Saturday, September 27, 2014

Whatever Will Be Will Not Necessarily Be

Messiah Lutheran Church, Roseau, MN
Pentecost 16/September 28, 2014 (Baptism of Bryce Beery)
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32


In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

You’re stuck.  There’s no way out.   Deal with it!

As hard as it might be to utter those words to someone else….we know how to say them to ourselves.

We all have felt “trapped”…caught in some kind of “closed loop” situation….and therefore:  stuck, fresh out of options, paralyzed!

Some of us remember comedian  Flip Wilson whose 1970s TV show popularized the phrase:  “The Devil made me do it!”

In other words:  because the Devil made me do it, I’m not responsible—I’m just a victim.

If it’s the Devil who made you do something….or if it’s your poor family background, or fate, or your genes, or just plain dumb luck….well then you’re not responsible.  If you’re in the soup—someone else or something else put you there!

To be sure, this way of thinking isn’t just “rationalization” or excuse-making.   As a recent NY Times column[1] by Nicholas Kristof pointed out, there are mountains of evidence showing how the foundations for later life are laid in the first months of a child’s life—starting even before the child is born.  Drinking alcohol or smoking during pregnancy can be correlated with things like the child later being suspended or expelled from school…or getting involved in violent crime.   An infant exposed to constant stress grows up more likely to display a “fight or flight” hair trigger response to stress throughout life.   Choices that parents make dramatically impact the lives their children will lead.

That reality is as fresh as today’s newspaper….and it’s as ancient as this morning’s First Lesson from Ezekiel, where we hear this age-old proverb:  “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.”

This proverb was in vogue among God’s people living in exile in Babylonia six centuries before the birth of Christ.  Exile was understood to be a punishment for sin—but whose sin was it?

The exiles, especially those who were younger, didn’t think they had gotten themselves in this mess.   It was perhaps only natural that they blame their parents and grandparents—“Them!    Their wrong decisions, their bad choices incurred God’s wrath and brought us here to this awful place.   They ate grapes that were rotten—but we’re the ones who got sick—our parents ate the sour grapes, but we’re the ones grinding our teeth!”

This proverb had become commonplace in Ezekiel’s day because it encapsulated a feeling shared by many of the exiles from the land of Israel:  “We’re stuck (through no fault of our own)…there’s no way out…we just have to grin and bear it!”

In response to this fatalistic thinking, though, another voice intrudes here in Ezekiel….a voice that says:  “Cut it out!   Enough of this ‘stinking thinking’…this line that blames everyone but yourselves for the life you now live.   That is not how things are arranged in God’s good creation, which is anything but a ‘closed system’ sealed by fate.”

God gets a word in edgewise here, through the prophet Ezekiel:  “Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine… Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.”

God’s word runs contrary to the conventional wisdom of the Babylonian exiles.   God longs for a relationship with everyone—each person in their own time, living their lives, in God’s presence.   God can’t stand the kind of fatalism that pervaded the exiles’ imaginations.   God cannot tolerate the notion that we’re all (God included!) stuck in some sort of closed-loop universe.    God refuses to abide by the “que sera sera,” whatever-will-be-will-be resignation that is forever insinuating itself into our heads and hearts!

Try to hem yourselves in, try to hem God in with such fatalistic thinking—and something’s going to give!   God will burst out of such closed-loop thinking, the way Jesus burst out of the grave on Easter morning!

When I was a little boy—I still remember this!—my pastor preached a sermon with a title I’ve never forgotten:  “Whatever will be will NOT NECESSARILY be!”

God is always cracking open whatever is closing you in, stifling your ability to lead the free, full, abundant life God created you for.   And the way God loves to do that best is by providing for us the path of repentance.

Now the word “repentance” has taken on a dark, gray hue in our imaginations.  It’s all too often a grim, “you gotta” word…when in reality it is anything but that.  When God pleads, through Ezekiel, with the exiles in Babylon to repent and turn from all their transgressions….God isn’t laying a new burden upon them, alongside their deadly fatalistic thinking.   No—God is saying to them:  “It doesn’t have to end this way.   Sin and death don’t deserve the last word!   I am opening a doorway for you…a doorway into the world as I intend it to be, a word in which there is always a chance to start over!

