Category Archives: Jesus

Jesus is Dangerous

This post (longer than most) is based on a sermon I gave last Sunday at Trinity Lutheran in Lindstrom, MN based on Luke and Mark’s Gospels.  I dressed in a “Biblical” costume and told the Palm Sunday story from the perspective of Levi, a priest in the temple of Jerusalem.  Inspired by C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, I seek to move the congregation beyond mere observation. 

Levi enters from side door, speaking to unseen persons behind him.

Just a minute.  I agree something must be done and I will help, but first I have to meet with the visitors.   Maybe I can get their support.

(Turning to the congregation to greet them) Good Morning.

My name is Levi and I am one of the priests who serves here in the Temple of Jerusalem.  On behalf of High Priest Caiaphas, I want to welcome you to the Passover festival here in Jerusalem.

I know that some of you have come a long way to be here in Jerusalem and this is your first time in this magnificent Temple.  I hope you are impressed with the huge stones and craftsmanship.

I must apologize for being a bit late. You see we have a problem.  A big problem and it is growing.  You might think it is just a problem for the priest and servants of the temple.  But it is a problem for each of you as well.

Model of the Second Temple in Jerusalem By Berthold Werner - Own work, Public Domain,

Model of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.  By Berthold Werner – Own work, Public Domain,

First just a bit of background.  This temple has been here for more than 50 years, built by the great King Herod.  It reminds us of the great temple built by King Solomon, a thousand years ago, but Solomon’s temple was destroyed centuries ago and the second was built over its foundation.

As you know temples are important.  They give us a sense of calm and peace in an age of great uncertainty.   I am guessing most of you came here today to find some peace and calm, some rest for your soul.  Here in the rituals and music of the temple we can feel safe; we are able to block out the terrible evils of the world.  Like the dread Roman army that occupies our land.  Or for you it might be the problems in your families or work or at school or with friends.  We can escape for a time.

We need places like this temple to find rest for our weary soul.  In a sense, to find oil to replenish our lamps.  The temple can be a safe haven, a safe harbor, in a dangerous world.

But that is our problem.  Danger has come here, into the temple itself.

The danger is a man named Jesus of Nazareth.   A troublemaker first class, that we need to take care of.

I heard of Jesus several months ago.  There were reports coming from Galilee, that province up north, about a man doing miracles and teaching.  A prophet like John the Baptist.  Stories and rumors of his deeds came to our attention, but we, the priests, ignored them.  We have sufficient problems keeping a great institution like the Temple running to worry about some crackpot prophet in distant Galilee.

Oh a few scribes were sent to observe him, to test him. And I am sure he is a crackpot.  For example, this Jesus claimed the power to forgive sins.   Just who does he think he is?  Only God can do that, and only when we have a sacrifice here in the temple.  Jesus seems to think he could speak for God.   How could he be a prophet, nothing good can come from Nazareth, that tiny insignificant town.

The stories kept growing.  5,000 people fed, a lake storm quieted.  But you know how people like to embellish the truth.   I am sure none of you would fall for such preposterous rumors.

I and the other priests tried to ignore these stories and Jesus.  To talk about him only seem to inflame the crowds.  But then last Sunday, our hands were forced.  We have to deal with him, because he came here to Jerusalem.

Jesus rides into Jerusalem

And in no quiet way either.   He came like a king, riding a donkey. I bet some of you saw it.  As you well know, there are always huge crowds coming to Jerusalem for the Passover festival.  And the crowd, like foolish children, cut down palm branches and took off their robes and laid them in the street.   They shout Hosanna, Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna means “save us.”  How could Jesus possibly save us?

I certainly hope none of you were shouting his name or cutting down palm branches.  I hope none of you were drawn into his promises and claims.

Jesus is dangerous and to be avoided at all cost.

Then after the parade, Jesus came into our temple and cleaned out all the money changers and sellers of turtle-dove and lambs.  He threw over table and pushed people out of the courtyard.  He made some speech about how this is to be a house of prayer.  Well certainly we can pray here, but how are we to do our business without the money changers to take the filthy Roman coins and exchange them for proper Jewish coins?  Or how are people to make a sacrifice for Passover without sheep or turtle-dove.  I see that none you are carrying a turtle-dove with you.  There is a practical side to running a temple after all.

“Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple” by New Zealand artist Michael Smither, 1972 (Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection, New Zealand)

Jesus is dangerous and he has stirred up the crowds.  Some think he is the Messiah, the anointed one of God.  Last night I was a supper with Simon, my cousin.  Jesus was there as well.  I told Simon not to invite him, but Simon went ahead in spite of my advice.  I looked Jesus over carefully. He was a simple ordinary man.  He ate with two hands, he drank wine, he even laughed at Simon’s bad jokes. Nothing unusual there.

anointing_jesusNothing unusual until a woman from the street came into the room.  She is not the proper woman I would allow into my home.  She carried an alabaster jar of perfume. I could tell this was not some cheap perfume, but the very expensive kind. She walked right up to Jesus, broke open the bottle and poured the whole bottle on his head, just like he were a king.  I immediately object to this waste of money.  I said, “This ointment is a waste.  It could have sold for several thousands of dollars and the money given to the poor.”   I thought for sure Jesus would join in my rebuttal.  He would see the waste.

But no, He rebukes me and gives praise to the woman. That she has done a very good deed.

Good deed, my eye.

Jesus should not be anointed.  He should be locked away in prison.

You know what he said about the temple.  One of his disciples told me that he said, “This temple will be destroyed.”  This beautiful, magnificent temple destroyed.  God forbid.

How can we worship God without a temple, without the institution?

Where are you to go to offer sacrifice for God’s forgiveness if the temple is destroyed?  How will you know you are forgiven unless blood is shed?

For Jesus to talk about the temple being destroyed, he should die!

That is what we were discussing back there before I greeted you.

How to stop Jesus!  Stop him from making more trouble.

And most of us agreed, he must die.

Oh we could execute him by stoning him to death for blaspheme against God, as Jewish law permits.  But the crowd may interfere.

So someone had the idea, “Let’s take him to Pontius Pilate. (Pilate is the Roman Governor), “We can use Jesus’ claim as King as the reason to execute him.”  After all the Roman form of execution, crucifixion, is such a horrible way to die.  But it will show all his followers that Jesus is a fake King.

The Crucifixion by Matthias GrunewaldDon’t you think it would be fitting for King Jesus to have the cross as his throne?

And after he is dead, we can go after all his disciples.

All his disciples, except for one.  One who was smart enough to come to us and help us.  I met him at Simon’s dinner last night. The disciple agreed to find an opportune time to turn on Jesus, when the crowd is not around.  A smart man, that Judas Iscariot.  You can learn from him.

Which leads me back to you.  What role will you play in this unfolding story?

I am sure most of you see the danger in Jesus.

Do you really want a King who tears down temples and says that God is free to go anywhere, be anywhere?

Don’t you feel safe with God here in this box, where you can come for comfort and support?

Do you really want God out there in your everyday world, in every nook and cranny of your life, who can surprise and disrupt your lives? Won’t you prefer to run your own life?

One thing I will guarantee.

garden tombBy the end of this week, Jesus will be dead and buried in a cold dark tomb.

And that will be the end of his story and his mission.

And within a few months his name will be forgotten.

I see some skeptical looks on your faces.

Do some of you actually believe Jesus’ talk about rising from the dead?

Don’t be so foolish?  How many resurrected people have you met?

The resurrection of Jesus is as likely as this magnificent temple being destroyed.  It will not happen.  Trust me.

I must go.  I need to meet that very smart man Judas and pay him for his help.

Remember, I have warned you.  Jesus is dangerous.  He could turn your life upside down and inside out.

Are you sure you want him as your king?

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The Light of Lent

As a child, I experienced Lent as an extra-long prelude to Good Friday. It had a dark, somber feeling to it. The themes all seem to center around the suffering of Jesus and the cross. Confession of sin was the central act of worship.  The dark sanctuary was a contrast to the bright morning light of Sunday worship.  The hymns we sang felt heavy and ponderous.   We did not walk to the cross – we crawled with scrapped knees and heavy hearts.

Is Lent meant to be so dark?  Does our Papa in heaven delight in the ways we berate ourselves?

One of the early purposes of Lent was to prepare new Christian believers for their baptism on Easter.  It was a time of instruction, and even fasting, but it had a joyous destination:  to be joined to Jesus in both his death and resurrection.

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:3-4).

The new life in Christ was the destination of celebration which colored the time of preparation with joy and light.

