Monday, August 27, 2012

August 26, 2012 sermon--"Come and See!"

An example of what evangelism is NOT.
Come and See!

August 25-26, 2012

Text is below--audio can be found at this link.

I’m a big, big Nebraska Cornhuskers football fan. Ever since moving to Nebraska when I was in 4th grade, I’ve followed the Huskers, cheered the victories and grumbled at the losses. I love to talk about the team, I love to go to the games when I can—in fact, I’ll often lose my voice by game’s end from cheering so loud.
January 1, 1995 was a big day for me as a Husker fan. The Huskers were in the Orange Bowl, playing Miami after a perfect season. Win this game and they were national champions. Anticipation was high, especially since the Huskers had made it to the same point the previous season, only to have their title hopes dashed as a last-second field goal attempt sailed wide.

At the end of the third quarter, Miami led, 17-9, and things didn’t look all that good for Nebraska. But then, plays began to open up for the offense. With about 7 ½ minutes left in the game, Cory Schlesinger scored on a run up the middle, and the two point conversion afterwards tied up the game. Miami wasn’t able to do anything with their next possession, and when the Huskers got the ball back, they drove down the field, running it right at the tired Miami defense. With a little over 2 ½ minutes left in the game, this happened:

With the play that my wife and I still refer to as the “Schlesinger Roll,” Nebraska took the lead for the first time in the game, and ended up winning. Here’s Kent Pavelka’s call of the final seconds:

That wasn’t just fake emotion he was mustering up. As the game ended, celebrations erupted across the state. Over 10,000 people spontaneously gathered at the intersection of 72nd and Dodge in Omaha, and thousands more converged on 13th and O here in Lincoln. Complete strangers gave each other hugs and high fives. I was at my parents’ house in Bellevue, and we ran outside, cheering with the other neighbors.

When we see or experience joy, when we hear or experience good news, we want to share it with others. When something affects us so profoundly, we want to tell others, we want to invite others into our joy, so that they too may become a part of it. It might be something as relatively small as a football game. It might be something like a birth announcement or an engagement, or a new job, or a promotion. Birthdays, anniversaries, all of our life’s mile markers are things that we seek out others with whom we can celebrate. It comes naturally to us.

Why then, is talking about our faith often not the same?

Today is the last topic in our summer series on Faith Questions You Were Afraid to Ask But Your Kids Weren’t, and the question we’re “tackling” (to continue the football metaphor) is the question of evangelism. What exactly does evangelism mean? Why is it so difficult for many of us?

For too many Christians as well as for many outside the Christian faith, the word “evangelism” has become a dirty word. It brings for many people negative connotations, people knocking on doors or carrying signs or trying to argue someone into the faith or beating their neighbor over the head with a Bible until it finally sinks in. But the word “evangelism” isn’t any of that at all. It comes from a Greek word which means, “one who is the bringer of good news.” In fact, the root is the same as where we get the word “angel.” Our church thinks so highly of the word that we have incorporated it into the name of our wider church body—we are part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Evangelism ought to be part of our spiritual DNA—so why, so often, is it missing?

You, my friends, are evangelists! You are the bringers of good news! That doesn’t mean being pushy, it doesn’t mean arguing or violence or much of what the world tends to associate with evangelism. It’s about experiencing joy, about experiencing transformation, about experiencing God’s amazing love and grace and forgiveness, it’s about being a part of God’s promise that God is making all things new, and simply wanting to share that. Wanting to not keep this incredible gift to yourself. Wanting to experience this in a community, and wanting others to be able to share in the freedom through the cross that you yourself know. It’s about extending the same simple invitation that Philip extended to Nathaniel: “come and see.”

“Come and see.” The day before the events in our reading, two disciples of John the Baptist had been so captivated by Jesus’ encounter with them when he had come to John that they had followed him. One of those disciples was named Andrew, and he had gone and found his brother Simon. Apparently, word must have spread through their hometown of Bethsaida, because in our reading today another resident of that town, Philip, has his own encounter with Jesus. And what is Philip’s reaction? He runs and finds his friend Nathanael, telling him excitedly, “We’ve found the one! The one that Moses and the prophets wrote about! It’s Jesus, from Nazareth!”

He is so excited, so filled with joy, that he can’t just keep it to himself. He has to share that with someone, and so he shares it with Nathanael, whose response is just like popping a balloon: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Nazareth? That town? Really? Come on, Philip—you’ve come to me all excited about this? Seriously?

Philip would have had every reason to get defensive, or to argue with Nathanael, or to attack, or to claim that Nathanael was persecuting him, or complain that he wasn’t being taken seriously. Indeed, those are some of the reactions that Christians unfortunately often have to those who question our proclamation of good news. But instead, Philip simply says, “Come and see.”

When you know you’ve got a good thing, when you are so certain that the news you have REALLY IS good news, then this good news can speak for itself on its own merits. It doesn’t require you to argue your way through it. It doesn’t require you to try to trick someone into believing, or to scare them into believing, or to strongarm them into believing. “Come and see.” If the cross really is good news, if God’s promises of newness and freedom and justice and mercy really are good news, if we really believe that God so loved the world that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life, if we really take to heart that it is by grace that we have been saved through faith, and this is not of our own doing, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one may boast, if we really have taken to heart the things that Jesus said and did, his life and ministry and death and resurrection, then evangelism becomes the same simple invitation that Philip extended to Nathanael: “come and see.”

We Lutherans should be on the evangelical front lines. We understand this grace stuff. We get the cross. We are theologians of the cross—Martin Luther said a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is, and so we are able to see things the way they really are. We can see sin and call it sin. We can see pain and disease and suffering and we have no need to whitewash it. We know we are broken people and we live in a broken world. We know that there is nothing about the cross to suggest that a life spent following in the way of Jesus means sunshine and rainbows and unicorns. But we also hear God’s promises, and we see the empty tomb on Easter. We gather around the communion table, where all are invited, all are welcome, all are told, “come and see.” We cling to the promise that there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We see God’s transformation even in the midst of the brokenness, we acknowledge that we are saints at the very same time that we are sinners, we look to the cross as God’s ultimate yes to humankind’s no.

That’s good news. And that’s something we just can’t keep to ourselves. When we’ve experienced something so profound, so life changing, so WORLD changing, the very way we are wired compels us to share it. That’s evangelism. It’s simply the invitation to come and see.

So then, we need to ask: is this story that we’re inviting people into a compelling one? Does it have meat? Does it match up with their experience of life and humanity? Does it take seriously the big questions of existence? But is it at the same time personal? That’s the beauty of Holy Communion for me—on the one hand, it’s universal. It’s a picture of all of humanity gathered around the great table in a giant celebration of life and love and Jesus’ victory over the powers of sin and death. On the other hand, at the very same time, it’s intensely personal. It is FOR YOU. Not just anyone…you. Our faith stories are the same way. God is at work in the world—we know that. God is about the business of making all things new. But God is also at work in your life. God is at work in the lives of those you meet. How do we tell that story? How do we invite others to “come and see?”

We can tell through our words. We can simply share our own experiences.  Not what we have done, but what God has done…in us, and for us, and yes even sometimes through us. And we can also tell through our actions. That’s how every act of kindness, every act of mercy, every act of sharing, of breaking down the walls that divide us, of bringing peace…that’s how these are all acts of evangelism. Because they don’t just proclaim the good news, they embody the good news. They make the good news of God in Christ incarnate, enfleshed.

This weekend, our congregation’s third graders will be given Bibles by their parents. My son will be one of those kids receiving a Bible. In doing so, the invitation continues to be extended to “come and see.” Also this weekend, we’re privileged to be helping to host the Nebraska Synod field trip, which is focusing on prison ministry. Come and see. Come and see what God is up to. Come and see and hear and experience.

We’re just messengers. Inviters. Proclaimers. God’s the one who does the work—we don’t convert. We don’t change others. We don’t transform them. All we do is what we’re wired to do. We just share our joyful freedom. We just invite. We live. We love. And we rejoice together.

Come and see.

Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

Sunday, August 05, 2012

August 5, 2012 sermon--"Up the Down Staircase"

The "down staircase" at Bellevue West High School

Up The Down Staircase
August 4-5, 2012

I went to high school in Bellevue at Bellevue West (Go Thunderbirds!). While I was there, all of the lockers were on one level in the same commons area, and most of the classrooms were on the level directly above that commons area. There were two huge, wide staircases connecting the two levels. Students would hang out in the commons area until it was almost time for class, then head up the staircases for class to start. When the bell rang as each class period ended and especially at the end of the day, a giant mass of humanity would descend the stairs all at once. We were packed together going down those stairs—it was a sight to behold. Someone could have jumped on top and body-surfed all the way down without ever having their feet touch the floor, had they wanted. If, for some reason, you were at the bottom of the stairs and tried to go up at the same time as class was getting out and 1,200 or so of your closest friends were heading down…well, it just couldn’t be done.  It wasn’t possible to go up the down staircase.

Today, in our sermon series on faith questions that you were afraid to ask but your kids weren’t, we come to the question of salvation. What is salvation? What does it mean? What do you have to do to go to heaven?

Just like it was at my high school, it’s not possible to go up the down staircase.

We have this tendency to think of salvation as this staircase we need to climb, with the top of the staircase eventually bringing us to God, to heaven. Maybe we think of baptism as the first step, or for some folks, maybe it’s when they realized that they trusted God, that faith meant something to them. A lot of times, we look at how we live our lives—the good that we do, or the prayers that we say, or the lives that we touch in a positive way—as steps up that staircase. And then we consider our individual sins—what we have done and what we have left undone, not loving God with our whole heart, not loving our neighbors as ourselves—and we see them as steps down that staircase. And so we live our lives, taking a few steps forward, taking a few steps back, working hard and hopefully progressing so that one day at the last we can reach where God wants us to be.

In this model, Scripture becomes a rulebook, a guide to climbing the stairs…and our lives, at least if we’re really serious about it, if we’re really serious about our faith and about God, they become consumed by this quest.

But the thing is, for God, this staircase is a down staircase. We don’t go up, God comes down. It’s not possible to go up the down staircase. The gospel, the good news of God in Christ Jesus, isn’t that Jesus finally gives us a way to get up that staircase, it’s that God in Jesus came down. Immanuel. God with us.
And even for Christians, this is hard to understand. We are people who claim grace through faith as our life and our heritage, but our minds still tend to operate as though law, and not grace, has the final say.

When I speak of “law” here, I’m talking about much more than the rules that we find in the Bible. Those are certainly laws, but I’m speaking in broader categories, speaking of law in the way Martin Luther thought of it. In his eyes, the law is what kills the old Adam in us. The law is whatever word convicts us of our complete inability to get it right. The law tells me, “Matt, you are a sinner. You have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.”

The law operates on an if/then basis. If you do this, then you will get that. That’s language we understand. If I’m good, then God will bless me, if I’m bad, God won’t. If I’m good, I’m climbing the staircase, I’m getting closer to God. If I sin, I’m going down the staircase.

But because God came down the staircase to us, because in the cross God has met us where we are, our relationship with God is no longer based on an if/then. It’s not a matter of if I do this, then God will do that.
Our relationship with God isn’t an if/then. Our relationship with God is a because/therefore.

Because God came down the staircase in Jesus, because Jesus died on the cross, because Jesus defeated the power of sin and death once and for all, therefore you have been saved from your sin, you have been saved from needing life and faith and salvation to be about you.

You have been freed from yourself.

You no longer have to worry about the staircase, about trying to scratch and claw your way up. You no longer have to worry about whether you’ve done enough, about the number of good God points or bad sin points you’ve accumulated. In Christ, YOU ARE a new creation!  And this new creation isn’t caught in the game of point-keeping or stair-stepping.

In our reading, Paul describes what Luther called the “happy exchange.” Happy exchange is an actual, technical, theological term, even if it doesn’t sound too technical. The term makes me think of the painter who used to be on PBS, Bob Ross, if he was standing in the returns line at Kohls the day after Christmas—“I’m here to make a happy little exchange.” But the meaning of the term is incredibly profound. This is earthshattering stuff. In 2 Cor. 5:21, Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”   God took all of our junk, all of our evil, all of our sin, and gave it all to Jesus. And at the same time, God took all of Jesus’ righteousness and gave it to us. 

That’s the exchange—God takes on our sin, we take on God’s righteousness, and so we end up seeing those things together at the same time in ourselves. We are, Luther tells us, at the very same time, both sinner and saint. We are at the same time Old Adam and New Creation. The law of sin and the gospel of righteousness are both at work within us all at the same time, and so salvation is not a process, it’s not a staircase to climb. It is what lets Paul write, “See, now is the acceptable time. NOW is the day of salvation!”

Most importantly, salvation is not up to us. Ephesians 2 tells us that we are saved by grace through faith, and it’s not of our own doing—it is a gift from God. Not by our own works, so that no one may boast. If it WERE up to us, we would be right back to trying to go up the down staircase. If it were up to us, the cross wouldn’t be something new and transformational. Instead, it would be a method of self-help for us. If it were up to us, we would be right back to living under the if/then of the law. Instead, we are assured of this: because Jesus died, because Jesus now lives, because God came to us, because of the cross and the resurrection and the promises of God, therefore we have been made right with God. We have been reconciled with God. God has done it, completely on God’s initiative, because of God’s infinite love for humankind.

Our law-driven, if/then minds have such a hard time grasping this truth. Surely, we think, there must be something we have to do to make it happen. Just say a prayer, or just repent, or just…something. But we cannot add anything to the grace already shown us in Christ and still call it grace. A gift with conditions is no longer a gift. And so anytime we hear someone begin a statement about salvation with the words, “All you have to do is…” let those hairs stand up on the back of your neck because you’re about to hear an if/then law statement, and while the law is what drives us to the foot of the cross, while the law is what grabs us by the collar and confronts us with our deep sinfulness, the law is not what has the final say in our lives. We do not climb up the down staircase. Christ comes to us. All you have to do is…absolutely nothing. Jesus has already done it all and therefore you are forgiven even before you realized you needed forgiveness, you are loved through no doing of your own, you are redeemed and restored and made new through Christ who came down the staircase and met you in your sin.

We are saved by grace through faith, but when we understand faith as trust as we talked about last week, then faith is simply our response to what God has already done. It is our trust in God’s promises, it is our trust in the cross, it is our trust that it’s not up to us. Faith is not simply yet another work, it’s not simply some other hoop to jump through to make us acceptable to God. Faith is our response to the God who has come down to us.

Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in baptism. It is not baptism that saves us. Baptism is not fire insurance. It is a means of grace, a drowning of the old Adam in the waters and the raising of a new creation. When E. is baptized this morning, we will see the happy exchange right there in action in her life. But although we’re only baptized once, at the same time in a very real way it’s also something that’s continuous, ongoing. Daily we sin, daily the law convicts us of our sin, daily we drown the old and are brought to life in the new, daily we are simultaneously sinner and saint.

Our trust in the promises God makes to us in baptism, the promises of forgiveness and new life, call us into lives of reconciliation as God’s ambassadors. We are bearers of God’s promises, we carry in us and with us and through us the promises of new life for the world. And so together we can proclaim with the apostle Paul, “Now! Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!”

Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE