Sunday, June 9, 2013

Third Sunday after Pentecost - June 9, 2013 - Luke 7:11-17

There’s a couple of ways that you can look at our gospel lesson this morning.  I’d like to look at them both and then see if we can piece them together.

The first way goes something like this: in last week’s lesson, Jesus was called on by a Roman centurion to heal his servant.  He was on his way to the guy’s house when the soldier sent word that Jesus didn’t need to come all the way to the house, but could just say the word and heal the servant from where he was.  The soldier talked about having authority himself and how he understood that Jesus had authority too.  Well, Jesus did what the man asked and healed the servant that very moment.  The word that the soldier used was authority.  We might also call it power.  To heal someone when you are right there beside them, when you can touch them and speak to them, that’s pretty amazing all by itself.  But to heal somebody by merely speaking the word from a distance?  That’s power.

It says that the next day Jesus was going along and he was coming up to the little village of Nain where there was a funeral procession leaving town, on the way to the cemetery.  The pall-bearers were carrying the bier, that is to say the board on which the body was placed.  And Jesus walked up to it, put his hand on it, and said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”  And the man sat up and began to speak. 

It says that the people in the crowd, and no doubt the pall-bearers, were seized by fear.  And they praised God.  Now raising a man from the dead is truly an act of power and this is what the crowd recognized.  In fact, so great was this act of power that they cried out, “A great prophet has risen among us.”  What they are referring to is our first lesson from the book of First Kings, when Elijah the prophet raised from the dead the son of the Widow of Zarephath.  The people see the power of Jesus and they recognize the similarity between him and one of the giants of their faith.

So that is the first way of understanding our lesson today.  It’s about power.  Jesus has it.

The second way to understand our lesson will also be familiar.  It starts the same way.  In the lesson last week, Jesus is called by a powerful Roman soldier who has a servant.  In fact, he probably has a lot of them.  And strictly speaking, he could have ordered Jesus to come to him.  He didn’t, but he could have, because he was powerful guy. 

The next day, Jesus was going along and he was coming up the little village of Nain and he came upon a funeral procession leaving town.  And his eyes were drawn to a particular woman who was weeping as she looked up at the dead man.  He perceived that this was her son, her only son.  Her only child, in fact.  And she was a widow.  Here was a woman convulsed by grief, alone in the world, even as she was surrounded by a crowd.  Here was a woman participating in the ceremony that ends with her son in the ground along with her joy, her love, her future security.  Here was a dead woman walking.

A wave of compassion comes over Jesus.  If you want to read it literally, it says that his guts poured out for her.  He is devastated that she is suffering like this and determined to do something.  He walks over to her, tells her softly, “Do no weep.”  Then grabs the bier and stops it.  The crowd is horrified, but Jesus doesn’t care.  He says with a strong, clear voice, “Young man, I say to you, rise.” 

In this second way of understanding our gospel lesson, Jesus raises this man out of compassion for his mother.  It’s an act of spontaneous love for one who is suffering.

So then, how do these two accounts fit together?  Are they both true?  Is one more true than the other?  I think the best way to put them together is to recognize that Jesus’ power, his lordship, does not exist for its own sake.  The power of Jesus, indeed the person of Jesus, exist for a very particular purpose.  When Jesus begins his ministry in Luke, he states clearly what that purpose is by using the words of the prophet Isaiah:
            “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
                        because he has anointed me
                        to proclaim good news to the poor.
            He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
                        and recovering of sight to the blind,
                        to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
            to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”
(Luke 4:18-19 ESV)

The power that Jesus shows is only ever a means to accomplish what his true purpose is.  He comes to those who are weak, who are poor, who are broken, who are captive.  And he comes to show them compassion and to do something about it.  He was a savior to that poor, grieving widow that day.  And he showed his power so that she would be consoled. 

And that is where we meet Jesus.  In our failure.  In our sorrow.  In our brokenness.  And he comes to pour out his guts, to have compassion on us, to be our savior.  Amen.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Second Sunday after Pentecost - June 2, 2013 - 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10

There is a theme that is woven through our scripture readings this morning: foreigners.  Solomon is praying for foreigners, Paul is writing to a group of foreigners who are trying to become less foreign, Jesus is summoned by a foreigner who is a member of an occupying army.  Throughout the Bible and throughout history, the status of foreigners is a big question.  Are they enemies or can they be friends?  Do they have access to God like we do - or not?  Should we mix together with them – or should we keep separate?

In our first lesson, King Solomon is praying to God during the dedication of the first Temple.  His major concern, his earnest desire, during this long prayer, only part of which was read this morning, is that God hear the people.  He moves through a list of examples of people to whom, presumably, God would be less inclined to listen:
·         Verse 31: “If someone sins against a neighbor…” 
·         Verse 33: “When your people Israel, having sinned against you, are defeated before an enemy…”
·         Verse 35: “When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you…”
·         Verse 37: “If there is famine in the land, if there is plague, blight, mildew, locust or caterpillar; if their enemy besieges them in any of their cities…”
·         Verse 41: “Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name….”

This list includes people who have explicitly sinned; it includes people who have probably sinned because they are receiving punishment; and it includes foreigners.  Here we have a window into the mindset of Solomon and the people of his time.  Sinners, those enduring hard times, and foreigners are all on the outs.  The assumption is that God is willing to have a relationship with a certain kind of person – a person who does right and can prove it by the prosperity of his circumstances, and this person should be a citizen, an Israelite.  These are the assumptions underlying Solomon’s prayer. 

But then, with divine insight, he prays to God for the people who are not like that - who cannot stand before God and be heard.  Solomon prays that God would listen to them.  Solomon petitions God to, “Hear in heaven.”  Even those who are foreigners.

In our second lesson, the issue of foreigners is a bit beneath the surface.  The Galatians, to whom Paul was writing this letter, were not Jews, they were Gentiles - foreigners.  But Paul had come to them and had preached to them the good news of Jesus Christ for sinners; and these Galatians had believed in Jesus.  So far so good. 

Unfortunately, some preachers had come to them after Paul left town and had told them that to be true Christians they would first have to become Jews.  And to become a Jew, at least for a male, required circumcision.  And here we see the issue: Can a foreigner be a true believer in Jesus Christ?  These new preachers said, “No.  First the foreigner must become a Jew and only then can they become a true believer in Jesus Christ.” 

Because of this attitude, and the people’s submission to it, Galatians is the angriest letter that Paul wrote.  He writes, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel…”  To believe that our nationality or people-group has anything to do with our standing before God is to believe a different gospel altogether.  It doesn’t matter a bit and Paul doesn’t pull any punches when he describes the ones who are preaching what is wrong, he says, “If anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!”  Paul is determined to destroy this idea that the foreigner is separated from God.  No, he says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  Our identity before God is not nationality.  It is faith.  It is faith in what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.

And so we come to the gospel lesson.  Jesus is called on by a Roman soldier to come and heal his servant.  Or rather, the Roman soldier speaks with some Jewish elders, who then speak to Jesus.  And they make the case that, though the soldier is a Roman, Jesus should still help him.  They say, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”  The implication is that a normal foreigner would not deserve help, but that this fellow is a kind of honorary Jew.  Jesus goes.

But then something curious happens.  The foreigner sends word again and tells Jesus that he doesn’t need to come all the way to his house.  “Heal him from a distance; that’s fine.”  Jesus marvels, saying, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”  And he does what the foreigner asks.  He heals his servant.

Now, does he do it because the foreigner was kind and generous to Jews?  No, he does it because the man believes.  The fact that he is a foreigner doesn’t matter one way or the other. 

So here is the lesson for this morning.  We don’t stand before God as Americans or Mexicans, or Tanzanians.  We don’t stand before God as whites, or blacks, or Asians.  We stand before God as those who believe or those who do not.

