Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Bodacious Prayer

Theology for Ministry Conference/Fair Hills
September 17, 2013
Ephesians 3:14-20

It’s a strange thing that something as powerful, as intimate, as comforting as prayer should be fraught with so many problems!

What should by rights be so easy, so natural….is anything but.

We each, without much effort, could tick off a rather long list of our own “problems with prayer.”  

There’s the problem of thinking we know too much about God, for example.  There’s the burden of theologizing everything--so, if God knows everything already, why should I bother to tell God anything—as if “new information” is something that even exists for God?  And if God is starting to answer my prayer before I even pray it, what’s the point?  

There’s the problem of finding the right place, time and posture for prayer--not to mention maintaining a discipline of prayer in the midst of so many other duties and responsibilities and distractions.

There’s the problem of finding the right words for prayer (this is God we’re addressing after all!)   Which prayer is more thoughtful and sincere:  the prayer you have painstakingly written out ahead of time, or the prayer of the heart that springs forth unbidden…a prayer you can sigh or even groan?

There’s the problem of getting in the right frame of mind for prayer, clearing away all impediments to prayer, opening the channels so that you and God can really communicate.

There’s the problem—the fear actually of  boring God with our prayers (though honestly, I have my doubts as to whether “boredom” is something God is even capable of…)

There’s the vexing problem in our religiously pluralistic culture of praying in the proper name, with the right credentials.   Is the phrase “in Jesus’ name” like our password or heavenly PIN number, that magically unlocks the door to the heavenly throne room?   Does God even bother with “To Whom it May Concern” prayers, or are those automatically deleted and sent to the divine recycle bin?

There’s the problem of prayer’s commonality, we might even say prayer’s profanity…the fact that any Tom, Dick or Harry (whether they ever darken the door of a holy place or not)….anyone can just toss up a petition with a “God I sure hope you’re up there” address.   As Anne Lamott observes, prayers of thanksgiving are something even atheists and agnostics utter when they’re not thinking about what they’re saying.   But doesn’t that cheapen prayer?

There’s the problem of competing prayers and competing “pray-ers.”  Visiting the Gettysburg Battlefield last month we were reminded, time and again, that the Union troops and their Confederate counterparts all pleaded with the same God to grant them victory in battle.  

And, really, we could go on and on and on.   How is it that we have so many problems with the profound, gracious gift of prayer?

And then there are problems with prayer that fly way under the radar…like the one that lurks in our prayer of the day.

This venerable collect, discloses another surprising problem with prayer.  Look at it with me once again, especially the first line:   "Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve….”

Now we get the part about God always being ready to give us more than we deserve—we understand that part in spades.

Miserable worms, ungrateful wretches that we are….we never deserve anything God gives us, even when we may have accidentally gotten prayer right for a change.   Even when we’re at our very best—all our righteousness is as filthy rags, don’t you know?   Our Lutheran guilt—guilt that burns like a pilot light, according to Garrison Keillor--our Lutheran guilt keeps us honest about that.

But the phrase that’s been eating at me since I saw this prayer in a worship service on the eve of our ELCA Churchwide Assembly….the word that bugs me in this venerable collect is that word “desire.”

Almighty God is always ready to give us more than we desire.   Did you catch that?  

We don’t even know what we want from God…what we need from God?   You’d think that we concupiscent, sinful creatures could at least get desires straight—but no.   We don’t even know what we want!

And still, God fulfills those desires and then some!    What’s with that?

The key may lie in our text from Ephesians 3, another passage that’s gotten under my skin and made me ponder for the last ten years or so, especially this line:   “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.”

There is something about “imagination” churning around in all of this…..imagination about ourselves, imagination about God and imagination about the things God aches to give us and the whole creation.

So, we probably all have our “to do” lists and our goals lists and our “bucket lists.”    We may think that these encompass our desires—but do they?    Does God’s Word here invite us, as usually happens, to dive even deeper?

In the Gospel of John, the first time Jesus speaks, he asks a question of two would-be followers….and I think it’s one of the highest, widest questions in the universe:  “What are you looking for?”  

I wonder if our prayer of the day, when it reminds us how God is always ready to give us more than we desire or deserve….I wonder if this prayer beckons us toward Jesus’ haunting question:  “What are you looking for?”

To suggest, as this prayer does, that we don’t even know what we desire of God, isn’t to say that we have failed to draw up our Sears Wishbook lists of “stuff we’d really like to have someday”….

…but it is to suggest that when we pray, we will do well to approach prayer as people who have taken the time to stop, look and listen to Jesus who is forever asking us:  “What are you looking for?”

Imagination—incarnational imagination!--therefore, is integral to the practice of prayer—isn’t it?  Imagination about ourselves—“What are you looking for?”   But more importantly, imagination about God…maybe with the counterpoint question in mind:  “What is God aching to give me, to give us, to give to this whole hurting world?”

However we answer that second question, we need to say at least this much:  God is always aching to give us more.   I’m not too worried about boring God with my dull prayers, but I do wonder if my too-puny, too-small prayers often disappoint God. 

Because the picture of God that is painted in this prayer of the day and in the Ephesians passage, is of One who is forever saying to us:  “Is that all?  Is that all you expect me to do?   Why are you so sheepish about asking for more?”

Friends, what if the biggest problem with prayer is that we’re always low-balling God?   What if the sort of prayer we want to be aiming for is the biggest, most audacious, as the Brits would say the cheekiest prayer we can imagine?

And in this regard we would do well to take the Lord Prayer as a jumping off point.  It starts, you’ve certainly noticed, by asking for the Big Stuff first—right up front.   We pray for the holiness of God’s name, the coming of God’s kingdom, the doing of God’s good and gracious will “on earth as it is in heaven.”    What more could we ask?  The rest of the Lord’s Prayer simply fleshes that out, albeit quite briefly!

So here’s the image of God I want to lay before us in closing:   picture God looking us right in the eyes and saying to us:   “Hit me!  Hit me with your very best—your wildest, most bodacious petition—ask for my holiness to prevail, ask for my strong and gentle rule over all things, ask for heaven to come down to earth, ask for me, my very presence…just ask for me to enter your life, forgive your sin, wipe away your fear of death, turn you toward your neighbor, and make you and all things new.”

I don’t know.   Can Lutherans learn to pray like that?  

We can, as we sweep away most of our militant modesty, our contentment with ‘just enough,’ our perennially low and painfully realistic expectations….

We’ll want to get a little tipsy on God’s grace to pray like that, but I think it’s in our genes.

For if Father Staupitz was right when he asked Luther if he thought he could out-sin the grace of God….perhaps it will be just as right for you and I to ask ourselves:  “Do we think we can out-pray the abundance of God?”

Given the challenges and changes we face in this unsettled, unsettling moment in the life of God’s church, I believe we need precisely such prayers—such big, bold, bodacious prayers for all that God has in mind for us and the whole creation---we need such “more, more, more” prayers….now, more than ever.

In the name of Jesus.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Pass It On

Synod Women’s Organization Convention

Bethlehem, Fergus Falls
September 7, 2013
John 1:35-51

Years ago, when I served on a synod staff in southern Minnesota, I traveled out to a country church for a monthly conference pastors’ gathering.
I arrived early so I could connect with my pastor-colleagues as they arrived for morning coffee.

To my dismay, though, when I arrived there were already a dozen cars in the church’s parking lot.  I guess I wasn’t “early” after all!

When I entered the church building, I couldn’t find anyone at first….not in the sanctuary, not in the social hall….no one!  

Despite the twelve cars outside, the building seemed abandoned.  I thought I could hear the faint sound of voices in the church kitchen, though.

So I gently opened the kitchen door—only to be greeted by twelve lovely women whose average age appeared to be about 74.  They stopped talking right away and greeted me shyly.

Now I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think these women were discussing how to make coffee or frost cinnamon rolls.

What I horned in on was an information-sharing session. Some of what was being shared might even have come under the category of “gossip.”

Gossip gets a bad name, because a lot of it is untrue or hurtful to others.  And yet we all do a little passing on of juicy tidbits we’ve picked up and just have to share. 

There is, in fact, something we might call “good gossip”—news that cheers us up, encourages us, maybe even calls us to prayer.  A friend of mine once suggested that the Gospel itself is the most life-changing gossip we’ll ever hear.

You’re all here this morning because you’re been grabbed by the good gossip of the gospel.   Having heard this gossip, you want to share it with others, as happens here in our gospel lesson from John, chapter 1.

This story is a gossipy text.  Someone’s always talking about Someone Else.  And this good gossip is so juicy that it keeps gathering steam, keeps drawing others in, keeps “hooking” them!

It starts with John the Baptist and his startling announcement that Jesus is “the Lamb of God.”  Now there’s an attention-grabber.   What could that possibly mean—Jesus “the Lamb of God?”

That very phrase, “the Lamb of God,” illustrates how it is in the very nature of gossip to be interesting.   No one wastes time with boring news or dull gossip.

But John the Baptist created so much interest in Jesus that persons around him immediately wondered:  “What’s up with that?  How can we find out more about this ‘lamb of God’?”

My dear friends, what makes the good gossip about Jesus so interesting to you?  What about Jesus has gotten under your skin, deep in your bones?   What could you say about Jesus that might stir up a godly curiosity in others?

Gossip worth its name is always interesting….so interesting that it attracts others.

 Like any good gossip, John the Baptist does what a gossip must do:  he passes on the gossip, and not just to anyone, but to two of his closest friends, two of his disciples.

 These were guys who earlier in their lives had heard some good gossip about John the Baptist.  They’d come to believe that John the Baptist was interesting, worth listening to and following. 

 So, at the risk of losing them as his followers, John the Baptist shares the good gossip of the gospel—and he pushes his two buddies to go directly to the source, to follow after Jesus.

 So, these two followers of John the Baptist start tagging along after Jesus.    And Jesus sees ‘em coming and speaks to them.   It’s the first time Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John, and I think it’s fascinating that Jesus’ first words come in the form of a question:  “What are you looking for?”

 Now there’s a question--a question just filled with possibilities.  “What are you looking for?  Isn’t that what we all wonder from time to time?   What are you looking for in this life?  What itch are you trying to scratch?”   

 With this question, Jesus opens the door to these two followers of John the Baptist.  Jesus invites them into a conversation that will become a conversion.

 And the two followers of John the Baptist swallow the bait.   They ask where Jesus is staying, Jesus tells them to come and see—and they spend the day together.

 Here’s where we see how different the good gossip of the gospel is from all our garden-variety backyard gossip.   Everyday gossip just gets passed along—and that’s that.

The good gossip of the gospel draws people in.  It fosters community.  It creates a new set of relationships.

My dear friends—how are you passing on the good gossip about Jesus in such a way that you not only impart information—but you invite persons into relationships—relationships with Jesus and therefore also relationships with others who are following Jesus?

John’s two followers spend the better part of a day with Jesus.  I’d give an arm and a leg to know what they talked about—to have a transcript of that visit.  

All we know is that that conversation produced a conversion, a turning, a newness of life for these two men.  Because by four o’clock in the afternoon, these gossip-receivers had become confirmed gossip-sharers!

One of them—we finally learn a name—Andrew, has a specific plan of action.

Just as John the Baptist got the ball rolling by sharing the good gossip of the gospel with those nearest and dearest to him, so now Andrew turns (quite naturally!) to his own brother Simon.

Andrew does two things.   He speaks to Simon (“We have found the Messiah—God’s Anointed  One!”) and then he hustles Simon over to have a look for himself.

This little “two-step” is worth noting.   Words are crucial—to be sure.   Andrew speaks the news to Simon.   So far so good!

We Lutheran followers of Jesus aren’t half bad at that.  In fact we like words so much that we invest ourselves in them.  We believe that words—especially words about God in Jesus Christ—create a new reality.

