Thursday, March 29, 2012

Lenten midweek sermon from 3-28-12: "The Times, They Are A'Changin'"

The Times They Are A’Changin’: God’s Call to Reformation

About 13 years ago, my wife and I drove up to Duluth, MN for a concert. Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, together, outside, in a park right on the shore of Lake Superior. Beautiful venue, great concert. Bob Dylan was the closing act of the two. Duluth is his hometown, so when he came on stage, he pointed and said, “I grew up on that hill over there. It’s good to be home.” Then he launched into his first song, and that was the last time he spoke to the audience until almost near the end of his set. He said, “I’ve got a feeling that this next song is just as relevant now as when I wrote it.” And then he started the intro to the song we just heard, The Times They Are A’Changin.’

Oh the times, they are a changin’. No kidding, Bob. The world around us, the thoughts, ideas, perceptions, the ways in which people relate to each other, the way information is distributed…we are living in a time that is vastly different from even just 20 years ago.

Yes, there is no doubt that the world is changing. In her book The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle’s theory is that every 500 years, there comes a gigantic shift in the way the world, and particularly religion, experiences reality. 500 years ago was the Protestant Reformation. 500 years before that was the great schism between the eastern and western Christian churches. 500 years before that was the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Dark Ages in Europe. And 500 years before that was the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. She senses that right now, we are in an age of transition, a time of shifting, a period of changing priorities and perspectives. It’s a time that she is calling “The Great Emergence.”

During our Wednesday Lenten services, we’re exploring the theme, “Listen, God is Calling!” Each week we’re exploring a different aspect of that call, through the lens of Scripture and in conversation with a pop song from the last 40 years. Last week we looked at God’s call to justice through the lens of the Bruce Hornsby and the Range song The Way It Is. Today, we listen for God’s call to reformation.

What are we emerging from? How are we being reformed, literally re-formed, formed again? How are we being transformed? Where is this emergence taking us as a society, as a church, as the people of God?

We’re Lutherans. Reformation is something we ought to get. It’s part of our DNA, part of our religious heritage, part of our tradition. When Martin Luther translated the Bible from Latin into German, he did so because he believed in the importance of the people being able to hear and read the gospel in their own language. We remember his contribution to theology, his insistence that we are saved by grace through faith, but just as important in many ways was his idea that you and I, the everyday common folks, should be able to experience the Word of God in our own context. That we ALL are part of the body of Christ, that we ALL serve as “little Christs” to one another, that we ALL make up a priesthood of all believers, not just the folks who wear the funny collars and go to seminary.

We now live in a world that is suspicious of the church, and of institutions in general. We live in a world that is divided, that is divisive. We live in a world where technology has both made communication more accessible and has made relationships more distant. We live in a world where people no longer just belong to the church that their parents did, or practice the same faith. It’s no longer enough to build a church and wait for people to come in. We live in a world where truth is questioned, where everything is relative, where folks claim to be spiritual but not religious, where the church is increasingly seen as an irrelevant dinosaur that is hopelessly behind the times and out of touch with the world’s needs.

It doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way. The world may have changed, but the fundamental needs of people have not. And we, as people of faith, as those who follow Christ, we have what the world so desperately needs. The good news of the gospel has not changed. Our need for that good news has not changed. The brokenness of humanity, our broken relationships, our struggles with the powers of sin and pain and death, those things have not changed. Our need for grounding, our need for roots, our need for connection, our need for self-actualization, our need to be provided for physically…none of that has changed.

What has changed is what it looks like. What has changed is how those needs manifest themselves.

And so as the church, we also must change.

And that shouldn’t be scary for us, especially for those of us whose religious heritage is defined by reformation, by change. It’s not the gospel that’s changing, it’s not God’s Word or God’s message for us or God’s presence with us that changes, but rather it’s how we are taking that message to the world, it’s how we are following Christ to where Christ is at work, it’s how we respond to the new and different ways in which God is calling us to perceive God’s work in the world around us.

“I am about to do a new thing,” God says in our reading from Isaiah. “Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

What are the new things we are being called to be a part of? What is it that’s springing forth in the lives we see around us? How are we being called not just to “go to church,” but to do church, to be church, to climb out of that fishbowl and actively engage the world? This call to reformation isn’t a call to change just for the sake of change. Just because something is new doesn’t mean it’s automatically better or right, but by the same token, just because something is older doesn’t mean it’s automatically better or right, either. Theologian Jaraslov Pelikan once wrote that traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, but tradition is the living faith of the dead. Tradition helps keep us grounded, but when it ceases to be a tool for God’s mission and becomes a god unto itself simply for the sake of tradition, then it has lost its purpose. On the flip side of the coin, change helps us experience God in new ways and engage the world with fresh ideas, but change for the sake of change can also become its own god and lose its moorings, lose its foundation. We use words like “traditional” and “contemporary” as though they are at odds with one another, as though in order to be one way you cannot possibly be another way. It’s really our vocabulary and our orientation that needs to change. We can’t afford to spend time and energy arguing over styles or terminology, wanting things either the way we knew them when we were younger or changing just so that we can be more comfortable and fresh. Our focus must be outward. How does doing what we do serve the needs of the world around us? Are there things that we do that need to change in order to better meet those needs? Are there things that need to remain the same to best meet those needs? Are there things that have changed over time that need to change back to the way they once were to best meet those needs? How can we best proclaim the gospel through our words and our actions in a language people will hear and understand and respond to?

When I was in New Orleans in 2009 with our church youth for the National Youth Gathering, a street musician who I had befriended during our time there played a special thank you song for our group. It was actually another Bob Dylan song called Forever Young, a beautiful blessing. Before he sang it to us, he told us thanks for our time there, and for the work we had done both in service projects but also in bridge-building and healing post-Katrina through our loving attitudes. He said, “too often, church folk come to this city just to tell us we’re all going to hell. You guys came to help, you came to be with us and not against us—I’ve learned more about Jesus by watching you 37,000 Lutheran kids this week than from any fire and brimstone preacher I ever heard.”

And then he played his song for us, and for that moment we WERE the church, we were at worship, and God’s blessing was on that song as it became a hymn there on that street corner in the French Quarter.

This kind of stuff doesn’t just happen, it doesn’t occur in a vacuum. I’m not a fan of when people try to box things into nice neat steps or progressions, because very seldom does real life happen in that way. Life is generally messier than that. However, in our Lenten series this year, I sensed a sort of progression as I was putting things together. First was our call to repentance. We look in the mirror, we are honest with ourselves when it comes to our own brokenness. Then we examined God’s call to reconciliation, a re-joining of human relationships and our relationship with God that can only truly happen if we’ve been honest about the hurt and brokenness that we’ve been a part of and caused. Our next call from God that we looked at, the call to unity, is a recognition that we are all different, but united in a common call and mission from the God we love and serve. True unity cannot happen without repentance and reconciliation. Last week was God’s call to justice, which we as a church cannot follow without Christian unity and without recognizing our unity as humankind. And it is that call to justice, that call to help meet the deepest needs of a changing world, that brings us to God’s call to reformation. Our call to be re-formed, to be formed again as the church, to take the shape in which God is molding us to be God’s hands and feet in a world whose needs are the same, but for whom the way we engage those needs must be different.

