Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Two Real Realms

This address was presented at the 2017 annual gathering of Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ in Minneapolis to lay out the theological basis for a panel discussion on Luther's doctrine of two kingdoms. It's posted here at the request of Deborah Lunde who so graciously asked for a copy. 

Luther’s thinking about God’s work in two kingdoms is something I swim around in daily. In my vocation at Grand View University, I operate within two realms. I have a letter of call from the church to serve as a pastor, one of its public proclaimers of the gospel, and to function in that capacity at our little college of the church in Des Moines. That means it’s my business to have the gospel of Jesus Christ ever at the ready when the right moment, the kairos, of a sinner with ears to hear presents itself. At the same time, I’m also what my doctoral advisor used to call a “fully-tenured old fart professor.” I have a yearly contract I sign every spring to teach a certain number of courses, engage in the shared governance of the university, and do my dangedest to make some learning happen in my relationships with my students. In the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service and Social Security, the two aspects of my vocation are separate. But because of Luther’s doctrine of God’s two realms, I know that, in spite of an American first-glance separation of church and state, both the spiritual and the secular realms operate within the 200-odd pounds of flesh and bone that walks into the classroom each day.

We could spend hours looking at how this doctrine connects with and parallels law and gospel, fearing and loving God, the Commandments and Lord’s Prayer, and all kinds of other theological categories Luther played with in the course of his life and career. But I want to come at our two kingdoms through what Luther said about you: who you are, what makes you tick, and how God pulls you into Christ’s mercy. In 1520, after Luther had received the pope’s bull of condemnation and while he waited the 60 days for excommunication to go into effect, he wrote On the Freedom of a Christian, one of four great treatises published that year. In his little essay, Luther declared that there are two people inside you: the old, outer you of the body (that is, the you who walks around in the kingdom on the left), and the new, inner you of the spirit who dwells securely in the kingdom of heaven that Jesus declared was at hand.

The old you functions under the structures of creation, the demands of relationships, and the very commands of God. You face this each day as you work to pay the bills, accomplish job tasks, raise kids, gather funds for retirement, pay taxes, and try to be a beacon of peace and order and security in this crazy, broken world. On the surface, it seems like we’re pretty much on our own out here in left field where Dan Gladden once played with the Minnesota Twins. Here in the kingdom on the left it seems like everything runs according to Newtonian physics: for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction or, in practical terms, you get what you pay for. We become these old outer people of the flesh because, in spite of all our efforts life in this realm seems so insecure. We’re little better off than bees in their hives who buzz around doing their routine pollen-collecting work with little worry until a windshield hits ‘em and they’re gone. We sinners from the sinestral realm must make life work on our own powers.

Luther called this coming under the demand for proper righteousness. And because there’s no mercy here, only demands for justice, we can say the kingdom on the left is the realm where Christ is not preached. Apart from Christ, we can only approach God’s judgment seat where we’ll be declared wanting. What’s more, in this kingdom God is undiscoverable. Sure God may be omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, but in this realm the psalmist’s declaration that God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love looks pretty sketchy. Have you watched the news lately? Disasters, shootings, disease, and Kardashians without end. This is the realm where Luther said God who allows all this could hardly be distinguished from the devil. How are we ever to see God present in the way God wants to be known – as God “for you”?

But in the dextral realm, the kingdom on the right, this is where you can be found as the new, inner person of the Spirit, for this is the realm where Christ is preached. This is the territory chartered as the land of mercy for us godless sinners. Here Newton and philosophy and psychology and sociology and politics are set aside, for there is only one around whom everything revolves. This kingdom has abandoned the project of getting your act together. It sees your attempts at progress and commitment as irrelevant. It regards your gain as loss and your loss as gain, because this is where your power has ended and Christ’s has begun. No longer is active proper righteousness demanded of you, but, as Luther discovered 500 years ago, righteousness and sanctification in this realm are given as gracious gift. You can’t even say it’s offered for you to assent to here. This is a realm where Christ bends from the cross to your ear to say, “You’re mine,” where he reaches into your grave to say, “Get up,” and where the gospel says, “Believe this,” and it’s already done for you. When this justifying faith happens to you, that new you is created and sustained and draped with eternal life before your tomb can even be carved or your grave clothes laid out for you.

For Luther, we Christians live our lives between these two realms. We know well the demands of the left. I have mid-term grades due at noon today, and boy has that last week been a grading marathon that just about killed me. I’ve had to obey speed limits coming up I-35 from Iowa. And, sadly, I even had to put on clothes to appear before you today. It all chafes on the independence and autonomy of the old person in me. I want to ask, “Really, God? This is how you’re going to work it?” But the new person of faith stands within the gospel’s intruding promise in the world and begins to see things differently

Because I don’t have to justify myself, I can let go of my insufferable neediness. I can let go of my continual desire for approval. I can see my neighbor not as threat or competition but as gift. And I can see everything in the kingdom on the left in a new way: as masks God wears to maintain and sustain the creation made as a gift and blessing. Not only do I see God’s hand behind Minnesota maples in the Iron Range turning yellow, orange, and red and behind live oaks spreading their gnarled boughs in New Braunfels, Texas, in faith I can also see God’s hand killing and making alive in disasters and disease. To be in the world but not of it is not to veer away from the world, which, after all, is God’s good creation. Instead, it means we inhabit the kingdom on the left with eyes from the kingdom on the right. Thus, this awful season of category 5 hurricanes, my sister’s lung cancer, my bee allergy that could kill me at any moment, and whatever crosses you bear today are places not where God abandons us but moments where the old sinner in us loses power and is forced to turn to God’s mercy seat.

Where faith enters into the simul iustus et peccator mix of our lives, I can begin to see that my letter of call and my yearly contract are both places God is active through me. My custodian Jose’s daily round of toilet-cleaning is no less holy than your Sunday morning pew-sitting and pulpit-proclaiming, for both realms belong to God. For you to see God active in both realms as wonderful counselor, heavenly father, good shepherd, bread of life, or Lord of Lords, Luther says in Freedom of a Christian only one thing is needed: the word of God.

And if God is going to be the God of two real kingdoms and not just one imaginary religious and pious one, then what our calling is, brothers and sisters, is to deliver the word like Luther at Worms, to be the leading edge of the gospel’s entry by means of our work, work, and witness.so that both kingdoms are realms of Christ preached, mercy declared, and the Lord’s benefits delivered. Short of that we will continue to see through a glass dimly. Our engagement with the world will be befogged. Our vision for the church’s mission will look the blind man’s “trees walking around,” in Mark 8. And the world will remain mired in demands, enslaved by its so-called free will, and trapped in its graves of self-help, therapies, politics, power, and every ism around you. Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine is a call to action. Now. Today. In your lives.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Elisabeth Cruciger: Komponistin u. Theologe des Kreuzes

This sermon was preached at the evangelische Kirche in Schney, Germany, while I was part of the Grand View University Choir tour of Germany. The congregation was in the midst of a Lenten preaching series about secondary figures in the Reformation. Because the choir's concert programming included a setting of a hymn by Elisabeth Cruciger, I chose her.. The preaching text was Ruth 1:15-18.

Die Predigttext kommt aus dem Buch Ruth im Alten Testament.

[Naomi] aber sprach: “Siehe, deine Schwägerin ist umgekehrt zuihrem Volk und zu ihren Göttern; kehre du auch um, deiner Schwägerin nach!”

Aber Ruth antwortete: Dringe nicht in mich, dass ich dich verlassrn und mich von dir abwenden soll! Denn wo du hingehst, da will ich auch hingehen, und wo du bleibst, da will ich auch bleiben; deinVolk ist mein Volk, und dein Gott ist mein Gott! Wo du stirbst, da sterbeauch ich, und dort will ich begraben werden; der Herr tue mir dies und das und noch mehr, wenn nicht der Tod allein uns scheiden soll!”

Als [Naomi] nun sah, dass [Ruth] sich fest vorgenommen hatte, mit ihr zu gehen, ließ sie davon ab, ihr zuzureden. Here

Here's the sermon in English:

I bring you greetings from Grand View University, our president Kent Henning, our faculty and staff, and our 2000 students. Grand Viewis a university of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and was founded by Danish immigrants as a place where both learning and faith are valued. We’re grateful to continue our relationship with your congregation begun so many years ago under Pastor Stefan Stauch. And we’re glad that we now have come to know Pastor Vincent. Thank you for your hospitality this weekend and for your many kindnesses.

Grace and peace to you, my friends, from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

In our scripture reading this morning we have the story of Ruth who leaves her home and goes to a foreign land with her mother-in-law Naomi. She begs Naomi not to leave her in Moab. And she declares that Naomi’s god will be her own god. This is a good passage for us today as we continue the series of sermons you have begun on secondary figures in the Reformation as a way to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the nailing of the 95 Theses and the explosion of the gospel across Germany and the Holy Roman Empire. Last Sunday you heard about Friedrich Myconius, and the next two weeks you’ll learn about Argulavon Grimbach and Albrecht von Brandenburg-Ansbach. But today we meet someone who is much less well known – a woman who, like Ruth, left all she knew to travel to a new place and took up a life with God in an unexpected way.

Elisabeth Cruciger came from Merseritz in Pomerania, which is now part of Poland. At best she’s usually only known as the wife of Caspar Cruciger, whom I’ll tell you about in a moment. But Elisabeth is important in her own right. She was the first female Lutheran hymn writer, which is number 67 in your Evangelisches Gesangbuch: “Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn.” Elisabeth’s hymn was included in the very first evangelische Gesangbücher in 1524. For centuries scholars have asserted that the hymn couldn’t have been written by her. They said a woman couldn’t have written such a profound text. It must have been some theologically astute man who had the proper training and, apparently, the correct plumbing (Klempnerei) to think so deeply. And so Elisabeth disappeared from view. But when you know Elisabeth Cruciger’s history, a deeply faithful, brave, and intelligent woman comes into focus. With her life and her hymn she becomes a witness, an example, and a preacher to us almost 500 years later.

In the year 1500 Elisabeth Cruciger began her life in Pommern. She came from Meseritz, which now lies within Poland’s borders. When she was a young girl her parents placed her in a convent. This wasn’t unusual. It was an act of piety to give your child to the religious life as a nun or a monk. It earned you merit before God and would help balance your spiritual accounts so that you could enter the heavenly realm when you died. Elisabeth entered the convent school of the Premonstratensians[Prämonstratenser] in Treptow on the Baltic Sea and eventually took her vows when she was 15.

Her life in the convent wouldn’t have been much different from what Luther experienced among the Augustinians. The first worship service of the day was at two in the morning, and the rest of the day was full of prayer, study, and work. There was no Feierabend. When the sun went down, it was time for bed. Elisabeth’s order was known for doing work in the outside world. These religious women supported the priests, took care of vestments and paraments, and helped educate the daughters of the nobility. Elisabeth’s life would have extended down the same path, and we would never have known she existed. But she encountered a young preacher who gave her the gospel in a way that ended her old life and awakened her with grace to a new life that wouldn’t let go of her.

The preacher was Johannes Bugenhagen whom Luther and the other reformers affectionately called “Pomeranus.” He had become known as a lecturer among the Premonstratensians. He had taken up the Humanist educational cause and argued for reforms in the church. But by 1520 Bugenhagen had read what the upstart monk in Wittenberg had been writing, and he came around to Luther’s way of preaching law and gospel. One of the people who heard Bugenhagen’s own preaching was Elisabeth Cruciger. In 1521 Bugenhagen left Pomerania to go to Wittenberg, ground zero of the Reformation explosion. There he received the theological underpinnings that supported the changes he’d sought in the north. Within two years he became the pastor of the Stadtkirche in Wittenberg and served as Luther’s own preacher and confessor.

We don’t know why, but about the same time Bugenhagen came to Wittenberg, Elisabeth Cruciger left the abbey in Pomerania, abandoning both her vows and the only life she’d ever really known. There may have been other options available to her, but she chose to go to Wittenberg as well. She must have already known Bugenhagen and his family, because they took her in and cared for her. She wasn’t the only former nun who showed up in Wittenberg. We know about the nuns from Nimbschen, including Katharina von Bora who became Luther’s wife. Something had to be done with all these women who came to town for refuge: perhaps a return to their families or work in local households. A good option was to find husbands for them. Elisabeth met and married a brilliant university student named Caspar Cruciger. He was four years younger, but he was quite a catch. Because of her hymn, I think Elisabeth was his intellectual and theological match. Caspar was regarded as one of Luther’s best students ever and become part of Luther’s inner circle. These men helped translate scripture, wrote treatises, advised Luther, and, as Luther said, drank good Wittenberg beer while God’s word did its work. Elisabeth herself become close friends with Luther’s wife Katherina. While the men were engaged in Tischreden, the women would have heard the conversations and been acquainted with all the issues – even if they didn’t have the university training. Elisabeth and Caspar’s daughter later married Luther’s oldest son Hans.

