24 December 2012

Sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord - "Christmas Belongs To Children"

Christmas is a time that belongs to children.  Think about all the Christmas stories and songs you know, and the role that children play in them.  

  • A Christmas Carol:  where Tiny Tim understands the spirit of Christmas better than Scrooge, Marley, and even his own father, Bob Cratchit.  
  • Miracle on 34th Street: where the child believes in Kris Kringle when no one else does.  
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas:  no adults even appear in this story!
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas:  Cindy Lou Who speaks for all of Whoville.
  • The Best Christmas Pageant Ever:  the Herdmans, even though they get everything wrong, get it all right in the end.

23 December 2012

Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent - "Change Is Coming"

Brothers and sisters, grace and peace to you from God our Creator, Jesus Christ our Redeemer, and from the Holy Spirit, present and active in our midst this morning. Amen.

First, turn to your neighbor and take a minute or two to answer this question: what are the things you need to feel like you’re celebrating Christmas?

For me, it seems like food plays a big role. I was in Ames yesterday looking for potato sausage. Didn’t find any, where I went, but my friend Heidi said Dahl’s sometimes has it, and Linda Fevold said there’s a shop in Gowrie that might have some also. I don’t know if there’s enough time to get some for this year, but it certainly bears remembering for next year.

09 December 2012

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent - "On Jordan's Banks...and Ours"

1 On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry
announces that the Lord is nigh;
awake and hearken, for he brings
glad tidings of the King of kings!

We know how Advent and Christmas work, right?  Put up the tree early in December, string the lights.  Get the gifts on Black Friday if you want to get nice stuff and save lots of money.  Clean the house.  Clean it again.  Prepare for the coming of the relatives.  For us this year, it’s ALL the relatives on Kristin’s side.  I’m about to become Clark Griswold.

But that’s window dressing.  If we knew that JESUS was coming, actually and really entering the world, what would look different?  Would anything look different?

Pastor Brian Stoffregen writes, “Perhaps if we want to properly prepare for the coming of Jesus, rather than looking in the manger, or decorating trees and houses, or buying and wrapping presents, we need to listen to John. While only two gospels mention the nativity, all four talk about John who prepares the way for the coming of Jesus.”  John says it’s more than just family and good food coming:  the LORD is coming.  And the way must be prepared.

2 Then cleansed be ev'ry life from sin;
make straight the way for God within,
and let us all our hearts prepare
for Christ to come and enter there.

Luke makes it clear that John comes out of the wilderness in a time of powerful people.  Emperors, governors, kings and high priests.  But the word of God doesn’t come to these powerful people, and for all Luke’s talk of “casting the mighty down from their thrones,” we would do well to notice something:  all of these powerful people Luke lists at the beginning of the gospel are still in their seats of power at the end.

Power is not the reason John proclaims the coming of Jesus.  Repentance is what John preaches, from the highest to the lowliest.  Repentance for sin, for the mistakes we make and for the ways we miss the coming of our Lord’s reign.  Every last one of us, from the most powerful to the least, walks this world under the bondage of sin.  If John were to re-proclaim his message today, it might go something like this:  in the 5th year of the Presidency of Barack Obama, when Terry Branstad was governor of Iowa, during the papacy of Benedict XVI, when Mark Hanson was the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA and Steven Ullestad the Bishop of the Northeastern Iowa Synod, the word of God came to John in the wilderness:  REPENT.”  This message of repentance is not about the downtrodden rising up to take the place of the powerful:  it is about the burden under which all of us stagger through this life.  Rich or poor, strong or weak, old or young, Republican or Democrat, faithful or fearful:  John calls us all to turn toward the One who is coming, who brings salvation for all.

3 We hail you as our Savior, Lord,
our refuge and our great reward;
without your grace we waste away
like flow'rs that wither and decay.

We noted that all the powerful people Luke catalogues remained in their seats of power at the end of Jesus’ life.  But today they are only history:  only names in the annals of time.  Tiberius was emperor in name only when John began preaching in the wilderness - he died in exile about eight years after Jesus’ crucifixion.  Legend has it Pilate died in exile as well.  Herod Antipas died in exile in Gaul.  No one knows anything about Annas and Caiaphas beyond their involvement in Jesus’ life in the gospels.  There is no life in these powerful people:  as Isaiah says,
“All people are grass,

their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,

when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;

surely the people are grass. 

The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.”
It’s worth taking our time to reflect on that word, “Savior.”  The implication, of course, is that we need saving.  It goes against the grain of the season, doesn’t it?  As we prepare for “perfect” holiday gatherings, with lovingly decorated treats, wonderful new drinks, lavishly decorated houses and as we shop for the “perfect” gift for those special someones in our lives, John comes proclaiming that the One who saves us is coming.  For all our dedicated festivity, we are as flimsy as the tissue paper we use to wrap our gifts:  here for only a short time, and none of us able to save one another.  Only the Savior saves.  Only the grace of God lifts the burden of sin from our lives.  Only the one John proclaims is coming to give life to His people.  

4 Stretch forth your hand, our health restore,
and make us rise to fall no more;
oh, let your face upon us shine
and fill the world with love divine.

John was not only a prophet to the people of Israel:  in John’s own words, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”  John’s father, Zechariah, said it even more boldly when John was born:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.  By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
John was called to be the voice of God to the entire world, to point to the coming day when all people will see the greatness of God and live in the glorious light of God’s kingdom.  And John wasn’t just talking about life after death – John didn’t say a word about death or hell here.  John was talking about forgiveness, repentance, transformed lives in THIS world, in THIS time.  John wasn’t preparing the people to be taken away from this world – John was preparing this world for the in-breaking of God, right here, right now, among us.  And when Jesus came, all of history began to be re-interpreted in the light of Jesus’ love, grace and mercy.

On Jordan's banks and on ours, the prophecy of John continues to ring out: "prepare the way of the Lord."  God is breaking into this world - repent, turn your hearts and your lives toward the heavens, and receive the gift of grace which all of this world's rulers cannot give.  John brought the message.  God brings the kingdom.  We turn our eyes toward the wilderness, and we hear the joyful songs that herald our Lord's arrival.  Come, Lord Jesus.  Come quickly, and in your unending love save us all.

5 All praise to you, eternal Son,
whose advent has our freedom won,
whom with the Father we adore,
and Holy Spirit, evermore.

05 December 2012

Clear Mission

We are disciples of Jesus Christ,
called to grow in Christ and to invite all to follow him.

Every worship service at the congregation I serve begins and ends with this mission statement as part of its liturgy.  I love our mission statement: it offers both an inward and an outward focus, is clear that we are about the work of being disciples (not members), and in its brevity and simplicity it is both wide in scope and easy to remember.  By now I imagine folks who worship at St Petri twice a month have memorized our mission statement:  how many of our churches can say the same? (Note: that's an observation, not a comparative statement)

I'm traditionally leery about overplaying the effectiveness of mission statements, etc.  We all have a tendency to engage in magic bullet thinking about such things, as if composing a good mission statement is the one key element missing from a church equation and, upon completion of said task, the pews will magically fill, the budget will be exceeded and the pastor's kids will behave in worship.  The only magic bullet that will make those things happen is hard work, particularly the last one.  But there is a place for a good mission statement, and that place is most certainly not a once-every-three-years Council retreat where we navel-gaze for a Saturday and promptly forget everything we put together.

