Sermon: Y’all Go And…

Sunday, June 4, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Holy Trinity
watch this service online (readings start around 21:30; sermon starts around 33:59, with children’s sermon around 29:50)

Once upon a time,

a long, long time before you were born,

there was nothing — and there was God.

Only God existed in the beginning, but God wasn’t alone. In the ages before time itself began, the three persons of the Trinity were together, a living, divine community of love — the three-in-one and one-in-three. Love existed, long before anything else came into being.

This love the Trinity shared was dynamic – joyful and active and creative – and in time, it gave rise to the whole universe. At God’s word, light exploded into being, bright and pure and clear. God spun out stars and planets and galaxies, scattering them across the reaches of space. Atoms and elements came together to form oceans and continents, which God then filled with life: grass and green shoots that grew into trees heavy with fruit, while the waters teemed with swarms of creatures. God brought forth land creatures with legs, and birds of every kind, breathing the breath of life into the dust of creation. And as they spoke the entire cosmos into being, the Trinity paused for a moment to admire their handiwork and said to themselves, “Wow – this is some really good stuff!”

And in that moment, the Trinity had an amazing idea: “What if we made creatures in our own image?!” We could make beings who would also be creators, like us – lovers and stewards of creation who would live together in one community of love, like we do. They could join us in the work of creation and we would love them and they would love us!

So that’s exactly what they did. The Trinity made humankind in their own image – humans of all genders and colors and persuasions – they made them and handed them the house keys of creation. And once they had finished, the Trinity stepped back to take it all in, and they said to themselves, “Oh yeah. Now we’re talking.”

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Sermon: Breathing Stories into Life

Sunday, May 28, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Pentecost Sunday
watch this service online (readings start around 19:32; sermon starts around 26:41)
photo credit: Elle Dowd

I was really glad I had the chance to get away to Chicago for a few days earlier this month. Even though it was a quick trip, I did get to spend time with several friends and just unwind for a bit. One of the most fun parts of it was that I got to go to a murder mystery dinner that some friends of mine were hosting at their house. Has anyone ever been to one of those? It’s basically like role-playing the game Clue; a group of people gathers together in character over dinner, and over the course of the evening, they try to solve a (fictional) murder and figure out which character is the murderer.

I went with my friends Erin and Josh, who I was staying with, and, to be honest, we weren’t completely sure what to expect ahead of time about how this would all go. Each of us had been given a particular character to play. My character’s name was Mrs. Withering, the housekeeper; Erin was the cook, Blanche Batters; and to everyone’s amusement, Josh – one of the few non-clergypeople in attendance – was assigned the character of the Rev. Will Beedone. 

The friends who were hosting the party gave explicit instructions in their invitation that everyone was expected to be both in costume and in character for the entire evening. However, we had been given only the barest details about these characters we were supposed to play! For instance, I knew that my character was supposed to wear a high-necked black dress with a silver locket and her hair in a bun; I knew she was an accountant before becoming a housekeeper, that she took care of her father before he died, and that her employer – the murderee – didn’t pay her very well (I mean, everybody’s got to have a motive, right?). But that was it! That was all I knew. 

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Sermon: The Road Is Long. Like, I-80 through Iowa Long.

Sunday, May 21, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Ascension Sunday
watch this service online (readings start around 15:40; sermon starts around 21:46)

I spent a few days back in Chicago this past week, visiting friends. That drive out east always takes me back to the car trips my family used to take when I was a kid. My mom’s family is all from the Quad Cities area, as I’ve mentioned before, and when I was growing up, we used to go out and visit them several times a year. So I got to know that long stretch of I-80 that runs through Iowa all too well long before I lived in Chicago.

Driving that route as an adult is, of course, a lot different from experiencing it as a kid. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still a long drive now – but as a kid, it seemed interminable. Those hours on the road just draaaaaagged on. And in true kid fashion, it didn’t take long for us to start asking every parent’s favorite road trip question, over and over again: Are we there yet?

It’s hard for young kids to be patient with long car trips like that. I know it was for me. It wasn’t just having to sit still for that long. It’s that I had very little concept of the trip as a whole – like, I didn’t know enough to be able to visualize a map of it in my head; I just knew that it was long. And so it was impossible to have an idea of where we were within that window of “long” other than to keep asking again and again, “Are we there yet?”

