Sermon: Choosing Love

Sunday, May 9, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Sixth Sunday of Easter
watch this service online (readings start around 17:51; sermon starts around 23:25)

What comes to mind for you when you hear the word “love”?  What thoughts or feelings or memories does “love” evoke in you?  Take a second and let the word wash over you: love.  

I imagine that, like me, you’re probably feeling kind of a warm, cozy, internal feeling, and you’re probably thinking about members of your family or your close friends, or maybe remembering how you met your spouse.  Or certainly today you might be thinking about the mother figures in your life, or about the people with whom you have a mothering kind of relationship.  Heh, if you’re really like me, you might also be thinking about your cats or your other pets.  These feelings of love are a gift – and they are such a central part of what makes us human.  

Love is also central in the bible, and it’s a major theme in our texts for this week, as well as in our texts from last week.  In fact, both our second reading and our gospel reading for today pick up immediately after our second reading and gospel reading from last Sunday.  Much like this week, the author of 1 John reminded us last week that God is love, and that God loves us and that we are called to love one another.  And this week, in our reading from (regular old) John, we find Jesus still in the upper room with his disciples on the night in which he is betrayed; he’s still trying to get them to understand what it really means to be his disciples – he’s trying to teach them that love is at the heart of discipleship.

Indeed, love is the foundation of our faith.  Jesus has told us that the first and greatest commandment is that we are to love God with all our heart and with all our mind and with all our strength – and that the second commandment is that we are to love our neighbor as ourself.  And here he says it yet again, in our gospel reading:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

John 15:12
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Sermon: God’s Love Is for Us. For ALL of Us.

Sunday, May 2, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday of Easter
watch this service online (readings start around 13:06; sermon starts around 21:27)
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I was in eighth grade when Holly moved to town.  Holly was outgoing and fun and super pretty – and she quickly made friends with all the most popular kids in our class.  I think all the girls wanted to be her and all the guys wanted to date her.  I, on the other hand, had never been one of the popular kids (shocking, I’m sure).  I was always bookish and chubby, and I’d take art class over sports any day of the week, which in my home town made me a bit of an outcast and a weirdo.  So I never really bothered to try to make friends with Holly – she seemed to be fitting in just fine with the popular crowd and had no reason to want to hang out with the likes of me.

You can imagine my surprise when one afternoon Holly showed up at my back door along with one of the most popular girls in our class.  Holly lived just a block north of us, so she knew that we had a trampoline in our back yard, and she and this other girl had come over to ask if they could jump on our trampoline.  I remember thinking to myself, “Well, that makes more sense – they just want to jump on the trampoline.”  So I told them, sure, that’s fine; go ahead.  But then Holly just stayed there standing in the doorway, looking at me expectantly.  And finally she said, “Well, aren’t you coming?”

I was totally floored by that.  I’d never imagined that the popular girls would want to hang out with me.  But I said yes to her invitation, and the three of us had a great time.  And it was far from being the last such invitation that I would receive from Holly.  She didn’t seem to care at all about our school’s rigid social hierarchy – Holly made friends with everybody.  And she hosted the most amazing parties.  Nerds, jocks, cheerleaders, band geeks, people from across many classes and social cliques – she brought us all together into one joyful community in her backyard.  Her parents would have these massive grill outs and we’d all eat hamburgers and hot dogs together and run around the backyard playing soccer and tag, and then we’d build a bonfire and roast marshmallows and sit with our feet stretched out around the fire until the soles of our shoes started melting. 

I will never forget those times, nor how good it felt to be included.  Holly had to have noticed how unpopular I was and how unwelcome I felt in most of the social circles at our school.  But she didn’t care.  She sought me out and made me her friend.  She made me feel like I was welcome.  Like I belonged.  

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Sermon: Shepherd in the Shadows

Sunday, April 25, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday of Easter
watch this service online (readings start around 14:11; sermon starts around 20:25)

I don’t know what kind of a week you all had last week, but I had the kind of week where I unexpectedly found myself crying in the card aisle at Walmart.  I’m okay – I think it’s just a combination of feeling really exhausted and burnt out, and the fact that Mothers Day always seems to catch me by surprise every year.  For some reason, this year it seems to be hitting me a little harder than usual – and, apparently, a couple weeks ahead of schedule.  

