Monday, November 18, 2013

Raw Materials for the New Creation

Good Shepherd, Clearbrook and Our Savior’s, Leonard
November 17, 2013
Luke 21:5-19

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

A few weeks ago I received confirmation that my body is indeed falling apart.

A physician’s assistant in Fargo showed me an X-ray of my right hand, pointing specifically to the joint between the third and fourth bones in my thumb.

What’s notable about that joint, I learned, is that there’s no longer anything inside of it—the cartilage, the shock-absorbing cushion between those two bones is gone for good.   Bone on bone arthritis pain will be my lot in life…

….and although painkillers and a splint provide some relief…and steroid shots or even surgery might help me down the line….the problem itself will not be fully healed in this life.

The only cure for what’s ailing me is the resurrection.

Other parts of my body are also deteriorating, but I have visual proof of this one, this tiny joint that makes my whole hand ache.

Not that I have any business complaining… 

Some of you probably have bigger sources of pain.  In truth, we’re all falling apart….and not just us, either.   This whole world and everything in it is slowly being chipped away.   Every person, every creature, and everything made by human hands has a limited shelf life.  None of it will last forever.

That’s the bracing truth Jesus names here in Luke 21.   Oohing and aahing at marvelous architecture and lavish decorations of Jerusalem’s temple….Jesus’ friends weren’t expecting to hear his sober assessment:  “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

We and everyone else—this entire old creation—none of it is going to last forever in its present form.

Jesus’ hearers “got” that immediately.  They realized that Jesus was talking about the Day of the Lord, the grand climax toward which all history is heading:  “‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”

They were intensely curious and so are we.   Who doesn’t wonder about the final future of this old world?   Yes, we may live most of our days skirting such big, momentous questions….but life has a way of hemming us in, grabbing our attention, making us wonder.   Whether it’s a typhoon in the Philippines or the latest report on global climate change or the incessant gridlock of our national government or the personal prayer lists we keep—with an endless revolving door of loved ones in stress or sickness or grief….we wonder how our lives and the life of this old creation will conclude.

And Jesus helps us with these questions in his gospel lesson from Luke 21.  

Jesus helps us by reminding us of things we easily forget…

·      ….that it’s a fool’s errand to speculate about the end of the world or to follow the latest “prophet” who claims to have uncracked the secrets of God’s apocalyptic timetable…

·      ….Jesus reminds us to be patient as history moves toward its conclusion in familiar ways that should not surprise or terrify us—that time will stretch out a while longer, with wars and natural disasters and cosmic events that will take our breath away and make us wonder….

·      ….Jesus reminds us that increasingly this faithless world will not feel like home to people of faith like us…that we may even endure the sting of dis-respect or persecution, simply because we stubbornly cling to the God who alone holds the future in his hands.

Nothing is more surprising in this gospel lesson, though, than the way Jesus calls us to a deeper engagement with this dying world—an engagement that seems counter-intuitive.

Most folks, when they contemplate how no one and nothing in this world lasts forever….most folks are easily paralyzed by either abject fear or dark depression.    We want to avert our eyes, turn our faces away, get lost in cocoons of distraction…

….but Jesus, rather, calls us to step out and speak up, in the face of the falling-apart-of-it-all:   “This will give you an opportunity to testify,” he contends—in the face of the paralysis that is always seeking to overcome us, limited, bounded creatures of space and time.

This hope-engendering word from Jesus is consistent with the entire biblical witness regarding the End-Times.   As God’s dearly beloved children, who know that whatever fate brings our way God will make sure that “not a hair of [our] head[s] will perish”….our awareness of the passing-away-ness of everything earthly does not reduce us to apathy or inaction.

Quite the contrary!   For we believe that in Jesus Christ we have seen what God does with death, decay and destruction.   We realize that God is in the “resurrection business”…..that the passing-away of this old creation is the precursor, the necessary pre-requisite for the New Creation that even now is being prepared and beginning to dawn upon us.

So we look at our faults and failings and falling-apart lives in the sheer confidence that these are the very raw materials of the New Day, the New Creation that God is laboring to bring forth, even today.

And all of that has begun, decisively, in the oddest of places:   on the garbage heap outside of Jerusalem where everything old and sinful and mortal was nailed to the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ….where you and I and everyone else have been crucified with Christ and buried with him through our Baptisms into death….so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father we too might walk in newness of life!  (Romans 6)

That, that, my dear friends is what allows us to be brutally honest about the End, the conclusion of our lives and the culmination of all things.   For we wait with eager anticipation for a new heaven and a new earth!

And we believe so firmly that God is accomplishing this New Thing, that we find ourselves “leaning into” it even now.   We travel through this mortal life in the confidence that God will not be finished with any of us until we are raised again with our Lord Jesus Christ, when God makes all things new.

Jesus does not advise his hearers in Luke 21 to hoard canned food, or stockpile a stash of weapons, or dig a fallout shelter or do anything else to hunker down in and cling to this old dying world and all its here-today-gone-tomorrow ways.

No, Jesus calls us to step up and speak out—in word and deed—because we know how the story ends and we know the One who alone holds the future in the palm of his loving hands!

Friends, the world is dying for this good news, this hopeful, alternative way of facing the future. 

Because, when Jesus talks about the End of all things he draws our attention not to mysterious timetables or speculation about disasters or fascination with Armageddon-like battles…

When Jesus talks about the End of all things he consistently directs our attention back to what we are called to do now, today, before the End arrives.

The best way to get ready for the End of all things is to be about the work God has given us to do today:  trusting God, loving our neighbors, caring for the earth….bearing witness in word and deed to the only One who knows what lies ahead, who holds the future.

Once in colonial New England there was a total eclipse of the sun.  This inexplicable cosmic event took place while the colonial legislature was in session.  When the eclipse brought sudden, unexpected darkness over the land (in the middle of the day!) a number of lawmakers panicked—and some moved that the session adjourn.

But then a legislator arose and said:  “Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools.  And if it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty.  I move, sir, that candles be brought so that despite the darkness our work may continue.”

If the end is coming, where should you and I be found?  Hunkered down in a fallout shelter, hiding?   High on a mountaintop dressed in white ascension robes—waiting?   Shut up in a church building—praying?

Here’s Jesus’ response:  If the End is coming let us be engaged in the world—witnessing to God’s loving lordship, in word and in deed.

And as we are about those tasks, we travel in God’s promise that it’s not really our business as much as it’s God’s business in and through us.   “So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance,” Jesus concludes here in Luke 21, “for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” 

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

More Than Meets the Eye

Bethany/Williams and Mt Carmel/Roosevelt, MN
November 10, 2013
Luke 20:27-38

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

There’s more than meets the eye here in this gospel lesson.  

At first glance, this sounds like an off-the wall argument in a high-falutin’ debate society.  The Sadducees conjure up a wild-hare scenario—and then try to use it to prove a point.

To understand this crazy business, you need to remember that there wasn’t much of a social safety net in Jesus’ day.   There was no Social Security, no county human services department, no “welfare.”   Women and children were especially vulnerable—and usually regarded as little more than property.

When Jesus walked the earth, a woman needed a man in her life, just to survive.   So girls lived in their father’s home until they married, and then they belonged to their husbands.  If all went well, the couple would produce children, especially sons—and the sons would watch out for their aged parents, especially their widowed mothers.

But what if all that went haywire?   What if a woman’s husband died before giving her children?   The man would have failed to produce heirs; and the woman would lose whatever old-age support system she might have had.    So Moses devised a backup system:  if a woman’s husband died prematurely, her brother would take her as his wife—to produce children, especially sons.

Now I know this sounds strange and distasteful, especially for women and girls….but you have to “get this” in order even to understand the point these hyper-traditionalist Jews, the Sadducees were trying to make here in Luke 20.

