Friday, July 21, 2017

Christmas in July

“We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (1 John 4:19–21, NIV)

   “This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.” (Matthew 1:18–25, NIV)  

G:God or Second Reader

The dialog sermon begins with Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” on the PA system. During this time the pastor will come into the sanctuary dressed in parka, stocking hat, and overshoes. He looks at a small Christmas tree on the alter. 

P: Bah humbug! What kind of a Christmas celebration is this? Last week in the bulletin, I read, “Christmas in July, coming next Sunday.” Well this is Sunday, but where is the Christmas? There's no snow. No Santa Clause with his twelve tiny reindeer. And you call that a Christmas tree? Why I've seen bigger trees on an ant farm. This is false advertising and we've been had!

G: Excuse me, but I disagree. You don't need snow to celebrate Christmas, and you sure don't need Santa Clause or a fancy tree either. All you need is Jesus and the remembrance of his birth.

P: Uh.. who is that talking? And where are you?

G: I am the Lord almighty. You know, the big Kahunah upstairs.

P: You mean you're God?

G: With a capital “G”! The one and only!

P: Did anyone tell you, you don't sound very “God like”?

G: Yah, I get that a lot. But when you're the Lord, you can pick any voice you want! Would you rather I talked like this? “I AM THE LORD.” (spoken in as low a voice as possible)

P: Uh.. no that's ok.

G: Actually the voice thing kind of reminds me of Christmas, because Christmas is kind of surprising!
Unfortunately, Christmas has gotten to be rather predictable in these last few decades. It starts around Thanksgiving, when all the stores shift into high gear trying to sell stuff that supposedly will make Christmas better. Can you imagine that? Trying to make Christmas better? That's kind of like trying to make the Grand Canyon better, or spruce up the pacific ocean. So amusing!

P: It has gotten rather predictable, I guess.

G: And what everybody is working so hard at, is trying to make a “perfect Christmas”. A perfect celebration. But do you know what happens when human beings try to make things perfect?

P: It backfires?

G. Exactly. With all that emphasis on having the perfect Christmas, people begin to realize how imperfect their lives are, and when that happens, they start to feel depressed.

P: Instead of feeling happy, people feel sad?

G: Right. And that is not what Christmas should be. Christmas should be a time of great happiness.

P: Well if buying stuff and having the perfect Christmas is not the source of real Christmas joy, then what is?

G: That's why I invited you here this morning. I figured that if there was a little less pressure on having a “perfect Christmas”, you might be able to understand the true spirit of Christmas, the real reason for Jesus' coming into this world.

P: That makes sense. Avoid the “Christmas rush”, so to speak, so as to learn the real meaning of Christmas.

G: Right again!

P: So ah.. why did Jesus come into this world? What is Christmas all about?

G: Actually the reason for Jesus coming is quite simple. Jesus came into this world to heal broken relationships.

P: You mean, like no more arguing over the remote control?

G: Sort of, but think deeper. One of the reasons people feel down at Christmas time, is, as I explained, the lack of perfection in their lives. They watch all those Christmas movies, and listen to all of that Christmas music, and realize that their own lives aren't that rosy. In fact, their own lives are often filled with lots of struggle and brokenness. That's what Jesus comes for. He comes to repair the human/divine relationship first, and out of that healing, comes the healing of all other relationships. As it says in the book of 1st John, “We love, because he first loved us.”

P: So that's why Gene Autry singing “Here Comes Santa Clause” a hundred times, doesn't cheer me up very much.

G. Actually Gene Autry is helpful, but only to a limited degree. The same thing is true of pastors, preachers, and teachers. They all help as they are able, but they are only human. They struggle with the same problems and limitations that everyone else wrestles with.
Jesus was truly human, but he was also truly divine. In Matthew's gospel, the angels heralded the baby Jesus as “Emmanuel” which means “God with us.”
Jesus can help us like no other pastor, preacher, or teacher, because he is both human and divine. He is a helper without human sin or human limitations.
And, thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Jesus who helped disciples in 33AD, is still available to us today. Jesus said at the end of Matthew's gospel, “And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the ages.” Jesus is “God with us” when we pray, “God with us” when we worship together and study God's word, “God with us” when we commune and baptize.

