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Good Friday

Dark.

Not dusk,
no moon or stars, as on a clear night;


No.

This dark was thick, oppressively thick;

All the goodness that ever existed
had been sucked out of the world.

Nothing.
Empty.
Dark.
And we were
suddenly,
completely
alone.

Dark.


It was so….
Dark.

O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
How pale Thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish, which once was bright as morn!

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

– Latin 12th c.; German, Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676)
Translated, James W. Alexander (1804-1859)

He Knew – Maundy Thursday

Read Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; John 13:1-17. 31b-35

We may think of the Last Supper the way Leonardo da Vinci portrays it in his famous painting: Jesus seated at the center of a long table with his disciples on either side of him. But that’s probably not the way the room was set up. Several tables would have been arranged in a “U” shape, with couches around them, for the guests to recline as they ate.

Find your place at one of these tables. As the host, Jesus is sitting near the end of the U shape, and John is on the end, next to Jesus. John is in the “right-hand man” spot, ready to get up and provide anything the host requires during the meal. Since he is sharing a dish with Jesus, Judas must be reclining on Jesus’ left, which is the guest of honor spot. … Peter is probably on the other end of the U shaped arrangement, where he can get John’s attention and keep his eyes on Jesus throughout the meal.

Jesus has washed the feet of each disciple, demonstrating the kind of servanthood he wants them to show one another. But after he has washed their feet and returned to his place, Jesus becomes troubled, and announces that one of the twelve will betray him. It’s the guest of honor, the one who is dipping his hand into the same dish as Jesus.

Just as Jesus could wash Judas’ feet, and feed him the bread and cup he shared with all the disciples at his last meal, he expects us to offer grace and hospitality to all our sisters and brothers, even the ones who insult us, even the ones who talk about us behind our backs. Even the ones who don’t much like us. Jesus “loved them to the end” – every one of them – so that we might love one another in just the same way.

John closes this chapter with the new commandment from Jesus to love one another, just as Jesus has loved: fully, to the end, every one of us. Our identity at this Table is not so much in the noun “disciple,” but in the adjective, “beloved.”

Original artwork by Rev. Chris Suerdieck, used with permission

Rocky Road – Wednesday of Holy Week

Read Psalm 70 and John 13:21-32

The farmer from North Dakota shook his head as he looked out the bus window. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many rocks,” he said. We were in the middle of day three of our pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and I realized a farmer from North Dakota probably had a unique view of the landscape of Israel.

Rocks mean work. Rocks must be cleared before plowing and planting can happen. And the farmer was right: rocks were everywhere we looked. In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus talked about seed landing on rocky soil. Here was clear evidence that Jesus used common experience to get through to his listeners. They would have known exactly what he meant by “rocky soil.” Rocks dotted every green hillside, every lush valley. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many rocks.

The season of Lent is nearing its end. We often describe the season of Lent as a journey toward the Cross, a path we follow to become more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

But that path can be a rocky one. Judas had a hard time keeping up, because Jesus wasn’t going the direction Judas thought he should. Judas stumbled over his own ideas about what Messiah should be. In the end, it cost him everything.

The roads Jesus walked were not always smoothly paved. When we choose to follow Jesus, we accept the challenge of walking where we might not otherwise want to go. The season of Lent gives us an opportunity to examine our hearts, and to recommit ourselves to the Way of the Cross. This Way is often steep and difficult to follow. It may be littered with rocks that can trip us up if we aren’t careful. But Jesus leads us on, giving us sure footing if we look to him.

Will you join the journey to the Cross, and learn what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?

“Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” – Matthew 11:6

Original artwork by Rev. Chris Suerdieck, used with permission.

Tuesday of Holy Week – We Would See Jesus

Read Psalm 71:1-14 and John 12:20-33

During the middle of the 20th century in America, churches across America posted John 12:20 in the pulpit where the preacher could see it. “Sir, we would see Jesus” encouraged a whole generation of preachers to remember their primary task: showing Jesus to people who need a Savior.

