Monthly Archives: November 2013

Christ the King: The Way of Vulnerability

The text for the day was Luke 23:33-43 – Jesus crucifixion. And of course I had to have them sing “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” as the sermon hymn!

Today is Christ the King Sunday. The day we observe and celebrate that Jesus Christ is our King, that as Christians we confess and acknowledge that Jesus Christ rules over our hearts and our minds, our very lives….but what exactly does that mean? And if we consider our gospel story, what does it mean that this Christ, our King, hangs from a cross, suffers and dies? Why does placing our faith and trust – our allegiance to this king matter for life in the here and now, for TODAY?

I may have told some of you this, but my mom was an alcoholic. And as alcoholism does, it not only made life difficult for her, but it made life difficult for the people around her – our family. And it was particularly hard on my dad. Looking back, I realize that my dad was one of those people who grew up and held the belief that marriage was something you stick through, for better or worse, til death do us part. And so, when the day he came to the difficult realization he needed to divorce my mom – while unfortunate, it was the right thing to do – he did so quietly and privately. But in small rural farming communities, such matters – they’re neither quiet or private.

And while people knew, nothing was ever said to my dad directly. But he heard the whispers and felt the stares – the judgment that your marriage failed, and at best, people pitied you for that, and at worst, they blamed you for it. And in the midst of knowing that, and in the midst of his own pain and guilt…I think the only option in my dad’s mind was to push it aside, hide it, bury it way down deep, and move on…because life must go on, and honestly, acknowledging the pain was just too difficult.

I remember my dad in those years not saying a whole lot…just farming, keeping to himself, never talking about my mom or the divorce. He was friendly with folks, but I don’t recall him really being happy. And I remember never really understanding why he wouldn’t talk about it – and being really frustrated and upset that he wouldn’t acknowledge how mom’s alcoholism and their divorce affected our family.

And I remember shortly after their divorce an argument started between us….about what, I can’t remember. It was probably unrelated to the divorce, but it got heated, and like some of you may have done, in the heat of the moment, I said words that cut way too deep. “Well, at least I can admit our family stinks; I at least can admit that you and mom got a divorce.” And I remember the pain on my dad’s face at those words, and I remember his EXACT WORDS in response. “DO YOU THINK I LIKE HAVING PEOPLE TALK ABOUT ME? DO YOU THINK I LIKE DISAPPOINTING THE FAMILY? DO YOU THINK I LIKE THE FACT THAT MY MARRIAGE FAILED?”

Like my dad, I wonder why when our suffering and pain is so apparent in one way or another…..why do we choose to deny that pain, to bury and hide it, to avoid it? And in our gospel story, Jesus’ crucifixion: like the crowds who mock Jesus, why do we deny others in their suffering? And like the criminal who denies Jesus on the cross, why do we deny the very presence of the one who suffers next to us, to look past them rather than see them?

Why do we choose to live a life of denial, where we fail to face our own suffering and the suffering of others? Why do we choose a of life of denial that leads to rejection of others and God…..and that leads to isolation? I wonder if we choose a life of denial, a life of continued suffering in isolation, because we don’t know of another way…..a way that leads to new and abundant life.

But we see in this story of Jesus’ crucifixion that God offers another way – vulnerability: admitting openly what we know to be true about where suffering leads to. It leads to the cross.

But it’s in the moment of vulnerability on the cross that something happens. The criminal discovers God hanging on his own cross, vulnerable and suffering for him. And in that moment of shared vulnerability, rather than rejection, he hears words of acceptance: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” And in those words of acceptance, the depth and power of God’s grace and love breaks in – and God’s promise of everlasting relationship becomes a new reality.

The way of the cross – a way of vulnerability, not denial; a way that leads to acceptance; not rejection; a way where grace and love break into the world and usher in a reign of hope, built on the promise new life and relationship, not death and isolation.

And the way of the cross, this reign of Christ, isn’t so much for the salvation of our souls from eternal damnation, but it is a promise for us NOW. It is a promise that MATTERS FOR US IN THIS LIFE. Christ’s words are for you: “TODAY you will be with me in paradise.”

