The blog of a lutheran pastor, writer, and political animal.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Sermon: The Pious Rich, Young, Ruler

The Pious Rich, Young, Ruler

         One of the things they teach you to never do in a sermon is to merge the gospels, to conflate Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is from such conflations that we get too-busy Christmas Scenes—mangers with Magi and Shepherds and Angels tripping over one another. That’s always the danger in conflating Gospels.
         But, it is worth breaking that rule occasionally. Today, it is worth conflating the descriptions of this man who kneels before Jesus in Mark’s Gospel with those of other Gospels. When details from Matthew and Luke—that he is young and a ruler—are added, and those details are rounded out with his admission that “I have kept all these since my youth.”
         Let us conflate all of this in order to end up with a more complete idea of who this man is and what this man is giving up, let us think of him, at least for today—at least for the next 10 minutes or so of sermon—think of him, as The Pious, Rich, Young, Ruler.


         Just before this Pious, Rich, Young, Ruler plunked down before Jesus, Our Lord had let it be know that the Kingdom of God must be received like a child—receive the Kingdom like a child.
         To this, the Pious, Rich, Young, Ruler responds, “What must I do.”

         Hear this brothers and sisters.
“I buy into the system of buying and selling, of earning
—coin and credit for good and service. What can I do to earn this inheritance?
         Might I build a magnificent building of inescapable opulence. Might I purchase a piece of that pie in the sky with long nights, skipped Sabbaths, and bone weary business?
         How might I earn an inheritance?

         Hear me again my siblings in the faith.
“I am young, filled with so much life. It seems like, by sure willpower, by my strength, by my plucky idealism I can wrestle from the hands of God this great prize, eternal life—that I’ve been told I will receive.
         After all I’m so full of life that I’m half way there already, I’m so optimistic, so naïve, that I believe I’ll never quit, I’m already eternal. Yes, with my great vitality I can wrestle away those things that you ask me to receive.

“From my position, from where I stand, as a man who is in command, I just want to know what words I must say, what order I must give, that I might be captured by God’s promises?
         I’ve seen Pharaoh order men to bury themselves in his tomb when he died—and he died and they did it. Yes, rulers know how to get things done, how to be in control, how to be in charge—yet this thing you offer—it captures me!

         One last time—in case you’re not hearing me.
“I am a very religious man. Dotted every I crossed every T. I’ve been more Pious than Peter, more zealous than Paul. My Spirituality has more practice than an Olympic athlete—yet the Kingdom of God, all of this, is simply provided!
         I can quote line and verse, speak with the tongues of angels, have the Bishop on speed dial, and pray so hard my knees bleed—yet at the end of the day, God simply provides—Providence provides!”

         Yes, all those things we invest ourselves in
—all those things that become the building blocks of our identity
—our possessions, health, power, and piety
they mean bupkis
—they don’t have anything to do with inheriting the Kingdom of God
receiving relationship with God our Father
being captured by God’s amazing grace
—having it provided to us because we are beloved children and our loving parent knows we can’t do it on our own.
Inheritance is always unearned,
you can’t wrestle away what you’ve already received,
you can’t command when you’ve been loving captured,
 and practice does no good when the perfection you seek is already provided.

         Face it brothers and sisters, all those things we strive with and for—they’re puffs of smoke.
         We are left naked before the face of God. Stripped of all our pretentious and brittle armor/
we come face to face with God, and are surprised to find that we are already clothed with Christ.
         That alone is of any import
—that alone, Christ’s work for us
—Christ alone
—Christ alone is our identity
—alone our center, core, the soil from which meaning grows.

         Found in him and with him, defined only as Christians, only as followers of The Way
—we are brought to a new place, threaded, like some blended camel, through a needle, through the power of Christ.
         From this new place everything is different
—we are richer in our poverty,
healthier in our sickness,
powerful in our weakness,
and pious in our ungodliness.
Wrapped in Christ all those things we lost are gained:
House and family and livelihood transformed into
—Siblings in the faith gathered, our only Father God, our only job mission.

