28 February 2010

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent: Living Between Trust and Anxiety

These are your words, Lord. Your word is truth. Lead us into the truth. Amen.

Question 1: share with your neighbor about a time in your life when you were absolutely certain about something and you were wrong. What was it like?

Question 2: share with another neighbor about a time in your life when you had to trust that something was going to be okay, even though you were really anxious about it. How did things turn out? Did you survive that experience, or is it still haunting you?

The story of Abram and Sarai is a story of a family that learned to trust God in the midst of great anxiety about what God was doing. In Genesis 12, God spoke to Abram and asked him to leave his father’s land and family in the land of Ur and move to the land of Canaan. This move is most easily described today as a move from Baghdad to Jerusalem – a 400 mile journey, on foot, following the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to the northwest, then coming down the land of Palestine with flocks and servants and their own families. It is the story of a move away from safety and the certainty of Abram’s inheritance to an unknown land where Abram would be a sojourner, surrounded by strangers and constantly dealing with different tribes, kings and other nomads. The story of the move by itself is astounding – the fact that Abram’s family worshiped the territorial gods of the Ancient Near East until God revealed himself to Abram is even more astonishing.

And Abram’s story of trust and anxiety doesn’t end in Genesis 12. In our reading today from Genesis 15, Abram confronted God with this fact: Abram had no heir to his flocks and possessions, and the great blessings God had promised Abram would go to a slave if Abram were to die at that moment. In Abram’s time, your legacy after your death came through your children; with no children, Abram and Sarai’s legacy would be poor at best. But God confirmed the earlier promises to Abram. When God instructed Abram to sacrifice the animals in the way Genesis describes, God was making a covenant with Abram. God was saying, in essence, “if I do not keep my promises, may I become like these animals, dead and torn to pieces.” It was common for both parties to pass between the animals as a sign of their covenant, but in this story God was the only one bound by the covenant: Abram was only asked to trust that the promises would be fulfilled.

The story of Abram & Sarai went through many more twists and turns before they died. They changed their names: “Abram,” meaning “he is exalted,” became “Abraham,” meaning “Father of a multitude.” Sarai also changed her name to Sarah, bearing evidence that God’s covenant will indeed change the both of them. They tried to take the matter of an heir into their own hands; Sarah made her slave, Hagar, sleep with Abraham, and that son, Ishmael, is commonly known as the father of the Arabic peoples of the world. But God insisted: they were promised a legitimate heir, and they would have a legitimate heir. Sarah laughed at the thought of becoming pregnant at age 90, so when Sarah bore Abraham a son, God instructed them to name the child “Isaac,” meaning “She laughs.” Abraham & Sarah lived long lives and only began to see the beginnings of the blessings God promised to them. Their whole story is marked by anxiety and trust: anxiety because they didn’t understand the situations in which they often found themselves, and trust that somehow God would accomplish God’s goals, even when Abraham and Sarah got in the way by attempting to protect God and themselves by their own deeds.

Come forward in time, then, around 2,000 years. Jesus was preaching and teaching throughout Galilee on his way to Jerusalem. He was beginning to develop a great following: people came to be healed by his touch, to learn from his wisdom and to be his disciples. Even some of the Pharisees were amazed and intrigued by this roaming teacher from Nazareth. So when those Pharisees heard that Herod was seeking to kill Jesus, they grew anxious. “Jesus, get out of here,” they said. “Protect yourself,” they said. “Take the safe road,” they said. These Pharisees knew that Jesus was some kind of great blessing from God, but they weren’t confident that God would protect their blessing. So they warned Jesus to try and protect him – even though Jesus knew that protection and safety wasn’t where he was going.

It’s not an easy thing, to trust when you’re anxious. In fact, we’re not very good at it. The thing is, neither was Abraham, or any of the Old Testament heroes, for that matter. Abraham’s greatest mistakes were made when he didn’t have faith in God’s promises and tried to guarantee his own safety and security by himself. When King Saul was focused on God’s word, he was a good king, but when Saul tried to improve on God’s promises through his own work, he lost God’s favor. King David, Solomon, Moses – all of them are lifted up to us in our childhood as heroes of faith. But in reality these heroes struggled with trust and anxiety as much as anyone else in the Bible. The same goes for Peter, James, John, Matthew, Andrew, Judas and all the other apostles and disciples in the New Testament. They knew that in Jesus they’d found something incredible, and they wanted, naturally, to protect this great blessing. But Jesus wasn’t born to be protected; he was born to reveal the kingdom of God, and if I might paraphrase C.S. Lewis here, the kingdom of God “isn’t safe, but it is good.”

