31 August 2009

"Uff Da" Was Invented For Questions Like This

Sometimes the privilege of being a pastor runs side by side with much fear and trembling about people for who you care a great deal. Had one of those moments this morning:
I am _________'s [parent]. I have been wondering for years if they taught you that the Bible is 'just a book'? Did they teach you that Noah wasn't real? That Adam and Eve weren't real people? When Pastor ______ told the adult Sunday school group those things, a sickness came in me. It was what I call a red flag. There are several of us at _____ that are upset with this teaching - XX and YY to name a couple. Do you believe that way now, too? Pastor did talk to me about these teachings. He said he was the last one to change his mind and believe the way the seminaries are teaching now. This has been bothering me for a long time. When ____ told me last night that you were on Facebook, I felt that at last maybe you can ease my heart. I feel that at last, God has guided me to you. Please reply. Z___ Z___

So much for a nice easy Monday morning. After strapping on the theological kid gloves, I wrote my response:
Hi, Z_____ - how nice to hear from you!

This is a very hard question to answer in one email. I'll do my best, though. The short answer to your first question is, no, no pastor in the ELCA is ever taught that the Bible is "just a book," including Pastor _____. We believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, as Paul writes, and that the Bible is "the cradle where the Christ child is found" as Luther once said. The Bible informs our lives, shows us where we are sinful, and reminds us that God's grace in Jesus Christ is the gift that brings us into the family of God.

Now, having said that, there are some questions about the historical value of the Bible. These questions have nothing to do with whether or not the Bible is God's word - it is and remains God's word. But there are some differing opinions among Christians about what is historical and what would be best considered mythological. This is where it gets complicated.

Most ELCA pastors, including myself, believe that everything from Genesis 1-11 is not historical, or at least not historically reliable. Other cultures have tales of a great flood in the Ancient Near East, so it seems that there was a flood of some sort in the days before Abraham, but we're not certain that a man named Noah ever lived. Or, at the very least, if there was a Noah, records of him have not been found. The same for Adam and Eve and everything up to the beginning of Genesis 12, which is the beginning of Abraham's story and, we believe, the first historical figure in the Bible.

That doesn't mean, however, that we don't value Genesis 1-11. To the contrary, those stories are VERY important for our faith. Adam and Eve show us how we are always testing the boundaries and trying to become more than we're meant to be. Cain and Abel shows us the deadly consequences of broken relationships and violence. Noah shows us the importance of faith and perseverance when the world around you becomes more and more dangerous. These things are important because they are true reflections of humanity, even if they aren't historical fact. It's sort of like the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, then refusing to lie to his father about it: even if it didn't historically happen, it's still an important illustration of the kind of person Washington was. The same is true for the Bible: even if all the things within its covers aren't historically verifiable, they are still important illustrations of the way God has continually cared for humanity, and even rescued us from evil and from our own worst tendencies.

I don't imagine this is the answer you were hoping to receive, but it's the best I can do. If you have more questions, please feel free to email me again - I'd like to help as much as I can. Say hi to ____ for me!

Grace & peace,
It's one thing to lob your theological hand grenades at people you don't know well, folks you can yell about and never feel the ill effects personally. But what do you do when someone you know, someone your parents know, your siblings know, someone you're likely going to see the next time you go home, comes with such a heartfelt question?

Those of us who follow the Revised Common Lectionary heard from James yesterday: "your anger does not produce God's righteousness." (James 1.20) Some of us in the church would come thundering down with hellfire and brimstone to defend the idea that God's word is inerrant - others would thunder just as loudly against anyone simple-minded enough to believe in such rubbish. Both would be wrong. Believing in the rightness of your theological position doesn't give you room to be an ass about it.

Now I'm going to get back to my coffee and cleaning off my desk. I think I've done enough theological heavy lifting for the morning.

Grace & peace,

30 August 2009

Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: "Purity and Prejudice"

There’s a Jewish fable that goes something like this: “A young man once came to a great rabbi and asked him to make him a rabbi. It was winter time then. The rabbi stood at the window looking out upon the yard while the rabbinical candidate was droning into his ears a glowing account of his piety and learning.

The young man said, "You see, Rabbi, I always go dressed in spotless white like the sages of old. I never drink any alcoholic beverages; only water ever passes my lips. Also, I live a plain and simple life. I have sharp-edged nails inside my shoes to mortify me. Even in the coldest weather, I lie naked in the snow to torment my flesh. Also daily, I receive forty lashes on my bare back to complete my perpetual penance."

And as the young man spoke, a white horse was led into the yard and to the water trough. It drank, and then it rolled in the snow, as horses sometimes do. "Just look!" cried the rabbi. "That animal, too, is dressed in white. It also drinks nothing but water, has nails in its shoes and rolls naked in the snow. Also, rest assured, it gets its daily ration of forty lashes on the rump from its master. Now, I ask you, is it a saint, or is it a horse?"[1]

What we appear to be is not always what we are – and what appears to help or harm us often does neither. Let us pray: Father, you created this world, and what we do with your creation is sometimes wonderful, sometimes shameful. Help us to see clearly the dangers within ourselves before condemning or blessing the environment in which we live. Create in us clean hearts, merciful Father, and renew right spirits within us. In Jesus’ name we pray: Amen.

A few years ago, I took the Amtrak Empire Builder train from Fargo, ND to Eugene, OR for my brother-in-law’s wedding. Traveling Amtrak by yourself is quite an experience, especially if you do it in the coach sections. I’ve never been much of a people watcher, but the characters I met on the Empire Builder almost demanded to be watched at times. I was fascinated, repulsed, annoyed, curious, shocked, and in the end, I looked around and wondered who are these people and how is it they share the same genes I do?

