Saturday, August 29, 2015

God's Specialty is Cardiology

Installation of Pr. Krehl Stringer
Zion Lutheran Church, Warroad, MN
August 30, 2015
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

“Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ 6[Jesus] said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honors me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
   teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition….’  

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’…21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

If this gospel reading strikes you as being all about tradition or personal hygiene—guess again.

Jesus isn’t merely tinkering with social mores or the intricacies of “keeping kosher.”  Jesus, rather, is going to the heart of the matter!

And that’s why his sparring partners are so unnerved.  Jesus is tampering with their moral universe—dismantling their most cherished, time-honored assumptions about good and evil and how the world is ordered.

Jesus’ opponents attack him indirectly at first:  “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

The first thing we need to get straight is that the scribes and Pharisees were not the public health department.   They knew nothing of modern germ theory.

No.   What the scribes and Pharisees imagined to be in jeopardy was the way the whole universe was put together.  And what is the place of human beings in the whole cosmic order?   

You see, in the universe that the scribes and Pharisees cared about, evil was primarily an “out there” problem. 

God’s chosen people had been set apart, made holy by God.  But they believed they lived in a dangerous, defiling world.    There were all sorts of things and persons and realities “out there” that could invade their neatly ordered lives.  These primarily external threats had to be guarded against at all costs.

So, to preserve the holiness—the set-apartness--of God’s people, the guardians of the Jewish social order had drawn up a raft of fine-print interpretations of God’s commandments, called “the tradition of the elders” here in our text:  all the dietary regulations, ritual washings, kosher food rules that eventually were codified in the 500 volumes of the Talmud.

This whole well-ordered universe was what Jesus and his followers were threatening, by their cavalier approach to the most elementary of rules and regulations:
·       How they conducted themselves. 
·       How they performed (or failed to perform) the prescribed ritual washings.  
·       When, where, how and with whom they prepared and ate their food. 
You name it.

“Why do your disciples,” Jesus!—“why don’t they live according to the tradition of the elders?”

That’s the kind of question that comes from folks whose carefully-crafted universe is starting to crumble.

We know that feeling.  We often imagine that evil is primarily “out there.”   

Think of the things we tell our kids—warning them to avoid the “wrong crowd” at school, fretting over the ways the world might corrupt our children.

Many of us, especially those with gray hair or no hair, have witnessed over our lifetimes so many changes in how we view what’s right and wrong, what’s proper and improper, who’s “in” and who’s “out.”

In this episode from Jesus’ ministry, the focus was on something as basic as food, how we gain nourishment. 

Nowadays, the focus often seems to be on things like so-called  “diversity issues”—how people of so many different races, ethnicities, religions and sexual identities can live together peaceably on the same planet.    Is it any wonder that we, too, sometimes wonder whether our own “moral universe” has been tipped upside down?

The Scribes and Pharisees in our gospel lesson were right to be concerned!

Because Jesus did, in fact, come to fiddle with, indeed to re-adjust their moral universe.  Jesus came to reverse the flow of things—to disrupt the connection between what’s “out there” and what’s “in here.”

The scribes and Pharisees seemed fixated on evil being an enemy “out there,” an enemy to be kept at bay, warded off, in order to maintain our God-given holiness.

But Jesus pointed out that the worst, most damaging manifestations of evil aren’t “out there” somewhere.  

They’re “in here!”   Evil is an “inside job.”  Evil works on us from the inside out—not primarily from the outside in.   Evil always aims for the heart of things—zeroes in on our hearts!  Evil is always seeking to reside in the center of our lives—and from that command center, evil does its worst.  There’s nothing evil out there that can get us, unless the rot has already begun deep inside of us, taking over the core, the heart of our very being.

So rather than making nice with the scribes and Pharisees--rather than engaging in a little “yeah, ain’t it awful?” game with them, Jesus turned the tables, reversed all the arrows, and proposed a positively revolutionary revision in how they—and we—look at our moral and spiritual universe.

“Listen to me, all of you, and understand,” warned Jesus“There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

Jesus, as usual, gets to the heart of the matter—he aims his arrow for the vital spot, the center inside us ALL, the human heart.  The old prophet Isaiah had it right all along:  “This people honors me with their lips,  but their hearts are far from me….”

Their hearts!   That’s what Jesus places in the forefront of our universe.  It’s the heart that Jesus zeroes in on.   For the heart is where evil always strives for a foothold.   From the inside, from the heart, comes all the crud and corruption—all the warped behavior, boozing, pilfering, cheapening life, hatching schemes to get what doesn’t belong to us, pining away for the greener grass on the other side of the fence--you name it!

