Wednesday, February 21, 2018

February 11, 2018 - Transfiguration

There is a conflict between how the church lives and what the church says.  Part of the reason the church is often charged with hypocrisy.  We say, often without thinking, things like, “God’s love is for everybody.”  We justify that with a passage like the Great Commission at the end of Matthew where Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”  The love of God is for everyone.

                But if we think about it, we will end up adding some exceptions to the statement that God’s love is for everyone, maybe based on behavior, maybe based on discomfort.  If we look at how the church has formed and how it has reached out there are sometimes implicit statements about who we accept made by the way we live.  I have told story of my time in the Slovak Zion Synod, a small non-geographical synod of the ELCA, made of congregations of Slovak heritage.  They were small enough that synod assembly was just held at one of the larger church buildings in the synod, so not just sitting for hours of meetings, but sitting in pews for hours of meetings.  In such a situation I have been known to exert my Christian freedom from the law and get up and walk out for a little bit.  So I was in New Jersey and walked out of the Slovak church into what had clearly become an Hispanic neighborhood.  The Slovak-heritage members of the congregation had mostly moved out of the neighborhood and drove by the Spanish-speaking casas y mercados to have a service in Slovak.  So the implicit message was God’s love is for everyone but not exactly for everyone in this neighborhood.  Go around the ELCA and you can find churches that have similar stories. 

                My internship congregation was founded by Swedes working the textile factories in Lowell.  In the early 1900s, they were approached by a group of German immigrants who wondered if they might worship in English so that all could take part.  I read the letter from the president of the church who insisted that the Swedes should continue to worship in the true Lutheran language; the German should start their own community.

                My point is that as much as the gospel pushes us to share the love of God with all people, we still have a sense of insiders and outsiders, those who belong and those who do not.  We are a community that claims to welcome all people and at the same time we are a membership organization.  As soon as you have people formally join a community as members you have people who belong a little bit more than everybody else.

                I think this is a natural human impulse, we tend to surround ourselves with people who already a little bit like us, with whom we have something in common, but it also something that gets justified by a misunderstanding of the gospel story .  In the gospel there are definitely some people who are a little closer to Jesus in the narrative, the Twelve.   And among the Twelve you have Peter and James and John who seem even a bit closer,  who get to see this amazing moment of transfiguration, the encounter with Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop, and then are told to hold it close, keep it secret until the right time.

                You have Paul in the reading to the Corinthians, talking about the gospel as veiled, acknowledging that some people can hear the story, encounter the gospel and have no reaction.  So the gospel is for everyone, but the shiny objects of this world can blind us from seeing it.  The scales have to fall from our eyes, probably every day.

                It wasn’t that Jesus was trying to create a secret society, God’s special friends, those who get it right.  It was more that Jesus was modeling a specific way of sharing this good news.  He gathered a group around himself and he taught them and lived with them and walked with them.  That is how they learned the good news, through a relationship built over time.  He didn’t just give them a speech or offer them a pamphlet, as though the gospel can be learned from an instruction manual.  All through the story, through the teaching and the healing and the feeding, through the betrayal and the denial and suffering, through the cross and the death and empty tomb, he was showing them the life that is the promise that is the good news of the Reign of God.

                And if you read the scriptures and get into the book of Acts, you hear what happens next, those twelve are sent to do the same thing, to start communities that live the life that is the promise that is the good news of the Reign of God.  He didn’t send them out with catechisms and creeds.  He sent them out with stories and with acts of love and acts of sacrifice.  He sent them with the good news that the gospel is for everyone, not to start closed communities, holy members-only clubs, bastions of cultural religion.  He sent them out even though, as Paul discovered, not everyone would respond positively to that good news, a good news that challenges the powers that be, that questions the market economy, that ignores social status and deplores racial bias.

                And you thought you were just going to church, but you have stepped into the stream of God’s love that is the gospel.  You are on the path that is the promise that is the good news of the Reign of God.  Do we always get it right?  Of course not.  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is one of least racially diverse Christian traditions in the United States.  Now we can blame that on our heritage, most churches begun by Northern Europeans, but only for so long.  The Swedish neighborhoods are no longer Swedish, but still can’t figure out why no one gets excited by the Santa Lucia festival.  Somewhere along the way we lost that outward view.  Many of the original immigrant communities had it.  New people would come into the area and the church would reach out, it’s just that often those new people shared the same cultural heritage, moving into specific ethnic communities.  We need to rediscover that outward sense of church, that the gospel invites into community with Jesus so that we can turn it back outward.  If God’s love is for everyone, then everyone already belongs, they just don’t know it yet.  It’s our job as the church to keep reminding everybody that they belong.

