Sermon for Easter 7A

Acts 1:6-14

The ascension of Jesus into heaven is an odd event. Artists, not knowing quite how to depict this event, have come up with some really goofy-looking pictures of Jesus floating in the sky with slack-jawed disciples looking up after him. I’ve also pictured the scene in The Wizard of Oz when the wizard returns to Kansas in his hot-air balloon and the people of Oz are all shouting, “Good-bye! Good-bye!” The question we ask today in reference to Jesus’ ascension is, “What really happened?” Luke tells us that Jesus was taken up into heaven, and the disciples were left staring up into the sky until two men in white robes told them to stop staring and go home. But where did Jesus go? We moderns have flown in the heavens and can say with certainty that there is no physical God figure sitting on a throne in the sky with Jesus at his right hand. This leaves us wondering: What is heaven, then, if it is not physically up in the sky? We grasp for answers from science-fiction books and TV shows, as well as what we think we know about physics. Is heaven some kind of alternate dimension that we can’t see? Was Jesus “beamed up” somewhere, like on Star Trek? We simply don’t know, and in the end, it’s not important. The two men in white robes say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” In other words, “All right, guys, Jesus is gone. Show’s over. He will come back one day, but not right now. So, stop staring into the sky and waving goodbye. You all need to get to work here on earth carrying on with what he taught you to do.” And what is the work which Jesus has given us to do? The answer to that is just a few verses back: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

What does it mean to witness? What do you think of when you hear that word? Do you think of people standing on street corners handing out pamphlets and talking to people about Jesus? (In my younger days, I did do that, by the way.) Or, maybe you think of knocking on doors and inviting complete strangers to come to church on Sunday. Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to do either of these things, unless the Holy Spirit is moving you in that direction. Those things strike me with fear and trembling, too. However, there are other ways to witness to people about who Jesus is and how Jesus has acted in our lives. And one of those ways is by telling stories.

From the time that we are young, we want to hear stories. Mom, tell me the story of how you named me. Dad, tell me the story about the fish that you caught that was THIS BIG. If your parents read stories to you at bedtime, you always knew if they skipped a part and would say, “Wait a minute, Mom, you forgot to read the part about. . .” Each family has stories about the people in their family and funny things that happened to them, and we delight in telling and in hearing those stories over and over again. Well, it should be the same way when we tell stories about how Jesus has acted in our lives. I can’t tell you the number of times people have asked me to tell the story of how I heard God’s call on my life to become a pastor. And I’m not going to tell it now because the complete story would take too long for the time allotted for a sermon. For now I will say that, as I look back on my life story, I can see God there at every bright place and every dark place, and every twist and turn. Have you ever reflected on your life story and looked for God’s hand guiding you? And if you have, have you shared that with others?

As Lutherans, we believe that God has called each one of us to a vocation. And being a pastor is not any holier than being a teacher, or being a printer, or being a mother or a father. Each person has been called to serve God in a different way in his or her life. But we’re not always very good at reflecting on how God has called us to serve in our vocation, much less telling other people about how God has acted in our lives. And the people around us, especially those who don’t go to church very often or at all, need to hear our stories. They need to hear how the love of Jesus has affected us. They need to hear why we do what we do. And they need to hear that Jesus loves them, too, and is also calling them to love him and serve him.

So, what is holding us back? If we think that Jesus is the most important part of our lives, and if we think that Jesus should be an important part of other people’s lives, then why aren’t we better about sharing this great good news with other people? All of the answers I’ve heard come down to one word: fear. I’m afraid that people will laugh at me. I’m afraid that someone will ask me a question that I don’t know the answer to. I’m afraid I’ll sound stupid. I’m afraid that people won’t want to be my friend anymore. It all comes down to fear.

It’s a natural human reaction to be afraid. And it’s okay to be afraid at times. But we have a Lord and Savior who conquered death for us; who rose from the dead and who ascended into heaven (however that happened!) and now sits at the right hand of God. And this Lord and Savior, this Jesus, has promised us that we, too, will have eternal life through him. We have nothing to be afraid of and wonderful good news to share with everyone we meet. There should be nothing that holds us back from telling our friends and family, and people whom we have just met, why we are Christian, and why we follow Jesus.

