Sunday, August 28, 2016

You are not enough (no matter what the advertisers tell ya)

Luke 11:2-4

Forgive Us Our Sins
What does this mean?
In the small catechism, Martin Luther says, “We ask in this prayer that our heavenly Father would not regard our sins nor deny these petitions on their account, for we are worthy of nothing for which we ask, nor have we earned it. Instead we ask that God would give us all things by grace, for we sin daily and indeed deserve only punishment. So, on the other hand, we, too, truly want to forgive heartily and to do good gladly to those who sin against us.”
See, I don’t think we actually believe that. It doesn’t matter how often we recite Paul in Ephesians 2:8, saying “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” I don’t think it matters how often we say that, because the rest of your life you are inundated with other conflicting messages that are much more attractive than that one. So I really don’t think any of us are good enough to truly believe it. Instead of messages of grace we’re told: You are enough … You deserve it! … God will bless you because of your faithfulness.
These messages can be found in everything from advertisements to memes and viral messages on social media to old-fashioned Bible commentaries and commentators on the TV, and they sound so dang attractive and they resonate with us so deeply that we end up trying to believe both what the Bible says and what our culture says at the same time. Yes, we are saved by grace through faith… but also I am enough! Yes, it’s not my own doing but it is the gift of God… but also I deserve it! We believe these things even though they are contradictory and, at the end of the day, the one that will win out is the one that I can control and feel good about, which is the idea that the solution to the world lies in me; that I am enough; that I am what the world needs. We might believe that grace stuff in the religious sphere of our lives but that sphere doesn’t hold a candle to what we are inundated with between Sundays.
Because of this cultural battle unfolding inside of us our pleas for forgiveness become prayers for partial forgiveness: Lord, forgive me my sins—you know, those one or two things keeping me from being completely and wholly awesome.
See, here’s the real problem with asking for only partial forgiveness: It’s weak and it treats religion like the fix for an otherwise pretty-good you. I mean, if I’m partially good and partially bad, then it stands to reason I could just become a better person—perhaps little by little. Then, I might begin to believe that I need that forgiveness less immediately than that other person down the street—you know, that real sinner. Once we enter into the world of comparison—both with others and even with ourselves—faith no longer becomes a life or death matter. Then it’s basically over—we can pack up the church, go home, and let McDonald’s and Victoria’s Secret do the evangelism.
Forgiveness is so central to our faith that any softening of it risks throwing out the baby Jesus with the bathwater.
But this is a difficult thing to preach because it’s so counter-cultural; it’s literally saying the exact opposite of what the TV advertisers know will get you to buy things. No weight loss commercial is going to tell you that you are 100% sinner and 100% saint. They’re going to talk about controlling that sinner and making you more of a saint, and you’ll believe them, even though more often than not their claims will leave you disappointed. The sad truth is that most preaching is less believable than marketing, even though marketing puts an unrealistic best light on things that rarely matches up to reality. Yes, go buy that $200 metal bar to attach above your door and pretty soon you’ll be rocking a six-pack full of abs… and your complexion will probably improve too, don’t ask why… It’s still easier to believe that than the promise that by grace you have been saved because radical grace means a tacit acceptance of something about yourself that you are super scared of admitting. (You know what it is?) You aren’t enough. You are NOT enough.
            You’re dirty, rotten sinners who need a big, fat Jesus to take away your sins, and you are desperately—DESPERATELY—in need of confessing your inadequacy to yourself and receiving a real awareness of your forgiveness.
            See, you might think the way to unite the world is to inspire all people to let out their inner goodness, to inspire people to be who they were created to be, and you may feel that this is the key to an egalitarian, peaceful society, but let’s be honest: This is make-believe. Conservatives and liberals, you both have your make-believe. Conservatives have their make-believe that everybody has an equal footing if we just remove the government from their lives. Well, liberals also have their make-believe that the secret to a better world is lifting people up and making them better. Both have a grain of truth; both fall into the same category as advertisements that get you to react according to your baser desirers.
Have I offended everybody yet? I mean, isn’t this the perfect day in the park for getting offended?
            I’m sorry, but grace is offensive.
            Grace means that all receive the same reward, like the workers in Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Not only does everybody receive the same wage—those who worked all day and those who worked just a few minutes—but, if that’s not enough, Jesus goes out of his way to make sure we know that everybody else knows exactly how blatantly unfair it is. Everybody will know what everyone else gets, which is precisely enough. We don’t trust true forgiveness because it’s not fair, because we don’t trust other people, and we also don’t trust ourselves—though we may not be self-aware enough to realize it.
            Grace is offensive because it is for the worst of all sinners, and the worst of all sinners is always ME. There is no other, because when I start to consider who may be worse than me I prove that by the very act of comparing myself with them I am worse. I am 100% sinner; not 50; not even 99. 100%.
            Grace is offensive and counter-cultural and forgiveness is all we have. So, today, as we sit out in the beauty of God’s creation the reason I preach this message (and not something fluffier) because it is also the only message that frees us. We receive grace not by virtue of our trying but by virtue of our letting go—letting go of the messages that tell us we need to be better, that we are enough, and that we could be so much more. No, you aren’t enough because you are dead without grace. But with grace? Oh, that’s a different story.
You are saved by grace through faith; not through confession and forgiveness; but forgiveness is where the realization of that salvation happens. And you simply cannot know forgiveness without being punched in the gut by grace. Accept who you are—a sinner saved by grace. I’m not sure how strongly you’ll believe it—what with this world full of more attractive messages begging for your attention—but it will change you if you do.
You are saved by grace. Forgiven. Free.
That’s something I can get behind on a beautiful day at Lake Bronson.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Our daily bread

