Saturday, November 16, 2019

Relentless Love, Year C, Pentecost 23, Luke 21:5-19

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Some of you may be familiar with Eugene Peterson, a Presbyterian pastor and scholar, writer of many books, and translator of the Message Bible.
Last week I ran across the following on Facebook:
“Eugene Peterson’s son Leif said at the funeral that his dad only had one sermon—that he had everyone fooled for 29 years of pastoral ministry, that for all his books he only had one message.
It was a secret Leif said his dad had let him in on early in life.  It was a message that Leif said his dad had whispered in his heart for 50  years, words he had snuck into his room to say over him as he slept as a child:
“God loves you.
God is on your side.
He is coming after you.
He is relentless.””

I love that message.
It is truly the heart of the Gospel.
We’d do well to write it on our hearts and cling to it, throughout all our goings in and coming outs.
Let it be the first thing we think of each morning.
Let it be the last thing we remember each night.
God loves you.
And as a lover God wants only the best for you.
And God is on your side.
                How many times have we envisioned God has an adversary, not an advocate?  Someone to fear, not love?
God’s on YOUR side.  Remember that.
God is coming after you.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of my favorites.
Of course the story line there is of the wayward Son who left his Father’s house to go to a distant country, where all sorts of adversity befell him.
Finally, coming to his senses, he returns home to repent before his father and beg to be accepted as a slave and servant.
His Father, however, had been waiting and watching for him, and when he saw him ran to greet him, embrace him, and welcome him home.
All that is very familiar to us.
But I think there is one thing Eugene Peterson got right, that the parable had wrong.
“God is coming after you.”
God doesn’t just wait and watch, hoping that you yourself will decide one day to return home.
God is actively seeking you out and pursuing you wherever you roam, and God will simply not rest until he finds you.
Which brings up Eugene Peterson’s final point:
God is relentless.
God will not give up on anyone as lost.
God will not give up on anyone, period.
God will not give up.
Not until all of us are in his arms and embraced by his love.
“God loves you.
God is on your side.
He is coming after you.
He is relentless.””

In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus speaks of the future in ominous tones.
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”
Hearing stuff like this can make us quiver with fear and anxiety about what is coming.
What does the future hold and can we endure.
This last week I wrote the following in my blog:
One irreversible change that has occurred globally is the interaction between diverse cultures and people.  The world is becoming smaller.  And our experience of one another is expanding.  Advances in communication and travel have brought the world closer together resulting in an experience of diversity never before imagined.  When I grew up in Irene, SD, our town was comprised almost exclusively of Norwegian Americans.  The next town over was Danish American.  And so it was across the Great Plains.  During the time of homesteading ethnic groups settled together.  Interaction with other groups and communities was very limited.  The result was a sense of homogeneity.  Irene was Lutheran and exclusively White.

The question for the future will be whether we seek to cling to a tribalism that is a remnant of the past, or embrace a diversity of people that reflects the interaction between people of different ethnic, cultural, political and religious backgrounds.  For the Church the implications are straight forward.  We will either seek to maintain the exclusive claims and closed communities of the past or we will learn to thrive in a world that is pluralistic.  Within the Church we will need to become more ecumenical, beyond the Church we will need to address interfaith relationships, and individually we will have to deal with diversity as a 'next door' issue.

I'm actually excited about the prospects for the future.  I believe that the human experience will be richer for the diversity.  But we will have to get over the desire to mandate conformity in order to enjoy it.  Religious communities will not even be able to maintain homogeneity within their own membership ranks.  That's not so bad, unless you’re compelled to fight about it.”
Is diversity something that excites you?
Or is it something that alarms you?

Are you prone to embrace it?
Or to fight it?