         And coming through that needle will happen again and again, because we are stubborn and those things we’ve left behind, those things we ‘ve said are of secondary importance will pull and tug at us
—Idols don’t like it when they are smashed.
         Yet we are pulled through
—pulled through the needle by the loving God we find in Christ Jesus to a wide life,
a whole family spread open before us,
wide with a God we can address as Abba,
wide and long the path we follow,
following after Christ.


Monday, October 05, 2015

Latest sermon: A Reflection on Psalm 8:4


On Being Sami Part 2, or On Being White-ish, or Internet Community is Always Weird

            You might remember in the first part of this post, talked about finding out my dad’s side of the family is Sami.
            That was just sort of a curiosity, though I did ruminate a little on why various Scandinavian and Russian governments discriminated against the Sami (to the point of sterilizing them up until modern times). And I also found it interesting that they have more genetically in common with Native Americans and Asians than Europeans.

            I did also think a time or two “huh, I guess I’m part Asian. I don’t suppose I can claim person of color status to improve my oh so white denomination’s stats?”

            But it wasn’t really a thing to me, until, I made the mistake of goggling, “Sami Mongolian.” Don’t do it. It is horrifying.
Apparently Neo-Nazis have a big problem with Sami. Here are a few choice things they have to say about us:
“Pure Saamis are fine as long as they stay in their territories.”
“Are they subhuman? Let’s just say I wouldn’t marry one.”
“I would personally execute the entire Sami-race given a chance. While smiling.”
“First we deal with the Jews, then the Negroids, then the Sami.”
            So that’s kinda messed up.

            That said, most of the posts were on a white supremacist online forum. And, strangely enough, it was like any other online forum I’d ever seen—I mean the subject was eliminating… well me… but it was still the same! I actually came close to feeling bad for one of the forum moderators.
            I think I have to give an example to get you to see the humor (I’m conflating posts here):
Moderator: There are only like 70,000 of these Sami alive, we should actively seek to eliminate them.
B: But, they look white to me… Renee Zellweger is one, and she’s hot. I don’t want to kill hot chicks.
Moderator: Ni**ers can be hot too, but they still need to be eliminated.
C: B Brings up a good point, Mrs. Zellweger looks Aryan. How can we know who ought to be killed?
Moderator: It’s simple, there are measurements you can do with a Caliper.
C: Wait, we’d need to touch their heads?!? I don’t think I’m up for that kind of thing. Could we get them to do it themselves? Or could we wear gloves?
D: Yeah, and like, this is going to involve a lot of work, isn’t it?
Moderator: Of course! It takes our whole self, our whole lives sacrificed to the white race for the white race.
D: Can I just do it, like once a week, or something. I kinda have other stuff going on.
Moderator: What could be more important than winning the race war and saving Europe for the Nordics and the Aryans?
D: Well, there is a new Halo coming out…
Moderator: You are all horrible at being white people!!!

            Where were these kind of Nazis in World War Two?
mean, imagine it:
“Well, there is this really important meeting at a beerhall tonight—this Hitler fellow is going to speak, but I don’t think I’m going to go, I’m going to play my Xbox instead.”
“I was going to round up the Jews in town, but one of them was really hot, so I let them all go.”
“Gassing people, nah, I’d have to touch their bodies, I’m too much of a germaphobe to do that.”

            So where am I going with this? I guess, the whole being part Sami seemed like just sort of a curiosity to me—hey we’ve been passing as white for 1000’s of years, isn’t that strange. Then when I saw people threatening us collectively, I actually feel more Sami.

            Also, this whole thing points out how bizarre "race" itself it. I mean, if I'm not "white" because of measurements of my head, yet am as pale as the white horse in Revelation... and if I'm not "European," even though my dad's ancestors arrived in Scandinavia before the Scandinavians... then clearly all our categories are just strange whims with monstrous consequences. 

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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sermon: Are there Any Among You?

Are there Any Among You?

            Today, I would like to point us to the categories of people found in the church that James writes to. He writes of people who suffer, are sick, wander, and are cheerful.
            I believe if his question, “Are there any among you who” suffer, are sick, wander, and are cheerful were asked to us today, the same implied answer would be given today as was given then—yes, there are. The suffering, sick, wanders, and joyful make up the Christian community.
            And so I ask you today the same question asked then, “Are there any among you… Are there any among you


            Are there any among you
            Who suffer?

            Yes, you mourners
            With aches in those empty spaces where the dead used to reside.
            Unresolved emotions and connections careen off into nowhere.
            It’s like swinging at a baseball only to realize you aren’t holding a bat.
You are among us

            Yes, you abused ones
            You who do not feel safe in your home
            Long quiet from neglect punctuated by punches and bitter words
            Long afraid from threats—sometimes just implied
            Long deprived, unwilling or maybe unable, to speak your terrible truth
You are among us

            Yes, you poor ones
            Caught by staggered wages and automation
            Inflation and globalization gobbling up your daily bread
            It feels like there is little love or dignity in work when it isn’t enough to feed your family
You are among us

            Yes, you who have suffered tragedy after tragedy
            Until it appears normal and you feel like giving up
            Giving into the numb shell-shock of life as you’ve experienced it
You are among us

            To you who suffer, James says pray.
            Pray, yes that God might act—that God’s promises might be brought back before Him, reminding God, rubbing God’s ears with those promises.
            Pray too, that you might hear again those same promises brought before God. That they might become truths to you afresh—again—that you would come to trust God.
            Walk forward, trusting God to be for you and not against you.
            Trust God as you keep on keeping on in the face of your troubles.
            Respond to these indignities of life knowing the dignity of being Children of God.

            Are there any among you
            Who are sick?
            Yes, and it makes you understand why the ancients lumped sin and sickness together. Just as people avoid sinners, even more so they avoid the sick.
            It’s a lonely lot—being sick.
            In a hospital room, daytime Soaps and pain your only friend.
You are among us

            Yes, you overwhelmed by stress and strain, by anxiety or depression.
            You who the world looks at and shrugs “it’s all in your head” “just get over it” “just be tough.”
You are among us

            James commends your brothers and sisters to you—he calls on us all to visit the sick, to renew bonds of fellowship.
            There is a comfort in community that can not be underwhelming or oversold. A visit from those who care for you, from your brothers and sisters in Christ, such a visit can be extraordinary.

            Are there any among you
            Who wander?
            Oh yes, there are those easy targets, those who have shifted their priorities away from community in general, and the Church in particular—church-folk grumble at sports, TV time and the idolatry of overwork.
            And yes, not only are folk who wander away from worship diminishing themselves, but they also diminish the community—we are more fully the body of Christ when we are all together in worship.
            But, they are not the only ones who wander—the pious in the pews do as well. Often we are like the disciples in Mark’s Gospel, “teacher, they will not follow us.”—Notice they are worried about them following us, not following Jesus.

            Think of the raft of political cartoons about the Pope addressing Congress
—a Donkey saying “He’s with me, look what he has to say about care of creation,”
and an Elephant saying, “No, he’s with me, look what he says about the sanctity of life.”
            And then Jesus shows up, coughs, and says, “actually he’s with me.”

            James insists we bring the wanderers back.
            Yes, bring folk back to worship—no doubt that is an important thing.
            But see too that, we wander when we fuse Jesus to ideology or try to get people to follow after us instead of after Jesus—when we elevate anything out beyond our Lord.

            Are there any among you
            Who are cheerful?
            Yes, there are.
            every time you receive what is nourishing and necessary for life—food, clothing, money, good government, good weather or good friends—that is from God—that is something worth being cheerful about.
            As James adds, it is worth being thankful for—worth singing about, worth praising God for, it is worth marking that moment—cultivating, like a growing garden—cultivating that joy.

            And Angela, Jeremy… Kathy… Carter—today is a day to be thankful for. Today we are thankful for this Baptism—marking Carter as belonging to the God who has loves you and never will let you go.
            Thankful for a life that will be lived holding onto God, the God who already holds us tight.
A life clinging to God through suffering, and sickness, and wandering and times of great cheer as well.
A life lived with the God who we find in Jesus, who loves us even when we can not love ourselves.
            Yes, today we are cheerful for the Baptism of this newest Child of God.


Monday, September 14, 2015

On Being Sami (part 1)

            So, a while back my parents took at DNA test through 23 and me. My dad’s results were kinda surprising. He’s genetically on the Asian/Native American end of things. So, they looked at the fine print and it essentially said, “If you appear European, but get this result, you might be Sami.”
            The Sami are Reindeer Herders who live in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Check outthis video to get a sense of their life. I love the point where they’re describing their cuisine—it reminds me of “the shrimp scene” in Forest Gump—Reindeer stew, Reindeer steak, Reindeer blood pancakes… traditionally the only vegetables in their diet is lichen!
            The natural question was, “Why didn’t we know about this?” Well, our best guess is when great-grandma ran off to Canada she didn’t advertise that she was Sami, because back in the old country Sami women were sterilized (in some countries up untilthe 1970’s)! Dad vaguely remembers someone once calling her “a Finnish gypsy.”
            The second question is, “Wait… Asian/Native American?” One common theory is that a group of Mongolian nomads were following their animals north. When they got to the Artic some turned right, crossed a land bridge, and ended up in America. Others turned left, wandered into Scandinavia, becoming its first inhabitants, the Sami. There are other theories about the origins of the Sami. Most of the evidence about the Sami’s origins is linguistic and genetic, so innately a little fuzzy.

            Not that genetics is destiny or anything, but the fact that some of my ancestors were nomadic carnivores… will surprise no one who knows me well. Staying in one place isn’t my forte and most of the recipes in my recipe box begin with “Obtain 1lb Meat.”

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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sermon: All Cross

All Cross

         Today I would like to talk to you all briefly about three things,
and Sight
… thought at the end of the day, I really only want to talk to you about one thing—the Cross of Christ.

         Today we read that Jesus and his disciples find themselves in Caesarea Philippi.
         This is no small thing, that Peter confesses that Jesus is Messiah there—the first use of that title in Mark’s Gospel since it’s opening lines.
         That he makes this confession in Caesarea Philippi is important.

         Caesarea Philippi, named after Caesar—ruler of the Roman Empire, and Philip, one of Herod’s sons, is such a strange hybrid of power and culture.
         On one end there is Rome, with all its power and pretention, holding everything together with brute force
—peace by superior fire power
—Emperors deified by threat of death.
         On the other end is Jerusalem, the world Peter and the disciples identify with.
Jerusalem, filled with Elders, Priest, and scribes—a seeming faithful counter-balance to Rome.
         And like some strange Venn Diagram, Caesarea Philippi is where those two worlds intersect—the farthest edge of Israel and a city claimed for Caesar.

         And yet, none of these identifications
—Roman or Jew
—speak to Jesus’ identity, or the identity of those who follow him. Jesus is not a Messiah of Imperial Power, or one of Religious piety or one that mixes the two up
—he is one that point to a fourth option
—to crucified messiah-ship
—to a life shaped by the humble, humiliating, cross.
An identification with the one so humble he died a shameful death, the king crowned by thorn and enthroned on a cross.
         Yes, our identity is in the cross instead of nation or religion or some mix of the two.
         Yes, when the world offers us the choice between citizenship or membership as our center of self, we say no and cling to the Cross of Christ.

         Today we read as well of Jesus and the disciples being “on the way.”
This phrase is of course packed tight with meaning—it is the name Christians were called in the earliest years of our movement—people of the way.
         And one of the problems Christians have, and have had from the beginning
—is a place problem
—a direction problem,
 a where are we on the way problem.
         Today, Peter gets ahead of Jesus on the way, claiming the way does not involve rejection and suffering and all of that
—he refuses to believe the direction they are headed is conflict and cross.
         Soon enough he’ll be calling on Jesus to stay in one place, to not go any farther down that road.
Later the disciples will argues the road should really go toward greatness,
And later still they’ll argue about place—where they get to be—ask to be on his right and on his left.
         And in response to each of these place questions
—these where on the way ought we to be questions,
Jesus responds “Cross, Cross, Cross.”
He points to the way that is The Way.
         He warns about:
going too fast,
staying in one place,
seeking greatness instead of God,
and going on the sideline when we’re called to follow him, wherever he may go.
         His rebuke of Peter, is this “get behind me.”
Follow after me.
Be my disciple.
         Follow after him, even when it means cross—and please don’t misunderstand, there is no need to make our own crosses, when we follow him they will come. There is enough suffering to go around, enough suffering to bear well, without adding to our labor.

         Today we read about Peter seeing, but not seeing
—knowing who Jesus is, but not knowing.
Confessing, but still getting it a little off.

         This from the same gospel that makes a big deal out of a blind man healed by Jesus, but still not completely seeing, needing a second go of it.
         This from the same gospel that contains a father who cries so eloquently “I believe, help my unbelief.
It’s    I see, sort of.
         I believe, sort of.
         And now today “I confess, sort of.”

         Peter confesses that Jesus is Messiah
wow, he get’s it…
 but then loses it,
he rebukes the Messiah for defining himself, defining Messiah-ship as suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection.
         Peter thinks he has it, but doesn’t.
         It’s like the famous Buddhist saying, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”
In other words, if you finally believe you’ve reached enlightenment, that only means you have no idea what enlightenment is all about.
         Likewise, Peter, if you think you’ve boxed in what Messiah is, you’ve only boxed yourself in.
You’ve seen Messiah only partially,
you’ve believed in Messiah, but only partially.
You’ve confessed Messiah, only partially.
         In fact, the only person who fully grasps who Jesus is in Mark’s Gospel
—the only one who fully sees,
 fully believes,
fully confesses
—is the Centurion—the Centurion at the end of the Gospel there to see Jesus breathe his last, his life end, end on the cross.

Yes, we see Jesus fully on the cross.
We head in the right direction when we follow after him, onward to the cross.
We know who we are, when we find our identity in Our Lord on the cross.


Saturday, September 12, 2015

Nadia Bolz-Weber=Joe Biden: A Review of Accidental Saints

            Nadia’s latest book Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People begins with her discovering Alma White, a woman church planter in Denver from 1901. Nadia thinks “Gee (okay, it’s Nadia so her internal monologue probably begins with something stronger than“Gee”) a female church planter in Denver from way back… an old version of me… maybe old Alma is someone I could see as a role model and/or hero!” When she looks up Alma she finds out the lady was a bigot, and not just a little bit. Yet, Nadia realizes God used Alma for the Gospel despite her faults (side note, here is a good critical reading of this portion of Accidental Saints). God made her an accidental saint, because it’s God’s righteousness that makes us saints, not any of our own work. Accidental Saints takes a look at a few of those unlikely sinners God has grasped and sanctified, those Accidental Saints…

            …Hold up, you say. A review is great, but what’s up with your title? Were you just trolling Nadia (maybe a little)? Does Nadia=Joe mean something?

            Nadia, as she herself admits, is a biographical preacher and writer; she “preaches from her scars.” Nothing too strange there, it is often said Pastors preach to themselves first… it’s a thing we do. That said, she has a unique biography and a unique call as Pastor of The House For All Sinners and Saints (HFASS), and such a beautifully unique voice as a writer, that her words just bleed authenticity!
            So too, Joe Biden is so authentic that excess authenticity sloshes around in his shoes. You could hear it slurping around his toes the other night on Cobert. In a political field where people like Bush, Cruz and Clinton are so very calculated, the laughing, smiling, Irish mom quoting, biography laden, Biden is so clearly cut from a different cloth.
            The brilliance of Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People comes from Nadia’s authenticity; it’s brilliant in the same way Biden was brilliant in the Vice Presidential Debate, his authenticity, he wasn’t afraid to be Biden. Nadia’s personality, her Lutheran sensibilities, and her pastoral identity, all combine to make Accidental Saints a good read.

