Sermon: Many Waters

Sunday, February 21, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
First Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (readings start around 14:10; sermon starts around 20:22)

The story of Noah and the flood is the kind of classic story that Sunday school lessons are made of.  It’s such a charismatic story:  you have all these animals going up two by two into the “arky arky” – and the whole story ends with a rainbow, like we read in our first reading for today.  

But if you look any closer than that at what actually happens in the story, it is downright horrifying.  Humanity has become so wicked and violent and corrupt that God regrets ever creating humans in the first place.  And so God sends a flood that drowns everything on earth except for eight humans and some animals in a boat.  Even for those fortunate few on the ark, what an utterly gruesome experience that must have been – to watch the flood cover everything and everyone you knew, to hear their cries for help as they drowned in those waters.  It’s bone-chilling to imagine.

And for this reason, I find it really troubling in our texts for today – especially our second reading – to see this explicit connection being made between the flood and the waters of baptism.  The waters of the flood were destructive and deadly, while the waters of baptism are life-giving waters, waters through which God comes to us in love, waters in which we are cleansed and made new.  But the author of 1 Peter describes the flood as somehow “prefiguring” our baptism.   He makes this connection because eight good and righteous people were “saved through water.”  

There’s a terrible irony in this story, though.  Noah and his family are spared from the flood because God believes that they are good and righteous people, unlike the rest of humanity.  But if you read even a little bit further in just this same chapter of Genesis we read from today, you discover that Noah and crew are not quite as saintly as you might believe. Literally the first thing we see Noah do once he’s fresh off the boat is to plant a vineyard so he can make some wine – he then proceeds to get absolutely hammered and passes out in his tent buck naked.  His son Ham comes in the tent and “sees the nakedness of his father” – it’s really not clear in the text what exactly Ham does, but whatever it is, it enrages Noah. And in retaliation, Noah decides to punish Ham by cursing his son, which hardly seems fair to that kid.  So in just the space of a few verses, Noah gets off the ark, gets wasted, passes out naked, and curses his own grandchild.  Not a great look for God’s chosen.

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Sermon: The Years that the Locust Has Eaten

Wednesday, February 17, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Ash Wednesday
watch this service online (readings start around 6:40; sermon starts around 15:44)
digital bulletin here
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It was the year 1875 that will long be remembered by the people of at least four states, as the grasshopper year. The scourge struck Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Western Missouri April, 1875, and commenced devastating some of the fairest portions of our noble commonwealth. The locusts came in immense clouds and literally covered the territory. Their appearance was that of a snow storm. They came in swarms, they came by the millions, they came in legions, they came by the mile, and they darkened the heavens in their flight, or blackened the earth’s surface, where in myriads they sought their daily meal. Their voracity soon made itself apparent; whole fields of green corn were destroyed in a single day; every spear of wheat, oats, flax and corn were eaten close to the ground. Potatoes and all vegetables received the same treatment, and on the line of their march, ruin stared the farmer in the face, and starvation knocked loudly at his door. Nothing escaped them; there appeared to be nothing they would not eat; and in their progress they left the country nearly as bare of vegetation as if it had been scorched by fire.

Excerpts from “When the Skies Turned to Black: The Locust Plague of 1875” compiled by Hearthstone Legacy Publications

“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near- a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” (Joel 2:1-2)

Our first reading, from the second chapter of Joel, begins with these words – words of fear and trembling, of darkness and devastation.  If you read back to the first chapter of Joel, you can get the context for why this is.  The event that provoked all this alarm among the people was: a plague of locusts.  Joel describes it in a way that kind of evokes that passage I read just now about the locusts that descended on Nebraska back in 1875:

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Sermon: Witnesses to Mystery

Sunday, February 14, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Transfiguration Sunday
watch this service online (readings start around 15:48; sermon starts around 22:44)
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The first time I ever got to swim in the ocean, I was 22 years old.  Like many of you watching this, I grew up in Nebraska – and, well, Nebraska’s not exactly known for its close proximity to the ocean.  So when I joined the Peace Corps and got assigned to live on a small Caribbean island (the Dominican Republic), you can probably imagine that I was pretty stoked to finally get a chance to go swimming in the sea!  

The very first time I went, I was visiting an older Volunteer as part of my training – I was actually visiting Jan Espinosa, who’s probably watching this video right now!  She took us up to the beach at Sosúa, on the north side of the island.  I put my swimsuit on and I waded out in the water to where it was deep enough that I could swim around a little bit.  I still remember the seawater splashing into my mouth for the first time – I was shocked by how salty it was!  Like, I knew in my brain that the ocean is made up of saltwater, but I was so surprised by that first taste of it.  

But the one part of that trip I most viscerally remember is when someone lent me a pair of goggles so that I could actually look around under the water a little bit.  I was so excited swimming out there with those goggles.  I’d seen beautiful photos of gorgeous coral reefs, with all those brightly colored tropical plants and fish swimming around under the water, and I was excited to get to see something like that with my own two eyes.  So I swam out to where the water was a little deeper; I strapped on the goggles; and I plunged my face under the water.  

