Sunday, May 21, 2017

Grace and graduation

Galatians 1:13-17, 2:11-21

            I really don’t like preaching on Paul’s writings. Paul’s words, in spite of being the foundation of much of our theology, are tough to parse, so I’m stuck in the role of Paul’s translator and I don’t much like it. For example, in Galatians today Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” And Paul says, “If justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” And we say, “Oh yes, Paul. Give us another!” Something about grace and faith; something about the law serving a purpose but salvation is through Christ, etc, etc. There is more Paul in the Lutheran Confessions than anything short of the Gospels, but just because this is what the church confesses doesn’t mean it’s easy. Instead, I find that it leaves people asking: But now what?
            That’s the problem. I basically have one sermon in me and it centers of grace. I preach on grace pretty much every Sunday and some of you buy half into it 99% of the time, others of you buy into it fully about half of the time; still others have no idea why any of this matters and you are waiting for me to reference some cultural marker you can relate to so you can perk up. Nothing is more offensive than grace because feels like I might be saying “None of this matters!” And that’s what we’re afraid of after all—that none of this does matter. So when the pastor stands up and proclaims not expensive grace, and not cheap grace, but free grace—grace that is yours free of charge, no acceptance necessary—well, that sounds like a free pass to meaninglessness paved on a road of anything-goes. Just the kind of thing we want to be telling our graduates, right? Anything goes?
What do we do with this grace?
            For graduates it comes in the following questions I’m sure you have heard once or twice recently. “So, what are you doing next year?” “So, where are you going to school?” “So, what kind of work are you doing?”
            Now what?

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Grace first, potluck second

Acts 15:1-18

What rules should stay and which can be changed?
Isn’t that a fantastic, 21st century question? Well, it was also a first century question and a second century question… a third century question… a fourth… a fifth. Actually, it’s an every time question, especially as it pertains to faith. The church is, as the Reformation taught us, semper reformata—always reforming. The question is, as always: Which parts?
            Is it necessary that I preach from the pulpit? Most of you maybe don’t care. But at what point in the aisle does it become a little too Pentecostal? Where’s the point where I’ve taken it a little too far?
It’s an interesting question.
Or how about what we teach in the church? How about Confirmation? Most of our ideas about what Confirmation should look like have their roots in what Confirmation was for us. So, how do we take what Confirmation was for us and make it something that works today?
We can do this for everything we do as a church: Rules about communion… about who can serve in leadership roles… who can get ordained. It goes on and on.
Whatever your opinions about these things you have all seen these practices change in the last twenty or thirty or fifty years, and many other practices have followed in a similar vein.
The early church had even more dramatic shifts. For the first time, in today’s reading, they decide that Gentiles—uncircumcized, non-Jewish people—were able to be part of the church. This is revolutionary because they are saying that the thing that united the people—their Jewish faith, culture, and ethnicity—was now not the only way to be part of a shared faith. If Greeks could be part of the church then Lord only knows who else could be? Romans… Africans… people from the east. This is crazy stuff; it’s a giant change in the practices of the church. But Peter persists: Salvation is by grace, not ethnic heritage.
Ethnic heritage questions have not gone away in the last two millennia. Our churches still claim certain heritages. The real question is: At what point does our celebrating of our heritage constitute exclusion of others who don’t share that heritage? It might seem odd to you, but most people in the world don’t go out of their way for lefse bakes… or know what lefse is, for that matter. I was reminded of this when I typed “lefse” in Microsoft Word and it put that squiggly red line underneath, telling me it wasn’t in the dictionary. People don’t know what this stuff is. Now, I’m not saying it’s a problem to make lefse… or celebrate St. Lucia Day… or whatever ethnic festival is important to you—not in itself—but Peter, Paul, and Barnabus remind us to be aware of all the ways we subtly exclude by suggesting that who we are ethnically is more important than the faith we share.
A few weeks ago I asked our Confirmation students to brainstorm and highlight the things that make Lutherans Lutheran. Their answer? The one thing they could agree on was church-defining for Lutherans: potluck.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

I'm probably not Philip (and you're probably not the eunuch)