There aren’t any more details about Elisabeth Cruciger’s life except that she died young. She was only 35. We don’t know the cause of death or where she was buried, but from her hymn we can presume that she died the same kind of blessed death Luther did a decade later. Her hymn is a kind of confession of the promise God brings in Jesus to provide new life not just in the world to come but already in this world, too.

I suspect that Elisabeth Cruciger followed Bugenhagen to Wittenberg because she was a 16th century Ruth. In the Old Testament Ruth followed Naomi because she had felt her mother-in-law’s love so deeply that she was virtually pulled away from her home country ofMoab all the way to Bethlehem. Our Elisabeth had heard the kind of preaching from Bugenhagen that drew her away from her secure life in the cloister and even from her own will. It wasn’t purposeful change or the possibility of true love or warmer weather farther south that pulled her. It was the magnet of the gospel’s proclamation. Like Paul, she longed to be rescued from the death that clings to us in sin.

The people who edited the hymnal we use in our congregation at home were faithful enough to include the Cruciger hymn. But they made a grave error that isn’t present in your hymnal. Our hymnal substitutes the last verse with a lovely doxology, but it misses the depth of the verse your hymnal includes. It’s a verse that shows that Elisabeth had absorbed Luther’s theology of the cross almost to the point of it becoming part of her genetic structure. She wrote, “Ertöt uns durch deinGüte, / erweck uns durch dein Gnad. / Den alten Menschen kränke, / daßder neu’ leben mag / und hier auf dieser Erden / den Sinn und allsBegehren / und G’danken hab zu dir.” [Kill us with your goodness, / arouse us with your grace. / Make the old person weak, / so that it craves the new life / and heer on earth / the sense and all desires / and thought be aimed at you.”] In his Heidelberg Disputation, Luther said, “The ‘theologian of glory’ calls the bad good and the good bad. The ‘theologian of the cross’ says what a thing is.” Unlike yours, our hymnal editors were theologians of glory, for they saw Elisabeth Cruciger asking God to kill us as so horrible that it shouldn’t be sung. What God would want the death of his people? But Cruciger knew something important: the old sinner in me wants nothing more than to continue its existence without end and remain in control of every moment of its future. Elisabeth wrote as one who longed for the end of sin in herself and for the beginning of the freedom of the gospel.

In Romans 6, Saint Paul says that’s exactly what happens in your baptism. “You have been baptized into Christ’s death, so that just as Christ was raised by the glory of the Father, you too might walk in newness of life.” It was 400 kilometers for Elisabeth Cruciger to travel from Treptow on the Baltic Sea to Wittenberg, but that was just a single step compared to the distance between death in sin to new life in Christ. The move made the rest of her life, as short as it was, into a life lived on the verge of the resurrection. She had it already here on earth, and received it in full on the day in 1535 when she breathed her last breath and left her husband and family to continue in God’s Word.

When Luther explains the Third Commandment [Das Dritte Gebot] about the Sabbath day [den Feiertag heiligen] in the Catechism, he says,“We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn it.” [“Wir sollen Gott fürchten und lieben, dass wir die Predigt und seinWort nicht verachten, sondern es heilig halten, gerne hören und lernen.”] In his “Freedom of a Christian,” Luther said that, if you want to become someone who serves your neighbor, the first task for you is to go where faith is bestowed through God’s Word. Elisabeth Cruciger shows us how that happens. She got a taste of the gospel in Pomerania and wanted more. So she went to the place where God promises it can be found.

This is such a place. So is the small but lively congregation next to our university. My wife and I worship there on Sundays and many of our choir members worship there each Tuesday during our weekly chapel service. We do it because we know it’s a church where the preacher knows how to deliver the good news. We show up because we know it’s where Elisabeth Cruciger’s prayer is fulfilled: “[Let us grow in your love and knowledge, so that we might abide in faith, thus serving you in the Spirit, that we might here taste your sweetness in our hearts and always thirst for you.” [“Lass uns in deiner Liebe / und Kenntnisnehmen zu, / dass wir am Glauben bleiben, / dir dienen im Geist so, / dass wir hier mögen schmecken / dein Süssigkeit im Herzen / und dürsten stets nach dir.”]

The faith and kindness and hospitality we strangers from Grand View have known from you for quite some time now reveals that you’ve also had this kind of preacher among you and that you are a people who know where to find what God has promised to give you: life, forgiveness, and salvation. Thanks be to God. Amen.

And now may the peace which far surpasses all our human understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Shepherds and their Lamb

This sermon, part of a series on characters in Luke's nativity story, was preached at the weekly chapel service at Grand View University on November 29, 2016.

I have a soft spot in my heart for shepherds. This rough-and-tumble lot that the angels appeared to in the hills above Bethlehem are my kind of people. When my dad died a couple weeks ago out in western South Dakota, one thing I learned from relatives is that my Papa's first job when he was fourteen was as a sheep herder. He was so proud of that fact that they thought we'd have the Sheep Herders' National Anthem sung at the funeral. That didn't happen, but I hope you'll indulge me today by singing the first verse: “Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb. Mary had a little lamb. Its fleece was white as snow.”

So shepherds, we mostly think of them in this story because of all the Christmas pageants we've seen at church or at school. Little ones are dressed like donkeys and cows, as angels with halos and wise men in bathrobes and crowns, and of course a line of little replicas of Linus Van Pelt, like in A Charlie Brown Christmas, with a blanket on his head and a shepherd's crook in his hand, innocently reciting our scripture reading for today.

But the guys on the hillside weren't at all like the cuteness we're used to. Jesus called himself the good shepherd, but that implies that a good shepherd is an unusual thing and that most people in that vocation weren’t so good. Having been around sheep at my grandparents’ ranch on the Great Plains, I know that the job isn’t a clean one, much less an easy one. The shepherds were dealing with creatures prone to brucellosis that causes aborted lambs in ewes and lesions on the rams’ privates, frothy bloat and free gas bloat which do what they say, scabies that causes hair to fall out, and scours where the animals poop themselves to death. It might not be a good idea to shake hands with one of these men. The shepherds in the Christmas story in Luke had to wade through a lot of ick, and they didn’t have the luxury of doing quality craftsmanship like Joseph did. There was no precision or eye for beauty in sheep herding. In this story, these fellas were out in the meadows at night. They’d brought their flock up either to graze on new shoots or to chomp on the stubble from the spring harvest. By day they could see hyenas or jackals approaching and protect the sheep and could maybe spell each other for a nap. But under the stars they’d have had to stave off sleep, kind of like a college student pulling all-nighters to get things done at the end of the semester.

