Thursday, March 29, 2007

Trout Season is Coming Just 15 days

Pastorally I've just finished a long week. I haven't had a full day off in a couple weeks and the hardest part was the second funeral of the week for a wonderful guy who just last month was one of our crew leaders working at Camp Victor in Mississippi. He died of meningitis way before any of us ever thought he'd leave this world.

God's timing and our timing aren't the same. The hard part of living in this place between the first resurrection and the fulfillness of time is losing some of the great people we've gotten to walk with on this earth. I can complain; but I am still not in control. (If you don't get this go read Job).

My best responses to the stresses and frustrations of my job as a pastor is to get outside and enjoy the world. Some people call this, "self care." The rest of us call it either "getting a life" or fun. To that end I begin my countdown to trout season and the personally even more important Mother's Day Weekend Trouter.

Minnesota's Trout Season Opens April 14.
One of the great joys of life in this part of the world is the spring and trout fishing.
Trout fishing in the Middle-West is not quite the same as the romantic picture painted by A River Runs Through It and other mountain fishing that people seem to imagine based on books and movies. We don't head hundreds of miles from home up into the secluded mountains. Instead we head a couple miles away early in the morning or late in the afternoon to our favorite fishin' stream. Some streams run right through cow pastures, others run through deep lime-stone gorges on their way to the mighty Mississippi. Some teem with elusive and tasty native Brook Trout that have been here as long as recorded history; others are well stocked with the imported Brown to keep up high populations.

My Great innovation in preparation for trout fishing this year is a very small, very light, fast action rod its a 2 section 5 foot 2 weight. A year ago I got my second ever rod, its a biggie, 4 section 9 foot 7 weight as a Birthday/Father's Day gift. It's great for crappies off the back of a pontoon or casting for Brown Trout in a 30 foot wide river, but in some narrow creeks it just is to big to get under the overhanging branches. So this year I will be fishing with 2 very different rods.

My logic is based on this same piece of advice from two different fly shop owners in very different parts of Colorado, "you wouldn't play golf with just one club in your bag so why would you try to fish with just one fly rod." So far my wife is bemused with the rationale. I was like a kid on Christmas eve waiting for the box to come. Then the day arrived and I got two boxes to open, each one filled with wonderful goodies. Rod, reel, backing, floating flyline, float line conditioner, and a rod case (an unexpected bonus).

Monday, March 26, 2007

Jesus' Passion for Our Sake Luke 22:14-23:56

Reading the Passion on Palm Sunday

Preachers are called to be witnesses in season and out of season to the power of God to transform. That's what good preaching is supposed to do. Sometimes our words don't compare to the words in scripture and Palm Sunday, commonly renamed Passion Sunday, is just one such day. So instead of preaching after the readings a sermon may be best as a preface to our reading of the passion.

As a kid growing up in a post Vatican II Catholic Church in Minnesota I heard the passion read several times. Every year I listened to the story of the passion on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Every year, “Crucify him, crucify him” came from my lips and the lips of everyone around me.

It'd be nice to find somebody else to blame for the cross. A scapegoat perhaps who we could all blame and drive away. But we can't find any one person or group of people to blame. 480 years ago Luther wrestled with his own realization that he had something to do with Christ's death. Unfortunately for many readers in our politically correct age Luther's words are mixed with his own brand of ugly Antisemitism; but the harder truth that all humans are to blame for the cross still eeks through his crass and erroneous charge against Jesus' own people alone.

Luther wrote hauntingly,

The real and true work of Christ’s passion is to make man conformable to Christ, so that man’s conscience is tormented by his sins in like measure as Christ was pitiably tormented in body and soul by our sins. This does not call for many words but for profound reflection and a great awe of sins. Luther's Works, Vol. 42 : Devotional Writings I. Page 10 Edited by Pelikan, Oswald and Lehmann. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1969.

The shame of Christians through the centuries is our misguided search for another individual or group to blame for Christ's death. Look no further than yourself and you can see one who Christ died to save. Look at your own sins.

Our age is ripe with images of the Passion. Mel Gibson's film, the art of the last 2000 years, and our own reading of scripture guide us into the bloody and unpleasent details. The key is not to blame another but to here your voice in the crowd shouting for Jesus' blood. The reformer wrote,

You must get this thought through your head and not doubt that you are the one who is torturing Christ thus, for your sins have surely wrought this. (Ibid p. 9)

There we sit in our listening. Realizing the depth of God's love and the reality of Jesus' suffering for us.