When people from every walk of life, and every corner of the world are thrust together there will be conflict.  There simply will be.
There will be wars and insurrections.
Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.
Jesus goes on to say:
“You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.”
2,000 years have passed since Jesus uttered these words.  One question is whether those events of which he speaks have already transpired, for example, during the persecution of the Church in the first Century.
Or whether these words warn us of a future that is yet to come.
It is both.
The early Christians experienced these conflicts.
And as we become more diverse as a society, and as the world finds itself brought together more and more by travel and communication, the conflicts are going to intensify.
They will intensify because human nature is to abhor diversity and seek conformity.
Amid all this upheaval, amid all this turmoil, amid all the conflict and trials there are two messages to remember.
The first is Eugene Peterson’s message:
“God loves you.
God is on your side.
He is coming after you.
He is relentless.”
And the second message is like it, but different in a very important way, that is, the message that is so important for us, is also true for our neighbor.
“God loves them.
                God is on their side, as well.
God seeks them out.
                And God will relentlessly continue to pursue them until he can embrace them in his loving arms.”
In other words, “we are in this together.”
There are two things that are very difficult for us to embrace at the very core of our soul:
That God loves me.
And that God loves you as well.
And so we need to remind each other of that message.
Day after day.
Year after year.
God only has one message for us:
“I love you.
I’m on your side.
I’m coming for you.
And I will not give up.”

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Leaning into the future. Year C, Pentecost 22, Job 19.23-27a, Luke 20.27-38

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ, Amen.
When we were young, the span of a human life seemed like an eternity.
As we age, it’s more like the blinking of an eye.
We are growing older.  It seems time passes quicker as each year goes by.
I heard an explanation as to why that is the case many years ago.  That person suggested that we measure time by the span of years we have already lived.
That is, if we are five, waiting a whole year seems like forever because it’s twenty percent of the total span of years we had lived up to that point.
However, if we are 100, a year is only 1% of the total life span that had passed before, and so it seems like a relatively short period of time.
At any rate, whether we are five or fifty, aging happens.
Another thing that happens with age is that the focal point for our hope shifts.
The younger we are, the more our hope is focused on the future that we are growing into in our lives.  It’s a hope for the here and now, for the world in which we live, and for the days and years ahead.
And then as we grow older, we begin to recognize that our days on this earth and the time we have left is drawing to a close.  We look beyond the horizon to the promise of salvation and eternal life.
Two futures.
And we lean into those futures with hope and expectation.
For Job, whose life fell apart in a most devastating way, it was the future that sustained him in hope.  God’s future, that eternal hope.
I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, .  .  .
As my father approached his 100th birthday, he longed for the fulfillment of this promise.  Actually he had misgivings about the length of his life.  On the one hand he felt quite blessed to have lived well into his nineties with relatively good health.  One the other hand, he somewhat envied those who had died, for they were already with Christ, surrounding the throne of God, and living in paradise.
There is another side, though, to our future hope and that is the future that will be on this earth.
That future will continue to unfold without respect to how many years are left in our lives.
It’s a future that will be lived by our children and our children’s children.
Our future in heaven is a gift we receive directly from God.
And the other, the future in this world, is a gift we give to our children.
To live our lives faithfully and in hope means that we lean into those two futures, not neglecting one for the sake of the other, but rather recognizing the importance of each.
To live in hope for the future of this world, is to care for the environment, seeking to pass it on to future generations in better shape that when we first received it.
Our time on this earth may be getting more and more limited, but the future generations that will follow us still need this earth, even if we don’t.
To live in hope for the future of this world, is to care for things such as our government, our schools, and such things as the local businesses upon which our lives depend.  And we do so, even when our own personal, immediate and pressing need has passed. 
For example, even though I am long since past my school years, and my children as well, I am thrilled that in Sandpoint this last week we passed a permanent levee so as to provide stable and sustained funding for the years ahead.  That will benefit my grandchildren, and the others that come behind me.  It’s for their future, not mine.
And also, to live in hope for the future of this world is to nurture the relationships that are so crucial to making our lives meaningful and rich.
One example for me of this came to me when I lived in the rural areas of eastern Montana and elsewhere.
What I noticed was that there was reluctance for most of the farmers and ranchers there to enter into any significant conflict with their neighbors.  The reason was that the quality of their future and the future of their children for generations to come was tied up with those neighbors on the other side of the fence.  They stood by each other because they knew that they, and subsequently their children, would still be standing side by side for generations to come.
To live into the future with hope is to care for the quality of life of future generations without regard to how many years that we ourselves have left.
Yet at the same time we invest in the future in this world, we also look beyond to the fulfillment of God’s promise of eternal life.
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.