If you feel stuck, with no way out (says God) I’m here to tell you that there is a way out—and not just to tell you that, but to point you to it!  My gracious gift to you is the gift of being able to, being empowered to turn from what’s killing you and fall into my arms once again.   That, that, is what repentance is all about.   There is no such thing as a fixed, “closed loop” universe that leaves you fresh out of possibilities.   There is only my good creation, fallen but redeemed by my Son, Jesus Christ, so that every minute of every hour of every day presents you with a chance to start all over again.    That is what repentance looks like!

And that is the life we’ve all been given through the grace of our baptism into Jesus Christ, our incorporation into the life, death and resurrection of the One who saves us from whatever seems to hem us in and cut off all our possibilities.

So here’s the kicker:  just as we can mess up the lives of our youngest children, we can also enrich and bless those lives immeasurably.  What we do for the youngest children of God, to plant and nurture a living faith in them is more foundational, more far-reaching than all the ways we fail our children.   We have a chance, every day, to pass on to our children—all our children!—the best thing we have—and the best we have is Jesus!

Into that life, that full, free, overflowing baptismal life, we are privileged to launch little Bryce today.   Here you all are:  Moe and Messiah, together under one roof.   And believe me, I know you didn’t show up just because you heard the bishop was going to be here this morning.
No, you showed up because you wanted to be here for the best day in Bryce Beery’s young life!  You wanted to see, with your own eyes, the way that God bursts through sin, death and the power of the devil in the renewing Word and the refreshing Water of Holy Baptism.

This morning the God of freedom and the future will get a toe-hold in Bryce’s life.  God calls dibs on baby Bryce—just as God has called dibs on all of us who’ve been joined to Christ through water and the Word.

Which means for us (and in a few moments, for dear little Bryce)…it means that none of those awful-awfuls have a future with us.  Sin and us, death and us, the Devil and us—none of those awful-awfuls have a ghost of a chance with us, once God joins us to Christ in baptism.

We forget that, of course, just as Bryce will forget it.   That’s why you’re all here to promise to keep him from forgetting it, to remind him of his baptism.    Wow!   This little guy won’t have a chance to go astray—not with all you folks watching him like hawks (the way I hope you keep watch over all the baptized!)

But if somehow, Bryce tries to step out of line (and Michael and Lisa, I’m pretty sure that WILL happen, sure as shooting!)….if Bryce goes astray, no (let’s be honest) when Bryce goes astray, he will find himself not on some dead-end street, devoid of options…

No, he will find himself right where Baptism places all of us:  in the strong, gentle arms of God who says to us all:  “It doesn’t have to end this way.  I am the God of endless fresh starts.   Turn away from what is tearing you down….turn toward me, and live!”

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.




[1] Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WaDunn, “The Way to Beat Poverty,”  New York Times (September 14, 2014).

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Walking Each Other Home

Faith at Home….At Home in Faith
NW MN Synod Theology for Ministry Conference
Fair Hills Resort, Detroit Lakes, MN
September 16, 2014
Philippians 1:21-30

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

“[God] has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well…” (v. 29)

Lately I have been pondering the role of affliction in the 
formation of faith.

My pondering was triggered by a presentation I heard at a recent conference on “Rethinking Faith Formation” at Luther Seminary.
The speaker who captured my attention more than all the rest spoke about “The Virtual Body of Christ,” how digital communications and social media are reshaping the ways faith is formed.  

This speaker (a young Lutheran professor at Hamline University) made me rethink my assumptions about “virtual reality.”

But what really caught my attention was when early in her presentation she quietly “dropped” the bombshell that several years ago she’d been diagnosed with stage IV cancer.

When she uttered the awful “c” word—I sat up, tuned in and could not be distracted.  For, as intellectually stimulating as her presentation happened to be, her personal journey with affliction, her facing of a grievous, potentially-fatal disease “transfigured” everything she said.

It was clear that this dreadful disease, rather than knocking the wind out of her sails—had in an amazing way stirred her imagination and driven her fresh thinking about how Christian faith is planted, shaped, and formed.

It seems at first counter-intuitive, to imagine that affliction could help shape or form faith.   Usually we assume that affliction, is an affront to faith—it calls faith sharply into question—makes it hard to believe in or ponder the things of God.

Nowadays it seems that whenever something terrible happens in the world—folks who may otherwise rarely think about God are suddenly ticked off at God…wondering in the first place how a God of love could allow such tragedies to take place…..and all too often, that’s about as far as anyone delves into the topic. 

