It’s In Our B.N.A.

Posted November 28, 2015 by bluejeremiah
Categories: sermons

John 18:33-38

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’

1961 --- Actor Jean Marais in the movie "Ponzio Pilato" (Pontius Pilate), directed by Irving Rapper and Gian Paolo Callegari. --- Image by © Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

1961 — Actor Jean Marais in the movie “Ponzio Pilato” (Pontius Pilate),  Image by © Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

Christ the King Sunday / John Stiles / First Lutheran Church / 11-22-15

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our First Love, in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say, “Come!” Amen.

It’s only fitting that we end this church year by proclaiming Christ as King – as the One who is, who was, and who is to come – as the Alpha and Omega of all that is or ever shall be (Alpha & Omega are the first & last letters of the Greek alphabet). Next Sunday is Advent, the beginning (the Alpha) of our church year, as we prepare the way for the coming Christ-child. And here, at the end of our church year (our Omega), we proclaim him King Jesus: the final word on life and death. In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

But I must admit, that does sound a bit presumptuous, don’t you think? To declare ‘our god’ as the ‘final word’ on all matters of life and death? Is that really what we’re proposing on this Christ the King Sunday – and every time we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” – or declare that at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord? Just what kind of king is this?

Historically, the Jews had no king except “Yahweh” – the Lord, God, was their king. When Moses delivered them from the land of Egypt and they wandered 40 years in the wilderness – they were a nomadic people. When they came to the Promised land to settle down, they became a tribal people – 12 tribes. It was a time when judges were raised up to settle disputes and to lead the people in wisdom. But it wasn’t long until other nations began to stir things up. They were attacked by nations with kings – nations with armies and great power – and so they decided they, too, wanted a king – so much so, that they appealed to the Lord, through the prophet Samuel (you can read about this in 1Samuel 8). “Give us a king to protect us from our enemies. We must live in the real world like other nations. For the sake of our national security and for the safety of our children, we must have a king!”

Others, including Samuel, opposed the idea: “If we have a king, we will become like other nations We’ll have military conscription. Elites will grab the land entrusted to our families. We’ll become like slaves. We’ll have to do hard labor for the king and his higher ups. The king will lay heavy tax burdens on us. We will cry out to God in our oppression.” But the ‘pro-king’ crowd won out and the Lord appointed Samuel to anoint Saul as 1st king over Israel.

Things went fairly well for Israel, until Solomon became king and he amassed great riches and wealth, built a grand temple and oppressed the masses of people who were at the lowest rung on the ladder. Between his 700 wives and 300 concubines Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, bowing down to foreign gods. And, in time, Israel became the very thing it had fled from generations before: Pharaoh’s Egypt.

We should be careful what we ask for, yes? It’s like the two guys who died and went to heaven: St. Peter greeted them at the pearly gates and said “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but your mansions aren’t ready yet. Until they are, I can send you back to Earth as whatever you want to be.”  “Great!” said the first guy, “I want to be an eagle soaring above beautiful scenery!” POOF! He was gone. “And what do you want to be,” St. Peter asked the other guy. “I’d like to be one cool stud!” POOF! and he was gone. After a few months, their mansions were finished, and St. Peter sent an angel to fetch them back. “You’ll find them easily,” he says, “One of them is soaring above the Grand Canyon, and the other one is on a snow tire somewhere in Detroit!”

Or, how about the story of the woman who rubbed the lamp and found a genie? It was a one-wish genie. “Ask me for whatever you wish!” said the genie. And, of course, being a kind person, she asked for world peace with her one wish. She even showed the genie a map and asked that these warring nations in the Middle East could settle their differences and that the United States could help bring about peace. The genie shook his head and said, “Do you know that I’ve been bottled up for over 500 years? Now, I’m good, but I’m not THAT good. Please think of something else.” “Well,” said the woman, “I’ve always wanted to meet a man who truly understands me. He doesn’t finish my sentences and he jumps up to do the chores without asking. He’s romantic and good looking and…” “Let me see that map again,” said the genie.

Be careful what you ask for, right?

Martin Luther had no idea what kind of genie he was releasing from a bottle when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. When he let the Genie out of the bottle it sparked the Reformation; but things got out of control – within eight years, the peasants were revolting – pulling down statues of Mary and the saints in their churches, making their own rules rioting in the streets and rising up against the aristocracy. And so he made distinctions between the “Two Kingdoms” – the Kingdom of the Left and the Kingdom of the Right – one ruled by the governing authorities and the other by Christ. And we, who bear the name of Christ, are citizens of both – with obligations to both. And Luther wrote hundreds of letters to the dukes and secular leaders of his day – admonishing them to govern wisely, according to the faith. And, during the Peasant’s War he found himself in the middle – sympathetic to the injustices forced upon the peasants – and yet, not condoning their bloody tactics. Some called him ‘the butcher’ for siding with the governing authorities to put down the rebellion.

So, there are no easy answers on this Christ the King Sunday – when we are tempted to claim: “Our god is better than your god.” “Our religion is the one, true religion.”

