26 October 2009

Big Red Not Backing Down

Saturday afternoon I watched the ugliest 45 minutes of football I think I've ever seen.

Granted, there have been games with far more ineptitude on both sides of the ball. I'm calling this one "ugly" because on the one side, the Iowa State Cyclones (remember, I'm a campus pastor at Iowa State University) were playing without their starting quarterback Austen Arnaud and conference-leading tailback Alexander Robinson, and on the other side, my beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers scored seven points and had eight turnovers.

That's right. The final score was Iowa State 9, Nebraska Turnovers 8, Nebraska 7.

It was surreal at the end. The Nebraska defense, led by all-world and soon-to-be-1st-pick-in-the-NFL-draft Ndamukong Suh (pictured here making Todd Reesing make wee-wee in his pants a little - I mean, seriously, who wouldn't make wee-wee when that bad man comes running full speed at you?), would stop the Cyclones, getting Nebraska the ball for what would surely be the game-winning touchdown. Sooner or later, SOMEONE was going to hang on to the ball, weren't they? But, no, it was not to be. Four turnovers inside the five yard line. Two in the damn end zone, for Christian Peter's sake. One from a wide receiver who simply lost the ball while trying to stay in bounds for what would have likely been the touchdown that wrapped up the game. If this game were a painting, it would be The Persistence of Turnovers by Salvador Dali, with the Nebraska offense melting all over the place.

But in the aftermath, I'm not nearly as bothered by this loss as I was by blowout losses to Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Kansas in 2007. Why? Because for all the bad luck and simple stupidity that's happened in the Nebraska program this year, our boys have been and continue to be a group of fighters, with more resiliency in their pinkies than they showed under the former coaching staff.

Let's be honest: massive recruiting de-commits and the usual exodus of players that comes with any regime change have left this team with scant margin for error, even though it's year two of the Bo Pelini era in Lincoln. Graduation took a heavy toll on this year's program. For all his many injuries, Lydon Murtha is an NFL-caliber tackle, and Matt Slauson is good enough to hang on at that level, too. Joe Ganz, Nate Swift and Todd Petersen would be hard to replace by any means, much less a struggling Zac Lee and a revolving door of inconsistent receivers. Jaivorio Burkes was penciled in as a starter before health problems kept him off the playing roster. Roy Helu, Jr. is a gamer, but something's just not right at the moment, and losing Quentin Castille hurts a lot more than we all thought it would.

Taking all of this into account, Nebraska is still just a few plays away from being 6-1. Think about it for a little bit. Finish out the game against Virginia Tech, and find someone, ANYONE who can hold on to the ball against Iowa State, and in this year of inconsistent performances by teams and individual stars, Nebraska is at the very least a top 15 team, if not top 10.

What gives me the most hope is the players themselves. You get the sense they are hanging in there together, even in these incredibly frustrating times. There isn't any public finger-pointing, and the word from Lincoln is "we are in this as a team." I'll take that and the fight in these boys six days a week and twice on Sunday, thank you very much.

It was a great win for Iowa State on Saturday. They've struggled hard and come up short in some very winnable games this year, most notably against Kansas State and Kansas. I don't feel an ounce of conflict about congratulating Paul Rhoads and his team for playing well and getting the win - after all, the Cyclones are not Colorado or anything. As Coach Pelini said in a remarkably composed post-game presser, they made the plays and got the job done, and suggesting that Nebraska gave them the game takes away the credit they deserve for closing the deal. All the same, even with the good feeling I have about our boys in Scarlet and Cream, I'm sure ready for people to stop talking about what great losers Nebraska fans can be. We like being the classiest fans in college football - we'd just like to go back to the poster that used to hang in downtown bars in Lincoln. It had a picture of Tom Osborne in Memorial Stadium, with the words, "Welcome to Lincoln: You'll Never Lose In A Nicer Place."

Grace & peace,

24 October 2009

Sermon for Reformation Sunday - "On Freedom"

What is freedom? What does it mean to be truly free? Is it something like this scene from this week’s episode of the show “Heroes?”