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Sermon: We Know the Way

Sunday, May 14, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Sixth Sunday of Easter
watch this service online (readings start around 27:23; sermon starts around 34:30)

There is at least one thing in my life for which I do not give thanks nearly often enough. And that is my smartphone. I’d hold it up right now and show it to you for visual emphasis – but my smartphone is currently back there, working at its day job, which is live-streaming this service.

It’s an amazing tool that most of us carry around in our pockets all day, when you stop and think about it. It lets us share information and connect with people all over the world. It gives us access to virtually all human knowledge, right there at our fingertips – as well as adorable pictures of cats and babies. It enables us to open up an app like Google Maps and look up directions that will lead us straight from our front door to just about any destination we can imagine. 

Now, granted, Google Maps can be a bit hit or miss in more rural areas and small towns like Schuyler. I have been trying to get Google to add that new stretch of Denver Street north of the parsonage ever since it was built – and they only just added it last week. But even despite its shortcomings, it’s still pretty amazing that you can find your way just about anywhere in the world with this little device that fits in your pocket.

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Sermon: God’s House Is Always the Right Place at the Right Time

Sunday, May 7, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday of Easter
watch this service online (readings start around 28:27; sermon starts around 34:35)

It was a summer night, back in the summer of 2002. I was seventeen, and my friends and I had spent the entire afternoon hanging out at the Cedar County Fair up in Hartington. It was a blast. We were on our way back home when it started to rain – at first a few drops, that then quickly turned into a torrential downpour. My friends lived on a farm place a couple miles north of town; I had driven there dozens – if not hundreds – of times. I definitely knew the way! But in the dark, with the rain pouring down, I somehow managed to make a teeeeensy little wrong turn. Instead of turning onto their road, I managed to turn onto the road one section north – a road that, a mile in, went from gravel to a minimum maintenance road (aka a dirt road)

You can imagine how that went for us! By the time I realized my mistake, it was already much too late. I had been driving pretty slowly, but the car still had enough momentum that when the tires left gravel, the mud immediately took control and just kinda grabbed onto the wheels and guided us right over into the ditch. I shifted the car into reverse and made kind of a half-hearted effort to try to back out of it, but I knew that we were well and truly stuck. 

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Sermon: A House that Love Built

Funeral of Ron Aase
April 26, 2023
Svoboda Funeral Home, Schuyler, NE

Readings: Lamentations 3:21-25, 55-57, Psalm 46, John 14:1-6a

I never actually had the chance to meet Ron or to get to know him in person. So before I started preparing this service, or writing this sermon, I wanted to try to get some sense of who Ron was. I wanted to do my best to do his funeral justice. So last week, I ended up driving over to Monroe to sit down and talk with Bessie for a bit – out in the house that they had lived in together for over four decades. As it turns out, going out to that house is probably the single best way to really get to know Ron. 

There are signs of Ron’s presence all over that house. Bessie and I sat at the kitchen table and she showed me all these photos of Ron and of some of his projects. She showed me a candid shot of Ron sitting at that very table, snapped with her new phone. She showed me a picture of him sacked out in his favorite spot on the couch. And she showed me some amazing before and after photos of trucks and tractors that Ron had painstakingly restored. 

But more than anything else, there was a kind of refrain that kept repeating itself all throughout the conversation, which was, “Oh, Ron made that,” or, “Oh yeah, Ron did that too.” Bessie kept pointing things out as we talked, all over the house: ceiling tiles, floors, wall treatments, a remodeled bathroom including plumbing, an entire garage, a back deck – project after project. She talked about how much work and effort Ron had put into all these improvements on their house – and how he was (in her words) “cussin’ the whole time.” (haha) It’s a house that is just full from top to bottom of Ron’s handiwork. 

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Sermon: Liturgies of Spring

Sunday, April 23, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday of Easter
watch this service online (readings start around 20:43; sermon starts around 28:40)
image source

It’s just crazy weather we’ve been having lately, right? For like three days – three glorious days – I got to wear tank tops and open up the windows of my house – and now, we’re almost to the end of April, and I swear to you I saw snowflakes like two days ago. But I guess that’s just springtime in Nebraska for you, right? You never really know what to expect from the weather this time of year.

But there is one thing you can pretty consistently expect from spring weather in Nebraska: and that’s the way that people will talk about spring weather in Nebraska. It’s almost this kind of liturgy that we keep repeating with each other year after year. For instance, someone might begin this liturgy by saying something like, “So wow, crazy weather we’ve been having lately, right?” – to which another person might respond with a phrase like, “Ugh, tell me about it! I heard they got a foot of snow out in the panhandle!” or “Yeah, it’s crazy, but you know we do need the moisture,” or “Well, you know, it wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for all this wind!” And almost inevitably, the sort of closing “Amen” of this liturgy is some variation of, “Well, I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised – that’s just spring in Nebraska for you!”

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Sermon: It’s Okay to Want to Touch the Paint

Sunday, April 16, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Second Sunday of Easter
watch this service online (readings start around 18:58; sermon starts around 26:29)

Do you know how many stars are in our galaxy? If I told you that there are over 100 billion stars just in our galaxy alone, would you believe me? You probably would, right? (And you should, because it’s true!) What if I told you that for every person on earth, there are about 1.5 million ants? You might be a little more skeptical on that one, but most of you would probably believe me. But, if I told you that there was wet paint on that wall over there, you’d all have to touch it to believe me.

It’s one thing for us to hear data about astronomical numbers like how many stars there are in the Milky Way or how many ants there are on earth. It’s interesting information, but not necessarily something we feel like we have an immediate stake in. Like, it probably doesn’t change much of anything for me to tell you that I lied earlier about the ants – there are actually closer to 2.5 million ants for each human. 

But wet paint we care about. It’s important to us. I mean, you could accidentally brush up against a wall and get wet paint all over your nice clean clothes. And for those of us who know this space so well, hearing that there’s wet paint would immediately raise questions, like: How can there be wet paint there? Who would be painting in here? And why? What happened? We’d feel compelled to go and touch the wet paint to see for ourselves if it’s really true. Our very skepticism, our doubt, shows that – unlike stars or ants – this is a question that really matters to us. 

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Sermon: Dispelling the Darkness

Sunday, April 9, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Easter Sunday
Adapted from commentary written by Gennifer Benjamin Brooks
watch this service online (readings start around 12:52; sermon starts around 19:56)

As those who were gathered here last evening for the Easter Vigil service can attest, I was still struggling to get a sermon hammered out for this morning, even as we were departing the church last night. Feeling stuck and unable to find the words that needed to be said, I did what preachers often do when they’re stuck, and turned to reading commentary on the gospel text. I came across some commentary on this text from John written by Gennifer Benjamin Brooks, who is a preaching professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Chicago — and, fittingly for a preaching professor, her commentary already read to me like a sermon. Her words already proclaimed the good news that I wanted to say, and I thought to myself, “Hallelujah! Christ is risen — and I get to sleep!” I’ve rearranged and adapted it a little bit for my voice when reading aloud, and added in some things here and there, but here is a good Easter word mainly from the Rev. Dr. Brooks!

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Sermon: Here Is Your Son

Friday, April 7, 2023
Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church, Omaha, NE
Good Friday
watch this service online

I had the honor of being invited to preach at Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church in Omaha at their Tre Ore service, which is a service traditionally held on Good Friday from noon to 3pm, commemorating the final hours of Christ on the cross. Seven preachers from different denominations gave sermons on each of the seven last words of Jesus. The word I preached on was “Woman, behold your son.”

John 19:23-27
23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. 24 So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says,

“They divided my clothes among themselves,
    and for my clothing they cast lots.”

25 And that is what the soldiers did.

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

This is the day that Mary has been dreading – ever since the days when her beloved son was still small enough that she could cradle him in her arms. She has known for a long time that his path would one day lead them here. 

