Monday, September 28, 2015

150th Anniversary of LSS of MN

Table Grace at 150th Anniversary of LSS of MN
September 26, 2015 in Minneapolis, MN

Gracious God of yesterday, today and tomorrow:  you have invited us to sit at table this evening among this great company of neighbors bound together by their love and support for LSS of Minnesota.

Give us keen memory to reflect back in deep gratitude over a century-and-a-half of expressing the love of Christ for all Minnesotans through service that has inspired hope, changed lives and built community.

Open our hearts to take in the wonder of all the ways LSS of MN still links together staff, volunteers, congregations and supporters to live and work together for a vision of dignity, safety, and hope in every one of Minnesota’s 87 counties.

Grant us inspired imagination to peer ahead, into your own unfolding future, energized by the hope that you will not stop creating innovative pathways for LSS of MN to meet unforeseen challenges to serve the least, the lost and the last.

Furnish us with the unflagging faith that knows you, O God, as the One who is always making these things happen—for you love your whole creation, you have poured out your own life for all persons, and you are making all things new in Jesus Christ.

Thank you, thank you, thank you--God of abundant hope:  for this good food and drink…for this company of fellow travelers…for this night of remembering, celebrating and renewing our commitment to be your hands and feet for the sake of all our neighbors.

We pray all these things through the One who for our sake became poor, so that we and all people might bask in the riches of your grace.   Amen.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Exercising Holy Imagination

Mission:  Imaginable
NW MN Synod Theology for Ministry Conference
Fair Hills Resort, Detroit Lakes (September 22, 2015)
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-14, 24-29

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Does it ever seem as though the church is missing something, lacking something?  

Do you ever find yourself thinking:   if only our church had just a little more--_________(something!) we could serve God’s mission better?

When I ponder that question I find myself saying things like: If only our church had some more money…..or some more members….or some more fervently praying members….or some more faithful, courageous leaders…..or some more something!

In my most recent musings on this question, I’ve been wondering whether what the church really needs right now is more imagination.

We could have all the money in the world….along with scads of faithful, courageous leaders…..but we’d still be dead in the water if we were bereft of imagination!

Albert Einstein famously observed that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”  

In an age when the Internet has dumped a veritable mountain of information upon us, we pine for, we cast about for a vision to shape what we’ll do with all that knowledge.

Thankfully, we are not left alone, staring dumbly at this Mt Everest of knowledge-- including the biblical and theological knowledge we cherish so deeply.

Fortunately God loves to mess with this huge mountain of knowledge.  God loves to jar us loose from our “paralysis of analysis.”  God keeps inspiring us to exercise one of God’s most godlike gifts to us:  our imaginations.

Here in Numbers 11, we observe such stirrings of holy imagination unfolding right before our eyes. 

Moses had led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt.  Under God’s guiding hand Moses had defeated Pharaoh and orchestrated the Hebrews’ great escape, across the Red Sea and into the wilderness of Sinai.

But after wandering in that wilderness for a good, long while, the burden of leadership had grown heavy on Moses’s shoulders.   The Hebrews (600,000 of them!) turned out to be a bunch of whiners, always griping, always craving artisanal Egyptian delicacies, cool clear water, or a dose of reassurance. 

As the pressure on Moses mounts, he seems to lose his capacity for creativity.   He becomes brittle, loses his patience, seems desperate for a quick solution—but Moses can’t come up with any new ideas.

In fact, Moses gets so stressed out that he actually begs God to kill him rather than make him keep leading these crabby, cantankerous Hebrews.

But Moses is not alone here.  This untenable situation stirs up God’s imagination, so that God offers Moses some ingenious relief.

He orders Moses to muster out 70 of the elders of the people—trusted, mature leaders whose hair either was thinning or gray--and God commands Moses to share his burdensome responsibilities with these 70 men.

Sounds like a plan:  If you’ve got too much on your own plate, figure out a way to delegate some of your responsibilities to others.  (I wonder why Moses couldn’t come up with that on his own?)

