Saturday, August 22, 2015

Becoming What We Eat

Installation of Pr. Kayla Billings
Glyndon Lutheran Church, Glyndon, MN
Pentecost 13/August 23, 2015
John 6:56-69

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Well, there’s no doubt about it:  the silly season has come upon us.   Dozens of candidates for president have emerged, descending on places like the Iowa State Fair last weekend, to make their case with the voters as they attempt to break out of the pack.

The silly season (which now in America begins at least two years before each presidential election)…the silly season  is a great thing for pollsters--forecasters who make their living counting noses….helping candidates stay on top of their “numbers”….assisting them in fine-tuning their messages to appeal to the segments of the electorate each one of them has targeted.

Pollsters help political candidates know which way the political winds are blowing, so they can craft their message in such a way that voters hear what they want to hear from their candidate of choice.

If there had been pollsters following Jesus here in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, I envision them steeling themselves to deliver nothing but bad news to Jesus:   “We regret to inform you, sir, that your approval rating has dropped from 5,000 to 12….and truth be told we aren’t sure how solid even those 12 followers are!”

How far Jesus has fallen here in these 69 verses of John 6!

When Jesus started out here in John 6, tending the gnawing hunger pangs of the crowd, he came off as the Bread King people had been hankering for, providing ample food for “about 5,000” persons—with twelve big baskets of leftovers to boot.

But here at the end of John 6, the massive crowd has been whittled down to just a dozen who’re still aligned with Jesus.  Jesus’ followers have been peeling off left and right, until only a handful remain….causing Jesus in this morning’s gospel lesson to ask the pleading, plaintive question of the Twelve:  “‘Do you also wish to go away?’” (v. 67)

Something has gone wrong, dreadfully wrong here!   Couldn’t Jesus have stopped the hemorrhaging of his supporters?  Couldn’t he have adjusted his message, massaged his appeal to keep more of the crowd in his camp, ready to cast their votes for him?

A pollster or two might have helped Jesus.  They could have packaged him as a viable candidate who appeals to the masses rather than a loser who can’t even keep Twelve of his closest followers in line.

But the kicker here is that Jesus doesn’t seem to WANT to succeed with the masses.   When folks started voicing doubts about him, instead of calming them down, Jesus keeps riling them up, saying stuff that’s calculated to drive them away.

When the satisfied 5000 start traipsing around looking for Jesus he turns on them and says:   “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free.   Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides.”  (vv. 26-27 The Message).

When the crowd responds, requesting this “food that sticks with you,” asking for this bread, Jesus tells them:  “Here it is:  it’s me!  I AM the bread of heaven…”

But this isn’t what the crowd expected, so more of them walk away, shocked that Jesus would make such a claim about a mere mortal like himself:   “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” they mutter under their breath.  “Don’t we know his father? Don’t we know his mother? How can he now say, ‘I came down out of heaven’ and expect anyone to believe him?”  (vv. 41-42)

Here, Jesus could have re-cast his message, toned it down, backed off a bit.  But no, Jesus stubbornly insists on declaring that God the Father has sent him to be the Bread that lasts forever, upping the ante even higher by contending that the people who filled their stomachs with wheat bread and fresh fish now must feed on him, eat his body, drink his blood, consume his flesh:  “The Bread that I present to the world so that it can eat and live is myself, this flesh-and-blood self.” (v. 51 The Message)  

Such talk takes Jesus “beyond the pale,” and even more of his audience starts defecting from him. They just can’t stomach Jesus’ segue from baked-in-an-oven bread to the Bread of life he claims to embody.   In fact, they seem grossed out by the very thought of eating him, “ingesting” him, taking him into themselves….

…..but then the last straw comes when Jesus declares that it’s not even up to them whether they “get” him or not.  That is God’s business!   Faith is something they can’t concoct:  “No one is capable of coming to me on his own. You get to me only as a gift from the Father.”  (v. 65)

By this point, it seems that Jesus has truly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory!  Even those who had been among his disciples, his followers turn away (v. 60)….and all he’s left with are the last Twelve of them.   Will they leave him, too?
What in the world is going on here?   Didn’t Jesus want to succeed?  Didn’t he care about  his “numbers?”

No, it appears he did not! 

Jesus was so consumed by being faithful—faithful to the one true God—that he was willing to see his “numbers” plummet from 5000 at the beginning of this chapter down to just Twelve at the end!
Here’s why:  it’s because people, people like us, are always more interested in getting what we want on our terms rather than being open to receiving God on God’s terms.

