28 September 2008

Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost: "Words and Deeds"

Not too long ago I developed a pretty bad teacher's crush. Her name is Susan Briehl and she's worked in a number of different capacities in the church over the years: pastor, liturgist, lyricist, poet, teacher, and so on. Three years ago, she spoke at our pastors' retreat on a lake in northern Minnesota, and I was smitten. Hard. She's a solidly Confessional Lutheran. She loves her some Small Catechism. She can quote the Large Catechism from memory. She reads Luther's Works for inspiration. We spent our time talking about the lesser known aspects of Luther's work – the fact that Luther was a professor of Old Testament before he became the great reformer, and spent years working with the Psalms as a teacher of the church. All of these wonderfully Lutheran things, coming from a woman who had rarely been to the Upper Midwest and doesn't have a drop of Scandinavian blood in her. Hmmm. I think I STILL have a bit of a teacher crush…

In our time together, Pastor Briehl told us a great Luther quote. The first half of it is, "A person is not justified by works." You've probably heard me and other Lutheran pastors say those words before. They are beautiful words – and you should know that, as a writer, I love beautiful words. Words are important – possibly more than we can ever imagine. How important? Just try living in my shoes if I haven't said "I love you" to my wife more than once a day. When Kristin and I get home at night, it's check-in time; time for words about our day. Kristin loves to quote the study that estimates men need to speak about 7,000 words per day, but women require a few more: 20,000. So when we check in, if I know what's good for me, I listen as Kristin gets the last of her 20,000 daily words in. AND woe be unto me if she asks me, "How was your day?" and I reply, "Good."

Words are important, in pleasurable and painful ways. Think about the impact of these words:

Thank you.

I'm sorry.

Excuse me.


I now pronounce you husband and wife.

I'm pregnant.

I'm not pregnant.

I love you.

I hate you.

I promise.

The surgery was a success.

I'm sorry: your father has died.

Words have power – power to hurt, power to heal. Poets and writers have known this as long as we've had language, and they've been using words to change our lives from the moment we started recording things in words. Words are contextual – they mean different things at different times, and from different people. When we say, "I love you," a beautiful phrase, it means many different things to any different people, and if we use it incorrectly or inappropriately there can be very unpleasant consequences to suffer.

I love words – I always have. There are books galore in my office here at the Lutheran Center, and also in our house. I spend a lot of what little free time I have left reading words, and as a preacher words are a very important aspect of my vocation. It pays for me to be a connoisseur of words, but in this parable from Matthew's gospel, all these beautiful words come up against one harsh word from Jesus our Lord: words alone are not enough.

Two young men gave their word to their father. From one, the word was plain: I will not work for you in your vineyard. From the other, the word was just as plain: I will Neither of them kept their word, but Jesus said that one of them was right with his father. They both broke their word, yet one brother did the deed According to what Jesus taught, our deeds can outweigh our words.

I mentioned half of a Luther quote earlier. The whole thing goes like this: "A person is not justified by their works; but no justified person is without works." Lip service doesn't accomplish anything in the kingdom of heaven. Even a lover of words like me has to admit that words lose their power if they are not accompanied by deeds. I can say "I love you" to my wife and kids until I'm blue in the face, but if I abuse them, treat them with contempt or neglect, my words come to mean nothing. Without works to match our words we fall from grace and find ourselves bound to our own brokenness. The best example of empty words I can give you comes from my own life. When I was a teenager, I was irresponsible, selfish and lazy. (some of you are thinking, "as a kid?") Somehow, though, I developed the idea that if I said "I'm sorry" often enough, I could get away with whatever I wanted. That all ended one day when my dad finally had enough and said to me, "You know, I wish you'd say you were sorry a whole lot less and mean it a whole lot more." My works and deeds had made my words empty, meaningless, a lie even I no longer believed. How does our confession go? "We confess that we are captive to sin, and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone." Our captivity to sin holds everything we hold dear. Even our precious words are broken and stained by sin.

There is, however, one Word to which we can cling, even in the depths of our sin. There is One who has always been pure in thought, word and deed. Jesus Christ has always been and will always be the Word made Flesh – the Word that Does what it promises. The power of Jesus' Word never fails, because Jesus' Word is always accompanied by Jesus' Deeds. Jesus' Word comes to us in our baptism, joining with plain, ordinary water to drown us in our sin and raise us up in new life. Jesus' Word comes to us in his supper, the holy meal given that we might eat and drink forgiveness, the reminder that no deed was too great for the power of His love. Jesus is the Word that rebuked the Pharisees for their stubbornness. Jesus is the Word who called Peter, James and John from their fishing boats to a life of service. Jesus is the Word who came to Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon and the reformers in the darkest times of medieval Europe and offered hope to a people oppressed by a church that had forgotten the voice of her shepherd. Jesus is the Word who came to Susan Briehl and called her to be a pastor, called me to be a pastor, and calls you to seek the kingdom of God and find your role within it. Jesus is the Word who comes today and makes a promise to you, that no matter who you are, the Word of forgiveness will transform your life through repentance, making you "what Adam and Eve were meant to be, only better." This Word, Jesus' Word, is TRUTH.

We don't always like to hear this word of change and forgiveness. We like to think we've had it figured out all along, that our comfortable lives and our level of happiness are proof that we have no need of Jesus' Word of transformation. When Jesus spoke the words in today's gospel reading, he was talking to the established church. He was talking to people like us, the good kids. One scholar notes that "[Jesus'] ministry of transformation and reclamation offends those with a vested interest in reinforcing the status quo…Jesus' transformation of the world requires the self-examination of those heretofore in charge. Or, one can simply resist the transformation and challenge the authority of Jesus himself." [1] It reminds me of one of my favorite stories: "Revelation" by Flannery O'Connor. In "Revelation" we are introduced to Mrs. Turpin, a woman who owns a small hog farm with her husband Claude in the deep South in the early 20th century. Mrs. Turpin sat in the waiting room at the doctor's office and considered out loud how fortunate she was that God made her who she was. She wasn’t white trash or black – she was a woman of means who had the good sense to be thankful for what she had. Finally, a young girl named Mary Grace had enough of Mrs. Turpin's smug self-righteousness. She hurled a book at Mrs. Turpin, tried to strangle her, and then told her, "Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog!" This shocked Mrs. Turpin to her core, so much so that later that day, as dusk was coming on, Mrs. Turpin found herself standing on the fence of her hogyards, shaking her fist at heaven and accusing God, "Who do you think you are?"

