Hear the Invitation: Come

Scripture
“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ Let the hearer say, ‘Come.’ Let the one who thirsts come forward, and the one who wants it receive the gift of life-giving water” (Revelation 22:17, New American Bible).

Devotion
St. John arrives at the end of his vision and audition of the apocalypse—the revelation—of Jesus Christ. He shares the simple invitation he hears from the Spirit of Christ and from His bride, the Church: Come.
Listen. The invitation is for you and for me and for all who thirst for that life-giving water.
Come and see. Come and hear. Come and drink. Come and live.
Come and see the uncountable multitudes gathering around the throne of God the Father. Come and see the white-robed martyrs on bended knees, literally genuflecting before the Father who spoke the word that made them, the Son who died that they might live, the Spirit who anointed them that they might believe.
Come and hear the four living creatures singing an unending acclamation:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come” (Revelation 4:8b).

Come and hear every creature, all made by God, sing unceasing praises in achingly sublime harmony:

“To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever” (Revelation 5:13).

Come and drink. Drink from the clearer-than-crystal river that flows through the heavenly city. Come and drink from the water and the blood that flow commingled from the pierced side of the Son of God. Come and drink and never be thirsty again.
Come and live. Gather with all who have died and who now have been raised from death. Gather with all who died in hope that death would not speak the last word. Gather with all who have heard the living voice of the Lamb say, “Arise. Come forth from your grave. Come and live.”
Come and see. Come and hear. Come and drink. Come and live.

Questions for Reflection

  • Where in your life do you feel thirsty for God’s life-giving water?
  • How do you respond to God’s invitation to come into His presence?
  • Where do you encounter reminders of God’s promise of life-giving water?

Prayer
Father in heaven, help me to hear your invitation to come to you, to come and to drink the life-giving water that forgives my sin and restores my soul. When I have died, raise me up so that I may gather with all who have heard the Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” I pray in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Note
Southwood Lutheran Church, Lincoln, provides daily devotions by e-mail. This reflection served as the message for Friday, January 10, 2014.

In the Meantime: For Now

Introduction

This article is the December 2010 installment of my monthly message in the parish newsletter for Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb.

Message

For Now

Words have a funny way of sharing just a bit of themselves now…and then waiting for the right time…and then revealing a little more of the truth they hold inside.

Interim is one of those words. Its plain sense is clear enough. It means “between” and “for now” and—like this newsletter column’s title—“in the meantime.” It points to what came before it and to what promises to come after it.

Then, when we put that word together with “pastor,” we get the title of the role—the ministry—you had invited me to carry out in your midst, in God’s Church, in this place, for the sake of his mission to Beatrice and to the whole world.

I am grateful for the confidence and the trust you have placed in me by welcoming me into the community of Holy Cross Church. Your hospitality from the first day has been warm and inviting and a source of joy in my ministry.

We have shared the life that our Lord has given us, the moments both memorable and fleeting when we have known joy and sadness. I am honored to have been able to share these times with you.

I respect how you listen for God to tell you about the possibilities he sees for ministry in this place. This is a sign of faith and a joy to witness. You will be in my prayers as you and Pastor Linda Walz embark on the next leg of your journey as disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This is a time in the life of the Church when the challenges and threats, both internal and external, can seem overwhelming. But no matter what, we can cling to the promise God our Father has made to preserve the Church until the day when his Son returns in power.

The Fitting Time

It’s fitting, somehow, for us to come to the end of our “meantime” together during the season of Advent, itself a time poised between the times. We are looking back to the prophets and to John the Baptizer in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. We are busy preparing to celebrate the coming of that Christ in our midst. And finally, we look to the day when our risen Lord will come in power at the end.

This is a humbling and inspiring time. And in light of the Light that is dawning, we can say little that is more appropriate than the ancient prayer that ends the book of Revelation and punctuates our weekly gatherings at the Eucharist.

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.

Blessed and in the Book

Introduction

This is a funeral homily I preached at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2010.

Readings

Isaiah 66:10–14
Psalm 61
Revelation 21:22–27
Luke 6:17–21

Message

Every nurse knows that each patient is a whole person,
with a history and a story,
with unique needs and joys and fears.
And the good nurses, the compassionate nurses,
know that care for a person is always care for the whole person,
and even that person’s family.

For many years, Janet served others as a nurse.
She lived out her faith, becoming the hands and voice of our Lord.
She touched frail and fragile bodies;
she spoke words of comfort and consolation.

And then, in these last years,
she came to a place where she was touched,
where she and Doug were comforted and consoled.
And in those days, others served
as the voice and hands of the Lord in their lives, in the midst of their pain.

That’s how we live in God’s community, how we believe he works among us.
But such belief, no matter how strong,
does not take away the questions we ask, the fears that gnaw upon us.

And that is why we turn in times of pain and suffering,
in moments of mourning and loss,
to the treasures of our tradition in the faith.

The people of God are no strangers to suffering.
That’s why we find power and encouragement
in the message of Isaiah to his people of faith:
“You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
your bodies shall flourish like the grass….” (Isaiah 66:14a-b)

This is a word that promise us
that God’s power to restore all things
will even make our bodies— our bones in Hebrew—
to flourish like the grass.
What a comfort when we truly know the frailty of our bodies.

Those moments when we confront our weakness
can lead us to despair, but by faith, we pray with the Psalmist:
“Hear my cry, O God;
listen to my prayer.
From the end of the earth I call to you,
when my heart is faint.” (Psalm 61:1–2)

The ears of God are keen;
he hears us when our voices fade to a whisper,
and even when we only can call to him in our hearts.
He hears and he answers and he assures us
that he keeps us in his care, now and forever.

That is why John’s Revelation offers the Church
the encouragement of the vision of heaven,
where God gathers his people into his everlasting glory,
and welcomes into his eternal city
“those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Rev. 21:27)
Since Janet had a passion for books and for libraries,
it is comforting to know that her name is recorded in that great book.

Until the day comes when we join Janet
and all our family and friends who have preceded us in death,
we remain here, in this life, with all its joys and sorrows.
We are not left alone to depend upon our own strength.
Our Father in heaven has sent his Son to live among us,
and like a nurse, he cares for each of us, body and soul.

As Luke tells us in his Gospel,
“They had come to hear [Jesus] and to be healed of their diseases;
and those who were troubled
with unclean spirits were cured….
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.’” (Luke 6:18,20–21)
Now, for the time being, we may be poor and hungry and weeping.
But we will come to the kingdom and then we will be filled and we’ll laugh
with Janet and all the faithful and the Lord our God. Amen.

So Great a Cloud

Introduction

This is a funeral homily I preached at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., on Monday, Nov. 1, 2010.

Readings

Revelation 7:9–17
Psalm 34:1–10
1 John 3:1–3
Matthew 6:25–34

Message

They are here.
They are all around us.
Alvina and Fred, husband and wife.
Clara Bell, Freida, and Evelyn, her sisters.
Ernest and Arnold, her brothers.
All the saints we know,
the saints who have come before us,
here in Beatrice and Pickrell.

But also the saints of God’s Church,
the saints great and small,
recent and ancient.
They are all here,
because whenever the Church gathers,
it gathers one and all,
as the Apostle reminds us in Hebrews,
“…we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses….” (Heb. 12:1)

These are not the spirits of Halloween.
They are, instead, the spirits of all who are hallowed,
made holy, wholly by God in his grace,
made holy, like Alvina, in her baptism,
when the Holy Spirit poured itself upon her.

And so it is fitting and good and comforting
for us to gather here, today, on All Saints’ Day,
to give God our Father thanks and praise
for the gift of life and the promise of eternal life
won for us through the death and rising of his Son
in the power and mystery of their Holy Spirit.

We are here, in a place, God’s house,
that stands today as a testament to the faith of the saints
who have gone before us.
Alvina is one of those saints.
She was a charter member of this parish.
No history we recall can tell fully
the breadth and depth of her service
both to God and to the work of this parish.