P: Wow! I never thought of it that way. Santa Clause comes “but once a year”, but Jesus is with us always. Jesus is our helper in all times, places, and circumstances. And the help he offers knows no bounds!

G: That's what's so surprising about Christmas. Nobody ever expected God to get that involved. People often think of God as too good for this world. Too distant and uninterested. But Jesus puts a human face on God. He helps us to know the love of God in a very personal way. He helps us to know a God who loves us so much he's willing to die for us.

P: That's really good news! The next time I'm in church, I'm going to take advantage of God's offer. I'm going to pray and worship, knowing that through Jesus, God truly is with us, listening and offering his help and guidance every day.

G: Ah.. didn't you notice, you are in church?

P: Oh, I guess I am! I suppose you're saying, I ought to be praying even now?

G: Not a bad idea. Have a Merry Christmas.. in July!

P: (Pastor bows his head in prayer.)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Pentcost 6

      “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”” (Matthew 13:1–9, NIV)

     Don't you just love a baptism?
     You have the beautiful little baby, the parents and God parents making promises to both child and God. And you have the water and the word. God promising to adopt this child into his family and make him or her his own.
     There's a lot of stuff going on in a baptism, and this morning our texts remind us of God's role in baptism. How God is like a sower of seeds, and we are like the soil. We are the recipients of God's gracious faith building work within us.
     Faith is indeed a gift from God that no one can earn or produce on his own. Yet once the seed of faith is planted, we do have some choices about how or whether it will grow within us.
     Literal soil doesn't have much choice about its receptivity to the seeds. Sandy soil is sandy soil and that's all it will ever be. Weedy soil is weedy soil and that is all it will ever be. And rich fertile soil is rich and fertile soil and that is how it shall ever be. But we as the soil into which God's sows the seeds of faith, have all kinds of decisions we can make about how receptive we are. We can be fertile soil one day, only to be weedy and rocky the next. We can make some pretty weighty decisions about how we respond to God's faith building work within us.
     Little Kayla looks pretty innocent this morning and indeed she is. She has more faith than anyone in this room. She is pure rich fertile soil, that is totally open to the sower and the blessing he wishes to bestow upon her.
     At one time, we too were all like little Kayla. But what happens as we make our journey? Do we not lose that receptivity? That openness to God's faith building work within us?
     I am reminded of little Jimmy who was learning how to write his name “JimE”. He got so excited about it, that with magic markers, he wrote his name on the living room wall in great big letters. His mother asked him, “Jimmy, did you write your name on the wall?” Jimmy replied, “Did you see me write my name on the wall?”
     Who teaches us to come up with such clever answers? Do we not teach ourselves? Isn't that all part of human nature? We might start off as perfectly rich, fertile soil, but it doesn't take long and the weeds and rocks begin to appear.
     And what can we do about that? What can we do to make ourselves better soil that the seeds of faith might grow and flourish?
     One of the things we can do is nurture the seeds of faith, and stop nurturing the seeds of the weeds!
     We live in a culture that does not take sin very seriously. And yet, when you look at the price people are willing to pay for their bad habits, it's very hard not to believe in sin.
      It was only nine years ago that this country and the whole world came dangerously close to a economic melt down. Realtors and bankers had engaged in unsafe lending practices that resulted in the economic collapse of huge financial institutions such and Leeman Brothers and Merril Lynch. It was the same kind of foolishness that causes a four year old to write his name on the living room wall. Only these deeds of greed were were performed not by little children, but by men and women with PhDs and five hundred dollar suits. When asked to account for their irresponsible behavior, these people said, “Did you see me do it?”
      The seeds of sin are present in each of us, but God in his mercy gives us a wonderful way to starve out these seeds. In our baptism, we hear of Sunday school and confirmation, youth group and worship. We hear of the fellowship of the saints, communion and prayer. These are all good habits that God can use to grow faith within us, and starve out the weeds.
      But here again, God asks for a response from us. Which seeds are we feeding? The seeds of the gospel, or the seeds sown by that other guy?
      We can nourish the good seeds and starve out the bad.
       And secondly, we can remember that Jesus is not an “absentee farmer”.
       In our parable for today, the sower is like Jesus in that he spreads the good seeds of the gospel everywhere! What mattes is not the quality of the soil, but the generosity of the sower.
       Like the sower in our parable for today, Jesus is extravagantly generous with the good seeds of the gospel. But Jesus is unlike the sower in our parable, in that he comes back the next day to nourish those seeds and help them to grow.
       Several other parables in the New Testament highlight this faithfulness of Jesus. In Luke 8, Jesus compares himself to a vine dresser who pleads for an unproductive vine that he might weed around it, add fertilizer to it, and help it to grow. He commits himself to a whole year of this attentiveness so that one unproductive vine, might blossom and bear fruit.
       Jesus doesn't just plant the seeds of faith and then disappear, instead he is with us for the long haul. He's the faithful vine dresser who never gives up on the vine. He's the faithful good shepherd who never gives up on the sheep. And he is the faithful savior who comes to us in baptism, joining his powerful life to our weak lives, that we might have life in his name.
      Baptism is a wonderful event in our lives. And there's a lot of stuff going on in baptism which is below the surface and unseen. It's not just what we do that counts, but what God is doing within us and among us. And that is what we celebrate this morning. God is active in Kayla's baptism, and faithful to her in ways that can make her shine like the sun!
      May we commit ourselves to being God's helpers today, that we might share in the grace of Kayla's baptism, as we nurture those precious seeds of faith. Amen.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Pentecost 5