So Moses calls out these 70 leaders for a meeting by his Tent, outside the camp of the Hebrews.   And when they’re all assembled, God “came down in the cloud and spoke to [Moses], and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders.” (Numbers 11:25)

When God did that—when God divvied up the Spirit among these new assistants to Moses—all of a sudden these 70 men prophesied.   God’s Spirit took control of them and opening their mouths to praise God and speak boldly about God.

Imagine that!   Seventy wizened Hebrews, pot-belled, long in tooth, all of them eligible for Medicare—imagine 70 Hebrew elders all beside themselves, all glory-hallelujah-ing because they were filled to the brim with God’s Spirit!

God’s imagination pierces through Moses’ paralysis and opens up a path, a rather novel path, we notice… God moves beyond God’s previous “Moses only” solution to the Hebrews’ crisis of leadership.

But this plan, when we think it through, is pretty messy, isn’t it?

It starts with a mess:  600,000 grumbling Hebrews and their leader ready to fall on his own sword…..

….and things continue to be messy, because even with the divvying up of a portion of Moses’ spirit among them….we’re still talking 70 different personalities, each with their own flaws and failings, their own limitations and possibilities….and we wonder:  “Isn’t that just inviting trouble, God?”

But God is never deterred by the messiness of any situation…..and gradually, it seems, Moses starts to be restored and begins to catch on to the wideness of God’s vision.  

Moses, it seems is infused with new eyes to see the fresh new thing God is doing.

So God’s imagination stirs Moses to find 70 lieutenants whom God fills with a portion of the Spirit that had been concentrated in Moses only.

Wait a minute though.  It wasn’t exactly 70 Hebrew elders.  Make that 68 elders instead.

For two of the old guys Moses invited out to his tent were late for the meeting.   I think of them as “Dad” brothers, El and Me. 

Eldad and Medad were still in the camp of the Hebrews when God’s Spirit fell down from heaven.   So, Eldad and Medad started whooping it up right in the middle of the Hebrew camp.   Even though they miss the meeting Moses called, they still get a dose of God’s Spirit.

And that’s when Moses’s right hand man, Joshua, gets his undies in a bunch.   Joshua was a West Point graduate.  He had his policies and procedures manual memorized.   Joshua was a man after my own heart—he liked things neat and orderly--all planned out.

When Joshua hears about Eldad and Medad making a Holy Spirit ruckus in the camp, he immediately tries to put the kabosh on it.   “My lord Moses, stop them!” Joshua frets.  (Num.11:28)

But this time Moses doesn’t act out of his anxiety.   Moses, who moments before had become brittle to the point of breaking—Moses now starts to catch on, to get into the flow of God’s own holy imagination.

Are you jealous for my sake?” Moses responded.   “Joshua—do you think it bothers me that Eldad and Medad got the Spirit even though they missed the meeting?   Not on your life!  Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!"  (Num 11:29)

As God leads Moses out of his own paralysis of analysis, it dawns on him that Joshua was missing something crucial: that the Spirit of God is wild and free and works behinds the scenes in all sorts of messes all the time….and his same Holy Spirit keeps showing up “whenever and wherever God pleases.” (Article V, Augsburg Confession)

The Holy Spirit will not be strait-jacketed by any of our timetables or “to do” lists.  

The Spirit isn’t at our beck and call.  

We don’t manage God’s Holy Spirit.  Rather:  God’s  Holy Spirit leads, forms, shapes and even drives us!

Oh, and by the way—the Spirit can and usually does do that in the midst of chaos, when things aren’t neat as a pin, when we have a “mell of a hess” on our hands!   And that’s about the best news I can imagine this morning!

Exercising holy imagination is more than God’s hobby or sideline.  It is what God does best.

God excels at observing our messes, entering into our messes, transforming our messes, and moving us beyond our messes.  God’s imagination is always cooking—for our good and for the redemption of all that God has made!

Isn’t that just like God—in a great feat of imagination--to free us from our “wouldas, couldas, shouldas”…to see the stuckness of our sin—and to resolve to forgive it, whatever it takes, even if it means the death of God’s beloved Son on a horrendous hill outside Jerusalem.

Isn’t that just like God—in an astounding burst of holy imagination--to undo death by dying, entering the grave with us and for us---loosening forever death’s stranglehold on us, wiping away the gruesome hold death has on us?

