God’s Work, Our… Hands?

Arbeit Macht Frei [Work makes {you} free]. These words were found at the entrance gates to Nazi concentration camps in Europe during WWII. They were meant to instill a false sense of hope for the Jewish people brought to the camps – if you worked hard while there, you could earn your freedom. We all know how that turned out…

After Jesus ascension, the early church began to get the idea that by working to live according to the Law of Moses, you could earn your way into God’s favor (righteousness). The Apostle Paul writes his letter to the church in Galatia reminding them righteousness does not come by works, but that freedom comes through faith by what they have heard. That is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul reiterates that through the work of the Holy Spirit, freedom is only found when in faith we trust in God’s promises received in baptism and through hearing His Word.

We too struggle with works verses faith today. In recent years, the ELCA has utilized the mantra of “God’s Work. Our Hands.” This slogan encourages the social gospel, faith comes by what we do. In fact, our culture even demands it. As we send graduates out into the world, we tell them their success is measured by what they accomplish – what they do. Running on the hamster wheel of life, seeking freedom through wealth, title, status. What we are really accomplishing is  not freedom, but an early death. Freedom is never found in this cycle because it continues to demand more and more from you. This is success and it is never enough. While we are called to serve our neighbor, serving will never be freedom for you. Serving those you love is never freeing for you. It is the demand of the law.

If we lean into this Galatians chapter 3 text and hear what St. Paul is teaching, we too will turn from ourselves and what we do to chase freedom. We will turn to the work of the Holy Spirit, to God’s proper work. “God’s Work. Our Ears!” Freedom is found through the ear, not through a strong back and calloused hands. Freedom only comes most fully in faith, and faith comes by what is heard; God’s Word of promise made in Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Christ who lives in me

When Jesus tells his followers, including us, that we must lose our lives, deny ourselves, and leave our old life behind to find our life in him, we become truly disciples. This isn't because we now understand everything clearly and know just what Jesus means, but on the contrary we are like disciples who hear Jesus' word but quickly move beyond because we don't know what it means. It seems too spiritual, theoretical, perhaps philosophical. How are we to understand what it means to die in order to live?

At the very center of the Christian Church stands the witness of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection. That is that he was crucified and died at the hands of sinners, and three days later he rose from the dead to proclaim peace and forgiveness to those same sinners. We know the facts, but we struggle - as do the disciples in every generation - to grasp what it means for us. 

In his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul insists that Christian faith stands not in our understanding, but in trusting in Christ, not in theory, philosophy, or generic spirituality. For we live by faith, by which "it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:11).

No small dissension and debate (Acts 15:2a)

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It was now a few months after the Pentecost event (i.e. the birthday of the church; see Acts 2). And already, a “council meeting” had to be called at church headquarters in Jerusalem. Why? Because there was, to use the language of our scripture for today … “no small dissension and debate” (Acts 15:2) … that was stirring in one of the newly created congregations in Antioch. Can you believe it?! Only a few months into this new creation called “church,” and there was already trouble in paradise. Go figure. (Not really.  Whenever human critters are involved – even in church.) And it was brewing to become a real doozy…

O, Jesus’ commissioning of his disciples (Matthew 28:19-20) … and then the creation of the Church as his Spirited ongoing body in the world (Acts 1:6-9) started off rather beautifully … one might even say, intoxicatingly so (Acts 2:13). Again, as our text bears witnesses: “[People] devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). But then, when the proverbial sandal began to hit the road …

So, the apostles and elders have now gathered in Jerusalem to settle what had become a rather serious division … What was the issue? Once more, our text sets the stage: “Then certain individuals (most likely Pharisees) came down from Judea and were teaching the [new Christian] brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1). Do you agree? What does Scripture say? What do you suppose the apostles and elders are going to say? As with Shylock, in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the Pharisees certainly wanted to exact their “pound of flesh.”

Peter was presiding as the chairman. (He was after all, the Pope now, right?). “Microphone One, please state your case.” The response: “Ah, yes … Mr. Chairman, we’re here from Antioch. And we have good Bible study groups every Wednesday night. We’ve been studying Ezra. And we believe the Bible and Ezra says, ‘Get rid of the foreigners. Even if you’re married to one. Get rid of the foreigners.’ That’s all I have to say.  Thank you.”

“OK,” said Peter. “Microphone Two, we’ll now hear from you.” … “Well, we also have a nice Bible study group back home in our little fishing town of Capernaum, and we’re studying Ruth. Such a wonderful lady.  She was the ancestress of King David, and of our Lord, Jesus you know. And she was a Moabite. And if our Lord had Moabite blood in his veins, isn’t this OK for us to do this?  Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”    

“I see one of our distinguished Pharisee brothers coming to Microphone Three,” said Peter.  “Go ahead …” “Yes, we’re here from First Temple Christian here in Jerusalem. And it’s clear to us from the reading of Torah and the Prophets, that ‘It is necessary for [any new converts to Christianity] to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5).