Is that freedom? To be welcomed on the one hand, and coerced on the other? To receive promises of unconditional love while also hearing that conditions do indeed apply? Jesus says “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Well, our friend Sylar here has seen the truth about himself, and he is most certainly not free. Sylar, knowing the truth, might find himself more of a slave than ever before.

Freedom is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. And, of course, today we celebrate “Reformation Sunday.” The commonly-held belief is that today we celebrate the Protestant Church throwing off the shackles of their Roman Catholic oppressors. Well, in this Reformation week, there has been a lot of hullabaloo this week between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, one of those “churches of the Reformation.” Here’s a commentary from Time Magazine:

‘At first glance, the surprising news on Tuesday that Pope Benedict XVI has created a new structure to welcome some disenchanted Anglicans into the Roman Catholic fold … might look like a happy reunion. But the Vatican's establishment of new "Personal Ordinariates," in which Anglicans, including married priests, can practice Catholicism while maintaining much of their own identity and liturgy, reveals more about the growing internal rifts within each of the two churches than any sign of real hope for reuniting the fractured Christian communion.

For Anglican leaders, the Vatican announcement is the latest minefield to manage in their ongoing effort to avoid a full-fledged schism within their 80-million-strong church, which includes 2.2 million American Episcopalians. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is juggling the gripes of Anglicans of all philosophical stripes and ecclesiastical sensibilities, most notably as battles over women and gay clergy have undermined that prized "communion" within Anglicanism for more than two decades.

In the centuries since King Henry VIII pronounced the Church of England independent from papal authority, certain Anglican conservatives have always drifted back to Rome, "swimming the Tiber," as reverting to Catholicism was called. But in the past two decades, more and more seem to be doing so. Benedict's latest ruling confirms and expands earlier ad-hoc decisions by Pope John Paul II to allow several married Anglican priests to convert and remain in the clergy.

Under the new structure, groups of Anglicans can move into a local Catholic Church that will be headed by former Anglican clergy, who can ease them into Catholicism without their having to kiss goodbye their own pastor or the rites they were raised on. Married Anglican priests who convert, like married priests in the Eastern Rite of Catholicism, will not be eligible to become bishops.

The Vatican's doctrinal chief, Cardinal William Levada, told reporters on Tuesday that Catholic leaders were simply responding to requests by certain Anglicans to find a comfortable home in Catholicism. "We have been trying to meet the requests for full communion that have come to us from Anglicans in different parts of the world in recent years in a uniform and equitable way," said Levada, who would not specify how many Anglicans he expected to convert. "With this proposal, the church wants to respond to the legitimate aspirations of these Anglican groups for full and visible unity with the Bishop of Rome." In a joint written statement, Williams, who as Archbishop of Canterbury is the worldwide spiritual head of the Anglican Church, issued a joint statement with the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, saying the decision "brings an end to a period of uncertainty" for those Anglicans who have sought to convert.

But while seeming to douse one flame, the opening of an officially recognized channel for reverting to Roman Catholicism could spark other conflagrations within Anglicanism, both from conservatives and progressives who are suspicious that Rome is poaching their faithful. Indeed, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's outgoing chief of ecumenical affairs, used a press conference last week to try to curb such fears, insisting that Rome was "not fishing in the Anglican lake."

The incoming converts, however, may offer a false comfort to Catholics that Rome is winning the battle for Christian hearts and souls in the West. Indeed, in the bosom of Europe, where traditional Catholicism became an immense political force, the church is very much on the defensive. The Pope's eagerness to find a home for the core of conservative-minded Anglicans follows the his outreach earlier this year to the traditionalist breakaway movement founded by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, which opposes the modern-minded reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

Even Tuesday's news of the forthcoming arrival of like-minded Anglicans to reinforce the traditionalist ranks carries a built-in risk for the Catholic hierarchy. Church liberals will point to the married priests leading Catholic masses as living proof that it's finally time to toss out the celibacy requirement for the clergy.’[1]

It is interesting and painful to watch these kinds of things happen in the church. Interesting because we Lutherans believe that we share the fullness of the gospel with both the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church. Painful because that sharing the gospel of Christ means we cannot stand alone, ever. Their wounds are our wounds. Their blessings are our blessings. When they rejoice, we rejoice. When they suffer, we suffer.

