Monday, September 21, 2009

a few thoughts

This isn't a sermon so some may say this is the first time i am actually blogging.

Should I stay or should I go? This is the question that I have heard many fellow pastors, Lutheran laity, and entire congregations ask over the last month. Initially my response to the question was you need to discern what God is calling you to do, but as for me I am not being called to leave the ELCA. This claim has been based less on any great thological ponderings and more on a personal experience about five years ago. When my endorsement was postponed by the New England Candidacy committee (Yes I am living proof that Orthodoxy can come out of New England) many friends and family questioned their motives, they asked the same question I was asking "Is my theological orientation the real reason behind this decision?" Naturally such questions led me even then to question a call to ordained ministry in the ELCA. I grew up Roman Catholic and my wife was raised LCMS so despite the fact that I had come to love the ELCA both Heather and I were able to think about, talk about, and pray on the possibility of calling another church body home. It was in this time of prayer, wilderness time I have been known to call it, that I heard God's call more clearly than I have before or since. We were worshipping at my In-Laws' LCMS church and during communion I was on the kneeler praying and God said to me "I have called you to the ELCA, it won't be easy but I will not leave you"I have felt God's call before but this wasn't a feeling but a voice in my ear. So I have felt obliged to tell people that until God tells me just as clearly that I can and should leave I am obligated to stay in the ELCA. I was mostly comfortable with this answer.
That was until a couple weeks ago. You see I am a pastor who feels strongly that part of my call is to connect the local congregation to the wider church. I strive to do that by supporting and particapating in synod events. It was in this spirit that I brought 16 people, youth and their families, to the Jesus, Justice, Jazz Tour co-sponsored by Wartburg College and the NE IA Synod. This was a concert by the same musicians who headlined the Youth Gathering in New orleans and the proceeds were slated to go towards Hunger Relief, a cause all Christians can get behind, right? As the concert went on there seemed to be almost as many references to sexual orientation and homophobia as there were hunger and poverty. I started wondering if I can belong to a church body that can't come together to do the work of the Gospel without making it about sex. I know I can't equate the antics of 3 idependent musicians with the ELCA, but one can't read the latest statements of Lutherans Concerned and Goodsoil without wondering if this experience will be representative of the trajectory the ELCA is going in. Will the ELCA be a denomination that an orthodox pastor and congregations can survive in only by playing the role of the ecclesial ostrich, sticking its head in the sand while the world goes by around them. I would argue that this tragic act of self-isolation is akin to congregationalism at its worst and is an alternative that any Lutheran who claims orthodoxy and the evangelical catholic perspective should abhor. So ultimately if the ELCA becomes a church body that leads it's most traditional/orthodox/confessional voices down that route it can't be a church body in which I call home. Unfortunately despite all this language about bound conscience and bearing each other's burdens the signs tell me that this is where we are headed. So how do I answer the question with which i started this post? Do I stay or do I go? I can't answer it with the certainty that I once did, which pains me greatly. My best answer at this point is that God is calling me to wait and see. To wait and see if the ELCA truly becomes a place hostile to what I have to offer, to wait and see if the policies that are put in place post CWA truly create a church body in which I can truly offer a safe place for orthodox and confessional Lutherans, and to wait and see if any real alternatives come to bear, right now the alternatives are all to congregational for me. Waiting and seeing always consists of prayer, dialogue, study, and more prayer. I hope that someday I hear God's voice in my ear as clearly as I did that Sunday morning and Roselle IL.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sunday's sermon

Jesus is the Answer
But What is the Question
In seminary we had a running joke that the harder the questions got all we had to do was remember back to our Sunday School days when the answer was always Jesus, granted this didn’t always work with our professors, but we often tried it anyway. I was reminded of the Larry Norman song of the late 60’s entitled Jesus is the Answer. Sometimes the Christian faith seems like a strange episode of Jeopardy where we all know the answer, but are all guessing what the question is. I think this was the problem Peter and Jesus’ disciples faced as well. In today’s gospel we see Peter had the correct answer but never really understood the question. He knew that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the Christ but failed to acknowledge that he really had no idea what that meant. Jesus turned the disciples’ expectations of their Messiah on their heads, and he continues to do that to this day.
What is the question? Is it anything our heart desires? Can Jesus be all things for all people? I was at a meeting of church leaders when I heard someone say “My Jesus would not say that” in reaction to one of the harder sayings of the New Testament. The problem I have with this is it allows any understanding of Jesus and his gospel to be the right understanding. People pick and choose the Jesus that makes them most comfortable ignoring the aspects of Jesus, his life and ministry, that may make some shiver, that may force transformation. Jesus becomes some politically correct love guru that would be more at home in a self help seminar than a church. The truth is that throughout Mark’s Gospel geography is hugely important. Caesarea Philippi was the urban metropolis, the center of diversity to the Roman world. You could by lunch from a street vendor and then turn around and buy a god from a vendor across the street. There were gods of all kinds to be bought and sold on the streets of Caesarea Philippi, God’s that hung around one’s neck and Gods that you stuck in your back pocket, gods of fertility and storm gods. It is in this type of deity potluck where Jesus the love guru and ambassador of political correctness may have felt home. If that is indeed who Jesus Christ really was.
Brothers and sisters a self help guru would never say something like
Mark 8:34-38 "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? 37 Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels."
Guess what friends, our Jesus said this. The call to pick up your cross and follow isn’t a call to comfort but to discipleship. The call to lose our life isn’t a call to self neglect a call to sacrificial love. Jesus is asking all of us to renounce things in our lives that would keep us from fully embracing the God who has created us, redeemed us at the cross of Christ, and called us in Baptism. For Peter that included a false politicized understanding of what and who the messiah was. For us that may include a overly domesticated and comfortable view of Jesus Christ the self-help guru. But yet for others, it may include an image of Jesus Christ the legalistic moralist who calls not for obedience and faith but perfection. Like the love guru this understanding of Jesus is a distortion of the God-man who took our sins to the cross, bearing our burden so we could bask in his glory.
This is the first of three times in which Jesus predicts his own death in Mark. But he predicts something else as well. Peter was so distraught about the death and suffering that he missed the next part. Peter heard crucifixion and refused to hear resurrection.. Jesus Christ, our savior doesn’t only die for us, he lived and lives again for us as well. It is only in that light that we should hear Jesus’ call to lay down our lives and follow. It’s not only a call to self sacrifice, but a called to be filled with the Holy Spirit and transformed by the Glory of the crucified and resurrected Lord.
Laying down one’s life and carrying one’s cross isn’t just a matter of losing things. But it culminates in a gaining of the life that God wants. When Peter lays down his human understanding of the messiah he doesn’t all of a sudden forget there is a messiah. Instead his understanding of messiah is transformed transforming him in the process.
Mark 8:35 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.
Brothers and sisters the God of Jesus Christ isn’t just another God pedaled by street vendors to be bought and discarded at a whim. The God of Jesus Christ has bought us by his own precious blood and promised to never discard or forsake us, even in death and suffering he carries us through to new life and resurrection. Who do you say that I am? Jesus you are the Son of God, fully God yet fully man, and redeemer of the world. That’s who you are. Let’s pray
Lord God you have told us to lose our lives to save them. Help us see when the things of the world draw attention away from embracing all you command and offer. In Jesus Christ's name we pray.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sermon on Mk 7:24-37 and James 2

