Friday, December 22, 2006

Putting Christ Back in Life

It is somewhat fashionable, around this time of year, for those in my position to get up on a soapbox and rail against the overblown celebration of Christmas. The season’s tizzy has already begun. It begins a few hours after Halloween when the Santas and the tinsel begin making their appearance, and the great commercial holiday machine begins its groaning toward its (hopefully) most profitable time of the year. And the put-the-Christ-back-in-Christmas crowd also gears up also for its annual struggle. It’s not a crowd to which I necessarily belong.

I am becoming less and less interested in “Christmas criticism,” to be honest. First of all, I happen to like all the lights; the more over-the-top the better. And as for the shopping…well…I do my best to avoid the mall just about every time of year. Besides, how can you get too upset about a day when people give things to each other? And as for church services, I’m not even going to complain about those who only worship on Christmas; given all the folks who never go to church, isn’t it wonderful that some people come to worship at least once or twice a year!

The fact is that most of what we associate with our culture’s celebration Christmas really doesn’t have much to do with Jesus at all and frankly never has. If you want to discover the reason behind most of our cultural Christmas observances, just look out the window. It’s cold and dark out there! People need—deep down—something to lighten up the darkness, a reason to feel good about life at the onset of winter. Much of our cultural ado around Christmas actually has more to do with ancient pagan practices which surrounded the winter solstice. If—in the 4th century—the Emperor Constantine had decreed the celebration of Christ’s birth to be during the summer, we would have found some other reason to string the lights and give gifts and set up trees indoors.

So, if you get the feeling that Christ is obscured this time of year, remember that that’s the way it’s always been. The Savior came, but hardly anyone noticed; a babe born in a barn! The natural inclination for our culture is to make a big show of it, to “deck the hall” and all that jazz, but the God who deigned to become one of us did so in hiddenness and humility. The true light came into the world, but the world did not recognize it. That’s still true today. And yet, somewhere in the middle of all the hubbub of the season, the people of God gather together in the quietness and darkness of the winter gloom and sing “joy to the world, the Lord has come!” That’s not just good news; to most of the world, that’s truly news!

Putting Christ back in Christmas and showing up for church on Christmas Eve is terrific, but far more important are the weeks that follow, when the pine needles are swept up, the lights taken down, and all the new toys piled up with the one ones. It’s in those ordinary moments that Christ really needs to be. In other words, the true light of the world has come; what are we going to do about it? That’s the question which gives impulse and energy to our mission, to invite our world to follow Jesus.

And so I invite you to join with us, in this Advent and Christmas season and beyond, as we journey together in the way of Jesus. The light has come into the world, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Cultivating Mission

This past week I uttered a phrase that I never would have imagined uttering. Standing beside our newly paved parking lot, a smooth sea of steaming blackness, I thought to myself, “What a beautiful parking lot!” Others joined my joy and said the same. As un-theological as I am generally about parking lots this one is something to give thanks for, and we can all thank the efforts of Kerry Roselle, Bill Rohmann, and the rest of the Property and Maintenance Committee for making it possible.

While a group of us were discussing the layout of the lines with one of the contractors, we spoke of the placement of new “visitor” spots. The contractor seemed puzzled. “Why do you need visitor spots?” A good question, really, and one that I am sure many of you are asking.

The simple answer has to do with cultivating a sense of mission. There is (hopefully) a clear message sent, not only to outsiders but also to ourselves, that a vital aspect of the church’s mission in our world has to do with invitation and welcome. A church which reserves parking spaces for its leaders may be motivated by a well-intentioned sense of respect, but it may also send the message that the most important people in the church are its pastors. On the other hand, prime parking spots dedicated to visitors sends the message that the most important people in our midst are our guests. That’s thinking in terms of mission.

So the next time you are tempted to irritation over those great parking spaces which may, on any given Sunday, be vacant, let that be a reminder of our mission, to invite our world to follow Jesus. Invite a friend or two to church, and let them know there is a special place waiting for them!

