Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Day 2012 Sermon - The Light Shines in the Darkness

The Light Shines in the Darkness
John 1:1-14, Christmas Day, 2012

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Eleven days ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut, we saw the darkness. We watched in horror, in shock, in anger, in grief, as 28 people, 20 of them first grade children, lost their lives in an act of unspeakable evil. My wife and I struggled, even in our own grieving and questions, with how to talk with our kids about it, how to assure them that they could feel safe even while living in a world where the darkness of evil, the darkness of sin, the darkness of our own brokenness, surrounds us. I know we weren’t alone in that struggle.  Which is why today’s gospel reading is so important, why the birth of Jesus in a barn in Palestine 2,000 years ago is important, why today of all days, Christmas Day, we hear a gospel reading not of shepherds and wise men, not of stars and angels, but of the God who was there in the very beginning, the God who with a word created the heavens and the earth, the God who proclaimed “let there be light!”, the God who took on flesh and lived among us, the God who IS the light that shines in the darkness, the God that no amount of darkness can overcome.

Today, we need Christmas.

We need to hear that we have not been abandoned to the darkness. We have not been left to our own devices, to our own will, to our own strength. Whether it is a first grade classroom in Connecticut, or a pink slip at work, or the bottom of a booze bottle, or the pang of hunger before bed knowing that it will have only grown by morning, or the fear of what will happen after a doctor’s diagnosis, or the relentlessness of Mother Nature, or the betrayal of a loved one, or of anything else, we know the darkness. We’ve experienced the darkness. The darkness is a very real thing, and no amount of tinsel or wrapping paper can cover that up.
This Christmas morning, we worship a God who chose to be Immanuel, God with us, who chose to take on flesh, to come to us through the upside down power of humility, who chose a way not of glory, but the way of self-giving love for the sake of the other, the way of the cross. We worship a God who is the light shining in the darkness. We worship a God who the darkness has not overcome.

Over the last week or so, many of us I’m sure have heard attempts to explain the darkness we saw in Connecticut, as well as the larger darkness of sin and evil. We’ve heard from various sources that evil acts like what we saw in Connecticut or the week before in Oregon happen because we’ve taken God out of the public square, or because we’ve removed God from the schools. This isn’t a message that began recently, either.  Every year we hear about the “War on Christmas,” every year we’re warned that if we say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” or if the money we spend and the credit cards we max out and the stores we keep open late between Black Friday and December 25 aren’t in honor of Jesus, or if we don’t have a manger scene in the town square, that we will have taken Christ out of Christmas.

Our Christmas Day gospel account, as well as the very message of Christmas itself, tells us that nothing could be further from the truth. We don’t have the ability to remove God from anywhere. It’s not possible for us to take the baby Jesus and hide him away, safely out of sight. Any thinking about who God is or what God can do or what God IS doing that gives humankind the ability to manipulate God for our own purposes is much too small for what we read in the first chapter of John. Jesus IS Immanuel, God-With-Us. Jesus IS the light of the world, and that light shines not in the halls of power, not in the good, proper, places where we might otherwise  expect, but in the darkness. It shines in our sinfulness. It shines in our brokenness. It shines in a Bethlehem stable. It shines at the dinner table with prostitutes and tax collectors. It shines with the lepers and the sick and the outcast. It shines on the cross. It shines in the empty tomb.

And Jesus, light of the world, God-With-Us, shines yet today, bringing light to the dark. God cannot be removed from the world God made, the world God loves, and the world God is redeeming. God simply will not be kept out.  That’s the beauty of the story of Christmas. God breaks in. God breaks through.  

We don’t act on God, God acts on us. We don’t come to God—God comes to us. We can’t take God out of any part of our individual or societal life, because God is God, we are not…and God has promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age. And so, according to John, according to what we celebrate at Christmas, according to the Incarnation, we don’t put God anywhere or take God anywhere. God finds us. God comes to us. God comes alongside us in our darkness, and doesn’t just shine a light…God is the light. God becomes the light.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Where we should expect God to be is exactly where we see the shadows, where we see the darkness, where we see the sin and pain and suffering and brokenness in our world. And not because that’s the way we would have it, but because that’s the way God would have it. God is right there in those dark places and in the dark places of our own lives shining the light of God’s own self, the light of Christ, the light of God’s peace, God’s hope, God’s wholeness, God’s shalom and dispelling the fear of our own dark nights.
This baby in the manger is the same God who was present at the beginning of time, at the creation of the universe.

This baby in the manger is the same Word who was spoken to Abraham and spoken through the prophets, the Word of redemption and of new life and of a blessing for the entire world.

This baby in the manger is the same relentless God who cannot be pushed out or kept back, the God who took on flesh and took on our humanity, the God who was executed by the worldly power of empire.

This baby in the manger is the same Living Word who through his resurrection three days later refused to allow death to have the final word.

This baby in the manger is the same God who refuses even today to let us go, who promises us still that there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can separate us from God’s love.

The light of Jesus shines in our darkness. And the darkness did not overcome it.


Monday, October 29, 2012

Confirmation Sermon from 10-28-2012: "Let Your Light So Shine!"

Let Your Light So Shine!

October 28, 2012: Confirmation Sunday

 It was about 9:30 on Saturday night at the Sounds Like Love music festival in the Twin Cities back in 2008. About 400 high school youth had been rehearsing for over 6 ½ hours, singing songs, learning choreography, turning notes on a page into music for people’s hearts, and everyone was tired. Voices were straining, the movements weren’t as crisp as they had been hours earlier, and it was getting hard to stay in focus and on task. There was a section of a Christmas song they were rehearsing where different groups of youth were supposed to shine their mini-flashlights at different times, and it just wasn’t working the way it was supposed to. Finally, in a fit of directorial frustration, conductor John Jacobson cried out, “Twinkle, you little Lutherans, twinkle!!!”

