Knowing Grandpa, Knowing God: A Pentecost Sermon

Inspired by John 14:8-17, 25-27

My grandfather died when I was seventeen. Unfortunately, I didn’t know him nearly as well as I would have liked. He lived in Colorado, we lived in California, and we would visit him every two or three years, and he would visit us every year at Christmas time. Like many kids, every time my dad would hand me the phone and tell me to talk to grandpa I would roll my eyes and mutter through the same conversation that we had my whole life. He would ask me how the grapes were doing, because I had a grape vine in my back yard. He would ask me how my jalapenos were doing because I grew them in my front yard. And then we would talk about the weather.

At the time I thought these were pretty boring things to talk about. It wasn’t until later in life, much later, like when I was writing this sermon, that I realized that those were all things that him and I had in common. He too grew grapes in his back yard. He too grew jalapenos. And he too lived under the same sky as I did, even though were miles apart. His English was pretty broken, but these were ways that we could connect, in spite of the physical distance between us.

After he died I realized just how much I didn’t know about him. And it wasn’t for his lack of trying. I remember him sitting me down the last time I saw him, he was already 92 years old then, and he shared a few stories with me from his life. Stories that I later learned were unknown to his own children. But I, like most teens, didn’t recognize the importance of those stories at the time, or why he was even sharing them. Since that time, the older I get, the more I want to know about him. So, I have over the years made an effort to do that in various ways:

My father and I have had many conversations about his dad. As well as some conversations with his two sisters. About ten years ago I also spent a summer doing some serious genealogy work with my dad and learned a ton about him and the family whom he came from. I went to the United States Army National Archives which just happened to be within easy driving distance from where we lived in PA, to learn more about what his Army regiment went through during World War One. And I visited the town where my dad grew up, where my grandpa built his one bedroom house with his own two hands for his wife and three kids. I’ve visited the site where he operated his shoe repair business, and even talked to some of his competition that are still alive.

These are some of the ways that I have attempted to get to know him better over the years since his death. But a funny thing has happened as I have continued to get to know him. I’ve gotten to know my dad better, and my aunts. I’ve met people I never would have gotten to know. I’ve made connections with family members that I didn’t even know existed. I’ve learned more about World War One and the U.S. Army. I’ve learned about the struggles of a newly immigrated Mexican-American family.

In a very strange and mysterious way, I feel like I know him better now, than I did that last time he sat with me and shared a few stories with me. And I don’t mean I know more about him, I mean, I know him better now. I can feel his presence in my life in a way that transcends the way that he was physically present with me. And this has not only helped me to learn about myself, and what makes me and my dad the people that we are today, but my grandpa also continues to form me into the person that I will be.

Now so far, this sermon has gone against the grain of all my preaching sensibilities. Up until this point everything I learned in seminary about preaching has gone out the window. I can almost feel my preaching professor, may she rest in peace, tapping me on the shoulder saying, “This is not supposed to be all about you Ron!” So, why am I sharing all this about my grandpa? Today is the Day of Pentecost. One way to celebrate it is to remember how the Holy Spirit came to those first disciples a long time ago which some have called the birthday of the church. But maybe a more profound way is to celebrate the presence and work of the Holy Spirit now, within you and me, the church, our neighborhoods, our country, and our world.

Jesus says “Don’t be troubled.” Don’t be afraid. He said this because he knows he’s leaving. In the same way that my grandpa sat me down that one last time to share those final thoughts and stories, Jesus talks with them in the same way, knowing that he will soon be gone. And he tells them that another one is coming, a companion he calls her, the Holy Spirit. And here’s the amazing part.

Jesus knew that he could be present with his people in a way he couldn’t before, through the work of the Holy Spirit. He knew that his death would open up possibilities for him and his people, you and I, that simply weren’t there before he died, rose and ascended—as: a companion, as the Truth in lives filled with uncertainty, as peace in our chaotic lives, as a reminder of who God is, as our faithful teacher, as the very presence of God on Earth.

Like my journey to get to know my grandpa better after he died, we too are on a journey to get to know our God better each and every day. And in so doing, a funny thing happens, we get to know God’s people better, we get to know each other better, we get to know our world better, we have experiences we wouldn’t ordinarily have, as we continue to experience who God is and what God is doing today.

So, when you leave this place and re-enter the world, know this, you do not go alone, you go with a companion, a companion whom death could not stop, whom death could not destroy, whom death could not extinguish, whose presence has only been made more powerful by death, a companion who is excited to get to know you better, and still has some final thoughts to share with you, and maybe a few stories too. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Installation Sermon - May 14, 2016 by Pastor Steve Carlson

Inspired by Romans 1:8-12

I.          I have always found the phrase, “installation of a pastor,” to be rather curious.  To me, it seems to send the wrong message.  It sounds like we’re plugging in an appliance.  As with a light bulb, it sounds like we’re going to plug Pastor Ron in.  That today we’re going to light him up, let his light shine, and watch him go to work.  But, you know, light bulbs don’t last forever.  And when they start to flicker and fade, or make a buzzing noise, or when they don’t give the kind of light we expected, we tend to replace them.  So is a Pastor like that?  We install them, plug them in, and watch them work until something goes wrong?
A.         Now I know that’s not what we’re doing here.  I know that’s not what you, the members of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, are intending here.  Which is why I chose that passage from Romans.  Let me read it again:  “For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you – or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”  Let’s put this into context:
(1)        First, this passage acknowledges the reality that Paul has been the pastor of other parishes, just as the church in Rome has had other pastors.  This same reality is true today.  Pastor Ron has served other churches, and yes, you have had other pastors.
(2)        Second, Paul is new to this congregation in Rome.  In fact, he is writing them to introduce himself, to say that he is hoping to come very soon to be their pastor.  Pastor Ron is the new-be here!  He has met some of you, but there are still more of you to meet, and you are all now in the process of getting to know each other.
B.         And this is really why I like that passage from Romans.  Because it speaks to this situation, to this moment.  To a pastor and congregation coming together, this connection that has already begun, but is being officially recognized today.  That this meeting of pastor and congregation is, not the installation of an appliance, but a relationship!  It’s to be a relationship where spiritual gifts are shared, so that both the pastor and the congregation may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.
(1)        In many ways it is like a marriage!  You’ve already done the courting and the dating.  We call that the interview process, where both pastor and congregation show their best sides.  Through the Letter of Call, the vows have been declared and the commitment made.  And, as with a marriage, the reality now begins.  What is this relationship going to be like?
(2)        So today isn’t about plugging Pastor Ron in and watching him shine, watching him go to work.  No, it’s a coming together through Christ.  It’s
getting to know each other even more.  It’s learning what’s good and, maybe, what needs to improve.  And it’s working together!  And let’s be clear:  We’re not here to shine our own light.  No, the common goal is to reflect the Light that is Christ!
II.         How does this happen?  How is this to be accomplished?  There are, no doubt more, but I’m going to suggest three ways:

A.         The Light of Christ shines when you pray together and for each other!  I invite all of you to pray for Pastor Ron.  Not just today, but every day.  Especially on Sundays!  Before worship begins, include him in your prayers.  Pray for the Holy Spirit to work through him.  And pray for his family!  Let’s remember that the same God who calls Ron to be a pastor, also calls him to be a husband and a father.  So pray for his family too.  They all need your prayers!  And know that Pastor Ron is praying for you!  For you and your families.   
(1)        A parishioner at my church, who is now deceased, drew me aside one Sunday before worship and said, “You know, Pastor, given my age and health, I can’t do much.  But I want you to know that I pray for you and your family every day.” Just knowing that she was doing that was a great gift for me. 
(2)        In every one of his letters to the congregations of his day, Paul always mentions that he is praying for them.  And he thanks God for them.  So, Pastor Ron and the people of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, in your prayers for each other, give thanks for each other.  Thank God, in specific terms, that you have each other!
B.         This relationship of mutual support happens when you pray together and for each other.  It happens when you meet over scripture and sacrament, or when you meet over coffee, what Lutherans sometimes call the Third Sacrament.  But mutual support also happens, it most importantly happens, when you respect and trust each other.  It happens when Pastor Ron respects your history and traditions, how you are used to doing things.  Pastor Ron, learn their history, learn and understand their traditions and ways, before you think about changing something.  And people of Bethlehem, respect and trust Pastor Ron enough to let him try something new or different!
(1)        A quick example:  Nine years ago, I had this idea to begin a once-a-month Sunday evening Jazz Mass.  I wanted to incorporate straight jazz and use it to proclaim Christ.  Now, at that time, no one in my congregation was a fan of jazz.  So this service I was proposing would not be something that they would attend.  It was not going to directly benefit them at all.  In fact, a few had some concerns about using this music, so often associated with nightclubs and worse, in a church setting.  And, since we had to pay the musicians, it was going to cost the congregation money!  But, given all that, they gave me the green light!  “Pastor,” they said, “if you want to do this, if you feel this is where God is leading you, then give it a try.”   This monthly service now draws over a hundred people, from all over Fresno, 95% of whom do not belong to our church.  It is a great outreach!
(2)        But here’s my point:  Not that I had this great idea, but that the congregation trusted me enough to let me try something new.  Something that was not going to directly benefit them.  What a gift!  What a gift to have a congregation that, even with some reservations, let’s you try things.  People of Bethlehem Lutheran, be that congregation for Pastor Ron!  Let him try stuff!  And, if it works, celebrate with him.  And, if doesn’t work, tell him it’s all right, that we learn from our failures too.  Let me tell you, I have learned a lot from failure. 
C.         Finally, and I know this may sound like some Hallmark greeting card, but love each other.  Congregations and Pastors mutually support one another, they grow together, when they love each other.  Not simply respect, and not simply tolerance.  But love!
(1)        And let’s be sure we understand all that love entails:  It includes compassion, even when we disagree.  It includes supporting and lifting one another when things have not worked out, when we’re down on ourselves.  And it includes forgiveness!  Of all the things the Church is to model for the world, forgiveness is right at the top!  Inadvertently, toes may get stepped on, slights may be felt, and direction disputed, so forgiveness is a must!  If we cannot forgive each other, we are not the Church!
(2)        And this love is possible when we remember, when we really remember, why we are the Church.  It isn’t about us!  It isn’t about us getting our way.  It isn’t just about those of us within these walls.  It’s about Christ!  The ministry he has called us to.  In all things we must ask, “What does Christ want us to do, right now, in this place. 
(3)        Pastor Ron, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, I am excited for you both.  People of Bethlehem, you have a good pastor.  And you, Pastor Ron, you have a good congregation.  May the Holy Spirit bless and guide you both as you serve together, mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.




Sermon: Paul's Last Nerve

Inspired by Acts 16:16-34 

I couldn’t help but preach on the Acts text today. Though Jesus’ prayer from our Gospel reading is a beautiful one, stories always seem to preach better. And what a great story we have from Acts! It’s one of those stories that seems like it was written for the screen! It’s got a demon possession, an exorcism, a beating in the public square, an earthquake, a near suicide, a musical number, a jailbreak, and the scene ends with an entire household faith being transformed! I mean, if that doesn’t have Oscar winner written all over it I don’t know what does! The only question is, what genre would this movie be: horror, drama, musical, take your pic!

This is also one of those stories that a preacher could go a million different directions with. But there is one perspective that I’d like to share with you that I found most compelling. If we gave it a title it could be: Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason. So, Paul is walking through the city of Philippi, with his preaching bud Silas, and all of a sudden this slave girl keeps following them throughout the city yelling out, “These people are servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you!” This goes on for days.

He just looks annoyed doesn't he?
And then, our translation says that he was annoyed by this. But don’t get too hung up on that word. It can be translated a slew of different ways: angered, exasperated, grieved, pained, aggravated, just to name a few. But it’s safe to say, he reacted negatively to her, though we really don’t know why, so for now let’s go with the translation that we have before us—he was annoyed. And what does he do, he exorcises the spirit out of her, he heals her, and then all hell breaks loose. Her owners, who have been making good money on her spirit’s abilities, are pissed, and that’s putting it mildly.