But what about those souls all around us, not to mention the soul inside of us, that experiences affliction not so much as an affront to faith as it is a kind of flint or foil that sharpens our faith, tunes our attentiveness to God and opens us to experience the divine life in fresh ways?

A while back Rahm Emmanuel, when he was chief of staff in the Obama White House, popularized the notion that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste….to which I’m tempted to add that we in whom Christ is being formed dare never squander our experiences of affliction, either.

Paul certainly seems to have thought so, as we over-hear his musings in this text from Philippians.  

The pallor of death and loss hangs over this passage.   Paul is in prison….he anticipates the very real possibility of death, his death, taking him away from this veil of tears.  Paul speaks about feeling caught betwixt and between, hanging on to this life in order to keep pursuing his ministry, or letting go of this life, in order to live in the fullness of God, to be with Christ and live by sure and sturdy sight rather than the blurriness and dimness of faith.

Paul writes of affliction, not as an armchair expert on the subject, but as one who is intimately acquainted with the precariousness of this life, whether he was facing persecution for Christ’s sake (as was the case here in Philippians 1) or whether he was wrestling with his famous “thorn in the flesh”  in II Corinthians 12.   In other words, Paul ponders the existential experience of suffering, whether it is suffering for Christ or suffering in Christ.

Whatever the case may be, Paul writes here in Philippians to people whom he regards as being in the same boat with him.   Rather than assuming that affliction can only attack or deconstruct faith, Paul takes it for granted that suffering suffuses our whole life in Christ.  Indeed, suffering is a gift and a calling—“[God] has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well…”

I realize we’re on dangerous ground whenever we start talking this way.    The reality of domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse wherever it takes place, rightly makes us reluctant even to seem as though we’re redeeming suffering in any way, shape or fashion.   We are careful, oh so careful, to avoid “justifying” any pain one person might inflict upon another…and we certainly don’t seek out suffering, in some weird, twisted hunt for meaning.

Our nervousness about giving any quarter to suffering should not, however, deter us from pondering with fierce honesty the affliction that will inevitably come our way.   Make no mistake about it, affliction will find us all.  We don’t need to search it out—affliction will surely knock on our door.

And then what?   Will we become embittered by our encounter with affliction?  Will we seek to escape it, at any cost?  Or will we “mine” the moment, trusting that even when we’re falling apart, God is fashioning ways to do vital business with us?

The great 20th century radio preacher, Paul Scherer, named the nub of the matter when he declared:  “Jesus never occupied himself with the way out….To [Jesus] it was the way through that mattered.”[1]

If experiencing affliction isn’t a matter of finding a way out, but rather discovering a way through….how might such affliction contribute to the formation of Christian faith?    Let me suggest three ways:

First, affliction helps with faith formation by keeping us honest about ourselves.

Affliction, however it comes our way, always reminds us that we do not possess life, have it under our control or within our grasp.  We are sinful, vulnerable, fragile beings, whose fortunes can change at the drop of a hat.   With all our Maker’s other creatures, we constantly look beyond ourselves for all that we need.

So affliction aids in faith formation by piercing through all our illusions of grandeur, self-sufficiency, invulnerability.   Suffering removes our blinders so that we see ourselves as we really are—beyond our denial and false pretensions. 

Second, as affliction yields recognition of our true condition, we are opened up to those around us. 

If Christian faith thrives only within a deeply communal life, suffering helps us by transporting us out of ourselves.   In her little book, Stitches:  A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, Anne Lamott observes:  “When we agree to (or get tricked into) being part of something bigger than our own wired, fixated minds, we are saved.  When we search for something larger than our own selves to hook into, we can come through whatever life throws at us.”[2]   

What may begin as our own need to have others help us through our affliction….will morph into a more profound perception of how faith calls us to reciprocate the favor when affliction strikes others.  Again, from Anne Lamott:  “To heal, it seems we have to stand in the middle of the horror, at the foot of the cross, and wait out another’s suffering where that person can see us….ultimately we’re all just walking each other home.”[3] 

All of this, we come to realize, transpires within the economy of God….which is the third way that affliction feeds faith formation.   Suffering opens us up not just to ourselves and to one another—but to God.