Original Artwork by Rev. Chris Suerdieck, used with permission

In fact, the entire Gospel of John was written with this very purpose in mind. Near the end of the book, John writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)

If “seeing is believing,” we can imagine the Greeks who came to Philip were hoping for more than a glimpse of a celebrity. They were hoping for more than an autograph. They not only wanted to see Jesus, they wanted to believe.

The literal translation of the phrase “we would see Jesus” or “we wish to see Jesus” sounds awkward to our ears. But to get a better understanding of what these Greeks meant, the literal translation might be helpful. Here’s what they were saying: “Mister, we are willing to be perceiving Jesus.” Not just “we’d kinda like to see this Jesus guy” or “we want to see him so we can tell our friends back home that we did.”

We are willing. Our desire includes the understanding that this encounter is going to change us in some way, and we are willing to take the risk. We are willing to be perceiving. We want more than the opportunity to lay eyes on Jesus. We want to perceive him, to know him, to understand him, to recognize him as the Son of God. And we realize this isn’t a one-time-and-we’re-done sort of thing. It’s an ongoing relationship. We are willing to be perceiving Jesus now and indefinitely into the future. Mister Philip, sir, we want more than a backstage pass.
We are willing to know Jesus personally, whatever that means.
Are you willing?

Want to go deeper? Here’s a full sermon on this text.

Welcome to Holy Week 2022 – Palm Sunday


Read Luke 19:29-44.

Luke’s gospel doesn’t include waving palms or shouts of “Hosanna!” in the story of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. I mentioned in the Palm Sunday sermon that the story we know can make it hard for us to accept the story we hear. But what about the other stories that are happening at the same time?

For example, it might be important for us to know there were two parades into Jerusalem that day. While Jesus entered Jerusalem from the east, approaching the Temple from the Mount of Olives, Herod entered the city from the west, demonstrating his military strength and allegiance to Rome.

Throughout this coming week, you will need to make some choices. Which parade will you join? Which leader will you follow? Each day this week, I will post a scripture passage to read, a short devotional, and original artwork generously shared by Methodist pastor Chris Suerdieck. May your Holy Week devotions bring you nearer to Christ.

Art by Rev. Chris Suerdieck, used with permission.

Unbinding Your Heart: A Converted Community – sermon on Acts 2:14, 32-39

March 13, 2022 – Lent 2C
Video

The story of Pentecost boggles our minds to this day. In Acts 2, we read about how the Holy Spirit comes and touches all of the disciples. They suddenly are able to speak in different languages. Many people, 3000 the text says, get baptized and start following Jesus that day.

The miraculous stuff of this story steals the show. It’s usually what we focus on when we think of Pentecost. But there’s something more ordinary going on that we need to see. In the midst of all the hubbub, in the middle of the bold signs of God’s presence, something is quietly happening that is essential to the story.

Continue reading

The First Sign – Sermon for Epiphany 2C on John 2:1-11

January 16, 2022
Video

We are in the season after the Epiphany, when Jesus is revealed to the world as God’s Son. The themes that weave through this season include revelation, glory, baptism, and Christ as the Light of the World. There is a sense of celebration in this season, a sense of joy being released into the world as we recognize who Jesus is.

I don’t know about you, but these days I could use some joy. We wear ourselves out struggling with issues of greed and poverty, power and powerlessness, fear and anger, and an overwhelming sense of futility and weariness. People 2000 years ago had to deal with these same things. And yet, in the midst of it all, there was room for celebration. There was room for joy. And Jesus was right in the middle of it.

Chicken and Wild Rice Casserole (Hot Dish)

This is adapted from another recipe that made 14-16 giant servings, and used a boxed fast cooking rice blend. Go search for it on myrecipes.com if that’s what you are looking for. This makes a healthy amount of food for 6-8 people, served with a nice salad and some crusty bread. Since we live in Minnesota, where every casserole is called a hot dish, and where most wild rice is harvested, you might want to call this a hot dish, too. Or casserole. It’s good, either way!

2 c. cooked brown rice
2-3 c. cooked wild rice* (See cook’s notes, below)
3 T. butter
2 large celery ribs, cleaned and diced
1 medium onion, chopped
3 c. cooked chicken, cut into cubes or bite-size pieces
1 can cream of mushroom soup (cream of chicken also works)
1 8 oz. can sliced water chestnuts, drained and coarsely chopped
1 c. plain, non-fat Greek yogurt, or 1/2 c. sour cream**
1/2 c. milk (use this to rinse out the soup can)
salt and pepper to taste
2 c. shredded cheddar cheese, plus another 1/2 c. for the topping
1 c. bread crumbs
2-4 Tbsps. sliced almonds, toasted***

Toast the almonds and set aside to cool. Cook the rice (if you don’t have any leftover in the fridge, as we usually do) – note that wild rice and brown rice cook differently, so don’t try to cook them together unless you are using one of those boxed mixes. If you are doing that, one box of Uncle Ben’s cooked to package directions, will be enough.

Cook a couple of large boneless, skinless chicken breasts in a quart or so of water or chicken broth (with a couple of bay leaves if you have them). Remove the chicken to a cutting board to cool (reserve the broth for another use, like maybe cooking the wild rice?), then cut into cubes.

Sauté the celery and onion in the butter in a large skillet. Remove from heat. Add the chopped chicken, soup, water chestnuts, yogurt/sour cream, and milk and stir to combine all ingredients. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir in 2 c. cheese, just to blend. Transfer everything to a buttered 9×13 baking dish. Top with bread crumbs.

Bake at 350° for 35 minutes, or until top begins to brown and the casserole is bubbly around the edges. Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 c. cheese and the toasted almonds over the top, return to the oven for 5 minutes, until cheese is melted and it all looks toasty.

Remove from oven and let sit for 5 minutes before dishing it up.

You can put together everything but the bread crumbs and cheese/almond topping, cover tightly and freeze this for later. Thaw it in the fridge overnight, and maybe allow some extra baking time to make sure the center gets hot.

COOK’S NOTES:

* Cooking wild rice is not hard, it just takes time. My son’s father-in-law insists the only proper way to cook wild rice is to pour boiling water over it to cover, let stand until water is absorbed, and repeat this process until the kernels “bloom” (pop open, but remain firm, not mushy), then fluff with a fork.
I’m sure he’s right, but I find putting a cup of well-rinsed wild rice in a pan with 2-3 cups of water, bringing to a boil, then reducing the heat to simmer until the desired doneness is reached works just fine. This makes 2-3 c. cooked rice. You may need to add more water, or you may find that not all the water gets absorbed when the kernels start to bloom. When the skins start to pop open, the rice is done, either way. You can also soak it overnight to reduce the cooking time.

** I use plain non-fat Greek yogurt for just about any recipe calling for sour cream. The flavor and consistency are nearly identical, without the calories or fat. If you insist on using sour cream, use only 1/2 cup.

*** toast almonds 4-6 minutes in a 350° oven, or 2-3 minutes over medium heat in a skillet, stirring and shaking constantly – remove from heat as soon as they start to turn caramel-colored, or you’ll burn them!

Remember you are baptized! Reflection on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

January 9, 2022
Video

Look! The wise men have arrived at the manger. It just so happens that this service is being recorded on the Day of Epiphany! (practice saying it) An epiphany is a moment when something is revealed to you. It’s an “Aha!” moment when you recognize something that didn’t make sense before. We celebrate the day of Epiphany on January 6th, as an “Aha!” moment when people realized Jesus was God’s own Son. Specifically, Jesus was revealed to people who weren’t Jews – Gentiles like us. But today, we are celebrating TWO things – not only Jesus giving the wise men their “Aha!” moment, but also Jesus being baptized, and revealed as God’s Son by the Holy Spirit.

Do you know your purpose in life? Do you have a clear idea of why God made you, and what you are supposed to do with this one precious life you’ve been given?

Jesus did. He understood that his primary purpose was to bring us humans into right relationship with God. That was the whole reason he came into the world – God With Us, Emmanuel – not to condemn the world (John 3:17), but to save it. To accomplish that, he had to become one of us.