But notice, please, that Andrew doesn’t stop with words.   He grabs his brother by the arm and brings him to Jesus.

The good gossip of the gospel isn’t merely spoken.  It becomes incarnate, it puts on flesh-and-blood in the action of a gossip-sharer.  Andrew brings Simon to Jesus, draws his brother into a conversation with the potential for producing conversion.

Which it does!  Simon meets Jesus, and just like that Jesus renames him!  In the Middle East of the first century, such an action spoke volumes.   For to change someone’s name was like giving them a whole new identity.  “You are Simon son of John.  You are to be called Cephas—Peter—The Rock!”

You’d think that might be the end of it here in John, chapter 1.   But, no, the good gossip about Jesus is just starting to “go viral.”   Because the next day the whole thing starts all over again.  

Jesus goes to Galilee, finds a fellow named Philip, invites Philip to follow him—and Philip right away figures that he has to spread the gossip about Jesus to his friend Nathanael.

Except that Nathanael is a harder nut to crack.  He doesn’t just take gossip at face value—he probes, he expresses skepticism….but that doesn’t deter Philip.   Philip does what Andrew did the day before:  he hustles Nathanael over to meet Jesus, who graciously responds to Nathanael’s doubts and calls forth from him a sterling confession of faith.   Like Simon, Nathanael receives a new identity and purpose—all because Philip couldn’t keep the good gossip of the Gospel to himself.

We can bring people to Jesus—confident that when someone meets Jesus they will never be the same again.   Jesus draws persons—Jesus draws the likes of you and me—into conversations that produce conversion.   Jesus is bold—whenever he gets the chance—to meet us in our doubts, to name and rename us, to claim and reclaim us.

And we end up with a new identity.   Like Simon-turned-Peter the Rock….like Nathanael the skeptic-turned-confessor!

Hearing the good gossip of the gospel makes you and me new people, pure and simple.   And hearing this gossip, we start bearing this gossip into a world just dying to hear it.

That, dear friends, is why you came here this morning. 

I invite you to ponder your convention theme, “Pass it On,” not in terms of some grim business or a heavy obligation that’s been laid upon you--but to think of it as if it were good gossip—gossip that’s interesting, gossip that can’t be kept to yourself, gossip that moves us from words to deeds, gossip that creates new people and fresh relationships, gossip that simply has to be shared.  

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

If Anyone Is In Christ--New Creation!"

Concordia College Chapel Worship
September 4, 2013
Celebration of ELCA 25th Anniversary
II Cor. 5:16-21

Dear friends in Christ, in hearing this Word may you know the unfathomable love of God who makes all things new.  Amen.

“If anyone is in Christ….new creation!”

“If anyone is in Christ—new creation!”

I have it on good authority (from the English prof who sits in the President’s office, no less!)…that if you include this phrase in a composition assignment for course #IWC-100, your instructor will get out the dreaded red pen and deduct points!

Why?    Because “If anyone is in Christ…new creation!” isn’t even a complete sentence in English…though it is a faithful, literal translation of St Paul’s first-century Greek text.

“If anyone is in Christ…new creation”    Bad English, jarring Greek, but it captures what’s at the heart of everything for persons who’ve been caught in the updraft of God’s new thing in Jesus Christ.

Paul fractures language here because Jesus Christ has fractured the cosmos….Christ has upended it all, in his death-dying life, his self-emptying death, and his hope-reviving resurrection.

“If anyone is in Christ….new creation!”

When Jesus died and was buried, everything old passed away with him….and at dawn on Easter, everything new stepped forth into the morning light “in Christ.”

And nothing has been the same since that first Easter….and no one who’s been overtaken by this business, no one who’s been joined to, incorporated into this Christ, no one comes through this experience unscathed.

It’s all over folks.   Space and time and life itself—as we used to know it—it’s all over, done, finished.   “If anyone is in Christ—new creation!”

These words have been claimed by our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America during 2013 as we celebrate our 25th anniversary as a church body.   We ELCA-types, recalling with gratitude a quarter century together are choosing to identify ourselves as “always being made new” in Jesus Christ.