And the God we are opened up to by affliction is so much more than a “fair-weather friend.”  The God we meet when affliction opens our eyes is the One who has already borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.   This God is with us when we are happy and hopeful and bright-eyed.  But the God we meet in Jesus “specializes” (if you will) in encountering us in the darkest moments of our lives.

Affliction as it inevitably finds us….affliction gives God something to work with, an emptiness and a longing God will give anything to satisfy.  

Or to put it another way:  maybe God allows affliction to find us in order to prevent us from low-balling God…and to seduce us into placing before God our biggest, most bodacious requests:  a cure for the cancer, a second chance for a shipwrecked marriage, a resurrection for every rude intrusion of death into our lives.

Just so, God addresses and heals our affliction, shows us a way through it—actually, becomes the way through it!--and enlists us to do the same for others.

“If there is a God,” writes Anne Lamott, “if there is a God, and most days I do think there is, He or She does not need us to bring hope and new life back into our lives, but [God] keeps letting us help…” thereby fashioning us into “people who help call forth human beings from deep inside hopelessness.”[4] 

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.




[1] Quoted from:  Love is a Spendthrift, 1961.
[2] Stitches, p. 91
[3] Ibid, pp. 10, 6

[4] Ibid. pp. 60-61, 79.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

God Calling!

We Are Called
NW MN Synod Women’s Organization Convention
September 13, 2014—Trinity, Crookston, MN
Galatians 5:13

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

“We are called.”   The logo for your convention portrays those words with simplicity and clarity:  a telephone—something we all recognize right away.

It was not always so, though. 

One hundred years ago, this symbol would have been meaningless.  “What’s this strange gadget?” folks would have wondered.  A few telephones were around a century ago, but they were hardly found in every home.  In fact, like many of the devices we now just take for granted, telephones didn’t become  widespread until after World War II.

But today we “get” this symbol instantly.  We connect it easily with our theme.   If the telephone rings, someone is calling us….someone has juicy information, wonderful good news, an earnest request or a blistering barrage of criticism for us.

Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get when the phone rings.   Not until you answer the call, not until your phone connects you with your caller, do you know if the call is one you want to receive.

At the risk of over-simplifying, let me suggest that most phone calls fall into one of two categories.

There are phone calls that weigh us down and there are phone calls that set us free.  

First, there are calls that weigh us down.  The news is bad, the complaint is shrill,the demands are heavy.

That’s why sometimes we dread even picking up the phone—and even contrive ways to avoid taking such calls (caller ID has helped us with that, right?  If someone is always and only bringing us bad news, we may not pick up the phone.)

Second, there are calls that set us free.   A little over a year ago I received one such call, actually a text message:  “Olivia Carolyn was just born—mom and baby are fine!”   Our first grandchild had arrived—and because this was happening 250 miles away from Moorhead, the phone call was essential.   It brought tears of joy to my eyes and changed my life—forever.   Some calls are like that.

But we’re not focused on garden-variety, everyday phone calls at this gathering.   We’re considering, rather, the call of God in our lives.   The telephone rings—and lo and behold God is on the other end of the line!

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”

What kind of call is this?   Is this a call that weighs us down or sets us free?   What about this call for which our caller ID simply says:  “God, number unknown.”

When God calls us, it’s always, always, always a call that sets us free!   God’s call to us, God’s claim on us, never comes, finally, to weigh us down. 

God’s call continually sets us free.

Not that it always seems that way.  Even if at first God’s call calls us up short, confronts us with our waywardness, draws attention to where we have failed or rebelled--even if at first God’s call to us has about it all the sternness of the law….even if God’s call weighs us down at first, it does so only so that we can eventually be set free.

God’s ultimate goal for us, God’s final future for us is that we be set free.

And that, my friends, is very, very good news!

It’s the news that turned the world upside down when it was first set loose in the world.   When Jesus lived out a love that started piecing back together this whole tattered creation….when Jesus carried the whole weight of our waywardness to the Cross….when the Risen Jesus danced out of the grave on Easter morning….he set us free from everything that could ever weigh us down—sin, death, the power of the devil--all of that was forever lifted from us!

This good news blazed its way across the ancient world, shaking up everything in its path, all the ways people thought they could get on God’s good side—all of it swept aside by Jesus’ tidal wave of grace!