Last week’s terrorist attack in Paris has brought to the forefront a national debate about what “True Islam” is really about. True Islam says that if you kill an innocent person, it is as if you’ve killed all of humanity. So it says in the Qu’ran – and yet, there are also some verses requiring us to kill the infidel in the Qu’ran. Just as there are calls to kill one’s enemies in our own scriptures. Who could read Psalm 137 “Blessed are those who dash your babies heads against the rock” and say ‘go and do likewise’? We understand these texts of terror in their contexts – penned by people who had witnessed atrocities against their own people, taken into captivity. And so, each day is a striving for the truth.

Also this week, in North Minneapolis, there are those who are trying to uncover the truth about the shooting of an unarmed man, Jamar Clark, by a police officer. Peaceful protests have begun outside the 4th precinct to demand answers. Will we ever know the truth?

What is the truth? It’s the question on everyone’s mind these days.

And it was Pilate’s question to Jesus after the reading of today’s gospel. When Jesus says to Pilate: “For this I was born, to testify to the truth.” Pilate says “What is truth?” In John 14, Jesus said it was he, himself: “I am the truth, the way and the life.” And here, in today’s reading, we find Jesus on trial. “Are you the King of the Jews?” He doesn’t deny it – but he describes a much different kind of kingdom. It is one where his followers do not rise up to fight. Whereas, Pilate is used to ruling with an iron fist, taking names and commanding soldiers – Jesus rules from the heart, with love and mercy. He’s counting on his followers to listen to the truth, and to overcome darkness with light and to drive out hate with love. This way of ruling involves not a company of soldiers, but a communion of saints – a towel and a basin to wash one another’s feet. Here is a king who rules by caring for the hungry and the thirsty – there’s no mighty chariot, no flashing sword.

Do you ever wonder whether we’d recognize Jesus today – if he were to show himself? I bet the first thing he’d say is what he always said: do not be afraid.

In a world where fear runs rampant – whether it’s about ISIS or the potential threat of fleeing Syrian refugees – Jesus would say: do not be afraid.

Did you see the story in yesterday’s paper about First Lutheran Church – opening its doors to refugees 40 years ago after the fall of Saigon? It’s in our DNA – that thing that Bishop H. George Anderson called our BNA: “Be Not Afraid.”

It’s not a safe world in which we live. There will always be dangers and unforeseen tragedies. But we are called to walk in the way of peace nonetheless.

I am reminded of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – a Lutheran pastor who was hanged by the Nazis for his part in the resistance against Adolph Hitler. He wrote: “There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment. Wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of almighty God. …Battles are won not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from a sermon on August 28, 1934.

It’s often a lonely path we are called to walk. John opens his gospel with these chilling words about Jesus: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (John 1:11)

So, what are we to look for these days? How can we open our hearts and accept the coming Christ as our king this day? In many ways, it seems obvious: we just pray to him. We take time each day to keep Christ at the center of our lives (both public and private).

As a closing prayer, I leave you with the words of a Charles Wesley hymn. Let us pray:

Help us to help each other, Lord, each other’s cross to bear’
Let each his friendly aid afford and feel his brother’s care.
Touched by the loadstone of thy love, Let all our hearts agree;
And ever toward each other move and ever move toward thee.

A Message From “Old Long Robes”

Posted November 28, 2015 by bluejeremiah
Categories: Uncategorized

Mark 12:38-44
As [Jesus] taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Pent22 / First Lutheran Church / 11-8-15 / John Stiles

Children’s Time: Have you ever made a tent? It’s fun! I brought this blanket from home so we can try it. And I have this flashlight, too, since it can get dark. Should we invite anyone else in? Maybe mom or dad? What about a friend or even a stranger? You see… if we just keep the tent for ourselves and no one else, it can get lonely and even a little stuffy in there! Plus, others might need a friend and would love to join us. In our lesson today, Jesus was worried about people in church who cared only for themselves. They had a lot of nice things (fine clothes, fancy dinners, and they were famous – everybody knew their names) but they didn’t even notice this poor woman in need among them. Did you know that we have a Food Shelf drop off in the main office? You can bring a can of soup, a box of cereal or a turkey for our Thanksgiving Baskets and leave it in the office and we deliver it to people who are hungry. That’s just one way we’re helping others instead of just ourselves. Can you think of anymore? So, having a tent is great – but let’s not get so turned in on ourselves that we forget the rest of the world.

06 Mar 2015 --- Parents creating fort over sleeping children --- Image by © Hero Images/Corbis

06 Mar 2015 — Parents creating fort over sleeping children — Image by © Hero Images/Corbis

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our First Love in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say ‘Come!’ Amen.

When I was a little boy, we used to love making a fort in the basement out of blankets. It was the perfect activity for a snow day off from school. We would raid the linen closet and bring out every blanket and sheet we could get our hands on. Then we’d drape them over chairs and stretch them out into hallways and secret chambers – making sure to weight down the sheets with copies of the Sears-Roebuck catalogue, The Encyclopedia Britannica, Webster’s Dictionary – the bigger the book the better to hold up the walls of our fortress!

And if we were lucky, we’d find a fitted sheet we could install over the entryway of our fort – right in front of a box fan set on ‘high,’ so it would poof out into a great, billowing drawbridge. I’m telling you, it was the best – except for one small thing: the older kids got to go in in at first. They had to ‘check things out’ and make sure it was okay. Well you can imagine how that went over with the younger ones… No one likes to be left out in the cold, excluded or ignored.

