Saturday, March 21, 2009

"But God..."

Halstad and Augustana Lutheran Churches, Halstad, MN
Installation of Pr. Christine Iverson
March 22, 2009 (Lent 4)
Ephesians 2:1-10

Earlier this month I had my first-ever MRI. I had been noticing that something wasn’t quite right, a part of me was hurting that shouldn’t have been hurting, and after putting it off and putting it off I finally saw a doctor.

He examined me and told me he thought nothing was wrong, but just to be sure, he ordered the MRI. “I really don’t think it’s anything serious,” the doctor murmured, trying to reassure me.

But deep down I knew that when a doctor orders an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) something awful, something deadly could show up….and as I waited to receive the results of my MRI, my mind played out all the scenarios, imagined all the possibilities—including the possibility that I had a fatal disease and that pretty soon this world would have to go on without me.

Some of you have been there, I’m sure.

Some of you have had MRIs or blood tests or biopsies….and then you’ve had to sit wait helplessly for the results, wondering whether it was nothing (as your doctor tried to reassure you)…or whether you might be very sick--sick enough to die.

This season of Lent, it seems to me, is the most honest season of the church year. I say that because Lent doesn’t let us off the hook. Lent exposes the inconvenient truth of our mortality.
Lent begins and ends in death--the thing we most avoid thinking about. Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, with a sooty cross on our foreheads, and the words: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Lent begins with that grim reminder, and Lent ends on a Friday afternoon, with a man dying on a cross, crying out: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.”

Lent, I suppose you could say, is good for us. It’s like 40 days of waiting for the MRI results, the pathology report to come in. Lent causes us to fess up and face up to the fact that this world did fine for eons before we were born, and one day soon this world will go on again without us.

Death will overtake us, swallow us up.

That’s where this morning’s Second Lesson begins, knee-deep in death. “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.”

You were dead, the apostle writes. Your sins were killing you. The evil one had a hold on you. You were all toast.

On one level we already know that. We realize that no one is going to get out of this world alive.

And yet we sure don’t live that way. We go about our business, play with the kids, work too hard, shop, watch TV, play cards and while away the hours….until some visit to the doctor, until the season of Lent, until some other “wake up” call reminds us: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Our Second Lesson dives deeply this death that haunts us and hunts us. No one escapes it--nobody gets a free pass. ”All of us,” the apostle continues, “all of us once lived…in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.”

And then, all of a sudden, the mood of this Second Lesson changes.

Having rubbed our noses in our waywardness and mortality, the apostle takes a sharp turn. “You were dead,” all right….”But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—…”

Here are the Lenten lab results, dear friends: we are all goners…but God has something more in store for us.

There they are: two of the sweetest words in the whole Bible: “but God…”

It seems as though death is going to have the last word here, but God will not let that happen!
God always, always, always gets the last word—and don’t you forget it.
God doesn’t let minor inconveniences like us being dead in our trespasses and sins keep God from doing what he does best: raising the dead, forgiving sins, saving us—rescuing us—even when we were toast!

Nowadays some folks suggest that such “salvation” talk is passé.

Speaking of Jesus rescuing us or saving us—that smacks too much of revival tents, sawdust trails and televangelists interviewing tearful sinners who “once were lost, but now are found.”

But this is not passé.

What we have here in Ephesians 2 is (in the words of one teacher of preachers[i]) the “molten core of the Christian faith.” The name “Jesus” literally means: “the Lord saves.”
Here’s the molten core of our faith: we are dead, but God’s going to raise us up with Jesus Christ.
The God we meet in Jesus Christ is, quite simply, a rescuing God. That’s what God does. God is forever stooping down and scooping us up, tearing us loose from death’s tentacles, cleaning us up, raising us up with the crucified Jesus, and seating us “in the heavenly places” with our Savior forever.
And all of that is like a solitary moment in time here in Ephesians 2—collapsed into one shining instant: dead, made alive, raised to the heavenly places—all in one fell swoop!

And as if this weren’t already too wonderful to be true…Ephesians reminds us that all of it comes as sheer gift—unvarnished grace—undeserved mercy!

Pastor Christine tells me that verses 8-9 here in Ephesians 2 were her confirmation verse: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

I’m guessing, Pastor Christine, that you’ll want to share this message here in the Halstad and Augustana parish. This will be your song, right? Sing it for as long as you serve here…and you will do well.

None of this is passé.

The God who has called you from Kansas to Minnesota is a rescuing, saving God. These people know the bite of death, the anxiety of wondering what the future holds. Set them free. Say to them: “Things may look bleak right now, but God’s going to have the last word.” Let all your preaching, all your teaching, all your consoling, all your leading be variations on that theme.

And you, dear people of God, I know how long you’ve been pining for this day to come. Your long wait for a new pastor seemed unending, didn’t it? At some points you felt as though you were maybe dying—that God had forgotten you.

But God had another idea. God kept reviving your hope. God never let you forget the greatest promise of all—that God will have the last word, and that word is forgiveness, freedom and life forever in Jesus Christ.

Now I realize that I’ve come to the end of this sermon and I still haven’t told you how my MRI turned out. Here’s what I learned: I was OK. No signs of cancer or any other “awful awful.” God must have further use for me, I guess.

….Which brings us to the last line in our lesson from Ephesians 2. Why does God bother with us? Why doesn’t God just leave us dead in our sins and trespasses? Why does God raise us up to the heavenly places in Christ Jesus?

Because God loves us, of course,….but also because God wants to get some use out of us for the rest of our earthly lives. ”For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. “

God beats back death, God forgives sins, God opens up the future for us in Jesus Christ to make us forget ourselves long enough to do some good for others.

God goes to the trouble of rescuing you and me, so that God can catch us up in God’s great rescue mission. God has brought Pastor Christine to you, not just to make you safe in the arms of Jesus…but to send you, with the risen Jesus, into the world—making peace, speaking truth, and rescuing the lost, the last and the least.

[i] “Just As I Am (Eph. 2:1-10)” by Thomas G. Long. The Christian Century (March 21, 2006, p. 18). Accessed at

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Truth or Love?

Synod Theological Day
March 3, 2009 at Trinity, Pelican Rapids
Moral Conversation Process

Ephesians 4:11-16
"The gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love."

“Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ….”

Truth and love: now which will it be?

In the Lutheran church of my youth—that would be the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church of my youth—folks actually put the question like that: which is more important, truth or love?

If memory serves, there were even church convention resolutions that took up that question, arguing for the supremacy of the one over the other….the truth team duking it out with the love squad….the vote tally, finally tipping the balance.

I’m not making that up.

Truth and love: which is most important?

There is only one answer to that question, I believe, and the answer is YES. The answer must be one that refuses to drive a wedge between those cardinal principles, those core values for Christian folk, truth and love.

Which will it be—truth or love? YES, yes, yes to both…don’t you dare think you can have or will have the one without the other. “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up,” pleads the apostle, refusing to pick one over the other.

In the church of Jesus Christ there is no room for truth that runs roughshod over love for real human beings….nor is there room for love of the “sloppy agape” variety that has no substance, no concreteness, no rootedness-in-truth to it.

Today, we gather to learn one way of speaking the truth in love. We gather with a view, obviously and specifically, toward the continuing conversation about human sexuality that we’ve been having for a long, long time as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Today we gather in the conviction that the apostle got it just right. We will take no votes about which should prevail—truth or love. We say yes to both, we commit ourselves to both, we will not pursue the one without the other.

Not that that will make everything all right or cause thorny issues to get simpler to puzzle out….far from it. In some respects, the easier path is to choose one over the other, truth over love….or love trumping truth. It’s harder, always harder, to hold the two together….

But that is what God, through the apostle, is calling us to do, linking that (by the way!) to our growth, our maturing in Christ.

I just wrote the last of an 11-part series of articles on Healthy Congregations. In his writing, Dr. Peter Steinke offers his own commentary on this text from Ephesians chapter 4. He speaks about the church as a human community, an emotional/relational family system….and he holds up two cardinal values: (1) Define yourself—take stands—speak with your own voice….
….but then Steinke adds: “and (2) stay connected with those who disagree.”

Sounds like another “take” on truth and love. Stand up and speak the truth….but not in such a way that you drive a wedge permanently between a brother or sister in Christ. Take stands….as you stay connected.

Our goal today is not to pull a rabbit out of a hat and give you a “magic bullet” for having consistently great, deep, satisfying conversations about vexing moral issues. Our goal is to equip you to do what the church needs to do in times like these.

As our culture seems to be divided, increasingly, by the extremes….enthralled by the cable TV news “talking heads” who represent the predictable blue/red, traditional/progressive, secular/religious polar opposites… that happens, we in the church have a marvelous opportunity presented to us—a chance to be and do something else.

This is our time, the right time, to provide an exceedingly rare thing in our contentious culture: a free and open space for people of goodwill to come together around neuralgic questions and vexing issues without hurting each other…..we are invited into that sacred space where people speak out of their hearts, but also speak to the hearts of others…refusing, steadfastly refusing to drive a wedge between the truth and the love that have met us in Jesus Christ.