Sunday, January 26, 2020

1 Corinthians 1:18-25; The Third Sunday after the Epiphany; January 26, 2020;
Life in Christ Lutheran Church, Grand Marais, MN;
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:18–25, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
In September the church generally celebrates The Festival of the Holy Cross. But maybe it is not exactly what you think. Way back in 326 A.D. Helena mother of Emperor Constantine went on a pilgrimage to the holy land and found what she believed to be fragments from the very cross on which our Savior hung. And while maybe it's a bit interesting, it is doubtful that what she found is what she claimed. Enough shards of the "true cross" have been found to build a whole church. And we don't venerate the cross itself, anyway. We hold the cross dear because of the one who hung upon it. Whether Helena dug out a sliver of that old piece of wood is irrelevant. Whether she even actually found the historic location of Jesus' crucifixion is irrelevant.  It's just like the account from the Old Testament. The children of Israel were saved by God giving Moses the command to hang a snake on a pole and put it up before the people. When they saw the snake on the poll, they were healed of the snakebite and didn't die. The snake and the poll were so highly regarded that later they began to be worshiped by the people. They held the thing to be greater than what God did through it. So would be our temptation to the "true cross" were it to be found in our midst. In fact, as we speak, all those slivers all over the world are given special powers for those who bow before them.
For you and me the cross has its power in the Savior. It's not the cross at all, but the blood shed on the cross. It's not the cross at all, but the life given on the cross. It's not the cross at all, it's Jesus Christ crucified. We hold the cross in high esteem. But it's not the cross at all.
St. Paul makes this very clear in this text. He begins "For the word of the cross…". The word of the cross. He's talking about the Good News of Jesus Christ. God in human flesh; born of a virgin in Bethlehem; walking the roads of Jerusalem; Preaching and teaching and healing; Eating and laughing and crying; Living and dying... on the cross. His life lived in perfect relationship to God the Father. His life lived in perfect relationship to the people around him. The sinless son of God in human flesh. Who willingly offered his life on the cross for the sin debt of the whole world. He suffered the complete punishment of hell for all people. This is the word of the cross.
The word of the cross is foolishness… It doesn't make sense for those who don't see their lives considering God's law. It doesn't make sense for those who don't want there to be a God to whom they are accountable. It doesn't make sense for people who believe that they can please God by offering him their good works. After all that's the way the world works. We do good things, we work hard, we take care of our families, we develop friendships and help other people, and we generally receive rewards. So, in our natural way of thinking, God must work the same way.
The problem is there's nothing we have that God needs. And the deeper problem is there's nothing we do for God that we ultimately don't really do for ourselves. I do things to please God to make God like me. I do good things for other people, while God looks on, so that he will think better of me. I think that I am basically a good person. At least I'm better than you. So what need is there for God to send anyone to die for me. I think that if I set out a scale and put all the good things I do on one side and all the bad things I do on the other, the scale will tip in favor of the good. And God should consider that. He should look at me and say, "he's more good than bad." And even more importantly, I think if you line up all the people of the world from bad to good, I would be lined up more on the good end of the line than on the bad. So, I think, you may need the cross, but not me. It is a self-centered delusion.  For a perfect and holy God nothing short of perfection can be in his presence. Jesus was asked about keeping the law, he answered:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”” (Matthew 22:37b–40, ESV)
And loving God with our "all" and loving our neighbors just as we love ourselves is not within us. There's no line from good to bad. There's no scale where good things I do are weighed against the bad. The determining factor is loving God with "all" we have and loving our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. And our lives are filled with the breaking of these commandments. Our lives are filled with self-centeredness. What we do is put ourselves is the object of our own worship. Even though we try to think of other people, the truth is we make ourselves the center of the universe. We make ourselves, god. And while this is certainly a rejection of the commandments, more importantly it's a rejection of the commandment giver. When we reject God there is nothing left for us but his anger in punishment. Eternal separation, hell is the destination for those who do not keep God's perfect commandments perfectly. That's me. That's you.
Enter… The Holy Cross. The foolishness of The Holy Cross. This is the foolishness that we preach. We preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. We preach that on the cross Jesus is eternally separated from God the Father. We preach that on the cross Jesus suffered hell's punishment. We preach that the sins of the whole world were laid on Jesus on the cross. We preach that the death he died is the death we deserve. To a world that is perishing, it is moronic, foolishness, unnecessary. But for those who see their sin it is the power of God. The power is in faith that Jesus on the cross forgives sin. The power is taking sin to the foot of the cross where Jesus' blood is shed for it. The power is faith that my sin, your sin, is forgiven at the Holy Cross. Faith has its power in two simple words: for you. The Holy Cross is Jesus Christ for you.
