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the sermon for

Ash Wednesday

01 March 2017

Matthew 6:1-6 , Matthew 6:16-21
Ash Wednesday isn't a time for piety,
but for faith!

03012017For the life of me, I can't understand why we read the verses we do, tonight! Matthew. Chapter six. Verses one through six and sixteen to twenty-one. Of course, they're no different from what we read, last year. Or, for that matter, what we read, the year before. Or what we read the year before that! In fact, they're the same ones we've been reading for going on four hymnals, now! True, they describe those three emphases of the discipline of lent that we'll be hearing all about in just a little while. Giving alms. Saying prayers. Fasting. But with that said, there are nearly eight thousand verses in the new testament, half of which are in the four gospels, alone! And odds are there has to be some passage better than this!

These twelve are so... so trite! So cliché! There are no surprises! Everything we think religion is! Especially at a time like this! Confessing sins! Saying you're sorry! Asking forgiveness! After all, Christians have – the church has – been doing just that for centuries! But I have to say, after thirty-some years called and ordained, these verses have been anything but inspiring! Anything but life-changing! I read the words, but all I hear is, "Yada. Yada. Yada. Blah. Blah. Blah." And when I say, "Word of God, word of life!" Well, it takes everything I have not to respond, "Whatever..." And yet, here we are, one more time...

But about a week or so ago, it dawned on me. I was driving back from Lubbock, thinking about this sermon, trying to figure out what, exactly, I was going to say. I was listening to the radio, to a country station, when a song by Tim McGraw came on – "Humble and Kind." It was released about a year ago and did pretty well. Song of the year! Video of the year! It's one of those good-old-days songs. You know what I mean. Nostalgic. Sentimental! A how-it-used-to-be kinda thing. Holding the door for others! Taking off your hat when you go inside! Saying thank you and please! The kind of stuff even Yankees had been taught to do! But as I thought about that sermon and listened to the words, I realized how much the two were alike! Especially on a night like this! How much the good old-days and popular religion have in common! Doing things the way they've always been done!

Tonight is Ash Wednesday and it's thick with it! The tradition! The ritual! Come here on a night like this and it isn't so much the believing as it is the doing! Not so much the faith as it is the practice! It's all about duty! Obligation! And if there's a problem, that... that is it! Faith, for us, has become nothing more than proper etiquette! Nothing more than good manners! That's why tonight's "gospel" sounds so shallow, so superficial! It is! "Don't let your left hand know what your right hand's doing!" "When you pray, go into your room and shut the door!" "When you fast, wash your face and comb your hair!" They're nothing more than mottos! Jingles! There's nothing to trust! Nothing to believe in! Nothing to stake your life on!

Think, again, about what we just read! Those verses, those words, about giving alms... and saying prayers... and fasting... What did they say about anything important? About anything that really matters? About grace? About mercy? For that matter, about Jesus? The cross? There, simply, isn't anything there! That's why I said, there must be, has to be, something better! Something more! Because – bottom line – common courtesy is not enough! This night isn't about niceties! If it's about anything, it's much more radical, much more basic, much more fundamental than that!

The message for this night is – first of all – that your life is nothing more than a handful of ashes! Nothing more than a fistful of dirt! At least, without god's love! You've heard the figure, before. Our life, our bodies, are worth only $4.50! $4.50! A palmful of dust worth about as much as an Iced Caramel Brulée Latte at Starbucks! But in the eyes of god, we are priceless! Inestimable! Incalculable! Just a handful of elements... Oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorous, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chorine, magnesium, iron, iodine, and a half dozen others! But here, in this place, only one thing matters! Only one thing means anything, at all! The body and blood of god broken and shed for everyone!

That! That is what this night is about! That is why we are here! To remember – to be reminded – that god owes us nothing! There is nothing we can earn, nothing we can deserve. And to make matters worse, if god was looking for a reason – for any reason – not to care, it's right there, center and front, for all the world to see! No. God owes us nothing! And yet, god gives us everything! Out of the goodness and greatness of god's own heart!

Remember you are dust! Remember that you fall short! That you miss the mark! Remember that you are captive, in bondage, to sin and cannot free yourselves! But remember, as well... Remember, at the same time... that your are god's! Sealed by the Spirit! And marked with the cross – the same cross you are about to receive – forever and ever!

There's more to believing than knowing – metaphorically speaking – which fork to use! There's more to faith than being courteous and polite! There is being dead in our sin. Being dead in our sin. And there is being made alive together with Christ! Rich in mercy! Out of the great love with which god loves us! God changes a smudge into daughters and sons! Christ transforms a smear into sisters and brothers! Remember! Remember, we're told, this night! Remember we are earth! Remember we are ashes! Remember we are dust! But above all, remember you are earth and ashes and dust that belongs to god! Earth and ashes and dust that god gives to the people around us! Earth and ashes and dust that is worthless! Earth and ashes and dust that is, at the same time, priceless!

So, my friends, tonight is Ash Wednesday, one more time! We are gathered together... saying the prayers we have always said... reading the words we have always read... singing the same songs we have sung from the very beginning! But tonight, please, please don't be confused! Please, please don't be distracted! And please, please don't be misled! This is not the time for, simply, practicing our piety! Not before heaven! Not before earth! This is a time for believing! A time to stake our lives, once again! Stake it boldly! Stake it confidently! In the one thing, the only thing, that will never, ever let us down! Not our giving alms! Not our saying prayers! Not, even, our fasting! But solely in god's grace, in god's charity, in god's love! God's grace, god's charity, god's love for us! God's grace, god's charity, god's love for all!

