Saturday, May 20, 2017

Gone...But Not Really Gone

Installation of Aaron Suomala Folkerds as Senior Pastor
Lutheran Church of Christ the King, Moorhead
May 21, 2017/Easter 6
John 14:15-21

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

“Gone but not forgotten.”

We’ll hear that phrase and speak those words next week, because it’s that time of the year.  By Federal statute, no less, we set aside the last Monday of May as our “gone but not forgotten” holiday, when we stop to remember those who’ve left this world, especially those who died in service to our country.

“Gone but not forgotten” may be among the most poignant words in the English language.

This brief phrase masks a deeper, darker reality—which is that whenever someone leaves us, it is shockingly easy to forget them, despite our best intentions.

Not, of course, that our loved ones pass completely from our memories, but they no longer occupy our minds or command our hearts.  In that sense, gone too often means forgotten.

But on Memorial Day we will ourselves to do what no longer comes naturally—we will ourselves to remember them, to lay fresh-cut spring flowers on their graves, to ponder the great sacrifice that they made.   For this one day at least--by gum!--they shall be “gone but not forgotten.”

But the day after Memorial Day, along with all the days that follow…those days are another story… all too often “gone” means “forgotten.”

As this season of patriotic remembering plays out…..the church is doing its own brand of remembering during the Great Fifty Days of Easter.

And this remembering, this focused mindfulness of the Church recalling the One who died and rose again, reflects a different understanding of reality.

In the church’s way of remembering Christ the Crucified and Risen One, it’s not so much “gone but not forgotten,” as it is “gone, but not really gone.”

Say what?   What kind of nonsense is that?  How can someone, anyone, even Jesus be “gone, but not really gone?”

As jarring as those words sound, “gone, but not really gone” is the pulsing beat, the arresting rhythm of the Great Fifty Days…and nowhere is that more apparent than in this gospel reading from John 14.

Jesus came to earth.  Jesus was born of Mary.   Jesus walked where we walk. Jesus loved and prayed for and healed and taught his neighbors.   And, in short order, Jesus was cruelly betrayed, wrongly convicted, brutally forced to carry his own cross on his bleeding back. 

In the end, Jesus died.

And then three days later Jesus was raised again…

….and then over the course of forty days, Jesus showed himself to his followers, often and compellingly enough to convince them that with him, with Jesus, death’s stranglehold had been broken.

And then, just when his followers were starting to get the hang of it, this same Risen Lord Jesus Christ was taken from them once more, ascended into heaven, returned to his Father, gone for good it seemed…

….gone, but not really gone!  

Jesus was gone, but not really gone.    The Resurrected One made wondrous provision for us, to deal with his physical absence from us:  “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” (John 14:16-17)

Jesus was leaving this earth, he was about to be gone—but not really gone.

How can that be?

Here’s how:  Jesus promised “another Advocate” to come to us and be with us forever:  the Spirit of Truth would “succeed” Jesus in keeping faith alive and hope strong.

Jesus promised another Advocate, because we already had our first Advocate, Jesus himself in the flesh.

An advocate, you see, is someone who comes alongside us to make a case or plead a cause.

Jesus, the original Advocate, pled our cause before God our heavenly Father.    Jesus spoke out for us most clearly, most distinctly, in the final days of his life….when he gave us a Meal we’re still eating, bread for his body, wine for his blood.

On the Cross Jesus advocated for us most convincingly when he cried out:   “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”   Jesus in his dying breath advocated for us, made the perfect case for us, sinners all:  “Father forgive them.”

If Jesus on the Cross pleaded perfectly for us with our Creator-God, he promised to send “another Advocate,” the Holy Spirit who doesn’t so much plead for us, as he pleads with us.

The Holy Spirit advocates for the risen Lord Jesus Christ, with every breath we take.   The Spirit presses God’s cause upon us every day, giving us reasons to believe, reasons to hope, reasons to stake our lives on Christ the Crucified and Risen One who may be gone (in the way he first lived among us)-- gone, but not really gone.  Jesus continues to have us and hold us and send us into the world that is becoming his perfect Kingdom.

So the living Lord Jesus no longer occupies the body he received from his mother Mary, he is no longer bound to “to distant years in Palestine” as hymnwriter Brian Wren puts it (ELW #389, stanza 2).
Jesus is gone from all that, but he’s not really gone.

