Reflection for Confirmation and Reformation, October 27, 2013

Today is the confirmation of Kole Knickmeier. Kole, we rejoice with you and your family on this special day. We recall your childhood with us, and we stand with you as you now grow into adulthood. I am glad I’ve had the opportunity to know you in confirmation. And I’ve appreciated your faithfulness in acolyting. I admire your work with your family for the Sunday night meal for the homeless shelter the first Sunday of every month. And I along with everyone else here wish you well in your coming years.

Thank you for writing the prayer of the day that we read together. It is a special day for you. But it is also an important day in our Lutheran faith and your prayer captured that as well. This is Reformation Sunday, the Sunday we set aside each year to recall the founding of the Lutheran faith tradition, over 450 years ago. It is a Sunday when we remember those values upon which the faith is founded.

Those values include a commitment to the Bible, that ancient story book from which we learn so much about human struggle and wisdom and divine love.

Those values include a commitment to grace and love that knows no bounds. We are all loved by God far beyond what we deserve, and we stand in thanks for that grace.

Those values include extending God’s love to others, everyone really, regardless of who they are or their circumstances in life. No one is beyond the grace of God. No one is beyond the compassionate embrace of the divine and of us.

Those values include living with faith and confidence, rather than fear, knowing that the future may be uncertain or difficult, but we will make it through the hard times, because God is with us and nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Those values include scripture, grace, open arms, and the courage of faith. And there is another value of the Reformation we read of this morning in the gospel of John. It is something called freedom.

Now we usually think of freedom as freedom from something, and that is a good thing. We experience freedom as a release from something that is holding us down or something that is oppressive. We are made free by God from all that harms us, reduces us, limits us. We are freed from those forces that keep us from being what we are called to be. We are freed, according to John, even from death, which has been transformed somehow into a mysterious passageway into a new kind of life. We are freed from many things. And when we have been freed from something, we usually want to celebrate. That’s what the fourth of July, or Passover or Bastille Day is all about. Freedom from oppression. We all want to be free.

But in John we begin to see another side to freedom. It’s not only about freedom from something. It is a freedom for something. Freedom is for something. It’s great to celebrate our deliverance, but then we are called to live as free people.

And that gets us back into confirmation. Confirmation comes at that transition from childhood into adulthood. Gradually in these years we become less dependent on our parents. But what will we do with that freedom as we become more and more our own person, living and acting on our own? What is our growing freedom for? And what is our freedom in Christ for?

If I were to some up what freedom is for, it would probably be just one word: compassion. Compassion is caring for others, even if they are strangers to us, even if they don’t deserve to be treated well, even if they are different in ways we do not like. The Lutheran word for compassion is grace. And it’s good to talk about grace in this building on a Lutheran day. But outside this building what we are talking about is compassion. We are free to be a compassionate people.

Along with compassion, we might say that freedom is for other things as well.  We may be free to do something but refrain from doing so because it would hurt others. We may even limit our own freedom so that others may be more free. We may even not insist on our own values but uplift the values of someone different from us. All of that is part of being not only free from, but also free for being the people of God.

So Kole, and all of us, on this day, may we remember our baptism, may we remember our heritage, our Bible, God’s grace, the love of God for all, and our confidence in God. Grounded in all that, let us go out there and be compassionate. Lord knows, the world needs it. And Sunday night shelter meals are a small part of that. May you and all of us grow in compassion each day. And may we through that compassion meet the one who loves us all, who gave his all for us, who continues to stand with us as we stand with others, and who this day welcomes us into the deeper journey of freedom that marks the lives of Lutheran adults everywhere.

Sermon for October 20, 2013

Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 121, Luke 18:1-8 

In the Iron Age, the people known as the Israelites used legends and sagas to remember their Bronze Age ancestors. The ancestors included many people, and may have been worshipped by the ancient clans. Three revered figures were Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Some suggest that the best way to understand Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is to think of each one as the principle ancestor for three different ancient tribes. As the clans started to unite, the legends of the three different tribes were eventually woven together into one story in which Abraham becomes the father of Isaac who becomes the father of Jacob. The three are woven together to unite the clan memories into one inter- tribal story. Since we have the least amount of material about Isaac, he was probably the hero of the least important group. Abraham takes a more important place as the founding father, and there is more material about Abraham.

But the most important of the three was Jacob, and he was probably the hero of the most important group in the founding of the confederation. Jacob plays a pivotal role in the construction of the confederation’s identity. His twelve sons are said to be the twelve tribes of the yet-to-be nation. And there is more material about Jacob than either Isaac or Abraham.  And his name is changed so that it is the name of the new confederation of tribes, the people of Israel.