So, who gets to come into our tent this morning? Who’s invited? Isn’t the church just one big tent? And yet, who’s on the outside looking in today? Who might we be reluctant to welcome because they’re ‘like us’? Or they might not want to play our games – or they might knock something over – or fart and stink up the whole tent! Each week, on Sunday morning we gather for coffee hour in between services in the Koinonia Hall. That word, koinonia, literally means (in Greek) ‘community.’ The church desperately needs opportunities to simply be together and to lift each other up in the Body of Christ. We come to belong to something greater than ourselves… and only then are we sent to become who God intended us to be.

Because we all know that if it’s only “about us” then we’ve already ceased being that Body – the church of God in this place. If it’s all about self-preservation then we’ve already lost our way. The classic definition of sin is to be turned in on oneself.  It’s bound to happen – we’re made that way – to bend inward, toward self-preservation – to look after our own interests. Heck, even Jesus reminds us of the greatest commandment: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength – and love your neighbor as yourself. And I’ll be the first one to say, “You’ve got to take care of yourself or you’ll be no good to anyone else!”

(half) The Widow's mite. (Woman placing coin in box for the poor at church graveyard as ghost of woman watches.) Stereo, c1876 by Melander & Bro. (no --- Image by © CORBIS

(half) The Widow’s mite. Stereo, c1876 by Melander & Bro. no — Image by © CORBIS

And that’s well and good – even necessary for healthy living – but… then there’s this widow giving her two copper coins. All that she had to live on! And I’m not sure what to make of her. I got to preach this sermon yesterday at the Woodland Good Samaritan Home at the 4:00 service where, wouldn’t you know, half my audience were widows. Hoo boy!

Who’s invited into your tent today? In what way is the Holy Spirit prying your fingers open – from a posture of fear and hoarding, turned inward – to a posture of abundance, turned outward, where all are welcome? Jesus doesn’t hold back. He goes right for the scribes, in their vain attempts to get attention and care only for themselves. And, for me, this hits close to home:

Long robes? Check.
Respect in the marketplaces? For the most part.
Best seat in the synagogue? Yep.
Says long prayers? We’ll see.
Devour widows’ houses? Where did that come from?

Nobody said anything about hurting poor old widows. That’s the rub in our gospel lesson for today. They didn’t even notice the plight of this poor woman among them. Jesus makes sure to point out this widow to the disciples, but it’s easy to miss the tone of his voice. Is he saying, “Look at that widow who gave more than all the others – you should go and do likewise?” Or, is it a tone of disgust: “Look at that poor widow, being taken advantage of by these ungrateful brats in their flowing robes!”

I don’t think it’s about the amount that poor widow put into the treasury. No, one of the mistakes we make with this lesson is that we assume we, too, should “dig deep” and give away all that we have like this widow. I think it’s more about the motivation behind the gift that matters.

It reminds me of Stumpy & Martha. Stumpy and his wife Martha went to the state fair every year. Every year Stumpy would say, “Martha, I’d like to ride in that there airplane.” And every year Martha would say, “I know, Stumpy, but that airplane ride costs $10, and $10 is $10.”

One year Stumpy and Martha went to the fair and Stumpy said, “Martha, I’m 71 years old. If I don’t ride that airplane this year I may never get another chance.” Martha replied, “Stumpy, that there airplane ride costs $10, and $10 is $10.” The pilot overheard them and said, “Folks, I’ll make you a deal. I’ll take you both up for a ride. If you can stay quiet for the entire ride and not say one word, I won’t charge you. But if you say one word, it’s $10.”

Stumpy and Martha agreed, and up they went. The pilot did all kinds of twists and turns, rolls and dives, but not a word or a squeal was heard. He did all his tricks over again, but still not a word or a sound. They landed and the pilot turned to Stumpy, “By golly, I did everything I could think of to get you to yell out, but you didn’t. I can’t charge you the $10. The ride is free.”

Stumpy replied, “Well, I was gonna say something when Martha fell out back there, but $10 is $10.”

Wasn’t it Jesus who said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also?” (Mt. 6:21) Yes, the money is important, and yet, wealth is about more than just money. Untold wealth was in the members of the AME church in Charleston, SC who gave that shooter the undeserved gift of forgiveness. It’s all they had to give him. He’d already taken the lives of their loved ones. That’s a wealth that is immeasurable. People think you need money to get something off the ground. And yet, most of the movements that changed the world didn’t come out of financial gain. Paul was a tent-maker who received donations from the church in Macedonia. MLK, Ghandi, all of those guys didn’t have a lot of funding. But they were wealthy in other ways.

So, how do we better steward our money? How do we make room in the tent until no one is ignored or overlooked? We commit ourselves to pay better attention. We notice the least of these who have been forgotten – before it comes down to their last two pennies! We watch for our veterans returning home and we provide support groups for them to re-learn how to live with PTSD in civilian society. We give a turkey or prepare a meal this Thanksgiving so a family won’t go hungry in this land of plenty. We open our hearts to Syrian refugees, refusing to paint all Muslims as terrorists, as we welcome the stranger.

