Saturday, January 26, 2008

Clock Time Collides With Kingdom Time

Installation of Jeff Teeples
Hawley Lutheran Church, Hawley, MN
January 27, 2008/Epiphany 4
Matthew 4:12-23

Poor Zebedee. When the dust clears, he’s the one left holding the bag—or (should we say?) holding the net.

Zebedee is Left Behind here in this gospel lesson. And nobody ever bothers to tell the rest of his story.

Like many characters who come and go in the four gospels, Zebedee is frozen in time here in Matthew, chapter four. The last we see of him—looking back in our rearview mirrors—the last we see of him is this puzzled expression, shoulders shrugged, a look on his face that reads: “What happened?”

Well, here’s what happened.


Jesus “happened” to these working men along the Sea of Galilee, and the local fishing fleet was never quite the same again. Four veteran anglers were just spirited away, leaving nets unmended, boats still leaking and CEOs like Zebedee wondering: “Now what am I supposed to do?”

All because Jesus happened by.

Why am I even giving the time of day to Zebedee, the father of James and John?

Well, it’s because most of us are more like Zebedee than we are like James and John.

I’m betting that Zebedee had a big long “to do” list tucked into his pocket. Zebedee was very much embedded—as we are—in space and time. Zebedee had places to go, things to do, just keeping body and soul together a while longer—and Jesus came along and messed that all up.

I’m starting with Zebedee this morning because Zebedee’s life is our life. Most of us are just trying to stay on top of our game. We have our work cut out for us—getting school assignments done, keeping the house in order, punching the time clock, meeting our deadlines, hoping the Social Security check gets deposited on time, trying to stay in business one more year,

Zebedee was immersed in clock time—and so are we.

And then Jesus swept past him, and nothing was ever the same again. In a nanosecond, Jesus reduced Zebedee’s work force by 66%--without even asking for permission or offering an apology.

Zebedee was immersed in clock time—but Jesus was carried along by another time--call it decision time, critical time, kingdom time.

If Zebedee had lots of things on his “to do” list, Jesus had just one thing on his list: proclaim the nearness of God’s in-breaking rule, God’s startling reign, God’s reclaiming of the whole creation.

And because Jesus wasn’t bound by clock time, he made waves wherever we went—and no one in this path was left unscathed.

So, John the Baptist is dragged off to a dungeon by evil King Herod. And does Jesus go into hiding, to keep a low profile?

No. Jesus isn’t bound by clock time, with all its concern for safety and security. Instead Jesus relocates his center of operation to Galilee, to territory controlled by the same wicked King Herod—“Take that, you tyrant!”

John the Baptist is removed from the scene—and that triggers Jesus’ determination to go to the frontier, the mission field where the trade routes pass, where Jews and Gentiles are always bumping up against each other. Jesus, rather than retreating to a mountaintop, thrusts himself into the thick of it, heads for the place where people sit in darkness, to shine some light on it all, as Isaiah the prophet had foretold it.

And when Jesus got the whole thing rolling, he proclaimed just one thing: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

There it is: Jesus’ kingdom-time mission statement: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. Hold on to your hat, because God is bursting into your clock-bound world. Get ready to change—brace yourself for a top-to-bottom “makeover.”

This is something more than what the presidential candidates are chattering about every day. Which will it be—“change” or “experience?” Thanks but no thanks, I say to them all. I’ve voted in enough elections to be suspicious of any human being who promises me “change.” We might bite on that in 2008, but I guarantee you, we’ll all be ready for change again in 2012 or for sure in 2016. Change in our clock-bound world is all too often another way of saying: “more of the same.”

But Jesus—Jesus is different. He is the original Candidate of Change. And the proof is in the pudding.

Whenever Jesus sweeps past, someone has to clean up the pieces, reset all the clocks.
  • When Jesus preaches in synagogues, as he did, folks sometimes got so ticked off they were ready to lynch him.
  • When Jesus proclaims good news, persons start behaving strangely, acting as if they believe it.
  • When Jesus “cures every disease and sickness,” people actually get over it, actually get better.
  • And when Jesus enlists others in his cause (like Andrew, Peter, John and James)—they leave good jobs behind, they turn their backs on the safety and security of clock time—ready to embrace the fierce recklessness of decision time, critical time, kingdom time.

And guys like Zebedee get Left Behind—wondering where his two boys are heading off to now.

Jesus, whatever else he does, brings about a collision—a collision between clock time (which is most of our time) and kingdom time.

And, unless I miss my guess, that sort of thing is still happening.

I realize that you all probably have your own “to do” lists, and maybe your list includes things like: “buy kitty litter,” “pick up a loaf of bread” and “go to church.”

But here’s the deal: that last item, “go to church,” assures one thing: that your one-step-ahead-of-another clock time world will bump up against Jesus’ kingdom time world.

And that is what is happening even here and now, right in this moment.
Because you’re here, and because Jesus is here, things won’t ever be the same again.

Have you noticed how that sort of thing happens, whenever you stop by here—whenever you step out of clock time—if only for an hour a week—whenever you open yourself up to kingdom time here at Hawley Lutheran?

You meet Jesus here, and he re-orients everything else in your life. Jesus resets all your other clocks, re-calibrates your ways of thinking, feeling, acting, hoping.

And then: watch out. You’re changed.

You arrive here weighed down by guilt and failture.
You leave here with a lighter step.

You arrive here wondering “what’s the point of it all?”
You leave here, with a renewed sense of direction.

You arrive here, fresh out of hope.
You leave here, confident again that God’s in charge.

You arrive here, perplexed about your purpose.
You leave here, ready again to follow Jesus.

Watch out, though. Coming here messes up the rest of your life, all the moments and hours and days you spend in clock time. They’re never quite the same again.

All because you happened by the same place Jesus was visiting this morning.

I think, rightly so, that we have an even sharper, keener sense of that here this day at Hawley Lutheran. Because this is going to be one of those days you use, in future histories of this congregation, to mark a transition, a turning point.

For today, as we meet up with Jesus once again, we also widen our circle to receive and welcome one of Jesus’ followers, your new pastor, Jeff Teeples.

Pastor Jeff’s presence with you is a sign that kingdom time is upon us once again. Jeff and you somehow were led to each other—your paths crossed in the providence and wisdom and grace of God.

And now, Pastor Jeff is among you, doing just what I’m doing—doing it better, I hope. Pointing out Jesus. Helping you hear Jesus. Washing you with Jesus’ water, feeding you with Jesus’ body and blood, filling you with Jesus’ hope once again.

Clock time truly is colliding with kingdom time this morning. God is opening us all up once again—

  • opening us up to God’s Son Jesus,
  • opening us up to the extreme makeover that Jesus is always working in us,
  • opening us up to the mission God is on,
  • opening us up to hearing Christ’s own “follow me” in such a way that our feet just have to start moving.

In the name of Jesus.

Friday, January 25, 2008

A Missed Opportunity

The movie Juno is receiving lots of "Oscar buzz" these days. It's a sweet, quirky tale of a teenager, Juno, who turns up pregnant after a sexual encounter with her sort-of boyfriend (played by Michael Cera). I heard star Ellen Page (nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress) being interviewed on NPR the other day, and she was asked whether the movie was making a political statement about the abortion debate.

Ms Page quickly denied that there were any "political" implications to the fact that Juno briefly considers getting an abortion, but then decides to let the pregnancy continue as she seeks appropriate adoptive parents for her child. Page's response seemed to pass muster with the NPR interviewer, and the conversation continued in other directions.

But I wonder if Ms Page was entirely accurate in her response. It depends on whether one understands "politics" in a broad sense or in a narrow partisan manner. If politics is defined broadly, as dealing with how citizens live out their deepest convictions in the hurly-burly of the polis, Juno is most certainly making a political statement about abortion.

One needs to ponder the scene in Juno where the pregnant teen visits an abortion clinic. In the parking lot of the clinic she encounters one of her school-mates, another young woman who carries an anti-abortion placard. She engages Juno in a conversation about abortion, encouraging her not to make this "choice." Juno is not easily won over--and she proceeds toward the clinic door. In a last-ditch effort to dissuade her, Juno's friend calls to her: "Your baby has fingernails." Juno shrugs as she enters the clinic.


As she sits in the waiting room of the clinic, Juno suddenly sees fingernails everywhere. She has fingernails, all the other persons in the waiting room have fingergails. Juno even hears fingernails, wherever she turns.

And it is enough to make her flee from the waiting room, to continue her pregnancy to its natural end. It is as if realizing that the little one has fingernails humanizes her fetus, makes her realize that she carries within her body the miracle of budding human life.

If that's not "political," I don't know what is.

And, it would seem, that this is precisely where the political debate over abortion rights in America has, largely, turned. Anti-abortion forces have had limited success in achieving government regulation of the unlimited abortion license that has been the law of the land these past 35 years. But they have achieved greater effect in changing the climate and raising consciousness regarding the humanity of the unborn. The "billboard people" have made it harder and harder to view an unborn child as a thing (or, as Juno puts it earlier in the movie, "a sea monkey!")

All of that--all of that is "political" in the best sense of the word. Too bad that actress Page ducked the NPR interviewer's question, missing an opportunity for a fuller, richer conversation.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Golden Compass: A Measured Assessment

Like many holiday movie-goers, I saw The Golden Compass after Christmas. In many respects it is similar to other recent big-screen fantasies—the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia sagas. Once again a fearless and somewhat rebellious child (Lyra Belacqua) leads the way, in the company of wondrous talking animals, mysterious way-farers (called Gyptians) and a host of curious characters. The fight scene between the two armored polar bears is alone worth the price of admission.

But I was also aware of the controversy that has attended the film’s release. The Golden Compass is based on the writings of Philip Pullman whose trilogy, His Dark Materials, is allegedly a vehicle for promoting his opposition to organized religion, specifically the Roman Catholic Church (full disclosure: I have not read the triology). Supposedly The Golden Compass movie downplays the anti-religious side of Pullman’s work. In my estimation, though, it’s still pretty clear that the nefarious minions of The Magisterium (which is also the name of the teaching office in the Roman Catholic Church) are religious functionaries. And it’s hard to view the icons on the door of the building where the polar bear “hero” recovers his armor without realizing they are clearly religious/Christian in nature.

The god in whom Philip Pullman doesn’t believe is an oppressor-god, who simply wants people to tow the line and fall in step. There’s no nuance in Pullman’s picture of organized religion; e.g. all the forces of the Magisterium are interested in (as film reviewer Ross Douthat puts it) is turning children “into the dull automatons that every religious organization dreams of having in its pews.” (National Review, December 31, 2007). No wonder some religious groups, especially Catholic conservatives, have boycotted the film and spoken out against it.

A more measured assessment of The Golden Compass is offered in the January 15th issue of The Christian Century. Authors Edward Higgins and Tom Johnson, who have read His Dark Materials, provide a helpful summary of Pullman’s three books. Their chief concern is that “Pullman's depiction of Christianity is reductive. For him, the Church embodies anti-human forces. The Church's Magisterium and its Consistorial Court of Discipline are reminiscent of the Inquisition. This is not, in short, the church that produced St. Francis, Julian of Norwich, Oscar Romero and Mother Teresa. Pullman's version of Christianity is a fairly common straw man: the oppressiveness of organized religion.”

I also agree with their conclusion: “These books are a gripping account of a story that is familiar in our culture: organized religion is bad and dangerous, self-reliance and heroic work are good and redemptive. For many readers, this story will ring true. Many other readers will realize that Pullman's God is not the God of the Bible, who ‘abounds in steadfast love’ and insists on justice for the poor. These are not reasons to censor or shun Pullman's powerful, enjoyable and imaginatively rich series, but they are reasons to argue with it.”

The entire article is available at:

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Good Gossip of the Gospel

My sermon this morning, on the gospel for the day John 1:29-42, invited worshippers at Calvary Lutheran Church of Alexandria, MN to share the "good gossip of the gospel."

Installation of Pr. Dale Olson
Calvary Lutheran, Alexandria
January 20, 2008
John 1:29-42

Why in the world did you show up this morning for worship here at Calvary Lutheran? What brought you here, anyway?

Perhaps it’s because you like gossip—and not just garden-variety gossip, the stuff that gets shared by neighbors over fences across backyards.

No--you’re here because you’ve been grabbed by the good gossip of the gospel.

This lesson from John 1 is a gossipy sort of text. Someone is always talking about, always gossiping about Someone Else. And the gossip is so juicy that it keeps gathering steam, drawing folks in, “hooking” them!

It starts with John the Baptist. John is “big” into the good gossip of the gospel. He starts the ball rolling with his testimony about Jesus. And you gotta admit: it’s pretty juicy stuff!

John makes Jesus into a pretty interesting piece of news. In six short verses, John raises all sorts of curiosity about Jesus by calling him

  • The Lamb of God who bears away the sins of the world
  • Someone who is, paradoxically, younger than John but also older than John
  • Someone who is going to be “publicized”—to the whole nation of Israel.
  • A man on whom the Holy Spirit of God had come down in the form of a snow white dove…
  • ….and, as if all that weren’t enough, John the Baptist calls Jesus the Son of God.

John the Baptist gets the good gossip of the gospel going by making this gossip awfully interesting. Whoever John was talking about—folks were bound to be interested in him!

It’s in the nature of gossip that it be interesting. And the good gossip of the gospel—that needs to be interesting, too, if anyone’s going to pay attention to it.

Pastor Dale, the main job you’ve “signed on” for here at Calvary is the job of making Jesus interesting to these folks. Or, better yet: your job is to help others see how interesting Jesus truly is! Calvary Lutheran exists to help make sure that Jesus Christ is among the many interesting things and intriguing persons you encounter here in Alexandria.

Back to John the Baptist. He gets the good gossip of the gospel going here in our text. But he doesn’t let it stop there, with his initial telling of this juicy gossip.

The next day, John picks it all up again when he sees Jesus passing by once more.

And like a good gossip, John nudges two of his buddies, his followers, and says: “Look—there he is—the one I was telling you about. You know, ‘the Lamb of God’ guy! Check him out, why don’t you!!

Now this is really interesting. John knows that gossip kept to oneself won’t last very long—in fact, it won’t last at all. So John does with his gossip what a gossip must do: he passes it on, and not just to anyone, but to two of the persons who were nearest and dearest to him. Two of his disciples, our text says.

These were fellows who earlier in their lives had heard some gossip about John the Baptist himself. They had come to believe that John the Baptist was worth listening to, worth following. They had already heard some good news—but they hadn’t yet heard THE Good News--the greatest news ever.

So, at the risk of losing them as his followers, John the Baptist shares the good gossip of the gospel—and he pushes his two buddies to go directly to the source, to follow after Jesus.

Pastoral ministry, especially as Lutherans like to do it, is keyed in to relationships. It’s most natural to pass on the good gossip of the gospel first to those who are nearest and dearest to us—family members, co-workers, fellow students, friends. Pastor Dale—and all of you here at Calvary: I invite you to remember that the good gossip of the gospel has to be shared , if it’s going to live. Be bold in passing on this good gossip about Jesus to others—even, perhaps especially, to others who may already be “into” other good news, other life-scripts, other “gospels.”

So, two followers of John the Baptist start tagging along after Jesus. And Jesus sees ‘em coming and speaks to them. It’s the first time Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John, and I think it’s fascinating that Jesus’ first words come in the form of a question: “What are you looking for?”


Now there’s a question—a huge, wide-open, tantalizing question! “What are you looking for? What itch are you trying to scratch?”

With this question, Jesus opens the door to these two persons. Jesus invites them into a conversation that will become a conversion.

And John’s two followers swallow the bait. They ask where Jesus is staying, Jesus tells them to come and see—and they spend the day together.

Here’s where we see how different the good gossip of the gospel is from all our garden-variety backyard gossip. Everyday gossip just gets passed along—and that’s that.

The good gossip of the gospel draws people in. It fosters community. It creates a new set of relationships.

Friends, as we share the good gossip of the gospel, we’ll want to do it in such a way that folks want to spend time over at Jesus’ house—this house, this place of worship and learning and fellowship and service. Pastor Dale—I invite you and everybody else here at Calvary to start conversations that produce conversion--a continual turning from darkness to light, from sin to grace, from emptiness to fullness of life in Jesus Christ.

John’s two followers spend the better part of a day with Jesus. I’d give my right leg to know what they talked about—to have a transcript of that visit. But we have no record of that!

All we know is that that conversation produced a conversion, a turning, a newness of life for these two men. Because by four o’clock in the afternoon, these gossip-receivers had become confirmed gossip-sharers!

One of them—we finally learn a name—Andrew, has a specific plan of action.

Just as John the Baptist got the ball rolling by sharing the good gossip of the gospel with those nearest and dearest to him, so now Andrew turns (quite naturally!) to his own brother Simon.

Andrew does two things. He speaks to Simon (“We have found the Messiah—God’s Anointed One”) and he hustles Simon over to have a look for himself.

I think that this little “two-step” is worth noting. Words are crucial—to be sure. Andrew speaks the news to Simon. So far so good!

We Lutheran followers of Jesus aren’t half bad at that. In fact we like words so much that we invest ourselves in them. We believe that words—especially words about God in Jesus Christ—create a new reality.

But notice, please, that Andrew doesn’t stop with words. He gets his brother’s coat and hat out of the closet, warms up the car, takes his brother by the arm and brings him to Jesus.

The good gossip of the gospel isn’t merely spoken. It becomes incarnate, it puts on flesh-and-blood in the action of a gossip-sharer. Andrew brings Simon to Jesus, draws his brother into a conversation with the potential for producing conversion.

Which it does! Simon meets Jesus, and just like that Jesus renames him! In the Middle East of the first century, such an action spoke volumes. For to change someone’s name was like giving them a whole new identity. “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas—Peter—The Rock!”

Pastor Dale and all of you here at Calvary: Don’t just speak the good gossip of the gospel, but find ways to act on that speech. Words at their best produce actions—information yields invitation, an insistent bringing of others to meet this one called Jesus. I invite you to discover new ways of doing that here in this congregation.

We can bring people to Jesus—confident that when someone meets Jesus they will never be the same again. Jesus draws persons—Jesus draws the likes of you and me—into conversations that produce conversion. Jesus is bold—whenever he gets the chance—to name and rename us, to claim and reclaim us.

And we end up with a new identity. Like Simon-turned-Peter the Rock!

Hearing the good gossip of the gospel makes you and me new people, pure and simple. And hearing this gossip, we start bearing this gossip into a world just dying to hear it.

That, dear friends, is why you didn’t stay home this morning. It’s why you came here. It’s why Pastor Dale has shown up here, to be installed as your new senior pastor. He is God’s precious gift to you! Pastor Dale is here, primarily, to help you keep on sharing the good gossip of the gospel.

God bless you all as you take up this adventure—passing on the good gossip of the gospel.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.