Sermon: Signs of Joyful Abundance

Sunday, January 16, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Second Sunday after Epiphany
watch this service online (readings start around 17:43; sermon starts around 23:51)
image source

This is a reflection by Pastor Elisabeth Johnson, missionary serving as a professor at Lutheran Institute of Theology in Cameroon, that was published as gospel commentary on the Working Preacher website. I adapted these words to better suit being preached out loud and added the title, but the content, organization, and most of the words are Rev Johnson’s and I’m grateful for her excellent essay.

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Sermon: Chaff Therapy

Sunday, January 9, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Baptism of Our Lord
watch this service online (readings start around 13:37; sermon starts around 18:04)

This is the third time in a month that we find ourselves back in the wilderness, standing by the banks of the river Jordan with John the Baptist.  You might remember we actually read parts of this exact same gospel text a few weeks ago on the third Sunday of Advent: I joked about how you don’t really come to church on the “Sunday of Joy” expecting to hear about unquenchable fire!  It’s still kind of unsettling to read today; we came to worship today to celebrate the baptism of Jesus.  Yet here we find John the Baptist again, preaching about a Messiah coming to literally thresh humanity and burn up the chaff!

The whole idea of separating the wheat from the chaff is pretty familiar – it’s become a common saying, even apart from scripture.  And I think it’s fair to say that when we think about “separating the wheat from the chaff” the common understanding is that this saying is about God separating the good, holy people from bad, sinful people.  But of course, as Lutherans, we know that this isn’t how God works, and it isn’t how people work; no one is all good or all bad – we are all both sinner and saint.  Incidentally, that’s not how wheat works either!  Wheat is also both wheat and chaff.  Heh, or being a good Nebraskan, I suppose you could say that it’s similar to how corn is both corn and husk.  The process of threshing and winnowing doesn’t separate good wheat from bad wheat, or good corn from bad corn.  It separates the different parts of the same plant: it knocks the grain loose from the rest of the plant so that it can be gathered up and used.  

I kept finding myself coming back to this image of wheat and chaff this week – I was even reading Wikipedia articles about how wheat is grown and harvested, haha.  And one of the things that struck me in what I read was the fact that what we call “chaff” is actually the protective casing around the seed or grain.  When the wheat plant is young and growing, the chaff is what grows up around the grain and keeps it safe.  Without chaff, we wouldn’t have wheat!  It’s only later on in the life of the wheat that the chaff eventually becomes an impediment.  The chaff becomes a barrier that keeps the best part of the wheat from serving its purpose if it isn’t removed.  

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Sermon: The Same Old Story

Friday, December 24, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Christmas Evebulletin
watch this service online (readings start around 14:28; sermon starts around 23:43)
image source

A year ago today was the first time in my life that I did not set foot inside a church on Christmas Eve.  It was an odd feeling.  To be sure, there were lots of joyful options for online worship – and it was fun to get to collaborate on some of them with other clergy friends of mine.  We put in a lot of work to try to make Christmas Eve worship happen safely.  But it was still so strange not to be here.  

I’m happy and thankful to get to be here with you tonight.  It warms my heart to see all the faces gathered in these pews.  After so much turmoil in the past two years, there is just something about gathering together in person for worship on Christmas Eve that feels really hopeful.  We’ve come a long way in the last year.

That being said, in many ways, 2021 still wasn’t the year that we had hoped it would be – the year that we were promised it would be.  Life didn’t just snap back to normal, the way I think many of us secretly hoped it would.  The pandemic left us with too much loss to simply move on from it.  It highlighted the extreme inequality and division and prejudice that already existed in our world and then made these things worse.  It stole our sense of safety.  And for many of us, the pandemic took away some of the people we loved most.  

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Sermon: Witnesses to a Revolutionary Hope

Sunday, December 19, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday of Advent
watch this service online (readings start around 21:26; sermon starts around 26:45)

This coming year, we’ll be getting to spend a lot of time in the Gospel of Luke.  Each of the three lectionary years focuses on a different gospel: Year A is Matthew, Year B is Mark, and Year C is Luke, with John kind of sprinkled in here and there for fun throughout all three years.  We do it this way because each gospel witness is unique and offers different perspectives on the life and teachings of Jesus.  So this year, we get to know Luke a little bit better.  And during Advent especially, we get to see one of the most fun things that sets this gospel apart: and that is that Luke’s gospel is a musical!

