Monthly Archives: June 2014

Dying to Live – Sermon on Romans 6:1-11

June 22, 2014

Last week, as we heard the challenge of the Great Commission to make disciples by going to them, baptizing them, and teaching them, I urged you to think about the idea of baptism as a means for enfolding others into the family of God. In today’s reading, we will take another look at baptism, this time through the eyes of the Apostle Paul, as we begin a journey through his letter to the church at Rome. That journey will take us through the summer, so it might be a good idea to start with some background information as we begin.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is an interesting book on many counts. For one thing, Paul didn’t know these people yet. Paul’s other letters were addressed to churches he had started, nurtured, and left in the hands of able leaders. But at the time Paul wrote this letter, he had not yet traveled to Rome, so instead of writing to follow up on a church he had planted, Paul was writing to introduce himself to Christians who did not yet know him, or his teachings.

But Paul had a pretty good idea of what was going on in Rome. He knew that a group of Jewish Christians had been pushing the Gentiles to observe Jewish laws, and he knew that convincing the church in Rome to depend on grace alone would require a carefully worded message. So Paul took care to clarify his own theology for the Christians at Rome, in preparation for the teaching he would provide when he finally arrived.

The resulting letter to the Roman church is a dense theological treatise. In fact, it’s a good example of what Peter meant when he wrote about his “dear brother, Paul,” saying, “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:14-16). Two thousand years later, we are still chewing on some of Paul’s ideas. Imagine, then, what it must have been like to receive these teachings for the first time, and how radically strange Paul’s ideas of sin and grace might have seemed to the early Christians who read his letters to each other.

Paul states his main idea early on, and then presents his response to those who might disagree with him in the rest of the letter. Paul writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written,The one who is righteous will live by faith” (Rom 1:16-17).From this bold statement, Paul explains and defends his view of grace for all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile.

In chapter five, Paul describes how Adam’s original sin has enslaved us all to death, but that in Christ, we have been made right with God by grace alone. In Adam, all of us became bound to sin, and the Law only made things worse. Then Paul throws in a twist as he moves into the heart of his argument: “but where sin increased, grace multiplied even more,” he writes.

Paul must have anticipated that this radical idea would have raised some questions among his readers, so he kicks off a diatribe to end all diatribes, answering those questions as thoroughly as he can before they can even be asked. Chapter six opens with Paul’s central argument about grace as God’s free gift. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter six, verse 1-11:

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But ifwe have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.
We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

What then are we to say?  …
Paul must love this rhetorical question, because he asks it a lot. In his letter to the Romans, it appears half a dozen times, at key turning points in Paul’s argument. “So what do you think?” Paul asks, “Should we sin more so we can experience more grace?” In his diatribe, Paul answers his opponents’ arguments by carrying them to the extreme, in order to prove them wrong.

The group that was causing the most trouble in Rome consisted of Jews who still viewed righteousness as something to be obtained by being born Jewish, and doing good works by following the law. Paul argues that God’s grace is available to all who believe, and that it is through faith alone that we become righteous.

Paul imagines his opponents answering this argument with one of their own: doesn’t free grace just promote free sin? If God’s grace is so free, so all-encompassing, and there is nothing I can do to earn it, why bother being good?  If God is going to forgive me anyway, why not just go on sinning to my heart’s content? In fact, doesn’t it make sense to sin more, so that God can forgive me more?

Certainly not, Paul tells us. It is precisely because we have chosen to align ourselves with God, and not with sin, that we have been changed.

And this is where baptism comes into the picture.

“We have been buried with him by baptism into death,” Paul writes, “so we might walk in newness of life.” Baptism is more than a simple rite of passage. It marks a radical change in identity. The old, sinful self is buried in the waters of baptism, and what comes up out of the water is a new creation. Just as the children of Israel walked into the Red Sea as runaway Egyptian slaves, and walked up out of that sea as God’s own nation, so we are called to walk in newness of life, set free from our slavery to sin.

So, what then should we say? What does that mean for us?

It means that Christ’s death was a one-time event, and he will not die again. If we are baptized into that death, we are also baptized into Christ’s resurrection to new life. I cannot say “new life” enough! We have been united with Christ in something completely new. Remember that Christ’s resurrected body was not his old body; even his closest friends did not recognize him at first. In the same way, our baptized selves are not anything at all like our old, sinful selves.

And yet, we often do not live like we have this “new life.” We stay stuck in patterns of behavior that ignore the fact we have been made into completely new people, children of the living God. Paul thought the Roman Christians were acting as if sin was a good thing, reasoning that the more we sin, the more God forgives us. Theologian David Bartlett summarizes Paul’s answer in two parts: “You’ve got to be kidding!” and “Be who you are.”

