Thursday, November 13, 2014

Planting--Not Burying--Faith!

Redeemer Lutheran Church, Thief River Falls, MN
Vibrant Faith Training Weekend
Pentecost 23/November 15, 2014 (Saturday evening worship)
Matthew 25:14-30

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Quick:   your house is on fire.  You think you can chance one last trip inside to bring out the one thing that means the most to you, the one thing you most want to pass on to your children.  

What do you go after when you enter your burning house for the last time?

OK, here’s the answer:   this quick question is really a trick question—because the best things in life aren’t things.   There is no thing in your burning house worth risking your life to grab and run with it.  Doing so will only jeopardize one of the greatest gifts God has given you:  your very life!

So, remove the burning house from the equation, and ponder the same question:  what’s the most important thing you want to make sure you pass on to the next generation?

It’s not your life that could easily be snuffed out were you foolish enough to run into a burning building.

It’s your faith, the faith in the God we know best in Jesus Christ, the faith that this head-over-heels-in-love-with-you God showered upon you freely, fully lavishly.   God has bestowed on you this awesome gift, with great abandon.    For it is in God’s nature to give away the best God has to offer—to give away Jesus, to give away the faith and hope and love that Jesus brings--to “spend” this great gift like a drunken sailor, plopping it down right in our laps.

What do you do with this gift?  You do what God does:  you give it away, starting with those right under your roof, the ones in your innermost circle of loving care, your own children….and if you don’t happen to have kids of your own, you give it away to other children who matter to you, the young ones who are all around us.

That’s what this Vibrant Faith Weekend is all about, here at Redeemer & Black River.   Your parish is declaring that you intend to order your whole life around the one thing that matters most:  passing on the faith….recognizing the height and breadth and depth of this overflowing gift (the way the three servants in Jesus’ parable must have been blown away by the magnitude of the investment their master placed in their care.  Each talent, you see, was the equivalent of about fifteen years wages—about $855,000 in this town!)

We recognize, we see what fabulous wealth has been handed over to us, like the servants in the story.  It takes our breath away!    “We’ve been given all of THAT?”
We recognize the value of God’s greatest gift to us, the gift of our faith…..and then we do with that gift what the faithful servants in this story  do:   we invest it, we scatter it around, we give it away, confident that faith, hope and love are the only things that multiply as they are divided—shared with others!

This isn’t rocket science, my friends.   We know that it works, passing on the faith….and we know who does this best, most compellingly, most effectively.

Who passes on faith most effectively?   Parents…..parents in homes…..and other caring Christian adults who act like parents in the circles of care and concern we’re all part of.

This may sound hokey, but it’s true:  “Studies have shown that this works”—works amazingly well.

The National Study of Youth and Religion (abbreviated NSYR) just crunched the numbers.[1]   Here they are:

  • 1% of teens ages 15-17 raised by parents who attached little importance to faith were themselves highly faith-oriented in their mid- to late 20s.
  • In contrast, 82% of children raised by parents who talked about faith at home, attached great importance to their beliefs and were active in their congregations were themselves religiously active as young adults.

Don’t breathe a word about God to your kids and maybe 1% of them will grow up to be faithful, vibrant disciples of Christ.

Talk about Jesus at home, “marinate” your offspring in the love of God, share the faith that’s been given you, and 82% of your children will themselves show forth a vibrant, living faith in Christ when they’re older.

Two takeaways from our parable and this hard data from the NSYR:  

First, parents and other loving Christian adults trying to pass on faith to the next generation are a force to be reckoned with.   The connection between faithful parents and faithful children is, according to Dr. Christian Smith who led the NSYR, this connection is “nearly deterministic.”   Nothing else comes close to having the effect that parents and other caring adults have on the children in their lives—not youth ministry or pastors or service projects or Christian education efforts in parochial schools or churches—those all pale in comparison to the far-reaching influence of parents and other loving adult mentors to youth.

Christian Smith says that nothing else “comes remotely close to matching the influence of parents on the religious faith and practices of youth….Parents just dominate.”

The second takeaway from the parable of the talents and this NSYR research is this:  whatever you do, leave your shovel in the toolshed!

The third servant in the parable, when he realized the awesome gift and the amazing responsibility his master had plopped down in his lap…the third servant was paralyzed rather than energized.   His hope faded and his fear kicked in—“What if I mess up???”

So rather than investing his talent in the stock market, the third servant found his trusty shovel, dug a huge hole, and buried his talent for safe-keeping in the soil of his backyard.

Whatever he might do, he surely wasn’t going to lose his master’s wealth…
….even though that’s exactly what happened.

