Sunday, January 30, 2011

Epiphany 4A

I was once asked to provide what they called an “Invocation” at a political event a few years ago. So I chose for the bible reading the passage we just heard from Matthew’s gospel, popularly known as “The Beatitudes.” I wanted to offer the crowd a different vision than what usually passes for political discourse.

Later that evening, a politician came up to me and thanked me for reading the “softer” Beatitudes rather than the “harsh” Ten Commandments.

I held my tongue, but what I was thinking was, Were you paying attention? There’s nothing SOFT about the beatitudes! The Ten Commandment are a mile easier to live by than these 12 verses in Matthew.

I guess somewhere along the line the beatitudes became domesticated. Pretty little religious words that offer comfort without challenge. Spiritual poetry to calm our anxious hearts.

How we hear the beatitudes depends largely on where we’re sitting when we hear them.

Where are you in Jesus’ list? Are you the poor in spirit, struggling to find evidence of a loving God in a harsh world? If you are, then Jesus says that you are blessed?

Are you mourning? Jesus promises comfort...some day.

Are you being persecuted? Then rejoice in your pain! You must be an awesomely faithful person!

That’s where it gets a little weird, and probably where the he lost the crowd. But he may have lost others a long time before that. Who wants to be blessed the way Jesus says to be blessed?

Theologians struggle with the beatitudes. They wonder what they could possibly mean. Lutherans have traditionally interpreted this passage, and the rest of the sermon on the mount through what we call “The Impossible Ideal.” In other words, Jesus sets so high a standard that no one can possibly live up to it. And since we can’t be as perfect as Jesus demands that we be, we cling to the cross for forgiveness.

Others interpret this passage as a promise to be fulfilled at the end of time, or when we arrive in heaven. That God’s perfect world will be establish - some day. Not today. So don’t bother looking for it in this life. Just keep your eyes fixed on the next one.

And still other say that this passage gives us our moral marching orders, that, while Jesus sets a standard that may be impossible to attain, we still have to try because that’s how God wants us to live. And if we don’t try to live according to the Jesus’ demands, the world won’t be saved. It’s up to us to implement God’s kingdom vision.

I find none of these interpretations satisfying. I don’t think Jesus is giving his listeners a sneak peek into God’s promised future, nor do I think Jesus is setting us up to fail, and I certainly don’t think that the world’s salvation depends on how morally obedient we are.

I think this passage is about Jesus, and who he is. “Blessed are you who are poor in spirit, blessed are you who mourn, blessed are you who are meek, blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, the peacemaker, the pure in heart, the persecuted.”

That sounds like Jesus’ job description to me.

He’s not talking just about them, he’s talking about himself, and who they will become because of him. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise. In Jesus, the kingdom of God has arrived. In Jesus, God’s healing is not something to hope for in the future, but a present reality living among them.

I think of the beatitudes as God’s thesis statement. God tells the people what God will do. Then does it.

The beatitudes are Jesus’ way of showing the world that God is in the healing business, that God is more interested in peoples’ wounds than in peoples’ strength.

God cares more about people’s failures than their successes, that God looks at peoples human frailties and says, “There’s something I can work with.”

The point of the gospel is to be good news in our bad news lives. And that good news means that God goes deep down inside where we might not want God to go.

We don’t always want to be confronted with our grief. We don’t always want to be face-to-face with our spiritual poverty. We don’t always want to show our weakness and vulnerability because the world scorns meekness and rewards strength.

But it’s in our frailty that God’s best work is done. It’s in our poverty that God’s riches are poured.

It’s in what the world throws away that God creates something beautiful. It’s in what the world leaves behind that God collects as treasure. It’s not our successes that bring us to God, it’s our failures.

“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise;” Paul reminds us in our second reading, “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

I don’t know why that is, but God is attracted to weakness. That could be why Jesus called weakness a blessing.

Our weakness could be a blessing because that’s when we realize that we need others and need God. It’s when life hits us hard that God can seem important again, that we’re more open to the intrusion of the divine in our lives.

I’ve noticed that it’s in our pain that we connect most deeply with others. It’s in our shared humanity, knowing that we are not alone in our suffering, that we receive a blessing.

It’s in our weakness that we can best reach out to others. It’s out of our pain that we can minister to those who need a healing touch. It’s from our darkness that God’s light shines.

So, wherever you are on Jesus’ list, you are blessed, because God is at work IN you.

Wherever you on Jesus’ list, you are blessed because God is at work THROUGH you.

God is at work, singing a new song into our lives. God’s light is shining, so the whole dark world may receive God’s blessing.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Epiphany 3A

How would you know God’s voice if you heard it? What it be so clear that you could respond with great joy in knowing that you’re part of God’s saving plan for the world? How would explain that call to others? How would you describe that voice?

That’s not an easy question to answer, is it? Most stories of hearing God’s call are met with suspicion, or even laughter. It takes some guts to talk about the voice of the divine. Not everyone will believe you. Few people will take you seriously.

I should know. That’s been my experience.

When I first heard the call to ministry I was in the third year of my music degree. I didn’t hear any voice whispering in my ear, the heavens didn’t open up, there was no dove descending, nor did I hear a disembodied baritone address me, telling me that I was to become a pastor. And it definitely wasn’t the voice of the community affirming my gifts for ministry.

It was just a strong sense that my life was going to be dramatically altered. After all, becoming a pastor was NEVER my plan. But this call was from a voice I couldn’t define, but seemed very real. I needed to explore it.

It certainly wasn’t those around me who told me I should be a pastor. In fact, my community was telling me to NOT go to seminary. It’s not that I wasn’t given affirmation of my call, most of my friends, colleagues, and teachers were actively discouraging me from pastoral ministry.

The strongest response was from my conducting teacher. When I told my her that I wasn’t going to pursue a career in music and was going to seminary instead, I thought she was going to have an aneurism.

She stood up her in chair, pointed her finger at me and bellowed, “I FORBID it! I FORBID you to go to seminary!” In fact, after that encounter we stopped having any meaningful conversations. It was like she felt that she wasted her time with me.

The most “encouragement” I received was from the campus pastor, who when I told him I thought God was calling me to ministry said, “I guess if that’s what you want to do I suppose there’s no harm in that.”

I was still officially an Anglican at the time, although I was involved with the Lutheran Student Movement, so I went to see my bishop in Niagara to see what kinds of hoops I had to jump through to become an Anglican priest.

Back in the mid-nineties, there were, apparently, too many clergy. And I was told that I’d have to wait ten years after seminary to be ordained and receive a parish.

So, I called a number of other bishops in Canada looking for better news. But they all said the same thing. There were too many clergy. Sorry. Can’t help you.

I began to wonder if everyone was right. I began to wonder if the call I heard to ministry was something other than God-given. Did I really receive God’s call? Or was I just talking to myself? Who was I trying to impress?

If so many people were responding so negatively to me becoming a pastor, and if so many doors were closing in my face, maybe God was saying that I shouldn’t be looking in the pastoral direction. Maybe that sense of call wasn’t as real as I had imagined it to be.

I had to figure this out because graduation was only four months away. I had to discern my life’s path before I made a HUGE mistake.

So, I went back to the campus pastor, who was in a more helpful mood that day, and let him know what was happening. He suggested that I visit with Eastern Synod staff of the ELCIC. So I did.

I made an appointment with the assistant to the bishop, who, although didn’t welcome me with fanfare and confetti, certainly didn’t discourage me.

He outlined the process. Gave me some forms to fill out. And, most importantly, encouraged me to keep discerning whether ministry was what God wanted me to do.

And so, with that in mind, I entered seminary in the fall of 1995, after finishing my music degree.

Then something interesting happened. While I supported myself up until then through trombone playing and composing music, after I started seminary, the phone stopped ringing. My music life ended with silence.

It was like an endorsement that one life ended and other life began. It was like someone was saying that the old Kevin was gone, and a new Kevin was born. It was like I was severed from the person I was previously. It was a lonely affirmation that I was following God’s call.

I imagine that’s what the first disciples’ felt after they left their old lives behind and followed Jesus.

As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Can you imagine Zebedee’s reaction to having two of his sons abandon him and the family business to chase after God’s call? With just two words from Jesus, the brothers James and John left their lives behind.

I would think that their friends and family were not at all impressed with such a display of religious recklessness. Zebedee needed them to keep the business going. Those two pairs of hands were sorely needed. Jesus’ call had consequences, and left collateral damage. Following Jesus is not without repercussions.

What about you? Where have you heard God’s call on your life? Since you’re here I’m guessing that God has placed a claim on you. In the waters of baptism, Jesus has said “Follow me” and you followed.

But what does that call look like for you? In your life? How do you hear God’s voice leading and directing you? Is it through the words of scripture, proclaiming salvation in Jesus? Is it the Holy Spirit whispering in your ear, guiding you along God’s path? Is it the community of believers helping you discern God’s vision for your life?

Or are you still waiting, not knowing what to look for, suspicious of disembodied voices and divine intervention?

God’s call on our lives can be a fearful thing. And it’s ongoing. It never stops. I don’t know if God wants me to be a pastor for the rest of my life. I don’t know if God wants for me tomorrow, let alone 25 years from now.

But what I do know, is that I have been recruited into God’s salvation movement, that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near to me, that wherever God leads me, wherever Jesus calls me, I can rest in knowing that I am a child of God, shining God’s light into a world that can be devastatingly dark, bearing witness to the one who died so that we might have life.

And I know the same is true for you. I know that God has a call on your life, that you are being used by God to bring love and healing to this world. God has a hold on your life that will never be let go. In you, the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.

May this continue to be so among us. Amen!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Epiphany 2A

In reading today’s gospel, it’s clear that we shouldn’t be looking to John the Baptist for advice on how to grow a church. He sends his best people over to another preacher, who looks surprised to see them.

“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks these strangers at his door. “What are you doing here? What do you want from me?” are questions that he was probably really asking.

But it’s a good question, isn’t it? It’s perhaps THE question. Especially for those who have a sense that God is doing something in their lives. And for those who have a gaping God-sized hole inside.

“What are you looking for?”

That could be the question for us here at worship. We come to worship looking for something, perhaps we can’t put that something into words.

We come looking for God, or an experience of God. Or we come looking for community. Or we come looking for meaning in a seemingly meaningless world.

Or we just come, not knowing what we’re looking for, but hoping to recognize it when we see it.

I’m sure it was the same with John’s disciples. There must have something about John’s fiery preaching that lit up their spirits, and compelled them to follow him, hanging on his every word. They probably didn’t understand much of what John was saying, but they knew what he preached was true. Truer than anything else they’d ever heard.

Which was why it must have been puzzling for them to be on the street to find themselves at the door of another preacher. There must be something more about this Jesus if John was sending them to him. What’s this “Lamb of God” stuff about anyway,? They may have wondered. But if John wanted them to follow this other rabbi, then follow him they must. After all, John pointed to God.

“What are you looking for?” the teacher asks when they present themselves to him.

“Where are you staying?” they reply.

Where are you staying? Why would they want to know that? What’s that got to do with what they’re looking for? Is where Jesus hangs his hat a clue to what he was all about?

“Come and see” Jesus replies, and with that reply comes a fresh batch of new recruits for his movement.

“We have found messiah!” they proclaim to their friends after spending time with Jesus. But that doesn’t give us any more insight into what they were looking for.

They may have been looking for the Messiah, but that word, “Messiah” meant a lot of things to a lot of people.

And while that sounded like good news, someone would be disappointed when they found out what John meant by that word.

Many people were expecting royalty, someone to kick the Romans out of the holy land and bring in the kingdom like the one when David reigned. When other countries were afraid of them, when everyone had enough to eat, when arts and culture flourished, when God showed them the favour they believed was their divine birthright.

Others saw a religious figure, kind of like a pope, who will return God’s people to great prayer and devotion, where worship was central to peoples’ lives, where the bible was read and studied by everyone, and where people structured their lives according to the Law of Moses.

And still others believed the messiah would rescue people from their earthly lives, destroy the planet, banish unbelievers and punish evil doers, and then lift the righteous into heaven.

It seems that not much has changed in 2000 years. That could be why the question “What are you looking for?” can be so potent. We’re all looking for something. We’re all placing our hopes on Jesus even if those hopes contradict each other.

“What are you looking for?” is a question often rooted in selfish desires rather than a pursuit of something greater and truer than ourselves.

I may be looking for God, but my motivates certainly aren’t pure. I want God to make my life better. I want God to give me certainty rather than faith. I want God to bless everyone I love and curse those whom I hate.

When I’m looking for God those are the desires hiding underneath my pursuit of the divine. And that’s why God isn’t terribly interesting in giving me what I’m looking for.

What we’re looking for isn’t always what God wants to give us. They wanted a King. God gave them a lamb. They wanted their enemies destroyed. God gave them mercy. They wanted a return to their glory days, God gave them forgiveness.

That’s why it’s hard to be a Christian who believes that God does something in our lives. It’s hard because we can’t control God. We can’t offer up our hopes and fears in prayer, and - poof! - God answers in just the way we want.

All throughout the bible we see God ignoring the peoples’ cries then going and doing whatever God wants. And usually, God’s actions are more life-giving than what people ask for.

What we can know, and what we can trust with our lives and our deaths, is that God is faithful, that God is merciful, that God is loving. We can trust in the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, who is still at work healing the world, forgiving our sin, making us whole.

So what are YOU looking for? Do you believe you will find it here, among God’s people, within the Word proclaimed and the sacraments received?

Your answer, I’m guessing is “Yes”....and...“No.” You look for God where God promises to be. And there we do find God. We receive God’s forgiveness and remember that we are indeed children of a living and loving God.

But also, the God you find can often seem like a ghost, a flicker at the corner of your eye, a slippery truth that you can’t quite grasp, a meal half eaten. Our darkness can often make us blind to God’s light.

That’s because who we want God to be and who God is can be very different people.

God doesn’t act according to our directions. But God does what God does. Forgiving our sin. Making a new world filled with justice and marked with peace. Preparing us for eternity, where we will live in the fullness of who God wants us to be.

May this be so among us.