Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Is God male or female?

Chapel at Grand View University this semester focuses on common questions students ask about the faith. This sermon was delivered September 25, 2018.

Our question we’re tackling today is this: “Is God male or female?” The easy answer is “No.” Thank you very much. Have a nice walk to your next class. And enjoy the extra ten minutes. Amen.

Of course, the answer is no because God is God and not a creature. Back in ancient Greece, Xenophanes, who lived a few hundred years before Christ, could have told you that. A couple weeks ago, my Ancient and Medieval Philosophy students learned that Xenophanes argued that it’s just wrong to think of the Greek gods as having human bodies. And thinking the sun is Apollo’s fiery chariot streaking across the sky isn’t much better. If our own God is going to be God, then we’d also be wise about assigning gender to a being who’s way more than a binary creature with either internal or external plumbing or X and Y chromosomes.

In Genesis we hear that God made human beings male and female and that they were made in God’s image. But that doesn’t mean that we’re male and female because God is multi-gendered. No, we have to look a few words later and see what God says about all that was created. When God’s divine identity was expressed out into the cosmos, God declared that it was all “tov me’od,” or “waaayy good.” God’s creation, including platypuses and pachyderms, spiny echidnas, and your high school cafeteria lady, is totes good. And so are you, no matter what body parts you have.

The hard thing about our question is that it assumes we can actually figure out something about God that God apparently isn’t interested in letting us in on. If only we knew whether God was male or female, then, depending on God’s gender, we could decide that women are manipulating she-devils or that men are full of toxically masculine demonic rage. And whichever one doesn’t match God can go back to hell where Satan’s spawn belong.

But our Bible passage this morning gives us some hope. In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul assumes we’re going to ask all kinds of questions that want to get at something about God’s essential nature. Stuff like, “Why did God let my cousin die so young?” and “If I prayed so hard for a homecoming date, why am I sitting at home with Ben and Jerry as my companions?” For Paul, no matter what our questions, when we try to get beyond the veil, all we’re going to find is ourselves. “For now, we see in a mirror dimly.” When we ask a question like ours, the only answer will be a reflection of ourselves. It’s all part of the limits of our thinking that God established in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve were told not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We ask questions, and God will answer with silence.

But there’s hope in our verse. We look into that mirror and get a faint echo of God’s being. That means that we can learn something about God from human characteristics, even the most grievously stereotypical attributes we slap on the genders. We can learn about God from muscle-bound dudes and sentimental, weepy guys. We can learn about God from care-taking women and take-charge women. And those aren’t the only places we can learn about what God’s like. The opening litany we prayed today gives us a mighty list of things God has done that open up a vision of who God is. It’s admittedly a dim vision, but they’re clues nonetheless. It’s as if God were wearing many and various masks in this creation that show just as many and varied facets of who God is.

When we get no response to our question, maybe God is silent because God wants us to look elsewhere. It’s a dangerous thing to get behind the veil and see God’s full power and might (and maybe even God’s gender). When Moses asked to see God up on Mount Sinai, he only got to see God’s rear end and, because of it, was so changed that the Israelites forced Moses to wear a veil over his face. He was just too scary. So God sends you to encounter God where you can come to know God’s fullness in a way that God wants to be known: in the person of Jesus. There you have God made flesh and bone, with all the requisite and specific body parts real human beings have. Which isn’t to say that the almighty God is male, but only that God showed up in this one, Jesus. And because he was male in that patriarchal society, he suffered humiliation and degradation on the cross in a way that it wasn’t possible to experience for a woman.

But maybe I’ve misunderstood the question today. Maybe the question is really about whether we can use language other than male terms to address God. If so, we have Jesus’ example. Certainly, he taught us to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven.” But Jesus also gave us the image of a hen bringing her chicks under her wings as a way to understand God’s great care for us. And we have the Old Testament witness of Proverbs that speaks about God as wisdom. In Hebrew, that word is “sophia.” Have you ever heard of a guy named Sophia? The point is that God doesn’t much care about our little pronouns and divisions of the creation according gender. God cares about whether you send your prayers God-ward at all.

Find a way to talk to God, all the while knowing that your words and images are a dim reflection of who God really is. If you don’t like calling God “Father” because your dad is a jerk, then know that God’s definition of father is so much greater than a fallible sperm donor. Know that a hen and her chicks is just one aspect of who God is. God is also a rooster crowing his delight at the sunrise and the rising of Jesus on Easter. The possibilities are endless. But the beginning comes only when you speak to God. And there you have an entire Bible to use as your source.

You can address God by pointing to what God has done. “Almighty God, who answered King David’s confession of adultery and murder with mercy, grant me forgiveness as well.” “Gracious Lord God who stayed faithful to the Israelites in exile, even when they thought you’d forgotten them, help me to trust that you remember me.” “Holy Spirit who drove Jesus to be tempted in the wilderness, I’m out of control and ask you to take the wheel and drive me, too.” “Divine One, who came to Moses in the burning bush, my life is pretty dark, and I need you to burn a little brighter for me, so I can hang on.” “Good Shepherd, I’m a stupid sheep who’s gotten lost. Please find me.”

