Fourth Sunday of Easter

The Holy Gospel according to John, the 10th chapter.

Glory to you, O Lord.

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." Jesus answered, "I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.  What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand.  The Father and I are one.”

The gospel of the Lord.  Praise to you, O Christ.

Sermon Easter 4

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Judeans, especially the religious leaders, have been demanding answers from Jesus. They want him to prove himself. 

We can sure relate to that. We have questions for Jesus, too, especially lately, with everything that has been going on in the news.

Yes, we have questions -

What can be done to stop the violence, Jesus? 

Why is Cain still killing Abel? 

Why do people want to hurt each other?

Even children in schools, even people praying and worshiping are targets of violence.  Why, Jesus?

Why can’t our politicians and people agree on anything that might help?

And, not just this week but every week, we ask Jesus:

How can we get more people to come to church, especially young people?

What can be done about hunger and homelessness and poverty and disease in our community and the world?

The Judeans wanted answers from Jesus. They wanted him to respond and tell them plainly if he is the Messiah.  Maybe they even wanted their own personal miracle to prove it. He doesn’t give the answer they want. 

We also want answers from Jesus. Why do bad things happen?  Why do people do bad things? We would like clear instructions about how to improve the world we live in.  Jesus doesn’t answer us directly either.

Listen to what Jesus does say, to the Judeans, and to us, “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them and they follow me.”  He knows us.  He knows our concerns. He knows what has been happening in the news.  He knows what is keeping us awake at night.  We can share anything at all with Jesus because he already knows.  We don’t have to hold anything back. 

He says, “My sheep hear my voice.”  This is good news indeed.  He doesn’t tell us we have to listen hard or we will miss it.  It isn’t something we have to work to do.  We will always be able to hear him.  

No matter where we wander off, his voice will reach us.  And we will wander off.  We all know that wandering is part of our nature.  We get distracted.  We think the grass will be greener somewhere else.  We follow someone who leads us away from the rest of the flock.  

Sometimes we will wander away from the right pathways into places we should not be.  Sometimes we think we are on the right pathway, but we have made a wrong turn. 

Sometimes, we wander away where we can’t see the shepherd.  We don’t know where the rest of the flock is grazing.  We feel alone and we fear the wolves, both the real ones, and the ones we only imagine are out there.  

Whether we stay on the right pathway, or wander far away, no matter where we go, we can never go beyond the reach of Jesus' voice.  Even when we go through the valley of the shadow of death, he will be with us. His words will comfort us.

When I was a Girl Scout leader and took the troop hiking in the woods, I told each scout to carry a whistle.  Every scout knows that they are supposed to blow the whistle if they get separated from the group.  They don’t just blow it once, though.  They keep blowing the whistle until the others follow the sound and find them.  

Jesus is like that scout who doesn’t just blow the whistle once. Jesus doesn’t just say a few words and stop talking.  Jesus still speaks.  You can’t shut him up.  No one can make him stop.  Not even death could shut him up.

He keeps speaking when other voices try to drown him out.  Other voices and other noises have always tried to drown him out. Sometimes it can be a challenge to sort out which voice is his.

Have you ever told someone they had “selective hearing?”  Have you ever been told you have “selective hearing?”  You know what that means.  It means you think someone just hears what they want to hear.

Sometimes we are like the Judeans.  We ask Jesus questions and he doesn’t tell us what we want to hear, so we develop “selective hearing" and think he has stopped talking.  We want Jesus to say, “yes” to all our requests, but he doesn’t. 

Then the other voices seem louder and louder.  Those voices don't always tell the truth, but they may be telling us what we want to hear. They tell us that we are the ones in control. They tell us we have to protect what we have so that no one will take it away.  They tell us that people who don’t look like us or pray like us or love like us, want to hurt us.  They tell us that people who don’t believe the same things we do about God want to hurt us. 

While the other voices get louder, we hear the noises, too, and noises scare us.  We want to hide when we hear the noises.  We remember that there really are wolves out there. We are afraid to go out and do what we need to do. We tell each other to “shelter in place.” 

Then, we worry that there won’t be enough for everyone, so we don’t share.  We get distracted with our worries and we forget all about listening for the voice of the shepherd.  

Jesus never promised that the world we live in would be safe.  It certainly wasn’t safe for him. There are wolves out there. The other voices and the noises will always be out there trying to drown out his voice.  

But Jesus continues to speak.  His voice is reassuring.  He reminds us we can always hear him and we will always know him.  We can tune our “selective hearing” to the channel his voice is on. We will always get good reception when we do that. 

Jesus speaks to us today.  He says words like these:  

“I forgive you. I forgive those who have hurt you.”

“I love you always.”

“I give you eternal life.”

“No one can snatch you out of my hand.”

“This is my body, given for you.  This is my blood, shed for you.”

“My peace I leave with you.”

Today, let us live together in Christ’s peace, trusting that his words are true.  The victory is already won. There will be a great multitude, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne....for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be our shepherd.  

It’s a beautiful vision.  You can just imagine the multitudes, people from every tribe and nation, too many to count.  They are all robed in white, waving palm branches.  The angels surround the throne of God, leading the great choir of people in singing praise. 

They are singing the same songs that we sing.  “Blessing and honor, and glory and might, be to our God forever and ever.”  So when we get there, and join them in the choir, we will already know the words. 

God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. We will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!  Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Third Sunday of Easter

The Holy Gospel according to John, the 21st chapter.

Glory to you, O Lord.

1 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, "I am going fishing." They said to him, "We will go with you." They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, "Children, you have no fish, have you?" They answered him, "No." 6 He said to them, "Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some." So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish that you have just caught." 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs." 16 A second time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep." 17 He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go." 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, "Follow me.”

The gospel of the Lord.  Praise to you, O Christ.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

We all have different stories of how God has called us to be a Christian.  Some stories are dramatic.   They would make a good movie of the week.  Some stories are more ordinary.  They only seem to matter to the people involved.   All these stories have something in common, though.  When God calls you, your life will never be the same. 

Today we heard stories about some of the saints of the church.  We heard about Paul, Ananias, and Peter. God called them and their lives were never the same. 

Let’s look first at the story of Paul.  Our first lesson calls him by his Hebrew name, Saul, a name he shares with one of the great kings.  The Saul we hear about today was obsessed with Jewish religious purity.  He is the king of making sure his religion is not polluted, not watered down, not ruined, not changed.  

Saul becomes furious when he even thinks about people changing the way his faith is taught and understood. He doesn’t want anyone re-interpreting the holy scriptures in any way, shape, or form.  Saul just loves that old-time religion.  

As far as he is concerned, his way of understanding the scriptures is the traditional way, the right way.  His way of interpreting the law is the right way, the one and only way.  

No wonder he is furious.  These followers of the “Way” are invading the synagogues.  They are teaching the faithful people a different message.  They are perverting the ancient teachings that he is so protective of.  He becomes so concerned that he becomes a bounty hunter for the high priest.  

We meet Saul as he is on the road to Damascus.  He is heading to the capital of Syria to go to all the synagogues and round up all the Christians.  

Jesus has a different plan for Saul. Jesus decides he can use that kind of enthusiasm.   Jesus has a real sense of humor about these things.  He likes to surprise us. So he shows us again how he can turn great evil into even greater good.  

So Saul gets to tell one of the most dramatic conversion stories ever.  Jesus appears to him and speaks to him on the road.  Saul is struck blind for three days. He has to be led by the hand into the city.  He can’t eat or drink anything during those three days.  

Three days.  Does that remind you of anything?  God can do a lot in three days.  God called Saul, and his life was never the same.  Saul starts using his Roman name, Paul, and brings the good news of Jesus Christ to the whole gentile world, including us.

Now, let’s look at the story of Ananias.  Ananias is already a faithful follower of Jesus, a member of the Christian community in Damascus, probably a leader of that community, possibly their pastor.  We don’t know his conversion story. We don’t know if he has been a believer all his life, or if he became a follower of Jesus as an adult.  

Ananias has a dramatic story to tell, too. He also has a vision of Jesus.  Jesus gives him very explicit directions, what street to go to, what house to look for.  But Jesus tells him to do something that feels very dangerous.  He is supposed to seek out the very man who would like to have him, along with his whole congregation, arrested and killed.

I love Ananias and his story. I always thought it would be great to get such detailed directions from Jesus.   Every time I have been between calls, I asked God for more specifics, but in my case, the Holy Spirit guided me to work hard to figure things out. 

Ananias gets specifics, but then he argues with the Lord, which is probably what I would do, too, in his case.  He tries to tell Jesus that these instructions must be a mistake.  Jesus must have the wrong man.  Saul is a bad guy, a persecutor of Christians.  

But the Lord said, “Go,” so Ananias went.  He was probably terrified, but he obeyed Jesus anyway.  What an example for us!  Ananias was faithful when God called him.  Not just his own life, but many lives were changed. 

Our gospel lesson tells us something of the story of Peter.  Peter was always the impulsive disciple.  I think of him as something of an extrovert, the kind of person who thinks out loud, the kind of guy who doesn’t really know what he thinks until he hears himself saying it.   He’s the leader of the group.  People just naturally follow him. 

It was a couple of weeks after the resurrection.  The disciples were out of their locked room and things had calmed down in Jerusalem.  The crowds who came for the Passover holiday had gone home.   People had gone back to work.  

The world was anything but normal and ordinary for the disciples, so maybe they thought doing something normal and ordinary would help them feel less strange about it all.  Many of them had been fishermen before Jesus called them.  It would feel good to fish again.  

So Peter said he was going fishing and several of the disciples said they would go, too.   Their attempt to feel normal didn’t work, though.  They didn’t catch a single fish.  Now that they knew Jesus, there was no way they could go back to their former life.  Everything had changed and there was no going back.  

Jesus had another surprise for them, too.  He was already on the shore cooking fish.  So the carpenter told the fishermen to cast the net on the other side of the boat.  I don’t fish, but even I know this sounds totally ridiculous.  But they obey Jesus even when it sounded completely absurd.  

One-hundred fifty-three fish - some scholars say 153 is the number of nations in the known world at that time.  In any case, the disciples' vocation and their lives had totally changed.  Jesus had called them. They could never be just fishermen anymore.   

Jesus fed them that day.  After breakfast, Jesus talks to Peter.  If you love me, feed my lambs, tend my sheep.  Jesus is very clear.  We show our love for him when we feed and tend the flock.  Jesus called Peter, and his life was never the same. Peter became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. 

These stories I shared sound like they are about Paul and Ananias and Peter.  But they are really stories about Jesus.  He is the main character in all of them.  He is the primary actor.  He calls us.  He invites us to follow.  After we hear Jesus, our lives are never the same. 

I don’t have a dramatic story like that to tell you about when I became a Christian.  When I was growing up in the Bible belt, I used to feel bad about that.  I thought I should have a story of a specific time when Jesus spoke to me, a time when I first heard him, first answered the call to believe.  But, I don't have a story like that.

Most of us don’t have a story like Paul, Ananias, or Peter.  We do have a 

story, though. There is a hymn in the old Junior Hymnal, the one my Sunday School used. It’s a song that tells my story. Maybe this is your story too. It's a hymn about baptism. It reminds us that when God calls us, our lives will never be the same.  

1. I became a Christian, when an infant mild,

At God’s holy fountain, I was made his child.

In the name of Christian, I will glory now,

Evermore remember my baptismal vow. 

3. All a Christian’s blessings I will claim for mine:

Holy work and worship, Fellowship divine.

Father, Son, and Spirit, Give me grace that I

Still may live a Christian, and a Christian die.  Amen. 

(The Junior Hymnal, hymn 170, Augustana Book Concern, Rock Island, IL 1928, 12th edition, 1953.)

Second Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2019

The Holy Gospel according to John, the 20th chapter.

Glory to you, O Lord.

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." 27 Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." 28 Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" 29 Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

The Gospel of the Lord.  Praise to you, O Christ. 

This is the day that the Lord has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

When I worked as a hospital social worker, I had to dictate reports every day.  There were transcriptionists who worked in the evenings and at night. They were each assigned to transcribe the reports of specific people.  I had been there a couple of years when the woman who usually transcribed my dictation took a day job at another hospital.  

I had never met her, or even spoken with her on the phone, but one day, I called that hospital where she worked to make a referral, and she acted like we were old friends.  She said, “I feel like I know you because I listened to your voice every night.”  

There are many different ways we recognize someone we know, including hearing, seeing, and touching.  When we are first born, we can detect light and motion, but we don’t really focus on faces or objects until we are about a month old.   So, the first way we recognize someone we know is through their voice.

Our hearing is fully developed very early. Once we are born, the sounds of the outside world are loud and clear for us.  That’s why mothers and fathers often talk and even read books and sing to their babies before they are born. That way the baby will recognize their voices easily after they are born.

Even if the parents don’t make a deliberate effort to talk to the baby, their voices are the ones the child has heard the most.   Their voices will be the ones the child will learn and recognize first.  


The most common way we think of recognizing someone is by sight.  We recognize people because we know what they look like. 

Don’t you just hate it when you see someone, and you know you should know their name, but you just can’t remember it?  That happens to me all the time.  I have terrible facial recognition software.  I completely understand  that on the day of resurrection, Mary Magdalene thought Jesus was the gardener. 

Sometimes, we can recognize someone because we have seen their picture.  A congregation I served many years ago had pictures of all the members on bulletin boards around the fellowship hall where we had coffee after worship.  They were in alphabetical order by family name just like we have downstairs.  It was great for me because I could just wander around the room to find the names of the people I had been talking to. 