In our gospel reading today, Jesus took the role of a prophet to God’s people. When he cried out, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,” Jesus was remembering the long history of Jerusalem’s pursuit of safety through other means. Israel was supposed to be God’s people, but even in the days after God rescued the people of Israel from Egypt, the people’s anxiety kept them from trusting God first for their well-being. The world around them was an uncertain place, but rather than trusting in the certainty of God’s protection, Israel pursued money, political power and other idols to ensure their safety and protection. They did it so often that God was forced to walk out on them altogether to remind them that only God can provide what they need. Ezekiel 10-11 tells the story of God leaving the temple as the Babylonian armies gather outside the walls of Jerusalem. God will not be just another good-luck charm in our spiritual charm-bracelets: it is all or nothing with our passionate, recklessly-loving God.

Jesus himself, in today’s gospel reading, became an idol to be protected instead of a teacher to be followed, much less a Messiah to be worshiped. Imagine that: a people dedicated to God protecting that God too much! But just like Abraham, just like King David, just like the disciples and just like us today, the people who wanted to protect Jesus didn’t understand that God is not concerned with protection: God is concerned with faith; God is concerned with truth; God is concerned with life. There is no faith without fear, there is no truth without consequences, and there is no life without risk, vulnerability, and trust in anxious times. As “Some Kid” in the novel IT by Stephen King says, “You can’t be careful on a skateboard, man.”

A few years ago there was a show on the Discovery Channel that claimed archaeologists had found the tomb of Jesus’ family, that the bones of Jesus himself have been found and the resurrection is a hoax. I remember this only because it’s in my notes from the last time we all read this text in our lectionary: the show itself seems to have passed into the void, while Jesus and the church are still here. But you and I know that every once in a while, a movie or show or speaker comes around that gets the church worked up because it feels like God is “under attack.” To my mind, there are two problems with the way we go about handling these things. First, God doesn’t need our protection. Second, it’s good for the church to be challenged and reminded where our faith and trust should ultimately land: on God and God alone. Usually, when the church appears anxious about God, the church is really anxious about the church. We are not called to defend the church against every threat, real or imagined. As a pastor I know put it, “I’m far too concerned with what Christ means to me today to worry about the distant past or the distant future.” Our business is trusting in God in today’s circumstances, living between that trust and the anxiety that surrounds us and can drive us away from our trust in God.

Sometimes our desire for safety and certainty can be opposed to God’s will. When that happens, God’s words to us turn into lament. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings!” That isn’t a critique of one group of people or another rejecting Jesus – it’s a lament that rises out of God’s heartbreak over our rejection of God throughout history. The greatest errors of the church have often been made in an attempt to guarantee safety and certainty. The Crusades, the forces working against the Reformation, the split between Roman & Eastern churches in 1100 A.D., slavery, civil rights, the fierce debate over evolution; all these are moments when the church was more concerned with protection and certainty than faith and truth. The Pharisees in today’s gospel reading weren’t the only ones guilty of protecting God too much – it’s happened before, and it will happen again, and we will be the ones guilty of that over-protection.

The point of Christian living is not certainty: it is faith. Certainty requires proof before a relationship of any consequence is granted. The walls of certainty may offer protection, but they also prevent any genuine interaction with the rest of the world. Absolute certainty eliminates all vulnerability, and without vulnerability no relationship is ever genuine and no love is ever authentic. Being vulnerable brings about anxiety, for we leave ourselves unprotected, but being vulnerable also allows us to learn to trust one another as real persons who follow Jesus. The point of Christian living is faith, and faith is what happens when we learn to live between trust and anxiety. “The picture [of] faith painted here is one that denies any surety of belief, other than that which comes from the relationship with the One who stands behind the promise. All ultimately depends on the faithfulness of the Lord. This passage does not portray doubt or anxiety as something foreign to the person of faith. Quite the contrary! We see in Abraham one who lives in the tension between trust and anxiety. Faith, which is reckoned to be righteousness, is precisely that.”[1]

May Christ shelter you under His wings and keep you safe, brothers and sisters, and give you the faith you need – the faith to live between trust and anxiety. Amen.

26 February 2010

Friday Five: Going for the...Couch?

