Work in Progress

A story of Christmas, doubt, belief, and a twelve year old boy, all based on the text of Luke 2:41-52.  Listen or read the text below.  Enjoy!

Two days ago I’m guessing many of you spent the day unwrapping presents, gathered together with friends, family and loved ones, and shared a Christmas meal together.  Perhaps you enjoyed a bottle of wine or some eggnog too, yum.  More importantly, I hope you carved out some time that special day to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, born of a virgin Mary, in a lowly manger, surrounded by a heavenly host singing Glory to God in the Highest, Peace on Earth to All!

Or maybe you didn’t have any of that, and spent the day alone, without friends or family, dining in solitude, longing for something that next quite materialized.  This season can do that to us sometimes, setting up these lofty ideals that don’t always work out.  Heck, half the Christmas lights on my house burned out on Christmas Eve.  It made my return home from the candlelight services here on the 24th a bit of a downer.  I still need to get those lights fixed, the way they are now just doesn’t seem right.

But here we are, on the 27th of December, only two days after celebrating the birth of the Christ child, and we’re asked to dwell on a story of pre-teen, twelve year old Jesus.  Where has the time gone?  Jesus grew up awfully fast in those two days, didn’t he?  Scripture is surprisingly silent about what Jesus was up to as a child growing up.  A few months before the birth of Jesus we can read of visits from angels.  At the birth there are shepherds, an innkeeper, a manger, and even more angels.  And then there are the magi, who came to visit later, possibly a couple of years after the birth of Jesus.

Beyond that scripture gets really quiet about Jesus until his ministry begins at age 30.  How does Jesus, the Son of God, the Son of Man, grow up between the ages of 2 and 30?  There’s a lot we just don’t know.  The reading today from Luke 2 is the only bit of information in the New Testament we have that covers this twenty-eight year time span.

Don’t you Believe Me?

This gap in scripture got me thinking about what life must have been like for this young family.  There is something decidedly different about a family that contains the savior of the world.  And yet here Mary and Joseph are, normal people in their own way, surrounded by normal, everyday folks.  Surrounded by friends, family, and neighbors, people probably not too different from you and I.  Imagine what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph, trying to navigate their way through everyday life while trying to raise the Son of God.

Imagine Mary, as a young mother, trying to explain to the neighbors this wondrous story.  “That’s right, an angel appeared to me,” Mary might have said.   “The angel said I was pregnant, and my baby would be born holy.  The angel told me this child of mine is the Son of God!  Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that awesome? What do you mean you don’t believe me?!?  No, I was *NOT* doing anything I shouldn’t have been doing!  I wasn’t married yet!  I was a good Jewish girl, I was!  Don’t you believe me?”

Imagine Joseph, as a young father, trying to explain to his carpenter co-workers his version of the story. “Yeah, Mary and I were engaged when I found out she was pregnant, man, that was tough.  I knew I wasn’t this baby’s daddy.  I was totally going to break off the engagement, what a mess.  But then an angel appeared to me in a dream.  And the angel told me the same thing Mary was saying.  The angel said the Holy Spirit is the father, that I should still tie the knot with Mary. And that we should name the baby Jesus.  Did you know that name, Jesus, Emmanuel, means God with us?  That’s what the angel told me.  No, I don’t think Mary was seeing anyone else, she’s a good Jewish girl.  Yes, of course I listened to that angel, wouldn’t you? Don’t you believe me?”

Imagine Jesus, growing up, surrounded by all this drama, in some ways just like any other kid, even though he wasn’t just any other kid.  If children of that era were anything like the kids of today, then growing up as Jesus couldn’t have been any cakewalk.  Imagine the playground chatter Jesus may have overheard, as the rumors started to fly.  “I heard his parents weren’t married when his mom was pregnant.  Oh yeah, I heard Joseph isn’t even his real Dad.  Then who is his father?  I dunno, go ask Jesus, I bet he has some crazy story like usual.”

Questions of belief and doubt around the identity of Jesus as a youth must have been palpable, there’s just no getting around it.  In modern terms, there are two basic ways we can view the birth narrative of Jesus.  Either he is just another child, born of questionable events, earthly in every way, another broken part of a broken world.  Or Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, born of miraculous events, both fully human and fully divine, ready to fulfill prophecy and become the Savior of the world.

It’s a huge distinction, these two views, bigger than any family drama that’s ever been on the Jerry Springer show.  And bigger than any paternity test ever featured by Maury Pauvich.

Perhaps Mary and Joseph had conversations like this frequently as Jesus grew up.  Perhaps after hearing this unbelief from friends and family, over and over, they stopped sharing the identity of their firstborn son as much.  As a parent it’s hard to handle when others don’t think as highly of your child as you do.  At least it is for me, maybe it is for other parents too.  Did Mary and Joseph got caught up in the day-to-day todo’s of raising a family just like any other family?  Perhaps, as Jesus grew older and his birth faded into a memory Mary and Joseph began to have their doubts about the identity of their son too.  Perhaps.

Jesus in the Temple

All this leads us into our gospel reading for today.  The story begins simply enough, with Jesus and his parents traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover festival.  They did this every year, part family vacation, part religious pilgrimage.  But this year something was different.  When the festival ended Jesus decided to hang around the temple, unbeknownst to his parents, who began the long walk back home.