In Jesus’ sermon on the mount from the gospel according to Matthew, he said: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
At some point in your lives, you were brought to church. You were brought to a baptismal font, and you were baptized with water and with words of promise. Promises were made…God’s promise that you are a loved, forgiven and cherished child of God. Promises made by your parents and your sponsors to raise you in the faith, to teach you the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, to place in your hands the Holy Scriptures, and to walk alongside you as you learn and grow in your faith. The fact that you are here today means that along the line, someone took those promises seriously. And then, chances are, near the end of the baptismal service, a candle was lit and someone said those words we heard from the Sermon on the Mount: “Let your light so shine before others that they may see you good works and glorify your father in heaven.”

Or, in the John Jacobson translation, “Twinkle, you little Lutherans, twinkle!”

Those words are a reminder that a life in Christ is not merely an adoption, but also a calling. Can’t you just imagine Jesus standing in front of us? Sometimes in encouragement, sometimes in frustration, but always in love, crying out “Let your light shine! Twinkle, you little Lutherans, twinkle!”
You were created to twinkle. You were created to do good works. You were created as that city on a hill, you were created to be that lamp that doesn’t belong under a bushel, but that gives out light so that others may see. That’s not what gets you right with God, it doesn’t score you God points or get you any closer to heaven, because that part’s not up to you. That part’s already been done for you. Paul writes in the letter to the Ephesians that you were saved by grace through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is a gift of God, so that no one might boast. Jesus died on the cross and rose for you. You have been forgiven, you have been made new through your baptism, and there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can separate you from God’s love in Christ. Good works aren’t what you’re saved BY…good works are what you’re saved FOR.  In verse 10 of Ephesians 2, Paul writes, “for we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” You were created to shine, you were created to twinkle.

The thing about light is that when you shine it on something, it allows you to see things as they really are. We use shadows to hide. We use darkness to conceal things. You all know as well as I do that the best games of hide and seek are played in the dark, because you can hide yourself so well. But when Jesus calls us to let our light so shine before others, we are being called to help the world see things as they really are. We are being called to help the world see the things that we try to hide in the dark, to see the people who are so often buried in the dark. We are even called to see the truth of our own situation, that there are things about ourselves that we’d rather leave in the dark, that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.
It’s only when we let that light shine in the dark places that the dark places can begin to be transformed. Over the past three years you’ve done quite a bit of light shining. In your small groups you’ve gotten to know each other better, but you’ve found ways to serve your neighbors and serve the world. You’ve helped raise money for our brothers and sisters in Tanzania. You’ve collected food and diapers for those in need. You’ve helped serve meals, you’ve assisted people who haven’t been able to take care of themselves. You have been active participants in God’s mission in the world, a mission of making all things new, a mission of bringing healing and hope to a world that is broken and so often in despair. At the time, you may have thought that these were small things, or that they were hoops you needed to jump through as a requirement for Confirmation, but in reality, these good works that you have done were big, very big…and they weren’t just hoops for you to jump through, they weren’t just something to do to get a service and fellowship requirement out of the way for the month. They were a way that you were living out not just your baptismal promises, but even more basic than that, who you were created by God to be and what you were created by God to do.

Where else can you shine this light that you have been given? Where else can you shine the light of love, the light of hope, the light of truth, the light of service, the light of peace? These aren’t just big flowery words, they are opportunities you’re given every day to continue to be who you were created to be. How is God calling you to shine your light at home? What about at school? What about in the community? What about with your friends? What about at church? Because even though we’re not taking attendance anymore, even though you don’t have to worry about signing in for Sunday School or how many sermon notes you need or any of that stuff, I pray that this is only the beginning of your light shining days. You have so much inside of you to share, so much light that the world desperately needs. You have talents, and time, and joy, and intelligence, and each of you has those in very unique ways. You each have a light, but each light has a unique glow. Someone once said that your calling is where your great joy meets the world’s great need. Today as you are confirmed, it is not the end, but it’s a step on the journey, a time for you to take these promises that were made on your behalf at your baptism and to say yes, these are now mine. This is my faith, this is my calling, this is my light to shine.

Your parents, your baptismal sponsors, your Confirmation guides, your Confirmation mentors, your family, your friends, your church…we are all a part of this incredible journey of faith with you. We’re here to walk alongside you, to encourage you, to be encouraged by you, to lead you, and to be led by you as together we look to the cross. Some days, the journey is hard, other days it is easy. Some days we walk with uncertain steps, other days we stride ahead confidently. But being a part of the body of Christ means that we journey together, not always knowing where we are going, but assured that God’s hand is leading and guiding us. This journey of faith that we are on—you are a part of it, an important part of it.

 I’ve said it before and I will continue to say it until I’m blue in the face that you are not the future of the church—you ARE the church RIGHT NOW. You are valuable, you have a voice, you make a difference. You are a part of Christ’s body on earth, you are the light that is shining for the world. So twinkle. Twinkle, you little Lutherans, twinkle!

Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

Sunday, October 28, 2012

October 20-21 2012 sermon--"Power from God, Power for Others"

Power from God—Power for Others

I’m an older brother. I have one sister who’s three years younger than me. When we were young and my parents went out in the evenings, we’d have a babysitter—but there came a point in time when we were old enough to be left on our own for a few hours. My parents left us with rules, of course, but in a very real sense we were in charge of ourselves. Which meant, as far as I was concerned, that I, the big brother, was in charge of my little sister. And so we’d get out the big, tall Tupperware cups and mix up huge servings of chocolate milk, which we hardly ever were allowed to drink, and when we did it certainly wasn’t as chocolatey as we wanted. We’d put in so much chocolate sauce that there’d be a thick layer of chocolate on the bottom of the cup when we were finished drinking. And we’d get out our favorite records—that’s right, actual vinyl on a record player—that our parents owned. Sometimes it was the soundtrack from American Graffiti, but more often it was Barry Manilow’s Greatest Hits. And we’d turn up the stereo higher than we knew mom and dad would let us had they been there, singing and dancing to Copacabana and I Write the Songs and Mandy.
We were such rebels, my sister and I.
While mom and dad were gone, we had power. We were in charge. And it was all about us. It was all about what we wanted.
And as the older brother, really, it was all about me.
If my sister did something I didn’t want her to, I was bigger. I had ways of making her stop. I had ways of convincing her that what I wanted to do, what I wanted to eat, the way I wanted things to go, was also what she wanted. I was usually nice about it, but also sneaky, persuasive, and selfish.
Jesus said in our Gospel reading, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
Power from God is power for others.
Lord Acton is often quoted as saying that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s also been said that those who have power seek to find any way to keep the power they have, and those without seek to find any way to obtain it. When Jesus was speaking, the example he was using of what not to do, how not to live, was the Roman Empire. They had power, and they made sure they kept their power through means of persuasion much more violent than I used with my sister. They had chariots, and weapons, and for those who dared to challenge their authority, they had crosses. Theyre was peace in the Roman Empire, the Pax Romana, but it wasn’t the peace which passes all understanding, it wasn’t the wholeness of the Hebrew word shalom, it was merely the lack of violence kept by the fear of violence. And for those who would have been listening to Jesus, the many crosses which often lined the roads filled with those who had dared to challenge the power of Rome and disturb that peace were symbols and stark reminders of that power.
Yes, there was power in the cross. The power of death. The power to get people to do what Rome wanted.
But what Jesus told the disciples, and what Jesus tells us today, is that power from God is power for others.
As Christians, we too know that there is power in the cross. But it’s a different kind of power that what Rome understood. Not the power of death, but the promise of life. Not the power to get people to do our bidding, but the promise of freedom. Not power to be grasped and held on to at any cost, but power to be given away. Not power to serve our own interests, but power to serve our neighbor.
Jesus tells us today that we, all of us, are called to be servant leaders.
We who follow Jesus are called to see power in a different way than the world does. We are called to use power in a different way than the world does. It’s not about us. It’s not getting what we want and holding on to what we deserve. It’s about helping our neighbor get what they need and showing others the same sort of love and grace that we ourselves have been shown, love and grace that we never could have earned. These gifts that we have been given, whether they’re authority or power or possessions or money or love or forgiveness or anything else, aren’t intended to stop with us. They are absolutely for us—the kids who did First Communion instruction with me this past spring will remember how important those two words are—“for you.” The bread and wine, the body and blood, the water and word of baptism, the cross and the empty tomb—these are all absolutely and without a doubt for you. But you’re not where they stop. God’s gifts for you don’t end with you. You are blessed to be a blessing.
Power from God is power for others.
When we follow in the way of the cross, it may not mean our physical death, but it does mean we die to ourselves. We die to our need to be the center of it all, our curved-in nature that is the very definition of sin. We die to our bondage to ourselves. We are saved from our slavery to self, and saved for service to our neighbor. And when that’s how we live, when that’s how we’re oriented, when our view of our neighbor and of power and of all we’ve been given has been shaped by the cross, then we’re already living in the kingdom. We’re already experiencing a foretaste of the feast to come. We’ve already taken that place of honor at Christ’s table—the honor that comes not from grasping, but from giving. The power and the peace that brings wholeness and life. Abundant life now, and eternal life always.
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
Which is infinitely better than Barry Manilow’s Greatest Hits.

Monday, September 24, 2012

September 22-23, 2012 sermon--"Questioning Jesus"

Questioning Jesus
September 22-23, 2012

Back in 1995, Joan Osborne sang a song that was later named to VH1’s list of Greatest One-Hit Wonders of the 90’s: “One of Us.” It was later used as the theme song for the TV show Joan of Arcadia. Throughout the song, the singer asks a number of questions, one of which is, “If you were faced with him in all his glory, what would you ask if you had just one question?”

Over the summer, we had the opportunity to tackle a bunch of those kinds of questions. Big, basic, foundational questions of the faith. Questions that many times we don’t know the answer to, but somehow we feel that we should, and are ashamed to ask.

And it’s not just faith questions that do this to us, isn’t it? We don’t like to ask questions, because to ask a question means that there’s something we don’t know, and for some reason, we live under the impression that we’re supposed to know it all and have it all together. I can’t count the number of times when someone has come up to me and started talking about something where I had NO idea what they were talking about. Sometimes they may have assumed that I had prior information, sometimes they may have just been talking and assuming that I was following where they were going, but for me, it quickly became abundantly clear that I was very much in the dark.

Do you think I stopped them and said something like “I’m sorry, what do you mean?” or “I’m just not following” or something along those lines? No. Maybe I didn’t want to look stupid, maybe I didn’t want to look like I didn’t have it all together or didn’t have the answers. I just nodded and smiled and listened, and after the conversation was done racked my brain or kicked myself for not knowing and then on top of it, kicked myself for staying quiet and worried and wondered if they know that I hadn’t been following them.
I hope I’m not the only one who’s done something like that.