Our identity is that of a believer.  We are people to whom God listens, though we are not worthy to stand before him.  We are people who have received the gospel, though we were foreigners.  We are people to whom Jesus comes and people whom he helps, because we trust him with our lives and with the lives of our loved ones.  

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Trinity Sunday - May 26, 2013 - Baptism of Jess David Kopperud

Today, on this Trinity Sunday, we have the honor of being present for the baptism of Jess David Kopperud.  And he is going to be baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  What does it mean to be baptized in this particular name?  I’d like to look at some of the implications for Jess and for all of us.

First, he will be baptized in the name of the Father.  In the Apostle’s Creed we confess that this Father is the creator of heaven and earth.  Now we can interpret this to mean that God is a Father on a magnificent and vast scale; God the father of all nations and creatures; God the father of the whole cosmos.  And that’s true enough.  But we don’t confess that God is our Father because of his universal paternity.  We confess that God is our father because that is the way Jesus refers to him, over and over again.  And we confess that God is our father because of what Paul said in his Letter to the Romans, which we heard last week.  Paul writes, “When we cry, “Abba!  Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God…”  And we confess that God is our Father because when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray he taught them to say, “Our Father in heaven…”  Luther explains further, “God encourages us to believe that he is truly our Father and we are his children.  We therefore are to pray to him with complete confidence just as children speak to their loving father.”
Jess, you have a wonderful daddy whom you already know.  But you also have a heavenly Father whom you will spend your whole life getting to know, calling to him for help, trusting him with everything.  He is not distant from you, but as close as these words in your ears.  And he will hear you when you speak to him.

Second, Jess will be baptized in the name of the Son.  This Son is also God, but is not the same as the Father.  The Son is how God showed himself to us, first as a baby in a stable at Bethlehem - and then as the man Jesus who showed and spoke the love that each man and woman who met him needed to hear.  There is so much that we cannot know about God the Father, but he sent his Son Jesus so that we could know what God was like and what his intentions for us are.  Paul writes in his Letter to the Philippians, “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
Jess, through Jesus the Son you know the lengths to which God will go to be near to you and to love you in a way that you can understand.  And in Jesus you will hear words of love: tough love when you are stubborn and erring; merciful and tender love when you are broken.

And third, Jess will be baptized in the name of the Holy Spirit.  This Holy Spirit is the form of God who is hardest for us to understand.  What is he like?  (Notice I say “he”, not “it.”  Not because the Holy Spirit is male, but because the Spirit is a person, not a thing.)  So what is the Spirit like?  Jesus compares the Spirit to the wind, which is something we can’t see, but can see the effects of.  So the Holy Spirit is hard to imagine, but we can notice what he does.  What does he do?  It is the Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead.  So the Spirit brings life.  When Jesus talks about the Spirit, he calls him the Advocate, or helper.  So the Spirit is among us to help and to guide.  One of the particular things that the Spirit helps us with is understanding the Word of God.  So the Holy Spirit is a teacher.
Jess, you will have a helper for the rest of your life, preserving your life now – and one day raising you to eternal life.  And as you learn about God and study the Bible, it is the Holy Spirit who will be your teacher and who will open your eyes to the goodness and holiness of God, the wonder of God’s creation and those things which are expected of you as a worker in his kingdom.

This is all just a hint of the reality, really.  The larger point that I am trying to make, is that our God is known to us in particular and distinct ways.  We know him and relate to him as our Father.  We know him and relate to him as the Son, Jesus.  And we know him and relate to him as the Holy Spirit.  Each of these forms gives us a different understanding of the OneGod who graciously chooses us, who calls us into his service in this life, and who will take us to be with himself when this life is over. 
And so then, Jess, and all of you baptized:
·         Your lives are an opportunity to know this God who has graciously made himself known to you. 
·         Your lives are an opportunity to serve this God who, in Jesus Christ, has served you.
·         Your lives are an opportunity to love this God who first loved you.


