Thursday, November 26, 2015

Grateful for the Future

Thanksgiving Eve 11.25.15
Westwood Lutheran

…then it was said among the nations,
   ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ 
3 The Lord has done great things for us,
   and we rejoiced.
Happy Thanksgiving! I love this holiday that still, somehow, has some purity in its practice – it’s hasn’t been overdone by Hallmark or included mass amount of greed or getting.  Tomorrow is day set aside for gathering and feasting and simply letting our words be words of gratitude. Will your Thanksgiving include uttering those words, listing and naming what you’re grateful for?  I’ve seen quite a few social media waves with people posting images or words of thankfulness for every day of this month – spreading out the meaning of the day and so much of it is thankfulness for what has been, what was given, what was fixed or restored or offered.  It’s a sweet idea and fills my screen with gratitude, for which I am grateful! Our gratitude flows out of our nostalgic view, from hindsight comes the blessings counting and the good gift naming.

Our psalm reading, Psalm 126 is a looking back kind of psalm, one that remembers and names what was good and life-sustaining.  Psalm 126 was written by a person, or maybe a whole people who knew, first hand, what wandering in wilderness is like.  The author of this psalm knew about homelessness, physical hunger, loss of identity, the feeling of the absence of God – the author was most likely an Israelite who had been sent away from his own land.  The author of Psalm 126 is a refugee.  
…then it was said among the nations,
   ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ 
3 The Lord has done great things for us,
   and we rejoiced. 

The wandering mass of God’s people eventually found a land and heard of God’s favor once again.  And then the psalm was penned through the memory of what had happened and the gratitude came out of hindsight.  The Lord has done great things for us! The rejoicing and the thankful hearts all come to life through memory and acknowledgement of what had happened.

The Hebrew people were not always thankful, in fact they are notorious for wavering back and forth with God about being abandoned, neglected, and left to starve and rot out in the desert.  Their thankfulness is typically short-lived with their fickle memories and uncertain faith in God.
Our thankfulness is usually dependent on our memories, on what we choose to lift us as memorable and worthy of being counted around the Thanksgiving table or uttered in our prayers. This makes me nervous, for I fear that my memory is like the Israelites – picky and short-term, prone to fear and doubt. Is our gratitude confined to the past? Can we only be thankful for what has been and even then we survey what has come to us in this life and lift up the good, trying really hard to forget the hurtful stuff – and our Thanksgiving lists become trite. How else can we know what we’re thankful for if it hasn’t been done or given?

Just a few moments ago we sang a song from the Taize, which is a monastic community in France that gathers thousands of people every year for chanting and silence, prayer and intentional community.  Their music is often short and repetitive with words of prayer and power.  And the song we sang today wasn’t set in the past tense – it is a song of gratitude, but it’s pointed toward the future!

 “In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful, in the Lord I will rejoice” it’s a future statement – it’s a faith statement! “In the Lord I will be ever thankful…” this kind of thankfulness is not dependent on our memories; it’s not about yesterday or last year…and there is strength in that kind of statement.  Did you hear it?
What if gratitude was the powerful force with which we went into tomorrow and the next day? What if gratitude was our statement of faith for the ventures of which we cannot see the ending?
Fear is often what carries us into the unknown.  Fear is all over the place these days and with good reason.  There are gun shots in our city, there is sexual abuse in our churches, there is hatred and suspicious between people and public servants.  I am not grateful for any of it! And I’m mostly left doubting and despairing, I’m mostly left with fear for the future.  So I near words that are not hinging on my own memories,  we need stories that tell of courage and justice and new creations.  We, as people of faith, need songs to sing:
…In the Lord I will be ever thankful, in the Lord I will rejoice.  
Look to God to not be afraid lift up your voices the Lord is near. 
Lift up your voices the Lord is near.
We are children of a God who has done great things for us in the past, and this God is on the move, bringing the kingdom of God ever and always in our world, our city, our churches and we are called, as reconciled and freed children to be a part of God’s movement into tomorrow and the day after that! We are called to be a part of our families and our church communities, to be in our neighborhoods and in the streets, we are called to be God’s hands and feet and voice in this place – so what will carry us into tomorrow?  Fear and weakness are certainly a part of us, but what if gratitude was the power and the guiding force that went before us?

Looking back and knowing the stories of our faith is a major way that God reveals who God is in this world.  Knowing the stories of the Israelite, of the prophet Joel who spoke of creation being renewed and knowing the stories of Jesus who tells us not to worry or store up treasures in heaven, these are all stories that reveal who God is – so we look back, we hear the stories of God’s great faithfulness to all people and we say thank you.

