Sunday, May 29, 2016

Being Enough

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. 
I am astonished! I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel! I am astonished!
With these stunning words, the Apostle Paul begins his letter to the churches in Galatia.  These are harsh words. Harsh words from an apostle who, in writing another similar letter to a divided congregation at Corinth, begins with these words,  “I thank my God always for you…”
I am astonished! 
So, what is going on here, within the churches in Galatia, an area we would understand as present-day Turkey? What is going on in the churches that are some of the earliest founded by Paul and Barnabus, a result of Paul’s first missionary journey around the mid-1st century? And why on earth does Paul seem so angry with them?
Over the next six weeks, Pastor Mark and I will delve into these questions and more. We will be working our way through this letter to the churches in Galatia, a letter often called the Magna Carta on Christian freedom, a letter directed to congregations made up of both Jewish believers and Gentile believers.
So, some background. 
As I already said, Paul likely founded these churches on his first missionary journey--a journey that lasted from 2-3 years and that consisted of moving from city to city, planting new congregations. In each location, Paul would preach the Good News--that simple, yet radical, Gospel alluded to in the opening words of his letter, the same words I opened today’s sermon with, words that speak of the freedom we have as believers--a freedom that comes as a result of God’s grace through Christ’s sacrifice.
Now this freedom wasn’t always easy for the early believers to accept. After all, consider that many of the early believers were Jewish--people who had been taught from early on that freedom came only from keeping the law.  So, as the Gospel spread outside the Jewish community--as it was shared with Gentiles, with non-Jews who had not grown up with this same belief system--well, tension arose between the two groups. The Jewish Christians believed that the Gentile Christians should conform to the Jewish way of Christianity. This meant, at a minimum, that believers were required to keep the Sabbath and for male believers, in particular, it meant circumcision.
This dispute between the Jewish understanding of the Gospel and the Gentile understanding of the Gospel was not just isolated to the churches in Galatia. It was also an issue that arose in Antioch a few years later, when Paul confronted Peter over his teaching of Jewish conformity.  Because of the dispute, the congregation there in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabus and others to Jerusalem, to bring this issue to the leaders of the church and, for once and for all, to resolve the issue.  The meeting was what we understand from the book of Acts as the Jerusalem Council.  It was at this meeting that the Council--this group of church leaders--ultimately and unanimously decided that Gentile Christians would not be subject to Jewish law and traditions.
Yet, as is so often the case, the controversy wasn’t easily left behind. After the Jerusalem Council and even after Paul had visited the Galatian churches a second time, word came to him that a group of likely overzealous Jewish Christians had visited these churches and had challenged both Paul’s authority as an apostle and the Gospel he had preached. They claimed that, because Paul had not journeyed with Christ as one of the early apostles, he lacked their same authority. As a result, they also challenged Paul’s Gospel message--a message of freedom from conformity to the law, the Good News of freedom given to us in grace by God through Christ’s death and resurrection. 
This letter, then, is Paul’s response. This letter, a writing that was so influential for Luther in understanding Christian freedom, is Paul’s defense. It is a defense of both his apostolic authority and a defense of the radical and freeing message of the Gospel that he preached.
This is the background story for Galatians, this letter we’ll be studying over the next few weeks.
So, the question this morning is what does this story from nearly 2,000 years ago mean for us here today? As Christians in the year 2016, we know this stuff backwards and forwards. We know that we have been given this precious gift of freedom by God through the saving act of Jesus on the cross.  We are Lutherans, after all! Grace is our middle name!
But, do we know it? Do we really know it? Do we truly know and accept it deep within ourselves?
I think not. At least not fully. 
Within ourselves and in our congregations we may say we are free, but we don’t fully believe it.  We still believe in conforming to the law. We neither trust that God has made us fully free nor do we believe it about others.  How else can we explain our incessant drive to become better, to be more knowledgeable, to be greater experts in whatever, to become the best we can be and expect everyone else to conform to our own set of expectations, to cram our lives and our schedules so full of stuff and noise that we can’t even begin to hear God’s call to us and God’s message to us that we are enough? We are enough. We are enough just as we are. 
It was just two years ago this spring that I applied to become a candidate for ministry in the ELCA.  It was not a decision that came easy. It was not a call that I fully believed I had been given even at the time I submitted my application. You see, I grew up in a church where women were not allowed to be pastors. I know some of you here come from a similar background.
Even though, in my early 20’s I transferred my membership to a denomination that ordained women pastors, I was still not really free of that deep-seeded understanding. So, even though deep down I knew that God was calling me to ministry, I ran from that call. Keeping myself so busy with life as a single parent, working two jobs, going to school--that I simply closed my heart and my mind to it.  I refused to hear God calling me. Even in my first year of candidacy, even after I’d taken that first, risky step into the unknown, I still wasn’t free of the belief that I was not enough for this work. 
It was only last year, in my second year of candidacy, that I began to believe that, just maybe, I was enough. That just maybe this was what God was calling me to do. It came in my chaplaincy training. It was there, in the midst of my fellow trainees--this group of misfits that, included a Roman Catholic woman trying to determine her call in the midst of the patriarchal church that she loved, a Mormon chaplain trying to figure out his own call from God in the midst of a culture that viewed him and his church as on the fringe, a Lutheran fire fighter seeking to overcome years of abuse from his father, a young Lutheran man trying to find his own identity as a pastor apart from that of his older, med-school bound sister, and a former Southern Baptist minister who had left the ministry, burned out and wondering whether this was what God was really calling him to do. It was there, in this group of misfits, in this group of broken people struggling to find and live out God’s call to ministry in the midst of a broken world. It was there that my group and I began to understand that we were enough. 
You and I. We are enough. In God’s eyes there is nothing--good or bad--that will change how God sees us or how much God loves us.  Through one act. Through the sole act of Christ dying on the cross, our sovereign God has broken into our lives and freed us. Freed us from the weight of sin. Freed us from being bound up by the law. Freed us to fully be who God has called us to be whatever that may be. This is the radical Gospel that Paul preached and that he defends in his letter to the churches of Galatia and, yes, to us today. 
I am astonished by it. I hope and pray that you are, too.

