Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wrapped in God's Promises

Funeral Sermon for Pastor Mary E. Hansen
July 28, 2014
Calvary Lutheran Church, St Hilaire, MN
Romans 8:31-35, 37-39

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Of all the words I’ve heard used to describe Mary this last week—one word I haven’t heard is “worrier.”

Mary was a wife, mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, friend and pastor.  

She was also a lifelong learner, gifted musician, accomplished cook, lover of fine things, justice-seeker, inhabitant of a very large world—to name just a few.

But “worrier” isn’t on the list of labels applied to Mary.

To say that she wasn’t a worrier is not to say that she never worried.   Mary was human after all.  She lived all of her 73 years in a fallen world marked by sin, suffering, mortality, and irrational evil.   Worrying simply comes with the territory.

Mary no doubt worried--but worrying didn’t define her.  She was not obsessed by, consumed by her worries.

And the primary reason for that shines forth in today’s memorial service (which she planned)--the centerpiece of which is this magnificent text from Romans 8.  

Here in Romans 8, the apostle Paul meets worry head on.  Paul tackles all that could ever haunt or threaten us, confronts every “awful awful” with the powerful, effective promises of the God whom we know in Jesus Christ.

For Paul none of this was abstract, armchair theologizing.  Not by a long shot!   Paul named all the things that could dismay us, beat us down, hold us back...Paul ticked off a veritable laundry list of worries—threats that could derail everything….powers and forces that might somehow wheedle their way in between God and us.

I picture the Apostle Paul in the midst of his own anxiety-laden life--wracking his brain, combing through his memory bank,  recalling obstacles he himself faced…and then just putting them right out there:    Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

Now there’s a worry list to end all worry lists!

And what does Paul do with this fearful worry list?   He takes his pen and brazenly crosses out all those potential threats and obstacles….”X”es them right out of his vocabulary……writes all over them this word:  “NOTHING!”

NOTHING, NOTHING, NOTHING, NOTHING can come between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Nothing, no one, nada can veto God’s decision to be for us—not against us—because of Jesus Christ.

That’s the main reason why Mary was not a worrier.  Because very early in her life Mary was grasped by the best news ever:  that God had not withheld his only Son but had given him up for us all….that God had designs on Mary, God had called dibs on her, God was “for” her, come what may!   

Early in her life God wrapped Mary up in his promises of forgiveness for every failing, life beyond all that threatens, and a future without end in the power of Christ’s resurrection.   The wondrous grace that worked its way deep into Mary’s bones assured her that if God is for us—who can be against us?

When Mary was just a little girl, that promise first washed over her in her Baptism, that promise was planted by her encounter with God’s Word, and it was sustained by her life in the community of faith.

And this great life-altering, future-opening promise of God in Christ gave Mary a place to stand, a source of security that could not be shaken—even in the face of some of the awful-awfuls Mary herself would face.

But God’s promises didn’t just make Mary feel secure.  They also furnished her life, infused her days on this earth with meaning and purpose.

That’s the second great way God keeps us from being all wrapped up in worry.   God gives us a brand new life, filled with better things to do than worry about what might happen to us.

Because God made a deal with Mary—to bear all the things that might ever dismay her—God thereby opened up space for Mary to live the life he intended her to live….to live now in this world as if God’s promised future was already hers.

So Mary carried that awareness into all of her life….living as if God’s new creation was already dawning.

So Mary studied and grew and developed a hunger for lifelong learning…

And Mary sang and led others in song and cultivated a love affair with the great music of the ages….

And Mary was given the gift of family….Dawn, Heather and Kevin…and an adoring, faithful husband named Carl…

And Mary was given a heart full of care for her neighbors, especially those most in need of compassion and justice, including neighbors across the whole globe….

And God also gave Mary a fulfilling life of service in the church…service through which she could live out her passion for the Good News of Jesus that had claimed her.

When Mary was just 12 years old, she first head God calling her to become a pastor…..and that was a pretty tall order to fill because back when Mary was a young girl women weren’t getting ordained.   

