Agnus Day

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Sunday, October 8

A Gift

Below is my manuscript for my sermons on Sunday, October 8. We are beginning a five week series focusing on themes for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. The lessons were Ephesians 2.3-10 and John 3.16-21. Recordings from the three services are here, here and here, each had some audio issues.

What happens to us when we die?

Believe it or not, that was at the center of what started the movement we know as the Reformation. The Catholic understanding, which was the only understanding that mattered at the time, was that souls spent time in purgatory. Purgatory is like a waiting room, where your soul spends time to get rid of residual sins; you must be purified, if you can, before you enter heaven. 

This became important to a German monk and theologian named Martin Luther. Near the town where he served as pastor and professor, representatives of the Pope were selling indulgences. Indulgences were certificates that assured you, by the power of the Pope to forgive sins, that you could purchase a cancellation of certain amounts of time for someone in Purgatory. 

In other words, you make a donation to the Church, and you reduce a time that a loved one’s soul spends in Purgatory. The sales pitch was, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul out of purgatory springs.” 

So, how much do you love your mother, or father, or grandparents. Will you buy yourself a sweater to fight the chill of the upcoming winter, or will you deliver someone from hundreds of years of torment? People flocked to buy indulgences, even at the expense of providing food and heat for their families. How good was the indulgence selling business? It paid for St. Michael’s Basillica in Rome. 

Luther objected to the sales of indulgences, and thought that this was a case of people abusing the trust put into them by the Pope. He thought that if he brought this to the attention of the Pope, the sales would stop. So he wanted the matter to be brought to light and discussed. He wrote his arguments, his Ninety-Five Thesis, and posted them on the doors of the church in Wittenburg on the day before the most highly attended worship service of the year, All Saint’s Day. All Saint’s Day is November 1st. Luther tacked his thesis to the door the day before, October 31, 1517. From that day, we mark the beginning of the Reformation, and celebrate it’s 500th year now.

What started as a complaint about a fellow employee spun far beyond the control of either Luther or the Catholic Church. Each side became entrenched in its positions, not only unwilling to concede an inch of theological ground to the other, but constantly brought other matters into the fight. Like any good family fight, eventually all of the dirty laundry was going to be aired. Additional issues, the role of clergy, the authority of scripture versus tradition, the nature of Holy Communion and others have come to divide our two traditions in the past 500 years. 

In the past 50 years, there has been more communication and cooperation between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran traditions than in the previous 400. We focus on where we agree, and even on how close we are on the things where we will not agree. But it all started over what happens when we die.

The focal point of Luther’s arguments against the sale of indulgences is in Thesis 82, Why does not the Pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there?” If the Pope can free people from damnation, why not just do it? 

Luther lived most of his early life in fear of being condemned to Hell for his sins. Becoming a priest did nothing to lessen this fear, if anything, it made it worse. He would daily confess the smallest potential sin, the tiniest temptation because he did not want to have an unconfessed and unforgiven sin hanging on him. It was not until he studied the letter to the Romans that he understood that the gift of God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness came not from what we do, but from what God has already done through the life, death, and resurrection of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ. 

While Luther leaned on Romans, I believe the two passages we heard earlier spell out how God deals with our disobedience and sin. 

Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, the Pharisee who has come to him to understand who Jesus is, in our passage from John’s Gospel. The first line of the Gospel text, John 3:16, is probably the most well known verse from the Bible, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” But I believe that the next verse, John 3:17, is just as important for us to understand. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Luther, and many others, including many people today, believe that God wants to punish us for our sins and disobedience. They choose to focus on condemnation and punishment, rather than love. 

God loved, and loves, the world so much that God sent God’s son into the world, knowing he would be rejected. But Jesus came into the world so it could be saved through him, not condemned by him. 

The last part of verse 17 also points out what is written in greater detail in the letter to the Ephesians. Jesus became a living, breathing man so “that the world might be saved through him.” His mission was, and is, to save the world. The world is saved through him, through what he did. Our individual salvation, the determination of our fate is much to important for God to leave it up to us. 

In the letter to the Ephesian church, we hear, “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him.” Out of love, God ignored and our sins and trespasses, erasing them from existence. These faults and failures should leave us dead, without hope of salvation or life after our death. But because God is rich in mercy, we are joined with Christ, seen as sinless and without fault, and are saved and raised up, just as Jesus was. 

