Thursday, November 9, 2017

Together in Hope

Lutherans and Catholics Together in Hope
Joint Reformation Worship Service
Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church, Fergus Falls, MN
November 5, 2017
Photo credit:  Matthew Zelie
In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Forty-four years ago, when I was a freshman in college, I took a course entitled “Religious Bodies in America.”

For a farm boy, having his first experience of city life…for someone reared in a conservative branch of Lutheranism…this class on “Religious Bodies in America was eye-opening, assumption-challenging, and horizon-expanding.

As I recall, that class was structured around discovering how those other religious bodies alldiffered from my branch of Lutheranism.

Indeed that’s how such classes in comparative religion have often been structured:  identify the differences in order to understand more clearly why “my” church is the one and only true church.

Well, my dear Catholic and Lutheran friends, a lot of water has gone over the dam since I took that class in 1973.  During these four decades relationships among Christian churches—and especially among Catholics and Lutherans, have experienced a sea-change in our understanding and our relationships.

We have received an ever-deepening awareness that—despite our differences—far more unites us than divides us.  

Let me suggest just three examples…

First, we are firmly united by our profound, shared focus on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.   The cross is crucially central in both of our churches.  We unabashedly keep our eyes on Jesus Christ--crucified and risen for the life of the world.

Second, we all “do church” in ways that reflect a deeply sacramental perspective.   We Lutherans and Catholics firmly believe that the incarnation—the Word of God taking on flesh in the child of Mary—drives all the ways God seeks to get through to us.   We are convinced that the finite truly bears the infinite—that God always comes to us garbed in water, bread, wine, syllables, beauty, song, and all the rest of the best of this good creation—thus delivering to us faith and forgiveness and a future without end.

Third, in our Catholic and Lutheran ways of peering out at God’s creation, we are forever being summoned into  globe-spanning mission, ministries that seek out everyone, and service that that refuses to deny God’s love to anyone fashioned in God’s image.  It is not a coincidence, therefore, that both Catholics and Lutherans are communions that are global in scope.  Nor should it surprise us one bit that our two faith families tend two of the most wide-reaching networks of social service agencies on the planet.

More, so much more unites us than divides us, my brothers and sisters.  And perhaps that’s why folks frequently mistake us for one another…especially why some of us Lutherans are often acknowledged and sometimes accused of being “too Catholic.”

Years ago, on a snowy Christmas Eve, I was out on the road late in the evening.   As I longed to be home with my family, I recall catching a Christmas Eve worship service on my car’s radio.  The worship was lovely, with music and a spoken Word that fed my faith.  As I made my way across southern Minnesota that Christmas Eve, I tried to guess what Lutheran church that was hosting this worship service….until finally the announcer interrupted the broadcast to thank us all for joining this broadcast of the midnight Mass from the great Abbey Church of St John’s University in Collegeville.

May that—and all the other times we Catholics and Lutherans are mistaken for one another—draw us into even closer communion, as we celebrate how God is revealing to us that what we share in Jesus Christ, in the sacramentality of life, and in our mission in the world, God is continually weaving us together as one.


In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

We Are God's House of Living Stones

First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Parkers Prairie, MN
October 29, 2017—Reformation Sunday
I Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-13 (Narrative Lectionary)

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

If I were to utter the word “church” what image would pop into your head first?

If I said “church,” your Pavlov’s-dog-reaction would be to imagine a building….perhaps the building that we’re in right now, or maybe the first church you belonged to, wherever that might be.

It’s entirely natural for us to hear the word “church” and immediately conjure up in our minds the image of a building.

And, frankly, that speaks volumes about us, our place in the world and our time in human history.  It is hard, if not impossible, to think “church” without picturing a building, a house, God’s house, to be specific.

In my time as bishop I have read scores of congregational histories, and almost without fail these records of local church history have emphasized two things:   the church buildings they erected and the pastors they called….as if those particular “markers” were the main things in the story of our churches.

But isn’t that what we’re taught growing up?   Didn’t our parents or whoever nurtured our faith—didn’t they say to us:  “Get up—get dressed--we’re going to God’s house this Sunday morning?”

I say “church,” you picture a building:  it’s the most natural, understandable reaction…

….even though we do know better!

For in the same breath that we teach our little ones to call this building “God’s house”—equating “church” with “building”--we also teach them songs that convey a different message….

