Reflection for June 22, 2014

Jeremiah 20:7-13, Romans 6:1b-11, Matt. 10:24-39

Matthew arranges the sayings of Jesus into five major sermons or speeches. The most famous of these is the Sermon on the Mount, in chapters five through seven. In chapter ten we are in one of the less well known collections or sermons: Jesus’ sayings to the inner circle of disciples as they go out to do their mission.
The passage we have today ends at verse 39. The entire speech itself ends with verse 42, so the ending has been cut off. And the speech begins in verse 5; so much of the beginning of the speech has been cut away as well. But what we have in the third reading this morning is probably the core of the speech.
Jesus seems to be making three points in this speech. Negative responses are to be expected. Negative responses are not to be feared. And finally, in a world of conflicting loyalties and responsibilities, faithfulness is the most important thing.
Let’s take a look at each of these points as we live out our lives. Negative responses are to be expected. We live in a time and place where expectations run very high. More than ever people are critical of things and each other. This is true in all dimensions of life. Pastors over the years develop a thick skin. Why? Not at St. Johns, but in many places, people can say some pretty harsh things about issues that really don’t matter that much. But I don’t think pastors actually bear the brunt of the incivility and demanding nature of our society. Police officers, social workers, and teachers all face daily criticism. And we love to criticize our politicians. We especially seem to be negative about anyone who can be called a bureaucrat. But I think those who bear the biggest burden of the public’s wrath these days are those who work in retail. It’s not a good time to be working in sales.
And woe to the person who suggests a change or something new or a different approach. Well, let’s just say that negative responses are to be expected. As Jesus says, people are going to think that Jesus himself is of the devil. How much more so will they heap insults on his followers. And look at that first reading. Jeremiah has had it up to here with his detractors and naysayers. He is frustrated beyond belief. He calls for divine wrath upon his enemies. Yet in this speech of Jesus to his inner core of disciples, negative responses are to be expected. They are a part of life.
But the speech continues. Negative responses are not to be feared. Now Jesus and Jeremiah take different approaches to the negative feedback they receive. Jeremiah wants God to smash his enemies to smithereens. Jesus is more laid back, and wants the disciples to develop a thicker skin. Let the criticism be like water rolling off a duck’s back. Of course we all sense the value of Jesus’ approach. That’s the way to go. But sometimes you just need to let it all out, like Jeremiah. If you keep it in, being nice, over and over, you’ll eventually explode. Rather than exploding, go to a quiet place all by yourself. Take a deep breath, read this passage out loud with passion, and maybe yell and scream a bit. Then take another deep breath, and go back to work. It’s all ok, God understands.
Still the approach of Jesus is the way to go. And this part of the speech offers two suggestions to help with that. The first is to remember that eventually the right and the true will come to the surface. It always does. Remember that unfounded criticism often rather quickly fades as people sense the value of what you are doing, even if they cannot express appreciation. The true, the right, the best will always come forth. Stand for those things, even in the face of the negative.
And then secondly, Jesus seems to realize the impact of all that negativity on the human spirit. He reminds the disciples that despite all of the criticism they receive; they and we are valuable to God, are precious to God, and are loved by God. You know whenever Jesus gets into sparrows and talks about the birds, he is reminding us of how precious we are. God loves you. St. Paul in Romans says that in a deep theological way this morning. But when you feel discouraged, according to Jesus, just go outside and look at a bird, preferably an ordinary, little, brown one that no one seems to care about. And then remember that God loves that bird, and that God loves you. No matter what others think of you, God loves you. Tweet. Tweet. Tweet. Negative responses need not be feared. The right will come to the surface. God loves us.
Then the speech reaches its third point. In a world of conflicting loyalties, sort out the important things and remain faithful to them. When the speech was written, disciples were facing criticism from their families for becoming Christian and persecution from Roman authorities and criticism from other faith traditions. And in all of this there are conflicting loyalties. We are family members. We are citizens. We do ground ourselves in the Hebrew tradition. All of that is important. But in this speech of Jesus, when we are criticized by others, and we seem to be beaten down by all the demands on us to be better than we are, Jesus reminds us that what matters is to recall the important thing—the love of God, and to focus our conscience on that one thing, and then to live it out in our lives. Oh we can get caught up in so many things. But in the end, when focused on the love of God, the truth of that love, the beauty of that love, the service of that love; eventually the criticism becomes a faint echo of voices clamoring in another far away room, as we draw closer and closer to the God who loves us and who calls us through this life into the next – even if something thinks we’re a worthless bureaucrat or we work in retail. Amen


Reflection for June 15, 2014: Three, Seven, One

Genesis 1:1—2:4a, I Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

Today is a day for the numbers. This being Trinity Sunday, the number three seems to the most important. Lutherans recall God as a Trinity on this Sunday. We say God is Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier or sometimes Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the formula that is used in the reading from Matthew today.
We do not say there are three gods, but rather one God. Just as one person may be a daughter, a sister, and a mother, the one God has different roles and ways of being. Three dimensions of God are highlighted in the Trinity: creativity, recovery, and accompaniment. God is involved in all three of these things, and it would be good to think about how we might be called to engage these in our own lives.
Creativity: God is creative. And there is something about creation that reminds us of God. The natural world enkindles the presence of the divine. And nature itself is generative, it dies and renews, over and over again. Creativity and generativity areembedded in creation. The word generate comes from the word genesis. It means to begin, to start, to make, to create, to form, to mold, to shape, and to energize.
Sometimes this is where we need to be in our lives. Something needs to be generated, started, made, crafted, energized, created, formed, molded or shaped. Or we may need to come with a creative solution. It may be something in our relationships, or in our home life or at work or school, or physical therapy, or among our friends, or involve our future or an issue we are facing. But we are claimed by a creative God to engage our own creativity.
Recovery or redemption: Sometimes the issue is not creativity. Sometimes something is broken and needs to be fixed. Now and then we need to restore something, to make something right, to mend, to sew, to redeem, to recover, to renew, and to refresh. Recovery is what God does in the second person of the Trinity. Jesus is God’s desire to make a recovery, your recovery and mine, happen. We are claimed by a redemptive God to tend to the recovery that needs to happen in our homes and lives and churches and communities. Brokenness involves some mending.
Accompaniment: Sometimes we’re not creative, and we’re not trying to save anything or redeem things. We’re just with somebody, caring for them along the way, being together, being with, as the spirit or third person of the Trinity is God with us. This is the joy and responsibility of accompaniment. And sometimes that is what life is about. We are claimed by a accompanying God to be with those around us who may especially need our caring presence this day.
Creativity. Recovery. Accompaniment. These are three dimensions of the one God. And these are substantial human activities.  Creativity.  Recovery.  Accompaniment.
We think in threes. All good sermons have three points. All good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. In I Corinthians, Paul has a Trinity for living in community: faith, hope, and love. He says that on these three foundations, the Christian life is based. So today the number three is important. Even the philosopher Hegel rather abstractly pointed out that a thesis needs an antithesis in order to develop a synthesis, just as Julius Caesar once said that all Gaul is divided into three parts.

But perhaps the number seven is just as important today as the number three. The first reading is the seven day account of creation at the beginning of the Bible. The triune God is creator. That is why the reading is selected.  We say that God is the maker of heaven and earth and everything in it.
But what the creed does not say is that in this story God is not only making matter or material things, God is the creator of time. It is time and its rhythms that are created in this story along with all the water and land and creatures. You see this in the poem if you are looking for it.  The story begins by establishing night and day as the basic unit of human time.  And this basic unit of time is the first thing created, even before the sun and earth.
Then notice something else. Once the day is created and time is in place, God uses the time to then organize the rest of creation. Time is actually basic to the organization of matter.
And then notice even further, beyond the creation of day time, the account spends time setting the stars and moon and sun so that the rotation of seasons and years is established. We live not only day by day, but also by the seasons as our allotted years roll on like an ever flowing stream.
And there is still more time created and then used in this story. That brings us to the number seven. In its ending the poem finally speaks of seven days, marked by days for work and a day for rest. This is the birth of the concept of the week: a repeating cycle of days which marks our lives and gives us a sense of rhythm. You can even see the primitive birth of our contemporary weekend here. At the end of the work week comes a day of rest. The day, the seasons, the years and the seven day week are created in this story. As another German philosopher Heidegger once indicated, we like all creatures are defined by time, we are beings in time.
As we think about our lives, there are some challenges and tasks that need to be faced daily, others that come and go with a seasonal sense to them. But the reading calls us especially to think about this coming week. We’ve been given a week. What will we do with it?
Now this ancient poem is often compared and contrasted to science. And as we think about how this ancient poem relates to science we might want to just forget about that old evolution debate and consider the physics of light and energy and time in the poem. The relationship between space, time, light and matter are all woven into this story as they are in quantum physics. The poem foreshadows our best attempts to consider the how energy exists in the space, time, light and material matter we experience as the created world. It turns out that time and matter are intimately connected in nuclear physics, in relativity theories, in contemporary discussions on converting light to matter, and in ancient iron age poems.