So certain was Mary of God’s compelling persistent call in her life that she declared that if God wanted her to be a pastor, God would have to figure out a way to open up ordained ministry for women like her to do just that.  Young Mary said she was ready to wait until God made that happen—which God finally did!

So twelve years after marrying Carl, Mary embarked with him on the adventure of pastoral ministry together….serving congregations for 30 years in Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa, South Dakota and finally here in northwestern Minnesota.

Mary’s work as a pastor didn’t just provide her and her family with a living—it also offered them a life, a way of wedding work with the Word of God that had first laid claim to Mary years and years ago.

And now Mary’s rich life has come full circle.  She has been buried deep in her baptism into Christ.  She has been removed from this fallen world and all the potential sources of worry that it brings.   Mary is wrapped up, finally, not just in the promises of God, but in the arms of God--the fullness of God’s own unending life is hers as well.

So we say:  thanks be to God for giving us Mary to know and to love.   Thanks be to God for calling Mary to be a pastor and then making good on that promise!    Keep us wrapped up in your promises, O God…free us to live as though your new creation was already dawning…and make us ready, as Mary was ready, to die in Christ as we have lived in Christ.

In the name of Jesus.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Parabolic Pyrotechnics

Bethel Lutheran Church, Herman, MN
July 27, 2014
Installation of Pr. David Hanssen
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

This morning’s gospel lesson feels like the grand finale of a 4th of July fireworks show.

When we gather, on lawn blankets, to watch the fireworks every Independence Day…the show always starts slowly (have you noticed?)  

We wait and wait, willing the sky to turn dark enough, and then one wimpy little rocket goes off.   Was this it?  Or did one of the firemen or Lions Club members in charge of things just jump the gun?

But then there’s another rocket, yielding a bigger display of light in the sky….and a pause, and another rocket that produces a big, ear-tingling boom….and a pause….and another rocket, this one like a gigantic dandelion in the sky…

…..and so it goes for 15 or 20 minutes until at the very end of the evening, the guys in charge of the pyrotechnics gleefully set off a whole array of fireworks, all at once—colorful ones and cannon boomers all together—an exciting, breath-taking coda displayed against the gorgeous backdrop of a starlit summer sky.

This morning’s gospel lesson feels like that grand finale of a July 4th fireworks display.   The last few Sundays we’ve been lounging on our lawn blankets, taking in the earlier portion of the fireworks here in Matthew 13….savoring the Sower and the Seed two weeks ago….and struggling with the shocking parable of the Wheat and the Weeds last Sunday….

Those earlier parables offered us both story and interpretation by Jesus.  We watched the rockets go up and then heard some “color commentary” on what was going on….

But now, this morning….the fireworks display is over, with a rat-a-tat-tat of five quick bursts of parabolic dynamite.   The finale makes the whole show worthwhile….and then it is over.

Except that it’s not over, really, because at this point our little analogy breaks down.   Fireworks displays are always too short—great experiences, but entirely fleeting, over way too soon.

But these parables that come at us here at the end of Matthew 13….these are not flashes-in-the-pan, momentary “eye candy.”   No, these are deep, deep stories that will carry us through our whole lives of faith, hope and love.

And they come to us—appropriately enough--on this long-anticipated Sunday morning, as we welcome Pastor David Hanssen to serve here at Bethel.

Where are you in this gospel reading, Pastor David?  I think you’re named in the last verse where Jesus says:  “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

You, David, are the scribe here….not one of the bad-guy scribes we read about in the gospels (usually in cahoots with the Pharisees and priests), out to “get” Jesus.  

No, here, Jesus speaks of another kind of scribe, who has been trained for the kingdom….not the old kingdom of this world, not the kingdom of old Israel….but the kingdom of heaven.   You are a scribe, one who tends the things of God, for the sake of the new thing God is doing in Jesus Christ, the bringer of God’s new creation!

So what sort of stuff have you been called to tend here in this outpost of the kingdom of heaven?   What old and new things is Jesus calling you to bring forth from your treasure chest?   Conveniently enough—this is a Lutheran sermon after all!—there are three treasures God is placing in your hands.

First, you are a scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven, called to draw attention to the utter giftedness of God’s rescuing, renewing work in Jesus Christ.

