30 April 2006

Sermon for Easter III: "From Terror To Transformation"

Preaching Texts: Luke 24.36b-48; I John 3.1-7

Earlier this week, sports reporters were commenting on the vacation Tiger Woods is enjoying in New Zealand. Tiger has been seen driving a stock car and bungee-jumping off of the highest bungee-jump in the world. These are things that should terrify a person, but in the end they usually don't. Why? Maybe because bungee-jumping doesn't just happen. You don't tie a rope around your legs and jump off a bridge by accident – you plan for these things.

Last week, my wife and sister-in-law were watching the Miss USA pageant. This might be closer to terrifying stuff. There for the whole world to see a young woman shrieks, cries, and is given roses and a tiara or whatever they give to this young woman. Usually you can see her hands and face trembling as the full import is realized – I'm Miss USA. But still, being crowned Miss USA probably doesn't genuinely terrify a person, again, perhaps this is because it doesn't just happen. You enter a beauty pageant, and believe me, looking that good for that long takes a lot of advance work. You plan for these things.

I think true and genuine terror comes from those things that find us unprepared, the things that come without a hint of warning. You've all been to movies where the music gets scary and you know that something evil is going to happen – and that's not terrifying. The terrifying movies are the ones where the music doesn't give away the monster hiding in plain sight – the ones where the entire audience jumps because they weren't prepared for what was coming. You can't plan for those things – and they are truly terrifying.

+ + +

Now, step back in time with me, back almost 2,000 years, to a small second story room in Jerusalem. Seven days ago you and your friends watched with great joy as Jesus of Nazareth, your teacher and friend, rode into Jerusalem like a conquering hero. People waved palm branches to welcome him and laid their coats at His feet to honor Him. You had been with Him for three years as He walked the Galilean countryside. He healed the sick. He welcomed the outcasts. He taught the people what it means to truly live in the love of God. His followers grew and grew, and everywhere He went, you got the feeling that God was doing marvelous, wondrous things through Him. Finally, Jesus turned toward Jerusalem, and you thought that surely, He was the Messiah, God's Anointed One, the Christ, and maybe, just maybe, the restoration of Israel was about to take place, and the new Kingdom of God was about to be born.

But something happened during that week in Jerusalem. The high priests didn't welcome Jesus the way the crowds of Galilee had welcomed Him. Every word He spoke seemed to anger the priests more and more, and they began to whisper among themselves whenever Jesus was teaching in the Temple. Finally you realized that the Pharisees and Sadducees and all the other high officials of the Temple were beginning to plan against Jesus, and you began to feel worried for Him.

But when that plan was put into action, your worries turned out to be not nearly strong enough. They actually came and arrested Jesus, charged Him with treason against Rome and blasphemy against God, and convinced the governor to execute Him. They nailed Him to a cross like the worst criminal. But that wasn't the worst of it. The worst was this: you ran away. You had to hear how your beloved Jesus died from the lips of a stranger, because you were hiding in fear for your own life. You and all your friends abandoned Jesus because you were afraid the Romans would do the same to you if they caught you with Jesus.

So here you sit, in this upper room where you shared your last meal with Jesus before He was arrested and executed. On Friday, He was crucified and buried, and now it's Sunday night. Simon Peter and some of the women have said that Jesus' body is gone, and that two men in blinding white robes told them the incredible: "Jesus is risen!" Just a few minutes ago, two of your fellow disciples came running back from Emmaus and said they had actually seen Jesus, had walked several miles with Him on the road. You're amazed and suspicious and scared and confused about what all of this means.

All of a sudden, in the middle of this quiet room with its locked doors and its flickering candles, Jesus is here. No sound of warning – no knocking at the door – not even a rustle of His robes as He enters the room – He's just here, materializing out of thin air, and some of your friends don't even notice Him until He speaks. "Shalom alechem," He says: "Peace be with you."

Now you know what it means to be terrified. Jesus came out of nowhere and greeted you, His friends. The friends who had abandoned Him in the garden of Gethsemane. The friends who had left Him to die alone. The friends who even now are still afraid of what might happen if you are identified as Jesus' friends. It just happened to you, without any warning, and so you are terrified.

But look at how Jesus addresses you, terrified though you may be. He makes no mention of blame or anger for your abandoning Him. In fact, Jesus only mentions His death because you are looking at Him as if He were a ghost. To put your doubts and fears to rest, Jesus invites you to come and see just how alive He really is. "Come and touch me," Jesus says, "and see that I am still flesh and bone. I am no ghost – I am alive again!" Finally, just when you're starting to think that this is too good to be true, that there's no way He actually might be alive, Jesus sits down and blesses you by sharing a meal with you. He actually eats your fish as if He's hungry – and who knows, perhaps His hunger is as real as the wounds on His hands and feet?

But this is not enough for Jesus. Your mind and your heart are reeling with what's happened in the last few days, but Jesus isn't done rocking your world just yet. He begins talking about the scriptures, just like He's always done, and yet this time it's different. He opens your mind to understand what has happened and what's going to happen. This time you begin to understand everything He says to you. You begin to believe that all the things Jesus said and did weren't accidents, but planned from the beginning, and that even the cross was part of it all along. You get the sense that Jesus knew it was coming, that Jesus knew the church would reject Him, that Jesus knew you wouldn't be strong enough to stand with Him, and that even though He knew all of these things, He wouldn't have done it any other way.

It isn't the power of His argument that persuades you. It isn't the way Jesus can quote chapter and verse of the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms. It isn't the logical proof that He offers that convinces you. What convinces you is Jesus Himself. Your mind and heart believe what Jesus is saying because it is Jesus who says it, and that's all that matters to you. Slowly, your terror begins to fade, and what replaces it is a feeling that your life itself is being changed by His words, by His promises, and that what you're seeing here will transform your life forever. In the small space of this upper room, in the presence of Jesus of Nazareth, your beloved friend and teacher, the One who was crucified and now has risen, God is creating faith where there was none before. You have been moved from terror to transformation.

+ + +

Did you notice what Luke doesn't tell us? Luke never tells us how Jesus opened the scriptures to His disciples. Wouldn't it have been good for us to be able to prove the actual fulfillment of Scripture by Jesus? Wouldn't it have been great to present the clinching argument of (a + b + c)J = M, where a is the law of Moses, b is the prophets, c is the psalms, J is Jesus and M is Messiah? But this is not how God does things – and it never has been.

How does Jesus move the disciples from terror to transformation? Through experience. He reminds them of everything that happened to them while He was with them and reminds them that His ministry was about loving people, forgiving sins, changing lives, not destroying politicians or building bigger temples or even nation-building. It's not a question of knowing enough scripture or acting right or having your doctrine all wrapped up in a neat little package. The transformation that God offers comes through experiencing God's presence, through knowing that in our times of terror and confusion we are never alone. The transformation comes through living under the promises of God, through abiding in the love of Christ and in that love alone.

If I or any other pastor ever stand in this pulpit and tell you that faith in Jesus Christ means the end of suffering and death, you should run screaming. If I or any other pastor ever stand in this pulpit and tell you that faith in Jesus Christ means things never change, that you'll never be surprised again, that the things you love will always remain just as they are, you should come to the next Council meeting and demand that pastor's resignation. Faith in Jesus Christ is embodied by transformation. Or, as one of my fellow pastors put it this week in our text study, "if you come to believe you should expect to be changed!"

John's letter to his beloved community tells us that this is what happens when we come to believe. "what we will be has not yet been revealed." But notice how John starts this part of his letter: "Behold what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are." The moment God calls you His child, you are changed forever. It's not a matter of earning that adoption – it's a matter of coming to believe more and more that we are actually God's children, and then acting out of what we believe.

I'm not terrified anymore by the thought of God transforming me, and I'm not terrified by the thought of a future that is different than what I had planned. As the saying goes, "the best way to make God laugh is to start making plans." What terrifies me is the thought that a day might come when I will no longer be transformed by God's love. What terrifies me is the thought that a day might come when I will be so separated from God that I can no longer believe that God loves me. What terrifies me is the thought that a day might come when I might think that I must find God instead of God continually searching for me. But because I believe that God has created me and knows me better than I know myself, I believe that God continues to move and work and shape my life in such a way that my terror becomes my transformation, that the fears I have become the very things that God and I survive together so that I might believe in Him more deeply still.

What terrifies you? What uncertainties rise to cause you to be afraid? Trust, my friends, and know that your hope in Jesus Christ will not leave you unfulfilled, and believe more strongly still that in the midst of your terror, God will appear and will give you the words you so desperately need to hear: "Peace be with you." This peace, which truly does surpass all human understanding, will transform you and the world in which you live, and take you beyond all that terrifies you, accompanied by the one who holds your future carefully, gently, in His scarred, pierced hands. Amen.

29 April 2006

+ The Reverend Larry L. Meyer - my friend and mentor

It just doesn't seem possible that a year has passed since we said goodbye to Larry, our friend and pastor for so many years. How the days do fly sometimes.

I'm realizing more and more the impact Larry had on who I am as a pastor and as a Christian. The issues that seemed so very important to me when I first started seminary have faded into the background, while the issues and ideals that seemed so very important to Larry have continued to rise in my heart and my mind until they begin to crowd out all other things. Ideals and issues like the community that is the church - how we are at our best when we are living for each other. Ideals like a worship life that transforms and comforts people where they are - and doesn't make them feel like God is waiting for any of us to 'get it right' before we are worthy of experiencing God's presence. Issues like the core beliefs of Christian discipleship - and not the esoteric differences over non-essentials into which the best of us Lutherans sometimes get dragged.

It's been a tough year for Krisin & me. Not only did we lose Larry, but we lost our grandmothers, we've struggled with other, more personal things, and we've watched some of our friends say goodbye to their loved ones also. But in all of this we have our hope in Jesus Christ, who has overcome the world, and that hope does not fail us. Larry was one of many who planted the seeds of that hope in me, and I am forever grateful. See you soon, my friend - and you'd better have a beer ready for me when I do. Shalom.

"Four Poems in One"
Anne Porter

At six o'clock this morning
I saw the rising sun
Resting on the ground like a boulder
In the thicket back of the school,
A single great ember
About the height of a man

+ + +

Night has gone like a sickness,
The sky is pure and whole.
Our Lady of Poland spire
Is rosy with first light,
Starlings above it shatter their dark flock.
Notes of the Angelus
Leave their great iron cup
And slowly, three by three
Visit the Polish gardens round about,
Dahlias shaggy with frost
Sheds with their leaning tools
Rosebushes wrapped in burlap
Skiffs upside down on trestles
Like dishes after supper.

+ + +

These are the poems I'd show you
But you're no longer alive.
The cables creaked and shook
Lowering the heavy box.
The rented artificial grass
Still left exposed
That gritty gash of earth
Yellow and mixed with stones
Taking your body
That never in this world
Will we see again, or touch.

+ + +

We know little
We can tell less
But one thing I know
One thing I can tell
I will see you again in Jerusalem
Which is of such beauty
No matter what country you come from
You will be more at home there
Than ever with father or mother
Than even with lover and friend
And once we're within her borders
Death will hunt us in vain.

24 April 2006

Larry the Cable Guy - Husker Fan

No, this is not a joke: Larry the Cable Guy is a Husker fan.

I wonder if the 2006 Husker teams will all adopt "Git-R-Done" as their new mottos? Personally I liked "Restore the Order" better, but I bet Stevie P the AD can make more money off of the former...

23 April 2006

Sermon for Easter II: "See - Hear - Believe: 'My Lord and my God!'"

Every year, on the second Sunday of Easter, we beat up on poor Thomas, and every year I feel sorry for him. Poor "Doubting" Thomas – in my opinion Thomas has always gotten far more criticism than he deserved.

