Monday, November 19, 2018

Justice League

“Justice League”
November 16-18 at Luther Crest Bible Camp, Alexandria MN

GATHERING THEME VERSE:  Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  Amos 5:24

I always like the themes chosen for our youth gatherings, but this year’s theme beats them all:  Justice League!

Not only is the theme great—but this just might be the best logo ever-- with Jesus in the midst of a host of comic book superheroes, describing how he (Jesus!) saved the world.

I find that so sweet, because, you see, I’ve been fascinated by super-heroes my whole life.

In the family I grew up in I was the baby brother, the little tagalong who was born when my sisters Judy and Cathy were in middle school!

Judy and Cathy, were like “auxiliary moms” to me….so that I grew up being pampered not by just one, but by three “mothers!”

Even though they loved their little brother, there were times when Judy and Cathy were mortified by some of the things their goofy little brother did:   like when I was 4 or 5 running out to meet their school bus at the end of the day, wearing just my underwear with a super-hero cape over my shoulders.

My childhood habit of dressing up like a superhero was fostered by the fact that I grew up collecting DC comic books, especially the ones about Batman and Superman…

Those also happened to be the years—in the 1950s and 1960s—when there were live-action TV shows about my favorite super-heroes.   So I hardly missed an episode of the Superman show in good old black-and-white TV of the late 50s and early 60s…

….and I was always in front of the family TV in the late 60s, when the 120 episodes of Batman were on—in living color!

Why was I so fascinated by these super-heroes….and why am I still a big fan of super-heroes, including now the whole Marvel Universe alongside the DC comics I had as a child?

I can think of five reasons why I still love super-heroes

1.  They have cool origin stories—tales about how they came to become super-heroes

2.  They have super-powers that allow them to do extraordinary things

3.  They use their super-powers to defeat evil and help those who are weak

4.  Most of them have dual identities:   Superman (Clark Kent), Batman (Bruce Wayne), Spiderman (Peter Parker), Hulk (Bruce Banner.   These secret identities (“alter egos”) allow super-heroes to blend into daily life when they’re not living out their super-hero identities.

5.  They sometimes join forces with other super-heroes, especially when such cooperation multiplies their super-powers to save the world.

No wonder that when you and I think of super-heroes it’s natural for us,  as Christians, to think of Jesus as sort of a super-hero.

After all, Jesus has a pretty amazing “origin” story….and Jesus has some pretty amazing super-powers…and Jesus also definitely uses his powers for others, not for himself—Jesus’ power allows him, too, to defeat evil and help the weak and needy, like most of our favorite superheroes.

It’s natural for us to liken Jesus to the super-heroes in our lives….

BUT IN OTHER RESPECTS Jesus is so much more than one more super-hero.  Jesus is something else, in a class all by himself….he’s way above and beyond the other super-heroes we follow…

Here’s five reasons why I say that Jesus is NOT just like our other super heroes:

1.  Jesus originates not in some sort of trip through outer space (like Superman) or some science experiment gone wrong (like Spiderman).   Jesus’ “origin story” is all about God—God’s overflowing, unconditional love….God’s amazing willingness to be born in a cattle stall and laid in a manger…to become one of us….God’s fierce determination to be our God….God’s stubborn desire to set us free so that we can be God’s people.

2.   Jesus’ super powers are way above and beyond the super-powers of our super-heroes…
a.     One of Jesus’ super powers is his ability to “bend time”—to live and act in the past, the present and the future all at the same time.   Take Paul’s words about baptism for example: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”  (Romans 6:3-4)  

In saying that the event of baptism is one of the ways Jesus “bends time,” it’s not too far-fetched to think of the baptismal font as a kind of “time machine” in which Jesus past act of saving us invades our present moment while also preparing us for the future when Christ will come again to say to us:  “You are mine.   You are forgiven.   I give to you life abundant, life forever!”

b.    Another of Jesus’ wondrous super powers is his ability to create endless second chances…to offer us countless fresh beginnings….to provide us with daily “do-overs.”  One of the best Bible verses that sums up this super-power of Jesus comes from Revelation 21:  “See, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5)

c.     Perhaps Jesus’ most amazing super power is his ability to win by losing, to empty himself out in order to fill us up, to lose his own life so that we might gain life--life that knows no end—all because of Jesus.  