….a message that goes like this: 

“The church is not a building;
the church is not a steeple;
the church is not a resting place;
the church is a people.

I am the church! You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus,
all around the world!
Yes, we're the church together!”[1]

Truth be told, there are competing, even conflicting messages we give our kids about the church….and this fact exposes a longer, deeper debate we find right in the Bible itself.  

There’s an argument, a back-and-forth debate right within the scriptures, about whether God wants, let along needs any sort of dwelling or building.   

In short:  how can God be “located”?

There are traces of that long debate right here in this morning’s lesson from the book of I Kings.   A transition has taken place within Israel’s royal family, the throne having passed from King David to his son, the newly crowned King Solomon, who immediately sets out to do something his famous father was not allowed to do:  “…  my father David could not build a house for the name of the Lord his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him, until the Lord put them under the soles of his feet.  But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side; there is neither adversary nor misfortune. So I intend to build a house for the name of the Lord my God….”

But was good King David forbidden to build a temple solely because he had too much “blood on his hands?”  

In the seventh chapter of II Samuel God himself offers a different answer to that question:  “Are you [David]  the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’” (II Samuel 7:4-7)

Here we encounter a God who is extremely reluctant to have any permanent structure, or temple, or “church building,” if you will.   

It’s as if God realizes—and he wants his people to realize—that a temple like the temples other ancient peoples built, would always be a mixed blessing.  Certainly, a Temple could provide a focal point, a point of contact between God and God’s people…..but it could also convey other, less flattering, less faithful realities.

A Temple, after all, could represent an attempt to “contain” God, to lock up God in a box, to put God at the beck and call of God’s people.

By erecting a temple where people could find God, Israel was simultaneously flirting with the possibility of trying to restrict God’s fierce, wild freedom to travel wherever his people might go, to constantly encounter them in all their meanderings—in the sheer dailiness of their lives—and to arrive at their destination always, always ahead of them.

In other words:  is our God a God who can be pinned down, hemmed in, put in his place?

Or is our God a “traveling God,” who always accompanies and guides his people on their pilgrimage through life?

In short, is the church a place or a people?
Centuries after King Solomon built Israel’s first Temple, in the midst of the Reformation of the church that Martin Luther started 500 years ago this week, the Great Reformer himself had this to say about the church:   “Thank God, [to-day] a child seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd.”[2]

In other words, while the church might be a building, it is always a people!

So what shall we make of this Old Testament story of Solomon’s building of the Temple?

I believe it reflects a heartfelt desire to honor God, to glorify God for all of God’s goodness.

The Temple would be a point of contact for people—both the people of Israel but also foreigners who would hear about the God of Israel—a location on earth to which people could turn and pray to God who fills all time and space.

One thing Solomon’s Temple could never be, though, was a “container” for God.   The people of Israel could never “contain” God or keep God under wraps in the Temple. 

God is too wild, too fierce, too free for anything like that.

Notice again what happened when Solomon’s temple was “open for business:”    “When the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.”  (vv. 10-11)

God may meet us in our holy places, to be sure, but God’s freedom can never be circumscribed by whatever walls or “boundaries” we erect.    God will always, always, always be bigger….wilder…and freer than any structures that we construct.

And there is powerfully good news in that fact, because even though we crave holy places where  God is accessible to us, holy places like this lovely church building...the temples we put up are never our final destination.   

Rather, I invite us to consider the buildings we call churches not so much as resting places or destinations as they are mission outposts, way-stations on our pilgrimage through life.

When all is said and done, it’s what happens in spaces like this that matters the most. 

It’s our gathering together, our baptizing, our remembering of our baptisms, our eating and drinking at the Lord’s table, our praying and pleading and praising, our hearing of the Word, our speaking with one another, our fellowshipping together, our planning and dreaming for mission and ministry in the world, it’s in all those things happening that God is made known and that God’s true church becomes visible---not in brick or mortar, but in lives transformed by the freedom, forgiveness and a new future through which God is always beckoning us forward toward the day when God in Christ will be our all in all.

Today we sing two great Reformation hymns.  
We’ve already sung A Mighty Fortress….which isn’t a hymn of praise for a building, mind you, but a poetic confession that God is our refuge, our sanctuary, our place of safety and nurture and sending….