            Nadia is plenty aware of her new found stardom as the face of hip/relevant Lutheranism. In a chapter entitled “Whale Spit in the Superdome” she describes feeling unprepared to preach to a bunch of teens, especially since she’d become “What middle-aged people think teenagers” think is cool. This is so true, the Nadia effect in the ELCA can be border on embarrassing. I know of a Pastor who faced a call committee that insisted, if he wanted the job, he had to get a tattoo in order to “do that thing Nadia is doing.”
            Another very revealing moment is from the chapter entitled “The Lame” where Nadia notes that many people who show up at HFASS aren’t cool, they’re broken people, and she worries she’s not attracting people like her… then she realizes she is… that she’s not cool, that her tattooed bad ass exterior hides a bug-eyed hurting kid inside.
As a heart surgery scarred little boy who was always the new kids in school who has a propensity to hide behind words and degrees, this chapter above all the others, moved me! “The Lame” is worth the price of admission by itself.

            My initial tweet/facebook post about the book was that Accidental Saints is so Lutheran it made me cry (well that and “The Lame” chapter). Part of this is that we Lutherans don’t have a lot of voices in the mainstream, so reading a really solid proclamation of the Lutheran faith that engages with the world as it is and written for a popular audience, is really refreshing.
            Speaking of faith engaging with the world as it is, she insists on asking what Jesus thinks of Christianity’s Wishful-Thinking-Hallmarketting of idealistic positivity in the face of true despair and desperate moments. She “calls a thing what it is”… as Luther talks about in the Heidelberg Disputation.
            She considers Mary and her blessedness, that it comes neither from obedience nor some sort of purely political reading of her situation, but instead it is something imputed to her by a gracious God, “Mary is what it looks like to believe that we already are who God says we are.”
            Additionally, she challenges the Rapture-industrial-complex that is so widespread in North American Christianity. She challenges it with an “Advent Conspiracy-esque” reading of season that takes the rapture film “A Thief in the Night” and turns it on its head—perhaps in the crazy pre-Christmas consumerism of Advent, “the idea that Jesus wants to break in and jack some of our stuff is really good news.”

            So, being a Pastor is funny, sometimes ha ha funny, sometimes strange smell from the education wing funny. Nadia nails the sacred strangeness of it, allowing people a peek into the life of a Pastor, and it rings true.
            For example, she describes a month when she was only going to have three days off (This is not uncommon for Pastors), and she is asked to do a funeral for a non-member on one of those days off. She totally doesn’t want to do it… she does it, but there’s that hesitancy that gives way to a holy act.
            She also writes, “I never feel like I’m getting everything done or am ever pleasing everyone in my life.” Definitely a common Pastor experience (and a common experience for most, let’s be honest). She compares this over functioning to her time as an addict, that white wine and cocaine isn’t all that different from habits of highly effective people.
            The two experiences she shares that most match my own are—knowing you’ll fail your people, and being surprised when you experience the very grace that you preach every Sunday.
            She, in fact, has this thing she tells new people “I will at some point let you down. I will say or do something stupid or disappointing. You need to decide before that happens if you will stick around after it happens.” She also shares a particular time when she failed a couple very badly, yet was offered grace by them, and she was struck by the grace, yet also recognized it as the very grace of God she preaches!
            Ordination is of course not all one big horror show. She also describes some of those intimacies we clergy are let in to experience—baptismal water, “last rites,” prayer vigils at houses where suicides take place, those little things done in the community and neighborhood that are noticed but not mentioned, because they are too intimate to do so. These are the things of a Pastor’s life, and she captures them well.

            What I’m saying is that it’s a good book, it is authentic about what Nadia sees God doing in the lives of 19 "Accidental Saints." And I’m left asking, have you ever seen Nadia and Joe in the same room together? ;)

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