Saturday, April 26, 2014

Getting Out of Church

Faith Lutheran Church, Pelican Rapids, MN
April 27, 2014
John 20:19-31
Easter 2, Confirmation Sunday

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Happy Easter!   It’s still OK to say that, you know, because Easter just STARTED last Sunday…and the whole blooming season of Easter runs for a full 50 days…the greatest season of the year for Christians and for all people.

The longer I live, the more amazed I am at how much there is in this rich, rich story of Jesus’ liberating death and his hope-engendering resurrection.

Last Sunday, as I listened to a great Easter sermon from my pastor in Moorhead, I was reminded about one of the peculiar little cul-de-sacs in this whole, amazing story.

I was reminded that Matthew’s gospel includes a detail that the other three gospels don’t mention:  that on the Saturday after Good Friday some of the same religious leaders who sought Jesus’ crucifixion convinced Pilate, the Roman governor, to seal up Jesus’ tomb—for fear that Jesus’ followers would come and steal away Jesus’ dead body in order to claim—falsely!—that Jesus had arisen from the dead.

So in this weird scene at the tail-end of Matthew, chapter 27  Pilate agrees that Jesus’ tomb should be sealed up, tight as a drum, so no troublemakers even have a chance to steal his body.   Pilate even dispatches a bunch of Roman soldiers to stand guard--to prevent any monkey business from happening there in the cemetery.

We can picture them—a whole cohort of Roman soldiers--tough guys, packing heat, their backs to the tomb, peering outward, scanning the horizon for marauding grave robbers lurking in the shadows!

Here those grave-guarders thought the danger was “out there” somewhere—Jesus’ followers trying to pull a fast one and bust their way INTO Jesus’ tomb!

But what the soldiers failed to realize was that the danger wasn’t “out there.”  The danger was inside the tomb!

These tough-guy Roman soldiers were dumbstruck when a “grave robbery” actually DID take place on Easter morning—not because some rowdy outsiders got into the grave, but because Jesus, the Resurrected Insider got out of the grave!

Now, this morning, something very much like that is repeated here in John’s story of the first Easter evening.  

We come upon another “tomb” of sorts…..a room in Jerusalem where Jesus’ closest followers are holed up, all the windows shuttered, all the doors locked-tight so that the same enemies who demanded Jesus’ death don’t come after them, too!

Jesus’ disciples, on that first Easter evening, imagined the biggest danger they faced was “out there”--the same mob who condemned Jesus and orchestrated his execution on trumped up charges.   

The disciples were terrified of the dangers that lurked outside their safe house—which left them flabbergasted when they discovered that the Danger was actually on the inside the room with them.

Because all at once, the Risen Lord Jesus Christ just appeared in their midst.   Jesus, the Living One, paid no never-mind to barred windows or locked doors!!

…and that could only mean trouble for his disciples—scared rabbits who all turned tail and ran for their lives  when Jesus was arrested.  Jesus’ disciples had good reason to fear him showing up in their midst—they had let him down.  They deserved condemnation from the lips of the Risen Christ.

But that’s not what they got.   Jesus’ first word to them was such a welcome surprise:  “Peace be with you!”  

The cowardly disciples deserved a blistering attack by the Risen Christ—but instead, they heard him from his lips the sweetest word imaginable:  “Shalom!  Peace to the n-th degree!”

The Danger that showed up in their midst was unsettling….but in a way that broke open life for them, that offered a fresh future beyond their imagination.   Jesus not only freed them from their guilt—but re-enlisted them to continue his mission of piecing back together the whole broken creation, one sorry sinner at a time.   “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.  Receive the Holy Spirit.”   Get going and proclaim my peace, announce my forgiveness!

These two stories…the story of Roman soldiers in Matthew 27  trying in vain to keep Jesus in his grave….and the story of Jesus’ followers trying to keep trouble out of their safe house here in John 20….

These two stories have gotten me thinking about us, our “tombs,” the “safe houses” we try to hole up inside so that the danger out there doesn’t “get” us.

Why, sometimes we even make the church into a fortress where we hide, lest we be tainted by all the evil that’s “out there.”    Sometimes we imagine we’ll be safe if we just shutter our windows, lock our doors, huddle up and seek protection from whatever or whoever might try to lead us astray.

