Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Rhyming" Word and Deed

Dilworth Lutheran Church
60th Anniversary Celebration, “Growing Disciples”
September 28, 2008
Matthew 21:23-32

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

I’d like to do something sort of strange this morning. I’m going to start by telling you how this sermon ends. It ends with this line: “God loves to wrap words in flesh and blood. God loves to make faith come alive in energy and action.”

Let me say that again, the conclusion to this sermon: “God loves to wrap words in flesh and blood. God loves to make faith come alive in energy and action.”

OK, that’s the end of this sermon. Now, back to the beginning.

Jesus is in the hot-seat here in Matthew 21, as he often is in the gospels. Jesus has been making a stir among the people, riding into Jerusalem like a king, angrily clearing all the merchants out of the Temple, cursing a fig tree so that it withers at once.

Jesus is making a scene, and the religious leaders of his people are understandably nervous. Like the dithering school board members in that old Broadway play The Music Man, always trying to get Professor Harold Hill to fork over his “credentials,” the Jerusalem religious establishment demand that Jesus show his ID and tender his resume.

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” they ask, and it is a very legitimate question. It’s the kind of question they should be asking, even as we wary voters, in this presidential election year are only smart to ask the same thing of Senators McCain and Obama. Show us your credentials, please!

But Jesus isn’t answering this question, at least not directly. He seems to dodge it by asking his own question: What did they make of the now-dead John the Baptist? Where did he get his authority—from God or from human beings?

It’s a no-win question for these religious leaders. If they say that John represented God’s authority, everyone will wonder why these religious leaders opposed John. But if they say that John was just another ordinary human being, they’ll risk upsetting the common folk for whom John had become a hero whose image continued to shine long after his martyrdom.

So Jesus’ accusers back off. Staring nervously at their feet, they mumble: “We don’t know where John’s authority came from”—basically the equivalent of: “No comment!”

Jesus knew they’d answer that way. And so Jesus uses his accusers’ “no comment” to justify his own refusal to answer their question. He wasn’t about to tell them how he got the power to do and say what he’d been doing and saying.

It seems like Jesus was ducking the question his accusers posed. Or was it that Jesus simply didn’t want to TELL his accusers about the source of his authority. For Jesus had another way of dealing with that. Jesus almost always preferred to let his actions do the talking for him.

…which is the point of the little parable Jesus tells next. It’s about as simple and straightforward as any of Jesus’ parables.

A man has two sons. He asks one to go work in the family vineyard, and the son replies: “Bug off, old man. I’ve got better things to do!” (You’ll notice, I’m taking a few liberties with the text…)

But this first son, after a while, feels crummy about what he said to his dear old dad, and so heaving a big sigh, the son puts on his work clothes and heads out to the vineyard. He does the opposite of what he said he’d do.

Meanwhile, thinking he struck out with his first son, the father turns to his second son and asks him to go work in the vineyard. “Sure, Dad, I’ll get right on it as soon as I finish this video game…” (I’m still taking a few liberties with the text…)

But the video game (or whatever else was distracting the second son) takes longer than he imagined, and by that point he has lost interest in obeying his father, and in fact he never makes it to the vineyard. Like the first son, the second son also does the opposite of what he said he’d so.

And so Jesus asks the Jerusalem religious elite: “Which of the two did the will of his father?” And the answer is obvious: only the first son actually did his father’s will.

And with that answer still on their lips, Jesus nails the religious authorities of Jerusalem with this inconvenient truth: “You guys are just like the second son. You talk a good line, but your actions betray you. You say a loud YES to God, but your lives are a huge NO. And meanwhile, the scum of the earth—the ones you look down your long noses at!—they are ‘getting it.’ Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

What is Jesus after here? What is he seeking?

Jesus is seeking a congruence, a correspondence, a “rhyming” of word and deed. That’s because Jesus is speaking for God, indeed Jesus is speaking as God here. And God just “loves to wrap words in flesh and blood…God loves to make faith come alive in energy and action.”

But wait a minute. We Lutherans love words and make much of faith—faith that grasps God’s promises. We’re skittish about doing stuff, leery of “works.” We know that nothing we do can make us right with God, after all.

So, we Lutherans are queasy about what Jesus is up to here in Matthew 21, because Jesus almost seems to de-value our words, our verbal professions of faith.

And yet, and yet, must we pit words against works, faith versus deeds in order to be good little Lutherans? Martin Luther himself once said of faith that it is “a living, busy, active, and mighty thing” (LW 35:370). And Luther himself showed again and again how God’s Word is always more than letters on a page, always more than mere talk. God’s Word is living and active, forgiving our past and forging our future. God’s Word is always, always more than syllables.

