Thursday, December 23, 2010

Getting Under Our Skin

December 24, 2010
Christmas Eve, Christ the King Lutheran Church, Moorhead

While they were there, the time came for [Mary] to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. Luke 2:6-7

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Christmas is about God getting under our skin.

God is getting under our skin.

Now, I know that saying someone is “getting under my skin” means that he’s irritating me…and if that seems like a puzzling, even crass way of talking about God, well then hang on to your hats!

Because what’s happening here on Christmas Eve, right under our noses, is pretty wild and disruptive. God is refusing to stay put where gods belong. God is moving in on us and invading our space--getting under our skin.

The 75-cent term for that is incarnation--a rough, jagged, scary word. Not the sort of thing we associate with God. We assume that gods are pure spirit-beings, but this God, our God, shows up in Bethlehem’s manger with meat on his bones, hair on his head, and blood coursing through his veins….and that is most un-god-like.

Incarnation is lowly, not lofty. It’s about flesh—meat, to be exact. That’s why we call it chili con carne—chili with meat in it. That’s why the big cats are called carnivores, meat-eaters. In Bethlehem we encounter the God who is con carne--fleshy, meaty, wearing our skin.

And that messes up everything.

Here we thought we had things figured out. We humans belong here on planet earth—that’s our place in the universe. And God’s place is up there somewhere, high above and beyond us, surely at a safe distance from us.

“God’s in his heaven and all’s well with the world….”

….until God messes that all up by traipsing into our territory, squeezing himself down into a baby, making that treacherous journey down the birth canal, and then bursting into our space in the midnight squall of a newborn who’s covered in the very same gooey stuff that covered each of us when we popped out of our mamas and into the world.

No self-respecting God does this sort of thing!

If this is how God is going to act—we’ll have to reconsider everything—all the assumptions we were making, all our strategies for keeping God at arm’s length—all of it goes right out the window in Bethlehem’s stable.

Those to whom God came in the flesh of the baby Jesus, they were pretty put off by it all--this scandalous meat-on-bones business. They (and we) didn’t want God to get that close. As it says in John, chapter 1, “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (John 1:11)

We earthlings couldn’t handle God under our skin, so we tried sending God back where he came from. We edged God out of our world, up onto a cross, said “thanks, but no thanks,” and imagined that that crucifixion would put a stop to God’s invasion of our space.

But what a miscalculation that turned out to be! For, you see, incarnation wasn’t a failed science experiment God thought he’d try out.

Incarnation was and is God’s permanent, God’s only way of being God for us and with us.

Incarnation is how this God, the only God that matters, does business with us. As author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor (An Altar in the World:  A Geography of Faith) has wryly observed, “our bodies remain God’s best way of getting to us.” (p. 42)

Even after his dead body was tossed into a borrowed grave, Jesus returned—not as a spirit or a spook—but in the flesh. “He came back wearing skin” (p. 36) and he journeyed down another birth canal, expelled from the tomb, with new resurrection skin on—scarred still by the marks of the crucifixion.

So now, what in the world are we going to do with a God like this?

He just keeps coming back, moving in on us, getting under our skin—there’s no stopping him. He won’t take “no” for an answer.

Truly Christ the Incarnate One has come for us, and make no mistake about it: he will have his way with us…and his way is pure, unadulterated love—not a fleeting feeling-love, not a lighter-than-air love—but love deep in the flesh, love that goes to the bone, love that revels in earthy, bodily life, right here, right now.

That’s what Christmas is all about. More than stringing lights on a tree or getting lucky at West Acres or baking the figgy pudding perfectly for a change.

It’s about incarnation, God’s disruptive way with us, God getting under our skin—and staying there.

And that simply upsets all our apple carts!

It changes everything we thought we knew about God and how God works. For we have a God on our hands who refuses to keep his distance from us, a God whose divine genome contains human DNA!

But the incarnation of God in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth also changes how we view ourselves, how we look at our own bodily lives. We’re more than immortal souls temporarily imprisoned in lowly flesh and blood, longing to escape these shell-like bodies.

