Sermon: The Light that Heals

Our Savior’s Lutheran Church

Pastor Paul Carlson

March 15, 2015


Prayer: God of truth and grace, may the light of Christ shine upon us, making us truly alive. Amen.


When I was in college at CU Boulder a very long time ago, I was in a jazz group. We played, the five of us, up the mountain in Georgetown on the weekends in a restaurant and lounge. I was 19 or twenty at the time, with hair. I was just learning to play jazz and that was how I started, on the job and getting paid to play with other good jazz players, music students in school with me. Now the point I am making is that we would play at night at this restaurant and lounge, with the lights turned down, the candles on the tables, and so forth. We stayed at a motel overnight, since it was a two-night gig, and in the morning we would crawl out of bed and the chef would throw a breakfast together for us as part of our pay. The place looked a lot better at night. In the morning the lights were on, it was daylight and you could see how kind of dingy it was, how dusty it was, how it needed a vacuum and a clean wash rag. The light exposed it. It wasn’t awful. It was just what it really was and not what it appeared to be in the evening.

Today’s story about snakes and the cross is about how the light of God in Christ exposes us and thereby heals us. Whether it is poisonous snakes on a pole or Jesus on the cross, the story is that by looking directly at the hard truth, you can be healed. There really was no hope or healing for the restaurant, but there is hope for us. 

It isn’t, then, that we see Jesus so much as we see ourselves exposed. That is a constant paradox in our faith tradition, for to see God is to see ourselves, our own lives and relationships in a new light.

The recent racist incident on a bus carrying members of an elite fraternity is an example of what can happen to us. Here is a privileged group of young men, people with all the advantages of a quality education, learning, travel, who end up chanting a disgusting racial diatribe as if they had no education or moral upbringing at all. That is a moment of life without the light of truth or grace, that is, until someone with a camera threw some light their way. 

The cross is a mirror, or camera, of truth. It shows me as I am. The good and the bad, altogether. It doesn’t say I am all bad or all good. It normalizes my sense of self.

I think, from my experience, that we would prefer to be told how good and attractive we are. What John’s gospel suggests is that what we need is the simple truth, a light, the light of compassionate and forgiving grace, that sees our pain, shining upon us, exposing us for who we are, and embracing us at the same time. It isn’t healing to say to someone, “You are wonderful in all ways.” That isn’t true of anyone. That has no power to heal because it lacks the truth. On the other hand, it doesn’t heal to say to someone, “You really don’t have any redeeming qualities at all that I can see.” That also is going to be untrue. We all have things that are true and good about us. What is healing is truth and grace combined. That is part of the gospel of John’s message: Jesus the Risen Christ, the Word from the beginning of creation made flesh, brings both truth and grace. 

The letter to the churches in Ephesus, an ancient ruin of a city now in modern Turkey, says that God loved us while we were still dead in our sins, or perhaps it means, “while our sins still deadened us.”  I find that encouraging, especially if we think that our sense of righteousness sets us apart somehow. Now there is a new reality that we can live into. “We are what God has made us-alive in Christ for good works.” 

The message finally is not about judgment or punishment, nor is it about my or your sense of righteousness, about being morally better than someone else, of seeing myself as a terribly sinful person or an exceedingly wonderful and good person. These are all, frankly, lies. We are what God has made us, alive in Christ. It’s about being alive for good works, works of love. Period. The ancient church writer Irenaeus, not always my favorite, was truthful when he wrote, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Not perfect. Not necessarily outstanding. Just alive in Christ, who brings both truth and grace, in case anyone should get a big head. This takes so much nonsense out of human relationships, so much posturing and judgement. 

We need to remember this about our own spiritual journey and how we view ourselves and others. As a community, it is important for us to have a realistic sense of ourselves, not overly negative or overly positive. Incidentally, that is why the review process includes both affirmations and recommendations. Either one alone would be untrue. Neither one alone is able to help us move forward. 

The Christian story carries a great truth. Jesus is the one who bears that truth in Christian experience. We are healed through his light of truth and grace, which marks our way, revealing who we are. It is not a light we need to fear. It is a healing light. It makes us fully alive in Christ for good works of love and compassion for others. We can welcome it and live into it. Amen. 


Sermon: Water and Spirit

Jan 11, 2015


Prayer: Our God, guide us as we move into a new century with its problems and challenges. Help us to find the Way for our time and place, that Christ might be revealed in who we are and what we do. Amen.


The story and figure of Jesus continues to set the stage for a new age and a new world, as it has for 2000 years. It is a world healed of its pain and the harm humans inflict upon it and upon themselves. We cannot get around the need for a healed world. We all feel and know this, regardless of our belief systems. In our story, Jesus is the One who comes to heal our pain. But how do we tell and understand the story in our own language?