The crowd was fine with Jesus as long as he gave them stuff they wanted—enough bread and fish to feed a multitude.
But when Jesus “got behind” that miraculous feeding, pointing toward the One who is the Giver of all good and perfect gifts….when Jesus shifted their gaze from the bread in their hands to the Bread-Giver whose passion is to live among them, indeed to get down inside them, inside of us—then the crowd started to vanish.

They wanted stuff—but Jesus insisted on giving them God, the God whom we see and know, embodied in Jesus himself, his flesh for the life of the world, his body and blood poured out for us, so that Jesus might be the means whereby God gets down inside of us!

The fickle crowd here in John chapter 6 is you and me.   Our problem isn’t that we expect too much of God—but that we settle for too little.

Jesus wants us to have it all—to have God, the God whose passion for us is so high and wide and deep, that God insists on getting down inside of us, to fashion us into his Body in the world, to be our life, for now and for all eternity.

But only on God’s terms.  That is:  God always comes to us (not the other way around)….and God comes to us in the human being God has chosen:  Jesus, the offspring of Mary and Joseph, wrapped in human flesh and blood, for us and our salvation.

This is the Word, Pastor Kayla, that you are now called to tend here at Glyndon Lutheran Church.  It’s at the heart of everything this congregation (and every Christian community) is about:  living out the reality that God doesn’t just give us stuff—but that God gives us, in Jesus Christ, God’s very self, again and again and again.

When the bread and wine are placed in our hands and taken into our bodies, God gets down deep inside of us, to become one with us, to fashion us into God’s living Body, for the sake of the world, for the love of our neighbors--in the word on our lips, the service of our hands, the presence that we practice as we live out our faith every day.

There’s a reason, you see, why our weekly liturgy cues us to sing these words at least once every seven days:  “Alleluia!  Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life!”

This is our weekly “vote” (if you will)….a direct quote from St Peter here at the end of our gospel lesson.  It’s our way of saying we don’t intend to be short-changed.  Give us Jesus!   Help us take Jesus at his Word, as we open our lips and crack wide our hearts to receive Jesus, and as we thereby become what we eat.


In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Getting Our Story Straight

PROCLAIM STORY DAY sermon
2015 ELCA Youth Gathering
Detroit, Michigan
Mark 2:1-12


In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Do you realize how important it is for us to spend our first full day at this Gathering proclaiming the story…..my story, your story, our story….all caught up inside of God’s great story?

It’s so vital that we begin this Gathering in this way….focusing our attention on the Story that defines us, the Story out of which we live….not just for a few days here in Detroit….but for the all the days of our lives?

If we want to go places in this world, we need to know our starting point, our foundation, what makes us and others and the world all “tick.”

And we really, really, really need to know what makes God tick!

So we begin today by getting our Story straight!

And we go about this important work together, knowing that the Story we’re focused on today exists within a sea of other stories, alternative narratives, various other ways of saying:  “this is who you are, this is who God is, this is what life is all about.”

We begin by getting our Story straight….and the best way to go about that is to get God’s story straight…

….and that isn’t easy to do, because there are all sorts of stories circulating about God in this world….and most of them are pretty scary.

Most everyday, garden-variety stories about God have a grim edge on them….they’re stories that portray a God who is beyond us, above us, always keeping tabs on us, forever making demands of us, constantly expecting us—always expecting us!—to “measure up, OR ELSE!”

At the risk of over-generalizing:   most of the stories this world tells us about God convey this basic message:  “God’s gonna get you for that!”

So when we look at this story from St Mark’s gospel, chapter two, it might at first glance seem to be more of the same.

A paralyzed man is brought to Jesus and Jesus begins by talking about the man’s sin.

For as long as I’ve been hearing this story….for 60 years, that has seemed odd to me--out-of-place, jarring, unsettling.

This poor paralyzed man is carried to Jesus, and Jesus seems to miss the point entirely.    This man is sick, for crying out loud!  He can’t move and he hasn’t been able to move for a long time.  He has a physical condition holding him back….

…..and Jesus zeroes in not on sickness but on sin.   What’s with that?

Somebody off the street could hear the way this story starts out and jump to the conclusion that Jesus is one more religious nut who believes that every bad act has its due punishment, that this man must have done something awful to be cursed with paralysis, and that before the man could be healed he needed to confess his wrongdoing, be forgiven so that maybe, maybe he might also be healed.

The way this story starts out, it could have played out that way….

BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENS HERE….because that’s not what Jesus is all about.