Just in the same way that gathering with multiple generations and hearing the stories of the grandparents or telling the stories of the people now gone helps the growing generations to know where they’ve come from, what their family line is all about – it helps us all know who we are.  So we look back, we hear the stories, we say thank you.

And in the hearing, in the compassionate listening we are changed! People of God your story now includes the refugees that penned Psalm 126. And the stories of the refugees, of the once barren earth, the stories of a Savior trying to teach and shape a people of faith are our stories for which we give thanks.  And it is these stories that launch us into tomorrow’s journey of faith.
Does tomorrow’s journey of faith include the refugee, the barren earth, the doubting, the fear, the protester and the prophet, the teacher and our Savior? Yes, it does! So go into your future, into God’s future, not with fear, but with thankful hearts that are made of stories of faith that over and over tell us, and tell our city and tell our families that God is indeed near to us.
…In the Lord I will be ever thankful, in the Lord I will rejoice. 
Look to God to not be afraid lift up your voices the Lord is near.  
Lift up your voices the Lord is near.


Sunday, November 1, 2015

All our saints, and all our sinners.

and excerpt from All Saints sermon 11.01.15
Westwood Lutheran Church

Tonight we are surrounded by quite the cloud of witnesses, the company of our saints.  All Saints’ Sunday is a day for remembering and honoring, a day where there is more room for grief and sorrow and it is a day to be inspired by lives of faith that we can now look back on because the earth-bound story has come to completion and we can take some lessons and inspiration for our own life of faith.  
Today I lit a candle in honor of my Uncle Joe.  He was one of my Dad’s younger brothers, an Italian man from the east side of St. Paul, pretty gregarious, funny, a little crude and overall kind man. His desire to do right in life was palpable, but his ability to carry out that desire was lacking.  I remember, as a teenager, being really angry at my Uncle because he divorced the mother of my favorite cousin.  And suddenly that cousin was no longer at Christmas gatherings and after my grandmother died we lost our connection to that aunt and cousin, the same story repeated with another failed marriage and another cousin drifting out there and tragedy struck with the ending of his final marriage and two sweet little boys who wouldn’t know their father due to separation, then a brutal, brief fight with cancer, then death.
Uncle Joe became sick during my first year at seminary and I remember one afternoon bringing over a big dish of pasta to his last former wife’s house.  She had taken him back in so he could be near his children as he was dying.  He sat across from me, trying to crack the same jokes I’d heard my whole life, trying to keep up a conversation.  But he was frail, visibly showing the wrinkles and wear that come from a life full of struggle, substance abuse, relationships failed and a heart at unrest. He was the shadow of the man I’d known my whole life.
When he died the funeral would be held at the church his last wife attended, a nice Lutheran congregation in St. Paul and it was complete coincidence that the pastor presiding at the funeral was a friend of mine.   During this week of funeral preparations this friend, the preacher, called me and said, “I’ve just met with your uncles and dad and the Joe’s wife and I couldn’t get a lot out of them.” I thought well of course you’re not asking them to argue politics or debate the best pasta sauce recipe.  But I also knew that through his illness and dying there was plenty left unresolved, not every relationship had been healed, the words that needed to be spoken didn’t happen and his death came quickly because his body and soul simply were not strong enough to fight the cancer within him. So I can imagine my family members become tongue tied because we want to present the tidy version of the story, we want God to accept this man and so we should find the fun, light hearted stuff to share at his funeral and not let the pastor see what’s really going on.  This is the struggle that I think is present when we call a day like today, All Saints’ Day. 
My Uncle Joe was no saint when he walked about this earth and I told my friend, the preacher, so. I told him I thought honesty was best and that we, his sad and hurting family, needed to hear God’s promises not because God’s promises come when we are so saintly and all the funeral platitudes are being spoken, but I needed to hear God’s promises thrust into my Uncle’s story, his estranged sons all needed to hear about the kingdom of God that welcomes in every part of that man – full sinner, full saint, completely redeemed and healed by God.
Uncle Joe’s candles burns here with all the others, and I’m guessing if we could peer into each flame and see the whole story each candle carried, we’d see lots of Uncle Joes and estranged children and confused pastors and disappointed nieces.  Right? 
There are points in all of our stories and in all our of grief that need, that demand for Jesus to speak a Word of grace into them.
Did you hear that welcome in this morning’s gospel story? Did you hear how Jesus insisted that an infant be brought before him? Now we think that’s adorable, of course Jesus is welcoming in the cute, little babies! But in Jesus’ day children were not considered the sweet entity of the society that we deem them to be now.  Children simply weren’t old enough to work in the field, not smart enough to hear a rabbi teach – according to the customs in Jesus’ day a child had no business being heard or valued.  So Jesus does what Jesus is so prone to do and pushes at societies boundaries and says, “Let the little children come to me for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”    To such as these: the kingdom belongs to helpless, little nuisance babies? 
And the rich man is told to sell all he has to benefit the poor – then he is welcomed in.  Jesus is turning everyone on it’s head – we value the rich, the successful, those that are productive members of society, we value those that can understand complex religious ideas and properly sit at Jesus’ feet without getting in the way.
And Jesus says no.  Jesus doesn’t value any of it – as he teaches the crowds and reprimands his disciples he says helplessness and poverty of possession – this is the kingdom of God!  We want to earn our way in, prove our worth and Jesus offers a completely contrary welcome:
Jesus alone will welcome us into God’s kingdom despite all we’ve accomplished on this earth
Jesus will be the one to transform our failures into beauty, our ashes into new life so that the infants, the poor will be found in the kingdom of God, so that stories filled with hurt and scars, like my Uncle Joe, will be found in the kingdom of God.
As much as today is about remembers our loved ones and acknowledging the stories that each of these flames represent – today is also about proclaiming a God who welcomes us in! Our stories our indeed swept up into God’s story and we become the kingdom of God! We find ourselves surrounded by the light of this God and it is not apart from suffering, not apart from grief, not apart from the weaknesses that we all carry – this light of God is here to show us how to keep going on in our lives of faith through the deep darkness. 
Today is also the second week of our vocation reader and if you haven’t already I urge you to pick up a reader at the church office and jump into a small group for story sharing and conversation.  In this week’s material is a link to a short TED talk which discusses the difference between living a resume-focused life and an eulogy focused life.  As you might imagine, one such life is focused on temporal successes, tangible wins, accomplishments to be listed – the other, well, is eternal, with primary energy spent in that which will outlive our mortal lives.
Now, I’m not going to collapse into a pep talk on how you might live a more noble life, for I know the realities we all struggle with and trust that we all aim to live with right priorities through well-intention-ed choices.  However, I do want us all to hear clearly the kind of kingdom our God is welcoming us into, the kind of story we are swept up in:
It is the kingdom of eternity, Jesus’ welcome is not because of how impressive you are, but because of how grace-filled Jesus’ love is.  The kingdom of God is not filled with a table of clean and pure people, but is filled with our people, the flawed, faith filled people of our stories.  The saints who surround us were not ultimately saved by their resumes, but by promises such as these words we heard from Revelation
 ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them; 
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes and death will be no more.
The TED talk in this week’s reader is worth your time, if for no other reason than it ends with these words from Reinhold Niebuhr,
 “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”

Through the welcome of Jesus we are transformed into the saints of God, a promise we will one day know fully.  So for all the saints, and all the sinners, for the gift of faith and the welcome of Jesus we say thanks be to God.  Amen.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Stay-cation Part One!

We are on a week long stay-cation, it's been a pretty wonderful few days of adventuring in our amazing city, getting things done at home and having some much needed rest! 

So far...MN Landscape Arboretum, a great place for all ages (and kids get in free!).  This summer they have 12 impressive Lego sculptures.  We also indulged in a pedicure and the movie Inside Out.  I totally cried, I don't know whats happening to me in my old age! 

We also hosted a happy hour on our lawn! About 25 lovelies came over for margaritas, laughter and tree climbing (ok, that last one was just the kiddos). I made a "Supreme Court Fruit Pizza" and M made some super-sweet Cookies 'n Creme Cupcakes! We also squeezed in a swimming play-date with her school buddy.

And our most recent adventurous day was with the Severtson girls,
 doing up Como Zoo right!  

We ended our day biking to a yummy dinner!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pentecost: That one time I was theologically mugged.

Pentecost 2015
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Acts 2:1-21
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

If you’ve been to worship here in the last 7 weeks you might have arrived this morning and notice that our worship space looks a little different! On Easter morning, and for these 7 weeks since we have had these sweeping, dramatic pieces of fabric that have spanned the length of the sanctuary and been draped behind the cross – bold, brilliant reminders of the season of life and promise.  But they came down because today is Pentecost Sunday – did you know? Did you plan your Memorial Day weekend around the fact that today is the day often referred to as the birthday of the church?  It’s alright if you didn’t, Pentecost does not show up on a secular calendar and this day of celebration often falls on Memorial Day weekend.   Whether you were prepared for it, or not, today we hear about the gift of the Holy Spirit which Jesus promised to leave his followers after he ascended to God.  The Holy Spirit would be the glue that holds churches together, the wisdom that moves us forward in God’s mission and so today we consider how, as Christ’s church, we are supposed to carry on in our lives as Jesus people.

