Thursday, September 20, 2018

Behold, I Make All Things New

NW MN Synod Theology for Ministry Conference
Reconciliation:  UnBinding Hearts
September 18, 2018 at the Fair Hills Resort, Detroit Lakes, MN
Romans 7:15-25a

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

I confess to Almighty God, before the whole company of heaven, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned….(ELW, p. 321)

Truth be told, I have sinned in more ways than I have time to share in these few moments…..

…but for now, in particular, I want to confess that I have sinned  by dragging my feet, taking my sweet old time, being slow to recognize the intricate, pervasive, overwhelming reality of sin itself…not just my own sin, or our own sin, or the sin of the whole human family—but the sin that affects, infects and shapes the very social fabric in which we are embedded--sin that has wormed its way into every nook and cranny of our shared existence….sin that attaches itself to society as we know it and to all the structures of this world as we and our ancestors have shaped them.

I have sinned by being reluctant to realize that language like “privilege” and “institutional prejudice” and “structural racism” and “implicit bias” are more than the by-products of 20th and 21st century “political correctness”….but that such notions name some of the deepest, most abiding and corrosive realities of sin itself.

I have sinned both by what I have done---all the ways I have benefited from the way my world has been constructed to benefit me and “my people”---I have sinned both by what I have done and by what I have not done—by not asking, more often, and more deeply, questions like:  “How did we get here?” and “How did the world come to be this way?” and  “Who suffered, who lost out, who was ignored….so that I might prosper?”

I have sinned by failing to ask questions as simple and basic as:  “Just who are we talking about whenever we say the word ‘we’?”

I have sinned, my sisters and brothers, by not inviting us to consider such matters earlier in my time of service among you in this synod.

…And so, my hope and prayer is that this theology for ministry conference will mark a venturing out together…to have our eyes opened, our lives turned inside out… so that we’ll pay closer attention not just to the people we are called to serve, but to the whole social  fabric itself that continually shapes us and that our God is continually refashioning in the cruciform likeness of Jesus who suffered and died and rose again for us not just to save you and me, but to redeem all that God has made.

Now, you might be wondering, what brought all this on?   “We’ve never heard Larry talk that way—what on earth has gotten into him?”

Well, since you asked (!), several things have gotten into me, leading me to this point of confession.

First, my world has become much bigger than it used to be.

I didn’t even own a passport when you called me to be your bishop in 2007.   Except for a few visits to Canada, I had no international travel experience. 
I    I had not yet seen the hardscrabble life of the Dalits (a.k.a. “untouchables”) in our companion synod in India….
I    I had yet to behold the grinding poverty of mountain-folk in Nicaragua who walk five miles to get their water from a muddy river…. 
·       I had not yet visited Germany, the homeland of my ancestors and of the Reformation, I had not yet seen what’s left of the Berlin Wall along with still lingering after-effects of decades under communism in the former East Germany.

·       I did not yet have a vital circle of LGBT friends, African American colleagues (including leaders of historic black churches in our state), and other neighbors who reflect the wondrous diversity that our Creator loves.

The second thing that’s “gotten into me” is the witness of an abundance of teachers whom God has sent to me who’ve provoked me to perceive how, in so many ways, the very shape of our world advantages some while disadvantaging others.   I hadn’t yet pondered the fact that, like so many people of privilege, I was born on third base—a base that my ancestors stole from the first inhabitants of this good land.

Other teachers—like N.T. Wright--have led me to embrace more deeply a more cosmic Christology that recognizes in the groaning of the creation the birth pangs of God’s new creation…..a cosmic Christology that flows naturally from epistles like Ephesians and Colossians and that culminates in the stunning declaration in Revelation of God’s greatest promise:  “Behold I make all things new!” (Rev.21:5)

Only such a cosmic, all-embracing theology can address the individual, collective and indeed society-wide damage caused by the sin for which our Savior lived, died, rose again and will return to restore in full!

The third thing that has gotten into me is an affliction—I hope it’s your affliction, too—that I can’t stop reflecting theologically on everything, including our shared life together in this cultural moment:   the United States of America in the year 2018.

Sometimes don’t you just wish you could take a break and switch off your “theological reflection” button?

Douglas John Hall in his book Thinking the Faith, tells about a conversation he had with a fellow traveler on a long air flight who asked theologian Hall what he did for a living.  Since it was a lengthy flight,” Hall writes,”and since my companion seemed willing to listen, I took my time and attempted to answer his question in a responsible way.  At the end of my discourse, he looked at me very earnestly and, without a trace of irony in his voice, said: ‘It must be wonderful to think about everything, all the time![1]

Oh how I wish I could occasionally flip the toggle and switch off that theological reflection “thing,” but I can’t, and you can’t…and that’s actually a very good thing because when God calls us pastors, deacons and SAMs  to public ministries in the church, God expects us, God commissions us to be God’s gadflies in the world….to test and measure and sift everything we experience in God’s World  through the “sieve” of God’s Word in Jesus Christ.

And what does that Word tell us?    

Way back in 1953 a British clergyman J.B. Phillips wrote a little book that’s still in print, entitled:  Your God is Too Small.   In a way, I wish Phillips had written a prequel volume, entitled Your Idea of Sin is Too Small.

What does the Word of God tell us about sin?   It tells us, plain and simple, that sin is bigger, wider, deeper, and much more virulent than we assume it to be.   

Yes, the word “sin” names our original sin, the sin we inherited just by virtue of being conceived and birthed by sinful human parents.    Sin is that curved-in-upon-ourselves-ness that Luther taught us about.   Sin is—in the popular religious imagination of America—the bad thoughts, words and deeds that ensue from being fatally flawed.   Sin is what we never outgrow our need to confess, so that we may be forgiven.  

But sin is also much, much more than an individual, personal affliction.   Sin has a grasp, a reach--sin spreads itself and its effects, infecting not just everyone, but everything.   Sin fills not just space, but time as well.   We are always dealing with not just the wrongs you and I have done in our slender slice of eternity….but we are forever bumping up against all the wrongs of all our ancestors.   In this fashion sin infects every structure we manufacture, every arrangement we concoct, every era in our collective history. 

Sin always and forever is bigger than we imagine it to be….and this is more than a political or social or moral construct—it is a deep theological reality, encompassing ideas like privilege, structural racism, institutional prejudice, and implicit bias.

Sin’s a much bigger force to contend with than we realize on Sunday mornings when—as if on auto-pilot or just drowsy--we confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.   Not by accident, the apostle Paul whom we true blue Lutherans love for his witness to justification by faith—not by accident did Paul also speak of the whole creation groaning (Romans 8:22).

Our encounter with God’s Word will continually overwhelm us with the enormity of sin until we find ourselves crying out with Paul:   “Wretch that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  (Romans 7:24)

And when those words fall from our lips, we will continue with Paul’s breathless, joyous, confession:  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  (Romans 7:25)

For as sure and as certain as we are that sin is so much bigger than we thought it was, God’s cosmic, redemptive work in Christ is always bigger.   And God’s Word will always drive us to confess, in the words of Colossians 1:    Christ himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together (v. 17)…[and] through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (v. 22)

In the name of Jesus—through whose Cross and Empty Tomb God is making all things new.  Amen.

[1] Douglas John Hall, Thinking the Faith:  Christian Theology in a North American Context (1989, Augsburg Fortress)     pp. 323-324.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

I Was A Stranger, and You Welcomed Me

NW MN Synod Women’s Organization Convention
Trinity Lutheran Church, Detroit Lakes, MN
September 15, 2018

Hebrews 13:22:   “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” 
Matthew 25:31-46, especially v. 35b, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

I love the word you’re focusing on during this convention:  the word hospitality.    And I’m tickled by your theme verse from Hebrews 13:2—one of the New Testament’s most evocative passages which echoes beloved tales from Greek and Roman mythology (like the ancient story of Baucis and Philemon) as well as Old Testament narratives like the story in Genesis 18 in which Abraham and Sarah entertain three mysterious strangers—three angels, three “faces of God” by the Oaks of Mamre.

Hospitality definitely deserves our attention, especially in today’s church.  On that we can certainly agree—but just what do we think hospitality is all about?

Is it mainly about politeness and good manners?   Those are certainly not unrelated—politeness and hospitality--and I’m certainly in favor of “good manners” any day of the week. 

More than once I have encouraged folks in our synod to recall  what they hopefully  learned as third graders, regarding how to meet someone you don’t know—how to introduce yourself to them and give them a chance to introduce themselves to you.   Hospitality depends on a modicum of polite manners and simple acts like greeting folks, providing nametags for everyone, making all who show up feel comfortable and at home in our churches.

But, hospitality is also about much, much more than good manners!

It’s also about genuine friendliness and warmth—moving past our shyness, setting aside our natural “reserve” …and going out of our way to open up relational space for that other person or persons---particularly if they’re newcomers who may have just moved into the area.
Hospitality is about good manners—to be sure!---and it’s also about heartfelt warmth and genuine friendliness—oh yes!

But there is even more to this thing we call hospitality, as we see with crystal clarity in our gospel reading from Matthew 25.

Hospitality may start with polite good manners…and hopefully it will move on to warm friendliness…..

…but hospitality reaches its true destination…hospitality blossoms forth into fullest flower when we come to know that at its best Christian hospitality is about all the encounters in which God opens us up to recognizing and receiving Jesus Christ in our midst.

Simply put:  in being hospitable we come face to face with none other than our Lord and Savior!

And this deeper hospitality becomes more astounding, more surprisingly jaw-dropping, whenever it dawns on us that we meet Christ in the very last persons we’d anticipate, in the folks we’re most surprised to encounter!