We are living in exciting times! God is doing a new thing, re-shaping us for mission. Some things may look exactly the same, some things may look radically different, but when we step back and take a look at the overall shape of the church, something will become very apparent.

If we’re the ones who have done the shaping, the church will look just like us. It will be in our image, the way we want it, to serve our own needs.

If God’s the one who’s done the shaping, the church will look like the cross. It will be in the image of Jesus giving of himself in sacrificial love for the sake of the other.

Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Lenten Midweek Sermon from 3-21-12: God's Call to Justice

God’s Call to Justice

During our Wednesday Lenten services, we’re exploring the theme, “Listen, God is Calling!” Each week we’re exploring a different aspect of that call, through the lens of Scripture and in conversation with a pop song from the last 40 years. Last week we looked at God’s call to unity through the lens of U2’s song One. Today, we listen for God’s call to justice in conversation with Bruce Hornsby and the Range's "The Way It Is."

What does God’s call to justice look like? How does it affect us? Where does it hit us?

Our reading from Isaiah is one of my favorite passages of Scripture, yet at the same time it is an absolutely blistering indictment of a people whose main focus had become how religious they were. They kept the feasts and the fasts, made sure to observe all the high holy days and said the right things and sang the right songs and followed all of the religious rules and regulations and thought that therefore everything was just fine between them and God. Instead, God tells Isaiah to “announce to the people their rebellion.” Their rebellion, their sin, was not about neglecting to go to church, or following other religions, or questioning their faith, what we’d normally think of as “moral issues,” or any of the other reasons that might jump to our mind as to what God would consider rebellion. God’s problem with the people was that while on the one hand they were claiming to worship, on the other hand they were oppressing their workers, they weren't taking care of the poor and needy, and in fact were trampling on them to serve their own interests. For God, justice is the ultimate moral issue.

So then, what is justice in God’s eyes? When we hear the word “justice,” we often think of fairness—making things fair, equal. The Biblical idea of justice goes beyond that, though. Justice isn’t about making things fair as much as it’s about setting things right. God’s justice is rooted in love, and love isn’t fair. Love throws a party for the prodigal son who’s squandered the inheritance when he comes home, love leaves the 99 sheep to search for the one who is lost. Love speaks out, acts, pursues, in order to repair what is broken, restore what is lost, make right what has gone wrong.

God’s justice, a justice that is rooted in love, leads to the cross. It leads to the death of our old sin, and to the resurrection through baptism into the new life of the empty tomb.

The problem we often run into is that we set up this false divide between theology, worship, Scripture, “churchy stuff” on the one side, and “social justice” on the other side. The argument goes that you can be a faithful, Bible believing Christian who worships God, OR you can focus on matters of social justice and turn that into your gospel, losing sight of the cross. Isaiah 58 and many other passages of Scripture argue otherwise. Our faith is important to God. How we approach God, our relationship with God, how we read Scripture, how we worship, how we trust in God’s love and forgiveness and grace—all of that is important. But all of that serves to inform how we understand our relationships with each other, and forces us to ask the hard questions of whose voices aren’t being heard, where are we seeing oppression or discrimination or treatment that is less than what a fellow child of God deserves? When Jesus was asked about the most important commandment, his response in a nutshell was that there was not one, but two: love God and love people. And so we have Bible believing Christians, and we have Social Justice Christians, and where those two groups intersect…that’s where we find Jesus, doing God’s work through their hands and their feet and their hearts.

Our song today speaks of racial injustice, then in the chorus quotes an imaginary person just throwing in the towel on it all. “That’s just the way it is, some things will never change. That’s just the way it is.” But then the singer tells us, “Oh, but don’t you believe it.”

It is true that some things will never change. Human beings will always be sinners. We will always naturally be curved in on ourselves. We will always be in need of forgiveness and grace. We will always need the cross. But these sinful systems, these sinful structures, these ways of dealing with those who are different or less powerful than us, these things that we have constructed, these can change. And our call from God is to keep our eyes open, to keep our ears open, to keep our hearts open so that we can see where people are being oppressed, where people are being denied their rights, where the fact that we were all created in God’s image is not being honored and valued and celebrated.

And that doesn’t just happen on the other side of the world. It doesn't just happen in other parts of the country. It happens right here, in Nebraska, in Lincoln, in our own backyard. Our brothers and sisters who are gay or lesbian. Our brothers and sisters who are illegal or undocumented immigrants. Our brothers and sisters whose skin is a different color than us. Our brothers and sisters who are of a different religion than us, or of no religion at all. Our brothers and sisters who are unemployed or homeless. Our brothers and sisters who are sex offenders or convicted criminals. Our brothers and sisters who are addicted to alcohol or other drugs.

Yes, some of these things people were born with and they can’t do anything about it, and other things are the result of choices, but in God’s eyes is there really a difference? Does it really matter? In Isaiah, are we told to bring justice only for those who deserve it in our eyes? No. God’s call to us, flat out, is “for goodness sakes people, just take care of each other.”

These are some pretty hot-button issues I brought up, and I recognize that. It’s not my place to tell you what conclusions are the right ones—goodness knows that faithful Christians come down on different sides of all sorts of issues. What IS important to hear, however, is that God cares about HOW we’re coming to those conclusions. Do we approach these kinds of questions in faithfulness, or in fear? Do we look at each other with openness or with prejudice? Do we use our religious systems and structures, its rules and norms, as an excuse for justifying our own injustices, or are they spiritual practices and tools to draw us closer to God and to one another?

These big systems, these big institutions, these ways that society has constructed itself to marginalize and oppress certain groups CAN change. It begins with us, with our own attitudes, with our own small day to day decisions. It continues when those of us who were dealt the random card of privilege choose to use our voices to speak out for those whose voice is not heard, and continues further when we begin to work to allow those voices to be heard. It’s not about being embarrassed or ashamed for what we have, but rather about making a conscious choice to use those resources—whether they be money, power, voice, time, energy, skills, or anything else—for the sake of those who do not have them.

God’s justice, rooted in love, active in our lives.

Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Hope That Is In You: sermon from 5-29-11

The Hope That Is In You
May 28-29, 2011

When I was a high school senior, I took Advanced Placement English from Mrs. Wolford at Bellevue West High School. Mrs. Wolford was one of the best teachers I ever had in school—she had a way of opening up literature that helped us better understand the world around us, and pushed and prodded us to become the best writers we could be. Throughout the year, we learned about all the various literary devices, major literary themes, symbolism—you name it, we covered it in detail. By the end of the year, when we had this box of tools at our disposal, an assignment would consist of reading a poem or short passage of prose, with the instructions, “explicate and analyze.” That was it. We were then responsible for closely reading and analyzing whatever the assigned passage had been, and discerning both its meaning and relevance.

Today, I want to do something similar with one sentence from our second reading. 1 Peter 3:15-16 says, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” This single, simple sentence from 1 Peter really gets to the heart of our calling to be bearers of the good news of God in Christ to the world, and deserves our attention, especially in a world that increasingly is convinced that the church has very little to say to it anymore. So, in honor of Mrs. Wolford, let’s explicate and analyze.

First, it begins with “always be ready.” Think for a moment—if someone were to walk up to you and say, “I noticed you went to church. What do you believe, why do you believe it, and what difference does it make in the world?” what would your answer be? What DO we believe? Well, we have these creeds that we say most weeks in church—a creed is a statement of belief. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and so forth. That’s a good start…but what do we mean exactly when we say these things, when we recite these words. Are they just words, or have we spent time studying them, wrestling with them, thinking about what they say and what we mean when we recite them? That was a concern Martin Luther shared, and is why he wrote the Small Catechism, which has short, clear explanations of the 10 commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. His idea behind writing it was to provide parents a way to help their children learn about their faith at home. What would happen if families looked at the small Catechism together, and asked themselves together, “what does this mean?” One exercise I’ve seen suggested, and I’ve seen done sometimes in Confirmation programs, is to write your own creed. What’s important to you about your faith? How would you articulate that?

The second part of always being ready is to consider the question “why do I believe what I believe?” Is this something the Bible tells me? Is it something society tells me? Have I learned this through experience? Was it some combination of factors? How did I come to these conclusions? As Lutherans, while we value personal experience and traditions, ultimately it is the Word of God that is our basis. We also believe, though, that the Word of God first and foremost is the Living Word—Jesus Christ. You remember the beginning of the Gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was WITH God, and the Word WAS God.” Jesus himself is the living Word who speaks to us in our situation today, and so when we approach the written word, the Bible, we do so through Jesus-colored and cross-shaped glasses. We filter, we interpret, through the lens of Christ crucified and risen. And so it is in our confrontation with the Living Word through the written word that we wrestle with why we believe what we believe.

“Hold on a second. This sounds like work!” You’d better believe it is…but if we’re going to address the third part of always being ready, our faith making a difference in the world, then we need to personally spend time wrestling in the messiness of those first two questions. Only when we have an idea of what we believe and why we believe it can it make any difference in the world—either in our lives or in anyone else’s. Wrestling with our faith in this way is a messy process, but then again, isn’t life messy? Isn’t the world messy? How can our faith even begin to speak to our lives outside of the four walls of the church building if we haven’t engaged it? So this third part is the “so what.” So you believe certain things about God, and so you have an idea of why you believe those things, but now what? What difference does it make? Is it a matter of factual knowledge that you can file away in your “church compartment” and go on living real life somewhere else? Or does it matter? How does it matter that God created the world and all in it? How does that color how we see creation? How we see others, even those who we disagree with or who hate us? How does it matter that Jesus was fully divine and fully human—that he died on the cross and rose? How does it matter that the Holy Spirit is active and at work in the world today? All of Jesus’ teachings, all of what Paul and others wrote in the New Testament on our Christian life and relationships with God and each other—how do all of those things relate with each other and make a difference in how I see and act in the world?

So we know we’ve got to always be ready to make a defense to someone who demands an accounting for the…what? Hope. All of this study and introspection that we’ve done sort of leads to a forming of our personal theology. Theology comes from two greek words: theos and logos: theos is God and logos is word. So all theology is, is “God-words.” We’ve come up with some words about God, but those words are not there simply for their own sake. These aren’t just intellectual exercises. Our theology, our God –words, point to hope. The writer of 1 Peter understands that we’re Christians because of the “hope that is within us.” The gospel, the good news, the message of Christ is one of hope. God created the world. God loves the world SO much, that Jesus lived, died, and rose so that sin and death might be defeated and all of creation might be reconciled to God. We live in a now-but-not-yet world, where we still experience pain and death and the consequence of sin and our brokenness, but also live in the promise of the hope of the New Jerusalem. God is even now making all things new, and every act of mercy and justice and mission that we undertake is a foretaste of the feast to come of that final time. Every time we gather around the communion table we both remember Christ’s death and resurrection, and anticipate the great feast at the end of time when death and pain and tears will be no more. Our God words are words of hope, and our call is to share that hope with the world around us through what we say and what we do.

How then, do we do this? First of all, with gentleness. The root of the greek word here is the same one Jesus uses in Matthew 5:5 when he says “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” We associate meekness with allowing yourself to be a doormat for whatever anyone else wants to say or do, but what the greek is getting at is more of a sense of a gentleness of spirit. How often over time has the Bible, or the gospel message itself, been used as a weapon to assert power or authority instead of being used to convey the message of hope in Christ? How does this happen?

We forget the double meaning of hope. First, hope is something we want to have happen. Hope is a good thing. And the message of hope we find in the cross is the message that even when there was nothing that we ourselves could do to climb up the ladder to God, God came to us. God still comes to us. I’m sure many of you have seen the diagram showing two cliffs—us on one side, God on the other, and a great chasm representing our sin in the middle. Then a cross is drawn in the middle, showing that through the cross, that gap has been bridged. The problem with that diagram is that even with the cross bridging the gap for us, we’re still powerless to walk across on our own to God. The cross isn’t our pathway to God, the cross is God’s pathway to us. This is good news for the whole world! So then why doesn’t the world hear it as the good news it is? It’s because we often tie up our gift of hope with strings of condemnation and fear. We turn the God who has invited us all to the party into the heavenly bouncer trying to keep out the undesirables.

The other aspect of hope is that we often confuse hope with knowledge. We can be confident in our hope in Christ, we can have a confident faith, and the church is at its best when it’s active in ministry throughout the world, compelled by that confident faith and hope. But faith, hope, by their very definitions are things you can’t prove. We can become so sure of ourselves, so sure that we believe the right things, that our interpretation of the Bible and of who God is, is the right and only way to see it, that we lose the humility that naturally comes with faith. We replace faith and trust with knowledge. One of my favorite sayings is that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt—it’s certainty. Or knowledge. When we confuse ourselves is when mission and the good news both to each other and the outside world is sacrificed on the altar of being right. That’s not to say that what we believe isn’t important—but we must always deliver our message of hope with the gentleness and humility that comes from faith.