The coming of the Spirit is this crazy, odd story told throughout the Bible – she doesn’t just show up once with the tongues of fire and people speaking different languages!  The Spirit of God first moved across the waters of creation in Genesis, she blew through the mass grave of Ezekiel and the dry bones.  Jesus gifted the Spirit to the terrified disciples hiding in a locked room after the crucifixion and, in her most famous scene; the Spirit fell on those first Jesus people in the book of Acts.   The Spirit creates, breathes life, gives courage and empowers the people of God.

This all sounds pretty good, right? You haven’t heard anything too out of the ordinary – other than bones rising from their graves to dance and a group of people randomly blathering on in languages they have never spoken before. Maybe it’s a lot out of the ordinary.  And maybe that is why Lutherans are, generally speaking, so very neglectful of this element of the Divine! Pentecostal isn’t exactly the first adjective that springs to mind when describing the Lutheran denomination – stories of speaking in tongues and breathing life into graves – this is not about us, right? Seeing vision and dreaming dreams? It’s all a little out there! 

And so the Holy Spirit gets this one day that we hear the crazy stories and consider what it means to be moved and inspired and sustained by the Holy Spirit, but won’t be all be much more comfortable when we get back to the parables and stories that we can understand and rationalize! Lutherans are, generally speaking, notorious for squirming their way far away from all this Pentecostal bewilderment.

What is God up to?
What we are really good at, excellent at really, is asking questions.  There is one question that I have heard Lutheran ministries in all sorts of forms and places ask over and over again that tells me maybe we are willing to wonder, in logical and reasonable approaches, about this whole Holy Spirit thing.  The question I have heard over and over again and I know it is asked here at Westwood, rightfully so, is “What is God up to in this place?” “What is God up to?” I am grateful to be serving in a place that engages this question and I hope you’ve heard that question around here too or maybe you’ve looked at your family life, your personal life, your work life, you community and asked that same question,         “What is God up to here?”

And in asking that question we get to share and tell about God’s work in our lives, we believe God is up to saving us and redeem our scars, we believe God is up to healing and nourishing us – body and soul.  We believe in God’s mercy and promise so fully that we share this belief not only on Sunday mornings in worship, but also as we serve up community meals on Wednesday nights, as we rehearse music to proclaim good news, as we take time to raise our children well in the stories of the faith and gather food for hungry neighbors and in all the ways we move as a church to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ we are again and again responding to the ever intriguing question, “What is God up to in this place?”

And there are tangible events and marks and stuff to point to as we try to live entire lives that respond to that question.  Today, on this crazy day of Pentecost, let us consider a nuanced take on that question.  As mysterious and baffling and inspiring as the Holy Spirit can be, could  she also be pushing us to ask this question, “How is God up to all that God is up to here?” How is God saving and redeeming and feeding and inspiring and pushing and challenging and transforming us into God’s people? How?

This question, I fear, makes me uncomfortable – because it isn’t so tidy or tangible, the logic doesn’t quite cut it as we consider the HOW ofiit all.  Now, we have to feel it, in our hearts and our guts, could we pause on this Pentecost day and consider how all this Godly talk feels in our very being? Isn’t that the way of the Holy Spirit as she breathed over the waters of creation can you feel it like that ever refreshing breeze off a Minnesota lake? Or when the breath made those bones dance, can you remembers times of such wild celebration and elation in your life? Or when the disciples of Jesus were able to do the unthinkable, can you remember what it feels like to be brave and even out of control? Do these feelings and experiences have a place in our stories of faith? Isn’t this the Holy Spirit among us, making us dance with new life and bringing us to deeper understanding of the ways of God, far beyond logic and reason and tangible evidence?

Because, let’s name it, there is an unexplainable, irrational, crazy component to this whole faith in God thing.  We talk a lot about faith and love and hope and having a sense of call on our lives – but we cannot measure or qualify or contain any of it.  Yet, here we are.  I know I can remember, during the most poignant points of my life what faith and love and hope and purpose felt like…can you? I’m not simply talking about an emotional high, that would be a dangerous thing to pin our faith to,  but instead it is those times and experiences when a grounded-ness swells beneath you and a certainty of grace covers you.  Our faith is in things unseen, like the Holy Spirit moving among us and within us – a feeling we feel.

Could that be, in part, how God is up to what God is up to in our lives and in this place?