Luke 11:2-4

Give us each day our daily bread.
The nice thing about preaching on the Lord’s Prayer is that when you’re lost, and maybe writing some stuff down on Saturday… evening… after dinner... there’s this guy named Martin Luther who wrote on this topic and he put it in an easy-to-find location right in the Small Catechism, which I can pull up on my smart phone on Augsburg Fortress’s new Small Catechism app (available for download for Android and possibly iPhone, I’m not sure, I’m not a very good advertiser).
Anyway, when I want to know about the Lord’s Prayer I just open up the app, click on “Lord’s Prayer” and, today, we’ll scroll down to the Fourth Petition, “Give us today our daily bread.” What does this mean? Oh, good, exactly what I wanted to know! “In fact, God gives daily bread without prayer, even to all evil people, but we ask in this prayer that God cause us to recognize what our daily bread is and to receive it with thanksgiving.” What then does “daily bread” mean? Good, I was wondering that one, too! “Everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.”
Wow. OK, so that’s a really good starting point. Daily bread isn’t limited to communion or food or even things related exclusively to physical well-being; it is anything we need to live our lives in all of our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being. Daily bread is everything from the air we breath, to the water we drink, to the earth and its habitats, to the paycheck we receive, to the relationships we have and the governments and various systems that support us. Asking for daily bread is asking for quite a lot.
The one part of Luther’s explanation that I really like is the bit where it says “we ask in this prayer that God cause us to recognize what our daily bread is and to receive it with thanksgiving.” See, it’s not enough to get good things; it’s critical that we have to wisdom to acknowledge these gifts and to understand from whom they come. It’s one thing to catch a fish; it’s quite another to understand that that fish, no matter how adept my angling of it, is not my fish. I didn’t create it; I didn’t earn it. It comes as a gift.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Forget the big solutions, try little acts of love

It’s election season… yay? The time when we disenfranchise one another with our Facebook posts. The time when everybody knows what is right and what our country needs. The time when I see more self-centered, all-knowing, blathering than at any other time. The time when everybody is looking for a big solution.
            I don’t care if the big solution you are convinced will solve the world’s problems is one associated with conservativism or liberalism—e.g. whether your big solution is immigration reform, universal healthcare, ending legalized abortion, or ending the war on drugs—all of these solutions are given more importance this time of year than they should, because this is the time of our lives when we are fed a constant stream of negativity about how this or that is going to end our lives or save them. Policies don’t save us; Jesus does.
            In fact, no big solution has yet to make us more righteous. I suppose it would be one thing if there really was a war going on between good people and evil people, but that’s just not the case. There are well-meaning, devoted, faithful people who take a variety of stances on the “big solutions” for a variety of good reasons. This means that no matter what happens in November we will sit down at coffee tables, chat on bar stools, and share a bleacher at sporting events with people who think the world is going to hell alongside those who think the world has finally gotten its act together. Either way we are divided.
            Our identity as Christians is in Christ; not in party allegiance. That should be so obvious it shouldn’t need to be said and, yet, here we are, because I think too many people get that completely backwards. When we buy into party politics we allow the big solutions to frame our lives, urging us to spend more time and energy explaining to others how wrong they are, suggesting that the only way to make a difference in the world is to advocate one particular ideology, when the Gospel is calling us to something different: Little acts of kindness and love. You should vote, absolutely, and you should do so based on your faith and values, but your vote shouldn’t be the primary way of identifying yourself as Christian. That should be evident from all the little ways you care for others in your day-to-day life. Then, you will be reminded that your vote will not make you righteous and votes contrary to yours should not make you angry, because we are all in this together, struggling as Christians to find the best way to love one another.
            The only way we can prove that is in those little acts of love; those surprising moments of joy and those little lights we spark in the darkness. The only big solution that matters is God’s plan for creation—God’s telos, to use a beautiful Greek word that you should all become familiar with—God’s ultimate objective. God does big solutions; we aren’t qualified. The best we can do is make our little actions count.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The youth are not the future. Jesus is.

