Saturday, April 30, 2016

Mission on the Margins

Bethlehem/Newfolden, MN and Nazareth/Holt, MN
May 1, 2016
Easter 6/Acts 16:9-15

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Many moons ago when I was a wee little lad in Sunday School I loved stories like this one in Acts 16—stories of Paul the intrepid missionary, criss-crossing the ancient world, preaching the Good News and winning persons for Christ.

Paul, seemed like a super-hero to me:  always marching from triumph to triumph, the infant church growing by leaps and bounds…

Only later, as I began to explore the Bible more slowly and closely and in greater depth—did I come to realize these stories in the Book of Acts are more complicated than that.

The Apostle Paul didn’t always get to where he thought he was going.  He was often sidetracked, bushwhacked, pushed away, thwarted.

What this morning’s reading from Acts fails to mention is that before Paul had his famous vision in the night—a vision of a man from Macedonia, pleading with Paul to “come over to Macedonia and help us”—what might be easy to miss here is that the invitation into Macedonia was preceded by two failed attempts to reach other destinations—to Asia first, but that didn’t happen….and then to Bithynia, but that was a bust, too! (Acts 16:6-8)

Paul in the power of the Holy Spirit, understood these two failed attempts as ways that God was in fact directing him elsewhere….which is a good reminder that missionaries like Paul encountered obstacles and closed doors at least as often as they were welcomed with open arms.

Nevertheless, the point is worth pondering, that missionaries like Paul had to take “No” for an answer, more often than we might guess.

Only after hearing a “No” or even a series of “No’s” did the mission proceed….and where exactly did Paul end up?

In the most unlikely of places:  down by the riverside outside Philippi, surrounded by a bunch of women.

THIS was the journey’s goal that God had in mind for Paul?  Really?   Who’d have ever imagined that Paul had to bypass Asia and skirt around Bithynia, just to get to Philippi and a gathering of women in prayer—women trying to make their way in a man’s world!

We must take the full measure of all the borders that Paul and his entourage were crossing here.   Pious Jewish men in Paul’s day often prayed a prayer of thanksgiving that went like this:  “I thank you Lord that I was not born a slave, a Gentile or a woman!”    

And here was Paul—risking life and limb on the Mediterranean Sea just so he could hobnob with a bunch of Gentiles who also happened to be women.

But this is exactly how it was meant to be.   God directs Paul and company to persons on the margins of life in that day, women who are often left out of the historical record, women eager to hear the Good News about Jesus…women who, in fact, became the foundation of the church in Philippi.

One of these women is actually named here--Lydia, who seems to have done rather well, living in a man’s world.  Lydia was an entrepreneur, a dealer in expensive textiles, high-end merchandise that favored the rich, rich color purple.   Lydia, whoever she was, was a businesswoman who headed up her own household.

And when she heard Paul speak about Jesus, she believed what she heard and was baptized, along with her whole household….and then (as Eugene Peterson puts it in his wonderful paraphrase[1] of Acts) “in a surge of hospitality” Lydia invited Paul and his fellow missionaries to stay with her for a while.

In other words:   Lydia’s house became the mission center for the Christians of Philippi who became the most beloved of all the churches Paul founded.

Who would have guessed?   That after facing obstacles and closed doors, Paul’s missionary meanderings would lead him to Lydia’s doorstep, starting a church with the women’s group first—women living very much in a man’s world?

But really—isn’t that just like God, to work in such a fashion!?

God, the God we know best in Jesus Christ, never shrinks back from obstacles.   God loves maneuvering around or walking through closed doors.  God in Christ is just no good at taking “No” for an answer.   God prefers, really prefers “the scenic route.”  

And God gets the biggest kick out of working with the most unlikely of characters.   If some group is living on the edge of human society, if some persons hang out there on the margins—God in Jesus Christ is always making a beeline for them, seeking them out, finding them, taking up residence with them, working in them/with them/through them.

We see this right in the story of Jesus.   As the gospels tell that story Jesus is always on the move, forever encountering strangers, most often heading straight towards all the wrong crowd.  It’s as if they—the pitiful sick ones, the most notorious sinners, the accursed outsiders—were the objects of Jesus’ most ardent affection.