See how it works?  You have resources for prayer and an utterly human brain with all its limitations. But God delights in hearing you. If neither heights nor depths, nor principalities, nor angels can separate you from God’s love in Christ Jesus, then your human language is a mighty small hurdle for God. However you speak, it’s enough. Give it a go. Just connect. Amen. And A-women.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Office of Preaching and the Church Today

This is a link to the lecture I presented to the Augustana District of Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC) at its annual convention on May 5, 2018, in Hutchinson, Minnesota. It follows up on LCMC's discussion of qualifications for ministry at its gathering last fall.

Click on this link

Saturday, April 7, 2018

A Beloved Aunt, a Grave, and the Two-Lazy-J Ranch,

My Uncle Arlen Rounds asked me to speak at my dear Aunt Ida Mae's funeral today. 

This afternoon Aunt Ida will take one last trip in this world, to Red Owl of all the little ignominious places in this big wide world. There she'll be laid down near my grandpa Buster and grandma Luberta in a fenced off section of West River pasture land on a day as wintery cold as the one twenty-odd years ago when we committed Grandpa to the earth — ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Come spring (yes, that's almost a prayer right now), come spring the snow will be a dim memory, and you'll be able to cast your eyes west and see thunderheads growing over the Hills to stretch over the vast blue sky. And around that fenced-in plot, for as far as you can see the yellow and white clover, the alfalfa, and the purple coneflowers will delight with color and wafting sweetness.

It's fitting for Aunt Ida to come full circle and await the resurrection in the land of central Meade County that so shaped her, as it did to so many of us. When you drive north and a little west of Red Owl, past Cammack's place and the intersection with the Stoneville school and what was the store and post office, you'll head around the curve at Stoneville Hill, and finally see the specific little ranch that shaped Ida, the 2-Lazy J Ranch nestled down on a creek bed. A ranch house that began as a pioneer dugout in the side of a hill. The garage. A couple granaries. The cabin, bum lamb shed, outhouse, barn. And north of all the buildings, the prairie dog mounds and bone pile.

In my college office in Iowa, up on the top shelf of too many books, I have a calf skull that came from that boneyard. Every time I glance its way, it nearly nods back, as if to say, "You, old man, come from the dirt and manure of the Jones ranch. You come from the warm morning stove in the ranch house. You come from summers baling hay and winters breaking ice in cattle troughs. Your epigenetic processes are shaped by opening gates so Uncle Bobby can drive the pickup through and by the struggle to get that blamed thing closed again. Your intestinal biome is fed by home canning and milk straight from an actual cow. Your sleep patterns were established up those steep steps in an antiques bed with a chamber pot under it at the ready. You may think you're at home in the world, but you won't be until you drive up that lane, get out of your car, and stand there just above the rusting cans and junk of the trash dump, next to the sandstone face Grandpa carved, creek in front of you and windbreak behind. You will breath in air as it should be and settle in to who you really are." I think you all need your own office skull to remind you of these things.

None of us ever understands how deeply we're shaped by place. When you take in the ranch you can see what made Aunt Ida. Joneses have always had to ride low to the ground. Ranch life ain't easy. So Aunt Ida became practical and resilient, happy with small pleasures. You don't survive for long in ranch country without the bonds created with those around you, like the Lees, the Vigs, the Orths, Youngs, and more from Red Owl to Fairpoint and Union Center to Opal. Ida knew the importance of those bonds of family and friendship. She carried it out everywhere she lived, in her college days at BH, in Custer, Ogden, Elko, Sitka, and Laramie. You could see her deep dependence on and joy in others in her connections in Does and Eastern Star and her love of the folks at that little congregation in Medicine Bow.

Last night as so many of us gathered under Dee's gracious roof, I recognized these same grounded, landed, and practical qualities of character around the room. Uncle Bobby's doesn't have much strength for story-telling, and since my dad died, I've depended on Ida Mae's storehouse of prairie family lore. This is, perhaps the one of the last times we'll gather all of us as the product of that land. But Aunt Ida will have been one of the homely channels that made us these people.

There's another cemetery up Boulder Canyon on a hill above Deadwood, and there's another gravestone marked with the name Ida. She was my Aunt Ida's grandmother, grandpa's mother Ida Cale. This is our other family plot, for baby Jimmy is buried there, too. Today we stand with arms stretched from plot to plot Ida to Ida. Thankful, yes. Sorrowful, certainly. But for me I'm mostly eager to see once again my beloved aunt. She, one of the last who had known me my whole life. Aunt Ida with the ready grin. Ida with Buster's twinkly eye. Ida who knew my parents' feet of clay and showed me how to loved them. Ida on whom the shadow of Grandma's own darkness and that of a passel of alcoholic blue-talking uncles sometimes descended. Ida of the embroidery, the bookkeeping, the following of a tall Forest Service man with eyes twinklier than her dad's, of the scrolling handwriting. Ida of the strong love for her children and now grandchildren, who could only speak that love with a squeeze of a hand, even when she couldn't move the fingers that once played Great Grandma Mamie's Price & Teeple upright piano in the living room at the ranch.

Oh, we've been loved by her. We give her back, hardly wanting to release our grip. Thank God we can do it by placing her back in the bosom of that land that, even now, holds us all and waits to unfold what has belonged to it all along. Goodbye, Aunt Ida Mae. We'll see you on the Youngest Day, when this good gumbo earth bears its final fruit. 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Gine's flamingo feather

It's been a couple weeks now since my sister Gine's funeral. I hadn't wanted to speak at it, but my brother-in-law Joe demanded it. This is what I came up with in our hotel room that morning.