In Jesus, after all, God’s Word—God’s “I love you”—became flesh and lived among us (John 1). In Jesus, God’s grace and truth came alive in energy and action….going all the way to the Cross and the Grave for you and for me. God could have mailed us a love letter, but instead God sent us Jesus.

And now, dear brothers and sisters, God sends us, to be his own continuing “love letters” to a hurting, hungry world. We call that discipleship—hence your anniversary theme, “Growing Disciples”—and discipleship involves correlating, “rhyming” words with deeds in the most natural, indeed inevitable way.

When Martin Luther called faith a “living, busy, active, and mighty thing” it’s as if he were saying that faith is hyper-active. It’s in the nature of faith to snap, crackle and pop with life and vitality. God is forever taking our words and wrapping them in flesh and blood:
God wraps our longing for a fresh start and a new creation in the flesh and blood of fervent prayer.
God wraps our awe at the wonders of the universe in the flesh and blood of inspiring worship.
God wraps our pain at the hurt and heartache of this world in the flesh and blood of self-less service.
God wraps our gratitude for all good things in the flesh and blood of overflowing generosity.
God wraps our longing that others might know this Great News in the flesh and blood of winsome witness.

When God wrapped himself up in the flesh and blood of Jesus, born of Mary, we called that incarnation.

When God wraps himself up in our flesh and blood--in where we show up and what we do with our bodies and our being--we call that discipleship.

All of it—all of it—is God’s doing in our lives. God bids us go into his vineyard, and however we may at first answer him, the proof of the pudding will be in what actually happens, what results there—in the vineyard, that is, in God’s glorious world.

So dear friends at Dilworth Lutheran, today as you give thanks for 60 years of life and ministry, you are wisely and appropriately committing yourselves to “Growing Disciples”….which is just another way of saying that you’re opening yourselves up to God who “loves to wrap words in flesh and blood, who loves to make faith come alive in energy and action.”

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Line Starts at the End

2008 Fall Cluster 6 Gathering
Women of the ELCA
Christ the King Lutheran Church, Moorhead
September 25, 2008
Matthew 20:16
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Have you noticed how in Matthew’s gospel, which we’ve been reading in worship this year, there always seems to be a “lineup” of one sort or another?

Jesus is always lining up his disciples, inviting them to follow him….or else he’s telling wild, reckless stories about lineups—like the laborers in the vineyard we heard about last Sunday, whose boss lined them up for payroll, starting with those who worked just one hour and going down to those who worked a full, day-long shift.

When Jesus lines us up, or when Jesus tells stories about lineups like last Sunday’s parable….he is always up to something, turning upside-down and inside-out all our cherished notions about who’s first, who’s on top, who’s at the head of the line.

I’m convinced that Jesus loves fruit-basket-upset…..because the only way he can reach us with the astounding claims of his glorious and gentle rule over all things, his coming kingdom, his new creation…the only way Jesus can get through to us by reversing all our notions of authority and glory and pre-eminence.

And the best, shorthand summary of what Jesus is up to in this regard, comes from the 20th chapter of St. Matthew, verse 16: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last….”…..or as I’ve paraphrased it for our consideration this evening: With Jesus, “the line starts at the end”…..with Jesus, the line forms at the rear.

What is this all about, this strange, upsetting, disorienting reversal of the ways we usually choose up sides, form lines or establish pecking orders?

What it’s all about is this: when Jesus comes into our lives he shakes everything up and reverses all the arrows. Up is down, and down is up….forward is backward and backward is forward…front is rear, and rear is front….first is last and last is first.

And that isn’t just something that Jesus lays on us, that Jesus expects of us or asks us to embrace. It is how Jesus himself lives and moves among us. Jesus leads us in the way where he would have us go.

· So, instead of us climbing our way up to heaven, Jesus descends, comes down from heaven to meet us and redeem us where we’re at.
· Instead of seeking advantage or authority over us….Jesus drains himself of conventional power and might…Jesus empties himself, becomes a slave, allows us to edge him out of the world and up onto a cross.
· Instead of grabbing first place through sheer force…..Jesus heads for the lower position, goes to the end of the line—seeks out the lost, the least, the last—and places himself utterly at our disposal, completely in our service.

Jesus leads the way in his topsy-turvy kingdom by forming an amazing line of followers…..and this line is formed at the rear, on the bottom of the heap, in last place.

And this same Jesus invites us to follow him, to travel where he has already gone for us…setting aside all power and privilege, emptying himself out completely, giving himself away for you and for me, thereby freeing us to do that for one another.

Jesus invites you and me to join his line of followers….and this line forms at the rear, this line starts at the end.

But just what does this look like? What difference does it make in our daily lives and in our corporate life in the church?

Let me suggest three of the many ways that Jesus’ fruit-basket-upset, his topsy-turvy new way of living engages you and me in our lives of faithful following.

