Sunday, June 16, 2019

Praise the Lord! (For the stoic midwesterner)

Psalm 113

            As we enter into our summer lectionary readings we begin with a topic that might make some of you uncomfortable. It’s all about praise!
            I can hear you thinking: Oh now, pastor, can we have just a little more time with all that judgment stuff, please? Obviously, that makes us uncomfortable, too, but at least when you talk about judgment we aren’t worried that you’re going to force us to do something we don’t want to do!
            Praise is a scary word. It’s scary, because it brings to mind other scary things like dancing and singing. We don’t dance much in public anymore, you might have noticed. It wasn’t that long ago that school dances involved dancing. It also wasn’t that long ago that communal singing was a thing that happened all the time. Nowadays, it’s pretty much reserved for church and the occasional odd sporting event, which is really cool when it happens, by the way. I will always remember the late-September 2008 Twins series sweep of the White Sox when the Metrodome corridors were packed with fans shouting Glory, Glory, Hallelujah. We know how to praise. We mostly just don’t want to.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. In many places in the world today, dancing, and singing, and communal praise are essential to worship. In 2006, I went on a trip to Tanzania with the Augustana Choir. One Sunday after worship in a village outside of Iringa, a half dozen local choirs joined us on the back lawn of the church to sing for one another. But it wasn’t just singing—it was dancing and jumping. It was praising. Every one of those groups came dressed for the occasion and ready to move it, clad in long-flowing robes or traditional Masai black-and-red laden with jewelry. They knew who they were, and they were there to do praise.
Our music was meaningful but different. This Lutheran tradition of stoicism is a heritage of ours that has some real strengths. We tend to be humble; we tend to value meekness; and we tend to do what we do well. But, man, do we struggle with praise! So, we say “Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord; praise the name of the Lord” from Psalm 113, but we say it meekly. We say it uniformly. We don’t want to stick out. And if the pastor (or anybody else) tries to get us to do differently, watch out!
            So much of this comes from a good place—really, it does! We see the people who make a show of their praise—who raise up their hands not out of genuine worship but to demonstrate their faithfulness to others, or to fit in themselves. We see the auditoriums and the stadiums full of worshipers who are mimicking the actions of others, and we find that at best inauthentic and at worst showy or boastful. But just because we see the hypocrisy of others doesn’t mean we have our house in order.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Dying and Rising

I want to talk today about baptismal dying and rising—a subject we don’t talk about here that often—in part I’m guessing because it sounds like one of those church-y things that we leave to the seminary professors and church theologians. But like most church-y things, Paul’s letters are not really for ivory tower white-bearded dudes to form a systemic theology around. Rather, they are for you—good news! Not just that Jesus came but also why that matters. They bridge the history of our faith with the practices we share. This has the power to change the way you live.
            Dying and rising is not some theology. It’s the way we live our lives as Christians. Each day, we don’t look in the mirror and say, “Man, P. Frank, looking fine today. Better Christian than I was yesterday! Working my way up the spiritual ladder! Sure glad I’m not the dirty, rotten sinner I was before those college degrees. Glad those student loans bought me salvation!”
            Dying and rising means waking up in the mirror, looking at yourself, and saying ( in the words of a seminary professor of mine), “Male bovine fecal matter! I’m still the same dirty, rotten sinner I was before all those student loans. Dang." And yet… if Jesus died on my behalf—if my trust for meaning is not in these sorry black bags under my eyes, then I can stop playing these stupid games. If Jesus died for me, then I will die in him. And, strangely, I already have. I already died to sin. And I do every day. But Jesus promises something better: You don’t just die, you rise!
            And dying and rising is for all of us!
            Dying and rising is for the alcoholic who understands they cannot fix this problem by their own willpower, but who discovers on the other side of addiction that  grace isn’t for the righteous but for them. Sinners. And it’s not dependent on you fixing the situation, because—like with so many things in life—you can’t fix it. Instead, the only thing that might work is God fixing you, having realized you couldn’t do it yourself.
            And dying and rising is for the parent, whose children never listen, who feels overwhelmed by the burden of teaching them good behavior, and who too often feels like a failure when we can’t make our children into the people we want to be, because baptismal grace commands us to measure ourselves not by our successes but by our failures, and love is the only prerequisite of living a life with God. So, you can’t fail your children if you love them—even if they’re little devils; even if they seem to reject the God who you want them to know by love. Love your children and they will kill you minute by minute, not being able to mold them as you feel you should; not being able to keep them completely safe. Our children are vulnerable—our children make us vulnerable—which is why when we baptize we don’t shy away from it. Children don’t deserve to die, and yet, they do. In baptism, we name it, because we are people of the resurrection.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