Jesus is not just pursuing his own agenda with the paralyzed man.   Jesus is not wanting to shame this man or “guilt” this man into shaping up, repenting, doing what needs to be done to deserve forgiveness.

Nothing of the sort!

Jesus, rather, opens up for us a different God Story…..NOT a story about a “God will get you for that” sort of God….but a Story, actually THE Story about the kind of God God really is.

Jesus beholds the amazing faith of the paralyzed man’s friends, Jesus witnesses the lengths to which they are willing to go—taking the house apart!—to bring this poor man into Jesus’ line of vision…

And Jesus sizes up the situation perfectly, going after not just the symptoms of this man’s dire condition….but going to the heart of what was ailing him, indeed what is ailing all of us.

“Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Jesus was NOT ignoring the man’s real problem, here.

Rather:  Jesus was addressing the heart of the man’s problem.   Jesus wasn’t just trying to anesthetize this man’s pain; Jesus was reaching deep down to heal this man in the deepest possible way, from the inside out.

Jesus went after the man’s underlying condition, the deeper condition that we call sin.

What is sin?  

Sin is more than the sum total of all our mistakes and evil acts, sin is more than more than a rebellious streak, sin is more than a propensity for always making wrong choices.

Sin is everything that holds us back from being the people God made us to be.   

And God’s answer to sin—what we call forgiveness—is more than a transaction, a balancing of the books, a correcting of our “sin ledger” in God’s own handwriting.

The Bible uses a number of words, corresponding to a variety of powerful images that taken together describe sin and forgiveness.

Here in Mark 2, the word for forgiveness involves a “sending away.”    Sin is an obstacle to be removed…..sin is everything that separates us from ourselves, from God, from one another, from the creation itself.

“Son, your sins are forgiven…..I, Jesus, am setting aside, sending away all the obstacles to life with your Creator, your fellow creatures and the creation itself.”

A second word-picture for forgiveness involves the notion of “covering.”    Sin is everything that ever leaves us feeling naked or ashamed or ugly…..

….and forgiveness covers over all that in such a way that God and our neighbors and the world itself see us as our Creator meant us to be.

“Son, your sins are forgiven….I, Jesus, am covering you, wrapping myself around you so that when anyone looks at you they will no longer see you as sick and stuck….but they will see the new covering, the new self I have bestowed on you.”

A third word-picture for forgiveness conveys the image of rope all tied up in knots….knots that reflect a life all tangled and twisted up in itself.    Sin is everything that binds us, captivates us…

….and forgiveness is what unties all the knots, unbinds all the restraints, loosens and frees us to do just what this man does:   to live in God’s all-encompassing forgiveness, to dwell in the freedom of that, to take up his sick bed, and to rise up and walk on his own two feet—for the first time in years!

My dear friends, your Story does not begin with a “God’ll get you for that” God.

Your story….the story of your whole life, from your first breath to your last….your story begins with these words of Jesus….washing over you in Baptism, feeding you at Holy Communion, filling you with faith every time you hear them:  “Dear son….beloved daughter….your sins are forgiven.”

That’s what God’s story, the true story of the one true God, is all about:   removing all the obstacles to the full, free, rich life God created us to live…..covering all that shames us…..untangling the twists, untying the knots that get us stuck.

Jesus poured himself….Jesus emptied out his whole self at the Cross….Jesus died, was buried and rose again to set aside all the obstacles, to cover us completely with his righteousness, to untie all the knots of our lives, to get us unstuck so that we can rise up, and walk in God’s light.

And as we are so amazingly, so wondrously, so awesomely freed by Jesus’ forgiveness….we walk toward our neighbors, we walk with our neighbors, we walk for our neighbors.

We exercise our freedom on behalf of our neighbors and this good earth.   We rise up and walk in Jesus’ freedom, picking up the stretchers on which other paralyzed folks are still waiting…..waiting to receive God’s justice, to be brought into Jesus’ healing, restoring presence…..to hear the words everyone longs to hear:  “Precious son, precious daughter….your sins are forgiven….rise up and walk!”

That’s the Story we proclaim.


In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Discovering Hope

Devotions at Discovering Hope Event 6/27/2015


Mark 4:35-41
“On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”

Sometimes when people ask me what my parents did for a living I reply:  “They were professional gamblers.”

That’s one way of talking about farming, “dirt farming” (to be specific), which my dad and mom did together for over 30 years in southern Minnesota, from 1943 through 1974.