I have been thinking about my mom a lot lately, though.  She was a really cool person.  She was a second grade teacher and an avid reader, known for her sense of imagination and for her big laugh.  I was about six years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  And I remember how enthusiastically and optimistically we all prayed for her to get better.

That was what I had learned to do in Sunday school.  I had learned about God from texts like the ones we read today.  I learned that God was the Good Shepherd, who loves us like we’re all God’s own fuzzy little sheep.  I learned that God would lead us to nice places like green pastures and still waters, and that God would fill our cups to overflowing – which sounded messy, but, you know, nice.  And I learned that God would give us whatever we pray for – as long as we’re good and obey the commandments and stuff.  

So when Mom got sick, we prayed – hard.  And we had a whole community of people behind us, praying their hearts out that she would get well.  We did everything that we were supposed to do.  After all, my mom was barely 40 years old; she was a beloved teacher, a wife, and a mother to three young kids.  We needed her.  And I certainly thought, there’s just no way that the nice God that I learned about in Sunday school would ever let someone like her just die.

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Sermon: The God of Surprises

Sunday, April 18, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday of Easter
watch this service online (readings start around 16:32; sermon starts around 22:50)
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In the ELCA, anyone who is going through seminary and working toward becoming a pastor is required to complete at least one unit of something called Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE for short.  Basically what this usually looks like is a few months where you work full time as a chaplain, usually at a hospital.  And along with the chaplaincy work, you also meet regularly with a small cohort of fellow students to process your experiences together.  It’s one of the more intense parts of our formation.  

I decided to go a slightly different direction with my CPE.  I applied for this great program in Chicago called the Urban CPE Consortium.  In Urban CPE, you do a lot of the same kind of chaplaincy work as regular CPE – accompanying people and their families through illness and grief and difficult times – but instead of being in a hospital setting, you’re placed in some kind of ministry in urban Chicago.  That might be with a food pantry or kitchen ministry, or a halfway house for HIV+ teens, or a homeless shelter, or something else along those lines.  And at the time it was also pretty much the only option in the Chicago area for doing CPE in a Spanish-speaking site, which is something I was really interested in.

I was so excited when I got accepted to the program.  I was going to get to do ministry that was totally up my alley – getting to use my Spanish and do ministry with people living in the margins.  Totally my jam.  But then I got the list of ministry sites and found out that – for some unknown reason – none of the sites that summer were with ministries in Spanish-speaking communities.  Bummer.

So I ended up doing some interviews at some of the sites on the list, but I had kind of lost a little bit of my enthusiasm for the program.  And on top of that, it was getting close to the end of the school year and I have kind of a tendency to procrastinate anyway – so the interviews just kind of kept getting pushed off.  With only like a week or two to go before the program started, I had still only interviewed at one or two sites, so I started looking frantically down the list for places to go.  I saw that one of the sites was a suburban hospital – which to me seemed like an odd choice for Urban CPE – but I was desperate to find a site, so I went.

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Sermon: This Is (Still) the Day

Sunday, April 4, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Easter Sunday
watch this service online (readings start around 16:07; sermon starts around 23:16)

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!

It’s one of my favorite bible verses – partly because of the obvious: you know, “this is the DAY” and all.  But it’s also because this verse reminds us that today is indeed a day of great joy.

I’ve gotta say, though – if the only thing you read today was our gospel reading from Mark, you might not be left with the impression that this is a joyful day at all.  While the author of Psalm 118 is jubilant, joyously extolling the wondrous things that God has done, Mark goes in a bit of a different direction.  Mark’s account of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead begins with grief and confusion and then ends abruptly with terror and fear.  “Praise to you, O Christ”?

And this isn’t just the end of Mark’s telling of the resurrection – these verses are the end of Mark’s gospel, period.  If you look, your bible probably includes a shorter and a longer ending of Mark that were added in later, but the original ending of Mark’s gospel ends with this: the young man tells the women, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here… But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”  But instead of going to find Jesus and spread the good news, Mary and the others freak out and run away and they say nothing to anyone.  We don’t get to see Jesus after his resurrection – there are no encounters in the garden or lovely brunches by the sea or walks to Emmaus, or any of those stories in Mark’s gospel.  

Instead, it’s an ending that just kind of leaves us hanging.  The stone is rolled away, and there are rumors that Jesus has been raised from the dead, but that’s really about it.  There’s not the sense of resolution or satisfaction that we get with the other gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. 

Yet even so, this is the day that the Lord has made – and we know that eventually everyone will get to rejoice and be glad in it.

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Sermon: Laying Down the Sword

Friday, April 2, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Good Friday
watch this service online (readings start around 2:24; gospel starts around 12:56; sermon starts around 26:58)
(full disclosure, this is a reworking of a sermon I preached while on internship)
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The Passion of Jesus according to John

We’ve read and heard this story so many times that I wonder whether it still sounds as shocking to us as it should.  “Crucifixion” is a word that belongs to ancient history and church rituals; it doesn’t evoke for us the same kind of visceral reaction as “electric chair” or “firing squad” or “hanging.”  And yet it is also a method of execution by the state, one that is a hundred times more bloody, torturous, and painful.  Even before we get to the cross, there is an unbelievable amount of violence in this story.  Jesus Christ is struck across the face multiple times.  He has sharp thorns jammed down onto his head; this was after he was flogged, a practice in which one’s bare back is whipped with a whip that has small pieces of metal or bone embedded at the ends, to inflict the most damage possible.  This story is a horrifying testament to the creativity of human cruelty.

I can’t even imagine how terrified Peter and the other disciples must have been in the garden, when an angry mob armed with torches and weapons came looking for Jesus.  They already knew what was coming next.  But in his fear, Peter acted quickly.  He drew his sword and struck first.  Peter knew how things work in this world.  It had been wonderful and eye-opening studying the ways of peace and love with Jesus, but this was real life.  He knew that people who didn’t have weapons would just be sitting ducks for people who did have weapons.  He knew that only a good guy with a sword could stop a bad guy with a sword.

(Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images)

Jesus was also very much a part of this world, and he also knew how things worked – he knew what the consequences of his actions would be.  Jesus was well aware of the kind of gruesome violence the Roman Empire was capable of inflicting on him.  And so it must have come as a shock to Peter when Jesus rebuked him, and told him to put his sword away.  Instead of engaging in violence and fighting for the kingdom, Jesus peacefully submits to the violent crowd, and no one else gets hurt.  

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Sermon: Jesus Christ Superhero

Thursday, April 1, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Maundy Thursday
watch this service online (readings start around 6:07; sermon starts around 14:57)

One of the beautiful things about having four different gospel accounts of Jesus’ life is that it gives us glimpses from four different perspectives into who Jesus really was (and is).  It would be impossible for any one piece of writing to truly capture the fullness of Jesus.  But the gospel writers help us to see different sides of Jesus.  For example, Matthew often emphasizes how Jesus is rooted in Hebrew scripture and Jewish traditions (like the Passover which is being celebrated this week!).  Luke focuses on the political context of Jesus’ ministry and on his deep concern for justice for the poor.  And Mark shows how urgently and intensely Jesus is focused on his mission for the kingdom. 

Tonight, we encounter Jesus through John’s eyes.  In John’s gospel, we see Jesus at his most divine and heavenly and all-knowing.  Jesus is practically a superhero in John – his only weakness, his kryptonite, is that he loves so much – and even that, in the end, turns out to be his strength!  In John, Jesus knows exactly what’s happening, he knows exactly what’s coming, and he knows exactly who the people he’s dying for truly are, warts and all.  And Jesus chooses the way of the cross with both eyes wide open, never doubting for even a second that the outcome is in God’s hands.

John was actually Martin Luther’s favorite gospel, and I can kind of see why.  I mean, who doesn’t love a Superman?  I have to confess, though, that, personally, I sometimes find it hard to relate to Jesus in John’s gospel.  John’s Jesus often speaks at length about mysterious, divine, heavenly realities far beyond the daily realities of life of this earth.  His mind is always on the kingdom and glory of his Father, and he marches with confidence through his ministry, always completely certain of what he needs to do and of where this all is going.

It’s such a stark contrast with our gospel reading from Sunday, when we read Mark’s account of the Passion.  In Mark, Jesus grieves and suffers; he begs God to take away the cup of suffering that has come to him; and even though he accepts what he has to do, we see him struggling with what this ministry is demanding of him.  As an imperfect person who often struggles in ministry and in the path of discipleship, I find this side of Jesus a lot easier to relate to.  Jesus is perfect, but he’s also fully human; he experiences temptation and he wrestles with doing the hard things that he has been called to do.  I can definitely identify a lot with that struggle.

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Sermon: Beneath the Cross

Sunday, March 28, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Palm Sunday / Passion Sunday
watch this service online (processional gospel starts around 5:37; readings start around 12:08; Passion narrative starts around 16:26; sermon starts around 33:48)
Follow along in the digital bulletin

The Passion of Jesus according to Mark

I’m gonna try to keep the sermon pretty short today.  Partly, that’s because we just read two entire chapters of the gospel of Mark.  But mostly it’s because these verses already speak so much for themselves, and there’s not really a whole lot more that I can add to them.  Today is the beginning of Holy Week, and it is all about the story.  Jesus’ remarkable life of teaching and preaching justice and mercy, of healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and leading with love has led him here – has led him to the cross.  

Jesus ends up on the cross not because of anything one single person did.  When we talk about Jesus dying for our sins, I think all too often we imagine Jesus dying because of our individual shortcomings – because we yelled at our spouse that time or because we told a lie that other time, or because we cheated on a test or on our taxes.  But what we actually see in this story is how the whole human enterprise has become so broken and corrupt that it rejects Jesus and his ministry outright.  Jesus comes into this world full of love, with unfailing grace and mercy toward the people he encounters, even as he calls them to account.  And in return, he is met with violence and dishonesty from the religious and political establishment, with derision from the general public, and even with betrayal by the people who were closest to him.  He is peaceful and unresisting to the end, allowing himself – love made flesh – to be crucified by human hate.  

The cross casts a long shadow – a shadow that, paradoxically, shows us, humanity, for who we really are.  It’s in this shadow that we are called to dwell this week especially.  Today’s hymn of the day – “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” – poetically reminds us that, as followers of Christ, we are called to stand always in the shadow of the cross.  It’s one of my favorite hymns – and one I’m sure many of you also know well – and it serves as a wonderful invitation into Holy Week as we live into the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection once again.

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Sermon: The Next Stage of the Journey

Sunday, March 14, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (readings start around 14:21; sermon starts around 21:03)
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The people of Israel, in our first reading, have been wandering in the wilderness for a very, very long time, waiting and praying to see the promised land.  They are getting so close, almost on the home stretch of their journey, and the people are starting to get pretty impatient.  (Wow, who among us can imagine what that must be like?! (#sarcasm))

It’s certainly not a short walk from the land of Egypt to the land of Canaan, where the Israelites are headed – but they end up being stuck in the wilderness for a LOT longer than they had originally expected or planned.  It was enough time for them to forget the important reasons why they were there in the first place – they had fled slavery in Egypt, following God’s promises of safety and life in a country of their own.  

And in their impatience, the people start complaining – they complain to Moses; they complain to God; they complain about anything and everything.  In our reading from Numbers, we hear them complain that they have no water and no food – and then in the next breath, they complain that the food is terrible! 

The food they have been eating is the manna that God had sent them; and I guess, to be fair, I can imagine that just about any food – even food from God’s own hand – would get pretty old after forty years of eating it.  The people are still being fed in the wilderness, but even though the food they are eating nourishes them, it just doesn’t bring them the sense of satisfaction or fulfillment that they are craving.

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Sermon: Letting Go Our Idols

Sunday, March 7, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (readings start around 12:35; sermon starts around 20:27)
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A long time ago, in a congregation far, far away, I was one of the leaders of the youth group at the church I belonged to at the time.  We had been trying to come up with ways to get the youth more involved in the life of the congregation, and one thing that we decided we were going to do was to have a “Youth Sunday.”  Youth would plan the whole worship service for Sunday; they would be the readers, the ushers, the worship assistants.  Youth would come up with whatever the message was going to be for the service.  And youth would also plan all of the music.  

That last part made the music director of the congregation very, very anxious.  She was an excellent musician, deeply committed to providing beautiful music for the congregation.  But she had very high and very narrow standards for the kind of music she deemed “acceptable” or “appropriate” for worship.  I actually heard my pastor describe her once as a “benevolent dictator” in terms of how she ran our music ministry.

So when we sat down with her to plan the music for this service, she brought the worship resources from Sundays and Seasons – like we use here – and told us: “Okay, these are your choices.  You can only pick hymns from off this list.”  So, basically, nothing off-piste – none of that contemporary music stuff or, God forbid, that noisy camp-style music!  