                So we will respond to this idea with our hymn.  I have talked to a few people who have a love/hate relationship with this following hymn, “All Are Welcome.”  They love the idea of the song, but they also know that it is not quite true, whether our lack of diversity or people glaring at children for being children.  We sing of an ideal that in practice we haven’t realized yet.  And we need to sing it with a humility that recognizes that fact.  We are not singing “All Are Welcome” because we have the welcoming thing down.  We sing it because it is where Christ is calling us to be, “ a house where love can dwell and all can safely live.” 

As I said at the beginning of our discussions on love, we are disciples learning to love, learning to lean on God as the source of love.  We probably won’t truly understand the nature of love until the end of things, but we can glimpse it in this place, in the gospel story, in the love of Christ.  So we sing of a place that is not where we are yet, but where God is calling us and leading us to be, a place where all are welcome.

February 4, 2018 - Love and Healing

As human beings, there are a lot of things that can go wrong.  The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has wondered about the existence of a benevolent God because he looks to the heavens and does not see a benevolent universe.  He looks out and sees many things that could destroy us in short order:  black holes, solar flares, asteroids, and the cycle of a star’s life, our sun eventually becoming a red giant that will engulf the planet Earth.  As people of faith we might argue, “Well, here we are anyway,” but the point is there is a lot that can very wrong, very quickly.

                We know this on an individual scale as well.  We get sick.  We lose ability as we age.  We have bad luck or lost opportunities.  We make bad choices and have to live with the consequences.  There is a lot that can go wrong.  Some of it is our fault, but much of it is simply what happens in life.  We get older.  We get sick.  We are human.

                Now that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to mitigate some of those issues.  In April I am going to be talking about stewardship and one of things I will talk about is stewardship of the body.  This body is part of being human, a gift from God and we are called to care for it.  They work best when they are used, so take a walk if you can.  Try to stay flexible.  Try to maintain some muscle.  Do what your doctor tells you to do.  Eat less sugar and more fruits and veggies.  Most of this is common knowledge, but one of things I will talk about when get there is that such actions can be acts of discipleship, part of our stewardship, caring for the gift of the body.

                But even if you maintain a perfectly balanced diet, do yoga and pilates and run marathons, you will still age.  You will get sick.  You will not become sixteen again.   That is not your fault.  That is the nature of life.  Now there may be some things that come as a consequence of past behavior.  If you have smoked forever and now have lung problems you can probably make a connection (though I know some of you were encouraged to smoke, given cigarettes in your field rations).  But the broader point I am making is that aging and illness are consequences of being alive.

                I say this because often when we talk about illness, there is this “What did I do to deserve this?” that wells up inside of us.  If there is a benevolent God who loves me, how is that I got the flu, or bad knees, or cancer?  We hear stories of healing in the Bible and wonder why it doesn’t happen to us.  Why won’t Jesus cure my arthritis or take away my migraines or let me run like a teenager again? 

                When we do the healing service, I am not here to sell you a bill of goods.  There is a long tradition of faith healers who blame the sick for their failure to heal.  If you truly believed this would work.  If you truly believed, you would stand up from your wheelchairs and throw away your walkers.  So now not only are you sick but you are also unfaithful and that is why you are sick.  That is not good news!

                I think the primary power of a healing service is to remind us of the constant nature of the love of God.  The power of God’s love is healing.  It may not often manifest itself in the sudden end of an illness or the sudden return of lost ability.  Yet it is healing nonetheless, allowing us to be reconciled with who we are and where we are and how old we are still embraced in that love.  It is good news that the love of God is constant, sustaining us through all of these moments, giving us the strength to endure, giving us the power to hope.  Remember the greatest sign of God’s love is not in Christ’s acts of healing, but in Christ’s participating in human suffering and death.  The healing stories are a reminder that God is with us in midst of all the things that can go wrong.

                So I invite you to come forward and know the love of God this day in the ancient rite of prayers and anointing for healing.  I am not here to do a magic show.  I am here to remind you that the love of God is in this place and in your life whatever is happening.  The love of God is with us when we are well and when we are ill.  The love of God is a healing promise of life now and forever.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

January 28, 2018 - Love and Christian Community

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is one the most important documents written for the church, especially for the church as it has manifested itself in American culture.  We are a culture that celebrates independence and individualism.  In a most non-Lutheran way, we are a culture that says, “Rules are fine for most people, but I don’t have to play be the rules.  I will make good decisions on my own.”  Just to be clear, Lutheran theology acknowledges our fallen reality, assuming that, left to our own devices, we will make self-serving and selfish decisions without regard to our neighbor.  It is only by the grace of God and the work of the Spirit that we can repent and change direction.