After a day of travel Mary and Joseph realized they hadn’t seen their Son for a while and began to look for him among their fellow travelers, their friends and relatives.  How embarrassing that must have been for them.   “Hey, have you seen Jesus?” Mary would ask.  “He should be around here somewhere.”  “You lost the Son of God?” their friends may have retorted.  “What kind of mother are you?”  Oh, their friends and family must have been talking in some very unkind ways.

Not seeing Jesus in the group of travelers Mary and Joseph went back to Jerusalem to search for him some more.  After three days of searching – their twelve year-old don was missing for THREE DAYS – they found Jesus, still in the temple.  If I were in Mary and Joseph’s shoes, having lost my pre-teen child that long I’d have called the cops, formed search groups, and made sure photos and information were all over social media.  I’d be in a panic, anxious and worried, not sleeping too well either.  I’d have some stern words for this kid too.  Do not stray from mom and dad kiddo, it’ll get you in trouble.

And that’s pretty much what we’re told in scripture.  After finding Jesus Mary exclaims “Child, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been searching for you, in great anxiety.”  It sounds like Mary, a Jewish mother, is applying some old fashioned guilt here to teach her son a lesson.

Now listen to what happens next, the tables are about to turn.  Jesus, in his first speaking role of scripture, says to his parents “Why were you searching for me?  Didn’t you know I’d be in my Father’s house?”  Jesus doesn’t respond with an apology, or even act defiant.  Instead he asks a simple question followed by a rhetorical one, “Why were you searching for me?  Didn’t you know?  I’m in my Father’s house.”

I don’t know much about pre-teens, it’s been over 25 years since I’ve been one, and our two kids are still young.  To help with this knowledge gap I asked a friend, Stacey Kade, about what it is that makes pre-teens different from both children and adults.  Stacey writes books for young adults, so she thinks about what makes this age group special a lot.  She told me the thing to keep in mind is that pre-teens *feel* like adults, they are smart enough and old enough to have opinions that differ from the adults in their lives.

It’s hard for parents, perhaps even for parents like Mary and Joseph, to recognize the split between the kid who still needs guidance and the kid making the first forays into independence.  Pre-teens are working to figure out their identities, separate from their parents, and seek ways to communicate that identity with others.

Up until this moment the identity of Jesus – as the Son of God, the Emmanuel, the Christ – had been exclaimed by angels, by priests, by prophetesses.  And now, in this moment, the first speaking role for Jesus recorded in scripture, he finds his own voice to make this claim.

“Why are you searching for me?” Jesus asks.  “Didn’t you know I’d be in my Father’s house?  If you listen close enough to this text you can almost hear Jesus gently reminding his parents of this identity.  If there was any doubt in Mary and Joseph, Jesus wants them to cast that doubt aside.  Instead of two parents teaching their twelve year old son a lesson, the tables have turned.  Jesus is growing up, coming into his own; starting to sound like a teacher in his own right.  Come on mom, come on dad, you heard from the angels, the priests, the prophets.  They told you who I was.  Don’t you still believe them?  Don’t you believe me?

Closing

As you reflect back on Christmas, that day we celebrated just two days ago, there are a couple of ways we can view this festive season.

Christmas can be just a cultural tradition, filled with all the trappings of trees, gifts, shared meals, darkened churches filled with candles, voices raised singing Silent Night once again.  Christmas can be that, a moment in time, or a day, or 12 days, or even a six-week celebration that starts after Thanksgiving, ends on Epiphany.  And that’s all well and good.  Christmas is a tradition that brings people together in special ways.  It celebrates high ideals for humanity.  It helps us pass the time.  Christmas will be here again in less than 365 days, it’ll be festive again, it’ll be fun again, I guarantee it.

Or Christmas, for you and I, can be something so much more.  It can be a bold claim, a recognition that a baby lying in a manger was about to change everything.  It can be a reminder, that a 12 year old boy, separated from his parents, spending time in his Father’s house, was wise beyond his years.  It can be a look ahead, to the life, the death and resurrection of one Man that would forever rock the world.

But for Christmas to symbolize all that asks a little more from us.  It asks to us to take a close look at ourselves, to consider any lingering doubts we may have about the miraculous birth story.  And if Mary and Joseph can doubt, even for a moment, and can miss the divine calling of their own Son, then doubt can linger within any of us.

So before you put away your nativity set in the coming days I’d like to ask you to do something.  In that nativity set notice the angels, singing glory to God in the highest.  Take heed of the miniature Mary and Joseph, given the most important job two people have ever had.  Consider the shepherds, now freed of fear, that came to worship the Christ child.  Look inward, to where you find faith.  Look inward, to where you still doubt.  Then take that baby, lying in a manger and listen.  Listen closely.  Don’t you believe me, Jesus asks?  I do.

 

work-in-progress

Signs

The first week of Advent offers many signs for us, including Tesla, Bill Engvall, a wreath and four candles.  Amazingly these signs all point us to one moment in time, to not just any sign, but to THE sign.  Listen or read on, here’s your sign.

Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs

Screwing up the scenery, breakin’ my mind

Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the signs?

You may recognize those lyrics from the 1990 hit song Signs from the rock group Tesla; or if you’re a little older you might have heard the 1971 version when it was released by the Canadian group Five Man Electrical Band.

Seasonal Signs

This time of year we are absolutely inundated with signs.  If you were here for the Thanksgiving evening service a few days ago you saw a cornucopia on the table behind me.  And if you turned on a computer, watched tv or read a newspaper on Thanksgiving you saw a whole other set of signs.  BLACK FRIDAY!  STORES OPEN EARLY!  STORES OPEN ON THANKSGIVING!  Yikes.  Those are signs from marketers, telling us we need to buy more stuff.