That ethic of invitation will also be emphasized in July by our next Invite-a-Friend event, an outdoor service at 10 AM on July 2nd, followed by an ice cream social, on the Unneberg Lawn. We encourage you, in the spirit of mission and invitation, to invite someone you know to worship on that day. Your invitation might seem like such a small thing—like a mustard seed, perhaps—but it is part of living out our wider mission, of inviting our world to follow Jesus. For here, in this grace-filled community of Jesus, there is peace, shade and rest.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Go and Follow Jesus

“Who are we? What are we doing here? What is this church-thing all about?” These might seem to be strange questions coming from me. Surely I know what we’re doing here. (Or at least, you would think, I should know!) But in my view these are not such strange questions. Over time, organizations and institutions have a tendency to lose sight of their reason to be, and, without careful attention to matters of mission, they can get muddled, confused and off-track.

These are not strange questions for the Church Universal, or for this expression of it in this time and place. On one level, there is a obvious purpose for our gathering: a people gathered around Word and Sacrament. But that still leaves open the question: Why? For what purpose? Are we merely another religious club, dallying with these God-things for our own sake? (One might, I dare-say, get that impression!) Or is God accomplishing something--doing something--not merely for our sake and our personal spiritual enrichment but for the sake of the world?

Sometimes things come into focus without our even realizing it. It was about year ago on the final day of Sunday School that we gathered the children around the font. The theme of the children’s story that day was “mission,” and as they were dismissed they were blessed with the waters of baptism, signed with the cross, and given a very clear mission: “Go and follow Jesus in all you do.” Or, in other words, go and be disciples. As you have been blessed, now be a blessing.

The year since has been filled with the never-ending work of ministry and the usual liturgical cycle, but now with those questions--”who are we?” and “what are we called to do?”-- still echoing on the edges of conversations and rattling around inside sermons. I assembled a “vision team” to work with those questions. We prayed and talked and prayed some more. We made lists and wrote statements. We invited others into the conversation. And so what a surprise to find myself at the place where I started a year ago. “Go and follow Jesus in all you do.” Seems simple and basic, but such is usually the case in speaking of mission.

If we want to catch a vision of the what church is really all about, it helps to look at the story of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. The disciples were gathered, praying (perhaps navel-gazing), not quite sure what to do next in those weird, uncharted days after the Resurrection. Then the Holy Spirit burst upon them with great energy and verve for the mission that Jesus himself gave them: “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them...” It wasn’t a matter of some memory of Jesus that they had somehow to convey to others, by their own ability. No, the gift of the Holy Spirit was (and is!) the power of God loose in the world. Caught up in that power, they were now emboldened and empowered to do what Jesus said they would: be my witnesses. Jesus had given them the clear mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Luther himself caught that vision: we are called to be “little Christs,” not for our sake but for the sake of the world.

In these coming days of Pentecost, I invite you to consider your faith in terms of mission. Mission is sometimes a difficult concept for us to grasp, as most of us grew up with the notion that “mission” was something that “missionaries” were involved in, in some far-off place called the “mission-field.” That may have been more-or-less accurate at the beginning of the 20th century, but here in the 21st, the church finds itself in a cultural setting not unlike that of the 1st century: wildly pluralistic, diverse, and generally with no idea who Jesus is or what the Kingdom of God is all about. Our mission is daunting, but we do not attempt it without help. Jesus himself said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses.” (Acts 1:8)

How do we--as a church and as individuals--live faith in terms of mission? I believe the key is discipleship, by following Jesus. Following Jesus isn’t done in isolation, for a few minutes on Sunday morning. Following Jesus calls us to bear witness to God’s love through our living, in the very ordinary context of daily life. It is missional, because through it our lives become living witnesses to the grace of God, for the sake of the world.

Discipleship need not be so complicated. In this coming season of Pentecost, we will lift up these 7 dimensions of discipleship as concrete practices for mission: In Baptism, we are called to pray daily, worship regularly, study the scriptures, invite others to the community of Jesus, encourage and serve our neighbor, and to give as God has given to us.
Simple as that, and as rich as that. We are called to be disciples, and to make disciples, for the sake of the world, for God so loved the world that he sent his Son, and God’s Son now sends us. Go, and follow Jesus is all you do, and in the power of the Holy Spirit bid others to follow, too.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Sacred Play

These days one of the greatest challenges I face is not so much work as it is play, specifically, playing with my children. I never would have imagined play to be so difficult, but I’m finding that, as I get older, playing (at least the kind of playing done by the likes of 3 and 5 year olds) can be…well…just another form of hard work. And, in our house, Mom and Dad are expected to participate.

For all its challenges, I continue to be amazed at the play of my children. These past winter months meant extended time indoors; they also meant that the house was in total disarray, from top to bottom. Toys, blankets, books…a real mess. Frankly, as long as their play was peaceable, this wasn’t too much of an issue. Peace-amid-clutter is preferable to any sort of disharmony, in my opinion.

I’ve noticed certain themes reappearing in their play. Play is, after all, a form of drama. There is usually some sort of crisis involved. Imaginary rock slides of cascading blankets and pillows. Terrible storms wrecking havoc upon cities of blocks. Trains toppling over crumbling bridges. There are the variations of the cops-and-robbers theme: stories populated with good guys and (of course) bad guys, locked in eternal struggle. And, if there are moments of defeat in their play, there will soon come eventual redemption and victory. The good guys, after all, always win.

These themes—crisis, seeming defeat, eventual victory—are deeply imbedded in the fabric of their imaginary universe. I am not so sure where these themes are developed in their minds; probably through stories we tell, books and (who knows?) maybe even the television. They not only perceive these dramatic themes but they also live them out through their play, enacting little dramas, whether with toy trains, stuffed animals, whatever they can animate with their imaginations. And by playing, they are wound up in the story they create. They become, in some sense, the story they tell. Only through time and experience will these stories unfold in their own reality. Life is (as most adults will admit) a reality of crisis, seeming defeat, and (hopefully) moments of victory despite it all.

In the coming weeks, the Church enacts—or shall we say plays—these very themes. We probably don’t think often of our worship life as “play,” but that might be a good way to think about it. After all, we already live in the reality of the Resurrection; yet we play Holy Week, immersing ourselves in that sacred story of the crisis of sin, seeming defeat of the cross, the victory of the resurrection. It’s not just a liturgical exercise. It’s a re-telling and a re-enacting of a sacred story, much in the same way children will re-enact their favorite stories. By letting ourselves be drawn into the story, say, of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, or the agony of Gethsemane, or indeed, the astonishing discovery of the empty tomb on that first Easter, we claim our place in the story. It’s not simply the story about Jesus and his followers who lived in a faraway time and a faraway place; it’s our story. By playing it out we rediscover the crisis of our humanness, the seeming defeat in the face of death, and the astonishing reality of victory through the resurrection of Jesus.

As another holy season comes upon us, let us allow ourselves to be astonished again at this, our story. Let us allow ourselves to experience the tension and intimacy at the table with Jesus, confronted by his call to radical love. Let us sink to the depths of our deepest brokenness, revealed and experienced in his cross. And let us rise and shine—again—with the astonishing news that he is not dead, but he is risen! This is the glorious good news! Let us play it out, and then (most importantly) let us live it out!

+ Pastor Tom Kildea

Friday, March 03, 2006

Reflections on Ash Wednesday

At our Ash Wednesday liturgies, those words, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, were repeated again and again as 100+ people were marked with ashen crosses. I don't know why this year that image has been particularly profound to me. A real counter-cultural ritual, this. Especially moving was marking my wife and 3 year old with that reminder of death. If that doesn't put Lent into some perspective, I don't know what will.

Someone asked me on Wednesday, "how long are we supposed to keep this on our foreheads?" I recalled the inconsistency I felt on past Ash Wednesdays, with Matthew 6 still ringing in our ears ("be careful not to parade your piety..."), while Christians walked around with this cross for all to see. Should we not do as the gospel commands? Wash our faces, and get on with life with our hearts rent, not our clothing/ourward appearance?

Friday, February 24, 2006

for your listening enjoyment and edification...

I made a comment not too long ago by the disconnectedness of people walking around with earphones dangling from their heads. I also mentioned that I (much to my own horror!) have a similar affliction. But honestly, more often than not, I am walking around not with some head-throbbing music blasting in my ears, but with some biblical lecture or sermon. Proof once again that I'm in the right business!

Here's a couple of things in digital audio format that I have found interesting. I can only direct you to the files themselves; I offer no support on how to get the thing on your MP3 player. Suffer that on your own.

Lately, I've been listening and reading quite of bit of N.T. Wright, an Anglican bishop and a prominent New Testament Scholar. Here's a series of lectures that he delivered for a group called "Emergent," a movement geared toward the post-modern church.

Lecture 1
Lecture 2
Lecture 3
Lecture 4

Here are a few others, also by Wright. I'm not sure the context, but you can check out and probably figure it out. Regardless, some really interesting biblical prespectives.

Jesus and the Kingdom
Jesus and the Cross
Jesus and God
Jesus, the World's True Light

All in all, 8 or 9 hours of talk. Are there any kindred souls so disposed to listen?

March 2006 Newsletter Article

“What is this?” “Who is this man?” Such are the reactions to Jesus’ miracles, his healings and (more confounding, it seems!) his forgiving of sins in the Gospel of Mark. Sometimes we—with our middle-class, modern sensibilities—tend to domesticate Jesus, so that there is nothing particularly strange or discomforting about him. (Note the popular hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”…what could be more comfortable than a good friend?) But we are reminded in Mark—and elsewhere in the gospels—of the Jesus who is strange, revolutionary, and utterly confounding. That is the Jesus that we encounter in Lent.

As part of our Lenten theme this year we will journey together through this strange and wonderful story of Jesus as is depicted in the Gospel of Mark. The Gospel begins with many tales of Jesus’ power and authority. Midway through the story, however, this powerful man Jesus begins to venture in a different direction. Hailed as messiah and would-be king by those closest to him, he begins a stunning journey to Jerusalem, where his enthronement is not upon a throne but rather upon a cross. And so it is appropriate in this season of Lent, which is moving us closer and closer to that cross, that we experience the movement and fullness of this story.

For the several weeks in Lent we will be reading through Mark’s gospel, starting on Sunday, March 5th, and thereafter on succeeding Wednesdays and Sundays (see the outline provided.) This will constitute a departure from our regular, appointed texts. But it is an opportunity for us to engage—on a deeper level—the whole story of Jesus and his message, which is sharp and edgy, and sometimes not so neat and tidy as we would like to make it. It is the story of God’s return to his exiled people, the climatic moment in the story of Israel, the story of which we—as God’s people—are now a part.

I invite you to take this opportunity to dive into the scriptures as we journey in this story together. If you attend every service in Lent—both Sundays and Wednesdays—you will encounter the totality of the story in Mark. The reading plan is provided for you so that you may keep up with our community’s reading on those days that you may not be present with us in worship. We will be using Today’s English Version (a.k.a. The Good News Bible or Good News for Modern Man) which is an easy-to-read and widely available translation. We have many copies of these, and they will be made available at all services.

I also invite you to read this story prayerfully; to let yourselves be perplexed by its strangeness, confronted by its sharpness. It is an opportunity to dig beneath the surface and to discover who is this Jesus that we are bid to follow, and so to follow him.