Gethsemane window background removed

Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane

The word Lent comes from an old English word that means “spring.” This year at Trinity Lutheran (where I am serving as interim senior pastor), our Lenten theme will have a spring like quality: The Garden of Prayer.  Inspired by the stain glass window above Trinity’s pipe organ, we will join Jesus in prayer.

The theme verse will be “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Each Wednesday evening together we will embrace a specific Christian form of prayer.  We will celebrate the rich ancient spiritual practices of Gratitude, Confession, Intercession and Meditation.  Like a loving father or mother, God delights in spending time with God’s children.  Let us join in that delight this coming Lent.

Lent begins next Wednesday, February 10.  Encourage you to find a way to center in with God’s Love during this holy season.

I will also be using this blog to highlight these different forms of prayer.  If you want to follow along sign-up for the weekly e-mail using the form in right hand column.

How has Lent impacted your life in Christ? 

Home for the Holidays?

My college was 3000 miles from my home.  Naturally I flew during the short winter break.   Once I was in Minneapolis for a connecting flight but a snow storm swelled and all flights were cancelled.   I remember looking out at the night, watching the snow swirl and wondering if I would get home for Christmas.

That memory has power today as I reflect on how many people in our world have no shelter.  The Syrian refugee crisis has made the homeless a daily part of our news cycle.   Economic and political refugees from Mexico and Central America continue to seek a home in our nation.  Aid agencies and churches seek to serve the homeless in our affluent cities.

Nativity by artist Shelia Diemert

And at the heart of my pondering is the story of Christmas itself.   A young couple forced by political powers to make a journey to Bethlehem.  There Mary gave birth to her son in a stable, because they had no place to stay.  A short time later the new family was forced to flee to Egypt because King Herod felt threatened, insecure.   Being homeless seems to be a key part of the ancient Christmas narrative.

Or at least it makes me ponder, just what is home?  Is it a place, a shelter, a palace or a shack?  Or a set of relationships?  As Robert Frost wrote, Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.   Or is home knowing your place in the universe?

As I read the Gospels, Jesus rarely had a permanent residence.  His early life in Nazareth is not described.  He himself said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).  What he did have was a network of friends, disciples, supporters, family.  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34-35).

The value of home ownership in our society is clear.  I have supported Habitat for Humanity for years and have seen the power a house can have for a family. To be without shelter is tragic.   But a house is not always “home.”  As another old proverb says, Home is where the heart is.   Where we feel connected and loved and our fears dissipate.  Jesus probably felt at home wherever he went, because he lived connected to God and others.   That same interconnection is for all creation, including you and me.

Eventually that snow storm in Minneapolis passed and flights resumed to Seattle.   I made it home for Christmas and celebrated with family and friends.  Yet the memory of that layover serves as a reminder that I remain connected to Christ and others wherever I am.  My truest home rests in Christ Jesus.

Where do you find your truest sense of home?

One Day, Two Good-byes

Sunday will be a unique day in my life and my ministry.  In the morning I will preach my last sermon for my congregation after five years of ministry; in the afternoon I will conduct the memorial service for my mom who died at the age of 89.

I choose October 25th to be my final Sunday a month ago.  Like all good-byes I am experiencing a mixture of emotions: sadness, loss,  but also some excitement and hope as I embark on a new venture.  I have sensed the powerful prayer support of family, friends and community as I transition in my ministry. (Read more here)

Mom and GraceMy mom, Sylvelin Keller, had been a nursing home resident for the past four years as dementia robbed her of speech and memory.   She did not know my name or converse when I visited but she could still smile and laugh.  She seemed happiest when she held her great granddaughter, Grace.

I was away at a pastor’s conference last week when I received the phone call that my mother had died in her sleep.   I was both surprised and relieved.  She had always said she wanted to die in her sleep and her wish had been granted.  Before I left the conference to travel home, my bishop gathered the other pastors around me for prayer.  Again I felt the great cloud of witness surrounding me.

Suzanne, Christina and Jon loved visit from FarFar and FarMor

Suzanne, Christina and Jon loved visits from FarFar and FarMor

My daughter, Suzanne Keller, wrote a post on Facebook that describes her relationship with her Farmor (grandmother):

As a child who grew up with scholarship and the struggle to dissect understanding of things as others created them, my Farmor was the greatest force of unrelenting creation I can remember.

