Tag Archives: sermon

For That Time When the World’s a Hot Mess

I usually don’t post my sermons on this blog, but we had this thing happen in northern Door County on Saturday. Snow. Quite a bit of it. And by Sunday morning, not too many people had dug themselves out, so we had a pretty small attendance in church on Sunday. So, this is mostly for the benefit of Shepherd of the Bay folks who may have missed the Sunday service. Here it is: a sermon based on the first lesson for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Isaiah 40:21-3. And remember, this approximates, but does not duplicate what was preached. Sermons are for hearing, not so much for reading. 

It’s a hot mess out there. Every week we’re subjected to more drama in Washington, and it’s having consequences. I don’t that to be a partisan statement or a criticism of any one person or a particular party’s politics. It seems to me, there’s enough dysfunction to go around. Some days its exhausting, and some days its simply overwhelming. It’s a hot mess out there.

In the middle of a hot mess, it’s good for us to hear these words from Isaiah. We listen in on words from the prophet Isaiah who is speaking to the Israelites who are in exile. When we listen in, it has been a generation already since they were conquered by the Babylonians and had been forcibly moved from Jerusalem to Babylon. In this section of the book of Isiaiah, the prophet proclaims over and over again that the Judeans who have been living so far from home for so long are about to be released and allowed to return home. But this isn’t just the prophet whistling his pipe dreams. There is strong theological foundation for his proclamation. The prophet’s confidence is in the power and the gracious will of God.

First, a little set-up. I want to take you back to the first part of the chapter, the part we didn’t read this morning.  You would find the words that we read back in December as we were awaiting the birth of Jesus, “Comfort, comfort, my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her exile is over.” That’s a pretty good clue that the prophet intends these words we hear this morning as words of comfort and strength.

The part we did read this morning is a section dominated by rhetorical questions. You know rhetorical questions, right? The kind my mother used to ask when she was irritated with me.. “Jimmy, do you think that trash is to take itself out?” “Jimmy, do you think that bed is going to make itself?” “Jimmy, do you think someone else is going to do your homework for you?” Rhetorical questions make assertions by assuming answers and they lay foundations for the responses that follow. When someone asks a rhetorical question, they’re not really asking a question; they’re making a statement. You’re supposed to know the answer to the question.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?” What the exiled Israelites should have known but have apparently forgotten is that the one who sits above the circle of the earth — namely, Yahweh, the God of Israel, their God, the God of the covenant — is also the one who brings down princes and rulers. In other words Yahweh, the God of Israel, their God, the God of the covenant, is ruler over history. God is the one who is in charge, even when it looks like the world is a hot mess. And believe me, when the Judeans were in Babylon under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar, they were not feeling like Yahweh was in control. Their world was a hot mess.

There’s more. “To whom will you compare me? Who is my equal?” And of course, the answer is that there is no equal. And if you want some evidence, the look around you, the prophet says. Look at the heavens, the stars, and sun and moon. Look at the extraordinary moonrise last Wednesday evening, the convergence of the blue moon and the supermoon. Look at the extraordinary diversity and beauty of the flora and fauna of Door County. Look at the intersection of land and water where we live. And know that the one who has created it all knows the name of each star, of each plant, of each animal. Don’t you think the one who knows each star cares more deeply and lovingly for each of you? (That’s a rhetorical question and you’re supposed to know the answer!)

The third section of today’s reading begins with an actual question — not a rhetorical question, but an actual question that communicates Israel’s sense that they have been abandoned by God. The have believed that God is absent from their lives and from the hot mess in the world. Again, it seems to me that the notion that God was absent from their lives was a perfectly logical for the exiled people of God. So, the people ask, is God unaware of what’s going on? Why is God ignoring the cause of the righteous? Why does it seem like evil is winning and there are so few voices for justice and righteousness anymore? 

Here’s where the voice of God sounds most powerful and most gracious as the prophet repeats the rhetorical questions from the very beginning of our reading. “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” And in what follows, the assertions move from the cosmic to the personal. Listen, dear people of God. The assertions move from the cosmic to the personal. God, our God, is the everlasting God, the creator of the whole earth who never tires and whose understanding is beyond human comprehension. That same one gives power to the faint, to those who are weary and fearful. God gives strength to the powerless, to the ones who look at the hot mess and think there’s nothing that can be done and that there’s no hope. Listen:  “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” 

What images of comfort and strength and hope! Think of the image of an eagle soaring, gliding effortlessly on the breezes. The promise of walking back home from Babylon to Jerusalem and never growing tired. Of moving on and on and on through whatever the journey brings, full of confidence and strength and hope. That’s the image of the journey of faith for those who wait for the Lord. To wait for the Lord is to have confidence, faith, trust. To wait for the Lord is to commit yourself to God in hopeful expectation. To wait for the Lord is to know that despite what you see going on around you, the God who has redeemed you, the God who went to the cross to give you life, the God who has called you his own in the waters of baptism, the God who every week calls you to this table to receive strength and nourishment for the journey, that God, our God is in charge. To wait for the Lord is to acknowledge that we don’t see what’s going on in the mind of God, nor are we fully aware of God’s plan for the princes and rulers and nations of this world. To wait for the Lord is to confess again that we walk by faith and not by sight. The one who calls you to freedom is the God who created all things, who calls out the stars, whose strength knows no limits, and who gives that strength to the faint and the powerless, to us. God gives those who wait for God the power to fly. 

I guess that’s why this weekly gathering is so important to me. It’s easy to get bogged down in whatever is going on around us. Over the past few weeks, I’ve learned about the burdens that many of you are facing, that go beyond the hot mess of our national life. So, we come. We hear the Word and we sing; we pray. We remind each other that God is faithful and that God is in charge. We remember our baptism, our new life that springs from Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we come to the table for this taste of manna, bread for the journey, nourishment for whatever we face. Have you not known? the prophet asks. Have you not heard? Of course we have.

Wrestling in the Night, Blessing in the Morning


Today would have been the 8 month birthday of our granddaughter, Eliana. (Happy Birthday, Precious Little One!) She was born on February 17, 2016 and died 6 months ago yesterday, on April 16. In one of those not infrequent coincidences, the first lesson appointed for yesterday told the story of Jacob’s wrestling with God (Genesis 32:22-32). It’s a mysterious story, and one that has received a broad range of interpretations through the  centuries, both in Judaism and Christianity. As I taught through the lesson at two of our bible classes this past week, it touched me deeply and resonated with the wrestling I’ve gone through in the past year.  In yesterday’s sermon, my own story provided the launch point for thinking and talking about an elusive God, about questions that remain unanswered and griefs that remain unresolved, and the God revealed in Jesus. The reference to a parable of Jesus near the end is from the gospel lesson appointed for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 18:1-8.  You can also listen to the sermon on Faith’s YouTube channel .

Today marks the 6 month anniversary of the death of our granddaughter, Eliana. She was born on February 17 of this year with a genetic skin disorder called epidermolysis bullosa. Aside from the extraordinary pain that was a constant in her life, she was prone to infection. Her 3rd encounter with infection ravaged her little body and she could not overcome it. On April 16, she died. In these 6 months, I have been Jacob, wrestling with God in the darkness. Some of my fundamental assumptions about faith and about how God works in the world and in peoples’ lives have been called into question. There have been times when I didn’t want to pray, when I couldn’t pray. There have been times when I have wondered even about prayer itself, wondering if prayer works or what, exactly, it is. For all of my struggles and wrestling, I don’t feel like I know very much more now than I did in those first raw days after her death.

In our first lesson this morning, Jacob the conniver becomes Jacob who wrestles with God. The Conniver is going back home. Jacob is the one who decades earlier tricked his way into his brother Esau’s birthright, stealing it outright. Jacob posed as his brother and their aging, nearly blind father fell for the trick. To escape the wrath and vengeance of his brother Jacob left home. Life in a faraway land had been good to Jacob. He had become a wealthy man. But he yearned for home. He prayed for safe travels and he prayed that his brother might receive him in love. But frankly he was worried. Now just before the crucial time when he was to meet his brother Esau, he sent his large family and his servants and his cattle and his sheep and his goats and his donkeys across the River Jabbok onto his brother’s land. And he stayed one more night on the far side of the river. He will meet his brother tomorrow; tonight he must wrestle with God.