I hope that incorporating this elegant little statement into each and every one of our public worship gatherings brings a continual awareness that we are about discipleship, growth and invitation.  Yes, membership is important: God's church needs members to carry out its work in the world.  But our mission is not to get more members for St. Petri Lutheran Church:  our mission is to follow Jesus and invite others to do the same.  Our mission is God, both through our congregation and in other ways also.

Does your congregation have a mission statement?  Do your people know that mission?  If not, find ways to incorporate it into everything you do: worship, letterhead, emails, the works.  Be clear about who you are and why you're here: you will do yourselves and the world around you a great favor.

21 November 2012

Open Orthodoxy

I had an interesting experience the other day.  We have a Bible study group that meets weekly over lunch at a local restaurant, and a question was raised about whether or not the early church wound up erecting a structure to fit the happenings after Jesus ascended to heaven.  In other words, is the historic faith we have shared, including the Biblical canon and the many, many practical decisions made along the way, our best attempt to make sense of the world post-Jesus, or is it only and always the working of the Holy Spirit?  And, to even ask such a question:  is this faith or heresy?

20 November 2012

Running Thankful

So, um, yeah, I'm still here.  Sort of.

Tonight was our Thanksgiving Worship at St. Petri.  Can I just say that I love the fact that we do this worship on Tuesday night?  For families that are traveling tomorrow, like ours, we can leave as soon as school is out and be at our destinations at a reasonable time (I should arrive back home sometime near supper, Mom).  I don't know why it never occurred to me that Tuesday night might be the better night for worship in Thanksgiving week.  Going to be my recommendation from here on out.  

04 November 2012

Sermon for All Saints' Sunday - "Saints at the Feast"

Preaching Text:  Isaiah 25.6-9

6On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. 7And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. 8Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.9It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

            When I stepped on the scale this morning, it read 237 pounds.  This is not good news.  When Kristin and I got married eight years ago, I weighed 200 pounds, and I was in the best shape I’d been in since my football days in high school.  Eight years of happily married life, two children, a bit of aging and a plethora of changes means I’m more than the man I used to be, in more ways than one. 
            Part of my problem, of course, is how and where I live.  Isaiah 25 has nothing on the options available to an average middle class American like me.  In Isaiah’s time, the daily diet was mainly bread, some fruits and vegetables depending on what was in season and available, and occasionally meat.  By “occasionally” I mean “at times of great importance.”  No feedlot cattle in Isaiah’s day.  No hog confinements pushing out pork by the ton.  Shoot, they wouldn’t even have free range chickens.  If I want, I can march right up to Pizza Ranch and consume more food in one meal than most families in Isaiah’s time would have eaten in a day.  As a matter of fact, part of my problem is that I’ve done precisely that a few times too many since we’ve moved to Story City.
            Let’s be clear about what’s happening in Isaiah 25 as we gather today for worship.  Let’s think about context.  Let’s think about the world the prophet knew as he described this great mountaintop feast.  Imagine a life where you never really know where your next meal is coming from.  Maybe there will be bread or some fruit, but maybe not.  If you had food for two or three days, you were unimaginably fortunate.  The amount and variety of food available to us today would have been absolutely overwhelming to the person reading Isaiah’s prophecy of the mountaintop feast; which makes it, I believe, that much more wonderful to consider.
            Now let’s think about more than just food in Isaiah’s day.  No penicillin or antibiotics, so infection and viral disease would be left to run rampant; death could be waiting around any corner, and would take your loved ones swiftly and pitilessly.  No health insurance, social security, Medicare, Medicaid, WIC, Habitat for Humanity or anything like it.  Your social network was your family, perhaps your friends, but in a world where every meal is a question and every mouth divides that question further and further, sometimes hard choices needed to be made.  Philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan that in the state of nature, human life is “poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short.”  For most of human history, we would have been heartbeats away from such an existence – it is into this world that the prophet Isaiah delivers God’s message of the feast to come. 
            This is why I’m dwelling so much on what Isaiah’s hearers would have known, and why it is so different from our own experience. It’s not about making you feel guilty about how good you have it; it’s about the outrageous extravagance of what God promises to God’s people.  To a society that was intimately familiar with hardship, hunger, disease, death and destruction, God promised a feast unlike anything they’d ever known.  In a world where tears are always a heartbeat away, God promises to bend the knee and wipe away the tears of generations of those who mourn. 
            Last month the Logos and Latte group read C.S. Lewis’ story The Great Divorce.  If you want to contrast the world of Isaiah with a modern outlook on death, heaven and hell, this is as good a way to do it as I know.  Lewis imagined a world much like our own, where we separate ourselves further and further from our neighbors because we have all we ‘need’ and find the reality of other people uncomfortable.  But every once in a while, a bus comes to take people to another world, where the grass is so substantial it cuts your feet and our beings are so light and ephemeral we can walk on the water because there’s just nothing to us.  In this world, the feast isn’t remarkable because we never eat: the feast is remarkable because it’s so real we can’t handle it.  The surplus of our lives leads us to think that everything is inconsequential, that an apple is just another thing to eat instead of a vessel containing the glory of God.  In The Great Divorce, one person tries to carry an apple back to the old world, but he cannot because it is just too heavy.  As he struggles, a voice booms out from the sky: ‘”Fool,” he said, “put it down. You cannot take it back. There is not room for it in Hell. Stay here and learn to eat such apples. The very leaves and the blades of grass in the wood will delight to teach you.”’[1]
            This, I think, is our reality on this All Saints’ Day.  We have so much of what we need that we often miss the simple truth that our very existence is a gift from God and a glory unto itself.  When you can buy apples for $.99/pound at the market, the wonder of the feast begins to fade, until everything is a commodity and nothing is a gift.  Our task as followers of Jesus Christ is to be made aware of the glory that surrounds us and the glory that awaits us, the reality of God that is more substantial than we can truly envision.
            The Hebrew word for glory, dbk, begins to get at this idea of substance and reality.  Its literal meaning is “weighty/heavy.”  You might compare it to the difference between a plastic cup and this heavy tumbler – the second is more precious because it has heft and substance. It is not intended to be used once and then cast away; it is meant to be permanent, to be used again and again, to endure.  And let’s face it:  in a world where we discard more than any culture before us, our voracious appetite for consumption is rarely put in check.  Do we understand glory?  Do we understand that this world was not created to be consumed and then discarded?  When we can gather for treats after worship this morning and discard our plates and cups after one use, how long will it be until we begin to look at people in the same way?  When you can throw away your dishes, how long until you can throw away the relationships in your lives rather than working to clean them up?           
            We do have one thing in common with the people of Isaiah’s time:  death still consumes us.  Amy Erickson writes: “the Hebrew word for death (twm) is related to the word that designates the god of death (Môt), whose appetite for human life is insatiable…”[2]  All of us will be consumed by death someday – no matter how much we gather, no matter how much we consume, no matter how much we discard, death will come for us all.  You’ve heard the joke:  you never see a U-Haul in a funeral procession.  And yet we all laugh nervously when we tell that joke, because we know how hard it is to break ourselves out of our mindset towards consumption, towards acquisition, towards building what we have in the desperate hope that it will be enough in the end.  Even in a world inundated with abundance, we are still a people driven by scarcity and anxiety.  God knows this.  God has always known this, and so God makes yet another promise, one you might have missed in all the talk about good wine and rich meats: “[God] will swallow up death forever.”  Again, Amy Erickson says, “God must be stronger, more voracious, and more vicious than Death.”[3]  And to that, I add:  God IS.  The glory of God in this world, whether it is an apple, a child’s laugh or the last breath of a dying saint, is more substantial and more important than we can ever imagine: so glorious that even death cannot withstand it.
            This is All Saints’ Day.  We remember the lives of those who have passed into the glory of God – and we do this because those beloved saints matter.  Our anxiety and fear tell us that our lives are meaningless, a chasing after the wind, but God promises that this simply is not so, that in God we matter, we are substantial, we carry the weight of God’s glory in a world that is heartbreakingly real.
Your life has weight and heft and meaning because God says this is so.  You are a child invited to the banquet.  You are a saint invited to the feast.  Here and now this feast is your life:  family, work, friends, your church – all of it is holy, rich and substantial and far more important than we realize.  One day this feast will be the life of all creation, gathered on the holy mountain of God, more rich and substantial and incredible than we can realize.  Until that day, when all tears are wiped away, we gather in hope, remembering our beloved who rest in God’s glory.  Live here, you weighty saints of God, and rejoice in the hope of the feast that is to come.  Amen.