Jesus’ disciples were in the same boat in today’s reading. Actually, the full story begins even before our reading. Turn in your Bibles to Mark 9:14. Verses 14-29 tell a story of something that happened right before today’s reading. There’s a boy with an unclean spirit that’s causing convulsions, and the disciples have been unable to do anything about it—in fact, as Jesus approaches, they’re in the middle of an argument with the scribes who had gathered. Jesus chastises them all, even the disciples, in verse 19, saying, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” You can almost hear the frustrated sigh in his voice, as even after the time that his disciples have spent with him, there’s still so much that they don’t understand. They don’t understand who he is, they don’t understand who they are, and they don’t understand who they are called to be. After he casts out the spirit, the disciples ask him in private in v. 29 why they couldn’t have done it, and his answer basically is that they didn’t pray.

So we have that embarrassing setup before we get to today’s reading. The disciples have been embarrassed by not being able to do something they thought they should have been able to do, and they were almost certainly embarrassed by Jesus’ disappointment. So in verse 30, they pass quietly through Galilee and Jesus takes that time not to stop and heal people or feed people or do any of these amazing miracles that he had been doing, but as they travel he teaches them. It’s as though he’s realizing that his disciples weren’t getting it, that he needed to go back to the beginning, to the foundational stuff.

And so we get to verse 31, where he tells his disciples quite explicitly what’s going to happen to him. He says that he will be betrayed into human hands, and that he would be killed, and that on the third day he would rise. But look then at verse 32, keeping in mind what had just happened in the previous story. “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

In Mark’s account of the gospel, the disciples remain clueless pretty much all the way through. They are constantly getting things wrong or not understanding what Jesus is saying or doing. Even at the end of Mark, after the resurrection, the angel tells the disciples that Jesus has risen and would meet them in Galilee and that they were to go there, and what do they do? They stay in Jerusalem, and tell no one. So for the disciples to not understand Jesus in this instance isn’t a surprise, but now, they were afraid to ask him. They were embarrassed, they were afraid…instead of wanting to gain further insight into the truth of the strange things Jesus was saying, they nodded and pretended to understand, just like we do so much of the time.

And what was the result? Arguments. Infighting. Division. When they arrived in Capernaum, Jesus asked them what they had been arguing about on the way, and like a group of kids being confronted by a parent, nobody wanted to tell him, because they had been arguing over who was the greatest, and they knew that he wouldn’t have liked that argument. Their focus was completely the wrong one, and they knew it.

Because in their non-understanding of Jesus they had cut off communication, their focus was not on who Jesus was or what Jesus was about, but on themselves. Alyce McKenzie points out four possible causes of the disciples’ argument:
  • fear that they have fallen in Jesus'estimation (9:19)
  • insecurity at their failure to heal the boy (9:29)
  • resentment toward one another as Jesus chastises them 
  • eagerness to compete to regain his approval[1]
The first letter of each of those reasons spells out F-I-R-E. Last week, we heard from James’ letter that the tongue is a fire, and indeed these arguments over our own power, over our own prestige, when we’re trying to save face and establish or re-establish our credentials, generate heat. And then we hear this week from James 4:1-3:
4:1 Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2 You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. 

When we hear this passage from James, it’s easy for our minds to go immediately to our stuff. Asking for things, and receiving things. Possessions. But this passage also provides a commentary on our gospel passage and what’s going on with the disciples. It wasn’t just a piece of information that they didn’t understand that they needed clarification on. They didn’t get Jesus. They really, truly did not understand who he was, or what he was about. Their focus was on their own reputation. It turned inward, and when we curve inward like that, when it becomes about us and our standing and our place, then we too don’t get Jesus. We don’t understand who he is or what he’s about, or what we’re about as his followers.

What’s Jesus response to the disciples? He tells, and then he shows. To explain who he is, to explain what he’s about, to help them understand that his power is found in weakness, that life in him is found in death and resurrection, to help them understand their own calling, he takes their argument and turns it on its head. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Your greatness, your glory, your place in the Kingdom of God, is found in lowliness, humility, and your willingness to be a servant. Not just a servant of those who deserve it, not just a servant of those you like or those you agree with or those whose lifestyles or choices agree with yours, but a servant of all. A servant of your enemy. A servant of the outcast. You are to go even so far as to welcome children.

Of course we’re supposed to welcome children, right?

We look at this and our inclination is to think, “aw, how cute. Jesus hugs a kid and tells the disciples that they need to love kids too.” But these were revolutionary words. Children, in Jewish culture, weren’t yet fully human. They had no rights, they had no status, no standing, not even a fully formed humanity. Your calling, he tells the disciples and us today, is to love and serve and welcome even those who do not have the same rights as you do, who do not have standing in society, who your culture tells you that you ought not to love and serve and welcome. Welcome them into your homes, into your lives, into your church, welcome them to the baptismal font and to the communion table.

Do we dare take the risk? When we are radically welcoming, we risk losing our status in society. When the outsider is welcomed, we risk becoming the outsider ourselves. We risk losing what we had, we risk losing who we used to be.

But that’s the cross. That’s Jesus’ example. That’s what the disciples didn’t get. That’s what we so often don’t get. That’s letting go of our need to be right, our embarrassment of not having it all together, this house of cards that we build for ourselves that we’re so deathly afraid someone’s going to find us out, that’s letting go of all of that, and clinging instead to Jesus’ promises of forgiveness and new life.

New life for all of us.


Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=9/20/2009&tab=4

Monday, August 27, 2012

August 26, 2012 sermon--"Come and See!"

An example of what evangelism is NOT.
Come and See!

August 25-26, 2012

Text is below--audio can be found at this link.

I’m a big, big Nebraska Cornhuskers football fan. Ever since moving to Nebraska when I was in 4th grade, I’ve followed the Huskers, cheered the victories and grumbled at the losses. I love to talk about the team, I love to go to the games when I can—in fact, I’ll often lose my voice by game’s end from cheering so loud.
January 1, 1995 was a big day for me as a Husker fan. The Huskers were in the Orange Bowl, playing Miami after a perfect season. Win this game and they were national champions. Anticipation was high, especially since the Huskers had made it to the same point the previous season, only to have their title hopes dashed as a last-second field goal attempt sailed wide.