Isn’t it just like God—in a breathtaking exercise of holy imagination--to throw open the doors to a future that often seems so foreboding….to step gaily out of the grave on Easter morning, out into the future with us, for us, always ahead of us?

I could never cook up all that stuff—and neither could you.

But God imagines such things, easy as pie.  

And, thank God, praise God--God never tires of inviting us into God’s holy imaginings. 

Just when the latest mess seems most overwhelming, leaving us brittle and unsure and ready to call it quits…..just then God thinks a new thought and shares that new thought with us, usually when we least expect it.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Will Our Faith Have Children?

Faith Lutheran Church, Staples
September 20, 2015/Vibrant Faith Weekend
Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7 (Narrative Lectionary)

The great American poet and author Carl Sandburg once said that “a baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”[1]

How true!   What wondrous hope is rekindled in our hearts every time another child comes into the world.  We feel in our bones that every newborn infant is a downpayment on the future—a sign that life indeed goes on.

Alongside this deep investment of ourselves in bringing babies into the world, there is the heartache of those who find it difficult if not impossible to conceive and bear children.   The pain of that can be so raw.

So imagine the kind of emotional environment in which Abraham and Sarah must have lived!  They had longed for children for decades—but to no avail.   The biological clock was ticking, and the alarm of menopause had already sounded—“ it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” (Gen. 18:11)

Abraham and Sarah had been long resigned to the reality of childlessness, when three strangers stopped by their tent and surprised them with a prediction that could only make Sarah chuckle: “ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’"  (Gen. 18:10)

You can’t blame Sarah for laughing.   She knew the score here: it was her body, after all, that had already gone through the “change of life.”

But the visitor to their tent by the oaks of Mamre did blame Sarah for laughing, because he had not just told a joke here—they had moved into the realm of God and God’s astonishing, reason-ignoring, death-defying promises.

Barrenness of the womb was what it was (so Sarah and Abraham thought):  a high, thick brick wall between them and the future.

But in God’s economy, in God’s realm, such brick walls are trifling things, with nowhere near the power we assign to them:  “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14)

So when Abraham by rights should have been drawing Social Security, his elderly wife Sarah conceived and bore a son—and Medicare picked up her hospital bill!   Instead of meeting with their lawyer, their accountant and their funeral director to “set their affairs in order,” Abraham and Sarah were comparing paint swatches for their nursery—their days now punctuated by the pitter-patter of tiny feet.

And, just so they would always be reminded of God’s promise, their incredulity, and God’s last laugh-- Abraham named their baby boy Isaac, which in Hebrew means “he will laugh.”   Little “Ha Ha” growing up under their ancient noses!

And this child, this baby truly did embody (in the words of Carl Sandburg) God’s opinion that the world should go on.   For little “Ha Ha” was the child of promise—God’s promise—the progenitor of a people in whom  “all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” (Genesis 12:3)   

The babies would keep coming, for generation after generation among the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, and one of those babies would arrive in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4)—and his name would be, not “Laughter” but “Jesus” for he would save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).

Now the year is 2015—over twenty centuries after  the Real Child of Promise was born…..and although physical barrenness (“infertility issues” as we like to say) still happens….there is a plethora of medical treatments that can be tried….some of which transition a couple from no kids to almost too many kids! 

Physical barrenness may no longer be the impregnable wall it once was….but I wonder whether it might have been replaced, with a kind of spiritual barrenness we feel keenly nowadays.   

Will Our Children Have Faith?  Is a landmark book written by Christian educator John Westerhoff in 1976 (and still in print!).....a book whose title some folks have turned inside out to craft an even more plaintive question:  “Will our faith have children?”
Childless couples can explore fertility treatments….but what about this other body, the Body of Christ?   Our numbers as Lutherans have been slipping for decades in North America.  We seem to have lost the knack for bearing and birthing children of God.  My friend Dr. David Anderson likes to say that the prayer uttered most often by Lutherans is:  “Dear God, please get my grandchildren to church.”

This “barrenness” of the Body of the Church looms like a high, thick wall between us and the future, and we are tempted to lose heart…..

