Sermon for the Commemoration of Saints Peter and Paul

John 21:15-19

Today we celebrate what is known as a saint’s day in the life of the church. We’re already familiar with those saints’ days that have translated well from the church into secular culture, such as St. Valentine’s Day and Saint Patrick’s Day. But we don’t always honor those saints who have not made the leap from the world of the church into society at large. And, even though we honor both Peter and Paul today, when I looked at the Scripture readings assigned for this day, I wondered why we had two readings about Peter and only one about Paul. And then I realized that we hear from Paul almost every Sunday of the church year. Most of the New Testament letters were written by him, and so perhaps the people who worked on the lectionary decided that Peter needed to come out of the shadows a little bit more on this day. So, with my apologies to the apostle Paul and a promise to one day talk more about him, today I’m going to focus on the Gospel reading from John and the question that Jesus asked Peter three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

As I reflected on this question that Jesus asked Peter, it took on a musical tone, and I realized that this question has, in fact, been set to music. So, I’m going to play this song from the musical Fiddler on the Roof. And as this is played, I would like you to think about these questions: Why is Tevye asking Golde if she loves him? What does Golde present as evidence that she loves Tevye, but without saying directly that she loves him? Why does Tevye, and also Golde in the end, need to hear these three little words? (Access video at the following link):

So, let’s look at this conversation between Jesus and Peter in the same way. To set the scene, Jesus has been crucified and is now resurrected. In this gospel, he has appeared to Mary Magdalene, who has run and told the disciples; he has appeared to all of the disciples except Thomas and breathed the Holy Spirit on them; and then a week later he appears to all of the disciples again when Thomas is there, and Thomas confesses him to be Lord and God. Now, in chapter 21, life has seemed to go back to a somewhat normal routine for the disciples. They are in Galilee, and when Simon Peter says, “I am going fishing,” the other disciples say, “OK, we’re coming, too.” They don’t catch anything all night. After daybreak, Jesus stands on the shore and asks them if they have any fish, and the disciples say no. So Jesus tells them where to cast their net, and suddenly they get lots of fish. The disciples recognize Jesus and rush ashore, dragging the net behind them. And they find Jesus cooking their breakfast over the fire on the shore. It is then that Jesus turns to Peter and begins the series of three questions and the following commands for Peter to tend his sheep.

So, why is Jesus asking Peter if Peter loves him? Doesn’t he, as Peter says, “know all things”? Why does Jesus need to hear the words? Or, does Jesus not need to hear the words and he is asking Peter for a different reason altogether? Well, if we think back to the night when Jesus was handed over for trial and then crucifixion, we will remember that Peter denied that he knew Jesus three times. Jesus, who knows all things, had predicted that this would happen, and knew that it did happen. So, perhaps Jesus wanted to hear Peter say that he loved him as many times as he had denied him. But, I believe it was more than that. I believe that Peter needed to say it for himself, and Jesus knew that he needed to say it. I always wondered why Peter was upset when Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” After all, didn’t he know why Jesus was doing this? But, I think Peter did know. Picture this: Jesus asks Peter the question the first time, “Do you love me?” Peter is taken aback, but he says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” A few minutes go by and Jesus asks it again. Peter is surprised, but now he can see where this is going, and he answers more strongly, but with tears in his eyes, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” When Jesus asks the third time, Peter is fully remembering his former denial of Jesus, weeping openly now at the graciousness of Jesus in restoring him to his place of leadership, and testifying that yes, Jesus knows all things, and he knows that Peter loves him.

We’ve heard the saying, “With great power comes great responsibility.” But today’s account of this episode between Jesus and Peter says, “With great love comes great responsibility.” For Jesus did indeed know how much Peter loved him, and Jesus knew that for love of him Peter would take on the responsibility of caring for his sheep—the people who followed him—in Jesus’ physical absence from this world. Tradition says that Peter somehow journeyed from Galilee to Rome, where, according to the Roman Catholic Church, he was the first pope, or bishop of Rome. Regardless of what we think of that Roman Catholic tradition, it is clear that Peter was entrusted with great responsibility, that of tending Jesus’ sheep, in the city of Rome. Tradition also says, probably born from Jesus’ prediction in today’s reading of Peter stretching out his hands, that he was crucified because he was a follower of Jesus. And some traditions say that Peter was crucified upside down, because he did not believe himself to be worthy of dying in the same manner as Jesus. This tradition testifies to the great love that Peter had for Jesus, so much that, similar to Jesus, he laid down his life for the sheep that were entrusted to his care.