Jaroslav Pelikan, once a Missouri Synod professor of great scholarship and learning and later a convert to the Greek Orthodox Church, wrote many learned books and is worth serious reading. He wrote one book, though, that speaks to me. It was, “Jesus Through the Centuries,” and there is a fully illustrated and expensive version of that text that is quite beautiful. But it is also available more cheaply without the marvelous artwork. In it he shows the many ways Christ has been portrayed and understood in different historical eras. This kind of re-interpretation has been going on for a very long time. The interpretation of the meaning of Christ begins in earnest with Paul, whose writing we now consider scripture. It is clear that my theology professor at PLTS in Berkeley had it right when he defined Christian theology as “the story of Jesus and its significance.” We have been at that project from the beginning.

Jesus’ baptism is the earliest starting point for Jesus’ ministry and his identity, taking Mark as the earliest written gospel, and right off the bat we have this contrast between Jesus and John. Jesus was most likely a disciple of John and spent time in John the Baptizer’s community. But Jesus broke with John to go his own way.

John the Baptizer is preaching a message demanding personal change in order to prepare for a new world that is yet to come, the new age of the reign of God. His rhetoric has the old prophetic scowl in it: God will not be mocked, turn your lives around, crawl out of the pit, straighten up and fly right. He is interested in laying down the law and demanding change. John’s is actually most often our preferred message, but it is not the message of Jesus.

Jesus comes, rather, as a compassionate healer, someone in deep communion with God, someone who not only has God’s ear but God’s personal favor and delight. This is a love relationship. Jesus, though, also has a strong prophetic orientation. There is nothing meek or mild about him in the gospels. He is a challenging presence. He takes people on. But he loves. He forgives. He heals the sick rather than judges them. He confronts power, for sure, and this is what ends his life. But he does not hate and he is clearly non-violent. He is the victim of violence, which he transcends through divine love.

All of this brings us to this moment, the place where we live in this time and place. We are following the pattern of our history and are reassessing this story of Jesus in our time. I really struggle personally with what kind of Christian faith we need going forward in such a complex, information rich world so full of miraculous inventions and amazing accomplishments, including technologically advanced violence and sophisticated criminality. What is the church to be now? We cannot continue as if it were 1950 or 1960 or whatever decade you prefer. It’s not even enough to continue as if it were 2001. My personal struggle with this has led me to be strongly interfaith in orientation, committed to an inclusive Christology that allows for other faiths and perspectives and takes seriously Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies, and I am convinced that spiritual practice and a contemplative-based ethic rooted in Christ and Christ-centered community is the way forward. We are joined with others who believe in non-violence and peace in the world. We care for the vulnerable, as Jesus did, and we work so that people are less vulnerable. This is salvation: healing for the world, and that includes us. The church provides a structure to do all of this.

What else could Jesus’ baptism mean? It isn’t just for him. It’s for us. When we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ, as Paul states so clearly. We identify with him with our very lives. We take his life into our own every time we take communion. We become like him in the world. We grow into his image. We become transformed, and the world follows. That is the journey, nothing less.

Jesus is the new human being and, by extension with his Spirit within us, so are we when we act in his name and follow his way. That message is what we need now. It is a Christian faith that seeks to be a blessing to a world in deep pain. It is to be Christ. It is the Word made flesh, not the Word made exceedingly verbal. This is the path. Amen.







Sermon: Calling

Sermon: Calling

January 18, 2015


Prayer: God, who called Abraham and Sarah, who called Moses to deliver the people of Israel from slavery, who called the prophets to preach truth to power, who called Jesus to show the way to your kingdom of love, reconciliation, justice and non-violence-may we be mindful of your call to us to join in the feast of the new creation. Amen.


This past Thursday evening Nancie and I skipped choir and attended the concert that Keith recommended last Sunday. He was inviting us to hear the SOAR choir that he is in and mentioned that the Spirituals Project was also part of the concert. How interesting, Nancie and I thought. We will go to support Keith and the choir he is in and it will be good to hear the Spirituals Project. So we arrived at the Newman Center, purchased our tickets and found our seat. There was a lot of energy there and the audience was more black than white, more non-Caucasian than not. We looked at the program and found out that the Rocky Mountain Children’s Chorale was there to perform as well.

It turns out that this evening was more than a concert. It was a celebration and remembrance of the Selma march and the events leading up to the voting rights act. Present at the event and concert were people who were in Selma all those years ago and there was soulful music that spoke to social and racial justice. At the end of the evening, as the combined choirs sang an arrangement of “We Shall Overcome,” a dramatic re-enactment of people gathering for the march was performed in mime just below the stage, so we could see the choirs and the drama unfolding before us. Signs were held up, including “I Can’t Breathe” and someone was signing up people to register to vote. There were two outstanding pianists, both now working in local churches but carrying national credentials. We were overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude for having been there. Martin Luther King was honored, of course, and one of the speakers had shared the podium with him some 50 times. It was living history, full of love and the spirit of Martin Luther King, whose life was so rooted in the Bible, the black church and the stories of Jesus and Israel. An arrangement of his “I Have a Dream” speech was both sung and spoken. A rock the house version of “Wade in the Water” started the evening with the Spirituals Project. What an experience it was. The music came from a place normally hidden from view, deep in the belly somewhere.

But what they celebrated on Thursday evening began years ago much more humbly. It began with a divine spiritual call to service. And when Martin Luther King first heard the call to serve his people, he had no way of knowing what would come after the first step.

Today’s texts are about Jesus calling rather normal people into extraordinary service. In our first reading today, a very young man, Samuel, is called into service while his boss, the old caretaker, whose name was Eli, was effectively fired by God after a poor performance review. He had given up, you see, and new energy was needed. A new call was issued. Samuel becomes the one to carry the torch of renewal for Israel, though in the moment of his all he had no idea where this call would lead. Eli represents the dormancy that characterized the situation at the time among the people of Israel, who under David a generation or two later would gather as a united kingdom, with Jerusalem its new capital and looking forward to the building of the first Temple in Jerusalem. Samuel could not have seen what was to come.

In the gospel reading Jesus calls Nathaniel, another unexceptional human being, after “seeing him under a fig tree.” Nathaniel, too, could not have known what was to come after that first step into the world of Jesus.

I suppose we, too, had no way of knowing what we would discover last Thursday evening after we took the first step to our seats. The Spirit of God keeps secrets rather well, I’d say. We are led, but one step at a time. No peeking.

Telling a story is about the only way to discuss the call of God. Scripture is full of them. God calls the most unlikely people, often flawed people, though we might ask who isn’t. Sometimes God calls spectacularly flawed people, world-class fumblers. David, for example. Or Moses. Or Solomon. All had clay heals that tripped them up. Martin Luther King was no exception. And in his case human and electronic spies made sure that every flaw was recorded in some way or another.

Still, I am deeply moved by what King did and who he was. He took each step in faith, walking and marching into an unknown future. There is a new book by Travis Smiley, the TV interviewer on public television, which focuses on King’s last year of life. King, who had achieved so much with the voting rights act and other civil rights legislation, who even received the Nobel Peace Prize, had given a speech, written by Vincent Harding, an emeritus professor at the Iliff School of Theology who died within the past year. In that speech King took a stand against the Vietnam War, renewed his commitment to non-violence and became a strong critic of the Johnson administration, which had been his ally in the civil rights struggle. But he was becoming, many were saying, irrelevant. Racial justice was to be the continued focus of the movement and that meant staying out of the war controversy. And there was a sense that militancy was more effective than non-violence against the resistance to racial justice offered by white culture in America. King, however, was not called to fight racial injustice only. He was called to confront injustice everywhere. In his later years, poverty was on his agenda. Remember the Poor People’s March on Washington? When he called out the Vietnam War as a war of injustice, he found himself very alone in the world, but it was consistent with the call he heard so many years before. Smiley says that after King’s assassination, his doctors observed that his bodily organs were those of a 65 year old man, though he was 39 when he died. Such was the stress of following the call of the Spirit.

We say, rather glibly, that we are all called by Jesus in our baptisms. Actually we are called no matter what, but baptism is a public confirmation of that call. Still, we interpret that call of God in largely domestic ways. We can too easily become like old Eli, burned out and ready for a nap. Old Eli stopped watching or caring years before. When he stepped down, it wasn’t a very long step.

I will repeat a story that I know I have previously shared.  I read it years ago and I believe it was by Walter Wink. He was speaking with his spiritual director, who said to him “Walter, you are very sincere. But you are not serious.” When I read that I gulped a bit, swallowing tightly. It did hit home. I received a call alright and I have been sincere, but have I been serious? How much is it worth? How about you? It’s hard, isn’t it?

Here is perhaps an aid to put our call in perspective. We know that the call is hard. We know that it means work. We know that it means the sacrifice of things we would rather be doing. We know that we have and will have a difficult time keeping the call front and center. So return for a moment to old burned out Eli and young energetic Samuel. Eli forgot who this was for in the first place. It became about him, but it never was about him. It was about the next generation and the generation after that. Think about it. Young Samuel will carry the torch, not Eli. Eli did nothing to help Samuel move forward. If anything he discouraged Samuel by not being any kind of mentor to him. He had become self-absorbed. Look, I understand Eli. Any of us of a certain age can understand old El and it is not a pretty picture. But the call is for the next and the next generation. Isn’t that so? Each step, for the next generation and the world being born. If it were last Thursday evening I would say, “Do I hear an amen?” Do I hear an amen to the call of the Spirit for the next generation? Do I hear an amen to work for justice and peace for those who come after us? Are we ready to work for the world they will inherit? Are we serious?

So, and this is actually the end of the sermon, “Do I hear an Amen?”  Amen! And thanks be to God!