Reflection for March 1, 2015

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38 

I don’t know how many times in my life I’ve had to rethink things, revise the plan or idea, or reinterpret what I thought was the way to look at matters. Rethink, revise, reinterpret. I’ve needed to do it over and over.  I’m hardly ever able to use Plan A, or even Plan B. Most of the time, honestly, I’m in Plan C or D.

Every parent has experienced this. When you start the journey of parenting, you have a vision of what this is going to be like. Hopes and dreams come to the surface. But children have a way of being themselves. As they grow, we must rethink, revise and reinterpret things all along the way. Circumstances change. School sometimes doesn’t work out. Health comes into play. Friendships can be a problem. Relationships and future planning get complicated. Parenting is a constant process of revising, rethinking, and reinterpreting along life’s way.

It is that way in our work life too. Compared to most people, I’ve had a very stable work life. I’ve been a pastor associated with the same synod for forty years. But there have been several times when circumstances changed and I’ve needed to rethink things. Personally, when I came to St. Johns fourteen years ago, I was making a move from a ministry focused on Christian Education to one focused on urban congregations. Even a shift like that in one’s career involves a lot or rethinking.

And most people go through much more transition in their work lives. Some of us are doing work that did not even exist three years ago. Others are moving from one job to another every other year. Others are moving in and out of employment. And we often find ourselves doing work that we did not plan on doing. And through it all we need to rethink, revise, and reinterpret.

What is true for parenting and work is true for most aspects of life. Think about all the reinterpretation that a child does when she goes to a new school, often needing to learn new ways of doing things while making a completely new set of friends. Or think of an older person making the transition to life in a nursing home.  Or think of someone who needs to move or simply change their address. Or think of someone who has lost a spouse.

Rethinking, revising, and reinterpreting. It is not only a part of the larger events of life but also describes what happens in the everyday details of existence. We revise our days according to the weather, how we feel, the schedules of those around us, and the little things that come up. We are rethinking things constantly as we gather fresh or new insight or information. I’ve even had to revise this sermon several times. You are hearing the fourth revision.

Actually sermons are precisely about reinterpreting, rethinking and revising an earlier vision of God embedded in a passage from the Bible. Each week we share three ancient readings that are then reinterpreted or rethought in light of the situation in which we find ourselves. Interpreting scripture is always about rethinking the past so that it informs our current situation.

And that brings us to these particular readings which lift up this rethinking process. For the second reading is actually a sermon based precisely on the first reading. That hardly ever happens in the lectionary or system of readings we use. But this morning, Paul in Romans is reinterpreting the Abraham tradition found in Genesis.

Paul’s point is that Abraham’s faith in God, the relationship with God is what brings him and us into God’s presence; obedience to a set of moral laws. He is making this point because the Roman congregation includes not both Jews and Gentiles. Some would follow Jewish cultural regulations. Others would find them strange. What Paul suggests in his sermon on Abraham is that Abraham was a person of faith. And it is our common faith in Jesus that binds us together. Faith in God is the most important thing.

He is reinterpreting Abraham to be the father of faith rather than the ancestor of an ethnic group. It was Abraham’s relationship to God, Abraham’s faith that brings about the covenant, not his adherence to laws, regulations and customs.

This is a rethinking of Abraham done by Paul to fit the circumstances of the early church. But to be honest, the passage about Abraham from Genesis we have this morning originally meant something else.

The original intent of this morning’s account of Abraham in this chapter of Genesis is not clear in this highly edited version given to us by the lectionary committee. Look at those verse numbers. We are missing verses 8-14. And then we are also missing verses 17-27, the last verses of the chapter. What has been edited out is the ancient, more primitive material, which I think contains the intent of the story teller. Verses 8-14 are about circumcision. This is the story about why Jewish people practice circumcision. It is a sign of tribal identity done because that is what our ancestor Abraham did according to the will of God.  It’s a story about how one identifies with one’s people and with one’s God through ritual behavior. There are various sociological, anthropological and public health theories regarding ancient circumcision; but it’s clear from the whole passage that this is the topic, not Abraham’s faith.