What’s more, shepherds didn’t have much reputation as reliable people. The bad reputation started with their affinity for sheep, which are the dirtiest, smelliest, dumbest, and most self-involved creatures human beings have ever domesticated. The kind of sheep they raised were the middle-Eastern broad-tailed variety, whose backside waggers were fat and meaty and regarded as a real dinnertime delicacy to set next to your figs and hummus. While the sheep tails were highly desired, it wasn’t so for the shepherds. They wore no clothes made of finely spun cloth. Instead they may have worn a rough tunic, and probably on these cool spring nights they had on some sheepskin with the wool turned in. And to stave off the cold, they might have been sampling some first-century warming liquid, if you know what I mean, while they stood near their fires. All of which makes the shepherds the most unlikely people to play the role the angels cast them in.

One of Luke’s big themes in the gospel is witnessing. The whole story of Jesus and his disciples is told to show what those chosen followers of Jesus witnessed. Usually what they witnessed was Jesus’ care for outsiders, for the disreputable, for the outcast, for people in society’s shadows. And the first witnesses in Luke’s story aren’t good guys like Peter, James, and John. No, Luke tells us the first witnesses were the last people you’d want testifying on your behalf. The first witnesses who heard the announcement that the infinite and almighty God has taken weak, human, and finite form were this bunch of half-snockered neck-beards, scratching their nether regions while telling tall tales around the fire to keep themselves entertained.

Suddenly they were surrounded by both angels and the glory of the Lord. And when we’re talking about that glory, we’re talking the presence of God, being wrapped up in God’s very being. Who woulda thunk it? It wasn’t kings and high priests who got the announcement. It was the shepherds. On the other hand, what better people could God have sent the heavenly messengers to? If you’re powerful and people jump at your command, you’ll only have ears for your own sweet voice. If you’ve got your act together, you don’t need a savior, who is Christ the Lord. If you’re perfectly snuggled in your warm bed with its 800-count Egyptian cotton sheets, you’re not going to run off to see anything born in a cold cattle stall. So God chose the ones most likely to hear and go and give witness. These guys were duly impressed and wanted to see the one whom the angel told them about and whom the heavenly host praised.

What they found when they went down into town to that stable out back of the inn’s “No Vacancy” sign was something they were perfectly familiar with. Mary had had a little lamb. Outside the sphere of good and upright people, the shepherds saw this woman and man, Mary and Joseph, with a baby who was the Lamb of God. When they stepped up next to the manger, the shepherds did the job they’d been chosen for. They became the first witnesses, handing on what they’d first been given. The angels had told them what God was up to here, and they passed on the news to this set of new parents. In their post-partum exhaustion, Mary and Joseph received the news that their baby, a far distant descendant of King David, was the messiah, the savior, the Lord.

And everyone who heard it either went “Whoa!” or pondered it in their hearts. But the shepherds did something utterly unexpected. They didn’t stand around gawking, trying to hold on to the magnificence of it all like we probably would have. Instead, they went back up the hill to work. They went back to their vocations. After all, there was a flock to pull together at the end of the night. Those shepherds were still the kind of people your mom and dad never wanted you to be friends with, but they were also changed. They’d seen the angels’ announcement come true. And as they walked, and watched, and worked, all they could say was, “Man, that was freakin’ cool.” They’d returned to the hillside pastures, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

During this Advent season, as we wait for Christmas and are steeped in all the work we need to do, we pray that God would come to us unlikely people, too. We pray that we’d also know this baby is for us and for salvation. And that we’d be moved to tell as well. If the shepherds can be witnesses, what’s preventing you? Amen.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

People Get Ready

This sermon for the first Sunday in Advent was preached at Luther Memorial Church in Des Moines, Iowa. It's based on the apocalypse in Matthew 24.

Here we are with Thanksgiving gone past in a flash. There are three more days in November, including Cyber Monday tomorrow. I don’t do Black Friday and don’t have a single gift purchased because I usually have my mind elsewhere with only two weeks left in fall semester. That’s fifteen hundred minutes of class time until finals. It sounds like a lot, but it’s only six classes that are left. And I still have some month-old papers to get graded. And don’t get me started on the knitting projects I wanted done for Christmas. On second thought, maybe you should get me started, because I might be ready in 27 days. I don’t know if I’m scrambling my legs off like George Jetson on his treadmill or if I’m a deer blinking paralyzed in the headlights.

Whichever it is, I know you know the feeling. The world bears down on you with an accusing finger, saying you haven’t done enough. I tried to warn my beloved freshmen in my first-year seminar about this back in September. I told them there would come a day when they look at the list of course work and papers and test they would have come the end of the semester and wonder how they ever got to that place. Well, both those students and their professor have landed in that spot. Who in the world plans to fall behind? Who puts together a to-do list that will be completed two weeks after a deadline? And yet we all wind up there.

At times like that we’re not so sure we’re on board with the Psalmist who was glad when they said, “Let’s go up to the house of the Lord.” The Psalmist was ready and happy to climb the steps to pay the piper and face the Maker of all things. I can’t even get the light bulb over the sink changed, and sure as you’re born or the piling system in my office down the street remains disorganized. How am I ever going to get my act together to be ready for the coming of the Son of Man?

Today we begin a new church year with the season of Advent. While the consumer world entrenched in the economy of buying and selling has already begun its version of the Christmas season, in the church we’re a little better a delayed gratification. Christmas carols and gifts and dancing around the tree and stockings hung by the chimney with care, these things can wait, because we need to do Advent in a way that Christmas goes deeper and we’re actually ready to receive Immanuel, God With Us. So we dress things up in blue, the color of hope and expectation. Like the expecting Mary who’s always portrayed in that color, we wait for God to deliver himself to us.

He’s already come to us in the flesh once in the manger in Bethlehem. And after his crucifixion and death, he came back yet again in his resurrected body that first Easter. If Advent is about waiting and preparation and readiness, the people Matthew wrote his gospel for were right there with us. They’d been told about all Jesus had done, and they’d been promised that Jesus would come back for them. But it wasn’t happening. Where was the glorious victory over sin, death, and the devil? Where was the day when mourning and crying would be over? Where are the heavenly streets of gold and beryl and jasper and diamonds? All they had was the same-old same-old, the day-to-day plodding through life, the dirty feet in sandals, the hauling of water from a well, the milking of goats, the occupying Roman army. And they had to wade through it all without flush toilets, toothpaste, and deodorant. Some glory, eh?

