Sunday, July 31, 2016

Stuff and Fullness

3 Therefore, if you were raised with Christ, look for the things that are above where Christ is sitting at God’s right side. 2 Think about the things above and not things on earth. 3 You died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. 
5 So put to death the parts of your life that belong to the earth, such as sexual immorality, moral corruption, lust, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). 6 The wrath of God is coming upon disobedient people because of these things. 7 You used to live this way, when you were alive to these things. 8 But now set aside these things, such as anger, rage, malice, slander, and obscene language. 9 Don’t lie to each other. Take off the old human nature with its practices 10 and put on the new nature, which is renewed in knowledge by conforming to the image of the one who created it. 11 In this image there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all things and in all people. (Colossians 3:1-11, CEB)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father. Amen.

Today is moving day for me. Over the past week, I’ve spent every spare moment packing and preparing all of my things to go into storage for a few months as I await the Holy Spirit to lead me through the assignment and call process to my first congregation. Today, after I finish worship, a couple of members of my internship committee are coming to move most of my belongings up to the Cities.

It’s amazing, isn’t it? How much stuff we collect along the way. How we seem to grow into whatever space we’re living in. Last year, at seminary, I lived in a small, 200 square foot studio apartment. I had little room for much extra. So, when I moved here I really didn’t have very much stuff. But, here, I have been living in a two-bedroom apartment. Over the year, I easily expanded my stuff to fill the extra space. So much stuff.

I needed a place to store my stuff. So, this past week, while in the Cities at a conference, I found a self-storage place near my son’s house in Plymouth. So, I went there to look at sizes and pricing and eventually rented a storage unit. 

The process took a little longer than expected because there was glitch with their computer software. So, I ended up spending much of the time in conversation with the woman who was working at the desk. She was an older woman. She worked two jobs and had worked for the owner of this company for fifteen years. She was originally from North Carolina--I could still hear some Southern in her voice--and had grown up as the daughter of a Baptist minister. She and her husband had been married for over 40 years and had lived much of it here in Minnesota. She was wearing a pink bracelet in memory of a friend who had recently died from breast cancer--a woman who had emigrated from Russia and who she had befriended. She shared with me how, after her friend died, she had begun to watch over her friend’s mother, who spoke only Russian. So, using Google Translate, she was learning Russian so she could help her deceased friend’s mother learn English. She was quite an interesting woman. But, perhaps, the most striking statement she made was in the context of what was happening in our world today. She said that she had become afraid of people. Because of everything that was happening in our world, she was afraid of people. Here was this warm, talkative and deeply religious woman, who had gone out of her way to befriend a Russian immigrant, to step in and help her friend’s elderly mother learn English, saying to me that she was afraid of people. And, particularly, afraid of people she didn’t know.

What if this is really the point of our texts today? What if, in our Gospel lesson, it’s not about the man’s wealth but about his isolation. Consider the little conversation he has with himself: “What will I do? I have no place to store my harvest! Here’s what I will do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones.” There’s no indication from our Gospel story that there’s anyone else in his life, anyone else that he should care about, anyone else with whom he might share some of his wealth. 

We are really no different than this man. In our own selfishness, we surround ourselves with stuff. Maybe it’s physical stuff that takes over our house and our garages. Or maybe it’s stuff to do, where we’re so busy that we completely lose focus in our lives over what is important. Or maybe it’s experiences--that we need to have more and more new experiences, more and more adrenaline rushes. Or maybe it’s our wealth and consumption, that we just never seem to have enough. And, so, in our selfishness and greed, we want more and more and more. And, in the process, we misuse and abuse creation. We misuse and abuse each other. We surround ourselves with more and more stuff--whatever the “stuff” might be. Getting more becomes our sole focus. And, as a result, we become isolated. We become deeply isolated. From creation. From other people. But, mostly, we become isolated from God.

You all know how I love technology. I have a smartwatch, a smart phone, two iPads, one for my music and one for everything else, a laptop computer, a desktop computer, a smart TV.  I rarely buy a hard-bound book anymore and I don’t keep a physical calendar anymore. Instead, everything I do--reading news or a book, making notes, keeping a calendar--everything I do or need to do I do digitally. I love technology.

And, so, it was a little out of the ordinary for me this past week to order a book. A hard bound book. A day planner. A liturgical day planner, actually. It’s purpose is to help me organize and center my life around the values and beliefs that I profess. To help me develop my own rule of living, similar to the rule of living developed by ancient monastics like the Benedictines or the Franciscans. To help me order my life around God, instead of around myself. To use it to take time each day and each week to reflect upon the “things above” and to work to order my life around those things, instead of the things, or the stuff, on earth. You see, I think, that’s the message from Paul this week to the church in Colossae. And also to us. 

In our baptisms, we died and were buried in Christ. We were also raised with Christ. Death. Resurrection. The next step for us is ascension. To set our hearts and our minds on those things that are above. Not because of some heaven and earth dualism where heaven is a higher good than earth, but because Christ, the Risen One, is now the Ascended One whose rule is now “from heaven.” To continually set our hearts and minds on those things above, to put to death those things in us that separate us from this Ascended One and, as a result, separate us from our neighbors and from all creation. To strip off this life of the old self and to be clothed with a new self, a self that--as Paul writes in Colossians 3:10--is being renewed and made new in knowledge according to the image of its Creator. To put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity so that the peace of Christ might control our hearts. And that the word of Christ might live in us richly.

This is the whole point of Paul’s letter to the Colossians: that we might be renewed and grower deeper in knowledge so that we might be restored to our original calling as those created in God’s image. It is in and through Christ, that we are restored to our full humanity, that we come full circle back to how God originally created us to be in Genesis 1. And how God originally intended for us to live. No greed. No isolationism. No divisions or walls to separate us. No fear. Not afraid of each other.

But fullness. Fullness of relationship with creation. Fullness of relationship with each other and with all humanity. And fullness of relationship with God.

May God grant us such fullness. In grace. Amen.

Preached July 31, 2016, at Chatfield Lutheran Church.
Pentecost 11, Year C. 
Texts: Psalm 49:1-2, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21.
Based on ideas and suggestions by David Lose on "In the Meantime" and Brian J. Walsh on "Working Preacher."

Monday, July 18, 2016

Step Back and See the Possibilities

The Son is the image of the invisible God,
        the one who is first over all creation,
Because all things were created by him:
        both in the heavens and on the earth,
        the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.
            Whether they are thrones or powers,
            or rulers or authorities,
        all things were created through him and for him.
He existed before all things,
        and all things are held together in him.
He is the head of the body, the church,
who is the beginning,
        the one who is firstborn from among the dead
        so that he might occupy the first place in everything.
Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
        whether things on earth or in the heavens.
            He brought peace through the blood of his cross.

Once you were alienated from God and you were enemies with him in your minds, which was shown by your evil actions. But now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death, to present you before God as a people who are holy, faultless, and without blame. But you need to remain well established and rooted in faith and not shift away from the hope given in the good news that you heard. This message has been preached throughout all creation under heaven. And I, Paul, became a servant of this good news.
Now I’m happy to be suffering for you. I’m completing what is missing from Christ’s sufferings with my own body. I’m doing this for the sake of his body, which is the church. I became a servant of the church by God’s commission, which was given to me for you, in order to complete God’s word. I’m completing it with a secret plan that has been hidden for ages and generations but which has now been revealed to his holy people. God wanted to make the glorious riches of this secret plan known among the Gentiles, which is Christ living in you, the hope of glory. This is what we preach as we warn and teach every person with all wisdom so that we might present each one mature in Christ. I work hard and struggle for this goal with his energy, which works in me powerfully.  Colossians 1:15-29 (CEB)

Grace and peace to you God our Father. Amen.

This past week I was on vacation in Colorado. In fact, I was at a family reunion. My father had thirteen brothers and sisters. Every three years, our family, which is now into its fourth and fifth generations and numbers over 300, gathers together at some place in the U.S. to remember who we are and where we are from. It’s an amazing and moving time as we sit together and listen to the stories of our lives, of the lives of our parents and children, and of the lives of our grandparents and grandchildren.  This year we met for our reunion in the mountains of Colorado for five days. 

While we were there, I had the opportunity to see my niece, who I haven’t seen in a few years. She’s been busy with finishing college and starting work. I’ve been busy with school and internship and moving across country a few times. So, here in Colorado, we had a chance to catch up.

She’s quite a young woman. A mechanical engineer who graduated with honors from Cal-Poly. She has a great job with a start-up biomedical company in Southern California. She loves to hike and camp. And, she loves to tinker with machines. She has three motorcycles that she loves to mess with along with numerous other mechanical and electronic devices.

So, it seemed natural that, when she showed up at the reunion, she brought her new drone along with her. Now, I’ve only read about drones and watched them online. I’d never seen one in person or watched on in action. So, it was fascinating for me to see her operate this and to watch what it could do. 

Here’s an example of what it was able to do. Here, in this video, she was able to take a video of the members of our family who came to the reunion (by the way, this is only about half of my family!) and then to raise it up further into the sky and pan over the entire area where we were able to stay. We were able to see the setting first from a very small perspective and then to see it from a much larger, fuller perspective of the entire place. 

It is this video, taken by my niece from her new drone, that was helpful for me this week in thinking about our texts. 

