31 August 2008

27 August 2008

The Wednesday Reflection: Tolkien, Accidents, and Free Will

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12.9-21

I’ve just started reading Tolkien again, for the umpteenth time in my life (seriously – I can’t remember how many times I’ve read The Lord of the Rings, but it is 'many', as in ‘more than I have fingers to count’). The trigger was a rebroadcast of the Peter Jackson films on some cable station the other night; seeing the Rohirrim charging into the armies of Mordor just got me thinking it was time to revisit Tolkien’s fantastic world.

This time, I’m starting with The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s history of Middle-Earth from the dawning of its creation to the end of the Third Age (The Lord of the Rings era, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the Middle-Earth timeline). The story begins with the creation of the world through the song of Iluvatar and his children, the Ainur, but even at the beginning, something went wrong. One of the singers, Melkor, desired more power and the dominion of his own vision of creation, so he sang in ways that weren’t harmonizing with the other Valar. This pattern of betrayal and contention continued for ages upon ages in this wonderful tale: Melkor, also known as Morgoth, chose the path of greed and malice and thus was Middle-Earth stained by evil and sin.

Those aren’t the words Tolkien uses, mind you: I don’t think the word “sin” occurs even once in this first part of The Silmarillion, and if it does occur in the rest of the Tolkien library, it does not occur often. But Tolkien was a theologian nevertheless: his mythology bears the tragedy and glory of free will and our bondage to sin better than any writer of the 20th century.

I bring this up because of the reading from Romans for tonight. As we were working on this text in our pastor’s group study yesterday afternoon, a local pastor said, “I didn’t listen to this kind of stuff when my mother said it: why would I listen when Paul says it?” Standing by itself, this passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans bends the back of every sinner in the joint with the weight of heavy expectations and missed opportunities. Notice that in these verses the word “until” does not appear once. There’s no end in sight to this list of demands, and so Paul’s words take on the full power of the Law to push and demand and accuse. Let’s face it: we will all lag in zeal, we will rarely bless those who persecute us, and there will always be a small part of us that wants most desperately to repay evil with evil.

There’s no “until” in this passage because what Paul describes is not a program for self-improvement: this is the pattern of life for which God created us in the beginning. But, like Melkor in The Silmarillion, we insist on calling the tune and create discord where there is supposed to be harmony. It’s no good insisting that we try to work our way back to the original melody, either: for every moment where we do heed the call of God to holy living, there are a thousand moments where we deny the call, sing our own tune and bring the whole thing into discord all over again.

There is, however, reason for hope. The other reason the word “until” doesn’t appear in this passage from Romans is this: there is no “until” left for God’s children. We who have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever already have everything God has to give. Our choices are ours to make, and the consequences are ours to bear, but the first and most important choice has already been made by God: you are God’s child and can never be separated from God, even by your own decisions to live in discord with the world around you.

In a recent article at the Christian Century website, a woman wrote about surviving a terrible car accident. An onlooker said to her, “God must have plans for you, because you all survived this accident.” The problem with this kind of thinking is that not everyone survives accidents – and not every accident is a genuine accident. People make poor decisions, like running stop signs, speeding, driving drunk, and sometimes those poor decisions bear terrible consequences, but those decisions are our own, not the hand of God squashing us flat because we’ve served our purpose in this world. Here is the mystifying nature of the grace of God: grace forgives poor decisions, missed opportunities, denial and fear, and sets us free with the distinct possibility that we will likely do it all over again. But, as we are set free, the teachings of Jesus and his followers, like Paul, remind us that there is indeed something better for which we were made. “Overcome evil with good”? Maybe not today – but I’ve been set free for tomorrow, and that is all that matters.

26 August 2008

The Road Goes Ever On And On...

I'm setting forth on a great journey, again, one I've taken many times before. Yet along that road I find new wonders and fantastic places each time I set out.

The journey of which I speak is the journey to Middle-earth. Starting with The Silmarillion, I will be traveling in Tolkien's land again, and as always, I'm excited to set out.

As Bilbo once said, "It's a dangerous business, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to."

25 August 2008

Still Missing Larry

Some time ago I posted about driving home and thinking of Larry Meyer, so deep in memories of my own campus ministry experiences that I'd sometimes drive past the turn to my street without stopping. Today I had another "Larry" moment, but of a different type.