We see this in the long, long story of the church.   Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion, contends that one of the reasons the Christian movement grew in ancient times was that Christians didn’t hightail it and flee when plagues were killing off people in droves.   Early Christians stayed with the sick, cared for the dying, risked catching the same disease with them—and the world took notice!

We see this in the global church, especially in places like our companion synod in India.  There is a reason why so many members of the Untouchables, the Dalits—those below the lowest rung of India’s social ladder—have embraced Christ and his church.   It’s because the Dalits see in Jesus a kindred spirit, a fellow Dalit, despised by the world, good-for-nothing, edged out of society and hung on a cross.

We see this much closer to home, right here in northwestern Minnesota.  Folks in the great coastal cities who make up the bulk of the U.S. population consider us “flyover” territory—that vast midsection of our continent that busy folks are forced to fly over to get from crowded New York to sprawling Los Angeles.   

Even here on the territory of our synod, I know what folks say about your part of our territory, the area north of Highway Two.   I visit with pastors from other parts of the country and seminarians eager for their first calls, and I point out this very area on the map—and many of them look at it and say:  “You want me to go way up there?   Why, there’s nobody up there—on the maps it doesn’t even look inhabited!”… which I love to respond:  “Yes, indeed, there are people up north of Highway Two….fine people, good salt-of-the-earth folks you could come to love—and they could come to love you…..and guess what:   there’s another whole country called Canada just north of us!”

This missionary journey of Paul that we get a brief glimpse of here in Acts 16—this missionary vocation to which Paul was called “worked on him,” profound shaping his faith and sharpening his proclamation.   By constantly calling Paul to the edges, the very margins of society in the first century, by plopping Paul down in places like that prayer gathering of women just outside Philippi….God made Paul see that God allows no obstacles to stand in his way, that God has a thing for those living on the edges of life, those who for all the world look like losers—they, they are the special objects of God’s deepest affection.

Which is why, in one of Paul’s greatest epistles, he could write words like these:   “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”  (I Corinthians 1:26-31)

In the name of Jesus.


[1] The Message, paraphrase of  Acts 16:15.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

My Sheep Hear My Voice

Trinity Lutheran Church, Detroit Lakes
April 17, 2016
Easter 4/Year C/John 10:22-30
Commissioning of Suzie Porter, Associate in Ministry

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

No doubt about it, we’re smack dab in the middle of the most interesting, contentious presidential campaign in years.

Since 1972 when I first voted, I can’t recall a time when the major parties were as splintered as they seem to be this year!

The campaign rhetoric is hotter and heavier than ever, and some of us are sick to death of it….even though the election itself is still over six months away.

What this campaign seems to make clearer than ever is that political campaigns are always about both ideas and personalities.  

By rights, we should be focused on the ideas and issues before our nation—and some of the time that’s what the candidates are paying attention to.  

But this election of 2016 is also very much about personalities—how we feel about and react to this array of candidates who are all trying to gain our trust and garner our votes.

Issues vs. personalities:  it’s tempting to think this is something new, but it’s not.   Politicians have always had to BOTH put forth their ideas and showcase their personalities….because, come Election Day, we voters will make judgments about both of those things:  the reasons we lean toward one candidate over another, but also the relationships we hope to have with those who would lead us.

And truly, this interplay of “reasons and relationships” goes on in other parts of our lives as well, including our lives of faith.

Even here in this gospel lesson from John 10 we some of these dynamics playing out.

Jesus has been teaching and working wonders almost nonstop throughout the first ten chapters of John’s gospel, and everywhere he goes the reactions of those around him are mixed.   Some are drawn to him, others are repulsed by him, while others are still trying to make up their minds.

Such wonderment about Jesus finds voice here in “the Jews”--which in John’s Gospel usually is code language for the Jewish leaders who oppose Jesus at every turn…. 

