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Month: August 2017

Thy Kingdom Come — July 30, 2017

Thy Kingdom Come — July 30, 2017

 

Thy Kingdom Come

July 30, 2017

Romans 8:26-39

George Martin

Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN

 

I’m going to be asking us to consider what it means when we say in the Lord’s Prayer the phrase “Thy kingdom come.” What are we asking for?

The gospel for the day had five little parables —all of which Jesus said embodied the Kingdom of Heaven. So it is in that prayer the Lord taught his disciples is the petition that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven.

Those parables are deeply perplexing. One even has some kind of scoundrel who discovers a treasure in a field, hides it and then goes and buys the entire field. There are people doing trades like that on the stock market, and as far as I can tell, the Securities and Exchange Commission investigates those kinds of trades.

Rather than try to explain the parables, my choice is go back to Paul and what he was saying at the end of the 8th chapter of Romans.

So one of the things you quickly learn in seminary, even before you’re ordained, is that within your family and among those who know you, have marked you as the the “go-to-guy (or gal) for prayer.” Whatever the occasion—a meal, a wedding, or something sad— people expect that you know how to pray. And the assumption is that I will offer a better prayer because I’ve somehow been trained to pray.

Let’s get something clear. I never took a seminary class on prayer. And it was Paul himself who said, as we heard, “we do not know how to pray.”

When I was a young 24 year-old deacon working as a Curate at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Cuyahoga Falls in 1967 I worked with Ben Topalian—an Armenian who had been a Baptist who became an Episcopal priest. He had been carried as a baby from Armenia during that terrible holocaust that still affects world politics. He’d been a paster in American Baptist churches, but chose to be an Episcopalian for our polity. There can never be a congregational vote following a sermon that people may not have liked. In that parish he taught the same course every year titled “How to Know God” and inside that course was a session called “How to pray.”

So I took that class and I can’t say I learned how to pray. But I did learn how not to pray. You see most of us pray as if we’re ordering pizza, only for someone else or maybe for ourselves. . Or as Ben Topalian said, most of the time we’re prescribing for God in our prayers, offering our diagnosis of what’s wrong, what needs to be fixed, and how God ought to get going on this right away. He said we sometimes offer prayer as “Hey God, I need to have you pay attention to my friend who has a broken leg, and is in the hospital.”

Maybe we think we need to give the good Lord that address to that hospital.

What have we forgotten? It’s that God’s spirit was there alongside our friend at the moment of that accident? Or at that moment when my daughter Kate, years ago, turned off the main trail while cross-country skiing near Grand Rapids. She was lost in the woods when it was 10 degrees and the sun would soon set. That’s when I back tracked down the trail and my voice found her. I heard her far-away voice yelling, but in a whisper, “Dad, Dad. I’m coming.”

Ben Topalian also pointed out how often we are wrong in our diagnosis of what we are praying for. Ben said, “So your friend has an ulcer, and you pray for his stomach. Maybe it’s his marriage? Or real money issues? Who knows? God knows.”

Ben said, see your friend not as one who is sick and hurting, but see them alive to God, well, and whole, and smiling, and living. Pray that they know God’s spirit and love.

Anne Lamott, the Christian essayist, in her small book called Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair writes about the advice she gave to a mother who’s son had just been moved from the ICU unit. He was still in trouble, though. Anne Lamott told her friend,“See him in his wholeness.”

Ann Lamott’s advice was also to see a damaged person as one of God’s regular old customers, instead of being a lost cause.

Aren’t we all? God’s regular old customers? And even the Pastors who don’t know how to pray. Even St. Paul who didn’t know how to pray.

So what it is that we are to pray? Well inside this lesson from Paul we find one of the hardest things we’re ever asked in all of scripture to confront. It’s in that line that says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God….” Do they?

There are some terrible things that always happen in the world, and sadly often to the most innocent or the least prepared. Not too many of us had someone warn us in our childhood about what was ahead of us in life

But then stuff happens. And there are some big losses that come into all of our lives. At the time of each loss please do not utter platitudes that this will all work out, or the worst of all “God has a plan in this.”

I’ve had some huge disappointments in my life, and I know, that God never wanted me to know such disappointment and loss. You’ve had same. All of us.

And there are these losses, as Annie Lamont reminded me, which we never forget. We each have an emotional GPS and we know where we were, what we were wearing, and whatever happened.

