Thursday, November 13, 2014

Planting--Not Burying--Faith!

Redeemer Lutheran Church, Thief River Falls, MN
Vibrant Faith Training Weekend
Pentecost 23/November 15, 2014 (Saturday evening worship)
Matthew 25:14-30

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Quick:   your house is on fire.  You think you can chance one last trip inside to bring out the one thing that means the most to you, the one thing you most want to pass on to your children.  

What do you go after when you enter your burning house for the last time?

OK, here’s the answer:   this quick question is really a trick question—because the best things in life aren’t things.   There is no thing in your burning house worth risking your life to grab and run with it.  Doing so will only jeopardize one of the greatest gifts God has given you:  your very life!

So, remove the burning house from the equation, and ponder the same question:  what’s the most important thing you want to make sure you pass on to the next generation?

It’s not your life that could easily be snuffed out were you foolish enough to run into a burning building.

It’s your faith, the faith in the God we know best in Jesus Christ, the faith that this head-over-heels-in-love-with-you God showered upon you freely, fully lavishly.   God has bestowed on you this awesome gift, with great abandon.    For it is in God’s nature to give away the best God has to offer—to give away Jesus, to give away the faith and hope and love that Jesus brings--to “spend” this great gift like a drunken sailor, plopping it down right in our laps.

What do you do with this gift?  You do what God does:  you give it away, starting with those right under your roof, the ones in your innermost circle of loving care, your own children….and if you don’t happen to have kids of your own, you give it away to other children who matter to you, the young ones who are all around us.

That’s what this Vibrant Faith Weekend is all about, here at Redeemer & Black River.   Your parish is declaring that you intend to order your whole life around the one thing that matters most:  passing on the faith….recognizing the height and breadth and depth of this overflowing gift (the way the three servants in Jesus’ parable must have been blown away by the magnitude of the investment their master placed in their care.  Each talent, you see, was the equivalent of about fifteen years wages—about $855,000 in this town!)

We recognize, we see what fabulous wealth has been handed over to us, like the servants in the story.  It takes our breath away!    “We’ve been given all of THAT?”
We recognize the value of God’s greatest gift to us, the gift of our faith…..and then we do with that gift what the faithful servants in this story  do:   we invest it, we scatter it around, we give it away, confident that faith, hope and love are the only things that multiply as they are divided—shared with others!

This isn’t rocket science, my friends.   We know that it works, passing on the faith….and we know who does this best, most compellingly, most effectively.

Who passes on faith most effectively?   Parents…..parents in homes…..and other caring Christian adults who act like parents in the circles of care and concern we’re all part of.

This may sound hokey, but it’s true:  “Studies have shown that this works”—works amazingly well.

The National Study of Youth and Religion (abbreviated NSYR) just crunched the numbers.[1]   Here they are:

  • 1% of teens ages 15-17 raised by parents who attached little importance to faith were themselves highly faith-oriented in their mid- to late 20s.
  • In contrast, 82% of children raised by parents who talked about faith at home, attached great importance to their beliefs and were active in their congregations were themselves religiously active as young adults.

Don’t breathe a word about God to your kids and maybe 1% of them will grow up to be faithful, vibrant disciples of Christ.

Talk about Jesus at home, “marinate” your offspring in the love of God, share the faith that’s been given you, and 82% of your children will themselves show forth a vibrant, living faith in Christ when they’re older.

Two takeaways from our parable and this hard data from the NSYR:  

First, parents and other loving Christian adults trying to pass on faith to the next generation are a force to be reckoned with.   The connection between faithful parents and faithful children is, according to Dr. Christian Smith who led the NSYR, this connection is “nearly deterministic.”   Nothing else comes close to having the effect that parents and other caring adults have on the children in their lives—not youth ministry or pastors or service projects or Christian education efforts in parochial schools or churches—those all pale in comparison to the far-reaching influence of parents and other loving adult mentors to youth.

Christian Smith says that nothing else “comes remotely close to matching the influence of parents on the religious faith and practices of youth….Parents just dominate.”

The second takeaway from the parable of the talents and this NSYR research is this:  whatever you do, leave your shovel in the toolshed!