Teachers will tell you that some of us are auditory learners and we remember things best when we hear them.  Some of us are visual learners.  We remember things best when we see them.  

Some people are tactile learners.  They learn and remember best when they can touch things.  Of course, all of us learn best with a combination of these methods.  

I wonder if the Apostle Thomas was a tactile learner.  He needed to touch Jesus to know for sure.  He did not believe at first, so he did not recognize him.  

We would all like to think that our faith will come more easily for us than it did for Thomas.  We would like to think that when we are surrounded by fear and doubt, that Jesus will walk on through the locked door.  And we will instantly recognize him.  And we will be completely reassured.  And our fear will disappear.  And we will be filled with joy.  

This is how we may assume that faith should work. We all have our doubts and questions and fears.  But then, God shows up, and all those things fall away, and we are filled with joy and wonder and praise, and of course, unshakeable faith.  

That’s how we think faith should be.  And maybe it is for some people.  But maybe we feel bad because that isn’t how it is for us. We feel bad because we can have a hard time recognizing Jesus in the things that happen in our lives and in the world.  

But we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves. 

Let’s look at the story of the resurrection from the Gospel of John.  Mary Magdalene saw the empty tomb.  She saw the linen wrappings.  She even saw Jesus.  But Mary thought he was the gardener.  She didn’t recognize Jesus until he said her name. 

Peter and another disciple saw the empty tomb.  John tells us they believed, but they didn’t really understand what had happened yet.  

That evening, Jesus came into the locked room where the disciples were hiding.  He spoke to them and he showed them his hands and side.  They heard and they saw, and maybe even touched him, then they believed. 

Thomas wasn’t with the others that evening.  So, he didn’t believe them.  He had not heard the voice for himself.  He had not seen for himself.  He had not touched Jesus himself.  

The next Sunday evening, a week after Easter, Thomas was with the others in that locked room.  Think about that.  The other disciples had seen the Lord.  They knew he was risen from the dead.  How strong could their faith be if they were still locking themselves up in fear a week later?  No wonder Thomas didn’t believe them.  

We are much more like Thomas and the other disciples than we would like to admit.  There are plenty of things that keep us locked up in our room. The list of things to be afraid of can depend on your political leanings and which cable news channel you listen to.  

You could be afraid of different racial or religious groups.  You could be afraid of the overbearing rich, or the grasping poor.  You could be afraid of politically correctness or of gun owners.  No matter what you believe, the politicians and the news media are telling you to be very afraid of lots of people and things.  

It is very understandable, and very tempting, to lock ourselves up in a room, tell ourselves that we can’t believe or trust anyone anymore, and wait until it all goes away. And it can be very hard to see Jesus in any of it.  

We were not eyewitnesses to the Resurrection, so, how do we recognize Jesus?  

Some of us are auditory learners.  We can hear the witness of the scriptures. We can read and study the Word, and like Mary, we can hear Jesus call our name.  We hear the hymns of the faith and the proclamation of the gospel and we know that Jesus is with us.  

Others of us are visual learners.  We need to see faith in action.  We need to see Christians act like they believe in the resurrection.  We need to see them come out of their locked rooms and show the love of Jesus to everyone.  We need to see the hungry being fed.  We need to see the poor being cared for.  

Others of us are like Thomas.  Just hearing and seeing are not enough.  We need to touch Jesus for ourselves. We need to feel the love of Jesus in the warm embrace of someone who loves us.  We need to be able to feel Jesus in our hearts.

One of the things that Thomas teaches us is that being around other believers will help us recognize Jesus.  Keeping away from the community of faith makes it harder for us to know him.  

This is one of the reasons we come to worship.  This is one of the reasons we bring our children here.  We want them to be able to recognize Jesus. And it is hard to recognize someone you don’t know or see very often.  

Recognizing Jesus is really a gift of grace.  By my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him.  Neither could Thomas, and neither can you. 

God, our Holy Spirit, uses the gospel to call us by name, gather us together, and enlighten us, so that we, too, can recognize Jesus.  

Today, we respond as Thomas did, “My Lord and my God!”  

Alleluia! Christ is risen.  Christ is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Holy Gospel according to Luke, the 24th chapter.

Glory to you, O Lord.

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body.4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ 8Then they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

The gospel of the Lord.  Praise to you, O Christ.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!  Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today we celebrate.  Today we sing Alleluia again. The choir is prepared.  We have brass instruments. " We have a lot to celebrate.  Spring is here.  We had some nice weather this week. The school year is almost over.  We have candy to eat. Maybe you got some new clothes. 

Oh, yeah, and Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  

You may say that was almost 2000 years ago. So it is old news.  In one sense, you would be right to say that.  It did happen a long time ago.  

So what difference does it make to us today?

I mean, what difference does it make to us beyond these beautiful decorations and the wonderful music and the clothes and the candy?

The women went to the tomb early that Sunday morning to care for the dead body of Jesus according to Jewish custom.  They had to wait until dawn on Sunday because the Sabbath began at sunset Friday evening and lasted until sunset Saturday evening.  

They were faithful Jews.  They would do no work on the Sabbath.  They rested on the Sabbath because they were exhausted from the week’s activities.  They were grateful that God gave them the Sabbath rest, not just as a law, but as a gift so they could rest.  

According to custom, taking care of dead bodies was a woman’s job.  Several women went together.  It was easier that way. It was safer that way since it was still dark outside. They brought the spices that they had prepared.  

When they got there, the stone was rolled away and they went into the tomb.  But they did not find the body.  

Then they saw the angels, the two men in dazzling apparel.  The angels explained to them that Jesus had risen from the dead, just as he said he would.  The women remembered Jesus’ words. They remembered what he had taught them when they were still in Galilee. 

So the women went to tell the remaining 11 disciples and the followers of Jesus who were staying with the disciples.  

But, the disciples and followers didn’t believe the women.  Maybe it was a cultural thing.  Women were not considered to be credible witnesses back then. Maybe it was because they were all in shock from their grief.  

Peter left.  He went to check for himself, then he went home amazed.  

That’s the story.  Some believed it.  Some didn’t.  Peter checked it out for himself. 

That’s the way we are too. Faith comes to some of us easily.  Some of us are skeptics.  Some of us have to see things for ourselves before we will believe. 

Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  Some of us have been given the gift of faith in greater measure and it is easier for us to believe. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women at the tomb were given strong faith. 

They were blessed because they saw the empty tomb and the angels spoke to them.  If you are someone who is blessed with a strong faith, give thanks to God. 

Most of the apostles didn’t believe the women at first.  You might say they were in the middle of a crisis of faith. They dismissed the women’s story as nonsense.  

You have to admit, they did have a point.  The women’s story is without question, the most amazing story anyone has ever told. 

I can just hear the apostles saying, “Yeah, right, sure he rose from the dead.  If that makes you feel better, you just go ahead and believe that. But, leave us alone to deal with his death in our own way.”

