hogan was able to body-slam someone who had a listed weight of well over 400 lbs. There was nothing more exciting than seeing Hogan conquering a seemingly unconquerable foe.
Hulk Hogan leads us into an interesting question for this morning “what if someone an average Jake who lacked the muscles of Hulk Hogan was able to wrestle against seemingly the most unconquerable foe of all and live to tell about it?” Our Bible story for today centers around the idea of wrestling against God, and it centers on the person of Jacob.
Jacob’s story begins about twenty years before our lesson. Jacob had a twin brother named Esau. I should tell you a little bit about Jacob and Esau. Esau was the first brother out of the womb. Esau was a man’s man. Esau was a rugged hunter. Esau probably had more muscles than anybody in the whole land. Esau probably had a manly beard like one of the guys on Duck Dynasty. Esau was the type of guy who probably would eat a three-pound steak in a single setting then polish it off with a gallon of whole, raw milk. Esau if he lived today would have loved football, monster trucks, drinking beer, and professional wrestling. Esau on account of his manliness was the apple of his father’s eyes.
And then you had Esau’s brother Jacob. Jacob was quite a bit different from Esau. Jacob didn’t like getting his hands dirty. Jacob liked spending time with his mom in the kitchen. Jacob probably had about as much facial hair as a twelve year old boy. If Jacob were alive today, he would probably love drinking wine and wearing skinny jeans.
These brothers tended not to get along the best. Jacob had been jealous of Esau his whole life for what he was about to receive. Esau was going to receive his father’s “birthright." What Esau receiving the birthright means is upon Esau and Jacob’s father Isaac’s death that Esau was going to be rolling in it. Esau was going to have twice as much money as Jacob, twice as much land, twice as many flocks. Esau was going to be the big man in all the land of Canaan. Jacob knew this and Jacob was jealous of it all.
Esau though had a weakness; he was arrogant. Esau thought that he was pretty hot stuff even if he didn’t have the birthright. Jacob used Esau’s weakness to his advantage.
One day Jacob is cooking in the kitchen when Esau comes marching in from the field. Esau demanded something to eat. Jacob said he would feed Esau as long as he sold him his birthright. This offer would have seemed outrageous, an evening meal in exchange for great riches. Esau in a moment of foolishness went along with Jacob’s demands.
All Jacob had to do for his swindle to be complete was to receive his father Isaac’s blessing. Jacob knew that Isaac would not go along with his favorite son’s foolish decision. So Jacob decided that he needed to take advantage of his father. Jacob was going to trick his father into receiving the birthright. Jacob killed an animal, and then covered his arms with hair so that he could pretend to be his brother Esau to receive his father’s blessing. Jacob takes advantage of his father’s blindness by marching into his room claiming that he was his brother Esau, stealing his brother’s blessing and now Jacob’s swindle of Esau out of his father’s inheritance was complete. So to recap Jacob’s behavior to this point in the story he lied to his blind father and cheated his brother out of their possessions. Esau was so furious about this that he threatens to kill Jacob. Jacob then flees as far away from Esau as he could be.
Esau and Jacob would not encounter each other for twenty years. In the meantime, Jacob had gone to live with an uncle named Laban. Laban and Jacob were both cunning and made for each other. Laban got Jacob to agree to work for him for seven years to get his beautiful daughter Rachel’s hand in marriage. Only for Jacob’s wedding night, Laban pulls a fast one on him by sending his undesirable daughter Leah into Jacob’s bed instead. Jacob, the con-man, had been conned. Jacob would not stop though; Jacob agrees to work for Laban for another seven years finally marrying Rachel. Don’t worry about Jacob though. Jacob got his revenge on Laban. Jacob tricked Laban into giving him all of his spotted, diseased livestock, only for Jacob to develop a breeding technique which made the spotted livestock healthy, thus making Jacob into a very rich man. Now twenty years later, Jacob wanted to return home with all his possessions. Jacob figured it was time for him to enjoy the benefits of his father’s inheritance. Only one big problem stood in the way. The problem’s name was Esau.
So Jacob being Jacob started to think about how to outsmart Esau once again. Jacob at first sends messengers to spy on Esau, yet when Jacob hears back from the messengers he finds out Esau has 400 men to fight alongside him. Jacob was still looking for ways to avoid his brother. So Jacob then decides like the conniving coward that he had been his entire life that he was going to send his wives in two separate parties across the river into the Land of Canaan, hoping to let half his party along with Jacob escape. Jacob’s schemes were going him safe from Esau at least for the night. The night of Jacob’s supposed safety was going to change his life forever.
