Sunday, August 24, 2014

Cages or Wings?

Sermon 8.24.14
Matthew 16:13-20
Westwood Lutheran Church

I have had the privilege of being a pastor here at Westwood for a whole month! As we get to know each other a bit better, you will find that in my love for the liturgy – which is the name of the ebb and flow of our community worship is a deep love of ancient ritual.  Throughout each worship gathering we speak words which do not often appear in our weekly vocabulary: mercy, alleluia!, righteousness, baptism.  And, as Betty Lou Nelson reminded me this week, in our worship we say we believe in a communion with all the saints – the saints of our lives, and all the saints of the long story of God’s mission on this earth.  What we claim when we gather together to hear the Word and share the meal and therefore the liturgy, our ritual places us in a practice that is much, much bigger than our time and place – from this understanding I believe we, the contemporary gathering of God’s people gain strength and wisdom. 

Many of the ancient rituals which we still partake in today are contrary to the rhythms and patterns of our daily living; where else do we come together to be a part of community singing, intergenerational gatherings, to say words of confession and forgiveness– all unique, almost entirely, to Christian worship.  But they are different than many, if not most of the encounters we have with each other day in and day out.  For instance, have you ever noticed that at the end of the worship service you are kicked out of church? Every week we are dismissed, and not with a soft mid-western suggestion, but a whole hearted boot out of the door with the words, “Go in peace, serve the Lord”.  The dismissal piece of the liturgy tells all of us that we are not to dwell or hang around too long, rather it is time to take the Word we have heard and the faith we are gifted with and get to sharing it with all the world…just outside these church walls.  Go – get out!  And that is our concluding rite…the beginning may be even harder to align with our contemporary social understandings.

We begin…(begin!) our worship with what is formally referred to as the brief order for Confession and forgiveness.   At the very start of our gathering we take pause for introspective reflection – not riddled with the failure that the culture of magazines and social media want to tell us about.  Rather we look at ourselves and see our participation in a world that is deeply broken, systemically dysfunctional and we acknowledge that we have a place in it.  And for this place we name our failures, individual and corporate and we name our disappointments, personal and global and we acknowledge the idols that stand present in our relationship with the God of all life.  

What a peculiar practice to begin our worship with -- naming our hurts and confessing to our God the strain we feel in our relationship with God, with each other, with creation.  In a word: we are naming our sin.  What follows in the worship liturgy is in response to this cosmic disconnecting that we experience in our own way.  Step by step we practice being brought back together through our hearing of the common Word, our singing together and praying together, the passing of the peace, the sharing of the meal and even that rude dismissal which kicks us out with a common mission, to live lives that respond to God’s love for us.  The whole liturgy is looking back on the truth of the confession…and forgiveness comes again and again as the Spirit carries us through worship.

What a powerful practice we gather for here today.

This is the power and the movement of God’s story, carried through the whole community of saints from Peter to us gathered here today.  In the gospel reading for today Jesus asks Peter, “Who do you say that I am” and Peter responds “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”.  Messiah means the promised deliverer, the one who saves us from the brokenness and the isolation that we confess each Sunday morning. 

After Peter’s bold confession, calling Jesus the Messiah, Jesus begins the movement of the Christian church with these words recalled in Matthew’s gospel, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

The keys to the kingdom? Now we’re talking! Jesus gives the church the authority to bind and to loose…or we could think of it as cages or wings?  This phrase comes from one of my favorite musical theater pieces from the musical “Tick, tick…boom!” by Jonathon Larson, better known for his composing of the rock musical “Rent”.  
The full phrase of the song asks…“Cages or wings? Which do you prefer? Ask the birds.  Fear or love? Don’t say the answer…actions speak louder than words.”  

Binding or loosening?
Cages or wings?
Fear or Love?

What do we, as the body of Christ, the church of Christ profess with our lives?

It begins with our corporate confession – we bind up all that brokenness and isolation, or all that sin that we confessed this morning.  Through our confession we grieve the reality of pain, we lament the power of injustice and rail again the grief of death and all the ways these experience manifest in our lives and in the systems of the world.

We, as the body of Christ, bind that which is not the ways of God, that which hinders the grace-filled mission of God.

And then we hear the forgiveness, the mighty act of God to loosen on earth all that binds us and the whole world! This is the work of the church, to proclaim such endless mercy to all the bound up places of our lives and our world!  Of course, it is never done perfectly – much harm, much division, much hatred has been done as the church declairs the keys to the kingdom.  But the keys are not the authority we hold, nor are they the core truth of Christ mission.  It is on the faith uttered by Peter that day, “Jesus – you are the Messiah, the son of the living God” It is upon Jesus alone that we stand and continue on in love and loosening. 

Let’s consider Peter for just one more moment, just in case you worry that this call to be the binding and loosening church is not a call you are up for.  After Peter is called the Rock upon which Christ will build the church, immediately following Peter tells Jesus he forbids that Jesus should suffer and go to the cross at all! And Jesus calls him a stumbling block, yelling “Get behind me Satan, you are a stumbling block to me for you are thinking about human ways and not divine ways.”  There was Peter’s beginning of the church, confessing Jesus as Messiah, the great deliverer and then standing firmly in the way of God’s mission because he was afraid.  Cages or wings, Peter?

And yet God continued to use the life of Peter, and Christ continues to use our lives – broken and isolated though they may be.  Christ calls us to be the church to bind up which kills and to loosen that which brings new life.

Cages or wings? Binding or loosening? This is the question put before the church both then and now.  The summer is coming to a close, the academic year and the programmatic year of ministry here at Westwood is quickly, very quickly approaching and as always, the Spirit moves and surprises us with change and new life.  And so, body of Christ called Westwood Lutheran – this seems a proper time to consider the question…Cages or wings? Which do you live with your lives? What pain will you be binding…what life will you be loosening as Christ’s church?

To consider this question I would like to revisit the words of confession and forgiveness that we began our worship with this morning.  Perhaps some of the words could be more specific for you – perhaps you could ponder the brokenness and isolation you feel or witness.  What if our confession were a fill in the blank? I will read through the phrases and leave a moment for reflection, for you to imagine what other words come from your hearts and complete the sentence…

Gracious God, have mercy on us. We confess that we have turned from you and given ourselves into the power of ____________. We are truly sorry and humbly repent. In your compassion forgive us our ­­­­________, known and unknown___________  What have we done? What have we left undone?  Turn us again to you, and uphold us by your Spirit, so that we may ___________________ in newness of life through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Cages or wings church? In the forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ we are called to fly! To loosen on earth that which is loose in heaven – the love of God, the grace of Jesus, the surprising and life sustaining movement of the Spirit.   And with this call will you all join me in loosening the cages of our lives (remembering that which we just confessed) We proclaim together...

God, who is rich in mercy, loved us, even when we were dead in sin, and made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved.  In then name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. Almighty God strengthen you with power through the Holy Spirit, that Christ may live in your hearts through faith. Amen.

This is the work of the church, gathering to name our reality, speaking to declare God’s new day in our world and getting kicked out to speak such a word beyond these walls.  May God give us faith for such an incredible, faith-filled adventure as this.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

What good is walking on water?

My poor neglected blog.  There is so much to share about our new home, ministry and community.  But first, a sermon.  It feels so good to be back in the saddle of bible study, textual study and sermon writing!

Sermon Lectionary __ Year A

August 10, 2014

Westwood Lutheran

1 Kings 19:9-18

Matthew 14-22-33

I grew up in northwestern Minnesota, most of my childhood was spent in the Red River Valley.  I did not grow up a lover of nature or the great outdoors, because to be honest, the most exposure I had to wilderness was the smell of the sugar beet factory and the sight of the Red River, which is not red so much as a mysterious, murky brown.   The most popular activity that takes place on this ugly-duckling river is the summer festival Cat-Fish days – which is apropos considering that one of God’s oddest looking creatures is pulled out of a homily rushing river.  My little hometown of East Grand Forks has some treasures to it, but natural beauty simply is not one of them.   As a growing girl I would hear people talk about finding God as they spent time in creation – it was an equation that simply did not add up for me.  Finding God in mosquitoes and river rats? This Creator-God was even further from my understanding in 1997 as I watched the Red River outgrow its banks in a dramatic way and witnessed it flow all over the little town, the neighborhood and my childhood home where it then swirled around for weeks before leaving us with little more than its nasty smells and dried mud floors.  What I grew up knowing of creation was its danger, its destructive powers.  

After college I moved out to the Pacific Northwest.  And there…day after day I was astounded by the natural beauty that surrounded me – mountains that stood mightily along my drive to work, countless trails primed for weekend hiking, waterfronts to sit by and lush, abundant green all year long.   One of the richest experiences in those years was the discovery of a new side of creation…one that is beautiful and restorative, a side of nature that challenges and somehow beckons humanity to sit in its wonder and just be astounded at its beauty.

I do not think we can hear today’s gospel and today’s Old Testament reading without acknowledging the manifestation of God’s power and presence in natural elements.  And this is a wonderful and somewhat easy thing to do when nature is tame and attractive, inspiring and alluring.  Acknowledging the power and presence of God in nature becomes much more complicated when nature is unkind, relentless and destructive.  Nature, from a glorious distance, is inspiring and does remind us of God's divine and creative power to make life. Yet, up a little closer we are also reminded of the darkness and harmful powers of our world which cause suffering and death. This is what we call, the hiddenness of God, not the full nature of God, but the hidden side. The side of God that seems to stay silent as nature rages against humanity or the side of God that is difficult to feel during the times we feel so vulnerable to all we are exposed to.


Who is this God when the river is overtaking my home?

Who is this God when we paddle along our favorite Minnesota lake?


Let’s turn back to our readings from today and let God’s word speak for itself…


First, we have Elijah.  Mighty prophet who finds himself with a bounty on his head and is now cowering in a cave, awaiting further instruction from God.  The Word of God came to Elijah and there was a great wind splitting mountains and breaking rocks, and then an earthquake shaking the ground under Elijah’s feet and then a fire – and Scripture says that God was not in the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire.  Elijah is left waiting, trembling after witnessing the destructive, powerful natural elements.


Who is this God? 


Next, we have Peter, the disciple who endures hours of the relentless storm on the sea and the disciples who desires to follow Jesus so closely and so well that he too will walk on water! And the Word of God made flesh, Jesus himself shows up in the storm, commanding Peter to join him on the rough waters.  When the fear and reality sets in and Peter finds himself going under it is Jesus who extends a hand and leads him back into the boat.

Who is this God?


The God of Elijah and the God of Peter and the God of our lives is a God who approaches us -- the encounters between Elijah and the Word of God and between Peter and the Word of God and the encounters we have with God are based on something other than creation.  Though creation certainly testifies to the love of God in a very powerful way…our connection with our Creator is beautifully brought together through Jesus alone.  And this relationship, with God through Jesus, is a relationship that recognizes and embraces our fear, our mortality, our failures and even our hopes.

This is different than our earth and all the creation it holds. You see we cannot become fully engaged with nature to fully know God.   Because God is finally and fully revealed through Jesus Christ and his grace.   The wildness of the good creation will put us in our place as creatures on the earth…it is the love of God in Christ that puts us in our place as God’s beloved and chosen people.  

God, creator of heaven and earth, Jesus the miraculous one, comes to us this morning and wants to be known by us. Elijah finally encounters God in silence, in humble…stilling….silence.  Peter grabs hold of Jesus and is brought back to the boat…delivered from death, saved from fear. God does not want to be known by the destructive power of creation, but by the transforming power of the risen Christ! God does not want to be known by the destructive power of creation, but by the transforming power of the risen Christ!


What happens after Peter encounters the Word of God, walking upon the waters?

What happens after Elijah witnesses the glory of God, both in dramatic fashion and in the silence?

What happens to us after we step off the trail, climb out of the boat or recover after the natural disaster?

Today’s Scriptures are not bringing us to a meal that we can taste and smell and hold on to, nor are they offering healing that brings relief to body or spirit – this is not the miracle today.  Today we hear that the God of all, all of creation is the God who comes to us to reveal Divine power and presence to us – the small, fear-filled children of God. And in such a revelation God is sending us out to communities full of darkness and pain, and in such a revelation Jesus is extending a hand to lead us back to our boats filled with our families and friends, our doubts and our mistakes…and in such a revelation we are promised that the God of all creation, filled with power and presence, is the God who leads and calls us into such places.  Not stopping the storms, not quieting all fear and doubt – but leading us through it, and reminding us of our place in God’s good creation and our place in God’s ever moving mission.


Our hope is in God’s mission which continues in us today…Around the world, bombs are falling – like the storm that tormented the disciples in the boat.  And as a confused, fear-filled child of God I cry out like Peter…I think many of us do.  Who is this God in the midst of this unimaginable storm? Do not be silent, Jesus tells us “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.”

We proclaim that God is present and powerful in this unimaginable storm.

In our nation, communities, in our homes and in our hearts there are storms a plenty – who is this God to you? Who is this God made known in the Word, made flesh in Jesus Christ? What boat is Jesus leading you back in to this day, now strengthen by the revelation of such a God of power and presence, God of creation and God of grace?  


As children of God who witness such power and presence as the God we meet in Scripture today, we as called – like Elijah and Peter – to take this revelation and be a part of God’s mission and movement all over the world.


May you know and share the transforming power of the risen Christ, present in the silence, present in the storm.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.