Don’t take it from me, “Old Long Robes.” No, take it from Jesus who once said, “I came as a guest, and you received me.” (Matt. 25:35). Let’s build a tent big enough for all to come and find peace and belonging this day. Let us pray:

O God, you gift us with many things. May we use them as stewards – to your glory – and toward the betterment of those in need among us – so that all might be welcome in your kingdom, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Smells Like A Saint – A sermon on All Saints Day

Posted November 5, 2015 by bluejeremiah
Categories: Uncategorized

John 11:32-45
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

All Saints Day / John Stiles / 11-1-15 / First Lutheran Church

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our First Love in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say, ‘Come!’ Amen.

Girl pinching her nose --- Image by © Wavebreak Media Ltd./Corbis

Girl pinching her nose — Image by © Wavebreak Media Ltd./Corbis

Do you smell something? What does a saint ‘smell like?’ Though my grandpa George would probably chuckle at being called a saint, I count him as such.  I remember as a kid visiting grandpa and he always smelled like Vicks Vapor Rub and Wintergreen candies. And if you even gave so much as a little sniffle or sneeze, he’d slather a generous layer of Vicks on your neck ~ because it’s good for you! You couldn’t really win an argument with grandpa, but besides all that, I knew he loved me. A real saint in my book. So, what about you? What saintly smells do you remember, both good or bad, growing up?

I remember the smell of oatmeal on the stove where my wife stands cooking it up at 6AM on a Sunday. A weekly ritual that I have come to appreciate deeply.   This week, we’ll head to Staples for the leutefisk dinner with some friends from church. Now, there’s a smell that can go either way, depending on which side of the fjord you grew up! No, some smells are not pleasant at all, are they?  I recall the smell of urine at the nursing home when I go to visit someone there. What smells bring you back to important people or moments in life? Is it the smell of perfume or cologne that remind you of an ex-lover? Or maybe the smell of saliva on the back of your head in the 7th grade when you were teased? What does grief smell like to you?  What really stinks in your life?

You see, Jesus knows something about stenches. When he arrived on the scene, in today’s lesson, his friend Lazarus had already been dead four days and there was a stench. But Jesus had a keen sense of smell. He could smell betrayal on Judas, as he dipped his bread in the sauce and greeted him with a kiss later that night. He could smell the fear in the woman caught in the act of adultery, shamelessly at his mercy, waiting to be stoned to death. He could smell the stench of greed as he toppled the tables of the money-changers who were cheating the people of God right there in the synagogue.

Anytime you encounter a situation in life that just plain stinks… he’s there. Like a Cosmic EMT who’s used to the sight of blood, Jesus is unafraid to get in there and stabilize us – check our vital signs so we can get the care we need. That’s just the way God operates. He’s got the stomach for all the things that make us want to throw up. And he lives in us as a fragrant bouquet for those who call on him in faith.

Mother smelling flower held by her son (4-5) --- Image by © Jorn/Corbis

Mother smelling flower held by her son (4-5) — Image by © Jorn/Corbis

I know, today is All Saints Sunday – a time to remember with fondness, those ‘saints’ in our lives who have gone before us – those who have “the aroma of Christ” – that pleasing smell of love and mercy. And yet, in our grief, as we hear the tolling of the bell and recall the names of those who have died this past year – we also bring a part of us that hurts, that stinks, that mourns. Maybe you’ve grieved well and have moved on or maybe you’re still healing from the hurt.

Granger Westberg, in his book Good Grief, reminds us of how much we try to avoid grief and talk of death. Of how boys, especially, are taught not to cry – to be a man – and show no emotion. So why then, do you suppose, God made tear ducts? Why was it important for John to include this famous “shortest verse in the Bible?” John 11:35 Jesus wept? (I know, the NRSV translated it into four words, but you get the idea) According to Westberg, there are several stages that one can go through when faced with a loss: shock, physical distress, panic, hurt feelings, anger, resentment, depression, and eventually… hope. But the tears are a part of that process.

Tears are simply a cleansing of the soul for those who have loved and lost. We grieve at the death of a family member or friend. We grieve at having to ‘put down’ the family pet. We grieve at the loss of health, eyesight, hearing. We grieve when a child goes missing – as with the Jacob Wetterling case, that has been in the news again this week. Even sending your kids off to college – or through marriage can be a loss. Westberg writes: “A child is lost not through death but through marriage. He takes all his belongings from his room, and the house is lifeless. A house once filled with laughter and joy is now as quiet as a tomb.”

And Jesus knows something about tombs. He knows the stench of decaying flesh and preserving spices such as myrrh. He can tell you what people say at the tomb. They get angry: “Lord, where were you? Having a day off? If you’d been here, he would not have died. You restored sight to the blind, so where were you?” It’s a fair question of the grief-stricken. Of those who are caught short of breath and slapped in the face with barely an idea of what hit them.

Anyone who’s had a loved one die or had a good friend move away or who has gotten passed over for that promotion – knows what it’s like to say, “This just stinks! Where were you, Jesus? Don’t you care?”

That’s the thing with loss. It hurts. But Jesus didn’t answer the question. No, when it comes to the questions that rise from the depths of our grief – no pat answer will do. Instead, he gives them something much more. He says: “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25) He gives them what they need.