As you listen and learn and teach and preach, you’ll find yourself speaking in this vein:  “You lucky stiffs!   Before you knew what hit you, you stumbled across the best gift imaginable, fallen into the largess of your Creator, had showered down upon you –like pennies from heaven—the life, death and resurrection of Jesus—all of it, ‘for you!’”

As a scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven, you will develop the art of pointing that out—to yourself and to others—all the ways in which the buried treasure, the pearl of great price has found you.  In fact the defining fact of your life and everyone else’s life is that “while we were still sinners” (Rom 5:8) Jesus flat out died for us, though we have done absolutely nothing to deserve him.

I picture the man in the parable stumbling over, maybe stubbing his big toe on the cache of treasure buried in that field.  I picture the pearl merchant, bug-eyed and so weary from shucking oysters, that he was almost dozing off when his eye caught the sparkle of the pearl he’d been looking for all his life!

The encompassing enormity of this treasure we have in Jesus—life, freedom, forgiveness and a future without end!—the enfolding reality of that treasure is seen in the crazy, stupid thing the treasure-finder and the pearl merchant each do.  Instead of getting that field assessed, that pearl appraised, they both simply “sell all” to make the precious thing their own.   That’s what God is after:  all of us—lock, stock and barrel!—and the way God accomplishes that is to give us all of Jesus—crucified, buried, raised again for us and our salvation.

You’re called to point that out, Pastor David, the sheer giftedness of all that we are and have in Jesus Christ.

Second, God wants you to help folks perceive the amazing hiddenness of God’s ways.   Mustard seeds and granules of yeast are virtually invisible, after all.   But these substances aren’t just minuscule—they’re also despised.   Mustard is more like a weed than a stalk of wheat.  The “leaven” in the parable was really a musty lump of stale bread—a source of corruption in a fastidious kitchen—hidden by the baker in an enormous barrel of flour.  Out of sight, out of mind…

But both of them—the mustard seed and the tiny bit of leaven—both of them grow and change and transform in amazing ways.
So, Pastor David, as a scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven, God calls you not to miss, and to help others not to miss the wondrous ways God works in the tiniest, most despised things.   Ernst K√§semann, the great German scholar of the New Testament, once said that the kingdom of God is “made up of stuff that in and of itself is fundamentally unusable.”   Never forget that.  

Never let these dear sons and daughters of God forget that, either.   We are Minnesotans after all.   As Garrison Keillor points out, we’re all brought up to believe that we shouldn’t ever become too proud of ourselves… we cultivate a militant modesty that is reluctant to believe that God might be at work in our midst.  
But the God we have on our hands is the God who takes mustard seeds and covers the planet with mustard plants, big enough for birds to find nesting places.  The God we know in Jesus takes old moldy bread and leavens fresh dough with it in order to bake loaves that feed a multitude at the Table of Grace.

Finally, Pastor David, you are called to work faithfully in the messiness of the church’s life.   That’s the burden of the parable of the dragnet—like the weeds amid the wheat, the dragnet draws in “fish of every kind” (v. 47).   That’s how it is in the church, how it is here at Bethel.   Our admission standards are pretty low—we’re just looking for sinners who have an inkling that God knows what to do with sin!

That opens the floodgates to “fish of every kind”—some prize walleyes and northerns right alongside sheepshead and carp—all of us in the same barrel, this odd kettle of fish called the church.   

You will notice that, from time to time, the thought will be voiced that we should get more selective, attend more carefully to the holiness of the church by welcoming some in and keeping others out.  But one of the great things about being Lutheran is that we really like (and I would say we really “get”) Jesus’ parables about weeds growing up with wheat, and a dragnet big enough to haul in “fish of every kind”—trusting that God and God alone is qualified to do any sorting that needs to be done--and that only at the End of God’s story.

So, Pastor David, as you serve now here at Bethel, a “scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven,” tend the holy things and the holy people of God:  never tiring of sharing the sheer giftedness, the astonishing hiddenness, and the surprising wideness of God’s mercy in this messy place we call the church.

That ought to keep you out of mischief, for what we hope will be a good long time!

In the name of Jesus.