Sunday, February 28, 2010

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus

This song features (briefly) in today's sermon. But this video does a much better job and makes me smile for a variety of reasons.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Friday Five: Winter Olympics Edition

Friday Five suggestions come from here.

Songbird writes: It's been two weeks of snow, or not enough snow, of heartbreak before the action even began, of snowboards and skis and skates, of joy and sorrow. At our house, we've stayed up too late, and we don't even watch sports any other time!

1) Which of the Winter Olympic sports is your favorite to watch?

Well, deep, dark confession time, I don't have television. I haven't since 2004, so I haven't actually seen any Olympics in real time since 2002, I think. Those were in Salt Lake according to Google. I haven't seen any of this year's Olympic Games, not even the opening ceremony. I thought they might be available on Hulu, but, alas, they were not. I have, in the past, enjoyed watching speed skating. And I would enjoy watching the biathlon.

2) Some of the uniforms have attracted attention this year, such as the US Snowboarders' pseudo-flannel shirts and the Norwegian Curling team's -- ahem -- pants.

Who do you think had the best-looking uniforms?

Having not watched, I'm not sure. But I dig those pants.

3) And Curling. Really? What's up with that?

I have friends who have curled and some who still do. They love it. And why not. According to my husband, it's more athletic than ice dancing. (Dearest Husband believes in a reduced Olympic program, summer and winter, but that's a different post.) I think curling is fun to watch and I'm always impressed by team sports that 1) involve ice sweeping, 2) the word "spiel" and 3) fun pants and shoes. Curling it is!

4) Define Nordic Combined. Don't look it up. Take a guess if you must.

Nordic Combined is when, in a Lutheran congregation, you have 3 vocal Norwegians who wish to celebrate Norway's Constitution Day and 10 semi- vocal Swedes who do not. Then you have some German-heritage Lutherans who don't care and one pastor of Polish origin who doesn't have a dog in the Scandinavian fight, but enjoys eating Danish. So you have a Hymn Sing and compete, antiphonally, with "Now Thank We All Our God" and "A Mighty Fortress." Then you eat lefse, lutefisk, Swedish meatballs and, of course, Danish. The winner of the Nordic Combined (loudest singing + most eating + most liturgically correct Jello salad) gets a Garrison Keillor novel.

5) If you could be a Winter Olympics Champion just by wishing for it, which sport would you choose for winning your Gold Medal?

Cross-country skiing.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Many of us grew up with Lenten seasons that were dark and gloomy. Lent was forty days of sadness, intensified guilt, forced sacrifice and a scraping sense of unworthiness. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpea. My fault, my fault, my most grievous fault. In the season before Easter, it was as if we had never heard of Christ, had no idea that a Messiah had come or, even more crucially, that he had been raised from the dead for the life of the world.

The Lenten season isn’t supposed to be a time to grovel before God and beg for mercy. It is a time to take up the specific practices of giving, prayer, abstinence. We’re to give of the gifts God has given us. We’re driven to pray for ourselves, for those around us, for God’s whole world. We’re attempting to abstain from the things and behaviors that cause us to feel distant from God, be they physical, spiritual or emotional.

These are what we are called to do all year, but sometimes our very humanness gets in the way of our very best of intentions. We mean to start exercising. We’re going to start giving more to charity with our next check. We’re going to write letters, stop complaining, cut down on sugar, pray more, read the Bible, be more grateful… We always have little self-improvement goals, when what we really need is spiritual improvement.

Spiritual improvement begins when we set aside the past, when we acknowledge that we have failed, we rub ashes onto our face, we grapple with our human nature, we ask God to renew us and then we set our faces toward Easter, knowing that our salvation has been achieved and our freedom is in the cross. We walk toward Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, believing that it is not the end of the story. In fact, for those who believe, the journey only begins at the cross.

Lent is the time to reflect on what is in our lives that keeps us from rejoicing in that story. We consider what is in our hearts and lives that keeps us from truly rejoicing in our salvation. It is a time to recognize that we cannot change the past, but we can turn from our sin, even if we know it still affects us, and we can step more confidently on the path that God has stretched before us.

Here’s a very personal example. Due to my husband’s deployment to Iraq, he missed the first four months of our son’s life. No one was happy about this. We can’t change it. There is no way that we can replay the firsts that he missed. He can’t catch up with me on numbers of diapers changed or hours of sleep missed due to breastfeeding. And those four months were important. We can’t pretend they didn’t happen. We can’t undo them. We can’t go back. Nothing will rectify the imbalance.