[1] Lewis, C.S. The Great Divorce. © 19XX
[2] Erickson, Amy. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab=1&alt=2
[3] Ibid.

07 October 2012

Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost: "It May Be Lawful, But It Ain't Right"

“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; we can only be defined by our 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. Divorce may be lawful, but it ain’t right. 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. 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.

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. Are we adulterers? YES. We are covetous. We bear false witness. We live in broken relationships. We do violence against one another. We fail to protect each other's property. We dishonor our parents, elders and families. We don't keep Sabbath. We use God's name disrespectfully, even contemptuously. Worst of all, we worship gods of every kind: sports, wealth, sex, happiness, comfort, certainty, self-righteousness and purity. THIS IS WHO WE ARE. But Jesus also comes to give what we cannot give: mercy, forgiveness, and new life out of the sin and death that is in us. 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 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. Not one of us is perfect, not one relationship 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 lawful. 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 right 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.

02 October 2012

"Thanks Be To God!"

We were sitting in worship a few weeks ago, and like every other Sunday, we were struggling to keep order in the front pew.  This is not a new development for us, but things have thankfully improved as our girls have grown.  Ainsley rarely requires anything more than the occasional nudge to be quiet: most of the time she's coloring or drawing or playing with her dolls.  Alanna, on the other hand, remains a handful.  She's an active little girl, can't read, doesn't understand much of what's being said in church and prefers to dance in the aisle during the hymns (side aisle, not the middle, and most folks smile broadly as she twirls around with her hands above her head).  The only time she gets really problematic is during the readings and prayers:  when she doesn't want to be quiet, she can be really not quiet.

Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost - "There's No Wrong Way..."

            Do me a favor, folks – tell me your favorite kind of pizza.
            Now:  what would you do if I told you you’re all wrong?  That the best kind of pizza is Fat Pat’s Canadian Bacon and Sauerkraut pizza?  Right or wrong? 
            How about college rooting interests?  Care to argue about that?  How many University of Iowa freshmen does it take to screw in a lightbulb?  They can’t:  at Iowa that’s a sophomore course.  How do you get an Iowa State grad off your front porch?  Pay him for the pizza.  What does the “N” on Nebraska helmets stand for?  Knowledge.

21 September 2012

Friday Five: Blogging

I am making yet another attempt to be more regular in blogging - not that you've noticed.  Right now I have three posts in semi-finished state and hope to finish one or two over the weekend.  For now, though, just to get something on the page, I'm playing this week's Friday Five from RevGalBlogPals.

Blogging at Google's Blogger, I recently was boondoggled by the new designs of the site, which includes my blog. I felt like I had lost track of all the blogs I daily check so that I asked for help both at my blog and on Facebook! Still trying to learn the ways of these new ways of blogging, I am turning our minds to blogging for this Friday Five.

16 September 2012

Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost - "Inside-Out Christ"

