This Week’s Links

Internet1This Week’s Links used to be a staple on the blog, and it is my hope that they return to their usual Tuesday rhythm as we enter the summer. They are slimmer, but hopefully just as helpful. To make sense of some of the things that I have read and found interesting, I have grouped them in the following categories: Church and Ministry Thought & Practice; Leadership Thought & Practice; Millennials; Neighbor Love; Stewardship; and Vocation. I hope you enjoy this edition of the links.

Church and Ministry Thought & Practice
The Lutheran World Federation Assembly concluded last week in Namibia, but not before “Nigerian Archbishop Musa Panti Filibus was elected LWF President.” Blessings and congratulations Bishop!

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Bishop Brian Maas knocking on the door of St. Cecilia’s Cathedral in Omaha.

What happens when a Lutheran Bishop and Roman Catholic Archbishop get together? They pray and worship, commemorating the Reformation of course.

If you happen to be in Omaha on Thursday, I invite you to join me in an “Ascension Day Eucharist” at Kountze Memorial Lutheran. Bishop Brian Maas from the Nebraska Synod of the ELCA will preside, and Bishop Scott Barker of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska will preach.

Have you thought about the possibilities for social enterprises in ministry? Last month Matt Overton shared this intriguing look and explanation about “Why I started a social enterprise at my church.” What might this idea look like in your context?

In exciting ministry news from Nebraska, Tammy Real-McKeighan wrote about the creation of the “Faith Ambassadors Parish,” a merging of five congregations choosing to go into collaboration to create a new parish just north of where I live.

If you are in ministry and imagining new ways to have children in worship, then I encourage you to check out this post by Traci Smith about “Church ‘Pray-grounds:’ Eight Stories and Inspiring Examples #kidmin.

Bishop Mike Rinehart shared a post that’s particularly helpful for young ministry leaders, “10 Financial Tips for Young Leaders.”

Friend and pastor Juliet Hampton shared this look by Michael O’Connor at interfaith work in the Omaha area, as well as a look at the growth of the Muslim faith and population in the region.

Leadership Thought & Practice
Friend, professor, and now Dean at the Drucker School, Dr. Jenny Darroch wrote and shared about, “The Drucker School of Thought: Distilling Drucker’s Work into Five Key Principles.” The principles highlighted include: a belief in the importance of a functioning society; a focus on people; a focus on performance; a focus on self-management; and a practice-based, transdisciplinary, and lifelong approach to learning. Do you have any remaining questions as to why I’m such a fan of Drucker’s work?

Millennials
In a news story that could affect thousands of people, and perhaps even a whole generation of servant leaders (of whom, many are Millennials), Jordan Weissman wrote last week about how United States Secretary of Education, “Betsy DeVos wants to kill a Major Student Loan Forgiveness Program.” This is unacceptable, and should be rejected across the board.

Neighbor Love

Dr. Torvend
When you are gifted to attend a workshop put on by one of your favorite professors from PLU, of course you take a selfie with them! (Dr. Torvend with Allison and me last January)

Friend and professor Rev. Dr. Samuel Torvend has authored a new article that was recently published in the Oxford Religion Encyclopedia, just in time for the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, “Martin Luther’s Teaching and Practice of Charity and Social Ethics.” The article is available currently for free download, so be sure and check it out.

Also in celebration of the Reformation, check out “The Annotated Luther Summer Sale.”

Pastor Jennifer Crist shared some ideas about “Practicing Advocacy with Communities of Hope.”

In the midst of on-going discussion and worries regarding budgets and healthcare, Alexandra Stone reported in Omaha about how “Families are fearful as state cuts millions in funding disability service providers,” particularly affected is Mosaic, one of the great social ministries and serving arms of the church.

Pastor and author Jason Micheli reflected about, “What to say about God when there’s nothing to say.”

Friend and pastor Melissa Melnick shared an update and reflection in “Sending,” and honestly reflected about and in the midst of her grieving the loss of her son Chris. (Melissa, we continue to hold you and your family in prayer and love in Nebraska.)

Stewardship
Is the idea “more than enough” helpful for thinking about or reframing abundance? Friend Adam Copeland shared this post by Alex Benson. In thinking about this question, I greatly appreciate Pastor Bonnie Wilcox’s response to my initial question on Twitter, when she wrote last week that, “It speaks to the middle class at best. Not to those on limited incomes, esp. seniors.” What do you think?

Are you preaching this week? If so, here are some thoughts, ideas, and nuggets for consideration for “Preaching on Stewardship- May 28, 2017.”

Friend and professor Dr. Ron Byrnes asked, “How do you decide whom to give to?” See Ron’s thoughts, and join the conversation about giving.

Friend Marcia Shetler shared some great ideas on the COMPASS blog, writing about the importance of “Understanding Our Relationship with Money.” And in a related post in that series, Beryl Jantzi wrote and asked, “What is your money, debt management, and generosity type?

Vocation
I have been serving as the Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod for just over a year now. Looking back at the first year, and to the year ahead, I shared some reflections about how I feel “Beyond Grateful.”

Congratulations to friend Ed Grogan, who was elected the new chair of the Board of Regents at Pacific Lutheran University (PLU).

Speaking of PLU, as we are in the midst of graduation and commencement season, Kari Plog shares a look at four students’ stories in “Commencement 2017: Lutes prepare for life after college.” Thanks to friend Carrie Gubsch for first sharing this post with me.


That will conclude this week’s edition of the links. I hope you have enjoyed them, and that you are enjoying the new rhythm to the blog. If you have ideas for me, please let me know in the comments. Thank you for reading and being part of the conversation, and blessings on your week! -TS

Image Credits: The links and Bishop Maas knocking.

Beyond Grateful

The month of May marks one year of serving in my current call. As I think about this, there are two words that surmise how I am feeling a year in. Beyond grateful.

Serving as the Nebraska Synod Director for Stewardship is a blessing. Each day is new and exciting. Each day brings new experiences, new learning, new conversations, new ideas, and new stories. Serving in this role is truly a beautiful melding of my interests, passions, and educational preparation.