But that’s not how the Resurrected Jesus looks at things---not at all. 

The Risen and Living Jesus is all about breaking out of whatever tight, closed, place—whatever tomb, whatever sealed room—we try to put him inside of.

That’s what unfolds here in these rich Resurrection stories:   Jesus will not be confined.  Jesus will not stay dead and buried.   Jesus will not stay put.   Jesus is always breaking out and getting loose in the world….

….and taking us with him, in the process!

So in the Easter stories of the four gospels, Jesus never just hangs around the Empty Tomb, chit-chatting with pilgrims, signing autographs, or taking “selfies” with his admirers.

No, in the gospels, Jesus is about getting out of the cemetery, running his race, way out ahead of us, leading us out into mission in the world.

Here in what we call the Doubting Thomas story, Jesus shows up inside that sealed room—only so that he can get himself and everybody else out of that room, only so that he can send his followers back into this dangerous world, in order to continue what Jesus began at his Cross and Empty Tomb.

That, my dear friends, is what this Easter season is all about…..and it’s also what this Confirmation Sunday means for us here at Faith Lutheran.

Whatever else happens here this morning with our five dear confirmands and all the rest of us—we’ll be reminded about just what happens here in churches like Faith….where the gift of faith is given in  Word and Sacrament….and where our doubts are heard and taken seriously, where God gives us reasons to keep on believing, just as our Risen Lord Jesus met Thomas in his doubts and restored him to a faith that proclaimed:  “My Lord and my God!”

It’s a matter of life and death, you see, that we come to church, to receive faith and have our doubts removed.  

And it’s just as crucial that we also get out of church!

What was that?   Every relative, every friend of our confirmands is probably worried about just that—that our young friends will “get out of church” now that they’re confirmed.

But I’m not talking about “getting out of church” as in ABANDONING the church.

I’m talking about getting out of church the way Jesus wanted his followers to get out of that locked room in Jerusalem.   I’m talking about getting out of church in the way Jesus talks about that here in John 20:  “As the Father has sent me so I send you.”

So please—I say this to our confirmands and to all of us:  please keep coming to church, so that you can keep getting out of church and returning to God’s world!

The Affirmation of Baptism promises in our confirmation liturgy pick up on that “come and go” rhythm of life…

Notice, please, how these promises include two COMINGS and three GOINGs:

You have made public profession of your faith.  Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism: (and here they are…)

To live among God’s faithful people…that’s a COMING…
To hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper….another COMING…
To proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed….there’s the first GOING…
To serve all people, following the example of Jesus…another GOING…
And to strive for justice and peace in all the earth? more GOING.

Dear friends in Christ, may we all find here in God’s church a wonderful home, a nourishing haven, a place where we always feel as though we belong…

May we enter and re-enter this community of Christ, time and again…

But please, let’s not stay here.   If the church starts feeling too cozy, the Risen Jesus will come and along and push us out, into God’s world again.  And that’s a very good thing, because the whole human family needs what Jesus sends us to do:  to proclaim his good news, to serve all people, to speak up for justice and pursue peace because that is our God wants more than anything else—for us and for all people.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Sweet Swap

Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, Moorhead, MN
Good Friday—April 18, 2014
II Cor. 5:16-21

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

“Every day do one thing that scares you.”

Eleanor Roosevelt said that, and I think it’s good advice—maybe especially for preachers. 

Preachers should preach so recklessly, ladle out God’s grace so dangerously, that periodically they ask themselves (as they prepare a sermon), “Can I really say that?  Did I just swerve over the center line, say more than I’m authorized to say?”

I wonder if, after writing these words here in his second letter to the Corinthians…I wonder if Paul stopped, in momentary terror, to ask himself:  “Have I finally gone too far?”

I wonder that especially about the last sentence in this text:   “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Did Paul realize what he was saying when he penned those words?   Did he make a mental note that perhaps he should come back and edit that sentence a bit, dial it back a notch or two?

No apparently Paul did not hesitate. 

He just put his head down and barreled ahead.  “’That’s my story and I’m sticking with it:’  for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Paul had other options here.  He could have talked about Jesus carrying sin, bearing sin, or (as we like to say) identifying himself with us in our sin.   Paul could have toned it down.