When the master returned  to hear how his three servants handled the talents entrusted to them, he was so overjoyed with the over-the-top, reckless investing the first two servants engaged in—that he gave them even more money to take out and invest!

But when the shivering, sniveling third servant haltingly stepped forward, admitting that he decided simply to bury his talent so that none of it would be lost—his master had a fit, giving that third servant his walking papers and turning over his talent to the first two servants.

And why?  Because the master in the parable is the God-figure, and God is the quintessential “high roller!”  

God gambles, God takes enormous risks with everything God has made.   God gives stuff away, willy-nilly entrusts way too much to scrawny little creatures like us…and God grants us the freedom to do the same—to give away what God has first given to us, trusting that the gifts will multiply as they are divided.

But shovels, and holes in the ground, and nest eggs hidden away:  God has “zero tolerance” for any of that.   God doesn’t want to see you or me or anyone else digging a hole in our backyard to hide what we have.   Keep your shovels in the toolshed!

Not everyone in our churches has learned this.   The NSYR found that while 2/3 of teens raised by black Protestant parents and 50% of teens raised by conservative Protestant parents remained faithful in young adulthood….but 70% of teens raised by mainline Protestant parents had minimal or lower levels of religiousness as young adults.

In other words, mainline Protestants like us ELCA folks, have a problem.   We’re too fond of our shovels!  
Here’s one final quote from Christian Smith:  many mainline Protestant parents said they “feel guilty if they think they are doing anything to direct their children toward their religion as opposed to any other possibility.”  They question if they should tell their child “what I believe is right.”

Too many of us in our ELCA seem to think it’s heavy-handed, or even coercive, to share our faith with our kids.   We’ve become so open, so broad-minded that we won’t even argue our own position in a good debate!

In short, we’ve gone for the shovel, buried our gift….when what we should be getting out of the tool shed is the planter, the cultivator, and that big bottle of Miracle-Gro!  

Don’t worry about faith-sharing by Christians being “heavy handed!”   Our kids will figure out how to doubt and be skeptical and drift away all on their own (and they’ll get plenty of encouragement to do so!)

But before our children can raise questions about their faith, they need to have a faith worth questioning, and that is where we Christian adults come in.   Our calling is to plant, not bury, Christian faith….to give away the best of what we’ve been given, as lavishly, lovingly and recklessly as God has given away God’s very best:  Jesus Christ our Lord and the faith, hope and love that Jesus always calls forth in us.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

[1] David Briggs, “Parents No. 1 Influence in Teens Remaining Religiously Active as Young Adults,” Christian Century (Nov. 5, 2014).  

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Ants-In-The-Pants Expectation

Trinity Lutheran Church, Crookston, MN
Pentecost 22/November 9, 2014
Matthew 25:1-13

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Think for a moment about what you spend most of your time thinking about.

What occupies your attention in most of your waking hours?

Three possibilities come to mind.

  • Perhaps you reflect primarily on things that are past.  Memories of bygone days can be foremost on your mind.
  • Or you can be caught in the present.  The relentless tug of the here-and-now can consume you.
  • Or you can spend your time pondering the path ahead.   Your imagination can be captured by the future and all that it might bring.

I would have to confess that the present moment, the stuff that’s right under my nose, consumes most—actually too much of-- my time, energy and attention.

And I’m guessing I’m not alone.   If the hectic pace of modern life, the busy-ness of it all, the never-ending “to do” lists, demand most of our energies—we may agree that “present tense” concerns gobble up most of our attention.

What we spend most of our time thinking about is what’s right before us, this present moment, this “now.”

Such ruminations naturally lead us into this puzzling parable of Jesus about the ten bridesmaids waiting to welcome the bridegroom, so that the wedding party can begin.

Unlike so many of Jesus’ other parables, the characters in this story have weighty adjectives hung around their necks.    There are ten bridesmaids, but they are not all carbon copies of one another.  The Storyteller tells us, right up front, that five of them are wise and five of them are foolish….which immediately makes us wonder how we’ll be able to tell the difference.

Because in the actual unfolding of this story, that difference is not readily apparent.   If we follow how the story plays out…

  • We see ten bridesmaids, all known and loved by the bride and the groom.  
  • We see ten young maidens all chosen to lead the bridegroom in festal procession, as he meets his blushing bride. 
  • We see ten bridesmaids all with lamps to light the bridegroom’s way. 
  • We see ten young women who all grow drowsy when the bridegroom doesn’t arrive on time—all ten of them getting heavy eyelids and dozing off.  
  • We see ten bridesmaids, all waking up with a start at the stroke of midnight when the bridegroom finally shows up.

In the unfolding of this story only at midnight does it become fully apparent which ones are wise and which ones are foolish…..because often who we are becomes clear only in light of what we do, especially in the clutch moments of life, when our true character is revealed.

Not until midnight is the curtain lifted, because only when the clock strikes twelve do we come to see that although these ten bridesmaids all seem so similar, five of them are living in one time zone and five are living in another time zone.

Five of the bridesmaids are deemed “foolish” because at midnight, it’s revealed that they were living as if the only time that mattered was the present moment.   They might have been the classiest dressers, the most “with it” bunch of bridesmaids, even though they couldn’t apparently see beyond the ends of their noses.   They were so enthralled by the “now,” that it never occurred to them that things might not unfold “on time.”

So the five foolish bridesmaids were caught completely off guard by the tardiness of the bridegroom!

The other five bridesmaids were the “wise” ones, even though they might have appeared frumpier than the other five—frumpier, because along with their lamps they were also lugging along those ungainly jugs of extra oil.   The reserve oil might have slowed them down, and in the group photo, they might have appeared less stylish….but they were the “wise” ones because they already inhabited the future.

And, being daughters of the future, the five wise bridesmaids were already living differently in the present.   The day before the wedding celebration (instead of getting manicures with the five foolish ones) they were out buying extra oil, because you know how men can be--some of them are never on time--like this bridegroom, whom they’d been invited to serve.

The five wise bridesmaids may well have been the uncool bridesmaids, because like good Boy Scouts, their motto was “always be prepared” for whatever the future throws at you.  They were “belts AND suspenders” kinds of folks, so aware that surprise might be just around the corner that they were forever anticipating, always getting ready for unforeseen possibilities.

In short, the five wise bridesmaids inhabited a bigger world than their five foolish counterparts.

And here’s where this parable intersects our lives in this time and place.

Because life in general, and modern life in particular, is always locking us into the narrow, suffocating space of this present moment.  

The hectic pace of life, all the demands that forever crowd our days, the frantic busy-ness of today, the multiple distractions we’ve fashioned for ourselves—they all conspire with one another to whittle our world down to just living for “now.”

And that’s a problem for us, especially as people of Christian faith, because God has created us and in Christ God has re-created us to inhabit a much, much wider world.

The grand sweeping story of God’s love affair with us--culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ--all that God has been, is now and intends to keep doing in our midst is fashioning us into people destined to live today as if God’s promised future were already dawning among us.

God intends for us to be sons and daughters of God’s preferred future in Jesus Christ….which means that God’s fondest dream for us is that we live every moment of every day, wide awake, keenly alert, sitting on the edge of our seats, anticipating eagerly our next encounter with God, the One who made us, who travels with us and is (at the same time) always out ahead of us!

In short, God in Christ, invites us to live in this world as “time travelers,” inhabitants of another world.   God calls us to live now in such a way that we have one foot in this present moment and the other foot already in the life of the world to come.

God intends for us to live in God’s own world, the world for which we were made!

And that world--God’s world--is always bigger than our puny “now.”   God’s world encompasses past, present and future.   God’s world is going somewhere, because God is active in it, moving, taking us and the whole creation along on a wild, amazing journey.
The God we know in the story of Israel and Israel’s favorite son Jesus is a God who is always going somewhere, always encountering us, always snatching us up into God’s own life.

This means that living with God is about living in a  world of surprises, for we never know ahead of time exactly where and when God might meet us next….which is to say:  we’re never sure just when we’ll wake up to God’s constant, abiding presence with us

  • So God comes to us whenever God’s Word switches on the light-bulb in our heads, captures our attention, shakes us out of our drowsiness.
  • God comes to us whenever Water and Word birth a new beginning, a death and resurrection in the midst of our ordinary time.
  • God comes to us whenever it dawns on us that food and drink are always holy gifts, especially the Meal we eat at tables like this one.
  • God comes to us in the darkness when we feel completely overwhelmed, utterly bereft...
  • God comes to us in the blazing light of a sunrise or a mountaintop moment...
  • God comes to us in our neighbor who helps us or our neighbor who needs something from us, offering us a chance to love as Jesus loves….
  • ….and because God always finishes what he starts, we expect God to come for us all, one last time to finally make us and all things new in Jesus Christ.

So we live, as the five wise bridesmaids lived, in ants-in-the-pants expectation for the next time God shows up.

The other day I heard about one way such edge-of-the-seat mindfulness might be lived out.   There’s this woman who always keeps, on the front seat of her car, some baggies—each of which contains a new pair of socks or a couple of granola bars or a $5 gift-card from the local grocery store.   She wants to be ready, you see, for the next time she meets someone along the highway who’s holding up a sign that reads:  “Homeless—anything will help.”

This woman is prepared, you see, for the next time God comes to her, wearing the mask of a neighbor in need.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.