But we must not leave ourselves forever at the foot of the cross because Jesus did not remain on the cross. The cross was not Jesus' finale. Christians who were dead because of sin now rise to new life just as Jesus rose. Today we see our Lord on the cross; but in watching both the horror of the cross and the wonder of his rising we see the true heart of God. Luther said that this is God's “friendly heart” which reaches out for sinners.

As you read the passion listen to the words that spill from your lips and know that you are the one he died to save. Know that his resurrection happened and that you will rise with him. AMEN.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Accepting Mary's Extravagance in John 12:1-11

Mary's gesture towards Jesus stands out. Her affection is the kind reserved for someone you dearly love. The nard that she pours on his feet filled the air. Her love was clear for all to see at the table. Judas Iscariot named his outrage. It was extravagant; besides, the money could have been used for the poor. But Jesus didn't stop her. No he accepted the gift and her.

Why Mary anointed Jesus is beyond our knowledge. It was extravagant and it was intimate. Maybe it was an act of thanksgiving for the brother who she had seen restored. Maybe she wanted to show total devotion. Whatever her reasons we know that others wanted nothing to do with him while she wanted to be even closer to him.

The more power Jesus displayed the angrier the people who wanted him dead became. The gospel writers leave little doubt that there was a party in Israel who wanted him dead. All 4 gospels tell us repeatedly about the Pharisees who were enraged at Jesus' actions. But they also leave little doubt that many others in Israel wanted to come see and hear him. The people who came believing in Jesus wanted their sick to be healed by him. They wanted to come to him to see and to know the power that he had to change lives.

Jesus circle of friends expanded far beyond his hometown of Nazareth. The poor souls tormented by daemons knew him as the one who set them free. The sinners who everybody else complained about knew him too. His circle of friends had space for prostitutes, tax-collectors, and sinners. There was room for the sick and the down caste too.

As Jesus welcomed many into his fellowship others chose to walk away from him. Their contempt for his outrageous generosity grew. In John 11 we see them plot to kill him. Jesus' fame was too great for the Pharisees to watch. The people wanted to be with Jesus after he raised Lazarus from the dead. And the Pharisees wanted to kill him. These teachers of the law couldn't let it continue. They knew better than this one who healed the sick and caste out daemons. They would choose death for him rather than let him continue his outrageous ministry that reached out to those who needed healing the most.

The group who wanted him dead was small; but they were powerful. The Pharisees allied themselves with the Chief Priests, and their soldiers, insuring that Jesus, the man they so detested, would be killed. Maybe they were motivated by jealousy. Maybe they were motivated by rage at his power to love those who they were certain were unclean and unloveable.

Whatever the motive they were ready to get justice. Sadly, John has wrongly named this small powerful group, “Jews.” They didn't represent all the people of Israel or all Jews. Watching Mary's gesture of love proves that again to us all. She loved him heart and soul. She loved him and the sweet nard that covered his feet and filled the air testified to that deep love.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Jesus parables in Luke 15:11-32

Looking at the usual name given for this parable its easy to start wondering if what we call this story from doesn't give away our perspective on the story.

First up its important that we view Jesus' parables not just as a stories about someone else but as a story that God can use, through the Spirit, to reshape and renew us. Jesus' parables are about all humanity; but In Luke 15:10 we learn that he's not just talking about human beings. Jesus is talking about the joy of the angels when a lost one who returns to God.

We are not just readers and hearers. We fit into this story. If we are saved by grace through faith we find ourselves in this very story. The angels in heaven fit into this story. Above all God fits into this story.

How could one story reveal so much? It happens when the Word combines with the imagination, through the work of the Holy Spirit. That's when we find ourselves caught up in both God's judgment and love.

So what's your perspective today. Where does the spirit lead you as you read.

Note: if you haven't read the story yet this is a great moment to do just that. Try out the Oremus Bible Browser.

After you listen to the words of the great story teller think through the characters in the story. Its easy to name the father and two sons but look beyond them. There are other characters in this story; Jesus, the story teller; the crowd who heard him, both sinners and Pharisees were listening attentively. Don't forget the servants, the prostitutes and friends of the son who left, and the friends of the son who stayed.