"1 In heav'n above, in heav'n above,
where God our Father dwells:
how boundless there the blessedness!
No tongue its greatness tells.
There face to face, and full and free,
the everliving God we see,
our God, the Lord of hosts!
2 In heav'n above, in heav'n above,
what glory deep and bright!
The splendor of the noonday sun
grows pale before its light.
The mighty sun that goes not down,
before whose face clouds never frown,
is God, the Lord of hosts!
3 In heav'n above, in heav'n above,
no tears of pain are shed,
for nothing there can fade or die;
life’s fullness round is spread,
and like an ocean, joy o’erflows,
and with immortal mercy glows
our God, the Lord of hosts!
4 In heav'n above, in heav'n above,
God has a joy prepared,
which mortal ear has never heard,
nor mortal vision shared,
which never entered mortal thought,
in mortal dreams was never sought,
O God, the Lord of hosts!"

This hymn by Laurentius Laurentii Laurinus speaks to this hope.
Of heaven, and of this hope, it is easier to sing than it is to speak.
We wonder what it will be like.  We question.  We imagine.
Today’s Gospel lesson is an example of the type of questions we raise.
If a woman has seven husbands in this life, whose wife will she be in the resurrection???
This brought back a memory from my confirmation class.
Candance Jorgenson was one of my classmates, and during one of my dad’s lessons on heaven, Candace blurted out “I don’t know if I want to go to heaven!”
And then she talked about sitting in the clouds playing a harp, as not sounding like very much fun at all.  Nor did my dad’s suggestion that we would be constantly worshipping God and singing his praise. 
It’s like enough already.  A worship service without end seems a bit much.
What will we do, what will it be like, who will be there, and such? Questions.
On a more serious note, one woman who I spoke with as she was dying was deeply concerned about this Gospel reading.
A big part of her hope was that she would be with her husband in heaven.
She was deeply concerned that Jesus said: “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”
To be honest, I didn’t know how to answer that question.
Some of us hope that even death will not part us, do we not????
And what will we do, what kind of relationships will we have?
We will not find hope, though, in the questions, but in the promise:
"See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away."

We cling to this promise, ready to be surprised, but trusting in the one who called us to faith, Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord and Savior.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Year C, All Saints Sunday, Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 6:20-31, Now and Not Yet

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
We believe that we are Children of God, created, redeemed, and sanctified.
And as children, heirs of the promise.
That promise is summed up in these words from Ephesians:
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
To be children of God, and to acknowledge Jesus as Lord of all creation, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, is to make a bold statement about the status quo in this world.
At the level of our faith, we are no longer citizens of this world, subject to the authority of earthly rulers and powers, but subject rather to the reign of God.
Having said that I should acknowledge that Paul does exhort us in Romans to be subject to the governing authorities.
However in Phillipians it is also written that “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
We live, you see, as citizens of a foreign land, aliens and sojourners in this land, whose sights are set on the Kingdom of God that is promised, and are not content with the status of the world in which we live. 
The Spirit of God is a restless spirit, that leans into the future, God’s future, and claims the promise of what could be and what will be.
H. Richard Niebuhr wrote about the relationship of the Christian to the world in his book, Christ and Culture.
Christ against Culture. For the exclusive Christian, history is the story of a rising church or Christian culture and a dying pagan civilization.
Christ of Culture. For the cultural Christian, history is the story of the Spirit's encounter with nature.
Christ above Culture. For the synthesist, history is a period of preparation under law, reason, gospel, and church for an ultimate communion of the soul with God.
Christ and Culture in Paradox. For the dualist, history is the time of struggle between faith and unbelief, a period between the giving of the promise of life and its fulfillment.
Christ Transforming Culture.  For the conversionist, history is the story of God's mighty deeds and humanity's response to them. Conversionists live somewhat less "between the times" and somewhat more in the divine "now" than do the followers listed above. Eternity, to the conversionist, focuses less on the action of God before time or life with God after time, and more on the presence of God in time. Hence the conversionist is more concerned with the divine possibility of a present renewal than with conservation of what has been given in creation or preparing for what will be given in a final redemption.
Is the Kingdom of God a very present reality, or out there, somewhere in the future?
And what does that mean for our life in the here and now?
One of the things we do as Christians is to relegate Christ and his reign to the future.
The Kingdom of God will one day be, but is not now.
It’s coming.
We hope for it.
Jesus will one day reign over all.
But not today.
Today we live as citizens of an earthly kingdom.
When we do that, we strip Jesus of the power and authority with which the Father has clothed him.
And we. . . can’t do that.
WE don’t have that authority.
But that’s not to say that we don’t often submit ourselves to earthly authorities, and declare our allegiance first and foremost to them.