So Matthew gives his people Jesus’ words about when the grand and golden end would come breaking into their world. Christ bids us to hang on, for the resolution of it all is on its way. Hang on. It’s coming. It’s going to break in like the sun creeping up over the horizon. Bit by bit. Ray by ray. For now it may be that it’s still too dark to tell what’s going on. That’s no surprise. Only God has night vision to see it. Before Noah’s flood, no one knew the deluge was coming.

Who knows what the future will hold in this day? When I got the call about my father’s death two weeks ago, it wasn’t something I’d planned for, and neither had he. A sudden hole opened up where he belonged. But I’m not broken up over it. As Paul says, I can’t grieve like those who have no hope. What’s more I’m not sorrowful about our relationship. We had all kinds of past hurts and heartaches between us, but they’d been resolved. Nothing was unspoken. Even though I’d decided not to visit him when I had a slender opening in my calendar ten days before, I knew that if he died our relationship stood on solid, loving ground. So while it was unexpected, it also wasn’t something devastating. We were ready.

Martin Luther in his “Sermon on Preparing to Die” talked about being ready. He says make sure your family is taken care of. It’s the equivalent of not making your heirs spend days amazed that your home has become an episode of “Hoarders” because you literally haven’t gotten your house in order. Being prepared means not burdening them because you’d never signed a medical power of attorney or a living will. That’s the worldly stuff you need to have in place to be ready to meet your Maker. But that’s not the ultimate readiness. Luther says you also need to have your spiritual eyeglasses prescription up-to-date so you can see exactly what kind of God you have.

In that sense, being ready to meet God when God comes means getting the basics down. It means listening carefully to Matthew’s gospel where Jesus says that hehas come to fulfill all righteousness, rather than you. It means hearing Paul declare that you’re saved not by your works but by trusting that Christ has taken care of it all on the cross. Being ready for the Son of Man’s arrival is to take seriously the early petitions of the Lord’s Prayer where you ask for God’s name to be hallowed, God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to be done, all the while prayer that God would take your name, kingdom, and will out of the mix. To be ready and prepared means to have the same certainty as Romans that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

So many preachers take this passage from Matthew as a dire warning to make a decision for Christ so that, when his unexpected arrival happens, you won’t be left behind in the rapture to spend time in tribulation. But that’s not the kind of Lord we find in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus doesn’t threaten you with the fear of being abandoned behind the plow or left grinding meal or emptying bed pans, cooking supper, or cooking the books. Instead, Jesus is the one who wants to give you confidence and faith. He wants to be so good and so true that you can’t help but trust him while you’re slogging through life waiting for him to come. And while Jesus says the hour of his arrival will be unknown, God is keen for you to know where he’s going to arrive. If Jesus is the Word Made Flesh, then God will come unexpectedly wherever Christ’s promise breaks in from the future on sinners’ lives today, including right now when the Last Day becomes This Day. You may not have expected it when you drove here this morning, but the Son of Man has driven up to the curb to pull you into his limo as he dies for you, makes you his own in your baptism, and gives you all his gifts. (And if you’re not yet baptized, let’s talk. It’s time that you had the certainty the sacrament gives that you are his.)

See? You haven’t been left behind. You’ve been chosen, elected, hand-picked. You’re as ready and prepared as you ever need to be, because Jesus has been prepared from the foundation of the world to take you on, sins and all. There’s no telling what’s coming around the bend for you. It might be falling in love and becoming a drooling, slobbering romantic. It might be the hard road of cancer or dementia or a stroke. It might be a Powerball win or merely a three-storm winter with less shoveling. It might be your lingering death or your sudden demise. It might be the same-old same-old of family fault-lines and workplace drudgery. It might be the hoped-for invention of a weight-loss pill that actually works. Who knows? You can never tell. But you can go up to the house of the Lord with confidence and hope, for you can tell who it is who has come before you could ever expect him. You can know who died for you while you were still a sinner. You can be confident that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Just think about what the passage in Romans 8 says: Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate you from your Lord. That means nothing at all that you can face can be the thing that leaves you in the lurch. Not even the vast powers of heavenly creatures like angels can slice you away or leave you hanging, for they cannot go against God’s will and God’s word.

You see, he’s already come for you. And that means that whatever you face in this life, in field work and grinding of meal, in season and out, in joy and in sorrow, he has already swooped you up, and your life is hid in him. You may not see it yet, but it’s done. You’ll be tempted to want some visible evidence, but it’s been there all along. You’ve been told, just like the shepherds who heard from the angels in the hills above Bethlehem. The heavenly messengers said, “Quit shaking in your boots. Here’s where you can find him. He’s in a manger down in town.” What’s unexpected is that he hasn’t come with a rule book, legal code, or accountant’s ledger. He doesn’t come with a measuring rod, balancing scales, or lap timer. This unexpected Lord comes instead with a word for you: It is finished. You’re in. Fear not. Come what may. Amen.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Eulogy for Papa

My father, Dale Jones, died at 79 on November 11, 2016. This is the eulogy I delivered at his funeral in Sturgis, South Dakota, today.

How impossible it is to sum up a life lived just short of eighty years. I’m a historian, scholar, and theologian by trade, and to do the summing up while standing at a far remove of centuries is already difficult. But when the person you’re describing is so newly gone and when you’ve shared three-fourths of those eight decades with him, all perspective is lost. It’s all just a bag of emotions, and almost any one of you would have better insight than this son today.

But there are some things I can say. The first is that my mom and dad have loved me every day of my life. And later, when Dee entered the picture, the love from her direction came not as a substitute but as a gracious addition. Whatever fault lines there were in my dad’s inner existence, whatever led him to hunger and yearn for something greater, for something beyond himself, for something universal and whole and creative rather destructive, both the push and pull of it came from love. It was both the source and the ultimate end that wrapped him and carried him.

Second, for lots of people in Sturgis, my dad was just that goofy guy on the scooter with a long grabber in his hand and a basket full of empties he’d picked up on the side of the road. But that was just his mild-mannered alter ego. He was really a superhero in your midst. And his superpower was the ability to grab what was cast-off, starting with those empties but expanding to dumpster treasures and to actual people. Most of his adult life was written with a pen containing Serenity Ink. It saw nothing and no one as trash. It saw hope in each encounter. And when a bit of self-doubt kryptonite landed in his lap, he went to the curing places that were those relationships: to Dee, of course, to me and my siblings, to his grandchildren, to those whom he and Dee called their adopted kids, to friends like Clay and Mary Ellen, to people ranging from Australia to France, to whatever fellow drunk working their program was nearby.

