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.

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.

Repentance and the life of vocation

This lecture was part of the 500th Anniversary Reformation Retreat at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Maple Lake, Minnesota, which is served by a faithful, Confessional pastor, Culynn Curtis.

We’re going to operate a bit differently than we did the last hour. We’re going to be a little more active in our learning than we were with my lecture on the will. Call the 12th person in your contacts (or the next one if not appropriate to call now). Tell them what you’re doing here today, and ask them to look around and tell you one thing they see. [Wait for calls. Ask what the contact said.] We’ll come back to these things in a bit.

The Latin word for what we’re dealing with is vocation. It means “calling.” It’s like when you’d be playing with the neighborhood kids on a summer evening and, as the twilight darkened, your mom would call out the back door: “Hoo-hoo!” You knew her call. It was different from the other parents. And you responded. Vocatio is calling. Luther never wrote anything specifically about vocation, although the idea is present all over the place wherever he talks about the Christian life: In Freedom of a Christian, in the Table of Duties in the Catechism, and in its descriptions of how life is lived faithfully under the Commandment in his Catechism explanations. For Luther, Christian vocation happens in the world your contacts told you something about – in all those places that the things they spotted exist. And even more, it happens within the relationship you have with your contacts or, as Luther (and Jesus) called them, “your neighbors.”

Let’s get some things out of the way before we go any further. Vocation isn’t your job or career. Grand View students who have to take a general education core seminar on vocation their senior year often make that mistake. There’s such pressure for them to get their act together and know how they’re going to live, eat, pay off school loans, and, if they’re smart, how they’ll have enough to retire on. If vocation isn’t your job, your job is still part of your vocation, but just a limited part. Frederic Buechner once defined vocation as “where your great passion meets the world’s great need.” That’s nice on the surface. But it leaves me open to thinking my vocation has to be fulfilling, something that gives me joy, pleasure, and goose bumps. And then I’m stuck back at the curved-in state with a bound will and an imagined deed to God’s throne. On top of that, Buechner’s definition leaves an important party out of the equation: God.

So let’s see if we can’t tackle what Luther’s doctrine of vocation is by coming at it from an angle most people, including theologians to approach it from. Vocation isn’t about your work in the world but your identity as someone who is dead and risen in Christ. Five hundred years ago this month, Martin Luther had had his fill of people in the church ignoring the fullness of what Christ did on the cross. In 1512 the university faculty had gotten permission from the chancellor to bestow a doctoral degree on him. As part of the ceremony they gave him an open and closed Bible, a doctoral cap called a biretta, and a gold ring. And he, in turn, made an oath to teach the truth and basically rat out others who didn’t.

Luther smelled a rat in the work of Johann Tetzel who’d been selling indulgences nearby, but he’d already question many of the main supports for the Scholastic theology he himself had been taught. Indulgence sellers like Tetzel preached that the pope would grant a reprieve from working off your sins in purgatory after you died if you’d just do a good work like, maybe, donating to the Go Fund Me page for St. Peter’s Basilica back in Rome. But in his classroom Luther had slowly become more direct in declaring that there wasn’t a single thing you could do to merit even a kind glance from God. The fact of capital-S Sin was too big. And Luther began to have the sense that that was true of the bait-and-switch tactics of indulgences: They pull you in with a sweet deal and take your money, but they can’t actually provide you with what they said. In this case, it was forgiveness of sins and merit before God.

So when Luther pulled together the set of statements, the Ninety-Five Theses, he wanted to debate about the issue, the one that started everything off assumed that truth: you can’t git ‘er done. Instead of trying to do something good little thing for God, God required every last bit of you: bone, sinew, muscle, and ear lobes. The first of the ninety-five theses that sparked the explosion we call the Reformation was this: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, bids us to repent, he intends an entire life of repentance.” In other words, because sin is about your having grabbed the gusto for yourself, turning away from sin is going to cost you your life.

Jesus is out to have you, body and soul, and once he has you your life won’t be yours anymore. You will belong to him, and he will give you a mission: to unbend and look to him for your life. Did you think your baptism was just something sweet where Norwegian grandmas says, “Oh, for cute” when the baby squirms? Luther stood with Paul in Romans, knowing that even while you were a sinner Christ died for you, and having been baptized into his death you’ve been raised to new life. Already. Today. When you begin looking at the world, your neighbors, and your life through that lens, everything changes. The way you thought the world functioned gets turned upside-down.