We all know that when we have our sleeves rolled up,
and we find ourselves hard at work, the Lord’s work,
we can sometimes wonder whether it matters,
whether what we do will last.
And it’s true—this building, any building, may crumble.
Any congregation we hold dear may pass into history.
Yet the people whose lives Alvina and you and I touch
outlast any building, any institution, anything we make.

We join the cloud of witnesses that will never die.
It is always only a growing cloud,
as John saw in his Revelation:
“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude
that no one could count, from every nation,
from all tribes and peoples and languages,
standing before the throne and before the Lamb,
robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” (Rev. 7:9)

And now Alvina has joined that multitude,
that gathering in the kingdom of God.
This is a fitting end to her life,
one shaped and guided by the wisdom
of her confirmation verse, Matthew 6:33:
“But strive first for the kingdom of God
and his righteousness,
and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matt. 6:33)

Or, as she probably heard it and learned it at Zion Lutheran Church:
“Trachet am ersten nach dem Reich Gottes
und nach seiner Gerechtigkeit,
so wird euch solches alles zufallen.” Amen.

Pleasing Sacrifices

This is the sermon I prepared for Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 29, 2010.

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Readings

Proverbs 25:6–7
Psalm 112 (antiphon v. 4)
Hebrews 13:1–8, 15–16
Luke 14:1, 7–14

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Prayer

Receive into Your hands, O Father, the sacrifice of our lives. We offer ourselves to You in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, and pray that you would receive us into the community of Your Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Message

It’s not the last word from the book of Hebrews,
but after a string of weeks,
today we have heard the last verses
in our extended reading of this sermonic letter.

At the end of the reading, we heard,
“Through [Jesus Christ], then,
let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God,
that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.
Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have,
for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (Hebrews 13:15–16, NRSV)

When we hear that word—sacrifice—
we might find our imaginations
turning to flashes of images
we half remember from strange, old movies
flickering on the TV screen late at night,
disturbing scenes where the heroine
is captured, bound, laid out on a stone,
and the evil captor stands triumphant over her,
a knife glinting in the flickering torchlight.

Through those images, our memories and imaginations
do not lead us very far astray
in bringing life to this antique word—sacrifice.

As the verses, which our lectionary omits,
remind us in almost graphic detail,
“The bodies of those animals
whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest
as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp.
Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate
in order to sanctify the people by his own blood.” (Hebrews 13:11–12, NRSV)

That’s a reminder to us
that sacrifice and salvation are God’s bloody business.
We can easily forget that the cross is not neat and clean.
It has borne the bruised and bloodied body of Jesus Christ,
Son of the Father,
the Lamb who dies to take away the sin of the world.

This is the ultimate sacrifice,
the one in which the Father
offers up his only Son to the powers of sin, death, and the devil.
And through this worthy sacrifice—
through his own Son’s death—
the Father makes good what had gone bad,
he makes right what had gone horribly wrong,
he gives birth to life eternal from death’s dark womb.

No other victim would have worked to make this ultimate sacrifice
for you and me and all people, all creation.
Jesus Christ is the perfect and spotless Lamb,
and at the same time the pure and worthy high priest
who wields the knife and offers the sacrifice once and for all.

And so Hebrews reminds us,
“Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate
in order to sanctify the people by his own blood.” (Hebrews 13:12, NRSV)

He is the fitting sacrifice.
His blood alone—by the power of the Holy Spirit—
is able to sanctify his people,
to cleanse us from our sin,
to make us ritually pure,
to make us worthy to come into the presence of his Father.

That’s why John’s Revelation tells us
that those multitudes gathered around the throne
“…have washed their robes and made them white
in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:14b, NRSV)

That’s why we sing these words as we prepare each week
to eat the flesh and to drink the blood of our Lord:
“Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.”

Through the sacrifice of his Son on the cross,
our Father reclaims us as his people,
and makes us holy, worthy to come to the Table
to be restored, renewed, and refreshed
by the gift of that same Son
through the work of their Holy Spirit.

And because this gift makes us worthy,
we are joined by the Holy Spirit
to our Lord Jesus Christ in his praise of the Father.
As Hebrews tells us,
“Through [Jesus Christ], then,
let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God,
that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.” (Hebrews 13:15, NRSV)

What does this “sacrifice of praise” sound like?
It is our prayer and nothing less.
It is our offerings of praise and thanksgiving,
our pleas for mercy and forgiveness,
our intercessions for grace and healing.

And our prayers are not mere words.
Just as our Lord is the Word made flesh in Man and Meal,
so too are our prayers enfleshed in us.
We are spirited people embodied,
and so when we pray,
we embody our prayers in words,
we accompany them with gestures,
we assume postures of devotion.

Our “sacrifice of praise” comes to God
wrapped up in us as creatures of flesh and blood,
embodied in us as brothers and sisters of our Lord,
spoken by lips “that confess his name,”
calling upon him alone as our Lord and God.

But just as the sacrifice of our Lord
required the offering of the Word made flesh,
our sacrifices of praise
require to offer both word and deed.
Our Father desires us to act as well as to speak.

As the writer of Hebrews reminds us,
“Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have,
for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (Hebrews 13:16, NRSV)

It is clear.
We have heard what our Lord said
and we have seen what he did.
And so we know that our “sacrifice of praise”
will rise to God our Father
both upon the sweet sounds of our words
and upon the pleasant scent of our deeds.
As we have prayed together in Vespers this past Lent,
“Let my prayer rise before you as incense,
the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.”

It is clear what sounds sweet to our Father’s ears,
what aromas are pleasing in his nose:
“…do good and [] share what you have….” (Hebrews 13:16, NRSV)
Or, as the prophet Micah tells God’s people:
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, NRSV)
That is what God deems to be the good.

And to share what we have,
what he has given us to tend on his behalf,
is no more complicated than to hear and to do
what we have prayed with the Psalmist today:
“It is well with those who deal generously and lend,
who conduct their affairs with justice.
They have distributed freely,
they have given to the poor….” (Psalm 112: 5,9)

And so, when we offer continual sacrifices of praise
to God in his name—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—
and we do good and share what we have received from our God,
then we can come to the end of this day,
the end of this life,
and rest in the sure confidence
that “such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Amen. (Hebrews 13:16, NRSV)

Living by the New Command

This is the sermon I prepared for Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 25, 2010.

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Readings

Acts 11:1–18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1–6
John 13:31–35

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Prayer

Stir up in us, O Father, the gift of your Holy Spirit, so that we may see your Son, risen and reigning as Lord of all. Amen.

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Message

Saying just this one word—love—
brings to mind so many beloved lyrics:
+ What the world needs now is love, sweet love.
+ Love, love me do. You know I love you.
+ All you need is love.
+ Love is a many-splendored thing.
+ Love is a rose, so you better not pick it.

And that’s just a quick sample to remind us
about how pervasive is this emotion, this feeling
in our popular culture and its art and music.
When we mention these sentiments
we find our minds filled with images:
candy and flowers, dreamy-eyed stares,
the old and familiar stories of boy meets girl,
girl and boy struggle, then separate,
but finally find one another and live happily ever after.

We listen to song after song,
watch movie upon movie,
read books and go to plays
to see and hear this same story
told again and again
for the simple reason
that we have a need and a desire
to know that feeling,
to trust that somewhere there is someone
who loves us deeply and wholeheartedly.

We call this feeling “love,” and it is.
But it is really more precise to call it romantic love.
And when we properly focus this love in fidelity and honor
to our husband or wife
or the person we contemplate
asking to be wife or husband,
then our romantic love is a reflection of and a testimony
to God’s love and care for us.

And then there is the love
we share a little more broadly
and spread a little more widely:
our love of neighbor.

Especially as Christians,
we believe God has called us to share this love
with those around us.
We trust he wants us to help people in need,
to offer from our abundance the support that others require
when they suffer from scarcity and want.

We call this action “love” as well, and it is.
But it might be more helpful to use the old-fashioned term “charity.”
And not in the sense of distributing a hand-out to people in need,
but in the more classic sense of expressing “care for humanity.”

This love—charity—is also an echo, an extension
of God’s love and care for us.
We’ve learned this from St. Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13:
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love (or charity),”
depending upon the translation. (1 Corinthians 13:13, NRSV)

With these two kinds of love
in our hearts and minds,
we do not come to today’s Gospel
as blank slates, as empty baskets.
We arrive at the reading
with these forms of love and our personal histories
swirling around us.
They shape and color our perceptions.
They predispose us to certain feelings and thoughts.
We cannot change that about ourselves,
but now we are more aware of our make-up,
we are more conscious of how we hear talk of love.

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On the evening of his betrayal by Judas,
his arrest at the hands of his fellow Jews,
his abandonment by his disciples,
his denial by Peter, his trusted disciple,
Jesus said to his gathered followers:

I give you a new commandment,
that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you,
you also should love one another.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another. (John 13:34–35, NRSV)

Why was the commandment new?
There’s nothing new about love.
Since Adam found in Eve
bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh,
husbands and wives have loved one another deeply and faithfully.

Since God rescued Israel from Egypt
and then called his people to a task—
because they themselves had been landless and lost—
to care for the widows, orphans, and sojourners in their midst,
God’s people have practiced charity.

So what was new about this commandment?
What was new was Jesus himself.
He told his disciples and he tells us to love others the way he has loved us.
And that way is new.
Jesus’ love for us is the love of Immanuel, God with us,
lived out by sacrificing himself,
by dying on the cross,
by giving up everything he is for one purpose:
“Now the Son of Man has been glorified,
and God has glorified him.” (John 13:31, NRSV)

In John’s Gospel, glory comes when Jesus reveals himself.
That’s why the beginning of the Gospel tells us:
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,
full and of grace and truth.” (John 1:14, NRSV)

And Jesus, the Son, received that glory from his Father,
as Jesus himself prays to his Father in John 17:
“I glorified you on earth
by finishing the work that you gave me to do.
So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence
with the glory that I had in your presence
before the world existed.” (John 17:4–5, NRSV)

Glory and love combine
upon the cross of Jesus Christ.
This is what is new.
This is why the command is a new one.
This is what makes our love shared in obedience
new and different from the love that goes on outside the Church,
that merely echoes and emulates the love that God in Jesus Christ has for us.

When we love others the way Jesus loves us,
we give ourselves away,
we give up all that we are,
we give ourselves over to death.

And we can do this without real fear,
not because death is not scary.
It is, whether it means we sacrifice our lives,
or if it means we give up something important to us and die a little death along the way.

Death can be scary, but in the end, it is not worthy of our fear.
Because in the end,
it is not death that speaks the final word about you or me.
The last word comes from the Word
who was and is and always shall be the first Word,
who was with God and who is God.

And in John’s Revelation
Christ the Word speaks to us in love from his throne of glory, saying,
“Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4b, NRSV)

With this promise, nothing stands between us
and our living by the new command:
“Love one another.” Amen.

Listen to the Shepherd

This is the sermon I prepared for Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 25, 2010.

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Readings

Acts 9:36–43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9–17
John 10:22–30

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Prayer

Stir up in us, O Father, the gift of your Holy Spirit, so that we may see your Son, risen and reigning as Lord of all. Amen.

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Message

Have you ever woken up from a dream
and you can’t remember exactly what happened.
You ask, “Who was that? Where was I? What did that mean?”
It’s as if the shapes of things kept changing
and the appearances of people were fluid.
Things were familiar, and yet strange,
known, and yet mysterious.

It’s a hard experience to describe.
But at the root is the feeling that lingers when we slowly awaken—
the sensation of images full of meaning,
fading away just beyond our fingertips,
slipping away past our understanding.

Sometimes the Bible is a little dreamy in this way—
especially in some of its books.
Two of them appear in our readings today:
the Revelation of John and the Gospel According to John.
The early church fathers were divided in their judgment
about whether the same John wrote both books.
And two thousand years of scholarship hasn’t settled the issue.

But even if the identities of these Johns are a question to us,
the author or authors share a vision, a kind of a dream of truth,
that involves shepherds and lambs and sheep,
Jesus Christ crucified and enthroned,
the Church saved and gathered.

