Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Confession on Which a Church Can be Built

Grace Lutheran Church, Detroit Lakes, MN
August 21, 2011—Pentecost 10
Matthew 16:13-20

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Jesus asks two questions in this gospel text—two questions that, at first, sound a lot alike.  

But these questions are really miles apart!   They’re separated by light years!

First, Jesus asks his followers, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (v. 13)   In other words Jesus asks:  “What are folks saying about me?”

This first question requests information.   It fishes for the local gossip.  

You and I kick around questions like this all the time.  We love it, too--especially when we’re drinking coffee or sitting in the local watering hole or wherever it is we like to trade “the latest” on what’s happening in the lives of others.

And as we share this information with one another, we invariably spice it up a little.  A friend of mine calls that “value-added  hearing.”   Gossip tends toward becoming juicier as it is shared.

Ask me to share what I’ve heard about someone else, and I can talk your arm off.   Ask me to talk about anything—and you might not be able to shut me up.   And I bet that some of you are like that too.

So when Jesus asks this question, immediately he hears a flurry of responses:   “Some say [that you are] John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (v. 14)  I think the disciples could have gone on and on responding to this first question, because all it asked of them was to talk about Jesus.

So also, you and I love to talk about people or news or ideas.  Talking about someone or something else requires nothing of us more than a good memory and articulate speech.   Trading gossip entails no deep investment of ourselves in what we are saying—we don’t even need to think about it all that much.

But Jesus wasn’t patient enough to just let the disciple jabber on about him.  Cutting them off, he launched his second question in our text—and, warning!—it’s the second question that usually gets us!   “But who do you say that I am?” (v. 15)

Now I picture a moment of silence—a pregnant pause—in the bantering of the disciples, because they know how different this second question is from Jesus’ first question.

And we would do well to pause and notice that difference, for ourselves.   If Jesus asks for information about what people are saying about him, in the first question, he is asking for something deeper, something far more potentially life-changing in the second question.

Jesus is calling his followers to look him square in the face, to gaze right into his eyes and speak for themselves.   Rather than talking about Jesus, this second question asks them to talk of Jesus, to speak to Jesus….and these small words (the prepositions!) make all the difference.

I imagine a moment of silence at this point in the story—indeed, I hope there was such a silence—because to do justice to this second question, the disciples had to take some deep breaths, gather their thoughts, and steel themselves for a worthy answer that needed to come from somewhere other than “off the top of their heads.”

In short, this second question was designed to call forth a confession—a confession that would determine how these twelve men would spend the rest of their lives and how they would probably all die, as well.

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” (v. 16) proclaimed Peter, perhaps after clearing his throat. 

“You are the Messiah—you are the One we’ve been waiting for!”

And when Peter said those words, I picture them hanging there in mid-air—for just a few seconds.  And I hope that Jesus and the other eleven disciples paused, to let Peter’s words sink in.

We know moments like this.   We’re all caught up in the hurly-burly of a wide-ranging conversation….and then someone asks or says something that stops everyone dead in their tracks, because the conversation has suddenly dropped to a deeper level of significance.

That’s what’s going on here, as we can tell from Jesus’ response:   “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it….”  (vv. 17-18)

Wow!  Can you see, can you hear how Jesus and Peter took this whole exchange among the disciples and drove it to a deeper level?    Jesus asks his disciples to speak for themselves—and Peter does that—and Jesus calls Peter’s confession the kind of thing upon which he can build a whole CHURCH!

Some answers to questions are like that.  Some confessions we blurt out can heal our pasts and open up new futures.   

Such deep, “I-Thou” communication always includes the word “you.”   This is not talking about someone else.  It is speaking to someone—we call that “direct address.”

So in that great old Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof, in the middle of a long discussion about their three daughters and the young men who are courting them….in a conversation about love…..Tevye blurts out to his wife, Golda:  “Do you love me?”    And Golda gets so discombopulated—she can barely respond.

Or you’re in the food court of your favorite mall, and it’s jam-packed with people, and the racket is so loud you can hardly hear yourself think….but then a silence engulfs the cacophany as everyone notices a young man, down on one knee, giving a very small box to his beloved, who has tears streaming down her lovely face….and suddenly everyone knows that something life-changing and world-transforming has happened, right there at West Acres.   A new life has begun.

Or you’re in your physician’s office, and she’s going through the results of labs with you, and she says:  the test came back positive—you’re going to have a baby.

Or you’re in that same doctor’s office, in the same kind of conversation all about medical tests you barely understand, and the word “cancer” pops up….and suddenly your life gets a lot more complicated.

