One Little Word

Where God's Word Meets God's World

The 20th Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 23B (Oct. 11, 2015)

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Psalm 90:12-17
Hebrews 4:12-16
St. Mark 10:17-31
Semicontinuous Series
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Psalm 22:1-15 (1)

Prayer of the Day
Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us your gift of faith, that, forsaking what lies behind and reaching out to what lies ahead, we may follow the way of your commandments and receive the crown of everlasting joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  Amen.

10:17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’ ” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age-houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

St. Mark 10:17-31 New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Through the Eye of a Needle

It is a compelling image: the camel going through the eye of a needle. Some interpreters have suggested that Jesus is referring to a physical landmark; for instance: a gate in Jerusalem where a camel could only pass through if it was on its knees, or a mountain pass so narrow that riders had to dismount their camels before passing through. (In other words, “difficult but not impossible.”) I’m not persuaded. I never am drawn to explanations that strive to get Jesus off the hook. I believe his hard sayings are meant to be hard. Besides, even if you contend that Jesus doesn’t mean what he says in verse 25, you still have to deal with what he says in verse 27.

I’m more inclined to agree with C. S. Lewis, who argued that Jesus means what he says. Lewis included these words in his remarks: “You can get a camel through a needle, but it is going to be very hard on the camel.” Christian discipleship is not for the weak-hearted.

I also agree with a friend of mine who recently said, “Our relationship with our stuff is deeply complicated.” Indeed it is. Genesis 1 teaches us that all things are made by God, and have the capacity to bless us. If all things can be a blessing, then wealth must be included. There is nothing inherently wrong with wealth, and to be sure, faithful people have used their wealth throughout the centuries to advance the common good in the name of Jesus Christ. Yet using wealth to ensure our salvation is, as Jesus claims in this text, impossible. And at least in certain instances (such as the man who approaches Jesus in this text, asking what he needs to do to inherit eternal life), wealth can be a hindrance to salvation.

The question, then, is this: how do people like you and me, who arguably live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, during one of the wealthiest chapters of history, hear this text? We live in comfortable homes. We are more likely to overeat than to go hungry. Our children go to good (sometimes excellent) schools. We dress well. We drive nice automobiles. We can afford basic health care. We have retirement savings. We listen to music on sophisticated electronic devices… By any standard, we are among the wealthiest people in history.

Is Jesus speaking to us in this text? Are we to sell what we own and give it to the poor? Is it harder for us to get into heaven than it is for a thousand pound camel to go through the eye of a sewing needle? The hard news is this: yes, Jesus is speaking to us; and yes, it is extremely difficult — perhaps even impossible — for us to manage our wealth in a way that enables us to spend eternity with God. But as soon as we cry out, with the disciples, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus answers us as he answers them: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

As is always the case with the law, these words drive us the cross, and remind us that even the most wealthy among us cannot purchase (with time, talent or treasure) God’s favor. We must humble ourselves, and learn to lean on the saving grace of God.

Our relationship with stuff is deeply complicated. To have wealth and be a disciple of Jesus can be very hard on a person. But thanks be to God, for whom all things are possible. We are loved and welcomed and transformed, no matter how much stuff we have. That’s the gospel of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. What seems to be the intent of this man’s question to Jesus?
  2. Why does Jesus single him out as needing to give away all his wealth?
  3. What does Jesus want his disciples to understand about wealth?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. What excuses do I make for myself, that prevent this text from touching my heart?
  2. What would it mean for me to be less committed to my possessions?
  3. What would that free me up to do (or be) for God? For others?

Divorce, Remarriage, Blessing and Love

Date: October 4, 2015
Liturgical Day: The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost 

touched by grace and love
gifts of sustenance and joy
the Kingdom of God

Jesus is talking about marriage this weekend — about God’s intention that marriage be a life-long commitment, and that within marriage and family we find love and blessing. It is an invitation for us to consider what it means to experience the Kingdom — God’s relentless desire to transform us with love, and despite our sinful human nature, draw us into faithfulness.

Download Sermon: 2015 Pent 22B

Excelling in Generosity

Pastor’s Monthly Newsletter Article for October, 2015

Now as you excel in everything
in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you
so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.
2nd Corinthians 8:7

The Apostle Paul believed he was called by God to be a “Missionary to the Gentiles.” He travelled from town to town, far from the center of Jewish faith in Jerusalem, to carry the good news of Jesus Christ to people who had never heard it. Paul had formerly been a passionate opponent of the Christian Way; a Pharisee who apprehended many early Christian leaders and brought them to Jerusalem to be tried for heresy. Because of this, after he met Christ and became a Christian himself, many Christians continued to fear him. But he made his case to them, eventually received their blessing, and was instructed by them to take an offering wherever he went; an undertaking among the Gentiles to raise funds that could support the Saints in Jerusalem who were living under a severe persecution. Paul was glad – even eager – to do this.

In the letter known as Second Corinthians, Paul writes to this church he helped found, and commends them for their excellent discipleship. In faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness – even in the love the Apostle has for them – the Corinthians are described as excelling. But although Paul had asked for their support in this offering, they had yet to respond. These Corinthians have much to offer. Many of them are affluent citizens of a thriving trade town. Paul has a vision for them: that they might excel in generosity, just as they already excel in so many other ways.

“Now as you excel in everything… so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” Paul encourages their generosity. More so, Paul encourages them to show excellence in generosity. He encourages us as well.

We too have much to offer. We are a capable people; an accomplished people. Many of us have positions of responsibility at work, generous salaries, and are able to live a lifestyle that our ancestors could only have imagined. We seek excellence – even demand excellence – in many aspects of our lives.

The question at hand is this: does our quest for excellence include our habits of generosity? Are we committed to give the very best that we can? Are we bold and generous supporters of the organizations that we find meaningful? Are we courageous and sacrificial in the support we offer to our home congregation?

This month and next we will be holding conversations at Saint Peter about Stewardship – the practice of managing everything that has been entrusted to us in a manner that is pleasing to God. As we consider this aspect of our spiritual lives, I encourage you to explore what it might look like for you to demonstrate excellence in generosity. This encouragement comes with a guarantee: as you grow in this aspect of your faithfulness, you will experience it both as a blessing to the organizations you support, and to yourself.

May God bless you with generosity,
Pastor Dave

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 22B (Oct. 4, 2015)

Genesis 2:18-24
Psalm 8 (5)
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
St. Mark 10:2-16
Semicontinuous Series:
Job 1:1; 2:1-10
Psalm 26 (3)

Prayer of the Day:
Sovereign God, you have created us to live in loving community with one another. Form us for life that is faithful and steadfast, and teach us to trust like little children, that we may reflect the image of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

10:2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.
9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”  10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”  13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

St. Mark 10:2-16 New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Marriage, Divorce and Family Matters

It isn’t easy, these days, to speak publicly about marriage, divorce and family matters. Oh, it’s not that the church (and its leaders) has nothing to say. And it’s not that we are afraid of the response we’ll get when we say it. It is, instead, that we are called to both a pastoral and a prophetic ministry. In other words, when people are hurting and broken we are called to offer a pastoral presence — a comforting and encouraging presence that allows them to gain their footing and begin moving forward again. And when people are sinning, and have lost sight of God’s call to them, we are called to offer a prophet presence — a challenging presence that names their sin, invites them to repentance and forgiveness, and calls them to new life.

The problem is, when it comes to marriage, divorce and family matters, both a pastoral and a prophetic message are necessary. When we are gathered for worship, when we are tending to Bible study, even when we are visiting with friends for coffee, it is inevitable. There will be some among us whose hearts are broken because of family difficulties that have spun out of their control. They long for a word of grace in the midst of their brokenness. And there will be some among us whose behaviors are having a negative impact on the families they have pledged to nurture and respect. They need a word of challenge to help them return to what God requires of them.

All that said, divorce is not God’s will for us. When two commit themselves to one another in marriage they become one. No longer two, Jesus says, but one. To tear apart this one is contrary to what God wants for us. And so those who have entered into this unity are committed to preserve it. Committed not just to “stay in it no matter what” — but to nurture it; to strengthen it; to make it stronger and healthier and more vibrant as the years go by.

Jesus speaks these challenging words to his listeners. Later, he emphasizes this with his disciples. And after doing so, he continues to explore marriage and family matters. He commands his followers to “let the little children come to me.” Why does Mark put the words of Jesus about marriage and the action of Jesus about children back-to-back? Some understand this to mean that when we are committed to marriage and family matters we are no longer two; not even any longer one; but but we are three or four or five… Marriage, divorce and family do matter, because in the home and in the family faith is shared, and faithfulness is encouraged.

Jesus, who loves married couples, divorcing couples and growing children, wants the family to be a blessing for the children who are part of it. The command to preserve the unity of marriage is not just for the benefit of those who are married (although it is in indeed this), but it is also a command to live as servants of those around us — even servants of the children who live in our homes.


David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. Why did Moses give men permission to divorce their wives?
  2. How does Jesus interpret the actions of Moses?
  3. What is the connection between the unity of marriage and the wellbeing of children?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. How can we most compassionately minister to those who are experiencing the pain of divorce, or who are being affected by unhealthy family dynamics?
  2. What might the church do to strengthen marriages?
  3. What can families do to bless and nurture the children who are part of them?

Love + Compassion + Kindness = Grace

Date: September 27, 2015
Liturgical Day: The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost 

gifted by God’s grace
touched by this undeserved gift
instruments of grace

Some may think of faith as a sacred competition which leaves us with insiders and outsiders. (And guess what? We usually conclude that we are the insiders!) At the heart of Jesus’ ministry is the belief that greatness in his kingdom will not be measured by power and influence and accomplishment, but by love and compassion and kindness. Our call is to discern what inhibits us from participating in this, to do what we can to remove those inhibitions from our lives, and to become the people through whom love and compassion and kindness move.

