Sermon: The Bigger Picture

Sunday, May 22, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Sixth Sunday of Easter
watch this service online (readings start around 13:41; sermon starts around 20:08)
r-e-c-y-c-l-e, recycle… ♻️

I spent this last week hanging out with other clergy friends at the Festival of Homiletics, the preaching conference I go to every year.  And it’s fairly easy to tell when I’ve been spending more time than usual with other clergy folks, because I notice that it affects the way I talk – I find myself using a lot of those five dollar words they teach us in seminary, words like: soteriology, kerygma, eschatology, exegesis, and so on.

One of these words that you might hear used by particularly nerdy preachers (like yours truly) is the word “pericope” (it looks just like the word “periscope” without the ‘s’).  Pericope is a word that’s sometimes used to talk about a section of scripture  – it’s basically like how we use the term “reading” or “lesson.”  The word comes from the Greek for “a cutting-out” – which kind of evokes this image of someone snipping out passages of scripture and then pasting them somewhere else.  

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

Like with this gospel reading especially.  The way it’s cut, we’re missing a lot of the context.  And without seeing the larger context that this piece is cut out of, it’s hard to tell where Jesus is even going with all the different things he says here.  He says some stuff about loving him and his Father and keeping their word, then he says some stuff about the Holy Spirit and some stuff about peace, and finally he hints at something bigger that’s about to happen.  

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Sermon: Christ Be Our Compass

Sunday, May 15, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday of Easter
watch this service online (readings start around 16:18; sermon starts around 23:16)

Have any of you ever heard of a game called Minecraft?  It’s a pretty popular game – you might even have kids or grandkids or students who play it, if you haven’t played it yourself.  My two younger siblings got me hooked on Minecraft during the height of the pandemic.  They’re usually a little more on the cutting edge of that kind of stuff than I am – but they like to find things that the three of us can play together, and Minecraft fit the bill.

And it’s actually a lot of fun!  Minecraft is what’s known as a “sandbox game”: you’re basically dropped into a digital world and given complete freedom to explore.  You go “mining” for all kinds of different resources; and you can then use those resources to make tools, or to construct a shelter, or really to build anything and everything you can possibly imagine.  

And it’s fun because there are lots of different ways to play the game.  If you want to fight your way through zombies and giant spiders and exploding monsters all the way to the big final boss and win the game, you can do that.  If you want to build a farm and raise sheep and grow wheat and steal chicken eggs to throw at your siblings, you can do that.  If you want to build fantastical palaces or underwater fortresses, or just explore and map the world as far as you can go, you can do that!

Personally, I like the creating and exploring the best.  Every Minecraft world generates randomly, so you never know what you’ll come across: perhaps a deep dark forest, or a barren desert, or a range of massive mountains overlooking a vast sea.  And the world is virtually limitless, so there’s always more to explore.  The one downside of this is that it is extremely easy to get lost.  There’s no real logic to the way different geographical features are arranged, so if you don’t remember the way you came, it can be nearly impossible to get back to where you started.  

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Sermon: Following Footprints

Sunday, May 8, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday of Easter
watch this service online (readings start around 14:32; sermon starts around 20:40)
image source

If you’ve ever found yourself feeling deeply confused or bewildered or even just plain lost, then there’s a very good chance that you have spent some time inside the Miami-Dade airport (lol).  During the years when I was living in the Dominican Republic, I used to spend a lotof time inside the Miami airport.  It was always the inevitable first stop I had to make anytime that I came home.  

Like most airports, the Miami airport is pretty sprawled out.  And especially since I came in on an international flight, it usually took a long time to get where I needed to go.  First I had to get through customs and immigration, and then I’d have to walk what felt like 500 miles from the far-flung terminal for international flights to get to the gate for my connecting flight.  It was pretty easy to get disoriented and lost along the way.

But I remember that the airport had these decals on the floor that were supposed to help you figure out where you needed to go.  They were shaped like footprints, and there were different colored trails of these footprints that promised to lead you to all sorts of places: one might lead you to baggage claim, another might lead you to the food court, still another might lead you to customer service or to a place where you could get a taxi, or to wherever else you might need to go inside an airport. 

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Sermon: More to the Story

Sunday, May 1, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday of Easter
watch this service online (readings start around 14:16; sermon starts around 23:56)

(You decide: Who preached it better – 2019 Day or 2022 Day? 😜)

Our gospel reading for this morning picks up right on the heels of our gospel reading from last week – which is a little bit odd, if you remember how that reading ended.  Last week, we read the story of “Doubting” Thomas (I hear Rick preached a pretty good sermon on it 😜).  This story comes at the very end of John chapter 20 and it ends with Jesus saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  And John then closes the chapter by writing:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:30-31

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

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Sermon: The Joy of Unmet Expectations

Sunday, April 17, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Easter Sunday
watch this service online (readings start around 22:49; sermon starts around 29:02)

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

This is the same joyful greeting that centuries of Christians have used to greet each other on Easter morning.  Because this is indeed a day of great joy!  For many of us, the joy of this day is pretty obvious – the joy of gathering with family, of seeing children and grandchildren, the joy of a time to rest and a time to celebrate with the people we care about.  And especially after these long years of wandering through the wilderness of a global pandemic, I know my own heart is full of joy at just being able to celebrate this day gathered here together.

But of course, the true joy of Easter goes much deeper than even these joys.  What we celebrate today is the fact that the fundamental order of the cosmos has been shifted.  There is now an empty tomb where a grave should have been.  There’s nothing but linens where a dead body should have been.  There is now life where death should have been.  Christ’s resurrection is the death of death itself.  And since we have been baptized into his death, we now live, filled with the hope that one day we – and all those we love – will also be raised with Christ to eternal life.  That’s more than enough to move us to cry out: Alleluia, alleluia!

Given the joyful nature of the day, though, it is a bit strange that this joy seems to be almost absent in our gospel reading for this morning.  This text from Luke is certainly full of many feelings, but joy isn’t really one of them.  Instead, the people in this reading move from grief to perplexity to outright terror to disbelief, and finally to amazement – which is really all the closer we get to actual joy in this text. 

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Sermon: Fully Known and Fully Loved

Thursday, April 14, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Maundy Thursday
watch this service online (readings start around 13:48; sermon starts around 21:48)

“I have set you an example,” Jesus says, “that you also should do as I have done to you.”  Love one another, just as I have loved you.  This commandment to love is the commandment that gives Maundy Thursday its name: “maundy” comes from the Latin word “mandatum,” which means “commandment.”  Jesus commands his disciples to love, and he makes his own love known by pouring out his body and blood for them as bread and wine.  On this night, he also shows his love for them by kneeling before each of them and gently washing their feet – setting the example for his followers to imitate.

A couple thousand years later, we are still doing our best to follow Christ’s example – still sharing in his body and blood at this table – and still gathering on the night in which he was betrayed to wash one another’s feet.  And I think it’s fair to say we still struggle with it as much as Jesus’ first disciples did.  

Be honest: did anybody come here tonight totally jazzed by the idea of doing some foot-washing?  Heh, yeah, I didn’t think so.  I imagine that you – like me – are pretty deeply uncomfortable with the whole idea of foot-washing.  Out of curiosity, which is more off-putting: the prospect of washing someone else’s feet, or the prospect of having to take off your shoes and socks and let someone else wash your own feet? I strongly suspect that it’s the latter.

It’s an uncomfortable experience all around, but especially uncomfortable to be on the receiving end.  And we’re in good company in our discomfort.  I mean, just look how Simon Peter reacts in our gospel reading!  He and Jesus and the other disciples are having a nice holiday meal together.  Then Jesus gets up, strips off his robe, and grabs a towel – and as Peter realizes what Jesus is doing, his reaction shifts from confusion to flat out denial (foreshadowing?).  Peter says: No way, absolutely not – you will never wash my feet.  

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Sermon: A Love Story

Sunday, April 10, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Palm / Passion Sunday
watch this service online (readings start around 12:35, 22:04; sermon starts around 41:37)

This is the story – the great story – the central story of our faith.  It’s the story that the church has been remembering and retelling in many and various ways for thousands of years, through wars, famines, floods, plagues, and even persecutions.  Like generations of the faithful before us, we follow Jesus on this Lenten journey to Jerusalem.  And no matter the circumstance – whether we are physically together or forced to be apart – the journey always leads us to the same place: here, at the threshold of Holy Week.

Today, we read the story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into the city of Jerusalem amid shouts of “Hosanna in the highest, hosanna!” – a cry that, in Hebrew, roughly translates to “Save us!”  And yet we read in the story how quickly this shouting turns into chants of “crucify, crucify him!”  We follow Jesus all the way from a stable in Bethlehem to the cross on a hill in Jerusalem – and beyond it, to the empty tomb.

It’s a story of violence and hope; a story of faithfulness and betrayal, a story of life and death – but above all, this extraordinary story is a story about love.  Jesus Christ is God, who chooses to be born among us as a human, and every moment he walks upon the earth is marked by love, especially in these last days.  With love, Jesus helps his grieving followers to understand what is coming; he tries to prepare his disciples for the mission they must undertake once he’s gone.  He even forgives those who betray and kill him as he hangs on the cross dying.  Jesus pours himself out freely for others, giving himself away like bread for the hungry.  He gives away his body and blood and even his very life out of undying love for the world.  

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Sermon: No Way! Way.

Sunday, April 3, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (readings start around 17:00; sermon starts around 22:34)

When I was growing up, one of my all-time favorite action movies was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  For my money, it’s the best out of the original trilogy.  It’s an exciting movie: fighting Nazis, solving puzzles, finding clues – watching Sean Connery!  But looking back, even as a kid, I think one of the things I actually connected with most about the movie was its themes of faith – which, you know, looking back now as a pastor, makes a lot of sense!

In the movie, Indiana Jones is racing against the Nazis to find the Holy Grail – and for Indy, this becomes personal when the Nazis shoot his father and the Grail is the only thing that can save his life.  To reach the Grail, Indy has to face three challenges, all of which are related to faith in some way.  In the first challenge, he figures out just in time that he needs to “kneel before God” in order to avoid having his head sliced off!  In the second challenge, he figures out – after a brief misstep – that he needs to spell out the name of God in Latin: Jehovah (which, of course, we know in Latin starts with an “i”!).  

Indy’s cleverness and his obscure knowledge help him make it through the first two challenges unscathed.  But the third challenge is different.  In the third challenge, Indy has to cross a massive chasm, so deep and so dark that the bottom of it isn’t even visible.  Also not visible is any way to get across; it’s way too far to jump, and there’s no bridge across it, no ropes, no puzzle to solve, no traps to spring, no nothing.  Knowledge and cleverness won’t help him here; this challenge requires something more from him: a leap of faith.  He has to step off that ledge, trusting that God will reveal to him the way across.

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Sermon: Reconciled to Be Reconcilers

Sunday, March 27, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (readings start around 18:40; sermon starts around 25:11)

The story that Jesus tells in our gospel reading for this morning is one I imagine you’ve probably heard before: the story of the “prodigal son.”  Even if it is really familiar, I’m curious to know what your reaction is to this story.  To ask the pastor-y question: How does it make you feel?

I’m curious because, in my experience, this is a story that tends to make people angry.  Or, at the very least, it’s a story that leaves people feeling frustrated because it feels unfinished – we’re left wanting to know what happens next in the life of this family, with these two brothers.  I think most of us see ourselves in this story; it reminds us of situations or relationships in our own lives, in a way that often leads us to kind of root for a particular character.  I mean, what could be more relatable than a story about family conflict?  There’s a reason the bible is absolutely full of them.

Most often, I find that people relate to the older brother in this story.  He seems like someone who is responsible, hard-working, and reliable – he probably files his taxes on time and has an excellent credit score.  He stays home on the farm and works diligently with his father to make a living.  By contrast, his younger brother goes to their father and demands that he be given half the family inheritance, right now.  He takes the money and splits, leaving behind the farm and his family to go blow his fortune on wild living in some far off place.  Eventually he comes crawling back home, after who knows how many years.  But instead of being angry with him or even demanding an explanation, their father throws this degenerate son a party!  Meanwhile, here’s this hard-working older son who’s been there for his father the whole time, but the minute this irresponsible younger son shows his face, dad kills the fatted calf and throws a feast!  It just doesn’t seem fair.  And sure, the younger brother says he’s sorry, but we never actually see if he really changes his ways because the story ends before we get the chance.