Sunday, May 19, 2013

Day of Pentecost - May 19, 2013 - Romans 8:14-17

In the weeks since Easter, we have looked at the early years of the Christian Church, starting with a few frightened people in a locked room and ending up some twenty years later a quickly growing movement spreading across the Roman Empire and beyond.  When we started, I told you that we needed to assume something in order for this amazing change to make any sense at all.  That thing is the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.  Without the Spirit, none of it would have happened.  The disciples would have gone to the grave with pleasant memories of Jesus and nothing to show for them.

So what exactly is Pentecost and what really happened?  Well, the day is described pretty clearly in our first lesson from the Book of Acts.  The Holy Spirit came rushing like a wind into the room where the disciples were gathered.  Flames of fire burned above their heads.  And they spoke in languages that they had never before known.  People heard the disciples ecstatically preaching in these various languages and they were either amazed, or they were cynical, guessing that the disciples were drunk.  Peter responds to the naysayers by preaching the first sermon of the Christian Church, and then we’re off to the races. 

In other words, the Holy Spirit is amazing.  It turned a few fearful Galileans and turned them into the most amazing missionaries the world has ever seen.  How did the Spirit do that?

There are many things to learn about the work of the Holy Spirit, and I invite you to pray for and pursue more knowledge on this, but I’d like to focus on what the Apostle Paul says about the Spirit in our lesson from his Letter to the Romans.  It’s very short, really.  But it gets at two things our minds can understand: fear and belonging.
Paul writes, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear.”  This should be very, very clear to us from the past weeks.  Before Pentecost, before the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples were in fear.  But after they received the Holy Spirit, they were no longer fearful at all.  The authorities threatened them: it didn’t matter, the disciples kept preaching.  The authorities beat them: it didn’t matter, the disciples kept telling everyone about Jesus.  The authorities persecuted and even killed them: it didn’t matter, the disciples were NOT afraid.  The Holy Spirit had taken away the crippling fear that had kept them locked in that room.  So the Holy Spirit has everything to do with overcoming fear. 

Paul continues, “You have received a spirit of adoption.”  Now, given the amazing things that these disciples would soon accomplish, we might perhaps expect the Spirit to give them something a bit flashier than “adoption.”  But that’s exactly what the Spirit of God is about; it’s about adoption; it’s about belonging.  And there is a great deal of power in it.

Perhaps some of you have heard about Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback for the Green Bay Packers?  On draft day in 2005, Rodgers was widely expected to be drafted early, maybe even with the first pick.  Along with some other top prospects he was invited to await his selection on camera.  But he wasn’t drafted first that day.  Or second, or third, or fourth.  He waited in front of the cameras that day, increasingly humiliated, until finally he was chosen with the twenty-fourth pick.  He was humiliated because the message he was getting was this, “We don’t want you.  You don’t belong on our team.”  To be wanted, to belong, is a very powerful thing.
To receive the Spirit of Adoption is to be told and to know deeply that God is your Father and you are his son or daughter.  To receive the Spirit of Adoption is to become an heir and to be included in the family inheritance. 
How many of you now live, or have lived, through a time when you were just scraping by?  How many of you have feared that if things didn’t break right, maybe you’d lose the house or the farm?  How many of you have had to ask for help, either from your parents or from the government because you weren’t going to be able to feed yourself or your family?  To have an inheritance at such a time would be the assurance that you would make it through the difficulty and prosper on the other side of it.

For the disciples, this Spirit that they received, was the ultimate assurance that God would take care of everything.  Whatever might seem to go wrong, they were sons and daughters of God, heirs with Christ to a vast heavenly fortune.  Why fear?  And why not begin to spend the fortune?  And so spend it they did, boldly and fearlessly.  But instead of using it up, the pile of loot just grew larger.  The church grew, knowledge of Jesus Christ spread, and people who had been living in fear came to know that God was their Father, Jesus was their brother and that they too were heirs to this great spiritual fortune.