And this is the day we remember that the Holy Spirit is the one who breathes words of life into our otherwise cranky mouths, and it is the Holy Spirit that spurs on a very real, spiritual response to all that gospel goodness.  Maybe even Lutherans can be Pentecostal, too!

Logic vs. Feeling: Atheist guy.
A few years ago, while I was doing my pastoral internship in Oregon I had a young man, in his early 20s, walk into my office saying he wanted to learn about what we do here at the church.  I began to talk about worship, the community of faith and he interrupted me.  He plainly said, “I am with the Atheist Alliance of America and I want to know how you do what you do all day and then sleep at night.”  He went on to tell me that the all the church does is take people’s money and then cripple them so they cannot emotionally deal with their own lives.  In a very respectful way he asked me to provide him with scientific proof of creation and with historical proof for scripture and all the happenings it accounts for.  
He had a list of 52 questions he wanted to ask me, or as I saw it, 52 ways to poke at my faith in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.   This man, passionate and full of conviction for his viewpoint continued to talk about evidence and historical inaccuracies, he casually discounted a few bible stories based on their lack of scientific probability.

During this odd exchange, I found myself distracted by the only piece of jewelry he was wearing, a wedding ring.  At first I thought, does your wife know what you’re doing right now? But then I told him that I could no more prove to him the validity of my faith in God than he can prove to me the validity of his new marriage.

And so I began to ask for proof of his very-new bride’s faithfulness, were their documents that could measure and justify her love for him? Was the total sum of their financial assets greater or lesser than their commitment to one another?   Could he produce a 5 or 10 year plan for their relationship and future ventures based on their certainly of what gains and losses would befall them? I wasn’t all that clever in coming up with these questions, they were simple spins on the questions he had already asked me of the church.

He wanted to talk science and history and proof.  I told him the church had been given the language of relationship and love and life.  I was no smooth talkin’ pastor-lady just sitting in my office that day, by the end of our lengthy conversation I had raised my voice and was shaking for much of the day after he left.  But I took that shaking as a sign that I had a very real reaction to someone poking holes at my faith, a faith I had been given by the Holy Spirit in my baptism, a faith handed to me by a wide community of saints and a faith I had experienced as true and life-giving and lasting.  Not an emotional high, but a soul-resounding gift.

There is a holy, uncontrollable mystery to this faith life, it is the power of the Holy Spirit, given to us in the baptismal waters  -- it is how God is up to all that God is up to in our lives.

So when we hear the words from the book of Acts, that our young people will see visions and our old will dream dreams we need not squirm away or fear being too Pentecostal.  Because seeing visions and dreaming dreams isn’t just for the Pentecostals anymore, it never really was, and it’s not about predicting the future or knowing what’s on the horizon – because that is simply another attempt to control the uncontrollable.

Seeing the vision of God and dreaming the dreams of God is to be brave enough to ask the question, What is God up to in my life? And it is being brazen enough to live lives that tell others how God is up to all that God is up to in your life. 
As the temperature rises this spring and summer we will open our windows and feel the breeze as we drive or in our homes and offices, a perfect image for the Holy Spirit in our lives.  We cannot control her temperature or power, but we can open the window and be moved by this Holy presence.

You are God’s beautiful creation and the Holy Spirit hovered over you at your making.

You have been given the breath of Ezekiel to call out to mass graves and dead bones, “Come alive, come alive.”

You, children of God, have been given the power of the Holy Spirit, not to prove anything, but to announce the gift of life to the world.

What is God up to here?
How is God up to what God is up to? Through the power of the Holy Spirit moving in each and every one of us.  May we fall into this holy, uncontrollable, crazy mystery of God for the sake of the whole world.  Amen.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Forgiveness: Bulldozers and Baltimore

Sermon 5.03.15
John 20:19-23
Real Life. Risen Life!

For these weeks since Easter we’ve been hearing the stories that are told in the gospels that witness to Jesus’ post-death existence.  Each scene we’ve heard includes Jesus appearing to his followers in completely unexpected ways – because, let’s face it, no one expects a once dead person to show up for a walk on the road, or hang out in gardens, or BBQ on the beach…but Jesus does all that and then some.

And each story is filled with seemingly small details that the gospel writers take great care in laying out for us – and one detail that has been catching my attention is all the running involved in the resurrection! After the people realize who Jesus is, alive and walking alongside them, they run like mad!

Two men walk the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus and Jesus appears teaching them for hours, entering a home and sharing a meal.  And when the disciples, who have unknowingly spent much of the day with their beloved teacher realize who is sitting at the table…they take off! Running to find the other disciples, running to tell them that Jesus is actually alive!