Be who you are. You are not just washed clean in the waters of baptism. Baptism has drowned your old sinful self and given you a new identity. Live into that new identity as Christ’s own. You have died to sin, so stop acting like it rules you. Bartlett continues,

“When Christians are told to “remember our baptism” that does not mean so much remembering the time and the place or who were the sponsors or who performed the sacrament. It is a way of saying: Remember who you are; you have died to sin and now you live a new life in Jesus Christ. It is a way of saying: Be who you are.
“Remember your baptism” also means, “Remember who you belong to.”  (David Bartlett )

“What then are we to say?” Are we to chime in with the “I’m Ok You’re OK” culture  and claim that, since God accepts us just the way we are, there is no need to change? Do we subscribe to the notion that sinning is actually good, because it creates more opportunities for grace? Or do we recognize that in becoming a follower of Jesus, we move from one kind of humanity, steeped in sin, into the very life of Christ? Because this is what Paul is saying, friends: since Christ is our model, whatever is true of him is now true of us, too. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. We have died to sin, we are risen to new life with and in him, and when he comes again, we will be ready to join him in eternal glory. What part of that would you not want to claim as your very own?

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright tells us, “Living in accordance with a change of status requires that you recognize it and take steps to bring your actual life into line with the person you have become. … Once you are baptized, of course, you can try to shirk or shrug off your new responsibilities. You can pretend you don’t after all have a new status. … But what you can’t do is get unbaptized again.” (N.T. Wright, Paul For Everyone: Romans Part 1, 102.)

The passage ends with a bit of a hymn that was apparently known to Paul, and perhaps known already to the Christian communities in Rome who first received this letter. When he writes, “We know that…” (verse 9), in a way he’s really inviting his hearers to join the song:

Christ being raised from the dead, will never die again;
Death no longer has dominion over him.
The death he died, he died to sin, once for all;
But the life he lives he lives to God.

Then Paul adds his own verse to the song, and this must have been a powerful addition for those Christians in Rome, to hear these new words being sung to them, as they are to us:

So also consider yourselves dead to sin,
and alive to God in Jesus Christ.

When Paul says, “consider” he isn’t asking you to think of yourself as dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ. He isn’t asking you to ponder this reality as an abstract idea. No, the verb translated here as “consider” is really a bookkeeping term. Other translations use the term “reckon” and we could just as easily use the word “calculate” to understand what Paul means here. When you calculate a sum of numbers, you come up with a new number, but it isn’t really “new” – it was there all along; you just didn’t know what the total sum was until you calculated it. Add it up, Paul says. You have already been reckoned dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus. It may be hard to believe the answer you get when you do the math, but this is the reality. we need to be who we are, redeemed children of God, and we need to start acting like it.

Sin has no hold on us any longer; it’s time to let go of it. New life means living into new habits and behaviors, new ways of thinking and relating to people. It means living into our identity as followers of Jesus Christ. Let it be so.


Making Disciples – Sermon on Matthew 28:16-20 (Trinity 2014)

When I was very young, I held a black-and-white view of truth. Right and Wrong formed two sides of the coin I called Truth. As I grew older, I discovered that many questions do not have simple answers. Shades of gray appear between the rigid extremes of black and white. So I decided that Right and Wrong might be neighboring sides on a many-faceted sphere – a Disco Ball of Truth (hey, it was the 1980s).

But that view didn’t hold up, either. Eventually, I began to realize that God’s truth often holds in tension two or more realities that seem to oppose one another. We call this “paradox.” The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Whoever would be great among you must be your servant. Christ died to conquer death. God is One, and God is Three Persons, each distinct, yet all three are One. It’s a paradox, a mystery. And we celebrate that mystery today, on Trinity Sunday.

Trinity Sunday is an unusual day in the church year, in that it is named after a doctrine instead of an event. It was a doctrine that took some hard work to hammer out, because the early church fathers had difficulty finding words to express this mystery of the faith. While we may find it difficult to understand the mystery of the Trinity, we certainly have no trouble at all experiencing it. It’s a relationship, and as much as the word “relationship” has been overused to talk about romance, there really is no better word to describe God in Three Persons. We worship and serve a relational God, a God who desires to be in loving relationship with each of us, just as Father and Son and Holy Spirit are in loving relationship with one another.

It would be easy to get stuck on Trinity Sunday trying to explain this unexplainable aspect of God’s identity, if we focused only on the one verse in the Gospel that hints at a doctrine of the Trinity. But, to be honest, at the time Matthew wrote his story, that doctrine had not yet really taken shape. And the mention of three persons in today’s passage is really only a small part of a much bigger idea. Hear Matthew’s version of the final words of Jesus to his disciples, as we find them in chapter 28, verses 16-20. Hear the Word of the Lord.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)

Eleven disciples went to Galilee. Judas had not yet been replaced, and his absence was a reminder to all of them of their own betrayal, their own failure to stand by Jesus during his trial and crucifixion. They went to Galilee. This is where the ministry had begun. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, he calls it “Galilee of the Gentiles” and this is significant, as Jesus gives his final instructions to share the good news of God’s saving grace with all people. But it’s the second verse of this passage that catches my attention: They worshiped him, but some doubted.

The Greek grammar here is not very clear. We could translate this phrase in several ways, and they would all be as valid as the NRSV. It could mean, “all worshiped, but some of them also doubted,” or “some worshiped while others doubted” or “they all worshiped, and they all doubted, too.”

Doesn’t that sound like us sometimes? Don’t we come to church so we can reinforce our faith by worshiping, because doubt seems to creep into our minds so often? Maybe doubt seems too strong a word. In fact, the term here is used only one other place in the New Testament, in the story of Peter walking on the water (Matthew 14:31) – he was fine as long as his eyes were fixed on Jesus, but when he looked down, he started to sink  – because he doubted.

The word used here is not an expression of disbelieving, so much as being undecided, or uncertain. The disciples were sure that Jesus was God, worthy of worship, but they weren’t sure what this was supposed to mean, or what to do with this new awareness. Isn’t that what our doubt looks like, too? We believe that Jesus is the Son of God, sure, but we get stuck wondering what to do or which way to go as we try to live out our faith. We come to church to worship the God who created us, who saves us, who stays with us, and at the same time, we flounder in uncertainty. Like the disciples, we worship and we doubt.

But notice what Jesus does. He comes to the disciples, where they are, in their worship and their uncertainty. And he offers them something completely unexpected. He doesn’t say, “Oh ye of little faith.” He doesn’t reprimand them or tell them to go get their doubts figured out and come back later. He sends them, with four absolute statements, and a charge so powerful we now call it the Great Commission.

Let’s look at those four absolute – or “all” – statements, as Richard Beaton calls them, for a moment. The first establishes Jesus as the one who holds “all authority in heaven and earth,” restoring the unity of heaven and earth that was present at Creation. The second is a reminder of the promise to Abraham that all nations will be blessed through his offspring: “Go make disciples of all nations,” Jesus says. Then Jesus adds, “teach them to obey all the things I taught you,” and finally he promises to remain with his followers through all time. Christ answers our uncertainty with these certainties: All authority, among all people, with all Christ’s teaching, for all time. Christ answers our indecision with a command and a direction.

The primary task Jesus sets before his disciples – and that includes us – is disciple making. Remember in the Creation story how God said, “be fruitful and multiply?” This is the same command, only now Jesus is not talking about physical reproduction, but spiritual multiplication. All the other commands he gives in the Great Commission feed into this one thing we are to do: make disciples of Jesus Christ. Make disciples of all people, he says, by going everywhere, baptizing everyone, and teaching everything I taught you.

As a follower of Jesus, wavering between worship and indecision, my first reaction to this command is to play the theme music from “Mission Impossible” in my head while I ask, “How, Lord?!” But the answer is right there in the mission. The formula for making disciples is short and simple: go, baptize, teach. Let’s break it down a little bit.

Go to all people. When I was growing up, we recited the King James Version of the Great Commission every week in the Girls’ Auxiliary of the Women’s Missionary Union of First Southern Baptist Church. The goal was clear – we were all being called to go to Africa or South America as missionaries. Almost all of us failed at that. There may have been one or two of us who made it to Mexico for a week or two of “missions” but most of us never went to a foreign country to share the gospel. While I am certain that Jesus fully intends for some of us to go far away to introduce good news to people who have never heard it, I also am convinced that we have a mission field right here at our own doorstep. There are people in our own back yard who have never heard the good news that Jesus loves them.

According to the Mission Insite demographic study provided to us through the Minnesota Annual Conference (your apportionment dollars at work), 85% of the people living within a five-mile radius of this building do not consider it important to attend religious services. More than half of the people who live here in New Ulm do not consider themselves spiritual persons, and only about 18% think that faith is an important part of their lives. We who value our faith and participation in church are obviously in the minority. We don’t have to travel very far to make new disciples. We only need to step outside the door.

Go baptize people, Jesus says. Now, he isn’t encouraging us to see how many people we can arbitrarily get wet. There is no magic in the words, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” and the ritual of baptism itself has no saving power. When Jesus says, “baptize them in the power of this three-fold Name,” he is offering baptism as a symbol of that enfolding love we experience as members of the Body of Christ. Jesus is asking us to include, to embrace, to accept all people and welcome them into the family of God. He isn’t just talking about the people whose skin color is different from ours, he’s talking about the people whose habits and education and lifestyles are drastically different from ours. He’s talking about the poor and powerless, the sick and the hungry. Baptism is a symbol of being included, of being made a part of the whole. Just as in the sacrament of Communion we who are many partake of the one loaf, so in Baptism we who are many become one in Christ – just like the Trinity we invoke as we pour water, we are invited into the mystery of being made one, though we are many.

Go baptize people and teach them all the things I commanded you, Jesus says. This is the true meaning of the word ‘disciple’ – it means student, or intern. Just as those early disciples learned to do the things Jesus did by walking with him day after day, so we are invited into that life-changing, day-by-day walk with Jesus, doing the things Jesus did.

Theologian Dallas Willard writes, a disciple of Jesus is not necessarily one devoted to doing specifically religious things as that is usually understood.I am learning from Jesus how to lead my life, my whole life, my real life. Note, please, I am not learning from him how to lead his life. His life on earth was a transcendently wonderful one. But it has now been led. Neither I nor anyone else, even himself, will ever lead it again. … I need to be able to lead my life as he would lead it if he were I.My discipleship to Jesus is … not a matter of what I do, but of how I do it. And it covers everything, “religious” or not.

When Jesus sent out the 70 (or72) disciples ahead of him (Luke 10:1-12), their job was to heal the sick, and proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of God is at hand. They did the things they had seen Jesus do, except for one thing. Jesus was the only one who taught the people, as he followed his followers to the places they went. Jesus was the great Teacher, the Rabbi. Now, at the end of Mathew’s gospel, he sends his disciples, his interns, out to teach as well as heal and proclaim the Kingdom of God. There are no half-measures in being a Jesus Intern. Teach them to do all the things I commanded you, he says.