Here Mrs. Turpin receives her second revelation:

[She saw] a vast horde of souls ... rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right....They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. [2]

In the end, nothing will matter except Jesus' Words and Jesus' Deeds. Tax collectors, prostitutes, good children, bad children, good church folk, whoever we are, we are only saved by Jesus' words and Jesus' deeds. Jesus Christ is the One who gives us both words and deeds together, whole and pure. You and I are here because God has called us here to receive this word: grace. You and I are here because we are recipients of this deed: forgiveness. Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, speaks and works in you, now and forever, with a power above all other words and all other deeds. Whether it is your sins or your virtues being burned away by Jesus' love, today is a day for both words and deeds, brothers and sisters, because the living Word Jesus Christ is our Lord, and we are his people through the power of his Holy Spirit, to the glory of the Father. And that, friends, is a good word, a powerful word, and the last word. Amen.

[2] Flannery O'Connor, "Revelation." From The Complete Stories. © 1971 by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. P. 508.

26 September 2008

Johnny Appleseed Friday Five

OOOOOOOh, the Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain and the appleseed,
The Lord is good to me. Amen. Amen. Amen amen amen. AAAAAAAAmen!

From RevGalBlogPals:

Raise your hand if you know that today is Johnny Appleseed Day!

September 26, 1774 was his birthday. "Johnny Appleseed" (John Chapman) is one of America's great legends. He was a nurseryman who started out planting trees in western New York and Pennsylvania, but he was among those who were captivated by the movement west across the continent.

As Johnny traveled west (at that time, the "West" was places like Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois) he planted apple trees and sold trees to settlers. With every apple tree that was planted, the legend grew. A devout Christian, he was known to preach during his travels. According to legend, Johny Appleseed led a simple life and wanted little. He rarely accepted money and often donated any money he received to churches or charities. He planted hundreds of orchards, considering it his service to humankind. There is some link between Johny Appleseed and very early Arbor Day celebrations.

So, in honor of this interesting fellow, let's get on with the questions!

1. What is your favorite apple dish? (BIG BONUS points if you share the recipe.)

Kristin’s Grandmother’s Brown Bag Apple Pie. Will share the recipe early next week. GOOOD stuff.

2. Have you ever planted a tree? If so was there a special reason or occasion you can tell us about?

We helped my Dad plant a few trees around our house when we were kids, but other than that I haven’t. Now that I’m a homeowner, I hope to plant a tree or two either here or somewhere else before my time is done. Of course, being a native Nebraskan (home of Arbor Day) planting trees is as much in my DNA as Cornhusker football!

3. Does the idea of roaming around the countryside (preaching or otherwise) appeal to you? Why or why not?

Roaming, yes – being an itinerant preacher, NO. I’m way too settled for the latter. But I enjoy finding backroads and getting to know the lay of the land wherever I go – much to Kristin’s occasional chagrin, especially when we take a new route and get lost.

4. Who is a favorite "historical legend" of yours?

King Arthur. I LOVED Le Morte d’Arthur in high school, and I’ve read The Once and Future King several times, along with The Dark Is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. Granted, it’s not an American historical legend, but it’s my favorite.

5. Johnny Appleseed was said to sing to keep up his spirits as he traveled the roads of the west. Do you have a song that comes when you are trying to be cheerful, or is there something else that you often do?

I love many different genres of music, so my “happy songs” tend to come and go quite a bit. This is going to sound twisted, but lately Green Day’s “American Idiot” has been a favorite. “To live and not to breathe / is to die in tragedy…” There’s a passion for authenticity there that I find so very inspiring. I think “Jesus of Suburbia” is one of the greatest rock songs ever written. Eh, it’s what gets me right now, right?

Anyway, there’s some seeds sown for you! Have a great weekend, everyone – see you Sunday with the sermon.

25 September 2008

Music Meme!

1. Of all the bands/artists in your record collection, which one do you own the most albums by?
I think it's a tie between Storyhill, Jars of Clay, Rich Mullins and Neil Young. Ainsley has completely destroyed any sense of order in the ol' CD case, so it might be a few years before I can answer this one definitively.

2. What was the last song you listened to? “Madeline's Song” by Rich Mullins

3. What’s in your record/CD player right now? A mix CD created by a good friend from the last call in Minnesota. Includes some really good tunes (40 by U2 being one of the best) and some "wtf?" songs.

4. What song would you say sums you up? "Calling Out Your Name" by Rich Mullins or "Scatter-brained People" by Peter Mayer

5. What’s your favorite local band? Storyhill, followed closely by The Wild Clover Band.

6. What was the last show you attended? The Wild Clover Band at The Brazen Head Pub in Omaha.

7. What was the greatest show you’ve ever been to? I've not seen a lot of 'big' concerts, especially in the last ten years, so I'd say Storyhill at Pioneer Place on Fifth in St. Cloud, MN.

8. What’s the worst band you’ve ever seen in concert? I hate to say this, but the woeful praise band that played a youth gathering I was at a few years ago. 90 minutes of pure sonic hell.

9. What band do you love musically but hate the members of? It's kind of a package deal for me - if they're assholes it usually shows in the music. That having been said, for some reason Poison comes to mind for a band with exceptionally poor music AND manners.

11. What show are you looking forward to? The next time I see Storyhill or TWCB. Oh, and Stomp will be in Ames next spring.

12. What is your favorite band shirt? Don't have any. I don't wanna be "that guy."

13. What musician would you like to hang out with for a day? Johnny Hermanson OR Chris Cunningham, Storyhill. Harry Connick, Jr. Wynton Marsalis. Too many to choose!

14. What musician would you like to be in love with for a day? Hmmm - KT Tunstall or Joss Stone? Sheryl Crow? Natalie Imbruglia? Since it's all a dream, who knows?

