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Modern Math – Sermon on John 6:1-21 Pentecost 9B

July 26, 2015

I remember when my third grade teacher, Miss Williamson, introduced us to what she called “modern math.” We spent hours counting in base two and base 12. We had no idea why. I’m not sure Miss Williamson did, either. Looking back, I can see how all that base two counting might have prepared me for the computer age and binary numbers, but at the time, it was little more than a novelty – I was always amazed at how quickly the numbers multiplied: one, ten, eleven, a hundred, a hundred and one, a hundred and ten, a hundred and eleven, a thousand…

When we were in Israel, we visited the site that is traditionally believed to be the spot where Jesus fed a crowd of at least 5000 people. It was interesting to hear this miracle called “the multiplication of loaves and fishes” instead of “the feeding of the 5000.” I had always imagined that the miracle was important because Jesus had fed a crowd of poor, hungry people. Somewhere I learned that barley loaves were the bread of the very poor, so I thought this was just one more example of Jesus reaching out to “the least of these” in a tangible way.

2015-01-10 hillside of the beatitudes copyBut visiting the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes gave me a different perspective.  Continue reading

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Sheep Without A Shepherd – Sermon on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 Pentecost 8B

July 19, 2015

We stopped outside of Caspian for gas as we headed home from a few blissful days on a lake in Michigan’s Upper Penninsula. As we pulled out of the station, the transmission slipped. And kept slipping. “Let’s get to Eagle River,” Bruce said. “Maybe we can find a mechanic to look at it.” The clerk at the auto parts store told us where to find the car dealership, and as we pulled into the service department, I Googled “transmission repair Eagle River.” Just in case. Sure enough, no one could look at the car before afternoon. So we headed out to Eagle Transmission on the edge of town, figuring we could always come back if we needed to.

The mechanic at Eagle Transmission took us for a ride, with his computer plugged into our car. “Well, it’s one of two things. It could just be the solenoid, which means 4-6 hours and about $850. Or the clutch plates are already shot, and we’re talking a total rebuild. I’m booked up into next week. You can try taking the back roads home. Stay off the interstate, because you can’t go more than 35 miles a hour, or it will try to shift into third gear and you’ll tear up those clutch plates for sure. Good luck.” Continue reading

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Vacating

Vacation” comes from the word “vacate” – to leave a place that was previously occupied. Changing location is the essence of vacating.
If we go back even further into this word’s history, we find that the old Latin root “vacare” means “to become unoccupied.” Vacation at its best includes unoccupied space and unoccupied time. Here’s to vacating a little space and time, that God might enter in.  

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Home and Away – Sermon on Mark 6:1-13 (Pentecost 6B)

July 5, 2015 
There was a lot of activity on my Facebook page Thursday night, when the second place Minnesota Twins beat the first place Kansas City Royals 2-0 in Kansas City. The Royals had home field advantage, but they couldn’t get a single run on the scoreboard. They made up for it on Friday night, scoring three runs to the Twins two. The Twins won again on Saturday, but when you look at the overall statistics, the Royals do a lot better at home than away, and the Twins are right behind them in the standings. That home field advantage should have helped the Royals on Thursday – but it didn’t.

As Jesus traveled from Capernaum up into the hill country above the Sea of Galilee, he was heading home. He had just made a significant impact down at the lakeshore, healing a woman who snuck up behind him in a crowd, and bringing a dead girl to life. On the road, he was batting a thousand. Now it was time to head back home, time to taste some of mom’s home cooking. It was time to see how the Kingdom of God might be received in more familiar territory.

1 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.

2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!

3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.

6 And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching.

7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.

8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts;

9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.

10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.

11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”

12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.

13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
(Mark 6:1-13)

Mark gives us two stories in this reading, and it might seem at first that they are not related to each other. First we have the story of Jesus returning to Nazareth and meeting with some resistance. Jesus should have had a home field advantage, but he didn’t. Things start out well, but as soon as he starts teaching in the synagogue, people are amazed, and they seem to think this hometown boy has gotten a bit too big for his britches.

There is even a hint of scandal as the people of Nazareth question his authority. They ask, “Isn’t this Mary’s son?” instead of, “Isn’t this Mary and Joseph’s boy?” While we might see this as a true representation of the virgin birth, in that time and place it was just short of an insult to skip over naming the father as head of the household. It hints at the possibility that Jesus was an illegitimate child, bringing shame to his whole community.

