Knocking in the Night

A sermon originally delivered at Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, Wisconsin

Text: John 3:1-17

Jesus and Nicodemus by Crijn Hendricksz, 1616–1645

I’m not much of a night person, but I wish that I were. Night time is enchanting. While the day-dwellers go to sleep, another world awakes, both people and animals. While we often think that it is only malice that is active at night — after all, I was always told that “nothing good happens after midnight” — this is not necessarily the case.

After seminary and before I came to Wisconsin, I worked third shift at a grocery/general merchandise store, comparable to Walmart. It was an interesting collection of people who come in the middle of the night.

Those who work second shift would run some errands before going home.

Weary parents come for cough and cold medicine for sick children who struggle through the night.

Those who could not sleep, those who are lonely, those who worry.

Regularly through the weeks, the common prayer was continually in my mind,

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep…

Not just for me, but for all those who passed through the doors.

Night is a time of secrets, of concealment. Night is when crimes are oft committed, but so much more. Night shrouded the underground railroad so that they could continue to move escaped slaves from places of bondage to places of freedom.

Nighttime provides a degree of strength and safety for those escaping abusive relationships. Night provided an opportunity for the ancient people of God to escape from slavery in Egypt.

Night is the place where the waking world and the dream world meet, and it is at this time that a man, a teacher of the law, a religious scholar, a rabbi comes to Jesus. We don’t know why exactly he comes at night. Maybe he is afraid of repercussions if people see him, maybe he was afraid of judgement, perhaps he finally was able to work up courage or strength to do something like this after the sun faded and the shadows grew. When we read about the Jews in the New Testament, particularly the gospels, so often we assume bad things. We assume that there is always malintent, and perhaps we can even have this tendency with Nicodemus.

However, nothing at all suggests that he had any malintent at all. In fact, I think that Nicodemus was quite genuine.


In this space, surrounded by darkness, a single lamp casting a dim light throughout the house, the two men leaning toward one another, not quite whispering, but keeping their voices down as so often happens at night even when there are no prying ears.

Nicodemus looks intently at Jesus, this teacher who has already caused so much upheaval, at least in John’s account of the good news of Jesus, the flame flickering, and not quite knowing how to put his questions into words, takes a deep breath and the words come out,

“We know that you are teacher who has come from God, we can see it from the things that you do, no one can do them without the presence of God.”

But before he could get his whole thought out, before he could get to what he was truly getting at, before he could reveal the reason for his visit, Jesus responds somewhat enigmatically.

“…no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Interestingly, in the still darkness of night, Nicodemus did not ask about entering the kingdom of God, in fact, he didn’t ask anything at all. So why would Jesus respond in this way?

Perhaps Nicodemus came to Jesus seeking after that which Jesus had, that which he exhibited. Perhaps Jesus could see in his eyes that which he truly desired, the reason that he came knocking in the dark.

This statement appears to perplex Nicodemus. After all, who, after being born and old, can go back into their mother’s womb to be reborn again? In this late-night discussion, they appear to be missing one another in the conversation, speaking past one another.

Jesus then goes on and speaks of nature, and how the whole person, not just a part of a person, how the whole person, body and mind needs renewal and restoration. And if this isn’t confusing enough, Jesus continues,

‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

Jesus, of course, is not trying to argue for the existence of God, which we so often misuse this scripture for, but he is speaking too about the fact that the movements of the Spirit can be seen in the renewal and transformation, not of souls, but of lives. Rather than trying to argue Nicodemus into believing something, he is trying to help Nicodemus to understand what he is saying. But rather than bringing clarity, it simply brings more confusion.

The old man nicodemus, still not quite understanding, furrows his eyebrows,  and rubs his forehead as he tries to understand the dialogue that is in progress. Until finally, he looks up and responds, with, essentially, “Wait…what?”


I love to picture Nicodemus, someone was pretty sure that he had things figured out, this well known and well respected person, who went to visit Jesus at night, and was left scratching his head.

It is wonderful because, even though we like to think of ourselves as more enlightened than Nicodemus (after all, we throw around the phrase “born again” so often with so little explanation that it means almost nothing by this point), but I think that his response wonderful because it is the response that we, so often, find on our lips.

Today is is the day known by the church in the West as Trinity Sunday. So often on Trinity Sunday, ministers attempt at explaining away the mystery of the Trinity, that we worship one God in three distinct but unified co-eternal persons. So often we resort to common but grossly inadequate analogies, which often teach the old misunderstandings that the church declared to be not okay.

You know what I’m talking about. Water is liquid, solid, and gas. An egg is made up of a shell, an egg, and a yolk. I’m, at the same time, a husband, a son, and a pastor. And the analogies to on. So often, however, these serve to further confuse the issue rather than bring clarity, and no real understanding of the Triune God is gained.

But here, here we do not have neat and tidy explanations. Here we do not have an egg or the three states of water. Here we are surrounded with the mystery of the divine, with that which is beyond our abilities to comprehend. And here is the irony. Learning is important, we are to love God with our hearts and our minds. We cannot be satisfied with an uninformed piety. However, we cannot become so confident in our learning that we think that we have figured things out, that we have figured God out. The moment that we find ourselves in this place, we become like Nicodemus, shifting in our seats, scratching our heads, and trying to understand what is going on.

This is the freeing, and at times frustrating, thing about faith, that we are to learn, we are to study, and to grow in our knowledge of God and the things of God. But we are also to always be ready to sit in awe and wonder before the mystery of God, always being willing to be challenged in our understandings.