After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and addressed all who were attending that first council meeting … See you on Sunday (if possible, please read Acts 1-15 beforehand for a better understanding), as we hear how the whole case comes to rest upon God’s grace, in Christ.

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

Good Questions

This Sunday’s Scripture reading tells the story of an Ethiopian court official whose encounter with the evangelist Philip led him to faith in Christ (Acts 8:26-39). This Ethiopian Jew (yes, they exist!) of very high ranking and stature had recently traveled in his fancy “company chariot” to worship in Jerusalem and was headed back home on a wilderness road when Philip encountered him there, reading from a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Philip (who was something of a “nobody” in the presence of this powerful official) boldly asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

I’m struck by the humility with which the Ethiopian responded to Philip’s inquiry. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say that this court official was much more highly educated than the evangelist, and this distinction of status, class and education probably was evident to them both. I wouldn’t blame the Ethiopian for responding defensively to Philip’s line of questioning. “Excuse me? Don’t you know who I am? Are you aware of my qualifications, and the many responsibilities that my queen entrusts to me? And just who are you, anyway?” But no, his response to Philip is nothing like that. His question, “How can I, unless someone guides me,” indicates this foreigner’s openness to learning more, receiving new insight and growing as a person of faith. In fact, everything out of this man’s mouth in the rest of the story is a question – and these questions, good questions, are what the Holy Spirit uses to finally draw him into faith in Jesus Christ.

Questions – we shouldn’t be afraid of having them, we shouldn’t be afraid of asking them. We shouldn’t be afraid of looking stupid or think that the only purpose of questions is to harm faith or keep God at arms’ length. The Ethiopian official used questions as a way to invite another man of faith to help him achieve deeper insight, and in order to draw even closer to the truth found in God’s word. At the end of the story, the Ethiopian was claimed by Christ in the waters of baptism and became filled with newfound joy. Is it any surprise that the church in Ethiopia traces its origins back to this humble and inquisitive fellow, and the church in Ethiopia is strong and vibrant still today?

He Never Stops

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The Holy Spirit comforts, encourages, pushes and pulls upon us so that our lives give witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This happens in ways that we don't often recognize. In our families as we pray together, with our friends as we listen with care, and to visitors and guests of our congregation simply by gathering for worship. In fact, God has called each of us into specific service, work, jobs and relationships where by our lives we give thanks, praise and witness to all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ. 

Our scripture lesson from Acts 6 & 7 this weekend make this very clear. Stephen (and six others) are selected to run a new ministry that has one goal: make sure the widows get food. The apostles will take care of preaching the Word of God, so you know just what is going to happen. The rest of Acts 6 & 7 is Stephen preaching. His ministry, his service, is intertwined with his preaching the gospel. It's as if the Holy Spirit called him into a job in order that he would witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus in his food ministry.

Be careful, however. For where the gospel is preached in this world, opposition arises, and the distinction between witness and martyrs vanish. So be bold in your witness, and never stop caring, encouraging and forgiving in Jesus' name.

Pastor Lars

Between Emmaus and Us … The Word of Hope!

“That very day [Easter Sunday] two of the disciples were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened [Jesus’ crucifixion the precious Friday]. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?’ And they stood still, looking sad. … [And they answered:] “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet might in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one [the Messiah] to redeem Israel.’” (Luke 24:13-17, 19-21a)

Jesus had been crucified in Jerusalem just three days before – right before their eyes. And now … well, there was nothing left for these two disciples in our gospel story to do but get out of town. And where did they go? They went to a little town called Emmaus. And where is Emmaus? And why did they go there? It was no place in particular really – most likely their home (though we can only infer this from Luke 24:28-29), some seven miles from Jerusalem. And the main reason they went “back home” is that their future hopes had been heartbreakingly crushed. Did you hear it? “But we had hoped …” (v.21)

Do you understand what I mean when I say that there is not a one of us who’s not gone to some Emmaus with them? Emmaus can be a night at the movies just for the sake of seeing a movie, or to a bar just for the sake of a bar, or yes, just going for a walk. Emmaus may be buying a new article of clothing or getting some groceries we don’t need, or just “surfing the net” or flicking through the channels on the TV, vegging-out.

