Saturday, October 29, 2011

"But Now..."

Reformation Sunday—October 30, 2011
Bethany Lutheran Church, Red Lake Falls, MN
Romans 3:19-28

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

This morning I have bad news, good news and better news for you.

1.   First, the bad news:  what you’ve been trying to do isn’t working.

You’ve been trying to do the right thing—attempting to live in a way that is good and true and beautiful.    You’ve been doing your duty, obeying the rules, tending your responsibilities, working hard.

But it’s just not working.  Somehow, somewhere along the way, you inevitably fall short—experience disappointment.

And that’s the pits, isn’t it?

Here, you do your best, but it’s never good enough.  It just can’t quite get you to your final destination.   Even if everything seems to be going swimmingly—even if the world is your oyster—there’s still that big dark hole at the end:  the hole where what’s left of you will one day be deposited after you die. 

Nothing you do can make that hole go away!

Five hundred years ago there was a man named Martin Luther who was intimately acquainted with this sorry state of affairs. 

Luther was born in 1483, just nine years before “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”  He lived in a world so very different from this time and this place.  His mother thought demons caused milk to sour.  His father insisted that Martin become a lawyer.  His church thought he needed to shape up—and it offered a hundred and one ways for Martin to do that.

Martin Luther shared one thing in common with us:  he wanted to do the right thing.   And he didn’t just WANT to do the right thing—he made a valiant effort actually to accomplish the right thing.

Luther sought to align himself with Whoever was at the core of his universe.   Martin Luther wanted to please God above all things—and so he poured himself, lock stock and barrel into this worthy effort.

“How can I find a gracious God?” was Luther’s nagging question.   How can I get on the right side of the One who created me, the same One who will someday judge me?

You and I may not put it in exactly those terms, but we surely are attempting—every minute of every hour of every day—we’re trying to do the right thing, to align ourselves with the Source of all that is.

But try as we might—we always fall short.   St Paul says so rather bluntly in our Second Lesson when he declares:  “No human being will be justified in [God’s] sight by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes knowledge of sin.”   End of story—there is no law, no rule, no way of life, no moral uprightness that can ever bring us home—put us right with the Source of our life.

That’s the bad news—as old as the hills, and as fresh as this new day.   And if that bad news was all there was, we would be of all persons most to be pitied.

But remember:  I said that I had bad news, good news and better news for you.  

So here goes:   what you’re trying isn’t working….but there is another way, a whole different way, a way that we’d never come up with all on our own.

2.   The good news is that there is this other way.    And it has nothing to do with what we think or say or do—thank God!   It’s a way that’s simply bestowed upon us--comes to us out of the clear blue.  It descends like gentle rain on parched earth.  It “happens” to us when we least expect it.

Martin Luther was about ready to throw in the towel.  He had tried everything he could think of to strike a bargain with God—get on God’s good side.  

And if anyone could have pulled it off—it was Martin Luther.  He tried to fulfill those 101 expectations of his church, he confessed his sins and made amends every day.  He was so obsessed with that that one day his priest-confessor turned Luther away at the door of the confessional—telling him to come back only when he had some real, serious sins to confess!

At the end of his rope, Luther dove deeply into the Word of God…searching, seeking out, trying to find a way out.

And then one fine day “the way out” found Luther!--right here in our Second Lesson for today (that’s why we read this every year on Reformation Sunday!)  Here’s how the good news begins:   but now!”

These might be the two sweetest words in the whole Bible:  But now”—something new bursts forth…something other than “trying just a bit harder” to live our lives well.

But now—a path is opened up that we weren’t even looking for.  It just appeared—took us by surprise,  showed up in our midst.

“But now,” sings Paul, “apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

Here we thought that righteousness, being right with God, being aligned with God’s Kingdom was something we had to pursue with every fiber of our being….”but now”—lo and behold!—it dawned on Paul, it dawned on Luther and (pray God!) it dawns on us that God’s righteousness has been pursuing us, all along.