Paul, heals this woman, not out of love or compassion or even out of duty to his work for the gospel, but because he’s annoyed by her. If we are to take that at face value, he heals her just to shut her up. He does the right thing, for all the wrong reasons—and I can’t help but see myself in him in that moment, and I’m hoping you can relate too. How often do we do what we are supposed to do but for reasons that probably are not the best reasons—reasons that we probably just keep to ourselves. Maybe this is why it’s so hard for many of us in our culture to take a compliment but that’s for another sermon.

Let me give you some examples of how I think this plays out. How many of us go above and beyond at work, just so that our boss stays as far away from us as possible? How many of us get good grades at school, just so that we can get that reward that we were promised? How many of us donate to our children’s school’s music or sports program, just so we don’t have to volunteer our time? How many of us have given a birthday gift to someone, just because they remembered your last birthday? And before you feel condemned, please know that I took all those from my own life! Please tell me I’m not alone! Maybe this sermon is just for me! I don’t know.

And I haven’t even mentioned how this plays out in our faith lives! I mean, think of the many reasons we put money in the offering plate that have nothing to do with the mission of the church. Or the many reasons we come to church every Sunday that have nothing to do with worshiping God. Or the many reasons that we say yes when someone asks us to volunteer for something here that have nothing to do with our call to be servants. Again, I’m just pulling things out of my own life here.

But my assumption is that we all do these things at some point or another—doing the right thing for all the wrong reasons. But here’s the good news, here’s the gospel in all of this. I seriously wonder how much it really matters to God, why we do the right thing, as long as we do it! I wouldn’t go so far as to say God doesn’t care, of course God cares why we do the things we do. But at the end of the day, as long as what got done is what was supposed to be done—at the end of the day as long as what we did was what we are called to do—then God can still say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” and then God can deal with the rest later.

Should Paul have been more compassionate? Yes. Should Paul have healed the slave girl out of love instead of annoyance? Yes. Should Paul have recognized the opportunity to proclaim a word of grace to all those who were watching? Yes. But Paul was human, which means that Paul wasn’t perfect, that Paul made mistakes, that sometimes Paul’s motivations were a bit out of line with the gospel. But here’s the thing, did any of that get in the way of God working through it? No! Did any of that keep God from doing God’s thing? No! God was still willing and able to take this mess and do something pretty amazing with it, so amazing that it ended in a whole household being baptized and joining this crazy journey that we call faith.

And so it is with you, and with me. Our stories might not be quite as dramatic as Paul’s. Our faith stories will probably not include a jailbreak or an earthquake or an exorcism. But our stories are just as important, even the many stories we have of us doing the right things for the wrong reasons. And I’m here to tell you that it’s ok. God can handle our bad attitudes, God can take God’s time to work on our motivations. And most importantly, God can and will work in and through us as we do God’s will in this world, in spite of our bad attitudes or motivations. God’s power to overcome any obstacle, even when that obstacle is us, is what we can trust in, that is what we can come to believe. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: Keeping Jesus' Promise

Inspired by John 14:23-29

Our Gospel reading for today continues in the events of Maundy Thursday, the night of the Last Supper, the night of Jesus arrest, the night of the new commandment, the beginning of the end of Jesus’ life on earth. And, as you may have already guessed, it was also the night that Jesus washed his disciples feet, along with the women and children who may have been there too.

So, if you weren’t here last week, it’s vital to hear Jesus words with the image of Jesus state of being and state of mind. Remember, he was tired, dirty and smelly from all the foot washing, and this is how we are to watch Jesus in our minds eye, give his closest followers that night his final thoughts, lessons, prayers, hopes and dreams for them, before he is arrested and sentenced to death.