But it may be the case that the most important number on Trinity Sunday is not the number three that draws us into the divine mystery, nor the number seven which draws us into the mystery of time and space. The most important number may be the number one. For we do not have three gods, but one God. And the nature of the trinity is not that there are three different aspects of God but that the three aspects come together into one being. It is the unity rather than the divergence that is the mystery of the triune God. The important number is one.
The number one speaks to the nature of God. There are not many gods, only one sacred nature. The number one also speaks to the deepest of human yearnings. For we long for things to come together. We want to be of one mind and spirit. We live in an age of diversity, and that is important; but at the same time, in this time, we especially long for that one thing that is important, that priceless pearl for which we will sell everything else. We seek the deepest truth. We long to come together, to unite, and to be one with each other and with God, as we strive in humility to come into the presence of what unites us. That longing runs deep in our hearts, and it may be that one is the most important thing of all. God is one, as some would say.
Three, Seven, and one. Today is Trinity Sunday.  We recall the importance of creativity, recovery, and accompaniment as we face the week ahead. We sense how important this day, this week, this season is not only to us but to the God who made us all. And we touch that deep yearning within us all for things to come together into one faith, one hope, and one love that we can share with others in the name of Jesus.

Reflecton for Pentecost, June 8, 2014

       Today is Pentecost, when we recall the founding of the church. The disciples have gathered in Jerusalem. They have begun to proclaim their vision of Jesus and life in his name. They are overcome by the spirit of God.
That spirit still blows in the life of God’s church. Sometimes you can feel it in this room as we draw close to God and one another, in music, mutual consolation, and the word. Sometimes we feel this spirit in our lives as we sense that God is walking with us. With this spirit come light and insight, as well as the capacity to bridge differences and communicate with those who are different from us. This spirit is a breath of fresh air and a guiding wind that blows us in the direction the church needs to go.
These days it may be important to think about the church and the spirit again in contemporary terms. What is happening in and to the church these days? What winds are blowing, and how is the spirit alive? What differences need to be bridged and how shall we share with others the compassion of Jesus?
It’s clear that the church in North America as an organization has experienced almost fifty years of decline in institutional strength. And it is clear that many are no longer interested in organized religion. And it is clear that the church of the future will not receive the same support from culture as it has in the past. In the entire ELCA, only twenty years ago there were nationally twice as many children in Sunday School as there are today. Church weddings are far fewer than they once were. Church pews are not usually filled. And one can look at that and honestly say that the church is dying.
But with death comes resurrection. And we may need to shed our captivity to the culture of the past and the ways society supported religion in order to resurrect a new faith, a new spirit in the church. And with that new faith come new ways of being church. I’d like us to think about that for a few moments on this spiritual anniversary of the Christian community.
Today the church of St. John, this congregation, this community, is actually four different groups all active in their own ways at the same time.  We are familiar with the first group. It is this Sunday Assembly gathered here once again in this room.
The Sunday Assembly is those gathered for worship, fellowship, learning, and reflection on Sunday mornings. The Sunday Assembly is central to the life of the community. And it is the visible gathering that can sometimes be seen as the traditional church. For us, Sunday Assembly has remained fairly stable recently, and that is a good thing. But it is no longer the case that the church of St. Johns is defined by focusing only on a Sunday Assembly.
St. Johns is secondly a web based community. There are many weeks when the email activity, email newsletter, Facebook and Twitter communication, and website visits involve much more activity than Sunday Assembly. For some time, our Facebook reach is twice our worship attendance. Many more people read on the web one of my sermons than actually hear it on Sunday mornings. Some of this electronic activity involves people who are part of Sunday Assembly. But for many, this web based community is their primary experience of our fellowship.  And ten years ago, this community did not exist.
Third, St. Johns is a community of service. This is the largest of the four groups in this community. Perhaps as much as 80% of our activity here each day of the week, except Sunday, involves this some kind of care. Two shelters, our Emergency Relief Program, the addition of the Porchlight housing assistance program, the Mosaic Project for Women being released from jail, the refugee settlement program with LIRS and the various AA and anonymous groups that meet here all contribute substantially to our community life in every way: fellowship, learning, service, and financial support all happen through this aspect of St. Johns. This community of service includes everyone: from those receiving care to those non-profit partners who share this building with us, providing care day after day, night after night. It includes special donors and even other congregations who support this caring ministry.
This aspect of our congregation’s life has also grown exponentially in the last decade. Ten years ago we distributed about $15,000 each year to those in need. These past three years, we’ve distributed about $50,000 each year. And this coming year, Porchlight will distribute another $100,000 or more in financial assistance through their new program housed here. Ten years ago there was one shelter. Now there are two. Ten years ago AA groups met here with regularly. Now those who are new to this country and those getting out of jail join them in coming to St. Johns. When most people think of St. Johns, they think of this community active in service.