I once preached a sermon with the title “A Room Called Grief.” I said it’s always with us. Sometimes it’s a dark room. Sometimes we raise the curtains. And there are different people, different events inthat room called Grief. We don’t have to visit it all the time, but it’s always there. It is a strange gift. Memory. Some laughter. And the realization of some kind of mysterious healing. We got through it. But we didn’t forget it or those we lost, but we kept on living. Limping to be sure. Broken. Fragile.

And, maybe not right at the time, but later we may realize that there were those by our side who called to us from our hopelessness. That’s another Annie Lamott observation.

We’re still left with this conundrum: how can we understand this line from Paul’s letter:

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God….”

There is nothing good in being persecuted or on the unfair side of slander.

 

There was nothing good when Father Jacques Hamel died on July 26, 2016 when he was attacked by two terrorists as he was at the altar celebrating morning mass.

Day in and out we hear in the news so many tragic stories involving violence and negligence. None of these things are good. They are evil. We must never connect the love of God to these events, except as this love of God is marked by this story and parable and what was also in Paul’s letter.

“Who is to condem? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who intercedes for us.” And intercedes for us in what Paul called “our weakness.”

I wish Paul had said more about this idea of God presence known in all things. What he did say was that God was there with us in our weakness. When we didn’t know or realize God’s presence, God was there.

Paul added that God’s presence comes with those who love God. But not because of what those who love God have figured out for themselves, but because the Spirit of God is what is at work in those who love God. Strange way of putting it, but it has truth. God first loved us. And all of us, no matter how we may see each other, we are all created in the image of God. There is a reality of love and mercy that all of us are to know. Even those we would condemn to hell, in some deep recesses of their being is that image of God.

That’s why there’s more to the story of Father Jacques Hamel. The French president on that fateful day called up Archbishop Lebrun wondering what he planned say in a public way to respond to this tragedy. The Archbishop said, “I am going to pray and ask God to help me love my enemies.”

The French President was stunned. The Archbishop actually seemed to believe what he was saying. That tone of forgiveness and reconciliation made all the difference as Muslims and Islamic leaders attended the mass for Father Jacque Hamel, showing solidarity with their Catholic neighbors. (Wall Street Journal, Saturday, July 21, 2017, p. A15)

For that one moment the Kingdom of God was present.

It was a Kingdom of God moment when Ben Topalian taught me to pray for wholeness for someone, and not to see their illness or whatever trouble they were in as defining them.

It was a kingdom of God moment when the faint voice of Kate was crying “Dad, Dad” through the fast falling shadows of that January evening in the forest near Grand Rapids years ago. And we embraced minutes later.

So it is that we shall continue to read the 8th chapter of Romans at a funeral. Or when we are most afraid. Or most lost. It is not that we can explain how it is that God’s rule and God’s kingdom is present in those dark and hard times we all know. But we would stand with one another and with the faith of Paul, to declare that nothing can separate from the love of God in Christ. And that is what I believe we are also praying when we say “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen.

Irresponsible Farming — July 16, 2016

Irresponsible Farming — July 16, 2016

Irresponsible Farming

Matthew 13:1-9 Sermon for July 16, 2017

George Martin

The Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN

If you walk out the north door of our church, on the other side of parking lot, there is a solar panel, and behind it there is a fenced-in community garden. The framed in plots of soil are lush with all kinds of vegetables and a few flowers. Had you walked out there in May you would have seen some of those plots marked out with straight crisscrossed strings marking off each square in which a vegetable seed would be planted. Other new sprouting seeds had already emerged in their rows as if they were soldiers standing a straight line waiting to be inspected.

Last May had you followed my brother-in-law Dave, on his tractor down in Seward County, just west of Lincoln, you would have watched him plant corn seeds exactly 8” apart and then have the rows spaced exactly 30” apart. In addition to no-tilling of the soil, and measured and variable application of fertilizer the crops they are getting are amazing and rather consistent in average summers with the right mix of heat and rain. It’s called Responsible Farming. Or at least they wasting seeds.

So I came up with my title “Irresponsible Farming” when I reflected on the Sower in the Parable of Jesus who throws the seeds on the hardened walking paths, the rocky soil, and among the weeds and thistles. What a waste of seed I thought. Not like my brother-in-law Dave. So it looked like the problem lay with the guy planting the seeds.

But we have to be careful. And I knew it. Never assume that any parable of Jesus can easily be explained. And always assume there is something of deep shocking insight that had to be unexpected in most of his parables. I’d told Laurie Hemish, our office manager, on Friday that my sermon title was wrong, but she didn’t have to change it. I’ll let you think of a better title.