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Sermon: Handling It

Sunday, March 20, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (readings start around 17:58; sermon starts around 24:36)

Whew!  Our readings for this morning are kind of all over the place – they run the gamut from an abundant feast of rich foods in Isaiah 🥘 to smearing manure on a tree 💩 in our gospel reading.  This is not an easy week to be a preacher!  But I’ll do my best. 😉

I wanted to at least take a stab at unpacking the text I find most challenging, which is our second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  Taken totally out of context like this, it’s hard to know what to do with a text like this one.  Paul’s words here about the Israelites who followed Moses almost sound like he’s threatening the Corinthians that they better shape up and get their act together, or else!  Not exactly the words of grace we’d expect.  But the most troubling part of this reading, for me, is the end of verse 13, where Paul writes: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”  

This is a verse that has often been taken out of context.  It’s been turned into a bit of popular theology you’re probably familiar with: the idea that “God will never give you more than you can handle.”  Have you heard that one?  On the surface, it sounds nice: God will never give you more than you can handle.  And I think it’s often meant as a compliment, as kind of a roundabout way of saying that someone is strong and resilient and capable of handling the struggles they’re facing.  

But the longer you think about it, the more troubling it gets.  Saying that God never gives us more than we can handle doesn’t sound quite as nice when you stop and consider some of the terrible things that people have had to “handle”: people born with painful and debillitating diseases, for example; children suffering abuse and neglect, families uprooted and torn apart by warfare and violence – like what we’re seeing right now in Ukraine – parents having to bury their children before their time.  The idea that any of these things are from God is disturbing, to say the least.  It makes you wonder what kind of sick god would create all these strong, gifted people only to put them through the wringer because “they can handle it.”

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Sermon: The Divine Art of the Deal

Sunday, March 13, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Second Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (readings start around 17:22; sermon starts around 25:12)
image source

Most of us probably don’t think about it very often, but English is really kind of an odd language.  We have some strange ways of saying things that sound perfectly normal to us – until you stop to think about it for too long.  For example, when the weather’s bad and it’s absolutely pouring buckets outside, we often say it’s “raining cats and dogs.”  Why??  That’s so weird!  Or if we’re feeling sick, we might say we’re feeling “under the weather.”  Under the weather??  Like, when are you not under the weather?  (Hopefully the weather you’re under isn’t cats and dogs!)  Or when we meet someone special and we start developing romantic feelings for that person, we might say we have a “crush” on them.  A crush?!  I mean, what a violent way to say that you like someone!  With sayings like these, it’s no wonder that English is such a hard language to learn.

Another kind of odd idiom that we hear from time to time without really thinking about it is the phrase “cutting a deal.”  Have you ever wondered about that phrase?  I mean, it makes sense that you can make a deal, or arrange a deal, or even negotiate a deal.  But what does it mean for someone to cut a deal?

It turns out this phrase actually has some pretty ancient roots – and they’re reflected in our first reading for this morning.  In this passage, we find Abram talking with God in a vision.  God had already told him a while back that he would be the ancestor of a mighty nation – but Abram is (understandably) anxious and kind of doubtful about whether this will really happen; after all, it’s pretty hard to imagine being the father of a nation when you don’t have a single kid of your own – and especially when you and your wife are already well past your childbearing years.  So God makes him a binding promise, a covenant.

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Sermon: Same Story, Different Wilderness

Sunday, March 6, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
First Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (readings start around 14:21; sermon starts around 21:17)

In our gospel reading for this morning, the Spirit takes Jesus – fresh from his baptism – and leads him on a forty day journey out into the wilderness.  And today, that is exactly what all of our readings are doing with us.  Our texts are full of these themes of wilderness and desert and wandering preparing us to begin our own forty day journey through the wilderness of Lent.  

In our first reading, from Deuteronomy, the Israelites are finally coming to the end of forty long years of wandering in the desert.  They are preparing to enter the promised land of Canaan at long last.  This reading is part of a long sermon that Moses preaches to his people, reminding them of all that has happened up until this point and exhorting them to stay faithful to God in their new lives in Canaan.  Moses wants to make sure that the people remember their history – that they remember where they came from – and especially that they remember how God has been unfailingly faithful to them throughout all of it. 

