Wednesday, February 8, 2012

5th Sunday in Epiphany

Isaiah 40:21-31
21 Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? 22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. 23 He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing. 24 No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff. 25 "To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?" says the Holy One. 26 Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. 27 Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, "My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God"? 28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. 29 He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. 30 Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; 31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.


 “Do you not know?  Have you not heard?’ asks the prophet, meaning that the people to whom he is asking the questions probably do not know, do not hear.  And if what is at stake is God’s activity in the world, in their lives, then it is probably fair to suggest that,  no they did not understand, and how could they?  They had long been carted off to Babylon from their homeland, watching all the monuments that made them who they were destroyed.  What was more, they, the people, had to come to deal with the fact that this deportation, this exile in a foreign land, far away from all that was loveable and familiar, this had everything to do with them and with their God.  This was no random event, no rolling of the dice of history; instead, there was meaning, purpose to this.  And it was the result of a break-down in relation between them and their God, and what was more, it was their fault, and it was now theirs to suffer God’s anger. They had wandered, they had strayed and now they knew God as only a faded memory, something once real but now heart-breakingly distant, something conjured up by its absence. 
“Do you not know, have you heard?” And though you and I have not been exiled in Babylon, I think we can appreciate the questions, for the ways in which God will be described, these feel very distant from our realities, indeed.  In a culture wherein we slavishly worship the idol youth, the prophet reminds us that our time is indeed limited; we have the life span of grasshoppers it is said, our time here but a drop in the bucket.   In a world in which we have resigned ourselves to believing that super-PAC money will elect our leaders, the prophet speaks of a God who outlasts the pretensions of the ruling class, and in a world where we have come to believe that we are masters of our destinies, the whole world open to our manipulation and efforts, the prophet speaks of a God who alone is able to create the complexities and beauty of life.   
And to be sure, we  hear these words of the prophet as a threat, about this there is no doubt.  If we wish to protect our illusions of control, our unrelenting belief in our love and efforts, if we continue in our stubborn refusal of God, pretending as though we can live without him, without his mercy and forgiveness, we will, like that nation of Israel before us, run up against these words as though they were brick wall.  “To whom will you compare me?  Or who is my equal?”  asks God, and this is the very definition of a rhetorical question.  For the point is precisely that God has no equal, no one to whom God might be compared.  Not money, not status, not political affiliation, not privilege, not knowledge, not technology, none of these can be compared to God, though you would not know that from watching the way we live, as we run after these other things in a futile hope that they will protect us.   And when we make these other things our highest good which, when left to our devices, we cannot help but do, we experience this exile as our own.  We suffer God’s refusal of our projects, and we rightly sense God to be a threat, as one who will not tolerate all the ways we minimize our pains and our sin but will constantly call us to account in the midst of these exiles.
 “Do you not know, have you not heard?”  But there is yet another way the prophet will explain God’s action.  Yes, we must be reminded daily that God alone is worthy of our deepest trust and worship, that God alone is eternal, but that is not all that God wishes for us.  For right as Israel is at most despairing point, right when it believes that God has entirely forgotten about it, leaving the nation to rot in foreign lands, the word of promise thunders forth: God will not grow tire and weary of achieving his divine purposes, which means that God will continue to love, to forgive, to redeem even as we struggle and falter.  When human energy, human faith has long since given out, when the burdens of work or family life have simply become too much for us to bear, when life is nothing but a burden to be endured and joy seems a distant land,  then and there God is present, a fount of every blessing, ready to renew us in our weakness and comfort us in our fear.  And this divine strength, this love that flows from everlasting, this is timeless; it is not subject to decay in the ways of this old world.  And it is this faithfulness of God’s that marks the divide between God and human things.  For our idols will always let us down. They will corrode and fade in the way of the way of things created.   Yes, when our youth has seeped out of us, when our bodies betray us, when the stock-market has battered our portfolios or when our political causes or candidates again disappoint us, God’s strength and renewal is ever-present, a perpetual spring evening.  And God promises this to you, not just in your joy and strength, but perhaps especially in your sorrow, your weakness and your vulnerability.  Because in these most wondrous words of the prophet: “not one of them is missing” you are ensured of a love that will never leave you.  As the poet writes, “only one who loves can remember so well.”   Not one of you is missing to this God.  Even and especially when we feel as though God’s goodness has abandoned us, that God has somehow left alone in troubles, in our struggles, it is right at this moment that God’s mercy is most gut-punchingly real.  For even as we suffer in exile, knowing nothing but pain, sorrow and boredom, when we are haunted in the night by the question: “is this really all life is about?”  it is then that God’s love breaks us wide open;  when we are brought low by despair or fear or greed, it is then that God’s love resurrects us and places us as on eagles’ wings. 
So, then, dear people, you have been joined to that first crowd to whom Jesus ministered.  We have been brought with all demons and our sicknesses, our hopes, our joys, our fears, our worries, we have been brought with all of that to the divine door.  We have been brought to Christ crucified, knowing that he has conquered our sin, our death and even the forces of hell and evil themselves.  And this one who has conquered all things, this one who has won for you the victory over death, he will never forsake; he wears in his flesh the promise that the weak will be given strength and the mourning will be comforted.  In Christ, our sin has been overcome, our fear defeated and our strength renewed.  For he comes among as one who will heal all illness and free us from all decay.  Yes we grow tire and yes we grow weary, but even in that weariness,  not one of you has been forgotten by this God who cares from everlasting to everlasting.  “Do you not know, have you not heard?”  Oh, we do not know as well as we should, but even that will not keep this Christ from getting to us.  In Jesus’ name, amen.    

