Saturday, July 23, 2011

Keeping it Real

Commissioning of Hans Vigesaa, AiM
Calvary Lutheran Church, Bemidji, MN
July 24, 2011
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

[Jesus] put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” ….

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

These last three Sundays we’ve been wending our way through this 13th chapter of St Matthew’s gospel…pondering seven parables, seven “jewels” of Jesus’ teaching….witnessing firsthand how Jesus himself is (in his own words) “like the master of a household who brings out of treasure what is new and what is old.” (v. 52)

It occurred to me the other day how ir-religious all these parables are.   They are not stories about spiritual people doing profoundly spiritual things.  The parables, rather, are narratives of the sheer  daily-ness of  life lived close to the earth.

Jesus spins yarns about farming, weeding the fields, germinating tiny seeds, making bread, finding unexpected windfalls, catching fish.   He could have lived here in our part of the world—imagine that:  Jesus in northern Minnesota!    That’s probably why these stories have had such a long “shelf life.”   They are stories about real-life people doing real-life things.

Hans, today as we commission and install you as an ELCA Associate in Ministry, I remind you that the ministry to which you are called is also about real-life people doing real-life things:   working and paying bills and tending homes and trying to get along with one another and mending fences and raising kids and sharing good news.   I think you already get that—and I urge you never to forget it.

There’s a story about a Scottish minister who sequestered himself in the parsonage of the church that he served, which was connected by a covered walkway that led him straight from his home right into his pulpit.   All week long the minister labored over his Sunday sermon, and he took pride in the fact that he could walk directly from his home to his pulpit without being distracted by anyone or anything.

It was said of this Scottish minister that “six days of the week he was invisible, and the seventh day he was incomprehensible.”  

Although this story is a bit far-fetched, it does get at something that really bugs me:  the fact that so much of what we do and say as Christian people seems to be divorced from the daily-ness of life.   How far removed we are from our Lord Jesus who loved to tell tales of sowing and harvesting and mustard seeds and buried treasure and sorting out the “keepers” from the rough fish.

Hans, I urge you to “keep it real” in your ministry with children, youth and families.  We have a real Savior who walked in real time on the real earth and now in the power of his Resurrection walks among us in the same way still.

But there is more here in these parables of Matthew 13.   It’s not simply that these are down-to-earth stories about stuff that happens all the time.

These are also stories about how God’ has a predilection, a preference for salvaging lost causes….redeeming confused, hardscrabble, fault-filled lives.

Because in each of these parables in Matthew 13 there is ample recognition of the dark side of life.   The seed that is sown appears mainly to go to waste—it lands in all the wrong places, gets choked out by all sorts of malevolent forces.   Enemies come along and plant weeds in our gardens--there’s always someone or something throwing a monkey wrench into our best-laid plans and efforts.   It’s debatable whether mustard was a cash crop or a prolific noxious weed—whether leaven was  an ingredient to be used or a mold to be avoided.    The treasure hidden in the field may well have been stolen goods.  The pearl of great price shouldn’t have been lost in the first place.   And the rough fish—the carp, the suckers the zebra mussels—why do they proliferate so much faster than the walleyes and the northerns?

These parables are not pristine tales of a too-good life in a perfect world.   Like all good stories, there’s always a problem, a dark side, a tension needing to be resolved…..just as it is in life itself, don’t you know!

And God is smack dab in the middle of all that, as Jesus never tires of reminding us.   God is working out God’s renewing, faith-creating, future-opening activity in the midst of all the “problems” in this real-life stories.

And Hans, there’s another keeper, I hope, for you and your colleagues and those whom you serve….perhaps especially in the “worlds” of youth and family life in this 21st century.  

This is a hard time to be growing up.   This world is a broken, treacherous, terribly uncertain place.  I can’t blame young people for wondering what the future holds for them.   There are all sorts of reasons why folks could well be tempted to pull the covers over their heads,  just stay in bed, not venture out, not risk themselves in the treacherous adventures of work and learning and faith and family life.  

You are here at Calvary, Hans, to speak up for our amazing God who does some of his best work with bent lumber, flawed building materials, twisted situations….starting with the Cross itself, a perverse sign hoisted up in Jerusalem’s garbage heap—a perplexing sign that nonetheless rescues us from all that would do us harm.

