May 20, 2012

Beloved Old Testament Professors, the end of Seminary and Psalm 19

Dr. Schultz with me here in Chorazin, Israel
Carl Schultz was the professor of Old Testament at Houghton College while I was a student there, and has been a very important man in my life. He kindled my love of scripture and Old Testament to what it is today. He was full of energy, despite the fact that when I came to Houghton he was well into his seventies. At the beginning of every class, when the first class period came to an end he would remind us to come early to the next class session. “I will be handing out the seating chart next class” he would say, “so get here early to pick out your seat. For the Calvinists among us, you will have the seat God picked out for you from the beginning of time.” He said this with his voice reaching a crescendo during the punch line. It was always the same joke, the same inflection. He ended his classes the same way too. Each class session began with prayer, which ended with Psalm 19 “may the meditations of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.” On the final session of the class his prayer would include something like “We thank you that life has its times, that even academia has its seasons” and then he would ask God’s blessing upon us all. His prayer was a gift, of framing and marking time of the four years of college.

A season of my life has ended with my graduation from Luther Seminary with a Masters of Divinity degree. I am concluding not only four years of seminary, but a theological education that began as an undergrad. My academic preparation for ministry is over. There are people and lessons that I will take with me in my memory as I leave this place. Next month Rachel and I will be leaving Minnesota, moving to our native New York to live with family and be closer to Northeastern Pennsylvania as the call process continues to unfold. For us this is a new season and we are looking forward to what God has in store for us. We are also eager to renew relationships and friendships with people we left behind in order to come to Luther for four years. Our goal had been to go "back east" when all was said and done, and here we are four years later on the cusp of doing just that. During all of this I have come to feel that this blog has come to its conclusion. I started this blog to post sermons and musings from seminary and it has served that purpose admirably. It helped mark the times and seasons of seminary's academic and spiritual life which has now come to a close.

March 29, 2012

ELCA Assignment

Image from The Morning Call, a newspaper of the Lehigh Valley
Although this post is arriving a little late, I wanted to give an update on my assignment process. On the February 22nd the students at Luther gathered for evening prayer and were handed envelopes that contained our regional assignment. Bishops, church leaders and representatives of the seminaries had met the previous days to look over paperwork and assign candidates for ordination to the various regions of the ELCA. That night we received word that we were headed to Region 7. Region 7 of the ELCA is the geographic Northeast, and is made up of the following synods: New England, Upstate New York (our home synod) Metro New York, New Jersey, Northeastern Pennsylvania, Southeastern Pennsylvania. We were informed of the unique process of region 7 to meet with the candidates in person and then to assign synods. So, on March 18th I flew with a group of students from Luther to Allentown, Pennsylvania to met with bishops and staff and receive our synod assignments.
We met at the Lutheran Center, the headquarters of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod. The day began with the Eucharist, and we moved on to meetings and introductions. The bishops introduced themselves, spoke briefly about their synods, and met to figure out the schedule for meetings. I had a chance to met with bishops and discuss my paperwork, my hope for ministry and the opportunities that were available.  At the end of the day, I was informed that I had been assigned to the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod. I was glad I had been able to see a little bit of the synod, to meet the bishop and some of the synod staff. The whole process of meeting with the synod I will be working in was reassuring, and I'm excited to move on to the next step, to finish up at Luther and to move closer to ordination.

March 8, 2012

Retreat at Saint John's Abbey

It is approaching midterm season here at Luther. To refresh ourselves and get away from the daily academic grind my discipleship group went on a retreat to Saint John's Abbey. Saint John's is a community of Benedictine monks in Collegeville, MN. We made the drive up to join them for morning and midday prayer, as well as a time of lectio divina. Lectio divina is a method of slowly praying and meditating on scripture. While we were praying daily prayer, I was jarred by the pace with which the brother's prayed. It was slow and deliberate, almost plodding. We had all come out of our busy schedules to slow down for a day of prayer, but it took some adjustment to slow down to the pace that the monks prayed. When we asked one about it, we were told the monks preferred to pray the psalms very slowly, to get all they could out of them.   It was a refreshing day of retreat, prayer and meditation and an opportunity to enjoy the hospitality of the Benedictines.

The Abbey Church and bell tower.
While we were there we saw some portions of the Saint John's Bible, a beautiful handwritten and illuminated manuscript. If you are unfamiliar with the project, or want to see more artwork, I encourage you to take a look at the website.

February 17, 2012

Martin Luther's Theology: A contemporary Interpretation by Oswald Bayer

Oswald Bayer's book Martin Luther's Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation offers an in depth summary and presentation of Martin Luther's theology. It has been translated into English by Thomas Trapp. One of the strength's of Bayer's book is not only recognizing the difficulty of writing a theology on someone as non-systematic as Luther, but also an appreciation for the different types of literature that Luther wrote. Bayer's book employs sermons, hymns, letters and treatises as well as the catechisms and exegetical writing to get at Luther's theology. Bayer lays out the book in two parts, an introduction to basic themes and then a more in depth examination of specific themes in dogmatics and ethics.