Peter went to check it out for himself.  That’s OK, too. It is often wise to check things out for ourselves. Especially things that seem too good to be true. 

Later that day, most of the apostles had heard the news more than once, and they finally believed it. Sometimes it takes us a while to come around, too. We may have to hear the news a few times from several different sources before we can take it all in. The gift of faith comes to us all in different ways. 

I am sure many of you know people who have heard this story once and dismissed it as an idle tale.  Be patient with those people. The disciples had been with Jesus daily for three years.  Most of them still needed to hear it from more than one source before they believed it.  Perhaps you can be the witnesses your friends will believe. 

The resurrection of Jesus Christ changes everything. Life will never be the same. And that is probably why there were different reactions from the first apostles. Belief, disbelief, amazement. 

What difference does it make to us that Jesus rose from the dead?

Jesus did not rise from the grave for his own benefit.  If he wanted to do something for himself, he could have chosen not to go to Jerusalem.  He could have chosen not to suffer and die.  For that matter, he could have chosen not to be born. 

He could have made those choices, but he didn’t.  He did choose to be born, to live among us, to suffer for us, to die for us.  He chose to rise from the dead for us.  He conquered sin and death for us. 

Because Jesus rose from the dead, we too will rise from the dead.  We, too, will live forever with God in heaven.  

Because those women were witnesses to the good news at the graveyard, we are witnesses and disciples today. 

Let us go forth and share the good news.  

Many have not heard. 

Many have heard, but do not yet believe. 

We have heard and we do believe. We are happy to hear it again.

Alleluia! Christ is risen.  Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!



Palm Sunday 2019

The Holy Gospel according to Luke, the 19th chapter.

Glory to you, O Lord. 

And when he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

When he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples, saying, "Go into the village opposite, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat; untie it and bring it here.

If any one asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' you shall say this, 'The Lord has need of it.'"

So those who were sent went away and found it as he had told them.

And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, "Why are you untying the colt?"

And they said, "The Lord has need of it."

And they brought it to Jesus, and throwing their garments on the colt they set Jesus upon it.

And as he rode along, they spread their garments on the road.

As he was now drawing near, at the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, 

"Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!"

And some of the Pharisees in the multitude said to him, "Teacher, rebuke your disciples."

He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Jesus said, "I tell you, if these (disciples) were silent, the very stones would cry out.”  

This is no ordinary day.  This is no ordinary week.  We begin our holy week by re-enacting the events of the first Palm Sunday.  Like the disciples and the crowd on the road, we are definitely not silent. We sing and ring our bells. We wave our branches and shout “Hosanna” and “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.”

For us, this sanctuary becomes our Jerusalem.  It becomes the place we remember the last days of Jesus on earth. Here, this week, we will participate in Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. 

We begin our week in joy.  We have much to celebrate today. We will welcome Jackson as a new member of God’s family through the sacrament of holy baptism.  We blessed the new front doors that welcome us in for prayer and praise. 

We welcome our new friend and colleague, Pastor Gonzales, from Tree of Life.  We are looking forward to a close association with him as we share ministries in this building and neighborhood. 

We have new paraments to aid in our worship.  They are scarlet, the color of royalty.  We sing new songs, a different setting for the liturgy from the one we sang the last several weeks in lent. 

In today’s gospel, Jesus said, "I tell you, if these (disciples) were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

It seems like an unusual analogy. There are many verses in the Old Testament about nature making noise. There is the roaring of the seas, the tumult of the mountains. The fields rejoice and the trees sing out. But, there is no other verse about stones crying out. 

I can’t think of anything less animate than a stone. Trees are alive. Fields have growing plants on them. Mountains and seas are teaming with life. Rocks are inanimate. Not only that, they are hostile to life. The seeds that fall in the rocky soil do not thrive. 

There are lots of Bible verses about rocks and stones. Some of them are about stoning people as a method of the death penalty.  Some of them are about removing stones from the pathway.  That’s what “Prepare the Royal Highway” is about.  The Romans cleared the stones from the roadways before the king traveled on them.  

But, Jesus isn’t that kind of a king.  He doesn’t ride in on a big horse, the symbol of victory in battle.  He rides in on a donkey, an animal who is a symbol of peace. Nobody has removed the stones from his path.  

In several places in the psalms and prophets, stones are a sign of strength.  God is compared to a rock and a fortress and the rock of our salvation.  We have some hymns like that, too.  “Jesus is a rock in a weary land.”  “A mighty fortress is our God.” “On Christ the solid rock I stand.” And of course, “Rock of Ages, cleft for me.”

But today, Jesus said, "I tell you, if these (disciples) were silent, the very stones would cry out.”  

Jesus is telling us that something literally earth-changing is about to happen.  The Palm Sunday procession is no ordinary event.  It isn’t even ordinary in the context of things Jesus does.  Today’s procession marks the beginning of the week that changes the world for all time and eternity.  

We know that Jesus routinely used natural things to teach us about the kingdom of God.   We have parables about coins and sheep, weeds and wheat. Today, God is with us in the water of baptism as we welcome Jackson into the church, the family of God. 

Palm Sunday is no ordinary day.  We remember Palm Sunday, every week in our communion liturgy when we sing, “Hosanna, blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!”  This Thursday we will remember that Jesus promised to be present with us in a special way in bread and wine.

God does not routinely change the natural order of things.  The natural laws are part of the way God made the world. They are an integral part of creation itself.  In the beginning, God made the world and declared it to be good.  So, when Jesus says something earth-changing is happening, it’s time to pay attention.

On that first Palm Sunday, the disciples and the people in the crowd did cry out.  They did make some noise, throw down their coats and wave the palms. The stones did not need to cry out.  

This is no ordinary week.  On Thursday, this place becomes Jerusalem for us as we remember the night of Jesus’ betrayal.  On Friday, we go with Jesus to the hill outside the city wall. On Saturday evening we join our friends from 4 other churches and light a fire and candles and travel from the darkest night into the glorious light of Christ. 

Today, we are singing and waving our branches, so this week, the stones do not need to shout. But this is no ordinary week. This week the stones are like small rocks, the kind that get in your shoe and annoy you, the kind that you stub your foot on.

Just wait until next Sunday! Come and hear what God does with a really large stone!  It changes the world.  It changes your life. 

Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord. 

Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 7, 2019

The holy gospel according to John, the 12th chapter.

Glory to you, O Lord.

1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

The gospel of the Lord.  Praise to you, O Christ. 

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord, Jesus Christ.  Amen.  

Smells bring back feelings and memories at the deepest levels.  When I smell boxwood shrubs I am taken back to Lexington, Virginia where I used to visit my grandparents.  That shrubbery lined many of the streets in that small town where they lived.  I could smell its pleasant aroma as we would drive into town on a summer day with the windows down.  My sister and I used to say we could smell Grandma’s house. 