This glorious path of freedom started in the familiar territory of God’s chosen people, the Jews….but it swiftly moved out into the strange, uncharted territory of the Roman Empire that was filled with Gentiles, non-Jews who neither knew nor practiced the old ways of Israel. 

When that started to happen the “old guard” got nervous….because freedom always brings anxiety to those who think they’re charged chiefly with maintaining law and order.

So when St Paul and company took this good news from a largely Jewish audience, into the highways and byways of the Gentile world…..these outsiders started believing and responding and embracing the fierce freedom that Jesus brings.

And the old guard told Paul and company:  “Not so fast!    These Gentile outsiders don’t get any shortcuts! They have to follow the same path we ‘first believers’ traveled.   These Gentiles need to align first with God’s chosen people Israel, their men need to be circumcised, their women need to ‘keep kosher,’ and they all need to follow the law of Moses before they can fully embrace Christ.”

And so was born the first great “church fight” –a donnybrook that focused on the question of whether Gentiles could come directly into the realm of Jesus Christ.

It was a fight that could have stopped the Christian movement dead in its tracks.   But God intervened through the bold witness of St Paul here in his letter to the Galatians, a letter that has sometimes been called the Magna Carta of Christian freedom, as Paul thunders:   “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery!”  (Gal. 5:1)

Freedom, not law, would be the framework for the new life in Christ…..and this would not be the truncated freedom that some tout—the freedom to “do our own thing, whatever that might be.”

No, St Paul held forth the full, rich freedom of Jesus Christ….a freedom that is always twofold in nature, binary in direction…..which is to say:  a freedom that is always, simultaneously a freedom from and a freedom for.

Which brings us back to our theme verse for this SWO convention:   For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.

Make no mistake about it, the freedom that Jesus always brings us is first of all a freedom from---a liberation from all that weighs us down….our preoccupation with ourselves (a.k.a. sin), fears that can paralyze us (a.k.a. the power of the devil) and deep doubts about the future (a.k.a. death).

Jesus sets us free from all that, pure and simple--no ifs or ands or buts.

But when Jesus sets us free from all that, he always simultaneously sets us free for the life God always intended us to have—a life filled with trust in God, love for our neighbors and caring for this good earth.  

When I think of you women of our church—Women of the ELCA—I imagine you, at your best, forever floating, continually swimming in this stream of freedom.

You celebrate the freedom from that Jesus brings through your deep engagement with God’s barrier-breaking, future-opening Word…..the Word that sets you free through circles and Bible studies and prayer connections…..

But you never squander this “freedom from” as if it were all that God had in store for you.

No, you also embrace the “freedom for” that Jesus brings:   freedom for telling others about the hope that is in you…freedom for serving up cups of cold water and tending to the physical needs of others in a host of other ways….freedom for a rich life of giving yourselves away as you follow Jesus out into the world.

 Jesus doesn’t set us free to make us fat and sassy.  Jesus sets us free in order for us to lace up our walking shoes and head out into the world, bearing the light of Christ and living the life we were created for!

Jesus sets us free from our fears and everything else that can weigh us down

In the same breath Jesus grants us freedom for the gracious, open future God has in store for his Son and for all (including us) who now live only because Jesus has set us free.

This is what happens when God comes ‘a calling:  we are set free from all that is killing us….free for all that restores hope and opens up Christ’s tomorrow.

What a phone call!  What a calling!   What a life!


In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Jesus' Homing Device"

Christ the King, Moorhead
September 7 & 10, 2014
Rally Day/Installation of Pr. Aaron Suomala Folkerds
Genesis 37:1-28 and Matthew 28:20


This week, as I was preparing my sermon, I think I finally figured out something about Jesus--about what makes Jesus “tick.”

It is as if Jesus has deep inside himself a kind of “homing device”….a microchip in his brain—or is it his heart?—…a microchip that causes Jesus to be drawn toward persons who are “left out,” avoided, for whatever reason “on the outside looking in.”

You can open up any of the four gospels, and almost wherever you look….you’ll find Jesus making a beeline toward someone whom we’d call an outsider.

Jesus was attracted to folks on the edges, on the outs, alone and abandoned….for whatever reason.

So sometimes Jesus’ homing signal draws him toward sick people, especially invalids whose illness separates them from the community….with diseases like leprosy.

Other times Jesus seems to be attracted to persons who are discriminated against, like the Samaritans with whom Jews like Jesus usually had no dealings.