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

4th Sunday After Epiphany

Mark 1:21-28
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

An Open Letter to Those Gathered at Centennial Lutheran Church, roughly 9:20 am, Sunday January 29, 2012.
I am writing this letter to you as a sort of warning.  So, before we begin, let me say this: if you wish to keep Jesus at a safe distance, if it is your hope to remain unchanged and sort of generically affirmed, please leave now, and know that you do so without any judgment whatsoever.  Given the cultural air we breathe, I can certainly understand how you have come to expect this from Jesus, but that, to be as honest as possible, has nothing at all to do with the Jesus we have just encountered.  That good guy Jesus, the Jesus who sits idly by giving us nothing more than a thumbs up from across the room no matter our fate, no matter our conduct, no matter our darkness, that Jesus is an idol.  He is not real. And we have nothing if not the real Jesus here. And he is not for the weak and fearful.  It is going to require all your strength and courage, and like that first crowd at Capernaum, there is a good chance you will leave today in some sort of astounded trauma.  And this is where your God created trust, your Holy Spirit inspired faith, is so very important.  For what might initially feel bizarre, feel even a bit violent, this will actually be good for you. So good, in fact, that you just may walk away with a freedom that you did not know was possible, and a with a comfort you have scarcely imagined to be real.
As your preacher, however, I cannot pretend as though this going to be easy.  I cannot water down the process for you. As much I would like, for reasons like my desire to be liked or thought of as accommodating and kind, there is no way to make this process easier, more palatable. Because, you see, there are some incredibly hard truths in today’s Gospel lesson.  Truths that feel foreign or even invasive and are so hard, that they will in fact put us to death and raise us to life, but no one dies willing, and we have constructed this whole thing called civilization in the thin hope that we will never have to confront these truths.
But Christ cares too deeply, loves too purely for that; a confrontation is inevitable and much hangs in the balance in terms of our response.  At this point, it would be fair for you all to be wondering just what I might be talking about, so let’s get to it.  What is at stake here begins with the question of radical evil.  Evil that is independent, that is spiritual and can master us in ways that are terrifying and furious. Evil as irredeemable as the Holocaust and as subtle as possession.   Now, before you think that spiritual evil is the intellectual relic of a bygone era, or is something to be endured only by the truly sinister: look again today’s story.  Look where the man with the unclean spirit is.  He is in the synagogue, in the gathering of the faithful and the pious.  Yes, later in Mark’s Gospel there will be a man possessed and living in a grave yard which makes a bit more sense intuitively, but we are not there yet.  Instead, this evil is much closer than we would like to think.  This unclean spirit, he is comfortable taking up residence in the middle of a community gathered in the name of God, in what should be a holy place, a place in which this spirit simply should not be.  But that’s just the thing, that is the insidious arrogance of evil.  It will claim what is not its own, but because it possesses a strength with which humans cannot contend, it will do this again and again, and it will do so with subtlety so that we do not even notice that it is there. 