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Sermon: The Opposite of Schadenfreude

Thursday, April 6, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Maundy Thursday
watch this service online (readings start around 8:06; sermon starts around 15:56)

Over the last month or so, I have unexpectedly become a big fan of a show I’d never heard of before – a show called “Hot Ones.” It’s a series on YouTube in which the host interviews celebrities – but as they answer questions, they have to eat these increasingly spicy chicken wings. And these wings get HOT – like practically weapons-grade spiciness. As the show goes on, you can see how visibly uncomfortable people get – their faces get all red; they start sweating and tearing up and chugging milk; by the end, some are literally yelling swearing at the host. Heh, it’s a pretty fun time.

I enjoy the show mostly for the conversations. Because these chicken wings are so absurdly spicy, it’s just painful and distracting enough that it kind of peels away the carefully cultivated and composed exterior that people come in with and forces them to just be real – to show who they really are and say what they really think. It’s hard to keep looking cool and poised when your mouth is on fire and your face is melting.

But because of that, I have to admit that there’s also a bit of a guilty pleasure in this show for me. Most of the guests on the show are fairly humble and nervous about how well they’ll be able to handle the wings. But every once in a while, you’ll get someone who comes in who’s just super cocky and full of themselves – usually it’s some young hotshot White guy – someone who is just chock full of unearned confidence that they are going to crush these wings like a champ. It is so satisfying to watch them crash and burn – by the end, they’re in so much pain that they’re like trying to snort milk to cool their sinuses and they can’t even pretend to be cool anymore. It’s satisfying to watch their egos be taken down a peg – and then another, and another.

The Germans actually have a word for this kind of feeling (because of course they do). They call it schadenfreude. There’s no precise translation for it in English, but the basic meaning of schadenfreude is: taking pleasure in the suffering of someone else.

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Sermon: Love Is a Raggedy Cat

Sunday, March 26, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (readings start around 15:54; sermon starts around 28:54)

I’d like to start off my sermon today by introducing you to a very old friend of mine. This is Miss Kitty. I have had Miss Kitty since I was about three months old. She was given to me by an aunt of my mom’s, I believe, and I immediately fell in love with her. She looked a little different than this when I first got her – for one thing, she still had fur back then – she was plush and soft and white and I used to drag her around with me absolutely everywhere I went. 

She’s a little worse for the wear nowadays, of course. As a child, I quite literally loved her to pieces. So over the years, she’s had to undergo a number of “reconstructive surgeries.” At one point, my mom actually started sewing her these little jumpsuits – they were kind of like little footie pajamas – essentially, it was a Miss Kitty-shaped bag just designed to keep all her parts together in one place.

After my mom died, I took over the task of repairing Miss Kitty myself. If you look at her closely, you can still see some of my mom’s tidy stitches, and then basically a whole tapestry of me gradually learning to sew on my own. I love that Miss Kitty is kind of a collaborative project that my mom and I both worked on. I actually made her this little dress back in high school, when I was learning how to crochet. And even though I don’t drag her with me absolutely everywhere I go anymore, she has still come with me pretty much everywhere I’ve moved, from college to camp to Peace Corps to grad school – and now to Schuyler.

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Sermon: A Feast of Unexpected Joys

Funeral of Helen Jindra
March 24, 2023
Svoboda Funeral Home, Schuyler, NE
watch this service online (readings start around 5:04; sermon starts around 9:26)

Readings: Isaiah 55:1-3, 10-13; Psalm 23; Luke 12:22-24, 27-34

I spent my last year of seminary on internship, which basically involved shadowing a pastor at a congregation in order to learn the ropes of ministry – there are some things you just can’t learn in a classroom. As part of my learning, my supervisor entrusted me with planning the midweek services for the whole season of Lent. There were already bible texts traditionally assigned to each week, but I got to be totally creative in designing services around each of those readings.

Lent, as you probably know, is typically a very solemn, penitential kind of season. It’s a season of prayer and fasting and sacrificial giving as we walk with Jesus on a journey to the cross. It’s often a time when people give up some little pleasure like chocolate or video games or alcohol and focus on repentance. And so, naturally, I had a lot of very thoughtful, serious, prayerful ideas for what to do with each of these Lenten services. But as I went through the readings for each of the weeks, you can imagine my surprise when one of the readings turned out to be this text from Isaiah 55 that we just read:

Hear, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; come buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price! Come eat bread! Eat what is good and delight yourselves in rich food!