               And this very much describes what seems to be happening in Corinth when Paul writes his letter.  They are a congregation struggling with authority, unclear about who, if anyone, should be in charge.  In worship, people are talking over one another.  In the fellowship meal, some people are coming with baskets of food while others didn’t have much to eat and nobody thought it important to share.  This was the original congregation of people saying, “Nobody tells me what to do.”

                Part of this has to do with the city of Corinth itself.  Not only did you have the early division between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, but Corinth was a major trade center, a meeting place of many different cultures, as well as some strong class divisions, daily laborers mixing with merchants mixing with businessowners.  And while they may have had the story of Jesus in common, those differences didn’t seem to mesh very well in the life of the church.  They have different attitudes about leadership, worship, fellowship and morality.  Some think they are more important than others, central to the life of the church.  “If it weren’t for me this church would be nothing and nowhere.”

                So it is not surprising that much of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians revolves around the idea that is supposed to be at the heart of Christian community.  Love each other.  This is the letter from which we get the treatise on love that you hear at most every wedding.  “Love is patient.  Love is kind.  Love is not envious or boastful or rude.”  It wasn’t intended for weddings.  It was intended for a Christian community that couldn’t quite figure out the meaning of love.  It seems like Paul started this church and left telling them to “Love each other.”  But he realized after hearing from them that they didn’t agree on what the nature of love would be.  Or maybe they knew what love meant as an idea but they certainly were having trouble putting it into practice.  For the most part Paul keeps his cool, but there are some veiled insults in the text.  He calls them babies not ready for solid food.  I wanted to feed you with meat, but I have to give you milk, because you are babies.  Grow up and love one another!

                This call to love and the description of what love looks like permeates the letter.  Today we heard what feels  like a somewhat obscure discussion of food sacrificed to idols, whether to eat it or not.  One of the ways ancient temples raised money, paid for their priests and buildings, was to sell some of the meat sacrificed to the god of the temple.  There was often a small stand to the side of the temple.  In ancient society, such meat was served as a way to honor one’s guests, a sense of holiness about the meal.  So the church was arguing about this practice.  On the one hand, as Paul points out, since idols are not real, the meat sacrificed to them would have no special significance.  It’s just meat.  So from this perspective you are free to consume it, because you know it isn’t magic meat.

                On the other hand, some new Christians, and especially gentile Christians who may have grown up acknowledging a multitude of gods, might be confused, might be led to think of Christianity as just another option among many.  So for their sake, Paul says, don’t eat it.  Theologically, it would be fine to eat it (no idol, no harm, no foul), but an ethic of love involves curtailing that freedom for the sake of someone else.   We are comfortable if love involves sharing food or helping somebody, but we are not so good if love involves restraining ourselves, denying ourselves something for the sake of somebody else.

                Sometimes I wonder if love in the Christian community is an unreasonable expectation.  In every congregation where I have served I have seen wonderful manifestations of love: people sharing, people visiting the sick, people helping each other.  But in every one of those congregations I have also seen failures to love: backbiting and blaming, gossiping and grumbling.  Because the church seeks to be tolerant and open, because we celebrate humility and kindness, we sometimes open ourselves to the behavior of bullies and let childish hubris go uncorrected. Is it reasonable to expect that this gathering, this mixture of age and ability, this assembly  of visions and dreams, of folks who want the church to move forward, and folks who want the church to live in the past and folks who want the church to just be there when they need support, that this gathering should love one another?

                Yet that is exactly what we are here to do.  We are here to be a place where people can learn to love.  We are here to be a place where the love of Christ is modeled and tested and refined.  There was a book by the author Parker Palmer that came out a couple decades ago that referred to the modern church as “The Company of Strangers.”  He noticed that there was a shift from congregations that were bound together by blood family relationships, even neighborhood, shared culture relationships, to congregations that were more regional and unrelated, strangers gathering together for worship and ministry.  It was changing the ways the congregations functioned, but was also an opportunity for learning to love people who were not like you, didn’t agree with you, didn’t necessarily have the same history, values and expectations as you.  This is much more like the situation that was happening in Corinth in the early church, a company of strangers learning to love.

