Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Friday, October 21, 2016

Marriage of Lisa and Eric

October 22, 2016
Song of Solomon 2:10-13; 8:6-7
Colossians 3:12-17
Mark 10:6-9, 13-16

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, we’ve gathered here on this most happy occasion.  And I am well aware that you did not come here today to hear me preach.  Which is good, because I did not come here to preach at you either.  So, we’re all on the same page.  But it does fall to me to say something about the lessons we just heard, and the marriage we’re about to witness.

The first part of that gospel you just heard, the part about a man shall leave his parents and be joined to his wife, and two shall become one flesh . . . you’ve probably heard that before.  And if you’ve ever seen a wedding, even in a movie, then you’ve definitely heard the phrase, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.”

But what might have struck you as odd is how the reading then skipped ahead to the disciples of Jesus trying to keep him from blessing the children who were coming to him.  What’s up with that, right?  And how is that possibly tied to a woman and a man leaving home and being joined as one?  Well, the clue comes from what Jesus says after saying to let the children come to him.

Jesus tells the disciples, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  In other words, he is telling them—and us—the importance of accepting blessings as they are.  Without overanalyzing and bringing our adult cynicism and doubt into the room.  He is telling them—and us—that despite what you may think, Jesus welcomes the children.  Jesus welcomes everybody.  He is telling them—and us—that a better world is possible.  A world where a couple decides to join hands and then promises to support one another, to love one another, to walk into the future together, for better or for worse.

Today, for Lisa and Eric, they are stepping into the unknown.  And since none of us can know what the future holds, they are stepping into life together just as a child steps into the unknown.  Jesus might now say to them, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not step into marriage like a little child will never enter it.”

And can you see why that is?  There are a thousand reasons to tell people not to get married.  Statistics, and personal stories, and societal “grown up” cynicism.  But there are plenty of better reasons to risk joining together . . . in hope, in love, and with God’s blessing.  Jesus might also say to us today:  “Let Eric and Lisa come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”  What God has joined together, let no one separate. 

Lisa and Eric, we wish you every happiness, and a long life together.


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

St. Francis, 2016

St. Francis, 2016
Jeremiah 22:13–16
Psalm 148:7–14
Galatians 6:14–18
Matthew 11:25–30
Preached at Solemn Sung Eucharist, Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, OH

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jesus says, “you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”  It almost feels a little offensive, doesn’t it?  Like your two choices are one, to be wise and therefore not understand, or two, to be a clueless infant and receive the revelation of God.  It seems kind of unfair.  Backwards even.  Because every message you get from the world is that it is important to become wise and intelligent, and from an early age people have been telling you to stop being such a baby.

And beyond that, the natural progression is to go from being an infant to becoming wise and intelligent.  It’s sort of one of the goals of a life well-lived: to become wise and intelligent.  You can’t go backwards on this one.  So it seems like whatever Jesus means by this, it must mean something different than how we are apt to take it.

Jesus also says, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

It sounds nice, doesn’t it?  But what does it even mean?  With all due respect Jesus, people who work with their hands are carrying heavy burdens every day.  Not to mention the metaphorical yet real burdens the others are carrying.  And with the pace of life these days, we are all terribly weary.  We have come to Jesus, and many of us are not getting very much rest.  And since a yoke is what we put on oxen to plow a field, taking on the yoke of Jesus sounds like more work, no matter how easy it might be.  The burden of Jesus might just be the thing that breaks our backs.  The last thing we need is more work, even if it’s work done for Jesus.

But let’s back up a minute and ask the obvious questions that pop up from these statements.  Burdened by what?  And, if the burden of Jesus is light, who are the ones whose burden is not light?  And, come to think of it, What exactly is a yoke?  Good questions.  Glad you asked them.

So, Jesus’ disciples called him their Rabbi.  I’m sure you all have at least some idea of what a Rabbi is.  Essentially, a Jewish teacher, right?   And you know that the Torah is the first five books of the Old Testament; and you know that the Torah is the most sacred thing on earth for the Jewish people.  A Rabbi in Jesus’ time would interpret the Torah for his disciples.  Usually this interpretation meant adding things on, or carefully explaining to their disciples exactly what God meant by a particular rule or law.  Different Rabbi’s had different interpretations of the finer points of the Torah, sort of  like what we would call a “school of thought.” 

You might prefer the teachings of one Rabbi over another, and so you would approach that Rabbi and ask to become his disciple.  And if the Rabbi said yes, you would then be expected to adhere to the Rabbi’s interpretation of the Torah.  And—here’s the important thing—a  Rabbi’s interpretation of the Torah, his school of thought was called his yoke.  If you followed a particular Rabbi, you took his yoke upon you.

There were plenty of Rabbi’s around in Jesus’ day.  And any Jews who were serious about becoming disciples would choose a Rabbi and take his yoke upon themselves.  Jesus says, "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light."  The implication is, the easy yoke of Jesus is different from the alternatives.  In order for that statement to have any impact on those listening, it would mean that the yoke of the other Rabbi’s is difficult, and their burden is heavy. "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

We could say that the yoke of Jesus is just two things: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Just two things, perhaps coincidentally the same number of oxen that fit into a yoke when someone plows a field.  Coincidence?  Probably.

I am not going to go on and on about all the implications of this, but I do want to be sure to tell you one thing, in particular:  over the course of your life, many people will come to you claiming to be disciples of Jesus, but also trying to burden you with a heavy yoke.  A yoke with all sorts of preconditions, and legalisms, and laws, and rules, and barriers, and who knows what else.  But if the yoke someone is trying to present to you is heavy and burdensome, then it is not the yoke of Jesus.  Because the yoke of Jesus is easy and light.  They are trying to get you to take on someone else’s yoke, and you should follow Jesus, not whatever it is they are trying to get you to believe.

To follow Jesus means to rely on him.  To trust that God has done for you what you cannot do for yourself.  You don’t need to carry the heavy burden of trying to get God to love you.  You don’t need to take on a whole bunch of rules about behavior and good conduct to prove that you love God.  You do not need another yoke; you only need the yoke of Jesus: learn from him.  You will find rest for your soul, because his yoke is easy and his burden is light.  And taking on the yoke of Jesus changes everything, because Jesus changes everything.

And this evening, the yoke of Jesus leads us all to this Altar, where Jesus will meet us in the bread and the wine.  Trust him to meet you in the breaking of the bread, to carry your burdens, and to give you the strength you need to face tomorrow.  These are the things that are hidden from the wise and the intelligent, yet revealed to infants, like you and me.


The Aus (um) Lecture, 2016

The Aus Lecture on Evangelism
Delivered at The Craft of Preaching Conference, Luther Seminary, Oct. 3, 2016

Given that tonight’s event is described as a lecture, Michael and I figured there probably should be at least some small part of the evening that has the feel of being a lecture.  So, this will be that lecture part that you had coming to you.  So prepare yourselves to receive a talking to.

Now, I don’t mean to scare you, but I am going to say the word . . . EVANGELISM.  The Aus Lecture (in which you’re now sitting) is intended to cover some aspect of Evangelism, which is surprising because—in my experience, growing up Lutheran, and now an Episcopal priest—Evangelism is a word that makes the people I know very uncomfortable.  Combine the word Evangelism with the word Lecture, and boy oh boy, you’ve got a party!

Michael and I never made the claim to be evangelists.  We were just two guys who wrote songs about Jesus and played concerts for a living.  On the other hand, it is true that for 30 years we traveled around the country and the world, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ . . . which really does sound like evangelism, come to think of it.  We even made our first concert tour riding bicycles . . . which really sounds like Mormon evangelism, truth be told.

So, what I’m trying to say here is mainly this: We never set out to be evangelists.  But we did sort of back into it, in a way.  Or, more accurately, looking in our rearview mirror, it seems clear to us that we were in fact “doing evangelism,” and it didn’t seem scary or intimidating at all.  So maybe the first thing one has to do when considering taking on some of that evangelism stuff is to get rid of the images you have in your brain of people with angry signs and bullhorns, or people walking around the neighborhood with scary little tracts that have pictures of flames and screaming sinners in torment.