So, what kind of meaning does Peter’s life have for us today? Most of us would point to the stories about Peter in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts, saying that if Jesus could use this flawed and impulsive fisherman who very often put his foot in his mouth to give a rousing speech on Pentecost, do miracles in Jesus’ name, and spread the Gospel message to everyone, then that is encouragement that Jesus can use each one of us to do the same. And we are not wrong in saying that. But there is more that we can take from Peter’s story. What Jesus asks Peter in today’s lesson, Jesus asks each one of us, “Name, do you love me?” If we are to follow Jesus, then we must start with love. If we say we love Jesus, then that love for Jesus will naturally be shown in love for one another. And when we answer Jesus’ question with, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” Jesus’ response will be, “Feed my sheep.” Love for one another means love both in word and in deed. Noted marriage consultant Gary Chapman speaks of five “love languages”: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. He says that each one of us has a primary love language, the way in which we prefer to communicate love for another and to receive love from another. I believe that, as Christians, we are called to use all of these ways—in the appropriate manner at the appropriate time, of course—to communicate God’s love for one another. In this way, we will continually fulfill Jesus’ commission to both love him and to tend his sheep.

And just as Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”, and just as Jesus asks each one of us individually, “Do you love me?”, he also asks us as a congregation, “Hope Lutheran Church of Powell, Wyoming: Do you love me?” Of course our answer is, “Yes, Lord, you know all things, you know that we love you.” Jesus then gives us the command that he once gave Peter, “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” We as a congregation are commanded to put our love into both words and deeds as we minister to one another and to the surrounding community. And while this feeding and tending includes feeding people who are physically hungry, it also includes tending those who are spiritually hungry: those who are waiting for reassurance that God loves them. And, just as the Lord told Peter that one day he would give his very life for the sheep, we as a congregation are called to give our life for those to whom we are ministering. Are we ready to do this? Then let us listen for the voice of Jesus to show us the way in which we will give up our life for the sheep. Amen.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Matthew 28:16-20

Our confirmation class this year finished up at the end of May, and I think it’s been a pretty good year. We didn’t accomplish all that I had hoped, but I think relationships with one another happened, and I hope that my students know that they are able to ask me anything that’s on their minds. One thing that these young women have been struggling with over the last year is the concept of God as Trinity, that is, 3 persons in one God. They’ve also been struggling with how Jesus can be both fully divine and fully human, but that’s a topic for another sermon. In an attempt to explain this to them, I have repeatedly drawn this diagram on the whiteboard in the library.

(Click on this link to view the picture: http://www.gotquestions.org/images/trinity.jpg. Not sure why I can’t get it to embed in this post.)

Any time one of the girls has a question that relates to the Trinity, the others groan and say, “She’s going to draw that diagram again!!” What I don’t think they realize yet is that people have been struggling with the concept of the Trinity since the dawn of Christianity, and have also been accusing and condemning each other of heresy when they attempt to explain how the Trinity works, as we will see now in this short video from a group called Lutheran Satire.

(Click on this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQLfgaUoQCw to watch the video.)

So today, I’m not going to try to explain the doctrine of the Trinity to you, although we will use the words of the Athanasian Creed to confess our faith in a little while. Instead, I’m going to use our Gospel reading from Matthew and ask what it means for us to be a congregation that confesses one God in three persons. David Lose, professor at Luther Seminary, defines a Trinitarian congregation as follows: A congregation “that sees itself as called and sent by the Holy Spirit to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed for the sake of the world God created and loves so much.” Such congregations often have three characteristics, Lose writes. First, they are “buoyed by worship, faith, and doubt”. Second, they “do not live on the mountain but pursue their calling primarily down in the valley”. And third, they “find their authority, hope and consolation in both Jesus’ commission and the promise of his presence.”