…These Jewish leaders have had enough with hearing Jesus teach and watching him perform signs and wonders—they want answers.  They crave a conclusion:   “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Jesus’ opponents demand facts, answers and evidence.  They want Jesus to give them reasons why they should take him seriously.

Nothing has changed.  People still want reasons for aligning themselves with Jesus.  Folks are still saying to Jesus: “give me what I’m looking for–some evidence to meet my criteria–and then I might buy into what you’re all about.”

But what Jesus does, in response to his Jewish opponents, is to give them anything but plain, black-and-white answers.   

Instead Jesus engages with them on his terms, responding with:  ‘‘I have told you, and you do not believe. You’ve got more than enough information about me.  The problem isn’t my willingness to speak plainly–it’s your unwillingness to grasp it, or (more accurately!) to be grasped by it.”

“Let my actions do the talking,” Jesus continues.  “Watch what I’m doing–read the signs.   There are persons who are catching on, being grabbed by the awareness of who I am and what I’m up to.”

“But you do not believe, “ Jesus tells his opponents--“You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.”

Here, Jesus’ opponents want to talk about reasons, but Jesus shifts their focus more toward relationships.   Believing, for Jesus, can only go hand in hand with belonging. 

Believing isn’t likely to happen in a safe, armchair discussion about Jesus.   But believing just might happen in a face-to-face encounter with Jesus.  Suspend your disbelief long enough to hang around Jesus—and belief might grow on you, faith might overtake you and never let you go.

But how does that actually play out?

Jesus offers a clue that is both plain-spoken and poetic.  Jesus gives his opponents a metaphor, a word-comparison, one of the most beloved in all the Bible:

My sheep hear my voice.
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.
No one will snatch them out of my hand.   

I have known two fathers in my life.   Both were southern MN farmers who kept sheep.

My own father, Lawrence, was with me for the first 21 years of my life.  He kept a small flock of sheep because they were cheap lawn mowers.

You see, our family rented farms on shares, and there was often an unoccupied farm-site that went with the deal.   So my dad would haul that little flock of sheep from farm-site to farm-site to keep the grass short and the weeds down-to-size.

These sheep knew my father and they heard his voice.   If my dad needed the sheep to come to him he’d just put two handfuls of shelled corn in the bottom of an old steel pail, shake the corn a little, simply call: “Sheep”—and they would come.   As easy as that.

For the second 21 years of my life I had my second father, my father-in-law, Kenny.

He also kept sheep, but he used a much more colorful vocabulary around them.  Kenny probably knew sheep better than Lawrence did—Kenny knew just how ornery sheep could be, so when he called them he usually tossed in a cuss-word or two, the kinds of words you don’t want me using in the pulpit.

Kenny—even though he used more colorful language than Lawrence did—Kenny still called his sheep, and they still heard his voice and responded.  The cuss-words didn’t seem to bother them.   The sheep came anyway.

Because sheep are like that.  They become so familiar with their shepherd that just one syllable from the shepherd’s lips sets their feet in motion.  Sometimes all it takes is the farmer’s hand on the latch of the barn door–sometimes you don’t even need to say anything.

My sheep hear my voice, Jesus says.   And all at once he’s speaking in a whole different realm here.  Jesus lifts up a relationship of deep familiarity, of intimacy--a relationship forged over time, a relationship that can mean life or death for members of the flock.

That’s what Jesus is after with you and me. 

That’s what Jesus wants to give us.  Not reasons that will let us make up our own minds, according to our own set of standards.  

No.  Jesus hankers, rather, for a relationship.  Jesus wants to “get” us–to gain us and keep us forever.

And Jesus will do whatever it takes to “get” us, to make such a relationship happen.

Jesus woos us, Jesus wins us for such a relationship by speaking to us lavish promises—promises that sound too good to be true.  Jesus wins us over by standing behind those promises, even if it means death for him—a death he willingly dies, so that you and I might live forever in his forgiving freedom.

My sheep hear my voice.
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.
No one will snatch them out of my hand.   

I seriously doubt that anyone ever gets argued into or convinced into the kingdom of God.

