Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Danger Zone

Risky Business:  Always Reforming
NW MN Synod Theology for Ministry Conference
September 19, 2017/Fair Hills Resort, Detroit Lakes, MN
Matthew 20:1-16

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

“We are a modest people
And we never make a fuss
And it sure would be a better world
If they were all as modest as us.
We do not go for whooping it up,
Or a lot of yikkety-yak.
When we say hello, we avert our eyes
And we always sit in the back.
We sit in the pew where we always sit,
And we do not shout Amen.
And if anyone yells or waves their hands,
They’re not invited back again.
I’m a Lutheran, a Lutheran, it is my belief,
I am a Lutheran guy…. I’m a Lutheran ‘til I die.” 

These lines of doggerel come from a silly little song written by Garrison Keillor, entitled:  I’m a Lutheran.

To say that Lutherans are known for keeping a low profile in the world would be an understatement.   We avoid making a fuss about ourselves.   We’re little known outside our tribe—we don’t exactly dominate the worlds of entertainment, industry or politics.  No Lutheran has ever been elected president of the United States--yet.  

Even when we Lutherans did find ourselves in the spotlight  for a season, thanks to the popular success of Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion show on public radio, what image of Lutherans was projected?  

As oxymoronic as it sounds, we became famous for our modesty (or, as former Concordia College president Pam Jolicoeur liked to say, militant modesty )!  Keillor’s weekly depictions of Lutherans as taciturn, bland purveyors of hotdishes laced with cream of mushroom soup soon produced predictable giggles from audience members whenever Keillor merely uttered the word “Lutheran!”

Although I have enjoyed such humor as much as anyone, I have come to the conclusion that the storyteller from Lake Wobegon has done us no favors.  His homespun monologues have portrayed us as rather inconsequential folks, always hanging back, refusing to make a fuss over ourselves and, come to think of it, refusing to make a fuss over much of anything.

So then, why have we been talking about Risk-Taking Lutherans this year?  

Risk-Taking Lutherans.  Really?   “Are you ‘for true’?” as someone’s grandma might say…

Yes, there is such a thing as a risk-taking Lutheran, my friends.  In fact, they’re all over the place…dotting the pages of our history, if we keep our eyes open.  

Starting with old Brother Martin who lived most of his adult year with a price on his head, we come from a long line of rabble-rousers, gadflies and adventurers.

Because we scarcely remember their names, I’ve been writing some monthly columns about some of them this year, in  Northern Lights.   These consequential Lutherans are quite a bunch…with names like
Onesimos Nesib, an Ethiopian Lutheran whose pen was mightier than the sword
J.C.F. Heyer, a missionary who journeyed to India three times, the last time at age 77
Eivind Berggrav, who convinced 90% of the Lutheran pastors in Norway to resist the Nazis;
Norman Borlaug, who saved about a billion persons from starvation…
Leymah Gbowee, who mobilized strong women to insist on an end of the civil war in Liberia

As much as I appreciate recovering our history and telling such stories, there’s a pitfall in lifting up these notable Lutherans—namely, the impression that you have to be listed in Wikipedia to be considered a risk-taking Lutheran.

Which, of course, is not true….

Lord knows we have all sorts of everyday risk-taking Lutherans in our own congregations and communities….

…and what about us—pastors, deacons, SAMs and other ministers?   Aren’t we also risk-taking Lutherans?

You bet we are.  And I trust that we realize how risky it is simply to step into a pulpit.

Do you realize the kind of “danger zone” you enter each week, when you stand up in front of the Christian community to proclaim God’s Word in Christ?

Years ago I heard a guy chide some Lutheran pastors because he said that much of their preaching seemed like being “nibbled to death by a young duck.”

Comments like that nag at me when I’m preparing to preach….disturbing questions like:  “Did Jesus Christ have to die on a Cross so this sermon could be preached?”

But the one that really gets me is the challenge I heard articulated by former SD Synod Bishop Andrea DeGroot-Nesdahl who said:  “When you preach, be sure you write checks offering promises so huge only God’s bank account can cover them.”

None of us aspires to preaching that is inconsequential.  We aim to be risk-taking proclaimers of God’s radical grace and mercy.

But how does that happen?  

I think it’s rather obvious:  keep your eyes on, attune your ears to Jesus.

Take your cues from our Lord, who was always agitational in his proclamation…who was forever trying to get a rise out of his hearers.  Remember that Jesus uttered promises so audacious that they killed him for making them.

Just pay attention to the biblical text and keep your eyes glued to Jesus, and you won’t go wrong.

Many of us will preach this coming Sunday on one of our Lord’s most agitational parables, from Matthew 20, this story of the workers in the vineyard.

Here you have this wild, type-A vineyard owner…who’s having one of those bumper crop years, when the grapes all ripen –literally!--on the same day, so’s the harvest can’t wait a second longer….

So the boss keeps trotting back to the pool of day-laborers huddled in the marketplace.  He makes five—count them!--five trips to keep rounding up workers….from the early-bird-catches-the-worm crowd...to the slackers who showed up late and still hung over, still unemployed as the sun was sinking low in the sky.

The vineyard owner just keeps nabbing them, hustling them to his busy vineyard, promising each of them the customary daily wage.

Follow the arc of this masterful story and…you just know this vineyard owner is “up to something!”  

And sure enough, at day’s end, the boss stages a most peculiar method of handing out the payroll.  He has his workers line up from the last-hired down to the first-hired, and he insists that they be paid in precisely that order.

This vineyard owner WANTS to be provocative here….as the one-hour workers each get a full-day’s wage and all sorts of eyes bug out, especially the eyes of those who worked the whole day:   “Amazing!   If those slackers each get a full day’s wage, we all-day workers will receive even more.  Happy days are here again!”

But then (cue the sound of a giant balloon slowly deflating!), as that same daily wage is doled out to each of the workers, right down to the first-hired who started working at dawn—they now feel like chumps—chumps who’ve been cheated.  

Talk about currency deflation!

Or was it?   Each of the end-of-the-line crowd had agreed--had they not?--to work all day for a standard day’s wage?   Wasn’t that the deal?

But we’re always noticing, aren’t we?   We’re always situating ourselves in relation to others—and it’s those others and how they get treated that rankle us here.  

When the Vineyard Owner catches wind of the grumbling in the ranks, he just makes matters worse.   He gets in the face of the grumblers--reminding them that he did the hiring, he promised the fair wage, and he would pay them with his money—money he could do with exactly as he pleased, even if that meant being lavishly, extravagantly, breaking-the-bank-generous with those last-hired.

What’s offensive here is the Vineyard Owner’s “in your face grace.”

It was parables like this one that got Jesus strung up.

When we preachers have the gumption to just let it fly as Jesus does here in Matthew 20—someone’s gonna get torqued off, somebody may stalk angrily out of the church and there will be those who refuse be embraced by the truth of it….

….at the same time that someone else will have a lightbulb going off in her head, and someone else will finally get it through his thick skull that this stuff is for real, and someone else will at last be saved!

My dear friends, risk-taking preachers of the law that lays us low, and the gospel that raises us up, God has entrusted to us a Word that snaps, crackles and pops with life and hope and the new creation in Jesus Christ.

It’s in the very nature of Christian preaching to be risk-taking to the max, always pressing the edges, forever leading us preachers to wonder:  “Can I really say this?  Can I actually push it this far?”

To which our Lord responds:  “Go for it!  Take my promises as far as you can, then get out of the way…for the risen Christ is afoot here, and the Gospel is having its way with us…making us and all things new.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

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