Isaiah 55:1-3 (edited)

It’s not at all what you’d expect in the season of Lent! Isn’t this the season when we’re *not* supposed to eat rich foods? Instead of the sense of austerity and discipline you’d expect, here is God – speaking through the prophet Isaiah – pouring out this feast of goodness and richness and abundance and inviting us all to come and eat.

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Sermon: The Real Miracle Was Inside Us All Along

Sunday, March 19, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (readings start around 17:16; sermon starts around 27:45)

In our Wednesday evening gatherings for Training Disciples, we have been engaging in bible study and reflection and prayer, all centered around the theme of “blessing the Lent we actually have.” It’s a Lenten curriculum inspired by this book: The Lives We Actually Have: 100 Blessings for Imperfect Days – and boy, there is a lot of goodness in here. Both the book and the curriculum were written by a bestselling author named Kate Bowler, who is a professor of religious history at Duke Divinity School. 

The book Bowler is probably best known for, though, is this one, called: Everything Happens for a Reason, And Other Lies I’ve Loved. It’s a memoir of sorts. When Bowler was 35 years old, she was unexpectedly diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer and told that she likely only had another two years to live. Thankfully, it’s been eight years since then, and she is in remission now, thanks be to God! But Bowler wrote this book about the kind of toxic positivity and terrible theology that we tend to reach for in times of trouble – especially this idea that everything happens for a reason – this idea that suffering and pain and loss are somehow part of what God plans and intends for us. 

It’s a terrifying thing to believe, when you stop and think about it. But I suppose it’s comforting to believe that there is something divine or redemptive about our suffering – that it’s all according to plan, even if the plan is terrible. It also tends to give us permission to distance ourselves from the suffering of others – because that, too, is “all part of the plan.” 

But, contrary to this idea of God, what Bowler shows through her writings is a God who walks beside us, a tender, caring God who comes down right into the middle of the mess and chaos and disarray of our daily lives to give us the strength and comfort to keep on going. She gives us an image of God that is actually much more in line with what we know of God from scripture – especially from scripture like Psalm 23, which we read today. There we see that God is one who gives us rest and brings us beauty, one who anoints us and comforts us, one who goes with us all the way, even into the darkest valley.

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Sermon: A Divine Appointment

Sunday, March 12, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (readings start around 19:57; sermon starts around 30:08)
(another 2020 throwback)

Our gospel text for this morning picks up about half a chapter after our gospel reading from last week. Last week, you might remember, Jesus was in Jerusalem, where he received a nighttime visit from our friend Nicodemus, the Pharisee. 

Well, now, in the first few verses of John 4, Jesus learns that trouble might be brewing with the rest of the Pharisees, who are feeling a lot less friendly toward him than our pal Nicodemus. So Jesus and his disciples decide it’s time to hit the road. In verses 3 and 4 of chapter 4, John writes that “[Jesus] left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.” And that is where our story begins.

John writes that Jesus “had” to go through Samaria to get from Judea to Galilee – and if you look at a map of the area, that seems totally logical. These three regions were all right next to each other: you had Galilee to the north, Judea to the south, and right in between them, you had Samaria (with mountains to the east and the Mediterranean sea to the west).

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Sermon: The Head and the Heart

Sunday, March 5, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Second Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (readings start around 23:40; sermon starts around 30:18)
(another revamp)

For all his good intentions, Nicodemus just really doesn’t get it. In our gospel reading for this morning, he shows up on Jesus’ doorstep in the middle of the night, wanting to have a conversation. I’m not sure why he came by night – it might be that he didn’t want the other leaders to see him there; or it could be that there was something weighing on Nicodemus’ heart, keeping him up at night. Light and dark are motifs that feature prominently in John’s gospel, and one thing that seems pretty clear here that Nicodemus is in the dark about Jesus.

Whatever the case, he comes to Jesus, eager to talk. Nicodemus starts off by acknowledging Jesus’ authority, saying that “we” – not just “I,” but “we” – “know that you are a Rabbi, a teacher like us, one who has come from God.” He acknowledges that even the other Pharisees have to admit the evidence in front of their eyes, because “no one could do the signs you do apart from God.” 