And then the verses cut from the end of the story raise other deep, primitive matters of family life: (1) the origins of conflict between the half brothers Isaac and Ishmael, a conflict that has echoed for centuries, and (2) the ambivalence parents sometimes have for their children. And in verse 17 Abraham is more doubtful than faithful.  What we have lost in our highly edited version is the physical reality of circumcision, the complicated nature of family life, the doubt of Abraham, and the seeds of conflict.  That’s a lot to lose. Not every revision, reinterpretation, or rethinking works out well. And sometimes the costs are high. Let us remember that.

But they still are necessary. And that brings us to the gospel reading today. Here we have the prediction of Jesus that he must suffer and die. Then comes a simple statement that he will rise.

Let me posture this within the early church of Mark responsible for this document. This urban congregation is deeply engaged in healing ministry. Healing is the most important thing in Mark. Here more than anywhere else in the New Testament, Jesus is the healer. Ancient Christian communities like Mark’s were known for not abandoning the sick but caring for them. Often that care meant that people got better. They were healed. And so in many passages in Mark these people recalled especially how much their champion Jesus was the great healer.

But as all who work in the healing professions know, despite our best efforts at healing, people often do not get better. People may die: no matter how well they are cared for. And this healing congregation faced death upon death as they cared for the many. Some recovered because being cared for makes a difference. But others did not. And in this hospital-congregation the healers faced death over and over. Like all of us as we face the death of those around us and our own death, they began to see in death something different: that there was a time when death was to be embraced rather than rejected. That death was the passage into a different kind of healing. That even though our hospital-congregation is dedicated to healing, sometimes people die. And when they do, they are healed by God in a new way, passing into a new life. That death can be a noble thing that changes the life of others.

Here in this memory of Jesus, we sense how these early healers were revising and rethinking what it meant to die and the importance of letting go in the healing process. The death of Jesus becomes the window into deeper healing, not only for an individual but also for society. Indeed the death of Jesus is seen as bringing all sort of restoration. In death we participate in this healing. And sometimes no matter how much we want things to go on (like Peter in the story) we need to let go and lean into that mysterious future. That is the nature of Abraham’s and Paul’s faith. And by faith we revise, rethink, and reinterpret ourselves along life’s way, even in the face of death.


Reflection for February 22, 2015

Genesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15 

     The story of Noah’s ark and the rainbow as a pledge by God never to flood the earth again is familiar and reassuring. And I personally like the gospel of Mark better than the other three. But to be honest, you have to wonder about that second reading from I Peter. It’s one of those you could almost omit; and the service would be fine, if not better. I mean look at that piece of rhetoric we have as the second reading this morning.  It is so complicated. The first sentence is not too bad: twenty words or so about Jesus bringing us more deeply into the compassion of God. But the next two sentences are horrible. They are each about sixty words or so and they go on and on and on with one phrase after another piling up so that we all lose the train of thought before we get to the end of the sentence, all the while saying to ourselves, with just a bit of tedious boredom if not frustration, “What was that about?” And if we were young and turned in I Peter 3 as an English essay for a class in school, our writing teacher would have a fit and fill the page with all sort of red marks and corrections.  We would flunk. And the words clarity, clarity, clarity would be written in bold red letters at the bottom of the page.

Now at St. Johns we do not shy away from the difficult. So before we get to the rainbow and the spirit of Jesus, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to this I Peter thing, even though this is probably not the favorite book of the Bible of anyone here.

The origin of I Peter is a mystery. It could have been written as early as 70 AD or as late as 180AD. The best possible location of the writer is Rome. It is ascribed to Peter and one could make the case that Peter wrote it, although many disagree about both Peter and Rome. We really don’t know much for certain about the origins of the letter.

But we do know some things about the church in which the letter is written. It is an urban congregation in a large city of the Roman Empire. Enough time has passed since the beginning of the congregation so that this church is now organized with some more official leaders and titles. And the original Gentile women’s movement which may have gotten things started has now been replaced with a more patriarchal approach to church life.

And this urban church has grown enough that there is now some persecution of Christians. Christians are suffering for their faith. The letter is written to encourage faithfulness in times of stress and sorrow. That is why the letter has been important for Christians through the centuries. It’s not the hierarchy we’re attracted to, especially we Lutherans. It’s the sense of hanging in there when the going gets tough. In the face of struggle the letter reminds Christians of three things: the importance of mutual love and support, the memory of the compassion of Jesus, and the need to act honorably toward others even if they persecute us. All of that is good.

But today’s intense passage doesn’t really have those themes. The complex sentences belie something else. A little bit of internal discussion and even friction. You know, the only time we see sentences this tangled, complicated, and convoluted, they are written by lawyers or politicians or cell phone companies. And they are evidence of some kind of issue or conflict or delicate complexity being considered and resolved.

These sentences reveal three things that these people were trying to sort through and perhaps struggling with. The first is: was the resurrection of Jesus a thing of the body or of the spirit? Now Peter uses the word spiritual to describe the resurrection of Jesus. He could have used the word physical, but he chose not to. He’s not denying the physical resurrection. Denying the physical resurrection much later becomes a heresy. But that is down the road. Here it is interesting to note that the resurrection of Jesus is described as a spiritual thing with spiritual implications. There is a spiritual realm and his resurrection places Jesus in the world of the spirits.

I wonder what you think about the resurrection of Jesus. Was it for you a physical event or a spiritual thing? And what happens to us when we die? Is ours a physical resurrection or a spiritual happening? There is some ambiguity here.

Then the second concern evidenced by the word piles is this: these people were worried about their families, their beloved dead. Just like we are. The first generation of Christians wondered about their parents and ancestors. What about those who lived and died before Jesus? Would they be united with God? The answer seems to be yes. In the spiritual world, time is different. In that world, Jesus talks with those who had previously lived and died to embrace them in the fellowship. That is what this long sentence about the proclamation to the imprisoned dead is about. Centuries later this concept becomes embedded in our creed with the words: he descended to the dead. But here we simply see people figuring out how their ancestors, their parents, and their grandparents would be involved in the spiritual resurrection.

Now today it is far, far more likely that your grandmother is more concerned about the state of your soul than you hers. Our circumstances are different. But the sense of concern for those we love is the same. We long for the best for those we love. We cherish those who come before and after, our beloved dead. And this convoluted sentence expresses an ancient capacity for creative theology in bringing comfort to those who have lost their loved ones.

Third the word pile in I Peter 3 reveals another ancient church struggle.  They have decided in this congregation that babies are not bad. We are not born dirty or evil so that we need to be washed off or cleaned up in order to go to heaven.  In Peter, baptism is not about washing away sins or the dirt of the soul. These Christians have decided that baptism is about passing through waters into new life.  We do not need to be cleansed. And people are not viewed as bad.

Remember that when this is written, Augustine’s concept of original sin is centuries away. For these people, baptism is not a means by which our souls are cleaned-up for God, but a passage through the waters of death into new life, into new fellowship. Baptism embraces of the spiritual resurrection as the body is immersed and then lifted up.

These ancient people emphasized the spiritual side of things. They cared deeply for their loved ones. They saw baptism as a passage into new life. And that new life, that resurrection was a spiritual thing.

The spiritual side of things.  Life in the spirit. Let’s look briefly at that gospel reading now for a bit. Notice that in this very short reading from Mark, the spirit does three things to Jesus. And since Mark never wastes any words, I won’t either. The Spirit breaks something apart. The spirit has something to say. And the spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness.

The Spirit breaks something apart. The heavens are rent asunder. When God comes, something is often rent, split apart or broken open. Sometimes this hurts and can feel violent. God is pushing aside what has closed our hearts and minds, to make us more alive to something new breaking in.

And then the Spirit has something to say. It usually involves the assurance that we all are the children of God, reminding us that we are called to live with compassion and honor.

And then the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, pushing Jesus into the wilderness of the soul, forcing Jesus into reflection and honest assessment.  The spirit does that with us too. After something is broken apart, after the words of assurance, comes the time of deep honesty as we think through who we are and what we should do, facing the wilderness that has become our lives.