Perhaps you disagree. Then let me ask you this: how do you think the Vatican and the Church of England reacted to the news that the ELCA is now preparing to bless same-gender relationships and to install pastors in those relationships in congregations willing to call them? Regardless of what we as individuals might think about that change, it has fractured the unity of our church and placed our relationships with other churches on fragile ground. And I can guarantee you that many of our fellow Christians who are watching our church navigate these stormy waters are hurt to see us mistrust, misrepresent and mistreat each other as we sort out our way into the future and who can join us on that road in good conscience.

I love my church. But I also know who we are in my church. Pastor Robert Farrar Capon may have put it best when he wrote the following:

If we are ever to enter fully into the glorious liberty of the [children] of God, we are going to have to spend more time thinking about freedom than we do. The church, by and large, has had a poor record of encouraging freedom. She has spent so much time inculcating in us the fear of making mistakes that she had made us like ill-taught piano students; we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch. She has been so afraid we will loose sight of the laws of our nature, that she made us care more about how we look than about who we are; made us act more like the subjects of a police state than fellow citizens of the saints.[2]

Here is the point, friends: we are slaves, you and I. We are not free. We are enslaved, every last one of us, to the point of sin and death. Some of us, like Sylar in the video from “Heroes,” are slaves to our past mistakes. Some of us are slaves to the fears of what might happen if we don’t protect ourselves from every threat, real or imagined. Some of us are slaves to sex, slaves to drugs, slaves to our appearance or our possessions. All of us are slaves to ourselves in one way or another: we are enslaved by the seductive whispers we hear: “you could be better, much happier, if you’d only ________.” And all of us, even and especially the most faithful of us, are slaves to those churches we call our spiritual home. Yes, even our churches can enslave us, in this way: whenever the church becomes more important than the One in whose name it is gathered, the church becomes a tyrant and an enslaver.

But there is good news to be heard this day, here in this church. Right here, in the midst of all our disagreements and fears, in the midst of our uncertainties and our misplaced certainties, in this church which can sometimes enslave us, Jesus Christ, the living Gospel, comes to us and sets us free from our sins. It is a done deal, by the word of Jesus himself.

This is why we celebrate Reformation. And by Reformation, I don’t mean we celebrate a mythological rebellion started 500 years ago by a German monk with authority issues. That was never, ever the point. What we celebrate this day is this one simple truth: Jesus Christ has freed us from sin and made us all members of the family of God, forever. Every last, living one of us, no matter what emblem you might find on our hymnals and outside our doors, has been set free by Jesus from everything that enslaves us. Freedom, without a single condition or contingency, is yours for the taking, right now.

Throughout the checkered history of the church, we have often lost sight of the gospel. In Luther’s time it was indulgences and ignorance that led people away from the saving truth of the gospel. But we have done little better. We have placed our faith in denominations, in individual pastors, in understanding the Bible in a certain way, in one style of worship, in one particular verse from scripture – you name it, we’ve been enslaved to it. But none of those things can save you, friends. Denominations cannot save you. Congregations cannot save you. Your campus pastor cannot save you. Contemporary worship cannot save you. Organ music cannot save you. Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson cannot save you, the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot save you, and the Pope cannot save you. And, last but certainly not least, The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther cannot save you. Only Jesus Christ can save you. Only Jesus can free you from your sins. Only Jesus can make you a member of the household of God forever – and in your baptism, Jesus has done exactly that.

This is the freedom we celebrate when we celebrate Reformation: we celebrate that God makes us free in Jesus. We celebrate the Spirit’s work turning the church back to her savior, freeing us from our idolatry to live for Jesus alone. We celebrate the freedom to be loved without condition, to be adopted without qualification, to be made whole where all we have known is brokenness, failure and regret.