Other times Jesus’ homing signal pointed him toward people who were caught in illicit lines of work or risky lifestylesor people who had made bad decisions…prostitutes, tax collectors, rabble-rousers of one sort or another.

It’s as if something inside of him compelled Jesus to seek out, come alongside of and stand with folks who—for whatever reasons—were left out by others.

So, as today’s worship theme proclaims:  Even when you're left out, Jesus loves you.

Even when you’re left out (for whatever reason or for no reason in particular), Jesus loves you, because it’s as if Jesus has inside of him a “homing signal” that drives him to seek out those who’ve been left out.

And this isn’t just Jesus’s “thing,” either!    This is God’s thing, and it’s always been God’s thing….to be drawn toward outsiders.   We see this not only in the gospels and the entire New Testament….but we witness this reality all the way back to the beginning of the Bible, in the Old Testament book of Genesis.

In our lesson for today, we meet Joseph, the 11th  son of the patriarch Jacob’s twelve sons…..and Joseph is in a world of hurt.  

Here in Genesis 37, Joseph is stuck in a hole in the desert, a pit he can’t get out of….and as Joseph languishes in that scary place he hears his ten older brothers arguing among themselves…..as they try to decide whether they should just flat out kill him, or sell him to human traffickers, or just let nature takes it course, letting him rot in that pit.

Talk about being an outsider!    Joseph is about as “left out” as anyone ever could be!

This amazing saga of Joseph illustrates the astounding, surprising realism of the Bible.   The Good Book never presents to us a slick, sanitized, detached view of the human condition.

No the Bible tells it like it is.   The Bible is God’s book—true enough!—but it’s a book that’s also literally covered with fingerprints…the very human fingerprints of the living, breathing human beings God inspired to preserve these stories for future generations.

And the Bible, in its cold and sober realism, doesn’t gloss over the ugly stuff, doesn’t round off the sharp edges of life.   The Bible exposes us in all our waywardness, all our God-forsakenness, all our lostness!

So just how did Joseph wind up in that pit in the desert?

One honest answer would be that this is where parental favoritism, personal arrogance, and murderous envy all lead—all of those things, within a highly dysfunctional family system!
·      For Joseph was, you see, the favorite son of his father Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel.
·      And Joseph seems to have let his favored status go to his head.
·      And, also, not surprisingly Joseph’s ten older brothers harbored an envy toward him that seriously led them to consider fratricide!

And that’s just the start of a saga about Joseph that occupies another whole 10 chapters in Genesis (a saga that I encourage you to read when you get the chance!)  

Throughout that long, twisting, turning tale….Joseph is time and again “on the outside looking in,” rescued and abandoned, rescued and abandoned….until finally in Egypt—far away from his home and family—Joseph is promoted from a dungeon to a castle, from being a prisoner to becoming prime minister, Pharaoh’s right-hand man.

If ever someone tasted what it was like to be “left out” and left behind in the biblical story, it was Joseph…..but that left-outness was never the “end of the story for him.”   For Someone else was always there for Joseph.   Someone (Someone with a capital “S”)…Someone else was always hot on his trail, out ahead of him, guiding Joseph’s story to an amazing, transforming conclusion that you can read about in Genesis chapter 50.

What’s maybe most striking about this 11-chapter novella tucked within the book of Genesis is that God is always at work (though hardly ever mentioned in the narrative itself)…and that Joseph perceives and names God’s loving, saving presence only at the end of the story.

And here, I think is where  Joseph’s story and our stories intersect and interpret each other.  

For we, too, live out our lives often unmindful of the fact that God is walking with us every step of the way.   We—even people of faith like us—can, so easily live out our days as if we were all alone, as if God were not woven into every step of our journey, as close to us continually as the next breath that we take.

And when we do become aware of God’s presence and God’s love---isn’t it often only at the end of a chapter in our life….only as we stop, listen and look back over where we have been….does it become apparent that we were never “left out,” never truly alone, but that God was alongside us always, walking with us every step of the way?