            First, Trinitarian congregations are “buoyed by worship, faith, and doubt.” We come every week to worship God because the Holy Spirit moves us to hear the good news over and over that God loves us and that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, always, to the end of the age. This good news is our spiritual sustenance which renews our faith and gives us strength to go out into the world. But guess what? Doubt is also in that mix. Most English versions of Matthew 28:17 say that when the disciples saw Jesus, “they worshiped him; but some doubted”. This is not an entirely accurate translation of the Greek. A more accurate translation would be, “they worshiped him and they doubted”. In Matthew, this appearance of Jesus to the disciples comes very quickly after the resurrection—there is no 40 days of appearances as we see in the Gospel of Luke. So think about it for a moment: You’ve just been told by the women that Jesus is resurrected. Then you go to the mountain in Galilee, and you see him standing right in front of you. Of course you’re going to have some doubts. “Jesus, is it really you? I’m not part of some mass hallucination here, am I?” Or, as the disciples were probably thinking, “Um. . .Jesus, we didn’t stand by you when you were on trial or when you were crucified. We denied you and hid in fear. Do you really still love us? Are we really worthy to have you come back to us?” We who are his disciples today may doubt that Jesus can come to us in love and that he wants to. We may have been brought up with the idea of a vengeful God, or the idea that even though we know that Jesus will forgive us, he still keeps a watchful eye on us, waiting for us to misbehave. We come to worship asking Jesus if he can really love us, in spite of all of the sins that we commit. We come to worship wondering if Jesus will really come to us and if we will hear his voice saying that he loves us and that he is always with us. Doubt is a part of our faith lives. And I pray that when you all come to worship on Sunday, those doubts are eased through the hearing of the Word and the receiving of the Sacrament, and that you feel Jesus’ love for you in this place.

            Besides being sustained by our worship, our faith, and our doubts, Trinitarian congregations who are in mission do not live on the mountain but pursue their calling primarily down in the valley. No matter how wonderful worship is—there have been several times in my life where I have felt God so close to me in worship that I have not wanted to leave the church building—God calls us away to be at work, at mission, in the world. Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Now again, while the English translation gets the idea of Jesus’ words, it loses something from the original Greek. The verbs here are all participles—that is, words that in English end in “-ing”, which means that these are all action verbs. So perhaps a better translation would be, “As you are going, therefore, continue making disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them.” Such a translation gives the impression that Jesus’ Great Commission to us is not just something that missionaries do, and it’s not even something we do at special times in our lives. Rather, it is something we as Jesus’ disciples are to be doing each and every day of our lives: actively witnessing to our faith both using words and using our actions. Each one of us is a witness to Christ each and every day, in each action that we do and each word that we say.

            When we think about it, this is an awesome responsibility that we are given. From the moment we were baptized, even if we were baptized as infants, the Holy Spirit has come into us, urging us to witness to Christ. And just as the first disciples stood around Jesus, wondering how they were supposed to go about doing this, we wonder, too, how we can best witness to Christ in our daily lives. This is why we continue to teach in the church: so that we may better understand Christ’s directions for us, and so that we may be better equipped to carry out his commission to us. This is why I will often be gone for continuing education events: so that I may come back better equipped in order to help better equip you. Teaching and learning go hand in hand: we are called to continually be in the word, remembering all that Jesus has taught us, so that we may be better equipped to disciple others in the way of following Jesus. So, please take advantage of adult education opportunities, and I encourage you to continue sending your children and grandchildren to Sunday school during the school year and Vacation Bible School this week. Participating in these opportunities are just some of the ways all of us can be better equipped to continue making disciples as we go about our daily lives.

            Besides being sustained by worship, faith, and doubt; besides being called to leave the mountaintops and work in the valleys as we continue making disciples, Trinitarian churches are characterized by finding their authority, hope, and consolation in both Jesus’ commission and the promise of his presence. When I was serving as a missionary in Taiwan, I was quickly confronted with the fact that, although Christian missionaries had been in Taiwan for about 50 years, still only 2% of the population identified as Christian. So, we were told that we would be extremely lucky if we saw any of the people that we came into contact with become a baptized Christian. It could be that we were there to plant seeds or to water them and watch them grow, and that in the future, someone else would reap the harvest and see the person be baptized. And that, if the people we taught went to a Christian church other than ours, we should be happy that they were hearing the word. So it is with us here in Powell, Wyoming. Our end goal is not to see all of these lovely pews filled to bursting each week, although that would be very nice. Our end goal is not to have all of the classrooms filled to bursting with children in Sunday school each week, although again, that would be really awesome. Instead, our end goal is that as many of God’s children as possible hear the good news that God loves them and values them. Everything we do as a congregation: coming up with a new mission statement, as we did a year ago; developing a vision of where we’d like to go as a congregation, which I hope to begin working on with all of you and with the new Director of Evangelical Mission in another couple of months; developing a Master Facilities Plan of how best to use our building and keep it in good repair; all of this and more: All of what we do must have the end goal of helping all people to hear the good news that God loves us so much that he gave his only Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for us and to be raised again to new life, so that we too can walk in new life with him. That is what we must keep in mind as we continue to move forward in our life together as a congregation.