In many ways, we too are like these two early disciples, depicted by St. Luke in our Gospel story for this weekend … Carrying this empty hole in our hearts that speaks of loss … Loss of loved ones or friends, or just flat out, love! Loss of health or some great expectations. Or perhaps the deepest loss of all, as already referenced, echoed in v.21 of our Gospel story: “But we had hoped …” Four of the loneliest words in Holy Scripture.

Think on this with me: Do you remember a time as well, when Jesus was so real for you that you had no question about his presence in your life. He was your most intimate friend. A comforter. An inspiration. But now you don’t really think of him very often. You no longer have that special feeling. He’s become unrecognizable, a “stranger” (v.16). Somehow you feel you’ve lost him? Hmm?

So what do we do with this huge sense of loss – “but we had hoped” – that hits our lives? Try to fill it with stuff or distraction? Blame someone else? Try to “strut-and-fret” but really not signifying anything with honesty? I love this line from Graham Greene’s novel, The Heart of the Matter: “The man kept speaking of his gracious heart, but it seemed that a long deep surgical operation would have been required to find it” (Penguin Books, 1977; p.47).

No amount of make-up will cover it all… However, there’s another possibility; and that is this, to grieve our losses. To grieve is to allow our losses to soften and break apart our feelings of security and self-centeredness and lead us to the painful truth of our brokenness. And this is where our journey of faith begins anew – as this gospel word of God in Christ – comes to us on our Emmaus Road, beginning with the Kyrie in our order of worship this coming weekend. These two Greek words are short-hand for Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy”). It’s a grieving, contrite heart that recognizes our co-responsibility for the evil that surrounds us and is in us, and that we need a saving hope, a resurrecting power that’s beyond our human strength or worldly power. And so the early disciples confess: “… our chief priests and rulers [and we ourselves] delivered Jesus up to be condemned to death” (v.20)

Again, there is this wonderful “however” … something amazing, life-giving, hope-renewing that’s about to happen in this story for the disciples and for us as well … Come and see. Come and hear. Come and be renewed … that your hearts as well might “burn within you,” (Luke 24:32). Yes, with hope … as God’s Word comes and speaks to you, afresh, anew.

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

This Is Easter!

 “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to him
in Hebrew, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means ‘My Teacher’).”
–John 20:16

Mary! This is Jesus’ shortest sermon in the Gospel of John and, one of the most dramatic and life changing: Mary! The Good Shepherd knows his sheep and “calls them by name” … AND his sheep “know his voice” (John 10:3-4). This one life giving Word, as at creation (“And God said …” see Genesis 1:3, 6, 9, 14, 20, 24, 26; cf. John 1:1-5; 20:1), Mary’s own name – spoken by the very death conquering Word of God, “the Word made flesh” himself (John 1:18) – changed her whole life.

 “And she turned … In the one or two seconds this turn took, the world shifting ever so slightly on its axis and at about this turn’s one-second midpoint trajectory, history, too, moved almost imperceptively from B.C. to A.D. A second before this turn there is a woman in the deepest human despair in the agonizing presence of inconquerable death; a second after the beginning of this turn there is a woman in the deepest possible human elation, in the presence of the death-conquering Central Figure of history. The rush that must have come over Mary in her two-second turn is unimaginable. She is the first person, ever, to experience the personal presence of the Risen Lord. When she turns to Jesus at this moment, as his voice broke the darkness of it all into light (cf. John 1:4-5), human history took a turn into the light of a hope that is eternal.

And Mary said to Jesus in Hebrew, ‘Rabboni! (which means ‘My Teacher’). In five short syllables, “Mar-y” and “Rab-bon-i” … and in just about that many seconds the world became a whole new place. Death, once final, has met its match. There is a reality – Someone – more final than death who calls Mary’s name into his very breath of new life. And so it is for you, this Easter day. And Jesus said: “____________” (Say your name here.)

 And so listen-in to this powerfully poetic reflection by one of our former senior pastors of First Lutheran Church (1952-1955), later President of Luther Theological Seminary … a great patriarch and witness in the faith for many, Dr. Al Rogness:  

“The Easter resurrection is as cataclysmic an event today as it was then. Death is
destroyed! It does not have the last word. In the wake of Christ’s resurrection, a new life
 is in store for everyone who hears and believes it. Because Christ lives, we too can live – in
a kingdom and among riches that are as glorious as they are endless. … 

Without Easter the world would spin on its melancholy axis with no great morn
dawning, doomed to keep people in bondage to their anxieties and cupidities, in aimless
repetition until death overtakes them. The best they could hope for would be simply to endure.
Why long for something better? Why aspire to something new? 