Luke 11:2-4

             I’m going to begin today by apologizing to your Midwestern sensibilities, because this week I’ve listened to sermons from couple African-American preachers, including the black Lutheran tradition, and so if I have a little more fire in my belly than normal, well, you know where it came from, and this is—I think—a good thing. Feel free to “Amen” as needed.
Today we bring together a few different things. A youth mission trip to Idaho; the Lord’s Prayer, especially that first line: Thy kingdom come; and lastly, though not insignificantly, the work of our wider church in New Orleans this past week.
            When I started to think about all three of these things at once, first of all, I got a headache, because there’s just a lot to be said; then, I realized that the three events create a bridge from past to present to future. And so I’m going to start there.
            Sharing about mission trips is always a bit funny. Probably most of you have had this experience. You go and do something awesome—a concert, a big vacation, a convention of some kind, or a mission trip, or something else—and then you come back and you try to share it with people who weren’t there. You tell stories, share pictures, they nod politely, and then you start to think, “Man, they just don’t get it!” I guess, you had to be there, you say.
            The trouble with sharing the past if our goal is to bring people into the experiences is that if we just can't manage it. You can’t re-live it, can’t re-create it. That was in the past. So, it’s good and right to share it with you—many of you supported this particular trip with your time and money and prayers, but the truth is it’s done. Finished.
            We’re never going to have that experience again. Some will try. I remember going back to work at camp for the second time in 2008 and the summer program coordinator, in my interview, warned me, saying, “You know, it won’t be the same.” And I said I knew, but I didn’t. I didn’t know all the ways—big ways, small ways—that that second experience would differ from the first. Trying to re-create the past always disappoints.
            The church too often tries. But the church that takes the past and uses it to forge ahead into this moment… that is the church that is Spirit-led. It’s the church that can pray “Thy kingdom come” because it is looking forward to Jesus; the only future we have.
Last Monday, our presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, preached a sermon in which she asked the body at Churchwide Assembly a not-so rhetorical question, so I’m going to ask it to you. The question is: “What are young people to the church?”
Its future?
No, that’s the wrong answer. Tempting answer but wrong. The youth are not the future of the church: Jesus is.
The youth are not the future of the church; Jesus is.
That’s what we mean when we pray “Thy kingdom come.” Not “thy young people come.” Not “thy children learn to fill the pews so our church has a future.” No! “Thy kingdom come.”
The future of the church is Jesus’ kingdom.
So, if the youth are not its future, then we must come to struggle with the fact that they are its present.
The mission trip is over. The kingdom of God is coming. But what about right now? What are we doing as people of God to make a difference in the world right now?
One of the joys of being in a different place in the world, surrounded by different people from a whole variety of backgrounds is listening to their stories. I talked with a lady on the bus to the airport in New Orleans who had just spent the week at the Baptist National Conference; she made sure to tell me it was the “Progressive Baptists,” which I kind of gathered when she mentioned hearing speeches from both Tim Kaine and Jesse Jackson, Jr. at the conference. (Hence, not the Southern Baptists). This lady was from New Jersey, in her mid-80s, African-American, and was filled with lament for the state of the country, but not in the way that I so often hear around here. It wasn’t “Gee, the world is getting worse out there, isn’t it? Glad we live where we live!” It wasn’t “Did you just see this on the news?” Instead, it was “Let me tell you about my experience. Our people are hurting.” It wasn’t out there; it was personal.
            And I was convicted, because I knew I’m part of the problem. I didn’t create it; I didn’t do anything, and that’s exactly the point—I haven’t done anything. This is about right now—what are we doing right now?
            Thy kingdom come, yes, but what about right now? What are we doing right now?
            Whether it’s changing our view toward those differently-abled than us, as we saw in Idaho, or healing racial injustice, or just simply finding and naming the persons in need in our community, the question is about right now. A little Greek lesson is appropriate here—I know how much you all like Greek lessons. This phrase, “Thy kingdom come!” is in imperative tense. Now you’re all scanning the deep, dark recesses of your middle school English classes or high school Spanish or French classes to remember what that means. Imperative. It’s a command. “Thy kingdom come!” When I first learned this it opened my eyes to the Lord's Prayer in a completely different way. The prayer is filled with imperatives. It’s not praying, “God, your kingdom is coming and I know this,” as if it were a confession of faith. It’s not praying, “God, I really hope maybe your kingdom will come soon,” as if it is a request. Instead, it’s an order. It’s you, ordering God, every time you pray to bring God’s kingdom now, because that’s God’s job.
Ours is to do our part in the meantime.
            And that starts with relationship. This week I befriended an African-American octogenarian from Jersey, a mother from Wisconsin—my age—with two children who had never taken the train before and had a load of questions, and I chatted with and visited a chess hustler in New Orleans, the head bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, as well as too many Lutherans to count. I had meaningful conversations with a person in every decade of life; I learned a ton about people who were very different from me and also people not so different from at all. I had meaningful conversations with a person in every decade of life. In Idaho our youth and adults walked alongside children and adults with special needs, and they experienced the same kind of enlightenment. None of this is radical. None of what happened this week in New Orleans or last month in Idaho is that out of the box. All we were doing was entering into relationships, and, probably not surprisingly, that’s all that really mattered.
But here’s where it really matters. The last part of this story comes yesterday as I attended a funeral for my friend, Zach, who died two weeks ago following a car accident at the age of 24. If ever there was occasion to remember that young people are the present and not the future it is moments like these where we are smacked in the face with the reality that nothing is guaranteed. All week I had Martin Luther's death bed quote reverberating in my head, where he says, "We are beggars. This is true." The promise of the future is Jesus; not anything else--not a long life, not a life without grief--which is why relationships are of the utmost importance, because relationship is the only thing that can begin to chip away at despair in the face of death. Friends, “thy kingdom come!” is something every person in this world is praying in one way or another. We are all crying out, all hurting, all pained, all missing something. So, when I sat on the stage of the social hall at that church following that service with Alex, Zach's dad, a very good friend and mentor of mine, I felt the depths to which that relationship mattered, and it was proved in grief and loss. I couldn’t fix a thing but I could sit there with him because we had tested that relationship through experiences and built the trust needed to stare death in the face when nobody wanted to be there. We could say "I love you" and mean it because the groundwork was laid.
That’s our challenge as the church. Pray “thy kingdom come!” Then get to work. Because we aren’t bringing about the kingdom on our own—that’s God’s job—but we are invested in one another. The youth aren’t our future. Jesus is. The youth, and the young adults, and the older adults, and the children, and everybody in-between is our right now. Which means right now we have work to do.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Mission away / Mission at home

I’ve been on two trips in the last few weeks: Two separate “mission” trips—one to the Twin Cities, serving alongside an inter-generational crew for a couple days in St. Paul and Eagan, and one to northern Idaho serving alongside sixteen youth and 6 adults at a camp for kids (and adults) with special needs. These trips are inevitably the highlight of my year every year. I don’t have to go on these trips; I get to go on them. And they just so happen to be the A#1 time I get to see progress in the life of faith among people whom I pastor. They are incredibly rewarding: spiritually, emotionally, and also professionally. I have few metrics by which to reliably measure my performance as pastor, but these trips allow me to feel like I’m doing something right, which I need more often than I admit.
            There are also tremendous needs for service at home. This is very true. And I hear somewhat frequently about how we should be doing more for people in our own backyards (sometimes with the implication that these trips to other places are unnecessary). We absolutely do need to be helping people here in Kittson County more than we do, but the more I go on these trips the more I realize there is absolutely no substitute locally for what we experience outside of this place. Part of spiritual and emotional growth requires leaving our bubble of safety and comfort behind.
            This is also where we discover the big secret about serving other people: When we serve others we often make less difference in their lives than they make in ours. Jesus came to serve, not to be served, because the path to a good and meaningful life is being the server not the one being served. This is why so many people who receive something—food from the food pantry, rehabilitation from addiction, meals when a loved one dies—spend their time trying to pay that gift forward when things are settled again. When we receive some unmerited gift we feel compelled to give back, and the biggest unmerited gift was Jesus dying on the cross for us so that we might have salvation, and so our entire lives are spent living in response to that grace. Service is part of who we are. You might say it is all that we are.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Know Thyself!

2 Corinthians 1:1-11

            We read this scripture—well, a portion of this scripture—at Philip Dow’s funeral last Sunday, which is quite a coincidence if you believe in such things. And, no, I didn’t pick or even suggest the scripture for the funeral; it was selected by the Dow family on their own having no idea we would have it this following Sunday, which presents me with what might look like quite the challenge: Namely, preaching the same scripture at a very tough funeral and then at a light-hearted, fourth of July weekend, Sunday-service for the approximately seventeen people who show up on Sunday, the 3rd of July.
            This might seem difficult, but, as with most really deep scriptural words, it didn’t really turn out that way for me, because Paul’s greeting to the church at Corinth in his second letter to that church (which we now call 2 Corinthians) is simply about being honest with ourselves about where we stand, and this is something that should happen at funerals and on Sunday morning and on Mondays and Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and so on and so forth. We need to be honest. More honest than we are.
            Most of the time when the subject of consolation comes up we imagine ourselves consoling before we imagine our need to be consoled. I can’t tell you how many people I visit who are really sick or dying or facing some extreme misfortune and yet what do they say, again and again: “Well, other people have it much worse!” It’s like watching the Twins play baseball and saying, “Well, the ’62 Mets had it worse.” It’s strange comfort that things can, in fact, be worse. Instead, we need to own our emotions, to be honest. I mean, you can acknowledge that other people have had it rough, too, but that only tends to deflect from what you’re going through. Own the sucky-ness of it. I don’t want to watch the Twins play terrible baseball—well, maybe there’s that really cynical, troll part of me that does enjoy it when they are really, truly awful, but for the most part, no, I want to see good baseball, not bad baseball. And so it is that you are in need of consolation regardless of the comparisons you make with other people.
            We need to own our need of a Savior, because sucking it up and downplaying our brokenness inevitably leads to worse problems down the road. Then, when the crap hits the fan all the pent up emotion comes out in precisely the moment when nobody is in any position to deal with it. Be honest about your feelings now. It’s no badge of honor to hold in your pain until it overwhelms you. Actually, it’s selfish.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Job, the conclusion: The God who sees through our bull

Job 42:10-17

            Job died, old and full of days. Three men in scripture are given this epitaph. Noah, Moses, and Job. Three men, set apart in this way—Noah, the lone saint in the midst of a godless world who is given charge of saving the earth’s creatures; Moses, the reluctant spokesperson who leads Israel out of captivity in Egypt, again saving the “chosen people” from slavery; and Job.
            Now, Job might be the best of the best, like Noah, the one whom God lifts up as an example for the rest to follow, but Job is also not the figure of historical significance that Noah or Moses are. Instead, the power of Job is in the way we see ourselves in him and his friends and the way his words are our words, his frustrations our frustrations, his faith our faith. Job is interesting because, unlike Noah or Moses, we could be Job; we can see bits of ourselves in this person and we can hear our questions coming from his mouth.
            I’m just going to admit that I don’t quite know what to do with the way that the book of Job ends. I mean, after all this back and forth between Job and his friends and eventually God, where everybody is put in their place and God finally emerges as the only one worthy in the whole story; still, here in the end it seems that Job gets his way after all. A part of me likes that; a part of me hates it. Because of the way the story ends, it’s tempting to derive a really shallow moral to the story that doesn’t befit the entirety of the book. I don’t think, having read all of Job, that the takeaway is simply that God will provide double for everything you lose in this life. If anything, I suppose the conclusion is a foretaste of something different—Job is provided for above and beyond his expectations and so will we.