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Bishop's Theological Conference (10.17.17)
“Not What We Bargained For”
Psalm 138, Matthew 22:15-22
Grace and peace to you from God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Mother of us all. AMEN.
You come to my office, or maybe we meet in a coffee shop where the clatter of dishes and the sound of fancy, Italian machines buffer our words. What you say to me – each in your own way – sounds like this in my ears: Bishop, I didn’t bargain for this.
And what you mean may be a difficult staffing issue, so entrenched that the toughest union boss wouldn’t want to touch it. Or it may be the press of dwindling finances in the congregation that has you worried sick; the subtle – and sometimes spoken – demand that you fix what is adrift. Or most poignant of all, you share the tender rendering of your own heart – trouble in your marriage, your kid gone missing in the far country of drugs or alcohol, the disquiet in your own soul.
We did not bargain for these times in which we are living. Those of us who are older thought we took care of matters back in the 60’s and 70’s. We marched for civil rights. We embraced our ecumenical neighbors. We questioned the war in Vietnam – or if we were enlisted – returned to a country weary of fighting the world’s injustices. We studied theology and settled into calls where we learned new liturgies, began to preach without pulpits or notes, and helped congregations find their way through remodeling projects and additions, as church membership grew or at least held steady.
Those of you who are younger brought your knowledge of the digital world into your seminary studies and your calls. You can’t remember a time without access to the web and gadgets are simply an extension of your five senses. You speak of “going off the gird” as though you had invented Sabbath rest. The word activist runs through your RMP’s. Adaptive change is the coin of the realm for you. You have friends – really good friends – who would never darken the door of the church where you serve but they’d come running in the middle of the night if you needed them. If you are parents, you are really good parents, giving time each day to your kids’ schedules and activities. You worry that the Lutheran church has lost her way in irrelevance and racism and resistance to change. You wonder if there will be a next call for you and whether it will come with full-time compensation and not just full-time work.
The truth is that no generation bargains for the times in which they live. Not the ancient prophets nor the women from Galilee. Not the first generation of believers in Joppa or Caesarea. Not the Coptic Christian community in Egypt or the Orthodox Christians living in Syria today. Even the 16th century reformers were surprised by the challenges set before them when a mere theological debate took flight and a whole new way of doing church came into being.
And though we are people of faith – rostered ministers, deacons and pastors, no less – we still express our dismay that the world is not more congenial to our values and our long-privileged way of life. What’s the matter with God that we should need to face so many changes and disappointments and stresses in our lives?
Earlier this summer, when I was worshipping in one of your congregations, Psalm 138 was the psalm appointed for the day. You know, as I know, how easily the psalm can wash right over our heads. Whether we speak it or sing it, by Tuesday it is hard to remember which Psalm we used on Sunday. Furthermore, I am not a connoisseur like either Diane or Rolf Jacobson and so much of the distinctiveness in these ancient texts gets lost on me.
But for some reason Psalm 138 called out to me. In particular, verse 3, took aim and stuck right here. On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul. (Ps 138.3) Now many of you know Anna Grunner as the one who arranges events like this theological conference and works to keep me on the schedule that has been planned for me. But Anna is also a fine Biblical scholar; a doctoral student of the Hebrew scriptures. And one of the joys of my call is that I can waltz into her office almost any time, sit down and talk deeply about a text.
Now, there are some rival ways to translate the phrase – you increased my strength of soul. It might be cast as you inspired me with courage or you have emboldened my being or you have made my soul unruly; and even you have turned wild my inmost self. We settled on the theme for this theological conference – strong and stormy – as a fair way to describe what the Living God does to us. God unsettles us. God stirs up outrage within us.
You see, we may not have bargained for the times in which we are living but God, who made us and called us, appointed and sent us – each and every one of us – knows exactly what is needed in these times. And such turbulent times these are.
Long ago the Psalmist wrote – All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord, for they have heard the words of your mouth. They shall sing of the ways of the Lord (Ps 138:4-5a). When I read the newspaper early in the morning and see the front page photos of Trump and Merkel, Kim Jong-un and Putin, and I say to myself, really? The most powerful leaders – kings and presidents and prime ministers and chancellors – will sing of the ways of the Lord? And I suspect it is just as hard for you as it is for me to make that leap to the unequivocal declaration of the ancient psalms.
When the world is in grave turmoil, and we are stirred up inside ourselves, as faith leaders we can make a couple of different moves. The first, of course, is denial. We can insulate ourselves from the woes and worries of those around us and pretend that everything is fine. That has a lot of appeal to people who do not want to be confronted by one more tough challenge on Sunday morning. We can convince ourselves that we are simply offering the comfort our people need and desire.
Or, we can also respond with a frenzy of activity and new initiatives. We can recommit ourselves to our neighborhoods and our communities. We can set a more ambitious agenda for reform of the church in our day. Better to be frenzied than apathetic, we think.
Yet a third way of responding was noted by another bishop when we were all together in early 2015. He pointed out our own temptation within the Conference of Bishops to “wallow in the inconsequential”. Does that sound right? In the church we can be consumed with many small matters – each of them valid – but finally, not matters of durable substance.
But how do we know what really matters? What then can sustain us; save us?
Not working harder. Not restructuring our congregations. Not more balance in our lives or more self-care. All those have a place but none of those can really assuage what is raw and restless deep within our lives.
We may not have bargained for the realities that confront us but we can learn afresh from the Psalmist to appreciate that the deep restlessness within us actually comes from God and to rely on the gifts of God to show us the course in life we need to steer.
How does God come to us in these turbulent days near the end of 2017? God comes in Word and Sacrament; in the comfort and consolation of being together in gatherings like this; in prayer and in the solidarity found in common service. And yes, also in the tough work of peeling back the layers of racism and sexism and horribly constrictive national pride – all the systems of privileging our life that we do not even notice. In all those God comes to us in Jesus Christ, surprising us as surely in our day as those leaders in the Temple, who heard Jesus speak of Caesar and God, were amazed and surprised in their day.
You are right; there is much we did not bargain for. But we will always miss what is best in our vocations if we trick ourselves into thinking that the future of the church rests on anything other than the grace and mercy of God.
Listen again to this Psalm. It was written just for you --
Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies;
you stretch out your hand,
and your right hand delivers me.
The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me;
your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.
Thanks be to God. AMEN.