A recent study found that people see or hear over 360 ads a day including those from television, the internet, magazines, radio and billboards.  When you include brands like the Nike swoosh symbol on a pair of shoes or the Jolly Green Giant on a can of green beans the number of brand signs we see gets really crazy.  How many brand signs are we exposed to each day?  Over 5,000.  FIVE THOUSAND, every day.  That’s insane. Each one, trying to get you to think something, feel something, and buy something.

And then there’s Christmas coming up, of course.  It’s a little harder to see the signs of Christmas in South Florida, or at least a little different than up north.  As a child I’d trek off to the local tree farm, pick out the best Christmas tree of the batch and then help Dad chop it down and tie it to the top of our car.  We’d usually have some hot cider and a cookie or two to keep us warm during tree-chopping in the winter cold.  And if we were really lucky in Baltimore that year sometimes there’d be some snow coming down too.  Taking the plastic tree out of the attic last night, sweating some in our November heat, reminded me I miss some of those seasonal signs from my youth.

This week I can almost guarantee that each of you have seen signs of families gathering together to share a meal, ads promoting Black Friday sales galore, and an image of Santa ringing a bell, encouraging you to give to the Salvation Army.  Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs.

Here’s Your Sign

Comedian Bill Engvall talks about signs a little differently.  He imagines a world where all the people that ask dumb questions would have a sign around their neck.  That way you wouldn’t ask them for anything, you’d just say Oops, never mind, I didn’t see your sign.

He then tells a few short stories about how these signs would work.  Now Bill is a country boy, so I’ll try to use my best southern accent.

  • One time when fishing Bill pulled his boat onto the dock, lifted up a big line of bass fish and a guy on the dock says, “Hey, y’all catch all them fish?” “Nope,” he says, “I talked ‘em into giving up.”  Here’s Your Sign.
  • Before Bill moved across the country his house was full of boxes, and a uHaul truck was in the driveway. A friend came over and says, “Hey, you moving?”  “Nope,” he replies, “We just pack our stuff up once or twice a week.  Just to see how many boxes it takes.”  Here’s Your Sign.
  • Then there was the time Bill was driving, had a flat tire, and pulled his truck into a side-of-the-road gas station. The gas station attendant walks out, looks at the truck, and asks “Tire too flat?”  Not able to resist Bill replies, “Nope, I was driving around and those other three just swelled right up on me.”  Here’s your sign.

The message from this particular comedian is that Signs can be funny, but they can label you.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d want one of those signs hanging around my neck.

I’d like to suggest that signs aren’t inherently good or bad, they’re just signs.  Signs can be helpful, and provide good information, answers, sometimes comfort.  But with all those signs out there which ones do we pay attention to?  There’s only so much a person can process.  The signs you pay attention to makes a difference.  Over time they begin to define you.

Jesus spoke about signs an awful lot, today’s scripture reading is filled with them.

Current Signs

Our gospel reading from Luke today says: “there will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations.”  Egad, that doesn’t sound like a very Happy Thanksgiving.  Or a particularly festive holiday season either.  When you hear that, signs of distress among nations, what do you think about?  My mind wanders to words like Paris, Beirut, Isis.  If you’ve been anywhere close to a computer or television screen recently you’ve see these signs too.

Jesus then goes on to give some advice in today’s text, telling us to, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.”

So while we watch distress among the nations we are not to be weighed down with worry.  Instead we wait, in anticipation, to be ready of what is to come.

Baby Signs

That makes me feel a little better, this not worrying part, but something still seems off.  I mean why are talking about all this dark stuff?  Thanksgiving was just three days ago.  Heck, today starts the first week of Advent; earlier in the service we lit the first candle of the Advent Wreath.  This wreath is a reminder that we wait, in quiet anticipation for the coming of the Christ child.

Maybe that’s it, instead of focusing on current signs, instead we can look to the signs of the past.  Perhaps those signs will help guide our ways.

Think about those signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars that Jesus mentions in Luke 21.  The Magi were looking to the heavens for a sign, following a star to Bethlehem to worship a newborn baby.  Jesus asks us in that same chapter to “Be on guard, not weighed down with the worries of life, so that day does not catch you unexpectedly.”

Worry and a newborn baby, waiting in anticipation.   If you’re a parent that may sound really familiar.  It reminds me of getting ready for the birth of our firstborn daughter, Hannah.  My wife Kathi and I put all this effort into getting the nursery together, and then we’d worrying about whether the baby would be safe, whether the crib was set up right.  We worried about packing the hospital bag for the birth, had we put all the right things in there?  What if we forgot something?  And then there were my in-laws, oh my in-laws.  They called from Orlando on their way from Chicago, less than three hours from our home the day before Hannah was born.  Why yes, they announced, they were planning to be here for the birth of our child.  WHAT?  Our house isn’t clean enough for guests! We worried some more.

But then it happened: the birth of our beautiful daughter, Hannah Grace, on March 10, 2010.  The moment we heard her first cry, held her close, and changed that first diaper all those worries just melted away.  Kathi and I knew the birth of this child had changed us, forever, in an instant.  Our lives, our world, would never be the same.  Perhaps this isn’t so different as where we find ourselves this season, waiting for another child to be born.

Closing

So when you see signs of wars, and rumors of wars, and hear words like Beirut, Paris, and Isis, remember the angel, speaking to terrified shepherds on the night the Christ child was born.  “Do not be afraid” the angel says—I bring you good news of great joy for all people.”  That’s a sign to fear not, this baby is good news, be ye joyful.

When you see the signs trying to sell you something, those 5,000 brand signs we encounter each day, listen to that same angel describing the ultimate gift, one that didn’t cost you a thing: “This will be a sign for you,” the angel says, “you will find a child wrapped in cloth, lying in a manger.” That’s a sign as seen in scripture, and not available in stores.

And when you grow frustrated with friends, family, and co-workers – it’ll happen this time of year, I guarantee it – you may be tempted to put a not-so-nice message around their neck, saying, “here’s your sign.”  Instead, remember the multitude of angels, singing at the birth of the Christ child. “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth for all,” the angels cry out.  Take that angelic cue, sing together with your fellow women, your fellow men, giving Glory to God in the highest.  Wait well, with excited anticipation, to celebrate a very special birth.

For when you do, this busy, worrisome, sometimes expensive time of year won’t seem like any of those things at all.  Instead you will find what you’ve been looking for your whole life long.  You will find what God desires for you in this season.  You will find peace on earth, come down from the heavens, now dwells with us.

manger sign

pale moon

The Pale Moonlight

Today’s message features Batman, Jesus, Martin Luther and a rap video, all seen through the lens of the Protestant Reformation.  If you’re listening to the message just pause at the 3 minute mark, scroll down to the video below, and then fire up the audio file to hear the rest.  For those that prefer to read it’s all laid out in order.  Enjoy!

 

“Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”

This quote may sound familiar; it’s from the 1989 Batman movie, the first Batman film of the modern era.  In it, the Joker, played by Jack Nicolson, asks Batman this question, right before shooting him, and leaving Batman for dead.  It’s a dark scene from a dark movie about the dark knight.  That’s knight with a K.

I had to look up the word pale to get a better sense of what this phrase means.  It turns out that a pale moonlight is dull, not bright at all.  For me this conjures up an image of dancing with your own personal demons, in the darkness of night, with only a dull, pale light from above.  It sounds kind of hopeless.

Batman was a critical and financial success, earning over $400 million in box office totals. It was the fifth-highest grossing film in history at the time of its release.  Our society it seems, is fascinated with darkness.  Perhaps we’re fascinated with hopeless situations too.

Martin Luther

Today we celebrate Reformation Sunday, it’s why many of you are wearing red, looking good!  On this day we also celebrate the man who started the Protestant Reformation almost 500 years ago, Martin Luther, a law student turned monk, then turned priest.

Luther knew about dancing with the devil too; as a young adult he spent years fighting his own demons.  Living in a monastery at the time, Luther worried a lot about sin, and that he may have committed it.  When he thought he had sinned he would apologize to God, through confession, whenever he failed.  He did A LOT of confessing.  While Luther was living in a monastery he would often wake up the head monk in the middle of the night to confess.   I can almost picture him looking up to the heavens, seeing only a dim, pale moon as he journeyed to confess.  At times Luther was so obsessed with sin he would literally whip himself, again, and again and again, as punishment.  Painful stuff.

So why all this extreme behavior?  Because Luther believed that if he died without confessing all his sins that he was destined for hell.  It’s no wonder he feared this dance with the devil in the pale moon light.  But fortunately for Luther, and for all of us, it gets better.  I’d like to show you a short video, it’s a rap song, about Luther’s life, that describes his role in reforming the church.

Isn’t that fun? It’s a great summary of Luther’s major complaint with the church of the time.  A few scenes from the video are from a movie aptly called “Luther” that came out in 2003.  The movie is available on DVD, maybe it can be streamed too, it’s highly recommended if you’d like to know more about the man.

Luther and Romans

The turning point for Martin Luther happened after deeply studying the Bible, particularly Paul’s letter to the Romans.

One of the scripture verses Luther ran across helped him to understand salvation in a new way.  Those verses are in Romans 3, verses 22-24:

22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

There’s some big words in there, let’s break this this down a little.  Another way of saying righteousness is morally good.  That could be shortened even more just to be “goodness.”  So we’re talking about the goodness of God.  A second word that trips me up in here is justified, that word comes up all the time in seminary.  Another way of saying justified is to be worthy of salvation, or to be “made right.”  When you swap out those two words the text gets a little easier to read, at least to me, and goes like this.

22 the goodness of God through faith in Jesus Christ is for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now made right by his grace as a gift, through the redemption in Christ Jesus.

So the goodness of God is for all who believe.  That sounds like pretty good news.  And how do we get that goodness? Through faith in Jesus Christ.  Ok, so through faith.  All have sinned it says.  We’re all in the same boat, every single one of us.  We’ve fallen short of God’s glory because of sin.  We just can’t help it.  It’s in our DNA.  But more good news is in this text, Paul reminds us.  We are made right, by the grace of Jesus, given to us as gift.