God’s right-wising of the world is never our do-it-yourself project.  It is God’s project, through and through.   It is God’s great work on our behalf.  And God delights in simply forking it over, letting it wash over us, covering all our sinfulness and waywardness with the waters of grace flowing from Christ’s pierced side, cascading now from the baptismal font, sweeping away all obstacles in the path, catching us up in the gracious current, the glorious under-tow of the Good News.

Good news:  there is another way.  And this way has found us.  It has captured us with God’s astonishing mercy.   It is, even now, making us brand spanking new—new creatures, in Christ Jesus.

Bad news:  what you’re trying isn’t working.

Good news:  there is another way—God’s way of hunting us down with mercy and a fresh start and the promise of new creation.

3.   But here’s even better news:   this other way isn’t just a bright idea or a  “live option” or a great possibility plopped down in our laps—an alternative God cooked up for us in the spur of the moment—something that might do the trick, if we’ll just be smart enough to choose it.

No, the better news is that this way, Jesus’ way is what God had in mind all along.   As Paul puts it in our text, Jesus “disclosed” what God has always been about—Jesus has revealed that God’s righteousness isn’t God’s possession—but it’s God’s modus operandi…God’s action plan played out in the world. 

God is, always has been, and always will be in the right-wising business!   God isn’t just coming to us, hat in hand, to make us a great offer.   God intends to effect this way in our lives.  It is our destiny!

Before the first star began to twinkle, God was thinking of you.  Before God created anything, he was imagining a cross and an empty grave.  God was getting ready to send his beloved Son into the world.  Before the first sunrise ever took place, God had designs on you to name you and claim you and never let you go.

And because all of this is God’s gift to you—a sheer, unadulterated bonus of undeserved mercy—you now have better things to do than nervously trying to measure up to expectations that will always be beyond your grasp.

You now can just float—float in God’s mercy.  

I often think of a Roman Catholic bishop I knew down in southern Minnesota.   Raymond Lucker served the Diocese of New Ulm until cancer stole him away.  While he was dying Ray often spent free time at a little farm place he owned near Renville, MN.  Once a friend found Ray, sitting in a lawn chair in the bright sunshine of a Minnesota summer morning.  “What are you doing, Ray?” the friend asked.   “Nothing,” Ray replied.  “I’m just sitting here, letting God hold me.”

Reformation Day is about floating on the sheer grace of God, living in the confidence that before you ever lifted a finger to do one good thing for God, God had already done all good things for you, in Christ Jesus. 

And where does that now leave us?  Floating in the grace of God, held tightly by God, riding the baptismal river, and calling to others on the shore:  “Come on in.  This water is fine!”

In the name of Jesus.


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lighting up the Cosmos

75th Anniversary Sunday—Immanuel of Wadena
October 16, 2011
Matthew 5:13-16

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

“You are the light of the world,” Jesus tells us here in Matthew chapter 5.   Ponder that simple statement with me for a few moments.  Notice some things that might easily escape us in this overly-familiar passage.

1.    First, you are.   You are the light of the world.

Our Lord Jesus doesn’t give us something to aspire to here.   He isn’t like the proverbial commencement speaker who challenges graduates bedecked in their caps and gowns to see that “the sky’s the limit—they can reach for the stars,” if they simply put their minds to it.

Our Lord doesn’t lay an assignment or a project or a “woulda coulda” on us, here.   Jesus doesn’t tell us:   you really should be light.  You oughta try real hard to shine.

No, instead Jesus says simply:  you are.   You are the light of the world.

It is a fait accompli—an accomplished fact.  It is a promise, not a possibility.   It’s true simply because the Author of Light and Life says so.  When Jesus speaks, things happen, identity is given, purpose is granted, reality is transformed in the most unexpected and amazing of ways:  you are the light of the world.

This morning we give thanks for the light that has shown forth from this congregation for three-quarters of a century.   This amazing historical booklet—one of the most thorough, most thoughtfully-put-together anniversary booklets I’ve ever seen—this booklet offers more than a Joe Friday “just the facts” rendition of information.  This is a journal of highs and lows, opportunities and challenges, even successes and failures—making it one of the most honest congregational histories I’ve read, as well.

But what shines through, again and again, is the giftedness of this community of light and life in Jesus Christ.   There is a givenness—a God-givenness—about your life as a church.   You came into being--in the Great Depression no less!--and you survived and thrived and weathered all sorts of storms and went through a killer tornado….because God apparently has wanted you to be here.

God has said to you, and God keeps saying to you:  you are!   You are the light of the world.   You are because I have brought you forth, given birth to you, kept you going, continued to trim your wick and replenish your oil so that your light might blaze forth--unabated, unabashed.

You are.  You are here.  You are Immanuel (God-with-us!), because God has seen to it.   Thanks be to God.

2.    But there is more here in this verse.   Jesus says YOU are the light of the world.

What’s curious about that is that, if we know our Bibles, we remember that elsewhere Jesus described himself in the same terms.   John 8:12 (my confirmation verse!) goes like this: “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’”

So, here we were thinking that Jesus is the light of the world, as by rights it should be.   Jesus is the one who shatters the darkness of sin, death and the power of the devil.  Jesus shines the piercing light of God’s Word and God’s truth into all the dark corners of this world.  Jesus is the light of the world—according to John’s Gospel.

But this same Jesus puts a different spin on that phrase here in Matthew’s gospel:  looking us right in the eyes, telling each one of us and anyone else who cares to listen:  YOUyou are the light of the world.”

So, which is it?   Who is the light of the world—Jesus, or those to whom Jesus speaks when he says “you are the light of the world?”

The answer, I think, is that Jesus sometimes has a hard time telling where he leaves off and we begin—we who are his beloved ones, his sisters and brothers, his Body in the world.   Jesus identifies with us for whom he has suffered, died and risen again.   Jesus the Light “identifies” so closely, so completely with us, who now live in the Body of Christ, that he who is the light thinks nothing of calling us the light of the world as well.

Jesus takes us that seriously, don’t you know?   YOU are the light of the world.

Which is to say:  you shine in dazzling ways because you bear the light Jesus has put within you.   It’s a borrowed, reflected light that shines through us—always, always, always….and yet just because it is a borrowed light (we borrow the light from Jesus!) it shines no less brightly.

YOU are the light the world, declares Jesus….and there’s another thing we need to say about that YOU.  It’s a “you all” sort of pronoun.  It’s plural, not singular.   YOU ALL…YOU TOGETHER….YOU IN THE COMPANY OF YOUR FELLOW DISCIPLES…you collectively are the light of the world.

And that shines through in the story of Immanuel Lutheran Church, too, doesn’t it?   For 75 years you have learned and relearned how the “holy togetherness” of the church frees you to tend the gospel, encourage one another, create vital programs, and sustain sacred space for all those things to happen--while supporting God’s mission in the world.

You ALL….you together have borne and continue to bear the light of Christ in the world. 

I’m struck by how often in your history you grappled with the dilemma of taking care of internal matters in the congregation—while also finagling ways to reach out into the community and beyond.   That has been a lively debate, a healthy discussion here.

You’ve been unwilling to have it only one way—looking after yourselves.   You have persistently wanted to have it both ways:  tending your life right here as Immanuel Lutheran, but also expanding mission efforts beyond your four walls….whether through Habitat for Humanity…or generous mission support giving….or your “mission of the month” emphasis….or projects like Mission Jamaica.   You’ve been able to cover all those bases because it has never been about you (a single congregation all by itself)….but it has been about YOU ALL, you together, whom our Lord Jesus calls (collectively!) the light of the world.

3.    Third, Jesus says to us:  YOU ALL ARE THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD.   Your bearing of the Christ-light serves the cosmos—it’s the universe that you light up.

Rather an audacious thing to be thinking about, let alone speaking out loud!

I recall a phrase that the late President Pamela Jolicoeur of Concordia College, coined.   Coming from southern California—where everything is big and splashy and colorful!—and arriving in the harsh environment of the Red River Valley…..Dr. Jolicoeur observed that we northwestern Minnesota Lutherans are known for our “militant modesty.”

Our motto, with apologies to Garrison Keillor, might go like this:  “Don’t you be thinking you’re anything special!”

But Jesus isn’t buying any of that.    Jesus isn’t looking for wallflowers who blend into the background unnoticed.   Jesus, rather, audaciously tells us:  you are the light OF THE WORLD, you light up the whole cosmos!

Now, stick that in your pipe and smoke it! 

God lays no small plans for us.   God harbors no small expectations of us.   God intends for us to intrude upon the darkness of this world and let the dazzling light of Jesus Christ shine to full effect.

You, my dear sisters and brothers, you light up the universe.   So, please, never sell yourselves short.

And you here at Immanuel have lived that out in so many ways.   You have been not just a “consumer” of pastors—but you have produced pastors and other church leaders, other servants of the Word.  You have dispatched sons and daughters out across the globe.    Several of your pastors have wound up being called into wider-church ministries.   You have done things like “Miracle Sundays” (which doesn’t sound very “militantly modest”)….and when the Big One roared through town in June of 2010, you were bold in your efforts—with other neighbors  in Wadena—to declare, rather defiantly, that a big old tornado isn’t going to get you down.

Militant modesty may have its place, but Jesus our Lord calls us to something grander.  I love the fact that one of your goals for this anniversary celebration is “to create excitement for the future of Immanuel’s ministry.”

Well here’s what God has to say about that—God who called Immanuel into being, God who binds you in a holy togetherness, God who sets before you a whole world of possibilities for your next 75 years and beyond.   Jesus looks you in the eyes and says to you today:  “you are….you all are…the light of the world.”   Whatever awaits you, you will continue to arise and shine…for this is your Lord’s promise to you: you will light up the world, with God’s own dazzling brilliance.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Right Stuff

Awe-Filled Worship and Life:  Rethinking Stewardship
October 9 and 16, 2011
Revelation 21:1-5a and Galatians 2:19b-20

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

When I was a little boy, like lots of other little boys back in the 50s and 60s, I was fascinated by the U.S. space program.   My friends and I never missed a rocket launch on TV, and astronauts were our heroes. 

Four of us, when we were all in third grade, even decided to become a team of astronauts….and, so the story goes, I would be their chaplain!

What we little boys didn’t realize, though, was how rigorous the training program had been for our heroes—astronauts like Alan Shepard, Wally Schirra, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong.

We didn’t know, for starters, that all astronauts had to be in tip-top physical condition.  We didn’t know how highly educated they were…how they had gone through basic training in the military…how they had been subjected to a host of intense simulation experiences.  

The reason for all that was that astronauts needed to function in an environment of weightlessness.  They had to survive G-forces of 6 or higher, had to be proficient scuba divers, had to tread water for extended periods of time.   Astronauts truly had to have “the right stuff.”

What might have given us pause—my third grade companions and I—was the reality that many things astronauts went through in their training made them deathly ill.  Simulated experiences of weightlessness caused dizziness, even nausea.  Getting spun around in G-force simulators could make them pass out.  Our heroes were always being pressed to the max!

Here, silly me, I thought reading a book or taking a class might be enough, to become an astronaut. 

But no.  The hundreds of men and women who became U.S. astronauts all had experience a world that they had yet to know—a world so unlike this world—the disorienting, gravity-free world of outer space. 

Here in the 21st chapter of Revelation we catch a glimpse of how God is even now fashioning a new creation—a new heaven and a new earth that we are destined for, that we have yet to experience in its fullness.  

Through our baptism, through being incorporated into Jesus Christ, we are already, in a sense, residents of this new world…though we’ve just started to experience its height and breadth and depth.

God’s new creation is so unlike this world—so very different from our life in the midst of space and time and gravity—that we can only imagine it, in tiny “bites,” and fleeting glimpses.  Truly Paul was right when he wrote that for “now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.” (I Cor. 13:12)

We venture to speak of the “life of the world to come,” only because we are already in training for it even now.   And, as was the case with U.S. astronauts, such training involves so much more than passing a class or reading a book.

You and I are, rather, called to prepare ourselves for God’s new creation now, by experiencing, by practicing intensely the life that God is giving us, the life to which God is leading us.

This analogy of the astronauts and their training is a way for you and me to think about our lives as Christians, as followers of Jesus.  

Indeed, everything we do and are as God’s beloved people is preparing us for the amazing life that yet awaits us.   God invites us to start living now, in eager anticipation of the fullness of life in God’s kingdom.  

God invites us to lean into his promised future, by acting today in ways that will become natural for us in God’s tomorrow.

Hence, all the talk about and attention to “faith practices” in the church.

Think of “faith practices” as what Alan Shepard, Wally Schirra, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong did to become astronauts—rigorously, continually, painstakingly preparing themselves for a world they could only imagine.

That’s what it’s like for us to be “in training” now for the New Creation that God is surely bringing our way. 

We know how to live in this “heavy,”gravity-ruled world that is passing away—but what about living into the freedom and gracious “weightlessness”--of the world that is to come?   That is something else!

So, living in this old world that expects us to fill up every available minute with work and play and  “busyness”….God cajoles us into acting as if our time were in God’s hands, and not our own.  And so we regularly observe Sabbath time, ceasing our killer schedules and intentionally doing nothing productive once a week, so that we might learn afresh how well God runs the universe without any help from us!

Or, swimming in a culture that throws at us all sorts of competing “scripts” and “stories,” designed to claim our complete loyalty…God comes along and draws us out of ourselves, weaves us into God’s story.  God frees us to dwell regularly in another Word, God’s Word, that turns everything upside down.  God helps us master a new script, in which God is all in all, thus giving us a new GPS coordinate to aim for.

Or, instead of only seeking our own self-interest in this passing-away world….God pries us lose from ourselves, uncurls our turned-in-upon-ourselves ways, lures us into seeking the good of our neighbor above our own self-interest…through the faith practice of serving our neighbor.

Or, most apropos for today, living by a code that convinces us we must spend every last red cent on ourselves, a code that says, “the one who winds up with the most toys wins”…God instead catches us up into the crazy joy, the hilaritas of generosity, introducing us to the lightness, the “weightlessness,” the freedom of grace.

Doesn’t this sound great?  

But, truth be told, embracing this training, trying on these faith practices also disorients us and makes us dizzy….because living now in a way that leans into God’s future inevitably causes some motion sickness. 

If we’re really lucky, in fact,  it will kill us.

Faith practices like Sabbath-keeping, dwelling in God’s Word, praying, serving our neighbors, and embracing generosity…these faith practices will be the end of us, the end of the old person inside each of us who clings to this dying, passing-away world. 

We live here.  We die here.  End of story!

But it’s not the end of the story.   This life is just the beginning.

Just look at Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.   All these faith practices are Jesus-practices!  They have an unmistakable Jesus-shape about them.  They imprint Jesus on our lives!

…which is why Paul rhapsodizes about Jesus living within us.   I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul declares in the second chapter of Galatians, “and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  (Galatians 2:19-20)

Herein lies our only hope—that the God who got inside this old gravity-laden world in Jesus, will keep getting inside us in the power of Jesus’ resurrected and unending life.  Unlike the astronauts of the 1960s, we do not embrace “faith practices” as solo performers.   There are always at least two persons embracing these “new creation” practices—you, and Jesus.

And precisely here we see “the right stuff” that makes us new, gets us ready for the life of the world to come.  The right stuff is the Jesus-stuff, getting down under our skins, and flowing out through us into the world around us.

So these “faith practices” are actually Jesus’ own life, being replayed now through you and through me.  

For you see, what Jesus gets a kick out of is this:  Jesus loves dressing up in our flesh and blood.  Jesus loves getting at this old dying world through us—thus refashioning it into the new heaven and the new earth where all God’s children are destined to live.

·       So Jesus in us, re-centers us in God’s own life, in which we’ll never again need to think that our “busyness” justifies us.
·       And Jesus in us, helps us learn God’s script for our lives, marinating us in a Word that re-orients everything we used to think and feel and assume.
·       And Jesus in us gets us turned “inside out” for the sake of our neighbors in the world.
·       And Jesus under our skin inspires in us the sheer delight, the wild joy of going crazy with our possessions, giving generously for the sake of God, God’s mission, God’s people and God’s world.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.