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all,
“I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

The first thing Luke wants us to know is that John the Baptist isn’t Jesus. That may seem like a no-brainer to us, but at the time these events take place, people weren’t so sure. People think maybe he IS Messiah. But John compares what he is doing to what Messiah will do in terms of the elements. “I can get you wet,” he says, “But Messiah will do much more than that.”

John’s emphasis is on action – what Messiah will do. John may bathe you with water to symbolize the washing away of your sins, but the One who is coming will breathe Holy Spirit into you and burn away all the chaff.

Jesus is not only immersed in water,  he is immersed in the light of God’s presence, and the breath of Holy Spirit. His baptism is not for the forgiveness of sins, like all those other people coming to be baptized. Jesus is baptized into his mission, the mission the Father has given him – to redeem the world, to save us from our sins.

And God is pleased with him. “This is my son, whom I love, and with whom I am well pleased.”

When we allow ourselves to become fully immersed in God’s mission to make right what is wrong, to heal what is hurt, to save what is headed for destruction, we can know God’s pleasure just as surely as Jesus did there on the banks of the Jordan river.

When we commit ourselves completely to following Jesus – not only in baptism, but in every aspect of living, we can experience the full depth of God’s love for us.

See what love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God – and that is what we are! (1 John 3:1)

Let’s pray.

Almighty and loving Father, we want to dive in, but we aren’t sure how deep the water is. We want to submerge ourselves in your life-giving floods, but we are afraid of drowning, Lord. Help us to know the peace that comes with trusting in you. Give us the courage to dive into your promises and help us submit our wills to your will. Make us your own. Fill us with the life-giving breath of your Holy Spirit. Let your fire burn in our hearts, we pray in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

I invite you, if you have some water at home with you – a bowl, a pitcher or a glass of water – to dip your fingers in it and remember your own baptism. And be thankful!

Now, on this Baptism of our Lord Sunday, I am going to try to get you wet… because I want everyone to feel the water, and to know that God loves us so much, he washes away our sins in the act of baptism, and makes us his very own. So, remember that you are baptized! And be thankful! (asperges).

God With Us: Repent and Rejoice! – sermon on Zephaniah 3:14-20

Advent 3C – December 12, 2021
VIdeo

This is Gaudete Sunday! It’s the Latin word for ‘rejoice’ taken from the first word in the New Testament reading for today. Rejoice in the Lord always we just heard Paul say to the Philippians – Again I say Rejoice! And why? Because the Lord is near.

Last week we heard John the Baptist calling us to a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” as he cried out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. And why? Because the Lord is near!

You just heard the gospel reading for today, describing John’s ministry in greater detail. As he called people to repentance, they had some questions about how, exactly, to go about that. Yes, we know repenting means turning away from one thing so we can turn toward something else, but how do we do that?

So John gives some specific examples. He encourages his listeners to look for ways to make things right and fair, to be generous with what we have, so that others who don’t have anything can be clothed and fed and cared for. He starts out calling people a brood of vipers, but ends up proclaiming the good news that … the Lord is near!

We are three fourths of the way through the season of Advent. And while we might think of these four weeks of preparation as leading up to Christmas, our focus should probably be looking forward to Christ’s coming again in glory as much as remembering his first coming in human form.

In fact, during medieval times, the four Sundays of Advent had nothing to do with Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love – the themes of Advent in the middle ages were Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. Put that in your Christmas stocking! The truth is that Advent simply means Arrival. We look for Jesus to come among us, to be God with us – Emmanuel. So today, we hear the Old Testament prophet Zephaniah describe what that will be like, how God with us changes everything, and why God wants to be with us in the first place.

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.
(Zephaniah 3:14-20)

Rejoice! Exult! I wonder if we even know what those words mean anymore. The short definition of “exult” is to ‘feel or show triumphant elation or jubilation.’ Try explaining that to a kindergartener.

Let me give you an example: It’s the sound you make and the way you act when a player from your favorite football team intercepts a pass and runs it in for a touchdown. Especially if that touchdown puts your team in the lead.