We lose sight of the dramatic nature of any parable when we try to explain it and before us today is the perfect example of that. It was in the second part of our reading. There the Parable of the Sower is explained. Or was it?

The explanation is allegory. The rocky path stands for someone who hears the word of God, but has no depth to that hearing, and will fall away at the first sign of trouble. The seed sown among thorns stands for those with great wealth and caught up in the cares of the world. I don’t need to give you the whole explanation again.

A number of Biblical scholars actually question if this interpretation came from Jesus. Perhaps it represents those early followers at work, (in Matthew’s community) preaching and living the Jesus story, who saw how what they believe was true was rejected by others.

If you go home and look more closely at the 13th chapter of Matthew you’ll see that there is another parable, one for next week, called the “Parable of Weeds among the Wheat.” It stands alone, but then it is also explained in allegory.

What we don’t read, but should, is the question the disciples asked Jesus “Why do you speak in parables?” And the answer that Jesus gave, came directly from the 8th century prophets like Isaiah, Micah, Amos, Hosea, and Jeremiah. Jesus quotes the prophets when he says, “The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”

Those 8th century prophets were calling the people of Israel back to the covenant with God—to fidelity, towards concern for the widow and for orphans, and the poor. But they knew their prophetic word was often rejected, meaning so many did not and would not understand.

Hold that word in your mind. Understand. It means to stand under some truth, some way of seeing what is suppose to be, and then walking and living under that truth. We must never remove the ethical component from the call to follow and to be faithful.

So what’s with a parable like the one Jesus told? First of all it is simple in its elements. It’s also a story that connects to something Jesus knew was in the real world of Galilee and Judea. It was also a riddle. It wasn’t a billboard along a highway. But it was a prism. You were expected to be able to see through it to the world as you knew it, and to the world as God wanted it to be experienced.

Above all a parable had a deceiving simplicity and familiarity to it that just might touch something deep and mysterious.

This parable also had the rule of three working for it. Three times the seed falls where it won’t or cannot grow. Three things happen to the seeds. The birds eat the ones on the path, the seed grows in the rocky ground and among the weeds, but dies. And thirdly, the seed grows in the good soil, and then there are three different results of productivity. Thirty-fold, sixty-fold, and one hundred-fold.

(By the way it’s like counting the seeds on a ear of corn. And a hundred-fold isn’t beyond belief, but it is more like picking the largest ear of corn to eat.)

With a simple structure, and a progressive narrative, the parable moves among what’s familiar: paths that are walked, rocky ground where sometimes things do grow, weeds that choke good plants, and good soil.

Notice by the way, there is nothing wrong with the seeds. They are even good to eat from the perspective of the birds. And I believe there was nothing in the way that Jesus tells the story that is wrong with the sower. He’s only mentioned at the beginning and then fades from view.

Some scholars propose that this parable should be renamed the Parable of the Soils, but I’m not so sure. We need context.

It’s the first century. People in Galillee sees a Roman City, Sephoris being built to honor Caesar. That new city that required day laborers and carpenters was four miles from Nazareth. And those farmers and peasants —more of the latter— struggle for their daily bread. They cultivated the tiniest bits of ground—seeking growth from wherever it was possible. They never expected super-abundant crops, but just enough to get by.

And Jesus talked over and over about the Kingdom of God. A rule that would make life possible, because no one would go hungry, or thirst, or be forgotten. Oh, what will we hear Jesus say, from this Matthew’s gospel, before this year is done? We shall hear, “Lord whenwas it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?

The King answers, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)

Who are members of my family. That’s who Jesus is speaking to. They all know that those seeds are meant to bring life—to be bread. Crops for your animals perhaps. And then milk for your children.

And how did those first century Galilleans live? Well certainly with less security and freedom as we know it. But if we are honest there are aspects of all of our lives for which money, security, and whatever we do to preserve our health and prosperity seem at times beyond our control.

Is this parable of the Sower, then, speaking in some kind of puzzling fashion to a human reality that is true for all of us? To what one prayer from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer is said to be “For All Sorts and Conditions of People.” I think so.

In researching this sermon I came across a reflection by Amos Wilder, a poet and theologian, who mentioned the “enigmatic vicissitudes of loss and gain” that touch our “place in creation and exuberance” that also includes a “primodial wonder that existence emerges out of and prevails over nothingness. (p. 141. The Parable of the Sower: Naivete and Method in Interpretation).