Just last week we heard Mary’s story – how she found the empty grave and went running to get others.  And then the first people she sees also go running.  They run to find people who will listen, they run to share their news – probably looking for validation and help as they wrestle with the experience of seeing Jesus, scars and all, living among them.   These could be flights of fear, they could be complete jubilation – it’s hard to know, but there is no denying that the vision of the risen Christ gets people moving.

And then, on the evening of the resurrection we get this story.  As light as fallen, the movement has ceased.  The yelling and story sharing turn to hushed, intense whispers and running stops and turns to bent postures for the followers of Jesus are terrified. Darkness has fallen on that Easter day and the disciples cower behind locked doors.
And still, the risen Christ appears.  Just has he appeared to Thomas who was doubting, just as he appeared to the disciples walking the road and grieving, just as he appeared to Mary who stared into the empty tomb confused and hurt and betrayed.  The risen One appears through the locked doors into a room of stillness and fear.
Peace be with you, he speaks.  All that running has paid off, their minds are sharp, they recognize Jesus immediately.  Still, no one moves. 
Jesus shows them his scars, proving his identity? Fulfilling the prophecy? Or perhaps, he is displaying his body with all the violence that has befallen him, all the injustice that cut into those scars and he speaks the response that can only come from new life…Peace be with you.
Still, no one moves.

Then Jesus breathes on them and gives them the power, breathes on them the authority, and speaks these empowering, yet very difficult words…
 Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.  If you retain the sins of any they are retained.

The marching orders for the church of the risen Christ have been received.  Now, with our vantage point of over 2,000 years of hindsight and history – I think it is safe to say these words have been used and mangled throughout time.  Acknowledging the differing viewpoints of the entire body of Christ around the world – these words are down right scary! Followers of Christ are given the authority to forgive and retain? Doesn’t Jesus know who he is talking to? A people, then and now, who are prideful and self-seeking.  A people who love sensationalized drama and getting ahead.  The human instinct to judge and label and exclude…to these people, (these people) Jesus says if you forgive, they are forgiven.  If you retain, they are retained.  

Forgiveness sounds different depending on who is speaking it.  Forgiveness requires different modes of confession and repentance depending on what church is offering it.  There have been and still are eras of the church when forgiveness required looking a certain way, pledging allegiance to an empire.  There have been eras when the authority of the church was wielded with blood and control and oppression.   And there throughout all these eras there are churches who are quiet, fearful, stingy with their authority, slow to share freedom and forgiveness with its people.  The charge to  offer freedom in the name of Jesus, also brings the capacity of inflicting deep pain in that same name.

 So, what does a church, fully risen and forgiven by the scarred and risen Christ look like and sound like? How is this forgiveness and retention really lived in our faith community?

Every time we worship we participate in an ancient practice most recently called, the sharing of the peace.  Here at Westwood it happens differently at every worship service, at 9AM is falls just after the prayers of the people, at 10:30AM it comes at the beginning of our worship and on Wednesday evening people are invited to share God’s peace as they are leaving. It may be our most flexible, yet consistent, worship practice.  

Today it’s a friendly face and a genuine handshake.  In its earliest form however, the sharing of the peace was seen as an act of worship which responds directly to Jesus’ teaching that one cannot approach the altar of God without first having reconciled with their brother and sister.  The sharing of the people was also meant to be a sharing of grace and forgiveness. This ministry we do to each other is far greater than a sociable handshake or a ritual of friendship.   We give to each other what we are saying: Christ’s own peace, just as Jesus did in that locked room.  In worship we are called to be reconciled to one another, to get our affairs with one another in order, before God.   We move around, shaking hands, offering greeting and Christ’s peace – and sometimes reconciliation does indeed come through these small gestures. But we all know that the deep healing we all are in need of and the profound forgiveness our world is seeking often takes big efforts, sweeping humility and  mass movements. 

Being unassuming, quiet Midwesterners, forgiveness so often looks like a shrug of the shoulders, the trite mummer of “Oh, its ok.”. With these socially acceptable words and movements we confine the gift of forgiveness into a controllable exchange, nothing more than a polite handshake. However, the forgiveness of the cross comes from a darker, more prevailing and more hopeful place than a shoulder shrug.

A few years ago, I was preparing to leave a darkened corner of my world, an environment filled with anger, shame and violence.  After leaving, it took two more years before I could really discuss it and as shared with a trusted pastor how deeply I longed for reconciliation, how far away forgiveness or peace or wholeness seemed and I railed against how much pain was laid on these years.  I heard him say, “Of course it hurts, forgiveness so often does.” I was stunned by his statement and disturbed by how true it felt in my very core. Had there simply been shrugged shoulders at every offense we could have still been in that former place, leaving was a form of forgiveness.  Moving out of a ben posture of fear was a way of saying that there was something more life-giving.  It was in leaving that I finally experienced that new life God promises and extends to every person – even the angry, even the shameful.

When we simply shrug our shoulders we are saying that whatever brokenness that exists is ok, whatever hurt that has scarred us (or others) is ok and that ok-ness will stay with us. The forgiveness extended to us by God is so different from the shoulder shrug, for when God forgives us there is a swift and powerful movement away from what has been.  Forgiveness is a bull dozer that clears the way for newness of life and healthier ways of being human! 

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.  If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.  This is the call of the church, this is the charge from our Risen Savior: forgiveness is about being on the move, seeking out and fight for and pointing to life among us!

The world needs no more retaining – no more binding up hurts and horrors, our world is full of such spirits already.  I’m sure all of us where struck by the distressing headlines that filled the news this week.  When I read the endless blogs and articles addressing the horror that filled the streets of Baltimore this past week I was also remembering the words that have been preached from this pulpit these weeks since Easter – words that have claimed a resurrected world in the name of the Risen Christ.  And so the movement for reconciliation begins, the cry for the peace of the risen Christ must be heard from the church of Christ, from the people who share the peace and claim the resurrection here.
Where are you, risen Savior? Are you on the streets of Baltimore?
Where are you, risen Savior? Are you in the villages of India and Nepal?
…..Are you on the pillaged fields of the Bakken oil fields?
Where are you, risen Savior?
The risen Christ appears in these places of fear and locked doors.  He comes, breathing new life to the angry and shame-filled and destroyed ones.  And in his presence we know the violence that fell upon the body of Jesus was not the end of the story.  The injustice and corruption, the pride and prejudice did not have the final say! The risen Christ did indeed rise from all these powers of the earth and from the depth of the grace and spoke to his followers… “Peace be with you”
I saw the risen Christ in the feet of the clergy who marched together peacefully through the streets of Baltimore.  And I saw the risen Christ in the passionate face of a young man who put himself between a police line and restless protesters crying out, “Do not give them a reason, do not give them a reason.” 
Because forgiveness and reconciliation is a powerful, sometimes painful experience, Resurrection is not clean.  It is not devoid of emotion and outrage.  Being an Easter people does not mean living in our Easter clothes, afraid of getting them stained.  Being an Easter child means speaking life into death, breath hope into despair, it means getting in the face of division and hate and shaking up apathy and laziness.

Peace be with you, Baltimore.
Peace be with you, India and Nepal.
Peace be with you wastelands and oil fields.

We can share this peace because it has been spoken and shared with us.  Because our stories of fear and shame have been freed.  For it begins with you and your stories of forgiveness and movement and it is carried out into God’s world.

You are forgiven. You are free.
You are the church of the risen Christ on earth, may we be forgiveness, may we be freedom.

For the peace that surpasses our deepest hurts, for peace that will change the world, we say thanks be to God.  Amen. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Gospel, Grace & Gift (the Lutheran standard)

You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Ephesian 2:1-10

Two years ago the Christian Century poised a challenged to authors, theologians, pastors and the general public to articulate their understanding of the gospel message, the good news, in 7 words or less.  In our era of constant connection to media, 24 hour news tickers and the surge of branding and marketing experts honing in on our shrinking attention spans tells us that pithy, catchy and clear messages are crucial. 

Many of the responses to the Christian Century challenge sound like these…

Death is defeated by Jesus - follow him!

Love God.  Love neighbor.  Transform the world. 
Love your neighbor as yourself.

These are all biblical supported statements, important elements of the life faith and what it means to live like a Christian.  They also are the parts of Christianity that flow into our popular culture – challenge, transform, be perfect, do more, live a big, impactful, unforgettable life! These concise statements are actually talking about the great commission…what Jesus asks of his followers, the call of the church.  But this is not the gospel.  There are too many action words, the sentiment is all about our lives and about us doing stuff, good stuff certainly, but these statements are primarily about us.  This is not the gospel.

Then there are some other responses that Christian Century received, see if you can hear a different core to these 7 word phrases…

                God, through Jesus Christ, welcomes you anyhow.
                In Christ, God’s yes defeats our no.
And this one, my favorite from the bunch, speaks the gospel message into our being,

                We are who God says we are.   We are who God says we are.