This image of Jacob wresting with God gives us a different picture of God. This God is an elusive God, one who comes in the dark of the night and will not let himself be fully known. This God throws Jacob to the ground and holds Jacob’s arm behind his back and puts him in a headlock. This God will not let Jacob get to tomorrow without a struggle. When morning comes and the wrestling is over, Jacob walks with a limp. His hip joint was injured in one of those moments when God threw him to the ground. His encounter with God left a mark.

In my own struggles of the past 6 months, I have never believed like God was not present. But I have felt more acutely the things I cannot know about God. I realize that what I thought I knew about God and about how God works in the world is clouded in ambiguity and mystery. My mind has been changed. My heart has changed. And my faith has changed. Wrestling with God leaves a mark. In fact, I don’t think we can ever have an encounter with the divine and remain the same. I think God is always with us in the middle of struggle and doubting and questioning and seeking; but that doesn’t imply that we remain unchanged in the encounter. The pain we experience in the hard things of life leave a scar, a limp, an empty space. I was talking with someone this week who is grieving and they said they feel like they need to move on. I don’t know if we move on as much as we just keep walking. Sometimes with a limp. Doing the best we can.

When Jacob and God get to morning, they have wrestled to a draw. God has not defeated Jacob, nor has Jacob overcome God’s divine power. For Jacob, wrestling with God to a draw feels like a win. At least he’s alive; to get to morning after struggling with God all night is saying something. So Jacob asks for a blessing. What I think he was asking for was more of the same — the material blessings of sons and cattle and sheep and goats.

God gives him a blessing, but a blessing of God’s choosing, not of Jacob’s choosing. Instead of more material wealth, God gives Jacob a new life, a new name, a new identity. No longer will he be Jacob; he will be Israel. As the father of a people, he will be given a measure of that divine power and will be instructed to put to use for the good of all. 

At the heart of our own life with God is the new name and new identity that God has given us. You are Christian. You are marked on your forehead with the cross of Christ. Somehow, mysteriously, in the waters of baptism we participate in the life-giving event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Joined to Christ in the baptismal waters, you have a new identity and a new life. That new life is given brand new every day. We wake up in the morning, remember our baptism, make the sign of the cross as a reminder of our new identity, receive the forgiveness of sins. We are given a measure of divine power and instructed to put it to use for the good of all.  It may not always be the blessing we seek, but it is the blessing that gives us life and sustains our life.

Feeling pretty good about this encounter with God, Jacob goes one step further. He wants to know intimately this God with whom he has wrestled. “What’s your name?” Jacob asks. In that question, Jacob wants to bridge the distance between himself and God.  Jacob wants to remove the mystery, Jacob wants all the answers. Just like the couple in the Garden of Eden, Jacob wants to know God on his terms, not on God’s terms. In response to that question, God changes the subject and then turns and walks away. It’s the question that God will not answer.

Though we may wish it be otherwise, God is still God, and we are still creatures. Much of what we would like to know about God and about our place in the world and why things happen and what God is doing about the pain in our own lives and the evil in the world, lies behind the veil. Not every question will be answered. Not every struggle will be resolved. Not every grief will be healed. Not every problem will be solved. Most of the answers to the questions that begin with “Why. . .” will not be answered this side of eternity.  God is still God and we are not. There is still much about God and God’s ways that remains a mystery.

And still somehow we go on. Somehow, still, by God’s grace we trust in God’s goodness. Somehow, in the midst of all we don’t know about God, we do know this about God. That God has come to us in Jesus. What we need to know about God, we know in Jesus. In the God we know in Jesus, there is grace and mercy and peace and hope.

In the gospel lesson, Jesus tells a parable that is supposed to teach his followers to pray always and not lose heart. A widow keeps asking a corrupt judge for justice until he grants her request, just to get rid of her. When we talked about this story in confirmation class on Wednesday, one of the students asked, “Does praying more increase the chances that your prayers will be answered?” I think it’s a pretty logical question, but one that we know from our experience is not true. And I don’t think that’s what Jesus is getting at in this story. I think Jesus knows that things will sometimes be hard. And for whatever reason, the answers we seek are not available to us. The story ends with Jesus asking if he will find faith when he comes back to bring all things to fullness. Maybe that’s a key to living faithfully in the wrestling. To know and to trust that in the midst of things that are hard, things that we cannot fully understand, things which bring pain and sorrow, God is at work, God is good, and God will carry us through.