Finally, the good news is a message we speak with reverence. We think God’s message of hope is SO important, SO holy, such good news for the world that we do everything in our power to not allow our words and actions to get in the way of that message. If we preach forgiveness, but harbor grudges in our hearts, we are not treating our message with reverence. If we preach grace, but place strings on others, we’re not treating our message with reverence. If we preach Jesus and the cross but live as though there was no empty Easter tomb, then why should the world listen to anything we say? The way we go about loving either fully or with strings attached, disagreeing with one another either with respect or contempt, speaks volumes about what we really think about those things we say are important to us. The gospel is the most important message anyone will ever hear, whether it’s spoken or seen. How many people out there don’t follow Christ because of experiences they’ve had with the church? Or because the message they’ve heard or seen has not been the gospel of hope? Reverence here simply means respecting the gospel so much that we try as hard as we can not to obscure it for others with our own sinfulness.

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Explicated and analyzed. Mrs. Wolford, I hope you approve.

Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

Monday, March 19, 2012

Sermon for March 17-18: Grace, Works, and Poopy Treats

(My seminary classmates and those who have read this blog in the past may recognize the "nightlight" story...this was the first time my congregation had heard it, though...)

Grace, Works, and Poopy Treats
March 17-18, 2012

Kiddo and Pumpkin (names changed for the internet) are a little older now, but in reflecting on the passage from Ephesians, I found myself thinking back to when each of them was two years old. 

Which makes sense, because this passage says a lot about grace.  And there’s not a lot of grace involved when you live with a 2 year old. 

These are all sentences Sweetie (name changed for the internet) and I actually found ourselves saying word for word at some point:  “IF you eat your supper, THEN you can have pudding.”  “IF you put away your toys, THEN you can watch Dora the Explorer.”  “IF you go poopy on the potty, THEN you can have a poopy treat.” You know those little Smarties candies? Perfect incentive to get kids to go potty when and where they’re supposed to. AND…unlike M&M’s, they’re also transportable in a purse or pocket without melting, even in the middle of the summer. If you get nothing else out of today’s sermon, you at least now have my one parenting tip.
At any rate, life with a 2 year old is a lot of IF/THEN…because it has to be.  IF you’re good enough, THEN you get rewarded.  2 year olds understand works righteousness very well.

On the other hand, moments of grace do come.  Ever since the kids have been able to sleep through the night, it has been my job when they do wake up at night to go to their room and comfort them.  In the interest of full disclosure…the reason I’m the one who gets up has more to do with common sense than  chivalry or anything like that—I am just a much lighter sleeper than Sweetie.  When one of the kids makes noise, I’m going to wake up either way, so it makes more sense for only one person to wake up than both of us. 

Not long after Kiddo had turned two, he had started waking up with night terrors.  It was completely normal for his age, but when you are woken up at 3 in the morning by the most inhuman screaming, it can be a bit disconcerting, to say the least.  When it first started, we got him a nightlight, and made a really big deal about how he has a “special light” in his room so he can see that there’s nothing to be afraid of.  After that, when the night terrors came, I’d go into his room, sit down next to his bed, rub his back and help settle him down.  Then we’d talk about his special light and how he doesn’t have to be scared.  I’d ask him, “does mommy have a special light?” 


“Does daddy have a special light?”

"No, only Kiddo.” 

“That’s right, only Kiddo has a special light.  So you don’t have to be scared.”  (Don’t ask me why that made sense, but for some reason it was a big comfort to his 2 year old mind.)  

Then, usually, he’d be comforted enough to lay back down and go to sleep.
After he had had the nightlight for a couple of weeks, I was pretty proud of how well our discussions about the nightlight were working in helping him go back to sleep.  So one night, I decided to take the discussion one step further.  We went through our usual litany, and then I asked him another question, to see how well he understood what we were talking about: “so why doesn’t Kiddo have to be scared?”

His answer?  “Because Daddy comes.”
The “Theology of the Nightlight” isn’t what mattered to him.  What mattered was that in the middle of the night, daddy comes.  Daddy doesn’t come because Kiddo ate his dinner or because he put away his toys or because he went poopy in the potty—Daddy just comes.  When Kiddo is so terrified that all he can do is cry out, he knows that Daddy comes.  That is faith. 

The theology behind justification isn’t what matters to us.  What matters is that in the middle of the darkness of our sin, our heavenly daddy comes.  He came to us in the manger at Bethlehem, he came to us on the cross at Calvary and in the empty tomb, and he comes to us today.  God doesn’t come to us because of anything we’ve done, God just comes.  When we’re so terrified, when we’re so lost, when we’re so dead in our sin that all we can do is cry out, we know God comes.  That is faith. Faith isn’t understanding and agreeing to a set of propositions. Faith is simply trust.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”   

The good news of the gospel is that you are not alone. The good news of the gospel is that it’s not up to you to get it all right, it’s not up to you to make yourself acceptable to God, it’s not even up to you to believe the right things to complete some magical formula to get God to save you. The good news of the gospel is that God has already saved you…if we were to translate the Greek literally in Ephesians 2:8 it would say, “by grace you have been and continue to be saved.”  This is something that has already happened for you, but it’s also something that is continuing in your present reality and will extend into your future. And it’s not because of anything you’ve done. Good OR bad.
In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible called The Message, he describes the word “grace” as “surprise love gift.” Grace is a surprise—it’s not anything we expect. The way of the world teaches us that we ought to get what’s coming to us (good OR bad), or that we reap what we sow (good OR bad). God’s grace works backwards from what the world teaches us. Grace is a surprise to us because we DON’T get what’s coming to us, what we deserve. Instead of condemnation, we receive forgiveness.  Instead of death, we receive new life.

Grace is love—our Gospel reading today includes what is probably the most well-known verse out of the entire Bible: “for God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” God’s grace is love. It is love in action.
And grace is a gift. As we’ve heard in Ephesians, it’s not something we earn. It’s not the result of what we do. It’s a free gift from God.

We have been saved…by grace…through faith. And it’s not because of anything we’ve done. BUT…if that’s where we stop, we’ve missed the whole point.
Listen closely, because this is the main point not only of the sermon, but of our entire existence. We’re not saved BY good works, but we were created FOR good works.

In Richard Stearns’ book The Hole In Our Gospel, he writes about what he calls “The Great Omission.” His point was that we’ve taken God’s message of grace and love and have made it far too much about ourselves. About who we are as individuals. It’s too much of “me and God.” Now don’t get me wrong. That’s important. Faith is relationship, it’s trust, it is about me and God…but that’s not the finish line. That’s not where it ends. That's actually where it begins. It's just the starting point. The final end point of my faith is not me. It’s about being able to serve my neighbor. It’s about doing good works. It’s about saving me from my slavery to myself, to needing for it to be all about me, in order that I may turn my focus outward.
And that has been the Great Omission too often in the church. We’ve created this false divide, saying that the gospel is either about my own personal salvation, or it’s about bringing about the kingdom of God through acts of social justice. The reality, according to Ephesians, is that what we’re dealing with is a both/and situation, not an either/or. Verses 8 and 9 are often quoted, and for good reason, but look for a moment at verse 10. “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” 

This is how we were created to live. This is who we are.
How many of you have ever been on a mission trip or work trip?