All of us – Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Christians of every stripe and color – are swept up into Reformation. Whenever the gospel of Jesus gets loose and raises another sinner out of death into life, Reformation happens. Whenever lives are changed, whenever wounds are healed, whenever our bondage to anything other than Jesus is broken, we are swept up into Reformation. Thanks be to God: the Reformation of the church continues, until that great and glorious day when our bonds are broken forever in God’s reign, free to worship and serve the Creator in whose image we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

[2] Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three. Cited by Brian Stoffregen at http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/john8x31.htm

19 October 2009

Brews and Views

Interfaith discussion success!

23ish students and members of the Iowa State University community gathered at Cafe Milo tonight for an interfaith conversation about dating. Groups sponsoring the event and represented in attendance were (in no particular order): Lutheran Campus Ministry (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), Collegiate Presbyterian Church (Presbyterian Church-USA), Lutheran Student Fellowship (Lutheran Church -Missouri Synod), the ISU Atheist and Agnostic Society, Catholic Student Community (Roman Catholic), Campus Crusade for Christ and Wesley Foundation (United Methodist Church).

Have I mentioned lately that I love my job? No?





Grace & peace,

Living Together In Disagreement

We are now nearly two months removed from the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. Life together continues, even amidst disagreement. But it's interesting how the ELCA's decision to move forward on allowing monogamously partnered gay and lesbian people to serve in rostered ministry pops up in the most interesting places. Saturday night, at the Iowa State -Baylor football game, I was working in the Lutheran Campus Ministry concessions booth when an obviously intoxicated student found out we were the ELCA campus ministry. He was a member of Beta Sigma Psi, the Lutheran fraternity, and amidst the slurred descriptions of how happy he was to find us, he blurted out, "We're not hating on gays here, are we?" After assuring him that the concession stand wasn't the place to "hate on gays," and that, in fact, our campus ministry is an open and affirming ministry, he heaved a sigh of relief and staggered off to find his friends. Or throw up on something. I'm not sure which. *grin*

It just shows how you never, ever know who's watching or what people are thinking about the church. Tonight we'll join the Presbyterian, United Methodist and Roman Catholic campus ministries and the Atheist & Agnostic Association for a conversation about dating at a local coffee shop. You wonder - who might be watching, and what might they think about the church if they overhear us in conversation, disagreeing but not hating on each other? On the one hand, the church doesn't engage in these types of conversations as an evangelism tool, but I can't help but hope someone might be impressed enough to come see what else is happening in a place where we can live in disagreement respectfully.

This morning, the ELCA News Service shared a story of two pastors trying to figure out how to live in our church together. It's worth the read. And have a great day, everyone.

Grace & peace,

Photo credits: AP Photo/Dawn VIllella

15 October 2009

Blog? I Think I Used To Do That...

Apparently natural selection has eliminated blogging as the weak link in my life for the past few weeks. Who knew?

The semester is ON. Work continues apace. Preaching has been a struggle at times. We're looking at another 18 months of terrible twos at the very least, with more fun to come as the girls' ability to argue and fight expands with age. Money is tight - very, very tight. So I feel as though I've been treading water for the past month. Thankfully, thus far I've been able to keep my head above the waves.

So, life is good, but uncertain, unsure, unsettled at best. Beloved is working her tail off, too, and it leaves us with very little time to just be a family together. Last weekend we traveled to Nebraska for my brother's wedding, which was a wonderful, beautiful weekend with many family and friends. The only problem? It was over FAR too soon.

I keep hoping that I'll grow more efficient with my time, and to a point I think I've done that, but I keep wondering - is efficiency really the issue? Am I just trying to do too much? Life has so much to offer that I want to do it all (well, most of it - I could do without the sea slug smoothie the folks on Survivor had to chug down in tonight's episode).

I want to be a better blogger, but I've been choosing the far more important job of being a better husband, father and pastor (in that order, mind you), and I think I've made the right choice. Then again, this post only took a few minutes - really, how hard can it be? *Sigh* I guess I'll never learn...

Grace & peace,

04 October 2009

Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost - "Broken and Whole"

“Dear Marriage Care friends,

Sorry to have to bring this news to all of you, especially as Dave and I have been Marriage Care all-stars in the past, but it now looks almost certain we’ll divorce.