In my sister Gine and Joe's magnificent teal and turquoise bathroom, there's a picture frame hanging on the wall. What it contains she found on a trip to visit Mary and me and has deep meaning for me.

Gine had twisted Joe's arm enough that he consented to take time away from his other marriage to RCS and drive the 12 hours across the state through Sioux Falls, where months later she would be gifted with a competent, listening oncologist, an incomparable nurse navigator, and other staff who regarded her as a complete person worthy of their best efforts.

But that would be months away. On this trip they drove past the signs for Avera Health and continued down toward Omaha on I-29 and east halfway across Iowa. They came for our annual Palm Sunday shrimp boil: andouille sausages, onions, shrimp, and corn on the cob boiled together and dumped in the middle of the table. Around that table were our pastor and his wife, along with their three little girls, still another a couple recovering from addiction and expecting a baby, and, by phone, my brother Troy. Our sister Lynne arrived from Gettysburg a day later. Afterward we engaged in a little Cards Against Humanity and delighted in the laughter that arose at a pastor's wife being forced to say those things.

You'd think that would have been the utter highlight of the trip. But there's no photo of of us all enjoying ourselves in that frame a few blocks west of here in their house. It contains no family pic or vacation shot but instead holds something just as precious to my sister: one solitary sherbet orange and pink flamingo feather.

She picked up that feather from the ground at the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines that week as she and Joe played tourist at places we never think of visiting: the botanical center (think Gine's greenhouse but way bigger), Zombie Burger + Drink Lab, the state Capitol, and Blank Park Zoo. The flamingo feather lay on the ground and her sharp eye spotted it, something she regarded as a singular thing of beauty and a rare find for a kid from happily unrefined West River country. 

That she took a feather that probably had lain there next to a gob of decidedly non-pink flamingo poop and back at home turned it into an object of art and pride and joy, and that she placed it in a frame to be honored and valued says something profound about Gine.

There were easily any number of times in her life where you could have found her down low, waiting and hoping to be picked up, revered, valued. When it didn't happen she built a space around herself with small objects of beauty or created and crafted the beauty herself. The trinkets and tchotchkes invariably connected to places she felt happy or to people who had noticed the feather she was. The crafted cards were sent to those same people.

My sister Gine loved deeply, starting with that Christmas Eve baby in Manhattan, Kansas, with such an unwieldy name: Brandon Augustus Jones. She was central operator on the line, staying connected with us siblings, Troy, Lynne and me. When her dogs Kramer and Suie died her, grief was a great as the unconditional acceptance she got from them. And when our Papa died just over a year ago, she was inconsolable. Everything around her was something that promised her love, joy, and value.

And then along came my brother-in-law Joe. He was the third of those things, and I didn't expect much out of such a misogynistic, mullet-wearing Wisconsinite. But what I'm so grateful to come to know is that Joe Mack is the most righteous upstanding husband I'd ever want for her, a man who himself spots flamingo feathers, picks them up, and places them in a frame of honor. My sister's last years with Joe were years of being valued, of Joe walking in the door and catching his breath because of the beautiful woman he saw waiting for him.

They made quite a pair of feather finders. I thank you Joe for these last months when Gine couldn't bear to look in the mirror because of the ravages of this vile disease but could take your loving gaze. Thank you for putting her in a place of honor in your heart.

And Brandon, the recipient of 36 years of love, you, too, hold a delicate feather in your palm, for she gave herself to you and lived as best she could to take you into the full, gracious, thoughtful manhood you now present to the world. You know there were lots of opportunities it could have gone crap-wise. If it had, she would have loved you even then.

We're sure going to miss her laughter, so often aimed at herself, her birthday cards, her garden, her secret place in the back yard, her piles of rock treasures found in the Hills, her retirement job as number one Rapid City Rush fan. Our dear daughter, mother, sister, aunt, cousin, friend, and quirky loyal companion. To day, hold your hand up, and imagine a flamingo feather in your palm. Our Gine. Regine. Gina. Regina. Gine Dean. And now blow gently and let her float away into the utter grace and acceptance where God collects such precious things.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

My first best friend

My sister Regine died last night. Gine. Ginchen. Gina. Gina Dean. She was my first best friend. My playmate. My boon companion. My teacher. The lens through which I came to see the world.

She came into the world sixty years ago in uneasy circumstances, the daughter of an unwed refugee mother, but loved deeply by my mom, who provided all she could. For months she lived in an orphanage. When my dad came into the picture, a GI stationed in Germany and falling for this German waitress, he adopted her. Gine celebrated that day every year as the day of being wanted.

The only others who've known me my entire life are a dwindling number, all well into their eighties. For my first seven years, until a preemie brother arrived, and for another decade beyond, my life and Gine's were inextricably bound. The thick of it we gobbled eagerly and with joy. And the thin of bitter cumbersome family insecurity we swallowed down, each knowing the other stood alongside.

Much of those hardest times is stuck in some safe irretrievable quarter of my brain that I'm loath to access. But not Gine, who's lodged in my heart. It's not a place I could use to shield her from the darkest quiddities of her life — and certainly not from those fucking lung cancer cells or finally from from death stepping in to say, "Now." But as she grew weaker and smaller and her breaths became shallower, my heart expanded to see my nephew Brandon step up as caregiver and her husband Joe fight relentlessly for her and unexpectedly become my friend.