…but when such ruminations  lead us to start sinking into a slough of despond, that question comes back—a question posed to our great-grandparents in faith, by the oaks of Mamre so long ago:  “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

The “infertility issues” we recognize within our branch of the Body of Christ need not have the last word.   God has given us all that we need to start bearing children of faith once again.

And the “cure” isn’t some exotic, new-fangled concoction.   The treatment for our loss of capacity to form Christ in our young ones is right under our noses, graciously given to us by God.

This treatment starts with the Gospel itself—God’s sin-forgiving, barrier-breaking, future-opening Word in Jesus Christ—who lived, suffered, died and rose again for us and our salvation.

This treatment focuses on recovering our capacity to drench, indeed to marinate our young ones in the promises of God…from the cradle to the grave.   

This is what your congregation’s embrace of the Vibrant Faith Frame this weekend is all about.   You are opening yourselves up to the “fertility treatment” God provides in widening and deepening our appreciation for ALL the ways God labors over us, with us and through us to “form Christ” in the next generation of believers who are already in our midst.

Let me describe five principles that undergird this understanding of how faith is formed in us and our young ones:

First, God invites us to remember that faith is formed by the power of the Holy Spirit through
personal, trusted relationships, often in our own homes.

Since at least the 1950s we Lutherans have tended to “outsource” Christian formation to the professionals, to think of our church-based Christian education programs as the main (or in too many cases the only) means by which Christian faith is planted and grown.    Just drop your kids off at our church building for one or two hours a week and we’ll teach them how to be Christians.

God invites us to recover the other 166 or 167 hours in every week—to discover and leverage all the ways that passing on faith happens through forming and sustaining Christian relationships.

Second, God invites us to broaden our view of “church” as a living partnership between the ministry of
the congregation and the ministry of the home.  Your involvement in our synod’s Fostering Vibrant Faith project will help you re-envision your congregation….to shift from seeing it as an Old Country Buffet where we gorge ourselves with enough spiritual food to last us until the following Sunday….and, instead to view Faith Lutheran as a well-stocked grocery store where we pick up in and take home the spiritual food we’ll eat throughout the week.

Third, God opens our eyes to see that where Christ is present in faith, the home is church, too.   Jesus is surely present here in this congregation gathered around Word and Sacrament—that is and always will be the flaming center of our life in Christ.    But it is from this flaming center that we pick up the embers (the fire starter!) to kindle the fires that burn in all the places where God’s people live and learn and work and love one another. 

Fourth, God surprises us with the awareness that faith is caught more than it is taught.    As we grow deeper into reclaiming the other 166 or 167 hours of every week in every place where the baptized children of God live….we remember that there are not only facts to memorize but practices to embrace… daily prayer, dwelling in God’s Word, having caring conversations, serving our neighbors, giving generously.

Fifth, God speaks to us the truth that if we really want Christian children and youth, we need Christian adults.   I often hear the question: “What’s wrong with kids these days that they aren’t coming to church?”   That’s NOT the issue.   The issue is how are we Christian adults making good on the promises we utter at every baptism here in this congregation?

For in a great act of recklessness, the same God who has saved us in Jesus Christ has also sent us--entrusted us with the holy privilege of passing on Jesus Christ to others, starting most often with those who eat out of the same refrigerator, under the same roof.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Joy Amidst Sadness

NW MN Synod Women’s Organization 
Convention Theme:  Joy!
Trinity Lutheran Church, Moorhead, MN
September 12, 2015
Hebrews 12:1-3

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith; who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart."

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

The last movie that my wife and I went to was the Pixar animated film, Inside Out.  Perhaps some of you have seen it.

Inside Out is the story of an 11-year old girl named Riley.   The story plays out on two stages:  the external stage of Riley’s daily life with her mother and father…..and the internal stage of Riley’s mind, where five emotions (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust) are constantly interacting with one another-- personified as characters all vying to sit at the Control Panel of Riley’s life. 

Filled with mayhem and fast-paced humor, silly moments and poignant moments…..Inside Out focuses especially on the interplay between two of Riley’s emotions:   Joy and Sadness, personified as characters in Riley’s mind.

Joy, of course, thinks she should control Riley’s whole life.  Joy wants Riley to be happy from dawn to dusk.  Joy especially wants to keep Sadness as far away as possible from Riley’s internal control panel.