No one wants to die. We’d rather have God deliver us from that harsh reality. Maybe that’s why books and movies about near-death experiences give us a glimmer of hope. But even those testimonies are just about resuscitation – not resurrection. Lazarus would go on to die again after this story. The promise, “Behold, I make all things new!” (from Revelation 21) comes only after the old has passed away. There is no way to grow into something new without letting go of what’s dead and gone.

And we can let go because Jesus promises to be there with us. And what does he do? He just weeps. He weeps right where you are, right in the middle of your awful, stinky, mess – fully aware of the stench, and thanks be to God that he’s not going anywhere!

Pastor Heidi Neumark once said, “Jesus stands with us in the face of all that stinks.” (The Christian Century, 10/31/12). He stood with Mary and Martha as the stench of Lazarus’ rotting corpse seeped from that tomb. He stands with kids who are bullied and teased. He stands with those who got bad news from the doctor. He stands with those in the midst of divorce, whose lifelong vows have been shattered. He stands in our worship – where people come, fully knowing they don’t have it all together. And he weeps, and he cares.

And that’s good news for me and for you. Because something new is coming, and it’s because of this story right here. Renowned preacher, Fred Craddock had it right when he said, “This story isn’t just for Mary and Martha, ‘Oh, good for them, they got their brother back.’ No, when Jesus called Lazarus out of that tomb he knew that he was about to go strait into it.” From that moment on, John tells us, the chief priests and the scribes looked for an opportunity to kill him. And maybe some of his tears were echoes of his prayer: “Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me!” Our very human, brother Jesus didn’t want to die. And yet, here he is: invited to his own tomb with the words: Come and see. “Where have you laid him?” “Come and see.” It’s a call to discipleship that John uses repeatedly. Nathaniel said it to Philip: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Who is this Jesus?” “Come and see!” The woman at the well was so moved by Jesus, she invited her neighbors, “Come and see a man who told me everything – can he be the Messiah?” And here, Jesus is being called with the same words… to his friend’s tomb – and ultimately, to his own.

~He comes to see us in our times of trial.
~He comes to see the destruction in Texas, where record flooding has claimed lives and destroyed livelihoods along the gulf coast.
~He comes to stand with the soldier being deployed to Syria, not knowing when or if he will come home.
~He comes alongside the young person who has no place to sleep, except for the couches of friends who open their homes to the homeless.
~He comes to weep with the young man who left his home church years ago because he was transgendered, and she didn’t know if she’d be welcome anymore.
~He comes alongside that person who was shunned by parents for dating someone who doesn’t believe in God.
~He comes to stand with you in the stench you alone can smell. And he’s not going anywhere.

In Rev. 21:4 we hear: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” But notice how the very next verse describe the conditions: “7Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.” In other words: Jesus can stand the stench: all the failures and rottenness of our sinful nature. All we have to do is believe it – and receive the inheritance of the saints in Christ. All things are being made new, making us more than conquerors. When you live grounded in that hope, the people around you smell Jesus – the sweet smell of victory.

As Horace Mann once said (that champion of the American public schools): “Be afraid to die before you have made some small victory for humanity.” That’s what a saint looks like – or smells like – it’s that smell of victory around you that makes all the difference. It’s fresh coffee from a friend at just the right moment, or baked bread on the table feeding someone in more ways than one, or the sun on the bedsheets taken in from the line, as a blessing at the day’s end. It’s oatmeal on the kitchen stove at 6AM on a Sunday. It’s the smell of the top of a newborn baby’s head as the waters of baptism are poured out. It’s Christ living in you and me, in those small victories, that draws others to want to breathe it in more deeply. Take a deep breath right now and remember: you are the aroma of Christ – you saintly sinners – you ambassadors of Christ. And you smell great to me!

Let us pray: O God, some days we can’t stand the stench of this life. Weep with us. Give us courage to grieve, not as those who have no hope… but as children of your promise, filled with the aroma of Christ, in whose name we pray: Amen.

Standing Up & Standing Out: A Reformation Day Sermon

Posted October 29, 2015 by bluejeremiah
Categories: Uncategorized

John 8:31-36
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

Reformation Day / First Lutheran Church / 10-25-15 / John Stiles

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God, our First Love, in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say Come! Amen.

This week marks the 498th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther’s act of defiance in Wittenberg, Germany. It was the year 1517 when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church, thus creating a spark that soon caught on and spread through all of Europe.

It certainly wasn’t the first act of protest against the church (which is where the term Protestant comes from, by the way). John Huss had been burned at the stake for speaking out against the pope 100 years before Luther. And 100 years before that, John Wycliffe protested by advocating for the Bible to be written in the language of everyday people. Things were pretty dicey back then. Luther’s 95 theses (or complaints) against the Catholic Church had a lot to do with the sale of indulgences (certificates which assured forgiveness of sins for those who could afford it). He also was in favor of allowing priests to marry and taught that we are justified by faith, apart from the works of the law. Martin Luther called the Catholic Church “the most licentious den of thieves, the most shameless of brothels, the kingdom of sin.” And so, of course, he was excommunicated by the pope and a bounty was put on his head. He was kidnapped by some friends and taken to the castle at Wartburg, where he grew out a beared, assumed a secret identity “Knight George” and translated the entire Bible into the German language. (All in a days work, right?)