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Hearing stories of gratitude, like in a Thanksgiving children’s sermon as pictured here, is a joy for me.

Getting to hear and share stories of faith in action each day is a gift. I genuinely believe I have the best call in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America because people entrust their stories to me. They share them, their hopes, their ideas, their questions, and then they allow me to share them with others. I hear stories of generosity, and of responding to God’s calls and promises in amazing and unique ways each day and week. And I get to work with so many wonderful colleagues, peers, and ministry leaders who take such joy in their ministry and calls, and live with such grace towards those they serve alongside and accompany on life’s journey.

Being a Deacon in the ELCA is a joy too. As a “Word and Service” minister, I am invited to preach and help lead worship. But my call is a bit different, because I get to focus on being a resource and partner around holistic and year-round stewardship. This has led me into so many different contexts and congregations, and yet, I know I have barely scratched the surface of seeing all of the amazing examples of ministry that are the Nebraska Synod.

As I have traveled across Nebraska I have visited: Adams, Ashland, Aurora, Blair, Central City, Filley, Fontanelle, Fremont, Grand Island, Holdrege, Hooper, Kearney, Lincoln, Malmo, Mead, North Platte, Omaha, Plymouth, Schuyler, Scottsbluff, Scribner, Seward, Superior, Syracuse, Tekamah, Valley, Wayne, West Point, and Wilber just to name a few places. I have seen the great work of serving arms like Lutheran Family Services, Mosaic, Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry and others in action. There are so many stories to tell, and way more stories to hear in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead. 

As a rostered minister of the church, I also am receiving Spiritual Direction. It is such a joy to have someone who deeply listens, helps me reflect and process, and wonder deeply about what God might be up to. If you are a rostered minister who doesn’t receive spiritual direction, I can’t encourage you enough. You will grow more deeply in your faith and sense of God’s presence.

I am grateful for so much. For all of you for your support and partnership, and for everyone who continues to welcome and inspire me.

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I am grateful for my many colleagues, including Pastor Juliet Hampton pictured here after installing my wife Allison as pastor at Salem Lutheran in Fontanelle. Of course, I am grateful for Allison, the best partner in life. And I am also grateful for my parents (pictured here) and all my family, and for great friends like Carrie (in the upper right).

I am grateful for the most amazing team of colleagues whom I serve alongside and who constantly inspire me with their sense of call, passion for being a part of God’s work in the world, their efforts for the sake of Christ’s church, their collegiality, and friendship.

I am grateful to be a part of a nearly 160 year old congregation who is as young and vibrant as any congregation, whose energy is infectious and who has continued to welcome Allison as their pastor and myself as the pastor’s spouse so warmly.

Most of all I am grateful for the best partner in life and ministry, who continues to amaze me with her grace, selflessness, love, honesty, humor, and authenticity in call and faith.

As I embark upon year two in this call, here are at least five things I have learned and will make a priority in the year ahead:

1. Keep Listening

If I have learned anything in my different experiences of ministry and work so far, it is that listening is essential. This means active listening to others as they share their stories, their dreams, ideas, questions, hopes… But it also means quiet listening to the Holy Spirit. For me, this often happens while behind the piano (or even the organ), or while out for a walk along the corn fields.

2. Keep Learning 

There is always more to learn, discover, and wonder about. The most inspiring people I know are constantly asking questions, dreaming, and wondering about what God might be up to and calling us to be a part of. I believe life long learning is essential, but it is also a choice. You either choose to continue to live in wonder and discovery, or you don’t. Most of the people I meet in ministry are in this mode. The ones who aren’t are often the ones who seem to run into problems. I never want to be the person who thinks they have learned just about all they will ever know or be able to learn.

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This sign at Spirit of Grace Lutheran still makes me smile, as we remember that we are all Children of God. 

3. Embody the gratitude authentically

Everywhere I go, and in everything I do, I try to make no secret that I am thankful and grateful to be there. This year, I want to continue to do this, but maybe even more intentionally. In a stewardship sense, thanking is one of the big three components, so if I am going to talk about this, it’s essential that I embody and live it too. What might embodying gratitude look like for you?

4. Keep Sharing

As others entrust me with these stories, I will continue to share them in preaching, writing, pictures, and more. Just as thanking is a part of stewardship, telling the story of faith and God at work is a part of it too. Because through these stories we invite others to share, and to be a part of this shared work, God’s work of building up the kingdom together. And it is with these stories, that we ask others to join us.

5. Build in time each day or week to remember why you do what you do

I believe this is essential. Life moves so fast, that we can get caught up with just about anything. Some of these are certainly important. Others might be “rabbit holes,” or as we like to refer to in the Nebraska Synod, “squirrels” which distract us from the big picture. To help me with this, I give myself time for reflection and devotion. But I also keep on my desk, my letter of call, a sign of the deeper sense of my role as a Director for Stewardship and Deacon, and the promises and vows made in accepting this call and living out the life as a Baptized Child of God.

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The beauty of Nebraska, and our backyard in Spring. With the cross in the distance, it helps keep me grounded and remembering why we’re here, and why I am doing what I am doing. 

Those are five things I am holding up in the year ahead.

What are you grateful for? And what are you holding up as a goal or priority in the months or year ahead?

Eyes Opened- A Stewardship Sermon on the Road to Emmaus

This past weekend I had the privilege to preach at Edensburg Lutheran Church in Malmo and Alma Lutheran Church in Mead, Nebraska. Thank you to Pastor Andrew Dietzel for the invitation, and to both congregations for the warm welcome. I was invited to preach on the appointed gospel passage according to the revised common lectionary for the Third Sunday of Easter, Luke 24:13-35, or the story about the “Road to Emmaus.” What follows is the majority of the manuscript that I preached from. 

Grace and peace from our God who opens eyes, hearts, minds, and tombs, Amen.

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The pulpit and baptismal fount at Edensburg Lutheran Church in Malmo, Nebraska.