Nothing in all the world has so enchanted and haunted people down through the
centuries as has the event of Easter. Whole civilizations have been changed because people
have [heard and believed the good news] that death does not have the last word. They have
clung to the Risen Christ, and he has clung to them, and together they have reshaped the hopes of the world. There is forgiveness, there is victory, there is love and courage and
an everlasting future. This is Easter!” (The Word For Every Day; p.376)

 Come and join the family of faith, gathered at First Lutheran this coming Sunday – in all of its joy-filled, festive fanfare of brass, choirs of all ages, holy communion, and pipe-organ … with all the stops pulled – including Widor’s famous Toccata!

Click to view the Easter Worship bulletins.

Dr. John R. Christopherson
Senior Pastor

Locked In

Jesus arrives in Jerusalem

It's easy to miss the triumphant tragedy in Palm Sunday's scriptures, as Jesus enters into Jerusalem. The crowds are cheering, singing, honoring and giving Jesus a hero's welcome into the city. There is great excitement, and high expectations, for Jesus to be the new king to bring in peace and glory. Our eyes are blind and our ears clogged with images of power and might on a festival day like this, just as the crowds were in Jerusalem that day. Jesus already sees what we do not. He sees that we are all locked in. He is locked in to the cross and can see nothing else. He is on his way to die for the sins of the world. We are all locked into Jesus being a glorious new king and refuse to see and hear any truth but what we already know. 

So Jesus enters Jerusalem, not as the end point of his ministry, but an intensification. He has already born the guilt and shame of sinners, endured the rejection of the world, and won acclaim for his teaching, healing and miracles. Yet now, he will suffer. He is locked into suffering at the hands of everyone who is locked into to sinning against him. While the crowds cheer him on, he weeps for them, for the things of God are hidden from their eyes. 

The cheers acclaiming his arrival will, within the week, turn to cheers for his crucifixion. There is no avoiding or escaping it. 

Palm Sunday is the start of Holy Week, where we pray that you would see not Jesus in his glorious acceptance by the powers of the world, but instead would hear his word of forgiveness and new life given to the world that rejects and despises him. Come and experience the glory of Jesus on his cross and the suffering he endured for the people he loves so much.

Maundy Thursday we celebrate Jesus' Last Supper, where he gives the disciples – those who betray, deny, and forsake him – his last will and testament, his promise of an inheritance upon his death, so that when he dies they will have exactly what he left for them: forgiveness of sin.

Good Friday we listen to Jesus suffer and die, giving himself over to sinners, dying at their hands, losing a no-win situation whereby death itself will be killed. 

All this so that we can celebrate Easter Sunday, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ!

Click for Holy Week worship times

Up in Smoke

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Let me ask you this opening question … Remember that Sunday School song about Zacchaeus? You know, the one about the “wee little man” who scrambles up a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus. It’s a well beloved story. But I also think there’s a well-beloved theology that goes along with it; so well beloved in fact, that translators will mess with the text (i.e. the verb tense) in order to shore-up a bias, like any bias, that dies hard.  And so I’m asking you to do something very carefully …

As some “homework” for this coming Saturday/Sunday worship, re-read the Gospel story of Zacchaeus, according to St. Luke 19:1-10.  After doing so, give special attention to v.8. Now, depending on which translation of the Bible you’ve just read, here are two very different interpretations:

#1. In the New Revised Standard Version or New International Version of the Bible, for example, you’ll read: “Zacchaeus said … ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” (Luke 19:8).  Note the emboldened verbs in this first translation.  Makes things sound like a repentance story, right? With the emphasis on who? … Zacchaeus.

#2. In the King James or Revised Standard Version of the Bible, as another example, you’ll read: “Zacchaeus … said: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” (Luke 19:8). Note once more, the emboldened verbs in this second translation. Makes things sound like an affirmation story, right.  With the emphasis on who? … Jesus.

So, what’s the big deal, Pastor John? Sounds like Greek to me!!! Well, to a degree it is. It turns out that those who translate the verbs as “future oriented” (as in Translation #1) appeal to a grammatical category called a present-future tense. Trouble is, not only is this the only place in the whole New Testament where this verb tense occurs, but there’s no such thing in the Greek language (from which these New Testament translations derive)! So, rather than translate this verse in the present tense (as in Translation #2), translators have actually "created/invented" a new grammatical category in an attempt to justify their theological interpretation or bias.