It is clear that we, and the world, are saved through the works Jesus has done. Our works, both good and bad, do not save us, nor do they condemn us. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

By grace, the grace of God, we are saved. We are saved, forgiven, found faultless because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, going to the cross to suffer and die. He did this out of love, to show us we cannot do anything to lose God’s love. Not even killing the Son of God.

Our forgiveness has nothing to do with us, but has everything to do with God, and God’s love for us. It is a gift. I think too often we miss what that word means. You don’t earn a gift. A gift isn’t, or shouldn’t be given out of obligation. A gift is an expression of love. It means, ‘I love you, and to try to show you how much I love you, I have this for you.’ God loves the world so much God gave God’s son to us, and forgives us for all of the times we failed and fell short of responding to that love. 

The good that we do, the ways we share God’s love with others comes not to earn God’s love or mercy, but in response to that gift of grace. “We are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” We are made in the image of God to do God’s work in the world with our hands. We have been blessed to be a blessing to others. We are forgiven so we can give of ourselves to those in need. We have been saved so we can serve a hurting world.

So, what happens to us when we die? 

We have been promised to be “seated … with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” To be there, we do not have to purchase forgiveness. It has been purchased for us already. 

This is an understanding, that even after 500 years of division, both Lutherans and Catholics can agree to. God loves the world and sent Jesus, through whom the world is saved, by the grace of God. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, August 17

Ten Years On

Ten years ago this morning, I started a new adventure.

Just before 8:30 am, I walked from my new apartment into a new building, sat in the front row and began to learn Greek from a brilliant, hilarious, rabbit hating, lamination loving, table hopping New Testament scholar.

I also met some of my dearest friends and most faithful leaders of the church. Many of them scared me. Some said they had wanted to be a pastor since before they were teenagers. I thought some of them still were teenagers. I hadn't even thought of being a pastor until a little old lady suggested in just over a year earlier.

This group of people who gathered in Valentine 310 that morning (and several others along the way) have helped me in immeasurable ways. They have inspired, challenged, comforted, cajoled, kicked me in the ass, prayed for, hugged, motivated, questioned, tutored, accepted and just been there for me for each day since. They have done everything from inviting me to study sessions, teaching me how to order at Sheetz with touch screens, introduce me to Facebook, and Yuengling. That was just the first weekend.

I give thanks to God for them every day. I give thanks to God for the Gospel they proclaim, the lives they change, the churches they serve, and the good works they do, just because they’re good.

For the last ten years, and for all the years to follow, thank you.

To quote the Dead, “Lately, it has occurred to me, what a long, strange trip it’s been.”

μὴ φοβηθῇς


Love, and Reject Hate

This is an article I wrote for a local newspaper for a column by local pastors.

I feel that I must address the protest by white nationalists, white supremacists and Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend.
They began on Friday night by surrounding a church where clergy and community leaders gathered in prayer before preparing to be a counter-protest the next day. Outside of the church, the crowd chanted Nazi slogans and threatened violence.
On Saturday, clergy and members of their church gathered in the park where the protest was to go, and sang hymns. The protesters came because a statue of a Confederate general was being removed. The community had decided that it was a symbol of hate and division, and should come down.
After their rally, many of the white supremacists used the clubs and shields they brought with them to beat on those who came out to speak against their protest. One extremist drove his car into a group of other cars, killing at least one person, and injuring dozens of others.
I salute my fellow members of the clergy who put themselves in harm’s way to protest hate.
My tradition and denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, approved a social statement on racism several years ago. It defines racism as: “a mix of power, privilege, and prejudice. (It) is sin, a violation of God’s intention for humanity. The resulting racial, ethnic, or cultural barriers deny the truth that all people are God’s creatures and, therefore, persons of dignity. Racism fractures and fragments both church and society.
To be in Christ, to be a member of the body of Christ, to follow what Christ has commanded means that we are to love. Scripture, time after time, calls us to love; to love the Lord our God, to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength, to love our neighbor, to love one another, to love the foreigner or stranger (Leviticus 19:33-34), to love our enemies.
The command to love trumps all other commands.
God wants us, calls us, commands us to love all of what God has created for our benefit. To not love, to hate is to reject the will of God. And to not point out and condemn that hate only feeds the fuel of that hatred.
By the will and command of God, love trumps hate.
When that hate takes the form of using the defeated and disgraced flags, slogans, mottos and actions of the confederacy and Nazi Germany, it is easy to reject and refute. Or it should be. When it takes the form of subtle prejudices, comments, and biases, it should be just as easy to reject and refute, especially if it is being done by those close to you.
None of us would hesitate to warn someone that the oven is hot. None of us would hesitate to warn someone of danger.
Then why do most of us refuse to speak up when people are sowing the seeds of hatred?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran Pastor, who died fighting the Nazi movement in his country wrote, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel of injustice. We are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
Following Christ means doing what he did, doing what he told us to do. He told us to love. He told us to reject hate.
Will you reject racism? Or will you reject God?