The church has a name for all that—we call it original sin—the sin that none of us had to be taught!   Even darling infants, even precious little children—pick up this “original sin thing” all on their own.

My wife and I became grandparents for the first time in 2013.  Our darling grand-daughter is the apple of our eyes.   But now that she is 2 years old, we notice that she’s developing a mind of her own.  She leads with the word “No!”   She cooks up naughty things to do—and no one seems to have taught her that. 

No human being is exempt from original sin—certainly not in the church.   All of us—old and young, liberal and conservative, fighters and pacifists, gay and straight and everyone in between—we’re all 100% sinners, we’ve all got that deadly “heart disease.”

But thanks be to God--it’s our hearts that Jesus has come to heal.  It’s our core sin that Jesus has come to forgive.  It’s the core of who we are that Jesus goes after—it’s the heart that Jesus comes to make new, even as God in Christ is making all things new!

The scribes’ and Pharisees’ Achilles heel as they constructed their image of the universe was that it left everything at a skin-deep level.   Do the right things, go through the right motions, keep up the right appearances--and evil will be kept at bay.

Wrong!   Jesus calls that’s hypocrisy—“play acting!”  Evil has always tried to insinuate itself deeply in our lives.   It’s been an “inside job” all along.

….which is why Jesus always, always, always aims at our hearts.  Jesus goes after our center—the core of who we are.   Jesus means to capture that.  Jesus means to take over our lives, from the inside out.

Let me put it this way.  Jesus isn’t much of a dermatologist.  But he’s a heckuva heart surgeon—and his specialty is heart transplants, or more accurately, creating new hearts within us all..

This is no skin-deep, surface-level stuff.   It’s an inside job that Jesus does on us.   The baptismal water seeps through our pores, the bread and wine of his Supper are made for our stomachs, the Word of forgiveness is designed to rattle our eardrums and resonate deep within our souls.  Jesus bores right down to our very heart and soul, fixing us all up—from the inside out.

Pastor Krehl, as you take up your calling here at Zion, please remember that you answer not to a dermatologist but to a cardiologist—Jesus Christ the great healer of broken hearts, the wondrous creator of new hearts in all who belong to him.

And never forget how God’s universe really works—from the inside out.  That’s how God’s mission in the world also operates—from the inside out, from the inside of congregations like Zion, to the outside—to the mission field that surrounds you here in Warroad….a mission field that you are so well poised to embrace anew as you welcome a new pastor, as you proceed with building a new mission center, a new church to serve you and your neighbors in this community.

From the inside out:  That’s how the Jesus Way operates—reclaiming us and all things, starting with what’s at the center, starting with our soiled, broken hearts—hearts that are always being made brand new in the image of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 


Saturday, August 22, 2015

Becoming What We Eat

Installation of Pr. Kayla Billings
Glyndon Lutheran Church, Glyndon, MN
Pentecost 13/August 23, 2015
John 6:56-69

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Well, there’s no doubt about it:  the silly season has come upon us.   Dozens of candidates for president have emerged, descending on places like the Iowa State Fair last weekend, to make their case with the voters as they attempt to break out of the pack.

The silly season (which now in America begins at least two years before each presidential election)…the silly season  is a great thing for pollsters--forecasters who make their living counting noses….helping candidates stay on top of their “numbers”….assisting them in fine-tuning their messages to appeal to the segments of the electorate each one of them has targeted.

Pollsters help political candidates know which way the political winds are blowing, so they can craft their message in such a way that voters hear what they want to hear from their candidate of choice.

If there had been pollsters following Jesus here in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, I envision them steeling themselves to deliver nothing but bad news to Jesus:   “We regret to inform you, sir, that your approval rating has dropped from 5,000 to 12….and truth be told we aren’t sure how solid even those 12 followers are!”

How far Jesus has fallen here in these 69 verses of John 6!

When Jesus started out here in John 6, tending the gnawing hunger pangs of the crowd, he came off as the Bread King people had been hankering for, providing ample food for “about 5,000” persons—with twelve big baskets of leftovers to boot.

But here at the end of John 6, the massive crowd has been whittled down to just a dozen who’re still aligned with Jesus.  Jesus’ followers have been peeling off left and right, until only a handful remain….causing Jesus in this morning’s gospel lesson to ask the pleading, plaintive question of the Twelve:  “‘Do you also wish to go away?’” (v. 67)

Something has gone wrong, dreadfully wrong here!   Couldn’t Jesus have stopped the hemorrhaging of his supporters?  Couldn’t he have adjusted his message, massaged his appeal to keep more of the crowd in his camp, ready to cast their votes for him?

A pollster or two might have helped Jesus.  They could have packaged him as a viable candidate who appeals to the masses rather than a loser who can’t even keep Twelve of his closest followers in line.

But the kicker here is that Jesus doesn’t seem to WANT to succeed with the masses.   When folks started voicing doubts about him, instead of calming them down, Jesus keeps riling them up, saying stuff that’s calculated to drive them away.

When the satisfied 5000 start traipsing around looking for Jesus he turns on them and says:   “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free.   Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides.”  (vv. 26-27 The Message).

When the crowd responds, requesting this “food that sticks with you,” asking for this bread, Jesus tells them:  “Here it is:  it’s me!  I AM the bread of heaven…”

But this isn’t what the crowd expected, so more of them walk away, shocked that Jesus would make such a claim about a mere mortal like himself:   “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” they mutter under their breath.  “Don’t we know his father? Don’t we know his mother? How can he now say, ‘I came down out of heaven’ and expect anyone to believe him?”  (vv. 41-42)

Here, Jesus could have re-cast his message, toned it down, backed off a bit.  But no, Jesus stubbornly insists on declaring that God the Father has sent him to be the Bread that lasts forever, upping the ante even higher by contending that the people who filled their stomachs with wheat bread and fresh fish now must feed on him, eat his body, drink his blood, consume his flesh:  “The Bread that I present to the world so that it can eat and live is myself, this flesh-and-blood self.” (v. 51 The Message)  

Such talk takes Jesus “beyond the pale,” and even more of his audience starts defecting from him. They just can’t stomach Jesus’ segue from baked-in-an-oven bread to the Bread of life he claims to embody.   In fact, they seem grossed out by the very thought of eating him, “ingesting” him, taking him into themselves….

…..but then the last straw comes when Jesus declares that it’s not even up to them whether they “get” him or not.  That is God’s business!   Faith is something they can’t concoct:  “No one is capable of coming to me on his own. You get to me only as a gift from the Father.”  (v. 65)

By this point, it seems that Jesus has truly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory!  Even those who had been among his disciples, his followers turn away (v. 60)….and all he’s left with are the last Twelve of them.   Will they leave him, too?
What in the world is going on here?   Didn’t Jesus want to succeed?  Didn’t he care about  his “numbers?”

No, it appears he did not! 

Jesus was so consumed by being faithful—faithful to the one true God—that he was willing to see his “numbers” plummet from 5000 at the beginning of this chapter down to just Twelve at the end!
Here’s why:  it’s because people, people like us, are always more interested in getting what we want on our terms rather than being open to receiving God on God’s terms.

The crowd was fine with Jesus as long as he gave them stuff they wanted—enough bread and fish to feed a multitude.
But when Jesus “got behind” that miraculous feeding, pointing toward the One who is the Giver of all good and perfect gifts….when Jesus shifted their gaze from the bread in their hands to the Bread-Giver whose passion is to live among them, indeed to get down inside them, inside of us—then the crowd started to vanish.

They wanted stuff—but Jesus insisted on giving them God, the God whom we see and know, embodied in Jesus himself, his flesh for the life of the world, his body and blood poured out for us, so that Jesus might be the means whereby God gets down inside of us!

The fickle crowd here in John chapter 6 is you and me.   Our problem isn’t that we expect too much of God—but that we settle for too little.

Jesus wants us to have it all—to have God, the God whose passion for us is so high and wide and deep, that God insists on getting down inside of us, to fashion us into his Body in the world, to be our life, for now and for all eternity.

But only on God’s terms.  That is:  God always comes to us (not the other way around)….and God comes to us in the human being God has chosen:  Jesus, the offspring of Mary and Joseph, wrapped in human flesh and blood, for us and our salvation.

This is the Word, Pastor Kayla, that you are now called to tend here at Glyndon Lutheran Church.  It’s at the heart of everything this congregation (and every Christian community) is about:  living out the reality that God doesn’t just give us stuff—but that God gives us, in Jesus Christ, God’s very self, again and again and again.

When the bread and wine are placed in our hands and taken into our bodies, God gets down deep inside of us, to become one with us, to fashion us into God’s living Body, for the sake of the world, for the love of our neighbors--in the word on our lips, the service of our hands, the presence that we practice as we live out our faith every day.

There’s a reason, you see, why our weekly liturgy cues us to sing these words at least once every seven days:  “Alleluia!  Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life!”

This is our weekly “vote” (if you will)….a direct quote from St Peter here at the end of our gospel lesson.  It’s our way of saying we don’t intend to be short-changed.  Give us Jesus!   Help us take Jesus at his Word, as we open our lips and crack wide our hearts to receive Jesus, and as we thereby become what we eat.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.