1. First, when we join Jesus’ lineup of followers, we’re invited to trade our “respectability” for the privilege of serving those on the margins and edges of life.

We Lutherans, don’t you know, are a respectable bunch—and that’s not all bad. We are not known for rocking the boat, making waves, mixing things up, creating a scene.

If anything, we Lutherans have respectability and predictability and steadiness down to an art form. Garrison Keillor, of Prairie Home Companion fame--all he has to do is say the word “Lutheran” and the audience chuckles….because they picture us: steady-as-she-goes, bland, some might even say boring people who are utterly respectable.

But Jesus whose line starts at the end—Jesus frees us to surrender our respectability in service to the lost, the last and the least.

The easiest way for me to talk about this is to share with you what I’ve learned about a place in our Northwestern Minnesota Synod where that happens every day. It’s called Peoples Church and it’s located in Bemidji.

Peoples Church offers radical hospitality to all in the name of Jesus. Anyone and everyone is welcome, and those who are destitute are consciously recruited. Because Bemidji is located near three major tribal communities, many who come to Peoples Church are Native Americans—but there are at Peoples Church all colors and sizes and shapes of people.

When folks come to Peoples Church, whether for worship or the Sunday feast or an AA meeting or a “wisdom circle” discussion or a chance to pick up some clothes or bedding or other necessities of life…..when folks come to Peoples Church they are treated with respect and compassion. They hear the stories of Jesus and receive his body and blood…..their children are baptized, their dead are buried, and their dignity is honored. Those who usually find themselves last, are moved to the head of the line at Peoples Church.

That all sounds good, doesn’t it? But it comes at a cost. Peoples Church is a risky “gospel enterprise,” because it welcomes even people who have made bad choices, persons living with the consequences of mistakes and folks who have been and may still be in trouble with the law. (Just this past week I heard that 25% of all Native American men in our state are incarcerated in the prisons and jails of our state!) Peoples Church has many supporters—but it also has its detractors.

Because it is a mission congregation of our synod, I believe that Peoples Church—warts and all—is one of the ways we are all lining up behind Jesus, following our Savior who sacrificed his respectability for the shame of the Cross.

2. Here’s another way Jesus’ all-bets-are-off, inside-out way of living engages you and me in our lives of discipleship. When we become part of Jesus’ lineup of followers, we find that embracing faith doesn’t prevent us from walking with doubters.

Jesus certainly leads the way here. Jesus loved doubters—Jesus was always ready to listen to them, hear their questions, and tune in to their longings.

So also, you and I, because we know God holds us in the palm of his hands—we have the freedom to wear our faith with a light touch, that opens us up to questioners and seekers all around us.

Nowadays one of the biggest segments of these questioners and seekers are young adults between the ages of 20 and 40, often identified by pollsters as the most unchurched cohort in the U.S. population.

There are some 45,000 such young adults in the Fargo-Moorhead area, many of whom have yet to be embraced by a believe-able, life-changing faith in Jesus Christ. Over the last year there’s been a conversation about these young adult seekers here in our wider community—a conversation among ELCA folks who believe God calls us to new ways of sharing the good news.

Out of these conversations has come a proposal to start an “emergent church” in the greater Fargo-Moorhead area, and this proposal has now gained approval from the ELCA and the two local synods. For now we’re simply calling it “The Project,” and our first step will be to call an organizer or “minister of listening” to spend time simply meeting with young adults, listening to them and allowing their questions and longings, their hopes and dreams to shape a new form of church—a church that may not look like the churches we know and treasure, a church that will open up pathways to faith for a generation that might otherwise be lost to the cause of Christ.

3. Here’s a third “take” on following Jesus, getting into line behind our Savior—a line that forms at the rear. When we fall in step with Jesus and get behind him, we start flirting with a reckless, break-the-bank generosity. Such generosity flies in the face of our natural inclination to grasp and hold on to what we mistakenly think is ours to keep.

Lately I’ve been sharing a strange dream with people in our synod. I’ve been wondering out loud what it would be like if Lutherans became so notorious for their generosity—especially their financial generosity—that the IRS routinely audited Lutherans’ tax returns, because they appeared to be giving to church and charity way beyond their means.

I know that sounds wild and foolhardy, but it is possible. I have a friend, a dear friend who was audited by the IRS precisely for that reason.

You see my friend is a tither….you might call him a fanatical, industrial-strength tither. He always tithes on all of his income. Years ago when my friend’s mother died and he received a small inheritance, he and his wife insisted on tithing on that as well—all in one year. And when they filed their federal tax return, their charitable contributions looked all out of whack….so the IRS audited them.

Imagine that sort of thing regularly happening to us Lutheran disciples of the Lord Jesus! Why should the Mormons and the Seventh Day Adventists have all the fun of tithing and double-tithing? We Lutherans can easily outdo them in telling of God’s grace and abundance—why shouldn’t we start outdoing them in terms of the way we allow that same grace of God to wash over us and flow through us to others, for the sake of God’s mission in the world?