Let’s first look at our Gospel lesson. I really don’t care for this story. Because it just seems to pit Martha against Mary and vice versa. It also seems to say to me that we have to choose one way of life over another--that a contemplative life is better than an active life of service. That Mary’s attention to Jesus’ teaching is better and more important than Martha’s work to be hospitable. 

But if, like the drone, I pull back and look at the bigger picture, I’m wondering if something different isn’t going on here, something I’ve never stepped back far enough to see from a fuller perspective. What Martha was doing was what was expected of her. She knew that guests were coming and so she got busy to make sure everyone had everything they needed. This is what was--and often still is--expected of women. It was work that was not just expected, but also valued. 

What wasn’t expected, though, is that Mary would take the position of a disciple, seated at the feet of Jesus, listening to him teach. If hospitality was considered women’s work, well, discipleship was considered men’s work. So, perhaps, the intent of this story is to push us out, to see a broader perspective, to see the possibility of something different, to see someone actually acting differently from what would have been expected or even allowed a woman to consider. Perhaps as Jesus repeats Martha’s name, he isn’t expressing frustration with her, but deep affection: “Martha, Martha, it is exactly because I love you that I don’t want you to be distracted or trapped by your work or your expected role, but instead to step back and see all that is possible for you, just as Mary has.” 

To step back and to see the possibilities. 

Perhaps we can take a lesson not only from Mary, but also from my niece’s drone.

To step back and to see the possibilities.

What if, for example, we were to step back and see the possibilities in the recent protests over the shootings in St. Anthony and Baton Rouge?  To not view them only from a close perspective, where they might seem out of control or disruptive or wrong. But to back up and take a broader view. To gain a bigger perspective. To see the possibility of these protests as transformative. That they might be the first step in an upsetting of societal structures that protect and elevate those of us with white skin over those of us who are people of color.  

Or what about the ways in which we deal with young Muslim men and women who go to Syria to fight with ISIS. What if we were to step back and look at the bigger picture? 

This is what crime prevention officers did in a small town in Denmark. On receiving reports of two young Muslim teenagers missing from an immigrant neighborhood outside their town, they, too, stepped back to gain a bigger perspective. After an investigation, they found out that these young men had gone to Syria. They had been drawn to the call put out by ISIS for Muslims worldwide to help build a new Islamic state. 

The police officers didn’t stop with this information, though. They stepped back and began to ask why this might be happening and what they might do to prevent radicalization.

Now most of the rest of the European countries came down hard on citizens who traveled to Syria. France shut down mosques it suspected of harboring radicals. The UK declared citizens who had gone to help ISIS enemies of the state. Several other countries threatened to take away their passports--a move previously reserved for convicted traitors.

But Danish police took a different approach. They made it clear that any citizens of Denmark who had traveled to Syria were welcome to come home and that, if they did, they would receive help with going back to school, finding an apartment, meeting with a psychiatrist or mentor, or whatever they needed to fully integrate back into society. In the process, they ended up creating an unusual--and unusually successful--approach to combating radicalization.

This program came to called the “hug a terrorist” program in the media, but this description doesn’t sit well with the cops. They see themselves as making an entirely practical decision designed to keep their city safe. From their perspective, coming down hard on young, radicalized Muslims will only make them angrier and more of a danger to society. 

To step back and see the possibilities. 

You see, that’s also the point of our Colossians text today. From a close-in perspective, it would seem impossible for an infinite, eternal God who exists outside of time to indwell in one human being who is mortal, finite and who dwells inside of time. 

Unless, of course, it isn’t. 

Unless, of course, we step back and see the possibilities.  See a new way that God was and is at work. As we read in verses 19-20...For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.

To step back and see the possibilities. To step back and see that, through the event of Christ, God has reconciled himself to all things--on earth and on heaven. That God is at work making a new reality. A new social system. A new creative order marked by peace and reconciliation. Salvation is not about the transformation of our existing reality--the defeat of enemy powers. Salvation is about a radical reconciliation of the entirety of the created order. Salvation here is not about God making an offer and waiting to see who takes it. Here, it is about God just doing it. About God turning all creation on its head and reconciling himself to it through Him in whom all of the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

To step back and see the possibilities. And to imagine God in a way that we have never imagined God before.

May that be our lesson today.


Preached Sunday, July 17, 2016, at Chatfield Lutheran Church.
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Year C)
Texts: Psalm 15, Colossians 1:15-29, Luke 10:38-42

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Why Are You Here?

My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.

Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. (Galatians 6:1-16, NRSV).

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.

Why are you here? 

No, really. Why are you here today? What is it that makes you come each Sunday, week after week, year after year, to this place?