And what are those commands?

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. Be a servant if you would be great. Suffer the little children to come unto me. Take care of the widows and fatherless. Spread my love around to people you don’t think deserve it, just as I have lavished my love on you, who do not deserve it. On this Father’s Day, this Trinity Sunday, let’s look at what it might mean to go, to enfold, and to teach, as we make disciples here in New Ulm.

Dr. Kara Powell has written a book called Sticky Faith, offering an approach to youth ministry that strives to keep kids connected to their faith during their teens and early twenties, when they are most likely to question, to express doubts and uncertainties about faith and the church. This approach works to connect young people with a web of at least five adults who are deeply involved in each young person’s life. That’s hard to do when youth ministry is assigned to a small handful of adults, and youth ministry activities happen away from the rest of the church. This summer, we hope to change the pattern of “out of sight, out of mind” that sometimes gets associated with our young people. This summer, we are moving youth ministry back into this building. Over the next few months, we will re-purpose the two rooms in the basement nearest the ramp door on Broadway, and turn them into a youth ministry center. This week, many of our young people gathered for a planning and brainstorming session, and they have some great ideas for making those two rooms into a welcoming spot for teenagers and young adults, a place where we can begin to enfold them into the life of the whole church.

This move will mean that the Youth Coordinator’s office space will move downstairs, freeing up a room just off the narthex for a main-level nursery. Having a nursery that is visible from the sanctuary offers a welcome to families with young children who worship with us, creating another way we can enfold new disciples into the family of God. When we look like kids matter to us, as they did to Jesus, we will be one step closer to making disciples, and being disciples.

So, then, what do we do with the house now known as the SRC? God has dropped an opportunity into our laps that I want to share with you today, and I ask you to pray diligently with me about this possibility.

Over the past few months, the pastors in our local Ministerial Association have been talking with County Social Services about needs in our community. One need that often flies under our radar is that of homeless families. We don’t think of homelessness as being a problem here, because it doesn’t look like the homelessness we see when we go prepare meals at the Simpson Shelter in Minneapolis, or take Food for Friends to Mankato. But it’s real, and it affects school age children in our community. There currently is no homeless shelter or transitional housing of any kind in our entire county. This means that, if a family becomes homeless, they must go to 30 to 75 miles away to find shelter. For school age children, this means pulling them out of school – which in some cases, is the one place they find safety and stability – and starting over in a new place in the middle of the school year. It means losing all the social connections they have built with friends and family. This can be devastating to a young child’s development. Last year, there were 16 documented homeless children at the elementary school. We have about that many kids on an average Wednesday night here at First. Think about that.

Homelessness seems like a problem that is too big for a church of our size to tackle. We don’t have the resources to run a homeless shelter, we don’t have the staff to administer such a program. But we have a house that will soon be vacant, and we have a desire to follow Christ wherever he may lead us, as we go, baptize, and teach to make disciples.

A couple of weeks ago, the director of an organization approached the ministerial association with a proposed joint project. If they could provide the counseling and case management piece of a program to help homeless single mothers get on their feet, while their kids get to stay in local schools, could we come up with a place to do that ministry together, as an ecumenical venture?

We have a house that will soon be vacant, but it needs a lot of work. We don’t have the resources to renovate it on our own.

“But there might be grant money available from United Way,” one pastor said, “and I sit on their board.”

“And there might be some resources from Lutheran Social Services,” another pastor said, “and I know who to call.”

“And we might be able to get some advice from other ecumenical groups who have done something similar,” said another pastor. “Let me do some research.”

“There is a property manager in town who might be able to help us get families settled in affordable longer-term housing, once we get them into the program,” another pastor said.

Suddenly, we had a draft of a mission statement, and some goals to help us narrow the purpose of this project. It’s still in the very formative stages, but the Trustees and the Church Council voted this last week to continue the conversation, and explore how we might use our soon-to-be-vacant house to provide ministry in cooperation with other churches here in our own backyard.

Right now, this is what the project would look like, should we decide to participate in it:

The Getting Families on their Feet Project would provide transitional housing and services for single-mother families, leading them to self- sufficiency.

Goals would be to:

-Allow children of displaced single mothers to remain with their families while staying in local schools, avoiding disruption of academic and social connections
-Provide counseling resources to single moms as they strive toward self-sufficiency
-Provide safe short-term (4-6 weeks) placement in temporary shelter/housing to establish participation in the program
-Provide safe longer-term (2-6 months) placement in transitional housing while support, counseling, and job placement continue
-Assist single-mother families in establishing self-sufficiency while allowing children to remain connected to school, friends, and family

We would start very small, maybe only a couple of families at first, to work out the bugs of the process. I emphasize that we would be working with single-mother families of school age children only. Certainly there are others who could benefit from such a project, but we want to keep it manageable, and we want to focus on helping children, who are the most vulnerable members of our community. Please pray about this, and talk to me if you have questions. The conversation will be continuing, and we have much to discern if we are to participate in such a bold venture.

