Monday, November 13, 2017

Get ready for difficult but important truth: Jesus and the cross

 It is so well written I commend to you the time it will take to read it.
Robert Saler is an author and theologian.   Executive Director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence and Research Professor of Lutheran Studies at CTS.
This is so well written I commend to you the time it will take to read it.
"The theologian and poet Christian Lehnert tells how he once preached about the love and nearness of a gracious God in an East German village, and afterward, an old Polish woman met him on the road and asked, “You prayed for God’s nearness? Do you know what you’re asking for?” She then explained how, in 1939, she hid in a ditch in a field and prayed for her life as the German tanks came. Then she felt God’s nearness and lay hidden in the earth’s arms. The tanks rolled on by. But a few days later, everyone who lived in the next house over was found dead, shot, with their tongues nailed to the kitchen table. The one was saved, the others were murdered.
Is that God’s nearness and grace?
On this Reformation Day, many edifying things will be preached about Martin Luther and his nailing of the theses 500 years ago in Wittenberg, about his protest against the the arrogant claim that a human being could secure salvation and paradise with money, his recognition that God’s grace saves human beings and not their own accomplishments, about freedom, conscience, and individuality. That’s all well and good. But nevertheless, so many pastor’s and even bishop’s orations will sound hollow today: “You’re fine just the way you are. God is there and loves you, is holding you and the world in the palm of his hand. And if you’re having a hard time, God is still there.”
That’s it? Where is he when Assad’s barrel bombs rip children apart in Syria and so-called holy warriors decapitate people? Where is he when people die in anguish from hunger or sickness? Is he in the torture chambers of the world, or with the drowning refugees in the Mediterranean? Does he whisper to them, as they draw their last desperate breath: “Hey, you’re okay just the way you are?” Does he stand by the elderly, who draw near to their end, lonely and forgotten, in the neon light of a hospital ward? Or is all this talk of help nothing more than a cheap lie?
The writer Guenter Franzen reported in the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Sonntagszeitung about the death of his wife, whose body, wracked by pain, was being consumed by cancer. “Now my eyes have seen thee,” he quoted from the biblical Job. God took away everything that was dearest to Job, one after another, in order to put him to the test in a bet with the devil. In the moment of the abyss and forsakenness, he becomes visible, but he doesn’t fix anything. The abyss and the forsakenness remain. Franzen writes that he struggled with the people leading the Protestant church, the soft sellers of consolation in all life circumstances. No, time doesn’t heal all wounds. It was no pious pastor who brought him him back to life, but a therapist who, after his wife’s death, sat with him for a long time in silence and then said “damn this shit.”
Damn this shit. That is actually much closer to Martin Luther than most edifying sermons on Reformation Day. Luther’s search for God was desperate and despairing his whole life long. He wrestles with this God who gives no answers, who draws back and gives ground to the devil, who unpredictably hides himself when a revelation in power and glory would have really been timely. He sees himself cast out and forsaken by God. “Each one must himself contend with those enemies, with the devil and death, and lie in ring with them. I will not be with you, nor you with me,” he wrote. And his answer, that faith alone makes the terrifying God into a gracious God, and this brief human lifespan can indeed have a meaning and a goal, this is an act of trust with no external guarantee. Less than a thread’s width separates this trust, not based on any this-worldly rationality, from that “no” to God when faced with this inconceivable demand of faith.
Five hundred years separate Martin Luther and the people of the year 2017. In Germany they are free and equal in a way that would terrify the Reformer. They can alter genes, fly into space, and access the whole world on the smartphone in their pocket. The thread that stretches from this distant man of the late middle ages to today is the search for grace in a graceless world, for a reality beyond perception and eye-witness testimony, for the last foundation of threatened, fragile, broken existence. It is the search that has to drive Christians to the limits of their faith, faced with a silent and hidden God, who mocks all self-help literature. That explains the fear of many theologians, Protestant and Catholic alike, of talking about this existential search for God on the edge of the abyss. It endangers all certainties, forbids easy answers, and drives back everyone who would wish for security in faith.
Martin Luther’s extraordinary answer was this: the Christian God is not a God of triumphs in this world, of heaven on earth, no spiritual leader for a more enjoyable life. For him, the God of grace was the crucified, suffering God, cruelly executed and humiliated, robbed of all human dignity. It is a God on the side of the anguished, drowning, the cancer patient, and the bombed, who has no humanly understandable answer, except perhaps, “damn this shit!” There are good reasons why the Protestant church considers Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion, to be the most important holy day. And it is characteristic of the worst advances of contemporary theology that it backs away from this story of the Cross because it is too cruel, and might scare children and sensitive adults. Whoever filters out the terrifying and disturbing from reflection on God makes it hollow and banal.
When will you show your grace, gracious God? In all moments of humaneness and of desperate love, in all unexpected good. But also in all hope against hope, in the trust in the sinking ground, that even in a world full of devils, God is a mighty fortress, as Martin Luther’s hymn says. And this continues even today. There are those unbelievable moments when one senses God and hears the music of heaven. There are also those when all humanity seems to have been murdered. And no Enlightenment in this world has been able to explain them away. Nor can anyone confect them or preach around them. No pastor or bishop, not on Christmas or on Reformation Day. The last words that Martin Luther wrote down on February 16, 1546 shortly before his death say: “We are beggars, that’s true.” And that too is as true today as it was 500 years ago."