That’s a heavy loaded metaphorical way of saying, “Trouble can happen to anyone, and wonder can also be seen in the least expected times, places, and circumstances of life.”

Let’s go back to the seed. It’s everywhere in this parable. And that seed. It’s the presence of God. Or the possibility of discovering God. And the promised reality of the Kingdom of God, even when you can’t see it in the “enigmatic vicissitudes of loss and gain” it is there.

I don’t do this often, but I want to quote from a sermon I gave on this text in 1999. As I got near the end of writing this sermon I wondered what I might have said about this parable at some other point in my ministry. What I said 18 years ago still works for me.

“How many of you can talk of dark, difficult days when you didn’t know God? When you seeking answers in something that wasn’t life giving? But now something has sprung up in your life. At least you’re here.

Jesus tells us something else which all of you know deep down…there is no one who can tell you when, or where, or how God is at work. Because God works in darkness and in mystery. God works with small things like seeds, and little children, and little people like Zaccheaus, and with a little bread and wine. What some may think couldn’t carry the life of God, turns out to carry the very life of God. Even a cross gets turned around by God to be a sign of victory. God’s mysteries never cease in our lives. That’s what Jesus is saying with seed sown everywhere.”

Amen.

Ministry Failure — July 9, 2017

Ministry Failure — July 9, 2017

Ministry Failure

Matthew 11:16-19

Sermon for July 9, 2017

Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa

George Martin

For those of you who are guests or new to the Lutheran Church of the Cross, a year ago, just as July began, those of us who were members here, had a letter from Pastor Andy Smith that his last Sunday would be on August 14th. He had decided to seek a call to serve a church in the Twin Cities where his wife lived and worked. That all made logical sense to us, but we hated to see him leave. I began my work with you the next day on Monday August 15th.

Together we stepped into what is a liminal moment. We were in the space called liminality. It comes from the Latin word for a threshold—a doorway. In contemporary usage the liminal moment is a step into the unknown, the unfamiliar, a territory that is strange, and may even be seemingly timeless. In a Biblical world the best two words to describe stepping into the liminal world were “Abraham Go.” Abraham and Sarah took the first steps in the story that brought us here.

When I began as your Interim Senior Pastor we didn’t know, however, that this was an extended time of uncertainty. We were deluded into thinking that I’d be with you for a short-time and soon there would be a new senior pastor called to serve LCC.

Our time together hasn’t been a wasteland. We kept many things in place,  welcomed new members to the church, filled two key ministry positions, and tried some new things, because that’s all part of intentional interim ministry.

Perhaps, though, we didn’t reflect enough on where God was in this time of uncertainty for which we really weren’t prepared. But then again, as it true with many thresholds in life, we usually aren’t prepared. As a pastor planting a new church 30 years ago I described that work of as “building a bike while you ride it.”

How many of you when you became parents were prepared for what was ahead? I doubt any of us can claim such confidence.

The title of this sermon is “Ministry Failure.” It’s partly born out of the Gospel reading we had today. I’ll explain that a little further on.

I going to propose that you want a pastor who knows what failure is like. The usual assumption is that we want a pastor who’s been successful. Someone to lead us into certainty, into safety, into security.

How are pastors measured? Usually just as the world measures its CEOs. Has the company expanded its markets, gained more customers, added to its wealth, and presumed security, and perceived assets to continue to succeed for years to come? Has the pastor grown the church? It happens, but less and less these days.

And that brings us to Jesus and to John the Baptist. We read the version from the translation called The Message this morning:

How can I account for this generation? The people have been like spoiled children

whining to their parents, ‘We wanted to skip rope, and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk, but you were always too busy.’ John came fasting and they called him crazy. I came feasting and they called me a lush, a friend of the riffraff. Opinion polls don’t count for much, do they? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

So I had this weird fantasy that one day in God’s heavenly kingdom Jesus and John had this conversation.

Jesus looks at John the Baptist and asks, “How, John, would you assess the results of your ministry announcing a baptism of repentance.”

John replies, “I drew big crowds. They came, both the important and the little people, but they didn’t like what I had to say. And you know, Jesus,” John went on to say, “how I got thrown into a prison controlled by Herod Antipas, and he ordered my death….What about you Jesus, how do you assess your ministry?”