What does it look like when we follow Jesus—when we line up behind our Lord, for whom the last are first and the first are last?

It looks as though Jesus has upset all our applecarts and reversed all the arrows in our lives….
· Trading our “respectability” for Christ’s own radical hospitality to all…
· Embracing faith in ways that keep us open to doubters, questioners and seekers…
· And saying goodbye to our natural tendency to hang on to stuff for dear life…setting that aside to risk becoming so generous that the IRS might grow suspicious of us.

Does all of this sound a little wild and out of bounds? Does it even sound like a way you Women of the ELCA might “act boldly on [your] faith in Jesus Christ,” as your mission statement puts it?

I think it does.

And that’s why I find it so exciting….following the Lord Jesus who is always “reversing the arrows” and calling the first to be last and the last to be first.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Grace in Your Face

NW MN Synod

Theology for Ministry Conference

Fair Hills Resort, Detroit Lakes, MN
September 17, 2008
Matthew 20:1-16

Will Willimon, Methodist preacher and now bishop, tells about a time he preached on this text in the magnificent Chapel at Duke University. He writes:

She came up to me at the end of the service saying, “I was really troubled by the service today.” She was wearing a Duke blue usher’s robe. “Where do you get these stories that you tell in your talk?” she asked. “Stories? I guess I get them from growing up in South Carolina,” I said. “Well I was really bothered by the one today,” she said. “I just don’t think that’s anyway to treat people. I mean, if you work longer than other people, you should get paid more.” “Wait a minute,” I said. “That’s not my story, that’s from Matthew.” “Matthew?” she asked. “It’s in the Bible,” I said. “Why are you ushering here?” I asked. “Well that tall guy over there, I’m dating him. And he needed somebody to usher today so he called me and here I am,” she said. “Next question,” I said, “what is your religious background?” “We went to church some when I was a kid, but I’m not anything really,” she said. “Well let me tell you something. Just for your information. There is a sense in which you are the only person who got the story this morning. You found it offensive to your notion of justice. Right? Outrageous. Right? Well, just for your information, the man who told that story was later murdered for telling it. You got it. It really is an offensive, outrageous story. You got it.”

SOURCE: William Willimon, “Defining Justice with Jesus”
Sermon preached in Duke University Chapel 9/19/1999

You could say, I think, that Will Willimon had a “post-modern moment” with that young usher in the Duke Chapel. She wasn’t buying what he was selling. Just because it was in the Bible, just because Jesus said it—she wasn’t swallowing it.

And that can be unsettling for us preachers—can’t it?

I think I had my own “post-modern moment” a few Sundays ago. I was in a congregation of our synod, preaching on Matthew 18:15-20…..and about midway through the sermon it’s like I was losing about a third of my hearers. A massive, simultaneous glazing-over-of-eyes seemed to be taking place. And I don’t think they were responding to me as a preacher as much as they were responding to Jesus and his hard word about treating folks who refuse to be reconciled as if they’re Gentiles or tax collectors.

It all came to a head when I uttered the e-word: “excommunication.” Right then, I thought one or two persons were ready to get up and walk out, and a whole bunch of others had pained looks on their faces that said: “You’ve got to be kidding!”

In that moment I thought to myself: “I’m not making this up. Jesus made this up and said it and (most of all) lived it and the evangelist wrote it down so that we can keep saying it….even though some folks, maybe many folks aren’t buying it.”

We’ve been pondering what it’s like to preach and “do church” at the post-modern turn, and, no offense to our great speakers, but I’m not sure I’m leaving this conference any smarter than I came. I doubt I’m going home any better equipped to preach and share Christ with a generation that reserves judgment about truth claims that used to be taken at face value, but now have to be defended, argued for, and (most importantly) lived out with greater and greater authenticity.

Part of me—a pretty big part of me—will never buy into this “post-modern” stuff….but this much I do know: it’s in the air we breathe, and we best remember that as we venture out to proclaim the truth that has met us in Jesus. We may not like the post-modern mindset (just as some days we may not like gravity!)…but we best learn how to deal with it.

Folks ain’t necessarily gonna buy the truth that we have to sell.

And maybe that’s just as well. There could be one thing worse than post-modern skepticism or post-modern relativism….and that’s the over-familiarity of the faithful, who nod encouragingly, look at us sympathetically while we preach, and then quickly glance down at their watches to see how many more minutes remain before the Vikings’ kickoff.

This young woman that Will Willimon talked about, all dressed up in her Duke Chapel blue ushers robe….this audacious young woman was at least grabbed by the truth enough to struggle with it and push back against it.

She got something other hearers missed—the sheer, “in your face” offensiveness of this story and its implications.