 Dr. Saler posted this article; the original was in German thus the translation.  It was posted on Facebook. H/T and translation by Kyle Rader

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The same message 500 years later

In recognition of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's bold statements in the 95 Theses

If Martin Luther were to preach on this the celebration of the 500th anniversary he would tell us that the message needs to be about Jesus, the one we call the Christ, and Jesus' cross needs to be in the center of it all. Not because we understand this divine drama of cross and tomb but because if God is to be found anywhere, God will be found in the very hiddenness of the cross, the God of mystery and majesty.

As humans we struggle with God; we try hard to bring God down to us, thinking that God's ways are our ways, only nicer and kinder.  Therefore we think God only loves those who love God in return, and is looking for any opportunity to rain down destruction on imperfect human beings.  We think God shapes us through fear and punishment.

At the same time, we are busy building a ladder to ascend to God - each rung signifying a good work, good intention, clean living.  This way we can prove our worth and secure our place at the table and in God's kingdom.

The truth is our lives are lived somewhere in the middle.  We know that most of our suffering is a result of our own choices and we are not as good as we would like to have others believe.  We live in a place where confession and absolution are gifts.  So most of the time we are confounded by this Divine Creator, awed by our encounters with God and a little fearful of the power which lies behind it all.

We cannot understand this God who is all mystery and majesty, but we do believe that everything began with a love powerful enough to bring into being all of creation, a love powerful enough to breathe life into our clay bodies, and powerful enough to offer itself to us in the eternal gift named Jesus.

God tucks the great Divine in surprising places.  It is tucked in, with, and under the human infant from Bethlehem; it is folded in, with and under a first century Jew named Jesus, and in the end, it is hidden from all but the eyes of faith in the face of the suffering Christ on the cross. This is the God whose love is powerful enough to empty a tomb and open a path for all to return to their origins in God.

This is the God who so loved the world that he gave.....eternally withdrawing from the Divine Treasury - not merits so we can earn our own salvation, but instead God withdrew the beloved son and then offers Jesus - offers God's very own being - as a gift....and an invitation...and a model....and our eternal hope.  This is the self-giving God who tucks the divine in, with and under the bread and wine of a peasant's meal.  Thus an ordinary meal of peasants becomes a holy encounter with the Savior.

We gather in worship of this God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit who meets us in the waters of baptism, pulling us out of the death of darkness and welcoming us into the life of light.......again and again, forever and ever.

Nothing can separate us from the love of the God we know in Jesus Christ our Lord: the one born as a pauper so that even the poorest among us might be made holy; a compassionate Jesus who made all flesh holy and opened the way to the heart of God for rich and poor, male and female, Jew and Greek, straight and gay, black and white.  This is the Jesus who insisted on justice from the powerful and stood shoulder to shoulder with the weakest.  This is the cruicified Jesus who accepted death as a criminal out of love for a creation imprisoned by bars of our own making.  And, in the last, the risen Jesus, a vision of God's power and plan for the new creation to come.

500 years later, Martin would tell us that all we need to know is Christ: crucified and risen, for it is Christ alone who can bring us into the Divine life, it is through grace alone that this gift comes to us; and our lifelong task is to hold fast to this faith alone.

Dr. Luther once wrote "if you see yourself as a little sinner you will inevitably see Jesus as a little savior" Instead, Jesus is the gift of all eternity, forever mystery, forever love, forever life.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Dying to get there!

Image result for heavenThe problem with our 'man on the street' idea of God's heaven is that you have to die to get there. With this way of thinking, resurrection has nothing to say to our life today.  Resurrection is a reward for later, and offers nothing for today.

Certainly, one cannot be resurrected unless one has died, but possibly, we need to expand our idea of death and resurrection.  We also need to re-locate heaven closer than 'somewhere over the rainbow'.

Here's my question:  can the resurrected life begin before the here-and-now life has come to an end? Can we die myriad smaller deaths before we stop breathing, and therefore, live myriad lives before we enter into God's presence?

Get ready to think broadly:  what if time isn't a straight line?  What if time folds back on itself where the future bends back to touch the past?  Can that thing which hasn't happened yet, but is eagerly anticipated, change today?

Here are two examples:

A young girl anticipates the day she will be a prima ballerina.  She dresses the part.  She takes the lessons.  She learns about the music of the great ballets.  In time, she becomes a prima ballerina.  Her future as a dancer - by its very anticipation - shapes her present.

Or - a father takes his teenage son on their first hunting trip together.  After a day trudging through the woods, the boy bags his first deer, and as he stoops down next to the fallen animal for (of course) a picture for facebook, the father is transported back to the day he got his first deer while hunting with his father.  In that moment the past and the present collide, and if one pauses long enough, one can experience the future as well.

What if resurrection begins the day you are joined to Jesus?  What if resurrection begins to shape and mold you and your life from the very beginning?  What if you don't live until you are resurrected but rather you live an (imperfect and incomplete) resurrection life now?

Can our life of faith be an on-going series of deaths and new beginnings as shaped by God?

From the parable of the wedding banquet where everyone gets an invitation to the King's wondrous feast yet someone is thrown out because they lack a wedding robe (Matthew22.1-14), we might be able to see that the invitation to the feast was intended to begin a process of preparation for the feast.  The very power of being invited into the King's presence launches a new trajectory for life lived now.

In this way, the resurrection begins to work on us the moment we receive the invitation.  The life after this life becomes the life within this life which changes this life from the inside out.

Perhaps this is the most convoluted blog post you've ever read, but I believe that this is what sanctification is about - being made holy - not because of what we do, but because of what God is bringing to birth within us.

What do you think?

What have you got to say about the resurrection?

Image result for heaven

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus talks about the time of resurrection as the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is the time and place where we will live the resurrected life with the resurrected Jesus....after the cross, and after the tomb, but only possible through the cross and into the tomb.

The resurrection of Jesus is the first step towards the resurrection of all of God's created universe.  Jesus leads - into the cross, into death, into the tomb and then into the resurrection.  In baptism, we were joined to this Jesus, this process and this promise....that where Jesus goes, we will go also.  We too will live in and through the power of resurrection.

Now most of us focus on the heavenly portion of that scenario.  So we will start there.  In this week's gospel reading (Mt22.23-34) there are some folks who want to make Jesus look like a fool by setting up a crazy, complicated example of one woman and seven brothers.  Who gets her in the resurrection? they ask.

The question reveals our inability to comprehend life that isn't life as we know it.  We can't imagine what a resurrected life might involve, what we would do with all those empty hours, or even what we would look like.  Many folks ask whether they will recognize their dear departed ones when they get to heaven.  Will I be the age I am when I die?  Will my dog go to heaven with me?  I don't think we are being flip, I think we simply suffer from the limited imagination that comes with being human.  The best heaven we can picture is the life that we know without all the bumps, sorrows, wounds and traffic jams.

Jesus says we will be like angels.  Now, that might not prove much of an explanation for you, but the angels are the heavenly beings that live in the presence of God.  Occasionally they carry a message to others (remember Mary's angel visitor).  But they are there simply to be in the presence of God.

What more could we want?  What could be better than that?  We can't imagine that either.  I am convinced that in that age we won't even remember what it was we thought we would be missing.  All those things will be of the past, and of no concern in the present where we will be in the presence of God.

Really!  How much better can it get?

Tuesday, October 24, 2017


Probably the only subject which compares in volatility to the racial question in America is the issue of sexual harassment.  My entire adult life I have heard  'she should have known'  or 'she led him on' or 'he said, she said' or a hundred other iterations of the classic victim blaming whenever there is inappropriate behavior called out.  Before all of this blew up, I had no idea who Harvey Weinstein was, but I had no trouble believing the women who came forward, the women who launched #MeToo.
Image result for women chatting
This kind of behavior is not confined to the magical movie sets of Hollywood.  Sit down with any group of women who trust you enough to know you won't immediately start declaiming and defending and you will hear stories.....of family members, of dates who presumed, of bosses, of co-workers.......of complete strangers.  Stories of men who were under the impression that females were available to them and could be subjected to all kinds of disrespectful and demeaning behavior; too many men who thought it was alright to touch!