Sometimes that wilderness is pretty difficult. The forces of evil are there. We struggle with doubts, fears, temptations, broken chapters, struggling sentences, and unfinished dreams.

But no matter how difficult the wilderness is, no matter how strong the persecution, no matter how deep the waters of the flood, that first reading reminds us, that there is a turning point, a 40th day, a time when the rain stops, and the sun first comes out. Its light reflects against the receding vapors and we see a bow in the heavens. And when that turning point after the storm comes, we are called to simple trust it, to believe that this difficult time will also end, to lean into the turning.

May God’s rainbow see you through the hard times. May the Spirit break us open, speak to us, and drive us to face our wilderness. And may our spirits rise, our loved ones be with us, and may we cherish the goodness in us all.

Reflection for February 15, Transfiguration

The Sunday before Ash Wednesday is assigned this story of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top. Jesus has been traveling with his partners, the fishermen whose business has taken them on various journeys of trade into the villages and towns of Galilee.  Jesus has accompanied them on these excursions and has been healing and teaching at each stop.  On a side trip to a mountain, some of the fishing friends of Jesus discover that there is something deeper going on with this healing and teaching. Yes, many people have been healed, but there is something more to Jesus: something mysterious, misty, or mystic. This is something that claims Jesus and makes the whole healing effort more significant.  This event is recorded in Mark as a moment of insight into the presence of God. In Christian tradition it becomes known as the transfiguration.

In Mark the transfiguration comes in chapter nine, about halfway through the story. Many have suggested that this transfiguration on the mountain top is pivotal in the account. From here on the emphasis shifts away from the healing in Galilee to the more direct confrontation with Jesus’ enemies and a growing sense that the healing of many will involve the death of Jesus and then after that something else that the women keep talking about but which Mark does not fully describe.

So the theme for this day is insight, seeing things under the surface, discovering that something deeper and mysterious is going on, sensing the sacred presence of God with us.  Sometimes this insight comes on life’s mountain tops.  We have those peak experiences, those exhilarating moments when we can see farther than usual and our perspective changes. There is something about being in the mountains.  But sometimes the deeper understandings do not come on mountain tops. God’s deeper goodness is also revealed to us as we go about our daily lives and we notice how those things draw us ever deeper into the sacred presence of God.

This week there were no mountains in my life, physical or metaphorical.  It was a busy week for me, but not really unusual in any way. And perhaps it would be best to share my week and how God’s presence is found in the everyday things in my life.

Once again, my week brought me into the presence of death. Monday we held our memorial service for Jackie Niebuhr and on Tuesday I said the last rites for Shirley Mullen who died later in the loving presence of her family. And then this week I’ve been working on her memorial service this coming Tuesday afternoon.

Death will always fill us with grief. And frankly, the longer I am here, the harder it is emotionally to say farewell to my friends. You get attached to people as you live and work with them. And it is hard to say goodbye. With both Jackie and Shirley, I’ve needed some time to personally cry.

But in the mist of my tears in themselves I also was seeing God’s presence. My tears remind me of the precious nature of human relationships and community. We end up loving one another. We may actually not like each other very much sometimes, but we love each other. And the love of friends is a deeply sacred thing.

And then as I cry, I sense how God weeps as well. We often think of God as a great and powerful manipulator of the forces of heaven and earth. That is perhaps a good thought. But God also loves us, is present in our fellowship, and also weeps with us as we pass through the sorrows of life.

And then in the face of death, I am reminded that somehow this loving friendship we sense with each other and with God is strong enough to transfigure death itself so that it is not only an end, but also a passage into something I cannot define or yet know. So this week I’ve been crying; and tears have caused me to see things more clearly and deeply. God’s deeper goodness is revealed to us as we go about our daily lives and we notice how those things draw us ever deeper into the sacred presence of God.

And then this week I visited Bruce Burnside in prison at Jackson Correctional Institute in Black River Falls. It was a good visit, and after what has been a difficult two years of wondering and transition, I sensed some stability for him. He is beginning to write again. He now has a typewriter. And he wishes all of you well.