Pastor Brian Robert Campbell
ONE in Christ Lutheran Parish
Our Savior’s + Greenwood; Nazareth + Withee, Emmanuel + Longwood

Sunday, August 13

What does it mean to be in Christ?

Below is my sermon for Sunday, August 13. It is based on Ephesians 1.1-14. We will be using Ephesians for a sermon series for the rest of August. An audio version is here.

We are going to spend the rest of August with our text being from the letter to the Ephesians. I’d encourage you to take time and read the whole letter. It isn’t that long; only 6 chapters. It probably is only 3 or 4 pages in your Bible.

I also encourage you to read it because it is a very general letter. Unlike almost every other letter, it doesn’t address any local or individual concern. There aren’t any issues you have to read between the lines to figure out. This is a very generic letter. One of my professors said it was almost a form letter.

That is what makes it good to read. It is a straightforward, basic explanation of what it means to be a follower of Christ, what we receive and what we are to do. It reviews theme after theme: God, Christ, the church, our means of salvation, Christian behavior, and spiritual struggles.

The first chapter explains what it means to be in Christ. And to explain that, I’m going to refer to parts of high school English or composition classes that many of us have forgotten if we even retained it.

In most sentences, you have the direct object and an indirect object. The direct object does something that effects, or acts upon, the indirect object. The Packers beat the Eagles last Thursday. The Packers are the direct object. They acted upon the Eagles, who are the indirect object, by beating them.

In this part of the letter to the Ephesians, once you get past the initial greeting, and the statement that God should be blessed, in each sentence and statement, we have the same direct object, God, and the same indirect object, us. All of this part of the letter describes what God has done for us, and on our behalf.

  • (God) has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.
  • just as (God) chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.
  • (God) destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ

Before the world was created, God planned and picked us to be holy, another word for righteous, another word for justified, and blameless, another word for forgiven. God has provided every spiritual blessing for us. God has adopted us to be God’s children.

God chose us. God has blessed and showered us with blessings, but has done all of these things through Jesus Christ. God (direct object) has acted upon us (indirect object) through Jesus. We have received these things because we are “in Christ.”

So, what does it mean to be “in Christ.”

If you ran into someone last Friday morning, and they asked you how the Packers did the night before, how would you respond?

Some of you might have said, “They won.” But, most of you would have said, “We won. We beat the Eagles.” You would have said that because you have a connection, an affinity, a relationship with the Packers. You celebrate when they do well, you mourn when they do not. You are in them, they are in you.

We are in Christ. But there is a different relationship between what happened to Him and what happens to us.

  • In him we have redemption through his blood.
    • The disobedience and rejection we have shown to go is erased,
      we are redeemed BECAUSE of Christ’s blood shed on the cross.
    • the forgiveness of our trespasses, (are gone)
      according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us
      • He has taken our trespasses and gives us grace upon grace
  • In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance
    • Earlier, it was written that we have been adopted by God through Christ
    • Now, we will receive a portion of what God has, again, by being in Christ.
    • God has called us to be a part of God’s purpose, for the accomplishment of all things that God wants done
      • In doing so, those who have set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory,
        • By realizing, all things can be done by God, and only by God, we may be able to praise, tell about what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do, giving all of the credit to God.

Part of living as members of God’s family, adopted and inheritors, means to live AS members of God’s family. It means to act as we are called to act, and to speak out and speak up when we don’t.

As I wrote this message yesterday, I was following the horrible events in Charlottesville, Virginia where a protest by white nationalists, white supremacists and Nazis turned violent. Then it turned deadly.

While I struggled on what to say, I saw the statement from the Virginia Synod of the ELCA, and I share it with you.

As members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), we stand against all forms of hatred and discrimination. We believe that cultural, ethnic and racial differences should be seen and celebrated as what God intends them to be – blessings rather than means of oppression and discrimination. We are a church that belongs to Christ, where there is a place for everyone. Christ’s church is not ours to control, nor is it our job to sort, divide, categorize or exclude.
The ELCA’s social statement, “Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity and Culture” states: “Racism—a mix of power, privilege, and prejudice—is sin, a violation of God’s intention for humanity. The resulting racial, ethnic, or cultural barriers deny the truth that all people are God’s creatures and, therefore, persons of dignity. Racism fractures and fragments both church and society.”
We stand in solidarity with clergy and community members who will gather August 12 in Charlottesville to reject the hatred and discrimination of white supremacy.
To be in Christ means to share God’s love with everyone, and to reject hate to anyone. You cannot be in Christ and hate others.  To be in Christ means to be on the side of the oppressed, and the marginalized.

Racism takes the privilege of power and uses it to hold down, and beat down those who are not like them. It is when the white culture reacts to any challenge to their way being the only way, and reacts by proclaiming their entitlement. It is taking up the flags, slogans, mottos and actions of defeated and disgraced causes like the Confederacy and Nazis, and trying to use them as implements of terror.

Being in Christ is deciding which side you are on. The side of love, or the side of hate.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran Pastor, who died fighting the Nazi movement in his country wrote, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel of injustice. We are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
May God have mercy on those who live with hate in their hearts. May God protect those who live in systems of oppression and abuse. May God call all who live in Christ to stand up, speak up and act as one of God’s own.

God’s love is for all and forever. Amen.

Thursday, June 22

A Modern Parable

Bang when the door, as a girl comes home from school with tears in her eyes and throws her backpack to the ground. Her mother comes over to her, puts her arm around her and asks what is wrong. The other children also come in, and look at the little girl and shake their heads.
Lifting her daughter’s chin with her finger, the mother asks again, what is wrong. Between her sobs, the little girl says she never wants to go back to school again. When asked why, she says that everyone is mean to her and bullies her.
As they walk into another room, the mother gives her daughter a hug, and they sit down on the couch, her arm still cradling the little girl. She asks her daughter for specifics, exactly what happened to her. The little girl said everyone picks on her.
Cautiously, the girl begins her story. When she walks down the hall, people move away from her, like they are afraid. When she passes by, they whisper and talk about her behind her back. Some made noises.
Knowing the worst part of the day, the girl sniffled before continuing. In class, she turned in her homework, but she had made a mistake. She had skipped a question, so all of her answers were for the following problem. When the teacher realized the girl’s mistake, she pointed it out to the whole class and made fun of her. She went back to her desk and cried through the rest of class.

Lunch was approaching, and the girl hoped for a calm in the storm. But when the bell rang, the teacher told her to get at the back of the line, because she had been making a disturbance.
In the lunch room, the little girl couldn’t find a place to sit. There were no seats available, or those that were empty, were being “saved.” She had to sit by herself at a table that was lopsided, and tilted and clanked whenever she pushed her fork into her food.
Various other events happened through the rest of the day. The girl was tripped as she went to the board. When she turned her back, her pencils were taken. Nothing malicious, just constant reminders that she was different.
Excited for the end of the day, when the bell rang to dismiss classes, she ran down the hall, wanting to get out of school as fast as she could. One of the student hall monitors stopped her and pushed her against the wall, yelling at her that she shouldn’t be running in the halls. The monitor kept yelling at her, and she tried to push by so she could get to her bus.
Suddenly, other hall monitors saw this and came, beginning to push her and shove her into the lockers. They said that she assaulted the other hall monitor and should be expelled. As they were doing this, they continuously called her names and insulted her.

Meanwhile, her siblings come into the room. The mother asked why they didn’t help their sister, and they say that nobody helped them with their problems, and that she needs to stand on her own two feet.
Angry and hurt by the reaction of her brothers and sisters, the young girl began to cry again.
The mother gave her daughter a deep and strong hug, the type of hug that only a mother can give. Then she took her daughter’s tear stained face, held it in both of her hands, and looked deep into her eyes.
The mother said, “My dear, I am so sorry that you had to deal with all of that. But know that I love you.”
Erupting from their seat, the other children were angry. They wondered why their mother told only the daughter that she was loved. Surely, the mother loves all her children.
Responding calmly, the mother said, “Yes, I love all my children. But right now, your sister is hurting, and I want to reassure her that she is loved. While I love you, I am disappointed that none of you helped your sister. I thought I had raised you to help those in need, those in peril, whether it was your sister or not. Right now, she needs to know she is loved; that is what matters.”

God loves all of God’s children, but especially those who need to know they are loved.

Sunday, April 16

Disciple or Apostle?

This is my sermon text for Easter Sunday, April 16. The lesson is John 20,1-18, John's telling of the Empty Tomb and First Resurrection appearance. My message focuses on the Apostle to the Apostles, Mary Magdalene, (right) depicted in an icon that might have been the inspiration for one of my recent tattoos.

May God’s grace & mercy be with you forever. Amen.

There is a difference between the two terms that we use to describe those who travelled with, and followed Jesus. We refer to them as disciples and as apostles. The two terms are often used interchangeably. But they shouldn’t be. They have different meanings; they describe different roles. A disciple is a student, a follower. In the Jewish culture of the time, a disciple would study and learn under the supervision of a rabbi. An apostle is someone who has been sent out to perform a duty or set of responsibilities. An apostle may have begun as a disciple and learned, but then has progressed and moved on, and has been given the responsibility of doing what they have learned about. In short, a disciple learns, while an apostle uses what they have learned.

On the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene goes to the garden where the tomb of her rabbi, Jesus, has been laid. She arrives in the garden and sees that the stone set in front of the tomb has been moved. Her immediate response is to be afraid, and to not want to be alone. So she runs to retrieve two disciples, Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. She assumes someone has stolen Jesus’ body from the tomb.

The two men race to the grave. The beloved disciple gets their first, looks into the empty tomb and sees only the linens that Jesus was wrapped in. Simon Peter arrives and dashes straight into the tomb. He is joined by the Beloved Disciple. They see the set of linens in one place, and cloth that covered Jesus face in another. They didn’t understand what had happened, but the Beloved Disciple believed. Then they went back to their homes.

It is only after the disciples leave that Mary Magdalene looks into the tomb. She sees not just the linens, but two angels sitting where Jesus’ body had laid. They ask her why she is crying. She tells them that someone has taken her Lord, and she doesn’t know where he is.

She turns around to see Jesus, but she doesn’t recognize him. He repeats the angels’ question, “Woman, why are you crying?” Assuming he is the gardener, she asks where he has taken Jesus’ body.

We hear very little about Mary Magdalene in the Gospels. Most of what we think we know is wrong. She was one of the women who followed Jesus from the Galilee area, helping to financially support his ministry. She had seven demons cast out of her, and she was with Jesus’ mother at the foot of the cross.
She was not a prostitute, and was not the woman thrown in front of Jesus that caused him to say, “Let anyone who is without sin cast the first stone.” She was not the one who anointed Jesus with oil. Instead, she was a disciple.

This group of women who travelled with, and supported, Jesus and those travelling with him are virtually ignored in the Gospels, other than a mention here and there. But when they are mentioned, we find that they have been travelling with Jesus since his time in Galilee. They’ve been along for almost the entire time. They have seen, and heard, and learned from Jesus just as have his male disciples.

Then the man who Mary thinks is the gardener calls her by name, “Mary.” She realizes it isn’t the gardener. It is the Risen Christ. It is her Lord, her rabbi. So she calls him by his title, “Rabbouni!

What does the Resurrection mean? What does that fact that He is risen (He is risen indeed!) mean? Why is the celebration of the remembrance of that day so important as to cause Christians to change the calendar? The Sabbath had always been the seventh day of the week, Saturday. The week-end was the last two days of the week, Friday and Saturday. But because they wanted to celebrate the resurrection as a special day, they moved the Sabbath to Sunday, the first day of the week, and adjusted the concept of the week-end to wrap around to the last day and first day of the week.

The early Christians wanted to mark this day on a weekly basis and reconfigured the way we mark time in order to do so. So what does it mean that the tomb was empty and that He is risen (He is risen indeed!) mean?

If this promise is true, if He really was raised, then the other promises are easier to accept. If you believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, as he told his disciples he would be, then you believe that God has the power to defeat death. If God raised the Son from the dead, and has promised to raise us from the dead as well, aren’t you more likely to believe the whole promise if the first part happened?

And if death has been defeated, then why do we doubt that God will forgive our sins? Why do we doubt that God loves us? Why do we doubt that God wants us to love others with the love given to us?

That is why Easter is so important, the most important day each year in our tradition. Because if you believe He is risen (He is risen indeed!) then everything else is easier to believe.

And if you’re sitting there, not believing, or not sure you believe, that’s ok. God believes in you, and loves you. God wants you to see the love God has for you, to feel the forgiveness provided for you, to know the grace given for you. God wants you to encounter God’s loving-kindness in your life, either on you own, or through others.

Jesus tells Mary to tell his brothers, his disciples, that he will be ascending to God. She goes to the disciples “I have seen the Lord;” and she told them that he had said these things to her.” Having heard and learned, she was sent out and given a mission. That is why Mary Magdalene is known as the Apostle’s Apostle. She was sent out to proclaim the Good News to those whom Jesus had sent out.