But, if you notice in today’s story in Acts, the disciples—once they stopped staring at the sky hoping in vain for Jesus to come back—did not immediately go out and start witnessing to people. Instead, they went home and devoted themselves constantly to prayer. They immersed themselves in prayer, waiting for the moment when the Holy Spirit would arrive and show them where they should go next. And I bet they also prayed for courage—that judgment that something—the stories that they would tell others about Jesus—was more important than their fear.

We, too, the people of St. John’s and Salem, are in that in-between time—that time of waiting. I don’t think God is finished with us yet, because if he were, I wouldn’t be here. I see signs of life in both of our congregations like new shoots of green coming up amidst the dead grass of last year. But like those new shoots of green grass, we are still untried and need to be strengthened. And the thing that will strengthen us is prayer. And so, I would like to call on both of our congregations to immerse ourselves in prayer and to listen for the Holy Spirit whispering to us which way we should go. The Holy Spirit can speak to us in many different ways: in times of solitude, through other people, through the Holy Scriptures, and probably any other way that we can think of. In prayer, the Holy Spirit can show us where God has been at work in our lives and can help us find ways to share our stories with others. And in prayer, the Holy Spirit can show us the gifts which God has given us that can be used for the benefit of others. Through prayer, the Holy Spirit will strengthen us and unite us as one body so that we can bear witness to the community of God’s love for us through his Son, Jesus Christ.

Another way, besides prayer, that we can be strengthened during this time is by studying our Holy Scriptures. I mentioned before that one excuse that I’ve heard people use for not sharing their faith with others is the fear of not knowing enough about the Bible. Well, I can tell you that I have been studying the Bible for many years now, and I still have questions about the stories of our faith. I think we always will, even if we study the Scriptures every day for the rest of our lives. While this should not prevent us from sharing our faith, this can also motivate us to be in a Bible study and learn more about how much God loves us, so that we can feel better equipped to share our stories with others. Currently we have a Bible study at 10:00 am on Thursdays at Salem. If your schedule does not allow you to come to that study, please let me know what time and day would work for you. We can always set up an additional time so that those of you who work can also have the opportunity to learn more about our faith story.

Like those disciples on that long ago day when Jesus ascended into heaven, we still look around us and wait for Jesus to return and to set all things right. And that day will come. But Jesus doesn’t want us to sit around twiddling our thumbs while we are waiting for him. He wants us to listen for his direction, to come together for worship, study, and prayer, and to witness to everyone about how he has wonderfully acted in our lives. So let’s be enthusiastic about sharing our faith stories with one another. Let’s look for opportunities to share our stories with a broader audience. Let’s tell others how much Jesus loves them and invite them to come and worship with us on Sunday mornings. And let us daily remember that Jesus was crucified, died, resurrected, and then ascended into heaven, all for love of us. What great and marvelous love that is! Amen.



Sermon for Easter 6A

Acts 17:22-31

I have a really awesome sister-in-law.  She has done a lot of cool things in her life, but one thing that I find really cool is that she has worked at comic book conventions, and thus knows a lot of famous people in the television and comic book worlds. For those of you who don’t know what these conventions are all about, it’s a place for comic book vendors to sell their wares, and it’s a place for comic book fans to come and meet the people who draw the comic books, as well as meet the stars from some sci-fi and fantasy TV shows. Several years ago, I went down to Florida to visit my sister-in-law and my brother, and she got me into MegaCon for free.  I am a huge Star Trek fan, and I was excited because I got to meet Brent Spiner when I was there—he played the android named Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  MegaCon is also a place where people can walk around in costumes, dressed up as their favorite characters.  I saw several people dressed up as characters from Batman, Star Wars, Star Trek, and many, many others there.  To say that this was a weekend of weirdness would have been an understatement.  Towards the end of my visit, I began to reflect on this—because I was in seminary at the time, and they teach you to think theologically about everything there—and the question I came up with was, “How would you preach the gospel to this sci-fi/fantasy/comic book crowd?”  When I posed the question to one of my fellow students, they looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “Well, that’s easy.  Characters in comic books die and come back to life all the time.  There’s your way in.”