Farming the land has always been akin to an annual high stakes poker game— predicated on a host of assumptions about soil fertility, favorable weather, dependable machinery, unflagging human energies and an at least “good enough” economy.   Every growing cycle, each crop year entails risks and unforeseen twists in the road that could make or break a farming operation.

I think there is something paradigmatic about this way of “framing” the enterprise of agriculture that still impacts all of us who care about and serve the gospel small towns and rural areas across the upper Midwest.   That gamblers’ sense of “living on the edge” marks so much of our approach to life on the Great Plains.

And perhaps that’s why it’s so easy, for small town and rural folks and their congregations to see themselves always hanging on, dangling from a precipice, wondering if they can make it one more growing season, one more year….

How effortlessly we jump to the worst possible conclusion, like the disciples in their little boat, about to be swamped:   “Do you not care that we are perishing?”

I used to think that what STaR churches (small town and rural churches) needed most was more money and people…but then, along the way, I realized that people and money mean nothing without a healthy dose of imagination fired by hope!

So we are always hankering for hope, which is what got us all out of bed early on a Saturday morning in the summer.   We hunger and thirst for hope--hope that is usually already present, right under our noses—the way the disciples discovered Hope comfortably snoozing on a cushion in the  hold of their small ship!

May that be the hope, in Christ Jesus, that discovers us today and in all our tomorrows!


Lord Jesus, it is so easy to hit the panic button, so natural for us to assume the worst.   Surprise us with signs of hope that will stir up our imaginations.   Teach us how you are always right beside us, out ahead of us, calming storms, renewing your creation, making us new, and tuning us to sing your praises. Bless this day and all that we will learn together, as agents of your Hope.  Amen.     

Saturday, June 20, 2015

In the Same Boat

Northwestern Minnesota Synod Council
June 20, 2015
Mark 4:35-41

One of the reasons I find the Bible so compelling...is that it includes all sorts of stories one wouldn’t expect to find there. 

The Bible wasn’t edited by some public relations spin doctor who wanted to round off all the rough edges....make every character appear admirable....or include only episodes with proverbial happy endings.

Garrison Keillor likes to say that all of us carry around a back stage view of ourselves—a side of ourselves that we go to great lengths to keep others from seeing.

But the Bible has no such pretensions.  The Bible lets it all hang out.  The Bible airs all the dirty linen of its leading characters.

Take, for example, this story from Mark 4. 

This is hardly the disciples’ shining hour.  They come off here like something of a cross between the Three Stooges and a troop of Cub Scouts in the woods on their first overnight camp out.  The disciples’ foolishness here seems matched only by their fear.

Although at least four of the disciples were fishermen by trade--stalwart men of the sea!-- you wouldn’t know it from this story.  They venture out onto the unpredictable Sea of Galilee as darkness is coming on, apparently without checking the horizon for storm clouds.

Then, when a storm does blow up....they quickly forget basic rules of seamanship--like lowering the mainsail or tossing out excess baggage.  Instead, they do the last thing seasoned sailors should do: they panic!

In the pandemonium, the disciples frantically shake their sleeping leader and confront him with a question: “Teacher, don’t you care if we perish?  Don’t just lie there--do something!”

Then, at the conclusion of the story....after Jesus has handled the situation, effortlessly commanding the storm to cease....the disciples aren’t much farther along than they were at the beginning...able only to stammer the question: “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?”


What a bunch of duffusses! They can’t sail, can handle a storm, can’t see Jesus for who he obviously is.

Like so many other episodes in the gospels where the disciples are blind or doubting or slow to see the obvious or just plain mixed up....this story might have been one they’d have preferred to forget.  It could have been discreetly edited out of the final draft of Mark’s Gospel--but it wasn’t.

Why? 

With all the other tales that could be told...why did Christ’s first followers cling so tightly to a story that made them--its tellers--look so bad?

The short answer to that question is that this story of the stilling of the storm wasn’t merely a “once upon a time” event. 

This story was treasured in the early church.....because it was the kind of thing that kept happening to the fledgling community of the crucified and risen Christ.

The first Christians held on to this story because they saw themselves “in the same boat” as the disciples out on that windswept evening on the Sea of Galilee.

Tradition has it that Mark’s gospel was written in Rome, a vast empire,  ruled in the first century by tyrants like Domitian and Nero--who not only fiddled while Rome burned, but who blamed the Christians for striking the match.  As one ancient Roman author put it: “If the Tiber river rises too high, or the Nile too low, the cry goes out:  ‘The Christians to the lions!’”