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Sermon: Hungering for Hope

Sunday, February 7, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
watch this service online (readings start around 19:01; sermon starts around 26:35)
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Our gospel reading for today picks up right on the heels of last week’s gospel reading – we’ve spent four Sundays just in the first chapter of Mark because so much happens in it!  Last week, we read about how Jesus cast the unclean spirit out of the man in the synagogue; and this week we read that, “As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.”  Jesus is not wasting any time on this important mission of preaching and healing; as we see in this reading, he’s getting right down to business.

The one line of this passage that grabs me the most is verse 33.  Word has gotten around that Jesus is at Simon and Andrew’s house, doing some healing, and Mark writes that “The whole city was gathered around the door.”  Now, I have no idea how big a city it was – whether they were still in Capernaum or if they’d gone somewhere else – but even in a small city, that’s at least a few hundred people gathered around this one door, if not a few thousand. 

It’s a striking image.  This verse makes me think of some of the images I’ve seen lately – like photos that I’ve seen of the vaccine rollout – photos in some places of hundreds of people, waiting in line for hours and hours, for that one small prick of a needle.  Or I think of all the people I see waiting in line at the food pantry every week – and the long line of cars that snakes through the parking lot down at the Oak Ballroom when we do the mobile food bank each month.  

This verse is just one short sentence: “And the whole city was gathered around the door.”  But in that verse, what I hear is a deep sense of need, a sense of desperation and hunger and longing that is deeply relatable.  

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Sermon: Like it or not, Love Is the Way

Sunday, January 31, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
watch this service online (readings start around 16:54; sermon starts around 24:01)

(full disclosure, this is a reworking of an earlier sermon I preached while on internship)

To eat meat, or not to eat meat – that is the question!  This controversy that Paul is writing about in our second reading sounds kind of strange and antiquated to 21st century ears.  We don’t really talk about or observe many religious dietary restrictions these days – and apart from being sure to give thanks, we don’t usually spend much time worrying about how the food we eat will impact our relationship with God.  But for the Christian community in first century Corinth, these were pressing and important issues.  And in his letter, Paul is addressing some serious concerns – concerns that went well beyond the question about food.

Corinth in the first century was a hopping place.  It was an incredibly diverse city, situated at the crossroads of several major trade routes; people from all kinds of cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds found their way to Corinth.  And this diversity was reflected in the early church.  The Christian community in Corinth had a sometimes volatile mix of believers from the Jewish tradition and Gentile believers who had converted from other religions and were unfamiliar with the Jewish way of life.  The first century church as a whole was, of course, rooted in Jewish religion and practice, but it struggled to establish its own identity and traditions as more and more people outside the people of Israel began converting to the Way.  And the community in Corinth was very much at the heart of that struggle.  

Food became a particular area of struggle because of what an important role it played in the life of their community.  Communal meals were a central part of their Christian practice – not just the bread and wine that we might imagine, but full, actual, community meals.  And the argument about whether to eat meat was especially contentious, not because of upset vegetarians or vegans, but because almost all the meat available to eat in Corinth was meat that had been ritually sacrificed to idols.  

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Heart Gunk

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me. 
Do not cast me away from your presence,

and do not take your holy spirit from me. 
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,

and sustain in me a willing spirit.

Psalm 51:10-12

A couple weeks out of the summer, when I worked out at Camp Carol Joy Holling, a few of us counselors would get assigned to ‘work crew’ to do some of the more maintenance type jobs around the camp.  If you drew the short straw, this meant scrubbing down the fleet of camp vehicles – not only the buses and vans, but also the regular maintenance guys’ filthy pickup trucks.  You could easily spend a solid twenty minutes or more with a power washer on those trucks just trying to chisel off all the caked on mud.  It was a dirty, grody job – though I’ve got to admit that it was pretty satisfying whenever you managed to send a big ol’ clod of mud flying.  

It probably sounds kind of odd, but this is an image I think of fairly often in my prayer life.  Over the past couple of months, I have been cultivating a habit of praying at sunset every day, in different ways – sometimes meditating, sometimes journaling or drawing, sometimes singing hymns or reading scripture – the practices vary, but the time is always that half hour between sunset and nightfall.  Although I’ve managed to actually be pretty consistent about it, I have to confess that it’s often something I have to make myself do.  All too often I get to the hour of sunset full of stress and frazzled by a to-do list that seems bottomless, and I think to myself that I’m too busy to pause, that I must use that time to be “productive” instead.

But then I think of the old Zen proverb – “You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you are too busy; then you should sit for an hour” – and I think about power washing those grimy pickups.  I can imagine that many people, when they read the psalmist’s plea in Psalm 51 – “Create in me a clean heart, O God” – might think of being gently bathed as by a mother, or perhaps of the water washing over their forehead at baptism.  But I know my crusty old heart – and how much gunk can get built up in it, even over the course of a single day – and so I find it more true to my prayer life to imagine God power washing the gunk out of my heart instead, like mud clods off a truck.