The first thing he instructs them to do in their new home is to make a thank-offering of the firstfruits of the land, in recognition that their whole harvest is a gift from God – especially since they didn’t plant any of it!  And the first thing Moses instructs the people to say as they make their offering is: “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.”  In other words: Today I declare that God has kept God’s promise.  

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Sermon: First Things First

Wednesday, March 2, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Ash Wednesday
watch this service online (readings start around 9:20; sermon starts around 17:51)
image credit

My dad is a very faithful guy.  He’s a lifelong Lutheran who made sure my brother and sister and I all grew up in the church, and he’s very much a model of faith for me, someone who was instrumental in my own faith formation.  But whenever bad things happen – someone gets bad news at the doctor, or there’s some kind of terrible accident, or some other kind of overwhelming trouble – it absolutely drives my dad nuts that people say, “There’s nothing left to do now but pray.”  “Nothing left to do but pray?!” he’ll say; “Prayer shouldn’t be a last resort – prayer should be where you start!”  

Reading our first reading, from the prophet Joel, I think the people of ancient Judah probably would have agreed with my dad: prayer is where you start.  The Book of Joel begins with some very overwhelming trouble: massive swarms of locusts have devastated the land of Judah, destroying practically everything in their path.  It is catastrophic for their agrarian way of life (not hard for us to imagine here!), and there is a lot of lamenting in the first few verses of the book.  Joel writes: 

…a nation has invaded my land,
powerful and innumerable;
its teeth are lions’ teeth,
and it has the fangs of a lioness.
It has laid waste my vines,
and splintered my fig trees;
it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down;
their branches have turned white…
The fields are devastated,
the ground mourns;
for the grain is destroyed,
the wine dries up,
the oil fails.

Joel 1:6-7, 10

But before getting into any logistical details of how to go about recovering from this loss – or even worrying about what everyone is going to eat in the meanwhile – the very first thing the prophet Joel does is to say to the people:

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Sermon: Ditching the Veil

Sunday, February 27, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Transfiguration Sunday
watch this service online (readings start around 21:32; sermon starts around 28:54)

Today we come to the end of the season of Epiphany.  Epiphany is a season that is all about revelation.  It’s a time in which we remember and celebrate the many radical and surprising ways that God chooses to show up in the world.  We began this season with a star – the star that led magi from the East to the infant Christ, the star whose light revealed to the world the birth of God made flesh.  And today we have this gospel story: the story of the transfiguration.  

There are actually two revelations of Christ in the reading that we have for today.  The first is the obvious one.  Jesus and a few of his disciples go up a mountain to pray and, as he’s praying, Jesus’ face and clothing suddenly start shining dazzlingly bright; Moses and Elijah show up to chat with him; and the disciples are struck speechless with awe and terror.  I think I’ve mentioned before that this is one of my favorite Peter moments in the gospels – this amazing thing is happening in front of him and Peter is like, “Tents!  We should put up tents so y’all can stay here!” – and even the gospel writer is like, “Yeah, he didn’t know what he was saying.”  It’s such an overwhelming experience that Peter is just trying to capture it and hold onto it in some way that he can make sense of.  

But the moment doesn’t last.  Moses and Elijah vanish; Jesus stops glowing; and he and his disciples head back down the hill.  And as they reach the bottom of the mountain, they walk into a scene of chaos.  A huge crowd is gathered there waiting for Jesus, and among them is a desperate father who shouts out, begging Jesus for help.  The other disciples were unable to cast out a demon that has been tormenting this man’s son and he is desperate for help. Jesus scolds his sheepish disciples; and then, full of confidence and power, he heals the boy and gives him back to his father.  And in that moment, Luke tells us, “All were astounded at the greatness of God.”  It’s another moment of revelation.

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Sermon: An Exercise in Love

Sunday, February 20, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
watch this service online (readings start around 16:11; sermon starts around 24:51)

In our first reading for today, we get this very small snippet of the story of Joseph.  But Joseph’s story is actually a LOT longer – it takes up over a dozen chapters of Genesis.  So we’re gonna start today with a bible pop quiz: What all do you remember about the story of Joseph?