Preached May 29, 2016, at Chatfield Lutheran Church.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Children of the Wind

I’m a child of the wind. 

There’s a lot of wind here in southeastern Minnesota, much more than I expected and much more, it seems, than I experienced last year in St. Paul.  But, as a native of South Dakota, I have to make the claim that you really don’t know wind until you've lived west of the Missouri River in that state. 

Growing up, wind was an everyday experience for us. A good wind day mean that there were gentle breezes in the 10-12 mph category.  A bad wind day mean that those gentle breezes turned into gale force winds, in the 50-60 mph category, sometimes even higher.  Winter wind chill temperatures were brutal.  Spring and fall were always gusty, blowing leaves and dust all over the place.  And summer winds almost always blew in an afternoon thunderstorm.  

Those days that were good wind days--well, they were magnificent.  As a little girl, I remember walking in our pastures in the summertime, feeling the gentle breeze, which brought cool relief from days that could be very hot and humid. They also carried the wonderful smell of prairie grasses to my nose--a sweet, rather exotic smell that, if I closed my eyes right now, I could still smell it in my imagination.  It was there, in our pasture filled with prairie grasses and tickled with gentle breezes that I felt one with God and all creation.  Thinking about those experiences takes me to this day to a place of deep peace.  

Yet, that same gentle breeze can turn into something that feels terrifying or risky or unexpected, can’t it?  I've experienced that many times throughout my life living through many a tornado watch, eyeing a few that have come dangerously close, praying that they would switch direction. Driving 200 miles in the midst of a winter blizzard, guiding my mother as she drove in near-zero visibility by opening my door ever so slightly to watch the lines painted on the highway.  As an adult, I’ve stood close to the edges of cliffs as a hard wind blew off the ocean, taking a risk and leaning into it with the full knowledge that if the wind should stop suddenly I might easily go over the edge.  Flying kites over the years with my son, confident in my own abilities until suddenly with little warning, the wind would send my kite crashing to the ground.  

Yes, even with its contradictory nature, I’m a child of the wind.

So, imagine my delight when, in my first years of seminary, I learned that the word in scripture used for the Spirit means wind and, even, breath of God.  It seemed fitting somehow.  That the Holy Spirit--this mysterious third person of the Godhead, this unseen presence sent by God into the world that appears in the most unexpected places, this Comforter that both reminds us of what God has said and continues to teach us about God, this Advocate through whom God has claimed us as God’s own and has formed us into the body of Christ--well, it seems only fitting that this Holy Spirit should be characterized as wind derived from God's breath.  That natural, contradictory, unexpected force that, for me, can mean both deep peace and unexpected danger or risk.  As John writes in the third chapter of his gospel, “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes.  You hear her sound, but you don’t know where she comes from or where she is going.”

Perhaps that is what is most unsettling about the Holy Spirit.  It seems fairly easy to understand and categorize God the Father as creator and loving parent.  It seems easier to understand and categorize God the Son as redeemer and savior of the world.  But, it is really hard to easily understand and categorize the Holy Spirit, isn’t it?  This Being who works in the water of baptism and the bread and wine of communion to bring us to faith, to forgive our sin, and to bring us into community with one another.  This Breath who speaks through the words of Scripture to us in our own language to further reveal who God is.  This Person who shows up when we least expect her and most need her through the kind words of a stranger, the supportive words of a Stephen Minister, or the challenging words of a close friend.  This Unseen Force who nudges us to act as we seek to “walk our talk” in our daily lives instead of just on Sunday mornings.  And who works on the hearts of people, pushing them to give out of their abundance to pledge amounts high above expectations for a building expansion to better serve their community.  This Spirit Wind who, in one moment, carries us peacefully like a kite in the blue sky and who, in the very next, pushes us forward, into new and sometimes terrifying places. And who continues to weave newness into the fabric of our lives and the world and all creation.  This is the Holy Spirit.

And we are all her children.  Children of the Wind. Children of the Holy Spirit.  

So, let us pray then. Using the words of Walter Brueggemann, let us pray that the Holy Spirit might continue to come--to work in us and in our world. 

We name you wind, power, force, and then,
    imaginatively, "Third Person."
We name you and you blow...
    blow hard,
    blow cold,
    blow hot,
    blow strong,
    blow gentle,
    blow new...
Blowing the world out of nothing to abundance,
blowing the church out of despair to new life,
blowing little David from shepherd boy to messiah,
blowing to make things new that never were.
    So blow this day, wind,
        blow here and there, power,
        blow even us, force,
Rush us beyond ourselves,
Rush us beyond our hopes,
Rush us beyond our fears, until we enact your newness in the world.
    Come, come spirit.  Amen.

Preached May 15, 2016, at Chatfield Lutheran Church.  The prayer is by Walter Brueggemann in his collection entitled Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), p. 167.)