So, we must ask: “What’s the bias?” Remember how at the beginning of this blog that I said there’s a much-beloved theology that tags along with this well-beloved story of Zacchaeus? Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I think for most of us, it goes like this: “It is only after we come to God with a contrite/repentant heart that we will then be able to receive God’s responsive gift of forgiveness and salvation.” However, if this is true, then we’re always off-in-the-future tense (of Translation #1) wondering if we’ve repented enough or are contrite enough or good enough; that is, always unsure of ourselves (and therein lies the problem). And so with all human inventions or creations – even translations of Scripture – it ends up in smoke! (See my photo of Jericho some years ago that serves as a metaphor.)

Now, with Translation #2, the response is not left-up to Zacchaeus … “I will do this,” or “I will do that” … But rather, it’s in the present tense – right then and there (short-cutting all of Zacchaeus’ attempts to make himself righteous and get the tax-collecting ledgers of his life to line-up) – of Jesus’ announcing God’s promising Word, as at his Holy Supper which we’ll celebrate this weekend: “Today, salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9) … breaking the “sentence” of v.8 … and all of its “periods” … into a real future of hope: in verses 9 and 10 and… I mean, it’s enough to have us jumping out of trees and even out of our skin with joy – as this word of salvation – of God’s radical grace that comes to us apart from our having to have it “all together” – that’s not only for Zacchaeus' hearing but yours, right now! See you this weekend, at worship (including Christ’s sacrament of Holy Communion)         

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

Sharing Our Daily Bread

A Reflection on Luke 16:19-31

The Lord’s Prayer has been on my mind recently, perhaps because we just studied it together in our “Here I Stand” Lenten devotional series based on Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. Something that Seth Muller wrote in his Monday, March 20, devotion really stuck with me:
“The prayer starts out with Our Father. OUR FATHER! Not MY Father. We have been made for community. It’s not all about me, me, me. It’s about us, us, us.”

Have you ever stopped to consider that, when we pray in this prayer for “our daily bread,” the same lesson applies? We pray for daily bread (that is, the necessities for this body and life) to come to us… the entire human family. Yes, indeed: daily bread is not just for me, me, me – it’s for us, us, us.

How can we, who have more than what is needed for daily life, pray “give us this day our daily bread” and not share what we have, with those who lack life’s most basic necessities?

In the Gospel lesson for this weekend (linked above), Jesus tells a parable of a rich man who had everything he needed, plus so much more. He was aware of Lazarus, a poor man in the community who literally wasted away outside of his gate on a daily basis, and yet did nothing to help him. You could say that his attitude toward Lazarus was “Not My Problem!” Only in death does the rich man begin to understand the responsibility he had toward his neighbor in need…however, for him, it was too late.

It is not too late for us to share with our neighbors in need – indeed, the time for us to share is now. Jesus told this parable in order to stir us awake, that his mindset would become ours.

Sometimes the “Lazarus” God calls you to help might be someone you know personally. Other times, “Lazarus” may show up when you learn there’s been a disaster in a neighboring community, or you are aware of the plight of a group of refugees on the other side of the world. Even if we are not loaded with excess money and material goods, like the rich man in Jesus’ parable, we all have something to give: time, friendship, prayer, advocacy, awareness, compassion.  

Another simple thing we can do to keep our neighbors’ needs before us is to stay connected to groups that are committed to the act of sharing daily bread with others. Many great organizations exist, but I’ll link to just three below. You can donate, take action, or sign up for emails today.

I can’t wait to dig into this story more with you on Sunday. See you in church!

Pastor Katherine

Links:
Bread for the World
ELCA Relief and Development
Lutheran World Relief

Lost and Found

Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son

As we listen-in to the Master story teller himself this coming weekend … I’d like for you to consider the three main characters whom Jesus describes in his parable of “The Prodigal Son” (Luke 15:11-32). With whom do you most closely identify? I think most of us probably say it’s the Younger Brother (a.k.a. the prodigal kid). Right? Cuz we know all-too-well how we too, in all of our self-centeredness, have often been seduced by the tempting voices and choices of the world … shamefully telling the folks to “drop dead” … leaving home … and then regretfully finding ourselves in a distant country. “Toto, I’ve a feelin’ we aren’t in Kansas anymore.”

Or … maybe some of us identify with the Father Figure in this parable: those of us who know the heart-ache of a love that’s not been seemingly “good enough.” Losing a child in some-way-or-another and left waiting on the front porch. Feeling half-dead as we look with deep longing into an empty horizon, hoping-against-hope … “Over the river and through the woods.”

Or could it be … could it be … that Jesus is calling us to identify as equally with one of the characters who doesn’t even make Rembrant’s version of the parable. Doesn’t even make the “front page”? How subtle are the thoughts and feelings that go with this family member. And how important it is for each of us, as members of Christ’s church, to identify with him. For actually, he’s the one for whom Jesus’ tells the story in the first place, with the face of a Pharisee (cf. Luke 15:1-3). Hmm. “Why does Jesus hang out with all of these sinners?” (Luke 15:2) … “Bazinga!” Come and see.