A student called just after lunch to see if I could sit down for a chat for a while. "Of course," I said, and the student came and we talked. The subject is only important to me and the student, but in the course of the conversation I caught myself doing things I remembered Larry doing in smilar conversations we shared over the years I called him "my pastor." I even caught myself in a Larry "pose:" leaning back in my chair, legs crossed, hands clasped behind my head - all done unconsciously, mind you. Sort of like this picture, but without the smile (it wasn't a smiley kind of talk).

It's been a great first weekend to the semester. There were 39 people in worship yesterday, which may not seem like much until you figure the first Sunday I preached here we had 12 students in attendance. But the numbers in worship aren't as important as the feeling that maybe I am making a difference here, and my conversation today was every bit as important as the 39 who came yesterday. You can't have one without the other if you're going to do this ministry thing right, and for today, at least, it feels like the Spirit and I are getting it done right. Soli Deo Gloria.

22 August 2008

A Date with the Friday Five

This week's Friday Five brought to you by DayTimer, the Franklin Planner and the number 5...
It's Friday afternoon, Eastern Time, and this is your faithful Songbird
with a calendar-related Friday Five. Due to some confusion with our dates, I'm
stepping in today, although I am usually here only on the 5th Friday, when there
is such a thing.Here are five things to ponder about dates. I hope you'll

1) Datebooks--how do you keep track of your appointments? Electronically? On paper? Month at a glance? Week at a glance?
This is a Palm Centro from Sprint. It's supposed to be my new electronic brain - cell phone, datebook, task list, notebook and all around cool gadget. What it is right now is a heavy cell phone. I can't make the HotSync work. Why can't I make the HotSync work? I don't know when anything's happening! Help me!

2) When was the last time you forgot an important date?
This summer I mistakenly thought my sister-in-law's birthday was in July; it's in June, and thus I missed it AGAIN. SIL is a long-time friend and deserves better. Then I neglected to call my folks on their anniversary. Their 40th anniversary. Granted, my brother and SIL had a baby boy that week, and we were rapidly approaching Alanna's arrival, but still, that was bad form.
3) When was the last time you went OUT on a date?
Err, mmmm, May? Yes, it was May - we went to see the new Indiana Jones movie, and we ate out, also. Been a bit, shall we say, busy since then.
4) Name one accessory or item of clothing you love even though it is dated.
Well, I don't think they're dated, but I loves me my Dr. Marten's boots, and I heard some fashion guy saying they're out of fashion not so long ago. I don't care - my brown boots are almost 10 years old and I can still wear them for casual dress occasions. Nothing, absolutely nothing, has ever been a better bargain or a more beloved clothing purchase than my two pairs of plain Dr. Marten's boots (one brown, one flat black).
5) Dates--the fruit--can't live with 'em? Or can't live without 'em?
Meh - I could go either way. Yummy, but let's just say if I eat too many the digestive byproducts can be a bit, um, musical. Beans aren't the only musical fruit. Aaaaand there's your guy take on the GalPals list - bet none of the Gals brought up flatulence...

Book of Faith

View my page on Book of Faith

20 August 2008

The Not-So-Rocky Road to Dublin (Bay)

This was lunch today: bangers & mash with a Guinness chaser. My colleague from down the hall has accepted a call to a church on the north shore of Wisconsin and so we conference colleagues celebrated her ministry and wished her future blessings. We got together to eat at Dublin Bay, a local Irish restaurant.

What a treat it was to finally have a meal at this lovely restaurant, introduce our daughter Alanna to my colleagues who hadn't met her yet, AND enjoy some quality pub food to boot. Nice to know there's also a place in town that has Guinness on tap - you can bet your bonnie booty I'll be back.

It was a good feeling being in the restaurant with my area colleagues. The "new guy" feeling is definitely starting to wear thin, replaced with admiration and respect for the gifts and abilities my colleagues have in their respective calls. When we first moved here, I found myself missing my conference colleagues from Minnesota a lot: we had a great collegial atmosphere in that part of the state, and we worked hard to maintain it. I hope we can do the same here in Ames, as this work is hard enough without knowing someone's got your back.

Hey, at least we oughta get together once in a while for bangers & mash and a pint or two. I'm always good for that.

Alanna's Baptism

Life has been busy at die Johnson Haus lately: many family members arriving and leaving and lots of planning and cleaning and cooking and such for Alanna's baptism. I'm happy to report that the whole thing went off without a hitch, unlike Ainsley's baptism which involved a worship-canceling blizzard and at least one case of stomach flu/food poisoning. Yeah, fun times. Anyway, this weekend couldn't have been better: gorgeous weather, everyone got their hotels and the rooms were good, and the baptism was a snap. When the worst thing that happens on a big weekend like this is some slow-cooking burgers because I got impatient and scattered the coals too early, you know it's a good weekend.

Here are some pics from the weekend. First, Kristin got this beautiful closeup of Ainsley:

Cousin Z and Ainsley really enjoyed some time in the kiddie pool on Saturday:

Alanna in her beautiful baptismal gown:

Grandpa Johnson, Cousin Z and Ainsley getting ready for worship:

One happy post-baptismal family:

The Johnson clan:

The Mooneyham clan (at home because we couldn't catch Cousin Q at the church):

My brother (L) and father (R) showing my brother-in-law what it means to be Cornhuskers (Okay, not really - BIL knows how to husk corn. But the joke was too good to pass up.):

Ainsley getting her cute on in the backyard after lunch:

My brother trying to get Alanna to stop crying and start burping:

My baby brother and his SO laughing at something:

Like I said, a beautiful weekend with lots of family time (and it was fun in spite of all the family time!). Now we are just the four of us - everyone has gone home. It's both nice to just be home with the kids and a bit crazy now that no one is around to help - but it's a bit more nice to be finally settling into a bit of a routine. I'm sure it won't last, but for now we're having a grand time, just the four of us.

15 August 2008

Friday Five: Fall Transformations

Ooooooh, this'll be fun! Lotsa things changing in the life of RevScott & the girls this fall, so it'll be hard to pick which five to mention. Here goes:

Here in my neck of the woods, rain is falling...a little uncharacteristic for August, but most welcome! It'll be hot and humid later, but a break in the heat is most welcome.Also falling (especially into my driveway) are the fruits of the bois d'arc tree (also known as the Osage Orange). We call them "bowdarks" and enjoy bowling them down the driveway to the empty lot across the street. (Yes, I may be a redneck...)Bois d'arc fruits are used only for: 1) making more trees and 2) eating by squirrels (if you have another use, please let me know!)The wood of the bois d'arc tree, however, is very hard and very beautiful, and makes gorgeous items like the vase above. Such a lovely thing, from such an odd-looking source!

For this Friday's Five, share with us five transformations that the coming fall will bring your way.

Bonus: Give us your favorite activity that is made possible by the arrival of fall.

1. On a personal note, this will be my first "full year" as a campus pastor. Since we're now on the academic calendar for our ministry schedule, I'm in the thick of emailing incoming students, nailing down our first few worship services of the fall semester, and preparing for the onslaught of students which will start next week. It's VERY exciting and something I've anticipated with glee since I first interviewed here last October.

2. Family transformations are also huge for us this year. In a few short days Alanna, Ainsley, Kristin and I will be on our own: MIL, who has been a wonderful help to us since Alanna was born on the 21st, will be heading home with FIL after the baptism on Sunday morning. I'm so grateful MIL could be here with us, and at the same time I'm ready to start trying to figure out how we're going to make this family thing work. Not least of all will be the simple matter of scheduling everything and making sure we're all on the same page: a hefty task for the three of us, exponentially more complicated now that we are four.

3. Seeing autumn in a new state is going to be different, too. Ames is a lovely community, with lots and lots of trees, parks and other spots where nature invades this town of 55,000, but it's certainly not northern Minnesota, whose beauty from August to the first of November is simply beyond compare. Right now would be the season for groundfog over Barrett Lake as I head out for my morning run, and I'm surprised to note how much I miss it, and the smell and sound of the lake as the days tend toward cooler temps.

4. There is an aspect of this move to campus ministry that I never considered until just now. In addition to the calendar changing, my position within the community has changed as well. In congregational ministry, which I left in January at the age of 33, I was still a kid when compared to most of the members of our church. I felt that way, too, and sometimes it was a huge problem (how is a kid supposed to provide advice for living to folks twice his age and more?). Here in Ames, I'm 34 and OLD to most of my students. No one in our student community remembers the Challenger explosion. Heck, most of them don't remember when Kurt Cobain was alive and making music. I'm sure I'll receive the list from the faculty at that one school that tells us all what this year's freshman class takes for granted as their world view, and like the last few years, I'll feel the passing of time and the shock of realizing I'm now approaching an age that encompasses my earliest memories of my parents (gulp).

5. Finally, the transformation of our house into our home continues. Bushes have been removed from the backyard and replaced with smaller, more sensible plants. The next few weekends will be spent getting stuff out of the garage and putting in new steps into the kitchen so we can get the minivan in there before the snow flies. Next spring I'll start tearing down the humongous shed in the backyard so I can move it and reassemble it in a smaller fashion in the corner and reclaim some of that space for my garden. This home-ownership thing is fun - of course, it would be a lot MORE fun if the mortgage payment took care of itself. :-)

Bonus: Hmmm, favorite activity made possible by the coming of fall. What could that be, said the young farm boy from Nebraska who played football for years and wound up playing trombone at three NCAA National Championship bowl games? Oh, yeah:


I think the whole state and all of us in diaspora are breathless with anticipation for this fall. Coach Bo Pelini sounds like the real deal and, we hope, an ascension back to the upper echelons of NCAA football will soon follow. Please, at least tell me we're going to hit people in the mouth again! That by itself would be a major transformation from the former regime in Lincoln. Go Big Red!

14 August 2008

By Comparison, I'm The Laziest Pastor EVER

My head is swimming trying to get back into the swing of full time ministry after three weeks of paternity leave. Seriously, just catching up on mail, email and getting an individual email to all our incoming students is taking up every last bit of mental capacity I've got. Thank heaven I don't have to preach this Sunday!

So, as I'm doing this, I checked in with my blogroll today and found that Real Live Preacher is basically kicking my ass in the "Pastoral Aspirations" department. He's hosting a Real Live Discussion on Hell. You know, the kind of light, frivolous blogging we've come to expect, right?

Hell. Discussion and all. With ground rules and exegesis required. Just reading the few comments on his website took me nearly fifteen minutes. Gordon, I salute you, brother: go on with your bad self!

13 August 2008

Getting A Life Back?

It's been an interesting week since last I posted. I'm not sure exactly how to describe it. Some good stuff happened, about which I'll post later. But it's been a real struggle this week also. Some things I think are pretty important are getting dropped, regularly, and figuring out how to handle this frustration is going to be an important piece of work for me in coming days. I'm overjoyed to be a daddy for the second time - but paired with that joy is an exponentially greater challenge to be patient and forgiving, which aren't natural character traits for me. I'm more from the "Get it done and stop giving me excuses" school, which can be great in some instances but doesn't always contribute to the happiest home environment. Just a few more days and things should settle down a bit, but those are going to be LONG days, I think.

One of the good things from the week was our trip to my hometown for the 125th Anniversary Celebration of Salem Lutheran Church, where my family has worshipped for four generations (actually, counting my nephews now that my brother has moved home, it's five generations). I'll post more about that later, but here are some pictures from the weekend. Enjoy!

Alanna & her cousin N:

Burping the baby:

Little girl, big fish at the new pool in Wakefield:


Brothers and kids at the new pool:

Here I come, Daddy!


We had a FUN day at the pool!

Ainsley's second tractor ride (because no one was around to take a picture for the first)

Cousins Z & Ainsley sitting at the table where Daddy & Cousin Jon sat, many years ago:

All the grandkids at Grandma & Grandpa Johnson's farm:

06 August 2008

The Wednesday Reflection: Going Nuts, Near To Salvation

I need to confess something. Working at the Lutheran Center drives me absolutely nuts sometimes.

No, I don’t mean it’s a lousy job. Far from it – I love working in campus ministry. It’s the actual Lutheran Center that drives me nuts. The building itself. Working IN the Lutheran Center drives me absolutely nuts sometimes, because it’s a mess, and it’s not getting any less messier.

Nothing EVER gets clean at the Center. Oh, sure, we wipe it down once a year or so and call it good. But every corner is dusty, every ceiling has spiderwebs, and none of it is going away. Do you know how many closets there are in this building? Do you know how many closets have crap that hasn’t moved once since I took this call? Light bulbs burn out and don’t get replaced. Flowers get planted and don’t get watered. Hymnals and worship folders migrate around the building until no one knows how many we have and what we would do if we ever got them in one place.

There’s no air conditioning here except three window units that keep our offices bearable in most of the summer heat. The windows in the basement have yet to be finished. The kitchen? A disaster area. Matter of fact, everything below ground level needs a complete overhaul, from what I can tell, to be followed by everything above ground level. But we can’t afford to overhaul things as quickly as we’d like – the finances just aren’t there. So, for now, we endure a building that looks as though it might start falling down around us one of these days. Now do you understand why working in the Center drives me absolutely nuts?

The psalmist cries out to God: “Will you be displeased with us forever? Will you prolong your anger from age to age? Will you not give us life again, that your people may rejoice in you?” I wonder some days if that’s what the building is saying to me as I walk in the door. “How long, O Pastor Scott, must I wait for fresh paint? For a sump pump? For the air conditioning I desperately need? How long?”

But, at the same time, the psalmist also says, “Truly, your salvation is very near to those who fear you, that your glory may dwell in our land.” This, from the same psalmist who was just asking God if God’s anger would never depart? How does that work?

Last summer, Kristin and I took seven campers from our two churches to church camp in Nebraska for one week. We stayed at the same camp I had gone to in 1985, when I was 11 years old, and as luck would have it, we were at a campsite that used the original dining hall from all those years ago. In the 20 years since I was a camper there, buildings had gone up like weeds on those 300 acres, but the old Main Site Dining Hall remained, unchanged, from when it was first built in the mid-1970s. No air conditioning. Tired old ceiling fans that barely moved the air. Worn out, out-of-tune piano that looked about a million years old. But I walked into that dining hall and was instantly transported back to weeks of camp that uprooted, molded and shaped me into something completely new and reborn. That dilapidated old building houses more memories than I can count, and when they finally do replace it with something better, part of me will grieve, because a place very special to me will be gone.

If new paint, air conditioning and windows that close properly were the marks of salvation, then both my old camp and our campus ministry would be in trouble. Salvation is marked by something completely different. I think many of us 21st century American Christians often mistake maintenance for ministry, facilities for faith. True, we are called to be good stewards of what God has entrusted to us, but the first priority of stewardship is faithful living, not feng shui. Salvation is very near to us at the Lutheran Center, not because of or in spite of our dilapidated building, but because in this place we are called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified by God’s Word, put to death in our sin and raised to new life in Christ, even in this building that leaks and moans and gets moldy if you don’t dump the dehumidifiers every day. Can it be frustrating? Sure – but not nearly as frustrating as God must get, dealing with we of little faith who think that a newly sealed parking lot is a sign that we’re on the right track. Salvation is near, friends, but it isn’t our building that shows it – it’s our hearts, and those can be turned by God in any place, any time, tripping peacefully along or, in my case, going nuts with nowhere else to go. Thanks be to God. Amen.

05 August 2008

Pastoral Care They Don't Teach You In Seminary

You need to read this post by the Questing Parson, even if you're not a pastor - because there's a good chance that all of us, pastors and not, have been a "Ralph" at some point in our lives.

Pictures: Home With Alanna

The oppressive heat here in Ames is keeping the girls inside most of the time, so Mommy has taken LOTS of cute pictures of Alanna the last few days. Here are some of the best:

Hanging out in our new swing:

Sleeping like Daddy:

Bath Time!

Sleeping like Mommy:

Tummy Time!

04 August 2008

Monday Meme: 7 Random Things

I've already given up on the 365 Project with Alanna. This is NOT due to Second Child Syndrome (at least, I keep telling myself it isn't); I just don't have enough mental space for a daily reminder to take a picture and post it. But I'll get some pics up pretty regularly anyway, especially as Kristin continues to regain her strength post-C-section and can take up more of the kid-wrangling duties. Right now MIL and I have it covered, but it takes a lot of our time.

HotCup and Cheesehead did a Random Seven meme in the last week, and I thought it looked fun. So, here goes:

Thing the 1st: I sweat. A LOT. I've been trying to ride my bike to work more often as a conservation thing, but when it's in the 90s with that thick, thick humidity as it is now, it's just awful because I'm a sweaty mess by the time I arrive. At the gym, I'm the guy who's through his shirt in the first five minutes on the treadmill and needs to just soak the thing in disinfectant spray after a good long run. Being summer, I'm even worse than normal at the moment. That guy way down on the end of the treadmill line? Yeah, that's me. Don't get too close - you might get splashed. Sorry about that.

Thing the 2nd: I'm totally addicted to the Star Wars: Legacy of the Force series. It's awesome - righteously fireplacing awesome storytelling. Forget the bloviating, ponderous crap George Lucas foisted on the Star Wars universe with the prequels (it's sad how good those movies could have been if someone else had written the dialogue): this series, written by Aaron Allston, Karen Traviss and Troy Denning is where the best Star Wars work is happening. In addition to their excellent work here, I'd add anything written by Timothy Zahn; these are the best writers out there currently in the Star Wars universe, IMHO.

Thing the 3rd: I think my beloved Huskers will win nine games this year and push for the Big 12 North division title. I know last year's record doesn't indicate this type of reversal is in the cards, but I think most of the predictions I've seen thus far this summer are woefully wrong due to a) an underestimation of the talent Bill Callahan's staff recruited to Nebraska and b) the potential that the new staff under Coach Pelini can tap from said underestimated team. Frankly, though, I don't care if they win any games so long as they show up and play hard, physical, balls-to-the-wall football. I think Nebraska is in for a return to glory, and I haven't been this excited for a season to get started since 1997.

Thing the 4th: I've gained about five pounds since Alanna was born, but I don't care. What with mid-night feedings interrupting my sleep (studies show that a lack of sleep contributes to weight gain) and the corresponding lack of energy sapping my workouts, it's a wonder I can still get into any of my clothes, to be honest. I'm going to give myself about a month to just not worry about training too much; being a good daddy is much more important right now.

Thing the 5th: I LOVE our minivan, even though it gets about half the mileage our Passat gave us and it's a Ford. Yep, you read that right: I love our Ford minivan, crappy quality reputation and all. It's just nice to be able to get the girls in and out of the vehicle so quickly, and to have room for a double stroller, two child seats, a mother-in-law, and me & the wifey, plus our luggage, all of which we'll be taking to Nebraska later this week.

Thing the 6th: My aunt sent me some information about hypermiling that I thought was intriguing. Some of these practices I've been using for years: coasting onto exit ramps and up to stoplights in neutral (recommended only if you drive a manual transmission like I do), using cruise control as often as possible, etc. But some of it seems pretty crazy. No air conditioning? Drafting as often as possible? No-brake corners? There's some safety concerns there that I wouldn't care to risk.

Thing the 7th: I really miss our massage therapist from Minnesota (not to mention the extra cash it took to take advantage of her skills). Getting older really sucks sometimes. As I've been working out over the past few weeks, and working outside as well, I've had a lot of muscle soreness and pain, especially in the mornings. Man, I'm tired of getting up in the morning with everything aching like it does. I need a good, 90 minute, full-body massage, and financially it's not in the cards for a while yet. Ouch.

Well, that's the random stuff for the day. If you've read this far, consider yourself tagged.

03 August 2008

Sermon for 3 August 2008 - "Swept Into A Miracle"

I preached at Bethany Lutheran Church in Kelly, Iowa this morning - here's
the sermon. If you're in the vicinity of Wakefield, Nebraska next Sunday,
I'll be preaching at Salem Lutheran Church, my home congregation, for their
125th Anniversary Celebration worship service at 10:30 a.m. Stop on