If you believe that He is risen (He is risen indeed!) and know what the Lord can do, you have to make a decision. Do you go home, like the Peter and the Beloved Disciple, either not understanding or believing, or do you go and tell? Having heard the Good News that Jesus Christ has been raised (He is risen indeed!) do you sit on that information and keep it to yourself, or do you tell others of God’s love and share the Good News?

Will you stay a student and follower, or will you answer God’s call to go and proclaim the Good News to all the nations, to feed the hungry, take care of the sick and the poor? Will you be a disciple or an apostle?
On this holy day, I give thanks to God for the Apostle’s Apostle, Mary Magdalene and her proclamation that “I have seen the Lord!” I give thanks to God for modern day apostles who continue that proclamation, those who go and do what Christ has called us to do through our baptisms.


Saturday, March 25

Thy, not my, but why

Its thy will, not mine.
On loss and death, I ask why.
And I wait, and trust.

We are given so
many blessings; love and gifts.
It hurts when they go.

Memories we want.
A last, final hug/smile/glance,
A little more time.

Pain makes us forget
We're promised eternity
with loved ones and Love.

We forget our time
Is limited here on Earth.
Its thy will, not mine.


Sunday, March 12

Bonus Time

Here is the text from my sermon on March 12, 2017. The lesson is Luke 13:1-9, 31-35.

Last Monday was a day of remembrance for me.

Thirty-two years ago, on that day, on March 6th, I had a cold. I know this because my cold caused me to sleep in my room at the fraternity house I was living in at Alma College. Normally, I would have slept in the unheated attic, along with most of my fraternity brothers. The attic would be whatever temperature it was outside, and we would see who could stay up there and endure the cold.

We were in college, but that doesn’t mean we were smart.

I had a cold that day, so I slept in my room, along with my roommate. Around 7 am, we heard someone’s alarm clock going off. We assumed that someone got up early, or had hit snooze and had gone to take a shower, and we complained about their insensitivity.

Then our door was broken down. It wasn’t someone’s alarm clock. It was a smoke detector. The house was on fire, and we were oblivious to it, until someone realized we hadn’t gotten out of the house. If I had been in the attic, I would have gotten out minutes earlier, when most everyone else was awoken by the smoke detectors. Instead,  Pat Byrne broke down our door to get us out. Actually, he didn’t break the door. Ours was one of the room that still had a wall standing, and we went back into the wreckage days later. He snapped the deadbolt in half. 

If you are ever the last ones to get out of a burning house, it is good to have an all conference defensive end come to get you. Fortunately, everyone survived the fire; only two people had minor injuries.

I’ve also survived two car accidents in which both vehicles, mine and the other car, were totaled. I’ve been hit by cars twice when I was growing up. I almost fell off of a cabin cruiser into Lake Huron, and held onto the hand rail long enough for others to pull me back on board. My dad and I were on Saginaw Bay the day that the Edmund Fitzgerald sank, the storm caused us to take hours to get back to shore. Only years later, I found out how scared my dad was that we wouldn’t make it.

I know I’m on bonus time. Anyone of these incidents, and probably more I haven’t realized, could have ended my life.

In the first part of today’s lesson, Jesus is asked about a tragedy that had happened. For some reason, Pontius Pilate took the blood of some people from Galilee and mixed it with the blood of animals they had sacrificed. Jesus also mentions a recent incident about eighteen people dying from a tower collapsing in Siloam. Jesus assumes the crowd wants to know if these people had sinned, and that their deaths were punishment for their sins. He tells them the victims of these incidents were not terrible sinners, but unless those that he is speaking to repent, they too will die.

When a tragedy occurs, there tend to be three schools of thought. One, they got what they deserved. Two, God is punishing us for something. Three, God let this happen to undeserving people. It’s their fault. It’s somebody’s fault. It’s God’s fault.

Think about a tragedy, any recent tragedy. Lord knows, there is a wide selection to choose from.

In the aftermath of the disaster, someone will blame the victims. They shouldn’t have been there. They shouldn’t have done whatever they were doing.

Some will say God is trying to get us to change our course, to call us to repent, by showing us what could happen if we do not repent, and continue in whatever sinful behavior this person thinks we are persisting in.

Or others will wonder where God was in this tragedy, and why God didn’t stop it from happening. This theory becomes more prevalent the closer to home the tragedy strikes, and the closer connection one has to those who are effected by the tragedy. Because, if we know those involved, we are pretty sure they didn’t deserve it, so it is either that God did it, or God didn’t stop it.