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

Repentance

Why is it that the word “repent” shows up so often in the Bible? All the prophets refer to it and both John the Baptist and Jesus speak of it often. And why is repentance apparently so hard to come by? In the Gospel passages for this Sunday, Luke 13:1-9, 31-35, Jesus both pleads for it and later laments its absence.

Perhaps we can all relate to how hard it is to admit being wrong, how vulnerable one feels in asking another person for forgiveness, even those closest to us. And some of us may look back on periods of our life where we simply could not or would not recognize our need to change. And, of course, in such a state of mind, nothing did change, except the mounting consequences of our mind-set, or our soul.

As I prepare to preach the sermon this Sunday, I’ve been reflecting on what happens in repentance and why we so often instinctively resist it. And yet, if it were not important, why does it appear so prominently in the preaching of the prophets and the church? Why even is repentance a traditional emphasis in the season of Lent? I suspect that the answers lie in the “basement” of the human heart and psyche, a place where finally only the gospel can shine a redeeming light.

Pastor Peter Strommen

A Dual Truth

The parable of the Good Samaritan and the story of Mary and Martha are a well known pair. In the first, the lesson seems to clearly push toward serving with our entire being, while in the second Jesus reminds Martha to not serve, serve, serve. So which one is it? To serve or not to serve? Which one does Jesus want us to do? As always, following Jesus is not as easy as it sounds. As soon as you think you've got it just right, Jesus points out that you've missed the mark. Somewhere in between the words of these scriptures, there is a dual truth. Our neighbors in need need our service, but serving does not make us right. There is no moral high ground to stand upon to point out how much more we have done than others. Serving is not something we get to boast of for ourselves. So what do we boast of? Where are we right? Where can we finally rest and sure of ourselves? Only in hearing the word of Jesus Christ who has been merciful to us.

Pastor Lars Olson

Listening

Transfiguation Sunday
February 26, 2017 

Dear Family and Friends of First Lutheran Church: This coming weekend, let us go up to the high mountain of prayer …

            To a high transfiguring place where the earth touches the heavens
            To a misting mystical place where Christ’s Holy Spirit leads his disciples still
                        A place filled with God’s wondrous light and presence
                        A place filled with awe, wonder, and worship
                        A place where all mortal flesh keeps silent in order for us to listen carefully … 

In preparation, read Luke 9:28-45 and a Bible Study Worksheet: “Listening”

j. r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

Click here for Worksheet

Photo: "Transfiguration" by Cathy Christopherson

Thoughts for Sunday

This weekend we welcome guest preacher Sarah Stenson to the First Lutheran pulpit. Sarah is the Associate Director of Luther House of Study. Founded in 2006 and located in Sioux Falls, Luther House of Study works to strengthen Lutheran leadership and ministries for the proclamation of the Gospel. In partnership with Sioux Falls Seminary and the South Dakota Synod, Luther House of Study serves future ministry professionals, current ministry professionals, and congregations. Luther House of Study offers, at no cost, online curriculum and videos for learning about the Lutheran faith and its foundation. For more information, visit www.lutherhouseofstudy.org.


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The Gospel lesson for this week gives us a look at two ways people experience being in the presence of our Lord, Jesus. Jesus has been invited to eat with one of the Pharisees, Simon, at his house.  While there, a woman identified only as “sinner” shows up, weeps, bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair and anoints them with ointment.  Quite the unusual dinner party guest!

Simon’s reaction to this surprise guest was not all that unusual for the time. He questioned Jesus’ status as a prophet, and why it was that Jesus allowed this sinner (and a woman at that!) to touch him.  Of course, in doing that, Jesus was breaking all sorts of Jewish laws and even simple societal customs and norms. 

While this story is sometimes heard as one about hospitality and is then turned into an example of what it means to be truly hospitable, that isn’t really what’s going on. Jesus actually tells us Himself that this story is really about something quite different: what happens when you are forgiven.

In this week’s sermon, we’ll start to unpack the two ways people experience Jesus: as someone you can use for personal gain, or as someone who will do something entirely different from what you might expect. 

As we talk about this text from the Gospel of Luke, I hope you will find yourself listening as well as experiencing the freedom that comes where you might not expect it -- being named sinner.