(As I started watching the movie I found myself pulling for Joy to be the main, if not the only, emotion in Riley’s life.   Who wants to see any young child unhappy or sad, after all?)

But when Riley and her parents move from Minnesota out to California, she experiences a whole gamut of emotions….all of which, tangled together, produce a bout of serious homesickness. 
Joy desperately tries to maintain control of Riley’s life….but that is not to be.  This normal little Minnesota girl becomes a sad, fearful, angry, depressed Californian.   The homesickness becomes so unbearable that Riley runs away from home, purchasing a ticket to take a bus back to Minnesota.

The turning point in the film (spoiler alert!) comes when Joy finally realizes that Sadness isn’t all bad—that there is, in fact, a role for Sadness--to make us mindful of the times in life when we need the help of others.   When Joy steps aside and lets Sadness sit at the control panel in Riley’s mind, Riley remembers how much her parents have helped her in sad times in her past….moving her to get off the bus….and return to her mom and dad in their new home in California.

A chaplain friend of mine tells me that some of his colleagues who supervise seminarians in their clinical pastoral education will be requiring all their students to watch this movie, Inside Out, as they learn the gentle, subtle art of pastoral care-giving.

Let me be clear:  Inside Out doesn’t portray itself to be a Christian movie.   But it does help us get at a central keynote within the Christian story—namely that joy is so much wider, deeper and more complex than happiness…..that joy in all its fullness cannot and does not exist apart from sadness….that these two emotions, these two ways-of-being are in fact meant for each other.

Nowhere is this interweaving of joy and everything that is NOT joy more evident than in these haunting words from Hebrews 12, about Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith who “for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame…so that you may not grow weary or lose heart."

Why did Jesus suffer and die on the Cross?   The author of Hebrews tells us that it was for the sake of the joy that was set before him.

Really, now—joy???  How dare we link the brutality of the crucifixion of the Son of God with the reality of joy?    What joy could Jesus possibly have felt when he was being tortured in the most dehumanizing of ways?  

We could maybe imagine Jesus enduring the Cross….”toughing it out”….because he knew the pain would be temporary….or because he accepted it as his duty, his obligation….or because Jesus trusted that despite his suffering and death he would be vindicated…
But that is not what the author of Hebrews says.   Rather, it was for “the sake of the joy that was set before him [that Jesus] endured the cross, disregarding its shame….so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”

Jesus’ joy, as he faced the cross, was about you and me and all for whom he offered up his life.   It’s as if Jesus was thinking of us, and that was enough—the joy of you and me and who we would become.

Martin Luther in his Small Catechism, unpacks this for us in his meaning to the second article of the Apostles Creed.  Luther helps us grasp this surprising, uncanny joy that Jesus experienced on the cross.

"I believe that Jesus Christ--true God, Son of the Father from eternity, and true man, born of the Virgin Mary--is my Lord.  At great cost he has saved and redeemed me, a lost and condemned person.  He has freed me from sin, death, and the power of the devil--not with silver or gold, but with his holy and precious blood and his innocent suffering and death.  All this he has done (listen closely now!)...All this he has done that
•       I may be his own,
•       live under him in his kingdom, and
•       serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness,
just as he is risen from the dead and lives and rules eternally.  This is most certainly true."

What gave Jesus joy on the Cross?

It was imagining you and me being his own dear children forever.  It was knowing that through his suffering, death and resurrection Jesus would win us…that we would belong to him forever.  No longer “alone in the universe.”  Never again feeling like a crate of unclaimed freight at the UPS depot.  You and I would belong to Jesus forever--that image gave the dying Jesus joy!

What gave Jesus joy on the Cross? 

It was picturing us living under him in his kingdom:  a kingdom built not on violence, coercion or unbridled power…but rather, a kingdom defined solely  by self-giving, death-defying love for us on the Cross.  It was the joy Jesus felt when he imagined you and me, no longer caught in a divided loyalty, no longer torn between God and devil...but living solely under his gentle rule, under King Jesus in his upside-down kingdom.        

What gave Jesus joy on the Cross?