When daylight had come and Jacob’s combatant had left,  Jacob took a moment for worship. He sang a song, said a prayer, and built an altar to mark the spot where he had wrestled with God. Peniel he called it, literally, the face of God. “I have seen the face of God.” It was time to get across the river, and get on with the business of meeting his brother, and whatever the coming days had in store for him. This morning, we sing a song, say a prayer, come to this altar. And then we go, confident that whatever limp we walk away with, whatever grief or pain we carry, whatever questions and doubts still linger, we have seen the face of God. And we will walk across that River Jabbok facing our own tomorrows in hope, secure in the love of God.

“We Thought We Were in Charge”

dew featherI spent the past three days at the Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University. The Institute is an annual conference that explores the intersection of theology, liturgical practice, and music. I always look forward to the Institute and have been attending since 1992. This year’s theme, Sing a New Song: The Cosmos in Praise and Lament, was of great interest to me. It did not disappoint. Larry Rasmussen, a social ethicist, Mary Louise Bringle, a hymn writer and professor of religious studies, and Ben Stewart, a liturgical theologian informed and challenged us in our vocation to care for the earth in deed and in worship.

I had the honor of preaching at the closing eucharist, a service in which we began to explore how liturgy might form us in our work of creation care. The following is the text of the sermon I preached based on 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 and Mark 4:35-41.

You think you’re in charge until you find out you’re not.

Like when you’ve reserved the bouncy house for the church picnic and encouraged all the families with their kids to show up, and it’s 30 minutes before the picnic is supposed to begin, and when you finally reach someone at Bouncy-Houses R Us, you find out they have delivered and set up said bouncy house at Grace Bible Church instead of Grace Lutheran Church. There is a certain terror attached to that scenario, a certain panic, in the long run not that important, though beads of sweat still break out on my forehead when I tell the story.

You think you’re in charge until you find out you’re not.

Like when you get into the boat with Jesus and you’re the fisherman and it’s your boat and you know how to sail this boat and these are your home waters and you know them like the back of your hand and even though it was Jesus idea to go across the sea, it’s your boat and you are in charge. Until you find out you’re not.

When crisis hits, like a storm on the Sea of Galilee, you discover what was really true all the time, that you are not in charge. The winds begin to blow — hard — the waves become overpowering and begin to swamp the boat. And you, wise, experienced, sailing-savvy fisherman see death staring you in the face, because you know that in this moment, the wind and the sea are in charge, and they hold the power of life and death.

The disciples reach out to Jesus in a panic. Not, I believe, a cry of hope, but overlapping cries of irritation, frustration, and desperation.

The terror-stricken disciples have come face to face with the fact that they are not in charge; by all appearances those life-threatening forces of nature are. And then everything changes. Stuck in the jaws of death, they discover that the one in the boat is more in charge than they know. Waking up from sleep, a simple, commanding word from Jesus calms the winds and the waves.  Jesus is the king of the created order. There’s nothing to fear. He rebukes that which threatens life; his word gives the peace that it calls for.

When it comes to life on this small boat of a planet, a boat increasingly storm-tossed— figuratively and literally — just who is in charge?  For a couple of centuries, we’ve believed and acted as if we are. We’ve been quite impressed with our capacity to harness the unpredictable forces of the natural world and steer them according to our wants and needs. It’s been like grabbing hold of the steering wheel of a great planetary BMW M5, a little crazy at times, but exhilarating, the ultimate driving machine.  This exhilarating drive of economic and technological progress, fueled by an astonishingly rapid burn of fossil fuels has led to a life of ease and convenience for those of us in the room, though not for everyone on the boat, certainly not those of the empty chairs [a reference to Dr. Larry Rasmussen’s plenary session on Tuesday, April 14, at which he placed 3 empty chairs on the podium to represent those impacted by climate change who have no voice, namely, the poor, the creatures, and the earth itself]. Until very recently, we thought it could go on forever.  You think you’re in charge until you find out you’re not.

