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

Baptized for us

DSC_6117_baptism.jpg

At Jesus’ baptism the confusion between John and Jesus comes to an end as John says plainly that one more powerful than himself is coming, and at the baptism the voice from heaven declares Jesus as God’s beloved Son. Until this moment the people had been coming to John for a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, but now John will fade into the background as Jesus’ ministry begins. It is critical to realize that Jesus was baptized for us, not for himself. He was baptized in order to take our sin to himself, not to be cleansed from his own sin. This is a very critical move, for John could only tell people to act better according to the law, that is to repent and start doing the right deeds of justice. Jesus, by contrast, will forgive sinners. Instead of John's call to repent in order to be forgiven, Jesus will give forgiveness that produces repentance and new life in the gospel. 

A Nunc Dimittis For The New Year

“Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel. … And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, [Simeon] took [the child] up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for my eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.’” (Luke 2:25, 26-32; emphasis added)

As we experienced the wondrous message of Christmas this past week … the presence of the Messiah is a mystery. It cannot be said by everyone, and it cannot be seen by everyone, but only by those like Simeon in our gospel reading, who have heard God’s Word of promise and look with eyes that are guided by the Holy Spirit (Luke 2:24d, 27a). And so for us, come Sunday … the first day of the New Year 2017 … there is a renewed call by God to “behold,” to “listen” for his Holy Word that still comes to us – together with a splashing of water at baptism and the bread ‘n wine where Christ promises to be truly present (cf. R. Jenson’s Visible Words). Yes, there’s something surprising, something quite unexpected about the appearance of salvation; something that contradicts pious opinions and intellectual demands (I Corinthians 1:21-23).

As the wise old theologian of the 20th century, Paul Tillich cradles it: “The mystery of salvation is the mystery of a child” (The New Being, p.95). So it was anticipated by the Old Testament prophets (e.g. Isaiah 7:14; 9:6; 11:6) … the “wise men from the east” (Matthew 2:1-2) … as well as those beloved advent figures who set-the-stage-in-waiting for the “good news” of the gospel (Mark 1:1): Zechariah ‘n Elizabeth, Mary, and Simeon (Luke 1:5-25; 26-56; 2:22-35). They all believed, as did the early Christians, that the event of salvation is the birth of a child. For a child is real and not yet real, it is in history and not yet historical – its little hands have not yet matured into full reach. A child’s nature is visible and invisible; it is here and not yet fully here. The New Testament is clear in stating that the Kingdom of God is at hand in the person of Jesus; yet, this kingdom is still coming about, in secret mystery, till the time of fulfillment when he returns. This experience of waiting – of “not having but also having” … of “now and not yet” (John 4:23) … is the character of salvation. Salvation has the nature of a child.

And so we wait … we wait in the Spirit of God’s promise in this Christmas Season ‘n beyond … with Zechariah and Elizabeth, with Mary, and with Simeon … and all the “waiting witnesses” of faith … those who trust that the seed of salvation has already been planted, like a seed growing deep in the womb of God’s world and in us …

Yes, salvation has the nature of a child … and when it grows-up is crucified and raised. Only the person who has eyes of faith to see power under weakness, glory under suffering, life under death (cf. Martin Luther’s “theology of the cross”) … can hold out one’s hands with Simeon, as in Rembrandt’s painting that you see attached here … and behold a little child, a little bread ‘n wine, and confess Simeon’s nunc dimittis: “Lord, lettest now thy servant depart in peace according to your Holy Word … For mine eyes have seen thy salvation” (Luke 2:29-30). 

A blessed New Year to you and your kin …                
Dr. John Christopherson
Senior Pastor

The Greatest Gift of All: God's Presence

“For to you is born this day … a Savior”

And the angel said to the shepherds: “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). Now, here’s the heart of the Gospel, the very core of the Christmas message: “For to you …”

God does not come to us in the leisure distance of some text or phone call: “Hey, how ya’ doin?” Nor does God come to us with an inscribed card from some tropical island that reads: “Wish you were here” … or better yet, “Merry Christmas.” (What? Moving on …) Rather, God gives of God’s very self, to you, to me – we uncertain poor shepherds still out in the wiles of this early 21st century – tending our loneliness, our hurts, our needs, by night – and makes us his own – Emmanuel (“God with us”). God comes into the fear and loneliness of our little darkened rooms and says: “Don’t be afraid. I’m here with you, for you, for always …” (cf. Psalm 23:4). And what great “comfort and joy” is here! You’re not alone. I’m not alone. For God promises to always be with us. “And ALL the people were to be enrolled” (Luke 2:1).

Follow me on this … The baby Jesus couldn’t get into the Ramkota or Hilton, not even the HOLIDAY inn. “And there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7c). This allusion comes from the prophet, Jeremiah who says: “Who am I? am I just a traveler on this land who stays at an inn?” My friends, Jesus can’t get into an inn because he’s not some traveler. He’s going no where. He has to be born on earth because he’s not going to pack-up and leave. This is a permanent presence – “God deep in the flesh” (Martin Luther) – in person – con carne – for our human condition. There will be no walking out of the covenant. There will be no abandonment. This is not some tourist. This is one who’s born on earth.

The Christ Child cannot be born in an inn, because the only people who stay in inns are people who move out. They stay a night and then they leave. Rather … as we sing the beloved Christmas hymn, “What Child Is This?” … the refrain bears witness: “This, this is Christ the Lord …” who does not leave. And you have God’s personal Word on it – marked by the Cross and sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit. “This is my body given for you.”  “This is my blood shed for you” (cf. John 15:13). There’s an amazing physicality here. A presence of fleshy vulnerability, wrapped in swaddling cloths. As the medieval mystic, Oetinger would remind us: “Corporeality is the end of the ways of God” (see Paul Tillich’s, A History of Christian Thought, p.262).

I will always remember a university student sharing a very “touching” childhood remembrance with me – one that involved her traveling to Disneyland. As her family was driving on the return to her home state of Montana, her mother posed this question to her: “Honey, what part of the trip did you like the best?” Her unhesitating response: “That Daddy and you could be with me, the whole time.”

Friends and family: Listen. Listen. Personal, physical presence, is the very, very best gift that we can be given. By God for us. And by us for one another, in Jesus’ name. As the Dutch theologian, Eduard Schillebeeckx has observed: “People are the words by which God continues to tell his story of salvation” (Church, p.xiii). Don’t forget this truth; especially when you’re “out there” running around, frazzled, wondering what to buy a loved one for Christmas. Share the comforting word of Christ. Share something of your very presence. Such is the understanding that inspired the Psalmist to write: “In thy presence is fullness of joy!” (Psalm 16:11). Merry Christ-mass!

Dr. John Christopherson
Senior Pastor

Mary: The Theotokos ("Bearer of God")

One of the most beautiful and beloved stories of God's coming to dwell in our lives ...  as his children, his chosen ones ... sings right-up-off the page of our Gospel text for today.  It tells of the fullness of time when the kingdom of God begins to break in upon our advent darkness - of watching 'n waiting, of singing 'n beholding. Of a new beginning when a young girl, named Mary says "Amen" to God's angelic Announcement"  ... So, why do we love this story so much?  Perhaps it's because in this story, we're able to hear how it is that we too are loved unconditionally by God's favor.  Or, that we, like Mary - a common peasant girl - are given the courage to say "Yes" to the very best gift of all: God's coming to dwell with us, in us, and through us ... in the great joy of being able to bear/share the good news of Christ's birth.  "Glory to God in the highest ... AND ... on earth, peace among all people, with whom God is well pleased" (Luke 2:14).

Meister Eckhart, the medieval mystic - a favorite of Martin Luther - once penned these very provocative words, words that connect the Gospel Word with our lives this day.  Listen in carefully ... "[With Mary] we are all meant to be 'bearers of God's word' (theotokoi) ... [For] what good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and place?  This, then, is the fullness of time. Wen the Son of God is begotten in and through us."

                                          j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

Thoughts on Isaiah 61

As the Babylonian exile of God’s people ends and their hope of returning to the promised land begins to be realized, the word of God through the prophet Isaiah promises hope, joy, freedom to the captives and restoration of life. But just what did that mean? What does it look like? When the messiah comes to bring these great gifts will it finally be a time for Israel to be restored to glory? Will they finally get all that their hearts desire and all the power, riches, and honor they deserve? With the Spirit of the Lord upon the messiah will there be any stopping them? Imagine the disappointment that awaited when Jesus Christ showed up as messiah. Instead of elevating Israel with power and riches, he proclaimed the kingdom of God’s forgiveness and mercy, so that all that Isaiah had spoken had to be rethought. Really, however, the gifts of God in Christ - forgiveness, life, salvation - are priceless and beyond all worldly value so that they are far more precious than power and wealth. These gifts cannot be bought, but can only be given in Christ through the Holy Spirit.