If you travel Amtrak and you’re not necessarily a people person, you want to make sure you’ve got a traveling partner, otherwise you’ll be sitting next to a complete stranger and wondering what world they live in. From Eugene to Seattle on my way home, I sat next to an anarchist business developer who launched into an anti-Republican spiel at the first opportunity. When he discovered I was a Lutheran pastor he told me how Christians are ruining America and how his kids had never set foot in a house of worship. When I agreed that some of the extreme right and left wing Christians were indeed doing more harm than good, he assured me that I obviously wasn’t as bad as most Christians. He delivered all of this with spectacularly bad breath.

From Spokane, WA to Whitefish, Montana I shared a seat with a retired bachelor farmer from a small town near Rugby, North Dakota. We had a delightful conversation, but it’s hard to feel comfortable sleeping that close to a complete stranger. Bachelor Farmer guy took the seats across the aisle when they opened up after Whitefish, but that afternoon we both got seatmates. Mine was an organic environmental studies student from Oregon who was spending his summer biking across the northern US. After fighting easterly headwinds across Montana for three days he was, shall we say, organic in every sense of the word, including his aroma.

Those were just my seatmates. I could spend hours telling you about the family whose women all had a Madonna complex, complete with fingerless gloves, or the guy who somehow managed to get drunk on $5 Heinekens, or the young mother with four kids who kept marching up and down the train with one kid in her arms, one holding her hand, and the oldest two leashed to her belt and complaining the whole way.

Somewhere in Eastern Montana I decided to take a look at the Scripture readings for the week and get some reflection done. It was these texts we’ve read here today. You can imagine my humbling experience when I realized what I’d been doing the entire time I’d been on the train. I had been offended by the commonness of these people, by their drunkenness, by their flaws and their indecency. I should have been worrying about myself. I should have been worried about my hypocrisy, my prejudice, my interior corruption and utter lack of respect for these children of God, flawed though they might be.

This is our struggle: to somehow come to grips with the fact that our surroundings and our dedication to keeping ourselves pure and spotless is not what makes us right in God’s eyes. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus goes right to the heart to explain the problem with humanity. “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”[2]

What Jesus is saying is that we can’t save ourselves by avoiding what is unclean and outcast. In fact, trying to do so heaps even more sin upon our heads, because slander, pride, deceit and folly, which Jesus includes in his list of sins, all come from trying to pretend that certain things and certain people are evil and are to be avoided at all costs.

An example of how this works. Before we had kids, Kristin and I were once visiting her sister and brother-in-law and our nephew, Quinn, who was just over a year old at the time. As a favor to Quinn’s parents, Kristin took Quinn upstairs one night to put him to bed while the rest of us enjoyed a beer or two outside on the deck. After about 5 minutes we heard cries for “Help!” coming out of the baby’s bedroom. We dashed upstairs to find Kristin covered, head to toe, in most of Quinn’s supper, which he had just thrown up all over. After we got Kristin into the shower and her clothes into the washing machine, Quinn’s mother, Kim explained that Quinn’s esophageal sphincter wasn’t quite developed yet, so he had no gag reflex to keep his food down if they fed him too much. So being covered in partially digested strawberries and carrots wasn’t an unusual experience in their family.

Now, if remaining clean were the prime directive, how was this child ever going to learn to eat or drink? Kim & Jerry’s God-given vocation as parents is to be right in the middle of the mess. You cannot be a parent without being intimately familiar with all kinds of bodily secretions. But it’s not just a matter of surviving; God intends for the greatest love to be expressed, at times, in the most polluted environments. Martin Luther once said that changing a diaper was as much his vocation as preaching a sermon, and every bit as holy a calling. Here’s a wondrous thing: honoring God with our lips means nothing if we don’t honor each other with our hands and feet in service to each other. Jesus proved this when he knelt and washed the dirty feet of his disciples.

Compare this with our behavior when unpleasant or controversial things must be done. We’re in the middle of rough economic times. One company fired 1,000 of their corporate employees by email. I don’t know what their motivations might have been, but don’t you think God would prefer us to have the compassion to downsize these people face to face at the very least? In the movie Office Space, two ‘efficiency experts’ claim that firing people on Friday is preferable because it give the fired person a weekend to calm down and reduces the likelihood of ugly ‘day-after’ episodes. The fact that we’ve discovered this and use it to deal with uncomfortable situations shows us how hard we work to avoid that which is unpleasant to us.

But here’s the primary dilemma: how do we deal with ourselves in these situations? According to Jesus, what is evil is what comes out of me, not what goes in me or what surrounds me. But I can only control what goes in me and what is around me – I cannot control what happens inside me. What, then, am I to do? When I cannot control my environment, and I cannot obtain my righteousness from what I eat and where I go, how am I supposed to become a righteous person? I can’t scoop out my guts and my heart and replace them with something different, can I?

No, I can’t – but God can. Here’s the unspoken promise in today’s Gospel reading: what is within us is beyond our control, but not beyond the control of God the Father and Jesus Christ his Son. So I should, therefore, pray to God, but not for protection from what is around me: I must pray for a change of what is within me. I must pray for a heart that is pure and clean before God – and for a spirit that is righteous because it is God’s spirit in me, regardless of where I go and what I must do. I must pray for a heart that sees others as God’s children, flawed as I am flawed but all the same God’s creation and my brothers and sisters in Christ – people I have the privilege to serve as Christ had the privilege to serve me in His life, death and resurrection.