The reason that I bring this up is because this is what the apostle Paul is doing in today’s lesson from Acts.  Before arriving in Athens, Paul had been in Thessalonica and Berea, spreading the gospel of Jesus, but had been run out of town by people who thought he was teaching the wrong things.  Athens was a place of culture, a place where new ideas were exchanged all the time.  Athens was the home of the great philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.  Athens was also the place where all those Greek gods that we learned about in school were worshiped.  So, here’s Paul, a good Jewish man who has been taught that there is only one God and that all the rest are idols, cooling his heels and waiting for his traveling companions to catch up with him in a city that is full of idols and where the people are sleek, educated, and cultured.  Luke says that Paul “was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.”  That was probably an understatement.  So what does Paul do?  He starts arguing with the Jewish people in the city in the synagogues and starts talking to the philosophers in the marketplace.  So, they bring Paul to the Areopagus, the place where the city council of Athens meets, and ask him to clarify what he is talking about.  This is the context for the speech we hear Paul making in our first reading today.

And the interesting thing about this speech is that Paul does not start with who he is and where he is on his faith journey.  He does not start by talking about Jesus being the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, because these Greeks have never heard of the Scriptures that Paul holds dear.  No, Paul starts from where the Athenians are:  He talks about the gods that they worship, even though he himself finds them distressing.  He then finds the point of contact between where the Athenians are and the message that he wants to give them: the altar inscribed with the words “to an unknown god”.  Claiming that this unknown god is the one true God who made the heavens and the earth, he speaks of how all people were created by this one God, calls the people to repentance by talking about the coming day of judgment, and finally speaks of Jesus being raised from the dead as the sign that the day of judgment is coming.  And notice that Paul does not even call Jesus by name.  This is a beginning teaching for a people who had no concept of one God but of many.  Paul eases them into the idea of the resurrection in what is a seemingly backward way.

I think that, as we witness today to the society around us about Jesus—who he is and what he has done for us—we can learn from Paul’s speech to the Athenians. As I mentioned before, Paul starts with where the Athenians are. Rather than speaking to them about the Hebrew Scriptures, which they wouldn’t have known anything about, he begins with their altar that says “To an unknown god” and uses that. He proclaims that the god that they don’t know is the God whom Paul knows, and the God who wants to make himself known to the Athenians. He uses what the Athenians know and then proclaims the good news from that starting point.

Over many years, our society has become more and more secular. A growing number of people have had either no contact with the church, or bad contact with the church. So, we too need to rethink how we talk to others about Jesus, because we cannot always assume that they know who Jesus is and what he is all about. So, when we encounter someone today who is not churched, how do we speak to them about a god that they do not know, or a god who they may dimly remember from a childhood when family members brought them to Sunday school?

Well, let me tell you a story to illustrate how we might approach this. My first congregation, before I came here to be with you all, was in northwestern Wyoming, about a half hour from the Montana border. And about an hour from where I lived was a cute little town nestled at the foot of the Beartooth Mountains called Red Lodge. And in the town of Red Lodge, there was a small bookstore with a tea bar at the back. The owner of the store would get all sorts of different kinds of loose leaf teas and mix them together to produce new flavors of tea, and you could sit at the bar and make your choice of tea based on which scent appealed to you most that day. As I was sitting at the bar one day drinking my tea, I started having a conversation with the woman next to me. And when she found out I was a pastor, she started asking me all kinds of questions. You see, she had been brought up in a fundamentalist church, and when she came out of the closet, she was hurt by family members and members of her congregation, and she had fallen away from church completely. But she was now feeling a lack in her life, and I think she was trying to find her way back to God. In my conversation with her, I did my best to proclaim that God was a God of love, and I directed her to a couple of congregations in the area who would love her as she was and where she would hear that God loves her, too. I don’t know if she ever did find her way back to a congregation or not. I hope and pray that she has.