Who was Thomas? Ed Marqwardt calls him " Thomas the recovering skeptic." But Thomas, as we always remember on this Sunday, is a complex character, to say the least. In John 14, when Jesus was preparing his disciples for the crucifixion, Thomas is the one who asks, "Jesus, where are you going?" Thomas is the disciple who wouldn’t say he understood when he didn’t understand. In John 11, when Jesus was going back to Bethany to bring his friend Lazarus out of the grave, the disciples knew that Jesus was putting Himself into harm's way. But Thomas was the only disciple who said: "Let us go to die with him." Thomas was the disciple who went 100% when he DID understand. In poker terms, Thomas was an "all-in" kind of disciple.

And yet Thomas was the recovering skeptic when it came to the resurrection. But recovering skeptics are a lot more common than we might think. Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, You come to us offering peace and forgiveness, and we ask for proof. Give us the passion of Thomas, the questing heart of Thomas, but also give us the strength and faith to join Thomas in his confession, for You are indeed our Lord and our God. Amen.

"I'll believe it when I see it!" This is the catchphrase of the skeptic. "Too good to be true" is another. And my all-time favorite, which appears on the internet as TANSTAAFL "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." Skeptics are the reasonable ones among us who won't buy in until they've been completely convinced of the truth of a proposition. But Thomas is a RECOVERING skeptic. He has seen Jesus and his response is simple: "MY LORD AND MY GOD!"

"I see it when I believe it" is now the cry of the recovering skeptic. This is revelation: Thomas has finally seen Jesus in the way He intends to be seen; not as just some teacher, one of many prophets, a spiritual guru, but "MY LORD AND MY GOD!"

In John's Gospel, the difference between light and darkness is not the difference between faith and doubt, as some have suggested. The difference between light and darkness is the difference between faith and fear. Doubting Thomas is not the problem in John 20: the fearful disciples huddled behind locked doors in the upper room are the problem.

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light", says the prophet. We do not see Jesus correctly until we see him through the eyes of faith. We do not hear the Word of God until we hear it as a Word that comes from the lips of Jesus Himself. When we believe, when we confess with one another that Jesus is our Lord and our God, that everything He says is true, then we see Him as He intends to be seen and we hear Him as He intends to be heard. Not only that, but if seeing and hearing Jesus is believing, then seeing the world through Jesus' eyes and hearing it through Jesus' ears is believing, too.

"Peace be with you," Jesus says. When Jesus talks about peace, he means a different kind of peace. "Peace I leave with you," Jesus says, "I do not give to you as the world gives…If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. Because I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you…I have said these things to you so that IN ME you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage, I have conquered the world."

When we see the world through the eyes of faith, we know it is not as it should be. The world has been stained and broken by sin and death. We see neighbor turning against neighbor. We see marriages falling apart because the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. We see children around the world starving while overweight people toss out food and hit the drive-thru at McDonald's. We see sin parading itself as if it were virtuous, and all the while devouring our willing hearts and minds. Worst of all, we see the fear in ourselves because we know that try as we might, we are captive to the same forces of sin and death that hold the world in bondage, and we can do nothing to free ourselves.

When we tell the world it is bound by sin and death, the world is offended – because it hates the truth that Jesus has revealed to those who believe in him. "As the Father has sent me, so I send you," Jesus says, and as we hear this word, we remember: the Father sent Jesus into the world to forgive sins, to suffer for the sake of the world – and we are sent to do the same. When we see the world through Jesus' eyes, we see that we are sent to give ourselves to the world as Jesus gave himself, fully and completely, with no reservation or fear. In John 14, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment: love one another. We remember that commandment on Maundy Thursday, translated from the Latin mandatum: commandment. "By this everyone will know you are my disciples," Jesus says, "if you have love for one another."

When the world says, "But those people are sinners," our response must be, "Yes, and in loving them we hope to call them out of their sin into new life." When the world says, "But we aren't sinners," our response must be, "No, you are sinners, but because Christ has forgiven our sins and called us into new life, so we forgive your sin and call you into new life, too."

Jesus did signs among his disciples so they would believe, but I would argue that they didn't yet see Jesus through believing eyes, even in this passage from John. When did they see him through believing eyes? I believe that came in the time of Acts – when the church was filled with the Holy Spirit and began to live in the name of Jesus Christ. In our reading from the book of Acts today, we hear how the early church was given great power for testimony in the name of Jesus and great grace for their daily life. They shared all things because in the name of Christ all of life is a gift to be shared. Having the Holy Spirit within themselves, they saw and heard the world through the eyes and ears of Jesus, and they knew the great grace that comes with life in the name of Jesus. Because the apostles saw the world through the eyes of faith, they knew that the good news of Jesus Christ was too good to be a secret. So they spread the word and could not keep silent. As the years went by and as more and more people came to believe, they, too, found themselves swept up by the vision Jesus gave to their eyes and ears, and they began to believe that Jesus was indeed their Lord and their God. Finally, the day came when those who had seen and heard Jesus personally were all dead and gone – and yet the vision did not die, but increased, and more and more people came to see and hear and believe that Jesus is Lord and God of all.

"Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe," Jesus says. This is not a condemnation of Thomas for his skepticism – this is a word for those who come after Thomas to see and hear, that we may remember that we are as blessed as Thomas the recovering skeptic. True, we have not seen Jesus with our physical eyes. But the apostle who wrote this gospel wrote it for us, that we may be blessed as Jesus said. Not only "come to believe," but "continue to believe." Anyone who has sincerely tried to be a follower of Jesus knows that it's not an easy thing to do. Instead of a gradual climb of holiness, where every step leads to a higher degree of sanctification, we find that following Jesus leads us down a narrow path that has bends and curves and hills and valleys. Like the old song goes, "Sometime the load is heavy, and sometimes the road is long, and sometimes, Lord, this heart of mine is not so very strong." But all along the road of faith, in all our moments of darkness and light, fear and faith, we have a good and loving Savior who submits Himself time and again to our need for reassurance and faith. Even in our darkest and most fear-filled anxieties, the One whom we confess is our Lord and our God is willing to come into the locked rooms of our hearts and give us His peace. Thus we see His wounds. Thus we hear His voice. Thus we come to believe.