In the middle of the night, a man comes out of nowhere to begin to wrestle with Jacob. Jacob didn’t know who the man was at first. As Jacob begins to wrestle, he doesn’t follow his normal course of action; Jacob doesn’t make excuses or try to escape. Jacob for the first time in his life chooses to face the problem before him. In this encounter, Jacob was taken to the darkest places in his life. Jacob on this night was finally forced to confront the past twenty years of scheming that had led him to this moment. The wrestler reveals to Jacob on this night that he had wrestled with God. Jacob wrestled with God so he may receive God’s blessing. This encounter changed Jacob as he ultimately saw God face to face.
When the story says a “man wrestled with Jacob until dawn.” What we must remember is that dawn in a biblical passage is the signal of a man undergoing an epic encounter in one’s life that will change them forever.
We hear the story of Jacob wrestling with God and don’t know what exactly to make of it. We wonder what such a scene might look as within our own lives.
In 1997, Robert Duvall starred in a movie called The Apostle. Duvall played Sonny a Pentecostal preacher who like Jacob had his share of character defects. Sonny was a womanizer, whose wife Jessie played by Farrah Fawcett grew tired of his act then proceed to run off with his church’s youth minister much to Sonny’s dismay. Sonny’s failures to win her back fail. Sonny’s congregational elders side with his wife in the dispute and show him the door. Sonny then proceeds to snap at one of his kid’s softball games and savagely beats his wife’s boyfriend with a baseball bat into a coma. Sonny then proceeds to become an outlaw much like Jacob. Sonny stays with his Momma hiding out from the law, no different then Jacob hiding out from Esau leading to the film’s greatest scene.
Sonny snaps at God for his life ending up so wayward. Sonny begins to yell at God for taking his wife, and stealing church. Sonny yells at God for answers wanting to know if it was God or the Devil messing with him like this. All Sonny wants from God is peace. Sonny’s previous few weeks finally cause him to break down as he yells out “Lord I know that I’m a sinner, and I’m a womanizer, yet what should I do Lord, what should I do, so that you blow this pain out of me?”(The Apostle)
This scene was beautiful because like Jacob’s wrestling it paints the tale of a messed up preacher putting it all on the line. Sonny wrestled with God, lived to tell about it, and that Sonny realized that God’s forgiveness was even more powerful than our greatest sin.
Richard Hays describes this passage best when he says the message of Genesis 32 is that if we are transferred from darkness to light then God is going to have to wrestle with us in the darkness. We cannot see God any other way. Those who wrestle with God in the midst of their darkest hours will ultimately change before the dawn.
This idea of Jacob wrestling with God all night seems rather silly to us. We wonder what would be the point of a human prevailing against God in a wrestling match?
Pastor Nathan Asseng tells the following story, a number of years ago in Iowa there was a wrestling match between Ogden High and Humboldt High. “Humboldt had a senior wrestler on the team with Down syndrome”. The kid with Down syndrome possessed no physical threat to any other wrestler. “But the coaches asked if anyone on the opposing team would at least give the boy a chance to get out on the mat”.
A wrestler from Ogden High offered to take him on. The Ogden wrestler not only wrestled him for entire six minutes, but allowed the boy with Down syndrome to beat him on points. He gave this kid, not only the ability to compete, but even more graciously the opportunity to raise his hands in victory. “At the end of this match, both wrestlers got a standing ovation, and as you can imagine, there was hardly a dry eye in the house”.
In the midst of Jacob’s greatest challenge, God sought to touch Jacob. God did not punish Jacob for every decision that he had made for the last twenty years leading to that moment. God instead takes down Jacob so that he was never going to be the same ever again. Jacob’s life from this moment forward was no longer going to be defined by his cowardliness, cheating, or manipulating. Jacob was instead going to go forward with the promise that his God would not be distant from his everyday struggles.
What happens to Jacob and Esau? Jacob after being wounded by God has a newly found courage, the same type of courage that the disciples find after they encounter the risen lord. So, Jacob the next day rushes all of all his men finally to face Esau on the front line of battle. Yet as soon as Jacob sees Esau a shocking outcome occurs. Esau runs forward, puts Jacob in a beat hug then Esau the manly man begins weeping over his reunion with Jacob, only for Jacob to break down shortly thereafter along with him. As Jacob reentered the Land of Canaan after twenty years away he was no longer the spoiled brat who had left it twenty years before. Jacob was instead ready to be the Father of a great nation.