We All Belong

I remember one Sunday in Chicago Heather and I decided to visit a church where our friend’s mother was the pastor. It was a little bit of a drive being in the far southern suburbs, an area of Chicagoland we never spent a lot of time in. After finally arriving at the church we were a little late, we found some mostly empty pews. As we approached the place in the service where the choir was going to sing we noticed that everybody sitting around us was giving each other sheet music. They than proceeded to stand up while the rest of the congregation remained seated, some turned to look at the group of standing choir members that we happened to be seating in the midst of. That is right we somehow managed to show up late to this church where nobody knew us and sit ourselves right down with the Choir. I wanted to disappear I felt so foolish, like an outsider who just ruined any chance of welcome I may have had. The congregation was friendly and welcoming but that did little to subdue my feeling of non-belonging.
The woman Jesus confronted in today’s Gospel had every right to feel that way. She was a gentile woman asking Jesus for help, being a gentile she had no right aprproaching a Jewish rabbi, being a woman in that world she had even less right. I am sure as well that having a demonized daughter made sure she was even marginalized in her own community. This is a woman who was an outsider by every possible definition, yet she crossed all those boundaries and brought her need to Jesus Christ. Even when Jesus Christ challenged her she didn’t shy away but offered a confession of faith that any disciple would be proud of. This outsider knew who Jesus was and came to him in faith despite it being against the rules of society.
Just a week removed from Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees where we are faced with the dark truth that insiders often create stumbling blocks for themselves and others we are confronted with the flip side of the same coin. In Jesus’ words and the woman’s words we are reminded that in God’s eyes there are no such things as insiders and outsiders, haves and have nots, and us and them. Yes the life and work of Jesus Christ was initially for those labeled as God’s chosen people, which ironically included those Pharisees he is always rebuking. But the grace and glory of God as we have come to know in the incarnation is to great to be lavished on one small group of people. The grace that is offered in Jesus Christ is made available to all people regardless of whatever side of whatever line they may be on.
As a matter of fact Jesus came because throughout the history of humankind we have proven ourselves again to need that life-changing grace of God. Perhaps it is safe to say that in God’s eyes we were all outsiders and have-nots. Between the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus we have become insiders and the haves. We have been welcomed fully into God’s presence and been given the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. The healing that we see in today’s Gospel lesson, both the exorcism of the daughter and the healing of the deaf man was more than a healing of individuals, but communities that have been destroyed by divisions created out of sin are restored and made whole.
In the 2nd reading James the brother of Jesus speaks to what happens when a community of disciples let human partiality take root. Not only are we sinning but we are actively damaging the Gospel. When the church shows the partiality that the world shows, creating groups and cliques the church isn’t acting as the Body of Christ. As Gentiles we need to be grateful that the promises of God were and are for everyone. As baptized Christians we should feel compelled to take pause and think about ways that we have indeed participated in a system of brokenness and partiality, and thank God that Jesus came to fix what was broken and draw us all to God.
In such an individualistic and polarized society I think we need to really reflect on how radical God’s word is. Sin is not only separation from God but also isolation from one another, distortion and brokenness of community. Last week at Immanuel we baptized a baby boy Iver Neal Ellingson, this week at Zion we witnessed Cathy Larsen and Adam Roethler reaffirm their baptisms, claiming God’s promises for themselves and officially joining our fellowship. Brothers and sisters today readings about the impartiality of God’s grace and the universality of his love made incarnate in Jesus Christ give us an amazing opportunity to reflect on what membership in our local congregation and in the Holy catholic church mean, remembering that when Lutheran say catholic it is always a lower-case c and means universal. We are doing more than officially acknowledging their presence on the pew beside us. We are welcoming them as blessed Brothers and sisters in the Glorious Presence of God. We are receiving them as fellow sojourners on this journey to which God has called us all in baptism. We are being blessed by the gifts that they are in our community a faith. A community torn and broken by sin and yet restored and transformed by Jesus Christ. I want to leave you today with not an answer but a question, in a world full of us and thems, haves and have nots, insiders and outsiders, how do we live in that world while living for a God who shows no partiality?