Here you have this wild, type-A vineyard owner. It must have been one of those years when the grapes all ripen –literally!--on the same day, when the harvest can’t wait another second longer….

So he keeps trotting back to the day labor pool that gathered in the marketplace….he makes five, count them, five trips to keep rounding up workers….from the early-bird-catches-the-worm crowd...down to the slackers who showed up late and hung over, still unemployed at the end of the afternoon….the vineyard owner just keeps snagging them all, putting them to work, promising them each a fair wage.

This vineyard owner…you just know he’s “up to something!”

And sure enough, at the end of the day, he stages—stages, mind you!—a most unusual method of doing the payroll. He has his manager line them up in order (something that’s always happening in Matthew’s gospel—have you been noticing that??)….the manager lines them up from last-hired down to first-hired, and he insists that they be paid in precisely that order.

The vineyard owner, in short, WANTS to be provocative here….as the one-hour workers each get a denarius and all sorts of eyes that line bug out! “Amazing! If those slackers each get a whole denarius, we’re going to receive even more. Happy days are here again…”

But then (cue the sound of a giant balloon slowly deflating), as that same denarius keeps getting paid to each of the workers, right down to the first-hired who started working at dawn—they now felt like fools—and worse, they felt cheated. And, in that frame of mind, they gave voice to envy, surely one of the ugliest of human emotions.

Here, right before their eyes, they had watched the value of the denarius drop. Talk about currency deflation!

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

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

When the Vineyard Owner catches wind of the grumbling, he says nothing that might soothe the troubled waters. In fact he actually makes matters worse. He gets in the face of the grumblers--reminding them that he did the hiring, he promised the fair wage, and he would pay them with his money—money he could do with exactly as he pleased, even if that meant being lavishly, extravagantly, breaking-the-bank-generous with those last-hired.

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

When we get the preaching of it right—which may not be all that often—when we say it right, somebody is going to be torqued off, someone’s going to get up and leave, someone will refuse be embraced by the truth of it.

And there, perhaps there, the post-modern mindset crowd does us all a favor, by giving voice to the skepticism that itself may be the strongest testimony to the truth of the gospel!

The Duke chapel usher giving the preacher a piece of her mind—she was pitching a slow ball, right over the plate to Will Willimon! She got it—that that Vineyard Owner with his Donald Trump attitude—that he was indeed “up to something,” getting right in the face of his most faithful employees—the ones whose blue ribbon work ethic was keeping them from“getting” their master’s amazing generosity.

The Duke chapel usher, in her skepticism, was so precariously close to faith…so frighteningly close to realizing how God is “up to something” in Jesus Christ. She was about a smidgin away from “catching” God’s “in your face grace.”

I wonder what happened to her, this earnest young coed in Duke Chapel. Did God’s in-your-face-grace finally wash over her? Did she become the president of the Duke Chapel ushers society and go on to the divinity school? Is she perhaps serving a three-point parish out in western North Dakota?

Or is she still searching for a believe-able God…still accosting preachers, keeping them humble, and demanding from them utter authenticity?

Hard to say! And it’s even harder to say which of those two paths might finally render greater service in God’s mission…

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Listen! God is Calling

Installation of Pastor Sherry Billberg
September 14, 2008
First Lutheran Church, Alexandria
I Samuel 3:1-10

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’* and he said, ‘Here I am!’ 5and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. 6The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

You’d think that being called by God wouldn’t be so hard. Hearing the voice of God speak—that should be easy, shouldn’t it? If God can’t communicate clearly—who can? If you and I can’t hear God talking to us—who will we hear?

And yet, it seems, hearing God is anything but easy. For all sorts of reasons, picking up the phone when God decides to call is fraught with difficulty.

Take young Samuel in our Old Testament lesson for this afternoon. Young Samuel has at least three strikes against him when God comes a calling.

First, the timing is all wrong. When Samuel is trying to go to sleep in the temple where he’d been serving under the elderly priest, Eli…..when Samuel was first called by God, Samuel had nothing to compare that with. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (v. 1).

The timing was all wrong for Samuel to “get it.” God came calling in the midst of a veritable drought—a long dry spell when no one was hearing God speak with any degree of frequency or familiarity. No wonder Samuel missed his cue; no one was expecting God to speak—folks maybe even thought that sort of business was a thing of the past, never to be repeated again.

Second, Samuel himself wasn’t exactly well-suited for hearing God. Our text says that “Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”(v. 7) Samuel was just a boy, after all. He brought no seasoned wisdom, no depth of spiritual experience, no training in recognizing the things of God. The conventional wisdom of that time was that God didn’t bother with one so young—God did vital business with elders, those long past their salad days.

The timing was wrong….and the recipient of God’s call was most unexpected….

