January 12, 2020 – The Beloved

Jesus comes to John to be baptized.

He comes to John in order to fulfill all righteousness.

This means that he is being baptized so that he can answer God’s call in his life.

After being baptized the heavens open and the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus like a dove.

And then this happens.

This is the part in the reading that truly hits me.

God says to him, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

God delights in God’s own Son.

Just as a human parent takes delight and joy in their own child, God finds great joy in his Son.

God deeply loves Jesus.

Jesus is the beloved.

Think now how we experience this same powerful, spiritual experience of receiving God’s love through our own baptism.

In baptism we are called out by God, named by God, and spoken words of grace upon us a beloved child of God.

If you are like me though you may not remember your baptism.

But even if you do not remember your own baptism I am sure that there are many baptisms that you do remember.

In baptism we believe that God calls us the beloved.

How important it is to remember this truth each and every day.

Because there are many voices in this world that drown out the voice of God who calls us beloved.

The voices of this world can be so negative and destructive that it can be too easy to forget that we are indeed God’s beloved people.

The spiritual teacher, Henri Nouwen once said that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power.

Rather it is self-rejection.

He goes on to say that success, popularity, and power can and do present a great temptation but often these temptations come from the much larger temptation which is self-rejection.

When we believe the forces of evil at work in the world that call us worthless and unlovable then success, popularity, and power are easily seen as attractive solutions.

But the real trap is self-rejection and self-rejection is the true enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts God’s voice that calls us the Beloved.

Isn’t that good.

I love that.

I think Henri Nouwen has a good point here.

How often do we find ourselves caught in this trap?

Believing the voices of this world rather than the voice of God.

How do we receive the faith to believe that we are God’s beloved just as Jesus is God’s beloved?

There are no easy answers here.

In his life the late Henri Nouwen often had a very hard time communicating this message of God’s love to those who were steeped in the secular world.

But for us as followers of Jesus we know that being the beloved is our true baptismal identity.

For us this is the very proclamation of our faith that we are people of God and that God loves us.

In this world we receive love from many sources.

We receive love from our parents, relatives, friends, teachers, neighbors, and even strangers.

But the love that we receive from God is something entirely different – something beyond us.

We are loved by God in a deeper and more real way than any person on this earth can ever love us.

I know that this is hard to understand.

This is difficult to even explain.

God’s love is not something we can earn it is something that we continually live more deeply into.

As people of God we look to receive love first from God before we look for it in any person or from anything in this world.

That is why we believe so firmly in infant baptism.

We want to give our children this gift of being baptized as soon as we can.

We don’t want to wait.

In fact, what’s there to wait for?

We want to give our children God’s love and hear those words of love spoken to our children as soon as possible.

We want to hear the promise in baptism.

The promise of God calling the child Beloved.

In life every time we are still and present to God we discover within ourselves a great desire to hear God’s voice more deeply.

And that is the spiritual journey into being the beloved which begins at our baptism.

After Jesus was baptized he took time to fast, to pray, and to think about his baptism and what that would mean for his life.

After that period of fasting and prayer he began his ministry which eventually led him to giving his life for us on the cross.

His love for us took him even there to the cross.

And so the takeaway from my sermon today is to encourage us to hear and to receive God’s word from our Gospel reading.

Especially take to heart that is the word beloved.

Take that word with you this coming week.

If you feel discouraged, spiritually poor, or feeling alone or sad say that word.

Repeat that word to yourself.

Pray to God saying that word.

Recall that word and remember that you are God’s beloved.

We are not to leave this world or to turn away from our goals or despise success.

We are to live our lives.

But we do so with a purpose.

We live more deeply into our lives while always remembering that we are God’s beloved people.

In closing my sermon I would like to again quote from Henri Nouwen.

The mystery of our faith is that God is a lover who wants to be loved.

The one who created us is waiting for our response to the love that gave us our being.

God not only says, “You are my Beloved.

God asks us: “Do you love me?” and then offers to us countless chances to say, Yes.

May we respond this coming week with a clear “Yes” to God.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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January 26, 2020 – Discipleship as Grit

Imagine that you are a fisher.

That is your job.

You catch fish for a living.

This occupation has been in your family for many years.

It is your livelihood.

It is how you feed your family.

And then suddenly a stranger approaches.

A serious, strong, and peaceful man with piercing eyes calls out to you.

“Follow me,” he says to you.

“Come and follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

Without hesitation you drop your nets.

You come and you follow this man.

You do not know where your journey will take you.

You only know that this man will be your teacher.

And so you choose to follow him knowing that your choice will make all the difference in the world.

You now have a new life, a new identity, a new calling.

You are now on the road to discipleship.

You immediately recognize that this road will not be easy.

After all, you just gave up your livelihood.

You just gave up everything that you know.

Your world was fishing.

You were a fisherman and now are a disciple, a learner, a follower of this man.

You were trained to catch fish and now you will be trained to chase after God’s people in order to bring them to Jesus.

This is your new job.

This is your new calling.

Are you up for the job?

Do you have what it takes to be a disciple of Jesus?

As we think about these questions let’s consider for a moment the men and women of the Bible who were called by God.

When you read the Bible you quickly discover that God calls people who are not necessarily the people you would think would be God’s first choice.

God often chose people in the Bible with plenty of flaws.

For example, Abraham had tremendous faith but in his life he also did some very selfish things.

At one point in the Bible he gave up his wife in order to save himself.

Or take this example, the great King, King David who wrote many of the Psalms at one point in the Bible commits murder.

Jonah ran away from God.

Peter denied Jesus three times.

Martha was distracted with worry.

Zacchaeus was very greedy and hungry for money.

Paul persecuted Christians.

And the fisherman that Jesus called were of course, not part of the elite, religious company of people at that time.

These people did not pour over the Holy Scriptures for hours on end while memorizing every single letter of the Torah.

No they simply did their job while hoping that at the end of the day they caught enough fish to make it so that they could have another day to fish.

But God gave to these fishermen something quite remarkable so that they could eventually fully hear and respond to God’s calling.

They all received something from God so that they could put away their excuses, their fears, there worries, and their lack of faith.

God gave them strength.

Let’s take that in for a moment here because that is significant.

God gave to the fisherman real strength so that they could be true disciples of Jesus.

That inner strength began working in and through them in the very hour that they choose to follow Jesus, then throughout their entire time with Jesus, and finally it was even more fully realized within them on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit breathed new life and fire within them.

In today’s context we might say that God gave the disciples:  grit.

Grit is the idea that you possess a certain amount of passion, perseverance, and drive towards a goal.

And grit compels you towards the goal even when you are faced with challenges, obstacles, and distractions.

When it comes to grit it matters more that you have this inner strength than to possess skill, talent, or even intelligence.

Grit keeps you going on a task or a goal even when you want to give up.

It’s that inner conviction in your heart that keeps you going when everything in side of you says to stop what you are doing.

In the Bible the disciples had grit.

They were not superior religious people.

They even got scared and abandoned Jesus in his hour of need just before he was crucified.

And yet according to church tradition many of the disciples were martyred for their faith in Jesus.

They died for their faith.

The disciples ended up showing a tremendous amount of grit.

These ordinary, common fisherman end up being heroes of the faith.

They are an inspiration to us even today.

What did the disciples have?

The disciples had grit.

Now how does this apply to us?

God calls us.

But discipleship is not always easy.

In fact, for the early Christians they knew that being a disciple of Jesus might cost you your life.

In today’s world, thankfully we do not have this concern but even still being a disciple of Jesus takes work, effort, and sacrifice.

Being a disciple of Jesus takes a radical response on our part.

The good news here is that as Jesus calls us he does something else.

Jesus and God send to us the Holy Spirit.

You might look at the Holy Spirit as the great strengthener of our faith.

In a word the Holy Spirit gives us grit.

The Holy Spirit gives us that inner strength to follow Jesus and to be a disciple of Jesus even in the face of doubt, weakness, or fatigue.

The Holy Spirit gives to us that boost to keep going in faith.

The Holy Spirit makes us a gritty group of disciples of Jesus.

Now go back once again and picture yourself with Jesus.

Imagine him calling you.

Feel the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon you.

Know that through the power of God at work in you you have the grit to be a Jesus follower.

You do have the inner strength to be a disciple of the Lord.

Again and again I have seen that that is the quality that disciples have.

Disciples of Jesus have that inner grit within them that keeps them focused on the Word of God, on prayer, on worship, on service, and most especially on the cross of Christ.

Trust that as Jesus calls us into deeper discipleship that the Holy Spirit will give us the grit to remain faithful to the calling that God has given to each one of us.

This coming week claim this gift, the gift of grit, that inner strength that God gives to his followers so that we might stay strong in our faith while telling to others that great story of Jesus and his love.

Last Sunday we recalled that great invitation that Jesus gave to the two disciples to come and to see.

Today he issues the command to come and follow him.

With grit we follow Jesus.

We know by faith that the Spirit empowers those who Jesus calls.

This coming week may our prayer be that we be filled with the Spirit, so that the Spirit might give voice to our actions and words, while transforming us into fishers of people.

Amen.

 

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February 2, 2020 – Who Are the Blessed?

Last week my message was on discipleship.

I spoke about how it is the through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit working in us whereby we are given the strength and the grit to be disciples of the Lord.

The Spirit works in us even when we feel discouraged or have moments of doubt.

Even when we feel weak in faith or feel poor in spirit God is still at work in our lives.

This is one of the great truths of scripture that God continues to work in and through us empowering us for discipleship even when we are poor in spirit.

When Jesus saw the large crowd he went up the mountain, so that he could fully see the people, and then after sitting down begins to speak.

He names those who are blessed by God.

Now I find this very interesting, notice the first blessing in the Gospel reading.

Verse three from Matthew chapter five.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Let’s think about the significance of that verse.

Jesus is not saying here that we should not tend to our faith or that we should not believe in God so that we can be poor in spirit.

Rather Jesus is saying that our faith should be so deep that there arises within us this humble and open spirit that is poor, that is completely ready to receive all that God wants to give us.

It is this recognition that we are in dire need for God and for God’s blessings in our lives.

It is like the parable that Jesus tells of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

Two men go up to the temple to pray.

One a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

The Pharisee stands by himself.

He doesn’t need other people.

His righteousness is all he needs.

He prays:

“Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give away a tenth of my income.”

But the tax collector stands at a distance to ashamed to come closer, to ashamed to even raise his head.

He is greatly troubled, he knows his failings, he knows how distant he is from God.

And in that place of deep poverty of soul, he cries out to God. Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.

His cry alludes to Psalm 51 which begins with this prayer.

Psalm 51

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.

These two passages of Scripture influenced the great prayer of the early church called the Jesus Prayer.

Are you familiar with the Jesus Prayer?

It is a beautiful prayer.

So simple.

But so heartfelt.

The prayer is simply this:  Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.

Saint Hesychius of the fifth century once said, “Blessed is the one whose mind and heart are as closely attached to the Jesus Prayer as air is to the body.”

And here we have our answer to the question, “Who are blessed?”

Those who are blessed are those who come to Jesus knowing their great need for Jesus and for his mercy.

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will filed.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

These blessings all reflect upon those people who are broken, who are hurting, and who are hungering for God.

In God’s great compassion for us God reaches down to us and gives us God’s blessings.

Why does God do this?

Not because of our righteousness but because of God’s great love for us.

It is because of Christ and his heart which overspills with compassion for us.

Most fully this love was shown to us on the cross as he opened his arms wide to us and embraced us all.

So no matter what hill we are walking up now, no matter how steep it goes, no matter how dark that walk becomes Christ is with us.

His promise of his blessing is upon us.

To be blessed is to receive the divine hand of God upon your life.

It is to receive God’s favor, mercy, and love.

To be blessed by God is to inherit the kingdom of God, meaning to be included with God and with God’s people.

To be blessed by God means that you belong to God.

In the beatitudes we see that in spite of challenges and struggles in our present time that God is with us and that God will bless us still.

Faith is to trust in God’s divine power and to recognize our great weakness before God.

It is to understand that the power of God is at work in us even in moments of despair and darkness.

We all have times and seasons in our lives where we find ourselves walking in the dark.

It is in the dark where we discover that the light of Christ is burning so brightly.

To be poor in spirit is to be blessed by God.

This coming week would you try praying the Jesus Prayer?

Maybe this is a prayer that you already pray.

In the Jesus Prayer we name the power and presence of Christ as Lord and Savior while at the same time naming our weaknesses and seeking his mercy for all of our sins.

Prayer the Jesus prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.

To be poor in spirit is to receive a certain kind of grace from God.

It is really an opening like a window into the presence of God.

The Jesus Prayer will greatly help us reach that place of poverty of soul so that we can more fully receive all that God wants to give us.

It is kind of like this.

A spiritual practice that I have practiced for some time now is the ancient practice of fasting.

When I fast from food.

I become more open inside for my soul to breathe and to grow.

Often I will receive some kind of spiritual insight when I fast.

In a similar way the Jesus Prayer creates an opening in our hearts to hear the voice of God.

When we hear God’s voice in our lives, when we receive Christ’s mercy we are blessed indeed.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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February 9 – Light Shining in the Darkness

Last week I spoke about the Jesus Prayer.

The Jesus Prayer is a very simple prayer.

It is a prayer that Christians have prayed over and over through the years.

It is the prayer of one who is humble and poor in spirit.

The prayer is simply:

“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.”

I also spoke about how in life when we are in the dark that the light of Christ remains upon us still.

Not only that but that we are called by Jesus to be light in a world that is sometimes a little dark.

Jesus told the people,

“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

One of my favorite parts of the baptism service is when I make that announcement upon the newly baptized person.

“Let your light shine before others!”

Light is an extremely important metaphor in the Scriptures.

When you read the Bible pay attention to the use of light in the Bible.

Again and again you will find that image of light.

As Jesus walks with us in seasons and times of darkness in our lives we are called by him to be light for others who are in the dark.

As I was reflecting upon this verse of Scripture this past week a story came to my attention from one of my favorite preachers, Tony Campolo.

Tony tells this beautiful story of an encounter that he had with another person who needed some light.

Here is the story in his words:

“One afternoon, as I sat in my office, the telephone rang.

It was my mother.

She told me that Mrs. Patrick had died and that it would be good for me to attend the funeral.

Mrs. Patrick was a lovely person, and as I was growing up she did many wonderful things for others.

Mrs. Patrick had added much to my life, and my mother was right it would be good to attend her funeral.

I arrived at the funeral home at two o’clock, just as the funeral was scheduled to begin.

I rushed up the steps and hurried by the somber man at the door.

There were several funerals in progress at the time.

I walked into what I thought was the room for Mrs. Patrick’s funeral.

I took a seat, looked around the room, and was surprised to see that, other than an elderly woman sitting just two seats from me, there was no one else in the entire room.

Suddenly, I began to panic.

I had the wrong funeral.

I was about to leave when the woman reached over and grabbed me by the arm, and with desperation in her voice said,

“You were his friend weren’t you?”

The woman was reaching out for assurance that somebody had some connection with her husband and some concern for her.

What was I to say?

I’m sorry, I’m at the wrong funeral.

Your husband didn’t have any friends.

She needed to know that there was somebody to whom her husband meant something.

And so I lied and said I knew him and that he was always kind to me.

I went through whole funeral sitting at her side.

Afterward, the two of us went out to the cemetery.

I figured that since I had gone that far, I might as well go all the way.

I wasn’t about to leave this poor lady alone in her hour of deep sadness.

We stood at the edge of the grave and said some prayers.

As the casket was lowered into the grave, we each threw a flower onto it.

We then got back into the car and returned to the funeral home.

As we arrive there, I took her hand and said to her.

I have something to tell you.

I really did not know your husband.

I want to be your friend and I can’t be your friend after today unless I tell you the truth.

I did not know your husband.

I came to the funeral by mistake.

I paused and waited for her response.

I wondered how she would interpret what I said to her.

She looked at me with tears in her eyes,

“You will never ever, ever know how much your being with me and listening to me meant to me today.  Thank you so much.”

By listening and paying attention to this woman who was grieving Tony brought light to this woman in her dark hour of need.

When I was in seminary my professors spoke a lot about the ministry of presence and the ministry of listening to others.

It is a way that we bring Christ’s light to others.

It is a way that we show the love of Christ to others.

Actually, I think in our world today to give the gift of deep listening is one of the greatest ways we can shine the light of Christ in this world.

Concern and care for other people is an instinctive expression of the best part of who we are.

Listening well to others allows us the opportunity to be open, generous, and connected to others while at the same time connecting with that light of Christ that is within us.

Yes, listening can sometimes be experienced as a burden and we all feel that way from time to time.

But Christ is with us shining ever so brightly his light upon us so that we might let our light shine upon others.

This coming week be mindful and alert to situations in which you find someone who needs to be listened to and who needs to receive a little kindness and light in their lives.

You may be surprised how the Holy Spirit will work in your life this coming week when you are open to it.

Tony Campolo, in his true story that I shared, did not intend to listen to and care for the lady at the funeral but he did and he shined a little light upon a person in great need.

Go and do likewise.

“Let your light shine before others.”  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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February 23, 2020 – Scripture Readings on Hope

Today for my sermon I would like to do something a little different.

I would like to talk about Scripture verses that give us hope.

To have hope means that we have confidence in what God will do for us now and in what God will do for us in the future.

To have hope means that we trust in God’s grace today and we trust in God’s future grace.

To have hope means you keep the candle burning within your own heart.

You keep the light alive.

Scripture verses that offer hope keeps us following by faith in the ways of our Lord.

These verses bring comfort in times of need, crisis, or in facing difficult challenges in life.

I offer these Bible verses to you today to ponder and to reflect upon.

The first passage I want to bring to your attention this morning is from Hebrews chapter 11 verse 1:

Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

What does this verse mean?

We believe by faith that the way things are now will be different in the future.

We believe that things will be better, much better.

That God’s future grace will extend upon us in ways that we cannot even image in the present time.

In Christ the future will always be better.

This does not mean that bad things will not happen to us here on earth but what it does mean is that we have hope in God’s gift of salvation.

That one glorious day God will save us from all that steals life from us.

The pain and suffering that we experience now will be transmuted to joy and happiness and blessing.

The word transmuted means to change something to a higher form.

What we experience in life especially our present sufferings will be transformed into joy.

Like lead being transmuted into gold so will our lives here on earth be transmuted into eternal life with God in heaven.

This leads us to our next verse of Scripture that again offers us hope.

From Romans chapter 8 verse 18:

For I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us.

Think about this… someday we will share in the glory of God.

This means that we will share in God’s joy, in God’s happiness, in God’s delight.

No more will pain or suffering define who we are and how we live life.

Instead our presence will be surrounded by the light and presence of God.

From Isaiah 60: 19:

The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.

And again from Revelation 22: 5:

There will be no more night.  They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. 

And they will reign for ever and ever.

The darkness will disappear in the light.

God’s people will live in the heavenly light which has no opposite.

No darkness can touch this light.

This light from God only knows light.

In this light we will be able to see clearly and be fully known before God.

1 Corinthians 13: 12

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. 

Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

We cannot understand everything now.

Our ability to see, no matter how good that is, will only be partial.

Our understanding of who God is and even how we understand one another and ourselves is incomplete.

Our present understanding of God is as nothing when compared with who God really is.

We have hope that one day God will reveal God’s self to us.

One day we will fully see.

Until then we have hope that that day will come and that we will be embraced by our Lord and that we will be fully known by our Lord.

Think about how good it feels to really have some understand you and listen to you.

Someone who really takes the time to get to know you.

Now think about this happening with God.

God will reveal to us God’s true nature, who God really is and by doing so we will know who we are because we are made in God’s image.

The likeness of who God is will reveal to us the likeness of who we really are.

Hebrews 10: 23:

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.

In the Bible God makes promises to us again and again and again.

By faith let us hold to the promises that we proclaim.

God is faithful and we put our trust in God’s faithfulness.

God’s faithfulness was most clearly revealed to us on the cross where Jesus walked that road to Calvary and was faithful to us even in to death on the cross.

Philippians 2: 8:

And being found in the fashion of a man, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death – even the death of the cross.

Last Sunday in my sermon I spoke about God’s persistent, stubborn love.

God’s love dares not quit and it continues until it gets there, until God’s love reaches our hearts.

In the end our ultimate hope is in sharing in God’s grace and love.

This brings me to the last Bible verse I would like to share with you this morning.

Psalm 143: 8

Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you.  Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life.

When we follow by faith God will not let us down.

His presence is with us now and his presence will be fully with us in the future.

This is our hope.

Our faith and hope is solid and secure from the promises we receive from Scripture that speak to God’s care and God’s lovingkindness upon us.

In life we go to God for hope and life.

Look to the Scriptures to find hope and meaning for your life.

We will not let our hope die but through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives we will strive to get up each and every day with hope on our minds and hearts.

If we are in despair this hope will raise us out of despair.

We will find a way in and through our losses and in our grieving.

We will find a way through as the Lord leads us and we will follow by faith with hope shinning within our souls.

With a great hope the light will carry on.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

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February 26 – Ash Wednesday 2020

On this day we face death and sin and evil.

These things we usually either deny or ignore as we go about our day to day lives.

But on this day as we confess our sins and as we receive the ashes we name the reality of these things both in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

Although this is not a day without hope.

As I spoke in my sermon on Sunday we have hope in what God can and will do for us now and in the future.

We have hope that God will bless us now, today on this Ash Wednesday and that God will bless us on our Lenten journey that we will be taking together these next forty days.

In many ways Ash Wednesday serves as a wakeup call for us.

This day reminds us that there is a time limit on life, on grace, and on love.

This day moves us to embrace God’s blessings and presence upon us.

Today is a call to return to God and to God’s ways.

It is a call for us examine our lives and to look for ways to bless others as God’s continues to bless us.

During this season of Lent I encourage us to consider what it means to bless others and what it means to receive God’s blessings.

God blesses us with God’s forgiveness, grace, and mercy.

In living more deeply into God’s blessings this Lent how might we bless others?

To bless someone is to speak well of someone or to positively affirm someone.

A blessing affirms a person’s original goodness, that they have infinite value and worth in God’s eyes.

It is to wish for God’s best for someone.

To bless is the opposite of cursing someone.

To curse someone means that you wish them harm.

Cursing only calls forth the darkness, destruction, pain, and death.

While to bless means you hope that someone will receive and experience fullness and abundance in life.

The spiritual teacher Henri Nouwen tells a beautiful story of what it means to bless someone.

Here is his story:

Shortly before a prayer service, Janet a member of the faith community, approached Henri and asked for a blessing.

Rather quickly Henri gave Janet a blessing.

But instead of being grateful Janet protested and said, “No, that doesn’t work I want a real blessing.”

Suddenly Henri became aware of the coldness of the blessing.

He says to her, “I’m sorry.”

“Let me give you a real blessing when we are all together for the prayer service.”

Janet nodded with a smile.

At the prayer service Henri said, “Janet, has asked me for a special blessing.  She feels that she needs that now.”

As Henri was talking Janet got up and walked over to Henri.

Spontaneously, Janet put her arms around Henri.

Henri returned the hug and then said these words,

“Janet, I want you to know that you are God’s beloved daughter.  You are precious in God’s eyes.  Your smile, your kindness, and all the good things you do show us what a beautiful person you are. I want you to remember who you are:  a very special person, deeply loved by God and by all the people here with you.”

After Henri said these words Janet raised her head and looked up.

With a warm smile on her face Henri knew that she had really heard and received the blessing – words of love and of God’s favor for her.

Then as she returned to her place.

Another person raised her hand and said I would like a blessing too.

She stood up and came over to Henri.

Henri again embraced the person and offered those words of blessing.

Soon a line was formed of people wanting to be blessed and Henri spent the rest of that evening blessing the people there and speaking words of affirmation and grace.

Later Henri reflected on that evening and how that evening became a sign for him of the great importance of what it means to truly bless others.

The blessings that we give to each other are expressions of the blessings that rests on us from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

We live out our faith in the world by the way we bless others and by the way we receive God’s blessings in our lives.

Because of our fears, our anxiety, and our insecurities we fall into temptation and sin.

But remembering that we are God’s beloved people, who are indeed blessed, causes us to rise out of the darkness and into the light –into the light of blessing.

This Lent who might you be able to bless?

Who might you be able to speak words of grace and affirmation?

How might you pray for others and ask that God bless those people in your life who you are close to.

Often the people we are closest to in life are the people we take for granted the most.

And often the people we hurt the most.

People are not disposable and in our sin and fallen nature we act sometimes like they are.

In our sinfulness we wish people harm and act in ways that tear people down.

But on this day we are reminded to examine our hearts and to respond accordingly to how the Lord is calling us to live.

On this day as you receive the ashes and remember that one day you will be dust may you be awakened to find new ways to bless others.

No matter how different we may think that we are from others there is one thing that we all hold in common.

One day each one of us will be dust.

We will go back into the earth.

We share that common fate with every person that has ever walked on this earth.

The theologian, Richard Holloway, once said,

“Our brief life is but a beautiful spark in the vast darkness of space.  So we should live the fleeting day with passion and when the night comes, depart from it with grace.”

As followers of Jesus we embrace death as a constant traveling companion who reminds us to not take God’s blessings and God’s love for granted, that we are not to take each other for granted and that we are called into a larger purpose which is to bless each other.

May God bless you.  Amen.

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March 1 – 1st Sunday of Lent

Grace and peace be with you from God our father and from our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Today marks the first Sunday of Lent.

During the season of Lent we pray that we would return back to God, that God would forgive our sins, and that we would find new ways to renew our spiritual lives.

This season is a great gift for us.

A time set aside to grow closer to God.

We begin this season with three Scripture readings that speak to the importance of having faith when faced with temptations.

In our Gospel reading for today we hear the well-known story of Jesus being tempted by the devil.

For forty days he is tempted by the devil in the wilderness.

This Bible reading is told alongside the temptation story of Adam and Eve.

There is a great contrast here between Jesus and Adam and Eve.

Jesus resists temptation while Adam and Eve give into temptation.

And then in the middle there is a great promise.

In our reading from Romans the Apostle Paul speaks about God’s grace given to us through Jesus.

My prayer for us this Lent is that we might grow more deeply in our understanding of this wondrous grace.

God freely gives to us this grace in Christ.

Jesus was able to break through and find a way back to God in the face of temptation.

Three times he is tempted by the devil and each time he is able to turn from the devil and back to God.

At the end of his time in the wilderness he is free from the devil and angels come and minister to him.

He did it.

He fasted for forty days.

He spent time in the wilderness, alone and without the comforts of being with other people.

He was greatly tempted.

But he came through.  He found a way.

One of the great gifts of our faith is knowing that when we face temptations and trials that we too can find a way.

As Jesus was victorious in the wilderness Jesus can and will lead us through the challenges and temptations that we face in life.

That is the meaning of faith.

God walking with and for us throughout our entire lives.

Jesus finding a way through temptation and then leading us away from temptation so that we might live in life-giving and God-honoring ways.

In life it is tempting to choose power and comfort.  It is tempting to choose the things of this world to satisfy us and to make us happy.

Can we pray this prayer…

Lord, you know what I need.  Lord, you know what I want.  Lord, you know what makes me happy… but I trust in you to know what is best for me.

Jesus could have chosen bread because he was hungry.

He could have chosen comfort because he was in need.

He could have chosen power because he felt weak.

But instead he choose faith.

To believe in God and God’s power to provide and he chose not to believe in a power that was not God.

It is hard work.

To not fall into the temptations that come from living in this world.

Like Adam and Eve we are human.

We need God’s grace and forgiveness.

We need Jesus to protect us from temptation and sin.

We need Jesus to walk with us when we feel that we are in the wilderness.

In the Bible the wilderness is a place of testing.

The wilderness is a place of struggle.

Remarkably, Jesus chooses to be led by the Spirit into the wilderness.

From that place of struggle and testing Jesus’ identity is renewed.

His purpose affirmed.

After the time in the wilderness he begins his ministry and never looks back.

From then on he begins his work to love and to save God’s people.

Jesus remains steadfastly God’s Son who is called to set us free from that which steals life from us.

In Christ we receive life again and again.

In other words… he forever has our backs.

He will not let go.

On Ash Wednesday I spoke about what it means to be blessed and how we are to give blessings to each other.

On this day may you be blessed by the assurance of Jesus’ presence.

To have faith means that we believe in the One who loves us and who fights temptation for us.

Think about that we have someone in our corner who has faced the same kinds of struggles that we face, the same kinds of temptations and who works to help us to get over, through, and around these struggles.

Faith gives us clarity and having faith helps us to see the light when the light has been turned off.

This coming week know that the Lord knows better than us and he will show us the way.

The one who loves us and calls us his own walks with us and guides us in life.

What temptations, trials, or challenges are you facing now?

Can you find hope?

Is there any hope to be found at this time?

In Christ there is always hope.

Have a little faith.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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March 8 – Nicodemus

When we read a biblical text it is helpful to keep three things in mind.

The first is to find the Gospel or the Good News that rises from the reading.

Find what is life-giving in the text.

Ask…

“In this Bible reading where do I find God’s grace and love?”

Secondly ask:  What stands out for me?  What speaks to me?

Then ask this question… from this Bible reading where is God convicting me of my need for God and for God’s grace?

How is this scripture passage revealing to me the ways that I need to change?

This is the application part where we take a hard look at ourselves and how we are living.

Then, by God’s grace and help, we put God’s Word into practice in our lives.

We let it sink in so that the Word changes us.

On this day we hear from the Bible a very important teaching on being born again with water and with the Spirit.

Now before I go any further with my sermon let’s not lose the irony here in Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus is speaking to a respected religious leader in Nicodemus.

And Nicodemus does not understand what Jesus is saying.

In response to Jesus telling him that he must be born from above he replies with a silly answer.

He asks Jesus about being born again from one’s mother.

Either Nicodemus really does not know what Jesus is speaking about, which is hard to believe because remember he is a respected, educated, religious teacher, or… just maybe he knows exactly what Jesus is saying but he does not what to admit it.

He is not ready to be changed by Jesus.

It is similar to when someone tells you to do something you might now want to do and so you reply with a sarcastic response.

I wonder if that is what Nicodemus is doing here because he is not ready to do what Jesus is requiring of him.

Remember what I said earlier in my sermon.

When we read Scripture and really read it with our hearts we are being willing, with the help of God’s grace, to be changed by God’s Word.

Here Jesus is speaking about a total change, a complete transformation so that the person is like a newborn child, reborn in a way.

Jesus’ words to Nicodemus suggest that he too needs to make this kind of a dramatic faith conversion.

And Nicodemus is not ready to make the jump.

But the good news here is that Jesus does not give up on people.

Jesus continues to love and to pursue us with an undying grace.

Even this religious leader, who could not or chose not to understand Jesus, is being called by Jesus to receive his love.

In this short exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus we receive one of the most quoted and loved verses in all of scripture.

This verse is sometimes referred to as the Gospel in miniature:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but will have eternal life.”

The life that Jesus freely offers us is to know and to experience the very life of God which not even death can destroy.

On the cross Jesus said to the world I will not fight violence with violence.

What did he say instead?

“Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing…”

And then God chooses to use the cross…

the hideous cross as the place where God forgives everyone tax collector, sinner, religious leader alike.

We are thankful this day to believe in God’s forgiving, healing, and restoring powers.

Jesus said, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

This is our hope, this is the word of grace and the good news that I leave with you this day.

Let us keep this Word in our hearts this coming week.

God’s law is like a mirror, showing us, convicting us of our sin and for our need for God.

Jesus held up the mirror before Nicodemus and showed him his need for God and for his need to be reborn in the Spirit.

The Gospel is God’s word of love for us and for all believers who come together in his name.

Remember this day and each day your baptism and how through Water and the Word you were born again from above.

Why does this work?

Why does this way of thinking about our faith help us in our day to day lives?

It is because this is what Jesus was trying to teach Nicodemus.

The name Nicodemus means “victory of the people.”

If you think of the sports brand Nike, Nike in Greek means victory.

Maybe not right away but as time went on Nicodemus discovered that in Jesus there is victory – victory for all people.

Scholars believe that Nicodemus later became a true disciple of Jesus.

Later in the Gospel of John Nicodemus stands up for Jesus before a group of religious leaders who are trying to take Jesus down.

And in chapter 19 of the Gospel of John Nicodemus joins Joseph of Arimathea in providing a proper burial for Jesus after Jesus is crucified.

Nicodemus while at first he seems reluctant to trust Jesus eventually, from what we can see from Scripture, he does have that spiritual transformation where he is born from above and becomes a follower of Jesus.

He is victorious through the presence of Jesus working in his heart.

Now how does Nicodemus’ life and story apply to our lives right now?

I would like to leave us with two thoughts here:

First, Jesus can move us from unbelief to belief.

If you feel that your faith is weak know that Jesus can make it strong.

And secondly, Jesus can help us to understand things about God that we cannot understand through our own understanding.

The main thing that Jesus is always trying to help us to understand in the Gospels is that God desires and wants to give us life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that we might have life.”

Today and then into this coming week lighten your load a bit.

Receive Jesus’ love, let go of old habits that hold you back from fully receiving God’s grace, receive God’s forgiveness, turn off your inner critic that says that you are worthless and instead claim God’s truth that God loves you, and finally pray and believe in God’s power to create a new heart within you.

When we live in Christ we become more open and the light becomes brighter.

No more do we need to come to Jesus in the night as Nicodemus did but we can come to him in the day.

We can dwell with Christ often and regularly as he dwells with us.

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

May this verse from Scripture stand out for us and speak to us.

May it tell us the truth about our lives – that we are God’s people who are saved and who are blessed.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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March 15 – Living Water

Sometime ago I picked up a book with the title:

Your way to Personal Transformation.

Kalen noticed me reading the book one day and she asked me what I was reading.

I showed her the book with its title.

I was excited to speak to her about the book.

I shared with her all that I was learning from the book and all the great ideas found in the book.

After sharing this, she looked at me with a confused look on her face.

Then she said to me,

Ok, I hear what you are saying but this is not the first time I’ve seen you reading a book on personal transformation.

Tom, you have read these kinds of books before.

And why haven’t I seen any of this personal transformation in you these past years?”

Sometimes those who we are the closest to can most clearly give to us the plain truth.

As followers of Jesus, we believe that the kind of change and spiritual transformation that God requires of us can only come about through a living, growing relationship with Jesus who gives to us living water.

It cannot and does not come through our own efforts.

Rather it comes by grace as the Holy Spirit works within us.

The effort and the intentionality to do better and to become a better person comes only after we have been blessed by grace.

In the Bible the woman at the well near Sychar had a transformative, spiritual experience with Jesus.

She had an encounter with Jesus that changed her.

In her conversation with him she felt the need to ask what it means to receive living water.

And so she responded to Jesus with,

“Sir, give to me this water, so that I may never be thirsty again.”

In the Bible often significant encounters happen at the well.

When you read the Bible pay attention to encounters that happen at the well.

In the Bible the well was a meeting place similar to a coffee shop in today’s world.

The well was also seen as being symbolic of God’s divine life-giving presence in the world.

Water gives life so too does God give life.

Water gives life to creation and sustains creation so too does God give life and God sustains creation.

Jesus met with and spoke to the woman at the well.

He offered her living water which would give her a spiritual rebirth.

This living water which she would find in Jesus would forever change her.

In fact, because of her testimony many Samaritans come to believe in Jesus.

Today in our day to day lives is this possible for us?

Is it possible to receive this living water from our Lord?

Is it possible to receive this living water and to be forever changed?

The truth is that new life and new spiritual life is a gift that God.

It is a gift that God wants to give to us in the present moment.

Right now.

It is always available.

Jesus is always ready to give us this water in the here and now.

Jesus who is the source of living water, he is here with us and for us.

The life that God wants to give to us is always for us now.

Last Sunday in my sermon I spoke about how Jesus did not come into this world to condemn the world.

He came so that through him the world might be saved.

He came so that through him God’s people would have life.

Jesus gives life to those who look to him and believe in him.

This new life is certainly the promise of eternal life.

But it is also real life here and now as we walk with Jesus in faith.

How do we understand and live out this new life that God gives to us right now?

How do we receive living water right now?

It begins for us as the Holy Spirit reaches down to us to ignite our faith.

It is a gift of grace that Jesus freely gives to us just as he freely offered this grace to the women at the well.

Here is the main take way that I would like to leave you all with from today’s Bible reading.

Jesus meets us and begins to do his work in our hearts right where we are at as a gift of grace.

Jesus met the woman at the well.

She had many questions and did not understand who this Jesus was.

Jesus accepted her just as she was and then invited her to receive him.

As followers of Jesus can we do the same thing?

Can we accept people just as they are?

And then can we invite them into either deeper discipleship with our Lord or to come to Jesus for the first time?

I want everyone to really think about that.

In life we are often quicker to judge other person than to accept other person.

Can we show true grace to other people and then help others to grow in faith?

Some people may not listen but some will.

And for those who will listen are we able to walk with them until they too know the Lord.

Can we help others to grow even deeper in discipleship and faith?

These are trying days.

Uncertainty and confusion can distort rational thought.

We need the guidance and comfort that comes from Jesus.

We need his life-giving water.

May we receive this water and then may we tell others about this life-giving water.

Jesus brings about true transformation within a person’s heart and Jesus awakens within us true spiritual renewal.

We don’t need a book or some fancy idea from a television teacher.

We need Jesus and his life-giving water.

Amen.

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3/18/20 – Lenten Reflection

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” – Jesus from the Gospel of John

People of God, I write this short Lenten reflection to offer some Good News during the heart of Lent.

This is a Lent like nothing we have ever experienced before.

Never before have we had to suspend our Lenten worship services for fear of spreading a virus.

Even though we are not meeting together in our church building we can continue being the church and we will always be the Body of Christ in this world.

Nothing can take that truth away from us.

Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8: 38-39

We are still God’s people at this time and at this place!

We still share in God’s love and grace.

In the Bible the church was not seen as a building.

In the Bible the church was the people of God.

Maybe today we put too much emphasis on the building.

It is good to be reminded that the church is the people.

As God’s people we now need to find creative and new ways of meeting together.

We are blessed to live in a time of technology.

We can meet together in virtual ways.

This was not possible a generation ago.

Take this example, today I would have had an ecumenical pastor’s meeting in Delavan.

I love our meetings and cherish our time together as faith leaders in Walworth County.

But that inperson meeting for today is cancelled.

Our gatherings can be as large as twenty-five pastors which is an unsafe number to meet.

Instead we decided to still meet together through the technology of Zoom Video Communications.

We will now be able to meet together in a safe way as we continue to be the Body of Christ in this particular county.

This is the approach the church council has decided to take for our congregation.

We will explore virtual ways of being the church and of “gathering” as the Body of Christ.

In gathering in this way we live out the truth of our identity.

We are one in Christ.

We have unity through our baptism.

We are God’s children.

In 1 Corinthians 1: 9 we hear: “God is faithful, God has called us into fellowship with his Son,

Jesus Christ our Lord.”

May we live more deeply into this fellowship with our Lord Jesus Christ at this time.

Continue to look for important church emails.

Periodically, I will be posting short videos on Facebook Live through our Williams Bay Lutheran Church Facebook page.

On Sunday mornings I will offer a short worship service through virtual technology.

More information will follow on how to plug into virtual worship.

Continue to pray for our church, our community, our nation, and our world.

Our prayers matter.

Our prayers make a difference.

“The insistent prayer of a righteous person is powerfully effective.” James 5: 16

Please know that with intentionality, purpose, and vision I continue to hold our congregation in prayer.

-Pastor Tom

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March 22, 2020 – Faith & Hope

Grace and peace be with you all from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.

Amen.

Everything has changed.

At least this is how we all feel.

In the past week so much of our day to day lives have been altered, reshaped, and rearranged.

Just a couple of weeks ago I never would have thought that I would be leading worship in this way.

But here we are.

Accepting life as it is and worshiping together in this new way.
And grateful that we can still be together as the Body of Christ.