In his vision of heaven and its blessings,
John the Seer tells us of an uncountable multitude
gathered in worship and praise before the Lamb.
Those in the throng are “robed in white”
and “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
And this Lamb, our Lord Jesus Christ,
sits “at the center of the throne [and is] their shepherd.” (Revelation 7:9–17, NRSV)

Jesus is the Lamb and he is the shepherd.
So in way that makes the Church triumphant the flock of sheep.
And that means that you and I,
who have been washed and named in the waters of Holy Baptism,
hope and trust one day
to wear those heavenly robes washed white in the blood of the Lamb
and to flock around his throne.

Our worship here and now is practice for that blessed day.
That’s why we call this a congregation.
That word comes from the Latin for flock, gregis,
and it means, “those who flock together.”

And then in the Gospel,
Jesus tangles with his fellow Jews
who wonder whether he really is the Messiah—
God’s anointed one who will save the people.
But sadly they question him in a spirit of confrontation
and in the vain hope that he will be the Messiah as they define it,
not as he reveals it to them.

And so, Jesus speaks a word of judgment:
“… you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.” (John 10:26, NRSV)
Belonging—both for the Jews and for us—
does not come from holding Jesus in our grasp,
from binding him to an idea that we dream up
about how he ought to be the Messiah and Savior of us all
according to our plans and designs.

Instead, belonging comes from listening to him.
He says, “My sheep hear my voice.
I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27, NRSV)

And here the language of the dream shifts a little bit.
Jesus was the Lamb in Revelation,
but now in John he is the shepherd.
All along, we are his sheep, his flock.
In the vision of heaven, we are shouting and singing praises.
But here in the Gospel we are quiet and attentive.
And instead of gathering around him,
we follow behind him as he leads us.

The wonderful and amazing thing about dreams and symbols
that compare Jesus and his people
with lambs and sheep and shepherds and flocks
is that these shifting, flowing images can all be true at the same time,
even if they are different from one another.

Despite those differences,
God shares a few basic truths across these visions.
We can hold on to them.
Jesus Christ, our Messiah, is the Leader of his people.
Sometimes he may appear to us as the Lamb on the throne
encircled by the throng of tribes and peoples.
And sometimes he comes to us as the Shepherd
leading his flock to green pastures and still waters.

But no matter what, as Psalm 100 tells us,
we “know that the LORD is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” (Psalm 100:3, NRSV)

We can trust him,
we can follow him,
because he leads us along the right path,
even when we have strayed into the dark valleys.

He calls us by name
and gathers us around him.
And in his goodness,
he prepares a table for us
and gives us his body and blood for forgiveness and peace and unity.
He anoints our heads with oil for healing and wholeness and strength.

Listen, the Shepherd is calling to us.
Come, let us flock together around his table, his throne. Amen.

Truth by the Fire

This is the sermon I prepared for Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 18, 2010.

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Readings

Acts 9:1–20
Psalm 30 (antiphon v. 11)
Revelation 5:11–14
John 21:1–19

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Prayer

Stir up in us, O Father, the gift of your Holy Spirit, so that we may see your Son, risen and reigning as Lord of all. Amen.

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Message

One of the quiet joys of camping
comes after night has fallen
or before the sun has returned for the day.
We instinctively kindle a fire
for warmth and security.

The fire’s flickering light draws us together,
our backs to the darkness and the dangers
that may lie unknown beyond the fire’s light.
We hold up our hands to the its warmth
and turn our faces to the flicker of the flames.

We know this primal feeling,
this bond that unites all who gather
in that circle and share that time together.

And so it’s not too hard for us
to walk up quietly to the circle of fishermen and their friend—
the gathering of seven disciples and their risen Lord—
and to take our place in that circle.
We squat or sit cross-legged on the shore of the lake
as the mist rises in the early morning.
Fish roast on sticks over the coals.
Flat bread bakes on hot rocks.

And like any gathering around a fire,
this one naturally turns to conversation.
We only know a small part of what they said.
But what we do know is that this time together
changed the lives of these fishermen forever.
And their changed lives have, in turn, changed ours.