What we reminded of this morning as we hear Jacob’s story is a reminder of the nature of God. How God stuck beside Jacob for reasons that we are not able to fathom. God is not the terrifying presence that Jacob saw Esau being. We receive a reminder how we wrestle with God nearly every single day of our lives. Many of us have thrown everything that we possibly could at God from anger to doubt to despair to even cursing his name. Our God will not abandon us in the wilderness; our God will wrestle us through the darkest moments of our lives, to bring us safely forth to the dawn. Amen
 Genesis 25:27
 Genesis 25:28
 Genesis 25:27
 Genesis 25:28-29
 Genesis 27:11
 Genesis 25:30
 Genesis 25:31
 Genesis 25:32-33
 Genesis 27:15-16
 Genesis 27:18-29
 Genesis 27:41-45
 Genesis 28:1-5
 Genesis 29:1-20
 Genesis 30:25-43
 Genesis 32:7
 Genesis 32:8
 Genesis 32:24
 Genesis 32:25
 Genesis 32:28
 Genesis 32:30
 This scene can be found at You Tube- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q5v5DOEF45E
 Hays, Richard. “Limping and praising”. Faith & Leadership. 14.Apr.2009. Web. July.28.2014
 Aaseng, Nathan. “Wrestling with God”. Working Preacher. 18.Dec.2007.Web. July 28.2014
 Aaseng, Nathan. “Wrestling with God”.
 Aaseng, Nathan. “Wrestling with God”.
 Aaseng, Nathan. “Wrestling with God”.
 Genesis 33:4
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
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
There’s a saying amongst pastors that Confirmation students ask the best questions. Where as older adults might hesitate to ask certain questions for fear of being perceived as rude, inappropriate, or making others uncomfortable. Confirmation students often lack any such filter, so they just blurt out the first thought that inevitability pops into their head. So this morning I wish to begin our sermon by answering one of the best Confirmation questions, it’s a question that probably all of us have wondered about at some time in our life.
The question to consider this morning is “If believing in Jesus is the only way to get to heaven, then what happens to a man living on an island in the South Pacific that never has encountered any missionaries, nor even heard Jesus’ name. Would God be so mean and unfair as to condemn someone for all eternity for either bad luck or ignorance”?
I think before answering this question, we need to consider the concept of God’s fairness. What should be stated is that Heaven is the unfair outcome, whereas Hell is the fair outcome. If I were to die in a car accident this afternoon, death would not be an unfair result, hell would not be an unfair result, what would be unfair would be God’s forgiveness, what would be unfair is to be a recipient of God’s promises of eternal life.
We speak of salvation by grace, salvation by what is unmerited or undeserved for this reason. So the question about the South Pacific Islander’s eternal destination is not a question about God’s fairness, but rather a question about God’s nature.
So does God save the man born in the middle of nowhere who has never heard the Gospel? I think the first thing to point out is that God ultimately wants to save all people and come to knowledge of the truth.-1 Timothy 2:4
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son”-John 3:16
We remember that Christ came not to condemn the world, but rather Christ came to save and redeem the world. Christ wept at the awfulness of sin as he witnessed his friend Lazarus’ death. We are continually reminded throughout the scriptures that God can save the non-believer through any means that he chooses.
In the Book of Acts, God saves Cornelius a religious man who had never heard of Jesus Christ by choosing to make him the first gentile to convert to Christianity.
In the Book of Joshua, God worked through the prostitute Rahab who limited knowledge of him or the scriptures, yet was later referred to in the Book of Hebrews as a person of great faith.
God poured out his grace upon the Syrian Army commander Namaan, even as he lived in and served a nation that was openly hostile towards his ways.
So we must be continually brought back to the nature of God’s mercy being poured out upon the most unexpected of people.
I think what we must ultimately come back to when considering the fate of the unevangelized is Jesus’ emphasis on the Great Commission in Matthew 28. Jesus said to “Bring the Gospel forth to all nations."
The Disciples then proceeded to risk their life and reputation for spreading the Gospel. If Christ’s earliest and closest of followers didn’t believe that sharing their faith mattered for the sake of heaven/hell then, their actions would make no sense.
For whether God might grant mercy to all people at some point in time, I can’t say. We reflect on this question of the South Pacific Islander, who never heard the Gospel in many of the same ways as we reflect upon the question of unbaptized babies. I think it’s best to point towards the nature of the God that we do have. The God who proclaimed to an unbaptized Thief hanging alongside him “Today you will be with me in Paradise”
We can very rarely answer with any certainty questions regarding anyone’s salvation, all we can do is take comfort in the God that we have, the God that went forth to the Cross. While I believe that people cannot receive salvation apart from the Gospel of Christ, what I can’t say with any certainty is how far his Gospel can reach. I believe that the potential reach of the Gospel goes way beyond my own prejudices and biases. I wake up every morning giving thanks that the fate of humanity is not governed by my own whims and wishes, but rather by God’s mercy and grace.
I ultimately don’t consider myself to be a Universalist (one who believes that everyone is automatically saved) not because I have any certainty whether it is so. I have trouble with universalism because it says that Word and Sacrament don’t matter. Universalism makes the Death of Jesus into an unnecessary event. Universalism also doesn’t speak to why Christ’s closest followers were so were to risk their lives in the Church’s earliest days.
One of these stories from the Church’s earliest days comes to us this morning from the Book of Acts the 17th Chapter in the story of Paul preaching at Mars Hill. There is a very large church in Seattle called “Mars Hill” because when they started out their whole mission was reaching the unchurched and religiously unaffiliated of the Pacific Northwest. Our story for today is perhaps the Bible’s greatest tale of evangelism.
Our story for today begins a few verses before our lesson. The Apostle Paul is out walking through the streets of Athens where he is disturbed by all that he sees. Paul sees religious idols everywhere that he walked. Paul could have easily given up, and figured it was all a lost cause. Paul could have gone back to his home and been much more comfortable than trying to engage strangers in a foreign culture.
Paul instead decided to engage with the people of Athens and deal with the inevitable consequences. Paul’s first stop was the Agora, where Paul debated academics. Most of the people rejected Paul that he encountered, but some were willing to give him a second chance. Leading to our lesson for today where Paul speaks at Mars Hill. What makes Paul’s speech, so remarkable is his approach to the people of Athens, Paul doesn’t seek to lash out at them rather Paul commends them for their pursuit of religious truth. Paul was willing to engage the people of Athens, where they were at, not where Paul hoped they should be.
Let me tell a story, I know a lady named Janie. Janie’s a kind, sweet, old lady who seems to love everyone that she encounters. Janie’s getting up there in years; she has to have oxygen and walking is quite difficult without losing breath. Janie has four children and nine grandchildren. Janie overtime started to realize that she wasn’t seeing her grandchildren as much as they moved away, or got tied up with school. Janie noticed that her phone calls were being returned way after the fact. So Janie at seventy some years old decided that she was going to learn how to send text messages on her cell-phone to communicate with people better.
What I admire about Janie so much is that she is terrible at text-messaging. When I worked as a substitute teacher I would see kids that could send message after message keeping their phones inside their pockets the entire time. Some kids can text 30-40 words a minute with ease, whereas for Janie every letter that she types into the phone time. Janie trying to identify a letter on her phone might look like a bird trying to find a worm on the ground. The reason Janie learned text messaging is because she believes that it’s important for her to stay connected. The thing that I admire so much about Janie is she reaches out, even when it involves doing something uncomfortable for her because she knows the cost of it all is of infinite worth.
Janie teaches us something important about evangelism that evangelism isn’t ultimately about being a great mind. Evangelism is instead the act of becoming.
Janie reminds me of Paul at Athens. Paul knew the Athenians were lost in the wilderness in their pursuit of spiritual truth. Paul didn’t view the Athenians as his enemies; Paul rather viewed them as fellow travelers in pursuit of trying to figure life out. Paul sees that the Athenians had built an altar to an “unknown god," so Paul takes what was unknown to seek to make it known.
Paul made it known that the God he worships has so much power that he raised a man to life who had been in the tomb for three days.
“People who inspire others are those who see invisible bridges at the end of dead-end streets”- Charles Swindoll.
Some rejected Paul's message to the people of Athens on that day, yet Paul also gained willing ears wanting to hear more.
“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.”-Acts 17:32
There are two types of churches out there. There are churches that are just seeking to survive. Churches whose sole focus takes place inside their walls: budgets, numbers, and traditions. Churches whose focus is on sorting through power struggles and appeasing their own members. The second types of church are churches that are seeking to thrive. Churches that seek to reach the community, churches that seek out new relationships, and churches that seek out new ways of reaching people.
People of Sychar years of declining membership have beaten us down, old age has beaten us down, conflict has been us down, yet none of these things is our future. I have hope because I see joy on people’s face as kids go down the aisle to collect the well offering. I have hope because I see visitors welcomed as friends. I have hope because we understand that our existence is much bigger than ourselves, we define ourselves as a faith community by the forgiveness of sins.
I was having dinner with a friend a while back down in Duluth. This friend had grown up in a real religious home, yet over the years has drifted away from the church. The one thing though he couldn’t escape from Christianity is the beauty of forgiveness. Hearing that your sins have been declared clean from someone who believes it is a message that will not replicate through any other human community which people claim can replace the church.
For in the words of Thomas Edison, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
Too often we have the wrong idea about increasing church membership. We merely think we need to invite someone to church. We say “come to our church, I’ll maybe see you there.” “If I’m feeling particularly outgoing that day, I might even wave at you and send you well-wishes.” When what we need to do is not invite people to church, but rather bringing people to church. Bringing people to church goes beyond offering rides. Bringing people to church involves taking people into your lives no matter their personality quirks. Bringing people to church involves taking people in the midst of both their joys and sorrows. Bringing people to church involves a promise to be a support system for someone through thick and thin.