My faith starts with the color plates in my mom's German Bible before I could read. But Gine comes next and had even greater influence. She went to kindergarten at our church where they learned and sang hymns rather than kid's ditties like "London Bridge." It was a trickle-down hymnological economy that actually worked. I gained the language of faith from her. Like a tow-headed Paul who handed on what had first been given her. "My faith looks up to thee, thou lamb of Calvary, savior deevine." "Beau-tee-ful savior, king of creation." "Thine is the glory, ris'n conqu'ring son. Endless is the victory thou or death hast won." This was the playlist in the way-back of our light blue 1963 Ford Fairlane station wagon as we drove to our grandparent's ranch for Easter or home with two sides of beef after butchering in November. We sang the words that now have become my stock in trade, my syllabi, my lifeblood.

When I was six or so, Gine and I were running through the sprinkler of a blue-skied summer morning alongside our eight-wide trailer house. When she said we should play school under the Chinese elm in the corner of the yard, I demurred. I knew who got to be teacher, and it wasn't me. So I headed in for a glass of Kool-Aid. Coming around the front of the trailer, I grabbed the hitch, and a jolt of electricity discovered my body was the shortest way into the ground. Gripped by literal power greater the myself, I couldn't free myself. All my understanding and efforts, my wits and wrenching were useless. My voice was so weak Gine couldn't hear me yelling. But she came nonetheless. She sauntered over in her leather sandals, safe from the electrical demon. She casually grabbed my arm and pulled me free from death's grip. And she was singing. "I know that my redeemer lives."

Two weekends ago Mary and I heard our son Sam's professional choir perform Handel's Messiah with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. When we finally got to the soprano aria with that same text, "I know that my redeemer liveth," I was in tears. I recognized again the enormity of what Gine had done. Oh, she would never say it was anything at all. But I'm alive today because of her. And it's a life steeped in hope and resurrection.

I know how our Lord works. I know that my sister liveth. My Beloved Ginchen, co-traveler through pine forests and Dakota prairies, enchanted by the delicate and beautiful, creator of her own beauty, lover of snow. She and I are perishable indeed. Yet the perishable will put on the imperishable. And the dead will be raised. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. I know twinkling, for those were her eyes.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Mensch Luther: Wittenberg 1517 to Grand View 2017

This lecture was delivered at the October 2017 faculty and staff colloquium at Grand View University, a monthly forum where colleagues present research for the wider community. 

One of the problems with understanding Martin Luther and the Reformation is how much of what we think we know has been handed on without really engaging the Reformer himself. This week’s issue of the New Yorker features a lengthy article about Luther by Joan Acocella, a much-lauded dance critic and a regular book reviewer for the magazine. As happy as I am to see an article about my home boy, it was all I could do to get through it. Last summer our colleague Mark Mattes and I were privileged to join a few hundred others at the International Luther Congress in Wittenberg, Germany, where the world's best-known Luther and Reformation scholars presented consistently lively and reliable work that tended carefully to Luther's preaching and teaching, and especially to his context and nuanced theology. In contrast, Acocella's facile cherry-picking of secondary sources neglected the first task of the historian, which is to listen to the primary sources on their own terms. A Nick Little illustration accompanying the article showing a pixilated Luther, hammer and Ninety-Five Theses in hand, was an apt match for the article's content, which sent Luther through a twenty-first century lens that created a distorted picture of the man that looked little like the Luther found in his own words.
This, of course, is nothing new. Luther biographers tend to create Luther in their own image, producing work that reflects the author's own predilections and suspicions as much as or more than the Wittenberg friar's. As someone who dealt with the multiple theological and political issues descending on him and who never developed a systematic rendering of his ideas like Aquinas before him or Calvin after him, Luther didn't make it easy for biographers and historians. One can almost hear the reformer sigh when he said that, after his death, people would make of him what they will. And we certainly have.
It already happened during Luther’s lifetime with woodcuts like this one of Luther as the devil’s instrument. In more recent times Luther has been forced through the 19th and 20th century historical-critical meat grinder and critiqued for an approach to the Bible that doesn’t square with our own enlightened and less-superstitious views. Luther’s scurrilous writings against the Jews (something no serious scholar or theologian I know today will excuse him for) have been named a cause of the Holocaust and he himself has become the ur-racist. Tolerant liberals, among whom I usually claim a spot, have regarded him as an intolerant hot-head. And if criticism of Luther isn’t your bent, then you’ve probably been handed the great hero and prophet Luther who held high the standard of truth against the papal antichrist, the Luther of pre-Vatican II Lutheran tirades against Roman tyranny.
When you mention Luther, most people, if they know anything at all about him, will be able to link him to the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the All Saints Church, which served as the worship place for the Saxon prince’s castle and for the recently founded University of Wittenberg. Beyond that event 500 years ago next week, they might be able to tell you that the Theses exploded across Europe and led to an irreparable breach in western Christianity. Since this is the anniversary year, and since the Theses are the usual entry point into Luther’s life and thought, let’s use them as a way to understand him and, in the end, find something in Luther that bears consequences for our day-to-day lives at Grand View.
The first thing you need to know about Luther nailing the Theses on the door of the Castle Church is that it may not have happened. We do know with certainty that Luther had them printed in Latin and sent them with a cover letter to the Archbishop of Mainz who had authority over the nearby territory the indulgence preacher Johann Tetzel was working in. But we have no primary evidence that Luther grabbed a hammer and nails, left his desk at the Augustinian monastery, walked the quarter mile up Collegienstraße, and posted the Theses. Because neither Luther nor anyone else at the time recorded the event (sorry, no Facebook live streaming in early modern Europe), many scholars will tell you it’s all part of the mythology that arose around the hero Luther. But it’s an argument from silence. You can’t say something didn’t happen, because you don’t have a record of it.
In fact, we know that the church door did indeed serve as the 16th century version of myView for his university, the city, and the princely court. The Theses were the announcement of Luther’s intention to hold a scholarly disputation – a debate on the Ninety-Five statements – at the University. And we know that these sorts of debates were held on a regular basis (frequently at 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning), and that they would have been announced in a place where all would be notified. There’s no reason to think that this particular disputation would have been treated any differently. What I would argue with in the story, though, is that he used hammer and nails. Scholars I’ve read lately argue convincingly that Luther would have used wax or paste to post his document. It’s so much better for doors not to be riddled with nail holes.
The usual way the story of the posting of the Theses proceeds is that Luther had a sudden revelation while sitting on the cloaca (that would be an inhouse version of an outhouse) and rushed to put quill to paper, because he wanted to wanted to slap the Roman church in the face. But Luther was a much more careful biblical scholar than that, not nearly the rash zealot he’s made out to be. Five years before the Theses, Luther was awarded his doctorate by being shown a Bible, being given a biretta (the doctoral cap), and a gold ring. He had to swear an oath to preach and teach the truth and, basically, to rat out anyone who didn’t. He took his oath seriously, and over the following years did his best to open his material for his students. He was, by all accounts, a hugely popular teacher, with students crowding his classroom (including, according to Shakespeare, a young melancholy prince from Denmark named Hamlet).
In his own university training Luther learned the humanist catch phrase “ad fontes” or “to the sources, and saw classical texts like the ancient church fathers and, especially his own sacred text in the Christian scriptures as more authoritative than Roman canon law. As he delved into the Bible to prepare his lectures, he came up against the church’s demand of facete quod in te est (do what is within you to do). It was part of the particulate that formed when the catalyst of Aristotle’s idea of ethical perfectibility mixed with medieval theology in the Summa theologica of Thomas Aquinas, for instance. Luther’s reading of St. Paul helped him see that the demand to perform sufficient good works was an impossible requirement.
So the first shift we see in his thinking is anthropological: Human beings cannot achieve what God demands by their own effort or understanding. By October 31, 1517, Luther had already written plenty against the prevailing approach. In May he wrote Johannes Lang, his friend from his days as a university student, that “Aristotle is gradually falling from his throne, and his final doom is only a matter of time.”[1] And in September he wrote the “Disputation against Scholastic Theology,”[2] which should have been explosive but ended up as a smoke bomb.
For Luther, the question of indulgences, though, was more than a mere academic theological question. It was a matter of pastoral care. He saw the sale of indulgences as a creating a massive religious front where people were coerced into an activity that did more damage than good. He was an ordained priest who knew his vocation included the care of his people. If Johann Tetzel were to bring to Saxony his fundraising campaign for rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and to repay the debts the Archbishop of Mainz owed to the Fugger banking family, then it was no different from one of the waves of the black plague that rolled across Europe to take everyone it could. For Luther, the Ninety-Five Theses were a prophylactic measure designed to prevent the sickness from entering into his own prince’s territory.