Jesus claims all authority, then gives it to us, his interns, to go to all people, enfold all of them, teach all of them, making all people “Jesus Interns.” It seems like a Mission Impossible, but this mission, should you choose to accept it, carries with it a huge promise. “Look,” Jesus says, “I am with you through all time, even until eternity has reached its completion.” We do not have to do this on our own. In fact, we’d better not try to. The Holy Spirit continues Christ’s work in us and through us, until eternity is complete. Christ is with us. Amen.



Children’s Message for Trinity Sunday

Today is Father’s Day. Wave at your dad.  What do you usually call him?  What does your mom usually call him?  How about your grandpa and grandma, his parents? Just like your dad can have three different names, depending on how he is related to the person calling him, God is known to us in three different ways that all depend on how we relate to God in a specific instance. For example, we often think of God the Father, because that’s what Jesus called him, or sometimes we think of the Father as the Creator, like we heard earlier in the story from Genesis that starts out, In the beginning, God created… And we also think of Jesus as God’s Son, or  – if we look at  his relationship to us – we might call him God the Redeemer or Savior.  And last week, we celebrated another way God is present with us, as God the Holy Spirit. Remember how the disciples received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost?  Sometimes we call the Holy Spirit our Comforter or Sustainer. Three different ways we recognize God, but it’s all just One God.  As you look around the church you may notice symbols in groups of three – that’s to represent the three ways we know God, and we call it the Trinity. So today, when you get bored, try looking around for things that are in groups of three, and you can tell me during coffee time what you found, okay? Let’s pray.

God our Maker, or Savior, our Friend, help us to know you and love you, no matter what we call you. We pray in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Pentecost Ponderings – “What Does It Mean?”

This isn’t really a sermon – Peter gets the honors on that one for Pentecost Sunday – but here are my reflections on the texts for the day, which will be interwoven with songs and other worship elements as our congregation worships in the park tomorrow, then stays around for a potluck church picnic. Weather won’t be an issue, since we have shelters reserved. Children made flame streamers and coffee filter doves and spinning toys on Wednesday night, so we will use these props as we tell the stories together. Here goes…

Reflection on Numbers 11:24-30

Moses was in the middle of a crisis. The people had rebelled and tested God, whining for meat in addition to the manna that had been provided for them. Moses was exhausted from leading them and arguing with them, and he also complained to God.

The key verse in this story happens just before today’s lesson begins, after Moses has wondered aloud how God can possibly provide a month’s worth of meat for over 600,000 people out in the middle of the desert.:

23 The Lord said to Moses, “Is the Lord’s power limited? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.”

Then God had Moses gather 70 elders. 70 is an important number in the OT – perfection times 10. And God gave each of them a portion of Moses’ spirit, to help him lead the people, and they all began to prophesy, or speak the word of the Lord with authority. However 

Two who did not join the group at the tabernacle, remained in the camp, and they also received the Spirit and began to prophesy. This upset the status quo. Joshua got indignant – this was outside the box! These unauthorized prophets  should be silenced!

But Moses said, “I wish every one of God’s people would be prophets and the Lord would put his spirit on them.”

This number – 70 or 72 – comes up again in scripture. Remember the disciples that Jesus sent out ahead of him, to heal the sick and announce that the Kingdom of God is near? It’s in Luke 10 if you want to read it sometime. Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Luke 10:2). What is interesting is that, in the passage from Numbers, there is some disagreement whether Medad and Eldad were part of the original 70, but they just didn’t report to the tent of meeting with the others, or if they were two more. In Luke, some translations list 70, while others say 72 were sent.

God is not limited by our ideas of what the perfect number might be. God is always more than we can imagine. He pours out his spirit abundantly on the perfect number, and then spills it onto two more, completely unexpectedly. God’s spirit cannot be contained, even among rebellious, whiny children. Hold that thought. There’s more to come. …

Then we sing a couple of songs, and read the Gospel lesson together as a responsive reading. It’s only a couple of verses, and needs no commentary. Jesus says, “Let any who are thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” Then we sing “Jesus Loves Me” as the children gather and prepare the props for distribution to the congregation.

The Pentecost Story – Acts 2:1-21

A couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of the Ascension. Before he ascended, or rose up, into heaven, Jesus told the disciples to go back into the city and wait to be “clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24: 49) So the disciples went back to Jerusalem rejoicing and they praised God every day in the temple. In Luke’s second book, the one we call “Acts of the Apostles” or just “Acts,” we learn that the disciples were staying together in an upstairs room. This might have been the same room where they ate with Jesus on the night before he was crucified, and where they waited together on Easter morning. But they waited together, and that is the important part.

There was a big festival fifty days after Passover – and remember it was during Passover that Jesus was crucified – and sometimes people who lived far away from Jerusalem would come to the city for Passover, and then just stay for the festival of Pentecost a few weeks later. So Jerusalem was pretty crowded, and there were people there from many different countries, all of them speaking different languages. It must have been pretty noisy.

Then, on the morning of Pentecost, while the disciples were still together – remember the bundle of sticks from last week, and how important it is that we stick together to stay strong in our faith? – well, on that morning, the disciples received what Jesus had promised them, that “power from on high.” But no one expected it to happen the way it did. Remember in our earlier story about Moses and the elders, how God’s spirit spilled out onto Eldad and Medad, even though they stayed in the camp? Well, listen to this, and you can help me tell the story.