In a far fuller, richer sense, Jesus--in the power of his resurrection--is more alive now than ever before!

And Jesus is alive, not because our feeble memories will him to be alive.  Jesus’ resurrection life isn’t about us whistling in the dark, engaging in wishful thinking….

No, Jesus is alive still, because that other Advocate, the Spirit of truth, the Lord and Giver of Life—breathes upon us, kindles within us the unquenchable fire of faith…and never allows that flame to die out.

“Gone but not forgotten” reflects our responsibility, our striving, our work….

But with Jesus everything is made new:  with Jesus, it’s not so much “gone but not forgotten” as it is “gone, but not really gone.”

And you have Jesus’ own Word on that. 

You have the down payment of the Holy Spirit, the urgent, nudging, enlivening testimony of that other Advocate who ceaselessly makes God’s case before us, wooing and cajoling and winning us over, freeing us to confess from our hearts:  “I believe.   Help my unbelief”

So it is the Spirit of Truth who tirelessly reminds us that Jesus is Risen from the grave, nevermore to die.

But there is even more.   

In v. 19 of our gospel lesson Jesus ups the ante with this promise:  “because I live, you also will live.”

Phew!  What a relief that is—to know that we will somehow “survive” death….that in some unimaginable way we partake of Jesus’ own unending life.

But Jesus utters this promise not simply to set our hearts at ease, to beat back our fear of death.

No.  Jesus promises to share his own unending resurrected life with us so that we will be good for something, even as we await and pine for God’s New Day.

“Because I live, you also will live,” Jesus declares to us, and that miraculous life of Christ in us testifies to us and everyone else that Jesus is gone, but not really gone.

Jesus shares his unending life with us so that we will be living specimens, walking talking testimonies who constantly bear witness that Jesus is gone, but not really gone.

Our whole life as the Body of Christ, is God’s best proof that Jesus didn’t vanish into thin air…but has chosen to continue his rescuing, reviving, death-defying, future opening work.

So because Jesus lives in us we can make all sorts of audacious promises in his name.

We can look each other right in the eyes and say things like:
“I announce to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.”
“I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit.”
“Take and eat, this is the body…this is the blood of Christ.”
“Because Jesus lives, you will live also!”

Pastor Aaron, I suspect that most of the time the last thing you want to be is someone else’s “mouthpiece.”

But there’s one exception to that rule of thumb.  There’s at least one sense in which you and every other pastor are a mouthpiece for the only voice we need to hear in life and in death.

Jesus, who is alive—sure as shooting—has called you here, as the chief shepherd of this flock, to utter audacious promises that only he can keep.  Just remember that everything you’re called to do here as senior pastor of this congregation flows from that absolutely crucial role—of being a called and “dedicated” mouthpiece for Christ the Crucified and Risen One.

And wow--isn’t that grand?

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Epicenter of Encounter

Bethel Lutheran Church, Herman, MN
Dedication of Sacristy
Easter 3/April 30, 2017
Luke 24:13-35

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’

It isn’t every day that we entertain unexpected company in our home—and beg them not to leave!

Not that we’re inhospitable, mind you—it’s just that we’re not exactly in the habit of offering spontaneous invitations like the one Cleopas and his fellow disciple extended to this mysterious stranger.  Here, they had only met the man earlier that day on the short 7-mile trek from Jerusalem and Emmaus—and they wanted him to become their house-guest?  Really?

‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’

Maybe the two disciples simply feared for the stranger’s safety in the dark.  Lots of skullduggery happens after the sun goes down.   In the deepest, darkest hours of the night things always seem more uncertain, more fearful, more foreboding.
Or perhaps Cleopas and his companion had some other reason, or maybe just some impulse of the moment that caused them to blurt out this surprising invitation.

‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’

I believe there was something deeper here than fear of marauders or the “chemistry” of this chance encounter.

Something in their 7-mile journey together, something about this stranger had gotten under their skins—gotten way down deep, under their skins!  

In the few hours they were together Cleopas and his companion noticed a hunger in themselves, a gnawing hunger that reached right down into the very core of their being.