Now we see that what is common and fleshy and secular doesn’t make us unholy any more than what is sacred makes us holy: it is God who makes things holy and God who allows us to be holy through the Holy Spirit. God’s law doesn’t set us above others – the law is given to keep us healthy in the midst of the world. The law is give to show the world how great God’s love is, that God should show us how to be healthy and whole rather than broken and following our desires after the next great thing. The law is given so that as we follow it, others may wonder who and what could inspire such loving service in a world that often forgets what it means to serve. Whether we are saints or whether we are horses, in all things we are God’s creation, made right through God’s gift of Jesus Christ and kept holy by the power of the Holy Spirit. Whether we’re changing diapers or changing the world, God’s concern is changing our hearts, and for that we say, “Thanks be to God.” Amen.

[1] A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People. Edited by Nathan Ausubel. © 1948, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York. p. 109. My thanks to Brian Stoffregen for including this story in his exegetical notes. http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/brian.htm.

[2] Mark 7.20-23

This is a sermon I've preached before. As I was preparing this week, it just kept coming up in my mind, over and over again. It's not for lack of effort to try something new - sometimes, what you've done before seems to be okay to do again, and when you get to late Saturday night and you can't write anything new because you're just remembering the old again, well, maybe that's a sign. Or maybe not. You can let me know.

27 August 2009

Umm, Dr. Tom? A Minute, Please?

Hi. You don't know me, but, like many Nebraskans, I've known who you are for as long as I can remember. My mom actually took one of your Ed Psych classes back in the '60s, when you were a PhD candidate who just happened to do a little coaching on the side. She says you were a good teacher then, and you've certainly become someone we respect and admire.

I understand there's a bit of a protest going on at the moment. Seems one of the big beer companies is rolling out a special promotional version in various 'school colors' this fall, and you're not a big fan of the promotion. They don't use anyone's logo, but they've reproduced the colors pretty closely, and anyone who can put 2 and 2 together is gonna figure it out, especially in Nebraska, where the only thing that ISN'T red is that portion of the farming community that swears by John Deere.

Here's the thing. I understand what you're trying to say. The university doesn't want to promote under-age drinking, or consumption of alcohol at Memorial Stadium. Neither do I. But the next time the university gets righteous about a beer company selling beer in special cans to commemorate the upcoming football season, pointing out that it's being done without university approval, you might want to check out your own 'official university store' to see what it is that YOU are selling that DOES have the University of Nebraska logo on it and DOES have university approval.

You see, I've got about eight different versions of the pint glass pictured above, all purchased at official University of Nebraska stores in Lincoln, and I can guarantee you that I can't remember the last time I put anything but good beer inside of them. And I'd venture a guess that quite a few of the pint glasses you're selling are being used in exactly the same way.

Just looking out for you, Dr. Tom. Give my best to Nancy.
Grace & peace,

26 August 2009

Hello? Deep End Calling. Is the Church Available? You Went Off So Quickly...

Okay. I get it. It's a big deal. Historic, even. WAAAAAY bigger than Called to Common Mission ever was. Every time I mention that I'm Lutheran lately, the Churchwide Assembly and the Human Sexuality stuff comes up.

So, listen up, Church, because I say this in great love: some of you need to get a fucking grip on yourselves.

You're a baptized believer in Jesus, ain't you? Then you've got salvation in the bag - and if that was good enough for Luther when he was on the run, it oughta be good enough for you today. I don't care if you think it's about damn time we ordained gays and lesbians or you can't believe we'd ever ordain gays and lesbians: working this out is gonna take time, patience and enough forbearance to fill a C130. Panic and petulance isn't going to get us anywhere. Neither will prideful celebration. KNOCK IT OFF, ALL OF YOU.

I'm declaring an official moratorium on the issue here and on FB for three days, and I encourage others to do the same. Just shut up and think about it for a couple of days. We need cool heads and thoughtful hearts on this. I'll admit to contributing my fair share of the problem today: will you join me in slowing down enough to be reasonable about this? I hope so.

Jesus loves you. Now shut up.

Grace & peace,

24 August 2009

Reflections on the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly

"While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days." Acts 10

It's been one heckuva week for my church.

On Friday, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted in assembly to remove the ban on non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy and rostered lay ministers. Quite the step, and while I was pretty sure it was going to be taken, I was still amazed at the prospect once it happened.

I still don't really know what to think or say. On the one hand, I'm overjoyed that many friends in whom I've seen great gifts for ministry might now be able to take up the burden and blessing of official, recognized ministry under the auspices of the ELCA. On the other hand, it wasn't so long ago that I regretfully stood against this very change, and many of my friends still do, knowing full well that it is a painful stance, but feeling captive to their interpretation of scripture and bound in conscience to remain faithful to what they read in God's word.

This is not to say that gay and lesbian ministers and those who support them are any less bound, or that they value scripture any less, or that all of us who feel the time for change has come are completely comfortable with the implications. There's a very real possibility that I may be asked to preside over a service of blessing for a same-sex couple in the near future, and I'm not sure I'm ready for that. Not to mention that liturgically we have scant resources for such a thing (and, no, this is not an invitation for everyone to post links to resources in my comments).

I've heard of one pastor who has already vowed that his church will withhold financial support from any synodical or churchwide units. While it's certainly that congregation's perogative to do so, I'm disappointed in the pastor's desire to punish and revenge himself on the church; far better to leave, in my opinion, than to stay in a denomination for the sake of retribution alone. But I'm only one pastor in this cavalcade of sinners we call the ELCA, and unlike most, my community is dependent upon grants from Synods and the Churchwide organization, so you might argue that my viewpoint is decidedly slanted anyway. Take my opinions on it for what you will.