Paul went forth to Athens with great risk; Paul dared to proclaim salvation in a God whose name no one had ever heard. People had been put to death previously for doing what Paul was doing. We risk something different; we risk losing the church we know and the church that many of us love. Nothing stays the same forever. People come; people go, and people come to believe that their needs are best met elsewhere. These challenges are normal. What instead defines us is a message that is bigger than any one individual. So Blurt It Out! Sychar Lutheran is not museum for the saints; Sychar Lutheran is rather the hospital for sinners. Sychar Lutheran is the place which promises you that you do not go through life alone. Sychar Lutheran like Athens is the place that God will never give up on. Amen
 Acts 10
 Joshua 2
 Hebrews 11:31
 2 Kings 5:1-14
 Luke 23:43
 Acts 17:16-21
 Acts 17:17-18
 Acts 17:23
 Acts 17:31
First Lesson: Acts 2: 42-47
Responsive Reading: Psalm 23
Second Lesson: 1 Peter 2: 19-25
Gospel Lesson: John 10: 1-10
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Let me begin this morning with a story from my childhood. When I was eight years old, my dad had put up a tree house about seven feet off the ground for my friends and I to use. My parents being quite cautious attached to this tree house a ladder that was meant to be used for every journey up and down from the tree. I had a group of friends from the neighborhood that would frequent the tree house. As a child, I was the most risk averse of the children in our group. My friends Tommy and Danny discovered that they could jump down from the tree house, rather than take a boring ladder. So Tommy and Danny began to jump down quite frequently from the tree house, while I would watch. Tommy and Danny in all their jumps never managed to get hurt, so I believed that I could jump down like them also. So one day, I decided I was going to make my first jump down from the tree house. Now when Tommy and Danny jumped they always managed to jump straight down. They maybe even hung with their legs dangling along the edge before jumping off. I had a different idea for my first jump though; I was going to jump as high into the air as I could, thinking that I would be able to fly like superman. Judging by the title of the sermon as you probably guessed; my first jump would end up being my last jump. Soon I would be an eight year old boy having to use a walker, and the next three months were going to be spent in a cast. What does this tale of my broken leg; have to do with our gospel lesson? I’ll get back to broken legs in a little bit.
Our Gospel lesson for today comes to us from John the 10th chapter. This lesson takes place right after Jesus heals a Man who born blind, the discussion before this miracle between Jesus and his disciples centered on the following question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Our lesson for today occurs right after a long debate regarding the meaning of the Blind Man’s healing. The passage consists of two basic parts. The first part of the passage consists of Jesus describing the work of his ministry in comparison to herding sheep. The second part of this passage makes sense of the analogy.
So why does Jesus seek to interpret the Blind Man’s healing by comparing the people of Israel to sheep?
1. Sheep are vulnerable to attack.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”-John 10:10
Second story- when I was at Luther Seminary, I managed the Seminary Mailroom. One Saturday early afternoon a guy came in who appeared to be frantic. The Guy said he lived across the street from the school; this story seemed plausible with so many different people living either on or near campus. This guy claimed that he had locked himself out of his house, and he needed $20 bucks to pay a locksmith. This guy said he would come back in twenty minutes, and give me $40 bucks to go buy lunch. Being my normal self, I handed the guy twenty without giving it much thought. As you can guess, I never saw this guy again.
As I tell the story I realize how completely sketchy this guy’s story was, and to be totally honest I am somewhat embarrassed to admit it. This story reminds us all though how we often fail to see and recognize the forces both spiritual and earthly that are out to attack us before it is too late to respond.
The reason Jesus compared his followers to sheep is because of the nature of our enemies, how we are often defenseless against the wolves and coyotes of life in sin, death, and the power of the devil. Those who are seeking to destroy our faith along with crushing our spirit.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
We know these words from the 23rd Psalm.
We hear these words and we immediately know they are words of comfort directed at us. Perhaps the greatest image of the Lord being our Shepherd is the Sunday school painting with Jesus holding a lamb in his arms no differently than a mother would hold her child. We see this painting, and it quickly brings us peace. We do not want kids to be done with Sunday school without understanding the meaning of this painting.
For even though none of us probably know shepherds, there are a few things we know about shepherds. We know shepherds as being caring and loyal in every circumstance that comes before them. A shepherd cares for his sheep, no differently than a mother would care for a child that she carried in her womb.
The relation that Jesus speaks of between the sheep and the shepherd only makes sense if one realizes the nature of the very forces which seek to threaten us nearly every single day.