Only later--when the stranger was no longer strange to them--only later did Cleopas and his companion admit it to one another:    “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

THAT….that “hearts burning with us” hunger is what caused Cleopas and his companion to beg, to implore their visitor to remain with them.   They did not want this encounter with him to come to an end:  ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’….stay with us, because time is fleeting and precious, and we haven’t yet had our fill of what you are offering us.   Stay with us, friend, until we have our fill, until our hunger is satisfied.

Of such deep hunger are spontaneous invitations made.   Out of such deep hunger do people actually begin to rearrange the circumstances of their lives so that this encounter, this relationship, this saving, rescuing connection never ends.

Little did Cleopas and the other disciple realize what they were bargaining for:  not just another few hours with this mysterious but compelling stranger--but a whole new life with him that began on that road to Emmaus and would never, ever end.

This same hunger, my friends, is what draws you and me to this Beth-el, this Bethel, this house of God—because here we’ve found the epicenter of encounter between us perpetually hungry ones and the Lord of life, who is always most clearly and unmistakably making himself known to us in the breaking of bread.

It’s a gnawing hunger that brings us back to this house of God, again and again and again.

It’s hunger for release from all that threatens to undo us.

It’s hunger for being untwisted, untied, cut loose from our waywardness.

It’s hunger for our lives to have significance, it’s hunger for purpose in our lives.

It’s hunger for hope in a world that’s so wretchedly messed up.

It’s hunger for forgiveness, for a fresh start, and for a future without end.

In short, it’s hunger for Jesus that draws us to this holy place, hunger for Jesus that springs to our lips whenever we whisper:  “Stay with us. Because it’s almost evening, and the day is now nearly over…”

And, thankfully, Jesus delights filling us up, assuaging our hunger.

We come here to meet Jesus—and Jesus never disappoints us.   Jesus keeps coming with us, to us, for us….wherever his story is retold….wherever the baptismal bath washes over us….and surely, surely wherever we hear his “for you” and taste the bread and sip the wine and believe once again that our Lord has stooped down to lift us up.

So it is only appropriate on this Third Sunday of Easter—the season in which we bask in our Lord’s firm promise never to abandon us, always to remain with us….it is good and right and salutary, that we tend with great care, this place of our deepest encounter with our Lord Jesus.  

Nowadays a growing number of small-membership congregations in our part of the world are pondering the possibility of closure.   But they never rush to embrace that possibility.  

Rather, they sidle up to it gingerly, carefully, slowly, thoughtfully…..and often the sticking point in such discussions revolves around this question:  if we close, what shall we do with this place, this building, this house of God?

When I’m asked to advise such congregations considering closure, I sometimes find myself growing impatient with that question—a little voice inside me reminding me that a church building is only bricks, boards, stone and mortar after all—isn’t it?

But over the years I’ve learned that it’s not merely nostalgia that makes it difficult for Christians to close up shop and abandon their church buildings. 

It is, rather, their deep and abiding sense that places like this one are holy because God has made it so, because God has caused holy things to happen here, because God has shown up here, for us and for our very salvation and for our hope in the life of the world to come.

So today-- appropriately enough!--we dedicate the sacred space, the “sacristy” where the precious means of Jesus’ Real Presence among us are lovingly and reverently prepared for our most profound encounter with the Lord of Life:   here at the altar where Jesus meets us once again, even on this April morning.

And just as surely as we keep coming here—again and again and again!—we also leave here, with haste (like Cleopas and his companion!).

Even if our time is short and the world’s darkness is foreboding, we suck it up and brave our way back out into this troubled world, breathlessly eager to tell others:   “We have seen the Lord!”

Sometimes when we poke around in the Bible, the stories seem so distant from us in time and place and circumstance…

But other times, the narratives of scripture enfold us, as this one does….setting forth so memorably, so unmistakably the way that we simply know it, the way we simply feel it deep in our bones that this one, this Jesus, is alive, nevermore to die again….and he lives for us and in us in the bread and the wine and the community we are gathered into….not just for own sake, but for the life of this world and the life of the world to come.

“Stay with us, because it is almost evening, and the day now is nearly over.”

So also we plead with Jesus to be near us forever.

And thanks be to God, that’s a prayer Jesus always answers, granting us not just a wonderful promise, but lavishing us with his presence, giving us himself, his very body, his true blood, for us and for our salvation….and also, for the sake of God’s mission in the wider world, now and forever.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Picking a Fight With Death

Trinity Lutheran Church, Moorhead, MN
Lent 5/April 2, 2017/John 11:1-45
Installation of Pr. Kristina Waters

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

In this gospel lesson we come across two of the Bible’s most precious gems.