This notion, that there is nothing for us to do to receive the goodness of God beyond belief in Jesus, was radical at the time.  When Martin Luther discovered this he was freed from his dance with the devil in the pale moon light.  I’m guessing he slept a lot better at night after truly grasping Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Indulgences

But at the time, 500 years ago, that’s not how the church looked at how you get the goodness of God.  The church at the time used indulgences to forgive sins.  Indulgences is another funky word.  The way indulgences worked is that people would give money to the church, and the church would then forgive your sins.  Or even forgive the sins of your ancestors. We could summarize the concept of indulgences like this:

(1) Sin.  (2) Pay church.  (3) Avoid hell.  It’s a simple formula.  Fear sells.  One place you’ll find that sells fear in our culture is in TV commercials.  Marketers use fear to sell their products all the time.  Unfortunately some churches still use fear to motivate people.  Pastor Frank, I hope this doesn’t screw up any sermons you’re planning for the next giving campaign.  Probably not.  Just kidding.

Martin Luther, after a careful reading of Romans, came to a different conclusion.  The formula he saw through scripture looks a little more like this:  (1) Sin. (2) Have Faith in Jesus. (3) Experience God’s goodness.

The rap video we saw earlier has a great way of saying this poetically.  I’ll try to repeat that, though probably not as well.

People dropping Benjamins, to be forgiven of their sins

Buying up indulgences, man is this what salvation is?

Been spending most my life, trying to find my way to Jesus Christ,

Been spending most my life, trying to buy my way to paradise.

The church demanded money, money to atone,

Says the only way to heaven is indulgences alone,

Sorry Mr. Pope if this disturbs you on your throne,

The Bible that I’m reading says by faith and faith alone.

Before Luther’s epiphany he lived in fear.  He feared an angry God that would send him to hell for his sins.  He now knew those sins were covered by the death and resurrection of Jesus.  There were no works, no behaviors needed on his part.  It has all be done, already, on the cross.

Theologian Gerhard Forde summarizes Luther’s insight like this, saying:

“What shall I do to be saved? The answer is shocking. Nothing! Just be still, stop talking, and listen for once in your life…Listen to what God the Almighty, creator and redeemer is saying to the world, and to you, in the death and resurrection of his Son! Listen and believe!”

And with this new understanding of grace and salvation the personal reformation of Martin Luther had begun.  Luther, now aware of this grace, stopped dancing with the devil.  The pale moonlight that clouded his soul gave way to the Son, the risen Christ.

Reform

Luther, now set free, went about sharing this message with others.  He wrote up 95 complaints, known as the 95 theses, and nailed them on the door of the Wittenberg cathedral in 1517.  I brought in a poster with the 95 theses, feel free to check it out after service, there’s some interesting stuff in here.  There is also a depiction of this in the video we saw earlier.  The video shows a determined man marching up the church steps, loudly nailing his freshly written document to the door.  His actions that day paved the way for a host of reforms in Christians and the churches they attend.  These reforms have molded and changed us and our faith communities ever since.

This scene in the video of Luther marching up those church steps reminds me of something else: an annual pilgrimage a few friends of mine took each year in college.  While I wasn’t raised Lutheran, by chance I went to a Lutheran college in Northwest Indiana.  Each year a few friends from my college fraternity would take the 45 minute drive to Notre Dame University. Notre Dame is Catholic, they even have the famous touchdown Jesus at their football stadium.  The pilgrimage my friends took annually was right about this time of year, the end of October.  Their goal?  To nail Martin Luther’s 95 theses to the door of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. It’s a silly thing to do, for sure, but I took away another message: reform is still happening in our world today.

For Luther, as is for us, we are free through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  We need not fear dancing with the devil.  The dark knight of our soul, and the pale moonlight we sometimes find ourselves in, has been washed in the vibrant light of grace.  Salvation is ours, just believe, nothing else.

So whatever happened to Batman, after dancing with the devil, being shot and left for dead?  Of course the story doesn’t end there.  Batman had been wearing a silver serving tray when he was shot, well protected from any bullets heading his way.  Batman goes on to discover the Joker’s plot, and then foil it, saving the entire city of Gotham from certain death.  While our society may be fascinated by stories of darkness, we’re even more fascinated by salvation from it.  And those stories, my friends, go back more than 2,000 years, all the way to the cross.

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Faith, Hope & Love: The Dude Abides

If I had to pick a few words to describe the central qualities of a Christian lifestyle the nouns faith, hope and love would top the list. The apostle Paul spoke about these traits of Christ-followers a good bit in his many letters in the New Testament. Taken together, lives infused with faith, hope and love give us a lens to view humanity, a common purpose, and a shared identity to draw from.

Paul builds his case for faith from the Old Testament, heading all the way back to Abraham when he writes in Romans 4:13 that “the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” He expands on this to consider how one lives by faith, saying in Galatians 2:20 that “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” For Paul, living by faith is an essential ingredient to experience this new life in Christ.

Hope is also central to Paul’s identity as a Christ follower. He reaches a rhetorical climax on the implications of hope in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, concluding that “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” Why all the optimism, Paul? Aren’t you constantly in trouble with the law, often ending up behind bars, wasting away? He gives us a hint about the source of this optimism in Romans 8:11, reminding us that “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” No wonder you’re hopeful Paul, the Spirit of Christ is in you. In all of us. And that’s pretty sweet.

When it comes to understanding the importance of love in Paul’s theology it’s hard to top 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter. In modern terms it’s easy to envision the apostle walking around in a tye dye shirt, Jesus sandals, giving lots of hugs and high fives and passing the peace pipe. The love chapter first describes the importance of love, with Paul suggesting you can be the best speaker, the brightest visionary, the most giving philanthropist or even a martyr, but if you don’t have love, you are nothing. Whoa, that kind of sounds important. Paul continues, telling us love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Does that remind you of anyone? Any particular event? Reflecting on this my mind wanders to the cross.