My blogging friend Songbird posted about being on a "Discomfortable Edge." I think that's where I'm at right now. Thinking and feeling as though a course of action is right doesn't mean the road is smooth, and many of us make decisions at crossroads but watch with some degree of anxiety as the road not taken fades into the distance. Some of those most troubled by this decision are already planning to leave the ELCA, but some are wavering, and I would hope the ELCA can still be their church in spite of our disagreements. As our Presiding Bishop so beautifully said after the votes had been cast, "We meet one another finally -- not in our agreements or our disagreements -- but at the foot of the cross, where God is faithful, where Christ is present with us, and where, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are one in Christ."

I do believe the Spirit is doing a new thing in our church, and I wonder if Peter and the disciples felt the same discomfort we do as the Spirit's outpouring was revealed in Caesarea all those generations ago. Just yesterday those of us who preach from the Revised Common Lectionary heard Peter's confession from John 6: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." Not a comfortable confession. Not a confession of dedication, but rather of desperation: a confession that acknowledges we cannot hope to know where the words of eternal life will take us next. But Peter and the disciples remained as faithful as they could be: this, I believe, is our calling today. God be with us all.

Grace & peace,

The artwork is "The Coming of the Holy Spirit" by artist He Qi.

18 August 2009

On the Healing of Hearts

Something remarkable happened a few weeks ago. I forgot my tenth anniversary.

31 July 1999 was the day I married FW in my home congregation. So, a few weeks ago the date that would have once been our tenth anniversary came and went, and the first I realized it was just last night while driving home from Theology on Tap.

Now, by no means am I suggesting that the date is inconsequential or unimportant. Nor am I proud of the fact that FW and I were unable to keep the vows we made to each other on that summer day ten years ago. I've blogged about the divorce before. It's something that continues to have an impact on my life today, in positive and negative ways.

To me, this is remarkable only because at one time I couldn't go an hour without thinking about the fact that I was divorced. Then it became a few hours, and after a while it was a few days, then a week or two. And all the while, the twist of pain and regret would lessen ever time the fact surfaced in my mind.

Nebraska is in the midst of pre-season practice at the moment, and a few of the players are back at practice after having suffered significant injuries. Some of the coaches note that they are only all the way 'back' when they can move at full speed without considering the knee, leg, or hip that was once injured. Everybody gets to that point in a different way and at different speeds, but the goal is always the same - to reach a point of fitness and well-being where past injuries can no longer limit present performance.

The same year FW and I got married, I was playing church league volleyball and landed on another player's foot. My ankle was badly sprained and the bone itself was chipped. It took weeks before I could walk normally again. Today that ankle is still somewhat problematic for me; there's some spurring and swelling in the joint that will likely never go away, but it's functional and rarely a problem for me. That past injury doesn't really affect me anymore, at least in a limiting fashion, but it definitely gives me an understanding when others are injured. In the same way, our divorce is no longer a limiting factor in our lives (I feel pretty certain I can say this on FW's behalf), but it gives us an ability to understand and remonstrate with others when these kind of things go wrong in their lives.

I'm not happy that I missed that tenth anniversary. It's a significant date in my life that should have been noted and remembered. But I am pleased that my heart has been healed to the point that my life today is not limited or hindered by that particular failing of our past. I hope the same is true for FW, and for all who live as divorced persons. Sometimes wounds leave scars, and life with them can never be the same as it was before the injury, but healthy living is best accomplished when the scars are not the whole of our identity, and love is possible, even better, because of what we learn from the past, mistakes and all.

Grace and peace,

The beautiful mandala is a painting by Jan West.

17 August 2009

*sigh* For F#%@'s Sake, People!!!!!

Let's see:

- Major shift in policy proposed for one of the last mainline denominations NOT on the verge of splitting over sexuality;

- Conference of Bishops offering a reasonable proposal that decisions of such import might be healthier if they reflect a consensus rather than a simple majority;

- Several million Lutherans watching around the nation, hoping we can maintain civility and respect over such divisive matters.

Add them all together and the Assembly's response is NAY to supermajority? Well, that's just stupid. Shoot yourself in the foot, jump on the bed with a hammer, making toast in the bathtub stupid. And you can quote me on that.

Grace & peace,

ps: Scott's bishop, his campus ministry board, and anyone in any position of leadership in the ELCA would like you to direct your eyes to the disclaimer on the left of your computer screen, particularly the bits where he clearly states that he speaks only for himself. Thank you.

16 August 2009

Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost - "Bread for the Future"

Many of you are no doubt familiar with The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. In the last of the Chronicles, The Last Battle, the world itself is being remade by Aslan, though not everyone can see it. A small group of dwarfs walks through a stable doorway into the new creation, a land of unparallled beauty and wonder; only, the dwarfs have a bit of a problem. You see, the Dwarfs won’t see what lies right before their eyes. In a world of light and beauty, they can only see a “pitch-black, poky, smelly little hole of a stable.” When a child offers the dwarfs a freshly-picked bouquet of wild violets, they insist that she is “shoving a lot of filthy stable-litter in [their faces]. [With] a thistle in it, too.” Even when Aslan arrives, there is little he can do. He provides the dwarfs with a feast of rich foods and fine wine, but the dwarfs, as they are eating, can only taste “the sort of things you might find in a stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he had got a bit of an old turnip and a third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said, ‘Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.’ In the end, Aslan says, “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”

Whenever I read the sixth chapter of the gospel of John, I’m reminded of Lewis’ classic story, and the fear and resolve of the dwarfs. The crowds gathered around Jesus were in the presence of God in the flesh, yet they could only see a carpenter’s son from Nazareth. When the crowds gathered the first time, it was because Jesus had been healing the sick. When they gathered again the next day, it was because Jesus had fed thousands with a few fish and loaves of bread. And as the people continued to follow Jesus, he began to teach about what was happening in bolder terms, until finally he speaks the plain truth we read this morning: “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” At that moment, the violets turn to thistles, the wine turns into feedwater, and the darkness descends for many of these people who had been following Jesus.