One of these gems is verse 25, where Jesus declares:  “I am the resurrection and the life…”

The other comes ten verses later:  “Jesus began to weep” or as an older translation put it: “Jesus wept”—the shortest verse in the Bible.

The first of these two verses cheers us when we mourn:  “I am the resurrection and the life.”  

The second of these gems is cheers squirrelly confirmation students seeking an easy short Bible verse to memorize.  John 11:35 is like the free square in the center of the Scrabble board:  “Jesus wept.”  Check!

All kidding aside, these two verses encapsulate this entire 11th chapter of St John’s Gospel.  

Because one of the things everyone needs to know about Jesus is that he wept.  

Jesus was and is truly human, really one of us.  

Jesus wasn’t protected from life’s hard edges.  He didn’t get a “free pass” from the dregs of our existence.

“Jesus wept.”   John doesn’t pinpoint precisely why Jesus wept.   Was it on account of his deep affection for Lazarus and his sisters?  Did he regret not getting to Bethany sooner, before Lazarus died?  Or did Jesus weep because everyone else was weeping?  Or did Lazarus’s death remind Jesus of his own impending death.

“Jesus wept.”   Let those two words sink in:  we have a Savior whose tear ducts are fully functional.

“Jesus wept” even as we have wept and we shall weep again….because losing loved ones is awful, because death is—literally!-- the pits.

“Jesus wept,” sums up one key thread of this story.   God’s Word in human flesh knew grief intimately. 

But these were not tears of despair.  Verse 33 mentons that 
“when Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”  

“Greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” –that phrase depicts Jesus shuddering, being shaken to the core, angry even at the horrible hold death has on us!

Jesus groans as he approaches Lazarus’s grave, because he knows in his bones that this just isn’t right—this state of affairs shall not stand!

In Jesus’ tears there’s an undercurrent of righteous anger—indeed a defiance of death stirring deep within Jesus.  

Jesus travels to Bethany to pick a fight with death—to announce that death is about to be up-ended.

Which leads us to the other gem in this lesson:  “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Jesus speaks these words in response to Martha who at first chided Jesus for dilly-dallying and then—in the same breath--voiced her hope that Lazarus would rise again on the Last Day, the Resurrection Day….

….but Jesus cut her off with one of the most astonishing promises in the Gospels:  “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Here, Jesus snatches the hope of a future resurrection and ushers it right into the present moment boldly announcing that in him the resurrection is already walking around on two feet.  Life itself is pushing its way through the mourners wailing at Lazarus’s tomb. 
Jesus goes beyond promising resurrection and life in God’s good time.

He insists that he, Jesus is the resurrection and the life, right here, right now.

And that’s why Jesus didn’t scurry off to Bethany the moment he heard of Lazarus’s mortal illness.   Jesus waited  so that Lazarus could get “good and dead,” four days in the grave, all traces of his spirit having vanished from the scene….

Jesus needed Lazarus to be really dead so that folks would witness God’s power not just to prevent death but to undo death.

Jesus arrives in Bethany, seemingly too late, with the stench of decay already in the air.  He waits for just the right moment, when all seems utterly lost, in order to take charge of the situation.

For in Jesus the Resurrection and the Life has arrived to pick a fight with Death—and that’s a fight that Death is surely going to lose.

As if all that were not enough, Jesus commandeers those around him to help him finish this astonishing miracle.
Isn’t it fascinating that instead of crawling into the tomb and single-handedly dragging Lazarus out—Jesus calls to Lazarus, Jesus issues an executive order fully confident that dead Lazarus will hear it and obey.

And then when Lazarus shuffles to the door of his tomb, Jesus hustles the whole community into action:  “Unbind him, and let him go.”   Come on, folks--turn Lazarus loose!

Let’s call this “Round One” in a three-round battle that our Lord waged with Death.  

Virtually every detail in our gospel lesion foreshadows another drama, soon to play out in Jerusalem.

The late great preacher Fred Craddock observes, “The passion of Jesus bleeds through the surface of [this] story…. Jesus is experiencing something like a Gethsemane, for he knows that calling Lazarus out of the tomb means that he must enter it.”[1] 
When Jesus was arrested, tried, executed and buried he dealt Death a knockout punch.   Let’s call that “Round Two” in our Lord’s fight-to-the finish with Death.   As we shall celebrate in two weeks, the Resurrection and the Life won that round—for you and me and all people.