Paul’s famously writes in 1 Corinthians 13, talking about various spiritual gifts that, in Christ, “faith hope and love abide.” Abide, what a funky word, it doesn’t pop up too much in everyday language these days. According to Merriam-Webster to abide is to endure without yielding, to withstand, and to bear patiently.

One place the word appears in pop culture is the 1998 cult classic movie The Big Lebowski. In this film Jeff Bridges plays the Dude, a Christ-like character that takes on the burdens of those around him with a certain simplicity. It’s almost as if this is what he was born to do.

Paul ends the love chapter concluding, of faith hope and love, that the greatest of these is love. Taken another way, in Big Lebowski style, we could say that Christ, the ultimate Dude, abides.  And abides in Love.

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Call stories

One of the beauties of being in seminary is there are so many firsts.  Today was another, the first sermon at my internship site.  The message is a series of call stories, from a few friends, a few personal stories, and call stories from the people of Holy Spirit Lutheran.  Listen or read, whatever suits you.  Enjoy!

Good morning!  I’m Pastor Ryan, serving as your intern pastor for the next year.  A full-time internship is a requirement for graduation, and I’ve been blessed to share this time learning alongside you, the people of Holy Spirit Lutheran.  A month into this role it’s time for that first sermon.

Now in my last career I crunched a lot of numbers, and then presented and made recommendations about those numbers.  So maybe we could begin there, just to get things started.  You have an amazing leader here in Pastor Frank, so I thought a comparison between the two of us would make for a helpful introduction.

First, let’s talk education.  I’m halfway through seminary, two years in.  Pastor Frank has completed all four years, and in a couple of years I’ll catch up.  Ok, that doesn’t look too bad.

How about years in ministry?  I’ve worked in a faith community for two years, until last month my title was the Director of Ministry at St. Michael in Wellington.  But there’s an asterisk, it was part-time, only 20 hours a week.  Pastor Frank has been doing this, full time, a LOT longer, 30 years!  Boy, look at the difference between those two numbers, oif.  Maybe just one more comparison would be handy.

How about number of sermons?  Yikes!  I’ve only done eight.  Pastor Frank, by my calculations you’ve prepared almost 1,500 sermons, and delivered many of them for three straight services!  This is not looking good at all.  I can’t compete with that!

Ok, deep breath.  Maybe this can be turned into a personal goal.  My goal, for this sermon, is to be Two Percent as good as Pastor Frank.   Just two percent.  That may be reachable.  And please, let me know, on the way out, any feedback you may have.

Seminary stories

When Pastor Frank asked me to share a personal call story it reminded me of how unique call stories can be.  In seminary everyone has a call story, and some of them are just fascinating.  I’d like to briefly share a few of them.

Friend Sara describes herself as a middle-aged tattooed lion and tiger keeper.  That’s what she used to do.  Instead of taming lions and tigers these days she feels called to tame something else: the human soul.  She still has those tattoos, that’s also part of her call, and they’re pretty cool.

Ivy first heard her call when she was up front during a children’s sermon at age 7.  In that moment she looked into the pulpit and thought, “I am going to be up there someday.”  Earlier this summer, at age 40, she was ordained and started her first call at a Lutheran church in North Dakota.

Seminary friend Roger first experienced his call in 1991, as his unit was about to cross into Iraq during the Gulf War.  The chaplain for his Battalion held a worship service that day, on the hood of his HUMMV.  Roger says there were more people there at worship than he’d ever experienced in 20 years of going to church back home.  He learned from this about the power of God to calm very real fears, and says he continues to be guided by this experience to this day.

A common thread I heard from most everyone in seminary is that they fought their call, sometimes for years, sometimes for decades.

The best quote I heard about call, and this is pretty funny, is from a former ELCA Assistant to the Bishop, Mark Nelson.  He sums it up by saying that “going to seminary is kind of like throwing up.  You can put it off for a while, but if it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen.”

And on that note I’d like to share with you a few call stories of my own.  Yes, that’s stories with an S, plural.  We’ll get to why there’s more than one call story a bit later.

Family

This first story is about family.  It is not good for man to be alone, Genesis chapter 2 tells us.  God felt so strongly about this that God made a partner for Adam, in the form of Eve.  This Adam met his Eve – she prefers to be called Kathi most days – during his freshman year of college.  We became friends that fateful day twenty-one years ago, tho it took another 18 months for our planets to more closely align.  I had to get some college partying out of the system first, and Kathi was still seriously dating her high school boyfriend.  When we did start dating I realized fairly early on this was not just another girl.  Kathi was special.  She was marriage material.  But was she the one for me?

God was calling, I picked up the phone and listened as best I could.  Are you sure she’s the right one, God?  That still, small voice suggested yes, yes she is.  I fought that voice for a while, guys just tend to be a little stubborn when it comes to love.  After six years of dating during college and attending graduate schools thousands of miles apart we married.  That call to marriage for the two of us was almost 15 years ago now.   We haven’t looked back.

After several years of married life we felt a new call, to become parents.  To be honest Kathi felt this call first.  Being the stubborn guy that I am, well, I fought this call too.  Kids are expensive. They take a lot of time.  And you can’t put them in the kennel when you vacation.  At least legally.

But God kept on calling, and the more time went by the louder the ringer became.  And really, it did feel like something was missing from life.  We were being called for more, and eventually we started trying to conceive.  After a few hurdles we were blessed with two children, Hannah, now age five and Graham, who’s almost two.

Community

But way before the call to be a parent there was another call brewing, the call to community.  Or perhaps it’s the call to be part of a faith community.  While Kathi is a lifelong Lutheran, my path has a taken a few more twists and turns.

My journey with faith communities began as an infant, being baptized in a Methodist church. Shortly after that, my mom and dad joined a large Pentecostal congregation, bringing their six month old along with them.  As a kid the church became a center of community for our family; we’d typically be there two to three times a week.

It was also in these Pentecostal churches I first experienced a contemporary worship service.  The music was high energy and vibrant, it seemed like people there were really into their faith.  This was in the 1980s and the pastors there liked to speak about the current hot-button topics of the day.  Sometimes the pastors at this church made God sound kind of angry at certain people for doing certain things.  Where was this God of love we are taught about in Sunday School?  I couldn’t always see God in that way in this church.  Somewhat frustrated by that I began to drift away from church later in high school.

In college I really wasn’t part of a faith community, there were the typical college distractions getting my attention.  That changed when Kathi and I got engaged.  We decided it was important to find a faith community that worked for both of us, and off church shopping we went.  We tried all sorts of settings, Methodist, Baptist, Wesleyan, Mennonite, and Lutheran.  I joked to Kathi maybe we should go to a Wiccan gathering.  We never quite got there.   At some point in our church shopping I fell in love with her Lutheran heritage, from the hymns to the liturgy to the pot luck suppers, I was hooked.  It was the Lutheran focus on grace that sealed the deal.  That there is nothing we can do to separate us from the love of God, that we are both saint and sinner, at all times, it’s just a beautiful thing.

Since then faith communities have become an important part of our marriage, and our understanding of what it means to be a parent.  The time we spent church shopping turned out to be one of the best investments in our marriage we’ve made.  In good times and bad it’s given us a shared, solid foundation to build our relationship with something we both believe in and value.

Learn

This next story can be a life-long pursuit to if you let it, the call to learn.  It took me a while to figure out what exactly it was I wanted to be when I grew up.  An assessment from the high school guidance counselor said I’d be good at engineering.  I did like Legos, but really had no clue what a career in engineering would look like.  Perhaps not quite trusting this potential call I narrowed my college search to schools with three characteristics:  1) a liberal arts school with 2) an engineering program and 3) a school that had some kind of Christian affiliation.  It turns out not too many schools have this particular combination of traits.  After a couple of visits I settled on a Lutheran college, Valparaiso University in Northwest Indiana.

Going to Valpo for undergrad ended up influencing my future paths in more ways than I ever could have imagined.  After three semesters it became fairly clear that the black-and-white world of civil engineering was not my call.  It turns out there are a set number of ways to build a bridge correctly.  Stray from those ways and the bridge will fall.  But a liberal arts education teaches more than just black and white formulas.  First it taught me to view the world in various shades of gray.  Later I learned to appreciate the world in full color too.  It turns out this worldview, of grays and colors, is compatible with the field of psychology.  Life isn’t always as precise as the mathematical equations engineering requires.  It can be messy, yet colorful, beautiful too.  I was drawn to this messy beauty.

Valpo is also where I first studied theology.  But not by choice.  At Valpo all students are required to take three theology courses.  I’ll be honest with you, at the time, taking those theology classes, I hated it.  The course on comparative religions was the worst.  Why study other religions, why seek to understand, if you are secure in your own beliefs?  Those were my thoughts as a freshman in college.  The beliefs of my childhood, which, like engineering, were also fairly black-and-white, were being challenged in these theology courses.  Over time my understanding of God started to change.  Just like with psychology I began to see that God was in the middle of this messy beauty too.

After graduating from Valpo I learned, pretty quickly, that you can’t do much with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology.  So off to graduate school I went to earn a Master’s degree in Market Research.  This field is a mixture of marketing and psychology, there’s plenty of grey and colors, some messy beauty to be had here as well.  After graduating I accepted an offer to work at a large market research firm, and stayed with them for 13 years.  My time spent working in market research taught me much that relates to this next call.  Marketers are trained to understand differences between people objectively – with no judgements – and then to find ways to reach these various groups with messaging they connect with.  I learned to love and embrace the differences in people, in all their messy beauty.

Darkness

At times our sense of call takes us through something, to get us to something.  This was the case for me. My through something was a deep personal darkness of depression, and it wasn’t too much fun. This dark episode began in 2011.  Ironically it started with a moment most people would consider a positive, a promotion, into management, at work.  A couple of months later a good friend passed away at the age of 39, far too young.  A few weeks after that my mother-in-law passed away too.

All this change at work and loss of loved ones messed me up pretty good, and led to many sleepless nights.  For six weeks I averaged three hours of sleep a night. Over time this took a toll.

Not being able to sleep, I first went to a psychiatrist to get help sleeping.  Initially he prescribed sleeping pills. When that didn’t work he prescribed ADHD medication. When that didn’t work I requested anxiety pills for particularly stressful moments of life. When all of that failed, I finally went to a psychologist.  She correctly diagnosed me with a major depressive episode and recommended a treatment plan. Within days of treatment the dark fog of depression began to lift. I began to heal. I began to live again.

While all this was going on I also tried another treatment: God. I read scripture, searching for answers in ancient wisdom. I read Christian books, thinking some nugget of Truth would leap off the page. In these depths of despair I was the one calling out to God.  At first my calls started as prayer requests.  When those requests weren’t met they became more like demands.  I yelled at God in the midst of this depression, A LOT, begging God to take this ailment away.

Each attempt I made to call God the answer, as I understood it, was the same. God was silent. I was alone.

Reflecting back on this, with the benefit of time, healing, and a perspective on the Almighty that has evolved some, I see the experience now for what it was.

I know now God had been calling my extension the entire time.  God guided me through the depths of depression that included pills, prayers and pain.  God was present through the love and patience of my wife, who both supported and challenged me.  Most importantly she stayed by my side when times were tough.

God appeared through support from friends and hugs of empathy, from people determined to be present in my pain.

God showed Godself in the wisdom of a psychologist, who within 15 minutes of meeting me spoke with clarity. “I know this problem” she said confidently, “You are clinically depressed. We can do something about that.”

Thinking about all those sleepless nights filled with tears I realize I was not alone at all.  God didn’t need my calls.  God was already there, fully present, phone in hand.  I just didn’t know it at the time.  God hadn’t fallen asleep on me. We both had insomnia.

Next steps

You may be thinking at this point these stories are all well and good, but what led you to pursue ordination? To want to be a Pastor?  You know, answer the call from the Big Guy upstairs?  It’s these small stories, weaved together, that led to this next call.

A second major depressive episode hit me later that year.  This time the depression hit harder, beat me down further, recovery took longer.  It was bad enough this time I walked away from my job of 13 years.  My wife Kathi stood by me like no other.  “Make the most of this fresh start, find something you’re passionate about” she told me.  Without her support this call story isn’t complete.  The bigger call also includes our children, Hannah and Graham.  They continue to teach me about unconditional love, and how to dive into life with both feet.  Without them my understanding of a loving God, there with you through the think and the thin, wouldn’t be the same.

Being part of a faith community is also part of the larger call.  Faith communities have played a central role in my identity most of my life.  Life has made the most sense, and brought the most joy, when I’ve been knee-deep, actively involved in the life of the church.  A good faith community draws out the best in people, gives us a shared purpose, and a common mission that is so much larger than our own.

My time spent learning and doing market research is definitely part of this larger call.  In marketing you learn to identify differences in people, respect those differences, and then draw on those differences, uniting toward a common purpose.  Sounds familiar?  Perhaps that’s not too un-like what we strive for in faith communities.  While the goals of market research may be different, the approaches we take in uniting in a faith community around common purpose are largely the same.

The personal darkness of depression, as painful as it was, drew me toward this next call.  I had to literally walk away from a prior call, to make space for this next one.  During this time I also learned important lessons about the nature of God, that God walks with us, and suffers alongside us.  And stays with us, no matter what. These lessons continue to move and mold me, day by day.

Your Call

But enough about that.  Call stories go far, far beyond one person.  Martin Luther refers to a “priesthood of all believers,” suggesting that everyone has been called.  Luther quotes 2nd Peter 2:9 to back up this claim.  That verse says “you are a chosen people. You are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s very own possession.  As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.”

Our reading from Ephesians 4 this week reflects this theme too.  Verses 4 through 6 say “Just as you were called to the one hope of your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Did you notice what two words show up the most in that passage?  The first is CALL.  The second is ALL.

Looked at in a certain way we could summarize the words of Martin Luther, 2nd Peter and Paul writing to the Ephesians with these five short words:  “the Call is for ALL.”  Let’s repeat that together, say it with me.  THE CALL IS FOR ALL.  Yes, all.  Everyone.  Including you.

To illustrate this I’d like to use a few numbers to talk about these next call stories, your call stories.

Seventeen people were installed today as Stephen Ministers.  Their new role is to lend an ear to people that need to know Christ’s love.  This group of seventeen spent 50 hours and a summer of Thursday evenings recently to become certified for this ministry.  And it’s not just that, they signed on for a two year commitment.  Why on earth would anyone make such a time consuming, selfless commitment?  Maybe it’s this concept of call.  Perhaps these Stephen Ministers know that God’s call, is for all, of them.

Twenty people joined the congregation as new members today, thirteen adults, seven kids.  To join, each of them gave up over three hours of a recent Saturday morning to learn more about this community.  Why would they do that? Aren’t Saturday mornings made for relaxing after a long week? For turning the alarm clock off and sleeping in?  Maybe it’s a desire to be part of something life giving, and bigger than ourselves, that calls all of them.

Forty-Three people showed up six days ago in this room to start a nine week course, “Discovering God’s Vision For Your Life.”  These 43 have chosen to invest 14 hours of their time on Monday nights to talk about God, Vision and Life.  Why?  Because they want to listen deeply for God’s vision, God’s call, for their lives.

Thirty-five.  That’s the number of families that felt called away from one faith community to do something new in Juno Beach almost thirty years ago.  You can see a list of people involved in this call, right over there on the wall.  These people felt called to create the community that became Holy Spirit Lutheran.  Without this call story none of these other call stories would even be possible. Or at least they wouldn’t be the same.

Three Hundred.   That’s about the number of people that will walk through the door of this sanctuary today.  If you’re sitting here you’re in that number.  A question, why are you here, in this moment, right now?  It isn’t by chance.  You could be out golfing.  You could be grocery shopping.  Heck, you could be sleeping off a doozy of a hangover.  I’ve had a few of those.  But you aren’t doing any of those things, you’re right here.  I’d like close with a request.  Take a little time to think about what led you to this very place, and where God may be calling you to from here.

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