            The calling and the commission that the Lord Jesus has given us may be scary at first. It may require us to give up some things we hold dear, things that we discover are not as important to us as we first thought they were. God may be calling us to do things that we never thought we’d do, all in order to share his love with all of his children. In short, God may be calling us to change, and we all know how scary change is for Lutherans. But I know that we here at Hope are up to the challenge that God has given us. And with the help of the Holy Spirit, we will live into the commission that Jesus has given us, continuing to make disciples as we go about the work of our daily lives. And we do this with the confidence in Jesus’ promise that he is Emmanuel, God with us, always, to the end of the age. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 2014

Acts 2:1-21

 A few weeks ago, the Powell Tribune ran an article about the postal workers’ food drive for Loaves and Fishes. In this article, not only were several of our members pictured in the accompanying photograph, but they were quoted as well. So, I started reading the article, thinking that maybe one of the quotes would be about Hope Lutheran, or at the very least, would mention the person’s faith in Christ as being the reason they were participating in the food drive. But, I was destined to be disappointed. Now to give those people the benefit of the doubt, sometimes newspapers do edit the remarks you make to them, and there may be a possibility that the Tribune edited out the remarks these folks made about God. But something tells me that this wasn’t the case. Each one of the persons quoted in this article said that the reason they were helping out was “to give something back to the community”. Now, that’s a very good reason to help out. There is nothing wrong with that reason. But any atheist can say that they’re helping out with a food drive in order to give back to the community. And as Christians, we need to say more about our faith: that it is our faith in Christ which compels us to give to the poor and the needy. When we don’t witness to Christ in public, what are we afraid of? Being laughed at? Or does it go deeper than that? Is it our belief that our faith should be a private thing and not shared in polite company?

From Easter to Pentecost, the disciples may have thought that their faith was a private thing, too, only to be shared amongst themselves. The risen Jesus was with them until he ascended to heaven, continuing to teach them and to prepare them. Then, when he ascended, they were probably at a loss, thinking, “Well, what now?” They continued to meet together and pray, but they didn’t really broadcast what they were doing; they were still frightened that the authorities were going to come after them. But then, on Pentecost, that all changed. They were sitting in a house, praying, minding their own business. Suddenly the Holy Spirit comes upon them with the sound of wind and the appearance of fire, and in an instant they are changed: they are out on the streets of Jerusalem, telling anyone they can find about Jesus.

The Holy Spirit has often been called “the shy member of the Trinity”. As I’ve studied today’s text from Acts, and as I’ve reflected on the role of the Holy Spirit in various Biblical texts both in the Old Testament and the New, I wonder how the Spirit ever got that name. Perhaps it was Lutherans who gave the Holy Spirit that name simply because we tend to be shy and uncomfortable talking about the Holy Spirit, and we need a part of God that we can identify with. But it seems to me that the Holy Spirit is anything but shy. In my newsletter article this month, I mentioned that we give the Holy Spirit credit for bringing us to belief in Jesus, but we tend to ignore the Spirit the rest of the time. We gloss over the fact that it was the Holy Spirit who breathed life into all living beings as he hovered over the waters of creation. We skip over those stories where the Spirit enters prophets and makes them behave ecstatically, because such behavior embarrasses us. And we struggle with all of those prophets in the Scriptures who, through the urging of the Spirit, called for justice to reign in Israel, because we are more comfortable with being pious and moral than we are with proclaiming that God seeks justice in our world. And I’m preaching this to myself as well as to all of you, for I confess that there have been many times when I could have spoken up in the name of justice and I have rationalized away the urgings of the Holy Spirit, thinking that my faith was a private thing and not meant to be shared in public.