We have let loose a destructive genie that can no longer be put back in the bottle. We — not just the corporations and governments and systems and other easy punching bags that we like to take our swings at — all of us, thousands upon thousands of us with our thousands upon thousands of daily decisions betray our bowing down at the altars of different gods, gods of consumerism and materialism and convenience, a worship that is killing the planet. In a creation full of life, we have been agents of death, because we thought we were in charge.

We should not be surprised. Holy history has shown us that being in charge is a burden we strive for but cannot bear. When we claim control it leads to nothing but death. Our first parents wanted to be in charge of the Garden and so came the fall and the curse. The Children of Promise wanted to be in charge through the 40-year journey to the Promised Land, repeatedly unwilling to trust God’s provision and repeatedly victims of their own rebellion.  Oh, the tragic and painful truth embedded in the first words carved on the stone tablet: you shall have no other gods.

Those words spoken from the boat changed a precarious situation for the disciples in the boat with Jesus. But only for that moment in time. What changed everything for all time and all eternity, was not a word, but a sorrowful and painful silence.  Not in the stern of that wooden boat, but on the wooden crosspiece of a cruel tree came the silence of the dying one as he breathed his last, and the horrifying silence of abandonment. The silence of his death was the death-knell to death itself. Redemption was accomplished and reconciliation begun in his self-giving love. The empty tomb is the exclamation point to God’s lively intentions for you, for us, and for all creation.

Before this little boat ride, the disciples were students at a hillside seminar on faith, illustrated by a series of folksy stories. Now, after the storm, Jesus asks some penetrating questions about the relationship of their own experience in the boat to faith. Why are you so afraid? Jesus asks. Why do you have so little faith?

Faith is the gift of trust within a properly ordered relationship between Creator and creature. Faith is the gift of knowing that the Creator, the one who has given us life in the Crucified and Risen One is faithful. Not only does that faith cast away the fear that is at the heart of wanting to be in charge, it changes our perspective on and relationship to everything, including our work for the care of the earth. The ones in charge say, “This is a commodity. How can it be used?”  Faith says, “This is a sacred gift. How shall it be cared for?”  Faith issues in eucharistic living, giving thanks for the goodness of the One who has given life, who has given new life, and who now empowers a new way of living. Thankful for this gift of life, we cannot help but be agents of that life for all our creaturely neighbors, even for this holy Mother Earth herself.

Now, let’s be clear; we do not sing a song of progressive optimism that ignores the challenges and say that things will just keep getting better and better. Our song and prayer will often be lament.  Paul had a wide-eyed honesty about the difficulty of his work for the sake of Christ. Persecuted, abused, sorrowful, empty, even dying. Yet, in the midst of that struggle, Paul exudes a confident hopefulness, even joy as he gives his life to his holy work.  The work is hard; it is urgent. But eucharistic living knows no other way; not complacency, apathy, or even resignation to a future that holds only death. Eucharistic living works, loves, and cares, for God’s sake and for the sake of all our neighbors.

Eucharistic living flows from the table to which we will soon be invited. The bread and wine which we will offer is the stuff of the earth. The bread and wine come to us as gift of the Creator.  Shaped by our hands, we offer them for God’s use. By God’s word and promise, we receive this stuff of the earth as the gift of salvation. And then we offer ourselves back to God. It is a properly ordered, grace-filled  relationship — Creator, creature, Christ the Mediator offering himself to us yet again. Then we will go from that table to the table of the world, recognizing in the earthly things a sign and sacrament of a loving Creator. What happens here becomes the pattern for what happens out there, reverently, lovingly, graciously and gratefully receiving the things of earth and offering them back to God.

At Faith Church in Glen Ellyn, as part of our formation for our young brothers and sisters to receive Christ in the Holy Communion, they are asked to reflect on that experience of receiving communion. “What will be different for you now that you will be receiving communion?” they are asked. The question is remarkably similar to the question Fred Niedner asked us at the end of the final plenary session, “What difference will it make that you were at this Institute,” and I might add that you have been in this assembly, at this font and this table? Let me tell you how one of our fifth grade theologians answered that question.  “Now I won’t just be hearing the story, I’ll be in the story.”