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Sermon: Follow Me

Sunday, January 24, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday after Epiphany
watch this service online (readings start around 12:03; sermon starts around 17:34)

Our gospel reading for today tells one of those old familiar stories that we know so well that we’ve kind of stopped noticing what an odd little story it actually is.  Jesus is walking by the Sea of Galilee, where he comes across some people fishing – “for they were fishermen,” as Mark helpfully tells us.  Jesus stops, looks at them, and simply says, “Hey, follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  

Now, you or I would probably have some follow up questions to an invitation like that – questions like: “Uhh, who are you?” and “What do you mean, ‘fish for people’??  Pretty sure I don’t have the right kind of bait for that,” and also “Where exactly are we going?”  

But neither Simon and Andrew nor James and John ask any such questions.  Mark writes: “Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”  And there is no further conversation about it; they just go.  Granted, part of this suddenness may just be due to the style of Mark’s gospel – Mark’s in a hurry to get the story out and doesn’t always worry a whole lot about going into detail.  But even in the other gospel accounts of Jesus calling the first disciples, there’s still not much more of a back and forth than this.  Jesus calls, and Simon, Andrew, James, and John leave everything behind – their boats, their nets, their livelihood, even James and John’s father Zebedee!  They decide on the spot to become disciples of this guy who just came walking along and issued that simple invitation: Follow me.

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Sermon: The Truth Hurts, but it also Sets You Free

Sunday, January 17, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Second Sunday after Epiphany
watch this service online (readings start around 15:27; sermon starts around 24:49)
image source

One of the most powerful acts of love I have ever received did not feel like love at all while it was happening to me.  It came in the form of a very difficult conversation that a friend had with me during my first year of college.  This friend was another student in the music department who was a few years older than me, and she warned me that I was starting to develop a reputation for being kind of arrogant and full of myself.  

I had come to college out of a very small, K-12 school – there were only 17 kids in my graduating class!  And being good at music was a big part of my identity – it was my thing (not only did I win the senior musician award my senior year, I was the only person who was even eligible for it that year, lol).  I was kind of used to being hot stuff, the lead singer on things.  But when I got to college, even though it was a relatively small university, I was suddenly surrounded by lots of people who were the best singers from their schools – and they came from schools that were a lot bigger and better funded than mine.  

It was extremely intimidating.  And I think I developed that sense of arrogance and pridefulness as a kind of defense mechanism, to hide that underneath it there was this profound insecurity and a loss of a sense of identity.  And so I didn’t want to believe what my friend was saying to me at first – how could I possibly be coming across as arrogant when that wasn’t at all how I felt on the inside?  But she repeated back to me some of the things she had heard me say, and I heard my own pridefulness come through those words loud and clear.  It was a painfully humbling experience.  

And as hard as it was for me to hear what she had to say to me, I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for her to say it.  It’s one thing to call out someone you don’t like for their poor behavior – but to call out someone you care about for the way they’re behaving is much, much harder.  And my friend did it for my benefit, pointing out that my defensiveness and ego were pushing people away and making it hard for me to make more friends in the department.  That hard conversation helped me let down my walls a little bit and connect more deeply and authentically with other people, many of whom I’m still friends with to this day.  And it was humbling to realize after the fact that she chose to be so brutally honest with me because she cared enough about her friendship with me to say the hard thing.  I’m grateful for the courage and care she showed in telling me the truth.

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Sermon: Sealed for More than Freshness

Sunday, January 10, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Baptism of Our Lord
watch this service online (readings start around 13:43; sermon starts around 20:00)
image source

Even though there was a lot of disappointment for many of us this past holiday season, for me there was at least one really exciting thing that happened.  And that’s that I became a godparent for the first time!  No one had ever asked me to be a godparent before and I’m really excited about it!  

I’m sure many of you remember our friends Pastor Allison and Deacon Timothy Siburg and their little daughter Caroline.  Well, Caroline became a big sister back in October when little baby Cora came into the world – she was actually born on Reformation Sunday (a very Lutheran baby!).  And on Christmas Day, baby Cora was baptized into the body of Christ at Salem Lutheran Church in Fontanelle.  

I wasn’t able to be there in person, unfortunately, but I participated in worship over Facebook Live.  I got to witness the baptism and I made the promises that sponsors are called to make: to nurture the newly baptized in their faith and to help them live into the covenant of baptism and in communion with the church.  With all the assembly gathered there in person and online, I renounced the powers of sin and evil that draw us away from God; I confessed my belief through the words of the Creed.  And after the presider (my friend Heidi) poured water over little Cora’s head, baptizing her in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we got to my favorite part of the baptismal rite. Pastor Heidi made the sign of the cross on Cora’s forehead and said to her: “Cora, precious child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

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Christmas Eve

In case you’re looking for a place to worship this Christmas Eve, I’d like to extend to you an invitation to worship with us! Some clergy friends and I got together to record a service at a church in the area and we’d love for you to join us. There will be music and scripture and candlelight and — God willing — a bit of sacred space to encounter anew the wonder of the incarnation.

The video premieres here on our public Facebook page at 6pm Central on December 24, 2020 (no need to have an account to be able to watch it).

And you can follow along with the digital bulletin here on our website.

Merry Christmas to you! And blessings to you and yours this holiday season.

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