When I look at the politics of this world, I’m convinced there are two basic viewpoints that govern our convictions and guide our actions.
Roughly, these worldviews correspond to the division between liberals and conservatives, but not entirely. 
But in general, people fall into one of two camps.
The ‘conservative camp’ rallies around slogans such as “Make America Great Again”, and underlying that is a conviction that there once was an ideal time, and our challenge for the present is to reach back into our history to reclaim that which we once had, but lost somewhere along the way.
The ‘liberal or progressive camp’ believes that we are on a mission to make the world a little better, in every way, every day.  It’s a belief that the future will be better than the past.
Using a Biblical image, one group wants to return to the Garden of Eden, the other yearns for the City of God.
The question is where do we find our hope?
One looks back to the nation of our childhood and hopes that we can return to that former time, often forgetting the challenges that we faced then.
The other looks forward to an idealized future in which we overcome the old challenges and wake to an ever better day.
Are your best days ahead of you or behind you?
That’s the question that underlies the politics of our day and which shapes our world view.
But the more significant question is whether the government under which we live has the capacity to fulfill the hope that we cling to.
And related to that, is the question of the Kingdom.
And our citizenship.
And who is our Lord and God.
For all of the differences that plague us, one thing most everyone can agree on is that things could be, should be, better than they are.
But who will make it so?
And when?
Put another way, just ask yourself this question.
“Does your hope for the future lie with the government or the Church?”
I’m not sure that I want to trust either of those as earthly institutions, as both of them have too often been flawed, becoming as much a part of the problem as they are a solution to it.
Perhaps the more pertinent question is a simpler question.
“Who is your Lord?”
And what does that mean for your life?
When you look to the future does your hope lie in earthly rulers like Barack Obama or Donald Trump?
Or in Christ, who is Lord of all creation and far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named?
Of course, as Christians we have no choice but to say that Christ Jesus is our Lord.
That’s who we are.
And yet, which authority do we submit to?
Do we live our lives as ‘good citizens’ of the United States?
Or the Kingdom of God?

When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom, he says:
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
There is nothing more contrary to an earthly Kingdom, than that first sentence:  Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
As a nation we kill our enemies.
We punish those who hate us, and shun those who curse us.
And, of course, we protect ourselves against those who would abuse us.
We celebrate our victories over others, and avoid at all cost showing any sign of weakness or defeat.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
When we hear such words of Jesus, most of us would conclude that an ideal such as this is simply not wise or practical with respect to governing our country.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.”
We may consider ourselves to be a Christian nation, but most of us would say that’s no way to run a country. 
But just maybe, Jesus, whom we declare to be Lord of All Creation, knows something about life in the Kingdom that we don’t. 
One final note:
When I get dismayed about the state of the politics in our land I find myself wishing that there was an option to be a citizen, not of this country, but of the Kingdom of God.
Pipe dream.
But actually, not.  We are called to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God, heirs of salvation, and Children of God. 
We acknowledge one Lord and Father of us all.
That’s the life of faith, a life of being a sojourner, an alien resident of this land, but a citizen of the Kingdom of God.
It is to look forward in hope to the fulfillment of that Kingdom, while at the same time living our lives under the reign of the one true King.
Our God.