It is a great joy to be with you all today. Thank you so much Pastor Andrew for the invitation, and to all of you here for the warm welcome. On behalf of your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ that are the Nebraska Synod, I bring greetings. Today especially I bring Easter greetings from Bishop Maas, Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Juliet Hampton, and the whole Nebraska Synod staff. Thank you again for the invitation, and for the opportunity to preach so close to home for me. Lately when I have been out preaching and meeting with congregations I have been on the road well before 6am to get to places like Superior or Filley, or spending the whole weekend out in Scottsbluff, Holdrege, or Kearney. Today, I didn’t have to leave from home in Fontanelle until 7:15am. What a gift, so thank you!

I am excited to be with you and to share in the joy of the resurrection, as well as to wonder with you a bit about what God might be up to, and of course to share some stewardship thoughts. I think this story today of the Road to Emmaus is a beautiful passage, which is actually a great story of how faith works, of how conversations and relationships happen and form, and how together, we can wonder what God might be up to, and then have the courage and trust to follow and see where God might be leading, and how we are called to be a part of it.

On the Road to Emmaus
So, on that note, in today’s story, here we are, only hours removed from the stone being rolled away and the tomb being opened. And two disciples here are on a walk. The walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, is about seven miles. It would be like walking from here to Wahoo, give or take a mile.

On this walk, these two men were unknowingly joined by Jesus, because, you know, what would God do after beating death at its own game? God would find two people trying to make sense of the world, fighting off their despair, and disillusionment,[1] and come alongside them. That’s just what God does– because God is present with us, and for us.

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Alma Lutheran in Mead, Nebraska.

When God in Christ finds these two people, you could imagine Jesus played dumb, when he asked, “what are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”[2] But I think what Jesus is really doing here, is inviting a deeper conversation. He is slowly opening these two people up and bringing to the surface the things that the two are wrestling with. By this I mean- Jesus is opening them up by having them share their angst, worries, disappointments, inability to believe the women’s story of their encounter earlier that day at the tomb, and more. They are trying to make sense of this changed world, but they can’t quite get past the despair, and wonderings of “what if” and “what now?”

I love that Jesus responds to Cleopas’ annoyed and astonished question, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”[3] with another question, “what things?”[4] Ah, what things indeed. This is one of the first invitations to share the story of the gospel, only hours after the Easter climax. Jesus himself is inviting these two to share their story, God’s story, as well as the emotional and life stuff all tied up in it.

I imagine that it is out of love, and perhaps a bit of exasperation at this point that Jesus ultimately begins to reveal himself to these two by saying, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!”[5] Or, perhaps more accurately as another commentator translated this expression, “You sweet dummies! How could you miss this?”[6]

Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t leave them hanging, and through teaching, conversation, and the breaking of bread, he opens their eyes.

Then Their Eyes Were Opened- How about our eyes?
“Then their eyes were opened.”[7] This is probably my favorite verse in this whole story. “Then their eyes were opened…”

The two disciples are opened up, beyond themselves. They recognize the impact the whole conversation has had internally, but now are aware of it externally. They have connected their hearts, minds, souls, and eyes, and all that they are, have been opened up.

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Opening our eyes through the meal and meeting us where we are at. (The altar area at Edensburg Lutheran)

I wonder… When have your eyes been opened? When have your eyes been opened to God working in your midst? When have you been opened up to sense that God is truly present with you? When have your eyes been opened to new ideas, possibilities, and ways of thinking?

Perhaps a story will help? I am not a native of Nebraska. My wife and I are originally from the Seattle area, and since we have been married we lived in Minnesota and went to seminary there, and then returned back to the Northwest for her internship a year and a half ago. So, you might be wondering how on earth am I here now with you? Well, long story short, I was invited to come and see, and did just that the week after Easter Sunday last year.

When I came to visit Nebraska for the first time, when my wife and I visited to discern whether to accept the Holy Spirit’s leading here, all we really knew was, Nebraska is “Big Red Country,” Omaha is supposed to have good steaks and is home to the College World Series, and there’s obviously a lot of Lutherans here. We came to learn and see, and boy did we. Our eyes that had been closed to the wonder of this state were opened. Sure, there may not be Mount Rainier here, and certainly there’s no Pacific Ocean, Mariners baseball or Seahawks football, but I know your devotion to the Huskers. And don’t tell my family and friends this, but I think yours is probably deeper (and perhaps crazier) than any passion for a northwest sports team.

The eye opening has only continued since moving here last fall. In my travels across the state since being called here to this synod with all of you, my eyes have been opened to all of the stories of generosity, of congregations doing amazing things as part of God’s work in the world. I have heard stories of faithful stewards responding to God’s promises and gifts in awe inspiring ways. I have seen congregations open their doors to communities and people in need.

faith ambassadors
One of those examples of awe-inspiring ministry and generosity happened just yesterday afternoon by celebrating with Faith Ambassadors Lutheran Parish, as five congregations came together to participate in shared ministry together. (Pictured here from left to right are Assistant to the Bishop, Rev. Juliet Hampton installing in order: Rev. Joel Schroeder, Vicar Bob Ball, and Rev. Nicki McIntyre.)

Taking a step back, to have ones’ eyes opened, also means to be changed. The two people in today’s story have been changed. From despair, they have been moved to hope. From disillusionment, they have been moved to clear purpose. From mourning to joy and perhaps even dancing. And that’s exactly what God does through Easter. God changes everything, and that’s what God does for each of us in baptism, and in different ways each and every day.

Where stewardship fits in…
This is all God’s work, and thanks be to God for that. But what do we because of this? What did the disciples do who were changed that day on the walk to Emmaus with Jesus? The answers are all about stewardship.