And this brings me back to my dad – in that moment my dad became so vulnerable in front of me, something happened: I saw his suffering, his imperfection; but he also became a bit more human to me – someone who felt rejected and isolated.
It was in that moment of vulnerability I saw that his suffering over our family was the same as mine. And in that moment grace and love broke through the isolation and separation we felt – and while it took time and effort, our relationship began anew.

And this reign of Christ, the way of the cross, matters for you today. We are congregations and people with deep hurt and pain. I know that as much as suffering has been a part of your past, and in hearing your words and stories since I’ve been here, it is also a very real part of your present. And the only way it will cease to be a part of our future is if we can be vulnerable with each other, trusting we will be met with acceptance. Because when we do, we will begin to see each other through the lens of grace, as human beings broken by sin, but loved by God….and perhaps then in that, a relationship can begin to form – love reigning in our lives just as God in Christ loves us so unconditionally.

If we allow Christ to reign in our lives – the way of the cross – something will happen. New life will spring forth in places we never imagined.

Now the way of the cross is not easy – vulnerability is not easy….because we still live in a world ruled by denial.

And so, perhaps living into Christ’s reign requires a small step….a step of faith. I’ve given each of you a note card today, and I want you to write on it one way that you’ve been hurt, hurt another, or one way you’ve experienced suffering – either now or in the past; within these walls or outside them. I will collect those cards….and I am going to put them on a board where we can read them, and maybe then we can take a small, but important, step towards vulnerability – admitting they ways we’ve suffered and caused it. I believe we can take this small step faith, because we remember who we place our faith in: Jesus, Christ the King, the One who suffers in the cross with us and for us, and whose reign of love can and will make all things new – today, tomorrow, each and every day, and forever. Amen.


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Giving Thanks: Voices of Wisdom

I was checking out my Twitter feed this morning when I saw Luther Seminary tweeted an article about Professor Gracia Grindal’s retirement in June after 30 years of service.

While not the most well-known or popular among students of recent years, Professor Grindal is one of the reasons I stayed in Seminary, and am now a pastor. She’s spent time around central Minnesota, where I grew up, and has that way about her, like the people I grew up around: humble, matter-of-fact, salt of the earth. In her 30 years, she’s seen a lot of changes in the world and the church, and yet as continued to honor both the traditions of the church and share her passion for hymns and rhetoric.

One, she took the time to ask me how I was doing; because clearly something was bothering me that spring of my first year. Two, as I expressed my doubts of having a place in the church as a pastor, and my frustations over the church, she said,

“You know, in all my years there have been times I disagreed with and been upset about what the church does. But I still love the church.”

And those words, and that wisdom has stuck with me today. I give thanks for people like Professor Grindal, her wisdom, and her love of the church. And as I live as a pastor, husband, brother, friend, and wrestling coach, that serves as a good reminder:

Commitment is the sustained love and passion for something or someone, even through those times when conflict or difficulty arises.

Thank you Professor Gindal, and all those who have shared their wisdom with me. And for those of you out there, hopefully you’re reminded of those great voices of wisdom that have crossed your path as well.

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An example of crappy exegesis: A sermon on Luke 21 & 2 Thessalonians 3

Here’s my sermon from Sunday, November 17th. The lessons were Luke 21:5-19 & 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13. And since all the scholarly commentaries interpreted these texts as addressing eschatological, apocalyptic realities, I apologize in advance…..Didn’t really follow the script this week. But we got things to talk about in my two congregations. Things we need to hear God speak into.

I am struck by two of our texts today – Luke’s gospel and Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. I’m struck by how each text seems to raise the question of misguided and misplaced faith, and what implications that has for people as they try to live out their faith in their lives and in the church.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is walking along with his followers in Jerusalem, at the temple. And some of Jesus’ followers are in awe of the beautiful stones, and the amazing gifts that had been given in dedication to God. In some ways, I wonder, if perhaps these followers of Jesus didn’t think that they were seeing visions of the glory of God, that they somehow felt closer to God because of the beautiful building and all the different gifts of religious symbols and items….they felt they were necessary to experience God’s glory fully.

And Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica about how some had become “mere busybodies, living in idleness, not doing any work.” There were Christians in the church in Thessalonica that weren’t pulling their weight. But I also think the “busybodies” were people who were doing all sorts of things in the name of Christ, but their actions didn’t communicate God’s grace & love or build up the community of faith in tumultuous times.

That reminds me of a story. I remember as a kid I loved to play baseball. Like a lot of kids do, I had my favorite MLB players, people I idolized. I used to imitate their batting stances and pitching windups, thinking that if I could get it just right, somehow I would be just as good as them.

One evening, while I was watching baseball with my dad on TV, one of my favorite players came up to bat, and I noticed he had on one of those protective shin guards that protect your lead leg and foot from foul balls. And for some reason, I got it in my head that if I wore one of those shinguards, I could be just as good a baseball player as that guy on TV.

So after saving up my money from doing farm chores, I convinced my dad to order one of those shinguards for me, and he did. A few weeks later, the shinguard came in the mail. I was so excited to wear in to practice the next day so I could start hitting like my favorite player, so I put it in my backpack with my baseball gear.

So I got to practice the next day, and I couldn’t tell you if I hit any better that day…because I do remember forgetting to put the shinguard on. And that’s how it often went – if I wasn’t forgetting to put on the shinguard completely, I was scrambling back to the dugout from the on deck circle to put it on, almost missing my at bat. And, this thing had a bunch of straps and hooks, so it would shift around on my leg, distracting me from hitting because I had to adjust it so much. Needless to say, that shinguard was a pain in the butt – and it certainly didn’t make me hit any better than that player on TV.

I wonder if perhaps it’s not the same for us; we get distracted by sorts of things. And I wonder, if perhaps we don’t have a bit of a case of misguided and misplaced faith. We busy ourselves with tasks and become preoccupied with maintaining physical things like buildings, and all the while Jesus is telling us we’ve lost something by making those things the center of our faith.

Jesus tells his followers at the temple that such things – they don’t last; they don’t stand the test of time. “As for these things you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

And while Paul’s response might seem overly harsh, his response to what was going on in the Thessalonian church drives home the seriousness of those busybodies and idle folk. Paul instructs them to “keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition they received from us.”

Things don’t last forever; God is not found in them. And, even our most faithful efforts can run counter God’s grace and love…..because they fail to keep Jesus Christ at the center of our faith. At the center of the church.

And as hard as that is to admit, the fact of the matter is we do it. When WE TRY to make Christ the center in the ways WE THINK will accomplish that…..we fail to see that Christ IS ALREADY AT THE CENTER OF IT ALL. And we miss out on the ways that God is making himself known to us…..God’s grace and love breaking through into our lives, and into our church.

And If that is true, that Christ is already at the center, then there is only one way for us to respond: TO GIVE UP.

We give up and let Christ lead us. Jesus instructs his followers in our gospel story that many things will take place, many challenges and trials and suffering will be put before them. And it’ll drive them to fear, and compel them to act on their own, to do something to respond. But Jesus’ words to his followers in the temple are clear, and they’re his words to us today: “So make up your minds NOT to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” (emphasis is mine)

Jesus will lead us….and so we simply need to give up and let that happen.
And I think for folks like you and I, and for congregations like us, that’s hard to do. I think we know collectively that we need to do something to keep things going in our congregations during these tough times. We need to make sure that past mistakes and wrongs don’t occur again, that past hurts and conflict don’t arise again. We need to make sure these places of worship continue to stand so that we have a place to meet God.

But no matter how good we think our intentions are, it is misplaced and misguided faith. Because recognizing Christ is at the center is giving up. Because in giving up we have to trust, and trust is faith – faith that God is breaking through into our lives, in this place, and outside of it. God is waiting to make himself known. God in Christ is constantly communicating his grace and love to us and through us to all people. If only we’d give up and trust…..

…….If only we’d allow Christ to take our hand and lead us out of our fear and control to places of hope and new life. If only we’d open ourselves so that Christ would dwell richly in our lives, relationships and communities…..then we’d truly experience Christ at the center….Christ leading us…..leading us home.

And so perhaps all we can do is give up. Give up, trust, find our voice of faith that allows us to sing: [SINGING] “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Through the storm, through the night. Lead me on, to the light. Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me home…”


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Observing Veteran’s Day in Worship: Yes or No?

Veteran’s Day is this Monday….and I will always take the time to honor military service while being honest about the realities of war…I hope you will too.


Earlier this week, Text this posed this question on their Facebook page: “I’m also thinking about “Veterans Day”/”Remembrance Day” this coming Sunday, and the many, sometimes strong and sometimes dismissive, thoughts and experiences people bring to this particular day in different countries and cultures. Any thoughts about what we do as communities of faith?”

The answers varied, and rightly so, on such a tricky subject – Do we or don’t we honor men and women who ultimately, participated in wars?  Wars….with violence and innocent deaths, started and carried on with political/religious powers and agendas behind them, highlighting the ugly side of humanity.  To recognize these people ultimately leads to a recognition of what they did, what they were participating in. 

Two choices are either don’t recognize them at all, or find some way to recognize them in a “love the sinner, but hate the sin” sort of way.  Both…

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Getting Over Tattoos: My take on the “Nadia Phenomenon”

Well, I’m finally joining in on the “Nadia Phenomenon.”

Sort of.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the church I am also a pastor in. In case you haven’t paid much attention, Nadia has been pretty mainstream these days, which for any Lutheran, is about as common as my Minnesota Vikings football team winning these days.

A couple things here: One, I have never met Nadia. So I realize I’m definitely doing a whole lot of assuming, which is dangerous. Two, it’s kind of hard to avoid that though, especially when said person is doing interview spots on TV, getting interviewed by Krista Tippett, and has had her memoir make the NY Times bestseller list.

And honestly, that’s the one thing about the “Nadia Phenomenon” that bothers me, and at the same time has kept me from responding: the “marketing package” that is Nadia, the subsequent rockstar-like status people have elevated her to, and her strange preoccupation (and neurosis perhaps?) with those who trash her and what she says. For me, why be another one of the mob? Think for myself, I say, see though the packaging and the bullshit.

But then I came across this article on Nadia in the Washington Post. It is refreshingly well-written, and it gets to the heart of what I like so much about Nadia Bolz-Weber.

Nadia embodies a Christianity that is full of integrity; a Christianity that is sorely needed in today’s world.

Nadia talks about being all about God’s grace, and she is. If you cut through all the “packaging,” past the profanity, the tough image, the tattoos….you’ll see honesty, courage, and joy: things that spring forth from the experience with God’s grace.

And that grace is lived out – she quickly points out when she misses the mark, when she needs to self-correct, ask for forgiveness, and move on. She sees that God’s grace isn’t just for her own self-enjoyment and affirmation, it also shapes how she sees and deals with others.

And it’s this that really convinces me of her integrity:
She doesn’t apologize for who she is, but she will apologize for what she does when it misses the mark. That is all God’s grace.

On a personal note, that’s how it works for me too. I’ve gotten there a different way and understand it through the sport of wrestling, but that is how it works for me. Honesty. Courage. Freedom. Willing to admit when I screw up and ask for forgiveness, but then moving on.

I’m not trying to, and have no desire to put myself on the same level as Nadia; the course God has her on is simply, not one I feel called to. But when I look past the packaging, I get it. And I appreciate it. And I’ll keep on doin’ what I do.

For her naysayers and critics out there: I say get over it. Get over whatever it is about her that pisses you off, and read her book. Listen to her interview with Krista Tippett. Read her sermons on her blog.

For the dismissive folks out there, the “that’s nothing that isn’t already happening in our congregations” crowd: look past the stuff on the surface and hear the integrity in her words. Chances are there’s something you can learn there about yourself.

For the record, I’m still not joining in on the “Nadia Phenomenon.” (I don’t think she’d want me to either, and it’s not my style)

I think it’s a pretty damn good thing though.

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