It is in that condition that Jesus continues this conversation with them. And our passage begins with Jesus telling them to keep his word. Keep his word. What does that mean? I think many of us hear Jesus say “keep my word” and think of other biblical phrases like “keep my commandments” or we may even take Jesus to mean “keep my words”, plural; as in, remember my teachings. Now, all of those perspectives are useful and important, but I’m wondering if it’s much simpler than that. What if Jesus simply means to keep his promises? Like when we use the phrase, “I give you my word”, which really just means, I promise.

So with that in mind, what if Jesus is simply saying, keep my promise, guard it, remember it, share it, live it, keep it alive, so that, when you too are dead and gone, the promise will remain. We do this all the time if you think about it, especially between parents and children. There are promises that a parent makes to their children, not just because they love them, but because they hope those promises will be passed on. I remember talking with one of my girls when they were very young and in that conversation I mentioned that there is nothing that she could possibly do or say that would make me love her any less. “Nothing?” she asked. “Nothing.” She said, “You mean the way God loves us?”

Now as a parent, inside, I was like, “Yes!” On the outside I was just like, “What a great connection honey.” Parents instill those kinds of promises in their children not just for their sake but also for their children’s children’s sake, and on down the generations. And this isn’t always done with words. This was recently made clear to me as I heard more and more about Louise Lane, whose funeral was on Friday. She was someone who guarded and shared Jesus promise with her actions: by her gift of hospitality, with her welcoming nature, by teaching her family how to treat others with love not with words but by modeling it with her own actions.

But back to our Gospel reading. What is Jesus promise? Notice that he initially says word, singular, not words. So what is Jesus promise to us? Well, scholars and theologians have probably answered that question at least a hundred different ways. Depending on the Gospel you are reading that answer might change, or depending on the particular passage you are reading that answer might change. So, with the Gospel of John in mind and its author, with that night in mind, and with this particular passage in mind, what is Jesus promise that he is referring to?

Sometimes we make questions like this more complicated than it really needs to be. Sometimes we just need to let scripture answer it for us. Because what does Jesus immediately begin to talk about, his leaving this world, which will lead to him remaining in this world through the Holy Spirit, the Companion. And I’m sure that was a frustrating answer for them, and so it is with us sometimes. It’s one of those answers that probably led to more questions. Don’t you hate it when God does that? But this is the promise that Jesus wanted to leave them in that moment, I’m leaving but I’m not really leaving. I’ll remain with you, just in a different form.

If I was in that room I would have a hard time hearing that as good news. I would probably be like Peter and blurt out something stupid like, “Well, that sucks. I don’t want you in a different form, I want you to remain just like this. Why fix something that ain’t broke? This is working for me!” But Jesus, being God on Earth and all, was able to see a bigger picture, was able to think of more than just his immediate followers, was able to think of their children, future followers, future generations—and he knew how badly they would need him to be present, in an even more profound way than him sitting with them around that meal that last night.

Our passage ends with Jesus telling them to not be troubled, don’t be afraid. I don’t know about you but when someone tells me not to be afraid, I get scared! But Christ knew that the next three days were going to be rough, and they were going to need to live in this promise more than ever. And he may have also know that once he was dead, those that killed him were going to set their sights on them. Because following Jesus is hard work, it’s a tough road, and he knew that. It’s hard for a lot of reasons and one of those is because it’s often times against the grain of the way the world works, or even the way we are raised.

When we are hurt the world teaches us to hurt back. When we are disrespected our instinct is to be disrespectful. When we are wronged in any way, the world says it’s ok to get a little revenge, because everyone else is doing it. Not to mention those times when we are abandoned by those around us, sometimes by our friends because of the path we have chosen or the life decisions we are making because of our faith.

Following Jesus is hard work and Jesus knew that—which is why his promise for them that night was his continued presence in their lives, no matter what. They may have not understood in that moment but they eventually did. How do we know that? Because the promise has remained, alive and well, two thousand years later, in you and I. May we lean into that promise when we need it the most, when the world makes us feel foolish for believing it, when the world says it has a better way, when the world sets its sights on us. May we live into Christ’s presence with us always, so that we can be present with others when they need it the most. Thanks be to God. Amen.