Mark’s gospel was, in all likelihood, written in Rome, by one who hoped to proclaim Jesus’ story in such a way that his persecuted sisters and brothers would be strengthened by it....even as they prepared themselves to be baptized with Christ’s own baptism of suffering and innocent death.

That raw experience of brutal oppression left the community for whom this gospel was first  written feeling small and alone and helpless against the might of a cruel empire....whether they were waiting in dungeons or being carted off to the arena to become appetizers for lions. 

The believers in the church of Mark could easily imagine themselves adrift on a raging sea, tempest-tossed, threatened with certain, slow, agonizing death.  They might well have wondered where their Lord was when they needed him the most.

Why was this unflattering portrait of the disciples kept in the New Testament by the early church? 

Because it was a mirror which, when the members of the early church looked deeply into it, saw themselves--their peril, their danger, their doubts, their fears.

Perhaps that is why this text has burned its way into our consciousness as well....even as it has found its way into our own churches, especially in the art and architecture of our church buildings.  
There’s a reason why we call the place where the congregation sits on Sundays the “nave,” as in “navy.”  The place we gather on Sundays is like that little craft on the storm-tossed Sea of Galilee!

There’s a reason why the altars in so many of our synod’s churches include paintings of Peter sinking in the waves....or of Mary crying at the tomb....or of the disciples adrift in a storm in their wind-swept little boat.

Those paintings adorn our altars because they are mirrors which--when we look into them deeply--allow us to see our predicaments, our perils, our doubts, our fears, our faithlessness....faithlessness which seems to go hand in hand with faith itself.

This morning it is hard not to think of our sisters and brothers in Christ at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC—a church where I had the privilege of worshiping (with Joy and our daughter Kristen) in the spring of 2003.  

What is it like today for the members of Emanuel—who have good reason to wonder whether it is safe to attend a Bible study or a prayer meeting as their fellow members were doing this past Wednesday evening?  

This is America in the 21st century, not Rome in the 1st century, for crying out loud!   And this is not the first time an African American congregation in our country has been targeted by racist extremists.
I’m guessing that our friends at Mother Emanuel church are clinging to stories like this one, of Jesus stilling the storm, rescuing the infant church once again.

But there is more here in Mark 4 than a “mirror” showing ourselves as we truly are.  There is Someone else here in each of these embarrassing pictures of ourselves.

We see Another who is always there in these pictures, standing alongside us in our perils and fears, sticking with us in our faithlessness.

Jesus is there--in each of these unflattering portraits of ourselves as believers.  In our treasured altarpieces, Jesus is always there, yanking the sinking Peter out of the water….drawing near to the inconsolable Mary Magdalene at the tomb…peacefully asleep in the hold of a boat that’s likely to be swamped at any minute.

These snapshots of the faith community—Jesus is in all of them!

These same scriptural images that cast us in a most unflattering light…make Jesus look awfully good.  Stories like this one say lots about us, but also speak volumes about Jesus.

…and that’s the real reason we’ve come to treasure these stories.  For each of them tells the same story: when we are weak, he is strong.....in fact, our weakness, magnifies his strength.

Jesus is not ashamed to be found among fearful doubters who panic at the drop of a hat.  Jesus does not withdraw from the company of folks whose fickle faith can turn to mush--just like that.

Jesus hangs in there with you and me and the whole human family....ready always to rebuke our faithlessness even as he admonishes all the forces of evil that cause us to lose faith.  Jesus hangs in there with us, in the bottom of every sinking ship we find ourselves on....in order to keep opening our ears to hear his own sovereign Word: “Peace, be still....be still and know that I am God.”

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Majesty Mercy Mission

Sion Lutheran Church, Lancaster, MN
May 31, 2015
Sunday of the Holy Trinity
Isaiah 6:1-8


This may come as a surprise to you, but many pastors fear this day, Trinity Sunday.   They get so nervous that they avoid preaching today because the doctrine of the Trinity spooks them.

So some pastors even schedule their vacation to be gone on this Sunday (though I’m sure that’s not why Pr. Melodi headed home to Ohio!)  

Or they let this be the Sunday we recognize our graduates or our veterans or our quilters.  Anything to sidestep preaching a sermon on the Holy Trinity!

Why is that?   

I think it’s because some preachers have gotten it into their heads that they need to EXPLAIN the doctrine of the Trinity. 

“If I don’t understand the Trinity for myself,” a pastor might well wonder, “what makes me think I can explain the Trinity to others?”