Especially in the first couple chapters of Luke, we get some really fantastic songs.  A couple of weeks ago, you might remember we read the Canticle of Zechariah: this is the song that Zechariah sings at the birth of his and Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist.  In Luke 2, we have a whole angelic chorus announcing Jesus’ birth – and when Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the temple a few verses later, they encounter a man named Simeon who had been waiting his whole life to see the Messiah – and when he lays eyes on Jesus, he also bursts into song!

And of course, today, we have this extraordinary song that Mary sings.  (We’ll actually get to sing one of my favorite settings of it as our hymn of the day!)  Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is a joyous song of praise for all that God has done for God’s people, and for Mary herself in particular.  It’s a song rooted in Mary’s deep faith that God has been and will be faithful to God’s promises.  

The Magnificat is also a profoundly revolutionary song: God scatters the proud and casts down the powerful, God lifts up the lowly and the hungry and sends the rich away empty-handed.  God sees this world’s many inequities and injustices and comes to turn the world upside down, to make things right for the outcast and the unloved.  As Mary sings this song, we see that she is much more than just a meek, obedient servant of God.  Mary is a prophet!  She’s a prophet announcing the wonders that God is working to the world, a prophet whose heart is bursting at the seams with divine hope.

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Sermon: Birthing Joy

Sunday, December 12, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday of Advent
watch this service online (readings start around 15:05; sermon starts around 21:10)

This morning, we light the rose-colored candle in our Advent wreath – because today is known in our liturgical calendar as “Gaudete” Sunday.  Gaudete comes from the Latin word for “rejoice”; today is the Sunday of joy!  Historically in the church, Advent was once considered a kind of mini-Lent, a season of solemnity and fasting and penitence.  In fact, many of you, like me, might remember growing up with an Advent wreath full of purple candles.  The change to the blue and pink is meant to be a recognition that Advent is really more of a season of expectation and hopefulness and preparation.  And the pink candle in our wreath reminds us that what we are waiting for is actually something deeply joyful: the coming of the kingdom of God, Christ’s reign of justice, peace, and love on earth.

Fittingly, there is a lot of joy to be found in the texts that we read this morning.  Although, you have probably noticed that 🎵 “one of these texts is not like the others…” 🎵  We’ll get to that a little later on.

Our first reading is from the prophet Zephaniah. Zephaniah gets to preach the kind of joyous sermon to his people that I think preachers would love to preach all the time!  He declares to his people that their suffering will end, that God has seen their repentance and forgiven them.  He gives us this wonderful image of God rejoicing over the people; Zephaniah writes: “he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.”  

What a great image!  Just imagine God singing loudly, with great joy, over you!  And God – through Zephaniah – goes on to say, “I will deal with all your oppressors”; “I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.  At that time, I will bring you home.”  Imagine the joy of God gathering us home, changing our shame into praise!  It’s a beautiful image.

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Sermon: Reconciliation and Surprising Grace

Sunday, December 5, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Second Sunday of Advent
watch this service online (readings start around 18:40; sermon starts around 24:28)

We have four really great texts this morning, full of good, hopeful stuff to reflect on.  But for some weird reason this week – completely out of left field – I’ve kept finding myself thinking about a totally different story of scripture, one that really isn’t directly related to any of our readings.

You might remember the story of Jacob wrestling with the mysterious stranger/angel – does that ring any bells?  What details do you remember about that story?

Basically, Jacob is camped out by himself at a place called Peniel, and a mysterious figure wrestles with Jacob all night long.  This guy is clearly very strong, but Jacob manages to hold his own, so as morning breaks, the man hits Jacob’s hip to knock it out of joint so he can get away – but Jacob refuses to let him go unless he blesses him.  This is the moment in which Jacob is renamed Israel, which means “the one who strives with God” – it’s pretty strong foreshadowing of what Israel’s relationship with God will actually be like. (spoiler alert?)