                After worship today we will have our annual meeting and this is not only an opportunity to look back and look ahead but it is also an opportunity to love.  We have a lot to celebrate this year, and we can celebrate together in love.  We will have some challenges in the coming year and we can face those together in love.  We will have unexpected things happen. (let’s just say I know way more about septic systems this week than last) but we can bear those together in love.  Love does not always mean we will agree.  Love does not mean we shouldn’t engage in debate.  Love means that as we debate and discuss, we respect that we are all looking for what is best for the community but coming at it from different angles.  It means caring for the brother or sister in Christ who is right in front of you, recognizing that person as a precious child of God, even when you disagree.  It means turning and returning to the love of Christ in our midst and finding union in that love.  When love is the center of who we are and what we do, we are truly living in the kingdom of God.

Monday, January 22, 2018

January 21, 2018 - Repent and Believe this Good News

When I hear the word, “Repent” I often think of images like the story of Jonah where Jonah goes into the city of Nineveh with the word of God and the news reaches the king and the whole city repents.  According to the text, every person and every animal is dressed in sackcloth and fasts.  And everyone cries out to God hoping to escape God’s punishment.  In this case, repentance is being extremely sorry, honestly confronting past behavior and turning away from it.

                We often confuse apology and repentance.  An apology is often part of the act of repenting, because you acknowledge what you have done and the harm you have done.  But this has long been a critique of Christians, we apologize for things but we rarely repent, which involves changing our ways.  I apologize for the stuff I did last week knowing that I’m going to do much the same stuff this coming week.  That is not repentance.  That is apology.

                It’s important to hear the difference as we encounter Jesus’ summary of the good news in our text today.  These four phrases are the key for reading the gospel of Mark.  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Everything else in the Gospel of Mark is the confirmation of that message.  In this case, repentance is not so much about saying you are sorry, but is much more about change.  And in Mark, it is not so much about changing your ways but changing the way you look at world.  It is turning away from the shiny objects of this world and refocusing on the realm of God.  It is changing how you understand the world works.

                We are seeing some of this in the #MeToo movement, especially as we encounter some of the lame excuses that men give for treating women so reprehensibly.  “It was a different time,” they will say.  “When you’re famous you can do whatever you want,” they will say.  “We had no idea that this was happening in our offices,” they will say.  Our society is being called to repent, to see things in a new light.  To see that this way of treating women or treating any person is broken and unacceptable, even though at one time it might have been considered normal.

                We have gone through this kind of repentance before as we look at our history.  We used to think that slavery was normal, part of divinely-ordained society, it’s there in the Bible.  Now we look back at that time and wonder how anyone could think that.  We used to think and are still struggling with racism as a normal way of looking at the world, that some races or nationalities are inherently better than others.  I remember my children when they were younger being mystified by the stories and especially the images of segregation, things like drinking fountains and restroom posted by race.  They couldn’t understand how anyone could think that way.  There has been some measure of repentance.

                Jesus also calls us to look at the world in a new way.  This was an even more dramatic calling in 1st century Palestine, where, by most accounts, life was pretty difficult for the common Israelite.  The Romans were there as an occupying force, levying high taxes on the people.  The work simply to make a  living was difficult.  And you had religious officials who were proclaiming a path of righteousness that was also a lot of work and regulation, a path much easier to follow if you had the free time to observe, the resources to observe a pure Sabbath.  And along comes Jesus with the message that says, in the midst of this situation, “The kingdom of God has come near.”  Repent.  Change the way you look at the world.

                He says to people who have been taught that wealth is a divine blessing and poverty a divine curse, “God truly loves the poor.”  This difficult life is not separate from the divine.  Righteousness is not found is an expanding spiral of rules and regulations, but in simple love for God and one another.  This world has been created in the love of God.  This world is permeated with the love of God.  This life is an extension of the love of God.

                In the contemplative tradition, faith happens when we recognize that the love of God is a constant that sustains and supports us in all situations.  When we get things right and when we get things wrong, the love of God continues.  When life is great and life is hard, the love of God continues.  When we are embraced by that constant love, we are free to love others.   When we are connected to that infinite love we are free to share because we know that love will not run out or fail us.

                And we need to regularly repent, change the way we look at things because the shiny objects of world distract us and turn us away from that love.  There is a shiny object that jingles and says, “What you have and how you look is who you are.”  There is a shiny object that jangles and says, “What other people think of you is who you are.”  There is a shiny object that rattles and says, “Where you come from is who you are.”  There is a shiny object that shakes and hums and says, “The good and the bad that you do is who you are.”  We see and hear variations of those messages every day and they are tempting and distracting and often just serve to make us feel a little better than someone else.

                Repent, says Jesus.  The love of God is how you were made and who you are and what you are meant to be.  The kingdom of God is near, among you.  Repent and believe this good news.  The love of God is how you were made and who you are and what you are meant to be.  