And so we are called by the triune God, we are called to a renewal, a restoration. We are not called to “accept Christ as our personal Lord and savior” whatever that means, we are invited to a complete and total renewal, inside and out. Water and Spirit, Jesus says. Outside and in, visible and invisible.

But how does this happen, we ask? It is a mystery, Jesus says to us, with one of those reassuring and comforting smiles.

But the beauty is that we don’t have to ultimately figure out the entirety of this mystery with our minds, we don’t have to be able to wrap our minds around it. Nicodemus came to Jesus in the night, in the space between days. And it is in this dark that he has a close encounter of the divine kind. And perhaps we find ourselves in a similar space. A place that seems dark, a place where we cannot see. A place where we may feel alone, and we too can be confident of the presence of God in that space.


Up from the grave


The Three Marys at the Tomb (Van Eyck)

Sermon originally delivered on April 5, 2015 at Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI. Text: Matthew 28:1-10

So often we find ways to sanitize death. Often times, death happens in a hospital or some other facility. The family may or may not be there and may or may not witness the death itself. But for the ancients, death happened at home. Everyone saw it, saw the events that would precede and accompany death.

Death was a reality for the ancients, even more than it is for us.

Death was, and is, inevitable. Death is a result of decay. The world decays. Bodies decay. Death is often not something intentional, it just happens. In the end, decay seems to always win. No one can escape the looming shadow of death which, in our experience, consumes everything. Even Jesus did not escape the reality of death.

In the gospels, Jesus died. It was not that he appeared to die, it is not that the human side of Jesus died. Jesus died. Dead. In the tomb for a couple of days. Rigor mortis had already set in as his body began decomposing.


A few days before, the heart monitor went flat with the long steady tone which signals the ending of a heartbeat. Breathing stopped. Had be been in a hospital, a physician would have called the time of death to be written on his death certificate. He was placed in a tomb and the tomb was sealed.

Yet, he had previously told them that he would die and rise again. Although, I can imagine that they would have believed it in such a way that we would believe it if someone told us that they will die and then rise from the dead. Sure. Nothing — nothing — escapes the grip of death.

But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. In Mark’s and Luke’s version, they brought spices, but no mention of this is made in Matthew. We are simply told that they went to see the tomb, their eyes still red and puffy from crying, the taste of the salty tears still on their lips. Why did they want to see the tomb? Perhaps as with Mark and Luke they came to anoint the body with spices. Perhaps they were coming to grieve and pay respects as we often do in cemeteries. Perhaps they came to see if this words were true, that he would rise from the dead. Making their way out of the city limits of the day they came to the place where he was buried.

But suddenly, the earth shook, they could see an angel appear, roll back the stone, and sit on it, his work being completed. His clothes were so bright, they shone like the sun, they could barely look at the angel. I can imagine that perhaps they didn’t even know what that bright light was. The Roman guards who were placed there, probably to ensure that no one would steal the body and claim he rose from the dead, they were so surprised, so shocked, so afraid that fainted. The women, however, did not have the same experience.

And as they shield their eyes with their hands, peering through a crack in their fingers, the angels speaks to them with the familiar, comforting, and confident words of God’s messengers. “Do not be afraid.”

“I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”

The angel offers an invitation and an instruction.

Come and see, the angel invites. Come and see the place where he lay. Come inside the tomb. Come inside the place from which people are not supposed to leave. Come and see the place that houses death, come and see the place where the door is to only swing one way, but has swung both ways. Come and see the place where he lay, the place which is now empty. The angel invites them to come and see, to have an experience.

But this is not it. The angel then tells them to go and tell. Go from this graveyard, go from this place of the dead. After all, they no longer have a purpose there, they no longer have a reason to be there. No longer are they to look for Jesus in the place of the dead, but amongst the land of the living.

Go and tell the disciples what has happened, go and tell them that he is not here. Go and tell them that death did not have the final say. Go and tell and decay is not the ruler of creation, go and tell them that the inevitable is not necessarily the inevitable. Go and tell them what has happened and that he is going ahead of you to Galilee, and there you will see him.


This is an old story, an old, old story. One which many of us have heard all our lives. Others of us have heard this story for many years. We are all familiar with it. So why do we tell it over and over again? Why do we tell it clearly every year at this time, and who do we speak about it so often?

This is about one person, but it is not about one person. This is about Jesus, but it is also about all of creation.

What is so amazing about the resurrection of Jesus is not just that one man who was dead became alive again, the amazing thing about this is that it shifts the whole created order. Perhaps the earthquake was symbolic of the shaking of the foundations of the broken order.

Death is a door which swings one way, the tomb is a place from which there is no return, decay is the force that nothing or no one can stop or thwart. But with the resurrection of Christ, these things which are constants, do not seem to necessarily be constant any longer. No longer does death or decay write the script or run the drama of life. Indeed, God writes the script and directs the drama of life. Death does not have the final word, decay is not the final movement, the tomb is not the place from which there is no escape.

Jesus’ resurrection is a foretaste of the resurrection which we shall experience at the end of all things, when Christ returns to redeem all things, when the broken order is returned to a perfection which even exceeds the original order.

Even though we experience death, death does not have the final answer. Jesus experienced death, and death did not have the final answer. In our experience, there is no return from death, but there is more to existence than our experience. Death is not ultimately the end point, but on the final day, God will raise us, too, from the grave, just as God raised Jesus from the grave.

The rules are different, that which is assumed is to be questioned. Not only was Jesus not there, but he was going on ahead of the disciples to Galilee, and there he would meet them.