Even though so much has changed what has not changed is the Good News of the Gospel of God’s forgiving and transforming love.

The promise of new life through God’s son Jesus Christ, is still real for us today.

The Holy Spirit is still at work in our lives and in the life of the world

– making possible for the manifestation of the true gifts of hospitality, friendship, compassion, and peace.

What the church needs at all times and especially in challenging and difficult times is the clarity of vision and purpose.

It is was great intentionality that our church continues to move forward in light of God’s presence among us.

Now is the time to strengthen our congregation and to diligently be about the work of prayer.

In thinking about prayer sometimes it is helpful to look to the lives of Christians from history in order to glean some new insight.

In this way we can learn how they prayed especially during difficult time.

This past week I went to the writings of Julian of Norwich.

Julian lived during the Middle Ages.

Julian was a writer and Christian mystic meaning that she experienced God in very real and visible ways.

In her life she witnessed so much suffering including the devastating effects of a terrible plague that greatly impacted the lives of so many people at that time.

In her book, Revelations of Divine Love she writes:

“The Lord wants us both to pray and to trust in God.  God wants us to pray with sure trust.  Prayer makes a person calm and humble.  Prayer unites the soul to God.

When a person is troubled or isolated by distress the soul is troubled.  When that happens it is time to pray in order to make oneself open to God.  When we pray and surrender to God, God’s will becomes known to us.

God turns to us in prayer and says, ‘I am glad that you came to me, for I have always loved you, and love you now, and you love me.’

Through prayer the soul is united to God.”

Those words were from Julian of Norwich again from her book Revelations of Divine Love.

That books happens to also be the earliest surviving book in the English language that was written by a women.

The book is so influential to Christian spirituality that it was required reading when I was in seminary.

This past week I picked up that book once again and started reading.

I find those words in particular really spoke to me and so I pass on her words to you this day.

Being about the work of prayer keeps our faith alive and having a live and active faith gives us hope.

In my sermons I often encourage us to be regularly praying and to be people of prayer.

Now more than ever I invite us to be praying.

We are awakened at this time to the needs of those around us.

We are awakened to our own needs and our vulnerabilities.

We are awakened to our own needs for healing and our great need for God.

In the Gospel reading that I read to you this morning Jesus is healing the people.

Then when it is very early in the morning Jesus gets up and goes to a quiet place to pray.

There at that quiet, solitary place we can assume that Jesus poured out his heart to God in prayer.

We do not know what he said but we know that he needed to be about the work of prayer.

He needed to be with his Father in prayer in the midst of the healing work that he was doing.

I love this text from Mark.

I turn to it often but one thing that really struck me this time that I read it is that, in the Bible, his time of prayer is sandwiched between healing people.

Jesus is healing Simon’s mother-in-law who is suffering from a fever.

Jesus is healing people in the town and he is casting out demons.

Then Jesus goes off to pray.

Then he is at it again.

Immediately after we hear about Jesus praying only a few verses later in the text Jesus heals a man with leprosy.

Healing and prayer go together.

During this time of great uncertainty and confusion we need to be about the work of prayer.

In Romans 12: 12 we hear that we are to be joyful in our hope, patient during times of trouble, and faithful in prayer.

May we all be faithful in prayer.

In conclusion I leave us with these three instructions.

First, this week create quiet space for prayer. 

Pray for those who are greatly impacted by the Coronavirus.  Pray for more peace and understanding in the world.  Pray for healing and for an end to the Coronavirus.  Pray so that your faith might be strong at this time.

Secondly, consider being a part of a prayer group.

I will be inviting people to become a part of a prayer group to pray for our congregation and for the needs of others during this time.

Look for a church email this coming week on this prayer group.  If you are interested, send me an email back and I will create an email prayer group list.  In this group I will be regularly sending out prayer requests and Scripture verses.  The people in this group will be our Williams Bay Lutheran Prayer Warriors.  This group will be praying over us during this challenging time.

Lastly, reach out to a neighbor, a family member, or a friend this week and ask them if you could pray for them this week.

Make the phone call and reach out!  This is the time to be bold.  Don’t shy away from asking someone this week.

Ask someone this week if they need prayer.  Prayer is a healing thing at this time.  Be a part of this powerful gift that God has given us.

And so I repeat myself:  this coming week create a quiet space for personal prayer with God.

Secondly, consider becoming a part of the Williams Bay Lutheran prayer group.

Lastly, reach out to someone this week who is in some kind of need and offer to pray for him or her.

People of God, I leave us with these verses from Scripture:

First from Ephesians 1: 18:  I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you.

And again from Ephesians this time from Ephesians 6:18:  Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.  With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.

Then the Apostle Paul goes on in verse nineteen with these words:  Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given to me so that I will fearlessly make know the mystery of the Gospel.

Those words were from the Apostle Paul but I humbly ask that you might pray those very words for me this week that I would be able to continue preaching the Gospel at this time.

Finally, I leave you with hope from the prophet Jeremiah.

These are God’s words to God’s people in exile.

This promise from God speaks to us especially well on this day.

This is from Jeremiah chapter 29 beginning at verse 11:

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  Then you will call on me and come and pray to me and I will listen to you.

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.  I will be found by you declares the Lord.

This week stay strong in faith, in hope, and especially in prayer.

May God be with us now and walk with us protecting and guiding us.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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March 29 – The Resurrection and the Life

Grace and peace be with you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

Recently, I have found myself playing a lot more chess.

Now that my daughter, Evie is home all the time it is something that we can do together to help pass the time.

I love the game chess.

It is a game that I started playing when I was about Evie’s age.

I have really enjoyed playing the game over the years.

One of the reasons why I enjoy playing chess so much is because of all the variety of moves you can make on the chess board.

I think that is why I quickly lost interest, as a child, in playing checkers.

In the game checkers there are so many fewer moves you can make when compared with chess.

Because in chess different pieces can move in different ways.

This greatly magnifies your choices.

Take this example, in chess after both players move there are 400 possible options in the game.

After the second pair of turns there are nearly 200,000 possible outcomes for the game.

After three moves there are 121 million.

After four moves there are 288 billion possible options for the game.

The number of possible chess games is so large that we really don’t know how many possible outcomes there are.

In other words, if the game goes on for a long number of moves then that game was probably never played before.

Now that is pretty impressive considering the game only consists of 32 wooden pieces lined up on a simple board.

Now if you really want to think more about this example think about word combinations.

The average active vocabulary of an adult English speaker is around 20,000 words.

This is enough words to create an endless string of word combinations.

Again in other words, you will never run out of things to talk about.

And we are constantly learning new words, words sometimes take on different meanings, and our lives are constantly changing.

Sometimes I hear that over time married couples never have anything to talk about anymore.

In reality this is actually an impossible statement to make.

Because the ways we can communicate with each other simply through our words stretches into infinity.

I tell myself this when I am having writers block when it comes to my preaching.

I remember that the number of ways that I can communicate the Gospel is actually infinite.

Especially this is so important to remember now.

The primary way that I used to communicate the Gospel was through preaching before an assembly  – a gathered group of people.

Now I have had to learn and use a new way of communicating the Gospel.

This past week I told Kalen that I feel like I am learning a new language in order to still do my work and to still communicate the Gospel.

Knowing though that in life there are always different ways of doing things and different possible options I have set off in this new way of communicating the Gospel.

Trusting that God continues to work and move in and through new ways.

In our Gospel reading for today Jesus is doing something new.

He is communicating God’s will to the people in a new way.

Lazarus is dead.

Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days.

Jesus comes to the tomb.

He says to the people at the tomb, “Take away the stone.”

Martha questions Jesus about rolling away the stone.

Jesus says,

“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

So they take away the stone.

And Jesus prays to God and then says, “Lazarus, come out!”

With those words Lazarus comes out.

Think now about what is happening here.

Jesus is teaching the people to see God in a new way.

God is not a god of the dead.

God is a God of resurrection!

Jesus teaches the people here that God is the resurrection and the life.

Here in the heart of Lent we have a resurrection story.

We hear the promise that God is always about the work of new life.

I think that at this Lent maybe more so than any other Lent we have experienced we need to hear those words from the Gospel.

When we believe that Jesus is indeed the resurrection and the life then the ways in which we can move forward in positive and in life-giving ways is endless.

The ways we can move forward in the hope of the resurrection is infinite.

The ways that we can move forward in faith is infinite.

The ways that we can grow in our relationship with God is infinite.

The number of ways that we can grow as a church is infinite.

There are an infinite number of possible outcomes for how we might live out this good news of the Gospel – that in Christ there is new life for us.

This coming new week how might we lean more deeply into this truth?

Consider the possibilities…

This morning I would like to encourage you to think about what new resurrected life might mean for you.

You will have to discern that for yourself and to pray about that.

As you ponder this remember once again verse 26 in today’s Gospel reading from John.

Jesus asks the question,

“Do you believe this?” meaning do you believe that I am the resurrection and the life.

Having faith in our risen Lord opens up an endless set of choices that we can make.

Living into the resurrection means that we are living more intensely in God’s ways.

It means that we are living and acting in ways that brings to light our confidence in God as Lord not only of the past and the present but of the future.

It means we live with hope that God can and will change disease and death.

This is what Jesus did for Lazarus!

Disease and death does not have the last word.

Peace is possible.

New life is possible.

Resurrection is possible.

Our hope in Jesus as the resurrection and the life means that God has ultimate victory.

And for now we live more profoundly in the ways of faith, hope, and love.

In faith, hope, and love we discover again and again an endless number of ways to follow Christ and to care for our neighbors.

May God bless you this coming week and may the peace of God be upon us.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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March 25 – Lenten Message on Solitude

We are in the middle of Lent.

During Lent it is as if we follow Jesus into the wilderness for forty days.

We do this in order to grow in our relationship with God.

We allow ourselves to be stretched so as to increase in our spiritual awareness.

We do this not to punish ourselves but that we might come to some new spiritual insights during this time.

Every year during Lent this new found spiritual awakening is possible as we surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit moving with us.

Lent is really a great time for a shift to happen in our faith lives.

Lent creates the space for the shift to happen so that we might deepen our connection with God and with each other.

Now this Lent has been a Lent unlike anything we have ever seen.

You might say that we are entering ever more deeply into a period of great solitude.

Lent is a time where we do take extra time for solitude and for silence.

It is a time where we take to heart that Scripture verse from the Psalms where we are called to be still in the presence of almighty God.

In the Bible to “be still” before God mean that we let go.

We relax and surrender our lives to God.

We are not God.

We are God’s people though and when we create that space in our lives for solitude and for silence we often find our spiritual lives renewed.

Now this is a challenging time.

We have to be apart from one another.  We need to distance ourselves from each other.

In a way we are creating intentional space and even solitude right now.

So this ancient discipline of solitude is taking on new meaning this Lent.

How can we understand our time away from one another as “holy time,” or even as “holy solitude?”

Christians have always seen time in solitude as a tool for deepening our relationship with God.

When we are alone and with God we focus entirely on God.

But solitude can cause anxiety within us especially if it is forced upon us as this time of “social distancing” is being forced upon us by the Coronavirus.

By the grace of God, God can and will still use this time for our benefit.

God can work in the silence and the solitude to deepen our connection with God’s Son, Jesus.

Solitude can also help us to love and care for our neighbors more deeply.

The theologian, Richard Foster writes:  “The fruit of solitude is increased sensitivity and compassion for others.  There comes a new freedom to be with people.  There is a new attentiveness to their needs, new responsiveness to their hurts.”

Time in solitude and in quiet creates a small space within us to become more Christ-like.

May you find new ways of using this time of social distancing to paradoxically draw closer to God.

 

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April 1 – Lenten Message – Solitude Pt 2

Tonight, I would like to continue speaking about solitude.

Last week I spoke about the Lenten discipline of solitude and I will continue that topic for this evening.

First, let’s consider that very word.

The word solitude refers to one being alone or one being separated from others.

The word can also refer to a lonely place.

Now ever since the time of Jesus people have sought out silence and solitude in order to draw closer to God.

But as I was saying last week in my message, this Lent this discipline is taking on new meaning because of the current situation that we are in right now.

Right now, we have to separate ourselves from others in order to protect ourselves and our neighbors.

And so, I have been thinking a lot about how social distancing can impact the spiritual discipline of taking time for quiet and for solitude in order to deepen our union with God.

One thing that I have done now for many, many years is to read about the spiritual lives of Christians from history.

When you read about the life stories of Christians from the past you will discover time and time again that they all had a deep need for solitude and for quiet and for stillness.

In the Gospels we find Jesus seeking out solitude and quiet space for prayer.

Maybe the most well-known reading from the Bible, on Jesus seeking solitude, comes from the Gospel of Mark. 

Here Jesus has just been about the work of healing people and ministering to others.  

Then while it is still very early Jesus seeks out a place of solitude to be in prayer to God.

In the Bible it does not say what Jesus said to God in that place of solitude.

We do not know how he prayed and what he said to God but we do know that it must have been a heartfelt, intimate prayer to his heavenly father.

There in the solitude and quiet Jesus pours out his prayers to God.

I wonder now how this particular scripture reading could speak to us at this time.

Do you find yourself at this time spending much of your day either watching television or on your phone?

It is tempting to use this time to fill up the space with noise and activity.

Now we need to connect with each other.  

I am grateful for this technology of Facebook Live so I can share a Lenten message with you all right now.

But what I am saying is this… can we use some of the time that we now have in order to deepen our connection with God.

We need to be staying home right now and creating that space of solitude in our lives.

Can we use a portion of the time that we now have for quiet prayer?

Can we step away to a quiet place in the house and pour our hearts out to God in prayer?

The challenge here is not getting God to talk, for God is always speaking.

The challenge here is in learning how to listen.

Intentionally taking time for quiet and for solitude is one way we can cultivate the spiritual awareness to hear the voice of God in our lives.

Solitude can be a blessing when it becomes a window into God’s very self.

May you find a way to use this time of social distancing to quiet your mind and your heart in order to listen to God more fully.

May we use this time to deepen our ability to hear the voice of God in our lives.

Amen.

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April 5 – Palm Sunday

If you wish to listen to the service, please click here to go to WBLC Vimeo site to view.

On Palm Sunday we hear two Gospel readings.  

These two readings are dramatically different.  

The first reading from the Gospel of Matthew celebrates Jesus as the triumphant messiah who comes to live among us.

The crowd spreads their cloaks on the road.

Some cut branches from trees and spread them on the road as a way of honoring Jesus.

The second reading tells of Jesus’ passion and death on the cross.

Jesus’ suffering reflects back to us all the unjust suffering in the world and all the senseless violence in the world.  

Jesus, an innocent man, suffering, dying by the hand of the crowd and by those in power.

But from the cross God does something that no one anticipates.  

On the cross God does something new.

God does something that only God can do.

God does something holy, something sacred, something that will benefit all of creation.  

God takes the suffering, the passion, and the death of his son and redeems it.

God transmutes the cross into a miracle for you and for me.  

Now whenever we look upon the cross, we do not receive condemnation but we receive life-giving grace.  

Real grace.

True grace.

On the cross Jesus prays that God would forgive those who crucified him.  

And God forgives.  

The crowd that shouted for him to be crucified.  

Forgiven.  

God forgave them.  

The disciples who abandoned Jesus.   

Forgiven.  

God forgave them.  

Pilate and those in power who ordered the crucifixion.  

Forgiven.  

God forgave them.  

Today we who regularly sin and who regularly abandon Jesus.  

Forgiven.  

God forgives us.

Jesus forgives.  

God forgives.  

The Holy Spirit forgives.  

This is truly the Gospel in its purest form. 

The radical message of God’s enduring, persistent grace.

The meaning of grace is to receive something that we do not deserve.

We often live our lives with a great sense of entitlement.

We believe that we have a right for the things we want in our life and we often take without thinking about how our taking affects other people.

When it comes to our faith in God, we often approach God with a great feeling of entitlement.

We demand things from God.

We even demand God’s grace and forgiveness.

But the truth is that we do not deserve any of these gifts from God.

Scripture clearly points out that we fall time and time again from the ways of God.

But the miracle of Palm Sunday is shouting at us this day.

God chooses to give even though we do not deserve God’s love and forgiveness.

God loves us and forgives us because God is good.

It is not because we are so good.

It is because God is so good.

We don’t deserve any of God’s good blessings.

We are not entitled to anything from God.

We receive God’s blessings and forgiveness because God chooses to give to us these things.

This is the miracle of Palm Sunday.

The definition of miracle is an extraordinary and astonishing happening, that surpasses all known human or natural powers, and that great happening is attributed to the action of God. 

A miracle points to the power of God at work in the world.

The great writer C.S. Lewis once said that a miracle is something so unique that is breaks a pattern so expected and established that we hardly even consider the possibility that it could be broken.

In other words, a miracle completely disrupts our typical way of looking at things.

A miracle has the power to create a shift in our thinking about the world.

A miracle has the power to create a shift in our understanding of who God is.

This is what happens on Palm Sunday.

For in the miracle of Palm Sunday we know by faith that…

God loves.  

On this day we know that God forgives.  

On the cross-God choses to reconcile the world back to God’s-self.

And then God does one more thing.  

The cross and the forgiveness that we receive from God through the cross is not the end of the story.  

There is still much more.  

This is only the beginning for us.  

After the cross, after the miracle of what God is doing here, God pushes us forward to join him in mission.  

After the cross God invites us to join him in taking part in the healing of the world.  

As we are forgiven, healed, and set free from that which would hold us captive 

– God sends us out to be missionaries, healers, and workers in God’s new kingdom.  

God’s new kingdom is marked with love and grace and this is all possible because of the miracle of the cross.  

The cross is the bridge by which all people are forgiven, by which all people are invited to come to God, by which we join God in mission and in ministry.  

God chooses the way of the cross so that we might be have new life.

On Palm Sunday we enter into this new life with all the restorative healing power that comes from God.

As followers of Jesus this new life only comes to us by this most holy and sacred way.  

It is the way of the cross.

And the cross is the way to Easter.

This coming week is the holiest week of the entire church year.  

This coming week we anticipate our Lord’s resurrection.  

We wait for it and we hope for it, knowing by faith that it will indeed come.

You and I are witnesses.

Forgiveness, new life, grace it is all around us at this time of the church year.  

Praise be to God!

Blessed is the coming kingdom!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!

As a sign of our hope in the coming of our Lord.

I invite us to cut a branch today from a tree in our backyard.

Then to attach the branch to our front doors as a reminder of the miracle of Palm Sunday.

After you attach the branch to your front door 

-pray that Jesus would come into your house and be a part of this Holy Week for you and your family.

Finally, if you have a Facebook account, I invite you to take a picture and post it with the title: 

“The miracle of Palm Sunday,” and then share on Facebook what this means for you.

I am going to do that today as well so check my Facebook page and the church’s Facebook page.

If you have not already you are welcome to friend me at Tom Dowling or the church Facebook page at Williams Bay Lutheran Church.  

I will be posting on both pages with branches on the front doors of the church and my home apartment with the caption: “The Miracle of Palm Sunday.”  

Then I am going to write what that means to me. 

Let us give voice to our faith this day.

May we find our voices this day in proclaiming the wonderful miracle of Palm Sunday that in Christ we are forgiven and loved by God.

I hope that this coming week you might experience moments of grace.

May you feel the mystical connection of being a part of the whole Body of Christ this Holy Week.

May you feel wave after wave of pure, real grace coming from the Lord.

And may you be surprised by God’s rich affection poured out for us in Jesus.

Amen.

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April 8 – Wednesday Lenten Reflection

Today is the last Wednesday of Lent.

To be honest I always feel a bit of relief when we get to this point in Lent.

Sometimes Lent can feel long.

This time of fasting, repentance, and prayer can even feel like a burden.

Maybe you feel that way as well.

We want to jump immediately to Easter without first taking the journey through Lent.

I know that this is how I often feel.

Each year just as Lent begins, I find myself counting down the days until Easter.

But as Lent progresses I am reminded that we cannot get to Easter without first going through Lent.

We need this time.

This past week I read an interesting story.

