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.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

A Force To Be Reckoned With

Epiphany 5/Year A/February 5, 2017
North Beltrami Lutheran Parish
Ordination and Installation of Pr. Anne Meredith
Matthew 5:13-20

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.
“You are the salt of the earth.”

Notice, please, three things about this remarkable statement that comes to our ears from the lips of our Lord.

First, Jesus says: “You are…”  You are…the salt of the earth.
Jesus could have said: “Get serious—why don’t you?—and become the salt of the earth….or:  follow these ten easy steps and make yourselves the salt of the earth.”
But Jesus didn’t launch us into a self-improvement program here. Jesus didn’t establish a 501(c)3 non-profit organization called the Salt-of-the-Earth Transformational Leadership Institute.
No.  Jesus just uttered a promise.  He simply announced: “You are the salt of the earth.”   This is the way things already are…the way that things shall most certainly be.
Spoken by the One who existed before the first day of creation, who in the fullness of time went to the Cross and the Grave—the One who now  has death behind him…these words define a fact we can count on: “You are the salt of the earth”—end of story…
…because this is God’s business.  This is who God has made you to be…what God calls you to embody. You are salt—so be who you are.

Second, Jesus says: “You are the salt of the earth.”

You are not the honey of the earth, sent to sugar-coat all of life’s harsh realities.
Nor are you the pablum of the earth…bland, easy-to-digest cereal for babies and older folks with weak stomachs.

You are not the WD-40 of the earth, sent to lubricate and smooth over all life’s hard edges.
You are not the duct tape of the earth, desperately trying to hold the world together.
No. You are salt.   Which, is to say: you are a force to be reckoned with.

Salt, after all, is a biting, bracing, reactive substance.   And we northern Minnesotans know all about that!  We have two seasons every year:  the season of road salt…closely followed by the season of road repair.   The second season focuses on fixing up all the damage done in the first season by the road-salt we can’t live without every winter.    (I am exaggerating only a little!)

Salt, paradoxically is either life-giving or life-taking, depending on how much of it we take in.  Too little salt or too much salt and we are dead.   And yet the right amount of salt helps keep us alive.
Salt is deceptively powerful.  Salt makes chemical reactions happen. Salt preserves food.  Salt brings zip and zest to our eating. Salt makes food tangier, tastier.

When Jesus declares us to be the salt of the earth, he’s tipping us off that we’re going to make a difference in the world—whether or not we even realize it.
You are the salt of the earth, says Jesus.   Our Lord wills us to be catalysts for divine change, agents of God’s promised future.  When we’re around, fully alive, stuff happens.  We salty ones help preserve this world.  God keeps the world going for the sake of the Promise God sends us to share and live out.
How about that?!?   We’re here to make everything more interesting, engaging, and fascinating. Our mission is to add zip and zest, to make tasty and tangy a world that can seem so bland, tedious and tasteless. We cause the world to sparkle with the spice of  God’s Great News in Jesus Christ. 

3.  Third, Jesus says: “You are the salt of the earth.”
Salt does its thing only as it gets dissolved in the broth, mixed in with the stew, sprinkled on the pot roast.  Salt has to get shaken out, sprinkled, scattered.  

Salt loses itself in whatever dish it’s stirred into.   When that happens, folks don’t say” “That sure is tasty salt.”   No. Instead they say things like: “My, this is a scrumptious roast. Goodness, this is a savory hotdish. Heavens to Betsy, this is a delectable stew. My compliments to the Chef!”

Salt is meant to get lost and live on only in connection with whatever it is salting….
…which is to say: salt is of use only as it loses itself.  Salt that stays hermetically sealed in a salt-cellar isn’t good for much. It may stay high and dry and “pure”…but it’ll never accomplish anything.  It will be useless—worthless.

And here’s what’s perhaps most amazing:   it doesn’t take much salt  to do the trick. A teaspoon of salt does wonders in a whole pot of soup. A pinch of salt transforms the flavor of a whole lump of bread-dough.
You, God’s precious salty people in Christ, as you are “stirred into the world” have an effect on that world that’s all out of proportion to your numbers in the world. Salt is like that. Like those ancient Brylcream commercials, “a little dab’ll do ya!”