One of the icons of my childhood is the Star Wars saga. I was 3 the year the original “Star Wars” swept movie theatres around the world. I played with Star Wars action figures for years. In the Star Wars saga, there is an iconic moment that almost everyone, even people who aren’t fans, knows very well. It comes in the middle of The Empire Strikes Back. We find Luke Skywalker training to be a Jedi with Yoda on the planet Dagobah. Luke’s X-wing fighter has sunk into the swamp, and when Luke tells Yoda he will try to raise the ship, Yoda scolds Luke: “NO! Do or do not – there is no ‘try.’” When Luke can’t raise the ship by himself, Yoda raises the X-wing out of the swamp while the strings play the Jedi theme majestically. Luke says, “I can’t believe it!” to which Yoda responds: “That is why you fail.”
What a powerful cinematic moment this is! My friend Aaron, a band director in central Nebraska, has used the “Do or do not – there is no try!” line on his students for years. But it’s only a movie, unfortunately. As much as we might wish it were so, we do not live “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” There is no soundtrack to the lives we live, and the reality in which Christ meets us is far less romantic than the scorching deserts of Tatooine or the glittering bustle of Coruscant. But Christ does meet us here, and he comes offering something better than movie magic. Christ comes to sweep you into a miracle – not a magic trick, nothing accomplished through special effects or computer imagery, but a genuine, actual, living, breathing miracle. Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, we come to you hungry for the faith which only you can give. Fill our hearts with joy in your presence, peace in our souls and hope for the future – and when the time is right, send us into that future to be those who live out the hope you have provided. In your strong, gracious name we pray, Amen.
Perhaps a bit of setting is in order here. In Matthew’s gospel, this story comes hard upon the heels of the execution of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. So when the gospel tells us that “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew…to a deserted place by himself,” we can be fairly certain that Jesus wanted to be alone to mourn the death of his cousin and make peace with the fact that yet another of God’s prophets had been rejected and killed. There is a wonderful juxtaposition happening here in Matthew. In the midst of a birthday party thrown in his honor, Herod Antipas couldn’t be bothered to spare the life of one troublemaker from Galilee. Yet Jesus, who was interrupted in his quest for solitude by a crowd of thousands, had compassion enough to feed those thousands. Matthew reminds us of the words of the psalmist, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” [1] There is a world of difference between Jesus of Nazareth and Herod Antipas, a difference we would do well to remember in this season of politics and promises. (I’ll leave it to you to decide which of the candidates most closely resembles Herod – it might be fun, but it would definitely be a digression from our gospel text this morning).
So – into the midst of the teeming crowds upon which Jesus is showing compassion stride the disciples, the ones who have followed Jesus for some time now. They’ve heard him preach the kingdom of God and teach the crowds what it means to put their trust in God. They’ve seen Jesus heal the sick and cleanse lepers. They’ve even been sent out to do some of the same work on Jesus’ behalf. So, after all this, the disciples have only one thing to say to Jesus: “It’s getting late and we’re in the middle of nowhere: send these crowds away so they could go get something to eat!”
It’s hard to say what the disciples meant by this order – and do note that it’s an order, not a request. Some interpreters argue that the disciples were actually showing compassion by reminding Jesus that a crowd of this size will require a lot of time to find food, while others have chosen the more cynical interpretation, that the disciples just wanted Jesus to get rid of the crowds. Regardless of the intent behind the order, the meaning is clear: crowds do not feed themselves, so they must be sent where they can be fed. Little did the disciples know that the crowd had already found the place where they could and would be fed, and not with just a little bit of food, but with an abundance.
So the miraculous feeding of the thousands began. As Frederick Bruner wrote, “Jesus not only cares about hungry people – he does something (and motivates his church to do something) about their hunger. He does not give tracts, advise fasting, or counsel patient resignation. He feeds.” [2] But if this is a miracle, this feeding, it is a miracle of the most ordinary kind. Read the words of Matthew 14.20 very carefully: there was no thunderclap, no tearing asunder of the heavens. No dove descended, no sunbeam appeared, no angelic choir sang. “All ate and were filled.” Simple. Plain. And, we must note, carried out by the disciples, not Jesus. His voice gave the blessing, yes – but it was the disciples’ hands that distributed the meal. However long it took for twelve people to feed several thousand men, women and children, that was how long the miracle took to occur, and it’s a fair bet that the majority of the crowd had no idea that anything miraculous was taking place.
When commentators work with these verses from Matthew, they are naturally drawn to the question of how the miracle happened. Some argue that the crowd, seeing the disciples giving out their own bread, began sharing food they had brought with them. Others argue that it was a miracle ex nihilo, “out of nothing,” bread and fish rising from where there had been none before. In one internet forum, a heated debate rose over this central question: was this “the description of a real miracle” or not? Some of us need Jesus to be the miracle man pulling bread out of his hat. Some of us need Jesus to be an ordinary guy inspiring his followers to share their own out of a mystical sense of esprit des corps. This argument isn’t about Jesus, really: it’s about us, and our need for Jesus to be something we can control, something we can understand, instead of someone we can trust. Arguments about how miracles happen are essentially exercises in missing the point. It doesn’t matter how the thousands were fed; the point is, they were fed, and in that feeding a miracle was indeed taking place.
What if we asked a bigger question: when did this story about Jesus become miraculous? Did this story become miraculous when the crowds were fed, or did this story become miraculous when an overwhelmed, grieving teacher and healer gave up his time of private mourning out of compassion for the thousands who were following him into the wilderness? Did this story become miraculous when Jesus blessed the bread, or when the disciples were given faith to turn around and begin distributing bread they knew wouldn’t be enough for their own needs? Also, when did the miraculous come to an end here? Was it when all had eaten? When the twelve baskets of remnants were collected? What about the day after, when the crowds departed and began telling the story of what had happened? If someone came to faith in Jesus as a result of that story, wouldn’t that be a miracle as well?
The thing about life with Jesus is that the miracles never stop. The crowd that day in the wilderness didn’t so much witness a miracle as get swept into a miracle, one that had been happening for quite some time and is, in fact, still going. Jesus takes what the church has to give, blesses it, and gives it back to us for the sake of the world: and thus the miracle continues. As Thomas Long says, “the church is always in the desert, the place where it cannot rely upon its own resources, which are few. The church is hungry and is surrounded by a world of deep cravings…”[3] Yet even the little we think we have is far more than God needs – after all, for the One who called light out of darkness and shape out of chaos, multiplying a little bread is no hardship at all.
All of us here today are living miracles – not because of who we are, but because of the one in whose name we gather. And, like the disciples, we are not only gathered but sent in His name for the sake of the world. Barbara Brown Taylor says that “Miracles let us off the hook. They appeal to the part of us that is all too happy to let God feed the crowd, save the world, do it all.” But, she says, the call of the church is to be swept into the miraculous, to be a part of what God is doing: “Not me but you; not my bread but yours; not sometime or somewhere else but right here and now…stop waiting for food to fall from the sky and share what you have. Stop waiting for a miracle and participate in one instead.”
There were some in the crowd that day, I’m sure, who ate their food, heard Jesus speak, and went away untouched, unmoved, untransformed. It’s a sad truth that getting through to us takes a lot of time and effort on God’s part. But here, today, you and I are still being swept into the miracle of life in the name of Jesus Christ, the gift of God’s grace which feeds our souls until we are filled to overflowing. Christ has swept us in and now sends us out. This week is your crowd, his love is your bread, your hands and life are his gift to the world – go, friends, and give our Lord Jesus Christ away until all may eat and be filled. Amen.

