You fools.

Here’s what I preached at my internship site, on Luke 12:13-21.

Grace and peace to you from our Lord God, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’m going to guess that I’m not the only one who has a hard time whittling things down. Like many other young adults in the month of July, our place is full of moving boxes, with very full recycling and trash bins.

As I’m going through my things and nic nacs, I found a graduation tassel that says in gold letters “09.” It’s probably been years since I touched it, and a total of 7 years since it actually served a function. But as my fingers sifted through the floppy cotton lines, I was reminded of a really great day of family, and friends, and joining my sister as the second generation of our family to earn bachelors degrees. Should I toss it? Should I keep it?

This is why it’s so hard to throw away things. Because things have meaning and they tell us stories of who we are.

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Graduating from college in 2009

But still, although I decided to keep that graduation tassel, I’m reminded that those things aren’t all of who I am. I am not my things. Even though they give me a sense of security, I am not my things. And that doesn’t mean they don’t have meaning, but when they become the only place that we seek to find out who we are, we’re ultimately disappointed and the answer we seek is incomplete every time.

We realize that we have foolishly raised the finite, Earthly things, our things, to the same level as God.

And I’m afraid that’s the trap that our rich friend has fallen into today found in the 12th chapter of Luke.

Jesus is asked by a nameless man what he should do about his unfair share of his family’s inheritance in the middle of a chaotic, loud crowd. Jesus responds with a parable where a rich man steps back and surveys his abundant crop from a good year. He realizes he doesn’t have enough storage space, so the solution he comes up with is to build not one but many bigger and better barns. All the barns!

Now this parable isn’t just about any person, but a rich man. This is not surprising seeing that we’re in the book of Luke—a gospel that is all about the Great Reversal that Jesus taught about, preached about, and exemplified in his death and resurrection. At the event of the cross, the sin and greediness of the world, and broken relationships were reconciled and made whole in Christ. For a poor man from Galilee, God’s love was poured out into this savior of the world, upending the Roman’s expectations of what a King could look like and do for all humankind.

In our world in the 21st century where those with money and means are featured in the media, those who are looked upon with favor here in Luke are the poor, the widow, and people like Mary, Jesus’ own mother. Luke challenges and reverses our understanding of who is favored, as Mary sang with her relative Elizabeth that “God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” We hear about Zacchaeus, the beatitudes where the poor, not the rich, are given the Kingdom of God. Luke’s interest of reversing our expectations of what it means to be rich is shown once again in this unique parable that Jesus shares with a crowd.

It’s as if Luke knew that we would struggle with money and possessions. It’s as if Jesus knew we would struggle in our relationships with money and possessions.

Money is one of those things that touches almost every part of our lives. We make retirement and career decisions with it. We feel more secure with it. We make decisions about where we live and vacation with it.

Even more so, we care what our family or friends will think if they know we have to shop at that grocery store, or use that kind of payment, or what if they knew my credit score, or find out that I don’t know what a credit score is? Sometimes, or all the time, it can feel like we never have enough money or possessions. There’s always something you can’t afford, or is always just beyond our reach. That hunt to feel satisfied, to feel like you have enough, can be a hunt that we’re so embedded in, that we can be blind to the fact that the hunt is all we’re on. This hunt is the only way that we find meaning, or feel joy in our days. Money, and possessions, happiness and identity are tied together in a web that can feel all too mysterious and overwhelming to sort out.

Money and our stuff–touches a very vulnerable part of us. It has the power, if we let it, to tell us who we are.

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Today though, we are shown that it’s only in God, in the death and resurrection of Christ, it is proclaimed to us who we are. A theology of the cross here tells a thing what it is. And God doesn’t take that lightly. God tells us the truth… which on any other day I would say God says I love you! Or You are a part of my flock.

But today, God tells us the truth that we are fools.

And mind you, this is the only time God says anything directly in a parable in the entire book of Luke. And God uses these choice words to address the rich man: “You fool.”

Now, this might feel a little harsh, but it’s a good thing! Otherwise we (and likewise the rich man too) might convince ourselves we have perfect relationship with money, which just isn’t true. God tells us the truth: we are fools.

So often we breeze over this proclamation and go straight to the ominous warning “This very night your life is being demanded of you…”

Before this God tells us up front, plain and clear: You fools.

You fools who value your money and possessions for their ability to ground your whole identity and not for their ability to make you grateful for the bigger meaning and story they connect you too.

You fools who make isolated decisions from your neighbor and your God, and instead of sharing your abundant crop and share, you build your own bigger barn.

This rich man with his bigger and better barns points for us to futility of our choices, and our utter dependence and need of Christ.

Because on our own we can’t stop making poor choices about money. Because on our own we can’t stop defining ourselves by our possessions or bank accounts.

In prayer and in rich relationships that are quantified by time and not a price tag—it’s there we listen and experience the invaluable gift of Christ. Where God takes our greediness and ill-directed attempts at figuring out who we are, and in the cross, through Christ turns them into proclamations that tell us the truth that “You are a fool” and “You are loved.”

Through Christ, God turns them into opportunities for connection, making decisions about money and possessions in conversation with our neighbors, and giving us eyes to see how we understand ourselves through the lens of Christ—a lens that is always infused with unconditional love, as we are both looked upon with favor, and told “You are a fool.” We can’t do this alone, and through Christ our relationship with our neighbors, with money, and our relationship with God is made right.

Right up front, Luke writes in chapter one that the reason he writes this gospel is “So that you may know the truth.” There is no other purpose to tell the story of Jesus than to tell the truth. And that’s what God does for us today. We are told the truth that we are fools—and what better fool to be than a fool for Christ.

A fool that proclaims that light can defeat the darkness.

A fool that sees the cross and doesn’t see death but sees life eternal.

A fool that sees 5 loaves and 2 fish and is confident it can feed 5,000 people.

May we see the truth that we are fools, and see even more clearly Christ’s love working through our relationships and our lives. Amen.

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Connections

In this fifth week of learning about church administration, I’m learning about ministry teams and external relationships for congregations. If you want to follow along, this week I’m reading and reflecting on the chapters titled, “Ministry Teams: Teeming with Talent,” and “External Relationships: Loving Thy Institutional Neighbor” (pgs. 201-240) of Church Administration by Robert N. Bacher and Michael L. Cooper-White.

I really enjoyed this week’s reading; I think partly because reading and writing has been a relatively relaxing activity compared to some other roles and projects I have been a part of in the last few days! I preached on Saturday and Sunday, and was the solo pastor out at my internship site’s second site 15 miles north of the main site in a more suburban/rural area.

Also, Saturday all day was our synod’s Educational Gathering, at which I assisted my husband’s workshop on social media, and led my own on “Being Lutheran in Today’s World.” I know, terribly broad topic, but we got through it—okay it actually went really well and the connections made in the room make me optimistic for how congregations and our wider church might celebrate and observe the 500th anniversary of the reformation come October 2017.

I'm not sure why, but this makes me think of reformation.

I’m not sure why, but this makes me think of reformation.

Speaking of connections, these two chapters, especially the second, are all about connections. The authors ground their argument for vibrant external organizational and church body relations by directing the reader to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a theologian, pastor, and founding member of the Confessing Church which protested against the Nazi party in the 1940’s. Nothing like bringing the heat by quoting Bonhoeffer! These authors don’t hold back. They write, “we cannot escape responsibility by asking questions about who is the neighbor [Luke 10:29]. The neighbor is at hand and far away. The neighbor’s presence (and need) breaks through our preoccupation with internal matters” (219).

True, this might sound a little trite, because ignoring internal matters may inhibit our capacity to serve our neighbors out there—but even then, I am making Bonhoeffer’s point for him. We are called to change “you” to “we,” “my” to “our,” and from “me” to “us.” Congregations maximize their efforts to serve their neighbor when they engage with external relationships, including institutional relationships (like synods, churchwide, non-profits, or for-profits with aligned values). When congregations engage with external relationships, new perspectives are gained, new questions arise, and possibilities to serve each other abound, knowing that we all have something to share [For a psych/social perspective, check out Robert Kegan]. At our synod’s Educational Gathering, we sang this hymn that has since rang in my ears, for better or worse:

Let us go now to the banquet, to the feast of the universe. The table’s set and a place is waiting; come, everyone, with your gifts to share.

The table is set and a place is waiting – come share your gift. Which, I know, the worst part of me wonders, “What kind of gift can they share?”

I guess what I’m trying to say is that when we open up ourselves to love and follow Jesus, we open ourselves to be changed by our neighbors, who also show us the face of Christ. Individual neighbors, external organizational relationships, institutional bodies, you name it. Engaging with external relationships open up a congregation to be changed. But isn’t that the posture in a weekly worship service? Don’t we confess our sin of being human, full of shame, pride, greediness, and ask for forgiveness that turns us radically outward to embrace and serve others? Don’t we pray in the Lord’s prayer “your [God’s] will be done on Earth as it is in heaven,” a will that is not ours, but a will that is always is driving to change our hearts to be for the least of these and bring the good news of new life and everlasting life to every person whom we meet?

At the end of four steps to build external relationships (231-233), the authors end with the step of “involvement,” saying, “A warning: they will change your organization.” Now, I may or may not have let out a tiny gasp when I read that, honestly, “Oh no, is he talking about my church?” But how many times will we choose the posture “Not my church” instead of “Yes, Lord, my church!” I literally wrote this in the margin:

[Star]

OH gosh.

Risk

is for the

sake of

the gospel?

Eek.

oh boy.

YAY

YEA.

That last one was triple underlined, and think I’ve reached the edges of WordPress’ editing tools. Either way, believing in the good news, which the predicates sharing the good news, involves risk. It involves risking your identity because in some way you can and will be changed by the relationships you make with individual neighbors, communal neighbors, institutional bodies, and external groups.

I’m all for it, but I don’t have a congregation yet! Ask me in a year if I think this is a good risk, with a worth while opportunity cost (see Timothy, I’m learning economic words). I’m hopeful I will say “You betcha.” or “Yes, and I ask God to help and guide me,” or a simple, “Why didn’t I say yes earlier?”

In what ways are you connected beyond yourself to others? In what way is your church, or the church, connected beyond itself? Has this been a positive or negative thing? How does making connections open the door for change?

 

Source:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, enlarged ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 381-383.

Advent Week 2: Love, the start

We’re in week two of the Advent season, and the theme is love.

I wonder if love often starts small and grows big. I mean, I see big gestures of love and that’s awesome. But love doesn’t often start big and stay big, at least not that I most often experience it.

But starts are hard. Starting something new is scary. Meeting someone new is scary. Starting a project is scary.

For instance, it’s tough just to start my research paper for my online Immigration and Religion in America class. You might say “It’s not that bad,” to which I would offer, “People in America, leaders in America, are talking about registering Muslims just because of their faith, and Syrian refugees need a place to live and sleep and work, and this was supposed to be an easy 1/2 credit class!!”

I’ve never been great at starting papers, or projects, or new things. But once I’m into them, I’m pretty good at charging forward.

It’s tough to spot God’s love for us sometimes too. Was that- Did I just- Did you-

Is that God’s love right there? Did you see that too?

It would be easy to miss. It was hiding in a stable (or a cave) – not the usual place that women deliver babies. It was hiding in the arms of the kind of person who you would least expect to be holding the King of Kings and Lord of Lords: an unwed teenage mother.

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The incarnation, God’s love for the world, in this little baby named Jesus, started small. But just because it started small, doesn’t mean that it didn’t grow and grow, to be a love so big that we can’t see the end of it.

The world needs this small start of love. We celebrate love incarnate at Christmas as God came and experienced the full range of the human experience through the person of Jesus.

But God, if you are incarnate, where are you? Where are you manifest today in this dark world?

I don’t want to miss the universe’s biggest surprise: through the tiniest, most vulnerable being, came God’s own Son, bringing salvation and light to all, all, not just some. Not just those people. Not just these people. Not just the people proclaiming #blacklivesmatter. Not just the people proclaiming #alllivesmatter. Not just those who are for welcoming Syrian refugees. Not just those who are against Syrian refugees. The reach of this light obliterates our perceptions of “us vs. them” because in God, there is no boundary between God’s love and the world, God’s own good creation. We will share and proclaim this Advent and Christmas that in this baby, this world just became a little bit brighter.

Even though it’s hard to see the start, in a world full of fear, love is in all of this.