So we picked out some hymns from THE LIST.  And as we were looking at our selections in the hymnal, I noticed that one of the hymns we’d chosen had a couple of different versions in the ELW – and the version that Sundays and Seasons had specifically listed for that Sunday was not the familiar, traditional melody and text; it was the Spanish language version, complete with guitar accompaniment.  So I got really excited and said, “Hey!  We could totally sing parts of this in Spanish and I could even play along on my guitar!”  

That was enough to set off the music director’s alarm bells, because she quickly jumped in and said, “Well, we don’t haaaaaaave to go exactly by the list…” – but we were like, “Oh no, we should definitely abide by what’s on the list.”  And that’s what we ended up doing.

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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.  

Continue reading “Sermon: Like it or not, Love Is the Way”

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.

Continue reading “Sermon: The Truth Hurts, but it also Sets You Free”

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.”

Continue reading “Sermon: Sealed for More than Freshness”

Sermon: Joy and Surprise

Sunday, December 13, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday of Advent
watch this service online (readings start around 18:50; sermon starts around 25:35)
image source

Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, a day in the church year that is traditionally known as “Gaudete Sunday” or the Sunday of Joy.  And no matter how you might actually be feeling as you come to worship this morning (or whenever you’re watching/reading this!), I think it’s important for us to spend some time lifting up joy this Advent season.  

This has been a long and difficult and, for some of us, a deeply painful year; and it’s culminated in a holiday season full of disappointments and a rising death toll.  But focusing on joy doesn’t mean we have to paste on a fake smile and try to pretend these things haven’t been happening.  Real joy is actually something much deeper.  Catholic theologian and author Henri Nouwen describes it well; he writes:

Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.  Joy is not the same as happiness. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God’s love for us.

Henri Nouwen
Continue reading “Sermon: Joy and Surprise”

Sermon: In the Wilderness Prepare the Way

Sunday, December 6, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Second Sunday of Advent
watch this service online (readings start around 16:58; sermon starts around 23:54)
image source

One of the most surprising and engaging classes I got to take while I was in seminary was a course called Desert Discipleship.  In this class, we spent time studying the lives and teachings of the ancient desert fathers and mothers who lived in the deserts of northern Africa and the Middle East.  These were followers of Christ from some of the earliest centuries of Christianity.  They were ordinary people whose deep faith led them to live in extraordinary ways.

One of the first and most famous of these people was Anthony the Great, whose life became an inspiration and example that many others chose to follow.  Anthony was born into a wealthy family in Egypt.  But instead of carrying on his family’s wealthy lifestyle, Anthony decided to follow the advice that Jesus gives to the young rich man in the gospels:  he sold everything that he had and he gave all the money away to the poor.  

Anthony then went out into the wilderness, out into the deserts of Egypt, to take up a simple, ascetic lifestyle.  He fasted and prayed and wrestled with temptation and spent his every waking moment focused on Christ.  It’s probably pretty hard for any of us to imagine doing something like that with our own lives!  And even for other people living at the time, Anthony’s way of life in the desert was strange, to say the least.  

It gets even stranger the longer you look at the place and the context where Anthony lived.  If you look at satellite imagery of Egypt, to this day, you can instantly spot where the “wilderness” is.  There’s one narrow green ribbon that runs the length of Egypt – the Nile River, flowing from south to north.  But everywhere else – something like 90% of the country – is inhospitable desert.  In class, we looked at photos of the desert and of the cities all along the river, with their green crops and irrigation systems.  Even up close, you can see a clear line between where that cultivated green strip ends and the desert begins.

Continue reading “Sermon: In the Wilderness Prepare the Way”

Sermon: The Karate Christ

Sunday, November 29, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
First Sunday of Advent
watch this service online (readings start around 19:45; sermon starts around 26:57)

In the classic 80s movie The Karate Kid, a teenager named Daniel LaRusso moves to a new city with his mom, where he meets a local handyman: Mr. Miyagi.  Mr. Miyagi saves Daniel from getting the snot beaten out of him by a local gang of karate-loving teenagers.  Daniel watches as Miyagi single-handedly defeats the entire gang with ease, and afterward he begs Mr. Miyagi to teach him karate so he can defend himself against the bullies. 

After some initial reluctance, Mr. Miyagi agrees to teach Daniel.  Daniel shows up at Miyagi’s place, ready and raring to learn some kick-butt karate moves.  But he’s completely taken aback when the first thing Miyagi does instead is hand him a sponge and point him toward a dusty car.  Daniel spends several days doing chores around Miyagi’s place: Miyagi has him wash and wax his cars; he has him paint a fence, sand a floor, and even paint his house.  