Imagination is key to hearing this story.

Its pretty easy to imagine myself in as either the father or one of the two sons.

Yes, I've been the prodigal.

I have been the prodigal son who walked away from a gift that God had given him only to regret later what a foolish thing I'd done. I've been the one to turn my back and to go away from God insisting that I knew better and that I could make it on my own. The grace that's shown to the son is life changing. I've been the one to know that the love of God is not something that we can earn but that it is a gift that God alone can given. Brad Hightower posted a sermon in his blog where he wrote “But when he came back to his father filled with self-loathing and disgust and smelling like a pig, his Father saw him. His Father felt compassion on him and ran to him. Here is the heart of the gospel unfolding.” I've been that one who returned.

I'm trying to be a generous, loving and forgiving father.

One of the wonders about fatherhood is the love of the two girls who call me dad. It's been amazing to watch them accept or not accept my love too. This past weekend one of our 3 year olds lost television for a few days because she wouldn't listen to directions. The look in her eyes was cold. But I didn't stop loving her. I still held her and read to her; but she wasn't going to get that beloved TV back. I still want to be her dad even if I don't want her misbehaving.

And yes I've been the Other Brother.

I've been the one who is so disgusted at the love that God could show to some one else that it eats me up. I've been the one who says to God, “How could God forgive that person?” And in that I find the power of God revealed. God can love me but he can also love the one I find unlovable. Sometimes seeing the love of God at work reveals our own judgments and our own more desperate need for his love.

The final question isn't what the prodigal son does or what the father does, its what the other brother does. David Wee writes in a sermon, “Jesus doesn't tell us what the elder brother does next. A typical short story writer: he stops before the story seems to be over. But Jesus doesn't have to tell us how the elder child responds, because we already know--you and I are the elder son or daughter, and we know ourselves. We will have to write the rest of the story ourselves...”

So go and write an ending for this story.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Numbers, Denominations, Proof, and Faith

Two things caught my eyes scanning the news this Sunday afternoon.

First is the 2007 annual report of the National Council of Churches announcing how many members different denominations have on their respective rolls this year. The numbers make the papers; but they are old news for most people in the church. Denominations are rising and falling. So what's new about that. The same ones are in decline that have been in decline for the last 20 years. We are all too well aware of the pews that are empty and the one's that are full in our churches these days. The better question that we should encourage the media to ask is what moves people to embrace faith in Jesus or not. Membership in a congregation is only one small part of the equation. Sure demographers can measure the numbers on the roles or in the pews; but there is no human who can chart the work of the Holy Spirit that causes people to embrace Jesus.

Second is a story about the "forgotten tomb of Jesus" written by Pamela Miller in the Star Tribune this weekend. Miller quotes St. Olaf Professor James Hanson offering a great answer to the questions that are asked by the skeptics who look our faith and try to find the holes. Prof. Hanson, "... faith is never going to hold up to pure historical analysis. That's not what it's about." Hanson's right.

Faith hinges on the unknown otherwise it would be certainty and not faith. If you are looking for something solid and logical that has no hole you aren't looking for faith you are looking for something completely different. Faith is all about the holes in the story of Jesus and our trust, even though we haven't seen him in his presence and in his rising from the dead. The current crop of holes, ranging from the latest Tomb of Jesus that's been discovered to the DaVinci Code, challenge those who insist their faith has no holes, but for those of us who have doubts and yet still believe this is nothing new or even earth shaking .

Monday, March 5, 2007

Jesus preaching in the street.

Our Gospel reading this Sunday was not a neat and tidy sermon given from a pulpit to a regularly gathered worshiping community. Jesus was preaching in the streets and thousands came to listen to him teaching out in the open. The crowd was made up of those who wanted him dead and those who believed he spoke the word of God.

They came to Jesus with a question that's never been answered to anyone's satisfaction outside of the cross. Why does suffering have to happen? The people in Jesus time didn't generally ask him a theoretical question. They particularly asked about the suffering that one group of people had to endure at the hands of their Roman overlord. They asked Jesus about the Galileans who suffered at the hands of Pilate. We ask similar questions too about disasters, peace, war, and justice. Jesus responded to them with another question. He asked them not only about the Galileans but about 18 others killed when the Tower of Siloam crashed down and crushed them.