No—we are bodies and souls, intimately knit together. As BBT puts it, God “loves flesh and blood, no matter what kind of shape it is in” (p. 38). And what, my friends, could be better news than that?

I mean--have you taken a good look at your body lately? It can be pretty frightening, especially as we grow older. I ought to know: There’s an old geezer who steps out of the shower in my bathroom every morning—and the sight of him still shocks me when I gaze at him in the mirror—because this old geezer is ME!

If you know what I’m talking about…if you and your body aren’t always on the best of terms…I’m here to say that God loves your body, just the way it is. And if that makes you want to tend your body better, I say: go for it (though you may choose to start after the big Christmas dinner!)

God’s incarnation in the baby Jesus changes how we view our own bodies, even as it transforms how we regard all the other bodies Christ came to save.

Again, to borrow the words of Barbara Brown Taylor: “Wearing my skin is not a solitary practice but one that brings me into communion with all these other embodied souls. It is what we have most in common with one another. In Christian teaching, followers of Jesus are called to honor the bodies of our neighbors as we honor our own. In [Jesus’] expanded teaching by example, this includes leper bodies, possessed bodies, widow and orphan bodies, as well as foreign bodies and hostile bodies—none of which [Jesus] shied away from.” (p. 42)

The Christmas miracle of God getting down under our skin opens our eyes to see afresh all the bodies for whom Christ came: famished bodies, beautiful bodies, homeless bodies, pampered bodies, cancer-ridden bodies, just plain tired bodies…bodies that prefigure the resurrected bodies that will be ours some day, in the amazing grace of God our Savior.

The incarnation of God in the flesh of baby Jesus transforms everything—God, ourselves, our neighbors and all the ways we live out our days faithfully, through our bodily selves.

God’s incarnation launches us on a way of life that is always, somehow, embodied: in wheat and wine and water and word…embodied in cold water on parched tongues, feet lovingly washed, tears brushed away, hugs offered even to persons who’re as prickly as porcupines!

If God in Jesus Christ truly is making all things new, which means: making all bodies new—then we have plenty to do to keep us out of mischief, while we wait in trust for God to redeem our bodies—all our bodies—in and for the sake of the little Lord Jesus who was born for us in Bethlehem.

In fact, we might even find ourselves walking on the earth as if heaven were already coming our way….leaning forward as if God really does hold the future in his hands--a future that will completely embody the love that began in the manger and was poured out for us fully and finally on the cross.

God has gotten under our skin, my dear friends, and through us God’s going to keep getting under all sorts of people’s skins until, finally, God is truly all in all.

And it all began on Christmas Eve, in Bethlehem, when Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger…

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Life Overflowing: Incarnation

Life Overflowing: Incarnation

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. John 1:15

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. I Corinthians 12:27

God’s work. Our hands. (Tagline of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America)

Stir us up

Advent passes by way too quickly. Every December I want to linger longer in the season of Advent with its royal blue paraments, lush prophecies from the Old Testament, and those amazing “stir up” prayers of the day in Sunday worship.

Here we are, all tucked into the most nostalgia-laden time of the year, fuzzy slippers on our feet, hot chocolate poured up, It's a Wonderful Life plunked into the DVD player....and then on the Sundays in Advent we pray that God will STIR UP his power in our midst.

Yikes! We normally pray to God to calm things down or for things to return to normal. But in this season we ask God to stir us up . . . to agitate us so that we might become the ones God made us and calls us to become. When we implore God to “stir us up” in Advent, we ask for deep and dramatic change.

God with skin on

And exactly what sort of change does God work in our lives? It has to do with the Incarnation, God’s reckless decision to take on human flesh in Jesus. Incarnation is about an event, a person and an ongoing reality.

Here’s a tried-but-true illustration: A father was putting his 4-year-old son to bed. The entire bedtime checklist was completed: tucked in, story read, trip to the bathroom accomplished, night light on. Enough! Dad kissed his son and tried to escape. But as he exited the bedroom, the boy cried out that he was still scared to be alone. “Don’t worry, son,” his dad responded. “Jesus is with you.” “I know that Jesus is always with me, daddy,” his son replied. “But right now I need someone with skin on.”

When the Word became flesh and tented among us (John 1:15), God acted decisively to say: “I intend to be the God with skin on—for you, for all people, and forever.” The Incarnation (“carne” is a Latin word meaning “flesh” or “meat”) is the event we prepare for during Advent—the once-and-for-all occurrence of Jesus’ birth as Immanuel (“God with us”) “in the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4-5).

In one sense, this is an utterly unique, unrepeatable act of God intervening in human history. Advent prepares us to celebrate the Incarnation (event) of the only begotten Son (person) of the Father.

In another sense, the Incarnation is also an ongoing reality. The same Lord Jesus Christ who lived, suffered, died and rose again continues to be en-fleshed in the Word proclaimed, the Baptism poured out, the Supper served up, and the community that bears Christ’s name in the world.

We are not free-floating spirits. We are flesh-and-blood human beings, and to meet us where we are and as we are, God continues to seek out human flesh. God keeps “putting skin on” through the life and ministry of the church.

God’s skin on a new Body

Just the other day, at our local Anytime Fitness gym, I saw a fellow exerciser wearing a t-shirt that proclaimed: “DON’T GO TO CHURCH…” And then, in smaller letters, right underneath: “Be the church.” Bingo!

In the living, breathing church of today we see the Body of Christ—the way that God still has skin on, through the real gathered-scattered community that embodies the risen Lord Jesus in the world.

Here we behold another manifestation of the abundance of God—God’s life overflowing, that has been the subject of these monthly columns in Northern Lights this year. Jesus the risen and living One continues to be incarnated in all that the church is and does. In the Church we behold God’s skin on a new Body—the Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:27).

This means, among other things, that the Church embraces us through our lives of faith. The church precedes us—we are born into it. The church succeeds us—it outlives our earthly lives. The church, therefore, belongs to none of us. It’s not my church, your church or even our church, to do with what we please. The church is God’s Body, God’s business, God’s gift to us and to the world.

God’s skin on you

What happens corporately, in the church, is also enacted personally, in our individual lives as baptized Christians—disciples of our living Lord. When God claimed you in Baptism, God decided to take up residence within you—fancy that! “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” (I Corinthians 6:19-20).

So you, right now, are a bearer of God’s Incarnation strategy—God’s risky way of getting close to us to make us new in Christ. The great Scottish missionary to India, Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998), showed how God’s saving of us is intimately linked to God’s sending of us to bear Christ to others. He wrote: “The corporate nature of the salvation which God purposes is a necessary part of the divine purpose of salvation according to the biblical view that no one could receive it as a direct revelation from above but only through the neighbor, only as part of an action in which he opens his door and invites his neighbor to come in….There is no salvation except in a mutual relatedness which reflects that eternal relatedness-in-love which is the being of the triune God.”   Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret (1978, Eerdmans), p. 85.

“Be born in us today…”

As we conclude the year 2010 with the seasons of Advent and Christmas, I invite you to keep your eyes peeled for signs of how the Incarnation is simultaneously an event (the Nativity of our Lord), a person (Jesus, “God with us”) and an ongoing reality in our lives as Christian individuals and members of the Body of Christ. If you watch carefully, you will see hints of the Incarnation all around you—opportunities, invitations to live out the ELCA tagline: “God’s work. Our hands.”

And surely, you will hear this rich understanding of the Incarnation in the songs of the season. For example, notice God’s incarnation strategy in the 4th stanza of Phillips Brooks’s beloved carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem:

O holy child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today…

Thank you for reading, reflecting on and discussing with others this series of monthly columns on our synod’s 2010 theme, Life Overflowing. A rich Advent and a joyous Christmas to you all!

Your brother in Christ

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.