Philip and Ethiopian eunuch poses some interesting questions. For one, I think every pastor likes to imagine that all of you are the eunuch, happily reading Isaiah, waiting for someone like me to come along and help you interpret it. Then, undoubtedly, you will be so moved by my interpretation that you will ask to be baptized, or recommit to your faith, or go to Synod Assembly. I don’t know. Something like that.
            Real life is a little more complicated. You may or may not share much in common at all with that eunuch. Pastors love to imagine that every person in the pews is dying to hear our interpretations of scripture, but, again shockingly, that’s not always the case. Then, there is this tendency of pastors, like myself, to believe that since you aren’t as interested in certain things as me you are probably lukewarm in your faith, apathetic—whatever you want to call it—and we tend to think this even though faith is experienced and practiced in many ways and some of you are on a very different road of faith than others. Some of you just feel pulled to be part of something and you don’t understand how or why, and if somebody asks you’ll assume your reasons aren’t very good.
            Pastors like to imagine—because we like to see ourselves as Philip—that there’s something wrong with you if you are like this; that you should be more like the eunuch; that it’s our job to make you more like the eunuch, and if we just deliver that perfect sermon you’ll be roused to stand up and your life will be changed for the better. If we do our mandatory visiting of you—because we all know the Spirit works most effectively through spreadsheets that tell us who we need to see these days—then, of course, you will be strengthened in your faith. Because I’m Philip; you’re the eunuch. Obviously.
            Or… maybe not.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Stephen and the perfect church

Acts 6:1-7:60

            There’s a lot that can be said about Stephen. A member of the early church, one of the first martyrs for the Christian faith, and he’s killed by the same kind of authorities—the high priests and whatnot—that turned on Jesus. The contention continues into the early church, and there at his stoning we get our first glimpse of a young man named Saul, Saul who would become Paul, the author of much of the New Testament.
            Today I want to focus on the initial circumstances that led to Stephen being set apart and eventually killed, circumstances that begin with the beginning of chapter 6. I’m going to read the first four verses again:
“Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.  Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word."
            I want to focus on these verses today because they illustrate something rather interesting about that early church that we tend to skim over; namely, the early church had issues. It’s easy to look at the book of Acts as an account of the perfect church, because if it is the perfect church then our task is as simple as becoming like the early church. If only we could become more like that church in Acts then we would be set. However, even in chapter six we’re seeing that this church has some profound divisions. There are two groups—the Hellenists and the Hebrews; you could call them the Swedes and the Norwegians; Sven and Ole are having a disagreement about how to be the church. The Hellenists are concerned because their widows are not being fed… seems like a legitimate complaint. I mean, if the church isn’t feeding widows then what is it really doing?

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Emmaus Uncertainty Principle

Luke 24:13-35

The road to Emmaus story is this great reminder of how hard it is to convey religious experiences in words. Emmaus reminds us that we can have this amazing coming-to-Jesus moment on the road—a person can literally walk with Jesus on the road—but at first we won’t even realize what is happening and when we finally do see it for what it is Jesus will be gone. He will evaporate into thin air. The moment we step back to reflect on religious experience we can no longer grasp what it was all about, and since we are no longer a part of it we have an awfully hard time describing it. It’s like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which I’m sure all of you remember from science class: Heisenberg suggested that when you take a measurement of a particle you can know where it is or where it's going but not both. A similar thing is true of faith: You cannot understand an experience at the same time you experience it. I’m going to just go ahead and call this the Emmaus Uncertainty Principle.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Dare to hope