But, friends, this is the society which we live in today. We’re not in the ’50s and ‘60s anymore, where everyone went to church and where the Sunday school classrooms were filled to overflowing. We are in a society now that has become disenchanted with the church, and sometimes for good reason. We are in a society where many people have been brought up without the church, or where people have been brought up in the church but have been hurt by it, thinking that we are nothing but a bunch of hypocritical do-gooders who condemn anyone who does not follow the rules as sinful people whom God cannot love unless they shape up. And such a God is not the God that I worship—that is a god that is unknown to me. We serve a God of love, a God who does not demand perfection before he has a relationship with us. We serve a God who loved us even while we were still sinners, and who gave up his Son to die on the cross for us because he loves us so much. And we, the church, need to be better about proclaiming that God to the rest of the world.

So, how do we do that? How do we talk about Jesus to a society that, while it is disenchanted with the institutional church, often likes to think of itself as still somehow spiritual? How do we witness to people who are, as the apostle Paul puts it, groping for God? Well, we have to start by listening. We have to listen to people when they talk about how the church has hurt them in their lives, no matter how painful it might be for us to hear. We have to listen and find out what’s important to people. We have to listen to what people need and see what gifts God has given us where we might be able to meet the needs of the people around us. And only after we have listened to people do we get to speak and to act. Only then can we say that we’re sorry they’ve been hurt. And only then can we tell them about the God we worship: the God who loves us so much, who loves us even when we mess up, that he gave his only Son, Jesus, to die for our sins. And then we can tell them that not only did Jesus die for our sins, he rose up from the dead, and so we, too, have new life in him here in this world and in the life to come. We may not know if the person to whom we are speaking will actually return to the church, but when we witness in a manner that is respectful of the other person, then the Holy Spirit can use that to touch the other person’s heart with God’s love.

Further on in the story, which we don’t have in front of us today, Luke tells us that most of the people who heard the apostle Paul speak on that long-ago day scoffed at him when he started talking about the resurrection of the dead. But there were a few people who continued to listen to Paul and eventually became believers in Jesus. And when we speak to others about Jesus today, there will be some who will laugh at us. There will be some who can’t get past the mistakes of the institutional church, but who will respect us for our beliefs. And there may be some who actually become believers based on the words that we have spoken to them. We don’t know how the Holy Spirit will move in a person’s heart or when, and that’s the good news: it’s not up to us to convert people, it’s up to the Holy Spirit. Our calling is simply to give others a reason for the hope that we have in Jesus. And when we have such good news to share with the world, then nothing should hold us back. So let us be open to the unexpected opportunities to share Jesus with others, but let us do so by first listening to the other person, and then finding ways to connect our faith in Jesus with where they are in life. We may just be surprised by how the Holy Spirit may work through us. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 5A

John 14:1-14

Every night I say a prayer in the hope that there’s a heaven
And every day I’m more confused as the saints turn into sinners
All the heroes and legends I knew as a child have fallen to idols of clay
And I feel this empty place inside so afraid that I’ve lost my faith

Show me the way, show me the way
Take me tonight to the river
And wash my illusions away
Show me the way

This song by the rock band Styx talks about how the person singing it is asking for guidance, and how he wants someone to show him the way, to wash away his illusions and his confusion so he can see clearly the way that he is supposed to go.  It’s an age-old longing:  we human beings have ached for a sign, a sure sign that we should turn to the left and not to the right, and then for assurance that we have made the right decision.  We are always confused, groping and stumbling about in what seems like the darkness.  We find out that the people we follow, the ones we thought had it all together, are just as confused as we are.  And so, we say with Thomas in today’s gospel, “How can we know the way?”  Into this confusion and perplexity, where our illusions are stripped away and our fears seem larger than life, Jesus speaks a clear word of promise, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