A silkworm was struggling to come out of his cocoon.  A man saw it struggling and tried to help it along.  He saw it battling as if in pain and so he worked to set it free.  Soon after it was freed it died.  The other silkworms nearby that struggled to come out on their own came out into full and beautiful life.  They flew away.  It seems that in the struggle their wings were made strong for the battle of life.

In a similar way we need this time of spiritual discipline where we intentionally return back to God and where we create meaningful space in our lives in order to listen more deeply to God.

We need this time to grow spiritual strong in our faith.

Now we have almost completed the spiritual work.

We are almost to the end of Lent.

This is Holy Week.

We anticipate even now the great three days of Lent.

Tomorrow is Maundy Thursday where we remember Jesus last supper with his disiples.

In two days it will be Good Friday.

On Good Friday we journey with our Lord to the cross.

Three days from now on Holy Saturday we wait at the tomb with great hope in Jesus’ resurrection.

And then comes Easter.

On Easter we celebrate the great joy of our faith that Jesus is indeed the resurrection and the life.

As Lent comes to an end this week I encourage you to think about how you experienced Lent this year.

Reflect upon both the challenges you faced this Lent along with the lessons that you learned during Lent.

This Lent felt particularly long this year because of our need for social distancing.

I have been speaking about the spiritual discipline of solitude and how that practice of seeking out quiet space has taken on completely new meaning this Lent.

But solitude and social distancing has felt like a great burden to be endured this Lent.

It has been a long Lent for us this year.

The ways in which we anticipate and look forward to Easter this year are greater than ever.

We have hope that one day things will get better and that the promise of new life in and through Christ will be fully realized.

And so my main hope this evening is to encourage us to continue down the road of faith and trust.

Have faith in the promises of God.

Trust in the work of the Holy Spirit in your life and in the life of the world.

Do not become discouraged and loose faith.

This past week I spoke with someone who is struggling with their faith.

They told me that God seems far away and that the Bible is simply words that are made up.

Especially during difficult seasons of life it might be tempting to give into doubt.

But doubt can pave the wave for deeper faith.

Doubt can force us into spiritual awakening.

Because the Holy Spirit can work through our doubts and struggles just as much as the Holy Spirit can work through our strengths and our beliefs.

I think about the verse from the Gospel of Mark chapter nine verse twenty-three.

We hear these words from a father who is asking Jesus for healing for his child.  “I believe; help my unbelief.”

I have experienced in my own life that when I am dealing with some kind of challenge or difficulty or weakness in my faith I am only a step away from deeper spiritual insight and awareness.

That is the process of growing in faith.

We encounter challenges in our lives and in our faith lives.

We wrestle and struggle through that and then we receive new life and new spiritual victory.

That is the rythmn of Lent.

A period of wilderness.  A time of struggle and then Easter.

It is important to remember that Easter always follows Lent.

In life it might be too tempting to struggle and wrestle in our faith and then forget that Easter is coming.

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

This means that behind every doubt, under every struggle, around every challenge lies the gift of resurrection and new life.

Lent and Easter.

For Christians the two always go together.

We need both.

Jesus experienced both in his life.

He asked that God would save him from his suffering on the cross.

But still he endured the cross.

But after the cross just three days later he rose from the dead.

God did not spare Jesus from the cross.

In his life Jesus experienced both the pain of the cross and the joy of the resurrection.

Now through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord we journey with Jesus to meet God.

Through Jesus we meet God.

But we need to walk in life in the same way that Jesus walked on earth.

Facing the head on the struggles of life.

Praying, fasting, and turning to God again and again and again.

Going to the place of solitude.

Opening up our Bibles.

Praying for one another.

Entering more deeply into the spiritual practices that draw us to God.

What was your spiritual practice this Lent?

My spiritual practice this Lent was to look for ways to be a blessing to others.

This practice has taken on a completely different shape than I first anticipated at the beginning of Lent.

To bless someone is to hope for God’s favor and for God’s gifts to be upon the person.

To bless someone else is to hope for the best for that person.

It is to believe in God’s promises for that person.

In closing I would like to leave you with a song.

I pray that this song would be a blessing.

(To hear the song go to Williams Bay Lutheran Church Facebook Page.)

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April 9 – The Last Supper (Maundy Thursday)

At the beginning of Lent, we gathered together downstairs in the fellowship hall for worship and for a meal.

Little did we know at that time that that very meal that we would share in would be one of our last meals together this Lent.

That evening I also showed a movie clip from movie Son of God.

The scene was of Jesus eating a meal with his disciples just before his death on the cross.

Jesus lifted up a load of bread and he said take and eat of this bread in remembrance of me.

Then he took the cup.

He lifted it up and said take and drink of this cup in remembrance of me.

Jesus shared in one last meal with his disciples.

After that he was betrayed, sentenced to death, and then hung on the cross.

Then we waited.

We all waited.

Lent is a time of waiting.

We wait to hear good news.

We wait to hear on Easter Sunday the good news that Jesus rose from the dead and that Jesus is alive.

Waiting is hard.

I find that I am often not a very patient person.

I want to rush things and immediately get to the good stuff of life.

In my faith life I am no different.

During Lent I often find myself counting down the days until Easter.

I want to rush through Lent to get to the good stuff of Easter.

But we first most go through Lent to get to Easter.

We cannot skit Lent.

We cannot begin Lent with Ash Wednesday and then the next morning have Easter.

We need these forty days to pray, to fast, to return to God and to God’s ways.

We need this time to wait with our Lord.

Today on this Maundy Thursday we continue to wait.

Today is not Easter.

We are not celebrating the joy of the resurrection today.

No, today we wait with our Lord in quiet anticipation of our Lord’s victory over the evil powers of this world and over even death itself.

Today is an important day in the life of the church.

We cannot skip Maundy Thursday.

We need to remember Jesus’ call for us to reach out to our neighbors and to serve our neighbors.

We need to remember how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.

We need to remember how on this day our Lord gathered with his disciples for one last meal.

We need to remember how at that meal he gave himself to us.

We need to remember that on this day we gather still to celebrate the Last Supper in bread and wine.

This is also why we gather on Sunday mornings for Holy Communion.

It is because of this day.

And now we cannot safely gather to eat and to drink of our Lord’s body and blood in Holy Communion.

But we will gather again.

Now we stay home.  We wait.

But we do not wait without hope.

With hope we wait with our Lord in trust and in faith that one day we will gather again to eat and to drink and to worship the one who gives himself for us.

Several weeks ago, I spoke about the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich who lived during the Middle Ages.

One of her best-known lines is this: “All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”

Julian lived through a great plague and at one point almost died herself of illness.  But through it all Julian continued praying and believing in God.

Her faith gave her purpose, meaning, and vision.

She saw God being present to her.

God was with and for her and she saw that God was with and for all people.

In the same way we continue to look to God for hope.

We wait with Jesus knowing that when we pass through this period of Lent both the Lent of the church year and the wilderness we find ourselves in with this pandemic that we will be able to say once again, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Julian was able to say that not because life was perfect but because of her great faith in God’s healing and restoring work in the world.

Tonight, we believe in the gift of salvation.

The gift of God’s healing, restorative work in the world and in our lives.

Jesus enters into our suffering and our pain.

Jesus enters into our worries and our anxieties with great love and he transmutes it into peace so that we can say this evening that in Christ all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

Amen.

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April 10 – Good Friday

Today is a solemn day.

This is not a happy day.

The contrast between Good Friday and Easter Sunday could not be greater.

On this day we heard the passion reading in its entirety.

While it is a rather long reading it is worth hearing the whole reading of Jesus’ crucifixion.

In hearing this reading, we are called to reflection.

Today is a day to ponder the meaning of the cross.

It is a day to repent – to turn from our sinful ways and to turn to God.

It also a day to do some self-examination.

Ask these questions.

How am I living my life?

What do I need to let go of?

What losses have I experienced in my life?

What things do I need to grieve and then can I give those things to God?

For example, am I struggling with some kind of addiction be it to food, work, a relationship or even to a harmful feeling such as anxiety?

We can get attached to things in life in very destructive ways.

Can I name that struggle to God, grieve that I have that struggle, and then can I let it go and give it to God.

What do I need to let go of today and give that to God?

Today is a day to think about such things.

It is a day to do inner work on our hearts.

It is a day to die to those things that do not give life.

Jesus said that if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

Matthew 16: 24-25

And Jesus said, “I am the light of the world; those who follow me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.

John 8:12

When we die to those things that do not give life and then follow after Jesus we will be walking in the very light of God.

This day affects us personally.

Faith is always personal but we also believe that the cross impacts the life of the whole world.

On this Good Friday we recall that when Jesus died on the cross God gathered all people to himself.

This night we are scattered.

We are not together in one place.

Today Christians are scattered throughout the world.

But still God gathers us.

And one day he will gather all of us together.

In the Gospel of John chapter eleven verses 51 and 52 we hear how Jesus died for the nations and also in order to gather into one all the dispersed children of God.

Knowing how God will gather all of God’s people once again we walk with our Lord to the cross this day believing that God is also healing us.

In the Bible the words healing and salvation are closely tied.

To be saved by God is to also be healed by God.

In the saving work of God through the cross of Christ what area or areas of your life do you need healing this night.

Bring those things that need healing in your life to God.

Trust in the atoning work of Jesus on the cross.

He can atone for your sins, for your past mistakes, for the areas of your life where you need healing grace.

Tonight, I will pray for healing for us through the cross.

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son be lifted up so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

John 3: 14-15

Following Jesus to the cross this day is costly but it is well worth the cost.

Through the cross we receive life, healing, and salvation.

Amen.

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April 12 – The Joy of Easter

The cross is the supreme and perfect revelation of God’s love for all of God’s people.

In the cross God chose to reconcile, restore, and heal all people back to God’s self.

Today is the crowning witness to our faith in the cross of Christ.

Lent culminates into this miraculous day.

This day is unmatched in the joy and happiness that we feel on this day.

In fact, for the remaining church year we celebrate the resurrection each and every Sunday because of this day.

For the early church they saw every Sunday as a celebration of the resurrection because Sunday was the day that Jesus rose from the dead.

Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist, wrote in 165 A.D. that Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly and gathering because it is the first day on which God created light out of darkness and God made the world and on Sunday God raised Jesus Christ our savior from the dead.

Christ is risen.

Halleluiah!

What does the resurrection mean for us today?

It means spring coming out of winter.

It means a baby being born the same day that his great-grandpa breaths his last breath.

It means a restored relationship that was broken.

It means a new relationship where there was no relationship.

It means renewed faith and hope where there was doubt and despair.

The resurrection promise speaks to us directly.

Faith is personal.

God is for and with the entire world but God also speaks directly to us.

Jesus comes into our hearts, our souls, our minds.

He meets our needs in life.

The beautiful things about the resurrection is that it leaves no one out.

This day leaves no one out.

Jesus rose from the dead so that we might have new life now, so that we might have a chance at new beginnings even now.

Jesus rose from the dead so that we might receive the promise and gift of eternal life.

Every Easter this is good news to hear.

But today this good news is especially good to hear because this was a very difficult Lent for us.

We were separated from each other and we were asked to live and worship in new and different ways.

I have never experienced a Lent like this one.

But I thought to myself that I am fairly young still so I called my parents and asked them if they have ever experienced a Lent like this before and they said no.

Then I called a member who is 92 and I asked her if she ever experienced a Lent like this before and she said no.

This has been a new thing for all of us.

Whether you are eight years old, forty years old, sixty-five years old, or ninety-two this has certainly been a different kind of Lent for us.

It is as if someone pushed a giant pause button on the world.

I never would have guessed that I would ever lead an Easter Sunday worship service before an empty church.

That I would speak and preach to my computer screen with hope and trust and faith that you are there, somewhere, safe in your homes, hearing the Gospel.

At a time like this the Gospel holds us together.

It is the glue which keeps us together.

The promise of new life out of death speaks to us this day.

The promise that God will create new life and new faith within our faith community is still proclaimed today.

We need to stay together.

We need to keep trusting in God and in God’s redeeming, healing, and restoring work in the world and in our church.

The best thing I can tell you this morning is to keep practicing your faith at this time.

As you do so continue holding fast the promise of new life given for you through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Keep praying.

Keep reading your Bible.

Keep reaching out to your neighbors.

Stay connected to our church.

Our church does not need to close down at this time and disappear into the void.

In fact, our church can do more outreach and ministry then ever at this time.

Keep tuning into worship on Sunday mornings.

Keep reading the church emails.

Like, comment, and share the church Facebook posts.

Reach out and call one of our members.

If you are able, help with this new outreach ministry of making face masks for others.

This week I will be picking up a kit of face masks to be assembled.

Do you have gifts of sewing?

If so send me an email or a text and let me know you can help with this outreach ministry.

Let’s help each other out at this time.

By staying connected and in becoming involved in the life of our church we will begin to live more deeply into the Easter promise of new life even now.

In today’s Gospel reading the women left the empty tomb with fear and with great joy.

Notice how in the Bible it says that they left with fear and great joy.

This is a fearful time for us as well.

Life is scary.

Life is not as it should be or how we hoped it would be.

But we can still have joy even now because of Jesus.

Our faith gives us joy and happiness today.

Believing in the resurrection is more than simply an exercise of the mind.

Believing in the resurrection means that we open ourselves up to that which we cannot make or create for ourselves.

The resurrection breaks open the gifts of love, grace, forgiveness, peace, and new life.

Receiving these great gifts from God gives us joy and happiness this Easter morning.

This does not mean that all of our problems will disappear but it does mean that we can say with the Psalmist that today is the day that the Lord has made and we will rejoice and be glad in it.

When you gather with your family today or with those that you can safely meet with today maybe over the phone or your computer share in an Easter meal of thanksgiving to the Lord.

When you gather with others on this holy day sing a hymn of praise to God.

Even though we cannot sing together in this space I encourage you to gather around the piano at your home or if you don’t have a piano gather around your music player and sing an Easter song.

I have always liked the Easter hymn, Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

I love the line in the song:

Christ is risen!

All the sadness of our Lenten fast is over through the open gates of gladness he returns to life once more.

The sadness of our Lenten fasting is over and now we enter into the open gates of gladness through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Today I invite us to reflect on the meaning of the resurrection.

How God is creating new and beautiful life in our church.

The happiness and joy of God is spreading into our faith community this Easter morning.

Today I will be praying for our church.

I will be praying that the resurrection of Jesus speaks to you personally this day.

Remember that Jesus rose again for you so that you might have true and abundant life.

Jesus rose again for all of God’s beloved people.

Christ is risen!

Alleluia!

Risen our victorious head!

Sing his praises!

Alleluia!

Christ is risen from dead!

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April 19 – Staying Connected

It is evening.

It is the first day of the week.

The doors are shut.

And they are locked.

Fear grips the disciples.

They are paralyzed with fear.

Their Lord, their teacher, their dearest friend is dead.

It is in this place of deepest despair where the risen Jesus meets the disciples.

It is at this place of paralyzing fear and terror where the disciples encounter the risen Lord.

Jesus comes to them.

Jesus gives them his peace.

Jesus shows them his hands and his side.

Jesus calls them to forgive one another.

And then Jesus does something else here that has always fascinated me.

Jesus breathes on them.

Think for a moment about what that means.

Verse twenty-two here is rich with meaning.

In the Bible breathe is connected with life.

In Genesis chapter two verse seven God breathes into the man and the man becomes alive.

Here Jesus breathes on them and he says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

It is the Spirit which will empower this scared, fearful group of disciples to become bold and courageous evangelists of the Gospel.

They will give witness to the presence and power of God in the world.

They will give witness to the risen Christ.

They will give witness to the peace of God which transcends all understanding.

This is a peace that the world cannot give to us.

You cannot buy this peace.

You cannot earn this peace with good deeds.

You certainly cannot make or create this peace on your own.

This is a peace that comes only from God and it comes to us as pure gift.

The disciples receive this peace.

But one disciple is missing.

Thomas is absent.

He is not with the other disciples.

He is not connected with the others.

And because he is not there, he misses this miraculous encounter with Jesus.

When he comes back the disciples try to tell him that they have seen Jesus.

But his response to the disciples’ testimony is one of unbelief.

I have often wondered… where was Thomas when Jesus appeared?

Was he off hiding somewhere?

Was he too frightened to be with the other disciples?

Was he distracted by his own cares and so he was off doing something else while the other disciples continued meeting together?

We do not know.

But I think there is a lesson here for us.

Whenever we fail to meet with other believers again and again and again, we find ourselves missing encounters with Jesus.

Jesus comes to us in the quiet moments and in the quiet times of solitude.

Yes, this is certainly true.

But I have found that in my life it is during those times when I am with other believers where my faith is most strengthened.

To follow Jesus is to be connected with others.

To be connected with other believers is what it means to follow Jesus.

For the first followers of Jesus to be a Jesus follower meant that you meet with other disciples and apostles.

To be a Jesus follower meant that you gathered together with other Christians.

Even today as humble as the church can seem to those looking at us from the outside the church is still one of the most stable and firm places within local communities for the spread of the Gospel and for the spread of God’s grace and peace.

It is in the church where people gather together on the first day of the week to encounter the risen Lord.

In life sometimes we need to go back to the beginning and then to remember.

In the beginning when the risen Christ first appeared to his followers, he showed them these very things that today we must remember.

First, we are to remember that his peace is always upon us.

Secondly, we are to remember that we have been given the authority to forgive sins.

Thirdly, we are to remember that we will receive the Holy Spirit, God will breathe on us and we will be empowered to do God’s will.

And lastly, we are to remember that we are to continue meeting together in order to see again and again the risen Christ among us even now.

If we are absent, like Thomas was, we may miss sings of the risen Jesus among us.

It was only when Thomas had come back to be with the other disciples that Jesus appeared to him.

When Thomas returned and was with the other disciples, connected once again with his beloved faith family just one week later which would be the first day of the week, then and only then did Jesus appear before Thomas.

When Jesus appeared, Thomas believed and his faith was strengthened.

From this Scripture reading from the Gospel of John there is much to take away today.

Continue showing up – continue tuning in to our worship services over Webex.

It matters that we stay connected.

Together we remain a blessing to each other.

Our shared presence here gives witness to the risen Christ among us.

I cannot see you but I believe that you are there and that you are taking in the Gospel message of the risen Christ.

I can feel your presence with me and your presence strengthens my faith.

Today take heart for Jesus breathes on us the gift of life.

I would like to leave you with a simple practice that you can do this coming week in order to remember how even today Jesus breathes on us the gift of the Holy Spirit.

I would like to teach you now a simple breathing practice which I feel might be very helpful during these fearful days.

This simple practice can open yourself up more fully to the peace of God.

This simple breathing technique is called box breathing or four-square breathing.

It is very simple.

You just breathe in for a count of four then hold your breath for a count of four then exhale for a count of four and lastly hold for a count of four.

Image a box here.

OK, now you know how to do box breathing.

This is a great practice to do to feel more refreshed and calmer.

Now that you got that down add this prayer to your breathing, “Risen Christ, breathe on me the Holy Spirit.”

This is something that you can easily do throughout your week to help you to feel more grounded in your faith.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Jesus is talking about us here.

We have not seen the risen Lord in the flesh and yet we have still come to believe.

Connected together as God’s people.

Believing in the peace of God.

Staying connected even at a time like this.

Breathing in the very presence of the Holy Spirit.

We have faith that God is with us connecting us together.

In believing we have true life in his name.

Amen.

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April 26 – Breaking of the Bread

Last Sunday we heard from the Gospel of John the resurrection account of Jesus appearing before his disciples.

The disciples are in their house with the doors locked.

Suddenly the risen Jesus appears before them in their home.

This morning we hear of the resurrection of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke.

This Bible reading is another account of the resurrection of Jesus.

I love these resurrection stories that we hear during the season of Easter.

These stories give witness and testimony to our Lord’s resurrection from the dead.

Each time we hear these resurrection accounts proclaimed within the assembly, and this morning through our virtual assembly, we announce to the world that Christ is alive and that Christ is with us still.

He is here among us this morning.

He is forgiving us.

He is giving us grace.