The resurrection is the sign that creation has begun its process of restoration and redemption. The resurrection of Christ ushered in the kingdom of God which starts small and slowly begins to encompass everything. It is a transformation which begun at this moment and will continue until the final consummation when all of creation will be redeemed, and God reaches out God’s hand and raises up the faithful to the glorious rest after a life well-lived.

But this hope is not just something for after death, it is something which impacts our lives here and now.

The Marys were not just told to come and see, they were not just told to think and believe, they were told to come and see and then go and tell. Go and tell the disciples what has happened, and that I will be going ahead of them into Galilee.

Jesus was going ahead of them, and he will meet them there.

And we find ourselves in this position too. Christ has been raised, but this is not just something that we just think about and use to cheer ourselves.  Truly this is good news, we must remember that. Christ has conquered the powers — Christ has conquered death. Christ has overcome decay.

And because Christ has been raised we can continue to heed Christ’s call to follow, while Christ goes ahead of us. Christ calls us to follow along the way, loving God and loving others. Showing forth grace and mercy. Living into the redemption which God is effecting.

Come and see, go and tell. I’m going ahead of you.


We have journeyed through the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the death of Good Friday, the silent emptiness of Holy Saturday, and now life on Easter Sunday.

Far from simply just focusing after-death, today is the reason that we can wave our fists in defiant protest in front of death and proclaim with St. Paul, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55)

Death has been swallowed up in victory. Death has been swallowed up in victory. We, then, are called to live like it, and Christ goes ahead of us.


The unfair mercy of God

Sermon originally delivered at Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI. Text: Matthew 20:1-16

“It’s not fair!” I would protest.

I am the oldest of three boys, and as is typical for siblings, and perhaps especially older children, I was hyper-aware to perceived unfairness.  It is almost this primal preservation instinct, that we have to compete in order to gain the things we need to survive. Of course, I was not arguing for something crucial for my survival, it was always something comparably trivial. 

This often happened when the two of us would fight, and we would both be punished. “But I didn’t start it!” I would say. “It takes two to fight,” they would reply. “But it’s not fair!” I would protest. “Life isn’t fair” would come the reply. 

These words would come to me regularly, “Life isn’t fair.”

As a child I never really understood what they were getting at, but as an adult I understand, and I am learning more and more with each passing year. We like to think that the way that we do things is fair. If you do the right things, you will be successful. If you are good at your job you won’t find yourself unemployed. Except this isn’t the way things work. Fantastic workers find themselves unemployed. People with college degrees find themselves in living a homeless shelter. People who live within their means can still find a foreclosure notice come through the mail. But we live in a society that has the illusion of fairness, and we hold up fairness as the peak virtue. But life isn’t fair, as my parents reminded me so often. Life isn’t fair.

And here we have a story which, if we are honest, rubs us the wrong way. It is a story which is unfair, incredibly so.

Jesus begins his parable with, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”

The kingdom of heaven is like a farmer who went out early in the morning to the town square, the marketplace, the place where day laborers gathered to wait for work. 

This story reminds me of John. John was a day laborer. Every day he would get up at four in the morning so that he could catch the bus, if he was able, or walk the few miles to the agency so that he could be there at five to try to find work that day. He would never know if there would be work, some days he would work. Other days he would go home without work. It is a true hand-to-mouth life. In many ways, this is not that much different today as it was then. Day laborers would gather at a central location and hope that someone would come and hire them.

So this landowner needs helpers, so he goes and finds some to work. The day goes on and he sees that he will need more workers and so he goes back, and finds people who had still not been hired, and so he hired them as well. He does this again, and again. He goes back in late in the day, one hour before the work day was done and finds more people there. “Why are you here?” he asks. We cannot see the world “idle” and think lazy.

These people needed work so badly they stayed there in the off-chance that someone would come and hire them. “Why are you here?” he asks them. “Because no one has hired us,” they reply. So he hires them and they come to work in his vineyard.

As is typical, by the time that the day is over, it comes time to get paid. It would have been typical to begin with the people who were there first, and pay them first, as it is only fair. But the landowner does not do this, he starts with those hired last, and he gives them a Denarius, a full day’s wage. I can only imagine how excited the people down the line must have felt. Perhaps they were calculating in their head. Maybe I would get five, six, maybe even ten denarii. 

He moves to those who had been there a few hours, and gives them also a denarius. I can imagine at this point people would begin to wonder exactly what is going on.

By the time that he came to the first to be paid, and he gave them also the day’s wage.

But it’s not fair! they protested. They only worked an hour and we worked all day in the heat and the sun, and you paid them the same as us! The landowner reminds them that he paid them what he promised, and that he chose to pay others the same. After all, they too have families to feed and mortgages to pay. 

You see, from the perspective of those trying desperately to find work but no one hiring them, but for the last hour of the day, this landowner was being merciful. But from the perspective of those who had labored all day, he was being unjust. They had worked longer, they deserved to be paid more. It isn’t fair. And it is true, it isn’t fair.

And I think that this is what bends our noses about this passage. Even though the first ones hired were paid what they were promised, no less, this fundamentally isn’t fair. People should get what they deserve, and what they receive should be in proportion to what they do, right? 


 This parable, like so many others, functions as a mirror for us. When we think we are on top we plead for fairness, but when we think that we are an underdog, we plead for mercy. When I’ve put in the long day under the sweltering heat, I want fairness, but when no one wants to hire me, and the weight of providing for my family weighs on my shoulders and I stay out, desperately hoping that someone will hire me, I prefer mercy.

I wonder, where might you see yourself in this parable? Are you one of the first laborers hired who worked long hours under the hot sun. Perhaps you are the one who found themselves fortunate enough to be hired, even as it seemed as though there might not be a place.

Perhaps you compare what is given to you with what is given to the others and find that you are left wanting. Perhaps you are so overwhelmed with gratitude at the mercy of the landowner.

Perhaps you can see yourself in both groups of workers. In fact, this is often the case, that we can find ourselves in not only one character but several, and from those different perspectives we can see things a bit differently, and we can learn more about what it says about who we are and who God is and who we are in relationship to God.


The most shocking lesson that we learn from this is that God isn’t fair. We like the idea of a fair God. We like the idea that we can choose what to do, or not to do. We like the idea that God will give us what we deserve, and reward us in proportion. But God is not fair, and this is a good thing. Why is it good? Because if God gave to us what we deserve we would be in trouble, we would never enter the kingdom of heaven, we would be lost. God is not fair, and this is the best news that one can learn. God is not fair, but God is merciful and gracious.

This landowner did not have to pay everyone a full day’s wage, but he chose to. Those who worked the longest were not cheated or shorted, they were given what was due to them. But the wideness of the landowner’s mercy showed when he gave to everyone what they needed.

The kingdom of heaven is like…a vineyard where God calls so many people and provides for their needs. This is a marvelous view of the kingdom of heaven, isn’t it?

But this is not just for that some point in the distant future. Indeed, Jesus preaches that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and we know that the kingdom of heaven began with the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and is slowly unfolding, slowly continuing its progress of renewing and redeeming all of creation until the final consummation, when all things will be made right.

So, Jesus is not telling this parable to tell people about heaven, Jesus is telling this parable to help them understand about their lives here and now as well, and what God desires of their lives. And so I wonder as well if there is a third role in which we can find ourselves, that of the landowner.

Jesus was not about saving souls but redeeming lives. Jesus is not interested in getting people into heaven when they die, but about transforming creation to reflect the original created order, and perhaps the land owner is a role for some of us to consider, to not be so concerned about fairness, but about mercy and grace. As a culture we are obsessed with fairness, because this is what we think to be the highest virtue — and we cannot even do this. But for followers of Christ, fairness is not the goal, fairness is the beginning point, fairness is crawling. Mercy and grace — this is what it is to walk. Mercy is fairness-plus-plus.

So, sisters and brothers, let us remember that God is merciful beyond comprehension, thankfully not dealing with us the way that we deserve, but dealing with us out of God’s immense love for us and for creation, giving us far more than we deserve or can earn. And let us remember that we, as the church, are called to be a foretaste for the kingdom of heaven, and that we, too, are called to show forth mercy and grace, and through our actions, others can see God.


Bring Me Your Nothing

Sermon originally delivered to Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI. Text: Matthew 14:13-21


Jesus caught word that John the Baptist had been executed, complete with his head presented on a platter.

We may assume that Jesus was grieved as the gospel writer records that Jesus went off to be by himself. Much of the story of Jesus was him going off by himself and the crowds following him. So, when they heard this, they followed him. Jesus was quite popular at the time, and everyone wanted to hear him speak and for him to heal people who needed healing. Jesus took a boat, and when he came ashore, he saw the crowds, and while he may not have been thrilled about having them there — after all, he was trying to have some alone time, we are told that he had “compassion for them and cured their sick.”

Jesus stayed until evening and at that point, the disciples begin to worry because they had a large crowd of people and it was getting late, and these people needed dinner. I’m not sure if you have been around a mass of hungry people when there isn’t any food, but it is not a pretty sight. So the disciples do the prudent thing and ask Jesus to send people home so that they can get their own food. Sounds reasonable, right?

“Not so fast,” Jesus says, “they don’t have to go anywhere, you ought to give them something to eat.”

Can you imagine the feeling that disciples must have had? They have a responsibility to these people, and they simply don’t have enough, and what are they supposed to do? So they look around them, find all that they have — and find that they only have enough for them, it doesn’t really amount to anything at all, so they may as well not even have that.

“We have nothing,” they replied to Jesus shrugging their shoulders with their voices dropping, “nothing except these five loaves and two fish.”

Perhaps we may expect that Jesus would look to the ground, figure that it wouldn’t be enough, and finally do the prudent thing and send them away to get their own food. “That’s not enough,” we may expect Jesus to say, “go and find more food for them.” But he doesn’t, he tells them to bring them to him, to bring him the bread and the fish, but also because the word “nothing” is so emphatic, he asks him to bring their nothing to him.

So they bring their meager offerings, their not enough, their nothing to him.

And it is when Jesus has these items that they become more than simply the sum of their parts.

Bring them to me. Bring me your nothing.

I can imagine that they also would have had a bit of stage fright, feeling on the spot with over five thousand people looking at them — five thousand hungry people, hungry for food, yes, but also hungry for something more, perhaps something which they cannot even name. So many people looking to them for direction, that they begin to focus on what they lack. They don’t have enough, they can’t feed everyone, they focus on scarcity.

We hear this from the world constantly. So much is done based on what we don’t have, what we lack, what we are short of. The ever-present — “We don’t have enough money” and so we make our decisions based upon what we don’t have rather than what we have. Our vision, our values, are principles, these all come from a perspective of scarcity.

Jesus said to them, “you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here… but five loaves and two fish.’”

This also infects the church as well. We don’t have enough money, we don’t have enough members, we don’t have enough energy, we don’t have enough resources, our building isn’t big enough, we can’t do enough, we can’t be enough.

“We have nothing here…but five loaves and two fish.”