Shame and honor formed the foundation of social interaction in Nazareth. It was a zero sum game: if someone gained honor in the community, that meant someone else had to lose. Keeping the balance between shame and honor was important.

And here was Jesus, claiming the honor of a prophet for himself! This would upset the whole hierarchy of social standing. It would mean that someone – probably the synagogue leaders – would have to lose honor. This young upstart needed to be put in his place, and reminded that they knew who he was before he got famous – just a common builder, nothing more.

Jesus has been busy amazing people in Capernaum, across the Sea of Galilee, and even in the middle of the lake itself, but now it’s his turn to be amazed. And what has Jesus shaking his head? It’s the lack of faith he sees among his hometown friends and family. In fact, this lack of faith brings us to one of the more problematic verses in this passage: Jesus, the Son of God, is rendered powerless. Mark writes, “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” (v. 5)

Biblical scholars have wrestled with this sentence, and theologians have argued about it. Matthew’s version cleans things up a bit for us. Matthew says Jesus “did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith” (Matt 13:58), making it sound more like Jesus chose not to work any wonders.

But the question may not be about whether Jesus chose to do miracles or was prevented from doing them. Maybe the question is, how does our lack of faith affect the way God works? Do we really keep God out of the miracle business, simply because we lack faith? Before we get too caught up in arguments about God’s omnipotence and grace that is not dependent on anything we do, let’s look at what does happen in Nazareth. Jesus does heal a few. There are at least some who seek him out in faith, just as Jairus did on behalf of his dying daughter, just as the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years did.

And I think this might be the key – Jesus responds when we fall at his feet and ask for his mercy. He can’t answer our prayers unless we pray them. He can only transform our lives to the extent that we allow him to. Jesus’ ability to do great things in Nazareth was only limited by the fact that nobody bothered to ask – except for a few, and they were healed.

David Lose writes, “What if … Mark is simply inviting us to contemplate the possibility that we actually have something to do, that we have an important role to play in the manifestation of the kingdom. To say it another way: this isn’t about salvation, it’s about the role each one of us is invited to play in sensing, experiencing, and making known God’s will and work in the world.”

How might we be encouraging God to work in our lives? How might we be preventing him from doing the work he wants to perform in us?

As we prepare to approach this Table, let’s take a moment to let God’s Spirit direct our thoughts to the ways we might be resisting God. As we do this, I invite you to let your hands rest in your lap in an open posture, releasing to God the things that keep you from experiencing his power –

some hurt or regret you can’t let go,

some grudge you hold onto,

some addiction that has come to define your identity,

some anger that continues to burn in you,

some problem that you just don’t quite want to trust God to solve.

Or maybe there is something you need to receive from God into your open hands –

some commitment God is calling you toward that you don’t want to acknowledge,

some ministry opportunity you are afraid to accept,

some challenge to grow that you think is too difficult for you.

This isn’t only about accepting God’s grace to save us and inviting Jesus into our hearts. It’s about our willingness to be true disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. It’s about trusting God enough to ask him to change us, and mean it.

The disciples who followed Jesus to Nazareth didn’t abandon him when the town rejected his message. They were watching closely to see what he would do. As Jesus kept on with his ministry of preaching good news and healing the sick, casting out unclean spirits and giving hope to the poor, the disciples were learning what it means to be a true follower of Christ. And that brings us to the second part of the story.

Sometimes rejection and persecution is the springboard for further ministry. My favorite example of this comes from the book of Acts. In Acts 1:8, Jesus commissions his disciples as he prepares to ascend into heaven. He says, “ But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus ascends, Pentecost happens, and the church grows to the point they have to choose some deacons to oversee the needs of the community, so the apostles – notice they are no longer just disciples, they have been sent as apostles – devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. One of those deacons is Stephen, who preaches a great sermon when he is brought before the Sanhedrin, and when he points out that they are responsible for killing the Son of God, they get angry enough to stone him to death.

This brings us to Acts 8:1. “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” Did you catch that? Jesus told them back in 1:8 that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Eight chapters later, persecution sends them from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria. It’s only a few more chapters before the ends of the earth come into the story. Sometimes, rejection is the springboard for ministry.