Earlier in my own ministry I shared this same nervousness about Trinity Sunday, until it dawned on me that Trinity Sunday isn’t about explaining the Trinity as much as it’s about adoring the Trinity. 

Trinity Sunday is more about praising the Triune God than it is about diagramming the Triune God!

And with a text like this one from Isaiah 6 before us, how can we not stand in awe of our astounding, mysterious God….who meets us in his majesty, his mercy and his mission?

Here in Isaiah 6, the prophet finds himself suddenly transported into God’s heavenly throne room.   The vast space is filled up—just with the hem of God’s royal robe!   There’s smoke in the air, the foundations are shaking (as in an earthquake), and a band of  seraphim--monstrous six-winged creatures are flying around and crying out:  “Holy, holy, holy!” (v. 3)

Encountering God in God’s “Godness”—in God’s majesty—produces a sense of awe, an awareness that God is God and we are not! 

Nearly a century ago a book appeared entitled, God is My Co-Pilot.  That title later inspired a bumper sticker that read:  “If God is Your Co-Pilot, You’re Sitting in the Wrong Seat!”

There is a vast distance between us and God—a distance that you and I cannot traverse.  We can’t get from here to there, we can never grope our way to God—God is that high, that mighty, that “beyond” us!

Such a sense of awe is healthy for us.   We need such awe in our lives, because awe “locates” God in God’s place and puts us in our place, cuts us down to proper size, humbles us in God’s overwhelming presence…

…..and, in fact, awe does even more than humble us! 

Encountering God in God’s majesty magnifies our awareness of our sin.

So Isaiah cries out:  “Woe is me!  I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”(v. 5)

When Isaiah beholds God in his holiness and majesty, he can only confess how it is with him:  Isaiah has to confess his sin—both Isaiah’s own sinfulness, and the collective sin he shares with his people.

A man once requested an appointment with his pastor because he had some sins to confess.   “What’s troubling you,” the pastor asked.  “What have you thought, said or done that’s so sinful?”
“Oh, I didn’t come to confess my sin,” the man replied.  “I’m here to confess my neighbor’s sin!”

Sin-talk in the Bible never lets you or me off the hook.   It’s always less about “them” and “their” sin—and always more about me and my sin, our sin. 

My lips, my heart, my hands are unclean….and I live among a people who’re all in the same boat!

Awareness of God’s majesty magnifies our unworthiness….and opens us up to the second characteristic of God that shines through here in Isaiah 6:   God’s mercy.

Sinners deserve to die, as Isaiah acknowledges, but God never takes pleasure in the death of even one sinner.  God’s majesty could easily have snuffed out scrawny, sinful Isaiah….but God desired not to kill Isaiah, but to forgive him.

So one of the seraphim, who moments before terrified Isaiah, suddenly becomes an instrument of God’s mercy:   “Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’”

God’s preferred path isn’t to catch people in their sins or keep a ledger of their sins or punish sinners—but to forgive sins and rescue sinners.

And there’s a reason for that:   God saves us in order to send us.
As soon as Isaiah’s sin is blotted out, he has ears to hear what God is saying.   

In like manner, when God deals with our sin, when God gets us uncurled—out of the perpetual fetal position sin puts us in….when God liberates us from the self-absorption of sin, when God finishes off the navel-gazing that sin induces in our lives…..when God’s forgiveness gets us looking outward and upward for a change….we become open to the work God wants to do through us…..which leads us to the third reality about God that’s lifted up here in Isaiah 6:   God’s mission.

God is on a mission, a mission that God insists on involving you and me in carrying it out!

God’s mission is to make you and me and all things new.  

God’s mission is to reign over his kingdom, not as a tyrant or a dictator, but as the self-giving, self-emptying Lord of Unfathomable Love.

So the seraph touches Isaiah’s lips with a hot coal from the altar of God….and as Isaiah’s sin is burned away, his ears are opened up to hear what God has to say:  “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

There were all those folks whom Isaiah had already mentioned when he confessed he was a man of unclean lips who lived among a people of unclean lips.   What about them?

God the King of heaven and earth needed someone—God needed a human being who would represent God and seek out all those sinners.

And why, we wonder?    Why doesn’t God just deal with all those sinners himself, directly?