Finally, the relationship my dad and I had was fraught. And there was plenty of baggage. And old friend had a similar relationship with his father, and earlier this week we talked about the arc of that father-son relationship. The fraughtness of our first twenty years, when we didn’t understand each other, and we kept missing the real and true connection that was hurt by his alcoholism and lots of earlier hurts he’d faced — that was on him. The next twenty years as he realized he was powerless over alcohol and every other thing that life consists of, and as he made a fearless and searching moral inventory and took action to correct things where possible — these years are on me. I was angry, embarrassed, scornful, and dismissive while he kept moving forward, trying his damnedest to be alive and to figure out how to be a both a sober and a loving dad.

But the last twenty years, give or take a few, have been years of joy and wonder. And that’s not on either of us. That responsibility has had to come from outside us. He’d say it was the universe exuding love. I’d probably point to a Judean preacher from the first century who was crucified. Either way and whatever the source, it came sneaking in to our relationship through you all, surrounding us with your own love and care.

First and foremost, the burden of seeing my dad and me renewed has been born by Dee for him and by Mary and Sam for me. But it can’t be limited to them. My brother and sister (and his as well), his grandchildren, my mom, this vast web of relationships we crawl around in – you’ve all meant something to the tiny world that was me and my dad. But seeing you drawn together to share our mourning is a sign that there is more to life than what happens between a first breath in a maternity home and a last gasp on the floor of a bedroom.

It’s that inter-connectedness that my dad loved and relied on. It’s what he reveled in. It’s the mercy that he bathed in. In spite of his death, it’s what remains when all are ashes and dust. I learned that from my dad. And I yearn for that to live on in my relationship with my own son, Sam, who is going to read the prayer Saint Francis wrote back in the middle ages. This version is the translation included in AA’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. Francis himself would have been seen by his contemporaries as the goofy guy in town, loving his animals, and searching for life from God. His faith moved him to extend himself. And the words of his prayer speak to the exact world my dad wanted to live in, and what he hoped would be bound within the covers of the book of his life.

Lord, make me a channel of thy peace —
That where there is hatred, I may bring love,
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness,
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony,
That where there is error, I may bring truth,
That where there is doubt, I may bring faith,
That where there are shadows, I may bring light,
That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted,
To understand, than to be understood,
To love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.

It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life. Amen

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Beatitudes pretty much suck when you're driving a cheap 1972 Chevy Vega and think you're behind the wheel of something bigger

I was invited to be the speaker at the Reformation Festival at St. Dysmas Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation behind the walls of the South Dakota State Penitentiary. It's a place where your vision of what the Body of Christ looks like will be exploded. And it's a place I regard as the highest honor to preach at. Today's sermon for a room full of incarcerated believers, seekers, and sinners, is based on the All Saints Sunday gospel reading in Matthew 5:12 — the Beatitudes, from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.

Today’s gospel reading comes from a string of chapters in Matthew’s gospel that we call the Sermon on the Mount. It’s an account of what Jesus taught to the people who followed him one day at the top of a hill. We call the section we just heard The Beatitudes.

Speaking as an old sinner of long standing, I have to say that the Beatitudes are ridiculous. If Jesus thinks I’m gonna buy what he’s selling here, he’s wrong. It’s just not the way the world works. It’s a pitiful evangelism scheme, and it’s no way to get your fellow inmates out of their cells on a Thursday evening to make their trek up all those stairs to this prison chapel. Any smart person is going to turn away. No one wants to be poor inspirit. Who willingly asks to lose a loved one and grieve or mourn? Being reviled and persecuted? Fuggedaboudit. But these Beatitudes are just the beginning of the trouble in the Sermon on the Mount. Before Jesus is done with his work in this gospel, he’ll have us hoping to receive every single thing in this list of blessings.

The real problem, though, isn’t the list. It’s the person hearing Jesus’ words: me. Our rejection of what Jesus is up to has been the human story since the Garden of Eden when our first parents spurned God’s limits on them, mistrusting his word, and eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The problem was present for their son Cain who regarded his offering to God as better than the one God liked that was given by Abel, whom Cain murdered. It’s right there in Jacob’s grabbing his twin brother’s heel whilst being born and cheating his way through life. It’s there in King David’s demand that the bathing Bathsheba be brought to his quarters. It’s right in the middle of Jesus’ disciples when James and John argued about who’s the greatest, when Peter denied his Lord, and when Judas sold Jesus down the pike for thirty pieces of silver. Every single one of them operated on the principle that their own way was the best way.

What’s God going to do with us? He simply can’t let us be our own gods. Although God is a loving God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, God demands that our roles be clearly defined and strictly limited – at least on our part. God will be God, and we will be God’s people, and not the other way around. And yet we still want the whole relationship with God, the world, and our neighbors to be about us: our goodness, our, righteousness, our performance, our actions, our religion.

Here’s what Jesus does with it in the Sermon on the Mount: He starts by saying, “Lemme tell you the things that will make you blessed, happy, whole, full of peace, and joy and hope.” It’s an unlikely list. But it’s like he knows that we won’t have truck with any of it, so he turns things around with a bit of ethics that we’ll for sure go for. He talks justice. I can handle that. I keep good track of all rights and wrongs, especially when they concern me. Adultery? I’m married and I’m keeping my pants zipped and my eyes focused on the one I love. Retaliation? Well, you inmates know how that works. It might’ve been a problem in the past, right? But you’re good now. At least your intentions are aimed right. And loving others? We’re right there with Jesus, especially if your loved ones still want to be in contact with you.

We like that business. It’s a hidden, arbitrary God who insists on his own way, on choosing the better offerings, on judging us that we don’t like. So we think, “don’t just leave me be, God. Don’t hide behind your veil without revealing your plans for me. Just give me something to do.” But be careful what you ask of the Lord. Contrary to what lots of pious people say, God will always give you more than you can handle.

When Jesus talks about anger in the Sermon on the Mount, he says, “You’ve heard it said, ‘You shall not murder.’ But I say it’s bigger than that: One tiny bit of anger is equal to any murder in the first degree.” When Jesus reminds us of the command no to commit adultery, he says it’s more than about which body parts rub against each other and with whom. He says that lustful thoughts are just as bad, and you should cut off the body parts tempting you (church legends say that St. Origen obeyed Jesus and castrated himself to prevent those thoughts). Jesus recounts the old adage “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” but he won’t stand for justice like that. He tells us to turn the other cheek and give your cloak when someone asks for your coat. Worst of all, he tells us loving our loved ones isn’t enough. We need to love our enemies, too.

