Remembering 9/11 – Lost and Found

The fifteen year anniversary of 9/11 causes me to remember how I was a young pastor that struggled to find words to place this attack into any sort of narrative that made sense to me. I was in the third month of being the new pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Niagara Falls, New York. On that day and the days afterwards, I found that Western New York felt both very far away and very near to New York City, Washington DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

I was driving north on the 190 towards Niagara Falls. I was about to go over the north bridge off of Grand Island when I heard on the radio that a plane had struck a building in NYC. I was just a few minutes away from my office at Grace. When I entered the church building, I immediately went towards the garage sale donation pile. I remembered that Carl had donated a television for the upcoming garage sale. I plugged the television into the wall. Lisa and I tried to get the antenna positioned to receive the signal from one of the news channels. Lisa returned tried to get some work down, what could we change by staring at the fuzz on the television. I went to my computer to see if I could find out more information. Every page was loading painfully slow. I knew we had slow internet, but every moment I pressed refresh on the browser I waited and waited for any news that this was just an accident. 9/11 was not an accident.

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Randy called and asked me to find a way to join the community in prayer. He wanted his kids to place their trust in God. He understood that trust would be easier to find if we were together. We quickly made calls and arranged for a prayer service. I don’t remember much about the prayer service. I do remember that none of us tried to fill the moments of prayer with cliches, people were honest in silence. Words cold not fill this moment unless there was trust. The trust we had in God did not require that answers would be found. Our trust required that we were not alone.

That same week I was scheduled to host the monthly gathering of local Lutheran pastors. The circuit meeting begins with a worship service. After the service, there is a Bible study and chance to share about our unique contexts. At the service I was expected to preach a sermon. This was the first circuit meeting I had either attended or hosted as a pastor. Remember, I was only three months into the ministry. I expected that pastors who host the circuit meeting would plan to use the sermon from the previous week or test out on the brothers the sermon that would preached on the upcoming Sunday. I knew that last week’s sermon seemed odd to use and I still did not have a bead on the upcoming sermon. Before I left the house, I looked one more time at the upcoming gospel lesson from Luke 15:1-10. Jesus shared with his followers the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. I did not think I could preach about the celebration after the sheep is found or the coin is discovered. I didn’t see anything in the text besides the celebration. I looked one more time and then I prayed for the Holy Spirit to bring wisdom to my heart and words to my lips. I left the house for the meeting at Grace.

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When the circuit meeting worship service began the words of the liturgy carried us into God’s promises. We confessed our sins, and we received the promise that we are forgiven children of God through the mercy of our savior Jesus. I spoke the the words of Ezekiel 34:11 and following, “For thus says the Lord God: ‘Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.”

I shared the words of St. Paul to Timothy, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinner, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 15).

It was time for the gospel reading from Luke. I spoke the words of the shepherd searching for the lost sheep, and the woman that searching for the coin. I knew we were not yet in a moment of celebration because the rescuers were still frantically searching the rubble where the planes brought destruction. I knew that there were people around the world feeling lost and disconnected from any narrative of hope. This disconnection did not just come from 9/11. Too many people are living disconnected from hope and are just ghost walking to the next day. How can we bring people back towards seeing tomorrow and the next day as moments kept safe by God?

It was in the words of God I found my story that day, and it remains my story whenever I am feeling disconnected. God is looking for you. I know that this sounds simple. Knowing that God desires to be with me takes away so much anxiousness. We are not alone. The first responders that walked into danger on 9/11 were not alone. The people descending staircases to nowhere where not alone. The people on the plane flying over Pennsylvania were not alone when it was time to act bravely to save lives on the ground. Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, taken upon himself the very loneliness of our suffering, so that we never have to stand alone against Satan and his evil minions.