Unfortunately, we will not always trust in Jesus. Our sin and our death and most of all our fear are fighting a losing battle, but they are fighting tooth and nail to hold on to all their lies and manipulations. But Jesus has words for us to see and hear in those hard times. Jesus says, "So you have pain now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice and no one will take your joy from you. On that day, you will ask nothing of Me."

When Thomas saw Jesus again, his skeptical heart rejoiced and he confessed the words we all long to say in our hearts: "My Lord and my God!" In this Resurrection season, may you remember that seeing and hearing Jesus is as close as the people around you, who have all been given life in Jesus' name and live to be the words and hands of Jesus in the world.

· You are no longer captive to your sins – you have been set free to love one another

· You are no longer captive to your fears – the peace of Christ is given to you for protection from all that threatens you

· You are no longer captive to your skepticism – do not doubt, but believe.

We have all we need when we see and hear Him through the eyes and ears of faith, and through seeing and hearing Him, we believe in Him and have life in his name. "My Lord and my God!" – give us faith to see and to hear You. Amen.

You Call This A Church?

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview William Willimon when he was a guest speaker at Luther Seminary. Since that day, he has been a role model for me, both as a preacher and as a pastor (there really is a difference, you know). I'll post my sermon here later, but until then, enjoy this sermon from Willimon's days at a much-less conflicted Duke University.

"You Call This A Church?"

18 April 2006

Brook Berringer (1973-1996)

Can it really be ten years ago today that this exceptional young man died north of Lincoln? Man, how the years go by.

Brook Berringer was one of the most remarkable people in the history of the University of Nebraska - and he would have been even if he'd never suited up in Cornhusker scarlet & cream.

The Omaha World-Herald has done two great articles about Brook. The first is the story of Brook's death and how it has affected people, those who knew him personally and those who only knew about him. The second is Tom Shatel's column about what life should have had in store for Brook. (Word to the wise - you'll need to register with the OWH to read the stories. It's free, and IMHO the stories are worth it.)

What memories - I will never forget the 1994 Colorado game, when Brook faked option right, dropped back, and threw a picture perfect pass to our tight end (Eric Alford? Can't remember) for a touchdown. I hadn't seen anyone come close to matching Berringer's passing ability until Zach Taylor started whipping around passes in the MidWest Coast offense.

He wasn't the luckiest quarterback in Nebraska history, having to compete for the starting job with Tommie Frazier, one of the best option quarterbacks ever (who should have earned the 1995 Heisman, but that's another entry). He wasn't the prettiest, either. Watching Berringer run an option play was a lot like watching sausage being made; you might like the outcome, but you don't want to see it actually happening. But when it comes to personality, service, spirit and depth of character, I've yet to see a Cornhusker who had more than Brook Berringer.


Another Absent-Minded Preacher

I don't think RLP will mind me calling him Absent-Minded, but if so, apologies in advance. Anyway, it's nice to know I'm not the only one who can't keep dates & appointments straight sometimes. And it's also nice to know I'm not the only one who at whom people are sometimes laughing...

Check it out here.

Sermon for Resurrection Sunday - "Unfinished Business"

Preaching Texts: Isaiah 25.6-9, Mark 16.1-8

January 1, 1994. We were screaming in the stands of the Orange Bowl, because we had a chance. The ball was on the 28 yard-line, and our field goal unit was going onto the field. One second left. Florida State ahead of our beloved Cornhuskers by two points. National Championship on the line. The kick went up – and started hooking left from the second it left the kicker's foot. No good. Nebraska loses again.

Now – skip ahead one year. The theme that year was "Unfinished Business." The thought was, we came so close the year before – we would settle for nothing less than finishing the job in 1994. Now here we were again: same marching band, same stands, same stadium. The opponent was Miami, but considering we were playing a Florida team in Miami for the third consecutive year, it might as well have been the same team. But after trailing by 10 points halfway through the fourth quarter, our beloved Huskers had tied the score and were driving again. Before we knew it, our fullback rumbled into the end zone for the second time that quarter. Touchdown – Nebraska took the lead, 24-17. Three sacks and an interception later, the national championship was ours. 25 years of waiting for Coach Osborne to win the big one were over, and we danced and screamed and celebrated all night. From the stands to the Miami airport. On the plane all the way home. From the Lincoln airport to the basketball arena where 16,000 people gathered to welcome the champions home. The "Unfinished Business" was finally finished.

It is a rare occurrence for us when life is perfect, wrapped up nice and neat, where everything feels finished like it should be. Even the high points in our lives are often flawed or even disappointing. A beloved friend can't make it to your wedding. A celebration dinner is ruined by one person's loose tongue. You throw a party and no one can be bothered to even reply to the invitation, much less attend the party.

But, every once in a while, things just seem to mesh just right, everything comes together perfectly, and nothing spoils the fantastic moment for which you've been waiting. Well, that day in January 1995 was one of those perfect days for a lot of people in Nebraska. But do you know what happened after that? Nothing happened after that. Oh, sure, we danced and we partied and we celebrated some more. For a week or so living in Nebraska was almost utopian. People smiled a lot and were even more courteous and friendly than usual. You saw lots of red all over the place and you could buy a National Championship toilet seat if that was what your silly, football-besotted heart desired. Some of the players went on to pro careers, and some went on to other careers, and unfortunately a few of them went to jail or worse. The coach became a Congressman and is now running for governor. We band geeks kept playing and partying together, and I'm friends with some of them to this day. But once the 'Business' was no longer 'Unfinished,' that was the real end of the story. The team that won that last game on January 1, 1995 has never played another down, and the band of which I was a part hasn't marched a step together since.

We all know somebody who continues to live in the glory days of their past because the inconveniences of the present are just too much to bear. The jock who can't leave high school football behind. The frat boy who still acts like he's the Big Man on Campus even though he's just another slob in the suburbs. The small-town beauty who still throws that Miss Feedlot 1987 crown around like it means something. The pastor who still mentions his address at his seminary graduation three years ago. (oops – how did that get in there?) We aren't meant to live in the past, even if the past is beautiful beyond comparison.