But instead Paul just came out and proclaimed it:  “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin…”

God made Jesus the sinless one into sin itself.   Jesus became my pride, your waywardness, our rebellion..   God fashioned Jesus into my apathy, your addiction, our stubborn determination to do it our own way—to give selfishness full reign.

Jesus actually became all of that. 

And it wasn’t some sort of sleight-of hand magic trick, either.  This “becoming sin” didn’t happen in one instant in time.

No, from the moment Jesus showed up among us he started taking on sin, becoming sin, every step of his journey.

When Jesus got in line with all those sinners who came out to the wilderness to hear John the Baptist preach, he was becoming sin.

When Jesus went down under the muddy water of the Jordan River, he was becoming sin.

When Jesus sought out and hung around all the wrong people, he was becoming sin.

When Jesus healed lepers, fashioned mudpacks for blind eyes, touched the dead, he was becoming sin.

When Jesus brazenly forgave sinner, he was becoming sin.

When Jesus got under people’s skin—especially good, upright folks who said they hated sin—when Jesus went after them, he was becoming sin.

Whenever Jesus seemed to be going soft on sinners, too willing to sit with them, too eager to extend mercy to them, too reckless about inviting them to follow him, he was becoming sin.

And it just kept happening until, on the Cross--for all the world to see--it became fully apparent that Jesus had become sin.

God made the sinless one to be full of sin, to be sin itself.

Which is why Jesus had to die, because we good folks who say we hate sin, could not allow sin to live any longer.  We killed Jesus, this one who had become sin before our eyes.  We proclaimed and we acted on the assumption that sin could not continue, sin had to go!

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin….”   Somebody went too far here in II Cor. 5:21.  

But it wasn’t the author of these words, Paul.   No, the One who went too far was God himself.

But that’s just the first shocking thing here in this verse.  

It gets worse:  “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Jesus became sin—and as a result of that we became the righteousness of God.  

We didn’t just get a little better.  Our condition didn’t merely improve a notch or two.   We didn’t just put on some nice new clothing to cover up our shame, guilt and grief.

No, in this strange economy of God, we beneficiaries of the Cross became the righteousness of God.   We became the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness that God has always been looking for.   We became the change, God’s startling change, worked out on Calvary for us and our salvation.

This incredible transaction that plays out before our faces, reaches its culmination, its destination on the Cross:   Jesus becomes our sin, and we become God’s righteousness, we become all that God created us to be.

Martin Luther called this the “happy exchange.”   A latter day follower of Luther has called it “the sweet swap!”   Jesus tells us, “Here, I’m going to become your sin, and you’re going to become my righteousness, and that will be that!”

We’re never, ever going to receive another proposition as sweet as that!  This is a game-changer, a life-changer for us and all people.

Have you ever been asked for the date and the hour you were saved?  Whatever you do, please never, never say that it happened when you hit bottom in a seedy motel, a bottle of pills in one hand and a Gideon Bible in the other.

No one was ever saved in a Super 8 motel.

But the whole world was saved around the middle of a Friday afternoon, just outside Jerusalem, two thousand years ago.   The happy exchange reached its climax when Jesus, the sinless one, fully and completely became sin….so that we who’re caught up in Jesus’ story might become what we now in fact are: the righteousness of God.

There’s nothing we can add to that.  Jesus bit the bullet, Jesus did all the lifting here, for us and for our salvation..

We can’t improve upon any of that!

All we can do is to bask in the light of it, live the rest of our lives in that light and—please, God!—reflect that light as we walk with others toward God’s future.

Along that path we will take our cues from Jesus, who always walks ahead of us.  Pope Francis, whose little book I’ve been reading this Lenten season, talks about being a “dirty church.”  Some think Francis is going too far, but I think he’s getting it just right.

“I prefer a Church,” writes Francis, “…I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security….More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us:  ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mk 6:37).”   (The Joy of the Gospel, par. 49).

A Church, a people of God who are bruised, hurting and dirty….doesn’t that sound like the church of One who became sin?  Doesn’t that sound like the embassy of the One who has worked his “happy exchange” in our lives?   Doesn’t that sound like the kind of “sweet swap” that’s the game-changer for us and all people who have, in the mercy of Christ, become the righteousness of God?

Doesn’t that sound exactly like the way to move from Good Friday to Easter?

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.