Thought for Sunday

Even though Jesus has been doing precisely what he announced during his first sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4)- healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, releasing the captive, and bringing good news - questions about who he is and what he is doing continue to nag at his heels. Today’s questioners are the disciples of John the Baptist who have been watching him, but instead of believing in him they run back to John wondering if Jesus is the one they have been waiting for. John’s whole purpose was to point people away from himself and toward Jesus, but in their questioning, John’s disciples have the whole thing backward. In some way, they think Jesus should be carrying on the ministry of John, but from the very start, Jesus has been about something greater. Where John expects judgment, Jesus has been giving mercy. Where John expected fire and brimstone, Jesus has been opening the kingdom of God. It’s no wonder that nobody can tell who he is, for Jesus doesn’t conform to anyone’s hopes and expectations. He doesn’t cooperate with the goals of priests, princes, Pharisees, or the disciples of John the Baptism to change the world for the better. But that is exactly the point. Jesus has come to bring in a new creation, one given to the unrighteous, the sinners, and the unworthy, which means that he hasn’t come to make the world a better place, but rather to bring the world to an end to make the new kingdom. That is, to give the favor of God to all who will hear. Too bad everyone is too busy taunting one another and trying to carry out their own hopes to hear the gracious Word of God in Jesus Christ.

Word of God, Word of Life: From Mourning into Dancing

(I Kings 17:8-24; Psalm 30:11; Luke 7:11-17)

Have you, or are you now, experiencing a season in life when you feel like the wind has been knocked-out-of-you? Times when Murphy’s Law seems to weigh-down-on you like a ton of bricks: grieving a loss, a sadness which you just can’t seem to shake, or a long stretch of disappointment or illness that just flattens your body ‘n soul? And do you find yourself asking: “Why is this happening to me?!” Or perhaps – to get theological – “Is God punishing me for something I’ve done … to deserve this?!” Or “What can I do to get out from under all this?”

Our Old Testament text for this coming Sunday is the classic story of “The Widow of Zarephath” (I Kings 17: 8-24) – one with whom, to some degree, we can all relate. First, she loses her husband. Now, widowed without any social security system or family to lean on, she just tries to get by – she and her little boy. But then death seems to stalk her down again, as a devastating drought and famine strikes the land. She goes to gather “a couple of sticks” (v. 12b) to prepare her last bit of food. One might call it a “last supper” for her and her young son.

And then this crazy ol’ bearded character, Elijah comes into her life … “man of God” he calls himself (v.18). Don’t worry about food,” he says. “God will take care of you.” And so she tries to scare-him-off (better yet, “gross-him-out”) by having the dogs lick the plates after dinner; but Elijah just smiles – looking for-all-the-world to have something in his mouth.

He moves into her little apartment upstairs. And behold, the food never runs out (v.16). It was so good to have this man around the house that she even starts wearing her favorite dress again, with matching hat and kerchief. However, her little boy grows ill and dies. “But I thought I had God living right upstairs?!” Hmm? … Biting down hard on her handkerchief (see the excoriated face of Picasso’s evocative “Weeping Woman”), she goes native and asks Elijah, with tears just pouring down her face: “Is God punishing me? ‘Man of God,’ why did you do this to me? Did you come here to remind God of my sins and so cause my son’s death?” (v.18).

This was the retributive theology of her day. And yet, deep down … if we’re really honest with ourselves … it’s the QED, quid pro quo thinking of every generation; that is, if something bad happens, God must be punishing us. Right? … Join us this Sunday, for the rest of the story and “hear for yourself” what is meant when the good widow says to Elijah: “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the Word of the LORD in your mouth is truth” (v.24). And Elijah smiled once more – looking for-all-the-world (cf. John 3:16-17) to have something in his mouth. What might this have to do with/for you?

dr. j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor 

The Challenge in Jesus

Consider the following famous Christian quotes:

“Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.” – Billy Sunday

“Be careful how you live. You may be the only Bible some person ever reads.”
– William J. Toms

Have you ever encountered quotes like these and nodded your head in agreement? Then you might have more in common with the Pharisees than you think!

Now hold on there, dear reader! Don’t “x” out on me just yet! I know that referring to most of this reading audience as, essentially, “a bunch of Pharisees” is a risky strategy. But I read an article this week, written by O. Wesley Allen Jr. for the website workingpreacher.org, that really challenges our understanding of these religious leaders who so often found themselves at odds with Jesus throughout the Gospels. Professor Allen helps us understand that the Pharisees might not be so different from you and me after all. He writes:

(One could say that) Pharisees were the liberal, mainline Protestants of first century Judaism. While other Jewish sects claimed the people needed the priesthood and the temple to mediate between them and God, the Pharisees democratized religious experience.