We are gathered here today with right before our Strategic Planning Seminar. Together we will look at what God has given us and the possibility of embarking together on a mission. That mission is to serve the world, our country, our state and our community with the Good News of Jesus Christ. It is appropriate that we begin together this journey of mission with the contemplation of the Holy Cross. The Holy Cross, were our Savior bled and died for the forgiveness of our sin, is the whole point. For Christians there is no image more powerful than Jesus Christ dying on the cross. It is the heart and center of all we believe, teach, and confess. It encompasses our faith. It's what binds two Christians together as the body of Christ. It's what binds together into a congregation, with one single purpose, to preach Jesus Christ crucified. Jesus himself said "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." He said this to show us his death on the cross. It is the center point of history. There's nothing more important to proclaim. God has been proclaiming it through faithful preaching here for years. And now it’s maybe time to take a fresh look at our congregation and see what God is calling us to do. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

John 1:43-51; The Second Sunday after Epiphany; January 19, 2020;

John 1:43-51; The Second Sunday after Epiphany; January 19, 2020;
Life in Christ Lutheran Church, Grand Marais, MN;
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”” (John 1:43–51, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Nathanael speaks correctly. “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!” But Jesus wants him to get the big picture. “You will see greater things than these. In fact, you’ll see heaven opened and the angels of God going up and coming down on me.” Jesus isn’t making up new stuff. He’s referring to a dream that was dreamed centuries before. And the disciples knew it well. They were told the story by their parents. They heard it read in the synagogue. It was an important story about their ancestor Jacob.
Jacob stole his brother’s inheritance. He tricked his blind father into thinking that he was his hairy brother Esau by slaughtering a goat and covering himself with it. When their father died, Esau was out for vengeance. Jacob had to flee for his life. While he was running, he stopped to sleep on a mountain. While he slept shivering on a stone for a pillow, God gave him a dream. He promised the land he was on to his family. He promised that his family would be as “many as the dust of the earth”. God had not forsaken him, he would always be with him. In the dream there was a ladder going from the place where he was lying to heaven. And the angels were going up and down. Jacob called the place Bethel, meaning “the House of God”. The temple in Jerusalem was built on that very spot.
Now the disciples knew well what happened at the temple. God came to be with his people. Heaven and earth were joined together. Sacrifices were made to God for the sins of the people. Lambs were slaughtered and the blood was sprinkled on them. Prayers were offered to God. It was an amazing place. The link / ladder for God’s people to be connected to God by his very presence.  
Jesus pulls it all together and makes it about himself. He says his disciples would see heaven opened and the angels going up and down on him. Jesus is claiming to be the link to heaven, the way that people have a connection with God. He’s saying the old dream the disciples grew up with was about him. Nathanael makes a wonderful confession about Jesus. “…you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” It’s correct, but I don’t think he has any idea of what it really means or what Jesus must do to be Jacob’s ladder.
The disciples did see greater things than Jesus miracle of seeing Nathanael under the fig tree. They saw Jesus turn water into wine. They saw Jesus healing a paraplegic. They saw Jesus feed 5000 men with a boy’s lunch, healing a man born blind, and raising Lazarus from the dead. All were greater than seeing Nathanael under the fig tree. And while Jesus may have been talking about these things he was more talking about the one greater / greatest thing he would do. The thing that he, the Son of God, God-in-human-flesh, had come to do. The place where heaven was opened and the ladder between God and man set up, Jacob’s dream fulfilled.
It was right after the Wedding of Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine, that he turned the tables in the temple and chased out the money men. “This is a house of prayer!” he shouted. “This is the place to come to meet God, not a place to buy and sell!” The Jews asked Jesus what right he had to do such things. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” He wasn’t talking about the physical building, he was talking about himself. Jesus replaces the temple. Everything that it was for people, Jesus is. Heaven and earth are joined together. Jesus is God and man joined together in one person. God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and made man. He is the sacrifice made to God for the sins of the people. Suspended between heaven and earth, bound to the cross. Held there not with the nails that pinned his hands and feet but with the purpose he had come to accomplish. He is the Lamb of God slaughtered and the blood poured out for the people. He is the one who prays (still) for his people, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus is the greater thing that brings forgiveness, God sacrificing himself in the place of sinful humans, to satisfy the forever punishment due for sin. Jesus is the amazing place where God and man, heaven and earth, meet.  
It is what St. Paul means when he says in Colossians:
[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:15–20, ESV)
And it is still true. Jesus ascended into heaven to be at God the Father’s right hand, and yet he is not gone. He is still very present in this house of prayer. Jesus is after all God’s Word made flesh come to dwell among us. Here he does it. Jesus off the page written through the Holy Spirit and into your ears to tell you the Good News of your restored relationship to God through forgiveness. Jesus in the water of Holy Baptism, connecting himself, in his death and resurrection, to you. He promises resurrection there, rescue from hell there, forgiveness there. Jesus present in the body and blood that hung suspended between heaven and earth. The body and blood that poured out on the earth and into your mouth, bringing you a connection directly to God through forgiveness.
