31 January 2006

Training - Day 2

Just 4 miles on the treadmill last night, and today is a rest day. Good thing, too - I've been off running long enough that my toes & ankles are more than a little stiff this morning. You should have heard the pops when I got out of bed this morning!

I feel good, though - energetic and excited about this new challenge. I'm listening to Bag of Bones by Stephen King as I run, and I find that it really helps the miles go by quickly. Might try to keep listening as I move outdoors, which means I might have to buy an iPod. Shucks. :-)

Gotta get to work - but I've already read the paper and balanced the checkbook, so it's a good start to the morning!


29 January 2006

16 weeks to the Fargo Marathon

So, the big news is this: today I ran my first workout in preparation for the Fargo Marathon on May 20th. Pray for me! Today was actually really easy - 3 miles on the treadmill (it was snowing & REALLY slushy here today, which makes running on the roads around Barrett really dangerous). Finished in 45 minutes with warmup & cooldown & then did some strength training before packing it in.

I feel really excited about this. I've wanted to try a marathon for a while, and Fargo should be a good one for starters; the key word is FLAT. I'm anxious to see how it goes, but it's been a while since I challenged myself like this and I need to do something. Looking at pictures from our trip to Germany in August 2004 reminded me how much weight I've put on since then - time to reverse that course by running my butt off!


Sermon for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany - "By Whose Authority?"

Preaching Texts: Mark 1.21-28, Deuteronomy 18.15-20

I’ve been on a horror kick lately – my brother and his wife gave me a Stephen King book on tape for Christmas and I’ve been listening to it on the treadmill for almost two weeks now. It’s an early Stephen King book, so it’s got all the subtlety of a freight train; he goes straight for the throat with blood, guts, nightmares and boogeymen. One of the stories involves a machine at a commercial laundry that is possessed. The main characters try to drive out the demon in “The Mangler” without success, mostly because they don’t know the kind of demon they’ve got on their hands.

The thought occurs to me that the people of Capernaum might have felt the same way. “A man with an unclean spirit” could have meant a lot of things, and many of them are things we explain in medical terms today. Perhaps he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Perhaps he was autistic. Perhaps he suffered from bipolar disorder. Whatever the root cause may have been, it left this man on the outside of his community, cast out because his community could not understand what it was that had taken dominion over him.

Understand that in Jesus’ time, unclean spirits were not a medical problem with a medical solution. The only way to heal a man with an unclean spirit was by exorcism – and very few people had the authority to cast out demons. If you knew the unclean spirits for what they were, you could do battle with them – but if you didn’t know the unclean spirits, you had no authority over them. Knowledge and authority – these are the keys to our gospel reading today. Let us pray: Father in heaven, You gave Your authority to Jesus of Nazareth, Your Son, to cast out the unclean spirits in our lives; to create clean hearts in us and renew right spirits within us. Let us hear His voice calling us out of darkness into light this day. Amen.

In Jesus’ day, rabbis and scribes taught by quoting the rabbis and scribes that had come before them. A rabbi was considered wise when he could cite numerous other rabbis in his teaching on scripture. A reading from scripture would be heard, then the rabbi would expand on it by saying, “Rabbi So-and-so says this about this scripture, and Rabbi So-and-so says this.” Thus a rabbi taught about God’s word.

But Jesus didn’t teach like this. In Mark’s gospel the people are amazed because Jesus teaches with authority. In Matthew’s gospel, we get a picture of how Jesus taught. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says,

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.’…But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart...

you have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

This is what cause the people of Capernaum to be so amazed – Jesus taught out of His own heart. Jesus made no appeal to precedent in His teaching. There was never a question of stare decisis in these teachings: Jesus’ word stood on its own power. He speaks ex ousia – out of his own being. His Word IS the authority. And thus the people are amazed – because carpenters from Nazareth don’t have the authority to teach as Jesus teaches. To teach like this, a man must be possessed – the question is, is it a Spirit of God or an unclean spirit that has done the possessing? We have the luxury of reading that the Spirit descended on Jesus at His baptism, that Jesus was indeed possessed by the Holy Spirit and thus teaching with His Father’s knowledge and authority – the people around Jesus, on the other hand, had to wait for revelation, to see what manner of authority Jesus really possessed.

The unclean spirit asks Jesus one question: what do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? We often read this as if Jesus had nothing to do with the unclean spirit, as if they had nothing in common. But they did have one thing in common: the man in whom the unclean spirit lived.