And left alone, undetected and unbothered, this unclean spirit will continue about his destructive work.  He will continue to shrink this man’s sense of worth, allowing him to persist in any number of destructive habits that will keep him from God and from others, and what is more, this unclean spirit will work most effectively when he has convinced the man that he, the spirit, is not real.  When the man has long ago assumed that whatever that darkness was, it had only to  do with his biology, his psychological make-up or even a rough childhood.    But this is where things get really, really interesting, because the unclean spirit is no longer allowed to go about unbothered.  Instead, it responds, responds with cruelty and taunts to the words of Christ in the synagogue.  Immediately in Jesus’ teaching, the spirit recognize that its’ time is up.  It has been detected by the one who just a little bit ago did battle with its type out in the wilderness for forty days.  And in this presence, in the presence of the Christ, the Beloved Son of God, evil can no longer go undetected.  You can here in the cruelty of the unclean spirit’s response.  “Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”  There is something about Christ, perhaps what the Evangelist calls his authority, that this evil simply cannot stand.  Even as the spirit attempts to speak for the whole crowd, to get them on its’ side, it knows that the game is already over.  For Christ, the one who alone is capable of destroying evil, he is also willing to do just that.  There is something Christ’s presence that will cast out all evil, will cast it out of God’s good creation so that health, healing and forgiveness may be restored.   
            Now again dear people, I said that this was going to be difficult, and perhaps by now, you can get a sense of why I would say such a thing.  For part of what I am asking you to do is to leave behind the spiritual naiveté, to put away the childish things of our deeply scientific Western-world view.  Indeed to step into a reality which is far wider, much deeper, indeed more real than what can be observed or verified by human reason.  However, I am afraid that is just the beginning of the difficulty.  Because one of the implications of today’s texts, if we are honest with ourselves, is that we all harbor a darkness which is going to be revealed and struck down by the brilliant light of Christ’s love.  Now please hear me clearly, I am not accusing anyone here of being possessed by an unclean spirit, but I am suggesting that, if we search ourselves for even a few moments, we will come up against some rather nasty things: things like Pride, Despair, Loneliness,  Mistrust, Greed, Anger, Fear and legion more.   And this is where it will get really difficult, because these will not be able to stand near Christ, either.  They too will come under his judgment and will be tossed aside by his authority.  And that sounds bad, I know.  In our culture of unending affirmation where love is understood as the opposite of judgment, this is nearly unintelligible.  What is so strange is that we do not feel this way about our bodies; it is not like we allow cancer or infection to stay in our system; we do whatever is necessary to get them out.  And the same thing is happening here, happening in our baptism for the forgiveness of sin, happening in the body broken and the blood poured out.  In these things, you are released from all that would haunt and destroy you.  For this Christ has come to make you his own, and the stakes are too high for him not to do so completely.  So, yes, this is going to be difficult.  There will be some death involved, but it will be the death of those things that keep our spirits in bondage and decay.  For the light of Christ has named you, has brought into safety and has raised you from the dead.  It is not easy, but nothing worth it ever is.   
                                                                                                                        Pastor Justin