Or you’re here in this very sanctuary….and someone brings a child to the font, someone holds out their hands at the communion rail, someone (maybe you!) names in your heart the sin that is killing you….and you hear God’s amazing promise:  all of this is FOR YOU—the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is for the sake of your life, your death, your resurrection.

God specializes in this sort of speaking—a speaking that actually alters reality and creates a whole new world.  And God is mighty good at it.   God speaks and the whole universe is created.   God speaks and your slate is wiped clean.  God speaks and death no longer has dominion over you.   God speaks and you are given a mission big enough to claim your life.   God speaks and the Devil runs for cover.   God speaks—and the Cross of Calvary leads directly to the Empty Tomb, Good Friday gives way to Easter.

God specializes in this sort of speaking.   God loves this way of communicating so much that God calls you and me to enter into it, ourselves.   For this is how the Church is formed and sustained and extended throughout the world.

Jesus lays claim to others when you and I stop talking ABOUT him, and starting talking to him, and speaking of him to those we meet.   “You are the Messiah,” Peter blurted out.   “Jesus is my everything,” we stammer.   “Death doesn’t have the final word now,” we whisper in the funeral home, to a beloved one in grief.   “God has a purpose for your life,” we murmur to a young person, wondering what to do in the world.   “Your mistakes, the mess you have made of things, God has redeemed all of that.  Jesus has carried it all to his Cross and buried it in his grave.   You get to have a fresh start again, in Christ Jesus.”

Dare we speak that way to one another, my dear friends?

Yes, by all means.   God is counting on us to do precisely that.   The church our Lord Jesus Christ has built and is still building feeds off confessions like these.   God is staking everything on words that he will give to us, opening our lips, untangling our tongues and saying—loud and clear, to anyone within earshot—“this Jesus—he really is the One we’ve been waiting for, the only One we can count on in life and in death and in everything else that will ever come our way.”

In the name of Jesus.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

How God Inflicts Abundant Life on Us

Ordination of Jeanette Bidne
Trinity Lutheran Church, Kiester, MN
July 31, 2011
John 10:10b
[Jesus said]  I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
You love this verse, Jeanette…and as you’ve made your way through seminary and the ELCA candidacy process, you’ve kept coming back to this promise of our Lord—again and again and again.

And you are by no means alone.   Any number of us here this afternoon, if asked to name our 20 favorite Bible verses would probably include this one:  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

This is one of the Bible’s “keepers,” isn’t it?   This is a wall-plaque, embroidered-pillow, tattoo-it-on-your-forehead verse:  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Amen and amen!

But can we really talk this way nowadays?  Can we get by with it—especially now when ANY talk of “abundance” seems out of place?

Thomas Friedman, one of my favorite newspaper columnists, says that “we are leaving an era where to be a mayor, governor, senator or president was, on balance, to give things away to people. And we are entering an era where to be a leader will mean, on balance, to take things away from people. It is the only way we’ll get our fiscal house in order before the market, brutally, does it for us.”  (New York Times, December 25, 2010)

Abundance, argues Friedman—in any meaningful sense—abundance is a thing of the past.    We have entered the lean years for our country and our planet.   Life is a zero-sum game.   The pie is only so big…and we all need to learn how to live on a smaller slice of it.

“Abundantly” is a word destined for the moth balls.    Abundance is a thing of the past in all aspects of life.   We are short in the marketplace, but also we’re short on intangibles like civility, reasonableness, goodwill, compromise and mutual sacrifice for the common good.

And, as if all that were not enough, we also seem to be fresh out of things like safety and security and hope for a brighter tomorrow.

Deprivation, not abundance, feels like the “coin of the realm.”  

And yet Jesus, here in John chapter 10, goes against the grain, speaking a distinctly counter-cultural word:  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Jeanette, are you sure you really want to invest so much in this one verse and all that it represents?  It’s a little naïve, don’t you think?   How about, instead, a dose of cold, hard realism?

Unless, of course, that’s exactly what this verse is setting forth here, right under our noses.   Because the context of this beloved verse is the sheep-fold.   The “frame” for this passage in John is filled with cold, hard realism that boils down to this:  there is always something or someone who wants to fleece the flock, attack the sheep, and have fresh mutton for supper.

Jesus comes on the scene here, fully aware that wherever there are sheep there are thieves and imposters and rustlers who only want to “steal and kill and destroy” (v. 10a).   Deprivation, oppression and loss mark the natural state of things in this fallen world.   And Jesus is no Pollyanna about that.