And before Nicodemus can continue, Jesus says to him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 

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Sermon: Anchored in Christ, We’ll Never Be Lost

Sunday, February 26, 2023
Zion Lutheran Church, Lincoln, NE
First Sunday in Lent, Installation of Pastor Jacob Krueger
watch this service online (readings start around 14:32; sermon starts around 22:04 (children’s sermon) 27:43)

[I prefaced this sermon with a children’s sermon in which I asked the kids to tell me what they knew about the ocean; we talked about how people find their way when they’re sailing across the sea and about how easy it would be to get lost in a storm; I brought a little anchor and talked about how it keeps ships grounded so that they’re not blown off course, and how as Christians, Jesus is our anchor when life gets stormy]

In our gospel reading for today, we find Jesus wandering in the wilderness – in the ἔρημος/eremos, a Greek word which can also be translated as “desert.” And considering that our gospel reading for today takes place entirely in the desert, I imagine that you might be thinking to yourselves that it’s a pretty weird move to start off my sermon(s) talking about the ocean!

But the feeling of being lost at sea is something that was often on my mind over the last few years of ministry – especially during the time when we as a church were still wandering through the wilderness of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was such a strange experience to all collectively have absolutely no idea what we were doing. I was barely a year into ministry when the whole world shut down, so I especially had no idea what I was doing! 

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Sermon: The Overdue Dentist Appointment of Liturgical Seasons

Wednesday, February 22, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Ash Wednesday
watch this service online (readings start around 6:22; sermon starts around 15:10)
digital bulletin

Since this evening has already been kind of an evening of honest self-disclosure on my part, I will also share with you that I have a terrible toothache – or if I’m being really honest, a teethache. It’s been bothering me since sometime in mid- to late- December. It has made eating kind of a painful challenge, because biting down in just the wrong way or trying to eat something too crunchy or too chewy instantly lands me in a world of hurt.

I feel very embarrassed to admit this, but the reason for my dental woes is that, prior to last month, it had been over eleven years since I last went to the dentist. 😬😬😬  I didn’t mean for it to be that long. I chalk it up to the fact that for many years, I didn’t go because I didn’t have dental insurance; and also, with my ADHD, that’s just one of those things that’s hard for me to remember consistently to do. 

But also, the truth is that I put it off because I knew it would most likely be uncomfortable and unpleasant, probably even painful. And the longer I neglected to go to the dentist, the harder it got to even think about going. My embarrassment and the potential for pain both only grew as time went by.

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Sermon: Post by Post

Sunday, February 19, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Transfiguration Sunday
watch this service online (readings start around 21:59; sermon starts around 28:24)
(and just for funzies, watch the annual burning of the palms here)

I have to admit that I don’t really have a lot of experience with literal mountaintop moments. Like most – if not all – of you, I am from Nebraska: a state famously not known for its mountains.

I have only made it to the top of one mountain, and that was many years ago now. Back in the days when I was working as a camp counselor out at Carol Joy Holling, a bunch of the other summer staff and I planned this big backpacking trip at the end of my first summer. We spent about a week hiking around the Medicine Bow Mountains in southern Wyoming, and close to the end of the week, we climbed up to the top of Medicine Bow Peak itself. 

I really enjoyed the trip as a whole, but I’ll admit that there were times that it became a bit of a slog. It was hours of walking every day, plus each one of us had a sixty-pound backpack on our backs. And even though we went in August, the mountain range we were in was just north of a Colorado range known as the “Never Summer Mountains” – so you can imagine how absolutely freezing cold it still was at night, sleeping on the ground inside our tents. 

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Sermon: Tumbled into Grace

Sunday, February 12, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
watch this service online (readings start around 20:35; sermon starts around 27:41)

When I was a child, I had a pretty wide variety of different interests and hobbies (which, I guess is still true of me as an adult, haha). One of my longest lasting fascinations was with geology. I had an extensive rock collection that I had gathered from all over the place – I’d often buy cool stones as souvenirs when we went on family trips, and I collected interesting rocks that I found all around Nebraska, including a whole little sub-collection of marine fossils preserved in limestone. 