Jesus tells the disciples and Nathanael that they will see greater things. They do. He tells them
And whoever sees me sees him who sent me.” (John 12:45, ESV)
In Jesus we see God who comes in grace and forgiveness. God who comes to earth to restore our connection to him. God who goes up and down on Jacob’s ladder, from heaven to earth and back again. Making the climb for us. He says it clearly to Nicodemus.
No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:13–18, ESV)
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Matthew 2:1; The Epiphany of Our Lord (observed); January 5, 2020;

Matthew 2:1; The Epiphany of Our Lord (observed); January 5, 2020;
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came…” (Matthew 2:1, ESV)
Life in Christ Lutheran Church, Grand Marais, MN;
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Everything seemed normal in the little stable when the baby was born.  His mother had all the normal birth pangs; his father paced and worried that everything would be all right.  The animals around watched in eager expectation.  The birth of a baby is always as special occasion.  When he was born, he was quickly examined to see that everything was perfect.  At first glance, it all seemed to be, but when he staggered to his feet and began to walk that’s when everybody realized something was different.  They weren’t surprised that he could walk, all reindeer walk moments after they are born, what was surprising was his nose.  It was unexplainable; there on the end of his face, where the hair gives way to the soft skin of his nose, was a light.  It was perfectly formed.  I know that many of you are imagining this light as a bulb screwed into a socket right there where his nose should be, but it wasn’t like that at all.  There between his nostrils, on the flat part of the reindeer’s nose, the skin was, well… transparent.  It was a little like a car’s headlight.  The flat surface of his nose was the lens, underneath, was unexplainable light source, and behind that a very smooth and very shiny surface.  It cast a bright red beam that was brighter than any halogen light that is driving down the highway today.  It was so bright that everywhere the little deer looked heads turned away to protect their eyes.  The animals fled the stable, even though there was a freezing blizzard outside; at least they understood the wind and the snow.  His mother screamed and fainted.  His father broke down and wept. 
You know how the story goes,
“all the other reindeer use to laugh and call him names.
They never let poor Rudolf, join in any reindeer games.” 
He was excluded, different, not part of normal reindeer life.  We can relate to Rudolf.  Remember on the playground?  Lining up to be picked to play a game of ball.  “I’ll take Joe.”  “I’ll take Peggy.”  “I’ll take Dan.”  On and on it goes until everyone is picked, except one.  Neither captain wants to pick him, because well frankly he can’t play.   He is uncoordinated and slow.  Finally, they try strike a deal.  “You take him.” One captain says to the other.  “Ok.”  He agrees, “but you have to give me Dan and Peggy, too.” 
It is a part of human existence to exclude certain groups of people from the ‘normal’.  Our own country’s history is a dark example of racial hatred and exclusion.  Our bloodiest conflict ever was fought, in the shadow of the African American slavery.  Even with slavery abolished, the scares will likely never heal.  Talk to Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, or Polish settlers in Nebraska, their stories are the same.  They were excluded.
I’d like to tell you about Willy.  He was 8 and afraid to go to school because of the protestors.  Whenever he did go, they would stand outside yelling obscenities, and racial slurs.  He didn’t understand why people hated him so much just because of his race.  He had heard of several schools like his had been burned, and the teachers beaten, and that men dressed in white sheets were terrorizing his relatives in town.  Sometimes he was angry with his parents.  “Why did they have to be so different?”  He wondered.  “Why couldn’t they be like other people?  Why did they have to be so . . . German?”  That, of course, was a picture of history in this country during the First World War, when racial prejudice was expressed against Germans, and German Lutherans in particular.  It was at the height of anti-German sentiment that nearly closed parochial schools around the country.  No racial group is immune from exclusion.
God hates racism.  There is no question about this.  Hatred and exclusion based upon a person’s race is outside of God’s desire for this world.  He created man most of all with a capacity for relationships.  First and most important, he created him for a relationship with God, Himself.  Second, he created him for relationships to other people.   Our relationship to God is expressed in Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment… to fear, love and trust God above all things, and then to love our neighbor as ourselves.  When Adam watched Eve pick the fruit, he had decided that they knew better about what was good than God.  He pushed himself away from God, ripping the loving, trusting relationship that was between them.  In an instant destroyed the nature of relationships forever.  Without a proper relationship to God, a proper relationship to others is impossible.  That destruction is the nature of sin, and its power over us.