Unfortunately, many people don’t see this as a promise, but rather as a threat.  Coupled with Jesus’ next words, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” these verses have been used to say that unless one believes in Jesus—and believes in Jesus in the exact right way by attending the right church, behaving oneself, and doing good to others—that person will not go to heaven to be with Jesus when he or she dies.  These beautiful words of promise have instead become a stumbling block for many, and cause people to say that if that’s the way things are, they don’t want anything more to do with the church.  These words have been used as an excuse for infighting among Christians as to who has the right way to Jesus, as well as an excuse for well-meaning Christians to convert others forcibly to Christianity.  Those Christians who want to improve interfaith relations have done well until they are confronted by these words, and then they either find ways around them or they ignore them completely.  And finally, these words have caused people to wonder about the fate of their loved ones, alive and dead, who either don’t believe in Jesus or who do, but not in what the person considers the right way.  In short, these words spoken by Jesus in John’s gospel have caused much pain for many people over the centuries.  Can the words be redeemed and given new meaning?  And if so, how?

Like so many verses and passages of the Bible that have been taken out of context, I believe this one has been, too, and so it is helpful to explore that original context.  In this passage, we encounter Jesus with his disciples on the night of the Last Supper.  He has just washed his disciples’ feet.  Judas has gone into the night to make arrangements to betray him.  Jesus has given the disciples the commandment to love one another.  Jesus has predicted that Peter will deny him three times.  And after all of this, Jesus begins speaking about the things he wants to tell the disciples before he goes to the cross to die.  Of course, after all of the charged events of the evening, Jesus starts by telling the disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  Because of course the disciples are troubled, and so Jesus wants to comfort them.  He tells them that he is going to prepare a place for them.  Thomas asks Jesus where he is going and how they are supposed to get there, and Jesus replies that he is the way.

In this context, it is hard to see how Jesus would even think that his words would one day be interpreted in a manner that would create fear, mistrust, and alienation.  He was not saying that in order to follow him to his Father’s house, one would have to believe in the right way, behave correctly, and do the right things.  Where was Jesus going and how was he getting there?  He was going the way of the cross, and by being crucified and resurrected, he was himself becoming the Way.  In other words, through his death and resurrection, Jesus reveals God the Father to the world.  And God loves the world, the whole world, as Jesus himself says earlier in the Gospel of John:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

So our troubles then, I think, come with the English word “believe”.  In order to believe, in our culture, we must believe in certain teachings and doctrines.  But the Greek word which Jesus uses here can not only be translated into English as “believe” but also as “trust”.  So, how would that change things around if we were to have Jesus saying, “Trust in God, trust also in me”?  Then we’re not so limited when we look at these verses.  It makes it easier for us to say, “Hey, even though the Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, etc., don’t believe in all the same things we do, they still trust in God and trust in Jesus, so I bet I’ll see them in the life to come.”

The last remaining question, then, is what about those of other faiths, of no faith, or who are still searching?  When Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” where does that leave Jewish people, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, atheists, and so many others?  In the book Love Wins, by Rob Bell, the author wrestles with the idea of heaven and hell, and towards the end of the book, he tackles today’s passage from John.  Bell states that yes, Jesus says that no one comes to the Father except through him.  However, Bell says, “What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him.  He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him.  He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.”  Or, in simpler words, Bell says, “What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody.”  The letter to the Colossians says essentially the same thing in chapter 1:  “and through [Jesus] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.”  Jesus goes the way of the cross and in so doing, becomes the Way himself through which the earth and everyone and everything in it will be saved.