He is giving us peace.

He is revealing himself to us.

Two disciples were walking to Emmaus.

While they are walking and discussing what just happened to Jesus a stranger comes near.

The disciples do not recognize who this man is.

And interestingly Jesus does not tell them who he is.

Instead Jesus acts as if he does not know what’s going on.

The disciples tell Jesus exactly what happened.

And then Jesus does what Jesus does best he begins to teach his disciples about the true meaning of the Scriptures.

He tells them about how the Messiah must suffer in the way that he did and then he will enter into glory.

He speaks about how the Messiah’s suffering and passion becomes the door to eternal life and eternal glory.

Then he interprets God’s Word to his disciples.

Beginning with Moses and then speaking about the great prophets from the Old Testament.

The disciples are completely taken by this stranger.

In fact, they are so drawn to this stranger that they do not want this man to leave them.

So, they do something that we must pay attention to in this Scripture reading.

They invite him to come and to stay for supper.

Verse twenty-nine says, “They urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and day is almost over.”

In the same way Jesus comes to us.

Jesus speaks to us.

But we need to invite him to come and to eat with us.

The disciples seize the moment.

They invite Jesus to stay with them and Jesus stays with them.

Now shortly after this invitation occurs and the disciples are home a miracle happens.

When they are at the table Jesus takes bread.

He blesses the bread.

He breaks the bread.

And then he gives the bread to his beloved disciples.

In the holy moment that this happens finally the disciples see the risen Lord.

Their eyes are opened and they know without a doubt that Jesus is alive and that the stranger is Jesus.

But as soon as this realization occurs Jesus disappears.

And they are once again separated from Jesus.

But even though they are separated from Jesus the real experience of being with their Lord burns deeply in their hearts.

They will never be the same again.

Jesus was with them.

Jesus will return to be with them forever.

This morning this is our hope as well.

We have hope that Christ will reveal himself to us even now.

We have hope that Jesus will return to be with us forever.

We believe by faith that when we gather around the Word of God that Jesus reveals his presence to us.

We believe by faith that when we gather around a shared meal that Jesus reveals his presence to us.

Right now, we are experiencing worship in a way that none of us have ever experienced worship before.

How do we understand worship when we are not present in the same space?

Does the Word of God have the same impact?

How do we share in a meal together?

These are questions that the modern church has never had to wrestle with before.

But we are wrestling with them now.

We are being asked to take another step forward with our faith.

Can the living Jesus speak to us just as much now as he did when we could freely gather together as the people of God?

Can our faith take that giant leap forward?

Will this leap put a crack in our faith or will it enlarge our faith and make it grow?

Can this time be a time where we find an increase in our faith and commitment to Jesus?

I have been reflecting upon this a lot during this pandemic.

Now with a broken arm I am doing even less but I am still thinking.

I cannot exercise or do some of the activities I enjoy I doing so I have decided to use this time to strengthen my mind and my spirit.

One thing that I have been doing a lot right now is meditating.

I take twenty to thirty minutes to be still, to pray, and to stay in the present moment.

Not only has meditation been strengthening my spirit and helping to raise my mind out of despair but it is helping me to manage the pain I feel from my broken arm.

Our mental health is so critical at a time like this.

When we cannot freely gather together.

When we have other stressors in our lives.

We need to tend to our minds and to our souls.

Last week I encouraged us to remember to breathe deeply during our days and to use our breathing as a tool for prayer.

To breathe in a prayer and to breathe out a prayer.

This coming week I encourage us to trust in the risen Jesus with us even now.

Take a few minutes everyday to be still and to pray.

You can set your phone to two minutes or five minutes or more and simply sit and invite Jesus to be with you during that time.

That simple practice can do wonders for your mind and soul.

I know how much it is helping me.

Jesus reveals himself to us when we invite him to come and to be with us.

Sometimes the distractions of life prevent us from calling on him and inviting him to stay with us.

But right now, in our lives it is as if a giant pause button has been turned on and we are forced to figure out how to deal with this great pause.

How will we make sense of this time?

How will we find meaning?

Can we enter more deeply into this time and discover that Jesus is taking our faith to a different place?

He is leading us forward, walking with us, revealing his presence to us even now.

Can we have that kind of faith that says yes, Lord you are here and we recognize you for our eyes are opened.

This morning let us trust that Christ is with us.

Amen.

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May 3 – The Gift of Abundant Life

Jesus says to his followers in today’s Gospel reading that he is the gate.

In fact, in this short reading from the Gospel of John we hear the word gate five times.

“Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.”

“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.”

“The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice.”

“Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.”

And, “I am the gate.  Whoever enters by me will be saved.”

Five times we hear the word, gate.

In a Bible reading whenever we hear a word repeated, we need to pay extra attention to that word.

Why would the word gate be repeated five times here?

Let’s take a closer look at that word.

I can recall while in seminary my Greek professor talking about the significance of doors and gates in the Bible.

Again, and again we find that imagery in the Bible.

Doors and gates are places of transition.

In this particular Bible reading the transition that we are talking about here is the transition of entering into God’s gift of abundant life.

It is the transition from death to life, from lacking to overflowing, from need to plenty.

Jesus our Good Shepherd leads us to a life of abundance both now and into the future.

What is abundant life?

This morning we find our answer to this question in today’s Psalm that Bradley read to us this morning.

Abundant life is about God providing for all of our needs so that we will not be in want.

It is about God giving us peace by leading us by green pastures and still waters.

It is about God restoring our souls, refreshing our spirits, and then leading us on the right path.

It is about God giving us strength through the challenges and stresses of life while at the same time delivering us from all forms of evil.

It is about God inviting us to the table where there is plenty.

It is about God blessing us and providing for us.

It is about God forgiving us and showing us grace and mercy.

And finally, it is about God welcoming us into God’s house at the hour of our deaths.

When Jesus leads us by the way of the gate, we enter into abundant life both now and in God’s future kingdom.

Signs of this gift of abundant life is indeed present with and for us even now:

In finding meaning and purpose in life, in participating in the gracious activity of the church, in finding joy and happiness in life-giving relationships, and in having a true sense of security and comfort in our faith lives no matter what comes our way.

Let’s think about this as we think about our lives right now.

Our lives have changed so much since March 13th.

I pick that day because that was the day when everything seemed to turn.

Also, that day was memorable to me since it was the day, I turned 40.

Still young but old enough to recognize that the changes that have transpired since that day are not typical.

During times of transition when things change not for the better but for the worse it is easy to assume that the abundant life is no longer within reach.

It is at these times when we need to remember verse four from Psalm 23.

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.  Why… because you are with me and your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

If you feel discouraged this morning or feel overwhelmed with life right now know that I am there with you.

Handling adversity is not easy for anyone.

But the promise that we have from the Bible this morning is that God is with us in our struggles.

And that Jesus will lead us to the gate where we can enter and find abundant life.

Jesus will help us to find meaning even in the face of challenges.

Jesus will lead us to new growth and new wisdom even through adversity.

Part of the abundant life here on earth is in finding meaning and peace through the valleys that we experience while living our lives.

At this time may the Lord lead us in such a way so as to think about our life situations through the lens of grace, to look at other people’s viewpoints with compassion, and to find hope in this challenging time.

Yes, we may be in the valley right now.

We are not able to gather together as the people of God in this place.

We are fasting from Holy Communion.

We are concerned about our health and the health of our loved ones.

But always remember that we are Easter people.

Through every valley we discover the empty tomb.

At the end of every Lent is Easter.

For followers of Jesus at the end of every road is a gate that leads to abundant life.

Maybe a good prayer for us to pray right at this time might be the Serenity Prayer.

It is a very simple prayer that millions of people have prayed and have found meaning in over the years.

It is a prayer that I often find myself praying.

At times that seem overwhelming.

When the path becomes unclear.

When I need to know the way to the gate that leads to abundant life

I pray this very prayer.

It is simply:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can change, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Amen.

This coming week try praying this prayer and as you do so remember that the Lord is leading us.

The gate is open for us.

The Good Shepherd is ready guide us into life.

Jesus will always be our attentive shepherd he is here for us.

He will lead us and guide us as we look to him.

The Holy Spirit will give us the faith that we need at this time.

Hold tightly to the promises of God this coming week as we hear God’s truth proclaimed in Psalm 23.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can change, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Amen.

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May 10 – Faith in Jesus

Sometimes I feel now as if I am living in the movie, Groundhog Day.

In that classic comedy movie Bill Murray lives the same day every day.

That same day in the movie is Groundhog Day.

Each and every day Bill Murray, who plays the weatherman Phil Connors relives the exact same day.

In our lives right now, we may feel the same way.

We cannot make the same kinds of plans and choices as we were once able to do… and so life can feel repetitive and one day can blur into the next.

This can cause us to feel anxious, to have less energy, and even to feel a loss of purpose.

Because I have found this to be true in my own life, I have found our weekly pattern of worship to take on some new meaning for me.

Our time together at 9:30 am every Sunday has helped to mark time for us.

Our Sunday worship has reminded us of God’s hand upon us during this time.

For Christians Sunday is the first day of the week.

It is the day on which Jesus rose from the dead.

This one special, holy day sets the rhythm and the flow of time for us.

No longer does one day simply blur into the next.

No more does one day blend into the next day.

Sunday begins our week and the days that follow Sunday are set in motion from this one day.

This is the case when life is normal but certainly now how important it is to let our moments and our days to flow from this one holy day.

We know that this is true.

Over the years I cannot tell you how many times people have shared with me how important the rhythm and pattern of Sunday worship helps them to mark time.

Sunday worship helps to set the agenda and the course of the coming week.

And these same people tell me that when they miss Sunday worship their coming week is thrown off.

Without Sunday worship Sunday does not feel like Sunday.

Our weekly worship strengthens our faith in Jesus.

For the first followers of Jesus they had to figure out how to continue believing in their Lord when he was no longer physically present in their midst.

After Jesus rose from the dead and then ascended into heaven the disciples and the first followers of Jesus had to determine how to have faith in someone they could no longer see.

It was in the gatherings of those disciples and the first followers of Jesus coming together for regular worship that their faith in Jesus was sustained and built up.

They reminded each other of God’s promises and what Jesus taught them.

In today’s Gospel reading we receive many important teachings from Jesus that strengthens our faith.

God comforts our troubled hearts.

Jesus prepares a place for us in God’s house.

Jesus shows us the way, speaks truth to us, and gives us life.

Jesus is one with God and through Jesus we are one with God.

In Christ we have a great hope which is life after death.

Jesus is our savior and we have a close intimate relationship with him.

We are given gifts to do good, healing work in this world.

And we can come to Jesus regularly and often in prayer knowing that he hears and listens to us.

Our faith in Jesus empowers us to live our days and our weeks for the glory of God.

Our weekly gathering on Sunday mornings sets the tone and the drive to live out our faith during the week.

Sunday worship marks our time and sets in motion the purpose for which we live lives of faith.

In the end our days are not meaningless, pointless hours that blur from one moment to the next.

Rather, our time which comes as a gift from God, is filled with purpose and our moments are filled with wonder and beauty in the work of God -God whose work and creativity is found all around us and in us.

In the movie Groundhog Day Phil Connors was able to break the pattern of reliving every day when he was able to find meaning and purpose in his life.

When this happened, he was able to break free and move onto the next day.

In a similar way when we live by faith, we find our days and our time marked by God’s gracious hand and we live transformed and changed.

Living by faith in Jesus gives us hope, meaning, and a chance at new beginnings.

People of God, do not let your hearts to be troubled believe in God and believe also in Jesus.

It is through our faith in Jesus where we can find the strength to get through this time and discover once again that God was with us all the time.

God marking our days giving us purpose even now.

This coming week listen carefully to how the Holy Spirit is speaking to you helping you to live this time with grace and with understanding.

We can do this with God’s help.

May the Holy Spirit rest upon us this week, may the breath of God restore our souls, and may Jesus’ unfailing love fill our hearts so that our time and our days would be filled with hope.

Amen.

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May 17 – The Advocate

The Coronavirus pandemic has made us think in new ways for how we might gather still as a faith community.

In spite of social distancing we have found a safe way to meet together every Sunday morning.

We have needed to adapt and we have needed to prayerfully listen very carefully to the voice of the Holy Spirit so as to be faithful to God at this time and in this place.

We are not the first group of worshippers that have needed to adapt and to change our worship practices.

For the early Jewish community their whole way of worshiping God was changed when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD.

At that time, they suddenly needed to adapt and to figure out how to worship God when their central place of meeting and worshiping God was destroyed.

For the Jewish people the temple was the central place of worship.

It was so central to their faith and their way of life that is actually very difficult for us today to truly understand how devastating the destruction of the temple was for them.

God was present in and through the temple.

There very channel to God was now cut off.

They were now separated from God.

They were forced to make sense of their faith without the temple.

In time God began to speak to them in new ways.

Prayer became began to take on more importance because you could pray any where and in any place.

The written Word became more important because you could hear the Word any where and in any place.

The destruction of the temple affected the early Christians as well.

For the early Christians they too began to see that God was not in a building.

For example, Jesus foresaw the destruction of the temple when he said in the Gospel of John destroy this temple and I will raise it in three days.

Jesus here is speaking of himself.

He is the one who is to be worshiped and glorified not a building.

Seeing that the temple was gone Christians also came to some new insight into their faith.

God is with them even if there is no building, no central worship temple.

For the early Christians they had no building and so they met in houses.

Their faith was shaped from Jesus’ teachings with an understanding that God is present whenever two or more gather together in his name.

This new theology was further developed in their understanding of the advocate.

Jesus was sending to his followers a great helper who would be called the Advocate.

The advocate is also sometimes translated from the Greek as the Comforter.

The Comforter is the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit is always present with us whether we are in our building or not.

The Spirit is the One that teaches us truths about God, the One that testifies to the work of God in the world, the One who convicts us of our sin and our need for God, and the One who will work for us and defend us against all forces that oppose God and all the powers of darkness and all evil.

The Advocate is our great defender.

The Advocate is the One that keeps us together during this challenging time.

I have a good friend who is a tree farmer who lives in the Madison area.

I have been keeping in touch with him over the phone during this time.

Recently, he asked me how things were going at our church.

He texted me, I assume that attendance is low right now.

I texted back not at all!

And then I went on to text… The people of Williams Bay Lutheran believe in their church and in the mission of God here in this place.

We have stayed together during this time and that is a testament to the work of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit that draws us together, and the One that helps us to adapt and to learn new ways to remain together as the Body of Christ.

We have discovered new and helpful ways for how we might do the Lord’s will at this time.

This is indeed the work of the Advocate.

I know that my simple sermons are not drawing us together faithfully every Sunday morning.

It is our faith in God that is compelling us to remain a part of the Body of Christ in this particular faith community of Williams Bay Lutheran.

The Advocate is stirring us and bringing us together each and every Sunday.

And I am happy to say that we have not missed one Sunday during this pandemic.

There was not one Sunday where we did not hold worship.

Every Sunday morning, we have had worship together during this pandemic.

Not one Sunday has passed where there was no worship here.

And now each Sunday morning when I get up and get ready for Sunday worship, I prepare my heart and my mind for worship while having faith and trust that the Spirit will draw us together.

I have faith and trust that I will not preach into my computer to no one.

I have faith and trust that the Holy Spirit will gather the Lord’s people together to hear the Word proclaimed.

The Word of God is powerful.

The Word creates faith within us.

I do not come to this time of worshipping thinking…

I sure hope someone is out there listening.

No, I have faith and trust that God will continue to draw us together for worship.

This pandemic will not be the death of our church.

The Advocate abides in us and the Advocate is with us even at a time like this.

The Advocate which is the Spirit of truth will breath new life within us during this Easter season.

So much of our daily living and our common way of worshipping has been altered.

But even with that said something new is emerging.

Although it is not what it used to be, our Sunday morning worship that is, I love our Sunday Webex Worship.

I love it because it is a sign and a witness to me during these heavy days that we have not given up on meeting together and that we still believe in the presence of the Holy Spirit with and for us even when we cannot meet in our building.

Jesus said tear down this temple and I will raise it up in three days.

Nothing can steal our faith.

Our faith, which comes as a gift from God, cannot be taken from us.

Our faith compels us to meet together still and to find out together how we can respond to the Advocate at work in our midst.

If there is one thing that we have learned during this time of social distancing it is that everyone’s life matters to everyone else’ life.

Our lives are connected in an endless web of lives.

For Christians the glue that holds this web all together is the Advocate.

The Holy Spirit which binds us together into one Body.

As we struggle and wrestle to inhabit this strange time that we are living through right now the Advocate will be on our side and the Advocate will help us to spend this time in way that loves our neighbor and ourselves.

Right now, we might be thinking how long will it take for us to put this time behind us.

Will it take a month, two months, all summer, until winter, all year…?

But the Spirit is saying this to us – how will you use this time while you still have breath for the glory of God?

How will you use this time when I am still speaking to you?

How will you spend the time that you have been given right now?

This coming week how will you keep and hold sacred the time that God will give you?

What if we were to try this…?

What if this coming week we used the last five minutes of our day right before we fall asleep to pray to God.

Maybe this is something you already do.

If not try this simple spiritual practice.

Pray that God might guide you to use this time as the Spirit calls you to use it.

So often we use the last few precious minutes of our day to think about who we are mad at, who we are upset with, what went wrong with our day, what we are worrying about, who did this and why someone did that, and so on.

Instead what if we prayed to God during those last few minutes of every day and then trusted truly trusted and believed that the Advocate is working on our behalf and that we are not alone but that we are always a part of the whole family of God.

And then and only then we fall asleep.

The Advocate might show us some new ways to live out our faith during this time.

The Advocate might be calling us to live out our faith together in some new and hope filled ways.

May God bless us as we look to the presence and work of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

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The time has come for Jesus.

Jesus is aware of this.

He knows that it is time.

And so, Jesus looks up to heaven and then he prayers this very moving prayer to God.

The prayer comes across to us today like poetry.

There is a beautiful rhythm to the prayer.

The words are powerful.

Jesus prays that God might glorify him so that God is glorified.

Notice that Jesus’ pray for glory is not for himself alone.

Rather is for God.

As Jesus is glorified God is glorified.

Then Jesus continues his prayer.

But again, the prayer is not for himself now his prayer is for his followers.

And consider now what Jesus prays for here.

The prayer that Jesus prays is a prayer of protection and a prayer for unity.

He says, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

This past week, as I was thinking about this Scripture reading, I thought about this very prayer.

I thought about how relevant this prayer is for us right now.

We need this prayer today just as much as his first followers needed that prayer.

Jesus prays this prayer for his people.

But it is a prayer that we might pray as well.

Holy God, protect us in your powerful name and keep us connected as one body in Christ.

In the past two months I have seen and have been a witness to this prayer at work in Christ’s Church.

I have witnessed and have been a part of the Holy Spirit’s work in keeping our church connected and together.

Every Sunday we worship together at 9:30 am.

In our particular homes we have set apart sacred time, sacred space for worship.

Like giving a portion of our money in a tithe to God in our offerings we offer a portion of our time and our space to God and to our faith community for worship each Sunday morning.

We gather as a virtual faith community over Webex.

I believe our weekly gatherings have been the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst.

I have also witnessed and been a part of the Holy Spirit’s work as we continue to do ministry in Jesus’ name.

We have made face masks out of our desire to care for and love our neighbors.

We have taken an offering for our local food pantry and through that special offering we have received almost three thousand dollars.

That offering gift will provide so much food for the pantry.

We have continued to support the work and operations of this congregation through our Sunday offerings that have been mailed in or given through our on-line giving.

Through your faithful Sunday offerings, we have been able to also continue tithing to the Synod to support their various ministries.

We have prayed for each other and have been leaning on God’s healing presence in our lives.

We have supported and encouraged one another at this time through phone calls, emails, texts, Facebook messages, letters, and through uplifting conversation over Webex and Zoom.

I have been a witness and been a part of the work of the wider church these past two months through connecting with our local ecumenical community, our Walworth ELCA conference, and through the continuing work of the Synod.

The work of Christ’s church continues at this time.

It has not stopped.