Does the bigness of the universe and the hugeness of its problems overwhelm you?  Do you lament the fact that you’re just one person—“and what difference can one person make?”
Be of good cheer! You are salt and salt is most effective in small quantities. Just a pinch, just a bit of salt makes all the difference in the world. God intends to use you to change, to preserve, to make more tasty the little corner of creation where God has planted you.
Christian people who are aloof, holed up in their “mighty fortress” church buildings, pursuing their “purity projects,” and never actually venturing forth into God’s world aren’t good for much of anything. They may appear to be salt…but such “salt” really isn’t worth much. It’s like salt that somehow has lost its saltiness and is good only for being discarded.
You are the salt of the earth, Jesus declares to us.
Your purpose is to spend yourself, following in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ who expended himself on the Cross—to destroy sin, to take the teeth out of death, and to refashion the world to be fresh and new and “tasty” once again.
Jesus saved the world only as he lost himself, poured himself out into the world, for the sake of the world.   Jesus came to be dissolved into his calling to seek and save the lost.
This same salty Jesus now declares to us: “You are the salt of the earth.” You’re worth your weight in salt when you get close to others…especially to bland, tedious, tasteless, unsavory folks. You make them tasty by seasoning them with the Good News of Jesus Christ…for you are the salt of the earth.
On our better days, on our best days, we know that we who are Christ’s Body “live, move and have our being” for the sake of the world around us.  Or, as one of my former pastors liked to say: “the church is the only organization that exists primarily for those who aren’t its members.”

So there you have it:   You are….the salt….of the earth.

That has been true for you, Anne since the day of your baptism.  It’s been true for you for as long as you followed Jesus.

But this morning, as you are ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament and installed to serve this parish, this promise comes at you with new vigor and possibilities.

You are going to be a “salty” pastor….just because God says so.  As you look back over your life, please remember that you didn’t get yourself into this business.  God has been coming after you, hot and heavy, wooing and wheedling you into this calling, teasing out the pastor in you.

So hunker down behind God’s call, especially when things get tough.  Take on Martin Luther’s heartfelt confession that without God’s calling to you you’d make a hash of everything you try to do!

You are a salty pastor, Anne, presented now with all sorts of new ways to be a catalyst in God’s service, a reactive agent of God’s gentle but powerful rule over all things.

Dear people of Zion and Our Savior’s, please know that God has called Pastor Anne not to let sleeping dogs lie but to be salt, a force to contend with, a reactive agent of God’s barrier-breaking, sin-forgiving, future- opening work.   God has called Anne to be the salty pastor of a salty people!

Finally, Anne, being the salt God declares you to be means you will be expended—not in some crass, wasteful way--but in a Christ-like, cross-shaped redemptive way, always for the sake of your neighbors in this parish and its mission field.  

God has plans for you.  God means to do some great things through you and through this faith community, as you get close to folks and as you are dissolved in daring witness, loving care and costly service.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Broken, Leaky and Blessed

Installation of Pr. Sheila Michaels, Lutheran Campus Pastor
White Earth Tribal and Community College
January 29, 2017--Epiphany 4/Year A
St Columba’s Episcopal Church, White Earth, MN
Matthew 5:1-12

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

So let me begin this afternoon with a confession.  For most of my 35+ years of pastoral ministry I avoided preaching on this beloved passage that marks the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Although I’ve always loved reading the Beatitudes—it’s preaching on them that has been a stretch.

And with good reason!

These verses, after all, are already part of a sermon delivered by Jesus himself.   Who am I to create a sermon based on a sermon by Jesus?   What could I possibly add to or clarify in what Jesus has already uttered?

How could a Minnesota farm-boy possibly dare to preach a sermon based on a sermon by Jesus?   That’s just ridiculous!

What’s more, the Beatitudes have always seemed to be calling us to some kind of moral crusade or a course of self-improvement.  

Too often we hear these verses and imagine them calling us to transform our lives.   We have the sense that Jesus is saying to us:  “Don’t just sit there:  do something!”   Be more humble, practice mercy, make peace…and much more..   

And for Protestant Christians that is always dangerous place to be—whenever the good news of Jesus comes off like good advice from Jesus.