Every step of the way in this gospel, Jesus pushes our buttons. He tells parables that don’t spare us. He makes demands beyond what we can do. Finally in chapter 19, the disciples have had it. And they ask, “Jesus Christ [literally], who can do this?” But they’ve forgotten Jesus first sermon in the gospel where he announces “I have come to fulfill all righteousness. You can’t git ‘er done, but I can.”

As God’s only-begotten Son, Jesus knows what he’s come for. And he knows how helpless our case is. If you want to spin your wheels trying to gain traction against the world bearing down on you, he’s okay with that. But he knows how it’ll end up.

That's my 1972 Vega. The red one. Sadly, 40 years later it sits rusting behind the windbreak in a pasture at my grandparents' ranch.

Imagine my friend Neil’s SUV four-wheel drive with the removable hard top. He’d take us out for a spin on Forest Service roads back in the late 1970s when we worked at Bible camp in the Black Hills. Then imagine my very special 1972 red Chevy Vega with a three-speed stick, aluminum engine, and about two inches of clearance. If I’d taken that cheap little car out on those trails I would have been toast. The axle or the oil pan or the u-joint or something else a non-gearhead like me knows nothing about would have gotten hung up on a boulder. And there I’d be, stuck on some Forest Service road until the cows come home. If I’d wanted to try that, Neil would have said, “Go ahead. See how far you get. If you don’t want to tool around in my truck with me driving, that’s fine by me.”

Back in 1518, Martin Luther understood what it is to get hung up, to get stranded on our own desires and plans, and, more important, why God relishes it. He said, “Unless we completely despair of ourselves, we cannot merit the grace of Christ.” What he meant was, “As long as we’re stuck on ourselves and on our potential, we’ll have no need of what Jesus has to give us. And that’s what our Lord is up to in the Beatitudes. He’s pointing to the places in our lives where we’ve lost power, bottomed out, and encountered the end of our rope. They’re the places where our desire to be limitless and in control comes to naught, and we find that we’re severely limited and have no control.

When we get to that point, then Jesus can do what he’s come to do for you: Be the righteous one for you, offering himself on your behalf. Imagine you’re on trial (not something difficult for anyone wearing tan inmate scrubs in this room). God is at the judge’s bench, and the prosecuting attorney is ripping you apart: “You’ve done wrong. You haven’t done enough. You’re an out-and-out sinner.” But you’ve got the best possible person at your defense: Spiritu Sanctu, Esquire, Attorney-at-Gospel. And your lawyer's counsel is that when you stand up to deliver your plea, plead guilty. But don’t stop there. Look the judge in the eye and pin your sin on Jesus, the divine judge’s son. You see, Jesus knows you can’t do it, so he trades places with you and pits himself against God’s righteous demands.

Now when we look at these Beatitudes, we have to say there’s nothing especially noble or saving about grief or persecution in and of themselves. And God certainly doesn’t want to inflict that on anyone. But when you land in these places, then you can see. You are already blessed but have never been able to see while spending the energy on maintaining the illusion of control or the façade of goodness. But in these moments when all else is stripped away, then we can turn and spot what God’s doing.

When things are right and good, God has been afoot, spinning a swift dance step around you, patiently waiting to take you out on the floor. And when things go bad, as they often do – when you lose your freedom, when you lose your good name, when you lose all choices, when you lose a life on the outside, for instance –  the blinders come off. Then you can see what Paul in Ephesians declares: Christ, God’s Son, has given you his inheritance, his good name, his freedom, his own life. Then he promises one more thing – to take you through all this loss, all this mess, all the grief and persecution and death to the other side where you find yourself made new.

If that’s what happens with the Beatitudes, then, in spite of what a lousy church marketing plan they are, every time we find ourselves in those places, we will count ourselves blessed and bid Jesus to just give us more of the loss so we can have the everything he’s ready to give. Amen.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Crooked Lord

This sermon on the parable of the dishonest steward was written to be preached to the members of St. Dysmas Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation behind the walls of the South Dakota State Penitentiary.

Luke 16:1-13 (from The Message)

Jesus said to his disciples, “There was once a rich man who had a manager. He got reports that the manager had been taking advantage of his position by running up huge personal expenses. So he called him in and said, ‘What’s this I hear about you? You’re fired. And I want a complete audit of your books.’

"The manager said to himself, ‘What am I going to do? I’ve lost my job as manager. I’m not strong enough for a laboring job, and I’m too proud to beg. . . . Ah, I’ve got a plan. Here’s what I’ll do . . . then when I’m turned out into the street, people will take me into their houses.’

“Then he went at it. One after another, he called in the people who were in debt to his master. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’

“He replied, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil."

“The manager said, ‘Here, take your bill, sit down here—quick now—write fifty.’

“To the next he said, ‘And you, what do you owe?’

“He answered, ‘A hundred sacks of wheat.’

“He said, ‘Take your bill, write in eighty.’

“Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”

Jesus went on to make these comments: “If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things; if you’re a crook in small things, you’ll be a crook in big things. If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store? No worker can serve two bosses: He’ll either hate the first and love the second or adore the first and despise the second. You can’t serve both God and the Bank.”

The gospel of our Lord.

Today is my 26th wedding anniversary today. Mary and I met on January 1, 1990, in a Twin Cities suburb. Our pastors invited a bunch of people to their house to watch the Rose Bowl. When Mary rang the doorbell, our pastor Nancy opened it and said, “He’s here.” We spent the afternoon ogling each other, sitting side-by-side, discovering that this was someone interesting, and decided to go on an actual first date of some kind. Six weeks later we were engaged. That September we had a wedding. And the rest is history. We’ve had all these years of ups and downs, and we treasure our happy little life.