January 14, 2018 - Come and See. Learning to Love

During this season after Epiphany, this bridge that takes us from Christmas to Ash Wednesday, I am going to be talking about the Christian virtue of love.  I will also be writing some articles on the Cape Cod Lutheran blog that you can read to go a little deeper.  In some ways, preaching on love should be simple.  We talk about love quite a bit in church these days.  God’s love for us, shown to us in the love of Jesus.  Jesus sums up the whole Christian ethic with his discussion of the greatest commandment.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.

                But if we really take the virtue of love seriously, we will quickly discover that love is complicated, bringing us into conflict with other beliefs and values, even the scriptural tradition itself.  Some Christians claim they are centered on the love of God and therefore cannot tolerate same-sex marriage.  Other Christians claim they are centered in love and therefore feel compelled not only to tolerate, but affirm and bless such relationships.  Some Christians, in the name of love, use their buildings to offer sanctuary to illegal immigrants.  Other Christians drive into the southwestern wilderness, maintaining water stations to help people on the journey, but also bringing those people they find directly to the authorities, all in the name of love.

                And what are the limits of love?  At what point do we say, enough?  At what point does love become enabling?  At what point can we stop being the patsies for those who would take advantage of the loving?

                I do not have a simple answer to any of those questions, perhaps because the model for love in the church was the ultimate patsy, someone who died falsely accused, died so that the authorities could feel a little more secure, died voluntarily so that those who follow him might see the ultimate meaning of life.  When this is the model for love, love becomes very complicated.  It’s easy to say, “Feed hungry people” or “Share with the needy” or “Hug your neighbor.”  It is very difficult when love is associated with sacrifice, giving all that you have for the sake of others.

                This is where the story of the call of the disciples in John’s gospel is helpful.  Three words are uttered a few times in John’s gospel, “Come and see.”  Today we hear Phillip say them to Nathanael, but it is Jesus who speaks them the day before, inviting his first two disciples to the place he is staying.  I think these words convey  what happens when words are not enough.  I cannot tell you what is happening in a satisfactory way.  I can only invite you into what I have found, to meet this person who has welcomed me.  Come and see the meaning of life.  Come and see the meaning of love.  Come and see Jesus. 

I have had several conversations over the years with people who ask me, as a religious professional, “What do we believe about the resurrection of the body, gay marriage, abortion, life after death?”  I always find these conversations a bit awkward because, while I can speak to the social statements of the ELCA or our historical creeds my lived experience is we believe a lot of different things about a lot of different topics depending on the day.  This is nothing new.  Anyone who studies a little church history will come to find that Christians have rarely spoken with a single a voice on matters of faith.  And the problem is that Jesus didn’t tell people what to believe.  He didn’t write a book.  He lived a life, shaped by the love of God, shaped by the promise of life, shaped by compassion, contentment and peace.  He lived it and then said, “Come and see.”

                This idea should give us pause when the impulse of the church is to find gimmicks.  Come and see our Tiffany stained glass windows.  Come and see our wonderful music program.  Come and see our junk (yard sale).  Come and see our excellent preacher.  Come and see our state of the art facility.  It’s not that Jesus won’t be found in such places, but we must never forget that our primary reason for invitation, for programming, for a church’s existence is to be a place where people can come and see Jesus.  If people come to a community and only see stained glass windows, hear pretty music or experience a state-of-the-art program, they may not be encountering Jesus, which is the reason that the place exists.

                In our tradition, worship takes a central place because we have this understanding that worship is a time when we come and see Jesus.  We see Jesus in the community gathered.  We hear Jesus in the words of scripture and words of forgiveness and words of peace.  We encounter Jesus together at the communion table.  We are empowered to go out and live a “Come and see” kind of life.

                But it is not a “Come and see my church” kind of life but a “Come and see Jesus” kind of life.  And when we step out of church where can people come and see  Jesus out in the world?  In acts of love and compassion.  When people accuse the church of being hypocritical, it is usually because we have forgotten a simple truth, to know love is to know Jesus.  Where love is at work, Christ is at work.  So the first place where people should be encountering Jesus out in the world is not in a church building, but in you and me, in Christians whose lives become a place where the world can come and see Jesus.

                And while this may include special acts of caring and outreach, most of it is simply how we see, treat and acknowledge other people.  It’s how you treat the teenage kid who just started a part-time job at the grocery store and hasn’t quite figured out the system and is taking a little too long.  It’s how you treat the acquaintance who rubs you the wrong way, who tells those interminable stories that don’t seem to have a point.  It’s how you treat your ideological opposite in a divided political context, having compassion for their misguided ideas.  It’s how you treat the person who is different from you in belief or culture.  It’s how you treat the person in need.   It’s how you treat anyone who gets to wear the label of human being no matter what country they come from.

                Are we going to get this right all the time?  No.  The context in which we encounter people matters.  The way we are treated by others matters.  Our history with the person matters.  I believe that Jesus presents us with an ideal of love to direct our path rather than a law of love which we will consistently fail.  Just like awe and wonder, Christian love is a virtue that we develop over time.  We are disciples, students, learning to love. 

                At our Still, Small Voice gathering yesterday we talked a little bit about this.  How are we supposed to love everybody when we can look at history and there are such bad people who do terrible things?  I even know a few jerks today.  There is a logic that says, “I can’t love Hitler, therefore I will never be able to love everybody.  So why bother?”  We tend to look at the extremes.  But as I have said, love is something we are learning, a virtue in which we grow as disciples.  Start with learning to love the person in front of you.  Then move to the confused kid in the grocery store and the annoying acquaintance.  Learning to love takes time and practice.

                Jesus has said, “Come and see” to us and led us here this morning.  And then he will send us like Phillip to say, “Come and see” to the world.  And sometimes we will get it right and sometimes we will get it wrong and next Sunday Jesus will say, “Come and see” once more.  By exposing ourselves to the love of Jesus here, we are empowered to share that love the rest of the week.  So come and see Jesus in this place.  Come and see the meaning of life.  Come and see the meaning of love.  Come and see Jesus.

January 7, 2018 - Epiphany and Assets

Officially, yesterday, January 6, was Epiphany, a day which over time has celebrated a number of events in the gospel story.  At various times and places in Christian history, Epiphany has been the day of celebration of Christ’s birth, the celebration of the three wise men, the celebration of the baptism of Jesus, the celebration of the first miracle, water into wine.  Depending on where we are in the cycle of readings, we will hit on all those stories at the beginning of January.  Normally, the Sunday after Epiphany is the celebration of the baptism of Jesus.  Yet we decided that on this Sunday we would take part in an asset mapping project for our congregation and, as such, I thought the Epiphany story of wise men bringing gifts to the infant Jesus was fitting.

                Think about the contours of this story.  These travelers from the east don’t know much about the person they are coming to see.  They are following a sign in the heavens, which brings them to Israel.  They get more details from Herod, who sends them to Bethlehem after consulting with his religious experts.    They come to kneel before this king bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrhh.  A fair amount ink has been spilled giving special significance to these gifts.  Some note that there are ancient accounts which would suggest that this trio was a standard gift package for royalty.  Others (such as the “We Three Kings” hymn) will point the symbolic value of the gifts: gold implies royalty, frankincense priesthood, and myrrh, an anointing oil, a symbol of Christ’s death and the preparation of his body for burial.

                Yet perhaps for us we should acknowledge the ancient wisdom that you don’t show up to the king’s house emptyhanded.  The gift was a point of honor (and a bad gift could be a point of shame, hence the lack of tube socks in the story).  In some cases, the gift was given to cement a friendship, in others it was given to appease a stronger power.  But in this story, the gift is really about honoring the child.  The wise men don’t seem to have ulterior motives, hoping to be remembered or honored in return down the line.  They arrive.  They give gifts.  They go home.

                So when we talk about gifts, assets today, the sense of honoring Jesus is part of the conversation.  Often when we talk about gifts in the church we end up talking about money.  In the middle of our worship we take a collection and offer it God, both as a way to further the mission of the church but also as a way to simply honor the God who gave it to us, to show gratitude.  And money is an asset that we bring to church.  Money can be a limiting factor as to what condition our building is, the type of staffing we have, the kinds of ministries we can do.

                But money is far from the church’s only asset.  We are a community of people with gifts of time and ability.  Most of you have vehicles and many of you have used those vehicles for ministry, driving homebound folks to appointments, bringing food to those served by Belonging to Each Other.  We have a building, and three nights a week people come for help to deal with the struggle of addiction.  We honor God by using our gifts, our assets faithfully.  God is infinite and so there is nothing that we can give to God that God does not already possess.  We honor God by using what God has given us for the sake of God’s kingdom.

                Now this is a moment where I will sound a little stern, because I have been here almost 10 years and I know how many of you think.  Often when we do this kind of exercise folks come to it with a conclusion already in mind.  We should have a weekly choir.  We should have a weekly Sunday school.  We should have a big committee structure that feels like a real church.  I am often amazed when I have read church administration books at how they assume that every church will have a certain, standard package of gifts available.  “You will want to talk to the lawyer in your congregation.” “ Hopefully, an accountant in your congregation will serve as treasurer. “  This kind of thinking does not serve the small church well because it constantly sets it up for disappointment.  I guess we just aren’t talented enough to have that choir or young enough to have that Sunday school.  As our dear member Sylvia S. would say, “Poor us.” 

                But we do have a place and a purpose.  We do have unique, God-given gifts.  When I mentioned Sylvia, many of you knew who I was talking about even though she hasn’t been able to be here in a few weeks.  That is one of the gifts of a smaller community.  We have a better chance to be in relationship with one another.  Recently, we did the work of crafting a new mission statement, “Serving through faith, centered in Christ, guided by the Word.”  That simple statement is extremely deep and can take us in many different directions based on how we use the assets God has given us.  Fundamentally, what we are asking as we look at our mission and as we look more deeply at our community is, “What is God’s will in this community?”  Having a renewed sense of mission and knowing the gifts we bring to the table, “What is God’s will in this community?”

                I’m going to invite you to take a couple minutes to have an initial stab at the question.  Talk with some of the folks around you and give your gut answer to that question…

                As the wise men of our story, we offer our gifts to honor Christ.  But as the body of Christ, we use our gifts for the kingdom of God.   May we offer our gifts joyfully and use them faithfully to work toward the kingdom of God.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

December 31, 2017 - 1st Sunday in Christmas - Two Nativity Stories

I have been talking about the virtue of awe and wonder for the past few weeks and have not really talked about the place of scripture and the Christian story within that.  I recently published an article on this topic which I would invite you to read.  Some of you may think it’s great and some may find it challenging.  Part of my thinking in all of this is that when we teach ourselves to find awe and wonder in the everyday, what is naturally going on around us, we are training ourselves to find awe and wonder as a staple of our faith.  We can learn to approach faith and scripture with a sense of curiosity and wonder, something that can be lost when your primary focus is proof.  As some traditions do, if you spend your time trying to prove the accuracy of our ancient stories, you will often miss the point.

                Our nativity stories have in many ways fallen victim to this kind of thinking and, as we are in the Christmas season and are sitting on the Sunday in between the celebration of those two stories (we read Luke’s account on Christmas Eve; we read Matthew’s account around Epiphany), I thought it fitting to look at those two stories and see what each is trying to tell us about Jesus.  Now some of you who are more familiar with the texts might argue that we have third nativity story in John’s prologue to the gospel that begins, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and Word was God” and ends with the declaration, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”  That account also has something very important to tell us, but it’s far more theological and you can’t put it around a manger scene, so I’m going to stick with Matthew and Luke today.

                Most Christmas scenes as we imagine them or as we have them installed in our homes or as we have shivered through them in living nativities are some combination of figures and symbols from Matthew and Luke.  There is baby Jesus in his feeding trough/manger.  There are Mary and Joseph.  There are various barn animals, most prominently an ox and a donkey, a reference to a passage in Isaiah, “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib,” which was not really part of any predictive writing.  It is part of angry section of Isaiah that compares how farm animals are obedient but Israel has not been loyal to god.  The full text is:  ““The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”  Yet it was associated with Luke’s nativity early on in the life of the church, and we have the ox and donkey quite early on in images of the nativity.  We will also see shepherds, sheep and angels, references out of Luke, shepherds who see and hear angels who give them the good news of the birth.  But we also have a star in the heavens and three wise men (or kings or magi) which are references to Matthew’s story.

                Now the Matthew story doesn’t actually tell us how many wise men arrived on the scene.  There are three gifts mentioned: gold, frankincense and myrrh, but as far as the text goes there could have been anywhere from two to a think-tank of wise men meeting the infant Jesus.  If you pay attention to Matthew’s text, he sets the meeting of the magi and Jesus in a house as opposed to a stable.  He’s not telling a story that is meant to fit with the stable story.

                So when we put all those figures out and the scene gets very crowded, we lose track of the fact that Matthew and Luke were actually trying to say something important in their stories.  The gospels were not written as history texts, merely to tell you what happened.  To truly find the wonder in these texts, we have to ask a different question from the kinds of questions that we might ask as rational people influenced by the scientific method.  I remember going to a planetarium around Christmas time one year and seeing a presentation that was a series of theories about what the star in the sky in Matthew might have been.  What kind of celestial object could be followed?  One suggestion was a comet, an object that appears only periodically and that an ancient astronomer might follow across the night sky.  While it is an interesting theory it has nothing to do with the story.  The author of Matthew did not understand what a star is.  We hear “star” and we think of huge balls of fiery gas light years away from us.  Ancient Hebrews saw points of light God had installed in the dome of the sky to help mark the days and seasons.  Greeks and Romans saw the vestiges of ancient heroes, forever memorialized in the constellations by the gods.  When hearing this story they didn’t ask, “How did that happen?” or “What was that thing in the sky?”  They asked “What does this mean?”

                Luke and Matthew give two answers to the question, “What does this mean?”  They give answers that are not mutually exclusive, but are quite different.  They give answers that were meaningful to their original audiences and that are reflected in the way they tell the rest of the story.  Keep in mind, all of this was written well before any kind of printing press or simple publication process.  There was a period of years early on in the life of the church when Matthew’s group only knew Matthew’s gospel and Luke’s group only knew Luke’s gospel.  There were Christians who, when they thought of Christ’s birth, they thought of stars and wise men.  There were Christians, who, when they thought of Christ’s birth, they thought of angels and shepherds.

                On Christmas Eve, I talked a little about Luke’s answer to the question of “What does this mean?”  He presents a Jesus who is born as a common Israelite, an unremarkable birth, a story told in opposition to the birth stories of the great and powerful.  In Luke, Jesus is the Messiah for the 99% who challenges and threatens the 1% by his lack of interest in their power and wealth and his deep interest in those in need.  He is a Jesus who suggests that wealth is not a sign of God’s favor and poverty is not a sign of God’s abandonment.  In fact, he will suggest that God is closer to those in need than those in wealth, saying in the sermon on the plain, “Blessed are the poor, for yours in the kingdom of heaven” and “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”  So you can see that if you tell that story and then say, “And by the way, some really wealthy guys rode in on camels and elephants to declare him king,” you lose some of the power of Luke’s message.  Jesus is pulled out of his role as one who identifies with the poor and the common and pulled into a role as a superior and tremendous Messiah.

                Matthew gives a different answer to the question of “What does this mean?” in part because he is writing for a different audience.  Most scholars think that Matthew was writing specifically for a Jewish audience.  He quotes Hebrew scripture more than the other authors.  He includes images that will evoke the hopes of first-century Israel.  The magi are such figures.  Whatever label you give them: wise men, kings, magi, what is important about them is that they come from nations beyond Israel and recognize Jesus as an authority.  The star is a part of this theme, an object that can be seen from afar, throughout the world.  It all references an image from Isaiah that had come to represent the coming of the Messiah, “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.  Many peoples shall come and say, “Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”  Jesus is going to be the one to begin that process and fulfill that prophecy, an idea that drives King Herod, the puppet king of Israel, into a murderous rage.  So you can see if you tell that story and then say, “And by the way he was born in a stable and nobody thought he mattered,” it confuses what Matthew was trying to do.

                Now this is the kind of delving into the biblical story that I find fascinating but others can find troubling.  It raises questions about how we understand scripture.  It raises questions about whether things happened the way the authors said they happened.  Welcome to the Bible.  It’s not Newsweek nor was it ever intended to be.  The authors are trying to tell a message with the story, and they shape the telling to share the message.  And remember that the fundamental question is "What does this mean?”  What does this mean for me and for my life?  What does this mean for the church?  What does this mean for the world?  Although their images of his birth are quite different, both Matthew and Luke are saying something that is true and important about Jesus.  With Luke Jesus is the one who comes to walk among the common and the forgotten.  He is the one who comes to point out the beauty of every person and point out God’s concern for every person, especially those who are in need.  As Christians and as the church we have to wrestle what that means for our life together and our ministry.

                With Matthew, Jesus is the one who expands God’s promises beyond the story of Israel and throughout the world.  God is the God who reaches beyond borders.  God is the God who includes those who are different and invites those who are not like us.  And again, we as the church need to wrestle with what that means for our life together and our ministry.

                We have to wrestle with both images because both images say something true about Jesus.  And where I will close today is to remind you that the good news is that both these passages imply that Jesus was born for you and those beyond you.  God is a God who reaches beyond your history and ethnicity.  God is a God who reaches beyond your education and social status.  God is a God who reaches beyond your mistakes and bad habits and imperfections, the walls we think should keep God away.  God is a God who often reaches out further than we would want to go.  Both stories of Jesus’ birth are about God entering your reality in a new way, and transforming it, inviting you to see this world as divine, shaped by hope and love.  As we experience the words of scripture on Sunday morning and hopefully, as you experience them on your own, keep asking that ancient question, “What does this mean?”