And then, to make matters worse, Samuel’s guide, old Eli was over the hill, way past his period of useful service to God. Eli was on the way out—God was removing from him the mantle of leadership. Eli’s days were numbered—his sins of omission, his failure to deal with his two rascally sons, were catching up with him.

And yet this flawed vessel Eli was the only one available to coach young Samuel in the ways of God. It had been a while, a long while, since Eli transacted business with the Almighty One…..and yet even the passage of years, maybe decades hadn’t totally dimmed Eli’s recollection of what to do.

Slowly it came back to Eli what was happening here. Gradually, gradually it dawned on Eli what was transpiring with the nocturnal pesterings of his young apprentice.

Eli—flawed vessel that he was!—Eli was the only one who could help Samuel—help him hear the rare and precious Word of the Lord. So Eli coached Samuel, giving him the words, the formula to utter next time he heard the voice that was disturbing his fitful slumber: Next time you hear him calling say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (v. 10)

Amazing. You’d think hearing God call you would be easy as pie—like falling off a log. But nothing could be farther from the truth. The timing: all wrong. The hearer: way too young and untested. The guide, the coach: a has-been, a leader in the process of losing his position, “for cause” no less.

All wrong—all of it wrong—but still God’s voice gets through.

And isn’t that, dear friends, how it always turns out to be?

Hearing God call, perceiving God’s intervention, receiving God’s invitation—it’s always fraught with difficulty…..which (when you think about it)makes God’s call all the more astounding, all the more precious.

Somehow, somehow God gets through to us…..and when we think about it, when we look back on it, we’re glad, really, and thankful that it came through some struggle.

Sherry, you have been listening long and hard for the call of God in your life. You have pondered for many years what God has wanted you to do, where God has wanted you to be. These last few years, in particular, have been filled with testing and waiting and wondering about where God might be leading you.

I know—in the midst of all that—that one of your gifts, a gift that has served you well, is the gift of patience, monitoring your natural anxiety, giving space and time for God to get you where God has wanted you.

Sherry, the struggles you have known in hearing God call you, listening to God speak to you—those very struggles are a wonderful, equipping gift for the ministry that is now yours here at First Lutheran….a ministry of creating the spaces, the times and the conditions for letting God speak to his people in this congregation. You have been called to a wonderful, yet challenging ministry of helping others listen for God’s insistent voice, a ministry of assisting folks to discern the claims God is making on them.

None of that comes easily or automatically. At times, everything seems to be wrong—the timing, the hearer, the guide….none of them are what we were expecting them to be.

And yet maybe, just maybe, those times—when everything seems to be wrong—will be when God speaks most clearly and insistently. That should, by rights, not surprise us. For we follow and belong to the God whose presence and identification with us came through most memorably in that cry of divine absence, our Lord Jesus on the cross, crying out to the heavens: “My God, my God where are you? Why have you abandoned me?”

God is faithful, and God will get through to us. Of that we can be sure.

The God who visited young Samuel in the Temple, the God who visited this world decisively in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, the God who called you in your baptism and who keeps calling us in all the circumstances of life…

This same God has called you here and now, to bear his Word and help others hear it. The timing will not always be perfect. The hearers of the Word will often be distracted. And you, Sherry, would-be guide that you are, you are better than Eli….but even you are not perfect….

And that will be fine, because what we’re counting on is that nothing, nothing will ever stop God from doing vital business with us, cleaning the earwax out of our ears, naming and claiming us in Christ, and calling us to be and to go where God wants us to.

In the name of Jesus.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Reconciling--One Sorry Sinner At a Time

Red River and Grace Lutheran Churches, Hallock, MN
Rally Day—September 7, 2008
Matthew 18:15-20

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Fifteen years ago a book came entitled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. In it author Robert Fulghum wrote: “Most of what I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten….These are the things I learned:
Share everything.
Play fair.
Don’t hit people….
Clean up your own mess….
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”

I’ve been thinking about those words as schools all across our land opened up for business this past week…and today as churches all across our land observe Rally Day. We’re rallying the Sunday School “troops” for another year of Christian learning.

Education, especially Christian education, is always about the basics—the stuff you’ve got to know, the skills you need to master, the fundamental steps in the Christian walk.

And so, appropriately enough, we have a gospel lesson that schools us in one of the basic arts of Christian living: the art of reconciliation.

It doesn’t get more elementary than this: If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.

Dear friends in Christ, if we could master that one command of Jesus, the church would be utterly transformed. Conflict would no longer suck up all the oxygen in our church. We’d climb out of the ditches and back on the road again, pursuing God’s mission in the world.

Listen once again: If another member of the church sins…go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.

I. Please notice three things about this first step toward reconciliation.

First, the responsibility rests with the one who is sinned against, the one who observes a sister or brother caught up in some wrongdoing. If you have a problem with a fellow Christian, it is your responsibility to deal with it.