When I look back at meeting all of you here at St. Dysmas, it feels much the same way. It was a kind of pastoral love at first sight. You welcomed me in so heartily that I’ve been telling people for a year that St. Dysmas and my own congregation in Des Moines are the warmest churches I’ve ever known. But more than anything, I’ve treasured the time I’ve spent with you, because it feels like I found my people. Jesus talked about preaching to people who have ears to hear. I encounter college kids in my classroom every day who have that kind of hunger – mostly because, when they’ve had questions about faith in the past, what they’ve gotten in return is a load of bison flop. But you, my friends, my fellow sinners, my beloved miscreants and felons, you whose days are marked by the constant reminders of either the worst things you’ve ever done or the one thing you got caught for, your tan inmate scrubs won’t let you forget you’re literally penned in and forced to face the hardest truths. Now whether you’ll respond with any kind of faith or with more of the same-old, same-old that got you here is another matter entirely. And that’s what we’ve gotta pray for tonight: that God would give you ears for this gospel word and that God would use this Iowa sinner to deliver a promise that gives you freedom beyond what’s held you down.

If that’s what we’re after, though, tonight’s gospel reading is a doozy. And it’s probably not something any suits or whiteshirts in Pierre or on the hill would we regard as very edifying for a room full of inmates with hard histories, anger issues, and neck tattoos. That’s because Jesus told this story of a guy who’s an absolute crook and gets away with it. And then Jesus made matters worse by praising the fella’s moxie at writing off debts that other people owe his boss. There’s plenty of entertainment value in that. I like an anti-hero as much as anyone. But I suspect Jesus didn’t tell the story to give us a role model in a crook who cooks the books and gets off with not even a hand slap.

So often we have a problem when we come to God’s word. We think that this whole bundle of scripture and this business of being a Christian is all about God wanting us to be more upright, upstanding, and on the up-and-up. We think Christianity is about a moral system, ethics, and good behavior. God gives us the Bible to show us how to live. Jesus came to teach us to be better people. And God rewards those who meet the mark with an eternity in heaven with no bars on the windows, eternal internet access, and meals that include more than soy substitute as a stand-in for actual meat. But if that’s where we start, then that’s all we’ll get out of God’s word, out of Jesus, and out of any preacher. You’ll get lessons in successful Christian living. You’ll get three-point sermons that tell you how to be more spiritual. And you’ll hear Jesus’ preaching and teaching as something you need to decipher and find the golden nugget that will finally unlock your potential.

With that approach, this parable Jesus tells in tonight’s gospel will screw you up royally. It doesn’t promote good behavior. It doesn’t give you a solid bro you can model your life on. In fact, this section of Luke’s gospel is full of idiots who can’t figure out that a flock of sheep in the pen is better than one lost in the sage brush, a prodigal son who squandered everything and gets welcomed home, and guests at a fancy dinner banquet who turn out to be the winos, the homeless, the heroin shooters, the whores, and the disreputable. Jesus seems bent on upsetting all our preconceived notions of what God actually wants us to live like.

The religious leaders who heard Jesus tell these stories were none too happy about it. They also thought the project we call a human lifetime was about righteousness, purity, morality, and fulfilling the commandments. It’s no wonder that they started plotting to recruit Judas and to arrest and kill Jesus. Where’s the peace and security in a world where people like you, my friends, are held up as just the kind humans God has taken a shine to? Armed robbers, murderers, meth cookers, pedophiles, your house band, and your inside council members are the most unlikely bunch of reprobates for God to grab hold of. Thank God that’s what he does, though.

The story of the crooked manager contains more than meets the eye. Jesus is setting us up for a life of dishonesty, but he does put before us the prospect of using all the tricks and tools of the streetwise for the sake of faith. Jesus says they’re “smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They’re on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits.” Jesus knows that the tactics of the crooked on their own lead to a hollow life and damage to others. But he understands how wily a person of faith has to be in this world. All kinds of temptations will crop to get you to believe and trust something other than Christ for your future. They’ll pop out at you when you least expect it. And they’ll often look pretty appealing. But even good things like being moral or religious or spiritual can also be a temptation to rely on something other than Jesus. And he’s not interested in us complacently basing our lives and our eternal future on good behavior. There’s more to the abundant life Jesus promises than keeping your head down in the chow line, keeping out of the SHU, and flying under the radar of your CO's. Even if it were, Jesus is pretty sure you don’t have it in you.

So Jesus does something else between the lines in this story tonight. He shows you why he like people like you so damn much. The manager in the story is about to get canned for embezzlement. He’s cooked the books, and he sees what’s coming down the pike. When it all falls apart, he won’t have a place to go for refuge. So he’ll create a group of people who’ll say, “That guy gave me a deal on my debt. I don’t care what his own crime was. He can stay with me.” So the guy goes around and writes off debt. It’s like a governor caught in a crime who decides to commute sentences and issue pardons because he knows he’s going to wind up on the hill and wants friends on the inside.

And that’s exactly what Jesus does for you. At the point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus knows that what’s waiting for him in Jerusalem is an execution on the cross that is the finally accounting by the religious leaders. So he sets his face to the task of forgiving people who owe a debt to society, who don’t meet what’s required by the law, and especially those that religion and religious people have beat up on with their demands for perfect obedience and moral purity. Jesus comes to you saying, “Your accounts are cleared. You don’t have to worry about that sin anymore.”

Our Lord is never going to find real friends, followers, or disciples among those who regard themselves as debt-free. They don’t need what Jesus is doling out. They’re sufficient unto themselves. But for people like you and me, Jesus is all we’ve got. We know that we don’t love God or our neighbors as we should and, worse, that we don’t want to. We know how far into the red our accounts with God are. So when Christ comes with this good news of the great divine debt-elimination program, we can only say, “I want what Jesus has to give.” What Jesus is doing is exactly what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer when we say, “Thy will be done.” By being such an irresistible and attractive friend, he turns our will his way. He comes after us in such a way that we can’t help but be open to him. He grabs hold of us so that our old tricks now get turned around for his sake and the sake of the gospel.

After all, isn’t that what St. Dysmas is all about? You guys have survived by your wits forever. You’ve had to be on the alert to make sure you’re not caught. But now Jesus has caught you and calls you to use your substantial streetwise savvy to become his very presence behind the walls of the prison and out in the world when your sentence is up. And if there’s no pardon for you in this life, he’s going to make sure that you know exactly what awaits you in his home. There are no cells there. But he says that in his father’s house there are many mansions. And every single one of ‘em has an open door and the best kitchen ever, where there’s a divine chef cooking up the supper of the Lamb of God to fill you with eternal good things.

For my money, I’d rather have a Lord who’s crooked, who gives grace and mercy to those who don’t deserve it, than some demanding rule-giver whose relentless rule-giving leaves me in arrears. When you come to the altar for the sacrament tonight, know that you come to Christ who says, “What do you owe?” and who says in response, “Take your bill. Put zero on the bottom line. And scrawl 'debt paid in full.'” He’s done it for you. Amen.

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