There are two stories at play in your life: the story of this world and its powers and the story of Jesus crucified and risen. In the first story you’re taught to understand everything in terms of cause and effect, like Newtonian physics or Aristotle’s chain of causation. Everything is caused by something else. You get what you pay for. There’s no such things as a free lunch. You need to look out for number one. Just do it. Become an army of one. Every advertising spot you’ve ever seen has this story at its core. Every action movie that’s come across your screen and nearly every novel has it as the thing that moves the plot. You have to move forward and make your life happen. And all those things your contacts told you they saw? Those bits and pieces of the world are just tools to help you advance yourself into your desired future. Worse yet, so are your contacts – if you’re lucky. Because if they’re not tools to use to your advantage, then they’re either competition for the goods you want to acquire or a threat to your plan or to your very existence.

As a character in this story, then, along with Adam and Eve in the Garden, you can’t help regarding yourself as the centerpiece – a Copernican sun around which everything and everyone else revolves. And you spend your days building on sand, advancing your career for who knows what, mowing the grass every week only to mow again next week, wrinkles deepening, flesh bulbs sagging, waist expanding, and one day you’re done. All that’s left will be the set of experiences and unnecessary plastic objects you’ve accumulated. The plastic will be around forever, but the experiences that formed you will be gone. As the psalmist says, the grass flourisheth and dieth. Vanity of vanities, all is vanities, says the preacher in Ecclesiastes, or as another paraphrase puts it, it’s all just smoke.

The most earthly good you’ll have been, as Luther once called himself, will to serve as a stinking pile of manure. It such a hopeless, nihilistic story the world is writing for you. Even the creation itself, which God made as a blessing, rots and dies. In spite of rainbows and fall colors and funny kitten memes, it all feels like it’s spinning down as evil ascends and the good loses ground each day. Like Paul, the good that we would do, we don’t do. The bad we wouldn’t do, we wind up doing. And we look to God and wonder when he’ll finally deal with it. It’s an apocalyptic story, less of a zombie disaster than the slow inexorable grind until things can’t possibly go any further.

But Jesus’ story offers something different. It’s the story where you don’t have to wait for the end of the world or the end of your life to know how the plot resolves. In his cross and empty tomb, Christ is the end of all things, that is, the goal that everything has been headed toward and the one who breaks in to say, “Enough, already! I’m in charge now.” Where the first story is all about meeting life’s demands, this second story is all about God’s promise from the foundation of the world coming to fulfillment for you in this person Jesus. In him the plot twists, so that nothing functions the same way ever again. For he announces the kingdom of heaven at hand, where the evidence of the end of the world’s death spiral has come: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead are raised – imperishable, at the last trumpet, so that we can look even death in the face and say, “Where is your sting? Where is your power? My Lord is raised, and he’s promised to make the resurrection mine.”

At this point you may be thinking we’ve driven off the vocation map, but we’re closer than ever. That’s because now you are a citizen of a new realm where Jesus’ beatitudes are true. Those who mourn, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and who lose their lives for Christ’s sake are blessed. This is a realm where the first are last and the last first. This is a divine government where justice comes as a gift, where control is regarded as overvalued, and service is the currency of the kingdom. Your story is not one of endless dreck to slog through, the world around you isn’t a series of Australian poisonous snakes and deadly jellyfish.

In fact, as Luther said in Freedom of a Christian, in this story you’ve been written into you are a perfectly free lord of all, subject to no one else. And at the same time you’ve been given a life of real meaning where you are completely in service to others. And all you can do is look around in wonder that you were caught up in it, that it was here all along, and that what looked like demands and disaster were really blessings and life. All you can do is continually repent, turn around, turn your back on the sterile old black-and-white meaninglessness. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ bids you to repent, you can say, “I’m already with you. I’ve had enough of that other stuff.”

All this talk is important for us, so we don’t treat a conversation about vocation as just jotting down a list of things we’re good at doing. Your new story of life in Christ is one of relationships. That’s what God was doing when he expressed himself with his word at the beginning: God was creating and forming relationships with the creation and with his creatures. In the narrative of God and God’s chosen people, we see the shape of God’s plot where the promiser keeps making a covenant happen in spite of the faithlessness of the Israelites. And now for us, our vocation is also tied up in the kinds of relationships that grow as fruit when we’re trees planted by eternal waters. The way you know what your vocation, your callings, and your stations in life are is to look at your relationships in this new light.