She made things with her hands and her heart and turned the world from a place of study to a place to leave a thousand tiny marks. She sewed, she baked, she cooked and she made memories that my dad could recount with fondness with her own two hands. She sewed and embroidered entire expanses of my childhood. She lived across the country, but with one plate of cookies created an entire iconic aspect of my Christmases. She was a craftsman of cookies and memories, a legacy of genetics and stories.

My Farfar left me his name on a chain from fighting in World War II, and my Farmor left me with a packet of recipes and the understanding that a thousand little creations can create a story.

She and Michael Brashears, the two most creative people I’ve ever had the honor of knowing, passed in October. I wrote a poem in college calling fall the dying season, but what a hateful thing having the greatest composers of legacy leave us in the same month, if years apart. What a hateful thing to lose, what a beautiful thing to be transformed.

Mom surround by her children four years ago.

Mom surround by her children four years ago.

My mother had five children, who now are scattered from Kodiak Island, Alaska to Atlanta, Georgia.  Coordinating the date of her memorial service was challenging.   Finally the date that worked was Sunday, October 25, the same day as my final worship service.  Mom had joined my congregation five years ago when she moved to Minnesota.   I had been her pastor during that time and now I needed to do her memorial service.  I did not feel the need to baptize my children or marry my son, but this is somehow different.  Maybe it’s part of the fourth commandment.  I don’t know.

All I know is that Sunday will be filled with some incredible emotions, both sorrow and joy, as I say good-bye to a tribe and to a mother.   The one sure anchor in the midst of these storms is the very name of my congregation: Resurrection Lutheran Church.

cropped-2014-rlc-logo-cropped-2.jpgJesus said  “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” John 10:25

Beginning the Transition

Recently I posted on my decision to leave as Lead Pastor of Resurrection.   Today I am writing about my decision to train for interim ministry.

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end
Semisonic’s  “Closing Time”

I was introduced to transitions twenty years ago with William Bridges book, Transitions: Making Sense of Life Changes.   Bridges describes every transition as having three parts.

1.       An Ending
2.       An In-between  Period of Confusion/Distress
3.       A new Beginning.

"So long, partner" Woody, Toy Story 3

“So long, partner” Woody, Toy Story 3

Each part needs attention.   For example, right now I am in the midst of an ending as I prepare to leave Resurrection.  Ending always have some element of grief and pain, even when they are chosen endings. Bridges writes “Those who had chosen their transitions tended to minimize the importance of endings, almost as if they felt that to acknowledge that an ending was painful would be to admit that the transition was a mistake.”  Leaving a group of people who you love is hard.

question

The second part of a transition is often neglected in our instant society.  People and congregations like to rush immediately to the new beginning.   “Let’s call a new pastor as soon as possible!”  Sometimes a congregation is ready to call a new pastor.  Often they are not.

Before rushing to the new beginning, individuals and congregations need to pause and assess where they are and what God is doing.  Bridges calls this time “The Neutral Zone.”   I prefer to call it “The Wilderness Time,” remembering both the wilderness stories of Exodus and Jesus.   The Israelites spent forty years between the time they left slavery in Egypt and prior to their new start in the land of Canaan.  They wandered in the wilderness.  Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness after his baptism. His was a time of intense prayer as to what his ministry would be.

Christ in the Wilderness by Ivan Kramskoy

Christ in the Wilderness by Ivan Kramskoy

And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Mark 1:12-13)

The wilderness period can be an intensely spiritual time because the armor of daily routine and thought are cracked wide open.  The Spirit has new ways to penetrate the hardness of our hearts.   It can also be a time of darkness and temptation, yet such temptations can be points of new wisdom as well, “for angels waited on him.”

Intentional Interim Ministry is for the wilderness time in a congregation’s life.  When a long-tenured pastor leaves, an interim pastor is hired to serve a short contract (6-18 months) to shepherd the congregation through a time of assessment as it prepares to call a new pastor.   These “temporary shepherds” may need to deal with certain issues (past conflict, neglect, staff concerns to name just a few) as well as help the leadership prepare for their next pastor.

I sense a call to this kind of intense but short-duration ministry.  My own prayer life is centered on the phrase, “Be still and know that I am God” Psalm 46:10.  During an interim a congregation needs to be still and discover whose they are.  I believe I have the wisdom, experience, patience and pastoral skills to assist congregations during their transition.  Time will tell.

I will start the specialized training for Intentional Interim Ministry on Monday, October 26.  Prayers appreciated.

The Lap of God

Nearly forty years ago my wife-to-be introduced me to an image of God that has shaped my life ever since.  She wrote me a letter in which she described how God as king invited me into his great heavenly throne room. She described the room as filled with the beauty and wonder fit for a king and how at first I felt overwhelmed.  God then encouraged me to come right up to the throne (like a small child approaching his beloved parent).  With great love and warmth, God’s mighty arms picked me up and placed me on his lap, where I am safe, warmed and filled with love.

I think of that image each Christmas when we read from the beginning of John’s gospel and the coming of the Word of God, Jesus.

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, (John 1:12)

Madonna and JesusI also imagine the inverse of the image when I read the Christmas story of Luke, when Jesus is wrapped in clothes and laid in a manger.  I don’t think the infant Jesus spent all his time lying in that manger.  Like any proud parent, Jesus was held in the lap of Mary and Joseph.   Not only are we invited to sit in God’s lap, but God invites us to hold his son when we hold a child of God in love.  As Jesus reminded his followers in his parable from Matthew 25,  And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

The image blazed with light again this past Sunday when I worshiped with my son and daughter-in-law at Christ Presbyterian Church.  Their evening service, called the Table, normally has communion, but for the fourth Sunday in Advent they had a candle lighting ritual instead.   On the platform steps there were placed over a hundred small votive candles and lighting sticks.  We were invited to come forward and light a candle as a sign that we are “waiting” for our savior.   I lit a candle with the rest of the family, but I noticed that my son did not return to the pew afterwards.  A few moments later my wife nudged me and pointed to the candles.  My son had returned to the sanctuary with our 2-year-old grandson, Jack.  My son was helping Jack light a candle.   Afterwards he and Jack came back to the pew and Jack opened his arms for me to hold him.  As we sang a Christmas carol of Emmanuel, God with Us, I felt tears of joy and grace fill my eyes and flow down my cheek.   I was being held in the lap of God, even as I was embraced by a tiny child of God.  O the wonder of God’s grace.

My wife Carolyn and I hold in our laps two children of God, Grace and Jack.

My wife Carolyn and I hold in our laps two children of God, Grace and Jack.

May you be held by the love of God in this Christmas season.

Centering Down in Patience

Tuesday morning I visited a centering prayer group in a congregation near my home. I had discovered it on their church website and wanted to practice with them. Centering prayer is a Christian form of meditation in which the purpose is to silently wait in God’s presence. You can read more about centering prayer at http://www.centeringprayer.com.  After taking a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Class I wanted to bring my meditation practice into a more explicit Christian context.

Jesus in the Center of Prayer

Jesus in the Center of Prayer

The seven women who gathered together were an eclectic group. They graciously welcomed me. The small chapel had a cross with candles and comfortable chairs for sitting quietly. The group is self-lead and we started with a brief devotional reading about being open to the love of Christ. They read it as a form of Lectio Devina, preparing one’s heart to listen. Then we sat in silent prayer together for about twenty minutes.  I appreciated a deep joy in sharing this time of centering down.

51KNK7QgraLRobert Roberts on his chapter on Patience in his book The Strengths of a Christian writes about how silent prayer is essential to developing the virtue of patience, the art dwelling gladly in the present moment.

Centering down is a matter of purifying your attention, collecting it into a focal point which is the God whose identity is known through Jesus Christ. As such, centering down is the practice of the presence of God and at the same time, the practice of patience defined as dwelling gladly in the present moment.  In centered prayer the individual is “absorbed,” though not in the sense of dissolved, in glad fellowship with God. (p. 73)

When I practice centering prayer I focus on my breathing, using a short prayer like “Jesus is Lord” or simply “Yah-weh” (the ancient Hebrew name for God – I am who I am – Exodus 3) with each breath. “Jesus” on the in breath; “is Lord” on the exhale. Recently I taught our congregation the simple prayer, “Papa is here,” based on the Lord’s Prayer where Jesus used the familiar word “abba” or “papa” in his address of God the Father. The exact words of prayer are not as important as consistent use of heart, mind and breath.

Like all who practice centering prayer, my mind wanders off on tangents and I need to gently bring it back to my breath and prayer. I don’t berate myself about the wandering but rather simple note it and come back to my prayer. I know that God knows my desire is to center on him and I believe He will bless my attempts. Like a good papa, God is patient with us.  Can we be patient with God?

How have you found ways to Center Down in patience?

Lord Jesus, let me be centered in you.