God is searching. Now you may imagine your story is too small compared to the big stories that others are living. Even if you imagine your story too insignificant, remember the woman searching for the coin. I wonder what her friends thought when she called them all together to have a party after she found the one missing coin. To those friends the coin may have sounded silly. To that woman searching for the coin, the lost coin was worthy of a party. God wants to find you, and you are not insignificant to him. No one has a story too small to be include in the story of God. God is searching for you, and he want to hold a party for you.

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Sermon from 1st Sunday after Christmas

A study in Joseph’s movement through
Law and Gospel
Love of God in free service to neighbor
Obedience in suffering

Intro the scene: Today we continue the celebrations of Christmas as we become witnesses to the reality that Joseph raised this holy child in a world which provides grave threats to the child born to his beloved wife Mary.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The shepherds visited. Mary treasured all these things in her heart and the shepherds returned glorying and praising God.

Later, when the Holy Family are in a house in Bethlehem, wise men visit bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, myrrh.

Then a difficult transition is made that seems so jarring in the midst of the carols and presents. Joseph is warned in a dream to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt and remain there until told. For Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

Herod’s desire to destroy this child is an indication that opposition will follow Jesus throughout his life.

Joseph rose and followed the commands of the angel. The family remained in Egypt until the death of Herod, interestingly we can use this information to help understand when Jesus was born. Herod died in 4 BC. So certainly Jesus was born before Herod’s death and so born before 4 BC.

There is a child’s story told about the Holy Family hiding in a cave. A spider was there in that cave and wanted badly to do something for the little King. The spider decides to give what he can – he spins a web at the entrance of the cave, creating a curtain that keeps out the evening cold. Then some soldiers come looking for the Holy Child and approach the cave. Seeing the spider’s web is undisturbed, they assume the cave is empty. The spider saved the little King’s life! So as the legend goes, this is why we put tinsel on our Christmas trees, recalling the glistening web of the spider at the cave’s entrance. There is of course no corroboration for this story, but it is lovely to tell how this little child, in whom heavenly and earthly had become one, humbled himself to need the care and protection of Joseph and even that little spider.

The fright of Joseph and Mary, as the rose with the child to flee to Egypt, is so jarring against the backdrop of the visit of the shepherds and the wise men.

Some families have known first hand the two-fold reality of Christ being born and specifically being born into a world full of sin and struggle. On Christmas Eve there were people in the emergency rooms of the hospitals around us. On the day after Christmas I was in a hospital visiting someone and I was struck by the reality that even while I enjoyed opening presents with my family and enjoyed a peaceful Christmas day, there were many who were suffering and dying.

I was also grieved to read that there were Christians in Iraq that heard the sounds of bombs jarringly disrupt their worship and kill 37 people.

This first Sunday after Christmas with its gospel reading from Matthew reveals that we cannot be blind to the real world in which Jesus is born.

How do we worship the newborn king while we live in a world filled with so much evil?
We will answer this question as we move from the majesty of the miraculous birth of our Lord and him receiving of the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, to Joseph being warned in a dream to take his family and flee to Egypt.

Joseph and the Holy Family experience the grave struggle against sin. Herod was breathing his murderous threats against this child knowing that he has been deceived by the magi who, having been warned in a dream, returned home by another way.

We continue to live in a world with Herod type men and women who seek to harm the good news message of Jesus. We continue to live in a world in which people still must seek refuge, shelter, protection from the dangers of this world.

Joseph is a witness to us that we cannot control how the good news is shared in this world. Jesus arrived in the midst of an evil world. We can respond like Herod and so see Jesus as a threat to our power and selfish desires. Or we can respond like Mary who pondered everything in her heart, or like the shepherds that returned glorying and praising God for all that they had seen and heard, or like Joseph we can rely on God to guide us.

Joseph did not rely on his own strength to defeat the threat of Herod. He trusted in the word of God that was delivered to him by the angel. Our deliverance from the evil of Herod continues to have trust in the Word of God.

The response to Jesus being born can be either to breathe murderous threats of Herod or care taking of Joseph. Which response will you make?

