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.