The question I want to pose to you this morning is, where is your “stable stand” going to be? Let’s dispense with the idea that we can avoid making the same mistake as the dwarfs in Lewis’ story. I think we all know ourselves better than that. There exists, for each of us, a situation or circumstance at which point we will sit down, fold our arms, shut our eyes and refuse to see what is right in front of our faces. As Mark Twain is rumored to have said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for certain that just ain’t so.” All of us, in one way or another, will find ourselves refusing to see the plain truth because it removes the luxurious illusion of certainty we craft into our lives so very well.

Why is this important to know? Because it is that illusion of certainty which most often stands between us and Jesus. Sin is tempting to us, not because its pleasures are off limits, but because in the end Sin is about our grasping for control, wrestling dominion out of God’s hands and into our own. Jesus raises the bar and goes on the attack in these passages from John’s gospel, not to drive the sinners away, but simply to shine the light of God into the darkness of our humanity. Jesus uses our “stable stand” moments to expose our weakness and idolatry. Jesus uses our “stable stand” moments to expose our trust in ourselves and in our past rather than in God’s action in the present and God’s care for a future we cannot see.

God’s people are not threatened by the future. The future, unknown and mysterious to we who are bound by time, rests in the capable, gracious, creative hands of God. It is the past that poses the greatest risk to God’s people. True, the past is where we see God’s providence most clearly, but our eyes and hearts, bound to sin as they are, can see things in our past which never existed, blessings God has never given, certainty and confidence that are as much a lie today as they were then. This is how the grumbling, fearful mob who would have rather gone back to slavery in Egypt became “our ancestors [who] ate the manna in the wilderness.” This is how the dwarfs remain “for the dwarfs.” We choose blind allegiance to our inaccurate visions of the past rather than trusting in God’s generous, abundant vision of the future and the life God intends to bestow upon us.

The questions came fast and furious from the crowds trying to understand Jesus that day in Galilee. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” “How can this man be the Son of God? We know his parents, don’t we?” “What sign are you performing, Jesus, so that we may believe in you?” “What must we do to perform the work of God?” Even, “How are we to feed all these people with two fish and five loaves of bread?” All these questions reveal that we do not have the capacity to trust God within us. The same questions rise within us in modern times as well: “How will we pay for our building?” “How will we attract more young families to church?” “How will we pay for the wells in Hedaru?” “How can we ordain people in same-sex relationships?” How can we NOT ordain people in same-sex relationships?” “How will our church survive if we split over sexuality?” In essence, all these questions come down to one question: how can we ensure our own future so that we don’t have to depend on God?

But God won’t abandon us to our own misplaced hopes and dreams. Jesus exposes our misplaced faith in order to relocate it in its proper place. For every fearful How? When? Where? Who? Jesus has an answer: I am – I am – I am – I am. “I am the light of the world,” Jesus says, as he shines that light into our darkness. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says, as he calls us back to safety under his care. “I am the bread of life that comes down from heaven,” Jesus says, and he offers himself, broken and poured out, to free us from all the misplaced trust in our past and orient us toward the future that now stands open to us.

This is what it means to receive the living bread from heaven, the flesh and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ: we receive Christ Himself and all his benefits as we partake of wine and bread joined with God’s Word, an ordinary meal made into a feast of forgiveness and renewed trust and hope. As Pastor Brian Stoffregen writes,

An interesting approach to this whole picture is to take a biological view of eating and drinking. Through the wonders of the human body, what we eat and what we drink become part of us. When we eat bread and drink wine; or eat donuts and drink coffee, or pretzels and beer, or whatever, that food and drink ends up nourishing our blood which, in turn, nourishes every cell in our bodies. That biological fact can present a very graphic picture of Jesus remaining in us. Jesus is not just in our heart or head; but Jesus (as bread and wine) becomes part of every nook and cranny of our entire being -- or more correctly flowing through every tiny capillary in every cell in our body. We can talk about Jesus being in our little toe or even in our ear lobe. Wherever the chewed bread and drunk wine has gone, Jesus is there.”

So, we who sit in darkness, arms folded, eyes closed are exposed and brought into the light of God’s glory. Wherever our stable stand may be, Jesus says, “I am the living bread from heaven.” We who are captive to our past are rescued by living bread meant to open the future to us. Open your eyes, brothers and sisters: uncross your arms, stand up, and breathe in the fresh air of eternal life. Trust in the scandalous gift of Jesus, friends; taste and see that God is good. Amen.

14 August 2009

How to NOT Win Friends and Influence People

Got my first mass e-mail related to the upcoming ELCA Churchwide Assembly this morning. Here you go:
Dear Pastor, or, rostered Church Leader,

Our Lord says, Ps. 50.15 “Call upon Me in the day of trouble and I will deliver thee.” May I request that you consider the following thoughts, as you prepare your prayers for our ELCA brethren in their hour of trial.

O Lord Who married Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, and promised them a Savior after they fell, Who delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt, Who raised up Dr. Martin Luther to reform the Church, we pray that during the ELCA Assembly, You would raise up and grant grace to all, who speak up and stand as witnesses for Your Holy Word.

O Lord, Luther in the Large Cathechism, encouraged us “constantly to cry unto” You “against all who preach and believe falsely”, and use Your Name “as a cover and pretense for their devilish doctrines.”

O Lord have mercy on all Your sheep who would be lead away from You by false teaching and raise up pastors after Your own heart who will protect Your flock from this evil.

O Lord we pray You would show mercy and turn those who have been deceived into proposing the Report of the Taskforce on Human Sexuality which attacks Your plan of marriage for men and women and turn them from their error to rejoin us in worshipping You rightly.