So for most of the time since 1981 when I was ordained I simply “ducked” whenever this gospel lesson popped up in the lectionary…..until two preachers[1] wiser than me opened my eyes to what’s going on here in the first twelve verses of Matthew 5.

One of these wise preachers suggested that the Beatitudes aren’t so much a strategy for moral improvement as they are Jesus’ own “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Beatitudes are Jesus’ “I Have a Dream” speech.  Ponder that for a moment—perhaps with Martin Luther King’s soaring speech in the back of your mind.

The Beatitudes are not about self-improvement or “making this a better world” as much as they are a chance to hear from Jesus, very early in his ministry, a vision of how God sees the world and all of us—both now and in God’s future.

The Beatitudes are framed, not as demands, but as promises throughout, promises of what is and what shall be, in the tender compassion of our God.

What does Jesus see as he looks out over the crowd?     

Jesus sees a graced, gifted, blessed life where others see only pain, heartache, deficit and loss.   

Jesus sees poor souls seemingly bereft of riches….

Jesus envisions sorrowful mourners, humble nobodies, hungry hearts….

Jesus looks at the profoundly sincere, the makers-of-peace, the persecuted….
…and all around them Jesus bestows, Jesus promises a circle of God’s blessing.  

Those whom this dying world ignores, bypasses, even curses—all of them are blessed by God, blessed to be blessings.

And this isn’t something we need to do anything about.

This is something that Jesus’ hearers, including you and me--this is simply who we ARE in the mercy of God.

“I have a dream,” Dr. King announced….and then in soaring rhetoric that still captures our hearts he shared a vision not of what he hoped might happen if everybody finally got their acts together….but rather, he shared a vision of what God was already up to, what God was surely bringing about:  a future in which all God’s children would sing—with one voice—“Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last.”

That, or something very much like it, is what Jesus was doing when he sat down on a mountainside and delivered this sermon.   Not a strategy for moral action, but a panoramic vista on the future that God in Christ is bringing into our lives and our world, even now.

That’s the first fresh thing I learned about the Beatitudes a while back…and the second new insight I received came from a preacher who said this:  in the Beatitudes, Jesus intentionally focuses on all the “breakage” in our lives.

Not just here in these twelve verses, but throughout the Bible, God is always dealing with “breakage.”  

It is, in fact, second nature for God to take the breakage in our lives and transform it into blessing.  What else should we expect, after all, from the One who took the breakage of the Cross and transformed it into the blessing of Easter?

This is, I think, a profound word for you, Pastor Sheila, as you are installed as Lutheran campus pastor for the White Earth Tribal and Community College.

You are already a key bridge-builder and healer in this unique community of learners who bring all the joys and gifts, along with all the challenges and heartaches of young people today.  

Today we publicly name you as pastor within this college, remembering that pastors are instruments through whom God gets close to us, close especially to all the breakage in our lives because of what Martin Luther called sin, death and the power of the devil.

Pastors are persons called to see and not ignore all the “breakage” in our lives.  

Pastors, in the name of the crucified and risen Christ, pronounce God’s surprising, undeserved blessing upon us, precisely in our brokenness.

So, when all our sources of security are broken open, we realize how “poor in spirit” we truly are.

When all our hope for heaven on earth is broken open, we become people who can only “hunger and thirst for [God’s] righteousness”

As we name the hope that is in us—a hope that runs right up against the grain in this world—we’re broken open in the act of suffering, being persecuted for being out of line with the world.

Each of these beatitudes begins with some experience of brokenness….a brokenness that opens us up to God who delights in filling that brokenness with blessing.

When we’re most keenly aware of being broken, bereft, at the end of our rope—like those whom Jesus addressed in his Sermon on the Mount--here is what God in Jesus 
Christ says to us: 

You are blessed.  

You are the apple of God’s eye.  

You are Jesus’ joy and delight.  

You will not be disappointed.  

In God’s good time—in the future that God alone holds in the palm of his hands—in that future your future is disclosed, for the sake of God’s beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

It would be so wonderful if blessings came in a less painful way.  We wish God simply doled out blessings the way Ed McMahon used to pull up to some unsuspecting soul’s house, scrambling out of the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes prize van, with an over-sized check for a million dollars.