The unclean spirit was determined to keep its prized possession for itself – to hold on to its host as long as it could, no matter what the consequences might be for the host. This is how unclean spirits operate: their drive for consumption, possession and destruction lead them to use and corrupt and destroy their hosts. Unclean spirits may tempt their hosts with benefits, but that temptation is nothing more than bait laid in a trap; once the unclean spirit possesses the host, the destructive power of the unclean spirit takes over and the host begins to die – which drives the unclean spirit to look for a new host even as it is consuming the old. There’s a reason that Satan is also known as the “Lord of the Flies:” it is because flies come from maggots, who are only found consuming the bodies of the dead. Unclean spirits and demonic powers gorge themselves on death and destruction, filled with a never-ending hunger for fresh hosts to consume.

Perhaps this never-ending hunger drove the unclean spirit into the synagogue that day in Capernaum. A synagogue full of fresh, innocent souls might have pulled the unclean spirit like prime rib pulls a starving man. Instead of gnawing the bones of those who had already become spiritual corpses, this unclean spirit is looking for a meal with more substance, and so it heads off to the synagogue in search of fresh meat.

Jesus, on the other hand, was determined to free the man with the unclean spirit. Why? For the man’s well-being; because the man needed to be freed from his possession by the unclean spirit. Jesus is not like the unclean spirits – they only want to consume and destroy, while Jesus wants only to create and build up. Jesus is possessed by the Spirit of God and has the authority of His Father in heaven; He is filled with anger at the ways unclean spirits possess people, and he has come to cast out the demons that hold men and women under their power. Mark’s gospel gives us a picture of Jesus that is neither safe nor predictable, and that’s a good thing, because the demons we fight aren’t safe or predictable, either. If a man with an unclean spirit can enter the synagogue in Jesus’ day, then we who gather in this modern-day synagogue aren’t safe, either.

So the people stand in amazement as Jesus calls out the unclean spirit with a word and frees the man from his possession. Jesus’ own words are all the authority He needs –

Be silent, and come out of him!

No need for “In the name of the Father…” or “by all that is holy:” Jesus IS the Holy One of God, and the unclean spirits are the only ones who know exactly who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do.

It is the authority of the Father that Jesus holds within Himself. Deuteronomy tells us that this authority and power of the Father is a great and powerful thing. Moses asks God not to reveal Himself in power again, because it will kill the people to see God the Father in all His glory. And God agrees with Moses, because God loves His people. As James Healy puts it, “[God] kept his word. Inviting obedience to his plan, he expressed his authority through [the prophets]. At last he sent Jesus, not in thunder and lightning, but in our fragile flesh. And Jesus used authority to liberate and lift up, not to put down; to empower and encourage, not to intimidate and oppress. Forever his rightful claim to authority would be his utter surrender as servant of God's people and his challenge to oppressors. And his perfect act of obedience to God's will would be the ultimate act of freedom.”[1]

Jesus holds God’s authority within Himself, and yet Jesus, being possessed by the Spirit of God, uses that authority to free people from the unclean spirits that hold them captive. Jesus’ authority is a creative, life-giving authority that lifts up the oppressed and welcomes the outcast back into the community. It’s no wonder the people of Capernaum were so amazed at Jesus’ authority: for centuries, any authority they had was used to protect the people by driving out the different, the unclean, the sinners – now Jesus was welcoming them back into the community, freeing them from their burdens and calling all of them to live new lives filled with the clean spirits of forgiveness and repentance.

Jesus is still calling out the unclean spirits. But do we realize today that we are the ones for whom Jesus is fighting? Jesus is still calling with His voice of authority to cleanse us from our evil and to make us clean. He is still fighting the battle for us, still confronting the demons that surround us, rebuking them and casting them from us. Most of us read this story from Mark as if Jesus were a meek, gentle shepherd who had pity on a poor man with schizophrenia or some other mental disorder. It’s time we realized that Jesus drove out more than one demon that day, and that Jesus drives out demons in ways we can’t even imagine.