Download Sermon: 2015 Pent 21B

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 21B (Sept. 27, 2015)

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19:7-14 (8)
James 5:13-20
St. Mark 9:38-50
Semicontinuous Series:
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Psalm 124 (7)

Prayer of the Day:
Generous God, your Son gave his life that we might come to peace with you. Give us a share of your Spirit, and in all we do empower us to bear the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

9:38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. 42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. 49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

St. Mark 9:38-50 New Revised Version Bible ©1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Do No Harm

Hippocrates (460 b.c. – 370 b.c.) was an ancient Greek physician, regarded by many as the father of western Medicine, largely due to his work as the founder of the Hippocratic School of Medicine. The Hippocratic Oath, a mission statement of sorts for practicing physicians, continues still to inspire medical professionals today, and includes the phrase, “to abstain from doing harm” (ἐπὶ δηλήσει δὲ καὶ ἀδικίῃ εἴρξειν). When providing medical care to patients, physicians, at the very least, are to do nothing that harms them in any way.

In this week’s Gospel lesson, it appears that Jesus is commending a similar oath to us. Continue reading

The Shortest Sermon of the Year

Date: September 20, 2015
Liturgical Day: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost 

called to ministry
last of all — servant of all
God’s work with our hands

Both our history as Lutherans and the call we receive from Jesus encourage us to look for those ways that we can be in service to our community. Today we will live this out together, doing “God’s work with our hands.” How will we live this out in the weeks and months to come?

Download Sermon: 2015 Pent 20B

The 17th Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 20B (Sept. 20, 2015)

Jeremiah 11:18-20 or Wisdom 1:16 – 2:1, 12-22
Psalm 54 (4)
James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a
St. Mark 9:30-37
Semicontinuous Series
Proverbs 31:10-31
Psalm 1 (3)

Prayer of the Day:
O God, our teacher and guide, you draw us to yourself and welcome us as beloved children. Help us to lay aside all envy and selfish ambition, that we may walk in your ways of wisdom and understanding as servants of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

9:30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.  33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

St. Mark 9:30-37 New Revised Version Bible ©1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Last of All and Servant of All

“He was teaching his disciples, but they did not understand.” In this way, St. Mark characterizes the ministry of Jesus. We may be tempted to think poorly of these men, who live in the presence of the Savior yet never seem to figure out what he is all about. But if we are honest about it, there are no shortage of ways that people misunderstand him still today. The Prosperity Gospel argues that God wants all believers to be financially successful. Focusing on the family shifts the believer’s attention from the world to his or her own home. Over-emphasis on liturgy suggests that faith is all about ritual behavior. Making rules and regulations central to life suggests that faith is all about moral or ethical commitments. Muscular Christianity promotes manly behavior and rewards those with physical prowess. The list seems to go on and on. Continue reading

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 19B (Sept. 13, 2015)

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-9 (9)
James 3:1-12
St. Mark 8:27-38
Semicontinuous Series
Proverbs 1:20-33
Psalm 19 (7) or Wisdom 7:26 – 8:1 (7:28)

Prayer of the Day
O God, through suffering and rejection you bring forth our salvation, and by the glory of the cross you transform our lives. Grant that for the sake of the gospel we may turn from the lure of evil, take up our cross, and follow your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

8:27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

St. Mark 8:27-38 New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

What Does It Mean to Be a Christian?

“What does it mean to be a Christian?” That was the name of a video series featuring ELCA Bishop Herbert Chilstrom in the early days of our denomination. It is a good question for us to ask. What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus, the Christ? People have offered many different answers to that question. To be a Christian means having membership in a Christian Church, or believing the teachings that one’s own tradition embraces about Jesus, or having a living relationship with God through Jesus Christ, or declaring faith publicly in the workplace and the neighborhood (or some combination of these). For Bishop Chilstrom, it meant being grounded in God’s grace in such away that causes the believer to live all of life as an opportunity to share this grace with others. Continue reading

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 18B (Sept. 6, 2015)

Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17
St. Mark 7:24-37

Semicontinuous Series
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Psalm 125

Prayer of the Day:
Gracious God, throughout the ages you transform sickness into health and death into life. Open us to the power of your presence, and make us a people ready to proclaim your promises to the whole world, through Jesus Christ, our healer and Lord. Amen.

7:24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

St. Mark 7:24-37, New Revised Version Bible ©1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

The Syrophoenician Divide

She is a woman. (Jesus seems to have a soft spot for women — in many ways second-class citizens in first century life.) She is a Gentile. (Specifically, a Syrophoenician, possibly with lineage that connects her with one or more of Israel’s historic enemies: the Canaanites, the Greeks, and the Romans — just the kind of outsider that Jesus often seems drawn to.) And she has a little daughter who is troubled by an unclean spirit. (In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as being particularly interested in those who are held captive by unclean spirits.) There seems to be ample reason for Jesus to respond positively when this woman approaches him, which makes his response to her quite surprising.

She bows down at his feet and begs for her daughter’s healing. His chilling response is: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In other words, what he has to give is intended to nourish God’s children (the Jewish people), and it wouldn’t be fair to waste it on dogs (outsiders like her). Is this the Jesus we have come to know and love?

Continue reading

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