Another week, another collapse. Yesterday afternoon I slept more than the girls did - took a 90 minute nap during their naptime, then another hour after Beloved got home from work. Apparently I needed a bit more rest than I've been giving myself lately. So, Lenten Devotions went by the wayside for a couple of days. Sorry about that.

But Songbird gave us an AWESOME Friday Five this morning, and I figured I might get back int the swing of things by playing along.

It's been two weeks of snow, or not enough snow, of heartbreak before the action even began, of snowboards and skis and skates, of joy and sorrow. At our house, we've stayed up too late, and we don't even watch sports any other time!
1) Which of the Winter Olympic sports is your favorite to watch?
Alpine skiing, followed closely by speed skating and bobsled/luge/skeleton. Long track, that is - while I think Apollo Anton Ohno is indeed a great athelete, that game is just too random for me to get very interested. I LOVE watching Lindsey Vonn, Julia Mancuso, Bode Miller and all the other ski nuts throw themselves down mountains. To me, the alpine events and the 'timed' events are the essence of the Winter Olympics. As I told someone Wednesday night, if there's a stopwatch I'm all over it, but if it's a "scored" event, I couldn't care less.

2) Some of the uniforms have attracted attention this year, such as the US Snowboarders' pseudo-flannel shirts and the Norwegian Curling team's -- ahem -- pants. Who do you think had the best-looking uniforms?
I really liked the Norwegian unis - I mean, I watch golf when John Daly, Ian Poulter and Duffy Waldorf are playing, so ugly pants are nothing new for me. At least the Norwegians didn't wear a non-matching hat like Duffy's known to do.

3) And Curling. Really? What's up with that?
Haven't a clue. All I know is whenever it's on, everyone stops and watches. Everyone. In the men's locker room at our gym this week, everyone has been spellbound every time curling is on. Which is a marked improvement over whoever keeps turning the damned TV to Fox News, by the way...

4) Define Nordic Combined. Don't look it up. Take a guess if you must. (There will be a prize for the best answer, but be aware, this is a judged sport.)
Best photo spread incorporating Dale sweaters & IKEA furniture. And yes, I do know what the actual event is, but this was kinda fun.

5) If you could be a Winter Olympics Champion just by wishing for it, which sport would you choose for winning your Gold Medal?
Gold Medal: Skeleton gets the nod over the other two because it combines high speed and head-first body position three inches off the surface. If you can find a bigger rush I'd like to see it.
Silver Medal: Alpine Skiing (especially the Super G). Seriously, who's sexier: Bode Miller/Lindsey Vonn or Figure Skating Guy/Figure Skating Girl? Your disagreement is invalid.
Bronze Medal: Bobsled. Because if Steve Holcomb (front left) can wear spandex, so can I. Besides, that hulk of non-fat muscle in the back? Former Cornhusker Curt Tomasevicz. Guy looks like he could still kick some serious ass in shoulder pads.

23 February 2010

Lenten Devotions: Weighing In

"10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

13Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace." James 3.10-18

At long last, I’m going to weigh in on the Veritas Forum held here at Iowa State last Friday and Saturday. I know, I know – you’ve all been waiting breathlessly. Well, here it is.

Philosopher and theologian Dr. Peter Kreeft of Boston College was the featured speaker on the topic “The Problem of Evil and Suffering” Friday night and “The Difficulty of being a Christian in an Academic Setting” and “Rationality of Belief in God” on Saturday morning. I was really hoping for a thought-provoking, inspiring collection of lectures and conversations that would address some pertinent and timely issues, especially regarding suffering and evil.

Unfortunately, I was ultimately left disappointed by the entire weekend. Dr. Kreeft is a very intelligent man, and he applies his considerable intellect to many important questions. I plan to read some of his works, most notably Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensees and Making Sense Out of Suffering, the work many were expecting would inform Friday night’s lecture. It may have done precisely that – not having read any of Kreeft’s published works, I can’t comment one way or another. But what I saw and heard was immensely disappointing to me, both as a Christian in general and as a theologian/philosopher in particular.

