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.

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