Nativity 2018

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Dane Sanctuary Coalition press conference

I’m Nick Utphall, pastor of Advent Lutheran of Madison Christian Community.

Along with my welcoming you here on behalf of my congregation and my colleague Sonja Ingebritsen and Community of Hope UCC, I’m eager to share that this congregation proclaims welcome.

We strive to be welcoming people, because that is who we believe and understand God to be: a God of unconditional love and abundant welcome.

That welcome from this place has especially extended to those who have been made in other ways to feel out of place, oppressed or antagonized, unwelcome.

Such animosity should have no place in our community, in our culture, in this society, much less in a nation that often tries to label itself as “Christian.”

From the perspective of our God, all of us are declared to be family, as equal, and are beloved.

From the perspective of Jesus, we are to be neighbors to anyone in times of need.

And yet that is not what our government or the domineering voice of our culture has been proclaiming. Instead they have said that some are not welcome, that some are to be categorized as worse, that some families don’t matter, and that some don’t even deserve the guaranteed protections of due process in a fair system.

Because our congregation has heard that those fears have become so threatening to the immigrant and refugee population, and because our faith is founded on the assurance of God’s repeated encouragement with the words “do not be afraid,” the Madison Christian Community proclaims “¡Santuario para inmigrantes y refugiados!” and has joined the Dane Sanctuary Coalition and over 1000 congregations nationally as one of the local sites so far to agree to serve as sanctuary congregations for those who are valued and valuable members of our society, who are not only beloved in their own family but are beloved amid God’s human family.

In this congregation, we are being prepared for the possible instance of welcoming an individual who is facing deportation that would damage their life, fracture their family, and rupture the good of our community. Sanctuary is part of giving that person a publicly visible place to dwell while waiting for a lawful hearing, and to exhibit to our society how we can and should do better in welcome and caring for each other.

This is what we understand to be the request from our local neighbors and our calling as Christians in God’s world.

Estamos unidos. We stand together. Thank you, and you’re welcome.


Seven Sermons for One Sunday (4th Sunday in Lent)

WELCOME & SERMON #1 (Luke 15:1-2)

Now for something completely different.

There’s so much in the parable of the Prodigal Son that we’re going to break it apart. Maybe when it comes around again in three years I’ll take it as a whole ball of wax. But today it seems worth living into the various aspects and attitudes. Plus, there’s the added benefit of being able to tell your family and friends, “I got to hear 7 sermons this week!” Who wouldn’t want to be able to claim that? *

This first piece we might take as a welcome to worship and an introduction to this experience. As you arrive here, you may identify with the sinners, having been beratedly told or having your own suspicious feeling that all is not right in your life. Or you may be more like the grumblers, who claim to have it all figured out in doing the right thing, in spite of everyone else.

Either way, what Jesus has to say today in this gathering is for you. Though we each have our own details and stories and abilities and short-comings, we also arrive in the same boat, turning again to the waters of baptism, expecting, needing a word of grace.


SERMON #2 (Luke 15:3, 11b-16)

It’s a nice Kyrie in ELW setting 8, isn’t it? Besides the catchy tune, it also helps expand our view. The typical versions still make reference to our relationships with God and with each other and for ourselves. Even that most simple phrase, “Kyrie eleison—Lord, have mercy” could capture all of our need. Yet this version intentionally expands our vision to our homes and justice issues, and work and play, and this gathering and the whole world, and all of it commended to God in prayer.

Briefly, I might jump in over my head on conversations on mercy. What we sang sure doesn’t seem like begging to an angry God who is apt to punish or going to withhold goodness. This isn’t mercy as relenting from meting out a harsh guilty verdict. Maybe the reverse, this mercy is apparent in its French origin, merci, reminding us of the gratitude for God having offered so much to us and continuing to strive for our wellbeing. It is not fearsome but a blessed thing to be at the mercy of God, mercy that matches other definitions of compassion for the unfortunate and seeking to alleviate distress. This points us to the beginning of Jesus’ parable. *

The younger son, figuring he was under his own power and at the mercy of nobody but himself, soon found out how much could go wrong—in squandering money and a catastrophic famine and lack of community support and even being stuck with the pigs, having to deal with what was both illegal and offensive to him.

For that wandering son, please understand; Jesus does not claim that if you stay at home close to God nothing will go wrong. Just the reverse, hearing this part of the reading still in the gathering portion of our service and along with that Kyrie, we understand how much we’ve seen go wrong. So we come here again to keep asking for protection and relief and guidance and blessing, in all the moments of our lives and for so much need in our world. And in spite of everything else, we continue to expect good from God. For that, let us pray to the Lord.


SERMON #3 (Luke 15:17-20a)

* Depending on your perspective, you might find the son in this part of the parable to be conniving or humbly contrite or just desperate. Is he strategizing tactics to fill his belly? If so, we could observe desperation can drive either toward ingenuity or deceitful acts. Or does he simply recognize that life was better and could be again, even if to a limited degree? That’s not to be slighted. We might, for example, consider how those who have been incarcerated can be reintegrated into society. Things may never be how they once were, but they could be better.

We should also admit, though, that this son’s remorse and sorrow could well be honest. Whether or not the relationship with his father can be re-established, there is some sense of longing in this son, to make amends and, at the very least, to confess. That is worded well in Psalm 32 that we just read, that sometimes we need to speak it aloud, to open ourselves up and disclose the hardship, just because it makes us suffer too much to keep it bottled up inside.

In a grander way, it’s what we hear from 2nd Corinthians (5:16-21), stunningly emphatic on reconciliation. This is the next part in the yearning for restored and whole relationships. And the template here is that our human point of view doesn’t cut it. How we relate is not based on past hurts or on future potential. Trespasses cannot count against us, it says. We are called to see each other through the eyes of Jesus, or as the body of Christ, as a new creation, though we still sure look and feel like our old disappointing selves.

The reading says that for our sake, Jesus became sin so that we might become God’s righteousness. Within the story, that says Jesus took the place of that lost and forsaken son. He identified with him, though it’s hard for us to imagine Jesus as so offensive, as a desperate loser, a hungry philanderer, judged to be worthless. Yet in exchange for that shame—simply taking it away—Jesus offers a new beginning where it is all right and even that outcast lowlife is entrusted at the center of God’s operations as an ambassador, continuing to work for reconciliation.



Well, kids, I saved what I think is the best part of this whole story for you, because this is what I hope for you from your parents and families, and from this congregation and me at church, and in all kinds of places in life. And, most importantly, this is also what God always promises for you. *

The son had done something wrong, but his dad didn’t wait for him to say he was sorry. The son didn’t have to do anything at all. His dad was just plain excited for him and loved him and wanted to give him a great big hug. God doesn’t love you only because you do good things. God isn’t proud of you only if you stop doing bad things. God loves you just because you exists and God is so excited to be around you and to hold onto you always.

At this part of the service with sermons, we’re often looking for words to explain God or to try to teach. But before any of our words, God rushes up to say, “I love you!”

And God also trusts you to share that love with others. So go and give somebody a hug, maybe especially someone who doesn’t expect it.



SERMON #5 (Luke 15:21-24)

*Amazing Grace places these words on the son’s lips, from his experience: “I once was lost but now am found.” The father sees it more strongly still: “This son of mine was dead and is alive again.” It’s even more than recovery; this is a resurrection.

As we turn toward the peace and toward offering, we could see in this sense how we celebrate each other and how we offer our best gifts. Indeed, the amazing word of “grace” has its root in the Greek “charis.” Like “charismatic charity,” it is about gifts we eagerly give for each other. God continues to lavish goodness on you—calf and robe and ring, clothing and rich food and identity—strictly as a gift, in the old words of the catechism “out of pure fatherly goodness, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all.”

That, in turn, is what we also offer for the sake of each other. We share our gifts. We extend what has been offered to us. We practice being the new creations and ambassadors of reconciliation. We share peace. We offer love. We give away what has been given to us. Not because we need to, but because we can. And, God knows, we’re worth it!


SERMON #6 (Luke 15:25-30)

This sermon piece may seem like an interruption, and that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be, exactly what happens with the older son at this point in the story. The celebrations are interrupted and questioned and resisted. *

As we turn toward this table and the supper where we gladly proclaim that “all are welcome,” we have to realize that the gracious and flagrant welcome has to offend, just as surely as a closed table bound by restrictions and rules would offend. As much as it is good news that you are welcome, you are invited, that this meal is for you, we have to realize there are some who wouldn’t want somebody like you here, somebody your age or level of understanding, or with your doubts or your theology, or your clothes or education, or your background from this week or from earlier in life, or just because you don’t seem to have done much to be very deserving.

And yet here is set a lavish feast, precisely and explicitly given “for you.” The richest meal and most amazing table you could possibly be invited to, not because the abundance of fancy feast, but because the nourishment here is God’s own blessing, the life of Jesus, the presence of the Holy Spirit for you and soon in you.

This meal may be served to people with whom you wouldn’t necessarily choose to relate. It may be served by hands that don’t seem qualified or worthy or preferable. The question from the parable is whether you’ll accept this great invitation, and if the joy you’re invited to share is worth it, or whether you’ll dig in your heels, wanting to besmirch or degrade others, and in pouting miss out.

The fatted calf has been killed. The Lamb of God has given himself for you and for all. All are welcome; are you coming?


BLESSING/SERMON #7 (Luke 15:31-32)

Here’s the end. * What strikes me this week is the great risk. Not that I’m still trying to preach in these last moments, but how risky this was for the father. In regaining one son who had been lost for dead, did he manage to lose the other one anyway? Did he anticipate that possibility? He also seems to be losing out on the hard worker in order welcome back the problem child, offending his honor student by honoring the delinquent.

It’s a whole story of risk. We tend to slander the young son for the risk he took in leaving and then overlook the risk he was weighing in coming home. There’s always a risk in the lavish party, the feast, in what we choose to celebrate and where we give our resources. The younger son we may call wasteful; the father we’d more likely term extravagant, or at least not stingy. That’s constantly true in his devotion; it’s risky. And the older son’s resistance to living that way, his refusal to join the celebration also has risks. His father has promised him everything, but will he so firmly turn away that he’ll give up on it all and become as lost as his brother had been?

That may be the parting question today. You’ve risked being here, giving up yourself to the mercy of God, coming to celebrate a banquet that welcomes offenders and the snooty and you and any who’ll enjoy it. As you prepare to go back into the week of encountering all kinds of Kyrie moments, of squandering and wrongs done and difficulties and longing so desperately for things to go right, it’s in the reconciliation and the love and peace that you have to offer, to risk, and to receive. It’s in putting God’s love first and foremost in our attitudes and relationships, in seeing faces as God’s good new creation, as celebrated just because that’s the kind of God we have.

Having been again reminded and attuned to that, having received again that assurance in worship, going now back into the world for which God risks God’s self so extravagantly and so desperately, you have eyes to see and a life to risk with it as well.


Christmas sermon #1

(Christmas Eve, 3:30pm)


“Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.”

Those may be familiar words. You might use them gathered around a table for a feast on this day. Maybe you pray this in your home every day; it’s great as a simple and regular way to share faith in your families and attune your lives in gratitude toward God.

Yet for how good and how common those words can be, still they strike me as odd. Even Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol is labeled at one point as the “founder of the feast.” Even that stingy bugger gets credit for being a provider at the table, but when we pray—to Jesus, to God our Creator, who gives us all that we have and are—for some reason we don’t return credit where it’s due. Instead of recognizing this preeminent and most fundamental of hosts, we say, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.”

Besides that backwardness, I’ve been pondering that prayer for our Christmas celebrations. Think about this: what do you normally do in preparing to receive guests? At my house, I clear away stacks of old mail, and sweep the fluffy clumps of cat hair out of the corners, scrub the grime off the bathroom, and turn up the heat above my eco-conscious high of 62°. Acacia is better at making bedrooms look congenial, turning on lights and thinking where suitcases will go, cutting flowers or setting out photos, plus shopping for ample foods and drinks. Maybe your house, too, has lately involved preparations of vacuuming and dusting, decorating and baking, rearranging and wrapping.

And then, finally, welcoming. I love that moment when the car pulls up outside our house, and our dog is excited, and we go out to meet our guests and invite them into the house.

So, I’ve been wondering if that’s how God is welcomed. We may pause to pray “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,” but even that seems like mild preparation or expectation. I mean, Santa Claus gets notes and milk and cookies. In Jewish families at Passover, Elijah has an empty chair waiting with a glass of wine. So what about Jesus?

That seems exactly the issue as we hear Christmas story from Luke, recounting the details of a young woman’s pregnancy. She and her fiancé were forced by those in power to travel far from home, perhaps on a bumpy donkey ride, over mountains, and past the haunts of roadside bandits. They got to Bethlehem and found no place. No friends or relatives. No room for rent, no hospitable stranger. Not even a homeless shelter. They ended up hunkered down with the livestock.

And that’s when the moment came for them who were expecting—another, special moment of arrival. Even if a trip to the hospital, with medical staff, antiseptics and anesthesia are benefits of childbirth in our modern time, still this came with no a bed, no blankets, no assistance or care from others.

And then this baby was laid in a manger, in the feedtrough where the sheep kept looking to munch hay. That was the only place to receive him, as those in homes and inns went about life, enjoying supper and company, savoring warmth and comfort. Baby Jesus was not welcomed as a guest to be cared for. His coming was pretty much ignored.

His arrival was neglected and unvalued…except by some shepherds. Yet, for that, just imagine what you’d think if some guys who’d been camping out in the wilderness surrounded by barnyard animals and their poop suddenly wandered in to join your holiday gathering, much less to meet you in the labor and delivery room. The one upside was that their odor, rather than being a distraction or annoyance, would’ve fit right in at a cattle stall.

Poor baby Jesus deserved so much but hardly had a birthday party. That may make us feel sorry or maybe ashamed. We may ask ourselves what we would’ve done, had we been around Bethlehem in the year zero. Or we feel we need to do more now, really to celebrate well, as if we’re proving to Jesus that we can do better.

In that way, we could easily turn this into a morality lesson: realizing Jesus was left out in the cold, and by analogy seeing Jesus in our neighbors, we try caring for the suffering. That might mean we especially ought not leave other babies out in the cold. I feel I should’ve had a more useful solution for Chrissy, who came a week ago looking for help because she and her four children are sleeping in a parked car.

Or, reminded that Jesus arrived as an unwanted outcast, displaced from his home, needing a safe place while a violent military was controlling his homeland, we might have reason to follow social media memes that highlighted for us how we’re treating refugees, to imagine those displaced people in Jesus’ boat. We might also harbor disappointment at how quickly that unresolved crisis has been fading from the news and our minds. Those may be honest and kind embodiments of our faith and may even have life-saving importance.

But we also have to recognize that Christmas isn’t about shoulds and oughts. If this were assessed by what we’re supposed to do, how well we’re prepared, what it means to welcome outsiders and whole-heartedly pray “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,” then partly at least we’re fooling ourselves, because we missed it.

This isn’t about preparing a cozy nursery for Jesus or only guilt and shame at failing to make progress or what’s necessary and right to do next. Because Jesus came. He came without a baby shower or a nurse’s specialty care or a society that valued him or even a bed. Yet he came just the same.

So rather than this being a lecture, trying to tell you what to do or what you did wrong, this story is telling us about God. It’s an amazing thing to keep repeating year-after-year through the generations, to tell that our God would come this way. God does not wait for you to tidy up, to get your house in order, to make things ready and pretty, to be all Martha Stewart-y. God doesn’t wait for the plate of cookies or the door to be opened, or the to-do list to be completely checked off.

This disregarded God who was born in a barn, this God who goes on to be found on a cross, this God is the God who would still be with you in your life. See, God doesn’t wait for all to be merry and bright, for the table to be set and the stockings hung with care, for those who are nice and not naughty.

Jesus comes exactly because our world is hurting, because our lives are messy, because you need him. Unnoticed, even as an uninvited guest, still he comes to your life, and the angel’s song is again the message for you: Jesus, your Savior is born! He comes to establish peace, to set you free, to give you life, to fill you up with joy. He’s making room for all that in you! That’s a lot! You’re welcome.


a funeral sermon

With thanksgiving for the life of Patricia Josephine Bredeson

13 Oct 1923 + 5 Dec 2014

Hebrews 13; Psalm 23; John 14:1-6


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

It struck me, Pam and Sue, when we were visiting the other day how you kept describing two different sides to your mother, two different experiences.

Now, a lot of how we would describe ourselves is that way: when we were younger and immature versus when we grew up, or workplace demeanor versus when we’re having fun. There’s also the Jekyll and Hyde kinds of distinctions, that we can be so saintly one minute and turn to be obnoxious, terrible sinners the next. Those are true and important and even fit with our theology and view of God’s work.

But it’s not that sort of two sides that you talked about with your mother, not those two types of sides to Pat’s personality. In fact, she seemed to dwell more constantly on the kind and gracious side, as I’ll say more about. To start, though, I want to repeat for others how you talked about how this same mother for two different daughters, exaggerating a bit to make a helpful point. Again, it’s not that she was nice to one and harsh to the other, that she spoiled one while neglecting the other. That may be true for others, but not for Pat. That would still be important for our views of God, but I believe she is even more appropriate as an example for us of God’s love.

And so I enjoyed hearing how you, Sue and Pam, each perceived your mother’s care. For the rest of you, Sue talked about her mother teaching her to be a young lady, to dress right and wear make-up, to be prepared and look your best, to be well-behaved and polite and say thank you. And she understood Pam was different, perhaps the more social side. That ended up meaning more time with friends and fewer rules and plenty of enjoyment.

I’ve been reflecting on how both sides of that are fitting for our faith as we live with paradoxes or dichotomies. We would say that God indeed has high expectations for us. We gather to worship in our Sunday best, looking good and behaving as we ought, whether that is phrased in Ten Commandments or in a summary like “love your neighbor as yourself” or “do unto others as you would have them do to you.” We expect that it’s good and right for us to return thankfulness to God, always to be grateful for what we’ve been given. We figure there is a pattern or plan for the good God wants us to accomplish in life. That is the Sue-side of relationship with Pat, and relationship with God.

And then there is the Pam-side, where those all-important expectations and guidelines are not all-important but fall to second place. As much as we ought to strive to live well in relationship with each other and in respect to God, still there is grace and forgiveness. When we fall short and when we fail and when things just turn out differently, that is not the end of the relationship. That is obviously true of a mother’s love, and is even more abundantly true of God. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus, whether sinfulness or our lack of love or our forgetfulness or even death.

That also calls to mind another set of those dichotomies or paradoxes, the odd opposites of pairs, as we reflect on Pat’s life and this moment now.

I got to know Pat as always beautifully and immaculately dressed. Her dressed in lovely outfits. Her make-up accented a bright and cheery face, which also was the external sign of a gracious internal demeanor that embodied a stunning hostess. She was always ready to smile and to greet and filled with compliments. So remarkably hospitable, she had an amazing welcome and was always pleased to help. I chose the Hebrews Bible reading because that grace and love and diligent good work and cheerful greeting and blessing and hospitality all seem to have been lived out in Pat. Still as I walk around this space on Sundays in sharing the peace and greeting others, I feel her place in that section near the back, that there’s some of her warmth still there.

Yet it was also there that I first noticed the confusion setting in. Her eyes didn’t have quite the same sparkle as she was beginning to confront the disease of dementia. And in these past years, that had changed some of who Pat was and how you knew her. From being one who could organize a household and planned meals and was a great wife and who could enjoy travels with her sister and would be out and about socializing or meeting new people or shopping, from the vibrancy of life, something indeed was lost. Even in the sign of her always-perfect hairdo something disappeared.

And, as much as we would try to stay positive, we would still very truly and honestly count those as losses in life, not just as transitions but declines. An Old Testament passage that became a well-known song says that there is time for every season, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to seek and a time to lose, a time to laugh and to weep, to dance and mourn. In each of those pairings, we would say there is very definitely one good side and one bad side.

And, indeed, as we gather here today, it is with reasonable lamentation, sorry at losing a mother and grandmother, a friend. There has been sorrow for years, as Pat’s sister Margaret died 20 years ago, and her husband a dozen years ago, as she moved toward death herself in the loss of memory and of mobility.

Yet, in faith, we live with the paradoxes, the dichotomies, the odd opposites that are paired together. Even as we mourn and weep, still we rejoice in a long life well-lived. And even in the face of death, we proclaim we expect something more. In spite of our illness and forgetfulness we are never forgotten. Even when beset by the bad, we trust in God’s goodness. In the midst of a cold, dark season, we enjoy warm, beloved gatherings and bright lights. Even when we fear the end of life, we turn to the birth of a baby, the promise of God with us, an infant who was cradled in his mother’s arms and in his embrace we are guaranteed to remain for eternity. Even at this season, when things are supposed to be happy and we’re supposed to be together, and gifts given, not life taken away, where this could seem like the worst time for death and loss, still we expect it’s good to be in this beautiful place, with the promise of new life in Jesus.

And that’s true even as we face all those opposites of being lady-like versus wild or a tomboy, of high expectations or abundant forgiveness, of great ability or disability, of memory or forgetfulness, of weeping versus laughter, of health versus sickness, of death versus life, we trust it is not just that there is a good side and a bad side, a dark side and a light side. In the promise of Jesus, for Pat and for you, we have one whose embrace holds all together, that nothing can separate you from that love. Even when hospitality fails and love seems to have reached its limit and Pat could no longer welcome people into her home or into her life, still there is the larger welcome, the assurance that Jesus has a place prepared for her and for you, to welcome you into his Father’s household forever, to prepare a table before you. Wherever you are, from birth to death and beyond, through thick and thin, good or bad, in all circumstances of life and for life to come, God is with you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen