Monthly Archives: January 2014

We’re Not in Jerusalem Any More (3 Epiphany: Jan 26, 2014)

Matthew 4:12-23

Normally when this text comes up, we talk about Simon and Andrew, James and John, and Jesus calling them away from their nets to fish for people. That’s almost always how I’ve preached on this text. But if that’s all we hear, we overlook some other pieces of text — parts that may not be as obvious but are also important and just as relevant.

Look at the first two verses of this text. “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum”.

At first glance, we may well ask, “So what?” What’s that  about? He heard John the Baptist had been arrested, so he moved. Why does that matter, and what does it have to do with us?

Actually, a lot more than you might think.

In this text, Jesus has just been baptized and tempted in the wilderness. This move to Capernaum is, in fact, his first act as the announced “Son of God.” And so, in this gospel, moving the 30 miles from Nazareth in Judea to Capernaum in Galilee makes a major statement about the nature of Jesus’ ministry. Here are some things that would catch people’s attention when they heard that:

  • Capernaum was in the region of Galilee, which was about as far from Jerusalem as you could get in Israel — way on the north end. Away from the political power, away from the religious center. It was largely ignored by the rulers and the priests. Like what we might refer to as an east-coast bias.
  • Galilee was surrounded by Gentiles and pagans. Phoenicians on the west. Syrians on the northeast, Samaritans on the south, and the sea of Galilee on the southeast. No good God-fearing people anywhere nearby. Kind of irreligious.
  • Unlike Jerusalem and other cities in Judea, Capernaum was a crossroads for major foreign trade. It had been invaded and conquered over and over. New people, new ideas, new ways of thinking, new cultures were constantly being introduced. Foreigners had flowed in and and sometimes even took over. If there was anything weird going on in Israel, it probably started somewhere in Galilee. So if recreational marijuana had become legalized, Capernaum probably would have been first.
  • Galilee was Jewish, but it was a forced Judaism. It had been in all kinds of different Gentile hands for about 600 years, but in a previous war the Jews had revolted and all the residents had been circumcised at “gunpoint.” So their loyalty to the established religion in Jerusalem had always been questionable.

So think about that. To bring God’s vision, Jesus moved from his hometown, not to the religious center of Jerusalem that everyone knew, but to a place completely different and largely ignored by the religious people. A place surrounded by people who didn’t know God, a place whose culture had changed significantly over the generations, and a place of largely independent people.

Does that sound familiar? Jesus didn’t move to the Vatican, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, or ELCA headquarters in Chicago. He moved to Denver! God’s vision he was bringing wasn’t like anything the religious people knew. He chose not to make this vision fit where the Jews used to be. He chose to make it fit where non-religious people lived at the time.

This is my biggest problem with Lutheranism in the United States: we have a history of making our faith fit where we used to be instead of where we live at the time. We’re always looking back to Jerusalem instead of revealing God’s vision right here and right now. As Lutherans, we’ve always preferred Jerusalem to Capernaum.

Lutheran in the U.S. were European immigrants who kept their homeland languages and customs (where they used to be) so were looked on with suspicion.

Lutheran missionaries from the U.S. taught their European-rooted values and doctrines (where they used to be), so it never took root in our neighboring countries.

Even now, the centers of Lutheranism in the U.S., 400 years later, are still largely where those European Lutherans settled — and Lutherans are still trying to duplicate the Midwest Lutheran culture (where they used to be). Garrison Keillor is entertainment, not the model. This isn’t Jerusalem. It’s not Minneapolis. It’s not Dallas (or wherever the heart of the so-called Bible belt is). This is Denver. This is Capernaum. Lutheranism had better look different here. Jesus is making clear that context means everything. Many of us remember Jerusalem, but we live in Capernaum.

The surrounding context here is moving further away from where many of us came from in our faith lives. This culture aroound us doesn’t automatically value what the church values. They question, they doubt, they are very slow to commit. For them, the way the church has been sharing Jesus is a negative thing, and something they simply have no use for. They are savvy, techy, impatient, self-proclaimed authorities on anything thanks to the internet. They balk at authority and hierarchy, despise rules for their own sake, and therefore make up their own. And any rules they come up with are different than the church rules in Jerusalem where most of us came from. They can smell inauthenticity a mile away, long to make a difference, but don’t see the church as a way to do it. They aren’t from Jerusalem. They are from Capernaum. And our message and ministry better fit there. Because as a church, we are here for their sake.

So as we continue to understand the changing culture and context in which we live, our very core Lutheran identity, including the Theology of the Cross, the Priesthood of All Believers, and the Paradox of Being Both Saint and Sinner will look different than it did even 5-10 years ago. The gospel and the Jesus we proclaim don’t change. But the way we proclaim this has, and it will.

That’s hard for those of us who expect the church to be understood in Jerusalem, where we used to be. But as Jesus makes clear as he makes his home in Capernaum, that’s where we, as church, need to be understood.

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Posted by on January 28, 2014 in Sermon


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And the Story Goes On . . . (2 Epiphany A — Jan. 19, 2014)

2 Epiphany — A

Isaiah 49:1-7

 I have a nephew who has had some difficulty finding his way in life. He’s talented, intelligent, and charismatic; a lot of fun to be around. But he just couldn’t find anything he could grab hold of–nothing that would stick. He tried everything from graphic art for computer games to phlebotomy (drawing blood for medical testing), with lots of odd jobs along the way. But nothing that got his juices flowing. Nothing that he could own as his purpose.

He dropped in and out of school for a decade, just not finding anything that was significant enough to hold him. He drifted from one job to another, from one relationship to another.

It was a crisis for him.

Because he was good at drawing blood from difficult veins, he was asked one day to go as part of an ambulance team to the scene of an highway accident, just in case. He agreed to go this one time, and suddenly, it was as if life opened up for him! As he tagged along with the paramedics and ambulance crew, he knew he had found his passion. The lights in his life suddenly turned on and he had a focus, a direction, a purpose.

He now wanted, more than anything he had ever wanted before, to become a paramedic.

Almost 600 years before Jesus was born, the nation of Judah and a remnant from Israel were taken captive. They were led from their homes and their ancestral land — promised to them by God — and held prisoner in a foreign land by pagan people.

For decades they cried out to God for help. For decades they wondered what was to become of them. Had God abandoned them? Had God revoked God’s promises to them? Was this a punishment for something they had done wrong? Where was God? Would they ever see their homes again?

This was a crisis for them.

After so long a time that few of the Israelites even remembered what their homeland even looked like, a new king came into power in this foreign land. And with this new king all the Israelites who had been help captive for for all those years were set free to return home.

Finally, after 50 years of captivity, their hope was renewed; they were returning home.

Feeling lost and abandoned happens to all of us. Hopes get dashed, dreams are trampled, and we are powerless to do anything about it. We can feel lost, alone, helpless.

That can happen anytime there’s a major change in our lives. Anytime there’s a significant loss: in our family, in our identity, in our church. It can be a crisis for us.

All we want is to feel normal again. To be restored, to get through this. To have a glimmer of hope again.

My nephew, with new motivation, went back to school one more time. The crisis of what to do with his life was over. He had a long and difficult road ahead of him, but that was OK. At least he had hope for the future.

He worked full time and went to school full time. He studied, lived very simply, he made whatever sacrifice was necessary to get certified as a paramedic.

Finally, after several years of sacrifice, he was awarded a Bachelor’s degree, completed all his training, and was given the opportunity for his dream. He became a certified paramedic. Crisis averted. That should end the story. However…

The people of Israel, with new motivation, went back to Jerusalem and their homes. The crisis of faith and trusting God was over. They had a long and difficult road ahead of them, but that was OK. At least they had hope for the future.

They worked hard to rebuild their fallen city. They constantly had to fend off invaders who sought to take advantage of their vulnerable situation. They made whatever sacrifice was necessary to restore their homes.

Finally, after years of sacrifice, they had rebuilt the city walls, the temple, and their homes. A dream come true. Crisis averted. That should end the story. However…


Each of us has come through a crisis, moved forward with new motivation, and reclaimed some hope. We’ve come through difficulties, dreamed new dreams, and made the necessary sacrifices in our lives. We’ve survived our grief, we’ve discovered new gifts, we’ve fought off a budget shortfall. Crisis averted. That should end the story. However…

My nephew became certified as a paramedic. Now what? The story continues with him getting a job in Las Vegas. It continues with every comforting word he speaks to a frightened person, every injury he treats, every life he saves. It turns out, the story wasn’t about him at all. It was about God’s bigger story of saving the whole world. And my nephew’s story is now part of that.

The exiles returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt their homes. Now what? The prophet Isaiah in this text today tells them that wasn’t the end of the story at all. The story continues with God gathering them back to move them forward with God’s purpose: the salvation of the world. Though they lived through the crisis of exile, God says to them, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to . . . restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” It turns out, the story wasn’t about them at all. It was about God’s bigger story of saving the whole world. And Israel’s story is now part of that.

We’ve dealt with our loss, adapted to a new normal, survived as a congregation. Now what? For LCM, our membership gains, our revenue as a church, our preferred worship styles, even thriving as a congregation aren’t the end of the story at all. The story continues with God’s mission and our purpose in that. It continues with every act of mercy, every expression of compassion, every attempt at forgiveness in the world. It turns out, the story isn’t about us at all. It is about God’s bigger story of saving the whole world. And now our story is part of that.

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Posted by on January 21, 2014 in Sermon


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Jesus is in Our Junk Rooms (Christmas 2, January 5, 2013)

2nd Christmas—A

Jeremiah 31:7-14; John 1:1-5, 9-18

You know that room in your home where, when you have people coming over, you stuff everything in it and close the door? We all have that room that we hope no one ever sees.

And we all have those parts of our lives that we hope no one ever sees. The place where all our personal junk is stored. The part of us that we never let the public see.

Yet it is to these parts of our lives, these parts of our world, that Jesus has come. And the gospel writer John makes it clear. Jesus is in our junk rooms.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that the Gospel of John is not my favorite. So much of his gospel strikes me as imagery and spirituality detached from practicality. He can come across to me as so heavenly minded that he is no earthly good.

Except here. In the first chapter, John’s description of Jesus is real life, concrete, earthy, dirty, flesh and bones. John goes out of his way to make the point that this eternal, spiritual, heavenly God is as real; as human; as blood pumping, air breathing, bodily functioning present as any of us. The Word of God–that which existed before time began–now has become one of us. The Word of God–responsible for the creation of everything that exists–has taken on the same flesh and blood is us. God is present with us not just spiritual, ethereal way, but physically, tangibly as well. God is now incarnate–in the flesh.

This is desperately important to John to make clear, right away. God enters the world we know. God is present in the world we touch and feel. God comes into the reality of our blood, our pain, our confusion, our doubts, our fears, our work, our money, our family. God enters in, not just symbolically or floating around the edges where we can invite God when convenient, but fully into the mess and the joy, the shame and the triumph of every day. Jesus is in our junk rooms.

In Jesus, God has entered into everything–good and bad, spiritual and physical, believing it unbelieving, Christian and non-Christian. Like it or not, wanted or not, recognize it or not. God is in the midst of your life–every tiny part of it. Holy and unholy, secret and public. The Word has come among us.

That’s why John writes of the presence of Christ as “the true light which enlightens everyone.” I don’t know about you, there are segments of my life I prefer not to have God present in–not to have a light shined on. Parts of my past I’d like to pretend never happened; some of the ways I use money (or don’t) I’d like God not to mess with; some of my attitudes and ways of dealing with people I’d prefer God just respectfully keep a divine nose out of.

But John makes clear that this is not who God is or how God works. God’s light comes into the world, into my world, and it shines on everything. God is now present in everything; because it is the intention and purpose of God incarnate to make everything and everyone holy. Flesh and blood, bread and wine, water and word, sacred and secular, all of it is being redeemed, saved, enlightened, made holy. All of it. All of us. Even our junk rooms.

We cannot stop God. God didn’t enter the world because we invited God to do so. God just came. The Word just became flesh. Jesus is just present. The God who created us is just grabbing hold of us, shining a divine light on us, and making us holy. God opens our past, messes with our relationships, laughs at our plans, touches our finances, inspires our creativity, gathers us in community, forgives our selfishness, makes whole our brokenness, and loves us deeply all the while. We know this because God has become flesh, and this God incarnate has revealed this to us about God. In John’s words, “it is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

God has come. The Word is made flesh. Jesus is present with us. The manger is in our lives. And we can’t help but be changed by that. Jesus is in our junk rooms. We are becoming different people–new people. And that’s good news: for us and for our world.

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Posted by on January 12, 2014 in Sermon


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Signs of Light (Advent 4)

Isaiah 7:10-16

Just a quick check-in on the context of this part of Isaiah. Sitting in the capital city of Jerusalem, Ahaz, the King of Judah, has just found out that two of his enemies have formed an alliance in order to destroy him.
God tells Isaiah the prophet to go talk to the king and give him a message from God to reassure him. Stay faithful, trust God, and all will be well. Ahaz isn’t so sure, so in our text this morning, God speaks to Ahaz and tells the king ask for any sign that would convince him of God’s presence and faithfulness. Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign.
So, what do you think? Is it a good idea or a bad one that the King of Judah, Ahaz, refuses a sign from God? On the one hand, Jesus himself says, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” On the other hand, God is the one making the offer. . .

What would you do? . . .

What would be a legitimate sign from God for you? . . .

In Isaiah 7, the sign given to Ahaz (even though he says he doesn’t want one) is that a young woman will get pregnant. That doesn’t seem to be very strong; we’re talking about invading armies forming coalitions against Jerusalem, and the sign not to worry is a young woman getting pregnant? Really?

There’s a little more to it: the baby she’ll give birth to will be a boy, and she’ll name him “Immanuel,” or, God with us. And by the time he’s eating solid food, these two kings won’t be a threat any more.

Now, what do you do with that?

Would that be sufficient for you?

Should he trust that this is a sign from God, or shouldn’t he?

In the gospel of Matthew this text is re-translated to talk about the birth of Jesus as the sign of God’s presence and faithfulness. In that gospel no one believes it except Mary, Joseph, and three foreign atheists.

The signs given here seem to be things most people wouldn’t consider to be signs. Easily overlooked. Almost normal if you didn’t know better. A young woman is pregnant, gives birth to a boy, names him, and within a couple of years he’s eating solid food.

And yet, we take it as a sign. Through this we trust that God is present in the world. God is faithful – not only to Ahaz, but even to us. And more than that, our purpose now is to BE signs of God’s presence for the rest of the world.

I think we spend too much time trying to convince people about the signs of God’s presence instead of being signs of God’s presence.

What we know from this text in Isaiah, and in Matthew’s interpretation of it, is that signs of God’s presence aren’t necessarily neon signs in the sky. They’re not always big and grand and convincing. They can just as easily –and much more frequently – be simple, normal, overlooked – but still visible.

When you volunteer at The Action Center or are involved in a build for Habitat for Humanity, you’re a sign of God’s presence.

When you donate money to World Hunger, bring food for Molholm Elementary, drop off toys for the Christmas Cheer project, you’re a sign of God’s presence.

When you are kind to someone who doesn’t deserve it, when you show compassion to someone who may take advantage of it, you’re a sign of God’s presence.

When you write your congressperson to support legislation benefiting the poor, you’re a sign of God’s presence.

When you trust the gift of forgiveness you’ve received enough to give it away, you’re a sign of God’s presence.

When you combine our small, what sometimes feels like insignificant signs, it becomes a beacon of light for the world. God is here. You are loved. You do matter. There is hope.

God is present. God is faithful. We are now among the Advent signs for the world.

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Posted by on January 12, 2014 in Sermon


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