How many of you have ever volunteered for a helping group or organization?
How many of you have ever helped someone who needed it?

When you did those things, how did it make you feel?
I realize that the purpose of our lives isn’t to feel good, but I would argue that the reason helping others is so fulfilling, so deeply enriching to our lives, is because when we do it, we are most fully living out who God created us to be. Seriously—there’s no feeling in the world like being able to walk away knowing that in some way, even if it’s a small way, you’ve made a difference in the life of someone else. As Lutherans, especially, it’s easy to fall into the trap of being so afraid of thinking that we’re justified by good works that we forget to actually do any.

My friends, you have been saved! You have been freed from having to live up to any standard, any measuring stick. This is a gift! The gift is FOR you, but it doesn’t end WITH you…you have been set free as a surprise love gift to live into who you were created to be, to live a life of good works.
And that’s better than a poopy treat any day.

Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Lenten midweek sermon from 3-14-12: "We're One, but we're not the same..."

“We’re One, but we’re not the same…”
God’s Call to Unity
March 14, 2012

What does unity mean? What does it mean to be united? Does it mean complete agreement? Does it mean complete uniformity? Does it mean two people, two entities, two groups, losing their separate identities and becoming one new thing?  Does it mean that we look the same, think the same, act the same, and believe the same?
During our Wednesday Lenten services, we’re exploring the theme, “Listen, God is Calling!” Each week we’re exploring a different aspect of that call, through the lens of Scripture and in conversation with a pop song from the last 40 years. Last week we looked at God’s call to reconciliation through the lens of Mike and the Mechanics’ The Living Years. Today, we listen for God’s call to unity.
“We’re one, but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other,” is how the song One by the group U2 closes. We’re one, but we’re not the same.  That sounds nice and all, but how does that square with the Biblical concept of what it means to be united?  What does it have to do with God’s call to unity?
There are a number of different Scripture passages that deal with this question.  You may be familiar with 1 Cor. 12, which compares the church as the body of Christ to the parts of a real human body…we’re all one body, made up of different parts, all of which need each other. Ephesians 4 reads, in part, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit-just as you were called to one hope when you were called-  one Lord, one faith, one baptism;  one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (vv.3-6)   Philippians 2:2 encourages us to have “the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.”  We could have heard any of those passages and gotten a good picture of what God’s idea of unity is.
The Scripture passage we heard, however, takes a little different direction than the others, and in doing so, is able to dive even deeper into God’s call to unity. First of all, we see that it is indeed a calling, that it is something Jesus specifically prays for on our behalf. He first makes it clear that while he’s praying for the disciples, he’s also praying for us. For you and me and all of us who have followed or will ever follow him. He says in verse 20, “I ask not only on behalf of these [the disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word…” That’s all of us.  That’s the church throughout time across the world. And what is it he asks? He prays to God in verse 21 that “they may all be one.”
Jesus wants his followers to be one. Jesus prays for unity on our behalf. So then, the question becomes, what does this unity look like? Go back to the questions we asked right at the beginning. Is Jesus asking us to look the same, think the same, believe the same, act the same?
I don’t think so. And the reason for that is that Jesus himself goes on to explain what a picture of this sort of unity would look like. The second part of verse 21 reads, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”  He continues in verses 22 and 23, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Jesus wants our relationships with each other to look like God’s own Trinitarian relationship.
Think about that. We worship one God. In our creeds, in our teaching, in our hymns, we have taken great pains to explain that although the God we worship is found in three persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier—we do not worship three Gods. We worship one. We worship a God whose nature we claim to be diversity in unity.
Turn with me to page 54 in the Lutheran Book of Worship. There you’ll find the Athanasian Creed, one of the three major creeds of the Christian church. We say the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed quite a bit…not too often that we recite this one together. Confirmation students—be thankful we’re not memorizing this!  But as you look through it, you’ll notice that it’s all about the Holy Trinity. It’s all about what it means to say that God is three persons but one God. It’s all about what it means to understand complete and perfect unity in the midst of diversity.
We are united not through losing our identity, but like the unity of God, through a bond of self-giving love.
Or, as Bono sings in the song One, “We’re one, but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other.”
So what does this say about our own unity? First, unity does not mean giving up one’s individuality, one’s personhood. When I was a teenager, there was a show on TV called Star Trek: The Next Generation. On the show, there was an entity called The Borg. The Borg was a collective made up of countless individuals, but each of those individuals had given up their identity, had given up their individual thought and desire and saw themselves only as part of the whole. The Borg’s mantra was “Prepare to assimilate. Resistance is futile.”
There are those who see Christianity as a version of The Borg. Prepare to assimilate—resistance is futile. Check your brains, your thoughts, your individual needs and fears and desires and experiences—just check them at the door. There is only one right way to think, only one right way to believe, only one right way to live, and we who are already part of The Borg Church will tell you what that is.  In order to be a good Christian you must think a certain way politically. You must believe a certain way about certain social issues. You must understand these sets of doctrines in this certain way. You must worship in this way.
No. That’s not who we are. That’s not the way we’re called to be. We don’t find our unity in traditions or customs, we don’t find it in what we say or how we look or any of that surface, outside stuff. We find unity in self-giving love for each other that can’t help but overflow into the world. There are Christian groups who believe different things than us about God, or worship in a different style. Our call to unity doesn’t mean giving up those unique ways in which we experience God’s presence and activity in our lives. It does mean finding with others what one my seminary professors calls “a fusion of horizions.” We see things one way, others see things in a different way—are there places where our separate visions intersect? Is it possible for different denominations to work together to eradicate world hunger? You bet it is…and not only is it possible, it is our calling. Up in Minot North Dakota where a number of folks from our congregation will be traveling, it was different church bodies who got together and built Hope Village, where anyone who wants to come and help with the flood cleanup can stay while they serve. We have ecumenical partners with The Feast and Bridges to Hope. Our helpers and friends at The Table are an extremely diverse group.
And why is this important? Because our unity, finding that fusion of horizions, finding that singular purpose through self-giving love even while maintaining our identity, is our witness to the world. It is, as Jesus says in verse 23, “so that the world may know you have sent me.” Our unity is to mirror God’s unity so that through our unity, through our purpose, through our self-giving love, we point to God without even saying a word. We may not agree on some things, we may not agree on many things, but how can we love? How can we serve? How can we be in relationship in other ways? Those are the questions we’re called to ask.
Our song outlines two ways in which we can respond to differences, two ways in which the church historically has responded. Either in fear, or in working toward unity in diversity. Earlier in the song, he sings:
Did I ask too much?
More than a lot.
You gave me nothing,
Now it's all I got
We're one
But we're not the same
See we
Hurt each other
Then we do it again
You say
Love is a temple
Love a higher law
Love is a temple
Love is a higher law
You ask me to enter
But then you make me crawl
And I can't keep holding on
To what you got
When all you've got is hurt
We can respond to our differences in hurtful ways.  Throughout history and still today, the church has been guilty of doing that both within itself and with the world in general. There are many whose experience with the church has been “You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl, and I can’t keep holding on to what you got when all you’ve got is hurt.” When we don’t allow for questions, for differences, when we try to force a false unity that is really conformity, we hurt. We destroy.
But the end of the song echoes Jesus’ prayer in John 17. It is our call. A call to find our unity in living, giving, serving and loving. To find our unity as forgiven and loved Children of God at the foot of the cross.
One love
One blood
One life
You got to do what you should
One life
With each other
Sisters, brothers
One life
But we're not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other
May we be one as God is one.

Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sermon from 10-1-2011: "We're on a mission...from God!"

We’re On a Mission…From God!

October 1-2, 2011

Who has seen the classic movie, The Blues Brothers? Jake and Elwood Blues travel around, wearing cool black suits and hats and sunglasses, trying to find all the members of their old blues band in an attempt to raise money to save a Catholic orphanage. Remember their classic tagline? “We’re on a mission…from God.”

We’re on a mission…from God. There’s some good theology to be found in there. God is on a mission, a mission of healing, reconciliation, and redemption. It’s a mission that began with the creation of the world, when God declared all of creation good. It’s a mission that continued through Eden, and through the flood. It continued through God’s covenant with Abraham that through him and his descendants, all the world would be blessed. It continued through Egypt, the wilderness, and the Promised Land. It continued through the prophets, the judges and kings, through a manger and stable, teachings, healings, a cross and an empty tomb. After Christ’s time on earth, it’s a mission that the church became a part of, and still today we’re called to participate in God’s restoration of all things. We’re called to be a part of making all things new, of being a blessing for all the world.

The ten-dollar Latin theological term for this is Missio Dei. Missio is mission, and Dei is God. But notice how it’s phrased. Missio Dei. The mission of God. God’s mission. The mission does not belong to the church. We do not direct the mission, we don’t decide who it’s for, where it goes, or even how it’s lived. Mission belongs to God, and God invites us to be a part of it. But here’s the kicker. God’s mission doesn’t need the church. The church needs God’s mission.

Today’s Gospel reading is a stark reminder of that reality. This is a passage that has been very unfortunately used throughout the years to justify anti-Semitism, and on the surface we can see how easy it would be for someone to get there. Jesus tells a story about a landowner whose tenants keep beating up the slaves he sends to collect the produce. Finally, he decides to send his son, thinking “surely they’ll leave my son alone.” But the tenants kill the son, hoping somehow to get the son’s inheritance. I’m honestly not sure how they thought THAT would happen. In the context of when Jesus tells the story, it’s obvious that the Pharisees he’s telling the story to are supposed to be the tenants, and Jesus himself is the son of the landowner, God. But let’s look at this story through a different set of lenses for a moment, because I think it absolutely has something to say to the church today.

Look with me for a moment at verse 43: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” If we put ourselves in the place of the Pharisees, what does this say to us about our participation in God’s mission on earth? God’s mission doesn’t need the church, the church needs God’s mission. And if we as the church choose not to participate with God in God’s mission of healing, restoration, forgiveness, and redemption for all creation, God will find others who will.

As we stand here not far into the 21st century, we look around us in the United States and in the Western Hemisphere in general, and we see a church in decline. Membership in mainline denominations have been falling across the board. Budgets are being cut, programs are disappearing, and many are asking themselves what happened to the church that for so long was the center of American society.

Different people have offered different answers to that question, but I think today’s gospel lesson gives us a pretty good answer. Jesus was speaking to people who looked back to the promises given to them through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They leaned on those promises, promises that they were a chosen people, that they had a blessing of land, that the world would be blessed through them. Their faith life was inseparable from their public and private lives—the synagogue and temple were not just prominent parts of their society, but were the center of their society.

The danger of this, of remembering one is chosen, of living in a society where the church (or synagogue) holds a central place, is that it becomes easy to rest on one’s laurels. Like a highly ranked football team who reads in the papers about how good they are, the danger becomes that they decide to just show up and forget there’s a game to be played. The church becomes fat and lazy, and develops a sense of entitlement. Instead of being a part of God’s promise to bless the world, we expect the world to bless us, and get upset and huffy when the world doesn’t do that.

But the reality is that God’s mission doesn’t need the church, the church needs God’s mission.

The church is no longer the center of American society. I don’t have to quote the statistics for us to recognize that that is the case. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. The race that Paul speaks of in his letter to the Philippians, the prize of the heavenly call in Christ Jesus isn’t one that moves toward the comfortable center of society. The heavenly call is one that calls us out, rouses us from our comfort zones, compels us to go to the edges, to the need, to the darkness and the brokenness and the sin and grime and muck of the world. Our faith is a faith of the edges, our mission is a call to the edge. When Christianity becomes cultural, it becomes domesticated. It becomes tamed, safe. Power and influence tend to do that to anyone. Rather than following the call to mission for the sake of the call to mission, we ask ourselves how our decisions will affect our ability to hold on to the power and influence we have. On the other hand, when Christianity is counter-cultural, it is free to become that prophetic voice, that prophetic presence, the voice speaking uncomfortable truths and being present with the marginalized of society, or in other words, living its life much like Jesus lived his.

So what does Jesus mean when he says the Kingdom of God will be taken away? First, it’s important to say right up front that we’re not talking about salvation here. Our salvation is not based on what we do or how we live, it is a free gift that comes to us by and through faith. Jesus isn’t talking about heaven, and neither is Paul when he writes about the “heavenly call.” This isn’t a call TO heaven, a call that says there’ll be pie in the sky in the sweet by and by and so I don’t have to worry about this world or the people or things in it. This is a call that comes to us FROM heaven, from God. For Jesus, the Kingdom of God is in the here and now. It’s what we experience and what we live in when we love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, feed the hungry, heal the sick, and care for the poor. It’s a kingdom that was ushered in through the cross and the empty tomb, a kingdom that will not be fully realized until the end of time, but a kingdom that we catch glimpses of and live in when we follow God’s call to us to participate in God’s mission.

God’s mission doesn’t need the church, the church needs God’s mission.