15. Commodores or solo Lionel Ritchie? oooh - I just threw up a little bit in my mouth there.

16. Punk rock, hip hop or heavy metal? First or last - just please, no hip hop.

17. Name 4 flawless albums:
Johnny Cash - Live at Folsom Prison
Stevie Ray Vaughan - Greatest Hits Vol. 1 (okay, it's a compilation, but COME ON - the man's the greatest guitarist EVER)
Eric Clapton - From the Cradle
Green Day - Dookie

17b. Name one almost-flawless album:
Green Day - American Idiot. I just don't see how "What's Her Name" fits. Everything else is just incredible; "Jesus of Suburbia" might be the best rock song ever.

18. Did you know that filling out this survey makes you a music geek? Your point?

19. What was the greatest decade for music? 1990-2000; Cobain, Pearl Jam, Metallica's best, DMB and Chili Peppers get their props, R.E.M. doing some good stuff. BUT u2 was down and BNL hadn't hit the bigtime yet. Hard to pick a decade, imho. You could say 1964-1974: British Invasion and the best 70s rock, pre-disco days.

20. How many music-related videos/dvds do you own? Two or three.

21. What is your favorite movie soundtrack? "The Commitments" or "Once"

27. What was your last musical ‘phase’ before you wised up? Gangsta rap in 9th grade - don't ask.

28. What’s the crappiest CD/record/etc. you’ve ever bought? Whitney Houston, don't remember the album, I was really young, 'nuff said. Hey - my brother bought the Crash Test Dummies album, so I wasn't THAT bad.

29. Do you prefer vinyl or CDs? Considering how hard it is to purchase, play and maintain vinyl, I'll take CDs, though I'm usually a bit of a sucker for throwback stuff like that.

A Fall Equinox Not-So-Friday Five

Last Friday was a pretty frantic day, with an overnight retreat and the requisite prep work added to a normally busy Friday schedule of final Sunday prep and meetings. So I neglected the Friday Five, much to my regret because it deals with the coming of autumn, my absolute favorite season. So, I'm playing today - the day before the next Friday Five play. Hey, it's my blog, right?

From Songbird, then - last week's Friday Five:
It's that time of year, at least north of the equator. The windows are still open, but the darned furnace comes on early in the morning. My husband went out for a walk after an early supper and came home in full darkness.
And yes, where we live, leaves are beginning to turn.
As this vivid season begins, tell us five favorite things about fall:

1) A fragrance
Harvest and leaves, a combination I always find intoxicating. The smell of corn and beans drying and drawing toward the reaping and leaves falling off trees. There is no way I could ever describe the combination eloquently enough, but I know it when I smell it and I savor that short time when it is all around me.

2) A color

Will this do?

3) An item of clothing
My sweatshirts. Being a naturally warm-blooded guy, I don't usually wear sweatshirts until autumn is in full swing; but when it does come, I love throwing on a good fleece as a warm, comfy insulator against crisp morning air.

4) An activity
Well, for any good Nebraska boy, autumn means football, and of course the football season is dear to my heart. But running this time of year might just be my favorite. The smells and colors are incredible here in the American Midwest from now until the trees are bare in late October. The three years I spent running in the Twin Cities (including the Chain of Lakes, pictured below) and four years running around Barrett Lake in Barrett, MN were wonderful.

5) A special day

Again, not specifically an autumn memory, but marching from Westbrook Music Building to Memorial Stadium in 1992 for my first game as a member of the Cornhusker Marching Band was pretty special. If this were a picture of the 1992 band, I'd have been in the front row, second from the left. Good times. :-)

24 September 2008

Wednesday Night Reflection: Great Children

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Matthew 18.1-5

I worked five summers at Carol Joy Holling Camp in Ashland, Nebraska; the first three as a counselor and the last two as the Site Manager of Tipi Village. Dave, one of the year-round staff had a great routine – whenever he saw someone, he’s ask, “How’s my favorite counselor today?” “How’s my favorite site manager today?” Everyone got this greeting, which made it that much more funny, especially when a whole group of summer staff got it, right down the line.

Today, I’m not so sure he was joking. At least, not entirely. You see, I have two daughters, and I’ll be damned if I can figure out which one I love best. Is it Ainsley, my “mini-me,” with her curly red hair, constant happy demeanor, and overall cuteness? Or is it Alanna, my dark-haired beauty, who melts my heart as she falls asleep in my arms? I can’t pick one: I’m over the moon about them both, and I wonder sometimes if Dave didn’t feel the same way about all of us summer staff, too.

So when the disciples asked Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” I wonder if Jesus wasn’t thinking about the question differently than we disciples would generally think about it. Our tendency is to prioritize; to rank; to strive for the number one position. But if God feels about us the same way we feel about our kids, then the question changes, doesn’t it? There is no “greatest” in our family; there is only the individual children, whom I love, whose innocence and simplicity make them dearer to me than I’ll ever be able to explain.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we begin, “Our Father in heaven.” In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther says:

“With these words God wants to attract us, so that we come to believe he is truly our Father and we are truly his children, in order that we may ask him boldly and with complete confidence, just as loving children ask their loving father.”

When Ainsley wants something, she comes to us and simply asks for it. There are no flowery phrases, no pre-request flattery: she asks, we say “Yes” or “No.” Alanna is even more simple: she can only grunt and cry and hope that we understand she is tired/hungry/poopy. Both Ainsley and Alanna will outgrow this simple innocence, and though I’m looking forward to knowing my girls as they grow up, there is a strong part of me that wants them to stay young and innocent forever.

What Jesus means is this: God is over the moon about you, and nothing you can say or do will make that love any stronger. You are God’s children, and God looks on you with eyes that love and ears that listen, ready to care for you with the deep, abiding love to which every loving parent aspires. This is not a competition, folks: each one of you is “fearfully and wonderfully made,” as the psalmist says, and your place in God’s family is assured, not because you are great, but because God’s love for you is great.

Rich Mullins once wrote a song about God’s love for children, and I’ll close with that this evening.

On this YouTube video you'll find the song in question, "Madeline's Song," at about 6:50. Unfortunately, the last few notes got cut off, but you'll get the drift nevertheless. The embed wasn't working right, otherwise it'd be right here. Here are the lyrics:

Madeline fusses and Madeline laughs
The angel who watches says, "Hey look at that"
There's your faith, mountains will shake
Cuz God gladly bends just to hear Madeline when she prays

Madeline stretches and Madeline kicks
The angels in heaven say, "Hey look at this"
There's your faith, mountains will shake
Cuz God gladly bends just to hear Madeline when she prays

And the only angels that I've ever seen
Look like tears on the face of the sky
Though it sure breaks your heart to see heaven all streaked up
With sorrows like theirs, still you know all the while
From where cobbles shine golden like emeralds shine green
From where gems stud the streets and the walls
God looks out a window at us just to see
If anything frail as a sparrow should fall

Madeline fusses and Madeline laughs
The angel who watches says, "Hey look at that"
There's your faith
mountains will shake
God gladly bends just to hear Madeline when she prays
God gladly bends just to hear Madeline when she prays

23 September 2008

A New Evangelism Strategy

Okay, hear me out. This comes from a discussion group on Facebook regarding Kelly Fryer's new book, Reclaiming the E Word. Someone used it as an example of effective evangelism and it's so funny and fresh that I think it works.

Of course, what the movie shows is fake, but the end result is EXACTLY the type of reaction for which we should be aiming, right? A faith lived out so boldly, joyfully and publicly that people say to themselves, "I want some of THAT!"

This would look different for all of us - but the point remains the same: never be afraid to live your faith joyfully, loudly, passionately, publicly.

And if it gets a few laughs, so what? :-)

Forgetting A Long-Expected Party, Thinking About "Revelation"

I can't believe I missed a long-expected party last night. September 22nd is the birthday of both Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, and upon a time I had that date marked in my Palm Pilot so as not to forget it. Alas, with my switch to the new Centro and some syncing problems, I lost that date along with many, many others. So, last night I enjoyed a beer in my hobbit-like basement completely unaware that I was neglecting my old friends, even as I journey through Tolkien's Unfinished Tales toward The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo, Frodo, even though you're fictional, you have my deepest apologies for missing the chance to raise a glass with you. Next year I shall do better.

This week's gospel reading has brought to mind one of my favorite short stories, "Revelation" by Flannery O'Connor. If you haven't read O'Connor before, I highly recommend it, but be sure you strap on a helmet before setting forth. O'Connor was a demanding, critical person in both her Christian faith and her writing. She once said, "I don't deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it" But her prose was as powerful as her faith, and as I read some of what Jesus says in the gospel of Matthew I can't help but think of her demanding challenge to all of us: what does it mean to truly be a person of faith?

"Revelation" is one of those stories that I'll never forget reading, along the lines of "The Gift of the Magi" or another O'Connor classic, "A Good Man Is Hard To Find." Here's the quote, toward the end of the story, that just might find its way into my sermon on Sunday:

[She saw] a vast horde of souls ... rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right....They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.

Powerful stuff there - but the best sermons are always powerful, and this story is as much a sermon as it is a story. I hope those of you preaching out there will consider it for Sunday's message.

I should note that the word "nigger" occurs in the mind of the main character; I don't use such language in my own speech, nor do I condone it in the speech of others. But the story is set in the deep South of the early 20th century and thus belongs to its context. It is intended as a critique of the main character and should definitely be read as such, okay?

22 September 2008

Campus Ministry Retreat and Other Cute Stuff

Some pictures of our campus ministry retreat with Grand View College's Lutheran Campus Ministry, and other stuff, too!

21 September 2008

2 More Questions?

Still looking for two more questions for my 700th post. Post your comments here!

Sermon for 21 September 2008 - "God on a String"

“Testimonial” by Harry Newman, Jr.

You are cordially invited
To attend, at $100 a plate
A testimonial to those
Who have devoted their lives
To the humanitarian purpose
Of making money

No sacrifice too great
No relationship too dear
To accumulate enough
To afford the luxury

Of giving it away
In some worthy cause
Or other.

Just listen to that applause
From the thousand or more
Gathered here in tribute,
Black tied, bejeweled,
Pledging their allegiance
To the honorees and
To the secret hope

That one such memorable night
They too might step
Into the blue white shaft
And receive their plaque.