This story, and the stories I have heard of ministry in action across Nebraska as my eyes have been continued to be opened are all a part of stewardship. Stewardship has everything to do with responding to the question of, what will you do because of all that God has done, will do, and continues to do for you? Or, as the Psalmist asks today, “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?”[8]

The two in today’s story are moved to a joyful response. They don’t stay in the village that they were heading to. No, the same hour as they discover and are changed forever, they get up and return to Jerusalem where they found the eleven and companions huddling. They tell their story that, “The Lord has risen indeed!”[9] Then they share about how Jesus joined them, opened them up and was made known through their conversations, breaking of bread, food, and fellowship. By going back, they don’t run away, or keep this good news to themselves. No, they go back to the city which they left in despair and fear, to share a word of peace, hope, and joy. Because God has done what God had promised to do.

How do you live your life because of all that God has done and continues to do? How do you steward all that you have and all that you are? The decisions each of us make is our joyful response (or not) to all that God has done. God’s action are pure gifts, gifts for us. Gifts we cannot earn. But we can’t help but be so filled with joy, that we are changed because of them. And though as Lutherans we might like to sit in the back pew, we can’t help but be so filled with joy that we will share of God’s love and promises through the ways we live, the stories we tell, and all that we do.

all god's critters
At Alma Lutheran, the kids choir sang, “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir.” They most certainly do. We all do- in our unique callings, passions, vocations, and identities as Children of God and stewards of God’s love and mysteries. (This was my view of the choir from behind the altar where I sat.)

This is stewardship. All that we have and all that we are, have been entrusted to us by God to use, manage, or steward. That includes our money, our time, our talents, but it also means our questions, dreams, hopes, ideas, wonders, passions, vocations, stories, relationships, and creation.

All that we do is a response to God’s gift, and that’s why telling the story of all that God has done and continues to do is stewardship, just as thanking people for being part of it is stewardship, too. So, thank you all again for the invitation and, whether you know it or not, thank you for your continued participation in giving to mission share and mission support.

Your contributions as a congregation make possible the education and development of new pastors and leaders of the church through this synod and the larger ELCA. They help support new, renewing, and transforming congregations and ministries. They also help support the many serving arms of the church including Mosaic, Lutheran Family Services, and Lutheran World Relief. Thank you for being a part of this work, and responding to God’s gifts in this way. I have the best job in the ELCA I believe because I get to hear and see your stories of generosity, but then I also have the joy of getting to thank you for them, and to share your stories with all those I meet.

Putting it all Together
The two people on the road in today’s story are so moved and changed when their eyes are opened that they’re able to proclaim as we do throughout this Easter season, “He is Risen, He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!” They can’t keep this news to themselves quietly in the small village of Emmaus. Instead, they are so moved that they get back on the road they just walked seven miles on, to walk back another seven miles to Jerusalem and to share their joy and excitement.

They have been changed, and so have we. God has done what God does, and I wonder, what will we do now?

This isn’t a one time thing, this opening of eyes that happens because Jesus meets two people on the road, listens and talks with them, and then breaks some bread. This is something that happens every week around this table with a simple meal, when we hear these words “given for you,” and “shed for you.” This is something that also happens every day when we wake up with a new day, a day that the Lord has made, so “let us be glad and rejoice in it.”[10]

God has opened the tomb. God has opened our hearts, minds, and eyes. And God will keep opening them, because that’s exactly how the Kingdom of God breaks into this hurting and broken, yet beautiful and loved world, little by little. We’re all a part of it, as God calls and creates us, because God loves us, and meets us on the road like in today’s story; in a simple meal like we’ll have together in a few moments, and each day in new and exciting ways. Thanks be to God. Amen.

_________________________________________________________

Sources/Resources/Citations:

[1] Robert Hoch, “Commentary on Gospel Luke 24:13-35,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3234.

[2] Luke 24:17, NRSV.

[3] Luke 24:18, NRSV.

[4] Luke 24:19, NRSV.

[5] Luke 24:25, NRSV.

[6] Robert Hoch, “Commentary on Gospel Luke 24:13-35,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3234.

[7] Luke 24:31, NRSV.

[8] Psalm 116:12, NRSV.

[9] Luke 24:34, NRSV.

[10] Psalm 118:24, NRSV.

He is Risen… Now What?

The tomb has been opened. “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” has been sung. The lilies have bloomed, the Easter jokes have been told… all of this is good news. Now what?

Easter is a 50-day season of joy, but I am not talking about the liturgical “now what” question. I am wondering on a deeper level, God in Christ has done the work for us, for once and for all. But now what? How do we respond? What do we do? What are we going to do? 

This has been the focus of my stewardship preaching lately throughout Lent, raising the question of response. What is our joyful response to the good news of God? What is our joyful response to the pure gifts of God, for us?

God has changed everything with Easter. But are we, ourselves changed? Are we so caught up in joy and gratitude for what God has done and continues to do, that we are changed and so moved by God, that we are unable to sit still and keep the story of God to ourselves? Are we so moved to share God’s love through words and actions- the very ways that we live our lives?

Before I get on my soap box again, here are at least three thoughts:

  • The ELCA has a rostered minister shortage- both pastors and deacons. This shortage is projected to continue to grow. We could let this be bad news, or we could view this joyfully as an opportunity to be more intentional about telling this story as part of our joyful response. We could use this an opportunity to do things differently, to innovate and experiment; because to do otherwise isn’t really an option anymore. We could use this an opportunity to wonder actively, what might God be up to here?
  • Despite what might be happening societally or politically, our call as baptized Christians remains the same. How do we affirm this, and lift up these stories of faith in action in our midst? [You will notice more of these types of stories in upcoming reports, articles, magazines, newsletters, and social media posts from me and the Nebraska Synod.]
  • We live in a beautiful yet broken world. We are all gifted and called with various vocations, roles, passions, stories, questions, ideas, and relationships. How can we more intentionally than ever lift up everyone’s unique stories as sacred and holy calls from God to various stations, vocations, and roles? When we can help people see that their daily lives are in fact very much where God shows up in and through them, there is a depth and intentionality that forms a deeper sense of faith, stewardship, and discipleship. I want to be a part of this work, don’t you?

Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed! Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed! Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

This is most certainly true. Now the fun starts!

What are we going to do about it? 