But nowadays, the Catholics pretty much agree that Luther was right on being saved by grace. There’s more that we have in common that what separates us. In fact, in 1996 a document was signed by both denominations, putting an end to those divisions entitled: The Join Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. It was a milestone in resolving a centuries-old debate. And just this year, plans were announced to rename a main square in Rome “Piazza Martin Lutero” in honor of the reformer, which has the official blessing of the Vatican, no less!

To be sure, there are still beliefs on which we differ: whether priests can marry, and our teachings about the Lord’s Supper (is it really the body and blood of Jesus?). But, for the most part, we have learned to live together as sisters and brothers.

So, if protesting against the Catholics is out, I suppose we could spend some time imagining what needs reforming today in the church. After all, Luther never set out to form a “Lutheran Church,” he wanted a better Catholic Church! And yet, here we are 500 years later with dozens of Protestant denominations, each striving to live out the truth as they understand it to be.

Maybe that’s the word we should be focusing on today: Truth.

In our gospel reading for today, Jesus says: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” The disciples were scratching their heads when they heard it: “We’re children of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” And, of course, he was talking about being slaves to sin. How easy it is for us to fall into bondage to sin – by things we have done or left undone – by not loving God with our whole heart – by not loving our neighbors has we have loved ourselves.

Winston Churchill once said: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” We’re just drawn to the stories of scandal – the falls from grace – the dirt on someone else. But heaven forbid that we should take a hard look at ourselves! We’d much rather go with advice of noted author Shel Silverstein, who once wrote:


I’d be lucky to get “one” out of eight of those… if the truth be told.  And then there are several variations on this Bible verse from John.  From Aldous Huxley: “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you mad.” Or from Flannery O’Connor: “You will know the truth and the truth will make you odd.” Or this old Russian Proverb: “It’s better to be slapped by the truth than kissed by a lie.”

The truth can hurt. It can make us stand out when we stand up for it. The truth can be suppressed or silenced. And in some societies, to speak the truth is cause for Revolution.

Whatever the case, Jesus tied the truth to freedom – a freedom that cast out all fear.

When was the last time you heard someone say a word of truth that her very life depended on? A word of truth that he would “go to the wall” for? What word of truth will you be called on to speak this week?

On this Reformation Day, we sang an anthem written by Martin Luther: A mighty fortress is our God. And I hope you heard that word of truth running through that last verse, especially. See how he staked his very life on it?

“Were they to take our house,
goods, honor, child or spouse.
Though life be wrenched away,
they cannot win the day.
The kingdom’s ours forever!”

Yes, the truth will set you free. But it will also make you odd – make you stand up and stand out – it will cause you to give and to live generously – the truth will lead you where you don’t want to go sometimes – and you will meet people you didn’t want to know. And through it all, God is reforming us still. Re-shaping the church. Re-forming our souls from the inside out. Telling us the truth about ourselves and each other.

And the good news is that we find our freedom in this truth. As we ‘Awaken the Faith’ among us and ‘Become Children of the Light’ we are being set free. Free to protest where racial injustices still threaten to divide. Free to hear the truth about ourselves and reform the way in which we live. Free to offer help to victims of natural disasters or simply a neighbor in need. Free to fill out a pledge card and support financially the 2016 mission at First Lutheran Church. Free to extend a true welcome to the stranger among us – even if they are truly strange, odd, and different.

Stand up and speak the truth this week, even if it makes you odd or mad and embrace the freedom we have in Christ Jesus. Amen.

And may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds together as one in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

On A Pilgrimage

Posted October 26, 2015 by bluejeremiah
Categories: Uncategorized

Whenever I think of Thanksgiving, images of horns of plenty and wandering pilgrims often come to mind. But what, exactly, is a pilgrim? Someone on a pilgrimage is on an important journey with a purpose. Unlike our Muslim neighbors who are required to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, if they are able sometime in their lives, Christians don’t really have anything similar to such a pilgrimage.12776

One example may be found in the Old Testament (Exodus 15-16) where the Jews wandered in the wilderness for forty years before coming to The Promised Land. It was a time of uncertainty. The Lord had delivered them from bondage in Egypt and given them Moses, Aaron and Joshua to lead them on to freedom.

Probably the closest thing we have to it in the New Testament is Jesus’ assurance to the disciples on the night in which he was betrayed: “I go to prepare a place for you, so that where I am you may be also.” It was a place of “many mansions” (John 14:1-6).

So, you might say that we’re all pilgrims on a journey. But, as with any pilgrimage, we soon find that the journey itself matters as much as the destination itself. Unfortunately, too many well-meaning Christians spend all their time focusing on the destination and their own personal salvation that they miss the needs of people right here, right now. In other words, we become so heaven-bound that we’re no earthly good! So, if the journey is just as important as the destination, then how do we plan to get there? Who do we invite along? What will we bring for supplies? What mode of transportation will be most reliable? What is a safe speed?

Years ago, during a staff development session, someone compared the journey to a ‘church van’ in which each person played a vital role in getting us to our destination (see diagram below). So, what role to you play? Where do you see yourself in the ‘church van’ carrying us in mission? Are you the windshield wipers, helping us see better? Are you the shock absorber, easing the way through the potholes? Maybe you’re the GPS keeping us on track or a honking the horn (with encouragement, of course!). How are you contributing gas to make sure we reach our destination? (See separate mailing about our 2016 pledge drive!)