We look for a cause of such tragedies. We look for some sinner to blame when everything that can go wrong goes wrong. Congress holds hearings. Special prosecutors investigate finding out who did what. We look for a sinner to blame, who brought down God's wrath on themselves and others. But a truth revealed in the cross is that suffering isn't always punishment for sin. Mary Hinkle Shore has a fantastic quote from Fred Craddock in her Pilgrim Preaching Blog regarding this exact point.

Don't lose site of the Cross:

Today's story makes sense when we see it in the context both of Jesus healing and preaching ministry and in the light of him dying and rising.

Jesus ministry, this one particular day, started out as he caste out a daemon from a man who was held mute by the power of the daemon. The crowd was amazed to hear this man speak for the first time after Jesus set him free. The crowd grew around Jesus. Pharisees nearby watched Jesus. They were students of the ancient religious law who believed that careful observation of the law proved their devotion and worthiness to God. Several Pharisees mixed in with the crowd and one invited Jesus to dine with him. Jesus accepted and went into the home of a Pharisee to eat. Jesus offended one of the Pharisees who ate with him. He didn't wash properly before eating according to the rules of the law. Jesus, knowing their offense, challenged them. He said that they cleaned the outside of the cup, but not the inside. He said that they were like unmarked open graves laying in wait to trap people. He said that their laws were burdens that were to great for the people to carry and these men who kept the rules did nothing to lift off their burdens.

In Luke 11:59 we read that Jesus had gone outside of the home of a Pharisee after eating. He encountered a growing crowd. Luke 12:1 tells us that Jesus was addressing a crowd numbering in the thousands. The group was so large that people trampled on one another trying to get close enough to listen to Jesus. Some in the crowd were clearly hostile. Some of the Pharisees lay waiting to trap Jesus in his words, ready to tear him down for blasphemy. They stung from his words. Others were there to listen to him teach. I think of the crowd as painfully divided that day. Some came with an answer for Jesus and others came to him with questions that have no easy answers.

Jesus made no attempt to cater to his critics. He confronted them directly, challenging them to listen, and respond not from a position of earthly honor, but from a position of humility before God. He offered no easy comfortable Word from God that afternoon. Instead he called them to look at the world and to see what God was doing in the middle of the ugliest and most painful realities.

In Jesus' time people were asking questions, just like we do, about the bad things that happen in the world. They asked about the Galileans who suffered at the hands of Pilate. We ask similar questions too about those who suffer in our time. We can make litanies of the disasters, wars, and injustices of our time and Jesus might respond by showing us even more suffering and injustice. The challenge for the church is not to list the evil and the suffering. Anybody can do that. Jesus' own example was not to list the problems. It was to heal and to restore. The world we live in is have; its a world that God created and called good, even very good, back in Genesis.

Justice isn't straightforward in this world and it never has been. The people asked Jesus about the violence that they lived with everyday. He spoke with them about the tragedies that they all knew. The response to the brokenness of this world isn't always clear. Suffering is real; just as the love of God revealed in Jesus is real. We can list all the shameful troubles that remain unresolved or we can step in and wade deeper into the challenging waters. We are called to minister in a world that has scars from sin, sickness, and disaster and not in a perfect world that never existed.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

God on the Brain

The mystery of faith and atheism has confounded us humans for generations.

Published: March 4, 2007. The Times' summary reads, "In the world of evolutionary biology, the question is not whether God exists but why we believe in him. Is belief a helpful adaptation or an evolutionary accident?"

In this story there's a great look at the psychology of belief and one man's quest not to believe.

As a person of faith I have come to understand that the universe and even my own person were made to help me seek God. But for the atheists who don't want to see God its a battle to force God out. Is it hubris or is just a case of Sisyphus at work all over again pushing against a force that is greater than he is.

Faith is real. The religious wars of the 21st century prove the price that people are willing to pay because of faith. But God isn't calling us to battle one another over belief. God is calling us into relationship. Some even argue that they've found evidence that we were made to believe. That proves just how difficult the atheists battle against God revealed in the world is. Still people exist who are confounded by the idea of a God who can't be eliminated by their own will to not believe.

My prayer is that God uses our need to touch the transcendent in order to let the revelation of God work in each of our lives in order that we might know the love of God that this world needs.

Faith is finally a gift, but like all God's gifts, they are given independent of our wills.