Finally, we pray for those tempted by homosexual desires, that they would not be deceived by false teaching which robs them of the forgiveness of their sins which Christ won for them on the Cross.

O Lord we pray all this in Jesus’ Name, Your Son and Our Lord
Yours in Christ,
Spammy J. Dreckington (not his real name)
Oh, how my head does hurt these days.

If I were going to write a response, here's how it might go:

Dear Spammy,

Greetings to you in the name of Christ our Savior.

I'm not exactly sure how you got my email. Your email does say that you used the 2009 Lutheran Annual, whatever that means - it might be the ELCA Directory, for all I know. I have a hard time believing that you accessed all those email addresses via some link at the ELCA website, which means, I think, that you must have entered the thousands of rostered leaders' email addresses manually. I guess, if nothing else, I can give you points for two things: sheer effort, and willingness to sign your name to your email.

I appreciate your concern for us as we gather in Assembly to see to the affairs of our denomination. This is a time of great anxiety for some in our church and some who, like yourself, believe that our discussions regarding human sexuality are problematic at best.

I take issue, sir, with some of the assertions within your letter. I am indeed praying for our friends who will soon be gathering in Minneapolis for our churchwide assembly. But I'm offended by your assertion that some of my good friends are somehow beyond salvation. The last I checked, we Lutherans believed wholeheartedly that it is God, not humanity, who has the final word on salvation; to presume to take that place is idolatry and blasphemy at its worst.

It is obvious that our churches are not of one mind when it comes to interpreting scripture regarding human sexuality. As a Lutheran, I'm sure you're familiar with the seventh article of the Augsburg Confession: "For the unity of the church, it is enough to agree on the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments." Funny: I don't see any mention of sexuality in that definition. Since we've already established that the gospel teaches that only God can declare what is righteous or unrighteous, then it seems to me we might want to be willing to consider that differing interpretations of human sexuality are within the realm of justified possibility.

I'm not saying what happens over the next week isn't important: it is very important. It's important to our brothers and sisters who support only the traditional understanding of sexuality and faithful family life. But it is also important to our brothers and sisters who are trying to be faithful to God as God has created them - and I, for one, am no longer willing to assume that I, and only I, know the definition of faithful Christian living better than they do.

You mention evil and false teaching in your letter. Frankly, sir, the only evil I've seen in all of this discussion has come from the extreme edge of the church that insists on the traditional understanding of sexuality. I haven't heard my gay and lesbian friends using words like "abomination" or "aberration" or "slippery slope." No one, to my knowledge, has ever insisted that "God Hates Straights." Over the past six years, I've been amazed to see the patience, graciousness and honesty displayed by those who believe the time has come for a change. While I'm not there personally yet, I've come to realize that the time for change may have come for our church, and I believe God's family is big enough to include a much wider array of interpretation than we once believed.

So, yes, I'll be praying for our brothers and sisters heading to Minneapolis. But I won't be praying pointedly, as you seem to be asking. I'll be praying for faithfulness, patience, honesty and strength for the entire assembly, and I invite you to do the same.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Scott Johnson

10 August 2009

My Life According to Storyhill

Using only song names from ONE ARTIST, cleverly answer these questions. Pass it on to 15 people you like and include me. You can't use the band I used. Try not to repeat a song title. It's a lot harder than you think! Repost as "my life according to (band name)"

Pick your Artist:

Are you a male or female:
Happy Man

Describe yourself:
Old Sea Captain

How do you feel:
Somewhere In Between

Describe where you currently live:
Satisfied Land

If you could go anywhere, where would you go:
Boulder River

Your favorite form of transportation:
Hard Wind

Your best friend is:
All I Need

You and your best friends are:
Parallel Lives

What's the weather like:
Good Rain

Favorite time of day:
After Dark

If your life was a TV show, what would it be called:
Give Up The Ghost

What is life to you:
The Things I Love

Your last relationship:
Paradise Lost

Why Bother?
Love Will Find You

Your fear:
Worst Enemy

What is the best advice you have to give:
Let The Wind Come In

Thought for the Day:
Open Up Your Eyes

How I would like to die:
Blazing Out Of Sight

My soul's present condition:
Steady On

My motto:

09 August 2009

Sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost - "Why Are You Here? How Will You Follow"

Preaching Text

I am a native of Wakefield, Nebraska, a town of about 1,500 in northeastern Nebraska, 35 miles southwest of Sioux City, IA. My father’s family emigrated from Sweden around the turn of the 20th century and has farmed in Wakefield for over 100 years, I think – close to it, anyway; we grew up a mile away from the farm where my great-grandparents raised their family. My mother’s family emigrated from Germany around the same time, and has lived and farmed in nearby Winside, Nebraska for quite a long time also. As a matter of fact, my mother’s kindergarten teacher in her country school moved to Wakefield three years later, where she taught my father in another country school, then myself and my two younger brothers in sixth grade. Our family was becoming tightly knit even before I was born.

Being European immigrants, my great-grandparents followed their ethnic ties to church. While I was doing a research paper on the Augustana Lutheran Church during seminary, I came across some old district reports for the Nebraska Synod of the ALC, and found the giving records for my great-grandparents during World War I. When my home congregation celebrated their 125th anniversary last August, they made their pastor an honorary Swede by changing his last name from “Cloninger” to “CloningerSON.” My mother’s side of the family grew up in the Wisconsin Synod, but when my grandmother and her sisters all married Missouri Synod Lutherans my great-grandparents followed them into a new Lutheran church. When my parents were married in 1968, an Augustana-Missouri Synod marriage was still known as a “mixed” marriage in some circles.

So, that’s the faith story of my ancestors. What’s yours?

[time for sharing ancestral faith stories]

So, let me ask you this question: why are you here?