      “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit. Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.” (Zechariah 9:9–12, NIV) 

More than likely, most of you parents have taken your children to see the headwaters of he Mississippi located in Itasca stare park not far from here. You have walked the little walking bridge across those waters, and even encouraged your young children to take off their shoes and walk across the babbling brook that is described as the “source of the mighty Mississippi”. Little children cross this brook and their parents say to them, “You have crossed the Mississippi!” and meanwhile the child thinks, “Oh that's nice.” Because what does a child think of when he or she thinks of the Mississippi? She thinks of a river no larger than the one behind grandmother's farm. She thinks of the little river that the bus goes by on the way to school. He thinks of the river that goes through town. A river you can ride over in just a few seconds. Most children have no knowledge of how great and powerful the Mississippi is. It's hard for them to imagine a river so large that winds over 2,300 miles through twenty three states, and serves as a watershed for nearly half of the continental United States.
The mighty Mississippi demands some pretty big thinking and most children have a hard time trying to imagine just how large that river truly is.
This morning we have a text that demands from us some pretty big thinking too. It is our reading from the book of Zechariah written about five hundred years before the coming of Christ. Zechariah ministered to a rag tag band of exiles recently returned from the land of Babylon after nearly seventy years of captivity.
Zechariah describes for them how God will bless his people with a great king whose peaceful rule will extend “from sea to sea, and even the ends of the earth”. And this king, unlike all other kings, will bring peace to the world. He will drive away the “war horse and break the shield and sword” used in battle.
It was a mighty king that Zechariah described for God's people. “And who?” they must have wondered “Who will this king be?”
Zechariah's people were challenged to think big, but like little children, whose experiences and knowledge are limited, so also was it with the people Zechariah ministered to.  
They thought of this king and probably tried to apply it to their own ruler of 500 BC. Zerubbabel who not even king, but only a governor appointed by the emperor of Persia, King Darius.
And what a limited kingdom Israel was at this time! Israel in 500 BC was the smallest it had ever been. Some commentaries describe it as stretching only thirty miles by thirty miles, north south and east and west. It's population of may have numbered as few as fifty thousand.
With its capital and temple in ruins, Zerubbabel's kingdom hardly compared with the description found in our reading for today. But maybe this small and marginal kingdom, was part of something much larger than itself? Something much grander than anyone could imagine? Perhaps Zechariah's people were being challenged to think not just of the “kingdom of Israel”, but of the “kingdom of God”.
Just as that little stream flowing out of Lake Itasca is part of the Mississippi, so also was little Israel, even in its weakness and smallness, part of God's kingdom at work in the world. And sometimes, that kingdom takes its own sweet time to coming into being. Sometimes it comes into fulfillment in ways and times we are not expecting at all.
Let me give you just one example.
Can you name a world famous person who was born on October 4th, 1940? Now this is someone you all know the name of. Someone you have all read about in the newspapers and magazines. Someone you have all heard of on TV and radio. October 4th 1940, that was the day he was born. Can't place him? Here's another clue. This famous person was born in Liverpool England and was part of a rock band that launched the “British invasion”?