A Memorial Day Reflection on Enemies

I’ve read Romans 5 maybe a hundred times in my life. It’s on the short list of the most central passages to Christian theology. This will be the fifth time I’ve preached on it. But, like so many things, there’s more there the more I have read it. This was the first time I even noticed one word. It’s the first time I considered the word, “enemies.”
            “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life,” says Paul in Romans 5:10.
            I doubt we think very often about our relationship with God as one of enmity. Even when we are perfectly fine describing ourselves as sinner, I don’t think we consider ourselves enemies to God. I suspect most of us feel like we are, at worst, neutral parties, not enemies! And, yet, if there is no neutrality, and none of us can choose God’s side, if we are only ever able to choose our own side, then I suppose we are enemies. So, I started to think about that a little bit.
            I suspect that one of the other reasons it stuck with me is because there is a lot of talk in the world about who are our enemies. It’s worth thinking about probably more than we do. The longer I thought about it, the tougher it became to tease out an answer. On first blush, there’s the answer I want to give—that I feel like I’m supposed to give: Nobody. We’re supposed to love everybody, and, yet, even Jesus says to pray for our enemies—not “Do not have enemies!” but rather pray for them, because apparently you will have them. As citizens of the United States of America, especially on this Memorial Day weekend, we have other allegiances settled for us. By virtue of our national identity, some people are supposed to be our friends and others our enemies. We didn’t choose this; it simply is.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Jesus for debtors

“I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish,” says Paul.
            This is a really incredible thing to say, actually, but I’ll get to that in a minute. First, we need a one-minute reminder about Paul. This is the guy who was killing Christians in the name of the hard-and-fast temple law of the day, and this is the guy who was blinded on the road to Emmaus, became a follower of Jesus, and then wrote a good portion of the New Testament. All of this we need to know when Paul says he is indebted to Greeks and barbarians, the wise and the foolish, because it takes an awareness of his history to get there.
I suspect all of us are OK with saying we are indebted to teachers, to parents, to coaches, to people we like, who inspire us, and who make us look good. We like to tell that story. But how often do we stand up and say we are indebted to people we don’t like? Indebted to sinners? Indebted to non-believers, and criminals, and people who have wronged us? Those people? That’s a much tougher story.
            If we hear that story at all, it’s usually in the context of somebody saying, “I owe it to my haters, because they pushed me to be better.” But what Paul is saying in Romans 1 is more radical than that. He’s saying he owes the foolish; he owes those who are wrong; he owes everybody. Paul starts here in his letter to the church in Rome to make it abundantly clear what sin looks like—it is not just bad choices, which Paul certainly made in the past, but, more importantly, it is an indelible part of our character, and all of us are debtors because of it.
            In the alternative version of the Lord’s Prayer most often said in Presbyterian and Reformed churches, there is that line “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Lutherans tend to use trespasses, while others use “sins.” In some ways, all of these are trying to describe something we often fail to understand. Our debt, trespasses, and sin are not just things we do but a condition in which we live, which is precisely why we need forgiveness so desperately. We can’t simply refrain from doing bad—it is part and parcel of who we are.
            So, we are debtors—debtors to people we like and don’t like. This gets particularly messy when we talk about abuse, because surely we cannot owe people who have committed abuse against us. Practically speaking, victims don’t owe perpetrators anything, so let’s be clear about that, but underneath it all is a reality where each of us are bound to one another, and the fabric of the universe was once and forever broken by sin so that abusers exist and those abused face the Sauls of the world without any recourse. There should be no abusers; there should be no people abused, but there are: Paul was an abuser—an abuser of the early Christians. He knows what he owes; he knows he can’t repay the debt caused by murder. What could repayment possibly look like? No reparations are enough.
            The story of Saul’s conversion, becoming Paul, is not one of a bad dude becoming a hero. He’s still a guy who did bad things. The only difference is that after his conversion he knows it, and he’s trying to pick up the pieces of a broken life, seeking forgiveness, and finally understanding the place from which forgiveness and, with it, true power comes.