We are a people dedicated to “getting what’s coming to you.” You don’t need to look far for evidence. The contract negotiations of professional athletes can throw entire teams into turmoil. Airline labor strikes and airline executives selling stock options before filing for bankruptcy dominated the news in Minnesota a few summers ago. One would hope that the church could remain above the fray, but of course, that hope would be misplaced. The Prayer of Jabez hoodwinked thousands into praying for increase a few years ago. Televangelists exploit the gullible and cry “Foul!” when their exploitation is investigated by the federal government. The church, as usual, is as scarlet as the society in which she lives.
In our gospel reading today, we meet a group of workers who might understand the concept of rewards. They are, after all, waiting for what is theirs by right. They agreed to work for wages, and when the hour of payment comes, they expect to receive in accordance with their work. But here is where the story gets twisted, and we discover that God’s ways are indeed not our ways – and God has a great gap of definition between what’s “fair” and what’s “right.”
There is always a temptation to have a god on a string – a puppet who dances as I expect God to dance. I don’t know much about marionette puppeteers, but I have always been fascinated by their work. They manipulate their puppets so well – it shows years of work and years of patiently practicing until there are no unexpected movements, nothing except the lifelike dance of a puppet on a string.
I find a lot of similarity between our spiritual expectations and the manipulations of a master puppeteer. It is so easy for us to boil the Christian faith down to a set of weights, slide rules and calculations. I do good works, God rewards me with love. I try to be a good husband, God rewards me with a loving wife. I faithfully teach and preach in accordance with the Scriptures, God rewards me with a faithful and peaceful congregation. I live according to God’s laws, God rewards me with an untroubled, successful life. To suggest otherwise seems unfair: after all, I’m keeping MY end of the bargain, aren’t I?
Along with our Gospel reading today we have Jonah, which my Old Testament professor always told us was both “a story about a whale – and a whale of a story.” Jonah was a prophet from north of Jerusalem, sent to Nineveh, on the Tigris River. Nineveh was the home of the Assyrians, one-time conquerors of the Israelites and definitely the type of folks a faithful Jew of Jonah’s time would avoid.
Jonah, being unwilling to preach a harsh word to his enemies, set out instead to Tarshish, a port on the cost of Spain. You can’t go any farther away, in a more opposite direction than the route Jonah took after God first called him. This was not dissembling or delaying: it was an outright refusal of the call. During a terrible storm at sea, at which time even the lots cast by the sailors indicted Jonah as the cause of the storm, Jonah found himself volunteering to be cast into the sea rather than allowing innocent sailors to suffer for his disobedience, and upon being swallowed by a whale (remember this, and remember other4 characters who wind up in the belly of a wale), Jonah prayed for mercy and received it – but Jonah also received a renewed commission to go to Nineveh.
We remember this part of Jonah’s story – it is embedded in the vernacular memory of our Western civilization. But the rest of the story, while not so well-known, is every bit as remarkable. Jonah went to Nineveh and delivered one sentence of prophecy: “In 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown!” In spite of the brevity of this prophecy, Jonah was one of the few successful prophets of the Old Testament. Nineveh, that great destroyer of God’s people, heard the prophecy and turned from their ways, and God chose not to destroy the city. Or, as a friend of mine put it, “Nineveh repents. God relents. Jonah vents.”
That’s right: Jonah vents. Jonah deemed God’s mercy not only unfair, but predictably unpredictable. “I KNEW you were going to have mercy!,” cried Jonah, “and I would rather die that see the Assyrians receive mercy! You, Lord, are simply unreliable. You have mercy where it suits you and you punish where it suits you, and it just isn’t fair.” This delivered with all the piquancy and outrage of an adolescent with a bad case of I-don’t-rule-the-world-itis. Jonah displayed that “It is simply a fact that people regularly understand and appreciate God’s strange calculus of grace as applied to themselves but fear and resent seeing it applied to others.” [1]
Here is where Jonah’s story and our story become parallel. We often confuse God being fair with God being right. Fair is equal pay for equal work. Fair is definitely a standard to uphold in our dealings with one another, but fair is not gracious, and fair is not always life-giving, or life-changing. Right is different than fair. Right is determined by the basic needs of those around us. Right is a standard of care for each individual case, independent of what others may receive or need. Right is grace where grace is needed, mercy where mercy is needed, and conviction where conviction is needed – all determined by the Creator who sets the standards and makes divine promises regardless of what we may think of them.
There are a number of problems for us here. We compare what we receive to what those around us receive. We become angry when ‘they’ are made equal to ‘us.’ And we tend to see the work of the day as a burden to be borne, just as the workers in the vineyard once did. With God on our string, dancing according to what we think is fair, life would be good, we think, but this is an illusion – a worldview that hasn’t ever been accurate and hasn’t ever been what God intends for us.
It is time to stop calculating. God never has been, and never will be, a puppet to dance on our strings. “It isn’t fair,” we say, and the answer is heard: “You’re right: the fair is in August, down at the county fairgrounds.” Fair is not the issue: right is the issue. What’s right in today’s gospel reading is the landowner keeping promises individually. The landowner pays what was promised to each individual worker – and the landowner sets the wage in each case, giving exactly what was promised.
This parable is NOT about running a vineyard. This parable is about the kingdom of heaven and the righteousness of God. The righteousness of God is a gift God bestows upon us, not a wage we earn or a commodity which we purchase. The price of this righteousness is non-negotiable and non-refundable; all that you and I can do is enjoy the freedom God gives to us when our sins are forgiven and God’s righteousness is bestowed upon us. The gift God gives is right – in the mercy of Jesus Christ we become aligned with God, “what Adam and Eve were meant to be, only better,” as Martin Luther once said.
When God fulfills God’s promises and makes us right, it is fair, but a different kind of fair. This is “Beautiful Savior” fairness: fair to the eye and to the life being restored through the power of the Spirit. This fairness is beautiful because it is undeserved, and all the more striking because it is unlikely. This fairness of God is a rose growing in an abandoned parking lot; heartfelt, soul-cleansing laughter at a funeral; it is beauty in places we never expected to see it. We cannot protest the coming of such fairness – we can only receive it with gladness and thanksgiving.
Maybe you were the first to be invited into the vineyard that is the work of the church. Maybe you’re one of the ones who came in midday. Maybe you’re one of those who right here, today, is being brought into the vineyard. Regardless of when you were brought in, I want to invite you to look around you and realize that this is the promise that God makes to you through the power of God’s abundant grace. Instead of God on a string, we were the puppets, bound and dancing at the desire of our sin, death and the power of Satan. But in God’s rich, undeserved mercy, we are being changed, like Pinocchio, into real people. No more dancing, no more pulling strings, no more time spent in the belly of the whale, no more calculating and no more worries about what we’ve got coming to us. Today we are gathered into the vineyard by our gracious Creator, who promises freedom, daily bread and the chance to take part intending all that God has created. You have been given everything you were promised, and that includes the ties that bind us together here, fellow workers in the vineyard of the Lord, ready for another day’s labor and the reward of life together, now and forever. And this, friends, is both powerfully right and wondrously fair. Amen.
[1] Smith, Robert. The Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew. © 1990 by Augsburg Fortress.

18 September 2008

Coffee, Reading and a Good Afternoon

Thanks to happy circumstance, the Sermon is 95% written already, and should require a very little bit of revision prior to preaching on Sunday morning. Thus I'm in for an afternoon of good coffee and catching up on my reading. Damn, but I love my job!

17 September 2008

Wednesday Night Reflections: Peace, Love, Community

We're all guilty of working too hard in the wrong direction occasionally. In reviewing the sermons I've preached over the last few weeks, I've thought that perhaps I'm doing too much lecturing on our calling as the church of the 21st century. It's necessary and even helpful lecturing, to be sure, but there's not a lot of gospel to be found in defining what it means to be a forgiving church in a culture that doesn't value or understand forgiveness. Frankly, I've been demanding a lot, and while we do need the occasional challenge from the pulpit (even when you don't use a pulpit), the last thing students need at the four week point of the semester is more lectures.