But as I drove to Black River Falls and back, I sensed something deeper. Bruce had requested placement in that prison because it is closer to Minneapolis where the girls live, and it is so much easier for them to visit now. As they visit each week, a deeper love is expressed and nurtured when it is needed most. Here is the love of family, facing hard times to be sure. But with the presence of the daughters, Bruce is nourished and cherished even in the midst of so much condemnation.

And then that sense of cherishing deepens as one realizes how Bruce is one of so many who have been condemned. And then I sensed the importance of all our work for those who are prisoners and how God calls us all to move beyond condemnation into grace no matter the shape of the imprisonments we experience. For God’s deeper goodness is revealed to us as we go about our daily lives and we notice how those things draw us ever deeper into the sacred presence of God.

And then as I drove both up and back in the car, I noticed a section of the forest of northern Wisconsin that had experienced a large fire perhaps thirty or forty years ago now. The area had recovered well. Nature does that. Time heals the land. But I could still see some of the fire destruction even after all these years. And the deeper thing here is how after tragedy all creation and creatures do recover. But there are always scars that are still there. Healing comes with time, but we will carry a bit of our struggle with us for a very long time.

God’s deeper goodness is also revealed to us as we go about our daily lives and we notice how those things draw us ever deeper into the sacred presence of God.

And then there was the meeting Tuesday night here at church, where we were talking about St. Johns being a launching pad for a synod initiative to engage our changing neighborhood as the Cap East area goes through dynamic change. There are more details on that available elsewhere. But the deeper vision for me became how a synod and congregation could work together in engaging the next generation as it considers God. I sensed how we often start things not really being able to know how they will turn out. That’s how life is.

And that is how marriage is too, I discovered again as later in the week I worked on a wedding ceremony draft for this coming May. A wedding begins something and we never really know where we will find ourselves as time goes by. In the wedding service in the declaration of intention, the groom is asked: will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live? And then the bride. When we make this pledge, we do not fully know what we are saying, but we project that love into an unknown future. And it turns out that this love does sustain us through the best and worst of times and all that is to come. And that is the deeper side of this whole valentine thing.

And maybe that is enough deeper discovery for one week. For sometimes God speaks on the mountaintops. Sometimes in the events of our lives. But God is always deepening and expanding us, I think: giving us deeper purpose and vision. We have the assurance that the tender affection of friends, family and community that has brought so much healing, really is about something deeper, about cherishing even the condemned, about the nature of healing and recovery, about life and death on this pathway of love through our lives.

Reflection for February 8, 2015

Isaiah 40:21-31, I Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39 

I.      Groundhog’s day was Monday, and one of my favorite movies is Groundhog Day, built around the theme that everything seems the same. Life is an endless succession of days that are really all the same, and nothing ever is new. Over and over we repeat the same thing. That certainly can be the feeling of anyone facing six more weeks of winter in Wisconsin regardless of the opinion of any groundhog. Life seems to go on and on. And this time of year, we may wonder if we will ever have anything new.
Now it must be said that new things do happen. People change jobs, start new relationships, actually follow a new year’s resolution, or have a change in health or family situation. Even when nothing seems to change, something is. And the readings today each speak to something new happening and offer some suggestions for sensing that new thing and leaning into it when we feel that life is an endless succession of the same thing over and over.

II.     Perhaps the greatest new thing in these readings is Isaiah’s idea. Isaiah wrote about 400 years before Jesus, in what Karen Armstrong called the axel age, a time in ancient human consciousness when monotheism was first expressed as a conviction that the divine is not a series of capricious or tribal gods needing to be appeased. There was actually only one divine force or nature, one God, not many. That God was the God of the universe rather than a particular tribe. The one God was responsible for creating the earth and everything in it and around it.
At the time, this was an incredible new idea. Much of the earlier Hebrew Scripture expresses God as a tribal champion for the Israelites in the conflict with enemies. God’s love was expressed through victories over the enemy, the destruction of one’s foes, and the blessing of the nation with prosperity and growing greatness.