The Gospel
            The conversion does not make Paul righteous by his own effort. Instead, it made him a preacher. He became one of the first to write down things about this God we know in Jesus Christ. When Paul wrote Romans, none of the Gospels we know today yet existed. Mark was still a decade away, Matthew and Luke thereafter, and John long after that. That’s not immediately obvious reading your Bible, but when Paul wrote this letter, the words of Jesus were part of an oral tradition passed on around campfires or in house churches, or perhaps they were part of earlier texts now lost to us. This matters, because when we think of Saul prior to conversion, I think we tend to imagine a guy who had all the information and chose not to believe in Jesus. Yet, in many ways, this letter to Rome had no scriptural precedent. Paul didn’t have Jesus’ words; he wasn’t writing an accompaniment to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
What he had was an experience, and it was that experience that put everything in stark relief. This is a tough one for those of us in the Lutheran church, which was founded largely on this idea of sola scriptura—scripture alone—and in the day of Martin Luther this made sense, raging against the popes who made up their own laws apart from scripture. But nowadays, it feels as if Christians worship the Bible sometimes more than they do Jesus. Like so many things, the Bible—being one of the next most important things—is easy to mistake for the most important thing.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

American Idols

Why would we worship this God whom we cannot see when we can worship this person, place, or thing that we can see right in front of us? This temptation is real. It’s lived out in today’s reading when the people in Antioch saw Paul and Barnabus doing miraculous things. Surely, they must be gods, they said. We don’t really know what they represent, but we do know them! We should worship them!
            We could laugh at this, but this temptation is not just real; it is universal. It’s really easy for us to trust in the thing we see in front of us—the person who is doing things we like, things that might even seem miraculous. We search out these folks as our own personal spiritual gurus. We look for that person who embodies what we hope for, and we follow.
            Of course, we do this with celebrities. And it’s easy to criticize other peoples’ celebrities, right? Man, look at all those dummies following Kim Kardashian, we might think. That’s a ridiculous person to idolize. OK, but you’re telling me you don’t follow after somebody different? You’re telling me you don’t trust somebody else in the same kind of way?
            This is all harmless, we may imagine, except there’s one giant problem with raising up human beings: They will fail you. Every one of them. They aren’t worthy of your worship. None of them. Last summer, this phenomena hit the mainstream with the announcement that Justin Bieber got engaged. If you don’t know who Justin Bieber is, good for you. For most of us I suspect this wasn’t news we cared about, but for teen-turned-20-something girls who grew up idolizing him, this was earth-shattering. Every generation has their idols and Bieber was the pinnacle for young millennials, and upon news of his engagement more than one of these teens-turned-young-adult women openly criticized his fiancĂ©e as unworthy because she didn’t worship Bieber the way they did.
            As a person who does some pre-marital counseling, this one was obvious: I hope she didn’t. I hope she hardly knew him growing up. I hope she didn’t invest herself in the idyllic image that is never reality. Can you imagine a worse bedrock for a relationship? Because it’s built on a lie. You should not worship your spouse, because your spouse is not God. You should not worship your children, because your children are not God. And you certainly should not worship Justin Bieber, because—I don’t know a lot of things, but I know this—God, he is not.
            And this might sound obvious and low-hanging fruit when talking about idolatry, but I think we all have our Justin Biebers. When we are deciding how to order our lives and what things matter more to us than others, we inevitably lift certain people onto the altar of things we worship. Think about it: Who is the person who shapes your beliefs most in the world? Someone you know, perhaps, but what about somebody you don’t know—not personally? Somebody whose books you’ve read. Somebody you’ve seen on TV.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter Sunday: Practice Resurrection!