And so we come to us, both the congregations of St. Peter and Christ.  Where do we stand?  Do we live with a spirit of fear or one of adoption?  To whom do we belong: to the god of our parents and grandparents?  Or to the God who made heaven and earth and who moves now because there are people who desperately need to hear that Jesus Christ isn’t a cultural artifact, but the very hope upon which they can build a new life.  Our children and grandchildren depend on us to tell them that it is the latter God whom we serve.  We have been adopted by him, we BELONG to him, and so we are willing to do whatever it takes so that they might know this as well.    

Paul goes on to say, “we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if in fact we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” 

The work of the church is no easy task.  And these are busy times.  But let us not be afraid of doing what is right.  Amen.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Graduation Sunday - May 12, 2013 - Acts 16:16-34

First of all, I would like to congratulate you graduates.  Many years ago, when you were quite small, you began something.  Back then, as five year olds, you had imaginations that ran wild and created all kinds of improbable scenarios.  “Look Mom!  This cardboard box that I’m sitting in is actually a spaceship!”  But for all that imagination you would not have been able to imagine today.  Nor would you have been able to imagine these intervening years, full of your particular accomplishments...... and also some things you would change if you could.  There was no way to know what would happen.  It took the living of those years to find out the future.

Have you contemplated your freedom?  I don’t mean to put words in your mouth or attribute thoughts to you that are not your own, but many people at about this time in life are excited at the prospect of freedom.  Freedom from the discipline of parents.  Freedom from the schedule the past 12 years have imposed on you, August through May, day in, day out.  Have you caught yourself thinking like that?

If you have, and I don’t presume that you have, so take it for what it’s worth, you might be disappointed by the freedom that is in store for you.  As you move forward, you will need to work harder.  Work and school will impose more on you, not less.  And the discipline that your parents provided for you might start seeming more like a helpful structure that organized your lives.

That is not to say that there is not freedom to be had.  And this is where I’d like to turn to our lesson for today.  For the lesson from Acts is about freedom.  Paul and Silas have crossed over into Europe from Asia, they are in a town called Phillipi.  They have already met with some success in spreading the gospel, converting a rich woman named Lydia who then offered them a place to stay as they preached in the town. 

As they continued to go about the town preaching, they met a slave-girl who was possessed by a spirit of divination.  She brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune telling.  And she pesters them; it seems this spirit that was in her compelled her to testify about Paul and Silas.  Interestingly she says, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”

So as our story begins, we actually have all kinds of language that has to do with slavery, not freedom.  The girl does not own herself, she is owned by others.  She does not control her own mind, but is enslaved by a spirit.  And Paul and Silas are slaves of the Most High God.

Well, Paul gets annoyed by this noise coming from this spirit through the girl, so he casts it out.  The girl is set free!  That is what you would expect.  But instead of seeing freedom, instead we see anger from the girl’s owners.  They are so angry, in fact, that they drag Paul and Silas before the town’s judges and stir up the crowd against them.  The crowd attacks them.  The judges have them beaten.  They are tossed into jail and have leg irons put on them.  Our expectations have been turned on their heads.  Instead of more freedom, there seems to be less of it.

Then, as they sit in the jail, their freedom taken away from them, Paul and Silas begin to pray and to sing hymns to God.  And an earthquake rumbled and shook, the foundations of their prison trembled, and they were set free!  This is more like it. 

When the jailer awoke and found the doors open he was going to kill himself for having failed to fulfill his duty, but Paul stops him, assuring him that they and all the prisoners are still there.  He doesn’t need to fear.  Now this is curious.  Instead of obtaining their freedom, Paul and Silas stay put in the jail.

At what point in this story are Paul and Silas free?  They are free the whole time.  What kind of freedom is it?  They have the freedom of Christ. 

{off the cuff}

What is this freedom that we have in Christ?
It is not the freedom to get out of jail free.
It is not the freedom that means nobody will exert their power over us.
It is not the freedom from hardship or obstacles.

It is the freedom from death, the Devil and our sinful selves. 
It is the freedom to give thanks in all circumstances knowing that God is Lord over all and that we are in his care.