I would like to propose another option.

People die. Things break. Nature is uncontrolled.

We are beings that will be on this world for a relatively short time. Some way too short. But our time on earth is limited. I saw a sign Friday with a morbid, but valid point. Play with your kids today, because tomorrow you are one day closer to death. While that isn’t greeting card material, it is absolutely true. Today, we are all one day closer to dying. It is a fact.

Many people, when they are confronted with their mortality, create a bucket list – a list of things they want to do before they die. These come from a sense of urgency, often because they have been told that their number of days that remain are small, and countable.

But we don’t know if the number of days that remain for us are in the tens of thousands, or in the tens.

In the parable of the fig tree, a landowner and his gardener are discussing a fig tree. For three years since it has been planted, the fig tree has been given everything that it need to bear fruit. As of yet, it has not. The landowner has had enough. He tells the gardener to rip it out. The gardener asks for one more chance, for one more year.

That’s my other option. Life happens, and where life happens, death is sure to follow. But rather than blaming God for either causing, or not preventing, tragedy, what if we give thanks to God for the second, and third, and fourth, and more chances that we are given.

I know I would not be here today if not for the grace of God, my father drilling into me to always wear a seat belt, for the sturdy construction of two General Motors automobiles, my father’s quick hands and sure rowing ability, as well as the explosive power of number 99, Patrick Byrne. And I wouldn’t be here without the love of my mother, the wisdom of two other wonderful women who mentored and guided me, the blessings of dozens of friends, and the insight of a couple of little old ladies of the church.

So I choose to focus on the unknown number of days ahead, and not on the missed out days of the past. Yes, I would have loved for my dad to have lived to see me graduate from Seminary and see me ordained. Yes, I would love to still have my mom around. But I trust in God’s promises that I will see and be with them again. Because I will have all eternity for them to brag on me and tell me how proud they are.

And I choose to focus on taking these bonus days to focus on trying to repent each and every day of my life; to turn away from myself and turn back to God; to turn away from my will and turn back to God’s will. Each day I ask, “Lord, what wouldst thou have me do?” and each day I try. At the end of each day, I ask for forgiveness for not loving the Lord my God with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my strength and all my soul, and my neighbor as myself. Then I try to do the same thing tomorrow, and for each of the unknown number of days I have left.

Jesus knew how many days remained for him, and he went to Jerusalem, knowing his life would end there. But he went hoping that many would, because of his words and actions, be moved to repent.

If we can focus on the days ahead and not the days behind, if we can let people know it is not too late to repent and keep repenting, if we trust that there are days beyond the days that remain, then we are doing the work of our Lord. And blessed are the ones who come in the name of the Lord. AMEN. 

Thursday, March 9

Mustard Seed Revolution

This is my sermon from our mid-week Lenten Soupper Service on March 8. Since we use the Narrative Lectionary, all of the Sunday lessons include a Lukan parable. So, I decided that we would use many of the rest of Luke's parables during Lent. 

This is in outline form, which is how I write most of my sermons. I hope it isn't too distracting.

Luke 13:18-19
      (Jesus) said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”

·      Jesus gives a short parable comparing the kingdom of God to a mustard seed that becomes a tree, providing a home for the birds of the air
§  Take a moment – I’m going to use reign of God rather than kingdom of God for the word basileia
·      First, it removes the patriarchy
·      Second, a kingdom is a place. A reign is not only a period of time, but it is a sphere of influence
o   Reign goes beyond space/time, but includes attitudes, decorum and values
o   One of the shortest of Jesus’ parables
o   Which fits in speaking about a small seed
§  Matthew’s telling of this parable includes Jesus saying the mustard seed is one of the smallest seeds
o   Which fits, because this is can be read as a parable of hope – from small things great things come
§  It’s the Cinderella story –version of the Rocky saga
§  An underdog that no one gives a chance turns out to be a world beater
§  Hope of the Church – the followers of Christ
·      Original hearers of the Gospel, huddled together, afraid of being persecuted – would have heard this as hope, as that this little movement would overcome all obstacles and become this giant tree
o   And so to us as well, this parable can speak of hope & perseverance – that we can overcome the obstacles in our lives and achieve great things