The rocks I prized most in my collection were often ones that looked like these – rocks that were smooth and shiny and highly polished. Some were semi-precious stones like rose quartz and amethyst and onyx. Many others, though, were just regular old rocks – the kind of ordinary rocks you could find in any field. But when polished, these ordinary rocks became surprisingly and uniquely beautiful. With the rough exterior worn away, these rocks revealed their true colors, full of subtle details and inclusions and layers. 

It takes a lot of time to turn a rock like this into one that looks smooth and polished like this one. Getting there requires at least a good three to four weeks of tumbling the rocks together in a rock tumbler. Usually there’s some kind of abrasive grit that gets added to the tumbler to help sand stones down – but a significant part of what makes this process work is actually the rocks themselves, tumbling against each other over and over. Through this constant contact and friction, the rough edges of each stone are gradually worn away; and eventually, you’re left with these nice, smooth, polished stones. Being tumbled together with all of these other rocks brings out the unique beauty of each stone and literally makes it shine.

Continue reading “Sermon: Tumbled into Grace”

Sermon: Meant for More than Mush

Sunday, February 5, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
watch this service online (readings start around 24:59; sermon starts around 33:58)

When you grow up as the oldest kid in a single parent family – like I did – you tend to end up taking on a little more responsibility than the average kid does, earlier in life. You have to learn how to do certain things around the house in order to help out. In our house, one of the things that I learned to help out with was cooking. I wasn’t always very good at it though. I don’t know if you know this, but it turns out that food actually tastes a lot better when you follow the directions! Who knew?

Thankfully, I usually wasn’t in charge of making the whole meal – just helping. Usually what would happen was that Dad would call home from work after my siblings and I got home from school and he’d give us instructions for getting supper started before he came home. It was usually simple stuff, like buttering bread for garlic bread or chopping vegetables for a stir fry, or sticking a pan of lasagna in the oven – nothing terribly complicated. 

One day when I was in maybe late elementary school or so, Dad called home and asked me to put a pot of water on to boil for spaghetti – a very simple request. So I dug the great big pot out of the cupboard and I filled it with water in the sink and I set it on the stove and cranked up the knob to high heat. And that was it. It was sort of anticlimactic. Even as a kid, I really liked helping, so I wanted to do more than just stick some water on to boil. So I got out the dishes and set the table. And I went up in the cupboard and got the big cannister of spaghetti noodles and set it on the counter next to the stove so that they’d be right there, ready to go, whenever Dad got home.

But as I stood there, watching that pot (which hadn’t boiled yet), and looking at those noodles, I started to think, “Well, this is silly. Why would Dad only have me boil the water? Surely if he trusts me to heat up water to boiling hot, trusting me to stick some noodles in a pot should be no big deal, right? So without consulting Dad – or the instructions on the packet of spaghetti itself – I did what my heart told me to do and dumped an entire fistful of spaghetti noodles into that pot of lukewarm water… 

Continue reading “Sermon: Meant for More than Mush”

Sermon: Called into Foolishness

Sunday, January 22, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday after Epiphany
watch this service online (readings start around 13:55; sermon starts around 19:55)
(originally preached 1/26/20)

The first verse of our gospel reading for this morning quickly glosses over a very serious bit of news: John the Baptist has been arrested. This news doesn’t exactly send the same shiver of fear down our spines as it would if we lived in the first century instead of the twenty-first century. For one thing, it’s not news – we already know very well that John’s arrest is part of the story. And for another thing, our modern conception of things like “arrest” and “imprisonment” is a very far cry from what these things would have looked like in ancient Rome. 

Being arrested and thrown into jail in Roman times was not like being thrown into jail today. Unlike us today, Romans didn’t really have a practice of putting people behind bars to serve out a certain number of years before being released. In most cases, there were only two ways out of a Roman prison: either succumb to starvation and die in prison, or survive prison long enough to be executed. And as an added bonus, the practice of torture wasn’t considered a form of punishment, but rather just a standard interrogation technique.