For reflection and discussion

1. What are some of the ways your congregation embodies Christ in your community?

2. The article includes this sentence: ”It’s not my church, your church or even our church, to do with what we please.” How might remembering that the church is God’s church change the ways you make decisions in your congregation?

3. The article quotes Lesslie Newbigin as saying, “There is no salvation except in a mutual relatedness…” What does this say about God and God’s way of engaging with us?

This is the eleventh and final in a series of articles on the theme Life Overflowing—an ongoing exercise in missional theology for the disciples and congregations of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod during the year 2010. These articles may be used for personal reflection; they may also serve as background study or a devotional resource for congregation councils and other parish leadership groups.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

So, What Are You Waiting For?

United Christ Parish, Fertile, MN
Advent 3/December 12, 2010
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

So, what are you waiting for?

Ask that question of all the little ones in our lives and you know what the answer will be: they’re waiting for Christmas, waiting to rip open all those presents-under-the-tree.

Fifty years ago, when I was a little boy, each December I was regularly encouraged not to get my hopes up too high. It was the last thing I wanted to hear, because my expectations were already sky-high, having spent weeks with my nose in the Sears Wishbook.

“Son, just don’t get your hopes set too high.” I can still hear my mom murmuring those words…

And they were good words, wise words, for a little guy to hear. Santa’s sleigh is only so big after all, and money doesn’t grow on trees.

The problem with being told not to get your hopes too high is that, over time, people take that to heart….and after a while they set aside all their great expectations in favor of more modest hopes, more measured anticipations….and life gets flattened out, the highs canceling the lows, and we put our heads down and keep our noses to the grindstone.

As one wag has put it: “Don’t expect much, and you’ll never be disappointed.”

But it’s disappointment that we run into in this morning’s gospel lesson from Matthew, chapter 11.

John the Baptist, languishing in King Herod’s prison, is taking stock of his life. John thought Jesus might have been the One, but now he’s not so sure—things aren’t turning out the way John thought they would. So he sends a couple of his buddies to ask Jesus, point blank: “Are you or aren’t you the One we’ve been waiting for?”

And my question is this: Did John the Baptist wonder that because he was expecting too much of Jesus—expecting more than even Jesus could deliver?

So, John, what are you waiting for? And I imagine John responding like this: “I’m waiting for a little divine ‘payback.’ I’m waiting for these occupiers, these rotten Roman scoundrels to be given the boot. I’m waiting for folks to start taking their responsibilities seriously—I’m waiting for my people Israel to act like they’re truly the chosen ones of God.”

But none of that was happening. And John, in his narrow prison cell--not sure the key would ever jingle and the door be thrown open--John was wondering if his expectations of Jesus had been a tad too high.

So he sent messengers to ask: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And, fortunately for us, Jesus didn’t answer with a simple Yes or No.

Instead, Jesus let his actions do the talking for him. Presbyterian preacher Frederick Buechner paraphrases Jesus’ response this way: “Tell [John] there are people who have sold their seeing-eye dogs and taken up bird-watching. Tell him there are people who’ve traded in aluminum walkers for hiking boots. Tell him the down-and-out have turned into the up-and-coming and a lot of dead-beats are living it up for the first time in their lives.”

I don’t think John was flirting with disappointment because he expected too much from Jesus.

No. John’s problem was that he expected too little. John’s hopes weren’t high, deep or “thick” enough. And so Jesus re-set John’s hope and our hope, in soaring language borrowed from the prophets of old.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Well: sit up and take notice. People are “coming to their senses”—literally!---the blind now dazzled by light, the deaf now tapping their toes the music, the dead now refusing to stay put where we buried them.

Please, it’s as if Jesus is pleading with us, please ratchet up your hopes too high—and watch me exceed those hopes, whatever they might be!

And that’s what I’d like us to bore in on for just a few more moments.

What if our moms and dads got it all wrong? What if instead of tamping down our hopes and moderating our expectations, they had told us: “don’t hold back, don’t expect too little, don’t cultivate modest anticipations, don’t low-ball God.”