So, in Genesis 50 Joseph is finally reconciled to his treacherous brothers.    Joseph, who has indeed (just as his youthful dreams predicted!) risen in rank to the second place of authority in the Kingdom of Egypt….Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, not in a spirit of revenge but with a heart full of reconciliation….because Joseph has caught wind of what was really happening all along:   “Joseph said to [his brothers], ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”   (Genesis 50:19-20)

Just as Joseph needed the perspective that only time and reflection can provide, we too are often most aware of God’s abiding, loving presence only when we look carefully in the rear-view mirror of our lives….when it dawns on us that in the times of life when we felt most alone, most left out, God was still there, always present….and God will always be there, right beside us.

And here’s where you come in Pastor Aaron (I bet you were wondering if I’d ever get around to you!).

You have been called and today you are installed to be part of the pastoral team of Christ the King, along with Pastor Matt and your other staff colleagues.

That means, as you well know, all sorts of things….but for now let me draw attention to these privileges that are yours.

·      You are here to remind these dear people that even when they feel left out, Jesus still loves them—to do that reminding in a host of ways and under an array of circumstances.

·      You have great material to work with in this regard, because it will be your privilege to crack open the Word of God, time and again.   You don’t have to make stuff up, Aaron….all you need to do is hunker down behind this Word of Jesus who has a sort of “homing device” inside him that draws him, like iron filings to a magnet, draws him toward down and outers and anyone who has messed up badly enough to wonder whether God is still in the equation.

·      You are here to let both the divine inspiration and the deeply human, realistic expression of the Bible come to light—always focused on Jesus, who is at the center of it all.

And perhaps most intriguingly, most invitingly for a man of your gifts and interests in listening to people and guiding them toward a richer life….you are here to help people detect the stirrings of God within their seemingly earth-bound lives.   You are called to help them look back, in the rear-view mirror of their lives to perceive all the ways that just when they thought they were most alone, Someone with a capital “S” was always there, always guiding, always saving, always opening up a gracious future in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.


Amen.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Truth Shall Make You Odd

Eagle Lake Lutheran Church, Battle Lake, MN
August 31, 2014
Pentecost 12/Baptism of  Aiden Curtis Haugerud
Matthew 16: 21-28

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”[1]

That line comes from the great American author, Flannery O’Connor, a devout Catholic from the deep South.  Her words are a riff on something Jesus says in John chapter 8:  “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.

But, as Flannery O’Connor would have it, the truth….the truth of God’s Word…will make you odd.

The first time I heard this line it made a deep impression on me.   It got under my skin and would not let me go.

And the reason, I think, is that Flannery O’Connor’s version is so jarring, so unsettling, so wrong.

Who wants to be “odd” after all?

As soon as we’re born we begin a lifelong quest NOT to be odd or “off kilter.”

Before we’re even a minute old, a nurse is checking us out to make sure we’re normal.

It’s called the APGAR test which stands for five things: appearance, pulse, grimace, activity and respiration.
 Appearance (is the newborn “baby pink” all over?), pulse (is baby’s heart beating at least 100 times a minute?), grimace—(does baby grimace when poked, are her reflexes normal?)...activity (are baby’s arms and legs “on the move”?), and respiration—(is baby breathing regularly and crying vigorously?)

Think of it, before little babies are even five minutes old, someone has already assigned them a “normality number”--a number that compares each of us to every other baby that’s been born, telling our parents whether we’re normal or whether we’re odd.

Now, even though the APGAR test is given to newborns for important medical reasons, it is our first experience of being tested against a norm, compared to everyone else, examined for any signs of abnormality.

Starting with that first APGAR test, we’re off….pushed out into a lifetime of trying to fit in, attempting to seem like everyone else, avoiding “oddness” at all costs….

This “first day of school” time of the year is such a great example of that.   Although it’s been years since my children headed off to school in early September….I remember well all the pressures, all the back-to-school purchases, clothes and shoes and backpacks and lunchboxes and other stuff our children begged for so they would fit in, not seem strange or peculiar or odd.

And so it goes for so much of life.   We avoid “oddness” like the plague.

So Flannery O’Connor’s little phrase seems, at first, to go against the grain:  “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”

This same sentiment, though, is quite in keeping with whole swaths of the New Testament, including our gospel lesson for this morning from Matthew 16…

No sooner had Simon Peter correctly identified Jesus as God’s Chosen One….no sooner had that happened before Jesus was spelling out what, for him, Messiah-ship would mean:   betrayal, suffering, death and resurrection!