 Acts 2:1-21:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. (blow pinwheels, make wind sounds by rubbing hands together)

Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. (wave flame streamers, keep wind noise going, hold construction paper “tongues” over a few heads.)

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

What do you think they were saying? I wonder what it must have felt like, to be speaking a language you didn’t even know yourself, but others could understand. What do you think?

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 

Remember that there were people there in Jerusalem from many different countries, and they all spoke different languages. So there must have been at least a dozen different languages happening at the same time. Do you remember the story in Genesis (11) about the people who were trying to build a tower to heaven, so God “confused their speech” by giving them different languages, so they couldn’t understand each other? Right, it was the Tower of Babel. Well, this was just the opposite. Now, because the disciples were speaking in so many different languages, everyone had a chance to hear the good news in a way they could understand it. But it probably sounded pretty noisy from far away. Let’s try an experiment. Adults, I want you to think of a song you like to sing in church, maybe your favorite hymn. If you don’t think of yourself as a singer, you can use a kazoo (redistribute kazoos, if necessary). Now, the children are going to count to three, and on three, would you each please start singing your own song? While the adults sing, we are going to listen from over here first, to see if we can understand any of them. Then I’d like the adults to spread out away from each other, but keep singing. I’d like each of you children to go stand right in front of someone who is singing, and see if you can tell what their song is. Ready? One, two, three, sing!

Did you notice that it’s easier to hear just one song if you are standing right in front of the singer, while the other songs are in the background? I think that’s what happened here at Pentecost. Suddenly, the disciples aren’t hiding away in the upper room any more. Suddenly, they are out in the street, or maybe the temple square, where everyone else can hear them. And as they spread out, it makes it easier for the people who were there from other places to hear and recognize their own languages.  Let’s see where they were from:

Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 

People came from all over to Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost. In fact, the places that are mentioned here have been grouped according to where they appear on a map. (Show Bible map) The Parthians, Medes, Elamites and Mesopatamians would have come to Jerusalem from the east, the Judeans were the people who lived right around Jerusalem, the Cappadocians and people from Pontus and Asia, Phryigia and Pamphylia came from the north, the Egyptians, Libyans, Romans and Cretans came from both sides of the Mediterranean Sea west of Jerusalem, and the Arabs came from the south. But the word of the Lord was not just for foreigners, it was also for the people who lived right there in Jerusalem, in the middle of Judea. And it wasn’t just for the Judeans, it was for people from as far away as Egypt and Rome. The good news is for everyone.

For the disciples, that meant Jews AND Gentiles from different places. For us today, it might mean something different. What are some ways we think of people as being different from each other now? Poor, rich, smart, not so smart, shy, popular, bullies, victims of bullying… but the good news is for everyone, even people we think are not like us at all – especially for people we think are not like us at all.
Let’s find out what happened next.

12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my servants, both men and women,
   in those days I will pour out my Spirit;

        and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
       before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

This is the good news: everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. Some may laugh and make fun of us for believing in Jesus, just like the people who accused those disciples of being drunk at 9:00 in the morning. But there will always be people asking “What does this mean?” and we have an answer to give them.

The Holy Spirit is here among us. The Holy Spirit gives us power to speak boldly so everyone can hear and understand that Jesus is Lord. The Holy Spirit cannot be contained, but spreads out and overflows. Sons and daughters will prophesy – they will announce God’s good news with authority. Many signs and wonders will let us know that the day of the Lord is coming, and all who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved. That’s what it means to have rushing wind, tongues of fire, and every known language spoken at once. It means that God’s Spirit is filling the world, filling the church, filling you and me. But that’s not all. There’s more! God has given us so much, we need to give back to God. We have one more reading from the New Testament, and it will tell us what living in the spirit means for us.

Offering time, then an introduction to the Epistle reading for the day:

What have we learned so far, as we heard the story of Moses, and the story of Pentecost? God’s spirit is not limited by our ideas of how things “ought” to be. God’s spirit is poured out on all people who call on the name of the Lord, no matter what they look like, where they come from, how smart they are, or whether they are rich or poor. We need to trust God to do more than we can imagine, knowing that God will pour out his Holy Spirit on us, giving us power to do the work of the Kingdom of God.

In order to do that work, we need to recognize how the spirit acts in each of us, giving each of us particular spiritual gifts, to use for the building up of God’s Kingdom. Hear the final reading for this day of Pentecost, from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians,  1 Corinthians 12:4-13.

Then we close with a Pentecost prayer, which will include a prayer distributed at the recent Minnesota UMC Annual Conference  Session for God to unleash us as a fearless, spirit-led church, and we sing a final song before blessing the food that follows worship, sharing a benediction to be sent out as spirit-led, spirit-filled, spirit-gifted people of God. Come, Holy Spirit, come!

So, what does your Pentecost party look like?