Thank goodness the gospel of Mark doesn't let us live in the past. Of any of the four gospels, Mark sounds the most realistic to me. No one comes out #1 in Mark's gospel. If this is the big victory for which God's people have been waiting, they sure have a funny way of showing it. As Fred Craddock once put it, "Is this any way to run a resurrection?" Read that final verse with me again:

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement
had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."

It's not easy to find a Hymn of the Day for Easter that lines up well with this final verse. 'Afraid' is not the first thing that comes to mind when you say the word 'Easter.' But here it is: these women were the first to hear about the great victory God had won over death, and they were so overwhelmed by the news that they went and told no one.

The triumphalism of Matthew, Luke & John is not present in Mark's gospel. Jesus, it seems, doesn't know how to celebrate this marvelous victory – He doesn't even show up for the ticker-tape parade! Instead, the messenger tells the women that Jesus is already back at work – that He has gone ahead to Galilee and will meet His disciples there, just like He said. And that's the end of the story in Mark. No fanfare – no trophy – just a message and three terrified women running for their lives.

Put yourself in the shoes of Mary, Mary and Salome. The Teacher you've followed for so long was brutally executed just two days ago, less than a week after the crowds welcomed Him into the city as their coming king. His death came so suddenly that you didn't even have time to prepare the proper anointing materials for His body, and so you've come to pay your last respects to the greatest human being you've ever known. All you want to do is minister to Him one last time and then leave Him behind forever, putting your life back together however you can, even though the years stretch out before you in darkness and lost hope.

Maybe this is a good time to remember that the day we celebrate as the Sabbath, Sunday, was in Jesus' day the day after the Sabbath. In Jesus' earthly time, Saturday was the Sabbath, the day of rest, and Sunday was the first day of the week – the day to go back to work. It may be that Jesus didn't appear to the three women of Mark's gospel because He had already gone back to work. It may be that even after the Resurrection, even after the great victory of sin, death and the power of the devil, Jesus still had Unfinished Business.

Don Juel, a New Testament professor at Luther seminary for many years, said in his commentary on Mark that

"Mark ends with one last collapse. The story concludes with the world much as it has always been – shrouded in darkness and disappointment. Yet the world is not the same. The tomb is empty. Jesus is out, beyond death's reach, on the loose…The story is not over and will not be until Jesus returns. The surprise for the [believer] is that the resolution of critical tensions in the story is left for the future. The life of faith is lived between the resurrection and the consummation, 'between the times.'…There is hope only because Jesus is no longer imprisoned in the tomb – and because God can be trusted to finish what has been begun.

None of the Gospels can really end the story of Jesus. The whole point is that it continues – and that its significance continues. Mark ends, however, with a greater sense of the mystery yet to be resolved and a deeper appreciation of the gulf that still separates…, to use Paul's language, the wisdom of this age and the wisdom of the cross.

Jesus is full of surprises…the world's uneasiness in the presence of Jesus is fully justified. He will not be bound by tradition that defines human life; even death has no final power over him. The end only marks a new beginning – a beginning of the good news that Jesus, the One who is the ultimate threat to our autonomy, now becomes our source of life.

It is only fitting that just as the tomb will not contain Jesus, neither will Mark's story. Jesus is not bound by its ending; he continues into the future God has in store for the creation. In the meantime there is only the Word, the bread, and the wine, and the promise that 'you will see him.' We walk by faith and not by sight. We can only trust that God will one day finish the story, as God has promised."[1]

What we have in Mark's gospel is a sense of life as it is really lived. We have a story that doesn't end "and they all lived happily ever after," because most of the time we don't live happily ever after. Even though Jesus fought and won the great battle of the cross, you and I remain Jesus' unfinished business. The power of Mark's gospel, the terror and amazement of the women at the tomb, the uncertain and immediate resurrection of the Messiah; all of these things remind us that Jesus is still shaking the foundations of our lives, still going ahead of us to meet us where He has promised. Jesus is still out of the tomb, beyond death's reach, and on the loose, and we never know where we will meet Him next. After all, if the cross and the tomb couldn't contain His power, what can our own defenses do to stop Him?

In 1994, when that great Nebraska team won the national championship, they talked in the newspapers all the time about the great dedication the team had shown that year. They weren't just the most talented team: they had outworked and outhustled every opponent they faced. They set a goal and worked toward it, achieving it in the end. But what happened afterwards? They realized that it was the journey that had made them champions, and the victory in the end was just an affirmation of all that they had done. The Unfinished Business campaign was a success long before it was finished.

For us, the situation is entirely different. There are no wind sprints to run here, no weights to be lifted. The victory has already been won, long before we even entered the field of play. But there is still unfinished business for the victors. Since God has won the battle for us, how then shall we live? Shall we run in terror, because Jesus is on the loose, or shall we live as free and joyfully as those who are just beginning to celebrate the great victory of our Lord? The time has come, brothers and sisters, for us to live the Resurrection we have been given, to see how God is reconciling the whole of creation in Jesus Christ, to remember that though the cross is history, it is living history, the event that has changed time and existence itself, the event under which our baptism makes us children of God, marking us as God's unfinished business.

Beloved in Christ, the day of salvation is upon us. Rejoice, and be glad, for the victory has been won. This is the God for whom we have waited. Let us join together in the cry of all creation:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!


[1] Juel, Donald H. Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament Commentary: Mark. ©1990, Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis. pp. 233-235.

13 April 2006

The Absent-minded Preacher

Here's a few moments in the mind of a preacher. Mind you, if you depend on thinking that your local pastor's got it all together, STOP READING RIGHT NOW.

Yesterday afternoon I'm just humming along the highway in Alexandria with a car full of food & supplies for tonight's Seder meal at our church. I've just pulled onto the highway heading for home when I notice that Bill* from Barrett has pulled in behind me - in my rearview mirror I can see him in his pickup. "Hmm," thinks I, "I wonder why Bill's in Alec today?" Thirty seconds later it hits me.

"Shit," thinks I, "Stevie* [Bill's son] had surgery this morning. You forgot, you moron."