It’s more important than it sounds. People come to worship for all sorts of different reasons. Some of you are like my parents: you grew up in this town, in this church, and being here is almost part of your genetic structure. For some of you, it’s what you’ve always done; it’s like a part of you would be missing if you didn’t come. For others, you have this feeling it’s something you SHOULD be doing more often, but it’s hard because your job or your family obligations or, let’s be honest, your desire for sleep and/or rest overwhelm your good intentions. For some of you, being here is an obligation: you’re the Sunday School director, the choir director, the secretary or the janitor. Or maybe the obligation isn’t quite so obvious. Maybe you’re concerned about your standing in the community, and you’d rather sacrifice an hour or two on a Sunday morning than worry about what people will say if you don’t come to worship. Maybe you grew up in a more Pentecostal faith, and this more relaxed style of worship and a more grace-filled way of preaching has come to suit you better. Maybe, like my mother, you married into this church and have long since left the church of your childhood behind. Maybe you heard there was a new guy coming from Ames and you thought he might be worth the price of admission – I hope I haven’t disappointed you thus far.

Let me say this as plainly as I can: there are as many different causes for being in worship on a Sunday morning as there are people in the pews. No one comes here for precisely the same reason. But whatever the reason for your presence may be, it’s not the important question to be answered this morning. Here’s the important question to be answered: do you follow Jesus?”

When Jesus spoke to the crowds on the hillside in these passages from the Gospel of John, there were all kinds of people coming to see him, and they came for many different reasons. Quite a few of them came because there had been free food the day before, and they wanted more of the free food. Some of them were the strong, upstanding members of the church, the folks who wanted to be as holy for God as they could be. Some of them felt threatened by Jesus and the things he was teaching, so they showed up to question him and see if they could take him down a few notches. A very small group of them had already decided to follow Jesus, but they had no idea what it was they were getting into. All of them came for many, many different reasons – but they all had to answer the same question: do you follow Jesus?

Jesus said, “No one comes to me unless they are drawn by the Father who sent me.” Later in the Gospel of John, Peter draws in his nets as he fishes, and the bounty is filled to overflowing. That’s what Jesus is talking about when he answers the question, “Why are you here?” Whatever your reasons for being here may be, it really comes down to this: God has drawn you here. You have been swept up into a net composed of your family, your hopes and dreams, your faith and your prayers – God has used all of that to put you in this place, at this time, with these brothers and sisters around you, caught in the same net.

Here’s where the fishing metaphor ends, though, unless you’re a catch and release person at heart. In a few minutes the sermon will be done, our singing will cease and you’ll be off into the free waters of your week. From the moment you shake my hand and head out the door, you’ll begin answering the far more important question: do you follow Jesus?

One of the great mysteries of our church in the U.S. over the last 200 years is the way in which we have become focused on so many things that can distract us from the central question of following Jesus. The church has been a social hub for communities, a means of ethnic preservation, a refuge and helping place for those who cannot help themselves. The church has been an agent for social change and also an agent for restraining or even denying social change. In a few weeks, our ELCA Churchwide Assembly will be meeting in Minneapolis, and if you listen only to the news reports, you’ll think that all we Lutherans ever talk about is sex and money. But these are all secondary concerns for the church, and they always have been. The central question God asks when believers gather together is always the same: do you follow Jesus?

Jesus said as much to the people gathered around him that day on the mountain. To those who came proudly proclaiming their ancestry, Jesus reminded them: “your ancestors at the manna in the wilderness, and they died. And to those who, like me, have a long, faithful family history in the church, Jesus reminds us of the same thing: “your ancestors were faithful to God during their lives, and they died.

It sounds like I’m preaching to myself now, but this is really for all of us. As we’ve agreed, there are as many reasons for being here as there are people in this room. But the reasons we come will only get us in the door: the real question is this: what will you do with what you’re given here? Will you follow Jesus? Will you trust and hope in God above all else – above your job, your spouse, your children, your ancestry, your standing in the community, your need for acceptance by other people, your need to be right about the pressing social question of the day? Instead of putting all of those questions first, will you answer this instead: “do you follow Jesus?”

Whatever your reason for being here, what Jesus wants to give is simple: abundant life. Jesus promises a life that is more than the reasons we have for being part of the church. Jesus promises a life where our reasons for being here are put to death and our joy at being here is raised out of the grave and set free to follow him. Jesus promises grace to overcome our sin, love to overcome our fear, light to overcome our darkness. And when you come back next week, he will do it all over again.

I’ll bet that some of those who followed Jesus after he said the things we read today thought something like this: I came because I was hungry for bread. I followed because Jesus made me hunger for something more. Jesus fed with bread so that we might hunger for something more - even today, the bread Jesus provides is but a foretaste of the feast that is to come. Follow, friends, and God’s grace be with you. Amen.

07 August 2009

Pop Culture Roundup

It's been good books, brutal TV, Harry Potter and good folk music around here lately. Last week I downloaded
The Time Traveler's Wife from audible.com after seeing a movie preview when we went to Transformers 2 (I think they were targeting the "payback date" crossover demographic). Right now it's going to be really tough to finish the book before going to the movie, because if the movie is even half as good as the book it'll be the best film we see this year. Wow - this is some novel I'm hearing as I run/drive/work around the house. Highly recommended.

I finished
So Brave, Young and Handsome by Leif Enger last week, and if you haven't tried Enger's work yet, you're also missing a treat. His debut novel was Peace Like A River, and I'd put him in the same realm as Marilynne Robinson or Norman Maclean - northern U.S. writers who compose somewhat episodic, really well-written prose that draws heavily on character. Enger's second novel, like his first, is a journey novel - one hopes that he'll stay put sometime in the future, but we'll just have to wait and see.