Wind like a freight train, like a tornado –
not just a breeze whistling around the corner of the house –
but a full-on roar!
How did those tongues of flame stay put,
in all that roaring, rushing wind?
Breath of God, blow through us.
Knock us over with your power.
Fill us.
Come, Holy Spirit, come,

Being One – Sermon on John 17:1-11

Have you ever been frustrated that God was not answering your prayers? You prayed earnestly, in Jesus’ name, honestly seeking the Lord’s will to be done in a particular matter, and all you got back from God was … silence. No clear answer came to you, no sign indicated that God had even heard your prayer. For some people, unanswered prayer is a deal breaker. They decide to stop believing in a God who won’t answer their questions. Yet, scripture teaches us to be persistent in prayer, to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17), assured that God will answer – even if it isn’t the answer we want to hear.

The apostle Paul describes his own frustration with unanswered prayer in his second letter to the church at Corinth, as he tells of a “thorn in the flesh” he had been given to teach him humility: “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me,” Paul writes (2 Cor 12:8). When he finally got an answer, it wasn’t the one he’d been hoping to hear. Paul continues, “but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for [my] power is made perfect in [your] weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

So, we are in good company when we pray and pray for something, and it seems no one is listening, or we pray persistently for God to act, and it looks like nothing happens. In fact, Jesus himself is still waiting for God to answer a prayer he prayed nearly 2000 years ago, as he gathered with his disciples in an upper room, just before he was betrayed by one of them. Hear the Word of the Lord, from the Gospel according to John, chapter 17, verses 1-11.

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

The setting of this prayer is the upper room, on the night before Christ’s arrest and crucifixion. Jesus has been pouring out his heart to his friends, encouraging them to carry on his work after he is gone. “Let not your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me,” he tells them (John 14:1). “Abide in me, as I abide in you.” (John 15:4). He warns them that they will suffer after he is gone, but he also gives them a promise: “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33). And then, with his friends gathered around him, he prays for them. It’s pretty clear that Jesus chooses his words for their benefit – after all, he knew that God the Father didn’t need to have eternal life explained. But the disciples did.

And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 

Jesus does not describe “eternal life” in terms of time, but in terms of relationship. Eternal life is to know God, and to know Christ. And in knowing Christ, we experience his glory. In knowing Christ, we belong to God. Jesus goes on to affirm that we who believe in him belong to God, as he asks for God’s glory to shine through his followers.

I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.” 

Then Jesus goes on to ask protection for his disciples who will remain in the world after he returns to his place at the right hand of the Father:

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

Notice that Jesus has already stated that those who believe in him are one with him and with the Father. Here, he is asking for something else. He is asking God to protect those who believe so that they may be one with each other, as Father and Son are one.

He was not asking for unanimity, but unity. Austrailan theologian Andrew Prior writes, “Unity is not about agreement. Too often agreement is about the patron calling the shots. Was not the Nicene Creed hastened to a “unity” because of Constantine’s political needs and some not too subtle threats? Unity where agreement is paramount will forever be at risk of scapegoating. Just get rid of the difficult ones, the odd ones out, and we will have agreement.
“Unity is about loving each other as Christ has loved us. (John 13:34-35) The love of Christ does not kill the ones who disagree; it dies for the ones who disagree!”

This past week, I represented you at the Minnesota Annual Conference Session, where we heard reports of good things happening in the United Methodist Church, but we also heard disagreement on issues that are becoming more and more controversial, and threaten the unity of the Body of Christ. I want to address those issues today, but first, let me give you the good news we heard:

• Love Offering: As of Friday morning, $81,759 had been collected for this year’s Love Offering, and 80% of that will go to Feed My Starving Children to help pay for meals packed through our “Million Meals Marathon.”

• Million Meals Marathon meal packing: Minnesota United Methodists have collectively packed 2,091,077 meals to date through our “Million Meals Marathon.” That’s enough to feed 5,728 children once a day for a year.

• Imagine No Malaria: We have raised $2.7 million to date for Imagine No Malaria. That amount translates to 270,000 lives saved through the purchase of specially treated mosquito nets. The Minnesota Conference has raised more than any other annual conference to date and far exceeded its initial $1.8 million goal. But we have not yet reached the goal we set for First UMC, so be watching for events that are planned for the summer months to help us do that – then I can award the chair of our MOE committee with this lovely “pat on the back” that was distributed at Annual Conference.

• Adam Hamilton teaching sessions: Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas—which has grown to become the largest United Methodist Church in the country – offered three teaching sessions. He encouraged us to “do whatever it takes” to welcome, inspire, and teach those who are hungry for God, and to articulate and share our “God stories” with others.

Legislation: Members of annual conference debated and approved legislation related to homosexuality, reducing our carbon footprint, boycotting SodaStream, and justice in our civil courts.

You can learn more about each of these pieces of legislation on the Minnesota Conference website, but I want to address the items related to human sexuality this morning. I think it is important that you understand exactly what was approved by the conference session, and I think it is important for you to know where I stand on this issue as your pastor, but more importantly, as a follower of Jesus Christ.

  •  General Conference petitions on homosexuality: Members approved eight General Conference petitions related to homosexuality. Seven of them, which were discussed together, call on the legislative body for the global United Methodist Church to remove all “discriminatory language about homosexuality” from The Book of Discipline, specifically as it relates to clergy. The other one calls for a change that would allow clergy to perform same-sex marriages and for such ceremonies to be performed within United Methodist churches when authorized by vote of the annual conference where the clergy person is appointed or the church is located—or by a two-thirds vote of the church conference where the clergy person is appointed.