The Sadducees come to Jesus, with this scenario of a brother taking his deceased brother’s wife—and the Sadducees drive the whole business to the point of absurdity.   What if not just two brothers, but seven brothers all took the same woman as wife—each one of them dying before fathering a child with her?   What if that happened?   Whose wife would the woman be after they would all be resurrected from the dead?

The Sadducees concoct this off-the-wall scenario to prove a point:   that there can’t be such a thing as the resurrection of the dead.   The Sadducees contended that the resurrection is not clearly taught in the oldest part of the Bible, the first five books of Moses.  Moreover, it’s illogical that the dead could be raised again—body and soul.    The Sadducees thought they had cornered and defeated Jesus with their argument.

But there’s more here than first meets the eye.   And Jesus says as much.    Without even responding to their seven-husbands-one-wife scenario, Jesus goes back to the heart of the matter and talks not about the hows and whys of the resurrection.

Rather, Jesus speaks about God.    The Sadducees’ God was just too small.   That’s why, as the old joke goes, they were “sad-you-see” (Sadducees).

God is not the God of the dead, declares Jesus to the Sadducees.   God is bigger than death.   God is not limited by the constraints of this world—with its imperfect justice, its laws and traditions, its comings and goings, its births and deaths.   

And because God’s life extends above and beyond all that, so does everyone who belongs to God—living or seemingly dead though they may be.

The Sadducees want to speak about logical impossibilities.   But Jesus insists on speaking of God, the same God who spoke to Moses out of the burning bush (in Exodus 3) and identified himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.   God speaks of Moses’ ancestors—long dead and buried—but God speaks as if those ancestors are “right there”—no longer dead, but alive in the fullness of God’s own unending life.

There’s more here than first meets the eye.    Jesus is always doing that sort of thing in the gospels—always busting out of old arguments and pinched, brittle assumptions that hold us back.  Jesus is always breaking open the astounding promises of God—always helping us see above and beyond the circumstances of the moment.    If there is any hope for us, says Jesus, it is not in ideas or possibilities or even doctrines like the “doctrine” of the resurrection.  Our hope is always in God—the God of the living, the God who insists on sharing his own eternal life, even with the likes of you and me.

There’s more here than first meets the eye.    That’s a watchword for us, too—sons and daughters of God, children of the resurrection, destined in Jesus Christ to live forever in the fullness of God’s own life.  When our God starts looking “too small,” when things appear too cut and dried to us, as they did to the Sadducees—we need to take another look at it, in the light of God’s own boundless, unending life.

Take ourselves for example.  

There’s more to us than meets the eye.   Do we have any idea what God accomplishes in God’s world through our daily lives?   Do we see ourselves, as God sees us, bearing his light from the baptismal font out into our homes, our schools, our workplaces, wherever we travel the other six days of the week?   Do we have an inkling of all the good God does through our hands, our voices, our feet in the world?

There’s more here than first meets the eye.   

That applies to our congregations, as well.  How do you look at the community of faith that gathers week in and week out?   Do you ever see it as God sees it—as an outpost of the Kingdom of God in the world?   Do you realize how your congregations are beacons of hope to those around you—just by your coming together, your cracking open of the Word of God, your baptizing and feeding of one another with Christ’s body and blood—all signs of the life of the world to come?

There’s more here than first meets the eye.  

That’s especially true when you pause to consider all the ways God is forever turning you disciples of Bethany and Mt Carmel churches “inside out” for the sake of the world.  As the love God has lavished on you overflows through you to the world—what happens then?  

·      The hopeless are cheered up.

·      Seekers find faith.

·      Empty stomachs are filled.

·      Reconciliation trumps strife.

·      Justice is achieved.

·      Bold risks are taken.

·      The outlines of God’s promised future start to become clear.

·      Forgiveness goes viral.

·      People are pointed toward Jesus.

There’s more here than first meets the eye.   Even as you pass the offering plate up and down the aisle—do you stop to see, not just what goes into that offering plate, but what comes out of that offering plate?   