It’s a fairly familiar story.  But does anyone here remember the context of this story?  (It’s a lot less well known.)  What was Jacob doing at Peniel?  Where was he going?

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Sermon: Her Children Rise Up and Call Her Happy

Friday, December 3, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Funeral of Marlene ZimaObituary
watch this service online (readings start around 28:30, sermon starts around 33:18)

Readings:

If you grabbed a bulletin for today’s service, one of the things you’ll notice is that, at the back, there is this wonderful, long collection of family stories about Marlene.  Believe it or not, this is actually the significantly edited down version.  When I met with Deb and Sue to go over plans for this service, Deb handed me this amazing, three page, single-spaced collection of stories – in a tiny font – that she had compiled about her mom.

There are so many stories, so many memories.  And what absolutely radiates from all of them is the profound love and admiration and pride that Marlene’s kids and grandkids and great-grandkids – and everyone whose life Marlene touched – all feel for her.  She was truly well-loved.

(This was one of the largest funerals over which I have ever presided; in addition to these lovely mementos, there were a veritable garden of floral arrangements and plants in the sanctuary)

And so it’s no surprise that one of the scriptures that Marlene’s kids chose for this day to remember her is this passage from Proverbs 31.  Many biblical scholars think that King Solomon actually wrote this passage about his mother!  This passage portrays a woman of strength and dignity, of wisdom and kindness, a woman who is honorable and hard-working and full of faith.

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Sermon: Holy Impatience

Sunday, November 28, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
First Sunday of Advent
watch this service online (readings start around 21:04; sermon starts around 26:55)

A few weeks ago, I joined the club that no one really wants to be part of: I tested positive for Covid.  (Most of you probably knew this already – it’s why I wasn’t in worship a couple of weeks ago.)  I was fully vaccinated earlier this year, so my case was one of those “breakthrough” cases, but I still got pretty sick.  It was mostly like a really bad cold – congestion and sore throat and runny nose, headaches and body aches, fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, and so on.  And, in classic Covid fashion, I completely lost all sense of taste and smell.  

Honestly, I’m thankful that it wasn’t worse; I’d hate to imagine how much more serious it might have been had I not been vaccinated.  This was plenty bad enough.  And several people had cautioned me to be on guard especially during the second week of quarantine, as Covid is known for sometimes taking a turn for the worse just at the moment you start to think you’re getting better.  So even when my symptoms started to improve after a few days, I stayed alert and on guard.  I bought a pulse oximeter so that I could keep an eye on my blood oxygen levels – which I did almost compulsively, at least once an hour.  I likewise kept my thermometer handy so I could keep checking my temperature.  I kept getting up and walking around to get a little exercise and keep the blood flowing.  And I kept sniffing random things around my house to see whether my sense of smell was coming back yet or not. 

I was anxious and a little scared about suddenly getting very sick, especially living by myself.  I was very attentive to the symptoms I was experiencing.  But once it seemed like I really was getting better, I was instantly impatient to be all the way better.  Especially with my trip to California coming up, to go visit my brother, I was eager to be healthy again, to be able to smell and taste again.  And truth be told, I’m still not 100%.  I still check my blood oxygen from time to time, because I am still tired, and I get that old Covid brain fog.  And I still can’t smell or taste much of anything.  I spent Thanksgiving aggressively sniffing everything on my plate, trying to convince myself that I could taste at least some of it – because I’m just so eager to be whole and well again.

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Sermon: Encircled by Love

Sunday, November 7, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
All Saints Sunday
watch this service online (readings start around 20:51; sermon starts around 27:06)

When I was in seminary in Chicago, I had the opportunity to take classes with other students from several different denominational backgrounds, because there are so many different seminaries in the city.  This week, I’ve been remembering a seminarian I got to know in one of my classes who was studying at the Catholic Theological Union.  He was preparing to be a parish priest, but once he was ordained he would also be living as a monk with the brothers at the monastery who had helped him go to seminary.  Even before seminary, he had gotten to know these brothers and the monastery well – and he shared stories with us in class about what it’s like to live there, and what the monastery itself is like.  It sounded like a beautiful, if challenging, way to live. 

