Sermon: Potlucks of Epic Proportions

Sunday, June 9, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Day of Pentecost

Before I went to seminary, I lived in Lincoln for a few years.  I had just gotten back from the Peace Corps, and I was trying to readjust to life back in the US.  Because of my experience teaching English as a foreign language, I quickly got a job with an organization called Lincoln Literacy.  At Lincoln Lit, we worked with refugees and asylum-seekers and other immigrants – with and without documents – we taught them English and helped them find jobs and adjust to their new life in the US.  I loved working there.  Almost everyone I worked with – students and staff alike – seemed to feel in some way like fish out of water, just like I did.

We had students from all over the world: from Mexico and Guatemala and Venezuela, from Iraq and Afghanistan, from Bosnia, Sudan, Congo, China, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, all over.  In our classes, you would see people of every color, people dressed in hijabs and blue jeans and saris and intricately woven fabric. During one particularly hot summer, one of my colleagues even showed up to work a few times wearing his wife’s skirts to keep cool – and no one so much as batted an eye.  Everyone belonged, just as they were.

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Sermon: Lights, Camera, Ascension!

Sunday, June 2, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Ascension Sunday

You may have noticed something kind of unusual about our readings this morning – and that is that we actually read the same story twice. Both our first reading from Acts and our gospel reading from Luke tell the story of Jesus’ ascension. Acts was actually written by the very same author as the book of Luke – which means that Luke is the only gospel that comes with its very own sequel!

And, like any good sequel, the story of Acts picks up “where we last left our heroes.”  We read about Jesus’ ascension in the last chapter of Luke, and then we pick up the story again right away in the very first chapter of Acts. The ascension is sort of the hinge between the two books that connects one to the other.  But there are some differences in the stories.

At the end of Luke, the ascension is presented as this mystical, mysterious event; Jesus is taken up just as he is blessing his disciples, and they are filled with joy and start worshiping God, and the credits roll, and they all live happily ever after. But in Acts, this story doesn’t feel like as much of a happy ending.  We have anxious disciples and mysterious strangers and an even more mysterious Jesus. And we get the sense that the ascension isn’t really the end of the story at all – in fact, it’s only the beginning.

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Sermon: Beyond the Pericope

Sunday, May 26, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Sixth Sunday of Easter

When you go to seminary, you get to learn a whole world of new vocabulary words; words like:  kerygma… hermeneutics… homiletics… epiclesis… eschatology!  As I was reading our gospel for this morning, I kept thinking of one of these five dollar words that I learned in seminary: “pericope.”  Anyone heard the word pericope before?  It’s a good one.  Pericope is a word that’s sometimes used to talk about a passage taken from the bible – it’s basically like how we use the term “reading” or “lesson.”  But “pericope” comes from the Greek for “a cutting-out” and I find that image of cutting out helpful for talking about a pericope like this one that we read this morning.

The group of people who put together the three year series of readings that we follow – the lectionary – are responsible for cutting out the texts that we read together each Sunday.  Most of the time, it’s pretty obvious why they chose to cut texts where they did – perhaps there’s a story or a parable with a clear beginning and ending or a section all on the same theme.  But sometimes, like today, the place they chose to cut something doesn’t make much sense to me at all.

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Sermon: Us and Us

Sunday, May 19, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday of Easter

During my first few months in the Dominican Republic, I lived with a host family.  They were very nice people and I got along great with them for the most part.  But my host mom, Doña Nicia, never thought I ate enough – she was always trying to get me to eat more.  The trouble was that, after a while, I had gotten really tired of eating rice and beans all the time.  It was always the same thing every day: rice and beans, stewed meat, mashed plantains, and a big mug of fresh milk in the morning and in the evening – the milk part sounds really nice until you find yourself actually having to peel your milk twice a day (I never thought I’d appreciate the word “homogenized” so much).

One day, Doña Nicia’s daughter-in-law, Moraima, made a great big pot of a rice dish called chofán and brought a bowl over for me.  It was basically fried rice with a mix of vegetables and some chicken – and I completely devoured it.  Seeing this, my host mom was like, “Aha!  She likes chofán!”  So the very next day at lunch, Doña Nicia proudly set before me a big, heaping bowl of “chofán”; except, instead of rice and a mix of different vegetables, this was rice with a mix of different meats: chicken, pork, goat, and – I swear to you this is true – hot dogs, all chopped up into little pieces.  I knew she was so excited to make it for me, so I ate as much of it as I could stomach.  But to be honest, I felt a lot like I imagine Peter did in our reading from Acts.  In Peter’s case, he has a vision of some kind of bizarre picnic descending down out of the clouds – and a voice tells him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat!” and Peter takes one look at that picnic and is just like, “Uhhh… pass.”

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Sermon: Good Shepherd, Bad Shepherd

Sunday, May 12, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday of Easter

In case our readings for this morning didn’t already give it away, today is the Sunday in the church calendar when we celebrate “Good Shepherd” Sunday.  We celebrate that God in Christ is our good shepherd.

And even though most of us have little or no experience with actual, real-life sheep or sheep-herding, we have at least some idea of what a shepherd does.  We know that shepherds are responsible for the wellbeing of their sheep, which is a 24/7 job.  Shepherds guide their sheep to food and water, they protect them from predators, and they find shelter for them when things start to get stormy.  They help the sheep to survive and flourish.  It’s a position of trust; like Jesus says in our gospel reading, the sheep learn to recognize the voice of their shepherd and they follow it.

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Sermon: Not Done Yet

Sunday, May 5, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday of Easter

Our gospel reading for this morning picks up right on the heels of the gospel reading we read last week, which is actually kind of odd.  Last week, we read the story of “doubting” Thomas from John 20, a story that ends with Jesus saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  John then goes on to write,

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 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.

Now, that really sounds like it’s the end of the story, doesn’t it?  It sounds like it should be the end of the book of John.  All it’s missing is “and they lived happily ever after, the end.”  So it’s kind of surprising then to turn the page and realize that John actually goes on for a whole other chapter.

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Sermon: When in Doubt

Sunday, April 28, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Second Sunday of Easter
image source

Thomas is in the wrong place at the wrong time in our gospel reading for this morning.  Or, at least, he’s not in the right place at the right time. The rest of the disciples had gathered in fear following Jesus’ crucifixion, probably to talk about the rumors they had heard that Jesus had somehow risen from the dead – when Jesus himself suddenly appears among them!  Only Thomas isn’t there to join in the rejoicing or to hear Jesus speak peace to them.

We have no idea what Thomas was off doing, but we do know that when he came back, he definitely did not expect to hear that everyone else had gotten to see Jesus while he was out.  Thomas reacts to this news with disbelief – and he flat out refuses to believe the testimony of the other disciples. Instead, he insists that he will only believe if he sees Jesus with his own eyes and touches his wounds with his own hands.

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Sermon: All the Feels

Sunday, April 21, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Easter Sunday

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
[Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!]

This joyful greeting is the same one that Christians have used for centuries to greet each other on Easter morning.  This is indeed a day of great joy!  For many of us, that joy is obvious – the joy of gathering with family, of seeing children and grandchildren, the joy of a time to rest and a time to celebrate with the people we care about.

But of course, the true joy of Easter goes much, much deeper than these things.  Today we celebrate the fact that the fundamental order of the cosmos has been shifted.  When Christ was killed and then rose from the dead, he broke death itself. On Easter, we remember that we have been freed from slavery to sin and death; we have been joined to Christ forever in both life and death, and we too will rise again to eternal life in God’s kingdom.  Surely this is a cause for boundless joy!

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Sermon: To Love and Be Loved

Thursday, April 18, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Maundy Thursday

About a month before my 24th birthday, I was starting my second year of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic.  I got sent to the next town over from mine to spend the night with a family there, to see whether I thought they would be a good host family for the new volunteer who was coming.  They turned out to be really sweet, lovely people who welcomed me with open arms.  Esmeralda, the mom, made a delicious meal for us, while her husband Manyango told me all about their community, Jánico.  They were curious to get to know me as well – and when they found out that my birthday was less than a month away, they insisted that I come back and celebrate with them.

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Sermon: As You Wish

Sunday, April 14, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Palm / Passion Sunday

This is a story we have heard so many times before.  Many of us grew up hearing it.  Year after year, we follow Jesus on a Lenten journey to Jerusalem.  And every year it leads us here, to the threshold of Holy Week.  We read the story of his triumphant entry into the city, and we read again how the crowd’s shouts of “hosanna in the highest!” quickly turn into chants of “crucify, crucify him!”  We follow Jesus all the way from a stable in Bethlehem to the cross and to the empty tomb.

This story is so well known and so familiar to the church that it’s hard to add much to it.  Some friends of mine even asked me a couple of weeks ago: how do you preach on stories that people have heard so many times?  How do you find something new to say?  And I told them honestly: the Spirit works!  But also, I can’t help but think of how many thousands of years we have been telling ourselves and our children these stories.  Humanity has a long term relationship with the story of salvation in Jesus Christ.  And so, as old as this story is, it somehow keeps being new.  Each year that we tell it again, it seems to speak to us in a new and different way.

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Sermon: No Going Back

Sunday, April 7, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday in Lent

As most of you – or probably all of you – know, I used to be a Peace Corps Volunteer once upon a time.  I served for four years in the Dominican Republic.  And as you might expect, there is a lot of training and preparation that goes into becoming a Volunteer.  In training, you learn the skills that you will need to do your project work; and you also study the language and the culture of your assigned country to try to prepare yourself to live and work for two years – sometimes more – in a different country.

But one aspect of Peace Corps that doesn’t get talked about very often is the fact that they also actually train us for how to come back.  We actually spend time in Close of Service (or CoS) training before coming back to the US.  They help us update our resumes and teach us how to condense our years of service into concise stories – literally, we had to practice that.  But even more than these practical bits of training, they tried to prepare us for the strange reality of reverse culture shock.

Most people know what regular culture shock is – you move to a new place and find yourself constantly bumping up against a different culture with different values and different ways of doing things than what you’re used to.  Reverse culture shock, on the other hand, is when you come back again and the culture is the same one you’re used to, but you are a different you.

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Sermon: Missing the Point

Sunday, March 31, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday in Lent
image credit

Whenever I read the story of the prodigal son, it always reminds me of a Lenten bible study I was in at Grace Lutheran Church in Lincoln several years ago now.  We had been getting together every Wednesday for midweek worship and following worship with a group bible study in the fellowship hall.  It was already getting fairly late into Lent when we read the prodigal son story together, and I had started to notice that the conversations we were having kept going flat.  People had naturally started to group themselves together at tables with like-minded people, and so the discussions generally seemed to go something like this:

“Well, this is what I think about this text.”

“Well, I agree!  That’s what I think about this text too.”

“Yeah!”

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Sermon: Holy Sh*t

Sunday, March 24, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday in Lent

Many of you have probably noticed the paper chain that’s starting to spread across the back of our sanctuary.  For those of you who haven’t made it to our Wednesday evening services yet, this chain is part of what we’ve been doing on Wednesday nights.  Each link of the chain is a prayer, and every week the chain grows as we add more and more prayers.  Every week, there are different interactive prayer stations around the sanctuary, as a different way of engaging with the text and with the practice of Lent.  The prayer chain is meant to be a community practice of prayer that shows how our prayers connect us to each other – and how what we do together here leads out into the world. 

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This idea of interactive prayer stations for Lent was actually part of the project work I did at my internship congregation down in New Mexico.  Each week at the midweek service, at least one of the stations we had set up would be some kind of activity to help people to dig into the text for that week in a more tangible, hands-on kind of way.

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Sermon: Rebels Without a Clue

Sunday, March 17, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Second Sunday in Lent

In our gospel reading for this morning, we catch a glimpse of Jesus in a very sassy mood.  The pharisees come to him with death threats from Herod, but Jesus basically just brushes them off.  He calls Herod a “fox” and tells them to say, “Look Herod, I don’t have time for you right now.  I’ve got work to do.  But hey, I’ve got an opening in three days, so if you still want to kill me, you can come on down to Jerusalem and do it then – because we all know that no prophet can be killed outside of Jerusalem, amirite?”

But his snarky comments are immediately followed by a tender, heartbroken lament: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  Despite his sarcastic remarks, we see in Jesus the image of God as a mother: a mother whose heart is breaking over the way her children have rejected her and turned away from her.  God the mother has had it up to here with her wayward children, but she still loves them so much it hurts.

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Sermon: Rehab

Wednesday, March 6, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Ash Wednesday

This past Saturday, I was sitting in a coffee shop working on my sermon for Sunday.  I’m kind of a chatty person, as you’ve probably noticed, and easily distracted, and I ended up striking up a conversation with a woman sitting at a table near me.  We’ll call her Danielle.  It pretty quickly became clear to both Danielle and me that this was one of those conversations that God himself seemed to have arranged.  Danielle had been looking for a new church home and was grateful to unexpectedly find herself in conversation with a pastor.  And she shared with me some of the struggles that she has been facing recently.

She shared that her 23-year-old son – we’ll call him Tyson – is addicted to meth and that she and her husband had just taken him to a treatment center earlier that week.  She talked about the pain she felt at seeing her son being slowly isolated from everyone else because of his addiction.  She said that the other members of their family had already given up on Tyson – even his own father.  He was angry at her for taking him to the treatment center, but she was worried that he was going to end up dead if he didn’t go.  She talked about how hard it can be to love someone who is addicted, and how challenging it is to walk the line between loving someone and enabling them.

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Sermon: Ups and Downs

Sunday, March 3, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Transfiguration Sunday
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Our gospel reading for today is, objectively, kind of a weird story.  The transfiguration is one of those moments in Jesus’ life that always seems mysterious to me and a bit beyond my comprehension.  As best as I can understand it, Jesus walks up a mountain with some of his disciples, glows for a bit, has a brief conversation with a couple of ancient Old Testament prophets (as one does), and then they all walk back down the mountain together.  It’s weird.

But, as strange as this story is, it’s got one of my favorite Peter moments in all of scripture.  Peter has a very human reaction to Jesus’ transfiguration.  When Jesus is revealed in all his heavenly glory and Moses and Elijah show up, Peter’s first reaction is, “Uhh, uhh…. tents! Yes, that’s it, we must build tents! One for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah…”  And I love how Luke is like, “he did not know what he was saying.”  And even God Almighty is like, “What are you talking about?  Tents??  This is my son, my chosen.  Shut up and listen to him!”

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A Painfully Candid Lenten Reflection

CN – anxiety, depression

Christians around the world began their observation of Lent yesterday on Ash Wednesday.  Lent is a season of repentance and return to God. It’s a season in which we confess that we have not lived up to being the people God created, redeemed, and called us to be.  We have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.  We have been neglectful in our care of creation.  We have been selfish and have hardened our hearts to the suffering of the vulnerable around the world.

We read the words of the prophet Joel, who implored his people, “Return to the Lord your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” We are called to turn back to God with our whole heart, to experience God’s grace and love anew – not unlike the prodigal son returning home to his father’s joyous welcome.

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Sermon: That’s Gonna Leave a Mark

Sunday, February 10, 2018
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Many of you have probably noticed that I have a couple of tattoos on my arm here.  This one here was my very first tattoo; it’s probably hard to see from where you’re sitting, but the design is a rose sitting in the center of a cross.  I got this tattoo the day after I turned in my candidacy paperwork to start the process of becoming an ordained pastor. It has a lot of meaning for me.

I took the inspiration for this image from my time out at Camp Carol Joy Holling, both as a camper and later as a counselor.  There was a beautiful confessional rite that we would do sometimes, especially for our evening worship.  We had this big, wooden cross that had a nail hammered into it so that the pointy end faced outward.  And the way it worked was that everyone was given little slips of paper and invited to write their confession – whatever sins or troubles were on their heart – and then stick it up on the cross on that big nail.  Then, once everyone’s confessions were on the cross, they would light the little bits of paper on fire.  And as we watched everyone’s confessions go up in smoke – almost like incense to God – the edges of the papers curled inward and formed the shape of a flaming rose.  It was beautiful, all ashy gray and fiery orange – such a powerful image.

