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pr. joyce

Sunday Sermon – Pr. Joyce Piper

1502435_488720847898065_5065822072428423218_o (1)Matthew 25. 1-13 / Amos 5. 18-24 / 1 Thess 4

What time is it?  What are we waiting for?  Are we ready?  These are all questions raised by Sunday’s texts from Amos, Thessolonians, and Matthew.

If we are waiting for the Day of the Lord, then we better be careful what we wish for, according to Amos.  The prophet Amos was the first to use the phrase “the Day of the Lord” referring to God’s dark day of Judgment.  If we’re waiting for our enemies, “those people”, to get what they deserve, then we’d best be careful.  It might just be we who receive our come-uppance.  Amos warns it won’t be what one expects.  Fleeing from a lion, one will meet a bear . . . or feeling safe at home, a snake is there waiting to attack.   That would be a hard choice; would you rather meet a lion, a bear or a snake?!

Why does the Lord hate the worship sacrifices and offerings of the people addressed by Amos?  All of the ancient prophets link social justice with proper worship of God.  Oppression of the poor and the weak are the immoral acts of the worshippers most criticized by Amos.  God rejects the gifts of sacrifice and songs of praise when offered by those who simultaneously oppress weaker persons.  If God’s justice were to roll down like waters and God’s righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, there would be room and a place for everyone.  For Amos, God’s justice cannot be separated from God’s love.

Amos and Matthew, though centuries apart in time, are in complete agreement that the fruit of having faith in God naturally and necessarily leads to acts of justice and righteousness on behalf of our neighbors.  If worship leads to anything other than greater generosity with our neighbors on God’s behalf, then we’ve missed the boat.  If we have received the love of God it’s going to show in obvious ways.  “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” as the song states. . . . Fruits of the spirit will be evident (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) . . . these things will naturally flow and show in the lives of those steeped in God’s love.

Attending to worship details without attending to the needs of the poor is empty worship according to the word of the Lord through Amos.    Worship that serves one’s own pious self-satisfaction rather than worship that glorifies God through love of one’s neighbor is not acceptable.  Simply going through ritual motions without expressing compassion toward others does not meet God’s definition of worship.

There are so many ways to go astray in worship.  We may develop strong personal preferences about placement of the altar, placement of the baptismal font, color of the pew cushions, should there be pew cushions?!, which version of the Lord’s Prayer should we use?, hymn selection, praise band questions, who is reading for Christmas Eve service and so on and on.  That’s just a short list of some of the worship conflicts I have witnessed during 30+ years of parish ministry.  NONE of those issues is on God’s list from Amos.

The only requirement God has about worship in Amos has nothing to do with placement of the baptismal font or any other  such worship details; just “Show me your justice and righteousness toward those in real need!”   Justice and righteousness flowing like ever-flowing streams in the desert.  Worship is an empty ritual if not connected to living justice.  Period.  That is where our concern for worship needs to be as well.  And hopefully we can have conversions about the peripheral matters of worship so that they don’t overtake the centrality of God’s generosity and grace.

So the outcome of the Day of the Lord’s judgment may not be what one is hoping for, according to the prophet Amos.  It might even be a reversal of one’s expectations.  Similarly in Matthew’s gospel, the return of the Lord cannot be predicted, although there are of course those who love to make predictions and platforms for themselves in making dire predictions.  Jesus’ parable of the 10 bridesmaids reveals that no one knows the day nor the hour.

By the time of Paul’s writing to the congregation at Thessalonica, there has been a serious delay in Paul’s expectations of Jesus’ return.  Paul goes on to say that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.  So what are Christians to do in the meantime, while waiting for the Lord?  Paul’s message is that we should encourage one another and build each other up with hope.

The wise bridesmaids in Matthew keep the vision of Christ’s return alive through their faithful waiting in the midst of delay. By preparing for the day, the timing of which no one knows but God, they proclaim that God’s promises are true. They act out their hope for that day when God will establish justice and righteousness and peace.

Even though waiting and “keeping awake” has a clear focus on the future,  it is also a meaningful way to live in the present.  For indeed if we act as though Jesus Christ is in our midst . . . he is!  Wherever 2 or 3 gather in his name he is with us.  Whenever we respond to the needs of the least among us, Jesus Christ is with us as well.



All Saint’s Sunday Message

20150413_104923Matthew 5: 1-12  The Beatitudes

What does it mean to be blessed?  to live a blessed life?

This morning’s gospel teaches us about blessedness and it’s maybe not how we usually count our blessings.   Typically we count ourselves and others blessed when things are going especially well.  Jesus’ teaching about blessedness points to the particular nearness of God that is often experienced in time of deep personal need and also when we enter into the deep needs of our neighbors.

Jesus’ public ministry in Matthew’s gospel begins with his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount in chs 5-7.  Matthew emphasizes that Jesus is the authoritative teacher of God’s people.  Jesus breaks into the public arena of his ministry proclaiming, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” and then he calls his first disciples from their work of fishing for fish to the mission of fishing for people.

Jesus shows his disciples what this new fishing looks like by preaching the good news of God’s kingdom way and by healing every kind of disease.  The presence of God’s kingdom way is liberating.  Jesus climbs a mountain with the crowd that has gathered and teaches his disciples about the principles of life in the way of God’s kingdom.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, as it is commonly known, has been used by several transformative faith communities as the basis for nurturing and practicing Christian discipleship during the past 75 years.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer credits the Sermon the Mount with opening his eyes to renewal in Christian community in the midst of Nazi Germany.  Another faith community shaped by the Sermon on the Mount includes the Koinonia Farm, a racially integrated community in Georgia founded in 1942 that became the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity.  The Taize Community in France and the civil rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr are also founded on the Christian discipleship principles of the Sermon on the Mount.

This Sermon on the Mount is foundational teaching for Christian discipleship in community.  And the assumption is that Christianity is lived out, put into practice as part of a community, not as an individual method for self-improvement.

The Sermon on the Mount starts with a series of 9 blessings, called the Beatitudes.  This portion of scripture may be so familiar, like the Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 23, that it’s hard to hear it with fresh ears. Although it is poetic and often quoted, the Beatitudes are not easily understood.  These blessings are not just about individual lives, but also about Christian communities/ congregations who corporately practice their faith in rather stark contrast to common worldly values that we live and breathe.

Take the word “blessed” to begin with . The Greek word for “blessed” used in the Beatitudes is makarios.  In ancient Greek times, makarios referred to the gods. The blessed ones were the gods, small “g”, many gods.  The gods had achieved a state of happiness and contentment in life that was beyond all cares, labors, and even death. The blessed ones were beings who lived in some other world away from the cares and problems and worries of ordinary people. To be blessed, one had to be beyond human.

Makarios took on a second meaning, referring to the “dead”, another way of being beyond ordinary human life. The blessed ones were humans, who, through death, had reached the other world, the world of the gods. They were now beyond the cares and problems and worries of earthly life. To be blessed, you had to be dead. That is the origin of the different saints’ days — they are remembered on the dates of their deaths. All Saints Day began as a celebration of all the people who had died in the faith whose names were unknown.

Finally, in Greek usage, makarios came to refer to the elite, the upper crust of society, the wealthy people. It referred to people whose riches and power put them above the normal cares and problems and worries of ordinary folk — who constantly struggle and worry and labor in life. To be blessed, you had to be very rich and powerful.

Eventually blessedness took on yet another meaning. It referred to the results of right living. If you lived right, you would be blessed by receiving desirable earthly, material things: a good wife, many children, abundant crops, riches, honor, wisdom, beauty, good health. A blessed person had more things and better things than an ordinary person. Having abundant things became a sign of blessedness.

In all of these meanings, the “blessed” ones live apart from ordinary folks. The blessed ones were gods. They were humans who after death had gone to the world of the gods. They were the wealthy, upper crust. They were those with many possessions. The blessed were those people and beings who lived beyond the normal cares, problems, and worries of ordinary people.

Jesus, according to Matthew, uses this word in a totally different way. It is not the elite who are blessed. It is not the rich and powerful who are blessed. It is not the high and mighty who are blessed. It is not the people living in huge mansions or expensive penthouses who are blessed. Rather, Jesus pronounces God’s blessings on the lowly: the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the meek, the mourning. Throughout the history of this word, it had always been the other people who were considered blessed: the rich, the filled up, the powerful. Jesus reverses it completely. The blessed ones in God’s kingdom, are those who are empty and in need and also those who struggle for the sake of God’s kingdom.

How do Jesus’ statements of blessedness make sense for us today?

It is probably still the case that we are surprised to think of blessedness being related to those whose present circumstances seem unfortunate.  We would probably rather NOT be blessed if we could avoid mourning for example.  But mourning comes to all of us who love another.  If we love beyond ourselves, there will inevitably be loss and mourning.  We will be deeply attached to the lives of others who matter to us and someday the relationship will be affected either by disappointment, disease or death.

That’s the risk we take in loving and serving others . . . and painful as it is, it’s worth much more than a life of isolation and self-focus.

Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God that penetrates the present condition of those who mourn and transforms it.  I have felt that particular nearness of God myself in times of mourning.

Whatever opens our souls more widely can become an avenue for God to enter in more deeply.  Those who trust the Lord will be fortunate forever.  Jesus calls those who would be his followers to openness to God in all circumstances.

Being blessed is not a reward for living right or for the accident of being born into fortunate circumstances.  Being blessed has to do with seeing the presence of Christ, hearing him, receiving him, responding to him.  Near the end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus says explicitly that he is among “the least” . . . among those in deep need.

So we can expect that Christ will be near us as a special comfort when we live in times of deep need.  And as we meet the challenge of journeying close to others in deep need, we are also likely to sense the presence of Christ with them and with us.

Such blessedness cannot be attained or grasped once and for all.  But once it has been experienced, there is a desire for more, a hunger to receive and share the love and presence of God, as a practice of living out our faith in following Jesus.

And God is not done with us.  Our lives are a mystery, even to ourselves.   We have no idea what God might do with us or through us.  We only know that, in the end, all that we are and do will be caught into Christ and somehow the totality of who we are will look like him. That means, of course, that God is not done with us. That God has something in store for us — big or little, hard or easy, yet God is at work to love the world through the unique person God has created each of us to be . . . and through the unique community of faith that is Our Savior’s.


Pr. Joyce

pr. joyce

Sunday Sermon – Pr. Joyce Piper

1502435_488720847898065_5065822072428423218_o (1)Matthew 22:15-22

God’s got the whole world in his hands!  And we all carry multiple loyalties to church, state and family, maybe membership in more than one family through marriage or divorce.  We often discover competing loyalties in our families for important holiday celebrations and tough choices must be made.  It is really hard to keep everyone’s families happy with visits scheduled at Thanksgiving and Christmas!

My sons were both born in Norway during the 1970’s when I was married and living there for 7 years with their Norwegian father.   So they were born with dual national citizenship.  That was never a problem until my son, Christian, was drafted by the Norwegian army at age 19.  The US government allows for dual citizenship unless a person serves in the military of another country, even the military of a strong NATO ally.  That understandably constitutes an intolerable allegiance to a foreign nation for the US government.  So Christian’s US citizenship was at stake.  Fortunately he was able to easily show that he had spent most of his life living in the United States since age 3 and was a full-time student at the U of ND – Grand Forks at the time.  The Norwegian government backed off from insisting on his obligatory military service and no ultimate choice had to be made. Christian continues to carry two passports and feels at home in both his fatherland and his motherland.  He loves arriving at the Oslo airport, going through the entry line for Norwegians and being greeted with “Velkommen hjem!” when they stamp his passport.  It’s possible to carry compatible strong allegiances, as long as one of them doesn’t demand an either-or choice or more than can be given.

In today’s gospel text Jesus is presented with an impossible either/or trick question.  Competing factions have joined forces as “strange bedfellows” to try to trap him in a response that will make him an enemy of either the Pharisees, religious fanatics who opposed taxation of the Jews by the Roman government, or the Herodians, who energetically supported gathering taxes for their Roman patrons.  Being taxed without voting rights was foundational to our American Revolution against colonial taxation without representation.

The residents of Jerusalem during Jesus’ time lived in a similar situation with Israel being an occupied territory as part of the Roman Empire.  The Jews were allowed to have their temple worship, but they were taxed unfairly to support the Roman capital and they were not given the rights of Roman citizens.

The Pharisees, as Jewish religious leaders, opposed the pagan Roman government, and worked to overthrow it.  The Herodians were Jews who cooperated with the Roman government and benefitted from being “sympathizers” to the occupiers.  Pharisees and Herodians were generally opposed to each other, except in both feeling the threat of the growing authority and power that Jesus had among the people.

It’s Tuesday of Holy Week in Matthew’s text for today.  Jesus entered Jerusalem with great support of the crowd on Palm Sunday, confronted the Temple leadership for turning it into a marketplace for buying sacrificial animals, and then continued to have his authority questioned by the chief priests and other leaders.  In today’s scene from Matthew, these two unlikely groups have teamed up against Jesus, conspiring to set a trap for their common enemy, Jesus.  What ultimately happens instead reveals Jesus’ authority and wisdom and God’s domain over all things, sacred and profane.

The Pharisees lead off with flattery to appear supportive of Jesus.  They are not genuine in what they say, but ironically they speak the truth about Jesus.  He does teach the way of God and is fearlessly impartial.  Jesus is not a people-pleaser or a chameleon.

Then they tighten the vice, asking for an authoritative pronouncement, a yes-or-no answer to a notoriously complex question.  “Is it lawful, is it right for our people (Jews living under occupation by Roman rule) and in accord with our people’s faith and traditions, to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”  Saying “no” would amount to treason against the government according to the Herodians.  Saying “yes” would be the same as disobedience to God for the religious zealots.    Jesus pivots.  He recognizes their evil intent and poses a discerning question of his own:  “Why are you trying to trick me?”

He asks to see the coin of the tax.  Jesus appears to be following their line of questioning, but is taking things in another direction.  No devout Jew would have a Roman coin in their possession because of the emperor’s graven image on it.  While Jesus is not carrying the offensive coin, his questioners are.  This seemingly innocent request by Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.

Jesus continues with his own questions:  Whose image or icon and whose title is on the coin?  “Caesar’s” they reply to this question and also begin to answer their own initial one.  The coin has Caesar’s image on it, so it obviously belongs to Caesar and should be returned to its rightful owner.  “Give back to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar.”  Jesus supports respect for the state.

Paul elaborates on people of faith being subject to secular authorities in Romans 13.  Part of Christian responsibility is living justly in relationship to the government.  The government, in turn, is to act as God’s servant, serving the common good and not one’s personal advancement.

Honor for government is the first half of Jesus’ statement.  Honor for God is the last half of his statement:  “But give back to God the things that belong to God!”  As Caesar’s coin bears Caesar’s image and belongs to Caesar, so God’s human being are made in God’s image and belong to God.  Government is to be respected as its role is to provide for law & order, part of God’s intent for peaceful human existence.  But government does not own our souls and should not equate its power with the power of God in that area of human life.

Luther’s Two Kingdoms Doctrine has its source in today’s gospel text and in Paul’s writings about Christians “Being Subject to Authorities.”  Church-state relations are always in a bit of tension and balance is to be found in the middle of open respectful discussions.

The priorities of our own lives are in continual tension as well.  We feel the push-pull of both the benefits and demands of our work places.  Our family responsibilities change with growing, active children and aging parents.  There are often internal collisions of priorities when everything seems to happen at once.

Our gospel for today is such a consoling reminder that all that we have belongs to God.  As we step back to that broader perspective, we cannot help but feel gratitude and a sense of peace.  “The whole world is in God’s hands.”  Our first commandment priority is to let nothing else take God’s place in whom or what we worship.  And because we are made in God’s image and placed here as God’s good stewards, we take good care of our families, our congregation, our government . . . providing resources and involvement and correction in all those places as needed.  All things fall into place when we know who we are and whose we are, as the saying goes.  So let Jesus’ followers embrace what we have, who we are, and what we do.  And since we know what belongs to God, let’s find ways to give it back to its rightful gracious and loving owner.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen!

Pr. Joyce Piper

pr. joyce

Sunday Sermon – Pr. Joyce

1502435_488720847898065_5065822072428423218_o (1)Matthew 21:33-46 / Isaiah 5:1-7

It has NOT been a quiet week in Lake Woe-be-Gone.  It has been another heartbreaking week in Lake Woe-is-With-us!

News of yet another senseless massacre of innocent folks sickens us.  We are so weary of violent news that reminds us there are too many lost souls with big weapons and no regard for life.  Our vineyard is very messed up if it’s not safe to attend a concert, a movie, a nightclub, a prayer meeting in church, go to school, or walk down a street for pedestrians only.

At Wednesday confirmation we closed our devotion time with a lament from Psalm 13:  How long O Lord?!   How long will you forget us?  How long must we have pain in our souls and sorrow in our hearts?  We are living in a time of lament along with the psalmist.

Our scriptures from Isaiah 5 and Matthew 21 assure us that God is crying also.  The fallen state of our humanity is nothing new and God’s response to violence, greed, murder, and injustice is consistent.  God condemns wickedness and never stops pursuing all of humanity with an invitation to love others as we have been loved by God.

The vineyard love-song from Isaiah 5 is a vision of paradise lost again during the 8th century before Christ, nearly 3000 years ago, give or take a couple centuries.  The nations of Israel and Judah were God’s chosen people, given a Promised Land known as the Fertile Crescent.  The vineyard love-song becomes God’s lament in these verses and the verses that follow.  The vineyard has produced noxious/poisonous fruit rather than fine wine.  God changes his tune from “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” to “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”  What starts as a love song changes into God’s lament over his people who amass property at the expense of others, who ignore hunger among neighbors in their midst, who speak falsely calling evil good and good evil, who take bribes and deprive the innocent of their rights.  In summary in vs 7, God expected justice (mishpat) but saw bloodshed (mishpakh); expected righteousness (tsedaqah) but heard a cry (tse’aqah).  The Hebrew words that sound almost identical but have entirely opposite meaning capture the betrayal that God feels from the people God has loved and given everything.

Fast forward 800 years and Matthew’s gospel shares another devastating vineyard story.  This parable is in the section of Matthew after Jesus has entered Jerusalem, attacked the corrupt leadership of the Temple and continues to confront the chief priests and Pharisees for their lack of faithfulness.  We know how that story ends.  Jesus will die for speaking truth in the face of injustice.  The wicked tenants will kill the son just as this parable foreshadows.  A couple weeks ago Matthew’s parable revealed life isn’t always fair.  This parable is just downright mean and nasty with violence and judgment.

Here’s a sidebar comment:  I get a little nervous about delving into these scriptures that carry condemnation of the wicked, because the scriptures have far too often been used throughout history in judgmental ways.  People sometimes take the place of God and use scripture as a hammer to condemn their enemies and condone further violence.   These scriptures are meant to bring conviction against injustice, but conviction against hardened hearts needs to not just be about “those people” out there but starting right here . . . what’s my part in this nasty state of affairs and what am I going to do about it?

Lament is a necessary response to darkness and evil, but it can also go in unproductive directions that lead to dead-ends.  Judging others without taking one’s own personal steps to remedy a situation is a dead-end.  Giving up entirely is another dark temptation.  I get it.  I understand the helpless feeling of senseless death. A real gut punch.

Last week a gifted young pastor in St. James, MN and dear friend of all who knew her died a few days after a routine gall bladder surgery.  The complications of an artery being nicked during surgery may never be completely understood.  How could THAT happen?!  In any case Pr. Maggie Lux Cumings, died at age 37 and has left behind in this earthly life her husband of 11 years and two children ages 8 and 4 years old.  Maggie’s last name at birth, Lux, means light in Latin.  And throughout her all-too-short lifetime she lived up to her name as her obituary describes her as “effervescent, wise, witty, comforting and irrepressibly cheerful.”  She was the life of the party or worship or even at long, planning meetings for synod assemblies, not as the center of attention, but because she included everyone and just made things happen in delightful ways.

Our vineyard is indeed a mess.  We are messed up.  And lo and behold, God loves messed up people.  God does not stop going into seemingly hopeless situations.  Over and over again in our parable, the landowner keeps sending in more resources, even his beloved son whom they killed. 

The builders rejected the cornerstone . . . Jesus was crucified.  But death did not have the last word and never will.  Rock/paper/scissors!  Life conquers death.  Love overcomes hatred.

So let’s embrace the lament, but let’s not get stuck in judging others or paralyzed by fear.  God never gives up on us and all things are possible through God’s love.

Pr. Maggie was a fine writer and fortunately maintained a blog, so her legacy of sermons and reflections carry on.  So here are some words from Pr. Maggie’s blog during the past year as she continues to preach to all of us with the last words of this sermon:

“Let’s be gentle with each other.  And let’s be fierce against the forces of hatred, intolerance, and fear.  Let’s remember love.”

And all God’s people said:  Amen!

In Christ,

Pr. Joyce


Sunday Bible Readings – Month of October

You may find it helpful to read the weekly passages before each Sunday’s Worship service.

Sunday, Oct. 1  Jesus’ parable about two sons who don’t do what they say reveals surprises in the reign of God, such as prostitutes and tax collectors going before others into God’s kingdom. In the reading from Ezekiel the people question whether the ways of the Lord are unfair; instead they are to repent and turn to the Lord. Paul urges us to look to Christ as a model of humility, looking to the interests of others above our own. Nourished by the broken bread and shared cup, we offer our lives for the sake of our needy world.

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32  The fairness of God’s way
Psalm 25:1-9 
Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love. (Ps. 25:6)
Philippians 2:1-13 
C hrist humbled to the point of death on a cross
Matthew 21:23-32 
A parable of doing God’s will

Sunday, Oct. 8   In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells a parable of the vineyard, an image of Israel, the prophets’ mission, and Christ’s death. For Christians, the vineyard also speaks of God’s love poured out in the blood of Christ, given to us for the forgiveness of sin. Grafted onto Christ the vine at baptism, we are nourished with wine and bread, that we may share Christ’s sufferings and know the power of his resurrection.

Isaiah 5:1-7 The song of the vineyard
Psalm 80:7-15 
Look down from heaven, O God; behold and tend this vine. 

Philippians 3:4b-14 Nothing surpasses the value of knowing Christ
Matthew 21:33-46 
The parable of the vineyard owner’s son

 Sunday, Oct. 15   In Isaiah we are given a vision of the great feast to come, when God will wipe away death forever. In Jesus’ parable about a great banquet, those invited do not come, so the invitation is extended to others. In our liturgy God spreads a table before us. Even amid anxiety and hardship we rejoice in the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. With great joy we feast at the table of the Lord, and we go forth to share the wonderful invitation with others hungering and thirsting for the abundant life of God.

Isaiah 25:1-9 The feast of victory
Psalm 23  
You prepare a table before me, and my cup is running over. (Ps. 23:5)

Philippians 4:1-9 Rejoice in the Lord always
Matthew 22:1-14 
The parable of the unwelcome guest at the wedding feast

 Sunday, Oct. 22   In today’s first reading God uses the Gentile ruler Cyrus to accomplish divine purposes. When the Pharisees try to trap Jesus, he tells them to give the emperor what belongs to him and to God what belongs to God. To gather for worship reminds us that our ultimate allegiance is to God rather than to any earthly authority. Created in the image of God, we offer our entire selves in the service of God and for the sake of the world.

Isaiah 45:1-7 An earthly ruler as the instrument of God’s will
Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]  
Ascribe to the Lord honor and power. (Ps. 96:7)

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 Thanksgiving for the church at Thessalonica
Matthew 22:15-22 
A teaching on giving to the emperor and to God

Sunday, Oct. 29  Jesus’ summary of the law in today’s gospel echoes our first reading from Leviticus. We are called not only to love God with heart, soul, and mind, but also to love our neighbor as ourselves. It is out of such deep care that Paul shares the gospel with the Thessalonian community. In the confession of sins, we acknowledge that we have not loved God, neighbor, and self; yet we gather to hear the word of forgiveness and to be strengthened by word and meal to be signs of God’s love and mercy in the world.

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 Holiness revealed in acts of justice
Psalm 1 
Their delight is in the law of the Lord. (Ps. 1:2)

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 The apostle’s tender care for the Thessalonians
Matthew 22:34-46 
Two great commandments: love for God and neighbor


pr. joyce

Sunday Sermon – Pr. Joyce Piper

Philippians 2: 1-131502435_488720847898065_5065822072428423218_o (1)

This text from Philippians 2 is a favorite for many.  It is one of the most ancient hymns in Christendom.   It helps us to reflect on what it means to follow Christ, to be a servant in Jesus’ name, to proclaim his love and truth also in this time and place.

For Paul, it meant enormous hardship, imprisonment (this letter to the Philippians was written from prison) . . . more sacrifices than most of us can ever imagine, serving in Jesus’ name.  Paul expressed his hard choice to the Philippians, a choice between continuing to struggle and suffer in this life of serving Christ or to live fully with Christ in death beyond this earthly struggle.  He could not imagine living in Christian servanthood without further suffering.  Death in Christ held some appeal for him.  But ultimately death seemed to him to be a selfish end to his suffering.  It was his love for the Christian community at Philippi and his dedication to them that tipped the scales towards continuing on in his servant life in Christ in spite of the personal cost.

It’s hard for me, for most of us I suspect, to imagine the suffering and hardship Paul faced for proclaiming Jesus Christ.  In NE MN we live in a place and time where Christianity is still culturally normative.  Northern European Lutherans are particularly dense here, as it is sometimes said with a humble pun intended!

So what would Paul notice if he came to the Iron Range today?  He would be truly amazed at the machinery and the mines and the idea of enormous ships made of steel.  That’s not how he traveled on his missionary journeys.  And that new bridge, wow!

Paul would notice we’ve gone beyond meeting in house churches to some beautiful, large gathering spaces for worship and structures for serving in Jesus’ name.

Paul would notice what’s missing as well . . . what happened to persecution for one’s faith?  When did following Christ stop being a threat to the Roman Empire?

Certainly there are still places in the world today where Christian lives are in danger.  People of many religions are unfortunately not safe in our world.  Persecution of Christians still happens, but probably not here in NE MN.