There is one last thing I want to say about these treasured parables in Matthew 13.   There’s a little bit of sheer, off-the-wall craziness in each one of them.   Jesus portrays things and persons and situations that end up blowing our minds—knocking our socks off, surprising the heck out of us.

So even though most of the seed doesn’t germinate properly, the kernels that do grow produce astonishing off-the-charts yields.  The “mixed bag” of the church provides a fertile seedbed for all sorts of persons to grow up together into Christ.   Stumbling upon the treasure, the pearl leads people to go a little nuts—to liquidate all their earthly assets in order to possess the treasure.   The mustard seed that can barely be seen, winds up producing a tree that birds can call home; the yeast multiples the bread-making capacity of the baker so that hundreds might be fed.

You get the picture:   God takes ordinary, even twisted things and God produces  totally-unforeseen, amazing, life-enhancing results.   God gets his way—and God’s way means life for us, freedom from all the ways we mess up, and a wide open future to boot, in Jesus Christ whose very life for us is the parable of salvation par excellence.

There’s a take-away here for you, too, Hans.   I admire you and anyone else who works full time in youth and family ministry.   Although I’ve always had my finger in that pot, I haven’t made it the focus of my working days as you are doing.  

But I know what keeps you going—I understand why it’s gotten into your bones.  

You get to see the results, the payoff.   You have the joy of witnessing all the ways God takes confused folks, crooked lumber and fashions out of them a thing of beauty.  

My prayer for you, Hans, is that in the midst of the dry and challenging times you will inevitably experience—the promise of that payoff, God’s New Creation beckoning and continually bursting in, will keep you faithful, steadfast and excited to come to work every day.

In the name of Jesus.


Friday, July 15, 2011

A Mess of a Church

Summer Campus Ministry Conference
Bemidji State University—Bemidji, MM
July 14, 2011
Matthew 13:24-30
In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

It’s midsummer, and the crops and gardens are all growing.  Seedtime is weeks past—but you wouldn’t know it to encounter the parables that come at us in the lectionary these hot weeks of mid-July.

Here in God’s Word, seeds are still being sown—and in a manner that drives 21st century farmers in the Upper Midwest stark raving mad.

First, there are entirely too many seeds being flung around willy-nilly, “broadcast” hither and yon, a real hit-and-miss operation if ever there was one.

My father who farmed for over 30 years in southern Minnesota was a stickler for not wasting any seed.   He adjusted and readjusted the old John Deere planter to deliver each kernel into the soil, not too close, but not too far away either,from the next kernel, each precious treasure deposited at just the right depth.  It was both an art and a science, to trust the seed so painstakingly, so stingily to the well-tilled soil.

But not so in Matthew chapter 13.   Whole handfuls of seed are flung with wild abandon all across the un-cultivated landscape, as we heard in last Sunday’s parable, repeated now in this one. Don’t spare the horses—don’t skimp on the seed!

But the farmer in this parable isn’t the only prodigal sower.  By night his nemesis slinks through the same field, just as lavishly sprinkling weed-seed, to germinate alongside and hopefully over-power the good seed.

The Word of God, like the night-time cold cream my mama used, the Word is meant to be applied liberally.   Slather it on, overdo it whenever you get the chance, don’t hold back.   The Word is not some pinched, parsimonious spice to be sprinkled here and there—just a pinch, just a dash.    Let it fly!  Fling it as far and as fast as you can…

….because Lord knows, there are other sowers eagerly spreading other “words,” with no compunction, no reluctance to “let ‘er rip.”

David Lose of Luther Seminary observes:  “In recent years, the presence and influence of the Christian story in contemporary culture has shrunk considerably. The proliferation of different and competing stories about reality—some of which are religious, while many more are about material wealth, nationalism, or ethnicity—has occupied more and more of our attention.

We may see these stories proclaimed on the front covers of magazines or more subtly hidden in the logo of a powerhouse brand, but they are all around us, each inviting us to subscribe to a particular understanding and worldview about what is good, beautiful, and true. Taken as a whole, the proliferation of all these different worldviews has crowded out the biblical story as the narrative by which to make sense of all others and rendered it just one among a multitude of stories.”  ("Stewardship in the Age of Digital Pluralism, p. 112 in Rethinking Stewardship--Word and World Supplement Series 6, October 2010.)

Campus ministry offers the church a strategic foothold in the world of American higher education, sowing the Word where it desperately needs to grow.   And, now more than ever, we need to remind the whole church that if we’re not in this game—flinging the seed of God’s word on campuses all across this land, we will be missing “big time” a golden opportunity to be out there, meeting young adults where they are already choosing to be, contributing to the marketplace of ideas, trusting the seed of the Word to find places to grow on territory we dare not abandon.

Moreover, campus ministry cultivates a generosity of spirit and a yen for adventure, even a little craziness about how far and how fast we are ready, willing and able to “broadcast” the good seed, wherever and whenever it might germinate.

The second thing about this parable, is the way it portrays the farmer’s willingness to tolerate all sorts of messiness in his field.  

My farmer-dad knew that, as Garrison Keillor puts it:  farming is a spectator sport.   So every summer, when our work-day was ended, our family climbed in the old galopy to go inspecting the fields—ours and our neighbors’ fields as well.

My farmer-father loved rows that were straight and hound’s-tooth clean of weeds.  He was a lot like the farmhands in this parable.  When they realize their enemy has sowed weed-seed on their turf, they’re eager to do a little separating of the wheat from the weed, while it is still growing…

…..but the farmer in Jesus’ parable will have none of that.   “Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”   This farmer is less interested in “appearances,” less enamored with “purity” than most of his peers.

Now more than ever it seems clear that there are two dominant ways of being Lutheran in North America.   There is the way of “enclave Lutheranism”—marked by tightknit circles of the likeminded—straight as an arrow, neat as a pin, all the rough edges rounded off, pure doctrine producing a putative pure community.

And then there is the messy alternative, the expansive, experimental, ecumenical, “almost-everything-is-up-for-discussion” Lutheranism of our own tribe, the ELCA.   Lord Almighty, but we are a mess of a church!   We let in all sorts of rabble and we tolerate all sorts of nonsense, and sometimes I wonder whether God doesn’t just wonder what to do with us.

In short, we who are the ELCA look an awful lot like that farmer’s field must have looked—with weeds and wheat all over the place—a source of head-wagging and tongue-clucking by our neighbors, no doubt.    A mess—but what a glorious mess…..and if the farmer in the parable is the God-figure, well then it’s the kind of mess that only God could love.

Campus ministry has always had a high tolerance for such messiness; perhaps that is one of our “charisms.” We stubbornly keep prying open doors that others thought they had safely nailed shut.   We’re always on someone’s hit list, always in the cross-hairs of some neatnik repristinator of the “good old church,” trying to circle the wagons and batten down the hatches….but to no avail, because—wouldn’t you know it?--some hippy-dippy campus pastor keeps coming along and inviting in all the wrong crowd.

What the church hasn’t always realized or treasured is how desperately we need to cultivate hothouse experiments, demonstration plots, like campus ministry….to intrude upon the buttoned down closed-system that some in the church always find alluring.

And perhaps even now, in the midst of our understandable angst over little things like money and support—we’re receiving a chance to revel anew in the glorious messiness that the Lord of the Church seems to covet.

But why?  To what end?  For what reason does this parable’s farmer sow seeds so recklessly and cultivate messiness so ridiculously?

It’s for the sake of the harvest, don’t you know?   The farmer doesn’t want to lose one single stalk of wheat, one solitary sheaf—none of it must be wasted.   If I didn’t know better, I’d think that this crazy farmer even imagines that some of those weeds might—when day is done—turn out to be wheat after all!

Such wishful thinking is called erring on the side of grace, and it’s God’s favorite way of making mistakes.   The bean counters, the heavenly hall monitors, the guardians of a mighty fortress of “orthodoxy” fret that somewhere someone might be whispering something that verges on universalism---but they haven’t taken a good gander at this goofy farmer in Matthew 13, have they?  

For what appears to be wastefulness and a tolerance of messiness is none other than a fierce determination to demonstrate power chiefly in showing mercy, which is the hallmark of the God who has drawn near to us in Jesus the Christ, crucified and raised again, for us and for our salvation.

It is for the sake of this divine “erring on the side of grace” that we care so passionately about and give ourselves so recklessly to campus ministry, is it not?

It is for the sake of this confession—that surely deserves a place on every campus devoted to the fearless quest for truth—it is for the sake of contending that at the center of the universe there beats a passionate heart of unconditional self-giving, a self-emptying love that will not let us go. 

It is for that that we believe campus ministry deserves the very best we have to offer.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.