God will continue to bring into his world the good news of Jesus, even while the threats of evil seem to silence the celebrations. The Gospel of Matthew shows God’s controlling hand works so that even the evil of Herod would serve his divine purposes. There were prophecies that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem, come out of Egypt, and be a Nazarene. God worked through the treachery of the world to yet accomplish his purposes.

The plan of God for salvation through Christ moves relentlessly forward. The evil in this world cannot stop this good news and will only find themselves unwittingly used by God to fulfill his promises in even more remarkable ways. Men who fight against the promises of God will fail.

Herod the Great died. Jesus and his family were able to return. They did not settle in Bethlehem because they heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod. Archelaus was known for his evil and in AD 6 the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem forced Rome to recall him and he was exiled.

As dependent as a child is in this world, God yet reveals that he can fulfill his promises. Our greatest strength is found in humbly trusting in the plans and purposes of God and so trust him to be our salvation. In the trust that God is our salvation, we will love God and serve our neighbors. Our obedience may bring us into frightful moments of suffering, but we will trust God to be our protector and guide. Even in the midst of the greatest of evils and treachery we can remain faithful to God. The work of Jesus was not filled with interruptions or detours. God worked through the weakest moments to reveal his ability to bring about our salvation.

In your weak moments that jolt you away from the praises of the glories of the angels, trust in God to be your salvation.

Suffering for Community

Mark 9:38-50
Proper 21

How much do we value community?

I find in Mark 9 that Jesus struggles with his disciples understanding of community. He talks about the fracturing of community that is going on in the world when describes how the son of man will be handed over to men and killed. He then found them arguing on the way about which of them was the greatest. Jesus places a little child in their midst and tells them that whoever receives such a child, receives him, and not him but the one who sent him.

Then the disciples get frustrated that someone, besides them, is driving out demons in the name of Jesus. Jesus reminds the disciples that someone working in the name of Jesus is not outside their community.

Jesus talks again about the little child that he had earlier placed in their midsts. This child is a reminder of the powerless or the weak in faith. He warns the disciples that if anyone entices such a child to sin, it would be better him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea.

Jesus then asks the disciples to consider the cost of community.

Jesus talks about a hand that causes you to sin, a foot that causes you to sin, and the eye that causes you to sin. With all these very important parts of the body, Jesus says with a quick imperative, “Cut it off!”

It is better to enter life, the kingdom of God, lame, crippled and with only one eye then it is to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.

We must stop vying for power and privilege for ourselves. Freedom is ahead for us in the life of Christ and we get so pre-occupied about our own positions that we forget the community that Jesus is building for us. I would rather be crippled, lame, and blind in the kingdom of God then I would to be whole and thrown into the unquenchable fire of hell.

Jesus moves from the gruesome image of cutting of hands and feet and plucking out eyeballs but he does not move away from the uncompromising importance of living in community that is not compromised by sin.

Jesus also uses the image of salt. Salt works as a preserving agent. But when salt has lost its saltiness there is no way to season with it. Salt loses its saltiness when it gets so mixed with foreign substances that in the resulting mix there is too little salt for the seasoning work to occur.

Our saltiness, our preservation as a community, can become ruined when we allow our own desires for greatness to get in the way of having peace with one another. The imperative is to be salt, to keep peace.

What are the stumbling blocks to living in community with one another? It is not the powerless, weak in faith, lame, crippled, or blind.

I am…

Jesus makes bold statements that give to me promise that He is the one I can trust. Jesus declares, “I am…”

In the presence of God, all my “I am” statements should be defined by my sin of thought, word and deed. In my relationship with God I always fall short. I have no reason or strength within me that makes me anything of substance in front of God. I am…nothing. As much as I can look at my own life and look deeply into my soul and find that dark cloud of sin that shades so much of what I do and think, I am more nothing. I am in Jesus. In Jesus I am so much more than my own sinfulness.

Jesus makes His “I am” statements and they not only describe His actions but more importantly for me they describe His actions towards me. Light of the Word, Bread of Life, Living Water, Gate, Good Shepherd, Vine and so much more….