In our context, that has in recent times been characterized by Lutheran Christianity being quite normative, perhaps domestication of our faith is a much greater danger than being persecuted for it.

So what does it mean to grow into Christ’s image?

What does servanthood in the name of Jesus Christ look like?

We may not face persecution for our faith, but our lives may be poured out in other ways, for others, for the love of Jesus Christ.  That is still the mark of Christian servanthood, that we may be known for our love of God and love of our neighbors.

We and so many others are hungry for a life of meaning and service in Jesus’ name.  Paul’s words of unity and self-sacrifice may sound like a foreign language to our ears in the midst of negative political rhetoric and character assassination of one’s opponents.

Imagine running a political campaign, as Paul spread the good news of Jesus Christ, with these words:

Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself taking the form of a servant.

This is indeed Good News, news of a difference.  This is our calling as followers of Christ, to pour ourselves out for the sake of others.  We are relieved of the burden of trying to make life turn out OUR way.  There is something more important than my preferences . . . it’s humility before God.

We are called to be emptied of ourselves, for Christ’s sake, to look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others.  This is a life worth living and one that will take all the energy that we have.

We carry a gospel that the world is very hungry to hear, whether it knows it or not.  It is a gospel that is capable of looking death and loss square in the eye and not blinking.  Life in Christ, the living Word of God, sustains us during threats of war and devastating storms.

Life in Christ is full, because Jesus emptied himself for us and for others.

We are called to share this Good News with those whose lives are filled with lots of other news and information overload.  We are called to share this Good News with many who don’t attend church on a regular basis, sometimes in our own families, sadly enough.  But it happens.  You never know when seeds will take root.  Sometimes it skips a generation, but God’s word does not return empty . . .

Our granddaughter Ava once asked me a few years ago, “Grandma, do you know how I know about Jesus and God?”  “No, Ava, how’s that?” I said.  “Well, because of that Bible that you and Grandpa gave me,” she said.  Ava’s parents do not attend worship in their Seattle neighborhood, but they did bring our granddaughters to be baptized in Grandpa’s congregation in Duluth (this scenario we often encounter in our families, families without a local congregational connection . . . but better to have a distant connection than none at all).  So one October all the 6-year olds at Good Shepherd received their Bibles, including Ava whose Bible was mailed to her.  It came with a nice inscription to her from her only congregation and she insisted right then that her parents read her a chapter every night at bedtime.  There is a hunger and a delight in God’s word that overcomes the slimmest of chances that it might be heard.

We all will be emptied, depleted even at times.  But it is this same life in Christ that fills us and keeps us planted like trees by streams of water.

We serve the living Word, the love of Christ that fills our souls.  Depletion happens.  Sometimes we’ve poured ourselves out for the love of Christ and our neighbors.  Sometimes life’s storms, illness, or death overshadows our joy.  Sometimes we’re just out of gas from trivial things that don’t seem important at all.  In any case, it is the living Word, the love of Christ, emptied and given for us and for our neighbors that fills our souls for another day lived in Jesus’ name.

We are called to be emptied for Christ’s sake and also filled again by his Word.  Daily pouring out our lives for Jesus and others; daily receiving Him anew in his Word and in his love.


pr. joyce

Sunday Sermon – Pr. Joyce Piper

1502435_488720847898065_5065822072428423218_o (1)That’s not fair!  How often do we hear that complaint . . . On the playground?  At the office?   At home?   In church?!

Life is not always fair.  And for sure, God is NOT fair!!  God is just, but God is NOT fair, according to human standards.  And that’s lucky for us!  Because NONE of us DESERVES God’s grace, but we too are included in it.

From Matthew’s gospel and our OT lesson from Jonah, we come face to face with the nature of God and the nature of humanity.

The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding steadfast love.

We human beings are often quite the opposite of God:  quick to anger, prone to resentment, good at holding grudges and keeping score.   We are not only resentful of one another, but we may also be resentful of mercy shown by someone else who carries greater responsibility and has a grasp of the larger good of a situation (resenting kindness by a parent, a teacher, an employer, even God’s mercy).

We have a tendency, as our gospel parable illustrates, to covet,    to be resentful of what others receive from God. The owner of the vineyard asks those who have worked longest and (presumably) hardest for him, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” The point is that God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness are God’s to give away as God sees fit.

As a result of this, we may also covet God’s power to forgive and God’s control over who is forgiven and how.

This parable is perfectly matched in the lectionary to the parable of Jonah, who has run away to avoid delivering the message of forgiveness that God has sent him to proclaim. Jonah complains (he complains!), “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing,” and surely this cannot be for them? It is ironic that Jonah, who had earlier declared that “deliverance belongs to the Lord” (2:9, a deliverance he himself has experienced), has rejected the good news of who God is for others.

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is about coveting, about our frustration with the grace of God as it applies, not to us, but to others, especially when we think we got here first or deserve something more.

I dearly love both my granddaughters who are now 13 and almost 11 years old, and thanks to training in several sports they have both learned about sportsmanship and working as a team.  But the envious eye of first–born Ava towards her little sister Ella was quite obvious 10 years ago.  Two-and-a-half year old Ava barked at her mother holding new-born Ella:  Put her down!  Give her to Dad!

Ava’s ego-centric view of what was most important or who needed attention at that moment was astounding.  She arrived first in her parents’ 30-something lives and received their full attention for a couple years before Ella came along. So sharing became a new concept that she had to come to terms with.  It goes both ways between the sisters of course, but first-comers sometimes get a particularly skewed perspective about where the center of the universe lies.

And of course we do not naturally outgrow resentment just by becoming adults.  We may wonder inside our congregations why participation is declining even in places of population growth.  We may be blinded to how “inside” our perspectives towards others have become over the decades.  Newcomers may no longer be willing be involved in “the way it’s always been” or to the expectations that earlier-comers may continue to carry.

Beyond our congregations, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard carries particular meaning for the demographics of employment in the state of Minnesota and elsewhere in our nation.  With the aging and retirement of “baby-boomers” there may soon be too few workers to maintain productivity levels.   With current trajectories, there will be more retired folks and fewer workers in the active work force, not enough caregivers for our aging population and not enough workers to keep production going.  Resenting new workers in our midst may not be in our own self-interest in the long run.  Who’s going to take care of us?!

It may be tempting to see ourselves as being the first-comers in this parable.  As Gentiles, we are actually late-comers to the gospel of Jesus that was first shared with the Jews.  As descendants of northern European immigrants to the United States in the mid-to-late 1800’s, we are late-comers to a place inhabited for several 1000’s of years by First Nation peoples.

But we become the early workers in this parable every time we resent God’s mercy extended to others.  Whenever we complain about perceived unfairness, we become the early workers.  And grumbling in community is a deadly poison.  We become like the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, longing for the good old days of slavery back in Egypt, turning our backs on the future.