Mark 8:27-38
27Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Welcome to the homestretch of the presidential election of 2012.  It’s a season of big questions and big answers, none, apparently, more important than this:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We will spend billions upon billions of dollars on politics this fall.  Estimates suggest this will be the most expensive election in history (at least until we do it all over again in 2016).  You can’t turn on the TV or even watch a video on YouTube without sitting through commercials telling you how wrong Candidate A is, and why you should vote for Candidate B.  Meanwhile, Candidate B spends his time reminding you what makes America great, why he’s a good example of those American values, and why you should vote for him instead of Candidate A. 
            Now, I know who has my vote in November, and maybe you do, too.  Imagine, though, that you’ve been waiting all your life for your chosen candidate to come around.  And your parents and grandparents died without ever seeing the candidate they hoped they would see.  Imagine that instead of a system of free government, you’re trapped under the thumb of foreign rulers, and you have been for almost a thousand years.  Finally, you think the person you’ve been expecting for generations has arrived – and best of all, you’re in early, before the Iowa primary.  And one afternoon, your candidate turns to you and says, “Here’s the deal:  I’m a dead man.  Sooner or later, I’m going to die at the hands of the people I’m working so hard to save.  You’re going to abandon me, one of you will hand me over to the powers that be, and they’re going to make a public spectacle of my death.  The same thing will happen to you if you stick with me – and I hope with all my heart you’ll stick with me.”  Who wouldn’t want to vote for a candidate like that?
            In the Gospel of Mark, these verses we read this week mark a major turning point.  It’s the first time the word “Messiah” or “Christ” has been used since the very beginning of the gospel.  And it is a LOADED term for Peter and any Jew who believed such a thing about Jesus.  God’s “anointed One” was almost universally assumed to be a figure of great political and cultural power.  God’s victory through the “Messiah” would be marked by the triumphant rise of a free people who would no longer be prisoners to tyranny.  So when the one Peter identifies as “Messiah / Christ / Anointed One” starts talking about betrayal, abuse and crucifixion, the reaction of his disciples is what you’d expect:  they don’t like it one bit.  Put it in our modern context, and there’s one phrase that might sum it up in three words:  “That’s not Presidential.”
This is who we are – and this is the delusion we have about both our Messiah and our presidential candidates.  We want the person we vote for to lift us out of the doldrums we largely created for ourselves, and we want Jesus to be a King or a modern-day President:  powerful, dignified, but most of all, dedicated to changing the world for us.  But no president can save us from ourselves, and Jesus did not come to change the world through power exerted from the outside in.
There’s a Latin phrase we learn in seminary to describe what it is to be human and sinful:  incurvatus in se.  It means “the self turned in upon itself.”  It was first coined by St. Augustine but was expanded on by Luther, then later theologians like Karl Barth worked with it as well.  The basic image is this:  in sinfulness, we turn in upon ourselves, thinking only of our protection and our own needs and desires, turning away from the world around us and hiding from the people around us.  It drives almost every impulse we have as humans and, unfortunately, as members of a church.  Incurvatus in se drives us to resist any challenge to the reality we have constructed for ourselves in our homes, our schools and our communities. Incurvatus in se drives us to base our political decisions on whether or not we’ve got more money in our pockets and who we think is to blame if we don’t.  Incurvatus in se drives us to look for churches the way we look for health clubs:  offer programs we like, help us get a good workout now and then, keep the place clean, and we’ll be happy – even if we only come once a month. Incurvatus in se drives us to bind ourselves up with policies and constitutions so we can protect the institution that is the church.  Incurvatus in se is what makes us think that God is out to change the world into something that more closely resembles what we think it should be.  Incurvatus in se is wrong, wrong, wrong about all of these things, but most importantly about the last few.  The Gospel of Mark teaches us that God is indeed out to change the world, but not from the outside in.  Jesus says he has come to change us for the world – an inside-out change marked by death, humility, vulnerability and a self turned open to the world.  Jesus has come to open us up so that we might make the world better than it was four years ago.  Our Messiah, our Anointed One, the candidate we’ve expected for so long, will work from the inside out.  And he will start with the cross – for all of us. 
The best interpretation of what Jesus says here, in my mind, comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “[The cross] is laid on every Christian. …The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life.  It stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ.  [Every call of Christ leads into death.][1]  Whether we, like the first disciples, must leave house and vocation to follow him, or whether, with Luther, we leave the monastery for a secular vocation, in both cases the same death awaits us, namely, death in Jesus Christ, the death of our old self caused by the call of Jesus.”[2]  This is how it works to be a Christian.  Jesus never says, “Vote for me and I’ll put a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”  Jesus does say, “Take up your cross, deny yourself and follow me.”  In other words, stop worrying about whether you’re better off than you were four years ago, because you’re not.  You’re the same sinner you were then, and the same sinner you will be four years from now.  I didn’t come to make you better – I came to make you mine
            Do you know why we gather here this morning?  Do you know why we sing, why we pray, why we read and listen and speak?  Because our captivity to sin makes us turn in on ourselves without being regularly opened up by Jesus.  We live in a world that operates under the question of “What have you done for me lately?”  In a world like this, we need opening up.  We need a Messiah who changes us from the inside out.  We need to be reminded the cross is how God claims us and how we follow.  Dr. Don Juel said “Taking up your cross should be seen less as a project than as the character of discipleship.  We follow because we trust that God will complete what [God] has begun at our baptism…and if our vocation is to care for the neighbor, Luther insisted, we will not need to seek out suffering.  It will come routinely, as any parent will attest…Following Jesus will not involve a cross of our choosing – and it promises deliverance that is likewise not the result of any grand project.”
            We gather to be opened up together because this way of following Jesus is hard on our own.  We gather together to confess, together, that we’re sinners in need of forgiveness.  We gather together because, on our own, we turn in on ourselves and forget there’s other people under the cross with us, doing our best to follow Jesus. 
            In this homestretch of election season, it’s easy to get swept up thinking your candidate is the one who can make things better than they were.  Maybe there’s some truth to it, but only in a limited sense and only for a limited time.  As the psalmist reminded us last week, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.  When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.”  That goes for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.  That goes for Ron Paul and Hillary Clinton.  That goes for Terry Branstad and Chet Culver, Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley, Christie Vilsack and Steve King and every candidate of every party in every state that has ever existed.  Their work is important - laudable - inspirational, but it has its limits.  Not a one of them is going to save the world – that contest has already taken place. God’s “anointed One” was a figure of great political and cultural power – and Jesus continues to challenge culture and politics even after his crucifixion and resurrection.  God’s victory through the “Messiah” was and continues to be marked by the triumphant rise of a free people who are no longer prisoners to tyranny – Jesus defeated the tyranny of our sinfulness, not the tyranny of governments.  And our Lord, who emerged victorious from that battle, is still at work, changing the world from the inside out through sinners like you and me.  Take up your cross, citizens of God’s kingdom.  Be opened to the world around you, and make it a better place.  God be with you all.  Amen.

[1] This is an alternate translation offered in the footnotes of this text.  The original German text reads “Jeder Ruf Christi fährt in den Tod.”
[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich.  Discipleship. © XXXX by Augsburg Fortress Press.  p. XX
[3] Juel, Donald.  Word & World, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Summer 1994.  © Word & World, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.  p. 354

11 September 2012

After Eleven Years: Nothing Has Changed / Everything Is Different

Eleven years ago this morning I drove from Titusville, FL to a church in some other town in the Space Coast Conference for our monthly Conference gathering, my first as an intern at Trinity Lutheran Church in Titusville and Sunrise Lutheran Church in Port St. John.  As we sat in the meeting, the senior pastor was called away around 10:00, and when he returned his face was white.  "Two planes hit the World Trade Center this morning," he said.  "I think we'd better get back home to our people."

In the blink of an eye, our world became different.  Families were torn apart by loss and grief.  We began to question everything.  That night, at a hastily arranged prayer service, Kris, my supervisor, said, "Today I'm ashamed to call myself a human being."  It remains one of the most profound sermons I've ever heard - an outpouring of grief and horror at what we do to ourselves, and at the same time, a desperate plea for God's grace and mercy to cover us all.

These eleven years have been hard years for most of us.  The obvious wounds are slow to heal:  those who lost friends and family in the attacks or in the wars we started in response.  The world seems a more dangerous place these days, as though every advance in communication and technology quickly becomes an avenue for violence and destruction.  My own litany of hard times includes divorce, death(s) and disillusionment after disillusionment.  One broken marriage, grandmothers and mentors gone to their rest, bitter church struggles and scraping by fueled by coffee and a prayer.

Maybe your story is similar. (Maybe I've been the one disappointing YOU - if so, please know I'm sorry, and I'm trying to do better).  Maybe you're like me tonight; reflecting on how the world has changed, and in so many ways for the worse.  If so, let me share another thought with you: the good has held on also, and the God who has created this world has not abandoned us to its tempest just yet.

I shudder to think of how different I was on 10 September 2001 - and how little of it I would trade for the wisdom I've gained through all the hard times since then.  I'm a better husband, better father, better son, better brother, better pastor.  Maybe it's just maturity, but it feels like more than that.  It feels like God has continued to mold and shape me, even in the many, many times I though God wasn't listening or acting at all.