So we have to forgive. Even though we aren’t upset with one another, we have to forgive the circumstances. We have to let go of what we wish could have been. We have to release our well-intentioned efforts to overcompensate for that time. We are here now and going forward is all we can do.

This is the point of Ash Wednesday leading into the season of Lent. We have to let go of the relationships that didn’t work. We must release the sins for which we have not forgiven ourselves. We say aloud the words we wish we’d said in the past and we let the air float away from us. We make reparations for wrongs we know about.

Most psychologists and doctors say it takes about 30 days to cement a new habit into your life, whatever that daily habit is. Here we have forty days. Forty days to practice giving. Forty days to pray. Forty days to abstain. Forty days, not for show, but to quietly work on opening your heart and mouth, proclaiming your praise to the Lord and rejoicing in your salvation.

We can’t go back, but we can go forward. On the one hand, Ash Wednesday reminds us that as we move forward, we move toward death. Dust we are and dust we will become. On the other hand, Lent reminds us that just beyond that death is life, the life that came through and in Jesus the Christ. These forty days help us to prepare for that life. Even as we ask God for forgiveness and strength to live into our repentance, we begin to see the life that God desires for us, that God has planned for us.

We can’t undo our sins. We can’t go back. Nothing will rectify the imbalance. Nothing, that is, but the grace and mercy of God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And we hear the call, through the cross, “It is finished. Come home.” As we repent, as we turn, as we take on new habits and change our spiritual outlook, we walk together and we peer down the road, to where the light everlasting shines for all, where the sign over the empty cross says, “You can come home again.” Amen

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Work It (Essential Passages #10)

Many moons and what feels like a lifetime ago, I started a series of reflections on what I consider to be the 50 most essential Bible passages. (You can read the first one here and look for others in the blog archive.) That seemed like it wouldn't be that difficult. In fact, when I began I thought I would fill out the 50 long before I ran out of passages, but that hasn't been the case. Each time I think of the project, I become overwhelmed with the passages I think are important, some I like and some I don't. Then I just don't write because I want my end result to be perfect.

Nevertheless, I think this is an important project for me and I need to get back onto the horse and ride boldly into the terrain of commenting on my own canon. We all have books and passages we prefer to others. We owe it to ourselves to yield to the prodding of the Holy Spirit to examine those selections that we treasure, those we loathe and those we fear. Having said this, I'm going to tread into the historically un-Lutheran-friendly waters of James for today's entry.

"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith without works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead." James 2: 14-26

Martin Luther famously referred to James as a "book of straw" (useful for burning). It wasn't because Luther thought the book was totally rubbish, but because he saw the danger of its misuse by church officials to undermine the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith that he believed to be of the utmost importance. There has been much ink spilled on this controversy, but the major passage in question is worth at least one more examination. (What Biblical passage isn't?)

Many contemporary Christians have carefully absorbed the lesson of being saved by grace and, so comforted, are eager to let their expressions of faith be limited to worship and, perhaps, some social justice efforts. However, this passage is as critical to the life of a Christian as is the passage from Romans that it seems to answer. (See Romans 3: 20-28, Ephesians 2:8-9) If we are saved by grace through the faithfulness of Christ, then what are we to do?

After careful sermon after sermon that underscores (and underscores and underscores), the salvation of all mankind that came through the resurrection of Christ, we may finally come to understand (and, yea verily, to believe) that we cannot save ourselves. It doesn't mean that we don't still wrestle with this or become frustrated at our lack of control. Yet, at some point, we are consoled by the knowledge that salvation is beyond us. God has chosen us, we did not choose God. The faith we have is a gift, a work of the Holy Spirit.

If we have this gift then, what's the big deal? We've got it. We believe. We have faith in Christ's salvific work and believe we have been justified (made right) with our Maker. So what's with works? We know works-righteousness is bad, "w-r" being the idea that you can earn your salvation. That being said, it does not mean that works are bad.