Receive the ashes, this night, as you receive everything else in this place! As a sign of god's love and god's faithfulness! Remember you are dust! But remember, as well, that you are so much more!

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the sermon for

the Transfiguration of Our Lord

26 February 2017

Matthew 17:1-9
The gospel heard and the gospel received
helps us endure the times when it's not!

02262017I have to tell, y'all, I've been looking toward this day, for a long time. And I've been thinking about this sermon, for going onto seven months, now. It started on our vacation, last summer. You may remember, Lanie spend last July attending the Lutheran Summer Music Academy at Luther College in northeast Iowa. And at the end of the program, we went up to enjoy the final recitals and concerts. After that, we made a big loop through South and North Dakota. And it was an amazing time! Not just the trip as a whole. But those first three days, in particular. The music. The worship. All of it Lutheran through and through. Not just culturally, but more importantly, confessionally.

But it was funny. The moment we left campus and started out across Iowa, I missed it! You could just tell something was gone! Missing! For the next seven days, we traveled without the church. Of course, it was the first time in a long time that I took two Sundays off in a row. Out of the pulpit. Not standing behind the altar. I missed it! The performance! The proclaiming, administering! The getting ready for it all! But during that week of vacation, the thing I missed most was, simply, the gospel! Normally, I'm surrounded by the message! Inundated by it! Reading. Writing. Teaching. During the week, I live it! Breathe it! Living right next door to the church, it's hard ever to get away. The mercy. The grace. The forgiveness. The love. And the whole trip, it, just, wasn't there!

And for the first time in my career, I think I began to understand what it must be like... being you... Coming here to church on Sunday morning, for sixty-or-so minutes! Hearing the word! Receiving a pinch of bread, a sip of wine! Being reminded, one more time, of what god has done, of what god is doing! And then, going back out into the world to live the next seven days without it! In all those hours, across all those miles, I realized, more and more, what a special time, what an exceptional moment, Sunday morning really, truly is! What a contrast, what a contradiction, this morning offers... compared to the rest of your life! And I – as a called and ordained minister – had taken it all for granted!

Think about it, for a moment. When we come to this place, there is no clock to punch! No deadlines! No quotas! This is, probably, the one, the only place where we don't have to prove anything to anyone! Not to our self! Not to one another! Certainly, not to god! We come here and all we have to do is sit back, relax, and rest! As god's love softly, gently, washes over us! No should or oughts! No musts or have tos! It's just us! As we are! That kept coming back to me across Iowa, through South Dakota, into North Dakota, and, finally, back to Minneapolis! I looked for that gospel, for that good news, on the billboards! I listened for it on the radio! I watched for it on the television, at the end of the day. Nothing. Nowhere. And I missed it. And all the time, the only words that would come to mind were the ones from today's gospel...

Lord, it is good for us to be here!

Lord, it is good for us to be here!

Of course, the context is just about as far from the upper Midwest of the United States as you can get! Peter and James and John on a mountaintop. Jesus shining like the sun. Transfigured. Transformed. Moses and Elijah appearing before their very eyes. But it must have been something just like this! Like this moment we share! Pure grace! Absolute love! Peter saw it! He saw it all! And he didn't utter some deep, profound theological insight. He, just, said, "Lord, it's good for us to be here!" How many times I've heard sermons about this day. How many times have I written one, preached it. And I don't, ever, remember using these words. "Lord, it is good!"

I've preached about how life – real life – is never lived on top of a mountain! I've talked of how god has intended us to live in the valley! How, at most, the transfiguration was the exception, not the rule! That it is the cross that awaits Christ, that awaits us all! But until that trip, I never understood that those words – those authentic, heartfelt words – are just as true, just as real! "Lord, it is good for us to be here!" Hearing it all! Seeing it! Drinking it in!

It's Sunday morning. And in a little while, it will be another week before someone will tell us what we hear, this morning. "In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us and for his sake, God forgives us!" It will be another seven days until we're told that "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the community of the Spirit is ours!" Each of ours! All of ours! It will be one hundred sixty-eight hours... It will be two thousand eighty minutes... six hundred four thousand eight hundred more seconds... the bread, that thimble full of wine, is placed on our fingertips and someone tells us, again, that Christ's body and Christ's blood was given and shed just for us! How god, Lord! How very good for us to be here!

Nothing to earn! Nothing to deserve! All a gift! Leave this place, and everything has a price! "Trying harder!" "Doing better!" "If it's to be, it's up to me!" But here... in this place... at a time like this... Well, this is the kingdom of god! God's reign! God's rule! God's realm! And the only thing – the only thing – we need to become is who, is what, we already are! For god, that is enough! That is more than enough! How god it is for us to be here!

Just like up there on the mountaintop, this, too, will come to an end. Elijah and Moses will vanish. Jesus will dim. We'll go back into the world. Back to the salt mines! Back to the rat race! To the treadmill! To the daily grind! At least, for a while! Where life, where living – more often than we care to admit – appears to depend on the sweat of our brow, on our own two hands. But because of this time together, we know the truth! Lord, it is good – it is very good – for us to be here!

This time, for us... this time is exceptional! This place... this place, for us, extraordinary! This isn't the mirage... the illusion... the lie... That is! All that out there! This time, this place, is the certain and the sure! And that's what it means to be in the world but not of it! My friends, god loves you! Loves you with all of god's heart! Loves you with all of god's strength! Loves you with all of god's being! God loves you! To the last ounce! To the last drop! To the final breath! And as you leave this place – for leave you will, leave you must – that loves goes with you! As you return to the world, that love is already there, ready and waiting, arms wide open! Yes, it is good to be here! It is very good! And this, all of this, makes being there just as good, makes it is even better!

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