Set aside the images that come into your mind when you hear the word “evangelism,” and try replacing them with images that go with what the word means: The English word “evangelism” comes from the Greek word euaggelion. In the noun form, the word means: “gospel” or “good news.” In the verb form, it is to “announce” or “bring good news.”

If you remember nothing that we say or do tonight, I hope you will remember the definition of evangelism.  To announce good news.  And then, the next question might just be, “How do I do that?”  I’m glad you asked.  Though I don’t know how you do that, I can tell you how we did that, back when we were traveling around playing our little songs.  Or, more accurately, I can tell you what we’ve identified as the three main components of how we’ve done that . . . through the miracle of hindsight, of course.  The three important parts of what we did through music consisted of Content, Communication, and Community.  (Whenever you list three things in a lecture, they should all begin with the same letter.)

We’ll get to Content in a couple minutes when I tag-team over to my trusty assistant Michael D. Bridges, but I want to focus on the Community and Communication parts first.

First there is Community.  There’s an old saying, anything worth doing is worth doing in community.  Now, granted, that old saying might only be 10 seconds old because I just made it up, but if it isn’t an old saying then it should be.  (In memes, we should attribute it to Mark Twain or Winston Churchill.)  But it’s true: Anything worth doing is worth doing in community.

The importance of music in building community is sort of obvious when you think about it.  Church services have opening hymns; baseball games have national anthems and 7th inning stretches; blowing out candles is preceded by singing Happy Birthday.  Getting a group of people to sing together is a sure-fire way to get a community of individuals gathered into one.  (Whereas blasting rock music from overpowering speakers is not . . . just saying.)  When a bunch of separate individuals all sing together, a community forms.

And you can get a sense of what builds community by looking at the opposite.  Think of the things that keep people isolated from one another.  For instance, a band keeping listeners in the dark (could there be a more apt metaphor?)  In our experience, being able to see the people is just as important—if not more so—than having them see us.  I know that’s not the way it’s usually done (and the spotlight union would have something to say about this, I’m sure), but just imagine if you and I were having a conversation and I was shining klieg lights in your face like a film noir interrogation.  Or flip it around and ask yourself how valued you feel if I have spotlights on me while we're trying to have a conversation.

Plus, keeping the lights on in the room enables people to see each other (i.e. form a community).  We once played in an auditorium in Michigan that was v-shaped, meaning the people on one side of the room could not see the people on the other side.  (Think, “The Dating Game.”)  What this meant, in the moment, was that any interaction was lost to half the room.  “Hey, young person in the 20th row on the east side of the wall, cool hat.  Sure wish people on the west side could see it.”

And the main point of ALL of that about Community is this: A group of people who feel united and on the same page feel supported in that moment in time.  People who have arrived as strangers sometimes end up leaving as friends.  Sometimes they end up married, truth be told!  (The Lost And Found Matchmaking Service has been remarkably successful.)  We maintain that a Community gathered is more fertile ground for a message of hope and salvation, and more ready to receive . . . The Communication.

In our experience, Communication needs certain components to work.  Speaking for just ourselves, we’ve found those components to be something like music (duh), humor, transparency, and respect.

The first three (music, humor, transparency, which do not begin with the same letter unfortunately) are kind of obvious, if you’ve seen a Lost And Found concert.  Even someone who hated our music would recognize that we tell jokes, play songs, and act like ourselves during a concert.  Music, humor, transparency.  But the respect aspect is something that took us a long time to understand, because it never occurred to us that we were doing it.

Well, here’s what I mean by that.  At some point, after a concert, a pastor came up to us and said something like, “The reason I think our kids enjoy coming to your concerts is because you treat them all like they’re already in.”  He meant a combination of “already saved,” and “already a part of the group.”   We didn’t see that as even being a thing until he pointed it out.  Because . . . well . . . they are in.  We are in.  It’s like we all got an invitation to a party.  You came.  So did we.  How weird would it be if we talked to you—at the party—like you weren’t invited or didn’t come?  Weird, right?  When people feel included and respected, they are more apt to listen.