And then, in a few moments, we will sing these words, which truly put this morning’s lesson in proper, faith-engendering, future-opening perspective:

“Christ builds a house of living stones:
We are his own habitation;
He fills our hearts, his humble thrones,
Granting us life and Salvation.
Where two or three will seek his face,
He in their midst will show his grace,
Blessings upon them bestowing.”[3]

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.






[1] http://www.pateys.nf.ca/cgi-bin/lyrics.pl?hymnnumber=475
[2] Smalcald Articles, Part Three, Article XII.
[3] Build on a Rock, ELW #652, stanza 3.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Danger Zone

Risky Business:  Always Reforming
NW MN Synod Theology for Ministry Conference
September 19, 2017/Fair Hills Resort, Detroit Lakes, MN
Matthew 20:1-16

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

“We are a modest people
And we never make a fuss
And it sure would be a better world
If they were all as modest as us.
We do not go for whooping it up,
Or a lot of yikkety-yak.
When we say hello, we avert our eyes
And we always sit in the back.
We sit in the pew where we always sit,
And we do not shout Amen.
And if anyone yells or waves their hands,
They’re not invited back again.
I’m a Lutheran, a Lutheran, it is my belief,
I am a Lutheran guy…. I’m a Lutheran ‘til I die.” 

These lines of doggerel come from a silly little song written by Garrison Keillor, entitled:  I’m a Lutheran.

To say that Lutherans are known for keeping a low profile in the world would be an understatement.   We avoid making a fuss about ourselves.   We’re little known outside our tribe—we don’t exactly dominate the worlds of entertainment, industry or politics.  No Lutheran has ever been elected president of the United States--yet.  

Even when we Lutherans did find ourselves in the spotlight  for a season, thanks to the popular success of Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion show on public radio, what image of Lutherans was projected?  

As oxymoronic as it sounds, we became famous for our modesty (or, as former Concordia College president Pam Jolicoeur liked to say, militant modesty )!  Keillor’s weekly depictions of Lutherans as taciturn, bland purveyors of hotdishes laced with cream of mushroom soup soon produced predictable giggles from audience members whenever Keillor merely uttered the word “Lutheran!”

Although I have enjoyed such humor as much as anyone, I have come to the conclusion that the storyteller from Lake Wobegon has done us no favors.  His homespun monologues have portrayed us as rather inconsequential folks, always hanging back, refusing to make a fuss over ourselves and, come to think of it, refusing to make a fuss over much of anything.

So then, why have we been talking about Risk-Taking Lutherans this year?  

Risk-Taking Lutherans.  Really?   “Are you ‘for true’?” as someone’s grandma might say…

Yes, there is such a thing as a risk-taking Lutheran, my friends.  In fact, they’re all over the place…dotting the pages of our history, if we keep our eyes open.  

Starting with old Brother Martin who lived most of his adult year with a price on his head, we come from a long line of rabble-rousers, gadflies and adventurers.

Because we scarcely remember their names, I’ve been writing some monthly columns about some of them this year, in  Northern Lights.   These consequential Lutherans are quite a bunch…with names like
Onesimos Nesib, an Ethiopian Lutheran whose pen was mightier than the sword
J.C.F. Heyer, a missionary who journeyed to India three times, the last time at age 77
Eivind Berggrav, who convinced 90% of the Lutheran pastors in Norway to resist the Nazis;
Norman Borlaug, who saved about a billion persons from starvation…
Leymah Gbowee, who mobilized strong women to insist on an end of the civil war in Liberia

As much as I appreciate recovering our history and telling such stories, there’s a pitfall in lifting up these notable Lutherans—namely, the impression that you have to be listed in Wikipedia to be considered a risk-taking Lutheran.

Which, of course, is not true….

Lord knows we have all sorts of everyday risk-taking Lutherans in our own congregations and communities….

…and what about us—pastors, deacons, SAMs and other ministers?   Aren’t we also risk-taking Lutherans?

You bet we are.  And I trust that we realize how risky it is simply to step into a pulpit.

Do you realize the kind of “danger zone” you enter each week, when you stand up in front of the Christian community to proclaim God’s Word in Christ?

Years ago I heard a guy chide some Lutheran pastors because he said that much of their preaching seemed like being “nibbled to death by a young duck.”

Comments like that nag at me when I’m preparing to preach….disturbing questions like:  “Did Jesus Christ have to die on a Cross so this sermon could be preached?”