By the end of the fourth day, Daniel is understandably fed up with this so-called “training.”  He feels like Mr. Miyagi has just tricked him into doing a bunch of household chores for him instead of teaching him anything.  So Daniel angrily tells Miyagi that he’s done.  But before he can storm off, Miyagi calls him back.  And in one of the most famous scenes of the movie, Miyagi asks Daniel to show him the motions of the chores he’s been doing: “Show me wax on” “Show me wax off” “Show me sand the floor” “Show me paint the fence”  Miyagi then unleashes a flurry of punches and kicks at Daniel, and he blocks every single one with these repetitive moves that he has learned.

By having Daniel repeat these motions over and over again in the chores he assigned him, Miyagi actually teaches him how to do these defensive moves he needs – through the power of muscle memory.  

Muscle memory is one of the most fascinating pieces of how we learn.  As humans, both our bodies and our brains are very trainable – the more we repeat a thought or an action, the more it becomes ingrained and instinctual.  Muscle memory is how you learn to play a musical instrument or dance or play a sport really well.  It’s how you know how to do everyday things like tie your shoes or drive a car or make your favorite recipe.  You do it over and over and over again until you can do it without consciously thinking about it – until it becomes part of who you are.  That way, when you see an untied shoe or a G Major 7th chord or an elderly Japanese man who’s trying to punch you, you don’t have to think about your response; you act on whatever your muscle memory has learned to do.

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Sermon: The Goats of Cancer

Sunday, November 22, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Reign of Christ
watch this service online (readings start around 15:48; sermon starts around 23:38; fair warning: our mic system has been on the fritz and the sound is pretty crappy)

(Full disclosure: this sermon is an adaptation of one I preached while on internship)

There is a LOT going on in in our texts for this morning, and some of it can be a bit difficult to process.  Today is Reign of Christ Sunday, and fittingly, we have these lovely images of God as the compassionate shepherd looking after the flock, of Christ as a king who cares for the “least of these.”  This is the kind of ruler that I think most of us imagine God to be.  But then alongside these images, we also read all this other harsh language that’s full of judgment and destruction.  

The contrast is especially sharp in our gospel reading.  This passage from Matthew is the only detailed account of the last judgment to be found anywhere in the New Testament – but even so, it’s definitely left an impression on the popular Christian imagination.  

I can imagine that many of you, like me, grew up in religious households where you were raised with the fear of hell.  As a kid, I remember being frightened with the idea of eternal torment, and I can remember seeing images of the last judgment, of sheep and goats going off to either side of the throne.  I suppose it’s an image that people kind of glom onto because it seems very tidy and clear and black and white, even if it is horrible.  And it allows us to think of God’s reign in more human terms, in ways that we can wrap our heads around.  

In one sense, it’s kind of appealing, isn’t it?  It’s satisfying to imagine God telling off all the people who have wronged us, casting them into eternal fire where they’ll get what they deserve and we won’t have to deal with them anymore.  Especially in the aftermath of such a brutally divisive election, when we have all been left with hurt and anger and a deeply polarized nation, these feelings of emnity and antagonism are running strong.  And I fully admit these feelings in my own self – if I’m being honest with myself, I can certainly think of a few goats that I’d personally like to see get barbecued.  I’d be willing to bet you can too.

Continue reading “Sermon: The Goats of Cancer”

Sermon: Can’t Go Over It, Can’t Go Under it; Gotta Go Through It.

Sunday, November 15, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
watch this service online (readings start around 16:24; sermon starts around 25:08)
image source

I was thankful to get to take a little bit of time off last Sunday and during the week leading up to it.  I really needed to just get away for a bit and recharge.  And one of the ways I ended up recharging was by attending a retreat all last weekend up at the St. Benedict Center.  It was a retreat centered on a practice called “BioSpiritual Focusing.”  And I hadn’t planned to preach about it this weekend – but then I read these texts, and even as somewhat harsh as they are, they are rich with all these themes of waiting and of being awake and attentive, and it really started to resonate with what I experienced at this retreat.

You’re probably wondering: “Biospiritual focusing – what the heck is that??”  And that was actually my initial reaction too, when I saw it advertised in St. Ben’s newsletter.  But then I read the description and realized that it was actually something I was exposed to a little bit in seminary.  