Now, you can rest easy today, because I won’t make you share! But, I think this is an important question for each one of us to think about.  And, after you’ve thought about it, I’m sure that, if I did ask you to share, the list would probably be endless. 

That’s how it would be for me. There would be many reasons. That, here every Sunday, I am re-centered or re-grounded in my faith and in my life. That, here, I hear God’s Word--Word that always seems to speak to me just the right thing at just the right moment. That, here, in the ritual of our liturgy that has, for the most part, been unchanged for nearly 2,000 years, I am connected to the whole church--past, present, and future. That, here, as I receive communion I feel Christ’s presence, not only in the bread and wine, but also through all of you.

Perhaps, communion is the single best explanation. Communion with God. Communion with the whole church. Communion with you.

Why are you here? 

I think that often we forget that God has not intended us to live out our life of faith alone. So, often we talk about "my faith," or "my church," or "my beliefs," or, even, "my God."  But, this is not God’s intent for us. The nature of faith is communal. It is about learning and growing together, about embarking upon a journey of faith that is not individualized or isolationist, but that is lived out communally, within a body of believers, in a congregation. People of faith who are joined together in the body of Christ. We say the words with each baptism--”We welcome you into the body of Christ…”

It is here, in this community of believers, that we learn what it means to be Christ’s disciples. Where we begin to experience what “faith working through love” really is. Where we learn to freely live out in faith the whole law as contained in the single command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Here, in this place, we love, we laugh, we grow. And, we make mistakes.

Yes, we make mistakes.  We do. We are not perfect. None of us. There is not one of us able to keep the law, even as hard as we might try.  We make mistakes.

When this happens, when we or when someone else makes a mistake, what is to be our response? I know what is our response often is. And I’m not pointing any fingers here, because, I am as guilty as anyone. Often, our response is to judge. To either tell that person that they are wrong, that they have sinned, or, even more likely, to talk about that person among ourselves, to gossip about them over coffee. Either way, to judge them. 

When I was in my early twenties, I was a member of a small church in the southern part of Los Angeles County. The congregation there was very warm and welcoming and one family, in particular, led the way. They were a large family--ten kids. And, as large families do, they immediately brought newcomers into the fold and welcomed you as one of their own.  All of them--adults and children--belonged to this congregation.  All of them, except one.  One of them, a daughter, had gone through a divorce. She had divorced her husband because she had refused to remain in her marriage--a marriage marked by both verbal and physical abuse. The congregation insisted she remain in her marriage. Yet, in trying to protect both herself and her children, she refused.  And, in response, the congregation, led by her own father as council president, stood in judgment of her and, eventually, excommunicated her. She stopped attending that church. In fact, she stopped attending any church.

There is a better way. A way that is modeled on the servanthood of Christ. A way that seeks to build people up, instead of tearing them down. A way that restores community, rather than dividing. It is a way suggested by Paul in the opening verses of the last chapter in Galatians--a letter written to congregations that were themselves divided. “...[Y]ou who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.”

“You, who have received the spirit…”. It is no accident that the paragraph just preceding this is that listing the fruits of the Spirit--the text we read last week: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 

When someone makes a mistake, it is not our place to judge. It is never our place to judge. This is what is meant by Paul with the very next sentence, “Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.” The temptation for us is not that we might fall into the same sin as the other, but that we would be tempted to become arrogant. To think that we are better than that other person. To think that we even have a right to judge that person.

Instead, when someone makes a mistake, we are called to enter into their burden. To exhibit the fruits of the Spirit: to take their burden upon ourselves--to reach out to that person and to share it with them. No judging. No gossip. No distancing ourselves from them. But entering in. Entering into their burden and, in so doing, fulfilling the law of Christ.  The Law selflessly fulfilled by Christ in his life and death, when he gave himself for us and all people by embracing the commandment to love another as oneself. This is the law of Christ. It is the law of love.

Over these past six weeks, as we have dwelt in Galatians, I hope you have more fully understood and more fully accepted the freedom that Christ has given us--freedom from the shackles of the law. Yet, a freedom that leads us back to the law. To do the law of Christ, the law of love. Servants to none and, yet, servants to all.

So, once again, why are you here? 

My hope is that you are here because it is here, in this place, that you experience Christ. Not only in the Word we have heard or in the bread and wine we are about to receive. But that you experience Christ in each other, here in this community.  A place that gathers us and all believers in.  A place that lives into the law of love, that restores us when we stumble, that leads us deeper into discipleship, and that prepares us to go out into the world in mission, to do the law of love--knowing that we are not alone. Knowing that Christ is with us and that we have each other, now and into all eternity. 

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.

Preached July 3, 2016, at Chatfield Lutheran Church.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Psalm 66:1-9, Galatians 6:1-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20