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Sermon: Over the Cliff

Sunday, February 3, 2018
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Our gospel reading for this morning picks right up where we left off last Sunday. If you remember, last week, we saw Jesus just beginning his ministry in Galilee and making his public debut in his hometown, Nazareth.  We heard the very first words that Jesus speaks as an adult in the gospel of Luke – and he reads these words from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And at the beginning of our gospel text for today, we hear him say again, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  That’s a pretty bold claim!  Like we talked about last Sunday, Jesus is laying out the scope of his mission: he has come to bring good news to the poor, to liberate captives and the oppressed, to give sight to the blind, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. And the people are all for it – Luke says that “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth”

But then this story takes a really unexpected twist.  Jesus predicts that the people will reject him and what he has to say. And sure enough, by the end of this story, he manages to make them so angry that they actually grab him and try to throw him off a cliff!  What happened??

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Sermon: All Hands (and eyes and ears and pancreases and pinkie toes) on Deck

Sunday, January 27, 2018
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday after Epiphany

Many of you know that I was a music major in college at Nebraska Wesleyan – and as part of that, I got the chance to sing and play in a whole bunch of different music ensembles, including the university symphonic band.  I played flute in the band for four and a half years. Now, there were a LOT of flute players in the band.  We easily outnumbered many of the other sections, especially the percussion section. And every once in a while, we would play a piece that needed a lot more percussion players than it did flute players, so our director would make some of us switch.

I was second or third chair flute for most of my time in the band, so I usually didn’t get tapped to play percussion – but one time, we played this really unusual and just bizarre-sounding kind of modern piece of music, and I got sent to the back to the percussion section.  The part I was given for this piece was to bow the vibraphone. Yes.  I had to bow the vibraphone – I was just as confused about it as you look now, haha.  Literally, I had a bow like you would use to play a violin or a cello, and while I pedaled the vibraphone, I had to run the bow along the edge of the right keys at just the right angle and it gave off this kind of weird, spooky, resonant sound.

You probably already guessed this, but I was really, really bad at it.  I could not bow the vibraphone to save my life.  And adding to my trouble, I never had any idea when I was supposed to play.  I’d have rests for like 50 measures and then I’d have to play like two notes on the vibraphone.  I mean, I can barely count to begin with, so to keep track of where we were over 50 measures of really weird-sounding music was basically impossible.  So I just kind of went rogue and played it whenever I felt like it – whenever it seemed to me like, “Oh, this part could maybe use some vibraphone.”  Half the time I couldn’t even actually get a sound out of it.  It was pretty terrible.  After we played that piece, I asked the director, “Please don’t ever make me do that again” – and I played flute in the band for the rest of my time there!

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Sermon: Recipe for the Kingdom

Sunday, January 20, 2018
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Second Sunday after Epiphany

I watch a fair bit of Netflix when I’m at home, and one of my favorite shows to watch is the Great British Bake Off.  Any other fans of the show here?  It’s a great show – it’s shot in Britain, as you might have guessed.  Twelve amateur bakers from around the country gather together and, over several weeks of baking challenges, the show’s judges narrow down their numbers until they’re left with one winner.  It’s amazing to see the stuff they come up with – fantastic creations made with intricate combinations of flour, eggs, sugar, water, yeast, and all kinds of other baking ingredients.  And what I find even more amazing about the show is how the judges evaluate all the different bakes.  They’ll just look at something someone’s made, or maybe slice it open, and just by looking at it, they’ll say, “Oh, that needed 5 more minutes in the oven,” or “You should have added one more egg,” or “You should have added the sugar at such-and-such stage.”  It’s amazing to watch.  They’re like baking wizards.  And it really underscores how every single component of that recipe is needed – it’s needed in the proper amount and at the proper time.  When you do it wrong, it’s a mess, but when you get it right, these ordinary ingredients become something much greater than just the sum of their parts.

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