If you think the response from both Luther’s supporters and antagonists was a wild fire racing across the Holy Roman Empire, it, too is more nuanced. Printers, who in that day didn’t have to contend with copyright laws, were free to print whatever they thought would be profitable. Before Gutenberg and the printing press, the spread would have moved at the speed of one copyist writing a letter at a time. But movable type turned something like the Ninety-Five Theses into Flugschriften (flying writings). But the Theses were in Latin, so only the literate nobility or educated theologians would have had access or understood the technicalities of Luther’s argument. But a few months later, Luther prepared the Sermon on Indulgences and Grace, where he made the same points, this time in German, and with a winsomeness and accessibility that the Theses lacked. Timothy Wengert, who’s become one of the best Reformation historians on this continent, says,
this tract more than any other catapulted Luther into the public eye and made him a best-selling author overnight. Here Luther’s clear explanations of complicated theological arguments and his edgy style, in which he repeatedly attacked scholastic theologians and their “opinions,” made a splash with the German reading public.[3]
Luther reshaped the Theses into this later sermon because, from the start, he saw this as a pastoral issue that created troubled consciences and stole money from the pockets of people who could ill afford an indulgence. In essence the church itself had broken the Seventh Commandment because it gave no just return on the payments of the pious. The church took their money, promising a Get-Out-of-Purgatory-Free card but gave them a worthless fill-in-the-blanks form instead. Luther was certain that the church had more than empty promises to give and, in abiding by his doctoral oath, sought to deliver the truth.
The goal here was freedom for those troubled consciences, which Luther saw as a person’s estimation of their standing before other people and, mostly, before God. If Paul was right in Galatians 5:1 when he said, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand fast and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” then a practice like indulgences forced people into captivity and worked counter to office of the keys Christ gave the church, that is, its vocation of freeing people and quelling those consciences.
By the time Luther would write On the Freedom of a Christian three years later, he’d long left the question of indulgences but had advanced to his second move: If human beings can’t improve themselves sufficiently, the righteousness God requires must come another way. For Luther it could only arrive through language that delivered what it said, in this case the gospel proclamation about Jesus Christ that, in its declaration, actually gave the benefits God’s word said Christ came to bestow: forgiveness, life, freedom, and salvation.
No matter the issue that cropped up, no matter his opponents on the left or on the right, in Rome or among the radical reformers, now it became a categorical issue. There’s Christ, on the one hand, who saves, and everything else, on the other hand, that does not. Both in Luther’s day and in ours, he would counter anything from that everything-else category that was presented itself as offering what it had no ability to deliver on. In October 1517 it was indulgences. Later it was whether becoming a professional religious person could advance your cause with God. Another time it was a question of whether Christians could be soldiers. Elsewhere it was what made for a blessed death. And everywhere it was what freedom such faith opened for people struggling daily to get things right, in the world, to be sure, but also in the quiddities of daily life and the web of relationships we operate in.
As a university of the Lutheran church, we can understand Grand View’s identity as grounded in these three very Luther-ly things: truth, freedom, and vocation. First, the Reformation and the role Luther played in it arose from scholarship. Lutherans have been well aware of our roots at the University of Wittenberg. If Luther and his fellow humanists sought out the most reliable sources – ad fontes – then our own careful scholarship is an extension of that rich tradition. Luther swore fealty to the truth, not simply to a set of facts, but really to a way of being, a stance vis a vis the world. To seek the truth is to be dissatisfied with the same-old same-old, to understand what makes each of us tick, to seek solutions for all the little people whose problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.[4]
So a Lutheran university goes after the truth: From the sub-atomic depths of quantum physics to gravity waves and dark matter. From the meaning of justice in “criminal justice” to seeking the connection between health and a nurse’s technique of applying care. From how a noble goal of standard American English can mitigate against inclusion to how John Donne’s poems speak to the core of human experience and how deeply racism has permeated American culture. And in my own discipline, from the ways religion, wittingly or not, can widen the divide between peoples and how faith frees people to cross those chasms.
Second, if Luther’s actions to counter the lucrative indulgence market arose from a desire to free people from binding restrictions, then there’s a direct line from Wittenberg in 1517 to Grand View in 2017 and our entire history as a “school for life” where we offer an education that frees and advances the lives of all – not just the privileged few who can purchase access to the levers of change. Our Danish Lutheran founders were not merely genteel adherents to N.F.S. Grundtvig’s educational philosophy, they also knew his theology. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses is a move was paralleled by Grundtvig’s approach 300 years later. The great founder of the modern Danish church and culture argued that we are humans first and Christians second.
What he meant was that human needs are always present, and Christian proclamation comes to address those needs. In our particular student population, those human needs and the binding burdens our students face are astounding. Our new GVCares grant is proof of that. But the freedom longed for goes beyond financial exigencies. It reaches out from our individual yearning to escape conflict, uncertainty, and violence and discover peace, joy, and even liberty from ourselves and our own history.
Finally, Luther’s moves 500 years ago stemmed from his own understanding of his vocation. His view was nothing like Frederic Buechner’s definition of vocation as the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger. Luther wouldn’t tolerate the self-focused way of hearing Buechner that too often happens in our discussions of vocation. For Luther, vocation was always seen through the lens of Christ’s cross. There, he saw selflessness so radical that God’s kenosis, that is, God’s emptying of God’s very being, suffered utter devastation that matched what another Dane, Søren Kirkegaard called our “sickness unto death.” For Luther, vocation was never something that made a person feel fulfilled or affirmed their gifts and talents. Instead, for him giving was dying, pure and simple.
We have to wonder what could possibly lead a person to desire such a life of emptying oneself for others. For Luther it was the enormity of what Christ had done for him. It was a truth and a freedom that so gripped him that he risked the ire of the greatest religious power of his age and of the entire Holy Roman Empire. It was a promise that delivered the goods with such certainty that nothing could separate him from the love of God that allowed him, in some later accounts of the Diet of Worms, to say, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”
This is what makes Grand View part of Lutheranism’s mission in the world. It’s the assertion that exploration of truth, freedom, and vocation – especially in a context where matters of faith are part of the mix – are an essential part both of being human and of being Christian. We ought to see that as something that doesn’t install a ceiling that limits thought, the sharing of ideas, or the exploration of any discipline, but is instead an open door that values these things. We’re not a Lutheran university because we demand that that everyone in this community of learning adhere to a religious party line, but because our own values find their genetic imprint already laid out from the Reformation’s initial spark five hundred years ago this month. Five hundred years of that business is worth celebrating.