On this day when we honor the Holy Spirit and celebrate his coming, we do so with discomfort, wondering what it was exactly that happened to the disciples on that day and looking with envious longing at the end of the story of Pentecost Day: when three thousand people were added to the number of followers of Jesus. Can you imagine the Holy Spirit adding three thousand people to our congregation here in Powell, Wyoming, in one day? We’d have to throw out that master facilities plan that we are developing and build a whole new church! But, we can dream, and in fact, the Spirit not only makes us bold to proclaim that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, he also enables us to dream. When Peter quotes the prophet Joel, he says, “your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” Even though women aren’t mentioned in that part of the quote, let’s assume that’s poetic license and that women are included, because women are included in the rest of the quote, which includes prophesying. And not only are men and women included in this, all ages are included! Today there is a lot of hand wringing going on as people ask where the young folks are. It’s an important question to ask in our changing society, yes. But for all of you not-so-young folks out there, I want you to remember that the church still belongs to you, too, and you still have work that the Holy Spirit has given you to do. You are still valued and important in God’s eyes.

So, what are the dreams of this congregation, Hope Lutheran Church in Powell, Wyoming? Well, let’s start with Loaves and Fishes. I’ve been told that if it wasn’t for this congregation, Loaves and Fishes wouldn’t be doing as well as it is. I think that’s a good indication of what one of our dreams is: that everyone would have enough to eat. And when we give of our own resources so that others may have food on their table, this is a good way to help our Spirit-given dream come true. But there is more that the Holy Spirit is urging us to do to help accomplish this dream. There are inequities in our food distribution system. If those inequities were done away with, then our dream of making sure all people in this area of Wyoming have enough to eat would come closer to reality. The Holy Spirit is calling us to be a congregation that is active in our world, and we are called to find out more about those inequities and as a congregation, together boldly proclaim that this is not God’s will and work together to end those inequities in our food distribution system. For as long as we only address the symptom of the problem, giving food to those in need, without addressing the larger societal problem, then we will always have people who will be hungry.

What is another dream of this congregation? As some of us were discussing the dreams of Hope Lutheran at Synod Assembly, one of the dreams that was named was the dream of having this congregation full of children and young families again. We are making progress here, and I hope that all of you in this congregation who have young children and young grandchildren know that they are always welcome in this place. We continue to do things such as Sunday school and Vacation Bible School. We give regularly to the Backpack Blessings program, which is a program that sends food home with children in need over the weekend. These are all good things that we’re doing, but again, it is addressing the symptoms of the problem and not the cause. What is causing so many children in the Powell area to go hungry? Here is one reason that we can address: Many young families in today’s economy are working two or more low-paying jobs just to make ends meet. It’s one reason why we don’t see many young families in worship on Sunday mornings. And yet, our government ended up cutting $8.7 billion to the food stamp program in the name of ending fraud, when in reality the food stamp program has the least amount of fraud of any government program out there. When something like this happens, our Christian faith, which demands over and over that we protect the widows, the orphans, and the poor, should compel us to hold our representative and senators accountable.

Our Christian faith is not just a “you-and-me-Jesus,” individualistic faith. If the first Pentecost shows us anything, it tells us that the Holy Spirit impels and propels us out into the public, sharing our faith in Jesus and the coming kingdom of God, and what that means. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, according to the gospel of Luke, Jesus preached a sermon that started with this quote from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he then said that on that day, that this scripture had been fulfilled in the hearing of the people there. Jesus did not spiritualize those words, but he acted upon them literally. We who follow him can do no less, and we need to keep in mind that these directives are for the good of all in our society.

This may seem like a tall order to us. But I am confident that, little by little, heeding the voice of the Holy Spirit, we can take on this task of addressing the causes of problems here in Powell as well as the symptoms. In this very real and practical way, God is giving us the chance to participate with Him in bringing about His kingdom. And I’d like to start this process, and end this sermon, by having you do this exercise. I’m going to pretend, for the moment, that I am a reporter from the Powell Tribune. I’m going to ask you why you are helping with the food drive today. And I want you all to answer with this response: Because I believe in Jesus Christ, and I believe that I am fulfilling his command to love my neighbor by helping with this food drive. I know that’s long, so I will say it with you. (Do the exercise.) The Holy Spirit is not quiet and proper, but instead is very bold. We have the Holy Spirit in us; let us be bold in the work we are given to do. Amen.