About a month before my 24th birthday, I was starting my second year of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. I got sent to the next town over from mine to spend the night with a family there, to see whether I thought they would be a good host family for the new volunteer who was coming. They turned out to be really sweet, lovely people who welcomed me with open arms. Esmeralda, the mom, made a delicious meal for us, while her husband Manyango told me all about their community, Jánico. They were curious to get to know me as well – and when they found out that my birthday was less than a month away, they insisted that I come back and celebrate with them.
This is a story we have heard so many times before. Many of us grew up hearing it. Year after year, we follow Jesus on a Lenten journey to Jerusalem. And every year it leads us here, to the threshold of Holy Week. We read the story of his triumphant entry into the city, and we read again how the crowd’s shouts of “hosanna in the highest!” quickly turn into chants of “crucify, crucify him!” We follow Jesus all the way from a stable in Bethlehem to the cross and to the empty tomb.
This story is so well known and so familiar to the church that it’s hard to add much to it. Some friends of mine even asked me a couple of weeks ago: how do you preach on stories that people have heard so many times? How do you find something new to say? And I told them honestly: the Spirit works! But also, I can’t help but think of how many thousands of years we have been telling ourselves and our children these stories. Humanity has a long term relationship with the story of salvation in Jesus Christ. And so, as old as this story is, it somehow keeps being new. Each year that we tell it again, it seems to speak to us in a new and different way.
As most of you – or probably all of you – know, I used to be a Peace Corps Volunteer once upon a time. I served for four years in the Dominican Republic. And as you might expect, there is a lot of training and preparation that goes into becoming a Volunteer. In training, you learn the skills that you will need to do your project work; and you also study the language and the culture of your assigned country to try to prepare yourself to live and work for two years – sometimes more – in a different country.
But one aspect of Peace Corps that doesn’t get talked about very often is the fact that they also actually train us for how to come back. We actually spend time in Close of Service (or CoS) training before coming back to the US. They help us update our resumes and teach us how to condense our years of service into concise stories – literally, we had to practice that. But even more than these practical bits of training, they tried to prepare us for the strange reality of reverse culture shock.
Most people know what regular culture shock is – you move to a new place and find yourself constantly bumping up against a different culture with different values and different ways of doing things than what you’re used to. Reverse culture shock, on the other hand, is when you come back again and the culture is the same one you’re used to, but you are a different you.
Whenever I read the story of the prodigal son, it always reminds me of a Lenten bible study I was in at Grace Lutheran Church in Lincoln several years ago now. We had been getting together every Wednesday for midweek worship and following worship with a group bible study in the fellowship hall. It was already getting fairly late into Lent when we read the prodigal son story together, and I had started to notice that the conversations we were having kept going flat. People had naturally started to group themselves together at tables with like-minded people, and so the discussions generally seemed to go something like this:
“Well, this is what I think about this text.”
“Well, I agree! That’s what I think about this text too.”
In our gospel reading for this morning, we catch a glimpse of Jesus in a very sassy mood. The pharisees come to him with death threats from Herod, but Jesus basically just brushes them off. He calls Herod a “fox” and tells them to say, “Look Herod, I don’t have time for you right now. I’ve got work to do. But hey, I’ve got an opening in three days, so if you still want to kill me, you can come on down to Jerusalem and do it then – because we all know that no prophet can be killed outside of Jerusalem, amirite?”
But his snarky comments are immediately followed by a tender, heartbroken lament: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Despite his sarcastic remarks, we see in Jesus the image of God as a mother: a mother whose heart is breaking over the way her children have rejected her and turned away from her. God the mother has had it up to here with her wayward children, but she still loves them so much it hurts.
This past Saturday, I was sitting in a coffee shop working on my sermon for Sunday. I’m kind of a chatty person, as you’ve probably noticed, and easily distracted, and I ended up striking up a conversation with a woman sitting at a table near me. We’ll call her Danielle. It pretty quickly became clear to both Danielle and me that this was one of those conversations that God himself seemed to have arranged. Danielle had been looking for a new church home and was grateful to unexpectedly find herself in conversation with a pastor. And she shared with me some of the struggles that she has been facing recently.
She shared that her 23-year-old son – we’ll call him Tyson – is addicted to meth and that she and her husband had just taken him to a treatment center earlier that week. She talked about the pain she felt at seeing her son being slowly isolated from everyone else because of his addiction. She said that the other members of their family had already given up on Tyson – even his own father. He was angry at her for taking him to the treatment center, but she was worried that he was going to end up dead if he didn’t go. She talked about how hard it can be to love someone who is addicted, and how challenging it is to walk the line between loving someone and enabling them.
Our gospel reading for this morning picks right up where we left off last Sunday. If you remember, last week, we saw Jesus just beginning his ministry in Galilee and making his public debut in his hometown, Nazareth. We heard the very first words that Jesus speaks as an adult in the gospel of Luke – and he reads these words from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And at the beginning of our gospel text for today, we hear him say again, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s a pretty bold claim! Like we talked about last Sunday, Jesus is laying out the scope of his mission: he has come to bring good news to the poor, to liberate captives and the oppressed, to give sight to the blind, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. And the people are all for it – Luke says that “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth”
But then this story takes a really unexpected twist. Jesus predicts that the people will reject him and what he has to say. And sure enough, by the end of this story, he manages to make them so angry that they actually grab him and try to throw him off a cliff! What happened??
Today the church celebrates the festival day of the Reign of Christ – or Christ the King Sunday, as it’s also known. Hopefully by now you’ve noticed that we’re also celebrating a wedding today! These are actually themes that go together very well. Today we celebrate that Christ is our one true ruler. We remember that our true citizenship is as citizens of his kingdom – we are all citizens of the kingdom here.
The kingdom of God is spoken of throughout scripture as a place where there is no more mourning or crying or pain, where there is no more death, where the poor and the lowly are lifted up, and where all creation lives in perfect harmony and love. And one of the most common images used in scripture to talk about the kingdom is the marriage feast.
Today, we celebrate the marriage feast of Joshua and Esperance. Today they make their vows of love and faithfulness to one another in the presence of this assembly. And the celebration of their marriage actually has a lot to teach all of us about God’s kingdom of love.
When I was in seminary in Chicago, I took an intensive class with a small group of people from all different faith backgrounds. One of my classmates was finishing his studies to become a Catholic priest and a monk. He used to describe the monastery he was going to live in to us. It sounded beautiful, but the one thing that most stuck with me was his description of the communion rail around the table. They had a polished wooden railing – like a lot of sanctuaries do – that ran all the way around the chancel in a big semi-circle. All the brothers could fit around it together as they gathered for communion. Outside the sanctuary, on the other side of the chancel wall, the circle was continued in stone, and it came together to make one big ring around the table. On this side of the circle was the monastery’s cemetery. Every time they gathered for communion, this circle reminded the living brothers of the monastery that they were also gathered with the dead brothers of the monastery. And they remembered that no matter which side of the wall they were on, they were all part of the one, same community.
Many of you know that, before I moved to Schuyler, I spent a year living in Las Cruces, New Mexico, doing my final year internship at Peace Lutheran Church. Las Cruces is in the way south part of New Mexico, just north of El Paso, Texas, which makes it less than an hour from “old” Mexico. It was an awesome and eye-opening experience to get to live in the borderlands for a whole year.
One of the most important things I got to do at Peace during my year there was to help develop a refugee hospitality ministry. We welcomed some of the many, many people from Central America who have come to the US seeking safety from dangerous situations in their home countries. These folks presented themselves to Border Patrol for asylum, and after processing them – getting their information, contacting their sponsor, and giving them an ankle monitor and a court date – ICE actually would actually drop them off right at the door of the church. And we’d take it from there. Continue reading “Sermon: Blind Healing the Blind”
This morning, we continue our journey through the gospel of Mark. We’ve been walking with Jesus and the disciples on the way to Jerusalem and the cross. And it seems like the closer we get, the harder Jesus’ teachings become. In the last few weeks, Jesus has told us we must be last of all and servant of all; he’s told us that we must lose our lives in order to find them; and just last week, he told us that if our eyes or hands or feet cause us to stumble, we should cut them off!
This is a rough, rough gospel text for today. With a text like this, instead of, “Praise to you, O Christ!” it kind of feels like a more fitting gospel acclamation would be just, “Wow, O Christ,” or even, “WTF, O Christ?”
And some of us may have already come to worship today carrying some pretty rough feelings. This has been a very difficult week in our nation. Many folks who have known the horror of sexual assault have been reliving some of their worst trauma this week. Many people have seen in these events their own experience of not being believed, whether it be about the truth of their experiences, or about their innocence in the face of harsh accusations. And I think all of us have probably been discouraged with the reminder of just how viciously divided our country has become. To those of you who are struggling, who are feeling raw and vulnerable today, I see you.
One summer, many years ago, I drove through a terrible, terrible storm. It was the fourth of July. My family and I had driven down to Norfolk, about an hour from my hometown, to go watch the fireworks. The show ended up getting cut short by a tornado warning, so we decided to hightail it out of there to try to get out of the storm’s path. By the time we finally got out on the highway, the rain was pouring down in thick sheets and the wind howled around us as it ripped through the darkness. It was pitch black and almost impossible to see anything, even the road. It felt like all I could do just to keep my car between the fog lines. But up ahead of me, I realized I could just make out two little red lights in the darkness – the taillights of my dad’s SUV. As I gripped the steering wheel of my car with white-knuckled hands, I kept my eyes on those lights and followed them all the way through the darkness to home and safety.
Taste and see that the Lord is good! The psalmist exults in the graciousness and generosity of God. Today is the third of five Sundays that focus on the theme of the bread of life, as we continue our gospel journey through John 6. All of our texts for today are full of stories of the good gifts that God has given to God’s people. It’s a very bready Sunday!
Good morning! It is such a delight to be here with you all on our first official Sunday together!
We have some really good texts to dig into this morning. But I have to admit that one of them in particular just really reached out and grabbed me by the collar as I was preparing my sermon this week.
I don’t know what led Nicodemus to visit Jesus in the middle of the night in our gospel story for today. The text never really makes it clear. However, I am pretty confident that that visit did not go as he expected. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, an important leader in the Jewish community; and even only three chapters into John, Jesus has already made a name for himself as a popular folk preacher who turns water into wine and hangs out with John the Baptist. Perhaps Nicodemus came to learn from Jesus, or to try to persuade him to reconcile with the other religious leaders. But he never actually gets to the point of his visit or even asks Jesus a question. He starts off his visit by affirming, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” We know. ‘You tick all the boxes: you do signs and wonders, you definitely know your scripture, and oh man, that water into wine thing was just awesome! Nobody could do that stuff apart from God, so God must be with you.’
Good evening/morning! It is such a delight to be here again at Grace Lutheran. I have missed you all. I bring you greetings from the people of Peace Lutheran Church in Las Cruces, NM, and also from Pastor Mike and Kristin Ostrom, who are now at Oregon State University!
It’s so good to be here with you all again. And it seems very fitting that love is such a prominent theme in our texts for this weekend. Grace has always been a community in which I have experienced great Christian love.
Our gospel reading from John especially highlights this theme. This text is part of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” to his disciples before he is crucified, in an ultimate act of love. And his words about love raise for us a very important question. This question has one, immediate, right answer, so I want to see if any of you know what it is. Are you ready? What is love? Continue reading “Sermon: What Is Love? (Seriously, though, what is it?)”
This past week, we welcomed our second group of refugees: 12 families from Central America who made the long journey to seek asylum in the US. Some of them traveled for up to a month or more, some with very young children, just to get here. We have been getting a little better and more organized about welcoming them each time we’ve done it. And the volunteers we’ve had helping out have just been awesome. If you’ve helped out with this group or the previous group or have donated anything, please raise your hands. Thank you all for what you’ve been doing. Even the littlest things can make a huge difference. Continue reading “Sermon: Roots and Fruits”
Our gospel text for today comes right on the heels of the story of the road to Emmaus, which is one of my favorite stories in all of scripture. You probably remember the story: two disciples are walking along the road to Emmaus on the day of the resurrection and Jesus joins them, but they don’t recognize him until way later that evening, when they are breaking bread together. I’ve always thought it was kind of a funny story. And I see that same kind of humor in the story we read today. The disciples had literally just been talking about this encounter on the road to Emmaus, and also about an encounter that Peter had with the risen Christ, when Jesus himself appears among them and throws them into a panic. They were already beginning to believe that Jesus really had been raised from the dead, but when he actually showed up in their midst, they totally freaked out – and not in a good way. Continue reading “Sermon: Close Encounters”
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 at the end, to inflict the most damage. This story is a horrifying testament to the creativity of human cruelty. Continue reading “Sermon: Even Now”
Today, we mark the beginning of Lent, the long, slow march toward Christ’s death on the cross. As I’ve been reflecting on these texts once again this week, I’ve found myself noticing just how many words we encounter this time of year that start with “re-”: repentance, regret, reconciliation, remission, return. Among these words, one word in particular grabbed my attention: the word “remorse.” When I read the word in Spanish – remordimiento – it occurred to me that the literal definition of “remorse” is actually “to bite again.” As it turns out, much like my cat, Lent is a season that bites. Continue reading “Sermon: Bitten Again”
To eat meat, or not to eat meat – that is the question! Our passage for today from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians probably sounds kind of strange and antiquated to our 21st century ears. We don’t really talk much about religious dietary restrictions nowadays, or worry that the food we eat will somehow impact our relationship with God. But for the Christian inhabitants of first century Corinth, Paul was addressing a very serious concern, one that went well beyond the question about food. Continue reading “Sermon: Rightness and Reconciliation”