           In my office, I have a US Forest Service sign and poster that reads, “Who passed this way?” showing an assortment of native and pioneer faces. Underneath, in a somewhat smaller font, it reads: “Please Don’t Erase The Traces of America’s Past.” I have that sign hidden back behind the desk in my study, because I’m half-expecting that the Forest Service will be knocking on my door and arresting me for having it tomorrow.
            How this sign came to me (legally, cough cough) is maybe interesting but not so important, but as I think about Easter, and especially the report of Easter from the women at the tomb, I am intrigued by the way we consider Easter both an historical event and a game-changer that turns our lives upside-down, even two-thousand years later. Today, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but we don’t celebrate it like we do Memorial Day or even Thanksgiving, whose significance is tied to memory. The resurrection is more than that Forest Service sign; it does more than beg us to remember the past. Easter does not live in a museum. It is not some fossilized reminder of a thing that happened once, which we must excavate each year. Easter colors everything.
I want to talk today about why.
            Like many of you, my eyes were drawn to Notre Dame last week as that famed cathedral caught fire. The majesty of that church and the history held within capture our imaginations in a multitude of ways, but the cathedral itself is only an incredibly impressive antiquity. People discover God there—no doubt!—but as I listened to the coverage, I heard the value of that building equated time and again with its age. I get it (I do!). Magnificent, old churches have character and a patina where the very air you breathe feels ancient, pregnant with the weight of the divine. And, yet, the worship of relics for relics’ sake is another way of treating Easter as just another historical event. God is more than a god of history; God is the God of right now.
            The resurrection of Jesus is the life-blood of the Christian faith; it is the thing that moves us, and we remember the resurrection not just by study and devotion but also by practicing resurrection daily. Practice resurrection! This is the concluding line of a poem by Wendell Berry (in his Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front) that might be the most important call to attention for Christians in this 21st century, because it takes something that we assume to be passive—God will raise us; we are the object of the God’s action—and it transforms resurrection into something we participate in. Of course we can’t resurrect ourselves, but we can live out of the grace of God that this Easter morning instills in our souls.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Good Friday: The cross tells no lies

The cross. Today, we venerate the cross. It’s a strange thing we wear around our necks, put on t-shirts, and feature in our worship spaces. The symbol of our faith does not lift up the glory of the resurrection or the divinity of the incarnation but the uncertainty of Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s the thing that causes death, bursts barriers, and brings both joy and sadness. It is both/and. The cross doesn’t avoid suffering; it lives at the intersection of all that we lose and all that we gain.
            Most of all, the cross tells it as it is.
It shows us we are our mortal. You will die, it assures us. It whispers that you cannot save yourself. The cross suffers no heroes; instead, it is where heroes suffer.
So many things in our lives don’t tell us how it is. Almost everything we experience is marketed to us in a sugar-coated form, cleaned up, and exaggerated. The cross doesn’t sugarcoat a thing. Nothing about the cross is Instagram-worthy; it’s the kind of thing we would much prefer to avoid. The cross doesn’t tell you how to be a better you, and it doesn’t promise you things it cannot fulfill. Instead, it tells you that you are not enough.
The wonder of the Christian faith is that being not enough is precisely what we proclaim. We are not enough, so Jesus had to be.
            The cross tells no lies. It is the place where we admit our mortality, our brokenness, and our inability to choose rightly. We come here not because it’s the place we want to be, but because it is the only honest place left for us when all else turns out to be a lie. This is the low point of human history, and it is the most relatable for all of us. Because the cross does not gloss over true suffering. It does not minimize genocide, or starvation, or AIDS, or cancer, or car accidents, or war, or you name it. The cross takes it all; it lives in those moments, and it does not say, “Cheer up. It will get better.” Instead, it is the place where our Savior dies with us.