But there’s even more:  the story of Lazarus, along with the passion of our Lord Jesus….these core narratives of faith “bleed through” into our own lives of following Jesus today.

We weep—as Jesus wept—because death still robs us so cruelly, so brazenly.

We weep though, as persons who feel it in our bones that this sad state of affairs shall not stand.  

Our Risen Lord Jesus is seeing to that!   Whatever sort of “tomb” we may be stuck in—Jesus is always calling us out of the darkness into the light..

Let’s call this “Round Three” in the battle between death and the Resurrection and the Life.

Jesus is still catching us up in this fight to the finish with death.   

Jesus “calls us out”—out of whatever tomb holds us captive.

And—lo and behold—Jesus even enlists us, to be part of the action, calling out others….setting free those whom Jesus places in our paths, just as Jesus enlisted Lazarus’s neighbors to unwrap the bands of grave-cloths, and turn him loose.

This is, in fact, the most critical thing that marks us…not just as a happy club to belong to, but as the community of Christ, who is the Resurrection and the Life, even now, here today.

Pastor Kristina, I can imagine no better watchword for you, as today you formally assume your ministry as Pastor for Community.

May you, may all of us, never forget that this community lives every day between “Jesus wept” and Jesus’ promise: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” 

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

[1] Fred Craddock, “A Twofold Death and Resurrection,” The Christian Century, March 21-28, 1999.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Jesus: The Blessed Disrupter

Lent 4/Year A/March 26 & 29, 2017
John 9:1-41
Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Moorhead
Installation of Pastor Taylor and Deacon Julie Wilson

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

I have a multiple choice question for you this morning/evening:  Which of the following three statements do you think comes closest to the truth?

A.     Having Jesus come into your life makes everything better.
B.     Having Jesus come into your life disrupts everything.
C.     Both A. and B.

How do you suppose this blind man here in John 9 might have responded?

At first blush I think he’d probably have answered:  A!   When this guy had his own “Life at the Crossroads” encounter with Jesus, everything got better!

He’d been blind from birth after all!  Can you imagine what that was like: living your whole life in darkness?  Never seeing a sunrise, never beholding the faces of those around you, never gazing dumbstruck into a starry night sky?

But then one day—out of the clear blue—this blind man crossed paths with Jesus who healed him, just like that.

What a rush that must have been!  Seeing clearly for the first time since he was born.   I’d call that a very good day—to be blind from birth and then—all of a sudden, able to behold everything--whiter whites, brighter brights, the whole amazing multi-colored universe suddenly coming alive and in focus! 

Amazing!  Astounding!   Crossing paths with Jesus that day made everything better for this man, right?

Except that’s not exactly how this story in John 9 actually unfolds—not at all!

To be sure, the light did come on for this blind man.  His useless eyes were finally working the way they were meant to!

It should have been “party time” for him and his family and his neighbors and his faith community.  Pull out all the stops—“I once was blind, but now I see!”   Praise the Lord!

But that’s not how the story actually plays out here.   The wonderful thing that happened to this man also introduced all sorts of complexity into his life.  

He, his family and his friends got all tied up in knots—trying to deal with a bunch of “hot potato” questions.  
·        So who exactly was behind this healing—was it God or the devil?  
·        And since this healing had happened on the Sabbath Day, the day of rest—had the healer violated God’s “don’t work on the Sabbath” commandment?  
·        And what’s more, did this healer have some ulterior motive in mind?  Was it truly a simple healing?  Or was it some sort of political statement?

Here, when folks should have been turning cartwheels in the streets, all these questions came bubbling up.

And before you knew it the whole neighborhood was in a hubbub.  Just like that the blind man’s business became everyone’s business.   Everybody got their undies in a bunch!

What he should have remembered as the day he got his eyes back—became, for this man, the day when he was kicked out of his faith community—simply because he told the truth, several times, about how his sightless eyes had been restored.

When Jesus comes into your life does everything get better, or is everything disrupted?   By the end of this story, the blind man surely would have answered YES.  

Jesus simultaneously makes everything better AND, in the process, Jesus also disrupts everything!