But the one thing that stuck with me most from his stories was his description of the main sanctuary at the monastery.  Their chancel had a raised platform with the table on it, much like ours here.  But they also had a long communion rail; it was made of polished wood and it ran all the way around the chancel in a big semi-circle.  All the brothers could fit around it together as they gathered to receive communion.  But that circle didn’t stop at the wall.  Outside the sanctuary, on the other side of the wall, the railing continued on around in stone, forming one big ring around the table.  On the stone side of the circle was the monastery’s cemetery.  Every single time they gathered for communion, that one big circle reminded the monastery’s living brothers that they were still connected to the brothers who had gone before them.  They were reminded that God’s love and mercy and provision aren’t only for the living – that we belong to God forever, in our life and in our death.  

I’ve mentioned this monastery communion rail before in my sermons – it’s such a powerful image.  But it’s been on my mind again this week – because today, we actually have something kind of similar set up here in our sanctuary.  This table where we have photos and memories of our loved ones who have died, today will also be the table where we take communion together.  Like the monastery communion rail, continuing around into the cemetery, today this table is a reminder that we are still connected to those who have gone before us.  Together with them, we are all still part of the one communion of saints.  

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Sermon: A Hermeneutic of Love

Sunday, October 31, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Reformation Day
First readingPsalmSecond readingGospel reading
watch this service online (readings start around 19:40; sermon starts around 26:04)

I talked a little bit about the Re:Formation conference (AKA TheoCon) in my sermon last week: how Bishop Rinehart spoke about this time as liminal space, a time of transition, time for rest and listening and discerning whatever it is that comes next.  One other really fun thing I got to do at the Re:Formation conference was to go to a workshop led by the one and only Lisa Kramme, the Synod Director for Faith Formation.  (Council members might actually remember meeting Lisa at our retreat back in July – she is a delightful human being!)

Lisa’s workshop was a story lab – a hands on kind of lab with lots of different activities to help us work on our storytelling skills.  The very first activity we did was to write an autobiography of sorts.  We  didn’t have to write a comprehensive life story, but we did have to share something meaningful about who we are – and we had to do so using exactly twelve words. No more, no fewer.  

I had been joking around a lot with Lisa all morning (we used to work together, so she and I know each other pretty well) – so for my twelve word autobiography, I ended up writing: “I’m from a family of people who like kind-spirited, irreverent jokes.”  I felt like I had done a pretty good job capturing an important slice of who I am, what makes me me.  But then the assignment changed.  Keeping our words in the same order, we were then asked to cut them down to just six words… then three… then finally just one.  My autobiography shrank from “I’m from a family of people who like kind-spirited, irreverent jokes.” to “I’m from people who like jokes” and then to “people who joke(s)” and finally just “jokes.”  

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Sermon: Liminal Space

Sunday, October 24, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
watch this service online (readings start around 17:01; sermon starts around 22:15)

I have almost never missed a Christmas at home with my family.  And, considering all the different places I have lived, that has often taken some doing.  

When I lived in the Dominican Republic, it took me almost 24 hours to get home.  The DR isn’t that far away from the US, but it took me two bus rides and a taxi just to get to the airport.  From there to Omaha, it usually took at least three flights, and then over a two hour drive to actually get home.  So, as you can imagine, I got to spend lots of long layovers getting to know airports in Miami and Atlanta and Dallas and Chicago and so on.  But I always found fun things to do.  I’d walk up and down the concourses and eat snacks; I’d chat up friendly-looking people to find out why they were going where they were going; I’d look through the gift shops and thumb through the books.  To this day, I still have a collection of scarves I bought in airport gift shops because after four years of living in the tropics, I got cold very easily – even in Miami!  

But I never missed a single Christmas in the four years I lived in the Dominican Republic, even though it took me a whole day to get home. 

The one year I didn’t make it home for Christmas was actually the year I was on internship in New Mexico.  I had to work on Christmas Eve and it was just too far away to make it home afterward.  Instead, I flew home about a week after Christmas, on December 31st, New Year’s Eve.  I preached that morning at a church in El Paso and went straight from the church to the airport.  I made it as far as Dallas – and then a massive ice storm hit.  My two hour layover stretched from two hours into four, then six hours, then eight hours.

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Sermon: Clinging to the Leg of Christ

Sunday, October 17, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
watch this service online (readings start around 15:24; sermon starts around 22:45)

When I was a small child, I was very excited for the day that I would finally get to start going to school.  School was where my mom worked – and I loved hanging out with her, reading and making craft projects and playing silly games and having fun.  But as excited as I was to start school, I was also equally as terrified about the prospect.  My dad has even told me in recent years about how anxious I was about the fact that I didn’t know how to read yet – and no amount of reasoning could persuade me that school is, in fact, the place you’re supposed to go to learn how to read.  And beyond that, I just had no real idea what school would be like – for me, it was a venture into the unknown.

On the first day of kindergarten roundup, Mom took me to school, all dressed in my new school clothes, with my new little backpack on my back.  At first I was excited, but with every step closer to the classroom, it felt like my excitement was slowly replaced by terror.  Finally we stood in the very doorway of the classroom and I was so filled with fear that I would not let go of her.  She turned to leave and go to her own classroom, and I literally wrapped my arms around her leg and clung on like a second skin.  Eventually she pointed out that another little girl I was friends with was there, and she got me to let go just long enough to wave hello – and when I turned around, poof!  Mom was gone.

Looking back now, it’s a pretty cute, funny little story.  And, obviously, I survived a whole lot more schooling after that.  But at the time, I was really scared.  I didn’t know what was going to happen or what it would be like.  And so I did what humans tend to do when we’re afraid – I grabbed for something familiar and I held onto it for dear life, with both hands.  

Our instinctive fear reaction comes from one of the oldest parts of our brain – the amgydala, located near the brain stem.  As we learn and grow older, we develop more and more of our higher brain function, like reasoning and logic and language – we literally learn to “use our words”!  We grow into being able to view and interpret the world around us in more rational and abstract and imaginative ways.  

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Sermon: Culture Shock

Sunday, October 10, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Twentienth Sunday after Pentecost
watch this service online (readings start around 21:05; sermon starts around 28:05)

Several weeks into my Peace Corps service, I was still waking up every morning and having to actively remind myself that I wasn’t in Nebraska anymore.  By this point, I was living in our community-based training site on the eastern side of the island – we weren’t even done with training yet! – and I was already feeling ready to come home.  

Don’t get me wrong – the Dominican Republic is a beautiful country, and at first I was really excited to be there.  I remember riding in on the bus from the airport for the first time; I stared out the windows with my mouth hanging open, taking in the palm trees and the ocean and the brightly painted buildings and the merengue and bachata blasting from the radio.  I was excited to try Dominican food, and to try out my Spanish skills talking with Dominican people, and just generally to immerse myself as much as I could in Dominican culture.

But a month or so in, the newness of everything I was experiencing had started to wear off – and I was tired.  I was tired of speaking in Spanish all the time – it was exhausting!  I was tired of eating beans and rice every day.  I was tired of people always staring at me or standing too close to me.  I was tired of it always being too hot or too wet or too loud.  I was tired of constantly feeling out of step with the people around me.  Sometimes I would even imagine to myself that this whole thing would turn out to be one huge prank: like a game show host would step out from behind a curtain and be like, “Surprise!  You’re on Candid Camera!” and everyone would suddenly start speaking English and acting like “normal” people.

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Sermon: One Flesh

Sunday, October 3, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
watch this service online (readings start around 14:37; sermon starts around 21:55)

For the last several weeks, we have been steadily making our way through the Gospel of Mark, following Jesus and the disciples as they draw closer and closer to Jerusalem.  And it seems like the closer Jesus gets to Jerusalem – and to the cross – the more difficult his teachings are becoming.  Just in the last few weeks, we have heard Jesus say that anyone who wants to get ahead must be last of all and servant of all; we heard him say that we must lose our lives in order to find them; and just last week you might remember his teachings that if your eyes or hands or feet cause you to stumble, you should cut them off!

Today’s reading from Mark manages to hit us even closer to the heart with this difficult passage about divorce. You can tell that even the disciples find this teaching harsh, because they bring it up again with Jesus later – like they think that maybe when the Pharisees asked him, Jesus was just a little hangry or something and needed to have a snack and relax.  But when they ask him about it in private, Jesus not only reaffirms this teaching, he doubles down on it and makes it sound even harsher.

It’s hard to read this text. It has been used in such harmful ways in the church: especially against the many people whose lives have been touched by divorce and against members of the LGBTQ community.  I’m sure there are people sitting here who know exactly how it feels to have this text used against them – people who have been made to feel shame by other people wielding this text like a weapon.  I’m not here to do that.

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Sermon: Drastic Measures

Sunday, September 26, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
watch this service online (readings start around 16:41; sermon starts around 25:00)

I’ve talked a bit about my mom in my sermons and about how she was diagnosed with cancer around the time I was five or six. My whole childhood was significantly shaped by her illness and death; but yet, as an adult, I have been amazed to keep discovering just how little I understood about how hard and painful my mom’s battle with cancer really was. I knew that she had chemotherapy that made her hair fall out – I remember getting to play with some of the fun wigs that she had – but I had no idea how rough the chemo and the radiation treatments really were on her body. It was basically a race to try to kill the cancer before the cancer – or the treatment itself – killed her. 

And I knew that Mom had had a mastectomy.  As a kid, that part of it seemed pretty straightforward to me: that’s where the cancer is right there, so just – boom – chop it off and you should be good to go!  But now, as I’m getting close to the age my mom was when she was battling cancer, even that choice hits me kind of differently.  I’m still a relatively young person – and so was my mom – and I can’t imagine having to make that choice whether to literally cut off part of my own body.  That could not have been easy.

But in my mom’s case, that amputation was the most hopeful thing that they could do.  She was barely 40 and there was every reason to expect that she still had decades of life ahead of her.  She was a beloved elementary school teacher and had a huge community of support behind her, praying for her to get better.  And, of course, more than anything, she was a wife and a mother with three young kids at home all under the age of ten.  We needed her.  We loved her.  And so the doctors fought like hell to save her life.  They tried everything that they could to help her, exhausted all possible options, even experimental treatments.  And some of those treatments were extremely invasive and aggressive and painful, but the doctors decided it was worth it – because her life was worth saving, and it was their best chance of doing so.

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Sermon: Choose Wisely

Sunday, September 19, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
watch this service online (readings start around 17:34; sermon starts around 23:13)

For the last several weeks, we’ve been reading a lot of passages from the book of James (Luther’s least favorite epistle, lol).  The letter of James belongs to a category of biblical writings known as “wisdom literature” – this also includes books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.  While wisdom literature can sound like something that would be really abstract and esoteric, one of the things that actually characterizes biblical wisdom literature is that it is often very practical and down to earth.  This is the tone that James sets in the very first verse of our second reading today.  He writes, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”  For James, wisdom is more than just words – wisdom is about our actions.  The true test of wisdom is in how it is reflected – or not reflected – in our day-to-day lives.  

To help draw this out and make it clearer, James asks his readers to consider three questions:

  1. Who is wise and understanding among you?
  2. Where do all the conflicts and disputes among you come from?
  3. What does God want?

These are important questions in the life of faith.  The first time I can remember really wrestling with these questions was way back when I was in sixth grade.  I’ve talked a little bit before about how unpopular I was growing up, how I was bullied a lot.  I grew up as a member of a small class in a K-12 school in a tiny town.  There weren’t exactly a lot of rungs on our social ladder back then, but you can bet your bottom dollar that whatever the lowest rung was, that’s where you’d find me.  

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Sermon: Living by Example

Friday, September 17, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Funeral of Laverne SchmaleObituary
watch this service online (readings start around 27:12, sermon starts around 29:27)

Readings:

When I was a very young girl, growing up in a small town in Nebraska, I remember going to church with my family every Sunday.  My home congregation had a lot of youth and kids back then, and about once a month or so, we started our Sunday school time with an assembly.  All the kids, from the tiny preschoolers all the way up to the confirmation students, would gather together in the church basement for a short service before going to our classes.  