2. Sheep often stray
“All like sheep gone astray”- Isaiah 53:6
I want to tell you this morning the story of a Major League pitcher named Barry Zito. Barry Zito came up with the Oakland A’s and was a star. Two years into Zito’s career, he won the Cy Young award as the best pitcher in the American League. After six and a half seasons in Oakland, Zito signed a seven year contract with the San Francisco Giants for $126 million dollars. Zito’s contract was the richest given to a pitcher at the time that he signed it. Zito’s time though in San Francisco was a disaster. Zito ended up in such low regard that just four years into his contract; he was left off the San Francisco Giants roster as they won the World Series.
Zito had been brought up in a very religious albeit non-traditional religious home. Zito had been brought up in New Age Spirituality. New Age Spirituality tends to place emphases on flowery ideas such as humanity’s inner goodness. Christianity tends to stress humanity’s differences with God; whereas New Age Spirituality tends to emphasize humanity’s oneness with God. The New Age Movement tends to de-emphasize things such as sin, evil, and judgment. The New Age Movement teaches humanity’s problem is one of sheer ignorance, keeping them from reaching their full illumination as individuals.
New Age Philosophy has been brought to the mainstream by people like Oprah Winfrey, Shirley Maclaine, and plenty of 21st century churches. As Zito kept encountering disappointment after disappointment from the highest of highs, he began to reconsider some things about the nature of his faith.
Barry Zito heard that there was no sin, yet such a statement is the very opposite of comforting when all you see around you is darkness.
Barry Zito eventually gets injured.
A few months after Zito’s injury, he was talking to his best friend who told him the story of the shepherd. How a shepherd will be leading his sheep and one of the sheep will be walking astray from the pack. The shepherd will then take the radical step of breaking the sheep’s leg, so that the sheep will have to rely on the shepherd to get better. But once that leg is completely healed, that sheep never leaves the side of the shepherd ever again.
This story illustrated to Barry Zito something important about the nature of faith. Faith is not dependent on our own sense of inner-goodness or motivation, faith is rather dependent on the promises of forgiveness that come to us as strayed sheep in our Gospel.
What Barry Zito’s story reminds us of is something important, Barry Zito needed to truly stray from the path that he designed for his life, to be able to find answers. Zito had to walk along a path that he would have never chosen for himself, yet it was on this path that the Shepherd’s ultimate work was revealed to rescue lost sheep.
3. Sheep need to be guided.
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”- Matthew 9:36
The thing about sheep is that they are not dumb animals. The thing that makes sheep, so unique is their inability to act apart from the rest of the sheep. If the head sheep won’t eat, none of the other sheep will eat. Sheep tend to follow the crowd. I saw friend after friend jump out of the tree house; I needed to do it next. When you are eight years old, you will follow your friends over the edge of a cliff. Herd instinct will be stronger than intelligence.
When I was in high school, I was playing in a golf meet talking to a kid that had recently moved to a new small school. This kid’s new school drove him crazy! If one kid had a particular pair of jeans, then within two weeks, everyone else would make it a priority to have the same time of jeans. One kid would smoke, soon everyone else would smoke. Studies about human decision making tend to portray humans as risk adverse in all walks of life, the main reason that humans are so risk-averse is they fear standing out for the crowd.
Sheep at the end of the day are ultimately fearful creatures that will not lie down unless they know that the shepherd is in sight.
“A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”-John 10:5
What our lesson in comparing humans to sheep reminds us of, is our need for a shepherd, a shepherd who is willing to lay down his life for his sheep.
Our Good Shepherd leads us to the Cross. It is on the Cross, that the Shepherd stays beside those who have strayed from him there whole lives. The Good Shepherd goes before us into the valley of the shadow of death and seeks to call his own sheep by name, so that they may come out upon the other side. Our Good Shepherd reminds us that we shall not go through anything that he has not already endured. On the Cross, the Shepherd became the Sheep, the Lamb of God who takes way the sin of the world, who cleanses us from all sin.
“The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”-John 10:3-4. Amen.
 John 9:2
 Lannon, Nick. “Barry Zito, a Broken Leg, and the Outer Christ.” MBIRD. 12.Dec.2012. Web.
 Keown, Tim. “A man in the game.” ESPN the Magazine. 1.Dec.2012. Web.
 The Asch conformity experiments of the 1950’s are one of many studies which highlight this general phenomena.
First Lesson: Acts 2: 14, 36-41
Responsive Reading: Psalm 116: 1-4, 12-19
Second Lesson: 1 Peter 1: 17-23
Gospel Lesson: Luke 24: 13-35
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
I want to begin this morning with a story. There once was a man who was bald. This man was known for his patience, mercy, and kindness. One day this man was out taking a walk, when he encounters a large number of youth that begin to taunt him. They made fun made fun of his “baldness” and wished for his death. The bald man was both hurt by their insults, but frightened for his safety. The man then issues a curse against those who were taunting him. Right when it looked like the Bald Man’s life could be taken, out of the nearby woods come a couple of female bears, the bears then mauled to death forty-two youth.
