Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Throwaway Life

Trinity, Moorhead
August 31, 2008
Installation of Pastors Marsha Anderson, Josh Graber and Emmy Isaacson
Matthew 16:21-28

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

These days I’m thinking about teachers—especially those who teach preschool, kindergarten and first grade classes.

Why them, in particular? Because at the start of every school year our littlest ones come to these teachers…like free-range livestock, used to doing their own thing, heading off into a thousand different directions…..and these patient teachers guide our wee ones’ boundless energies into the basics of social interaction….things as basic as how to line up.

How to line up. What a crucial life skill!

I realize that “lining up” can seem like terribly “conformist” behavior….but imagine a world in which no one knew how to line up, a world in which no one had any patience for forming a line and waiting in a line?

Which brings me, curiously, to this morning’s gospel lesson. I’m pretty sure, you see, that “lining up” is what this text from Matthew 16 is all about.

Throughout Matthew’s gospel Jesus has been teaching his disciples how to line up—Jesus has been helping them to know their place in the line, and Jesus has been leading them.

But the disciples, like little “free range” children, were reluctant to line up properly. Like herding cats or hauling frogs in a wheelbarrow, Jesus has to keep stopping the parade and getting everybody back in line, back in their place.

Here in our gospel lesson, it’s Simon Peter who gets out of line—rather dramatically!

Earlier in this 16th chapter of Matthew Simon had received from Jesus a new nickname—Peter, petros, the rock of faith. He’s the one who gets out of line “big time” in this morning’s gospel reading.

What got Peter so agitated was Jesus’ prediction of where this line was going, where this parade was heading. Having correctly identified Jesus as God’s anointed one, Peter now hears Jesus describe just exactly what that means—how it means suffering, being killed and on the third day being raised again. Jesus defines his way of life as a “throwaway,” give-it-all-up-for-others way of life.

And this Peter could not bear to hear, so he fell out of line, went up front, got ahead of Jesus, got into Jesus’ face to say: “God forbid, Jesus! This must never happen to you, Jesus!”

Peter wasn’t being ornery or “contrary” here…nor was he confused. No--Peter saw all too well, where things were heading—and he wanted no part of it, not for Jesus, not for himself, not for anybody else.

It was as if Peter realized that his leader was about to march right off the edge of a cliff and take everybody else with him. So Peter got out of line (so he thought) to prevent a catastrophe.

But Jesus didn’t see it that way. In fact Jesus responded to Peter about as forcefully as Jesus responded to anyone anywhere in the gospels: “But [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

Simon the petros, the rock of faith, all of a sudden becomes Simon the satana, the Satan, the Adversary! Peter the Rock morphs into Peter the scandalon, Peter the Stumbling Block!

That’s what getting out of line with Jesus will do to you!

And so Jesus has to get Peter back into line, Jesus has to tell Peter to “fall in,” he has to remind Peter of where he belongs: behind him, following Jesus, not ahead of Jesus.

There’s only one Savior, here, Jesus (in effect) tells Peter….and it ain’t you.

And there’s a word we all need to hear. This world has exactly one savior—and it’s not you, nor is it me.

Dear pastors Marsha, Josh and Emmy….maybe this is a word especially for you, as you get put into your places (installed, that is!) this morning….as you fall into Jesus’ lineup here at Trinity.

There is exactly one Savior of the world—and you’re not it.

I say this because especially for us pastors, it’s tempting sometimes to think that maybe we are “it”—if not the Savior of the world, perhaps the savior of this congregation or this vital ministry or this crucial project or this really important team.

And if our egos don’t get us in trouble, the good people of God might help us, by saying things like: “We can’t meet that evening—the pastor has a scheduling conflict.” It can start as subtly as that, an over-dependence on pastoral leadership that joins forces with our all-too-human tendency to think too highly of ourselves.

“Get behind me,” Jesus says to Peter and to you and to me. Know your place in my lineup. I’m Jesus and I’ll be your Savior for today; I’ll take the lead here….and I call you to get behind me, to follow me, and to travel with me wherever I take you.

And where will Jesus take us? As much as Peter might have thought he was saving Jesus’ neck, he was really trying to save himself--so caught up, so bound up was Peter in doing things the human way—the safe way, the save your neck way, the stay in charge way.

Where will Jesus take us? Jesus will take us into the heights and breadth and depth of divine life—which is a life that we can ever cling to. It is, rather a throwaway life, a life that is gained only in the losing of it. Jesus bids us dare to risk everything on the reality that only as we let go of life does life come back to us and stay with us forever.

And this is more, much more than a lofty philosophical or ethical principle. This is Jesus’ own way of living and dying and living again. This is how God is bringing in his kingdom, refashioning you and me and the whole creation. This life of utter abandon and faithful recklessness is what we were created for, and what God in Christ is even now recreating us for.

Just what that might mean at any given moment in our lives, Jesus doesn’t spell out—thankfully. And yet I wonder….I wonder what it might look like to follow Jesus so radically, so totally, in this time and place.

I wonder whether following Jesus in this throwaway life of his might mean parting with our money with greater recklessness….giving so generously that the IRS suspects we’re up to something shady.

Or: I wonder if following Jesus in this throwaway life of his might mean setting aside our comfortableness, turning ourselves so completely “inside out” that we refashion every way of “doing church” so that it’s aimed at newcomers and outsiders who have yet to hear the gospel in a believable way.

Or: I wonder whether following Jesus in this throwaway life of his might mean sacrificing our respectability and embracing the marginalized so completely that we become known as “those people” who are always hanging out with the wrong crowd, letting just anybody into “their” church, helping just anybody who needs it.

Dear friends, as we line up behind Jesus our only leader, our only Savior, he will present us with opportunities to give it all up, to take breath-taking risks, to put everything that our humanity tells us is precious—to put that all in jeopardy, to embrace Jesus’ own wild, reckless “give it all away” life.

And that, dear pastors Marsha, Josh, and Emmy….is also an invitation to you , as you take up your callings here at Trinity this morning. Whatever else you are called to preach and teach and live out, let this much be crystal clear, let this message shine through (in the words of Frederick Dale Bruner): “The Christian life is a ‘throwaway’ life, a life that in a great dare decides that Jesus is what life is all about and that following Jesus is the greatest adventure” of all. (Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary — Volume 2: The Churchbook, Matthew 13–28, p. 156)

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Healthy Congregatons Act Creatively and Flexibly

NW MN Synod Bishop's Letter
September 2008

Exodus 18 contains one of my favorite leadership stories in the Bible. The children of Israel, having escaped from Egypt, are encamped near Mount Sinai for an extended period of time. Moses, their God-ordained leader, seems to be in charge of everything—even settling their petty squabbles.

Each day people come to Moses, begging him to settle their disputes with one another. During this time Moses’s father-in-law Jethro (a foreigner, by the way!) comes for a visit. He observes his son-in-law growing wearier by the hour. “What you are doing is not good,” Jethro interjects. “You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” (vv. 17-18)

So Jethro proposes a creative solution: Moses needs to share leadership by enlisting others (“able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain,” v. 21) to help him govern the people. Moses takes Jethro’s advice—and it worked beautifully.

But why, I wonder, didn’t Moses himself come up with such a solution? Why couldn’t Moses be creative enough to generate this idea? The text of Exodus 18 doesn’t tell us, but I suspect it’s because Moses was so weary and uptight that he had developed tunnel vision; he had become rigid and brittle. Tension robbed him of the vision to see another way of doing things.

Stress and anxiety do that to us as individuals. We feel pain or angst, and we tighten our muscles. Pretty soon a dull, tension headache sets in, and a mental fog settles over us. We’re sluggish, “stuck,” no longer quick on our feet.

The same goes for congregations. Congregations that are highly stressed (by unmanaged conflict) or anxious (about any number of things—including their own survival) grow dull, rigid, and brittle. They lose their capacity for creative thought or nimble action. They lock themselves into tired old routines and fall back on the Seven Last Words of the Church: “but we’ve always done it that way.”

Healthy congregations are flexible. They see change as a manageable process—an adventure, even. Rather than blaming or attacking others, people in healthy congregation invest energy in problem solving. They’re willing to learn and confident that things can change for the better.

Healthy congregations are creative. They make room for exploration, take time for innovation. They bounce back from adversity quicker. Realizing that they don’t have all the wisdom in the world, they ask for help—they bring in resource persons from the outside (like Jethro, the foreigner, giving wise advise to his world-weary son-in-law!)

Healthy congregations are not deadly serious or uptight about everything. They have a sense of humor and a “lightness of being.” You sense it when you walk through their doors. There may even be a little “holy mischief” afoot that keeps folks guessing, on the edge of their seats, wondering what’s coming next!

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe

Questions for reflection and discussion:
1. Think about your own experience of stress and anxiety. What bodily symptoms tell you that you’re feeling tense? How does tension thwart your own flexibility and creativity?
2. In what areas of your congregation’s life do you detect brittleness or rigidity? How is this holding you back from being faithful in God’s mission?
3. What is the most creative venture your congregation has tried in the last five years? Recall a time when your church responded nimbly and flexibly to changing circumstances.

This is the sixth of an 11-part series of articles, based on the Health Congregations training materials by Dr. Peter Steinke. Bishop Larry encourages church councils and other leadership groups to use these articles for devotions/discussion as they meet together.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

We Sink--Jesus Saves!

Bethel and Our Savior’s Lutheran Churches, Dalton, MN
August 10, 2008
Pentecost 12/Matthew 14:22-33

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

I have good new and bad news for you this morning.

First the good news: the presidential election is only 86 days away. Come November 4th we’ll be done with all this nasty business—the instant polls, the mudslinging, the charges and countercharges of flip-flopping and other “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Be of good cheer! This too shall pass.

Now the bad news: the presidential election is still a whole 86 days away! And even though some of us are sick of it already, we need to get over that. There are hundreds of millions of dollars that have been contributed to the candidates--and these dollars must be converted into clever TV ads, punchy radio ads, “gotcha” newspaper ads, intriguing Internet ads….every last dollar must be expended, every last debate and speech must be ended….and then finally on November 4th we will be free.

Have you noticed the lengths to which American politicians go to depict themselves in the most favorable light, at every turn? Have you observed how our candidates refuse—steadfastly refuse!--to admit any wrongdoing? Even their past histories, their bestselling hardcover campaign biographies, must be told in ways that always—always cast the candidate positively--an aura, even a halo around their heads?

No one, absolutely no one, wants to let their dirty laundry hang out--not even a tiny bit!--in an election campaign.

And in that regard, campaign literature—edited, sanitized, cleaned up after the fact—campaign literature is nothing like biblical literature.

One of the things that makes the Bible ring true, one of the reasons why I and many others find the Bible so compelling is that no one seems to have “scrubbed it up” after the fact. If campaign literature avoids hanging out the dirty linen….biblical literature seems to specialize in hanging out all sorts of dirty underwear, showing us our heroes at their worst, caught in the act, constantly making fools of themselves.

Take this familiar gospel story from Matthew 14, for example. It is, in the form it has come down to us, a product of the apostolic age. The apostles wrote it down, for goodness sake…

….so why, I ask, did the apostles leave in so much stuff that makes them look bad?

Take Peter, the prince of the apostles, the first among Jesus’ followers, the one who some believe was the first pope, the vicar of Christ on earth…..just look at Peter here in this text. Is this the kind of story Peter really wanted folks to keep telling about him?

Here in Matthew 14 we see Peter being Peter—rash, brash, given to snap judgments and reckless decisions. Peter sees Jesus walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee. Peter asks Jesus if he can try that too. (Where’d he get that idea, anyway?)

And then Peter has a go of it, Peter steps outside the boat and imitates Jesus, walking on the stormy sea for a moment. But when Peter “snaps to” and remembers what’s happening, when he realizes he’s walking on water in the midst of a violent storm, he grows fearful and begins to sink.

Peter, whose nickname meant “rock” starts to sink like one right here before the other disciples, right before Jesus, right before God and the whole host of heaven—Peter seems to fail and fail miserably, this test of discipleship.

And as if that weren’t all bad enough, Jesus hangs a new nickname around his neck. Jesus calls him not Peter the Rock, but rather Peter the oligopistos, Peter the ‘little-faith-one” not a very pretty picture, indeed!

Why oh why did the apostles remember this story, treasure it, keep retelling it down through the ages, right into our own time? Why preserve a story that makes one of its heroes look so bad?

Here’s why: because when Peter (or you or I for that matter)…when we look bad, when we are bad--when we are at our worst, Jesus is at his best.

This is the story of our lives, dear friends. Even as we live out our days as Christians, something is always dragging us down, pulling us under. We are forever sinking….sinking into the slime and ooze of our sins, our bad judgments, our fears and anxieties, our sorry mistakes. We are in each moment of our days in some dire straits, surrounded by reasons to be frightened….you and I every day are in peril of some sort….

…..and Jesus is forever rescuing us.

We sink, with Peter, and Jesus is right there, Johnny on the spot—our text says “immediately” (v. 31) Jesus is all over us, reaching out, reaching down to us and drawing us up out of the stormy waters that were about to overwhelm us.

There, right there, get that picture in your mind: this is what the life of faith is, in its essence. We sink, Jesus saves!

Is this how you want to think of the life of faith? Shouldn’t we be progressing, climbing, getting better, showing signs of improvement? Lots of Christians in this country love to talk about “living the victorious life”—isn’t that what faith is all about, putting our doubts behind us, forging onward and upward with Jesus?

Matthew 14 takes us to another place, though. It says to you and me: here is your life—get used to it. You will sink. You will be terrified. Doubt will sweep over you. And when that happens, immediately, right in that instant, Jesus will reach down and save you. Take a snapshot of that. That is the life of faith. We sin, we sink, and Jesus saves.

There are prettier, more attractive and compelling stories we could tell. But those stories would not be true—true to the life of faith. Those stories would miss something essential, some piece of bedrock in the life of faith.

Stories where you or I end up the hero—we love those stories and can tell them effortlessly. (Around the campfire I bet old Peter could tell a few stories like that, too!)

But the biblical story, the scriptural witness is more sober and realistic and transparent. The Bible presents stories like this from Matthew 14, in which human beings are anything but heroes and heroines, all so that God in Jesus Christ can be for us the only Hero, the only Rescuer, the only Savior par excellence.

So shall we become content with ourselves, content to be the sinners, the doubters that we are? Yes and no.

Yes, we best be realistic about the role of doubt in the life of faith. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus uses this term oligopistos (“little-faith-one”) five different times, always with reference to his followers, those who are at least beginning to believe in him. Jesus never calls a pagan or unbeliever a “little-faith-one.”

Most of our days here on earth, you and I will be (if we’re honest with ourselves) “little-faith-ones”….babies, infants, with just a smidgin of faith, not nearly as much faith as we wish we had, not nearly as much faith as God deserves from us. But remember what God can and does with just a smidgin of faith: the dash of salt, the pinch of yeast, the mustard seed that grows into a huge plant.

And yet, who among us will be content with being and staying a “little-faith-one?” We want more, we need more, we seek more faith, hope and love. I think that when Peter called out to Jesus there on the Sea of Galilee and pleaded “Lord, save me,” (v. 30) he wasn’t just trying to avoid drowning in H20. Peter was saying: “Save me from my fears, save me from my doubts, I’m drowning in anxiety here, Jesus—save me from all of that.”

And so also, you and I will always, in this world, in this life, want to have those same words on our lips. “Jesus, I’m in over my head. I don’t know where to turn. I’m at the end of my rope. I’ve exhausted all of my resources. I’m not even sure that YOU can get me out of this pickle. Save me!”

And as we utter those words, I ask you, are we still “little-faith-ones?” Or are words like those precisely, precisely the words of someone whose faith is maturing, expanding, right before our eyes, growing into a faith that clings to God and God alone, a trust that grasps Jesus and Jesus alone?

So is there such a thing as “living the victorious Christian life?”

Yes. And here’s what it looks like. You and I are trapped, anxious, sinking fast. And immediately Jesus reaches out to us, fishes us out of our desperation.

We sink. Jesus saves.

That, dear friends, is the victorious Christian life, in all its perplexity and all its glory.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.