Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Spirit of Truth

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15


Synod assembly – what a wonderful, inspiring, yet perplexing event to be a part of every year. As most of you know, I along with your voting members sent to the assembly spent the weekend gathering together to not only do the business required of the larger church, but also be inspired by speakers opening our minds to new insights of the scriptures that we hold so near and dear to our hearts and be reminded of the mission that God calls to as the church. How fitting is it that we gathered together the very same weekend when we celebrate that day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples and turned them into apostles who proclaim the good news to everyone they meet. I really did have wonderful time this past weekend even with the long hours of sitting and listening. I was inspired by our people who presented telling of their stories engaging the book that reveals to us who God is. Yet, like I mentioned earlier, I was perplexed at times wondering what and why people were bringing up the things that they did yesterday and the day before.

I say I was perplexed, and what I mean by that is actually in reference to one particular resolution that came before the assembly just yesterday. That resolution was this: “Be it resolved, that the Northwest Synod of Wisconsin affirm the witness of scripture that Jesus is the only savior.” It sounds pretty straight forward, doesn’t it? There wouldn’t be anything that you would object to in that would there? Saying Jesus is the only savior would be something that we would all be able to agree upon. So, why would this resolution cause me to be perplexed? First off, this statement is something that we already proclaim to be true AND gilds our constitutions in the very opening lines. To bring this up for a vote would be redundant and even imply that this hasn’t been the case in this synod or the wider ELCA. I find it difficult to believe that anyone could have made it through the arduous candidacy and seminary process without this being at the very center of his or her preaching and teaching. However, this is not what has me so perplexed concerning this resolution. What has me perplexed was the discussion that took place over this resolution. In particular, there was one comment that sticks out in my mind even on this the morning after. It was said, “What might be true for me may not be true for somebody else. What might be true for me may not be true for somebody else.”

This perplexes me, because I agree and I disagree with that statement at the very same time. It’s true. We don’t live within a world where everyone agrees upon what they believe. In fact, we have entered an age where no religion can claim that it speaks for everyone in their region let alone their country. There are multiple claims to truth in our world that all seem as true to those people who proclaim them to be true. We as the whole people of God can’t even agree upon which version of Christianity is the “right” one. The world is a messy muddled up place where universal truths that everyone, and I mean everyone, can agree upon are few and far between. You throw a ball up into the air, and it will come back down. The sun will rise every morning just as surely as it will set at evening. You give birth to a person, and that person will eventually die some day. Otherwise, what is truth?

The gospel of John revolves around this question of “what is truth?” Today, we hear Jesus tell the disciples of the Spirit of truth. This Spirit of truth is the very same Holy Spirit that descends upon the disciples on Pentecost after Jesus has risen and ascended to heaven. Sadly, by Jesus telling the disciples that the Spirit of truth is coming to bring them into all truth, he implies that the disciples, no matter how loyal to Jesus they profess to be, no matter how hard they will try to tell the story of who Jesus is, no matter how much they love one another, their neighbors or their enemies, the disciples will be unable to testify to the truth by themselves. They will abandon Jesus. They will lock themselves inside of rooms for fear of persecution. They will doubt the news of Jesus’ resurrection. They will not understand all that has happened if they are left to their own power of understanding to know and trust in who Jesus is. Jesus sees the disciples for who they are. He sees them as human beings. He sees them as people who will struggle with their faith. He sees them as human beings who are in desperate need of God’s help.

Yet, that is why Jesus tells them that the advocate, the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit will come to testify on their behalf. The Holy Spirit is God who is going to come to them to sustain them in the rest of their lives and call them to the mission and ministry that they are to do with their lives. The Holy Spirit will come to them to reveal to them the truth. Yet again, what is truth? The truth is Jesus Christ himself. He is the truth, the way and the life. The truth is not an idea or a rule for life. The truth is a person. The truth is a living, breathing person they can see, feel, hear and touch. The truth is God has come to earth to live as we do, to die as we do, and to raise us up to new life as HE DOES. However, as we know quite well and as the disciples are going to find out, Jesus returns to the father and will not be out walking around with us in the same way that we might walk and talk with our friends and our family every single.

We can say that Jesus is here present when we are gathered. We can say Jesus is present in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. We can say that Jesus is in the people who are rejected, downtrodden, in pain, or hungry. But, we know that Jesus is not here in the same way that he walked and talked with the disciples in the Holy land so long ago. Jesus knows this, and that why he goes to send us this advocate who can bring us day after day back to faith in the truth, in who Jesus is. Luther said in his small catechism speaking of the Holy Spirit, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.”