I will offer no defense for this. I got the call Tuesday night that Stevie had broken his right elbow in a baseball game. I should have made myself enter it in my PalmPilot so as not to forget it. Alas, I did not - and now the surgery is likely finished. As I said before, "Shit."

I called Stevie's mom and apologized profusely for not stopping by the hospital as I had promised. I did get out to see Stevie at home today, apologizing yet again, and I don't think Stevie was too worked up. But it's frustrating when events that need planning crowd out the people who would just like you to stop by and say a prayer, maybe talk for a little while. Being the absent-minded preacher is cute when you give someone the wrong readings for Sunday because you're thinking two weeks ahead of yourself, but being the absent-minded preacher stops being cute real quick when you forget something genuinely important. Luckily this family was gracious, and hopefully the absent-minded preacher can learn from this. He is, after all, a fairly young absent-minded preacher and may not be too old for a few new tricks.


*Bill & Stevie are real people - their names are not. 'Nuff said.

11 April 2006

Bonhoeffer & the 'Protection of Marriage'

For a few weeks now, the debate about the 'Protection of Marriage' amendment to the Minnesota State Constitution has been front page news. A local pastor has been writing to our local paper in support of the amendment, which of course is his right. But his most recent letter quoted Bonhoeffer, to the effect that the guiding principle for Christian ethics was "what shall we leave for the next generation?" While this may be an historically accurate quote, I don't think it's remotely what Bonhoeffer would have said theologically, and even if he might have thought so, I certainly don't. What follows is my response to that local pastor, printed in our Grant County Herald last week.

To the Editor,

Pastor David Wallin recently said that "A redefinition of marriage in order to please a special interest group is going to do long term harm to families, and ultimately children." He is absolutely right. The problem is, Pastor Wallin doesn't realize that the problematic special interest group in question are the supporters of a 'protection of marriage amendment.'

When it comes to protecting marriage, Senator Bachmann and her supporters are well-intentioned but absolutely wrong. They have fallen victim to a straw man argument that distracts our attention away from the genuine problem. Restructuring our state constitution to deny same-sex couples the rights of "marriage or its legal equivalent" will do nothing to protect heterosexual relationships. This state cannot protect heterosexual relationships by attacking an already-persecuted minority. If our children learn anything from such restructuring, they will learn that the legislative system can be gamed to legalize the denial of basic civil rights.

If Pastor Wallin believes, as I do, that marriage is under attack, he should fight its true enemies. We live in a society that has abandoned loyalty, compromise, sacrificial love and marital solidarity for infidelity, the fallacy of supposedly "consequence-free" sexual hook-ups and the narcissism that comes from a culture turned almost entirely in upon itself. Our children are not endangered by same-sex couples; they are endangered because we have not instilled in them the values of decency, restraint, respect and honor that are due to all humanity, be they gay or straight. We have taught our children to value possessions over relationships and self-interest over the common good. What has the greater impact on a child's vision of marriage: the gay couple living peaceably down the street, or the bickering, short-tempered, self-centered, mutually abusive parents in the child's own home? As a divorced and remarried person, I can tell you that the greatest contributing factors in my divorce, in no particular order, were my inadequacies and failings and those of my ex-wife. At no time did either of us feel threatened or even affected by homosexual relationships. They were simply a non-factor in our sinfully flawed and ultimately broken heterosexual marriage.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived in a time when the church and the state were actively persecuting persons of Jewish descent, even if they had converted to Christianity. Many historians note that the horrors of the Holocaust were permitted by a German government that changed its laws to permit the systematic persecution of the Jews. Bonhoeffer once wrote that "the church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community. 'Do good to all people.'" While the scope and depth of our present situation is not anything like Germany in the 1930s, the basic problem is very similar: some politicians are promoting the legalized persecution of our fellow citizens. We cannot improve heterosexual marriage by denying basic civil rights to the homosexual community. Those who want to improve heterosexual marriage should spend more time working with heterosexuals and less time attacking those who want only to live in peace with each other. Let individual churches work with the spiritual and moral formation of their members, which is their vocation, and let the state ensure the basic civil rights of all its citizens, be they gay, straight, Christian, Jewish or anything else.

Pastor Scott Johnson
Barrett, MN

10 April 2006

Kudos to my man Phil

For the past few years I've followed the career of Phil Mickelson pretty close. When I started watching golf on Sundays a few years ago while I read the paper, it seemed like he was always right up there with the leaders and making some incredible shots along the way. When I actually started picking up clubs & playing, it was Phil that I thought of most often. I've even gone so far as to try and pattern my swing after his - nice long backswing, low center of gravity, weight on the back foot, power through the ball on the edge of my balance. (Predictably, I've been as wild off the tee as Phil can sometimes be.)

What really convinced me that Phil was worth following was an interview he had with Sports Illustrated a few years ago. The reporter asked him about the 'best player never to win a major' label, and Phil's response was: let's have some perspective - I play golf for a living. (that's just the gist of it - not a direct quote). He's a family guy and from what I can see a great example of what a professional sportsman should be: gentlemanly, courteous in defeat and gracious in victory.

Yesterday Phil won his second Master's Tournament. Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. Let me be the first to suggest this: if Phil wins the 'Tiger Slam' (winning all four majors in a row, but not in the same calendar year), we should re-name it: the Mickelslam. Got a nice ring to it, don't you think? :-)


05 April 2006

A Real Runner?

Just a short post this morning before I head off into the day. Last night at the end of an 8 mile treadmill workout, I noticed that my second toe on my left foot was hurting. Took off my shoes while stretching and saw that the nail is turning black & will soon fall off. I've heard of this happening to other distance runners at various points in their training - does this mean that I'm now a real runner? If we had a digital camera I'd SO post a picture right now...

03 April 2006

Welcome back, Scotter (with apologies to J Revolta and the rest of Kotter's gang)

So I haven't posted in a LONG time. There are several reasons:

1. I didn't preach from March 12th until yesterday. On the 19th I was in Nebraska, helping my family with my Grandmother's estate auction. On the 26th I was in Winnipeg with about 600 others for the Northwestern Minnesota Synod Senior High Youth Gathering. Preaching regularly keeps me posting regularly, too - it's like taking FiberCon (don't ask how I know...)