At the beginning of the night, the student host welcomed the large crowd and said that all were welcome, including “skeptics.” If I had been a skeptic in the room that night, the end of that sentence would have been the last moment I honestly felt welcome in the auditorium. Instead of a lecture dealing with what I’ll call non-consequential suffering, or suffering that has no immediate moral cause or source (for example, the earthquakes in Haiti, which obviously have geological cause but not moral cause), Dr. Kreeft launched into a discussion of human evil and suffering. In essence, the argument was this: God allows human evil because God allows human free will. Humanity always has the option of choosing evil instead of good. Even Hitler, with all the atrocities he spearheaded, is not a cause for disbelief in God – Hitler is, rather, cause for belief in human causality when it comes to evil. In addition, whenever atheism or agnosticism were raised, there was a very clear sense from Dr. Kreeft that he thinks such beliefs are as much an intellectual failing as a spiritual issue. At one point, he made the argument that “if someone told me that 50% of this audience were Martians, at the very least I’d want to find out if it were true, so I could know who the Martians are.” Apparently atheists and agnostics just aren’t very curious people? This was a major strike against the evening as a whole, in my opinion: opening a lecture welcoming divergent viewpoints is well and good, but if a basic level of respect for divergent beliefs isn’t kept, any welcome becomes worthless in a heartbeat.

I’ll be honest: I found the lecture and questions following it to be scattered, pointless and almost banal. Dr. Kreeft is from the branch of the Roman Catholic church dedicated to the intellectual pursuit of the faith, which of course is necessary, but not the whole of the faith. He also holds to a very authoritarian view of faith, from what I can remember and from this quote, which really does sum up the essence of the Friday lecture in my mind:

‘What is God's Answer to Human Suffering? The answer must be someone, not just something. For the problem (suffering) is about someone (God—why does he... why doesn't he ...?) rather than just something. To question God's goodness is not just an intellectual experiment. It is rebellion or tears. It is a little child with tears in its eyes looking up at Daddy and weeping, "Why?" The hurt child needs not so much explanations as reassurances. And that is what we get: the reassurance of the Father in the person of Jesus, "he who has seen me has seen the Father"’[1]

This is all well and good for those moments of suffering that indeed rise from human rebellion. But what about the families torn apart by the earthquake in Haiti? What about the people still trying to rebuild New Orleans? What about the child whose father abuses her? The husband whose wife steals from him? The parent neglected by her children, tossed into a nursing home and left there to rot? These are the people who live in Job’s circumstances, and even though God reminded Job that God, not Job, is in charge, God also acknowledged that Job’s complaint about his undeserved suffering was right and proper. To my remembrance, Dr. Kreeft never once acknowledged that some suffering is unjust and not the result of any action or consequence, when it was precisely that sort of suffering I was hoping he would address and lead us to ponder and consider.

I’m not saying I have any more answers: I am saying that it seems to me we didn’t even get to ask the important questions. Answering the wrong questions well is the height of intellectual folly, a prime example of theology done for its own sake rather than for the sake of proclamation, and I felt like we spent the entire Forum chasing after the wrong questions and answering them with the sort of intellectual Christian snobbery that always seems to rear its head among the most intense Christian apologists. There was nary a moment of promise or good news to be heard; no mercy, gentleness or peaceable wisdom, which was my greatest hope for the weekend. Thus I’m disappointed, and hopeful that when the next Forum comes around, some more important questions are raised, and some more gracious answers are offered.

Grace & peace,

Pastor Scott

22 February 2010

Lenten Devotions: Safe

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
Luke 13.34

I am willing. Lord Jesus, I am SOOOOOO willing tonight...

Tonight was one of those nights when I realized, yet again, how different things are from, say, 2007 or so. People just look so tired anymore - and I feel tired. Tired of bearing the constant burden of uncertainty and anxiety. Tired of broken trust, disappointment and, to be perfectly frank, unvented anger that I've probably nourished a bit too well. I'm tired of feeling as though all I do is catch up, that I never get my head far enough above the water to do anything more than keep treading water like crazy. I'm tired of finishing things just before they're due - I thought I left all that behind when I graduated from seminary, yet I find myself back in the same patterns all over again.

This is an incredibly opportune time to be the church, but I'm afraid we're missing it. We, like the world around us, bear the burdens of anxiety and fear, and in a time when we could be presenting the world with a different way of being, we find ourselves marching in lockstep with the anxious, reactive, angry mob that just wants someone's head on a platter. We downsize, just like everyone else. We cut budgets, just like everyone else. We bicker and blame, just like everyone else. And we continue to trudge along until the picture brightens, just like everyone else.

This is about more than money. I think we're tired because we've not been sheltered as we could be. Tonight I think of those holy wings coming down around me, and I want that more than anything. I want to feel safe: don't you want the same? Isn't that part of our calling, one to another, to make the church a place where, even in hard times, people are safe, sheltered, secure in who they are and to whom they belong? I think this is also what Jesus wants: for his people to rest securely in Him and in Him alone. Ah, holy Jesus, help me to trust you, now in the hour of uncertainty and anxiety, this time of fatigue and fear. Wrap your loving wings around me, Lord Jesus, and keep me safe.

Grace & peace,

Thy Holy Wings

"Thy holy wings O savior
spread gently over me,
and let me rest securely
through good and ill in Thee.
Oh be my strength and portion,
my rock and hiding place,
and let my ev’ry moment
be lived within thy grace.

Oh, let me nestle near thee,
within thy downy breast
where I will find sweet comfort
and peace within thy nest.
Oh, close thy wings around me
and keep me safely there,
for I am but a newborn
and need thy tender care.

Oh, wash me in the waters
of Noah's cleansing flood.
Give me a willing spirit,
a heart both clean and good.
Oh, take into thy keeping
thy children great and small,
and while we sweetly slumber,
enfold us one and all. "

- Carolina Sandell Berg, 1832-1903

19 February 2010

Lenten Devotions: Punt

I just returned from a very frustrating lecture on campus. Before I comment publicly, I need to take some time and digest what I remembered and how I’d choose to agree/disagree/blow it all to hell and start over. But my thoughts on tonight’s lecture were to be the LD for this evening. So I’m just going to punt and do today’s Friday Five, not that it’s an inferior pursuit, mind you, but it gives my reeling mind something to grasp with a bit more coherence than I could otherwise offer. Ergo, here we go.

From Sophia:

Each year you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the Paschal Mystery with mind and heart renewed. You give us a spirit of loving reverence for you, our Creator, and of willing service to our neighbor. As we recall the great events that gave us new life in Christ, you bring the image of your Son to perfection within us.... (First Preface for Lent, Roman Missal)

1. Did you celebrate Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday this year? Any memories of memorable celebrations past?

We meant to do a Fat Tuesday celebration at the Lutheran Center, but planning didn’t get done until last minute, and by then, people were already overwhelmed enough considering Ash Wednesday and Lent that we just scrapped the whole thing. So I went home and ate a pizza. That’s right: keepin’ it classy up in HYAH.

2. How about Ash Wednesday, past and/or present?

Every year, without exception, I consider the moment I’m marked with ashes to be the “beginning” of Lent. I can’t imagine not having ashes imposed. One thing I did hear about this year were several folks of various denominations doing ‘public’ impositions, and I’m thinking we might spend a few hours at the Free Speech Zone on the ISU campus offering the imposition of ashes during the day next year. Seems a good way to be distinctively Christian and perhaps do some educating and public witness at the same time. Also, a Christian in the FSZ who isn’t pounding a Bible and yelling about JAYSUS might be a nice change of pace for some folks.

3. Does your denomination or congregation celebrate "this joyful season"? Any special emphases or practices to share?

The old joke is that most Lutherans prefer Lent to Easter because we are much more comfortable in penitence and self-denial. As I wrote the other day, my Lenten experience is formed by the joy my mentor found in the season, and there are indeed many in my denomination who share a love for the journey of Lent, not because we’re big fans of feeling guilty, but because the introspective, penitential nature of the season has a real impact on us spiritually. In the “Invitation to Lent” our liturgy reads, “As disciples of Jesus, we are called to a discipline that contends against evil and resists whatever leads us away from love of God and neighbor. I invite you, therefore, to the discipline of Lent—self-examination and repentance, prayer and fasting, sacrificial giving and works of love—strengthened by the gifts of word and sacrament. Let us continue our journey through these forty days to the great Three Days of Jesus' death and resurrection.” I believe most of us try to live out these disciplines, as do most Christian churches, and this is what makes Lent a special season in the church.

4. Do you have a personal plan of give-ups, take-ons, special ministries, and/or a special focus for your own spiritual growth between now and Easter?

This is the second year I’ve attempted to write a nightly post for Lent. Last year I simply ran out of steam a few weeks in; in retrospect, I may have simply been trying to say too much. Thus tonight’s ‘lighter’ fare. I also give up a few things every year, this year being meat and Sporcle, and I attempt to use the changes that result from that sacrifice for good. So, hopefully giving up meat lessens our grocery bill and my waistline, and wasting less time playing Sporcle gives me more time to sleep, work, play with the kids, etc.

5. What is your dream for the image of Christ coming to perfection in you, the church, the world? How can we support you in prayer?

Humility and grace. I am more and more convinced that as Christendom continues to die (and die it should, for the sake of genuine faith as opposed to institutional idolatry), the church in its panic is asserting ever more loudly its own supposed position of power and dominion. I am by no means ashamed to be a Christian, but I am ashamed by the bleatings of those who will not give up the false dream of America being a “Christian nation.” We are called to be humble servants in this world, not a dominating moral police, and it seems to me that the first duty of every Christian during Lent is to tend to the sin in our own lives. That, in itself, ought to keep us busy for at least 40 days, don’t you think?

Bonus: Song, prayer, picture, etc. that sums up your feelings about this liturgical springtime.

I was hoping to post “Tree of Life And Awesome Mystery” by composer (and Lutheran, though he works for GIA, a Roman Catholic publisher) Marty Haugen, but couldn’t find a video on YouTube. But “Shepherd Me, O God” is another that fits well with the season, so here goes:

18 February 2010

Lenten Devotions: Who ARE These People?

Psalm 17

1Hear a just cause, O LORD; give heed | to my cry;

listen to my prayer, which does not come from | lying lips.

2Let my vindication come forth | from your presence;

let your eyes be | fixed on justice.

3Examine my heart, visit | me by night,

melt me down; you will find no impuri- | ty in me.

4I have not regarded what | others do;

at the word of your lips I have avoided the ways | of the violent.

5My footsteps hold fast to your | well-worn path;

and my feet | do not slip.

6I call upon you, O God, for you will | answer me;

incline your ear to me and | hear my words.

7Show me your marvelous | lovingkindness,

O Savior of those who take refuge at your right hand from those who | rise up against them.

8Keep me as the apple | of your eye;

hide me under the shadow | of your wings,

9from the wicked | who assault me,

from my deadly enemies | who surround me.

10They have closed their | callous hearts,

and their mouth | speaks proud things.

11They track me down; now | they surround me,

watching how they may cast me | to the ground,

12like a lion, greedy | for its prey,

and like a young lion lurking in | secret places.

13Arise, O LORD; confront them and | bring them down;

deliver me from the wicked | by your sword;

14deliver me by your hand from those whose portion in life is | in this world;

whose bellies you fill with your treasure, whose children have plenty, who leave wealth to their | little ones.

15But at my vindication I shall | see your face;

when I awake, I shall be satisfied, behold- | ing your likeness.

I wonder sometimes if I will ever stop being surprised by the Bible. Offhand I’d guess the answer will be, “Not a chance.”

I’m flabbergasted by verses 13 and 14. In a kerfuffle. Bamboozled. Essentially, the psalmist prays, “Deliver me from the people you’ve blessed and who are trying to kill me.” There’s either a maturity here that outstrips every single psalmist or an accusation akin to Job’s case against God. Either way, it’s obvious this is a psalmist in a real pickle, and this psalmist is placing some of the blame on God’s largesse.

Such is the contradictory insanity of life, I think. God provides daily bread for the wicked and the righteous alike. Dick Cheney, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson all have enough to eat tonight. And, to play fair, so do Nancy Pelosi, Al Franken, Keith Olberman, Hillary Clinton and Jim Wallis. Pick your political poison: God has blessed them with enough this night. It’s enough to make the righteous weep in despair, if you can find them.

We have had such a year in our family. Some unbloggable things have happened over the last four months to people I love, things that continue to infuriate me whenever I think on them. And in the wider world, things sometimes haven’t been much better. Were it not for the occasional glimpse of God at work among the students I serve, things would be much, much harder than they are at present. As it is, most days are okay, some are torture, and some are sublime. In other words, it’s life.

Ah, Jesus. I don’t understand you sometimes. I look at some of the idiots who label themselves with your name and just want to pull out what little hair I have left in frustration. Why you fill the bellies of these people is beyond me. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that they probably feel the same way about me. Because they read the same Bible I read. Sure, they don’t read it the same way I do, but the words are there, and if we look really close across the chasm that divides us, we’ll find the same Scriptures in each others’ hands.

I have a hard time believing you answered this psalmist’s prayers as he asked. As a matter of fact, I have a pretty strong feeling this psalmist never got the answer for which he was praying. Because I’ve been spinning around on this earth for 35 years and I know I’m perplexed on a daily basis by some of the dumb things we do to each other. Why you bother with any of us is miracle enough for me most days, and to believe that someday I’ll awake and see your face, well, like the psalmist, I think it’ll be satisfaction enough. I’m pretty sure I’ll be questioning your choice of companions even in heaven, but the good news is, they’ll be saying the same thing about me, and best of all, our children will want for nothing.

Grace & peace,


17 February 2010

Sermon for Ash Wednesday: "The Difference between 'What?' and 'Why?'"

Every year about this time, my campus pastor would start hectoring us about our Lenten disciplines. “What are you going to give up?” he’d demand, and every year it seemed like Larry would badger us into really sacrificing for Lent. One year, my roommate and I decided to join Larry in giving up smoking at the Center for Lent. It was that year when we discovered that disciplines are only disciplines if you can keep yourself from skirting the rules. We went so far as figuring out how far away from the Center we had to stand before we could have our cigarettes in good conscience. After that year, I considered giving up giving things up for Lent.

Maybe you’ve decided to take up a discipline for Lent this year. You’ve picked up a devotion book somewhere and you’re going to spend some time reflecting on God’s word every day. You’ve chosen to abstain from meat or beer or chips or soap operas or anchovies or Facebook or something else you really love. Good for you, and if I can help you in any way, let me know. But Jesus had something to say about these things: Beware. It is his warning we must also heed as we move from the revelation of Epiphany to our prayers of supplication in Lent.

Have mercy on us, Lord Jesus. You call us to humility and service – help us to be humble and serve. Tear down our love of attention and build in us a desire to help the poor, to pray honestly, to hold the things of this world lightly. Amen.

“The call to be extraordinary is the great, inevitable danger of discipleship…The extraordinary is not supposed to happen in order to be seen…[it] should not be done for the sake of its being extraordinary.”[1] So wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book Nachfolge. He agreed with Martin Luther that spiritual disciplines, no matter how extraordinary, have no value in and of themselves, and can become dangerous to us because they can lead us into sins like pride, self-righteousness and exclusivity.

But Bonhoeffer also said this: “A life which remains without any ascetic discipline, which indulges in all the desires of the flesh as long as they are ‘permitted’ by the civil order [justitia civilis], will find it difficult to enter the service of Christ. Satiated flesh is unwilling to pray and is unfit for self-sacrificing service.”[2] So, which is it? Which fire are we playing with as Lent begins: the slow smolder of our souls choking on our excess, or the searing heat of pride from our extraordinary spiritual disciplines?

The answer, of course, is neither. Tonight we gather to remember that the fire is already out when it comes to our Sin, and Sin won the battle over us. Tonight we are marked in ashes as a reminder of who we are: broken, sinful, mortal women and men who have no hope of overcoming our sin in this life. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. But there is another here tonight who has the power to raise up mortals out of the dust, to breathe Spirit into lifeless clay and make it live, and that one, Jesus Christ, has promised us that He has won the victory over our sin, that every day we live is a day when He washes away the ashes of our sin, cleansing us through His cross, raising us out of the tomb with Him into resurrection life, both here and in the kingdom to come.

Tonight we are marked with our death as a reminder that we have no power over it. Bonhoeffer wrote, “The first Christ-suffering that everyone has to experience is the call which summons us away from our attachments to this world. It is the death of the old self in the encounter with Jesus Christ. Those who enter into discipleship enter into Jesus’ death. They turn their living into dying; such has been the case from the very beginning. The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death.”[3] But I tell you tonight, this death is a death we need, for God puts us to death in our sin so that Christ may raise us up to new life, through the covenant made through Baptism, lovingly maintained through the forgiving power of His body and blood.

The first Lenten discipline is the one which renders all other disciplines moot: the ashes which mark us as those who will die. But the second Lenten discipline renders the first moot: God raises you out of the dust into life. Yes, you are marked with ashes. Yes, you are dust, and to dust you shall return. But probably not tonight, and certainly not at this very moment. What you have received is a reminder of your mortality, a sign of the eventuality which will come upon every last one of us. But mortality does not equate to fatalism. The fact that you will die does not render the time between now and your death without meaning. What you know right now is this: you will die. But what God is saying in the meantime is this: what will you do with yourself and the sentence of life God has pronounced upon you? Tonight’s question is not, “How shall we die?” Tonight’s question is, “How shall we live?”

The harsh words about fasting from Isaiah and Jesus in tonight’s readings are not critiques of fasting itself. Isaiah and Jesus criticized people, not fasting. Isaiah asks the question of God, “Why do we fast, but You do not see? Why humble ourselves, but You do not notice?” And God’s reply: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. You fast only to quarrel and to fight and strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high…if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong, and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”[4]

When it comes to Lent and the spiritual disciplines we may or may not take up, the operative question isn’t “What?” – it’s “Why?” Why give up Facebook? Why give up chocolate or beer or meat or cigarettes? One of my old camp friends is giving up the “F-bomb” – to which I say, more power to you if you can do it, but why? God is not impressed if you stop swearing but continue to treat your neighbor with contempt. If you give up cigarettes but spend the extra cash on yourself, nothing changes. If you give up cable TV but spend the extra free time watching movies you’re trading one idol for another. Fasting is not about giving things up to make God proud. Spiritual discipline is about recognizing the power of the distractions in our lives. Spiritual discipline is about shifting our focus from ourselves to the needs of others. Most importantly, spiritual discipline is not like training for a marathon or triathlon: it isn’t about meeting our own goals. Spiritual discipline is about humbling ourselves privately so that we might praise God publicly.

I hope you do remember tonight that you are dust, and to dust you will return. Accepting your mortality, your limits, is in itself a humbling experience. You are not eternal. You are not the center of the universe. This creation will move on long after the day your body crumbles into the dust. But that day is not today, and we dare not let ourselves fall into the trap of thinking we can overcome our mortality by impressing God with our humility. We will die, but more importantly, we live, now, and how we live is far more important than how long we live. We who will die are called to live and follow and serve the best that we can. May your journey this Lent be a journey that strengthens your faith and trust in Jesus Christ. May you learn what it means to follow in ordinary ways, on ordinary days, even when others around you think it extraordinary. May your private humility help you praise God in your public living. May you discover joy and meaning as the ashes of your sin are washed away by the extraordinary grace of Jesus Christ, and may the breath of God’s Holy Spirit fill you with humility, discipline and life, now and always. Amen.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4: Discipleship. © 2001 Augsburg Fortress. p. 148-149.

[2] Ibid., p. 158

[3] Ibid., p. 87.

[4] Isaiah 58.3-4, 10-12

Lenten Devotions: Larry "The L stands for 'Lent'" Meyer*

‘“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.’ Isaiah 58.3-4

I can still hear his voice echoing across the lounge at the Student Center in Lincoln. “JOHNSON, WHAT ARE YOU GIVING UP FOR LENT?” Every. Freaking. Year.

Larry Meyer loved Lent like nobody’s business. Students at Lutheran Student Center in Lincoln put out a Lenten devotional every year, and I’m not sure if Larry started it or not, but he certainly made sure it continued under his watch. Every year he’d give up smoking his pipe at the Center (and didn’t we notice, we who knew him, that his trips away from the Center picked up a bit during those 40 days?). And we would do Holy Week impressively, too – from the Passover Seder (which came complete with warnings about the requisite 4 glasses of wine in the feast and how this was NOT the Lutheran Center drunk) to Good Friday sunrise service to Easter Sunday, even though many of us were homeward bound that weekend. You wouldn’t think a man as relentlessly positive would enjoy such a penitential season, but he did – that’s just who he was.

So, every Ash Wednesday I think of Larry these days. I believe I called him the first few Ash Wednesdays I served as an ordained minister, before the cancer got so bad that I didn’t feel comfortable imposing on him and his family. Now that Larry’s gone, I think of him as I make my own Lenten discipline plans. I think of the year I finally told him it was none of his damn business what I was giving up, that he needed to read Matthew 6 again, and the way he smiled so wide when I said it. Like I’d gotten something right and he was proud, you know, and even though Larry was friendly, praise from Larry didn’t come cheap. You had to look for it sometimes.

So, Larry, as you rest in the arms of Jesus, know that I’m still doing Lenten disciplines, and they’re still none of your damn business – it’s between me and my Lord. But you knew that all along, didn’t you? You knew it was never about who could give up the most. You knew it was always about what you’d learn about yourself along the way, and you knew it was about focusing on God more than anything else. Now you get to focus on God all the time, and I’m a tiny bit jealous, even if I’m in no hurry to join you. Until the day we get to do it together, I’ll just have to think of you as I begin the journey of Lent, and smile.

But I will tell you this, Larry: I’m not giving up Canadian bacon & Sauerkraut pizza.** You taught me better than that.

Grace & peace,


*It is actually his middle name, "Lee," but the pun was just too good to pass up.

**Hm. In retrospect, I guess this means I'm not giving up meat for Lent this year. Or am I?Decisions, decisions...