Saturday, February 28, 2015

Beyond Survival

Grove Lake Lutheran Church, Pelican Rapids
March 1, 2014/Lent 2
Mark 8:31-38

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

It’s good to be with you this morning.  Over the years I’ve gotten to know some of you, and this morning I hope to become acquainted with even more of you.

Without even knowing all of you, though, I’m going to make a guess about you folks here at Grove Lake Lutheran Church.

I’m guessing that some, perhaps many of you, are survivors.

You have been up against something—raising challenging kids, losing a job, dealing with addiction, being abused, facing cancer, weathering divorce, farming the land, you name it…

You’ve been up against something that could have done you in—but it didn’t.  You survived!

And for that, I say:  “Hats off to you!”   Surviving is good, because life is good!

If you’re a survivor—I thank God for you.

Surviving is good.  But as good as surviving is, it’s not the greatest good in the universe.

That’s because tucked inside every survival story there is a seam of danger we dare not ignore.

The danger in hunkering down, getting focused and doing whatever it takes to survive….the thread of danger in that is that we become so focused on ourselves or our little circle, our “tribe,” that we can easily lose sight of others.

It’s just in the nature of the beast.   To survive is to pull in, focus on ourselves or our group, and for at least a while to shut out everyone else….so that we allow nothing and no one to distract us from the challenge of surviving.

We may all have survival moments or “episodes” in our lives—I think we do—but we’ll be smart  to avoid making “survival” the main theme, the entire story of our lives….because, truth be told, if all we’re about is surviving we could get pretty lonely.

I think this is where  Jesus is pointing us in this morning’s gospel lesson when he says:   "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (vv. 34-35)

Jesus’ wisdom flies in the face of human wisdom, the wisdom that says:  sometimes you have to buckle down and do whatever it takes to survive, to make it through the day.

Jesus doesn’t specifically use the word “survival” here, but he comes close when he talks about denying ourselves and losing our lives rather than trying to save our lives.

What’s that all about, anyway?

It’s about the thing that’s even bigger and better than surviving.  It’s about staying connected with, related to others….being open to God and the whole human family in ways that are simply at odds with focusing all our effort on surviving.

This is the kind of life God has always intended for us and for all people.

We see signs of that in our Old Testament lesson, where Abram and Sarai are promised descendants without number and new names to boot.   Abram and Sarai had pretty good lives, just the two of them, but God had much more in store for them—God had the whole world in mind when he called Abram and Sarai to be blessed so that they could be a blessing to all nations of the earth.
We see that in Jesus, the greatest descendant of Abram and Sarai, as well—we see it in Jesus’s life and ministry, his awful death and his awesome resurrection.    Jesus lived in a way that showed he knew that personal survival is not the greatest good—not even close!

Karoline Lewis, who teaches at our seminary in St Paul, puts it this way:  “To ‘deny yourself and take up your cross’ invites us into what the cross can also mean -- not just death and suffering, but God choosing human relationships. The cross represents God’s commitment to humanity. The cross represents what we do when we are not in relationship with the other and think only for ourselves. Because to be ourselves is to be certain of our connectedness.”[1]

We also see this openness to the whole human family, this refusal to focus on personal or tribal survival, in the lives and witness of Jesus’ followers down through the ages. 

In January my wife Joy and I were privileged to be part of the ELCA Bishops Academy in Germany, as we got in touch with our roots in the life of the German monk Martin Luther and the Reformation he started….and as we traced the development of the Lutheran church over the last five hundred years.

One of the sites we visited was the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald.   A quarter of a million persons deemed “undesirables” by the Nazis were imprisoned here, and over 50,000 of them died in this stark, barbed-wired concentration camp.   Two of the persons who were imprisoned at Buchenwald were German Lutheran pastors and martyrs--Paul Schneider and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906, into a highly-educated, well-to-do German family.  A brilliant child, he was groomed for the life of a university professor of theology.

But then along came Adolf Hitler, his insane pursuit of power, and his maniacal hatred of the Jews and others he deemed “undesirable.”   Quickly grasping the danger posed by Hitler’s Nazis, young professor Bonhoeffer knew he could not stare at his shoes and hope the whole situation would go away.  

In the 1930s, Dietrich studied in the United States and made friends in England.  He considered “sitting out” World War II in a safe place—doing whatever he needed to do to survive.

But instead Bonhoeffer decided that he belonged in his native Germany.  He had to bear witness to his Lord Jesus Christ—in bold word and costly deed.

So Bonhoeffer returned home, served as a pastor while participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler, was arrested and three weeks before the liberation of Germany—was hanged  by the Nazis in 1945.

For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed at the tender age of 39, the question came down to this:  “Who is Jesus for us?—in this time, in this place?”   And the answer that kept haunting Bonhoeffer was this:  “He—Jesus—is the man for others.”   

It was only a short hop from that answer to what Bonhoeffer knew he needed to do—NOT to survive at all costs….but to be part of a true church for others, in obedience to the Man for others.

My dear friends, this “being for others,” this way of life that gives itself away for others, isn’t just for biblical characters or historical heroes.  It’s for all of us who have been baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is the mode of living that our Lord Jesus  immerses us in when we go down under the water of baptism and when we confess that Jesus is indeed the only way worth following, the only truth worth confessing, the only life worth living.

This way of life is for us as individuals, and it is for communities of faith like Grove Lake.

In my ministry as synod bishop I interact on a daily basis with all kinds of congregations--233 of them across the 21 counties of our synod.

And many of these congregations are focused, over-focused (!) on their survival.

Which means those congregations are likely NOT to survive!

Here’s where the out of this world “logic” of Jesus words in our text comes to light, right among us.   What’s true for us as human beings is just as true for congregations as living members of the Body of Christ.   Hang on to life, cling to life, focus all your attention on surviving….and you will die.

Give yourselves away, focus on your neighbors and your world and all the ways God frees you to be connected to them, care for them, share your best with them….that, that is life!

Let me share an impression of Grove Lake Lutheran Church:  you may have plenty of survivors in your midst, but as a community of faith you don’t seem overly focused on survival.   I think, instead, that Jesus’ gospel logic lives here.  

One of the marks of that is your eagerness to engage our synod’s Fostering Vibrant Faith project.  I take that to mean that you “get it”—you “get” the fact that faith is the only thing that multiplies as it is divided, shared, passed on….starting with the youngest among us and the young ones who are in each of our own circles of care. 

God bless you with sturdy faith in Jesus Christ, the Man for others….whose cross represents God’s fierce commitment to the whole human family….that all might live in Christ’s forgiveness, move forward in Christ’s freedom, and live every day in Christ’s overflowing love.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Church is Leaving the Building!

Men’s Retreat
Luther Crest Bible Camp, Alexandria
February 8, 2015
Mark 1:29-39

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Jesus has some “crowd control” problems as he begins his ministry here in Mark’s gospel.

Earlier (in last Sunday’s Gospel reading) he dealt with a heckler in a very public setting, Capernaum’s synagogue:  "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God."  (Mark 1:24)

The heckler, a demon-possessed man, speaks with a voice that comes straight from hell…surprisingly, acknowledging Jesus’ identity and naming Jesus as a threat to all the powers of darkness.
Jesus dispatches this heckler by exorcising his evil spirit.

Now in today’s gospel reading, Jesus leaves the public space of the synagogue to enter the private space of a house inhabited by his followers Simon Peter and Andrew.

Here in the intimacy of a dwelling evil rears its head once again, under the guise, not of demon-possession, but of a fever afflicting Peter’s mother in law.

We dare not underestimate the danger here.  In the first century there were no anti-biotics or IV-drips, no “take two aspirin and call me in the morning” physician protocols.  Fevers frequently killed! 

So Jesus goes to the stricken woman, touches her, lifts her up off her sickbed—healed!  She is restored so immediately, so completely that she’s able to rise up and resume her vocation of serving Jesus and his traveling companions. 

News travels fast in Capernaum, though, the way news travels fast in our northwestern Minnesota communities.  Garrison Keillor likes to say that people don’t read the Lake Wobegon newspaper to learn the news as much as they read it to confirm the news!

News of the healings of the demoniac and Peter’s mother-in-law travels so fast that by sundown the whole town has turned out, engulfing the home of Peter and Andrew.  “They brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons…”

So Jesus’ “crowd control” problem now shifts from handling a heckler to dealing with the crush of a mob.   Hands grab for him, arms reach out to him, rasping voices call to him. 

But Jesus doesn’t shrink away from this swarm of sufferers.  Jesus makes himself available to all of them.

This brings to mind a familiar scene from that long-running TV series M*A*S*H.  

Remember when Drs. Hawkeye and Trapper John were in the operating room for four, five, six hours at a stretch?   

After closing up wounds, suturing lacerations, stabilizing the seriously wounded….the two M*A*S*H surgeons would come out into the sunshine, squinting, exhausted—their hospital scrubs drenched in blood, sweat and tears.

That’s how Jesus might have appeared here in Capernaum, just outside the house of Andrew and Simon Peter.

So it is no wonder that after such an exhausting day, surrounded by persons clamoring for Jesus’ touch, he steals away very early the next morning.  When it “was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”

As a little Sunday School kid I was baffled by the notion that Jesus prayed.   How could that be, if Jesus was himself God?  When Jesus prayed, was he simply talking to himself?

It’s taken me six decades just to start to get a handle on that….to realize that the praying of Jesus reflected his dual identity as truly God and truly human.   And the truly human side of Jesus needed to pray, the way you and I need to pray, because so much of our lives distract us from, draw our attention away from our God who is always as close to us as our next heartbeat.

So we intentionally take time to place ourselves consciously before God, to attend to God, to listen to God even as we speak to God.   Nowadays our culture lifts up the idea of “mindfulness”….and for Christians, the best form of mindfulness is prayer.  

Isn’t that why you decided to escape your workaday lives and retreat to Luther Crest for 48 hours?

So Jesus “retreats” here, he escapes the crowd (or so he thinks) to get in touch with his heavenly Father….but even there, in his prayer place, the crowd finds him once again.  “Simon and his companions hunted for [Jesus].  When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’”   The crowd is on the prowl!

But Jesus’ brief time of pre-dawn respite has apparently crystalized something in his thinking and planning. 

Jesus’s path has become clear to him in the darkness of his praying.  "’Let us go,’” Jesus announces to his companions…”Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.”

Let us go, Jesus responds.   Let’s get on the move, let’s travel, for we have miles to go, a journey to pursue.

The previous day’s experience made it clear that Jesus could have stayed in Capernaum, just set up shop (or erected a shrine) where he could sit like a guru and hold audiences with those who had the time and resources to come to him.

Something in Jesus’ prayer time that early, early morning clarified for him that his vocation was not to stay there….but to keep moving, to keep encountering the crowds that would forever be nipping at his heels.

Jesus articulated something crucial about how he discerned his calling, his vocation.   Jesus’ vocation would take the shape of a journey, a pilgrimage through this weary world that would finally bring him to the Cross and the Grave “for us and for our salvation.” (Nicene Creed)

That destination shaped the calling for Jesus, every segment of his journey from the first step to the final step.

Jesus made it clear that his was a peripatetic ministry, a walking-around ministry, with a starting point and an endpoint.

And as it was for Jesus, so it would be for his followers.   They would follow, meaning that, like Jesus, they would be on the move, out into the world—this is the shape their vocation would take, as well.

Only in such a fashion would Jesus make it unmistakably clear that God is a moving, sending God who is who is always calling persons not to sit still but to keep on the move.  “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”  (Luke 19:10)

My dear friends, Jesus’ words here in Mark 1 still have decisive bearing on our callings, our vocations as baptized followers of our on-the-move Savior who says to us:   “Let us go…”

Our vocations, our callings are dynamic, not static.   We follow a mobile Savior who came to preach God’s strong and gentle Rule over all things.  As Professor Matt Skinner of Luther Seminary puts it:  “It is this preaching’s nature not to stay settled and rooted in a single place among a fixed audience but to seek new settings and opportunities to express itself.”Working Preacher

One of the most fateful decisions Christians made centuries ago was to erect church buildings—some of them magnificent cathedrals like the ones my wife and I visited in Germany last month.

When that happened, the church embraced a grave risk:  the risk of being planted, settled, sedentary, “nailed down” to a specific location.   I fear that the movement began by Jesus often became immobilized when we started investing so much of our identity and way of life in bricks, mortar and real estate.  

And now in this 21st century, as many are wondering whether it’s time to become more of a movement and less of a club with a clubhouse….we are rethinking the ways buildings and real estate may have stifled the dynamism of vocation and ministry as Jesus imagined it and lived it.

Now please, I am not suggesting that you go home and light a match to your church buildings—far from it!—but I do believe we need to reimagine, in fresh ways, how we might get better at leaving our buildings and institutional structures and hitting the open road with Jesus who always goes before us.  

At the conclusion of our weekly worship services, after we’ve heard:  “Go in peace, serve the Lord”…instead of responding with just:  “Thanks be to God!” what if we added something like:  “Watch out world—the church is leaving the building!”

When we talk in such a fashion we claim the great gift that comes with the whole notion of vocation as we’ve pondered it this weekend.

Truly, our vocations are dynamic, not static.   We may begin by naming our vocations:   son, brother, husband, father, friend, worker, citizen, neighbor…

But those names, those statuses take us somewhere, send us out into the world, deliver us to our neighbors…

So, where is your vocation leading you, where are your feet taking you?   To ordinary places?  Yes, most of the time…to ordinary places, including places you never pictured yourself going.

Our feet will take us to wherever the next generation is hankering for accompaniment and maybe even open to a bit of our wisdom.

Our feet will take us to wherever the lost, the last and the least are hungering for life’s necessities including the staple of life we call justice

Our feet will take us into public spaces, sometimes even into the hurly burly of political conversations about the common good.

Our feet take us to nursing homes, homeless shelters, hospitals, even cemeteries--wherever ears are longing to hear some word, some touch that restores faith, hope and love in Christ.

Through our vocations (which Luther sometimes called the masks God wears out in the world) through our vocations God’s work is done:  the Good News of Jesus is voiced, the neighbor in need is loved, the earth itself is cared for until God’s New Day dawns.

And we get to be part of that simply because God has called us to it.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.