·      Except it means none of that
o   Why would Jesus describe the kingdom of God, the reign of God, as starting small and overcoming?
§  Kingdom of God will come not because it is a plucky underdog, but because God is God & God said so
§  Besides, look at the story
·      Mustard isn’t a tree. It can be generously called a bush or shrub, growing to maybe 10 feet, but more like 4 feet. If it didn’t produce a useful spice, it would be called a weed
o   Steals water & nutrients & chokes other plants
·      Why would someone “sow” a weed in a garden?
·      For you with gardens, really want birds around?
·      Modern re-telling: The kingdom of God is like crab grass that somebody introduced to your lawn. It took over and the Asian beetles feasted on it.
·      The kingdom/reign of God is subversive
o   Jesus tells this parable in response to being scolded for healing a woman on the Sabbath
§  Jesus tells the dominant cultures – the Romans & the Temple leaders – the reign of God, the overthrow of your power will come, and you can’t stop it
§  It will subvert your norms and your power
§  It comes whether you want it or not
·      You can try to stop it or slow it down, but you’ll fail
§  It comes whether you help or not
§  It will bring undesirables with it
·      In the reign of God – the hungry WILL be fed, the poor and the sick WILL be taken care of
§  It demands attention, annoyingly so
·      It speaks of values that run contrary to what is understood self-interest
o   It calls for refugees & immigrants to be welcomed & taken care of in a time when anyone different looking is demonized
o   It calls for taking care of the least, the last, the lost, the little ones and those who are alone, when the concern is over those who produce
o   It reminds that the first shall be last, and the last will be first; that the high and mighty will be stuck down, and it says that to those in power
o   It is a declaration of an invasion against those who are apathetic or content with what they have
§  Think of the battles against an aggressive weed or invasive species
·      Kudzu, Asian Carp, Zebra mussels, Gypsy moth, Emerald Ash borer, Asian beetles
§  It is a new order to the world, one that is the reign of God, not with will of humanity
o   It says resist to a world that says conform.
§  The parable of the mustard seed isn’t a message of hope to those feeling
·      It is a declaration of revolution
·      The reign of God is coming – which side will you be on?

Wednesday, March 1

40 Questions

This is my Ash Wednesday message, based on the lesson from Luke 9:51-62, where Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem. I've always some issues with this lesson, especially the "Let the dead bury their own dead" (see So I started writing questions, hoping to have some answers. Then I realized my questions, while not having answers, had a message, and that, I though, was enough.

What does it mean to set your face to go to Jerusalem?
What does it mean to accept your fate?
If Jesus accepted that his fate was to die on a cross for our sins, can we accept that we are sinners?
Can we accept that our only hope of redemption and salvation had to come from God, and not from anything that we could do?
Knowing this, how do we NOT love the Lord our God with all our heart, and mind, and soul and strength?
Can we admit that we are sinners, no better than, but no worse than, anyone else?
Can we still love others knowing this?
Can we confess that we are rightly damned with out the death of Christ on the Cross?
Can we still love ourselves knowing this?
How do we make decisions for our future when “the days draw near” for us?
Are our decisions different when we think that our days are not yet drawing near?
What do we do when we realize that we have no idea if are days are drawing near or not?
What does it mean to be ready to lay down your life?
Does laying down our lives mean that we are ready to take up our Cross?
Are we ok with carrying the Cross for someone else?
What does it mean to lead a life in the kingdom of God, to live under the reign of Christ?
Is heaven a place to go when we die, or is it a goal to work for here on Earth?
Are we just supposed to wait for it to come?
Can we work and act to create it here and now?

What does it mean to follow Jesus?
Does it include going to some places and doing some things that you don’t want to go and do?
Are we willing to give up our home and separate from our people to follow Jesus?
Are there some people with whom we don’t want to work or serve?
Can we love those who do not welcome us?
Do we get to decide who is in God’s kingdom?
What if we’re not ok with God’s decisions?
Are we willing to accept those who are different from who we are?
Are we willing to accept help from them?
Why do we focus on what Jesus is calling us from doing, and not on what Jesus is calling us to do?
What do we need to let go of to follow Jesus?
What are we holding onto that keeps us from giving myself totally over to Christ to command?
What are we waiting to have happen?
Do we think someone else will answer the call?
Who do we need permission from to act?
Why do we want to act on our own schedule rather than to live in Christ’s immediacy?
What has to happen in our heart, in our soul, in our mind or in our life for us to let go, and let God?
Are we willing to follow if we have no say in the destination or assignment?
If the help of the helpless abides with us, why do we not answer the call?
If we fear no foe, and our tears have no bitterness;
if we trust that God abides with us, why do we hesitate to answer?
Can YOU use these 40 days during Lent to examine what you value more than serving and surrendering to God?