The third servant in the parable, when he realized the awesome gift and the amazing responsibility his master had plopped down in his lap…the third servant was paralyzed rather than energized.   His hope faded and his fear kicked in—“What if I mess up???”

So rather than investing his talent in the stock market, the third servant found his trusty shovel, dug a huge hole, and buried his talent for safe-keeping in the soil of his backyard.

Whatever he might do, he surely wasn’t going to lose his master’s wealth…
….even though that’s exactly what happened.

When the master returned  to hear how his three servants handled the talents entrusted to them, he was so overjoyed with the over-the-top, reckless investing the first two servants engaged in—that he gave them even more money to take out and invest!

But when the shivering, sniveling third servant haltingly stepped forward, admitting that he decided simply to bury his talent so that none of it would be lost—his master had a fit, giving that third servant his walking papers and turning over his talent to the first two servants.

And why?  Because the master in the parable is the God-figure, and God is the quintessential “high roller!”  

God gambles, God takes enormous risks with everything God has made.   God gives stuff away, willy-nilly entrusts way too much to scrawny little creatures like us…and God grants us the freedom to do the same—to give away what God has first given to us, trusting that the gifts will multiply as they are divided.

But shovels, and holes in the ground, and nest eggs hidden away:  God has “zero tolerance” for any of that.   God doesn’t want to see you or me or anyone else digging a hole in our backyard to hide what we have.   Keep your shovels in the toolshed!

Not everyone in our churches has learned this.   The NSYR found that while 2/3 of teens raised by black Protestant parents and 50% of teens raised by conservative Protestant parents remained faithful in young adulthood….but 70% of teens raised by mainline Protestant parents had minimal or lower levels of religiousness as young adults.

In other words, mainline Protestants like us ELCA folks, have a problem.   We’re too fond of our shovels!  
Here’s one final quote from Christian Smith:  many mainline Protestant parents said they “feel guilty if they think they are doing anything to direct their children toward their religion as opposed to any other possibility.”  They question if they should tell their child “what I believe is right.”

Too many of us in our ELCA seem to think it’s heavy-handed, or even coercive, to share our faith with our kids.   We’ve become so open, so broad-minded that we won’t even argue our own position in a good debate!

In short, we’ve gone for the shovel, buried our gift….when what we should be getting out of the tool shed is the planter, the cultivator, and that big bottle of Miracle-Gro!  

Don’t worry about faith-sharing by Christians being “heavy handed!”   Our kids will figure out how to doubt and be skeptical and drift away all on their own (and they’ll get plenty of encouragement to do so!)

But before our children can raise questions about their faith, they need to have a faith worth questioning, and that is where we Christian adults come in.   Our calling is to plant, not bury, Christian faith….to give away the best of what we’ve been given, as lavishly, lovingly and recklessly as God has given away God’s very best:  Jesus Christ our Lord and the faith, hope and love that Jesus always calls forth in us.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

[1] David Briggs, “Parents No. 1 Influence in Teens Remaining Religiously Active as Young Adults,” Christian Century (Nov. 5, 2014).  

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Ants-In-The-Pants Expectation

Trinity Lutheran Church, Crookston, MN
Pentecost 22/November 9, 2014
Matthew 25:1-13

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Think for a moment about what you spend most of your time thinking about.

What occupies your attention in most of your waking hours?

Three possibilities come to mind.

  • Perhaps you reflect primarily on things that are past.  Memories of bygone days can be foremost on your mind.
  • Or you can be caught in the present.  The relentless tug of the here-and-now can consume you.
  • Or you can spend your time pondering the path ahead.   Your imagination can be captured by the future and all that it might bring.

I would have to confess that the present moment, the stuff that’s right under my nose, consumes most—actually too much of-- my time, energy and attention.

And I’m guessing I’m not alone.   If the hectic pace of modern life, the busy-ness of it all, the never-ending “to do” lists, demand most of our energies—we may agree that “present tense” concerns gobble up most of our attention.

What we spend most of our time thinking about is what’s right before us, this present moment, this “now.”

Such ruminations naturally lead us into this puzzling parable of Jesus about the ten bridesmaids waiting to welcome the bridegroom, so that the wedding party can begin.