These ancient sagas sometimes take on the quality of folk tales, especially perhaps this story of Jacob. Even in the form we have the stories in the Bible, they have a folk quality about them. Jacob is like a trickster in folk tales. He tricks his brother out of his birthright. He gets into trouble and must flee his home. He runs into trouble in his new land too. Tricksters not only get into trouble but are said to have unusual strength. Jacob lifts the cover of a well, and in this story he wrestles all night this with this mysterious presence. Such a night spirit also would be common in folk literature.  In folk tales there are mythical figures haunting the rivers and woodlands, night spirits like the one here that Jacob describes as a divine presence.

Folk tales explain things: often very practical things. Notice we end our lesson with verse 31. But verse 32 is really the last verse of the story. It reads: therefore to this day, we do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle. That’s strange. So strange that people decided to cut it off the reading. But, if you eat chicken you know this would be the point at which the muscle becomes hard cartilage and that it is best not to eat this for several reasons.

Folk tales often are filled with the explanations for names and places. Here we have explanations for the names Penuel: I met God and survived, a place that whispered of God where two rivers came together near an important valley, and the explanation for the name Israel: those who struggle with God.

Eventually these Bronze Age stories are written down in the Iron Age and then worked and reworked into larger and longer collections, until we end up with four strands of writing woven together in our present book of Genesis.

Actually, I wish verse 32, the folk tale ending about not eating all the meat on the bone would have been included rather than taken away from the reading this morning. By omitting it I suppose that the story has a deeper tie to loftier theology. But there is some truth to this thing about trying to get too much meat off the bone. It’s a good lesson for us.  It’s sometimes not wise to get every molecule of wear out of one’s tires before they are replaced. We don’t have to take everything, when we are negotiating with our neighbor or our partners in ministry or life.  In our struggles with others, we don’t need to completely have our way, take the whole bone. Especially if we are struggling with God. In struggling with God we do not need to solve all the mysteries of the universe. It is enough to sense the mystery of God at our side when we wrestle with suffering.

And that brings us to Jacob who becomes Israel and his struggle with God. Usually, for most of us, our relationship with God is good. We normally would not define our relationship with God as a struggle. But we all know sometimes we do struggle with God.

That struggle with God often involves our families, as it does for Jacob. In chapter 32 Jacob is returning home after many years of being away. He fled his homeland, having cheated his brother, Esau. Over the years, he had become successful and had grown up. It was now time to go home and make amends. And this is the river crossing that puts him back in the land of his childhood. He will be in Esau’s territory now.

How will he be received? He’s not sure. He hears that Esau is now approaching with 400 armed men. Jacob is nervous, takes defensive action, and has this sleepless night, alone, before he crosses this fateful river. As he faces the brokenness in his family, his return, the various consequences and possibilities for reconciliation, he wrestles with divine spirits and voices all night long. Should he go back? Should he continue to return and try to resolve things with his brother? We wrestle with God, like Jacob, when we face issues in our families. Or issues with our health. Or issues about suffering. Or issues about disappointment, failure, pain, sorrow, grief, and a whole host of human difficulties. In all of those things we are wrestlers with God, struggling to find meaning, purpose, direction, hope, faith, and the best course of action. In all of that it is best not to try to get every last piece of meat off the bone. It may be best to leave something, not demand everything from our night time restlessness, remembering that we will never really solve the mysteries of night spirits and the divine, of family love and pain, of good and evil, of hope and fear.

The wrestling of Jacob is paired this week with Psalm 121, and these verses from Luke 18. The Psalm calls us to have faith in God through these struggles, even if it is God with whom we struggle. The Psalm reminds us that our suffering will conclude, that God will be our strength, and this too shall pass. Psalm 121 gives us a vision of hope in struggle.

The parable of the unjust judge in the reading from Luke reminds us that patience and persistence are virtues for the faithful in our difficulties. In Jesus’ telling of a good folk story from another century, even the unjust judge will want the persistent widow to go away, and so will grant her request. Persistence in the face of adversity involves prayer and grounding ourselves emotionally again in the hope that is bred by the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Eventually the doors will open, the wrestling ends, we cross that river, go home, and a new way of being becomes our way, our way together, and our way back.

May we be a persistent people. And yet, may we leave a bit on the bone. And may we struggle with God who takes seriously the questions and mysteries of our lives, and who works on them with us on mornings such as this and in the deeper hours of the night. I wonder what river are you crossing?