I don’t know what to tell you; I’m not entirely sure how it happened myself. A little more than six weeks ago, he first announced his intention to leave, and after a couple attempts at reconciliation, he moved out, announced he wasn’t willing to put in any more effort at reconciling, and sent me a divorce petition through a lawyer. We still correspond, and while he still seems to care for me, there’s a lot in his decision that I’m not privy to, it seems he’s been planning it for a while, and he’s been more invested in splitting up than trying to reconcile.

In any case, I just wanted to send this letter because I thought you should know, and wanted to ask for your prayers at this time. It has been a whirlwind of emotions for me (as I’m sure it’s been for Dave), but God has provided much comfort in this trial.

Again, sorry to get back in touch only to give such bad news. If you want, you can consider it our effort to help the odds for the rest of the couples in a place where half of all marriages end in divorce (one has to try to keep her sense of humor in times like this.)

Thanks. Michelle.”

I got that email a few years back from a friend who spent two years in a Marriage Care group at Luther Seminary while I was a student there. I knew her well, because I was in the same Marriage Care group. Unfortunately, I also knew what she was feeling very well: I sent a very similar email to the same friends. Out of the five couples in that Marriage Care group, two of them are now divorced.

So, let’s begin this time together with the facts: I stand before you under a sentence of condemnation from this morning’s gospel passage. At one time, a pastor in the midst of a divorce was expected to remove himself or herself from the ministry, as a pastor is supposed to be a person of high moral standing and an example to the community to which he or she is called. That is no longer the case, but divorce remains a serious wound in the church and in the world at large. But Jesus presents another way of looking at our failings, and I hope you’ll hear it, as I do, as good news for sinners.

The first thing to do is acknowledge that Jesus isn’t kidding in our gospel reading this morning. In fact, he takes a question that was asked as a legal trap and elevates the answer by changing the debate completely. In the law given to Moses from God in the Old Testament was a provision where a man who found something objectionable with his wife could present her with a certificate of divorce, put her out of his house, and that was that – he had divorced her. (Keep in mind that women had no equal rights under that law – a woman couldn’t divorce her husband) But rather than getting trapped in legalities, Jesus began to address the intent God has had for creation from the beginning. Jesus claimed that even the legal concept of divorce is recognition of how far humanity has wandered from what God intends for creation.

“From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” Our Old Testament reading says that Adam was created first, and that Eve came after, as a helper to Adam. But the Hebrew is not so simple, and the story is more than it seems In the Hebrew language, all nouns have a gender – they are either masculine or feminine. But in this case there is an exception. The word for “man” is a-dam. Literally, it means, “One from the earth.” It refers to God forming humanity out of the soil. AND a-dam has no gender. Literally, you should read these first few verses in our Old Testament reading with “The Human” wherever “Adam” appears. A-dam does not become ha ish, “the man,” until God creates ha ishah, “the woman.” Some traditions use this passage to justify a higher order for men; an honest reading of the text tells us that man only becomes man when woman is created; our genders can only be defined by their relation to one another. Notice that in the Genesis passage it is the man who leaves his family to be joined to his wife, while in Jesus’ time women were given as property to their husbands. The Pharisees, like many in that time, saw women as possessions, while Jesus insisted that God has meant for all humanity to live in creative partnership together, and Jesus used the testimony of Genesis as proof of what God means for us to be.

But why would God allow divorce, if God has a different intent for human relationships? Jesus said it loud and clear: God allows divorce due to the hardness of the human heart. This is where God’s intent for creation meets our brokenness head-on, and rather than condemning broken vows or life-destroying marriages, God has created a means by which the worst of human sinfulness might be redeemed and reconciled with God’s creative intent. Genesis is clear that God does not mean for us to be alone: that is the reason God creates a second human to partner with the first. But notice how God creates the partner; the a-dam must give something of itself before the partner is suitable. It is not good for us to be alone, but we are not suitable partners for one another without some measure of self-sacrifice; this is who God means us to be. Where that sacrifice is no longer present, the relationship is troubled – this is true in marriages, in friendships, in every relationship that we can imagine here on earth. Sometimes there can be a rebirth to the relationship. There are marriages and friendships that suffer through rocky periods and emerge stronger for having been tested in the fire. But sometimes relationships die, or are killed by sins committed one against the other, and all that happens in the rocky times is an insult and defacing of what was once a healthy, vibrant relationship. Sometimes relationships can poison us to the point where we either choose divorce, the end of the relationship, or we commit ourselves to a living death, where something God has created in us dies slowly and in great anguish. It is this kind of suffering that divorce is meant to prevent, and it is this kind of death that God works against by allowing divorce due to the hardness of the human heart. Relationships die because we either cannot or will not forgive – that is the hardness of the human heart.

Does God mean for any of us to divorce, to claim that what one does in divorcing a spouse is right? Absolutely not. Even in the case of abusive marriages, where the actual physical life of the abused is at stake, a divorce is not the ‘right’ answer, merely the least sinful way forward. God allows divorce because of our brokenness, our frailty, our heard hearts that can’t be what they were meant to be in God’s creation. The question of divorce being right or wrong assumes that what is allowed is right, but that’s not the case. God means for us to be different, to be people dedicated to self-sacrifice, defined by the depth of our love for one another. Jesus made it clear that divorce, while legal, is not what God means for us to be, and no amount of legal wrangling will make it so. But Jesus didn’t leave us there, either – Jesus provides the answers we need to hear, both in his words and in his deeds. He shows us what life is as God means it to be – life received as a child receives life, a gift, something undeserved and far beyond our ability to repay, and yet something we have received and are meant to enjoy to the fullest.

Jesus lived as God meant him to live – as one who gave all of himself for the sake of the world. The reading fro Hebrews this morning says that Jesus is the vision of God’s creative intent, that in Jesus creation has found a true reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. Yet how do we know Jesus? Not through his teachings alone, but in his suffering and death on the cross. Jesus gave himself for others; this is who God has meant for us to be! From the moment God created the partner for a-dam, God has meant for us to find our identity in giving ourselves for others, and Jesus is the perfect reflection of his Father’s will for creation. We are to be who we were meant to be – a people created for one another, defined by our service to others and our care for the creation that has been given to us.

Make no mistake: divorce is divorce. Sin is sin. Two wrongs do not make a right. We cannot hide behind our lesser sins because we’re ashamed of our greater sins. We cannot clothe ourselves in righteous morality and be suitable partners to each other. We cannot shame our neighbors or our partners into relationships that are what God intends them to be. We are broken, flawed, hard-hearted, unable to return to what we were before Sin claimed us as its own. But Jesus also comes to give what we cannot give: mercy, forgiveness, and the chance to try yet again. In Jesus we sinners are broken and whole, a people bound by sin yet free because of the love of God in Jesus Christ. Like the powerless children Jesus welcomed in the last few verses in our reading today, Jesus invites us to come to him and receive grace. Jesus comes to us and asks us to stop hiding in our legal wranglings, because the rags of our self-righteousness and high morality are nothing compared to being clothed in his mercy, forgiveness and love.

There are no easy answers when it comes to living in relationship with others. A friend of mine wrote on Facebook the other day that the Genesis passage reminds her that even the most irritating person she knows was handcrafted by God. Not one of us is perfect, not one marriage isn’t marked by some sin along the way, and not one of us can hope to live in God’s loving reign by means of what is legal. It is grace that brings us here, forgiveness that marks our life together, and love that keeps us going when our brokenness poisons our relationships with sin. In this life you will live broken – in this life you will see relationships end badly – in this life you will find yourself wondering, as I did, “how in the world did I get here?” But when those days come, remember first that you are a treasured child of God, broken by sin but made whole by the love of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. As the psalmist sang, “what are mere mortals that you, God, should be mindful of them, human beings that you should care for them?” Whatever we are, we are loved by God, and that, my friends, is the answer under which all other questions are judged and found lacking. Be God’s beloved children, broken and made whole, and live in that love. Amen.

The image is from Jonny Baker's blog. Click the image for the link.