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The cross, covered with flowers as a joyful response by Sunday School children at Salem Lutheran in Fontanelle, Nebraska.

Reflect, think, pray, and be

On this week that we move from the shouts and songs of Hosannas, to an Upper Room and a garden, to a sham of a trial and shouts of “Crucify Him,” to the cross, the tomb, and then another garden around the tomb… Allison and I took a little time yesterday afternoon to revisit a beautiful place that is special to us.

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The Holy Family (in the glass) above the crucifix and altar.

With my mother-in-law in town, we wanted to take her to see one of the more beautiful sights we know of in the Cornhusker State. (Plus, we wanted to take her along to help Allison finally replace the same rain jacket she has had since I think middle school.) So, we took some time yesterday afternoon to visit the Holy Family Shrine near Gretna, Nebraska.

This shrine, a beautiful place for reflection, prayer, and worship, is designed with panoramic views of the valley between Omaha and Lincoln. It has trails to walk, but for me, the central part is the way the water flows.

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Where the flow of water begins

The waters of the rain are caught and start the flow of the baptismal water, by flowing through an adjoining building, and then through an outdoor garden, and then through the floor of the sanctuary itself to a larger pool under and in front of the altar area. To hear the running water, makes you remember your baptism. To hear the flowing water, reminds you of the peace that is possible through God’s presence.

It was in this space a year ago, that Allison and I took a few hours to do some serious reflection, conversation, and soul searching. As we imagined and prayed, as we wondered and shared where we were at, it was here ultimately, where Allison said, “Timothy, you are being called here.”

The Holy Spirit was present that day, just as the Holy Spirit is every day. But it was good to be there in that space. A space, where the garden outside helps you wonder about the Garden of Gethsemane.

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Admiring the beauty of the garden, and wondering about the Garden of Gethsemane.

We were there last year the week following Easter, and on that afternoon the sun shined, it rained, it hailed, sort of snowed, and then a rainbow appeared all in the matter of three hours. So, it was good to be back there yesterday, on the Tuesday of Holy Week to remember, to listen, and to be, on a majestic sunny and blue sky late afternoon.

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Admiring the way the water flows

It was good to invite Allison’s mom into this sacred space and let her see and feel for just a moment, where Allison and I were last year thanks to our friend and colleague Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Juliet Hampton, who knew just where to take us to give us space to reflect, think, pray, and be.

There are spaces that have this effect and impact everywhere. Growing up it was often in the woods or around the creek in my backyard, or other times at the piano, or at my home church with views of the bay and the Olympic Mountains. I am sure I will have many more such spaces. But for now, this is one special place in our hearts.

As the sun shined yesterday, as we remembered last year, we also had the chance to remember why we are here and to also remember the affirmation and commitment to our callings and vows which we remembered a few weeks ago at a Chrism Mass led by Bishop Brian Maas and Pastor Juliet in Omaha.

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Take some time to listen to the flow of the water, and to wonder about what God might be up to.

As we journey through this week to the upper room and the garden; from the garden to the cross; as we move from the cross to the tomb; and then to the vigil and sunrise and the discovery of the tomb door’s opening, let us take the time to reflect, think, pray, and be.

This is the holiest of weeks. I hope and pray that you can give yourself the space to be fully present for the whole journey of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil or Easter Sunrise, and the festival and celebration of the resurrection with Easter.

I also hope that you have a space to go and remember why you are doing what you are doing, and to be able to take a moment to be still, and know that God is God, and God is with you.

Responding to a God who sees us and helps us see- A sermon on Luke 18:31-19:10

On Sunday April 2, 2017, I was invited to visit, preach, and meet with the council at First Lutheran Church in Wilber, Nebraska by Pastor Travis Panning. I had a wonderful morning with the congregation. Worship included parts of Marty Haugen’s “Now the Feast and Celebration” liturgy originally dedicated for the University Congregation at my alma mater, Pacific Lutheran University, which on a slightly drizzly Sunday morning made me remember the Pacific Northwest.

What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from, based on the Narrative Lectionary’s appointed text for the day this year for the fifth Sunday of Lent, Luke 18:31-19:10

Grace and peace from our God who sees us, opens our eyes, is with us, and is for us, Amen.

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The welcome sign at First Lutheran in Wilber.

It is a great joy to be with you today. Thank you to Pastor Travis for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome here in Wilber. I bring greetings from your 100,000 sisters and brothers that together with you, are the Nebraska Synod. I also bring greetings on behalf of Bishop Maas, Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Megan Morrow, and the entire synod staff. I am excited to be with you and share some thoughts about our shared ministry together in the church, some ideas about stewardship, and to wonder with you about what God might be up to here.

Where We Are in the Narrative
I have to say I am a bit jealous. It’s not every week that I am in a congregation following the narrative lectionary, but I love this year in the Narrative. The last two weeks alone you have heard two of my favorite stewardship gospel stories. Luke 15, the three lost parables, all with good points of imagination about stewardship. And then last week, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, woah, you don’t get much more direct about life, death, salvation, and the call to be a steward than that. Fun texts. Tough texts, but central ones to Luke’s understanding of who God is, and the great reversal that comes with God and the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.

Through these stories you have heard the past few weeks, and as we enter into today’s gospel, Jesus is inching closer and closer to Jerusalem.[1] In fact, Jesus couldn’t be more direct about what’s going to happen. He explains it again,

“we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished… he will be handed over… mocked and insulted and spat upon…” he will be flogged, killed, “and on the third day he will rise again.”[2]

But before Jesus can get to the gates of the city; before a donkey can be found, and the passion story commenced with shouts of Hosannas and then choruses of ‘Crucify Him,’ Jesus gets interrupted at least twice more on his way.[3] And that’s where we find ourselves today.

Jesus and the Blind Beggar
First, Jesus passes by a blind beggar. At the sound of the commotion, the man shouts twice, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”[4] This gets Jesus’ attention. Here’s a man who couldn’t see, but had faith, and provides God in Christ another opportunity to act. God has entrusted Jesus with the ability to give sight to a blind person, and Jesus does just that. Jesus sees the man, and talks with him, something that most people in that context would have not done. Much like we might avoid the person holding a cardboard sign at the street corner and drive past putting our head down or looking the other way. Jesus doesn’t do this. Jesus takes note, and Jesus acts.