[Joseph was one of the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel.  Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son, born to his favorite wife, Rachel, and Jacob gave him a super fancy coat, which – depending on your translation – was a robe with sleeves, a robe of many colors (even technicolors!), or a pretty pretty princess dress.  Joseph had dreams – one with sheaves of grain, one with the moon and sun and stars – that foretold that his brothers and family would one day bow down to him.  His brothers, already resentful of Joseph, decide they’ve had enough; so they beat him, strip him of his famous robe, throw him in a pit, and plan to kill him.  At the last minute, they decide to sell him into slavery instead and Joseph is taken to Egypt, into the house of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard.  Potiphar’s wife tries unsuccessfully to seduce Joseph and has him thrown in jail instead, where he meets two of Pharaoh’s servants and correctly interprets their dreams.  Word of this eventually reaches Pharaoh, who has started having troubling dreams of his own – dreams in which big fat cows and plump ears of corn are swallowed up by ugly skinny cows and scrawny ears of corn.  Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream as a vision of what God is planning: seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.  Pharaoh makes Joseph his right hand man over all of Egypt and together they store up a buttload of grain during the seven years.  When the famine hits, they’re more than ready.  And who shows up on their doorstep?  Yep!  It’s Joseph’s brothers.  So our reading today is them finally being reunited.]

Phew!  A lot happens in Joseph’s story!  Even though he eventually ends up in a good place, Joseph spends so much of his early life suffering unbelievable cruelty and abuse.  The actual biblical narrative is pretty sparse on emotional content – the writer(s) of Genesis just kind of states what happened and then moves on.  But just imagine for a second the anguish that Joseph must have felt.  He was only seventeen years old when he was taken from his home.  Imagine the intense feelings of rejection, betrayal, fear, and just profound hurt that must have flooded through him when his brothers threw him into a pit, threatened to kill him, and then sold him off to strangers, never to see his family again.  It makes my heart ache just thinking about it.

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Sermon: The Green Thumb of God

Sunday, February 13, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
watch this service online (readings start around 13:35; sermon starts around 18:45)
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One of the things that I love about this congregation is that nearly all of you share a passion for gardening and growing things.  It’s something we talk a lot about in council, from the lawn care at the parsonage to what kind of tree we should plant out front of the church here.  I know there are lots of green thumbs here in this room!  As for myself, I love the idea of gardening, but anyone who has been to my house will probably tell you that it’s where plants go to die.  Even as we speak, there’s a couple of dead succulents on the counter in the kitchen and a neglected spider plant hanging in one corner, barely clinging to life, haha.  

So I want to start off this morning by picking your brains:  Whenever you go to plant something, what are all the factors that you take into consideration?

Composition of the soil?  
Wind exposure?  
Hardiness zone?  
Size of full grown plant?
Weed/pest resistance?  
Needs lots of watering?  
Potential to become invasive?  
Attracts pollinators?  
Grows well w/other nearby plants?  
Seed vs seedling/transplant?  
Length of growing season?

There are SO many factors to take into consideration when planting something.  And it’s important to consider these things because we want what we planted to grow!  We want to give it the best shot we possibly can to put down good roots, to grow and thrive – to produce beautiful flowers, or shade, or a harvest of good fruits, or whatever else we may have planted it for.  You can have the finest seeds in the world, but if you don’t have good growing conditions, good soil, you’re just never going to get the results that you want.  The whole art of gardening, or farming, is to create the optimal conditions for growth – to take good seeds and plant them wisely in good soil.  

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Sermon: Reframing the Story

Sunday, February 6, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
watch this service online (readings start around 19:35; sermon starts around 27:32)
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In our Training Disciples program, over the last couple of Wednesdays, we have been gathering for a meal and bible study; and the theme we’ve been focusing in on is evangelism.  We’ve been talking about how, at its core, evangelism is really about storytelling – we share our own stories of faith as a way of pointing toward the larger story of what God has done and is still doing in the world.    