So, right now, we’re going to engage in a prayer exercise.  I would like you to call to mind a person or people whom you have loved and lost to death, especially someone who you may have wondered if they went to heaven or not.  Perhaps at the time of their death, someone shook their head and said sadly that they weren’t in heaven because they didn’t believe in the right way, or they didn’t believe at all, or their behavior here on earth wasn’t the best.  You can also think of those people in your life who are still alive and who do not identify as Christian. Take a few moments to think about these people, and then I will begin the prayer.  *pause*  Lord Jesus, we remember before you our loved ones who have gone ahead of us.  Lord, we trust in you and in your love, that you are indeed the way, the truth, and the life.  We pray forgiveness for those times when we have used your words of comfort and promise as words of separation, division, and exclusion.  We commend our loved ones into the comfort of your arms, and we trust that you are, indeed, in a mysterious way, reconciling the entire world and everyone in it to God.  During those times that we feel the pain of missing our loved ones, and in those times of doubt when we wonder about the fate of those who do not believe or trust in you, we pray that you would comfort us with those words that in your Father’s house are many dwelling places, and that we will one day see all of our loved ones once more.  Into your hands, O Lord, we entrust the care of all whom we love, both living and dead, and we trust in your mercy upon them.  In your holy name we pray, Amen.

“Show me the way,” the singer pleads.  God has indeed shown us that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and Jesus has revealed the love of his Father for the whole world.  May we never take those words as a threat to keep us in line, but instead as the beautiful promise of comfort that Jesus meant them to be.  Amen.

Sermon for Easter 4A (Good Shepherd Sunday)

John 10:1-10

We all love sheep. They’re cute, wooly white animals who make funny noises. We have pictures of Jesus gently carrying a lamb over his shoulders and these cute, woolly white critters frolicking all over, listening to Jesus’ voice and following him with no questions asked, because he’s, well, Jesus. If that’s our picture of sheep and Jesus as the good shepherd, though, it’s a good bet that our only experience with sheep has been at the petting zoo. Has anyone here today been around sheep on a regular basis on a farm or a ranch? Well, I haven’t either, but here’s what I’ve learned from people who have been around sheep. First of all, sheep are not the most intelligent creatures in the world. I had a friend once whose father raised sheep, and she told me that, if you place a fence in front of the lead sheep and get him to jump over it, and then a few more sheep jump over it, and then you take the fence away—the rest of the sheep will jump as if the fence were still there. Secondly, another friend of mine talks about his uncle who raised sheep, and how his uncle disliked coming to worship on Good Shepherd Sunday, because the pastor would say things about sheep that simply weren’t true. This friend writes that, “Sheep will graze a pasture to the ground and will then eat the roots of the grass, making a desert, unless a shepherd moves them along. Sheep will bloat themselves to death on green alfalfa, lacking the sense to stop eating even when their stomachs start to swell. Sheep are rude, they smell bad, and they leave a sticky slick coating on everything they rub up against so that you come away wondering what the attraction of lanolin in hand lotion might be” (Provoking the Gospel of John, p. 269). In other words, Jesus is not paying us a compliment when he calls us sheep.

But, these descriptions of sheep fit us as human beings in many ways. In a crowd, we will follow a leader regardless of how intelligent that leader is. And if he jumps over a fence, we, too, will jump over a fence, even if the fence is no longer there. We human beings also know when we have a good thing, and we will stay where we are comfortable unless someone points out that we have used up all of the resources that are of benefit to us in one place and we need to move on to another place. And that is where I’d like to focus our meditation today: who are we following, where is he leading us, and, as we listen for his voice, what is he asking us to do?

So, here’s the first question: who are we following? Well, if you’re here today, I’m going to assume that your answer is going to be: we are following Jesus. Or, at least we are doing our best to follow Jesus. Sometimes other voices can drown Jesus out in our society. Or sometimes, we hear voices claiming to be Jesus who preach a message that Jesus himself would not recognize. If we are listening to those voices that say that God wants us to be happy and to be wealthy and that all we have to do is follow some simple steps and pray until good things start happening to us, then that is not the voice of Jesus. Nowhere in the Gospels does it say that Jesus was wealthy and that he claimed for himself the glory of God. And nowhere in the Gospels does it say that our lives will be happy and easy if we just pray hard enough. Instead, the Gospels tell us that Jesus went to the cross and suffered an agonizing death for us. And when Jesus says that he came so that we might have life, and have it abundantly, he is not talking about material wealth. Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. When Jesus talks about abundant life, he is talking about having relationships: a relationship with him, and a relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. He is talking about coming together and helping one another through this life, in both our sorrows and our joys. Anyone who says that Jesus is talking about material possessions when he is talking about abundant life is one of those thieves and bandits who come only to steal and kill and destroy.