We Lutherans, especially we northern European types, God’s “frozen chosen” of the upper Midwest—Lord knows, we’ve got safe and modest and realistic down pat. We are paragons of moderation!

But what if all along we’ve been aiming too low, when we should be shooting the moon?

There is, after all, an excess, an over-flowing-ness in the Word of God that is always catching us up short. Take our First Lesson from Isaiah 35, for example. It’s about the wilderness—the dry, parched places of life where we feel utterly cut-off, bereft of all hope.

But this wilderness is turning lush and verdant, as God renews all things. “It shall blossom”—not just a little bit, not just “enough”—but “abundantly( v. 2).

And the lame don’t just limber up—they aren’t merely content with hobbling around—no, “they leap like a deer!” (v. 6) The speechless manage to do much more than croak out a few syllables—rather, “they sing for joy.” (v. 7) The dry land doesn’t just show a few hints of greenery—it becomes like a northern Minnesota wetland in the summer, teeming with life.

And right through the middle of this barren, God-forsaken “dead man’s gulch”—the kind of place any sane person would avoid at all cost—right through the middle of it we see not just a narrow rocky trail—but a wide highway, the Holy Way, the way back home for God’s exiled people.

Isaiah 35 invites us in this Advent season to set our hopes too high for a change—because the higher we hope, the higher will God outdo us in giving us all that we will ever need.

So, my dear friends, what are you waiting for this morning?

Are you waiting for a little peace and quiet, a break in the relentless routine? Are you waiting for spring? Are you waiting for a ruined relationship to be knit back together? Are you waiting for the economy to turn around, the country to come back together, the world to settle down? Are you waiting for a way through your wilderness--whatever that wilderness might be?

Whatever you are waiting for—I invite you to ratchet up your hopes. Toss moderation out the window. God wants to give you more than you can ask or imagine. That’s why God sent us the baby Jesus, that’s why God keeps showing up in Water and Wine and Word, that’s why God will send us Jesus one last time, to set all things to rights.

Whatever you’re waiting for, whatever you’re hoping for…hope for more…because God will give you even more than what you hope for. That’s the only way God knows how to give!

It’s what this season, and what the Christmas holy days just around the corner, are all about.

We may not think about that every waking minute of every cold day in December….but such boundless hope keeps breaking through, especially in the great songs of this season. Listen for it!

Our hope and expectation,
O Jesus, now appear;
Arise, O Sun so longed for,
O’er this benighted sphere.
With hearts and hands uplifted,
We plead, O Lord, to see
The day of earth’s redemption
That sets your people free!

Even we lumpy,pasty, pale, shy Norwegian Lutherans….even we paragons of moderation….even we know how to sing those words in Advent (in four-part harmony!)--and maybe we even believe them!

Tune your ears to such music, my dear friends, perk up your ears to hear the humming hope of the whole world, being ratcheted up, because God in Jesus Christ is renewing the whole creation—God is exceeding all expectations, in the Baby born for us in Bethlehem.

So, I ask you one last time: what are you waiting for?

If God in Jesus Christ is restoring our senses, reclaiming every wilderness, depriving death of its terror-filled hold on us, bringing us home ….if God is making all things news in the life, death and resurrection of his Beloved Son…if the future belongs to this God, who is setting all things aright…

…what are we waiting for, even now? Why bide our time until God wraps it all up? We have permission to start living in this very moment as if God’s preferred future had already arrived.

What if we leaned forward into the Kingdom that is coming toward us, giving ourselves away recklessly, waging peace relentlessly, pursuing justice obsessively, letting God’s abundance flow through our pocketbooks effortlessly, befriending everyone whom God places in our path--voicing the hope that is in us?

There’s nothing stopping us. We can live like that, even before the Kingdom comes in all its Final-Advent fullness.

There’s nothing holding us back.

So, what are we waiting for?

In the name of Jesus. Amen.