Luke 24:1-12

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!
            See, it’s so easy! You just repeat the same words you repeat every year. Christ is risen… he is risen indeed, Alleluia! So then why couldn’t the disciples believe it?
            Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women had just returned from the tomb as the first preachers of the resurrection. Mary Magdalene is the first Christian preacher and she just delivered the first Christian sermon of all time—also the shortest and best sermon of all time. “He. Is. Risen.” Full stop.
            But Mary’s sermon has about the same effect as most preaching. That’s a nice sermon, Mary. “It seemed to them an idle tale,” says Luke in the Gospel reading, “And they did not believe them.” Well, that is to say most of them did not believe them. Maybe it was because they were women in a society run by men, maybe it was because the disciples assumed that if Christ were truly to rise from the dead surely he would make himself known to them first, but probably it was mostly just that the disciples lacked faith. Well, again, most of them lacked faith. There is Peter, who gets up and runs to the tomb, stoops down, looks in and sees. And what does he see? Nothing. No Jesus. And he goes home amazed.
            Easter morning is about the absence of a thing, which makes it special in and of itself. Most of our lives are spent searching for something, for some thing, whether it be a newer, shinier car; a newer, shinier job; or a newer, shinier spouse. It’s usually a thing that we are after. But Easter reminds us that the greatest things are no-things. An empty tomb, an MRI that’s clear, no call in the middle of the night, no tombstone for a child—none of that. Things happen, and sometimes terrible things happen, and so we sit, like the disciples on that first Easter morning, wondering what went wrong. How can we fix it and make it all better?
            Into that gloomy room bursts Mary Magdalene with a three-word sermon—still the best sermon ever given. HE IS RISEN! And the disciples do not believe her. They are busy trying to fix the problem, probably reading their Bibles, wondering which clues they missed. They are trying to take the thing that is broken and piece it back together again even though they know that death is final and there is nothing they can do. They are depressed, gloomy, angry. How dare these women come with this nonsense!
            Well, there is Peter…
            Peter, for all his faults, dares to hope for something better. Peter who denied Christ three times; Peter who was corrected harshly for wanting to worship the place where Jesus was transfigured rather than Jesus who stood before him, Peter who, according to John’s Gospel, was fishing naked in a boat, saw Jesus on the shore and was so excited to see him that he put his clothes back on before jumping into the water. This Peter who worshiped wrongly, who turned on Jesus in his greatest time of need, and who was a bit of an odd duck if we can say so—this Peter dares to hope for something better.
            He dares wisely. The resurrection is the thing worth daring for. A person can put their trust in all sorts of the wrong things. You can trust in the lottery to find wealth, you can trust in your smarts to win friends, you can trust in your politics to influence others, you can trust in your phone to make you feel connected. None of that is likely to work, but trust in the resurrection and you will not be disappointed. Dare to hope for something better!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Suffer once

Luke 23:1-47

Let's start with Saturday. That’s probably a strange way to start a Good Friday sermon, but hear me out. Between this night and Sunday morning we go through Holy Saturday, a Saturday which may feel like just another day in the calendar—a blip on Holy Week where we rest from going to church. But Saturday is an important day, because Saturday is every day. Let's start with Saturday, because our lives are spent in that Saturday.
            That Saturday between the day Jesus died and the morning when the women arrived at the tomb was the longest day. The disciples’ hopes and dreams were dashed. Jesus was not the Messiah. A Messiah wouldn’t die, not before defeating his enemies. They knew this. They were hiding in fear, in shock, starting to try to pick up the broken pieces. Sure, Jesus told them about what was going to happen, but they never heard, they never listened, it went in one ear and out the other. They assumed he was speaking in metaphor. They assumed wrong.
            We, too, have heard the promises. We’ve heard word of what has happened and what will happen. We, too, stand on faith in a time between times—between birth and death. We, too, trust in words to give us hope. Our entire lives pass in that Saturday. It is the day that represents every day to those of us who are alive. Every day is Saturday. Jesus came, so we wait and wonder: What happens next? Can we imagine that Jesus might come again?
            Saturday is the day of unknown diagnoses, the day of middle-of-the-night phone calls; it’s the day where we live in fear. It’s the day of faith because it is a day of waiting. For some it is a long day… too long. For some it is overwhelming. Waiting. We are terrible at waiting.
            All the things that might get us in this life tend to pale in comparison to the worries we carry about what might be. We worry. A lot. We feel we may have plenty to worry about. But do we? Do we really? 
            This can be a day of worry or it can be a day of hope. It can feel funny talk about hope on Good Friday, because this is the day when it feels like we’re supposed to let the heaviness sit, but today is only as heavy as the emphasis we put on the time between Friday and Sunday. The length of Saturday, like the length of grief over loss, is what determines our feelings about today, because resurrection is coming! You can see the signs of it: Signs of hope and joy and peace in the midst of destruction. You can see it in the ones who help, the servants, the ones who give for one another. There are resurrection signs all around us. You can see it in the spring; you can see it in a field, on a lake once frozen, in yards once covered with snow. It’s all around you if you open your eyes. We are living in Saturday but Saturday is packed with signs of resurrection.
            The inspirational quote that has been speaking to me in the last many months is one that is particular apt for a Holy Saturday, and judging by the response I got when I posted it on Facebook this week it’s one many of you find meaning in as well. It is this great little one-liner from Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them where he says, “My philosophy is worrying means that you suffer twice.”
            Worrying means that you suffer twice.
            That’s a Holy Saturday quote because between death and resurrection, between the cross and the empty tomb, is anxiety. We find reasons to worry. It’s easy to pick out examples of suffering and say, “Yes, my worries are justified! Look what could happen to me! Look what does happen.” And so we feel smart in our worrying; we feel we are being honest about the world.