It was the the thought of us serving him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness. …the joy of transforming us from "good for nothings" into folks who are good for something:  good for trusting God, good for loving our neighbors, good for caring for the creation. 

In Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection for us and for all people we glimpse all the ways that enduring joy is so much more than fleeting happiness.

In Jesus we see how joy and sadness—far from being opposites of each other—actually need each other….for it is only in the interplay of joy and sadness that life gains depth, produces meaning, and grounds us in integrity.

In your lives of faith, my dear friends, you will know joy—but often it will be a joy that makes tears well up in your eyes and leaves a lump in your throat.   You will live joy—in the mountaintop moments, yes to be sure….but also in the dark valleys.  For in Christ, joy can be found even at hospital bedsides and freshly-dug graves.

In your lives of service to your neighbors, you will know joy…not just when service produces satisfaction for the servant…but also when your service confronts you with the dregs of this life—service for and with the least, the last and the lost.   

For we serve—joyfully, though perhaps not always happily—we serve in the name of the One who “for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame…so that you may not grow weary or lose heart." 

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

God's Specialty is Cardiology

Installation of Pr. Krehl Stringer
Zion Lutheran Church, Warroad, MN
August 30, 2015
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

“Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ 6[Jesus] said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honors me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
   teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition….’  

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’…21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

If this gospel reading strikes you as being all about tradition or personal hygiene—guess again.

Jesus isn’t merely tinkering with social mores or the intricacies of “keeping kosher.”  Jesus, rather, is going to the heart of the matter!

And that’s why his sparring partners are so unnerved.  Jesus is tampering with their moral universe—dismantling their most cherished, time-honored assumptions about good and evil and how the world is ordered.

Jesus’ opponents attack him indirectly at first:  “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

The first thing we need to get straight is that the scribes and Pharisees were not the public health department.   They knew nothing of modern germ theory.

No.   What the scribes and Pharisees imagined to be in jeopardy was the way the whole universe was put together.  And what is the place of human beings in the whole cosmic order?   

You see, in the universe that the scribes and Pharisees cared about, evil was primarily an “out there” problem. 

God’s chosen people had been set apart, made holy by God.  But they believed they lived in a dangerous, defiling world.    There were all sorts of things and persons and realities “out there” that could invade their neatly ordered lives.  These primarily external threats had to be guarded against at all costs.

So, to preserve the holiness—the set-apartness--of God’s people, the guardians of the Jewish social order had drawn up a raft of fine-print interpretations of God’s commandments, called “the tradition of the elders” here in our text:  all the dietary regulations, ritual washings, kosher food rules that eventually were codified in the 500 volumes of the Talmud.

This whole well-ordered universe was what Jesus and his followers were threatening, by their cavalier approach to the most elementary of rules and regulations:
·       How they conducted themselves. 
·       How they performed (or failed to perform) the prescribed ritual washings.  
·       When, where, how and with whom they prepared and ate their food. 
You name it.

“Why do your disciples,” Jesus!—“why don’t they live according to the tradition of the elders?”

That’s the kind of question that comes from folks whose carefully-crafted universe is starting to crumble.

We know that feeling.  We often imagine that evil is primarily “out there.”   

Think of the things we tell our kids—warning them to avoid the “wrong crowd” at school, fretting over the ways the world might corrupt our children.

Many of us, especially those with gray hair or no hair, have witnessed over our lifetimes so many changes in how we view what’s right and wrong, what’s proper and improper, who’s “in” and who’s “out.”

In this episode from Jesus’ ministry, the focus was on something as basic as food, how we gain nourishment. 

Nowadays, the focus often seems to be on things like so-called  “diversity issues”—how people of so many different races, ethnicities, religions and sexual identities can live together peaceably on the same planet.    Is it any wonder that we, too, sometimes wonder whether our own “moral universe” has been tipped upside down?

The Scribes and Pharisees in our gospel lesson were right to be concerned!

Because Jesus did, in fact, come to fiddle with, indeed to re-adjust their moral universe.  Jesus came to reverse the flow of things—to disrupt the connection between what’s “out there” and what’s “in here.”

The scribes and Pharisees seemed fixated on evil being an enemy “out there,” an enemy to be kept at bay, warded off, in order to maintain our God-given holiness.