Often described by Christian preachers as jot and tittles of rules and regulations of religious observance, the Pharisees offered to people modes and means of devotional practice that could be followed anywhere by anyone without direct oversight or mediation by religious leaders (clergy). This means that we can assume the challenges which the Gospel writers present them as having to Jesus’ actions are sincere concerns about the welfare of the people and the shared ritual practices available to them.

In this Sunday’s gospel passage (Luke 6:1-11), we will observe Jesus clashing with the Pharisees once again, this time over the observance of the Sabbath. Set aside as a holy day of rest, the Pharisees were deeply concerned with what was permitted on this day, in the interest of living righteously and staying closely connected to God. First, they engage in a minor tussle with him over the activity of plucking grain with his hungry disciples. His parting words to them must have sent a chill up their collective spine: “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” Surely, they thought, he could not be referring to himself? Consider how this claim of ultimate authority clashes with Pharisees’ noble, even Reformation-like idea of a “democratized religious experience.”

On another sabbath, Jesus was teaching in the temple in the presence of the Pharisees, and in the midst of the congregation there was a man with a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him…ready to make an accusation against him if the situation escalated. Jesus asks them: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” And with the simple act of Jesus speaking to him (speaking, of course, was not forbidden on the sabbath), the man’s hand was miraculously restored.

Why were the Pharisees so full of fury after this encounter? Perhaps fury is experienced when a religious system, like the one the Pharisees had so carefully and thoughtfully crafted, begins crumbling down. A “democratized religious experience” like the one they knew faces an insurmountable challenge in Jesus Christ. This radical preacher, whose teaching and healing powers are unmatched, is a very real threat to their life of faith. He claims for himself the authority to forgive sins, sees himself as “above the law” in encounters such as these, and continually surrounds himself with sinners whose disregard for the law is brazen and alarming.

Does the Son of God still threaten our carefully crafted religious beliefs today, with his claims to authority, and his insistence that we live by his forgiveness and grace instead of our merits and accomplishments? What does life look like when we give up the struggle of trying to live by our own righteousness and rest in his graceful lordship instead? These are the questions I am considering as I prepare the sermon for this coming weekend. But I think that life lived in him looks something like this: a blessed rest in the peace of faith, a restoration to abundant life….a sabbath beyond compare.

Pastor Katherine

(Photo courtesy of www.lds.org)

An Offer We Can't Refuse

Sometimes remarkable things come to light in the most unlikely of circumstances. Simon provides his fishing boat for Jesus to sit in as he teaches the crowd gathered at the shore. Afterward Jesus directs him to deeper water to fish. As a professional fisherman, Simon obeys only out of respect for Jesus, pointing out their complete futility the night before. But when Simon’s net begins to break from the sheer weight of the fish, and he must signal his partners to help with the haul before his boat sinks, he recognizes more than a miracle. Overwhelmed, it is not the enormous catch itself that brings Simon to his knees, but the One in whose Presence he suddenly recognizes. Fearful awe and the awareness of personal sin are human reactions to the Holy breaking through in glory. Often a call to obedience follows, this one – to fish for people – one of the most consequential invitations in human history. Everything will change for Simon in his leaving the boats to follow Jesus! Is the invitation of Jesus not an offer we can’t refuse?

Growing Pains: A Reflection on the weekend’s Scripture Texts

Growing Pains: A Reflection on the weekend’s Scripture Texts
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 4:21-30

Our Scripture texts for today remind us of a well-beloved Sunday School song from days of yore. Recall the song with me:

Children's choir

“It’s about love, love, love (re-Pete)
Cuz God loves us we love each other:
Father, Mother, Sister, Brother.
Everybody sing and shout!
Cuz that’s what it’s all about.”

 This “all about” word, that’s at the very heart of God (I John 4:7-12) calling the young prophet, Jeremiah out of his comfort zone to proclaim God’s Word “to all the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5,10). Further, this “all about” word, that is at the heart of every human longing, is re-emphasized, even re-defined by Jesus in our gospel text today, such that people begin to see cross-eyed (Luke 4:28). So, how is God’s Word causing us, in this “season of surprise” (in the light of Epiphany) to be stretched-out: from LUV to LOVE? What are some of the “growing pains” that we’re experiencing as the body of Christ – among the family of First Lutheran Church? Will we play it safe and simply sing the old “repeat,” or will we risk some new verses? I think it’s more than just a coincidence that the picture of the Carol Choir pictured here has some empty risers? These are special places, just waiting with joy, to be filled with more … “sisters and brothers” in Christ. “Cuz” … in Jesus’ teaching for us, we are called with all of our growing pains to reach-out in ministry and mission beyond the simple boundaries of 12th Street and Dakota … “Cuz, that’s what it’s all about.” AMEN?!

j.r. christopherson