So - tonight will be reflective. A reading from First John on love. A very brief give and take on one question: how do you feel or imagine God's love for you? What is it like? Then a time of meditation using one of my favorite hymns, Ubi Caritas et Amor, a motet composed by Maurice Durufle (yes, you've seen it before here, but it's so beautiful I thought I'd use it again). There is so little time for these students to be in a place where they are simply valued for who they are - another lecture won't suffice. Thus, time for peace, for love, for community. It might be sappy as hell, but that's okay - I've been accused of worse.

And, as always, friends, peace be upon you also.

Poetry and the 700th Post

First, a great poem from today's Writer's Almanac:

"Literature in the 21st Century" by Ronald Wallace

Sometimes I wish I drank coffee
or smoked Marlboros, or maybe cigars—
yes, a hand-rolled Havana cigar
in its thick, manly wrapping,
the flash of the match between
worn matchbook and stained forefinger,
the cup of the palm at the tip,
the intake of air, and the slow and
luxuriant, potent and pleasurable
exhale. Shall we say also a glass
of claret? Or some sherry with its
dark star, the smoke blown into the bowl
of the glass, like fog on portentous
morning, the rich man-smell of gabardine
and wool, of money it its gold clip?

Sometimes I wish I had habits
a man wouldn't kick, faults a good man could
be proud of. I'd be an expatriate from
myself, all ink-pen and paper in a Paris café
where the waiters were elegant and surly,
the women relaxed and extravagant
with their bobbed hair and bonbons, their
perfumed Galoises, their oysters and canapés,
and I'd be writing about war and old losses—
man things-and not where I am, in this
pristine and sensitive vessel, all
fizzy water, reticence, and care, all reduced
fat and purified air, behind my deprived
computer, where I can't manage even
a decaf cap, a mild Tiparillo, a glass of
great-taste-less-filling light beer.

Wonderful, huh? Good stuff.

This is just a quick post to ask for a blog favor. I'll soon be blogging my 700th post, and for that I'd like to answer seven questions, posed by the two or three of you who are still reading this blog. If you've got a question, post it in the comments and I'll answer it in post 700. Any question will do, from my middle name to my favorite candy to my take on The Brothers Karamazov (actually, I've done that last, but you get my drift).

As you were.

16 September 2008

Hospitality Ministry

"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it." Hebrews 13.2

I don't know about strangers, but I do know that hospitality is a rare gift in the present day. Kristin and I have always wanted our house to be a gathering place for friends and family, a place where others feel comfortable and welcome to drop in anytime, but lately, between our ever-more-frenzied work lives and corralling two daughters under the age of three, hospitality hasn't been our strong suit.

Thankfully, some of that changed last night. We invited JL, the new campus minister at Some Other Big Mainline Protestant Church, to join us for supper. No, the pictures aren't the meal I prepared, exactly: I don't do presentation as well as Milton does. But we did enjoy a good meal of thick-cut pork chops marinated in Guinness, garlic and onion, grilled asparagus and a roasted potato and pepper dish I've developed over the last few months. I didn't have time to bake a pie, so the dessert was bought at a local grocery store, but I ddn't hear anyone complaining. Top it off with a pint or two of Samuel Adams Oktoberfest and you've got a great meal.

The far better part, though, was the company. We talked about books, politics, music, movies, and, of course, we exchanged ministry hallelujas and horror stories. He heard about my first marriage, Kristin's engagement, and how we came to be together: we heard how his ten trips to Africa (10!) have created a love for all things African, even though some of his trips have been less-than-stellar.

One of the elements I've sorely missed from our former call is the camaraderie between the wonderful group of conference colleagues we had there. While I've met several excellent local pastors here, the collegiality is not at the same level here, for a lot of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with people being anti-social or anything like that. I'm hoping that the bread we've broken with JL will lead to a good relationship - and I'm thinking that perhaps that collegiality thing is more of a two-way street than I'd realized. Hospitality is a big deal, especially when your vocation is so unendingly public, as ours tends to be. I was thinking this morning how Bag End-ish our home seems sometimes; maybe, like Frodo and Bilbo, it's time we hosted a party or two as well.

14 September 2008

Sermon for 14 September 2008: "From the Guts, or From the Heart?"