But I do believe Jesus “gets” us, that God wins and woos us, in much the same way that a shepherd finesses the flock.

Sometimes with just a little corn in the bottom of a steel pail.

With provender, in other words–provisions and promises that win us over, draw us in, keep us safe for this life and secure for the life to come.

God wins and woos us this day once again, with a splash of water, a taste of bread and wine, and with just a few words–words in which we hear the unmistakable tones of the Shepherd’s own voice.

God wins and woos us this day once again…

…and God uses us in his flock—the flock called “church”—God uses us to be his shepherd’s voice in this world of lost lambs. 

And truly isn’t that what this congregation is all about?  Isn’t that the goal of all the ministries of Trinity?  Isn’t that why we’re focusing especially today on youth and adult education ministries, as we commission Suzie Porter as an ELCA Associate in Ministry?

The only way folks can get close to Jesus is by getting close to those who already belong to Jesus.   

And there’s never an end to that good work.  Surely it’s what can keep us wandering sheep out of mischief for another week, don’t you think?

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Tying Up Loose Ends

Climax/Grue/Sand Hill Lutheran Churches (Climax)
April 10, 2016
Easter 3
John 21:1-19

Sometimes there are loose ends that just have to be tied up.

That’s one way of talking about what appears to be happening here in this gospel reading from John 21.

The previous chapter of John’s Gospel (the story of the risen Jesus’ appearing to his disciples and Thomas who doubted) …this chapter drew to a close in a way that sounded like a compelling conclusion to an entire book:  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.(John 20:30-31)  

Ta dah!  Amen!  The End!

But then John’s gospel didn’t end, after all.   After Chapter 20 seemed to polish off the whole book—another chapter appeared, the one we have before us this morning.

And what gives with that?

Well, sometimes even at the end of a story well told—there are still a few loose ends dangling that simply need to be tied up.

And in the case of this 21st chapter of St John, the loose end has a name:   Simon Peter.

John just couldn’t end his gospel with Peter, the leader of the disciples, stuck back in the courtyard of the high priest (John 18:15-18, 25-27), warming himself by a charcoal fire while Jesus was on trial for his life.  John couldn’t leave Peter there, denying he even knew Jesus…not just once, not twice, but three times.

You can’t abandon the prince of the apostles in such a dire straits!

So another chapter to this gospel had to be written….to tie up this critical loose end.

And truly--Peter looms large here in John 21.  
  •  He stands in his usual position, at the head of the list of the seven disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. 
  •  It is Peter’s bright idea to go fishing with the boys.
  •  When a mysterious stranger on the seashore shouts out some angling advice that ends up filling the boat with fish—it is to Peter that one of the disciples whispers:  “It is the Lord.”
  •  When the seven disciples try to make their way toward shore with all those fish, it is Peter who just can’t wait, Peter who pulls on his clothes and plunges into the water to swim for shore, ahead of the boat.
  •  It is Peter who—apparently singlehandedly—drags the bulging net filled with 153 fish to the feet of the stranger, so he can rustle up a “shore-lunch” breakfast for the weary fishermen.
Peter seems to be way too eager here, doesn’t he?  He comes off like an over-achieving school boy, sitting in the front row—hand always raised, fervently trying to be noticed by the teacher.  

Impetuous as always, Peter “makes a scene” here, trying to gain Jesus’ attention…

So, when breakfast is over, it is to Peter and Peter alone that the risen Jesus turns, as if this whole scene had been orchestrated purely for the purpose of getting Jesus and Peter in the same private space, facing each other for the first time since “the night in which [Jesus] was betrayed.”

Why?   What’s this whole over-eager, grand-standing effort of Peter about?   Why did he need some facetime with Jesus?

Two reasons, I think.

First, Peter had to have been filled with the deepest, darkest remorse—for how he had abandoned Jesus, in effect spitting in Jesus’ face with all the other haters and accusers.
That had to have weighed heavily on Peter.   It must have been the one thing he couldn’t stop thinking about.

And haven’t we all been there?   Haven’t we all royally messed up?   Let someone down?  Abandoned a friend in a time of deep need?   Denied being associated with someone we have known and even loved?

Peter and Jesus needed to encounter each other, first, because Peter was being crushed by a load of guilt that he could not absolve himself of. 

No—only someone else, only Jesus, could remove that crushing load from Peter’s back.

Only Jesus, crucified and risen, could tie up this loose end and allow Peter to lift up his head again.  Indeed only Jesus risen from the grace could liberate Peter to live again.

But how would this reunion go?  What would they say to one another?

If I’d been in Jesus’ shoes I know exactly how I would have handled it.

I probably would have shook my head, wagged my finger, and blurted out something like:  “Peter, you good for nothing jerk!   How could you do that?  How dare you lie three times about your relationship with me?  How could you stand there—with a straight face—and declare you had never known me?   What do you have to say for yourself, Peter?  Why should I even be talking with you now?   What future can I possibly have with a miserable turncoat like you?”

If I had been Jesus I would have asked Peter if he was sorry, I mean “really and truly sorry”…sorry from the tips of his toes to the top of his head.   I would have demanded that Peter ‘fess up, admit his guilt and ask for forgiveness.

But that is not what Jesus does here, it is not what Jesus says to Peter.

Instead of all that wallowing and groveling in the past that might have been our first inclination, Jesus insists on living in the present, with an eye toward the future.
Jesus has—really—just one question for Peter:  “Peter, do you love me?”

I doubt Peter could ever have made a confession good enough, wide enough, deep enough, sincere enough to cover his grievous sin….but to this question from Jesus, Peter had a ready answer, an answer he didn’t even have to think about:  “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you….”

A question, asked and answered, not once, not twice, but three times.  

Peter was momentarily dismayed when Jesus kept repeating the question—wondering why Jesus had to ask more than once.  But of course, Jesus had to do that.   The question and the answer had to be heard just as many times as the denials had been uttered on that dark night when Peter had denied Jesus.

Why did Jesus and Peter need to have this conversation?   Remember, I said there were two reasons….and dealing with Peter’s crushing guilt, redeeming Peter’s past, was only one of those reasons.

Jesus had more “fish to fry” here, though.   Jesus didn’t need to tie up some loose ends in Peter’s past.  He needed to bestow upon Peter a fresh future….a future that was wrapped up not just in knowing Peter still loved him, but a future that was granted each time Jesus invited Peter back into his mission with the gracious command:   
“Feed my lambs, feed my sheep”….

….a command issued, not once, not twice but three times…

….because the main thing Jesus was after here was to restore Peter to useful service and witness, to be offered in the blazing light of the Resurrection.

My friends, sometimes the absolution sounds like this:  “I now therefore declare unto you the entire forgiveness of your sins.”   What a glorious word of promise and freedom!

But sometimes the forgiveness of sins comes with other words, like:  “Do you love me?    Feed my sheep, feed my lambs.”

Surely Jesus was restoring Peter in this conversation, not just undoing Peter’s sorry past, but imparting to Peter a fresh future.

And isn’t that what we all, always need to hear for ourselves, too?
  • If there are some loose ends in your life…
  • If you have really done someone wrong….
  • If you have ever known from the tips of your toes to the top of your head that you, yes you, are “captive to sin”….
  • If you are plagued by pangs of guilt over some unbearable evil you have done or may simply have allowed to happen…
  • If you ever imagine that you can’t possibly be of any further use to God…

...There is Someone who stands before you this morning, having passed through death into the Life that never ends.   This One does not demand that you make a good enough confession so as to deserve his forgiveness.

This One does not live in the past.  He belongs to the future, and he bids you and me step forward, with the likes of Peter the denier….this One woos us forward not with words of shame but with a simple question:  “Do you love me?”

How can we answer in any other way than to reply:  “Yes Lord, you know that I love you?”

And having heard us say that, if only in the silence of our souls, how can Jesus respond in any other way than to say:  “Feed my sheep…lavish on them my word of pardon, fill them with the story of my death-defying love, embolden them to serve all graciously, feed them with the Best News Ever--intended for all ears to hear.”

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.