Jonah is the ultimate grumbling servant . . . nothing prophetic about his behavior!  It is human nature to want mercy for ourselves and justice for others.  Only by God’s grace are we able to see others with God’s eyes.  Only by God’s grace can we love our neighbors as ourselves, taking their perspective, understanding that they too have human needs and human rights.

Living in gratitude is a primary way of living a life worthy of the gospel.  It is impossible to be resentful and grateful at the same time.  We have a choice to count our blessings, whatever we have, or to resent our neighbors, our life circumstances or maybe even God that we don’t have as much as we would like to have.  All that we do have is lost, meaningless, when we live in resentment.

Think again for a moment, of what resentment does to the grumbling day laborers. Rather than feeling fortunate to have found work for the day, they feel unfortunate at not having received more. Rather than rejoicing that these later workers — who waited all day for the prospect of work . . . . And have you ever been unemployed? How much work and stress does that mean to be out of work?!  The later workers can return home blessed to be able to feed their families, but the early workers only begrudge them, perhaps even curse them, their good fortune. And rather than be grateful to the landowner who has given them an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work, the early workers only grumble with resentment.

God calls us to live abundant lives, lives focused on gratitude, instead of wanting more.  We are only truly alive when we are giving thanks.

Jesus’ parables challenge our basic assumptions . . . and that is a good thing . . .

Here are some assumptions for living in abundance vs. assumptions of scarcity:

God loves me and all of creation deeply and profoundly.

I am made in God’s image and so is everyone else.

There is nothing we can do to earn or deserve God’s generosity.  It is pure grace.

There are enough resources in our congregation, community and the world for everyone.  Distribution is our primary challenge.

God’s generosity is beyond our wildest imaginations!

These assumptions of abundance make me feel lighter just in expressing them!

It’s true as stated in the prophet Isaiah that our thoughts and ways will never reach those of God, but when we live and act in gratitude we do indeed draw closer to God.

In Jesus’ name.



Sunday Sermon – Pr. David

20150413_104923ALL SAINTS SUNDAY

Year B

November 1, 2015

John 1:1-45

Philippians 3:13-14

Pastor David Tryggestad

Our Savior’s Lutheran Church

Virginia, Minnesota

“Lazarus, come out!”

“Unbind him, and let him go.”

Two commands of our Lord. The first is to each and every one of us personally, as Jesus inserts our own name: “Lazarus, come out! Mary, come out! John, come out! Sally, come out!” “Come out into the fullness of life I have intended for you.”

The second is to us as a Christian community: “Unbind him, and let him go.” “Unwrap the bonds that bind them. Remove the shroud that enfolds them. Shed light into the darkness that overwhelms them. Loose the chains of oppression that ensnare them. Remove the barriers that bar them. Sever the cords of addiction that grip them. Break the cycle of violence that curses them. Give voice to the fear that silences them.” “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Twelve candles burn on the altar this morning, one for each person whose funeral or memorial service was held through Our Savior’s in the past year. Each light represents a life—and not only one life, but the many lives of the many, many people who loved or who were loved by these twelve people. Each and every one of these beloved ones in whose memories these candles burn heard Jesus call them, in many and various ways throughout their lives, especially during their times of difficulty and doubt, “Lazarus, come out!” “Come out into the light of my love. Come out into the abundant life I offer you. Come out of the blight of sadness into the fullness of joy.”

And in each and every case, these beloved ones in whose memories these candles burn experienced being unbound by you, through worship in this sacred space, through the many and various ministries of this congregation, or through agencies of the larger church. Through you, these people experienced being unbound. “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Today we make commitments that will ensure that these various ministries of unbinding will continue into the future, to ensure that Our Savior’s will continue to be a healthy community of hospitality and healing, of teaching and learning, and of service to the world.

Our stewardship theme this year is, “Looking Forward with Willing Hearts.” The Scripture verse that informs our theme is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own, but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).

I was excited when I first learned that this was our stewardship verse. It was my grandfather’s favorite verse. Some of my favorite memories as a young child were sitting between my grandparents in worship in the little country church in Wisconsin, hearing the sweet soprano of my grandmother and the strong baritone of my grandfather, singing hymns of faith. I remember how my grandmother comforted me, reminding me of Jesus, as I wept over the death of two little kittens I was trying to keep alive after they were abandoned by their mother. I remember the stories of how that little congregation in the country surrounded and supported my grandparents when their barn burned down early on Christmas morning, killing all the livestock inside—and they went to church to worship! “O Come, All Ye Faithful, Joyful and Triumphant!”

And I remember how it was I came to learn of my grandfather’s favorite Bible verse, our stewardship verse. I had the privilege to preach for my grandfather’s funeral, and my uncle, his oldest son, told me the story of how Grandpa had taught him how to plow a straight furrow, as he guided the plow that the horse was pulling. My uncle got behind the plow and urged the horse on, and when he got to the other end of the long field, turned around and looked back to examine his furrow. It went this way and that way and this way and that way. When he got back to the other end of the field, in the place where he had started, Grandpa, who had observed all of this, directed my uncle’s gaze to a particular tree at the other end of the field. He said, “Don’t take your eyes off that tree, and your furrow will be straight.” Then Grandpa said, “It’s like the verse in the Bible: ‘. . . forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’” A farmer who was also a theologian!

For my uncle, the result of Grandpa’s teaching was a straight furrow. But it was much more than that. It was a life, “. . . forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,” of pressing on “toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” It was a life steeped in faith and hope and love.

My uncle’s furrow may have been straight, but there is very little, if anything, about the Christian life that is straight. Life throws us many curve balls, and even some fast balls that may knock us over. There was nothing straight about my grandparent’s barn burning down on Christmas. There was nothing straight about my grandfather’s father dying after being gored by his own bull. There was nothing straight about my grandmother’s father dying from blood poisoning after butchering the Christmas beef.

There is very little if anything straight about the Christian life. Indeed, sometimes our Lord may call us to a radically different life in a radically different direction.

Yet in all of this, we look to Jesus, “. . . forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,” pressing on “toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

“. . . forgetting what lies behind . . .” What lies behind can bind us, every bit as much as Lazarus was bound. What lies behind can paralyze us. What lies behind can control us. What lies behind can prevent us from moving ahead to the future into which our Lord calls us. Forgetting what lies behind involves deep forgiveness—both embracing the forgiveness of our Lord and extending that forgiveness to those around us.

“Lazarus, come out!”

“Unbind him, and let him go.”

Two commands of our Lord. The first is to each and every one of us personally, as Jesus inserts our own name: “Lazarus, come out! Come out into the fullness of life I have intended for you.”