That’s not your typical church anniversary theme verse.  

Usually, when Christians observe church anniversaries they choose themes that look backward, celebrate what has been, take stock of where we’ve come from.  

But this 25th anniversary of our ELCA is intensely, intentionally forward-looking.  It’s about what God is doing and will continue to do.  No dusty, musty nostalgia here—this is about “always being made new.”

I wish I could tell you that we in the ELCA chose this verse because we already get that 100%.  Yessiree we ELCA folks are “hands down” the newest, freshest, edgiest church body in North America!

I wish I could make that claim, but you know I can’t. In fact, I doubt that any organized church, with articles of incorporation and deeds to real estate and five-year strategic plans…I don’t think any such group can claim to be 100%  “new creation.”  

Truth be told, we all have one foot firmly planted in the old creation, the passing-away world as we have known it.  We are in this strange frontier, this liminal in-between space, with habits and loyalties and investment in the old creation…..even as we catch glimpses of and are beckoned to, drawn toward God’s new creation.

So, in this 25th anniversary theme we find a strong aspirational aspect.  We aspire to, we strive to lean into the new thing God is doing….and at least part of us trusts that this is indeed our hope, this is what moves us and continually calls us out of the old creation and into God’s new creation.

In this anniversary year we in the ELCA are saying that we’re ready to bet the whole farm on the notion that God is in fact making all things new, starting with us, starting with this church body that is proud to claim Concordia College as one of its crown jewels.

So what is it that we aspire to as God’s always-being-made-new church?  

1.    We in the ELCA aspire to a life based on nothing but the gratuitous mercy of God in Jesus Christ.   As a pastor friend of mine likes to say:  “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”   No blunder you’ve made, no gnawing guilt, no shame that dogs your days….none of those things has any power over us in Christ who has reconciled the whole world—the cosmos!—to himself.  

2.   We of the ELCA aspire to inviting everyone—and I mean everyone—to journey with us toward God’s future.   A church that is always being made new in Christ sees itself less as a comfortable enclave of the like-minded….and more as a flinty band of discoverers ready to follow Christ into costly, bracing mission in a hurting, longing world.  If that appeals to you, please come along with us!

3.   We who are the ELCA aspire to learning the truth, speaking the truth and living the truth.   As Christ’s always-being-made-new people (especially living in this community of higher learning) we dare to believe that if all truth is in fact God’s truth, we need not hold back from exploring, pondering and engaging such truth in whatever form it takes. We are unafraid to look truth right in the eyes because we believe that Truth is a Person who walked on this earth, died for his friends, and been raised from death to disclose the deepest Truth that resides in God’s aching heart…the Truth of God’s hopeless devotion to all whom God has made.

4.   We who call the ELCA our home aspire to a bold and encompassing wholeness in serving God’s mission…a wholeness that refuses to divide and conquer—a wholeness that seamlessly blends telling the story of Christ with serving in the manner of Christ.  This wholistic vision is so appealing that more persons like you are applying for opportunities like YAGM—Young Adults in Global Mission—more of you are applying than we have positions funded to receive you at this time.  So in celebration of our 25th anniversary we in the ELCA are going to go after the dollars to remedy that!

5.   We ELCA-ers aspire to live on the basis of our hopes rather than our fears.  There are all sorts of religious folks who think you somehow have to scare the hell out of someone in order to save them…who believe fear is a dandy motivator to bring us into God’s orbit.   An always-being-made-new church, and a college of such a church, like Concordia, will instead exude the sweet fragrance of Good News that woos us, that attracts us with the winsomeness of Jesus and his wonderful way in the world.

Back when I was in college--when dinosaurs roamed the earth—there was a popular lapel button with just these nine letters on it:  PBPGIFWMY…standing for “please be patient; God isn’t finished with me yet.”

Thank God, that is true for all of us, in Christ Jesus:  true for you, true for me, true for this church, true for this college.  

If anyone is in Christ—new creation!

Isn’t that amazing?
In the name of Jesus.   Amen.