And Peter, who had just come up with the right answer, suddenly turns on Jesus and tells him how wrong he is---“No, no, no, Jesus…..you can’t mean that!   Messiahs conquer, Messiahs drive away enemies, and Messiahs set things right.  The Messiah does not get arrested, tortured and executed….you’ve got that all wrong…..”

But now it’s Jesus’ turn to shake things up as he sharply rebukes Peter, putting Peter in his place and making it clear that his way (Jesus’ way!) will be an odd way—odd to all our business-as-usual approaches to living in this world.

“Get behind me, Satan….stop being an obstacle in my path….stop clinging to human ways of doing things, Peter!”

And then Jesus lays out why his path, his way of living out God’s chosen-ness, will look so abnormal, so different, so odd, so contrary to the way things normally go in this world.

Jesus tells Peter, and us, that his path must be (indeed it will be) our path as well….the path of denying ourselves rather than indulging ourselves, the path of giving our lives away rather than clinging to life with a white-knuckled grip, the path of following Jesus completely—hook, line and sinker.

This is an odd path.  It goes against the grain, it has us swimming against the current.  There is nothing normal about it in terms of following the human way of living in this world into which we have been born.

Indeed, the only way to make any sense of what Jesus is after here is to think in terms of another birth into another world….a second birth, into a new world that is fashioned not after us and our image….but a new creation that comes purely as God’s unexpected gift to us.

And that new birth, that new creation is what we’re here for this morning!

In fact, this new birth will happen in a few short moments for little Aiden Curtis.

He has already lived through his first birth, which took place at 11:49 a.m. on July 1.  Aiden has already passed his first APGAR test for life in this world, the world of his first birth, the world that takes its cues from the human way of doing things.

But now, in just a few minutes, Aiden Curtis will embark on his second birth journey…..down the birth canal of the baptism font….out into the world of his second birth, a world that is shaped in God’s image, fashioned for the sake of living into God’s ways of doing business.

This second birth, the birth of baptism, if it “works”---this second birth will make Aiden “odd” all the days of his life!

That may not be exactly what you want to hear this morning, Neil and Ali (“you got a really odd kid, there!”)….but it’s the gospel truth.   Aiden’s baptism into Christ, his putting on of Jesus, will make him forever “odd” in terms of what would otherwise be the normal “human” way of living life.

And what will such “oddness” look like?  

Let me describe that with another little APGAR test—not just for the first five minutes after his baptism, but for all the days of Aiden’s life…..

….and, if you haven’t figured it out by now this sermon isn’t just for Aiden—it’s for all of us who have been baptized into Christ, all of us in whom Jesus is being formed and shaped for as long as we live.

The APGAR test for our second birth, our baptismal birth looks something like this:

A stands for Appearance:  As we live into our baptismal life, Jesus shows up and we even start looking  like Jesus.  Rather than being all curled up, turned in on ourselves, God daily “uncurls” us and opens us up to a new way of living in which we trust God, love our neighbors and care for this good earth.

P is for Pulse:  As we live into our baptismal life we come to realize that this life isn’t something we made happen.  We are not self-made, self-directed beings….but rather because God’s own heartbeat, God’s own lifeblood, the “circulatory system” of the Body of Christ courses through our veins, we are given all the oxygen and nutrients we need to live into the new creation of our second birth.

G stands for Grimace:  As new creatures in Jesus Christ, whenever we encounter the hurt, the pain, the need, the injustice of others….rather than turning away or looking past it, our baptismal reflex is to grimace and to respond with the love Christ has already poured into our hearts.   It becomes natural for us to think and speak and act as people who reflexively respond in care and compassion.

The second A stands for Activity:  This new life that flows forth from the waters of Baptism sets our hands and feet in motion….because in the Body of Christ we are God’s hands and feet and voice.  The faith that claims us doesn’t leave us like lumps on a log—but as Luther liked to say this faith is “a living, busy, active thing”….faith active in love, and finally

R is for Respiration:  The new creation into which God delivers us in our second birth is animated by the oxygenating breath of the Holy Spirit.   Every moment we depend on the divine CPR, the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of God’s grace that enlivens us, gives us breath and lets us communicate!

This, my dear friends is the truth of God about the way of God that makes us look odd in this me-first, self-indulgent, curved-in-upon-ourselves world.

It is the oddness of people whom Christ has set free—people who know that the only future that matters is God’s future—and that future is God’s gift to us in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.