With the exception of Gunnar and Nick along with the rest of the confirmation students, I’m not sure if anyone here really knows this story. It’s the story of Elisha and the she-bears that comes from the Book of 2 Kings 2.
This is a strange story that seems devoid of any real religious meaning. Yet it comes from the pages of our holiest of books. What should we think about the bald-man and the she bears? We’ll get back to that in a little bit.
Recently the American Bible Society and Barna Research released their 2014 State of the Bible survey which contained some interesting findings regarding people’s attitudes towards the scriptures.
Here are some of the more interesting findings from within this survey. For those of you who don’t care for numbers, I promise this breakdown will be brief.
-79% of Americans believe that the Bible is a sacred book. This number is somewhat noteworthy since it’s down from 86% in 2011. The Bible receives it’s most positive scores for being seen as encouraging forgiveness, patience, and generosity. 88% percent of American households report reading the Bible once a week or more.
-56% of Americans believe that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God with little in the way of errors. 37% of Americans read the Bible once a week or more.
-Perhaps the most interesting finding of this survey was that the number of people who are considered Bible skeptics defined as those who believe the Bible to be nothing more than mere words of men now sits at 19% of the U.S. population, this number is roughly equal to those who are Biblically engaged defined as those who read the Bible at least four times per week.
These surveys always find interesting things about American attitudes towards the Bible. It’s not uncommon for these surveys to discover that a majority of Americans believe that the Bible contains everything that one needs to live a meaningful life, where as a majority will also fail to open the Bible less than 5 times a year.
I think what these surveys reveal more than anything is that Americans have a fascination with the Bible. In 2014 alone, Son of God about the Life of Jesus and Noah has already been released.
In December a big budget production of the story of Moses and the Exodus is coming to the big screen. I think what all this shows is America wants to know the Biblical story, yet at times often can’t make sense of it.
I’ll always be surprised when I encounter people who never attend church, yet frequently partake in religious specials on TV. We deal with an interesting tension regarding the scriptures and these issues.
So this raises the questions of “How do we make sense of the Bible?” and “What role should this book play in our daily lives?”
This brings us to our lesson for this morning from Luke the 24th Chapter. The story begins with two men who were followers of Jesus (but not disciples), leaving Jerusalem on the third day after his death. These men then begin a seven mile walk to their home in the village of Emmaus. They then encounter a man on the Road to Emmaus who they are unable to recognize.
They describe what happened during the last week as an event that brought forth great disappointment “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
As someone that has gone to a lot of sporting events, I know the worst feeling in the world is watching the other team celebrate. Seeing other fans have enjoyment that you yourself wished you had. You hope more than anything that someday all your emotional investment pays off, and the thought that it might not payoff, makes you question why even care?
I have a friend who is a Pastor in Pennsylvania, she used to dread more than anything in her job having to perform wedding ceremonies, and this task was a constant reminder of all that she didn’t have in life.
This was the type of feeling that these men had as they mourned Jesus’ death. They knew Roman power, they had been crushed by Roman power, these men were returning home with what seemed like the crushing realization that nothing was going to be different from them the next time around.
Yet as these men were expressing their disappointment in the outcome of holy week, this man who they still didn’t recognize began to point out a few things to them.
How these men were just reinforcing something that had been difficult for centuries in how hard it is for us to believe. How the scriptures declared that the Messiah (the holy one of Israel), the one that they had been waiting had to suffer and die to reconcile God to humanity. This man then took these two disciples aside and began to explain the scriptures to them starting with the Law and the Prophets-Luke 24:27. Jesus began to tie the scriptures together for these two disciples.
So how does one tie the Bible altogether? Joe Burgess is the most brilliant mind that I have ever come across. Joe is considered the foremost Lutheran expert in the Office of the Pope in the world. A generation ago, Joe was part of the International Lutheran-Catholic Dialogues because of it. Joe’s got a PHD in New Testament, and keeps so many books in his house that even his oven is full of books.
Joe wrote an article on how the scriptures all tie together as Jesus explained to the men on the Road to Emmaus in this unrecorded conversation.
I share for you Joe’s thoughts on this day.
1. The New Testament interprets the Old Testament. Earlier I was telling the story about Elisha and the she bears. Many of you probably didn’t know what to make of this story, and that’s intentional. Perhaps a few more details will help bring about understanding. Elisha was being mocked for his religion, by a large number of youth during a great time of religious conflict within the nation of Israel’s history. The group that Elisha had encountered on that day was marching towards the spiritual center of the country the city of Bethel, perhaps to inflict even more damage upon the faith communities. Perhaps God’s action with the she bears was to prevent a far greater spiritual calamity. God’s involvement did not work. Elisha’s people were eventually brutally conquered. Yet God did not stop seeking to bring about reconciliation between him and his people. The thing about so many stories within the Bible is they often don’t make a lot of sense unto themselves; they only begin to make sense in the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The New Testament interprets the Old Testament because the New Testament is what brings forth cross and resurrection. Our faith is not based on a series of events a complicated puzzle that must be interpreted, our faith is based on one event.
2. The clear interprets the unclear. A while back the Jehovah Witnesses stopped by my house; I tend to engage Bob and Peggy whenever I see them. They start quoting scriptures at me. Yet what I noticed about every scripture verse that they quoted at me was that it was either from the Book of Revelation or the Book of Daniel. I was chuckling under my breath as I watched them seemingly play a game of ping pong between these two books. While these are useful books, they are ultimately not the books which shape our belief system. Due to the fact that oftentimes the world’s brightest Bible scholars can’t agree on their meaning. We must always let the clear promises of scripture; influence how we interpret stuff that is difficult to figure out. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” We must never loss sight that the scriptures can only be seen through the lens of the human predicament of sin and how God acted in response.
3. Scripture interprets itself, we have no higher authority. What the scriptures ultimately do in our lives is it reminds us that we do not stand in judgment over them; rather the Bible stands in judgment over us. Scripture points to Christ and Christ gives the scriptures their authority. So how we understand the scriptures. Martin Luther describe the scriptures “the cradle which holds the baby Jesus.” The Bible itself is not our hope; the Bible is rather from where we draw our hope. The Bible is where we hear the great word of God’s love for sinners, where we encounter promise, forgiveness, and salvation.
4. We always need to ask when looking at the scriptures. What drives Christ? Or what promotes Christ? Let me quote a Bible verse for you. 1 Timothy 5:23- The Apostle Paul instructs the Apostle Timothy to “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.) Is this wine-drinking advice useful? Perhaps, yet it’s really not that important to our Sunday mornings. Let me now quote another Bible verse Ephesians 2:8-9 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Are these verses equally important? No. One verse offers debatable advice, where as the other verse issues the promises of heaven. Which of these two verses should have more authority for your life? The verse that speaks to the Bible’s mission and purpose.
5. Scripture can only be interpreted within the Church. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this story from our Gospel lesson is that these men receive the greatest Bible lesson they could ever hope to receive, yet they still don’t recognize Jesus. It is only when they share a meal together later that their eyes were opened. It was only then when they came to realize that there hearts were burning as Christ spoke to them on the Road to Emmaus. Scripture can only really be interpreted inside the Church, because interpreting scripture is not about the brains in your head, it’s rather about the faith that has been created within your heart. Since the scriptures are the vessel by which the Holy Spirit creates faith.
David Zahl who is a blogger for Mockingbird describes having a youth pastor friend who fears giving access to the Bible to his students. This youth pastor fears how too many people approach the Bible. How they see it as nothing more than a set of rules and requirements that they need to abide by, to get in on the right side of heaven.
The Bible breaks down our whole world view that our notions of success and reward aren’t quite right. The scriptures don’t feed us as payment for a hard day's work; rather the scriptures nourish us when we’re famished. The scriptures give us relief, when the world seems to be crashing around us no different then these men on the Road to Emmaus. What’s the scriptures remind us is that our salvation is not an accident.
Around the turn of the 19th Century, there was a German philosopher with perhaps the greatest German name ever in Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. I leave you with Von Goethe’s words this morning “The Bible grows more beautiful, as we grow in our understanding of it.”
The Bible, death, resurrection, forgiveness, and new life for this is the beauty of what Jesus gave these two disciples on the Road to Emmaus. Amen
 2 Kings 2:23-24
 American Bible Society and Barna Research Group. “American Bible Society’s State of the Bible 2014”.www.americanbible.org. Web. Apr.29.2014
 Hagen, Kenneth. “The Bible in Churches: How Various Churches intrepret the Scriptures. “ Burgess’s article appears on pages 101-126. The five principals of Lutheran scriptural interpretation occur on pages 115-117. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press. 1994. Print
 John 11:25
 Zahl, David. “Bible Bible on the Wall, Who’s the Fairest of Them All?” Mockingbird. Christ Episcopal Church. Charlottesville, VA. 28.Apr.2011. Web. Apr.30.2014
Pastor Stew Carlson
These are all Sunday sermon's written by Pastor Stew.