Jesus’ prayer for protection and for unity continues to be prayed at this time.

Today marks the last and final Sunday of Easter.

It has been an Easter season unlike any Easter that we have ever experienced.

But even with that said Christ and his glory is no less visible and present to us right now.

Our faith is still strong.

Our trust in God is sure.

Have we struggled?

Have we felt doubts?

Of course.

But Jesus’ faithfulness for us remains true and our faithfulness to Jesus remains true.

We feel the Lord’s protection.

We know the Lord’s call for unity.

Day by day we are witnesses of these very things.

At a time when we need protection.

At a time when great divisions threaten so many communities, we hold steadfast to our Lord’s prayer.

“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

Last Sunday I invited everyone, for the next seven days, to spend your last five minutes of your day with God.

To review the day with God in prayer and to be in the presence of God for the last few minutes before you drift off to sleep.

This coming week may we join together in praying this very simple prayer that the Lord first prayed for us.

May God bless us as we join with Jesus in praying for protection and for unity.

Amen.

 

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May 31, 2020 – Pentecost Sunday

On this day we hear, once again, those beautiful words from the Gospel of John for the disciples to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

These scared and frighten followers of Jesus now receive power and authority to do God’s work and to communicate the Gospel to all people.

Today is a very special day in the life of the church.

On this day we praise God for the sending of the Spirit upon Christ’s Church.

We give God praise each and every Sunday for the sending of the Holy Spirit but on this very day, on Pentecost Sunday, we give special attention to this Gospel truth.

The word Pentecost comes from the Greek meaning fiftieth.

We give God praise for the sending of the Holy Spirit on the day that is fifty days past Easter.

Today is the fiftieth day past Easter.

Now what does this day, Pentecost Sunday, mean for us today?

Does this day still have meaning and significance for us?

I believe it does!

First, on this day we hear from the Gospel of John that we must receive the Holy Spirt.

Jesus does not give his followers a choice here.

He does not say to his church and to his followers… Decide now whether you will receive the Holy Spirit or not.

No, he says simply, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

In fact, in the Bible Jesus is telling his followers here to receive it.

It is a command.

Receive the Holy Spirt.

He does not say, “Receive the Holy Spirit if you feel like receiving it.”

He does not ask us, “Do you want to receive the Holy Spirit?”

Rather the Holy Spirit is a gift that Jesus is telling his followers to receive.

From this Scripture reading we understand that to be a Jesus follower it means that you have already received the Holy Spirit into your life.

To be Christ’s church in the world means that the Church is already filled with the Holy Spirit.

Living in the Spirit changes everything!

The Spirit gives us courage.

The Spirit gives us authority to name sin and then to forgive sin.

The Spirit gives us wisdom.

The Spirit creates peace in our hearts.

The Spirit works joy and justice in God’s church.

The Spirit empowers us to be the church together – unified and strong in the presence of the Spirit.

The Spirit works in us through the power of prayer.

During the past two months six members of our church have been praying over our congregation during this challenging time.

These six faith-filled followers of Jesus decided to be about the work of praying for our faith community during this difficult time.

They have also been lifting up other prayer requests to God.

I am grateful for their prayers during the pandemic.

Now on this day, on Pentecost Sunday, I invite all of us to continue their work of prayer.

In the power of the Holy Spirit pray for our church, pray for the ongoing work of God in the world, pray for healing and for new Spirit-filled life to come upon us.

Often challenges help us to grow spiritually.

Challenges can help us to arrive at new insights into the very nature of God and on the purpose of our lives.

When we face difficulties in life, we often gain fresh and new insights into God’s ways and into God’s will for us.

Again, and again we find that truth expressed in Scripture.

Through the challenges that we have experienced as a congregation these past months we have grown deeper in faith and in prayer.

We have seen again and again the hidden nature of God made visible to us in our virtual faith

community.

Our desire to continue to praise God and to hear God’s Word has been made known to God through our coming together in this new way.

I believe that this has pleased the Lord.

I believe that God is happy by our desire to stay together during this time.

We did not simply say OK we are going to take a long break from God and from God’s Word at this time.

In a way that was faithful to God we found a new way to meet together and to give God glory and praise.

I am proud of our little church for staying together at this time and I believe God is too.

I believe God is pleased that we continued coming together in Jesus’ name.

We believe in God’s steadfast love and grace and we cannot even imagine life without it.

For us life without God is no life at all.

Life without the Spirit is no life at all.

The Holy Spirit has always been about the work of connecting all of God’s people together.

From all times and from all places the Spirit brings us together at God’s very large table.

Even now it is as though God has gathered us together at one table.

For the early persecuted Christians, they believed that Jesus was keeping them together even if

they could not meet together in one meeting place.

The Spirit was still at work strengthening the believers and drawing God’s people together even if they needed to be physically separated because of persecution.

Today in the world there are still Christians that are separated because of religious persecution.

These Jesus followers have no less faith in the Spirit’s presence in their community.

They believe that God can still work in and through their church.

We have not had to contend with persecution but we have had to deal with a deadly virus.

We have had to discern what care and love for neighbor means during a pandemic.

As the church council meets next Sunday to consider how we might meet once again in our church building, we pray for and ask for God’s protection and guidance at this time.

And we pray for the Holy Spirit.

Let us be about the work of prayer this coming week.

Let us pray for God’s will.

Let us believe in the presence of the Holy Spirit in our church.

The power of God is upon us and upon Christ’s Church.

After today we will be entering into the time after Pentecost in the church year.

May we be awakened to the gift of renewal and new life that the Spirit freely offers to our church.

This is the opportune time for our church to be renewed in the Spirit.

Let us pray for this renewal in the Spirit.

Amen.

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June 7, 2020 – Holy Trinity Sunday

I am wondering how everyone is doing right now?

It is time for me to speak and to give a sermon right now but I am wondering what it would be like now to simply listen and to hear how you all are doing.

How are you feeling this morning?

So much has been happening.

So much change has occurred in our country since we last met here in this place now almost three months ago.

How would you answer this question of how you are feeling today?

Are you feeling well?

Or do you feel any of these negative feelings?

Are you afraid, detached, isolated, alone, angry, sad, fearful, tired?

No matter how you feel this morning one of the most comforting spiritual truths that I have learned is that whatever we are feeling -whether it be any of those negative feelings I just named or something else, we can always go to God and find again and again that God is with us.

God is with us still.

Even if we feel that we are spiritually distant from God, and we may be feeling that feeling, especially since it has now been a very long time since we have gathered together in this place to share in prayer, in fellowship, and in Holy Communion – but God is still with us.

In the Bible when the Israelites were in exile and they were separated from their land and from one another God was with them still.

When the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the people had no place to worship -God was with them still.

Jesus says in Mathew chapter 28, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

However, we feel this morning about our life situation, about our faith, about our country, about our health – Jesus is with us.

During these past three months I have had extra time to pray, to meditate, and to read Scripture.

An insight that the Holy Spirit has given to me during this time is a renewed understanding of the constant and faithful presence of God.

God is indeed always with us.

Jesus promises his presence and his power in our lives.

Jesus’ presence in our lives is a power that moves us in the ways of the Spirit and that teaches us in the ways of God.

In a world that sometimes looks dangerously out of control God gives us the strength to love one another and to heal old paradigms.

The Spirit breathes new life into us to heal old ways of looking at the world that are hurtful and even destructive.

God’s presence and God’s power impact us in ways that we cannot always put into words.

But there it is.  God working in and around us.

Sometimes we simply need to listen and not to speak.

This past week as I have watched the protests happening around our country, I initially felt that I needed to say something.

But then I felt compelled to just listen to the message of protestors.

I thought that I needed to say something about what was happening.

And then I came to the realization that what I really should be doing now is to do some earnest listening.

I found myself praying this prayer, “Lord God, may I seek not so much as to be understood as to understand.”

I think that often in life we are quicker to respond and to react then to listen.

How many times have I quickly reacted and then only to realize later that I should have first created some space around the situation for the Holy Spirit to speak and then to be in pray about it and then to listen – to seek to understand that is the healing work that is often needed the most.

In this case I recognize that I need to listen and to try to hear first before I respond and react to the message of the protestors.

Again, in the words of the prayer I need to seek first to understand before I try to make myself understood.

It is a hard thing to do.

I am certainly not perfect here with this.

We all want to be understood first and then later maybe to try to understand.

But as followers of Jesus we need to be humble, teachable people.

We must be paying attention and listening like a student.

Disciples are students.

We could be called students rather then members of Williams Bay Lutheran Church.

We are students of Jesus.

And what is the best way to learn something.

The best way to learn something is to go out and to teach what you are trying to learn.

Jesus said in our Gospel reading for today to go and to baptize and to teach.

Our work now is to listen, to teach, and to baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit and while we are doing this ministry we are to be continually growing in the knowledge of God.

By what authority do we do this work.

By Jesus’ authority.

Jesus gives us the authority to do this good work.

You and I have been given authority to join God in this mission work.

It is a life transforming work.

It is very good work.

It is the work that God calls us to do.

It is work that we are sent to do.

God is a sending God.

God sent Jesus into the world to teach us and to save us.

God and Jesus send the Holy Spirit into our lives.

The Spirit empowers us and sends us out to see other people -to truly see and to listen to other people and the truth that they hold.

The Spirit helps us to see and to listen.

The Spirit helps us to see the good in other people.

The Spirit helps us to see the goodness of creation and the goodness of others.

In the Good News of the Gospel we have an empowering message of hope for all people.

Together in the life-giving power of the Holy Trinity we can bring this light into the world.

May you feel and experience the divine light of God this day.

May you feel the presence of the Lord this day.

If your heart is feeling heavy this morning may the burdens that you feel be lifted in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

May you know that Christ is walking with you -forgiving you, loving you, and sending you out to be a healing presence in this world.

As we listen to the voices of those around us and as we seek to be teachable people of God, we can create bridges and new roads of understanding.

And finally, in the words of the Apostle Paul, we pray brothers and sisters, put things in order, listen to the Lord, with great patience try to agree with one another, live in peace, and may the God of love and peace be with you all.

Amen.

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June 14, 2020 – Sharing the Good News

When I was serving in my first congregation in Tama, Iowa I led Sunday afternoon worship services at the nearby county home.

This residential home, for those with disabilities, had services every Sunday afternoon that were led by the area pastors.

When it was my turn to lead the worship services, I truly found those worship experiences to be very meaningful and deeply spiritual.

It was an opportunity for me to share the good news of the Gospel with the residents at that place.

Many of the residents there were so happy to have that simple service.

In fact, when I walked into the building some of the residents would yell to each other:

“Church is here!”

“Church is here!”

“Church is here!”

To the people of that place I was the church to them.

I was seen by the people as not simply Tom Dowling walking into the building but I was actually seen as the church coming to the people.

I love the memories that I have of leading those simple services at the county home.

Whenever I recall those services at the county home and the voices of the people when I arrived, “Church is here!” “Church is here!” I remember once again that I am called and sent to be the church in world.

And it is not only me that is called to be the church in world.

All of God’s people are called and sent into the world to be the church.

The word apostle in the Bible means those who are sent.

Apostles are sent with a mission which is to tell others about Jesus and about God’s ways in the world.

From the Gospel reading from Matthew for today we see that the mission that God sends us on is centered around two callings – on healing others and on speaking about God’s kingdom.

What does this look like right now to heal and to speak about God’s kingdom?

First, let’s consider this healing work that God sends us out to do for others.

In the Gospel reading Jesus gives authority to his apostles over the unclean spirits and he gives them authority to heal those with diseases and sicknesses.

When I was in seminary I worked for a short time as an intern chaplain at Gunderson Hospital in La Crosse.

When I first started visiting with patients in their rooms or when I was paged to the ER to offer pastoral care, I can remember thinking to myself by what authority am I doing this work?

Will the people even listen to me?

Will the prayers for healing be heard by God?

And who am I anyway to offer healing and prayer for these people in need?

To make matters worse sometimes I was not welcomed as a chaplain.

Sometimes I would enter a room and then I would be asked to leave the room.

But as my work continued at the hospital, I began to see that God was calling me to be a healing, non-anxious presence for the patients.

I was to listen to their needs, to read them Scripture, and to offer prayers of healing.

And if I wasn’t welcomed in one room, I would often find that in the next room I would be welcomed.

Jesus’ words from the Gospel became true in that my peace would return to me if I was not welcomed and if I was welcomed, I would leave God’s peace upon the visit.

Now in the world today think about how much this work is needed.

There are people who are sick.

There are those who are suffering from the evils of racism.

There are those who are struggling with mental illness.

There are those who are lonely and afraid.

Jesus says to his people, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Jesus is asking us here to pray this prayer and then to be the answer to this prayer.

Can you be the answer to this prayer?

Can you be a worker in this harvest?

This coming week how can you put this prayer into practice?

How could we reach out and offer a healing word or a healing prayer?

Might the Lord be sending us out to do this healing work that he first called his disciples to do?

During this time of social distancing we have learned that there are still many ways that we can connect with others.

In fact, we are even being encouraged now to use the term physical distancing instead of social distancing.

This is because we are simply not to be in the same space as other people not that we should not be social anymore.

We are still to be connecting with one another even at this time.

At this time, we are to be the church outside of this building.

Church is here, church is here, church is here.

We are indeed the church even outside of this building.

Our Lord is still sending his followers to do kingdom work.

Let me give you this example.

Think about the healing power of prayer.

Prayer is so powerful that we do not even need to be in the same room as the person we are praying for.

We can offer a healing prayer for a person even if we live in a different country as that person.

We know this to be true.

There are no walls that can stop a prayer.

No distance that can stop a prayer.

Even science backs up what we already know by faith.

Time and time again studies have shown that patients in hospitals that are prayed over even from a distance heal faster and heal better.

But we already know this to be true by faith.

We believe in God’s healing power in our lives.

We already believe in the power of prayer.

We know that God sends us out to bring more healing and love into the world.

This is something that we can do.

By what authority do we do this work?

By the very authority that comes from God!

God gives us the authority to heal and to bring the light of Christ into this world.

Let us be a healing church.

Now let’s consider the message.

God sends us out to give a message to others.

The message that Jesus gives to us is a message of life and hope.

This same message of life and hope is to be shared with others.

We are to bearers of this good news.

We are to offer concrete expressions of God’s caring and love.

As the church we are to be faithful to this task.

We communicate the Gospel through real acts of compassion.

We are concerned for the souls of our neighbors along with their day to day needs.

We share the life-giving message of Jesus Christ.

And we do all this work by traveling lightly in life.

As Jesus taught us, we must not let the excesses of materialism stand in our way or throw us off track and distract us from that which is most important – sharing the message and offering healing to those in need.

In the church year we have now begun the Time after Pentecost.

During this season of the church year we will dig more deeply into the teachings of Jesus.

We focus on his teachings, we pray for healing, and we live by faith.

God’s call for us here is so strong that it empowers us live out our lives in witness to our faith.

God’s love and future glory awaits us.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

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June 20, 2020 – It is Well with My Soul

Sometimes hymns can really speak to us.

Hymns can reach us at the soul level.

I love the old hymn:  When Peace like a River.

When peace like a river attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea billows roll,

Whatever my lot,

Thou hast taught me to say,

It is well,

It is well with my soul.

It is well with my soul,

It is well, it is well with my soul.

Is it well with your soul?

How do we know if it is indeed well with our soul?

This is not something that we talk about very much with each other.

We usually do not ask each other how it is with our soul.

Oh, we will talk about the weather.

We will talk about how it is going with our families.

We will talk about our favorite sports teams.

We will talk about what we had for dinner last night.

But we rarely talk about our souls.

In the Bible the soul is life.

The soul is the part of us that lives.

God gives us our souls.

God breathes life into our souls.

In the New Testament the soul is connected to life here and now and life in the future.

In our Bible reading for today Jesus speaks about a person’s soul still having life beyond the grave.

Jesus gives both a warning and a promise here.

He warns us to fear God who has power over our souls.

And he gives us a promise to trust in God who cares for our souls.

He says, 

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your father.  And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  So, do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

God cares for our lives here and now and God cares for that part of us that continues to live even when we die.

The part of us that continues to live even in death, that Jesus refers to in today’s Bible reading from Matthew, is the soul.

Jesus invites us here to place our whole lives in his care.

We cannot save ourselves -not now and certainly not in death.

Only God has the power to give and to take life.

Our families cannot save our souls.

We cannot save our souls through control or power.

We cannot save our souls through our politics or our beliefs.

We cannot save our souls through our possessions or our money.

Only God can save us and God will save us.

God has created our souls and God will save our souls.

Why does God do this?

God saves our souls because God chooses to save our souls.

Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ God saves us through the life of his Son.

God is the one we can trust our lives, our bodies, our souls, our everything to him.

In this way through Christ it is well with our souls.

At this time this promise from Scripture would be a good verse to memorize:  “Do not be afraid for you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Meaning that each one of us has infinite worth in God’s eyes.

This coming week I pray that we might take some time to care for our souls.

Resting in the promises of God’s love for us.

Having faith in the one who gives life to our souls.

Praying with the understanding that God hears everyone of our prayers even if we do not fully understand how God answers each prayer.

Many years ago, now an aunt of mine died of cancer.

I was very close to this aunt.

She was a Catholic nun of the Dominican Order.

When my aunt Sister De Sales Flanagan died, she was buried at Sinsinawa Mound near Dubuque.

I try to visit the site where she is buried every year and remember her life and her faith.

I can recall at one point my father telling Sister De Sales that he was praying for healing for her cancer.

Sister De Sales smiled and then said to my Dad.

“Thank you for your prayers, I am healed.”

It was shortly after that conversation that Sr. De Sales died.

Over the years I have thought a lot about what Sr. De Sales said to my Dad that she was healed even though she later died.

In life we pray for healing.  

We pray that God would heal our bodies and that God would heal our souls.

But in the end, we trust in God’s healing even in death.

In the Bible healing and salvation go together.

Jesus saves.

Jesus heals.

Sr De Sales was healed because her soul was safe in God’s care.

She knew that even though she was losing her life through this cancer her life was still in God’s hands.

Yes, she was very healed.

“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

No matter what we face in life God is with us.  

No matter what illness or need or painful situation we encounter God is with us.

This is one of the most important teachings that we receive from Jesus.

Jesus does not promise us all power and all health and all that our hearts want.

That is clear from today’s Bible reading.

No, Jesus said that there would be great difficulties, that there would be divisions even within our own families, that there would be sacrifices that would need to be made so that we could faithfully follow Jesus.

But Jesus does not leave us alone here.

He is with us every step of the way.

Though Satan should buffet,

Though trials should come,

Let this blest assurance control,

That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,

And hath shed his own blood for my soul.

It is well with my soul,

It is well,

It is well with my soul.

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June 28, 2020 – Welcoming Others

What does it mean to welcome another person in the name of Christ?

Today’s Gospel reading challenges us to think more deeply about what it means to welcome another person.

What does it mean to welcome another person?

What does it mean to welcome others?

Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

Jesus is using language here that the Jewish people would have understood at that time.

For the Jewish people to welcome a messenger was the same thing as welcoming the person who sent the messenger.

So, to receive a servant of a king was the same thing as welcoming the king.

The Jewish Rabbis would teach that to welcome a holy man is to welcome God.

Here Jesus uses this Jewish teaching to speak about himself.

If people accept and welcome his disciples then they are welcoming him.

God sends Jesus into the world.

Jesus is God’s messenger who preaches and teaches us about God.

Jesus sends each one of us out to spread the Gospel.

We are God’s people who give witness to the Lord.

We teach and proclaim God’s Word.

We live our lives in the ways of Jesus.

We learn about God.

Then we pass on what we ourselves have learned about God.

Finally, we too welcome God’s people and God’s message and in doing so find true life for our souls because we have in fact, welcomed Jesus.

This text foreshadows the Bible reading that we read later in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus speaks about meeting him when we feed the hungry, visit those who are in prison, help the sick, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger.

In a very unique way this text struck me because we will be doing something next week that we have not done in over three months.

We will be welcoming one another back to worship in this space.

Now not all of us will be here next Sunday.

Some of us will continue to worship on-line at home because that is the safer option at this time.

But some of us will be here next Sunday.

How might this Gospel reading apply to us next Sunday?

How do we welcome one another once again when we have been apart for so long?

Especially how do we welcome each other back when we have to maintain some distance and some separation still.

Maybe this will be hard for us.

And if we think now more widely about this how do we welcome other people during this unusual time?

This is hard to do.

We have to think much more creatively here to find new ways to welcome each other during this pandemic.

At such at time what does it mean to welcome another person in the name of Christ?

This is a question that we should always be asking.

We should never just assume that we are doing a great job at welcoming people.

For example, we may think that we are a very welcoming person while others may think that that is just not so.

Let me give you an example here to illustrate this point.

When I was in seminary it was required to take an anti-racism training class.

I thought that I did not need the class because I was not one of “those people” needing to take such a training class.

I am a welcoming person I thought.

I am not racist.

Truly I was wrong.

The first thing that I learned in the anti- racism class is that the attitude that I had of feeling that I was above such a class, is the most dangerous attitude to take.

I learned that all of us need to examine our biases, our prejudices, and even our unconscious biases, those biases that we are not always aware of.

Everyone of us need to consider the ways that we often fail to welcome others and to include others.

Now some fifteen years later since I took that course, I still think about that class that I took and I think about how I might apply what I learned in that class to my day to day living.

How do I welcome others?

Are there some people that I find easier to welcome?

I know that if I am honest with myself, I find that some people are much easier to welcome than others?

I know that I have some biases and judgments.

Some of these biases I am unaware of and some of these biases are unconscious biases.

I know that I am a part of a larger system at play in the world that is deeply enmeshed in systemic racism and prejudice.

Everyone of us has some kind of bias or prejudice.

We need to name this sin and call it for what it is.

Maybe we could blame it on the ways our brains are wired but even still Jesus holds us accountable here.

Jesus will not let us get a pass here.

This is hard work.

This is not easy.

But Jesus gives us a promise in the Bible reading that if we even just give a cup of cold water to someone in need than we are doing the Lord’s work.

Jesus calls us into being disciples who compassionately welcome others.

Jesus calls us to a live a way of life that is not centered on personal gain but rather is always looking out for the other.

Can the Holy Spirit stir our spiritual imaginations in such a way that we discover new and faithful ways of reaching out to our neighbors no matter who they are?

This is the work of the church for sure, but it is also our work in the world.

It is work that God calls you and me to live out in our daily living.

To go out living our day to day lives with this teaching in our hearts.

Will we be perfect here with this calling?

No, we will miss the mark again and again.

That is why we need to be continually asking the question – am I welcoming others in the name of Christ?

And if not, we need to catch ourselves and then get back on track – never giving up on this calling.

We are called by our Lord to participate with the Holy Spirit in creating a more just, more kind, and more hospitable, welcoming world.

God did not give us life so that we can take more and more but rather so that we can give more and more.

And the giving does not need to be some kind of heroic deed that only a saint could do.

Jesus uses the example of giving a simple glass of water to someone in need.

By asking this question this very question, of how to welcome others, over and over and over again we grow in awareness.

We learn how we fall short here and then we find better ways of welcoming others.

When we learn and correct ourselves, we then do better.

We begin to see the people that we leave out and we stop leaving then out.

We open our hearts to receive Christ through them.

We become faithful to the calling of God, we welcome others, and in doing so discover that we welcome Christ.

We discover that in the process of welcoming others we meet the loving embrace of Christ.

Amen.

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July 5, 2020 – Resting in Jesus

Do you ever feel it is a burden to love and to obey God?

If you do, then this Scripture reading from Matthew might bring you great comfort this morning.

For the Jewish people loving God and obeying God was in many ways a burden.

There were hundreds of laws that needed to be followed and honored.

To make matters worse the Scribes and the Pharisees would place additional laws upon the people especially upon the backs of the poor.

For those who did love God and who desperately wanted to know God they were driven to weariness and despair by the religious leaders and by the demands of the law.

But this teaching from Jesus about us coming to him and finding rest would have been seen as a breath of fresh air to the common Jewish person and also a threat to the powerful.

The religious leaders would not have appreciated this teaching from Jesus.

That is why Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”

Jesus is lifting the burdens of the oppressed peoples.

The powerful that put those heavy burdens on the poor and lowly people would be judged by God.

Knowing God is not a burden.

Jesus wanted to make that clear.

Not only does he want to make it clear to us that we all can come to God and experience the joy of knowing God, not just those that are privileged, that he says I will help you to know God.

He says to us, “Come to me, all of you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

How surprising this teaching would have been to the people at that time.

How shocking this teaching would have been to the religious and the powerful.

In fact, later in the Gospel of Matthew chapter twenty-three we hear Jesus criticizing the religious leaders when he says, “They tie up heavy, burdens and put them on others shoulders.”

Jesus offers something different.

He offers a different kind of yoke.

His yoke is kind and gentle.

It fits well upon our shoulders and it does not weigh us down.

Now Jesus does not diminish the weight of the law or offer us a vacation here from God.

But what Jesus does offer is that he helps us to bear the load, the load of life and he helps us to bear the heavy weight of the law.

We put on the yoke on our shoulders, meaning that which connects us to Jesus enabling us to carry our load more easily.

This is grace.

Let me say it again… this is grace.

Jesus does this for us as a gift.

He helps us in this way because he loves us.

But with the yoke of Christ on our shoulders comes responsibility and action.

The metaphor of the yoke helps us to visualize that once we are connected to Jesus in this new way then we are following him and we are listening to his teachings.

No longer are we going off onto our own path in life but we are following in the path of God.

It is like that old hymn: I Surrender All.  Do you know that hymn?

I surrender all,

I surrender all,

All to thee, my blessed Savior,

I surrender all.

When we surrender all to Jesus and put on the yoke, we find healing, we find rest, we find new energy for our souls.

When we surrender all, we redirect our lives to the teachings of Jesus, we adopt his gentle Spirit, and we live out his commands.

The Christian life then becomes blessed with joy and happiness and the burdens of struggle, difficulty, suffering, and sorrow is lifted.

Jesus said these words earlier in the Gospel of Matthew chapter five, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven and blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted and blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.”

Jesus comforts us and lifts our burdens and puts us on the path of righteousness.

Today you might be feeling some burdens and you might be feeling the weight of troubles.

Today you might feel distant from God and feel like it is very difficult to find God.

If this is so, then take great comfort in the words of Jesus this morning.

Hear his promise.

Jesus offers us true rest.

This rest is better than any vacation.  This is the kind of rest that sinks deeply into our bones.  It is the kind of rest that gives us peace.  Today rest in the arms of Jesus.  Know that he has you safe in his loving arms.

What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!  Amen.

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July 12, 2020 – Parable of the Sower

Consider the parable of the sower.

Jesus goes out to the sea.

Notice how he is not teaching here in the synagogue.

He is outside seeking to reach as many people as possible.

And the people come.

They come to hear the great teacher.

Jesus gets into the boat and sits down.

The people line up by the shore eager to hear what this man has to say.

And he begins with a parable of a sower.

Now a parable is a short story that teaches a moral or some kind of ethical point.

A parable can have many layers of meaning and interpretation.

A parable can impact us on many levels.

A parable can even speak to us in different ways at different seasons of our lives.

The Jewish teachers loved parables.

The religious teachers would use parables to help people to understand the Jewish laws.

Jesus being a Jewish teacher does the same.

He teaches the people through the means of parables.

Many of the parables that Jesus speaks comes directly from the Scriptures.

For example, there is a similar parable told of the sower in 4 Ezra Chapter eight.

4 Ezra is an Apocrypha book.

It is a holy book that did not make it into the canon of the Bible.

But if you were to read that book, which was probably written in the first century, you will find a similar parable of a sower.

The story is told to make the point of the righteous ones who continue to follow in God’s ways even in the face of difficulties.

In the same way Jesus preaches this parable to the crowd as a way of teaching the people about the journey of faith and in the importance of following in God’s ways.

Let’s ponder this parable.

A farmer sows seed in his field.

Some seed fall along the path.

The birds eat this seed.

Some seed falls on rocky soil.

The plants come up then wither because their roots are shallow.

Some seed fall among the thorns.

When the plants come up, they become choked by the thorns and they die.

But some seed fall on good soil.

These produce a crop.

Some produce a hundred, some sixty, some thirty times what was initially sown.

Jesus continues.

Listen he says to the meaning of the parable.

If we only hear the message and do not understand it then the evil one comes and steals the message from our hearts.

This is the seed on the path.

Those who receive the Word with joy but then drift away are the plants that have no roots.

Those who hear the Word but are distracted with the worries of this world or by the temptations of wealth are the plants that grow up next to thorns.

And finally, those who hear the Word and understand the Word are the ones that produce the very fruit of the kingdom.

Their good work is multiplied many times over.

These are the ones that break the kingdom of God into this world.

Let’s dig a little deeper into this parable now.

We might look at the various soils in the parable as human hearts.

The Christian life is a journey always deeper into good soil.

The inner life is what Jesus is speaking about here.

He is concerned with our hearts and how our hearts are being ever transformed by the Word of the Lord.

Hearing and understanding God’s Word is what Jesus is getting at here.

The Word of God transforms and changes us when he both hear it and understand it.

If you are not already on a daily Bible reading plan then I would encourage you to start.

Find a plan then stick with it.

In my personal Bible reading I like to read book by book of the Bible.

So, I will take a book of the Bible and read through it slowly and then I will read another of book of the Bible and so on.

Right now, I am reading 1 Samuel in the Old Testament and when I finish 1 Samuel I will move on to another book of the Bible.

But you might want to jump around from book to book and read a chapter here and a chapter there from different books of the Bible.

It does not matter how you read the Bible but that you read it.

And then and this is the important part you work to put what you read into practice.

It does no good to read the Scriptures and then to live as if the Bible parables and stories and laws had no meaning to your day to day living.

Remember that Jesus ends the parable by teaching us that the seed on good soil is the one who hears the Word and understands it.

This means that the Word is doing something in your heart.

The Word is impacting you in some way.

I completely believe this -that if someone reads the Bible daily and then seeks to live what they read then they live differently in this world.

The two go together.

You hear and you understand – you hear and then you understand – you hear and then you understand –

The Word is active and alive changing and transforming your heart.

That is why we call God’s Word the Living Word.

God’s Word produces a harvest.

Who is the one who is living the faith – who is living the Christian life?

It is the one who is living their life by the Word of God.

It is that simple but also that profound.

As I was working on my sermon this past week I thought about this parable in relation to our congregation.

If our congregation was like seed on the path, or seed in the rocky places, or seed that was among the thorns then our congregation would never have survived this pandemic.

Let me say that again because I want this to really sink in…

If our congregation was like seed on the path, or seed in the rocky places, or seed among the thorns then our congregation would not have survived this pandemic and I would just be talking to myself right now.

But that is not what is happening I am not talking to myself rather I am proclaiming the very Word of God while preaching to God’s faithful people.

I thank God for you all and for your faithfulness.

You are faithful to the Word of God.

You are growing in God’s good soil.

Thank you for your witness.

Thank you for your love of God’s Word.

Thank you for not giving up on this church during this difficult time.

I have seen the strength of our congregation at this time.

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed and bread to the eater, so shall my word be.”

In patience and in hope we continue to live more deeply into God’s Word even at a time like this.

Our congregation just survived our building being closed for over three months!

That is a testament to the power of the Word impacting our hearts and keeping our faith community together.

Praise be to God.  Amen.

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July 19, 2020 – The Parable of the Seeds

Today we hear from the Bible the parable of the seeds.

Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated by Jesus using images of planting and seeds and growing things to teach lessons about God’s kingdom.

Last Sunday we heard the parable of the sower and today we hear the parable of the seeds.

Now I love getting into good, healthy soil and planting seeds.

Have you ever just given some thought to seeds?

Think about how a little seed can grow and produce so much food.

There is a place that I discovered a number of years ago that truly values seeds.

More than any other farm, I think, this place just loves seeds.

The farm is near Decorah, Iowa and the name of the farm is called of course, Seed Savers.

Seed Savers saves and preserves seeds.

Seed Savers is one of the largest seed banks in the United States.

Seed Savers farm is certified organic, they don’t use any chemicals or toxins on this farm, and the farm is one of the most diverse farms in the world with more than 25,000 rare fruit, vegetable, and plant varieties.

I have visited this farm several times and I must say that there is something very special going on at this farm.

This place loves seeds.

But with the exception of those who work at Seed Savers I suppose that many of us do not give too much thought into seeds.

In Jesus’ time though the images of seeds and planting and harvesting would have been very clear and familiar to Jesus’ audience.

Those who heard this parable along with the parable of the sower that we heard last week would have been able to understand the point that Jesus was making.

Drawing from their experiences of working in the fields the people would have made the connection that this parable was about grace and about judgment.

God alone sees a person’s heart and has the power to redeem a person.

God alone is the judge.

We like to be the ones to make that call and to separate the weeds from the wheat.

Think about your own life for a moment here.

How many times have you been wrong about someone?

I know for myself that I can be a very judgmental person.

I can recall as a seminary student being very judgmental upon one of my classmates.

I thought that this particular student was a little strange, now when I say that that is my judgement here, I am making that call.

I thought that this student should not be a pastor.

And because I thought those thoughts I did not reach out to this person and I ignored this person while in seminary.

It was only years later when I later connected with him that I discovered what a gift he was to the church.

I wish I could go back in time and change my reaction to this person and the way I ignored this person and the way I judged his gifts for the ministry.

But I cannot.

The parable of the seeds teaches us to be careful about making quick judgements upon other people.

In the parable if the reapers would have had their way, they would have pulled out good wheat along with the weeds.

If I would have had my way back in seminary, I would have pulled out a good future worker in God’s kingdom.

I regret what I did and I learned an important lesson here to work harder at recognizing and seeing the goodness of God in others.

Jesus teaches us here that we cannot correctly distinguish good vs evil people judgment is reserved for Jesus.

Do you see what I am getting at here?

God can see the bigger picture that we often cannot see.

There will be a time of judgement but it will not happen by our control or by our power or perception.

This parable teaches us that everything that we see, the world as we know it, is in God’s hands and in God’s power.

In thinking about the farm that I spoke of Seed Savers mission is to protect seeds and to protect diversity and the very life of seeds.

They don’t throw out some seeds that may seem less valuable all seeds are collected and saved.

In a similar way we are to protect life, to continue always to preach grace, and to not give up on people.

That difficult person that God has brought into your life that you think might be a weed  might be a redeemed child of God that God will use to further God’s kingdom.

The truth is that only God can really know a person’s heart.

Now I do believe in a final judgement.

Jesus teaches us that this is so in the parable of the seeds.

But I am grateful that our work is to preach grace and that our job is to believe in people – to believe the best about another person.

To hope that God’s grace will work within a person’s heart.

This is why the work that we do together in this church is so important.

We give hope to our community that God’s love and grace is real and is upon us.

During these past four months we have had more time than usual to give some thought to self-reflection.

This parable forces us to consider our own lives not to make judgments upon the lives of our neighbors but to reflect upon our own lives.

Can we ask this question, “Am I living and growing in the Lord?”

That is a question that only you and God can answer.

And there is even some humility that comes with the question because in the end we cannot answer that question -only God can.

Our hearts must be ready, we must have a deep desire to receive what Jesus has to give, and we must be prepared to be led by him.

Just as we are patient and hopeful that one day life may return back to normal from this pandemic we wait with patience and with hope for the coming of our Lord who will set things right and whose judgement will be swift.

Yes, we live in a world that if filled with corruption and evil.

Everyday seeds of hatred and injustice are sown.

But Jesus teaches us that we must grow together until the harvest and that at this time we must believe that no one is beyond the grace of God.

And finally, as the old hymn declares:  “Thought the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

God is the ruler yet.

In God we place our hope and our trust this day.

Amen.

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July 26, 2020 – The Kingdom of God

This morning if you are looking for a word from God then you will find it here.

There is much that is given to us in today’s Bible readings.

Our readings for today our rich with meaning and significance.

Solomon asking for wisdom and then receiving it from the Lord.

The Psalmist who celebrates God’s teachings and God’s law.

Paul naming the truth that nothing can separate us from God’s love.

And finally, Jesus giving us one parable after another on the mystery and the wonder of the kingdom of God.

Truly, yes, from God’s Word today there is much for us to receive.

How do you hear these beautiful texts?

How are these readings speaking to you this morning?

After worship today would you speak to someone about these Bible readings?

When you read the Bible, it is important to keep two things in mind.

First, think about the context in which the reading was told.

Remember that the Bible comes out of both a Jewish and a Christian background.

And secondly, remember that God’s Word is a living Word.

It speaks to us today and addresses what we are experiencing right now.

God’s Word always applies to what we are going through and with what we are experiencing in life.

For example, whenever I read Scripture, I consider how God’s Word is speaking to me in the moment and how God’s Word might impact my choices and maybe even influence my feelings with something that I am currently facing in life.

With this in mind let’s dig a little deeper into our Gospel reading while trusting that God’s Word is speaking to us right now.

In the Gospel of Matthew chapter thirteen Jesus preaches five short parables.

A parable about a mustard seed.

A parable about yeast and flour.

A parable about a hidden treasure.

A parable about fine pearls.

And a parable about a net and a catch of fish.

These short parables teach us lessons about God.

At the time that Jesus told these parables the listeners would have been both shocked and surprised at how Jesus used such unlikely metaphors to teach great truths about God and about God’s kingdom.

Today some two thousand years later we might feel the same way.

We live in a world that often treats God as irrelevant.

Sadly, in our culture Sunday morning is no longer seen as a holy time set aside in order to give God thanks and to remember God’s laws.

I am saddened that in the world Sunday has simply become a time of pleasure and relaxation without any thought or care towards God and God’s ways.

But these parables teach us that we are to enter into a new paradigm shift.

Jesus uses simple images to direct our focus on seeing a new world, which is the kingdom of God, in which God is ultimate and everything for us.

These parables call us to have faith in the One who is at work in our lives even though human eyes may fail to see what God is doing.

These parables stress our response and commitment to God’s loving hand upon us.

The kingdom of God comes about through God’s doing.

The kingdom of God is not something that can be acquired or bought rather it is found and received.

The kingdom of God is something that we enter into with faith and trust.

These parables instruct us in that the kingdom of God is something that we are to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to with complete obedience to God.

Our faith in God and in God’s kingdom -which is God’s world is not something to be taken lightly.

The kingdom of God, which was initiated by Jesus, is God’s good and gracious rule.

It is something that we participate in with everything that we do.

A cook runs his restaurant in the way that Jesus would want the restaurant to be run.

A mechanic runs his business in the way that Jesus would want the business to be run.

A painter paints as Jesus would want the artist to create.

A teacher teaches with the wisdom that is given by God.

A musician preforms as God directs her to make music.

A leader leads with the guidance that comes from the Lord.

A pastor preaches in and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

A mother parents with an understanding heart that comes from God.

We live our lives faithfully to God as if we are doing our work and living our lives for God.

For that is what we are doing we live our lives for God- always for God.

Our participation in God’s kingdom is followed through by the work that we do with our lives and by the ways that we honor God.

Remembering that we are always a part of something greater that began in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Life can be very difficult.

But we are kingdom people.

We are apart of God’s kingdom right now and we will live in God’s kingdom after the eschaton, when the world comes to an end and Jesus saves God’s people for God’s future world.

We are welcomed into God’s kingdom and nothing can separate us from God’s love.

In life we will face losses and we will grieve.

In our country many people have recently lost loved ones due to the coronavirus.

My family has been impacted by this virus.

My Uncle Harold died from the coronavirus.

He had underlying health issues and when he came down with coronavirus it was just too much for his body.

His wife, Carol tested positive for the coronavirus as well.

She survived the virus but he didn’t.

Now she is left with the grief and the pain of losing her husband while still trying to figure out how to plan for a memorial service.

In seminary it was required to read a little book called, “All our Losses and All our Griefs.”

To be human is to experience loss and to feel great grief that grief is a lifelong human experience.

None of us are immune to these feelings.

I once heard someone say that the real reason we die is because no one can ultimately withstand all the cumulative buildup of loss and grief over a lifetime.

Regardless with whether that is true or not it is true that we live in a world of pain and suffering.

But the good news that we receive from God’s Word today is that we are invited into a different kind of world.

It is a world of peace and joy and love that Jesus calls us into.

It is a kingdom where nothing and no power can ever separate us from God’s love.

It is a kingdom that is recognized and discovered here and now and fully experienced in the age to come.

It is so wonderful that it is worth leaving behind all that we have in order to come into this new kingdom.

It is a great place where my Uncle Harold along with all the saints in life can dwell and find peace.

What a remarkable Word of hope and promise that we have from God this morning.

Amen.

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Jesus was incredibly popular with the people.

When Jesus heard the news of John’s death he withdrew to a quiet place to be by himself.

But the crowds followed him.

The people were drawn to him.

They were compelled to be near him.

Probably many did not even know exactly why they felt this way but they did.

They just knew that they wanted to be close to him.

They wanted to hear what he had to say.

And in seeing this large crowd of people Jesus does not send them away – empty, sick, hungry.

Instead he has great compassion for them.

He heals those in the crowd that need healing.

And at the end of the day he even finds a way to feed them… all of them.

There were five thousand men in the crowd.

That number does not include the women and the children so the number was probably closer to twenty thousand.

Maybe more… maybe thirty thousand people.

And with just two fish and five loaves of bread Jesus feeds everyone.

This is a true miracle.

Jesus performs a miracle at this place.

Did you know that this miracle story is the only miracle story that is told in each one of the Gospels?

It is told in Matthew, in Mark, in Luke, and even in John.

It just may be the most well-known miracle story of Jesus.

Because this miracle story is told in every Gospel it points to the great significance of what is happening in this very miracle.

Jesus looks up to heaven, blesses the food, breaks the bread, and then gives the food to his disciples.

The disciples then distribute the food to the people.

What does this story remind you of…?

This miracle story foreshadows the night when Jesus was with his disciples and he took bread, lifted the bread up, gave thanks to God, and then he gave the food to the disciples, and the disciples pass the food around to each other.

This miracle story in scripture along with Jesus’ last supper with his disciples speaks to the fact that wherever Jesus is present there is love, there is healing, and there is enough food for everyone.

Today whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we remind each other of the great feast to come.

Our celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of the feast to come when all of God’s people are fed and there is enough for all.

Jesus has compassion on us, he heals us, and he feeds us so that we are hungry no more.

In the night…

After worship today I will be distributing Holy Communion outside for those who desire to receive this sacrament.

For those of you who are at home and desire to receive the sacrament I would be happy to come to your home and meet you outside and distribute this sacrament to you.

You are welcome to call me or to send me an email and I will come to your home, meet with you outside, and I will give to you this sacrament.

This is but a foretaste of the feast but the meal foreshadows the great day when all of God’s people will join in the heavenly feast and there will be plenty for everyone.

Amen.

 

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This past week I finished reading through the book of 1 Kings in the Bible.

In the book of 1 Kings we are introduced to the great prophet, Elijah.

The name Elijah means my God is Yahweh.

Yahweh is the name of Hebrew God of the Old Testament.

In 1 Kings God called Elijah to confront the people that worshipped the Canaanite god, Baal.

In doing so Elijah demonstrated to the people the strong power of God.

In calling upon God Elijah defeats the prophets of the false god at Mount Carmel and fire descends from heaven upon the altar of the false god.

Soon after this Elijah travels for forty days and forty nights until he reaches Horeb, the mountain of God.

There at that mountain God speaks to Elijah in a still, small voice.

In this mysterious encounter with God, God provides a new companion and friend.

God calls Elijah to anoint Elisha as a prophet who will eventually be Elijah’s successor.

The name Elisha means my God is salvation.

From this point forward Elisha will be Elijah’s friend for the rest of his life.

On the mountaintop God also gives Elijah a new job and helps Elijah to have a new perspective on his life.

Elijah was a strong and brave prophet but he also struggled with fear and discouragement.

God ministered to Elijah when he needed encouragement and God helped him to continue his work.

Elijah ran from his calling to serve as the prophet of Yahweh.

He ran out of fear for his life.

But by God’s grace he was able to remain devoted to God through his mystical encounter with the Lord at Horeb.

At the end of his life Elijah was only the second person in the Bible who was taken up to heaven without actually dying.

Later in 2 Kings God suddenly takes Elijah up into heaven in a chariot of fire with horses of fire.

And remarkably this happens while he was still alive.

This is a fascinating scene to read about in the Bible.

On a side not here don’t ever let anyone tell you that reading the Bible is boring.

If someone tells you that they probably have never read about the fiery prophet, Elijah and how Elijah was taken up into heaven through a chariot on fire with horses on fire.

Now in the Bible the only other person who was taken alive to heaven was Enoch.

Enoch is mentioned in the Bible in the book of Genesis.

In Genesis chapter five we hear:  “Enoch walked faithfully with God and then God took him away.”

It does not say that he died only that God takes him when he is 365 years old.

So in this case I think God says it’s time for Enoch to go and then God simply takes him.

Now back to Elijah.

This morning what can we take away from the prophet, Elijah this man of God?

First, and I believe this point is so important especially at this time, remember that you are not alone.

It may feel that way sometimes and it might even at times appear to be so but we are never alone.

In the book of Hebrews we hear that we are always surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

Elijah felt that he was the only defender of God’s ways.

He says to God, “I alone am left.”

But God assured him that there were many others that were still faithfully.

People that had not turned away to serve other gods.

And God brought Elisha into his life so that he might have a true friend and companion in the Lord.

During this time of the pandemic I hope that our community, this congregation, has been a blessing for you.

With the help of Ron and Carol we have created together this beautiful little, interactive community through our on-line worship and now through meeting in person.

In the past five months I hope that whenever you tuned in or came to worship that you were able to find peace and friendship and most importantly I pray that were able to experience God’s presence just as Elijah did on that mountain.

Again in the book of Hebrews we hear let us consider how we might spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together… but always encouraging one another.

Secondly, by God’s grace continue to remain strong in your faith.

Elijah challenged 450 priests of Baal at Mount Carmel and because God was on his side Elijah ended up on top.

God will see us through the challenges and difficulties of life when we remain faithful to him.

Christ will lead us to victory from that which would harm us and take us away from God.

Like Elijah God will give us the encouragement and strength to do the work that God has called us to do and God will help us to do it well.

God will give us a voice to speak words of peace, justice, love, and grace.

And lastly, know that God is with us even now God is with us.

Elijah is remembered as this great and fiery prophet but he also struggled greatly in his own life.

He faced the demons of fear, depression, and discouragement like many of the other prophets and priest in Scripture.

During that time of great discouragement when he chooses to run in fear to Horeb in order to escape his work and calling.

What does God do?

God intervenes and God give Elijah the push that he needs to continue being faithful.

Have there been times in your life when you have felt overcome with fear or discouragement?

As God ministered to Elijah so too can God come to our aid when we need help.

God knows us and he knows our needs… he also knows our weaknesses.

God can help us.

God will help us even in the hour of our greatest need.

In the Bible Elijah is known as a truly great prophet.

Even Jesus speaks about Elijah in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus speaks about the prophetic work of God through Elijah.

The Apostle Paul speaks about Elijah in Romans as he uses Elijah’s story to make a point about God’s grace.

Elijah even appears with Moses at the transfiguration of our Lord on the mountaintop.

And in James we hear that Elijah was simply a man but that he prayed earnestly and God heard him.

In James, by using Elijah as an example, James make an important point about prayer and how we should pray for and encourage one another in the faith.

James then gives that often quoted verse from Scripture:  The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

Remembering the prophet Elijah may we take to heart this great truth.

Never underestimate the power of prayer and the power of God.

God can come to us even in a moment of sheer silence.

May you continue being faithful to the Lord.

This coming week may you see Christ in new and surprising ways.

Amen.

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August 16, 2020 – Hold Fast to God’s Covenant

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to hold fast to God’s covenant.

Now what does it mean to hold fast to God’s covenant?

This morning we heard a reading from the book of Isaiah.

The book of Isaiah is roughly in the middle of the Bible right after the Song of Solomon and before the book of Jeremiah.

The book of Isaiah is one of the best-known books in the Old Testament.

Isaiah is often quoted in the New Testament and it is the longest of the prophetic books in the Old Testament.

The book offers both words of judgment and words of hope and promise.

This particular Isaiah reading speaks of commitment and faithfulness to God.

In the book of Isaiah chapter 56 verse six we hear:

“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant… (and then the prophet continues) (these people) will I bring to my holy mountain.”

Those who hold fast to my covenant.

The Bible is filled with the word covenant.

In the Old Testament the word covenant is used 280 times and in the New Testament it is used 33 times.

The word is used to describe two or more groups coming together.

It refers to two groups coming together in a tight unbreakable bond.

In the Bible when covenant is used between God and God’s people God initiates the covenant between God and the people.

God decides how the covenant will be lived out and God confirms and seals the covenant with his people.

In this Isaiah reading one of the key ways that God’s people hold fast to the covenant is by keeping the Sabbath.

God’s people had just returned home from the exile in Babylon.

The people were trying to figure out how to begin a new now that they were back home.

And while they are figuring out their new life together, they are not to forget the Sabbath.

This is more than simply taking one day off a week to rest.

Here Isaiah is reminding the returning exiles to remember the deeply intimate bond that God has with God’s people.

Sabbath keeping is a way for the people to remain in relationship with God.

Keeping the Sabbath was a way for the people to remember each and every week that they have a very special bond with God – it was the mark that they were God’ people the Israelites who have a covenant with the creator of the whole world.

In addition to keeping the Sabbath as a holy day set aside during the week to worship God the people are to love God, to do justice and what is right, and to refrain from evil.

This response to God holds fast God’s covenant with us.

Those who are faithful hold fast to the covenant.

In the Bible God is constantly and relentlessly reminding the people of his covenant with them.

And when God’s people break God’s covenant the relationship is not destroyed because God continues to remain faithful to God’s people.

You find this truth again and again in the Bible.

In fact, in another book in the Old Testament the book of Jeremiah chapter thirty-one we hear this great promise proclaimed:  “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, said the Lord.  But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, said the Lord:  I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.”

In Jeremiah we hear the prophecy of a new covenant.

God promises to keep God’s covenant with God’s people even though in the Old Testament the covenant was broken again and again as people chased after false gods.

Today we believe that God made the new covenant with us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It is why every time that we hear the Words of Institution we hear these words:  “Then he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it to all to drink saying this cup is the new covenant shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.”

Have you noticed that the word covenant is used in the Words of Institution?

When I was in seminary, I was taught to never distribute Holy Communion without first saying the Words of Institution so that the people can make the connection of this new covenant that God makes with us through Jesus Christ.

Every time we receive Holy Communion, we remember the covenant that we have with God.

The cup of Christ is the real presence of our Lord which seals the new covenant with us.

The cup is God’s unconditional love for us spilled out through the death of Christ.

The promise of the covenant is for us… true forgiveness for you and for all of God’s people.

Our response to God is that of faithfulness to God and to the ways of our Lord.

We continue to hold fast to the covenant and the promises that come from the covenant – life today and tomorrow and eternal life in the age to come.

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September 6, 2020 – Peace and Conflict

Today Jesus offers practical advice in how to deal with conflict within the Christian community.

Conflict is not something new for the church.

Conflict has always been a part of church life from the beginning.

With this teaching Jesus gives us real help in how to work through conflict in a healthy manner.

The last thing that God wants is for the fellowship of the people of God to be broken.

Let’s take a closer look at this Scripture reading.

Verse fifteen:  “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

Here Jesus is saying to go and to see the person, one on one.

This is the first and maybe most important step.

Jesus teaches us here to reach out to the person.

According to this teaching we are not to involve other people yet.

Rather, Jesus teaches us to go and to find the person that you have the conflict with and to speak directly to that person.

In today’s age of technology this does not mean to send the person a text or a Facebook message.

This means to actually go to the person face to face for a real conversation.

Let me pause here for just a moment to let this really to sink in.

I would say that this first step takes tremendous courage, humility, and grace.

Often our natural reaction to a conflict is that of turning away from the person in anger and resentment or to speak badly about that person to other people.

If we find the courage to seek out the person to share our truth and then to listen to the other person’s truth, we sometimes find that the relationship is not only healed but is strengthen.

This is not always the case of course, but I will simply speak from personal experience, if I meet directly with a person, that I am having a conflict with, I often find healing in the face to face encounter.

There is just something about meeting directly with a person where positive, life-giving reconciliation can and often does happen.

But if it does not happen and sometimes this does not work then Jesus offers us a second way.

Verse sixteen:  “If you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you.”

The conflict is not getting resolved.

You spoke directly with the person and nothing happened.

Maybe the situation even got worse.

And so, you explain the situation to another person.

This time you involve another person.

That person then goes with you and the both of you confront the person once again.

This step also takes great courage.

Before getting to this next step you must take a hard look at the situation.

Rarely, in a conflict situation, is one person entirely innocent.

Do you have a part in the sin?

Do you need to hear some uncomfortable things about yourself?

Are you able to work out your part in the conflict?

When you are able then you are ready to go to the person.

Finally, if this still does not work, as a last resort, you involve the whole congregation in the conflict situation.

And if there is real sin and evil involved, and the person is not willing to face it, there is to be a break in the fellowship.

True forgiveness and reconciliation can only come after the sin is named and forgiven.

Once this happens you are able to gather once again in the name of Christ and your gathering will be blessed by God.

Jesus teaches us that he does not want us to come together if we have sin in our hearts for another member of the Body of Christ.

In fact, earlier in the Gospel of Mathew chapter five Jesus says,

“If you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar.  Go and be reconciled to that person.  Then come and offer your sacrifice to God.”

Again that is from Matthew chapter five.

You see a person’s broken relationship with someone will interfere with that person’s relationship with Christ.

If the conflict remains worship is also deeply affected.

If it feels like you are not getting a lot out of worship, if it feels like God is absent – then examine your life.

Is there someone in your life that you need to forgive?

Is there someone in your life that you need to talk to?

Don’t hold in your anger.

Jesus teaches us here in this Gospel reading to talk it out – to keep communication open.

This does not mean to gossip or to speak badly about the person to another person.

This means we are to enter into the hard work of engaging in real, maybe even painful conversation.

This is hard work.

This is difficult.

I have certainly been here where I have been more eager to speak badly about another person then to go directly to that person in order to resolve a conflict.

But these are the words of Jesus.

We abandon this teaching to our own peril.

Lastly, remember this -after Jesus teaches us to do this difficult conflict work, he leaves us with a promise.

When you do this difficult work, Jesus says to us – remember I am with you.

Verse twenty:  “For where two or three gather together I am there.”

Jesus is saying here that when we come together to work out the conflict he is there.

Let me say that again when we come together to face the conflict and to speak about the conflict Christ is there.

This advice is for the church but I wonder how it might apply to the larger communities in which we live – maybe even to our country.

From what I know and from the life I have lived so far, I have never seen so much conflict and division in our county.

It is scary.

And the conflict is close to home with the recent shooting of Jacob Blake.

Sadly, one of the primary ways we handle conflict today is through social media.

Many of us have witnessed firsthand the loss of friendships and breaks in relationships simply through social media posts.

I am afraid it is only going to get worse in the next few months.

Heightened emotions, extreme polarities, intense levels of conviction, and deep personal attachments to issues that we hold dear creates a perfect environment for conflict and division.

At times it feels like we are very far from the Apostle Paul’s words from Roman’s today, “Love your neighbors as yourself.”

Can we remember that we are permanently connected to Christ through his great love for us?

In response to Christ’s love we continue to pay it forward meaning that we show love and grace and forgiveness to others because that is what Jesus shows us.

In doing so we begin to cultivate that inner peace within -it is a peace that is more precious than gold.

For what will it profit us if we even gain the whole world but then lose our soul?

May we come back to the Lord.

May we find ourselves growing ever deeper in our relationship with God.

But just as social media can be the problem it can also be part of the solution to the problem.

I recently came across this post on Facebook that I would like to share to conclude my sermon.

It reads simply:

“Post wisely over the next few months.

Contribute to discourse, not division.

Check your facts.

Resist memes and cheap digs.

Create beautiful content.

Lastly, we can transcend the bitterness and be better, even when we disagree.”

Community, reconciliation, peace-work, grace, and forgiveness – this is the way of following and gathering in the name of Jesus.

Amen.

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September 13, 2020 – Stewardship Sermon

In my personal devotional time, I have been reading through the book of Nehemiah in Old Testament.

Nehemiah was a great leader.

He helped the Jewish people to rebuild the walls and gates around Jerusalem.

Nehemiah also helped the Jewish people to return back to the Lord and to remember the Lord’s ways.

One thing that Nehemiah reminds the people of Israel to continue practicing is the spiritual practice of tithing.

In chapter ten beginning with verse thirty-five of Nehemiah we hear these words:

“We promise to bring the first part of every harvest to the Lord’s temple year after year -whether it be a crop from the soil or from our fruit trees.  We agree to give to God our oldest sons and the firstborn of all our herds and flocks, as prescribed by the Law.  We will present them to the priest who minister in the Temple of our God.  We will store the produce in the storerooms of the Temple of our God.  We will bring the best of our flour and other grain offerings, the best of our fruit, and the best of our new wine and olive oil.  And we promise to bring to the Levites a tenth of everything our land produces, for it is the Levites who collect the tithes in all our rural town.  A priest – a descendant of Aaron -w ill be with the Levites as they receive these tithes.  And a tenth of all that is collected as tithes will be delivered by the Levites to the Temple of our God and placed in the storerooms.  The people and the Levites must bring these offerings of grain, new wine, and olive oil to the storerooms and place them in the sacred containers near the ministering priest, the gatekeepers, and the singers.  We promise together not to neglect the Temple of our God.”

Here Nehemiah is reinstating the spiritual practice of tithing to God’s people.

The practice of tithing was first instituted at the time of the exodus when the people escaped from slavery.

Now Nehemiah is simply reminding the people to not forget this spiritual practice for the Lord.

The practice of tithing was seen as a visible way of living out your faith in the Old Testament.

Tithing helped the people to understand that you offer to God your best.

You gave to God your best grain, your best crops, your best wine.

You gave to God your first and your best of what you have not what is left over.

We give to God the first portion of our time, our money, and our talents.

This ancient spiritual practice still holds value today.

God gives to us everything that we have.

Our wealth, our food, our clothes, our homes, even our very lives comes from God.

We believe this to be true.

In a world where there is so much poverty and suffering God’s teaches us that we are not meant to accumulate large storage barns of wealth.

Even the church can be tempted to fall into the temptation.

That is why it is important even for the church to tithe.

Every month our congregation gives ten percent of its offering gifts to the wider church for mission and for mission.

On top of that tithe our congregation supports our ministries such as Lutherdale Bible Camp, Lutheran Social Services, CROP Walk, ELCA World Hunger, Lutheran Campus Ministries, and our local food pantry.

Just recently our church gave a gift to the Williams Bay school to help those children who need a little extra help with school supplies.

All of this giving keeps our congregation humble and connected to God knowing that we are able to continue moving forward as a church because we are caught up in the mission of God.

Tithing helps us from getting caught in the trap of materialism and it helps us to reevaluate what is most important in our lives – is it found in the things of this world or is it found in God?

In my own life I have found tithing to be a very difficult practice to follow along with it being a blessing.

At times when I wanted to give up tithing my wife Kalen has been quick to help me to see the importance of tithing and to persist in this practice.

Blessed indeed is the one whose spouse encourages such a practice when you when to quite practicing such a difficult spiritual discipline.

True joy, true peace, true happiness cannot be found in the things of this world.

God gives us things in this world for our own benefit but all we can take with us from this world is our soul.

And our souls are not for sell.

Jesus has paid for our souls on the cross.

His grace and forgiveness are real and lasting.

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