But in God’s Kingdom, it doesn’t work that way.   In God’s Kingdom we are broken open, so that God has space to redeem and restore and bless.   Blessing enters in most readily, clearly and unmistakably wherever there is “breakage” that opens up room for blessing, thus making everything and everyone new, in Jesus Christ.

But even that is not the end of the matter.  

The same preacher who taught me about “breakage” in our lives went on to say that God’s blessings are always “leaky.”    

God never blesses any of us in such a way that we just hang onto that blessing and hold it in, purely for ourselves. 

No, blessings by their very nature tend to “leak”—to leak out of our hands, into the hands of other broken ones, all around us….

…and in fact, that’s exactly why God put us here:  to leak God’s blessings to us so that others might hear Jesus’ own “I Have a Dream” speech…and in that way, be blessed forever.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

[1] I think the first of them was David Lose, and I know the second of them was Martha Stortz who spoke to the ELCA Conference of Bishops some years ago.

Saturday, January 21, 2017


Ordination Sermon for Kent Krumwiede
January 21, 2017 at Trinity Lutheran Church, Truman, MN
Matthew 28:16-20

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

These verses from Matthew 28 are like a pair of old shoes for you, Kent.   As you told me, this passage has been “visiting” you at key junctures in your life….hovering over your own Baptism….on your lips as the script for a worship skit you were in as a Sunday Schooler…and, almost inevitably, on your confirmation day, your Bible verse was this one, the Great Commission.

The more these verse have “visited” you, the stronger your own sense of call has grown, and so it makes perfect sense that today as your life comes full circle, once again, you are under the banner of the Great Commission.  

But this is about so much more than good memories regarding all the ways God has been getting at you over the decades….wooing and wheedling and working on you to become a pastor in the church.

You will always “look back” when you consider Matthew 28, but in these next moments I invite you also to look forward, to the many years of pastoral ministry that await.   This text is a rich, rich tool-kit for ministry, and you will never exhaust its treasures. 

Let me name five of these treasures.

First there is the treasure of honesty humility in this text.

“Humility” might not be the first word we associate with the Great Commission.  Some have been uncomfortable with the triumphalistic ring about the whole notion of making disciples of all nations.

It does fire the imagination—to envision Word of Christ encompassing the globe.   Reminds me of the old Lutheran Hour Rallies I attended as a kid growing up over by Amboy.  The venerable Oswald C.J. Hoffmann would preach a fiery sermon, but only after the “parade of nations”—local folks, arrayed in clothing reflective of all corners of the globe, filing into the arena, all singing:  “Jesus, shall reign where ‘ere the sun, does its successive journeys run.”   Hard not to get a shiver up your spine—when you sing bold words like those!

And yet there is a tone of sober realism at the beginning of this passage, because it says that the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them (Matthew 28:16).    Eleven disciples—that doesn’t sound right---weren’t there supposed to be twelve?  But there was a dropout, who abandoned Jesus and skipped out on the apostolic adventure, the Betrayer Judas.

So the eleven remaining disciples arrive at the mountain, and the Risen Jesus is there, and they worshipped him—but some doubted.    Isn’t that stunning:  the glorious Risen Christ right before their eyes, but some still doubted?

The Great Commission starts with honest humility:   a realistic reminder that ministry in the name of the Risen Christ always involves working with dropouts and doubters.   It was precisely for such folks, people like you and me, that Jesus came into the world---to call us dropouts and doubters to follow him.  

May such honest humility always be your starting point in ministry, Kent.    You will do your best work, pray like crazy, preach your heart out….and some will not buy it and others will have doubts.   But why should any of us pastors be exempt from challenges that even Jesus faced?

The second treasure in this text is the solid grounding of our ministry, based solely on the saving work of Jesus Christ.    The grounding of our ministry—the only reason we even attempt this audacious work—is that the Risen Jesus has death behind him and now sits at the control panel of the cosmos:    “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

Again, what an audacious claim!   On Good Friday, at the cross, Jesus seemed utterly powerless.   But in the wild unpredictable way that God does business with us—making power perfect in weakness!—the Biggest Loser turned out to be the true Master of the Universe, God’s universe!

Kent, you didn’t get yourself into this business.  God called you, and God in Christ will continue to call you.   Some days—perhaps most days—that may be the only thing that keeps you going as a pastor.   As we shall shortly hear in the rite of ordination:   Be of good courage, for God has called you, and your labor in the Lord Is not in vain!

The third treasure in this text is that tiny word:  GO.    Pastors are persons on the go; they reflect a “going” God,;  they serve a church that is on the move.

“Go, therefore….”the Risen Christ commands his followers.  “Go!”   We never outgrow our need to hear that tiny word, because the longer we live in this world, the easier it is to get settled and comfortable and, frankly, immobile.

The church of our youth, Kent, was a church that emphasized “coming” more than “going.”   Come to our church where you’ll come to know God.  We’ll even unlock our doors every Sunday and at other times, precisely so that persons can come to God, present themselves before their Creator.

The church of today and tomorrow, is increasingly a church about “going.”   And that isn’t some fancy new fad.  It is rather about taking Jesus at his word when he commanded his disciples:  “Go, therefore…”  

A going church is more about people than place, more about moving than settling in.   A church that hears Jesus’ “Go!” clearly will be a movement more than an organization.   We take our cues from a peripatetic Savior who hardly ever sat still, but was always seeking, searching out sinners, setting them free.

Pastoral ministry that reflects Jesus’ own ministry is about such going, seeking, searching finding and liberating sinners.   It is about mobilizing an all-too-often immobile community, just because Jesus told us to “GO!”   Get out there.   There’s a whole world dying to hear what God has to say, and pastors provide the vocal cords to make that happen and the hands to raise up a whole community of Good News speakers.

So we go….and we move….but this is anything but mindless activity on our part.   Jesus’ Great Commission zeroes in on specific, potent ways of continuing Christ’s work on earth.    So hot on the heels of Jesus’ command to go comes the fourth treasure in this text, the sharp focus for ministry that flows forth from making disciples…baptizing…and teaching.

The momentum Jesus produces when he commands his people to Go, is purposeful.   There’s an agenda here.   Disciples who themselves are still trying to get the knack of following Jesus are empowered to start making others into followers of Jesus.     The path begins in the water and Word of Baptism, and it continues through a lifetime of feasting on the Word made flesh, in the bread of life, the cup of salvation.   The path is widened and deepened as disciples are taught what they need to know to heed the Great Commission.  

So you’ll receive some gifts today, Kent.   If you’re lucky you’ll get a good walking stick, a baptismal shell, a communion kit (though you may already have one), and—believe it or not!--a few more books. 

Now, you and Lisa might think your house already has more than enough books—you’ve finished seminary, after all!   But don’t forget that “seminary” means a “seed bed.”  All seminary really accomplishes is to give you a good start on a lifetime of learning so that you’ll never run out of things to teach the people of God. 

You and I and every other pastor needs to be a disciple always in formation, an administrator of the sacraments who never plumbs the full depth of baptism and the Supper, and one who teaches the faith in the face of your awareness that the more you learn the more you know how much you don’t yet know.

Finally, the Great Commission provides one last treasure for ministry:   the promise of our Lord’s stubborn, come-what-may, abiding presence.    For all the highs and lows, the ups and downs on pastoral ministry there is one thing you can always count on:   that Jesus has your back!   

That’s why Matthew’s gospel ends as it began, with the promise of Immanuel, God-with-us (Matthew 1:23).   No words are sweeter to the ears of every believer, every pastor, than Jesus final words in this gospel:   “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  (Matthew 28:20)

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

God-With-Us In All the Bad Stuff

Wild Rice Lutheran Parish
Aspelund Lutheran Church, Flom, MN
November 27, 2016/Advent 1
Daniel 6:6-27 (Narrative Lectionary)

The famous American theologian Wood Allen once said:  “I’m not afraid to die.  I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

True to form Mr. Allen (who is not a bona fide Lutheran theologian!) gives voice to some of our deepest anxieties.    He articulates our heartfelt desire to keep the awful, awful stuff always at arm’s length.

The only problem is that it never works out that way.  Bad stuff—both the bad stuff we bring upon ourselves and the bad stuff that just shows up—bad stuff has an uncanny way of finding us and  messing up our lives.