I thought Bayer draws out Luther's emphasis on he divine address very well. Taking an example from Luther's catechisms, Bayer enters Luther's theology by considering that "Faith is nothing other than a response and confession of the Christian, given in response to the first commandment." Bayer writes "Faith causes one to reflect: not only the professional theologian - so identified in a special sense - but every time a woman or man is asked the question 'who are you?' the answer that follows is: I am the one to whom it is said: 'I am the Lord your God.' I am the one who came into existence only through this Word." (16) Bayer argues that it is God's address to humanity that permeates Luther's thought. It touches common topics of theology: creation, justification, the church, scripture and ethics. The disclosing speech of God is creative and it is God giving himself as gift. Bayer demonstrates Luther's focus on God's speech as promise: "God is apprehended as the one who makes a promise to a human being in such a way that the person who hears it can have full confidence in it. God's truth is grounded in his faithfulness, in which he stands by the word that has gone out from him." (53-54) Bayer follows Luther's comment that "The ears alone are the organ of a Christian." (1, quoting from LW 29)

Bayer's book is an excellent study of Lutheran theology. While trying to make Luther intelligible to a modern reader, he refuses to over simplify. In his preface he writes "Luther's theology is too lively and too complex to be summarized by a single concept. It was not conceived a priori as a system, but maintains its internal coherence only because of the way it is concerned to articulate, at every stage the dynamic that differentiates the gospel - the promise (promissio) of God - from the law." (xx)

February 12, 2012

Spring Semester

My final semester at Luther has begun. This January I continued my coursework by taking the third and final class in church history. I now have completed 28 of my 30 required courses for the Masters of Divinity degree. This semester I am finishing up by taking the the Gospel and Epistles of John, the Psalms, and Worship in the Lutheran Confessions.
Candidacy has progressed as well. I received my approval for ordination from the Upstate New York Synod in January as well. On Ash Wednesday, February 22, our senior class will find out our regional assignments from the ELCA.

November 2, 2011

Cadences of Home by Walter Brueggemann

In Cadences of Home: Preaching among the Exiles Walter Brueggemann outlines the experience of the dislocation of the modern church. He points to the loss of white male hegemony in religious and political discourse. This had lead to the widespread feeling that the church doesn’t have the prominence in the public square and culture at large that it once had. Many people in contemporary American culture are left feeling a sense of rootlessness and the loss of home. Given this cultural reality, Brueggemann suggests that a richly creative metaphor for theological reflection is then the biblical experience of exile.
            Preaching then can be imagined as giving people the words and the framework to describe their experience and imaginatively create a new world with speech. Scripture’s usefulness for preaching is not in recovery of original meaning through historical criticism, but to propose a new narrative where life can be “reimagined, redescribed and relived.” (35) Brueggemann sees this as a subversive and poetic move by the church; to imagine reality in such a way that God is in control and not the forces of empire, domination and consumerism.
            Brueggemann sees this loss of hegemony in some sense as a plus for the church. The apologetic move that the church has made in the past in making the church’s claims palatable to enlightenment rationality no longer has to be kept up. Instead, he imagines that the church’s language stick to creedal and confessional statements, using the “native language of Israel” in a foreign culture. While not advocating for sectarian withdrawal, Brueggemann suggests a sort of insider speech. In pointing to scriptural witnesses of such prophets as Isaiah, Brueggemann sees preaching as primarily to the church, with the realization that the world is overhearing.
            I think the strength of this book is the analysis of the changing place that Christianity has in American public discourse. Certainly there are places where what Brueggemann is outlining is happening to greater or lesser extents. But for the places where loss and confusion is a common feeling Brueggemann offers rich scriptural images and metaphors for thinking through what this loss means for the people of God, and what might be said about the future.

October 27, 2011

Creative Preaching on the Sacraments by Craig Satterlee and Lester Ruth

The goal of this book is to help preachers think about preaching on the sacraments in such a way that they are giving the parishioners the ability to articulate with greater clarity the “Amen” that is spoken after receiving the sacrament. By using images to create an experience in preaching parishioners will be able to make connections and articulate the meaning of the sacraments in their lives. The book spends some time trying to explain and recover the ancient practice of mystagogy, or leading listeners to the mysteries of the Christian faith. The authors draw upon the images and preaching of many of the fourth and fifth century preachers of the church, Ambrose, Augustine, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Cyril of Jerusalem and John Chrysostom.
            I think this is the greatest strength of the book. It offers an overview of this type of preaching in the church and its image rich nature. Along with this, it offers ideas on recovery of the catechumenate. The authors draw parallels to the postmodern preaching context. The book includes directions on further study and resources for mystagogical preaching and closes with six sermons to illustrate what this might look like in a congregational setting.

October 4, 2011

Eugene Peterson's The Pastor

Recently I finished the book The Pastor by Eugene Peterson. Although I was aware that Peterson was out there pastoring and writing books I had never read or heard what he had to say. As I was preparing to leave Zion, a retired pastor gave me this book. It served as a sort of going away present, and his advice was to read it slowly and to absorb the book.
It turned out to be solid advice. The book is written in short narrative chapters which chronicle different aspects of Peterson's life. These include the early years of his boyhood in Montana, the years of seminary and graduate work, church planting, writing, pastoring and sabbath keeping. It is quite readable and Peterson does a lot of honest reflection on the things that shaped who he was as a pastor, even when he didn't realize what was happening or that would be what life had in store.
I get from reading this book that Peterson submerged himself in scripture from an early age and this habit of embodying scripture gave him a unique perspective on the life of a pastor. I appreciated his focus on not being in a hurry, of the slowness of the pastoral office. The work of a pastor is about people, and relationships take their time. The same is true for preaching and prayer.
The Pastor again and again tries to frame the people and events in Biblical language, in the characters and stories which gives it a richness. I very much enjoyed my first exposure to Eugene Peterson.

September 8, 2011

Theology of Brewing

Since coming to seminary, I've been learning how to brew beer with a few of my friends. It is a rewarding and complex craft to learn. Here is a video from a former seminarian on brewing, theology and participating in God's creative work from The Other Journal.

On Human Being, Doing and Brewing from The Other Journal on Vimeo.

September 1, 2011

Moving and Baptism

This blog has slowed down as Rachel and I have been living life at a different pace. August began with packing up and moving house as we returned to seminary for my senior year. We have been reconnecting with old friends, swapping stories from internship and helping friends move both in and out. After some time in the cities, we headed back to our native New York for a ten day visit. It was a time of reconnection, rest and celebration. 

We gathered together as an extended family to meet Annika and celebrate her baptism. The pictures below are from Bethlehem Lutheran Church. Three years ago, Rachel's grandfather, a Lutheran pastor, presided over the festivities at our wedding This summer he baptized our daughter. Here is a picture from that Sunday .

July 31, 2011

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Matthew 14:13-21

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.
          I think it is fitting that on my last Sunday I get to talk about food. During my year here I’ve been well fed. We gather together for food quite a bit actually. This year I have fond memories about food.  I remember rolling a few meatballs for the fall supper. I’ve been fed by the quilters and the Tuesday Bible study, and enjoyed coffee, cookies and bars with you on Sunday mornings. I’ve had new experiences to food as well. Lefse and Lutefisk had not been on my food landscape before coming to Zion.
          Food is the root issue in our gospel lesson today.  Jesus has just heard that John the Baptist has been put to death by Herod. This news leads him out into the wilderness, to a deserted place, not only for a little rest but for a little safety. Jesus’ retreat does not go as planned. Crowds find out, and soon they are pouring out of the villages of Galilee to find him. When Jesus’ boat comes to shore, the crowds are there waiting for him.
       The way Jesus is described as reacting to the crowds is so telling. Jesus, the incarnate, the embodied Son of God sees the crowds who have no food and has compassion on them. The Greek word is full of meaning and is fun to say “Splonkna.” To feel compassion in Greek is to feel from one’s guts. It is a deep and physical word, located in a not so pleasant part of the human body. In Greek thought your guts are where you felt compassion. Emotions were bodily things.
          Compassion was something that came from deep inside you. Jesus’ reaction to the crowds is profoundly physical, as is their need. Jesus, upon seeing the crowds with the pangs of hunger in their stomachs feels a response from the same part of the body.
       While we don’t take the Greek notion of location of emotions, the visceral reaction of Jesus tells us how internal how deeply rooted God’s commitment to be a feeder is. Not in abstract, but in real and concrete bread.
          The disciples are aware of their resources. There is simply not enough to go around.  Their retreat has brought them outside city limits, there are no shops or corner stores to run to. Thousands of thousands are here and in they only have five loaves and two fish. The disciples too are motivated by concern for the crowds. They recognize immediately the crowds’ need to eat. It is getting dark, and the supper hour is passing by. They ask Jesus to send them home, to be sure to get a good meal in before the close of the day.
          Jesus’ response is simple. “You give them something to eat.” The disciples are instructed to participate. Part of discipleship is the invitation to participate in the
compassion of God for the world. The task seems daunting doesn’t it? It did to the disciples.
          God’s commitment to the world is to be a feeder. Another way of saying this is that our needs are not insignificant. They matter to God. We can’t spiritualize this just to be about blessings in a general sense. God cares for whole people, bodies and soul. God cares that people who lack resources, daily bread have enough.
          How does Jesus do this? Through the work of the twelve. That is not to discount the wonderful and mysterious miracle that the feeding of the five thousand is. But Matthew does not go into how the miracle happened. He doesn’t explain it away. God is deeply involved, without God thousands are going to go hungry. But what Matthew does highlight is the disciples involvement in the miracle. Jesus’ disciples are the instrument. Let me read the last few verses from the gospel lesson again:

“He ordered the crowds to sit on the grass. Taking five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” (Matthew 14:19-20)