2. We've had a really tough couple of weeks. My beloved has been sick, and we've both been working very hard at our respective churches. We've been dealing with some family issues, too - nothing to worry about, but not a lot of fun to endure, either.

3. I've let a lot of things drop lately. In fact, I realized the only thing I can say I've given up for Lent that's done me any good whatsoever is my annual NCAA Tournament bracket. With nothing riding on any of the games, I've been free to enjoy the tournament, even though I've hardly caught any of the games. It's been rather nice to watch all the upsets - George Mason was awesome!

So, anyway, it's been a while. Here's another update. Training for the marathon continues to go well. I had a minor setback in Nebraska - my first long run (10 miles) got shortened to six because it was in the mid 20s and really windy on that morning. But I went 13 miles on the treadmill on Saturday, and now that the weather is nicer and the shoulders are clear, I should be good to get back out and do some actual roadwork, which I desperately need to do. I feel good, though - my legs continue to get stronger, and even though I'm not losing inches around my waist like I thought I would, I'm sleeping better on my workout days and really enjoying the challenge. 46 days to go!

I'll probably finish A Generous Orthodoxy this afternoon or evening, and I'm excited to get to my next book. Not sure what I'll read, but I'm sure going to enjoy it.

The Twins opener is tomorrow night: guess what I'll be listening to while I finish up our taxes? That means yard work, mowing, and our new picnic table can't be too far behind. Put some solar lights along our sidewalk this weekend and started getting my shop out of hibernation mode - boy, did that ever feel good!

Speaking of openers, there are rumors our local golf courses will be opening this weekend, which leaves me with a huge dilemma: watch Phil Mickelson in the Masters or get out on the course myself?

And that's the latest from Barrett - ciao!

"Lament" - Sermon for the 5th Sunday in Lent

I have always disliked preachers who deal with their own issues from the pulpit. Two sermons in particular stand out to me in this respect. One was a Transfiguration Sunday sermon in which the preacher talked about her high stress levels and her mountaintop experiences. By the end of it I was wondering if she thought that SHE was the one being transfigured instead of Jesus. The other sermon was a funeral sermon for a friend who died very suddenly of an unknown heart condition. The funeral preacher spent his entire sermon asking God "Why" and never once proclaimed to us the good news that Christ had defeated death in His own resurrection. Both times I walked away feeling as though I had been cheated by people too wrapped up in their own struggles to look for God's grace and mercy in the world around them.

But today we need to talk about issues. We need to talk about the harsher realities of life, because God has given us a psalm of lament today, and the practice and privilege of lament is something the church is losing very rapidly, and we will need this practice and privilege of lament before our lives are through. Let us pray.

O God, we humbly ask that You be with us today. We ask You to hear through our small talk and our falsehoods to the deeper pains beneath. We ask You to help us come to You in confidence and hope when this broken world fails us, when our broken brothers and sisters fail us, when our own broken lives fail. Hear our cries from the depths of our lament, gracious Lord. Amen.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,
Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!

In Ancient Near Eastern mythology, the grave or "the pit" was the gateway to Sheol, the place of the dead. The Hebrews and others believed that Sheol was "the dark house...the land of no return, from which there is no way back, where the entrants have no light, where dust is their fare and clay their food..."[1] Sheol was, in the words of one scholar, "the non-world," where nothingness reigns supreme and we are left in the dust and darkness of the tomb.

But in our lives, aren't there times when we feel as though the tentacles of death are already wrapping around us and pulling us into the pit of death? I remember feeling that way many times in my own life, and I know there will be more times of death and sorrow to come. The psalmist certainly feels that way. "I'm crying out to you from my grave, Lord - can you hear me?"

I know that some of you don't think this is the way we should go about dealing with our pain. I've heard several of you comment on how your ancestors solved their pain with work: if you were bothered by something, you just needed to get out and work until it went away. Besides, if you look around, you will see others in much worse circumstances - so why should you complain?

That may be well and good for a while. There are a lot of good things that can come from dedication and labor. When I was really struggling during my divorce I worked a lot because it allowed me some time to hide from the pain. But the pain never went away. It just waited until I let down my guard and then it stormed right back into my heart and into my soul. After a while I realized that the only way out was to face the pain and sorrow head on: hiding from it was only prolonging the pain.

One of the counselors in our DivorceCare DVDs has a great illustration for this. He says that trying to heal the pain of our souls by working harder or denying it's happening is like trying to heal a broken leg with Novocain and increased activity. You might think you're getting better, but all you're doing is hiding the wound under anesthetics. You can be going along thinking that life is getting better and all of a sudden you look down and see that broken leg is now worse than ever because you haven't let it heal properly.

The psalmist knows that pretending isn't going to solve the problems he's facing. Notice also that even though things are so bad that they feel like death, the psalmist trusts that there's a God out there who will hear prayers. There's no "God, if you're there, I could use some help!" Not even a deal to be made: "Save me, St. Anne, and I will become a monk!" Just a heartfelt cry for the listening ear of God: "I am DYING here, Lord - hear my prayer!"

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered

Now that the psalmist has gotten God's attention, he wants to be sure that God understands that this is not a cry of self-righteousness. It's not the great purity of the psalmist that brings this prayer out of the grave. It's not the great piety of someone suffering sins patiently. This is the cry of a sinner who knows that NO ONE can stand before God in righteousness. If there is sin causing the psalmist's lament, it is no worse or no better than his own - but even so, it is still causing the psalmist pain and sorrow.

BUT! Always look for the BUT when we talk about sin and death. BUT God forgives, the psalmist remembers, and the reason God forgives is so that we might trust God enough to cry out from the grave in the first place. If you had sinned so deeply that you felt like you were dying, and you thought that God would not forgive, would you have the confidence to come to God in prayer?

Whatever the circumstances might have been, the psalmist knows that even though life isn't what it should be, God forgives. Even when times are terrible, when people cut us down, when futures seem hopeless, when we're all alone, when we can't trust anyone at all for anything, God forgives, and that forgiveness is the great hope that allows lament to be answered with trust.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope.
My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.

On Easter Sunday morning in 1986, I woke up around 2:30 a.m. because I kept hearing voices downstairs in our living room. I remember my brother Brian and me coming downstairs to see my Grandma & Grandpa Johnson sitting in the living room with the light on - certainly not a normal occurrence for 2:30 on a Sunday morning. When we asked them what they were doing there, they said, "Your parents had to go to Winside because your Grandpa Janke died about an hour ago."

This was the first grandparent I'd ever lost. I remember how my heart just dropped right down to the bottom of my stomach. I remember losing the feeling in my fingers and toes for a minute or two. I remember somehow stumbling back upstairs and lying in bed for the rest of the night, waiting for light to come so that this horrible nightmare would be over.

Of course, morning didn't bring the end of the nightmare. Grandpa was gone, and we knew it. But the light of morning still brought hope to me. It was Easter, after all, and Easter morning was about resurrection, right? Easter morning, more than any other morning, brings hope. I remember the pastor at Grandpa's funeral preaching a beautiful sermon about how Grandpa had met his Savior in reality while the rest of us were still waiting with hope. Twenty years later, I still remember that Easter means meeting the Lord in person, that one day we will meet the one who will banish the long, hard night of sorrow forever.

Even from sorrow that feels like the grave, the psalmist knows that the Lord is worth waiting for. The psalmist has been convinced that God's mercy and love bring healing to even the worst wounds, and now that the psalmist has acknowledged his pain and sorrow, in all its depths and all its darkness, the psalmist knows that the God who hears that honest cry is the same God who promises healing beyond the rising sun. This is a trust that comes to forgiven sinners like you and me: a trust that hopes in God's gracious love far more than our own ability to heal ourselves.

O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with Him is great power to redeem.
It is He who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.

When we go to these youth gatherings like we did last week, we sing a lot of praise songs. They never really help me worship all that much. Truth be told, I find a lot of praise songs to be saccharine pledge songs at best - "here I am to give everything I have to You, Lord - and remember, the fact that I'm singing about myself and how much I love you means I've got lots to give." Last fall in Bemidji, the content really started to get to me after a while. I knew one of the adult leaders from another church hasn't worked for nearly six months due to some recurring health problems. His doctor can't fix what's wrong, and it is really starting to put a strain on the family finances. How is this person supposed to sing "I'm trading my sorrows / I'm trading my pain / I'm laying them down / for the joy of the Lord"? When you really would give anything to give up your pain, to hand it over to God, but it isn't happening, does that mean God isn't listening?

This is the spot where a lot of praise music just leaves folks with nothing under which they can find shelter. The spiritual & theological content is flimsy at best - in the light of real world difficulties it blows away like straw off the Minnesota prairie. A lot of praise music makes everything dependent on how much I love God; and you know, there are days when how much I love God isn't going to do me a damned bit of good.

What we lose in this music is the great love of God for us right here and right now. What we lose is the impression that we can honestly tell God when and where it hurts. What we lose is the legacy of lament.

Last year I spent a lot of my prayer time in the Psalms, which is what really led to this series of sermons on the Psalms in the first place. What I've discovered in this time is the depth of emotion and weakness that possessed these great poets of God. Our psalmists rage against their enemies, their own brokenness and their own sin, and God Himself when God seems distant, and they don't write sappy love songs, fooling themselves by flattering God and pimping their own great love before the throne of the Almighty. When it hurts, they tell God; when they fall, they ask God for help; when they are weak, they ask God for strength; when they are beyond their own power to escape the pit, they plead for salvation; when God is good, they praise God for God's faithfulness. The psalms and the old hymns written from them and from other places in scripture just seem to be more realistic and seem to have more integrity than a lot of the flashy church music I'm hearing from the praise song crowd the past few years.

At a class at Luther Seminary in October, we talked about preaching the Old Testament and other texts besides the Gospels, and when asked why, Dr. Mark Throntveit replied: "to rediscover lament." We are losing the ability to speak honestly about our brokenness - the churches that pimp successful living (dare I say "purpose") leave their people high and dry when something goes wrong, as it always does. Jesus is not always the fuzzy, cuddly Savior - sometimes He bears a whip and has fire in His eyes. God the Father doesn't just want our praise songs - the Father wants us to follow His commandments and care for our freakin' neighbors already. The Spirit, I imagine, gets pretty offended when we sing about being filled but only mean 'filled with success and happiness.' We need to teach our children that God is also there for us when our enemies mistreat us - that it is their evil that injures us. We need to teach our children that God is there for us when life is unfair - that God hears our laments as well as our praises, and God wants it all. We need to teach our children to be honest with themselves, honest with each other, and honest with God - because without that honesty, we are selling them spiritual sugar that will eventually leave them unable to remember the God whose love is sometimes a "reckless, raging fury."

This past weekend, I discovered a different side to praise music, thanks to an artist who came at it from a completely different direction. This artist honestly dealt with the difficulties of life in the world. He talked about his struggles, his fears, his hopes and dreams and his failures and nightmares. Best of all, he encouraged us to do the same.

Lament isn't just about ripping your heart out and showing it to the world Lament is being honest with God that things aren't how they should be - but also trusting that God can make things the way they should be. In Holy Week, there is perhaps no better model for lament than God's own Son, Jesus, who has the trust and confidence in God to actually ask for what He wants: "Father, take this cup from me. Yet not my will, but Your will be done." This is lament: a prayer from a moment of deep darkness to a heavenly Father that we trust is listening, and an even deeper trust that the grave in which we find ourselves is not the resting place God has prepared for us.

So: let your lament be heard in God's ears. Trust enough to be honest about the world in which you live. Come before God with all your hopes and all your fears. The God who created you out of the dust of the earth is the same God who will rescue you from the dust of the grave. "Out of the depths we cry to you, O Lord: Lord, hear our prayer." Amen.

[1] Dictionary of the Bible. John L. McKenzie, S.J. ed. © 1965 MacMillan Publishing Company, p. 800