So, when I hear the statement “What may be true for me may not be true for somebody else,” I must disagree with it, because the truth that we are given by the Holy Spirit is a truth that makes a complete claim upon your whole life and raises you up to new life. This doesn’t mean, let me repeat, DOESN’T MEAN you can throw away someone else’s experience or expression of faith. What it does mean is that you engage that person in being honest to who you are and the truth that has been given to you. These are not truths that we decide for ourselves. They are truths given to us.

When you deal with the question of Jesus being our only Lord and savior, you are dealing with a truth that makes a demand upon your life to share that truth with everyone you meet in words and in action, because it the truth that gives you life in a world that says that there is only sin and death. The apostles, once disciples, know this when the Holy Spirit descends upon them like fire. They proclaim their message to about as diverse a grouping of people that you can get. They don’t say “this is our truth that we have discerned.” They say “this is truth. This is the truth that gives life.”

As for me, as I think about engaging a world that is as religiously diverse as it is, I try to remember that the Holy Spirit works in ways that I sometimes can’t imagine. I know Jesus to be the Lord and savior. But, I wonder how else God has reveled himself to all the diverse people he has made, and I hope and trust in the truth Jesus brings to us in our sin, in our confusion, in our hatred, in our sadness, in our death. That is a truth that comes to us and brings us life. I must proclaim that truth. I can only proclaim that truth. I hope that you too can proclaim that truth, even in a world of multiple experience and expressions of faith.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

High School Baccalaureate 20090

Joshua 4


Class of 2009 of the Blair- Taylor school district, now is set before you a threshold upon which you stand that marks the passage from one time in your life to the next time in your life. Upon this threshold, you can look back and see all that has happened in the past, and you can glimpse into what the future may hold for you in your life.

Psychologists call these places liminal places where, even though you have not quite become the women and men you hope to be, you most definitely not the children who you once were. These liminal places in your life can be joyous events where you celebrate with fond memory the people and events of the past, yet they can also be fearful places because questions such as “What are you going to do with your life?” and “Who am I going to spend my life with?” may not be completely answered. To tell you a little secret, that’s okay! You don’t have to have your life completely planned out to hour, minute, and second, because who knows what the future has in store for you? Just know this, you will take with you all the things that you have experienced, all the things you have learned (whether you will realize it or not), and all the people who have made an impression on you in your life.

When I read the scripture passages that you have selected today, I was struck by your decision to include the reading from Joshua. The majority of the book of Joshua is a book of triumph and conquest, often at the expense of other people’s lives, yet the beginning of that book paints a picture of one of those liminal places where God’s people are now finally living and moving into the promise that God gave them when God liberated them from their slavery in Egypt. It has been a long time and a long journey for the Israelite people. For forty years they had wandered in the wilderness living off of the daily bread, water, and meat that God had provided them day after day. Some people had passed away along that journey. Others had been born along the way. But now, they are here at the banks of the Jordan on the cusp of their new life in a new land. This most definitely was a celebratory, yet anxious time for the chosen people of God.

Still, while there is much unknown to the people of Israel, much future yet to be explored, they are given a command to remember. They are given a command to remember all that had happened to them in the past forty years. They are given a command to remember the people who have gone before them. Most importantly, they are given a command to remember what God has done for them. They are told to remember who God is. Who God is is the one who did not abandon them to slavery. Who God is is the one who sustained them day by day. Who God is is the one who brings them to land and time of new hope and dreams.

So as you embark on this new part of your life, cherish the friends you have made over the years, yet learn from the relationships that have broken. Stand firm in the values you have learned from your parents and teachers, yet be open to love and care for people who may not share your same exact values. Lean on the education you have received over the years, yet come to each new learning opportunity in your life with a renewed curiosity that seeks to know more about the world around you. Most importantly, remember what God has done for you in your life, and trust that God will be there with you wherever you might go and whatever you might do. That relationship will always last and will continue on even if you don’t see how it possibly could be so anymore. That is something that you should pay attention to however your life turns out.

Joshua is told by God to pick up the stones that were in the middle of the Jordan as the people of Israel passed through on dry land just as they once had at the Red Sea. Joshua tells the people of Israel to take these stones so that when their children ask them what they are, they can recount story of what God did for them in liberating them from the bonds of slavery. I invite all of our graduates to come forward and take a stone as a token for them to see, feel and remember the life that has shaped them into the future – whatever that future may hold for them.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Unexpected Grace

Acts 10:44-48


Who are the people who we’ve left out? Who are the people that we consider to be too far gone to include into our community? Who are the people that we just think that wouldn’t be interested in being “church people,” because they obviously haven’t made the commitments to be here every Sunday or to help out with all the everyday church stuff that takes such hard and dedicated work from “faithful” people for the church to run as well as it does? We’ve all seen people who we would never think would really part of all this good stuff that goes on in church – people that we’ve counted out because they aren’t around and they’re obviously more interested in other things than having faith in God. Sometimes, it just seems like there are people who it would almost be a waste of time to invite or share the good news with. Sometimes, we just simply count people out.

When I was living out in western Kansas in the small town of La Crosse, KS, my family would get the nightly news that was broadcasted from Wichita, KS. There would be segments of news that dealt with the local area we lived in, but we also would hear reports every night about the goings on in Wichita. Wichita, like any other big city, had its part of town where bad things, shootings, thefts, vandalism, seemed to happen on a regular basis. There was even one particular intersection in Wichita that I remember being in the news on a consistent basis – 21st and Grove. This was one of those proverbial parts of town a person that had concern about safety would want to avoid, just because there was a chance that something could be going down there.

We didn’t go to Wichita often, because it was over three hours away, but we would go to Wichita when my mom would have to go there for board meetings at the Lutheran Social Services office from time to time. This usually happened without any major happenings, and we usually thought of these as small family vacations during the busy church year. However, one time, as we came into town, something did happen – the engine stopped and wouldn’t turn over. Our was dead and wasn’t going to go anywhere by itself anytime soon. The thing was our car decided to break down right at the intersection of 21st and Grove – the very same intersection that we would hear about on the nightly news. We were stranded at the very place where just didn’t want to be when in Wichita.

Obviously, by my presence here right now telling you this story, nothing terrible happened that night. In fact, something absolutely wonderful happened that night when we were stranded in what was supposed to be the “bad” part of town. Within just a couple of minutes of being stranded at that intersection, people came to help us roll our car into a parking lot while others directed traffic so that we might safely get into that parking lot. Right there, in that notorious intersection, God’s love and care was shown to us by people who, by the conventional wisdom of the day, should have otherwise taken advantage of our situation. God’s love and grace came to us unexpectedly in the help of strangers who didn’t know us or what we were in town for.

Peter too was surprised by the unexpected ways that God’s love works in all people. In fact, we hear a story today from the book of Acts that tells of Peter’s complete surprise. Peter is shown that even the idea that someone who he had thought was simply profane and unclean was someone who the Holy Spirit could inspire to the same faith that he himself has. The general idea had been in this very early church, DAYS and weeks early even, that Jesus had come to be the savior for the people of Israel, and only the people of Israel. The Gentiles were people who did not know God and certainly didn’t follow the Law that God had given as a gift to the people of Israel in the wilderness through Moses. They didn’t share the circumcision that was an outward physical sign of being of God’s elect people. They ate things that the Law considered to be profane and unclean. Certainly, the message of the good news of God of Israel sending the Son to save God’s people would not be for Gentiles. Peter didn’t expect them to be able to hear the good news. He counted them out – that is until God showed Peter and the rest of his followers starking differently.

God comes to Peter and tells him in a vision this simple message. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This was something that Peter had to hear THREE TIMES before he truly understood what it meant for him and his ministry. That is simply this: God’s love and redemption is something that is freely given to all creation. God’s chooses what to make clean, and God chooses to make even those things that were considered to be on the outside clean. So, while Peter is speaking to these Gentiles, these people on the outside of Jewish society the Holy Spirit falls upon them and inspires them to faith in who God is and what God has done. God chooses, and God gives, especially to those people who we think are on the outside of the people we would expect to hear and trust in God.

So, I ask you again. Who are the people we expect would never be a part showing God’s grace to the world? Is it the single mother who we think is scamming the government by living off of welfare while we do the hard work that pays for that? Is it the young couple who would rather be up all night on a Saturday drinking and carousing than coming to church on Sunday morning like a good Christian should? Is it the migrant worker or immigrant who has come here to work a job that pays a little money to help support his or her family? Is it the person who has left church because of a conflict that no one really knows what it was all about anymore?