At the climax of this story, Jesus (who, curiously, was off-stage during all the hubbub)….Jesus finds the man whom he had healed.   In fact it’s the first time the formerly blind man actually sees Jesus in this story.

Having revealed himself to the man, Jesus offers this compelling word of interpretation:  "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind."

Sounds as though even Jesus would answer our multiple-choice question with answer C.  

Jesus “confesses” (if you will) that when his path crosses our path, when we encounter Jesus at the Crossroads of our lives--everything does get better, but only because everything we thought we could count on is first disrupted.

And thank God for that!

Because, my friends, there are all sorts of things in our lives that need disrupting so that our eyes might finally see things clearly.

Jesus comes along and disrupts everything we thought we knew about God.   We’re born believing that God isn’t happy with us and we somehow need to get ourselves on God’s good side.  

But Jesus comes along and opens our eyes to see that before we even think about taking a single step toward God, God has already come running toward us, like the Father of the Prodigal Son--eagerly, joyfully scooping us up in his strong, loving, forgiving arms.

Jesus encounters us in a way that disrupts everything we thought was true about ourselves On our own, we imagine that “we’ve got this”—that we can pull our own strings, fashion our own lives, truly make something of ourselves.

But Jesus opens our eyes to see that on our own we can’t really do much of anything…and that’s OK because God’s the One who’s got our backs--from the moment we take our first breath.  In other words:  all we are and all we have comes to us, every moment of every day, as a sheer undeserved gift from God.

Jesus crosses our path and disrupts everything we thought was true about our neighbors.  We start out in life with the sneaking suspicion that in this dog-eat-dog world no one “out there” can be trusted.

But Jesus opens our blind eyes, helping us see that because God has created us all and Jesus has died for us all, we are brothers and sisters—beloved children of an unfailingly faithful Parent.

Jesus meets us and disrupts everything we thought was true even about the earth itself.  We tend to think that the world is our oyster, a treasure trove of resources for us to do with just as we please.

But Jesus opens our blind eyes to behold how this good earth has been daringly entrusted to us…so that we might tend, keep and care for it not just for ourselves, but for the sake of all our fellow creatures—past, present and future.

When you and I cross paths with Jesus…we encounter Someone who truly does make everything better…but only after first disrupting our “me, myself and I” lives….

….which means that the adventure of faith is more—much more!--than we bargained for:  more joyous, yes, but also more unsettling and challenging to everything we thought was true.

So, my dear friends, whenever Jesus crosses your path—hang on to your hats!   And whatever you do, stay close, tightly connected with all the others who are with you in this adventure of living, breathing faith.

For God has given you a host of companions for this journey—persons like the Wilsons—Pastor Taylor and Deacon Julie—whom we formally welcome this morning/evening.   They—along with your wonderful church staff and all your other Good Shepherd friends—all of them are also God’s gifts to you, here to help you make sense of this amazing Lord Jesus Christ who constantly disrupts our lives in order to open our eyes to see everything the way it truly is.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Indiscriminate Mercy

Epiphany 7/February 19, 2017
Faith, Badger; Bethel, Greenbush; First, Middle River
Matthew 5:38-48

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

If you ever visit the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, you may see a very old book published in 1820 that’s entitled:   The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English.

This book is also called the Jefferson Bible, because its author was Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence and served as this country’s third president.

Jefferson, who was a brilliant man, was curious about everything in the world, including  religion and the Bible.

The Jefferson Bible was a project Jefferson worked on for many of his retirement years, his main tools being a sharp razor and a bottle of glue….because what Thomas Jefferson did was to edit out all the portions of the New Testament that he found unhelpful and not worthy of believing.  

In short, what Jefferson did was to cut out all references to Jesus’ miracles, his divinity and his resurrection.  What Jefferson left in his Bible were simply the sublime teachings and ethics of Jesus—nothing more.

Now, when we hear about this we’re probably shocked.  Most of us would never even dream of putting together our own cut-and-paste Bibles.

And yet, with much more subtlety, we and most other Bible-readers find ways to pay attention to some portions of the Bible while passing over other portions.

And this gospel lesson at the conclusion of Matthew chapter five is a striking case in point.

There are some deeply disturbing things in this passage.  Jesus utters words we simply cannot swallow….and have no intention of actually putting into practice.