These were young, tough men,
outdoorsmen who had worked with their hands.
They made and fixed their own nets,
kept their own boats lake-worthy,
rowed and sailed out onto that lake,
threw out their own nets and hauled in their catches.
Everything by hand.
It had been their way of life and the family’s livelihood.

And so, after the heart-wrenching events of Passover week—
their Lord’s arrest and mockery of a trial,
his scourging and crucifixion,
his suffering and death,
and his victorious resurrection—
they had returned to a familiar place,
to the security of the old routines,
and to work they knew well.

Simon Peter, their leader,
said, “I am going fishing,”
and the others went along.
After a long night of frustration,
they took the advice of their risen Lord,
standing unrecognized on the shore in the grey light of dawn.
Casting their nets to the starboard,
they caught a boatload of fish and brought the catch to shore.
Jesus had started a fire to ward off the cold
and had prepared a hot breakfast for his friends.

And so we sit with them around the fire.
After all that had happened among them,
the time had come for them to face and speak the truth.
Jesus asked Simon Peter three times
if he loved his Lord.
Three times—echoing the three denials
Peter had made on the night of Jesus’ arrest.

We don’t have a record of what Peter felt
when he faced the Lord and his questions.
But we can easily imagine his feelings.
The memory of his denials churned in his mind.
There he was, standing in the courtyard of the high priest,
warming himself around another charcoal fire,
and hearing the questions,
“You aren’t also one of this man’s disciples, are you?”
“I am not. I am not.” And a third time, “No.”

And now the Lord whom Peter had denied
asked him three times, “Do you love me?”
And after each of Peter’s responses, “Yes, Lord, I love you,”
Jesus gives Peter a mission: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.”

This mission becomes Peter’s life.
From this moment on,
he was on fire himself with the task he had received from the Lord.
As far as we know, he never picked up a net again,
never took his boat out on the lake,
never went fishing for anything but people.

Despite his denials,
and maybe because of them,
and surely because of the gifts he received from Jesus,
Simon Peter became the leader of the apostles,
the fearless and outspoken messenger
of the risen Lord,
the head of the community of the faithful.

And his mission has become the mission of the Church,
and so it is now our calling as well.
You and I are not only the sheep and lambs
fed and tended by those who have come before us in the Church,
we have been gathered into the warmth and light
of the fire our Lord prepares in our midst.

In our preparation for Holy Baptism,
we have made our three denials—
not of the Lord,
but of the lordship of sin and death and the devil.
And, like Peter, we make our three-fold confession of faith:
“I love you, Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit.”

And so, the questions come to us.
Do we still deny our Lord?
Are we afraid to associate with him?
Do we fear the consequences of being known as his followers?

Where and when does our Lord come to us
in the dim light of early dawn and call to us,
guiding us to change the direction of our lives?
When we gather in his presence,
in the light and heat of the fire of worship,
what is the truth he speaks to us?

Do we hear him ask us whether we love him?
How will we answer?
Who are the sheep and the lambs he calls us to feed and tend?
What does that work look like?
How are we at risk, in danger, when we take on this task?
And when we accept this calling to ministry,
what will we leave behind?
What nets and boats and lakes do we abandon?

And last of all, the ultimate question comes to us.
Jesus told Peter he would lose everything in service to God.
“When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt
and to go wherever you wished.
But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands,
and someone else will fasten a belt around you
and take you where you do not wish to go.” (John 21:18, NRSV)

We are told that Jesus said this to Peter to let him know
“the kind of death by which he would glorify God.”
And then, Jesus said, “Follow me.” (John 21:19, NRSV)

And he says to us, too, “Follow me.”
This means Jesus calls us to be his disciples,
to take our place as his followers,
to drop our nets and walk away from them,
and to turn our lives over to him.

He calls us to go where he sends us,
to tell others the message he gives us,
to surrender control of our lives to him,
and to embrace his calling to tend the sheep.

He comes to us and prepares a meal for us
so way may face him when he tells us the thruth by the fire,
and may know, without a doubt,
that when it is time for us to die,
we can do so,
assured that he is our risen Lord,
and that our dying in faith will glorify God,
just as our Lord’s death brought glory to his Father
and life to us and to the world. Amen.