And as if that weren’t bad enough, God just lets it to happen.   Rather than wrapping us up in a cocoon of 100% guaranteed safety, happiness and good health, God allows the bad stuff to penetrate our lives.  

Surely God could prevent that.   Certainly God could shield us, God could inoculate us with a super vaccine that would ward off all the bad stuff…

…But God seems to have no interest in doing that.

So, as we see here in this long scripture reading, God’s faithful servant Daniel finds himself tossed into a den of famished lions—the entrance sealed like a tomb.

And how does such a thing happen?   

Daniel, after all, was a really, really good man!  

Exiled from his homeland in Judah, Daniel’s character and abilities were noticed and lifted up by those who held him and his people captive in Babylonia.

So Daniel—a foreigner in the Babylonian court—became the right hand man to King Darius.   

But when good things happen to someone, others become envious.  Some of Babylonia’s politicians thought that positions of leadership should be reserved for Babylonians not Jews.  Native-born persons, not exiles, should be in charge.

So these-green-with-envy fellows hatched a devious plotted against Daniel, concocting a way to trap him in his faithfulness to the God of his ancestors.   The conspirators lured King Darius into signing a decree that for a whole month no one in the land would be permitted to pray to anyone but to him, Darius the King.

When Daniel, man of integrity that he was…when Daniel was spotted breaking the King’s decree--praying three times a day, his face set toward his holy city Jerusalem--both Daniel and Darius were caught in a trap from which they could not extricate themselves.

So Daniel was served up as cat-food, tossed to the lions…and the God to whom Daniel faithfully prayed just let it happen.

The entrance to the lion’s den was popped open, Daniel was plunked down among the famished beasts, and the escape hatch was sealed up—lest some second century B.C. Delta Force “special ops” rescuers try to spring Daniel from this pit of death.

This sort of thing happens a lot in the Bible.  It’s a deeply disturbing pattern that we see, time and again.   

Even in this same Book of Daniel, it happened three chapters earlier when three other Jewish exiles were caught red-handed, being faithful to God of Israel.   Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, for the high crime of worshiping only the one true God, were hogtied and tossed like kindling right into the middle of the fiery furnace--an inferno so hot that even those executioners who dragged them to the furnace were scorched to death.

That sort of thing happens all the time in the Bible:  whether it’s the Israelites forced into slavery in Egypt….or whether it’s the prophets of God who were persecuted and murdered for speaking the truth….or whether it’s God’s chosen people being conquered by foreign tyrants and hauled off into exile….bad stuff just keeps happening to God’s precious ones….

….and God just keeps letting it happen, time and again.

If that were the end of the matter, the Bible would read more like the screenplay for a horror film than a holy book—not the kind of literature we’d want to read, especially to our children…

But fortunately all the awful, awful stuff that happens is never the end of the matter in the Bible.

For as surely as God allows evil to enter our lives, God makes sure that we’re never alone.  God insists on coming along, accompanying God’s people wherever they go—even if it’s right into the fiery furnace, down into the lions’ den, or overwhelmed by the agony of exile.

So, no sooner are the three young men in Daniel chapter three—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—thrown into the fiery furnace…but suddenly we behold a fourth figure with them—smack dab in the middle of the consuming flames!

And no sooner had King Darius arrived at the mouth of the den after his sleepless night of despair….than he heard the sweet voice of Daniel, declaring that he had not been alone among the ravenous beasts:  “O king, live forever!  My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths so that they would not hurt me…” (v. 22)    

And that same wonderful, healing, hope-restoring, saving pattern also plays itself out—again and again—down through the pages of the scriptures:   God permits evil into the lives of his people, but only (it seems!) so that God can be there with them, “in the same soup,”--accompanying, rescuing and saving them.

Which brings us, my friends, to the way this beloved old Sunday School story of Daniel in the lions’ den intersects with us, today, on this First Sunday in Advent!

For truth be told, you and I do not live shielded, inoculated, cocooned lives of health, happiness, safety and unfailing trust in God.   The bad stuff catches up with us, time and again—and God just lets it happen…..but only because God is never distant, never aloof from what we’re experiencing.

Quite the contrary:   God permits sin, sickness, despair and death to mark our days…..but only so that God can be there with us, rescuing and restoring us every step of the way:  forgiving sin, healing sickness, beating back despair, defeating death.

So, on this First Sunday in Advent, the whole church traditionally prays this great prayer:   “Stir up your power, O Lord, and come.   Protect us by your strength and save us from the threatening dangers of our sins, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.”

Because we sin, because sickness comes upon us, because death catches up to us….we never outgrow our need to cry out:  “Stir up your power, O Lord, and come….”

And thank goodness, God never wearies of replying to our prayer:  “Surely, I am coming soon.”  (Rev. 22:20)

In a world where sin, death and the power of the devil never leave us….thank goodness, God also never leaves us.   The watchword of Advent and the Christmas soon to come is this:  Immanuel, God-with-us, through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, son of Mary and son of God.

That’s the fullest, widest, deepest pattern that shines through the Bible…..not just that bad stuff finds us, but that God in Christ finds us, pitching his tent among us, now and forever, making you and me and all things new.

A foretaste of that new creation peeks through at the end of our reading from the Book of Daniel:     Daniel is drawn up from the tomb of the lion’s den, his false accusers are prevented from doing further harm, and miracle of miracles the pagan king Darius becomes an evangelist—a proclaimer of the Good News: “to all peoples and nations of every language throughout the whole world:  ‘…I make a decree that in all my royal dominion people should tremble and fear before the God of Daniel:  For he is the living God, enduring forever.  His kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion has no end.  He delivers and rescues, he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth….’”

Let us pray:  Gracious God, you have promised to be with us in all the trials and troubles of life.   As you rescued your servant Daniel, as you resurrected your beloved Son Jesus, so also draw us up out of every pit we find ourselves in.   As you make us and all things new in Jesus Christ, shape us into the flesh-and-blood proof that you have always been and will always be Immanuel, God-with-us.   Make us bold like King Darius to witness to your unfailing love, free us like Daniel to worship you without fear, and fashion us to be the living images of your forgiving grace and your liberating truth. In Jesus’ name.  Amen.”

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Worst Thing Will Never Be the Last Thing

Christ Lutheran Church on Capitol Hill, St Paul
November 6, 2016
All Saints Sunday/Baptism of Micah Aaron Haddorff
Ephesians 1:15-18; Luke 6:20-31

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

A little boy came home from Sunday School, where he and his classmates had just learned about the creation stories in Genesis--and he was just bursting with questions.

“Mommy,” he asked.   “Is it true that we are created from dust and when we die we return to dust?”

“Yes,” his mom replied, cautiously, “Why do you ask?”

“Well you gotta come upstairs real quick and look under my bed—‘cuz I’m pretty sure someone’s either coming or going!!”

A story like that just might cause us take a fresh look at all the dust bunnies around our homes!

And while we’re at it we might a fresh look at some other things, too….like…this baptismal font.

For just as certainly as we come from dust and return to dust…we also--we whose bodies are at least 70% water—we also come from the water and return to the water of our baptism into Christ.

We could even say that someone’s either coming or going, right here at Christ Lutheran, whenever the water of baptism is poured out as it shall be today for little Micah…

…and whenever we dip our fingers in the water and retrace the mark on our brows, we do so as people who are always “coming and going” not just from the dust of this good earth, but from the waters of our submersion with the Crucified and Risen Christ.

Baptism after all, at its core, is a dying and a rising, as St Paul says:   “We have been buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”  (Romans 6:4)   

Martin Luther, playing off St Paul, declared that Baptism “signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”  (Small Catechism, ELW p. 1165)

Which is to say:  when we baptize someone or even just whenever we remember our baptism, someone is always coming and going, dying and rising again.  

Oh sure, we take all kinds of pictures and try to freeze the moment of baptism in our memories….but Baptism resists all such efforts to encase it in the past.

Baptism is never a static thing.  It is always our daily starting point--our ongoing life, our perpetual returning to baptism, our daily dying and rising with Christ.  

So I love how you folks at Christ Lutheran always position the baptismal font right here, located smack dab in the center of your worship-space.

For truly, this font and everything that happens here, marks our whole life of faith, hope and love in Jesus Christ.  This font is “front and center,” precisely because it is our rescue-place, our GPS locator, the command center where we receive our marching orders in God’s mission.   Someone’s always coming or going here… 

All our crookedness is straightened out here, all our waywardness made right here, all our thin and fragile hope revived here, all our pathway through life illuminated here!

The font is where it all begins, where—truly--all the saints whom we remember on this All Saints Sunday…the font is where we’ve all been birthed, into Christ Jesus.

So please, my dear friends, if anyone ever asks you if you’ve been born again….please don’t skip a beat, but answer clearly:  “Yes, yes, yes, I’ve been born again and again and again….and again.”

For we are always turning and returning to our starting point.  Our baptism is never stuck in the past.  What baptism launches us into is a whole unfolding life of beholding how our God is turning us, and turning our whole world around.

Jesus proclaims that good news in this bracing “steel-cut oatmeal” Gospel lesson.  What an astonishing Great Reversal is described here in Luke 6, set in motion by blessings and woes that Jesus utters, to upend the world and call into question all the cherished assumptions we live by.

Truly, this perpetual coming and going, this death-and resurrection way of life in Christ—it turns everything upside down.

What does this new Kingdom a’ coming, this “glorious and gentle rule of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord”—what does it look like? 

Surprise!  It looks like losers (losers, about whom we’ve heard so much during this agonizing presidential campaign!)…the Kingdom looks like losers trading places with winners.  For in Jesus’ topsy-turvy Kingdom everything and everyone gets re-valued.   

Down-and-outers, those with growling stomachs, the forsaken and the reviled….those who’re dismissed as “losers” are lifted up….granted seats of honor at the Royal Table—switching places with those we usually regard as “winners”—all the wealthy, self-satisfied, happy, popular ones.  

Jesus’ blessings-and-woes here in Luke 6 point us ahead to Jesus’ own Great Reversal, the Cross where Jesus surely looked like the world’s biggest loser, and the Empty Tomb where God made it crystal clear that all bets are off, and that absolutely nothing in this world is as it appears to be.

What Jesus talks about here, as it finds a home in our hearts, as it animates the choices we make, the path that we take….as all that happens, Jesus’ way with us will be the end of us—the end of the us we were all born with, the ancient Eve and the old Adam who resides deep in our bones—this old you, this old me, will not survive our walk with Jesus.

Loving enemies, treating haters kindly, embracing those whose lips drip with curses, praying for those who make life miserable, turning the other cheek, cheerfully parting with the shirts off our backs….all those ways of being and acting in the world will certainly be the death of us, the death of that old you, that ancient “me, myself and I” who temporarily resides within us. 

Jesus is forever opening up a new way of life that evicts our tired, old, sinful selves….so as to make room for the new creature, the new person whom Lord Jesus is forever calling forth.

That’s what happens here in this refreshing, restoring water of baptism.   That and that alone transforms us from sinners to saints.

Here, precisely here, in our baptism into Christ, God right-sizes our hearts, and right-wises our ways of thinking and believing and acting…granting us a hope that will never disappoint us, an inheritance that can never be taken from us, an indelible cross-shaped seal on our foreheads that cannot be erased. 

And here’s the best news of all:  our baptismal dying and rising with Christ, our resurrection here at the font means that the worst thing that happens to us will never be the last thing that happens to us!

Let me say that again:  resurrection means that the worst thing that happens to us will never be the last thing that happens to us!

And if all this sounds like just one more election year whopper…one final “liar, liar, pants on fire” campaign promise….please don’t  just take my word on it.

Listen rather, as our lesson from Ephesians puts it…listen rather for the quiet but compelling, convicting voice of the Holy Spirit, who alone makes us wise and lets us understand what it means to know God.  

On our own, all of this talk about the Great Reversal, can seem like a walk in the fog.  

But even in the fog, we never travel alone. The Spirit hounds us, finds us, turns us in our waywardness….so that light will flood our hearts and…we will understand the hope that was given to us when God chose us, in Christ Jesus the crucified and resurrected one, whose coming and going, whose own unending life becomes forever ours in the liberating water and Word of Baptism. 

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.