I loved visiting there because my sister and I were allowed to walk downtown to the library and the park by ourselves.  We could smell the boxwood hedges lining the fenced in yards and enjoy the freedom and independence of being trusted to go somewhere alone.  

I know that boxwood is probably an unusual scent to bring back a memory, but I bet you have something that brings back memories.  If you are a parent, you might have wonderful memories associated with the scent of baby powder and baby shampoo.

Lots of us have memories from cooking smells.  The smell of coffee reminds us that morning is here. Turkey roasting in the oven brings back memories of big family dinners and holidays.  Maybe there was a certain kind of cookie that your grandma always baked and you think of her every time you smell it.

Some smells are not so good, though. There’s that smell that reminds you that you forgot to throw the onion away.  Or the smell that says the litter box needs to be cleaned, or the garbage needs to go out.  Or that icky smell that says we have a dead mouse somewhere. 

Smells aren’t the only things that evoke strong memories. There are phrases that bring back things we learned in early childhood.  We only have to hear the first part and we are taken right back there.  

We can instantly finish the phrases:

“Twinkle, twinkle, little star… how I wonder what you are?”

“Now, I lay me down to sleep…I pray Thee Lord my soul to keep.”

“The Lord is my Shepherd…I shall not want.”

“God so loved the world....that he gave ...”


We have known those so long that we might not even remember when we learned them, but they certainly take us back.  We hear the first part and we automatically hear the rest of the verse.

Today’s gospel is a story about smells that evoke memories 

and phrases we know that make us automatically hear the rest of the verse.  

This story takes place the week before Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  That’s why we read it today.  

There were some strong smells in the story.  A couple of the strongest smells are in the background. They are smells that nobody is really talking about, but everyone notices.  

There was a smell of fear in the air.  The way people were talking, there may as well have been wanted posters with Jesus’ picture on them all over Jerusalem.  There was talk of killing Lazarus, too, because he was living proof of Jesus’ power.  

Along with the smell of fear, there was a lingering smell of death.  Death is a rotten stinky smell.  It is a depressing smell.  Jesus knew he was a wanted man.  He knew there were plots to kill him and that his time on earth was growing very short.  He was a dead man walking. 

But Mary showed us that God was doing a new thing.  There was a new smell in the air.  She used so much perfume that it overwhelmed the smells of fear and death.  

Her love for Jesus was so great, so strong.  She wasn’t embarrassed to show everyone.  He had raised he brother from the dead.  Death, the ultimate enemy had been defeated.  

That perfume was the smell of resurrection.  And it was a strong, beautiful smell. Better than turkey dinner at Thanksgiving.  Better than chocolate chip cookies at Christmas. Better than a dozen red roses on Valentines Day.  Better than anything you ever smelled before.  

It was the smell of new life, the smell of victory over sin and death, the smell of resurrection and eternal life.  It was a smell that the people at that dinner party would remember days later on a Friday, when the smells of fear and death got strong again and their nostrils were filled with them, and they needed to stay inside just to breathe.  

Our sense of smell brings back feelings and memories at the deepest level.  Then there are phrases that bring back things we learned in early childhood that also touch us at a deep level.  

Judas challenged Mary’s use of the expensive perfume.   He called it wasteful.  Then Jesus quoted the first part of a Bible verse they all knew.  He didn’t have to say all of it because they all knew it.  

Unfortunately, through out the years, Christians who didn’t know the whole verse have misunderstood.  Jesus said, “You always have the poor with you.”  quoting the first half of the verse from Deuteronomy 15:11.  Here is the second half of the verse - Therefore I command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land." 

Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.   Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and all the disciples knew the whole verse by heart from their childhood.  They knew what Jesus was getting at when he said that you will always have the poor with you. 

Jesus would not be there personally much longer.  He is not with us the way he was with them. He is with us in a different way. He has told us that whenever we look into the face of someone in need, we see his face in theirs.  When we open our hands to our poor and needy neighbors, we open our hands to Jesus. 

We open our hands in gratitude because we can smell the rich perfume of the resurrection.  Its fragrance reminds us of all that Christ has done for us.  

On Maundy Thursday evening, I will anoint you with oil as I proclaim to you that all your sins are forgiven.  That oil is scented with the fragrances of frankincense and myrrh.  They are beautiful scents that bring back memories of the gifts of the Magi.  They are scents that were used in the Bible when the women wrapped the body of someone who had died, scents that cover the smell of death. 

You will be marked with the scent of resurrection, the scent that covers the smell of your own sin and death. It is a beautiful smell, the smell of forgiveness and new life, the smell of baptism. I have some of the oil at the font in the back.  You can smell it on your way out if you like.  

Memories from smells, memories from what we have learned, all help us remember how much Jesus loves us. In gratitude for his great love, we show our love for Jesus. 

So, “Open your hands to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” Amen. 

Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 31, 2019

The Holy Gospel according to Luke, the 15th chapter.

Glory to you, O Lord.

1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." 3 So he told them this parable: 11 "There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, "Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, "How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands." 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son." 22 But the father said to his slaves, "Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. 25 "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, "Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' 31 Then the father said to him, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.' “

The gospel of the Lord.  Praise to you, O Christ.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.”  This is one of the most familiar stories in the Bible.  We have heard it our whole lives.  It is the longest of Jesus’ parables, so it is rich with possibilities.  

There are many traditional interpretations.  Preachers usually talk about the father in the story being God who graciously welcomes sinners home.  Then we talk about how we identify with one of the brothers, and which one that might be.  

Pastors nearly always identify with the elder brother.  I looked it up and that’s how I preached it in the past.  There are always commentators who tell us not to forget to focus on the younger brother, because we are all sinners.  

Today, though, I want to focus on a couple of the difficult questions that arise when we hear this story.  They are questions that many of us have thought about, but maybe haven’t asked out loud. 

These are questions that the older brother might be asking himself.  The first question is, “Why bother?”  Why bother to work hard all your life?  Why bother to be a good and obedient person? Why bother to do what you are supposed to do when the no good, disrespectful, disobedient prodigal is the one who gets the party?  When he is the one with the new clothes and fancy ring?  

The second question is about repentance.  Doesn’t it matter if the younger brother is sincere in his repentance? Who knows if he is truly sorry for what he did?  He had a memorized speech all prepared, but that was when he was hungry.  The father didn’t give him a chance to even apologize properly, to confess his sins publicly. To own up and take responsibility. 

And who knows if he will even stick around this time?  When the famine is over and he fattens up again and he saves up a little from his job, he might just run off. He could have made some friends over in the far country, people he partied with, who will take him in and enable him to make the same mistakes over again.  

There could be people in the far country who are looking for him, too.  We know he was involved with some women.  One of them could be after him for some child support.  It wouldn’t be surprising if he left some gambling debts, either.  

He got a taste of that kind of life. We have no way of knowing if he is sincere, if he is going to stay around. 

So, why bother? Why be good when it looks like being bad is rewarded?  And, why forgive people, why help people, who are very likely going to turn back around and do the same dumb things over again? 

We all know we are supposed to obey the law because it’s the right thing to do.  We understand that.  We understand that there are consequences for disobedience.  You run a stop sign; you get a ticket.  You get caught cheating; you get expelled from school.  You make your bed; you lie in it.

There are consequences for obedience, too.  You do the right thing and you are supposed to be rewarded.  You study hard and you graduate.  You work hard and you get a promotion and a raise.  

This whole story of the man with two sons just doesn’t fit with our idea of the way the world is supposed to work.  It doesn’t seem fair and it doesn’t seem right.  That’s how we see it.  

If we were that father, there would certainly not have been a party or a ring. We would probably make that younger son go through a probationary period as one of the hired servants.  We would garnish his pay check to pay off his debts.  And he could just wear his old clothes until he earned some new ones. Any problems with attitude, with trying to act like he was a son, not a servant, and he would be out of there, on his own, never to be welcomed back.  

It isn’t how Jesus sees things, though.  So, why bother?  Why be good if there is a party to welcome you home when you have been bad?   It is our human nature to ask, isn’t it? It did sound like a great party for the younger brother, didn’t it?

St. Paul addresses that question in the sixth chapter of his letter to the Romans.  “6:1 What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?”

By no means!  You see it is all about the relationship.  If you are like this older brother, and you probably are something like him, just by virtue of being here in church today, you need to remember why you work for your father.

Why do we do it? Why do we bother to worship weekly and work to serve the Lord?  Is it because we are waiting for our inheritance?  I hear it’s heavenly. 

Is it because you think that working hard will get you into heaven?  I sure hope not, because if you have been raised in a Lutheran church, you have been hearing the message your whole life that we are saved by grace, not works. 

We don’t serve the Lord because the retirement plan is out of this world.  We do it because of the relationship.  Why bother? Because God loves us and we love God.  We are free to serve God because we know we are already saved.  

What about our second question?  What about our younger brother?  Does it matter if he is sincere in his repentance?  Does it matter if he relapses? We elder siblings sure want it to matter, don’t we?  He is prone to wander, prone to leave the God he loves. 

Jesus reminds us that our God is gracious.  And grace always comes first.  The father ran out to meet the prodigal son.  He didn’t insist on the apology first.  He didn’t insist that it be sincere.  He didn’t say I will welcome you back if you promise not to leave again.  He said fetch a ring and the best robe and start the barbecue for the party. 

Grace and forgiveness come before repentance.  The ability to repent, to turn your life around is part of the gift of grace.  We cannot even believe in Jesus on our own without the Holy Spirit’s help, so what makes us think we or anybody else have the power to turn our lives around, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps?  

Repentance is a gift from God, just like grace.  It is the will to turn our lives around and follow Jesus Christ.  We can never do it alone, but God is gracious.  We are captive to sin and can’t do anything good on our own.  God gives us the strength and the will to follow Jesus. That’s repentance. 

So, back to question one.  Why bother?  Because we know Our Father loves us and we love Our Father.  We want to be near our Father God and our Brother Jesus who gave his life for us.  

Then, question two.  Does it matter if repentance is sincere?  Grace and forgiveness come first.  Repentance is a gift from God.  It is not a prerequisite for grace.  If it were, grace wouldn’t be grace.  

God’s love is wonderful, isn’t it?  Amen.  

Third Sunday in Lent, March 24, 2019, Sermon

The Holy Gospel according to Luke, the 13th chapter. 

Glory to you, O Lord.

1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 [Jesus] asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."

6 Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, "See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' 8 He replied, "Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.' “

The gospel of the Lord.  Praise to you, O Christ.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our creator, and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sometimes God’s help comes in completely unexpected ways. God can use the gross stinky things in life to help us.

In the first part of our gospel lesson people are asking Jesus about the connection between tragedy and sin.  Jesus explains that the people who suffered at the hands of Pilate and the people who died when the tower crashed were no guiltier than the rest of us.  

A sin is a sin is a sin.  We all sin and fall short of the glory of God.   The world is broken because of our sin. Things don’t work the way God intended.  Because we all sin, we all suffer. It isn’t fair and it isn’t just.  I might suffer more for your sin that you do, and you might suffer more for my sin than I do. 

Jesus is doing some truth telling here.  This is the law and it convicts us. All of us.  We all sin and we are all going to die because we all sin.

Now what? Where’s the good news?  I would like to propose that the good news this week is found in the stinky fertilizer.  You heard me right, the good news is in the manure. 

Then he (Jesus) told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, "See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' 8      He( The Gardner) replied, "Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.' “

One of the things many of us are good at is procrastination.  If there is something I really, really don’t want to do, I will probably put it off as long as I can, and do everything else I can before I do it. 

So, I wonder if maybe the fig tree is procrastinating.  Maybe it just doesn’t want to bear fruit this year.  Or, maybe the tree did need fertilizer to bear fruit. It could be the soil wasn’t very fertile.  Or, maybe there wasn’t much rain so there wasn’t enough moisture in the ground. Maybe there was a frost that killed off the buds early in the season.  

Maybe the fig tree doesn’t have those excuses, though.  This tree seems to be singled out. It seems likely that the land owner had more than one fig tree and the others were bearing fruit.    

Did you ever feel like that?  Like everyone else seems to be able to get things done, easier, faster, better than you do?  Everyone else seems to be able to learn how to solve that work problem easily and it just makes no sense to you?  

Or everyone else seems to be able to use their computer or their smart phone, but yours just makes you feel dumb?

You feel like you could probably do it if you just had some more time or maybe if someone would just take the time to help you out.  But you don’t seem to have more time and energy.  And others don’t seem to have the patience or willingness to help.  Or maybe it’s all they can do to get by themselves. 

Or maybe you feel like you are the one who always gets dumped on?  Like you never get a break?  Like you could use some of that good fertilizer and a little more time. 

I heard this story a number of years ago on the radio.  It is a Russian fable. 

A little bird that lived in the north wanted to see what winter was like.  Her parents tried to tell her that she should fly south with them.  She refused and they waited as long as they could, but ultimately, she insisted on staying and they left without her.  Another flock of birds came through and tried to encourage her to come with them, but again, she refused.  

It started getting colder.  The leaves had all fallen off the trees.  Soon, there was frost every morning, but still the little bird held to her desire to see what winter was like.  

She was doing alright until it started to snow.  She got so very, very cold that she decided she should try to fly south.  It was too late though, and her wings became so snow covered that she fell down in a field.  

Before long, she was buried under a deep layer of snow.  A cow came along and dropped a load of manure on her head.  The pile of manure felt nice and warm and it brought the little bird back to life.  She was warm and happy again, so she began to sing.   A cat came by and heard the little bird singing,  so the cat dug her up and ate her.  