Because God is so much bigger than we can even imagine….because God fills up both time and eternity….because God also stoops into time and space to walk with us and among us, God can do amazing things even with the dollars we offer whether they be many or few.

·      God knits Christians together, births new communities of faith, reinvigorates old communities of faith.

·      God calls out and equips ordinary folks for servant ministries.

·      God clears away the fog and guides his people.

·      God defeats intractable diseases like malaria.

·      God sends ambassadors, healers, teachers of the faith across the globe.

·      God forgives sins, restores hope, defeats the devil.

·      God raises the dead—on that we can depend.

·      God raises us up—daughters and sons of God, children of the resurrection who live not in paralyzing fear but in liberating hope.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.


Saturday, November 2, 2013

Seven Reasons Why Campus Ministry Deserves Our Support in 2013

Pastors Simon Fensom and Randy Skow-Anderson singing together again during the 60th Anniversary Celebration for Lutheran Campus Ministry at Minnesota State University Moorhead on November 2, 2013.   I offered thbe following remarks during the program.

Seven reasons why the time is ripe for us to  
·      multiply our prayers for,
·      ramp up our engagement with, and
·      increase our financial support for Lutheran campus ministry.

1.    Because campus ministry is deep in our DNA as Lutherans—heirs of a renewal movement that began in a University nearly 500 years ago.   “Martin Luther was the original campus pastor!”

2.   Because campus ministry is already a precious asset for our ELCA (and a principle of asset-based thinking is that we take stock of assets already on the plus-side of our ledger-book—and we build on those assets).   We have a wonderful history of engagement in campus ministry (tradition), talented boots on the ground (personnel), and an array of facilities (resources).  We have skin in this game—and we’d be fools not to keep building on these assets.

3.   Because campus ministry is one of the best ways our ELCA is trying to scratch the itch we’re all concerned about—what about our youth and young adults?   How does an aging church claim and reclaim persons in the first third of life?

4.   Because campus ministry is something Lutherans are temperamentally and theologically suited for.   Ours is a grace-driven, missionally-imaginative, wonderfully welcoming approach to living the Christian life.   Our confidence in God’s unconditional love and our predilection for relational evangelism allows us to meet young adults where they’re at, walk alongside them through all the ups and downs of young adulthood, learn from them, and equip them for life and service.

5.   Because campus ministry recognizes that our Lutheran sense of “vocation” is a signal contribution we offer to American higher education---a world that’s already talking about something (vocation) that has been in our wheelhouse for nearly five centuries.  Our campus pastors and others involved in campus ministry have the great good fortune to “be there” for young adults in one of the most formative times of their lives—when they’re seriously wrestling with the question:  “What shall I do with my life?”   We in campus ministry get to enrich that discernment process by reminding young adults that in the water of Baptism we all are ordained/set aside/sent for service to the neighbor in any and every walk of life.    Young adults are ripe for rich vocation-oriented encounters and connections, and Lutheran campus ministry is aptly suited for such conversations.

6.   Because Lutheran campus ministry has been, still is and will continue to be on the leading edge of our church….willing to go places not all congregations are ready to go….unencumbered by some of the negative baggage people associate with “the church”—offering safe, inviting opportunities to walk alongside young adults.   Perhaps this is why campus ministry continues to produce a disproportionate number of future leaders for church and society (which is why we need to be careful when talking about the “campus ministry numbers game”).

7.   Because campus ministry recognizes that young people today are best described not as secular—but as seeking--hungering for meaning and abundant life and God.    Too often those of my generation and older view young people as a problem—“what’s wrong with them that they’re not involved in ‘our’ church?”   Campus ministry is one of the arenas in which we move beyond such unhelpful approaches, because we realize that young adults are interested in God, curious about authentic spirituality, and open to meaningful service in God’s world.   Campus ministry is wonderfully-gifted for addressing the desire of young adults to discover holistic ways of following God, e.g. not pitting telling the story of Jesus with walking in the way of Jesus, not regarding witness and work as separate or “opposed” realities.