Continue reading “Sermon: Called into Foolishness”

Sermon: If You Don’t Know, Now You Know

Sunday, January 15, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Second Sunday after Epiphany
watch this service online (readings start around 25:39; sermon starts around 33:43)

When I was around middle school age, I used to volunteer sometimes down at the nursing home in my hometown. I don’t remember now if it was for school or church or Girl Scouts or whatever, but a few other kids and I would go down every so often and play cards and other games with the residents. 

There was one woman I played cards with on several occasions – let’s call her Bev (it was so long ago now that I don’t actually remember her real name anymore). Bev was a friendly, chatty woman; she liked to play Kings in the Corner and she had some pretty pronounced dementia. She asked me lots of questions about my life, curious to get to know me better, and I would answer her – I told her all about school, about my art projects and my love for reading, and about playing softball in the summertime. But as we talked, I noticed that she’d ask me a question, and then a few minutes would go by, and then she’d ask the same thing again – sometimes two or three more times. As a kid, that was new to me; I’d never encountered it before.

The day I told her I played softball, I think she asked me probably half a dozen times: “Are you on Richie’s team?” And each time, I kept replying, “No. I have no idea who Richie even is!” Until finally, I just said, “Okay, sure. Yes. I’m on Richie’s team.” “Ah, that’s nice,” she said, “He’s a nice boy, that Richie.” And I said, “Sure, yep. A very nice boy.” And then she finally moved on to a new question! It was kind of like she had already decided in her head the story that she wanted to hear, and she would just keep asking me questions over and over until I gave her the “right” answer.

Continue reading “Sermon: If You Don’t Know, Now You Know”

Sermon: Water Water Everywhere

Sunday, January 8, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Baptism of Our Lord
watch this service online (readings start around 17:36; sermon starts around 23:44)

Over the weekend, I got the chance to really give my house-blessing muscles a workout, haha. You may have seen the little Facebook Live video I shot on Friday, in which I blessed our house of worship here – or if not, you probably noticed the chalk blessing over the front doorway as you came in this morning. The practice of chalking this inscription over the door of a house is a form of house blessing that Christians have been practicing for centuries. I also did a blessing of the parsonage in the same way.

But Friday evening, we went all out with the blessing. My friends Jacob and Coco just moved into the parsonage house for Jacob’s first call, down by Lincoln; and on Friday they invited a bunch of clergy friends and several members of the congregation over to the house, and they asked me to lead them in a special service of blessing. We did the traditional door chalking, of course. But one of the gifts of our very liturgical ELCA tradition is that we actually have a much, much fuller and longer service of house blessing that we used for the occasion. In this service, you don’t stop at just blessing the house as a whole; you actually go through and bless each individual part of the house from top to bottom – everywhere from the front door to the mud room to wherever it is your pets hang out. 

Continue reading “Sermon: Water Water Everywhere”

Sermon: Choosing Radical Love

Sunday, December 18, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday of Advent
watch this service online (gospel reading starts around 26:44; sermon starts around 28:18 (audio was weird and skippy for some reason this day))

Thomas Anderson was a regular guy, just living his life. He worked in a mid-level job as a computer programmer, and pretty much every day for him was just get up, go to work, come home, go to bed, repeat. The spiciest thing about him was that he enjoyed hacking in his spare time. But one day, in the midst of his mundane life, Thomas is approached by a couple of mysterious people who tell him that basically everything he thinks he knows about the world is a lie – that there is much, much more to the reality of this world than what he has known.

One of the two people he meets, a man named after the Greek god of dreams, offers him a choice – two different pills that he can take: a blue pill that will return him to his life as he’s known it, where he can forget any of this ever happened; or a red pill that will wake him up to see the world around him as it truly is.

Most of you have probably clocked by now that I’m talking about the late 90s hit movie The Matrix. Heh, it’s not at all the most up-to-the-minute pop culture reference, but it’s still a great story. Thomas Anderson – AKA Neo – is pulled out of his ordinary life and “down the rabbit hole.” This choice he makes draws him into this whole epic adventure he could never have imagined.

Nowadays, this whole idea of being “red-pilled” has taken on some really unfortunate associations in popular culture, not intended by the filmmakers. But this is still a powerful scene. And I find that this choice that Neo makes resonates with our gospel reading for this morning in some interesting ways.

Continue reading “Sermon: Choosing Radical Love”

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