Saturday, January 29, 2011

From Breakage to Blessing

January 30, 2011--Epiphany 4/Year A
Rebuilding the Remnant Event, Concordia College
ELCA Worship, Hawley, MN
Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Later this year I will observe the 30th anniversary of my ordination as a pastor, and that means I’m officially long-in-tooth. I’ve served Christ and his church long enough that nothing much should surprise or fluster me…and there shouldn’t be too many things that intimidate me in ministry either.

But, truth be told, I still feel like a babe-in-the woods in many of the tasks of ministry, and that’s especially true whenever this gospel lesson, the Beatitudes, pops up in the church’s lectionary.

I have never felt right about preaching on these gorgeous, overflowing verses from the 5th chapter of St Matthew. I love reading the Beatitudes—it’s preaching on them that bugs me.

And with good reason. These verses, after all, are already part of a sermon….a sermon that Jesus delivered….a sermon from the One whom we confess to be “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God” (Nicene Creed)… how, I wonder, can a little Minnesota farm-boy possibly dare to preach a sermon based on a sermon by Jesus? It just sounds ridiculous!

But there’s more: the other reason I’ve shied away from preaching on the Beatitudes is that they always seem to induce in me a desire to turn them into a moral crusade of some sort. We hear the Beatitudes and we imagine that they are a “call to arms” to transform our lives and “do something.” And for Lutherans like us that is always a troublesome, even dangerous place to be.

So I have often “ducked” when asked to preach on this gospel lesson. And I might be inclined to duck this morning as well, were it not for the fact that two proclaimers of God’s Word have helped me, opened my eyes to see the Beatitudes for what they truly are and what they might yet be in our eyes of faith.

So, in these few moments, I want to share what I have learned from others wiser than I am.

First, someone (I have forgotten who!) declared that the Beatitudes aren’t so much a strategy for moral improvement as they are Jesus’ own version of the “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Beatitudes are Jesus’ “I Have a Dream” speech. Mull that one over for a moment, especially with the memory of Martin Luther King Day still fresh in your mind.

The Beatitudes are not about self-improvement or even “making this a better world” as much as they are a chance to hear from Jesus, very early in his ministry, a vision of how he sees the world—both now and in God’s future.

The Beatitudes are framed as promises throughout, promises of what is and what shall be, in the tender compassion of our God.

What does Jesus see as he looks out over the crowd? What does God see there?

Jesus sees a graced, gifted, blessed life where others—you and I—might see only pain, heartache, deficit and loss. Jesus beholds poor souls seemingly bereft of riches….Jesus envisions sorrowful mourners, humble nobodies, hungry hearts….Jesus sees the simply sincere, the makers-of-peace, the persecuted….and everywhere around them, Jesus pronounces, Jesus promises a circle of God’s blessing. Those whom this dying world ignores, bypasses, even curses—all of them blessed by God, blessed to be blessings.

And this isn’t something they really should do something about. This is something that they already ARE in the mercy of God.

“I have a dream,” Dr. King announced….and then in soaring rhetoric that still captures our hearts….Dr. King shared a vision not of what he hoped might happen if everybody got their acts together….but Dr. King imparted a vision of what God was already up to, what God was surely going to bring about…..a future in which all God’s children would sing—with one voice—“Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last.”

That, or something very much like it, is what Jesus was doing when he sat down on a mountainside and delivered this sermon. Not a strategy for moral action, but a panoramic vista on the future that God is surely bringing into our lives and our world, even now.

That’s the first new thought I’ve been given about the Beatitudes….

….and here’s the second insight, which I received earlier this month at a bishops’ meeting, from our Bible study leader Dr. Martha Stortz who teaches religion at Augsburg College.

Dr. Stortz began by recognizing this particular moment in our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She said—honestly and directly—that there’s been some “breakage” in our church, and all of us bishops uttered a silent Amen.

But then Dr. Stortz showed us how here in the Beatitudes (and indeed through the Scriptures) God is always, always, always dealing with “breakage.” In fact, it is second nature for God to take the breakage in our lives and transform it into blessing. What else should we expect, after all, from the One who took the breakage of the Cross and transformed it into the blessing of Easter?

And then Dr. Stortz went on to show how each of the eight beatitudes begins with some sort of breakage in the lives of ordinary folks like you and me. So when all the sources of your security are broken open, you become “poor in spirit,”….and when all your hope for heaven on earth is broken open, you become someone who constantly “hungers and thirsts for righteousness”….and when you dare to name the hope that is in you—a hope that runs against the grain in this world—you are broken open in the act of suffering, being persecuted for being out of line with the world.

