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.

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