Marty Haugen wrote O God, Why Are You Silent?, a new set of lyrics to Bach's Passion Chorale, rooted in the pain of these days.  For me, the final stanza is the clincher:
May pain draw forth compassion, let wisdom rise from loss;
oh, take my heart and fashion the image of your cross;
then, may I know your healing, through healing that I share,
your grace and love revealing your tenderness and care.
This morning I drove from Story City, Iowa to Bergen Lutheran Church in Roland for a gathering of the Riverside Conference clergy and lay leaders, my first as pastor of St. Petri Lutheran Church in Story City.  I am not the man I was eleven years ago this morning.  The world has changed, also.  But we're still gathering as God's people, still maturing, still growing in wisdom, and most of all, still being fashioned into the image of Christ crucified.  God who was and who is and who will be, bless us all.

22 August 2012

Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost - "Sing a Better Song"

Preaching Text:  Ephesians 5.6-20

          I’d like to start this morning by doing something of a recap of where we’ve been these last five weeks in Ephesians, and not just for those of you who’ve had to miss a Sunday or two because of a wedding or vacation or whatever.  This has to do with the structure of this letter and what’s going on in it – the letter to the Ephesians is carefully constructed, built with definite intent to emphasize certain aspects of this church’s life together and what that says about the God who has made them one.  A review, then, of what we’ve seen and heard.
            In Ephesians 1 we talked about adoption, about what it means to be a people of God grafted onto the tree that was the Israelites from centuries ago.  We talked about what it would have been like to be a house church gathering to read a letter from our founding pastor, and how things would have been so very different in a culture where our faith in Jesus might have literally been dangerous for us and for our families. 
            In Ephesians 2 we talked about being a family of faith, bound together by blood – the blood of Jesus makes us one.  Both Kristin and I, when we preached on this chapter, lifted up the ELCA Youth Gathering as an example of how big and colorful this family of faith really is.  It’s much more than just our small gathering here in Story City on Sunday mornings: we are part of an international family that lives together in faith seven days a week.  Remember, we’re gumbo:  everyone belongs and everyone adds their own special flavor to the mix.  I was going to say we’re a potluck dinner, because I love potluck dinners, but that’s not good enough, really:  you can pick and choose what you like at a potluck, and that’s not what God is up to here.  God’s making gumbo:  it all goes in the pot together, and you can’t pick and choose what you like in this family of faith!
            In Ephesians 3 we talked about unlearning what we have learned about faith and life and how it all fits together.  I got to talk about Star Wars, which always makes me happy, but more importantly, Ephesians 3 reminds us that it is God who has triumphed over evil – the church gathers to celebrate that triumph.  We are not called to galaxies far, far away to battle the forces of darkness on God’s behalf.  God has already won the battle: we are called to lay down our lightsabers, to trust in God and live humbly and peacefully as God’s people after the war has been won.
            Last week, as we looked at Ephesians 4, we talked about the Olympics and what it means to be part of a global community of faith.  If you remember, the Olympics celebrates the best of what we hope to achieve, but at its best it is NOT about defeating your opponent.  Rather, we looked at those Olympic moments that celebrate the vitality, creativity and spirit we all share as members of the human race, gathered together in a gigantic, colorful community where old boundaries, divisions and hatreds can begin to be broken down.  For us, the church gathered, it is Christ who makes us one, who calls us all together to proclaim his victory over sin and death, and it happens every week in churches all over the world.
            This is where we’ve been in this letter to the church in Ephesus.  Here’s why it matters:  if you start with our reading from this morning, without everything that comes before it, you could easily turn this wonderful letter of love and adoption into a harsh demand for self-righteousness and exclusion.  It’s important to put the emphAHsis on the right sylLAble, as my choir director used to say – so we remind ourselves where we’ve been before we hear our reading this morning. 
This picture’s been floating around on Facebook this week.  (BONHOEFFER PIC)  As you all get to know me better as your pastor, you’ll come to hear a LOT about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but that’s not why this picture is important this morning.  It’s important because it illustrates both the danger and the opportunity present in our following of our Lord Jesus Christ.  If we pay too much attention to avoiding sin and evil, life becomes a never-ending game of Pac-Man:  make one wrong move and it’s all over.  One of my favorite illustrations of this comes from Father Robert Farrar Capon:
“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.  It has spent so much time inculcating in us fear of making mistakes that it has made us like ill-taught piano students: we play our pieces, 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.  The church…has been so afraid we will lose sight of the laws of our nature that it has 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.
”..there is one thing we will need from here on out: to live not in fear of mistakes but in the knowledge that no mistake can hold a candle to the love that draws us home.  My repentance, accordingly, is not so much for my failings but for the two-bit attitude toward them by which I made them more sovereign than grace.  Grace—the imperative to hear the music, not just listen for errors—makes all infirmities occasions of glory.”[1]
Well and good, Father Capon – but how do we get there from Ephesians 5?  How do we play the song right when the days are evil?  I sat over at the parsonage all afternoon on Friday, trying to figure out how I was going to get here.  If we’re not careful, we turn into exactly what Father Capon and Dr. Bonhoeffer warned us against:  the piano teacher with the ruler in her hand, ready to smack the knuckles of anyone who steps out of line.  That’s not living – that’s avoiding. 
            Thankfully, preachers never venture into the text alone, particularly if they can use the internet.  Every week I listen to a podcast from Luther Seminary called Sermon Brainwave, and when I’d finally had enough Friday afternoon, I went into the kitchen, queued up the podcast again and started making potato salad.  Finally, one sentence by Dr. Rolf Jacobsen brought it home for me:  “Sing a better song.”  Boom.  Sermon done.
            Sing a better song.  “Make the most of your time, for the days are evil.”  If we are going to live well as followers of Jesus Christ together, then it isn’t enough to just march through our lives saying, “Don’t do that.”  Wisdom does not come to those raised in a vacuum – wisdom comes from a life lived in the world.  Sing a better song.  It’s not enough for the church to become the disapproving nanny who traps her charges in their rooms and won’t let them out until they’ve eaten all their brussel sprouts – we are called to invite the world into something better than what they already know.  Sing a better song – and as we sing, teach the world to join in the song.
            This is why a recap of this letter to the Ephesians is so important:  we need to remember to keep things in order so we can sing with joy and without fear.  This letter starts with what God has done, and then moves to living with wisdom.  Those of us who’ve been in the church for a while often forget that it is God who brings us here, God who makes us one, God who calls us to sing with love.  Sing a better song.  Life in the darkness of sin and evil is not what we’re created for – but the world will not know it if all we do is point out what’s wrong.  Sing a better song.  God has made us one in Christ, adopted us into the great chorus of the saints.  We belong.  No evil can harm us.  No sin can take us out of God’s hands.  Even death itself cannot separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.  Sing a better song.  Sing about what you love, about what God has done for you, about what God is up to in the world.  The very breath you breathe is a gift from God:  use it to make a joyful noise in thankfulness for what God has given you.  Sing a better song, about the family of faith God has brought together here, about the gumbo that is our church, and give thanks, people of God:  the very song you sing comes from God’s gracious love for you.  Amen.