This seven words gospel nugget is as swift as it is intriguing.  For the people inside and outside and around the faith community, this pithy gospel slogan begs the question “If we are who God says we are…What does God say about us?!?”

If we are who God says we are…aren’t your curious about what that means? Well, both of our scripture passages today address this question quite directly, but I have a hunch the author of the 7 words was inspired by one of our verses from Ephesians…so we go back to this beautiful reading.

The author of Ephesians, first names our mortal reality.
                You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived…
We all have a past, short or long, that is marked with failures and flaws and that leaves us with scars from all the scratching and clawing we have tried to do on the way to being who we want to be.

All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

I am so grateful to the author of Ephesians, that this dreary and entirely too honest word ends with like everyone else.  As if to say, don’t feel too bad, because you’re just like everyone else.  It is unavoidable – the pull to chase after gods that fail.  The desire to give away our hearts to those that will break it.  The defeat we succumb to when struggling with worldly realities we’ve discussed here each Wednesday; isolation, mental illness, addiction, financial strain and the great idol of busy-ness.

 We, as a people have a history, the church has a history – it’s not exciting or summed up in seven words – but it is a part of who we are, and how we are who we are.  We are a people, a church with a past and that is the beginning of who we are. 

Then the pivot…the point when this Word of God leads us through our past and points us in a new direction. 

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses made us alive together with Christ.

Great love finds us, even when we were dead, Great love finds us and makes us alive together with Christ.  Brothers and sisters, listen up – because this is who we are.  We are not the failures, we are not the scars, we are not the sum total of our history or our trespasses. Nothing else gets to say who we are, not even our own self-loathing or self-congratulating selves.  We are alive together with Christ.

And then Ephesians gives us the battle cry of the Lutheran church, For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.

And, like everyone else, this just is.  This just is who we are.  Unable to wreak it, or spoil it.  Incapable of earning it or squandering it.  This just is who we are – recipients of the gift of God.

This seems like a good place to end my sermon.  Ephesians has brought us to the unexplained, extravagantly rich promise that we have been saved by grace through faith. 

But a nagging question has remained with me.  With Scripture texts such as these a sermon should have some pouring out this week with ease and passion and yet I found myself wrestling and wandering what this word of grace really means for us, Christians stumbling through a post-Christendom, post-modern world. 

I am not sure the church or the individuals who make up the church, or the individuals who don’t make up the church are really struggling with the question of grace.  I mean in the more classic sense of salvation and standing before the gates of hell and “being saved”.  Martin Luther once illustrated grace by saying it is like we are a helpless caterpillar, surrounding by a mighty ring of fire and God reaches down, pulls us up and rescues us.  I most certainly can be wrong, but I am guessing that by and large we are not a society that flees to church out of fear of damnation or a large ring of fire.  We have just progressed to a different place in popular belief, a more self-sufficient and self-surviving place.

Yet, there are still struggles.

I think we battle ourselves, our scars, our histories which make it difficult to surrender to the gift of grace.

I think the rise of individuality in our culture makes it difficult to understand such a radical gift and the horrors of our world and the systems of power and corruption plant strong seeds of doubt deep within.

And every single message that we receive every hour of every day telling us that we are not enough, or that we are too much and that we must earn our place in the classroom, in the office, in our homes, on our social media feeds or even in our families, that we must do more and be something other to earn our place on this earth.

When confronted with all this and the ugly, harmful ways this has a hold of God’s world….well, then that sounds an awful lot like the gates of hell in our post-Christendom, post-modern world.

We are who God says we are.  We are who God says we are.

It is a pithy gospel word – not simplistic, not watered down.  But it confronts our struggle with this word of grace, yes?

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.

It’s not 7 words, but it packs the punch.  Saving us from ourselves.  Telling us plainly and finally that the gospel promise flowing from God’s great love is done in Jesus Christ alone.  The gospel is completed and has been for quite some time now.  So we can leave it alone, we can need not add to it, or chase after it – for it will not leave us alone.  The grace of Jesus Christ comes into our being in its intruding, controlling, liberating, renewing kind of way and says this is now your way of life.

We are who God says we are: new creations alive with Christ.

There is one more take on this grace thing I would like to close with.  Frederick Beauchner is a favorite Christian author of mine and he has this earthy, honest reflection on grace…just a tad longer than 7 words.

Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There's no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.
A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace.
A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There's nothing you have to do. There's nothing you have to do. There's nothing you have to do.
The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It's for you I created the universe. I love you.
There's only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace is yours, reach out and take it.
Being able to reach out and take it is a gift you have been given too.

Thanks be to God of great love, the giver of all life and grace.  Amen.