Part of the feeding miracle is not only that thousands are fed, but that there is abundance. Before the feeding it is the disciples who are handing out bread and fish to the crowds. And after, twelve baskets are collected. Each disciple taking a basket which is filled by the leftovers of this feast.
          It isn’t that God isn’t involved, but it is how God is involved. God wants to work through us! So part of finding our identity as disciples, as the church is when we participates in the mission of God. God’s mission of compassion to the world. This mission especially touches those in need. But as Isaiah says of God’s ministry of compassion, that the invitation to come and eat is extended to “Everyone who hungers and thirsts.” (Isaiah 55:1) Hunger is universal; we are all recipients of this compassion. God’s ministry to the world comes both to us and comes through us. We are both givers and receivers of this ministry. We as disciples are invited to participate in Christ’s compassion for the world.
     So where are we involved? Where do we receive compassion?
          It starts with the ordinariness of hospitality, in sharing our food with one another, especially the poor and the hungry. The miracle was not was not prime rib but bread and fish, the staple diet of Galilean peasants. It was everyday and ordinary food. But it was what was needed.
          We participate in sharing ourselves with each other. In offering a caring response, in listening to our friends and neighbors. In the love that is shared between  friends and family we ensure that others are well cared for.
          We participate in this ministry of compassion when we care for the needs of others in both body and soul. In contributing to mission work where houses are built, where clothes are given and where people are fed. Taking care of the physical needs of others is part of God’s ministry of compassion to the world.
          But we must also realize that we are recipients of God’s ministry of compassion. Notice the string of verbs that follow when Jesus takes the bread. Jesus “looks up to heaven, blessed and broke” the bread. That’s the language of the Lord’s Supper. God gives himself away to us in Jesus Christ.  In the forgiveness of sins God is given to us abundantly. We receive compassion from God from Jesus and are invited to participate in God’s ministry of compassion to the world.

July 18, 2011

End of Internship

An open letter to Zion, published in the July Edition of the Tidings

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” -Hebrews 12:1

It is hard for me to believe that my internship is almost over. The year has gone quickly by and the time has come to say goodbye. Over the month of July, there will be more and more endings, and the “lasts” of this and that. But I do not consider my year here to be defined by ending but by growth. I feel like I’ve grown a lot this year.

I’ve grown closer to God through you. It might be tempting to think of pastors primarily as “teachers” but they are also learners. Interns are students. The advice and faithful living that I have seen at Zion have attested to both the strength of faith and how great a God we serve. I’ve been taught about the life of faith by the people at Zion.

I’ve grown closer to you. Over the course of the year we’ve gotten to know each other and some great relationships have developed. While technology has made it easier to keep in touch, I will miss not seeing everyone regularly.

I’ve grown in my calling. There is all the work that goes into internship. Developing preaching skills, learning about pastoral care and the pastoral formation that internship is all about. I’ve learned and grown in my understanding of what it means to be a pastor.

This year my family has grown together. We welcomed Annika into our lives, and we’ve learned about living together in a new place.

I take the passage from Hebrews to heart. As interns must do, I will return to the seminary to complete my studies and requirements for ordination. But I will carry you with me as I “run the race” of the life of faith. Part of the joy of the Christian life is that we are not alone, but are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, which is the church the saints of God. As I return to the seminary, I know that I carry you with me. I have been shaped and formed as a person and as a pastor by the time that we spent together. That influence, love and support remains, even when the race of faith calls me someplace new. And I trust that we will remain in each other’s prayers.

So thank you. Thank you for graciously accepting Rachel, Annika and me into your community and into your lives. Thank you for the opportunity to learn and develop as a pastor. Thank you for the love I’ve felt and for a great year.

Intern Pastor Phil

July 17, 2011

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.
            Parables show us what kind of God we have. Jesus uses these stories, and comparisons that demonstrate what God is like, and the nature of life with God. They aren’t easily divided, between what it means and what it says. The parables are hard to separate, where the story stops and interpretation begins. Where is the line between theology and story, between God-talk and a riddle? The story is the point. Our ears may jump right to the end. The judgment. We might notice that. I did when I first looked at the texts for Sunday. Did you?
            What was your reaction? When it comes to parables with an edge, with a word of law or judgment there are two pretty common reactions.
            One is to keep the parable at arm’s length. To forget about it. Ah, don’t worry about it, we as Christians are gracious people, and there is no room in faith for judgment. After all God is love, right?
            But to be honest, there are a lot of parables and stories of judgment. Jesus talks about it often enough to make us uncomfortable. Failure to grapple with this is a reduction of faith to feel good-ery, and ignores not only the complexity of the parables and the bible, but often of life.
            The other option, less common perhaps is still out there. That option is to take these and apply it to others. Maybe a little too pleased that those harsh words in the bible are there. We’re not the priest or the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan. But we know who is, those hypocrites over there. The bite of the story is always directed towards someone else.
            Although I understand it, I’m not sure either of these are satisfying options. Like I said, parables are sticky business. That’s the point to them. They made the disciples scratch their heads, and the Pharisees squirm. And often time, they made some in the crowds rejoice.
            They rejoiced, they laughed to themselves because they got it. They got the absurdity of the parables. Who goes looking for one lousy sheep who wanders off? Who throws caution and seed to the wind, where it ends up as bird food and trampled on the road?
            God does. A God who comes after sinners and redeems them. The ones who got it saw themselves in the parable. And they saw God in the parable.
            I think if we stick with it, if we try and follow Jesus through the arc of the story, the word about seed and judgment and fire might make sense. We too might be rewarded for our effort with a little insight and understanding.
            Jesus offers them another parable. A second one in a row to take God’s kingdom and frame it in terms of seed and growth.  The kingdom of God is like a farmer who plants a field. Beat from labor, the famer goes to bed. During the night a second sowing occurs. Time passes – growth happens – then they notice what they didn’t notice before. It is only with the maturation of the plants did they notice. What had looked like a nice green field now shows itself to have two types of plants.
            The word for “weed” here suggests a plant that in its early stages might not look all that different from wheat. In the early stages, all appeared well. Business was going as usual. It is only when the plants mature that the difference can be seen.
            But after time passes, the servants begin to notice. Something terrible has happened. There are weeds among the wheat. That can’t be! Who would be so reckless as to sow weeds with their wheat, jeopardizing the harvest?
            So they confront the famer, haven’t you sowed good seed? The response is
“an enemy has done this.”
            The servants jump to action. They are sensible people, who understand problems and plan a course of attack. We’ve got weeds, so the weeds have to go. That’s good sense, and planning. We’re going to set things right and make sure we get things done.
            The Master’s puts the breaks on their efforts. By displaying patience he preserves the wheat in his field. They must be content with the way things are – for now.  But when the wheat has matured and it is time for harvest, then the weeds and the wheat can be sorted out. They’ve grown up together, and no doubt roots have grown to close for a neat separation.  There is a delay of judgment – things will be shown for what they are and will go to the fitting place.
            But did you notice one small shift? The servant’s question is met with more than a simple “no.” Their question “Do you want us to go and gather them?” is not just a matter of poor timing, but of something outside their job description. The farmer and master’s response is “No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Collect the weeds…’” Reapers not the servants will make the judgment at harvest.
            The full freight of this line can be seen when we look at the interpretation. The disciples ask Jesus to elaborate, to fill in the gaps of their understanding. He obliges and explains himself further.
            The roles are defined. The sower is the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. The field is the world, the good seed children of God, the weeds the children of the evil one, and the enemy is the devil and the reapers are angels.
            The field is the world. It doesn’t take a keen eye to see that the world is a mixed bag of good and evil. What was created and proclaimed “very good” by God is no longer a place full of goodness. It is a place where good and evil exist side by side.
            Things are pretty complex and interconnected, and for a while appearances can be deceiving. So have patience, and don’t rush into judgment. The world is a mixed place of good and evil. So too is the church. The church has not been nor likely will it ever be a “pure place.” It is a mixture of weeds and wheat.
            So what do parables tells us about God? That God is graciously patient. That good and evil coexist for a time. And this coexistence is in order to preserve what is good. God’s care for the wheat in letting it “do its thing” shows God’s great concern.
            This message of grace comes with a warning of judgment. The edge of the parable remains. God’s work does involve judgment and separation. And that judgment is God’s work and not ours. Evil and sin will be dealt with, and the family resemblances will be shown. This too is promise, evil won’t exist for ever, and judgment occurs at the end of the age. Judgment, as uncomfortable as it can be, is truth telling. The children of the evil one and the children of the kingdom will be seen for what they are by the one who can tell the difference.
            This lifts a burden of responsibility from the wheat, from God’s children. Isn’t it nice to know that you’re not responsible for everything? The church isn’t called to be the gate keeper of the kingdom. We don’t have to have a critical and vigilant eye all the time. It is God who sees the wheat, and orders its harvest into barns. The promise is there buried in the midst of judgment. The righteous enter the kingdom of God the Father. The promise is life with God. God will gather us in, collect us into the kingdom, and perhaps we will be surprised. We can err in judgment, on who we think is weedy. But God will and does see evil for what it is. And God has promised that it will not go on forever. In the meantime, we’re wheat. And the job of wheat is to bear fruit. We’re to live out our lives as God’s children and not worry, but trust ourselves to be gathered by a gracious God.  Amen.

July 15, 2011

Friday and a Thought from Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer on interruptions:

"One service that a member of a Christian community should offer to another is active readiness to be of assistance. This means, first and simple help in small and outward things. There are a great number of these things in the life of every community. No one is too good for the smallest service. Our concern about the loss of time that such small outward assistance can bring usually means we are taking our own work too seriously. We must be prepared to have God interupt us."

July 10, 2011

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 55:10-13

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.
            Hearing the phrase “Word of God” can inspire thoughts in a couple different directions. We talk about the Word of God as the Bible and we talk about the Word of God as Jesus Christ. Both are true, God’s word can be talked about as written, and as living
            In this morning’s Old Testament lesson has a different way of conceptualizing God’s word. The way that Isaiah suggests we imagine God’s word, is that of a spoken word, breaking open the future. A word which stirs up our sleeping imaginations to the possibilities that God has for us. God’s word is something heard, an address that comes to us.
            The situation that Isaiah speaks to is bleak. He is delivering God’s word to The people of Israel who are in exile. They’ve been conquered and removed from their homes. They are not only under foreign rule, but living in a foreign land. They are an exiled people, living in Babylon. Politically they don’t exist. In Isaiah’s day you couldn’t go to the library and find Israel or Judah on any map. Religiously, they are in shambles as well. There is no temple, there are no sacrifices, and the whole experience of the people of Israel is one of flux. They’ve gone from a people with a temple, a king, and an identity, to no people, a bunch of nobodies.
            The people know why they are there. Prophets had warned of the coming danger in the days before Israel and Judah were conquered. They had brought a heavy and heartbreaking word. Israel was disobedient, idolatrous and needed to repent. They had chased after other Gods and forgotten about their God. They had tried to secure their future by might, and by military alliances, rather than trusting the promise that God had given them. “I will protect you.”
            But they had not repented. They stubbornly persisted in their ways, which landed them in exile. It is likely they thought it was all over. They were living in the last chapter of Israel’s story. After all, what hope did they have?
            And yet God gives those people “a word.” God speaks to them. They are addressed. Don’t be fooled by the fact that the words come through the mouth of the prophet; here is a spoken word which comes to them from God coming in the form of a promise. It is a word given to them through the prophet, but it is God’s word to them.
            “You shall go out and joy and be led back in peace.” God is creating them anew. It is a re-creation of a people and of an identity. It is the sprouting of the seeds of hope that didn’t dare do so before. But now they do, with the word of God.
            Nature itself is invited to be a part of the welcoming party as Israel will return home. There is no other way to say this than this is a resurrection on a national scale. It is a re-creation, a reversal of exile. It is a new and joyous Exodus from slavery into freedom.
            This word is given to a people who see none of it. The message of hope came to them at a time where their reality was foreign rule.  The word came before they could see any results.
            Yet this word is promised not to be “empty” or false. It isn’t an ineffective word. The example is taken from nature. Just as the nature responds to the presence of water so too will the world respond when God speaks a new word. God speaks and life blossoms.  This word will do what it pleases God to do, and what pleases God is to create us new, to give us new life.
            In the sometimes arid conditions of the ancient world, this is quite a vivid image. In the days before garden hoses, crops and plants were sustained by rain and snow melt. The difference between rain and no rain was a matter of life and death. Here in Minnesota the power of water to impact its surroundings not lost on us, even though we have it abundantly.
            Not too long ago we read the first creation account from Genesis. It was punctuated again and again by two phrases. “And God said” and “then it was so.” God speaks reality into existence. God provides what is necessary for life, in sending rain and snow. And so now God speaks a word, and that word is for something. It is effective and it has a job to do.
            That job is to create something new. Just as an arid desert landscape is transformed by the presence of water, God’s word has the power to create.
            The snow melt and the rain that give life to seeds hidden in the ground transforms what looked like an absence of life, to a rich garden. God’s word arouses in the people of Israel the sleeping seeds of hope which had been forgotten.
             God speaking to us creates a possibility for the future. The word which God speaks overcomes the consequences of human sin. That’s good news, the gospel. God’s word transforms the world, changes our experiences and our imagination of what is even possible. By speaking it God shows the older and deeper promises to be true. God remains even when we are not. So we are never beyond hope, for God is with us.
            Looking at God’s promises to us, we see the future opened up before our eyes. In our Romans lesson for today, Paul gives just one of many examples. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”(Rom. 8:1-2)            
            Now there is a future full of possibilities! Those who are in Christ, who belong to Christ, have no need to fear judgment.  Life without condemnation. Sounds pretty nice doesn’t it. There simply isn’t any more, it is done. That is freedom, being freed by God from something that holds you.
            So there is no need to fear. Often times that is exactly our reaction to “judgment.” We’re afraid of being judged. We might not even like to be critiqued. Fear can paralyze us; there is a temptation to remain inactive or overly careful when we think someone might judge us.
            But if there is no judgment, we can let our imaginations have some freedom. We can let them experience the liberation that we have when God speaks. Think and dream, how might we be God’s faithful people today, and tomorrow? How might we point out the newness, the resurrection of life that God is trying to bring about in all of us?
            What will we do to serve God and to live life in God’s world when we are free of sin? We can take some risks, knowing that judgment is not a part of our future.            
            The gospel calls us to be a new people. It pronounces us new people. God’s word comes declaring that we are free. Free from sin and death, and free from the fear of condemnation and judgment. That same word calls us to see life and newness in the midst of chaos, to strain our eyes and ears to search for where God is creating something new. To imagine the possibilities of being transformed from hearing God speak.
            God calls us to be a people of hope. The situation that the exiles were in was as bad as they could imagine. But even there they are not out of God’s reach. They are still within earshot of God’s powerful word, which can come to them and make them new, forgiven and free people. So we too can have faith, that the seeds sleeping in our lives can be spoken into growing. Amen.

June 29, 2011

Whirlwind of Joy

I haven't been updating or writing and to be honest this blog hasn't been at the forefront of my mind. Life here has been busy, but as my post suggests it has been a time of joy. On June 16th, Rachel gave birth to our beautiful daughter, Annika Claire Roushey. That Saturday the joy continued, Annika came home from the hospital and we were surrounded by family. The joy continued as I was privileged to take part in the wedding of a couple from church and to celebrate my birthday. Sunday I preached again and I had my first, and quite special Father's day. The support of family and friends has been a constant help since Annika's birth. We're now settling into life as a family of three.

June 19, 2011

Sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday: Matthew 28:16-20

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.
                This past Christmas I received a gift from my brother-in-law. Wrapped up in a small package was a copy of a famous icon, a religious painting. It depicts an Old Testament scene, from the book of Genesis: Abraham and Sara entertaining three strangers. The painter of this icon takes this to be the Holy Trinity, and so paints them that way. They are wearing robes and circled with halos, sitting around a table and sharing a meal. It now hangs on the wall in my office here at church.
                The image is familiar to us, even if the clothes seem outlandish. We’re more likely to sit in chairs, clad in blue jeans but we all know the image of sitting around a table. If we don’t picture a meal of bread or dates, perhaps we envision a meal of turkey, or meatloaf. It is an image from family life, of gathering with friends, and is an image of relationship.
                While that passage represents a whole other part of the bible, I think it provides an image for the Matthew text as well as for understanding the Trinity. They are the final words of Matthew’s gospel, the final instructions Jesus has for his disciples.
 The scene is Galilee, on a mountain. The disciples are gathered together with Jesus, sometime after the resurrection. They see him there, and worship -although in their hearts is a mixture of fear and doubt. In these final words, Jesus leaves them with instructions, a succinct summary of the life of discipleship.
                 Jesus’ words begin with a short and powerful little word. “Go.” The life of the disciples from here on out is sent out. But the instructions keep going. We are going, making disciples of all nations, and baptizing them in the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
                “Going” is a call to cross boundaries, to not remain where we are. It is a call that stretches. For the disciples it meant leaving their hometowns and following Jesus. It meant being scattered across the known world to spread the good news. We are no less called to “go” for the sake of the good news. Even if it entails leaving our comfort zone more than it does crossing lines on a map.
                Going means that we are an “on the move” kind of people. That God is dynamic, working and moving in and through us. God sends us out. We are commissioned; we are given the task of sharing the good news with others.
                We are also a people who live with the command to baptize. As God’s people, we live baptized lives. Sunk or sprinkled we are people who have emerged from water put with God’s word as new people. We are baptized into the life of a Triune and relational God. The trinity may be a complicated piece of the Christian faith, but the assertion that God is three and also one means that God is in relationship. God is one, but God is one in relationship.
                This is the life that we are baptized into. We are baptized not only to a community of faith, but into the life of God as God’s children. This is an identity that we can cling to and claim. God is with us, we are not alone. When we pray we petition God not as distant ambiguous force, but is a loving parent, our Father. We dare to ask for what we need here and now because of who God has promised to be. It is an identity that is ours to keep, which nothing is able to wrestle away. Neither our sin, nor the forces of the world can change who we are. We belong to God.  So the message of Jesus is not only a job description of discipleship, but a description of what sort of God we have. We have a God who is in relationship. A relationship of love between God and God, and God and us.
                God holds us close. That is the great promise of this text. It is a comfort. At the beginning of Matthew’s gospel the son of God Immanuel was promised. Joseph was told in a dream “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’
                Jesus, now a grown man speaks for himself. “I am with you, always even to the end of the age.” The promised Messiah has come, and he is with us, we are not alone. This isn’t just a promise that God is collectively with the church, while that is most certainly true. This is an individual promise. God is with you. Pentecost reveals the ongoing presence of God with us, as the Holy Spirit.  
                So as we live as people who are “going” we don’t go it alone. The words and presence of Jesus remain with us as we figure out how to live as faithful people. At times the going may be easy, going with a word of comfort or peace. And at times it may be difficult to go, because we are afraid, of pain or failure. But we can draw courage from the fact that we are not alone. Let that truth marinate your life. “God is with you.”
                So where do we go? Well - We go everywhere we go – bearing Christ’s presence with us. We go about our daily lives, living as God’s people. We go living the baptized life – meaning that we go about our lives as God’s sons and daughters. And we go out into God’s world. This is the world that God has made. The world that God is intimately involved with. God has made this world, died to redeem it from sin and destruction. And God upholds the world with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works for the preservation of life, for wholeness and peace.
                In the tension of being held close and sent out we see in our pattern of worship. We assemble together, hear the promises, gather around a table and are sent out to share the good news. We are sent out to live in God’s world. Most of our lives are lived outside the walls of the church. But we are no less in God’s presence and under God’s care “out there” than in here. Here we are feed and nourished, reminded of the words of God. There we do the busy work of the kingdom, and live out the life of discipleship.  But God has promised to be with us wherever we are. We go with our God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

June 5, 2011

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Easter: Acts 1:6-11, John 17:1-11