Here’s what I’d like you to do. I’d like you to take your paper and put your name in the middle of it. Now you’re going to create a map, a web of your many relationships. We’re going to see the geography of your vocation is yours alone. No one has one exactly like yours. And it’s the context for your life of faith. You’ve established who’s in your web, identify the relationships: I’d label mine husband, father, teacher, citizen, neighbor, etc.

Now think about the tasks that these relationships call you to carry out. I need to grade papers. I need to attend faculty meetings. I needs to share household chores fairly. I need to drive safely on Highway 55 on my way to Maple Lake. I need to pay my taxes. I need to preach and teach. What are your tasks?

Finally, consider what qualities and characteristics would allow to carry out those duties well. I need diligence, fairness, and generosity to grade papers. I need patience with other drivers. I need grit to go to faculty meetings. I need the willingness to have the word claim my will whenever I preach and teach. What kind of person do you need to be to do your tasks within your vocational relationships?

When you look at your set of lists, now you can hear what Luther said about our Christian lives. Since we don’t have to do anything for our salvation and God doesn’t require our good works, now you’ve got bushels of good works you can aim at more useful places. You have neighbors around you who need your works for their lives, just as you need theirs. You all need me to drive safely on highway 55 so that you can arrive home in one piece. My neighbors in Puerto Rico and Florida and the Texas gulf need my help to recover, my dollars, my votes, my political pressure. Future inhabitants of this planet need me to care for the creation. And my dog Millie needs me to give her food and water every morning after I’ve gotten the paper from our front stoop.

In Freedom of a Christian, Luther argued that our neighbors’ needs are the first reason to do good works. But your last list of qualities needed to serve is connected to the second reason Luther said we do good works: to control the old person in us who still suspects the story may be fiction and who still thinks they need to follow the old path. If you did what AA calls a fearless and searching moral inventory and then compared it with your last list, you’ll find yourself wanting.

The only way for those qualities to become part of you is for the old person to be put down. We need to keep finding ourselves in places where we say, “This stuff is killing me.” This is what baptism means for daily living. “It means that our old sinful selves, with all their evil deeds and desires, should be drowned through daily repentance, so that a new self can arise to live with God in righteousness and purity forever.”

When your bound will is freed by the gospel and you’re pulled away from your days constructing yourself, then you won’t have it any other way. You’ll begin to cherish the new story. You’ll want to bear the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and all those other qualities on your list. And you’ll look for opportunities to let yourself go a little, a little more, and still more, for the sake of your neighbor. You’ll feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned and sick.

Think of what a radically different view Luther gave us is from the one he was handed in the church of his day. True vocations were only those with religious qualities to them – especially the calling to be a priest, monk, or nun. And even there, there was a hierarchy that stretched all the way to the pope in Rome. But this new narrative grounded in the gospel was like those video clips of color-blind people putting on those special sunglasses that let them see the full range of colors around them. Where before the question was “What do I need to do to be saved”, now the question was, “Given all that Christ has already done to free you, what do you want to do with your life?”

Isn’t this a vision the world sorely needs today? We’re steeped in a world of empty celebrities, demands to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, and life whose goodness is judged by how many toys you’ve accumulated, whether you’re clothed in the proper style, and whether you have the latest rendition of your handheld gadget. In a life of faithful vocation, though, you’ve have so very much more. You have neighbors. You have gifts. You have opportunities to turn from your old self. You have a Lord who sees fit to give you everything need for this life and its many days of service.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Sin, sin, and the bound will

This lecture was part of the 500th Anniversary Reformation Retreat at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Maple Lake, Minnesota, which is served by a faithful, Confessional pastor, Culynn Curtis.

We’re about to jump into the hardest bit of theology for most folks in understanding what it means to be Lutheran, the matter of free will (or not). For some, it’s as poisonous as breathing sulfur dioxide. But to dead sinners on their last legs like me, it’s the purest oxygen. And I hope you’ll be there with me when we’re done.

It all starts with getting at the truth about us human creatures and our inaccessible God. We’re involved in a lifelong game of hide-and-seek with God. As hard as we seek, God stays hidden, and we human beings aren’t very good at being unsuccessful game players. In our founding Lutheran documents from 1530, the Augsburg Confession, right after its author Philip Melanchthon tells us about God’s existence in the First Article he immediately moves to the consequences of our frustrated quest to get behind God’s veil. He tells us all about sin.

It is taught among us that since the fall of Adam, all human beings who are born in the natural way are conceived and born in sin. This means that from birth they are full of evil lust and inclination and cannot by nature possess true fear of God and true faith in God. Moreover, this same innate disease and original sin is truly sin and condemns to God’s eternal wrath all who are not in turn born anew through baptism and the Holy Spirit.

That’s a mouthful, and it sounds a lot like the fire-and-brimstone preaching of the New England Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards in his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It’s not something that sits well on our ears. Whether it’s mom or a preacher, we don’t like a wagging finger or scolding words.

The years before I went to seminary I served as a youth minister in a little town on Highway 212 in western Minnesota. My last summer in that congregation the American Lutheran Church had a national youth gathering in Denver. We had a goodly batch of kids ready to go, but there were two ninth grade boys I had my doubts about. I knew that when it came down to it Ricky and Jay would always forsake the group and go their own way. Not such a bad thing in a town of 2000 surrounded by soybean fields. But I wasn’t sure that would be wise for two guys who imagined they were bigger than the Mile-High City. I found a program that Lutherhaven, one of our Bible camps in Idaho was offering. It was a design-your-own high adventure experience, and we opted for the whitewater rafting trip. So while the rest of the kids were busing out to Colorado, we hopped in my standard transmission Plymouth Reliant and trekked to Salmon, Idaho, to meet our camp staff member and our two rafting guides for six days on the Salmon River that’s more affectionately known as the River of No Return.

It was just the six of us on the river heading down that amazing canyon, alternating between wild rapids and eerily calm stretches. At the end of the first day, we pulled our raft onto a beach and set up camp. Our guide Bucky told Ricky and Jay they could splash around in the water but that they couldn’t go past knee deep. He said that even though it looked calm it was dangerously deceptive. The river’s current was so strong that it would grab you and sweep you around the bend to the next rapids, and there was nothing you could do about it. I trusted that Ricky and Jay would be obedient, but as I was setting up a tent I heard shouts from the river. My two boys had decided to swim across the river to a sand bar on the other side, and the current had gotten them.

I raced over boulders on the banks trying to keep up with them, urging them to swim to shore as hard as they could. All I could think was that I would have five more days on the river, that we were at least 100 miles in any direction from being able to communicate with the outside world, and that when I finally got to a phone I’d have to call back home to Minnesota and tell two sets of parents that their sons’ bodies were somewhere downriver. Jay made it to shore, and my dreaded phone call was down to one set of parents. But Jay headed back out to help Ricky. Somehow they were able to get back to the bank before the next rapids. I tell you, it’s hard to scold a couple cocky kids when you’re crying.

That evening on the Salmon is tattooed on my brain. And it’s a perfect example of Luther’s view of the human condition. Ricky and Jay didn’t like our guide’s warning words and strictures, and they decided they knew their strength better. They decided to go it on their own. They used their own free will to make a really bad decision. What else would they have done? How could they not have been Ricky and Jay? They were stuck with their own hubris, their own hormone-filled brains, their own desire to conquer all they surveyed, their own will. What Melanchthon was doing in his description of sin in the Augsburg Confession was talking about Ricky and Jay and all of us caught up in this situation find ourselves in. How you understand Sin and free will will make all the difference in whether you come out of the Reformation with Luther or with those in opposing camps for the last 500 years.

When Melanchthon uses words like “innate disease” and “born in sin,” it’s another way of saying that, just by being born a human being, we’re stuck on one side of the veil with the hidden God on the other side. Sin is all about what happens when we try to get at that God: We’re bound to react by turning to something else that will do what God won’t. The stories of the creation, of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, of the serpent’s temptation of Eve in Genesis 3 and our first parents’ rejection of God tell us the same thing using a different angle.

It all begins with, well, the beginning – and especially with how God makes it all happen. Genesis 1:1-5 tells us: 

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening and there was morning – the first day.[1]

God uses a simple, ordinary thing to create something out of nothing (theologians use a Latin phrase creatio ex nihilo). It’s divine words that create the cosmos. When God speaks, stuff happens: light, seas, the moon and stars, and creatures that slither, swim and fly. Finally, God’s words speak you into existence. Those divine words establish a relationship with the creation. Just like when you’re angry and say, “I’m going to give her a piece of my mind,” God’s words in Genesis are an expression, literally God’s very being pressed out as the creation in a way that the whole cosmic schmear exists in God.

The relationship God’s word creates shows up clearly in the words delivered by the prophet Jeremiah: “I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Jeremiah 31). God’s word is about God constantly and eternally creating and sustaining that relationship, both with you and the whole creation. It’s the story of patriarchs, judges, kings and prophets in the Old Testament. As we’ll see, it’s the story of Jesus. It’s the story of Paul and Silas, Peter and Mary Magdalene, Lydia, Dorcas, St. Augustine and his mother Monica, St. Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Martin Luther King, and Johnny Cash. And it’s the story of you since your baptism.

But something went wrong when the human creatures God made for a relationship spurned the relationship in a great battle of wills. It goes back to the wide chasm between a hidden God and God’s human creatures who live in this tangible, earthly realm. In Genesis 2, God puts the man and woman in Eden, smack in the middle of God’s delight (which is what the Garden’s name means). That tells you something about the good pleasure God takes in the creation and God’s relationship with it. But God is also aware of the difference between being God and being human. God tells our first parents to eat up; everything in Eden is made to please and sustain.

There’s only one thing God forbids Adam and Eve to eat: the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In this one rule, God retains all the great “omni’s” that theologians use to describe God: omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. God is all-knowing, all-present, and all-powerful. There are things that are placed only in God’s job portfolio, ultimate things like life and death, heaven and hell, and, here in the Garden, the judgment of good and evil. Even God’s great promise in Jeremiah we saw above (“I will be your God, and you will be my people”) asserts that God will be God. And in the Garden, Adam and Eve – and by implication, all their descendants including you – may not cross the line. God tells them his determination and will to be God and remain God is so great that the consequence of bridging the chasm by eating of the Tree will be death.

The problem, of course, is that it’s so very hard to trust a God who remains hidden. Sure, God is present in the whole of the creation – God made it, after all – but how are you to find God there? So the serpent in the Garden zeroed in on that question. The serpent’s temptation in Genesis 3 wasn’t to hold out some of the Tree’s juicy fruit for Adam and Eve’s hungry mouths to savor. Instead, the temptation was to not trust the word of a God who wouldn’t be seen. The temptation was to think that God isn’t good and maybe, just maybe, is holding something back that you want or deserve – something like the knowledge of good and evil or other things that would give you power and control in what seems like a random world and before what seems like an arbitrary God.

When Adam and Eve were tempted they found it was impossible to avoid sinning with their mistrust. Christian thinkers in the Middle Ages said it’s non posse non peccare, or “not possible to keep from sinning.” This kind of sin is called original sin. Think of it as the origin of all other sin – a condition that makes the rest possible and keeps you from ever being able to avoid it. That’s a different way of thinking about sin than you might often hear of. Usually, people talk about sin as bad things you do or good things you avoid doing. We ought to pay attention to that kind of sin, because it has all kinds of consequences, both for you and your neighbors in the world. But there’s a deeper way to talk about sin that can lead you to understand yourself and your Lord in an equally deep way. Thinking about sin as wrong thoughts and actions comes right out of the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent, but so does thinking about sin as a condition.

The first way to look at the story is to use the traditional label for it: The Fall. In this way of interpreting the story, Adam and Eve entered into a Downward Fall by eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Our first parents had an exalted place in the Creation. God had given them dominion over all things, after all. But the serpent tempted them to submit to their baser urges. Eating the fruit of the Tree was wrong, and they became less than what God had intended them to be. In their bad actions they moved down from their exalted place and away from God. If God is spirit and the edenic couple was flesh, they abandoned the spiritual and the godly, and they attached themselves to the mundane things of the earth – and, as theologians like St. Augustine taught, Adam and Eve were especially moved by their physical urges, including sex. They turned their backs on the ultimate spiritual being and engaged in wrong physical actions. That’s lower-case sin – “little S sin.”

Think of the set-up for this story as a great ladder reaching up to God on the top rung. Every creature has its place on the ladder, and our goal is to climb up the ladder and become ever more godly and spiritual. In this Downward Fall, Adam and Eve climbed down rung after rung, and in every sinful action after that they moved ever farther down the ladder. If sin is moving away from God and our problem is doing things wrong, then the solution to our sinfulness is to climb back up the ladder. Fixing the Downward Fall requires upward striving, spiritual success, more devotion and lots of religion. Lots! The way to make things right is to start doing things right. The most important person in your salvation is you. You have to do the work of turning away from your urges, instincts, and inclinations.

You have to engage in spiritual behavior to counteract your flesh-driven sin. It’s a good thing you have Christ on your side, though, because he can show you how to live right. In this way of looking at the story, Jesus’ main job is to be a role model, and his death on the cross is all about giving you an example of how to endure hard stuff. Christian life in this scheme follows what Thomas รก Kempis called the “Imitation of Christ.” A Christian’s days, then, are intended to be a constant refrain of “What would Jesus do?” And the power of Christ’s death and resurrection becomes an after-thought, if it’s thought of at all.

It all hinges on the assumption that you have a free will. The Scholastic theology Luther was taught said that you have a spark of goodness left in your fallen, sinful self. All that’s needed is a little oomph from God’s grace to fan it into flame. Then you could exert your free will and decide to become the person God made you to be. You could freely opt for God’s will, fill God’s commands, and merit what Christ had done on the cross. The catchphrase of that theology was facete quod in te est, or “do what is within you to do.” Choose to do your best, and God will do the rest. There were plenty of options for what you could choose: pilgrimages, visiting relics, entering a monastery, or donating some cash to the church’s latest fundraiser.

Luther was no slouch when it came to his scrupulous attempts to bend his free will to become better. The problem for Luther, though, was that the focus remains on you. It all devolves into some moral system where God becomes a divine accountant and Jesus is left out of the equation. And you’d never turn away from yourself. You’d always swim across the river and get caught in the current. You’d always find yourself in the rapids with no way out.

The other way of thinking about what happened in the Garden looks at it as an Upward Fall. The first question Eve hears when she encounters the serpent has to do with being able to trust God’s Word. The serpent reminds her of the strictures against eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, particularly the warning that eating will bring death. Eve is forced to answer the worst question you could face on this side of the chasm between us and God: Did God really say this? She and the man start wondering if God can really be trusted. Maybe God was lying about dying. Shouldn’t they be allowed everything in the Garden? They deserve it. Why is God keeping something from them? It wasn’t enough for them to be God’s human creatures. They wanted more. The serpent’s temptation is to point them to the throne of God and get them to think it’s empty.

Nature abhors a vacuum and so, apparently, does the human heart. If we can’t see a divine being occupying the throne, we have a perfect candidate for what we think will be the cushy divine chaise-longue. Adam and Eve no sooner hear the serpent’s temptation than they plop themselves into God’s throne. Instead of turning away from godliness and engaging in bad actions like in the Downward Fall, Adam and Eve raised themselves to a high position. They put themselves in God’s place. In essence, they made themselves their own gods. You could say it another way: Sin is always a disregard for God Word, for the relationship that God imparts in creating you. This way of looking at your problem as a creature who doesn’t trust God is upper-case Sin – “big S sin.” It’s a condition on whose coattails all the “little S” sins float into the world on. When you think about Sin in this way, it will change who you think Jesus is, what the remedy for your condition is, and what you think the Christian life looks like.

With the Upward Fall, God doesn’t fix things by simply demanding that you straighten up and fly right. This way of thinking rejects your free will and assumes instead that you’re captive to your own will – you can’t escape that your so-called free will continually chooses its own way. Here God recognizes the chasm and your terror of the Hidden God and so reveals to you in the person of Jesus exactly what kind of God you have on your hands. All those “little S” sins are dealt with at their root when the Word that was the agent of creation at the beginning comes to you in Christ. At the beginning of his gospel, John tags Jesus as the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In Jesus you’re given God fully, in the way God wants to be known.

Now the Christian life isn’t about constantly improving your moral backbone, being more frenetic in your religious activity, or becoming less worldly by attaining pure spirituality. Instead, the Christian life is what the old Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts,” says: You “come round right” to “live in the valley of love and delight.” That involves God bringing you into his divine promise, into the Word, where you can hear exactly what God is up to with you.

In 1525, the same year Luther’s prince Frederic the Wise died, the Peasants War resulted in 150,000 dead serfs, and Luther found himself a married man waking up with pigtails on the pillow next to him, in that year Luther got into a bit of a spat with Erasmus of Rotterdam who had written a treatise against Luther called The Diatribe on Free Will . In Luther’s response to the great Humanist, called On the Bondage of the Will, he said that by zeroing in on the matter of free will Erasmus had become the only person in all Luther’s disputes who’d understood the essential question at the core of everything: your messed up will. Once you get this business of the captive will down, everything else will fall in place.

In another treatise Luther argued that the main task of lay people in a congregation is to judge doctrine. What he means is that lay people need to hold the feet of their pastors to the fire and demand that the clergy get their theological act together. I’d argue that the place to start is to begin listening carefully for how we talk about God, Christ, and the Christian life. Most folks would say the most important thing to listen for in a sermon, for instance, is grace. But grace doesn’t ever truly exist if you have a free will. When you have a free will, the burden is always on you to shape yourself up and then, whether you admit it or not, deny Jesus’ work on the cross. So you need to be on guard for any time the free will wants to sneak back into the equation, especially from the pulpit.

But if preachers understand Sin and the captive will, then something amazing will happen. When you finally despair of your ability to freely make your future happen, then God can go to town on you with the gospel and make his will come alive in your life. That’s the place where God pulls you down the ladder to where you belong, to be a creature who fears, loves and trusts God, and to serve your neighbor. When Luther explained the Ten Commandments in the Small Catechism, he assumed that you have a will that’s captive to yourself. Each of Luther’s explanations of the Commandments has two parts. Each Commandment means that you “should fear and love God so that…” and then continues with what you should and should not do. For instance,

[w]e should fear and love God so that we do not anger or despise our parents or others in authority, but respect, obey, love, and serve them.

The first half of each explanation shows the kinds of things you’re bound to do when you place yourself in the divine throne where you have no business being and then function your own God, even though you’re too lily-livered to admit it. The second half of each explanation describes what you’ll look like when God’s word creates faith in you: You’ll trust God to be God. You’ll be content to remain a human creature. And you’ll serve your neighbors – other people, other creatures, and the creation itself. In fact, you’ll have your petitions in the Lord’s Prayer answered. When you pray “hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” God will make you into the person who relishes in those things and turns away from your own name, kingdom, and will.

This is why, in Luther’s little pamphlet on Christian freedom, he said one thing and one thing alone is needed to become that person. The only thing needed is the word of God. That means the old you with your curved-in-on-yourself posture that characterized the bound will must be put down. Your opposable thumbs need to be loosed from your grip on God’s throne and your hands instead be placed on Christ’s crucified and risen body. But you can’t simply decide to do it on your own, like someone who thinks they can just lick their opioid addiction by going cold turkey. You’ll always fall back on yourself. And you’ll always fail. You need something stronger that can truly overcome the devil, the world, and your sinful bound self. You need something to show you that God has never held anything back from you, something that shows you God ultimately gives everything. Maybe something like an execution hill outside the wall of Jerusalem.

There you get God completely unbound, relentless in divine freedom, choosing to submit to the wrath of us and our fellow religionists who have refused to let go of their free will and shout “Crucify him!” And God sets a seal on it by sneaking into the tomb and raising Jesus’ 15-hour-dead body to new life. There you see that the only way for God to deal with your captive will and unavoidable capital-S Sin is to be subject to it and then, surprise of surprises, absolve it. The only way for you to be truly free is to be forgiven. This is why the central ways we proclaim the gospel in the church always revolve around Jesus’ death and resurrection. It delivers the goods in a way that your fear of God and love of doing it your way now become love of God and fear and suspicion of your own will.

When that happens, something new in your will happen. We call it faith – a simple trust that Christ has done everything needed for you. As Paul says, God has emptied himself for you. He became such an empty hollow shell for you on the cross that there’s room for you inside him. Your life doesn’t need to be concocted on your own power by twisting your own will but is instead hid in him. You have Christ put on you as assuredly as you wore a white gown at your baptism or will have a white pall draped over your dead body at your funeral.

The only thing that now matters as far as your free will is concerned is whether God has a claim on it and is binding you to himself. As Luther said at the Diet of Worms, “My conscience is captive to the word of God.” When it is, a new you will be created that is finally obedient to God’s commands. It will be God’s will and not your own that moves you to engage in what we’re going to talk about next: your vocation in the kingdom of God.

[1] Philip Melanchthon, “The Augsburg Confession,” 36, 38.

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 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.