3rd Sunday After Epiphany

Mark 1:14-20
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
“Time and chance happen to them all” writes the author of Ecclesiastes, demonstrating that whoever came up with the whole “death and taxes” thing was not the first person to recognize just how cruel, how unpredictable, how impersonal, life can be.  In fact, this awareness of our own mortality, this sure knowledge that our lives are impacted by forces way beyond our own control, this is knowledge that is old as humanity itself.  And if it is true, as indeed it must be, that time and chance will happen to us all, happen to us no matter our age, our wisdom, our political affiliation, no matter any of it, what on earth are we to do?  How are we to cope?  How are we to deal with mounting health problems and mounting debt?  Or with the demands of a job that have long since outpaced the payment that is received?   Certainly, the current fad seems to be a willful ignorance of this fact; behaving as though we can will ourselves into becoming masters of our own destinies and managing away the risks of living through self help, positive thinking or a sheer display personal force.  My aunt, who has been in the medical profession for several years, tells of what it is like to try and treat the CEOs who have come under her care.  She speaks of the sort of tragically insane display that happens as men with cancer attempt to boss and order around the medical staff, as if controlling people could somehow make the cancer less terminal.  But such is our fate as those who are, in some sense, trapped in time.  As those whose lives are deeply determined by forces that are greater than us.  It is no wonder, then, that ignorance is so seductive.  This is something that all of us would just as soon ignore, and there are powerful and profitable forces in our cultural life that will help us do just that, but even this is simply delaying the inevitable, for time and chance do indeed happen to us all, and this is a meeting that we cannot infinitely postpone. 
            And if this is something we know as surely as we know anything, having long ago been taught by life that this is so very true, that the forces in our life are often beyond our scope of control, one must ask: is this really all that is left for us?  Are we to just and make peace with this fact, to take the goodness of life when it comes and minimize the pain and risk as best we can?  To try and get ourselves on the side of the influence and power, to manipulate chance and time as best we can, so that whatever befalls us may do so gently?  Well, yes, left to our own devices, I suppose that this is actually a pretty good route to go, and there is a whole history of philosophy that would commend this approach to us.  But hear again the words of the savior: “the time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent and believe in the good news.”  Yes, into the midst of this world, where time and chance happen upon all, a new sort of time has been introduced, introduced by the one who is God in the flesh, whose strong and faithful word created this whole thing to begin with.  And the fulfillment of time that Jesus is talking about is so much more than getting events in the right order.  Instead, the fulfillment of time, the drawing near of the kingdom, this is, in a certain sense, the end of time as we know it.  It is the end of believing that all that is left for us is managing pain and risk and holding tightly to the fleeting goodness we experience. It is the end of believing that death will have the final word, separating us from all we know and love.   It is the end of our slavish fear of old age, of decreasing health and of dealing with one  problem after the next.  Yes, indeed, time and chance will happen to us all, but now, now in the fulfillment of time, in the drawing near of the kingdom, they will not have the last word.
            Instead, there is a greater truth to be glimpsed, a more lovely certainty by which you are held.  For the kingdom that has drawn near, this is nothing less than God’s eternity breaking into the daily and the routine.  For in Christ, God, the author of the universe, the one who dwells outside of time in the eternal splendor of his love and mercy, that God has now entered into human history, has become an actor in his own story, if you will.  For the kingdom that has drawn near is nothing less than this God taking on flesh and bone, this God stepping into our too long work days and too small paychecks, a God who is now present in restless and anxious nights, as we contend with this thing called chance and time.   And, oh, the Christ has stepped into this battle, this struggle with and for us. He has stepped so deeply into it that he will suffer our death and our sin as his very own.  Before we could give our ascent or decide that yes, he seems trustworthy in what he says and does, he has already claimed you.  Like those first disciples who left the cruel stability of their lives along the sea, you have been gathered here not by your own will, but rather by the good work of the Holy Spirit who animates and enlivens your faith. Just as those rough and tumble men were taken from the reliable chaos of their own lives, so too this Christ has named you his disciples, named you his beloved, and against his will there can be no resistance. For Christ has spoken his time into you, and frankly, that is that. Your days of knowing only time’s cruel march are over.  For you are beloved, you are baptized saints of God.   You have been drawn into this new time, this eternity that wells up from his body, and in that eternity, where God’s love is all that is known, you are already named and remembered. 
Time and chance, then,  are no longer to be feared.  Yes we will suffer them, yes they will come to us in the grinding monotony of work, in the decline of health and in countless other small ways that drain and deteriorate us.  This is still true, but it is not all that is true.  For the kingdom of God has indeed come close, so close in point of fact, that we will take this kingdom into our bodies, and in so doing, we will eat and drink of the eternity that awaits us, the resurrected body and blood of Christ our savior and lord.  In this gospel freedom, then, by all means repent, meaning have a change of the old mind.  For you are no longer left alone in this thing called time.  You no longer need to search for a meaning and security that will protect you against the way that time and chance happens to us all. And with that no longer of concern, think of the incredible benefit we can be to those around us: to those who, like all who are here gathered, could use a word of hope, a place to call home or a warm meal and a working wage.  Having been claimed by Christ, been already made his disciples, just think of the gratitude with which we may treat those for whom time is truly unbearable. For your neighbors, the lonely and downtrodden, the sick and the vulnerable, they are no longer to be regarded as fearful reminders of what life can do unless we secure ourselves at their expense.  Instead, they are those to whom we now belong, knowing that they too are beloved of the God who enters even the most frail moments of human life. So, yes, repent and believe the good news: the good news of the Christ who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, has called you into his time, and by doing so, has given you a way to live in this time.   In Jesus’ name, amen.