This is a part of who we are. We so often live out of scarcity. But just because it is nature does not mean that it is good. Jesus never operates out of a theology of scarcity, but always abundance, not necessarily an abundance of material things, but an abundance of the goodness of God. While this may seem to be semantics, the framework from which we operate drastically impacts how we live out our faith. The disciples were focused on what they lacked — We have nothing but these few loaves of bread and a couple fish. They began with what they didn’t have rather than what they did have.

Jesus, however, began with a theology of abundance, Jesus began with what they had, with the gifts that God had provided, meager as they were. The disciples never would have thought that what they had would have made any difference whatsoever, after all, they reported to Jesus that they have nothing. But Jesus saw that maybe, just maybe, those five loaves and two fish are more than simply the sum of their parts. And it is in this space, this beginning with the abundance of God, whatever form it may come — it is in this space that the miraculous becomes possible.


At our church, I wonder, do we operate from a place of scarcity? Do we begin with our not enough money or not enough people or not enough energy or not enough time? Or do we begin with the abundance of God, even if it is not made manifest in a way that appears to be abundant?

Now, this isn’t some sort of naïve optimism, or some sort of power of positive thinking. This is rooted in the hope that the body of Christ is more than just the sum of its parts.

When we operate from a perspective of scarcity, we often lose sight of the gifts that God has given, and we begin to think like the disciples — we have nothing.

But Jesus calls us to bring what we have, even if we think that it is nothing, even if it is meager, or not enough, even if we think that it cannot amount to anything.

The disciples said that they had nothing and Jesus asked them to bring it to him, and when God is involved, things are more than just the sum of their parts. Are people going to miraculously appear or time be multiplied? Maybe, but most likely not. But maybe our nothing isn’t really nothing at all, but perhaps it is the very stuff that God will use to accomplish God’s purposes.


The disciples focused on what they lacked, while Jesus focused on what they had, and in the end, the people were fed.

Sisters and brothers, as we go about our life together as a church, let us strive to operate from a theology of abundance — abundance of God’s gifts, God’s grace, God’s mercy — rather than from a theology of scarcity focusing on what we lack. When we come from a perspective of scarcity, we will never have enough, but when we come from a perspective of abundance, in Christ we are enough.

Sisters and brothers, over five thousand people were fed from five loaves of bread and two fish. If God can do this, certainly God can do great things with us and what we bring. Instead of looking around and seeing what we lack, let us bring what we have, and what we lack to Jesus, and allow him to do with it, things beyond our imagination.


The Siren Song of Success

We are driven by success. We dream of it, we strive for it, we sacrifice our families and our friends and our lives on the altar of success. This is no less the case in the church. We strive to be successful clergy. But what is success? If we are successful our churches will grow larger with more and more people. If we are successful, we will be highlighted as a model for other churches. If we are successful we will present at conferences and write books and perhaps have a blog which goes viral.

But success is a siren song.

An industry has been built around success and our thirst for it. Books are written, conferences are held, speakers are hired. Their ultimate goal is to show us that we are unsuccessful and offer success as something attainable.

“If it’s living it’s growing!” I heard a speaker exclaim to a room full of ministers and elders. The speaker was, of course, speaking of numerical growth. The implication is that big churches are alive and small churches are dead.

Our drive for success is only one side of the coin, the other is discontentment. Discontentment with the ordinary, discontentment with being one among many, discontentment with being a face in the crowd.

But scripture never gives us success as a value or a goal.

“‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,'” Jesus says, “‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:3)

Not only the poor in spirit, but those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure in heart, the merciful, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

To be sure, this is not a collection of successful people.

Blessed are the unsuccessful. 

The siren song of success is loud and nearly irresistible to those who come near it.  But when we find ourselves overcome by the song, we are unlikely to be able to see what is around us. In our pursuit of success, we see everything else as unsuccessful. The church doesn’t continually gain members, therefore it is unsuccessful. The preacher may not have the charisma to gain a following, therefore they are unsuccessful.

In my corner of the Bible Belt, our response to the last throes of the death of Christendom has been this cult of success. When our churches began declining in membership we turned toward church growth to find our salvation, and we labelled big churches and pastors of big churches successful, and all others unsuccessful.


I know well the siren song of success. I have fallen prey to its melody, and I try to resist. I try to resist not because success is bad, but because success is not the point. When we are overwhelmed by the siren song, we forget about the ordinary people in ordinary communities who are following Jesus in their ordinary ways. In our drive for success we have professional musicians, but have left out those who are growing in their abilities. In our drive for success we have made our worship services well scripted productions, and have left a majority of the congregation feeling inadequate to participate in leadership. In our drive for success we hold up big churches as faithful, and dismiss small churches as unfaithful. In our drive for success we have forgotten that our calling is not to be successful, or radical or extraordinary, but to be gloriously ordinary in our faith and life. Doing our ordinary things in ordinary ways.


To be sure Jesus wasn’t a success. Of course, he had a following, but when the going got tough, everyone disappeared, and even Peter couldn’t bring himself to admit to knowing him. He was eventually executed, which is certainly not a mark for success. But what we have seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is that what we understand to be success really isn’t. The last will be first, and the first last (Mt 20:16) and all that.

We love terms like “radical” and “extraordinary” and “success” but the truth is, Jesus came into the world in an ordinary fashion to live with ordinary people to show them that ordinary is not bad, in fact, perhaps ordinary life, ordinary faith, ordinary communities are the very seeds of redemption.


Leaning into the Wilderness

The Temptation of Christ, Simon Bening

A Sermon originally delivered to Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI

Text: Matthew 4:1-17

Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, the claim from the heavens that Jesus is God’s son, Jesus is led to the wilderness to be tempted.