Every week I spend a few hours on Monday or Tuesday reflecting on the texts for the upcoming Sunday’s worship sermon. I look through some of the books on my shelves for commentary and I check out a website where one woman indexes sermons, articles, historic commentary and modern thoughts in one gigantic internet preaching clearinghouse. This week a particular quote by Ed Krentz, a Lutheran pastor, caught my eye: “A Christian curmudgeon or misanthrope is an oxymoron, a paradox, an impossibility, an ultimate denial of the forgiving grace of God. Sweet reasonableness, openness to all, are the hallmarks of the Christian faith.” [1]
At first I didn’t like that quote one bit. I’ve known plenty of dedicated, faithful Christians who aren’t necessarily sweetly reasonable. But then I got to thinking about those words Pastor Krentz used. My dictionary defines “curmudgeon” as “a crusty, ill-tempered and usually old man” and “misanthrope” as “one who hates or mistrusts [humankind].” The more I thought about those words, the more I realized that Krentz was right. Then I remembered that one guy who proves he was right.
Normally I don’t like to talk about others like this, especially in light of Paul’s words from Romans today, but the question keeps coming back to me: what is the image of true forgiveness? What is the image of a church that actually lives well together? And sometimes I find myself realizing that not discussing the negative parts of who we are as people of God doesn’t do us any favors. So, here we go:
It was my first or second year in ministry. We are required to attend First Call Theological Education with other first call pastors at certain retreat centers around the country, and my group met in January at a camp in northern Minnesota. There was one guy at that retreat who just wasn’t right. He outright hated the people to whom he was ministering, and said so many, many times. He was rude, arrogant, and if I remember right, he actually referred to himself as a misanthrope. I have no earthly idea if he’s still in the ministry or not, but I remember walking away from one conversation thinking, “wow, that guy’s an ass.”
Being a Christian, of course, is far more than just being a nice person. But Paul makes the argument that how we treat others reflects the way we feel about God and the Body of Christ, the Church in which we live. "If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's." We serve a Lord and Master who demands forgiveness and humility toward one another even more than worship and sacrifice. As the prophet Micah said,
‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? 7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ God has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" [2]
Worship and praise are not the hallmarks of Christian faith: justice, kindness and humility are the way of the Christian, and Jesus taught these things also.
So with justice, kindness and humility in mind we approach the parable of the unforgiving servant. I'll admit that my own interpretation of this story changes almost every time it comes from Jesus' mouth to my ears through Matthew's gospel. Today it seems to me that this parable on forgiveness is not particularly forgiving. In the end, not one character gives evidence of any kindness or humility, and the justice which is described is a particularly punitive style of justice. If we are to read the parables with an eye for ourselves as one of the characters portrayed, then we are in for a rough time dealing with this parable. The servant at the heart of the story is just as bad as he looks. The amount of money he owed was more than King Herod received in tribute from all his territories for an entire year. Yet this same slave refused to forgive a debt that was 1/500,000th of what he himself had been forgiven. The debts have probably been exaggerated for effect, but I don't think Jesus is exaggerating the hypocritical actions of the unforgiving slave. We know better, don't we? We can be wonderfully hypocritical when it suits our purposes.
Yet the unforgiving slave is not the only problematic person in this parable. At first glance, the king appears to at least be the sort of kind, benevolent king who forgives his debtors. But perceptions can be deceiving. The Greek word which begins v. 27 is splagcnivzomai, "from the gut," and to me that implies that this act of forgiveness was not the kind, gracious response of a king who loves his people: it's the hurried, unreflective, knee-jerk reaction of a tired king who doesn't want to be bothered with a slave who will never, ever pay back what he owes. Further evidence for this un-thoughtful response comes later when the king revokes his forgiveness of the debt. True forgiveness is like name-calling in elementary school: try as you might, you can't ever 'take it back.' What the king offered was the cheapest form of conditional parole; a human life thrown away in laziness and recaptured for angry, punitive vengeance. This is not the act of a king: it is the spiteful rule of a tyrant.
It is here, again, that I struggle with this parable and the implications it brings, because Jesus seems to be suggesting that this spiteful, punitive king is in fact God the Father. I struggle because I don't like the idea that God the Father could be so angry, so inconsistent, so unbalanced. Like many of you, I've been taught that God is fair and just, "slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness," as the prophets and the psalmists say. I don't like the thought of worshiping a God who forgives only to revoke that forgiveness over such a small thing.
But one thing has changed since the last time we saw these texts for a Sunday morning worship service: I've become a parent, and with that I've become a victim to all the unbalanced, inconsistent anger that rises when my children are hurt or neglected. And if we read this parable with God the Father and Jesus the Son in mind, remembering the crucifixion that is to come in Jerusalem, then perhaps we can understand the anger and rage that rises when the king's forgiveness is insulted by the unforgiving slave. I can guarantee you that when my child is hurt, my reasonable nature, such as it is, goes right out the window. I am not a reasonable man when it comes to my children; you mess with my girls, you will see me get mean and nasty. So take that reaction, and see if God's reaction to what is coming for Jesus doesn't fit into this story just a little bit. When God the Father forgives the monstrosity of the crucifixion, and we in turn refuse to forgive the small injuries of daily life, then God's anger makes sense, and is perhaps even justified.
So we see that forgiveness and emotions don't mix well. This is perhaps the greatest question the parable poses: does forgiveness come from the guts, or from the heart? Well, let's ask the question in a slightly different way. When you've been wronged, when someone has really done a number on you, when you're so angry that you feel as though your guts are just going to jump right up your throat, how likely are you to forgive? If you look at people the way my former colleage, the Misanthrope, looked at people, are you likely to see mistakes with any kind of grace whatsoever? No, because forgiveness is not emotional and not a feeling: it is an action.
Forgiveness is not something that happens through a gut reaction. Forgiveness is a way of life, a determined outlook, a spiritual practice which requires daily effort and the humble understanding that, try as we might, even our best efforts will fall woefully short of the forgiveness we ourselves have received through the mercy Jesus gives to us through the power of the Holy Spirit. Even the most reasonable, kind, merciful person you've ever known has had those moments of unreasonable, gut-wrenching anger; in those situations, our guts will lead us astray every single time. When Peter asked Jesus how many times he must forgive his neighbor, he was asking how the accounting for sin works. Jesus, on the other hand, told Peter that forgiveness is not a matter of accounting at all: it is a matter of heartfelt determination before any sin is committed. Delayed or postponed vengeance is NOT forgiveness: forgiveness is real only when vengeance is utterly denied for all time.
Where does this leave us with God as the angry king, though? It's still hard to be hopeful for mercy from a God who gets angry like that, isn't it? Here, again, we are called to remember the story of the crucifixion. Jesus came to forgive sins, and it angered us so much that we crucified him for it. Think of the anger, the anguish that God the Father must have felt in that day, and yet no blow of punishment ever fell for that monstrous sin. God the Father chose instead to withdraw, to walk away from anger and pain, and to return with new life for Jesus on the third day. God's heart was determined to deny the gut reaction of vengeance on us for what we did to Jesus – that is forgiveness which comes from the heart. That's the kind of heart-felt forgiveness we have been given, and the heart-felt forgiveness to which we are called as Jesus' followers. So may the forgiveness of God, which passes all human understanding, keep your hearts and minds and guts in Christ Jesus our Lord, to forgive as you have been forgiven. Amen.
[1] Edgar Krentz, from The Christian Century © 1996. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_n25_v113/ai_18666024
[2] Micah 6.6-8

12 September 2008

Friday Five: Back To School!

It's been a while since I played a Friday Five from RevGalBlogPals - here's this week's edition:

It's time for a Back-To-School Friday Five!
1. Is anyone going back to school, as a student or teacher, at your house? How's it going so far?
Yes, someone from our household is going back to school: me! Well, not really 'back to school,' but close. It's my first fall semester as a campus pastor, so I'm also getting back into the swing of the academic calendar (which, by the way, is far superior to the Gregorian calendar, IMHO).

2. Were you glad or sad when back-to-school time came as a kid?
Both, like many kids. Being a farm kid, I spent a lot of time playing with my brothers and working for my dad over the summer, so seeing friends all day instead of a few hours for baseball practice and swimming lessons was cool. I've always loved buying pencils, notebooks, and the like for the beginning of a new school year, too. But facing hours of enforced learning was always tough: I'm a self-directed learner and school was always tough for me, not for lack of intelligence or ability, but for the restraints teachers had to use to keep me in line with the rest of the class.

3. Did your family of origin have any rituals to mark this time of year? How about now?
Mom always wanted a picture of us boys before we got on the bus the first day of school, and there was always a trip to Sioux City for a few new school outfits, but nothing beyond that. Since our girls aren't school age yet, we don't do anything special, but something will be in the works when that day rolls around, I'm sure.

4. Favorite memories of back-to-school outfits, lunchboxes, etc?
Nike Air basketball shoes were HUGE when I was in high school, and I remember the day I found some Nike Air Whatevers on sale. That was pretty cool for me. :-)
Another memory that always makes me laugh is my freshman year in high school. Small schools like ours let all the kids practice with the varsity for all sports, so when football kicked off I was thrown into the mix against our varsity team, which ended the year ranked #2 and lost in the quarterfinals to the eventual state champion. After two days of two-a-days I was so sore that when we arrived in Sioux City for the aforementioned shopping trip, I had to LIFT my legs out of the back seat of our Buick with my hands because I couldn't move them otherwise. It was worse than the aftermath of any marathon I've run!

5. What was your best year of school?
My last year of seminary was about as good as it gets for me. Finally seeing the end of a LONG educational road (six years undergrad + 1 year working + 4 years M.Div.) was just part of it. I finally hit my stride in terms of classes, interests and motivation, and it showed. I did my best work by far that senior year, including a ton of work on Bonhoeffer and a great job as a teaching assistant for Dr. James Nestingen, who is still a major influence for my theology and my preaching. I met Kristin that year, and by the time graduation rolled around I was pretty sure we'd be making things permanent very quickly. To top it off, a friend nominated me to give the graduate address at our commencement ceremony, and the rest of the committee voted me in. Quite the privilege, and likely the highlight of my academic life thus far.

10 September 2008

Wednesday Night Reflection: "Christians and Pagans"

Acts 17.16-34: 16 While Paul was waiting for [his fellow missionaries] in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-place* every day with those who happened to be there. 18Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor
* he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God* and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are his offspring.”
29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’

32 When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ 33At that point Paul left them. 34But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

I spent the day in the Union at our booth for Club Fest, handing out fliers, talking with students and generally promoting our ministry here at the University Lutheran Center. We were given a table next to the Iowa State Pagan Community – a location that led to a lot of double-takes and smiles this afternoon. I didn’t mind the double-takes or the smiles. I didn’t like the flinches I saw when people noticed the Pagan Community’s table. What I liked even less was the winking, conspiratorial “do you mind being next to those people” I sometimes got from other Christians as they noticed our neighbors.

I’m not saying I’m a pagan at heart. Far from it. One of the folks at their table spent the afternoon complaining about how the Christians had stolen all of our holidays from pagan observances (guilty, but that doesn’t mean pagans can’t continue to celebrate solstice), and laughing about proudly wearing a shirt with a pentagram the next time the fundamentalist Jesus-shouters visit campus (which I’d dearly love to see, because I can’t stand the Jesus-shouters, either). We disagree about the heart of what it means to be religious and, from what I could tell, we disagree about the true nature of Christian faith and practice. The fact that they see a caricature of what we do is, I would imagine, reciprocal: having never set foot in a pagan ceremony or community of any kind, I’m completely ignorant of their rites and customs, so how could I comment on their community with any kind of accuracy?

Here’s the thing I didn’t like about my fellow Christians assuming I had a problem with those people: doesn’t anyone remember that we were once those people, too? When Paul spoke at the Aereopagus in Athens, when Peter addressed the crowds at Pentecost, when Augustine and Irenaeus were preaching throughout the Mediterranean, they were all those people in their societies: the weirdos with the strange beliefs, the minority religious folk, the people who weren’t ‘fitting in’ to society. 1500 years of Christendom, where Christianity was often the only religious choice for our ancestors, trained us to consider our religion the norm for all people, and view others with suspicion and, unfortunately, outright derision, as I saw several times today.

Here’s the other thing: the days of Christendom are over. We are actually on our way back to being those people again. It’s already happened in Europe, and it’s happening here in America, too. We are in a society where deep, regular participation in a faith community is becoming the exception, and we need to realize that truth now, for our sake as Christians and for the sake of the world in which we serve.

If Paul had considered himself to be among those people in Athens, it’s very likely he wouldn’t have found a receptive audience at all. But notice that when Paul began to address the crowds, he didn’t belittle or ridicule the faith of the people of Athens: he acknowledged their desire for spiritual truth, and then made a bold case for what had been revealed to him by Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. He neither denied his faith nor pretended to be someone other than a disciple of Jesus, yet his acknowledgment of other religious practices allowed his own message to be heard more clearly and in a more positive light. His willingness to approach other faiths lent credence to his own.

That’s a lesson we would do well to learn. I am convinced that respectful conversation with a person of another faith does far more good for the kingdom of God than some idiot with a sign promising damnation for those who refuse to repent. We believe in a God who loves so passionately that his own Son came to give his life away for all of humanity, Christians and pagans alike: aren’t we called, then, to recognize the image of God in those who do not see it in themselves?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a poem titled “Christians and Pagans” during his captivity in Tegel Prison in Berlin, in July 1944:

All people go to God in need,
For help and calm and food they plead.
That sickness, guilt and death may cease,
All, Christians and Pagans, pray for peace.

But some turn to God in God’s need and dread,
A God poor, despised, without roof or bread.
By sin’s harm weakened and by death distressed,
Christians stand steadfast by their God oppressed.

God goes to all in their need and dread,
Their souls’ loving grace and their bodies’ bread.
By the crucified Lord who for them was slain,
Both Christian and pagan God’s pardon gain.*

A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (c) 1995 by Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, eds. Published by Harper Collins Publishers, New York. p. 515