We hear what Jesus commands here, and our first inclination is to say, “Nope.  That’ll never do!”
·      If an evildoer messes with us or with those we love, we will resist that evildoer, quickly claiming our right to self-defense.
·      If someone sues us we will not knuckle under, but we’ll “lawyer up” so that we can meet our opponent in court.
·      We do not drop a dollar in every outstretched hand of every beggar we happen to meet.
·      If enemies bedevil us, we will not love them and our first inclination will not be to pray for them—except perhaps to pray that they’ll stop harassing us.
·      And no, most definitely not, we will not be perfect…because, as everyone knows no one but God is perfect!

We may not go after this passage with a razor in one hand and a bottle of glue in the other, but by what we actually do or fail to do, we will treat most of these verses as “dead letters”—pie in the sky stuff that Jesus couldn’t possible expect anyone on earth to take seriously.

And once we’ve cleared away the parts of this text that Jesus can’t possibly expect us to take seriously, there’s not much else left here except…..except what Jesus says about 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.”

There, right there—did you feel it?--a little breath of fresh air from heaven comes wafting our way.   Smack dab in the middle of all these impossible commands from our Lord, we catch a fleeting vision not of ourselves down here grubbing away in this dog-eat-dog world—but rather a vision of God and God’s own wild, profligate, unmeasured grace and mercy.

Finally something we can say “Yes” to!   Mired in this tired old deeply flawed world, we look up and remember that there is a God who is indiscriminately merciful, beaming down sunshine on both friends and foes, showering down rain on the deserving and the undeserving alike.

We want such a One to be our Father in heaven.  
We want to be children of someone who displays such wide mercy.
We’d love to be “chips off the old block”—daughters and sons of such a lavishly loving God.  

There’s just one problem, though.   This vision of God’s overflowing, prodigal grace--evidenced in both the sunshine and the rain—this refreshing vision is completely enmeshed with all the other words of Jesus here that seem so out of kilter.  

With even the sharpest razor, we cannot separate these two parts of this passage.

“Love your enemies,” says Jesus, “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.”

How can we possibly wrap our arms around this whole passage—embracing both the ridiculous commands and the vision of our Father’s indiscriminate mercy?

·      First, we might remember how much Jesus—throughout the Sermon on the Mount—loves hyperbolic speech (phrases like:  “If your right eye offends you, pluck it out!”)    Jesus is always pushing the envelope to wake us up, shake us up and re-set how we look at everything.   Maybe that’s what’s going on with all these impossible demands.  Jesus’s aim may not be simply to lay on us an impossible “to do” list.   Rather, Jesus may be getting us off the dime, and opening us up to imagine what life in God’s world was always meant to be. 
·      Second, we can entertain the possibility that by sharpening God’s will for us here, Jesus is making us realize how far this fallen, rebellious, sin-laden world still is from God’s kingdom as we long for it to be.   We human beings go to great length to resist evildoers, litigate our grudges, bypass beggars, oppose enemies—but how’s that working out for us?  How’s this world doing?  
·      Third, and really most critically, this text opens our eyes to all the ways that Jesus doesn’t just deliver this sermon—but in the end, how he finally lives this sermon to the max:   refusing to resist his false accusers, willingly walking that extra mile to the Place of the Skull,  expending his dying breath in prayer for his enemies, and finally dying at the hands of evildoers—the very evildoers—including you and me!—for whom he gave his life.

As all this begins to dawn on us once again, God moves us closer to God’s great vision of a new creation utterly at peace, a new creation in which God will woo and wheedle us to grow up fully into the likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified for us and vindicated by God when he raised him from the dead.

That’s what the final verse here—the “be ye perfect” part of this text—is all about.  

Jesus doesn’t hold up a sterile, flawless version of perfection here, as much as he points us toward God who is always leading us into the fullness of his final future in Jesus Christ.

A better translation of verse 48 comes from Bible commentator Frederick Dale Bruner:   “So then, you folks are going to be a perfectly mature people, just as your heavenly Father is perfectly mature.”  (Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew, A Commentary:  The Christbook, Matthew 1-12, Eerdmans, copyright 2004, p. 266)

This, you see, is God’s most astonishing work in us.  

Jesus our Crucified and Risen Lord, rolls up his sleeves, and takes us on:   giving us, and fashioning in us, all that he commands!

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.