In the course of our travels and participation at various gatherings across denominations, we have seen lots of communicators communicating.  Some effectively, some not.  Ideally, you have a good communicator with good content.  Sometimes, you see a bad communicator with good content, which is just kind of sad, and you hope they get better because the content was so good.  Conversely, we have seen presentations where we say to one another, the best thing about that presentation was that they were unable to clearly communicate those awful ideas.  And, of course, the most frightening combination of all is an effective communicator with scary content.  That’s the kind of person who can convince an arena full of young people they are all going to hell, by using a series of humorous anecdotes and emotionally gripping narratives.

And speaking of an arena full of young people going to hell, approaching a group like they are out and you are in often leads to a little phenomenon we like to call The Prayer of Condescension.  When we’ve provided music at events that are Primarily Denominations Other Than Lutheran (or, PDOTLs), the leadership often gathers before the event begins in order to pray The Prayer of Condescension.  The crucial starting point for this prayer is the idea that the kids are not in.  The kids do not have what they need to be loved by God.  The kids are—quite bluntly—destined for hell.  UNLESS . . .

Exactly.  Unless the speaker is effective in delivering the message that will turn these kids around.  And so, the Prayer of Condescension goes something like this:  “Father God, we just come to you tonight asking for a clear pathway to save these precious kids from burning forever in hell . . .”  And then it’s a list of everything that could go wrong, lest God forget to anoint those things to work properly, like the sound system, and the worship band, and the temperature of the room.

The goal of the Prayer of Condescension is that impediments would be removed so that the kids out there will be able to receive OUR wisdom.  Because, the group of youth pastors and organizers have the thing these kids need, but the kids don’t know it.  We have the message of salvation, see, and the kids, the outsiders, just need to get what we’ve got, the tremendous wisdom that only we possess.  So, Father God, just let the sound system work, and the kids’ texting machines not work.  Just let my words be clear, and everything else just be silenced.  Let those outsiders become insiders like us, the wise ones gathered in this dark Convention Center concession stand, where popcorn butter and spilled soda soaking into our shoes are making our steps stick slightly to the cold cement as we walk to the brilliantly-lit stage where, Father God, your focus also will be.  Amen.  (Roll fog. Cue deafening worship band.)

And from that point, Michael I just pray that the speaker is a bad communicator, because—as we’ve seen—the content is definitely going to be harmful.  And this is why Lutherans, and others, have a hard time imagining doing evangelism.  The starting point for that kind of evangelism—the kind that assumes everyone is going to hell if we don’t get out there and stop them—is that some people are insiders, and some people are outsiders.  And if you think that way, then you are forced to develop a really effective and convincing argument to explain why someone needs to get saved.  Which we don’t have, because that is not how we think about people, or about God.

We were once playing at a small youth gathering in Michigan with a our friend Bart, who is—or who was—a Baptist speaker.  And being a Baptist speaker, Bart took every opportunity holding a microphone to do an altar call.  But his style was different from most that we’ve seen.  Because Bart always took an approach that was more an enticement than it was a threat.  Sort of more “come and be with the God of life” than “don’t go and burn in hell.”

So this little youth event was being held at a Lutheran church.  And on Sunday morning, during the worship service, Bart used the sermon time to try and, you know, get a few kids saved.  And, toward the end of his talk, he invited all the kids who wanted to get right with God and live a new life of joy and peace to come forward to the altar so he could pray for them.  Every single kid in the room got up and joined Bart at the altar.  Because every one of them considered themselves to be in need of God’s forgiveness.  And every one of them considered themselves to be IN.  What our friend Bart did not realize was that what he was really doing was what we all call Confession and Absolution.  (And we do it every Sunday morning, Bart.)

From what we have seen, the first thing to remember about evangelism is that everybody is already in.  You’re not trying to bring them something they don’t already have.  You’re just reminding them of what God has already done for them.  Evangelism is good news, right?  And if you’re telling someone a bunch of stuff that doesn’t sound like good news, then you are not doing evangelism.  The Good News is always good news.

Here endeth the lecture.