For our bible study, we’ve been spending time with the story of the man born blind from the ninth chapter of John.  I love this story for talking about evangelism because of its simplicity.  Jesus comes across this man and has compassion for him; he spreads some mud on this man’s eyes, tells him to go wash, and *boom* he can see again.  The actual healing takes all of two verses.  But this man then spends the rest of the chapter, 30-some verses, being questioned over and over again about his encounter with Jesus.  And his story is consistently the same every single time: “He put mud on my eyes.  Then I washed, and now I see.”  That’s it.  The Pharisees press him for more details, but he sticks to his story: “He put mud on my eyes.  Then I washed, and now I see.”  It only takes him two short sentences to tell other people exactly how Jesus changed his life.  

We used this story as an example to talk about telling our own stories of faith – our “one-inch” stories of faith.  Because evangelism isn’t always about trying to share the whole big picture of God’s work or about, like, knowing the whole bible backwards and forwards.  The most powerful evangelization can happen through sharing just a one-inch piece of the picture.  We even made these little one-inch (ish) frames as a reminder (with only one casualty, RIP Jalaine’s finger, lol) that we don’t have to try to tell the whole story at once in order to be good evangelists – but we can share our stories.  We share the pieces of the story that we know: He put mud on my eyes.  I washed, and now I see.

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Sermon: Let’s Talk About Bruno

Sunday, January 30, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
watch this service online (readings start around 16:34; sermon starts around 23:24)
(all images borrowed from Disney’s Encanto – obviously)

A few weeks ago, my siblings and I got together over Zoom and watched Disney’s latest animated movie: Encanto. And I’ve got to admit, I still cannot get the songs out of my head! If you’ve seen the movie yourself, you already know what I’m talking about – those tunes are catchier than the Omicron variant! So, of course, sooner or later, it had to make its way into a sermon, haha.

If you haven’t seen Encanto, I highly recommend it.  The movie tells the story of a Colombian family: the Madrigals.  After the family matriarch – Alma – is forced to flee her hometown because of violence, the family is blessed with a miracle: they receive a magical, sentient house that moves and shapes itself at will and protects the family.  And along with the house, every single member of the Madrigal family is blessed with some kind of magical power: one has super strength; one has super hearing; another has the ability to talk to animals or to control the weather, and so on.  Everyone in this whole extended family receives their special power when they reach a certain age – everyone, that is, except for one person: Alma’s granddaughter, Mirabel.  For some unknown reason, Mirabel is the only one who doesn’t receive the gift of magic. 

And you can start to tell, from the beginning of the movie, the tension that this creates within the family. The tension starts to manifest physically as cracks appearing all over the house, in the walls and the floors, and some members of the family even start losing their powers. Mirabel decides to make it her mission to figure out what is going wrong with the magic and fix it. And along the way, she stumbles across her long-lost uncle, Bruno, whose gift is the ability to foresee the future. Bruno had left the family years before because his gift made had him an outcast; people in the family and in the community had started blaming Bruno for the negative things that he sometimes predicted – even though it wasn’t his fault!  They even sing a whole song about it called “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” 

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Sermon: No Body Part Left Behind

Sunday, January 23, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday after Epiphany
watch this service online (readings start around 13:56; sermon starts around 23:03)

Whenever I’m preparing to write a sermon, I spend a lot of time digging into the texts that our lectionary (the cycle of readings we follow) chooses for a given Sunday.  And it always kind of perks my ear up whenever I notice that the lectionary skips over verses in a given reading.  I’m always curious to see what it is that got left out, and why.  You may have noticed that this has happened in our first reading for this morning: we’ve got kind of a weird mish-mash of verses from the eighth chapter of Nehemiah that leaves a couple of verses out.

There’s a number of reasons why the people who compiled the lectionary might choose to do this: sometimes they omit verses in order to condense a really long story into a more manageable reading; sometimes it’s to highlight a particular theme or idea they want to emphasize; and sometimes it’s for reasons that are beyond my understanding.  

So, out of curiosity, I looked up the missing verses from this reading – verses 4 and 7 – and I think I can confidently say that these verses weren’t left out in order to shorten a story or to highlight a theme.  Instead, I think the omission of these particular verses was an act of mercy toward lectors everywhere.  

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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)
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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)
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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?

Continue reading “Sermon: Reconciliation and Surprising Grace”

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