While we may see these as different events, they are all tied together in one long narrative by the gospel writer to show Jesus’ identity as the Son of God.

The wilderness has a significant role in the story of scripture.

One day Moses was caring for the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, and he led them through the wilderness, to the far side. It is there that he sees, out of the corner of his eye, a bush that was on fire but did not appear to be consumed, and Moses thought to himself, I need to step aside, take a detour from where I am headed, and see this amazing sight. And it is here that God spoke to Moses and changed the history of the people of God.

As the people of God made their way to safety from oppression and slavery, they ended up spending 40 years in the wilderness as they learned what it meant to be the people of God. The desert was a time of challenge and temptation, but also grace and revelation. It was through this time that the people of God learned what it meant to be the people of God, not only for them, but also for future generations as they passed on these stories.

After the showdown with the priests of Ba’al at the two altars, Elijah gets word that he is going to die, and he goes into the wilderness and sits down beneath a solitary tree and asks to die. For forty days and nights he passes through the wilderness until he reaches mount Horeb, or Sinai, and there he meets God and he is given a new mission from God.

And it is in the wilderness that Jesus is led immediately following this statement by God. Until now, Jesus doesn’t really do much, he doesn’t gather disciples, he doesn’t teach, he doesn’t do miracles. These forty days in the wilderness is Jesus’ preparation as he, perhaps, learns as well. After all, Jesus was fully God, but also fully human.

Just as Jesus’ baptism is an extension of the epiphany to the Magi, his time in the wilderness is an extension of his baptism, the preparation for his ministry.

Jesus fasted for forty days, was tempted by the tempter and resisted and the angels came and waited on him. Just when we think things will let up a bit he leaves the desert and goes home to Nazareth to learn that John the Baptizer has been arrested. He leaves home and settles northeast by the Sea of Galilee in a village called Capernaum.


The temptation story also shows us what kind of redeemer, what type of king, what type of leader he will be. Even at his weakest moment, he will not embrace power, but will turn it down. He will let nothing stand between him and his mission. It is a mission which began in turmoil and will end in death, and ultimately a resurrection. Jesus does not exist for his own benefit, but for the benefit of others. He will not turn stones into bread for him to eat, but later in the story he will multiply bread for the people to eat. He will not take power over everything for himself, but he will offer the Kingdom of Heaven to those who follow him in righteousness.

The Gospel writer notes early on that he will be called Emmanuel, that is, God with us (Mt 1:23), and this shows how Jesus is with us, not only in terms of space, but also in terms of identification. Jesus not only lived among us, but could identify with us. Neither Jesus’ heritage, nor his identity, nor his calling would keep him from the experience of  humanity, from the experience of life, the good and the bad, the highs and the lows, the joys and the pains.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, but without sin. (Heb. 4:15).

This is a transformative experience for Jesus, and one which will stay with him throughout his ministry. Indeed, throughout his ministry, Jesus will face temptations of various sorts, including the temptation to cut and run when his arrest and death was imminent. But this time of preparation in the desert, this will help him to understand his mission and to what he is called.


As God’s people we too are led into wilderness experiences. Not necessarily a physical wilderness, but a spiritual wilderness. We may not be abstaining from food, our wilderness experiences often make us feel a hunger, a deep hunger, as though we are not being nourished as we ought. It is a time of loneliness, isolation, fear, longing, hunger.

The wilderness experience of the ancient people of God was not a result of rejection by God, but rather, because they were God’s people. Jesus’ wilderness experience is not a result of rejection by God, but rather an extension of being claimed by God.

So often we may think that our wilderness experiences may be a result of rejection by or a turning away by God but perhaps this may not always be the case. Perhaps it is a part of being God’s people, perhaps it is a time to help us learn what it means to be God’s people, and perhaps these wilderness experiences help us understand what it means to be claimed by God.

But the best part about this is that we do not enter into these wilderness experiences alone, Jesus joins us in these wilderness experiences. Jesus joins us in the solitude, in the loneliness, in the hunger, in the thirst. Jesus joins us in the struggle and striving with God. Before Jesus leaves the people after his resurrection he promises to them, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). and this is a promise that holds true today, a promise that holds true for you and for me. That even in these barren and lonely and hard times, we do not trod them alone, but we trod them with Jesus, who went through these experiences himself while on earth.

Therefore, sisters and brothers, the wilderness is a part of life with God, a part of struggling and striving with God. In the wilderness lies growth, learning, an epiphany even, if we live into the wilderness experiences into which we may be led. But we do not enter into the wilderness alone. Many times we have other members of the body of Christ who can journey with us if we allow it.  But even more, we have Jesus who has walked in our shoes, who has lived a life like ours, who has experienced every piece of human life and can sympathize with us.


One Word for 2015: Wonder

Into the water


Few things are more beautiful than to see a person filled with wonder. More often than not it is children that experience this sense of wonder when faced with a world that they are still trying to understand.

The capacity to experience wonder is the capacity to be surprised, to be amazed, to understand that there is something worth noticing in the world. In my own experience, my capacity for wonder has decreased with age, perhaps I am not alone in this. As a child, the moon followed me, but as an adult, it is simply large and ever-present. As a child, a second grade classroom blackboard could be the screen of the starship Enterprise and I was the helmsman, but as an adult it is simply the blackboard of a second grade classroom. As a child, snow was a magical gift, but as an adult it is simply ice crystals which form when the weather is sufficiently cold.

I am glad that I understand more than I did as a child, however, my struggle is that my capacity for wonder has drastically decreased, and more often than not, I function as a workhorse with blinders so as not to be distracted from the corner of my eye.

But it is distraction and wonder which saved God’s people from slavery in Egypt, as Moses noticed a curious sight: a bush that was burning but was not consumed, and decided to take a closer look at this strange and surprising sight. What would have happened had Moses simply kept his head down and focused on his work? What would have happened had he not had the capacity for wonder and allowed that wonder to take the driver’s seat, if only for a few moments? Surely God would have still effected the liberation of God’s people, but the story would certainly read differently.


My entries here have been relatively sparse over the past year, partly because of things going on in my life, but also partly because I have been struggling with my own capacity for wonder. It is so easy to operate in life without experiencing life. When I don’t notice, when I don’t wonder, I find it hard to write. But even more, I find it hard to see something which causes me to step aside and experience wonder, to see the presence of God in the periphery.


This year, I have chosen a word for this new year, something which has been relatively popular as of late. This will give me a single word, a single concept on which to reflect during the year in my spiritual and personal growth and development. This year I will be growing my capacity for wonder — to be amazed, surprised, to notice and truly see beauty in the myriad of forms which it comes.

I look forward to exploring wonder during this year, and I hope that you will journey with me in this.

After all, it is only when we have a capacity for wonder that we can experience the omnipresence of the divine in the daily (and often mundane) activities of life.

The Deception of Carols

Silent night, holy night,
all is calm, all is bright…


O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by…


Away in a manger, no crib for his bed,
the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing; the poor baby wakes,
but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes…


Christmas carols bring a sense of calmness and stillness to this time of year. Amidst the hustle and bustle of shopping and preparing for Christmas celebrations, from running here and there trying to find sales, a Christmas carol lets us slow down, gain an inner sense of stillness. It makes us feel better, more Christmaslike, more peaceful. We adorn our churches and homes with crèches — the peaceful, holy looks on the faces of Mary and Joseph, baby Jesus with a halo around his head, the animals silently sitting by, and the magi reverently kneeling before the newborn messiah.

During the holiday season, much ink is spilled with the words, “peace,” “love,” and “joy.”

It is a nice feeling.

But Christmas carols lie.



I’m over at YALT today, come on over to read the rest…

Finding Our Way

A sermon originally delivered at Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI.

Esther 4:1-17

By now the Kingdom of Judah has been conquered and all the people of any social standing whatsoever have been taken to Babylon in a couple of deportations. The Exile was a pivotal point in the history of the people of God.

For the history of God up to this point, they have been a holy people on a pilgrimage to their holy land. They have entered into their land and eventually a temple was built. Their entire identity has been wrapped up in the connection between their identity as a people, the land that God gave to them, and the temple which sits at the highest point of the holy city. But in the exile, the people were dispersed. Not all were taken to Babylon, others stayed, but still others went north, others went south, and this marked the beginning of the Diaspora, or the dispersion. From this point on, God’s people will not be concentrated in a particular geographical location, but will be dispersed throughout the world, something that exists until the present day.

By this time, there has been another major shift in the politics of the region, and the Babylonian Empire was defeated by the Persian Empire, and their king, Cyrus the Great, had a policy of allowing those in captivity to trickle back to their homelands, after all, they are more willing subjects if they are happier.

But the captivity was not just a couple of years, it was a significant amount of time. Following the commands from God through the prophets, they put down roots, built homes, established businesses. But more than anything, they had to figure out what it meant to be God’s people while they were away from the land and the temple. What did it mean? The Hebrew world would be forever changed. Instead of holding place as the center of their faith and practice, they held the text as a center of their faith and practice. This was when rabbis and synagogues arose, this is when the Old Testament as we understood it began to take form and become committed to writing.

But when they were allowed to go home, not everyone did. People had families and homes and businesses in the places where they had been taken. So while some people did return, many remained in the diaspora, in dispersion.

Our story takes place within the Persian Empire, a few kings after Cyrus.


Ahasuerus is king and at the beginning he is hosting a banquet. The King calls for the queen Vashti to come and parade her beauty. Now, it is important for us to remember that in this context, queens had prestige, but no power. They were to be seen when the king desired, but absent every other time. They were not to speak, just be pretty. This is not okay, but this is the context in which this story arises. So the king calls for Vashti, and she says, “No.”

Well, the king is very displeased by this disobedience and he deposed Vashti as queen.

So, now the king needs another queen. The king, then, calls for beautiful women be gathered from around the empire to brought to him so that he could choose another queen. Among them is Esther, who was being raised by Mordecai, her uncle, because she was an orphan. Mordecai and his family were Jews who lived in Susa, a principal Persian city. So to make a long story short, Esther is eventually the one who wins the heart of Ahasuerus and she is made queen.

Mordecai sat at the king’s gate, which denotes that Mordecai was in a relatively close position to the king. After Mordecai uncovered a plot to kill the king, Haman was made a very high official in the empire, above all other officials. Everyone else at the king’s gate bowed down and paid homage to Haman, but Mordecai refused to do so, after all, God’s people cannot pay homage to anyone other than God.

Haman, of course, didn’t like this one bit. scripture tells us that Haman was “infuriated”. Haman was then told that Mordecai was a Jew and so Haman didn’t want to deal with Mordecai himself, and instead, he went to the king, and brought up a bunch of fear within him.

“There are people in your kingdom, throughout your kingdom, and their laws are different, they are different, their language is different, and they do not obey the laws.” Haman also promised to pay a great deal of money to the king’s treasury if he signed this law. So Haman convinced the king to let him kill all of the Jews throughout the kingdom, to purge the kingdom of these foreigners, of these immigrants, those people who speak a different language and have different customs.