[1] Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law and the Outrage of Grace, p. 149

29 July 2012

Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost: "Unlearn What You Have Learned"

"For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen." Ephesians 3.14-21

I'm a child of the 70s and 80s. I was raised on Star Wars as much as I was raised on Sesame Street, summer baseball and peanut butter & jelly sandwiches. I had the action figures (don't you EVER call them dolls!). I was Darth Vader for Halloween at least once that I can remember. My grandfather's Gleaner combine made for a pretty cool Millenium Falcon more than once. And if all that Star Wars taught me one thing, it was this: the "Force" is the power that connects all life, but it is also a tool to be wielded by good Jedi and evil Sith alike. Luke Skywalker stands on the edge of a knife: either he'll follow Yoda and Ben Kenobi to the light side of the Force and become a Jedi, or he'll fall to the dark side like his father. There is no middle ground, and it is all up to Luke.

One of the great scenes in all of cinema (at least, in MY mind) is in the middle of the movie The Empire Strikes Back. Luke Skywalker lands on the swamp planet Dagobah and mistakes the Jedi Master Yoda for a common swamp rat. As Luke sits and complains, loudly, about wasting his time eating soup when he could be looking for the great warrior he was expecting, Yoda looks to the heavens and says, "I cannot teach him. The boy has no patience." Later he says, "You must unlearn what you have learned."

I've had some unlearning of my own to do as a result of everything George Lucas created in those glorious years of my childhood. We all want life to be as dark and light as the Force, where evil and good stand in stark contrast to each other. But it just doesn't work. The bad guys in our lives, such as they are, don't come in black capes and breathing masks. The disheartening truth is that most of us, even the folks we don't like very much, are quite often trying to be as good as we can be without screwing up too much or making life too uncomfortable.

The thing that I've REALLY had to unlearn, though, is this: the thing that connects us all, the power from which all life draws its life, is not a tool to be used for good or evil - it is much, much, much bigger than anything our minds can imagine. It is this power to whom the writer prays in Ephesians 3, but it is not a prayer for unlearning: it is, it seems, a prayer for death and life.

"For this reason I bow my knees before the Father," writes this unknown apostle. There's a definite statement being made here. Kneeling was not a mark of piety or a recommended position for prayer - most people prayed standing up in those times. Kneeling was a stance of submission, of death to self. You knelt before kings and lords and masters, humbling yourself and placing yourself in the hands of the one you addressed. In the New Testament, Jesus and Stephen are depicted as kneeling - just before they are killed. So when the writer of Ephesians writes that he is "kneeling in prayer" for the church in Ephesus, he's not just asking God to bless them; he's acknowledging his death that God may live through him. Any time we kneel to pray, we say the exact same thing - maybe we should kneel more often?

Kneeling in prayer - asking for glory. The apostle dies to himself that God might live more fully through him, and the apostle prays the same for his friends in Ephesus. Riches - of God's glory. Inner strength - with power through the Spirit. Faithful hearts - in which Christ dwells, rooting and grounding his servants in love. Power - to comprehend the unknowable love of Christ. These things do not come to those for whom God is a tool - these things come to those for whom God is everything. There is no room for anything but God in this prayer - so the author kneels in prayer and places his life and the life of his readers in the hands of the living God.

This is not a prayer for his readers to overcome evil, to dare great things, to leave the dusty sands of Tatooine behind and join the Rebel Alliance in their fight against the evil Galactic Empire. There's no lightsaber waiting at the end of the prayer, no blaster pistol, no X-Wing. It's actually the exact opposite: this is a prayer for emptiness and death to the dreams we might dream so that the fullness of God's dream might be realized in us. How that dream gets realized comes later - what the author is about here is one thing: the glory of God made manifest in the ordinary lives of the people gathered to hear this letter. And even though we don't live in Ephesus, the point of the letter still stands: the prayer goes out for all of us, that we might be filled to overflowing with the fulness of God so that God's glory might shine through us.

Here comes our unlearning: we need to unlearn what we've taught ourselves about life, faith and the God who gives us both. You see what we believe about life and faith all over the place if you know how to look for it. Drive down any highway in Iowa and you'll eventually come across billboards that paint clear pictures of good and evil in the eyes of those who put the signs up. Chick-Fil-A announces they've taken a political stand, and the CEO of amazon.com answers with one of his own. We look for churches that offer the programs and staff that meet our expectations of what faith should be.

This is not a new development. Way back in the days of the Reformation, it is rumored that even as he was translating scripture into the language of the people, Martin Luther said "individual interpretation of the Bible allows each man to carve his own path to hell." Simply put, faithful Christian life does not begin with what we do with what God has given us: faithful Christian life begins when God puts us to death in our sins so that we can be raised again in love. There is a time and a place to talk about the moral considerations of the day - but that is a secondary thing. The first thing is this: God. Before all things: God. Within all things: God. Above all things: God. The maker of all things: God. The redeemer of all things: God. The sustainer of all things: God.

So it's time to unlearn what it means to be a member of this family of faith. Dr. Pheme Perkins writes, "Ephesians does recognize the existence of evil forces in the cosmos that are defeated by God. (2.2 6.12) The existence of the church serves as evidence of God's power over evil. The teaching of individuals in the church is not a contest against mythological powers." (The New Interpreter's Bible: Ephesians, (c) 2000 by Abingdon Press, Nashvilli. P. 410) We're not playing at Star Wars here. You are not the Jedi, engaged in a centuries-long battle against the forces of evil. That co-worker you can't stand doesn't wear a black cape and carry a red lightsaber. Whatever your political outlook may be, rest assured: the other party's candidate is not Emperor Palpatine. This kind of thinking ought to serve as a warning for us: Anne Lamott says “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Time to listen to the author of the letter to the Ephesians again, to hear this message: we are here because of and for the glory of God - and if this isn't the first thing, everything else is nothing. All that we are - all that we have - all that was, is and ever will be comes from the gracious, loving, live-giving hand of God. Once we've unlearned what we have learned, been brought to death and then to new life in Jesus, the only thing left to do is sing praises. Amen.

22 July 2012

Sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost - "A Family of Faith"

Preaching Text:

Ephesians 2:11-22 11So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

It's been a great week to be a member of the ELCA, particularly if you're at all familiar with social media like Twitter and Facebook. The nine kids we blessed last Sunday are now coming home from New Orleans, where they've been, frankly, a disrupting, overwhelming presence all week. Kristin's going to take this time next week to tell you more about their experience. I'm going to take this time together to set up what she'll be talking about next week. I think. :-)

The theme for this gathering is "Citizens with the Saints," which you'll recognize from the Ephesians reading for today. I'm sure that's not a coincidence. It works for New Orleans, not just as an homage to the football team, but to the long religious history of the city and its people. Besides, if we listen closely to Ephesians, we see that the writer is beginning to re-define what it means to be a saint.

The point the writer is making is obvious: the Gentiles in Ephesus who were once cut off from the family of God have been adopted, brought in, made members of the household with all its rights and responsibilities. Quite an argument being made here. A new reality was beginning to reveal itself in the church of that day. The outcasts have been brought into the fold. The aliens have been made part of the family.

One of the reasons I love the week of the ELCA National Youth Gathering is you get to see the wide variety of people who make up our church. You see people like Nadia Bolz-Weber, a tall, blunt, tattooed recovering alcoholic who might be leading one of the most interesting urban worship centers in our church. You see Mark Hanson, our Presiding Bishop, who Paul might describe as "a Lutheran among Lutherans," trying out his new Twitter account with 38,000 kids watching his every move. Kids from Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas, which still boast the densest Lutherans in the country, meet Lutherans from California, Florida, Mississippi, New York, Washington and places unknown. Lutherans who look, speak and act exactly like any kid you'd see on the street in Story City, and Lutherans who would stand out as much here as any of us would if we visited them where they live. This year, the ever-growing presence of social media means you can watch it happen instead of waiting to hear about it when our kids get home. It shows us, again, what a big family we really are.

But you knew that already, didn't you. You'd just forgotten it because, let's face it, it's easy to let our vision stay small in one parish in one town in the center of the central U.S. Besides that, we've got enough to deal with in our own family of faith here, don't we? That's the problem with families, isn't it? From the outside, from the wide perspective, it's easy to see how we all belong to each other. We're tall, or short; blondes or redheads. We can sing, or dance, or play sports. When we get together for those big family events, like weddings or baptisms or anniversaries, graduations, funerals, we all laugh and check in with each other and do our best to get along well. But get inside our families, to where the secrets lie, and do you know what? We've got an awful lot of stuff to deal with - every last one of us. Maybe Dad's got a temper that needs work, or Mom is taking out her job frustrations on her kids. It could be kids getting bad grades, or a grandparent falling under the power of Alzheimer's. Whatever it is, it's hard to see those things when we're getting together for big family stuff. Coming together with widespread family is usually a cause for celebration: in those moments, being together overwhelms the struggles and sins that dog us when we're back home.

 How would you define a "good" family? Healthy marriage? Good kids? Lots of laughter and love? I think those things are important, but I would argue that they're byproducts of something much more important: loving faithfulness. In the case of our real-life families, I would argue that the trust and peace that comes with knowing you are loved and will be loved no matter what makes everything else possible. I would also argue that the one thing all families have in common is this: we all try to love each other as best as we can, and we all find a lot of ways to fall short.

What happened in New Orleans this week was a big family get-together. But here at St. Petri, we live at home. We are a family of faith. We know the ways we've fallen short of being a good family. We know we've tried, and failed, and tried again. We are a family of faith. Some of us have been here for generations. Some of us are, as Ephesians says, adopted into this family and now members of the household. We are a family of faith. That means we're in the thick of things. We know what's in the closets (for the most part). And, I believe, we are called to the same loving faithfulness with each other as we are in our biological and sociological families at home. We are called to love and be loved no matter what. We are a family of faith.

What got me thinking along these lines was something Professor Sally Brown of Princeton University wrote about this reading from Ephesians: "The new household of God is not a purely spiritual reality that we visit briefly on Sundays -- a weekly "time out" in which we pretend peace is possible by sitting next to people we scrupulously avoid the rest of the time. The church is the daring practice of a new politics -- a different kind of power, the self-outpoured, boundary-crossing power of Christ's cross. We trust this power, letting it undermine every wall, until we are "built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God" (verse 22)."

Most of our families are bound together by blood: we are parents and children and brothers and sisters and cousins and uncles and aunts and grandparents because we share the same bloodline. Folks, this family of faith is also bound together by blood, but it isn't our blood that does it. "But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. Jesus has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity..."

Jesus himself is our peace and the bond that makes us a family of faith. Not our constitution or our building. Not the organ or the praise band. Not the pastor and not the Council president. Not VBS, or quilters, or the choir, or confirmation. We aren't a family of faith because we've got people with tattoos sitting next to people who don't, although that's a good sign. We aren't a family of faith because we've welcomed new members and put their gifts to good use, although that's a good sign, too. We are a family of faith because Jesus has made us a family of faith.

If you've been following the news from New Orleans this week, you know that the gathering going on in the LutherDome has been a pretty fantastic celebration of our family. But now all those kids are heading back home, coming back to their families of faith. They're coming home to the local family God has planted where they live, the family that is one in Christ and gathered by the Holy Spirit to proclaim God's abundant grace and love. They are the saints come marching in, and we are the citizens welcoming them home. Thanks be to God that we have this family of faith - and help us, good and gracious Lord, to love one another in our family as you have loved us. Amen.

04 June 2012

Sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday - "God Is Already Here"

Preaching Texts

            Hearers of God’s Word, grace and peace to you from God the Creator, Jesus Christ our Redeemer, and God the Holy Spirit, active here in our midst this morning.  Amen. 
            One of the names you’ll hear a lot from me over the next few years is Larry Meyer.  Larry was my campus pastor, mentor and friend.  He died after a long battle with esophageal cancer in 2005.  I graduated from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln in 1998, but instead of enrolling in seminary straightaway, I decided to take a year off and work.  Larry knew my plans and made some of his own – when the seminary which had supplied our campus ministry with interns came up short for the coming year, Larry asked me to come on staff and work full time for campus ministry until I enrolled in seminary.
            One of the first things Larry asked me to do was write a fundraising letter to parents, friends, alumni and other supporters.  I don’t remember much of what I wrote, except for one sentence.  Originally it was something to the tune of “you are helping us bring Jesus to campus.”  When Larry and I sat down to go over it, he said, “We aren’t bringing Jesus to campus.  God is already here.  Our work is to find where God is already at work.” 
            Today is Trinity Sunday.  It is, according to theologian Mary Anderson, “the only Sunday that asks us to ponder a teaching of the church instead of a teaching of Jesus.”  You won’t find an explicit reference to the Trinity in the Bible, at least not in any way that establishes Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a doctrinal, dogmatic way.  Trinity is not God’s thing for us – it’s our thing for God.  In other words, just like Larry said, God is already here.  Trinity is just the way we try to wrap our heads around who God is and how God is already at work. 
            Trinity Sunday is not something God needs.  God does not descend from on high with an order: “Every year thou shalt devote one Sunday to the pondering of trinitarian theology.”  Honestly, I think God couldn’t care less about whether or not we have an intellectual grasp of what “the Trinity” means, because claiming you’ve got God figured out if you can wrap your head around the Trinity is like claiming you’ve seen the whole ocean once you’ve scooped up some seawater in a glass.  It might seem like a silly distinction, but it’s important: God is beyond our comprehension.  God is bigger than anything we can conceptualize.  In an age where instant communication across the globe is possible, where we’ve split the atom and sequenced DNA, we tend to think of God as just one more piece of information to be processed, understood and tucked away for when we need it.  If we’re not careful, we can turn God into just another being, just one more person we have to keep satisfied as we go our way through this life.  This will not do at all.  The great 20th century theologian Paul Tillich said,
“God does not exist. [God] is being itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny [God]…We can no longer speak of God easily to anybody, because he will immediately question: “Does God exist?” Now the very asking of that question signifies that the symbols of God have become meaningless. For God, in the question, has become one of the innumerable objects in time and space which may or may not exist. And this is not the meaning of God at all.”[1]
Spend too much time thinking intellectually about theology, about the Trinity, about the concept of God, and you wind up losing the wonder of the experience of God.  It gets banal.  Ritual for its own sake.  It might look something like this:

            Compare this ‘prayer’ with what Dr. Rolf Jacobson has to say about the Isaiah.  How many of you have always thought of the angels song as heavenly, a beautiful hymn to a God they love?  Not Dr. Jacobson.  He reads it far differently.  He says the angels are crying out in agony and ecstasy, delirious and terrified at being so close to God’s unmediated holiness.  The hem of God’s robe fills the temple.  The great doors shudder at the thunder of God’s voice.  Smoke and fire fill the air.  The Source of all that is, was, and ever will be is here, the Being who knows you down to the very first sub-atomic particle – you stand exposed before Being itself.  Would you not also cry out, “Woe is me!”
            So, in the face of this, our insistence on a Trinity Sunday seems trite at best, utterly banal at worst.  Except that it isn’t trite at all.  Trinity matters because that same Being in the throne room has revealed itself to us through a Trinitarian means.  Two thousand years ago, the Being whose robe filled the temple took on flesh and bone and came to dwell among us in Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus walked into the darkness where we hide from the holiness of God the Creator, bearing His holy light in humility and love.  Jesus of Nazareth is Emmanu-el, “God-with-us,” and in this way God loves the world and reveals himself to us.  And not only this, but our very belief in this same Jesus of Nazareth comes through the work of God the Holy Spirit, the one under whose power we can actually call ourselves children of God.  We Lutherans have a particular love for the Trinity because without the work of the Holy Spirit, we cannot come to faith at all:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with [Its] gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as [It} calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian Church [the Spirit] forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.[2]
You are not here by coincidence.  God has been at work all along; calling, gathering, enlightening and sanctifying here, now, in this place, for this time.  The Trinity matters here and now – not as some doctrinal proposition or theological checklist to be marked off so you can go to heaven when you die, but for this day and life that you’ve been given.  The gospel reading for this morning tells us that God is already at work here:
Nicodemus said, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God."  3Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."
Nicodemus saw it, even though he didn’t understand it.  He knew God was working through Jesus, and Jesus confirmed what Nicodemus saw – “You wouldn’t have seen the kingdom of God at work in me without God showing it to you, Nicodemus.”  The Spirit shines the spotlight on Jesus, “God-with-us” who bears all the holiness of Existence itself in his human flesh and bone.  Trinity is how we understand that God is already here.  Our work is to reveal what God is doing in our world. 
            My prayer as we start this journey together is that we might always be looking for ways God is already at work.  It will mean seeing things in a new way, breaking free of what we think God ought to be doing so we can see if that’s really what God is doing.  God is already here.  The Creator continues to make all things new.  Jesus our Redeemer fills the world with his love and mercy.  The Spirit moves and blows the Breath of Life within us, creating faith where there was none before.  God is already here.  Let’s begin by looking for what God is doing in our world, together, and may the peace of God, which truly surpasses all our human understanding, keep our hearts and minds, this day and always.  Amen.

[1] Armstrong, Karen (2009-09-11). The Case for God (p. 282). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

01 June 2012

Friday Five: Summer Edition

In my neck of the woods folks who have children of a certain age are doing a dead sprint through end of school year activities: piano recitals, baseball tournaments, travel soccer games, gymnastics meets, dance recitals, graduations, band concerts, field trips and end-of-the year fill in the blank.

30 May 2012

When Did You Realize You Were Lutheran?

I enrolled at Luther Seminary in August 1999.  I'd love to say that, upon discerning my call to ministry, I was a Lutheran through and through.  I certainly thought of myself as Lutheran.  I was born and raised in this tradition.  My ancestors come from Sweden and Germany, staunch Lutherans all (even if my parents' marriage was "mixed" between Augustana and Missouri Synod families).  I planned to follow my vocational calling in the ELCA, and aside from briefly investigating the groups breaking out after the passage of Called to Common Mission, I've never wavered from that plan.  But these things meant I was a person of faith by circumstance, not conviction.  That came later.

In my classes with Jim Nestingen and Gerhard Forde, I began to understand what it meant to be Lutheran by conviction.  Upon reading Forde's article "Caught in the Act," and then his book On Being a Theologian of the Cross, a whole new theological world was opened to me.  It was in those months of study in spring 2000 that I became Lutheran by conviction.  I realized that not only was I Lutheran because my parents had raised me that way, but the teachings of our church and the theological viewpoints of Luther, Melanchthon and other reformers made sense to me.  When I really started to dig into Lutheran theology, I discovered an interpretation of God's creation and our place in it that seemed to fit what I saw all around me.  This is how and when I realized I had been fortunate enough to be raised in the faith tradition that closely reflected the way the Spirit was showing me the world as it was.  I felt swept up into an understanding of faith and life that included
  • Our utter dependence on God for life and faith.  
  • A fresh understanding of "I believe I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in my Lord Jesus Christ or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me with the gospel, enlightened me with its gifts, sanctifies and keeps me in the Christian faith..."  
  • When God says "You shall have no other gods before me," it's as much a promise and statement of fact as it is a demand (possibly more promise than demand).
  • We live in dialectical tension all of our lives:
    • simultaneously sinners and saints
    • God's kingdom already/not yet here
    • Christian freedom, in which we are perfectly free lords of all, subject to none/perfectly dutiful slaves of all, subject to all
    • being saved by grace by faith, apart from works of the law / faith without works not being true faith
  • Baptism drowning the old sinner in us, putting us to death in our sins, that God might raise a new saint to live and serve daily in Christ's name
This is the Lutheranism with which I fell in love in those heady years.  It is the way I continue to interpret the world God has created, the lens through which I see my life and the lives of the people I serve as pastor. It is more than a label, more than a construct or group.  It is, at its core, who I am.

This is not to say that everything fell into place in those times.  I still struggle with what this all means.  And there are a plethora of Lutheran lenses through which we can look at the world - within our own ELCA, we have some serious disagreements on a host of issues, to say nothing of the breaches between this branch of the Lutheran tree and other branches like the LCMS, WELS, LCMC, NALC and all the other bodies out there.

So I'll ask the same question of you:  when did you realize that "Lutheran" was more than the name on the sign outside your church building?  Who or what helped you realize that "Lutheran" made more sense than any other faith?  Or, are you still figuring out that part of your faith?  (Note:  this does not mean you're not welcome at any Lutheran church, particularly the one I happen to serve.  By all means, come with questions.  If you're not asking questions, you're not growing in your faith, either!)  If you're reading this from another faith perspective, when did that one start to make sense to you? 

We are all called to be proclaimers of the good news, by whatever means we have at our disposal.  But this means we're called to understand at least a little bit about what that good news is for us, where we are, in our own lives.  Take a moment and think about what it is that has made you the person of faith that you are - and share a bit about it if you will.  The better we are at telling our own stories, the better we will be able to see where God has been weaving us into the Story that is creation itself.

Blessings to you all,
Pastor Scott