Faith without works is meaningless, says this passage from James. Let's step back for a minute. Don't think about your works and faith- think about the Son. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit form one holy trinity with 3 separate persons. As they watched creation devolve from God- centeredness, God the Three-in-One decided the time had come to bring people back around from sacrifices and scrabbling fearful faith. The Word came among us. A Son was born to us. Jesus walked on earth, full of grace and truth, as that of a Father's only son. Jesus pointed to the life that God desires for his creation, for God's concern for all, about the coming judgment and how to be a sheep and not a goat (i.e., how to actually be a follower of Jesus and not just a hanger-on).

Jesus was crucified for his radical notions and his upset of the political and religious apple cart of his day. His adherence to God's word led to Golgotha. However, that was not the final word- the resurrection is. God's final statement in Jesus was to say that the powers of earth, including death, do not, cannot and will not win. Because we believe in the two complete natures of Christ (fully human and fully divine), we can see faithfulness unto death in the plan of God. We can see that faithfulness because of Jesus' works.

Jesus did not just say, "I proclaim to you the year of the Lord's favor." He didn't just announce the greatest commandment and the one like unto it. Jesus fed people, healed people, cast out demons, wept for Jerusalem, threw a few tables, snapped at a couple disciples, raised the dead, cursed fig trees, hung out with soldiers, tax collectors and prostitutes, predicted bad times, took naps, walked on water, preached, taught, played with children, danced at weddings and hung out at least one well. As the fully divine living Word, he could have remained above the world, faithfully bringing some people to God in other ways. But his faithfulness compelled him from the Father (as fully divine, he can't just passively be sent) and into creation to bring the good news. (Remember, it's gospel even before the resurrection part of the story.) His works in the world point to his faithfulness. As fully human, they point to his faithfulness to the Father even unto death.

It is by Jesus' works that we understand his faithfulness (and the love of God for creation). We could not have faith without them. We would not be saved by grace through Christ's faithfulness without his work in the world.

I'm not advocating a simple "What would Jesus do?" as a response to salvation. You must consider "What would Jesus have me do?" (Because you can always rationalize that you aren't the Son of God and his actions might not apply to your situation. But his commands always will.)

What the writer of James is pointing out is that there can be no resting on the laurels of faith. Standing on the promises, you might be covered by Christ's righteousness and, therefore, be made right with God, but that's not the end of the story. Christ's work in you bears fruit. If you believe that you have been saved, why wouldn't you take that message out with you? How could you keeping from singing? Why wouldn't you shout it from the mountain tops? Why wouldn't you feed people, heal people, hang out with tax collectors, soldiers and prostitutes, dance at weddings, drink wine, see who's at the well, overturn conventions, play with children, make a little ruckus, pass out water, cast out demons and weep for the judgment to come- all in the name of the grace you have received through Jesus the Christ.

Eugene Peterson has this paraphrase of James 2:26: "The very moment you separate body and spirit, you end up with a corpse. Separate faith and works and you get the same thing: a corpse." Faith without works is lifeless. There's nothing to flesh it out. This is the reason we know that God loves bodies- because without them- nothing gets done. There's no sitting with the sick without a gluteus maximus. There's no preaching without a mouth and ears (or something for typing!). There's no feeding without hands and feet. There's no hoping without a body that absorbs a new day and its possibilities.

Faith is faith. Jesus saves. We who believe have been gifted in the knowledge of his faithfulness. We're called, through the Spirit, to respond to it. To bring other people to a place and time where they can see that same faithfulness. It's not just about preaching- it's about body evangelism. It's about making sandwiches, counting toilet paper squares, buying socks, anointing with oil, washing feet and building houses.

Faithful living requires living. Living is about work.

We think of baptism as a second birth, by water and the Holy Spirit.

My son was born 9 days after his due date. We joked that he didn't want to be born because coming out means work: breathing for yourself, eating, etc. Being born does require work. You don't do the birthing yourself, but afterwards- everything you do is a response to that one event.

Same thing with being born again.

Cliff Dwellers (Epiphany 4)

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

There’s nothing better than a warm fuzzy- that nice feeling you get when something good happens or you see something cute or you hear of a heart-warming story. A warm fuzzy brightens your day, can make you a little more patient, might make you feel inclined to pass on the joy.

What could be warmer and fuzzier than a young boy receiving a call from God, knowing the voice of God is speaking to him, knowing his purpose in life? What could be more heart-warming that a lengthy passage about love and its hallmarks of patience, endurance and truth? And what could be more inspiring than the tale of a local boy made good- returning to his hometown to share good news with them?

What? You didn’t get all toe-tingly thrilled with the readings today? Why ever not? Could it be that being called to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant, to do it all with just words- could it be that isn’t quite an invitation to which you would want to RSVP?

Could it be that having to love someone whose gifts I don’t understand or whose habits I don’t like isn’t very exciting or compelling? And, yea verily, having to testify to the truth might get me swept up in the crowd that’s going to hoist me onto their shoulders only to fling me off a cliff? Where’d my warm fuzzy feeling go?

The crowd in the synagogue with Jesus is feeling good when he first speaks and when he interprets Scripture. “Ah, yes. Joseph’s boy. Doesn’t he read well? Aren’t his words fine? What a nice job of interpretation. He looks so good. Maybe he’ll settle down with your daughter. Oh, wait. He’s still talking.”

Doubtless, Jesus’ relatives and friends have heard of the miracles he’s performed in other places. They’ve heard of his teaching, but more about his healings and casting out of demons. And they know, they just know, that he’s come to make them a new healing center, to make their synagogue the best and brightest, to tell them that they are the Lord’s favorites. After all, didn’t he just proclaim the “year of the Lord’s favor”?

But then Jesus talks to them about the prophet Elijah, who was only able to help a woman outside of Israel during a time of great famine and struggle. And then he mentions Naaman the Syrian army commander who, at the urging of the prophet and Naaman’s own slave girl, dipped himself in the Jordan seven times and was cured of leprosy.

Why did this make people so angry to hear? Because it doesn’t fit with their understanding of how God is going to act. Because, by golly, they know that they are deserving and God’s grace is limited to them. Because these two stories are a little bit of a pinch from Jesus, reminding them those words from Isaiah, the ones about freeing the captives, sight to the blind and the day of the Lord, those words are no longer only for Israel, but for all people who will hear of Jesus Christ. It’s not that the words aren’t for Israel, but they are not only for Israel.

For Jesus’ hearers, this is blasphemy. How can he say this to them? Haven’t they been the most faithful, the most devoted, to God? Haven’t they earned the grace? How can it be going to Gentiles? Pigs?

The same annoyance was probably among the Corinthians, which inspired this section of Paul’s letter- going back into chapter 12. The Corinthian believers are certain they know that there is a hierarchy among believers, that some of them have gifts that are better than others, that some of them are more holy than others. Paul has to stop the inner struggle by pointing them to a better way.

And then he goes on to describe love. It’s not a love that overlooks wrongs that hurt people. It’s not a love that is simpering or warm and fuzzy. It’s a deep kind of charity that overlooks differences and brings the community together so that they can actually do the work that they want to do and that they are called to do.

Even more importantly, it reminds the Corinthians of the kind of love that God has for them- the kind of love to which they are called to respond. The kind of love the church has for one another and the kind of work the body of Christ does is a placeholder, is temporary, for the work and the love of God that will win the day. Now we know only in part, now we see in a mirror dimly, but we shall see face to face, we will know fully, even as we have been fully known.

Fully known. We miss that part when we read this passage at weddings. And yet that might be the key part for a couple starting life together. Once you’re married, then you do become more fully known. And it’s not always pretty. Then the work of love begins. As you become more fully known, patience is needed, kindness is needed, hopefulness is needed. We need those things in a marriage. We need these in our community. But they’re not warm fuzzies that just appear. They take work. And truth-telling. And being able to handle the truth.

In all of this, we are fully known. The God who created us, who gives us power through the Spirit, has graciously included us into his body. But just as we’re beginning to feel warm and fuzzy about God’s love, God pushes us out says, “Now you know who needs it… the people of Spenard. People in Haiti. People in Turnagain. People in Bethel. People in jail. People who are hungry. Prostitutes. Gay people. Young people. Old people. Prodigal sons. Elder sons. Non-Christians. I love them too and they need to hear about it. To hear about what I’ve done. To hear about what I’m going to do.”

To be fully known is dangerous it means that God knows exactly what we’re capable of for the kingdom. And God expects it of us. Even knowing we’ll fall short, God gathers us in and sends us out. The crowds may gather. There may be murmurs of cliffs. But Jesus moved through them and on his way. The Word goes on.

And it goes on in and for and through us. We’re each called to speak up and to point to God’s work in the world. To speak to God’s truth. To realize that the message of judgment and grace isn’t just for us.

“For you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”

It’s not warm and fuzzy.

It’s truth AND dare.