So the king signs this order with his signet ring and it became a law, a law which may have been popular amongst the native Persians, but a law which was wrong and unjust nonetheless, and it was done through a process with which we are very familiar to this day.

This is what brings us to our text, Mordecai learns of this plot, tears his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes and let out a loud cry in the midst of the city, all signs of grief and mourning.

Now, Mordecai cannot go in and talk to Esther as she is the queen and he is in sackcloth, and no one in sackcloth is allowed to enter the king’s gate, so Mordecai and Esther send messages back and forth through one of the servants pledged to her services.

Mordecai wants Esther to do something to stop this, but Esther reminds Mordecai that if anyone, the queen included, approaches the king in his inner courts without being summoned, they will be killed. Mordecai responds that if this is carried out, it will come to light that she, too, is a Jew and that she will not be safe. And then Mordecai’s message ends with the very well known line, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

I can imagine that Esther had great fear and doubts within her, and likely let out a great sigh. She tells Mordecai to ask people to fast for her, as she will do for three days.

The story continues, “After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”


The Book of Esther is a unique book, in that it does not mention God by name — in any of the Hebrew words used for God. It does not speak of the burning bush or Jerusalem or the temple or deliverance from Egypt, or the law or Abraham or anything. We do not have any of the typical religious language that we associate with religiosity. Instead, we have the story about a family and a people and a king and injustice.

Esther’s people were still trying to figure out what it means to be God’s covenant people away from home, how to live out their faith in a foreign land. In the language of that great Psalm of lament, Psalm 137, they are still learning how to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. All the while they are longing for a promised Messiah, who will bring redemption to their peoples, trying to live faithfully in the time of waiting.

While the Book of Esther doesn’t mention God explicitly, God is still present. God is present in the background, God is present through Mordecai and the king choosing Esther and Esther. There are a number of coincidences in Esther, but in reality, they are the movements of God.

I think that in many ways, the book of Esther reflects our experiences. We all want to hear God’s voice in a burning bush, but very few of us will experience this. We all want to have messages from God chiseled into stone by God’s hand atop the mountain, but rarely, if ever, will we experience this. We want to hear God’s voice as clearly as it seems that Abram hears it, but very few of us will have this experience. We want to be able to do something big, like stand in front of Pharaoh, call “Let my people go” and lead them through two walls of water into freedom, but very few of us will have this role.  Instead, we have our ordinary lives filled with ordinary people trying to figure out what it means to be a the people of God, trying to live out our faith in a land where the overarching culture doesn’t hold the same religious convictions. We try to live out our faith remembering that the messiah has come, but looking forward to the time in which the messiah’s work will be complete, when justice and peace and wholeness and true harmony will reign. When sickness and death and crying and pain will be no more. When there will be no more hunger, when there will be no more gap between the rich and the poor, when there will be no one on the margins, when we will not have to talk about another unarmed black man getting killed by white police officers, because we will neither be prejudiced or colorblind, but we will appreciate the diversity of the palette with which God created us.


As we think about living out our faith, as we think about God’s command to feed the hungry, welcome the immigrant, clothe the naked, release the prisoners, and so on, we so often ask ourselves, “what can I do? the problem is so big?”

In Esther, we see people just doing what they can. Mordecai speaks to Esther, and Esther, although reluctant at first, sets aside her fear, and even though she is breaking the law and may perish, she stands before power to work for justice. Everyone does their part, and with God’s assistance in the process, their efforts become more than the sum of their parts. While it is likely that none of our efforts will bring forth radical and massive change, God doesn’t demand for us to do things on a grand scale. God calls for us to live out our faith, to be Christ’s hands and feet, to work for peace and justice in our lives because this is what God desires of us. And trusting that God is working in the background, we have the faith that the fruit of our labors will be more than the visible sum of its parts.

Esther’s people were strangers in a foreign land, as are we. Esther’s people were trying to figure out how to live out their faith without controlling the social structure, as do we. There was no burning bush or voice from smoke and fire. There is Esther who becomes the queen, Mordecai who is in the right place at the right time, there are a lot of coincidences in this book. Or maybe they are not coincidences, maybe they are the fingerprints of God’s action behind the scenes. So as we move through Advent, let us take a lesson from Esther, that even as we wait for the redemption that the coming of God will complete, we too cannot just throw our hands up at such a time as this, for maybe, just maybe, we are in the situation we are in for such a time as this. Perhaps this is all a part of us finding out way as we wait for redemption and restoration.

From Family Churches to Church Families

Churches love families. We have family nights, family worship, bring families up front and we have pictures of families on our websites and screens in churches. Churches ought to be a good place for families – a place to support families and strengthen them. In many of our churches, families are defined as the mid twentieth-century ideal: mom, dad, and two-and-a-half children.

But where does this leave people who don’t fit into this nuclear family ideal?

As a married person without children, people within the church often don’t know how to speak to me.

When I meet people and we exchange the traditional set of inquiries: where are you from? What do you do? We get the the dreaded question that I don’t like being asked: Do you have a family?

The exchange typically goes like this:
Me: Yes, I’m married.
Them: Do you have children?
Me: No, I don’t.

At this point, there is often a pause. Sometimes it is simply acknowledged, but other times a series of responses follow.

“Why not?”
“Not the right time?”
“Just wait for a bit.”
“Someday you will.”
“Go ahead and take your time, things change after children.”
“Children are such a joy, I hope that someday you can experience that same joy.”

In many instances it becomes clear that they are slightly uncomfortable with a Christian who has been married for nearly a decade with no children, and this is amplified by the fact that I am a pastor..

I’m at YALT. Come on over to read the rest of this post…

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