The second is to us as a Christian community: “Unbind him, and let him go.” “Unwrap the bonds that bind them. Remove the shroud that enfolds them. Shed light into the darkness that overwhelms them. Loose the chains of oppression that ensnare them. Remove the barriers that bar them. Sever the cords of addiction that grip them. Break the cycle of violence that curses them. Give voice to the fear that silences them.” “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Twelve candles burn on the altar this morning, each representing one beloved of our Lord. Each of them had heard the call and claim of their Lord in their lives. Each had experience a measure of being unbound by the love and faithfulness of this congregation.

And, finally, at the last, according to the sure and certain hope of the resurrection as guaranteed to us through the death and resurrection of our Lord, each of them will hear our Lord cry out with a loud voice:

“Yvonne, come out!”

“Calvin, come out!”

“LaVerne, come out!”

“James, come out!”

“Beverly, come out!”

“Raymond, come out!”

“Earl, come out!”

“Roy, come out!”

“Shirley, come out!”

“Eldon, come out!”

“John, come out!”

“Luann, come out!”


Thanks be to God!

Sunday Sermon – Pr. David



Year B, Lectionary 30

October 25, 2015

Jeremiah 31:7-9

Mark 10:46-52

Pastor David Tryggestad

Our Savior’s Lutheran Church

Duluth, Minnesota

“Believing is seeing.”

Common wisdom says the opposite: “Seeing is believing.” But biblical faith invites us to consider the opposite: “Believing is seeing.”

Bartimaeus is blind. But he knows who Jesus is: “Jesus, Son of David.” That is: “Messiah.” The disciples, though they see, do not understand. They fail to see.

“Believing is seeing.”

The Gospel writer Mark gives us only two accounts of Jesus healing a blind man: at the beginning and at the end of the section of narrative about discipleship, chapters 8, 9, and 10, the section that includes Jesus’ three passion predictions, the three explicit statements to his disciples that he will be arrested, that he will suffer, and that he will die.

In the first account in chapter 8, Jesus and his disciples encounter a blind man in Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26). The people of the area beg Jesus to heal him. Jesus takes him aside, puts saliva on the man’s eyes and lays hands on him. Then Jesus asks, “Can you see anything.” He replies, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking” (Mark 8:24). Evidently the healing was only partial. So Jesus lays hands on his eyes again, then then the man can see clearly. What’s going on? I’ll come back to this story.

What does it mean that this section of narrative about discipleship is bracketed by the healing of two blind men?

The second blind man is Bartimaeus, the story in our Gospel today. Bartimaeus in his blindness stands in stark contrast to the unbelief of the disciples. Bartimaeus, though blind, perceives who Jesus is—Son of David—and he knows that Jesus can help him. The disciples, in contrast, fail to understand who Jesus is and argue about which of them is the greatest. Why is it that we are sometimes—or often—surprised by the faith of someone we might consider an outsider?!

Jesus declares to Bartimaeus, “Your faith has made you well”—literally—“your faith has saved you.” In Confirmation we are learning about the Reformation. One of the foundational verses for Martin Luther and the Lutheran Church is one that the girls in Confirmation have committed to memory: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God . . .” (Ephesians 2:8). (The boys in Confirmation have memorized different verses, all significant to the Reformation.) Jesus declares to Bartimaeus, “Your faith has made you well”—literally—“your faith has saved you.”

The genuineness of the faith of Bartimaeus is that, having received his sight, he follows Jesus. The genuineness of faith is not how well we know our Bibles, or how many verses of Scripture we can quote, or how well we pray, though all these things are beneficial. The genuineness of faith is in following Jesus. How many people, after encountering Jesus, walk away, even those who walk away sorrowful, like the rich man in our Gospel two weeks ago?

The last three words in our Gospel for today are “on the way.” Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way. On the way is the way of discipleship. It is a journey, not a destination. And all are invited, regardless of status. Our Confirmation young people are on the way, and the way does not end when Confirmation ends, rather, it’s a milestone on the way.

Perhaps more than being a healing story, our Gospel story today is a call narrative—a call story: three times in verse 49, Mark writes the word call: “Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you’” (emphases added). Jesus calls Bartimaeus and his call is mediated through the disciples. Have you ever considered that you—as a congregation as well as individuals—are mediators of God’s call on others?

As a congregation, you are in the process of discerning extending a call to a pastor. The call comes through you, but the call originates in God. The call is authenticated by God. The call is empowered by God.

As individual Christians, we all have the high calling to be mediators of God’s call to others. Consider in your own heart when you have been a mediator of God’s call to another.

Many people stand outside our circle of fellowship. Some of those are seeking Jesus, even if they don’t articulate their seeking in those words. But they are seeking. Perhaps they, like blind Bartimaeus, are making a disturbance, causing a problem, making a nuisance of themselves. Perhaps we, like the disciples, would try to silence them, as the disciples sternly warned Bartimaeus to be silent. Perhaps we try to shut them out, or to put roadblocks in front of them. But Bartimaeus cries out all the more. Those on the outside seeking Jesus cry out all the more.

Have you considered that Jesus may be calling us to be a mediator of God’s call to those on the outside? Who are those “making noise,” trying to get our attention, when we would rather silence them?

A few weeks ago, our Confirmation young people wrote some of their deep questions about faith and life and God on post-it notes; they are displayed on a bulletin board toward the west wing of the building. Youth Director Meagan compared the posting of these questions to Martin Luther posting his 95 Thesis to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany, on October 31, 1517, an event we celebrate today and every Reformation Sunday. We join thousands of congregations across the globe celebrating Confirmation/Affirmation of Baptism, on Reformation Sunday.

Have we as a congregation and as individuals taken the questions and cries of our young people seriously? Have we been mediators of God’s call on their lives? If we don’t take the questions and cries of our young people seriously, how are they to take the church seriously?

Back to the story of the blind man of Bethsaida who was healed twice. It’s the only instance in the Gospels where Jesus had to heal a second time. Did Jesus not get it right the first time? Did Jesus mess up? Was his power inadequate the first time? What’s going on?

The two healings of blind men bracket the narrative about discipleship. Despite Jesus’ three-time explicit teaching about his impending suffering and death, his disciples fail to understand. They fail to see. They lack the faith to see—to understand. They are like the blind man from Bethsaida, who sees at first, but only in part. He sees men, “but they look like trees, walking.”

Perhaps we are like the disciples. Perhaps we see only partially, or not at all, or fail to understand, or get it wrong more than we get it right, are always jockeying for position, arguing about who is greatest (but perhaps arguing in a more Scandinavian passive-aggressive manner!).

We are all blind, like the man in Bethsaida who was healed twice, or like blind Bartimaeus. In our First Lesson from the Jeremiah, God sings through the prophet of a time when God promises to gather the lost remnant, including the blind and the lame (Jeremiah 31:8). The Good News is that Jesus calls us, in whatever state of blindness we may be, whether we don’t have a clue who Jesus is, or whether we see partially, like the blind man of Bethsaida, who sees men who look like trees walking. The Good News is that Jesus calls all of us who cry out to him: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Like Bartimaeus, we are all blind beggars. It is said that, at the death of Martin Luther, a note was found in his coat pocket written in his hand: “We are all beggars, it is true.” Martin Luther, declared by TIME magazine to be the most influential person of the entire second Millennium, summed up his life: “We are all beggars, it is true.” Like blind Bartimaeus, we cry, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Thanks be to God!

Sunday Sermon – Pr. David

1502435_488720847898065_5065822072428423218_o (1)THE TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Year B, Lectionary 29

October 18, 2015

Mark 10:35-45

Pastor David Tryggestad

Our Savior’s Lutheran Church

Virginia, Minnesota

“Don’t you wish your mother were here?!”

I think we were still in our 20s when my wife, Lynn, and I visited her home in Charles City, Iowa. Damon, one of her best friends from high school, came over, along with his mother, a good friend of Lynn’s mother. Damon and Lynn had performed many skits, variety shows, and musicals together in school and they were catching up on old stories. There was a lot of laughter.

It wasn’t long, however, when it became the two mothers who were telling the stories, each about the many accomplishments of her own offspring, so that it turned into a kind of back-and-forth duel: “My son, Damon . . .” “Well, my daughter, Lynn . . .” There seemed to be no curb on hyperbole; each zealous mother tried to outdo the other, it seemed to me.

Until, finally, Damon turned to me and exclaimed, “Don’t you wish your mother were here?!”

Mothers can be ferocious promoters of their own children.

I tell this story because our Gospel story from Mark is retold by Matthew, whose Gospel came later. It seems Matthew must have been embarrassed by the question of the disciples, James and John: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. . . . Grant us so sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” So when Matthew tells the story, it is not the disciples who ask the question; rather, it is their mother (Matthew 20:20-22). Matthew would blame their mother for their obtuseness as well as their self-promoting agenda.

As Oprah once famously said, “The time finally comes when we have to stop blaming our mothers for everything that’s wrong with our lives.”

Our Gospel writer, Mark, would agree. Throughout his telling of the Gospel story, Mark holds nothing back in depicting Jesus’ disciples as they truly were: fearful, disbelieving, jealous, and slow to understand.

Today’s Gospel story comes immediately on the heels of Jesus’ third passion prediction—his open and straight talk about how he will suffer and die in Jerusalem, and on the third day be raised. And in each and every instance, the disciples don’t get it. In fact, it is almost as if they refuse to believe it.

You will recall that, in the instance of the first passion prediction, the disciple Peter rebukes Jesus (Mark 8:31-32). We can hear him say, as the Gospel writer Matthew puts it, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22). We wonder if he is thinking, “If this can happen to Jesus, then it might also happen to us.”

In the sequence of the second passion prediction, the disciples are arguing amongst themselves who is the greatest (Mark 9:30-34).

Today’s Gospel story comes immediately following Jesus’ third passion prediction:

“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” (Mark 10:33-34)

It doesn’t get any clearer than that!

Yet immediately James and John put themselves forward requesting places of honor.

How ironic it is that those disciples closest to Jesus, his “inner circle” of Peter, James, and John, those who share some of Jesus’ most intimate moments, are precisely the three specifically implicated in seeming to reject Jesus’ predictions of his suffering and death. Or do they just not get it?

The disciples want prestige; Jesus offers servanthood:

“. . . whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-45)

This past Friday night, I went to the movie, He Named Me Malala. It is a documentary of the life of Malala Yousafzai, the teenaged girl from Pakistan who was shot in the head and left for dead by the Taliban because she spoke out for the education of girls and refused to be silenced, even under threat of death. In 2009, the summer Malala turned 12 years old, she wrote a blog for the BBC under a pseudonym, telling about life under the control of the Taliban in their efforts to eradicate education for girls, as they publicly intimidated individuals and families and bombed schools. The next summer a New York Times documentary brought Malala international recognition, and, despite the threat of violence from the Taliban, she continued to speak out against the Taliban and to advocate for education. In 2012, when she was only 15, she was shot through the head, and, for many days, her life hung in the balance. Her recovery was nothing short of miraculous, though she is left with some permanent impairment. Rather than being silenced, the assassination attempt has emboldened her more than ever, though she is not able to return to the country she loves and calls home. In 2014, she was named co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest Nobel laureate in history, at age 17.

[My wife, a retired high school English teacher, never ceased to grieve over how much so many of her students resented being in school.]

Since seeing the movie, I can’t help but compare the courage of a teenaged girl to the faithlessness of Jesus’ disciples.

But the story’s not over.

Jesus says to James and John, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized . . .” Jesus speaks metaphorically of suffering. Even Jesus himself grieves over the cup of his pending suffering; in the Garden of Gethsemane, he implores, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me . . .” (Mark 14:36). But then he continues, “. . . yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

The disciples would indeed drink the cup of suffering that Jesus drinks, and they would indeed be baptized with the baptism of suffering with which Jesus is baptized.

A striking photo hangs both in the office and in the pastor’s study here at Our Savior’s: the cross hanging over the altar at the front of the sanctuary. Two spotlights illuminate the scene, one from each side. The resulting two shadows outline a cross to the right and another to the left of the central cross. I am reminded of the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion on Golgotha, with three crosses, one to Jesus’ right and the other to his left.

Two criminals died with Jesus on Golgotha. But the disciples would, each in their turn, take their turns in drinking the cup and being baptized in suffering. James—the same James in our Gospel story—would be the first disciple to die, not on a cross, but by the sword. Peter, according to tradition, would be crucified upside down. He insisted he was unworthy to be crucified upright, as his Lord was. Indeed, all the disciples would suffer persecution and all but one would be put to death for their faithfulness. As the story unfolded, the portrayal that Mark paints of obtuse and faithless disciples proves, in the end, to be incomplete. All served their Lord with devotion and even joy.

The only disciple not to be killed for his devotion to Jesus, according to tradition, was John, the John of our Gospel story today. Some scholars believe it was the same John who left us with these words: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (I John 3:16). John saw it; he witnessed it; and he experienced the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

If the disciple John in our Gospel story reflects each of us in our own halting and feeble discipleship, we can take heart and rejoice that this same John who penned these words, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us . . .” helps us to see who we may become in our own response to Jesus: “. . . whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

Thanks be to God!