We sat in rows by class, from the youngest in front to the oldest in back.  And I remember being in about first or second grade (it was the last year of sitting in the tiny folding chairs before you graduated to the *adult size* folding chairs) – I remember turning around in my chair and craning my neck to try and see the older kids sitting aaaaall the way at the back of the fellowship hall.  They seemed so cool and wise and knowledgeable, those ninth graders.  They got to make the pancakes at the pancake feed; they got to run the hoses at the carwash fundraiser; they helped out with vacation bible school; they even got to light the candles on Sunday mornings.  So cool!  As a little girl, watching them, I learned from their example.  I saw all the things they got to do in the church, all the ways that they served – and I wanted to be just like them.

I remembered those Sunday school days as I was preparing for today.  Our first reading, from Philippians, is a passage that Laverne specifically wanted to be read at this service.  And as I heard more and more stories about her over the last week from the people who loved her and knew her best, I started to understand why – why she chose this passage.  The apostle Paul wrote these words in a letter to the young congregation in Philippi: “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”  Follow my example, Paul is saying, and I will teach you how to live a good and faithful life.  

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Sermon: Listening from the Heart

Sunday, September 12, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
watch this service online (readings start around 20:02; sermon starts around 27:23)
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One morning, when I was in high school, I was hanging out in the school’s computer lab. I was about sixteen years old; it was my sophomore year, and I was by far the fastest typer in my class – because unlike many of the other students, I actually bothered to practice. I was deep in the middle of one of the typing lessons when one of my younger brother’s friends – Mason Kalin – came into the lab. He saw me sitting back in a corner of the lab and came over to talk to me. I was kind of annoyed by this – I was trying to concentrate on what I was doing! So I only kind of half-listened as Mason started going on and on about whatever it was he was talking about. It sounded like maybe he was talking about one of the video games he and my brother had been playing recently – all kinds of explosions and chaos and who knows what else – I was pretty sure I had already heard my brother going on and on about it at home, so I didn’t feel like I really needed to hear it again. 

Eventually Mason wandered off and I went back to my typing.  After a while, the bell rang, and I closed out of the computer and gathered my stuff and prepared to go to my next class.  But when I stepped out into the hallway, it was like a ghost town.  Nobody was at their lockers, nobody else was walking to their next class – it was weird.  So I walked down the hall a little ways to try to find out what was going on.   And I discovered that everyone – students, staff, faculty – the entire school was all crammed into the library; and they all had their eyes glued to the TV.  I walked in to see what was going on – and I got there just in time to watch the second tower fall.  

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Sermon: Chalupas or Bust

Sunday, September 5, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
watch this service online (readings start around 15:10; sermon starts around 22:50)

On Tuesday afternoons, almost every week, I drive to Fremont to meet up with other clergy folks from around the area for text study (as I’ve mentioned many times before).  And for me, it’s become a bit of a habit after text study to hit up one of the many drive-thrus in Fremont and bring home something for supper.  It’s just nice to get home and have supper ready and not have to cook.  

My go-to is usually Raising Cane’s, but this last Tuesday I was in more of a taco kind of mood, so I decided to head to Taco Bell instead.  I pulled into the parking lot of Taco Bell and was about to get into the drive-thru lane when I noticed something odd.  A couple of other cars had pulled into the lot ahead of me, driving toward the drive-thru, but at the last minute, they veered away and drove out the other side of the parking lot.  I got closer and realized that there was one lone Taco Bell employee out sweating in the sun, standing at the end of the drive thru lane and waving cars away.  

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Sermon: Choosing Gods

Sunday, August 22, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
watch this service online (readings start around 12:43; sermon starts around 19:59)

Our readings for this morning actually begin with the end of a story.  The Israelites have been dreaming of the promised land since the days they were slaves in Egypt.  They followed Moses through the sea and into the desert.  They wandered for decades in the wilderness, where they buried an entire generation of their people.  They followed Joshua, son of Nun, into battle as they conquered the land of Canaan.  And now, at long last, God has “given rest to Israel from their enemies all around.”  They finally made it!  The promised land is theirs.