At the end of the third quarter, Miami led, 17-9, and things didn’t look all that good for Nebraska. But then, plays began to open up for the offense. With about 7 ½ minutes left in the game, Cory Schlesinger scored on a run up the middle, and the two point conversion afterwards tied up the game. Miami wasn’t able to do anything with their next possession, and when the Huskers got the ball back, they drove down the field, running it right at the tired Miami defense. With a little over 2 ½ minutes left in the game, this happened:

With the play that my wife and I still refer to as the “Schlesinger Roll,” Nebraska took the lead for the first time in the game, and ended up winning. Here’s Kent Pavelka’s call of the final seconds:

That wasn’t just fake emotion he was mustering up. As the game ended, celebrations erupted across the state. Over 10,000 people spontaneously gathered at the intersection of 72nd and Dodge in Omaha, and thousands more converged on 13th and O here in Lincoln. Complete strangers gave each other hugs and high fives. I was at my parents’ house in Bellevue, and we ran outside, cheering with the other neighbors.

When we see or experience joy, when we hear or experience good news, we want to share it with others. When something affects us so profoundly, we want to tell others, we want to invite others into our joy, so that they too may become a part of it. It might be something as relatively small as a football game. It might be something like a birth announcement or an engagement, or a new job, or a promotion. Birthdays, anniversaries, all of our life’s mile markers are things that we seek out others with whom we can celebrate. It comes naturally to us.

Why then, is talking about our faith often not the same?

Today is the last topic in our summer series on Faith Questions You Were Afraid to Ask But Your Kids Weren’t, and the question we’re “tackling” (to continue the football metaphor) is the question of evangelism. What exactly does evangelism mean? Why is it so difficult for many of us?

For too many Christians as well as for many outside the Christian faith, the word “evangelism” has become a dirty word. It brings for many people negative connotations, people knocking on doors or carrying signs or trying to argue someone into the faith or beating their neighbor over the head with a Bible until it finally sinks in. But the word “evangelism” isn’t any of that at all. It comes from a Greek word which means, “one who is the bringer of good news.” In fact, the root is the same as where we get the word “angel.” Our church thinks so highly of the word that we have incorporated it into the name of our wider church body—we are part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Evangelism ought to be part of our spiritual DNA—so why, so often, is it missing?

You, my friends, are evangelists! You are the bringers of good news! That doesn’t mean being pushy, it doesn’t mean arguing or violence or much of what the world tends to associate with evangelism. It’s about experiencing joy, about experiencing transformation, about experiencing God’s amazing love and grace and forgiveness, it’s about being a part of God’s promise that God is making all things new, and simply wanting to share that. Wanting to not keep this incredible gift to yourself. Wanting to experience this in a community, and wanting others to be able to share in the freedom through the cross that you yourself know. It’s about extending the same simple invitation that Philip extended to Nathaniel: “come and see.”

“Come and see.” The day before the events in our reading, two disciples of John the Baptist had been so captivated by Jesus’ encounter with them when he had come to John that they had followed him. One of those disciples was named Andrew, and he had gone and found his brother Simon. Apparently, word must have spread through their hometown of Bethsaida, because in our reading today another resident of that town, Philip, has his own encounter with Jesus. And what is Philip’s reaction? He runs and finds his friend Nathanael, telling him excitedly, “We’ve found the one! The one that Moses and the prophets wrote about! It’s Jesus, from Nazareth!”

He is so excited, so filled with joy, that he can’t just keep it to himself. He has to share that with someone, and so he shares it with Nathanael, whose response is just like popping a balloon: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Nazareth? That town? Really? Come on, Philip—you’ve come to me all excited about this? Seriously?

Philip would have had every reason to get defensive, or to argue with Nathanael, or to attack, or to claim that Nathanael was persecuting him, or complain that he wasn’t being taken seriously. Indeed, those are some of the reactions that Christians unfortunately often have to those who question our proclamation of good news. But instead, Philip simply says, “Come and see.”

When you know you’ve got a good thing, when you are so certain that the news you have REALLY IS good news, then this good news can speak for itself on its own merits. It doesn’t require you to argue your way through it. It doesn’t require you to try to trick someone into believing, or to scare them into believing, or to strongarm them into believing. “Come and see.” If the cross really is good news, if God’s promises of newness and freedom and justice and mercy really are good news, if we really believe that God so loved the world that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life, if we really take to heart that it is by grace that we have been saved through faith, and this is not of our own doing, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one may boast, if we really have taken to heart the things that Jesus said and did, his life and ministry and death and resurrection, then evangelism becomes the same simple invitation that Philip extended to Nathanael: “come and see.”

We Lutherans should be on the evangelical front lines. We understand this grace stuff. We get the cross. We are theologians of the cross—Martin Luther said a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is, and so we are able to see things the way they really are. We can see sin and call it sin. We can see pain and disease and suffering and we have no need to whitewash it. We know we are broken people and we live in a broken world. We know that there is nothing about the cross to suggest that a life spent following in the way of Jesus means sunshine and rainbows and unicorns. But we also hear God’s promises, and we see the empty tomb on Easter. We gather around the communion table, where all are invited, all are welcome, all are told, “come and see.” We cling to the promise that there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We see God’s transformation even in the midst of the brokenness, we acknowledge that we are saints at the very same time that we are sinners, we look to the cross as God’s ultimate yes to humankind’s no.

That’s good news. And that’s something we just can’t keep to ourselves. When we’ve experienced something so profound, so life changing, so WORLD changing, the very way we are wired compels us to share it. That’s evangelism. It’s simply the invitation to come and see.

So then, we need to ask: is this story that we’re inviting people into a compelling one? Does it have meat? Does it match up with their experience of life and humanity? Does it take seriously the big questions of existence? But is it at the same time personal? That’s the beauty of Holy Communion for me—on the one hand, it’s universal. It’s a picture of all of humanity gathered around the great table in a giant celebration of life and love and Jesus’ victory over the powers of sin and death. On the other hand, at the very same time, it’s intensely personal. It is FOR YOU. Not just anyone…you. Our faith stories are the same way. God is at work in the world—we know that. God is about the business of making all things new. But God is also at work in your life. God is at work in the lives of those you meet. How do we tell that story? How do we invite others to “come and see?”

We can tell through our words. We can simply share our own experiences.  Not what we have done, but what God has done…in us, and for us, and yes even sometimes through us. And we can also tell through our actions. That’s how every act of kindness, every act of mercy, every act of sharing, of breaking down the walls that divide us, of bringing peace…that’s how these are all acts of evangelism. Because they don’t just proclaim the good news, they embody the good news. They make the good news of God in Christ incarnate, enfleshed.

This weekend, our congregation’s third graders will be given Bibles by their parents. My son will be one of those kids receiving a Bible. In doing so, the invitation continues to be extended to “come and see.” Also this weekend, we’re privileged to be helping to host the Nebraska Synod field trip, which is focusing on prison ministry. Come and see. Come and see what God is up to. Come and see and hear and experience.

We’re just messengers. Inviters. Proclaimers. God’s the one who does the work—we don’t convert. We don’t change others. We don’t transform them. All we do is what we’re wired to do. We just share our joyful freedom. We just invite. We live. We love. And we rejoice together.

Come and see.

Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

Sunday, August 05, 2012

August 5, 2012 sermon--"Up the Down Staircase"

The "down staircase" at Bellevue West High School

Up The Down Staircase
August 4-5, 2012

I went to high school in Bellevue at Bellevue West (Go Thunderbirds!). While I was there, all of the lockers were on one level in the same commons area, and most of the classrooms were on the level directly above that commons area. There were two huge, wide staircases connecting the two levels. Students would hang out in the commons area until it was almost time for class, then head up the staircases for class to start. When the bell rang as each class period ended and especially at the end of the day, a giant mass of humanity would descend the stairs all at once. We were packed together going down those stairs—it was a sight to behold. Someone could have jumped on top and body-surfed all the way down without ever having their feet touch the floor, had they wanted. If, for some reason, you were at the bottom of the stairs and tried to go up at the same time as class was getting out and 1,200 or so of your closest friends were heading down…well, it just couldn’t be done.  It wasn’t possible to go up the down staircase.

Today, in our sermon series on faith questions that you were afraid to ask but your kids weren’t, we come to the question of salvation. What is salvation? What does it mean? What do you have to do to go to heaven?

Just like it was at my high school, it’s not possible to go up the down staircase.

We have this tendency to think of salvation as this staircase we need to climb, with the top of the staircase eventually bringing us to God, to heaven. Maybe we think of baptism as the first step, or for some folks, maybe it’s when they realized that they trusted God, that faith meant something to them. A lot of times, we look at how we live our lives—the good that we do, or the prayers that we say, or the lives that we touch in a positive way—as steps up that staircase. And then we consider our individual sins—what we have done and what we have left undone, not loving God with our whole heart, not loving our neighbors as ourselves—and we see them as steps down that staircase. And so we live our lives, taking a few steps forward, taking a few steps back, working hard and hopefully progressing so that one day at the last we can reach where God wants us to be.

In this model, Scripture becomes a rulebook, a guide to climbing the stairs…and our lives, at least if we’re really serious about it, if we’re really serious about our faith and about God, they become consumed by this quest.

But the thing is, for God, this staircase is a down staircase. We don’t go up, God comes down. It’s not possible to go up the down staircase. The gospel, the good news of God in Christ Jesus, isn’t that Jesus finally gives us a way to get up that staircase, it’s that God in Jesus came down. Immanuel. God with us.
And even for Christians, this is hard to understand. We are people who claim grace through faith as our life and our heritage, but our minds still tend to operate as though law, and not grace, has the final say.

When I speak of “law” here, I’m talking about much more than the rules that we find in the Bible. Those are certainly laws, but I’m speaking in broader categories, speaking of law in the way Martin Luther thought of it. In his eyes, the law is what kills the old Adam in us. The law is whatever word convicts us of our complete inability to get it right. The law tells me, “Matt, you are a sinner. You have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.”

The law operates on an if/then basis. If you do this, then you will get that. That’s language we understand. If I’m good, then God will bless me, if I’m bad, God won’t. If I’m good, I’m climbing the staircase, I’m getting closer to God. If I sin, I’m going down the staircase.

But because God came down the staircase to us, because in the cross God has met us where we are, our relationship with God is no longer based on an if/then. It’s not a matter of if I do this, then God will do that.
Our relationship with God isn’t an if/then. Our relationship with God is a because/therefore.

Because God came down the staircase in Jesus, because Jesus died on the cross, because Jesus defeated the power of sin and death once and for all, therefore you have been saved from your sin, you have been saved from needing life and faith and salvation to be about you.

You have been freed from yourself.

You no longer have to worry about the staircase, about trying to scratch and claw your way up. You no longer have to worry about whether you’ve done enough, about the number of good God points or bad sin points you’ve accumulated. In Christ, YOU ARE a new creation!  And this new creation isn’t caught in the game of point-keeping or stair-stepping.

In our reading, Paul describes what Luther called the “happy exchange.” Happy exchange is an actual, technical, theological term, even if it doesn’t sound too technical. The term makes me think of the painter who used to be on PBS, Bob Ross, if he was standing in the returns line at Kohls the day after Christmas—“I’m here to make a happy little exchange.” But the meaning of the term is incredibly profound. This is earthshattering stuff. In 2 Cor. 5:21, Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”   God took all of our junk, all of our evil, all of our sin, and gave it all to Jesus. And at the same time, God took all of Jesus’ righteousness and gave it to us. 

That’s the exchange—God takes on our sin, we take on God’s righteousness, and so we end up seeing those things together at the same time in ourselves. We are, Luther tells us, at the very same time, both sinner and saint. We are at the same time Old Adam and New Creation. The law of sin and the gospel of righteousness are both at work within us all at the same time, and so salvation is not a process, it’s not a staircase to climb. It is what lets Paul write, “See, now is the acceptable time. NOW is the day of salvation!”

Most importantly, salvation is not up to us. Ephesians 2 tells us that we are saved by grace through faith, and it’s not of our own doing—it is a gift from God. Not by our own works, so that no one may boast. If it WERE up to us, we would be right back to trying to go up the down staircase. If it were up to us, the cross wouldn’t be something new and transformational. Instead, it would be a method of self-help for us. If it were up to us, we would be right back to living under the if/then of the law. Instead, we are assured of this: because Jesus died, because Jesus now lives, because God came to us, because of the cross and the resurrection and the promises of God, therefore we have been made right with God. We have been reconciled with God. God has done it, completely on God’s initiative, because of God’s infinite love for humankind.

Our law-driven, if/then minds have such a hard time grasping this truth. Surely, we think, there must be something we have to do to make it happen. Just say a prayer, or just repent, or just…something. But we cannot add anything to the grace already shown us in Christ and still call it grace. A gift with conditions is no longer a gift. And so anytime we hear someone begin a statement about salvation with the words, “All you have to do is…” let those hairs stand up on the back of your neck because you’re about to hear an if/then law statement, and while the law is what drives us to the foot of the cross, while the law is what grabs us by the collar and confronts us with our deep sinfulness, the law is not what has the final say in our lives. We do not climb up the down staircase. Christ comes to us. All you have to do is…absolutely nothing. Jesus has already done it all and therefore you are forgiven even before you realized you needed forgiveness, you are loved through no doing of your own, you are redeemed and restored and made new through Christ who came down the staircase and met you in your sin.

We are saved by grace through faith, but when we understand faith as trust as we talked about last week, then faith is simply our response to what God has already done. It is our trust in God’s promises, it is our trust in the cross, it is our trust that it’s not up to us. Faith is not simply yet another work, it’s not simply some other hoop to jump through to make us acceptable to God. Faith is our response to the God who has come down to us.

Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in baptism. It is not baptism that saves us. Baptism is not fire insurance. It is a means of grace, a drowning of the old Adam in the waters and the raising of a new creation. When E. is baptized this morning, we will see the happy exchange right there in action in her life. But although we’re only baptized once, at the same time in a very real way it’s also something that’s continuous, ongoing. Daily we sin, daily the law convicts us of our sin, daily we drown the old and are brought to life in the new, daily we are simultaneously sinner and saint.

Our trust in the promises God makes to us in baptism, the promises of forgiveness and new life, call us into lives of reconciliation as God’s ambassadors. We are bearers of God’s promises, we carry in us and with us and through us the promises of new life for the world. And so together we can proclaim with the apostle Paul, “Now! Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!”

Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

Monday, July 30, 2012

July 15, 2012 sermon--"Death, Thou Shalt Die."

Resurrection—“Death, Thou Shalt Die.”
July 14-15, 2012

Today, in our continuing series on faith questions you were afraid to ask but your kids weren’t, we come to the question of resurrection. Two of the questions that our confirmation students asked in the spring were: “Why did Jesus rise when he died for us?” and “Why was the symbol of God a cross?”  These questions inevitably lead us to deeper questions like, “What exactly are we talking about when we speak of resurrection?” or “Is resurrection the same as coming back to life?”

The last question is the easiest to answer, and gives us a good starting point to work from as well. No. Resurrection is not the same as coming back to life. Turn with me to the Gospel According to John, Chapter 11. It’s the story of the raising of Lazarus. You know the story—Lazarus has been dead for four days, Jesus comes to the tomb and tells him to come out, and he does. What Lazarus experiences is a coming back to life, but it is not a resurrection. His body is still the same, temporal body created from the same stuff as the dust of the earth, and to dust it will once again return. Lazarus is going to die again eventually. The life he receives is not new life, but a continuation of his old life. It is a wonderful gift that he and his loved ones were given, but this is not resurrection as we understand it, or as Jesus experienced it.

So then, if we know what resurrection is not, then what exactly is it?  This is where we turn to our Scripture reading from 1 Corinthians. In a sense, the hope of resurrection is at the center of this entire letter that Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, but it’s here in Chapter 15 where the rubber really hits the road. It sounds as though there were some folks who were denying that there would be any future resurrection, and what Paul does is he both reaches back to the very beginning, to the first 3 chapters of Genesis, while at the same time looking ahead to the end of time, and pulls it all together in his answer to them. Turn to page 935 in the pew Bible, to the very beginning of Chapter 15. This is where Paul begins to lay out his argument. Verses 3 -5 remind the church of what they’ve already been taught, those things that Paul had received from others and had passed on to them: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve.” 