“Well.” Jesus replies. “I liked your truth telling John, but I took a different tack. I thought we should sing and dance more, and live like we’re all equal in God’s kingdom. I got in trouble for inviting everyone to the party, and that meant having my parties with the wrong kind of people. And it didn’t end well for me, as you know.”

Ministry failure. And every month it is said that 1,500 pastors leave the ministry. Some few for things they should not have done, but the research is that most are simply discouraged. CEOs can report expanded sales, and increased profits, and rising stock values. The reality facing most churches is that we struggle to keep our people, to pay our bills, and to maintain our assets. And as pastors most of the stories we hear are of failure, and fear, and foreboding. Dare we tell are own stories of failure, fear, and foreboding?

I must be honest with you about this decision I’ve made to leave you while the search is still on for our next Senior Pastor. (Please note that I speak from the point of view of one who likes to come here; and I have really appreciated the opportunity to serve you.) But the truth is that I leave with work left-undone. I leave you while we’re still in the liminal time created when we all started to wonder about our future a year ago. And I can’t tell you how it all works out.

I’m not saying my ministry here was a failure, but I have known ministry failure. And I want to suggest in a very strange way that knowing failure is essential to ministry.

Behind this sermon is a recently read book by Andre Crouch, titled:

Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing

The other book I finished is titled

Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure

It is by J.R. Briggs, a leadership coach, consultant, and pastor.

Some key points to remember. Ministry can never be measured by results or data. Every pastor is essentially an interim pastor—even if someone stays a long time, we never stay.

And every pastor has some really good days—that’s true for my time here— but our most powerful preaching will not be evidenced by stories where we were heroic, or where when we were victims, but only by stories where we were rescued, and where our humanity was at the level of vulnerability, fear, and uncertainty which we all know is the honest part of living.

No pastor has ever been properly trained for ministry. The best seminary can do is give you time to think, but when it comes to leadership, it is crafted in the trenches of conflict and the resistance to anything that is new or different when called to lead a congregation.

Pastor André Crouch who writes eloquently about vulnerability as the essential part of real faithfulness no matter who you are. (His book, by the way, is just for pastors.) To be vulnerable is to be woundable—meaning you are forced to be tender and careful.

The real story of vulnerability involves taking risks—living into an uncertain future—based on a belief that life isn’t measured by the absence of pain and suffering.

The real idolatry that surrounds us in this world though thinks that those who are vulnerable are to be pitied and maybe even deplored for their weakness. Our world constantly bends toward the idols of greatness, strength, power, wealth, might, security, and safety. So many people in authority worship this God which insulates us and them from pain or loss; and pretends that death will not happen. Though it does. Even to those most powerful and protected!

Failure in that world is often summed up in two words: You’re fired. Or three words: Out of here.

There are places though, where knowing failure, is a condition for membership. It’s true in the AA world. And it should definitely be expressed by any follower of Jesus.

What kind of pastor do you want? I would want one who in a phrase by André Crouch drinks from the cup of undiluted vulnerability. They know something of having been rescued—we would say rescued by the grace of God.

Do you know what were the last words of Martin Luther as he lay dying on February 18, 1546? I’ll tell you what he didn’t say.

He didn’t say, “I wonder if they will remember me and have a big celebration of what we started 500 years from now.”

He didn’t say, “I hope pastors will have red leather bound books of all that I have written sitting on the shelves in their personal study.”

Asked if he stood by what he taught and believed, this is what Luther did say: “We are beggars. This is true.”

Think of having as your pastor someone who thinks of themselves as a beggar. They reach for the same holy bread, and the same sip of consecrated wine as you do. Your Pastor doesn’t just lead confession, but makes confession, and needs to hear the words of affirmation and forgiveness coming into their ears as well.

At one ordination a number of years ago the Christian writer Brandon Manning gave this blessing for the new pastor:

May all of your expectations be frustrated,
May all of your plans be thwarted,
May all of your desires be withered into nothingness,
That you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child,

and can sing and dance in the love of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Imagine having a pastor who knows the powerlessness and poverty of a child. Who sings, and dances in the love of God.

My time with you in a pastoral role will come to end soon. We don’t know for sure when it’ll end. Probably by September. But it will be another threshold. Another liminal time. A time of not knowing what’s next. A time of risk.

May the words of Jesus stay with us in this time: As we heard. Learn the rhythms of grace. Know that the Lord doesn’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on us. And simply asks that we keep company with Jesus and learn to live freely and lightly.

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