Unlike so many of Jesus’ other parables, the characters in this story have weighty adjectives hung around their necks.    There are ten bridesmaids, but they are not all carbon copies of one another.  The Storyteller tells us, right up front, that five of them are wise and five of them are foolish….which immediately makes us wonder how we’ll be able to tell the difference.

Because in the actual unfolding of this story, that difference is not readily apparent.   If we follow how the story plays out…

  • We see ten bridesmaids, all known and loved by the bride and the groom.  
  • We see ten young maidens all chosen to lead the bridegroom in festal procession, as he meets his blushing bride. 
  • We see ten bridesmaids all with lamps to light the bridegroom’s way. 
  • We see ten young women who all grow drowsy when the bridegroom doesn’t arrive on time—all ten of them getting heavy eyelids and dozing off.  
  • We see ten bridesmaids, all waking up with a start at the stroke of midnight when the bridegroom finally shows up.

In the unfolding of this story only at midnight does it become fully apparent which ones are wise and which ones are foolish…..because often who we are becomes clear only in light of what we do, especially in the clutch moments of life, when our true character is revealed.

Not until midnight is the curtain lifted, because only when the clock strikes twelve do we come to see that although these ten bridesmaids all seem so similar, five of them are living in one time zone and five are living in another time zone.

Five of the bridesmaids are deemed “foolish” because at midnight, it’s revealed that they were living as if the only time that mattered was the present moment.   They might have been the classiest dressers, the most “with it” bunch of bridesmaids, even though they couldn’t apparently see beyond the ends of their noses.   They were so enthralled by the “now,” that it never occurred to them that things might not unfold “on time.”

So the five foolish bridesmaids were caught completely off guard by the tardiness of the bridegroom!

The other five bridesmaids were the “wise” ones, even though they might have appeared frumpier than the other five—frumpier, because along with their lamps they were also lugging along those ungainly jugs of extra oil.   The reserve oil might have slowed them down, and in the group photo, they might have appeared less stylish….but they were the “wise” ones because they already inhabited the future.

And, being daughters of the future, the five wise bridesmaids were already living differently in the present.   The day before the wedding celebration (instead of getting manicures with the five foolish ones) they were out buying extra oil, because you know how men can be--some of them are never on time--like this bridegroom, whom they’d been invited to serve.

The five wise bridesmaids may well have been the uncool bridesmaids, because like good Boy Scouts, their motto was “always be prepared” for whatever the future throws at you.  They were “belts AND suspenders” kinds of folks, so aware that surprise might be just around the corner that they were forever anticipating, always getting ready for unforeseen possibilities.

In short, the five wise bridesmaids inhabited a bigger world than their five foolish counterparts.

And here’s where this parable intersects our lives in this time and place.

Because life in general, and modern life in particular, is always locking us into the narrow, suffocating space of this present moment.  

The hectic pace of life, all the demands that forever crowd our days, the frantic busy-ness of today, the multiple distractions we’ve fashioned for ourselves—they all conspire with one another to whittle our world down to just living for “now.”

And that’s a problem for us, especially as people of Christian faith, because God has created us and in Christ God has re-created us to inhabit a much, much wider world.

The grand sweeping story of God’s love affair with us--culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ--all that God has been, is now and intends to keep doing in our midst is fashioning us into people destined to live today as if God’s promised future were already dawning among us.

God intends for us to be sons and daughters of God’s preferred future in Jesus Christ….which means that God’s fondest dream for us is that we live every moment of every day, wide awake, keenly alert, sitting on the edge of our seats, anticipating eagerly our next encounter with God, the One who made us, who travels with us and is (at the same time) always out ahead of us!

In short, God in Christ, invites us to live in this world as “time travelers,” inhabitants of another world.   God calls us to live now in such a way that we have one foot in this present moment and the other foot already in the life of the world to come.

God intends for us to live in God’s own world, the world for which we were made!

And that world--God’s world--is always bigger than our puny “now.”   God’s world encompasses past, present and future.   God’s world is going somewhere, because God is active in it, moving, taking us and the whole creation along on a wild, amazing journey.
The God we know in the story of Israel and Israel’s favorite son Jesus is a God who is always going somewhere, always encountering us, always snatching us up into God’s own life.

This means that living with God is about living in a  world of surprises, for we never know ahead of time exactly where and when God might meet us next….which is to say:  we’re never sure just when we’ll wake up to God’s constant, abiding presence with us

  • So God comes to us whenever God’s Word switches on the light-bulb in our heads, captures our attention, shakes us out of our drowsiness.
  • God comes to us whenever Water and Word birth a new beginning, a death and resurrection in the midst of our ordinary time.
  • God comes to us whenever it dawns on us that food and drink are always holy gifts, especially the Meal we eat at tables like this one.
  • God comes to us in the darkness when we feel completely overwhelmed, utterly bereft...
  • God comes to us in the blazing light of a sunrise or a mountaintop moment...
  • God comes to us in our neighbor who helps us or our neighbor who needs something from us, offering us a chance to love as Jesus loves….
  • ….and because God always finishes what he starts, we expect God to come for us all, one last time to finally make us and all things new in Jesus Christ.

So we live, as the five wise bridesmaids lived, in ants-in-the-pants expectation for the next time God shows up.

The other day I heard about one way such edge-of-the-seat mindfulness might be lived out.   There’s this woman who always keeps, on the front seat of her car, some baggies—each of which contains a new pair of socks or a couple of granola bars or a $5 gift-card from the local grocery store.   She wants to be ready, you see, for the next time she meets someone along the highway who’s holding up a sign that reads:  “Homeless—anything will help.”

This woman is prepared, you see, for the next time God comes to her, wearing the mask of a neighbor in need.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Story Dwellers Who Become Story Tellers

Ordination of Kate Longtin Johnson
October 19, 2014
Grace Lutheran Church, Hallock, MN
Deuteronomy 6:4-9; I Corinthians 12:4-11; Matthew 28:16-20

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

My goodness, Kate, what a ride you’ve been on these last few years!  And what an amazing collection of titles you been accumulating along the way!

Not all that long ago you acquired the title MRS, when you and Frank married--though I suspect that (like most young women nowadays) you hardly ever call yourself “Mrs. Johnson”….

Then you picked up another title, MDIV.    Now that’s a strange one, especially when you say it out loud:  you’re a “Master” of Divinity, how’s that for weird?  And so audacious, too:  a “Master” of Divinity, a “Master” of God and the things of God—really??

And now in a few moments you’ll receive another title:  REV.   You’ll walk away from this worship service with that weighty, awkward word “Reverend” hung around your neck.  Even though you might not use it very often, others will--so, get ready for that!

MRS….MDIV….REV…..and oh, yes (how could I forget?), there’s one other new title you’ve acquired recently:  you got your MOM degree!  The arrival of baby Natalie, I dare say, has changed your life as much, if not more so, than all those other titles you’ve been acquiring….

….and, I hasten to add, your experience of being a MOM will shape how you live into this REV-business, more than you might imagine!

For, as you start to engage with the people of God in the New Beginnings parish, as you labor among them and with them so that Christ might be formed in them (Galatians 4:19)….you will do so as one who is fussing with and finagling ways to form this same Lord Jesus Christ, in dear, sweet little Natalie.

It is as if God bestowed on you your own little hothouse experiment, when God gave you Natalie.  

Please excuse the crassness of that—Natalie is surely more than an “experiment” or a Petri dish for faith formation….but she does embody in miniature (literally “in miniature”) what God is always up to as God implants Christ, nurtures Christ, forms Christ in all of God’s people, all of us, all the time.

Your Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy 6 shows how that happens, how God goes to work on us.   It reveals God washing over God’s people, and drenching them in God’s sin-forgiving, identity-bestowing, hope-engendering, faith-forming Word.

Think of it as “saturation education” in the Word of God--being soaked in the scriptures, “marinated” by the biblical story so completely that even if we aren’t always walking around with a Bible in our hands, we start to  “smell” and even “taste” like people who’ve been soaked in God’s goodness.

On the cusp of entering the Promised Land, after forty years of wandering in the Wilderness of Sinai, Moses is concerned here in Deuteronomy--concerned that the Children of Israel not forget.   Moses wants to make sure that when the good times roll, when there are two chickens in every pot, when peace and prosperity descend upon them—Moses wants to make sure that his people not forget where they had come from and Who had brought them all those good things.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

God’s vision, here in Deuteronomy 6, is that we be surrounded, washed over with, saturated in God’s story…and that that happen so comprehensively, so completely that God’s Story becomes eternally entwined with our story.

And that’s critical, because if God’s Story doesn’t define us, other stories surely will!
David Lose, one of your teachers at Luther Seminary, puts it this way:
In recent years, the presence and influence of the Christian story in contemporary culture has shrunk considerably. The proliferation of different and competing stories about reality—some of which are religious, while many more are about material wealth, nationalism, or ethnicity—has occupied more and more of our attention.  We may see these stories proclaimed on the front covers of magazines or more subtly hidden in the logo of a powerhouse brand, but they are all around us, each inviting us to subscribe to a particular understanding and worldview about what is good, beautiful, and true. Taken as a whole, the proliferation of all these different worldviews has crowded out the biblical story as the narrative by which to make sense of all others and rendered it just one among a multitude of stories.[1]

We who bear the Word of God, we who seek to center ourselves and others in God’s great Story, do so mindful of all the other stories that try to crowd their way in, take us over, define us.

And so the ministry to which we give ourselves, all God’s people but especially pastors of the Church, the cause that claims us is about re-centering lives in the only Story that is big enough, deep enough, gracious enough to do justice to God and to all of reality and to us--the Story of God’s love in lavishly creating us…..and graciously liberating us through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection….and continually renewing us through the reviving breath of the Holy Spirit.

So, Kate, as you hold your child, your Natalie, in your hands….you see that happening.   At times it can seem so subtle, so imperceptible.   My grand-daughter, Olivia, (at 17 months) is now regularly starting to act the way Christians act.   When we gather around the table for a meal, we all clasp our hands together to pray—and Olivia has discovered that she too can fold her hands—and that when she does that all the adults around her go nuts!

We could write that off as mere habit, I suppose….like Pavlov’s dogs, Olivia is being positively reinforced by her family members.    But we dare not under-estimate the power of such habits, such responses.  These are the rudimentary ways faith is practiced for all of life…it’s how faith practices begin…practices that allow God’s story to shine forth, faith practices by which other, puny, ultimately ineffectual stories are crowded out.

You’re doing that at home, with Frank and Natalie, day in and day out.   You’re taking your daily dip into God’s great, all-encompassing Love Story right here in the parsonage of Hallock….

And now, as you start to trek down south to Alvarado and Oslo, you’ll be doing the same things….placing yourself at God’s disposal in order to submerge the people of the New Beginnings parish in this same story of God the Creator, Jesus the Savior and the Spirit who gives life.

Whatever you do, don’t underestimate the little ways that happens….be on the lookout for God’s Story shoving aside all the trifling, bogus, dead-end stories that would claim us and those we serve.

As you take up this grand calling, that comes with the weighty word “Reverend” that we’re hanging around your neck this evening, please remember three things:

First, Kate, all your life, all your own story within God’s encompassing Story, has brought you to this point.   You didn’t sign up for this—God has shanghaied  you, called you, and set you apart for this.  If you feel as though you’re in over your head, that’s entirely normal!

Second, Kate, God has showered upon you all the gifts you need for this business.   And God hasn’t just given you enough of the gifts of the Spirit either.  God has given you the right complement of such gifts which, as our lesson from I Corinthians reminds us, always come with just the right degree of diversity within the unity in which the Holy Spirit operates.

And third, Kate, don’t forget that God’s goal in all of this—the outcome God aims for is that we and the whole people of God not just live within God’s Story….but that we share this story with others.   Lutherans have all too often downplayed how God always saves us in order to send us, as the stirring words of the Great Commission from Matthew 28 remind us this evening.  

In short, God is after Story Dwellers who can’t help but become Story Tellers!   And your ordination, Kate, places you smack dab in the middle of that for the rest of your life.
In the name of Jesus.   Amen.       

[1] David Lose, “Stewardship in the Age of Digital Pluralism,” in Word and World, Rethinking Stewardship special issue (2010), p. 112.

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.