Over time humans have gotten pretty good at relationship breaking.  Cain killed Able.  Jacob deceived Esau.  Hitler gassed Jews.  Southern Whites beat Blacks.  Every generation is the same, and worse. 
But, before we begin to think that we are immune here isolated on the North Shore, because we live in a ‘protected,’ ‘secluded’ community, we might want to think again. We may not be guilty of gross prejudice, but we are guilty.   No, I’m not saying we are responsible for our ancestor’s wrongs.  We didn’t invoke slavery.  We have enough guilt of our own.  Scan your memory for your thoughts, or words.  Do you look at certain folks who you see around here in the summer and say to yourself you’re glad they don’t live here?  Have you heard or said things like ‘He’s a pretty good worker for a colored person?’  When have you told off color jokes about Jews or homosexuals, and passed them off as nothing?  When was the last time you heard of a racial slur causing pain and separation?  Most times though we here aren’t guilty of racial exclusion, but rather it comes in the form of economic exclusion.  We want the “better” people to be members of the church.  We’d pay much more attention to the doctor visiting the church than the unemployed person.  After all, with all our tight budget…  Well, you understand.  It happens, and it happens right here.
As much as God hates separation, he loves separated people.  The Bible is a love story about how God reaches out with loving, protecting arms to restore his relationship to the world.  His love reaches beyond political, ethnic and economic boarders.  He reaches out to people of all nations and races and classes.  It isn’t that God is colorblind.  He loves people, in all their varying shapes and colors, all their walks of life, both rich and poor, black and white, and even sexual orientation. Please note: I’m not saying God ignores sin.  He just loves them so much that, once in time, he sent his son to be born in a quiet and dark stable.  He became an ethnic human being.  Jesus Christ our Savior was a Jew.
Our text tells us of visitors to the infant Jesus.  They were outsiders, Gentiles. Despised by the Jews.  They were the butt of jokes told in the daily marketplace.  Contact with them caused you to be unclean.  “What are they doing here?” was asked of them.  But they came and gave expensive gifts to the Christ child.  Matthew goes to great lengths in his Gospel, with this account and many others; to assure us that God’s love in Christ is for all people, even the despised and outcast.  He tells us how Jesus love poured out on even the unwanted, hated separated people around him.  He healed them, forgave them and comforted them.  Finally, he was raised up on a cross, spread out his loving arms to the entire world, every race, every color, every nation, and he died for them all.  This great act of love evaporated the separation between man and God.  Through faith in his un-separating work, human beings can once again be in a relationship with God.  They can trust him and love him.  He changes them from sinners to saints. They can look to him in times of pain and times of joy.  He can heal their broken relationships with others. He can cure them of their sin.
God’s work of healing is a work of healing for you and me.  We are gathered here as a community of believers.  We are one because of our Baptism into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  We confess faith, given to us in Holy Baptism, to end our separation from God.  We believe in this work for all people.  It is only through this faith that we can begin to tear down the walls of separation that exist.  Through this faith, God will enable us to heal the brokenness caused by our own prejudice.  That is what the church is all about.  It is the place God has chosen to build relationships to people of all classes and ethnic groups.  It is the place God has chosen to speak His word of forgiveness, and give it through Word, Water and Bread and Wine.  We live in that Word every day.  Everyday we can do God’s work in the community, tearing down the walls of hostility between races and social classes.  We can do it, not because we are sin-free, but because we are sinners, forgiven and set free from our sin.  If you want this church to be all that God wants it to be, look for opportunities to connect to those people that are usually told they don’t belong; look for ways to include the outcast people into our church, and our community; look for ways of sharing the forgiveness God has given you here in this building.
So many years ago, ‘outsiders’, Gentiles, went to visit the Christ child.  They weren’t Jews.  They traveled a great distance to be there.  They traveled into a foreign land that didn’t welcome them.  When they found him, they stood in wonder, then they bowed down in worship.  There before them was a Savior, not just a Savior for the Jews, but also a Savior for all people.  He was a Savior for ‘outsiders’ and Gentiles like them.  He is a Savior for ‘outsiders’ and Gentiles like us.  God had led them there to show us that his love and forgiveness crosses ethnic boundaries, race, and nation.  He wanted us to see ‘The World’ worshipping Jesus.  ‘The World’, with all its ethnic variety, needs this Savior.  It needs him to restore its divisions, its ethnic hatred… its sin.  That’s why he came to this world.  He came to gather the ‘outsiders’ to himself.  You see, as wonderful as the Christmas story is, the real joy for us is that … “Magi came from the East.”  Because, their visit shows us that we too are included in God’s grace.  Their visit shows us that God’s saving act through Jesus Christ was for Gentiles like them and like us.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.