But at the time of Isaiah a new understanding of God emerges. Our God is the God of the universe. And that would mean then that God is not so much interested in the salvation of our tribe, but the salvation of all creation. And whatever happens to our tribe, either good or bad, must now be a part of that larger vision.
Of course we feel comfortable with this idea. But when Isaiah wrote, this new vision of God was challenging. Does this mean that God loves our enemies as much as us? Does God even love the conquering Assyrians and their rampaging warriors who in Isaiah’s time were the destroyers of Israel? How does the one great big God care for us? Are we special to God in any way?
And this ancient question may also be ours. Does the God of the universe really care for me? Care for us? Do we matter in the grand course of things?
Isaiah’s answer is the ironic yes of the poet. It is precisely because God is so vast that we can sense the power of God to transcend the evil and sorrows of in our lives. God’s vastness may be source of anxiety. But then we sense it includes the power to transform what is happening to us into some not yet known greater good. This is the great assurance of the last lines of the poem, which we still use this day at funerals, especially difficult ones:
But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
hey shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint.
We will make it through, not because God is especially interested in us. God is interested in all. But grounded in the vast reservoirs of compassion, we sense that we too will be moved into the bright future which includes all creation.

But there are a couple of interesting things about these last four lines.  There is the matter of waiting: waiting for the Lord.  Waiting. The good does not come as quickly as we would like. The poet reminds us of the waiting needed to see the accomplishment of the good. We will be given the energy we need to make it through the waiting.
And then there is that thing about the eagles. Now for us the eagle is a majestic bird that we view as a good thing. We imagine the eagle’s flying with graceful majesty. But for Isaiah’s people the eagle was a bad thing. It was the symbol of the military might of Assyria, Israel’s enemy. The poet is suggesting that God will even use the Assyrians and the suffering they have caused, to accomplish the fullness of God’s design. What we know as hard times will be transformed, will be changed, so that they become part of the tapestry of newness that brings us into a deeper vision of the divine. In the axel age Isaiah’s grand idea of God was a new thing. And it still challenges us today.

III.     What do we make of Paul this morning in the second reading? Here is another new thing. In his missionary work in different cultures, Paul has been roundly criticized for not being true to the Jewish tradition of Jesus. Instead Paul seems to make the gospel into whatever people want to hear. It’s as if Paul were a Republican who is criticized because he has decided that he wants to be vote for gun control. It’s as if Paul were a Democrat who is ok with a right to work law. He is being criticized by his base for giving up too much, for being all things to all people. He’s losing his grip.
Or he is creating something completely new. As Paul moves through first ancient Turkey and then Greece, he senses that Jesus is important to everyone, and that Jesus should no longer be packaged as a Jewish sect. He is thinking in terms of a new world religion. He is into something new. Paul’s new thing reminds us that the forms, structures, ways we were, and the ways we’ve always done things may need to give way to new things. It is time to rethink the church, learning to understand how others see Jesus and how we might share God’s compassionate purpose with creative innovation and adaptation.

IV.     In the gospel reading from Mark something new is beginning as well.  It’s a ministry of healing. There are three different episodes of healing in these three verses. The church responsible for Mark emphasizes Jesus as healer because of its own healing ministry. And the new thing in this story is that Jesus is about to embark on the first of several tours of healing throughout Galilee and beyond. This Epiphany, we’ve already talked about how the disciples were entrepreneurial fishermen whom Jesus followed on their business trips rather than the other way around. Here the tours begin. In these verses they are ready to set out.
Interestingly it starts out with Jesus going off to be by himself, and his partners cannot find him. We sense how important time alone for reflection is when new things are about to start. And here we sense the new thing as a journey made with friends that will cover several chapters to come. How is your alone time? What journey are you on? Who are your companions?
Even if our lives seem to be the same thing over and over, new things are happening. Isaiah, Paul, and Jesus remind us to think big, to be patient, to discover sometimes what we think as bad may lift us, to engage all people, to open ourselves to others, to take some time to be alone, to seek out our friends, to look for the healing as we journey through life.