[1] LW 48:42.
[2] LW 31: 3ff.
[3] Timothy J. Wengert, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 37ff.
[4] Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch, Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz, 1942.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Serpent and Savior Lifted Up for You

This sermon was preached at Holy Cross Lutheran Church (LCMC) in Maple Lake, Minnesota, on Sunday, October 15, 2017, as part of their weekend-long 500th anniversary celebration of the Reformation.

Grace and peace to you my friends, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Oh, those poor Israelites! Here we go again. They are the whiniest, most unappreciative people God could have chosen. I can’t imagine that there weren’t times during their 40 years in the wilderness that God didn’t think, “Maybe I should have chosen the Babylonians instead.” Here God has led them out of slavery in Egypt and is taking them to the land promised to their ancestors Sarah and Abraham. God could have left them back in Egypt to come under Pharaoh’s bigger and bigger demands: “Make more bricks, use less straw, and remember your lives are in my royal Egyptian hands. One step out of line and you’re done for.”
They all knew exactly what conditions had been like. And they knew the miracles of the plagues, the death of the first-born, and a walk across the sea that God had used to set them on their way to freedom. But to them it wasn’t enough for God to show his own gracious hand for them to believe him. They moaned about having to eat trail mix three meals a day. But God was patient. God sent quails to eat in the evening and manna in the morning. Now even the food God sent to keep them alive was good enough. “Oh. We had it so much better in Egypt. Yeah, we were enslaved, but at least we had better food than this tasteless freeze dried astronaut food we pick up every morning. There isn’t even any water to help it slide down our gullets. Alas and alack. It sucks to be us.”
God usually has a pretty long fuse in these situations. But apparently not this time. God let loose a herpetologist’s poisonous dream: snakes like in the Well of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Scaly, slithery, hissing snakes. And not just garter snakes or bull snakes, either. These were snake with fangs and venom: real killers who could shut down your nervous system or make your flesh go necrotic. The Israelites were right to shut their whiny traps and turn to Moses who had God’s ear.
I don’t think today we’d dare place the blame on God for sending fork-tongued adders and asps as his impatient response to our carping. We wouldn’t to consider for a moment that God, our nice, soft-spoken God of American affluence, would respond with venom. But the Israelites did. They had the willingness to look at their own actions and the presence of mind to see God’s hand in it all. And they knew they were in trouble. This was God biting the mouths that bit the hands that fed them. They called out, “Hey, Moshe! Folks are dying here. Go tell God we’re sorry. And for everyone’s sake, make it stop!”
Isn’t that just how it goes with sinners like us? Captive to ourselves, our will is bound, and we can’t help wanting to micromanage God’s affairs. It’s been true for us since Adam and Eve thought they should put together an Edenic supper menu that included fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – even though God had expressly told them death would be the result. Nope, we just have to be Burger King patrons who always want to have it our way. And we don’t leave it at choosing lettuce, tomato, ketchup and mayo on our cheeseburgers. No, we think we can tell God where and when disease, disasters, and the doofuses around us should trip up the well-laid plans of mice and men. Trouble rears its head, and we say, “Here’s a hint, God: not now and not here. Try it on those people over there at some time when were far away.” We suspect that God may not really regard us with kindness. We’re certain that, at the very least, our intentions are good.
We’re convinced we know what’s best for us and how God ought to treat us. His options are 1. Create pastries that won’t go to our hips and bellies, 2. Keep us going healthy and strong until we say we’re ready to be done with life, and 3. Stop acting like you’re God or something (we know you are, but, God, give us a break already). The Israelites wouldn’t look to God for food in due season. They wouldn’t open their eyes to see God moving through the wilderness with their every forward and frequent backward steps. They refused to acknowledge the one in whose palms their lives and their futures lay.
When the whining started up this time, the fangs came out. On the surface it seems like God was inflicting retribution and punishment for their faithlessness. But something more is going on here. God, who’d been keep them safe without the Israelites knowing or acknowledging it, now pulled back the hand that had kept danger at bay. God let the world loose. In this case it was snakes, but it surely could have been letting government corruption have its way or an antibiotic-resistant microbe or bad sitcoms or countless other awful things we’d rather not encounter. But the wilderness snakes were not the end God was after. Mere punishment is the move of lesser gods like Baal, Astarte, Odin, and the American god of popularity who runs passing time in any middle school. Cross the gods and the old karma will kick in. You’ll get what’s coming to you.
But God is after something way more important: The Greek word for it is metanoia, which we usually translate as “repentance,” but really means “turning around.” God wanted the Israelites to turn to him and see just who had created them and had given them their bodies and souls and all their members and who had preserved them all along their journey. In short, God wanted their relationship with him to be one of trust. He wanted them to see what his essence was. The problem was that, for the Israelites just like it always is for sinners like us, God is the last place we’ll think of looking.
During Lent we get rid of the alleluia we sing before the gospel reading in worship and trade it for the Lenten verse: “Return to the Lord your God, for his gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” How are to return? How are we to look to God when there are so many more tangible things that might do the trick? God has to literally grab our heads and physically turn them for us to look where he wants, to gaze upon a gracious God.
So he told Moses to cast a bronze serpent, put it on a stick, and raise it up for everyone to look at. If the Israelites wouldn’t look to him for manna, quails, grace, and mercy, he’d give them something that would force them. Getting bitten by a Middle Eastern asp is a sure head-turner: Snakebite, ouch, oh no, what’ll I do, turn toward God behind the bronze serpent, and ah, new life. The vipers and the bronze serpent wouldn’t have had to happen. God was happy to guide and protect them, but the Israelites wouldn’t have it. So by standing behind the sign of the bronze serpent in a time of deep trouble and danger, God made himself unignorable. The Israelites wouldn’t be able to look anywhere else.
If not for one thing, this story would be just one among many cool stories for my inner twelve-year-old in the Old Testament, right up there with Jael putting a tent stake through an enemy general’s head, King David dancing naked, and the prophet Isaiah siccing bears on some boys who were mocking his bald head. Just another Bible story too dangerous for Sunday morning, except for the fact that Jesus apparently knew and loved it. The bronze serpent lifted up in the wilderness took on ultimate meaning when Jesus brought it into his conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus who’d come to him under cover of night. Jesus told Nicodemus that what he’d eventually see in him was exactly what happened with the Israelites, the snakebites, and the bronze serpent lifted up in the wilderness.
You’re bound to encounter snakes in your lives. I grew up in western South Dakota and am entirely familiar with prairie rattlers. Every year we’d go out to my grandparents’ cattle ranch, all of us aunts and uncles, cousins, hired hands, and neighbors to go rattlesnake hunting. We’d park the pick-ups and station wagons around a rattlesnake den, and the men folks would pull out their .22’s and shot guns and blow away. We kids would hop out of one pick-up box and run across the prairie grass to another pick-up, making sure we were dodging anything slithery and heading to another safe steel island.
That’s great fun-and-games for western kids like me, but a couple fangs in a calf or through a cowboy boot would have ended the fun. Then the emergency would have begun. The snakebite kit would have been pulled out of a glove compartment. An X would be sliced with a razor blade across each fang mark. Blood and venom would be sucked out and spat on the ground. A blazing fast car ride the 60 miles to the closest hospital would happen. And prayers, deep fervent prayers, would be begun.
It doesn’t take an actual snake for this to happen. You’ve experienced it in your own lives: something happens where life get away from you, where you lose your grip, where suddenly it’s all gone haywire and you don’t know where to turn. Up until that point, it’s so darned easy to slide through your days, assuming you’re the one controlling and concocting your future. But now you’re helpless. God is certainly not the author of evil, but God isn’t above using its appearance in our lives to draw you away from the danger and into his embrace.
Twelve years ago, my wife’s older sister died suddenly and unexpectedly from a prolapsed heart valve. Her son who’d just graduated from high school found her dead in bed in the morning. Her husband was out of town and wasn’t answering, so my nephew called me for help. To make matters worse, the day of that phone call was the day we were moving a truckload of stuff out of storage and another truckload from our apartment into the first house we ever bought.
We were absolutely paralyzed with grief and didn’t know how to make the move or the trip to the Twin Cities for a funeral happen. I tell you, that’s one of the few times that I prayed when it didn’t feel like a chore. It was a time Mary and I prayed wrapped up in each other’s arms under the covers at bed time. “God help us.” It was a day when our eighth-grade son said, “Mom and Dad, we need to pray,” and the proceeded to be the mature and trusting one in our family, leading us in calling on God to be not just very present help in trouble, but our very present help in this trouble.
That’s your story, too. Your captive will and clouded-over eyes let you think it’s all copacetic. And then the bottom drops out, and you discover prayer. You can attempt some chemo or radiation for the glioblastoma in your brain, but you know it’s all in God’s hands. You stand accused because the truth you’ve hidden comes out, and you’ve got no way out. You face the stark unavoidable fact of a cold body in a coffin and hope against hope for a coming resurrection. I could go on and on and on, because the serpents in our wildernesses are countless.
We can’t ask Moses to help. He’s been dead for thousands of years. But we have something better, we have a Lord, God-in-the-flesh, who was nailed to a tree, crucified, died, buried, and raised. And we have proclaimers like Pastor Curtis, who raise Jesus up week after week after week. Have you ever noticed that when he says the Words of Institution before communion he lifts up the bread and wine for you to see? Sound familiar? God has seen fit to send us more than a bronze serpent. He’s placed himself in the way of human wrath and violence, to take on the punishment we deserve. He’s given us the church and its pastors to put before you Jesus who is the Resurrection and the Life, so that you might look to him and live.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and the start of the Reformation. If we’re going to remember and celebrate anything about it this year, let’s have it be this gospel promise that stood at the center of all Luther preached and taught: Christ emptied himself of all divine power to be lifted up on Golgotha for you, so that your serpents in the wilderness would have no more power over you, so that you might be delivered from sin, death, and the Devil, so that, baptized into his death, you might be raised with him to an eternity where death is no longer a fact of human existence.
If today, life’s bitter fangs have sunk into you, then you may already know Christ lifted up for you, and can look to him. But if you don’t yet know that he is determined to fully be your savior and antidote to venom, then I know a pastor who’s ready to tell you about the gifts of baptism. If you’re hungry for mercy, Christ’s body and blood will be lifted up any moment now. If you ache for a community, you’ll find it in those surrounding you who will provide you the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints.
And when you hear the Devil’s hiss at your feet, you can crush that old adder with your heel and say, “Don’t even bother with me. I’ve been vaccinated against you by the blood and water that flowed from my Lord’s side. Go try attacking someone with weaker gods. I’ve been given new life and I’m going to go live it. Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.” You may not have ever wanted to be in a situation where you have to look to your lifted up Lord for life, but that what he has for you. Both today and the next time the snakes slither in. Amen.
And now may the peace which far surpasses all our human understanding keep turning our heads to the risen Lord. Amen.