What may surprise you is the number of #MeToo stories that come from female clergy.  These are women who serve as pastors and deacons throughout Christ's church who have been pinched, fondled, backed into a corner, invited out for drinks, been asked questions about their sex life, and been called out for the color of their lipstick, the earrings they have chosen to wear, the respect they have required through the use of the title Pastor. They have stories about professors and supervisors and even synod staff....along with an encyclopedia of congregational members.

Some of us are lucky.  It was no more than a random touch, a lingering embrace.  Some of us are not.  But this is true, there are lots of places in Christ's church which are not safe for women and lots of people in positions of authority who don't want to hear about it.*

I wanted to separate this issue from the underlying Bible story, (the woman who had 7 husbands), because it deserves to be considered on its own.

Martin Luther was right.  The power of sin is strong and we are all susceptible.  We Lutherans have always taken sin seriously; no happy bluebirds for us.  That doesn't mean that we are better at avoiding sin and therefore don't have to put our energy into making our faith community a safe place for all people.  We too need to call out wrong behavior and help all our members learn how to live in respectful community with each other.

It simply needed to be said.  That is all.

* Please do not hear this as a criticism of present or past leadership in our synod because it is not.  We are blessed with leadership who takes these things seriously and acts on them.  Not everyone has our blessings.

Monday, October 23, 2017

that guy in the gym shorts......

It was a wedding banquet.........and this guy received an invitation he had no reason to expect.  The King's messengers invited him to the wedding banquet of the King's son, and the guy in the gym shorts decides.........
Image result for guy in gym shorts
Well, truth is, we don't exactly know, and of course, he wasn't wearing gym shorts in the Matthew telling of this tale.  But this guy shows up at a wedding banquet not remotely prepared, dressed inappropriately, or as the text says.....without a wedding robe.

Now you and I don't know much from wedding robes, so I envisioned him in gym shorts.  He came to banquet, but half-heartedly, tucking it in between mowing his lawn and getting in his daily workout.  It appears that he didn't take this invitation terribly serious, and wasn't going to completely disrupt his schedule in order to stop by some party.

If you were wondering, yes, we are supposed to give some thought to the implications of this story to our own relationship with the King: God and the Son: Jesus.  When we talk about the judgment imposed on the gym shorts guy, we must make clear that our work isn't the merit on which we are invited to God's feast.  Yet, apparently, there is work to be done on our part.

Somehow, the invitation is intended to be transformative just like an encounter with Jesus is intended to transform our lives.  The blind man wants to be able to see again.....Jesus makes it happen....and then how does his life change?  What is Jesus' continuing role in his life?  In his business decisions?  In his forgiving of his neighbor?  In his generosity?  In his prayer life?

Our wedding robe is our baptismal gown....that covering in Jesus Christ calls us into a new way of living, shaped by Jesus and his ministry, and increasingly consistent with the kingdom values that Jesus embodies.  Baptized into our Lord Jesus' death and resurrection is intended to make a difference in our life, and prepare us for on-going life in the kingdom of heaven.

Or we can show up in our gym shorts, ready to move on to the next thing on our schedule.  But apparently, there will come a time when God will no longer issue invitations to the huddled masses and will begin separating out those who show no interest in the kingdom life.  Like the gym shorts guy at table 29.

H Richard Niebuhr once wrote in The Kingdom of God in America (1937) that too often the message of a liberal social gospel is "A God without wrath brought a [humanity] without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."  

Or, as I would say, we need to take the King's invitation way more seriously; there is never going to be another one just like it.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Are you able......? drink the cup that I drink?"

That's the question, and just perhaps a litmus test.  Jesus has been asked to gift James and John with  the two pre-eminent positions in the coming kingdom....and he was asked by James and John themselves (I am not fooled by Matthew's version that it was their mother who asked).  So Jesus asks a question back, "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?"

For once, this is not a metaphorical question.  This is as concrete as it gets....or will get in a chapter or two when they nail Jesus to a cross.  The cup Jesus drinks is the cup of suffering out of love for his neighbors......every single one of them.

To be clear, Jesus is not asking if you are lining up for the next round of crucifixions.  He wants to know where you stand on suffering....not your suffering, but the suffering of those around you.  Looking for a way out?  Looking for protection and security?  Looking out for yourself?

Do you see the suffering around you?  Do you know their names?  Do you know how this world is built on winners and losers?  Do you care whether the hungry get fed?  People of color get dissed?  Children get abused?  The elderly get scammed?

Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?

Or as the decade old song asks, "How deep is your love?"

Not that Jesus will love you any the less if you walk away, shaking your head, and changing the locks on your heart, handing out the keys to a select few.  It's just that there are no private rooms in the kingdom Jesus rules.