Unlike most of the other super-heroes we pay attention to, this power of Jesus doesn’t rely on brute force or compulsion.  Instead of avoiding death, Jesus faces death, walks right up to death, endures death, demonstrating Jesus’ fearlessness in the face of death.   Jesus saves us by allowing death to do its worst to him, all because Jesus believes 100% that God is the God of resurrection.

3.    Jesus doesn’t have just one secret identity like “Clark Kent” and Superman….Jesus doesn’t resort to a single “alter ego” that allows him to sneak around unnoticed…..

….but rather, Jesus wears a mask, of sorts, by coming into our lives and identifying himself so closely with us that (in the words of St Paul) “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”  (Galatians 2:20)

You are Jesus’ “alter ego” because Jesus has taken up residence within you, and through you Jesus keeps doing his work of making all things new, restoring people and creation to the goodness God has always intended.

4.   And none of this happens just to you or just to me all alone—by ourselves, in isolation from others.  Jesus has the astounding power to bind us to one another, to make us—all of us—his Body, to continue his work of making all things new, forgiving sins, walking beside us in our past/present/and future, facing everything that frightens us, including death itself, confident that there is a resurrection waiting for every one of us.     As we’ve been reminded during this Gathering by Pastors Sue and Jake,[1] Jesus makes all of US to be God’s vast “Justice League” in a hurting, hungry, angry, disappointed, hope-hungry world.

5.  …and perhaps best of all, you, my young friends, can get in on the action NOW—not just when you’re all grown up.   This hurting world, and especially the adults in this world like your youth group advisers and your parents and grandparents and adult friends…..we are all LOOKING TO YOU to lead the way—because Jesus has made you his own, his “alter egos,” his Justice League.

[1] Earlier in the Middle School Gathering participants heard Pr. Sue Koesterman describe her work with Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead, MN, and Pr. Jacob Anderson of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Fergus Falls, MN, describe his one-on-one ministry with needy persons who seek help from the congregation’s Deacon’s Fund.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Bite-sized Miracle

Installation of Pr. Paul Erdal
Calvary Lutheran Church, Perham, MN
Pentecost 25/November 11, 2018
I Kings 17:8-16

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

In our first reading from First Kings, chapter 17, it’s hard to tell who in this small cast of characters is the most desperate.

Is it Elijah, the prophet, who had just confronted Israel’s King Ahab…Ahab whom we’re told had done “evil in the sight of the LORD more than all [the kings] who were before him.”  (I Kings 16:30)?

Elijah was desperate because he’d just informed wicked King Ahab that God was bringing upon his kingdom a devastating, long-term drought.   Elijah was desperate because horrible kings like Ahab don’t like getting news like that, and the urge to “kill the messenger” is very real….so real that Elijah had to flee to the wilderness near the Jordan River, where God promised protection and survival in the midst of the impending drought.

Elijah is desperate here…but so are the other two characters in this story—starting with that widow in a village in Sidon, a Gentile territory bordering Israel.

This woman is desperate because her husband has died, and no available man has married her….so she’s experiencing a drought in a time and place with no social safety net to ensure her survival….

….and her desperate situation is made all the worse by the fact that there’s this third character in the story—her dependent child, a son, who’s counting on her—his only hope for food, water, shelter and safety in a time of drought-caused famine.

So right off the bat we encounter three desperate souls here in this story from I Kings 17:   Elijah, a man on the run…the widow who has no means of survival…and her son, who’s utterly dependent on his desperate mother.

What heart-wrenching pathos meets us here---three desperate souls, who for all the world appear to be “goners”—thrown together by horrific circumstances, with no escape route, no way out of their tragic situation….

But here’s where things get really interesting.

Because Elijah enters her village, and immediately engages the widow….asking first for some water, and then demanding “a morsel of bread” as well.

Elijah’s brazen “ask” elicits from the woman perhaps the most pathetic sentence in all of Scripture:   “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.”  (I Kings 17:12)

Eat it and die!   Have your last meal with your son…and then wait for death to take you both!

Elijah hears this…and then responds in a shocking way:  “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son….”

My gut reaction is to say, “the gall of this man Elijah!”--to order her to make him a cake from her meager provisions, and feed him before tending to her son and herself!  Typical man! 

But Elijah says more here, adding to his command an amazing promise:  “For thus says the LORD the God of Israel:  The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.”

Here--these three desperate souls were bound together by more than just their dire straits.   The LORD, the God of Israel had come a calling in this Gentile village in Sidon—the home territory of wicked King Ahab’s even more despicable wife, Queen Jezebel.

Here, precisely when and where things looked absolutely hopeless, the God of Israel was already at work…to tend the needs of these three desperate ones, binding them together not just in their deep hunger, but also in their capacity for life-changing, future-opening faith.

In the light of what happened—the bottomless jar of meal, the never-empty jug of oil—in the light of this astonishing miracle, we hear Elijah’s seemingly selfish command “make some bread for me first”—not as the order of a brazen, privileged man….but as an invitation to transformative faith.

“Make me a little cake of it,” says Elijah….because there will be plenty more cakes where that came from, for you and your hungry son.

God was going to take care of them miraculously, all right—but not by way of an overwhelmingly spectacular miracle.

God could have turned everyone’s heads in Zarephath by plopping down out of heaven a 10,000 bushel grain bin right next to thousand-gallon tank of cooking oil in the widow’s own backyard.  

But God didn’t do that…God didn’t put on a show to turn all their heads and make all the widow’s neighbors go, “Wow!”…..

….but rather in the intimacy of the widow’s humble home, and in the daily-ness of life in her small household…the miracle unfolded, in bite-sized chunks that fed not just their stomachs, but that nourished their faith as well.

And isn’t that just like the God of Israel, who is our God—and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

The abundance of God—which is oh, so real—comes to us most often NOT in ways that overwhelm our senses…but rather via unexpected channels that increase our capacity to trust God in each and every moment of every day we’re alive.

Such faith opens our eyes to see God at work in some of the last places we’d ever expect:  
·       in the unforeseen “God moments” that surprise us day by day
·       in the daunting problems and the perplexing challenges that seem beyond on us, though not beyond God…
·       in all the small, barely perceptible interventions of God in our lives….
·       in the simplest of gifts--like water and words and bread and wine…..
·       in the go-for-broke generosity of the poor, like the widow’s mite in our Gospel….
·       and always, always, always in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, for us and for our salvation.

Dear brother Paul….dear people of God…this same God who revealed himself in the hovel of a forlorn widow….this same God is the source of your life and your only reason for having been called and enlightened and sanctified and gathered into this community of faith…..this same One has brought you together as pastor and people, fellow-servants of our abundant God.

Martin Luther, was born 535 years ago yesterday in the village of Eisleben, Germany.   What you may not know is that 63 years later, Luther’s life came full circle when he died in the very same village of Eisleben in 1546. 

In the room where Luther breathed his last, a scrap of paper was later found that read:  “We are beggars, this is true”—likely the last words of the Great Reformer.

Although these words may not sound like a shout of triumph, they do bear stirring witness to something deep in Luther’s way of living, trusting, serving and finally dying.  

I like that definition of the church that goes like this:  “Christians are beggars helping other beggars find Bread.”

The most powerful gesture whereby we express what it means to live each day by faith in God looks like this:  our hands cupped together, the way we will shortly come to the Lord’s Table, a posture for beggars who always look to God for whatever might be the next good thing that God  has in store for us.

We are beggars—this is true—beggars who always know where the Bread comes from.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.