As you live into your futures, you might be less free than you expect.  School and work and relationships will impose on you in all kinds of ways.  But the freedom of Christ is available to you in all circumstances.  You access this freedom by giving thanks.  By praising God.  By trusting.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

6th Sunday of Easter - May 5, 2013 - Book of Acts

First of all, I am very sorry not to be here today.  As you may know, my granny, Rose Worley, died on Tuesday.  She was my last living grandparent and it was important for me to be with family to mourn and to say goodbye.  Unfortunately, this has left me with little time to prepare anything for you for this Sunday morning.  I regret this, but you all know as well as I do that life and death do not conform themselves to our schedules.

In the Sundays following Easter I have been speaking with you about what happened after Jesus ascended into heaven. What is the story of the early church?  We have heard how the church began as a group of frightened disciples in a locked room.  But these fearful disciples are given courage and ability by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, and they begin preaching out in the open.  And though they were threatened and though they were beaten, they continued to preach that Jesus Christ died and was raised so that sinners who believe in him will be forgiven.  In these early days you can already see the difference that Jesus has made: those who were fearful became courageous.

We have heard the more intense persecution that came when Stephen was stoned to death under the approving gaze of Saul.  For those who endured it, this persecution certainly would have seemed like a terrible thing.  But God is able to work through that which is bad in order to accomplish something good.  And this time was no different.  Those who fled the persecution in Jerusalemestablished the church in different towns.  The church grew! 

Something else amazing happened too.  God worked in the life of a man who was totally opposed to Jesus.  Jesus came to Saul and chose to forgive him and love him.  Saul the persecutor became Paul the great missionary of the church (though we haven’t told that part of the story yet.)

And we have heard about how Peter visited the new churches that had spread out from Jerusalem because of the persecution.  And as he was out visiting he kept having occasion to do exceptional things, like raising Tabitha from the dead.  And going to the home of a Roman!  And God showed Peter that the gospel of Jesus Christ was not just for Jews, but for other people too.  And so he preached to the household of Cornelius the Roman, and they believed, and they were baptized.

And now we jump forward in the story.  In our lesson today, the Apostle Paul and his traveling companions are out on a missionary journey.  They are already far from Jerusalem and far from the Jewish homeland.  They have been preaching the Gospel to gentiles throughout the area that we know today as the country of Turkey.  In other words, they are still on the continent of Asia.  They may be far from home, but they are still connected.

Our lesson reads, “During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  This might not seem significant to us.  For most of us Bible geography is pretty confusing and Macedonia just sounds like another place.  What makes it different?  It is different because to get to Macedonia you must cross the sea.  Macedonia is in Europe, not in Asia

What does it mean to cross the sea?  What does it mean to leave one continent behind and move on to another?  Crossing the sea and setting foot on a new continent represent another leap of the gospel.  Just as the gospel was not just for the people of Jerusalemand it wasn’t just for the Jews, so also it means this: The good news of Jesus Christ is not just for people who are nearby or convenient.  The good news goes much, much further; it will not be limited.

Now we can regard all of this as history, if we like.  We can say to ourselves, “The gospel did that back then, two thousand years ago.”  But if that’s all we think, we’ll be missing the point.  The point is this: just as the gospel could not be restrained back then, so it will not be restrained now. 
  • Persecution could not stop it then. 
  • Ethnic boundaries couldn’t stop it then. 
  • The end of land and the expanse of sea couldn’t stop it then. 
The good news that God is reconciling us to himself in Jesus Christ could not be stopped.

These days, many of us worry about what is happening to the church and our country.  Church attendance is down; our society is becoming more coarse; long-valued traditions and understandings are crumbling.  As a nation, we feel less optimistic for the future and less satisfied in the present.

Do not be afraid.  There may be obstacles.  There may be tough times.  But the gospel of Jesus Christ will not be stopped.  And it will not be satisfied to be put up in the attic or set in the corner.  God is determined that the world will know about his Son, and the forgiveness of sins that all who believe have through him.  Nothing will stand in the way of this amazing gospel, not then, and certainly not now.  Amen.