Jesus says, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.”[5]

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One of the beautiful pieces I saw on the walls inside the church building. It makes me think about how God often times shows up in community and relationships. 

In this instance, God has again shown up. Jesus sees the man, and God in Christ acts and brings new life. What’s the man’s response? He joyfully follows Jesus as a new disciple. He glorifies God, and all those who witnessed God’s action, praised God. That’s the joyful response to the Good News and Promises of God. That’s how I hope we all act when God has come near, and we celebrate and remember all that God has done and continues to do for us.

Jesus and Zacchaeus
Jesus then continues on his way, ever so briefly through Jericho, and then there comes a wee little man. I can relate, I have never been that tall, and to see over a crowd, climbing a tree like we might have sung about in Sunday School doesn’t seem that farfetched. The interesting thing here is, unlike the blind beggar who calls out to Jesus for Jesus to see him, Zacchaeus climbs a tree just to see, and Jesus saw him and called him by name.

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Proof that my boss, Bishop Maas, is much taller than me.

I love this story, but perhaps not quite as much as my wife does. My wife Allison, is now a first call pastor at Salem Lutheran in Fontanelle. For her ordination last fall back home where we grew up in the Seattle area, Allison selected this story to have read as the gospel and the preaching text.[6] It’s one we have likely all heard many times. It’s one I always resonated with, because unlike my boss, the bishop, I have never been a tall guy, and in those class pictures growing up from kindergarten on through high school, I was always one of the kids in the front row. But this story, gives me hope, not just because of my short stature, but, because, each time we come to this story, I think there’s more depth to be found.

Zacchaeus is a rich or well-off person, but he has the opposite response to the rich man from the story you heard last week, about the rich man and Lazarus.[7] Maybe that’s why Zacchaeus is given a name in this story and the rich man was not? In fact, literally translated, Zacchaeus’ name means, “pure, clean, innocent.”[8]

Without being prompted, at least according to Luke’s version of the story, Zacchaeus declares to Jesus, to God who has come near to him and into his own home, “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.”[9] This is Zacchaeus’ response. He has been changed simply by the presence of God. He has been changed because God has come near, and seen him.

And for this Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.”[10]

Salvation has come. God has come near. And Zacchaeus knows it.

Zacchaeus, “an agent of the state, a Jew turned oppressor of his own people,” longed for something more.[11] And God shows up. Whether or not Zacchaeus changes his profession and vocation or not after this experience, he is certainly changed forever. Even if he remains a tax collector, he will not be operating the same way he has before. This is Zacchaeus’ joyful response to the good news, promises, and presence of God.

What is Our Joyful Response?
Which begs the question, what is your response? What is our response to the good news of a God who has come near for us?

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Easter eggs as a sign of changed lives, or grace in action, at First Lutheran in Wilber, a sign of a joyful response.

In today’s story God shows up and sees- first a blind man begging on the side of the street, then a short tax collector high up in the tree just trying to get a glimpse of who this guy is, who is said to be a friend of sinners and tax collectors like himself. God comes offering salvation for these two, just as God offers salvation for each of us, and all of God’s children.

These are gifts of God for the people of God.

As the Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod, and as a Deacon in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I have the joy of getting to share stories like this. I have been on the ground since early last fall here in Nebraska, and I have heard many stories of congregations and individuals who have responded to the good news of God in creative, faithful, and unique ways like starting care closets that have over taken entire church basements, or even turning unused space at church into a woodshop for a carpentry ministry for the local community. The responses I have seen and heard have everything to do with stewardship.

Stewardship as Joyful Response
Stewardship really is the joyful response to all that God has done and continues to do. The blind man and Zacchaeus were impacted so greatly, they couldn’t help but be changed and want to share about this God with others. When God shows up in our lives, what is our response? How do we live out our lives as stewards of God’s love and mysteries?

One of the ways is through stepping up like Zacchaeus, sharing a portion of what God has financially entrusted to our care, so that God’s work can be done through us. The poor can be cared for. When congregations give mission share, for example, they help the larger church care for the poor by supporting the work of the many serving arms of the church like Mosaic and Lutheran Family Services here in Nebraska among others, but also Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service internationally.

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Signs of faith in action in the fellowship hall at First Lutheran in Wilber.

Through offering and mission share, the church is able to prepare and raise up new leaders and pastors, as well as to support new, transforming, and renewing ministries and congregations exploring what God is up to, and being open to the calling and leading of the Holy Spirit’s presence and change.

But stewardship is more than just money. Money is a part of it. But stewardship has to do with everything that we have been entrusted with- our lives, relationships, hopes, and dreams; our ideas, our questions, our vocations; our treasure, finances and money; our passions, our talents, and time; our stories, and the beautiful creation that surrounds us which we are called and created to tend, nurture, and steward.

Our joyful response is how we live our life, impacted (or not) by all that God has done and continues to do. The way we live our life, the choices we make, the things we do or don’t do, are part of our response to God’s gift of life for each of us. They are our response to the call to come and see- that the blind man and Zacchaeus both followed.

So, again I ask, what is your joyful response? How has God shown up in your life, and what impact has that made on who you are?

God Shows Up Bringing Salvation to Us and Through us
Whether we are aware of it or not, God shows up sometimes not just to us, but through us. God uses us, all that we have and all that we are, to do God’s work to build up the kingdom, to seek out the marginalized and overlooked. God uses us to bring people together, to create community, and to bring life, hope, and sometimes even salvation.[12] God does this for us, and sometimes even through us.

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A view of the cross and beautiful sanctuary at First Lutheran in Wilber.

The whole point of Luke’s gospel is made clear today in the last verse, a fitting verse to hear the Sunday before Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Jesus proclaims,

“For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”[13]

The blind man and Zacchaeus were two of them, and so are we.