It’s just that Jesus is not willing to allow those harsh, cold realities to have a future with us--his beloved flock.  

Jesus isn’t some serene guru teaching timeless truths here.  Jesus is, rather, the tip of the spear of an invasion force that’s taking over this poor, old, dying world.   And his aim is quite simple:  to inflict life, God’s life, upon us!    “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Today, Jeanette, you formally help lead this invasion force that even now is turning the world upside down and challenging every bit of conventional wisdom we live by.   Jesus, having already recruited you, now formally enlists you to “call out” everything and everyone who would “steal and kill and destroy” members of his precious flock.

You are being set aside to announce until you’re blue in the face this fresh new reality:  “I—Jesus!--have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

 And what might that look like?

 In her book Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean suggests that the abundant life Jesus brings is marked by at least four things:  a creed that grounds us, a community that enfolds us, a mission that captures us, and a hope that draws us into God’s tomorrow.

 So in a world filled with all sorts of competing God-stories and alternative explanations of reality, the church invites you, Jeanette, to sally forth with the greatest story, the truest account of what matters most.  It is the story of God’s intoxicating love for all that God has made, a mercy so overpowering that God couldn’t resist becoming one of us, entering into every nook and cranny of our lives, even to the point of dying with us which was also a dying for us, in Jesus Christ.   That’s how God has unleashed, how God has inflicted “abundant life” on the world—life that in the power of Christ’s resurrection continues to expand and multiply and grow—through us—until it fills the universe, until God is “all in all.”

 That, Jeanette, or something like it is the creed that claims us, the story that grounds us.   We Christian preachers are the original Johnny-one-notes, because when all is said and done, we just have Jesus to offer to a depleted, dried up, “fresh-out-of-everything “world.

 This creed that claims us produces a community that enfolds us.   Think of the “abundant life” that Jesus came to bring less as a deep, pristine lake and more as a wide, swift-flowing river….catching up in its compelling current everyone it washes over.   For that is how Christ’s abundant life keeps expanding—it invades us and commandeers us to invade others with it as well.   Jesus’ abundant life is the only thing that multiples as it is divided.

 I have not yet come to know directly the community of Christ at Esther Lutheran Church.   But this much I do know:  persons who come in contact with this congregation have a hard time keeping their feet on the ground afterward.   I’ve heard that in your voice, Jeanette, as you breathlessly tell others about your first few times at Esther….and I run into it every time my colleague Pastor Laurie Natwick comes back from a meeting with the council or call committee or members of Esther.  It sometimes takes me a day or two to bring Laurie back down to earth.  It’s as if the folks at Esther have gotten a little giddy on God’s intoxicating love in Jesus Christ, so much so that they’ve forgotten all the reasons why things will never work.   The Esther congregation has gotten to thinking that God is alive and well and catching them up in his mission.   (I wonder, Jeanette, whether in addition to issuing you a ministerial stole this afternoon, we perhaps should also hand over a crash helmet and a life preserver or two…)

 Which brings me to the third mark of what Christ’s abundant life is like:  it’s a life centered around and fully invested in God’s mission of rescuing and reclaiming the whole creation.  This mission of God captures our imagination and gives us purpose.

 Awash in Jesus’ abundant life, we simply know in our heart of hearts that this is too good to keep for ourselves.    As Kenda Creasy Dean puts it:  “When we realize what God has done, when we discover that Christ has bound himself to us so radically that nothing can separate us from him when we gratefully reciprocate by fastening our lives to his life, death and resurrection in baptism, the Holy Spirit empowers us to consciously participate in the life of God.  Where Jesus goes, we go; when Christ suffers, we suffer; what God gives, we give.  Our lives are so bound up with Christ that the Holy Spirit gives us more of God’s love than we can fathom or hold…This is how God enters the world:  through people like us.”  (Almost Christian, p. 88)

 What kind of foolishness is this?  It’s the foolishness of people who fearlessly believe that God stands at the end of history—that boundless hope draws us forward into God’s tomorrow.  Jeanette, this is the fourth mark of the abundant life that Jesus rains down upon us.    Let your preaching and living of the gospel be suffused with a contagious hope in Jesus Christ, that your hearers won’t be able to avoid “leaning into” God’s coming kingdom.

 There is nothing naïve about any of this, Jeanette.  Jesus isn’t backing down from any of his promises to us.  Most assuredly—in the face of all naysayers—Jesus insists that we have life, and have it abundantly.   That’s really all you have to say and live and help God’s people wrap themselves around, for as long as God gives you breath.

 Jesus said:  “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”    We take him at his word.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.