The great 20th century missionary to India, Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, liked to say: “God’s purpose is precisely to break open that shell of egotism in which you are imprisoned since Adam first fell and to give you back the new nature which is content to owe the debt of love to all [people].  And so God deals with us through one another.  One is chosen to be the bearer of the message to another, one people to be God’s witnesses to all people.  Each of us has to hear the gospel from the lips of another or we cannot hear it at all…Salvation comes to each of us not, so to say, straight down from heaven through the skylight, but through a door that is opened by our neighbor.”[1] 

One is chosen to be the bearer of the message to another, one people to be God’s witnesses to all people.

Here in our text that one was Isaiah.   The whole reason God caught Isaiah up into God’s heavenly throne room….had Isaiah’s sinful lips cleansed with that hot coal...asked his heavenly court, “whom shall I send?”…..the whole point of all that God did here was to get Isaiah’s feet ‘a-moving, away from himself, out to his neighbors, to share with them the best news ever:  that God is making us and the whole creation new!

On this Trinity Sunday 2015, we know how this saga has played out and how it continues to play out in the realm of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We experience the awe of standing always in the presence of God the Father Almighty.  We behold the majesty of God that puts God in his proper place and us in our proper place.

Standing in awe of God’s majesty, we confess all the ways we and everyone else fail to measure up.  We confess our sin only because in Jesus Christ we have come to know that the God of majesty is also the God of supreme mercy, who would rather die for us (as Jesus poured out his life on the Cross for us!) so that our sin might be blotted out, our guilt burned away by the refining fire of God the Son.

And the point, the goal of all that, is that God the Holy Spirit who saves us from sin, might send us as Isaiah was sent.   You, my dear sisters and brothers, are the way the mission of God encounters your neighbors to make them and all things new in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.




[1]   Paul Weston, Lesslie Newbigin:  Missionary Theologian, A Reader (Eerdmans, 2006), p. 50.

Mission: Imaginable

Mission:  Imaginable
NW MN Synod Assembly
May 17, 2015
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26


"How do I figure out God's will for my life?" is one of the questions people ask most often.[1]

“How do I figure out God’s will for my life….for my family….for our church?”

Where is God taking us—and how might we best become aligned with God’s direction?

Questions like these point us to the faith practice of discernment….imagining the contours of God’s promised future and how that future affects the ways God is calling us to step forth right now.

When you think about discerning God’s guiding will—where does that best happen for you and your congregation?

·       Discernment sometimes happens in a retreat setting, with balloons bouncing around, post-it notes plastered over a wall, sheets of butcher paper covered with chicken-scratched notes from brainstorming exercises, as leaders of a church try to puzzle out goals and how to pursue them.

·       Discernment sometimes takes place in contemplation—in silence, in darkness pierced only by candlelight, in centering ourselves, in praying--new insights emerge…

·       Discernment sometimes happens in meetings of chosen church leaders who’ve been reading good books, working with consultants, studying demographic trends, interviewing church members, conversing with neighbors, trying to distill the finest honey from all that rich “pollen.”

·       And then discernment sometimes happens in the midst of chaos.  Discernment can bubble up in clutch moments, when a crisis suddenly emerges and action must be taken.   Even in times of chaos –when everyone’s asking “what do we do now, for heaven’s sake?”….discernment happens, albeit by the seat of our pants!

This peculiar narrative in Acts 1 was a discernment moment—the first time members of what would become the first church engaged in communal discernment together. 

And the eleven apostles seem to have employed various pathways to discernment…in the midst of a crisis, with a wing and a prayer, in the confidence that God can and will work through just about any means.

This story--truly a discernment story!--has a shape that starts to sound familiar as we listen to the story with care:

First, there was an elephant in the room--the “elephant” being the absence of one of the Twelve.   One of them had disappeared, not by accident, but by treachery, betrayal and a gruesome death (described here in Acts 1 with more graphic detail than most of us prefer!)

The reason why Judas’s death posed a problem to the remaining eleven disciples is that Jesus had very intentionally chosen Twelve (not eleven nor thirteen) disciples to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel, the whole people of God, whom Jesus was reconstituting through his self-emptying  life, saving death, and surprising resurrection.

The defection of one of the Twelve, Judas Iscariot, the Betrayer, diminished the potency of that symbol of the Twelve constituting a New Israel, the vanguard of the whole people of God.  So what should be done about that?
 
Discernment of God’s will for people and faith communities often begins with the reality of “elephants in the room”—uncomfortable truths that aren’t being talked about openly, honestly.

        So I ask you, dear friends:   what “elephants” lurk in the     shadows of your church building?   What uncomfortable        truths do you tend to dance around?   What hard realities         tempt you to look away and whistle in the dark, hoping no       one will notice?  Pause.