God seeks us out, finds us, comes alongside, calls us, and saves us because God loves us. And this is a pure gift we can’t do anything about but be grateful for, be changed by, and be called to follow and do likewise to share the good news of God, and to steward that which God has entrusted to us to help bring abundant life, sight, food, love, peace, and mercy as our God provides for all people.

In whatever ways you have been changed, and however you respond to God’s gifts, thank you for being you- a beautiful and beloved Child of God, who God sees and knows, and who helps others know that God sees, knows, and loves them too. And thanks be to God, for our God who sees us, knows us, finds us, is with us, and loves us. Amen.

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Citations, References, Footnotes, and Sources:

[1] Luke 18:31-18:34, NRSV.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Barbara Lundblad, “Commentary on Luke 18:31-19:10,” Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3013.

[4] Luke 18:38-39, NRSV.

[5] Luke 18:42, NRSV.

[6] Allison’s ordination sermon was preached by friend and professor Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis.

[7] Luke 16:19-31.

[8] Richard W. Swanson, Lutheran Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), page 1737.

[9] Luke 19:8, NRSV.

[10] Luke 19:9, NRSV.

[11] Barbara Lundblad, “Commentary on Luke 18:31-19:10,” Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3013.

[12] Karoline Lewis, “Salvation Today,” 23 October 2016, Craft of Preaching, https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4745.

[13] Luke 19:10, NRSV.

Can you Believe what you just Saw?

On Sunday March 26, 2017, I had the privilege of being invited to preach and lead worship at Salem Lutheran Church in Superior, Nebraska. This congregation is part of the Heartland Shared Ministries, and in the afternoon I led a stewardship seminar for the combined partner congregations and the surrounding cluster. It was a joy to be with the congregation, and I look forward to their continued exploration about what it means to be a “shared” ministry.

The following is the manuscript I mainly preached from. It is based on the revised common lectionary readings appointed for the fourth Sunday in Lent, and is primarily based on John 9:1-41, and Psalm 23

Grace, peace, and blessings from our God who opens eyes, hearts, and minds to see, to know, and to love, Amen.

20170326_090220It is a great joy to be with you today. Thank you to Pastor Kathryn for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring greetings from your 100,000 sisters and brothers that together with you, are the Nebraska Synod. I also bring greetings on behalf of Bishop Maas, Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Megan Morrow, and the entire synod staff.  I am excited to be with you for worship today and the workshop this afternoon. I am also excited to share some thoughts about our shared ministry together in the church, some ideas about stewardship, and to wonder with you a bit about what God might be up to.

Can You Believe What You Just Saw?
In terms of wondering… have you ever had one of those days where you couldn’t possibly believe what you were experiencing? Or what you were seeing?

I suspect that is what was happening with the people in today’s gospel story. In today’s story, a man who was born blind, through following Jesus’ instructions, is given sight. The people in the community can hardly believe it. Those who see it and try to make sense of it, are mad. How could this be possible? What’s going on here? “Clearly this is wrong,” the Pharisees or those in authority think, because it is not how things are supposed to go.

But as the blind man, who Jesus extends the call to be a disciple and follower of the way to, responds about Jesus and his acts on his (and perhaps our behalf), “I do not know whether he (Jesus) is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”[1]

The man who is given literal sight in this story, provides “an opportunity for God to act,” or for God to do what God does.[2] The gospel of John is filled with “I am” statements, describing who exactly this God in Christ is. Today we again hear Jesus proclaim, “I am.” “I am the light of the world.”[3] And as soon as he proclaims this, Jesus spits and makes mud. Seems kind of opposite of what we might first envision the light of the world looking like. But then we remember who this God of ours is. Someone who has come near, become one of us, has lived, died, and was resurrected for us, so that we might have life.

Still, I have to ask again, have you ever had one of those days where you couldn’t possibly believe what you were experiencing? Or what you were seeing?

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Look who I found? My boss, Bishop Brian Maas’ picture and story, on the shelves at Salem Lutheran in Superior.

About a year ago, I had such a couple of days. No one literally gained sight, but my heart and mind were definitely moved in ways I might not have been ready for or had expected.

My wife Allison and I are natives of the Pacific Northwest, and after getting married about seven years ago we moved to Minnesota for seminary and work. After about five years, Allison was sent out on the last part of her preparation for ordination, internship. We thought, hey this is awesome, we’re going back home to the Northwest. Just about 7 months later after moving back across country from Minnesota to Washington state, my wife Allison and I flew out to Nebraska for a quick trip. You see, it was about at this time where after receiving an email from a person I had never heard of, inviting me to have a conversation with a bishop I had never met, I heard about what God is up to here in Nebraska.

I heard an invitation to follow a calling to come and see, and to share about this synod- a synod full of generosity, love, and partnership for the sake of the world; one you’re each a part of here in Superior with the Heartland Shared Ministries and your mission share contributions which make the work of training and raising up new leaders and pastor, of supporting transforming and renewing ministries, and the many serving arm organizations that we are all partners with possible. There’s much more to this story, and I’ll pick it up in a bit.

Abundant Life through God in Christ
Today’s gospel story is part of a longer section which goes through all of John chapter 9, and much of chapter 10.[4] The man who gains his sight through Christ’s action, becomes one of the sheep Jesus describes in the following chapter who knows the shepherd’s voice and is one of the many of God’s children whom Christ has come so that, “we might have eternal life, and have it abundantly.”[5] [6]

Abundance, that’s a stewardship thing. But what might it mean?

The man today is made new through God’s action, much like we are made new through the water and the word in baptism. God shows up and acts, time and time again, for us. We don’t deserve this action, and cannot earn it, but God shows up because God cares, loves, and promises to be with us.

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One of the ways this congregation responds to the good news, is by contributing to their local food pantry.

The question then is, how do we live into this reality? How do we respond to this calling? How do we live joyfully because of all that God has done and continues to do for us?