For Paul, it’s of utmost importance that the church understand that Jesus himself was resurrected, and then what that means for us.  Skip to verses 12-19. Paul writes, “12Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. 19If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Those are strong words, and they’re strong for a reason. And this is why Easter is more important than Good Friday. If all the cross was about was Jesus being sacrificed to pay off a sin-debt to God, then Easter is just an afterthought, a way to make sure that God doesn’t stay dead. But if the cross is about more than that, if it’s about God in Jesus taking on the very power of sin, the very power of death, of taking incarnation so far, of taking the idea that God IS with us to the very extreme of even dying the same death we die, and THEN to conquer that death by being raised, then celebrating Easter becomes a celebration of new life, of eternal life. It takes the promise of that final day when all is made new and brings a foretaste of that day to the here and now. And so it’s important that Jesus was not just resuscitated, he didn’t just wake up, because that would make him like Lazarus. As fully God but still fully human, his fully human body would have died again eventually. But that’s not what Paul’s talking about here—this is resurrection. This is a new creation, a new physical reality—in a very real sense, a new body.

On this point there’s been a lot of confusion over time, and the NRSV does us no favors by the way it chooses to translate the Greek. Skipping ahead in 1 Corinthians 15 to where our reading begins in verse 42 on page 936. Paul has begun talking about our own resurrection—what that will mean at the end of time for us. Contrasting our bodies now with what we will experience when all are raised on the last day, Paul writes, “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.43It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.” At the beginning, it all makes sense—our earthly bodies are finite. They’re perishable. They’re prone to weakness, to illness, to pain, to injury. In this life, we deal with things like cancer, or with Alzheimer’s disease, or a myriad of factors that remind us that we are, indeed mortal. We were created, and God saw us and called it good, but as we remind each other each Ash Wednesday, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The trouble we run into is when our translations have Paul contrasting a physical body and a spiritual body. We think of physical as flesh and bone, and spiritual as…well, spirit. Soul. Whatever it is that we cannot see that is the essence of who we are. The problem with that idea is that it isn’t Biblical. It comes out of Greek philosophy. Plato talks a lot about that sort of idea, but it’s not what Paul is speaking of here.  NT Wright’s incredible book Surprised by Hope is helps make sense of all of this, and it’s important, because so much of what we think we know about faith actually is a product not of our faith at all, but of how our culture has grasped this idea of body vs. spirit, of physical vs. spiritual. Biblically, this stuff is much more earthy, much more tangible, stuff that you can touch and feel and be. The Bible doesn’t separate body from soul, or physical from spiritual. In fact, NT Wright tells us that the Greek word psychikos, which the NRSV translated as “physical,” means nothing close to how we think of “physical” today. The root, psyche, from where we get our word “psychology,” ironically, was the word Greek philosophers used to describe the soul. More important than that though is that “adjectives of this tupe, Greek adjectives ending in –ikos, describe not the material out of which things are made but the power or energy that animates them. It is the difference between asking, on the one hand, ‘Is this a wooden ship or an iron ship?’ (the material from which it is made) and asking, on the other, ‘Is this a steamship or a sailing ship?’ (the energy that powers it). [1]  Paul is contrasting the power by which our body lives. In this present life, we are powerless against those forces that make us mortal—illness, injury, decay, and ultimately death. In the resurrection, we are given new life—the word Paul uses is pneuma, God’s spirit, breath, wind. We don’t become spirit—we are given life through the Spirit.

So in verse 50, when Paul says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” he doesn’t mean that there will be an end to physical being. The term “flesh and blood” was a common symbolic term. Just as in the Gospel according to John, whenever the writer speaks of “the world,” he doesn’t actually mean the whole world, or the actual soil of the planet, but rather those forces in the world which oppose God, the same kind of thing is at work here. “Flesh and blood” means “that which is corruptible, that which is finite, that which dies, that which is walking toward death.” His contrast isn’t between the physical and the non-physical, but between the physical which dies and the physical which lives forever.

And so resurrection isn’t, as we so often think of it, life after death. It’s really life AFTER life after death. Paul calls Jesus the firstfruits, sort of a downpayment if you will of what we all look forward to at the end. When we die, that is not resurrection. It is a time of rest, a waiting place on the way to the end of time. Jesus said that in his Father’s house there are many dwelling places—the word he uses, monai, doesn’t refer to a final resting place “but for a temporary halt on a journey that will take you somewhere else in the long run.”[2] The hymn For All The Saints captures this idea so well. Turn to hymn 174 in the LBW. Look at verse 6—it speaks of the rest of the faithful servants, the calm of paradise. Then in verse 7, there breaks a more glorious day—it is the end of time, and the saints triumphant rise. The final verse describes the eternal city, the New Jerusalem, as from all corners of the earth come God’s people to inhabit the new creation. The imagery is so amazingly powerful.

And it speaks to what we confess in the Apostles Creed. The ending of the creed goes, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” We profess our faith in the promise that God’s creation matters. That, as Pastor Tobi said on Easter, matter matters. We look ahead to the New Jerusalem, when Revelation tells us that we don’t all get whisked away to some spiritual plane away from Earth, but God comes to us. Heaven comes here. God makes God’s home among God’s people in a new creation that is physical, that is real, that you can touch and taste and see and experience, but that is at the same time eternal. What will that look like? We are given pictures and metaphors of streets paved with gold, of the river of the water of life, of the tree of life with leaves for the healing of the nations, and all of those pictures point to the future, but they at the same time point to right now, they point to the bread and the wine, very physical signs of Jesus’ presence with us and for us, and they point back to the very beginning when God’s spirit brooded over the waters and God created the heavens and the earth. We’re part of this amazing story of creation and life and new life and eternal life.

One of my favorite poems is a sonnet by John Donne. The official title is Holy Sonnet 10, though most people know it by the title, Death Be Not Proud. It takes what we’ve heard in 1 Corinthians 15 and reminds us of our ultimate hope in the resurrection and our ultimate victory in Jesus.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou'art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy'or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.


Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

[1] NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, New York: Harper One, 2008, p. 155.
[2] Wright, 150.