Back to our text….

Aware of the “elephant in the room” here in Acts 1, the second thing that happens is that someone breaks the silence.  

A pastor-friend of mine says:  “When you realize there’s an elephant in the room, please introduce it to everyone else!”[2]

In this story it’s Peter who names the elephant in the room.   And that’s noteworthy for two reasons:
1.    It’s the first time after Jesus’ Ascension that one of his followers stands up and starts exercising servant-leadership in the emerging church; and
2.   It’s the first time here in Acts that Jesus’ followers start looking forward, not backward!  

Exercising servant-leadership  isn’t for sissies!   When you’re in a discussion at church, it takes gumption to speak up—and even more guts to join a leadership team, not to mention serve its convener. 

But the church of Jesus Christ needs such brave, willing, imaginative servant-leaders….now more than ever!

Peter stepped out and invited the early church to dance with the Risen Lord in his ongoing mission of reclaiming the whole creation, starting with the Cross and the Empty Tomb, moving not backward but forward, into God’s promised future in Christ.
       
        So I ask you, dear friends:  how does your faith community        form and call forth servant leaders?  How do you support    the leaders you have?  What obstacles are sometimes put in     the way of such leadership?   And which direction is your   church facing—backward, or forward?  Pause

Back to our story in Acts 1…

There’s an elephant in this room filled with about 120 followers of Jesus.   Peter gets up the gumption to name this elephant and propose that they do something.   In so doing Peter points the fledgling church forward, not backward.  

Judas Iscariot’s gory death has diminished the apostolic ranks by one.   Somehow that must be addressed, so that when the Holy Spirit falls upon them they are poised, ready to move out into the world at full strength.

The third thing that happens here is that the disciples generate possibilities for a successor to Judas.  They had no succession plan, no governing documents to rely on, no workshop on leadership replacement they could all go attend, no “apostolic head-hunter” they could hire to conduct a nation-wide search. 

Instead, the eleven relied on their sanctified common sense, focusing on just one criterion for replacing the 12th disciple: “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us…—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.”

Thus was convened the first nominating committee in the history of the church!   The group soon surfaces two candidates for the open seat in the apostolic circle:  Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.”

        So I ask you, dear friends:  how does your congregation      invest imagination in generating possibilities for serving       God’s mission in this time, this place?   How do you give       yourselves the gifts of time and prayer and reflection on the   things that matter most?  Pause

Back to our text…

Fourth and finally, the disciples acted.   There’s no record of them conducting a Minnesota Statute 604.2 background check on Joseph or Matthias.  The eleven didn’t declare 40 days of fasting…didn’t spend time second-guessing themselves. 

Instead they decided, by praying and casting lots.  

St Augustine, a fourth century bishop in northern Africa, said:  “Pray as if everything depends on God, work as if everything depends on you.”[3]   The eleven disciples seemingly anticipated Augustine’s approach—putting themselves in God’s hands through prayer; then doing the “work” of casting lots.

The result was that Matthias was chosen to assume the position of 12th disciple, restoring the “apostolic strike force” to full strength.

And once Matthias was elected—he was never heard from again, at least in the pages of the holy scriptures!

It’s as if Matthias’s only job was to “be there,” to be chosen, to transform the eleven survivors of Good Friday….into the Twelve missionary-witnesses to the Resurrection.   That was enough!

If that seems a little anticlimactic to you, just remember that the Book of Acts itself concludes its 28 chapters in sort of an inconclusive manner.    As books go, Acts is something of a cliff-hanger…

….and I think that’s exactly what the Holy Spirit intended! Some books aren’t supposed to tie up all the loose ends.

God, you see, is still writing the ending to the Acts of the Apostles through the likes of you and me, latter-day successors to the apostles, whom God is still calling and sending forth as witnesses to the Resurrection, people who point unceasingly toward God’s promised future in Christ.

As God crafts the conclusion to God’s great story, we take our places, play our parts, in ways that may wind up seeming as obscure as the rest of the story of St Matthias, the blessed replacement.

And that’s OK.  It is enough, more than enough, simply to be swept into this Story of how God is making all things new in Jesus Christ.

It is enough that we get to repeat and stake our whole lives on  the greatest “lines” in our episode of God’s Mission Imaginable:   Christ has died.   Christ is risen.   Christ will come again!

Amen.



[1] Richard Jensen, Working Preacher (2009), accessed April 5, 2015 at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=315
[2] Pastor Paul Rohde, campus pastor at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, said this in a sermon I heard several years ago.