Each of these beatitudes begins with some experience of brokenness….a brokenness that leaves us open to God whose greatest delight is to fill our brokenness with blessing.

Does that resonate, does that connect with how things have been for you and your community of faith over the last year or so? There’s been a lot of breakage in our churches. Some of you have seen that, been part of that, “up close and personal.”

You are understandably weary, maybe discouraged, surely wondering what—if anything—good God might be bringing out of all this breakage.

Here is what God in Jesus Christ has to say to you: You are blessed. You are the apple of my eye. You are my heart’s joy and delight. You will not be disappointed. In my good time—in the future that I alone hold in the palm of my hands—in that future your future is disclosed, for the sake of my beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

It would be great—wouldn’t it?—if blessings came in a less painful way. It would be wonderful if God doled out blessings the way Ed McMahon used to pull up to some unsuspecting schlump’s house, scrambling out of the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes prize van, with an over-sized check for a million dollars.

But in God’s Kingdom, it doesn’t work that way. In God’s Kingdom we are broken open, so that God might redeem and restore and bless. Blessing comes into all our “breakage” and makes everything and everyone new, in Jesus Christ.

But even that is not the end of the matter.

Martha Stortz added one more thing to what she had to say to us bishops about blessing. She said, “God’s blessings are always ‘leaky’.” God never blesses any of us in such a way that we hang onto that blessing purely for ourselves.

No, blessings tend to “leak”—out of our hands, into the hands of other broken ones, all around us….and in fact, that’s what we’re here for in the first place: to leak our blessings so that others might hear Jesus’ own “I Have a Dream” speech…and hearing that, to be blessed forever.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Pointing Folks to Jesus

Hope Lutheran Church, Fosston, MN
January 16, 2011/Epiphany 2
John 1:29-42

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

When I was a little boy my parents did their level best to teach me good manners….and one of the things they told me was that it’s not polite to point.

Don’t point—it makes people uncomfortable. Good manners. Good advice.

But then when we look at some of the greatest works of art depicting John the Baptist (whom we encounter in our gospel lesson)—when we explore the many paintings, murals, sculptures. How is John the Baptist portrayed? He’s wearing his camel hair outfit, out in the wilderness, sometimes pouring water over the persons who come to him by the Jordan River….but often, John is also depicted as pointing.

John must not have been taught that it’s impolite to point.

John is a pointer, especially here in this portion of the fourth gospel.

All those works of art that show John pointing take their cues from the first chapter of John’s gospel. Today’s gospel reading is all about John and Jesus—who they each are in relationship to each other and everyone else….and John’s characteristic posture here is that he is pointing, singling out, drawing attention to Jesus.

It happens over the course of two days.

On the first day John sees Jesus coming toward him (in verses 29-34) and he gives a little speech about Jesus….he points to Jesus for two reasons.

First John the Baptist wants everyone to know that he’s not the One folks had been waiting for. John points away from himself—he clears up any misunderstandings that some may have had about John himself being the Messiah.

So, first of all, John points away from himself: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’…” (vv. 29-30)

The second reason John points to Jesus is to let others to know who Jesus is. Digging deep into the treasure chest of his own Jewish faith, John calls Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

Wow! What a grand introduction! John the Baptist simply jumps right in there with both feet and “cuts to the chase.” Pointing a long bony finger—pointing at Jesus!—John says: “Here….here is the One you’ve been waiting for. Here is the One whom God is sending into the world to set us free. His blood—like the blood of the lamb our ancestors sprinkled on their doors at Passover time. The blood of this ‘lamb’ will rescue us from our captivity to ourselves, our sin….and not just ours, but the sin of the whole world.”

John was a pointer. And there’s nothing modest or subdued about what he has to say about Jesus here. John points away from himself—making it clear that he (John) is not God’s chosen one—and simultaneously making it clear that Jesus is the Real Deal, God’s new Passover lamb, whose coming among us delivers us and redeems the whole creation.

This is more than a grand announcement or a spectacle, however….which we see as this story unfolds…

Because the next day, when Jesus approaches John once again, John repeats his message: “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (v. 36)

But now John shifts gears. Rather than launching into another long speechn, John moves beyond pointing at Jesus. Instead, he takes a couple of his own followers and points them to Jesus.