But the one that really gets me is the challenge I heard articulated by former SD Synod Bishop Andrea DeGroot-Nesdahl who said:  “When you preach, be sure you write checks offering promises so huge only God’s bank account can cover them.”

None of us aspires to preaching that is inconsequential.  We aim to be risk-taking proclaimers of God’s radical grace and mercy.

But how does that happen?  

I think it’s rather obvious:  keep your eyes on, attune your ears to Jesus.

Take your cues from our Lord, who was always agitational in his proclamation…who was forever trying to get a rise out of his hearers.  Remember that Jesus uttered promises so audacious that they killed him for making them.

Just pay attention to the biblical text and keep your eyes glued to Jesus, and you won’t go wrong.

Many of us will preach this coming Sunday on one of our Lord’s most agitational parables, from Matthew 20, this story of the workers in the vineyard.

Here you have this wild, type-A vineyard owner…who’s having one of those bumper crop years, when the grapes all ripen –literally!--on the same day, so’s the harvest can’t wait a second longer….

So the boss keeps trotting back to the pool of day-laborers huddled in the marketplace.  He makes five—count them!--five trips to keep rounding up workers….from the early-bird-catches-the-worm crowd...to the slackers who showed up late and still hung over, still unemployed as the sun was sinking low in the sky.

The vineyard owner just keeps nabbing them, hustling them to his busy vineyard, promising each of them the customary daily wage.

Follow the arc of this masterful story and…you just know this vineyard owner is “up to something!”  

And sure enough, at day’s end, the boss stages a most peculiar method of handing out the payroll.  He has his workers line up from the last-hired down to the first-hired, and he insists that they be paid in precisely that order.

This vineyard owner WANTS to be provocative here….as the one-hour workers each get a full-day’s wage and all sorts of eyes bug out, especially the eyes of those who worked the whole day:   “Amazing!   If those slackers each get a full day’s wage, we all-day workers will receive even more.  Happy days are here again!”

But then (cue the sound of a giant balloon slowly deflating!), as that same daily wage is doled out to each of the workers, right down to the first-hired who started working at dawn—they now feel like chumps—chumps who’ve been cheated.  

Talk about currency deflation!

Or was it?   Each of the end-of-the-line crowd had agreed--had they not?--to work all day for a standard day’s wage?   Wasn’t that the deal?

But we’re always noticing, aren’t we?   We’re always situating ourselves in relation to others—and it’s those others and how they get treated that rankle us here.  

When the Vineyard Owner catches wind of the grumbling in the ranks, he just makes matters worse.   He gets in the face of the grumblers--reminding them that he did the hiring, he promised the fair wage, and he would pay them with his money—money he could do with exactly as he pleased, even if that meant being lavishly, extravagantly, breaking-the-bank-generous with those last-hired.

What’s offensive here is the Vineyard Owner’s “in your face grace.”

It was parables like this one that got Jesus strung up.

When we preachers have the gumption to just let it fly as Jesus does here in Matthew 20—someone’s gonna get torqued off, somebody may stalk angrily out of the church and there will be those who refuse be embraced by the truth of it….

….at the same time that someone else will have a lightbulb going off in her head, and someone else will finally get it through his thick skull that this stuff is for real, and someone else will at last be saved!

My dear friends, risk-taking preachers of the law that lays us low, and the gospel that raises us up, God has entrusted to us a Word that snaps, crackles and pops with life and hope and the new creation in Jesus Christ.

It’s in the very nature of Christian preaching to be risk-taking to the max, always pressing the edges, forever leading us preachers to wonder:  “Can I really say this?  Can I actually push it this far?”

To which our Lord responds:  “Go for it!  Take my promises as far as you can, then get out of the way…for the risen Christ is afoot here, and the Gospel is having its way with us…making us and all things new.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

How To Destroy Your Enemies

NW MN Synod Women’s Organization Convention
September 15, 2017
Matthew 5:43-48
 
In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

If this sermon had a title it would be:  How to Destroy Your Enemies.

This title is inspired, in part, by one of my favorite stories about Abraham Lincoln.

Once, a close friend of Lincoln offered him a piece of unsolicited advice.   The man chided Lincoln for his tendency to forgive and seek peace with those who criticized or offended him.   “Rather than befriending your enemies,” the man declared to Lincoln, “you should use your political power to destroy them!”…

….to which Lincoln responded:   “But isn’t that exactly what I’m doing?  
Do I not destroy my enemies, when I make them my friends?”

This was more than just a pithy quotation from Abe Lincoln, though.

It was a nugget of wisdom that that he actually lived out.  Lincoln’s irenic spirit carried through into his approach to political leadership. 

Lincoln had to climb over all sorts of political rivals in order to win the presidency in the election of 1860.

But after he was elected, rather than shunning or shutting out his rivals, President Lincoln embraced them, even inviting a number of them to join his cabinet.   Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote about this in her 2005 best-selling book:  Team of Rivals:  The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

This was hardly a cynical ploy on Lincoln’s part.   It wasn’t just that he adhered to the old rule of thumb:   “keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer.”

No, something far deeper was at work here.

For Lincoln--though he may not have been conventionally religious in terms of church membership or worship attendance—Lincoln was thoroughly steeped in the scriptures.

In fact, I believe he understood the life and teaching of Jesus in a profound way.

In 1865, when the tide of the Civil War seemed to be turning in favor of the Union, Lincoln did not support a campaign of retribution against his secessionist enemies, but rather (in the iconic words of his Second Inaugural Address) he declared:  “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds…”

Don’t these words resonate with other, far older words, from the Sermon on the Mount, where our Lord Jesus says to us:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous….”?  (Matthew 5:43-45)

Jesus pioneered a new way to destroy one’s enemies—undoing those who are hostile to us by suing for their friendship.    Jesus set forth this novel, alternative approach to thwarting, eliminating, destroying our enemies.

But Jesus went beyond—far beyond—simply teaching this way of destroying enemies by making them one’s friends.

Jesus lived this way, literally to the climax of his life on earth, bearing a cruel Roman cross on his own bleeding back, allowing himself to be nailed to that cross by his enemies, hoisted to the sky for all to revile him in his shame and misery, dying for them, even as, with his last gasp, he pleaded:  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Years later, St Paul plumbed the depths of our Lord’s astounding, mercy-delivering work on the Cross, when he wrote in the fifth chapter of Romans:   “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.  For if while we were enemies,--let me read that again:  if while we were enemies--we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:6-10)

To put this a little differently, drawing upon the theme for your convention:  at the Cross Jesus killed the enemy, the sinful one inside of all of us….Jesus laid us all low, killed us with kindness, infinite, unfathomable kindness….amazing grace!

And that is the way of life, the pattern of being in the world, that Jesus now imprints upon us, writing it on our very hearts. 

If you want to destroy your enemies, here’s the Jesus way—kill them with kindness, overwhelm them with forgiving, seeking, saving love.   Destroy your enemies by making them your friends.

That sounds easy enough—doesn’t it?

No—nothing could be farther from the truth!

The Jesus’ way of destroying enemies is anything but easy.  Honestly, it’s the hardest thing imaginable.

Killing our enemies with kindness—what does that actually involve?
It involves venturing into behaviors that go against our very grain.

Killing with kindness means laying aside our natural inclination to fight fire with fire.

Killing with kindness begins with admitting that other persons’ lives are as valuable as our own.

Killing with kindness starts when we suspend judgment, set aside rancor, resist the urge to spew the hurtful words that are right on the tips of our tongues.

Killing with kindness entails absorbing our wrath—“stuffing” our natural inclination toward revenge.

Killing with kindness undoes us—even as it opens up a way to be restored to our enemies.

If we head down this path toward “the Jesus way” of destroying enemies, we best know where that path will take us.

It will take us to our death:  the death of the proud, self-righteous Old Adam or Old Eve who lives inside each of us.

Would you like to kill your foes with kindness, destroy your enemies the Jesus-way?

OK, then--just as long as you realize that doing so will be the death of you!

Last month, I was fortunate to be among the 900 pastors and deacons of our church who gathered in Atlanta for four days of learning, serving, and being together as rostered ministers of the ELCA.

It was a little like an ELCA youth gathering, only for adults!

In the lineup of outstanding speakers, the one who stood out most memorably was surely Dr. James Forbes retired minister at New York’s historic Riverside Church.

Dr. Forbes, a Holy-Spirited, African American preacher, did something I’d never witnessed before:  he “died” right there on the stage.

As he preached about death and resurrection, Dr. Forbes actually, slowly, “died”….went from standing up ramrod straight….to slowly descending to the floor beneath him, until he was lying there, flat on his back, as if he were dead.

But this dead man was still preaching to us…describing for us a death we all must die…. “not the graveyard kind of death” Dr. Forbes hastened to say….but the unique, unprecedented death we die in our baptismal union with Jesus Christ….a death that instead of spelling the end for us, actually opens up for us what comes next:   the resurrection from death, described by Dr. Forbes as God’s “reconstruction of the infrastructure of [our very] being.”

That’s what I want to convey to you this morning.

My dear friends, sisters in the faith, our Lord Jesus Christ died for us and for all sinners—but it was more than “a graveyard kind of death,” a death marked only by doom and gloom!

Our Lord Jesus Christ died for us and all sinners, to open up for us a new way of dying that leads to living the life we were always meant to live.   

That is what God has in store for us:   a death that ushers us into a Life in which death shall be no more.

When we try on the Jesus-way for size, when we entertain the possibility of destroying our enemies by making them our friends (as the dying Jesus did!)…well then, God has something to work with!

God gets in the act and graciously, amazingly “reconstructs the infrastructure of our being.”

God raises us up to the life we were always intended to live, a life in which it starts to become second nature to us, to live kindly, graciously, forgivingly, mercifully…a brand new life that reveals who we really are:  spitting images of “our Father in heaven…[who] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”


In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Overflowing Fountain of Forgiveness

Messiah Lutheran Church, Fargo, ND
Pentecost 15/September 17, 2017
Matthew 18:21-35

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

So, what’s so special about the number 77 in this morning’s gospel lesson?

Here, Peter asks Jesus a very good question:  “If another member of church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”

Then, like an eager-beaver, impress-the-teacher student, sitting in the front row of a classroom, straining to be noticed….Peter suggests an answer to his own question.   “Should I forgive someone ‘as many as seven times?’”
It may not be readily apparent to us in the 21st century, but Peter was being pretty generous here….  

..because the great rabbis of Peter’s day taught that Jews owed one another three gestures of forgiveness.

But Peter had been hanging around Jesus long enough to suspect that Jesus would want to raise that number--so Peter doubles the rabbis’ “three” and adds one more for good measure.

Seven!   Is seven the number of times I should forgive someone who does me wrong?

Though Peter comes off like a neophyte seeking to impress his teacher…the teacher quickly deflates Peter’s ego, by upping the ante elevenfold!

“Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times” (Some ancient manuscripts of Matthew’s gospel substitute:  seventy times seven).

Wow!   Peter sure missed that one by a country mile.   Forgiving someone seven times—really quite a feat, when you think about it—but it doesn’t even come close to what Jesus was angling for here.  Jesus multiplies Peter’s seven by eleven—amazing!

So I ask you, what’s so special about the number 77?  

We could, I suppose, come up with all sorts of answers, most of them having to do with seven being the perfect number in Jewish thinking…

…but I really doubt that this particular number—77--matters all that much.  It’s not a password or a PIN number or an access code to deep mysteries.

I think Jesus hit upon 77 as the number of times we need to forgive someone, because if you actually try to do that—to forgive someone exactly 77 times--sooner or later you will lose track…you’ll forget “the count.”

And when that happens, you’re probably going to chuck it all and stop bothering to keep score at all.

Then you’ll understand that the number “77” is a placeholder for “countless.”

“If another member of church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Peter asks.

And Jesus, in effect, replies:  “forgive count-lessly….forgive so many times you lose track of the score….forgive as God forgives….anything less than that will never do!”

In this manner Jesus shifts the conversation away from math and toward the very essence of forgiveness.   And as that happens we hit pay-dirt, because at its core, the biblical notion of forgiveness has to do with freedom.  Forgiveness is about setting someone free, and, in the process, being set free yourself!

In the Bible, you see, the root-word for “forgiveness” is closely related to the word for untying a knot.  

When was the last time you were mired in frustration, stuck dead in your tracks, trying to untangle a pesky knot in a shoelace, a power-cord, or a rope?  

Whenever that happens, time stands still.  Everything grinds to a halt until that pesky knot is undone.  

Only then are you free--free to move on with whatever you were doing--free simply to “be,” once more.

THAT’s the picture God wants to imbed in our brains, imprint on our hearts, and burn into our souls this morning.    

Forgiveness is about getting unstuck, it’s about breaking out, moving into a free and open place, into a wide zone of freedom. 

No wonder weekly worship often begins with confession and forgiveness.   We come here to church all tangled up in waywardness and worry…we arrive all tied up in knots….and before our worship even gets going, God sets us free!

We start our weekly worship the same way Martin Luther urged us to begin each day: by making the sign of the cross…invoking the name of the Father, Son and Spirit…returning to our baptism…reclaiming our freedom in Jesus Christ.

Then, we can embrace the day, because we are free!

More than anything else, God wants us to be free from everything that might hold us back, keep us stuck, leave us all tied up in knots.

And this freedom that comes from forgiveness—this freedom is meant to be shared.  

That’s the point of the parable Jesus tells next in our gospel text—the parable of the two debtors.   

To understand this parable, we need some background.

It’s most likely that both the first and the second servants in the parable worked for the king.   Their job was to produce and convey wealth to the king’s coffers, so that the king’s balance sheet will always show a profit.

Think of it as a first-century Middle Eastern multi-level marketing arrangement—also known as a “pyramid scheme!”[1]

The king was at the apex of the pyramid, and he had hundreds of “worker bees” laboring beneath him.

The first servant was a middle-manager, perhaps even the CFO (chief financial officer) of the whole operation, given the astronomical size of the man’s debt to the king.  

The first servant moved around scads of the king’s wealth, sometimes mixing in some of his own resources, sometimes winning big for the king, sometimes taking foolish risks on the king’s portfolio.

In Jesus’ parable, it’s definitely a “down” day for the first servant.   His personal balance sheet is dripping with red ink.   He’s so far in the hole he can’t even see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

So, knowing that his own avalanche of debt is insurmountable, the first servant threw himself at the mercy of the king—begging that his humongous debt be written off…

….which is exactly what the king does! 

Whew!   What a relief…the first servant’s thorny knot is untied.  

He can breathe once again.

But the unimaginable mercy he receives from the king doesn’t last long.  

No sooner does the first servant leave the chamber of the merciful king, but that he encounters one of his own underlings in the pyramid scheme, the second servant, who has his own debt crisis—though it’s of a magnitude far smaller than the first servant’s debt.

When the first servant gets a chance to emulate his master, the merciful king who had graciously forgiven him…when his chance comes to do the same thing for someone who was in his debt--the first servant comes down with a bad case of amnesia.

He refuses to write off his own underling’s debt.  In fact he removes the second servant from his position in the king’s pyramid scheme, tossing him into debtor’s prison.

When word of this reaches the king, he calls in the first servant and reads him the riot act:   "You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”  (Matthew 18:32-33)

So the king imprisons the first servant where he will be tortured until he repays everything he owed the king….which means he would be tortured forever.

What’s going on here?   What made the king turn on a dime, from lavish mercy to bitter retribution?

This isn’t about an emotional outburst by the king.

No—something far bigger was at stake.  When the king forgave the first servant’s astronomical debt, the king turned his entire business plan upside down.

Where formerly the king’s pyramid scheme was designed to send money upstream, toward the top of the pyramid…..the king—by forgiving the first servant--reversed that “flow,” bathing the first servant with more mercy than he could possibly “absorb,” so that he would have to pass it on all those who were beneath him in the pyramid.

In like manner…because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…you and I have received more forgiveness, more mercy, more second chances than we’ll ever manage to “absorb” or just keep for ourselves.

God’s gift of freedom, that comes from God’s forgiveness, is something for us to receive—but never to keep for ourselves.  

You and I were created to be conduits, not holding tanks, for God’s merciful forgiveness.

Try to hang on to it selfishly, and it will melt in your hand.

But share it, as freely as God forgives you, and all that mercy keeps coming back to you, eleven-fold, a full measure heaped up, pressed down, and overflowing, right in your lap.

Freedom.  It’s what you and I were created for.

And today and every day, Jesus Christ is recreating us, to bask in but also to pass on this freedom….the freedom that perpetually springs forth from God’s overflowing fountain of forgiveness.
In the name of Jesus.
Amen.





[1] For this understanding of economic arrangements in kingdoms around Mediterranean Sea in the 1st century, I’m indebted to Stanley Saunders, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3393

Friday, September 8, 2017

Getting Skin in the Game

Installation of Deacon Jon Micheels Leiseth
September 6, 2017/Concordia College, Moorhead, MN
John 15:9-17


In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

God chooses to do nothing without us.

Let me say that again:  “God chooses to do nothing without us.”

Please hear me clearly, friends.   I’m not saying that God can’t do anything without us.   I’m saying that God chooses to do nothing without us.

This is God’s modus operandi, God’s M.O.   God imagines, speaks and acts always with people and the creation, with you and me, with human flesh clearly in view and very much “in play.” 

God chooses to do nothing without us.

So, when God creates, as Genesis tells it, the culmination of the whole creation is God’s fashioning of human beings who alone—among all creatures—bear God’s spitting image, reflecting God in all that has been made.  

God chooses to do nothing without us.

When God acts to rescue us, when God intervenes to bring us back from our waywardness, God doesn’t bypass creation or humanity, but rather enters more deeply into creation, takes on human flesh, comes right alongside of us, for us and for our salvation.  

God condescends into our lives, “gets skin in the game.” And then this God-with-human-skin-on lives our life, bears our guilt, dies our death, and comes back from the grave lest we ever wonder whether God is “for us”—come what may!
God chooses to do nothing without us.

And, when God’s astonishing victory in the Resurrected Christ bids to become the story of the world….the vibrant heartbeat of the universe….once again God doesn’t step out of the creation to do all that, but rather God stoops down once again, breathing the Spirit into us, stirring us up with a Pentecost-tempest, and praying within us in sighs too deep for words. 

God chooses to do nothing without us.

And that remains true right now and for all the future “nows” God will yet grant us, until the New Creation finally dawns in all its splendor.

So, today also, my friends, here at Concordia College and now, at (give the time), my beloved ones, God chooses to do nothing without us.

That is true for all of us—no exceptions. 

It is true for you, Deacon Jon, true for you everywhere, all the time, in your own life of faith, hope and love…

You are not, in any way, shape or fashion called as Minister for Faith and Spirituality in Action—you are not called to carry out this ministry for us somehow, so that we’re off the hook…but you are called to do it with us, sometimes ahead of us, often behind us, but always alongside of us.

C.S. Lewis was once asked, by an earnest Christian:  “What if I don’t feel like loving or serving my neighbor?”  To which Lewis, without skipping a beat, responded:   “Pretend that you do.” 

He could have added:  “Fake it ‘til you make it,” because he knew the elementary truth that we don’t simply think our way into faith, but often we act our way, serve our way into faith.

Deacon Jon, you are called and installed to be among us as one who always reminds us of what we could too easily forget:   that God chooses to do nothing without us.
Such a “tall order,” this is!   It’s more than any of us could ever do, under our own steam, out of our own imagination, with our own strength and verve.

Whatever could that involve, in the “moment-by-momentness” of life?

Here’s the best guidance I can come up with:  just keep paying attention to Jesus who declared “I am among you as one who serves.”  (Luke 22:27) That is who I am.   That is what I do. That is what I will keep doing through you.    

It all comes together in Jesus.   So, here in John 15 Jesus seamlessly weaves together things we sometimes try to keep separate: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Life-giving love and commandment-keeping costly service are all of a piece.

Where we perceive dichotomies, Jesus creates synergy.   Asked, in another place, to name the greatest commandment, Jesus seems, at first to fudge (like a wily election-year politician!)—Jesus seems to say two things, articulate two commandments.  

But not really.  The one commandment, the only commandment worth our time and attention is about loving God BY loving our neighbor, not so much as step one and step two of a little dance—but more like “heads and tails,” the two sides of a single coin.  You cannot have one without the other—God and our neighbor welded, melded together, for time and all eternity.

That’s because God chooses to do nothing without us, don’t you see?  

God is always finagling new ways to climb into human skin, in Jesus, and now in the community that is the Risen Jesus, for the sake of “getting at the world,” saving, restoring, renewing, transforming, making you and me and all things new.

God labors over, God aches for this whole groaning creation, this whole struggling human family….and the way, the main way God “gets at” us, is through us—our voices, our hearts, our feet, our hands.

You already are living that and have been living that for years, Deacon Jon. 

Today this graced community formally invites you to continually remind us of that, to help us discover fresh ways of embodying it and living it every day, in all sorts of ways, always in Christ Jesus.   Amen.