So, we are following Jesus, who assures us that he came to give us abundant life in the form of relationship with him and relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Where is he leading us? Well, let’s start with some of the language that Jesus uses in this passage. One of the things that you will discover about me is that, since I studied German as my major when I was an undergraduate, and since I have learned some other languages since then, I am fascinated by translation issues and how sometimes, we don’t always get the nuances of the original language and culture when we read something in translation. So, when you hear Jesus say, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out,” you’re probably thinking of Jesus standing in front of the flock, calling them, and the sheep docilely walking behind him. But sheep and other animals don’t always cooperate like that. So, let’s hear Jesus saying this, “He calls his own sheep by name and drives them out.” That would mean Jesus is behind the flock, pushing them and using his staff to knock a few sheep back into place, getting them to go where he wants them to go, because the sheep have eaten up all the grass in the place where they are.

I like this picture because, in the short time that I have been here and I have been learning what’s been going on both at Salem and at St. John, I think that’s what Jesus is doing with us. He is calling us and he is driving us out of our comfort zones and out of our church buildings and into the community. And it’s not just our two congregations, but the church as a whole. Let’s use this metaphor of sheep and shepherd as we think about what’s going on. Could it be that we as the church have gotten too comfortable in one spot and have, in fact, eaten the grass down to the roots? Could it perhaps be that Jesus is starting to drive us out of the spots where we have overgrazed and is calling us to get out of our buildings and to find new pasture in the communities around us?

We are following Jesus, who is driving us out of our buildings and into new pastures in the community. As we listen to his voice, what do you think he is calling us to do as we go out into our communities? Well, I think that our two congregations are off to a good start. We are working more together with one another and with our two neighbors, Trinity two blocks down from us and St. Peter’s in Highspire. We are starting to look around at our neighborhoods and realize that they have changed drastically since our congregations were founded, and we are beginning to get to know our neighbors and to listen to what their needs are. And I believe that, as we listen to the voices of our neighbors, we will also hear the voice of our Good Shepherd, Jesus, calling us to follow where he leads and showing us how he would have us serve as witnesses to his love as we serve our neighbors.

And that is the good news in all of this. Jesus tells us that, “When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” In other words, after Jesus has been behind us and driven us out of our comfortable places, he does not leave us alone. He goes ahead of us. So, whenever we are facing uncertainty in the times ahead, we know that Jesus has not left us alone. We know that, in whatever new places we find ourselves, Jesus has gone ahead of us and is already there, waiting for us. We do not need to be afraid of this new world that we, the church, find ourselves in, because we know that Jesus is already here, and is with us, both behind us driving us out of our comfortable places and ahead of us, calling us forward and urging us to listen to his voice.

And so, as you and I begin our walk together, and I join with you in ministering in this time and place, Jesus urges us not to be afraid. Yes, we will stumble, and sometimes we will fall into holes. But Jesus will be there with us, pulling us up from our mistakes, dusting us off, and urging us to keep moving. So, yes, it may not be a compliment when Jesus calls us sheep. But we know that Jesus loves us in spite of the bad traits we share in common with sheep, and Jesus is with us. Always. Amen.

Coming Back East

In February, I accepted a new call to St. John Lutheran Church in Steelton, PA, and Salem Lutheran Church in Oberlin, PA. These communities are about a mile or so apart and are part of suburban Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The two congregations have been yoked together for several years as neither one can survive on their own, and they are in need of renewal and revival. I left Wyoming the day after Easter. It was hard to say goodbye to my parish in Wyoming, but I do believe that this is where God has called me. I am already experiencing new challenges in my work with the congregations, and I am experiencing renewal and refreshment myself. Since I am no longer in the West, I have retitled my blog, “Coming Back East,” and I will continue to post sermons and other thoughts on this blog. The URL is the same: Happy Reading!