In preparation for the season premiere of
Sons of Anarchy, I've been watching last season on DVR to refresh myself on what happened, especially the first couple of episodes, which I missed the first time around. This is some good television, even if it's violent, vulgar, and certainly not for anyone too young to vote. If you haven't seen the commercials for the season premiere, you should watch for it - one of the most terrifying commercials I've ever seen. Let's just say that Ron Perlman is a lot scarier as the leader of a motorcycle gang than he ever hoped to be as Hellboy.

And in a few weeks, lots of folks will be headed 'up north' for Storyhill Fest Midwest. Unfortunately, we'll miss the event - the first few weeks of the semester are too valuable for campus ministry for me to take even a weekend away. But if you like camping, folk music and hanging out with laid-back, fun folks, you should definitely take a look at heading to this festival. Also, for those of you in the Twin Cities neighborhood, Storyhill will be performing at the Great Minnesota Get-together, the State Fair, September 2-3 (I think).

Last week, while enjoying our first overnight getaway without the girls, we watched the movie "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." Let's just say that as funny as Judd Apatow's "40 Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" might have been, "FSM" is just not a date movie. It was, frankly, more uncomfortable than humorous, and this might be our last Apatow flick for a while, even if it was written and directed by others. Just not our style, frankly; take that for what you think it's worth.

Beloved is trying hard to understand Harry Potter better without reading the books. Dyslexia means that several thousand pages of reading just isn't an option, unfortunately, nor is audiobooks as she's rarely in a spot where she can listen (and she's not interested in purchasing any kind of iPod or mp3 player). So, we've been spending our evenings watching the movies. Tonight we start "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" - should be fun all over again. Maybe we'll just have to go see "Half-Blood Prince" again when it hits the cheap theater!

That's the roundup this week.
Grace & peace,

05 August 2009

Something Positive About The Church

All right, not to toot our own horn, but this deserves sharing, especially given the lack of positive in the previous post today.

Gratitude for Lutheran Teens - The Kindness Of Strangers

Yeah, I know: it's self-promotion of the worst kind. If you've got good news about other churches, feel free to post them in comments!

Grace & peace,

Dear Pastor X,

We have to talk.

On Monday night a group of our campus ministry students gathered at a local restaurant for what we like to call "Theology on Tap." Usually our conversation centers on a news item or something happening in our community, but this week it was all about you. Well, your church members, actually, but you're their pastor and so, unfortunately, you get the burden of responsibility for what's been going on.

It seems that one of my students works on campus with some of your students. That in itself is not the problem. Your students like to talk about their faith and the Bible study they have most days over the lunch hour. That is also not the problem. The problem, my brother, is this: your students are tactless, disrespectful, and afraid, and we need to talk about it.

Contrary to what you might have heard me say, tact is not only for those who aren't witty enough to be sarcastic. You and I are both Christians, right? We both believe in Jesus' command to "make disciples of all nations," right? (Matthew 28, but then you probably knew that already). So, with a whole world of folks out there who could use the good news about Jesus Christ, why do your students insist on preaching to the converted? Those who claim no faith do so partially because they don't trust us - and when they see your church members beating down one of my students because she doesn't belong to your flock, that mistrust worms its way deeper and deeper. Don't get me wrong: we should all aspire to do ministry in such a way that our students want to invite others to join us. But how about teaching your folks the good ways to invite people, with kindness, gentleness and love? Teaching your folks that their best evangelism tools are guilt, shame and fear doesn't accomplish much for the unchurched, our ministry or even your own. You attract more flies with honey than with vinegar, brother.

So much for tact. Now, here's my next problem. Once your students have gotten the "kind invitation" down pat, how shall they handle it when my student replies, "I already belong to a church, thanks very much?" Here's a hint: saying you belong to another church is not an opening for discussion as to the theological worthiness of said church. When my student says to your student, "I'm baptized," the correct answer is NOT "oh, but have you been baptized as an adult?" I know we're going to disagree on this issue, and believe me, I'm not asking you to change your mind. What I am insisting on is respect for a fellow follower of Jesus Christ. Yes, you can make jokes about our infant baptism when we're not around: trust me, we make jokes about your believer's baptism when you're not around. But we aren't asking you to change what you believe or how you do it - stop asking us to change what we believe and baptize the way you do it.

Finally, let's talk about fear. I've got a pastoral concern for your students here, because if what my student reports is true, you are really missing the boat on fear and faith. Somehow you've convinced them that there's a certain point where they've done "enough" to earn their way into heaven. Brother, I can understand a little misplaced enthusiasm from your students, but you have GOT to get your theology straight. Spend some time in Galatians: Paul had a lot to say about faith, fear and freedom. Or check out Romans, especially that part in chapters five and six: Paul does a good job putting justification and sin in their proper place there. Maybe you should check out Matthew 19: Jesus pretty much lays it on the line and says it's up to GOD, not us.

Here's the thing: you might get some folks into your church using these kind of aggressive scare tactics, but all you're doing is shrinking the world by making them more and more afraid of everything around them. When are they safe "enough" to know, based on what they do and who they are, that they're heaven-bound? Even worse: what will they do while they're alive, assuming the Last Day doesn't come in their lifetime? Jesus said he came to give life, abundant life: when are you going to give your people that part of the promise?

There is sin in this world, far too much of it: on that we agree completely. And we also agree that part of our responsibility as pastors is to caution our people against the consequences of sin. But let's not forget that we serve a Lord who forgave the death of his own Son out of love for the world that Son came to save. How about you ask your people to focus more on living in love rather than fear, and we'll do the same from our end, and maybe, just maybe, we could make the church look like it's got something worth offering to the world.

Your brother in Christ,
Pastor Scott