Second, notice the verb Jesus uses: “Go!” Go and point out the fault….

Jesus doesn’t say: “Stew!”--as in “stew in your own juices for a while.”

Jesus doesn’t say: “Nurse!”--as in “nurse that grudge until you have a whole gunny sack of grievances that you’re ready to clobber the other person with.”

Jesus also doesn’t say: “Gossip!” Jesus absolutely forbids gossiping here. If we’ve got a beef with someone, we are NOT to blab it all over the place.

And here’s the third thing we need to notice about this first step. Reconciliation starts with the smallest possible group: just you and the one who has sinned. Always start small. Settle things personally, one on one, if at all possible.

II. But what if you are rebuffed? What if the other person blows you off? Now do you get to stew or climb up on your high horse and tell the whole world?

Hardly! If your first attempt at reconciliation is unfruitful, then you need some outside help. But again, start small. Take one or two others along with you, says Jesus, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

This step is about a couple of things. It’s about being open to correction yourself, from others. It’s about making sure that you’re seeing, hearing, analyzing things correctly. You could be wrong—and taking a couple of other persons with you could help you see that.

And if you’re not mistaken, those one or two witnesses can assist you in impressing upon the wrongdoer the gravity of his or her sin. The goal in this second step is still to regain, to win back, your erring brother or your recalcitrant sister.

And that “regaining” is so crucial. “Regain” is a soul-winning verb, an evangelizing verb. Evangelizing isn’t just something Christians do with non-Christians. No--we are always evangelizing and re-evangelizing one another within the church of Christ!

III. OK—so what if the person who’s done you wrong still doesn’t listen to you and the witnesses you’ve brought along? Only now—only after trying steps one and two—can you tell it to the church. In our current way of organizing ourselves, you bring it to the church council—although that’s not exactly what Jesus says here.

And that brings us to a challenge that we Lutherans face in 2008. We have forgotten how to be a church that exercises a godly, salvation-seeking discipline among ourselves. It’s not even in our lived experience. We shudder even to think about excommunicating someone from the church.

No, we like to say, we’re not like those other Lutherans or those other, hard-nosed Christians. We’re tolerant. We live and let live. Or, more often in our privacy-obsessed American culture, we “keep our noses out of other persons’ business.”

But right there we get it all wrong. It IS our business to care about one another within the Body of Christ so deeply, so completely, that we risk confronting one another, we dare to speak directly to a brother or sister who is captive to some deep, grievous sin that is separating him or her from God and God’s people.

And what if—what if the whole church is unsuccessful in restoring a fallen member of the Body of Christ? If that happens, says Jesus, if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.

Here we see how incredibly serious this process is. It could end in excommunication. And that clues us in to what kinds of offenses are involved here. The reconciliation of which Jesus speaks isn’t for the little things—the “foxtails and puppy sins,” as Luther liked to call them.

No, this is a reconciliation process that involves big-time sinning, flagrantly breaking one of the Ten Commandments, bringing public shame and dishonor upon the Body of Christ.

The end of this process, if it is not the regaining of the lost one in some fashion….the end of this process is a point of discernment and separation. The church must occasionally say to one of its own—“by your actions you have separated yourself from your fellow believers and from your Lord Jesus Christ.”

And if we do that—what then? Are we through with this sinner? Well, recall what Jesus did with “Gentiles and tax collectors?” They were the special objects of his compassion, his seeking and saving work. Separating from someone is when we start all over again with them—winning them for Christ, proclaiming the Good News, praying and working for their salvation.

That whole process is scary to contemplate, though—so scary that we 21st century Lutherans don’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. And that may be killing us.

Because if a church doesn’t take God’s Word seriously enough to ever consider disciplining one of its members who have gone astray from that Word….I wonder how effective that church will be at winning persons to Christ in the first place. We Lutherans may be a vanishing species because outsiders wonder whether we take God’s Word seriously enough to expect it to transform our lives.

If you and I don’t take this reconciliation business seriously, God in Jesus Christ surely does. We see that in spades in the final three verses of our gospel lesson.

First, Jesus promises us that God stands behind us in all our efforts to regain lost brothers and erring sisters in Christ. Jesus says: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Our working at reconciliation, all of that has eternal consequences….and that should give us pause.

But secondly—and finally in our text--Jesus promises to roll up his sleeves and work with us. Jesus assures us that when we’re up to our necks in this messy business of seeking reconciliation—Jesus is up to his neck right there with us. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

This is more than just a “general truth” about Jesus’ constant presence with us. When you’re hip-deep in the soup, seeking to regain some wanderer—there, right there, Jesus walks with you in the clearest, most profound way: when you are doing Jesus’ greatest work--the work of piecing back together this whole creation, one sorry sinner at a time.

In the name of Jesus.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Birth Pangs of the New Creation

Concordia College, Moorhead Minnesota

Chapel Service on September 1, 2008
Romans 8:18-25

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

C.S.Lewis once said that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: [pain] is [God’s] megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

If that is true, then God must be virtually bellowing to us who have read Elizabeth Kolbert’s little book, Field Notes From a Catastrophe—Concordia’s “Summer Book Read” for 2008. Last spring all of us on the Board of Regents were given a copy of this book, and I decided to read it because I thought it would be good for me—sort of in the same way that having a colonoscopy is “good for me.”

Kolbert’s writing style is lean and understated, but her message is unmistakable: we and this lovely world we call home are hurting….and hastening toward a DAI, which (we learn) is shorthand for “dangerous anthropogenic interference” –that is, the steadily rising level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and the global warming it is triggering.

Kolbert takes her readers on a globe-trotting scavenger hunt, noticing and collecting artifacts from all around the earth, all pointing to the real and relentless advance of global climate change. She is eclectic in the evidence that she marshals—whether it is the thinning of Greenland’s massive glaciers, the inexorable disappearance of Arctic sea ice, the thawing of the subpolar permafrost, the surprising expansion of the European comma moth’s habitat, or the sudden extinction of Costa Rica’s golden toad population. Kolbert just keeps rolling on, interviewing scores of scientists with multi-syllabic specialities, each one raising the ante, testifying to the stunning marks all around us that Mother Nature is not happy—that the fate of the planet hangs in the balance.

All of this is “news” these days—especially in the midst of two weeks of national political conventions as we see Gustav bearing down on the same Gulf Coast that was decimated by Katrina just three short years ago. Kolbert, in her book’s new “Afterword” conveniently informs us that between 1975 and 2004 “the proportion of hurricanes reaching Category 4 or Category 5 status increased by nearly 100 percent.” [1]

All this is “news” to be sure…and yet, in another sense, it is as old as the hills. Writing nearly two millennia ago, the Apostle Paul could also speak in Romans chapter 8 about the earth in the balance, the whole creation groaning…..groaning, mind you--the natural world, giving voice to the gnawing suspicion that things are not as they were meant to be.

How ancient and yet how contemporary our Bible is! Elizabeth Kolbert, meet the Apostle Paul, and tune in to each other as you listen to the groaning of this tired, battered, threatened world.

Our two witnesses—Kolbert and St. Paul--agree on the deep connection, the causal link between human behavior (or should we say misbehavior) and the cosmic groaning. The groaning has a source, and it is us, you and me…..through our actions and our inactions, we have all contributed to the “futility” that plays itself out in a natural world run amok.

And yet….and yet….in the midst of their agreement, Kolbert and St. Paul differ on what this planetary mess means and how we should regard it.

For Paul the groaning is of another order, it represents a different reality than Kolbert names so compellingly.

For the groaning that St. Paul speaks of is not the groaning of despair or defeat or death. No, the groaning here in Romans 8 is of a living being, preparing to give birth, the old creation laboring to bring forth a new creation.

What appears for all the world to be the groaning and “last gasping” of a dying world is, in the mercy of almighty God, the panting and pining of a mother in travail, laboring to give birth to the new creation. In Paul’s view, the groaning feeds our hope and this hope overcomes our anxieties and grants us the patience to believe that God in Jesus Christ the crucified and risen one is still at work here—in, with and under all the “stuff” that Kolbert unearths for us.

Lest you think, even for a second, though, that I’m going to pull a theological rabbit out of a hat and say: “don’t worry, be happy, God’s gonna fix up what seems unfixable to us”….

….lest I even seem to be heading in that direction, I hasten to add that while the hope God engenders in us is an unshakably gracious hope, it does not lull us into slumber. God’s answer to climate change and everything else that causes this creation to groan involves us—our will, our decisions, our passions, our politics, our gifts, our studies, our prayers and our hard work—all of it blended together in the mystery of God’s redemptive purposes.

The hope that we have in Jesus Christ, the agent of God’s new creation—this hope does not anesthetize us. Rather, it galvanizes us.

Bishop N.T. Wright of the Anglican diocese of Durham, in his splendid book Surprised by Hope, puts it this way: “People who believe in the resurrection, in God making a whole new world in which everything will be set right at last, are unstoppably motivated to work for that new world in the present….God has brought his future, his putting-the-world-to-rights future, into the present in Jesus of Nazareth, and God wants that future to be implicated more and more in the present.”[2]

Listen, God is calling…calling to us in the groaning of the creation….the groaning of the birth pangs of the new creation that fills us with hope and sets our hands to work.

In the name of Jesus.

[1] Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (2006, Bloomsbury) p. 193.
[2] N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (2008, Harper One), pp. 214-215.