God wants to be in relationship with us. God wants us to live fully and abundantly, which starts with recognizing we have a God who loves us, is with us, and wants to be with us. These are gifts- gifts of life, gifts of faith, and gifts of purpose.

Stewardship as Faith, Hope, and Grace in Action
Stewardship then is how we live in light of these promises, gifts, good news, and saving acts for us. This living is an active thing. Which is why stewardship is something broad, on-going, and part of our very identity as Children of God, and each of our relationships with our neighbors, loved ones, strangers, and even God’s own self. Stewardship, put another way, is faith, hope, and grace in action.

Jesus today was entrusted with the ability to give sight to a blind man. Jesus didn’t hoard that opportunity, rather, Jesus used it, even on a Sabbath day, so that God’s work could be done through him. Faith, hope, and grace, in action.

That was Jesus’ work in this story, and even though we might not be able to give literal sight to a blind person every day, we are entrusted with passions, stories, resources, money, talents, ideas, questions, vocations, and relationships through which God works through us to build up God’s kingdom. Through us, all that we have and all that we are, that which God has entrusted to our care to manage or steward, God does God’s work.

When you think about it that way, it’s awe-inspiring and perhaps overwhelming. How we live our lives through our vocations, choices of things we do and don’t do, show how we have been impacted by all that God has done for us. If we are so caught up in joy for these gifts of God that we cannot earn, but are perfectly free gifts, it stands to reason, that we’ll be so moved that we will not be able to hoard these gifts and keep them to ourselves, but want to share them extravagantly and radically like God.

Jesus, the Light of the World
At the same time, we recognize that life is not always easy. God wants to be with us, in the good, the bad, and the ugly of life. God wants to have the deepest of relationships, and we remember that with the psalmist today. “The Lord is my shepherd.”[7] Amen. But what impact does that have on us? “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” “I” or “we,” “shall not want.” Our needs are met in God- a God who restores, who leads us, who is with us, comforting and anointing, and we shall dwell with this God. A God, who also showed up to give sight to a blind man, proclaiming, “I am the light of the world.”

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The beautiful stained glass cross at Salem Lutheran in Superior, makes me think about Jesus, the “Light of the World.”

This isn’t a light of the world that our worldly ways might anticipate. This isn’t some grandiose politician riding in on a chariot or a Boeing 747, this is a light of the world that spits and creates mud with God’s own hands. This is a light of the world who gets on his knees and washes other’s feet. This light of the world is a light that we all remember in baptism. As “Jesus said, I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will have the light of life.”[8] Or, the command to live a life of faith, hope, and grace in action, to “let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”[9]

In today’s story, God bestows “grace upon grace.”[10] God doesn’t act as we might expect. God doesn’t prioritize who God will use or call as we might assign tasks to the smartest, strongest, or loudest. No, God’s grace is not something that can be counted and assessed. God’s “grace upon grace,” is how God’s economy works, an economy and stewardship that is different than our human created ones. [11]

The man today who is given sight, listened to God and did as God called. The man confessed belief, and worshiped. The man did, what I hope we all do, he worshiped and gave thanks because God had shown up. God has again given life, life for us, a life so extravagant and abundant we could not even imagine.

This life is made possible of course through God’s saving acts of the cross, we remember on our Lenten journey.

Now What? The Rest of the Story
But this life is not always an easy one. I promised you more of my story, so here you go.

When my wife and I came to Nebraska for that couple of days last year, from the Pacific Northwest, we sensed, we saw, and we were amazed. We sensed God at work. But we knew that also meant change. We cried some, knowing we would be moving once again from our extended families and loved ones in the Northwest. But, as we saw, heard and experienced with our own eyes, hearts, and minds in Nebraska, we knew we wanted to be a part of it. We were being called here. And so, here we are. I as a deacon, serving as Director for Stewardship for the Nebraska Synod, sharing all about stories of ministry in action from across this wonderful state; and Allison as a first call pastor at Salem Lutheran in Fontanelle. To be a part of the ministry of 245 congregations, 13 serving arms, and telling the story of God at work is a life of pure joy for me.

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A fitting reminder on the walls at Salem in Superior.

This life that we all lead as disciples, stewards of God’s love and mysteries, and followers of Christ, is a life of calling, purpose, and vocation. When we are found, like the man in today’s story, we would also then be wise to expect to be sent out. The disciples were all sent out, and so are we, each week at the end of worship to our various daily lives, to live out the Good News and share that through God, “all have life and all have it abundantly.”[12] We do this through our words and actions. We do this by extending God’s invitation to all, to invite the world to come and see what God has done and God continues to do. [13]

All of this is a gift. It’s good news. Sometimes we just need to get out of our own way, to allow God to work through us, to use us, and for us to go about the work of living lives of faith, and stewarding all that God has given and continues to give. I wonder if that’s really what the problem was for the Pharisees? Jesus broke the rules of their expectations, so that couldn’t possibly be okay. It’s a good reminder, that God isn’t beholden to our human understanding, and self-created rules for good order. When we are, stubborn and hold to an “our way or the highway” mentality, perhaps we refuse to believe, and by doing so, we’re blind to our own sin?[14]

Even so, God still shows up to do the work to open our eyes, hearts, and minds. God calls us to see all that God has done, to feel and share the Light of the World with our sisters and brothers, and to know so deeply that God loves us, is with us, and is for us. Amen.

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Notes, References, and Citations:

[1] John 9:25, NRSV.

[2] Obrey M. Hendricks, in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, Michael D. Coogan, ed., (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 164 New Testament.

[3] John 9:5, NRSV.

[4] Karoline M. Lewis, Lutheran Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), page 1770.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John 10:10, NRSV.

[7] Psalm 23:1, NRSV.

[8] “Holy Baptism,” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 231.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Karoline Lewis, “On Being Found,” 19 March 2016, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4843.

[11] Inspired by Karoline Lewis, “On Being Found,” 19 March 2016, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4843.

[12] John 10:10, NRSV.

[13] Karoline Lewis, “On Being Found.”

[14] Inspired by Obrey Hendricks, 165 New Testament.