I love that my relationship with Jesus is not shaped by my sin. Of course, I could become self-centered and imagine I control my relationship with God and this world. But the solar system does not revolve around the Earth and my world does not revolve around me. The solar system moves around the Sun and I move around because of the Son.

I am…because Jesus is the I am for me.

Who are you? In Jesus you are so much more.

United with Christ

John 17:1-11
Jesus prays to His father and asks that we may be one just as He and the father are one.

In this prayer for unity Christ longs for the glory of God to be known.

Jesus talks about eternal life in terms of knowing the Father and Jesus the Christ.

How do we know God?

Jesus describes it through his work of manifesting the name of God and sharing the Word with the world that we might believe in Him and the one whom sent Him.

Epiphany
Logos
Pisteuio

In the public square

Life together with the Risen Lord is possible in the public square. We see in the book of Acts that St. Paul brings the gospel to Athens. He sees all their desire for answers and he does not hide from sharing the promise of Jesus.

How do we today go forward into the public square with the promise of the gospel?

Do we go forward afraid of the power? No, we don’t need to be afraid because Jesus goes with us and he is victorious.

Do we go forward expecting everyone to become our ally once they hear our message? No, we know the truth that seed that is planted is not always going to grow.

What do we expect? We expect Jesus to be the risen Lord that is the power of God to work salvation.

On the Way

This weekend I am preaching on John 14:1-14. This text is well known to me as a text for funerals. Just this week I shared these words with people who gathered for the funeral of Bruno Hanses.

I once preached a sermon using a hook I heard from someone else, “Eternal Home Makeover.” I looked how Jesus promises to prepare a place for us. I imagine that Jesus knows how to design and prepare the perfect place for us to dwell with Him for eternity.

This weekend I am preaching a sermon about Life Together on the way with the Risen Lord. I appreciate Thomas’ question to Jesus, “Lord, how can we follow you of we don’t know the way?”

I don’t know where my life is going and I don’t know the path that my kids lives will take. Thomas, I understand your struggle. How can I follow you Jesus when I don’t even know where you are going? What if your path is too hard? What if you go somewhere I haven’t been before? Am I ready for this adventure?

I think Professor Arand in the Concordia Journal put this text in a good place for me. We want to know God and in this world we can witness much about the awesome and creative power of the Almighty Father. But Jesus has come so we can know so much more about God. The way to the Father will not be following in humbleness along the path of His amazing power. I follow Jesus. I don’t always know where He is going on the way, but I trust in His mercy that He is taking me to the Father. By the mercy of Jesus I go on the way, even the rocky paths make more sense when I trust in Jesus.

I will not be afraid, I follow mercy. I follow Jesus.

A Cycle of Disobedience

In the book of Judges we find the stories of the Israelites as they struggle to keep their eyes fixed on the Lord God. When they become apathetic, forgetful about God, they begin to follow the false gods of the people around them. God allows them to go into their disobedience so that they can find out what life is like without him. It is lousy. The Israelites live under the burdens of raging rulers who harm them. They cry to the Lord for mercy. The Lord God provides a judge for the people who rescues them from their bondage to falsehood. There is peace in the land. The peace does not last. It lasts for maybe forty or eighty years but after a generation or two the people become forgetful again. This cycle of disobedience is not unique to the book of Judges. It is a cycle that every Christian becomes familiar with. I give thanks that the Lord has heard our cry for mercy and raised up for us a wonderful judge, Jesus Christ. Jesus delivers us from our enemies. I seek the Holy Spirit to keep our eyes focused on the prize.

The contradiction that faith holds onto

In Genesis 22:12 God promised to Abraham, “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.” Then in Genesis 22:2 God tells Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burn offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

This a trial for Abraham to see how God’s promise exists for him even in the dark nights of faith.

How do we live in the contradiction of knowing we have a powerful and loving God, even while we are suffering?