The power of Holy Spirit works in ways and works in people who we might never think the Holy Spirit could bring faith in God’s steadfast love, laying down the life of the Son so that we might live! While this may condemn us in our short sightedness and our propensity to categorize people on the outside, this is grace for us in our lives as well. God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s saving grace knows no bounds, especially the bounds that we construct for ourselves. God breaks through our barriers. God crushes what we expect that we deserve. God comes to us as we are no matter what we are. If God embraces the outsider, then God just as surely embraces us in our own sinful ways as we place our trust in our reasoning, in our constructions, and in our good deeds and not in the God who gives us our life. We are all deserving of God’s grace because we are all in desperate need of God’s grace in our lives. These are the gifts that God has given us, that God has given us freely. No wonder that when Peter saw that these outsiders were extolling God he proclaims that baptism, that entry into the Body of Christ which is the church, is something that cannot be withheld. God’s free gift of grace is exactly what makes baptism and the Lord’s Supper sacraments. They are the places where we see, taste and touch God’s love for us. Come to table! Receive God’s goodness! Receive the forgiveness of your sins! And GO and share that good news even to the people who we may think are outside of God’s grace and forgiveness!

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The wedding of my sister and my new brother...

Col. 3:12-17 & John 15:9-17

Phoebe and Nathan’s Wedding 5/2/09

Here we are. Here it is. My sister is getting married. I remember how Phoebe and Nathan surprised us all on that Christmas morning when mom opened up that last present telling us that you had decided to get married. I remember the tears of joy and congratulatory handshakes that were passed around as you both surprised us with such wonderful news. And now, we’ve come to that day we’ve all been waiting for as you both embark on this new life together making vows that you will love, support, and care for each other as life with all its up and downs comes year after year. I had almost forgotten how long you’ve known each other, but life has gone by almost too quickly. But, as I’ve gotten to know you Nathan over the years, and as I’ve gotten to know my little sister more and more over the years, I love, perhaps more than anything else about your relationship, how you came to love and accept each other as you are and not as you would want one another to be. I appreciate that more than anything else, because it is that which is going to get you through your life together more than anything else as you should keep coming back to that point where you simply recognize that the other is worthy of your love and care.

This also has reflected greatly in your choice of scripture readings for today. First, we hear of Paul telling a fledgling Christian community to bear with one another in love. Then we hear Jesus again telling his disciples to love one another as he has loved them. Now, while both readings speak of the loved shared within a community of people, you don’t love the other person because they say the right things. You don’t love the other person because of the wonderful things that they do. You love the other person simply because they are loved by a God who gives up everything to be with the creation that God has made. The people that Paul is writing to in this letter to the Colossians are just beginning their life together as this new community of Christians. They are struggling with what it is they need to be doing in order to be good followers of Christ. They keep hearing about things that they are not to taste, touch or handle. They keep hearing that there is secret knowledge and teachings that they need to acquire if they are truly going to be able to have a part in God’s salvation for us. In essence, they hear that they need to act right enough, speak right enough, and even eat right enough to be able to be loved by God, as if what Jesus did on the cross was simply not enough.

But, that’s not the love that God shows us when Jesus is nailed to the cross. When we see Jesus, we see the full depths to which God goes for us AS WE ARE and not as God would have us be. God comes to us as sinners, as broken people, as a people in desperate need for compassion, forgiveness, humility, kindness, and in desperate need for something to truly be able to trust with our life and our love. God comes to us, claims us, and loves precisely for who are and not for who we should be. This is the love that Jesus is telling his disciples to have for one another. He’s telling them that this perfect self-giving love is what we should aspire to, because it allows us to see the inherent worth in the other person and not simply the outside and external qualities that we so often can become infatuated with. This is the basis for a community that is finally able to live for others and not only yourself. “No greater lover than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends?” That is truth and a whole life-giving truth! When you see the love the love that God has for another person, when you see CHRIST in that other person, you are finally able to forget yourself and live fully and freely for the other person.

Nathan and Phoebe, this is something that I already see in both of you as you have come to dedicate your lives to each other is this day. In your love for one another, I see an acceptance and respect for who the other person inherently is. There may be things that you might change if you had the power, but I’m not sure you would both really want to do that because you both love each other as you are.

This doesn’t mean it is always going to be easy. This doesn’t mean that you’ll never wish one or the other would change. There will be fights. There will be disagreements. But it does mean that, as long as you keep in mind the love that God has shown for both of you and everyone else here in and even outside the church, you will be able to come back to love that is freely won and given to us by Jesus – our friend who has given up his life for us. Keep that in mind and you will be able to bear with each other in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, and love.