Broadly speaking, the idea of biospiritual focusing is that there is wisdom held in our bodies.  As western people of faith – especially as Lutherans – we have a tendency to be theologians only from the neck up, as they say.  For us, faith is usually more about what we believe than about how we live it out.  But Christianity is actually deeply incarnational; it’s a deeply embodied religion.  Especially around this time of year, as we draw closer to Advent and Christmas, it’s all about celebrating God in the flesh.  So the purpose of biospiritual focusing is to help us to experience God in our flesh, in our own bodies.

The focusing practice itself is actually pretty simple.  It starts by allowing yourself to grow quiet, inside and out – closing your eyes, if it helps.  Then you work on noticing whatever sensations you might experiencing in your body – pain or tightness, or whatever – and ask yourself, “What is taking up space inside of me right now?”  What feelings or pains or sensations are most prominent in my body right now?  You identify whichever one of these feelings is strongest and then you, well, focus on it.  Without trying to analyze it or to make sense of it or to make it go away, you just sit with that feeling and let yourself feel it fully.  And eventually, you invite this feeling – or sensation or pain or whatever – to tell you more.  You let it connect to memories or images or other feelings and embrace whatever comes.  And at the end, you sit with your body as a loving presence and give thanks for whatever it has revealed to you.

Continue reading “Sermon: Can’t Go Over It, Can’t Go Under it; Gotta Go Through It.”

Sermon: Guided by Hope

Sunday, November 1, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
All Saints Day
watch this service online (gospel and sermon start around 19:32)

As a preacher, I know I have a tendency to talk a lot about grief.  And that’s because grief has been a part of my life for just about as long as I can remember.  I went to my first funeral when I was five (or, at least, the first funeral I can remember).  It was for my mom’s mom, my Grandma Orpha – though we always called her Grandma Ziggy.  She had been sick with cancer, and she looked sicker every time we went to see her.  She died around Christmas time that year, and two months later, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.  

The same year my mom died, one of our next door neighbors who was a dear friend of the family was violently murdered – which was as traumatic as you might imagine.  And over the years since then, I have lost grandparents and great grandparents, uncles, mentors, close friends still in their 20s, and a cousin I grew up with who was born the same year I was.  I’m only 35 and I have already lost so many people that I care about.  

So when I read a text like this one from Revelation, it hits me differently.  When I try to picture the multitudes gathered together in praise before God’s throne, it’s not a faceless crowd of people that I’m imagining.  I see my mom’s face – and Grandpa George, and Kristin and Kasey and Ellen and Uncle Franklin and Leo and a whole host of others.  I see the faces of all the saints that I remember and honor today.  

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Sermon: Still

Sunday, October 25, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Reformation Sunday
First Reading • Psalm • Second Reading • Gospel
watch this service online (readings start around 16:28, sermon around 22:26)

Psalm 46 is one of those old favorite psalms that we read together every Reformation Sunday.  It’s a powerful and comforting psalm.  And, of course, Martin Luther loved this psalm so much that it inspired him to write A Mighty Fortress, which we also sing every year on Reformation Sunday.  Both the psalm and the hymn still have lots of power, inspiring us and comforting us over five centuries later.  

With so much intense stuff going on in the world right now, it seems like now is a good moment to pause and just let ourselves rest in these words for a moment.  Now is the time to pause and remember that God is our refuge and strength, even in the midst of chaos and calamity.  The earth may move, the nations may rage and the kingdoms shake, but the Lord of hosts is with us, and the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

I know this hasn’t been an easy time for any of you.  I know your lives have been chaotic and disrupted.  This pandemic has stolen our sense of safety and forced us to question nearly everything that we once took for granted.  This election season feels like it’s lasted about 50 years, and now that we’re finally entering the final few crushing days before the actual election, it feels like every nerve is on edge like the sound of nails screeching on a chalkboard.  We’re all feeling the stress.

And I know you are tired.  I know you are sad.  I know you are frustrated and fed up and full of grief that things continue to be so difficult and so different from life as it was.

All of this is why today I want to invite you into the peace of Psalm 46.  There’s a centering prayer practice that uses Psalm 46 that I’ve seen people using around the synod a lot lately, and I want to share it with you.  It focuses specifically on the first part of verse 10 of Psalm 46, which is the part of this psalm that you probably know best: “Be still, and know that I am God.”  This practice shows that practically every word of this phrase has rich meaning and can speak good news to us.  

Continue reading “Sermon: Still”

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