You exult when you watch your child ride a bike unassisted for the first time. I exult every time I get a sermon written in time to preach it. It’s that “Woohoo!” feeling of gratitude that things are good – really good! – and we are filled with joy and gladness we can’t contain. So why does the prophet Zephaniah, who has spent so much breath telling the nation of Israel how bad things are going to be for them because of their disobedience, suddenly do a 180 turn and start telling us to rejoice?

Because God has taken away the judgments against you. The first two chapters of Zephaniah are all about the punishment God intends for those who have rejected God. It’s pretty dire. A lot worse than being called a brood of vipers. Then, suddenly, here in chapter three, God does an about face – God repents. Now hear me out, I’m not spouting heresy here. There are several places in scripture where God repents:

  • God repented that he had made humans, because they would only do evil, and it ‘grieved him at his heart,’ so he told Noah to build an ark before God flooded the earth (Genesis 6:6)
  • God repented from destroying Jerusalem because of King David’s sin, and stopped the angel of death at the threshing floor which eventually would become the land where Solomon would build the first Temple (Chronicles 21:15)
  • When Nineveh repented of its sin in Jonah 3:10, God repented of destroying Nineveh.

Do you notice what all this repenting has in common? God gets disgusted with humans who have rejected God’s love, and decides to destroy them – then repents, or changes direction, and shows mercy instead. You could almost say that God is the model of repentance. God shows us how to repent of our sin, by repenting of punishment and turning toward mercy and life.

Here in Zephaniah, that’s exactly what God does. Zephaniah describes the Day of the Lord as a time of doom and destruction, but God says, “On that day, you won’t be ashamed … no longer will you be haughty on my holy mountain … no one will make you afraid,” (3:11-13) because God will shower God’s people with love and forgiveness. And like everything else God does, this new message of love and joy goes over the top.

“Rejoice,” Zephaniah says, “God is in your midst, so you do not need to be afraid anymore.” Your judgment, your punishment for all the ways you have abandoned God or ignored God or rebelled against God – all that is cleared away. You have no reason to be afraid, because God is in your midst. God is with us. And that brings us to my favorite verse in the whole Bible, and the central idea of this passage. It is a five-fold blessing:

  1. The Lord your God is in your midst,
  2. a warrior who gives victory;
  3. he will rejoice over you with gladness,
  4. he will renew (or quiet) you in his love,
  5. he will exult over you with loud singing …

All that rejoicing and exulting Zephaniah tells us to do back in verse 14 is merely a reflection of God’s rejoicing and exulting. All our loud singing is simply an answer to the singing God does over us. Have you ever considered that God sings? And when God sings, it’s because of you?

Ponder that for a moment. You are so precious to God, so deeply loved, that God rejoices over you and sings your name, even as God is in your midst, right beside you, God with you. I know the first time this verse hit me, it wasn’t with the realization that God cared so much for me, it was the fact that God sings! And if God sings, and we are made in God’s image, that’s why we sing. Not for our own pleasure, but for God’s.

It has only been with time and deeper understanding that I have come to realize it isn’t the singing that’s important here. It’s the love. Sometimes that love actually prohibits us from indulging in the pleasure of singing – as it has over these past months of pandemic restrictions. But if love is more important that anything else in this passage, surely we can express that love for God and for one another in other expressions of joy, at least for now.

And that brings us to the final part of this passage, this message of hope, peace, and joy for the third Sunday in Advent. Finally, we come to God’s promises, God’s pledge to do what God says he will do.

In the Day of the Lord, the day of rejoicing and exultation, God says “I will…”

I will remove disaster.
I will deal with your oppressors.
I will save the lame.
I will gather the outcast.
I will change your shame into your fame.

And best of all, because God is with us,
“I will bring you home.”

Isn’t that exactly where we want to be? At home with God, as God is at home with us? This is what matters. This is what Advent is preparing us for – the time when time is no more, when all the promises of the ages have been fulfilled, and God brings us home.