24 December 2012

Sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord - "Christmas Belongs To Children"

Christmas is a time that belongs to children.  Think about all the Christmas stories and songs you know, and the role that children play in them.  

  • A Christmas Carol:  where Tiny Tim understands the spirit of Christmas better than Scrooge, Marley, and even his own father, Bob Cratchit.  
  • Miracle on 34th Street: where the child believes in Kris Kringle when no one else does.  
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas:  no adults even appear in this story!
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas:  Cindy Lou Who speaks for all of Whoville.
  • The Best Christmas Pageant Ever:  the Herdmans, even though they get everything wrong, get it all right in the end.

23 December 2012

Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent - "Change Is Coming"

Brothers and sisters, grace and peace to you from God our Creator, Jesus Christ our Redeemer, and from the Holy Spirit, present and active in our midst this morning. Amen.

First, turn to your neighbor and take a minute or two to answer this question: what are the things you need to feel like you’re celebrating Christmas?

For me, it seems like food plays a big role. I was in Ames yesterday looking for potato sausage. Didn’t find any, where I went, but my friend Heidi said Dahl’s sometimes has it, and Linda Fevold said there’s a shop in Gowrie that might have some also. I don’t know if there’s enough time to get some for this year, but it certainly bears remembering for next year.

09 December 2012

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent - "On Jordan's Banks...and Ours"

1 On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry
announces that the Lord is nigh;
awake and hearken, for he brings
glad tidings of the King of kings!

We know how Advent and Christmas work, right?  Put up the tree early in December, string the lights.  Get the gifts on Black Friday if you want to get nice stuff and save lots of money.  Clean the house.  Clean it again.  Prepare for the coming of the relatives.  For us this year, it’s ALL the relatives on Kristin’s side.  I’m about to become Clark Griswold.

But that’s window dressing.  If we knew that JESUS was coming, actually and really entering the world, what would look different?  Would anything look different?

Pastor Brian Stoffregen writes, “Perhaps if we want to properly prepare for the coming of Jesus, rather than looking in the manger, or decorating trees and houses, or buying and wrapping presents, we need to listen to John. While only two gospels mention the nativity, all four talk about John who prepares the way for the coming of Jesus.”  John says it’s more than just family and good food coming:  the LORD is coming.  And the way must be prepared.

2 Then cleansed be ev'ry life from sin;
make straight the way for God within,
and let us all our hearts prepare
for Christ to come and enter there.

Luke makes it clear that John comes out of the wilderness in a time of powerful people.  Emperors, governors, kings and high priests.  But the word of God doesn’t come to these powerful people, and for all Luke’s talk of “casting the mighty down from their thrones,” we would do well to notice something:  all of these powerful people Luke lists at the beginning of the gospel are still in their seats of power at the end.

Power is not the reason John proclaims the coming of Jesus.  Repentance is what John preaches, from the highest to the lowliest.  Repentance for sin, for the mistakes we make and for the ways we miss the coming of our Lord’s reign.  Every last one of us, from the most powerful to the least, walks this world under the bondage of sin.  If John were to re-proclaim his message today, it might go something like this:  in the 5th year of the Presidency of Barack Obama, when Terry Branstad was governor of Iowa, during the papacy of Benedict XVI, when Mark Hanson was the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA and Steven Ullestad the Bishop of the Northeastern Iowa Synod, the word of God came to John in the wilderness:  REPENT.”  This message of repentance is not about the downtrodden rising up to take the place of the powerful:  it is about the burden under which all of us stagger through this life.  Rich or poor, strong or weak, old or young, Republican or Democrat, faithful or fearful:  John calls us all to turn toward the One who is coming, who brings salvation for all.

3 We hail you as our Savior, Lord,
our refuge and our great reward;
without your grace we waste away
like flow'rs that wither and decay.

We noted that all the powerful people Luke catalogues remained in their seats of power at the end of Jesus’ life.  But today they are only history:  only names in the annals of time.  Tiberius was emperor in name only when John began preaching in the wilderness - he died in exile about eight years after Jesus’ crucifixion.  Legend has it Pilate died in exile as well.  Herod Antipas died in exile in Gaul.  No one knows anything about Annas and Caiaphas beyond their involvement in Jesus’ life in the gospels.  There is no life in these powerful people:  as Isaiah says,
“All people are grass,

their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,

when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;

surely the people are grass. 

The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.”
It’s worth taking our time to reflect on that word, “Savior.”  The implication, of course, is that we need saving.  It goes against the grain of the season, doesn’t it?  As we prepare for “perfect” holiday gatherings, with lovingly decorated treats, wonderful new drinks, lavishly decorated houses and as we shop for the “perfect” gift for those special someones in our lives, John comes proclaiming that the One who saves us is coming.  For all our dedicated festivity, we are as flimsy as the tissue paper we use to wrap our gifts:  here for only a short time, and none of us able to save one another.  Only the Savior saves.  Only the grace of God lifts the burden of sin from our lives.  Only the one John proclaims is coming to give life to His people.  

4 Stretch forth your hand, our health restore,
and make us rise to fall no more;
oh, let your face upon us shine
and fill the world with love divine.

John was not only a prophet to the people of Israel:  in John’s own words, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”  John’s father, Zechariah, said it even more boldly when John was born:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.  By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
John was called to be the voice of God to the entire world, to point to the coming day when all people will see the greatness of God and live in the glorious light of God’s kingdom.  And John wasn’t just talking about life after death – John didn’t say a word about death or hell here.  John was talking about forgiveness, repentance, transformed lives in THIS world, in THIS time.  John wasn’t preparing the people to be taken away from this world – John was preparing this world for the in-breaking of God, right here, right now, among us.  And when Jesus came, all of history began to be re-interpreted in the light of Jesus’ love, grace and mercy.

On Jordan's banks and on ours, the prophecy of John continues to ring out: "prepare the way of the Lord."  God is breaking into this world - repent, turn your hearts and your lives toward the heavens, and receive the gift of grace which all of this world's rulers cannot give.  John brought the message.  God brings the kingdom.  We turn our eyes toward the wilderness, and we hear the joyful songs that herald our Lord's arrival.  Come, Lord Jesus.  Come quickly, and in your unending love save us all.

5 All praise to you, eternal Son,
whose advent has our freedom won,
whom with the Father we adore,
and Holy Spirit, evermore.

05 December 2012

Clear Mission

We are disciples of Jesus Christ,
called to grow in Christ and to invite all to follow him.

Every worship service at the congregation I serve begins and ends with this mission statement as part of its liturgy.  I love our mission statement: it offers both an inward and an outward focus, is clear that we are about the work of being disciples (not members), and in its brevity and simplicity it is both wide in scope and easy to remember.  By now I imagine folks who worship at St Petri twice a month have memorized our mission statement:  how many of our churches can say the same? (Note: that's an observation, not a comparative statement)

I'm traditionally leery about overplaying the effectiveness of mission statements, etc.  We all have a tendency to engage in magic bullet thinking about such things, as if composing a good mission statement is the one key element missing from a church equation and, upon completion of said task, the pews will magically fill, the budget will be exceeded and the pastor's kids will behave in worship.  The only magic bullet that will make those things happen is hard work, particularly the last one.  But there is a place for a good mission statement, and that place is most certainly not a once-every-three-years Council retreat where we navel-gaze for a Saturday and promptly forget everything we put together.

I hope that incorporating this elegant little statement into each and every one of our public worship gatherings brings a continual awareness that we are about discipleship, growth and invitation.  Yes, membership is important: God's church needs members to carry out its work in the world.  But our mission is not to get more members for St. Petri Lutheran Church:  our mission is to follow Jesus and invite others to do the same.  Our mission is God, both through our congregation and in other ways also.

Does your congregation have a mission statement?  Do your people know that mission?  If not, find ways to incorporate it into everything you do: worship, letterhead, emails, the works.  Be clear about who you are and why you're here: you will do yourselves and the world around you a great favor.