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

                The text from Acts this morning describes what the church has come to call the Ascension, the return of Jesus Christ to be with God the Father. It is one of the events in Jesus’ life that we mark, even if not to the extent of Christmas or Holy Week. We’re primarily familiar with this event through reciting the creed.  Later in this service we will recite the creed, stating our belief in Jesus Christ, God’s son who “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living, and the dead.”
                These events may cause us to ask a very Lutheran question: What does this mean? Does this have significance for us today, or is it simply theatrical staging directions. “Exit Jesus: stage right.”
                I think the Ascension is important for us for three reasons. Jesus’ Ascension  shows God’s on-going care for us and inspires in us hope and the courage to witness. At Ascension we realize that Jesus’ story is on-going, that we are witnesses beginning where we are, and that here the church receives the  promise of the Holy Spirit.
                After the resurrection the disciples ask questions that have been on the shelf since early on in the gospels. Jesus had come preaching repentance because God’s kingdom was now here. But what was that kingdom to look like? Jesus had talked a lot about it, but also had talked a lot about his need to suffer and die at then be raised. Perhaps the disciples are thinking in the back of their minds “Okay, I’m glad we got all that done. Now is the time to restore Israel’s greatness.” The disciples knew the promises of being a people and having a land were all over the Bible. They also knew that they had been under Roman rule for decades. So they ask “Is now the time?” Are things about to get political, is your kingdom coming here on earth?”
                Jesus tells them that it is not for them to know. He doesn’t deny that the kingdom is not here in all fullness. People still sin; there is still pain in the world. The gospel has yet to go out to the whole world. But it is not to worry the disciples, for God knows.  We are not called to peer into the hidden things of God, and those who attempt to do so fail.
                But God is still active. The creed drives the point home; Jesus “is seated at the right hand of God the Father.” That is present tense. Jesus “will come again.” In the future tense. God isn’t done with the world after the resurrection. God has plans for a future. This future includes the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the church. This future includes the good news of Jesus Christ being brought to the ends of the earth. Being shared with those who need to hear it.
                So the story of God’s interaction with people is not finished. There is more to be said and done about God’s work through the church. There are more people who will hear the good news and more lives transformed by the gospel. We find ourselves a part of this story, generations down the line. We as church bear the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.
                Secondly, the church is called to be witnesses. We all know what witnesses are.  TV shows from Matlock to Law and Order have etched court room scenes in our minds. They are people who have seen and experienced something and are called to tell the truth. They testify to the truth.
                There is no invitation; the witnessing of the disciples is announced to them. “You are my witnesses.” The news of Jesus Christ must go out.  I liked how Bishop Wahlrobe put it in a sermon at our synod assembly “the ascension means that Jesus has gone mobile.”
                Directions are given, imagined in ever broadening spheres. The church is called to witness, to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth. They must stay put for now, waiting for Pentecost. But soon a new time will come. Soon they will be spreading across the known world. The gospel is for all people, everywhere. So the people of God are to witness, to testify to what they have seen, heard and experienced.
                They are not abandoned, as we heard Jesus tell the disciples last week. His promise was not to leave us orphaned.  Even as they go out into places who not only have not heard, but who are hostile to the good news. As the readings from Peter have suggested this Easter season, persecution for one’s faith is a possibility.
                But where and how does this witnessing take place? The story of Acts is the story of the spread of the church. And at the church’s beginning, the disciples simply explained to those around them what they had seen God do for them. They spoke about the things that God had done for them, right before their very eyes. They spoke of who Jesus was, and what it meant that he had been killed and then been raised. It was to those who they had been living with for the last few months. They started locally in Jerusalem, right where they had been.
                And third, the ascension is about God’s promise of giving. God extends a promise to the disciples in the words of the ascension. They will receive the Holy Spirit, which God is about to give to them. Jesus describes this to them as power.
                While not using the same term, I think Jesus is making a similar point in the gospel lesson. He speaks of glory, and not of power. But it interesting how something like “glory” or “power” can be used. It is the usage of these that is telling. Glory in Jesus’ prayer is about the celebration and worship of God, and accomplishing what God had in store.
                I think that helps us think about what Jesus means by the power of the Spirit. Power is a think neither good nor bad. We talk about the power of prayer, the power plant, or powerful storms. We all know that power can be used to intimidate, coerce and dominate. Or power can be used to petition, to share and to bless. What Jesus has in mind for us is the latter and not the former. The power that we have through the Spirit is power to pray for the world, power to witness about Jesus. It is power of salvation, and the power of the gospel to change lives.
                In the Holy Spirit God gives power, and God gives eternal Life. Jesus place at the right hand of the Father does not mean that God is not “with us.” Don’t take it as a geographical designation, that God is somewhere else. God is accessible to us. Faith puts us into a relationship with God. God is not an absentee landlord. Jesus’ prayer to the Father in the night before his arrest reveal his desire for us to have a deep and abiding faith in God. This faith in God, trusting in God above all else, is what we have after hearing the truth about Jesus Christ. In his prayer Jesus says, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (Jn. 17:3)
                The language that Jesus uses to describe God and his own disciples is full of relational terms. There is language of God and Jesus being in and with one another, of being one with each other. It is in God’s very nature to be relational.
                The Ascension might not be always on our lips, but it can help us understand who we are and where we are as God’s people. We do not worship a distant God far removed from us. We do not worship a God who is not with us. We are a people on the other side of Pentecost, who have received the Holy Spirit and have been made witnesses. We are God’s living people, the living church who have a risen Lord.