This is a fable, so there are morals to the story:

  1. Listen to your elders and the people who care about you.  They may have wise advice.

  2. Not everyone who dumps a pile of manure on your head is your enemy.

  3. Not everyone who digs you out of a pile of manure is your friend.

  4. When you are under a deep pile of manure, it is best to keep your mouth shut.

Sometimes, God’s help comes in completely unexpected ways. The good news for us is in the pile of manure.  That’s right, the good news is in the gross, stinky fertilizer.  In spite of our sin and our shortcomings, God is able to take the manure that falls on us and use it to help us grow and bear fruit.  

There was nothing that was grosser, nothing that stunk worse than the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  God was able to use that, the worse thing that ever happened in history of the world, for our salvation.  God transformed the greatest sin and evil into the greatest good.  

All of us will have times in our life when we don’t seem to be able to bear much fruit.  All of us will have times when we feel like a pile of manure has been dumped on our heads.  Maybe it is because of our own poor choices or maybe it is because of someone else’s bad decisions.  Or, it could just be because we live in this broken world. 

The good news for us is that God doesn’t waste anything in creation.  God can and does use that pile of manure to help us grow. God is willing to give it some time.  The tree will bear fruit.  After all, the cross became the tree of life for the healing of the nations.  Amen.

Second Sunday in Lent, March 17, 2019

The Holy Gospel according to Luke, the 13th chapter.

Glory to you, O Lord.

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." 32 He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, "Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.' 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

The gospel of the Lord.  Praise to you, O Christ.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our creator and our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Psalm 27 is one of my favorite passages of scripture. The psalmist tells us that God is our light and salvation.  The LORD is the stronghold of our life.  

Light. Salvation. Stronghold. 

Such powerful words when we think of God.  Such reassuring words.

The psalmist tells us not to be afraid.  The world tells us that we have much to fear. That our enemies rise up against us on every side. That we can't trust anyone, especially if they haven't been thoroughly checked out first.  That we need to be armed or we will be left defenseless. 

The world says our enemies are coming to shoot our children in their schools.  That immigrants are coming over the border to take our jobs. That refugees from war torn places are terrorists in disguise. That people who worship God differently and pray differently from us should be feared. 

The world tells us that other people, people different from us, are the enemy, and they are here to change everything. The very way of life that we have come to expect and enjoy is being threatened.  Even our churches are declining. The world screams at us to be afraid, be very afraid. 

In the middle of this fear and anxiety, we hear the message of the psalmist, whispering words from thousands of years ago.  We wonder what possible meaning and relevance they can have for us today.  

Yet these words, this poetry, this ancient hymn, have endured for thousands of years. This part of scripture has held meaning for the people of God for all time.  This is one of the hymns that Jesus sang in the synagogue when he worshipped there with Mary and Joseph. 

The Lord is my light.  

The world is so much scarier at night. Evil seems to hide in the dark of night.  Or at least we fear it does.  It always seems safer when you can see what you are up against.  

We know this even from the movies.  The power always goes out at night during the storm just before the serial killer sneaks up behind the victim. Even in the cartoon strip Peanuts, Snoopy starts his great novel with the line, "It was a dark and stormy night."  

The Lord is our light.  As we baptize Brynn this morning we will light her baptism candle from the Paschal candle, the symbol of Easter, and of Christ’s resurrection. She will share in the light of Christ, the light that always shines.  The light that can never be overcome. 

God's light is the light of truth. God shines a light into all the midnight places of our lives and shows us what is really there.  Much of what we fear is one of the devil’s lies.  The devil knows that fear makes us more vulnerable to lies. 

Fear distorts the truth.  Fear keeps us from seeing strangers as our neighbors. The light of God shines on strangers and shows us clearly that they are also made in the image of God.  That they are also God's beloved children. 

The Lord is my salvation. 

There is no salvation outside of God. We can never save ourselves. No human being can save us.  But we have a God who loves us. God's love is more powerful than anything that tries to harm us.  

This does not mean that life is easy for us.  The psalmist tells us clearly that we are sometimes surrounded by people and things that pull us away from God. 

Sometimes the choices between good and evil are obvious.  Don't kill your neighbors. Don't steal their car. But sometimes the choices are more complicated. Should you always give money to someone who comes begging? What is the best way to help those who are hungry?

What is the best way to end poverty? How should we fix the broken immigration system?  How can we help bring about peace in the World? What’s the best way to help people who experience homelessness in our city?

Which political candidates have the best plans to solve the problems we will face in the next few years? Which issues are most important? What are the long range effects of these kinds of decisions?

They all say they have plan to save and protect us.  But only God can save us.  Now, God’s salvation doesn't release us from our responsibilities in this world.  Salvation frees us to face our responsibilities, to make the right decisions, decisions that are based on what is best for our neighbors, not just what is best for us.  

The Lord is my stronghold.  

God is the source of our strength. God is our shelter and sanctuary. 

We all know we should stay home when the weather is bad.  Most of us stock up on food when a storm is coming. We have had plenty of practice this winter in making decisions about whether we should drive if the roads might be icy.    

God is a shelter from the storms of life. God doesn't keep the wind and the snow and the floods and fires from coming.  God provides the shelter where we can be safe while we wait it out.  Then God provides the tools to clean up the mess we find when we go back outside. 

The LORD is our sanctuary. A sanctuary is a protected holy place. People often call the nave of the church the sanctuary. The church has been used at times throughout history to shelter people and protect them from harm. The law recognizes the church as a place where people can seek asylum and protection. 

Our hearts break when we see hear of other children of Abraham who were murdered as they prayed in their mosques in New Zealand. We remember other children of Abraham killed last year in their synagogue in Pittsburgh and our Christian brothers and sisters killed in Charleston as they studied God’s word. 

I cannot help but think that God’s heart is broken, too, when people have so much fear of those who look and pray differently, that they act out of hatred instead of love. 

The psalmist tells us that the Lord will be our strength and shelter even when our father and mother forsake us.  It seems to me that there could not be too many things worse for a child than to be forsaken and rejected by their parents.

In Brooklyn, NY, there is an ELCA congregation that provides a sanctuary and shelter for homeless teenagers. These teenagers were rejected by their parents and thrown out of their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  Their fathers and mothers have forsaken them, but the Lord has provided them sanctuary, a safe place, a holy place to live.   

There is trouble in the world and there always will be. God does not promise us that life will be safe and easy.  God does not promise to make the storms go away. God does not even promise that our parents will be there for us no matter what.  

God does promise to be our light.  To shine into the night and awaken us from our nightmares and reveal the truth of the morning light. 

God promises to be our salvation. Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins.  He rose from the dead and gives us life and freedom. He gives us freedom to make the right decisions, even when they are difficult. 

God promises to be our stronghold, our shelter, and our sanctuary. Jesus calls us like a mother hen gathers her baby chicks, invites us to find a shelter in God’s holy wings. 

These are the promises God shares with Brynn this morning. Light. Salvation. Stronghold.  Jesus says, “Have no fear.” We will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Amen. 

First Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2019

The Holy Gospel according to Luke, the 4th chapter.  Glory to you, O Lord.

1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." 4 Jesus answered him, "It is written, "One does not live by bread alone.' " 5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." 8 Jesus answered him, "It is written, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.' " 9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, "He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' 11 and "On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.' " 12 Jesus answered him, "It is said, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' " 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

The gospel of the Lord.  Praise to you, O Christ.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our lives are defined by the stories we hear and the stories we tell.  Stories shape our identity.  They tell us who we are, who we belong to, where we belong, and what we should be doing. 

People tell stories to get their point across, to get you to buy into their view of the world.  We live in a world of competing stories.  Everyone seems to have their own narrative about what’s happening, their own view about what’s going on.  Each story seems to be attached to the agenda of the person telling it. 

Stories help us define who we want to be when we grow up. You might have heard a story from a teacher, a doctor, a nurse, a pastor, and their story helped shape your identity.  

Or perhaps you even read a story in a book and the adventures resonated with you and you wanted to be like that character.

Some stories aren’t real though, as your parents gently explained that you could only pretend to be a prince or a princess, a pirate or a dragon-slayer.  

Using stories to get your point across isn’t a bad thing in and of itself.  Jesus uses parables and stories to teach us about the Kingdom of God.  Using stories is just a tool. Stories can be useful in teaching, but they can also be used to manipulate people into agreeing with something that they really don’t believe. 

Today’s gospel lesson is about two different stories.  Those two stories are competing to claim the life and identity of Jesus.  One of the stories is true.  The Holy Spirit tells that story.

One of the stories is a lie. The devil tells that story. We must listen carefully to tell the difference because the devil is an excellent liar.

The setting of the stories is important.  These two stories both take place in the wilderness and in Jerusalem.  

The wilderness is important in the history of the Jewish people.  It is the place where God met them after rescuing them from slavery in Egypt.  It is the place where they received the 10 commandments.  The word “wilderness” means the place where God speaks.  

The city of Jerusalem is the center of Jewish power and identity. At the time of Jesus, the temple had been renovated and expanded and was the center of worship for all the Jewish people.

The two characters in these stories are the devil and Jesus.  This is the first time we see the devil in Luke’s gospel.  He is bold; he is clever; he is powerful.  That’s why he is such a good liar. 

Both stories are about the identity of Jesus. Here is some background:   Jesus’ genealogy goes all the way back to Adam.  His ancestors include important people like Noah, Abraham, and David.  

When Jesus was about 30 years old, he was baptized by John in the Jordan  River. After his baptism, he was praying and the heavens opened up.  The Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove.  A voice from heaven said, “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  Then Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to pray and fast in order to prepare for his ministry. 

Here is the devil’s story.  Remember the devil is a liar.  He’s a clever liar, though, and he hides his lies in the middle of things that really happen.  

The devil’s story begins when Jesus was tired and hungry and alone.  It was a perfect time to approach him.  Humans are especially vulnerable when they are weak.  Their bodies betray them.  Their stomachs growl.  Their heads ache.  They aren’t able to think as clearly as they would if they had a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast.  

It is best to tempt people when they are alone, especially if they have been alone for a while.  There is strength in numbers and their friends can often talk them out of bad decisions.  

So the devil appealed to Jesus’s sense of identity and power.  “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”   The devil wanted Jesus to indulge himself.  To tell himself that as God’s Son he deserves to have what he wants, deserves to reach out and take what he needs.  

Jesus resisted, and the first temptation didn’t work, but the devil had more ideas.  He led Jesus up to the top of the hill and showed him all the kingdoms of the world.  And he said, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.  If you then will worship me, it will all be yours.”  

That is quite a temptation.  All the kingdoms and all the power and all the glory.  The kingdom and the power and the glory.  That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  And that’s how we know the devil has told a great big whopper of a lie.  Because the kingdoms and the power and the glory don’t belong to him.  They are not his to give.  

The kingdom and the power and the glory belong to God.  The devil is lying when he says they are his to give.  He is lying when he says that anything is his to give.  Anything he is offering to sell you or give you belongs to God.  He is trying to get you to take stolen property.  Everything belongs to our God who created it. 

We renounce the devil and all his empty promises as part of our baptism liturgy.  Jesus quoted Deuteronomy in response to this second temptation, but the devil had another trick up his sleeve.  

The devil had memorized a few Bible verses himself. This just goes to show that you can’t always trust someone just because they can quote scripture.  You have to read it for yourself.  You have to study it and learn the context.  You have to hear scripture from the perspective of Jesus. 

Next, the devil took Jesus to the top of the Temple and tried to get him to prove his identity.  He told Jesus to jump off and make some angels fly over and catch him quickly.  Jesus knew he didn’t have to make God prove anything.  So the devil left him, and waited for another opportunity. 

The Holy Spirit has a different story.  You see the Holy Spirit was there with Jesus the whole time.  It was the Spirit who led him into the wilderness to fast and pray.  

The Spirit was there to remind Jesus of his true identity as the Son of God.  The Spirit prayed with him when he was alone and hungry and tired.  The Spirit gave him power in his weakness to resist the devil and his empty promises.  The Spirit gave him the power to see the truth of God. 

The Spirit was there when devil came and tried to tempt Jesus three times. 

First, the devil tried to get Jesus to use his power for selfish reasons.  The devil told him to make bread just for himself, to feed his own hunger.  Jesus resisted that temptation.  

Instead of turning a stone to bread, Jesus gave up his very life to become bread, the bread which gives us strength, the bread which gives life and salvation to the whole world. 

Next, the devil tried to get Jesus to worship him in exchange for the kingdoms and power and glory of this world.  Jesus knew that the kingdom and the power and the glory belong to God alone and he told the devil so.

Finally, the devil tried to get Jesus to prove who he was by calling in the angels to verify his identity.  Jesus knew that God doesn’t have to prove anything to the devil.  In the end, the devil cannot win.  The Holy Spirit was with Jesus in the wilderness.

Sometimes we find ourselves in the wilderness, tired, and hungry, and alone.  The devil tries to deceive us with all kinds of stories and lies.  Tempts us with empty promises of things in this world.  Tries to get us to forget who we are and who we belong to. He is a good storyteller, and an excellent liar, so sometimes we fall for it.   

When we are tired, Jesus invites us to come to him and rest.  When we are hungry, Jesus has given himself as the bread of life and forgiveness.  When we feel alone, Jesus gives us this community of believers to strengthen us in our faith.  He sends us the Holy Spirit who promises to be with us always.

Jesus’ true identity was revealed in his baptism. He is the Son of God. In our baptism we are claimed and named as children of God. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.  The mark is indelible. The Holy Spirit promises to be with us forever.  

The devil lies.  He loses in the end. 

The Holy Spirit’s story is true.  Jesus is the Son of God.  

We are the children of God.  Amen.