[1] Psalm 146.3
[2] Bruner, Frederick. Matthew: A Commentary. Vol. 2: The Churchbook. © 2004 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI. p. 66. (emphasis mine)

01 August 2008

Friday Five BLOCKED Edition

Apparently RevGals got blocked last night by Blogger on the suspicion that they are a SPAM website. Kinda funny but apparently pretty common for a big blog like that. It served as inspiration for this week's Friday Five:

1) How do you amuse yourself when road construction blocks your travel?
My campus pastor used to carry a book everywhere he went. Me? I carry my iPod. But even that doesn't always help - I will drive twenty miles out of my way to keep moving forward rather than sit and burn gas in a traffic stop. I loathe and despise 'just sitting here,' in both metaphoric and actual incidences.

2) Have you ever locked yourself out of your house? (And do you keep an extra key somewhere, just in case?)
When we lived in small town Minnesota the only time we locked the house was when we were asleep inside it, so locking up has become a new thing for us here in Ames. I haven't locked myself out yet, but I've been locked out by my loving wife a couple of times. In the hullabaloo of moving, new kids and sundry, we haven't found a suitable hiding place for the yet-to-be-cut extra key - that'll be done sometime before Christmas, I hope.

3) Have you ever cleared a hurdle? (And if you haven't flown over a material hurdle, feel free to take this one metaphorically.)
I'd have to say that my biggest hurdle was when I quit smoking cigarettes in 2003 after 13 years and several failed attempts (I still enjoy the occasional pipe or cigar, but my beloved Lucky Strikes make me sick these days - am I supposed to be happy about that?) I and two friends at Luther Seminary had made the attempt to quit our Lenten discipline, but I was the only one who made it. I think asking Kristin out for our first date one week before Lent started might have had something to do with my success. :-)

4) What's your approach to a mental block?
Crouching Coffee, Hidden Ice Cream. Nothing else works for me. :-)

5) Suggest a caption for the picture above; there will be a prize for the funniest answer!
"The Most Popular Booth At The Paper Chain Figure High School Career Fair:"