Now do you know who I'm talking about?
John Lennon, in his day was famous all the world over. At one point in his career he boasted that he and the Beatles were more famous than Jesus Christ.
For one moment in history, that may have been true! But today, John and the Beatles are quickly fading into history. And not only do we not know the day of John Lennon's birth, we also fail to remember the day of his death.
But ask anyone the name of Jewish baby that was born on December 25th some 2000 years ago, and they will respond with a smile, saying, “Jesus!” Yes, Jesus was born on December 25th, over 2000 years ago.
People remember less and less about John Lennon, while all the world over, some 2.3 billion people celebrate Jesus' birth and venerate his death. King Jesus has followers in almost ever nation on the face of the globe. Indeed his kingdom does stretch “from sea to sea and to the ends of the earth”.
It took awhile, but Zechariah's prophecy of 500 BC finds fulfillment in Jesus who brings peace and forgiveness to his followers in every nation.
And who knows how God will add to this mighty kingdom? Even now we hear of millions of millions of Christians in China, just waiting to be more open about their faith. Some say the geographic center of Christianity may in coming years switch from Europe to Africa. Who knows how many people will be blessed by the gentle rule of King Jesus 2000 years from now?
The Mississippi meanders east and west north and then south, but always knows where it is going. And no one, no one can impede its flow.
So also is it with God's kingdom in Jesus Christ. Many rulers both ancient and modern have tried to erase from history all memory of Jesus and his followers. But one after another, they have failed. We remember names like Herod, Nero, Stalin, Hitler, and Chairman Mow. They too had their moments of glory, but as with all tyrants, how quickly they fade, never to rise again. But Jesus, rises over and over again, despite all obstacles. He rises in the hearts of his people serving all over the globe in his name.
You can't stop the Mississippi, and you can't stop Jesus either.
King Jesus has no army, no tanks, or air force. He doesn't even have a bank account or check book. Yet his kingdom extends from sea to sea, and to the ends of the earth. And like the Mississippi, it just keeps on rolling, just keeps on flowing, on and on and on.
And what is our job?
In his small catechism, Luther reminds us that God's kingdom “comes on its own”. It is not the result of the will or effort of human beings. When we pray “thy kingdom come” what we are really praying for is our inclusion in that kingdom. That we might “jump into” that kingdom and be part of it.
That's what Zechariah and his people, did in his day. The didn't build the whole kingdom of God in one day or even forty years, but they tried to be faithful, and be part of that kingdom in their own special way.
Zechariah's people rebuilt Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple. They preserved Zechariah's words and the words of the prophets before him. They helped collect and preserve the books that would later become the Old Testament. Little did they know, that nearly 2000 years later, people would be reading Zechariah's words in Red Lake Falls, Minnesota!
That's God's kingdom for you. God takes little drops of water and builds them into a mighty river.
May we “jump into” that ever flowing kingdom! May we worship that king of peace, whose gentler rule, continues to flow out to the nations, blessing us all.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Memorial Day

      “Remember the days of old; consider the years long past. Ask your father, and he will tell you, your elders, and they will teach you.” Deuteronomy 32:7 (HCSB)

     Remember the woman who was on a train and when the conductor came by she couldn't find her ticket. She frantically dug through her purse looking of the ticket. The conductor told her, “Don't worry mam, you can buy a ticket from me, and if you find the lost ticket you can submit it for a full refund.”
      The woman replied, “That's not the problem, I need the ticket, because I can't remember where I was going!”
      Memory is quite the gift! And this weekend we celebrate the gift of memory. This weekend we remember those who have blessed us with the gift of freedom as we celebrate memorial day.
      This is a weekend not just for picnics and trips to the lake, but a weekend for remembering those men and women in our armed forces who have paid the ultimate price for the freedoms we all enjoy. We remember such persons with great humility and thanksgiving, remembering that freedom is not free, but something that has cost this country dearly.
     What happens when we engage in such acts of remembering?
      I would like to think that it “joins us to one another”. It joins us to a community that is much larger than just our own.
      In the Bible we hear about this kind of remembering all over the place. The Jews were called not just to “remember” grocery lists and instructions for meals, but the values and faith handed down by their ancestors. They had meals and feasts and special days set aside, that were dedicated to just this kind of remembering. And through these days and festivals of remembrance, they were bound together. They became part of community that was much larger than just their own little group.
       We do the same thing when we remember Jesus and his sacrifice in the Lord's supper. Through the bread and wine we recall Jesus and his great love for all people. And through that act of remembering, we become part of a community of Christians gathered around the table of our Lord all the world over.
      The author George William Curtis, who was a supporter of Lincoln throughout the Civil War, had this to say about memories and how they can make us one great people. He wrote..

      A man's country is not a certain area of land, of mountains, rivers, and woods, but it is a principle, and patriotism is loyalty to that principle.

      On Memorial day we remember the “principals” upon which this country was founded. And we also remember those who have sacrificed their all to maintain those principals. That is what makes us Americans, that is what makes us a truly great nation.
      So remembering brings us together. It unites us with Americans all over the country, and also unites us with Americans who have gone before us.
      Remembering is a way of brings us together. But then also it is a way of “counting our blessings”.
      Just the other day I was reading in my day to day devotional, and the scripture reading was several chapters from book of 1 Chronicles. These particular chapters are among the most boring in the Bible, for what do contain, but genealogies. Long lists of who the father of who was, who was the father of who and so on and so forth.
       Now we have not contact with these families of old and their lineages. They sound like names from a long time ago, and from a land far, far away.
       I looked forward to reading the devotions part of the the devotional to see how the author would make sense of these chapters. To my surprise she came up with a very good insight. She said, as the Jews read the names of their ancestors, it was like counting their blessings, for these were the people responsible for their faith and culture.
      It was these ancestors from long ago, who had gotten the Jewish people going on their long journey with God. These were the ancestors who had created their Bible and form of worship. These were the ancestors who had blessed them with the ten commandments, and the ordinances of God. 
Every name was a part of the blessing.
      Well isn't that kind of what we do when we remember our ancestors on Memorial day?
      We gather in cemeteries, read names and reflect on how these people have been a blessing to us. Many of the names might sound strange to us. We don't know if that particular person was a farmer, a teacher or trucker. We don't know if they had a family or were single. We don't know if they were rich or poor. But what we do know is that we owe them something. These are people who have contributed to our way of life, to the freedoms we enjoy and practice every day. And without their help and great sacrifice, we might not be here today.
      When we read the names on Memorial day we are “counting our blessings”.
We remember this weekend. And remembering is a good thing. Someone once said, “The only good thing about growing older and losing your memory, is that you can watch the reruns on TV and still be surprised!”
      Well, heaven forbid that we should forget to remember on Memorial day. Heaven forbid that we should forget what a great community we are a part thanks to the sacrifices made by so many on our behalf. And heaven forbid that we should not remember that long list of names that remind us of our blessings. May we count our blessings this Memorial day, and be united around the wonderful freedoms and rights, we enjoy as a people. Amen.