This is where things get really interesting!

Look again at the whole motley crew Jesus rolls out here in Matthew 25.  Jesus informs us that he identifies most closely NOT with the beautiful, successful, powerful, or famous personalities in our lives…..

….but that Jesus becomes recognizable in the faces of the most desperate, needy ones:   the hungry, thirsty, sick, and naked folks….the strangers we meet in jails and prisons--not the best of the best, but the worst of the worst.

Jesus draws us into hospitality with persons we’re not too sure about, folks we’re maybe inclined to blame for bringing their own troubles upon themselves, individuals who make us nervous, fearful or uncertain….puzzling, perplexing “others” whom we may be inclined to cross the street in order to avoid.

We prefer that our deeds of hospitality feel satisfying…we like it when our warmth and friendliness is reciprocated….but instead Jesus points us to encounters that may well make us wonder, might even feel downright off-putting and uncomfortable!

In case you don’t hear this passage that way, let me paraphrase it just a bit, in today’s vernacular:  
·      “I was in my usual spot, on the street corner holding up a sign that says I’m homeless and haven’t eaten in days--and you gave me food; 
·      I was dehydrated and on the verge of heat-stroke—and you gave me something to drink;
·      I was a refugee fleeing violent gangs in my homeland, and you embraced me;
·      I looked like death warmed over with a ratty shirt and tattered jeans and you gave me something decent to wear;
·      I was trying to sober up after an opioid overdose and you got me to a clinic,
·      I was doing 20 years in the state penitentiary and you went to the time and trouble of becoming my first visitor in months.

Offering that kind of hospitality to those sorts of folks will be scary, unsettling and perhaps even dangerous. 

Offering Jesus’ brand of costly, deep hospitality that’s held up here in Matthew 25 may well make others in our communities start to wonder about you and me.   We may start to become identified with those whom we welcome.

If you think I’m overstating this, recall the sorts of things that are being said nowadays about strangers from other lands who seek to make a new home in this country—(the most of our own immigrant ancestors did decades ago!)

Take a closer look with me at this phrase in particular from Matthew 25:35b.  It’s usually translated, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”   But if we dig deeper into the original Greek language of the New Testament we discover that the word here is xenos, which can mean a stranger, but it can just as easily be translated as a foreigner.   We run into this Greek word xenos whenever we see the word xenophobia—the fear of strangers.

And the word normally translated “welcomed” here comes from the Greek word synago, from which the word synagogue is derived.   Synago is about more than saying a friendly “Hi, how are you?”   It means embracing someone, enfolding them into our own people.    So Matthew 25:35b could be more faithfully translated:  “I was a foreigner and you took me in.”

This clear “dominical saying,” this unmistakable directive straight from our Lord flies right in the face of so much anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, anti-foreigner rhetoric that’s being tossed around willy-nilly in our country right now—rhetoric that has no place in the community of Jesus Christ who so closely identified himself with suspicious strangers that he declared:  “I was a foreigner and you took me in.”

So, my dear friends, the more closely and carefully we listen to Jesus we will be drawn into the kind of deep, dangerous hospitality that could get us criticized, ostracized, and even shunned by others.   

Some of the dirt that’s on those to whom we’re hospitable, may well rub off on us!

Why would Jesus ask such a thing of us?   Why, why would Jesus put us to such a difficult test?   

Why would Jesus expect us to step so far out of our comfort zones?   Why can’t we simply stick to the safe, garden-variety hospitality that’s easy to offer to persons who’re just like ourselves?

Such questions, in the mere asking of them, reveal how much we still have to learn about God’s way with us.

For in truth, Jesus never invites or expects us to do anything that he has not already done for us and for our salvation.

Here in Matthew 25 Jesus doesn’t call us to a costly, risky hospitality that’s beyond our capabilities.   

Rather, Jesus invites us into…Jesus draws us deeply into his own way of being with us and our fellow members of the human family.

For this is not some alien path, far out of our reach.   This is Jesus’ own way in the world.   This hospitality that Jesus holds out before our eyes is the hospitality he first extended to us:  we who were hungry and desperate for nourishment; we who were parched and dry; we who were being hunted down by the Evil One and his minions; we who were exposed and naked as the day we were born; we who were sin-sick souls desperately needing salvation; we who were captive to sin and unable to free ourselves…..we have all been the kinds of people Jesus speaks of here….we were all “those kinds of people” when Jesus, our Host Par Excellence…Jesus, our perfectly hospitable Savior looked upon us with love and pity and forgiveness and healing and welcome.

It is this Jesus who holds up not some impossible ethical standard, but rather invites us, draws us, woos us into his own way of living life large and always for others.  Jesus leads us into a hospitality we could never pull off on our own. 

Jesus invites us into his very own deep, dangerous hospitality, promising to meet us in the face of every person we encounter--—often most clearly and unmistakably in the faces of the strangers we meet.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.