What the Conference approved was a set of petitions to bring before the General Conference in 2016. The next steps, according to Bishop Ough, will be for a General Conference committee on Book of Discipline language regarding homosexuality to consider the petitions, and determine if and how they may come before the General Conference. My guess is that there will be other legislation submitted for consideration on this topic, and the Minnesota Conference petitions may be considered as part of a larger group of petitions. The debate surrounding United Methodist policy, as spelled out in the Book of Discipline, has become heated and increasingly divisive in recent months, and there are at least two groups who are actively working to break ties with the United Methodist Church over this issue. One group threatens to leave unless we affirm same-gender marriage, and another threatens to leave if we do. In the middle of this struggle, with emotions high on both sides of the argument, it can be difficult to hear Christ’s prayer for unity. It is hard to imagine how we could ever be one, as the Father and Son are one.

At one point in the debate on Friday, Bishop Ough was asked to state his personal opinion on same-gender marriage. He declined, saying, “I am not going to interrupt your debate with my personal views.” I think he did the right thing. A Methodist understanding of the episcopacy does not vest the bishop with responsibility to tell us what we should think on controversial matters. We each need to prayerfully discern what scripture teaches us, and then determine how best to order our own lives so that we can live faithfully into our calling as children of God.

One problem we run into when we read the Gospels to learn how Jesus would have us respond to same-gender marriage, is that Jesus never directly addressed the issue of homosexuality. While he often attacked the way Levitical law was interpreted and practiced, those attacks were most often directed at Sabbath observance and treatment of the poor, the sick, widows, and children. Jesus did address issues of sexual immorality, and those issues became even more prominent in the early church, as Christianity spread into parts of the world where pagan practice covered a broad spectrum of understandings about appropriate sexual behavior. But even when Jesus did speak to issues of sexuality, it was to offer grace and forgiveness.

So here we stand, well into the 21st century, aware that the church has too often allowed the culture around us to dictate our response to questions of morality, and also aware that the church has just as often drawn the net too tightly, refusing grace to those who need it most.

Jesus was well aware of the influence of the world on his followers, and his prayer addresses the tension of being “in the world but not of the world.” Throughout John’s Gospel, kosmos refers to a world that is hostile toward God. A few verses beyond those we heard earlier, Jesus prays, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (14-16).

As I listened to the debate at Annual Conference, I struggled with the deep pain I heard in voices on both sides of the issue. I also struggled to understand how Christ’s own body, the church, could have allowed our focus to move from developing spiritually mature disciples of Jesus, toward a preoccupation with human sexual identity. I remembered Jesus telling a bunch of Sadducees, “You still don’t get it.” “In the resurrection, people will neither marry nor be given in marriage. They will be like the angels in heaven” (Matt 22:30; Mark 12:25).

I must remain a pastor in good standing with the Evangelical Covenant Church, in order for the Methodist Church to recognize my credentials, and allow me to remain your pastor. That means I cannot perform same-gender marriages, nor can I allow such ceremonies to occur in any church I pastor. So far, both denominations I serve use nearly identical language to address this issue. Even if legislation changes the Book of Discipline to allow same-gender marriage, it will only be at the discretion of congregational charge conferences, and it will require a 2/3 vote. This will place the burden of decision on each congregation. We must be prepared to thoughtfully, prayerfully discern how we will decide on this matter, should the General Conference approve such legislation.

You need to know that I cannot perform a same-gender wedding., but I can, and do, deeply love people of every possible sexual orientation. If you want to grab a cup of coffee with me some time, I’d be happy to talk with you about my views on helping people of every sexual orientation to find fulfillment as children of God. I long for the day when each of us can say that our primary identity is not based on our human sexual desires, but on our spiritual status as redeemed participants in the Body of Christ. I believe that every time we choose to label ourselves in any way other than “God’s beloved child” we fall short of the Kingdom of God.

Christ’s prayer for unity has only one goal: that the world would know God has sent Jesus into the world. This has little to do with denominational polity, sexuality, or crafting some kind of compromise to keep us all together. It is about sharing this one message: Jesus is the Son of God who takes away the sins of the world. This must be our focus, as followers of Jesus.

We read earlier today, in 1 Peter 5:8, “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.” I am convinced that Satan would like nothing better than for us to be distracted by debates over what the Book of Discipline says about homosexuality. Satan would like nothing better than for all our energy to be spent arguing with one another, so that we have no energy left to share the good news that Jesus is Lord, that he died for all, and that grace abounds for those who will claim it.

I, for one, do not intend to let Satan get his way on this one. I think there is much to be gained by discussing how we, as a church, want to live out our calling to offer hope and healing to a broken world. Part of that discussion needs to include how we minister to people whose primary identity has not yet become “faithful follower of Jesus Christ” – whatever their primary identity currently happens to be. Let us do that with grace and love for one another, so that the witness we bear points others to Jesus, and Jesus alone. Only then can Jesus finally expect an answer to his prayer that we might be one, even as he and the Father are one. Only then can the Kingdom of God become fully real. Only then can we gather around this Table, offer one another Bread and Cup, and rejoice as we hear once again the reminder that, because we who are many partake of the One Loaf, we have been made one in Christ Jesus. Amen.