In Capernaum, Jesus taught with His own authority about the Scriptures.
Today, Jesus reminds us that God’s Word is not something to be taken for granted.
In Capernaum, the unclean spirits knew that they had no place in Jesus’ kingdom.
Today, we continue to discover that the ministry of Christ’s church is damaged whenever its members are held captive by unclean thoughts and impure actions.
In Capernaum, Jesus drove an unclean spirit out of a man who couldn’t ask for help.
Today, Jesus is attacking the demons that hold us in their possession: materialism,
apathy, neglect, prejudice, gossip, fear, addiction, hyper-sexuality, self-doubt, self-pity and every other demon that prowls and threatens and fights to hold us captive in sin.

Don Juel wrote a commentary on Mark for Augsburg Fortress in 1990. His title for these verses is “The Battle is Joined.” The Gospel of Mark begins with a fight, and it is a fight for the rest of the way. Only Jesus has the authority to drive out unclean spirits with His word. But only Jesus has the authority to create new hearts in that word also. God has called us to listen for that voice, calling the unclean spirits out of us, calling us out of the darkness of sin and into the light of Christ’s presence. Hear His Word and rest your hearts in His authority, for the unclean spirits know that in His kingdom, their power is ended – while we are set free to live in freedom and His righteousness, now and forever.

[1][1] Healy, James K. © 1994 National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 1994.

26 January 2006

Here we are, the Johnson boys. That's Zach in front, Brian, Kevin & mois. Apparently I've picked up my mother's habit of odd hand positions for pictures - check out my right hand. Uff da...  Posted by Picasa

I'm lucky enough to have family I love dearly. This is a photo we took when we were bowling together following our grandmother's funeral on January 8th. Back, l-r: Brother Brian, nephew Zach, sis-in-law Donna, mois, cousin Craig. Front, l-r: cousin Karen, cousin Lisa, Kris, brother Kevin. The only thing that would have made the night better would have been to share it with our Grandma. Posted by Picasa

No, this isn't in my church - it's me giving the graduates' response at Luther Seminary commencement 2003. Posted by Picasa

25 January 2006

Sojourners' "Magic 8-ball"

I get a weekly e-zine from Sojourners and thought this week's was particularly good. Several articles of interest. Enjoy!

24 January 2006

Sin, Stomach Viruses, the body of Christ

Kristin and I spent our Christmas ‘vacation’ weathering a stomach virus with Kristin’s family in St. Paul. We went to St. Paul under the assumption that the virus Kristin’s sister had the week before had passed out of the house; we couldn’t have been more wrong. Once Kristin got sick, we all knew that our time was coming, and it was a pretty miserable three days for all of us.

By the time our third day of watching each other get sick rolled around, I began to notice a really curious thing. Our entire family – Kris and me, Kris’s sister and her husband, and my in-laws – moved gingerly around the house, keeping our distance from each other and generally avoiding any contact whatsoever. On Friday morning Kristin and I realized we hadn’t kissed each other since she’d gotten sick on Tuesday. Even after the virus had come and gone, we were still dancing around as if everybody in the house was infectious and the virus was still with us.

It’s hard to feel safe in a house of sick people. I felt most sorry for my father-in-law – he was the last of us to get sick, and he had to wait three days for the virus to hit. It’s not a comfortable thing to be in a house filled with guests who might possibly give you a stomach bug along with your dinner, and even though we laugh about it now, it’s not the kind of experience that engenders a lot of trust between housemates.

Of course this gave me an opportunity to think about life in the house of faith that is the body of Christ. We live together in tightly-knit communities of faith – and sin is an infection that we simply cannot avoid in our life together. Unlike illness, which for most of us is an occasional occurrence, the effects of sin are constant and ever-present in us.

Knowing this, don’t we often do as much as we can to protect ourselves? We keep our distance, avoid spending time with the ‘wrong’ people, and focus all of our energy on our own well-being. All to no avail, because within humanity there is nothing that can protect us from sin and its symptoms. We may take preventative measures to keep ourselves from feeling all of the consequences of our sins – but doing so leaves our communities sterile, distant and antiseptic, cold and as lifeless as a morgue.

In the first few chapters of Mark’s gospel, Jesus moves through the countryside, healing the sick and casting out demons. He seems unconcerned by the fact that the people He’s healing are ‘unclean,’ – He’s more concerned with healing those who need healing, regardless of the danger to Himself or the scandal He causes. Jesus wades knee-deep into the miasma of those sin-infested lives and gets right to work. There is no quarantine for the Christ – He refuses to hold Himself back from those who need His touch, and in healing these sick, He teaches us something about our own sickness: we are not so infected with sin that He cannot bear our company or share our burdens.