John points in a very specific way. He doesn’t just point at Jesus….but rather he grabs a hold of persons and points them to Jesus, almost (as it were) taking them by the shoulders and giving them a good shove right in Jesus’ direction….because John knows they need to get close to Jesus, to hang out with Jesus, to remain (Greek: meno) with Jesus.

As I sometimes like to say, faith in Jesus is more like stewing in a crock-pot than being zapped by a microwave. It takes some time…

So, two of John’s followers, now spend hang out with Jesus. “…And they remained with him that day” (v. 39) I would give my right arm to know what the three of them did and said that afternoon—but the fourth gospel is utterly silent on that point.

What we do know is that by 4 p.m., one of the men simply has to go out and find his brother and point him to Jesus: Andrew scurries over to his brother Simon, just bursting with good news—“we have found the Messiah.” (v. 41)

And then Andrew takes Simon by the shoulders and points him toward Jesus, who immediately recognizes Simon and bestows on him the name that we know better: “…you are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).” (v. 42)

There’s a whole lot of pointing going on here—don’t you think??

  • John the Baptist points out Jesus, points his followers to Jesus….
  • and his followers (after spending time with Jesus) go out and start pointing others to Jesus.
  • Those who were pointed to Jesus now themselves become pointers.
It’s as if a whole big chain reaction has been touched off.


And in fact, that’s what is happening here. Moreover, this very same chain reaction of Jesus-pointing is what has brought you and me here this morning.


I am here with you, a brother in Christ, because someone pointed me to Jesus: Lawrence and Roberta (my parents), when I was just a little baby, brought me to Jesus, washed me with Jesus, and kept pointing me to Jesus, pushing me to hang out with Jesus, so that I can’t imagine life without Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.


And hasn’t something like that happened to each of you, too? I doubt that you got yourselves here entirely under your own power—it didn’t just dawn on you out of the clear blue.


No, someone pointed out Jesus to you, someone took you by the shoulders, literally pointed you toward Jesus, and nudged you in the right direction, to abide with Jesus, spend time with Jesus, get so caught up with Jesus that you’ve now become a pointer, too.


This all makes sense, even though we Lutherans haven’t always put it quite this way.


Because, truth be told, we Lutherans have tended to be setters more than pointers. (Excuse the dog pun!)


We Lutherans have tended toward a pretty passive, “sitting” role in this chain reaction. Here in North America we’ve counted on waves of immigrants to grow our church, and then waves of Lutheran babies who were born in the homes of all those immigrants….and we’ve been carried forward by the momentum that they created for many years.


It all seemed so automatic, it all just sort of happened. We were setters (or “sitters”) more than pointers….but no more.


Immigration and reproduction no longer carry us forward. We Lutheran “setters” are discovering our calling to become “pointers,” like John the Baptist. Thank God, we’re getting caught up in the chain reaction that started when John spied Jesus coming his way, when John lifted up his bony finger, pointed away from himself, pointed toward Jesus, taking his own closest friends, his intimates, taking them by the shoulders and pointing them to Jesus.


Can you teach an old dog new tricks, though? I think you can. We Lutheran setters can become Lutheran pointers, in fact it’s happening all around us in this 21st century mission field called North America.


And if that unnerves you, if that scares you, to think about heading out into the world and boldly pointing others toward Jesus, perhaps you need to take baby steps at first.


Look at Andrew. He didn’t do cold-calling on strangers. He shanghaied his next of kin, his brother, who became the prince of the apostles. “Peter, you gotta meet this guy—we think he’s God’s anointed one. Come and see!”


The mission field starts right inside your home. My friend David Anderson of Vibrant Faith Ministries likes to say that the prayer that is prayed most often in today’s Lutheran church is: “Dear God, please get my grandchildren to church!”


If you pray that prayer (or something like it), let that prayer take you somewhere you may not have traveled before. Let that prayer lead you to set aside your good manners and do some pointing.


Here, let’s try it right now. Take your finger, stretch it out, and point it.


First, point it away from yourself as a reminder that you are not God.


And then point your finger toward Jesus.


And as you do so, start imagining how you could take some precious child or grandchild or brother or sister—take them by the shoulders and point them toward Jesus, the way Andrew did with his own blood-kin Peter.


Point someone to Jesus. And, I guarantee you, neither of you will be disappointed.


In the name of Jesus. Amen.