Now, in the last couple chapters of the book, Joshua gathers all the people together – he “[summons] all Israel, their elders and heads, their judges and officers, and [says] to them, ‘I am now old and well advanced in years; and you have seen all that the Lord your God has done… for your sake, for it is the Lord your God who has fought for you.”  He reminds them: God “gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant.”  Now that all the tribes of Israel have settled into the land that they have been given, Joshua calls them together to remember that everything they have received is a free gift from God, and not something that they earned for themselves.

And so this story that we read today is a scene of thanksgiving and celebration, just as you might expect.  But there’s also more to it than that.  After Joshua finishes retelling all the wonderful things that God has done for the people of Israel, he says to them: “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve God in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.”  And together, Joshua and all the people of Israel pledge their allegiance to God, renewing the covenant that God first made with Abraham.

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Sermon: Reeking of Christ

Sunday, August 15, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
watch this service online (readings start around 14:37; sermon starts around 19:08)

I vividly remember the first time I ever tried to make guacamole.  I think I was maybe a sophomore in college – about 19 or 20 years old.  I’m pretty sure I had only just recently eaten guacamole for the first time.  It wasn’t something we ever really ate at home when I was growing up.  But for me it was definitely love at first bite.  So I wanted to try to figure out how to make my own guacamole at home.  It seemed pretty straightforward: mash up some avocados, add some lime juice, throw in some diced tomatoes and onions, a pinch of salt, and – of course – some garlic.  What could possibly go wrong?

Well, if you’ve ever shopped for avocados, you can probably guess my first mistake.  I had no idea how to choose a ripe avocado – and even if I had known, the avocados I found at the grocery store were all hard as rocks.  But I didn’t let that stop me!  I got back to my apartment with my produce purchases and decided to dive right in.  The avocados I bought were so hard I physically could not mash them.  I just ended up cutting them up into tiny pieces before tossing them with the other ingredients.  It was really more of an unripe avocado salad than it was guacamole, and it was a disaster.  But I thought to myself: No worries, I know how to fix this – garlic!  Garlic covers a multitude of sins.  So I added some extra garlic.  I added a LOT of extra garlic.

I added so much garlic that it completely overpowered all the other flavors in the guacamole.  Honestly, that didn’t bother me too much – I like garlic a lot, so I didn’t mind some extra garlic flavor.  But when I woke up the next morning, I could still taste that garlic.  I brushed my teeth, and I could still taste garlic coming off of my breath.  And it soon became pretty clear that I didn’t just taste garlic – I smelled like garlic too.  Every Friday morning in the music department at Wesleyan, we had recitals – all the students in the department would gather down in Emerson Recital Hall to watch each other perform.  That morning, where I sat, there was at least a three seat buffer on all sides of me, because absolutely no one wanted to sit next to me.  Even after showering, I absolutely reeked of garlic.  

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Sermon: More than Manna

Sunday, August 8, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
watch this service online (readings start around 14:52; sermon starts around 20:48)

When I was growing up, like most kids, I really liked candy.  I had a really big sweet tooth.  Some of my favorite candies were only available during the Easter season, so I was always really excited when Easter came around.  I mean, yeah yeah, Jesus rose from the dead and all, and that was great – but also, they have Cadbury Crème Eggs at the grocery store, yeah!!  

As Paul writes, “when I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, and I reasoned like a child” – and in my childish reasoning, I thought: well, a little candy is really good, but a LOT of candy – that’s got to be even better!  And this candy’s only around once a year, so I’ve gotta make it count – so almost every Easter, I would go overboard, eating about as much candy as I could physically stand.  There was one year in particular that stands out – I don’t remember how old I was – I was so excited about the candy that I hardly even ate any real, substantial, nourishing food.  I just gorged myself on sweets all day – I couldn’t get enough.  By the time we got home from my grandma’s house that evening, I was not feeling very well – as you can probably imagine.  I vividly remember starting to walk up the steps to go to my room, when all of a sudden I was violently revisited by everything I had eaten that day – 🤮 – all over the stairs.  

The really stupid thing is that eating all of that candy didn’t even really feed my hunger.  As soon as I came down off the sugar high and got it all out of my system, I was hungry again!  But I definitely wasn’t hungry for more candy –I was literally sick of candy – instead I was hungry for something real and solid and nourishing.

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