I still get nervous when I’m around the sick, and I doubt that we’ll ever forget our miserable Christmas holiday. But I’m profoundly grateful that Christ can handle what I cannot. I’m forever in awe of my Savior, who was willing to take my sin-sick soul as His own even though it cost him His own life. I pray my sin is not contagious, that the things I do and leave undone do not affect the lives of those around me, but I trust even more deeply in the healing power of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. May your sin be healed in His touch as well.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Scott

23 January 2006

This is me - and hopefully this time the damned picture will work right! Posted by Picasa

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, Year B - "Good News?"

Preaching Texts: Jonah 3, Mark 1.14-20

Let us pray: Heavenly Father, your word can sometimes frighten us with its demands. Heavenly Father, your word can disturb us with its bold truth. But heavenly Father, we know your word is gospel. Heavenly Father, we know your word is good news. Help us cling to your word and to its promises for us. We pray in the name of Jesus, Your Son, Your living Word, Amen.

Good news, Jonah – you’re going to be a prophet! But you will not prophesy to God’s people Israel, oh, no: you’re going to Nineveh, that great and wicked city in the east, capital city of the Assyrian Empire, the great nation that has fought against Israel for years. Other prophets have called God’s people to repent and return to the Lord our God, with hardly any success. In fact, these other prophets have often been abused and threatened for their words. But you, Jonah, are going to be different. You’re going to be sent to a nation you despise. You’re going to walk through the city with one sentence of prophesy against the Ninevites. You’re going to camp out on the hillside to watch God rain fire and brimstone on those Ninevites. Then you’re going to see God go all weak in the knees and forgive the people of Nineveh, at which point you’re going to throw a hissy fit and sulk for days, and it’s all going to be recorded and remembered centuries later. Good news!

Good news, John – you’re going to be the last great prophet of Israel! But not like Jonah, no sir! You’re going to be as controversial as all the prophets who came before you. You’re going to live in the hills around Jerusalem, a wild man with a wild message. You’re going to baptize your cousin Jesus and tell the world that He is the Messiah – and no one will believe you. You’re going to be arrested, jailed, and beheaded because a stupid, adulterous, incestuous king made a promise to his wife’s daughter, who also happens to be his niece! Good news!

Good news, James & John – you’re going to get caught fighting over who will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven! History will remember you as the Sons of Thunder, but you’re also going to be remembered for the bad example of those who completely miss the point. Good news!

Good news, Peter – you’re going to leave your family, leave a thriving fishing operation, leave a life for which you’ve slaved for years, and follow a homeless teacher for three years. After he is crucified, dies, rises again, and ascends into heaven, you’re going to spend the rest of your life teaching about this man Jesus. Eventually you’re going to be crucified, but you’re going to ask to be crucified upside down. You’ll die thousands of miles from home. Good news!

Good news, Paul – you’re going to spend a year or so persecuting the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Then, on your way to Damascus, you’re going to be struck blind by the same Jesus you’ve been persecuting. You will be healed in Damascus and spend the rest of your life on four great journeys around the Mediterranean, proclaiming the good news of the same Jesus you once persecuted. After about 30 years, you’ll die in Rome, beheaded because of your faith, and no one will know where your grave lies. Good news!

Here is the peace of God that passes all human understanding – that the good news of God was so captivating that these disciples would follow the good news wherever it led them. The thing is, that good news led them to other people, who also started following the good news. In turn, the next generation met others, who also started following the good news. And so it went for generations, until here we are today, still following the good news. But what is it that we follow, and where in the world is it leading us?

I have often wondered about these disciples and their following Jesus. What was it like, standing there in the boat and seeing the Son of God walking on the beach toward you? What did His voice sound like? Was it the warm welcome of your dearest friend, or the commanding voice of God in all glory? And most importantly, how did Jesus’ first followers hold on to their faith in the hardest times?

I can’t answer those questions this side of heaven, but I can tell you what I think about this good news of God that Jesus proclaims.

The good news of God is not a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. When Jesus says, “Repent, and believe in the good news,” He doesn’t mean that if you repent once, you must begin a life of believing, and never slip away from the faith. The more accurate way to translate the phrase would be this: “Be repentant, and keep believing in the good news!” Repentance and belief are two sides of the same coin, a way of life for those caught up in the net Jesus is casting. Repentance means turning away from our sins, from ALL our sins, including the sin of thinking we can believe our way into heaven.

The good news of God comes to us through the Holy Spirit’s work in us. “I believe that I cannot believe through my own reason or strength, but the Holy Spirit has called me with its gifts, enlightened me with the gospel, and sanctifies and keeps me in the one true faith.” The good news of God is a great gift from a loving God – we cannot earn it and we certainly cannot find it on our own. Remember – Jesus found Peter and Andrew, James and John; Jesus has found us, too.

The good news of God doesn’t come free: it’s going to demand your whole life. When Peter and Andrew and James & John left their boats, they left more than just some minimum wage job. The fact that they had hired men says that they were successful businessmen, people who had worked hard and earned a certain amount of property, respect and prosperity in their communities. Following Jesus meant giving up that life – and discipleship means the same for us, too. You may not be called to give up your jobs or your home – but you will be called to give up something dear to you. Maybe you will be called to relinquish some control over your future for the sake of your family. Maybe you will be called to give up something you always wanted to provide for your family. Maybe your possessions are getting in the way of your faith. Whatever it is, you will find that following Jesus always has a cost.

The good news of God gives us far more questions than answers. Announcing that the kingdom of God has come near doesn’t change the facts of life for Jesus’ followers. People are still dying. Sin is still the force that holds us in bondage. The forces of evil still prowl like lions, as ready to devour bodies and souls as they have ever been. We ourselves continue to struggle with sin and doubt and even despair at times, even after we’ve been told the good news of God.

We must remember that Jesus’ own followers had questions. Jesus first followers struggled with sin and doubt, too. Jesus’ first followers didn’t always understand what God was up to. But the good news of God kept them in the faith and reminded them that their questions were the result of faithful, honest discipleship, not a lack of faith.

The good news of God is not set in stone: God is free to change God’s mind. The people of Nineveh received the good news of God, in spite of Jonah’s desire for their destruction. The people of Israel received the good news of God, after Moses prayed for them to God. The good news of God meets the needs of God’s people, even if it means that God Himself must change to meet our needs.

All of this is good news for us, but it is not THE good news, is it? We do an awfully good job talking about the good news of God, but talking about something isn’t the same as experiencing it firsthand, and to experience the good news of God we must know the answer to this questions: what is the good news of God?

The good news of God is not an announcement or a proclamation. The good news of God is not a program or a concept. The good news of God is not a message or a means for a better life. All of these things flow out of the good news of God, but they are not the good news themselves.

The good news of God is Jesus Christ Himself. Christ is the living, breathing, actual kingdom of God, who comes near to us in His promises and brings good news through His Word. The good news of God comes through Christ giving Himself to us time and again until our lives are over-flowing with His goodness and mercy. The good news of God is Christ coming to put our sins to death in His death and to raise us up with Him in His resurrection. The good news of God is the gift of Jesus Christ for sinners like you and me.

Peter and Andrew didn’t follow Jesus because He had good news from God: Peter and Andrew followed Jesus because Christ IS the good news from God. James & John didn’t leave their father Zebedee because Jesus offered a better life: James & John left their father Zebedee because Jesus WAS life itself. Paul didn’t change his life because Jesus offered peace: Paul’s life was changed by Jesus Christ who IS peace itself.

As we think about the gift of the good news of God, we must be sure that we don’t trade the glorious good news of Christ Himself for the secondary stuff that flows from Him. The good news of God is Jesus Christ, our closest friend and Savior: without a living relationship with Him all the programs and messages and proclamations we have to offer ring hollow and do not satisfy. Following Jesus means coming to know and trust that Jesus Himself is the good news, that trusting in His promises is life itself, that all good things in our lives pale in comparison to His reckless grace and bountiful love.

Good news? Yes – good news! Christ Himself comes to you this day, offering grace and forgiveness and companionship for your life’s journey of repentance and belief. Good news? Yes – good news! Whatever the future may hold, the good news that is Jesus Christ promises to hold open the future for you, to see you through all the storms to come and to welcome you home when your journey is ended. Good news? Yes – good news! Your life is no longer your own – it is being swept up into the good news of God and will be kept with Christ until the day we see Him face to face. Christ Himself, the good news of God, will give you the peace that passes all human understanding, and Christ Himself, the good news of God, will keep your hearts and minds in Himself, now and forever. Amen.

13 January 2006

Switching over

I'm going to be switching over to this blog from my current blog at LiveJournal, so be patient. Archives from the old blog can be found here.