Church Van Assessment ToolI recently received an email from an old friend who is a retired pastor. He shared with me a few words from the “Self-worth Creed” that his church in Milwaukee has adopted. It begins with the words: I am unique, unrepeatable, irreplaceable, and of infinite worth and dignity…” We are all pilgrims, only passing through this land but what we have to contribute is of infinite worth and dignity. How dare we doubt ourselves or belittle others along the way! Each one of you is unrepeatable and irreplaceable. Think about that.

In this season of Thanksgiving and stewardship, I give thanks for each one of you and the vital role you play in keeping us “on the road” and “on our way” in this pilgrimage to our heavenly home. Thank you for playing your part. This journey just wouldn’t be the same without you.

Pastor John

First Lutheran Church ~ Brainerd, MN ~ Official Documents

Posted October 24, 2015 by bluejeremiah
Categories: Uncategorized

Here are a few scanned documents from the vault at First Lutheran Church in Brainerd, MN.

The first is a hand-written “Subscription to build a Swedish Lutheran Church in Brainerd.” It is signed by early supporters of this church:

2013-07-27 16.08.52

The next two are re-prints of our Articles of Incorporation, dated 1930, which is when the name was changed from the “Evangelical Swedish Clara Lutheran Church” to “First Evangelical Lutheran Church.”

2013-07-27 15.59.26

2013-07-27 15.57.59

Swimming In The Deep End

Posted October 19, 2015 by bluejeremiah
Categories: Uncategorized

A sermon from Sunday, October 11th, 2015

Mark 10:17-31

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

01 Aug 2006, Summit, New Jersey, USA --- A woman hangs for a moment under the water in the deep end after coming off the water slide at the Summit Community Pool, in Summit New Jersey. --- Image by © Tony Kurdzuk/Star Ledger/Corbis

01 Aug 2006, Summit, New Jersey, USA — A woman hangs for a moment under the water in the deep end after coming off the water slide at the Summit Community Pool, in Summit New Jersey. — Image by © Tony Kurdzuk/Star Ledger/Corbis

Pent20 / First Lutheran Church / 10-11-15 / John Stiles

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God, our First Love, in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say Come! Amen.

Can you swim? My dad was the one who first got me into the water. I still remember that first swimming lesson and how much I hated it! It was terrifying! We were at the Thunderbird Hotel, which is down by the Mall of America in Bloomington. At first, he’d scoop me up, hold on tight, then jump into the shallow end. I got water in my eyes and up my nose… and coughed up a storm. But I never let go… and neither did he. He’d just laugh and swim around a bit with me clinging to his neck. But then I soon learned that there was something called “the deep end!” And you, for sure, didn’t go there without a grown up. And should we swim over there now? Dad asked. Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait! It’s a scary thing, learning how to swim. Because, at some point, we all need to learn to let go, lean back, and to trust that the water will hold us. Until we can do that, we’ll never learn how to swim.

In our 2nd lesson, from Hebrews, we hear about letting go when we listen to God’s Word. Here, God’s Word is a two-edged sword… which lays bare our souls… so, what have we got to lose? God knows us all the way down to our bare naked selves. Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness.

I don’t know about you, but when my soul has been laid bare, the last thing I’d feel like doing is approaching some throne with boldness! Are you kidding me? It’s embarrassing! I’m not the person I know God wants me to be. Me, in my selfishness and when I do not notice the needs of even those dearest to me? I expect something more like, “Hang your head when you approach that throne of grace, and maybe – just maybe – the Lord will cut you a little slack!”

Singer, songwriter, Jason Gray wrote a song about this called “The Cut” He sang:

You peel back the bark
And tear me apart
To get to the heart
Of what matters the most
I’m cold and I’m scared
As your love lays me bare
But in the shaping of my soul
The cut makes me whole.

Remember the words of Psalm 139? “O Lord, you have searched me and known me… you knit me together in my mother’s womb… where can flee from your presence?” God is always there. The Hebrew word for “you have searched me” may also be translated “you have probed me.” Like some cosmic forensic CSI expert, God probes each one of us, knowing us intimately, having peeled back the layers, to get us down to what matters most (which can be both comforting and unsettling).

That, I believe, is how Jesus looked upon this wealthy man in our Gospel lesson today. He knew what was most important in his heart-of-hearts. Yes, money is important – we can’t dismiss that Jesus makes a claim on it – and calls for a redistribution in favor of the poor; but there is also the following to which he calls us – the desire to know this young man.

Notice how, in other places (like Luke 19), Zaccheaus is commended for only giving half of his possessions to the poor. And Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house.” When the early church began (according to Acts 4) the believers sold their homes and laid the proceeds at the feet of the disciples (something which never occurred again, as far as we know, in the Bible). So which is it? Give half away or give it all away?

Maybe salvation has more to do with faith and learning to float in God’s grace and swim in service to others – instead of focusing on all our possessions.

So, what’s keeping you from swimming out into the deep end today?  Or, maybe you’re already there and at your wits end just trying to stay afloat!  I hope you hear the loving tone in Jesus’ voice this morning. The rich young man went away sad because he had many possessions. But Jesus had looked on him with love and said to him, “You lack one thing. Go and sell all that you have and give the money to the poor and follow me.” In other words: Let’s go to the deep end, where you can’t touch bottom. I’ve got you in this and I’m not letting go.

Noted author and speaker, Brennan Manning has said that heaven will be like this: “When you get to heaven Jesus isn’t going to ask if you found the cure for cancer or brought about world peace… he’s only going to ask one question: ‘Did you believe that I loved you?’”

I suppose the rich young man was used to getting his way, if he was so wealthy. And yet, he was a good man – one who had followed the Ten Commandments since he was a child. But he asks Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Think of the logic of that question for a moment. Can anyone do anything to inherit something? No. Someone in your family has to die first. Right? Then you, being next of kin, receive the inheritance.

If it’s up to us to follow every commandment to the letter of the law… we’ll be spending a lot of energy pushing camels through the eyes of needles! And so, hear the good news again: It’s the love of Jesus that saves us. The text clearly says, “Jesus looked at him with love.”

But still he went away sad. He just couldn’t see it, drowning in a sea of riches. Today, there are people who still just don’t see it. They’re drowning in the deep end of sorrows – stuck in a place in which there seems to be no way out. Lost in the grip of depression and despair.

I don’t know why Aggie Ohman had a stroke this week and has now lost control of her whole left side of the body. On top of losing her eyesight, and having to move away to live closer to her children, and falling and breaking her hip last month – now this! How long can anyone keep treading water in the deep end? So, we swim out.  And her Lord swims alongside for awhile, and offers encouragement and a blessed assurance.

I don’t know why 13-year-old Vienna Peterson hanged herself last week at a sporting event here in Brainerd. But clearly, she could no longer hold on. So we swim out, and Jesus swims out along side us in those times.  My heart breaks for this teen and her family. For anyone out there who is struggling in the deep end, please know that there are people out there, right alongside you, who care. I’m one of them. I don’t pretend to have an answer – I’m not even the best swimmer – but I will be a lifeline.

We don’t even know why this rich young man threw himself at Jesus’ feet – only that he believed Jesus could help him. He swam out along side him with the assurance: You are not alone.

In his book “Messy Spirituality” Mike Yaconelli writes: “It is so bizarre, because I know Christ loves me, but I’m not sure he likes me, and I continually worry that God’s love will simply wear out… [In Romans, chapter 8] Paul uses lots of religious words, but the bottom line is we are all stuck with God’s love whether we want to be or not. The words ‘nor anything else in all creation’ mean that nothing can stop God from loving us. Nothing. He just keeps loving us. In modern language, you could say, ‘Neither failure nor poor church attendance, nor inadequate Bible reading and prayer, nor betrayal, denial, doubt, insecurity, guilt, weakness, bad theology, or even losing our temper can separate us from the love of God.’ He loves us when we don’t want him to love us. He loves us when we don’t act like Christians. He loves us when our lives are a mess.” (from Mike Yaconelli’s Messy Spirituality, p. 123f)

I wish we could all hear this – that we are loved beyond anything we could ever do to separate us from God.

It’s what every child needs to hear: this promise from the deep end of life.
It’s what every refugee or oppressed person needs to hear: this promise of a welcome that will not wear out.
It’s what every wealthy person must hear: this promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. “Looking at him, he loved him.”

What can we do to inherit eternal life? Follow me, says Jesus. Become a child of God. In a world in which we expect “hoops” to jump through – and ladders to climb, we are simply handed the mercy and love of Jesus – this scandalous free gift, which can only move us to tears of deep gratitude. Pure, undeserved salvation! Or, in the case of the wealthy, it may send us away sad, with a lot to think about.

This stewardship season, we are asking you to consider giving a percentage of your income to the work of God through the General Fund at First Lutheran Church – and to invite you to grow in your giving as a spiritual discipline. You should be receiving a pledge card in the mail about this. And, from our gospel reading today, we clearly see how our relationship with money has a lot to do with faith.

Simply put, when we receive the morning offering, toward the General Fund, it becomes the fuel for all the ministries you see each week (and many that you don’t see). Beyond the obvious expenses for maintaining a building and utilities, there are staff to pay and ministries to support – to ensure that the table may be set for Holy Communion – and that a young person will have a visit in the hospital from our youth director – and that preschooler will be kindergarten ready, and know that Jesus Loves Them, by the time they graduate from the Learning Tree – and that a homebound person who can no longer attend worship will be visited by the pastor – and those hymns will be carefully chosen by the organist – and that choir will have a director to rehearse the cantata with – and the books will be balanced – and statements will go out – records will be kept – and the building will be clean. Truly there is a lot to think about, as we consider our giving this year: both in time and treasure. And, each year, we rely on you, the people of First Lutheran Church, to make sure we don’t ‘run out of gas’ on the journey.

That’s where I’ll end this morning: with where this gospel lesson started out: with a simple phrase: “Jesus was preparing to go on a journey.” Don’t you want to go with him? Don’t you want to go swimming today? To hear Jesus say, “I’ve got you. And I’m not letting go.” Together, let’s learn to trust Jesus – and in each other – to lean back and float in the love of this one, through whom all things are possible. Let us pray:

O God, without you we are lost at sea, drowning in the deep end. Ease us back into the waters of your love – that healing and redeeming water of baptism – so that we may learn to float all over again – and swim out into the deep end in service to you and one another. Amen.


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