In today’s passage from Mark, Jesus gives some very specific directions to his disciples. He tells them what to take, and what not to take with them on their journey. It’s clear that Jesus wants his followers to go out in his name, completely depending on God to provide for their needs through the hospitality of others. Jesus knows that they will probably face rejection in at least some of the towns they visit.

They saw the way he left Nazareth and went into the nearby villages to keep preaching and healing. Now he tells them to shake the dust off their feet as they leave any place that does not receive them or their message. If you can’t win at home, maybe it’s time for an away game, but even there, chances are good you are going to be challenged and face rejection.

So they go – and their ministry is fruitful. No doubt they ran into some opposition from time to time. We know from the rest of the story that Jesus would face growing resistance from those who felt threatened by his message. But that didn’t stop him from seeing it through, from dying on the cross for you and for me, from rising on the third day to defeat death and sin once and for all.

Sometimes rejection is the springboard for ministry. Sometimes I wonder if we fear rejection so much that it prevents us from experiencing God’s power at work in our lives. When we shrink back from stepping out on faith, we shortchange ourselves, and Christ can do no deed of power in us. We become what John Wesley would call an “almost Christian,” living out the form of a godly life without experiencing its power.

Following Jesus means putting it all on the line. We may find that some don’t want to hear our message of hope. That doesn’t mean we should stop sharing it. Some may ridicule us or walk away. There are others who will respond to the good news that God loves them. When we put our full faith in Christ, living into the assurance that he will act, he can change our brokenness into fruitfulness. Amen.

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The Miracle Inside a Miracle – Sermon on Mark 5:21-43

June 28, 2015

Years ago, I was meeting with my boss, Pastor Phil Stenberg, to plan worship. As we worked together, it seemed that a constant stream of people came in and out of Phil’s office, calling him away from our work. After yet another person had stopped in, I asked him, “How do you ever get any work done, with all these interruptions?” He leaned back in his chair, smiled, and said, “The interruptions are where real ministry begins.” Continue reading

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Holy Fear – Sermon on Mark 4:35-41

June 21, 2015 – Pentecost 4B, Father’s Day

I don’t like to preach about current events. I’m much more interested in the timeless truths of the Gospel than the fleeting nature of the daily news. I’d rather tell you about Jesus than talk about the latest political crisis or natural disaster.

It’s not that I don’t think we have a responsibility to stay informed. And I know for certain that the timeless truths we find in scripture apply directly to our everyday lives. Looking at the evening news through the lens of discipleship is a great exercise for small group discussion, helping us to determine what it means to follow Jesus through the events that shape our culture and our lives together in this community of faith.

When this week’s news brought us those alarming images of a church surrounded by police tape and the faces of nine people who died there, my first impulse was to just work this into the pastoral prayer. After all, the bulletin was already printed. The scriptures were already chosen. The songs and hymns had been selected weeks ago.

There wasn’t time to change gears. It seemed the simplest thing to do was add our prayers to those of people everywhere, prayers for comfort to the grieving, prayers for justice, for God’s Kingdom to come and put an end to hatred and killing.

But my clergy colleagues wouldn’t let me get away with that. Continue reading

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Growing Like Weeds – Sermon on Mark 4:26-34

June 14, 2015 (You can view a video of this sermon here.)

A high school friend posted on Facebook the other day that wheat harvest has already begun down in southern Kansas. While our harvest up here in Minnesota might be a few weeks out yet, my friend’s comment reminds me that the cycle of planting, cultivating, and harvesting follows a predictable pattern. The steps in the cycle follow the same order, year after year.

Lots of variables can affect the final outcome of each year’s crop: weather conditions, seed quality, disease, pests. But the cycle of planting, growing, and harvesting is still the same cycle that’s been in place since God created plants. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus uses the very familiar process of plant growth to teach some important lessons about the Kingdom of God.

Whoever has ears to hear, Jesus says, listen to the Word of the Lord as given to us in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 4, beginning at verse 26. Jesus is already talking:

He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “”With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. (Mark 4:26-34)

Jesus told lots and lots of parables. These stories that drew on familiar, everyday events and circumstances were his primary teaching tool. On the surface, a parable might seem to be the same as a fable – a story that has a moral, like “slow and steady wins the race,” in The Tortoise and the Hare. But they aren’t exactly the same thing. Continue reading