The Bible speaks of the church as the Body of Christ. If the church really is the body of Christ, the hands, head, eyes, ears, and feet of Christ, then when we decide not to follow the heavenly call, when we decide not to participate in the Missio Dei, when we decide that being comfortable and holding on to power and influence are more important than being a blessing to the world, then we are not being the church. And we’re not living in the Kingdom of God, that kingdom of costly service and self-emptying love.

My friends, we ARE on a mission…from God! The mission is not our own, it is not of our choosing or direction, but it is one that we have been called to participate in. We must always be asking ourselves, are we going about God’s business of blessing the world, or are we waiting for the world to bless us? In our baptism service, we say that baptism is both a promise and a call—on the one hand, we can rest securely, assured of our promise of salvation. But on the other hand, at the same time we’re called out beyond ourselves. Jesus tells the church to take up its cross and follow him, and there’s nothing about the cross to suggest that the way of following Christ is easy or popular. Where are we, as individuals, as a congregation, as Lutherans, and as the whole worldwide Christian church, following God’s call to mission? Where have our desire for comfort, influence or power clouded our call? As a church whose very heritage comes from the process of reformation, may we always be asking ourselves those questions, always looking for those ways in which God is looking to reform us, to literally RE-form, reshape, form us again into something new, for the sake of God’s mission.


Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

Monday, March 12, 2012

Sermon from November 26-27, 2011: It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
Advent 1B—Mark 13:24-37
November 26-27, 2011

Here we are in the first week of the season of Advent, the beginning of the church year…who knows what the word “advent” literally means?  Advent comes from a Latin word, adventus, which means “coming.”  Christ is coming.  We look forward to Christmas as we await the coming of Christ into the world. 
But there’s a deeper meaning there as well.  You may be wondering why, if we’re supposed to be looking ahead toward a baby’s birth, we’ve been given this Gospel reading that talks about things like suffering and the Son of Man coming on the clouds and the passing away of heaven and earth.   This is apocalyptic stuff—it sounds scary, literally earth-shattering.  What in the world does this have to do with getting ready for babies and Bethlehem and farm animals and kids dressed up in bathrobes singing “The First Noel?”  Well, that Latin word, Adventus, is also the Latin translation of a Greek word, parousia.  Parousia is the ten-dollar word theologians use to describe the coming of Christ at the end of time.  So here, during advent, we are called to wait, to prepare, to get ready not only for Christmas, not only for the coming of Christ in humility as a baby, but also to prepare for the coming of Christ in glory as king. 
 There’s an almost 25 year-old song by REM called “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine),”  which has been one of my  7 year-old son's favorite songs to sing along to ever since he was about 3.  There’s not much to the song itself—the verses are just a bunch of stream-of-consciousness images all sort of strung together, and the chorus consists of the lead singer singing “It’s the end of the world as we know it, it’s the end of the world as we know it, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”  But boy is it catchy.  And there’s a message there for us as well, a message that speaks to advent and to what we hear in our Gospel reading.
The coming of Christ means the end of the world as we know it.
I’m not talking just about the end of time, though it certainly does include that.  And I’m also not just talking about the original Christmas story either, though that certainly was the case as well.  I’m talking about now.  Today.  In your life.  In my life.  In our collective lives and callings and mission together as the church in the world.  Jesus Christ comes to us, and when he does, it means the end of the world as we know it.  It means making all things new.  And when things are made new, that means the end of what was old. 
Consider baptism.  As Christians, we describe our baptism as the washing away of the old Adam and the old Eve, and the beginning of a new life.  Paul describes baptism as death—dying to ourselves and being raised with Christ.  We’re different.  We’re no longer on our own, but are children of God, brought into God’s family.  Our baptism doesn’t mean the end of the world…we still are called to live in the world, but it means the end of the world as we know it.  We live in the world but are not of the world.  We become participants in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in the world.
Our gospel reading today is another good example.  It comes near the end of Mark’s gospel, right before the events of the last supper and Jesus’ arrest.  It’s a shame that people like Harold Camping, with his doomsday predictions (which were wrong not once, but twice this year, by the way) and the writers of the still-popular Left Behind series of books, have taken passages like this one and twisted them to fit their vision of a violent last days scenario.  Our reading begins in the middle of a speech by Jesus to his disciples.  We hear him say, “In those days, after that suffering…”  If you’re like me, you may have asked, hold on, in what days?  After what suffering?  Take a look with me at the first half of Mark 13. Jesus and his disciples are by the Temple, which for Jews of the time not only was the center of worship, but was actually where God resided, in the very middle, a room called The Holy of Holies, where a curtain shielded the priest who entered once a year from the pure holiness of God. The disciples have what one of my favorite professors, Karoline Lewis, calls a “Little Red Riding Hood” moment: “Teacher! What big stones and what big buildings the temple has!”  And from there, Jesus begins teaching about how the temple will be desecrated and destroyed, which historians know actually ended up happening at the hands of the Romans in 70 A.D. 
One of the major questions the writer of Mark tackles throughout the entire gospel account is the question of “Where is God?”  For the Jews of Jesus’ day, the answer was easy.  God was in the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem.  But what about after the destruction of the temple?  Where was God then?  Mark tells us that when Jesus was baptized, the heavens were “torn open,” and when Jesus died on the cross, the curtain in the temple, the one that protected the priest from God, was “torn in two.”  Our reading from Isaiah today begins with asking God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”  Mark proclaims that’s exactly what God did.  In baptism and on the cross, God tore open the heavens and came down.  In Christ, God became incarnate, took on human flesh, and came to us and for us.  We experience that today in our own baptism, through the bread and wine of Holy Communion, through God’s call to us as individuals and God’s mission for us as the church.  The coming of Christ means the end of the world as we know it.
And that’s what Jesus is telling us in our gospel reading.  There’s an insight into this text that I wish I could claim as my own, but I owe to professor and theologian David Lose.  He points out that Jesus gives four specific examples when he’s saying we don’t know when the master will come.  It could be in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn.  And the writer of Mark, interestingly enough, divides the story of Jesus’ death into four sections:
 1) Last Supper, beginning, "When it was evening, he came with the twelve..." (14:17).
2) Jesus' prayer and betrayal: "And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy" (14:40). Why so tired? Because it was the middle of the night.
3) Jesus' trial and Peter's denial: "But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, 'I do not know this man you are talking about.' At that moment the cock crowed for the second time" (14:71-72a).
4) Trial before Pilate: "As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate" (15:1).[1]
Very interesting, as one way to read Jesus’ warning is to hear him declaring that his return -- when the heavens shake and the sun is darkened -- is precisely the moment when he is nailed to the cross and we see God's love poured out for us and all the world.  The coming of Christ means the end of the world as we know it.
As for the actual end of the world?  Jesus’ message was quite clear, especially as many Jews assumed that the destruction of the temple just had to be a sign of it.  About that day or hour nobody knows, so quit trying to read the signs, quit trying to tell the future, quit trying to trap God into a corner and dictate the way things must be.  It’s all a waste of time and energy.  Yet he says in verses 35 and 37 to keep awake.  If it’s not for trying to read the signs of the end, what is it for?  Like servants who aren’t sure when the master’s coming home, or to put it in terms I can understand, like a husband with a honey-do list who’s not sure exactly when his wife will be home from running errands, we are called to an active waiting.  Advent isn’t about sitting around letting the world go to hell in a handbasket because Jesus is eventually going to come and rescue us from all of this anyway.  In the end, it’s about stewardship.
The coming of Christ means the end of the world as we know it.  Gone are our claims that our time is our own, that our possessions are our own, that our money, our families, our work, our energy, our very lives are our own.  That’s what the world would try to tell us.  That’s the way of the old Adam and the old Eve.  The new world, our new lives ushered in through the cross, make every day an advent.  Every day we hear the call to love our neighbor, to serve those in need, to use the gifts we have been given and entrusted with for the hungry the naked, the thirsty, those in prison—all of the least of these that we heard about in last week’s gospel.  Every day the heavens are ripped open and Christ turns our lives upside-down with the restless, unstoppable love of God.  How do we respond?  Do we respond in fear, hoard what we have been given and turn in on ourselves?  Or do we respond in trust, use what we have been given for those around us and turn outward, just as Christ on the cross looks outward and gives of himself for the sake of all?
The coming of Christ means the end of the world as we know it.
And I feel fine.
Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