But Jesus pointed out that the worst, most damaging manifestations of evil aren’t “out there” somewhere.  

They’re “in here!”   Evil is an “inside job.”  Evil works on us from the inside out—not primarily from the outside in.   Evil always aims for the heart of things—zeroes in on our hearts!  Evil is always seeking to reside in the center of our lives—and from that command center, evil does its worst.  There’s nothing evil out there that can get us, unless the rot has already begun deep inside of us, taking over the core, the heart of our very being.

So rather than making nice with the scribes and Pharisees--rather than engaging in a little “yeah, ain’t it awful?” game with them, Jesus turned the tables, reversed all the arrows, and proposed a positively revolutionary revision in how they—and we—look at our moral and spiritual universe.

“Listen to me, all of you, and understand,” warned Jesus“There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

Jesus, as usual, gets to the heart of the matter—he aims his arrow for the vital spot, the center inside us ALL, the human heart.  The old prophet Isaiah had it right all along:  “This people honors me with their lips,  but their hearts are far from me….”

Their hearts!   That’s what Jesus places in the forefront of our universe.  It’s the heart that Jesus zeroes in on.   For the heart is where evil always strives for a foothold.   From the inside, from the heart, comes all the crud and corruption—all the warped behavior, boozing, pilfering, cheapening life, hatching schemes to get what doesn’t belong to us, pining away for the greener grass on the other side of the fence--you name it!

The church has a name for all that—we call it original sin—the sin that none of us had to be taught!   Even darling infants, even precious little children—pick up this “original sin thing” all on their own.

My wife and I became grandparents for the first time in 2013.  Our darling grand-daughter is the apple of our eyes.   But now that she is 2 years old, we notice that she’s developing a mind of her own.  She leads with the word “No!”   She cooks up naughty things to do—and no one seems to have taught her that. 

No human being is exempt from original sin—certainly not in the church.   All of us—old and young, liberal and conservative, fighters and pacifists, gay and straight and everyone in between—we’re all 100% sinners, we’ve all got that deadly “heart disease.”

But thanks be to God--it’s our hearts that Jesus has come to heal.  It’s our core sin that Jesus has come to forgive.  It’s the core of who we are that Jesus goes after—it’s the heart that Jesus comes to make new, even as God in Christ is making all things new!

The scribes’ and Pharisees’ Achilles heel as they constructed their image of the universe was that it left everything at a skin-deep level.   Do the right things, go through the right motions, keep up the right appearances--and evil will be kept at bay.

Wrong!   Jesus calls that’s hypocrisy—“play acting!”  Evil has always tried to insinuate itself deeply in our lives.   It’s been an “inside job” all along.

….which is why Jesus always, always, always aims at our hearts.  Jesus goes after our center—the core of who we are.   Jesus means to capture that.  Jesus means to take over our lives, from the inside out.

Let me put it this way.  Jesus isn’t much of a dermatologist.  But he’s a heckuva heart surgeon—and his specialty is heart transplants, or more accurately, creating new hearts within us all..

This is no skin-deep, surface-level stuff.   It’s an inside job that Jesus does on us.   The baptismal water seeps through our pores, the bread and wine of his Supper are made for our stomachs, the Word of forgiveness is designed to rattle our eardrums and resonate deep within our souls.  Jesus bores right down to our very heart and soul, fixing us all up—from the inside out.

Pastor Krehl, as you take up your calling here at Zion, please remember that you answer not to a dermatologist but to a cardiologist—Jesus Christ the great healer of broken hearts, the wondrous creator of new hearts in all who belong to him.

And never forget how God’s universe really works—from the inside out.  That’s how God’s mission in the world also operates—from the inside out, from the inside of congregations like Zion, to the outside—to the mission field that surrounds you here in Warroad….a mission field that you are so well poised to embrace anew as you welcome a new pastor, as you proceed with building a new mission center, a new church to serve you and your neighbors in this community.

From the inside out:  That’s how the Jesus Way operates—reclaiming us and all things, starting with what’s at the center, starting with our soiled, broken hearts—hearts that are always being made brand new in the image of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 


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

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… 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… 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.