The fourth circle that comprises St. Johns is the great cloud of witnesses. In the old model of church this group may have been thought of as the shut-ins. Or they might have been called the inactives in some congregations. But those who do not worship regularly and those who face physical limitations are not the only ones in this very large cloud of witnesses which takes it place alongside the other dimensions of this congregation.
The history, family and community structure, mission, and purpose of St. Johns have attracted a rather large cloud of witnesses that contribute to and support the mission with prayer and financial support. This is one of those very few congregations where financial gifts come from a much larger group than those attending worship. So this group is large as well. It includes individuals connected to St. Johns even though they live far away, people of other faith traditions, institutions and foundations that support St. Johns in many ways, other congregations, those who grew up at St. Johns, those who call St. Johns home in one way or another, and those who want their contributions to go directly to those in need or some specific cause.
Sunday assembly, the web-based community, a community of service, and the great cloud of witnesses: these four groups together form the church, the congregation we know as St. John’s Lutheran in Madison. You may have noticed that although much attention is paid to the health and trends of the Sunday Assembly. We often focus on that. But sometimes part of the sense of institutional decline is our failure to realize the energy in the other three expressions of congregational life. For some time now Sunday Assembly has been the smallest of these four circles. And I suspect that this is the way it will be for the church of the future. That is the sense of the spirit in these times as the church considers its possibilities and follows the spirit into new forms of service and love.
Now these four tongues of fire: Sunday assembly, the web-based community, the community of service, and the great cloud of witnesses all need to communicate something. These four tongues need to communicate in different ways the love and compassion of Jesus. That is our purpose or our mission. This mission is now comprised of three things: expressing an authentic assembly, offering to those in need the compassion of Christ, and getting back into our neighborhood. Let me say those three things again: expressing an authentic assembly, offering to those in need the compassion of Christ, and getting back into our neighborhood.
Expressing an authentic assembly: Our smallest circle needs our care. For it is here that we sustain the vision of Christ as we physically engage in worship, reflection, fellowship and learning. Here is where we learn most fully what it means to be the church. And part of who we are will always be expressing authentic assembly. Many in the community of compassionate service and also in the cloud of witnesses are especially impressed that we are not just another social service agency, but a fully vital and active Sunday congregation. Our authentic congregation expresses our love of God as we care for the building, sing, pray, worship and celebrate together, learn and grow as Christians and provide guidance and direction needed as we work together.
Offering to those in need the compassion of Christ: This is our signature. It is in our DNA. We continue to do what we do best. And we need to find new ways to express that compassion, even as we do the careful day by day work along side our partners in caring for those in need in the heart of the city. There is every indication that the number of those in need and the complexities of care will only expand over the next few years. The spirit still calls us to be open always to new issues, new needs, and new partnerships.
Getting back into our neighborhood:  But suddenly, like a breath of spring air, we discover that have been called not just to express authentic assemble, and not just to offering to those in need the compassion of Christ. It’s time to focus on our neighborhood again. If you drive to St. Johns, and most of us do; the next time you come to church, just drive around the streets off East Washington between the square and the Yahara River. Yes, you’ll see much the same as it has been. But you will also sense how this area is becoming more permanently residential as housing of all kinds is being built or renewed: huge projects and smaller condominium complexes. And much more will be coming. We are finding ourselves rather suddenly in what Madison Magazine called this month, the trendiest part of the city. Imagine that. Because of what is happening in our neighborhood, it is time to focus on this near east side as an important, genuinely significant field for mission.
In fact, if there were no churches in south central Wisconsin, and one needed to be started; right now the best location for that start-up would be somewhere on East Wash on the near east side. The United Methodist Conference for Wisconsin has decided to fund a part time position for a pastor to establish an alternative congregation focused on young adult ministry in our neighborhood.
Getting back into our neighborhood is an opportunity for this congregation. Such significant opportunities are rare. Let’s get ready for this opportunity to engage our new neighbors in the mission of St. John’s. For it turns out that an authentic assembly passionately dedicated to care in the heart of the city is one of the trendiest things of all. It is time for us to share the good news of hope and joy in fresh ways with a young, irreverent, Steven Cobert watching, mostly unchurched generation. Let’s show them not that we want them to join to help us prop up some dying institution. Let’s show them how this place actually and literally saves lives because Jesus wants us to love our neighbor. And next week in Adult Forum, I want to raise the importance of thinking of ourselves now as a new mission.

As the spirit blows once again, and the love of God glows once again, and people think about new possibilities and communicate in new ways once again, we are the church of the spirit: a Sunday assembly, an online community, a center for caring, and a great cloud of witnesses, still dedicated to gathering on Sundays as they did in Acts, still dedicated to caring for those in need as they were in Acts, and still excited about sharing that good news in the neighborhood as they did in Acts. Amen