[1] Lose, David.  If the World Were to End, 2011.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Sermon from 1-1-12: What Child Is This?

What Child Is This?

“What child is this, who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping? Whom angels greet with anthems sweet while shepherds’ watch are keeping?”
What child IS this?  The babe, the son of Mary, the one born in Bethlehem to a young, unmarried couple  far from home in a dark, smelly stable that was usually home to smelly animals? 

“This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing. Haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe the son of Mary.”

We have the audacity to claim that this is the way a king was born.  We have the nerve to insist that this was not only A king, but it was in fact THE king, the messiah, not just A son of God but THE very Son of God, the Word made flesh, the same Word and God who was present at the beginning of creation, the very same who will be present at the end of all things.  We have said it so often, we have heard it so often, that I think it sometimes loses its impact on us.  THIS is the method by which we claim God chose to break into our dark world and to establish God’s kingdom.  In the form of a small, frail infant born to unimportant parents from an unimportant part of an unimportant country occupied by the most important empire of its time.
It makes no sense. It’s so backwards.  It’s so inefficient.  It’s so NOT the way I would have done things.

And maybe that’s the point.

If the Kingdom of God is a kingdom lived out in faith, then its king is a king who needs to be seen through the eyes of faith. 

Scripture tells us that not long after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph brought him to the temple “to present him to the Lord23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”),24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”  This was a young couple with a new baby doing what God required of all young Jewish parents.  Remember, this was the same young couple who BEFORE Jesus’ birth had angels coming to them to tell them that this child was going to be something different, something special, someone born of the Holy Spirit.  If anyone could have claimed some sort of special dispensation for this presentation at the Temple, it would have been Mary and Joseph.  But there they were, fulfilling for their child the law that had come FROM their child.  And then in walks Simeon. He sees Mary and Joseph, and their little baby.

And then we discover that Simeon had those eyes.  The eyes of faith, the eyes of expectation, the vision of hope and promise and fulfillment and restoration.  He sees something special in Jesus.  He sees the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to him, that he would not see death before he saw the Messiah.  He sees the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed one, in the face of this little child with the young, nervous, decidedly unimportant parents.  And he grabs the baby and holds him, saying, ““Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;30for my eyes have seen your salvation,31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

He can die in peace.  Through the eyes of faith, he has seen the messiah.

And it’s not done there.  There was a prophet named Anna at the Temple as well.  When Simeon made his proclamation, she joined in, telling about the child to “all those who were looking for the redemption of Israel.”  She had the eyes of faith and began speaking to others who had those same eyes, who were looking, waiting for God to act.

When we see the world through the eyes of faith, when we like Simeon and Anna find the messiah in an everyday baby born to everyday parents, we see God’s kingdom in ways and in places that the world does not expect. 

We see the face of Jesus not hidden away in a church sanctuary, but in the face of the homeless man on the street. We see Jesus in our brothers and sisters who are suffering because of war, who face uncertainty or hunger or poverty.  We see Jesus in the face of our enemies.  We see the kingdom of God in the hidden shadows, tucked away in the places we might otherwise consider unimportant.

The eyes of faith transform how we see the world, allowing us to see it the same way God sees it. 

There’s an old legend that says Simeon would take EVERY baby that came to the Temple for the purification rites and bless it…that Jesus was just one in a series of many babies that Simeon blessed in the way we read about today.  It is what it is, an old legend with no basis for the claim, but there’s a part of me that really likes thinking about it that way.  Would it make what he said about Jesus any less special?  No—Jesus was who he was, no matter what Simeon said about him or anyone else, it would have been true no matter what.  But if Simeon blessed EVERY child, if he saw EVERY child through the eyes of faith,  as a blessing and a light for the world, what would that mean for us? What would that mean for how we see the kingdom of God, what would that mean for how we see those around us, what would that mean for how we see the least and the lost and the suffering and the sick?

The eyes of faith transform how we see the world, allowing us to see it the same way God sees it. 

When I’ve gone with our youth on mission trips, every evening when we’re looking back on the day, I’ve always asked them one question: “Where did you see God today?”  Let me tell you, the youth in this congregation have the gift of the eyes of faith.  Like Simeon, they have seen the face of the Messiah in faces many would not expect—the man with AIDS at Project Hope in san Francisco, the unpredictable girl with fetal alcohol syndrome in Pine Ridge, the street musician in New Orleans.  They’ve seen the face of the Messiah in each other’s faces as together they’ve done what they could to help those in need. They’ve seen the face of the Messiah in your faces as you’ve supported them and prayed for them and taught them and have been living, walking examples of the Kingdom of God in your own lives.

The eyes of faith look at a baby in Bethlehem as see the face of God.  The eyes of faith look at water and promise and see cleansing of sin and adoption into the Kingdom of God. The eyes of faith look at bread and wine and see body and blood, broken and shed for you.  The eyes of faith look at a man on a cross, dying a criminal’s death, and they see the Son of God bringing new life and hope and salvation.  The eyes of faith look at an empty tomb and see the fullness of God defeating the powers of sin and death. 

The eyes of faith look at Christmas…and see the shadows of Easter.

“Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne, for me, for you. Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the Babe, the son of Mary.”

Matt Schur
Our Saviour's Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE